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5 Stories & Narrations ∼ “Remembering 9/11” by Charles Rammelkamp

Charles Rammelkamp


“Ground Zero”


My poetry reading at the Orange Bear on Murray Street, in Tribeca, had to be postponed from October to January because Ground Zero was still toxic and inaccessible. But even four months after the disaster, when I went up for the re-scheduled reading, I could still smell the smoke in the financial district, like a fireplace that had gone cold but still reeked of ash.

I’d taken the train up from Wilmington and met my friend Roger at Penn Station. Roger lived in Westchester but worked in an office on 53rd Street. The walls of the train station were still plastered with photographs of the missing that desperate people had put up, still holding out hope. Or maybe by that time they’d lost hope. It was a gloomy January day, gray sky, a light snow falling.
“I was in my office on the thirtieth floor, my window facing south, but I just couldn’t look,” Roger said, pretty much the first thing out of his mouth once we’d greeted each other.

I remembered the footage of people running for their lives after the south tower collapsed, pursued by the rolling cloud of smoke and debris boiling up behind them, terrified, racing toward the clear blue in front of them, the day so otherwise calm and clear. I remembered, too, the images of people leaping from windows, in the inferno, to their certain death.

Who doesn’t know somebody in New York? My sister-in-law did some sort of freelance work in the financial district, but she’d been home that day in her upper west side apartment. People in Wilmington all had stories, like the guy whose aunt and uncle had an office in the complex. He’d called and called to try to reach them, without success, in a panic, only to learn they hadn’t made it out of Brooklyn that day; they’d stayed behind to vote in the mayoral primaries. Another guy had a sister who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, but she hadn’t been among the hundreds of employees who’d died, away from the office that day.

The Orange Bear was a  seedy old-man bar just blocks away from where the towers had stood. It might have been an old-time speakeasy. Above the bar, lined with half-empty bottles of whiskey, gin, vodka, scotch, rum, a painting of a reclining odalisque, haloed in dim-watt bulbs, emphasized the saloon atmosphere of the place. I half expected to see Miss Kitty come flouncing by in a b-girl frock, as she were at the Long Branch in Dodge City.
My friend Tom Catterson, who published a poetry journal called Medicinal Purposes with his friend Robert Dunn hosted the reading series, called Poet-to-Poet. He’d invited me to read in his series one lazy summer day back in July when I was up in New York for another reading. Tom had lost part of a leg, from the knee down, to diabetes, and walked around with a crutch. He made me think of a pirate. Since I was a featured reader, they waived the $3 cover, but Roger had to pay, and I bought him a drink.

There was an elevated stage on one side of the room big enough to accommodate a five-man band. This was where the readings would take place. Three of us were reading, followed by an open mic. Tom hoisted himself to the stage on his peg leg and crutch.
“We’re New Yorkers!” he declared to get the reading underway. “We’re not going to be cowed by no fucking terrorists!” Of course, the disaster was still the first thing anybody thought about or talked about. Tom’s declaration was greeted by scattered half-hearted applause, and then Tom introduced the readers. What did I choose to read?

Fred Goes to College

My college roommate Fred slept in a hammock
he’d strung up between window and closet.
After Vietnam he said he felt more comfortable
swinging suspended in a mesh-rope bed.
In the cafeteria he ate like a cat
hunkered over its dish, aware of his surroundings
through peripheral vision, ready to run
if some unexpected danger appeared.
I always imagined that life for Fred
was like waking up in the middle of a fire drill:
a shrill constant ringing and chaos
in the halls, a sharp unfamiliar breeze
from an open window at the end of the corridor,
distant shouting in an echoing stairwell,
college kids clutching bathrobes around them,
people bumping blindly into one another
as they tried to be orderly in a manner
mimicking a thousand different concepts of order.
And that red clanging bell, there,
at the end of the fluorescent-lit hallway,
announcing disaster like an oldtime archangel
out of some thundering evangelist’s sermon:
if you could only shut the damn thing up!
If you could only bring on the silence!

So this was Ground Zero, I thought, sipping my whiskey and half-listening to the red-haired girl who followed me, glad to be done. It felt historic, even then, only four months after the towers had fallen. A few years later Tom would die from a heart attack, and several years after that Roger would retire from his job and move to a co-op in SoHo, and construction would begin on a new skyscraper where the towers had stood, but for just this January afternoon it felt like I was in a war zone. I had just read my poetry at Ground Zero.

