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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

APRIL 23, 2002 / THE SCULPTURE

On my birthday on a gentle spring day, I stood in a park. Before me was a rectangle of lawn cordoned off with black chains on short black poles. My eyes were fixed upon a work of public art enclosed within them. In the center of this slice of green the great, round sculpture loomed above me. There were black stones spread in a circle around its base, and another black chain and stubby poles encircling this. The sculpture was of a golden bronze, with a black protuberance on one side.

What made this globe stand out is it appeared vandalized or seriously damaged in shipping. There were two punctures near its top, one of them near the black bump emerging from its side. A great yawning abyss, with jagged, punched-in edges, appeared on the top. The sculpture's black base was crudely warped, one edge folded upward like a grotesque lip. People had poked bouquets in dark green holders - like the kinds left on graves - at intervals around the lawn's perimeter. Papers and photographs, weighted down by some of the black stones, flapped in the breeze. A couple of tiny American flags had been inserted into the soil. A kindly fireman's picture had been taped to the lip-like bend at the globe's base.
Sphere sculpture
what made this globe stand out is it appeared vandalized or seriously damaged ...

This artwork had been vandalized, all right, but not by some rogue New York gang. No, it was smashed with some portion of 1.8 million tons of steel, glass, concrete, plastics, furniture, light fixtures, machinery, and other fragments that dropped from the skies when the World Trade Center collapsed the September before. The sculpture was mute testament of the rest of the heinous damage the men who attacked the towers had wrought - the lives of 2,801 people.

I had first seen "Sphere for Fountain" in 1984 when I was 22 years old. I was in New York to visit my cousin, Jill Lehman. The 22-ton ball of steel and bronze had been constructed by a German sculptor, Fritz Koenig, a shy, reclusive man from Bavaria. The Sphere had sat in the center of the broad ebony-colored fountain in the Austin J. Tobin Plaza - location of the World Trade Center - since 1971.

I remember being fascinated by its bulk and dominance over the plaza. I was so entranced by this thing that I found a seat on one of the long benches that encircled it and stared at its contours. All of the furious tension in my body flowed out of me as I absorbed this globe's existence in physical space and time. For me it was better than any other hunk of public art in the WTC plaza - James Rosati's "Ideogram" resembled a deformed paper clip, and Alexander Calder's scarlet "Bent Propeller" looked like three stray boomerangs abandoned on a box.

I had intended to spend my birthday at home and with my husband and daughters, but employee shortages have a way of shaking things up. Instead of Detroit, it was New York. After meeting with a client in Midtown, I took the subway to Lower Manhattan and wandered into Battery Park.

After Central Park, the Battery is my most favorite green space in the Big Apple. As I like old things, this beautiful, historic place warms me every time I enter it. The park has the imposing Castle Clinton, a circular fort with a redoubtable, rectangular entrance, named after a mayor of New York City. You can see the Statue of Liberty at a distance, and take a ferry to her island from the piers there. And, at one point in time, you had a clear view of the WTC spires jabbing their way into the sky, like two slender, towering siblings fiercely guarding their turf.

The park whispers of a faded, storied past and is well stocked with Gotham's ghosts. In three centuries it has accumulated many memorials and monuments that mark both loss and past generations' achievements. The Hope Garden - planted in the early '90s in memory of AIDS victims - is a great sea of roses that bathes the eyes with their many colors. The most unique to me is the East Coast Memorial. There are eight great granite slabs of rolls of persons who lost their lives in World War II, guarded by a fierce eagle with a verdigris patina acquired over a half century.

The most recent installation in memoriam was Koenig's Sphere, placed upon the Eisenhower Mall, and not far from the Hope Garden.

The injured ball had been rescued from the WTC site - better known as Ground Zero in those days. Six months after the terrorist attacks, it was installed in the park. Mayor Michael Bloomberg led the ceremony to dedicate this temporary memorial, until a permanent one was placed in the reconstruction at the WTC acreage. Koenig himself also attended. Earlier he had called his artwork "a beautiful corpse" and mournfully said to leave it the way it was.

