19

Mike sits in the dark. He always does on this day. It doesn’t matter hlong its been or how long it will continue to be. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed—19 as of today—the pain is still there, like a fresh wound, always open and no amount of bandages or medication can help it heal. He knows. He’s tried several remedies since that Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Alcohol didn’t work. Neither did cocaine. All those did was cause him to lose his job for a brief period of time, at least until he got out of rehab clean and sober.

On the television a plane crashes into the South Tower in lower Manhattan. He’s seen this image a thousand—no, a million—times. It’s 9:02 by his watch. He pauses the video, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. In his lap is an old cell phone, one he can’t bare to let go of. 

Mike closes his eyes to the still image of glass shattering and a fireball erupting in that once tall building. He takes several deep breaths as he stares into the darkness behind his eyelids. 

So often people say, I remember where I was when the towers were struck by planes, or I remember where I was when the towers collapsed. Like everyone else, he remembers in clear detail where he was, but not when the towers collapsed. He knew exactly where he was when he received the voicemail on his phone, though he didn’t have his phone on him. It was sitting in his car, accidentally left behind on the passenger’s seat. He, however, was underneath a car in the shop he worked at, having just got off vacation the day before. 

He slid out from under an old Buick with a leaky transmission and looked around. The garage, though full of cars that needed work done, was empty of mechanics. Earlier, the place was full of men chattering about the game the previous night. He even hard Hal McDaniels mention to Jim Brookings that one of “those Broncos receivers broke his leg.”

Where’s everyone? he wondered as he grabbed a rag from his shop rack and wiped his hands of transmission fluid. He had found the problem and the owner wasn’t going to be too thrilled. He was certain of this. He reached into his back pocket for his cell phone and frowned. It wasn’t there. Mike looked around his bay and on the floor and didn’t find it. 

“I must have left it in the car.”

Mike headed for the office, a little unnerved by the silence of the usually busy, loud shop. He rounded the corner and left the garage. It was 9:49 when he entered the shop’s office. Where’s everyone turned out to be in the office around a flat screen television mounted on the wall. 

The room was a silence so loud it was deafening.

“What’s going on?” he asked Jim.

“A couple planes crashed.”

“What?”

“Yup.”

“Shhh …” Brock Charmine gave the universal get quiet gesture of his finger to his lips. 

“I’m going to get my cell phone out of my car, okay?”

Jim nodded but didn’t look back. It was 9:51.

From the office to his car and back took him seven minutes. Seven ho hum minutes that he—and no one—would ever get back. He didn’t know why the phone was off when he plucked it from the seat. He pressed the button on the side and walked back to the office as the phone booted up. 

He clicked on the voice message icon and pressed play. As Kimberly’s voice came through the phone, he looked at the television. 

“Is that the World Trade Towers?” he asked aloud, not meaning to.

“Yeah,” Jim said without turning around. 

Over the phone, the message played Kimberly’s calm voice.

Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.

By the end of the call she was crying and the South Tower collapsed on the television screen. 

“No,” he whispers. “No.” Tears form in his eyes. He swallows a lump in his throat and stares at the television. Other mechanics speak or cry out in horror and sadness, but he doesn’t see them or hear them or feel anything in the world but the certainty his wife just died and he wasn’t there for her. He wasn’t even there when she called him and … and she died alone without him with her or without hearing his voice. 

Mike Johnson sits in the dark. From the bedroom comes the sound of his alarm clock. It is 9:58. He picks up the old cell phone and clicks the voicemail icon. He puts the phone to his ear and listens to his wife of nine days, the woman he had just come home from a honeymoon with, the woman he kissed goodbye that morning and whispered I love you in her ear before heading in. 

“Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On the television is the still image of the South Tower right after the plane struck it. 

Mike feels his heart break all over again. In the dark, he weeps. 

AJB

9/11/2020

18

A young man walks along a path in a small town cemetery. In his right hand is a paper bag, the open end folded shut. He wears a pare of black Converse sneakers with his initials printed on the heel end, and blue jeans, ones with holes that run up and down both legs. His hair is a little long and there is stubble on his face. It’s young stubble, the type that only males in that in-between stage of life of being a kid and becoming an adult can grow. He is seventeen and he has made this same walk every year since he can remember.

He parked his car outside the rusted steel gates of the graveyard, preferring to walk the distance to the marker he intends to visit. It’s that walk that allows him to prepare him for his emotions, the ones surely to come on this day. 

The young man veers off the path and across the lush green lawn. In some places, the grass hasn’t been cut and it grows higher than in others. But where he walks today, the lawn may not be freshly cut, but someone had gone over it in the last week or two. Though the morning was a little warmer than most for this time of year, there is still a little dew left on the grass that hasn’t burned off with the rise of the sun, or in this case, the hiding of the sun behind tinted gray clouds. 

He lifts his arm and looks at the watch on his wrist. 

10:20.

