Easing his way through the tollbooth KJ takes advantage of absent traffic and accelerates toward the bridge. Between us, two D&D coffees rest in cup holders, their plastic lids touching gently as the car moves over roadway imperfections. Behind us, the tollbooth and collector fall away, tumbling into the past.
Looming ahead, two skeletal towers stand at attention, cables draped from sturdy shoulders. Steel legs, constructed of crisscrossing struts, confidently straddle the highway spanning the river below. The struts, for their part, are unable to stand alone. They fall into each other’s arms, each relying on the other for strength.
And extending toward a cloudless sky, the steel sentinels ignore a plume of smoke clinging to the edge of an island.
Walls carved from the Palisades obscure our view of left and right. Green weeds dot the rock walls, sprouting from fractures and holding tight. As the expressionless walls monitor our progress shadows crawl across my brother’s car.
And as the first skeleton prepares to fill our windshield KJ pushes back in his seat. He grabs a coffee and, opening the lid with his thumb, tilts his head back. Returning the coffee to the cup holder he wipes his cheek with a jacket sleeve. He wipes away a drop of coffee, or perhaps a tear. I can’t tell.
I break our momentary silence. “You OK?”
He gives me a nod.
On either side, the rock walls yield to a mighty blue sky as a burst of light fills the car. Reflexively we turn our heads to the right in search of the city in which we were born. Between us, coffee cups touch, finding comfort in a gentle brush.
Streams of molten sunrise pour over Queens and the northern tip of Brooklyn to fall gently into the outstretched hands of a prostrate Manhattan.
Raising my right hand I shield eyes from sun’s reaching spotlight.
Slowly, my hand drops into my lap.
And tracing the cityscape from north to south I stop upon finding a hole in the sky, presently colored grey with smoke. Unlike the stoic sentinels straddling the roadway, my brother and I are unable to ignore the smoke clinging to the island. The manmade cloud moves lazily, taking its time as it reaches from an earthly hole to the heavenly hole above.
Turning away from the city I watch as my brother blinks for an extended period of time. His eyes remain closed for so long I wonder if he’s fallen asleep at the wheel. With eyes still closed, his knuckles turn white as he squeezes the steering wheel tight. The sound of skin twisting against plastic fills me with a shiver.
Our car drifts over white lane markers before I place my hand on KJ’s shoulder.
Opening his eyes he turns and stares. We return to our lane and he bristles. My arm falls away, his gaze skipping from me to the tumbling plume of smoke and back to me.
He struggles with words as an unexpected question slips softly from his lips. “Remember when we used to call this ‘Dad’s bridge’?”
My first smile of the day flickers to life before falling askew and dislodging. I watch as it rolls away, slips under a guardrail and falls over the edge of the bridge. I wonder if it makes a sound when it strikes water below.
I slump against the passenger door as a sense of hollowness fills first my chest, then the car. My heart beats in time to the rhythmic sound of tires over pavement. And rather than respond to my brother I look away; out the window at guardrails hurtling past. I wonder if I’d make a sound if I followed my smile over the edge.
KJ prompts me, “Remember? When we were little?”
With the back of my hand I wipe my eyes; first my right, then my left.
Patiently, KJ waits for my response.
My voice cracks. “Yeah… ‘Dad’s bridge.’ I remember.”
Returning my gaze to the bridge I trace steel cables as they reach down to keep the roadway from falling. “Man, he loved this bridge, didn’t he? What’d he call it? ‘Ammann’s masterpiece’ or something like that.”
A flicker of reflected sunlight fills my voice as I recall a forgotten joke. “And remember how he’d call it ‘The George and Martha Washington Bridge’. And he’d always wait a second after calling it that before adding “with the lower level – Martha – resting comfortably under George’.”
Turning to KJ, I tap my head. “It took a few years for that one to sink in.”
My brother purses his lips.
And speaking not to me but to the steel sentinels and the guardrails and the straining cables and to George and Martha my brother speaks slowly. “He’ll never see you again.”
I blanch and, startled by the starkness of his words, turn away. Our nascent moment torn asunder, we tumble in separate directions, each shouldering a weight too great. Eyes sting as I fixate on smoke clawing like a predator across fallen prey.
Moments rush by, sliding toward a jagged edge.
