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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from BETWEEN THE LINES in PART 17}

"Yes, again. A visitor briefly passing through. Now, contrast yourself. You spend perhaps forty to forty-five hours a week in your office in the north tower." "Yes, that's right - about forty-five, sometimes fifty hours."

"You've been here a number of years, too, I suspect - I sense more than seven."

"Ten years - I joined Abel in 1991."

"So then your destiny has become intertwined with that of the Twin Towers. Your start date even indicates living through the '93 terrorist bombing."

"Oh, yes. That was a horrible winter day. I was trapped inside the building for almost four hours and had to breathe acrid smoke. I got out, though, and they fixed the WTC up as good as new, thank God."

"So then you come back willingly."

"I like my job. The towers are like a home away from home."

"Almost like a city; even has its own ZIP code - 10048."

"You know our ZIP - you're sharp."

"Maybe I know too much about the towers. I've read two books about them and dozens of Web sites. I've viewed hundreds of photos of them from an infinite number of angles. I've shot dozens of them myself with my digital camera.

"Let's compare the Twin Towers to a couple of trellises. You are a vine, one of 45,000 whose tendrils have become intertwined with those trellises. The WTC is a central part of your universe and your existence. I recall you have a daughter - I wouldn't be surprised if you've taken her to the office for Take Our Daughters to Work Day every April."

"Yes, I've done that. She likes to come and asks me every year if she can come back."

"Maybe you buy clothes at Express or Victoria's Secret or the Gap in the mall and stop to consider if your budget could handle a Coach purse. You might have hit the Warner Bros. store for an item for one of your kids. Maybe you've had a prescription filled at Duane Reade. You get papers and magazines from the newsstands on the concourse. I know you wear glasses, so perhaps you've had a prescription filled at the LensCrafters. Maybe you've gone to 5 World Trade to buy doughnuts and coffee at the Krispy Kreme, or entered the Borders eager to see the newest bestsellers. I can see you passing through the doors of Borders, marked with their little Port Authority WTC logos."
twin towers
"let's compare the twin towers to a couple of trellises..."

Beth stared at me. Her face looked shocked. In the silence, I could hear my pencil scraping the paper; it seemed to echo in my ears. I realized as my emotions emerged that the pencil strokes had become more rapid and even violent.

Beth finally said, "What are you, a mind reader? You practically described me to a T. Yes, I love the Borders, and come to think of it, there are little twin towers on the doors. I almost never noticed. How do you know all this?"

My hand worked furiously at the picture. "I read a lot and research things that I encounter. For 20 years I have been an outsider, watching other people's lives and learning about them. As a reporter I was always there as witness and not participant. I saw the details that others missed. As a consultant, I slip quietly in and out of individuals' lives, carrying away my impressions of them and their existences. That was what happened with you. I could see into you, Beth - something just short of a Vulcan mind meld."

"I know what that is. My brother's a big Trekker. I feel like you've done a mind meld, though. I feel so - opened up."

"Sorry if it seems I've laid you bare. It's just I see the diametric opposites - the brief visitor and the resident of the World Trade Center. The out-of-town consultant and the regular commuter. I come from Detroit with three decades of emotional baggage. You come from Hoboken with your own emotional configuration and that being at the WTC was part of your destiny."

Beth was silent. She rubbed her forehead and sighed as she searched for words. "It did feel that way, from an early age. But you - you must feel destiny, too. At some point you must have sensed you were to become a consultant."

"You're right. At another point in my life, I was destined to go to New York. My cousin lived here, and she died here. That became her destiny."

"Died? But how--?"

"In 1986, she jumped into the path of a train at Penn Station in Newark."

"Oh, my lord. That's terrible. I'm sorry."

"It's all right. My family thought she'd become severely depressed and lonely. Three months before she jumped, her boyfriend dumped her - at Windows on the World, of all places! Her father died of cancer a month before that. The strange thing was her last request in her suicide note - she wanted to be cremated, and her ashes scattered from the WTC's rooftop observation deck."

Beth gasped. "Wow. She must have had a real bond with the towers."

"She did. Some people do. My aunt summoned me to New York to help her. She was obsessed with fulfilling Jill's last wish; she'd always been very devoted to her kids. I came, and we secretly scattered the ashes. There I was, back again, conducting the oddest funeral ritual I had ever attended in my life, one-quarter mile in the air."

"I understand now how you could 30 years of baggage about the WTC. To me it's where I work. But to you, it's been a place of fear and funerals."

"Maybe now you understand now why I had to leave. Two cousins and I have had ties to the towers. Last April, it was like all of the ghosts came out. From age 8, when I first saw the towers on TV, to my night with you in that lofty bar. There were over 30 years between those points. It hits me hard sometimes. I can't understand why I, a Detroiter, am so fated to keep having contact with New York skyscrapers. And not just any skyscrapers, but big-time landmarks, the tallest in the city, and symbols of that city! Why are they in my destiny?"

