by Alice Woodrome
On September eleventh, Paul McNally sat on a hotel bed staring at the television. CBS was replaying the footage of passenger jets crashing into the towers of the World Trade Center. The planes tore enormous holes in both buildings, and set them ablaze. He fingered an old silver coin, transfixed before the image of fire and smoke coming from the South Tower where he had been working. His father had given him the Gobrecht dollar “for luck” on his wedding day, just a week before he perished, along with Paul’s mother in an auto accident. Paul had carried the coin with him for eighteen years.
He was still numb. Too numb to try to make sense of what was happening. He walked to the bathroom, filled a glass with water, and drank it with a trembling hand. Paul leaned in, steadying himself against the sink. The face in the mirror wasn’t his. A pale replica. Ever since the first blast, nothing had seemed genuine, as if he’d somehow gotten caught up playing a part in a drama, and he didn't know how to stop it.
Innocuous clouds had dappled the Autumn sky on Paul’s ride to work that morning. His thoughts were focused on Jean’s tirade the night before. Paul had hoped his wife would finally be content when they moved into the new house on Long Island after his promotion, but now she wanted to host fancy parties and take vacations to Europe like their new neighbors. The latest argument had been about hiring a gardener. Not just a man to mow the grass. She wanted a gardener like the Turners, at three hundred a month. And Molly and Grant, they wanted everything the other kids had. There would always be something else. He would never be able to give them enough; he could see that now.
Paul loved his family, but he was miserable. He would like to chuck it all and go away somewhere—away from all the responsibilities—from everyone who wanted a piece of him. But it was a fantasy. The McNallys, catholic to the core, married for life. Kids and responsibilities were inseparable. Paul was stuck. Stuck in a marriage, a family, and a job that was eating him alive.
No sooner had he settled into his office than a tremendous explosion rattled the building and set his heart racing. Paul looked through the floor-to-ceiling window and saw a huge jagged crater in the North Tower. He hurried into the common area of the office where everyone soon gathered, stunned and alarmed by the blast.
Several of his coworkers got on their phones; some speculated about the cause. Others stood staring with bewildered expressions. In less than five minutes, Paul’s secretary, Dena, who had been on her cell, shouted. “Security is saying a plane hit the building.”
“My God, a plane?” Paul said.
“Why would anyone do that?”
“I’m sure it was an accident.”
“How could that happen?”
They all stood, spellbound before the window. They saw people gathering at the edge of the cavernous mouth where smoke billowed out of the North Tower. They watched in horror as several of them jumped to their deaths to escape the heat and smoke. Paul felt detached. He saw it clearly, but his mind couldn't grasp it.
What if it had been his building? The floor his office was on? If he had somehow survived—been out of the office maybe—he would never have to go to work there again. All the stress of a job he hated would be gone.
He immediately felt guilty. How could he wish that on the people with whom he worked? The pressure wouldn’t be over, anyway. Jean would push him to find another job that paid as much. She’d probably even press him to get some sort of settlement. Hours wasted on lawyers, declarations, paperwork, so she could keep up with the neighbors.
Davidson switched on the television and some of Paul’s co-workers turned from the window to watch a live shot of the smoke pouring out of the North Tower.
“Look,” one of his coworkers shouted. “Another plane’s coming. See it?”
They all did. Paul held his breath, his eyes wide. The plane approached. Fast. Too fast. Way too fast.
They felt the violent jolt and the explosion as the plane hit their own building. Lights blinked on and off, windows and light fixtures vibrated. Papers, family pictures, and a couple of the computers slid off desks. The office swayed, then finally stabilized.
“That wasn't an accident!” Davidson shouted. “We’re under attack!”
Erika screamed and started to cry. Everyone was talking at once. Anxious, fearful clamor took over. Word filtered down soon that it had hit a few floors above them.
The boss, Stanley Winship, talked to someone on the phone. People collected items that had been knocked off desks. A few gathered around Sophie, who was having chest pains, frantically looking for the nitro pills she kept in her purse. Others panicked. Shouts. Cries. Several paced or stared out of the window and talked on their cell phones.
Then Winship yelled above the buzz of frightened voices. “Attention everyone. There’s no reason to panic. The fire is several floors up. If we need to evacuate, they'll let us know. Please everyone, try to stay calm while we wait for official word.”
Paul left immediately, surprised that no one left with him. There would be no working the rest of the day, anyway. He wasn't going to stick around like a caged animal waiting to be released. Paul took the stairs when someone in the hallway shouted that the elevators weren’t working.
On the way down the first flight, he wondered if the boss would give him any flack for not wrapping up some things before leaving. There was bound to be a lot of turmoil in the aftermath of the crashes, and the office would likely be closed for a few days at least. Ever since taking the job he loathed, he had looked for every opportunity to get out of the office.