Rubbing my face with open palms I speak more to myself than KJ, “What I remember most was him telling us how he helped build the lower level.” I fake a smile as I continue, “The Martha; and how he told us he’d walk on steel beams hundreds of feet above the river without a harness. ‘A walk in the sky’ he called it. He said at first he was scared but then he got used to it.”
I repeat myself, softly this time, “A walk in the sky.”
KJ sips coffee before returning the cup to its shivering partner. “And I remember the first time he told me about all the workers on the original GW that fell into the Hudson. I think a dozen or so. We were up on the Ferris wheel at Palisades Park. Remember that place? Right on the cliffs; with the freak show and the Cyclone?”
KJ nods in affirmation. For a moment I think he might smile.
But he doesn’t.
Around us steel cables hold steady as a moment falls from the past to strike our car.
“Yeah, I musta been eight or nine. He and I were up in the Ferris wheel and we stopped at the top of the circuit. I remember it seemed so high ‘cause we were on top of the cliffs. You could see for miles and miles. We were in one of those open gondolas, right, and the thing started rocking back and forth in the wind. And man, I was so scared. Like peeing my pants scared.
Then dad points to the bridge and starts blabbing away about his time as a steel walker working on the lower level. I think I was too freaked out to hear him but then he starts tell’n me how, when they first built the bridge – the top level – they didn’t have nets. So if a guy slipped or lost his footing in the wind he’d fall over the edge into the water below.
And I was like, ‘yeah but couldn’t they just swim to shore?’ and he got all quiet. I remember the wind blowing his hair out of place as he stared at the bridge. He kept trying to pat it down. (Though KJ does not see me, I delicately pat the top of my head mimicking my father’s efforts to control uncooperative hair). He said falling from that height into water was, ‘like hitting concrete.’ Then the Ferris wheel started moving again. And I remember him patting my knee. And just staring at me.”
Like the steel sentinels straddling the bridge my brother remains quiet. And in the silence my story joins a stillborn smile and workers now living in black and white photographs to fall over the edge. Too sad a story on a day filled with sad stories. Without a sound the story strikes the water below.
Like hitting concrete.
KJ draws a deep breath. Moments uncoil to join straining cables. He swallows hard and arches his neck to look up through the windshield. “Look up; all blue sky. No smoke up this way, huh?” He pauses. “None of that shit from down there.” (He jerks his chin toward lower Manhattan.) I reach over and rub his shoulder.
This time I don’t let my arm fall away.
“What is it?” I ask.
He cracks his neck. “We build shit; like bridges and cities and cars. They destroy shit.”
I fall back into the passenger seat and turn to observe destruction. The smoke clings to the earth; a weight too great for complete ascension. Selecting my coffee from the pair of clutching cups I sip gingerly. With my free hand I lower the passenger window in search of rushing air. The breeze, however, disappoints as it carries the smoke’s acrid scent. I recoil at the smell of extinguished fire. Next to me leather creaks as KJ’s face puckers. Horizontal lines trace across his brow to join a frown in a display of anguish.
He swings his head to face me. Anguish matures into anger and he glares. “What the fuck? Close that shit will ya? I don’t need to smell that.”
I close the window as commanded. Bristling at the reprimand and the lack of response to my bridge story I dig deeper than intended. “You mean you don’t need to smell them. That’s not just metal or fuel or glass or whatever else those assholes destroyed. That’s people; that’s someone’s mom or kid or husband or wife. Or dad. That’s our dad.”
KJ seethes as his right hand slices the air between us. “Stop! Jesus Christ! Just zip it and drink your coffee.”
I try to respond but my voice buckles under the gravity of the exchange.
The car grows silent.
Disgusted, KJ jabs the car radio.
Joining the lingering smell of smoke the sounds of the Beach Boys fill the car. “… Wouldn’t it be nice… Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true…”
Anger, of course, is contagious.
I stab at the radio, silencing the Beach Boys. “Yeah, maybe if I pray and hope then Dad might come walking out of that cluster fuck down there.” I jerk my thumb toward the end of the island. “That’s how it works, right? Maybe we haven’t been praying hard enough? Maybe Mom’s just not praying hard enough, huh?”
KJ remains silent.
I fill the silence with a hissed whisper. “Fuck prayer.”
Outside the car I hear what sounds like a snapping cable.
My brother shakes his head, perhaps saddened at the thought of my godless journey. He stares ahead as we pass under the second of the steel sentinels. Quietly, the guardian of crisscrossing steel bears the weight.
