How are you today? How was your breakfast? After your big night last night, your State of the Union Address-cure-campaign ad I imagine you would be completely wiped out. I imagine that your many advisors and handlers and speechwriters and interns--those agile circus ringleaders who make your life the apotheosis of ordered chaos that it is--I imagine that they would be tired, too. After all, it is not every day that a president threatens to blow up the Middle East. And while wearing a peach-colored tie, to boot!
It is fall here in Columbus, Ohio, and the air has taken on a chill. My hunch is that this could be our last fall with the world as we now have it, with working refrigerators and fully stocked store shelves and children who are strangled and raped on their way to school I am going to enjoy this fall, Mr. President. I am going to drink apple cider and take walks through the park and listen to a lot of Puccini. Some of my colleagues at work are going to demonstrate against your war; they are busy right now making clumsy placards spattered with fake blood. Placards, now isn't that a lovely word? But I won't have anything to do with placards. I keep thinking the same thing, Mr. President, over and over again: I am small, I have a dented head and inhabit a tiny place in our whirling cosmos. Ohio is in the United States of America, which is in the continent of North America, which is in the Western hemisphere, which is in the world, which is apart of the universe, the Milky Way, the solar system, the vast, unknowable expanse of atmosphere. Given this, Mr. President, what else is there far me to do, but simply enjoy this last fall? Tell me, what more can I do? As always, I am--
Yours truly, Amanda J. Parks.
Would she send the letter? Possibly, but maybe not. She had sent him one just the week before, a birthday party invitation with a picture of a chick busting out of its shell. Lucky to be alive, lucky to be turning thirty-five; she had written on the inside, in her now-crabbed hand. Only she was not turning thirty-five; she was turning twenty-eight. She had forgotten about that. The year before, a construction worker had dropped a steel beam on her head while she was window shopping during her lunch break, and that had been the end of remembering how old she was, or how to balance her checkbook, or when to pay the bills or fold a napkin like Martha Stewart. But since her accident, she had made a kind of quasi-recovery, one that had left her essentially her old self, but not quite. She was her old self inside a new self, a self that kept forgetting what her middle name was (starts with a J, rhymes with, rhymes with?), and what the capital of India was, and why she had boarded the Number 32 bus to go--where? Where in the hell was she going? She could not drive a car anymore. She had blackouts and petit real seizures that made her roll through stop signs and straight into people's flower beds. But she could still remember the meaning of words like tendentious and effluent, the kinds of words that had helped get her into Kenyon. And she could point out a gladiola in the public gardens, and tell you about Picasso's Blue Period. And, on a more practical note, she was still a good copy editor. She still had her job at the paper, and she could do it. That was something. She was not filling out social security disability application forms. She was not giving up.
What's more, she had begun to write letters to the president, sometimes as many as three a week. For months, he had beer* threatening to use his emergency war powers to bomb Iraq, and she wanted to let him know how she felt about it. Writing the president made her feel much as she had in the first weeks after her accident, when her thoughts began to gather and dear, and she realized, with a twinge of delight, that she was once again a part of the wider world around her, that she was getting her brain back, and had a say in things, or, at least for the time being, things to say. She always emphasized that she was not dangerous to him. I am small, Mr. President, she would tell him. I am a sniffing hamster!
She wrote the letter after work, just before dinner. She was at her bedroom desk, the rolltop with all the little drawers and compartments. Sitting at the desk, with its carved ornamentations and old-wood smells, made her feel beautifully detached from her present set of problems. Since her accident, she had learned to take pleasure in purely concrete things, things that, before, she would have sneered at as corny, like scented soap, and the birds in the trees.
At seven o'clock, her father knocked on her door to tell her that her food was on the table. That was how he always put it: Your food is on the table. As if she were five. Part of her punishment for having been careless enough to walk underneath a construction site full of swinging metal things and drowsy men was that she now, at age twenty-eight, had to live with her parents--two fundamentally good and decent people who, like so many good and decent people, seemed almost willfully impervious to the extent of her pain, her frustration at not being able to think and count on herself as she had before the accident.
Before The Accident had become a mythical time. It was an era, like the Antebellum South, or the Renaissance. It was gone!
