I watched it all. I looked up and saw the whole thing and I didn’t move because I thought it wasn’t real. It just didn’t look real. I watched as one of them fell and when the first cloud of smoke and dust flooded the street, I jerked awake and got inside my truck. But all the soot and ash were too fast and some got inside and I looked outside the window and all I could see was gray. My eyes started stinging and I couldn’t keep them open and I wanted to get out and run, I didn’t want to stay, but I couldn’t leave so I sat there breathing in the remains of the city. Then I heard a boom and the next one fell.
. . .
It took time. Flour, water, salt, and yeast mixed, beaten, kneaded, pounded, and flattened over a scorched rock maple board. Tomato sauce boiled, bubbled, poured over flat white dough and cooled, leaving tomato vapors rising. Freshly shredded Mozzarella cheese thrown with generosity over soft red dough. The uncooked pie tossed into a fiery brick-oven emerged baked with a crispy, flaky, melted goodness. Fresh crushed garlic and red pepper sprinkled over the soft singed cheese. The pie’s gooey terrain sliced into eight equal sections. The broken golden thin crust and the parted melted cheese sent threads and threads of fragrance, stretching, intertwining, weaving, into the surrounding air, forming a tapestry of aroma that emanated from the kitchen.
. . .
“It’s funny, see. No matter how much time has passed, it’s like we pick up where we left.” Then he walked toward me.
. . .
One cold Sunday morning, I was taking a hot shower, getting ready for church. Like most Sundays, my father had woken me up, telling me to move quickly otherwise, I would miss Sunday school. The steam became thick in the bathroom, so I opened up the small window next to the shower. The cool air flew in and gave me an intense rush on my wet skin. It was then that I heard a strange noise outside.
Someone was singing.
Peering through the window, looking down into the backyard, seeing no one around, I searched the houses beyond my yard. The sun peaked around some houses while smoke came up from one or two chimneys and I stood still looking out the window. I heard the strange singing again. I raised my eyes, focused on the house right behind my backyard, and saw a silhouette of someone dancing in the bathroom window. The silhouette stopped yet the singing continued. The words were clearer this time and it sounded like “Bismillah, we will not let you go—let him go” repeating over and over again. I snickered because it sounded like Vincent. It was the first time that I thought of him and didn’t feel uneasy.
The first time I met Vincent was during a game of Escape from Alcatraz, a game similar to tag but with teams of cops and robbers. Both teams carried toy guns, but I only pretended to have one. My father was a deacon in the church and he believed that it was wrong for children to have any type of play gun; if you live by the gun, then you die by the gun, he once said. But I couldn’t be the only kid without one. It just didn’t seem right. Earlier that week, I had found a fallen branch from a maple tree and had taken it home to work on in my basement. After many hours of stripping, whittling, and sanding, the branch had taken the form of a smooth wooden gun and I was thrilled, not only for my ingenuity but because I had kept it a secret from my father.
In the game, Escape from Alcatraz, if someone tagged you, you went to jail where you waited until your teammate, who was free, attempted a jailbreak. After a jailbreak, you just ran as fast as you could through backyards, over fences, from garage rooftops to rooftops. It was on one of these escapes that I met Vincent. He was a tall stocky kid with his hair neatly combed to one side and gelled so it didn’t move, even in the wind. He tucked his tight white t-shirt into his plaid shorts. His white tube socks stretched all the way down from his pale knees to his white tennis shoes. It looked like he took a skinny dip in whiteout and then put on his plaid shorts. He lived right behind my house on the next street over. Seeing us on top of a garage roof, he asked us if he could join the game. I was a bit reserved and was uncomfortable about mixing with kids from an opposite block. After all, I didn’t know who he was and I thought he really should hang with the kids on his own block. However, I kept silent while my friends shrugged their shoulders and didn’t care if he joined in or not. So we continued playing and Vincent joined in.