We sit in silence, each bending under the load.
And just ahead, the end of the bridge falls into a tunnel’s gaping mouth. As we slide under buildings above, darkness consumes the car. From overhead, triangles of white light hurl themselves from the sky through openings in the tunnel roof. Unable to stay aloft, the flickers of light indiscriminately strike our car; each a brief flash marking a fall from grace.
My brother breaks the silence. “It might do you some good, you know.”
I scoff, disgusted. “You and Mom can pray all you want. I’ve said my last prayer.” I look up to the darkness. “God if you’re listening, you’ll find your name right under my father’s on the list of the dead.”
Fingering a gold cross around his neck my brother falls further into his seat. “Dude, come on. Please.”
Turning away from KJ I look past a vacant backseat and wonder if the tollbooth collector we left behind is still at her station. I wonder if she too has succumbed to the weight; if she too is ready to tumble over the edge.
As sentinels bid us farewell time shutters, slipping under the unanticipated burden. The slip is subtle; summing to just a few moments.
As we approached the tollbooth moments ago, the collector within extended a sleeveless arm. Mechanically, a sinewy hand drifted toward KJ’s open window as expectant fingers spread wide. Adorned with a cascade of blue heart tattoos the woman’s arm was strong, lithe. Bushels of black hair tumbled from under a FDNY baseball cap. And tilting forward she spoke through a light blue surgical mask pinched tight over a broad brown nose.
Nodding, KJ held out a $10.
And looking down she spied the biological chemical weapons response team patch on the arm of KJ’s jacket; my father’s jacket. Her hand lingered, floating in the space between. Leaning out of her booth brown eyes peered across KJ to spy my identical jacket. Without collecting her toll she withdrew her tattooed arm. Gently she tugged off the mask.
“You two first responders? They’re not letting many others through ya know.”
KJ swallowed hard and, as words caught in his mouth, he shook his head in the negative. “No, our dad was…”
She looked from KJ to his jacket and back to him. And pointing at the patch on his left arm KJ continued, “Yeah, these are his jackets. Stupid right? Grown men wearing their dad’s clothes?”
Mask askew, thinly penciled eyebrows collapsed. Blinking quickly she shook her head. “No, it’s not… really.” She nodded toward the city. “My brother… he was at Morgan Stanley. He made it out. Shaken up though – I mean really shaken – but alive. He walked all the way to Brooklyn without shoes. He gave them to some old guy who lost his. He’s staying with me for a while.” She took a deep breath before continuing, “Every morning when I’m gett’n ready for my shift I hear him down the hall. Sniffling, crying.” She looked away. “I bring him tea, you know, in case he wants to talk or something.” She let out a long, slow breath. “Usually I just sit with him.”
Bending forward I wiped my eye. “I’m glad for you and your brother. He’s lucky to have you.”
She nodded to the south. “You going down there … to search?”
KJ’s head moved back and forth as he donned a mask of his own, this one unseen.
And as KJ covered his face with an invisible mask I held up a baggie containing a toothbrush and a black comb missing a single tooth. Gravity clawed at my face. “DNA.”
The toll collector choked, sniffling back bubbles from a leaking nose. With her tattooed forearm she wiped her face, a reflective luster smeared across blue hearts. “Go. You don’t got to pay. Not today. So go. And God bless.”
She waived us through as KJ reached out for her, grabbing her hand and squeezing. Fingers tangled, like smoke clinging to earth, as their moment stretched from then to now.
His hand moist, KJ withdrew his arm to the silence of the car. He threw the $10 bill next to the two quivering coffee cups. And rolling up his window he struggled to stay composed. He stared ahead.
Easing his way through the tollbooth KJ took advantage of absent traffic and accelerated toward the bridge. Behind us, the tollbooth and collector fall away, tumbling into the past. Loosened by the exchange, a collection of blue hearts slips from a lithe brown arm. Silently they fall over the edge.
Leather groans as blue hearts strike water.
Like hitting concrete.
Throwing my arm across the top of the car seat I place a hand on KJ’s shoulder. I rub the base of his neck as he considers the silent fall of a smile, my story, those forgotten workers and now a string of blue hearts. And understanding he wishes to remain silent I turn around once more, looking past the toll collector toward New Jersey, the memory of Mom resting her head against the inside of a closed storm door making itself apparent.
And once again time buckles, heaving under a weight too great.
