Alex Manley is a Montreal-born and -bred writer and a graduate of Concordia University's creative writing program. His work has appeared in Shabby Doll House, Powder Keg, HTMLGiant, The Fanzine, and Maisonneuve magazine, among others. His debut poetry collection, We Are All Just Animals & Plants was recently released by Metatron Press.
1 story by Alex Manley
and her unborn child
He wakes up several times during the night—at each stop, and in between them, when the girls sitting behind him are talking too loudly. He resents their conversation—about fellow Sunglass Hut employees selling discounted wares online at a markup, about the second season of House of Cards, about New York, wi-fi on buses, how funny Ari is, what A.J. did for his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day, which, since it is after midnight, was yesterday—but mostly he resents that they each have someone amiable to their interests to talk to, and that they don’t seem to care about getting any sleep, as he does. All he has is the fact that someone sits down next to him at Albany, touching his leg occasionally in a way that feels simultaneously accidental and invasive. He is partially wrapped in his winter coat, which he has draped on the seat-back, and he lets the overlarge hood envelop his head and keep secret the identity of the owner of the leg that brushes against his occasionally. When the bus arrives at the New York Port Authority bus terminal, he sees that the leg belonged to a tall, thin man, who gets up quickly and disappears into the fray of exiting passengers.
When he leaves the terminal it’s still dark outside. He looks at his phone. It’s around six in the morning. He starts walking and after a few blocks he comes across Broadway, the street he needs to follow for at least a half-hour or so, according to Google Maps. His father suggested he take a cab but he doesn’t want to deal with the question of taking out money yet, of greasy ATMs and the dull, dirty bills he associates with America, and he doesn’t see the point in showing up at the hotel too early, anyway. If he can’t check in yet, and he doubts he will be able to this early in the morning, he will only have more free time to kill afterward. He might as well waste some time walking.
To walk in a city that is not your own, he feels, is to have some small amount of small power over it; an opportunity to assert a measure of control, however small, over your destiny. There are no subway maps to decipher, no letters, no colours, no twisting lines or systems of arcane intent, no signs to have to read, no tokens, no bustle, no rush of brushing hurriers. Broadway is well-lit enough, more so than the streets around Port Authority, and relatively empty. Every few blocks, he discovers, it intersects diagonally with a north-south avenue and he has to navigate his way through extra crossings, waiting at stoplights, stepping over puddles, trying not to slip on ice. The ice here feels more slippery than the ice at home. He passes signs whose phrasings and meanings seem distinctly foreign to him. Hats Embroidered While You Wait. Why Did I Have To Die? No Standing. Later, he thinks the ice must be slipperier because it’s in the process of melting, covered in a sheen of wetness. At home it’s frozen solid. He feels less bad about his near-slips.
When he gets to the hotel the hotel isn’t there. He fumbles with his phone, putting down his backpack, trying to remain collected. To keep his wits about him. Eventually he manages to get his phone’s internet working. He sees that he’d remembered the address wrong. It’s one-fiftynine, not two-fifteen. He’s usually good at things like that. He shakes his head and picks up his backpack.
In the hotel lobby a young woman tells him he can leave his bag there and hands him a tag to wrap about the handle. The tag reminds him of a slap bracelet made of paper. He takes his small black backpack out of the big black backpack and moves some of the items in it to the big backpack. He tells the young woman behind the desk he walked all the way from Port Authority and she seems surprised, which makes him feel good about himself. He asks if three is the checkin time. She tells him that he can probably check in early. Not earlier than eleven-thirty or twelve. He nods. He asks her if he can get a paper cup to get some water from the water cooler in the hall by the elevators. She looks around behind her desk. She can’t find any. “Don’t worry about it,” he tells her.
He decides to walk south, towards the shore. After a few blocks he spots the one tall building standing up between two other buildings. One World Trade Something. He keeps walking south. A few blocks away he opens the door to a Starbucks and walks in. He orders a tall caramel macchiato and tries to pay with his gift card. “I’m not sure if it’ll work,” he says. “It’s from Canada.” “That’s fine,” the Starbucks employee says. “They’re international.” He takes his tall caramel macchiato and sits down in a corner and takes his paperback Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie out of his backpack.
