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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 3}

OCTOBER 2001 / PASSAGES

I walk and I walk. My black oxfords scrape on the carpet, which I see is charcoal gray and lines a corridor that seems to extend endlessly. There is a white drop ceiling overhead with fluorescent lights covered with flat, rectangular panels. In other words, the ceiling I have seen in several hundred buildings and factory offices I visited in two years of consulting. The walls are stark white in contrast to my black pantsuit.

Doors pass by me. Their suite numbers are blurred. No matter how much I struggle to focus my eyes, the numerals remain fuzzy. The only thing I can determine is that each suite has five numerals. Five? Strange. I realize this is how Michael sees when he doesn't have his glasses on, as he is farsighted. I cannot determine why everything else is sharp, but the numbers are obscured.
hallway
a corridor that seems to extend endlessly...

Most of the suite doors have fake wood grain patterns and are closed. A few have windows around them, with a corporate logo either etched in or emblazoned on an attached sign. A reception area is visible in one, the front desk ovate and built of blond wood. In couple of offices that are open, I look inside and see cubicles, desks and chairs, again like the scores of offices that housed JTS clients. The walls are pale, and the drop ceilings with their fluorescent glare loom overhead. It is the windows in these suites that catch my eye.

I have seen these windows before, but very infrequently. They are very tall and very narrow and have broad white frames between them.

These windows were in the suites of the World Trade Center.

Then I am here again, I think. So many freaking questions here. Do I have another client, another of those financial services firms that belatedly discovered quality assurance? Or maybe some dinky law firm that wanted a prestige address? What must I do? Perform an audit? Write their procedures or their quality manual? How many hours inside this tower of architectural overkill? How many hours until the Lioness of Terra Firma prowls back on her earth? How can JTS be so convinced that I am the one to handle this? Why must I keep being loaded onto jets for New York?

I see a sign indicating the floor number and tenants. The hazy floor number is in the triple digits. So I'm near the top of one of the towers. Oh, how wonderful. The firms' names are white smudges of indecipherable letters against a dark background. I do not know whom I must see or even if I am on the correct floor.

I see a hallway branching perpendicular to the one in which I tread and enter it. Now I am in the building's central core, where the elevators, restrooms, and stairwells are. The elevator area walls are white marble with black streaks, the same as the lobby. The lift doors are brass colored. The floor numerals on the edge of the elevator frame are blurred. Again everything else is delineated in such an exaggerated, exact manner that I want to yell. The unreadable elevator numbers remind me of cheap reality TV shows in which someone's face is an amorphous blob in order to disguise their identity.

I hear hums from within the shafts in front of me. A bell rings, a light comes on, and a man in navy dress slacks and a light blue, open-necked shirt steps out of a car. He carries a briefcase. There is a plastic ID badge hanging from his pocket. He smiles and silently nods while passing me. I don't think to ask him which floor this is. No one else is the elevator, and the doors hiss shut.

I've taken a wrong turn. Not only have I stumbled upon the wrong floor, but the wrong building, the wrong city. I don't belong here. I am a ghost, an interloper, invader of an exclusive, closed city shooting above the firmament. Now I must flee before they find me. Perhaps the man who benignly acknowledged me by the elevators is contacting them right now.

I must avoid the elevators. Too obvious. A way to die. The stairs are the only option. No problem for me - five years in a health club has toned me up and honed my endurance. I search the central area and find three stairwells. Which one? Where will they not find me?

I place my hand on the door marked "A." I stare at its thick metallic surface and inhale deeply. "A is for apple, J is for Jacks," I say. "I must go this way. I must go away and away and away."

I am in a stairwell like hundreds of others. As expected, it's painted in a hideous color the maintenance people picked up at some fire sale. The walls are an unappetizing beige, the steps gray with yellow edges. I charge downstairs, watching the blurred floor numbers decrease.

I take a misstep, trip over an abandoned attaché case and a lady's scarlet pump on a step. Why are these stupid objects here, in this very place? I tumble forward and grab for the railing. Instead I go right over it and feel gravity savagely yanking my body down.

