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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 1}

1960 and '70s / WITHOUT FEAR

There were very few things that I feared as a child. I chased after wasps and bees of all sorts of species and captured them in jars. I pulled carpenter ants off trees and glared at them as they snapped their mandibles. At my Grandma Morris' house, I hunted down garter snakes in the grass and grabbed them before they could slither off. Grandma felt little comfort, as she had a phobia of snakes.

There was a child-sized picnic table that sat under the vast willow that was the centerpiece of my backyard. I dragged it to the tree's trunk and used it to climb up as far as I could. I could get as high as 25 feet, sitting upon a stout branch and peering down at the world. It made me laugh and sing songs to myself that I'd learned in school. Other times I hauled crayons or pencils and paper up with me and drew pictures of everything I saw below.

I watched horror movies with little effect. While my brother Peter suffered nightmares every time he watched the grainy B-movies, I slept peacefully. Every Saturday afternoon I had to tune into Sir Graves Ghastly on Channel 2 to catch the latest frightful gem from the vaults of Hollywood.

Sir Graves was this campy vampire played by local actor Lawson Deming, with slicked back hair, goatee and cheap, shiny cape. Every week he rose from his coffin to introduce the movie. At the end he'd get back into his casket and say, "Happy Hauntings! Nee-yaahh-ha-ha-ha!" while mediocre haunted house sound effects played in the background.

"Now, Peter, you're 12 years old," Mom would say to my older brother after he had had another nightmare. "If you didn't watch those stupid movies, you wouldn't have these bad dreams. Now go back to bed!"

I would hear her through the wall and laugh softly as she scolded him. Peter was mean and bossy to me more often than not after I had turned 4. I'll say openly that any time he suffered, I loved every minute of it. Even when he had to have an appendectomy when he was 19, I did not give a damn about his pain.

The one thing I liked about my backyard in my childhood was it unruly nature. My mother dug up the entire southeast corner of the rectangle and planted a vegetable garden and a grapevine around the time I was 4. She kept up the garden for a couple more seasons before giving up due to poor harvests. The result was a wonderland of wildflowers intermixed with rhubarb and the robust Concord grapevine, strung between two metal poles on a piece of plastic-encased electrical wire.

The garden was overgrown with Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed susans and some weed I still can't identify, with delicate blue flowers with flat petals. Around the yard's south and west edges my mother had planted rosebushes, a forsythia and lilac shrubs. Tulips and daffodils came up by the northwest corner. The rest of the yard was grass that my father begrudgingly trimmed every couple weeks with a Toro mower - he was not fond of yard work. The swing set that my dad installed in 1964 for Peter - and later me - ran parallel to the west fence.

Dad had planted the willow in spring 1963, just after my first birthday. This thing grew like crazy, so that by the end of the 1960s it started to brush the electrical wires overhead. My parents got letters from Detroit Edison warning them that tree trimmers would be out soon to tame the beast.
weeping willow
that tree was sublime. i ascended it and sat for hours.

That tree was sublime. I ascended it and sat for hours. I stared out into the other yards on Grove, while listening to English sparrows and robins and watching clouds take shapes. I loved that willow and almost cried when my parents had it removed in 1995 - it was losing a battle to carpenter ants.

There was a boy who lived across the street named Brian Van Allen, who one of several initial friends I made on Grove. There weren't a lot of kids there up through the mid-1970s, so what youngsters lived there could not be choosy if they wanted playmates. I credit Brian for helping me become a master bug hunter. I was a "semi" tomboy, in the sense that I both played with dolls and loved to dig in dirt, climb trees and capture insects. Brian and I became acquainted in the summer of 1967, just before I entered kindergarten. He seemed so mature at 7, and I listened carefully to his words in order to become smarter myself.

We stalked the honeybees and bumblebees that gravitated toward the roses in later spring and early summer. We swooped down on the grasshoppers that hid in the tall grass in Mom's abandoned garden by July and August. We plucked ants off the ground, and then crush them between our fingers or were merciful and let them go. During mid-summer, the crickets would start up, their chorus being my lullaby through the screen on my bedroom window until I returned to school. When the chirping started, we would flip rocks over and grab at the shiny black insects, popping them into jars.

