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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 9}


On March 5, 1986, Uncle Tim had been dead for four months. I thought back to the graveside service. My mind wandered from the cheesy movie I was watching on HBO, and the sucking sounds Naomi made as she sipped from her drinker cup. She was now 8 months old.

There were us mourners in dark clothing, the light sleet coming down and matting our hair as the minister said the 23rd Psalm. Jill was ashen and scrawny, hanging on Jonas' arm. She appeared then how I came to look in the fall of 2001. Aunt Ellen had stood there, her eyes hollow, a handkerchief tightly woven through her fingers.

The phone rang in the apartment kitchen. I set Naomi down on a quilt on the floor of our postage stamp living room and ran to pick up the call.

"Joanie? Joanie? Is that you?"

It was Aunt Ellen, her voice high-pitched and quavering. Her voice normally was like that, only usually at a lower intensity.

She'd been a bundle of nerves my whole life. I discerned that there was something worse. It was as if a taut violin string had been pulled even harder.

"Aunt Ellen? What's going on? Is something wrong?"

"Yes! Yes! It's Jilly - she's - she's - she dead, Joanie." She had called my cousin that name since infancy.

I felt a chill run up my back. I almost dropped the receiver. "What?"

"Jilly - she's dead."

"What? How? What happened?" My legs went numb, and my throat felt dry. I sat down on the kitchen floor, my back against the wall.

"She killed herself, Joanie. She jumped in front of a train. They said she just walked over and jumped down on the tracks. They couldn't stop her."

"When? When did this happen?"

"Two days ago, Joanie! I need you! Can you come here and help me?"

"What? Where's 'here'? Where are you?"

"I'm in Newark, Joanie, in Jilly's apartment. Can you come to New York? Please, I need you!"

"New York? But what about Naomi? And what about Rocky? Can't he--"

"Rocky can't come yet! Don't you remember his base is in Okinawa? Please come to New York, Joanie. Help me!"

"I--I'll see what I can do. I mean--I'd have to find out about the earliest flights out there, and Naomi--I'd have to see if Mom can watch her--and Michael--he'll have to know and--"

"Just do what you have to do and just come, Joanie! Help me!" Aunt Ellen's shrieking voice vibrated painfully in my eardrum.

I took down the phone number at the apartment. After I hung up, my head felt as if it were floating as I thought of sad-eyed, stoop-shouldered Jill going out the departure gate at Metro Airport last autumn, with Jonas' arm around her. A vision of the space shuttle Challenger, which had exploded just five weeks earlier, erupted in my mind's eye.

I could not cry yet, I thought. I began making other calls - to Michael, to Mom, and finally to Northwest Airlines to book a flight to Newark International. My mom, knowing her sister could be so oversensitive and hysterical, quickly agreed to watch Naomi. Michael took a bit more convincing not to come along.

I packed a suitcase and took my cheap little Chevy Chevette to Metro late that night. I was on a redeye to the Big Apple, arriving as the sun was coming up on Thursday, March 6.

A cab dropped me off at Jill's place - familiar because of my 1984 visit. Aunt Ellen nervously unlocked the door after peering many seconds through the peephole. The simple, cramped flat I entered consisted of a living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bathroom.

"How was your trip?" my aunt asked.

"All right. I had a fitful sort of sleep on the plane."

"You can lay down in Jill's room if you're still tired."

"Thanks. How have you been holding up?"

"I'm surviving. I've been taking lots of calls from Jilly's friends at Simon & Schuster and around New York."

"Any from that Jonas?"

"No, no Jonas. Come look at these." She led me into the living room and showed me several flower arrangements. "Her employer sent these calla lilies and a card over. Aren't they lovely? And how about these roses? They came from someone named Courtney."

"Courtney. I think that was someone she used to go clubbing with."

"Hmm. Well, these pink and white carnations are from someone she temped for - a Ms. Katie Lewiston."

"That was the bond trader that got Jill into the Andy Warhol party last year."

"And these roses! They're so beautiful - from Paulette. She worked in the art department at Jilly's company."

"I remember her - Jill said she had an artificial arm and the greatest sense of humor."

"The roses are so lovely, so lovely," Aunt Ellen said. She stared into space. I put my hand on her shoulder.

"They are, just like Jill."