Waking before sunrise this morning I stayed still in bed. Once again I failed to hold onto the sliver of time available just after waking; the single weightless moment of every day flickering to life just before I remember. It vanishes quickly.
Above the bed lingering moonlight nestled into familiar creases of decades old paneling. With the tiny moment gone the back of my neck burnt as I forced myself out from under warm covers. Breaths shortened as I pushed aside darkness to dress under the moon’s watchful eye. I decided to skip a shower. ‘Who cares if I’m clean or dirty?’ Fully dressed, I stood at the window as moonlight fell to strike me about the head and shoulders.
“Enough,” I whispered to the slumping moon.
Drawing from years of experience I snuck down stairs from my former bedroom in the attic of my parents’ home; no, my parent’s home. Working to avoid the creakiest of steps I made my way to the bathroom where I peed, washed my hands and, avoiding the mirror, brushed chipped teeth. Finished, I made my way to the kitchen in search of an oversized Baggie.
Quietly, I returned to the bathroom to collect Dad’s toothbrush. Behind me, light poured into the second floor hallway through a door I’d foolishly left ajar.
And hearing the tell-tale patter of Mom’s slippered footsteps I turned to find her standing in the bathroom doorway, ashen, in a thick white bathrobe. “What’s this?” she asked.
Tucking the Baggie and its contents into my pocket I stepped quickly across a collection of little black and white bathroom tiles recently repaired by Dad.
In slow motion Mom covered her mouth with the back of a wavering hand. She backpedaled awkwardly toward the wall behind. Slowly, she swung her free hand across her chest as if swatting away a persistent fly. I reached for her but she pushed back, resisting my hug. But like the fly I persisted and, as she fell against the wall, I pulled her into my arms. Finally she listed forward, the weight of the toothbrush draped across sturdy shoulders.
We stood still, mother and child.
And Mom made not a sound as the front of my shirt grew moist.
“It’s just in case, Mom. It doesn’t mean anything, really.”
She exhaled twice and, placing both palms on my chest, stepped back from her eldest son. Reddened eyes met mine. Pushing away she held her head high. Wiping first her right eye then her left, she leaned forward, tilting her face toward me. And arching my neck downward our foreheads met.
She was warm. The scent of Ivory Soap and soft morning breath filled the space between as she added to life’s new rules. “Don’t you ever, ever, lie to me again.”
“Mom, no, I…”
“Do you hear me? Never again.”
I nodded, my movement rocking her head in time with mine.
“You need the toothbrush to identify my Richie…”
Her voice trailed off.
Steeling herself she turned quickly to leave me in the hallway.
Marching down the carpeted hall Mom briskly turned left into her bedroom. As I stepped away from the bathroom her bedroom door closed, dulling the sounds of tears as they found comfort on her pillow.
Approaching the door I knocked, tentatively, softly. Inside the room she blew her nose, sniffling. Then swiftly, the door swung open. Mom thrust her right hand toward me. “Here, his comb.” She handed me a thin black comb, a single tooth missing from one end. “Your father used this every morning. It’s still got his hairs in it. Take it.”
She wiped her face with a white handkerchief as I studied Dad’s black comb. It smelled of The Dry Look; it smelled of him. Retrieving the hidden contents of my pocket I placed Dad’s comb into the Baggie along with his toothbrush. And pulling her into a hug we stood quietly outside the bedroom door, her head resting upon a damp shoulder.
Her heart beat quickly against my chest as she worked to stay upright. I squeezed tighter as her strength waned, bleeding into the silence of the hallway. Patiently, memory captured the moment, securing it for an uncertain future.
From downstairs we were interrupted by a knock at the front door. Hearing the unlocked door swing open Mom stepped back and patted my chest. She whispered, “You go find my husband.”
I kissed the top of her head before we made our way downstairs to meet KJ.
Looking from me to Mom and back to me KJ’s eyebrows pulled tight. “Everything all right here?” I nodded curtly.
Mom forced a smile before she placed her hand upon my brother’s cheek. She pulled KJ close. “Do you want some tea, honey?”
“Ah, no Mom. Thanks.” KJ looked to me as he continued. “We should head in ‘cause I have no idea what traffic will be like.” Holding back tears Mom nodded quietly.
Taking my brother’s hand in hers she squeezed tight. “Thank you, KJ.”
She stumbled with her words. “Thank you for doing this.”
