On Friday, following a cold night, the thermometer outside the Theatre District branch of Peoples Bank read 90° at 9:03 A.M. Mayor Bloomberg was on time for the taping of his weekly address. Zwakker awoke in his hotel with the radio tuned to a Christian station demonizing Islam; he changed the time before he located the off switch. An unidentified homeless man collapsed on a sewer grate at the corner of Worth & Baxter blocking a bus heading uptown. On the local ABC affiliate, the meteorologist, determined to prove she had not been hired merely for the size of her breasts, speculated that the earth had swung on its axis, shifting toward the sun, which accounted for the high temperatures outside; the channel went to commercial. Babe Parrell took a taxi to LaGuardia Airport and was halfway there before she realized she’d left her tickets at home; she started laughing. Fares who laughed for no good reason made all Sri Lankan cab drivers uneasy. Traffic was backed up on the Bronx-Whitestone bridge. A car belching an exhaust of burned oil entered the Midtown Tunnel. Downstairs in the lobby of Zwakker’s hotel, Zwakker passed by a turbaned Sikh who was drawing glances, the wrappings on his head a magnificent shade of purple — to some. At the front desk, Zwakker reviewed each item on his bill, noting the .0125% increase in city taxes since his last visit. He went through the revolving front doors, a square of bloodied tissue staunching a cut chin.
Condition Orange read the signs on the way in to the airport, the cabs and cars and limos and busses vying for open space at the curb. Zwakker was unable to read his paper: too many starts and stops. It had been yellow for the longest time, and everything stood calm enough. Then a move to orange and the dogs came out delighted to be patrolling. Not so, their soldier handlers whose training cast everyone under a pall of suspicion and menace.
No one could explain what changed. Condition Orange meant a high risk of terrorist activity but people didn’t stop flying. On the sidewalk, they moved faster as if to outrun whatever chased them.
Becks McGhee and Zolly Simms and Richard Picochez all arrived at the same time in different cabs. Zwakker, in the uniform of the business traveler, was behind them. His tie was tight. He led with his belly. For a moment he entered the dream of a long black limousine pulling up to a private terminal where he was greeted by a young blonde concierge interested only in his personal well-being. A blown whistle intruded as did someone’s shout. Then a horn and an airport policeman pointing. Zwakker was back on the sidewalk with his briefcase, trying to get home.
In that election season, when the Air Force blew up a wedding party in Iraq, the threat level rose. After Kerry obtained his party’s nomination the threat level rose. The left detected a pattern that the right willfully ignored — and everyone managed, if always having an ID handy was managing, if constant fear, like a low-grade fever, was managing. Everyone packed and held onto their own bags. They prepared for battle at the boarding gates. Zwakker had put his license in his suit coat pocket before leaving his hotel but neglected to wear laceless shoes.
In Condition Orange, a risk assessment indicated that the potential threat was credible. The raised warning status brought extra state troopers and city police to the roadside blowing whistles. The day promised to be a long one for everyone with a badge. Out of nowhere, Condition Orange, for no discernable reason, though Olbermann speculated it was linked to yet another court appearance by one of the President’s men.
It had been Condition Yellow for many weeks. Now orange signs, orange tags, orange notices throughout the terminal. The line to the ticket counter wound in a series of S figures for half the building. They never said what changed. In the middle of the queue, six people flanked Zwakker on each side, looking forward and back.
Because he requested it, a booklet from the Department of Homeland Security arrived in the mail asking, Are you Ready? The booklet raised more questions than it answered. Zwakker had packed his, but up ahead in line, a pair of women old as his grandmother were fanning themselves with their personal copies. For the third time that day Zwakker thought he should have taken the train. He tried to let his mind go, to fantasize about a small brunette in jeans just entering the lobby. He estimated the size of the room at nearly 9000 square feet. The rental prices even this far from Manhattan had to be significant. Fuel costs were rising and the surcharge the airlines added to the ticket price couldn’t cover it if his estimations were correct. Cash flow, ROI, absorption cost.
