Sep 032011
 

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Numéro Cinq marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the publication of this achingly poignant, sweetly human story by Philip Graham. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, Philip, as is his nature, twice traveled from his home in Illinois to New York to work as a volunteer near Ground Zero, in a part of the city that had always been shadowed by those mighty towers. Now there is only a shadow of a shadow, the city skyline permanently characterized by the absent profile, those absent lives. Out of that volunteer experience, this text evolved. Philip is a poet of ordinary life, the heroic quotidian of work, family, relationship and memory that is our common lot, and so his homage to 9/11 is built by the accretion of  over-lapping points of view, all leading inexorably to 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when the first jet struck the towers. Naturally, the people he writes about are not thinking about tragedy and death. They are thinking mostly about ordinary problems—and loved ones and beauty. And the last sentence ends without a period, consciousness interrupted by what the reader always knows is coming.

Philip Graham and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. He is also a colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.  In the fall of 2012 Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa (co-written with Alma Gottlieb) will be published by the University of Chicago Press.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  ”8:46,” an excerpt from a novella-in-progress, was originally published in 2007 in the Los Angeles Review (issue #4). His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at www.philipgraham.net.

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8:46

By Philip Graham

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7:16  Jian keeps a steady pace along the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, taking in a morning sky that couldn’t be clearer, bluer, and as always she loves how the filigree of the bridge’s cable wires divides the New York skyline into little segments that change as she walks. At this rate, she’ll make it to her office near the top of the South Tower in no time, maybe thirty-five minutes. On a day like today, the views will be glorious.

She can feel the vibrations of the cars cruising along the roadway beneath her and the hum of their passing fills her ears—the bridge seems alive. Jian still can’t get over this route she takes each morning from her one-bedroom walkup to work, because the first time she’d really noticed the World Trade Center was during that party her mother and father had dragged her to, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearly twenty years ago.

They had rented a boat with some neighborhood friends for a floating party on the East River, the ideal spot to take in the promised fireworks display, but even so Jian didn’t want to be there. The whole outing was just one half of the same old pattern—one month, a visit to the Buddhist temple on Mott Street; the next, a trip to the Statue of Liberty. After this latest American Family Experience, Jian hoped the following Chinese Family Experience would at least be a Sunday feast of dim sum.

Jian hadn’t cared for the light rocking of the boat or the long long wait for the fireworks. “Hey, give us a smile,” her mother insisted, offering a wide grin as an example. Jian did her best to comply; after all, there was another adopted Chinese girl on the boat, the one with an American name. Stacy. It didn’t matter that Stacy’d been invited to keep Jian company and it didn’t matter that she wore a party dress as goofy as her name—Stacy was okay. Together they’d be able to weather all the grownup talk until the fireworks started, probably a million years from now.

The sun had set but still the light of day lingered, still no fireworks. Then, a silky whoosh, a burst in the sky, and a barrage began that was more impressive than any 4th of July Jian had ever seen: a roaring blaze of colors and patterns like the images of an enormous, angry kaleidoscope, and all of it echoed in the water as if flames floated on the waves. The same reflected patterns lit the windows of the skyscrapers bordering the river, even the twin towers looming behind them, the pinwheel bursts and flares coursing and scattering across those buildings’ glass facades. Finally, yellow-white filaments of fireworks shot from the length of the bridge’s causeway in an arc over the water—the Brooklyn Bridge had suddenly become a remarkable waterfall of light pouring down into the river, and from all the boats around her Jian could hear cries of awe echoing her own.

Now, though, as Jian walks past the bridge’s double-arched tower, the South Street Seaport below her to the left, her new walking shoes nearly broken in, her heart rate steady, and the World Trade Center dominating the skyline, a moment from that night, one she’s usually able to pass over, comes to her. And why now, on such a lovely morning, this memory of how, after one particularly grand and booming display in the air, the twin towers held her gaze: each had become such a shimmering mirror of the fireworks’ explosions that for a moment their glass and metal surfaces actually seemed to waver, as if about to topple. Jian had caught her breath in terror at the illusion. What sort of celebration is this, she’d thought, gripping the railing of the gently swaying boat, wanting to cry out—

Jian shakes her head, wills this memory away by increasing her pace. Even with a stop on the way to pick up a coffee from her favorite spot, she’ll be able to make it to work early. 7:24

*

7:20 The line to the Holland Tunnel is as long as usual, all nine lanes of it, cars and buses idling, everyone too polite. Out the car window is the rundown motor lodge Barry gets to slowly pass and stare at five days a week, and the scraggly trees beside it, too.

