Try to Catch Her Smiling

Jon Doyle

Did you know that 3,051 children lost parents during the attacks on the Twin Towers? That only 291 bodies were recovered intact. Me neither, but then I guess that’s why we’re walking with this tour guide here alongside German people and Japanese people and this one couple from rural Canada who are wearing matching sweaters. I’ve never been to New York City before and neither has my daughter so while we walk and take in the facts we look up at the huge buildings. Wow looks at these huge buildings Maggie says, and I do look, and they are huge.

Over $100m worth of art was lost in the collapse, the tour guide says. Work by Lichtenstein, Picasso and Hockney.

The tour guide is a woman in her sixties with bleached blonde hair and a sunny disposition. She wears a nametag that reads AURORA. There were tours that focused on the fire department and tours that focused on the police and even a tour about the conspiracy theories, jet fuel and steel beams, but when we saw this woman at the booth we thought okay, yeah, why not?

I guess we’ve ended up on the tour of facts.

Did you know they sorted through a one million tons of debris looking for people and things? Aurora did. They found four hundred and thirty-seven watches, one hundred and forty-four wedding rings. It took firefighters one hundred days to put out every fire.

Maggie’s in a wheelchair because she has this thing with her legs. I asked at the desk if it would be okay for her and Aurora said Honey, don’t you worry about that. She started printing two tickets and I’ll be honest; I was kind was worried. I was worried about whole thing. Maybe the death and the violence weren’t suitable for Maggie at all and she wasn’t even born when it happened but the tickets were printing, and I guess if you’re going to shield a kid from 9/11 then you’re going to be shielding them from a whole bunch of things.

Aurora gave out headpieces at the start in case we needed translation. She gave out a few tablets too because apparently there is a Video Experience at the end of the tour. Aurora seems excited about that, so I guess we’re excited too. You can get it on your phones she says, but the bigger the screen the better.

The most searched terms in the week following the attack were, in descending order, Nostradamus, CNN, The World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden.

Maggie has this thing with her heart. It’s an unrelated thing to the thing with her legs but then again maybe it’s not. If I’ve learnt anything since having her it’s that some people just get this stuff. They have these things with their legs and these things with their hearts and these things with their eyes and lungs and teeth and there’s no link behind it, not medically speaking. Like God just took one look and them and made a decision. Like he thought, this one can bear a little more than most.

We’re in New York City because lots of people were kind to us and paid for it. Maggie needed expert care on account of her heart and experts cost a ton. People said why don’t you set up a crowdfunding page, so I did, and people said why don’t you write out your story, so I did that too. Take pictures of Maggie, people said. Try to catch her smiling. The donations were slow at first but then they picked up and then Maggie lost her two front teeth and I took some more photos. When the Celebrity shared the page, we had more than we ever needed.

The businessman and property developer Larry Silverstein bought a ninety-nine-year lease on the World Trade Center for over $3 billion six months before the planes hit the towers and the towers fell down.

People said Maggie should make a bucket list which I didn’t like because that’s what dying people do, but then she said she wanted to go to New York and people said hell yes girl we’ll pay for that. We got as far as the airport, to that bit where they take your bags and print your tickets, and I got worried. I suddenly had this crazy idea that the bucket list makes you die faster, like you’re using up your life more quickly than you ought to, but that’s crazy and the tickets were printing by then in any case.

Maggie says I always take her to the coolest, strangest places and I’m proud of that but here it’s like the imagination drained from me. I bet there’s tons of cool strange places in New York City, but we didn’t go to them. We went to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and now we’re seeing where the towers fell down.

Maybe it’s something to do with the trip being on other people’s money, like we had to prove we went to New York City, the Big Apple, the Wonderful Town.

When I push Maggie’s chair over bumpy ground, she sometimes opens her mouth and goes aahhhh so that her voice goes all wobbly. When we reach Ground Zero it doesn’t look like I thought it might. There are people everywhere and other tour guides talking through microphones and cameras going off and my head starts to spin. Is this it? I think, because it doesn’t look big enough to have hosted what I know it hosted and the paving stones under our feet are pristine. Maggie goes aahhhh but it comes out pure as a bell.

Okay okay gather round Aurora says. The Japanese family make a big deal of getting out of our way, nodding, and smiling and waving us through so I can wheel Maggie right up front. The couple who I thought were Canadian are actually Australian and have a giant novelty bag of M&Ms and they let Maggie plunge her little paws right in. They offer me the bag too and it turns out they are all different flavours, peanut butter and coconut and mint. Aurora clears her throat and we listen carefully.

