“Zucchini people? Mamaw, what in the world are you talking about?”

Alafair eased the pan of beans onto the step and turned. She’d been off in space for a moment, surprised that she was really back here after all this time, and had not been paying attention to her grandmother’s story. Mally had so seldom been coherent this weekend that Alafair had caught herself daydreaming.

“We read that paper had Shelley Winters on it and hit had a story about invasion of the zucchini people and I thought hit’d be ‘bout space people or somethin’ but hit was just about them vegetarians...” Alafair waited for Mally to finish her story. She figured that it was best not to try to complete her sentences for her. Best to just let her finish and not expect it to always make sense. Her mother, Fay Lewis, let the screen door slam behind her as she came back out on the porch with a fresh load of beans. She sat one step above her daughter so she could string the beans and then toss them down into the pan beside Alafair. She scolded Mally over her shoulder:

“Ma, if she wants to know about them ol’ papers, they’re a-layin’ in yonder on the table. She can read them later.” Pulling a double handful of beans onto her lap, Fay tightened the old towel she’s spread across her legs to hold the beans. For some months now, she’d seen her mother drift more and more often into her own world and there was little she could do about it. It was strange how her relationship with Mally had changed. There had been no problem between them as they’d moved from mother-and-child into equals, even good friends. This new relationship was awkward. It wasn’t right for a child to have to see a parent this way...helpless...childlike. Alafair had never been helpless, it seemed. Fay’s relationship with her own daughter had always been awkward. Alafair never seemed to “need” anyone, and Fay’s tentative efforts to involve herself more intimately in her daughter’s life had fallen on barren ground. Now she’s turned up out of the blue as if she’d only been away for a weekend. Fay knew from experience what not to discuss, but didn’t know enough about her daughter’s present life to know what to talk about.

“You ought to take a mess of these half-runners with you. They done good this year...” Alafair slid to a part of the step where she could better see her mother, and suddenly realized something was wrong with this picture.

“Whatever happened to that apron you used to wear, Mother? I was a pink paisley and you wore it every day...especially at bean time. I’ve seen you pick more beans in that apron that Dad could get in a drywall bucket.”

“I ‘member that ol’ apron. Floweredy. Guess it just flew off the clothesline one day. Just turned up gone. Might’ve wore plum out. No matter. Nobody wears aprons any more. Why, if I’s to be seen out in a apron people’d stare at me like I was nekkid.”

“We seed some nekkid people on TV, didn’t we Fay?”

For a moment Fay’d forgotten Mally, but something they’d said had triggered some memory. “What was that program we was watchin’ that night? Tall colored people with rings and rings of beads round their necks and feathers in their hair but nary so much as a string around.....I can’t remember what that program was...”

Alafair stared down at her beans, waiting for her grandmother to finish her thought. Fay, though, didn’t bother. Mally was like this more and more often, sitting in the rocker on the porch, never rocking. Perched on the edge of the chair with one hand gripping the knob on the arm of the chair, she fidgeted at her mouth with the other hand as if to drag out the words she was searching for. Soon she seemed to forget she was even looking for them and became still.

“Let’s go in now, Ma. Shade’s leavin’...I’ll put on the TV for you, “ Fay promised as she rose to help Mally into the living room. Clutching Fay’s arm with her birdlike hand, Mally gave no sign that she even realized she was being lifted from her chair. Then she looked down at Alafair and said, “You’re a pretty girl. Do you work here?” and moved into the house. Alafair waited for her mother to settle back onto the step and begin her rhythmic stringing, stopping now and then to cut out a black spot on one of the beans.

“Mother, how long has Mamaw been like this? I swear half the time she seems normal and half the time I don’t think she even knows we’re here...”

“For the life of me, I can’t remember. Ever day’s pretty much like another. I told you how forgetful she’s been for a long time now, except for her programs and her papers. She never forgets to remind me to bring her papers from the store when I trade. Sees those damned ads on television ‘bout “inquiring minds: and has to know what movie star’s been sleeping with who or some such foolishness.”

Alafair chuckled and scooted to a smoother place on the step. “You’re the last person I thought I’d hear curse, Mother. I remember the time you heard Harold-Dean cursing and threatened to clip a clothespin on his tongue. He talked like a deacon for a month or more.”

Fay remembered, too. “He always was sensitive about his tongue since he was nine. Remember that Christmas when he heard that comedian on Cas Walker’s program say that it was a good mornin’ to stick your tongue to the pump handle and he had to try it? Your pa couldn’t hardly get him loose for laughin’. I think there was a little piece of Harold-Dean’s tongue still on that pump when he put in the runnin’ water. Probably why he did it. When was that? Right after he come out of the army...”

“Well, better not let him hear you spouting profanity, Mother, or he’ll threaten to take the back side of a hairbrush to you. You wore out enough of them on him.”