When I was alone, I also spent many hours drawing every element of the backyard and house I could find. I loved limning the slender stalks of wildflowers, the family dog dozing in the grass, or shadows across the pavement. At first my drawings were incredibly crude, but the more I persisted, the more things began reflecting reality. My mother bought me sketchbooks, pastels, markers, and other materials when she saw how intense my devotion to art had become.

Sometimes, in the years after I lost interest in catching bugs, I smacked a flower where a bee had landed.

I am a lioness! I would think. I have courage, and I fear nothing!

Except heights, I'd have to stop myself from adding after the age of 8.

In 1970, my mother took me down to Wayne State University in Detroit. She was enrolled in an elementary education puppetry class and let me construct marionettes and other puppets with her.

One day she had to put her car on the parking structure's top level. When we got out and I saw only sky, I was hit with a new sensation.

I became dizzy and terrified. My whole body began to shake, and chills ran down my back. I grabbed my mother's arm and closed my eyes. "No, no!" I said. "Mom, please get me out of here!"

"What on earth is wrong with you?" Mom said.

"It's too high! I'm gonna fall! Please, take me down. Moommm!" I sobbed and clung to her arm, my eyes tightly closed. I hid behind her like a baby.

"Joanie, stop it! It's just a parking structure."

"Mommy, please. I don't wanna fall. Get me down!" I was bawling and shaking violently. "Please, get me out of here. It's too high!"

"C'mon. Quit squeezing my arm so hard," Mom said. She led me toward the stairwell. My eyes were still closed, and I trusted her to guide me. "Oh, no," she muttered to herself. "Ellen again."

I know I heard her say that. I did not know at the time why she murmured my aunt's name and wouldn't for another two years. Two years later, she had to take me along when she took Peter to an allergist in Detroit. His office was in a 20-story building. I looked out his waiting room window at the miniaturized vehicles and structures, felt vertiginous, and fainted on the carpet. When she and a nurse had awakened me, I told them the height was like a nightmare.

Mom shook her head and said "Ellen" again.

"Why'd you say Aunt Ellen's name?" I asked.

Mom gave me a summary of life with a younger sister who suffered a paralyzing fear of heights, who even in the third floor of a building could not avoid bursting into tears. I felt like crying for Aunt Ellen myself, because I loved her and her family so much.

1970'S / THE MONSTERS OF MANHATTAN

As I have mentioned, I loved the low-budget horror movies I watched as a kid. Whether it was a werewolf, a crawling, disembodied hand or rapacious aliens with their eyes on earth, I ate this stuff up. I drew crude comics and wrote monster movie stories of my own. These beasts did not disturb my dreams. I knew it was fake - makeup, men in costumes, photographic effects, and all that.

However, a couple of gargantuan creatures did come along and shake me up one night near the end of 1970. They marked the starting point of 30 years in which I would repeatedly encounter them, and mostly not on a voluntary basis.
WTC under construction
those towers reminded me of partially constructed monsters ... in those old scary movies...

I won't say these awful twins were the reason my acrophobia worsened, but they certainly were symbolic of my deficiency.

My parents watched the national news like clockwork every night, usually Walter Cronkite on CBS. There was a report, a "puff piece," often shown at the end of a broadcast. It focused upon the first tenants moving into "the tallest building in the world," which was still under construction in New York. The name of this wonder in which they had set up shop was called the World Trade Center.

These nicely dressed folks were shown going into their shiny new offices, watching moving men bringing their furniture and equipment inside. The story ended with them looking out the window and speaking lovingly of a view of the river - they said it was called the Hudson.

A long shot showed these two towers, which looked freaky to my 8-year-old eyes because they were still not completely built. One was higher than the second, which looked like a giant had stopped by and lopped it off, leaving a raw metallic wound.

This incongruity registered as abnormal, a freak of nature. I placed my hands over my eyes. I just couldn't look at them anymore.

