By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in The Observer, December 23, 2001, and collected in I Am No One You Know: Stories.
She’d been a dreamy beautiful child who had become, by imperceptible degrees, a dreamy beautiful young woman of that genre American Midwestern Blond which indicates not so much a physical as a spiritual type. Now a New Yorker—downtown, Battery Park City on South End Avenue, 10280—she yet carried with her a dreamy-golden aura as lightly borne as a cloak of Athena tossed over a favored mortal for protection on the battlefield, and she carried it unaware, believing that the myriad daily glances of admiration she encountered in the city, the smiles and lingering-eyed exchanges with strangers, and certainly the intense good fortune of her professional and personal life, were part of a general bounty shared by all, like the warm autumn air.
She was of an indeterminate age. Whether in her mid-thirties, or in her early twenties. By the age of perhaps forty-five she would begin to look perhaps twenty-nine, but only in the harshest lights, which no one would force upon her.
She was not only loved, which is a commonplace experience, but beloved. There is a distinction.
In the heartland, she was beloved by her family; in Manhattan, she was beloved by her fiancé, an editor with a distinguished midtown publishing house. They were to be married at the romantic turn of the year. Now they lived together in an aerie of tall plate-glass windows and understated off-white furnishings on the thirty-sixth floor of one of the sparkling towers of lower Manhattan and their view—to which the exclamatory adjective “breathtaking!” was invariably applied—was partly of the sparkling towering city and partly of New York Harbor an exquisite seagreen like washed glass on these clear autumn mornings.
As always on weekday mornings her fiancé left the apartment early. She’d gone out shortly after 8 A.M. to a nearby Kinko’s to pick up a color-xeroxed manuscript (of a children’s book) and she was crossing South End Avenue as the signal flashed WALK when she heard a droning noise at first annoying and then alarming as of a gargantuan hornet and when she looked up squinting she saw a sight so unnerving her eyes at first refused to decode it: an airplane, a commercial airliner, enormous, flying unnaturally low, careening out of the sky and out of her stunned vision behind a bank of buildings as, in the next instant, she was thrown to her knees on the pavement by a colossal explosion, and she thought There has been a ghastly accident though so formal and archaic a word as ghastly was not common in her vocabulary. She fell, she struck her knees on the pavement, it seemed to her that shards and slivers of glass were pelting her exposed skin like maddened insects yet in virtually the same instant, for she’d been an excellent basketball player in high school in Illinois, her reflexes were still rapid, unthinking, in the same instant in which she fell and in nearly the same instant in which she heard the explosion somewhere close by and overhead she was on her feet, and running into the building, her building, her place of sanctuary; she was running hunched over, still clutching the xeroxed manuscript; she was running past individuals stunned and un-comprehending as figures in a dream, now in the elevator and rapidly ascending to the thirty-sixth floor able to think calmly If I can do this, if the elevator is working I’m all right. The accident will be taken care of.
Fumbling with the lock to her door she would have the confused memory afterward that the second deafening explosion had to do with her forcing her key, forcing the door open, even as a vast burgeoning noise as of a volcano erupting eclipsed the very echo of the first explosion, and she would remember the building beneath and around her rock, shudder, sway, and yet remain firm as if rooted deep in the earth. Now she was inside the apartment hunched and panting like an animal though knowing herself safe. And she would be safe, locking and double-bolting the door. The slender colored-xeroxed manuscript she set carefully on a table where she would discover it five weeks later encrusted with ashy grit. She was listening for sirens from the street thirty-six floors below, she was preparing for the noise of sirens which she so disliked, for in Manhattan there are so many of these, preparing for jangled nerves. Thinking I’ll wear something different from what I’d planned today. Low heels. For she assumed that she would be going out to work as usual: but perhaps a little later.
Like her fiancé she worked in midtown. East Fifty-third Street. She was a children’s book editor. She took the subway from the World Trade Center. She would say that she loved her work, loved her colleagues. She would say…
She was coughing. She was beginning to breathe strangely. Her mouth was coated with a fine dry dust. Her nostrils, eyeballs. What was this? And why was it so dark? She was astonished to see that the breathtaking view from the living room windows had vanished. The living room windows had vanished. The sky had vanished. There was a quivering haze of ashes and dust and minute swirling particles (snowflakes? shreds of paper? tiny broken bits of pasta?) that pressed close, and at the bedroom windows facing east a similar haze pressed against the glass except here it was reflecting an eerie giddy dance of flame. She thought But this building isn’t on fire. This is a safe building.
