RETURN TO NORMAL by Peter Nolan Smith

Two weeks after the collapse of the Trade Towers the westerly wind shifted and a southern breeze spread the funereal smoke across Lower Manhattan. The poisonous fumes smelled of a blazing cannibal BBQ.

Later that afternoon I caught a train north to Boston. My sister put me up in her basement. I watched the Red Sox on TV. My home team were too far out of first to gain a spot in the play-offs. My sister joined me and said, “Another year of the Babe Ruth Curse, but it looks like the Yankees might make the playoffs.”

“Not many New Yorkers are talking about baseball these days.”

“They will one day.”

“I supposed life must go on.”

“It always does,” answered my sister and she went up to bed.

The Red Sox lost in the late innings.

Life did go on.

On the weekend my sister suggested a drive to Newport, Rhode Island. The yacht club was holding its annual boat show and her husband was thinking of purchasing a new boat.

“I’m not really into boats.”

“I’ll bring my bike and you can ride around Newport.” My sister understood my mindset. We were family.

“That’d be nice.” I hadn’t been to Newport since the 1969 Jazz Festival. Led Zeppelin closed out the show. My older brother and I left during DAZED AND CONFUSED to beat the traffic. The bass line thundered for miles, as we drove away into the night.

That Saturday in 2001 was a tribute to a New England autumn. Clouds dotted the sky and the a cool breeze shunted summer south. The trees were changing colors. We dressed for the season.

My sister’s husband sped to Newport in his three year-old Audi. Work at his law firm had resumed several days after the planes hit the Trade Towers. The cars on the highway drove 10-15 miles over the speed limit. The radio was playing Gloria Gaynor’s DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY.

I sat in the back seat with my four year-old niece. Warah spoke to her doll. Its name was Shirley. I listened to every word, wishing my name was Shirley too. Anything to get the image of a burning people hurtling out of Windows of the World out of my brain.

We arrived in Newport around noon. The parking lots for the Boat Show was packed with gleaming Benzs, SUVs, and sports cars. I unloaded my brother-in-law’s bike from the roof rack and my sister suggested a ride around the peninsula.

“We’ll meet you back here around 4.”

“It won’t take him that long to bike around Newport.”

My brother-in-law liked doing things fast. He was a Yale graduate.

“I’m in no hurry.” I had finished BC without any honors. I took my time, plus these days rushing around seemed senseless.

“Uncle Bubba, wear a helmet.” My niece was well-trained in safety measures.

“For you always.” I tugged on the plastic brain basket and waved good-bye.

I looked over my shoulder passing Brenton Cove. The Jamestown Bridge gleamed in the sunlight. The long span had replaced the old ferry.

I circled stone walls of Fort Adams. Several families picnicked on the lawn. The aroma of hot dogs wafted through the park. People were having fun.

Farther along I passed the Country Club. Men and women stood on the fairways dressed in colorful clothing. A solid whack signaled a good drive for an older man. The ball flew through the air to land on the green. The golfer wore a broad smile, as he handed his iron to the caddie.

Upon reaching Ocean Avenue I biked east along the rocky shore and wheeled into Goose Neck Cove. The shimmering white sands of Gooseberry Beach were empty. The lifeguards had retired for the summer and swimming was prohibited by law. I ditched the bike in the dunes and swam in my underwear. The cold waters of the Atlantic brought back memories of childhood visits to Newport with my parents. I toweled dry with my teeshirt and continued on my route past the summer cottages of Gilded Age.

My mother loved viewing the rich people’s mansions.

Surfers dotted the break beneath the Marble House. The waves stretched like corduroy to the horizon. I ate fried clams at Floe’s Clam Shack. The crisp fried batter complimented the Ipswich clams and I washed down the traditional New England repast with a Narragansett beer. It was 3 and I returned to the Yacht Club.

The Boat Show was winding down and many of the visitors relaxed around the tables with a Bud. I rested the bike against a chain link fence and sat at a bar. The nearby conversations were mostly about boats, but a trio of overweight men in their 40s were discussing 9/11.

The subject quickly narrowed to revenge.

“We should go over there and kill them all,” a bald-headed man spoke in strident tones. He looked as if no one in his family had left the USA since World War II.

“Why go anywhere?” His jock friend was red-faced from either drink or sun. “Press a button and nuke them to the Stone Age.”

“Who are we attacking?” I asked the men.

“And you are who?” The bald man regarded me with suspicion.

“A fellow American curious about your choice on who we should attack.”

“The president says Al-Qaeda and they’re in Afghanistan.”

“That’s a start,” his friend added, signaling for a round of Bud-Lite beer.

“And then Saddam in Iraq. He tried to kill the president’s father. The Afghanis and Saddam.” The more athletic of the group pointed in my direction with suspicion. He wanted more than an eye for an eye from the perpetrators of 9/11

“How many Iraqis and Afghanis were on the planes in 9/11?” I knew the answer.


“None. Not one.”

“Bullshit.” He was convinced of their guilt by the wrath of politicians and TV news commentators. America was out for blood. Whose blood didn’t matter as long as the red flowed from a Muslim.

“Not bullshit. The truth. The fifteen hijackers were Saudis and the four pilot came from anywhere else, but not Iraq or Afghanistan.”

“Saddam financed it those towel-heads in Afghanistan.” The jock had a TV sense of geo-politics. “The Taliban were sheltering the enemy.”

“Why do you think we were attacked?”¯

“It’s unimportant. Fucking the Arabs is what we have to do. Tora Tora Tora just like the Japs at Pearl Harbor.”

“No mercy.”

I was into revenge too. The buildings had fallen less than a mile from my apartment on East 10th Street, although I wasn’t giving the president a carte blanche for the total destruction of the Middle East.

“Those camel jockeys deserve whatever they get.”

They clinked plastic champagne glasses and hooted like owls on steroids. I strangled my responses. America was deaf any arguments against a rush to judgment. Everyone’s blood was up.

Mine too, but for different reasons.

My brother-in-law motioned for me to join him. I left the bar without any good-byes.

“You have a good ride?” His hand was filled with brochures.

“It was a good day for it.”

And so were the days after it, because I was alive and alive was a good thing for anyone who have lived through 9/11.

There were billions of us.

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