"Yes ... yes. Like Jilly."

"You'll be all right for now?"

"Yes, Joanie. Go take your nap now."

"You sure?"

"Yes, go rest up."

I nodded and took my tan American Tourister suitcase into Jill's bedroom. I set my bag down. There was a double bed with a varnished pine frame and a burgundy bedspread. There was a poster on the wall of the famous New Yorker cover that shows the Big Apple dominant and laden with geographic labels, and the rest of the USA quite miniscule. I peered out the narrow window in the room, flinched and pulled my head back. I couldn't deal with Manhattan and those blasted towers at the moment.

A second-hand desk had a personal computer atop it. Like PCs of the time, the monitor was rather dinky. Her computer made me envious, because I still had only a cranky Smith-Corona typewriter on which to write. There were a number of framed photographs next to the monitor. One was a photo from early 1985 of Uncle Tim and Aunt Ellen. Another showed Rocky in a khaki Marine Corps uniform, standing outside at his base on Okinawa. Another was of Aunt Ellen and the two kids around 1972, on a ferryboat in New York Harbor, with Midtown Manhattan behind them. Another was the family in summer 1985; Rocky had been home on leave from the Marines. Uncle Tim was thin and weak looking. Another was a black and white shot of Jill and me during our 1984 trip. I picked it up to study it.

We had our arms around each other, our bodies pressed together. Our other arms were extended, as if we were game show presenters. The WTC north tower and its antenna loomed to the left of us. The rooftop deck railing formed a border behind us. Tears ran down my cheeks as I set it back on the desk and looked at all of the images.

I turned down the bedspread to reveal white sheets and lay down. Jill's bed was perpendicular to the wall with the window. When I slowly lifted my head a couple of times, I got the impression of skyscrapers rising and peering over the ledge. The north tower's antenna was always the first to emerge. I turned so that I could not see the window, desk, or photos. I also detected a faint scent on the pillowcases - Chanel No. 5, which Jill had started to wear in college. I felt tears well in my eyes after the fragrance hit my nostrils.

I eventually dropped into sleep. I had a dream that seemed very real - Jill walked up to the bed. She was wearing a New York Yankees cap and a dark green Michigan State T-shirt as she had when we visited the WTC in 1984. She sang "When the Lights Go Down on the City" by Journey. That was the ballad we started to sing on the rooftop deck as twilight descended.

I napped until late morning. As I awakened, I thought it was strange that Jill serenaded me.

Aunt Ellen and I ate toast, jam and coffee, in the dingy apartment. It was not far from the Penn Station stop of PATH, or the Port Authority Trans-Hudson, where Jill jumped to her death at 7:02 a.m. March 3. These details were on an inside page of the Newark Star-Ledger that Aunt Ellen lent to me.

I joined Aunt Ellen in the living room. Jill had put a print of Monet's water lilies on one wall, and a classic, early 1930s photo on the other. It was called "Lunch on Top of a Skyscraper" and shows construction workers sitting on a beam high over New York, taking a break. It had been shot during the Rockefeller Center's construction.

My aunt sat in an ugly forest green vinyl armchair that Jill and I joked two years earlier as an example of the décor called "Early Dorm Room." I was seated on the matching, sagging couch. A lamp with a golden ceramic base sitting on a tan Formica-topped end table provided a little extra light on the overcast day.

"I'll help you however you want," I said. "How far are you with the arrangements?"

"Actually, they're done," Aunt Ellen said.


"Yes, Joanie. I've already had the morgue send Jill's remains sent to the crematory."


"Yes. That was Jilly's wish."

"Her wish? How-how'd you know?" Aunt Ellen held up a piece of yellow legal paper. "This is Jilly's sui--her last letter. She asked to be cremated."

"Oh. Uh-yes. Odd. I'm sorry, I don't know how to put this any better, but I thought her body would be sent back home for burial."

"Now, Joanie, I would do anything for my children. I respect Jilly's last requests, even if I'm still--uh--shocked about what happened."

"We all are."

Aunt Ellen said, "I took care of that part of her wishes. It's the second part I really need your help with. I love Jilly so much, and I want to do this exactly as she asked."