She switched on the TV in the bedroom but there was no power. The radio in the kitchen, no power. She switched on lights, and there was nothing. The telephone? No dial tone. She wasn’t frightened but she was panicked as an animal is panicked. She was choking, coughing into a sink. She ran water, and cupped her hands to catch the water, rinsing her eyes, drinking in thirsty lunges as an animal might drink. Yet her heart was pounding with a kind of exhilaration, for she had never been so alert and clear-minded. Never so wakened.
She had kicked off her shoes. Her shoes were an encumbrance.
She would move from one window to the next, restless, ever eager yet seeing only the ash-cloud thicker than before, obscuring the sun. She’d been smelling smoke for a long time without wishing to acknowledge it. A fire somewhere, possibly fires. And so this curious churning funnel of ashes reaching to the thirty-sixth floor: astonishing. It was possible that a cyclone had struck. Whipped through lower Manhattan? Yet the careening object in the sky had looked like an airplane. There were beginning to be sirens now. (Sirens in this building?) She lifted the telephone another time, to call 911 but there was no dial tone. She located her cell phone and tried to activate it but the thing was dead. Wanting desperately now to call her fiancé but in her agitation she was forgetting his cell phone number, and she was forgetting his name. His face, she knew she would recognize if she saw it. If he appeared before her, speaking her name.
She switched on the second TV not entirely remembering that the power was out. The blank gunmetal-gray screen confronted her. She thought There is no news, yet. This seemed to her comforting.
She busied herself stuffing wetted paper towels around the edges of the windows and the door. The door was securely locked, double-bolted. She pressed the palm of her hand against it: yes, it was warm. But all things now were warm. The air was warming to a boil. In the living room, dining room, and kitchen as well as in the bedroom now the dust was reflecting minuscule flames so perhaps after all the building was on fire, she would die in what the media called a raging inferno, or she would die of smoke inhalation.
The thought came to her The fire extinguisher!
Her fiancé whose name she would recall if she had time to think calmly had purchased for their apartment a small portable fire extinguisher from Home Depot out in Jersey where they’d driven one Sunday afternoon the previous spring and she’d never taken the fire extinguisher seriously, she’d perhaps laughed at its ugliness and at her fiancé’s sobriety in purchasing it, and now she hauled the surprisingly heavy object out of a closet and set it on the kitchen counter to be inspected. Her fiancé would be proud of her, she thought. That she’d remembered, as he would have hoped she might. The fire extinguisher was a vivid red cylinder with a complicated nozzle. It was covered in dust. At the top was an indecipherable gauge with a red background and a tiny yellow arrow at which she stared as her eyes filmed over. The fire extinguisher was described as a “dry chemical” extinguisher “for wood, paper, cloth, plastic, rubber, flammable liquids, grease, gasoline, and electrical fires” which seemed to her to include all possible fires. Her heart filled with love for her fiancé. She was immensely grateful to him. The operating directions were white letters on a red background arranged like a poem.
STAND BACK 6 FEET
PULL OUT RING PIN
AIM NOZZLE AT BASE OF FIRE
USE SIDE TO SIDE MOTION
She hoped, if the fire swept suddenly upon her, she would be clear-eyed enough to locate its base. And she must remember to stand back six feet. She’d never been good at estimating distances.
She left the fire extinguisher in the kitchen where it would be discovered five weeks later upright and unmoved and encrusted with a thick film of ash like a relic of Pompeii. It was darkening now as in a solar eclipse.
She supposed she was waiting for a bullhorn voice as on TV, or a loud knocking at the door. The building would be evacuated if there was actually a fire, or even the danger of fire. She knew this, and was consoled.
Time was passing in an unnatural manner.
