95. After Supper

James’ hair, a wet,
Matted too-warm nest.
On the floor he lay
This evening, panting.
Riah disentangled a trapped
Twig. “You ever comb it?”
Her palms, moist.
Twilight: no relief.
Up past midnight,
Folks leaned out of
Windowsills, screen doors.
Tom’s shirt was
A crazyquilt of sweat,
Sideseams, armpits,
Neck. Her eyes
On his back: his
Overalls, too hot.
But Tom would not
Sit in just his shirt.
There hunched over
Scribbling at the table,
Gnawing the eraser,
He tossed bits of
Paper to the side.
James spoke–“Dad.”
Thomas did not hear.

Three weeks, she thought,
Three: Tom sat at
Table, from supper
Till they slept.
Time to ask. “James,
Go to bed.”
From the floor boards,
“I’m asleep,” he said.
She smoothed down his
Hair. “Well, all
Right.” Riah
Rose. Best not
Startle Thomas
From the rear:
A skittish colt.
Circling to
The table, she sat
Down. Thomas
Mumbled, wrote.

“Well–” she had
Caught a glimpse–
Blacked-in margins,
Arrows, crossings-out–
“Arithmetic? It–”
Thomas did not
Stop. “–looks like
Lots of work.”
He pressed the sharp
Lead into his cheek.
She spread fingers
On the tabletop.
Long division,
Looked like. “You
Ciphering?”
“Yep.”
Stupid question.
Stupid. Now what
Next? Well,
She could not
Avoid it. “Cipher
What?”

Marking, marking,
Marking, up one
Side the paper,
Down the other side.
She saw crop pounds
There and cents per
Pound, and dates–months,
1928 and ’31,
1932, April, June–
September ’33….
He had pulled out
Bills, receipts, notes
On cotton futures, clippings
On crop prices
Running back for years.
Mortgage papers,
Payments on the tractor,
Each familiar to her
As a face–each had
Lain between them,
Haggled over, passed
From hand to hand:
Decisions when to
Pay or sell. For
How much? Where?

But now? Why these
Piles? “Yep,” Thomas
Said, then plunged–
“I been
Figuring it
Out what I done
Wrong.”

Then she saw.
Litter that engulfed him,
Fervent bent-down
Labor at the table,
Fists unclasped and
Clasped above those sheafs–
All the writing,
Lining lists and
Columns side by side–
And his anxious
Eagerness to sit, and
Spend his nights to
Tally one more time.
She said, “What you
Mean? You didn’t
Do a thing. We
Didn’t, Tom.”

Rapidly he
Wrote, not looking up:
“If these figures
Don’t get worked out,
What keeps it from
Happening again? We
Don’t have nothing,”
He said, shuffling papers.
“Nothing.
Had a better
Year in ’29.
Should have saved some
Then–set it aside.”
She laughed, “’29?
Tractor fell apart.
Had to buy–”
“So I knew you’d
Say! So,
Then what’s your
Suggestion: sit and
Knit?”

Riah frowned.
She had no idea.
Hands in lap,
She said to him
Simply: “Tom,
Papers, they all
Call it a Depression.
Cotton bringing
Five cents on
The pound. Times are
Hard.”
Tom stacked papers,
Spat out in disgust:
“Words!”
He dismissed her,
Taking up his work.

She rose from
The table. He’d said
Knitting! That had
Stung. Yes, she
Sat and knit!
At least something
Comes of it, thought Riah–
And what comes of
Questions? Only
Grief.
Scribbling!
Whittle lead till
Pencil shrinks away,
You’ll not find
The thing we should have
Known, should have
Done. You’ll find
Nothing. None.

Riah’d meant to
Put James out of earshot,
Then tell Tom she
Planned to see Relief.
But she saw that
Now was not the time.
By herself she
Stood beside the window,
Watching stars and
Wishing for a breeze.

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2 Responses to “95. After Supper”

  1. Ann Rothschild Says:

    Shelley,
    Your poems have haunted me since I heard you read them with your slide show of the dust bowl pictures–some twenty odd years ago. How wonderful that they are now accessible to all and the discussions are fascinating. This one (and Outside the Sick Room) makes me choke and I have barely got to the second verse! Your writing gives a searing window into people’s loss and pain with the simplest, but most telling observations. No sentimentality–the character’s bravery speaks volumes.
    The only thing missing is your voice as you read them.
    I shall give myself the treat of a poem every few days. Thanks. Ann.

  2. sshaver Says:

    We must be on the same wavelength….I was just thinking about you today, only I always enviously picture you now out of town with the babies!

    You are so kind. I’m going to see if I can “move” one of your comments to the welcome page, so more people will see it. I’m really relieved by your saying that there’s no sentimentality. The people in this story deserved better than sentiment. Their life was so hard.

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