What they’ve done now she says is put these plunge pools in the footprints of the towers. She says this is meant to signify their absence. In the middle of the pools are smaller pools known as The Void, Aurora says. She says that you can never see the bottom of The Void. The walls all around are carved with the names of the people who died, and Aurora says that’s to signify their absence too. The names aren’t in any order, but the names of people close in life are kept close on the wall. They call this Meaningful Adjacencies, Aurora says. Meaningful Adjacencies might be to do with family or friendships or maybe even the company where they worked. There were over four hundred and thirty companies from twenty-eight countries in the towers, so there are plenty of adjacencies to go around.

Aurora tells us to get the tablets out and we watch a video. A kind of supercut of morning news shows where presenters make small talk about the weather and seem generally pleased to be alive and then the reports begin to filter through. At first, they think it might be an accident because okay there’s a fire but it’s a sunny day in New York City. Then there’s talk of a plane but planes come in many shapes and sizes so it’s probably a tiny thing, right? They have very little information right now but apparently; it’s a plane and they start rolling footage and eyewitnesses call in. One says it was a small plane that bounced, and one says it sounded like a missile and that he doesn’t want to cause undue speculation, but it sounded like a missile. 

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, aka NORAD, simulated four hijackings in the week prior to 9/11, Aurora tells us. A fifth was scheduled on the morning of the attacks.

They’re talking to another eyewitness now on ABC and as he’s speaking the live pictures are rolling and oh my god another one. You can hear the crew gasping off camera and the guy is yammering about an explosion and the old guy anchor takes over saying he saw another plane and then we’re on CBS and the same thing happens all over again.

It feels kind of like the conclusion of a long drawn out scam, when the truth of everything you thought you knew is revealed to you with a bow on top and it becomes abundantly clear for one pristine moment that you’ve lost.

Fox is zoomed in on the first tower, but you hear the people going oh god Jesus Christ and an orange cloud cuts into the corner of the frame and billows to black.

After the video has finished a woman is waiting for us. She holds her purse by the strap and keeps on fiddling with things when Aurora introduces her. When she speaks it sounds like she’s reading from a teleprompter. She starts with the details like how she was on the 68th floor of the north tower and how the stairwell was dark and how all the pipes had spilt meaning it was raining indoors. Then she says that she thinks about it every day especially bright fall mornings when the air smells just so.

Aurora thanks the woman and starts to say something else but then the woman is speaking again, louder this time and in a more desperate rhythm. People forget the dust, she says. The ashes of printer paper and polyester suits. She’s speaking like there’s a bunch of guys dragging her away and she’s got to get the most important part in. The dust she says the dust was like sand. Like sand drifting across a desert and out over our streets.

Three hours before the attacks, Aurora says, a machine called a Random Event Generator run by the nerds at Princeton University predicted something big was about to happen. I’ll admit that this one sounds off to me, so I get out my phone and tap it in and this page called ‘21 awful truths about 9/11’ from the British Telegraph comes up. It turns out Aurora has been reading from it all along. I read ahead and find out that after the attacks the US set up a thing called the Department of Homeland Security which I guess I knew already. The Department of Homeland Security was basically like America cutting formalities and digging a trench. When you really stop and think about it Homeland Security sounds like something from a TV show where people have microchips in their eyes and the government is fascist now but I guess you can make anything sound weird if you think about it for too long.

The woman is still talking about the ash and sand and Aurora just looks at her smiling and sort of angling her body like a news anchor who knows their guest is overrunning. But the woman doesn’t take the hint. She just keeps on talking. She says she struggles with loud noises and planes in particular now like when they’re on take-off and landing but also when they’re just cruising overhead. She says she only came back here once before today, when they were building the new World Trade Center, and maybe it was the scaffolding or maybe the tarps but the wind whistled through something there and it sounded like the whole thing was crying.

It took a while to diagnose the thing with Maggie’s legs because for a long time she just said mommy it hurts and when I asked where she couldn’t say. The doctors talk like they are trying to make her feel bad about that, but can we always know exactly where we’re hurting every time we hurt?

When supposed ringleader Mohamed Atta checked in at Logan Airport in Boston this Telegraph list says his name tripped a security alert and they took his bags for extra scanning but let him through. I don’t know if his name was on some sort of register or if that’s just something Arabic names can do, and you’ve got to wonder why he was taking a bag with him in the first place. I think about how maybe the person on the desk saw the light flashing and thought uh oh what’s this, but then looked at the man before them in his neat blue shirt and pressed slacks and thought geez give the man a break already.

Okay sir come on through.

I think about Atta too, about whether he got any worries or crazy ideas when he was standing at the desk like how this terrorism stuff makes you die faster. About how he might be using up his life more quickly than he ought to no matter how much he believed in his God but then he’d come all that way and there were others in the plan too and the tickets were printing now in any case.


Author Bio

Jon Doyle has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University and a PhD from Swansea University. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares online, Hobart, HAD, Short Fiction, Barren Magazine, Coachella Review and other places. He is represented by Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency.