Varieties of Religious Experience
A short story
There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall. He lived in Cincinnati but happened to be in New York, visiting his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, with a top-floor view of Lower Manhattan, less than a mile away. He was still puzzling over the vast quantities of persistent oily smoke, and the nature of the myriad pieces of what seemed to be white cardboard fluttering within the smoke's dark column, and who and what the perpetrators and purpose of this event might have been, when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silvery rippling noise. The earth below, which Dan could not see, groaned and spewed up a cloud of ash and pulverized matter that slowly, from his distant perspective, mushroomed upward. The sirens filling the air across the river continued to wail, with no change of pitch or urgency; the mob of uninvolved buildings, stone and glass, held their pose of blank, mute witness. Had Dan imagined hearing a choral shout, a cry of protest breaking against the silence of the sky—an operatic human noise at the base of a phenomenon so pitilessly inhuman? Or had he merely humanized the groan of concussion? He was aware of looking at a, for him, new scale of things—that of Blitzkrieg, of erupting volcanoes. The collapse had a sharp aftermath of silence; at least he heard nothing for some seconds.
Ten stories below his feet, two black parking-garage attendants loitered outside the mouth of the garage, one seated on an aluminum chair, carrying on a joshing conversation that, for all the sound that rose to Dan Kellogg, might have been under a roof of plate glass or in a silent movie. The garage attendants wore short-sleeved shirts, but summer's haze this September morning had been baked from the sky. The only cloud was man-made—the foul-colored, yellow-edged smoke drifting toward the east in a solid, continuously replenished mass. Dan could not quite believe that the tower had vanished. How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened, because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.
Thus was Dan, an Episcopalian lawyer of sixty-three, brought late to the realization that comes to children with the death of a pet, to women with the loss of a child, to millions caught in the implacable course of war or plague. His revelation of cosmic emptiness thrilled him, though his own extinction was held within this new truth like one of the white rectangles weightlessly rising and spinning within the boiling column of smoke. He joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism. He had fought this wisdom all his life, with prayer and evasion, with recourse to the piety of his Ohio ancestors and to ingenious and jaunty old books—Kierkegaard, Chesterton—read in adolescence and early manhood. But had he been in that building (its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the color-enhanced stellar blooms of telescopically photographed supernovae, yet as quick as the toss of a scarf)—had he been in that building, would the weight of concrete and metal have been an ounce less, or hesitated a microsecond in its crushing, mincing, vaporizing descent?
No. The great No came upon him not in darkness, as religious fable would have it, but on a day of maximum visibility; "brutally clear" was how airplane pilots, interviewed after the event, described conditions. Only when Dan's revelation had shuddered through him did he reflect, with a watery spurt of panic, that his daughter, Gretchen, worked in finance—in midtown, it was true, but business now and then took her to the World Trade Center, to breakfast meetings at the very top, the top from which no one could have escaped.
Stunned, emptied, he returned from his point of vantage on the terrace to the interior of Gretchen's apartment. The stolid Anguillan nanny, Lucille, and Dan's younger granddaughter, Victoria, who was five and sick with a cold and thus not at school, sat in the library. The small room, papered red, was lined with walnut shelves; the books went back to Gretchen's college and business-school days and included a number—Cold War thrillers, outdated medical texts—that had once belonged to her husband, from whom she was divorced, just as Dan Kellogg was divorced from her mother. Lucille had drawn the shade of the window looking toward Manhattan. She reported to Dan, "I tell her not to look out the window, but then the television has nothing but the disaster, every channel we switch to."
"Bad men," little Victoria told him eagerly, her tongue stumbling, her cold making her enunciation even harder to understand than usual, "bad men going to knock down all the buildings in New York City!"
"That's an awful lot of buildings, Vicky," he said. When he talked to children, something severe and legalistic within him resisted imprecision.
"Why does God let bad men do things?" Victoria asked.
He had an answer, a new one, to this, but he didn't give it. The child's face looked feverish, not from her cold but from what she had seen through the window before the shade was drawn. Dan gave the answer he had learned when still a believer: "Because He wants to give men the choice to be good or bad." Her face, so fine in detail and texture—brutally fine—considered this theology for a second.
Then she burst forth, flinging her arms wide: "Bad men do anything they want, anything at all!"
"Not always," he corrected. "Sometimes good men stop them. Most of the time, in fact."
In the shadowy room they seemed three conspirators. Lucille was softly rocking herself on the sofa, and made a cooing noise now and then. "Think of all them still in there, all the people," she crooned, as if to herself. "I was telling Vicky how on Anguilla when I was a girl, no one had electricity, and telephones were only for the police, who rode bicycles wherever they went on the island. The only crime was workers coming back from three months away being vengeful with their wives for some mischief. The tallest building two stories high, and when there was no moon people didn't leave their cabins." Then, in a less dreamy voice, one meant to broadcast reassurance to the listening child, she told Dan, "Her momma called five minutes ago, and working is over for today, she coming home but don't know how. She might have to be walking all that way from Thirty-fourth Street."