Amid a stream of frightened office workers, he made his way down the winding stairwell, one flight after another. He met several firefighters heading up the stairs. They looked afraid, too, yet they continued up past him and the others. Paul was shaken and confused when he exited the stairwell with weak legs into the mall connecting the World Trade Center complex. Police officers were yelling at people to leave the building. He stumbled twice, running to get out of the area among a crowd of others doing the same. Looking back a few times, he saw debris falling.
Paul was six blocks away when he heard a loud cracking noise, followed by the sound of a dozen thunderbolts rolled together. It rumbled on and on, pushing a biting wind to his back. He turned to see a monstrous debris cloud. Word eventually filtered up through the crowd that the South Tower had just fallen. The cloud of ash came toward him like a living thing, and he ran as fast as he could. It enveloped him. The dust burned his eyes. He coughed, struggling to breathe. He squinted and put the hem of his jacket over his mouth and kept going.
He walked for a long time in a daze, chaos around him, unable to decide what to do next, putting distance between him and the life he had known. He should have called Jean the minute he got out, or before, the way some of his co-workers had. He’d heard them talking to their families on their cell phones—frightened voices speaking of love. Was it because he had been angry at her when he came to work? Was it something more? Instead of calling Jean, he had turned off his phone.
Jean would be worried. The kids would be worried, too, but he put off calling for some nebulous reason, until it was simply too late for an acceptable excuse. How could he explain the delay to his wife? Paul couldn't tell her the truth—the truth that was only now coming into focus. He hadn't called Jean right away because somewhere in the back of his mind, he had wanted time to consider his options.
Paul walked over the Williamsburg Bridge, and then flagged down a cab to take him to Queens—not Long Island. When he checked into a hotel that evening under a fictitious name, he must have known on some level what the probable scenario would be. He hadn't allowed his thoughts to go there—not consciously, until now.
Paul splashed water on his face, grabbed the hotel hand towel, and looked at the mirror again. What was wrong with him that he would let his family think he was dead?
He walked out of the bathroom and sat on the bed again to watch the television screen showing the collapse of the South Tower yet another time. The images on the screen were hypnotizing: a massive cloud of dust gushing out of the building that would have been his grave if he had stayed with his co-workers. Dena, Erika and Davidson. They were surely dead, along with everyone he had worked with for the last eleven months. He should be feeling—something. He wasn’t even afraid. Who knew whether the attack was over or just beginning? Yet Paul could only sit and stare and rotate the silver coin in his hand.
Paul turned off the television. There was so much to think about, but organizing his thoughts was difficult. Everything had a surreal feel to it. His job was gone, that was clear. Without a paycheck what value was he to the family? The pressure of working at a job he hated had been nothing compared to the pressure Jean would apply if he were unemployed. It would never occur to her to find a job and help out. She hadn’t signed on to be a working wife when they married, and wouldn’t take kindly to being pressed into it now. Jean would be understanding at first, but that would wear thin if they couldn’t make the mortgage or pay the kids tuition. The only man who might give him a decent recommendation was likely killed in the blast. Paul was worth more to his family dead than alive, thanks to a sizable life insurance policy. His family would get over the tragedy, and they would get along fine without him. They might even have to pretend to grieve. Eighteen years of trying and failing to give his wife and children what they wanted. It was enough.
Nearly dying put things into perspective. He went to the window and looked down at the street, the flow of traffic. Life was too short to be tied to people who were never satisfied. A dense fog of ash floated in the streams of light from the street lamps below the window.
It would be easy. If he disappeared, no one would question anything. They would assume he died with the others when the South Tower collapsed.
He looked at the 1836 Gobrecht dollar in his hand. According to his father, it was worth at least two thousand dollars when he gave it to him. It would surely fetch enough to get started again some place far away. Parting with his father’s coin would be hard, but it was the only way. He would be a fool to miss this opportunity to start living for himself. Paul had enough cash on him to buy a bus ticket to some town in the middle of the country. Illinois—or maybe Missouri or Iowa. He could find a coin dealer there and get whatever he could, then take a menial job to make ends meet until he could reinvent himself. Maybe he’d find a place close to a river, and when he could afford it, buy a second-hand fourteen-foot aluminum boat with an eighteen-horsepower Evinrude. He’d finally have time to do some fishing again the way he and his dad did before he died. He could relax and read a book if he wanted to, or go to a ball game. There hadn’t been time for any of that for years.
But could he do it? Could he leave his life all behind? His family and friends. Never contact them again? Never go home? But then he didn’t really have a home. Home should be a supportive and nurturing place where your loved ones care about you. His family hadn't been that for years.