At dinner, her parents asked her how work had been that day.
"Good," said Amanda. "I corrected forty-three usage errors in a single piece. Then I engaged in some scintillating conversation with Josh Mandelman about the potential of semi-colons to be either clarifying or totally pretentious, depending on the circumstances."
"I never use semi-colons, myself," said her mother. "I could never figure out what they were for."
"What was the piece about?" her father asked, tapping his slice of veal with his fork. He always tapped his meat before he ate it, as if he were trying to wake it up.
"Yes. The piece you edited."
"I have no idea, Dad. I can't remember."
Her father paused, glancing down at his lap and reddening, just as he always had right after her accident, when she came home from the hospital multiplying one-digit numbers on her fingers.
She waved a hand in front of his face. "Hey," she said. "Just kidding. Dad, come on. The piece was about Iraq, okay? About how Iraq's foreign minister is trying to enlist the support of China and North Korea in opposing the United States' efforts to conduct unsupervised weapons inspections."
Her father put his silverware down.
"Dammit, Amanda," he said. "You think you're funny? You think I can take that with a giggle?" He shook his head. Amanda's mother put a hand on his arm. She patted it. Amanda watched all this, open-mouthed. They were hurting? Was that it? Well, Jesus! That was all she had to say to that.
Back in her bedroom, she did her exercises, the ones her neurology team had designed especially for her. She recited the alphabet backwards; she worked a series of elementary quadratic equations taken from a high-school math book; she tried to solve the following riddle: What do you get if you divide the number of stars in the American flag by the number of states outside North America? Finally, as if just shot up with amphetamine, she hopped and lunged all around her room, air-boxing and pretending to be Tommy Hearns. "Hah!" she hissed at her stuffed animals. "Hah!" she hissed at her framed Monets.
Dear Mr. President:
What a great country this is! How the rolling hills and cornfields reflect the collective dreams and ambitions of the people who live among them! As you eat your bowl of high-fiber cereal this morning for breakfast, think of all the Americans who are also eating their bowls of high-fiber cereal, trying to stave off the onset of rabid intestinal cancers and the doom of death. Think of how little power they have, Mr. President. They are scared! Their Old Navy stock is dropping, their IRAs shrinking. They want guns and butter, yes, but most of all they want to live! Think of them, Mr. President, the next time you talk with Foreign Minister Amman. Think of that time when you were seven years old and got peed on by a toad that another kid dropped in your palm, just to try to scare you, to see if you'd jump or scream.
The next day, the president was on television again. He was giving a press conference to respond to a Nebraska senator's New York Times editorial. The editorial had chastised him for considering the use of nuclear force against rogue Middle-Eastern states. It had accused him of opportunism, of hubris and other deep-seated character faults. But the president's hair looked great, today--it had a little curl at the hairline, right at the part. Some smartie in Makeup had suggested this, maybe? It will give you an appearance of youth and energy Mr. President. Amanda watched him along with Josh Mandelman and a senior news editor, Calvin Root, in Calvin's eighth-floor office, with its drab, stained carpeting; its Buckeye memorabilia; its tinted-glassed view of City Center. Since the accident, Amanda could not look out the windows of the building without experiencing the dull punch of vertigo. She had visions of spinning through the air to an asphalt death, shattering and full of body fluids.
"Senator Redman needs to apologize to the American people for insulting their intelligence. Americans know full well the risks of war. The majority of them have lived through 2.5 wars in which America played a major role. Senator Redman, not incidentally, has never served so much as a single day in the armed Forces."
Calvin set his hands on the back of his hips. "You know, it used to be, presidents would give press conferences when they had something to say."
"But his hair looks good, doesn't it?" said Amanda.
They turned to her.
"You're joking, right?"
She rolled her eyes. Before the accident, they would have laughed.
"Yes, Cal. I'm joking. I'm indulging in a show of high irony."
He nodded. "Just checking."
Cyndi Nanini, Amanda's boss, poked her head in the doorway. She gave them all a tight smile and rubbed her palms together quickly.
"Hi, folks!" she said.
"Hey, Cyndi," said Calvin.
"Hi," said Amanda.
"Mandy," said Cyndi. Nobody called Amanda Mandy but Cyndi. "Do you have a minute?"
