If Only Your Life Was as Heroic as Your Novel

"There Aren't Tornados in Brooklyn" by Kristopher Jansma, recommended by Electric Literature

apartment steps

Introduction by Brandon Taylor

Kristopher Jansma’s “There Aren’t Tornados in Brooklyn” is about the complicated afterlife of 9/11, and one of its many strengths is that it subtly and deftly captures the long trailing edge of catastrophe. Set during the actual 2010 Tornados in Brooklyn, the story hums with wry observations about the way history is made out of actual human tragedy.

We find our central character, Marlene, amid the mundane material comforts of her Park Slope life. Her husband works in the city and her daughter has a nanny of sorts whose name is enigmatically “B.” Marlene, in the wake of 9/11, wrote a novel that saw some modest success after being mentioned on The View—a detail that made me scream with delight. But Marlene is still haunted by the fall of the Towers, which she feels everyone else is trying desperately to forget.

Marlene is a prickly, funny character whose temper spreads across the story like a heat rash. She thinks disparaging thoughts about the kids who skateboard on her street. She skewers the Park Slope moms who jog by and judge her for smoking on the stoop. However, she reserves some of her sharpest barbs for her own work. After a friend reports to Marlene that she saw someone reading Marlene’s novel on the train, Marlene says: “Yes, well. That’s just what I wanted, really. For women on G trains everywhere to cry and be heartbroken.”

But one senses almost from the very first that Marlene is doing what we always do in grief: shield herself, lash out defensively. We find that it isn’t simply the Towers that Marlene is mourning; 9/11 took something precious from her. But the revelation doesn’t resolve Marlene into a bathetic, beatific character. Instead, it further complicates our understanding of her nature.

“There Aren’t Tornados in Brooklyn” plays with the scale of the collective disaster and the individual stories that shine like pricks of light in the night sky. I laughed and gasped and felt for these characters. The story plays with our impulse to make things sentimental, and I found its blending of fact and fiction rich and enlivening.

Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading 

If Only Your Life Was as Heroic as Your Novel

“There Aren’t Tornados in Brooklyn”
by Kristopher Jansma

Marlene inhaled the final third of a Parliament on the front step of the brownstone. Diane, her six-year-old, wouldn’t let her smoke inside anymore, which meant she now had to do it in full view of the rest of President Street. A mother barreled by in a fuchsia Athletica track suit, pushing a double-jogging stroller, also fuchsia. Her twin infants, strapped down like reluctant parachutists, stared impassively at the never-ending parade: impatient sandaled dog-walkers; tiny young women with thick glasses; dopey young men in skinny jeans carrying skateboards they only ever used to go downslope. One of them now came rolling down the opposite side of the street, generating a low, rumbling noise. Like an airplane coming in low out of the sky. These boys had been in Kindergarten when she’d heard that terrifying noise up close. Nine years ago. Now there was the world before it and the world after it, and she hated them for not knowing the former. All day long, the butts of their crushed Camels piled up on her bottom step.

You’re going to love Park Slope, Jonathan had said when Marlene had first told him of Diane’s impending arrival. It’s a real neighborhood. Perfect for kids. Not like Manhattan. It’s a real—whatsit? Community. Marlene eyed the last millimeter of her cigarette. Some community. A lithe seventy-year-old woman across the street, doing Tai Chi on her rooftop in the same gauzy robes she always wore. Bending and swaying and strutting, as oblivious to everyone else in the world as they were to her. But then looking. They all looked. Everyone. Just little sniping stares, that was all anyone ever risked. Quick sidelong judgments into other galaxies and then—snap—back to their own special spiral of stars.

Gray ashes began to fall over her fingertips and Marlene tossed her Parliament down among the Camels. The air was chilly for mid-September and the skies were a threatening Prussian blue.

Then, finally, she heard Ginny Thompson’s voice coming down the block.

“I wound up on the G train!” Ginny called.

“Gin, that’s impossible.”

But of course it was entirely possible. Ginny still got confused inside the new World Trade Center stop. Her memory had always been atrocious—part of the reason that she’d been fired from Percy, Lowry & Graber, the financial consulting firm where she and Marlene had temped together, nine years ago.

