When the Sky Fell

Four young, white women tourists with the Twin Towers and NY City skyline behind them, 1986.
The Twin Towers, 1986. That’s me, white jacket, with sister and two friends.

Rick and I are sleeping, a little late on a Tuesday. It’s deadline day, and we know there is a grueling schedule ahead – a stop to pick up proof pages and photos, last-minute stories to write, an unstable editor’s wrath to face, surely sometime before 4 p.m. when the last page is due at the press. The phone rings. We stretch and rise.

Harold, down at Production, wants to know where the hell we are. “Wake up, man,” he shouts into the phone, Jamaican, the half-laugh in his voice enough to keep us guessing. Is he angry? Is he joking? We can never tell. “You are missing all the news! The world is ending! Airplanes are falling from the sky! Buildings are falling down! Get up, man, you’re late!”

“What the fuck,” says Rick. “What an asshole.” We shower, grab coffee at Lee’s Donuts and drive across town to Harold’s place on San Antonio, where he’s putting the finishing touches on pages before press. I wait in the car with my coffee, making dents in the Styrofoam cup with my nail and waiting for Rick to reappear.

I hate deadline day. I don’t trust the editor. She and Rick circle each other daily, until one or the other snarls, then the place erupts. They sit facing, with computers between them, and call each other names. I sit with my back to them both, hunched and wincing, waiting for the knife at my back, the plea from one or the other to choose sides. Add in the pressure of a deadline and all bets are off. I pick at my cup, awaiting the drive to the office, waiting for shit to fly.

Rick comes out of the house with an armful of proof sheets, his face screwed up. He’s already in a sulk. The shitstorm begins, I think. He plumps into the driver’s seat and says, “Fucking Harold wasn’t kidding. An airplane hit the World Trade Center. The building came down. There are thousands of people dead, Julia. New York is burning.”

He turns on the radio and the airwaves stun us into silence. Tears roll down his face as we hit the freeway. Passengers incinerated in a fireball. The Twin Towers in flames. Unbelievably, a second airplane hits. It’s all on camera. All America sees it happening. People can’t get out. People are jumping from the windows. They are falling like bits of chaff. The buildings tremble and quake. One at a time, as slowly and yet suddenly as a soldier faints when standing at attention too long, they fold in on themselves. Uncounted numbers turn to dust.

All airplanes are grounded. The sky is deathly silent. Schools are closed. People hunker down as another plane hit the Pentagon. A fourth plows into a field in Pennsylvania. In the Middle East, they are laughing at us, they are dancing and burning our flags. Elsewhere, the pall is cast: from Japan, England, Australia, Canada, Germany, the Philippines, literally around the globe, every nation seems to have lost somebody. Everyone in America seems to have lost a friend or a friend of a friend. People are missing. Loved ones are gone from the planet, as if they never existed. Ghosts roam the streets, as strangers hold each others’ hands and pray.

Rick, whose New Jersey childhood made Manhattan as familiar as his own mother’s face, weeps and weeps as we drive.

When we get to the office, the unstable editor barks orders. The publisher has spoken. We have stories to write. She heads to the airport for a press conference, and speaks to local law enforcement about what is to be done. My assignments are to call the superintendent to talk about what this means for the schools, and the bewildered students. And I am to hit the streets in this no-horse town, find the hubs of the community and see how people are reacting.

When I get a minute, I slip outside and call the elementary school that my two younger girls attend. No answer, just the machine. The high school, ditto. I dial the Ex, and he quickly assures me that he has everything under control. School has not been cancelled. The girls are fine. Now he must go. He is an important person in the county and very busy. He must see to his agencies. Everything is fine, just fine. Click.

The sky is empty. Few cars roam the streets. I call the superintendent, take my notes, set them aside and then begin to walk. There is no hub in this town, not even a village square. There is no cannon on the green or city hall. Just two main roads that cross each other, and the Safeway and the Walgreen’s and all the little nail parlors and Radio Shacks that spring up like weeds near a leaky pipe.

I check in at the Chamber of Commerce, a one-woman show, and she says, “I don’t know anything. Try the bars.”

There are three bars located on the main drag, and I stop in, one by one. They’re all the same: dim, with a lasting tinge of cigarette smoke despite the California non-smoking law, and the TV blares. The flickering screen gives blue light to smoking towers. Anchormen and women in their natty jackets show diagrams and schematics, speak to experts and cut away quickly when Mayor Giuliani speaks.

People are drinking coffee in the bars. It’s early yet, before noon, and not a beer or cocktail do I spy. The rednecks and roughnecks in this town share counter space; Harleys and pickups cheek by jowl in the lot, the Confederate flag on the jacket of one, a full body tattoo on another. The bartender is 100 years old. She has seen darker days than this in her own life, known the back of a hand and the taste of bourbon before cornflakes. Her eyes are hard and her makeup a little too heavy. The mole on her cheek sprouts two hairs, a black one and a white one, and she has done her long graying hair in a French twist, fastened with a tooled leather pick that her granddaughter made in 4H.

No one has anything to say. They watch the screen in silence, push their mugs forward when offered more, stir in the Sweet ‘n’ Low without a downward glance, spilling white powder like cocaine on the counter top. I feel I have stepped into a wake, and asking these people how they feel is like asking about their sex lives. You know they have one but it is none of your business.

But it’s my job, to ask the questions like How do you feel? to a bunch of grieving Americans, and prostitute that I am, I ask. They give me the fish eye. They say “How do you think I feel?” and “It’s a sad day.” These ranchers and drunks have feelings, but they are deep wells, and they won’t give it up to me.

Back at the office, I write my stories, then turn to the other pages. I edit and proof Seniors, Pets, and Op-Ed, I hand off Arts and Around Town, then do a wrap-up of Business. I type up some press releases to have at hand in case we’re short. I give the camera back to Rick, who downloads and uploads and gets the page ready for the editor to drop her stories in.

