On the TV that sat above the refrigerator in the lounge, the footage was of Building 1 of the World Trade Center belching smoke like a snuffed-out matchstick. The gaping wound from which the smoke escaped somewhat resembled a mouth, and it looked as if the building were trying to say something—to call for help—but in place of words came only smoke. The scene gave Harold Cramer, standing in front of the fridge, the impression that the tower was no longer a building, but rather a chimney flue jutting out of the earth, bellowing forth the sulfurous residue of Hell.

Harold’s commute this morning had been a real chore. A baby seat had fallen off someone’s pickup into the center lane of I-394 and held up traffic something nasty. But now such problems seemed trifling.

Jerris, Harold’s coworker, came into the kitchen area, asked, “What’re you watching? Some movie?”

“No. It’s the news,” said Howard. “The World Trade Center just got hit by a plane.”

“The one in St. Paul?”

“No. In New York.”

“Huh. That counts as news?”

Then in one innocuous instant, a model plane shot from the side of the screen. It raged into the neighboring building as a phantom of irregular sight, of images that were wrong in juxtaposition. But nothing came from the other side but fire, as if a magician were in the building and had turned the jet into flames with a trick of the light. Gory fire began to coagulate around the open wound as thousands of pieces of paper, white and shimmering, began to float like plucked feathers into the Manhattan wind.

Howard’s mouth fell agape in horror; he grabbed his side as if a dagger had just been thrust into it. “America…is under attack.”

“Well, what else is new?” Jerris said, stirring some cream into his coffee. “Now how ’bout we turn off the soap operas and get back to work?”

“Did you not hear what I just said?” Howard snapped at him. “America—the Republic—is under attack.”

“Are you kidding? I saw strings on that plane,” said Jerris. “Don’t worry about any ‘attacks.’ The disintegration of the Protestant work ethic—that’s what’ll kill us. Busy hands, eyes on God, eh? Have you read the last OxiMonthly about the Chinese?”

“Hey, Barbara,” called Howard into the office space. “You better come see this.”

Jerris shook his head, leaving the kitchen area as his coworkers thronged in. “This country is falling apart,” Jerris muttered to himself. His coworkers were the kind of people who couldn’t survive without television—insipid junkies who would waste their lives emoting only through the tribulations the media supplied them.

He, in contrast, found unfathomable the idea of surviving without a window. His was grand and open, and sufficed as the fourth wall of his cubicle, looking down on 7th Street and the melancholic parade of cars that went by 14 stories below. He’d had to spar with Barbara—a senior of his by five years—for this idyll of sunlight. Barb’s unbecoming, duplicitous comments made about him to their supervisor had cost her the cubicle and likely a promotion as well. Jerris himself had never been in consideration for the promotion, which was no skin off his back. He was happy with his job, and with Barbara, too, who was pleasant enough to work with a majority of the time.

His thoughts returned to his task at hand: he needed to call Boston to ensure his purchase order had been fulfilled for the florescent lights that were to be sent out to a sister corporation in Eden Prairie.

“Hello, Jane? It’s Mr. Jerris from OxiRybo in Minneapolis. I’m calling about—”

“Good God. Don’t you get the news out there?” Jane snapped.

“Is something wrong with the bulbs?”

“No! New York is under siege, you hick.”

“Well, I don’t know if you have maps in your neck of the woods, but I’ll have you know that New York is a pretty good distance from both Beantown and the City of Lakes. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“That’s some mouth you got on ya. You got some stones to say that, buddy.”

“New York’s so big I doubt half the people in the city even notice. Have you ever been to—?”

The connection to Jane went dead.

He attempted to log on to the commerce server to fulfill the order by way of the Internet, but the system was on hiatus. A window on the computer opened to him, saying it would be in a state of non-function indefinitely.

“How am I supposed to get any work done with the system down?” Jerris asked his monitor. “The world doesn’t shut down when some buildings get hit by planes, does it?”

Jerris leaned back in his chair. He’d done service through the Trade Center once, a woman with a d-name: Deborah? Delilah? Denise? He remembered what he had been buying: a special Japanese software card that enabled computers to process spreadsheet information at double the regular speed.

Jerris gazed out the window. Poor Dee. He wondered if she was still alive. Not that it really mattered all that much. She could’ve died last week of a heart attack and he’d never have heard a word. There was a minute chance that he would ever have spoken with her again; an infinitesimal one that he would ever have seen her face. He didn’t even really remember what her voice had been like.

What a lonely life this is. Jerris put his head against the window. Would anyone be able to see him from the street? He knew the answer was no; he had tried to espy his office from the sidewalk below a couple times. His window was as faceless as any other, lost in the glare of the sun. How useless you are—everything is—when you’ve finished serving a purpose.