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Al’s flight from LAX to Detroit Metro to visit his mother in Potawatomi Rapids had been canceled, because all air travel had been suspended after terrorists hijacked four airplanes on the east coast earlier that day.

His mother was frantic when he called. She was sure she was in danger. Al recalled that back during the Cold War, people in Potawatomi Rapids had been convinced the Soviet Union would drop their A-bombs on Potawatomi Rapids since it was approximately halfway between Chicago and Detroit. Strategic. The family had even considered buying a fallout shelter, or building their own in an area of the basement. But the expense – hundreds of 1962 dollars – and the sheer effort stopped them, though they did have long impassioned dinner-table arguments about what to stock and how much – first aid materials, canned goods, water….

“That place in Pennsylvania where the fourth plane went down?” she fretted over the phone to her son. “Looked like it could have been around here.”

“Oh Jesus, Ma!” Al groaned. “LA’s a more likely target than Potawatomi Rapids! Don’t be ridiculous!”

“And don’t I know it! I am so worried for you! I wish you could be here with me!” She sounded so forlorn, Al’s heart went out to her. “When will you be able to re-schedule your flight?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to call the airline. I imagine they have a real backlog on their hands, too. A real mess.”

“And the economy!” his mother cried, as if she were keeping a ledger of the things that were going to go to hell, the dominoes that would fall. “It’s already been sluggish. I just hope they don’t take your father’s pension away from me.” Al’s mother had been a housewife, and since her husband had died ten years before she’d depended on their savings, the pension and Social Security.

After the initial adrenaline rush of the catastrophe, Al felt the gloom descend on him all at once. “Life is not going to be the same again,” he muttered, as if the realization had just struck him with the force of epiphany. “It’s as if we’ve lost our innocence.”

His mother agreed, a mewing murmur, and they shared a moment of profound silence, before Al broke it.

“I guess I’d better call Southwest and see when I can get a flight.”


“The Trophy Wife”


Eva smiled when she reflected that her husband Scott seemed to think of her as a trophy wife, the gorgeous younger second wife of a midlife crisis. Some trophy – she brought triplets and no money to the marriage, only her youth, wit and good looks. An atomic blonde.

Scott’s first marriage had been disastrous, full of rancor and infidelity. There’d been two children, a boy and a girl, but his wife, Melanie, had been vicious and vindictive, and Scott had spent years in therapy after the divorce. Even her children hated Melanie and would have nothing to do with her, not that Eva thought much of the kids, who seemed to regard her as a gold-digger, a fortune-seeker. Eva was barely five years older than Todd, seven older than Vicki.

Scott, manager of the personnel department (“Human Resources”) for a large insurance company, had met Eva when he interviewed her for a computer programming job (“Information Technology Specialist” or was it “Data Analyst”?). She hadn’t got the job, but Scott had asked her out on a date. One thing led to another.

By that time Jack was out of the picture, her first husband, father of the triplets, a no-good abusive alcoholic, though after the September eleventh attacks he’d “get religion” – and a twelve-step program – and become excruciatingly sanctimonious if a responsible adult, at last.
When Eva and Scott went out, waitresses would mistake her for his daughter, or at least a younger sister. It was awkward at first, but Scott turned it into a joke. He’d say he’d traded in his sixty for a pair of thirties. But he was indeed quite happy with Eva. She made him feel young again. Young and in love.

But while Scott went to the office every day, Eva, ostensibly “looking for a job,” stayed home, working on her novel and shepherding the triplets around. They were now in kindergarten, which made the prospect of Eva’s getting a job more realistic. After a year of marriage Scott was
starting to nag her about it. She’d had a grim data entry job in Butler, but when she married Scott and moved to Altoona she’d had to give it up.

“I’m not saying your novel’s not important work,” Scott clarified, “but we’ve got three little kids to raise.”

“I know. I know, I really am looking! I sent out a resume last week for a marketing position with that place –”
“Marketing! What the fuck do you know about marketing?”

“They said they wanted someone with writing skills.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. I’m just a little stressed these days.”

“I also sent a resume to the newspaper for a position in the editorial department.”

Scott rolled his eyes, but Eva did not jump to the bait.

So on that clear Tuesday morning in western Pennsylvania, after Scott had gone to the office and Marci, Heather and Amber were all in school, Eva sat down to work on her novel, a story about a divorced single mother trying to make her way in the world, when the phone rang. It was Scott.