After half an hour or so, a young woman of about his age sits down on the bench he’s sitting at, ten or fifteen feet away. A man that he had seen standing in line for the bathroom earlier comes and sits down across from the young woman. They begin to speak to each other in French. He deduces that the man is her father. He tries to listen and not listen to their conversation simultaneously. The young woman is quite pretty. He thinks about saying something to them. He feels like the man has now caught him staring at them at least a few times by now. He should explain that he is Canadian and that it’s pleasant to hear French being spoken in New York. He should tell the man that he has a pretty daughter when the she gets up to go to the bathroom. “She’s very pretty, and stylish,” he could say, he thinks, in French. “You did a good job raising her.”
After a few minutes he goes to the bathroom and takes a shit and washes his hands and looks at himself in the mirror. He’s decided not to shave while on vacation. Or the week before his vacation. He knows that he doesn’t shave when he feels depressed and uses his facial hair as a marker—for him, explicitly, and for others, tacitly—that he’s too depressed to take care of himself by performing basic hygienic rituals. His facial hair experiences a sort of uncanny valley-like dip over time, he thinks. When it’s very short it’s fine. Then, as it gets longer and longer it passes in and out of ‘zones’ on the “time vs. aesthetic appeal” graph where it becomes terrible-looking, and then the next day looks normal to him. It is always scraggly, though. For a long time he wanted to just let it grow indefinitely, without ever trimming, shaving, shaping, or in any way altering it, except by running his hands through it every now and then, for nonaesthetic reasons. He wonders if a summer’s worth of facial-hair growth would give him nonscraggly facial hair. Maybe not.
He leaves and keeps walking south and after a few minutes he comes to the site of the Freedom Tower. He stands near some people taking pictures of it and takes out his phone. He doesn’t want to feel like he’s taking a less nice picture of the tower than the other tourists so he decides to take a horizontal picture of the middle portion of it. That way there’s no real sense of competition. He points his phone down and takes a picture of his boots against the sidewalk. He wanders around the corner and after a block realizes he is across the street from the entrance to the World Trade Center memorial. He crosses the street and attempts to wander into the memorial area where other people seem to be going, affecting, as he often has when outside of his comfort zone, a mindset where he pretends to be roughly a person of slightly below-average intelligence, thereby emotionally protecting himself from experiencing negative feelings if any employees or officials find him to be in breach of some laws, rules, mores or other guidelines that he’s unaware of. Eventually, through a sort of drifting process where he walks in a direction as part of a crowd, trying to stay equidistant from the different people and groups of people walking around him and using an approximation their forward movement as a proxy for a forward movement of his own he feels too uncertain to take ownership of, he ends up in a line to get a ticket. When he gets to the front of the line he says, “I don’t have any cash.” He isn’t sure if there’s a terminal for processing credit-card payments. “That’s fine,” the woman behind the table says. She hands him a ticket and waves him through.
He isn’t sure whether to feel bad about getting in for free or not. He keeps walking and ends up in a room where a hundred or so people are going through a series of metal detectors and taking their shoes and belts off and placing them in shallow, grey plastic bins to pass along conveyor belts through X-ray machines. He’s been teleported into an airport. It’s beautiful, he thinks, that the World Trade Center memorial has erected a sort of performance art experience space that people have to pass through to access the raw emotion of Ground Zero. He can’t imagine a better way to emotionally prepare people to enter the physical space where things changed. Ground zero.
He places all his metal items in a bin and walks through the metal detector and then puts all his things back on and in his pockets and follows a family of tourists out the door, again using their movements to help determine his own. As they approach the memorial he thinks about the font on the omnipresent posters. The official font of the World Trade Center Memorial seems to be a thick, bold, sans-serif that reminds him of Gotham, a font designed by the brother of a famous music critic. Maybe it really is Gotham.
By the time he gets inside the memorial it is snowing harder. He walks to a spot along the side where there aren't any people and stands there looking down at the water. He feels a feeling of deep somethingness come over him, which he finds surprising, since he is typically blasé about constructed, intentionally deep experiences like this, typically bristling at the expectation that he would feel a certain way, especially, he knows, in the context of military conflicts. There is something about the darkness and the mass of the rushing water. Maybe it’s that he hasn’t slept enough. He looks at the tiles, giant repeating rectangles of dark, he thinks, green-flecked marble, and tries to decide what thing from his past they remind him of. They remind him of something from the internet. Some background to some webpage, from the nineties, black-yet-greenflecked-marble-styled repeating-tile background. Geocities. Lycos. Angelfire.
