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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 2}

AUGUST 1972 / DRAGONS BY THE HARBOR

"Joanie! Joanie Joanetta! Are you gonna come down?" My cousin Jill called to me. She was a figure partially in the shade, under a great oak down in Grandma Morris' backyard.

This was the third day of a weeklong stay at Grandma's place in Pontiac Township, which later became the City of Auburn Hills. My mother's mother had bought the place the year I was born. Her two daughters were grown by then, each of them raising two kids of their own. Every summer she had Jill and me as guests, while Rocky went off to a sports camp.

I was up by Grandma's wooden gate, which was at the top of a small incline leading into the yard. I sat on an old tricycle that once belonged to Jill and Rocky and Grandma still had. Because Grandma had no two-wheelers, we liked to fool around with the tricycles in different ways. Flying down this little hill was one of my ideas. My legs poked out on either side, ready to get a running start.

"Joanie, let's go! Get down here!" When Jill, who was exactly my age, ordered me around, I got angry. I pulled my legs up and rolled down the hill. I steered the tricycle right at my cousin, who gave a yelp and jumped out of the way. She tripped and fell down.

"Joanie, what are you doing?" Jill stood up and brushed dirt and grass off her shirt and shorts. "You almost hit me!"

I had stopped the tricycle with my heels so that I was a few feet in front of her. I glared as Jill continued to clean off the grass.

"I kind of lost control," I said. "That hill is really steep."

"Well, be careful next time, Joanie. Don't go crazy like that."

"Don't tell me what to do, Jill." I got off the trike and pulled it toward Grandma's patio, where she had a couple Adirondack chairs and loveseat around a matching rustic table. "You know I don't like you bossing me around."

"Is that why you almost hit me?" Jill said. She followed me onto the patio.

"No, I really lost control, but bossing me just made me madder."

"I just wanted you to come down the hill fast so that we could take a break to see my vacation pictures."

I left the tricycle at the patio's edge. "Oh, yeah, your exciting vacation photos. Where'd you go this year - Philadelphia and New York and Washington?"

"Philly and New York, yeah, but not Washington, Joanie. Boston."

We went through the sliding glass door into the basement. There were a few boxes of our cast-off toys against one wall, and a pool table that once belonged to the late Grandpa Morris set up by the stairs. A couch and a couple chairs sat by the walls perpendicular to the glass doorwall. Jill went to the couch and sat down. She took four yellow packets off the end table. They had advertising about Kodak film and fake photographs on their covers.

I sat next to her. There was a large picture window behind us with a bamboo blind that rolled up; Grandma had it tied up to let in the sunlight. Jill showed me the color prints and spoke animatedly of the familiar landmarks of the three cities her family had visited. She got to a series of pictures taken from a tour boat circling Manhattan.

"Look at this. The tour guide said this is Midtown Manhattan. You can see Rockefeller Center over here. He said they have ice skating and a gigantic Christmas tree there in the winter."

She went to another photo. "This is the Empire State Building, and this shiny, round one is the Chrysler Building. The tour guide said Mr. Chrysler from here in Detroit wanted it to be really modern and tall. It was once the world's tallest building, but the Empire State beat it really fast."

"Nice buildings," I said. "They're all pretty. Did you see King Kong up on the Empire State Building at all?"

Jill giggled. "No, Joanie, don't be silly! But that would've been funny - some big ape climbing around up there." She laughed again.

"You know what the Empire State kind of looks like to me?"

"What?"

"A knight. A big old knight in shining armor standing above the whole city."

"Oh, okay. That's funny. So, what's the Chrysler Building?"

"Well, it's kind of shiny - maybe a princess in a glittering gown and crown."

"How about the Rockefeller Center?"

"That's her father, the king."

"A fairy tale. How cute!"

"Well, I'm a writer and artist, so maybe I could make one up and draw pictures for it. Here comes the brave Sir Empire State, seeking the hand of the Princess Lady Chrysler in marriage from King Rockefeller the First. He has to kill this terrible dragon that's threatening the whole city."

"Not a big gorilla?"