"Sure," said Amanda. They walked into the hallway.
"It's almost lunchtime," said Cyndi. "Would you have time for lunch?"
"Sure," Amanda said again.
The building had a snack bar on the top floor, and Cyndi suggested they go there. Wincing, Amanda agreed. She had never gone to the snack bar, and would not have gone if she had not been under the subtle duress of a boss's direction. The idea of eating from heights unsettled her. She had tried to eat on airplanes, and had been unsuccessful at it. She would take a bite, and put it down, and reach for the vomit bag, and then shove the whole mess away. This had been so even before her accident.
The snack bar gave out onto a balcony crowded with umbrella-shaded bistro tables and chairs. Cyndi chose a table next to the metal fence that separated the balcony from the vast space of city underneath it. Amanda looked down--briefly, and with a flash of vertigo--then looked up.
"So," said Cyndi. "How's everything going for you these days, Mandy?"
"You mean at work?"
"Yes. And generally. Just generally, 1 mean."
"Fine," said Amanda. She looked at her food, not seeing it. She had a feeling what was coming now. She had been making mistakes, lately. Not big ones, just small ones. She had been missing things, things that she would not have missed before her accident. A comma here, a dangling modifier there. And Cyndi was a taskmaster, a perfectionist of the proudly self-confessed kind. "I am such a taskmaster!" she would tell people. "I am such a perfectionist I can hardly believe it!"
Dear Mr. President: Everyone h counting on you to do the right thing, to make the right choices. Do you understand that? Do you recognize the power you have, Mr. President? This is not the Yale-Army game.
"I want to tell you, Mandy, that your recovery from your accident has been truly impressive. It really has."
"We're all in awe of how well you've handled everything. In those first weeks when you were in the hospital, no one knew what would happen. It was scary. It really was. But you really battled it out. You fought the good fight."
Fought the good fight, thought Amanda. Wasn't that what you said about people who had lost, or died of liver cancer?
"Thank you, she said.
Cyndi put her fork down.
"By the way. Have your doctors said anything to you about what more you can expect in terms of improvement?"
Amanda went still. She had been chewing a piece of tuna. All at once, she swallowed it.
"Yes. That is, is your recovery now complete, or is there further progress to be made?"
"I'm not sure," said Amanda. "I mean, I know there's more progress to be made, but nobody has told me--nobody has told me if I'll ever be the way I was before, I'm not sure if they even know."
"I see," said Cyndi. "Well, Mandy. I just wanted to touch base with you. Find out how things are going." She smiled. "The food here is so good!" she said. "Don t you think?"
The next Thursday, Amanda had an appointment with her neurologist, Ferrell. Ferrell was hirsute and incredibly handsome, unbelievably so, with a twinkly-eyed gaze and a body that was plump in a completely cuddly and huggable way. Amanda loved seeing Ferrell. Ferrell in his handsomeness and optimism filled her with the hope that one day, if she just kept on reciting the alphabet backwards, she, too, would be twinkly-eyed and huggable. Occasionally, she would remember that she had never been twinkly-eyed and huggable.
Ferrell, for his part, liked Amanda, as well. She had earned his respect, and he did not respect many people. She was a terrier, a fighter. He had watched her, by dint of sheer discipline, progress from functioning as a twelve-year-old on I.Q. tests to performing near the level of a bright college sophomore who has, perhaps, smoked a little too much dope during her holiday breaks.
"How are you?" he asked her today. It was not a greeting, of course, but a clinical inquiry.
"Well, nothing's oozing from my ears," Amanda said, "and I can remember what I ate for lunch."
"Wonderful!" Ferrell said. "Tell me, Amanda. If six men can do a job in an eight-hour day, how many are needed to do it in one hour?" "Forty-eight," said Amanda.
Ferrell gave her a big smile. "Amanda," he said. "You are right. You are consummately, wonderfully right."
"Hah!" said Amanda, and slapped her knee. But what Ferrell did not know was that she was having a good day. Some days were good, and some were bad. Today was a good day, and so she was able to think. On a bad day, she would not have been able to think. She would have been moody and quick to swear. She might have told Ferrell to take his word problem and shove it. In truth, Amanda kept a lot of things from Ferrell. She hid the ball on him. She was not supposed to, but she did. She was still trying to figure it all out, this psychodrama of having an injured brain.