Because travelers were advised to arrive at the airport two hours before their flight to allow time for processing through all of the heightened protective measures. a theoretical Zwakker could have flown up and back and nearly up again before his doppelganger cleared security. Zwakker had tried to be on time for his 40 minute flight from New York to Boston, but the clock mishap caused him to be late and the heavy traffic on all routes leading to the airport added delay. He had called his wife but she hadn’t answered. Take the time to get informed, the head of Homeland Security advised.
The line moved, people sliding their bags a few feet ahead. Next to Zwakker a man with a shaved head and a dark complexion said, “Is it going to be a party?” His companion answered, “Yes, we’re going to show them.” They both started laughing. Always evaluate your surroundings, the booklet said.
A dozen feet away a young man with braided hair and a Coldplay T-shirt stared at the girls going past. According to the booklet, this might mean something.
An officer of the airport police walked by, his close-shaved head turning left and right, examining the crowd. He sweated through heavy blue serge, doing the important work of keeping the terminal safe. Still with so many people lined up outside for the skycaps all anyone had to do was pull up in a car full of explosives. On those terrible scenarios, the beautiful blond antagonists of Fox News often speculated. One of them was speculating now on a monitor in a rest area by the wall. Zwakker always tried to stop himself from thinking that way. Are You Ready? the booklet asked. For Zwakker and everyone in line, once the thought got in it was hard to get out. The officer moved on; he had to complete his circuit within the hour or fall even lower on the watch commander’s list.
The boy kicked his backpack a few feet along and raised his arms over his head as if to say, goal. The loud bang as the bag hit the floor caused Max Jenkins and his wife, Shirley, to jump. They thought this was no place for that kind of behavior. Others agreed, though reactions depended: The ones below thirty didn’t much notice because they were busy replaying their own successes and failures (mostly failures) from the night before, and the ones over thirty remembered what it was like to be that free, and the ones over fifty, like Zwakker, were resentful. Traveling was difficult enough with all the new rules. After paying for mortgages and taxes and the cost of the wife’s latest pumps, there was nothing left for celebrations. An elderly couple nearing ninety shook their heads. They had taken out insurance against a crash, their tickets purchased on senior discount.
The ones like Zwakker who let themselves become tense were bothered for only a moment before there was another bother to focus on and with the lack of air-conditioning in the terminal and the armed police going by and the dogs and the crowding and the constant reinforcing announcements in that authoritative voice, which did not inspire confidence but doom, there was plenty to be bothered about in any one instant. The bother grew and multiplied and widened and deepened and sharpened in force and significance until standing was a bother and breathing was a bother and the weight of too heavy clothing was bothersome in the extreme. Zwakker needed to get his knee looked at; it was bothering him. Condition Orange meant an increase in defensive perimeters and the locking of all external doors. Condition Orange meant a lot more standing; this was no place to be frivolous.
Zwakker had a serious job, the sole accountant for a small family-owned bra-company headquartered in Boston. The salary paid the mortgage on a house in the suburbs now in need of paint. Numbers mattered. Counting mattered. A small error could turn a successful year into a disaster for the firm or trigger an audit. He was always vigilant. Always checking his work twice, careful in his handwriting, careful with his typing, he kept his notes and backup media in a fireproof safe rated for ten hours. Zwakker was not a frivolous man.
When the line moved people slid their bags along. On a normal day there might have been some kind of camaraderie no matter the line’s length. But that day they were alone in their waiting while anxious children pulled on parents’ hands. One solemn little girl looked up at Zwakker. Then she smiled through a missing tooth because he looked like her favorite PawPaw. Surprised, he smiled back. He didn’t have children, his wife couldn’t, but he liked them. Her mother saw the direction of the smile and pulled the child to her, hard. The little girl started crying.
More people crowded into the terminal: college kids with bright red backpacks, tourists with golf bags, couples with three black duffels apiece. Bag and more bags. Disaster could strike at anytime, said the booklet. To the trained eye there were too many bags. To the paranoid, all of them were full of explosive liquids. To Zwakker, the movement of all those people and bags hour after hour was a marvel that could be brought down, brought to a halt, by the smallest error or misplanning. Return on investment — after deducting for fuel and maintenance and new capital items, after factoring in the union’s latest demands and delays in travel, after accounting for weather and mechanical failure and airport license fees and long-term terminal leases — was a fragile thing. The biggest firms had bad years and this might be one of them.