“I would again, too, if he was around,” Fay threatened. “I blame the biggest part of Ma’s troubles on that satellite dish in the backyard. I told him we didn’t need that thing, but he’s always a-buyin’ somethin’ and bringin’ it here. What in the world’s a body need forty or fifty channels for? Your mamaw was a changed woman, though. At first, it was just somethin’ different to see what all come on. She’d look at them shoppin’ shows, or country music, and ever animal that come on, she had to see it. Then it was them ol’ gossipy shows after the news and she’d be stayin’ up late. Next thing I knew she was askin’ me to buy her Enquirers and Stars and such.”

“You still read them to her?”

“Most days.”

Fay never thought much about her mother’s illiteracy. Fay’s father, Bart, had been through the eighth grade, but Mally had never gone to school. People that knew them, though, said that Bert had the education and Mally had the sense. Alafair snapped the beans, remembering that her mother wanted one bean per piece for drying, but longer pieces for canning. As a girl, she’d tried to persuade her mother to make shuck beans more often, claiming they tasted much better than canned beans. It was all a ploy, though, to save work. The beans still had to be strung, but Alafair wouldn’t have to break them. She much preferred stringing them onto a length of quilting thread. Fay didn’t dry beans that way anymore, though. Now she spread a sheet across the hood of the truck and scattered the broken beans out to dry.

The noise from the TV (“You’ve got it! Toyota!) draw Alafair’s thoughts back to her grandmother. As a girl, Alafair had not been close to her mother, but had followed Mally like a yellow pup up the ridges to the spring for water. By the age of five, she had learned to recognize ginseng and yellowroot. Letha, a professor Alafair had met in her last year of school, would have loved that old Mally. Letha talked of going back to the earth, of “awakening the goddess,” and natural, mystical powers of women over nature. Mally had been like that. She knew when a child needed a dose of mullein tea, how to douse for a well, and could deftly butcher a hog. Many of her grandmother’s beliefs, though, had later been merely amusing, such as planting by “the signs,” reciting Ezekiel 16:6 over a bleeding wound, and never--ever--making kraut when the signs were in the bowels. Now she would like to hear her grandmother talk about those things. The first time she came home from college and heard her mother reading the National Enquirer to Mally, she could no more fathom her grandmother wanting to hear those words than she could believe them coming out of her mother’s mouth.

Much had changed. Much had not. Alafair had not imagined she would be here again. This was the place she couldn’t wait to leave. Someday, she had thought, she’d grow up and be her own boss. Never have to hoe corn again. Never have to iron shirts for a family (first the collar, then the yoke...). Never have to pull water from a well by a rusty cold chain on a November morning. What she hadn’t counted on was that “here” would change beyond recognition. Harold-Dean had started by putting in running water right after their Dad died. Next came vinyl siding over the tar paper and patio furniture where the swing had been. Mama’s rocker was still there, but now her grandmother was as changed as her home. Looking through the screen door at Mally, seeing her stare unblinkingly at the TV, Alafair wanted nothing more than to go back fifteen years or so. Fay, though, had not changed much. Alafair could swear her mother was stringing beans with the same old silver knife and tossing them into the same battered dishpan they’d used since God was a boy. She had an incredible urge to put aside the pan and scratch a hopscotch board in the dirt path leading to the barn.

“What’re you snickerin’ at?,” Fay asked.

“I suddenly felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.”

“Everything comes back to TV. Sometimes I wish your pa had not give in to you and brought that thing in the house. But you carried on so. It was your birthday and everybody else had one so you had to have one, too. You could’ve asked that man for the moon and he’d’ve signed on as an astronaut.” Fay tossed another handful of beans into her daughter’s pan, and brushed a loose wisp of hair back, tucking it casually into the knot she’d made by twisting her hair and trusting a used-up ballpoint pen through it. She’s smiled when she’d noticed her daughter had let her hair grow and wore it in a similar style, but had caught it up in some device of wood and leather. For all of Alafair’s need to “be her own person,” Fay could see all the names in the family Bible--Lewises, Huffs, and Harrises, all--on her daughter’s face.

“Before TV we had a history and we knew it,” Fay declared. “Folks knew who was whose uncle and who married whose girl. Now they call it genealogy. Then it was just knowin’ where you come from. You kids used to make fun of me. I remember I’d be tryin’ to place somebody and you and Harold-Dean’d set in linin’ out the Brady Bunch or askin’ what Granny on the Hillbillies’ real name was. Thank goodness, there wasn’t a hundred channels then to keep up with.”

“At least the satellite dish isn’t the trouble that antenna was, “ Alafair stated.

Fay agreed.

“Lord,” she remembered, “I can see you all still, stretched out all along the mountain, hollerin’. ‘Turn it,” I’d say, and then you’d holler to turn, and Harold-Dean, and by the time I’d holler ‘Hold it’ you daddy would have turned it past the station.” “I don’t know how we ever got anything,” Alafair laughed. “If we did pick up a signal, by the time Dad got the pole driven into the ground, he had lost the picture.”

