These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
Henrietta Clark was at her desk with three things lined up in front of her, sitting completely still and wondering how to proceed.
How did this happen? She never even used her desk before. Every morning for the first twenty years, she would go to her desk, put her bag and lunch in the locked bottom drawer and then assume her post at the general reference desk at the New York Public Library in 42nd Street.
She blinked and tried to refocus on the three things in front of her. One was a schedule of presentations, the next a guest list for the opening reception, and her personal calendar was next to that. She shook her head. She was, at age fifty-two, busy for the first time in her life. She smiled. Recently she had read that, “mid-life changes are most often precipitated by an un-planned crisis.” Now she felt like laughing. Yes, her mid-life change was precipitated by an un-planned crisis – her kitchen drain became so clogged that she could not fix it on her own. The “super” from the building came to fix it, striding into her apartment and then into her life.
Henrietta certainly would have never dreamt of anyone striding into her life, not to mention an uneducated, un-traveled man who was fifteen years her junior and who worked with his hands. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. While it is true that Nic had no formal education and had never left the continent of North America, never had even been West of the Rocky Mountains or South of the Mason-Dixon Line, he was remarkably well read and fluent in French and English as she herself was. And his work with his hands was very interesting to her -- he was an organ builder of some talent and had recently been researching old chamber organs from Central Europe and building replicas. Neither Nic nor Henrietta had been looking, for lack of a better word, for a companion, and both of them knew, though they never said it to each other, that they couldn’t have asked for a more suitable person to fill the role.
She decided to begin with the presentation schedule. There was a collection of icons from an Oxford college that was doing a small tour of the U.S. The library wanted to host it, but being a library, they wanted a slightly different take. They added some vestments from lent from Orthodox churches in the vicinity and also a limited series of presentations that would discuss the transport and care of these art objects. This was brought up at a meeting several months earlier. The chairman of the meeting said that he’d like to have a presentation on the repair of vestments, and Henrietta, who had never in over twenty years spoken at a meeting said, “My neighbor is known throughout the city for this work.” The chairman asked her to investigate the possibility of this person giving a presentation and also, since she was at it, contact the college in Oxford. They had their own art handler and a staff person who was considered the expert on the collection. Were both of those people available?
Most of the details for this seemed to be in place. The presentations would happen the day of the opening, February 2, a Thursday.
Next she looked at the guest list for the opening’s reception. There was the usual list of donors and supporters and socialites who like to feel included. She decided to use this new position to add a few names to the queue. Nic of course was on the list as was Kirsten Larsen, her neighbor who would be giving a presentation on the mending of vestments. Anna Ebner, a harpsichordist and organist who debuted one of Nic’s organs was planning to be in the city that weekend, so she was on the list. The violinist who performed with Anna, Fritz Haselbock, was also going to be in the city at the same time for his own performances, and he and his wife were on the list.
Which brought her to her personal calendar: Henrietta loved orchestra concerts, and the weekend of the exhibit’s opening coincided with the yearly visit of her favorite orchestra from Europe. Fritz Haselbock was a member of this orchestra, and so attending the concerts not only took on new meaning, it added extra social events to her schedule which, at one time in her life, had no social events listed whatsoever. Nic had befriended young Fritz, and they had stayed in touch. Fritz’s wife, Ingrid, was expecting their first child, but, at seven months pregnant and very healthy, her doctor approved the international flight.
Things were as ready as they could be. Henrietta stacked the three items, put them in her bag, and walked to St. Thomas to meet Nic, so they could attend Evensong together.
The Tuesday of the next week, she was meeting the two people from Oxford. She looked at the names, so she could greet them properly: Katya Newman and Sergei Fairhurst, two English surnames and two Russian first names. This piqued her inquisitiveness. She loved observing details about people. For instance, she made a game out of noticing which hand a library patron used. If they were left-handed, the questions would be interesting and challenging. If they were right-handed, but, say, pointed with their left hand, they’d be more like the left- handed people. Right-handed people who pointed with their right hand asked easier questions and didn’t take long to satisfy. Again she smiled to herself: Nic, she noticed early in their friendship, was left-handed. She refocused her attention on the entrance and checked her watch. The pair she was waiting for was quickly recognizable. They were both very short, and, when Henrietta noticed the woman – presumably Katya – had on high-healed boots, she realized that this visitor was not even five feet tall. They both had dark hair and wary, dark eyes. The woman was shapely in the most ideal ways, and the young man – ten or more years younger than his co-worker – held onto her arm.
