Thursday, August 27, 2009
By Mash Edwards
“Deb! Over here!” muted screams and urgent cries
volley through the bitter dark air. It had been quite a
while since the initial charge. Joe had been leaning
back in his chair and as he had often been warned,
finally tipped over. The boom had knocked out the
fluorescents and the floor went instantly
soundproofed, insulated. The entire structure still
trembles, as if with fear, emitting groans, whines and
sobs. For the first time, the tower is one with all of
those inside of it. There had been days, early on,
even before Joe’s birth, when young bankers stood
tall in a confident new building and discussed the
energy crisis of the moment. There was the seeming
connection. Today, metaphor dies. Instead, pure
“Ya have to go down!” a voice tears the fumes. It
sounds like Miller, “but Cory has such a deep voice,
church-calm,” Joe wonders. “Couldn’t be.”
Bash! Blang! Bang! Joe remains under his desk, near
to where he had been rocked from his chair. On his
hands and knees, he clinches his telephone handset.
His tears are dry and now his emotions ride wholly
on the sounds that form his closed-eye landscape.
“Stop,” Joe pleads of himself. “Look up,” he
mutters. He releases the silent telephone receiver.
His palms hold flat to the floor, fingers now tangled
in the plugs beneath his desk. His hands rest quietly.
They do not shake, mostly because they press the
infirm floor and support his wavering body. Yet the
dim sight of his hands, his first since he fell to his hands and
knees, is a pill of courage.
Bash! Blang! Blash! Joe looks up. Cory frantically pounds the window glass with a metal
panel torn from copy machine 92 Civic—92 for the
floor, Civic because C is for Color. 92 stories down
the planters are scattered with cigarette butts. The
pebble courtyard spreads naked to the yawning sky,
which drops sun like leaflets and to-do lists and
“Miller has totally lost it!” Joe says to himself.
“I need to change into my sneakers,” and he calmly
rolls onto his bottom and sits like he did in grade
school, hugging one knee at a time, slipping off
either loafer. His sneakers go on. He moves his
fingers following the ritual, so normal, but his
fingers do not pinch the laces. Nothing is tied. Joe
thinks he has tied them.
The conflagration below is now flooding the 92nd
floor with sublimated matter. Like wax the air
moves, hot and massy.
“Joe,” Joe says aloud. “Mom.” At the very thought his
heart leaps. On mornings as dark as this, Mom
would always call from the lighted hallway, “Up and
at-em!” and Dad came in mocking cardiac
resuscitation on Joe’s tough little ribcage. “Uppy-uppy-
uppy,” he would say with each rapid compression.
“When you string the same words together,” Joe
always thought, “sometimes they divide and change and
become: pee-up, pee-up, peeyup, peeyup, p, yuppee,
yuppee, e-up, e-up,” and drive Joe part-way crazy the
way words tend to liquefy like the earth falling
A mighty roar. A steamy, steely blast charges
through Joe’s body. The very loudest moment—
beyond hearing, touch or taste. Joe’s life becomes
terrible with new knowledge and suddenly, the
meaning of his father’s words repatriate to their
sound. “Rush up!” Joe’s mind screams, “not down!
Not out like Cory whose solution is silly. My,” Joe
pauses for effect, “shoes!”
Cory lies slumped against the windowpane, loosely
holding the abused metal slat with which he had
punished the glass of the tower. Not Joe. Joe gets
up. He feels a little nauseous but grits his teeth. Joe
runs by Cory. Poor guy. No time. Before entering
the stormy ambulatory that leads to the elevator
bank, Joe inhales an extraordinary breath of murkiness.
Lungs contracting spasmodically, he launches through the
dark passage. The steel surfaces of doors and trashcans,
marble veneers and antiqued-brass fixtures throw pitiful
glints through the poison gas. A person, who knows, is heaped
dead against the elevator doors. The stairs are right
there! Joe leaps into the entry-bar of the stairwell
door. Purplish-black billows out.
“I’m gone,” Joe silently eulogizes, his cheeks puffed
out. “I’m over.”
All of a sudden, from within the hot breath of the
stairwell, a hand of clear air pushes the smoke
ceiling-ward. Joe is saved. He throws out his exhale
and chokes on two gulps of relatively clear air from
within the stairwell.
“92 to 110 is eighteen stories, plus the service story
and then the roof,” Joe does the math. “Closer to
heaven,” he mutters taking three steps for every
stride. He feels his way in perfect darkness, makes a
half-floor landing and calls out, “37!” having divided
the 19 stories above him by twos to mark his ascent.
Joe dearly holds his bic lighter and checks floor
placards as he reaches them.
“Uppy, up an’at’em, Uppy, up an’at’em,” Joe calls
out instead of left, right, left, right. His legs are doing their job.
