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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from MEMORIES & PARALLELS in PART 18}

When I reached the door marked "84," I thought about the silliness of loudly singing inside one of the world's tallest buildings. Somehow, though, it seemed the right thing, because it relaxed me for my visit.

The office of North East Investments, Inc., had a view of the north tower. You could see what looked like a huge slab etched in infinite parallel lines. The first day was the get-acquainted ritual, in which I was teamed with three supervisors. The office decor was shabby. You wouldn't know it was in the WTC until you did peer out the windows. It was crowded with worn cubicle walls and furniture that looked rescued from trash bins or an office thrift store. Even the three walled-off window offices had crookedly-hung pictures, banged-up file cabinets and scratched desks, piled with wide computer printouts and reams of white paper. In one of them, a tall, muscular man sat, entranced by a sporting event on a TV.

Fluorescent lights glared down from rectangular fixtures and alternated with sprinkler heads in the drop ceiling. The computers were about the only decent and new-looking items in the suite.

There were framed scenes of the Big Apple on the walls, intermixed with a ludicrous thing I have seen in numerous other workplaces: photographs of sunsets, flocks of birds, or meadows along with positive slogans about human potential. Example: COURAGE - the ability to stand by one's values and the strength to follow through on them.

One manager, a female named Cheung, told me that the company had barely survived the dot-com meltdown of 2000. By now I was used to having anxious executives divulge things to me, possibly due to my vow of confidentiality and because I was not a permanent denizen of their offices.

The first thing I did was to present an overview of the ISO 9001 quality system. I walked around their office, the three managers following me, while I inspected their paperwork afterwards. There was the aforementioned Cheung, who had a short haircut and a figure threatening to go chubby. Maynard was a lanky black man with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and dark Armani suits. Di Lorenzo was a mercurial man in shirtsleeves and multi-colored suspenders who rocked back and forth on his feet whenever he was standing. He was only a couple inches taller than me, which always jarred me, because I'm short and find short guys even harder to take.

There was a fourth man, a burly fellow with a sandy goatee that everyone called Jeremy the Linebacker, because that was the position he played in his days at Clemson University in Georgia. I didn't learn his last name, Leidecker, until the following spring. This was the man I saw in the window office watching television.

Di Lorenzo informed me that Jeremy was psycho and on some kind of "meds" to control his illness. Some people were afraid of him. North East's owner wouldn't fire Jeremy, because the company's balance sheet was shaky and couldn't take a wrongful discharge lawsuit from the Linebacker. Di Lorenzo whispered that I should watch my back - Jeremy had objected to bringing in a quality consultant, and that one would be a waste of money. When I first arrived, Jeremy wouldn't even look at me.

This investment firm had started a quality assurance program. One of our New York sales reps had convinced North East they needed a professional firm's help to create a quality system. As I did my inspection, I was appalled. Their documentation was sloppily dumped into file cabinets or chaotically sorted among different computers. I felt like saying that it looked as if a bomb had gone off in their paperwork, a frequent comment to my daughters when their rooms got too messy. However, I thought of the 1993 incident and instead said, "Your files are going to need a lot of work."

We met inside the boardroom, around a fake oak wood grain table and burgundy leather chairs that creaked and groaned when you sat in them. The table was wobbly, so someone had shoved several yellowed copies of The Wall Street Journal under one of the legs to shore it up. They gave me coffee, bitter and overly strong, and served in a cracked mug that said "World's Greatest Golfer." I didn't play the sport. A couple huge flies buzzed around the room and refused to land, mostly because a couple of the managers kept swiping at them. I wondered how the hell these insects had gotten 84 floors up just so they could annoy us.

I presented the audit findings, including the nonconformities I had found, as well as recommendations for fixing them. Di Lorenzo tapped a Parker pen on the table continually as I spoke. He must have had allergies, because he kept blowing his nose. Maynard fiddled around with his glasses and hummed. Both of them kept interrupting and asking me questions. Cheung stopped me a couple times to ask if they really would, for sure, like, get registered to ISO 9001.