“Are you watching television?” he asked.

“No, I’m not watching the fucking television, Scott!” Eva shot back. Why did he think she was a good-for-nothing? “I’m working on my novel.”

“Well turn on the television,” Scott said, ignoring her tone. “Some assholes have just flown an airplane into the World Trade Center in New York.”

Eva turned on the television in time to see the second plane crash into the other tower. She spent the rest of the day glued to the news, transfixed, and when Scott came home in the evening with the girls, they embraced with all the love and forgiveness they felt for each other.

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“Plans and Procedures”


I’d just been hired to work on the disaster recovery team at the agency’s computer center a few months before, a technical writer. I still taught writing at the community college, but the slave wages of an adjunct professor weren’t enough to make ends meet. Ellen had a salary, too, of course, but a mortgage and two kids in private school ate up a lot of income.

Mostly it was fires, tornadoes, blizzards, the power grid going haywire, but we developed plans and procedures for civil unrest and earthquakes, too, even though we were located on the east coast. Mainly we were all about protecting the computer data, saving human lives only a secondary consideration.

TV monitors were suspended on brackets above the elevator doors, like the television sets in a sports bar. Ours were tuned to CNN and Fox News, the sound turned off, scrolls crawling across the bottom of the screen. As I waited on the second floor for an elevator to five, I watched the airplane fly into the World Trade Center tower. It wasn’t live but it wasn’t clear how long ago it had happened. Was it even real? This couldn’t be real, could it?

“Oh, my God!” The department secretary, Jenny, stood next to me, her hand over her mouth, comprehension dawning on her.

My boss Manny wasn’t exactly sure what to do. We were hundreds of miles from New York, over an hour away from DC. Still, this was a disaster, right? In the end, the agency sent us all home, and Manny told us all to check our cellphones and beepers in case we were needed for some vague emergency response procedure.

“I’ve got to tell her I love her,” Josh muttered as we made our way out to the parking lot. Josh was also on the disaster recovery team. He was talking to himself but he wanted me to hear.

“Who?” I asked. “Who do you have to tell?”

“Jenny. A thing like this –” He waved his arm in a distracted gesture. “It makes you realize how short life is, what’s important.”

“Don’t do it, Josh,” I cautioned. “You’re married. You have kids. Jenny’s sweet, but –”

“I’ve got to do it,” Josh said, determined. “I have to.” He got into his car. I thought of drunks in late-night bars making phone calls.

At the school, the doors were locked, and I had to ring the buzzer to get in to get my kids. The security guard knew who I was, but he still wanted to see my ID. I felt silly pulling out my driver’s license. Was this really necessary?

At home, Ellen had just arrived from her job. She’d likewise been sent home. We hugged each other, clinging like survivors, and Ellen fussed over Bobby and Sarah. We both felt this absurd need to “shield” them from some monstrous reality, and I remembered being in elementary school the day JFK was assassinated. But what could we do, I wondered. Plans and procedures.

That evening I still had my composition class at the community college. I thought classes might be canceled, but nobody called to tell me one way or the other. The radio was full of the disaster, the mounting numbers of the dead, the president’s response, world reaction.

The parking lot at the college was nearly empty but there were lights on in the Humanities building. I went to my classroom and switched on the lights. Students trickled in. The attack was the first thing anybody mentioned, coming in.

“What’s the big deal?” Alex Booth demanded from his seat in the back row, a hulk of a boy with a baseball cap on backwards. Everybody else was somber. How could we go on with grammar quizzes at a time like this?

“It’s a very big deal, Alex,” I said, but I opened the textbook anyway and turned to the lesson.

Just then my cellphone started to shrill like a cricket. I wasn’t used to having a cellphone. It was still a new technology and felt official, like a gun or a badge. Soon we’d be arming our kids with them, as a way of making us all feel more secure. I fumbled with the phone, thinking it might be Manny with some wild scheme, but it was Josh.

“I did it,” he blurted breathlessly. “I called Jenny.” It sounded as if he’d been holding his breath all this time.

“She told me I needed to calm down. She told me she liked me too, but not the same way. But at least I did it, Mel. At least I called her.”

“Okay, well, I’m in my class so I better get back to work,” I said, and we rang off.

