Then and Now

by D Ferrara

Fire Burning by Kim NewbergHe sat heavily on a low wall. Not…? Bleeding? He thought.

A woman tapped his arm. Her concerned face filled his vision, but he could hear nothing.

Not bleeding? He thought again, as if the words could anchor him.

Beyond her face, silent chaos. Smoke. Debris. People. Blood. How could there be so much? He thought. Sprayed in a fine mist, streaked on walls and pavement. Jackson Pollack. Seurat.

Not bleeding.

The impact had propelled him, driven the breath from him. He glanced at his shoes. The left one still gleamed cordovan, as it had that morning in the hotel. The right shoe had been transformed to a clown’s shoe, white and black, speckled with gray and red.

Newspaper, he realized. His foot was wrapped in The Guardian.

Something touched his arm again. The woman’s lips moved. My dear woman, he wanted to say. Why “dear”? He didn’t even know her.

Deliberately, he reached for the paper around his foot, cell phone in his left hand and his briefcase in his right. He handed the phone to the woman who looked surprised. He tugged at the newspaper.

He did not let go of his briefcase. It had deal documents, all of them burned to a flash drive. His notes, his BlackBerry, the merger agreement, papers from the last meeting. These things formed his identity more than the passport in his breast pocket.

Suddenly tired, he closed his eyes, despite knowing what he would see. The woman in the first-class seat, incongruous in the middle of Church Street, a different hell. Her suit unwrinkled, her face turned away, her hair still in a careful… what did Anna call those things?… chignon. Sitting in her seat, almost upright, seat belt fastened, atop a twist of distorted metal, she could have been conversing with an unseen fellow passenger.

Amazing, considering that she had fallen more than ninety stories after the plane had hit the building.

Across the street, he and one of his partners, Tom, both with briefcase and latte, had been on their way into the office. Seeing the woman, Tom dropped his cup, turned to vomit. He himself had simply stared at the woman wondering about how she could sit so calmly in the midst of this blizzard of paper, smoke, terrified people.

Only later, he told Anna, did he realize that she was dead. Certainly dead. He didn’t need to see her face, didn’t need to approach.

Later also, he recalled her briefcase, which the woman had clutched to her chest. Elegant. Slender. Streaked red and black, lightly sparkling with broken glass.

At some point they had walked north to Tom’s apartment in the Village, to phones and silence and clean air. He had called Anna, said he was fine, hadn’t been in the building, never got in before nine, it was fine. Fine. He’d go back this afternoon or tomorrow to get his things. The fire wasn’t anywhere near his office. He might have to work late.

Her voice was strange as she told him that both towers were gone.

As he sat on the stone, he thought of the woman in the seat. What had she been thinking, those last moments, as she clutched her briefcase to her chest? Holding it like a lover, a child, a shield?

Strange, he hadn’t thought of her much in the past few years—not during the counseling mandated for everyone, from senior partners to part-time help. Not in the moments when Anna held him in the dark—because he was frozen in that moment, Tom at his side, briefcase in hand, eyes not yet watering, looking at the woman in the seat, seized with the irrational fear that it was Anna sitting there, Anna in the first-class seat, not protected by her privileged position, her fine shoes, her beautiful braided chignon, her briefcase.

It wasn’t Anna then. And the insistent tapping on his sleeve was not Anna now. It was the woman in the dull gray smock—a tea lady or shop assistant.

He focused on her face as her voice cut through the blooming ache in his head.

“Bomb,” she said. “Bus,” she said. “All right?” She asked.

He nodded. She smiled, still holding his cell phone. He had the newspaper and his briefcase. He released the newspaper. Then he looked at his briefcase.

After that day, the firm found new space, continued with the same deals, began new ones. Tom left the firm, cordially. For Christmas, Anna suggested Mexico. They drove, laughing, eating at roadside diners. In January, Anna quit her job at the bank, found something closer to home.

Day followed day until the enormity reduced itself to lawsuits and leases, forms and small lies. People who had been elsewhere spoke with new fondness of the nameless who had sold newspapers, cleaned offices, nodded anonymously in elevators or Starbucks, who could have disappeared unnoticed had life remained as it had been.

Those who had witnessed kept silent, hoping to bring that day to an end.

And the shape of days resumed, only slightly flattened. Deals. Cases. Trusts. Matters, he thought.

Is this my gift? he wondered. Draining terror and blood from events and disputes, until those, even those, hours had been reduced to arguments, documents, and bills?

He kept the briefcase that he had carried that day, though it had no sentimental value. He could have tossed it into a closet or even the trash.

Instead, he had cleaned it. The place on Madison hadn’t done a good enough job, so he found the best cleaners, brushes, sponges, lotions. He blasted the folds and corners with high-pressure air until he could bear to use it again.

Here it was, in his hand. As it always was.

The noise enveloped him now—shouts, screams, moaning, the insistent two notes of emergency vehicles. Crackling radios. A harsh chemical smell. The woman was saying that she would stay if he needed her. He shook his head.

“All right then?” she said. “I’m going to see if I can help. Are you sure?”

He nodded again. Not bleeding, he thought he said. She laid his phone on his lap, then was gone.

He looked at the briefcase, impossibly heavy. His fingers ached from gripping the handle.

If he looked up, he knew what he would see: Blood, panic, fear. Not the woman in the first-class seat…

He hadn’t thought of her since that day. No, he remembered. I have thought of nothing else.

There would be people, frightened, desperate. I could help, he thought suddenly—I could…dig. Lift things. Talk.

He could tell them that the women in the first-class seat would never go away: She would be woven into the pattern that life had been and would be again.

Later, he would call Anna to tell her he was fine.

Pocketing his phone, he stood and walked into the chaos, leaving the briefcase behind.



Category: Short Story