“I swear to God, I was in Queens,” Ginny shouted.

“Goddamn it,” Marlene called back. “You shouldn’t be allowed to cross the street by yourself.”

As Ginny almost lost her breath laughing, Marlene whisked her old friend inside, where Ginny confessed to having been distracted by her Stell Eklünd book—the latest in the seven-book series—and Marlene asked how she could possibly read anything on, “that Kindly-do,” and Ginny admitted that she did sometimes skim whole pages without realizing, partly because it was just too much fun watching the thousand little ink-pixels spinning around to form static, and then divide into new words. The book, she further admitted, was subpar but sexy, even by murder mystery standards.

Soon they were drinking something called a Bella Noche that involved elderflower and Plymouth gin and since each of them claimed to have eaten something earlier and neither actually had, they got pretty drunk, pretty quickly.

“Will Mr. Wallace be here later?” Ginny asked, flipping through one of his architecture magazines as Marlene poured out more drinks.

“Ginny, you’re not making his copies anymore. You were at our wedding for Christssakes. You can call the man Jonathan.”

She giggled again. “It just doesn’t sound right.”

Marlene rolled her eyes expertly and brought over the two crystal glasses—filled to their brims but not spilling. “He’ll be home whenever,” she said. “He’s always home whenever.”

Ginny, suddenly remembering something, set her drink down on the table. “I saw— on the subway. On the G train. I saw someone reading your book! And I went over to her and said, ‘That’s my dearest, oldest friend’s book.’”

Marlene unsubtly shoved a coaster under Ginny’s glass. She had never been on the G train before, despite having lived in Brooklyn for years. Her husband made her swear to always take a car—to bill it to the firm and not to worry. Jonathan was of that older school for whom the subways would forever be subterranean dens for junkies and rapists. “You don’t survive New York in the seventies,” he used to say at parties, “Without developing some healthy prejudices.”

“And I said, ‘That’s my—’ Well, like I told you. And this woman, she said, ‘It’s just absolutely… Heart. Breaking.’ She said it like that. Like two words like that. Heart. Breaking. ‘I’ve read it a hundred times and I cry every time when that sweet boy dies.’”

Marlene picked at the corner of her eye and said dryly, “Yes, well. That’s just what I wanted, really. For women on G trains everywhere to cry and be heartbroken.”

Marlene’s novel, Stone Towers, was about a firefighter named Stone who saves the lives of eighteen people in the smoldering South Tower. He then rescues his childhood friend, Jerry, before being trapped himself under a toppled filing cabinet and caught in the collapse. In the second-half of the novel, Jerry becomes a school teacher in the Bronx and helps the children band together and raise money to construct a neighborhood 9/11 Memorial Wall and there is a big scene at the end where a little boy is nearly killed during the construction when a piece of the Wall falls onto him, except Jerry lifts this stone off of him and, well, you get it. The book wasn’t very good, Marlene thought, but her editor, a friend of Jonathan, had liked it, and it had sold a number of copies after being mentioned on The View.

There was a little, not-entirely-awkward silence and then the familiar twin rumbling of another pair of skateboarders going down the sidewalk.

“Those kids and their damned—” Marlene scooted to the window, but the kid was gone already. “They’re everywhere. Makes you long for the days when this was a bad neighborhood. I’d take a bunch of roughneck Italians over these gawky wisps any day.”

“You know what I saw when I was walking down here?” Ginny said, “A girl pulling bedsprings out of a mattress someone had left on the street. She almost hit me with one! Anyways, I asked her just what in the hell she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m an artist?’ Like she wasn’t all that sure herself.”

“It is insanity in this place. I’m not even joking. I’m losing my goddamned mind. Diane’s got this older girl tutoring her in Math. And she’s just got this piercing right through where her ear connects to her head. That little bony bit in the middle—”

Ginny dutifully prodded her own ear until Marlene nodded, yes, she had the correct spot.

“And I said to her, ‘B.’—that’s her whole name— ‘B, I love your little ear piercing!’ and B says, ‘That’s my targus, Ms. W… targus piercings are the bomb right now.’”

“‘The bomb,’” Ginny laughed.

