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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{HERE THERE BE MONSTERS (continued) from PART 4}

The jet took off that evening, and I was lucky to get a window seat. When I looked out and saw Manhattan, I used my hand to cover up the miniaturized towers.

After we were in the air, I went to the restroom. I looked into the tiny mirror in the cramped room and whispered my promise again to never return anywhere near the World Trade Center.

After the plane finally did touch down at Metro, my mother fetched Sharon and me and drove us two and one half hours back to Mount Pleasant. I fell into a dreamless sleep in my bedroom at Beddow Hall, my dorm. I did not wake up for eight hours.

The tale of my debacle spread throughout the students of the Broadcast and Cinematic Arts department. It also spelled the end of my interest in working in television and my decision to move to the Journalism Department that summer. The mess was not the sole reason I left broadcasting; instead I consider it that final lethal straw that crushed the camel's back. For two years I had not really fit in with those broadcasting kids and their cliques. Often I found myself isolated and angry, hoping just to complete the program and get a job. In New York I actually had a sense of belonging - until my travails on that last day.

Christina's photo of me wearing a paper napkin over the left half of my face, my mouth drooping in confusion, and a smudged replica of the President of the United States on my right cheek, was prominently placed on a bulletin board by the radio and TV studios that featured other NYC snapshots.

Whispered comments, jokes about napkins and Mr. Reagan, and pointing fingers dogged me for a couple weeks. I finally stormed into the department and yanked the photo down when no one was looking. I considered ripping it up and discarding it after I got back to Beddow Hall. However, I realized that it was part of the record of my life, a record that I had wanted to preserve, warts and all, for any children and other descendants I might have.

Today I am glad that I kept this ridiculous image. I retained it, along with a copy of my WTC window frame kicking, and my malediction against the complex. Christina gave me these prints at the end of the semester in May, saying they did not mean much to her anymore.

The photos were tossed into a box of college mementos, along with my sketchpads from those years. These things followed me from dwelling to dwelling for the next two decades.

THREE OCTOBERS / AN ISSUE OF GHOSTS

Just before Bill Clinton won his first term of office in 1992, I purchased one of the stupidest and silliest Halloween decorations in my collection.

On a break on an Indian summer evening, I left the newsroom of the South Oakland Sentinel, the daily paper where I worked from 1988 to 1996. I walked a couple blocks east to the Arbor Drugstore in search of my favorite snack, Pringles. I procured a can, wandering in a zigzag, bound for front cash register. I took a detour to the center aisle.

Like all the Arbors that used to be in our area (before CVS bought them out), these wide aisles were devoted to the holiday and seasonal trinkets. At the time, they were heaped with rubber masks, nylon witch hats, soft-sculpture scarecrows, ceramic light-up haunted houses, and cassette tapes promising "95 MINUTES OF PULSE-POUNDING AND FRIGHTFULLY EERIE SOUND EFFECTS!"

Next to a stack of jack-o-lantern and ghost candleholders, there was something suspended from a merchandise hook that looked like an old L'eggs egg wearing a polyester handkerchief with a hot pink skull face. When I was a kid, my mother would buy L'eggs pantyhose, which came in these white plastic containers shaped like eggs and encircled by a paper label.

This thing hanging by the spooky candleholders jumped to life when I simply tapped it. It rattled, shook, and emitted a green light. Its voice was an electronic "Ahweee-YURRRR-ahweee-YURRR-weeeeeee-errrrr!" I cracked up.

It was the kind of inane things produced by American corporations to be enjoyed briefly and then tossed out, so ridiculous as to not be just stupid, but stoopid. For five bucks, the silly thing was worth adding to my Halloween stash.

I grabbed one of the boxes to the right of the candleholders marked "Mystic Halloween Ghost," with "eerie glow ... shaking effects ... haunting sound...requires two AA batteries (not included)." I also made sure I grabbed some batteries off the rack near the front of the store.

Back at the newsroom, I began to experiment with the ghost. I set it on the table on which the fax machine sat. I shouted at it, stomped my feet, jumped up and down and clapped my hands. Every time I was rewarded with the thing going into revolutions and emitting that tinny shriek: "Ahweee-YURRRR-et-cetera." Such a distinctive sound that I called it the "Wee-Yur" ghost from that time forward.

When I took the ghost home, every member of the family weighed in on it. Naomi thought it was absolutely hilarious, especially when you set it on table and activated it. The plastic apparition would squeal and spin, the mechanism inside vibrating vigorously. Naomi giggled uncontrollably.

Michael said, "I'd like to take a hammer and smash that thing."

