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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from FIRST BLOOD in PART 21}

"Again," a voice emanated from the TV, "a commercial jet has hit the World Trade Center in New York City--"

Horrid, I thought. Seeing it on television even more suggested a summer event movie. Like a clip showing digital effects - here's the latest disaster movie on CNN Showbiz Today!

I stopped and took one photo. Then I ran out of the office and into the long corridor. I knew I had to go to the center, where the staircases and elevators were.

I glanced at the bank of lifts surrounded by their marble walls. Don't touch those elevators! Death boxes! The stairs were the only answer.

"Back to my old stairwell," I said. "A is for Apple; J is for Jacks." The time: 8:52 a.m.

I went inside and started moving downward. A few others were already on the steps. Why weren't there more?

I noticed that the stairwell walls were a nauseating shade of beige. Looks like the Port Authority hit the big year-end unwanted paint sale at Home Depot. The steps were a similarly unappetizing gray, with yellow paint around the edges. The lighting was way too dim. I was trying to distract myself, but a sick feeling curdled my stomach as I wondered if there was a bomb in the building, or if another jet really was coming. Where the hell had I suddenly gotten ideas on terrorist tactics up there, anyway?

When we got to the 82nd floor, the stairwell suddenly ended.

"What the hell?" I said.

A woman behind, black and middle aged, said, "There's a detour. You've got to go down a hallway, and the stairs continue there."

"Yeah," a burly man said in Brooklynese. "You must not work here."

"I'm from Detroit." My little catchphrase again.

"That explains it. The stairs go from the middle to the outside wall," the Brooklyn man said as we walked northward down the corridor. "There's an elevator machine room on the floor below, so stairway A had to go around it. That's what the maintenance guys told me."

At the 78th floor, several people exited the stairwell. "Where are you going?" I asked.

"The sky lobby," the middle-aged woman said.

"Oh, yeah. That place."

I was hit with an impulsive curiosity and followed them into the lobby. In contrast to its emptiness the night before, there were dozens standing around. Many were vigorously debating or talking. I even heard some joking and nervous laughter. I stopped for two quick camera shots. Some pointed to a TV that again showed the flaming tower.

"I hate that image," I said. "I saw it on the TV upstairs."

"It looks like a movie," one of the lobby standers said to me.

"People keep saying that," I said. I turned to the Brooklyn man. "Why did we come out here?"

"I was thinking we could take the elevators."

"Are you sure? Look at all these people waiting. I'm going back to the stairs." I returned to Stairwell A. A couple others assented and followed me.

I saw the Brooklyn man walking toward the elevator bank as I looked back. I wonder now if he were among the dozens killed when Flight 175 hit. A few minutes later, my cousin Rocky and his party would arrive in the sky lobby.

"You know, David," I whispered under my breath to the tower, "You and Nelson are in some serious trouble."

8:55 a.m. An alarm that sounded like whoop-whoop-whoop sounded, along with flashing red lights. A voice came from the public address system: "Attention, there has been an incident in Building One. Building Two is a secure building. There is no need to evacuate. Please return to your offices. You may use the stairs or the nearest elevators."

"You are so full of shit!" a gangly old man yelled at the voice. "I'm not going back."

People murmured. A few of them left the line of evacuees and began to go up the opposite way. "Hey, don't go back," I heard a woman say to them. "They've lost their minds down there."

I was happy to continue downstairs with the majority. I'm from Detroit. I'm going home to the Motor City. We're sorry, but your time within the Twin Towers has literally expired. This is a recording.

The lower I descended, the more people entered the stairwell. Some talked animatedly. A few were crying. They all seemed calm and polite as they joined the downward stream. I kept hearing the phrase "...it was a jet." Some tried to make calls with cell phones; a few got through to friends or family. I heard some say their phones were dead.

A digital version of Mozart emanated from my jacket pocket. My phone rang to the first bars of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." Phone's alive, thank God almighty literally!

"Hello?"

"Joanie! I'm so glad to hear your voice."

"Michael. Glad to hear yours, too."

"Where are you? Did you get out?"

"I'm evacuating now. South tower, Stairwell A."

"You're in the south? I thought it was the north."

"No, thank God! Don't you remember I said south?"

"I swore you said north."

"I distinctly said south."

"I could've sworn you said north. Never mind now. I'm just glad you're not in there."

"I'm glad too."

"I'm watching it live on my coworker's office TV. It's horrible. Your mom called here and asked about you. She didn't have your cell number."

"Call her back and tell her I'm fine. Call Aunt Ellen, too. Mom'll have her number."

"All right. Good luck, Joanie. May God with you."

"And you, too. Vaya con dios. I love you so much. Tell the girls I love them very much, too. I'll see you again soon!"

"I miss you. Please get out."

"I will." I returned the phone to my pocket.
stairwell
"quit that, you moron. just keep walking. go, because life literally depends upon it!

I wanted to laugh. It was a sign that I was frightened and uncertain what to do. It annoyed my family members and friends in the past when I would nervously giggle after some bad thing happened. I kept a straight face this time; however, my brain was playing some of the same games it did as I battled the acrophobia years before. I was sickened that it could return, that I'd faint on these steps.

Even worse, I began to imagine what my own funeral would be like. The sound of the hymns that I'd selected for my funeral service when I turned 30 and written on a piece of paper stored in the den...

Quit that, you moron. Just keep walking. Go, because life literally depends upon it! Anyway, if you die, you go to heaven. But now, distract! Distract!!

Down--down--down! I could hear the voice of Fred Schneider of the B-52's inside my head saying, from the end of the song "Rock Lobster." Distract myself - that's it. Bar the acrophobia and fear of death. Doom-doom-doom-doom-doom-dah-dah-doom, I hummed, remembering a riff from the song. Rock lobster!

We hit the mid-60s in the floor count. I needed solace - the stupider and lamer things were, the more I let them into my mind. I couldn't think about dying or fear - just keep walking down. You put one foot in front of the other ... some song? Again with the mental sleight of hand: The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah! And the little one stops to tie his shoe. And the ants go marching--down--to the ground. Doom doom doom, doom, doom, doom.

I didn't want to talk to anyone, so I continued my silly mental gymnastics and aimed downward. My digital camera bounced lightly against my chest. I glanced at my watch - 9:01 a.m. Good morning - well, not so good because they're destroying skyscrapers in New York - at the tone the time will be - nine oh-ONE - and ten seconds!

We were down by the 61st floor. If you wanna save money, more than just once in a while - it's just a matter of fact! Another ad jingle - this time for a Detroit supermarket. I don't know why the WTC kept spurring me to commercial songs. If you wanna save money, aisle after aisle after aisle - it's just a matter of fact! It's always savings time at Farmer Jack!

Now at the 59th floor. Making good progress here. We're tiny, we're toony, we're all a little loony. ... Your thirty-one Metro Detroit Ford dealers - think Ford first!

The 58th. Gardner-White Furniture - we're known by the money you keep! At the tone, the time will be - nine oh-THREE - and--

{To PART 23 of Persistence of Memory}