"No! This is a fairy tale. You need a dragon."

"Okay, which building is the dragon?"

"I don't know."

"I guess you still have to work on that. What's the name of your fairy tale?"

"The Manhattan Fairy Tale."

"Okay. I've got an idea." Jill flipped to another photo. "Here's the Statue of Liberty. She can be the fairy godmother."

"I suppose. Her torch is her magic wand. Maybe she could help Sir Empire, just like the three fairies helped the prince in Sleeping Beauty."

"Good idea. Maybe you could borrow some of these pictures so you could draw them. Now, let me get back to the trip." She shuffled through the photos until she found some of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. "We went to Bedloe's Island, which is where the statue is. She looks bright green - it's weird," Jill said. "I liked climbing the stairs and going up in her head. You could see for miles!"

"Ewww."

"Oh, you're such a chicken about heights, Joanie. That's silly."

"It's not silly. I like the Statue of Liberty, but I wouldn't go up in her."

"Then you'd really miss something. Let's keep going." She flipped to a picture taken from the Hudson River. "Here's downtown New York. The tour guide said this pointy building is the Woolworth Building and was built by Mr. Woolworth, who started all the dime stores."
WTC building in 1972
"those awful things again! those should be the dragons!"

She pointed to a picture that Uncle Tim shot of her and Rocky. In the background were a couple of square towers, both with incomplete tops, but still dominating the entire skyline. My stomach jumped. "And these are the--"

"Those awful things again! Those should be the dragons!" I almost covered my eyes as I did when I first saw them on the CBS Evening News two years before, but I thought that was acting like a real baby. The concrete and steel fiends had grown!

Jill giggled. "These?"

"Yeah! Those are the dragons that Sir Empire State has to kill! Those buildings are the dragons. They're horrible monsters!"

Jill laughed louder. "Dragons? These things?" She fell back on the couch in a paroxysm of laughter. She sat up again and picked up the pictures. "These are just the World Trade Center towers! The tour guide said they'll be finished next year. Dragons!" She laughed some more and shook her head.

"They're huge!" I said. I stared at the two photos she had of the things. "Look at how much taller they are than everything else. They're real, live monsters."

"You're right. They're monsters, but they're beautiful monsters. I like them. The tour guide said they're the world's tallest buildings. He said someday you'll be able to go the top of them. I can't wait - I'm going to go up there someday. I think it'll be great."

"Oh, stop that!"

"Yeah, Joanie Joanetta, I'm gonna go way up high!"

"You're crazy, Jill. Stop talking about that."

"Silly Joanie Joanetta. What if someone paid you to go up there?"

"You couldn't pay me a million dollars to go up there, or even near something that big."

"Not even two million?"

"Not even a million millon dollars!"

"That's a lot of money. If they gave me that much, I'd go up there every day."

"You're crazy. I don't like New York anymore, either."

Jill giggled again. "Why not?"

"Because they let people build big, ugly buildings there, that's why."

Again she laughed uncontrollably, which enraged me more. I clenched my fists. "Joanie, that's silly! Just because there's a couple of big buildings, you're never going to go to New York?"

"Never, never, never!"

"You're funny, Joanie Joanetta."

"Stop laughing at me and calling me that!"

"I'm sorry. It's just funny seeing you scared of some buildings--"

"I hate huge buildings, and I hate New York! Now leave me alone!"

"Joanie Joanetta, the silly goose who won't fly up high. Poor Joanie Joanetta!"

"Shut up, you mean jerk!"

I got up and ran upstairs. I could hear Jill calling out, but I ignored her. I ran past Grandma, who was wearing an apron and making lunch in the kitchen. She saw my tear-stained face.

"Joanie, what happened down there? Were you two arguing?"

I ignored her, too and ran up the hallway leading to the upstairs bathroom and bedrooms. I ran to the last bedroom on the right, which we shared that week. I slammed the door shut and locked it.

I began what I called the Space Game. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes, concentrating until I could see a vision of outer space in my mind's eye.

