Memorial Hall takes up half of a big white clapboard building on the town common. In an epoch when there were two of them, the place was called the First Congregational Church. Eighteen years ago, with membership having dwindled to a dispirited to handful, the congregants let their pastor go and sold the building to the town for a dollar. The steeple was removed, and the bell dumped somewhere in the Public Works garage. The town thoroughly refurbished the ex-church, built an addition, and renamed it Administration Building. The half of the place that isn’t Memorial Hall now houses the Tax Collector, Zoning Board, Selectmen, and Town Manager. The Police and Fire Departments have their own places, new ones, both made of red brick and tastefully landscaped.
It was at a special town meeting in Memorial Hall last spring that Suzanne and Jack Rosen, our local activists, proposed that the town buy a house. This was the Belfiglios’ Dutch Revival colonial which, as the Belfiglios were moving to North Carolina, was about to go on the market. The house isn’t especially large, but the Belfiglios had raised four children in it, all married now, all flourishing, and scattered from Berkeley to Glasgow. Purchasing the Belfiglios’ place was Suzanne’s idea. She’d just joined the board of a new charity called The Golden Door, alluding to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. TGD’s mission is to aid refugees who manage to make it through the gilded portal. Her idea was that we should sponsor a family.
Technically and legally, we’re an autonomous town; and, a century or two ago, it was so. But the truth is that we’re an expensive bedroom community, a suburban enclave of affluence at the edge of a filthy, sprawling, wealth-generating city from which we’re defended by a high wall of high mortgages. People here don’t compete over money; just to get on the voter rolls requires plenty of pennies pouring in. Lose your job, invest recklessly, or become expensively ill and you won’t stick around long. Retirees, like the Belfiglios, move to places with lower property taxes than the ones that pay for our good streets and even better schools. If we compete it’s more over niceness, the ultimate suburban virtue. People who live here want a nice house with a nice yard, a nice SUV to ferry nice kids and their nice friends to places where they’ll all have a nice time, while we’re off having a nice day. We’re white, college-educated empiricists inclined to liberal views tempered by a high regard for property rights and semi-earned privileges. Up to a point, we’re even good-hearted. Barring the few Unitarians, Buddhist wannabes, and Reform Jews, we tend to be lapsed everythings, from Lutherans to Baptists to Roman Catholics, or downright atheists. What we believe in, apart from insurance and high college acceptance rates for our kids, is decency. Decency as a doctrine is a bit vague; but, fortified by peer pressure, it has a certain power. It was potent enough to make anybody who didn’t like the Rosens’ proposal to turn the Belfiglio place into a refuge for refugees hold their tongues and vote yes. The town bought the Belfiglios’ appliances and most of their furniture too, it being assumed that refugees would have nothing.
The Bansurs—parents, older daughter, younger son—were delivered to their new house on a Wednesday. Most of us were at work or in school but a report made the rounds. The family arrived in a U-Haul van driven by a man, presumably provided by The Golden Door. Suzanne pulled up right behind them in her Lexus, bearing flowers and a fruit basket. The refugees had one battered steamer trunk and three pitifully small suitcases.
All this we learned from Jill MacAllister. The MacAllisters’ house is across the street from the Belfiglio place and Jill observed the arrival from her bedroom window. “It took all of five minutes,” she said. My wife asked Jill how they looked, the Bansurs. Jill thought it over. “They looked,” she said, “thin and. . . well, bewildered and, uh, exotic.” Here my wife used an expression she picked up from our daughter and, for some reason, thinks charming. “Well, duh,” she said.
Most of us showed up at the formal welcoming ceremony that Friday night. The affair was somewhat excessively presided over by Suzanne Rosen. She made a speech that covered the suffering of refugees in general but divulged nothing about what the Bansurs had been through. She did tell us the name of the obscure religious sect to which the family belonged and how it was being systematically persecuted. All the while, the Bansurs stood to the right of the podium; the father stern and rigidly straight-backed, the mother dignified but withdrawn. We couldn’t tell if they understood a word Suzanne was saying, but they certainly made an impression. For instance, we found it unsettling that they didn’t look happy to be there, or pleased that most of the town had turned out for them. Joe Winn grumbled later to Jack Rosen that the Bansurs ought to be pretty glad to have found refuge in a completely furnished Dutch Revival colonial at no charge. “Yeah, they should be pretty darned grateful and they ought to show it. They might have said something.” Jack replied with liberal acerbity that being grateful isn’t the same as being happy. “Think about it,” he said. “Why would anybody be happy about being a refugee?”