An airport preacher came to the edge of the line and shook a cardboard container at the nearest traveler. The preacher understood guilt as it was his business. He gave notice of the coming Apocalypse. After the buildings went down and the outbreak of war, could there be any question? “But maybe there’s a way out,” the preacher said. “Care to contribute a little something — just in case?”
The line moved a half step. Everyone thought about themselves and their own concerns: the bread that needed buying, the memo to Jones still not written, when should Molly be called? would the grandchildren recognize them? would she be in the mood tonight? was Rover all right? was the stove turned off? Zwakker carried a briefcase and a topcoat, unnecessary in the heat. His white shirt, crisp an hour before, was wilting, the front wrinkled from sitting, the collar bent. He thought about the lack of breeze in the terminal, how something was wrong with the air-conditioning. He was not alone in thinking this. A woman next to him fanned herself with her e-ticket, sure her deodorant had failed — it had.
He should have taken the train with no early arrivals necessary and no long waiting lines. His wife always asked him why he didn’t with the train station so much closer, easier for her to pick him up. It was easier for her but a longer ride for him. The news said the trains weren’t really any safer. They’d proved that in Madrid. He might settle in a plush lounging chair only to find himself blown up outside of New Haven.
Even before the attack in September three years earlier, flying was a chore. People brought too much luggage. On the long flights the food was always mushy chicken and tasteless rice. On the short ones they were jammed in with not even a bag of peanuts anymore; too many children with allergies. In the terminals, people stood around shouting into their phones. And the poor souls on the planes that day — maybe they kept hoping they’d be traded for money and safe conduct or for prisoners in Israel. Until the towers came into view.
Zwakker was the next person waiting for the counter staff. His job required some patience and he believed himself a patient man, yet he checked his watch; the wait had been more than an hour. He would have gone mad that day, September 11th, if he’d been on the plane. He decided things like that should be over fast with little time to realize something was wrong before impact, then blackness, and whatever came next after life.
Next. Next. The counter staff was calling to him. “Next, please. Sir? Next.”
The counterperson wanted to know if he had any luggage.
Zwakker told her no, just the briefcase.
Then she asked if he had he packed it himself? Had it been with him all the time? Had he left it alone at any point?
These questions confused him for a moment because he didn’t know how literally to take them. “Yes,” he said. “No. I mean, I packed it myself. Just one piece of carry-on, the briefcase. With me all the time. A business trip. I’m going back to Boston.”
The clerk typed fast on the keyboard, her thumbs slamming the spacebar. Something on the screen interested her enough to narrow her eyes. She typed again. She looked up at Zwakker. He smiled, more of a press of the lips. She looked at him too long. All Americans should be vigilant, the security booklet said. She consulted a list. She typed again. At last a boarding pass came out of the printer. She put it in a paper sleeve and marked his gate. She pointed to his left. “Next,” she called.
Without luggage Zwakker could avoid the even longer line to the scanning machine. He went past it on his way to the next security station. Those with luggage would be a while. With Condition Orange the dogs were out, handlers walking German Shepherds up and down the line of people waiting. One of the dogs growled at a piece of luggage. Then his ears flattened, and he lunged. His handler called out, “What is it, boy?” Four officers converged.
A security agent stood before the security rope instructing the next person in line where to put their luggage. The agent wore aggressive mirrored shades, a sign of a man used to misusing his power. The lenses curved, making the eyes of the people waiting in front of him enlarge in the reflection.
On his way past the luggage line, past those waiting, past those trying not to get upset, Zwakker’s progress was stopped by a group of four burly, swarthy men in track suits who might have been Italian — or from the Middle East.
One of them said, “Those fuckers.”
“Forget them, why’d you bring so much crap?”
“Hey first you blame the neri, then the ispanico, now you’re down on Arabs when it’s Muslims, the problem.”
“We should shoot them all.”
“We should shoot me with this goddamn line.”