“Are you Katya Newman and Sergei Fairhurst?”
“Yes,” said Katya, extending her hand. Sergei kept his free hand at his side and nodded.
Henrietta showed them the exhibit that was partially installed and waiting for Sergei’s assistance with the more delicate pieces. She went over the schedule for the presentations and the opening reception.
“Do you leave the next day?”
“No, we are staying an extra night. A person I met when the exhibition was in Milwaukee will be in the city this weekend, and she has invited us to a concert on Friday night. She knows someone who is performing. We fly out on Saturday afternoon.”
On Thursday at 5:30 everything was in place. The director of the library introduced Katya Newman. After acknowledging the director’s introduction, she began.
“The icon which the viewer sees at the beginning of the exhibit and which is reprinted on the front of the catalogue and the front of your programs this evening depicts the image of Mary and Joseph taking taking Jesus to the Temple. This event is celebrated today, February 2, and is known as the Feast of the Presentation. In the story, Simion is an old man who has continued to faithfully perform his duties in the Temple and has willfully delayed death because he knows that this moment, the moment of seeing Jesus, The Christ, The Redeemer, is coming. The Gospel records the song he sings. Known as the Nunc Dimitis, it is a song said and sung in churches and religious communities and in homes by countless people at the end of each day as they pray their Evening Prayers:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes
have seen the salvation that you have prepared for all
the world to see….
It seems logical then, doesn’t it, that we should begin this exhibit which opens on this day with this icon. But this is not the only reason to open with this icon. The other reason is that all of you and all who will walk through this gallery will be like Simion; your eyes will see the salvation that God has prepared for all. Icons embody truths that are timeless and that care nothing for what you believe or do not believe or whether you encounter them in a church or a gallery or a book. Their energy and ability to communicate transcends all particulars.”
Who would have expected that this diminutive, shapely woman with wary eyes and an odd accent would speak with so much command? Henrietta was entranced by how the speaker transformed from a somewhat frightened looking woman into a prophet.
Next, Ms. Newman’s co-worker Sergei Fairhurst gave a short talk on the handling of these works of art.
“Thank you for having me. I find it humorous that I entered this line of work because it is a practical way for me to earn a living caring for art and does not require excellent language skills because language is not one of my talents, and here I find myself in a foreign country giving a talk.” The audience was charmed by his self-deprecation and was particularly attentive and indulgent with his sincere and halting contribution. When he was done, he went to sit with Ms. Newman who took his hand. Henrietta made a note of this gesture and waited for the next speaker.
Kirsten Larsen, the person who was giving the final presentation, had been Henrietta’s neighbor for most of her life, but it was because of Nic that they finally met. She had been a ballet star, and Henrietta and her parents went to the ballet on a regular basis and often caught a glimpse of her entering the building with her husband. But Henrietta’s parents were both severely hearing impaired, so light social banter was awkward and actively avoided. It had been years since Henrietta had thought of her. Then, during a particularly bad snowstorm the previous December, Nic noticed an older woman stranded alongside a building with shopping bags at her feet. He offered help and invited her to Henrietta’s apartment, and they all became fast friends. In the second half of her life, Kirsten Larsen had become quite an expert in the mending of vestments.
Years of dancing had taken their toll, and her movements to the podium were labored but also dignified and decisive. She had a beautiful poise as she explained and demonstrated with small liturgical objects some of the more interesting and unknown aspects of approaching this work. Her speech was clear and punctuated with pauses to let the information sink in. At the end of her talk, she bowed to the enchanted audience.
While Henrietta had been in charge of compiling a list of guests for the reception, she had no specific duty for the actual event except to be present and decorative. Nic arrived promptly, as he always did. He didn’t own a suit, and when he asked her what would be acceptable, she said, “Black.” So, he wore black jeans and a bulky black sweater that made his ever-curious eyes shine even more brightly. He kissed her cheek when he arrived.