My head strikes a railing; pain shoots through me. I cannot stop my acceleration. I scream as I drop. I realize one of the monster siblings has cornered me, has trapped me within his depths. He is now snuffing me out to consume me. Which brother is he - Nelson or David?

I cannot get away. I scream and kick out with my legs, smashing the railings myself, so that he knows my fury at being ensnared.

"You may have caught me, you bastard, but I'll make sure you hurt! I'll be the most painful meal you have! You'll remember me!"

The velocity tears into me more. I scream again. The descent shudders through my head, and everything becomes black. I feel a sensation of slamming in my head.

"Joanie!"

A male voice. My body jerked, and my eyes popped back open. I saw patterns on a black ceiling, irregular geometric shapes. A play of moonbeams through blinds and tree branches. A face loomed over me.

Michael's skin was pallid in the night. "Joanie, what happened? Are you all right?"

I stared up at him and wanted to sob for joy. "I'm home. I'm safe."

"Yes, you're home, Joanie. You must've had a nightmare."

"I did."

"You were screaming. You were yelling and calling someone a bastard. You were thrashing all over the place. You pulled the sheet out."

"Oh, good grief."

He pulled me close to him, encircling me with his arms. "Come here. Tell me what happened."

"I was falling from a great height. A monster was going to eat me after that."

"Joanie, jeez." He laughed nervously. "I'll protect you from those monsters."

I managed a weak laugh, but I was so raw and frightened that I needed him. I wanted Michael's warmth, the curves of his muscles, the coarseness of the hair on his forearms, the cotton of his T-shirt.

A is for apple; J is for Jacks. It was the opening line of a jingle in a Kellogg's Apple Jacks cereal commercial I saw when I was in junior high. I pushed the silly phrase out of my head and struggled toward rest again.

We fell asleep lying on our sides, his arms around me. The dream that I remembered from that time was of standing in the wild area beyond the privacy fences in Grandma Morris' neighborhood, watching an infinite Grand Trunk Western freight train trundling by. I waved at a man whose face peered out of the caboose.

MARCH 28, 1982 / HERE THERE BE MONSTERS

The very first time I visited World Trade Center, it turned into an event that I soon after labeled "a big barrel of malodorous, rotten fish."

While I stood in the lobby of the south tower, I felt as if I were in a mausoleum. There were white marble walls and high windows that ended in gothic peaks. Chandeliers in decorative, recessed square forms on the ceiling cast a bronze-like light, accentuated by the same color in the elevator doors.

My promise of summer 1972, to never go to towering heights for "ten million million dollars," was shattered. I was nearly 20 years old.
WTC south tower lobby
there were white marble walls and high windows that ended in gothic peaks

My entry into the Big Apple came via a strong desire to see exactly what the city was like, and to sample its attractions. My entry into one of its largest buildings was due in part to fatigue and being a pushover.

That last Sunday in March was my final day in Gotham. I had spent nearly four days there attending a convention of a group called Alpha Epsilon Ro, an honorary organization for broadcasting students. I arrived as part of the Central Michigan University delegation. We swaggered a bit, as we had been named chapter of the year in 1981, and were heavily favored to win again that year. We were euphoric on that day, because we did win the night before.

We were housed at the New York Statler in Midtown. From what I can gather, this facility has reverted to its legendary name, the Hotel Pennsylvania. Any big band fan knows Glen Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000," the lodging's main phone number. The hotel was and is on Seventh Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Street.

I shared a room with three other women - Christina, with short black hair and a love of rhythm and blues; Sharon, a diffident type closer in personality to me, with thick-lensed glasses; and Tracey, a hard partier with sandy hair and fair skin who did not speak much and loved margaritas.

I spent a lot of time with these girls and other CMU students, going to nightclubs, sightseeing, and attending group meetings and seminars. Whenever I could, I pulled out my artist's pad and drew pictures of what I saw, because my camera was so cheap and inadequate. A couple students insisted I draw portraits of them, which I labeled and dated in my usual practice before handing the final product over. I had taken several art classes in high school and at Central to hone my talents. My parents had discouraged me from becoming an artist, especially my mom with her imagery of an emaciated me in some dank garret somewhere. However, as a hobby it was fine, and I pursued it every chance I got.

