(The following short story appeared on Quarter to Three on September 18, 2001.)
On September 11, 2001
I woke up to the sound of the TV in the front room. It was Trevor, watching something. He doesn’t live with me or anything. But there he was, watching the World Trade Center bleed smoke.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Something that matters,” he said, without turning around.
We watched. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why he was here.
“I better go see how my Mom’s doing,” he said and then he was gone. I kept watching. When I finally stepped outside to check the mail, nearly ten hours later and still in my robe, I noticed the front door was still locked from the inside.
It could have been a dream or something. Trevor being here, watching the coverage. Maybe it was just some sort of narrative device. I didn’t really understand at first. But it makes sense now. The people we know, how we know them, how we look at them. Those rules are a little different now.
Continued after the jump
After September 11, 2001
We still have Shoot Club this week. Not so much to play games — which we can do if we want — but just to hang out. Most of the guys show up. Charlie calls and says his wife doesn’t want him to leave tonight, that it’s too soon. Peter is still stuck in Dallas, waiting for a flight out. Otherwise, most of the guys show up and loiter in the dining room. No one is making a move for the computers yet. We’re just talking about it.
Eric and Jeremy are arguing — something about the media — when someone asks, “Did any of you guys know anyone there?”
Jude’s roommate from college lives across the street from St. Vincent’s, the hospital where they took a lot of the people who made it out. Jude couldn’t get through on the phone, but he heard from his buddy that morning, by email. Eric’s brother works at the other end of Manhattan. He saw the whole thing, starting with the second plane and then both towers going down. Bobby says his uncle is a firefighter.
“No shit. Is he okay?” Eric asks.
“Yeah, he’s fine,” Bobby says, “I mean, he’s a firefighter in Oregon, so, you know.”
“And he was in New York when it happened?”
“No, he was at work in Eugene.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I don’t know. He’s a firefighter. He says people in town are bringing them cakes and stuff. Everyone honks and waves at them.”
“My dad worked there,” Trevor says. He hasn’t been talking much. He’s been paging through an Entertainment Weekly, but he flips the cover over and slides it away from him. He’s holding his head in his hands.
“In New York.”
“I didn’t know your Dad was in New York. He’s okay?”
“I didn’t know him. My folks broke up when I was a baby. I don’t remember him.”
“But he’s okay?”
“He was in the World Trade Center. My Mom said he was a security guard or something. She only knows because of the legal stuff. She’s been suing him forever for back child support, alimony, I don’t know, some shit like that. They don’t talk or anything. She’s been doing it all through lawyers. I don’t know much about it. All I know is my dad’s an asshole. Was an asshole.”
“Yeah. He’s on some of those lists.”
We’re silent. As silent as if we were watching the coverage again. Here’s the human element again and we’re silent out of reverence, shock, helplessness. Trevor’s looking at a Dorito.
“What was his name?” Eric asks.
“Trevor, same as mine. Technically, I’m a junior.”
“He probably helped some people get out. If he was a security guard.”
“I don’t know. For all I know, he got scared and ran off. All I know is I’m fat because of him. No one on my Mom’s side of the family is fat. My Mom’s a skinny little thing. Bony. You’ve seen her. At Christmas, when we used to fly back to where my grandparents lived, I was the only fat one. I got that from my dad. Asshole.”
“You’re not fat.”
“Yeah, right. And I’m not going bald either. Look, it’s not a big deal. Like I said, I never really met him. I just want to have fun tonight. I don’t really care about that fucker,” he tells himself out loud.
He’s crying. No one says anything. Eric puts his hand on Trevor and leaves it there.
Since all this has happened, we see now the outline of fathers who were invisible. Invisible sons, mothers, brothers, sisters, the guy in the next cubicle, that receptionist who never smiled, someone who passed you in the hall, the people behind the one thousand windows of a city skyline. We didn’t know anything about them. Suddenly we can see some of them, gone and symbolic, charged with more meaning than they’ll ever know. Meaning has infected new people, places, things. Office memos are tragic. Skyscrapers are noble. Stairwells are death traps. An airliner overhead is cause to flinch. Every fireman, every policeman stands for the doomed heroes thrown into the teeth of these new meanings. Their trucks are roaring down the street with flags and righteousness billowing behind them. The whole world is Norman Rockwell, dark and grainy with pain and honor. Simple patriotism is too petty anymore.
Trevor lowers his head and shuffles into the bathroom.
“Maybe we should go home?” Bobby offers.
“No,” I say, “Just stay. Please? I’m going to play Virtua Tennis.”
When Trevor comes back, his face red and washed, the other guys have started up a game of Diablo II. Eric has left a seat open for him. “You can have this seat,” he says, “I poured you a Dr. Pepper.”
“Naw, you go ahead, I want to play Virtua Tennis for a while,” he says. For jocularity, he adds, “Besides, Diablo II is for fags.” He settles in beside me and I consider letting him win. But that’s stupid. He wants our presence, not our pity. We know this. About Trevor and each other. It’s why we’re all here, at Shoot Club, after September 11, 2001.
No one says anything else about Trevor’s father. Instead, we play games. Virtua Tennis and a Worms game on the Playstation. Diablo II gives way to Unreal Tournament, then Counter-Strike, then Red Alert 2. It doesn’t occur to anyone that these might be of questionable taste, because they aren’t. They’re games. They’re the functional equivalent of cartoons. They should be free of these new meanings.
Finally, it’s getting light outside and the last few guys leave a little before six. As usual, Trevor’s the last to head out. He goes into the back room to get his jacket and comes out with a flight sim, Jane’s F/A-18, in his hand.
“So show me how this works,” he says, not putting his jacket on.