Fay shook out her towel and pulled more white half-runners onto her lap. “I still prefer that old antenna. At least it was on top of the ridge and didn’t take up the whole backyard, and TV didn’t take up our whole lives. We got Channel 6 in summer and Channel 10 in winter. September, your pa’d sit and listen to Mull’s Singing Convention and gripe in January cause all the music he could get on a Sunday was Bonnie Lou and Buster. Hit was a sight the make-up that woman wore! Your daddy couldn’t wait for warm weather so he could pick up Brother Mull again.”

“Just think what he’d have said if he could have seen Jim and Tammy Faye or MTV. But news--he would have loved that. Twenty-four hours a day. I remember how Dad would sit so alert and listen to every word of the news. His eyes were glued on Walter Cronkite. He’d have liked having a hundred channels. He would have had the world at his fingertips.”

“Your pa would have roamed the world wide if he’d had his way,” Fay mused. “He never was plumb satisfied here, felt there was greener grass, I reckon. I never could imagine livin’ any place else, myself...”

Her words trailed off as she momentarily forgot her beans and her eyes strayed to some place indistinct. For a moment it seemed she was lost in the same secret world that more and more often enveloped Mally. Alafair could sense, though, that her mother wasn’t seeing imaginary worlds, but remembering a world about to move just out of sight and memory.

“Didn’t you ever want to leave, Mother? To explore? Off from here you could have had a lot more opportunities to be something...whatever you wanted to be. If I’d stayed here any longer, I’d probably have ended up with two kids by now, like Bonnie Martin, or----”

“Like me? I never wanted to be anything different. That was our trouble, I reckon. I was always satisfied and always afraid you’d never be. As for explorin’--I’ve seen ever' inch of this valley and there’s not a place anywheres to compare with it.” Fay put down her knife and stared out across the valley. “Your mamaw took me pickin’ greens in Gabe’s Branch soon as I could walk that far, and I’ve hunted squirrels with your pa down by Shelby. I’ve raised beans and young’uns here. Your mamaw taught me everything I’ve needed to know to live here. I’ve seen her jump in a pigpen with a mallet and have a hog knocked out and stuck and bled before the menfolks knew what was happenin’, and later that same day I might see her working on a quilt or crocheting a border on a pillowcase. I’ve tried to be like her. I’ve gathered and grown and built and tore down, and nothin’ has changed much. But I don’t see that as a problem. I like things constant. Dependable. I know you never thought this was much of a place for a woman to be. Men have got most of the credit, but they’s a woman buried beside ever one of them, I reckon.”

Alafair had stopped breaking beans and was watching her mother during her long speech. It was surely the most her mother had ever said to her in one sitting. Fay never glanced up from her work, though, tossing the strung beans into the old dishpan beside Alafair as if by some innate radar.

“I know what you mean, though,” Fay continued. “Long after all of us are gone, this’ll probably still be known as the Eb Simms place, even though your papaw and then your pa both owned it after him. People never speak of Lyd Simms, though, and I feel I know her much better than Eb, although I never met either of ‘em. That ramblin’ rose by the old well...they say she brought it here from North Carolina. Hit’s way over a hundred years old. Eb planted crops that got harvested and had to be planted again, and built barns that burnt down and houses that ended up gettin’ tore down to build bigger ones. Lyd’s mark is still there, though. All over. Them big ol’ black grapes was her’n, and the burnin’ bush by the gate. Your mamaw’s mark is there, too. Those irises were her pride and joy. She was so excited the first time they bloomed, couldn’t believe the colors. She’d only ever seen the purple ones. I worry sometimes that people will remember her like she is now, off in the Twilight Zone, as you call it, but ever single thing I look at reminds me of her and how she used to be. I’ve taken after her, in my own way. Over there’s the willows we planted for you and Harold-Dean when you’uns was born. They’ll go on longer than Mally or me. Someday strangers’ll be livin’ here and they won’t know what they mean, who planted ‘em or why, but I like knowing that some piece of me is still here. I can read this yard like a history book. Mally’s irises, your aunt Nancy’s hollyhocks she give me afore she moved to Illinois, Lyd Simm’s burnin’ bush. And my willow trees. I like knowin’ there’ll be somethin’ of me planted in this yard after I’m planted up on the ridge aside your pa. Lord, listen to me ramble on....Next headline I’ll be reading to your mamaw will be ‘Local Woman Loses Her Mind While Breakin’ Beans.’ I’ll go put us on a mess for dinner....if you can stay.’

“Yeah, I’ll stay, Mother.”

“I’m glad. I know it’ll mean a lot to your mamaw. Well, I better see if she’s awake. She gets all riled up if I let her miss Judge Judy....