"Go--far--away," I whispered. "Go--away--and away and away and away--"

I seemed to detach from my body and the bedroom and Grandma's house and Michigan and North America and the whole blasted planet Earth. I flew through space until I could see the moon's pockmarked surface. I imagined standing there while Neil Armstrong bounced among the craters and planted the American flag. There were no cities, or great heights to threaten me. Those persistent towers were also gone, replaced only by the astronaut in the bulky suit and the stiff banner before him.

"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," I murmured, now lying back on the bed. Grandma knocked on the door and called my name, but my moonscape was not penetrated.

Jill and I made up again the next day. She sent me copies of her vacation photos, reminding me that I should write down my "Manhattan Fairy Tale." I did do so. It took me nearly a week to create the story and make the illustrations. When I was done, I was quite pleased with the end result.

OCTOBER 2001 / TEARS & SONGS IN THE GARDEN

One week after I upset Darcy Lewandowski, the girl from Accounting with the 9/11 pins, I went to her office and apologized. She accepted graciously. She spoke about how sad it was all those people died. She expressed sympathy over what I must feel, having fled the World Trade Center myself before it tumbled into nothingness. I nodded numbly, handed her four bucks, and took a metal remembrance ribbon pin back to my office. I wore it nearly every day after that for the rest of the year.

On the third Saturday of the month, Michael announced his intention of watching a program on VH-1 called The Concert for New York City. "They're going to have The Who, Neil Young and Paul McCartney on there!" he told me.

A year earlier, he had come back from The Palace of Auburn Hills, his hat askance, and grinning and inebriated. It the way he sometimes got to cope with the automotive deadlines. A supplier had taken him out to see our local stop of The Who's reunion tour. He went on to explain in great detail the night's vicissitudes - the margaritas, the generous hors d'oeuvres table in the suite, song list, Roger Daltrey's baritone still sounding good after all those years, the windmilling of Pete Townshend's arm, the Fender bass John Entwistle played, and Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) on the drums. Two days later he came home with a CD of The Who's greatest hits.

I was somewhat aware of this Concert for NYC, as I was of many of the events of that fall. We regularly watched VH-1; I had guilty pleasures in Pop-Up Video and Behind the Music. I have musical tastes ranging from 1960s Motown, through the classic rock of my childhood, and on to what was called "alternative" in the 1990s. I made a cautious decision to watch the concert with Michael.

He settled himself into his La-Z-Boy and clicked the remote. At 7 p.m. the shindig began with David Bowie. He sang Simon & Garkfunkel's "America," and his own "Heroes." So far, so good.

Two hours later, I walked out of the room and went upstairs to our den to burrow into the Internet. I was sweaty all over, thinking this might be what a hot flash might is like. My nose and arm throbbed again.

During those two hours that Michael and I sat side by side in our recliners, singers came out and performed song after song about the Big Apple. Billy Joel spoke of Armageddon hitting the city, and the buildings coming down ("Miami 2017").

The Backstreet Boys showed up with their canned harmonies. I thought, Why hasn't the latest wave of teenybopper rock died out yet? Or is it the beginning of the end? Weirdly enough, a member of the boy band's crew had died in the crash of one of the hijacked jets. Melissa Etheridge took a different tack - no Big Apple serenade - with "Come to My Window." Someone ran up onstage to her and put a New York fireman's dress cap on her head. I must say, it went nicely with her Fire Department of New York daily duty shirt. A little unnerving to see those Twin Towers on the sleeve patches, though.

The idea that it was a concert for NEW YORK CITY should have been further qualified as a concert for NYC POLICE AND FIRE PERSONNEL. Dozens of these suckers had been admitted to Madison Square Garden for free. The cameras liberally displayed them jumping around, throwing their fists into the air and holding aloft pictures of their comrades who had died in the WTC mess. It was their catharsis, balm for their healing wounds, all fed to millions. As a survivor myself, it wasn't the kind of healing that could help me. I was still confused about what would help me get better.

