69. Letty’s Gone

Eating bread and salted butter,
Idly kicking at the table,
James was wondering
When Riah would return.
She’d been in the field,
And he had news.
His foot swung fast.

Clearing brush had not
Calmed Riah’s blood.
Month’s end here, and
What she’d hoped to save,
Most hadn’t been. Couldn’t be–
Payments due. As she
Stepped through the door,
James shouted. “Mama,
Letty’s gone!”

Riah pulled the bread
Right from his teeth.
“You sit here?
Get out and hunt for her,
If you want milk. I
Thought she was latched in!
I can’t think what we’ll do
If she should hurt herself–
Let’s go–”
“Mama,” James burst out
With what he knew–
“She’s not lost.
She’s sold.” Riah,
Half out the house:
“Sold?”
“Daddy sold her off
To Matthew’s dad.”
James watched. What
Would she do?
Her work gloves dropped.
“Where is he?”
“Out back, tractor shed.”
Knowing better than to follow,
James stayed put.

Tom rubbed the distributor.
The cotton rags were streaked
With dirty grease.
“Cow’s gone,” Riah said.
He bent down to wipe them
On the straw.
“I know.
I sold her to Bud.”
He thought she’d ask
Why, but she asked,
“When?”
The reply:
When she was gone.
“About three.
You was way off at work.”
“I’d be coming in.”
Her fists, white balls.
“Well, Bud dropped by then.”
“You’d already made a deal?”
“We’d spoke.”
“You’d shook on it?”
Tom shined a bolt read hard,
As if there were some sand
He could not find.
He dabbed it.
“Yeah. We did.”

So many thoughts
Rushed into Riah’s head,
A jumble, that she waited
Without speech.
Her face reddened. Tom
Reproached: “Where’d you
Think the money’d come from?
For the groceries? For the truck?
That cash we said last night
We don’t have?
Grows on trees?”
He glanced, wiped
The tractor once again.
“I don’t know,”
Said Riah. “I don’t know.
Guess I thought
We’d see the bank–”
“‘We?'”
She flashed: “All right,
You! They won’t see me!
Get more time from Bud,
Don’t sell our cow!”
“Won’t give time.
Can’t look at him again.”
Tom shifted the cloths
From hand to hand.
She asked: “For good
Farmers like we are?”
“Not for broke, up-to-our-neck
Farmers, like we are.”
He turned to the tractor.
Riah: “Milk?”
“Buy it. With that
Money we don’t have.
I’ll tell you, too–
Bud gave more than cow’s worth.
And I took it. And
The Red and White’s been paid.”

The flush left her face.
The sun was setting,
And the shed was chill.
“Should have talked to me
About that cow”: the galling thorn.
He said, “You expected
I’d make money, when there’s
None. I ain’t magic.
What’d you think?”
No reply.
Now she only
Sighed: “If it’s milk or
Mortgage–could be time
To let the mortgage go.”
This was merely musing–
They would not–
But Letty, what a loss!

“You can’t sign this farm away.
Just me,” said Tom.
Riah stared astonished
At his voice, his back:
That was true, in law.
Farm was put in his name,
To get loans.
In their eyes,
Both owned.

Now she said,
Deliberate, controlled,
“If I sold a cow
I’d talk to you.
Don’t sell no more stuff.
Don’t sell no more nothing
On this farm.
You don’t do or not do
Nothing this day forward
Till you talk
To me.” She turned,
And was gone. Her voice
Sounded strong, but
It was not:
Nothing but its strength
To back her up.

James sat, buttered face.
“You!” Riah said,
“You don’t better
Drink milk out at Matt’s.
They ask,
Say no thanks.
Disobey me, and I’ll
Tan your hide.”
James said, “Yes ma’am,”
And slipped off, outside.

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