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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from MEMORIES & PARALLELS in PART 19}

It was serenity that finally came to me after I wiped away the second round of tears. Life had hit some equilibrium. My career was thriving, my marital relationship was strong, and my children maturing and staying healthy. I was happy that the towers no longer bothered me. My illusory, younger self had been correct last April - I did love the twins now and had derived comfort from them after the nutty day with the client. My 30 years of baggage finally seemed to have been discarded. I drank my bottled water and watched the tourists in the dusk, as Jill and I had 17 years ago, Copland's music echoing in my ears.

Staff people came around and told everyone that it was nearly 9:30 - closing time - and we had to leave. I took the escalators back down to the enclosed deck, glancing once more out the windows before moving to the elevator. After I had gone back down, I wandered into the plaza again, feeling antsy and restless. I did not know why. I passed by Rosati's Deformed Paper Clip. I made a requisite look up at the endless slabs with their bands of light. I sang softly, "Maybe she's just looking for / Someone to dance with."

I walked around in circles, staring at tables and chairs for the lunch crowd, closed-up vendor stands, trees, planters, the paving stones, arcs of benches, the banners hanging in the north tower windows, the dim lights in the lobbies, and a few other people who strolled by. Except for Koenig's Sphere, every time I passed a sculpture on the property, I said. "Another reason to ban public art."

I eventually crossed the street and ended up by 7 World Trade Center, the tan and black trapezoid that collapsed about six hours after its two big brothers the next day. Alexander Calder's "Bent Propeller" sculpture was there, the one that reminded me of huge scarlet boomerangs. There was a circular walkway issuing from WTC 7. I giggled and thought it looked like a giant glass toilet paper tube.

I grew tired of traveling about and decided I did need that drink after such a challenging day, and that I'd get it at the Greatest Bar on Earth. I thought about the foodservice businesses in their steel and concrete aerie. There was my destination, whose name was hyperbole, and another that was an oxymoron - Cellar in the Sky, the wine collection. I felt tightness in my stomach as I entered the north tower. I have no idea why a little uneasiness kept entering me. I am not psychic; nor will I ever be.

When I got to the bar, I ordered a chardonnay and sat alone by the window, ignoring the live band, dancing, and revelry in favor of staring into the darkness. I again felt the presence of my location and could not go away and away. I accepted it and thought about what Tennessee would look like. I had to update my perceptions beyond The Beverly Hillbillies, for goodness sakes.

A man asked me if I would like to dance, until I flashed my wedding ring. He apologized and walked away, red-faced. I saw him go to another girl who resembled a model. They ended up on the dance floor. I finished my drink and ordered another glass. I didn't care about where I was. Or did I? I felt confused. No fear, just a mish mash of emotions. I took a couple more bar matchbooks and put them into my backpack.

As I rode down to the lobby in the elevator, I heard several people talking animatedly about a wine tasting they had just attended with the sommelier who oversaw the Cellar in the Sky. I asked them about their night, and they told me about the periodic samplings of the fruit of vine that the sommelier offered. "You should take Mr. Zraly's wine course," one middle-aged woman with bright bleach blonde hair said to me. "It's the best." She sounded inebriated.

"I'm from Detroit," I said. I'm from Detroit. My great, catchall response again. "Oh. Well, you should buy his book based on the class. It's at all the bookstores."

I found out later that was true, and that Kevin Zraly's book and wine course continued even after the towers tumbled. I returned to my hotel room just before 11 p.m. I set the Clangor Alarm and put on a T-shirt and pajama pants. I sat on the edge of the bed munching an apple. I took out my sketchpad and drew my hotel room, just for the heck of it.

I lay down and fell into a series of odd dreams. One of them was that awful tugboat dream again. My 8-year-old self was on the boat and screaming at the captain and wheelman to stop. The differences were that my 39-year-old self was on the boat, and the World Financial Center and Battery Park City had replaced the empty beach. I tried to comfort the little girl and held her. While she took refuge in my arms, I looked at the towers and began to shake myself. I yelled at the captain that we had to stay away from the buildings, that the little girl was right. We should not go there. We were going to be in grave danger.

I woke up and found it was 3:38 a.m. by the luminous numerals on the Clangor Alarm. I felt clammy and sweaty simultaneously. I feel funny remembering this - a premonition? It could have been blamed on too much wine or anxiety in dealing with the off-their-rockers clients. It was early on the 11th of September - Happy 68th, Mom, I thought. I decided to make sure I squeezed in a quick call to her sometime during the day.

I got up and cautiously pulled aside the curtain to look outside. Buildings, plaza, and fountain. No signs of life, just a dim light cast over all. Everything looked in order, even if I felt perturbed. I blamed the dream on the emotional baggage still lurking in the back of my mind. I lay down again and slept until the clock rousted me from slumber at 5 a.m.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 / THE AZURE

The day began very beautifully and amazingly routine. From sublime to ridiculous to horrific, in just a few hours.

My first thoughts were to get through the day with the loonies on the 84th floor and then jet off to Tennessee. Head for the mountains, I thought, recalling yet another TV commercial jingle.
wtc sunrize
the day began very beautifully and amazingly routine...

My alarm clock jangled. I pushed the alarm stem in and knocked it off the bedside table. Sometimes my mood shifted and I just needed to whack the Clangor Alarm around. I stretched, rolled over a couple times, and finally sat up. I threw on clothes and went off to the gym for my 35-minute workout.

I exercised to Paul Simon that morning - more specifically, his 1990 album, Rhythm of the Saints, which opens with this rousing, drum-heavy song called "The Obvious Child." Simon had recorded with a number of Brazilian musicians, and I got fit to their blasting brass and uptempo percussion. I returned to the room, taking an out-of-the-way detour to the plaza to see daylight. I looked up at the sky.

There were no clouds - just a shimmering, intense sky of rich blue, a couple shades darker than robin's eggs. I showered, did my personal hygiene, and dressed. I put on a tan skirt with a burgundy floral pattern, solid tan jacket with short sleeves, a gold-colored rose pin on the lapel, an ivory blouse, and a sizable silk scarf. Hours later I'd see how one could be more than just a fashion accessory. I put my hair into a ponytail, wrapped it into a bun and fixed it in place with a plastic hair stick in a tortoiseshell design. By the time I finished dressing, it was 6:04 a.m. I know because my eyes kept going to that brown-banded wristwatch often that day.

I checked my laptop backpack to ensure I had all supplies. I added my sketchpad and pencils, thinking I might find time to capture a few images. I heard something clank and realized it was the coffee mug I bought the night before. I ignored it. I checked the power level in the two batteries for my digital camera, ensured there was plenty of space on the memory stick, and packed everything up in my camera bag. I had plans to take even more photos and added a compact tripod to my photographic gear. I slipped my cellular phone into my pocket and was ready to leave. 6:15 a.m. Time to the go the plaza and get some doughnuts and coffee.

Jeez, what an awesome day to be stuck inside that oversized office building, I thought as I gazed up again at the cloud-free sky. I went to Krispy Kreme at WTC 5 and purchased one custard-filled and one glazed doughnut, along with a large coffee. I sat down on one of the very long bench-planters around the fountain and munched my impromptu breakfast.

I watched the people passing into the towers and the low-slung plaza buildings. A lot of office workers I knew I'd never spot, because they came up through the concourse from the trains. When I was done, it was 6:33 a.m. I tended to eat too quickly.

I took out my camera and took several pictures of the fountain. I set up the tripod and posed myself next to it, along with part of the Sphere looming over me. "Chuh-eeeze!" I said, and grinned. The self-timer snapped, and I was recorded in a place that four hours later would cease to exist. I took some pictures of the towers and their shorter siblings as well.

I remembered seeing photos on the Internet of the towers as shot through the Deformed Paper Clip, so I tried this angle myself. While the office rats - as I called them - charged toward the buildings, I lay down briefly and squeezed off several shots of those slabs sharply slanting over the shining steel of Mr. Rosati's contribution to those 16 acres. I finally tired of shooting the plaza - didn't I have enough photos from fall 1999 and April 2001 to choke a whole team of Budweiser Clydesdales? Today I think I didn't take enough photos.