Beth shrugged. "God's will? Who knows? But obviously, the Twin Towers are a strong part of your destiny, and they might always be."

"It's certainly become that way." I stopped drawing a second and threw up my hands.

"But is that really that bad? They're part of my destiny, too, as you point out. I vaguely remember hearing about the opening ceremony for the WTC in 1973. I was 8 years old. About three years later we went to the observation deck on a field trip, and something odd happened to me, too. I got this feeling that someday I'd work here, and - well, you know it happened."

"Oh, the joys of karma. Your ties are even stronger than mine. Someday when you're older and collecting your pension and Social Security, you'll look across the Hudson at those towers and remember how you were part of their history, and you were part of theirs. Like my late cousin would say, it's become part of your mind and your blood."

"An eloquent way of putting it. You've really gotten me thinking here - the towers are in my blood."

"They must be - you've got ten years in them."

"Right. So-umm-how long are here in town this time?"

"Till the 11th. My flight to Tennessee leaves in the early evening."

"Another client?"

"Yep, part of the endless stream of them, all across the continent."

"Sounds like you're very busy."

"I normally am. The picture's done now, if you'd like to see it."

I added a couple more lines to the portrait, which showed Beth seated and face looking rapt, left hand curled around her drink glass. The tall windows and some of the bar were visible behind her. I labeled and dated the illustration. The picture was actually the second I made of Beth. The former was for my own records. I handed her the pad.

Beth gasped. "Wow, this is great! It looks just like me. How'd you do this so fast?"

"One of my art teachers back in college introduced me to the concept of speed drawing. You learn to look at things and freeze their image in your mind at a glance and then begin to lay the lines down on the paper, so that in a few minutes you have a strong impression of the object or landscape before you. I've been able to capture many things this way."

"Well, Joanie, you captured me." She studied the portrait closely. "Can you sign it? I noticed you didn't."

"Oh, sure. Sorry. I normally don't draw stuff for people and don't put my name on my pictures, usually just the location and date." I took the pad back and neatly wrote my name in the lower right hand corner and gently pulled the sheet out of the sketchpad for her. "There you go - a Joanetta C. Bailey original. Enjoy."

"Thank you so much, Joanie. I'll treasure this. You're a gifted artist."

"Thanks." I felt my face flush.

Beth sighed and stared out the window. "I love the views from up here. I hope I never lose the chance to see them."

She had a tiny smile, with her lips tightly closed, as she had in the first portrait I made of her. At times she gazed out the window while she spoke, and this is one pose I also captured.

When I think of what she said, the irony is never lost on me about how she hoped she'd never lose the chance to see the views over Manhattan. On September 11, 2001, she saw those views for the last time. Only she wasn't enjoying the scenery. She, like many others, stood in Windows on the World's administrative offices, her head and shoulders out an open frame where the window had been broken out. She and the others were trying to escape the heavy, choking smoke and desperately looking for a rescue crew that would never materialize.

On September 13, four days after I did her portrait, Bethany Carlisle's family was still looking for her. They, like hundreds of other family members, posted flyers all over the borough's southern tip with her photo and physical description.

Beth's remains were never recovered. However, the police gave her mother a gold, heart-shaped locket with a rose etched into it that she positively identified as a gift she presented to Beth when she was 10 years old. It was engraved, "To Beth, my Little Rose, Love, Momma. 1975." The locket and chain had been recovered from debris carefully sifted at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island around November 2001.

Beth looked at her watch. "Oh, I've got to get going. I'm meeting a friend for dinner at Windows." "Nice choice. I came from Wild Blue. I had a great steak dinner there."

"The restaurants up here are the best. My friend lives in Boston now, but we went to high school together. Have fun, Joanie."

"Thanks. You too."

"And don't let the towers bother you too much this time. I hope your clock for staying here doesn't run out this time. How's it holding up?"

"I don't even feel as if the clock's running right now. My coach won't turn into a pumpkin any time soon."

"Well, good. Because how you will you get home from the ball?"

I smiled at her and laughed. "Right. After the business ball, I do have to get to Tennessee. It's a one-way coach in the sky to the Volunteer State."

"Yes. Well it's been fun talking with you, Joanie Bailey. You're a unique individual and a great artist. And once again, thank you for this beautiful picture."

"Anytime, Beth. Good night."

"Good night, Joanie. I hope that your latest visit to the Trade Center will be the best."

"Maybe it will be. Who knows? It could be the most memorable of all. Enjoy your dinner."

She waved and smiled at me before walking away. She left me there with a nearly finished drink and pages full of smiling folks and a bar that looked as if it were launching wooden missiles at intervals around the room. The light from the great windows was getting dim. I put my pad away and asked the waitress to bring me a glass of merlot. I sat and sipped this, aimlessly watching the sunset.

