Aunt Vagna and 9/11
Aunt Vagna and 9/11
I arrived at 7.00am. The day clear in the falls and shadows of buildings; a cloudless Autumn. The Autumn they executed James Elledge Holte, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. It was a culture shock at first, standing on the corner of Fourth and Lafayette, the busy traffic rumbling by, taxis hooting from the kerb, a truck driver yelling abuse to an open hood, steam hissing from an old Pontiac. I could hardly see the open sky, buildings so tall they shaded every arterial road of the city. What day was it? I could only guess without my glasses that history was happening on the front page of the New York Times. Large black lettering spelling out “WITNESS TO AN EXECUTION”. I felt sick at the thought of words like ‘lethal injection’, and Aunt Vagna’s name. Was she related to this Holte? I would soon find out.
She lived in an apartment on Madison Avenue and I had three hours to kill before I could see her. What did Aunt want from me? Why the sudden trip to New York and on top of everything paying my fare from London to Hong Kong? The rest of the journey finding the funds myself. She was always ostensibly the richest woman in the family. They said, she draped fur and diamonds, had shares in General Motors and AT&T. But she never contacted any of the family. Father said, she was afraid that everyone would sponge, come after her wealth when they didn’t deserve it. So they left her alone.
I remained suspicious, but curious.
I sat in an alfresco coffee shop in one of the quieter streets, about two blocks away from her apartment. A sliver of sun shone down between the skyscrapers and I was able to pick up the paper and read the front page without my glasses. I must have left them in the subway when I was juggling my backpack, discarding the paper bags, making everything more compact. After all, I was on foot, the pack heavy with the jewel box, books and photographs. I knew, looking at the congested streets, that I could pace myself much quicker than hailing a cab. By now I could carry my briefcase and leave my luggage in a locker, come back for it in the evening.
Free of the weight, I stretched my legs under the table. The waiter, in a German accent, brought the last cup of coffee I could manage. I asked him about the Trade Centre and he drew a map on my serviette. I tore the map’s corner, placing it in my wallet.
I knew Vagna had one of her flower shops near the Twin Towers. Perhaps, that’s where she was. She couldn’t be in Greenwich Village, or the Manhattan store, that would take her past lunchtime to meet me. Really, I didn’t know where she was.
It wouldn’t hurt to visit the shop. I opened my journal and looked for the address. Pushing my way through the crowds, I felt a tug on my coat lapel. I clasped my hands tighter on the briefcase. Feeling that sensation against my jacket was odd, yet slight enough not to suspect anything. I tapped my pocket, the horror of its emptiness made my stomach rise, only to have my lungs bang hard against each other. Or so it felt. Bastards! The two had pinched my wallet, the one in front pleading a synthetic ‘sorry’, the other quickly lost in the distorted view of heads.
I decided to forget about Aunt Vagna’s flower shop. I needed that wallet, especially the map, so I back-tracked along the pavement, lifting my head intermittently above the crowd to see if I could catch the swift footwork of the two pickpockets.
At a newsstand, I asked the guy behind a multitude of magazines if he’d seen two young men in baseball caps and moccasins. He just answered, ‘Seen one, seen em all, Pal.’
I was devastated. Map lost. No money. No credit cards. I’d have to report it. I tried the alleys, hoping the same two might be waiting for me again, especially for the briefcase. They didn’t know I had something valuable that I could bargain with.
In a cardboard-stacked alley, a Chinese cook emptied a pale of fish heads into a dumpster. The stench moved me on. I crossed over the main street to the other side, taking my weary legs down several sidestreets.
I thought a storm had sprung up, the sky darkened suddenly, people were running everywhere pointing, shouting, covering their mouths with newspapers. Some were running backwards, elbows bent across their faces. I poked my head out from the cool shadows into what I thought was a dust storm. The scene was horrendous like a cloudburst from an atomic bomb. There was a loud crack and a roar in the air I’d never heard before. This time I could see the smoke lathered grey and pink filling Broadway. I watched shoes landing on the pavement, reams of paper haunting the grey-cloud drizzle. I knew I had my mouth wide open. I felt charcoal on my tongue, the full taste of it seeking my lungs. It clotted my hair with an ash fallout. I was inside a nightmare on Canal Street, a strange movie reeling itself away before my eyes. This was not Godzilla trampling and crushing buildings with its enormous footfalls. This was devastation, Bruce Willis’s panic city – no twins – a gaping hole left in the sky. Sirens, alarms, the noise was deafening. People were screaming, crying. They hollered, turning me like a globe to run. I couldn’t move. I could only think of Aunt Vagna and her flower shop near the Trade Centre. The building now full of flames, falling glass, storey after storey crashing into the streets of New York.
New York was falling apart.
Tracks We Leave When We're Busy
Tracks We Leave When We're Busy
Wednesday afternoon, and the ice-cream van melted.
She decided not to catch the bus instead walk to his apartment. It was only two kilometres and she had placed her blue Converse sneakers on slowly, slipping each foot in, tying the laces, and all the while thinking about her final words to him.
In the town centre, her shoes joined a thousand other shoes and were lost. At the corner of Bridge and Maine, when most of the traffic had disappeared, mothers being swallowed by Target or K-Mart, she stopped, slipping her water bottle from her backpack and drinking a third of the way down.
It was past nine-thirty when she arrived at the top of the hill, past the beer factory and the children’s playground. To her left she could see the fishermen assembling their cray pots, freezer trucks backing up and loading. Steam rose from the estuary. It wasn’t morning mist, but a wet haze from the humidity of the night before. Further out, the light shone on the water like a million stars.
She could have stayed there, watching the morning’s activities, a soccer team on the oval, people walking their dogs. Instead, she continued on, her sneakers making a clapping rhythm on the concrete path.
He had taught her the guitar; at first playing a few chords. He was constant in his attention at how she held the instrument close to her body, moving her fingers along the fretwork.
Each day she went to his apartment, it was sex, then the guitar. Sex and guitar. Not even guitar and sex.
Sometimes she just wanted to sit and chat over a cup of coffee, or play with the kitten he’d found in the park. But no! He undressed her slowly at first in the lounge room, led her by the hand to the bed, slipping her undies off with his teeth. One day he did this very act, pouring some yoghurt from a large tub over her bare stomach. He licked the liquid up to her face before smacking his salty lips into hers.
She didn’t like yoghurt.
In the six weeks she spent getting to know him, she never found out what he did for work. Only that he played some nights at the X-Ray Café. Now the band was looking for a drummer.
As she walked down the hill, she could see his upstairs window. It was strangely quiet, not one car in the street. She thought that perhaps being a Thursday the pensioners who lived in the same building must be out shopping or paying their bills.
She crossed to the other side of the street and stood in the shade of a Poinciana. His blue Corolla wasn’t down the side, either. She curled her hand gently around her water bottle, the fingers on her left hand, prickling. She poured water on them to relieve their sting and her sweaty palms.
She knocked on his door three times, but there was no answer, so she walked away.
Back at the house, her father lay sleeping on the couch. She took out the mop, some sponges and a bucket, sloshing water on the floor of the van. A gooey splodge of ice-cream ran down the vending machine, leaving tracks of sticky liquid on the linoleum, under the table, benches, and cupboard edges. She continued cleaning the mess, thinking over her plan to text or phone him the next day. There would be no more visits, no more sex, no more pained hours of practicing his guitar. Certainly, there would be no more yoghurt on her belly, thinking of it as liquid poison.