He’s finally inched close to the entrance. If he could turn around and speed home, he would, but he’s stuck in a middle lane, stuck in his unsettling morning.

He’d awakened early, strangely thirsty and wondering what had they eaten last night—Chinese, or something else? He’d struggled to remember in the dark, but only when he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep did the thought come: feta cheese.

In the salad—he always loved it in salad. That was why his lips were so cracked. Barry lay there, awake, but wouldn’t let himself turn and look at the clock. That would blow his last chance to get back to sleep.

A car behind him honks, the lane moves just as slowly, but eventually he crawls past the toll booth, and when he’s in the tunnel the traffic is slightly better than stop and start. That dryness is still in his mouth, he keeps his eyes on the car in front of him and remembers everything that had kept him awake in the dark: the low hum of an airplane, some damn dog’s bark, the image of his wife at dinner last night, across the table but somehow nowhere near him. Impossible to know what, who she was thinking of. The dim light of nearly dawn slowly seeped through the tightly tucked slats of the window blinds, light that cast across the sleeping figure of his wife, her mouth slightly parted, hair damp against her temple. She looked different in that light, like a sculpture, her casual pose permanent, as if she’d never wake again, never open her eyes again and see him.

Am I dreaming? Barry had wondered. He tried to swallow, then thought to reach out and touch Daphne’s arm, to see if what looked like stone was soft instead, and warm, to see if, when he pressed it, she might stir and murmur something about needing to sleep.

Why hadn’t he touched her?

He knows. He hadn’t wanted to feel the reproach of her sleepy eyes. Why are you waking me up, they would have said, when all he wanted was a welcoming glance, even a look of desire, however fleeting, however impossible these days to imagine.

Instead, he’d slipped out from under the blanket and walked to the window, parted the blinds enough to peer through. Not quite dawn, but the sky was clear, nothing at all in the sky to distract him from the skyline, from the Trade Center across the water where he’d be working in a few hours. And where, he wondered, where will Daphne be while I’m at work?

Where indeed, he wonders, coming into the light and the city streets, where is she now, and with who? I should turn around and find out, he thinks, and Barry even flicks on the turn signal, it’s something he should have done weeks ago, absolutely, but instead he sighs and follows the traffic, deeper into lower Manhattan, until he no longer sees his signal’s blinking light, no longer hears its rhythmic click. 7:43

*

7:31 Linda stands on her left foot in the subway car, her hand clutching the metal strap for balance, and calculates the minutes until she’ll be in the concourse mall under the towers. Fifteen, maybe twenty. Then, a slow limp to the first shoe store.

She shifts to her other foot, the one with the broken heel. Caught on a crack in the sidewalk, just before the subway entrance. She’d almost fallen down the stairs, caught herself in time by clutching the railing.

The girls will have a laugh when she tells them—she’ll call as soon as she’s sure they’re back from school. And Diane better be home and not running around with that creep she calls a boyfriend. It’ll be good to check, and at least she knows Lucy will be there, and already at her homework, too.

Linda shifts back to the good shoe, tries to read the Spanish on the ad above her. Cosmetology school, get a good job, something like that. The black guy sitting in front of her turns the page of the newspaper and Linda catches a glimpse of a headline, about the election for mayor today. Damn, she thinks, who has the time, and then it’s last night all over again and she’s at the top of the stairs to the basement, shouting down at Diane, who’s shouting up at her, nobody listening to anybody else.

Boyfriend. Freeloader is more like it. Her daughter probably has to pay for the condoms too.

She shouldn’t have said that. Diane’ll get over it, though. Maybe the story about the broken heel will make her laugh. I’ll embellish a little, Linda thinks, maybe tell her I tripped down the stairs, right into a couple of boys big enough to be on a football team somewhere.

