Fiction September 2011

The Submission

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Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

There were no buildings, no roads, only burning dunes of debris. His brother, Patrick, was somewhere here, and Sean Gallagher was conscious of wanting, a little too much, to be the one to find him, and of fearing he might not recognize him if he did. They hadn’t seen each other in months, and Sean kept trying to call up Patrick’s face, only to realize, as they came upon ruined bodies, that the faces of memory and of death might not match.

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Hours passed. Days. He couldn’t breathe well, couldn’t hear well—some new kind of underwater, this. Movie-set lights glared overhead. Often, obscured by smoke, hidden by piles of rubble, the rescuers were only voices, but that was enough. Every time he put out a hand to take or to give, another was there, waiting. With time came a mappable order: the remains here, the personal effects there, the demolished cars beyond, the red sifters and the yellow ones, the tents and roster areas and messes and medics, the assembly line, a world more real to Sean than the city outside. Returning to Brooklyn each night was like coming home from war, except that it no longer felt like home. He was amazed at what people talked about and what they didn’t, how clean their fingernails were, how pristine their routines. His wife told him he smelled like death, and he couldn’t believe this repulsed her. The dust he brought home was holy—he shook out his shoes and his shirt over newspapers to save it.

Someone else found Patrick, which was probably just as well. Now, nearly two years later, the attack site was a clean-swept plain, and across the East River in Brooklyn the Gallagher house prickled with the energy of a campaign. Ten members of the family and a dozen of Sean’s Memorial Support Committee—retired firefighters; victims’ fathers—were crammed around the dining table, all its Thanksgiving leaves in use. Sean’s mother, Eileen, and his three sisters cleared empty plates and refilled coffee cups with grim efficiency. Copies of the New York Post splayed open to show the words ADDING ISLAM TO INJURY? over an image of the rubbled attack site. From 5,000 anonymous entrants, a Muslim had been selected to design the memorial to the dead.

Frank, Sean’s father, was on the phone with a reporter: “Yes, we plan to fight this until our last breath. What? No, sir, this is not Islamophobia. Because phobia means ‘fear,’ and I’m not afraid of them. You can print my address in your newspaper so they can come find me.” A pause. “They killed my son. And I don’t want one of their names over his grave.” Another pause. “Yes, we found his body. Yes, we buried him in a graveyard. Jeez, you’re really splitting hairs here. It’s where he died, okay? It’s supposed to be his memorial, not theirs. Is there anything else? I’ve got a long line of calls to take ”

A voice from below: “You heard anything, Sean?” Mike Crandall was stretched out on the floor, his back having given out again. Retired from the fire department, he never missed a meeting, although sometimes Sean wished he would.

“Nothing,” Sean said. He hated to say it. He was supposed to be the one with the lines in—to the governor’s office, to the jury that had picked the memorial. That those lines had gone dead convinced him, suspicious of power by nature, that the story about the Muslim was true, and to his shame this relieved him. A Muslim gaining control of the site was the worst possible thing that could happen—and exactly the rudder Sean, lately lacking one, needed. Catastrophe, he had learned, summoned his best self. In its absence, he faltered.

The decade before the attack had been a wild lurch through the white space of adult life. Each bad choice had fed off the last. He dropped out of junior college; started, absent other options, a handyman business, then drank because he detested bending beneath the sinks of people he’d grown up with. And because he liked to drink.

Five months before the attack, he’d gotten a little loud, a little sloppy over dinner at Patrick’s. He roared about their parents’ disapproval of him, then cursed profusely, creatively, when he dropped a bowl of soup. A stony Patrick pocketed his car keys and drove him home, and when Sean went to retrieve his beat-up Grand Am the next day, Patrick told him not to come around for a while. “You can’t just expect people’s respect,” Patrick said, by way of saying Sean had lost his. To this day Patrick’s three children treated him with the politeness of fear.

But on the insultingly beautiful morning of the attack, it was of Patrick, whose engine company was a quarter-mile from the buildings, that Sean thought first. He raced to his parents’ house, then went with his father to search. Before long he was kicked off the recovery crews for not being police, fire, or construction, but he kept volunteering at the site, working its edges. When he learned how paltry the space allotted to the memorial was, he formed a committee to demand more. He got the acreage doubled. His “trouble with authority” had become official advantage.

Soon he was giving speeches all over the country—usually in the small towns no one else wanted to visit—to Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, to police and firefighter and veterans organizations, all of them eager for a firsthand account of the rescue-and-recovery operation. In his speeches, as in his head, even his derelictions became proof of devotion. “For seven months, every single day, I went to the hole,” he told his audiences. “I lost my marriage”—always murmurs at this point—“I lost my business, I lost my home, but that’s nothing.” A pause. “My brother—my only brother—lost his life.” Sometimes people would break into inadvertent applause at this, which was awkward. Sean learned to lower his eyes until it stopped.

Even returning to live with his parents after bailing on his wife seemed right. The Gallaghers’ modest Brooklyn Victorian had always been carefully tended, but by the time Sean moved back, the paint was peeling, the doors squeaking, a mouse leaving brazen shit. Sean, without asking, fixed, cleaned, cleared, painted, sanded, oiled, caulked, trapped. Put his hands to good use. Took down the family pictures in the hall and replaced them with pictures of Patrick from boyhood to man. Eileen, who’d always given Sean, the youngest of six, a threadbare mothering, warmed.

But then he was left off the jury appointed to choose the memorial design. The requests for him to speak began tapering off. In the movies Sean watched, redemption, once obtained, was never lost. In life, redemption was walking up the down escalator: stop to congratulate yourself, and back you slid. The old him kept popping up, reflected often in his mother’s eyes. In recent months she’d reverted to her brusque self, telling him too often to make his bed. His father kept calling him by Patrick’s name, and even though Sean didn’t have the heart to correct him, Eileen, acidly, did. His “contracting” business, which he’d tried of late to restart, felt like a suit he’d outgrown without money for a new one. Two days earlier, he had stalked off a job installing IKEA shelves after the housewife who hired him asked if he would carry her garbage down to the street when he left. “Do you know who I am?” he wanted to scream at her, but the true answer burned: he was a handyman living with his parents.

Now he mattered again. By noon he had given eleven interviews about the outrage of a Muslim designing the memorial. He had his committee members phoning family members and first responders to urge them to lobby the governor. And he had renamed his group the Memorial Defense Committee, since the memorial selected by the jury was unworthy of support.

In late afternoon, with the committee members discharged, the Gallaghers gathered in the living room to watch the news. Like food chewed until it has lost all taste, the story was largely unchanged since the morning: a Muslim had won, no one knew who he was.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a Muslim,” the mayor was saying on New York 1. “It all depends what kind of Muslim we’re talking about. Islam is a religion of peace, as I’ve said many times. The problem is that some people haven’t gotten that message ” It wasn’t clear whether some people referred to the violent Muslims or to people who slandered the peaceful ones.

“Religion of peace, my ass,” Sean’s brother-in-law Jim said.

Sean watched his mother, seated on the sofa, watch an invisible point on the wall. Her hand traced the same small circle on her thigh over and over, as if to burn through the fabric. Screams pierced from outside, where the children, released from school into a glorious fall afternoon, were playing touch football. The adults, on edge, froze. Sean went to the window. A celebration: Tara, his four-year-old niece, had been given the ball to score. It always began this way, charitably, before the girls and the little ones were banished to the sidelines to watch the real play. Sean, the youngest adult in the room, felt momentarily wistful for the sweat and clarity of football in fall air. The rules were known to all. By habit he raised and lowered the window, checking for stiffness and warp.

Everyone stirred: true news at last. The Muslim himself, holding a press conference to announce that he was the winner. His name was Mohammad Khan. An architect. A good-looking, light-skinned guy in an expensive suit. Arrogant. “I am an American, and I have as much right as any other American to design this memorial,” he said. The Gallaghers were reduced to a kind of gap-mouthed silence, punctuated by the children’s laughter and shrieks.

“It’s too much,” Eileen whispered at last, “too much.” Frank half-stood, leaned toward her slightly, sat back down. One daughter, next to her on the couch, took her left hand. Another came to take her right. Eileen reclaimed it to keep rubbing her leg.

“It’s not enough to kill us, they have to humiliate us too,” Brendan, another of Sean’s brothers-in-law, said. He had led a brief protest at his subway stop after the station manager’s name, Talib Islam, was posted on the clerk’s booth. “They expect us to look at that name every day?” he’d asked. The Transit Authority answered by posting cops in the station to protect Islam, which made Brendan apoplectic. Then, one day, the manager was gone, which seemed a victory until they learned of Talib Islam’s promotion.

Now a Muslim’s name would torment them in a spot that, unlike a subway station, belonged not to the city but to the families of the dead. Sacred ground. Pity for his mother overwhelmed Sean, swamped his own anger. He often wondered if she wished that he, rather than Patrick, her firstborn, her favorite, had died. Today thinking that true only enlarged his compassion for her. It wasn’t his parents’ house, but the place where Patrick had fallen, that needed keeping.

“Please, Sean, don’t let this come to be,” Eileen said. The look in her gray eyes—what was it? He’d never seen it, not from her. Pleading. His steely mother admitting her need. If, at that moment, she had asked him to strap on a bomb and blow up someone or something, he probably would have. But she hadn’t asked. A plan was up to him.

So,” Paul Rubin said, “what can I do for you?”

It was eight-fifteen in a coffee shop on Madison Avenue. After repeatedly blowing Sean off, Rubin’s smarmy assistant had called to say that the chairman of the memorial jury would squeeze Sean in for breakfast, but he shouldn’t be late. So Sean arrived a few minutes early, settled into a booth in the middle of the restaurant, then waited fifteen minutes for Rubin, who peremptorily relocated them to a window table for more privacy.

The place looked ordinary to Sean, but the prices weren’t: five bucks for half a grapefruit, twelve for a bagel and cream cheese. Lots of men in fancy tracksuits, women who appeared to subsist on grapefruit halves alone.

“Isn’t that—”

“Yes,” Rubin said. A retired investment banker, he was, even at this hour, in his bow tie. Soft-bodied and half-bald, he still oozed confidence. It was amazing what money made up for. “Politicians love this place. So what can I do for you?”

“What you can do for me—”

“The usual,” Rubin said. The waiter had come for their order.

“Uh, three eggs, bacon, coffee, juice,” Sean said. “White toast. So, what you can do for me—”

A silver-haired man stopped by the table to shake Paul’s hand. “I have great confidence in the outcome because you’re handling this, Paul. I wouldn’t want anyone else in charge.”

“Thanks, Bruce, I appreciate that,” Rubin said. Sean was not introduced. He felt himself in the camp of the enemy—not Muslims, but the people born with silver sticks up their asses, the people who had made Manhattan into a woman too good to give Sean her phone number.

Bruce gone, Sean tilted across the table. “How the hell did this happen?”

“And you’re referring to what, exactly?”

“Come on. A Muslim winning. Mohammad Khan.”

“How did it happen? As I recall, people like you—you, the families—you wanted a competition, a democratic exercise everyone could participate in. And so everyone did.”

“That’s not who we meant by everyone.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“But it should. You think we’ll stand for a Muslim memorial? I should have been on the jury. This never would have happened.”

“I’ll remind you, the competition was anonymous.”

A young man approached carrying a strapping blond toddler. Rubin gave the boy a pro forma chuck on the cheek.

“Sounds like you’ve got a mess on your hands,” the man said.

“Probably less of one than you’ve got, Phil,” Rubin said. The boy had loosed a waterfall of chewed-up cracker from his mouth.

Phil smiled and said, “If anyone knows about cleaning up messes, it’s you.” He turned to Sean: “If you’d seen how Paul dealt with the Asian crisis …” As he seamlessly interwove ass-kissing and financial-speak, Sean saw himself too clearly: a no-name, worthy of addressing but not worthy of knowing. An audience, not a player, unshaven in his windbreaker because he hadn’t wanted to be late.

Rubin tapped his fingers with impatience: “Thanks, Phil, that’s much appreciated, good to see you.” The distraction dismissed, Rubin lowered and toughened his voice at the same time. “There will be a public hearing on the memorial design. You can speak your mind there, Sean. But you might want to make your opposition a little less crude.”

“Honest, you mean? We need to be more crude, not less. What’s the point of a hearing, if we’re not going to be able to speak our minds?”

“You can speak, but in a civilized manner, a manner befitting the fact that Mohammad Khan is as American as you are. He has rights, including the right not to be denigrated for his religion.”

“What about my rights? The families’ rights? The victims’ rights? Don’t they count for anything?” Sean raised his voice. Customers turned. Let there be witnesses. “My parents’ rights. Do you know what this is doing to them?”

“Emotions are not legal rights.”

“I tell you this is tearing up my parents, and you lecture me about legal rights?,” Sean exploded. In a gesture that meant either “Call the cops” or “Check, please,” Paul raised a single finger to the man at the cash register.

“What about right and wrong?” Sean barely tempered his volume. “Whatever happened to that? If you’re going to police what we say at that hearing, then we’ll find a way to say what we want.”

“Be my guest,” Rubin said. His even tone made Sean’s yelling ridiculous, and his look withered Sean to boy-size. “Go lie down on the site, if it will make you feel better. But the hearing will stay within appropriate bounds.”

Sean stood and tossed a $20 bill onto the table. The small smile this triggered from Rubin, whose net worth exceeded Sean’s by a factor of roughly four hundred thousand, sent him stumbling in rage out of the restaurant and down Madison Avenue. He stopped only to scowl at his image in a shop window, to confirm that every unkempt aspect of him called out for disrespect. His hair, smacked into order before he left the house, was now a melee. If he tried to enter the shop, he suspected that the owlish store clerk staring at him through the glass would refuse to buzz him in. In the window, long white gloves were laid out like prone bodies, a display that brought to mind Rubin’s mockery—“Go lie down on the site, if it will make you feel better”—then, unexpectedly, an idea. Sean mustered his most lunatic smile, pressed the buzzer until he saw panic on the smug owl’s face, and moved on.

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