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Shelter


ISSUE:  Winter 1990

I read about the desecration of a Boston synagogue during a light snowfall over Rhode Island on my way home from New York. Violent words had been spray-painted on the outer walls and the Torah in its sacred altar slashed and scattered in the street. Prominent citizens went on record with their shock and indignation, and this was comforting to me, but still I felt the tremors of a fear at once familiar and entirely strange, a vestigial and nearly physical foreboding.

Some years Carol and the girls go with me to New York, but this year her father was due in for a visit; Phil’s plane was arriving in Logan one hour after my return. We had felt it would be too much for the girls to spend the afternoon at a graveyard and then fly back to greet their grandfather, so I went down alone for the day to see my own grandfather, Max Kalish of Brooklyn—”formerly of Pogorodoro, just outside Pinsk, which at that time was Polish”—or rather, to see his grave. He died 15 years ago, two days before Christmas, and I have gone to New York, to the grave, every year since. The funeral took place on a bitter cold afternoon, and for several hours my relatives were near hysteria because the people from the cemetery called and said they couldn’t find any gravediggers until after the holiday. It was a Jewish cemetery, of course, but none of the workers were Jewish. I don’t remember exactly how the matter was resolved, but I know that my father went down to the cemetery and spoke with someone, or with several people, and I imagine that large amounts of money crossed hands to ensure that the holiday season would be brighter for everyone involved.

My father is a family court judge, but at that time he had just joined a firm in midtown Manhattan. “Reason with them,” my aunts begged as he left the house in his gray topcoat with the black ribbon pinned on the lapel and his wedding band and watch removed for the day. “Reason with them, Mr. Campbell,” they joked, with nuances of sneers tucked in their tones. My father had chosen the surname of Campbell when he turned 21, despite the massive coronary his own father suffered upon hearing the news. That had happened many years before my grandfather peacefully died in his sleep, but at the funeral I overheard my aunts murmur, “His heart was weak. He never got over it.” This of course confused me—I thought my father had saved the day by seeing to it that the gravediggers took up their shovels. Later, when we returned to sit shiva on wooden boxes lined up in the living room, more murmuring splintered their closeness. “Of course they’d reason with someone named Campbell,” I overheard an uncle say. “Not a Kalish. So maybe after all Dave was right to change his name.” Another uncle laughed and said, “He said he did it to make his professional life easier. Who knew it would also make dying easier?”

Carol waved through the crowd as I entered the waiting area. The light snowfall was now nearly a blizzard; the observation deck had frosted up, and the overhead monitors that list arrival and departure times kept blinking “To Be Announced” or “Canceled.” I made my way over and kissed her. “How was it?” Carol asked with my face still buried in her neck.

When I silently nodded, she patted my back, and I looked around for the girls. “Is your father going to make it?” I said.

“Canceled,” said Carol. “Until some time tomorrow. Nobody’s saying anything definite yet.”

“Where are they?” I asked.

She held up the girls’ winter jackets and frantically peered around the terminal. “Brett? Amanda?” She crushed the jackets to her chest. “They were here just a minute ago. But now I don’t see them. Billy, I don’t see them.”

“They’re here somewhere,” I said and started hollering.

“Brett! Amanda!” I squeezed Carol’s arm and tried to calm her. “Girls! Where are you?” Three years ago, on an unseasonably chilly June day, we had lost Brett on the windy beach at Gay Head. My panic didn’t set in until the second or third minute, when I ran down the sand into the frigid ocean fully dressed, my lungs seared with fear. Knocked to my knees and turned around by the tide, I had looked up to see Brett building sand castles on top of the dunes.

I pushed my way through the crowd at Logan, talking to myself, breathing deeply during those last seconds of calm, preparing for the worst.

On the other side of the terminal a gaggle of children jiggled and twitched as they waited their turns to talk to Santa Claus, enthroned on a red and green platform whose logo advertised a large Boston toy store. Santa’s assistant was handing out balloons and small bags of candies as the children left the bearded man’s knee and went spinning, wide-eyed, back to their parents.

My girls stood behind the velvet ropes watching, their arms around each other’s waists. When I neared them, I waited a moment or so to steady my hands before reaching out to tap their shoulders. Amanda stood transfixed but Brett blinked and looked up at me.