I found I was humming "Livin' La Vida Loca" at one point and stopped. It reminded me again of that crazy April evening and my love-hate affair with the complex. I tried to block it out, my adult version of "away and away and away." I realized that I was trying to suspend myself outside time and place again, putting myself thousands of miles away from the twins.

I put my hand on the window as the sky turned to twilight. Where was I, anyway? I had watched way too much science fiction shows in my life and sometimes wondered about alternate realities or parallel universes. Things boiled up and became surrealistic in my own life. I rubbed or blinked my eyes sometimes to determine if I really were absorbing reality. I got mixed up and funny about certain things. The WTC was on the list of those items that caused this reaction.

I picked up a stray book of matches a patron had left on the table. The logo had a smiling moon and with blue, yellow, and white lettering on a red background: GREATEST BAR ON EARTH.

Eeesh, I said. So I am here, truly within a tower, sitting down within its spaces and bathed in its vibes. Again I spoke of the place to Beth as if I were far away, yet I was right there the whole time - and still am. This is how I protect my psyche, I am guessing. I'm not scared, just amazed that this is the true reality, a screwball destiny.

I drained my wine glass and thought it was a good time to physically go away and away. I don't know what I was thinking, but I picked up the matchbox and stuffed it into my jacket pocket.

I finally went back to my room - this time using the corridor from the lobby to the hotel. I set up my travel clock, a tick-tock timepiece I called the "Clangor Alarm" because it was like a reverberating bell when it went off. I opened up a novel to read for a short time - Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, appropriately set in New York.

I was set to wake up at 5 a.m. on Monday, September 10. Another day and another client.

As for whether this would be my most memorable trip of all to the WTC, well, it goes without saying.

SEPTEMBER 10, 2001 / MEMORIES & PARALLELS

The prelude to the most harrowing and frightening day in my two score years did not begin that way. Up until 8:46 a.m. on September 11, it was so mundane, and progressed to farcical and insipid, that my mind was never prepared for the morning of the jets, and their aftermath. No one was. History remembers Americans as buoyant and distracted at the turn of the 21st century, engrossed in endless media diversions and disinterested in the world stage.

What made the contrast so sharp-edged for me was the beginning, the full-blown encounter with the people of North East Investments. These people turned out to be a dysfunctional family dwelling within a circus hundreds of feet aloft.

September 10 began as it often did on weekdays on the road or at home. The Clangor Alarm brought me to consciousness at 5 a.m. I threw on workout clothing to do my sunrise exercises. If whatever hotel I was staying in didn't have a gym, I ran around outside in the property and did calisthenics in my room. Fortunately, the Marriott did have facilities on the top two floors, labeled an "executive club," and also open to hotel guests. I did some time on the treadmill and on the resistance machines before returning to my room.

I showered and dressed, putting up my tresses in a bun held in place by two hair sticks. I went to the south tower lobby, where I stood in line for the security desk. One of the guards called upstairs to North East to verify my appointment. After that he photographed me and instantly produced a guest badge that I was told to wear for the entire day. With that, I was permitted to go to the elevators.

From 1996 I knew the drill with the sky lobbies. The guard also explained and pointed out the proper lift for me to get to the 44th floor lobby. He added that there would be a staff person there if I needed further assistance.

As the elevator went up, I wished that I were the only person inside so I could press my ear to the car's wall and listen to its motor. I had done this with buildings going back to childhood. I loved touching the many textures inside and outside of buildings, and putting my ears on their walls to hear their sounds and feel their sensations. That had made my mother uneasy. She would urge me to "act normal, for Pete's sake."

I transferred to another elevator to reach the 78th floor and muttered to myself, "Now go from the 1 line to the A line and get totally lost, dear tourist." I had studied a New York subway map, and these were the only rail line designations I could remember.

I reached the 78th floor lobby and decided I had had enough of Musical Elevators, as I dubbed it. I searched for stairs and decided to hoof it for the final seven floors. "Let's see. A, B or C. Which one to take?" I said. I wandered back to the door marked A. "A is for Apple, J is for Jacks. Why not?"

I went inside and started to sprint upstairs. I loudly launched into the full jingle. I don't even know why I sang this, as I really didn't like Apple Jacks as a kid. My favorite Kellogg's cereals had been Froot Loops and Rice Krispies. I just liked the upbeat song, I guess.

A is for Apple
J is for Jacks
Cinnamon crunchy Apple Jacks
You need a good breakfast, that's a fact
Start it out with Apple Jacks
Apple Jacks, Apple Jacks
Vitamins and minerals, that's what it packs
Cinnamon toasty, crunchy, too
Kellogg's Apple Jacks!

After that song ran out, I had four more floors to go, so I sang a Beatles fragment. And immediately after, a little bit of "Everything She Does is Magic" by the Police, one of my most favorite groups in college.

{To PART 19 of Persistence of Memory}