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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 11}

MARCH 1996 / TEN YEARS AFTER

I was in a mood for murder - figuratively speaking. Oliver Brandt's harassment and my lack of mobility within the Sentinel made me seethe. I was ready to lash out if the wrong words were spoken or the improper gestures were made.

Maria Lantieri, my former stringer who stole my job from me, dumped more event calendars into my workload, at Oliver's request. She created a nightclub list. On day in late February 1996, she came to my desk one day and set a pile of faxes and flyers upon it. "Oliver wants you to do these listings now. Can you handle this, Joanie?"

I wanted to deck this gal across the room. I wanted her nose to explode in blood and leak down the front of her Calvin Klein Jeans T-shirt (it was casual Friday). I wanted an eagle to descend from the sky and tear out her deep brown eyes. I wanted her in a full body cast after being plastered by a SMART bus turning off 11 Mile Road into the terminal in downtown Royal Oak.

"Yes, I can do this, Maria," I said softly. "Just pile it on."

Maria shrugged without a word, turned and walked away.

"This really sucks," I muttered. "I need a vacation."

I had been at the Sentinel for nearly eight years at the time, so I had become eligible for four weeks of vacation every year.

I drove home in my Taurus, with the radio playing Elvis Costello so loudly that the doors vibrated. I stomped into the house, dropped my leather briefcase and purse off in the family room, and stopped to hug Christa. She was nearly 5 years old. Naomi, I knew, had cloistered herself in the den and was on the Internet.

"Joanie!" Michael said. "Welcome home, honey."

"Thanks," I said.

"Your Aunt Ellen called today. She wants you to call her back."

"She hasn't phoned in a while. I wonder what's up."

"She probably just wants to talk. My aunt's the same way."

"Well, I'll call her back after dinner."

I made chili that night and went overboard with the chili powder and cayenne pepper. Naomi and Christa whined about the heat level, while Michael shouted, "Wooo, my mouth's on fire. My compliments to the chef!"

With the dishwasher humming in the background, I called Aunt Ellen's house in Troy.

"Joanie! So lovely to hear from you. How are you, dear?" she said.

"All right, I guess. How are you doing?"

"I'm doing great. How are Michael and the kids?"

"They're doing well. Naomi made the honor roll this marking period. Christa's doing very well in preschool. Michael just got a small raise."

"I'm happy to hear that. I've got something to tell you now."

"What's up?"

"Well, we have an anniversary coming up, you know."

"Anniversary? Whose?"

"Not a 'who,' but a 'what,' Joanie. An anniversary of an event."

"Hmmm..."

"Coming up in March, Joanie. Think. You've got to remember it."

"March, uh, let's see now. March..."

"Joanie, come on now. You were with me."

I actually smacked my forehead. "Oh, yeah! Jill. Ten years ago. I helped you release Jill's ashes."

"Right, Joanie, you're absolutely right. Ten years ago on March 7."

"Ten years. Wow. I can't believe it's been that long."

"Well, you know time, Joanie - it waits for no one."

"Right. So, how are you going mark the anniversary?"

"Well, dear, we're going to New York next month."

"What? Did you just say 'we'?"

"Yes, 'we.' You and me. I've got all the reservations made, and the flights booked."

"What? You went and made travel arrangements without even asking me?"

"I'm asking you now, Joanie. I wanted it to be a surprise."

"It's a surprise, all right. Out of the clear blue sky, like Mom would say. New York? Good grief!"

I had not thought of the Big Apple in years. It had receded so much from my conscious - after those three trips in my 20s - that any passion or opinion over the city also had vanished. There was the brief time after the '93 WTC bombing, but it slipped away rapidly after that. Now I felt as if Manhattan were looming over me, all of its spires climbing overhead and staring down on my miniscule form.