I remember the people who attended this commemoration marked moments of silence at 8:45 and 9:03 a.m. - these were the times that the jets rammed into the Twin Towers on September 11.

About five weeks after this solemn affair, I was there myself to see the monumental ball. To be appropriate, I wore a black pantsuit. I had put a metal red, white and blue September 11 remembrance ribbon pin on the left lapel. My black Doc Martens oxfords completed the ensemble.

The joy of strolling through Battery Park returned as I entered, though it was replaced by a touch of melancholia when I approached the Sphere. I had the expected reaction of an American in that era - I was furious about the deaths and the devastation and grappled with a sense of loss. I felt the long scar on my left forearm throb as my memories returned. They came at me like relentless ghosts.

There were other pilgrims and tourists too. I saw some leave bouquets and papers emblazoned with people's pictures. Upon inspecting them, I saw victims' names, biographical information, and passionate statements of love and remembrance. Many visitors snapped photographs. I followed suit with my digital camera, a regular companion on my travels as a consultant. I had shot the Sphere and fountain in what I label the "halcyon" days of the WTC, a few with myself in the pictures. Even my cousin Jill had taken a number of photos of me there back in '84. I made a couple of myself with the broken Sphere as well, using my tripod and built-in camera timer. I made very sure that my face remained flat in these images.

For many minutes I simply walked about the grass rectangle and scrutinized the globe from different angles, just as I had nearly 18 years earlier. I struggled hard not to think of anything but to simply absorb finer details. The damage's rough edges and dents. The crinkling of the memorial papers in the breeze. The dark, deep-set eyes of the fireman in the photo taped to the bent base. The bilingual signs: Please do not touch the Sphere/Por favor, no toque el Sphere.

After perhaps three quarters of an hour of this close inspection, I went to one of the benches that ran along the roadway by the green. I took out the sketchbook that I also carry on my travels from my bag, opened it up, and drew a picture of the memorial.

My cell phone eventually rang with a tinny version of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer." I answered.

"Hey, Joanie." It was my husband. "Happy birthday, honey."

"Thank you, Michael. How are you?"

"All right. How are you doing? Are you holding up there in New York?"

"Yeah, I'm okay."

"What are you doing right now?"

"Sitting in a park by a sculpture."

"Oh. Which one - Central Park?"

"No, Battery Park near the tip of Manhattan."

"Battery? Eveready or Duracell?"

"No, Rayovac! Good grief, silly, it was named after a battery of cannon the British put along the Hudson shoreline for defense."

"Oh, so they had Duracell batteries - sorry. So, you're done for the day?"

"Yes, we wrapped up the documentation about two hours ago. I'm just killing time before I have to fly home tonight."

"By sitting around in a park."

"Well, yeah. You know I've loved parks since you met me. When I get all cranked up, I like to go to a park. So that's why I'm here. I also have to get prepared."

"For what?"

"I'm going to Ground Zero in about an hour."

"Oh."

"That's all right, isn't it?"

"Yes, of course."

"I got a ticket to the viewing platform. I had to go to this historic place called the South Street Seaport. I was down there in the morning."

"Oh. I understand your need to go down there, Joanie. Just be careful wandering around New York alone like that."

"Look, it's broad daylight here in Manhattan. They have cops swarming all over this island."

"Well, you know - I worry about you. I hate being apart from you like this."

"I'm aware of that - seems that you say that every time you call me on the road."

"I want to be near you. I miss you."

"Hey, I miss you, too. Look, there's a jet scheduled to carry me home tonight. We'll still get time together on my big 4-0 day. Just be patient, all right?"

"All right," Michael said. He stretched the words with mock exasperation and sighed. "But I want you back. One nice thing about you not doing consulting last fall was you were always here."

"You know this New York assignment was an oddity, a follow-up to last fall that I couldn't get out of. I'll say again - I will be back tonight, so look for me!"

"I will, baby!" he said, laughing. "When you get home, I'll put my arms around you, and you'll feel my love. Then-" he paused for several seconds, "then you can tell about all about Ground Zero and this Duracell Park you're visiting."