Jerris stood up from his desk and decided it was time to go. He turned off the computer, turned on the voice operating system on his phone, then grabbed his backpack from behind his chair and turned the corner of his fiberglass wall.

Today was a day off, he thought; a special day where you didn’t have to do everything the same. Planes and fire. Buildings and faceless death. No; today needed an anniversary. He worked harder than anyone in this office did—why didn’t he deserve a break every now and again? If his supervisor came calling, she would likely chalk up his absence to the tragedy. Now he was going to find himself.

He walked through a vacant office space: every cube had emptied of its inhabitants who were, every one, enraptured with the small television atop the fridge.

“So how’s it going?” asked Jerris. No one answered. “Terrorists again? Saddam? I bet it’s him, that butt.”

“They speculate it was some guy named bin Laden,” said Jesse.

“Oh yeah, he’s the guy who bombed that Coleman ship in Africa,” said Jerris.

“I can’t wait for Uncle Sam to get his hands on that guy. You don’t attack the U.S.—our buildings, and our Pentagon—without getting your ass kicked.”

“Well, knock on wood for whoever did it,” Jerris said, rapping the metal doorsill. “Best of luck.”

Jerris departed from the break room, feeling good. Sure, it was a tragedy in New York, but all death is a tragedy, and God had not downsized on those. Right now, he had the exuberant feeling of his entire life being yet ahead of him. His footsteps out of the office seemed portentous, as if the pounding of his soles had tapped into some eternal heartbeat hitherto never recognized.

A woman riding the elevator gave him accusatory, suspicious eyes as he trotted on.

“How’s it goin?” asked Jerris happily.

She was kind of a pudgy woman and getting on in the years. A pair of pasty jowls had begun a descent from her face. She carried both a purse and a briefcase, each gripped in the vices of her hands as if she suspected Jerris of wanting to steal them.

“Takin the rest of the day off, I see?” he gabbed.

“I’m going home to ensure that my children are safe,” she said tersely.

“I have a daughter at daycare during the day.”

“You aren’t worried? You should be.”

“Meh. I doubt anything like that could ever happen to me.”

“My husband and I are the utmost prepared; we have been since Y2K. No one will harm us, and no one will think to trifle without having another thing coming to them.”

Come to think of it, he wasn’t sure what he’d do, newly freed from the burdens of employment. Flashes of inspiration came to him, as clearly as his own reflection in the silver, stainless doors. Perhaps he would buy something very unhealthy to eat. And he could spend the day picnicking in the park, throwing cookie crumbs to ducks. Maybe he could even pick up some girl, perhaps convince a virgin that the apocalypse was upon them, and that they should exploit all possibilities before the fourth horseman made it across the void. September 11th, the veritable day of his dreams—and he could do all of this, he realized, in the light of a still-summer’s afternoon. The possibilities created a flighty and gorgeous scene; after so many years of torpor, he had reclaimed a feeling that his life could be art.

The elevator opened in the lobby. The woman bolted for the exit, but was stopped by the security guard.

“For Godsakes, Barney, you know me. And I’m leaving the building!”

“It’s security protocol fuh now, ma’am. Orders from the top. Ah don’t pretend like ah understand it.”

The woman tapped her foot metronomically as Barney inspected the innards of her Versace purse and flipped open her leather briefcase. At the 46th beat, vivace, the encounter was finished, and the woman took flight into the urban morning.

“Hey, Barney, how’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good, Mr. Jerris. A couple tough cookies like that last one, though. Make muh job a lot harder. Okay if I check yuh bag?”

“You betcha! I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

Barney rummaged through the bag.

“Think it’ll be a long day today?”

“Oh yeah,” said Barney, not looking up from Jerris’s belongings. “You see the building come down, Mr. Jerris? I only saw it on replays mahself.”

“No. Did it fall?”

“Yeah, it come down.”

“That must’ve been a mess.”

“Well, your bag’s clean. Have a nice day, Mr. Jerris.”

“You too, Barney. Don’t get yourself in any trouble. Heads up for those planes, big guy!”

“Oh yeah.”

It was a completely ravishing day, and as Jerris walked from block to block his smile seemed to open as gracefully as a potted plant will lean towards sunlight. He headed towards Nicollet Avenue, which he imagined would be full of whimsical truants and matronly, receptive bosoms, any of which would fulfill his need for a companion on this day.

He entered one of the building composing Nicollet Mall. A monolith of two dozen screens stood to his right, tuned to a news channel on which two dozen reporters were interviewing a legion of people materializing from a cloud of dust. The dust had consumed the interviewees’ pigments, making the entire scene monochromatic. Nothing existed but the gray of the dust and the whites of people’s eyes, their ghostly silhouettes stumbling down the city street.