"Aunt Ellen," I said, "you shouldn't have made this a surprise. My union contract requires that I submit all vacation requests to my boss by January 30. It basically means my schedules are set in stone for the year. I don't know if I could just juggle my dates around to go dancing off to New York--"

"Do what you have to do, Joanie. Be ready to leave on March 5. We return to the World Trade Center on March 7. Ten years to the day, you know."

I groaned. "I'll see what I can do."

I wrapped up the conversation and hung up. "World Trade Center, good grief," I said softly to myself.

Michael was staring at me when I turned from the kitchen wall phone. "Did I hear you say she wants you to go to New York?" I nodded. He added, "She expects you to just drop everything and run off with her there."

"Yeah," I said, sighing. "Do you remember the trip I made in '86, when Naomi was just a baby?"

"Of course - the ashes."

"Ten years after. She wants me to come with her alone to the city to mark the anniversary."

"Without putting my foot too deeply in my mouth, I think you aunt's a little crazy sometimes."

"Look, I agree with you - I won't get all upset and say don't insult my family, in this case." I imitated Aunt Ellen's high voice: " 'C'mon, dear, off to the Big Apple!' Jeez, I was just talking to myself about needing a vacation, but New York didn't enter my head."

"And without me or the girls, either. That's what your aunt has in mind, isn't it?"

"Probably, because in '86 we were alone."

A couple weeks later, late in the afternoon of Thursday, March 7, 1996, I found myself in the place I had previously compared to a barrel of rotten fish and a mausoleum. My mood was acrimonious, because of my job. I really had no desire to be in New York in 1996 at the age of nearly 34. I was happy to be cocooned in my Detroit existence and forget the rest of the nation.

Aunt Ellen and I were in a long line for the observation deck in 2 World Trade Center. We stood apart about a foot. She was studying the lobby, as she had a decade earlier. I was reading a book - Two Seconds Under the World.

We had first gotten an Internet connection at our house in 1994. Before leaving on the trip, I had looked up information on New York City, and more specifically, the WTC. This was when I learned it was a project of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, conceived very close to my own birthdate. First mentions of a "trade center" dated to about 1961, and finally formally approved the same year I was born, 1962. I discovered that two brothers and oil heirs - Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, and his brother, David, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank - were the development's champions.

My stomach turned as I read about how they declared that Lower Manhattan was "blighted" and proceeded to destroy a thriving small business district called Radio Row because of its many stores that sold appliances and replacement parts. I smiled with pleasure at a photo of a phony funeral the merchants conducted with a mannequin in a coffin, labeled "Mr. Small Businessman." He had been "killed" by the Rockefellers and the Port Authority.

I glared at online photographs of the towers. I felt the old loathing toward the twins from my college years return. I decided to give those paired dragons names - after the Rockefeller siblings. I remembered Nelson Rockefeller as a bigmouth who flipped the bird once at some congressmen at a hearing in the 1970s, so I named the north tower with its 360-foot antenna after him. It was the idea that the antenna represented loud communications to the NYC area. The south tower seemed a little more demure, more behind the scenes as a banker like David might be; thus it took this name. I later learned I wasn't the first person to name the towers after the siblings.

Aunt Ellen was not oblivious to my rancor, so she tried to ignore it. She was excited to return to Gotham. Deep down, too, she dreamed of reconciling with Rocky, who, she reminded me, was a bond trader on the 104th floor of 1 World Trade Center. The news of such a height made me even more disgusted. "How lovely for the Lehmans" was all I said.

She had booked two coach class seats on a jet bound for JFK. The Northwest jet took off, with me silent and sullen, and my aunt chatting cheerily and regaling me with memories of her "Jilly's" life. We had a beautiful hotel room, except for one thing - the Millennium Hilton was across the street from the WTC complex, and you could see right into the Tobin Plaza. Bleagh!