“Hi, Daddy,” she smiled.

She turned to the platform and kept watching Santa. “Hi, Sweetheart,” I said to her back. I ran my fingers along the nape of her neck and along the side of her sister’s cheek. Without looking up, Amanda swatted me lazily with her free hand. She raised her tiny chin to whisper in her sister’s ear. “It’s not fair,” she said.

Brett nodded slowly, biting her lip. I looked over their heads and saw Carol running toward us. “Bill!” she yelled. “Did you find them?”

“They’re fine.” I pointed down and then over to Santa. Carol stood in a lacuna of space, staring at me. She let out her breath and stared at the size 6X jacket in her left hand. She stared at the size 5 in the other. Then she looked back at me and nodded. “Jesus Christ,” she said when she reached us.

“Poor things,” said a man in a Burberry trenchcoat, standing a few feet from the girls. He pointed to the platform and whispered to a woman, probably his wife, beside him in an identical Burberry. Santa was bouncing twin boys, one on each knee. “Would it really be so bad if they let those kids go up there?”

Amanda heard what he said and whirled away from her sister. She twisted her curls with her finger and tugged eagerly at my sleeve. Brett pulled her back to the border of velvet ropes.

“We can’t,” she said sharply.

I left Carol and the girls in the terminal and went to get the car, but the engine kicked over once sullenly and then gave out. The waiting line for cabs stretched all the way toward the next terminal so I went back inside to call my secretary, Joshua Stein. His parents used to be college professors, but now they own their own cab; for years they have alternated the day and night shifts. Joshua said he would call and have whoever was driving come down and get us.

We gave the Steins 15 minutes and went outside to wait. The girls had recovered from Santa Claus and were holding onto the No Parking pole at the loading zone as they swung round and round, their braids whipped by the wind. I motioned them away from the curb and its death row of triple-parked cars and vans. Carol shuddered and peered into the traffic, the tip of her nose already reddening. She stretched out her hand and waved at the advancing taxicabs. “There he is,” she said.

Joshua’s father left the engine running as he got out of the cab and walked toward us, spreading his gloveless hands in a wide, thick-fingered fan, as if he expected one of us to toss a beach ball his way. He pounded my shoulders and motioned me into the front while Carol got the girls into the back. I picked a copy of Gorbachev’s book from the seat and leafed through it. “Has the weather been like this all day? I guess Josh told you I just flew in from New York. There wasn’t a trace of snow there.”

Mr. Stein maneuvered us toward the Sumner Tunnel. He flicked a few coins into the toll bin and we squeezed into the dank incoming lane. “Josh told me you needed a ride from the airport,” he said as a crinkle of static came to save him from further interrogation. “That’s all Josh said. That’s all I know.” He shrugged and lifted the microphone of the dispatcher on the dashboard. “Millie?” he said. Mr. Stein and his wife are aware of each other’s whereabouts at nearly every moment, down to the street and the block. He nodded at the microphone and the corners of his mouth eased into a smile. “All right,” he said. “Whatever I do I won’t forget the Tropicana.”

Since Phil’s flight was delayed, I had decided to stop at the office and work for a few hours. “We’ll drop you off and then I’m taking the girls straight home. They’re completely exhausted,” Carol said to me from the back seat as Mr. Stein replaced the microphone into its slot and motioned out at the congestion. We were passing the historic brick and stone buildings of Quincy Market, once the city’s main mart and now heaven for holiday hordes. Everywhere I looked Bostonians in heavy winter clothing scurried past, their arms laden with brightly-wrapped packages. “Christmas traffic,” Mr. Stein added. “This year I think I’ve finally tired of it.”

I turned back to Carol; she was staring at me with the same surprised expression that Mr. Stein’s words had caused me to feel. Joshua is finishing Suffolk Law’s night school while working as my secretary during the day. In the years we have known his parents neither of them has ever revealed anything personal either to me or to Carol. What we know about them has come from their son.

Mr. Stein eased the cab up to my building, a turquoise and caramel post-modern skyscraper overlooking the Harbor. “Looks like it’s made of Play-Dough,” Brett piped up from the back seat as I got out. “Every time I come here I start to think that Daddy sells Play-Dough. I know that isn’t what he really does, but that’s what I think.”