What about the interim between the collision and the buildings turning to dust? Jerris wondered how long they had stood after being hit. Likely long enough for a love story. Rose could be in Tower 1 and Romeo in Tower 2, trapped. Perhaps they’d share a final embrace, leaping from respective towers into each other’s arms. And Rose would survive by Hollywood Miracle, and live to tell the story to weeping acolytes. That would be one hell of a movie someday, he thought. He could see promotional scenes from it already, from the pedestrian on the ground staring awestruck up to the computer graphics of destruction, to the brandished angst on Rose’s face as a lover slipped away. One generation’s pain was another’s entertainment, after all. Such things could be beautiful; it was such a fine age for tragedy. He wondered when they would begin production. It was only a matter of time.

Jerris approached a woman who was making herself a blithering sacrifice, standing before the monolith with shuddering shoulders and quivering knees. He silently took her in his arm and breathed a hot breath of condolence in her ear. Her clumsy words ceased and she submitted wholly to him, nuzzling into his workshirt like a baby rabbit into a mother’s pelt.

“I can’t believe this is happening. This isn’t supposed to happen in America,” she cried.

She was a sweet-faced girl with a soft layer of stuffing covering her every inch, making her body as warm and nice as a loaf of unbaked sourdough. The abundance of her flesh deceived assumptions on her age, but he guessed she was in the lower end of 30 years old, just like he.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

She raspily inhaled. “I’m feeling better. Thank you, stranger. You must be an angel.”

“You were crying a lot. I’ve got a mighty damp shoulder.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not like this very often.  I just can’t believe we’re under attack and no one really even knows by who. I can’t believe something so terrible would happen.”

“Terrible things happen all the time. You just don’t always notice them,” said Jerris. “My name’s Jerris. What’s yours?”

“I’m Abilene.”

“That’s a pretty awesome name, Abilene. Would you like to go sit somewhere away from these screens, Abilene?”

“I don’t want to leave them. In some way, I think they’re more important than life.”

“No. Life is all around you. Life is here for us to live. Don’t let this bring you down. Come away from here. We’ll talk and make it better.” He dabbed a tear from her downy cheek, and she smiled graciously.

He led her across a skyway to a coffee place and sat her at a little round table.

“What’ll you have to calm your nerves?” he asked. “It’s on me.”

There was no line to the counter. He ordered two cappuccinos. Abilene was gazing off into the mall when he returned with the cups.

“So, what brings you into the Nicollet Mall?” asked Jerris.

“Well, actually, I’m a sales clerk at Lane Bryant. I was on my way to the store when I saw the news, but I just don’t think I can work today. My soul just couldn’t take it.”

“Lane Bryant’s—that’s some fancy clothes. So, are you married?”

“No. Do you see a ring?” she said, holding up her hand.

“I’ve got a ring, and I’m not married.” Jerris displayed his left hand and golden band.

“Why is that?”

“It reminds me of my daughter. I had a wife. My wife—pfft!—but my daughter—yeah.”

The muscles in his face became lucid in happiness upon the recollection of his little girl, like the swirling, lively waters that escape a rockbed in a stream.

“Daughters are nice,” she commented.

“You bet they are!”

“Everything’s changed today, you know. Our lives are going to have to be different. Your daughter is inheriting a very different world.”

“Meh. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“How do you know that?”

“When did death become a new thing? I start getting scared when people start thinking the world is different from what it was yesterday.”

“Well, I was reading the headline on the television just a minute ago, and they said up to twenty thousand people could’ve been killed by these terrorists in New York alone.”

“Yeah. It sure is sad how many people die. That’s all people ever seem to do. Or at least the only thing that gets people’s attention. About my wife again: I don’t have a wife anymore, but if she had died, no one would’ve asked me why I cried so much as I did. Sometimes I think death is the only thing people understand. That’s kinda why I wear the ring. It reminds me of my daughter.”

“Well, I’m sorry for your hardships. But the people on the TV are your countrymen.”

“Did they starve to death? Whenever I feel sorrow for myself, I remind myself that I’m not starving, and that always makes me feel good. But who would care about that? We only care about violence.”

Abilene put a finger to her mouth to silence him and pointed to a television screen playing behind the counter. “It looks like they’re saying who did this,” she said.

Jerris secretly hoped it was Saddam Hussein, because he didn’t really know any other enemies of the nation. Saddam was always kind of around, stinking up some kind of trouble. It would sure make sense.

“Look. They’re pretty sure someone named Osama bin Laden is behind it.”

“Who is this dude?” Jerris asked incredulously. “This loser’s Hitler now? What a world.”

“I’m not sure myself. I wonder what’s wrong with him, to want to kill so many innocent souls.”

“I really like this coffee.”


“I usually don’t enjoy coffee, but this is really good,” Jerris reflected.


For all installments of “A September’s Flight Into Being,” click here.