The luggage handlers were huge black men, grabbing the luggage in their blue latex-gloved hands and tossing cases onto an inclined conveyor as if they weighed nothing. They had only another hour till break. There was luggage everywhere behind the roped line. Luggage piled on top of luggage, the security handlers kept grabbing and tossing but the pile waiting to be scanned did not diminish. No one seemed to be watching the pile. Zwakker regretted ordering that booklet; people always regretted something. The machine itself was gigantic and rumbling. It was bad enough he was constantly considering rates of depreciation. Now, wherever he looked he started to worry that something else wasn’t right. A black-belted conveyer led upward to a shadowed opening large enough for a body.
Zwakker took a left turn leading him away from the luggage screening and now he was on line to the metal detectors. Another S-line, just as long as the one for tickets. He shifted his coat to his other hand. He opened and closed his palm trying to flex out the tension. He was thirsty. Are you sure you’re ready? the booklet wanted to know. Loudspeaker announcements ordered everyone to report all suspicious activity to uniformed officers, to please watch your bags because all unattended bags would be immediately removed by security personnel.
Three women agents stood by the scanning machines and none of them liked the TSA uniform which made them look fat, the ugly shade of blue having no contrast against their dark skin. They didn’t need the uniforms to magnify their weight, but they were right: The color was awful. They told everyone to remove their shoes and their belts and put them into open plastic containers all the while wondering why so many were unable to follow their simple directions.
The cases were put on a rolling conveyor and taken through the machine where an older man stared intently at the screen. When he thought he saw a shadow of what might be a knife, he leaned in, moving the conveyor forward then back, but he was mistaken; his supervisor watched closely.
Zwakker complied with all instructions, filling two cases with his things. His belt was a necessity to hold up his pants over an expanding waist and now, when he unbelted, those pants threatened to fall down. He walked in his stockinged feet toward the metal detector, a large bulky archway with hard angled edges. People passing through its portal were thrown into sudden shadow. Some shivered. The area inside and beyond was darker than the few feet leading to the machine.
Then the machine sounded its harsh alarm. Red lights began flashing on its top and sides. A man tried to step back and was ordered to keep walking only to be pulled off to the side and out of view.
Zwakker waited one away from the metal detector. He put his hand in his pocket and found his favorite nail clipper, which he’d forgotten to pack. He searched for a trash can or somewhere to get rid of the clipper before it set off an alarm and got him in trouble. Just ahead a woman refused to go through the detector unit. The cut of her maternity clothes was a little off as if borrowed from a sister-in-law. “There’s all that radiation,” she said.
A security agent yelled and told her she was being ridiculous to request special consideration. Men in his job were always amazed at how the public didn’t understand that the country was at war. “Go through, miss, or you can’t be admitted.”
“But my baby.” The woman began to cry.
Zwakker thought this was unfair. He thought there was something un-American about it. To Zwakker’s untrained eye and to a half a dozen others who were watching and pretending not to, there was nothing about the woman that looked unusual. But all of them were glad it wasn’t them. The floor became very interesting, the walls, too. People grew adept at focusing on an empty space a foot in front and not seeing beyond.
Zwakker half expected to see a line of children unpacking their backpacks, holding their little arms out while the security guards wanded them, while in the next station nuns were strip-searched, and beyond that, surgery where a doctor wearing scrubs in the dark-blue of the TSA sliced open arms and legs and torsos to make sure no one carried anything inside. Maybe the final solution had everyone traveling naked with no carry-ons at all. Someone would make a fortune providing clothes and toiletries at the destinations. All the new workers who needed to be hired to clean up the airline seats would help the general unemployment plus create an industry in need of accounting.
Zwakker started to a quick calculation of potential return but his figuring was interrupted; it was his turn and still he hadn’t gotten rid of the nail clipper. He walked past the pregnant woman who kept crying. He handed the clipper to an agent and walked through, holding his breath, always expecting something to set off the machine though he had nothing else metal on him, no medallions, no coins, no metal pins or joints. The agent looked at Zwakker then down to the clipper then tossed it into a bin beside him. Zwakker was successfully through, though the security agent beyond scrutinized him closely before beckoning.