Dan himself had been planning, before returning to Cincinnati, to take the subway up to the Whitney Museum and see the Wayne Thiebaud show, which was soon to be dismantled. At Victoria's age he had dreamed of working for Walt Disney, making cartoon animals move and talk, and Thiebaud had done that for a while; Dan relished the touch of Disney in the artist's candy colors and his bouncy, plump draftsmanship. Viewing this show was suddenly impossible, part of an idyllic, less barricaded past.
"So we'll all just wait for Mommy," he said, trying to be a leader. "I know," he announced. "Let's make Doughboy cookies for Mommy when she comes home! She'll be hungry." And he leaned over and poked Victoria in the tummy, as if she were the Doughboy in the television commercials.
But she didn't laugh or even smile. Her eyes, beneath her bangs and serious straight brows, were feverishly bright. She wanted to know what new and forbidden thing was happening on the other side of the window shade. And so did Lucille, but she denied herself turning on the television, and Dan denied himself another visit to the terrace to verify his desolating cosmic intuition.
In an hour Gretchen was home, safe and aghast and sweating with the unaccustomed exercise of marching across the Manhattan Bridge in a mob of others fleeing the island. Dan's daughter, at thirty-seven, was slim and hard and professional, a trim soldier-woman a far cry from both her timid, circumspect father and her indolent, fleshy mother. She turned on CNN on the little kitchen TV right away, and was not pleased by the smell of fresh-baked cookies. "We're trying to train Victoria away from sweets," she told her father, and when he explained how he and Lucille had sought to distract her, Gretchen said, "Let her watch a little. This is history. This is huge. It can't be hidden." In the Heights, she told them, auto traffic had ceased, and men and women with briefcases, dusted with ash, were stalking up the middle of Henry Street. She hid the warm cookies on an out-of-reach shelf; she sent Lucille off to pick up Victoria's older sister, Hermione, at her day school, and sent her father to the supermarket with a shopping list while she and Victoria went to the bank to withdraw plenty of cash, just in case society broke down.
On Montague Street an early lunch hour was in progress, and voices twanged over the outdoor tables much as usual, though self-consciously, somehow, as if unseen television cameras were grinding away. The street scene seemed enacted; even the boys loafing outside the supermarket appeared to be conscious of a new attention bearing on them, a new importance in the thickened air. The air smelled caustic and snowed flurrying motes of ash. Sensory impressions hit Dan harder than usual, because God had been purged from his brain. In his previous life commonsense atheism had not been good enough for him, nor had it seemed sufficiently gracious toward the miraculous universe. Now he had been shown how little the universe cared for his good opinion. He pushed his cart along. The supermarket was not crowded with panic shoppers but rather empty instead, and seemed darker than usual, sickly and crepuscular, like one of those pre-Christian underworlds, Hades or Sheol. People moved through the aisles, past the bins of bagels and shelves of gourmet snacks, as if for the first time, haltingly, and scanned one another's faces for a recognition that was almost there, a greeting on the tips of their tongues.
Dan returned to the apartment laden with plastic bags, two on each hand; the handles, stretched thin by the weight of oranges and milk and cranberry juice, had dug into his palms. Gretchen had returned with money and several plans. Already, signs advertising communal events were going up on lampposts: blood donations could be made at the Marriott, near Borough Hall, and Grace Church would host a special service at six.
In the subdued camaraderie of the crowd at the Marriott the father and daughter filled out laborious forms and were told, by bullhorn, to go home, the blood bank was overflowing, there was no more need for the present, but if any developed, their names were on record. At the church, where he and the four females he escorted found room in a back pew, Dan marveled at the human animal: Like dogs, we creep back to lick the hand of a God who, if He exists, has just given us a vicious kick. The harder He kicks, the more fervently we cringe and creep forward to lick His hand. The great old church, a relic of post-Civil War ecclesiastical prosperity, was for this occasion full, and the minister, a short young woman wearing a bell of glossy hair, announced in a clarion voice that at that moment several members of this congregation were still among the missing. She read their names. Let us pray for their safety, she said, and for the souls of all who perished today, and for the fate of this great nation. With an anatomical rustle that soared into the murk of the stony vaults above them, all bowed their heads.
