Phenix City Story


1. November A local woman, getting on: her bent- over back pistons like a bellows as she pumps a broken clawhammer, beating sense into tenpenny nails to tack a length of sheeting plastic over a window frame. She underpins with scrap tin, cardboard, presswood. Plucks a fastener from her lips, pounds it home. Fills cracks with duct tape, random strips of foam. Stands back, surveys. She sets her mouth a certain way and starts toward the door—then stops to holler at the little white dog in its unfenced run, “All right, Ezekiel. You can come on.” Now, the cozy den: vinyl love- seat, TV, leaflets from the church. 2. December The oven’s half-open door slants opposite the gentle slope of the galled linoleum floor, all four stovetop burners aflame. Fumy air trembles over the table, its fan of utility bills, a cup of weak coffee and a thick catalog. The open page: bright plastic play-pretties the grandbabies will tear up in two months. The bills with their prim printed numbers, the gaudy page. Bills: page. She pulls the ratty collar of her cardigan closer, picks up the telephone and asks a man about the lay-away, then sets the bills in a neat stack, puts a rubber band around them, pencils on the top “Friday week.” 3. January From the bed she hears the ticking of the five-and-dime clock in the kitchen. Then the wind buffeting her plastic sheeting till the tape tears loose and it starts to flap. The bedside table a clot of crumpled Kleenex, emptied flu-medicine wrappers, unopened envelopes, she lies as still as the recently deceased with newspaper spread over the top of the coverlet like the people who have to sleep on the street. She starts to pray. For her daughter and grandbabies in California and for people who sleep on the street. She says the Amen, Jesus, Amen, then scours the silence. Clock’s stopped. 4. February She thinks Zeke may have eaten a hole through the pantry door. Something’s gone bad and reeks. She’s worn a path through the papers and wadded tissues from bed to bathroom. She sees her breath rising in faint humid clouds through the cold air above her face, her fever-dizzied head cradled on a rank pillow. She knows Jesus had something to do with this. She knows it was him that sent the devil as a propane man to shut her furnace off. It’s a sign He’s about to lift her up out of this bed. It’s a sign she’s finally leaving Phenix City. She sighs, then laughs at herself, then at something else, she’s not sure what—in her fever. Then, staring straight up, drifts off. 5. March The truck from the Salvation Army has come to haul away the furniture. She can’t use it. In California? That sort of thing is beyond kitsch. She burned the leaflets and old bills and letters in the rusted trash barrel out back: they still do that here. She had to admit, it was kind of beautiful to watch: the fumes and bits of feathery paper wafting up, the dark, thin smoke. But the stink of it: pure Alabama. Good riddance, she thinks, and goodbye. One last time, goodbye. She settles her children in the car with the dog and tries anew to teach them how to say its name: ee-zee-ke-ul.

NICK NORWOOD’s third full volume of poems, Gravel and Hawk, won the Hollis Summers Prize in Poetry and was published by Ohio University Press in 2012. His poems have appeared widely, including in The Paris Review, Western Humanities Review, Shenandoah, The Wallace Stevens Journal, Poetry Daily, on the PBS News Hour site Art Beat, and on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. He is currently a professor of creative writing and the director of the Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians at Columbus State University.