She went grave then. "Dr. Ferrell?" she asked.
"I'm not totally recovered, am I? I mean, I don't have the brain I had before, do I?"
Dr. Ferrell paused. He gave her a look of such mixed sympathy and hesitation that she thought, for a moment, that she might cry. "No, you don't," he said.
"Will I ever?"
He set his ankle on his knee. He touched his shoelaces. "Yes, I believe you will, Amanda. If you keep working hard, I think that someday soon, yes, you will be as you were before, or so near to it, that no one, including you, will ever notice the difference."
After her appointment, Amanda picked up a ham sandwich at a dell Standing in line to pay, she listened to the news on the radio. The House had passed a resolution authorizing the United States to go to war against Iraq. The Senate was expected to follow tomorrow. Dear Mr. President, she thought. Dear Mr. President. But she could not think of anything else to say. She took the Number 4 bus back to High Street, to the bank building where the newspaper had its offices. She had forgotten to wear a coat, and the chill in the air braced her as the prospect of a high jump does. The only seat on the bus was next to a man who looked as if he had not showered in days, and she remained standing, holding onto the metal bar overhead. The man took note of this right away. He was dirty bur observant.
"What's the matter, don't want to catch my cooties?" he asked Amanda.
She made the mistake of looking at him. But she did not say anything. Dear Mr. President, she thought. Dear Mr. President.
"Hey," said the man.
"Hey yourself," said Amanda. She turned on him a snide and ruthless face.
"Believe me, Mister, the last thing you want to be doing is picking my brain. There's nothing in it but a lot of spilled beans."
"Is that right?"
To her surprise, he left her alone. At High Street, she got off, just as she was supposed to. Something about the encounter had spooked her, though, and she lost her orientation while pausing outside a leather store. What was the president doing, right now? Was he talking with aides about what move to make next in Iraq? Was he sketching out plans for bombing raids, ground-force attacks? Here she was, doing nothing. Look at her. What could she do? People passed by her, carrying, as she was, their little lunches, their briefcases and purses full of checkbooks and lipstick and crinkled receipts with things like Nathan, 337-8463, written on them. And then the space around her shifted, and she was down. She was on the ground, her eyes dosed and her left shoe beside a manhole. People stopped abruptly, like bunnies hearing gunshots. "Oh my God!" one of them said. "Oh my God!"
Each step in a recovery from a brain injury was like a rock climber's, Ferrell was telling her parents. You cast your spike, catch hold, make an upward movement, and then, perhaps, fall a foot or two. This happens, he told them. It is not to be rued. It is to be expected and dealt with.
In her crank bed at the hospital, getting ready for her EEG, Amanda listened to this. It was like listening to radio static. It meant nothing to her. She was tired. She was sick of treading water: paddle, paddle, little doggie! She wanted pen and paper, so that she could write the president.
Have you ever been jolted out of sleep by the sensation that you are falling? Of course you have.
Everyone has. It is one of those experiences that is truly universal--shared by all of humanity, children and crazies and high government officials alike. Did you know that there is actually a clinical name for this phenomenon? It is called the hypnic jerk. Most of us probably think of it more simply, however, as that weird falling dream. There are a number of interesting theories about why we have the falling dream. For example, some doctors believe it is the result of the build-up in the bloodstream of hormones called cytokines, which rise as we begin to sleep. Others, such as anthropologists, believe it is a vestige of our former lives as apes, when we hurtled out of the trees we dozed in. Freud, bless his dated soul, believed falling dreams signified a terror of losing control sexually. No matter, Mr. President. Theories, as you know, are ephemeral. What is important is that you and I both have the falling dream. Only I have it worse. I have it all the time, Mr. President.