Then and thereafter Dan felt detached. His sense of alienation persisted in the weeks that followed, as flags sprang from every porch bracket and God Bless America was written in shaving cream on every shop window. Eventually, back in Cincinnati, having returned, two days late, by bus, he looked across a river not to smoking towers but to Kentucky, where each pickup truck sprouted a soon tattered emblem of national pride and defiance. Heartland religiosity, though its fundamentalism and puritanism had often made him wince, was something Dan had been comfortable with; now it seemed barbaric. On television the President clumsily grasped the rhetoric of war, got used to it, and then got good at it. The nightly news showed how impromptu shrines had sprung up on sidewalks and outside fire stations across New York City. Candles guttered under color photocopies of the missing; memorial flowers wilted in their paper cones and plastic sheaths. Dan found himself irritated by the grotesque and pitiable sight of a great modern nation attempting to heal itself through the tired old magic of flags and candles—the human spirit since time immemorial pouring its colorful vain gestures into the void.
A week or so before Dan's revelation, a stocky young Muslim—called, like millions of his co-religionists around the world, Mohamed—briefly hesitated before ordering a fifth Scotch on the rocks in a dim, unholy place, a one-story roadside strip joint on Florida's east coast. His companion, a younger, thinner man named Nawaf, lifted his slender hand from the table as if to protest and then let it weightlessly fall back. Their instructions were to blend in, and getting drunk was surely a way of merging with America, this unclean society disfigured by an appalling laxity of laws and an electronic delirium of supposed opportunities and pleasures. The very air, air-conditioned, tasted of falsity. The whiskey burned in Mohamed's throat like a fire against which he must repeatedly test his courage.
On the shallow stage, ignored by most of the customers scattered at small tables and only now and then brushed by his own glance, a young woman, naked save for strategic patches of tinsel and a dusting of glitter, writhed around a brass pole to a virtually mocking mutter of tuneless music. She was as lean as a starveling boy but for the protuberances of fat that distinguish women; these, Mohamed knew, had been swollen by injection to seem tautly round and perfectly doll-like. The whore was entwining herself upside down around her pole, and scissoring open her legs so that a tinsel thong battered back at the light. Her long hair hung in a heavy platinum sheet to the stage floor, which had been dirtied by her sisters' feet. There were three dancers: a Negress who performed barefoot, flashing soles and palms the color of silver polish; a raven-haired, onyx-eyed minx who wore high heels and kept fluttering her tongue between her lips; and the blonde, who danced least persuasively, with motions mechanically repeated while her eyes, their ice-blue outlined in thick black as if she were in an Egyptian wall painting, stared into the darkness without seeing. She did not see him, nor did he in his soul see her. Nawaf—with whom Mohamed was rehearsing once again the details of their enterprise, its many finely interlocked and synchronized parts, down to the last-minute cell-phone calls that gave the final go-ahead—had been drinking sweet drinks called daiquiris and had hurriedly gone to the bathroom. Nawaf was young and in this country but two months; its food was still poison to him. He had not grown Mohamed's impervious shell. The whore's globular breasts hung down parallel to her lowered sheet of hair while her shaved or plucked crotch twinkled and flashed. Through half-shut eyes and the shifting transparencies of whiskey Mohamed fancied a semblance to the ignorant fellaheen's conception of Paradise, where dark-eyed virgins wait on silken couches, among flowing rivers, to serve the martyrs delicious fruit. But they are manifestations, these houris, of the final purity, white in their limbs and in the whites of their eyes, radiant negatives of the underfed sluts who mechanically writhed on this soiled stage.
Another slut, the middle-aged waitress, wrinkled and thickened, a pot of curdled lewdness, of soured American opportunities, was waving a slip of paper at him. "Going off duty ... finish up my tables ... forty-eight dollars." Her twanging accent was difficult to penetrate, and from her agitation he gathered that this was not the first time this evening that he had offended her.
He did not see why he should hurry to pay. Nawaf was still in the bathroom, and the sandwiches they had ordered were still on the table, uneaten. That was it: she had offered some time ago—an hour? ten minutes? his memory was uncertain—to clear the table, and he had told her that he was not finished, though in fact the food disgusted him. It was, like everything in this country, excessive and wasteful—an open hot-roast-beef sandwich, not rare but gray, now cold and limp on its bread, dead meat scattered beneath his hands, far below them somehow in the chilled layers of air, and the french fries, too, and the coleslaw, garbage not fit for a street dog. Yet he kept thinking that he would turn to it, to soften the burning of the whiskey while he spoke sharply to Nawaf, hardening the younger man's shell for the great deed that had been laid out like a precision drawing in an engineering class. Mohamed had studied engineering among the infidels, learning the mathematics they had stolen centuries ago from the Arabs.
He must eat, for the day, the fateful morning, of culmination was approaching, and he must be strong, his hands and nerves inflexibly steady, his body vital and pure. The greatness of the deed held within him pressed upward like a species of nausea, straining his throat with a desire to cry out, to proclaim, as did the prophet whose name he bore, the magnificence, beyond all virtues and qualities imaginable on earth, of God and His justice. For the unbelievers We have prepared fetters and chains, and a blazing Fire. Flames of fire shall be lashed at you, and melted brass.
