This story first appeared in the zine, Mourning (2001). This zine can be obtained at: http://hometown.aol.com/bet123b/multimedia.html. Comments on this story can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org and will be forwarded to the author.
K Hanna Korossy
Once in a lifetime should have been more than enough.
David Starsky sat blind and deaf in front of the television, no longer taking in the scenes of destruction it showed. He'd been asleep when one of the guys had called from the station for him to turn on the set; it was still before dawn in LA and they'd been out late on a case the night before, and he'd intended to sleep in that morning. At the sight of one of the World Trade Center towers in flames, Starsky had gone and poured himself a hard drink. The crash of a second plane into the other tower had him slumping back into the couch, drink forgotten in his hand. And by the time the Pentagon was also in flames, he wasn't even watching. The memories were far more powerful than even the vivid pictures on the screen, pictures that were too much to take in, let alone make sense of. But he'd had over twenty years to process the memories.
"You never think it'll happen to someone you know. Someone you love.
"And then it does and all you do is sit and think, 'Why me? Why him?'"
He stood before the crowd of mourners, the packed synagogue overflowing the pews into the aisles and out the doors of the temple. He'd heard there were chairs set up in the entryway and even outside to accommodate all the crowds, half of them there because they knew Josh and half there just to show their respects. But all that mattered to Starsky were the people that sat in the row right in front of him: Josh's wife and baby son, now fatherless; his own ma sitting next to her sister, Josh's ma, both of them in tears; Nicky looking stiff in his good suit; and at the end, seated in the family row because he belonged there in every way that mattered, Hutch. He was the only one watching Starsky as he spoke. The others were wrapped in the distancing blanket of their grief, but he was there only for Starsky's sake.
The phone rang, dropping him sharply out of the memory. Starsky reached for it automatically with the hand that held the sweating glass, then, frowning, switched the bourbon to his right and picked up the phone.
He already knew who it was. "You're watchin' it, too." Wasn't really asking that, either.
"Just turned it on," came the quiet answer. The voice that was always his oasis of calm and steadiness in the midst of the many crises they'd faced together. "Your family--"
"They're okay." It was the first thing he'd done when he'd realized what he was seeing, called his one cousin whose business sometimes took him to the towers. Nicky's electronics shop and home was up in Tremont, nowhere near Lower Manhattan, and the rest of the few Starskys left in the area had all migrated out the city and into the suburbs over the years. No, ironically the family would have no losses this time, not when the tragedy was unfolding in Starsky's hometown, unlike the disaster that had ended far from home years before.
A long breath. "That's good."
"Yeah." Somehow it hardly seemed like cause to celebrate as the fires continued to burn on the television, thousands of miles away. At least this time Starsky got to see it. The last time there hadn't been anything, just a picture of the crash site and the remains that had come home in an impossibly small box. The large pine box they'd buried seemed almost a mockery.
"This isn't the first time our family suddenly lost somebody. Some of you were here when we had services for Pop in this same synagogue fifteen years ago. Josh was here for that one. And neither of us had been born yet when our Uncle Simon gave his life for his new country in World War II. But Pop was a police officer and Uncle Simon was a soldier. They knew what they were doin' was dangerous, but they did it anyway because it was their duty and they believed in it."
He glanced at Hutch again, the one person there who would understand all that he didn't add: how that duty had become Starsky's life as well, how they also were far more familiar with death than any human being should have been, how too many other times he'd almost had occasion to say similar words over Hutch's coffin. And the other losses this group, even his mother, didn't know about: Frank and Jake and John and several others from the department, his childhood friend Pete, Helen, Hutch's Gillian...Terry.
Starsky's eyes were getting blurry and he'd promised himself he wouldn't allow that, not now. Later maybe, when he was alone or at Hutch's. It wasn't like they hadn't ever cried on each other's shoulder before.
Starsky firmed his voice. "But Josh wasn't a soldier or a cop. He wanted to help people a different way, by becomin' a firefighter. It was a tough and dangerous job, too, yeah, but he always said he wanted to fight fires and save people, not fight people. We always argued about that, but you know Josh, any argument with him would end up with him laughin' and buying you a drink." Starsky's smile was wan. For all their comparisons about the dangers of their respective jobs, it was painfully ironic that it had been a fiery crash caused by the evil of men that had killed Josh, not the hazards of his job. "You don't expect to suddenly lose someone like him, not this way."