The Bansurs had dressed up for the occasion. The parents looked ready for a wedding, or a funeral. They must have had time to stuff their best duds into that steamer trunk before they fled. Mrs. Bansur, a slight woman, wore a kind of purple robe ornately embroidered in gold and silver thread, also an odd combination veil and hat. She stood straight, but her eyes cast down. Her husband, a good half-foot taller, could have been called wiry or skinny or even emaciated. His face looked as if someone had pulled the skin tight on his skull, his jutting chin. His jaw line was as sharp as a teenage supermodel’s. He wore wide white pleated trousers and a loose fawn vest over a white shirt with a stiff collar that rose painfully high over his throat, like a starched turtleneck. Suzanne told us the daughter, Layala, was sixteen years old, and would be attending our high school. Layala’s face was uncovered and pleasing. She huddled close to her mother and seemed scared. She didn’t look at anything other higher than the floor the whole time. She was dressed similarly to her mother only more simply; her all-covering robe was also purple but not embroidered. Instead of her mother’s outlandish headgear, Layala wore a white scarf over her hair, escaped tendrils of which were astonishingly red, as if recently dyed. The eleven-year-old boy, Dontar, was an altogether different matter. He sported worn blue jeans, a Yankees cap, and a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt about three sizes too large. Maybe boys didn’t have formal attire or his hadn’t made it into the trunk. We figured his clothes had been provided by The Golden Door. He stood a little apart from his stern, immobilized family, and he fidgeted. He rubbed his hands together and, unlike them, took in everything and everybody with big eyes. His face was almost comically in motion. He squinted, frowned; he looked by turns bored, confused, quizzical, curious—everything but happy. When the boy took a step toward the edge of the stage, his father grabbed the sweatshirt and yanked him back then mumbled something into the boy’s ear. To judge by the effect, it must have meant something like “Stand still, or else!”
Over the next weeks, the Bansurs seemed to settle in. When the wives and widows discovered that Mrs. Bansur had embroidered her own dress, they paid her to do the same for theirs. Mr. Bansur accepted Phil Kantrowicz’s offer of a job at his Tire and Auto. Layala had a hard time of it in high school. She was slow to pick up English, baffled by her classes, couldn’t understand what was said to her. Worse yet, she was so shy that the other girls felt their offers of friendship were being repulsed, that Layala was stuck up. The poor girl was miserable. By contrast, Dontar astounded his teachers with his rapid progress and keenness to learn. You’d have thought he was starved for the English language. In addition to grammar and vocabulary, the boy picked up idioms, slang, and place names. As for his fitting in, his soccer skills guaranteed his popularity. It was easy to foresee how Dontar’s adjustment would affect family dynamics. The Bansurs quickly became dependent on the youngest child to translate, to explain things like supermarket scanners, deal with the bank, his mother’s clients, Layala’s guidance counselor, and to answer the Suzanne’s solicitous questions. Bansur was not pleased or proud of his son. The more he relied on Dontar the harsher he was with the boy. He himself was learning English only word by word, chiefly nouns: wheel, axle, bolt, pan, patch, food, gas, oil, paycheck. Phil reported that Bansur was the best worker he’d ever had, a natural mechanic, never late for work, more often early, diligent almost to a fault. Phil said he had to order Bansur to take a break. But the other men didn’t take to him. He mostly ignored them, wouldn’t sit with them at lunch or ask them anything about themselves or welcome questions about himself. In fact, he said scarcely spoke and never smiled, and it isn’t surprising that the men got the feeling that he disapproved of them. The dynamic was much the same as that between Layala and her classmates. They also resented the days off for religious festivals and fasts they never heard of, like Mazhura (no liquids, white clothes, hours of chanting) and Balhumaz (only liquids, meditation followed by ritual self-flagellation). It didn’t matter that he made up the missed hours. They were disgusted by the food Bansur brought from home and offered to share: banbal, a flat bread with olives in it and lamongula, a stew of lentils, ground lamb, and red chilies in a thick sauce. Neither the strange food nor the strange Bansur was to their taste. His taciturnity and unfriendliness put them off, like the too-hot chilies in the lamangula. And his diligence made them look bad.
