Miss Denise’s favorite spot was the left corner chair on her front porch.
Most of her life she had sat there watching the neighborhood. Often she would sit well past sundown, giving the breeze time to dry the day’s humidity caught in the creases of her brow. The August sun didn’t set until near 10pm, but the day’s heat stayed caught inside houses where every movement was a battle against the air itself as it licked at exposed skin, causing a feverish chill. It felt as though the air pushed back , stopped you from moving freely, forced youinto stuffed chairs that, while comfortable in the winter, became soggy, sticky traps in the summer. For all these reasons Miss. Denise longed to sit out on her porch tonight. Instead she stood in the doorway, staring at the faded lawn chair, imagining the cool air in her lungs.
But that relief was just out of reach. Working against the moldy screen door were a legion of mosquitos. They buzzed against the door, seeking any small cut or hole that would allow them access to the old woman’s blood filled arms and legs. This was Michigan in the summer.
“The Devil’s own,“ Miss Denise sighed, swatting at a bug that had gained entrance and started feasting on her arm. Its death left a small splatter of blood on the old womans delicate, thin skin.
Forced by nature to seek relief, Miss Denise stood in the doorway, avoiding the bugs, greedy for the cool air. She looked out across the street, staring at what had once been the Freemans’ house. The foundation was still intact, strong and solid as ever. Like all the houses on this block it had been built well. Michigan weather tested houses and humans alike; striking against them with biting winds, freezing rains and thick snow in winter then turning it all around in summer with unrelenting temperatures and humidity so high a person could swim to the store.
Some of the front porch was still there, wooden beams rising up towards a missing roof. The rest of the house was nothing more than broken glass and charred wood. The Freemans had left ten years ago, nobody had wanted their house, so it sat ready to be stripped for saleable scraps, torn up by vandals, and burned to the ground by unknown shadow figures who came and went at night.
The neighborhood turned 100 this year, but it had started dying at 90. Miss Denise had been born and raised in that neighborhood, in the very house whose doorway she now looked out from. She certainly never thought she would be the only person left in the last house standing on a once lively block.
“Blight!” Miss Denise huffed, “An even uglier word for cancer.”
But houses don’t get cancer, so they call it something short and nasty. It spread like cancer though, leaving little behind except shelters, stray cats, and drug addicts.
A breeze picked up. Closing her eyes she heard it moan through the glassless windows. Far back in her memory a child yelled ‘wait up!’ as bikes whizzed by. She smiled.
“You be careful now!”
Catching herself Miss Denise opened her eyes. The memory faded as she stared out at the remains of the Kibber house. Another memory shoved its way up, overwhelming Miss. Denise with the smell of ribs coming off the grill. Sam Kibber and his ribs! It was a two day process of sauce boiling, meat smoking, biscuit baking, and finally wood fire grilling. The Kibbers never sent out party invitations, they just opened their kitchen windows.
The Kibbers had left eight years before. Their house sat empty, another cancerous tumor for all to see. Finally a mysterious fire had burned any hope of a new family filling its rooms.
Fire took the Greens’ house, too. The Greens had arrived in the late 90’s to a block that was still very middle class. Mr. Green mowed that lawn every week, trimming every edge to symmetrical perfection. He planted flowers so early each spring that a late frost shriveled leaves and froze roots more than once. But the next weekend he’d be back with another flat, all those bright reds and yellows.
Once the blight began, nobody wanted a house on this block, so they had emptied, one after another and bit by bit they were taken apart. Thieves always arrived first, pulling copper pipes from walls, carting appliances to scrap metal yards, taking doorknobs, lighting fixtures, stained glass windows; anything.
The thieves were followed by squatters and drug addcts. Fights became common in what had once been a peaceful neighborhood. And Miss Denise was certain that the Greens’ house had last been used for murder. From her front porch she once heard such awful sounds.
Cursing, crashing, flesh smacking against flesh; it bothered her so that she had run inside, slamming and bolting the thick wood door. Still she heard screaming, until very suddenly she heard nothing.
She had called the police, telling what she saw and heard, but they never bothered to show.
“Just a torn down neighborhood with a scared old lady, what they gonna do?” she asked nobody.
And so it was up and down the street, memories tied to the remains of homes in a once proud neighborhood. The only keeper of those precious memories, an old woman standing alone in the doorway of the last house left standing.
Sometimes in her mind she saw the Williams Christmas light display, each year it grew bigger and brighter until it went dark three years ago when the Williams took the twinkly bulbs to Georgia.
Once the cancerous blight took hold, the flights of fear began. One after another they had departed, leaving only an old woman in an old house, paid off by her father long before she took over.
Anger rose in Miss. Denise’s throat, “I told you not to get another mortgage! Factories been closing for 30 years, I said. Interest rates go up, I said. That house is yours! It’s paid for, I said. But you all wouldn’t listen to some dumb old woman. Blue skies and sunshine that’s all you damn fools saw. Well I saw the clouds gathering. Saw the rain a coming, and it came and it fell, like it always does ending good times, like it always does.”
Weii, maybe they all hadn’t taken out second and third mortgages, but enough had. Pensions were squandered trying to fend off foreclosures, but those bright yellow bank notices always ended up tacked on doors.
And if the mortgage man didn’t get you, the tax man did. Nobody cared that when the car parts factory closed it took your dry cleaning customers with it, the city still wants revenue.
“They’re just waiting on me.” Miss Denise shifted her focus back to the frenzy of mosquitoes outside her door. “They’re all just waiting on me. Bloodsuckers.”
She hit out at the screen door causing a small, living cloud to burst away backwards. For a moment they took each other in, the old woman and the buzzing little cloud. The mosquitoes waited, hovering, on the other side of the rotting door. Miss. Denise backed away leaving the cool night breeze for the bugs as the oven-high heat of her living room swallowed her up.
Kelly Lett recently moved from Los Angeles to Detroit to pursue her writing career. Thanks to the internet she is able to tell stories while enjoying a much lower cost of living.
Photo credit: House. . Photography. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 May 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/142_2303727/1/142_2303727/cite. Accessed 12 Aug 2016.