Christa took one look at the cavorting ghost and burst into tears.

In fact, Christa professed a fear of the Wee-Yur ghost until she was about 4 years old. Two years later, I found yet another variation of this ghost at the Arbor Drugs by our house. This one had a voice about an octave higher and made a monotonous, rapid trill. It also did not need to be bumped or shouted at to turn it on. Every 20 seconds - I stood there and timed it once - the ghost came on by itself and trilled for a half minute.

There was this old exercise bike in the laundry room that I had purchased from Frank, the Sentinel's maintenance man, for $15, because I was so upset about how chubby my thighs had become. Naomi and I wanted to look at the ghosts in action and not scare Christa, so we entered the laundry room and shut the door behind us. I hung the two spirits from the bike's handlebars and turned them on.

"Weeeee-YURRRR-weeee-YURRRR!"

"DrrrrrRRRRRRR-DrrrrrrRRRRRR!"

Naomi and I burst out laughing as one ghost continually spurred the other to come on and scream. It was a perpetual motion of Halloween nonsense, a goof to get in the spirit of fall.

We could hear the scrape of Christa's sneakers outside the door. She was 3 years old by this time and never stopped talking. Now she pounded on the door.

"Mommy!" she shouted. "You turn those 'ghos-tests' off!" That's how she said it.

"Mommy! You turn those 'ghost-tests' OFF!" Christa yelled again, pounding on the door. "Turn them off!"

Naomi and I cracked up even more. "Ghost-tests!" I said. "What are ghost-tests?"

"Maybe they're tests you take after you study about ghosts," Naomi said.

"Yeah, Survey of Phantoms 101! Class is done, boys and girls! Time to take your ghost-tests!"

"Hey, kids, Casper is our guest speaker today. Let's give him some applause," Naomi added. We clapped and lapsed into even rowdier laughter, punctuated by those plastic spirits' squealing.

Christa was crying now and pounding on the door again. "Turn them off! Mommy, turn them off!"

Naomi and I stopped laughing. She turned off one ghosts, and I turned off the other. I was still chuckling when I said, "Well, it's time to settle down now. I've got laundry to do. And you've got math waiting for you, young lady."

Christa sighed - it was a lot like those long ones my mother and I had perfected - and turned to leave the room. "All right. Then I have to study for my ghost-test."

We exchanged smiles as she walked away and opened the room. Christa was standing there glaring, her arms akimbo. "Mommy! You don't ever turn those ghost-tests on again. Do you hear me? Don't ever turn them on!"

"Okay, Christa. They're off. But just remember they're just a plastic L'eggs egg with a light inside and a little mechanism. They're not real!"

"You keep those ghost-tests OFF!"

I smiled and shook my head.

Seven years later, in mid-October 2001, Christa nagged me to bring the Halloween decorations down from the attic. Michael was out of town t a training seminar. I climbed the rickety ladder to the musty attic over our garage and brought down the grocery bags full of the crap. I set them up in the garage so she could select things for the porch, front windows and her room.

"Look, Mommy, it's the Wee-Yur ghost!" Christa said, holding up the now battered box for the plastic phantom.

"Yep," I said, launching into a mimicry of the spirit's voice. I took the box from her and into the house.

"Can I have one of those ghosts for my room? It'll go with my CD with '105 minutes of scary and freaky sounds.' " This was a compact disc I let her buy at our pharmacy, now a CVS store, for $2.95.

"Sure," I said. "Better take this one." I handed her the third ghost of this kind I had bought in 1996. Its sheet had a laughing, sinister face with red eyes and a green mouth full of narrow, pointed teeth. "The second one comes on automatically every 20 seconds and will drive you crazy."

"Yeah, I wouldn't want that in my room. I'd never get any sleep!"

After Christa had finished decking our halls with things, I sat alone on the couch in the family room. I was bent over the coffee table, looking down at the first Wee-Yur ghost from 1992 and a cheap plastic snow globe of the New York skyline I had purchased from a vendor in the Tobin Plaza in fall of 1999.

I bumped the ghost, which released its usual caterwauling and spinning. I laughed as usual, but my eyes wandered to the snow globe. I really was not laughing sincerely, I chided myself, studying the blurry, poorly tinted replica of the Manhattan skyline under the globe. The Empire State Building looked like the color of manure and was slightly off center. The Twin Towers were there, looking more like rectangular blobs of dirty Silly Putty than buildings. The Statue of Liberty could have been the "Elephant Lady" her likeness was so distorted.

"Ghost," I said, pointing to the Wee-Yur thing.

"Ghosts," I said, pointing to the towers.