Bansur’s reputation for strict morality was secured when, one evening on his way home from work, he spotted a wallet sticking out from under a hedge. There was over a hundred dollars in it, along with Charlie Debeque’s Social Security card, Visa, and driver’s license. As Dontar had been all over the area on the used bike given to him by the Rosens, Bansur had the boy draw him a map with directions to the Debeque house. When their doorbell rang at ten-thirty, Charlie and Beth were alarmed. After walking seven miles all Bansur did was stand at the door and grunt as he held out the wallet. Then he turned away. Charlie stopped him and tried to offer a reward. When he understood what Charlie was suggesting, Bansur raised his hands. “No, no,” he said harshly. Then, as it had begun to rain, Charlie suggested he could at least drive him home. That too was rejected. Though Charlie was relieved by and grateful for the return of his wallet, the apparently indignant refusal of a reward or even a ride seemed to him impolite.
“I dunno,” said Charlie scratching his head. “It felt like some kind of reproach.”
“And he could just have phoned,” added Beth.
We all felt that same ambivalence to some degree. We respected the Bansurs’ piety and suffering; in fact, we were a little awed by it. We ascribed all kind of virtues to them—not only honesty but thrift, purity, resilience, diligence, and seriousness about life that showed up levity and self-indulgence. But this didn’t prevent us from making fun of them from time to time. Of course, we sympathized with them. How could we not? Suzanne told us their co-religionists had been almost wiped out, the pitiful survivors driven away and either living in miserable camps or scattered. But, apart from Dontar, who could read almost as well as his classmates, who excelled at math, video games, and soccer, we couldn’t shake the feeling that the Bansurs didn’t approve of us.
We weren’t all that curious about their religion. What impressed and repelled us wasn’t what but that they believed.
Over Thanksgiving weekend the town suffered a collective shock, a tragedy that affected us all. Billy Romano, our golden boy, home from his first three months at Princeton, took the much-admired Marnie Wilcox, his high-school girlfriend, into the city for a concert on Friday night. Shortly after midnight, as they were taking the Expressway back to our tidy, safe suburb, a semi swerved into their lane. Billy was killed outright; Marnie died in the ambulance. We learned later that the driver had been on the road for nine hours straight with a load of frozen pork from North Carolina.
We paid our respects the families, bringing hot food and cold comfort. High school kids came in droves, dressed neatly, many in tears, awkwardly hugging the parents.
Helen Hannover, the high school principal, organized a service for Sunday afternoon. She wanted it held, not in the gym, but in Memorial Hall so the whole of the shaken town would feel it was open to them. Teachers, relatives, and friends signed up to speak. Poems would be read. Juliana Hartman would sing her best friend’s favorite song, accompanied on the guitar by Ty Grunewald, the boy who caught most of Billy’s passes. Heartbreaking photo collages and videos would be on display. Everyone turned out.
Even the Bansurs came. They all wore in blue sheets draped like togas that also covered their heads. They knelt in a circle at the rear of the hall and would speak to no one, not even Suzanne Rosen. Layala ignored her classmates; Dontar waved his away. Nor did they join the receiving line. For half an hour, they chanted together in low voices then got up and left.
We weren’t pleased. “I believe in their religion blue’s the color of mourning,” Suzanne explained defensively. But it wasn’t the blue clothes that troubled us or the Bansur’s almost inaudible droning chant; it was the closed circle, the walking out, the not joining the receiving line, the silence when addressed.
“Maybe that’s just their way,” someone said later. And what’s our way? How many of us went up to the Townsends and Wilcoxes and said, “What can I say?” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” or “We’re all thinking of you”—formulas of varying sincerity, empty formulas you say when maybe you should say nothing. The more terrible and irreparable the calamity, the more it deserves to be met with silence. So, yet again, we felt the Bansurs’ austere behavior as a reproof of everything wasteful, thoughtless, noisy, and shallow in our lives.
