Cambridge, Massachusetts, late 1970s
“Heads up!” called the voice from the basement. “Here come the bags!”
When they heard the cry a hundred men and women straightened up, like ragtag soldiers jerking to attention. Spaced about three feet apart, they stood in a line that ran from the open end of a big tractor-trailer truck squeezed into the horseshoe curve of Longfellow Park, up the sidewalk and across the wide green lawn. It snaked around the corner of the meeting house, past Friends Center, up the three low steps of the meetinghouse porch, through the open double doors, made a sharp right past the small literature table. Then left again to the steep, dim stairway, and down every other step to the basement.
There it ended, at a heap of bulging black plastic trashbags. Each bag was packed full and cinched tightly shut with a strong wire twist. The bags were neatly stacked five high, eight wide, and half a dozen deep, and they seemed to fill the entire low-ceiling room.
Kevin Blackburn stood at the front of the line, wondering how he ended up facing so much hard labor on a quiet Sunday morning.
But there was really no mystery about how he got there. Louisa Cabot, the prim older woman standing next to him, glancing from the pile of bags to the waiting line of people, had asked him.
Actually, “asked” wasn’t quite accurate; “drafted” was closer. After announcements at the end of meeting for worship, she had marched straight up to him, peered at him above her wire-rimmed spectacles, and said firmly, “Kevin, I would like for thee to help me get the shipment out of the clothing room.”
Her tone was friendly enough, but it left no room for any response other than agreement. She spoke, Kevin thought, like the old-fashioned schoolteacher she had been for forty years, still in firm command of her classroom. And in her subdued flower print dress, with its square lace-trimmed collar, she looked the part, too.
Louisa gave the waiting line of Quakers a last quick glance and said, “Well, Kevin, whenever thee’s ready, I suggest thee start at the far end of the stack.”
Kevin did, pulling the top sack out by the bunched plastic neck, catching it in both hands, then passing it to the Friend behind him, who in turn passed it on up the stairs.
Fortunately, the bags weren’t as heavy as they looked; old clothes were more bulk than weight. But before long, when the bucket brigade was going full tilt and the bags were moving quickly up the steps and around the three corners to the waiting man on the truck, Kevin was sweating freely. This was hard work. He would need to go home and take a shower before the concert, or Jenny wouldn’t come near him. And Kevin wanted very much to be near to Jenny.
After hefting two rows of the bags, Kevin felt as if the pile would go on forever. Surely, he thought, there’s enough pants, shirts, sweaters, dresses, socks and underwear here to clothe every refugee in Asia, and Africa too, with plenty left over for Central America, and even a bag or two for the Goodwill downtown.
But then, suddenly, there were only three bags left, and in a flash they were behind him, disappearing up the stairs. As the final bag arrived at the truck and was tossed in, the Friends in the line gave a cheer, shook hands, and then broke up into small groups, mopping the sweat from their foreheads and talking excitedly.
Kevin collapsed in a chair to catch his breath. The basement seemed much bigger now with the bags gone. Mending tables lined one side, each bearing several oversize spools of thread and a number of old soup bowls full of every kind of button imaginable. On one a stack of newspapers for wrapping leaned precariously. Racks of dresses and suits awaiting repair stood along the opposite wall, under a row of small ground-level windows.
Here, several days a week, Louisa gathered a mixed crew of volunteers, mostly other older women, who patched and mended and talked for hours. Kevin had never seen them at it, but they were clearly an energetic and productive bunch: This was the second big shipment that had gone out since he started attending Cambridge Meeting last winter.
“Here, Kevin, thee has earned this,” Louisa said behind him. He looked around and took the glass of lemonade from her. “Thanks,” he said, still panting.
“I hope we didn’t wear thee out and spoil thy plans for the day,” Louisa said.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to a concert later. Then I’ll be back here tonight for Social Concerns Committee.”
And for the committee’s potluck, he added silently. He was a little embarrassed to admit it, but potlucks were his favorite Quaker ritual and the closest to home cooking a single Harvard grad student ever got. Sometimes he wondered if potlucks headed the list of what these Quakers called testimonies.
“Um, what sort of concert?” Louisa asked, cutting into his theological reflections. Her tone was tentative now, as if she felt she was prying.
“Oh, just a string quartet,” Kevin answered. “A woman I’m dating is playing the cello.”
At this Louisa’s eyebrows went up slightly and her expression became thoughtful. “A string quartet, eh?” she mused. “I don’t know much about music myself. English grammar and American history. Those were my subjects. Nothing against it, thee understand, I just never had much time to listen.”
She paused for a moment, while Kevin drained his lemonade. “Um, Kevin,” she inquired, “would thee do me a favor?”
“Sure,” he said, genuinely surprised now at her tone. The old sense of command was gone; she sounded anxious, almost afraid.
“After the committee meeting tonight,” Louisa continued, “I’ll be in the library. Meet me there and there’s something I want to show thee if I can. Something musical, and very peculiar.”
Kevin grinned at her. “I’ll do it,” he said dramatically, “on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Louisa asked guardedly.
“Promise me there’ll be no more heavy lifting,” he said.
Now it was her turn to grin, and smile wrinkles piled up around her eyes. Her old self again, she stuck out a hand.
“Friend,” she said firmly, “Thee has a deal.”
* * * * * * * *
The concert was fine. Jenny played well, and agreed to meet Kevin for ice cream and talk after his meeting. He was looking forward to that.
The committee meeting was a different matter, though. Ever since winter, they had been laboring over a policy statement on war tax resistance. But after months of meetings, they seemed no closer to unity than when they started.
Some Friends felt the meeting had to take a stand and not even pay the federal tax on its telephone, which went directly to support wars like the one that had recently, finally ended in Vietnam. But others felt the group ought to obey the law, and anyway tax money didn’t just pay for war. It paid for other things, too — good things like health care, and housing.
And student grants, Kevin reminded himself.
Coming out of the meeting, Kevin’s head ached a little from the arguments. His own opinion seemed to go back and forth; surely, he thought, the meeting ought to take a stand against the billions wasted on bombs and missiles. But on the other hand, he couldn’t deny that some good things were done with taxes. And how were we to tell the difference?
“How long,” he wondered aloud to Louisa as he entered the library, “will it take that committee to make up its mind about war taxes?”
But there was no answer. The lights were on, but the room was empty.
The silence surprised him. Louisa was surely punctual if she was anything. Then he was startled by a voice behind him. Louisa, was coming through the doorway with a book under her arm. “Did I hear thee complaining about war taxes?” she asked.
“It’s the committee,” he said. “We can’t agree on what to do about them.”
“Humph,” she said brusquely, “Friends have been arguing over what to do about them for more than 300 years, with no end in sight. Don’t let it bother thee.”
She set the book down on the library desk. “A waste of time, if thee asks me,” she concluded firmly. “Come along and let’s see if we can find something a little more interesting.” Turning toward the door, she motioned for him to follow.
She led him out of Friends Center, into the quiet night of Brattle Street. Stepping up to the darkened meetinghouse, she signalled silence with a finger to her lips, then quietly tried the door.
It was locked, as it always was at night.
“What–?” Kevin began, but her rising finger stopped him.
“This way,” she whispered, and tiptoed toward the far corner of the meetinghouse. There she stopped and peered cautiously around the corner, then stepped back and motioned to Kevin.
He looked past her, at nothing special: a high board fence divided the meeting’s property from the neighbors’ garage, a big old maple rustled gently at the far end, and a narrow strip of grass lay in between, dark like a carpet except where a wedge of dim light turned a patch dull turquoise.
Kevin turned back to Louisa and shrugged. She shook her head and leaned toward his ear. “The light,” she hissed.
He looked again. Now that she mentioned it, there was something peculiar about the light. It was an odd color, like a very blue fluorescent bulb, and was coming from down low — the basement, the last couple of ground level windows.
Louisa whispered again: “The music — do you hear it?”
As soon as she said it, he realized he did. The faint but unmistakable sound of strings — several strings, probably a quartet. The sound seemed to be coming from down by the maple tree.
Kevin stepped around the corner of the meetinghouse, and tiptoed forward, with Louisa rustling quietly behind him.