The sky was overcast, and the winds cutting on March 7 when we went to the Twin Towers. In the morning, Aunt Ellen had dragged me on a walking tour of Lower Manhattan conducted by a tourist company. She had become quite the photographer since taking possession of Jill's old camera equipment. It was part of the changes in her life after Uncle Tim died - not exactly a Merry Widow, but more of a sense of adventure. She took a cruise to Europe in 1992. By 1994, for instance, she finally went on the African safari she had always dreamed about. She had taken enrichment classes in everything from photography to oil painting. She longed to dote on her two grandchildren in Long Island - if only Rocky would relent.

After our walking tour, my aunt then towed me to Century 21. The first time I heard this name, I asked her if she were going to buy a house in New York. She laughed and told me it was a department store and not the real estate company. It stands near the WTC property and sells discounted designer clothing. My money was tight, so I bought nothing. Aunt Ellen walked out with an Armani jacket and an Anne Klein pantsuit.

After we went into the south tower's lobby and bought our observation deck tickets, we were directed to stand in front of this silly mural of the buildings with "TOP OF THE WORD TRADE CENTER" redundantly added to it. I frowned, holding my book; Aunt Ellen grinned. They handed us a little paper with a number printed on it and told us to present up in the observatory. I figured they took a photo of us that they planned to turn around and sell back to us for an exorbitant fee, much like the Santa Claus stations at shopping malls do every year.

I did not care if reading a book about the 1993 attack hurt Aunt Ellen or any of the other tourists, for that matter. For this was what Two Seconds Under the World was. The book had a bloody looking sky behind silhouettes of the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings, along with the words "Terror Comes to America" in scarlet letters above this graphic.

"Joanie, dear, looks like the line is moving. We'll be on the elevator soon," Aunt Ellen said.

"Yippee for us," I said. I flipped a page and continued reading.

"Come on now, Joanie, don't be so bitter. I know your career's not going in the direction it should. Your mother told me."

"Why does Mom have to blab to you so much about things?"

"Because she loves you, and I love you. Just because a child grows up doesn't mean a mother stops being a mother to them."

"Uh huh, true."

"A mother feels like there's a void in her life if she can't reach out to her children. She feels isolated and so lonely. You should appreciate my sister's devotion to you."

My aunt stared ruefully out the arched windows. I knew her last remarks were more about her and Rocky than anything. We moved forward a bit more on the mezzanine. The tourist line snaked among pole-and-rope cordons. It reminded me of being in line at Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers. I closed my book and stepped so that I was right next to her.

"My mother only tells me to just accept my life as it is, and that my suffering will eventually end. That's been her advice to me for 20 years."

"You know life is not a picnic all the time, and she's right. You will get through it and on to better things. You always have, Joanie. Look at your beautiful daughters and your loving husband. Your home is cozy and perfect. You have more going for you than you think."

"The only thing left is get another job, but I can't find a place. No PR firm will hire me, and the Detroit papers are out because of the strike. It's so frustrating."

"Remember to include God in your plans, too, dear. Say a prayer to Him for help in your career. In His time, He'll help you move on."

"Thanks."

"No problem."

We fell silent again. I reopened the book and continued to explore the conspiracy of New Jersey men who tried to bring the towers down. I turned so that I was facing away from the windows and pointed toward the marble wall.

Aunt Ellen gasped.

I spun and looked at her, about to ask her what was wrong. What I saw caused me to nearly drop my book.

Rocky had quietly come up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She had turned and looked at him, freezing in shock. He smiled and whispered something into her ear. Later I learned it was "Mom, I'm sorry. I love you so much. What you did for Jill is what she wanted. You always wanted that for us."

They embraced tightly, their bodies rocking slightly. Rocky patted his mother on the back, and she began to weep. "Oh, Rocky, Rocky. I love you, too. Thank you, son, thank you so much."

My cousin had pale skin like his mother, and black hair and a goatee like his father. He also had inherited Uncle Tim's powerful physique, which bulged under his navy blazer and white shirt, open at the neck.

