Phenix City Story

by Nick Norwood

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.