“I just had a call from Fritz. He and Ingrid are stopping by Anna’s room and will be here shortly.”
Fritz soon came, and on his arm was his new bride, Ingrid, who they had heard about last May. She was young and effortlessly beautiful, Henrietta thought, the sort of youthful beauty that can bring poignant tears and a feeling of protectiveness to an older woman’s eyes. Fritz looked comfortable in his role as a husband. Anna Ebner, the harpsichordist, walked alongside of Ingrid. Though she suspected that Anna was somewhat younger, Henrietta felt certain that Anna had done much more living than she had done and that she was acquainted with loss. She was elegant, in full possession of herself, and her eyes had the kind of sadness that would put other people at ease. Henrietta was glad to encounter this woman again.
There were handshakes and embraces, and everyone treated Ingrid with the greatest tenderness.
“Do you remember Kirsten Larsen from last May?” Nic asked Fritz, “She is on the other side of the room. It’s great we’re all here.”
Henrietta had found Kirsten a chair where she could comfortably socialize with people. Katya and Sergei were standing next to her.
“Kirsten!” Nic was always one to make sure everyone knew each other and was engaged in conversation. “Do you remember Fritz Haselbock? And this is Ingrid, his wife.”
“How good to see you again, Fritz. Ingrid – enchante! You are expecting. When are you due and how are things going?”
“I have two months yet, and the doctor says I was built to be a mother.”
Nic proceeded with introductions, “Katya and Sergei, we have people for you to meet.”
But before he could proceed, Anna extended her hand to Katya, “Katya, I am so glad to see you again. I didn’t find out about this reception until yesterday, and I had no way of reaching you.”
“You know each other?” Henrietta asked.
“We met when Katya was in Milwaukee last November. She literally ended up on the steps of my church, and then I went to her presentations. We have stayed in touch, and when she wrote that she was coming to New York this weekend, I asked if she could stay an extra day. I have tickets for the both of them for tomorrow night’s concert.”
Nic continued his role as M.C., introducing himself to Katya and Sergei, and then introducing the two visitors from Oxford to Fritz, Ingrid, Anna, and Kirsten.
“Henrietta and I always go to these concerts, and we bought a ticket for Kirsten to join us, since she met Fritz last May. Fritz,” Nic continued, “how about a little repartee after the concert? Ingrid, would it be too late for you?”
Ingrid and Fritz consulted each other in German, and Fritz said that it would be wonderful. “Ingrid has never been outside of Austria, and now she is in New York! After the baby is born, travel won’t be as easy. We would love to be with our new friends for a little while longer. Let’s meet at the stage door after the concert. There’s a restaurant attached to the hotel that is nice for this sort of gathering.”
The Friday night concert was sold out. It was a busy time of year in New York for performances of all sorts, and Midtown that night was a beehive of cars and taxis and busses and people.
Fritz’s orchestra always caused a stir. The concert was sold out, and the lobby was crowded with ticket holders more than an hour before the performance. Because they only came once a year and because of their mythic reputation, orchestra lovers of all stripes were in attendance: the usual wealthy music lovers, plenty of students, a good number of Austrian expatriates, and those who rarely attended any performances but venture out and spend the money to hear this marvelous institution.
Anna had tickets for herself as well as Katya, Sergei, and Ingrid high in the front row of the balcony. Henrietta and Nic preferred this location, too, because the whole orchestra can be seen and the sound comes together so well at that point in the room. But the steps are steep, and, since Kirsten was with them, they chose some aisle seats on the floor.
The concert opened with the Helios Overture by Karl Nielsen, a heroic piece, and then moved to Anton Webern’s romantic orchestration of Bach’s Ricecar. After intermission, everyone, including the orchestra, settled in for the long and wonderful train-ride of Bruckner’s Sixth symphony. There were plenty of ovations after a concert that transported everyone to a more hopeful realm.
Emptying a crowded hall is more difficult than filling it, and both the balcony group and the three on the floor had to wait patiently to move very slowly out the entrance and make their way around the block to the stage door. To add to the chaos of a sold out hall pouring out onto the sidewalk and an already bustling Friday night in New York, there was lots of precipitation, the kind that looks like snow in the air but lands like large raindrops on the pedestrians’ heads. Umbrellas further clogged the sidewalks.
