Memories of Green
by Whitley Carpenter
Runestone, volume 5
Runestone, volume 5
Memories of Green
by Whitley Carpenter
Outside the backdoor of a farm house, Pell Douglas stood facing the pale-yellowed fields. The brick walls beside him were deeply stained like wine with cracked and crumbling mortar. Winds carried dust from the dirt road into his eyes. Pell reached for the doorknob but turned and lingered off. He drew a cigarette from his coat pocket and held it between chapped lips. With one hand he shielded the end from the breeze, and he lit the tip with the other.
A stream of smoke drifted out through Pell’s nostrils as his shoulders shivered. Ash flickered, and the cigarette flew to ground, quickly stomped out by the heel of his muddy boot. Pell pushed the wooden door, careful not to let out a loud creak. The lights weren’t on in the den, but they never were. A raggedy couch sat against the wall and across was an ancient TV set, probably hadn’t been used in years. The piano rested beside the stairs to the kitchen. The keys were yellowed and askew, and the strings undoubtedly discordant.
Pell stepped up to the kitchen and could hear the TV in the living room. He peeked around the corner. A ghost of a woman was stretched out on the recliner, her walker in front, eyes closed and breathing softly. Her skin was as thin as her white hair. Blue veins ran up and down her arms, even to the fingers. Pell inched into the room, and the floor squeaked under his weight. The woman stirred, pulling her eyelids up.
Who is that? Pell, is that you?
It’s me, Mema. I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.
That’s alright. I didn’t realize I’d dozed off. Well go on, sit. What brings you around?
Pell eased into the chair by the front door. Newscasters on the TV bickered like diseased dogs. Making racket. He grabbed the remote off the coffee table and turned it off.
Oh, he sighed, I’m in town for the weekend. Dad asked me to stay with you. Is that alright?
Asked you to babysit, huh, she said half-joking.
Spend time with actually.
You don’t have to babysit the old hag.
Stop saying that, you’re not an old hag. And I don’t have to do anything. I wanted to see you.
She seemed content with that answer but not entirely convinced. She pushed the footrest down and rocked herself to her feet, grabbing the walker for support. Hobbling to the kitchen she said, How ‘bout something to eat?
That’s alright, I ate before I came.
He didn’t, and Pell hated lying to her, but it was easier than going through the trouble. If he said no without an excuse, then she’d pressure him until he agreed otherwise. Elanora, or Ella as her family took to calling, didn’t cook much anymore. Her sons didn’t trust her not to burn the house to its skeletal brick frame. But Ella still liked to cook for her sons and grandchildren, anything to be useful.
Pell followed her into the kitchen. The linoleum floor had begun to roll up at the edges and corners. Sun-bleached jean coats were scattered beside the entrance to the den. On the main table, Pell noticed three weekly pill containers in the midst of a stack of envelopes, one empty and another opened. On the far wall, between the two windows overlooking the farmland, there was an outline from where the old stove used to sit. Pell could see the residual scorch marks.
Ella sat with her thermos of coffee at the tail of the table. She used to sit on the side by the window so she could feel the sunlight beaming through the glass or tease the cats with a flyswatter whenever they climbed up the ledge. Now it’s just easier to reach the table’s end. Pell poured water into a glass of crushed ice and sat adjacent to her.
Where you at now? she said, her voice sounded like it was searching through old memories.
I’m up in Atlanta, remember?
Yeah that’s right. I remember now. And you go to school up there right? At Georgia
I used to go to school up there. I finished a while ago, but Southern is in Statesboro. You know that Mema.
I went to Georgia Southern, though at the time it was called…
She paused. Ella closed her eyes, furrowing her brow. It was called Georgia Teacher’s College. I went during the summers, but that was during the war.
I remember. You taught for a long time. Taught just about everyone in town.
You sure you don’t want anything? I can make you something.
It’s fine Mema. I’m not hungry. Here, I’m going to take this trash out. Why don’t you go back to your chair and go to sleep?
Ella sounded quiet, resigned. Pell finished off the water and dumped the ice into the sink. He slung the garbage over his and circled to the back porch. He dumped the trash bag into a hole large enough to hold his truck. The hole was a heap of ash and twisted metal. He’d have to set fire to the garbage later, though it’s illegal to burn without a permit. Not that it mattered out here, surrounded by forest, barbed-wire fences, and the occasional neighbor. The only sound came from the highway, or the scratching of stiff, brown leaves in the wind.