Zwakker went to the other end the conveyor. In the inventory of things — wallet and keys and coins and pen — the pen had gone missing. It wasn’t a special pen, they made them by the box load, except it was his. Zwakker looked back at the TSA agents imagining which one might have taken it. For these kind of small indignities there was little to be done. He could report it but that would take time, and he had read that reported theft by the new security agency produced no results. Or a letter discounting the claim.
He bent down to put on his shoes, tying them as best he could. His tie swung out and blocked his view. His size gave him trouble reaching the laces.
To his right, a thin line of vapor drifted out of a wall vent. He straightened up fast. Take notice of your surroundings, the booklet said, and report suspicious items or activities to local authorities. His back cracked. His shoes weren’t really well tied. The vapor dissipated. He looked around but no one had noticed what might be a fire or some kind of gas. He debated whether or not he should tell someone. He wasn’t sure he had really seen it. Maybe he hadn’t seen it. Are you ready?
He went on into the terminal’s concourse leading to the boarding areas, leaving behind the whine of the hand scanners. Outside, clouds had come up and it was darker than before. Maintenance vehicles drove by. A small truck pulled a group of luggage trolleys. A bag fell out and lay unattended on the tarmac. Zwakker kept walking but there was that black bag, pitched on its side, unmoving, unattended.
TSA agents patrolled in pairs wearing the mid-calf jackboots the department forced them to buy. Boots they hated because the leather pinched. They hated the leather shoulder strap, too, passing from the back of their belts over and on to the front because it was perfect for a perp to grab onto. The union hadn’t been able to do anything about it.
They didn’t look outside at all. They weren’t watching. Zwakker thought someone else would be along. Someone had to know what to do about the bag. Zwakker was just an accountant, trying to get home.
The flight was delayed and delayed. More agents patrolled and led two people away. Do not leave your luggage unattended, the loudspeaker announced. All unattended bags would be immediately confiscated. Report suspicious bags or activity to your nearest TSA agent.
The air-conditioning situation did not improve. The airport’s administration was unprepared for the sudden change in weather. Unprepared and unable to respond to change. It was hot and crowded and everyone milled around. People fanned themselves. Babies cried. Signs said the plane would be delayed another hour.
Zwakker had too much time to think, too much time to watch. Everyone was watching everyone. They watched while they tried to pretend they weren’t watching. Everyone was watching except for a couple across from him. They were looking down, the man with a hand in his pocket, fiddling. A pair of TSA agents came by dressed in their awful blue but ignored them.
Too much time to think. Too much time to watch. No one would be so insane as to try and hijack another plane. Zwakker couldn’t imagine it was possible, another day like that day. A young Hispanic women emptied the trash without much vigor. The President said they were safer. Zwakker hated faulty logic because either you were safe or you weren’t. And why did he always smirk? It was an insult to Zwakker’s column of numbers that added up to the right sum. At least the law for the new Authority responsible for countrywide security, checking everything and everyone at the airports. But someone could bring a bomb through the ports, plant something radioactive and deadly in one of those container ships. There were thousands of containers. Zwakker thought the number was off by a factor of ten, which meant millions of containers piled up alongside the ports. Zwakker didn’t know if they were checked. Zwakker didn’t know if enough money was being spent to keep them safe. An Asian boy working his way through college carried a tray of defrosting rolls to his food stand; he stared back at anyone who looked his way. The President said there was enough money but was it true? Someone might try to destroy a chemical plant. There were thousands — Zwakker knew that number was correct — all close to the cities. A bomb in a plant and everyone nearby would die in a cloud of deadly yellow gas, or was it green? What color would the gas be? Zwakker wondered. Would there be any color at all? Just a strange smell, maybe no smell at all, a burning sensation in the back of throat, and then you succumbed.
At a phone kiosk Zwakker once more tried his wife, all the while thinking about the nuclear power plants, trying to determine their level of safety. The driver of a golf cart returning from a run to a gate beeped his horn over and over and still people were slow to move. The President said they were safe, but were they? That stupid smirk of his made him hard to believe. They all deserved the truth. Could someone fly an airplane into one of the plants and incinerate the world? Drive a truck, plant a bomb? He hung up the phone after getting the home answering machine.