Linda tightens her grip on the strap as the subway takes a curve. That is, Diane might laugh if she even gets on the phone when Lucy tries to pass it on to her. If she’s even home when I call. 7: 36

*

7:15 The salt in the morning air, the cool breezes, the looping flight of the gulls, their cries. João closes his eyes and he’s back on another ferry, halfway between the green hills of two other islands—Faial, Pico.

Then he opens them again and he’s at the mouth of the Hudson River, the ferry taking him to work, and Manhattan doesn’t have an enormous dormant volcano like Pico’s, beautiful and waiting.

Waiting, that’s what his mother always said, looking out the window of their home on the outskirts of town, because it was always there, across the bay, shrouded in clouds or capped with snow, or just its unfettered towering self on a clear summer sky. She hated it, kept reminding Joao and his father, even after ten years, of the eruption on their own island.

“Just take a pleasant little excursion to Capelinhos,” she’d say, “and you’ll see what’s coming.”

João knew she meant the lighthouse half buried in lava, she didn’t have to say anything else. Though he’d been only three at the time, as his mother spoke he could still see the darkened days of clouds, hear the explosions, and feel the earthquakes, as strong as if the lava flows weren’t on the other side of the island. But it was that unspoken lighthouse he couldn’t shake. He would dream about the lighthouse, dream he was inside but couldn’t escape because the door was sealed shut by the lava outside.

João feels the sway of the ferry, he watches lower Manhattan approach, the Trade Center towers high above the rest of the skyline, and he laughs—he still does have that dream from time to time, the latest just over the weekend. Oh minha mãe, he thinks with rueful affection, how you could scare me.

So when his parents finally agreed to leave the island, travel to America and live with his mother’s side of the family, who’d done very well for themselves, she kept repeating, João tried to convince himself this was a good idea by imagining the Pico volcano finally erupting, a rain of fire and ash and mutating columns of smoke. What would be left behind except a huge crater, like the one on the island of São Miguel. How long had it taken for that crater to turn so beautiful, with lakes and pasture land and a tiny town he and his parents had once visited? Centuries.

Still, leave the Azores—the sea, the green hills, the miles of blue flowers? A week before their departure, he’d begged his father to take him on the ferry across to Pico, to get one last close look at the volcano that was chasing them to America. Once on the ferry, though, João had watched the island’s dark peak loom larger and larger, and he finally understood his mother’s fear. On the return ferry to Faial, he kept his back to the volcano, and didn’t dare give it a glance again in those last days as his family prepared for their departure. Something he always regretted. Which is why, on the return to Staten Island later today, João will make a point to keep, even if only for a few moments, the receding Trade Center in sight, long enough to locate his floor at the top of the South Tower, locate his office window at the southwest corner.

The ferry is skirting Battery Park now, and João folds the paper he never got around to reading and rises from his seat. Next summer, he’ll go back again to Faial. The third time. For the kids as much as for himself. Sure, they’re growing up on an island here, but with every trip back to the Azores they get a little more Portuguese in their souls.

That’s too far away to think about now. Next weekend, he and Elena will take the kids to the children’s museum in Snug Harbor, and he’ll watch, pride laced with sadness, as their wild little American souls run free. 7:41

*

7:38 A step on the brake, a nudge on the gas, then again—damn traffic—and Todd glances once more in the rearview mirror, hoping for a chance to squeeze into the left or right lane—damn traffic— because he’s tired of staring at the logo on the back of the truck in front of him: Queens Deli Meats, in a script shaped like a sausage. So he stares at his hands on the wheel, at a crescent of dirt beneath his right thumbnail, a leftover from the morning’s puttering in the garden. How’d he miss that?

Of course—that call from his sister, right in the middle of washing his hands. With the latest news of their mother’s slow fading. The painkiller’s steady increase in dosage. How many times she wakes in the night. The odd little things she remembers. “Yesterday she went on and on about when those swans chased you around the pond, nipping at your clothes. Oh, we laughed about that.” Todd didn’t remember any such thing, but he offered a heh heh, waited for the inevitable next story. What would it be, he wondered.