"Okay, Michael. I'll look forward to that. I do miss you too, and I love you."

"Love ya, bay-bee!" he said in that clownish way that runs in his family tree. "See you honey, tonight!"

The click at the other end left me in solitude again. A group walked by that I figured was elementary schoolchildren. A few Japanese tourists appeared a few minutes later and started up with their cameras and vigorous conversation. I studied one young woman in particular who had a bright silk scarf with designs like stained glass windows on it. I watched as the dark hairs of her bob danced as she strolled around the rectangle, pointing at the Sphere to a youthful male in gold-rimmed glasses and a buzz cut. I listened to the wind rustling the trees above me, and the scrape of feet of passers-by on the pavement.

I wondered about how I would react to Ground Zero when I stepped onto the simple pine viewing platform on the edge of that deep concrete-lined chasm.

Something. People would tell you that you always came away from that place with something that never left you. I figured that would especially apply to someone like me.

SEPTEMBER 2001 / THE FINER THINGS

I remember that in the weeks just after the attacks on 9/11 - I noted this shorthand people quickly adopted for the date - that I became a bit obsessed with details.

Maybe "details" is not quite the right word. I know that all of my senses fired intensely, and I found I was preoccupied with breaking down systems and situations into tiny pieces. I forced myself to truly open my ears and classify the jumble of sounds in busy suburbs. I sniffed the air by restaurants and industrial parks. I would see a lady's blazer in a store at the mall. I had to run my fingers over its scratchy wool and peer at the tight zigzag weaves of its fibers, at the subtle shifts from one dye color to another. I eagerly sought more textures - the bumper of a Lexus sport utility in the parking structure, the fake wood grain wall of an elevator, the bumps of a butternut squash in the supermarket produce department.

I particularly connected with buildings through my tactile skills, a habit I actually have had since childhood. I found I had to place some part of my body against edifices and remain still, often for several minutes. I pressed my face or my arms against windows and bricks and masonry walls and doors and knobs and hardware. I wanted to divine a spark of something from the inanimate, from the constructed. I desired to connect to something, to - pardon the New Age way of putting this - catch these structure's vibes. I had sought vibes since 1984, when I laid my arm on the Fifth Avenue side of the Empire State Building and pretended to let it merge with the granite. Fifteen years after that, I placed my entire body against one of the aluminum alloy-clad, beveled corners of the World Trade Center's north tower.

On Monday, September 17, I returned to work. That was six days after the attacks. I had a bandaged broken nose and a four-inch line of stitches down my inner left forearm. The weather was still too hot for long sleeves, so my arm injury was quite visible. These wounds drew some looks and occasional comments from the other employees. However, most of them whispered amongst each other and seemed afraid to engage me in conversation. Around lunchtime I really felt I needed some fresh air.

I walked down the narrow meridian road that passed through the grouping of high-rise office buildings where I worked in Southfield. The weather was still balmy and quite sunny. The best thing was that the blue sky had thin cirrus clouds dancing through it. I could not take a cloudless one.

I heard the blast of brass and voices of a gospel choir. I discovered that that road had been blocked off for a patriotic rally, or what I called a "cry in your Yankee beer session" at the time. I hated those things. When someone had invited me to attend one at the Freedom Hill County Park near my house near the end of September, I refused and hung up the phone.

Though such events truly repulsed me that fall, this obsession with the details, this desire to overtax my senses, caused me to approach the rally. Several hundred people were gathered around a dais on wheels provided by the city.

The area of the road had been paved especially to double as a plaza. In the summer, the city had its weekly "Eat to the Beat" lunch and concert series here. A man was at a podium on the dais, the choral group behind him. He addressed the crowd, a few of whom looked at me longer than normal, most likely because I had that bandaged nose and stitched-up arm. A large American flag had been placed on one side, and a Michigan state banner on the other.

The choir sang "God Bless America." I studied their deep burgundy robes and imagined the rough polyester surface of one as I touched it, and the crosshatch effect of the weave. I closed my eyes and strove to sort the voices - bass, baritone, alto, soprano - and lyrics by men's voices and humming like bees by the women's.