She handed me the rumpled yellow paper. This what my cousin's last-ever composition said:

To Momma, Jonas, Rocky, Joanie and whoever else,

If you are reading this, then I'm dead. I decided I had to leave, take the last train, so to speak. I got up this morning like I was going to go to S&S. I have blown kisses goodbye to Lady Liberty, Battery and Central parks, SoHo, the Village, the Garden, Carnegie Hall, Waldorf, Chinatown, Empire, TriBeCa, Chrysler, WTC (you got me high), etc., etc. So, I'm sorry, but life is only so long, a terminus arrives, like the final subway line stop. So, love to you all, and sorry again. I am alone now. Daddy's gone, and I missed him...

When you find this message, please, please, please follow these instructions! No funeral, just cremate me. Then, scatter the ashes from the highest point in the city; i.e. the top of the World Trade Center. Go to the observation deck on the roof. Take my ashes up there and set me free. Then have a service with everyone back in Detroit. I want this to be my final place on earth.

With saddest and most everlasting love,

Jill Marie Lehman
3 March '86

I sat there and staring at Jill's delicate writing that always reminded me of gossamer. I crumpled the note a bit, internalizing my own tears.

"It's something, isn't it?" Aunt Ellen said.

"It is." I glanced at my aunt and back down at my cousin's meticulous script.

"Joanie, it's the last part of her wishes that I wanted you to help me with," Aunt Ellen said. "Go with me to pick up her ashes and then go to the top of the World Trade Center. I need you - you know how terrified of heights I am. I need someone strong to go up there with me."

My face went visibly ashen when she said this. Aunt Ellen told me later that she never knew a person's face could get so white. For her, with her strawberry blond hair and milky complexion, my face had to have been beyond even hers.

"Aunt Ellen, have you forgotten?" I asked, my hands now wringing wildly in my lap. "I have acrophobia too! I can't go up there!"

"Why do you think I called you to New York?" she said, her eyes flashing. "Jilly always said you loved New York. It was originally both of your dreams to live here. That's why I asked you. You've been up to the World Trade Center twice. Jilly told me that in one of her letters."

"Yes, I went up there in '84, Aunt Ellen, and it actually ended nicely. But at first - oh, at first, we had such a violent argument in the lobby over going up there that I almost turned right around, hailed a cab back to Newark, and got the first flight out."

"But you still went up."

"Yes, only after we made up, and she had to baby me. Only by looking at the Empire State Building and the sky did I calm myself. The first time I went up, in college back in '82, was the biggest travel nightmare of my life!" I began to review the ordeal for her.

"Joanie, that was a long time ago--"

"It was only four years ago! Remember, I had a paper napkin stuck to the left side of my face, and a picture of Ronald Reagan on my cheek because I feel asleep on the Daily News--"

"I remember, but that's the past. You're all grown up now--"

"Sort of, if nearly 24 is supposed to be so super mature. But after that vomit and pass-out adventure, and wearing napkins, I told myself, never again-"

"Jo-NEE!" Aunt Ellen said, staring me sharply in the eye.

"Then there I am again in '84--"

"JOANETTA!" Now, I jump when I hear my given name, because it reminds me of when Mom was furious with me. I know now that I was being prickly because I was grieving and wouldn't admit it, but I was not aware of it then.

"Joanetta Cecile Bailey," she said, her voice just like my mom would when she was upset, "You'll have to forget about that now. You're a big girl now. We must do what Jilly wants. We're going up to the top of the World Trade Center, just like she asked. We are. Not 'I,' 'we.' You must go with me. I can't go alone."

I stood up from the couch. I released a long, audible sigh, just like the ones my mother would make when I'd ask unreasonable kid things, such as giving me $15 to go roller skating. I felt like a real heel, especially after comparing fainting, puking, and having a napkin adhere to my face atop the WTC to losing your husband and daughter in four months.

I went to the window and looked outside across the Hudson. I could see those two spindly towers way above everything else, the north tower with its antenna resembling a striped toothpick perfect for Paul Bunyan's mouth.

I turned back to Aunt Ellen. I pursed my lips, gritted my teeth and sighed again, narrowing my eyes to slits. I looked out the window again at the towers and grimaced. I sank back down on the couch.

"All right, Aunt Ellen. But I'm afraid it'll still be like the blind leading the blind--"

"Stop it, Joanie. We'll get by. God and his angels will be with us when we go. And when we get up there, let's just think we're a bit closer to heaven itself." Well, I always say, you can't argue with God and religion. Wracked with Lutheran guilt, I nodded. "We have to start planning."