He looks down and sees something, a fleck of orangeish, near the edge of the memorial’s inner square closest to him. A piece of something. Pizza. Improbably stuck at the very edge of the falling water. A true Hollywood story. An underdog’s struggle to overcome. After a few seconds the pizza goes over the side. He thought it was a pizza, at least. There is still a small white thing right where the pizza slice was. He wonders what it could be; how it is managing to stay there. After a minute or so he looks down at the names engraved on the edge of the monument in front of him and reads the ones nearest to him. After looking at them for ten or fifteen seconds he realizes that they’ve been cut right through the metal, not carved into it. You can see out the other side. The tips of the metal near the serifs and in places where it extends—the valleys in the Ms and Ws, for instance—are showing wear. Not a lot, but the process has begun. He moves away from the edge and walks towards the middle of that side of the square.
When he re-approaches the edge twenty or thirty feet further on, two nearby women ask him to take their picture. He takes the camera and tries to compose the shot. He zooms in a bit so they won’t look so small in the viewfinder. He takes a picture and then a second picture and gives them back the camera. He always takes two pictures when he is taking pictures for strangers. He feels like people ask him to take their pictures a lot. A lot considering he is typically an unaccompanied tall white man wearing dark clothing. Who goes to the 9/11 memorial alone? Disturbed people. He could easily be a criminal. He could easily have run away with their camera. Maybe they aren’t worried about that. The place is crawling with security. Maybe they thought he looked cute. Maybe they wanted him to strike up a conversation with them. He keeps walking and sees the head of a white rose resting on the monument edge. Someone has tucked the stem through one of the letters in someone’s name. Probably a relative. A friend or relative. Maybe a lover. It feels small and fragile and beautiful. A white rose against the massive architecture of matte black stone. Nature against the impenetrable somethingness of the World Trade Center Memorial. Nature against the marble internet background tiling. Geocities. Lycos. Angelfire. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. He keeps walking. It is snowing more fully now. He looks up and realizes that the leaves are still on all the trees. They are dead, reddish brown and crinkly looking, but they are still there. Struggling. Holding on. Against all odds. A true Hollywood story. Leaves in February. Leaves. An underdog’s struggle to overcome. It is snowing.
He walks over to the second pool, which represents the second tower, he thinks, or maybe the first. He isn’t sure which one is north and which one is south. There are fewer people walking around this pool. Maybe a seventy-thirty split. He sees another white rose sticking through a name, and another one further on. He feels sad. They aren’t special anymore. Now it’s just something people do. Like flowers for dance recitals, or Valentine’s Day. A single white rose for the WTC Memorial. There must be a single-white-rose vendor near the entrance, turning a steady, depressing profit. He turns the corner and sees a sign that says EXIT affixed to the chainlink fence. He walks toward it. There are two security guards near it. Another sign near it says EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.
One of the security guards waves to a couple walking in front of him. “You can’t go past here,” she says. He stops walking and looks at the empty stretch in front of them. He thinks about all the names that no one gets to see. Hundreds of names. Hundreds of people. Dead people. Long dead, for more than a decade now. What if the name he wanted to see was in the closed-off portion? He thinks about telling the security guard that he wants to see a name further down. “My uncle,” he could say. “What’s his name,” she would ask him. He would tell her his uncle’s name and then they could walk together and he would scan the names. Read all the names out loud, in his head. That would do justice to the dead people’s souls. Eventually he would tell the security guard that he had lied to her. But he would appeal to her sense of duty to the dead people and their names. “Someone had to read their names,” he would say. To remember them. Would she be mad at him? How serious of an offense would that be? Post-9/11. He isn’t sure.
He looks at the names in front of where he’s standing. One of them is followed by the phrase “and her unborn child.” He looks at it and thinks that the first letters of the words in “and her unborn child” should have been capitalized. He isn’t sure why. A Woman’s Name and her unborn child. It seems like it must be the saddest single engraving in the whole memorial. He is glad to have come all the way out here to the furthest point along the edge of the second tower memorial that people are allowed to visit. As he stares at the name and her unborn child he sees the woman in the couple who had been walking ahead of him take a picture of him staring at the name and her unborn child. Part of him feels offended that she didn’t ask if she could but part of him feels glad that she had wanted to capture the moment. He steps away from the edge and starts to walk past the couple, back toward the first tower. By one of the fences he notices several wheelbarrows, one of them overturned, and stacks and stacks of big bags of ice-melting pellets. He thinks about the pedestrian business of keeping the memorial ice-free. So that no one would injure themselves at the 9/11 memorial. The place has been the site of enough suffering already, he supposes. He starts scanning the chain link fence, looking for the real exit. It is still snowing.