The man at the lectern spoke as if delivering a sermon. His voice pounded a rhythm as well, a hollow slap like horse's hooves or a brisk spring rain on a metal roof. His voice growled in his throat and rose in a crescendo to a point just below a falsetto. His speech successfully encompassed all the familiar themes trotted out in times like 9/11 - freedom, liberty, strength, pride, love, peace, valor, resilience, battle and vanquishing of enemies.
US flag
i became mesmerized, briefly, by the shifts in the folds of the scarlet and snow stripes of the great flag and its navy field of white stars...
The crowd, which had been given tiny Old Glories, whistled, cheered, applauded and whipped their tiny flags about when the man paused. I watched their flags and the larger ones upon the platform. I became mesmerized, briefly, by the shifts in the folds of the scarlet and snow stripes of the great flag and its navy field of white stars. I searched for the patterns, the permutations and variations, something that occasionally had preoccupied me since the age of four. A strange set of phrases entered my mind - Evening Stars Evening Stars Center Stage Evening Stars Center Stage Center Stage. I vigorously shook my head and drove the words out.

The man concluded his speech, and asked the crowd to join in "My Country 'Tis of Thee" with the choir. A screen above the group projected the words. Both professional and amateur voices washed over me. I turned heel and began to walk quickly back to my office building. I badly wanted to plug my ears.

Relief hit me when I reentered the building and went to the center of the lobby to catch an elevator. When a vacant lift slid open in welcome, I stepped inside and hit the button for the 16th floor. I pressed the side of my body against the car's wall and let the vibrations fill me. I listened intently to the motor's muffled hum and the hiss of what I thought might be the cables tugging me upward.

When I got into my office, I closed the door and sat before the computer terminal. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples, trying to hear, see, feel, taste or touch nothing.

APRIL 22-23, 1962 / WHAT THE STORK BROUGHT

All but four years of my life have been spent in Macomb County, which lies a bit northeast of Detroit. My hometown used to be East Detroit, Michigan - it lost its name in 1993 after some crazy old retiree went on a rampage to change the name because he felt it brought down property values. Its new name was Eastpointe.

Despite that silly moniker, I still think of the community as East Detroit. It was a compact suburb, two miles from north to south, and two from east to west. Gratiot Avenue - six lanes and a grassy meridian with deciduous trees - was our main drag. St. Mark's, our church, was on Gratiot, as was East Detroit High School and the central business district.

My father was christened Daniel Baxter St. Pierre after his birth in Detroit on February 14, 1930. He had moved to East Detroit in 1934. Before 2001, his birth date was the only one that stood out in our family. He knew the city fire and police chiefs - they went to our home church - and was a well-liked elementary school principal. My mother had been born Mary Grace Morris on September 11, 1933, also in Detroit. (I will mention the obvious - that birth date really gets some reactions out of people.) She taught first grade at St. Mark's for 35 years.

Through their community connections, I grew up with a sense of small-town camaraderie. I was the "principal's" or "teacher's daughter," a status that at times brought no small amount of flak from other kids. I loathed those accusations of being a teacher's pet.

When I was born at 2:37 a.m., April 23, 1962, the Lamaze method's use in the United States was a decade away. Mom went into labor around 4 o'clock on April 22. After she'd dilated somewhat, my father dropped my older brother, Peter, off with his mother and father and took her to St. Joseph's Hospital in Mount Clemens.

I saw this hospital in the late 1980s on one summer day, driving through the city, which was and is the Macomb County seat. It was a Gilded Age or turn of the 20th century type beauty, which reflects my mother's genes in me. She and I both are enamored with Victorian architecture. I have further embraced Art Deco. I flatly rejected the "Modern" or "International" style with its tendency toward boxy behemoths and low-slung, lesser disgraces.
St. Joe's Hospital East
i saw this hospital .. it was a gilded age or turn of the 20th century type...

Another detail of my birth reflects how stupid it was to put mothers under general anesthesia to deliver. Because Mom was drugged before I showed up, she at first was convinced I was a boy.

