A (Last) Day in the Life


Do wake me up when
September ends
 … Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden […] where 135,000 people died as the result of an air attack with conventional weapons….
 So it goes.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five.


6.33 am: The soft, mellow female voice in the digital radio announced the dawn of a new day at the precise moment when the sun arose. Yesterday, it had been at 6.32 am. Today, the day would be at least one minute shorter; and then there was the two or three minutes he –and the rest of New York– would lose at sunset. Soon, he would have to change the setting of the alarm clock, from ‘sunrise’ to a specific time (‘6.30 am’), to allow for his daily routine.

Zachary Mitkowsky already had his eyes open when the delicate female whisper –barely audible over the jaunty Gershwin melody he had chosen as background music– softly broadcasted the first news of the day to his ear: the sun has risen. The gentle clapping of his hands automatically switched on the light regulator –an inverted dimmer– which hastily but progressively raised the electric lights in his pitch-dark bedroom. It was a childish gadget but it had come with the apartment, and he kind of liked it, anyway. He jumped out of bed, opened wide the rolling curtains that covered the large window, slid the glass pane towards his far side, let in some fresh air, leaned out, turned his head to the right, had the first peek of the day of his beloved park. Refreshing.


6.45 am: Time for your run, athlete. The mellow intonation of the female digital voice was sharper without the contrasting musical overlap. There were forty-eight different vocal options stored in the small artefact, half of which were female. Zach had tried them all the day he returned from the corporate Christmas dinner –or whatever it was they called it, nowadays– last December, with a couple of whiskeys too many, and a wrapped surprise present under his arm: he had refused to open it in public to avoid any unfavourable reaction, any unnecessary confrontation. As soon as he heard the kind, delicate tone of option seven, he knew there was no point in listening to the remaining forty-one candidates. But he had done, anyway; just for the sake of it; just for the sake of equal opportunity. By the end of the evening –of the selection process–, option number seven had been set up as his morning call for the next day. He hadn’t changed it since.

He tied up the laces of his sneakers –the ones Andy Roddick had used in the US Open, with the inflatable airbags, the adjustable side panels– tightly, with a double bow; he had the last bite of his banana, the last gulp of his energy drink; set off down the two flights of stairs, leaving behind the squeaky trail of his rubber soles sticking to the polished granite floor. Zach’s jogging was invigorated by the sight of the Park. Once past the gates, he ran along the lake, through Park Drive South, onto Olmstead Drive and back towards The Terrace. The final push always –purposely– left him out of breath. He rested his hands on his knees, panting, gasping for air as he looked out, over the trees, towards the city, waking up to the buzzing tune of his heartbeat. No matter what the day had in store for him, this was almost certain to be the highlight of the next twenty-four hours, when he would again find himself among the reddened leaves, the chirpy birds, the morning dew.


7.28 am: The front door smoothly –silently– slid shut.  Zach had –he knew– two spare minutes. He removed his clothes gently (with no hurry), re-hydrated himself with plain, mineral water. Two wayward drops escaped the glass, landed on the unopened envelopes from yesterday’s post. Problems hadn’t yet taken possession of Zach’s mind, until the name of Jim Hawkins crawled into his consciousness, troubled his perfect life. At least 100 seconds had gone by, still no sign of his favourite friend. The vibrating silent alarm on his satellite watch went off exactly at 7.30 am: three correlated, independent signals from outer space synchronised his watch hourly. The clock on the digital radio cannot, really, be trusted. But she is adorable, that soft, caring voice.


7.31 am: You made it back home, tiger. Come have a shower. Zach was already in his bathroom, caressing his bristly cheeks with the throbbing tingle of the three interlocking circular blades of his electric razor, when he heard the sweet prompting of the latest of twelve reminders he had saved on what was quickly becoming his most intimate acquaintance. He had only discovered the particular allure of the machine’s garrulous r since he programmed this announcement. He loved the way that mellow whisper turned sensual when it said ‘tigerr’. It reminded him a little of Lauren Bacall’s provocative accent in her early films with Humphrey Bogart –To Have and Have Not, maybe The Big Sleep. Not that he was a particularly big fan of Lauren Bacall. On the contrary, what most appealed about the voice was its impersonality: the fact that it seemed at once so human, and yet so different to anyone in particular; the fact that it lacked a face. Until it uttered the sensual ‘tigerr’, that was. But then, that sudden, partial recognition only made it more intriguing, even more sensual.