As Mr. Stein pulled away, I waved at the girls’ grinning pink faces, pressed against the frosty rear window on either side of Carol. I tried not to think about all the holiday traffic and the slick, icy roads that imperiled my family, nor the unspeakable dangers their Jewish faces might draw from the darkening city. In the eold orange sunset I read the shreds of stickers on the back bumper of the taxicab: “Remember Soweto,” “Mothers for Peace,” and “Atheists for Sanity in the Mideast.” Some people make a career of camouflaging their politics, but I knew that the Steins had concealed themselves only during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, when they lived for a month in each of New York City’s boroughs and for a while with relatives in Chicago who did not share their politics but, family being family, wanted the Steins to remain free to argue. Whenever Joshua’s family moved, one of the boys was allowed to choose a new surname. Their parents would wake them in the middle of the night and hand them glasses of chocolate milk and telephone books, and whichever name they wanted was what they went by till they moved again.

For me, having grown up in one house, Joshua’s childhood seemed exotic. While I was plodding off to school in Fairfield County, joining the Cubs and the Scouts, taking tuba lessons, and practicing my football passes, Joshua had been “Ripley,” “Fortunoff,” “Gizeltheider” and “Currier.” He didn’t learn his real last name until the early sixties, when McCarthy was dead and his family came back to Boston.

Whenever I looked at the stickers on the Steins’ cab, I wanted to ask how, after all that, they retained enough hope even to hoist those small, obvious flags. They raised three children. They must have had fear.

Phil called late that night, laughing, to say he was stranded “somewhere out west” and, if the blizzard stopped, would arrive the next evening. I was watching the news on TV in our bedroom and Carol was bent over a stack of greeting cards at the desk. The week before, she had finished A-R but still had eight or ten cards left to go. The police hadn’t yet found the desecrators of the synagogue, but the mayor and the governor were certain they would do so very soon.

For years I’ve been after Carol to list our home number in the telephone book or to put our home address on mail she sends out. When the news ended, I raised the issue again. “I’m worried about the effect on the girls,” I told her.

She winced but kept on writing. “I’d rather not,” she said. “I know you think I’m silly, and probably I am. It’s a carryover, an old habit. Like the fact that I don’t eat pork. It’s the way I was brought up.” She glanced over and smiled at me. Carol turns amnesiac on people’s last names but never their faces or connection to us. “What’s Joan’s last name?” she said. “Joan and Rob, down the street.”

“Wheeler,” I said. “And you have eaten pork. I’ve seen you eat it at Chinese restaurants.”

“Whatever,” she said. “You know what I mean. I just can’t do it. You worry too much.”

“If their friends want to call and make plans to play, how can they find out the number?”

“They’re too young to get phone calls,” laughed Carol. “And all the parents have ours, anyway. I’m sorry. I know it’s not rational.”

“You’ve told me you’re not even sure what your father did for a living,” I said.

When Carol is about to remember something she would rather forget, she reminds me of both our daughters. She bites her bottom lip, still plummy as Brett’s, and twirls a coil of copper-colored hair around her index finger like Amanda.

“I know he wasn’t “in grass seed,” like he told the neighbors,” she said wearily. “I know that twice a year, men who worked for the government would come to our house asking questions. Always polite, always dressed alike. Crew-cuts and poker faces and very pale skin. Gray topcoats that came to their knees, not one inch further. If my father was home, he’d laugh right in their faces. I remember once he felt guilty about it and invited them in for coffee and cake. “These guys have a thankless job, and to boot, they’re paid squat,” he whispered to my mother. “Their suits are straight from hunger. Plus they all have wives and kids, just like everybody else.”“

While Carol wrote her last holiday messages, I went downstairs and made us two cups of hot chocolate. I brought them up and found her in the girls’ room, smoothing Brett’s blanket and patting its edges under the mattress. Brett likes waking up cozy, tucked in and secure. Across the room Amanda’s feet dangled in midair, her head near the footboard. I lifted her gently and laid her back on the pillows. Carol was standing between the two beds, her arms at her sides. “It must have been hard to live like that, when you were just a child,” I whispered.