I discussed the shortcomings in their documentation and how the executives could organize their files better. I talked about how I would return to train them in the standard. The flies hummed close to our heads repeatedly attempted to land on our coffee cups and hands. Cheung kept clearing her throat and hissing as she breathed.

Jeremy the Linebacker kept making furtive glimpses through the little window by the conference room's door. He peered at me with murderous eyes, and at one point drew his index finger across his throat while staring at me. These people were starting to drive me crazy. Think Smoky Mountains, think beautiful Tennessee, I thought. Just one and a half more days and you'll be leaving on a jet plane.

We broke for lunch. Maynard started singing an opera aria, and I had to struggle not to start laughing. Cheung, Di Lorenzo, and Maynard told me about vendors with good cheap food down in the plaza. They also said they needed to get out and have a cigarette. I told them about Jeremy while we rode down in the elevator from the 44th floor lobby.

"Oh, just ignore the jerk," Cheung said. "His bark's worse than his bite."

I accompanied them to terra firma and went for a hot dog, fries, and pop. After the stuffy conference room and those weirdos, I wanted the open air, and I badly desired that junky lunch. I did not want to eat with the clients and told them I would meet them back upstairs at 12:30.

I sat in the plaza at a table and ate while reading The Fountainhead. I blocked out all surrounding structures, voices, and ambient sounds, concentrating deeply on the obstacles that stymied architect Howard Roark as he tried to win converts to his unique building designs. There was too much late summer racket to suspend myself out of place and time, but at least I got 20 minutes to read and "decompress," as I call it, from the client's oddities.

When I returned to the office and entered the conference room, the managers were trying to get rid of the flies again. They turned and greeted me. "Get me an old magazine," I said. "I'll take care of your fly problem."

I was confident of my bug skills, dating to childhood. They found me a back issue of Forbes, which I rolled up. I took off my jacket, and one by one knocked the flies out of the air with it and then smashed them with the magazine. The managers stared intently at me while I did this. "Thank you, ace!" Di Lorenzo said.

"You're welcome. Now, let's get back to work," I said.

"Yes, let's," Cheung said.

I spent until 4:30 p.m. with these people, with Di Lorenzo tapping his pen and blowing his nose, Maynard humming, and Cheung clearing her throat. At least the flies were gone. The Linebacker showed up at the window only once, this time holding up some twine that he had fashioned into a hangman's noose. Where did one find twine in the World Trade Center, I wondered. Did the subterranean mall stock it?

Cheung sneezed and accidentally kicked the newspapers out from under the wobbly table leg, which meant my laptop computer almost slid onto the floor. Maynard and I caught it before it met its doom.

When I was done, Di Lorenzo insisted we all clink our mugs together and say "cheers" because the day was done. I thought, Cheers! To just one more day with these screwballs!

I wasn't sure why I had to end up with eccentric people. About every fifteen clients or so, I landed in a true loony bin and had to struggle to be professional. I wasn't really in the mood to deal with them, because I was still trying to overcome the malaise from the week before, which had started with Labor Day. From 4:30 until 6:30 I sat in an empty cubicle by the window working on a summary of the day's discussions and recommendations.

It reminded me of the office by the window where I had waited for Rocky and Aunt Ellen in his office in 1996. The north tower lingered in my peripheral vision until I closed the shade; I found the behemoth distracting and too much a magnet for my three decades of memories. Thinking of Rocky reminded me to call his office and see if he was still on the 87th floor.

At 6:30 the office was deserted except for Maynard. He was making phone calls to prospective and previous customers. I went into the conference room with a bottle of spring water and stared out at the north tower. I now felt ready to deal with it.

The sky was getting dim, since autumn was on its way, and the days were getting shorter. As a joke, I pressed my face to the glass and tried to see the top of WTC 1. I turned my head upside down and looked again, this time getting a fuzzy image of the tower's summit and its antenna. I could feel a pain in my eyes as they strained to focus.