The day flies, and we listen on the radio and the police scanner for more news. It is sick, and sicker. Thousands dead, we hear. Several other buildings have also fallen. Hundreds of firefighters and police officers dead in the line of duty. The Pentagon is burning. The passengers of the other plane fought for control before crashing. They are heroes. The President is flying around in Air Force One. Dead, dead, dead, in three different states. An attack on our country, the first since Pearl Harbor. Be prepared for more attacks. Terrorists are on the loose. They are not afraid to die like we are.

The editor returns, slams her stories together and we finish the front page. The jumps all match, the heads are correct, all the cutlines and photo credits are in place. My stories are non-starters – there is no local connection. There is no local news, except when another methamphetamine lab burns down. There’s no reason to put out this paper week after week except as a vehicle for the Walgreen’s ad. I want to impale myself on my Exacto knife, pour hot wax over myself until I harden and melt like a candle. I final-proof the last page. Rick puts it to bed. The day ends, and we leave.

We have no television; we can’t read the San Francisco Chronicle because it is yesterday’s news. We go home. We have some dinner. Rick is in shock. He calls home and hears more about it from his parents. Otherwise, we don’t talk much. We sleep and rise again, to 64-point headlines that tell all. Our little paper is out on the streets, too, with the “local angle.” The stories look good, if by good you understand that I mean solipsistic, completely irrelevant and not worth the paper and ink that they’ve wasted.

The skies are still silent. News bursts forth from the radio, and we hear more, more, more about the deaths, the numbers, the losses, the devastation, the drama, what to tell your kids, how to deal with post-traumatic stress, how to be prepared. It doesn’t end. Tomorrow is a day of mourning. The next day we will all bow our heads at 11 a.m. for a moment of silence. Then we will say the Pledge of Allegiance. The day after that, there is a national candlelight vigil at dusk.

We drive separate cars that day, and I half-forget about the vigil until, on my way home, I see a girl about 25 years old standing at the corner of Central and Broadway, in front of the kitchy old apartments with the palm trees. She’s wearing a blue tank top and cut-off jeans. Her face is somber. She has a candle in each hand, lit, and is waving them at passing cars. People honk as they go by.

All the way up Central Avenue, I see neighbors with their lawn chairs gathered in semicircles, and candles in their hands, candles in clusters on street corners, everywhere. When I get home and find a place on the street to park, I find a candle and one of Rick’s lighters. The candle was once part of a pair that I used on the big dining table for the holidays, cranberry red to match the tablecloth. The girls wore matching dresses. My parents were there. Annie asks if she can blow out the candles and my mother shows her how to do it, how not to get wax on the linens. Annie splutters enough saliva at the candle to drown it, and no wax spills. My husband pours more wine and laughs, and we all laugh with him.

I press the candle more firmly into the holder and take it out on the front stoop. I am on the second floor and can see McDonald’s across the way, with its primary-colored play structure with the plastic ball pit. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, from 7 a.m., kids are in there screaming. I lie awake and listen to their voices. I collect the balls they’ve strewn into the street. I don’t return them to McDonald’s. I keep them for some reason as yet unknown to me.

My children are now in another universe from me. I cannot reach them. The gatekeeper, my Ex, says all is well, and it’s not my concern. He’ll take care of it. I want to pull my three girls into the circle of my arms and cry with them, tell them the world still turns, tell them I will be there to care for them no matter what happens.

And this, we know, is a lie.

Because the world has stopped. There is mayhem and destruction everywhere, not just in my own little life. But I am dead to the day’s events. I don’t care about any of it. I watch the terror and sadness on the television, in the newspapers, with no other feeling than shame, that I am not with my girls, I cannot reach them, I cannot protect them, I cannot mother them, I cannot shelter them, I cannot cry with them, I have become this useless slag, I have failed at the one thing I am biologically equipped to do, I have scorched the earth black with my own misdeeds, and so the death and disasters on a global scale mean nothing to me. I can’t even clear my vision enough to watch. The depth of my failings is such that it will take me years to feel it, for the horror of this day and the horror of the past few months to fully announce itself. I float down this particular river alone, can’t say how little it all means, of course, not aloud to anyone; there isn’t anyone to tell. Instead, I cling to the one lifejacket I possess, this young fool, weeping into his pillow for a lost city. This ridiculous one-weekend coupling is all I have left. I will cling to that lifeline off and on for three years.

I sit alone on the top step and light my candle. I think I should pray, but that tank is empty, something else to feel guilty for. I sit and do nothing. I sit alone and wait. After a while I blow my candle out and go inside where Rick awaits, to sleep.

“When the Sky Fell” is a chapter from Wedlock: A Fictional Memoir, by Julia Park Tracey

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3 Replies to “When the Sky Fell”

  1. Oh Julia, you recall that horrible day so well! I was living in So Cal then, I remember turning on the TV in the breakfast nook off the kitchen while getting my breakfast and hearing that “tone”, the tone I learned to recognize in the 1960’s during assassinations and other horrible disasters. I was frozen with fear, what did this all mean? Later, I learned that one of the girls in my group of good high school friends had died in the tower that day; I found it hard to catch my breath, and am not sure I’ve taken a deep breath since.

    Thanks for sharing your heart on this awful, awful day.

    Mary Ellen

  2. Great writing, Julia: gut-wrenching to read, just as it was to write.Looking back from 2014, I think I can say that the world did not stop turning, although the terrorists have not ceased their horrible slaughter.

    Redemption and hope seem to spring (back) up despite the blackness, and i am grateful for that miracle–if I may be so bold as to use that term.
    I hope that you, too, are better off now than you were in 2001. I am.

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