An excerpt from “A Raving Autumn” – a soon-to-be released new novel by Larry Kirwan
They lapsed into silence until they were on the BQE and heading beneath Brooklyn Heights. Manhattan still gleamed across the harbor but he didn’t look anymore. He’d had enough of mirages.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” she said.
For once she misread him and took his silence for assent. “What were you doing that
day?”What a question, as if there was some simple way of encapsulating a catastrophe into mere words! And still he tried.
“I was going through something…” He began.
She waited, aware of her transgression, upset that she’d crossed a line she’d sworn not to. It was the first time a silence had ever soured between them. She was deeply relieved when he continued.
“I had gone into town early to look for… someone… to sort out a matter. I had said something that I didn’t mean in a fit of anger. I wanted to clear the air – make everything all right.” He seemed lost in thought for a moment, as if searching for the right tone before continuing.
“It was such a beautiful day. Even now I can almost touch it – the very texture, the feel. You get an occasional day like it at the end of summer and it all comes flooding back – the sky a tent of blue, the air crystal clear with the slightest hint of coolness, that particular New York it’s-good-to-be-alive feeling, the whole nine yards. I felt certain I could fix everything between us, me and the party I was looking for, that I’d spoken out of line but that I could explain. Jesus, I even remember the song I was humming – Marley’s Three Little Birds – strange isn’t it, a reggae soundtrack to a day like that?
I’d stopped by Midtown North – I’d been on the job there most of my life. I remember exactly where I was standing when I heard the first plane – it seemed to pass right overhead. Then the thud – not like in the movies with a screech of metal and glass – more like a distant sledgehammer hitting concrete. I don’t know why, but I could tell what had happened straight away – just didn’t think of the ramifications – the personal ones, like. I was off-duty but I was a cop so I jumped into action. I knew what I had to do in an emergency. Totally forgot about what I’d come to town for in the first place.
I was almost down there when the second plane hit and we knew it was a lot worse than we’d imagined. What everyone forgets now is that we were expecting a third and a fourth. How were we to know any different? All we could think was – were the tunnels okay, who was guarding the bridges? Everything was a mess. How could they have hit us like that? Where was the goddamn air force? Billions on defense and here we were ripped apart like some big fat tin can. What was coming next? You know how it is, you get caught up in the moment. Then we heard about all the Fire guys going down in the first building because they didn’t have the proper communication and everyone was pissed. What the hell was the mayor thinking of? Where was the president? How come he wasn’t on television rallying the country?
But in the midst of all that, it struck me – Jesus Christ, Kevin’s in Fire. I didn’t have a cell phone back then; a lot of communication was down but I pulled rank and found out that his company was out of harm’s way. They were in the area, but safe – helping people move above Canal Street. So I got word out to Aggie that he was fine.
She just kept saying, ‘I know he’s okay, thank God. But where’s Brian?’
Funny, I hadn’t even thought of him. So I checked his office. They said he was off-duty. Then I got through to Rosie and she hadn’t heard from him. Straight away I knew something was wrong. I put out the word for him – no one knew anything – they kept saying, ‘there’s cops and Fire missing all over town. Got to wait until the dust settles.’
I knew he’d be down there – just felt it in my gut. He was always at the center of things. You couldn’t keep him out. Oddly enough, that gave me hope. When I got down it was all smoke and dust like a great big fucking ploughed up tomb, guys were already digging and clawing at big steel beams and mountains of rock and rubble. I was like a wild man screaming, ‘Have you seen Brian Murphy?’ But no one paid attention – they were all looking for their own people. And then I ran into a Port Authority Cop who said he’d heard Brian had helped get a group of people out and that he was okay, and that I should get my ass out of there, the street was about to collapse.
But I didn’t believe him, I couldn’t. I kept searching and asking and it was all chaos and everyone else was running around searching and asking. And then I saw a Fire guy that I knew from Long Beach, son of my buddy Ernie O’Malley. He was sitting on a slab of concrete and when he saw me coming he turned away; he was crying and I asked him what for? Took him a long time before he said Fr. Mike Judge had taken a hit. Then he wouldn’t talk to me anymore and I knew in my heart of hearts that he just didn’t want to tell me. So I started digging and clawing with the others and I couldn’t think straight because I was screaming and crying like everyone else. And there was clouds of smoke and dust and little fires breaking out everywhere and you couldn’t see for minutes on end, and then it cleared around us for a few seconds and I saw that Port Authority cop passing by again and I raced after him and asked him how he knew that Brian was okay, and he said he’d seen him with Johnnie Maloney inside. So I said, ‘Where’s Maloney?’
‘Where do you think?’ He lifted an imaginary drink to his mouth.
And I said, ‘Fucking asshole!’
And he came right back at me, ‘What are you cursing at me for? I’m just telling you what I know.’
But I’d meant Maloney. And I knew exactly where he’d be – in one of two bars a couple of blocks away. The first was closed but I saw myself in the window – all covered in grime and that awful white film of dust, eyes blazing like some maniac. I’d never seen myself like that before and it scared the hell out of me. I found the bastard outside the second joint. The bartender was locking it up, taking away the cash and a load of bank statements. And Maloney was already half-gone from the shock and the instant booze. I shook that bastard ‘til he nearly fell apart. And he was crying and slobbering that Brian had led seven people out of the joint but had gone back in and then the whole show came down on top of him. And I was screaming at him that the Port Authority cop had seen them together and that he was lying and he’d better come clean. But he just kept crying and shaking his head, so I threw him the hell away from me.
I ran back down, but they wouldn’t let me through. And I was roaring at them that I was a cop, and then I was pleading, but they were afraid of the foundation giving under. Eventually a medic led me over to a doorway, got me to sit down and gave me some water and I began to think. What do I do now? And after a while my training took over and I walked and ran and hitchhiked back uptown, pulled rank again and got a lift out to Rockaway. The phones had all broken down and I didn’t know whether to go to our house or Rosie’s first but ours was closest.
Aggie already knew. No one had told her. She was up in our room. The blinds were drawn against the beautiful day and she was sitting on the side of the bed just staring at the wall. She didn’t say anything. Not a word. That room was so quiet. It was like the birds would never sing again. The tears and the breakdown would come later. But I hope to God I never hear quietness like that again.”