The next day and the days following, I noticed that Vincent was over our block more and more than his own. He played stickball with us, which he was really good at, and he hung with us when we sat on the front stoop of my house and watched cars drive up the street. No one else seemed to mind that Vincent didn’t live on our block and it shouldn’t have bothered me either. But something didn’t feel right. Maybe, I was used to my friends for so long that I no longer understood how to be around someone new, or maybe, I should be more accepting, letting things like this slide. Yet I felt a nervousness around him, as if I was waiting for something to go wrong, like waiting for something to fall, something to hit the ground and turn to dust. Maybe I was just jealous of his easy acceptance into our fold. Whatever it was, the feeling dwindled as time went on and I grew more and more accustomed to seeing him in our gang.
Standing here in my shower, hearing Vincent singing in his shower, made me feel that we shared something in common. Maybe his father had asked him to get ready for their church. We were different, but we were also the same and I had no reason to dislike him.
He started singing again and I laughed.
I was startled by the knock on the bathroom door by my father. He told me to hurry otherwise my Sunday school teacher would complain of my lateness again, so I finished up, and got dressed for church.
The next day after school, we all decided to play Escape from Alcatraz. I ran home and brought out my wooden gun. The hard work of my young hands paid off when the guys said that my gun was awesome and, all at once, ran their fingers along all the details and smooth edges. We started the game and I took off. I gripped my gun tight and plowed through some bushes. I jumped on a slanted chain fence that looked like a tower leaning, falling, and I launched myself into the air, flying like a jet, landing on dirt and dust. I slowed down, turning backwards, pointing my gun at my enemies, while unloading imaginary bullets into their brains and bodies. I looked forward and ran faster. I was wild with power.
After the game, we all sat around my front stoop. We exchanged stories of our recent adventure with smiles, sweat, and heavy breathing. We talked as if we were old men reminiscing of days of war fought on foreign soil. When can our glory fade? O the wild charge we made. We all cheered. I listened to their voices and examined their faces. I examined their smiles and the way their eyes squinted a little when they laughed. I felt warm. It was good to have good friends.
After a while, my friends left for their homes and I was about to go into my house, when Vincent called me and asked if he could look at my gun. I handed the gun over to him and smiled. He held the gun in his hand and examined each ridge, each groove, each curve. Then he looked me in the eyes.
“You know you are too young to play with guns.”
The last words rolled off his tongue and Vincent swung the wooden gun against the tree next to him. Broken pieces flew into the air and my body went stiff. His smirk turned to laughter and he dropped the split handle to the floor. My hands covered my mouth, I gritted my teeth, my eyes welled hot with tears to the sound of the wood cracking which still echoed in my skull. It became harder to breath as if my lungs exploded and I saw his blurry body bobbing away getting smaller and smaller. I just stood there. A fire blazed within me and I imagined him dying along with his children and his children’s children. But I could not pour out my wrath on my enemy.
. . .
They were silky, soft, all the shades of dark red, and her tongue rotated around, pressing them, pushing them until they were shiny, wet, and then her top teeth pressed down on them, presenting an inner white between each smile, each smirk, and they were like two fleshy rose petals forever in motion, forever glistening, forever puckered, yet never ready for a kiss, and always moving and mouthing the words over and over again: No. No. No.
. . .
We drove up to the parking lot of old Alley Pond Park across from Creedmoor in an old Toyota Corolla. It was dark and the car was barely visible under the dim street lamps. The driver turned the lights off so no one would see us. There were five of us in the car, two up front and three crammed in the back seat and I sat next to Ben in the back but I couldn’t see his face. The crime was committed and we were lying low. We came here to divvy up the loot.
“Uh, numnuts, pass the damn fried chicken now!”
Earlier, Ben had stolen a bucket of fried chicken from the local Roy Rogers. We had a guy on the inside, Fin. Ben had walked in and ordered a cup of water and Fin completed the order by passing him a cup of water along with a bucket filled to the brim with fried chicken. We had a driver, a lookout, and guy who was Ben’s backup just in case it got messy and he needed help to get out. I had just come along for the ride. When Ben rushed to the car with the loot and jumped in the back seat, we drove off as if we had heisted a bank. And now we were going to eat it in the darkness. I looked around in the car, but their faces were black, melting into the hot summer night, and their voices sprang out of the darkness with no clarity to who was speaking.