The blonde whore flicked away the sparkling thong and with spread legs waddled around the pole showing her shaved slit, an awkward, ugly maneuver that won scattered cheers from the jaded tables in the darkness. Nawaf returned, looking paler. He had been sick, he confessed. Mohamed felt a great love for his brother in conspiracy, the younger brother he had never had; he had been raised in a flowery Cairo suburb with a quartet of sisters. It was to keep them from ending as sluts that he had dedicated himself to the holy cause. They were too light-headed to know that the temptations twittering at them from television and radio were from Satan, designed to lure them into eternal mire. Their parents, in their European clothes, their third-rate prosperity measured out in imitation Western goods, were blind to the evil they wrought upon their children. Hoarding their comforts in their curtained, servant-run house in Giza, they were like eyeless cave creatures, blind to the grandeur of the One who will wrathfully reduce this world and its distractions to a desert. Mohamed carried that sublime desert, its night sky clamorous with stars, within him. When the sky is rent asunder; when the stars are scattered and the oceans roll together; when the graves tumble in ruin; each soul shall know what it has done and what it has failed to do.
The waitress had returned, accompanied by a man, a hireling, the bald bartender in a yellow T-shirt advertising something in three-dimensional speeding letters, a beer or perhaps a sports team—Mohamed could not quite bring it into focus. Nawaf looked worried; a warmth of fear came from him, and his movements betrayed a desire to leave. Mohamed quenched the boy's weak start of apology with a touch on his forearm and stood to confront the hireling in the speeding T-shirt. Standing so quickly dizzied him but did not weaken his wits or dull his awareness of the movements around him. A fresh girl on the stage, the abdah with bare feet again, dressed in filmy scarves that would come off, altered the light of the place, lifting its darkness somewhat as the spotlight played upon her. Pale faces, natives of this coast, turned to witness the quarrel. Within Mohamed his great secret felt an eggshell's thickness from bursting forth. More than once small mishaps and moments of friction—a traffic ticket, an INS summons, an irritated slip of the tongue with an inquisitive neighbor seeking, in that doglike American way, to be friendly—had threatened to expose the whole elaborate structure; but the All-Merciful had extended His protecting hand. Mohamed felt himself mighty in his power to restrain his tongue, a muscle that moves mountains. He produced his wallet and opened it to display the thickness of twenties and fifties and even hundreds, depicting in dry green engraving the dead heroes of this godless democracy. "Plenty to pay your bill," he told the threatening man in the yellow T-shirt. "And look, fellow, look here—" Not content with this demonstration of potency, Mohamed showed, too swiftly for a close examination, the card registering him in flying school and another, forged in Germany, stating that he was a licensed pilot. "I am a pilot."
Impressed and mollified, his foe asked, in the languid accents of a degenerate steeped in drugs, "Hey, cool. What airline?"
With unhesitating inspiration—it was one of those near truths that in the utterance become true, as the revealed faith is true, and the coming fruits of faith, the luminous boiling Fire—Mohamed said, "American." It sounded so just, so prophetic. He repeated it: "American Air Lines."
From where Jim Finch sat in his cubicle, about a third of the way into the vast floor full of bond traders and their computer monitors, the building's windows held a view of mostly sky, but if he stood, he could see New Jersey's low blue shore beyond the Statue of Liberty. From this height even the statue, facing the other way, looked small, like the souvenir statuettes for sale in every tourist trap. Jim came each morning from Jersey (three children and four bedrooms on a tenth of an acre in East Newark), and from where he lived he could see, picking his spots between asphalt rooftops and trees, the building in which he worked. To impress the kids he tried to locate his exact floor, counting down six from the top, though in truth it was hard from that distance to be certain; the skyscraper was built of vertical ribs that made individual floors and windows run together. Steel tubes, like a row of drinking straws, held the building up, so the windows seemed narrower than they should be, and the view out was more up and down than sideways. Today the sky's blank blue looked like a row of smooth plastic panels, except that curling gusts of smoke and flickering pieces of paper were invading the blue from below.
His cell phone rang. Jim's motion of picking it off his belt was habitual and instant, like a snake's strike. But instead of business it was Marcy, back in New Jersey. "Jim, honey," she said, "don't hate me, I forgot to say, you went out the door so fast, when you pick up the cleaning on the way home could you swing by the Pathmark and pick up a half gallon of whole milk and maybe check out their cantaloupes?"
"Okay, sure. Hey, Marcy—"
"The ones last week went straight from green to punky, but he said he'd have better ones in on Monday. The skins should give a little, but your thumb shouldn't leave a dent." He watched a piece of charred insulation rise into view and then float away while she was going on: "For the milk, we have plenty of skim for ourselves, but Frankie and Kristen, the way they're growing, they just wolf it down; she's as bad as he is. Honest, I meant to pick some up but the cart was already so full. Sorry, hon."