“Everything’s ‘the bomb’ with her. She’s twenty and just taking some time off from the New School and she’s into making pictureframes and listening to The Dolls and her friend is in a Renaissance Klezmer band, and she’s very concerned about the planet and utopic formalism and she’s getting a Gerhard Richter tattoo and she’s starting a flashfiction initiative and last week she told me I’m a bigot—very sweetly and all—for being against the mosque downtown.”

Ginny exaggerated a gasp.

Marlene grinned wickedly. “And I told her, ‘Honey, when some Saudi blows up the office that you work in and kills almost everybody you know, then you can talk to me about being a bigot.’”

Ginny was practically off the couch. “What did she say?”

“She goes—” and Marlene laughed despite herself. “She goes. ‘Well. I don’t work in an office.’”

They nearly passed out, they laughed so hard. Marlene surprised herself, for she had been genuinely upset about it, but with Ginny around, her own twenties seemed a little nearer. She’d probably have said the same kind of thing, then.

“So were you there or not last Saturday?” Marlene asked Ginny. “I looked around for you when it was all ending, but it was an absolute madhouse.”

There had been a protest on the proposed mosque site, and Marlene had been there, though she didn’t stay very long, considering that the crowd was mostly too disgusting. Not at all what she’d expected. She’d needed Ginny there, but she hadn’t showed up.

“I got stuck,” Ginny lamented with a prolonged sigh. “On the ferry. For hours and hours. That woman jumped off; didn’t you hear about that?”

Marlene waved her hand around as if swatting flies, her rings catching the daylight coming in the window. “Something about it. But what on earth were you doing on Staten Island? Don’t tell me you were at the prison.”

“Tim asked me. I thought it might be good research for my next Louise Cassidy story—”

Timothy Wales was a boy Ginny had dated during her days at Monsignor Farrell High School who was presently doing ten years at Arthur Kill Correctional Facility for getting drunk and driving his father’s Cadillac into the front window of Thriftway Pharmacy and killing a little girl and her mother. He was due to be freed in December. Not a single one of Ginny’s stories of how he’d quit drinking, found Christ, or taken up writing letters for Amnesty International had chipped off a speck of Marlene’s disapproval and both women quite indelicately barreled on to different subjects at once, like a pair of boats being spun oppositely in the same storm.

“I said to B that if they want to build that damned mosque they’ll have to do it over my exploded corpse.”

“Why would a woman try to drown herself in the East River of all places?”

Both were frozen in these utterances by the sound of the front door opening.

“Is that little Diane?” Ginny shouted.

Diane walked solemnly inside, as if reporting for jury duty. This was how she walked when she came home now. Marlene couldn’t understand it. Behind her, B was carrying Diane’s backpack and a bag of groceries and, for some reason, a telescope.

“I found this in the trash out there,” she announced.

“Don’t bring it in here.”

“Diane wanted to look in it.”

“Diane can look through a telescope that isn’t covered in bed bugs, thank you.”

Ginny laughed and introduced herself to B without getting up. As she did, there was another loud rumble outside.

“Are those skateboarders still out there?” Marlene interrupted.

“They’re leaving now, Ms. L. Don’t worry. I told them to fu— to get off your step,” came the high and confident voice of B.

“They were on my step?” Marlene shouted.

B did not reply, and there was the sound of a great struggle from the foyer, and then Diane raced into the room to greet Ginny before her nylon windbreaker had hit the ground.

“Aunt Gin!” she yelled. Her bear hug sent half a Bella Noche flying onto the carpet.

“Diane!” scolded Ginny.

“B!” called Marlene.

“Aunt Gin!” sang Diane again. “Aunt Gin, I’ve got to tell you about Samuel and Abraham and Emmanuel and—”

“That’s a lot of people to tell me about!” Ginny said. “With such funny names!”

“They’re all made-up,” Marlene explained. “She dreams up these people she thinks live upstairs with her.”

“They’re ghost people,” Diane whispered loudly. “They all lived in our attic, which is my room, and they were hiding up there from the Nazis because they were all Jew people—”

“Diane, I told you,” B said, coming in to mop up the spilled gin with a rag. “Say Jewish people or just Jews.”

B looked apologetically at the two women, who could not have cared less. “They did Anne Frank last week at school.”

“—and they were all in my room behind a fake door and the Nazis kicked it open and hung everybody up from nooses and then put their heads into Fed Ex boxes and sent them around to all the houses in Brooklyn like a warning and then—”

“You’re too much.” Ginny patted her straight blonde hair, which was held back by a small red headband with a perfectly cock-eyed bow. “What a little brain in there!”

Her mother didn’t seem to think so. “Diane, that’s enough! Go on up and start your homework. B’s only here for another hour.”

B tried to clear the young one out, but Diane seemed aware this was her only chance to make an entertaining impression upon her Aunt Gin—who might not be back for months again—and so she wriggled free and swirled around her mother.

“Momm-o, Momm-o there’s going to be a tornado!” she sang. “At school, they said. Like in Dorothy.”

“There aren’t tornados in Brooklyn.”

“But Momm-oooo—”

“That’s why we live here and not in Kansas!” Ginny chirped.

Marlene’s family was, actually, from Kansas—there were two stepbrothers living in Lawrence, last she’d heard, which had been quite a long time ago. But Diane didn’t know about them.

“But Aunt Gin—”

Marlene swatted playfully at Diane. “Go on up and do your math before B has to go!”

The girl bounded up the stairs, calling out as she rose to her invisible friends. “Emmanuel, Abraham! There’s going to be a tornado!”

It was several minutes before the women had settled down with fresh drinks, because there was a rumble again of skateboarders outside and Marlene flung open the window to yell at them to fuck off and then gave the finger to a stroller mother who had the gall to look affronted. Then Marlene forgot to shut the window and even though the air outside was starting to smell sharp, like rain, Marlene declared that it seemed like a lot of trouble to get up and so she didn’t.

“You’re such a character,” Ginny sighed, pulling her little ratty Moleskine from her purse and making some cursory scribbles. Marlene never minded this—in fact she rather liked it—for as unpublishable as all of Ginny’s ridiculous detective novellas were, Marlene always felt a warmth at recognizing one of her own marvelous quips coming out of the mouth of their protagonist: Louise Cassidy, Private Investigations. No crime too big. “And no man too small,” Ginny liked to joke loudly in the wine bars where they met every other month, more or less, usually less, for their writing group.

Louise Cassidy did have quite a lot of sex, for a Private Investigator, and it was a bit remarkable that any crimes ever got solved between all the “quickening pulses” and “dastardly grinning” and the “throbbings” and “stirrings” that Louise tended to feel “deep-down inside.”

Everything that Ginny wrote was dreadful, and Marlene told her so, and Ginny nodded agreeably and jotted Marlene’s comments down as if they were Commandments. Everything that Marlene wrote was phenomenal, and Ginny told her so, and Marlene wrote none of it down because she knew it was bullshit and this only made Ginny adore her more.

“How is the new book coming?” she asked.

“I can’t,” Marlene said irritably. “You know I can’t discuss it until it’s on the page.”

Ginny giggled and they each had a fourth drink and at last Ginny reached the familiar, pleasant point where she forgot the little difference there ever was between the things she thought and the things she said out loud.

“Do you ever run into Susan Dunby anymore around here?”

Marlene picked at the corner of her eye again. There was something, an eyelash, in there.

“She left Park Slope years ago. She couldn’t afford it even then.”

Ginny nodded knowingly. “I thought maybe with David’s pension.”

“Ugh,” Marlene said, rubbing her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. Whatever it was, wouldn’t come out. “Those a-holes at UPS never paid. Can you believe it? They said because he wasn’t actually in the towers to deliver anything that day. I made all these calls to MetLife or whatever and told them he was coming to pick something up from me, but they don’t have it in their records.”

“He wasn’t really though, was he? Picking something up, I mean.”

“No of course not,” Marlene said dryly. “He was coming to bang me in the supply closet again.”

Ginny more-or-less swooned, spilling the remainder of her fourth drink onto her own dress. But it was hardly enough to worry about.

“He hated living here,” Marlene sighed. “You know what he told me once? This place was originally called Solipsist Slope. Back in ancient Brooklyn. Isn’t that hysterical? Did I ever tell you that?”