"The view gets them every time," Maynard said behind me.

Embarrassed, I snapped around and stood up straight. He stood by the crooked table and smiled. "Umm--yeah," I said. "You do have an exceptional view here."

"The president doesn't regret renting here. He got some deal from the Port Authority," Maynard said. "This address impresses our clients. It helps some of us sell harder and more often."

"I've had people tell me of the prestige of a WTC address, and the inspirations that great heights bring to people. My cousin was that way." I gathered the paperwork together and placed it inside my desk folder. I slid my laptop and the folder into my backpack and zipped it up. "I've found that nearly every big city has observation decks somewhere."

"The one on this tower is great. I like to take my friends and family from out of town up there." He smiled.

"I guess it's a way to show people the sights. I formerly had a fear of heights. I can at least take the views now without freaking."

We stood side by side, looking out the window again. "My sister's got acrophobia," Maynard said. "How did you kick it? Maybe I could pass it on to her."

I told him about distracting the mind with songs, visiting high places with a trusted friend, and all other techniques I had amassed. He played with his glasses again while I talked. "Maybe she'd like to recite scripture," he said after I was done. "I'll try it this weekend with her. I'll get her up here, if it's the last thing I do."

"I'd like to borrow the phone, if that's all right."

"Where do you want to call?"

"The 87th floor. My cousin works up there at another firm."

"Oh, then go right ahead."

I picked up the phone, punching in the number, written down in my day planner. Rocky answered after one ring and enthusiastically told me to come up.

I shouldered my backpack and bid Maynard farewell. "See you bright and early, 7 a.m. We'll get this thing wrapped up and on your way to quality."

He said goodbye, and I practically fled the suite. I looked cautiously in the hallway for Jeremy the Linebacker and jumped once when I heard footsteps. A custodian appeared instead, pushing along a cart laden with cleaning supplies. "Hello," he said in a singsong voice. I waved and went to Stairwell A to climb to Rocky's office.

In contrast to my client, the offices of Dexter Lindensmith Investment Group were precise, immaculate, and totally of the timeframe. The furniture was minimalist, in shades of the white to black spectrum, and strongly reminiscent of a movie set. The firm's name was etched in dark green marble on a huge sign over the reception desk.

"Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!" I shouted into the bullpen of cubicles in the center of the suite.

"Hey, cousin!" he replied, coming out to meet me. He embraced me and patted me on the back. We walked back to his cubicle, where he pulled a chair up for me, and sat down in his own. "Have a seat. Glad you could drop by. How did things go today?"

"Pretty well, as well as things could go at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus." As part of my normal routine, I pulled out my sketchpad and began to draw while we conversed.

He laughed loudly. "That bad, huh? I've heard things about that North East. They were supposed to be the hottest firm on the Street a couple years ago, one of the leading companies dealing in dot-com IPOs and startups. In the news they came across as impressive, but they were just basically a little boiler room with a fancy address at the World Trade Center. After the meltdown, I was shocked they stayed in business."

"I'm shocked they still exist now. Their office is strangely rundown, and they're a pack of loonies. After dealing with them, I now think I need a drink or two at the hotel bar."

Rocky laughed again. "Joanie. You're such a comedian sometimes. Again, it's great to see you again."

"Same to you. Well, how did the day go for you, Rocky of Rockville Centre?"

"Just fantastic. I think I put in a record day today. The market's doing well even with talk of a possible recession. A lot of trading in airline stocks, I noticed. Interesting. Makes me wonder about the travel industry's condition over the next few months." "Who knows? A recession affects certain parts of the industry pretty badly, doesn't it? And some are almost recession proof?"

"Yeah, that's true. It's complicated, just like any other segments of the market. Enough shop talk, though. How's your family?"

"Doing well. Michael's busier and stressed out, but at least getting a decent wage. The auto industry's holding up so far this year. Christa's in fifth grade, and Naomi started her junior year in high school. Can you believe that? I'm the mother of a 16-year-old kid!"

"I can believe it. Before I know it, Blake and Franny'll be that old. Right now, though, I'm happy to belong to the PTA and help out at the grade school. Nina's getting into it, too. When she isn't cleaning someone's teeth and gums, she's down there helping at school."

"That's a fun time in kids' lives, too. It passes way too fast. You will be shocked at how quickly your kids will grow up. You'll look in the mirror and see the years in your face, too."

Rocky chuckled. "C'mon now, I'm only two years younger than you. I won't look that drastically different from you in 10 years."

"No, probably not, because the Morris family line gave us great genes. We age gracefully in our family."

"Something to be thankful for there." The sound of a woman talking on a cellular phone grew louder and interrupted him as she walked close to the cubicles. Rocky looked up at her as she finished her call. "Hey, Tanya, stop a second. There's someone here I'd like you to meet. You remember my cousin, Joanie Bailey, don't you?"

Tanya Milliken and I recognized each other simultaneously. We exchanged smiles. "Yeah, I remember Joanie," she said. "You're the dancer who had a fear of heights."

"Right, though I'm not afraid of heights anymore, but I still do dance. Hi, Tanya, nice to see you again."

"Nice to see you again, too." We shook hands. I sat back down and quickly flipped to a clean page in my drawing pad and began to sketch her.

"Look, I wanted to tell you that the advice you gave me back in '96 about managing acrophobia was invaluable. I used some of the techniques starting that year, and by the end of the '90s I no longer had any problems."

"That's great. Now you can come up and see Rocky and don't have to go hide in the janitor's closet, right?"

"That's right. No height will scare me anymore. Hey, Malaysia, I'm coming to Kuala Lumpur, and I'm going to visit the Petronas Twin Towers, and I'm going to dance and laugh in the tallest building on earth!" I laughed loudly. "Just kidding, of course; I couldn't afford to fly there. But I do enjoy travel more thoroughly now because the fear's gone. I'm happier."

"Well, good. Maybe you should visit the observation deck here if you have a chance. And don't forget to do a little dance under the skies, right?"

"Right. That's what I'm going to do next - go to the deck, I mean, not dance up there."

"Well, guys, gotta run now," Tanya said. "Nice talking to you, Joanie. Enjoy your stay in New York." She touched me lightly on the shoulder.

"Thanks. By the way, here," I said. I handed her the picture. "Yourself."

She took the portrait and smiled. "This is great. Thanks, Joanie. You're a real Van Gogh."

I smiled embarrassingly. "Nah. Just a serious amateur."

We exchanged our goodbyes. I watched her stride out of the office and heard her humming. The tune was "No Myth" by Michael Penn. I smiled as I watched her form shrink and disappear around the corner.

I weep now when I recall her vanishing from my line of sight. The next day she would die in the 78th floor sky lobby.

I remember the following April, when I went to the vicinity of Ground Zero, that I saw a faded flier with her photograph among scores of others at the extensive memorial in front of St. Paul's Chapel. Her hair was in a ponytail and she grinned brightly. The paper stated: TANYA JEANE MILLIKEN, 1960-2001. LOVING DAUGHTER, SISTER AND AUNT. MAY YOU FLY WITH THE OTHER ANGELS IN ETERNITY!! WE WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU AND 9-11-01!!!

I said my final farewells to Rocky, and we embraced. I left his office and returned to the stairwell so I could go to the 78th floor sky lobby. I grapple with these memories now as much as I did when I first sat on the couch next to Michael in early January and fully recounted them. I stopped to look out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby and study the dim sky. There were no clouds over the man-made canyons of the island. A fleeting thought passed through my head of the time I was 10 years old and looked out the allergist's window and passed out on the carpet. No way I was going to repeat that one now, I thought enthusiastically.