The stage door had a crowd around it. There were musicians waiting for other musicians, friends of musicians, students, those who just wanted a peek. There were umbrellas and cigarettes and plenty of German and English being spoken. Anna and her group arrived at the stage door first. Sergei clung to Katya’s arm, and the both of them huddled next to the building. Ingrid and Anna stood further out because they knew the orchestra members. There were lots of handshakes shared and cheeks kissed. Henrietta and Nic were on each side of Kirsten, who, despite her slow movements, looked regal walking down the sidewalk. No one can hold her head like a ballerina, Henrietta thought. Soon both groups were joined, bubbling with reflections on what they had heard and complaining about the weather.
“Hallo, all of you!” Fritz called and waved, “Let’s head this way!” And together, all eight of them, walked East towards the restaurant that was next to Fritz, Ingrid, and Anna’s hotel.
There was an explosion and then two more. Cars were thrown onto the sidewalk. Chunks of concrete sailed through the air. Shattered glass fell like rain. Mud spewed from sewers under the street, coating everything and everyone in sight. The power of the explosions knocked most everyone off their feet, and in particularly crowded portions of the sidewalk, people fell on top of each other. Some were pinned under overturned cars. Chunks of flying concrete hit people in the head causing bleeding and knocking some unconscious. People were screaming. No one could run; there was no room to run. There were no sirens for five minutes -- just the sound of screams and moans and random calls for specific help. The electricity went out. A car started on fire and then another.
The party of eight walking from the orchestra concert to the restaurant was showered with glass and concrete. Amid the chaos, Kirsten Larsen was knocked over and then walked over. She couldn’t get up. Nic lifted her off the sidewalk. No one was really walking; there was no room to walk. But they moved forward.
A car right in front of them burst into flames. Ingrid screamed and stopped walking.
“Fritz!” she yelled above the noise, “Something just happened to me!”
“I think it is the baby! I think it is coming!”
“Stress induced labor,” Henrietta said. “ We need to get her inside.”
They had just made it to the hotel. Nic was still carrying Kirsten. They convened in a circle near the corner of the building.
Nic began, “What are we going to do?”
Sergei stepped away from Katya, “When I was in the orphanage in Russia, I helped deliver babies.”
Their attention was momentarily moved away from the disaster to this pronouncement.
He continued, “Sometimes older girls would become pregnant. The orphanage didn’t want people outside to know, so we delivered the babies ourselves. I was strong, so I had to assist. Nic call for help and take care of Kirsten. While we wait, let’s get set up.” He moved forward assertively, pushing people out of the way. He began moving couches in the lounge that were still unoccupied, making a barrier. Then he took off the cushions and made a bed. “Ingrid, lie down. Fritz, go to her head. Henrietta and Anna, go to each side. I need something like a towel. If the baby comes, we need to dry it immediately. Katya, go to my left.”
“Why left? Why me?”
“I’m left handed, and I can’t think fast enough in English.”
He continued to give instructions to Katya who translated to the others, and Fritz translated to Ingrid in German. Anna and Henrietta, bruised and covered with silt and mud, held Ingrid’s hands.
The baby delivered quickly. There was a little tearing, not much blood. Sergei expertly dried the baby off, umbilical cord intact, and laid the baby on Ingrid’s stomach.
“Let’s try to wait for a doctor to come and cut the cord. I can do it, but I’d prefer not to.”
After Nic had found a place for Kirsten to safely lie down, he determined, with her help, that she had no broken bones, just some bad twists and bruises. He then went about the hotel and then onto the street to find a doctor. This baby, though delivered easily, was two months premature, and the umbilical cord was not yet cut. His stout legs moved nimbly among the people as they did every day among the organ pipes, and his bright, quick eyes darted everywhere. Of course there was some doctor out for an orchestra concert or show in Midtown on a Friday night. “A baby has just been born in a hotel lobby,” he shouted over and over in the chaos, “We need a doctor.”
