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.
By Philip Graham
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.