Tomorrow we would go, and whatever fear of heights within me would have to shoved aside once again. How? Do the Space Game, maybe.

We spent another night at Jill's apartment, whose rent was paid up for the rest of March. We decided that if we were going to transport the remains as discreetly as possible, we needed a container that wouldn't attract attention. I suggested Jill's photo equipment bags, so we'd look like a pair of proper tourists. Digging in her bedroom closet, I found both a main camera bag and a taller one loaded with lenses and other equipment. I removed all the lenses from this one and told Aunt Ellen that this would work.

Later that morning, Friday, March 7, after we had gotten a call from the crematory, we took a taxi from Jill's place to pick up her remains. I had Jill's camera bag, and Aunt Ellen had the empty equipment one. They gave us a box, and inside, the manager said, was a small urn. She gently slipped the package into her camera bag. We thanked the manager and went outside. There my aunt unwrapped the package and placed the bronze-colored urn back inside her bag.

The next step was to take another taxi to Lower Manhattan.

When Aunt Ellen said, "World Trade Center, please" to the cabbie, I thought my bagel and coffee were going to come up. No number of memories of pretty sunsets a quarter-mile up could comfort me. My aunt's call was literally out of the blue, and I had not had enough time to properly psych myself to face the Twin Towers. My stomach got pretty bad as the cab went into the Holland Tunnel to take us onto the island. When we broke through and saw the skyline, my belly felt even tighter. All memory of that gentle sunset viewed from the WTC roof spilled out of my mind.

Manhattan didn't look much different physically. But grappling with fear, I mentally found it different. The once exciting scene of the people pushing across the broad thoroughfares now looked like hordes of lost spirits trudging along. The sky was overcast, as it was late winter, and there was a sharp breeze blowing through those "canyons" of the borough.
Church Street entrance with Cloud Fortress
...a sculpture like two great black alps, which marked the entrance into the tobin plaza...

The cab pulled onto Church Street and let us off before the towers. We passed in between the two low Plaza buildings with smoky black windows. I looked up at Masayuki Nogare's "Cloud Fortress," a sculpture like two great black Alps, which marked the entrance into the Tobin Plaza between WTC 4 and 5.

Unlike a lot of other tourists who entered the plaza, I did not immediately look up. Instead, I frowned and walked with my head bent down a bit, so the only thing I saw was pale tiles.

Some of them were cracked, and a few were uneven, which for some reason reminded me of those 1930s sidewalks around my house that fascinated me as a kid. After taking a half dozen steps like this - my aunt had been gawking up at the towers since we had left the cab - I finally lifted my head.

My eyes rested upon the familiar circular fountain. Its water was shut off due to it being winter. It sat in its sunken area, just below the plaza's main level. I saw very few people in the plaza, because of the frigid air, and in mid-afternoon many would still be in their offices. Aunt Ellen seemed attracted to the fountain and sculpture as I had been, so we went down a set of stairs toward it.

"There's Fritz Koenig's 'Sphere for Fountain,' " I said. I rambled on nervously, "I remember I practically fixated on this thing when I came here with Jill two years back. It's a really wild sculpture, like an earth bursting open or something."

"It is very interesting. I guess it's modern art," my aunt said.

"I still find I like it, even if it's part of the Trade Center."

We stood silently for several minutes studying the sculpture. Then Aunt Ellen asked, "Which one is it?"

"Huh?" I said, still engrossed in seeing the knobby globe again. My eyes jumped to the north tower beyond, with its tall, narrow windows that marked its lobby.

Each was bisected by a horizontal aluminum frame, and ended in a gothic arch surmounted by narrowly spaced aluminum cladding. The façade looked like many bare-branched, narrow trees reaching into the heavens. I glanced further to my right and saw the third Plaza building; in this case it was the U.S. Customs House. I looked to my left and saw the lobby windows of the identical south tower, and Rosati's silvery steel "Ideogram," or "Deformed Paper Clip," as I had renamed it. Between the towers I could also see the stacked, horizontal blocks of windows that comprised the Vista Hotel.

"Which building?" Aunt Ellen said. "Which tower is the observation deck in?"

