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.