“And then she talked about how you used to blow up your model planes and battleships when you got tired of them. The sound of a firecracker and then she’d be down the stairs and at the window and—”

He remembers that one, setting off a fuse and running back a few steps, then returning to collect the scattered wings or hulls, the pieces of plastic streaked with dried glue, his mother’s shouts, though he can’t remember what she said, just that he stood in the backyard, stood in the space between two sheets drying on the clothes line and listened to the snap of the sheets in the wind while she shouted from the open window, angry but not angry enough to come outside.

Why are the stories always about him? What is Nora leaving out—

Todd hits the brake, he’s too close to the truck, and quickly checks the rearview mirror for a look at the car behind him, then leans on the gas a touch, then on the brake—goddamn traffic. At this rate he’s going to be late for the meeting, and it’s his own fault, he shouldn’t have fussed with the flower borders, a weed here, a weed there among the zinnias, the impatiens, and then his sister’s call. Todd calculates how to shave some time, what’s the quickest elevator route up the goddamn tower, for a fucking goddamn meeting that means nothing to him because he’s giving notice at the end of the week.

He’s in the left lane now. Goodbye deli meats. Todd takes in the dark line of dirt under his thumbnail again, he’ll have to do something about that, and why’d he bother anyway with that handful of weeds, the season’s almost over.

He should have known Nora would call, it’s almost every day now, and what can he do? He does his best to visit, nearly every weekend, he knows his sister is overwhelmed. But she also enjoys being the caregiver, pushing forty and once again the best little girl in the world, and she lets him know that, day after day after day, and he’d scream at her, but that would only prove her point about who’s best, who’s the most goddamn fucking deserving of whatever love their mother has left.

The traffic finally starts to pick up, for no reason Todd can see. Yet another mysterious traffic jam that clears up for who knows what fucking reason, and he presses on the accelerator, thinking he just might make that meeting, that goddamn fucking stupid piece of bullshit meeting. 7:52

*

7:46 Westchester County slips by the train window, one last long stretch of green passing across Millie’s reflected face, then she opens the packet of brochures from the travel agency so she can better ignore the Bronx. She glances through the color spreads of hotel after hotel, pools and palm trees and achingly bright Mexican beaches. Just what she doesn’t want: a vacation impersonating a movie set, only with real people instead of actors, and no plot line worth following.

She also sets aside the flyer for a gay and lesbian tour; not on this trip, too easy. This trip, she wants to stake out her own territory, somewhere. But maybe Mexico isn’t the right country, or even the right time.

Outside, the deserted and burned-out buildings of the Bronx appear, so why not look at another brochure? The Yucatan. The city of Merida. All the archeological sites. Chichen Itza, Palenque, Uxmal, Labna, Sayil, Kabah: huge stone temples rising from the surrounding and seemingly endless jungle.

This is somewhere Millie immediately wants to visit, and in some strange way she can imagine that she’s always wanted to go there. And it’ll be just the thing to shrug off Valerie, leave behind any last scrap of memory like a plastic wrapper thrown from a car window.

But what to do with Kelsey, her Labrador? The sloppy-faced thing will miss her, she’s already been pining away too much. Devotion Valerie doesn’t deserve. “What kind of a dog are you anyway?” Millie grumbled at Kelsey this morning, looking down at those mopey eyes, those butterscotch ears. An idiotic question, though Millie knew at once where it came from, and how unfair, to resent a watchdog because she wasn’t able to sniff out infidelity.

So let her mope in a kennel, she’s long past puppy and anyway I’ll only be gone two weeks. The off-season rates are to die for, and I’ll come back tan and trimmer than ever and ready for whoever comes my way.

The train rumbles underground now, close to the station, and Millie stuffs the brochures and flyers back into the manila envelope. But not without one last look at Chichen Itza.

Millie can see herself at the end of that first day, returning to her hotel—something small and cozy and as far from corporate as she can get. Where she takes a shower, wipes off all that grime and sweat from climbing the ruin, where she showers under hot water until her skin hurts; though considering the out-of-the-way type of hotel she’s planning on, a simple half-step from cold to lukewarm is probably all she can hope for. Yet already she’s anticipating the next day, the next ruin. She’ll get dirty and sweaty again, climbing the narrow steps of an ancient temple under the punishing sun, she’ll be faced with Mayan hieroglyphics she can’t read, ancient stone eyes staring back at her, designs that can only offer mystery.