The farther along the meetinghouse they moved, the louder the music played. And it wasn’t coming from beyond the tree, Kevin quickly understood, but from the far end of the basement, the same place as that strange blue light.
They stopped halfway down the building and pressed themselves against the wall. The music was quite loud now.
“Does thee recognize it?” Louisa whispered.
“Sure,” he whispered back after listening another moment. “It’s Beethoven. The Razumovsky Quartet. They played it at the concert today.” It was also, he thought, either the best recording he’d ever heard, or a live performance. And a very good one, too.
“What is it?” he whispered. “Who is it?”
Now she shrugged. “Take a look,” she whispered.
“Me?” he asked, suddenly nervous. “Why don’t you look?”
She drew herself up in the darkness. “Because,” she hissed, “it frightens me. Besides, thee is the music expert.”
“Well, this frightens me, too,” he said. But despite himself he crouched down, and carefully and quietly peered in the low basement window.
There wasn’t much to see. The blue light seemed brightest right below the window, near the wall beyond his field of view. The mending tables were faintly visible, and he could make out the bowls of buttons and the stack of newspapers, but nothing out of the ordinary.
He straightened up and whispered, “Nothing.”
Louisa began edging back toward the front of the
meetinghouse, beckoning him to follow. Once there, she strode quickly across the driveway to Friends Center.
Back in the library, she sat down behind the desk and spoke firmly.
“This is the third night that music has been playing in my clothing room. I’ve worked there twenty-two years, and nothing, I repeat, nothing like this ever happened before. I don’t like it.” Her voice was severe, as if reprimanding a particularly stubborn pupil.
“Have you gone down there?” Kevin asked. “You have a key.”
“Certainly not,” she snapped. “It’s not safe. Who knows who, or what, is down there?”
“Well, will you go with me?” Kevin asked. “I’m up for a little adventure. And besides, what could be so bad about ghosts that play Beethoven?”
“Ghosts?” Louisa said, “Why, whatever can thee be thinking of?”
“I don’t know,” he answered jauntily. “But do you have a better idea? Come on!”
She glared up at him for a moment over her glasses, then said, “Very well.” She stood up resolutely and pulled a key ring from a pocket of her dress. “It’s the large brass one in the middle. But thee goes first.”
In fact, he was more than a little nervous as he stuck the large, worn key in the lock. They had paused on the way to peek around the corner, confirming that the blue light was still shining, and the music was still playing.
“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered as the doorknob turned and then moved away from him.
“All right, we’re coming down!” he shouted as he pushed past the door, fumbling with one hand for the light switches as he groped towards the stairway in the dark.
“Here,” Louisa murmured from behind; her fingers, intimate with the building, found the switches on the first try.
The entryway suddenly lit up, and there was the stairway in front of him.
“Here I am,” he called, thumping loudly down the steps, “and I don’t mean you any harm–”
He hit the light switches at the bottom, and swung through the doorway.
No one was there.
The room looked much as it had after the morning’s bag brigade; the mending tables here, the racks over there, a few stray garments hung over the odd folding chair; certainly no sign of a concert. He took a few steps into the room, looking around uncertainly.
“Is thee all right?” Louisa croaked from the stairway.
“Yes,” he called. “Come on.”
She stopped in the doorway and surveyed her small domain carefully. Knowing it better, she saw what he had missed.
“There,” she said, pointing. “Those chairs!”
Of course, he thought. He hadn’t noticed them against the dark background of the racks. Four folding chairs stood in front of the last rack near the far wall. On two of the chairs a black evening suit was draped over the back; on the others hung black dresses, formal but severe.
“Look,” Kevin said, walking over to them. “They’re set at angles, as if around a music stand.” He touched one of the hanging jackets. “Do you recognize these clothes?” he asked.
“Hmmm,” she fingered a dress. “They must be off our racks here. But I recognize this one; Bay State Costume Exchange sent it over. I’m not certain about where the others came from.”
“Aren’t these a little classy for refugee duds?” he wondered, moving to the other suit.