Not that way--not in a hijacked plane crashed on another continent. Every time a plane fell from the skies after that, Starsky relived the 26-hour vigil on Hutch's sofa, watching the coverage of the plane his cousin was trapped on, listening to the phoned interviews with the hijackers, numb when the news finally came of the impact. And the hours after of alternately crying and talking to Hutch, until his partner pulled him together for the cross-country trip back home, to New York. Hutch's coming hadn't even been an issue, just like his sitting there in that first pew where Starsky could look at him as he talked, drawing strength from his partner like a plant from sunlight.
Like they were doing now from each other, that connection almost as palpable as the vocal one. Perhaps that was why there didn't seem to be a need to say much of anything, Starsky just sitting there with the phone in his hand and his best friend on the other end.
"They're gonna lose a lot of firefighters today," Hutch said softly.
"Prob'ly." Starsky's brain was working tiredly. They were too old now to function well on such little sleep, but he had a feeling he wouldn't be getting a lot more for some time. He mustered himself. "If Josh wouldn'ta died then..."
"Maybe. There's no way of knowing that, buddy."
He took a deep breath, running a hand through his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. "I know."
"This is gonna change the country." Hutch's voice was still hushed. "God knows New York and Washington aren't gonna be the same again."
"Maybe it'll shake things up for the better."
"And maybe it'll just shake things up."
A weary sigh. "I'm sorry."
"Nothin' to be sorry for," Starsky said, voice gentle.
"I know." Another long pause. Then, absently, "You know, I got offered a job once in one of the towers, when they'd just opened."
That focused Starsky's attention like little else could have at that moment. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. After I left med school. One of dad's friends was moving his investment business there. Great pay. Van would have loved it."
"So why didn't you take it?"
"I wouldn't have loved it. Can you see me in an office in a suit, Starsk?"
Actually, it was an image he'd conjured up many times in the past, whenever he'd see Hutch's ease with numbers and paperwork, whenever his partner's father tried to entice his son back to the family business, whenever their job seemed to wear the blond down. Starsky had wanted to be a cop ever since he'd known what that meant and didn't seem made for anything else but life on the streets, but Hutch's talents had always seemed a little wasted on their profession. But selfishness, and a realization that Hutch had made a choice and found his place there, banished Starsky's what-ifs each time. Now, it was a chilly fear at what might have been.
An unexpected relief followed on its heels, surprising Starsky. "I'm glad you didn't take it," he said quietly.
"Me, too." The empathy in Hutch's answer made clear that it wasn't just for himself or his own safety he was glad. In this case, the road not taken held no allure. They'd never have met if Hutch hadn't become a cop, and even assuming Starsky would have survived being partnered with someone else, he wouldn't have known to fear for one of those faceless possible victims in the unfolding tragedy.
But somehow all those little pieces had fallen into place just so to bring a blue-blood Minnesotan goy and a blue-collar Jewish New Yorker together in the LAPD. Talk about a what-if with long odds...
"So where was God when Flight 223 went down in the mountains? Was He off somewhere, not payin' attention? Or was this out of His control? I don't know about you, but that's not a God I wanna believe in. So then how could He allow this and why? Why did it have to happen, why this airplane, why Josh?"
His ma was watching him now, and Starsky gave her the barest of smiles. It was a question she'd tried to answer for him as a grieving eight-year-old who'd just lost his father. It was still the same answer. He looked up at the rest of the crowd.
"It's human nature to ask. But you know, if we wonder about that, there're a few other questions we oughta ask. Like how our family was lucky enough to have Josh in the first place. His ma wasn't even supposed to be able to have kids, but then Josh was born. And why was Ruth lucky enough to find the guy she'd been waiting for, and why were they blessed with little Ben? How come they got to have seven happy years together? And why were we so lucky that we got to be part of Josh's thirty-four years of life? Why were we so blessed?"
Hutch had been the one to really make him appreciate all those questions. Every close shave and all its fears and worries had led to equally fervent gratitude for what they had in the first place and the gift of each day to enjoy it. There was nothing like facing death to appreciate life.
Starsky looked around the quiet room, ignoring the little piece of paper he'd jotted down notes on so he wouldn't forget everything that had been running through his heart and mind those last few days. Hutch had helped him write it, just as he'd helped with everything else. Of all the blessings in his life, his partner made Starsky wonder most of all how he'd gotten so lucky. He didn't need his notes to remember what mattered.
