Notes from September 11

I
And the sun behind the plume went out orange and then violet
then strong and bright at end of summer
flurries fell, the sun silvered the flakes
there was a sound of fighter jets

My mother did not leave her house when the cloud fell on Brooklyn a mile away
In her garden, on the evergreens, the powder silky and hot

She told me later that she understood what was in it

II
They were asking for water on the bridges
the day already heating up
the exodus, the slow processions to Brooklyn
the ferries fleeing over the water

Ash on every shoulder and every head whole ash men
smothered in plaster
silent without shirts
streaked with blood from glass
black women become albino
covering their mouths
in wet towels, bandannas, carpenter’s masks

They are trying to call home on cellphones and the police are screaming No cellphones! Goddammit no cellphones!
They set off bombs!

III
I was told of the woman
who after the fall wore only a charred skirt and a bra
and a suit-coat slipping off that a man had given her
As they huddled in a door
she had burns on her thighs and her calves and her arms
her cheeks bled warm
Someone cradled her and carried her away
I was told how the cloud fell straight down from the towers and was breathing
how it was sentient, it moved like a being
and it spread darkness
There was no sound, someone said, and you couldn’t outrun it and when you
breathed it you choked

IV
The ambulances race south trailing ghosts of dust
over street corners where there are shoes
Oakton wingtips and Doc Martins and worn leather tongues and Carolina boots
and ground-down heels and some so old they’re nearly treadless
lining up black as beetles and neat in stacks and two by two

Cop shoes I keep hearing shield numbers on the air a policeman says behind the gas-mask trembling, his eyes

V
In the green light of the leaves of the square by the courthouse
a hundred frantic people driving nails into wood
plywood planks three feet wide and six long
the planks laid over two-by-fours and nailed down, the boards
clattering and thrown and the arms swinging up the hammers coming down
ancient noise of work, the laborers are men in suits women in heels
students with packs the nailing sighs like ocean, crescendoes
for a moment two or three hammers out of six dozen swing in straight
musical time
making syncopations, the rhythms breaking as quickly
and are just noise, horrid noise

The boards get tested At each end where the two-by-fours poke out as handles a man and a woman take hold, another lies down on the board, the bearers lift
they nod heads, the patient alights, the stretchers are placed in piles
A man approached the work, wondering
and now under his breath (I could touch him) OmiGod louder: Oh my God
seeing how many stretchers already falling over each other await the trucks
and the trucks
coming with more two-by-fours and plywood boards and there are rumors
of 20,000 dead
bound for Ellis Island which they say is now the Morgue

And the man, as if a great hand had pulled him by the hair and wrenched him from behind, stumbled back four long feet and crumpled under a tree
heaving and dumb

VI
In the back of a flatbed truck
They wear the black long-coats and the white shirts and the sidelocks and beards
There are forty of them holding shovels and spades
The police wave aside the crowd
The truck passes
Someone asks Where are they going?
Someone answers In Israel, when there are bombings
the religious Jews, the Orthodox Jews
do a special job, they retrieve body parts
to identify the people who have died

VII
Into the fire zone at dusk with Vinnie Dolan the thug who gypped me once
for ten dollars in a bar on the waterfront
that was a long time ago
we were much, much younger

Now he was looking for his father, a cop He said his father was alright I just wanna see him
my father and I we never really saw eye to eye you know?
haven’t spoken to him in a while

And Vinnie apologized about the ten dollars
I said I hardly know you at all
but let’s stick together as we go

Still at 6 pm, attack plus nine hours, the dust the ash the flame the plume in the purple summer dusk
We went to Pace University as volunteers with the Red Cross
At Pace the first triage had gone up early on
Dr. Morgenthal and his men and women
had water and food and blood and oxygen and mounds of shiny equipment
Later Dr. Morgenthal would tell us We’re shutting down, moving south
We’re useless here There are no patients

So Vinnie and I went south into the Zone with six medics who stuffed our packs
with gauze and saline and water and masks
who said We’ll set up at Ground Zero

Then it was darkness and men running saying Turn back, ‘sgonna collapse, turn the fuck back!
All the night the rumors of collapse, we took the silences of the backstreets
The fires stirred winds through the canyons
kicking dust-devils and storms and stinging fog yellow as deserts
four inches of ash on cars abandoned
the doors left open, and the wind blew a million million paper bits

I ran the ash through my fingers, it was soft and warm and almost dewy It was concrete and stone and glass and drywall and lime and asbestos
I didn’t yet know what my mother knew or I would never have touched it
so carelessly
for it was bone too

VIII
The longest night the firefighters had said
we had no idea what they meant
or how many they’d lost
until the first ruins of the towers rose before us
like bombed churches in mist
little red fires at its heart
the cathedral windows
and we could hear the cries for surgeons among the rubble

someone needed an amputation Eyewashes! Eyewashes! the medics cried out, fanning in teams of two
the firemen lay on curbs, in make-shift forward triage units
set up in the halls of the Dow Jones Company and American Express
old strange names now
The firemen thanked them, the saline ran down like tears
and everywhere there were men alone
not knowing the time or the place at all
their throats hurting and their skin hot

Then, into a wall of smoke and out, we entered the very bottom of Ground Zero and the medics did not cry Eyewashes!
for their hearts fell away seeing it
the rubble and the girders and the twisted metal stretching into haze and dust
the gray drifts of millions of sheafs of paper
the ambulances, cars, firetrucks
smoking in the mud in paddies where the tangled hoses had burst
or the water had streamed from the ruins
delicate charred lattice walls six and ten stories high
Roman, white-pale steaming in arc-lights
or disappearing in purple plumes
the firemen trawling, stumbling, falling, digging, blasting water
thousands of men in the twisted sharpened warped metal
that flipped up underfoot like bear-traps, tore at legs, popped into chests
It had a name, they called it the Pit and the Pile, it went, you thought, for miles

IX
Or much later I’m sitting in a Japanese garden cleaning paratrooper boots
wiping hard but the dried slurry of the ash won’t come loose
in fact as I wipe harder the white residue turns heavy and bluish and soaks
into my rag
soaking back into the boot, so as the boot dries the white grows thicker

In the hedgerow maze by the marina the morgue ship lay in a berth of light on the water
near a temple of palms and glass called the Winterdome
where there were gallerias, places to eat and buy and buy

There was a bakery, the men were making cakes or bagels or loaves, the fat yeast rose and fell
still with prints of fingers on hurt soft thighs, old titties over shoulders
other uncooked loaves lay on trays abandoned, neutron bombs took the
cooks away
the coffee cups half-sugared — Is this what the end of man looks like?

In the galleria, shops bombed, sales bombed, glass in ariel pools or hanging from ceilings
slow-drip on uncovered heads, walking the black water, feet moving in liquid
mutterers in piss-soaked bathrooms later tall and wise in the night, clear the
way for new bodies
red sea openings of men for the processions in uniforms correct and loving
and of proper salute
a firefighter or cop found and then all stop
The men rough with their carving of the work with territorial bare arms,
the beards of soot
stop
The metallic eiffel cranes, blind and intricate dancing with tall dinosaur dances
stop
and tandem to these ancient the lone men on the beams unbound from
worldly awe of death’s kingdom
coughing their hard gems to throatful from old stomachs
stop
others only sleepwalkers in scows, backhoes, bobcats, spraying weld fire
stop and with thousand-foot stare to the lights of New Jersey and other lands
that seemed lost and unknown and unknowable and therefore: the work, the work

starts, again

And one among them, janitorial, ignored even the procession of the famed dead sweeping glass of seventeen windows shattered into petals, behind him
Venetian blinds clacking
as on seashores, the place suddenly unbruted by the sight of his quiet and
his looking down
like looking for shells

X
Morning — zero-hour, start over, me to sleep on a cot, herds of blank, all
men’s makers come to eat
drubbing of kegs rolling, trees torn from roots, gherrrkk scraping of dugs
on gravel floors mooshuts floods cartoons a faint ruckus of
distant mobs Awake, this time in a coffin, with a tap-tap-tapping of
rain or men overhead, and the soft sway of a shipin port waters
The morgue ship! Here!
The Hudson! I am in the holdI will be taken to another country and interred
I saw a flying, detached thing, black muck thing, amorphous like cloud
gripping a straw, suck up men on an iron-grey strand
boats lay beached

Filling a great big stomach, the Pit where we are removing the debris and put our own
cancelled eyes in the cafeteria by the blown windows eat like hurt and unknown
doctors moving among us, oxygen, oxygen
also birdbaths in corners My third Puerto Rican shower this week Doctor, I
can’t breath, I can’t

Forth comes the maiden Sara, 16, strawberry blonde with the spaghetti trays
Who will stay for five days who I fell in love with and out of all at once

XI
You remember the people in these hours
though you spoke little, you knew very few names
Luke who drove a day from Nashville Tennessee
he cleared out his bank account to buy gauze and bandages
Carl the fireman
Jennifer from the Bronx who wore three pairs of socks in her big boots
given her by a cousin with big feet
She faked being National Guard to pass the police lines

XII
Within hours, cigarettes taste like burnt plaster and asbestos
and sometimes, oddly, human flesh; real flavor someone joked
There were jokes
I just found a firefighter on top of two women
Yeah, what was he doing?

The hounds and German shepherds are loosed slipping the dust on girders, sniffing
You watched the fleet-footed dogs nearly lose their balance
over voids twenty feet deep in the rubble
they descended into holes hissing
You watched men follow the dogs, crawling with flashlights and crowbars
Vinnie Dolan did this again and again
raw and dazed and blank-eyed, spitting green and black phlegm
He brought up three police officers, and at the end of it
the muscles in his cheeks went dead

I could not recognize him; he was pale and apart

The dogs came out and lay in the gardens by the marina where K-9 cops gave them water bowls
and some of the dogs died eating

XIII
Along the old thoroughfares, the Gristedes was quietly looted
in these early hours when the volunteers were few, the food supplies random
cops and firemen and EMTs took cigarettes, candy, water, chips, big boxes
of aspirin terrible headaches that night, it was the asbestos; you took
what you needed
zone of mud and ash, a scum of it white on everything
the trees looked like ice
and men in fatigues and gas masks
no refrigeration or electricity or running water
you thought to yourself that much of the planet lives like this
you had no idea what city or country this was
Then you saw cops in the abandoned Starbucks trying to make frappuccinos
in the health clubs they joked with barbells of ash
this same ash later in my bed in Brooklyn, through the window, a half-inch
of it spilled like dune
as sparkled and lonely as dust from the moon

I was given black body bags and Civil Defense body tags to hand to the firemen as the dead were brought out, the bodies a long time coming
I carried baskets of water across the girders and rubble
tossed the bottles across chasms to wild men who caught and drank them
then I returned, refilled the basket
The men in groups of two and three dug
They find flesh, they finger it, hold it up to flashlights It looks like
shredded rope or carpet
That’s skin they say matter-of-factly Think we got a body!
A dozen men converge
new clues unearthed with hands and shovels
a white knit sweater shredded on tin
a pair of glasses, fully intact — incredible —
a Nike shoe Got a shoe, Chief. Whaddaya think?
Body could be a hundred feet away
The dogs loitered, everywhere the smell of it
even the men hunkered with their noses, bending to ground
I can smell it said a fireman Right here But he found nothing

XIV
There would be firemen marching in the darkness in single file
looking like medieval warriors, carrying awls, pikes, pick-axes,
shovels on their shoulders
You saw them planted in sleep on brown couches
pulled from the smashed windows of ground-floor offices
they had signs saying Dave’s Café Le Menu: 1) water 2) water
You saw them in rows of stunned silence, soot-faced, white-eyed
some wept quietly then quit it suddenly like hanging up a phone
when you saw them you gave them water

And you looked at them now as you would kings who had lost you imagined it so, because you saw how big their grief was
They’d worked ten and twenty and forty hours in the rubble to forget it
to make something good of it, to find a man, a whole man, give him a burial
perhaps find a survivor

At 1:15 am on September 12, Body #1 was brought and laid on a black sheet he was a curly-haired young man tarred around his eyes and red lipped
sleeping on his stomach with his arms over his head
lying very naturally except he had no buttocks or legs

The men surrounded him, the firefighters pulled his head up by his hair to show his face
turned him over, a coroner flash-bulbed him, and no one said a word

Heavy rain made it hard for the rescuers in the days after a wind rose from the sea and the rain fell faster
still the plume, its black arm, smoked over Manhattan
When you looked at it from afar across the river
you thought it was the souls of men and women
it was greedy over the sky and foaming
it was a strange new neighbor

XV
Vinnie Dolan and I watched the candle-lit streets, the vigils
the people who wept and went away
A candle caught flame in a cup and fell on itself bending and turning very bright
The light hiccupped and died

You find your dad?

I drove back in to Ground Zero with him yesterday

That’s good

But it wasn’t true and whether Vinnie was lying to me or to himself did not matter
The truth was his father
died trying to save the dying in the fire
Vinnie searched and searched and searched

When there was no body he told himself what he needed to hear
he had many things to say to his father
So he said I drove in with him yesterday yeah
His cheeks sucked in, I’m gonna see him tonight

EPILOGUE A year passes, there are wars, the horns in the air, the people come to Ground Zero
to watch through fences the unbuilding, and at the year exactly, the families gather
for the reading of the names of the dead, which
the bag-pipers from Coney Island and Morrisania carry in the bright
having marched across the boroughs all the night now the reading of the names of the dead in the wind off the river and the
bay blowing them white
I was drunk at 8 am already, sitting in old strange places where I’d seen the dead alight
thinking of Marcus Aurelius:
How quickly all things disappear, he says,
In the universe, the bodies themselves…for as soon as a thing has been seen
it is carried away and another comes in its place, and this will be
carried away too

And then Marcus, good emperor of Rome, tells us, Help men. Life is short.

Contributor

Christopher Ketcham

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer for Harper's, GQ, Mother Jones and many other magazines, divides his time between Brooklyn and the redrock country of Utah. He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

ADVERTISEMENTS