Robin Messing: When They Were Fire

The first week he was on the Pile, Mort kept changing masks. The dust was so fine that the masks were useless. Now he had a respirator. He was holding it in his arms as he walked the way he’d cradled a toy fire truck everywhere he went as a little boy. His mother’s sister, his beloved Aunt Sarah, the only living survivor of her generation and the only one in the family who had encouraged Mort to become a fireman, insisted that he couldn’t trust what anyone said about the air quality, not even the head of Environmental Protection who had claimed the site safe. Anyone who had spent time on the Pile knew the claim was bullshit. “Those people know nothing,” Sarah had said. “They live like God in Odessa.”

Mort worried he might stumble on the jagged ground littered with smashed fire trucks and helmets, crushed taxis, ambulances, reams of office paper, remnants of the dead, an arm and its hand still holding a set of keys, a finger sporting a wedding band, or a bible fused to steel, its pages flipped to the edict “an eye for an eye.” There were no paths on the Pile, no real right of way. There were makeshift signs: Morgue Only, Exit, Prayer Station, Triage. There was no saving, only finding. Within a lucky arrangement of cement and metal, he might salvage a corpse without having to saw it to shreds.

Walking and thinking helped Mort begin his shift feeling human, before a lifeless stare would descend and he’d survey the severed landscape and not see it. The rhythm and flow of the men walking and working kept Mort’s blood coursing and the feelings at bay. Even before the buildings buckled he’d been an outcast in his life, a traveler through ruins. Maybe that was just history or biology. Didn’t Jews always feel unlike everyone, and more so in a firehouse?

Like most firemen, he arrived early to his shifts. When he was a kid, his mother, Ida, had made curfews, even when he was in high school, and if he didn’t make it home in time, she had a fit and sent him to his room, sometimes without supper. Lateness was linked to catastrophe–the ones she’d known, the ones she feared would come. She railed at lateness and rarely spoke of her troubled past except for recounting the sound of thunderous gunshots and her father’s body hitting the floor, felled by the Russian Petlura. Before answering the bandits’ knock at the door, her father, Yehudah, had gathered his wife and three daughters into bed, pulled the covers to their necks and whispered, shiver. Before his enemies lifted their weapons, Yehudah uttered one word: typhus. The Petlura, fearing the plague, never entered the bedroom, although the discharge of their pistols resounded in Ida’s ears.

Mort walked the pile, poised at the door that his grandfather had opened. He knew he had to step through and find something new on the far side.

He’d had the day off when the planes hit. The roads were blocked when he tried to make it to the scene. He’d lost three men from his house. The rest survived in an air pocket of debris, making Mayday calls until a rescue team found them four hours later. Mort counted the dead he had known. Even for an introvert like him he knew nearly forty. He had never talked to the dead before, but at the Pile he did. There was no god, only chance, and luck had left him an undertaker.

Mort felt good at the pit. He felt safe. He didn’t want to go home. Yet every night he did. Some cops and firemen slept on cots even when their shifts were done. The mental torture was worse when Mort left and tried to rest: a constant fear of falling—down a flight of stairs, from an open window, from a roof. Confusion. Insignificance. The rotting flesh and jet fuel stench seeped into his skin, the pervasive flavor of metal and gypsum.

There were few places where Mort felt dwarfed. Here at the Pile he did. There was nothing his large body could topple that hadn’t already been leveled. A night of erratic sleep hadn’t lifted his exhaustion. He’d heard that one of the cops had been in a car accident the evening before, asleep at the wheel. Mort promised to pinch himself if he felt his lids drift.

He liked the movement, the mission, the men trudging past him in hard hats and helmets. He nodded and didn’t meet their eyes. He looked at his feet, afraid to make a misstep. The worst thing would be to trip. Foolish when the real danger was in the catacombs of steel and the underground tunnels that he had to spray paint his way through in case he needed rescue. When he was a child, stillness was frightening, the calm before a storm, the retreat of his father as if he’d disappeared in his own home, maybe never to surface.

One klaxon blast meant silence; three, evacuate. The alerts made him jerk. He was always prepared. He looked right and left, only as high up as the mountains of refuse, as if, like the towers themselves, they could crumble and race toward him. Work went round the clock–wrecking balls, excavators, chain saws, dozers, bucket trucks and bucket lines, commands blasted from bullhorns. At night there were stadium lights. Hushes came in waves when remains had been found, followed by calls for a body bag. He’d held a few. They’d felt light. Sometimes the lightness hurt almost as much as it had hurt to hold his dying newborn. Sometimes the indecency was numbing. When remnants were suspected to belong to a service member, rescuers draped the bag in a flag. Mort had told his wife: Never bind me in the stars and stripes.

He walked past a pile of crushed cars and a fire truck. The area was taped to safe-keep plane remnants strewn through the heap. Someone had shined that truck, maybe the morning of the attack. Simonizing the engine was Mort’s favorite task; the men teased him for making the truck showroom pretty. That guy who had shined the truck was probably dead now, he thought. Making that truck glimmer might have been his last happiness.