KJ looked at me, alarmed. I quickly shook my head before jutted my chin toward the door.
We took turns kissing Mom goodbye.
KJ lingered. “Love you, Mom. I’m guessing we’ll be back by 10.”
“You two be careful. I love you.”
“Love you,” I added.
Descending the front stoop steps toward KJ’s idling car I had turned in search of Mom. Framed by the closed storm door she seemed small, delicate. Colors leached away as I recall the moment as more of a black and white movie. There she stood, arms crossed over a thick white robe given to her by her husband. She teetered on the opposite side of the storm door, watching her boys drive away from the curb.
And thinking us out of sight, her head fell forward, silently striking the inside of the storm door. From a slowly increasing distance I watched her shoulders bob rhythmically with sobs rendered silent by the unbearable weight of being left behind.
KJ takes advantage of absent traffic and accelerates away from Dad’s bridge. Behind us, Mom falls away, tumbling into the past.
Lost in thoughts our car makes its way across Manhattan to the Harlem River. Save for a string of dump trucks and convoys of National Guard vehicles traffic is light. KJ moves over the road’s ebb and flow at a steady 60 MPH.
I break the silence as we pass the projects to the west of the FDR Drive. “Remember being in Chock’s car, doing like 90 on this road, heading to the Garden to see Rush?”
Ready for distraction KJ lets loose a muffled laugh, “Oh man, yeah. We were completely baked. And I think it was closer to 110. I remember you freaking out in the back seat.”
“Dude, I was freak’n out! Every time we hit a bump his car went airborne, bang’n off the road! He had no shocks, man! None! And what the hell was that music? What god awful shit was he blaring at us?”
“What do ya mean, God awful? Dude that was Sabbath! Frigg’n Sabbath. Chock always had Sabbath blaring. You really are clueless aren’t you? That shit’s great!”
I shake my head, relishing the lightness of a distant moment as it falls gently to embrace us.
KJ turns to me, smirking. “And it wasn’t Rush knucklehead. It was Aerosmith. You were so fucked up you don’t even remember who we saw that night!”
I shrug, feigning boyhood guilt. “No comment.”
“No comment, my ass!” Plunging from the sky morning sunlight strikes the car.
My brother continues, “How ‘bout we try some music again?”
“Cool. Whatcha got?”
He laughs at my willingness to take the bait. “Alright, fine. How ‘bout some Yes?”
“Whoa, haven’t heard them in a while. That’d be great, just great. Hey, remember the Blaikewood sisters? They loved Yes. And they were all beautiful. Probably still are.”
KJ nods, “Yes they are.”
I shake off his pun as he slips Fragile into the tape deck. Roundabout swells to fill the car.
As song and sunlight pour over us we make our way down the FDR and turn right onto 25th Street. My brother seems to know where he’s going so I ask no questions and make no suggestions. After a couple of turns he finds parking along the border of Bellevue South Park.
The car slows and Yes grows quiet. Reflected sunlight leaps and dances from sheets of glass in an effort to land upon our car. Try as it might the sunlight misses its mark as we park under a tree’s groping shadow. Around us, beams of reflected light stab the air to illuminate a world of lingering dust.
A gentle but acrid breeze rustles branches above, shoving the most eager leaves over autumn’s edge. Not fully colored the handful of falling leaves rock like slumbering babies in the arms of gravity, zig-zagging lazily to the street below. Unlike the tumbling sunlight some of the fallen leaves find our car. Two, now three, plaster themselves to the windshield, their cries lingering in the wind.
“Help me,” they whisper.
I leave them undisturbed as KJ locks his car.
I nod, striding alongside my brother as we make our way up 26th street. In addition to the scent of smoke the streets are filled with a residual dust, periodically witnessed in the falling sunlight. And loss; the streets are filled with invisible pools of sorrow that, when passed through, unleash a bone-wrenching shiver.
And oddly, an overwhelming sense of love wafts through the streets to join smoke and dust and loss. We meet the gazes of passing New Yorkers as they wade through reminders of the preciousness of life.
Crossing Lexington Avenue our feet involuntarily slow as if caught in hardening concrete. In the center of the road we stand gaping. Giving us a wide birth, a passing taxi blares a horn. Across the street stands the 69th Regiment Armory, its face plastered with hundreds of handmade flyers, each with a photo, some form of contact information and the name of a missing man, woman or child.
