Jeanie Tietjen

 6/01/01

Pearl

If the hem of your dress is turned up, kiss it and you will get a new one.
If you drop a dishrag and it spreads out, a woman is coming, and if it wads up, a man is coming.
A blister on your tongue means you have told a lie.

     Pearl stands in line for a shower and when her time comes takes off her blouse and hangs it on the outside of the door. Enters the stall which is steaming. She ought to have sandals, she thinks, unlaces and removes her shoes. There is a plastic stool inside the shower. She folds her underwear into her slacks, stands on the stool and reaches up to balance the dry clothes on top of the door.
     If I had some bleach, if I had some bleach and it was Saturday or if it was Sunday.
     She looks at her hand on the faucet she looks at the tiling behind the faucet. She turns on the water and puts her head against the shower wall and waits to feel clean.

     Somebody knocks hard on the shower door and Pearl covers herself with her dumb hands.
     "Sorry," the knocker says, "but can you hurry up?"
     "Sure," Pearl says, and quickly soaps and rinses and then smacks herself on the head twice hard. Turns off the water and steps quickly into her underthings, her trousers, tucks in her shirt, and opens the shower door.

     "Thanks," says the knocker, "thanks a lot."
     No shame in that.
     No shame in once-worns long as they're clean.

     In the corner of the noisy large room where all the women are playing cards and eating cereal and smoking and drinking coffee, Pearl has her bag and is working through scraps of paper and an empty water bottle. At the bottom of the bag is a handkerchief tied with a rubberband that has all the buttons.
     She takes the pouch out of her bag and unwinds the band from the neck. Marie leans over, curious to see what she's got in her bag there.
     "Those your buttons?"
     "Yes," Pearl says.
     "Pretty." Marie squints her eyes and leans closer. "Let me see one."
     Marie takes up an ivory enameled button with a blue Dutch boy painted on it. "Bet it's worth something," says Marie, "Especially if you clean it up a little."
      Pearl knows it's not worth anything, not a nickel and says so.
      "You know there are specialists out there honey who can take a look at things and give you an estimate."
     "Pearl," the social worker calls out, "can I see you a minute?"

     In Blue Springs, Pearl writes, West Virginia where I am from, the postman carried on through rain sleet and snow. One spring the river run wild. It covered all over everything. The two bridges they buckled and all the little creatures inhabiting West Virginia went crazy running from the flood. You see dogs and mud water all over the place. The waters got so far over the banks that woodpiles floated away and rats they were swimming in the water. They probably died come to think of it. They must of. What this story is about though is how the mailman who was a friend of Daddy's carried on even through the flood. I will never forget how he did it. Mud everywhere. Even when people were saying who's to care about what kind of mail you get in a time like this. Now in particular, people were saying. Not like he went door to door. He did one big drop at the church on a rise. One drop for everybody's mail even if it was what you call junk. And even the people that was COMPLAINING turned their minds around when the preacher read out names saying, Holbrooke or Kindeer or Hutchson or whatever the names were that day. Even though he was old it was definitely the first crush I had on a man. Not a sexual kind of crush mind you but a true crush. I'm not sure what else to write about on this. I can't seem to remember anything more about him really. But when you said write about a hero he's the first one really that came to my mind.
     Oh, here's something else. Him and Daddy talked about the war.
     What do you do I wonder when you got somebody's leg in your hand maybe attached but just a little bit to the body it come from. Much as you wish you could you can't say: I command you I commend thee leg to return from whence you came. You have to think medically in that situation because men are depending on you for their life so they can get back home. Bullets and machine gun fire and bombs. Everything coming at a person coming at them. And those boys dying before they even could put their feet on dry land. Or the sand, you know what I mean, the beach. It's more awful to die in the water and lose your parts. At least you got a fighting chance when you're on land. Water is just water. The only place to go is down under drowned dead.

