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September Morn (Cool on Her).

Lowell came in from the shop about nine. He came into the kitchen, shut the door behind him, went to the coffee pot. He stopped. The TV was on in the living room. Lowell could hear it. Was Rusty up, then? Not likely. Not with his truck where Lowell had found it earlier, half on, half off the driveway, its front run into the woodpile, the way Rusty had walked away from it at the end of what had to have been a pretty rough night. He wouldn't be seen anytime soon. So?

Lowell picked up the coffee pot and poured out a cup. Then he went into the living room. Sitting on the couch, watching the TV, was a young woman Lowell had never seen before. She sat forward, cross-legged, her legs and feet bare. She was wearing Rusty's DON'T START WITH ME T-shirt and, it looked like to Lowell, not much else. He could see the shadow of her breasts move under the T-shirt when she leaned to take a tissue from the box on the table before her. Lowell looked away. Rusty had gotten lucky again last night. The young woman turned her head from the TV.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi, yourself," said Lowell.

Lowell saw that she was crying, not going straight out, but crying softly, touching her eyes with the tissue she held. She nodded toward the TV. "Have you been watching this?" she asked.

"Say what?"

"Have you seen this?"

"No," said Lowell. "I've been working." The young woman turned back to the TV.

Lowell looked with her. On the screen the towers were burning. Thick black smoke, shot through with fire and shedding pale shimmering debris, billowed and poured from the towers up and up into the perfect blue sky, as in the world's largest chimney fire, as in a chimney fire in God's chimney.

"What is it?" asked Lowell.

"New York," the young woman said.

"New York? How?"

"Planes."

"Planes?"

"Airplanes. Airliners."

"An airliner did that?"

"Two airliners."

"Two?"

"They hit the towers," said the young woman. "They set them on fire. There they are."

"The towers?"

"The Trade Center," said the young woman. "It's an attack. There's one in Washington, too. A plane crashed there, too. They're calling it an attack."

"Jesus," said Lowell.

He sat himself down on the arm of the couch. He drank some coffee. Now the TV showed fire engines lined up one behind another, nose to tail, along a street below the towers, under a snow of falling matter. Then the screen returned to a longer view of the burning buildings.

"Jesus," said Lowell.

The young woman kept her eyes on the TV. She had stopped crying.

"How long have you been watching this?" Lowell asked her.

"Not long. I turned it on when I woke up. I didn't know. I just turned it on."

"When you woke up," said Lowell. "So, where's Rusty?"

"Who?"

"Rusty."

"Oh, Russell. He's upstairs, I guess," said the young woman. "If they can't put the fires out, the buildings might come down, they said."

"Come down?"

"Come down. Collapse."

"You mean they'll just fall?" said Lowell. "No. They ain't going to just fall. They can't. They build them so they can't."

The young woman was silent, watching the TV. Then she said, "I really don't want to look at this any more."

"Turn it off, then," said Lowell.

She picked up the control from the table and switched off the TV.

"You want some coffee?" Lowell asked her.

She looked at him for a moment and shook her head, but then she said, "Yes. I would. Thank you."

"What's in it?"

"What?"

"What do you want in your coffee? Do you want milk? Sugar?"

"Oh," the young woman said. "Milk."

Lowell went to the kitchen. He poured out a cup of coffee for the young woman and filled his own cup. He went to the refrigerator for the milk. He heard the TV come on again in the living room, but when he came back with the coffee, the young woman turned the set off once more.

Lowell set her coffee cup on the table before her.

"At least it's hot," he said.

Again the young woman only looked at him. "What?" she said.

"The coffee," said Lowell. "It ain't very good coffee, but it's hot. You know? At least it's hot."

"Oh," said the young woman. "Oh, no, it's fine." She reached to the table and touched the coffee cup with her fingers, but she didn't raise it to drink. She nodded toward the silent TV. "This country is so fucked up," she said.

"This country?" said Lowell. "I thought it was an attack. This country? What about the people who did it?"

"What about them?" said the young woman.

Lowell sat on the arm of the couch again. He looked down at the young woman seated a couple of feet to his right. "I'm Lowell March," he said.

"I'm Brenda," said the young woman.

"Brenda which?"

"Brenda Tudor."

"Tudor?" said Lowell. "You're Charlie's girl?"

"What?"

"Are you Charlie Tudor's daughter?"

"Oh, no," said the young woman. "No. I'm not from here."

"Brattleboro?" Lowell asked her.

"Brooklyn."

"Brooklyn?" said Lowell.

"Listen, I'm sorry," said Brenda Tudor. "I'm sorry. I can't--you know." She looked at the TV set. "It's Erin."

"Who?"

"Erin. There. In the Trade Center. She works in the Trade Center." She picked up the control and turned the TV on. Again the burning towers stood smoldering into the flawless sky. The plume of smoke drifted to the north.

"Where?" Lowell asked. "Where does--? What's her name?"

"Erin."

"Erin. Where is she? I mean, how high up?"

"All the way," said Brenda. "She works at Windows. The restaurant."

"Jesus," said Lowell.

"She's a sous chef," said Brenda.

"What's a sous chef?"

"You know," said Brenda. "She helps the chef, makes salads, gets the orders set up, gets them ready."

"She's a prep cook," said Lowell. "You know for sure she's up there?"

"No. She starts at five. She might not have made it back in time. Four hours? She had the time, barely, but she might not have made it."

"Made it?"

"From here," said Brenda. "We were driving through. We stopped at that place on the road. The place with the moose head."

"The Blowdown?"

"We stopped there to eat," said Brenda "There was a party going. We had a fight, about the party. I wanted to get back on our way. Erin wanted to stay and party. We had a fight about that, about the whole weekend. About everything."

"You and your sister?" Lowell asked.

"My partner," said Brenda.

"I thought she's a prep cook," said Lowell.

"She is. She had Friday off. The weekend. We decided we'd drive up here. I don't know why we thought that was a good idea. It wasn't. We did nothing but fight the whole time. We were on our way back down to the city. We found this place, this party."

"Rusty was there," said Lowell.

"He was. He was in the party."

"I don't doubt that," said Lowell. "If there's a party, Rusty won't be far off."

"He was buying drinks," said Brenda.

"No," said Lowell. "Rusty don't buy. He spends. He was spending. I was buying."

"You're Russell's father?"

"His mom says so."

"We'd been there a couple of hours," said Brenda. "I wanted to go. I was worried Erin would be late for work the next morning. She has to be there at five. I said that, didn't I? She said she was sick of me worrying about her. If I was so worried, okay, she'd go. She'd go right now. So she did. She took the car and left me there. Alone. She left me with all of them. With Russell and the rest. Just left me, you know? She'd had three or four beers."

"Was she drunk?"

"I guess so. She can't drink."

"Well," said Lowell. "Reason I ask? They patrol that stretch, you know, because of The Blowdown. The sheriff's office patrols it. Maybe she got pulled over."

Brenda looked at him. "Pulled over?" she said. "Really?"

"If she did, and she was drunk, they'd have held her," said Lowell.

"Yes."

"Now," Lowell said, "Sunday night? I don't know. I don't know how much they patrol Sunday night. But if there was a party at The Blowdown, they might have. It's worth asking."

"Yes."

"I can make a call," said Lowell. "You want me to?"

"Yes," said Brenda.

Lowell went to the telephone and called the sheriff's office. As soon as the dispatcher answered, Lowell could hear a TV or radio in the background at her end, turned up loud.

"Karen?" he said. "Lowell March. Is he there? ... No, that's okay ... Yes, we've got it on here. It's a hell of a thing ... As many as that? Jesus."

He looked at Brenda Tudor sitting on the couch. She had turned the TV'S sound down while he made his call.

"Listen," Lowell went on. "Did you have a DUI last night, would have been on Thirty-five?" He turned to Brenda. "What time was it she took off?" he asked her.

"I don't know," said Brenda. "Eleven? Eleven-thirty?"

"Not before eleven or half past," Lowell told the dispatcher. "Girl, coming from Blowdown's ... Okay ... Okay, thanks ... Can you do that? ... Thanks ... We're here. You've got the number ... Okay."

Lowell put the phone down. "Sheriff didn't have anybody on up here last night," he said. "But Karen thought the state cops stopped somebody going the wrong way on northbound Ninety-one near Bellows Falls, around midnight. She's checking. She'll call back."

"Thank you," said Brenda.

"If she was trying to go back down to New York, she'd have taken Ninety-one," said Lowell. "She might have gotten going the wrong way. It happens a lot at that exit. Especially if she was drinking, you know."

"She shouldn't drink," said Brenda. "She can't handle it. Try telling her that."

"I'm betting she's the one they busted," said Lowell.

"I'm not betting," said Brenda.

"She'd better be," said Lowell. "Karen heard that, the towers? If they do fall, there might be eight, ten thousand people die."

"I thought you said they couldn't fall."

"Ten thousand people. That's, what? That's six or seven towns this size."

"You said they couldn't fall."

"What do I know?" said Lowell.

"How long before they call back?" Brenda asked.

"Not long," said Lowell. He returned to the couch and took his seat on the arm.

Together they watched the TV. The announcer described people walking out of the towers into the streets. Others, aloft, trapped by the fires and unable to get out, could be seen crowding the windows, pressing, waving. Some fell from the windows into the air. Some jumped.

"Jesus," said Lowell.

"If she's up there," said Brenda, "she'll jump. I know she will."

"Wouldn't you?" Lowell asked her.

"I don't know," said Brenda. "But I know she will. She won't wait for it." She was crying again as she said it, she touched her eyes with the damp tissue. "She doesn't wait," Brenda went on. "She never does. She just goes, you know? She doesn't care. Like now. Like leaving me up here. Leaving me all alone. Who does something like that?"

"Not much of a partner," said Lowell. "What do the two of you do?"

"Russell said he'd drive her," Brenda went on. "At the bar, the party. He said he'd drive her to New York. Then he said he'd drive both of us."

"That probably wouldn't have been a good idea," said Lowell.

"No, it probably wouldn't," said Brenda. "Russell was really hammered."

"But you weren't."

"What?"

"Rusty was drunk," said Lowell. "Your partner was drunk. Naturally. Blowdown's? Eleven-thirty at night? Everybody's drunk. But not you."

"No," said Brenda.

"Why not?"

"I don't know."

"And then, Rusty--" Lowell began.

"Then Russell said we could all come back here for the night," said Brenda. "Then Erin took off. Then Russell said he'd drive just me to New York. Then he said he'd bring me back here. I could stay here tonight. Last night."

"You and Rusty hit it off, I guess," said Lowell.

Brenda turned from the TV to look at him.

"What?" she asked.

"You and Rusty. You got on, it looks like."

"We did? What do you mean?"

"Well," said Lowell. "Here you are. Ain't you?"

Brenda stopped crying. She blew her nose, put her ball of tissue down on the table beside her untouched coffee cup. "Look--" she began.

"Rusty ain't a bad kid," Lowell said. "His heart's right. He ain't mean. He's got some growing up to do. This ain't New York City, up here, you know? Young guys here, a lot of them don't just get in line. They knock around, they rattle around a little. Then they settle down, they're alright."

"Like you?"

"What?"

"They knock around, they rattle around, then they settle down-like you did?"

"I don't know," said Lowell. "I guess so."

"Oh, my God," said Brenda.

On the TV, a street full of people running toward the camera, behind them, an enormous cloud of smoke, ash, and dust, moving, boiling, rising, mounting many stories high, and pursuing the fleeing people, advancing behind them like a vast gray dragon. The cameraman, apparently, walked or ran backward as he filmed, and the picture leapt and gyrated.

"There it goes," said Lowell.

The telephone rang. Brenda started, looked at Lowell.

Lowell left the couch and went to the phone. He picked it up.

"Karen?" he said. "Yes, we're watching ... So, did you--? ... It is ... Okay ... That's right ... Okay ... She did? ... East What? ... Well, that's pretty cool on her, ain't it? ... We'll see ... Thanks, Karen." Lowell hung up the phone. He turned to Brenda.

"She's at the barracks in Brattleboro," he told her. "She's fine. Maybe a little hung over."

Brenda shut her eyes. She lay back against the couch. She opened her eyes and looked at Lowell. "Thanks," she said. "Thank you."

"What do you want to do?" Lowell asked her.

"Do?"

"Yes," said Lowell. "She'll be charged, maybe already has been. Driving under the influence, for sure. Maybe driving to endanger--with going the wrong way, you know. She'll get a court date. Then they'll let her go. They can't hold her. What do you want to do? Do you want me to take you down there? Her car's there."

"The car's mine," said Brenda.

"Well," said Lowell, "whosever it is, it's at the barracks. Do you want to go get it? Get her?"

"I don't know," said Brenda. "I guess so. Give me a minute."

"Take all the time you need," said Lowell. He smiled. "You know?" he said. "Karen said she said, when she woke up, they had this on the TV. And she--?"

"Erin," said Brenda.

"Erin. Erin saw it, she watched it for a minute, and then she said something like, 'Well, I'm lost out here in the middle of East Bumfuck, Vermont. I'm in jail. I'm pretty wrecked. But at least I haven't missed work.' Cool on her, I thought, ain't it?"

"Cool?" said Brenda. "Erin's always cool."

"Piece of work, that one," said Lowell.

"What have I been telling you?" Brenda asked him.

Rusty came into the room from the stairs. He was wearing only his boxer shorts. His hair was sticking up all over his head. He was scratching his bare belly. He looked from Brenda to his father, then back to Brenda.

"Hey," said Rusty.
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Author:Freeman, Castle, Jr.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
Words:3655
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