He nods and continues along the headstones of the deceased, paying no attention to the names or the years of life etched in them, or the epitaphs so eloquently written by loved ones who no longer visit those they wish to never forget. There is a lump in his throat and every breath he takes is a little shaky and getting shakier as he goes. 

No, he’s not sick or afraid or running from anything. This young man is going forward, running toward something, facing a truth. 

A bird lands on the ground fifteen feet in front of him, cocks its head to the side and looks at him with its curiously beady black eyes. It flaps its wings once, twice, then flies away. He continues forward, the lump in his throat seemingly getting larger, his breaths harder to take. He looks back at his watch.

10:24.

Then the young man stops in front of a headstone that is nothing special in shape or size or expense, but it is everything special to him, for who it belongs to. He opens the bag and pulls out a Mountain Dew and a Snickers candy bar. He set the bag down and reaches into his back pocket for the folded piece of paper there.

His watch now reads 10:26.

The young man sits down in front of the stone. He reads the name there, reads the date of birth, and more importantly, the date of death: 9-11-2001. The lump in his throat is a heavy rock and the tears he had held back now begin to flow. His breaths are raspy and his hands shake as he unfolds the paper and sets it on the ground in front of him. He then opens one end of the candy bar and follows that by popping the top on his soda and sets them both on the ground. 

He glances at his watch one final time.

10:28.

He picks up the letter. It is short and written in his stick-like scrawl. With the grief of a child who lost a parent, he reads the words he wrote.

Dear Dad,

Eighteen years ago today you died. You never got to hold me. You never even got to meet me. Mom gave birth to me three days later as she mourned you—as the nation mourned. 

He takes a deep breath, releases it and tries hard not to think about the truth his mother told him about his father, that he’s not buried there, that his body is not in the ground where he sits, that only one shoe—a black Converse with his initials on the back—was ever found in the rubble of the collapsed building he had been in that day.

He swallows hard, trying to get the lump in his throat to go away, then reads more of his letter.

I never got to throw a baseball with you. We never got to have father and son time. You never got to tell me dirty jokes and I’ll never be able to ask you for advice about women. 

He wipes his eyes with the palm of one hand, then continues.

Though I never knew you, I love you. Mom has told me a lot about you and I know you would have been a great father, just as you were a great husband to her. I hope I can be half the man you were, and I hope, wherever you are, you are proud of me. 

As tears stream down his face, the young man, soon to be eighteen years of age, says the final words of his letter.

I love you, Dad. I love you. 

  

I love you.

The young man sets the letter on the ground and puts his face in his hands. He sobs, letting the grief of a love never felt from a man he never met, flow from him. After several minutes, he wipes his eyes again, then his nose. He takes a deep, shuddering breath, lets it go and picks up the candy bar—his dad’s favorite—pulls the wrapper completely off and takes a bite of it. Then he raises the Mountain Dew—his dad’s favorite drink—to the air and taps the headstone with it. He only drinks a couple of sips, then sets the drink and the half eaten candy bar on his father’s headstone.

Heart broken, the young man picks up the paper bag and the candy wrapper and stands. He walks away, leaving the letter by the marker, his head down. Tomorrow will be better, but today … today will always be difficult.

AJB

9/11/2019

18

Charlie, Will, Bob…and Jamie

It was a little café like any other around the country. It had a homey feel to it, as if when you walk through the front doors you could sit on any number of the brown or black couches and prop your feet up on a coffee table and relax. The lighting were simple bulbs shining down from the ceiling, casting shadows in their wake along the edges of the tops and bottoms of the walls. There were square tables with old comic strips sealed into the finish dotting the center of the cafe. Along one wall was the counter where people placed their orders of coffees, sodas snacks and cakes—no sandwiches or hot meals, thank you, ma’am, but plenty of delicious baked goods.

Three men sat a table for four, each one of them with the café’s black mugs in front of them, the yellow emblem of a silhouetted young lady holding a tray to her side and the words Chloe’s Café beneath it. Their hair had grayed over the years and a few more wrinkles lined their faces than the previous year. Charlie had gotten a little heavier, while Will seemed to have thinned a little. Bob was just Bob with little change in his appearance other than what Time had done to him.

“I was at work,” Charlie said. “Four hours into the day.”

The other two nodded, but said nothing. This was a ritual of sorts for the three friends.

“I was walking down the hall on the second floor. I passed one of the break rooms. It rarely had one or two people in there, but on this morning, there were a dozen or so people staring up at the television set. Several women were crying. I stopped and peeked in.

‘Everything okay?’ I asked.

One of the women, her name was Valerie, she said, ‘A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.’”

Charlie took a swallow of the black coffee in his mug, wiped his lips and continued. “I ain’t gonna lie. I had never heard of the World Trade Center then. I had no reason to really know what it was, but that didn’t stop me from stepping in the break room and nudging my way to the back of everyone. There, on the screen, were the two towers. One of them was on fire.