I picked up the textbook and looked at the page as if it were all hieroglyphics. A puzzle.

“All right,” I began. “Which is more correct, ‘I feel bad’ or ‘I feel badly.’ Anyone?”

Things were going to be very different from now on, I reflected. Somebody was going to be punished. There’d probably be a war. Maybe years and years of war. I looked at Alex slumped over his textbook at the back of the room. Yes, this was a very big deal.

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“I am not shaving my beard, Mom, please don’t be so absurd!” I implore, exasperated. Her fretting can drive me up the wall.

“I just worry about you!” Anjali cries. “That big black beard makes you look like one of those terrorists who flew the airplanes. Now one of these hooligans out in the streets might do something. You know how brutal they are, Anand, all in the name of some misguided ‘patriotism.’”

My mother provokes my sarcasm. “These Americans, you mean?” I bark back at her. “Mom, we happen to be Americans, too, don’t forget.”

“I haven’t forgotten, Anand, Indian-American, but to these thugs you are simply a foreigner. You look like you could be Arab, an Iranian, maybe one of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. Already the number of incidents of violence against people who look just like you –”

“Oh, Jesus,” I exclaim, American to the core. “In my four years at NYU I never once –” But even that, if I were telling myself the truth, isn’t exactly so, but the nutcases are the exception, not the rule. And while I recognize the enormity of the terrorist attacks just five weeks ago? My first reaction upon learning that a classmate’s fiancé had died when the south tower fell, imploding like a sand castle, had been that Elizabeth Ryan, the Irish girl with big tits, after whom I’d lusted all through college, was now available….

“Things are different now, Anand,” Mom reminds me, ever the voice of caution, clear-headed restraint. “You know it’s true.”
“Well I’m not shaving and that’s final. This is still the United States of America,” I declare, sounding like a smug, sanctimonious prig even to my own ears, even as I can’t help myself from reciting my lines. “I’m still a citizen. I’m still free.”

Mom throws her hands up in despair. “Freedom,” she spits, and that’s really the only time I feel she’s checkmated me. I cringe at a mental image of those fools with the little American flags waving on the back of their pickup trucks, the flag decals on the rear windshield with the slogan, “These colors don’t run.”

Since graduating in May, I’ve not yet had a job offer. True, I took a couple of months off after graduating, to travel – Turkey, Egypt, India, which, since the attacks, my mother has fretted looks “suspicious,” as if Big Brother has been combing through my files, as if the government gives a shit about Anand Chowdhury – but since I’m still without work, in the meantime I’ve been helping my aunt in Queens. Lakshmi runs a non-profit for struggling immigrants. One of her clients is named Luciana Sánchez. Luciana’s husband had fled with his family from Colombia because he believed New York would be a safer place to live. The unrest caused by the FARC rebels freaked him out, the bombings, the kidnappings. The irony was that Ricardo, too, had been killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, where he’d worked in some financial capacity I never did understand. So much for hedging your bets. I helped my aunt out by looking after Luciana’s two young children, Pablo and Francisco. My job was to watch the boys while their mother was at work. Luciana’s an interpreter for Spanish-speaking immigrants at the Queens County Family Court in Jamaica. So yeah, I was a babysitter, a babysitter with a degree in Computer Science. (Note: while I got my degree in Computer Science, my first love has always been Engineering, but since I didn’t get into Columbia or Cooper Union, my parents thought I should to go to Rutgers since NYU’s Engineering department isn’t very strong, and I really wanted to stay in the city.)

On this particular morning, after the argument with my mother, I decide to entertain the two boys by having them make paper airplanes. There’s a technique, I show them, for making the airplanes more streamlined, more dart-like and accurate, by double-folding the wings to make them narrower and sturdier, then folding the wings back for greater aerodynamics. The wings are thus more curved so the air moves more quickly over the top of the wing, giving it an upward push, hence employing the forces of “thrust” and “lift” to propel the paper airplane even further. My engineering training has served some purpose, at least, I reflect ruefully. Pablo and Francisco are enthralled and begin competing with each other, throwing their airplanes willy-nilly around the room. After a while, I decide to focus their play and make it more of a target game, like bows and arrows. I find a cardboard box and stand it up across the room, and the boys throw their airplanes at the box. Unfortunately, this is when Luciana walks into the room to fetch her sons, done with her day at work, and only then do I understand what this must look like to the boys’ mother….


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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