Helen Marks used to have a thing for the Happy Meal. It was worth the wait in the amorphous queue at the Wall-Street-themed McDonald’s under the streaming tickerboard. Oh, the sad little patty! Oh, the mushy white bun! The lone salty pickle, the blob of sugary ketchup! And the hamburger wasn’t even the point. The point was the tiny prize. She always asked for the girly prize: a Beanie Baby, or Hello Kitty, or spokescritter of the latest Disney offering. All in shades of pink. Shocking, or rosy, or tender, or loud: pink.
She had them arranged, her mute, smiling audience, along the top of her monitor and around the sides of her cubicle. Virgil Feliz, her friend from the Help Desk, was creeped out by it. “How can you work with everyone staring at you?” he said often, popping his head over their shared beige wall.
“How can I work in general?” she said, though she was managing, sort of. Productivity was important. It was patriotic. They would stick it to the terrorists through productivity.
“I hear you,” Virgil said, then returned to his gargantuan task, answering a perpetual phone ring, reassuring the weary and traumatized, telling them where to point and click, encouraging the reboot.
Helen didn’t go to McDonald’s much anymore. It wasn’t worth it. She would have to hike around the giant gaping hole in the sky. Back through police checkpoints, through workers laying new power and telephonic cable under the streets of Tribeca, streets dug into channels like the canals of old Amsterdam, then down to Broadway, and into the sickening pack of lookers. Grungy memorial gifts were everywhere down there, tacked to fences and walls, teddy bears growing crusty with ash, strings of faded origami birds. Tourists were having their photos taken in front of it: Miss, please, do you mind? The fire wasn’t even quite gone yet. Look, Ma, I was here! That, plus the fife player tweeting “God Bless America” over and over — it made her brain go spongy. It made her fists do something ugly. It made her lose her urge for a Happy Meal. The corporate cafeteria would do just fine. At least in there they were among their own. Everyone had the same emptied stare. Everyone had their work cut out. No one wanted pictures.
The world knew the layoffs were coming. Wall Street Journal: Singer Martin to Cut 5,000 Jobs. People discussed résumés in the elevator. Virgil had a running joke: Nice to see you! Nice to be seen! Whole departments were likely to get the chop.
When Helen got the call from Human Resources, she popped her head over the wall, but Virgil was on the phone. His look told her he knew already. The tech guys were “pre-notified,” just in time to cut off network permissions.
The HR guy, Nick Bartoni, looked exhausted. He was clean-shaven, but his face looked scraped raw, like he was fighting serious grown-up acne. He wore a suit, which was no longer required, probably intended to give the goodbye meetings a professional air, though the air had worn off by three o’clock. He gave her a short, tightly-canned speech: cost cutting, market woes, the need to reconfigure the organization as a whole. “The Quant department is just too big,” he said. Meaning they were keeping some of her colleagues, but not her. Her boss had gone through the roster and picked her.
“How many of these have you done today?” Helen asked.
He sighed, ran a hand through his sandy hair. This was the same guy who drank mojitos and danced a silly electric slide with her at the holiday party last year. He looked hollowed out. “You don’t wanna know.”
“Really. I do.”
He sank back into his generic chair. There was a stack of folders on his desk, at least twenty deep. “You’re the sixteenth.”
“Damn. How many you got left?”
He looked at the stack of folders. “You mean today, or altogether?”
He obviously didn’t want her to reply, so she didn’t. He looked her in the eye, a man on the edge of an abyss. Behind him was a sealed picture window. Outside, a big gap where the North Tower used to be. Light streamed in over the still-smoldering pit. Clouds, wispy cotton, dotted a stark, blue sky. Helen took a deep inhale, looked up at the blue. He slid a thick white packet across the desk.
“No pink slip?” she said.
He didn’t laugh. Her question was as old as the Catskills. “The package is as generous as we could make it,” he said.
“Thank you,” Helen replied, automatic. It’s what you say when someone gives you a package.
Helen had met Virgil on the day of the main event. She had been hearing him for over a year, on the other side of the wall, cooing to his lover on the phone, or patiently talking down hysterical users. Once, she had even wandered by to connect a face with the voice, but she didn’t say hello. She had pictured a Chelsea butch guy in a tight white tee shirt and wallet chain, but Virgil was small in stature and wore the nerd uniform of his techie brethren, a decent grey suit with the labels cut out, jacket draped over the back of his chair, white shirtsleeves rolled up over skinny forearms, lunch-stained tie. Next to his monitor was a framed photo of a fierce little pug in a rainbow sweater.
But she didn’t talk to him, not until she got an email from a London colleague: “Is it true a plane flew INTO the World Trade Center?” It wasn’t possible. That was right next door. She hadn’t heard a crash. Then people started running in the halls around her. Helen froze. And Virgil, bless him, strode right into her cubicle, laptop under his arm, stuffing phone and keys into his suit pockets.
“Grab your gym shoes,” he said. “Don’t leave your bag behind. You’ll need your phone.” He held out his hand. She took it, and didn’t let go, all the way down twenty flights of fire stairs and into the panicked streets. They stood outside their building trying to get phones to work, looking up at the tiny blaze. The fire was so far away, so high overhead, unreachable.
Virgil had started to cry. No one was in charge. “Don’t look at it,” she said, turning his head away, just as she saw something she knew she could not unsee. She gripped his hand, marched him to the mouth of the Brooklyn Bridge, and hugged him goodbye. Then, she took off her suit jacket and began the long hike to her apartment uptown. She did not look back. She was in Chinatown when the towers fell. She kept walking as the people around her stopped and stared at the spectacle, as if they were not going to see it over and over, forever, on their televisions. Virgil was still at the bridge when it all collapsed, Helen learned later. He was helping a stranger, an asthmatic. They both got a mouthful of ash, but they made it over the river.
They didn’t see each other again for a month. The office building was powerless and unsafe. Helen telecommuted. She called the Help Desk once, and Virgil answered. His voice was cool again, and tired. “This problem is expensive,” he kept saying. “There’s no way they can pay us all.”
“They won’t have layoffs. Not after this. That would be just cruel.”
But Singer Martin was not their mother. And he was camping out on a cot in a server room, some nights. He had smelled the rotten entrails of the dying beast.
After of month of cleanup, the headquarters was reopened. Helen’s Happy Meal characters welcomed her back to the warm cubicle. The apples she had left on her desk had been removed. She had been expecting a pool of decayed fruit flesh on her desk and the smell of hard cider made the hard way.
She had lunch with Virgil her first day back, in the third floor cafeteria. They didn’t talk much. People stared out the window, forks frozen in hand, all with that same far look. Feeling lucky and unlucky at the same time. The plaza outside, normally full of lunching suits, had been turned into a staging area — a flatbed truck and a shipping container plopped amid the stone picnic tables. On the plaza railing, facing the Hudson, was inscribed, in letters a foot tall, a quote from Walt Whitman: City of tall facades, of marble and iron — proud and passionate city — mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
“Wanna hear something sick?” Virgil said, stabbing the yolk of his hard boiled egg. “The attacks are spawning new industries. The guys on the Desk are all talking about this biometrics outfit, you know those retinal scanners? Booming. The stock is about to take off. Is that blood money or what?”
“All money is blood money,” Helen said, quoting an old Econ professor. “The veins of New York are pumping with blood money.”
“More like bleeding out,” he said.
At the table next to them, a group of firemen hunched over their free lunches. They ate silently and slowly. They were keeping to themselves, avoiding the clean people with clean clothes and clean jobs.
“I think I’m done with New York,” Virgil said.