315. Conversation

“I’m considering
A new career.”
Louise sat sprawled
On a kitchen chair.
Riah stirred the biscuit dough.

Louise found her mirror,
Dabbing at her lip
In contemplation.
“That’s the art
Of beautifying hair:
Its right name. You know,
Giving permanents,
Coloring, cutting–
What’s eating you?
Your nose looks out of joint.”

Riah shrugged,
Reaching for the salt:
“I thought….
You might be a nurse.”
“What?” Louise laughed.
“Not me.
Got a friend,
She used to make a bundle
Working with an undertaker.
Dressed stiffs’ hair, so
They’d look swell in
Caskets. And the clients
Don’t complain.”

Riah smiled.
Louise spread her fingernails,
To buff–
“Got a letter from her.
She’s changed jobs.
She has her own shop.
In California.”

Riah felt a chill.
She stopped stirring,
Holding to the spoon.
“She asked would I
Move and work with her.
Starting June first,
Bo’s kicked off the farm.
Landlord’s got new tenants.
I said yes.”

In a flash, they
Both were on their feet,
Circling warily, like
Cocks before a fight.
“You can’t.”
Louise sucked her breath in.
I can.”

Riah held out both her hands:
“Let Bo leave.
You stay.
You stay with me.”
“Sure. Me and Tom and
James,” Louise scoffed,
“World don’t work that way.”
“And what’s more”–angry,
Oddly grieved–
“It ever cross your mind
Not a jackass in this town
Will speak to me?
Won’t give me time of day!
I’m just a ghost!
You don’t know what it’s
Like. They look
Straight through me.
It ain’t changed a shit.”
“No one buys my make-up
Any more!
Company, they
Mailed me out this letter–
‘Remit order forms'”–
Her voice broke–
“Turn in my whole case
And my brochures!
Think of that?
May be squat to you–
My livelihood!
How I earn my living!
My job!
Think I could leave Bo
Without a dime?
The beauty business, Riah!
Maybe it’s not farming,
But it’s mine!”

Riah was struck dumb.
Louise, trembling,
Pushed her to the wall.
“Every damn thing
I’ve had in my life
Was took from me.
First my dad,
He stole away my home.
Then my baby-making,
Lost that here.
Now my looks–they’re
Going, every day!
Even you half-died–
Then where’d I be?
Nothing! Riah, hell–
If not for you, then
I’m not even here!
Makes me want to hang myself,
To think that way!”

Riah’s eyes were black.
She said: “When–”
“Tomorrow morning.
Look–see it like this.
Could be
That your Church is right
This once, your Mother
Mary. Maybe we can
Leave the past in ashes.
Maybe once.
Urgently, Louise
Grabbed Riah’s arms–
“Maybe, climb the ash-heap,
Build a house there,
Or a fire–
But anyhow, not
Buried any more!
Not always sunk
Up to our necks in crap–
In the past….
Tomorrow, Riah,
They’re so heavy
They just weigh me down–
I could cry.
In between, though,
There’s this little space
Where we can move, not
Killed by grief–
Just today.
Just each day that comes,
One at a time.
And that’s how I loved you,
In this kitchen:
Only every day.
Here with you, or
Filling in my orders,
Or sometimes out nursing–
I was free.
No, not free.
Whole. I had something
I could keep.”

That “keep” resonated
Like a bell.
Louise spoke the word
So low with passion,
Riah’s face flamed,
And she turned her head.
Pressing, Louise said:
“Do you know
What a surprise you were?”
Raising her hand, she
Touched Riah’s face.
“What a gift,
To me?
God, before, you,
I’d already gone–
I was dead, was waste.”
She moved fingetrips
Down Riah’s cheek.

Louise shook her head.
Her face grew dark.
“Riah, you don’t know
What it was like.
You’ll never know.
I don’t want you to.
It’s strange, all my life I’ve been
Don’t know why.
It’s not just my family,
Or what–happened.
Always, even when I’m little,
I felt shame.
Like what was inside me
Was just dirt.
Like it mustn’t never
See the light.
Then we met–
Here’s what I can’t explain–
And with you, bang,
It was all, all right.
All those things inside me
That were ducking, squirming–
Why, they sat plumb still.
With you there,
I rested.
With you
Was like being in a church:
Settling down, and
Breathing–no more hiding.
No more dodging, being
Stabbed at all the time.
It was like
I’d stepped into a play:
New life,
Different world.
My heart stops, still,
When I harken back,
How I felt,
First time.
Your eyes on my face.
You spoke my name.
And I was here.
And I was home.”

Riah bowed her head,
Stared at the ground.
Cupping Riah’s chin
As if a wayward child’s:
I want to be surprised,
Just one more time.
I want to leave this place,
And start again.
I want to go
To California, Riah.”

Riah, head down,
Staring at the ground.

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