284. Acting

“Okay. Now,
Cough.”
She hit her on the back
And held her shoulders
As the dirt came flowing up.
“Once more.
That’s my girl–
Again.” The gagging started.
Louise heaved her upward,
Resting on her lap.
She wiped at Riah’s chin
And tossed the rag.
“Got to do wash later.
You want water?” She
Tipped some to Riah’s mouth–
A sream ran down and
Stained her dress.
“No, I guess not.”

Here’s the hard part,
Thought Louise. She knew it
Well: where to strike
The back, and when to
Stop–how not to choke them
With a drink.
I know something, she thought,
Sponging Riah.
I don’t know how to act right,
Or be happy;
But to wrestle with the asthma,
I know how.
There’s no improvement, though.
None I can see.
And it’s past due.

“I was born in New Orleans.
Oh–did I tell you?” Louise
Smiled, but darkly,
Vaguely: “I know,
Forty, fifty times.
Well, it’s the truth.
We moved to Mississippi,
Farming on the shares,
Then back, Louisiana–
My ma said the state was
Named for me, and
Law! When I was young,
I believed it!
You know how it is, then
When you’re young….”

Louise pressed her finger
To the pulse. “Lord,
It’s all  pretty,
When you’re just a kid!
We had an angel
Some old granny’d carved, we’d
Hang it on the Christmas tree.
That tree was plump! And green,
And lit up. Angel–
I would watch it by the hour,
Wings were spattered white
And gold, they unfolded
From the body, like
A bird….
Flapjacks, Christmas breakfast,
With molasses on.
Or if you got a doll–
My doll, I’d sit for
Hours, brushing out her
Hair, and let me
Tell you, that stuff shone–like
Cornsilk, which it was, plucked
From the tassel, Mama’d
Sewn it to the head,
Some kind of way….

“But they was always seeding,
Chopping, hoeing, work and
Sleep, and work and sleep.
Times got worse,
We hit the road….
Me and farming, we just
Never made our peace.
What it is to you,
It ain’t to me.”
She shook her head. “Maybe
Since we never
Settled, owned our
Land. Always working
Someone else’s, and them
Standing over us, Mama
Moving faster, faster, down
The row, hills of blisters
On her hands, Pa so
Mad at night….Hell,
He’s mad anyhow.”

She smiled.
“Of course, I thought I’d
Be a movie star. Had it
Planned: my photo
There in Silver Screen.
And I’d appear in swanky
Films: my face beamed
High above their heads, from
The projector, and so
Huge, so perfect, every hair
In place, brows plucked,
Me up in air, and my skin
Silver, like the stars.
A packed house,
Hushed in darkness, and me
In a patch of light
Oh, ten feet tall–
In some blue evening dress,
All spangly,
My moves smooth as
Cream, white as a birch, my
Body like a dance, words
Coming out just right, my
Voice as clear as music,
Face of light, of course I
Don’t see Mama chopping,
Hear no crying–me,
No weight, no drag, not
Tired: a star
In film! My arms all
Silver shine, of
Light, my legs are
Light, my face, it’s
Made of light,
And light, that’s
All I am!

“One night,
When Pa’d hit me,
I felt extra bad. A lousy
Day, and we was
Right back on the road.
I’d scratched my face
That morning, cotton
Stalk, oh just a scratch
From cheek to mouth that
Don’t mean nothing.
But a girl of ten or twelve,
Why, she’s so vain,
And she feels foolish.
Annie, riding in the car,
Why, she was trying to be
Nice, hands me
My doll.

“I tossed it out.
I tossed it out the window.
And I laughed then,
Till I cried.

“When you’re a kid,
You think you’re center stage–
The leading part.
Somewhere, though,
The insides all drain out.
Then you’re erased. Not in
The picture, any more….”

She paused, as if with
Something else to say.
Looking down, she saw
That Riah saw her.

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