My mother saw me sitting there with my covered face.

"Why are you covering your eyes, Joanie?"

"Monsters!" I said.

She laughed quietly, but I ignored it. "Joanie, they're just a couple of buildings - very big ones at that."

"I don't like them. They look like scary skeleton things."

Mom laughed again. "Joanie, you're something else sometimes. Buildings always look like that when they're not finished. Big ones have a steel frame so that they'll stay up."

"I wish they'd go away."

I could still hear the reporter going on about those boxy creatures by the shoreline. Mom said, "Funny girl." I heard the click of her needles as she resumed knitting. I plugged my ears so I couldn't hear the news report.

Those towers reminded me of partially constructed monsters I might have seen lying on laboratory tables, in those old scary movies on Sir Graves Ghastly's program.

That night I had a dream that I was on a tugboat on the river I had seen in the news report. The little craft was chugging for the shore in a beeline for the hulking tower and its stumpy, incomplete sibling, both ascending from a broad, sandy beach. I screamed at the captain that they were going to get us. He laughed, ruffled my hair and said there was nothing to be afraid of. I ran inside the pilothouse and hid my eyes, shouting to the wheelman to turn the boat around. He shook his head and said that we had to go ashore. The tug bobbed on the water, and I could see the one nearly complete spire rising up in the pilothouse window. It seemed to move and bow toward us. I screeched and woke up.

I almost screamed again when I saw something move on the wall. It turned out to be moonbeams filtered through the branches of a tree in the neighbor's yard. I was sweating and cold at the same time. I struggled to push those monstrous towers out of my mind. A couple weeks later I was back to normal and pretty much forgot about them.

The tugboat nightmare, as I called it, seemed to annoyingly return whenever I was in periods of great stress. Most of these times had nothing to do with the World Trade Center. They were simply when I had a lot on my plate as I grew up and later became a wife and mother. What I found interesting about the tugboat nightmare is that as I aged, the landscape around the towers changed to conform to reality. By the time I had the nightmare when I was 34 years old, Battery Park City and the World Financial Center sprawled over the formerly vacant beach. However, I remained an 8-year-old girl.

In spring 1973, the Twin Towers re-entered my life. They were featured in an issue of the Scholastic News. As nearly any adult of my generation can tell you, Scholastic was an integral part of the elementary school experience, with its book clubs and news magazines for children. The teacher would pass out the thin magazines, let us read them a little, and start a discussion about a particular story.

In fifth grade, my teacher, Mr. Scharf, was a little more hands-off. He distributed the magazines each week and let us read them in silence. He handed them out as usual on a bright day. I sat in the fourth row of desks, in the third position. As the pile of Scholastic News issues came back, I took my copy and handed the rest behind me, releasing them after I felt Patti Schultz behind me take them.

I gawked at the cover, dominated by the Manhattan skyline, as seen from the Hudson. There were these two singular monoliths rising above everything. They were slender and minus the sharp, tapering cuts of the Empire State Building in my cousin Jill's vacation photos, and in the scenes where King Kong clambered on Sir Graves Ghastly. I did not know how to describe them, except as greatly magnified and slenderized versions of wooden kid blocks. In particular, they resembled the oblong, rectangular blocks that made good support columns when building a structure of one's own.

The Twin Towers were especially singular because they dwarfed everything else, and because there was no World Financial Center, Marriott Hotel, or Battery Park City surrounding them in 1973. They stood alone, like two monster brothers, I thought.

This cover's headline stated, "WORLD TRADE CENTER: World's Tallest Building is Completed and Dedicated! (See page 3)"

I immediately recognized the buildings as the ones that resembled incomplete beasts three years earlier. Why are they so tall? I thought. Why do they have to be the world's TALLEST buildings? I remembered that in the summer before, Jill had shown me her New York vacation photos and mentioned a tour boat guide told her they were the world's biggest. I wasn't really scared of them much anymore - I had recently turned 11 - as was disinterested. The indifference was a direct product of my acrophobia - I thought I could control it by ignoring and avoiding anything bigger than 10 stories.

