Cynthia Hawkins

At the Edge of the Damage Zone

Built on the cat­a­combs of old zinc mines, the tor­na­do licked the ribs of this town clean. Look at this, my grand­moth­er says, her lawn pocked, pit­ted. It was lev­el before. The low heel of her san­dal twists in a div­ot. She twines her arm with mine, quick. Overhead, ends of rib­boned VHS tape trail from a knot in the gum tree stripped down to cru­ci­fix limbs, its rus­tle whis­per thin.  The birds are gone.  The hum of elec­tri­cal wires, silenced.  Pulp of pul­ver­ized homes dries on the truck-bed,

blue and white Ford, ’71, pushed out of its ruts just so. This town is a turned-out coat.

Turn west, tree­tops. Turn east, noth­ing left.  Blocks down, thorns of a bat­tered rose bush scratched the ten­der crease of an old woman’s fin­ger. Her hand swelled with a fun­gal infec­tion they haven’t named yet.  First the hand, then the wrist.  This is what my grand­moth­er says.  She keeps a tal­ly of the dead. 157 and count­ing.  She knows the ones who will go next.  She unwinds her arm from mine and says, If your grand­pa was a younger man we’d move away.  This place is poi­son now.

Inside, black cob­webs crawl across the ceil­ing in the draft of blown-out win­dows.  She snags them with the bris­tles of an upturned broom, but oth­ers sprout anew with­in hours. Isn’t it the strangest thing you’ve ever seen? Yes.  I stretch one black wisp off the bris­tles from one hand to the oth­er, the strand a fine black crack in the space between my fin­gers, the pursed lip of anoth­er dimen­sion set against

the urge to open wide.

If your grand­pa was a younger man, she says, he could stand on a lad­der

and pull the shards from the sid­ing. Glass, con­crete, ani­mal bone, plas­tic, wind-whipped into knife points dig­ging in, snarling back from the shad­ow of the eaves. There was a broad cen­ter to this tor­na­do.  There was a space in which my grand­moth­er, grip­ping grandfather’s hands under a camper mat­tress, could sud­den­ly hear her voice twist­ing hoarse against the silence. Grandfather, deaf, had to read every­thing in the pres­sure of her fin­gers as the tor­na­do scrib­bled its inten­tion in a five-mile-wide swath, draw­ing a line between Maiden Lane and Duquesne Street, then and now, ram­shackle and ruin. When my grand­fa­ther

was a younger man he camped in a blast crater of a Philippine vil­lage. Grandmother’s grip remind­ed him, you are an old man nes­tled in a tor­na­do eye.

The Ford’s engine turns over, slow as a belly­ache groan. Tires slide back into dri­ve­way ruts.  My heart is an emp­ty fist, the qui­et in the cen­ter of the storm.  We dri­ve north.

~

Cynthia Hawkins’s work has appeared in  ESPN the Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Stymie Magazine of Sports Literature, Passages North, and the upcom­ing anthol­o­gy The Way We Sleep. She is cur­rent­ly Associate Editor of Arts and Culture at The Nervous Breakdown and a Creative Writing and Literature pro­fes­sor at UTSA.