Zach took a close look at his smooth face in the magnifying mirror. Content with the thoroughness of his morning shave, he bathed his hands in a fountain of scent, splashed the dripping excess on his aggravated facial pores. He can keep his freaking car, if he wants to. I never use it, anyway. He slapped his square jaw bone repeatedly, adopting the congratulatory gesture of an older mentor upon his achieving apprentice, more to enliven the high image he had of himself than to tame the slight sting –grown ordinary with routine– of the aftershave on his skin. Besides, what’s a couple of months in a forty-eight month contract? His reflection in the mirror still spoke to him, when Zach got under the electric showerhead.


7.57 am: Zach stood in front of the mirror –hair gelled into tiny, perfect spikes–, wearing his usual Tuesday outfit –uniform: light blue shirt, dark grey suit, black shoes. He had chosen an audacious yellow silk tie for the day, was crafting the knot around his neck, when the landline rung. The phone, in fact, didn’t ring: it announced in a terse –cybernetic– voice a call for Mr. Mitkowsky. I’m so glad I caught you. Zach was always, every day of his life, at home before 8.00 am. I know you’re going through a rough patch. The last thing you need right now is me demanding things from you. Mary Anne’s apologies were always so much worse than her arguing. She would sound so patronising, so pathetic. Zach had kept a relatively stable, long distance relationship (Mary Anne lived in Boston) for over a year, but things had got particularly tense of late –during Zach’s ‘rough patch’– not least due to her insistence to move in together in either one of the cities. I’ll go see ma for a bit and when I get back things will be better, you’ll see. ‘Ma’, of course, lived in L.A., and going to se her ‘for a bit’ inevitably entailed a bitter-sweet fortnight of childhood melancholy and familial annoyance that never failed to exasperate. Basically, her call amounted to Mary Anne’s equivalent of a cordial, temporary truce –what lovers call ‘a bit of time’. I really have to go, Zachary. The plane is starting to move now. Mary Anne’s piercing voice reverberated in Zach’s room long after he had put down the earpiece, loading the air he breathed with the uncomfortable weight of an unsolved affair, an unattended issue.


7.59 am: Zach disguised his rage from himself, but, in fact, Mary Anne’s call had sent his temper through the roof. He once again stood in front of the mirror, doing his tie, when the digital radio let him know it’s time to go, Zach. The machine’s short, clipped pronunciation of the a in ‘Zach’ reminded him of Mary Anne’s formal ‘Zachary’, drew a sneer of contempt from his thin lips. The emotion showed on the tightened top of the knot of his tie. He undid it, tried it once again. The kind recorded voice caught him out one more time, a minute later. Have a good day… tigerr. The pause in the sentence gave away the fact that the ‘tiger’ was a later add on to the original message but Zach thought it emphasised even further the odd appeal of the radio’s locution. It replaced the sneer with a grin, repaired his mood, at least to the point where he could tie a perfect knot around the collar of his shirt –albeit on his third attempt. Zach Mitkowsky set out to work at 8.01 am that morning, one minute behind schedule.


8.26 am: Queues on the road; queues to get into the building; queues to get into the lifts. Seventy-three. He had wanted to walk to work but it would have taken him too long, and he was already late. Besides, the cool, fresh air of the morning had turned warm and heavy. He had flagged a cab a couple of blocks down his road. West 90. The driver had taken a roundabout route. It’s the traffic. It’s always the traffic. Then, suddenly, from Columbus Green to the Twin Towers it’s thirteen bucks fifty. Keep the change. He should have taken his car. Seventy-three. Morning Mr. Mitkowsky. At least he still had an efficient secretary, who actually got to the office before he did. There’s a pile of memos on your desk, sir. And Mr. Powell, from Bank of America, has already called you twice. There seems to be an inconvenience with your mortgage. His thanking sigh got lost in the thump of the closing door. hate this door. Credit cards, creditors, Powell, Hawkins. Nothing important. Nothing positive. He sat behind his desk, placed the memos in the bin –together with yesterday’s bunch– made a phone call, began some productive work.


