Commentary Magazine


Settlers

One sunday morning at eight o’clock Peter Loy stood on the corner of Congdon Street and Brighton Avenue, waiting for the bus downtown. It was October, and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate, not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead, he looked like a dowager.

It didn’t matter; this was not a neighborhood that could afford to frown on oddities. Congdon Street was home to an assortment of students, foreigners, and old people. A young couple with matching briefcases had recently bought one of the peeling houses in the hope that the street would turn chic; they spent all their free time gamely stripping paint from the interiors. On weekday mornings white-haired women in bathrobes stared from apartment windows while their middle-aged daughters straggled off to work, and then kept on staring. The immobility of the stay-at-home mothers suggested that their daughters had locked them in; but often at noontime Peter would see one of them moving toward the corner. Her steps lightened as she neared Brighton Avenue. Here was life! Fresh fish, fish ‘n chips, Fishberg the optician. Also on Congdon Street was a three-story frame building with huge pillars and sagging porches—a vaguely Southern edifice. Inside lived an entire village of Cambodians.

Peter had moved to this seedy section of Boston three years before, upon his retirement from the private boys’ academy where he’d taught English. His plain apartment here pleased him far more than his aunt’s town house in Back Bay. He had dragged out several decades in that town house, first as his aunt’s pampered guest and then as her legatee. He had sold it for a good price to the young self-made millionaire next door, Geronimus Barron. No one had hurried Peter out after the sale, though he was eager enough to leave; but within a month of his departure Barron had knocked down the wall between the houses, gutted entire floors, and installed solar panels and skylights. The magnificent place that resulted was featured in Architectural Digest and the New York Times. The lovely tiled fireplace in his own bedroom, Peter noted with pride, remained untouched.

The bus came. The few passengers aboard already looked fatigued. Peter, his own heart light under his silly coat, began the weekly journey.

_____________

 

“How’s the research?” Meg Wren was asking, a few hours later.

Jack and the three children were playing with a soccer ball in the field in back of the house. The field sloped gently toward the woods. A mile away was the Sudbury River. Peter couldn’t see the river now, from the kitchen, but he could glimpse it from the third-floor guest room where he stayed whenever he spent the night.

“I’m having trouble placing Mrs. Jellyby,” Peter said.

“Mrs. Jellyby?” Meg repeated, wrinkling her long brow.

Peter waited. Her gaze was intelligent; but he was not sure exactly how well read she was. She had been born and raised in Nebraska, and had come East after college, almost fifteen years before, and had quickly married one of his former students. “Bleak House?” she said.

“Bleak House,” Peter commended. “Mrs. Jellyby is the crackpot who spends all her time collecting money for the natives of Borioboola-Gha. Her own ragged children keep tumbling down the stairs. Their house is filthy and falling apart. ‘Never have a mission,’ her poor husband warns the heroine. These days we would applaud Mrs. Jellyby’s selflessness. We’d be glad to know that she cares about Africa—funny how some things never seem to change.”

“‘For ye have the poor always with you’?”

“Yes; and they’re always the same poor. Mrs. Jellyby carries her ardor to excess, and neglects
the need nearest her. Not a very Christian form of charity.”

Peter paused. He had been lecturing to Meg, taking advantage of her daughterly attention. In years spent among self-important high-school teachers and garrulous old ladies he had accustomed himself to the listener’s role. Now he had found someone who listened as attentively as he did. It was as if she had inherited the talent from him—or, since that was impossible, had caught it. And this house of hers—so old, and so fresh—it too seemed to want to hear what he had to say. “Mrs. Jellyby’s philanthropy isn’t very Jewish, either,” he went on. “You could make a case that her charity is in Maimonides’s seventh degree—she doesn’t know the names of the people she’s relieving and they’ve certainly never heard of her. But Dickens meant her to be a figure of fun, and he keeps arguing with me. He says that Maimonides was talking about charity closer to home, and that Mrs. Jellyby doesn’t qualify at all. . . . I do get a bit carried away, don’t I?”

Meg was silent. Of all the silences he had ever experienced, Meg’s was his favorite. It was not disappointed, like his mother’s; not bored, like those of the women he had courted; not embarrassed, like that of the Search Committee which had failed to award him the headmastership; not sleepy, like students in late afternoon remedial classes; and not terrifying, like his mute aunt after her stroke.

“I think you’re enjoying this task,” she said after a while.

“Carrot scraping?” he smiled. He had been scraping carrots for her while they—he—talked.