Marlene leaned into the great cloudlike pillow of her couch and closed her eyes. “David said it’s from a Lenape Indian myth—this is what he said. This guy named Solipsissus, who was a complete and utter charmer, was walking along by the big lake in Prospect Park. And then Crazy Jack, he’s like a mischievous kind of spirit, flies by and shoots him right in the ass with one of these little arrows that make people fall in love with the next person they see. Like Cupid.”

Marlene mimed the shooting with dramatic poise.

“So Solipcissus is like, ‘Ow. Damnation and tar feathers! Whooooooo shot me?’ That’s just how David said it exactly. And so, he drops his trousers and bends over the lake to see if he’s all right and then bam. Falls in love.”

“With his—” Ginny was shaking, she was laughing so hard. “With his own—?”

Marlene thought again that she ought to get up and close the window, because the wind was really picking up out on the curb. She could even hear the trash cans blowing over and she didn’t want the mess but she also didn’t really care.

“He said— he said— ‘You’ve heard of naval-gazers? Well. Around here we’ve got that beat.’”

Ginny was still laughing. “He should have been the writer.”

“David should have been a lot of things,” Marlene said, shutting her eyes and wishing it wasn’t absolutely howling outside now. The brocade curtains her mother-in-law had picked out without permission were beginning to whip around. She wanted a cigarette straight away. “I told him that once. I said, ‘David! You should be a writer’. We were all down there at Mexicana Mama. You remember—’”

Finally, Ginny stopped laughing. Marlene was relieved. In nine years, they’d never spoken about this.

“David took me there all the time. Mexicana Mama. Only place downtown you could get sangria any time, day or night. That’s how I knew, that morning, that’s how I knew we should go there to get plastered when Jonathan fired you.”

Marlene could still picture it. Sitting there, at a waist-high counter covered in old tequila bottle labels. Sipping peach sangria at 8:45 in the morning. Ginny sobbing about how she was going to pay her rent and that she was going to have to move home with her mother. And then it had all happened. Then it had all really happened. That whole horrible, bright morning turned black, in an instant.

“We were there at Mexicana Mama,” Marlene started over. “And I was telling David all about taking that class in college and John Irving came, and then David was staring out the window at these guys hauling trash bags off this dumpster. Big black bags. They were sort of steaming in the cool air. They were loading them into a big truck and he said, ‘That Irving guy’s a hack,’ and I said, ‘Well let’s see you write something,’ and he said, ‘I’d rather be a garbageman than a writer. Selling everybody else’s secrets. That’s no way to live.’”

There in the living room, Ginny started to cry, and Marlene shouted, “Oh now what are you crying for?” and got up to console her friend.

But before Marlene had staggered even two steps across the room, the world outside the window went inky black and a spiral of wet wind exploded into the room.

Marlene heard a scream from upstairs. Ginny fell over. The two emptied crystal glasses sailed halfway to the door and smashed into pieces. A porcelain lamp toppled and the bulb inside popped with a flash and the air was filled with architecture magazines and Ginny howled and covered her mouth with her sleeve and Marlene looked all around but couldn’t find the stairs, and then it was done.

Outside Marlene could hear a great cry of car alarms—everywhere, car alarms. She rushed to the open window and saw the whole sidewalk had been ripped up by the tree out front, uprooted and then dropped back down again onto a station wagon.

Ginny was yelling but Marlene didn’t help her up. She was hurrying to Diane’s bedroom. Stairs, two at a time. With each step she was surer and surer that when she got there her daughter would be—she couldn’t even think it, but of course she was always thinking it. She was always waiting for it to happen and now it had. This was how she’d lost the first thing she’d ever loved, and this was how she imagined losing the rest, all the time. She tried, so hard, not to love them so much, but there she was anyway, hardly breathing at all and wondering why there was no more screaming. Only the sound of her own shins hitting the steps when she missed. Her own hands grabbing the bannisters to stay upright.

At last she got to the door, got it open, and saw the window open behind B on the bed. She was holding a squirming Diane.

“Let me go!” Diane yelled, as she clawed at B’s arms. Marlene saw that the older girl was frozen solid, totally paralyzed.

“Honey. Let her go,” Marlene said, leaning above her to shut the window. “Let her go, honey.”