Then it happened, while I stood there with everyone else. It was a couple minutes after nine and that other plane—Flight 175—flew onto the screen. It wasn’t there but for a second or two and then it was gone and there was an explosion.”

Charlie shook his head as if he were still in disbelief. Perhaps he was.

“I went up to the shop and told my workers to turn on the television. We got no work done that day. The four of us stood in front of that tube watching as the smoke billowed up into the sky and then as the first tower, and then the second one, fell.”

Silence followed for several long seconds. Then Charlie lifted his mug. “To Jamie,” he said.

Bob and Will lifted their mugs, clinked them together and echoed him. They each took a swallow, set their mugs back on the table, Charlie’s went on Snoopy’s face, Will’s went just beneath Hagar the Horrible’s feet and Bpb’s ended up on top of Spaceman Spiff’s crashed ship.

Will took a deep breath and began his story. “I was on a plane from Charlotte to Toronto that morning when the first plane struck the towers. None of us on our flight knew what had happened until we started getting calls from people trying to find us. Carrie called. I could tell she was crying.

‘Where are you?’ she asked.

‘On the plane,’ I responded.

Her voice cracked when she said, ‘Oh my God.’

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘A plane hit the World Trade Center a few minutes ago and now a second one has just crashed into it.’”

He shook his head as he fought back tears that still managed to fall from his eyes. “I could hear the fear in her voice. She was terrified.

‘Will, we’re under attack.’

I didn’t know what she meant by that at first, but then our plane veered to the left and the pilot came on saying we were turning around and heading back to Charlotte.”

He shook his head and took another deep breath.

“I thought we were going to die, just like all those folks in those planes that hit those towers.”

He licked his lips, raised his mug. “To Jamie.”

As they had done a couple minutes earlier, the others raised their drinks, repeated Will’s words, clinked the mugs together and took a swallow.

Will and Charlie looked at Bob. He nodded, but before he began, he motioned for the waitress to come over. She was a pretty red head, her hair pulled back and away from her face. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Can I get another mug, please?”

“You want another cup of coffee?” the waitress asked and reached for his mug.

“No, Ma’am. I would like another mug—just the mug, please. No coffee. Nothing in it.”

The redhead gave him a curious smile, one that could have been a frown on anyone else’s face. She was gone only a minute, but in that time none of the three men spoke. They didn’t really even look at each other, but down at the mugs in front of them, each one with just a little bit of coffee left in them.

“Here you go, sir,” the redhead said with a smile and set the cup on the table.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” Bob said and picked up the mug. His hand shook badly. He placed it in the spot set for a fourth person, one who wouldn’t make this dinner, one who hadn’t made these dinners for the previous 15 years. He turned the mug so that if someone had been sitting there, he could easily pick it up. Then he moved his shaking hand away and placed it in his lap.

Tears hung on his bottom eyelids. One fell. Then a second one. Bob didn’t try to hide his emotions or wipe the tears away. He let them fall, just as he always did.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice cracking. He raised his hand and pointed at the empty seat to his right. It was shaking worse now. His sentences were clipped statements, words he had said a million times in his own head and maybe half as many to the two men at the table with him. “I had been sick. For a couple of days. I was scheduled to fly out on the tenth. From Columbia to Boston. Then from Boston to Los Angeles the next day. The next day. The eleventh.”

The tears fell freely now. He saw the redhead, the startled, worried look in her eyes, and motioned her away with a hand up, palm out, and a nod that he was okay.

“Jamie said he would go in my place. It was a four day trip. With about five hours of business in between. He boarded Flight 175 right around the time…”

Bob shook his head. He sniffled, wiped his nose. His bottom lip was poked out and seemed to be eating the upper one. He coughed once, but not because of a tickle in his throat but because he was prompting himself to speak again.

“It should have been me.”

Another long silence and Bob held up his mug. “To Jamie.”

Charlie and Will did the same.

Then Bob picked up Jamie’s mug, held it above his head. “To you, my friend.”

There wasn’t much more to say. Truthfully, they rarely said much after Bob had given his ‘testimony of guilt,’ as he put it. Minutes later they said their goodbyes. Charlie and Will did as they always did, and walked back to the hotel they shared the previous night, wondering if Bob would be alive the next year. They were always surprised to see him roll up in the place they picked to meet at in any given year. But he always rolled up, whether he was well or sick…he was always there.

Bob stood, took one last look at the place where his childhood friend should have been sitting. “To you, my friend,” he said again and turned to leave. Before he could reach the door he heard a faint whisper, or maybe it was his imagination. Either way, he turned around when he heard, To me, but he saw only the mug still sitting on the table with the other three near it and several dollar bills underneath one of them.

Bob smiled, though there had been no joy in it for at least fifteen years. “To you,” he whispered back and pushed the door open. A moment later, it swung shut…

AJB

9/11/2016