I still can't totally fathom that 14 hours later this place became an utter ruin, an inferno, and a landscape of death. And that it would be the place that would disfigure my cousin and put him a long journey of recovery, running parallel to my own, lesser one. The attendant at the lobby desk nodded and said good night to me as I passed through. The same thing happened on the 44th floor. Amazingly, this final lift was empty, so I started singing the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" as I went down. The car lurched to a stop at the 26th and 17th floors for others, so I quit warbling. I was happy to be deposited in the lobby.

i ... took pictures of the sunset and the emergence of the stars over the great expanse of the city

I went over to the observation deck area and bought a ticket. I got into line and was on my way back up. At least this time I wasn't playing Musical Elevators. This was the first time I had ever gone up to the observatory alone. I felt compelled to do so to mark my continued freedom from acrophobia, and to have my requisite "visit," so to speak, with Jill. I took out my digital camera and methodically worked around the deck's four sides, photographing the vistas liberally. I hummed assorted pop songs as I worked on this mission. Sometimes I sat in a window seat on the different sides and simply savored the vistas, expanding the peace and joy that seemed to radiate through me.

After I had completed my photography, I went to a souvenir counter. I bought a magnet and a coffee mug, both marked "World Trade Center" and bearing the complex's image, as well as an "I Heart NY" T-shirt. I stuffed the bag of trinkets into my backpack. I would not think of the shirt until just after 10 a.m. the next morning - when my left arm was gushing blood.

I bought pizza and drank an orange pop. The beverage was deliberately chosen to refer back to 1982 and how much things had changed. Eat some fruit when you get back to your room, I scolded myself. Too much junk food that day. I had a couple apples that I had purchased from a small market during my Sunday stroll.

I took the escalators to the roof. The sky was entering l'heure bleu, or the blue hour, just as it did when Jill and I sat quietly on the rooftop deck in 1984. I played with the settings on my camera and took pictures of the sunset and the emergence of the stars over the great expanse of the city and neighboring New Jersey. I stood by the western railing and whispered Psalm 46 under my breath to honor Jill's memory.

The sky darkened more; the red and white roof lights were now on. I moved to the east side and stared at the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges until they became fuzzy things jumping across an amorphous gray mass that I knew was the East River. I moved again until I was looking north. The north tower's antenna blazed white, topped by a scarlet "blinky light," as I called these beacons. It reminded me of a similar flashing one I had seen years ago atop the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. The Empire State and the Chrysler were lit up, and I smiled at the art deco beauties. The Manhattan Fairy Tale entered my mind again. I thought the view was beautiful. I could find no other word for it.

I'm the queen of the world! I said to myself, remembering Titanic. I was almost tempted to put my arms out and say, "I'm flying," but I changed my mind. There already had been enough strangeness with the client without me trying to augment it.

I rested my hands on the railing and thought instead about the last photograph Jill had taken of herself especially for me. I had framed it, and it sat on my dresser at home in the master bedroom. There was her lone figure, seated in a snow-covered plaza in front of a black granite fountain, a great spherical sculpture in its center. Her face was gaunt, and her eyes were deep-set, a preview of the depression that swallowed her and probably impelled her to jump off the train platform.

Tears came and rolled down my cheeks as I searched through my memories of Jill - running around in the wildflowers beyond Grandma Morris' fence, fishing in the gravel pit about a quarter mile away, flattening pennies on the train tracks, inventing our games in her big basement, balancing on the privacy fence and yelling out that she was Philippe Petit. The tears came thick enough that I had to fumble in my backpack for a tissue. I felt weak and angry that she'd been gone so many years.

I pulled my CD personal stereo out of my pack and put a recording of Aaron Copland inside - "Appalachian Spring." I felt peculiar because I was up high again and fully aware of location and time. I could not suspend myself from them. I walked over to a slab bench and sat down. I was not far from a flagpole from which Old Glory fluttered with soft snapping. Tears came to my eyes again when I thought about the views; I thought they were spectacular and inspiring. This is what I had missed for over 15 years while being terrified of heights. At least I could experience them now, and perhaps again in the future. Maybe I could finally talk Michael into a Big Apple vacation.

{To PART 20 of Persistence of Memory}