Interspersed with these sets were beg-and-grovel appeals, short films by NYC guys like Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, and comedy bits. The fire and law enforcement people giggled when Will Ferrell from Saturday Night Live did a so-so impression of George W. Bush. They roared even louder when SNL alumnus Adam Sandler appeared as "Opera Man," a cross between Placido Domingo and an effete who sang in fakey Italian about current events.

When The Who stepped out on stage and launched into "Baba O'Reilly," the spectators hit fever pitch level. Old Glory and the Union Jack kept flashing on the screens above the stage and behind them. The firefighters and cops swayed and sang along: "Don't cry ... it's-only-a-teenage-WASTELAND!"

They waved their caps and bobbed their photos of the dead. I felt strange to see their lined faces and their schoolboy behavior, because many appeared to be my age. This had been their music and mine. I wondered, too - had any of these guys been the ones I had seen in the WTC lobbies?

"Baba O'Reilly" was interminable, leading into "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." I squirmed at this great public display of chest beating, grief and celebration bundled together. Off to the World Wide Web with me!

"Hey, where are you going?" Michael asked me after I loudly dropped the recliner's footrest down and got up. He picked up his glass of merlot for a sip.

"I'm getting out of here. I can't take this," I said.

"But Paul McCartney's coming up. You've got to watch Paul McCartney with me!"

"No way. I hate this touchy-feely, sobby-weepy, give-us-some-money rubbish."

"But Joanie, I love you and want to be with you." He got moony-eyed. "And besides, since you were there--"

"Don't even start on that. I'm going to the Web." I stalked out of the family room and retired into the creaky desk chair in the den on the second floor, off the master bedroom.

I find it strange that the first thing that I looked up on the Net was the Concert for NYC. I wanted to see what kind of blurb VH-1 had on the thing, and if they had T-shirts. It always seems these shows have this paraphernalia. Sure enough, there were shirts, hats, mugs, posters, ad nauseam. "All net proceeds go to the Robin Hood Fund for 9/11 relief." Arrrgh.

I sat there at the computer for nearly four more hours as Michael watched that claptrap and music to the bitter end, just to see McCartney. I could hear the former "cute Beatle's" voice right up the stairs. I wanted to plug my ears, just like I did when I was a kid.

Cautiously, I came downstairs and peered into the family room.

"FREEEE-DOM! I said, FREEE-DOM! I will fight-for my right-to live in-FREEE-DOM!" Congratulations, Paul, on such innovative lyrics. I caught a brief glimpse of McCartney singing and vigorously strumming his acoustic. I made a face as if gagging, as he was wearing a navy blue FDNY shirt with a silkscreened, small replica of the Maltese cross fire symbol.

I retreated to our bedroom and slammed the door. I didn't have to hear any more songbirds and their paeans to New York. When Michael finally came upstairs, undressed and slipped into the bed next to me, we didn't speak a word. We went to sleep, woke up the next morning and went to church as usual.

IN LIFE / THE BOHEMIAN AND THE WALLFLOWER

When I think of Jill, my first cousin, I don't feel just affection. We performed a complex enough dance for 20 years as kin and friends that a multiplicity of emotions erupts in me every time I remember her.

We became known as the "J Twins" on Mom's side of the family, because our first names both started with this letter, and we had been born on April 23. Jill had very dark brown, wavy hair, olive skin and deep blue eyes, in contrast to my pale, freckled skin, medium-blue eyes and light brown hair. She was lithe and tall like her father, while I hit 5-foot-2 when I was 15 years old and went no further.

My earliest memories of life seem date to fall 1964, including playing with Jill at Grandma Morris' house. From the beginning, she was wilder than me, more articulate and inclined to take risks. She made my own early fearlessness look like sheer cowardice. While I was happy to just clamber the wooden privacy fence along Grandma's backyard to get to the railroad tracks back there, Jill had to climb to the fence top and walk along it like a balance beam. Her body quivered as one foot was meticulously placed in front of the other, and she never fell.

"Hey, look!" she said once very late in summer 1974, just before school started. She spoke in a bad French accent. "I'm Philippe Petit, and I'm on a tightrope between zee Twin Towers!"

I grimaced. "Yuck! Can't you just be Olga Korbut?"