"Marcy, there's something—"
"Any dessert you'd like for yourself, buy it. And maybe—be sure to check the sell-by date—a half-dozen eggs, the large size, not the extra large. But don't forget Annie has that event at the church hall tonight, six-thirty, the beginning of indoor soccer, she's very anxious and wants us both there."
"The young assistant minister scares her. She says he's uptight, he wants too much to win."
"Hey, could you please for Chrissake shut up?"
"What is it, Jim? You sound strange."
"Something strange has happened, I don't know what. We heard this terrible thump underneath us about three minutes ago. I thought it was on the street, but it sounded closer. Everything shook, and now I can see smoke out the windows. The interior phone lines are all out. People have come back saying the elevators aren't working and the stairs are full of smoke."
"Oh, my God."
"Nobody's panicking—I mean almost nobody. I'm sure it'll work out. I mean, how bad can it be?"
"Oh, my God."
"Stop saying that, honey. It'll get fixed, they'll figure it out. I can't keep talking, they got to start moving us somewhere. Hey. Marcy. You won't believe this, but the floor's warm. Actually fucking warm."
"Oh, Jimmy, do something; do something. Hang up whenever you have to. I've always hated those buildings, and you being so high."
"Listen, Marcy. What phone are you on? The upstairs portable?"
"Yes." Her voice trembled, putting extra syllables into the word, ye-ess, like a child scared that she has done wrong and will be punished. Across the miles between them they shared the sensation of being chastened children—a rubbed, watery feeling in their abdomens.
"Go into Annie's room and look out the window. Tell me what you see."
While he waited, he became aware of human movement among the desks, herd movement, with thumps and shouts and screams, but he didn't feel it had a direction he should join. A rising smell, a tarry industrial smell, oily and sweet, reminded him of airport runways, and the heat vibrations one sees while waiting to take off.
"Still here. What can you see from Annie's window?"
"Oh, God, smoke! From pretty near the top; it's like the whole building is a horrible kind of cigar. A kind of black ink is running down between the grooves. What can it be? Remember that missile that maybe brought down that plane off Long Island?"
"Don't be dumb. Some kind of malfunction, it must be, within the building. The walls have enough wiring to fry China if there's a short. Don't worry, they'll figure it out. They have guys paid a fortune to sit around and plan how to handle events like this. Still, I must say—"
"What, Jimmy? What must you say?"
"I was starting to say it's getting damn hard to breathe in here. Somebody just smashed a window. They're chucking chairs right through the windows." Now his voice was shaky. "Hey, Marcy?"
"I don't know, honey, but maybe this isn't so good."
"The smoke is coming from a floor under yours," she offered hopefully, shakily. "I can't count how many."
"Don't try." Her voice was a connection to the world, but it was entangling him, holding him back. "Listen. Marcy. In case I don't make it. I love you."
"Oh, my God! Don't say it! Just be normal!"
"I can't be normal. This isn't normal."
"Can't you get up to a higher floor and wait on the roof?"
"I think people have tried it and there's too much smoke in the stairways. It's getting hard to see. Can you tell the kids how much I love them?"
"Ye-ess." Breathlessly. She wasn't arguing. It wasn't like her; her giving up like this frightened him.
He tried to think practically. "All the stuff you need should be in the filing cabinet beside my desk, the middle drawer. Lenny Palotta can help you; he has the mutual-fund stuff, and the insurance policies."
"God, don't, darling. Don't think that way. Just get out, can't you?"
"Sure, probably." People were moving toward the windows—it was the coolest place, the place to breathe, a hundred stories in the air, the height of an airplane tucking its wheels back with that little concussion and snap. "But, just in case, you do whatever you want."
"What do you mean, Jim, do whatever I want?"
"I mean, you know, live your life. Do what looks best for yourself and the kids. Don't let anything cramp your style. Tell Annie in case I miss it that I wanted to be there tonight." Of all things, this made him want to cry, the image of his plump little daughter in soccer shorts, scared and pink in the face.
"Cramp my style?"
"My blessing, for Chrissake, Marcy. I'm putting a blessing on anything you decide to do. It's all right. Feel free."
"Oh, Jimmy, no. How can this be happening?"
He couldn't talk more; the smoke, the heat, the stink, were chasing him to the windows, where silhouettes were climbing up between the vertical ribs. He replaced the phone on his belt deftly; he instinctively grabbed his suit coat and sprinted, crouching, across the hot floor to his co-workers clustered at the windows. They were his family now, they had been his daytime family for years. They were problem solvers and would show him what to do. Like an airplane seizing altitude in its wings, he left gravity behind; connections were breaking, obligations falling away. He felt for those seconds as light as a newborn.
The nice young man beside her told her he was in sales management, on his way to a telecom convention in San Francisco, but he played rugby on weekends for exercise. It surprised Caroline that anyone in the United States played rugby after college. Ages ago in her long life, after the war, she had spent a year in England and had been taken to a rugby game, in Cambridge. She remembered the heavy-thighed men in shorts and striped shirts, struggling in the mud under low clouds in the damp, chilly air, pushing at each other and, for spurts, carrying the slippery oval ball in a two-handed, sashaying way that looked comically girlish to eyes accustomed to American football. To those same eyes it seemed curious that they played nearly naked, in short shorts, and yet no one seemed to get hurt.
The introductory courtesies came early in the flight, out of Newark. The plane had pushed into the air and climbed and banked so that the wing tip, with its little skinny aerial or whatever that was, threatened, it seemed to her, to spill them back into the sun-streaked prairie of streets and housetops and highways and dulling September trees below. Caroline had flown a great deal in her life, more than she had ever expected to as a child, when flying was something heroes did, test pilots and Lindbergh, and the whole family would rush out into the yard to see a blimp float overhead. Her first flights had been to college, in Ohio, into the old Cleveland Hopkins Airport, in bumpy two-engine prop planes. As she aged, she flew to visit relatives in St. Louis and Minneapolis; to England for her postgraduate year; to the Caribbean and Arizona and Europe on vacations with her husband, and on some of his lecture trips as he became distinguished; on three-day visits to her children when they married and scattered, and for matriarchal viewings of new grandchildren, and the ceremonies that these generated as they grew and aged; and even on an expensive around-the-world tour after her husband died, a self-indulgence in her grief. All in all she couldn't begin to count how many hundreds of thousands of miles she had flown, but she had never really liked it—the panicky run into lift-off, the abrupt banking, the unexplained changes in the sound of the engines, the sudden mysterious sharp jiggling over the ocean, your coffee swinging in your cup, your heart in your throat. The planes had gotten bigger and smoother. Some of those early flights, looking back, were little better than amusement-park rides that were designed to be terrifying—those little silver turboprops that bounced over the Appalachians, with tiny rivers below catching the sun; the stubby island-hoppers out of San Juan, where you walked steeply up the aisle, and the black stewardesses gave you candy to suck for pressure in your ears. Going off to college, she would dress up as if for a formal tea, even—could it be?—white gloves. Now these big broad jets were like buses; people wore any old disgusting thing and never looked up from their laptops and acted personally injured if they didn't land on time to the minute, as if they were riding railroad tracks in the sky.
The nice young man, once the pilot's drawl had given permission to move about and use laptops, had asked her if she would mind, since so many seats were empty, if he moved to another and gave them both more room. She thought his asking was dear; it showed a good old-fashioned upbringing. She watched him set up a little office for himself in two seats across the aisle, and then she studied the terrain five miles below, familiar to her from those first nervous flights of hers, to Ohio so many years and journeys ago. She recognized the Delaware, and then the Susquehanna; and while waiting for the stewardess with her rattling drinks cart to reach the midsection of the plane, she must have dozed, because she awoke as if rudely shaken. The airplane was jiggling and bucking; it had changed personality.
Yet the faces around her showed no alarm, and the heads she could see above the seatbacks were still. A young man standing in front of the first-class curtain was saying something she couldn't quite hear. He was slender, with skimpy facial hair along his jawline, and touchingly graceful and hesitant in the way he used his hands. He seemed to have no weapon, yet he had everyone's attention, and the clumsy change in the way the plane was being handled connected somehow to him. He had an aura of nervous excitement; his eyes showed too much white. Another young man, plumper, came out from behind the curtains and then went back. Before he went back, he shouted something she heard as "Stay in your seats, no harm will come!" She realized that these boys did not know much English, so the men in front trying to talk to the boy with the wispy beard were wasting their breath. The noise of conversation in the airplane had risen like that at a cocktail party, or in a rainy-day classroom, and here and there people were talking into their cell phones, including the rugby player across the aisle, whose hand as it held the little gadget to his ear looked massive, with its red knuckles and broad wedding ring.
The engines spasmodically wheezed and a sudden tilt brought her heart up into her throat; the plane was turning. The great wing next to her window leaned glinting above the gray-green earth. The land below looked like Ohio now, flatter than the Alleghenies, and she saw a smoky city that could be Akron or Youngstown. The sun had shifted to her side of the plane, coming in at an angle that bothered her eyes. A cataract operation two years before had restored childhood's bright colors and sharp edges but left her corneas sensitive to light. The plane must be heading southeast, back to Pennsylvania. She tried to think it through, to picture the plane's exact direction, yet she was still dozy; the flight had been scheduled to leave at eight, and that had meant setting the alarm in Princeton for five-thirty. Her skin had broken out in a sweat. Her body was terrified before her mind caught up. What was foremost in her mind was the simple wish, fervent enough to be a prayer, that the plane might be taken, like an easily damaged toy, out of those invisible hands that were giving it such a jerky, panicky, incompetent ride.