I set the Weekly Reader aside and didn't bother to read about the new buildings. I picked up a copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek, part of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, and read that instead.

I dared to peek at the Trade Center story at home that night. The story was written in the simplistic and bouncy manner Scholastic used in that time. There were figures about the number of years to build the towers, their height, how much dirt was moved, how many windows, and so on. I got bored and stopped reading halfway through. I tossed the Weekly Reader into my closet.

The third time I noticed those beasts was in August of 1974, after aerialist Philippe Petit and a friend shot a cable across the Twin Towers using a crossbow. I saw this on the evening news - CBS again - with my parents. Petit was this thin, elfin looking guy in a skintight, one-piece leotard who smiled, mugged, and walked backward and forward on the 130-foot wire, to the amusement of witnesses in the Tobin Plaza below.

Seeing this confident fellow sashaying a quarter-mile in the air made me think of the willow in the backyard and being above the earth. But instead of the giddy feeling I got from the tree, I began to feel sick. I ran out of the room, saying I had to get a drink of water. I went up to my bedroom and hid inside with the door closed. It was not the towers that unnerved me, but the reported fact that Petit had been a quarter mile in the air.
Petit's WTC walk in 1974
we looked through a telescope and could see monsieur petit's diminutive form and half-smile as he pranced between those buildings

It drove me mad, because that night I again had the tugboat nightmare from four years earlier. The captain weighed anchor on a bare, vast beach that extended away from the towers. We watched the tightrope man. We looked through a telescope and could see Monsieur Petit's diminutive form and half-smile as he pranced between those buildings with their relentless vertical facades. The next morning, the Detroit Free Press carried a brief story and photo of the stunt. I was glad my father passed over it at breakfast.

My cousin Jill added insult to injury by mailing me a letter with a Detroit News clipping. She wrote: This was a lot of fun seeing this funny man walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He looked like he had so much fun, and I think he and I could be friends, because we like high places so much. I really wish I'd been in New York to see this!

I renewed two vows I had made at age 10 before Jill: never, ever go up that high in my whole life, or go in or near New York City.

I failed miserably in keeping either of those vows.

I also could not embrace these newer-style skyscrapers. As a teen, I was annoyed about any excessive gushing by mass media about late 20th century architectural wonders. I was galled by local reports upon the official opening of the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. To me it looked like four grain silos with a gigantic Pringles can in the center. It was an eyesore for the Motor City to endure for who knew how many decades.

SEPTEMBER 2001 / NO HAPPILY EVER AFTER

"What are you looking at there, Mommy?"

"Yeah, Mommy, what is that thing?"

Naomi and Christa saw me sitting on the floor in the family room. I had a corrugated cardboard carton in front of me with "1971-1977" written in black marker upon the side.

I called them "memory boxes." They were filled with the mementos, photographs, and other accumulated detritus of childhood. I had hauled this box down from the attic. The one artifact in my hands was a booklet with poster board covers and white typing paper pages.
Empire State
"you'll see sir empire state; he's the brave knight defending the island kingdom of manhattan..."

I closed the booklet and handed it to the girls. " 'The Manhattan Fairy Tale,' " Naomi said, reading my youthful attempt at Old English lettering. " 'By Joanetta C. St. Pierre.' What is this?"

"It's a story I wrote when I was 10 years old," I said. "It was inspired by these photos my cousin Jill took on her vacation that summer. All the major buildings in New York are characters."

I handed her the booklet, and she leafed through it. I said, "You'll see Sir Empire State; he's the brave knight defending the Island Kingdom of Manhattan, hoping to win Lady Chrysler's hand in marriage from her father, King Rockefeller. He gets help from the fairy godmother Liberty and her magic torch."

"It's cute," Naomi said. "You've made the characters' hats and clothing look like the buildings." The pictures had been drawn in full color with fine-tip markers.

Christa's eyebrows raised. "Hey - these 'Dragon Twins' look like the World Trade Center."