I pointed back and forth at the two plastic trinkets, faster and faster, louder and louder. "Ghost, ghosts, ghost, ghosts, ghost, ghosts, ghost, ghosts, GHOST, GHOSTS!" The Wee-Yur went off, warbling its attempt at an eerie noise, and rotated in its goofy manner.

I stopped pointing and grabbed the snow globe, turning it around so that its deep royal blue back showed, the urban landscape turned away from me. As the Wee-Yur abated, I slumped back against the couch, staring at the things. I hated this persistence of memory. Ghosts. All ghosts.

"Mommy," I asked myself, "can't you turn those memory 'ghost-tests' off?"

APRIL 1982 / CHARTING COURSES

"So, Joanie, what do you think? A good plan?"

My hands froze in midair, grasping the long sandwich. I stared blankly at Jill, who sat across the table from me.

We were in Hobie's, a local hangout in East Lansing, home of Michigan State University. Jill was a communications major at the school. I had taken a bus down to meet her, because I didn't have a car at the time. She had been eager to meet me and discuss my recent trip to New York.

During March of '82, Jill had also gone to New York. She had seen a notice about a program that placed college students in volunteer opportunities during school breaks. She contacted the group, and they sent her to a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Since my cousin had not been to New York for nearly six years, her excitement boiled over. She stayed with a staff member of the shelter. She spent the week typing, filing, answering phones, cooking, serving, and cleaning. She listened to the clients discuss their problems and played with the children from the homeless families.
Manhattan looking north
"once you experience new york, it gets into your blood and your head..."

During her free time, Jill went on a bit of sightseeing. She loved the campy nature of the tourist and happily slung a camera around her neck. She took a bus tour around Manhattan. She strolled the Brooklyn Bridge. Naturally, she hit the observation decks of both of the Empire State Building and the WTC - she was at the latter just a week before me.

"I'm so glad to hear you mostly had a good time in New York, Joanie," she said, after listening to my recollections. "Sorry that your last day there didn't turn out."

"Well, it's past now, and I'm back and busy with school. But I'll tell you - at the end of this semester I'm going to switch my major to journalism. No more broadcasting for me."

"Your choice, Joanie. But I've got something else I want to talk to you."

"What's that?"

"Well, you know I really love New York."

"Of course - you're a regular 'I Heart NY' type."

Jill grinned. "Yep, that's me. I love that city so much. And I love you so much, too. Those things got me thinking, and I got this idea."

"What's that?"

"Well, we're both graduating in a couple years; actually, being as far ahead as I am with credits, I'll be out by December of '83. You'll be out by the May after, right?"

"More than likely."

"Well, I think you're turning into an 'I Heart NY' type, as you put it, right?"

"More so than when I was a kid. So?"

"So, Joanie, here's the idea. After we graduate, we move to New York, get some jobs and an apartment."

I was about to take a bite out of my sub sandwich. My arms froze, and my mind went blank except for - Move-To-New-York.

"So, Joanie, what do you think? A good plan?"

I set the sub down. "Ummm-it's a possibility."

"A possibility? I think it would work! We could live and work and have fun in, like the song says, the city that never sleeps!"

"And what kind of jobs could two journalism graduates from Michigan get in New York, Jill? Tell me that one."

"Well, c'mon. There are jobs for writers in New York. Someday I'm going to work for a publishing house and write my own great American novel. I'll start small - even work as a secretary or a temp. I'm sure you'll find something."

"Look, it's not like The New York Times would just pick me up. I don't know - maybe get a job at a little paper in the suburbs? Moving out of state is something I want to do, but I don't know about New York."

"Oh, Joanie, c'mon. Get on my wavelength. New York - think of the opportunities. We'll have so much fun. Theaters and art galleries and clubs and film festivals and shopping and lots more."

"Look, I'll think about it. Like you said, we do have time; a couple years. But New York - good grief."

"New York, good grief," Jill said in the same tone of voice as me. She shook her head. "What is it, the World Trade Center again?"

"No, not that stupid place. Just pulling up roots like you're talking about and moving far away from my family to a big, unfamiliar city. I just don't know."

"Joanie Joanetta! You just got done talking to me about wanting to move out of state, and here's your opportunity. The Big Apple is waiting to be picked."

"Oh, cute way of putting it. As I said, I will think about it, but that's all I'll say now. This one will take a lot of thought."

"Okay, Joanie, give it a lot of thought. I think you won't be able to resist. Once you experience New York, it gets into your blood and your head, and you'll never get it out. I have a feeling you'll be coming back to me with a big 'yes' someday."

{To PART 6 of Persistence of Memory}