“Thinking about Dickens and Maimonides,” she said. “Finding Maimonides’s eight levels of charity in the novels of Dickens,” she carefully amended. “It does sound . . . nice. I knew you were interested in Dickens. But I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism.”

“I’m not interested in Judaism. Only in Jews. They’re so complicated.. ..”

“Yes.”

“. . . always have been.” At Harvard just after the war he had noticed that his brightest classmates were the Jewish boys. They were at home with Swift’s grotesques and Jane Austen’s ingenues. Mastering Middle English was a snap after Hebrew. Shakespeare’s tales were just another set of midrashim. Every exchange with one of those students had left Peter admiring and envious. He wondered what encounters Meg had thus far endured—dinner-party pilpul? Lordly attempts at seduction? . . . And here was her husband, open-faced, steady as the junior-high-school principal he was. He walked in grinning, his arm outstretched.

The three children bounded in behind Jack: two boys and a little girl. The younger boy’s hair matched the pumpkin on the windowsill. Meg said that his coloring came from her side of the family, though her own smooth hair was brown. The children greeted Peter lightly, as if a week had not gone by since they last saw him; as if he hadn’t spent over an hour on bus, trolley, and little train; as if he lived there always. Someday he must really live there, Meg had said more than once. The third-floor room was just the place to retire from his retirement.

_____________

 

After lunch the three adults drank hot cider under an apple tree and talked about the children.

“They’re lazy,” said Jack. “I tried to teach Ned chess the other day. Too difficult, he said. Checkers is good enough for him.”

Meg said, “It’s good enough for a lot of people.”

“Oh, Meg. We send them to private schools. We shore up this old house for them.” He wasn’t complaining, Peter noticed; he was proud.

“You spend two hours a day commuting,” Meg added.

“I do. So they’ve got to,” said Jack.

“Got to what?” she laughed.

“Play chess.” And he laughed, too. “What do you think, Peter?”

“What do I think about what?” Peter hedged.

“About our three hooligans. About the worth of private education. About the country life.” Jack breathed deeply. Generations of farmers and ministers expressed themselves in that pleased inhalation. The house had always been in his family; some ancestor had built it. A century ago he would have farmed the land with his sons and a few hired hands. They would have made a genteel go of it. The boys would have gone to Harvard as a matter of course. Now he had to weary himself every day at a profession he was unfit for, and his children would have to compete for college places against the grandchildren of longshoremen and Pullman porters. To strengthen them for the fight, Meg drove them to their Cambridge school every morning and home again in the late afternoon. In the interval she worked as a programmer, also in Cambridge.

Peter said, “I think the house is its own reward.”

The stone wall in the garden was mauve under the afternoon sun. The kitchen windows gleamed like water. Roses bloomed with a soft fire—there would be one or two still glowing as late as Thanksgiving, Peter remembered—and zinnias and asters flourished along the path to the door. It was a house to come home to. That the young Wrens were inside watching television seemed not hopeless, just sad. Meg’s modesty and Jack’s busyness perhaps did not perfectly serve their offspring.

“Children tend toward the mean,” Peter suggested.

“The mean and nasty,” said Jack. But Meg said doubtfully, “The mean between Jack and me?” “The mean of their own generation,” said Peter, smiling.

“Is that unavoidable?” she said, not smiling. He didn’t like to drive, didn’t own a car, but if he lived here he could drive the kids to school and back, and Meg could work at home. She was a valued programmer; her company would allow her that privilege; these days any arrangement was possible. And eventually his aunt’s legacy, unexhausted, would go to the children.

_____________

 

In the mornings the young of Congdon Street went off to school, the bigger ones shepherding the smaller. Even the smallest had pilgrim backpacks. Some mothers walked along behind, not interfering, just watchful. Peter wondered if the women took turns as monitors. The daytime danger was from traffic. Peter too kept an eye on the children from his window. Sometimes, out early to buy the paper, he found himself in their midst; a little crowd of small Asians and Central Americans would divide briefly for his sake and then reunite behind him. He felt like a maypole. The children wore every shade of corduroy. How were they faring in the Land of Opportunity? he wondered. The manager of the Cambodian building, N. Gordon, was being brought to court because of his failure to maintain the building properly. The failure was not his fault, his lawyer had countered; the place was overcrowded; these people kept sub-renting to one another.

Peter went out every day. He now recognized some of the slow-moving white-haired women, and smiled at them. He used the main library downtown. He read a book about Dickens and Sabbatarians and another about Dickens and Jews. Sometimes he met a colleague or a former student for lunch. He went to afternoon movies, and sat in the back row with his long legs on the seat in front of him. He went to friends’ houses for dinner, or fixed himself healthful meals at home.