Caroline wondered why the boy up front, evidently a hijacker, was letting so many passengers talk on their telephones; perhaps it was a way to keep them calm. He came down the aisle a little way into the economy section and then retreated; in warning he held up something metallic, a small knife of some sort, the kind that slides open to cut boxes, but his face, with its beard not quite a beard, looked slack and pasty. His mind was elsewhere, somewhere beyond. He wore black jeans and a long-sleeved red-checked shirt; he could have been a young computer whiz on his way to Silicon Valley. She had two grandsons at dot-coms; they dressed like farmhands, like hippies decades ago, believing they loved the earth; but this boy had no pencils or pens in his shirt pocket, the way her grandsons did. He had that baby knife and that pale skin and a head of thick black hair above eyebrows that nearly met in the middle, over his distracted, glittering gaze. Why wouldn't he look at anybody?
How humiliating, this sweating she was doing into her underwear. She would smell when she got off the plane, under the wool dress she had put on thinking that it was always cool in Tiburon, however hot in Princeton. The redwoods, the Bay breezes—she realized that she might not reach them today. They would land at some obscure airport, and a long standoff of negotiations would begin. When they started to release hostages, however, an old lady would be among the first.
Eddies of communication—hand signals, eye motions, conversations increasingly blatant and emphatic as the slack-faced young hijacker's obliviousness dawned on everyone—moved through the plane. The people up front had glimpsed something when the first-class curtain had been pulled aside; word of whatever it was spread back, skipping around her inaudibly yet chilling her damp skin. Others had learned something through their telephones that they urgently had to share. Young men in their white shirts and ties gathered in the aisle and had a conference of some sort, a huddle, right near her, around the seat of that nice rugby player. Not a huddle, a scrum—that was the word they had used in England.
She tried to eavesdrop but heard only excited muttering, and then the distinct word "yes," repeated in several men's voices. They had voted. The slender young Arab moved down the aisle, hopefully gesturing for people to sit down. The plane was still rocking in those unseen hands, jerking and tilting, but the rugby player stood up with the others—he was taller than she had realized, with those huge wrists jutting from his French cuffs—and they all faced forward. She was looking up and caught his eye; he smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. She heard a voice, another young man's, say, "You guys ready? Let's roll."
Somewhere in front of her a baby began to cry. Caroline hadn't realized that a baby was on the flight. The voice of the young mother sounded tense, but the crying stopped; perhaps she had replaced a pacifier. From farther up front came yelps and another woman's cry: a middle-aged woman's, indignant and coarse. The roaring engines made sounds hard to distinguish. The young man with the knife disappeared behind the broad shoulders and white shirts of the husky American men. The shirts in turn disappeared behind the blue first-class curtain, and there were thumping sounds, and the clatter of a serving cart, while a fearful gabble arose from the passengers still in their seats.
The airplane lurched more violently than ever before, and Caroline felt, as surely as if the wires and levers controlling the great mechanism were her own sinews and bones, that control had been lost—something crucial had been severed. From the wing came a high grinding noise; through her porthole she saw the flaps strain erect, exposing their valves, and the vast tapering wing, with its indifferent little aerial at the very tip and its aluminum segments stenciled with warnings to mechanics, seem to stand on end; the intricate stiff entity of it was heeling beyond any angle of possible recovery. The largeness of everything, the plane and the planet Earth and the transparent miles between them, struck her much as when the bandages on her eyes had been removed, giving her back the world in its shocking unsoftened colors. Her body was hanging sideways in the seat belt, so heavily it hurt.
Through the scratched plastic window the earth in its rural detail—a few houses and outbuildings, a green blob of woods, a fenced field, a lonely road—swung across her vision while her ears popped, and she realized that, nightmarish though it was, this was real, the reality beneath everything, this surge into the maw of gravity. She had time for a prayer, but her brain was flung into wordlessness; she felt upside down, and the tortured engine near her ear was making everything shake. She was meeting the truth that her parents and all the protectors of her long life had implied: the path of safety is slippery and narrow. Mercy, Caroline managed to think. Dear Lord, have mercy.
Dan stood outside his daughter's apartment, on the sooty tiled terrace from which he had seen the tower collapse. In the six months since then news events had tended to corroborate his revelation. A woman in Texas was being tried for systematically drowning her five children; Catholic priests were revealed to have molested their immature charges in numbers larger than ever imagined or confessed; almost every week, somewhere in the United States, angry or despairing or berserk fathers murdered their wives or ex-wives and their children and then, as if in adequate atonement, killed themselves. Meanwhile, war had been declared and pursued, with its usual toll of inane deaths—colliding helicopters, stray bombs, false intelligence, fatal muddle unmitigated by any biblical dignity of vengeance or self-sacrifice. The masterminds of evil remained at large; the surrendered enemies appeared exhausted and confused—pathetic small fry. They complained about the climate of Cuba and the shortage of suitable mullahs. They claimed, and others stridently claimed for them, their international legal rights. Religious slaughters occurred in India and Israel, fires and floods and plagues elsewhere. The world tumbled on, spewing out death and pain like an engine off the tracks.