Louisa bristled. “Friend,” she said sternly, “does thee think that only farmers and laborers are made homeless by war? I’ll have thee know that after Vietnam we sent suits to half the former college professors in the South. Nasty, useless war that was. And there’s many an educated Palestinian–”
“All right,” he grinned, “you made your point.”
* * * * * * * *
Louisa saw him glance at his watch. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “I’ve gotta call Jenny. I’m late.”
“There’s a phone over there,” Louisa pointed toward a venerable black instrument on a battered desk in a corner. Kevin rushed to pick it up.
Louisa listened to him spinning the old rotary dial, then blurting breathlessly. “Jen–I know I’m late, but you won’t believe what just happened. Can I come tell you about it? I’ll bring the ice cream. Great! Be there in a flash!”
He clanked the phone down, turned on his heel and hurried heedlessly to the stairs. He had trotted halfway up them when his steps abruptly stopped, paused, and then walked slowly back down.
Louisa regarded him skeptically as he came back into the room. “I’d like to think,” she said, “thee realized thee was leaving me here alone with this — whatever — and wanted to offer to walk me to my car. But I get this feeling thee has something else on thy mind.”
Kevin felt sheepish. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I was going to ask if you know where I can buy some ice cream at this hour on Sunday night. But you’re right, of course, it was thoughtless to rush off like that.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Louisa said. “I was a lovestruck youngster once myself, and in that state, forgetting thy manners is the least of thy problems.”
She smiled now, a prim but wistful, remembering smile.
“Come on,” she said, “thee can follow me to the all-night market. And on the way to my Ford, let’s consider what to do about this possible poltergeist I seem to have inherited.”
Outside, as she locked the meetinghouse door with the large brass key, she turned partway toward him and murmured, “French vanilla was a very appealing flavor in 1932. My favorite in fact.”
Kevin’s expression showed that he realized she was not really speaking to him, and was gazing past his shoulder in the night. He waited a moment, letting the older woman in the flowered dress enjoy her reverie. Then he said quietly, “You’re right. French vanilla it is.”
* * * * * * * * * *
On the way to the car, what they decided to do was to treat the strange intrusion as something of a cross between a mystery and a research project. Louisa would look into the origins of the clothes they found on the chairs. Kevin would take a music history approach, and see what he could find out about Beethoven, and his string quartets. They agreed to meet at Friends Center after dinner the next night, to see what conclusions they could draw.
* * * * * * * * * * *
But reporting to Louisa after a day of effort, all Kevin was able to draw was blanks. “I found out a little about Razumovsky,” he reported. “He was the Russian ambassador in Vienna for years, and Beethoven wrote three quartets for him. As far as I can tell, it was just a job for Beethoven. He thought all the bigwigs who hung around the emperor’s court were a flock of turkeys. I don’t think there’s anything there. What did you turn up?”
“Not very much either, I’m afraid,” Louisa said. She sat at the library desk, drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously. “Mr. O’Neill at Bay State Costume Exchange recognized the evening suit and one of the dresses, but he couldn’t remember where he got them. It could have been The Boston Symphony. So I went down to that office. But,” she sighed tiredly, “the property manager has only been there a few weeks and doesn’t know anything. All in all a wasted day,” she concluded. Her fingers kept up their restless drumming.
“Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong places,” put in Jenny, who had come in with Kevin and had been sitting quietly beside him.
Louisa had liked her from the first. She was pretty all right, but looked serious too, and unaffected. Jenny seemed, Louisa concluded judiciously, to have the makings of a good strong Quaker wife — if that was how her romance with Kevin, and his romance with Quakerism, turned out.
Now she asked the young woman, “What does thee mean?”
“Well,” said Jenny, “suppose your musical ghost isn’t in your basement because of Beethoven, or because of an old evening dress. What if it’s here because of the meeting?”
“Hey, yeah,” echoed Kevin, brightening. “What if it’s coming back because of something that happened here? Louisa,” he asked, “have there ever been any string quartets played in the meetinghouse? The acoustics would be terrific.”
Louisa furrowed her brow. “I seem to recall something about music, but it was quite a few years ago and I didn’t hear it. As I told thee, Kevin, music was not my subject.”
Kevin thought a moment. “What about the meeting minutes?” he asked. “Would there be anything about recitals in them?”