8.46 am: Zachary Mitkowsky was not looking out of his window when the overpowering impact that instantly killed Mary Anne, together with another eighty passengers, eleven crew members and an unknown number of workers on the levels immediately adjoining the forty-eighth floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, was felt. He sat, imbued in his paperwork, immersed in the details of his latest project, his newest proposal, when the violent shaking under his feet thrust him off his chair. His instinctive reaction was to lay himself flat on the ground, grab onto the floor like a crouching cat. He would have thought ‘earthquake’, had it not been for the deafening explosion –the loudest, most threatening noise he had ever heard– that followed a few thousandths of a second after the first wobble; that seemed to destroy at once all the windows of the world from within the building. If Zachary Mitkowsky had been thinking right, he might have thought ‘bomb’. But Zachary Mitkowsky was not thinking anything at all. After long, dreadful seconds of motionless shock, Zach found his way back to his feet, stumbled out of his office, met the huge crowd of workers from his floor. Tears and blood were the common currency in a scene stricken by confusion rather than panic. There was no outside communication, the elevators weren’t working, the stairs soon got clogged with smoke. Suddenly, the rumour spread. A what? An airplane?


10.00 am: The satellite watch on Zach’s left wrist silently vibrates. Zach sees despair reflected on the glass of his watch. By 9.00 am the prospect of reaching the ground floor through the stairs had been discarded as a mere dream. By 9.30 am, twenty-seven minutes after the echo –that petrifying reiteration– of the first deafening explosion, the state of affairs was close to helpless. Typically, Zach had given himself a schedule, an operational deadline. He would have to resist until 10.00 am; then, he could reconsider the situation. With tears in his eyes, a burning, acrid knot in the mouth of his stomach, he faces the truth. I can’t take this. He won’t be the first one to jump; dry, grave thuds have invaded –ever more frequently– the ravished space of his office for the past half hour. To hell if I’ll ever pay you, Hawkins. To hell if I’ll ever see you again, Mary Anne. Zach would be grieved to know there is already no way in heaven or hell he will ever again see Mary Anne, but, as it is, he just lumps her together with the rest of the problems he will leave behind (unsolved) once he departs his office. Zach is still wearing his yellow silk tie, his dark grey suit. He walks over the crushed glass, towards the shattered window. He takes off his jacket, folds it, places it next to him. He undoes his tie, unbuttons his shirt. Suddenly, he becomes aware of an unfamiliar sense of urgency, a final impulse to dissent. His task loses its parsimony. He takes his laced left shoe off his foot, throws it as hard as he can, into the smoke, out of his sight. The childish satisfaction he derives from it prompts him to do the same with his right shoe, but just as he is about to release it, it slips out of his hand, lands stridently on the opposite wall. Zach doesn’t care; he takes off his socks, drops them on the floor; he takes off his shirt, his undershirt, his trousers. Finally, he gets rid of the tight half-boxers, imprinted with the D’s and G’s or C’s or K’s that cling to his manhood.

He stands by the window, naked, blinded by the smoke, maddened with despair, sweating from the heat emanated by the building, shivering of fright. He stands by the window, instinctively looks at his watch: 10.04 am. To hell if I’ll know the exact time when I died. He loosens the strap around his forearm, lets the watch fall in his right hand, sends it flying through the sky. One big breath, and Zach steps into nothing. His shivering becomes incontrollable. Fright turns into terror. Reflexively –almost necessarily– Zach lets out a primal scream that flows from a deep inner source –well below his stomach, well beyond his guts– he has never before known. His inert body tumbles through the air, past the plume of smoke rising from the forty-eighth floor. His swollen, watery eyes, assaulted by the coarse air racing by, immediately sense the unsettling clarity of the New York sky elsewhere, other than in Upper West Manhattan. His throat grows tired, his shriek ceases, yet the liberating openness he felt while screaming still remains: though silent, it still is wide open. He feels a vacuum inside that is pleasant, not distressing: his organs, though shuffled, have adapted to the freefall. Sensing the floor rapidly approaching, Zach’s bowels release, open the final tract in his body.

Zach feels totally liberated, when he sees the reddened shadow of his beloved park. For once, the highlight of his day hadn’t been the wheezing pause on The Terrace. Then, just for a moment –a fraction of the smallest fraction of a second– his descent pauses, or at least slows down significantly, as a colossal weight from above compresses the air underneath him, forces it sideways. On this precise instant, at 10.05 am on Tuesday the eleventh of September 2001, one thousandth of a second before Zach’s death, a bird crosses his flying path and –with a low, soft, delicate cry– says to him, Poo-tee-weet? Had he had time, Zach would have replied how wonderful it felt to fly, but before he had the chance to rationalise his feeling into thought, to turn thought into a chirp, he became an indistinguishable splodge, razed without any ado by the first of two collapsing cascades of steel and concrete that formed the greatest cataclysm in American history.


So it goes.





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