Sam Kelder lies comatose and near death in the ICU. He wants nothing more than to go home. Unfortunately, if those around him have their way, he won’t be going home anytime soon. An award winning story.
Written under the alias Edison Penn.
Dead Man Breathing
by Edison Penn
If oonuh ent kno weh oonuh dah gwine,
oonuh should kno weh oonuh come fum.
(If you don’t know where you’re going,
you should know where you come from.)
—An old Gullah proverb—
Sam Kelder finally understands.
At sixty-eight, Sam is an old man. Much older than the calendar suggests, as if his body has withered, rather than lived, all those years. His dark skin hides a dusky pallor, and the blood within flows like molasses; the pump is all but worn out. His once-straight spine is stooped: a length of bamboo twisted crazy by the years. His once strong muscles are nothing more than thin lumps of fat under flesh, barely able to lift his own weight.
I nees a smoke, he thinks in his low speech, a mix of Gullah and English. As if rolling a phantom cigarette, his yellow stained fingers twitch back and forth constantly. He took his first pull as a young boy at the boot of his tata; for over sixty years Sam has rolled his own, and the smell of the harsh tobacco lingers in his nose like an old friend who never wears out a welcome. His lips constantly smack. Even now he feels the tip of a smoke against his tongue, can almost taste it, but only almost.
He sees his wife at the foot of his bed from time to time. She is always standing, always wearing one of her fine Sunday hats. Eulalee is her name, and she duh prietest ooman on dis heih islan. That would be John’s Island, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, and in his curious low speak, the sentiment is meant to imply both past and present. Eulalee and Sam were once a hot item on John’s Island, and he can still smell her hiar and taste her leps. He knows it’s her trabblin speerit what comes to visit from time to time; her hebben-goin’ speerit is long in the sure dead.
Eulalee is a large woman, coal black and big boned. Her face shows a large nose with big flaring nostrils; her left eyelid droops and lends her a sheepish appearance, as if she is always in the midst of a wink. She has thick, ebony black hair, wears deep red lipstick, and is sure enough sure a God fearin’ ooman. He usually refers to her as ooman, seldom as Eula or Eulalee (except maybe in church, which he attends every Sunday—the only time he ever wears a tie). Though she’s been gone near fifteen years, he can spend hours cracking teet’ and speaking with her most anywhere. She is never was, is always is.
For thirty-three years the pair lived in a broken down two bedroom shack, sharecropping a small piece of swampy, bug-infested land that barely allowed Sam the dignity of a man feeding his family. Onpossible tuh get straight wood fum crooked timber, Sam liked to say about that land. Sam and Eulalee kept one bedroom, their nine childin kept the other. Sam smiles and wonders if they would have had more or lesschildin if he’d have spent more time at home. He thinks of Eulalee again. She wasn’t a complaining woman. She was, is, a gud ooman.
Baking in the hot, unforgiving South Carolina sun, Sam worked the meager fields and picked cotton from sun up til sun down—promisin’ talk don’ cook rice is his philosophy about life and work. At the end of each tortured day, his bruised and blistered fingers looked more like they belonged on a meat wagon than his hand. It was a living that paid wages in blood and dividends in misery. Who could blame a man then, for playing as hard as he worked, spending so many of his nights in the numerous unnamed joop joints dotting the backwoods of Charleston County? His friends, mostly in the sure dead themselves now, were all from those haunts—Preacher Man, Buds, Butcher Prosper, Uncle Joey, John the Devine. Just names now, but oh how the memories dance.