This is nothing compared to running stadium steps
as a defensive tackle for Rockaway High School. A
lineman. He laughs to think of it. Five foot nine,
155 pounds. Not much of a lineman. His
teammates called him JoeSlo—“Why are you so
Joeslo?! Ya not even big!”
“Uppy Joeslo, up an’at’em Joeslo. 32! And the
caissons go rolling along,” Joe hum-sings in the dark.
Tss. Tss. Tss. Tss. Joe hears a metered step just a landing away.
“Hey!” Joe shouts.
“Hi!” a voice calls back. A blue suit, pin stripes, no
shoes, look of horror. “Hi. It’s Joe,” Joe introduces,
holding the lighter between their two faces.
“Roberto,” the man calls out, unaware that he yells.
Joe discovers Roberto has been climbing since floor
85. He is older than Joe, 40 maybe. South American,
Joe guesses by his accent. “Vaya con Dios,” Joe thinks
as he moves on and overtakes Roberto. “See you on the
roof?” Joe says, turns and looks Roberto full in the
face. He is committed. Firm. Roberto gladdens; his
pallor warms a bit. Then they are both climbing
again, one by three steps, another by single steps—
one counting half floors, the other counting each
At seven, the air above Joe becomes an impenetrable
ceiling. The initial burn of plastics, fuel and the
middle floors (generally) had funneled up the
stairwells. It now forms a clot, a mean plug, a
perfect seal with a roiling black underbelly. The
Vulcan barrier intimidates the lighter Joe holds
beneath the cloud. He must back track. He begins
to sweat. His bottom lip curls and quakes.
“You’re not on your knees anymore Joe!” he shouts.
He presses his hand against the wall, blind and
blinded. It has a touch of moisture and slight
coolness to it.
“It’s okay. I can breathe. The building's not
cooking up here. I’ll run back down a half flight, call
down to Roberto who must be getting close to the
107th floor and we’ll find a way,” Joe chats with
himself in a sublimely rational tone. He gingerly
steps back down the stairs in darkness, finds the
door without lighting his bic, and opens it.
Joe stands stunned. The smoke that leapt up the
stairwell had thoroughly dispatched with the 107th
floor. The stairwell door must have been left open
because tens of people lie about, asphyxiated. The
faces of the dead are pained, shocked, awake,
piscine. Through a set of blackened blinds, one
gentleman sits atop a boardroom table Indian-style,
slumped over his own crossed legs. Joe stands
Agape. Exactly, but how can Joe stand here and
breath this beautiful air? Several workers had,
apparently, succeeded to break a number of
windows on either end of this floor. It was not soon
enough for all those hugging cell phones and snapshots,
dead in the corners and nooks of their cubicles.
September had blown through and cleared the floor of
the poison that left its victims peppered about
for Joe to see.
Joe clutches his sides. The hurt fills him to the top of
his heart and he wails, walking through the scene of
the unsacred dead. A woman, kind, he knew, who
had just exchanged hellos with him that morning, lies
splayed on the floor, a doll, tongue-protruding, in
her frilly yellow skirt. She is the last daffodil of the
year, bent at the stalk, browning at the edges; not
picked for the table-piece but stepped on out of the
unrighteous mercy of an ignorant child.
The alternate stairwell is on the opposite side of the
building. Joe walks along the line of windows
instead of through the interior of the floor towards
the stairs, looking from side to side. He peers once
into the building at the dead with their understated
looks of chagrin, and alternately at the city, well,
Joe hears sirens through the broken windows. Tiny
sirens. Insanely small sirens that could not compare
with the thunder that sounded like collapse which had
spurred Joe to go, find, escape, live, in the first place.
Joe arrives at the opposing stairwell and realizes,
aloud, “Roberto!” What if Roberto, with no light of
his own, had simply entered the deadly cloud at 107
and 1/2? The smoke would devour him
indiscriminately and his expression, that face lit so
briefly by Joe’s bic would turn blue in the mouth like
“It is too terrible to think of!” Joe thinks, all the
while thinking exactly of it. A water-fountain stands
beside the stairwell entrance.
“It won’t work,” Joe laments. He presses the
button. It shoots a jet of clear water, to his great
surprise. “Doesn’t this thing run on power?
Whatever.” Joe mumbles as he sips, “and
lilies of the field and sparrows and dammit me and
my water-fountain,” and he almost smiles except for
“Uppy Joe,” he reminds himself.
“Up an’at’em Joeslo,” he replies. His tears again are
The staircase is clear. Joe licks his lips and starts up.
Five, four—no sign of anyone else heading up—
three. Joe slows. “Is it this easy?” Two. “Just one
more half story and I’m there?!