By 6:47 a.m., I was in line at the security desk to be approved for passage by North East Investments. I was issued a new photo badge and again endured the Musical Elevators. At 6:57 a.m. I was running up the steps of Stairwell A, fortified by the strains of Simon singing "The Obvious Child" because I had to deal with those people.

I arrived at the client's office at 7:02 a.m. I was sheepish about being late, even if it were for a session in that madhouse.

The first thing that happened when I entered North East's suite was a cell phone smashed into the wall only a couple feet from my head.

"Fucking Verizon!" a woman in her early 20s said. She was olive-skinned, with waist-length black hair. She wore black plastic-framed Buddy Holly glasses. She looked at me standing there in shock. "Sorry about that. It's just these fucking phones never work!"

"Oh. Umm-it's all right. You missed."

She laughed. "You're the consultant, right?" The girl picked up the phone, which had lost a part in its collision with the wall.

"Yes."

"Well, the managers called and said they'd be a little late, maybe 7:15, 7:20. You can have a seat out here or in the conference room."

"All right."

"Look, if you ask me, they probably were out partying too late last night. They think they're real hotshots. Fucking idiots."

I said nothing. I dubbed her Fuck Girl because I didn't know her name. She walked away, tossing her phone from one hand to another. As far as I knew, she was either a broker trainee or a secretary. The managers never made that clear.

I looked at the sagging cubicles and saw there were four other people in the office. A man about in his mid-30s in a navy suit and red tie was leading a kid who looked no older than 15 to his space. This boy looked emaciated, and his new black suit seemed to hang in folds on his frame.

"Now, just have a seat here, and I'll show you how to use the software--" The baby-faced trainee sat down and promptly flipped over with the chair, which had a bum leg.

"All right, who the hell left the broken chair by my cube?" the thirty-something said. He helped the younger man up, apologized, and put the chair upright. "Brian, why the hell is this chair still here?" he yelled at another man.

Brian was middle aged, with a camel-colored suit, thinning brown hair, round-rimmed John Lennon glasses. He would later appear in the last nightmare I had before I decided to fully recall 9/11.

"Look, R.J., I'm not the fucking janitor. I told Robbie to call maintenance and dump the chair. Don't look at me."

"You're the one in charge of purchasing and inventory, Brian."

"Give me a break," Brian said. "Here," he added, shoving another chair toward his coworker. "I guarantee this one's not booby trapped."

"You hope," R.J. said. He begrudgingly dragged it to his desk.

Brian looked up and noticed me witnessing this incident. "Oh, hello. You're the consultant, right?"

"That's me," I said.

"Welcome back. I'm Brian Smiley."

I almost burst out laughing when I heard that name, but kept quite a stern face as I shook his hand. "Joanie Bailey."

"Hi, Joanie. Want some coffee?" I was surprised at that question, because I still had my huge Krispy Kreme cup in hand. I shook my head.

"You can hang out here with us, if you want, till the managers come." He pulled over the broken chair and pushed it toward me. Either his memory was faulty or he was malicious. "Have a seat."

I took a step back and stretched out my free hand, palm outward, like a cop halting traffic. "No thanks. I think I'll go to the conference room now."

Before I could, Jeremy the Linebacker came out of his enclosed window office. He strode right for me and began circling me like a panther trapping its prey.

"You know how much a day we're paying for you to screw things up around here?" he asked. I noticed he had a rope in his hands. Not the thin twine his noose had been fashioned from the day before, but canary yellow nylon rope about one-quarter inch in diameter.

I remained silent. "You know how much? Fifteen hundred dollars a day, man. Fifteen fucking hundred dollars every day to have you waste our time!"

His screaming attracted the attention of the cell phone thrower and the teen-looking trainee. I felt nervous having all those eyes on me.

"Jeremy!" R.J. barked from his cubicle. "Get out of here!"

"Go blow," Jeremy said. He turned toward me. "We're wasting $1,500 a day on you, bitch."

"Look, Jeremy," I said. "I'm not the police or the IRS or anything like that. I'm just a quality assurance consultant."

"Like hell you are. You're CIA. You're going to send me to prison."