"Yeah, Mommy, she's right," Naomi said. "Were the buildings even around that long ago?"

I stared ahead toward the fireplace, eyelids slitted. My voice became flat. "Yes, they were. They were dedicated in 1973."

"Well, it's strange to see the towers as dragons. Why did you make them dragons?"

"Because I hated the lousy things, that's why."

"Oh." Naomi turned the page. "This is weird. There's smoke and fire coming out of them."

"Well, what's so weird about that? They're dragons."

"They look like they did on TV just before they collapsed."

"They look scary!" Christa said.

"They were supposed to be scary. But the fire and smoke were from their throats, because they were dragons, not because their insides were injured like the towers."

"You're like a psychic, Mommy."

"Just--one of those coincidences, I guess. But the fairy tale has to be rewritten now."

"That's true," Naomi said.

"These fanatics come from the East upon their swift stallions. They draw out their curved swords as they land on the island kingdom. They cry out that the island is full of infidels and attack the dragon brothers. Before dying themselves, they kill the brothers. Sir Empire, who had made peace with the dragon twins, must raise an army and track down these enemies and exact his vengeance."

"He goes to their far land and searches for them, raining down rocks from his army's catapaults on their villages," Naomi said. "He's looking for the evil king from the East who ordered the fanatics to attack the island."

"You're pretty good at that, but I always knew you could write, too."

"Thanks."

"Yeah, it's true. They didn't live happily ever after. Life gets that way." I stared at the fireplace mantel. "Like looking out the window and seeing that quick flash of silver. Then the explosion, and the smoke and flames.

"And paper. Tons of it, all falling down, while the big holes glow orange and send out thick waves of smoke. The heat hits your face right through the window, and the room you're in shudders. You've left fairy land for good."

"You saw that - the first plane hit?"

"Yeah, but why am I talking about it?" I shouted.

"You have to talk about it. Daddy says you have to."

"Forget about it. Please, just leave me alone." Naomi silently handed the booklet back to me and looked at me with a hurt expression. She and her sister walked out of the room. I riffled through the pages until I came to the one where Sir Empire confronted the Dragon Twins of the End of the Island. I stared at the boxy dragons and the extensive smoke and flames pouring out of their jaws. I thought back to the day nearly 30 years ago when I made the picture.

I had not thought of buildings aflame then. Instead, the fire and smoke were a sign of the beasts' power, not their vulnerability. I turned the page and looked in shock at the vanquished dragons lying on their sides, their eyes looking skyward. A couple pages later, they were upright again, healed by Liberty and her enchanted torch, and a truce had been reached between the kingdom and the dragons.

There was no fairy, though, to bring the twins back in real life.

OCTOBER 2001 / RAW

I had stopping doing consulting. I would not go anywhere, either by car or especially by plane. The thrill of travel had drained out of me. I enjoyed walling myself off in my office, the computer screen floating before me while my clock radio played classical music from a Canadian station.

In 1996, I had joined the Jonathan Taylor Seifferlein Co., a training and consulting firm, as a technical writer. The company, which we all called JTS for short, was named ostensibly after the millionaire who founded it 20 years before. Everything about Jon was fake - his hair color, his face, his teeth, his personality. But the paycheck was what mattered, not the owner's appearance.

I pushed aside 12 years of news reporting to start writing training manuals in quality assurance, occupational health and safety and other business-related topics. Two years later I decided I wanted to become a consultant. Our household debt was oppressive, and Michael was not getting the raises he used to get as an automotive cost analyst. Michael whined about all the travel I would have to do, and I reminded him about all the money we owed.

From 1999 to 2001 I was on the road three to four days a week. The pharmacist at our local CVS began to recognize me during those years because I frequently stopped to pick up Dramamine. Besides developing acrophobia as a child, I also began to have intense motion sickness.

I loved the travel, always taking along my digital camera, sketch pad, and drawing implements. I became so accustomed to the hum of jet engines that sometimes I had trouble sleeping when I didn't hear them.