     "He did come back," Pearl says. She folds her paper in half then half. "He cut off the top of his second finger and suffered a bad knee but that all happened when he got back."
     She stops and puts away the paper. "Like I say," she says, "he did come back."
     "And then what happened," the social worker says.
     And then, Pearl wanted to say, and then it was fall and Mother had me help her around the house. She kept a clean house. When somebody come around smoking she say please take that outside on the porch and when Daddy come in with his boots dirty she told him to leave em at the door. To knock the mud off at least.
And Mother said to me before you go:

     "I might of gone to school that day," she says, "maybe that's when I was going to school."
     "I was a girl," she says, "I had my freedom. It wasn't like you all think."
     "Pearl," the social worker begins.
     "I am not your religion," she says.

     When someone in the family dies, go tell the bees; if you don't they will sting you when you rob the hives.
     When someone in the family dies, turn the mirror to the wall.

     Some of the women wait on the porch and talk and smoke. Gloria stands watching, and Sondra is on the shaded step, and there are a couple of quiet girls. ShyRae stands out on the porch and watches Pearl walk down the street and some cars go by. Shy smokes and smokes and thinks only about smoking. It is hot and her mind is seized up and Shy wants to call somebody. Abide with me Lord for you are my sword and shield and she sees that man moving down the street was somebody she knew up the street and down it she knew him. My shepherd. And here he might be coming and in his coming and her recognizing him she can feel her skin and her teeth rattling off her lip a fastness a knowing I know she thinks hot lungs mouth palate cleaver smoke some smoke.

     Everything smells like trash and heaps, the automobiles moving along in pulses, bright, loud, hurried.
     Pearl goes into his store into the air-conditioned store and is cooled instantly.
     "What you got there sweetheart," the man says.
     Back behind the counter is all the bottles and the same old judge on t.v.
"Two and nineteen."
     He counts out her change wraps the bottle in a bag.

     There was a boy Pearl remembered from Sunday school. Maybe he was crazy by now. But he was about her age and played basketball around the county. He wasn't a star or anything but one time he said to her during part of a game, actually at a break while he was drinking from the water fountain in the hallway, hey, how'm I doin. She didn't say anything because she didn't know him. Or rather: she said you're doing great! Three down and three to go! She had no idea what the right thing was to say to a basketball player from her school and she didn't know anything about the rules anyhow and yet here he was.

     It is decent enough weather and she has eight hours or so before having to be back to the house. The park is open and the library is open. She walks.

     Ain't you cold? They said on cold days.
     Ain't you hot? They said on hot days.

     It's not clothes make a person, Mother said, it's what's inside.
     Your shirt don't match your slacks, Auntie'd say.
     But there was.
     There was shame in it.

     Everybody come to the wake and everybody went to the funeral. They had some money then and had the wake in the funeral parlor. Not like the poor.
     When they buried him, they buried him in military's gotten from his closet.
     After the poor, after the parlor they went poor.
     Mother went poor.

     To stop a flow of blood, it's said, put soot on the wound.
     To stop a flow of blood, lay a cobweb on it.
     What's the first thing you lose when you stand up, baby brother said.
     Your lap, he said.

     She walks into the library where it is air-conditioned and peaceful. The Oriental lady Pearl sometimes sees at dinner is over in the table by the window combing her hair shining piece by piece. She has pretty hair, especially in the light like that by the window. Pearl pushes the up arrow button for the elevator. An old man with a handful of Kleenex and a leather briefcase holds open the doors for her while she walks in and the two of them stand watching the floor numbers light up and ring.
     She gets out at the third floor and goes to the ladies room and sits down on the toilet seat and drinks, the plastic bottle in her hand, balanced on her knee, the paper label, she swallows, she picks at the label and wipes the bottle against her shirt, sitting there on the toilet half-seeing tiled floor patterns, names scratched in the stall. Something slow and murmuring is inside her head when she gets up, a gentle current, a prickling inside the skin, a looseness, she walks out of stall out of the bathroom.
     There is a display of wolf books near the librarian. Pearl picks up one of the books and sits at a table that has nobody else at it.
     There's a photo of a wolf fallen down on the road after being shot and one also of cows behind a fence. The wolf isn't dead yet or asleep either. Its wild dog eyes are beautiful and Pearl thinks I never saw something like this not even in the mountains. Her head is thrumming with alcohol and wonder and she loses her desire to read just only stares at the pictures and looks out the window and looks and smells snow in her mind a timber sky and a clutch of homes grey smoke skirts lifting in the pipe metal stoves hovering over the roofs and spreading upwards. Long days of nothing but rain and mist and all them skinny trees whited out blurried.