Now that she could see they were alive, she was suddenly incredibly calm. She felt like she was floating an inch in the air. She coolly pulled the teenage girl’s hands off her daughter and lifted Diane away. The girl was still shouting something, trying to get away, and Marlene couldn’t see why. She kept pointing to her dresser, which had toppled onto the floor. Marlene had asked Jonathan to secure it a hundred times; it had such spindly little legs.

“I’m going to throw up,” B said in a high voice. “I’m pretty dizzy.”

Marlene told B to stay on the bed, “Go splash some water on your face. It’s just shock. It’s fine.”

B’s mouth moved a few more times but nothing came out.

“Do you always get like this? When these things happen?”

B blinked twice and swallowed roughly. “When what things happen, Ms. W?”

“Come on, let’s go splash some water on your face. Come on.”

And she set her squirming daughter down at last and helped B to her feet. And it was then that Marlene noticed that on the floor, just knocked off her daughter’s nightstand, was a copy of Stone Towers. Marlene picked it up and turned it over in her hands. It was not one of the hardcover remainders that she kept in the basement. It had a little public library call number on the edge.

Marlene turned and saw her daughter, now trying to lift the fallen dresser, which was at least three times her size.

“Where did you get this?” Marlene asked. “B did you check this out for her?”

B shook her head, still looking bloodless.

“Momm-o, Momm-o, he’s stuck under there!” Diane was crying.

“Young lady, you tell me where you got this!” Marlene said. She dropped the book so that the barrel-chested fireman on the front cover was facing the rug.

“David got it for me!” Diane sobbed. “Momm-o help.”

Marlene’s eyes narrowed. She wrenched her daughter away from the dresser, and Diane wailed, because she’d wedged her fingers tightly underneath. Marlene kissed them in apology. She didn’t know what was happening.

“David who?” Marlene shouted. “Who is David?”

“David’s my friend. He’s one of the Jew— the Jewish people who hides up here.”

“Diane, stop it right now.”

“He reads it to me at bedtime!” Diane tried to get free of her mother. Her cheeks were shot crimson with tear stains. “He’s stuck. He was hiding from the Nazis.”

“Listen to me. No one’s under there!”

But she let Diane go, and her daughter ran back again to try to pick the dresser up. She squeezed her tiny hands underneath, but she could not budge it even an inch. Marlene stared at her daughter, who looked as if she would surely disjoint her own fingers before she’d stop. Marlene felt as if her still-quick heartbeat had just propelled her into another world, the old one falling down behind her.

It’s real to her, she thought. He’s real to her.

Marlene steadied herself and squeezed past her daughter beside the dresser. She eased both of her hands under the front end and heaved up. It was so heavy that it began to fall again, and she screamed at Diane to keep away, and then Ginny was there and they were lifting it up together.

At last the dresser was back up against the wall where it belonged.

“Would you believe a tornado!” Ginny was shouting. “Diane! You were right!”

B sat down on the bed again. She still looked like she’d seen a ghost.

“Oh, Gin,” Marlene whispered, turning to lay her head onto her friend’s shoulder.

Marlene thought, as she often thought, that if it hadn’t been for Ginny getting fired—

“I called him,” she sniffed. “You know? I told him to come pick something up.”

Ginny stopped her smiling and sat down, totally serious, beside her friend.

“Hey. Come on. That’s not important,” she said.

“I didn’t have anything to pick up.”

“That’s not important,” she said again.

“He’s all right,” Diane shouted happily, “Momm-o. Aunt Gin. He’s all right!”

Together, the two women watched as the girl closed her eyes and squeezed at the thin air just in front of her.

About the Recommender

More about the recommender

More Like This

For Viet Thanh Nguyen, Writing is an Act of Beauty and Justice

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author doesn’t want to be a voice for the voiceless, he wants to abolish the conditions of voicelessness

Oct 4 - Eric Nguyen

The Real Impact of Imaginary Friends

"Such Common Life, Part 1: Protein" from WEDNESDAY'S CHILD by Yiyun Li, recommended by Elizabeth McCracken

Aug 28 - Yiyun Li

The Mating Call That Occupies My Memory

Two flash fiction skaz pieces by Jake Marmer

Mar 27 - Jake Marmer
Thank You!