"No, no! Olga Korbut is a leetle ground walker! I'm Monsieur Petit, and I'm walking way above zee world! I'm zee king of zee air!"

"Well, I'm a TV reporter, and I'll tell everyone that you better be careful. You don't have any safety net below those big, ugly buildings."

"I don't need no steenkin' safety net!" She giggled and jumped down off the fence, landing next to me. "Woooo! Now zee New York gendarmes will arrest me, but then they'll see I'm a nice monsieur and let me go."

I glared at her. "Sir, don't you know you shouldn't be walking around up there? Why don't you just go to Russia and walk around with Olga Korbut?"

"Because, I am Monsieur Petit, zee greatest aerialist in the world! And I can walk on zee air!"

"Cut it out now, before I put you in jail."

"But I will just escape, up in zee air!" She returned to her own voice. "Last one out's a rotten egg!" She ran to the fence and began to climb it again. I rushed to catch up with her, and we went over. Philippe Petit! Good grief!

These were the days, especially in spring, summer and fall, I remember best from our childhoods. At Grandma's house we hopped the fence to flatten pennies under the Grand Trunk trains that passed at least once a day.
dragonfly
i showed her how i stood perfectly still, and let a dragonfly land on my hand...

We picked bouquets of black-eyed susans and Queen Anne Lace, and took them back to Grandma for her dining room table. I showed Jill how I caught insects, and she'd yell "EEEEEWWW!" every time I captured one. The only time she did not was when I showed her how I stood perfectly still, let a dragonfly land on my hand, and trapped it. She said these bugs were beautiful. We took our sketchpads all over the neighborhood to record our favorite objects and vistas. We played art critic with one another and tried to avoid arguments over our opinions on the other's work.

When we were 10 - about a month after the New York photo incident - we were romping around back there one day. We had made up and were friends again. We came up with an idea. I had mentioned that we seemed to be prowling around like lionesses.

Jill said, "Then let's be the Union of the Lionesses!"

She said she ruled the air, so she should be the "Lioness of the Azure Skies." I said that the earth was mine, so I coined the title of the "Lioness of Terra Firma."

This Lionesses Union quickly became a whole ritual with a liturgy that we would recite as solemnly and with as deep conviction as any dedicated lodge member. We stood facing each other among the wildflowers, both pairs of hands intertwined. Jill led the recital, and I would answer, as we gazed at each other and renewed our pact.

"Now begin the secret words of the J Twins. Sister!"

"Sister!"

"Spirit twin!"

"Spirit twin!"

"Who are we?"

"We're lionesses!"

"And what do lionesses do?"

"We hunt and we go on journeys!"

"And what do we capture on our journeys?"

"Imagination and adventure!"

"And we lionesses are?"

"Partners!"

"What kind of partners?"

"Partners in imagination and adventure!"

"For how long?"

"Always and forever!"

"What? I can't hear you!"

"Always and forever!"

"ROAR!"

"ROAR!"

"We're on the prowl!"

"J Twins on the prowl!"

"Lioness of the Azure Skies - reporting!"

"Lioness of Terra Firma - reporting!"

"ROARRRRR! We are the Union of the Lionesses!" we yelled together.

We gamboled and dashed about, pretending to hunt and corner prey. We laughed and roared at the Grand Trunk freight trains when we passed, waving at the engineer and the men in the cabooses.

Grandma's yard was a paradise to us, too. It was even wilder and larger than my own, dotted with maples and oaks. Her garden was a jungle of raspberry bushes intermixed with tall grass and unruly lilacs. In the summer we would pick berries and bring them inside, where we'd eat them with vanilla ice cream and glasses of Faygo pop - she always bought this Detroit brand because it was so cheap. We liked to climb the trees - Jill always seemed to go twice as high as me - and pretend to fish in the creek that meandered through Grandma's yard and on toward her neighbor's. There was a simple footbridge across the creek bed. It flowed in the springtime but was gone by summer. There were never any fish there, just polliwogs on occasion.