Every night I didn't sleep more than five hours. On Sunday, I could barely pry my eyes open, and I was afflicted with homesickness. I wanted to return to CMU's home campus in Mount Pleasant.

Our plane back to Detroit Metro didn't depart Newark International until about 6:30 p.m. That left us with some time to kill. Christina seemed a fount of boundless energy. She was a night owl and leader type. She said to everyone: "Let's go to the World Trade Center. Who's coming?"

Tracey and Sharon said, "I will! We are!"

I stared at Christina, seeing visions of King Kong, cradling Jessica Lange in his paw. "Joanie?" she said.

"Nope."

"C'mon it'll be fun. We're going to the top."

"Forget it. I don't like heights." My images shifted to the dead Kong lying in the plaza between the towers.

"The observation deck's enclosed. You won't feel afraid up there."

"I'm almost broke. I need the money for our van back to Newark." I saw spectators surrounding the tragic ape's carcass. Jessica Lange was crying.

"You already paid that! It only costs three bucks to go to the Trade Center. You've got that, don't you?"

"I think I do."

"Look, you don't just want to sit around the hotel waiting. That's boring, Joanie."

"I can watch TV."

"That's dull. You came to New York to have fun."

"I've had fun for three days already."

"You can have even more fun today. Why don't you come along with us? You could draw pictures of the views!"

"Uh--maybe."

"C'mon. It'll be a great ending to our trip."

"Oh, all right. Good grief. Okay, I'll go." I sighed.

"Great. We'll leave soon."

She went to the next bedroom and recruited the three other occupants with this same tour guide-cheerleader hybrid. She was so loud that her voice penetrated the walls.

This is one reason I don't like to be over-tired. I enter "sheep mode," cheerily and mutely accepting the direction of others. Much of the time I had been dressed down for complaining, defying authority and questioning things. But in those when I was worn out, I became a happy little servant.

I was so ragged that I simply wanted to push through the day, crawl aboard the jet, and go home. I found myself at the tail end of a line of seven young women trooping to the second tallest building on the planet at that time.

At that time, my hair was cut short, punk rocker style, ending in spikes all over. I was dressed in baggy jeans, a gray jacket and a shirt with two Japanese geishas on it in an explosion of colors. I had bought it a couple days earlier at a boutique in SoHo. I had a pair of ratty blue Nike tennis shoes. There was a small MTV button on my lapel, a prize to me at the time because I got it from an employee of the then-new cable network. I was fixated on MTV during my college years, watching it for hours.

Christina led the other six of us to the subway stop on Broadway. I bought a copy of the Daily News from a newsstand on our way there and shoved it into a carrying bag on my shoulder.

I found buying tokens and going through the turnstiles to be fascinating. The train that stopped for us was splotched with graffiti, just like in the movies. We sat or stood as seating permitted as the train rattled its way toward Lower Manhattan.

Christina seemed to know way unerringly, so we followed her out at a stop whose name I forgot to memorize.

I saw several shops and restaurants in the station. We went up to street level. The light hurt my eyes, even though the sky was overcast.

The group gasped as we approached the Twin Towers across Liberty. After we had crossed the street, many of the girls craned their necks to study them and then took out cameras.

I screwed up my face and whispered, "It's even more gigantic than I thought." I swear I couldn't see the tops of those off-white blocks.

We came into the south tower lobby. That gargantuan chamber had a coolness that began to penetrate my tired state and spark my unease. Why was such a broad space so inhuman and harsh? It seemed to snuff out the spirit with its vastness. The whole thing also looked so dated, rooted in aesthetics that screamed 1960s. A couple years later I would learn the name of this architecture type - International Style.

Our group was on the mezzanine, which was lined with clear railings topped with chrome. I looked down and saw the bank of elevators, familiar to me from Jeff Bridges running to them to get to the tower's apex in his attempt to rescue Jessica Lange. There weren't that many people going to them, because it was Sunday.