"That one," I said, looking at the south tower and pointing left.

"Well, let's go, then. Lead the way, Joanie."

As we left the fountain area, I finally looked up at the Twin Towers. Ouch. I felt as if I'd had a nightmare, and the two oblong blocks from my wooden play set from my preschool years had suddenly assumed gargantuan proportions. They were just too tall, their closely spaced vertical lines obscuring the windows.

"Overgrown, stupid things. Here we go with visit number three," I muttered. I brought my eyes back down to look left at the south tower's lobby windows again.

"What, dear?" Aunt Ellen said.

"Oh, nothing."

"So now what do we do?"

"Well, we go where the signs say 'observation deck.' We stand in a line forever, waiting for the elevator. We'll have to pay a few bucks to ride up there with a million other people sardine style. Then we can walk around and stare at very small New York and New Jersey stuff. I guess if it were sunnier, we could even see Connecticut. Maybe I can wear another napkin."

"Joanie, stop that. Please, just do this for Jilly. She loved you so much."

I sighed and remembered Aunt Ellen's situation again. I was freaking out with grief myself and trying to fight it with cynicism. "I'm sorry. Let's continue on." We went through a revolving door into the lobby.

What I remember well about the Twin Towers, after the observation decks and Koenig's sculpture, were those lobbies. They were ten floors high. The walls of white marble with fine lines of black in it, those arched, cathedral-like windows, soaring to ceilings with delicate chandeliers, casting diffuse light. These open places could inspire you, if you were in the right mood and did not compare them to a tomb.

Each had a mezzanine that wrapped around over the concourse level, with its security desks and elevators. Aunt Ellen was really taken in by this, and she smiled sadly. She pointed out how attractive the marble walls were, the marble frames around the windows, and the. I really did not care, but I nodded.

We were on the mezzanine level, which also was the place to catch the deck elevator. I was beginning to get the same dull feeling I had when I was there four years earlier. I felt a headache coming on.

We bought tickets and took our place in the line. Not much later we were in the elevator, my ears again hearing foreign languages. I distinctly remember a Chinese dialect and Spanish. The elevator attendant chatted and joked with us. She asked many of the tourists where they were from.

The elevator was swift and soft, but not comforting enough for me. My ears popped, and I said so. Aunt Ellen giggled and mentioned hers had, too. When the word "Observatory" appeared, the lift stopped.

The doors finally opened. What reaction this third time to the top? Get sick? Faint? Shake? What?

I did not lose my cookies, though my stomach would not stop tumbling. Aunt Ellen seemed to forget her own acrophobia and strolled excitedly around the perimeter like a schoolgirl, peering out the windows. I figured that grief outweighed terror of heights at this point. I followed behind her, about 10 feet away, my arms folded back behind me.

I remembered how badly I had quavered in '84, when Jill put me into one of the window seat benches facing west. No sitting down this time.

I stole glimpses out the windows here and there, amazed that I had nothing more than a knotted stomach, and not full-tilt nausea. The headache would not stop, so I fumbled about in my purse for some Tylenol and told Aunt Ellen I needed to get a pop.

"Wait a minute first. Isn't there a camera in there? I'm going to take some pictures. Jilly should have a simple one. Sometimes she let me borrow it." I found a simple point-and-shoot camera next to Jill's Nikon in the bag and handed to her. table graphic coding:
Looking east to Brooklyn
i bent forward and peered out at the east river. the manhattan and brooklyn bridges sliced the body of water...

She made the circuit again, taking pictures out each direction. I was shocked that she was doing this and did not need a blindfold or my comfort. I went off to the concessions area and got my soft drink, another orange pop. I also felt pretty alert, so at least I would not have the fear of adorning my face with another napkin.

After I returned to Aunt Ellen, I was surprised to find her in one of the window seats on the east side. She turned around with the camera.

"Smile, Joanie," she said, and I gave her a wan one. I then had to deal for several minutes with a nagging, flickering light in my line of sight left over from the flash. "Why don't you come over and sit down next to me? Have a closer look - it's so beautiful!"

"No thanks," I said, but then changed my mind and sat next to her. I just made sure not to look down. "You really seem to be enjoying this."

"Well, it's nice up here. I can see so far away! I can't believe I let my fear of heights stop me from seeing things like this for so many years. So stupid of me."