In fact, Mom developed this mindset about my gender before I was even born. She despaired and occasionally wept after she had convinced herself I was another boy. My older brother Peter, born September 6, 1956, had been well and good for her, because she liked boys, but oh, the sheer joy of having a little girl and cutting, sewing, and smocking little dresses for her!

My father was happy he had sired a son; the family name would go on. I can only conjecture - and Mom agreed - that all that estrogen caused her to occasionally feel depressed and think I was a boy. She told me I simply felt like one. I was a hard kicker who delivered painful blows to her ribcage. She called me the "soccer player." To prepare for me, she brought down Peter's old, mostly blue sleepers from the attic and sewed a cute little quilt with a farmer and a barnyard of animals.

What name to give this new son caused some furious arguments between my parents. My father fixated upon Matthew, while my mother thought Curtis, her father's name, was ideal.

"What's wrong with Matthew?" my father said. He puffed on his pipe. "It's a good biblical name, for God's sake. One of the gospel writers."

"I know that, and don't take the Lord's name in vain, Dan!" Mom said. "Again, as I said before, I will not call him Matthew. They'll just end up calling him Matt! That sounds horrible, like a doormat. Maaatt! Ugh!" She said that last word with contempt, as if speaking about an evil dictator. This was how she said it to me when she remembered their spats.

They went on like this for months, with my father advocating Matthew, and my mother defending Curtis. They finally hit a compromise - I would be named Curtis Matthew St. Pierre.

A female name was never any point of contention. While growing up in Detroit, my mother had two beloved aunts, Loretta and Joan, who both died in middle age. She came up with a way to salute both of them, by creating a totally new name - Joanetta. Cecile, my middle name, was just one she liked and she heard it in the news a lot as a kid, because it was one of the Dionne quintuplet's names. Add the fact that Dad's ancestry included French Canadians who had settled in Minnesota, and the middle name's ethnic origin was a nice fit.

Mom lay in the labor room for most of Sunday night, April 22, imagining her new son in his powder blue sleepers and nestled in the white wood crib in the master bedroom. Eventually they knocked her out.

When she woke up in the recovery area, she was one out-of-it lady. The nurse came up to her after she had regained consciousness and said, "Mrs. St. Pierre, you're the mother of a healthy baby girl!"

"No, no," Mom said. "It can't be. I had a boy. I have a healthy baby girl."

"No, Mrs. St. Pierre, you have girl! She's a beautiful, healthy, seven-pound baby girl."

"No, no. I had a boy. I could never have a girl. I have a healthy little boy."

"Mrs. St. Pierre, you have a girl. A very lovely, cute baby girl. A GIRL."

"No, it couldn't be. I only have boys!"

And on it went. My mother told me years later that the nurse really must have thought she was out of her mind, and not just because of the drugs.

Once Mom regained consciousness, she was delighted to hold her daughter and breastfeed her. Her sweet little Joanetta, she thought. Already she envisioned me as a toddler in lavender organdy and delicate violet smocking about my dress's bodice.

I was brought home from the hospital a few days later. Peter was very excited about me and had to hold me for several hours at a time. My parents have some snapshots, their color washed out due to the decades, with Peter sitting in this squarish black armchair in the family room, grinning broadly and holding my infant self. Beyond 1966, though, this great affection for me would start to seriously decline. Today, I hardly speak to my brother.

Mom's sister, Ellen Morris Lehman, had been expecting as well. The next day she found out Aunt Ellen had also given birth to her daughter on April 23, at 10:27 a.m. My cousin was christened Jill Marie. A couple years later, on August 9, 1964, Aunt Ellen had a son, Ronald Timothy. He became known as Rocky because as a toddler, he developed a fascination with the stones in the Lehmans' backyard. The families of sisters Mary and Ellen were now complete.

Every time Jill tried to boss me around - one of her annoying habits - I would remind her that I was almost eight hours older than her.

She wouldn't listen.

SEPTEMBER 2001 / IT'S ABOUT NOTHING

When I came into the house from the garage one evening late in the month, I could hear the television through the wall. The droning voices indicated that once again Michael was watching CNN.