The EEG showed no changes in brain waves, no cryptic and hysterical spiking. "I don't know exactly what happened to you," admitted Ferrell. "I think you might have had a small seizure, one that was too minor to register on the test." Back at the paper, Amanda sat at her cubicle, littered with AP articles and e-mail print-outs. She proofed an editorial by one of the paper's younger columnists. It was about the joys of eating fresh fruit plucked from trees and patches. Something about the look and smell of bruised nectarines reminds me of the perfection that is rooted in all imperfection. Amanda pulled at the electrode glue still in her hair. It kept coming out in pasty dumps. There seemed to be no end to it. When she was eighty, she would still have the damned paste in her hair. "Why are we publishing this?" she asked the editor in the cubicle next to hers. "The world is about to go to war. What contribution can this pile of sentences possibly make to the collective consciousness?"
"It can cheer people up," said the editor. "People need to feel that big ideas inhere in the minutiae of daily life. People need big ideas. Or, at least, big feelings that masquerade as big ideas."
"Oh," said Amanda. She thought about this, but it was like one of the riddles Ferrell was always shooting at her. It went right by her.
During lunch, she scanned the Nation and World pages of the New York Times. The CIA had issued a statement that it believed the U.S. was in imminent danger of being attacked with smallpox. Amanda thought about this. If it happened, and she was exposed, she would certainly be one of the first to die. The accident had weakened her immune system, had left her body prone to infection and disease. Ferrell had told her it might be a year or more before her immune responses were like those of a healthy person. Helpless, she thought. I am helpless.
In the evening, she skipped her neuro exercises, instead choosing to go to bed after dinner. The idea of reciting the alphabet backwards and doing algebra out of a high-school textbook struck her, suddenly, as lunatic. She thought about Cyndi, wanting to know how much better she was going to get. Dear Mr. President, she thought. Dear Mr. President. But she could think of nothing to say to him. She seemed to have run out of things to say. She thought about smallpox, instead. In school, she had once read a colonial settler's 1687 account of its effects on the body: As the pox cover the skin, the skin begins to tear away from the flesh, bleeding in a most terrible way, turning the body, as it were, into a veritable bundle of gore.
Bombing raids began in Iraq the following week. Amanda watched them on the television set in Calvin Root's office, watched the flashes of white in the black sky, indistinguishable to her from meteors or comets, and as full of mystery and terror. Of course, the raids were not as clean in their destructive sweep as the president's military advisors had predicted they would be. A hospital was bombed by accident. So was a university library. But buildings suspected of housing nuclear materials were also destroyed, and this was good, the commentators said. Grudgingly, Amanda wondered if they might not be right. After all, what else was to be done? Assassinate key leaders and install a puppet government? Undertake a semi-permanent occupation of the country by a bunch of erstwhile tequila-drinking high-school kids who, before being recruited to the armed forces through sublime advertisements and the dangling carrot of future college money, had thought that Singapore was a Japanese city? The operation had a silly name, a comic-book name, one that Amanda kept forgetting, no matter how many times Calvin told her what it was, and so she fell to calling it Operation G.I. Joe, and this became an office joke.
She had stopped doing her neuro exercises entirely. Instead, at night, she watched the war on television with her father. He would look at the set from the vantage point of his heavy leather chair, the one with the metal studs piping the armrests, and his eyes would not seem to blink, not at all. He had left the University of Missouri in 1967 to do a tour in Vietnam. He knew all about war. Why didn't he say anything about what he was seeing? Amanda wondered. He must be having a lot of thoughts about it, thoughts worth hearing. Every once in a while, he would just shake his head, as if he had opened the door onto a bathroom that has not been cleaned in months. "What?" Amanda asked him. "What, Dad?" But he never answered her. He just shook his head. When Amanda went to bed, she would immediately slip into the drowse and false peace of burgeoning sleep, only to feel her body jolt awake in a hypnic jerk. Help! her body seemed to be saying. Help!
At the end of the month, she was still making little mistakes in her work. One Friday, she arrived at her cubicle to find an article she had proofed the day before sitting on the seat of her orthopedic chair. A note was stuck to the article: Come c me. Green circles had been drawn around all the errors she had missed. There were about ten of them. Why green? she wondered.
In Cyndi's office, Amanda sat with her back straight, ready to be fired, thinking about what else she could do to earn a living, what with her dented head and little B.A. She could go into retail, maybe, or some other service-sector job requiring only conscientious attendance, sturdy knees, and an appearance of perpetual good cheer.