“I didn’t know the truth anyway,” she shrugged, watching the girls as they slept. “I still don’t.”

“You should ask him,” I said. “Ask Phil when he comes.”

She shook her head and bent over Brett’s bed, smoothing the final wrinkle. “You think that’s the answer,” she said. “You think you can ask people things and they will answer, and then you’ll understand everything.”

“What happens when the girls ask us?” I said.

“Ask us what?” she said on her way out of the room. “Ask what their grandfather did for a living, and why? What will they learn from asking that? Ask why their other grandfather chose a new surname and never explained himself to you, his only son? Ask why people write dirty words on synagogue walls? What answer can they give that will make it easier for you to explain to your daughters?”

Phil arrived in Boston the next evening. He insisted on taking a cab out from Logan and got to the house just as the girls were finishing their bath and getting ready for bed. Breathless, he stood in the doorway and withstood Amanda’s running jump as he tousled Brett’s hair, bouncing beside him, with his free hand.

Amanda waited until Carol had gone into the kitchen to heat water for tea before she glanced at me slyly and turned back to her grandfather. “Did you bring us anything, Pop-Pop?” she said.

Brett, older by 18 months, made a slight silent show of decorum, twisting the flounced hem of her nightgown as she stared eagerly up at Phil.

“Girls,” I said. “You know that’s rude.”

Phil had brought them 20 silver dollars each and matching pink sweaters with stuffed bunnies across the front. He sprinkled the silver dollars on the couch and the girls counted them over and over, making piles of four, of five, of ten silver dollars. “Twenty,” they kept saying, slapping their palms on their powdery foreheads. “Twenty each!”

“I wish these things still were solid,” Phil said to me, picking up a coin and pointing to the copper inset with his lips pursed in disgust. “That way it would be an investment. This way it’s just twenty bucks.” He tossed the dollar back on the couch and shook his head. “Leave it to the government.”

The next morning the girls jumped in his bed demanding new card tricks while I followed, waving their toothbrushes. I sat on the rocker in the guest room and watched my father-in-law work his wonder. He motioned Brett to where his suit jacket hung from the door knob and she pulled out a new deck of playing cards.

“Just a few tricks,” he said, winking up at me as she waved the deck in the air and stepped across his mattress, where Amanda knelt over his chest, tickling him. Phil twisted his face in mock torture and made his deal. “After that you two go off with your father and brush your teeth. Promise?” The girls roared and swooned as he made aces fly across the headboard and kings and queens come dancing from their ear lobes. They picked a card, any card, and next their choice was tucked in his pajama pocket.

It was the morning of Christmas Eve, and I was going into the office for a few hours to finish off some odds and ends. The girls had started skiing lessons the week before and Carol was taking Phil to watch them show off what they had learned. So far no legs and necks had been broken, but I wasn’t reassured as we sat down to breakfast and Brett described to her grandfather the sensation of gliding across the kiddie slope.

“It’s so-o-o dangerous,” she told him. “It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done.”

Amanda leaned her chin on her palm and stared up at him. “Pop-Pop, did you ever go skiing?” she asked.

“Never,” Phil said adamantly as he held up a spoonful of Cream of Wheat. Amanda inched against him, ignoring the bowl in front of her. She opened her mouth and kept talking while he ladled in the cereal. “Did you ever do anything dangerous?” she said.

Phil laughed and looked at Carol, who rolled her eyes at him and shook her head. “Some people might say so,” he laughed. “Depends on your point of view.”

“What kinds of things?” Brett said. “What dangerous things did you do?”

“Adult things,” Phil said. “But I never went skiing, and I never would. I’m too big a coward to try getting anywhere with wooden sticks on my feet. Life’s hard enough.”

“They make you go faster,” Brett laughed. “They’re not scary at all. They make you fly! We’ll teach you to ski, Pop-Pop. Amanda and I will show you how.”

“No thanks,” he said. “Watching the both of you, such big brave girls, will be enough of a thrill for one day. Maybe some other time.”