By this time, my nose bandage was gone, and an ER doctor at William Beaumont Hospital had removed the arm stitches. Both wounds, however, still seemed to throb whenever I thought about it too much.

My daughter Christa, who was 10 years old at the time, quietly walked up to me as I stepped from the laundry room into the front foyer. Normally she bounced up to me with slightly bugged eyes, a broad grin, outstretched arms, and a shout of "Hi, Mommy!"

Lately she had subdued herself. Every evening she said softly, "Hello, Mommy."

I nodded to her and replied, "Hello, Christa. How was your day?"

"Good. How was yours?'

"Quiet."

"I'm happy to hear that."

"Thank you, Christa."

She normally told me about her day but quickly dashed up the stairs as I waved her away with my hand. Naomi, my 16-year-old, was upstairs in her room, hopefully working on her homework. She hated academics and earned average marks most of the time.

I passed through the kitchen and into the family room. Michael was in his chair in the set of dark brown La-Z-Boy recliners we had purchased for the room. A CNN anchor was interviewing a construction engineer on the tube. A black area at the bottom of the screen featured a constant scroll of headlines. Atop this was a small, animated graphic of a sliver of an American flag, with a white headline superimposed.

Too many images had looked like a bad, overpriced, summertime movie since September 11. Aside from the maimed Pentagon and the crushed World Trade Center, there had been those weepy rallies and memorial services. There had been a night when the opposing parties of Congress had stood on the Capitol steps, held hands and sang "God Bless America." Was any of this truly real? I felt light-headed and imagined I had received satellite transmissions from a parallel universe.

Internally, I was ripped up and tattered. I felt a need to flee. My healing injuries had dull aches that intensified every time my Tylenol wore off. I felt terribly vulnerable - this was why I dubbed the last three months of 2001 "The Raw Times."

"Hey, Joanie," Michael said, turning his head. "Hello."

My husband is a compact man with pale skin and nearly dark brown hair. He wore glasses and had a tightly trimmed mustache and short haircut that was only a couple degrees more than a crew cut. He had changed his wingtips and wore slippers.

"How was your day?" he asked.

"Quiet, nothing going on."

"Good. Nice to have you home."

"Thanks."

I sat down in the other recliner and tried not to look at the TV. "How was your day?" I said.

"Stressful - confusing - the usual. The boss wanted me to completely redo this bill of materials. The engineers who worked on it said they didn't have time to answer my questions."

"Maybe they'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Probably not. I'll have to chase them down and corner them before I get an answer. But Steve won't care. He'll blame me." Steve was his supervisor at his automotive company.

"The same thing." "Right."

"Hey, how long have you had the news on?"

"A couple hours, I think."

"Change it, please."

"Just another half hour. Then Frasier is on."

"I don't want to watch Frasier. I'd rather watch The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, I don't want to see any news. It's gotten so nauseating."

"Look - I don't trust George W. Bush. I want to see what he and his guys are up to. I think they're going to start a war soon."

"I don't deny that, and I'm not too thrilled with Bush, too. But I'm tired of all this. I can't take hours and hours of this news with all those star-spangled graphics and talking heads and crap. Why can't we change the channel?"

"All right! After the next commercial, change it." He handed me the remote. "I know you're on edge, but if you'd just talk about it, you might feel better."

"I don't want to talk about it. I don't even want to think about it or remember it. I just want a void there. Just a blank, a black area, nothing."

I glared at the TV and pressed a couple buttons. The channel switched to VH-1 Classics, which featured 1960s to '80s music videos 24 hours a day. Herman's Hermits sang about "Quinn the Eskimo" in a psychedelic cloud. I pushed the lever on the side of the chair to recline it and laid back. I closed my eyes. Michael reached across and placed his arm on mine. Herman's Hermits dissolved into Jimi Hendrix and his fuzzy sounding Fender Stratocaster.

Nothing - it was all I sought. I dove into the void again and rejected all stimuli, the other extreme from immersing myself in the details. I enshrouded myself with blackness and reserved my ears only for Hendrix's guitar.

I wanted shelter from the fear.

{To PART 2 of Persistence of Memory}