"Huh? No, I'm not a spy! I'm just here to help your company run more smoothly and provide top service to customers. That's it."

"Yeah, Brian, leave her the hell alone," R.J. said. "Go take your meds!"

"You know what I'm going to do you?" Jeremy said to me. "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to fucking kill you!"

"Jeremy, you stop that right now! Go back to your office!" Brian charged over and grabbed the big man's arm. "Get out of here and leave Ms. Bailey alone."

The fight went out of the Linebacker, and he walked, stoop-shouldered, back to his office and slammed the door. I sighed with relief.

"Sorry about that, Ms. Bailey," Brian said.

"What's with that guy?" I said softly.

"He's crazy. After the dot-com mess, Jeremy just snapped. The president keeps him around 'cause he's afraid Jeremy'll sue us and put us out of business."

"Good grief."

"He's just a normal part of the office."

"If this is normal, I'd hate to see what's abnormal."

"Aw, don't worry. He's harmless."

"What's with that office?"

"That? That's how we make sure he doesn't hurt anyone. The president also gave him a nice office by the windows, complete with a TV. It seems to work. He comes out and rants once in a while, but usually he just sits around all day watching ESPN."

"So, when will I meet the president?"

"When you come back in December. He should be back by then."

"Okay. Well, I'm going to the conference room and get set up. Thank you."

I went to the room, which smelled like stale coffee and lemon disinfectant. I closed the door behind me, hoping it would be a deterrent to the Linebacker and the rest of them as well. I wished I could have locked it. There were several new flies buzzing around the room. I wondered where on earth they kept coming from. I ignored the bugs, pulled out my laptop, placed it on the table, and powered it up.

While the computer booted up, I pulled out my digital camera and got a few quick shots of the north tower. Justin Di Lorenzo entered the room.

"Hey now, you're here!" he said. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. "Daisy and Larry are on their way up. They just called me."

"Good enough," I said.

"Sorry we were a little late, but we had to go to a meeting after hours. Important company business, you know."

I nodded and said nothing, thinking about Fuck Girl's comment that perhaps the meeting was actually a party session at a trendy club somewhere.

"Hey, want some coffee?" Di Lorenzo said. I shook my head and pointed to my paper cup on the table. How did everyone keep missing it? "Oh." He helped himself to some from a coffeemaker on a rickety table against the wall.

The other two supervisors arrived shortly afterward. They had very red eyes and a haggard look. Our meeting convened at 7:18 a.m., with themes repeating from the day before. We discussed the quality manual, required documentation, and future training needs. The new flies droned about the room and repeatedly tried to land on everything. The managers swung at them. Maynard hummed selections from Bizet's Carmen. Di Lorenzo kept blowing his nose. Cheung endlessly cleared her throat and groaned.

At 8:38 a.m. Cheung said, "Let's take a break. I need a cigarette."

That was a curveball. I had expected use to go at it at least until 10:30. Cheung was rubbing her bloodshot eyes and grimacing.

"Good idea," Maynard said. "Let's go downstairs."

"Care to join us, Joanie?"

I shook my head. The decision of Daisy Cheung and Lawrence Maynard to go smoke would save their lives. They told me the following spring that they stood on Broadway for about an hour and a half watching the demolition of their workplace.

Everyone except Di Lorenzo wandered out of the room. I was alone at the window, staring out at the section of tower visible from the windows. I picked up my coffee and sipped it. I realized that the facade's vertical lines were so closely spaced that it resembled a windowless fortress. I traded my coffee for my digital camera and made several shots.

I next took out my cell phone, and punched in my parents' number. With cup in hand, I waited for a response - Mom did after the second ring.

"Hey, happy birthday!"

"Thank you, honey. How are you doing?"

"Fine. And you?"

"Just wonderful. So where's my birthday wish coming from this morning?"

"The 84th floor of 2 World Trade Center - or south tower, if you prefer - in lovely downtown New York City."

"Oh, you're up rather high today. Scared?"

"No, c'mon. I don't have that fear of heights anymore. So where are you?"

"I'm out on the patio now." My parents had a cordless phone in the family room. "It's such a beautiful day."

{To PART 21 of Persistence of Memory}