Louisa shrugged. “Probably. They’d need permission for a concert in the meetinghouse, and that would be in the minutes. After all,” she added, “permitting the playing of music in a silent Friends meetinghouse would never have occurred to my old Wilburite grandfather, God rest his plain Quaker soul.
She pointed past the tables. “The minute books are over there, on that shelf by the window, all but the last five years or so, and there haven’t been any concerts in that time.”
Kevin stood up; he was excited now. “Okay, let’s start with the latest minutes and work our way back.” He moved toward the shelf.
“No, Kevin,” Jenny objected, “it would make more sense to start at the beginning and work forward.”
Kevin’s face showed irritation. “I don’t see what difference it makes,” he said sharply, “and I want to start with the recent minutes.”
There was a long, stiff pause, while the two young people glared at each other.
And so, Louisa thought, and sat slowly down in her folding chair. Here we are at one of those seemingly minor hurdles these new young lovers will have to get over. Do they now get lost in their little egos, or do they work this out? She crossed her arms. How well, she thought. Alas, how well I remember.
“Perhaps,” she interposed after a moment, “you could work from both ends.”
To their credit, and to Louisa’s relief, they reached out for her little olive branch.
“Of course,” Kevin said, “why not?”
“Sure,” said Jenny, “that’s a good idea.”
“And I’ll start in the middle,” Louisa said. “The meeting was organized in 1940, so halfway puts me in 1965. Fifty years is young for a Quaker meeting in New England,” she observed, “but it’s still a lot of minutes. Let’s get busy.”
So each of them pulled down a stack of the heavy bound minute books. Kevin and Jenny sat them down on the big reading table, while Louisa took hers back to the desk.
* * * * * * * * *
For the next hour and a half, as night settled over Cambridge, there was little sound in the library other than the rustling of pages being turned. Kevin, working backward, found that, yes, there had been a chamber concert series in the meetinghouse in the summer of 1973.
“Let’s see,” he said, “here’s one for 2 harpsichords, one for lute, and another for some madrigal singers.” He signed, “But no quartets. And no Beethoven, either. It’s all renaissance and baroque.”
“I haven’t found any music,” Louisa commented at another point, “but here’s Social Concerns Committee in 1969, haggling about war taxes again.” She adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t get anywhere that time either.”
“No music in the forties, or most of the fifties,” Jenny added. “But I’ll keep looking.” She turned a few more pages, then stood up and stretched. “It’s getting stuffy in here,” she said. “Can I open a window?”
“Certainly,” Louisa said. “Fresh air will do us all good.”
When Jenny opened the window, cooler air poured in. But something else came with it — the faint but unmistakable sound of a string quartet.
Jenny listened without turning around.
“Is that–?” Kevin asked.
“Yes,” Jenny answered quietly. “The third Razumovsky. We should have been expecting it, I suppose.”
“Let’s go down there,” Kevin said, standing up. But Jenny reached out to touch his sleeve, and he paused.
“Wait a minute,” she said softly. “I want to listen here for a minute. There’s something familiar about the playing.” She listened again, for a long moment, until the playing subsided, then stopped. “That was the slow movement,” she said.
“What about the playing?” Kevin asked.
“I-I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “Maybe we should go over. We’re not finding anything in these minutes.”
“I’m ready,” Louisa announced, closing a minute book with a thump. “I guess we’ve established that whoever or whatever they are, they don’t have guns.” She pulled the key ring from her pocket and headed for the door.
They paused only briefly at the corner of the meetinghouse, to peek around and be sure, once again, that the pale blue light was indeed shining from the last two basement windows, and the music had begun again. Then Louisa walked briskly up the three steps and stuck the big brass key in the lock. She was first down the steps this time, too, stepping smartly into the again-deserted basement and over toward the far end of the racks, where the four chairs stood as before, the suits and gowns draped over them.
“Nothing different here,” Kevin said, looking over the tableau.
“There most certainly is something different,” Louisa snapped.
“But what?” Kevin persisted. “Here are the chairs and the clothes, just like last night.”