_____________

 

The wrens gave an annual afternoon party on the Sunday after the Game. Meg did the work herself, with some assistance from the family and from Peter. She baked cheddar cheese puffs. She twisted salami into flutes, and arranged crudités around a bowl of yogurt. Peter remembered his aunt’s cook’s zealously constructed trifles, each layer less edible than the one before. Meg’s canapés were at least tasty.

That morning Peter stood at the kitchen counter, spreading fish paste onto little squares of pumpernickel and admiring the view from the window. A stand of spruces made him think of Christmas. Beside him, Meg sliced cucumbers. They were both wearing jeans; both had a birch-tree litheness; he might have been her older brother.

The crowd at the party was, as always, varied—local gentry, old friends, co-workers; a pair of ancient cousins of Jack’s. Also there was a group of parents from the children’s school, including two notables, both Jews: a psychologist who was also a TV commentator, and Geronimus Barron, Peter’s former neighbor. Their wives were not particularly attractive, just assured. A generation ago, Peter reflected, Jewish wives had been well dressed and cultivated and full of leisure. Now they were all practicing medicine. You couldn’t keep up with people like that.

He was popular at this party. People remembered him from year to year. A friend of Meg’s whose husband was leaving her had once wept on his shoulder in the pantry. That couple seemed to have reconciled, he noticed. The Wrens’ dentist fancied himself a devotee of Dickens, although Peter was under the impression that he had read only Oliver Twist. Jack’s cousins made much of him. “We’d like to talk to you more often than once in a blue moon.”

“. . . would be lovely,” he said.

“We’ll have to get Peggy to arrange it.”

Peggy? “. . . happy families are not alike,” someone was saying.

“. . . more to be pitied then censored. She snoops to conquer.” Who was that punster? Oh, the TV psychologist. . . . And somehow Geronimus Barron was at his side. How long had he been standing there?

“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Loy.”

“Peter,” Peter corrected. “I didn’t hear you come up, Geronimus. You were as quiet as a tiger.”

“Is that what a corporate takeover feels like?” asked one of the cousins.

“I don’t know,” said Geronimus Barron. He had a habit of answering as precisely as possible whatever question had been posed. This gave him an obedient air. “I don’t want to take you over, Mr. Loy, Peter, but I wish you were part of my staff. Margaret says that you’re the last of the lucid thinkers.”

Margaret? Geronimus, hands in pockets, smiled a courteous refusal to the teenager passing a tray of wine. The cousins, as if to make amends for so abstemious a guest, took two glasses each. How old was this quiet tycoon, Peter wondered. Forty? You could put him naked and empty-handed on a desert island, and in five years he’d be chief minister to the native king. Maimonides had risen to court physician in record time. . . . “What else does Margaret say?”

“Peggy never talks much,” said one cousin.

“Still waters run deep,” said the other.

“She and I serve together on the Scholarship Committee,” said Geronimus, and the talk turned to minority recruitment. Peter had received the latest bulletin from the boarding school he himself had attended. The school had recently invited two South Bronx boys to study there; and two unhappier faces had never before been immortalized on high-quality vellum. Entrapment, Peter called it. Geronimus listened.

_____________

 

The next morning Meg said that she would drop the children at school before leaving Peter at Harvard Square. Peter was pleased to be part of this family ritual. A curved line of automobiles humped forward slowly. Only one car at a time was allowed to disburden itself. The students getting out of the cars had the ragamuffin look of the rich. Meg wore a ski sweater and did not look rich, just wholesome. “Think of Jack’s long drive every day,” she was saying as they left the school grounds. “It’s no wonder he can’t finish his doctorate—he spends all his time on the highway. Sometimes I think we should do a splurge and invest in a chauffeur. It would give Jack two more hours a day to work on his thesis. He could sit in the back seat with an Olivetti or a tape recorder. Is that mad?”

“On the contrary. It’s innovative. It’s the sort of solution Geronimus Barron would think up.”

“Is it? Jack won’t hear of it.”

“Give him time.” He glanced at her worried profile. “Jack is flexible,” he said. But that was a lie. Jack was rigid. He, Peter, was the flexible one. His was a flexibility achieved late in life, after unhappiness and disappointment, and he was proud of it. Postponed achievements were perhaps the best. Maimonides had not married until late middle age, and had even sired a son. . . . Meg turned toward him with a warm, even a marital smile. “I wish I could take you all the way to your apartment, but I have an early conference.”

“I have to go to Widener,” he lied again.