After 9/11, I was done with it. The last audio sensation I needed was an airplane's whine.

I went to Julia Mitzelfeld, JTS's general manager and my supervisor, and told her to put me back on course manuals. The craving to write this dry stuff about medical device quality management and laboratory standards was strong. My office was in a suite of them down the hall from JTS's administrative department. There were two file cabinets and two desks in it. I took the one at the far wall. The office had no windows and was decorated with pearl-colored vinyl wallpaper. This room was just fine by me. I hung an abandoned bulletin board on the wall along the side of my desk. I bought a cheap four-cup coffeemaker and a plastic shelf and placed them behind my desk. My new home was established.

Three weeks into being office-bound, I still occasionally thought like a consultant. I caught myself feeling that it was time to catch my flight and psych up for those stiff hotel mattresses. I shoved the memories aside and concentrated harder on the finer points of aerospace quality systems. My ribs and nose had stopped hurting by this time.

One morning, I had run out of coffee and forgot to buy some more for my little pot. I went to the break room in the main office to get a cup of the company's sludge. A girl whom I had never seen before approached.
flag pin
i could see small metal pins in the likeness of u.s. flags and the tri-colored, looped september 11 ribbon

She was in her early 20s and was a pencil, figure-wise, with skin even more pallid than my Aunt Ellen. She had white-blond hair. Practically an albino, I thought (not very nice of me). She was carrying a cardboard box. When I looked inside, I could see small metal pins in the likeness of U.S. flags and the tri-colored, looped September 11 ribbon.

"Hi, my name is Darcy," she said. "How are you?"

I nodded toward her. "Joanie."

"Hi, Joanie. Would you like to buy a pin? All proceeds go to the Red Cross," she said.

I curled back my lips as if the box contained rotten eggs. "No thanks," I said.

"Won't you reconsider? Just $4 each. You'll be helping people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington."

"No, thanks. I don't want any of them."

"You don't want to help the families and survivors? We all need to lend a hand--"

"Look, I don't want any of those stupid pins. Frankly, I'm sick and tired of September 11."

"You're what?"

"I'm sick of September 11! All that rigmarole - oh, poor Pentagon and poor World Trade Center, and oh, boo hoo hoo."

"Sick? How could you be sick of a tragedy? How could anyone?"

"Well, I am, you silly flag-waver. Go take a hike!" I reached out and smacked the box, so that the pins jumped wildly. Darcy nearly dropped it.

She looked close to tears. "I just wanted to see if you'd help--"

I was boiling. I now felt like knocking the box out of her hands. "I gave to a fund already, through my mom. I hate when the U.S. has a crisis like this, with everyone crying in their freaking beer and wringing hands and singing 'God Bless America.' All this racket makes Operation Desert Storm sound like the inside of a library."

"Everyone's just pulling together after these terrible things. That's the only reason I'm selling the pins--"

"For the last time, I don't want any pins! Get away from me with that asinine, flag-waving bullshit!"

I moved brusquely for the door. Julia brushed by me. I moved quickly out of the room and was about to bolt, thinking she'd heard my rant.

I stopped, though, when I reached the side of a neighboring cubicle and heard Darcy sniffling and speaking to Julia. "All I tried to do was sell her a pin, and she screamed at me. All I want to do is help the victims."

"It's all right. You're new here, aren't you?" Julia said.

"Yes, I've only been in Accounting for a week."

"Then you don't know about what Joanie's been through."

"No. What happened to her?"

"Joanie was one of our consultants. That's a job that requires a lot of travel. Last month, she asked me to ground her indefinitely."

"Did September 11 upset her?"

"Yes. Joanie was in New York on that date."

"Oh, my. She must have seen what happened to the World Trade Center."

"She didn't just see it; she was inside the World Trade Center on September 11."

"Oh, God!"

I didn't hear any more. I did not want to. My face was burning. I turned and made a quick dash for my office. I sat inside, the lights extinguished, for about 20 minutes, until a tenuous composure returned.

{To PART 3 of Persistence of Memory}