“That’s precisely it,” Louisa insisted. “This morning I hung up those clothes and put the chairs back at the table before I went to the Bay State Clothing Exchange. They’ve all been moved back.”
“Wait a minute,” came Jenny’s voice from behind them. “I think I’ve found something over here!”
She was at the mending table, looking at a newspaper from the stack, spread out on it. Kevin came to her side. “What is it?” he asked.
“There,” she said. “The obituaries.” She sat down as Kevin picked up the page and began to read:
“Isidore Kominsky, principal cellist with The Boston Symphony for more than twenty years and founder of the highly-regarded New Freedom String Quartet, died at his home last week.” He broke off and looked at the top of the page. “When was this?” he mused.
“Last month,” Jenny murmured gently.
Kevin’s eye skimmed down the paragraphs. “Let’s see… `escaped from his native Czechoslovakia in 1949, after a year’s imprisonment by the Communist government….Founded the New Freedom Quartet with three other exiled musicians in 1956, to raise funds for relief of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, after it was crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.
“`Their first concerts were highly successful. Thereafter the quartet played several concerts each year, always as refugee benefits, even after Kominsky’s retirement from The Boston Symphony in 1971. “
He took a breath, and frowned. “‘The group continued until 1976, when violist Ada Steinberg, one of its two women members, passed away, and Kominsky soon disbanded the group. He was the last surviving member of the quartet. In 1977–”
Kevin was stopped by a stifled sob beside him.
Jenny’s face was in her hands. “He was my first teacher,” she whispered. “He was old then, and had arthritis in his fingers, but he still played like an angel when the pain wasn’t too great. He had to stop after a year because of a stroke.”
She took a handkerchief Kevin was holding out to her, and wiped her eyes. “I heard the quartet play a few times before that, but I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the refugee part.”
Louisa had picked up the newspaper. “Thee missed the fine print, Kevin,” she said. He looked over her shoulder and read aloud again:
“A private memorial service is planned, and friends are asked to send donations in lieu of flowers to the Quaker Material Aids Program, care of Cambridge Friends Meeting.”
“As a matter of fact,” Louisa put in quietly, “we did receive several checks listed in his memory. But the name was strange to me because–”
“I know,” Kevin said, “music is not your subject.”
“Well music is my subject,” Jenny said firmly, wiping her eyes once more and blowing her nose. “And I know a reunion concert when I hear one. And we’re interrupting it.”
She faced Louisa. “I’ll bet if we could trace those clothes, they’d lead straight back to Mr. Kominsky, Mrs. Steinberg and the others. And they’ll be gone from here soon, in one of those trash bags, to who knows where. So while they were here together, their owners gathered with them one last time. And they didn’t get to finish, because we’re in their way.”
Jenny stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kominsky,” she said softly in the direction of the chairs, “I didn’t mean to intrude.” Then she walked toward the door.
Louisa and Kevin followed, snapping the basement lights off behind them. When they reached the door upstairs, though, Louisa gestured to Kevin before she hit the switch. As the entrance became dark, Kevin reached for Jenny’s hand and led her soundlessly after Louisa into the meeting room.
There, just as they sank noiselessly onto a long, sturdy bench, they heard the music start again below, with the cello mounting a vigorous, deeply felt melody, which the viola and violins answered in turn.
Kevin leaned over toward Louisa. “It’s the finale,” he murmured, and felt, rather than saw, her slight nod.
The music moved swiftly to an impassioned climax, then died away on a final, ringing chord.
After another few moments of silence, Kevin reached over and shook Louisa’s hand, then Jenny’s.
* * * * * * * *
A little later, after the young couple had escorted her to her Ford and then driven away, Louisa got out of the car, walked up to the meetinghouse, and quietly let herself in.
Downstairs, she found what she was expecting: The chairs were again at the table, the suits and gowns hanging on the rack.
So, she thought, they are finished. And I suppose that means that after tonight, they won’t be back.
But on the other hand, she reflected, after tonight, I expect young Kevin and Jenny will be.
Previous Quaker Holiday Stories:
#1 A Hospice for Hope
**A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven In the Basement
If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is
part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and for Kindle. It makes a fine gift.
Copyright © Chuck Fager