I took out my sketchbook and began to draw the tourists, the pale walls, the gothic windows and other elements. I deliberately used simple lines to capture the place's starkness and sterility. Trade Center Lobby, NYC, March 28, 1982 - ice cold place, I wrote beneath the picture.

As I stood in line finishing the drawing, the first inkling of Rebellion, of why I would pay money to suspend myself above America's largest city, began to appear in my mind as a hulking boxer. He warred with another called Curiosity, a need to see this building that first frightened me on the news 12 years before, and riveted my attention to the TV over two nights in 1978, as I viewed the King Kong remake. The victor of this bout, which I imagined unfolding at Madison Square Garden, would be selected soon.

I was packed tightly in among other tourists in the elevator; I was happy I did not have claustrophobia as well. It had so many buttons that it was another thing to fascinate me. "Triple digits," I said softly. Just strange to see buttons exceeding 100.

When the lift hit the 107th, we had arrived. The doors slid open. We walked up an inclined floor to the great, squared room with floor-to-ceiling windows.

"All right, everyone," Christina said, "let's go look at New York City!"

We entered the deck area. The other five pulled out cameras and charged for the windows. These had low, narrow, metal little benches with curving sides bolted to the window frames. Tourists could either kneel or sit upon them and look straight down.

"C'mon, Joanie, you too!" Christina said, with a wave of her arm toward those narrow bands of glass.

I took out my own camera; a terribly inadequate Kodak Instamatic I had owned for a decade. I frowned at it, put it away and instead pulled out my sketchpad. I drew a picture of the tourists at the windows, sitting, kneeling, pointing, chatting, shooting pictures, and looking out a telescope. I labeled this one, Tourists gawk like maniacs - World Trade Center observatory, NYC, March 28, 1982.

"Joanie, what are you doing back there?" Christina shouted to me. "Why don't you come over and draw what's out here?"

I timidly approached a window with my drawing pad. One look at the acutely miniaturized structures outside, and a river that from our vantage that resembled Grandma Morris' backyard creek, was enough.

KO to Curiosity by Rebellion's left hook! Bout over! The winnah and new world champeen - Rebellion! The crowd here at the Garden goes wild!

My stomach turned tight, and then queasy. I backed away from the window. I felt breakfast rising, a disgusting taste of coffee burping up. I turned and ran, panicked and horrified by this Lilliputian Gotham. My sole mission was to find a ladies' room before disaster followed Rebellion's victory.

I smashed past the door and knocked aside a second one into a stall. My knees buckled after I lifted the toilet seat. I retched three times, my toast, sausage, eggs over easy, hash browns, and two cups of coffee expelled. I struggled to my feet and staggered, only to lose balance again. Then nothing. All became dark.

When I regained consciousness, a harsh fluorescent light shined in my eyes. Voices murmured. Three women speaking a musical Scandinavian language stood to my left. Christina and Sharon were my right. Other obscure figures seemed to hover at the door.

My head was on something soft; a man's suit coat, I saw later. I could see a man's hand beneath my nose holding a rounded tube - smelling salts.

"She's awake now," this thirty-something in his shirtsleeves said. He had receding strawberry blond hair, and had spoken to a girl about my age with black hair in a sculpted short cut. She may have been wearing a uniform or some kind of smock.

He looked down at me. "How do you feel?" He sounded like Bugs Bunny at first. I think he was from Brooklyn. "Are you okay?"

"I think," I said. My eyes narrowed to shut out the garish light. "Where am I? What happened?"

"You're in a restroom in the World Trade Center observation deck." I groaned when he said that. "You passed out."

I figured he was a manager. He jerked his head toward the three women at left. "These three ladies from Norway found you unconscious and facedown on the floor, along with this." He showed me my artist's pad. The women nodded and murmured in accented English. "Then they came and got us. It took a hell of a time to find your group. Do you know what happened?"

Christina squatted down next to me. "Yeah, Joanie. You had me worried there when you ran off. What happened?"

"The height," I said. "I couldn't take the height."

"Fear of heights, huh?" the manager said. I nodded. "We've got to deal with that up here once in a while."