I bent forward and peered out at the East River. The Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges sliced the body of water; their ends seemed to melt into Brooklyn itself. "Eeesh," I said, or something like that. I leaned my head backward and looked up at the ceiling. Thrilling.

My stomach jumped but still did not give out. Am I going to fall out the window? I asked myself. I banished that thought and chastised myself for the lapse.

Attendants let us know the rooftop deck was open. We got up. She smiled conspiratorially, patting the bag containing Jill's ashes. "It's time," she whispered. We took the escalators up to the roof. I remembered Jill's words in one letter about plumes of vapor coming out of her mouth up in the Empire State's deck when I exhaled in the chilly air. I shrugged my shoulders in my long black wool overcoat and felt the air sting my ears. I knotted my scarf tighter against my neck to keep out the cold.

"Now, let's see," Aunt Ellen said. She walked around the deck again, myself about five feet away from her. "Which way should I release them?" She paused when she reached the western vista, looking across the Hudson to New Jersey. I steeled myself and came up to her side. I cautiously peered over and saw - the rooftop, a stretch of protective fence, window washer machine tracks, a highway, an office complex under construction, and the river.

"Here," she said softly. "Right here facing her home. This is the place. Now, we've got to act quickly as--oohhh--"

Aunt Ellen froze. Her eyes seemed to glaze over. She put her hand to her forehead and moaned again. "Oh, I feel dizzy now." I tensed and put my arm around her as she began to stagger a bit. "It's too much, too high--ohhh--no walls--"

The incident was familiar, only I had been the one about to lose it in 1984, when Jill helped me, twice. Now I found myself reeling a bit, because I was the one helping the acrophobe.

"Here, sit down," I said, supporting her weight against me. I gently guided her to one of slab benches on that side. I sat down next to her, turning my body toward her. I took her hands in mine. Tears began to roll down her cheeks.

"I can't do it, Joanie," she said quietly. She sniffled, and more tears welled up. "I can't do it anymore. I'm too scared. I thought I could, but I've lost it. I can't do it. I'm going to let Jill down."

Red flag. My own blundering about the observation decks - immaterial. We had made this far, and she was faltering. I struggled to think of something.

"You need to pray," I finally said. "Remember how you said we'd just be a little closer to heaven up here?"

She smiled faintly. "Yes. Yes, I should do that. When I don't get scared, it is heavenly." She closed her eyes, folded her hands and bowed her head to pray. I looked at her still form as her lips silently formed the supplication.

After she raised her head, her features were little more relaxed. "That's a lot better," she said, "but I still don't know if I can do this."

Her hands still trembled. I then suggested, "Look, maybe we could do something like the Space Game for you."

"What? You mean--uh--that game Jilly told me you used to play when you were little?"

"Yeah. I could help you do your own version of it. It's really relaxing. It's as if you move away from something that really scares you. When I was a kid, I'd play the game and move far back from in my mind away from things until I was no longer scared. It might help you with the height."

"Tell me how to do it."

"You close your eyes. If you're breathing fast or hard, you try to slow down. In your mind, you move away somewhere far from where you are. I like to use outer space. Where's a place you'd like to go?"

"I'd really like to go to Africa someday, you know, go on a safari."

"Okay, then," I said, looking into her eyes, "close your eyes and imagine you're moving far away from here." She closed her eyes and gripped my hands a little tighter.

"You go, away and away and away from New York, and off to Africa - away and away and away. To great grasslands - away and away and away. You see animals, grazing on the plain - away and away and away."

"Yes, I can see them." Her breathing began to get more even. "There's a big herd of wildebeests, and there's a bunch a zebras, too. And I can other antelopes, gazelles, and all that. There's a herd of elephants." She sighed and made a beatific smile.

"You're among the animals - away and away and away."

"And there's all those birds that hang around them, too, the ones that help keep the bugs off them."

"Away and away and away, flocks of birds among the herds..."

"It's beautiful. God really did a beautiful job making Africa."

I had closed my eyes, too, and was imagining outer space among the satellites. In memory of the Challenger, I had to put another shuttle out there. Just as an astronaut was coming out the cargo door at the top, Aunt Ellen spoke.

{To PART 11 of Persistence of Memory}