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Three Daughters

The driver of the Dodge caravan gave Shoshanna the finger, gesticulating furiously through his windshield like the villain in a silent movie.

You couldn't blame the guy. She was a horrific sight — a wild-eyed middle-aged virago in a mud-splattered coat racing across the Henry Hudson Parkway to snatch a piece of paper from the pavement. She rammed the paper into her pocket and ran back to the shoulder of the road, unflustered by her close call, then dropped to her haunches and studied the oncoming traffic. That was the nerve-racking part, waiting for the right conditions, the perfect moment to lunge. A station wagon roared past, revving up the wind. In its wake, a momentary lull, an open space, plenty of time to sprint out, snatch up another scrap, and fly back to her redoubt at the edge of the highway before the next car rounding the bend in the distance could reach her. She'd timed it perfectly, her road dance.

Wait. Run. Retreat.

Wait. Run. Retreat.

Shoshanna might have passed for a litter-phobic environmentalist but for her periodically emptying her overstuffed pockets onto the back seat of her Volvo and smoothing each bedraggled sheet with the tenderness of a poet saving love letters from the flames. The salvage from the highway was, however, unromantic — the tattered remains of her Filofax, which, despite manifestly hazardous working conditions, she'd succeeded over the course of the afternoon in repossessing piece by piece. More surprising to her than the virtuosity of her performance was the fact that it was necessary at all. That she herself had triggered this paper chase, this anarchy in the afternoon, made no sense. Such things happened to otherpeople, not to the archenemy of disorder, the ultra-organized Shoshanna Wasserman Safer, for whom chaos was anathema and mindfulness next to godliness. Losing track of something as important as her Filofax was consistent with neither her sense of self nor the profession she practiced with a rare blend of doggedness and delight. Shoshanna made a living straightening out other people's messes. She systematized, organized, solved problems, averted crises. Keeping Things Under Control was both her obsession and her job. She tamed the wildness, knowing better than most how quickly chaos can overtake one's life when given the slightest opportunity.

Thirty years ago, on a California beach, she'd seen a joyful day turn tragic simply because she and her best friend had not been paying attention. The Evil Eye — that stalker for whom human contentment is an affront and bliss an incitement to riot — had leapt into the breach and the worst had happened. Ever since, she'd been keeping an eye on the Eye, studying its wily ways, noting how effortlessly it could transform a carefree walk in the woods into a deadly struggle against nature, a marshmallow roast into a conflagration, or a healthy pregnancy into a nightmare of loss. She knew its habits: laughter was its lure, pleasure its call to action, good fortune its invitation to havoc. The Eye could sneak up from behind and give a person a hard shove into chaos as easily as a car might stray across the white line on this highway. Because she understood this, Shoshanna had become a stalker of the stalker, guarding against the fall of its shadow across her path, tuned to its footsteps in the dark.

This compulsion, she'd learned to her dismay, she shared with Charles Lindbergh. The renowned aviator, WASP avatar and Nazi sympathizer, was hardly the soul mate she'd have chosen had she not read in his daughter's memoir that he was "ever on the alert for dangers, though the dangers were unspecified. 'It's the unforeseen . . .' he would warn us. 'It's always the unforeseen.' " Shoshanna Safer had become a watchdog of the unforeseen, an expert on preventable chaos, and because nothing dire had happened in her orbit since that desolating day on the California beach, she'd come to believe that the only force capable of defeating her was divine whimsy — a flash flood, a letter bomb, the freak accident like the one that sent a construction crane plummeting forty stories to land on her neighbor's leg. Random strikes were beyond her capacity to predict or prevent. But today's accident couldn't be blamed on God's caprice or the stalker. This was a mess of her own making.

Wait. Run. Retreat


Whirling on and off the highway, scavenging pages, she struggled to reconstruct how she'd lost track of the datebook in the first place. Remembered having it at the breakfast table that morning when she'd flipped through it in search of a free weekend. (She and Daniel had been trying to get away together since New Year's.) And when she went downstairs to her office, coffee cup in one hand, datebook in the other, always a two-fisted journey. (Running a business from the garden floor of their brownstone had greatly increased her productivity once she'd figured out how to keep work and family separate, with the help of the Filofax.) Had it when she'd called her cousin Warren to congratulate him on his promotion (thanks to the reminder her secretary, Fiona, London's gift to a Jewish compulsive, had written in the 10 a.m. slot). And when she'd grabbed a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich at her desk and a dollop of strawberry jam dripped on today's page — Wednesday, February 17, 1999. Ash Wednesday. The day she lost control. The day order turned to ashes.

Could have left the book behind on her desk, its sticky spot drying in the sun; but no, she remembered it lying on the passenger seat exactly where it belonged, open to the route directions Fiona had clipped to the calendar page to facilitate the drive to Riverdale. The new client had been waiting on his porch when Shoshanna swung into his driveway.

Blue jeans, cashmere V-neck the color of moss, moccasins with no socks, though it was about 30 degrees out. His jeans, she'd noted, were pressed. An ashy smudge marked the center of his forehead. Perversely, it reminded Shoshanna of the Star of David her sister Rachel wore on a chain around her neck as proudly as if it were the Croix de Guerre. Rachel's trademarks were the Jewish star and the double strand of pearls she wore virtually every day of her life, though the pearls came off now and then — say at the beach or on the treadmill — while the Magen David never left her chest. Shoshanna, discomfited by public displays of religion, had a mezuzah tacked to her doorpost, but that was it. Why stir up the anti-Semites? The smudge on the client's face seemed to shout "Catholic! Catholic!" and she'd wondered if her naked forehead was shouting back "Jew! Jew!"

In his wood-paneled study, Venetian blinds sliced the winter sun into gauzy slats. Dust motes floated lazily on bars of afternoon light. Fresh-squeezed orange juice glowed in crystal goblets. A woman notices when a man does something like that. Then again, after years of monitoring the stalker, Shoshanna noticed everything. She'd registered how neat he was, how orderly, and his study even more so. Tidy stacks of magazines squared off on the coffee table like troops on review. Diverse interests — Time in one pile, Men's Health in another, The New York Review of Books, Travel & Leisure, Foreign Affairs. A pyramid of green apples rose from a wooden bowl. Beside an upholstered wing chair stood a small table bearing a phone and a notepad with the words Milk, Eggs, Brillo, Post Office written in a fine hand. Clearly, he wasn't one of those newly divorced men who need help stocking their pantries, a task she'd been called upon to perform more than once. So what did he want her to do? Test-drive his Viagra?

"Retired this year. Widowed. Wanna join a gym," he'd announced in a flat staccato, and handed her a sheet headed Health Clubs. "Check these out, would you? And be exacting." He wanted her to evaluate six local gyms — compare their facilities (state-of-the-art equipment? climbing wall? pool?) and their classes (varied? crowded? good hours?); interview personal trainers (low-key? hyper? motivating body types?); survey the locker rooms (clean carpets? thick towels? wide lockers?); and sample the fruit smoothies.

"Details under each category, please," he'd added, pointing to his ruled columns. "I'll review your findings and join the best one. Clear?" "Yes, sir!" She'd felt an impulse to salute.

He'd risen from his chair, a client after her own heart, a man who knew when to end a meeting. (If hell existed, Shoshanna was sure it would turn out to be a meeting.) Still in the moss sweater, no coat, he had accompanied her out to the Volvo, and as they stood there on the passenger side, she'd extended her hand and said, "Looking forward to working with you." Stock line, only this time she'd meant it. Being spectacularly sedentary, she might even shape up on his dime. "So, when do you need this?"

"How's six weeks hence?"

Hence? Who'd he think he was — Alistair Cooke? She'd flipped the pages of the Filofax to March 31 and, bracing the book against her fender, had written Health club report due (in perfect penmanship, in case he was watching). She was about to open the passenger door and toss the Filofax on the front seat as usual, the way she always did, when he'd tugged at her arm like an excited kid.

"Hey! Before you go, come see the view."

Shoshanna had interrupted herself mid-gesture and — because she always indulged her clients — set the book on the car roof, and followed the man around to the back of his house, where a wide lawn, pock-marked with old snow, sloped to the banks of the Hudson River. Dried poufs of hydrangea blossoms clung to bare branches. Tall pines swayed with the breeze. It was hard to believe they were only minutes from Times Square; the Edenic hush, the water gleaming like molten glass in the glow of the late-afternoon sun. Even the dour outlines of New Jersey seemed incandescent.

Excerpted from Three Daughters © Copyright 2004 by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.

Three Daughters
by by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0142003484
  • ISBN-13: 9780142003480