Ah, but at the top. Green everywhere to the horizon, and no windows between her and the view, not like the windows at her office in the towers that gleam in the morning sun, the streaks of light keeping her from a full view of the city’s sprawl far below. No, on top of the temple she’ll feel the breeze, feel the sun sink into her skin, and she’ll stand there and take in the world as long as she wants, alone, alone, as alone as she wants to be. 8:10

*

7:56 Ravi pulls out his pencil, his pad, as if to draw. And he would, if the cab driver wasn’t speeding like a lunatic, yet what can Ravi say, he’s the one who asked the man to keep the pedal on the floor, because he’s got this idea for a comic strip: the Lord Shiva, God of Destruction, working as a cabbie in New York. Shiva knows every short cut, every trick of the streets, aided by his taxi dispatcher, Lord Ganesha who removes all obstacles. A comic strip as exciting as any X-Box or Playstation adventure that his children beg him for endlessly.

It’s an unlikely ambition, this comic strip, but then how unlikely is it to earn a degree in oceanography and end up managing pension funds? Only Lakshmi knows, and Ravi closes his eyes a moment because he is not ungrateful. He thanks the Goddess for his current wealth, sees her offer him a flower, and Ravi accepts and reaches for it, hoping this will give him the courage to see his comic strip to success.

I’ll place you in it, he whispers, you’ll be a flower girl, a beautiful flower girl who works at a different corner each day. And Lord Vishnu too, he adds, visualizing him as—

The cab lurches around a corner with a sharp tire squeal, but Ravi says nothing, simply looks out the window, at the world streaming by, imagines how he might draw this by varying the thickness of the lines to establish distance—thin lines for the blurry passing background, thicker lines for what is closer, such as the Lord Vishnu standing beside an open fire hydrant, flapping his dark arms in the spouting water so quickly that they seem to multiply, the scattering beads of water like little droplets of flame. But how might Ravi transform the blank page on his lap into cartoonist’s magic and sketch motion so well that any reader who has eyes can see what a character feels? It’s all too much for him at the moment, what with car horns blaring as the taxi runs a light through an intersection. Ravi smiles, knowing that Lord Shiva would approve, though such a stunt would be for him just a beginning.

Ravi can see Shiva driving, eyes half-closed, his long hair flowing behind him like water from the windy open window. Shiva is bored, and so he drives up a one-way street the wrong way, cars honking and swerving, so many scowling and shouting faces turned to Shiva’s half smile and meditative contentment at all this excitement and possible mayhem.

One siren, then another, and Shiva turns onto Lexington, guns the accelerator and, his third eye poised to open, he contacts Ganesha on the intercom.

Lord Ganesha sits at his dispatcher’s desk, one hand resting on his enormous belly. A blank balloon appears above his head as he scratches his elephant trunk of a nose, and the words appear, Yes, Shiva is that you?

Who else? Shiva, through his own word bubble, replies. Listen, Ganesha, I need to vanish, can you tell me where is the closest parking garage from me, on a side street off Lexington? I’m at—

“Sir? We’re here.”

Ravi stares at the cabbie’s dark face, the man’s eyes considering the mystery of this customer who insisted on the necessity of absolute speed, a terribly important meeting, who now sits unperturbed and unhurried.

“I said, we’re here.”

Yes, Ravi can see that: the usual, Liberty Street before the towers. He hands the cabbie a twenty, asks for nothing in return but a receipt, and as he leaves the taxi he glances at the license on the dashboard: Kofi Afon. West African, almost as far from home as himself. What did Kofi imagine he would find here, before he arrived?

Ravi had imagined the Florida coast, and he’d found it, and he’d found as well his beloved Octopus vulgaris, gliding serenely through ocean water, with its many arms and sensitive suction cups, its large brain’s ability to remember, to change color instantly, its soft body’s skill at squeezing through even the narrowest crack. A creature so varied it seems to embody all of creation, the one Brahman reality, seemingly without form and yet not formless.