Clearly hours had gone by since she’d been thrown to her knees on the sidewalk yet by her watch it was only 9:20 A.M. (Unless it was 9:20 P.M. and in her panic she’d lost an entire day.) The sky outside the building was a whirlwind of darkness. She located the flashlight in a kitchen closet. Never had she switched on this flashlight before and was startled and pleased that it worked. It worked! The beam was impressive and steady. She ran water in the bathroom again, laying the flashlight on its side on the counter. Unknowingly now she’d begun to repeat a small repertory of actions and she would repeat them many times. She washed her face that seemed to be throbbing with heat, she rinsed her eyes, thirstily lapped up lukewarm water. She felt the building sway beneath her but thought sternly This is imagination. There are no earthquakes in Manhattan. She was beginning to smell something new, corrosive, chemical. Nerve gas: her nerves were being paralyzed. Hours would pass in a haze of pacing the dimming rooms of the apartment with the flashlight beaming into corners as she held wetted towels against her nose and mouth. This terrible smell which she believed to be the smell of chemical warfare.
Whoever their enemies were, these enemies had struck. Perhaps there would be more explosions. In other cities. She would never see her parents again. Trying to call their number in Illinois but the palm-sized phone was dead as any plastic, useless! She was very tired now. Her knees were stippled with cuts. Her forearms, her face. Yet she was very wakeful. This was no dream, this was wakefulness in which she couldn’t help but rejoice. She ran hot water into the bathtub but the water ceased when the tub was hardly half full. Nonetheless she bathed. She smiled thinking If this is a final bath I must enjoy it. She was covered in a sticky ashy grime. Her hair was stiff with it. She spat into her hand. There was a pleasant surprise, her bath oils were still fragrant, that her soap still made suds. Soap suds! She shampooed her shoulder-length hair and combed it out carefully. It was no longer blond, but what color it was she could not have said: it had the look of undersea hair, seaweed hair, adrift in ash-water, the color of her sullied Caucasian skin.
Yet she dressed in fresh clothes, and regarded herself in the steamy bathroom mirror. She was hollow-eyed and gaunt yet wakeful, no longer the dreamy-eyed blond. A mutant being, primed to survive. Were there not undersea creatures that acquired extra sets of gills, eyes on stalks on either side of their blade-thin heads, cunning in the desperation of survival…
At the same time she was waiting for a knock on the door. A summons on the intercom.
Hours passed in oblivion. She lost consciousness, but did not sleep. She wakened suddenly. Where was the flashlight? It had rolled onto the floor. There were candles on the dining room table, fragrant hand-dipped candles so beautiful (and so expensive) you were reluctant to light them. But this was a special occasion, she would light them now. There were more candles in drawers, she groped for them and brought them out. She thought The city is gone. Fires raged somewhere that should have been extinguished by now. She felt their terrible heat and smelled their billowing smoke. It was volcano smoke, Armageddon smoke. She washed her face, rinsed her mouth, swallowed unsweetened grapefruit juice from a container. Suddenly she was ravenously hungry. She thought, heartened It’s absurd, I’m not important enough to be the sole survivor. She dared to open the door to the corridor, and shone the flashlight into darkness. She called out Hello? Hello? in a quavering voice. The air of the corridor was unnaturally warm. She was terrified of being locked out of her apartment in such darkness. She cried Hello? Does anyone hear me? Is anyone there? She was anxious suddenly, that the building had been evacuated during her sleep, no one had come to her. Thirty-six floors above the street. Were the fire stairs safe? Did she dare try to leave? And if the city is gone, what then?
If she left the apartment, no one would know where to find her. Her fiancé would not know where to find her. Amid the rubble of the street and the churning dust, no one would know her name.
Quickly she locked the door behind her. She lighted several candles. She lighted all her candles! Arranged them on the windowsills of all her windows. Like Christmas: there was an innocence to this. She thought This is the right thing to do at this time. If her fiancé looked up from the street he would see her lighted candles and know that she was alive. By her watch it was two-fifteen. Not afternoon but night. For she’d lost the day. Never would she recover the day. But always she would remember her shock, and the happiness of her shock, when, out of the shifting smoke and ashes separating her apartment windows from the windows of apartments in an adjacent tower of Battery Park City, she began to see candlelight there, glimmering like distant stars. Several candles, a half-dozen candles, floating in the dark, brave and festive in the dark.
Image: 9-11 Tribute in Lights 2010 Photowalk by Kamau Akabueze