65. The Neutralizer

“So, I hear your folks
Died in a fire.”

Riah dropped the comb.
She knelt to get it.
Louise stole a glance.
Whoops, thought Louise:
“By the way.
Why’s your hair so long?”
Winding the last roller,
“Always was,” said Riah,
“That’s all. Since I was
A little girl.”
“Don’t it get in your way?”
They had to wait now,
The more time, more curl,
Till neutalizing lotion was
Applied. “I pull it back
And wear it in a bun.”
“Chignon,” Louise corrected. Riah
Combed: “This last one’s hard.”

Two calendars
Louise saw on the wall:
Pretty girl in pink dress, holding
Root beer. Grinning farmer
On a new John Deere. This 
The dining room, or living room–
All one, thought Louise.
Shelf had been nailed up,
Held a china clock
With roses. Glasses, too.
Dining table, knobby legs,
Dark chipped wood.
A rug that looked–my God,
Knitted with socks?–
Chairs, end-table
With a lamp on top,
Bible and–dictionary?–down
Below. “You a religious
Woman?” asked Louise.
Riah brought coffee:
“I’m a Methodist.”

The china clock was ticking.
Morning, passing–
The air lost its chill.
“You’re curious, I guess,
About my folks?” Louise asked.
Hearing no objection, she
Received the cup and spoon, and
She went on. “I was born
In New Orleans, I told you.
Brought up, though, in
Georgia. Dad, a cropper
There. Couldn’t never
Make a cent.”
Stirring distractedly,
Louise stared off.
“He’d be bad to my ma.
He’d get to drinking,
And he’d be real bad.
To me, and my sis,
If Ma was gone.” She stirred.
Riah poured cream,
Her eyes on the spoon.
“My sister ran away,
We don’t know where–
Ma, she sent me here
To live with kin–
About twelve times removed–
Oh, long ago.” She
Trailed off. Her voice
Slowed. “I was living
With the Russells….
Then they left,
Oh, round six year ago….”
She set down her cup.
“There was some trouble”–
Riah got the awful feeling
That this woman had forgotten
Where she was, with company–
Saying things, out loud,
And might not stop–
“Then married Bo.
Oh. Have you noticed yet
About my accent?
I got none!
No Georgia–Texas–
Bet you thought to ask.”
Riah, much relieved,
Nodded her head.

“I lost it at the show!
Once I’d moved out here
To this backwater,
I was at the Rex most days.
Learned to talk
From all the movies,
Stars! Katharine Hepburn,
Her I studied most.
My cheekbones are like hers.
See ‘Bill of Divorcement’?–
She can’t marry,
She’s got insane blood–
Her father’s nuts.
Or ‘Little Women,’
Where she cuts her hair?
‘Mar-mee! Mar-mee!’ I used to
Practice, ‘Oh, do come! Do come!’
You know, she near
Has a Southern accent?
It’s how she says ‘Father’–
That’s why it helped,
I guess–was close to mine.
I tried Joan Fontaine a while, no
Dice. Even cowgirls in Gene Autrey
Talk like queens.
Now–” she finished with a flourish–
“I can go anywhere
In these United States
And right off fit right in.”
The coffee cooled.

“It’s time,” Louise said.
“What?” Riah jumped up.
She’d not seen “Little Women,”
And had daydreamed–
“I say, time.
Eyes onward!
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas–‘”
Muddled, Riah roused herself
And got to work.

At two o’clock,
She stood unwinding hair,
Stacking rollers on the table.
Louise offered,
In her sagest tone:
“You don’t talk much,
Do you?” Riah’s hands
Flew, twirling.
“You talk more than this
Around your club, or
To your husband?” asked Louise,
With narrowed eyes.
“Guess not,” answered Riah,
Fingers fluffing out
The wildly curly head.

“Good,” Louise said.

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