The few people who remain in my office toward the end of December either are new to the firm or do not celebrate Christmas. I walked past a squat comb of quarter-walled cubicles where a handful of analysts bent over their desks, as reticent to speak as the men and women who duck into public libraries for warmth at this time of year. I spent a few hours puttering around, reading memos, answering phone messages from people who wanted to reciprocate the first batch of greeting cards Carol had sent but were unable to write us at home or to call there. Every few minutes Joshua came to my door to ask in his accentless voice if I needed anything, slightly embarassed to find he was not interrupting me. Joshua has notions of how things should be when a person like me reaches a position like this and the fact that my pace never is killing, never as difficult as his parents’, mystifies and somewhat unnerves him.

Late that afternoon when I got home from the office I found a gift-wrapped package on our doorstep, with a tag that said “To The Campbells.” I brought the package into the kitchen, calling for Carol, for the girls, for her father. On the inside of the tag our neighbor Joan Wheeler had written: “To the four of you from the four of us. Sorry about what’s missing from this. But it’s the thought that counts, even if Courtney can’t!” Courtney was the Wheelers’ youngest. She had made us a brown clay menorah with seven instead of eight holders for candles.

Hanukah had been over for weeks, but I set the menorah on the living room mantle and went upstairs to see where everyone was. I checked our bedroom, the girls’ room, the guest room where Phil was staying. I couldn’t find anyone. The outline of the moon was growing visible when I went to the hall window and looked out at the pre-revolutionary colonials on our winding street. Interior lights began to flick on; here and there I saw a fresh wreath over a front door’s brass eagle or a fresh tree in a living room alongside a brick fireplace. The Wheelers’ windows were bunted with frost but only a cluster of poinsettias in silvery pots graced their mantle. When Carol and I were first married and lived in Watertown, each Christmas the facades of the tightly-packed houses were layered in colored lights until long after New Year’s, but in Lexington the houses were much larger. The front lawns sloped langorously, and on none of them did I see a nativity scene or a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

I looked again at the sky, thick with the undertow of steely gray that comes before the second, harsher snowfall. In the distance, Boston’s skyline seemed smugly inaccessible, a sanctum both for those whose credo was “good will toward men” and the freely roving bigots. The shadings on the moon now had more depth, more height and fall, than only moments earlier. On Monday Carol had driven me over to Blue Hills to reassure me about the kiddie slope. As I stared at the moon’s ruts and valleys I saw the girls hurtling down, not stopping, until they flew into the stars and crashed onto their ski poles, bloodily impaled upon our aspirations for them.

But the two orbs of white corning toward me were the headlights of her car, proceeding carefully along the slick road. She pulled into our driveway, turned off the ignition, and peered up at the window as she opened the back door of the car for the girls. Phil got out of the other seat and reached to remove their four tiny skis from the overhead rack. I pressed my face against the window’s cool glass and, after a while, went downstairs.

“What were you doing up there?” Carol asked as the girls stomped snow from their boots and unzipped their parkas. “You looked like a ghost. You nearly scared me to death.”

“Where the hell were you so long? You were supposed to be back from Blue Hills hours ago.”

“I told you I was taking the girls to the dentist,” she shrugged. “No big deal. They just needed check-ups.”

“No big deal? Three hours later and it’s no big deal? They could have been killed!”

“How?” Carol said. “With a dentist’s drill?”

“You’re joking, and I’ve been worried sick. Why didn’t you call?”

“I didn’t have any cavities,” Brett said. “Neither did Amanda. Aren’t you proud of us, Daddy?”

“It’s the fluoride in the water,” Phil said. “Those Commies had the right idea about that all along.”

Carol started laughing and I whirled to where she and her father stood hanging their coats in the mud room. “For Christ’s sake,” I said. “What’s wrong with you two?”

The girls backed away silently, their pink rubber boots trailing water along the tile floor. Carol turned her head slowly and looked at me. “You are shouting,” she said. “You are shouting at me and frightening your daughters.”

“Beautiful trees,” my father-in-law said a few minutes later, after I told Carol and the girls I was going out for some air. When Phil offered to come, I banged the back door behind me. I walked slowly to let him catch up and now, side by side, we were approaching downtown, its fine markets and shops closed early for the holiday. Phil pointed to the row of sycamores at the edge of Lexington Common, their frosty overhanging branches postcard-perfect. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen trees like those,” he added.