Mort hadn’t yet lifted a shovel, a bucket, a knife, or a rag, and already his clothes were dank and dusty. Walking kicked up little clouds of shit and that shit coated everything. Most nights, Mort chucked his clothes in a dumpster. Sometimes his wife, Karen, shook them out the window and pitched them in the washing machine with extra detergent and two wash cycles. He took a shower, he shaved, the rituals of a day reversed. Karen’s solemn and softened face became an opening. For too long she’d seemed present and distant at once, a conundrum he hadn’t directly addressed. He collapsed on the couch and into her arms. He sobbed. She comforted him like the child they had hoped for who had died soon after birth.

He surveyed the monochromatic mountains and the men scaling them or balanced on their inclines. Who would have thought the buildings would tumble? Things had happened that had never happened before though their flavor was familiar. He’d never even been inside the buildings. He refused to be a tourist in his own city. The businesses the buildings had housed hadn’t been his realm. The towers had fallen inward, not like his kindergarten blocks that had sprawled across the floor, shooting under tables when the class bully knocked down Mort’s tall structures. He remembered the humiliation so many years later. Even at age five, he’d seen enough violence at home to be paralyzed by each of the boy’s assaults. He would move to another corner of the room to start again. Now he wouldn’t let a fucker get away with that. Still, calls for revenge for the towers agitated him. He knew where it could lead—senseless death, Vietnam all over again. That war had sent his life on a detour he could have lived without. A few days after the attack, the president had shown up to proclaim that the people who knocked down the towers would hear from us soon. Mort had shaken his head. Here we go again, he’d thought, get the fuck out of here and let us do our job.

Before crossing the road, Mort lingered by the stilled escalator leading to an underground shopping mall. He hadn’t been down there, but he’d heard some stores were still intact. The stores had been looted–likely by responders. It must’ve been the cops, Mort joked to his brothers, and they’d all nodded. Across the road, Battery Park was in better shape. Whenever he glanced that way, Mort saw the fireman who’d been the first fatality. That’s where the man had stood, a football player, a big guy like Mort, as jumpers fell from the towers on the far side of the road. Some just stepped out and sank; others flew on the wind. One veered toward the fireman, whistling like a bomb. A foot clipped the fireman’s head and he went down. His brothers tried to revive him. The time they’d taken to tend to him had saved them from entering the building before the collapse. Only Superman, the hero of Mort’s youth, could have averted that death, he thought—zooming in like a hawk, sweeping the man into his arms, flying off. Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Two Jews had invented Superman. Their parents had been immigrants too. In the comic strip, Superman’s name was Kal-El, Hebrew for “Voice of God.” Mort thought those men might have wished, like him, to alter the course of their parents’ painful displacement, yet all they could do was imagine a superhero that had the power to reverse their fates.

He avoided the morgue, but not the dogs. He envied the handlers. A fireman on his knees caressing a canine entranced him. The beast licked the man’s face. It wasn’t a human but a dog that had found the last living person, and like people, dogs got depressed once they couldn’t locate anyone. Mort had seen dogs dig furiously when they picked up a victim’s scent. The excitement of those dogs broke his heart. The handlers staged “mock finds” to keep the dogs’ spirits lifted. Firemen hid in the rubble until the dogs discovered them. As he watched the animal slobber the fireman’s face, he made a mental note: Get a dog.

He picked up speed crossing the highway to Battery Park where different bands of workers each found their private place to congregate the way students had segregated by race and political affiliation in his Brooklyn College cafeteria. There he found his firehouse brother, Darius—medic, carpenter, weightlifter. Mort looked for a glint in Darius’ exhausted glance, but in his eyes there was nothing from which he could extract extra solace. Darius was having none of that.

 “Nice weather we’re having,” Darius said.

 “Cloudy with a chance of meatballs,” Mort said. The retort was the title of a children’s book he’d repeatedly read to his young niece, Ruth. Now she was too grown to remember. She’d called him the night of the attack, to hear his voice, she’d said. He could tell she was shook.

“You feelin all right?” Darius said, a knife-edge in the syllabic stresses, a tinge of indictment in their daily ritual.

“I’m feelin all right,” Mort said as if his retort were a threat.

“You look like shit,” Darius said.

“Shouldn’t you be in church?”

Faux animosity was a cap on sadness that could ruin a day’s work. In their netherworld, rage trumped grief.

“This is church, mutha fucker,” Darius said. 

There would be a prayer service later in the day at Yankee Stadium, the last place Mort wanted to show up.

Together Mort and Darius crossed the cordoned-off road to start their shift. The skeleton of what had been a retaining wall loomed before them, and light seeped through its slats, a pile of refuse raised like an altar before it, the sky turquoise, though the men rarely looked up. Mort welcomed the fact that Darius shared his belief that silence, very often, was a sedative. Sometimes in that silence Mort felt a longing to hear the terrible stories his father had never spoken.




 Read More