“Just calm yourselves, quit reaching over me.”
“I hope you got enough for all of us.”
“I told you I would get a bucket full.” That was Ben’s voice. His was the only one I recognized.
“I’m getting hungry, hurry, pass it out.”
“What do you want, a leg or thigh or breast?”
“But how the hell can you see them in here?”
“Can’t see. I’m feeling for the chicken, dude.”
“Oh gross. Get him to pass the bucket, man.”
I heard chewing, chomping, then the licking of oily fingers. I wasn’t hungry. These guys made me feel happy, much like remembering a lost memory. It was nice to hang with Ben again. I haven’t seen him in such a long time.
“Yo, what do I do with the chicken bones?”
“You chuck them out the freak’in window, dork.”
“I’m sorry, both of them in back are broke.”
“Just pass the chicken bones to me, all right.”
“Hold on a minute, what the hell is that?”
“I didn’t get a piece of chicken yet.”
“That smell. Ugh, where is that stench coming from?”
“The chicken. Guess fried chicken smells like that.”
“It’s not the chicken. Someone ripped one bad.”
“I smell it now. I can’t believe this crap.”
“Oh, that’s so nasty. We are eating here!”
“It wasn’t me, get off, let go of me!”
“I knew it, damn it. Has to be from you.”
“Quit punching me. I dropped my chicken, jerk.”
We were five hot sweaty guys, with oily fried chicken, crammed into a small compact car in the middle of the night. They feasted, farted, and fought. I laughed.
. . .
An assortment of clothes both washed and unwashed. Together.
A dozen plants in clay and gray plastic pots. Some alive and some left for dead. One, a rose bush.
Four long boxes of plastic-covered cardboard-backed comic books. Time will tell the value.
A shiny black pleather love-seat sofa. Soft goodness.
Five beige computers with their keyboards, monitors, and mice.
Two wooden desks. One new made of gray particle-board and the other made of old dark maple.
One flat metal pot with sauce stains and one nonstick pan.
A worn mattress with threads hanging out and a wooden box spring with a broken corner.
. . .
The ground lay beaten and pounded by rubble. Flattened. Harmful vapors rose up. Hands covered mouths and covered eyes. Lungs exploded gasping for air. People emerged from fire and smoke. Boiled wrath poured out took the form of ashes sprinkled over soft singed flesh. Metal sliced and melted into unequal sections. Broken cables like threads stretched, intertwined, weaved in and out of shattered windows. The surrounding terrain crumbed under pressure from falling towers. Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London, and now here. Unreal. I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
. . .
I used to live there. I remember that at least.
Was it yesterday? I worked in the city near Wall Street and I took the E-train from Jamaica all the way to Chambers Street. After that I walked. There were people everywhere. I watched buildings leaning toward me—small ones and gargantuan skyscrapers. I ran through busy traffic. Cars whizzed by and I can remember the sound of their horns.
But, I’m not sure of it. I have trouble. Did I have a son? Is she my daughter? I sit here with tubes in my veins and they say they’re family, but I don’t see it. I don’t know. Where’s my wife? Is she among the dust?
I look up and see our president on the television addressing the nation, responding to those who assaulted our land, promising that we will bring those responsible to justice, praising the heroes we lost on that day, keeping our spirits alive and resilient against such a devastating attack. We were attacked?
I remember that city. I remember my old house, my neighborhood, the park nearby. I can remember. My friends, the food, my parents, that girl I loved. I remember wanting to leave in my truck, leave it all behind, but I can’t remember why.
I want to see Ben.
I want to go there. But is it gone?
I feel it slipping. It dissolves. The city dissolves.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) in 1993 and has been working in the Information Technology field ever since. Inspired to explore his artistic side, he has earned a B.A. in English from the University of South Florida and is currently in the process of working toward an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. His works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Apalachee Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)