"I'm trying to be patient, Mandy," said Cyndi. "You've been with us for a long time, and you've had some tough luck. We're going to stick by you through it. We are. But your work has got to improve. It must. If it does not, we're going to need to start talking about moving you into a support-staff position. All right?"
Amanda nodded. "I understand," she said. She said nothing else. There was no point in discussing it. It was like watching one of the president's press conferences. You just had to sit there and think: Okay. That's it!
Her next appointment with Ferrell was on a Friday. She was always exhausted on Fridays. What in the hell did he expect her to be able to do?
"I have to tell you, I don't feel like being here, today," she told Ferrell. "Please don't ask me to do anything hard. Just ask me to stick out my tongue or something."
"Bad week?" he asked.
"I guess so."
"How about doing the alphabet backwards? Can you do that for me?"
She paused, sighed.
"Z, Y," she said. "X."
Again, she paused. Ferrell was looking at her, an expression of cheerful anticipation on his face.
"T," said Amanda. "No, W. Hold on. U. V. I mean, V, and then U."
She stopped and rose from her chair.
"I give up," she said. "I can't do this anymore. I quit."
And she left the office.
Her mother was waiting for her in the kitchen when she got home after work.
"Dr. Ferrell called me this afternoon," she said.
"Really?." said Amanda. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out things for a sandwich. The phone rang.
"Leave that," her mother said. "Sit down."
It is a strange thing to be ordered around when you are twenty-eight years old, but Amanda had grown used to it. Since her accident, she had found, to her bafflement, that a diminution in brain power is almost always accompanied by a corresponding diminution in other people's perception of your dignity. Why this should be so, Amanda could not understand. As instructed, however, she left her cheese and lettuce on the counter and sat down.
"Dr. Ferrell is very worried about you. He said you walked out of your appointment with him today. He said you couldn't get through the alphabet backwards. He thinks you've stopped doing your daily exercises. He thinks you've gotten discouraged, and have given up." "Really?"
"Well, I think I've reached a plateau," said Amanda. It seemed a neutral thing to say, devoid of asperity or rebellion.
"That doesn't answer my question. Have you stopped doing your daily exercises?"
Amanda was silent. Finally, she spoke. "Yes, Mother. I have."
Her mother looked up at the ceiling and blinked, as if to halt the accumulation and fall of a huge tear. Then she looked down.
"Why, Amanda? You know that any progress you make is dependent on those exercises. They're your bridge to wellness, to a full recovery."
"Do you know what happens when a person gets smallpox, Morn?"
"What does smallpox have to do with your exercises?"
"Do you know what happens?"
"No. And I don't care. I care about your doing your exercises, about your taking control of your recovery."
"The body turns to gore," said Amanda.
The bombing raids continued. The office had become a strange place, with people mingling work and television-watching, newspaper talk and war chat. Chips and guacamole sat on big plates for everyone to eat, as if what were happening were an anniversary bash. Staff who had relatives in the military were looked on with a new regard. Where before they were viewed as possible conservative subversives, they were now seen as having valuable inside knowledge, things to say that might bring clarity to the abstruseness of the scenes they were watching on their little Magnavoxes. Once, Amanda tried to write a letter to the President. Dear Mr. President: Early colonial settlers to America often brought with them to the New World the pestilences of the Old" malaria, dysentery, typhus, smallpox. Deaths from these sicknesses were gruesome and prolonged.
But she did not send it. She tore it up and ate a small piece of it.
Two weeks into the attacks, the receptionist came sprinting through the newsroom on the eighth floor. It was 8:40 a.m.; Amanda had just gotten to her desk. The receptionist flew by in a burst of movement, her eyes big and her face taut. She was still wearing her overcoat, which billowed behind her as she ran. Amanda stood up as she passed. So did everyone else. Pop! they went, like bread out of toasters.
"What the hell's going on?" someone said.
With the instinct for unity that comes to people in times of crisis, they all collected in the center of the newsroom, chit-chatting, folding their arms across their chests. The receptionist was now in the editor-in-chief's office, and the door was closed. The glass paneling on the office wails was too high for anyone to see inside.
"Well, it can't be anything that bad," said the movie critic. "This isn't New York. This isn't the World Trade Center. It's probably an illicit cigarette fire in the basement."