"Yes, I'm scared of them. All I know is when I saw that tiny New York, I got sick. I ran away, threw up, and then everything went blank."

"How do you feel right now?"

"Better. I want to go home."

Christina said, "It's not time to go yet."

"What? Why can't we just leave, Christina? Our plane!"

"It doesn't leave for over four hours." She shook her head. "The rest of us aren't done. How about this? You don't have to look outside, Joanie. Maybe you could just wait somewhere while we finish sightseeing."

The manager and the girl with sculpted hair reached down to help me up. "You're ruthless - you and your stinking sightseeing," I said to Christina. "But if you really have to do it, I guess I'm captive. Try to wrap it up, though. It's torture to be here."

Christina laughed at this remark. "It's only torture if you're scared. I think the views are awesome." That remark strongly reminded me of Jill.

Inside I was screaming and badly wanted to knock something down. Maybe the wastebasket by the sinks. I struggled to stay in control.

"You can go sit in the concessions area, if you want," the manager said. You can face away from the windows. That might help." They led me out of the restroom. I saw my pallid face and sunken eyes in the mirror. There seemed to be a grid work on my face - I realized that the tile floor had left impressions in my skin! The spikes of my hair were either smashed down on my scalp or chaotically poking every which way. I raised a hand to my head to try and neaten my hair.

Gawkers stood by the door as the manager and worker led me outside, followed by the Norwegians, Christina and Sharon. The crowd parted and dispersed back to the windows.

They led me to concessions. The area was decorated in tacky multi-colored neon and chrome. "Give her something to drink," the manager ordered one of the attendants. "What do you want?"

"Orange pop, thanks," I said. I felt steady enough for my helpers to release me. I turned to Christina and Sharon. "You two go back to your sightseeing. I'll wait here for you."

Sharon said, "Take it easy, Joanie. Just relax and don't work yourself up again."

Christina patted me on the shoulder. "Okay. Loosen up, will you? You never told me you were afraid of heights."

The manager handed me my pop and a couple of napkins. I smiled weakly and whispered "thanks."

I said to Christina, "You never gave me much of a chance to tell you with that rah-rah-let's-all-go-to-the-World-Trade-Center thing this morning. 'The hotel would be so boring, Joanie,' you said. Remember?"

"I do. You should've said something, but now it's too late. You're up here. Just go sit down and relax, and we'll be back before you know it." Sharon nodded silently. They walked away, leaving me with the manager. He gave me my camera and paused before passing over my pad to me.

"This is a really good picture you made here," he said. "I like how you show how eager the tourists are as they look outside. Are you an artist?"

"Thank you, but no, just a serious amateur."

"It's still good, though. Too bad you probably can't draw what's outside."

"That's true. Maybe I can sketch the people in the snack bar."

"That's a good idea. Take it easy; you've been through a lot.

"Thanks again for your help," I said. "I think I'll go rest."

He smiled and nodded. "We want all our guests to have a pleasant and comfortable experience."

I shrugged and went into the dining area. I found a table near the back and sat down with my back to the windows. I sipped the orange pop a bit and opened up the sketchpad. I turned my chair just enough so I could see other diners, but no hint of the floor-to-ceiling windows that I swore would again evoke vertigo and nausea. I drew two old men speaking a foreign tongue and a young family with an infant and toddler. I wrote underneath: Trade Center deck, snack bar, NYC, March 28, 1982, chowing down. I fainted before drawing this. Yuck.

I set aside the pad and took out my copy of the Daily News from the tote bag. Sipping my beverage, I read a story about Ronald Reagan, which I had folded back. I picked up my drawing pad again and made a quick study of him, which I labeled Prez Ronnie, '82. My fatigue returned after plowing through the story and sketching. My mind receded, and I rediscovered blackness.

The next sensation was of being rocked and Christina's voice calling my name several times, growing louder every time she repeated.

I lifted my head, my eyes still closed. "Has the jet landed at Metro yet?" I asked.

Female voices giggled. I opened my eyes and saw the six girls there, some shaking their heads and pointing at me. I became aware that something white was over my left eye. My right eye also was blinded when Christina pointed her camera at me and took a shot.

She peeled the object off my face and set it on the table - a napkin. It had stuck to my face while I had slept, due to my perspiration.

Christina gave me a smile like a mom to a lost child. "No, Joanie, we haven't even gotten to the airport yet." She chuckled and shook her head "Boy, you must have been in a deep sleep."

"Yeah," Sharon said. "We're still at the World Trade Center."

"The World Trade-ugh! Yeck! I can't seem to get out of here!" I said.

"This day's really been hard, huh?" I nodded at Sharon.

One of the girls from the neighboring hotel room pointed at me. "You are so funny!" She could not stop laughing. "Look, she's got Reagan on her cheek!"

The others laughed louder. I looked down at the newspaper and saw that the photo of Ronald Reagan and the surrounding text were faint and smudged. "Her face has ink on it!" her roommate said.

"She looks like she's got war paint on," the third screamed. "Fire up, Chips!"

"Yeah! Let's go, fire up, Chips!" the first girl said. Others joined in this cheer for our university nickname, the Chippewas.

"Ooh-wah-Chips! Oooooh-wah-CHIPS!" People at other tables stared. "Chip-ooh-wahs! Fight! Fight! YEAH!" The girls applauded and whistled.

All of them, even kindly Sharon, would not stop laughing and acting as if we were at Percy Shorts Stadium for a football match. Christina took another picture of me, and I ended up all but blind with a flickering light from the flash. I waved my arm at her, acting as if I was going to grab her 35-millimeter.

I grabbed another napkin and started violently wiping at my face. I stood up and glared at them. I crammed my paper and sketchpad into my tote bag and strode out of the dining area and back to the restroom. They followed me, still chatting and giggling softly. "Let me get this crap off my face, and then let's get the hell out of here."

Inside I cleaned my face to the best of my ability, splashing cold water all over my flushed and sweaty face. I bared my teeth at myself in the mirror.

"Curses," I whispered. "I, the Lioness of Terra Firma, foiled by a tall building!" I wetted my comb and ran it through my hair, which was just trashed.

I looked down at the sinks and bared my teeth again. My anger boiled, and I saw sparks of light before my eyes. I kicked a sink, one, twice, three times.

"ROARRRR!" I raised my arms above my head, pumping my fists to the ceiling.

"ROARRRR! ROARRRR!" And I did deliver a kick to a waste bin. It teetered and fell against the wall. I dashed for the door. I shoved past two women coming in. Their smiles melted when they saw my red, sweaty, violent face.

I returned to the group, which began moving toward the elevator. I walked behind them, a coil of barely controlled fury. They were clustered together, cheered and united by my misfortune. I didn't say a word during the elevator ride down, nor when we re-entered the lobby Before we exited, I began to kick again, this time at one of the marble-covered window frames.

"Stupid, stupid building. I hate you! I never want to come back here ever again! Ow!" The wall hurt my foot, which I massaged. The group burst into giggles again.

I stood and turned. I raised my right arm, fist clenched, and directed this promise to the chandeliers: "Not for a million million dollars, will I ever see you again, you scumsucking, overgrown place, you ugly hunk of steel and concrete! I will never, ever, ever in all of my existence ever return here to you. And that is a promise set in granite forever more!"

Christina snapped pictures of me kicking and cursing the structure. The girls laughed more. I scowled at her. She coaxed the rest of them into a formation for a group photo. I refused to join them.

I was the first to exit the south tower of the World Trade Center. I charged across Liberty Street, my face burning. While they turned to gaze up at the spires again, and take photos, I acted like Lot from the Book of Genesis. I never looked back, pretending the Twin Towers would turn me into a pillar of salt if I ever set eyes on them. I stared straight ahead until we descended the stairs into the subway station.

While we waited in the terminal at Newark International, I tried to defuse my anger by drawing the travelers and the bustle. I could see the New York skyline and made a quick study of that, too. I drew arrows pointing at the Twin Towers and wrote: A really disgusting place. I drew another pointing at the Empire State Building and wrote: Sir Empire must defend himself against the two big dragons (the disgusting ones).

{To PART 5 of Persistence of Memory}