Joe kicks open a candy-cane striped emergency door
marked “O.W.L.” Beyond this door is a short metal
stair through a maze of yellow-painted steel piping.
The area is pristine. An almost silence pervades the
“Almost, almost, almost, stall-most, stallmost, all,
mostall, most all,” Joe chants and breaks open onto
the huge square platform that is the O.W.L., the very
top of the tower. A radio antenna bisects the plane
at a perfect right angle. The axis demonstrates a
regular strength that, after his ascent through the
reverberating hell, Joe had not remembered could
exist. Something solid, substantial and clean. Joe
breathes the blue and is now safe, he knows.
Like seahorses, planes and helicopters move and stay
still in the sky around the island. “The Woolworth
looks so sad,” thinks Joe who catches condolences
refracted in the grand old building’s southern
windows. The Empire State and Lady Liberty do
Joe falls to his knees, exhausted. The air is clear; the
sirens are nothing. Huge clouds of black smoke drift
out of the belly of each tower. The smoke seethes
through the broken teeth of the shattered zones.
Papers flutter up above the building and fall back
down. No one else is on the roof.
“Where is everyone?” and then Joe thinks of 107
and Roberto in a darkened stairwell. He bows his
tussled, brown head.
A helicopter, small, white, is cruising Midtown-West.
Joe jumps up and down, gesturing. The Copter
turns rudder and faces the antennaed tower.
“Thank God!” cries Joe. It approaches to about a
15-block perimeter and then pauses. The antenna
makes it difficult to set down on the building . One
gust and the rotor could foul.
“Besides, it’s a news chopper,” mutters Joe who
turns to scan the harbor. Three fighter jets lurk the
horizon at low altitude in tight formation—a school
of slow gray sharks bearing teeth that would bite one
another as easily. The sounds of the jet engines, like
large conch shells placed over each ear grow but fade
in Joe's mind. No help.
Joe then imagines the news helicopter picking him
up. He takes a daredevil leap from the building
edge to the chopper’s sleigh. He is saved. All
cameras witness the horror of saving someone.
Afterwards, the cloying interviewers are far too
touched to express themselves, and Joe simply
replies to all: “alhamdulillah.”
“What I really need is a military helicopter with a
rope-ladder. But can I hold on to the rope? What
are you, crazy?! Joe!” Joe yells, “Of course I can! I
survived 92 and 107. Now I am going to die for my
fingers?!” Joe agrees, pumping his arms.
The helicopters will not approach. “I know they see
me! The whole world probably can. Satellites and
telescopic video cameras.” Joe stands alone on top of
the most famous burning building in the world.
“Do I have to climb the spire and be machine-gunned
before anyone finds pity,” thinks Joe,
exasperated. He paces the roof. Maybe he had
only imagined the salute of the news helicopter
turning south towards him.
“No one wants to come. To help.”
Suddenly, a Coast Guard helicopter appears in the
distance with, it looks to Joe, a dull metal basket
suspended from a steel lanyard. The orange and
white craft circles wide from the Hudson’s mouth
and over Jersey City, taking in the destruction and
Joeslo on top of it all.
“Now!” cries Joe, jumping high into the air three
times, falling, as desperation tends to weaken the
“It’s not long enough,” Joe worries. The braided steel
line is thirty feet long at most.
“It won’t reach.” Joe begins again to narrate his
demise. “I will die by a short rope.”
Then, the helicopter begins to cross the Hudson and
when it reaches the Winter Garden Joe no longer
sees the destruction fluttering and plunging from
below, nor the broken windows in nearby offices,
nor the pitiful Marriott cowering genuflect. Joe only
sees words: Save. Basket. Uppy. And his mother and
father back in Breezy are watching this all come true.
They see how horrible it is to save someone, and
that someone is Joe. All he will say is
“alhamdulillah” and then go to bed for a while and
wait for the fervor to die down.
The basket now swings precariously overhead. Joe,
agape, looks up and holds out his hands as if to
catch a falling baby. The winch-operator waives Joe
off. “Let it settle on the roof,” Joe understands him
“Okay!” Joe yells. “Okay!” he says and smiles with a
hint of unease.
Bash! Blang! Blash! The basket strikes the cement
surface of the O.W.L. Peril subsides and Joe feels
cool relief. The strong wind from the blades presses
him into a crouch. The mummy-shaped basket tilts
toward him. Joe looks at his hands—a stillness once
Then the seismic scream renews and the basket rises
in the air. It flits away, impossibly fast and Joe
shudders, blinks. His body resets itself, blinks. As
the stories consume themselves, pulverizing each
between every before sending the cloud through the
heated midpoint, Joe still sits beneath his desk,
sneakers on. They are untied. He is ready to go,
find, escape, live.