"Would anyone like a Lifesaver?" asked a sportswriter named Dave.
"Do you have a strawberry?" said the movie critic.
The receptionist and editor-in-chief came out of his office then. They moved slowly, side by side.
"We have had a bomb threat," said the editor-in-chief. "The man who called it in had a Middle-Eastern accent."
"Those are easy to fake, Carl," said Dave, the sportswriter. "Yoo-netted Stets is godless kon-tree, fool of hedonestek pleasure-sekking sinnahs."
"That's the worst middle-eastern accent I ever heard," said Amanda. "You sound like Jerry Lewis doing King Fahd." "Okay, so you try," said Dave.
"Why the hell would I want to?" snapped Amanda. She was irritable all of a sudden. She was sick of the world. She heard the sound of fire-truck sirens, and clamped her hands over her ears. Oh, Christ. What now?
"Listen," said the editor-in-chief. "Everybody, listen. We need to evacuate the building immediately. An announcement is to be made over the PA system in about two minutes. Please line up and go through the exit stairwells. Do not use the elevators. Whatever you do, do not use the elevators."
In a group, everyone moved toward the stairway doors. Amanda started after them, falling into the rear of the line they were forming. She took in the close odors of cologne and hairspray. Looking down the stairwell, she felt her insides sway with vertigo. She wondered what the people in the World Trade Center had felt like after the collision of the first plane with the building. Had it been total panic, or a calm determination in find a way out? Had they known they were going in die? Had they felt the inevitability of it? She remembered the sounds on television of their bodies hitting the street as they jumped out of the windows--those tremendous, cataclysmic crashes, not like bodies at all, but wrecking balls.
She stopped, then. What was she doing? she wondered. Was she was saving her life? Was she acceding to the realities of modern high-rise existence? Or was she just getting through the day? She felt like a sheep--helpless and unknowing. Bahh! Bahh! Was this the way you did it, was this the way you lived now? In fear and trembling, the brain broken, the heart in the throat? In the stairwell, she watched everyone go down. They did not seem to have noticed that she had left the line. In seconds, they were out of sight. Leaning against the banister, Amanda listened to their footsteps thudding, then fading, into a distant patter. After another minute, she started to run up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
When she was at the top floor, she went out onto the balcony. She looked down at City Center, at the fire trucks parked in front of the building. She felt a rush of vertigo, then of nausea. She ignored both and clambered up onto the barrier that divided the snack bar eating area from the street below. As if it were a horse, she swung a leg over the barrier and straddled it. She thought she might throw up. To keep from doing this, she swallowed, over and over. She was not going to throw up. She was not going to let herself. It was a test. If she threw up, she failed the test. She looked down at the street again, with its clutches of small people and cars, everything so small down there.
Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself up into a standing position. With nothing but the narrow ledge to support her weight, she swayed in the wind. She stood like this for a minute, maybe longer, just swaying and looking. The nausea, strangely, was gone. She felt powerful now, almost like God. She felt as if she could stay there forever.
But after ten minutes, she got down. Her hands were stiff with cold and her body shivering. Back in the stairwell, she took the steps one by one, but fast. On the eighth floor, she stopped to retrieve her coat from her desk, then took the elevator to the ground floor. Another day was passing. There would be another, and another. Maybe there would be many more. Outside, Calvin Root found her by a No Parking sign.
"Amanda," he said, touching her arm. "Where were you? I've been looking all over for you."
"Sorry," said Amanda. "I got lost in the stairwell."
"Lost in the stairwell?"
"Just kidding, Calvin. Just kidding."
"Oh. Well, okay. Anyway, glad to see you safe and sound. Hey. Guess what?"
"We get to go home for the rest of the day so they can search the building for bombs. It'll take hours to give the all dear, they say."
"Great!" said Amanda. She needed a break. It had been a long and terrible year. But it was almost over. She was coming out of it. She could feel this. If you divided the number of stars on the American flag by the number of states in the Union outside North America, you got fifty. It was simple--the stars, fifty, divided by one, Hawaii--but you had to think about it for a minute. You had to know that you could wake from your falling dream.
Jane Carter is a graduate of Wellesley College and the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. She recently finished a novel and is now at work on another.