Each flyer wails in search of a loved one lost.
As we near the wall the faces come into focus. We stare, captivated by the scope and depth of personal loss. They stare back, hopeful. The entire first story wall of the Armory is covered. Cylinders of sunlight fall to find swaths of the dead, a thick beam of dust marking the sun’s journey.
I reel under the weight of the flyers.
I reel under the weight of those adding the flyers to the wall.
Gently, KJ grabs my elbow to guide me from my stupor. “Come on.”
Reaching out I drag my fingers across the flyers to touch the ghosts of the missing. I try to touch their faces, to remember, but the images jumble and overlap and are soon lost in a torrent of loss. Like leaves, the pages make a gentle noise as I jostle smiling faces. Then, inadvertently, I dislodge a flyer featuring a man. The flyer falls softly to a recently swept sidewalk.
“Like hitting concrete,” I murmur.
“Help me,” he whispers.
And squatting down I loiter over the memory of a life lost, sullying it with a salvo of tears. The picture is of a young man beaming from a photo with a girlfriend or wife. In the image he’s circled in red. In the reflection of his life the woman glows as she looks ahead, content. Here, on the sidewalk, she rests under a groping shadow, her face swelling in a private storm of tears.
KJ waits patiently. I am unable to read the flyer’s lengthy plea as words and dust and tears stab savagely at my eyes. Pinching the flyer between my thumb and index finger I stand to look about for a final resting place for a couple cleaved in two. It takes some time to find a blank spot as I do not wish to cover the smiling faces. From the flyer the woman watches me with her smile, trusting me in my efforts to keep the memory of her man aloft.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur. “I can’t, I can’t find…”
Placing a hand on my back, KJ guides me toward the edge of the flyers. “Here. Put him here by the door.” I nod and, sharing a bit of tape with a man leaning forward to smile over a new bride dressed in white, secure him among companions.
I turn away.
“What?” my brother asks.
“His name was Matt.”
Ascending the outside steps of the Armory we are greeted by a facilitator. Discretely she dons an invisible mask before asking our purpose. KJ responds and points to me. I show her the baggie. And sharing her sympathies, she points us inside. “Up those stairs please. You’ll speak with a detective and he’ll take your samples.” A breeze pushing grey dust follows us up the Armory stairs.
Within the Armory the walls of the staircase rising from the entry platform are filled with additional flyers. On the first step I recognize a smiling woman in a red dress and gold earnings from the street outside. She prompts us forward with her confidence.
“Dorothy,” I whisper.
Climbing the stairs, the faces of the fallen overlap, each helping the other defy gravity. Their captured smiles and laughs and personal moments mask an understanding of the weight upon the shoulders of those left behind.
And of the thousands left to bear the weight, one woman, perhaps in her 30s, sits bowed on the stairs, collapsed against the stairwell wall. Knees to chin she hugs her legs and presses her face downward. She shares a song of sorrow as her shoulders bob rhythmically with sobs rendered silent by the unbearable weight of being left behind.
KJ approaches and tentatively places his hand on the stranger’s shoulder. She does not look up. She simply reaches up and takes my brother’s hand in hers. Turning he looks to me as shoulders slump under an unspeakable shared weight.
From the top of the stairs a persistent buzz drips toward us; a waterfall of whispers and sobs and hushed words of support. And along with the cascading noise an elderly couple steps over the top stair. The man, a shock of white hair framing an antique face etched with pain and dressed in an ill-fitting suit, holds (I assume) his wife’s elbow. Taking his time he guides her timid descent. The woman, fragile and quivering like a cable ready to snap, grips the bannister tight with her left hand. Sunken eyes dart scattershot as if unable to decide where to fall. She appears stunned; beaten.
A delicate black dress drapes her frail body, the dress gliding behind her like a shadow. As she moves from step to step her shoulder leans heavily against the staircase wall, dislodging and launching images of the dead to the floor in a silent wake.
Stepping forward I approach the couple from below. The elderly man, however, waives me off, as if to say, ‘I’ve got this.’ He cries without a sound as he supports his fractured wife.
‘Who have you lost?’ I wonder.
It doesn’t matter as they are left behind with the weight of a journey across sorrowful stepping stones; a journey ending only in death.
I stand and watch as the pair slides like a glacier, sheering memories from the wall.