He sighs, walks to his tower, enacts the ritual of imagining himself with eight arms, serenely reaching wherever he can in the market for his clients, graced with the flexibility of fitting into any investment opportunity, no matter how seemingly unlikely, and finding financial renewal in whatever has been wrought by Shiva, Lord of Destruction, and his consort, Parvathi, Goddess of Disintegration. 8:13

*

8:02 John lingers over his coffee and looks across the street at Saint Paul’s Chapel, so tiny compared to the nearby towers, where soon he’ll be knee deep in negotiating a nasty intellectual property dispute. For now, though, John turns away, closes his eyes, and he’s inside his latest dollhouse, standing before one of the doors. There’s a bit of a problem with the molding, the stain looks different.

So he wanders from room to room, checking, and it’s just as he suspected, that stain is slightly darker than the molding on any of the other doors. He must have applied an extra coat. Well, there’s nothing to do but pry the wood off and try again, simply be more careful.

Now that he’s here in the dollhouse, he might as well look for any other imperfections he wouldn’t normally catch. So he wanders again, from the study to the living room to the dining room, and as he passes each piece of furniture he’s made, he touches it. It’s me, he silently whispers, the one who made you.

Everything else he examines seems fine. His niece will love this. The wallpaper in the master bedroom that he’d meticulously cut and applied with glue harbors no bubbles, no wrinkles. The checkered fabric pattern he’d chosen for the couch in the family room aligns beautifully. He sits down to test the kapok stuffing, and how peaceful, to sit here by this window bordered by matching curtains. Outside, there’s Saint Paul’s Chapel again, and the towers, the traffic, and the bluest of morning skies.

John sighs, stands. He’s back in the Stage Door deli and his lukewarm coffee isn’t worth finishing. Off to work.

He crosses Vesey Street, starts in on his daily warning. “Don’t do it, don’t,” he whispers, and then answers himself, “I won’t,” but he has his doubts. It’s so hard, sometimes, when the pressure turns up one notch too high, to keep from taking a stroll through the offices and touching a desk, a chair, a fax machine, and thinking he’s back in one of his dollhouses, traveling the rooms, his fingers lightly glancing each piece of furniture and silently announcing, It’s me, the one who made you.

This touching has become a kind of addiction, a necessity he has to hold himself back from. Today will be a challenge: there’s that meeting at 10:00, then another, the one he’s been dreading, at 2:00.

John is nearing the plaza now, the fountain in sight, but he may as well be standing outside the conference room, struggling to keep his arms at his side, really struggling as his hand reaches out and touches a colleague’s desk—like that—and then, small again in a world he’s made, he can feel the knots in his neck unwind as he moves on to the next desk. 8:17

*

8:14 “My friends don’t treat me the same,” Deanna murmurs in her seat as the growl of the bus rumbles bass notes, “since I laid my burden down.”

Anticipating this Sunday’s choir, she barely sees the city outside her window, barely feels the lurch of potholes. Tamara’s cousin Ray, up from Florida, will be there with his lap-steel guitar, playing along. Who could forget him, lean and coffee-colored, with a few pock-marks on his cheeks that looked like freckles. Two years ago he sat in Tamara’s living room for a little late night gathering, sacred steel on his lap, and those crisp, keening notes quietly drew out the Holy Ghost. When he was done, he could only meet the praise around the room with a shy smile. Modest. And still unmarried, from what Deanna has been able to discover.

Deanna had barely noticed him until that evening, just another of a steady stream of Tamara’s cousins who’d come to visit, and so she held back from all that appreciation and back-slapping and stayed in the corner, her hair all wrong, her jeans last year’s. Then three days later, before she could properly collect herself, he was gone, back to Florida and that lucky church where he played for the faithful.

This time she’ll be ready for him. She has a solo this Sunday. “Since I laid my burden down,” Deanna half sings, half whispers in the bus, “glory glory, hallelujah.” It’s not the words but how to sing them that she needs to practice, how to express the power and give enough space for Ray’s steel guitar to join her, as if her voice and his fingers are dancing together, all for the glory of God.