She pulled up near one of the Yard gates. Peter opened the door.

“My dear,” he said.

My dear,” she said, charmingly. She waited for him to get out and slam the door. Then she drove away.

_____________

 

One night in December there was a fire in the Cambodian building. Some woman had created a makeshift barbecue on her kitchen floor because the stove no longer worked or the gas had been shut off. Not much damage resulted, and nobody was forced to relocate, but for an hour all of the building’s inhabitants stood in the street like the little band of refugees they were. When the firemen announced that it was safe to reenter the building, they filed in. Peter, watching from his window, would have liked to invite some of them for a cup of tea; but which ones? He wished Meg were beside him in her quilted robe.

_____________

 

It was the Friday night before Christmas. Weak electric candles burned in some windows, and the hopeful young couple had installed a tree in their living room, but they were in Stowe and the tree’s lights were out. The rest of the street was unfestive. Peter’s apartment, the exception, was glowing—he loved Friday nights; even though he no longer had a job he still felt an end-of-the-week release—but the shivering presence of Jack Wren was robbing his place of warmth. The man had stayed late at school to make sure everything was in order before vacation, like a proper principal, and then he had driven straight into Boston with all the Friday night traffic, straight to Peter. He had arrived at seven o’clock. It was now after eight. Peter kept idiotically offering him food. Jack kept refusing. He would go home soon, he kept saying. He and Meg had not separated yet. They had not told the children. They were still man and wife. Meg was expecting him. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Not to mention unseemly, Peter thought. Also untrustworthy. And what was Geronimus Barron planning to do about his own wife? But he knew the answer to that question. Mrs. Barron—properly Dr. Barron—was a distinguished immunologist; plenty of scientists were no doubt eager to keep her company. Geronimus too seemed to like her. Theirs had been a good marriage, Peter realized. They would part as friends.

But what about the Wren children? he asked himself, rattled. How would they fare on the inevitable vacation when they were forced to share a villa or a yacht—or, more likely, a tent and a latrine—with the overachieving Barron kids? Well, maybe the Barron children too tended toward the mean. Jews were subject to the same genetic laws as everybody else, Peter reasoned. Jews were. . . .

Jack said, “They take our jobs, our money, our positions at schools. They take over our towns. Now they are taking our women.”

“Not our houses,” Peter murmured. “Not all our houses.”

“Meg never liked our house.”

“No, Jack. Maybe that’s what she says now, but. . . .”

“She always said it.” Jack pressed his nose against the window like one of his sons. “She would have preferred to live in some split level in the boonies and send the kids to public school. Now I wish we’d done that. She wouldn’t have met any Geronimus Barron at the Nothingsville PTA.”

Peter had to agree. Which proved, he supposed, that Margaret and Geronimus had been destined for each other. She had once told him that she wasn’t meant to be gentry; that she wasn’t aristocratic, just simple; and that, despite her ease with computers, she wasn’t particularly bright. Nor was she ambitious. They had been alone under the apple tree with her sleeping daughter. When he had opened his mouth to argue with this unexpected and certainly inaccurate disclosure, she had put her finger over his lips. “Just an ordinary prairie girl,” she had whispered. He remembered the blinding beauty of her pale freckled face and her blue eyes; and he understood that what she felt for Geronimus was a prairie love, irresistible as the wind.

He moved to Jack’s side and put an arm around the younger man. In the supportive embrace, Jack held himself straighter.

“You’ll never get over her,” said Peter, “but the rage will ease, and the sorrow.”

“Yes,” said Jack. Peter wondered without much interest who would marry Jack. Some nice woman. She would appreciate the house but would not realize that its furnishings included a retired teacher with a bee in his bonnet about Dickens and Maimonides. Peter would be invited to visit perhaps once a year. As for Geronimus and Meg, they would live in a penthouse overlooking the redeveloped harbor. A caterer would take charge of their hors d’oeuvres. He hoped they would put him on their party list.

Along the sidewalk below hurried a large man and a tarty-looking woman. On the other side of the street two young men walked, arguing. Though they had left their bookbags at home, their beards and their parkas identified them as law students. They would be gone after commencement, Peter predicted; they would decamp for Charlestown or the South End. The hopeful young couple with briefcases, discovering themselves pregnant, would sell their folly and flee to a western suburb. The students’ places, the couple’s house, would be taken by other people. Homes allowed themselves to be commandeered by whoever came along. Not like cats; cats remain aloof. Not like dogs; dogs remain loyal. Like women, he made himself think, willing misogyny to invade him, to settle in, so that in another few years everybody would assume he had been in its possession forever.

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