     Sometimes the bus wouldn't come for weeks at a time if the roads wasn't passable like in the winter or in floods. But it got more regular now. She stood there waiting with her brother while he threw rocks at the crows starlings a pole anything at all. Occasionally he threw one at her but it was just in fun. She had her lessons and the pen she got out of Mother's pocketbook. Sun out and the grass still wet but already it's getting warmer. Sugar maples coming on. Pretty soon it'd be blackberry vines all over. Here the bus comes now, she said, Spender William, get your lunch. He threw another rock at the pole and this time she said quit.
What's black and white and red all over he said with a smile all over his face.

     The social worker is tired of how hot it is in the shelter. She tells the kitchen manager she's going to take five and goes to her office.
     She sits down at her desk and puts her face directly in front of the fan and closes her eyes.
     After a few minutes, she begins writing in her charts. No real progress evident. Presenting problem remains the same, but client attends meetings regularly and shows good effort. As always, respectful of other clients and staff.

To help rheumatism pains, carry an Irish potato in your pocket.
To cure an earache, blow smoke in the ear.
To cure a headache, lay a cold butter knife across the back of the neck.

     Pearl took her hands to her mother's feet, looked at the toes which refused to lay down the bones that jutted out at the sides small bulbs onions marbles mean bony parts
     I got a job. Pearl looked at her and felt so proud.
     Doing what, said her mother.
     It's an elderly woman she lives in Wheeling and her son needs somebody like a nurse to come and take care of her.
     Pearl stopped for a second.
     It's a live-in, she said.
     I know that, Mother said back. She felt it all coming down on her the leaving the big girl gone the end of this girl she felt it all finishing and wanted to say stay here where the poor belong that here we got a place, she wanted to say, a place we call it ours and there's room for my girl here and out there what chance she got? How am I to hold her knowing what there is I know, this girl, who is this girl is she mine?
     I said I'd come soon as I can, Pearl said after a while.
     In the book of the old testament a girl don't leave her mother to forage and fend but they work together in gathering the sheaves from the fields side by side gathering in the sheaves and in her mind she watched Pearl's hands move on her feet and in her mind treasured the hands and thought I ought to give her her rightful inheritance gold ring daddy's certificate of service the yellow pie plate china painted tea cups two with the plates matching a blessing a blessing but in the Book he suffers the little children to come unto him, the sparrow does not think about what it will wear or what it will eat be ye like the birds of the air.

     Pearl leaves the library. She walks to the park and sits down on a bench near the fountain and drinks a little more and eats from a pack of crackers. She watches the birds in the water cooling themselves and ruffling around in the water. The sun is up high and it's hot.
     Jesus, she begins to sing inside her mind, Jesus in the morning Jesus at the noontime. Jesus when the sun goes down.
     It is in the unforgetting mind she is best reprieved and finds a cool spring, a nickel-shiny river, furred stones, slake, a drink, leaf-strewn melt. With her hand in the fountain under the city's hot sky she can lay it down easy.
     The burrito cart nearby is bustling, the men in suits, the women in suits, the lilac and pretty lipstick red and hair and linens so proper so smelling good: Pearl the grown can watch them, hear, she can partake of the scene as a belonger in the street with her sweet white hand in the river fountain. In the sunned-up wind is Mexico bean, corn, meat, the smell of faraway griddle, linoleum, pears in a bowl, a flicker of gnats in the light.
     Dinner at noon and supper at five. We wasn't that poor, she thinks.
     Pearl takes a hankerchief out of her pocket and douses it in the fountain, squeezing and balling it up in her fist she feels such cool water go a little ways down the wrist and trickle across the fingers and pour back forth into the water. Something inside her hands that worked against her lays down in the water.
     She looks at her clean shirt front at the stitchwork around the sleeve.
     When it gets dirty, she just goes through the tables at church and throws the dirty one in the trash.
     Last week she had some blue pants. She had spilled on them and threw them in the garbage and got another pair.
     She recalled something that girl told her.
     "I want you to know your secret's out," said the social worker, "you've got such a gift at this, Pearl," she said.

