by Holly Woodward
A ferryboat from Manhattan disgorged a crowd covered with gray cinder. The figures walked past me on the Hoboken dock, their silence as thick as the dust on their backs. I had come to the shore of the Hudson that bright morning to rummage the New York Times from the bin. After the first plane crash, I’d dropped the paper. Then the first tower had crumbled into itself. I stared at the empty sky. Refugees streamed past as the last tower burned.
One man halted in front of me. I did not recognize him; the ash made everyone look the same.
“Ah, Persephone here to greet me.”
That gravelly voice belonged to Michael, the king of commodities, the talking head on CNBC who had said nothing was safe except gold bricks, from his office on the sixty-eighth floor of the South Tower. “A dollar short of soixante-neuf,” he’d said, when I’d first walked into it, seven years ago for a job interview.
I had applied for the job as Michael’s secretary when, in the wake of the World Trade Center car bomb, his “last girl” had quit. He seemed more upset when he added, “My Porsche burned to a crisp.”
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” I said.
“I bought a better one,” he said.
I looked up at the sword hung over his desk.
“That came from Troy.” He tapped a gold pen on a gold pad and asked, “How are you preparing for the coming catastrophe?”
“I try not to get attached.”
“You’re hired,” he said.
“Helen is my favorite name.”
My first day on the job, I changed his hold music from Mozart’s Requiem to “Can’t Buy Me Love.” I flipped his Picasso painting so the minotaur hung by his hooves.
Returning from lunch, he noted the upside-down canvas. “I hate it, too, but it is worth a million bucks.”
After six months, Michael took me by the elbow to his club for drinks and made a proposition that I live at his home in Summit. “I’m never there,” he said, as a selling point.
“Business and desire mix like paper and fire.”
“Business is desire.” He touched his cufflink. “What kind of deal do you need?”
“I need for it not to be a deal at all.”
“Everything is a contract. People fuck up because they are not clear on that.”
I gazed into the red wine in my glass.
He said, “You tell me what you want, then.”
“An inner life.”
“What good are thoughts in your head?”
“No one can touch them.”
Michael stood. “Nobody will ever be this crazy for you again.”
He walked me to the ferry and bought my ticket to Hoboken. We stood on the floating dock. I thought how the Trade Center architects had hired people for an office suspended on straps that rocked it the way the towers would in strong wind; the unwitting subjects had felt sick.
In the afternoon light, the towers blazed; my hair caught the sun and the wind.
He tucked a strand from my face and said, “So golden.”
“Will not last.” I reached for the trip ticket and he held on. I tilted my head to him. “If love were war, you would win.”
He gazed out at the boats circling the tip of Manhattan. “We know who won Helen’s body, but who won her heart?”
“At war’s end, I bet she hated men.” I looked back at the tower he had escorted me from. “I hate heights,” I said.
Michael looked down into the dark water that lapped between the slats. “I loathe depths.”
Now, this September morning, he found himself ferried across the river, stripped of possessions, delivered against his will to me. It seemed that the roof of time had fallen through the basement.
He glanced back. His building had fallen, but the North Tower held, bleeding fire from the wound in its side. That shattered the illusion that they were twins. Each had always stood alone.
Michael said, “Everything we have is a weapon to them.” He looked at his Rolex. 10:27. “You might have been a rich woman, this morning, if I hadn’t run.”
“Your death is not an asset.”
“Is there anything else I have left but that?”
“You have yourself.”
“Wasn’t love your idea of hell?”
I searched for words that would bridge the distance between us like a high wire.
He carried a thick coat of dust on his suit—how fast ash happened. That sword in his office, whether or not it was from Troy or a forgery, that Picasso canvas, one hundred and ten concrete floors, all the walls, the tourists on the observation deck, the cooks, dishwashers and busboys working at Windows on the World, the police searching floor by floor, the firemen climbing to the top, all of them had vanished and we were left with this feathery ash.
I reached to brush some from his forehead and he stepped back.
“You can’t surrender now that you’ve won.” He shook his head. “You should have hurt me while you had the chance.”
On the far shore, the North Building became a tower of smoke that the wind blew over the water.
© Holly Woodward, 2019
Holly Woodward is writing a novel, like everyone else. Her flash fiction has won first prizes from New Letters and Story Magazine, and her book of poems was finalist for the National Poetry Series Prize. Woodward spent a year as a doctoral fellow at Moscow University and served as writer in residence at St. Albans, Washington National Cathedral. A recent book of modern aphorists, Short Flights, included a chapter of her Twitter lines. Holly’s cat, Max Perkins, just sits on her work.
Last Stand was read by Hannah Seusy on August 20th, 2019 as part of the 2019 Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition.