Afternoon and After

I know this town down to the buckles in the pavement along the shortcuts through the back blocks. I know the cats crouched on its porches and the graffiti scribbled beneath its bridges and the hollows of its aging trees. But why should I know it, this New England place, too far north for the likes of me and mine? The question unearths the afternoon.

We’re inundated with memories of the morning, but no one seems to recall the quiet hours later on. The city went mute where I was, in midtown, four or five hours after the fall. Walking west on Fifty-Seventh Street, at maybe 1:30 p.m., I was one of only a few people around. The afternoon was soaked in sun and sky, quite hot, actually. Vacant acres of sidewalk reflected the glare. The people who passed me kept their heads down. The silence scorched more than the sun did.

Somewhere near Lexington I stopped at a deserted Duane Reade drugstore to buy athletic socks. I had only been in my job for two days; I was the new boss, and thus I’d chosen shoes with a bit of a heel, no socks. At checkout the cashiers avoided eye contact—to be expected in any Duane Reade, but this afternoon’s anomie had a special thickness. Fear?

Socks on, destroying any trace of the managerial look I’d aimed for that morning, I headed west again. At this point the subways had been halted for hours. The office towers had all emptied out; people had walked on toward the city’s exits, toward the stations. Who knew how they’d left, but they were gone.

The streets were mostly carless, the few vehicles creeping along with a guilty reticence, and I thought, This city is over. It’s done. And then came a fuzzed roar, which gradually, painfully collected itself into something sharp and deafening. In the blank blue sky sliced up over midtown, a grid of fighter jets shot into view, low, shockingly low, then vanished. I walked on, trembling. I don’t generally tremble.

People on couch
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