     The woman in Wheeling was sick and old and lived in a big house.
     The old woman looked up with her blue-eyed gauze and cloudy gaze.
     "I'm Pearl Elizabeth," she said, "your son Bill he hired me."

     Pearl wondered how she was going to get the old woman up out of the bed and into the toilet. The old woman's breath smelled appley and soft. She had some long fingernails and closed her eyes and looked like she was about to say something and Pearl felt the old woman's hand, cool, just collapse on her leg and she looked at the hand. The two of them sat there for a while on the bed.
     "Mrs?"
     The old woman opened her eyes.
     And Pearl folded the covers over to one side of the bed and leaned over the old woman and put her hands on her shoulders and tried to pull her up easy. The old woman made some sounds and moved her leg and seemed to be helping in her own way. So Pearl pulled a little harder and the woman was sitting up pretty straight and her feet almost to the floor. Pearl stood up and put her arms around the old woman who weighed not more than a tiny child. And the two of them walked shaky and slow to the toilet. Pearl sat her down. The old woman looked like she might try and get up so Pearl stood by her and then eased out the nightgown from under her so it wouldn't get soiled. And then she noticed that the old woman's shoulder had blood on it. And that there was a rip in her shoulder that was bleeding.

     "Oh," said Pearl, "you got a hurt," and then saw she had splashes of blood on her hand.
     Another time when Pearl was turning her over in bed the skin tore again but again the old woman didn't cry.

     My patient is old but she's sweet, Pearl wrote to her sister Shelby, she never complains or puts up any kind of a fuss. She's easier than Baby Ireland was that's for sure. Though one day I come in and her mouth was flung open wide and I thought she was dead. Her mouth was so wide open and I swear I thought she was dead but she wasn't. Just in case you were wondering, Pearl wrote, I have MY OWN ROOM and the bed is so high up off the floor I have to have a little step stool from the pantry to climb in to it! I wish you could come visit. She needs me every day of the week including Sundays but her son Bill gives me off two days so far and one of them I went SHOPPING.
     She got her own money and kept it in the jewelry box.
     She counted it when she was blue.
     Old Mrs. had just ate and was sleeping sound. It was the heat of the day and Pearl she walked from room to room just thinking, well come on in, here is the front room my carpet runner and calendar in the hall and cozy kitchen my mixer painted cupboards my decorator towels and the everydays.
     The fans were circulating gentle this wayagainst the hems of the drapes looking out on the porch onto the trees through the window where a car went by. Everything was quiet every thing was clean.

     Pearl walked back into the kitchen and put the last eggsalad on some buttered bread. She put the knife in the sink and let water run on it.
     Then she turned on the radio loud, sopped the rag in lemon wood lotion and set about polishing the buffet. In the hotness dust lifted and she was wet with dust and sweat and her palms fingers and face where she took back a hair straying all of it smelled of lemons perfumes clean yellow quiet.
     The floorboards lay down for her, ashtrays smokefree glassy the hutch polished to a teacup shine wooden steps luminous like a mirror casting her face beside runners woven indigo and blush threaded blue bells white gypsum embroidered in careful hand.
      The whole house bloomed. His face when he saw it after only a little over a week was shocked and amazed.
     "You are a miracle worker," he whistled.
     She could tell he was happy.
     And he increased her wage.
     Sometimes she imagined Bill coming up the steps and then she stopped.
     There's a million and one things to be done a million and one.
     Like to die of nothing to do, Shelby wrote, I hate hate hate--
     Heaven is a million to one, Pearl's mind lilted, two steps, remember when that band starts playing oh honey don't be late and her mind was swinging. It was that old-timey tune from the radio got stuck in her head.