Winter would be here soon. This far south, the seasons skip over fall and spring. One day is bright and lively, filled with the heat and energy. The sun skips across the surface of the lake, and the grass stretches up to the waist, colored in viridian green. But the next day is bitter. The fields are dead, brown like wet cardboard, and the air is dimmed by the overcast sky. The landscape is frozen and still, as if the world were holding its breath, or maybe had no more breath to breathe.
• • •
Pell jumped awake. The smell of smoke drifted into the guest bedroom. He sprinted down the hallway. Ella was relaxing in front of the TV, watching the morning news, and unaware of the seared air. Pell saw the stove on but no fire. Oh thank God, he thought. He rushed to pull the iron skillet away from the glowing eye and raise the windows to let the smoke seep out. Ella now stood in the kitchen’s door frame, her face puzzled and twisted.
Is something the matter?
Yeah, you almost burned the house down, he shouted.
Just nothing, Pell interrupted. Ella looked as though she’d never been in this house before and couldn’t recognize the man yelling at her.
You could’ve started another fire. You know you aren’t supposed to cook, he snapped. Pell’s words were sharp, like he was scalding a child’s bad behavior. He intended to cut deep. Deep enough so that she’d recognize her mistake, so that she’d remember this the next time she wanted to set the kitchen ablaze.
I wanted to make you breakfast, she muttered. Pell covered his face, slowly dragging his hands down his cheeks across the rough stubble. He took a deep breath through the nose, his chest and shoulders rising up and down again as he exhaled.
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout at you, but you can’t start cooking and then wander off and forget about it, alright? Let me cook up some breakfast for the both of us. Grits and eggs sound okay?
Ella didn’t reply. She crept over to the chair and set her green thermos on the edge of the table while she lowered her body into the wooden frame. She held the edge for support but her grip weakened. Ella fell back into the chair, shaking the table, knocking the thermos onto the floor. Black coffee encircled Pell’s boots.
Uh oh, it’s alright I’ll clean it up, she assured him. Ella grabbed a tablecloth from the counter and tried to kneel down by the puddle.
No, go sit back at the table. I’ll go get a mop, he resigned. Pell tugged at the rag, but Ella refused to release her grip.
I said I’ll clean it. I can clean up my own coffee, she said. There was no warmth present. Pell could hear the resentment.
Pell focused back on the stove. The room was silent except for the sizzling of scrambled eggs. Five minutes passed before Pell could think of something to say. Breakfast is finished, he spoke in his most cheerful voice.
He slid a scratched, white ceramic plate in front of her, but she didn’t move. Pell stared at his toes and felt the blood pool in his feet. I shouldn’t have snapped at her, he thought. The words replayed in his mind, and he felt colder and paler with each iteration. He fixed a plate for himself and sat on the opposite edge. Ella still hadn’t moved her fork.
How is your hip and back today, he asked. That pulled her out of the fog. She repositioned herself, scooting to the chair’s back, just now noticing the plate of grits and eggs.
It feels a little better I reckon. I can’t move around like I used to. I used to be able to walk a mile a day. All the way to the McCarthy’s and back.
She stared off again. Dejected. She continued, I can’t make it to the mailbox now. Not without this walker. Even that ain’t easy.
Hey don’t give up. Pell tried to sound reassuring, took a rest and said, I remember last year, you couldn’t make it out of bed on your own. It’s amazing how much progress you’ve made in that time. It’ll be hard, but you just gotta work at it. You’ll be back to where you were in no time.
Pell knew that wasn’t true. No one recovers one hundred percent, especially people her age. The mortality rate is almost double after a broken hip. No she doesn’t have much time, he thought, but she’ll have even less time if she gives up, if she loses her spirit. Ella glanced over to Pell, catching his stormy eyes and holding there for a minute. She mustered up a smile that reminded Pell of when he was little, when they’d walk down the dirt road in the afternoon air and then around to beat the evening sun as it rested behind the tree line.
Yes, that’s right, she said without sincerity. You know when you were small, no bigger than my knee, I’d bathe you in that big sink downstairs. You were a tiny little thing. Couldn’t fit in that sink now. You’ve grown up tall. You’re taller than your daddy, right?
Only a little.