A week later, June Fairbank was in the Bansur living room arranging to have an old black evening dress embroidered. As usual, Dontar was there to translate, a task at which the bright, eager boy improved from day to day. After the arrangements were agreed, June, who enjoyed a reputation for being outspoken (“But by whom?” her husband once cracked), couldn’t resist asking why the Bansurs had declined to join the receiving line at the memorial service. Dontar hesitated but translated the question for his mother. She lowered her head and mumbled the longest speech any one of us ever heard from her.
“What did your mother say?”
Again, Dontar hesitated. “It’s a farash.”
“From B'aktoba, about The First Man.”
“What does it say?”
“Josu let words escape from his mouth. They turned into so many seeds. Ever since the world has been plagued by entangling briars.”
When June told us about her surprising encounter, she said, “I just rushed to the car and wrote it all down as soon as I could.”
Was this why the Bansurs were so laconic, reluctant to let more seeds into the world? We chewed on that for a week or two.
How Layala persuaded her parents to let her go to the junior prom is a matter for speculation. Perhaps she told them attendance was required. But, of course, the girl was forbidden to go with any of the three boys who asked her. Her father would accompany her, to stand guard no doubt; but, as it turned out, he also accompanied her in another sense.
Layala arrived dressed in her good purple outfit, every tendril of her red hair tightly covered. What was new were the bangles on her arms and ankles. Her father wore his best clothes too and carried a cardboard box.
They stood together in a corner, Bansur frowning, Layala looking at her gyrating classmates timidly but with obvious interest. A few girls ventured over to greet Layala, but none of the boys had the bravery to face her father.
When the band took a break, Bansur whispered something to his daughter, who slipped off her embroidered shoes. Her father then took her hand and led her on to the floor, went back to retrieve his cardboard box. He sat down on the floor, crossed his legs, opened the box and extracted a small three-stringed instrument, something like a miniature lute. As he began to play the gym grew hushed. The music had an instant rhythm but nothing you could call a melody.
Bansur gave a nod to his daughter, and Layala began to twirl slowly, hands over her head, bangles jingling. Her twirling and her father’s strumming increased in speed; strands of bright red hair came out from under her scarf. Layala swayed and leapt; she executed intricate steps with her bare feet. People gaped.
Some of the girls began to clap out the rhythm, then they kicked off their shoes and joined Layala, trying to imitate her movements. When Bansur ceased playing and Layala stopped dancing there were loud cheers and general applause. The poor girl looked around in bewilderment. Bansur grunted at her. At once, she put her hands to her face and ran from the gym, bangles tinkling a kind of joyful reproach. Bansur carefully put his instrument back in the box, retrieved his daughter’s slippers and followed her.
Everyone—the kids, the chaperones—was baffled. What had happened? Something shameful? Did Bansur think the other girls were mocking Layala, that the applause was sarcastic and the cheers derisive?
Little wonder we were uneasy. That’s what happens when there are rules and you don’t know what they are.
Two weeks later, an unmarked van parked in front of the Dutch Revival colonial. Suzanne Rosen insisted later it had nothing to do with The Golden Door, that she was as flabbergasted as anybody else—more, in fact. She was a bit put out, which is understandable.
Jill MacAllister saw the van as she was pulling out of her garage to go shopping. She stopped in the driveway to watch as the Bansurs hurriedly loaded the old steamer trunk, the three little suitcases, some cardboard boxes and black trash bags. Mrs. Bansur and the children got into the back seat. Mr. Bansur put something into the mailbox—we learned later it was the house key, with no note—then he jumped into the seat beside the driver. “They looked as if they couldn’t get away fast enough,” said Jill. “Except for Dontar. He looked out the back window a little, well, wistfully, I think. I’m not sure. I mean the van really peeled out.”
How did we react? We were disappointed; we were hurt. But it’s also true that we were relieved.
A week later, The Golden Door moved another family into the Belfiglio house. Suzanne told us the Aguados had fled Honduras. “You know it has the highest murder rate in the world.” Mom and Dad, two boys, one adorable little girl. The Aguados smile at everybody; they laugh appreciatively when we say “Hola” or “Buenas tardes.” They asked the Rosens if it would be permissible to hang pictures of the Pope and Our Lady of Suyopa in the living room. Suzanne checked and told them they could attend mass in either of the adjoining towns, at St. Albans or St. Frances Cabrini. All the Aguado children have New England Patriots sweatshirts, and the whole family loves pizza.