“You can bomb Iraq, right?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s not-”
“I don’t want to kill civilians or anything. I just want to know what it would be like.”
“What it would be like?”
“Yeah, you know. Retaliatory raids. Preemptive strikes.”
“Okay, but it’s probably not what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“It’s not all action. It’s a lot of technical stuff.”
“Fine. I want to learn it. Like they did.”
“Them. In the training simulator in Florida.”
“C’mon, Trevor, Jesus. This isn’t like that. It’s a game.”
“Is it realistic?”
“How do I know? Yeah, it’s more realistic than the other stuff we play. But still.”
“Well, I want to try it.”
“Don’t you have to be at work in a few hours?”
“I’ll call in, say I’m sick.”
“I don’t know. It’s been a while,” I take the box from him and look at it for no good reason, “I’ll have to hook up a joystick.”
“Can we use that one with the accelerator?”
“It’s called a throttle.”
Since Trevor’s so gung ho to use that old Thrustmaster with the throttle, I have to set up my Sound Blaster’s gameport, which is conflicting with the gameport on my motherboard. Why couldn’t they have invented goddamn USB ports back when I was happy to spend a few hundred dollars on a good joystick?
While I’m tinkering with some IRQ settings — why the fuck won’t this work? — Trevor’s flipping through the manual.
“What’s a velocity vector?” he asks.
“It shows whether you’re climbing or diving.”
He considers this.
“Yeah. Who’s Jane?” He points to the box. ‘Jane’s F/A-18’, it says.
“Oh. It’s this reference book on airplanes and ships. Named after a guy. Thomas Jane.”
“And I thought you had a dippy name.”
I should laugh politely, but I can’t get the goddamn joystick to calibrate right, so I ignore him. He sees that I’m not even smiling and I immediately feel bad for it.
“You know, I want to do something,” Trevor says, “Not just give blood. Which I can’t do. I’m blacklisted from giving blood, you know. I have some kind of medical condition that makes me faint. So I want to be able to help some other way.”
“We all do.”
“I’m thinking of enlisting.”
I let this sit.
“Did you hear me?” he asks.
“You’re probably too old.”
“For infantry. But I can still be a pilot. Or just ground support. Whatever you call it. I want to be ready. You know?”
“That’s why you want to play this sim?”
“I want to be ready. I want to have useful skills to offer. You have that tank game, too, don’t you?”
“What tank game? Look, Trevor–”
“I mean just in case. It can’t hurt.”
“Trevor, c’mon. There are other ways to help. Just help people. Any people. Do volunteer work or something.”
“That’s not what I’m thinking.”
“Look, you’re angry. It’s perfectly natural.”
“I’m not angry. You know what’s weird? I think I’m glad.”
“Glad? What are you talking about?”
“I think I am. People whose dads are still around have it more complicated. They have to deal with, I don’t know, confronting them. They have to deal with their dads getting old, going senile, whatever. I have it easy now. It’s over. I have no choice in the matter. It’s solved for me. I never even knew him, so I don’t have to deal with grief and all that. I used to wonder if he’d ever call my Mom or me, if we’d ever talk. I used to wonder what I’d say to him. I used to wonder if I even wanted to talk to him. Now I don’t have to wonder. It’s easy. I’m glad.”
“I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”
“You just wish you were in my place, don’t you?”
“Not really. Not like that. But I understand. Hey, I want to do something, too. I want to help people. We should both do that. Find ways to do that.”
“What, working in a soup line or something?”
“Whatever. Bring groceries to old people. Help kids learn to read. Everyone’s thinking about the Red Cross, but there’s other organizations out there. Join Big Brothers. Coach a Little League team or something.”
“A Little League team?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been seeing commercials for Hardball.”
“I’m supposed to take Donny to see that.” Donny is Trevor’s nephew. Donny’s dad has to travel for work a lot. Donny’s older brother is in the Marines. So Donny is stuck with his mother a lot.
“Why not just spend more time with Donny?” I say.
Trevor is quiet. He’s looking at the cover of the manual, which has nothing to look at but the words ‘Jane’s F/A-18 Flight Manual’ against a solid dark background.
“Yeah,” he says after a minute.
“You still want to play that?”
“No. It looks boring. Velocity vector? Who wants to play stuff like that?”
“Diablo II? More Virtua Tennis?”
“You know what, maybe I better go. It’s been a long night. If I get some sleep, I can still get up tomorrow and pick up Donny after school. His Dad’s been out of town and who knows when he’s coming back, what with the flights and everything. His Mom made him go see Princess Diaries with her yesterday. Poor kid.”
“You guys should see Hardball.”
“What’s it rated? His mom will freak if I take him to another R-rated movie.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s for kids.”
“You know what? I made that up. About my dad. I knew I was going to start crying, but I didn’t know why. So I had to think of something.”
He’s looking at me, wondering if I’m going to be mad. I think I am. “None of that was true?”
“No, no, all of it was true, except the part about the World Trade Center. My mom says he works in an office building downtown. But the rest is true, about him being fat, about me not knowing him, that I’d probably be glad if he died.”
Now I feel like an idiot for writing about invisible fathers and pain and honor. It’s all true, of course, but does it belong to this moment? Does anything about this joystick that won’t calibrate and the games in these boxes belong to this moment, this past week? Surely they’ve escaped meaning, right? I don’t know. Just as Trevor can’t figure it out yet, neither can I. Someone shuffled everything and it’s like starting over. The people we know, how we know them, how we look at them. What matters.
“Can I go with you guys?” I ask, “When you see Hardball?”
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow afternoon. Then we can go get Donny.”
The rules are a little different now.