After they separated, Rocky greeted me. I waved shyly and peered over the pages of my book. My aunt said, "How - how did you know we would be here today?"

"Because of the date, and because Aunt Mary told me last week when she called to wish me a happy birthday." Aunt Mary was my mom. "I've been staking out the lobby, keeping an eye out for you two. I knew you'd be coming in the afternoon, because that was when you came ten years ago."

"I'm so glad to have you here, Rocky."

"I wouldn't miss it." He looked at me. "Strange, though, the selection of reading material Joanie's chosen to bring along today."

"I hadn't really paid attention to it; she's always reading something. What is your book, Joanie?"

Rocky said, "It's about the 1993 terrorist attack against the World Trade Center. That day it took me over three hours to get out of the building."

"That bombing had me on edge all day for you, Rocky," my aunt said.

"We were just happy to get out." He turned back to me. "I suppose by reading that particular book, you're trying to make a statement here, cousin?"

"I'm not a very happy camper right now, if that's what you mean. My career sucks, and I'm not exactly thrilled to be here."

"Oh," he said. "I remember that. Jill always told me you hated the Trade Center. When I heard you went up to the deck with Mom back in '86, I was more than a little shocked. I was also shocked when I found out you got Mom to go to the edge without a blindfold."

"If you face death, you can face almost anything, Rocky," my aunt said. "Tim and Jilly died within four months of each other. A fear of heights didn't matter anymore, and it certainly doesn't matter now."

"Well, you're right on one account - I do not like the Trade Center," I said. "Beautiful views from the observation deck, but the towers themselves are too plain and way too gigantic. Not the place at the top of my list for a New York vacation."

"Hey, I like that simplicity. It's a pleasure to work here. Jill was right when she wrote to me and said that feature is what made makes them stand out. That, of course, and their height. By the way, are you still afraid of heights?"

"Sometimes," I said. I closed the book and tucked it into a shoulder bag I was carrying. "When Michael and I went to Toronto last year, I had a very hard time with the CN Tower."

One of the attendants called for the line to move toward the express elevator. Rocky walked with us. "I have a ticket. I'm going up with you two." He pulled it out and showed us.

For the fourth time in my life, I was jammed into that great box that zoomed to the 107th floor in just over one minute. My ears popped repeatedly, and I gritted my teeth during the ascent. The motor hummed softly as the lift glided in its shaft. As I had in 1982, I stared at the numbers climbing skyward, jumping into the triple digits.

After we stepped out and went into the enclosed deck area, I noticed that the place had undergone a total remodeling since my last visit. The "History of World Trade" exhibit had been supplanted by a multimedia-enhanced presentation on New York City and its history. There was a Sbarro's Pizza stand. The deck had truly entered the computer age, as it now had terminals that allowed you to send e-mails and look up information in multiple languages. I admitted that its formerly loud, touristy look had been softened.

Rocky escorted his mother about the deck, arm in arm with her. They talked all the while in their drive to catch up. I followed them around for a short time. They went to a window seat on the east side and sat down. I listened to them quietly conversing and catching up on ten years of life.
World Financial Center
i looked down ... and saw the completed world financial center

I myself did not feel sick, faint, or any of those old feelings related to my acrophobia. I was angry. I did find that walking around began to mitigate my rage. A slight melancholia replaced it as I grappled with loneliness. I envisioned Michael at his office, and my daughters in their classrooms. Aunt Ellen and Rocky were in their own world and had drifted away from me.

I strolled to the west, not interested in taking photographs or drawing in my artist's pad. I felt as if Jill were a presence at the decks, a benevolent spirit grateful that her family had come to visit. I sat down in one of the window seats myself and rested my arms upon the railing-like rod that ran along next to the window. I stared out over the Hudson and watched the waves scudding along its surface. I gazed at the Jersey shore until it blurred into smudged earth tones and grays. I looked down - I didn't feel bothered - and saw the completed World Financial Center for the first time. I saw a curved, all-glass structure in the center and wondered what it was. This was the Winter Garden, whose arcing roof looked like a round diamond against a sandy background.