In the winter we played in the basement. We played house and with Barbies, like girls do to this day, but we also ventured into other realms. I came up with a game of setting up toys at the end of Grandpa Morris' old billiards table and knocking them down with pool balls. The more dolls, blocks and Fisher-Price toys we knocked down, the more points we scored. We created imaginary towns in Grandma's utility and laundry room. We issued ourselves driver's licenses, and used Jill and Rocky's old tricycles as our cars. We pretended that her 1930s wringer washer - left in disuse in a corner - was a huge dragon, and we were knights who had to slay it.

Even though I was eight hours older than Jill, she still wanted to be the leader. She was garrulous and wanted to befriend every kid on the block. She dragged me over to strange children's houses to introduce us. Like the quintessential used car salesman, she sweet-talked these kids into including us in their play. Before her voice and brash manner would annoy them, she endeared herself to these juvenile posses. The result was that I, a natural loner, got to travel with small groups on occasion.

Often our play involved just us. By the mid-1970s, Jill had idolized the counterculture and decided that like me, she wanted to be an artist and writer. I dreamt of being some kind of author in the tradition of Mark Twain or Laura Ingalls Wilder. But Jill wanted to be Ayn Rand or Dorothy Parker. She wanted to be a gadabout in New York City or Paris.

She tested Aunt Ellen and Uncle Tim's limits by wearing clothing garish and gypsy-like even by '70s standards. She and Rocky started a lawn mowing service and took on a Detroit News route, which allowed her to build a wardrobe. Her garb's colors were a confluence of Pop Art, Day-Glo, and Peter Max - chartreuse, bright orange, cerise, lemon yellow, violet, electric blue. She talked Aunt Ellen into a pair of platform shoes by 1975. Her sketchbook and notepad had gaudy designs on their covers. I remember her steno pad cover had her self-imposed nickname on it: THE BOHEMIAN.

My clothing was simple, my jeans embarrassingly procured through rummage sales at St. Mark's and an older cousin on my father's side. I did wear the standard polyester and nylon shirts with the colorful patterns and illustrations, but they were drab compared to Jill's ensembles. When I wrote, it was via hunt and peck on Mom's 1954 Royal manual typewriter or in my own notebooks with unadorned covers. My sketchpad cover had only my name written upon it.

I felt shy and considered myself such. Jill was the scream of an eagle or the roar of the lioness, as I said in the diary I kept in 1976. In junior high I walked home alone, while Jill sneaked around with friends after school and smoked joints in alleys and some of the wooded areas left in Troy, where the Lehmans lived. She began wearing makeup by that bicentennial year, in which she and her family went on their second trip East. She dubbed it the "Yankee Doodle Eastern Seaboard Tour '76," inspired by rock concert T-shirts she had seen.

I usually feel love for Jill when I think of her today, but there are moments when I remember we clashed pretty badly. She laughed at my insecurities sometimes and social blunders before the kids in Grandma Morris' neighborhoods. She taunted me about cowardice and nerves, especially about heights. "A lioness can't be chicken like that, Joanie Joanetta," she said often.

She also played with my first name. Around Christmas 1969, we had been playing with some cheep reindeer in one of the back bedrooms at Grandma's house. She was repeating my name: "Joanie. Joanetta. Joanie. Joanetta. Joanie Joanetta! Come here, Joanie Joanetta!" After that, I couldn't stop her from calling me that, even up to the last time we really spent together, in summer 1984.

Jill overshadowed my existence with her clothing, her yarn spinning, her humor. She was so well traveled, going on vacations with my aunt, uncle and Rocky every summer from age 5 on. She and I constantly wrote, but my correspondence seemed so dull compared to her travelogues from across the continent. She sent me endless postcards, Polaroids, and color prints of her at the famous sites of the United States. By age 13, she had seen 36 of the 50 states.

She was a bohemian, a fireball, a mountain climber.

I was a wallflower, a candle flame, a ground dweller.

In 1976, just after the bicentennial extravaganzas, she visited New York City for the second time. She knew, as she scaled first the Empire State Building, and then the World Trade Center, that she had found her future home.

{To PART 4 of Persistence of Memory}