Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Welcome To Hell

I used to have a photo from the This Is New York exhibit, with a fairly intact car covered in WTC soot and somebody had written WELCOME TO HELL on the back window. I am posting a photo of a squad car as I do whenever I end up writing about 9/11, because my dad was a cop and I think the media tends to recall the deaths of the 343 firemen, not the 108 cops. As with every event that gives me nightmares, I expunged it by writing about it.


By Wayne Allen Sallee

Nine weeks now, the man has felt anger and anxiety and fear for all the right as well as all the wrong reasons. The past was a constant, everything that occurred with horrifying quickness on that achingly blue late summer morning framed in video and glossy magazine print, yet for the man, who turned 42 just two days before the terrorist hijackings, the present comes in fragments. One day he is right with his reasonings, that same evening it is as if his very existence is a terrible mistake.
The man had left downtown Chicago in a rush that Tuesday, heading south and west to suburban Belmonde. The train line ended at Midway Airport and he saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. The FAA had landed all aircraft; these unknown bodies were finding Chicago a way station, shambling about towards taxis and hotels. The man still did not know the severity of the terrorist events. He did not know of the fourth hijacked flight, where the passengers fought their captors and all died in a Pennsylvania field.
He just wanted to get home and see his nine year old niece and godchild, who would be home from school on lunch. He walked briskly past workmen on 87th Street digging a new sewer and wondered if they had heard any news at all that morning. He cut across the parking lot of the Baptist church and was in the door, flipping on the television before even extracting the keys from the door.
When the man saw the film of the planes crashing, the towers falling, all he could think of was that this was the world we were leaving to the next generation. And then, walking into the small, suburban kitchen, a wind chime over the sink and refrigerator magnets of dogs in police and firefighter uniforms, and seeing his godchild eating grilled cheese sandwiches and reading a Dear America chapter book, his heart dropped. Not long before, he had realized that he had attained middle age, and saw himself as being less and less a protective source towards the young and the innocent, his godchild’s peer group. What good would it be to follow her back to class, dodging behind trees to remain unnoticed, if some religious lunatic decided the whole place should be bombed to dust?
And he had, for the first time this century, his first dark feelings towards ending his life. That is, he wanted to write a story in which the main character ends his life, not through suicide, but through heroism or some other form of self-sacrifice. He had gotten away from killing his narrator’s off over the years, as his godchild and now his sister’s twins, now going on three, were aware that their uncle wrote books and stories. In the twins case, they knew their uncle had his picture on some books.
He had stopped writing stories for shock value, attempting to create reaction regardless of it was good or bad. In his collection of stories, he dedicated the book to his godchild, saying that when he was gone, she could read the stories and see how he tried to make sense of his days.
In the weeks that followed, the aftermath burrowed into his brain. At first, the man was angry, feeling in that detached it-didn’t-happen-to-me way the betrayal and violation a rape or mugging victim might share. What could he have done?
The terror of the hijacked passengers. A glass and steel and concrete tomb, collapsing, girders and jumping bodies from 108 stories up looking like confetti. Mass murderers who use another language to speak to another God before gunning the motors towards the Promised Land.
The man had faith because he had been born crippled. Faith told him God made him this way for a reason, to learn, to teach, to write. That played a good part in why so many of his main characters weren’t around for subsequent stories; why they died, or succumbed to madness. This attempt at playing with his future kept him sane when he needed to be lucid the most. One of his fantasies was of making a planned disappearance; of course, this was before his sister had a family. People end up missing in the big, bad city every day. He thought of getting on a Greyhound and doing a Richard Kimble to Portland. Or maybe Denver. Take his new name from the TV Guide movie listings. William Hurt played seedy lawyer Ned Racine in Body Heat. Mitchum portrayed Jonny Algiers in the sequel to Thunder Road. Instead of accelerating his future by dying in his stories, a new name and job in a city of strangers would be like changing the present, of having it run parallel to the “old” present. But now (if he ever really could) the man couldn’t even do a
painless thing like vanishing, knowing that in time even family would forget, if only in a small, diminished way.
And it was all because of the nine year old washing her lunch plate in the sink, telling him how the second grade teachers had everyone looking up words in dictionaries, while in the other room, on a big screen television, two towers collapsed like white sand. The man had to stay sane for her.
And staying sane meant writing stories. Telling tales of other peoples’ psyches. And so he wrote. The man’s godchild spent several weekends at the house, eager to use the man’s computer and access various websites involving pop singing stars and cartoons on cable. But the news would always come on, or a news break; most times, there was news right there when America Online popped up on the screen. The girl knew Bush and bin Laden, and knew of some other things in generalized form. She said that the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld looked like her friend down the block’s grandfather. She knew about Afghanistan, and in talking with other nine year olds on the playground, decided that the reason everyone talked about New York City and not the Pentagon was because the two tall buildings had fallen, whereas the Pentagon was just broken up a little.