And not just that. Deanna can see herself in front of the choir, her robes framing her nicely, eyes closed and sweat streaming down her face, filled with the Holy Spirit and the sharp tang and soaring glide of Ray’s notes, and he’s taking her in, wondering why he can’t remember her from the last time he visited his northern cousins.

First thing she’ll do when she gets to the office is make an appointment to get her hair done. Something African, elaborate corn rows tight against her scalp, just to clarify for the man, should he be clever enough to understand, who exactly is right before his eyes and waiting.

The bus reaches her stop and Deanna joins the line out the door, takes the short walk to the towers. Once in the lobby, she pauses. Sometimes it has the look of a church for her—the red carpet, the huge tapering windows, long curving balcony, and the stillness in the air, if you could ignore the hundreds of people rushing by like they’d never given a thought to the name of the Lord.

She waits among the crowds standing at the bank of elevators, patient for the long ascent to her office. “Oh when I lay my burden down,” she sings in low tones, and imagines that all eyes are upon her. 8: 24

*

8:19 Rene keeps her eyes closed, listens to the faint hum of the elevator, but it’s no use, there she is back in the kitchen. She shouldn’t have allowed that thought during breakfast this morning, shouldn’t have gone near the point of wondering, after her fourth bowl, how many oat bran flakes were left in the cereal box. No way she could count them all and get to work on time.

Still, she’d dumped the box, scattered those flakes across the kitchen table, and then gave up at the sight. She left them for later tonight, when she’d have time for a serious count. An accurate count.

The elevator door slides open. Rene opens her eyes. The 71st floor, a good floor. A handful of people leave, and she wonders, How many are in here with me? It’s too warm in the elevator, too crowded, and she decides against a head count. All the people in this express car will scatter once they reach the 78th floor, and when she takes the local up to the 98th floor the numbers of people will change at each stop—impossible to determine the luck of the numbers when this happens.

When she’s finally standing in the Sky Lobby and waiting for the local, she fights the impulse of counting those standing around her in front of the elevator doors. Instead, she counts up the luck of today’s numbers. Nine is the highest single-digit odd number, and therefore the most powerful odd number, and this is not good. Rene moves quickly to the next number, eleven, because this is good—the number one plus another one: the balance of two numbers that are the same. This is lucky. But eleven is an odd number, and this is not so lucky. One plus one, though, is two, and that is good.

Now the year. 2001. This is not her favorite year. The balance of the zeroes is good, and two is an even number, also good. However, the odd number one is not so good, and when she adds the two and the one together, she comes up with the number three, another odd number, and that is worse.

So she adds the nine, and the one and one of the eleven, and the two and the one of 2001, and she gets 14. Fourteen is the balance of two sevens, and the goodness of two odd numbers turned into an even number, fourteen. But fourteen is made up of one and four, and if you add them that’s five, which is an odd number. But five is the same number of fingers on a hand, and there are two hands, and two is an even number.

The local arrives and Rene steps in and considers her hidden ace in the luck of the day—she works on the 98th floor. Nine plus eight is seventeen, and the one and the seven of that number comes to eight, which is the best luck since eight is the highest single digit even number. “Today will be fine,” she whispers—four words, total—and then she repeats, “today will be fine.” Eight.

Her feet hurt. This morning the scale read 247 pounds, which adds up to thirteen. But the one and the three make four, which is good. And she’s lost two pounds since last month, also good, especially when you add the two and the four to make six. But it would have been better if . . . .

The elevator rises, Rene closes her eyes and tries to calculate the numbers of her weight and weight loss so it all adds up to eight, yet all she can see are those bran flakes spread across her kitchen table. 8:29

*

8:27 They’re simple jobs, really—first replace a few fluorescent fixtures in the drop ceiling, then do some rewiring around a doorframe—but the kid, Raul, doesn’t like the higher floors, and there’s not much higher you can get than the 99th.

So Leonard uncoils the wire and pretends not to notice that Raul always keeps his back to the windows. Instead, he tells the kid jokes, the one about the magician and the parrot, then the old lady and the chocolate almonds, anything to distract him.

