Seventeen Years Later
In a classroom on an Air Force Base
sixteen hundred miles away the talk
has stopped and the eyes have shifted
to the world that’s frozen behind me
on the projection screen.
The wall has turned into a ball
of flame, cool to the touch,
but hot enough to stop the world
in its tracks. No one’s in danger
here – seventeen years later
we finally know it for a fact.
But at this moment on the southern
plains the unknown hangs
above our classroom like
a greying funnel clouds, and there’s
a ball of flame jumping out
of a skyscraper window in a slow
motion hour of flesh becoming rain.
Seventeen years later, a Dodge Ram
follows too close behind a small
green Accord, a Confederate flag
waving from its bed. You might think
the symbolism’s too much, that
I’m making it up and I wish –
people spoiling for a fight have given
themselves the last full measure of permission.
In 2001 we’re left with this single image,
this ball of flame, the gate’s locked down,
the phone line’s dead, and no one
knows where the next attack will be
or what happens when panic spreads.
Being soldiers we gather wire, a hanger,
an old tv on a rickety cart, and begin
stringing a makeshift tower from
the guttering, until tragedy unfolds
on a snowy screen.
each other watch and know half
will be overseas, sleeping on rock
before the year has ended. Time passes.
No one says a word, watches the parade
of snowy faced talking heads repeat
‘what we know now’ which is nothing.
Someone asks ‘Does anyone have family there?’
and two have already walked to the back of the room,
pressing numbers, exhaling, trying again.
Later in assembly the Chief says ‘Go home.
Spend time with your family. No work tomorrow –
we’ll call when we know.’ Even then
people move slowly, hypnotically.
Outside the gate there are lines,
cars trying to get in, cars waiting for gas,
pedestrians being searched. We learn later
a man has tried to run over a mother
and daughter, wearing hijabs,
in a nearby parking lot, and that gasoline
was selling black market style
for eight dollars a gallon, and next
day listen to story after story of the tragedy
of the lost investors, as if their wealth –
my wife cuts in, ‘the people buffing the floor,
those cooking on the top floor, they had
Her sentence hits me now,
all these years later,
watching the Accord run a red light
to get away from the patriot in the pickup,
and north south traffic slowly entering
the intersection, everyone drawing
invisible but firm lines.
A woman wearing
an abaya waits to cross with me –
you might think the moment’s too
convenient, too symbolic – but we
don’t care. We say hello, walk together
across the intersection when the light changes,
the way we would have done beneath
a greying sky, without thinking before the world froze,
before we drew those fixed invisible lines.
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