The man listened to her tell him this, he loved their one on one talks, and he thought back to 1968. What the hell could the topic of conversation have been in the brick gangway of Charles Gates Dawes grade school? Certainly not Vietnam or the Apollo space program. How does a nine year old process what goes on in the world of today? The world we are leaving them? Yes, he could experience the end of his days through his fictional characters. And he could think of ways to alter or adapt to the present, by starting fresh, even though he never would, short of being in a Witness Relocation program.
But there was no changing the past. The seasons had changed, leaves of red and orange fallen, window decorations of ghouls and spider webbed hedges madly juxtaposed with flying flags hanging from poles near driveways and smaller flags on suction cups in windows next to the goblins and toothy witches. September 11th had happened. It wasn’t a story. And it might never be simply a thing of the past. Let go and let God. Maybe he would, come the snows of December or January. For now it was more difficult.
The man was putting up a front for the people around him; his family, co-workers, his godchild. Mostly his godchild, because of how he felt on that beautiful sky blue day when he realized he could no longer expect to protect her with absolute certainty. He had written horror stories for fifteen years, but the hijackers made him feel little and inconsequential. For that is what terrorists do so well. Mohammed Atta did what Hannibal Lecter never could. And the man understood why.
He was no longer sleeping well. He would type his stories to the point of exhaustion, masking the spasms with pain-relieving gel, laying down long past midnight, only to waken at three-fifteen to the sound and image of a passenger jet crashing into the Sears Tower in a sky the brightest blue. He would lay there unblinking in the darkness, his nostrils burning from the pain gel pressed into his shoulders and neck muscles only now, the smell was that of jet fuel.
Awake then until the false dawn that Chicago’s Octobers bring, he sees himself jumping from a hundred stories up because the very air around him is on fire, of the crunch of body parts beneath his feet, the crunch of the last hijacker’s nose as he, the greatest hero ever, crushes the terrorist into pulp and then that final hijacked plane goes into a nose dive and crushes everything into pulp.
He imagined screams and then the dreams were of explosions in Union Station or of several swarthy men leaping forward on an elevated train, praising their God, before blowing everybody up. The man used to remember when serial killers were the worst thing to conceive. His godchild knew all about Stranger Danger, but a Christopher Wilder or a Andrew Cunanen or the BTK Strangler operated almost by chaos theory.
But how do you live with terrorists who will just as easily die with you? Certainly, the man knew enough people of European extract who would say this terrorism is nothing new if you have ever been anywhere else in the world. His doctor emigrated from Croatia in 1984 and often spoke of mass graves. Even rotund Henry, who sold lottery tickets in the lobby of a downtown building, said that a plane crash and mass death meant next to nothing in Pakistani life. Just another day in paradise.
He explained this in simple terms to his godchild, how in other lands, you could not own a television or radio, women could not laugh in public and had to hide their faces.
The man finished up a story he would be reading that next week at a bookstore near the University of Chicago. He lay back in his chair and dreamt one last time. In his dream, he is on the rooftop of a building several blocks from the Sears Tower. It is overcast, rainy.
He turns to stare at me, a distance away.
“Remember the plane hitting the second tower?”, he asked. It came up in a graceful arc on the television while everybody was watching smoke coming from the north tower. A commercial plane, the newscasters were saying. “ Then, boom, the fireball.” I jerked away.
I looked over LaSalle Street, the elevated tracks like Lego blocks far, far below. But the air around me was not on fire, nor would it ever be. A gull arced past, not a bit of sky in its path, flying gracefully past building after building. Like the second hijacked jetliner.
The man wanted me to look at him, as if I was seeing into a mirror. He took a gun from his jacket pocket, waved it in an arc. Though the sky was grey, the weapon glinted and it could have been a less-benign bird. Aside from gulls and pigeons, Chicago even has peregrine falcons that roost like gargoyles on upper ledges.
“Look how it curves upward, purposefully, with a mission.” He stares at me, unblinking. He has an almost beatific smile. “Tell her I can’t take the dreams or the reality anymore, will you?” I don’t move.
Then he arced the gun away from him, off to the right, like a gunslinger in a bad film. He pulled the trigger then, after pointing the gun at me, and the last thing I could think was what was faster, the jet hitting the South Tower, or the bullet coring into my left eye socket?
I awaken on the couch with a start. It is an early Sunday afternoon and my godchild is typing away at my computer’s keyboard. I shut my eyes. A passenger jet hits the Bank One building and the keyboard clacking becomes severed bodies slapping into the plaza’s water fountain. I shake the image away and then I see a pair of hands in plastic handcuffs, a woman’s wedding ring on one bloody finger. The hands are twisted in a weird type of desperate prayer, and the tendons and muscle are severed past the wrists.
I do not know when I will stop living like this. The man who shot me in his dream nods his head in solemn agreement.
The gray behind my eyelids is a field of containment.

Wayne Allen Sallee
Burbank, Illinois: 25 September 2001

And my niece, Ashley, the girl in the story. She drew this for me a few days later.