It’s past 8:30 and there are enough people in the office for Leonard to keep his voice low, so nobody starts up and gives him grief. And God knows, if he runs out of jokes Raul will get going about the Mets and before you know, it’ll be Mike Piazza this, Mike Piazza that. How many times do I have to hear about the bastard’s 300th homer? Or that the same damn home run was his 30th of the season, and the seventh season in a row he’d hit that mark? Enough already. Cut Raul off at the pass. Keep him laughing.

“Hey, Raul, you hear the one about the dead mouse in the chili?”

Raul shakes his head no, offers a casual smile to hide his fear. Leonard likes that. Maybe the kid’ll manage, maybe he won’t, but Leonard is plugging for him, and he takes his time, embellishing here and there on his way to the punch-line, when the tail sticks out of the chili: “Yeah, that’s about where I stopped eating too.”

Raul hoots at this one, finishing up with little snorts of glee, and a woman at a nearby desk turns away from her computer and gives them a long look. Leonard ignores her and says, “Hey, Raul, hand me that ceiling box, why don’t you?”

His head down, Raul walks sideways, like a crab, always his back to the windows, the poor bastard. He needs another joke, but maybe this is not the time. On the other hand, Raul’s got that baseball statistics gleam in his eyes when he returns with the ceiling box, so Leonard digs down and comes up with the one about the talking duck, murmurs it while they fiddle with the step ladder, and when he finally says, “What kind of duck do you think I am?” Raul goes red-faced but only lets out a little stuttering giggle, and this is another thing Leonard likes, how he didn’t have to say a thing for the kid to catch on to keep it quiet. So he reels out another, this one about the two guys walking their dogs on the hottest day of the year and Christ do they need a drink but the only bar in sight has a sign that says No Dogs Allowed. They decide to go in anyway and pretend to be blind.

After he gets to the last line, “You’re kidding, they gave me a Chihuahua?” and Raul does his best keep it low, Leonard glances at his watch. It’s 8:45, and they really should move along on this job. He sends Raul off again, to grab another ceiling fixture.

Something about Raul’s funny sideways motion sets Leonard off, reminding him of when he was a kid, how he loved to rub his feet across the rug in the winter and then touch a doorknob to get a little zap. His father would laugh and call him crazy because he’d try this again and again, couldn’t get enough of the thrill of that quick shock, or the surprise, even though there was nothing really surprising about it. Leonard’s dad was one of those book types, always liked to look up this or that. Usually this spoiled things, but when his dad came back from their set of encyclopedias and said, “I’ll bet you didn’t know that shock comes from you, not the doorknob,” Leonard had stopped at this, still light-headed and buzzing from it all. He waited for his dad’s wind-up: “When you rub your feet against the rug like that, you’re getting all charged up, like there’s an invisible force field around you.” His dad went on about electrons and plus or minus this or that, but Leonard had heard all he needed.

Raul returns and hands him that ceiling fixture, and Leonard laughs, remembering how, after listening to his father, he slid his feet back and forth over that rug like a demon, building up the charge, surrounding himself with an all-powerful force field, imagining sparks rising from his untouchable body

—Philip Graham

  3 Responses to “8:46, A 9/11 Story by Philip Graham”

  1. Interesting approach to the stories surrounding 9/11.

    Everyone who remembers that day has one or two or five hundred stories and they are all flooding back this week. I was on a plane this morning(9/6) and they never turned off the fasten seat belt sign eventhough there were no bumps in the sky. I sure hope we get through the next few weeks worrying only about our commute, our love lives, making our trains, picking up the kids from school and what we are going to make for dinner. Praying for peace, hoping for a miracle.

  2. I love the strange garish light — merciless as changing room fluorescents — that onrushing tragedy and imminent death throw on the ordinary lives you describe here … like the cockpit small talk on an airplane’s black box recorder. Eerie, chilling, sad, and yet somehow uplifting, too: the feeling of old photographs, isolated moments cut out of time and preserved … though in this case only in your imagination — and in ours, now, also. Thanks for that. Beautiful story.

  3. Very sad and ghostly. Thanks, Phillip.

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