It was because he’d spent a bad night in a bed with a mattress lumpy across the middle. The air-conditioner clanked. He had eaten too much dairy at dinner and it caused him distress. He went to bed thinking about a close friend from school, just diagnosed with prostate cancer and his elderly neighbor, dead in a car crash. He had awakened from a dream with a fragment: candidates had been secured in large capsules with glass faceplates and then placed in a fast moving channel. He had tried to help, pushing his candidate along. He’d been caught cheating but before anything had happened, he’d woken up. Then he was on his way to the airport. What did it mean?
He was suddenly convinced he had made an addition error on a fall sales projection sheet left behind at his meeting. He had to call someone. He was sure he’d made a mistake transposing figures. But they were boarding. After all this time they were boarding. The airline reps at the door tried to get everyone on fast to make up for lost time. From his own immersion in numbers Zwakker knew you never made up lost time. His row just behind the emergency door at the middle of the airplane was being called. They were crowded into another line to get through the door. He double-checked his work. He wasn’t a man who made mistakes. The company had only been audited once in the last seven years and that was a random draw.
Down the slope of the jetway he went, the panels flexing beneath his weight, down the uneven slope pulling him toward the plane, down toward the door, the air getting hotter as he got closer. He couldn’t turn back. Something banged outside.
He was forced along the narrow aisle, everyone with an urgent need for his or her seat. It was impossible to settle in. The seats were too narrow. There was no circulation and the air was too warm. Too humid. The attendant came on the loudspeaker and in her most professional voice announced they would try to get some air on soon, apologizing for the heat and the humidity, which no one had expected.
More people walked on, jamming the aisle. Three young athletic types tried to stuff bags that were too big into the overhead bins. An old man barely able to lift his arms insisted on doing it himself. Insisted. It took him forever. Babies were crying. No one helped. People bumped Zwakker with their luggage, stinking of sweat and burgers.
It was taking forever. Zwakker had to stand to let someone get into the seat beside him, a woman whose wide hips and wider thighs spilled out beyond her seat. He banged his head. He had put his coat and his briefcase overhead. A luggage compartment opened and a bag fell out. He was pressed into his armrest. Families crowded on. Businessmen, still on their cell phones, tried to work in the last parts of a deal. There was no air. It was so hot, babies were crying. His chest started to burn.
The plane was hotter with everyone in a seat, everyone breathing stale hot air. Everyone was strapped in. He was hot. Too hot. He needed water. He needed to get off. He couldn’t stay. He had made a mistake. He had to fix the error of addition or the whole year was ruined. He stood up as the plane moved back and he almost fell down.
Sir, one of the flight attendants called. Sir. He didn’t listen. He looked forward and back. People were everywhere. Everywhere. And they were staring at him with concern. He had to get off.
Zwakker ran to the back of the aircraft. Anywhere to get away. He was trapped in the aft galley, surrounded by the stainless steel coffee makers sputtering their last bit of liquid into their containers. He was surrounded by stainless steel counters and the special carrying trays for sodas and beer and wine. The space was so narrow. There was nowhere to turn. He had to get off. He had to get off. A voice crackled over the speaker system. Then something hit him from behind.
There were shouts. People calling out to stop him. Stop him. Stop him.
He was wrestled to the ground by passengers who couldn’t understand. Didn’t they understand? He had to get off. Hands grabbed him. A foot pressed against his neck. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe. So much weight. Black spots formed. Couldn’t breathe. And then someone, crying and shouting, “Leave him alone. Leave him alone. Leave him alone. Leave him alone.” A voice calling out. A woman’s voice. Lost to the roar of jets.
Mayor Bloomberg took questions about his Management Report, released three days before. Results were mixed. The intersection at Worth & Baxter was open with traffic moving as well as it ever did. Babe Parrell canceled her trip and looked forward to a long day — of nothing. After a tense wait, the meteorologist learned her mammogram was negative. The car belching its exhaust of burned oil drove and drove and drove around Queens.