A small man of Asian descent hollered and waved. Nic bounded over pieces of concrete and through the mud. The man was quite tiny. “The baby is two months premature. We have to get there soon.”
“Carry me then.” So Nic scooped up the doctor just as he had picked up Kirsten and ran, loping again over debris, depositing him at the hotel entrance.
The doctor sent Nic to the kitchen for a knife and some alcohol (“even if it’s vodka!”), and, while he waited, listened to the baby’s breathing and heart with his ears down to the little red body. He stroked Ingrid’s head and shook Fritz’s hand.
Nic reappeared with the supplies, and the doctor proceeded to cut the cord and do the final delivering of the placenta. He held the baby and tried to estimate the weight.
“Things look good, but we really need to get to the hospital for the mother and the baby.”
Nic made some more phone calls. By this time, rescue vehicles had made it through the congestion, but they needed to tend to the most seriously injured first and control the fires.
The doctor looked at Sergei, who was sitting next to Katya. Her arm was around him, and she kept stroking his hand, murmuring things in Russian.
“Young man, you did a mighty thing. You did it well, too.”
English was too hard to comprehend after all the drama, so Katya translated. Sergei nodded and turned back to Katya.
Emergency personal were finally able to take Ingrid, Fritz, and the baby to the hospital. The group was able to return to Kirsten, who had fallen asleep. They gathered up the cushions that had been Ingrid’s bed, moved them over to where Kirsten lie, and they all fell asleep as well.
What caused the explosions? Would there be more? These questions flashed through everyone’s mind, but the immediate concerns were much more pressing. Morning came and with it news of the cause. The explosions were of a homely origin – decaying aspects of the infrastructure which lies beneath modern streets commingled to cause three explosions which were, despite how massive it seemed, limited to three square blocks.
After an event like this, no one could begin their Saturday in a routine manner. Nic called hospitals until he found the one where Ingrid, Fritz, and the baby were taken. Katya called the airline to change their flight to Sunday. Relief workers had set up a table with food for breakfast. After that, Nic, Henrietta, Katya, Sergei, and Kirsten made their way out to the street. The mess was nearly comical. Swank storefronts were shattered, their displays covered with mud and glass and chunks of concrete. Cars lay in various positions. There was no even patch of concrete to walk on. Nic helped Kirsten, and they all plodded their way out to functioning streets, hailed two cabs, and went to the hospital.
Ingrid was nursing when the others arrived, and Fritz was sitting in a chair next to the bed.
Henrietta paused at the door, “Maybe we should wait.”
“No, no, we’re finished for now. Please come in.”
Nic went to find a chair for Kirsten.
“What have you named him?”
“Mathias, after my father, and Stefan, after Fritz’s father. So, he will be Mathias Stefan Haselbock.” At this, Ingrid reached out her hand to Anna, who took it and then kissed Ingrid’s cheek. “Would you like to hold him?” So Anna took the tiny baby from Ingrid and held him with tears coming down her cheeks. “Anna, share him with the others. I think we all became family members last night.”
So Anna handed Mathias Stefan to Kirsten, who was sitting. She kissed his forehead and took a deep whiff of his head. “I like the smell of babies.”
Nic was next to Kirsten. He held Mathias Stefan, “He there little guy. You gave us all something to remember. Didn’t want to miss any action, did you? Here’s Henrietta. She’s one of the best you’ll ever meet.” Henrietta held the baby boy, her round eyes looking into the boy’s eyes. “I think he’s smiling at you Henrietta. Are you telling him a joke that only he can hear?”
Henrietta handed Mathias Stefan to Katya who looked a afraid. “He has more weight,” she said, “than it looks like he has. I can feel the life of him in my arms.” She looked at Sergei standing next to her, “Sergei, you were the first to hold him last night.”
“Sergei,” Fritz said, “we are so grateful for your bravery.”
Katya handed Mathias Stefan to Sergei who held the little boy, rocking him and humming.
Katya looked up at the others, “Sergei is humming a lullaby that mother’s in Russia sing to their babies. Sergei, how do you know that song?”
“I wasn’t born an orphan.”
“And you aren’t one now,” said Fritz as he accepted the baby back from Sergei and handed him back to Ingrid.