Smoke in the South
by Amber Cook
“Take it low.”
There was never a question of who carried the burden in the Mitchell family. It was an unspoken agreement between siblings, signed in blood and dated back twenty eight years prior when one was on the bottle and the other in the womb. Sidney let a bead of sweat roll down his nose and drop into the dirt at the toe of his shoe. It left a wet marker in the drought parched earth. He lowered the torn sofa a few inches and guided the south end through the front door.
“I don’t understand why you want to keep this old thing.” Sidney shook his head and watched his sister wipe a strand of sweat drenched hair from her forehead. “Looks like that damn cat took a piss on it a few times.”
She stayed silent and he saw her eyes drop a little toward the floor. Mila had never been one for words, but the silence had overtaken her more than normal in the past few weeks. At nearly thirty, she was his senior by eleven months and three weeks. Not quite a year, he made a point to remind her every time they exchanged words, but it wasn’t her age that kept her at a maturity level far beyond his. Her age had never matched her mind and inside she was a wise old woman fighting for survival behind a pair of crease-free eyes.
Sidney gave the sofa a gentle push toward the wall and cleared his throat to clear the air. “I guess it was pretty important to her, huh? She had it as long as I can remember.”
“Longer than that.” Mila broke the silence for the first time that afternoon.
He nodded. “Longer than that, yeah. You’re probably right.”
The truth of the matter was, the sofa had been around longer than either of them had with probably thirty more years on top of that. It was more of a relic than the old woman had been, although the two of them had always shared a strikingly similar resemblance. The stained and tattered upholstery, faded so badly in places that the floral print had dissolved into a shapeless mass of green and rose, almost matched the three dresses that still hung in her closet.
Mila walked around the porch and pushed a few dust bunnies off of the arm of the sofa. “You don’t think she’s turning over in her grave do you?”
“Probably, but she never was one to sit still. Why should Heaven be any different?” Sidney smiled as the grin tugged at the edge of his sister’s mouth.
“You know what I mean. All of this. Do you think she would approve?” Her eyes rose and implored him to give her the answer she was looking for.
Sidney pulled a loose cigarette out of his pocket and patted his pockets down for a lighter. “I think she would.”
The Mississippi summer breeze made the porch feel like an oven and stirred up the dust in the road. Eighty seven years of life and all that was left show for it were a few dying trees in the front yard and one dusty home with holes in the walls that let the snow blow through in January. When she went, she took the whole damn place with her, Sidney thought. He pulled the lighter from his back pocket and clicked it with his thumb. “Damn thing. Never has wanted to light.”
“I thought you were going to quit.” Mila nodded toward the Marlboro between his lips.
He had no intention of it. A spark flashed and burst into a flame. Sidney touched it to the end of the cigarette dangling from his mouth and snapped the lighter shut. “Never said that.”
“It’s going to kill you one of these days.”
“She lived to almost ninety and smoked from the time she was twelve until Jesus called her home. Don’t talk to me about lung cancer.” He pulled in a long draw and felt the smoke tickle the back of his throat. “The tobacco companies would’ve loved to have her as their spokeswoman.” His sister pursed her lips and turned her head away, the same as she did every time she felt an argument turning away from her favor.
It had been harder on her. In truth, everything was harder on her, but she handled it better than most with her kind of heart would. She had always been a sort of pet to the old woman, something between a granddaughter and a porcelain doll. The better part of her childhood had been spent on the rotted boards of the front porch, her two legs swinging aimlessly beside their grandmother in the wooden swing. In the dustier places in his mind he could still see the old woman with a copper pot of purple hull peas perched upon her lap, shelling absentmindedly as she watched the sun drop down over the hill in the west. Mila would hold a smaller bowl on her lap, catching the hulls as they dropped from their grandmother’s wrinkled hand to thud on the metal below.
The conversations would be mostly one sided, but his sister never cared. Her face would tilt towards the sun as the words flowed from the woman beside her like water. She would talk about mornings and Easters and men that held her hand in the summer time decades ago when the world was a warmer place and the lines on her face weren’t quite so deep. More likely than not the conversation would turn to Earl, the only man that had ever shared her bed and the only man she had ever loved in eight decades walking this earth. They never married, she would say, and sometimes she wished she had said yes one of those times he asked her. Maybe it was for the best though, she’d remark as she dropped another hull into the bowl. She never did like the idea of taking another name after she had owned her own for so many years.
Mila pulled a chip of white paint off the porch railing and stuck it in her pocket. “Maybe it would be better if the sofa stayed here.”
“Why you say that?” Sidney pulled the Marlboro from his mouth and looked up.
She shrugged and ran her finger over the dirty fabric. “Just seems appropriate, I guess. Fitting. I think she would have wanted it that way. Besides,” she sighed, “it doesn’t really match anything in my living room.”
Sidney nodded. It had nothing to do with matching the living room. On the other hand, he did wish she had decided to leave the thing before they had nearly broken their backs dragging it onto the porch. He flicked his cigarette ashes to the side of the steps and pulled the paper sign down that had been pasted to the window for the past few weeks.
Condemned, it read. In every dictionary he had read, the word condemned was never associated with anything good. It invoked images of judgment, lost freedoms and broken buildings unsuitable for human living. Their grandmother had managed to inhabit the place for all eighty seven years of her life and had her heart not given out on her two months prior she would probably have been living in it still. The water would still be running from the pump out back, the dust would be cleaned from the cabinets and the smell of grease and chicken would permeate the air. The house wasn’t dead and it wasn’t broken. It was simply in mourning.
The county stepped in four days after the funeral and filed a few papers down at buildings and codes. One stamp, a notarized signature and a few big men with the power to make things happen and the house was up for demolition within sixty days. It hit Mila like a brick to the head and a knife to the heart when the papers were delivered to her door.
Rightfully, the land and the house were hers, but in the scheme of things that didn’t really matter anymore.
Mila pushed herself off from the porch railing and breathed so deep he could hear it echoing in her lungs. “The sun’s going to go down in a half hour or so. We should finish up here and get going.”
Sidney nodded and flicked the cap of the lighter open and closed between his fingers. The dry leaves rustled through the trees and cast shadows on the house as the sun sank low. He shoved the lighter back into his pocket and pulled the cigarette from his lips. A smile crept across his lips as he extended the glowing stick of nicotine to his sister. “Have a drag. Never know, it might help.”
She took it from him and put it between her lips. One deep breath and her eyes closed. As the smoke entered her lungs, he could feel the heaviness blow away with the burned ashes. She pulled the cigarette from her mouth, let the smoke trickle from her lips and flicked the remainder of the Marlboro onto the dry fabric of the sofa. They stood in silence, watching the embers glow and a small wisp of smoke rise from the butt. It took a moment, a long moment, but soon enough the embers took light and spread a glowing flame across the cushion. It flickered and blew as the wind carried it from the sofa to the porch and on to the curtain rustling through the open window.
Sidney stepped into the grass and gave Mila a gentle tug on the arm. She followed, keeping her eyes locked on the flames jumping in the windows. Their feet found their way over to the dying tree a few yards away and they sunk to the ground, their backs pressed into the hard bark. Sidney glanced over his shoulder at the orange glow of the sun setting in the west. The heat made a few beads of sweat rise from his forehead. Beside him, Mila had her eyes closed.
“She’d be proud.”
Mila nodded. “Yeah. Yeah she would.”
Amber Cook lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, and is the author of “Little Mother,” which was published in the online journal Toasted Cheese. The story was also selected by Dzanc Books for inclusion in the 2009 edition of “Best of the Web.”