Another anchoring glance at the blond and Starsky went on. "The answer to all of it is, we don't know what God has in mind, with the good or the bad. When I lost Pop, I had no way of knowin' it would lead me out to LA, to helpin' a lot of people out there, to a job I love, to the best friend I ever had. When Josh's plane crashed, I didn't expect so much sympathy and kindness from people, even strangers out on the street. I don't know what other ways God's gonna use this for somethin' good and we'll probably never know, but that doesn't mean it isn't out there.
"Was that worth Josh's life and the lives of a hundred an' eight other people? Right now, I gotta tell you, it doesn't seem like it from where I'm standin'. Maybe it never will. But that doesn't matter. What does is that to honor Josh and all the other victims of Flight 223, and to keep ourselves goin', we have to remember there is a reason for this. I'm not God so I can't tell you what it all is, but I believe in it. I think Josh would, too."
On the TV in front of him, with the slow-motion of the horrible, one of the towers suddenly began to shrink, collapsing down on itself. "Oh, my God," Starsky whispered, barely hearing the echoed words in the telephone. "The cops and the firefighters just went in..."
He'd had to work ambulance calls and fires, doing crowd control or talking to victims while people around him lay dead and dying. But the loss of life he knew he'd just seen eclipsed experience by so much, he had no basis for comparison.
Hutch spoke first, as shaken as Starsky had not heard him in some years. "I'm coming over," was all he said, and then there was the empty click of a broken connection.
Starsky hated losing the link, now when everything else was collapsing, but the need to be with was just as strong. His wife and kids were up north visiting her family, but it was just as well. Starsky still often found himself turning to the person he'd weathered thirty years of crises with when the world seemed to be falling apart. Only, this time it really was.
Hutch was right, this would change the country. Starsky wasn't sure how--Americans weren't used to this scale of loss or vulnerability, but they were also a lot tougher than many gave them credit for. It would be a test, but he had a feeling those responsible had no idea what a sleeping giant they were awakening, and that the country would prove more than a match.
As if in grotesque repetition, the top of the second tower also sandwiched and slowly crumbled.
Starsky's throat, already tight, closed altogether and his eyes burned. Oh, God, both of them? That had to be thousands dead, plus those in the Pentagon. How was it possible that good could come out of this?
"I hope to God we never see another tragedy like this one. Losin' one person is already too much--losin' a hundred an' nine is..." Starsky shook his head, at a loss for a strong enough word. "But we live in a world with a lot of evil in it, so we probably will. What matters is that we remember the good instead of the evil, hope instead of despair, fortune instead of misfortune. All of it, what we see and what we don't, 'cause it's there if you look for it. And most of all, we have to remember how much we've still got and how blessed we've really been. That's the best way I know to remember Josh, for his life with us instead of his death."
He looked up at the polished wooden beams that crossed the ceiling. "Josh, we're gonna meet again someday. Until then, I'm not gonna forget." And then with voice and composure threatening to give out on him completely, Starsky shoved his unused notes into his pocket and hurried back to the pew to drop beside his partner. His black suit shimmered as he stared down at it through tears.
A flesh-colored blur entered his frame of vision, to the right, and a hand gently squeezed his arm, staying there for a long minute while a few tears fell, waiting until he finally looked up. Gentle, understanding eyes accompanied that touch, their compassion so strong that even Starsky managed a quavering grin in response. Another squeeze and the hand withdrew but the support didn't. Nor would it for the days and weeks of mourning ahead.
And Starsky never afterward had a moment's doubt about what he'd said at Josh's funeral.
A key rattled in the front door, and Hutch stepped inside. The shock that overlay his movements and expression said he'd been listening to the news on the way over and reflected perfectly the helpless horror Starsky felt. But while the years had receded his hairline if not the soft blondness and added a texture to the face it hadn't had twenty years before, it still held the same sympathy and warmth Starsky could remember from the synagogue so many years earlier.
In a way, neither they, nor the nation, would ever be the same again.
But as Hutch crossed the room in stiff, long-legged strides and a moment later they were hanging on to each other, Starsky couldn't help the thought.
There was still so much to be thankful for.
Written in 2001