Valley Mission Blues
First, the old woman came out. A cigarette dangled from the pale slash of her mouth, pasted there by dried spit and ragged skin. She perched on the cinder block wall that propped up the unleveled alley, one slippered foot dangling over the void between lots. Every time she took a drag, her lips peeled away from the filter, skin and paper sealed around a lung-full of Marlboro smoke.
“Here there Miss Rosie.” A neighbor waved from across the street.
The sun caught on the highest treetops. Even in the summer, shadows drenched the neighborhood. There were no stars in the valley. Not even a moon to see by when the streetlights went out. The old woman wasn’t wearing a bra under the ragged thinness of her nightgown. She didn’t wave back at her neighbor.
Next, the man came out. Tattoos banded the flab of his arm, dark scribbles done for a case of beer in the linoleum sweat of a friend’s kitchen. If he was the old woman’s son or boyfriend, a mouth she felt obliged to feed or mound of flesh she used to keep her sheets warm at night, no one could tell. The man clenched a beer in his fist, a quicksilver flash caught in the red-orange glow of the halogen streetlights. The old woman watched him pace around their parked Durango, occasionally sipping from his beer and muttering to himself in the half-light. The man kicked at one flat tire.
He perked up when the van came around the corner, slowing cinderblock wall. Its brakes squeaked, plain metal on metal locked inside a rusting purplish hull. Several faces leered out from behind grime tinted windows. Green dash lights underlit the front passenger’s face in sharp toxic planes. The driver honked the horn until the man from the house waved an impatient hand, splashing beer across the sidewalk.
The old woman sighed and ran a hard-knuckled hand across the back of her neck. Ashes fell from her cigarette to the nap of her nightgown, and she flicked the butt of her smoke into the neighbor’s yard to sit and rot with a few hundred others. Beside her, the man stubbed his own cigarette out on the wall’s lower ledge, just one in a field of blackened divots.
When the man-made to move toward the van, the old woman reached out for him. Her fingers snagged on the skin of his wrist. The man hauled back and cracked the old woman in the mouth. She didn’t cry out. Both elbows caught her in the grass by the side of their house, and the hem of her nightgown hiked up over the crooked knots of her knees. A spider crawled across the bare skin of her ankle and into the folds of her slipper. Her face tilted up to the empty sky. The man struck her again. The old woman crumpled into herself.
Two faces looked out from the window above them. Two children looked out over the empty space between houses, their eyes blank, their mouths open enough so their breath fogged the glass. Somewhere out in the strip mines, a bird cawed.
The men from the van, who’d climbed out from the sliding utility door to watch, stood laughing in the side yard while the old woman picked herself up and made for the back stoop. A breeze crept across the sidewalk, carrying with it the burnt copper slag of the mill where the man had been laid off the month before and the rank sweet rot of the strip mines. After a minute or two, all of the men filed back into the van. The man from the house went with them.
The van went speeding off in a huff of blue smoke and raucous music as it climbed the hill out of the neighborhood nested at the bottom of the Valley. The man from the house threw his empty beer can out of the van’s passenger window.
Kacie Prologo is a Rust Belt writer who has spent her life wrapped up in the kinds of familial mythology that runs rampant in her hometown of Alliance, Ohio. As a student in the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program, Kacie spends her time translating this family folklore into both fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been featured in Scribble magazine, Fearsome Critters, The Finger Literary Journal, and Weasel Press.