Molly was nearly grown and anxious to leave for college—she couldn’t wait to get away from her old man. And Grant avoided him, ashamed of his bourgeois family, but took all he could get.
Paul used to tell Jean he loved her every morning before leaving for work. When she started responding with a smile or a nod, he quit saying it, too. He couldn’t remember the last time they spoke the words, or the last time being with his family felt like being home.
It was decided. In the morning, Paul would leave the rat race behind, and buy a ticket to a new life somewhere in the Midwest.
Sleep didn't come easily that night. He lay in the darkness and remembered the early days of their marriage. Paul had never loved another woman the way he loved Jean. He’d been a happy man during those first few years. It had been fun giving her presents. He would never forget her smile when he brought her flowers for no reason or a piece of jewelry she had admired—until she began to require them. It wasn't that Jean took him for granted. Somewhere along the line she seemed to quit seeing Paul as a person. She acted like he was just a necessary part of the life he provided for her, a part she only tolerated. The kids had been a joy when they were small. He and Jean had spoiled them. They had grown into demanding and ungrateful teenagers who behaved as though they hated him. Maybe they would like him better dead. Maybe Jean would, too. At any rate, there was no turning back. They were not really a family anymore, and perhaps the kindest thing to do for all involved would be to bury the past under the rubble of the towers.
Paul woke the next morning reluctant to leave the hotel. Such a move shouldn’t be rushed. There had been no time to consider all the ramifications of such a momentous change. No time to make arrangements the way one normally would. He dressed and went down to the lobby and came back to the room with a cup of coffee. Paul turned on the television and sat on the unmade bed. He would watch the images one more time, and listen to the rest of New York trying to salvage their lives after the tragedy.
Throngs of anxious people milled the streets near the collapsed towers looking for missing loved ones, commiserating with others whose lives had been devastated. The site of the catastrophe had become a magnet to the families who had lost so much. They looked lost themselves. A newswoman was interviewing people on the streets near the rubble of the Twin Towers; an old man, frantic to learn of his son’s whereabouts. A young woman with a photograph, hoping that someone had seen her brother. They were holding handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses to keep from breathing the smoke and ash still hanging in the air, but the fear in their eyes was unmistakable.
And then Paul saw his own son and daughter—just a glimpse, but they looked terrible—anxious. The reporter was motioning them over, but in the confusion, some man stepped up and the newswoman interviewed him instead. He heard a voice off camera yell “Mom.” It sounded like Grant. Paul froze, squinted at the television, hoping Jean would appear. He wanted to see her one last time. Maybe he would detect something in her eyes or manner that would make what he was doing easier.
After the reporter finished talking with the man, Jean did come on camera. She looked broken—her hair was a mess and her mascara, smudged. The children had called her over to show a photograph of Paul to the camera. She had evidently been stopping people, asking everyone who would look at it if they had seen her husband.
"Why are you down here this morning, Ma'am?" the reporter prompted.
“Because, ah—I mean” Jean stammered. "We have to do something, you know?—even if we don't know what to do.”
Paul saw pain in her eyes. He held his breath and listened to his wife speak.
"My husband worked in the South Tower. We haven't heard from him since the first plane hit the other building.” His wife wiped tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. She opened her mouth to speak, but could not.
"I know it's hard," the reporter said, and hesitated for Jean to compose herself. "Did you have something else you'd like to say?”
Paul’s heart pounded as his wife leaned in to speak into the reporter’s microphone.
“Some family members got to say goodbye to people who worked in the South Tower—over the phone, you know—before the building collapsed. I didn’t get to say good-bye to my husband—I didn’t get to tell him I love him.” She choked back the tears. “I’m so afraid it’s too late.”
Paul sat on the bed and looked at the screen long after his wife and family had resumed their search. His thoughts were far away—remembering his wedding day so many years ago. He saw Jean, dressed in white lace, walking down the aisle toward him. Her hand had trembled when he slipped the ring on her finger, her voice so tender as she pledged her love to him.
He looked at the lucky coin in his hand again, and thought about the coincidence that had just taken place. He had made his decision. Now, Paul wasn’t sure. Could they ever be a family again? He turned the coin over in his hand.
“Heads, I stay—tails, I start over,” he said aloud, and tossed the coin into the air, catching it in his fist. He opened his hand on his left wrist, and uncovered the coin slowly. Tails.
Paul stared at the silver dollar, and realized that he had already made his decision. The moment he’d heard Jean’s words, he had decided to go back where he belonged, to his wife and kids. There were tears in his eyes as he reached for the phone and pressed the number of his wife’s cell.