There is a rising up whistle in the ear.
Shine under tongue in the mind burning sweet lip.

     A seizure of shine took a man so hard one night he rammed his head beat it over and over against a post till he passed out. Or, a man possessed beyond his capacities went home and beat his wife. And again, Brother Uncle had found his Lord in a jail cell like the apostle struck down blind enroute for Damascus. Declared himself reborn and drank no longer so help me God.

     She did die. Pearl went to the funeral. For the partitioning she wrapped the guest chairs in plastic, polished and dried and rolled the silverware platters and such in soft cloth.
     The son was so grateful. He gave her five hundred dollars extra in her last paycheck and told her if she ever needed a good reference she should certainly contact him. Did she want a letter in writing?

     Pearl squints at the sun and the sun's light coming off the marble and water fountain. Inside her tooth is a hole and she favors it.
     A schoolgirl with falling-down hair has one arm stretched out to balance and the other swinging low with her purse, walking circles around the fountain.
     Or is trying to when her mother hollers, "get down from there! Can't you see people are trying to eat lunch?"     
      Pearl shakes her head and waves one hand, "Oh, she's alright," she says to the mother, "she's not bothering me."
     The schoolgirl stops and lifts one leg slightly off the fountain's edge, dropping and lifting graceful as a ballerina doll on a wind-up key box tinkling out edelweiss, the silver key turning music and a soft sound like coughing coming out of the jewelry box Shelby and her had shared.

     One day Pearl bought some shoes. She bought new shoes.
     The salesman said--is there anything else? Do you need a bigger size?
     And she said, no, they fit fine.
     And he said they're not too tight, while his eyes they was wandering to and fro, around the store.      Pearl could see.
      I'll take them, she said.
     I'll take them they're perfect, she said.

      The schoolgirl takes dancer steps. There must be some kind of invisible plot on that fountain, Pearl thinks, which only dancers can see, and she watches the girl follow the rows perfect, pointing her toe and dropping her foot, wobbling a bit to this side or that but correcting herself by raising an arm and then looking up at Pearl.
      "We're from Illinois. We're on vacation for ten days," the schoolgirl says. "First we went over to see Clara my aunt and her kids and then we saw Grandma in her house. Her dog is really old in people years. He pretty much doesn't do anything."
      The girl stares at Pearl. "How old are you?"
      "Older than you," says Pearl.
      "Over 25 and under a hundred--"
Pearl laughs.
     When she laughs out she smells her breath and when she breathes out the hole in her tooth lights up. Her hand goes to her cheek.
      "Toothache," Pearl says.
      They sit and watch the spray from the fountain and the water rising and falling.

      Mother was talking to everybody and Brother Uncle said to sit down Sister sit down you're tired.
      Daddy gone.
      Pearl stood by the table minding the rolls in a basket the cold cuts ham cold bean salad everybody was bringing in the food one by one as they come in.
      Mother had on her cross it was showing around her neck. She had on a dress and stockings.
     Daddy's friend came and said he never thought he'd see the day.
      Everybody was in the house with they shoes on.
      Shelby said I gotta get me some skills

     Pearl sits very still in the sun and listens to the water spray against the stone and imagines that she could put a salt rinse and poultice over the hole in her tooth.
     She sits very still and without breathing feels nothing in her mouth. It takes everything in her to keep still and keep her palms from turning and lifting over rising up. It takes everything in her to keep from boxing at her mouth at her eye at her head because when she hits, the tooth shuts up and peace comes over her still and true.
      She imagines filling her mouth with drink.
      It is a whole new set of folks setting up around the water now and she stays still.

     Six miles or so of road between one town and the next. Her brother Spender William had got his head up against a backseat window and his mouth open, asleep. The glass was rolled down part-way and his hair was flopping in the wind. From time to time he scratched his nose or forehead.
     Daddy was home he was driving with one hand and blowing his smoke out the window trying to keep it away from Mother and Baby Ireland who's sitting in her lap. Mother handed back three pieces of chewing gum and a comb over the seat to Pearl and Pearl combed back Shelby's hair. Her hair was smooth and brown and shiny. It almost never had snarls because Shelby's so good with hair.
      Give me a piece of that cobbler, said Daddy.
      Pearl had the chicken in a bowl covered in foil on her lap. Mother had the dish on the floor in the front. She just looked at him and shook her head.
      Why you ask when you know what I'm going to say, Mother said.
      Why'd the chicken cross the road, he said.
      To get to the other side.
      Well then.
      She popped open the glove compartment to get out her lotion. The whole car swelled on the odor of it and Shelby wrinkled her nose.
      I hate that stuff, Shelby whispered to Pearl, it makes me want to vomit.

      When they got to church Mother told Spender to take the cobbler out back and Shelby and Spender William put it all on the long table and then went inside and joined in on singing. Mother spread out her handkerchief on the pew and set down the baby and talked some with Brother Uncle while Daddy was out smoking on the porch with the other men and some boys.
     She opened up her purse and gave him something out of it.
     There was feet scratching and doors opening and swinging shut as the men finished up on the porch and came in to join the women and Brother Uncle.
     Like I say, it can wait, said Darrin.
     Won't do any good to worry about it now, said Smith.
     What we need's less rain and more dough-ray-me, said Daddy.
     Smith laughed and Earl said, well, that roof ain't going to patch itself.
     And then Daddy walked in to stand beside Mother and all the men joined in too with their families if they had them and the singing got strong.
     Brother Uncle put his hands on the book and then he opened up the book and started to read from it kind of half reading and half singing.
     He went around the congregation shaking hands clasping and shaking hands with the men just one to the next clasping hands and reciting and talking.
     Murmurs and happy words went through the people of God and they were waiting too and calling out encouragements throwing verses he shook hands with Daddy he shook hands with Earl he shook hands.
     Anybody at all could preach if they wanted to but Brother Uncle he was breathing from the tongue was loose from his hands was being carried up from the shadows from recrimination. He served his time.

yes now
what now
now we're on God's time. Can't be service without a servant
what?
can't be servant without a master
praise him
can't be a house without a home
lead on
can't be me without you
what
can't be me without you
don't leave me
cannot be where you are not.

     And Brother Uncle started clapping and again moved throughout the people and then stopped and stood standing and lifting up off his heels lifting up light to the sound of clapping and pulled out of his jacket pocket the photograph Mother had given him.

Heal your servant, Lord, heal this child if it is your will
Daddy stared at Brother Uncle just stared
Necessity is laid upon me, said Brother Uncle
Stay with us a while longer
well Lord

     He turned.
     Brother Uncle had stopped, his eyes closed shut and his hands were moving and the photograph--
      Where is that picture from? Daddy said
     Where'd you get that picture from, he said again, and Brother Uncle opened his eyes.
     From the mother of your children, he said
     Brother Uncle called over to Shelby
     And Shelby was scared but even more scared of saying no
      He placed the picture in her hands.
      She just stood there and looked.
     What do you see, child of God?
      I see my little brother Baby Ireland, Shelby replied, her voice loud to her own ears, her heart pounding so hard she could feel it in her throat and in her belly.
     Brother Carl, Brother Uncle said,--what do you see?
     Shelby turned around
     Daddy said nothing
     Lay on hands
     Lay on hands went around.
     Brother Uncle took Shelby's head in his hands
     O Lord, we are your instruments, he said, take away this illness this confusion and give this child, give this child a prayerful touch
     a praying vision, Lord
     a touch of Holiness, Lord
     your holiness
     Daddy and Mother neither of them was saying anything.
     Brother Uncle turned his eyes on to Shelby leaning down to her face deep and she was terrified.
     He lay his hands on her.
     Let the Lord, Brother Uncle whispered, Let Him work through you.
     Pearl watched Shelby begin to cry and turn as if to to go but Brother Uncle pressed her head firmly and she cried harder and started shaking.
     She was moving her lips but no sound was coming out with her eyes closed and praying and moving her lips.