Midway down the stairs she stops. And looking up to the ceiling, she places a hand upon her hollow chest, trying to catch her breath. Save for make-up marked by a meandering trail of tears her face is porcelain. Smooth cheeks lead to a lifetime of laugh lines, now relegated to the past. She begins to wheeze, spewing short bursts of air from lipsticked lips. Before her, specks of dust agitate in reflected light, alarmed by the woman’s pending fall.
And like a deflated balloon she collapses.
She drifts, ever so gently, to the stairs. Ready for such an eventuality, the elderly man tenderly guides his wife to the ground. As she slides to the stairs her dress plumes outward in what would otherwise be described as a moment of beauty. And touching the floor her hem grabs at grey dust blown in from the street. For a moment she’s still. Then, from her newly acquired sitting position she once, then twice, runs her fingers along her sullied hem. As she does I wonder if she’s touching a remnant of her child for the very last time.
And as if hearing my thoughts she looks up and gasps. Her head rests against her husband’s shoulder as she stammers, “Ple…, ple…, please God, … let me find my boy.”
There, in her husband’s arms, she melts to the floor and cries.
My heart heaves as emotions tumble over each other. Shame tramples over sorrow as I’m embarrassed at witnessing such a personal moment.
And not knowing what else to do I again approach the couple, this time holding out my hand. Again I am rebuffed, this time with a timid, ‘thank you.’ I stand frozen over the man and woman. I reach for him. And looking up, the elderly man removes a hand from his wife’s elbow and takes my extended hand in his. His boney knuckles roll under my soft grip. His hand quivers with a combination of age and sorrow and the burden of carrying a weight he is not prepared to carry.
And having nothing to say to lessen his burden I bend down and kiss the back of his blue veined hand. His hand is salty, and smells of an heirloom chest filled with broken memories. He’s startled at the gesture and forces the slightest smile. As his wife rocks back and forth, however, the smile quickly falls askew, and dislodges. It rolls away to fall over the edge to join my own smile, those long lost workers, my story and a collection of blue hearts.
Like hitting concrete.
From the street a breeze rushes up the stairs, tossing an acrid smell and an additional film of dust around the couple. The stricken woman recoils at the scent of the breeze.
All around flyers rustle and agitate for attention, silently calling from the wall.
“Help us,” they whisper.
And no longer able to support the accumulating weight, scores of images fall upon the stairs to join the elderly couple and young lady now tended by my brother.
Bowed to the point of rupture I release the man’s hand and back away from the childless parents. In the center of the stairs I blindly bump into my brother as he backs away from the crying widow.
He turns around. “Let’s get outa here, huh? Maybe head outside to get some air before we do this.”
I nod, shaken.
We rush down the stairs as my heart races. And returning to the street we stand quietly before the Armory as tumbling sunlight dulls the pain of being alive. I find myself short of breath, gasping. KJ, bends over, hands on knees. I place a hand upon the small of his back prompting him to stand. He stretches before wiping eyes with the sleeve of our father’s jacket.
I stammer, “Jesus Christ.”
Steeled for next steps he looks downtown before continuing, “Let’s take a walk.”
Turning right we walk south. We’ll give our DNA samples and let detectives swab our cheeks a little later.
And crossing 25th Street I am stopped in my tracks at the sight of a flyer, taped to the side of a phone booth.
Looking across the road from a booth bathed in sunlight is my father, his two-dimensional shadow smiling at the sight of his sons.
I cover my mouth, unable to speak and unwilling to throw up.
I know this photo; it’s from a wedding he attended with Mom. But in this cropped version of the picture Mom is missing.
And cut from the arms of her husband, Mom’s head falls forward, silently striking the inside of the storm door. Her shoulders bob rhythmically with sobs rendered silent by the unbearable weight of being left behind.
His name, appearing in black letters, is followed by a simple tagline.
‘A Gentleman and a Hero.’
Silently my father calls out in chorus with the others.
‘Help me,’ he whispers.
Then, from all around, a mighty roar as cables rend and snap.
The street lurches as sunlight and silt and leaves and smiles and blue hearts and long forgotten stories and falling workers and images of the dead and those left behind fall in a jumble.
Gaining velocity we hurtle in a tangle toward the edge.
I scratch at my eyes, gouging my face and wrenching under the unbearable weight of being.
Preparing to strike concrete I reach for my brother.
And unable to stand alone, we fall into each other’s arms, each relying on the other for strength.