I hated my life at that moment. I hated that Jill had jumped in front of the PATH train and I could never hang out with her again. I hated the withering of my career and Oliver Brandt's oppressiveness and the lack of a good salary. I hated the way no one ever talked to each other in my subdivision and the way weeds choked out my perennials and how Naomi refused to apply herself in school. I hated being isolated and stumpy in size, and having freckled, pale skin and washed-out blue eyes. Those eyes felt warm, and I realized I was shedding tears.

"Joanie, there you are," Aunt Ellen said from behind me. I turned and looked at her and Rocky. "We're going up to the roof now."

I nodded silently and got up, fumbling a bit, and followed them to the escalators. I took a paper tissue out of my bag and dabbed at the tears. I prepared for the stiff breezes.

On the roof, Aunt Ellen led us to the west side, where she guessed approximately where we released the ashes. I saw she had truly licked her acrophobia, because she strode confidently about, Rocky close at her side.

"We are here to honor the memory of Jill Marie Lehman, once a resident of this great city," she said. "At this point, ten years ago to this day, Joanetta Bailey and I honored her memory and her last request for her earthly remains to be released from this place near the sky. We have returned because Jill had the heart of a lion and the passion of an artist. She was a loving daughter who left us all too early."

"Jill, I remember you, and I still love you," Rocky said. "I know you're somewhere out there and hope you can hear me that I miss you and hope I can see you someday when I pass on. You're the best sister a guy could ever have."

My aunt led us in the Lord's Prayer with Rocky, their arms around each other again.

"Joanie, do you want to say something?" Ellen asked me.

"Well-uh-I don't know what to say."

"Oh, but you're a writer! Think of something." I stood for perhaps half a minute, my thoughts muddled. I struggled to think of a speech or appropriate tribute. What came out was: "Jill, I miss you and love you. The sunset in '84 was beautiful up here."

This then flowed out of me:

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

"Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

"Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

"God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her right early.

"The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

"The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

"Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has wrought desolations in the earth.

"He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, he burns the chariots with fire!

" 'Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!'

"The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."

When I was done, Aunt Ellen was silently weeping. Rocky looked moist-eyed as well. "Beautiful," my aunt said. "Psalm 46! You said that so beautifully."

"I went to Lutheran school up through sixth grade. I remember my teacher made me memorize the psalm in fifth grade, and I--" I choked on tears myself. "I've never forgotten it."

I started to cry full tilt and covered my face. I dropped my head until it was resting upon my arms, which were folded on the railing. I was sobbing pretty hard and wanted no one to see my face. Aunt Ellen put her arm around me and said, "There, there," as if I were a preschooler again.

I cried for Jill and her potential that she snuffed a decade before. I wanted no one to forget Jill, ever. I cried for my own life and the void left when she died, and for my faltering career. I no longer felt angry or desirous of seeing grave injury inflicted on anyone I perceived as an adversary.

I stood up and wiped the tears from my eyes. Aunt Ellen gave me a tissue to clean my face off. Rocky patted me on the shoulder and said, "I miss her, too." Aunt Ellen took pictures of us standing by the railing. I took a few of mother and son together. I didn't feel like smiling in the photos in which I was a subject. I felt so exhausted. I wanted to go back to the hotel and burrow under the blankets and hide from the whole blasted world.

It was not to be. We went back to the enclosed deck, where Aunt Ellen went to a counter and redeemed the number that had been given to us after being photographed in front of the mural. We were offered a couple pictures of her beaming and me glowering. Rocky paid for the things, which I did not care to view.

Rocky said, "Now that we're done here, I want to take you two over to see my office."

"Oh, when does it end?" I muttered as I followed them off the roof.

{To PART 13 of Persistence of Memory}