     In the afternoon the sky breaks open and it rains hard. Pearl goes back to the library past the security guard and on to the bathroom to clean up. She has to push the faucet knob at regular intervals, wads up some brown paper in the drain and fills the sink with water. Soaks her hands in the sink. One by one using her thumbnail begins pushing back the cuticles.
     Mad Mary is in the corner with her newspaper hats and the notes tied all up to her shirt. She writes all day. Every time you see her, Mad Mary is writing and writing. She doesn't ever look up and think for a second, she just writes and the hours spin around and around and time passes and the papers pile up. She writes small and her handwriting occupies the page sometimes even running up the margins one side down the other. After she finishes with a paper, Mad Mary pins it to her coat or to her bag or finds a way to fix it on a piece of cardboard.
     She sits on the side of the road with her cardboard signs. Passerbyers and especially from out of town look down to her and once they get a peek at what is written there, they turn on their way.

     And Mad Mary talks incessantly as if to someone.
     Pearl wishes that she'd one day write something amazing something you'd want to read in a book that was real and stirring, that would blow you over with its truthfulness. But she won't.
     Pearl is sick to death of crazy women and now here comes the maid to clean the toilets. Pearl stands over the sink and continues to press back her cuticles and takes her time about it. The maid comes in and empties the garbage and looks at Pearl and Mad Mary and goes back out into the hallway.
      The security guard knocks on the door and says, "Ladies? You got to finish up your business. We need to clean up in here."
     "Let's hustle now," he says.
     Mad Mary gathers her bags and leaves without saying anything.
     Pearl looks at herself in the mirror and pulls the wad of paper towels out of the sink and leaves.
     Back outside the air is steamed and the sidewalks already drying.
     In her mind Pearl feels the pressure of confusion of tired confusion this spite opening up inside her ribs and inside her hands and in her mouth.
     She wants to tear into her skin with her teeth take off a finger to feel the dusty bone crunching in her mouth just to.
     There's a slick in the back of her mind and it takes Pearl down comes up on her.
     There wasn't just one time it was all things put together adding up they just added up, she said.
     Mouthslick stocking shoes and shining shining mouth.

     She gets down on the street on her knees and flattens out her hand on the paved and metal-like firmament and scrubs with her hand flat she scrubs she labors hard at it at cleaning that mess.

Pennyroyal, she thinks while scrubbing,
wild ginseng and
cohash chamomile mint
blackberry rashweed mustard blossom in the yard.

     You see one a Baby Ireland's socks under the white oak and Shelby on the porch watching him.
And the dog and cat laid out under the porch nobody else and Spender William's he's at school you hear nobody.

     Pearl feels she got a spider inching down her tiny breast and reaches up under the shirt to squash it brown recluse egg snatcher.

     Her face is wet and it is hot and her mind answers on what it could be, a moving thing gone under her raiments and moving on the skin, any manner of thing

widow garter
copper cotton viper
she feels nothing under her hand just sweat trailing
just a trail of wet her skin spit out.

     Pearl thinks now I'm gone crazy.
     Say me a list from school say me numbers, she whispers to herself
     two time two equals four and four times four equals sixteen and sixteen times sixteen equals. There's no number in it no number counting nothing where a number ought to be a number spinning so fast out of control so out of sight.

 Jeanie M. Tietjen has just completed the MFA program @ the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is co-editor and co-author of a non-fiction collection of writings by homeless women in Washington, DC, entitled I Have Arrived Before My Words: the autobiographical writings of homeless women (Charles River Press, 1997).

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