His younger granddaughter, his fellow witness to the most spectacular of recent catastrophes, solemnly informed Dan that all the dogs of New York City had bleeding paws, from looking through wreckage for dead people.
Gretchen, the tough-minded survivor of divorce, had not prevented the child from gathering what she could from the newspapers and television. "It's turned her into a real news hawk," she had dryly explained. "Hermione, on the other hand, refused from Day One to have anything to do with it. It wasn't ladylike, and she's disdained it all. She says such things aren't appropriate for children. She can actually pronounce 'appropriate.' But for Vicky, it would have been unhealthy, really, Daddy, to try to shelter her from what everybody knew, what all her schoolmates talked about. After all, compared with children in Bosnia and Afghanistan she's still pretty well off."
"Not all the dogs, Victoria," Dan told his granddaughter, "just a few trained for a certain special job, and wearing little leather booties that nice people made for them. Most people are very nice," he said.
The child stared up at him pugnaciously, a bit doubtful but wanting to agree. In six months she had grown; her eyes, a chalky pale blue beneath level brows, entertained more subtle expressions; at moments, especially when she was thinking to herself, he could see stir, in the childishly fine perfection of her face, the seeds of feminine mystery and of her mature beauty.
Lucille, within earshot, said, so the child would overhear, "Vicky, she so interested in all the developments. She know how that terrible mess almost cleaned up now, and the two blue searchlights there as a monument, we see them every night."
Victoria explained to her grandfather, "They mean all the people in there have gone up to heaven."
By daylight, from the terrace, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were simply not there. Their stark form, like that of two cubes projected skyward by some computer trick, had registered but delicately above the old-fashioned visual thicket of Lower Manhattan. Rectangular clouds of glass and aluminum, they had been wiped from the city's silhouette. They were not there, but Dan was here, and God with him: the atheistic expunging had not occurred. His church pledge needed to be delivered in its weekly envelopes; a minor committee (Property Maintenance and Improvement) of which he was a member continued to meet. As tended to be true in Cincinnati, the Episcopal church was conservative, presenting a stream of Cranmer's words in which the mind could lose itself. Dan would have missed the mild-mannered fellowship—the handshakes in the Gothic narthex, the awkward passing of the peace. Why punish with his non-attendance, in protest of something God and not they had done, a flock of polite people for whom periodically chorusing the Apostles' Creed was part, and not the very least part, of getting along, of doing their best, of being decent citizens? He would miss the Sunday-morning assembly, the smell of waxed pews and musty kneeling cushions, the reckless sense of an unlikely wager, the taste of the tasteless wafer in his mouth.
While he stood there ten stories above the Brooklyn alley (where the two attendants, in the mild March air, again sat joshing at the entrance to their parking garage), the towers' distant absence seemed a light throwing a shadow behind him, a weak shadow, but inextricable from his presence—the price, it could be said, of his living presence. He was alive, and a shadowy God in him. Human consciousness had curious properties. However big things were, it could encompass them, as if it were even bigger. And it kept insisting on making a narrative of his life, however nonsensically truncated the lives of others—crushed in an instant, or snapped off on the birthing table—had been.
Gretchen and Victoria, his progeny, his tickets to genetic perpetuation, ventured out gingerly onto the terrace. "Amazing," his daughter said, seeking to read his thoughts, "how the not-thereness remains so haunting. Sometimes you still see them in old ads, where the admen haven't noticed or taken the trouble to airbrush them out of the background, and it's a thrill. It feels illicit. A lot of these yuppie movies and TV serials have a glimpse of the towers, from SoHo or the Staten Island ferry or wherever, and now they've been collected on a tape, like the kisses in Cinema Paradiso. They've become a kind of cult."
Victoria eagerly volunteered, "Someday, when all the bad men are gone, they'll put them back, just exactly the way they were." She gestured appropriately wide and high, standing on tiptoe.
Dan tended to discourage other people's illusions, though he cherished his own. "I don't think that would be very sensible," he told the child. "Or very American."
"Why not American?" Gretchen asked, with her oppositional, possibly aggrieved edge. If her parents hadn't divorced, her marriage might have held together; a bad precedent had been set.
"We move on, don't we?" he tactfully answered. "As a nation. We try to learn from our mistakes. Those towers were taller than they needed to be. The Arabs were right—they were a boast."
Hermione, barefoot, peeked out from the door leading into the library, but did not venture onto the dirty tiles. She admonished them, "Children shouldn't see what you're all looking at. It's scary."
"Don't be scared," her younger sister told her. "My teacher says the blue lights are like the rainbow. They mean it won't happen again."