And I’d drive you and your brother down to the dollar store. You liked gummy worms and that fruit juice.
Still do. It’s an essential element of a man’s diet.
Pell had been staring out the window at the two lakes between the farmland and the towering pine trees. He noticed that Ella hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t made a sound for several minutes. Pell turned in her direction and saw that her mind was someplace else. Indiscriminately focusing on a spot five hundred miles away, far beyond the farmhouse. He lifted her out of the chair and carried her to the old tan couch in the living room. The cloth was torn and thin in places, scratchy with tiny balls of thread. Within minutes she’d closed her eyes, and her breathing steadied. Her face was sunken, like gossamer had been pulled around her skull and slowly loosened over the years. Pell parked in the recliner, leaned into the back, and let the world fade.
The sun poured in from the window panes and landed on Pell’s eyelids. He winced, opening one eye, closing it, before finally stirring from the nap. When he sat up, he saw Ella by the mantle, clutching a dusty picture frame in her hands. He shuffled behind her, and looked at the photograph, a picture of his grandfather.
He died when you were just two weeks old, she said.
Arthur loved to joke. He had a laugh that could fill the room. And he could tell the best stories. Every year, whenever the family gathered for Christmas, they’d ask him to tell the same story, and it just got better with age. He played music too. He taught your father how to play guitar.
Dad taught me how to play too. I wish I could’ve met Arthur.
I’m the last one left. All my brothers and sisters died long ago, my parents before them. And then Arthur left me. I’m all alone now.
You’re not entirely alone. You’ve still got your sons, my dad, and me of course. There’s lots of us around. We’re still here.
Pell didn’t know what to say. He didn’t say anything at all. He put his arm around her shoulder and held tight as she held the wooden frame. Ella turned up from the picture and gazed at Pell’s face. She seemed almost surprised.
Pell? When did you get here? Here come sit down. What brings you around?
I’ve been staying with you for the weekend.
Oh, yes. You live up in Statesboro now, don’t you?
No that was James.
Where is James?
He’s gone Mema. He’s been gone a while.
Well, would you like something to eat? I can make us lunch.
It’s fine Mema. We ate earlier. I’ll fix something later.
• • •
Rain pelted the granules of the shingles. Pell meditated on the couch in the den. The blue fire cast shadows on the ceramic-tiled floor. The flames remained unmoved and motionless, unable to dance. His thoughts were messy. The calm disturbed focus, leaving him in a cold sweat. A faded leather saddle hid in the corner by the fireplace, the letters A.E.D. pressed into hide. Pell was lifted up from the couch and dragged through the hallways, as if a phantom tied strings around his limbs. Pell wasn’t aware, not until he found himself at foot of Ella’s bed, watching her sleep.
Sometimes I wish you were dead, he whispered. It’d be easier than this. Watching you slowly deteriorate. Waste away until nothing remains. What’s keeping you here? That’s why no one visits you. They don’t want to see you this way. I don’t want to see you this way.
Pell’s eyes were narrowed and rigid like he was trying to slice through the bed. Grieving after someone dies is hard, he continued, but at least it ends. I’ve been in grief for years.
He felt the veins in his face drain. He’d thought this before, but never spoke it aloud. Hearing with his own ears, for the first time, he stood petrified. I shouldn’t have said that, he thought, but I did. I shouldn’t have said it. It was selfish of me to say.
You’re just in so much pain, and I want it to be over for you, so you can finally have some peace, he said hoping to persuade himself, but convincing none. The house felt discontent. In a brisk pace Pell went down the dark hallway. He opened the front door an inch, and the wind grabbed hold of the frame, almost tearing it from the hinges. The winter wind pushed Pell back a few paces, but he walked into the storm, leaving the door swinging in the violent breeze. Pell walked until time was a blur. He couldn’t tell how long he’d been gone, or if his fingers hadn’t frozen off and fallen behind. Exhausted Pell collapsed beside a creek. The short grass pierced through his clothes, stabbing at the skin. Pellets of rain dropped like marbles, and the ripples of the creek were drowned by thunder.
In her bedroom, Ella laid on her side. Her eyes were wide open.
University of Georgia
Whitley Carpenter is a senior at the University of Georgia, studying English and journalism. He is pursuing a Master’s and Ph.D in English with a focus on modern, postmodern, and contemporary authors. Whitley works as a reporter and photojournalist. He is influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.