“They’re sycamores,” I told him. “Some are maples. They’re common all along the Eastern Seaboard. I’m sure you’ve seen them before.”

“People walk by things every day and don’t know what they are seeing,” Phil laughed. It was an unusually cold night even by New England standards and his teeth chattered as he took a monogrammed handkerchief from the pocket of his gray topcoat and wiped his eyes. “That is, they don’t want to know,” he added.

We cut across the empty Common, besieged during daylight by awe-struck tourists and bundled schoolchildren lined up in homage. On both sides of the walkway, giant stone statues of revolutionary heroes peered stoically down from their granite pedestals. In another few minutes we arrived at the post office. Phil likes to receive his mail wherever he goes; when Carol and I lived in Watertown he rented a box there, and after we moved to Lexington he canceled that one and rented one here.

The main section of the post office was locked and except for the two of us the lobby was empty, the modest holiday lights over the doorway casting a dignified yellow-white glow. The brass-fronted boxes came in three sizes, their identification numbers jumbled as if arranged according to some secret order. It took Phil several minutes to remember the location of his in the center of the bottom row.

“Carol says you had three sycamores in your yard when she was growing up,” I said. “She says the town you lived in was full of them.”

“Maybe I did run into a few trees in that town, but figured them fronts for something else,” he laughed, while I stood at the ZIP-code books along the far windows and watched him. “I was a poor kid from Newark. In Newark there were trees in the cemeteries. By the time we moved to the suburbs I was nearly middle-aged. It’s not easy to appreciate new things, even if they’re beautiful. That’s the reason people have children.”

Phil’s pallor had been worrisome since his last heart attack, but he still was with us, already several years’ past the age my grandfather had reached. He took off his gloves and bent down to his box. Our walk had been short, but it had strained him, and as he stood up he gasped for breath. He stashed his mail in his inner pocket and began walking toward me.

“What did you do for a living?” I asked him.

Phil shrugged and lifted two cigars from his pocket. At least, his face shrugged; he is a big, big-faced man with economical, almost delicate gestures, not the sort to involve his shoulders in something that can be handled more privately. He unwrapped the cigars, slipped off the gold paper rings, and patted them into his pocket.

“For my girls,” he said. “I used to do the same thing for their mother.” He sighed, staring at the cigar as he held it out to me, the way, I imagined, my father had held out his hand to the men who would dig his father’s grave.

In the yellow-white light, the public light of interrogation rooms and funeral parlors, Phil’s rheumy eyes and sallow skin reminded me of my grandfather at his cobbler’s bench, mourning the dearth of fine horses on Brooklyn’s dense streets, and of the same man a few years later as he lay in the unadorned pine coffin that smelled like the boardwalk at Coney Island. The pine box, the silky fringed shroud over my grandfather’s body and the white headdress folded into a soft fan around his face: all of it had happened overnight, according to an ancient protocol. Mahogany was smoother, but the unfinished pine had been required by the tenets of my grandfather’s orthodoxy. I stood saying good-bye with my hand on the edge, fearing the danger of splinters on such old, tired flesh. I kept hoping my grandfather would realize the pine meant I loved him no less than if it were a sacrilegious steel coffin lined in tufted satin.

Phil plucked the cigar from his mouth and rotated it between his thumb and index finger, the ash grown thick and long as his brown-stained thumbnail. He sidled his fingers forward, as if to reason with it—just a simple word or two—and that trunk of ash went silently to the post office floor.

“Now,” he said softly. “What is it you asked?”

I stepped out into the cold air off the Common and looked up at its statues of heroes, the human truth of their stories shrouded in myth for over two centuries. In years past, during Christmas, a large cross had topped the venerable evergreen towering over them, but this season the tree was ecumenically bare. In summer, at dusk, my daughters often picnicked beneath the statues’ great shadows, their hair freshly braided and their pinkened torsos and limbs refreshed in cool cotton playsuits.

Phil was behind me, shivering under the post office’s overhang. “Forget it,” I said.

“Done,” he smiled, and turned up his collar before venturing onto the sidewalk to join me. A block from the house I packed a snowball and threw it at the open sky, relieved that the circumstances of my life had granted us all such privileged shelter.

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