The pistol's in my mouth, my finger's on the trigger and I realize I like the taste of the barrel! Tastes like a battery. It's not that it's tasty; I just don't remember a time I lived without it. I don't know how I'd live without it.
You're not alone, sir.
I'm focusing on my routine as you recommended. I revised the Pentagon fire codes this week. I keep up with my paperwork, God all that paper, reams and reams of it, too much clutter. I'm the military's number one fireman, United States Army Fire Chief, and I consume trees like a damned forest fire.
It's a necessary function of your position, unfortunately. We all have paperwork. But focus on the positives. You're making great headway. 'Focusing' That's a promising word. Berning tapped the marbled pen on his pad for emphasis. The pad had two sentences on it: --You're not dwelling on your depression anymore, and that will promote healing. --You fell into your funk only a few months ago and already you're pulling out of it.
I've been depressed for years. This is just the year I go nuts. Twenty-thirty-one.
The body always heals stronger than it was. The brain is like a knife, honed by service and experience.
I think you've said that before. You can't do that Berning. Don't use the same tactic twice or you become predictable. Courtland popped his right index knuckle. The fingers were slender like cable. His pinky and ring finger were missing. It's boggling, the nasty shit that's come down 'cause someone got predictable. You say, "like a knife honed through years of experience." What a load of crap even if it is true.
You gotta be subtle. Tell 'em I want such and such, and they say yeah okay, and then you just take what you really want or destroy what you don't want and they don't know what the hell happened. What's ironic, Berning, is being subtle has zero to do with fighting fires. A fire just consumes fuel and moves on. It eats! No tactics. Whaddaya gonna do? All you can do is suffocate it or starve it, and hope the weather cooperates. Courtland clenched the arms of his dark leather recliner. God I love these chairs.
Comfort and safety are good psychiatric healers.
Courtland unclipped the gold-plated pen from his breast pocket and ran the mouth across his trousers' olive weave. You know who gave me this pen? President Colin Powell. It's a pen made out of the Trade Center steel. They made a pen for each survivor, ten in all. Francis says it's worth good money. The day Powell gave me this pen was probably the best of my life, because I knew I was a survivor.
What a wonderful story. Cherish it.
Courtland dug at the weave. I don't like the story. It's a fairy tale that's disgusting. Just because I'm still alive and have a fancy pen doesn't mean I can't be all pissed off and mopey. That's my right.
Sir, you can be as angry or depressed as you want. Go apeshit. But your performance as the military's fire chief is the real issue. You are the best firefighter in the nation. That's why you're the chief.
I'm not the best anymore.
You're just sick right now. You're still the best. Can I ask you a hard question?
Why couldn't you lead your crews in Idaho?
I don't know. I'm old now.
Six months ago you directed the National Guard in Montana. Before that it was Washington. You led well. Then Idaho happened.
You gotta have a fiasco sometime.
You know that's not true.
I don't know. In your profession you can't have a fiasco. Firefighters die. You learned that in Idaho.
No shit. I don't know. I'm just getting old.
Sixty-three is middle age nowadays.
Not everyone lives to be one hundred twenty, even with all the drugs nowadays. Here, I got a story to tell. I think it was twenty-oh-nine or somewhere around there, and I heard they quit makin' my favorite beer. Samuel Adams Dark Original, the blackest stuff and it tasted real mashy and thick. I drove to the Safeway that same day and bought one hundred seventy-five cases of it. One hundred seventy-five! All they had. The liquor store van needed four trips to get it to my apartment. I stacked those brown boxes all over the apartment. I had to put some in the bathtub! I'm getting a drink. Courtland walked to Berning's desk, where a steel pitcher sat. The carpet was thick and patterned with brown and red Army seals. The air was warm and clean. Courtland poured water into a tall glass. Beads of water streaked the pitcher's surface and dripped on Berning's hardwood desk. God that's good water. The cleaner the better. I get thirsty too much. Damn beer got drunk eventually. I bought a ton of beer, but it still didn't last. Maybe I drank it too fast. I liked the stuff back then. Not so much now.
The key is to accept inevitability. It can't exist anymore. And there's a lot more beer in the world.
I know that, but that doesn't mean I can't pine for it. It doesn't mean I can't wish it back.
Major Courtland, what is the wish you want most?
Courtland pointed at Berning with his old finger. I ask that a lot. I want the World Trade Center back. I want the world before the Trade Center was hammered down. I want overpriced stocks and freedom up the wazoo. We had real peace! Peace is back in America, of course, but it's not what it was. I want that wacky, Nineties American peace. I want the people alive. They didn't do anything, they were just working, trading or speculating or whatever they do. The Trade Center was a city in itself, with fitness centers and even a cafeteria like at a school or a prison. My hometown was twenty-five thousand strong. The Trade Center was twice that. Courtland propped his head on his fist. September eleventh, two thousand one. As a firefighter I can tell you, God those fires burned. The fires burned even ten stories underground, where the building had compacted. Hardly any air down there, but the jet fuel slimed everything and the fires burned despite no air. That was the damnedest thing. Fire, burning, with no air. I heard it burn. It followed the air. In the tunnel I tried to remember life before. It was tough. Catastrophes erase your good memories. I don't remember shit anymore.
Sir. That week should never have happened but we can't change it. All I can say is I'm sorry, and I hope you will bury your frustration and hatred. Everything leaves us in time. We can spend our lives either wishing for mothers and brothers and lost stock dividends, or savoring the peace we've found. Speaking of things to savor, Robin says you're going to be a grandfather again.
Yup, I hope it's a boy this time. Girls and I don't get along. Courtland longed to understand little girls and their slanted hopes. I was the only survivor to dive into Ground Zero and excavate afterward. There was meat carved like people. Guts and blood everywhere. Smashed brains. It looks like mud when it's baked by the sun. Hands and feet. Smears of blood as if torsos were crayons. And I visualize the people quaking in the smoke and when the steel and concrete fell it must have cut through their bones by the weight of it. Like cutting yourself with a bowling ball. It's not cutting, just pulverizing until the body loses cohesion. I don't know why I'm blubbering now and not thirty years ago. I guess I'm older. I don't give a shit I'm a weakling. Is it too much to wish that the Trade Center never fell?
Why wish a wish that will not come true?
Because of its gravity. It holds me to it. It's like a lottery jackpot. If I could win it for America it would be the greatest gift I could ever give. The towers are rebuilt exactly as they were. America's freedom is firmly lodged in the wazoo again. Pliers couldn't pull it out. Berning, do I really wish for so much?
I believe so.
Courtland peeled a fleck of skin from his cuticle and laid it on his tongue. I have to wish for it. It's like the biggest jackpot ever. Billions of dollars, literally.
We should change the subject. Describe for me your routine. Describe the difficulties you're facing.
That routine's like a plastic sack over my head. It's like I breathe and breathe and I'm going to die.
(Jeremy Schultz lives in Iowa. Written in September, "Another Tower" is his first contribution to the magazine. Website: jeremyschultz.com)