When the Staleys Came to Visit
Where Harry and Helen Staley would sleep was obvious; Winnie would give up her full-sized bed and take the couch. She scrubbed the grimy black and white tile in the bathroom. She shopped for sophisticated snacks that would appeal to anyone: figs; a wedge of brie; a can of salted mixed nuts; two bottles of wine, one red, one white, each under six dollars, which would stretch her budget at that; and some sparkling water. New York had the best water, she heard people say, and had learned to repeat it. Harry wouldn’t mind drinking from the tap: he was originally from Brooklyn, and when he wanted to amuse the students in his James Joyce class in Albany, he spoke like he had marbles in his mouth, shaking his jowls, “Ahm from Brookluhn.” When he did that, Winnie, who sat on the left side of the first row, imagined him as a little boy in tweed knickers, knocking a ball out of a scrappy baseball field with a wad of age-inappropriate tobacco in his cheek. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure if Helen would drink tap water.
It was Harry who had been her professor. Semester after semester she took every class of his that was on offer: The History of the English Language, its centuries of root words tugging at her; James Joyce, if only for the dirty Molly Bloom bits; Romantic Poetry, and how romantic it was when he read to them, Keats, of course; Shelley, of course.
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
which makes thee terrible and dear--.
Their visits began in his office. Winnie would drop in, enraptured by a line from a book or poem, and flop down on the spare chair in his office hoping to get him talking. He would slip back and forth between his Brooklyn rogue and his Irish brogue. He smiled first and twinkled second and welcomed her back anytime third. One time she went to visit him, and another student sat in that same chair to talk about an actual paper. She listened outside the door, searching for the same fondness in his voice, and was comforted that it was nowhere to be found. He was wearing her favorite sweater of his, a sea green stitched wool with a moth hole in the elbow. If she could, she would have borrowed it to wear down the second elbow. On his desk were pads written on with a slanted Palmer-trained handwriting in stubby pencil, not pen.
Their visits continued at the Monday night open mic poetry readings at the QE2 bar on Central Avenue where he turned up to read poetry about his Irish heritage and Catholic upbringing.
I attended children’s mass,
lulled by Latin, carefully Young Father Smith revealed the host,
omnipotent and bright,
larger than a quarter.
“But not a drop of the blood to pass my lips,” he said later, winking at her. She was sure he’d seen her outside earlier smoking, and she’d felt mortified, and stomped out the filter, aware of her stench. The feeling was a knotted mess: getting away with something, but craving approval. Maybe it was the poetry, maybe it was the moth hole, maybe it was the stubby pencils. Maybe she wanted to get too close.
And finally, they met across his own threshold in a historical building on State Street, in his formal parlor, a baby Steinway with no sign of play and lots of upholstery and creaky wooden floors and mouldings and furniture. During her first visit, Helen buzzed about the background of their pre-war galley kitchen, making tea. Until she didn’t hang back. She was small, but her presence formidable. She drove a long white Chevy Impala, and at 4’11” her hands reached up to the steering wheel like a young child’s. It was impossible to see her little head behind the wheel unless she was wearing her formidable black fur hat.
It didn’t take long for Winnie to understand herself to be witness to the strange dynamics of a marriage. Before her visits to State Street, marriage hovered in her mind like an abstract dollhouse that she’d never fit into, only with car payments and a shared bank account. Most often, marriage looked like divorce.
With a cup of tea balanced on a saucer that was balanced on her knee, Winnie noticed that for every word that Harry uttered, Helen uttered twelve. At first, she finished his sentences. Soon, she covered them over before they could get a running start. He sat like a scolded child with his hands folded in his lap, sulking in a deep chair. This gathering morphed into a strange triangulation, a daydream where Harry struggled to push open a heavy mahogany door, only to have it slammed shut by Helen. Winnie wanted to push it back open and leave it that way. She wanted a skeleton key, so she could push Helen into a dark hallway and lock the door and listen to him finish his own sentences for eternity.
It had been a couple of years since Winnie packed up a U-Haul after graduation and moved to New York City. “Don’t put an ad in the Village Voice!” she’d said to a former classmate who was leaving her cheap apartment to move in with her boyfriend. It was now a couple of years since she’d sat in the Staley’s parlor, and they were coming to stay with her.
It was dark by the time her doorbell buzzed. Winnie pressed the intercom and tried to keep her voice steady. “I’m gonna buzz you! Come on in! I’m on the 3rd floor.” Helen appeared first, emerging around the curve of the stairwell, the same black fur hat covering her fiery red hair that always covered her fiery red hair. Her black wool cape dragged on the floor as she climbed the stairs. Her winter boots were from another time altogether, also fur, with embroidery woven across the seams, not unlike the arts and crafts displayed at the annual Ukrainian street fair in Winnie’s neighborhood.
She hugged them both and showed them to her room, apologizing about everything in no specific order (the size of her apartment; the box of cat litter in the corner; the narrow spiral staircase with hard metal edges that lead up to the bedroom—oh, be careful!—; and the firmness of her mattress). For herself, she made a nest on the couch with her black cat, Charlie.
When Winnie came home from work the next evening, Harry and Helen were out visiting friends. Helen made their friends sound so glamorous. A homosexual, in the theater. An artist who we met in Japan. Her bathroom was now a skyline of personal toiletries, including a canister of orange-flavored Metamucil. There was no turning back, she understood. The cracks that surfaced with intimacy would only spread from there.
At 10:45, the buzzer buzzed, and they climbed the stairs, Helen chattering to Harry nonstop. “But they didn’t stay for long, did they? That was a bore. At least the borscht was homemade.”
The second time the Staleys came to visit, it was to attend an art opening on 25th Street, not for their friend the Japanese artist, Helen was careful to clarify, but for another wonderful friend, from Amsterdam. Would Winnie be able to break free from work to meet them for lunch at the gallery? “Yes, of course,” she said, wishing she could see Harry alone.
On the appointed day, Winnie waited awkwardly for them to turn up. From a large picture window, she watched heavy, wet snow fall. A yellow taxi pulled up and she watched as Helen exited onto the slushy curb. Her black fur hat fell into the snow, and she bent like an accordion to pick it up. What was left of her hair was freshly dyed red, long and wild, and blew into her face. Harry emerged next, wearing sneakers with no socks. A thin, white anorak was the only thing protecting him from the sharp Hudson River wind. When they came inside, it seemed a wonderful shock at seeing her there, even though they’d made plans three days earlier. Winnie quickly surmised that they’d forgotten her. Lunch wasn’t going to happen. Oh dear, it’s snowing, and best if we don’t spend the night. Best if we turn around and catch an earlier train back upstate.
When she left to return to work, hot tears spilled.
On the floor of the small elevator in her office building, a brass stamp was engraved into the floor that read “Staley.” It might have been the elevator maker; it might have been an elevator distributor, if there was such a thing. Every time Winnie rode up or down, she meditated on the “S” which swooped with a lovely serif at each end. Sometimes it looked tarnished, barely noticeable under the scrum of shuffling feet. Other times, a fresh new shine drew her eyes towards it. Always, out of an odd respect for the randomness of its placement, she did her best to sidestep it altogether. If she were alone, she might articulate an S sound, connecting it to another word. Serendipity. Snake. Sunshine. Sadness.
The years ticked on and they fell out of touch. Occasionally, she spotted a book of poetry on her bookshelves by Harry called Lives of a Shell-shocked Chaplain. Winnie had perched it next to a book Helen had self-published, about a cat. She wondered if they were still alive, living in their grand, but down-at-the-heels apartment on State Street in Albany. The last time she’d been there, Helen was doing a furious “lightening up.” She came out of her kitchen holding a set of opaque, rose-colored aperetif glasses, and a sake set. “I carried these on my lap from Japan when we came home from our honeymoon. We would love for you to have them.” Harry sat upright in his faded green armchair, smiled, and nodded with approval. Winnie’s heart cracked open. They were like grandparents, but that wasn’t right. He was like an old love, but that wasn’t right, either.
The last time she’d sat in his office, he’d tucked his chin in his palm, looked at her wistfully, and said, “Oh Winnie, if only I were younger.” Until that afternoon, Winnie had never asked Professor Staley for an extension on a paper. She knocked on his door and he gently pulled it open, surprised to see her on the other side. “Sit, sit!” In the warm glow of amber lamp light, his grin was crooked, his eyebrows two white caterpillars. He had no problem with her turning in her paper a day late, but asking him made her cheeks burn. She accepted that afternoon’s visit as a complex but beautiful inevitability, and it stayed with her for many years, like an extra button in a teacup.
Of all the places they ended up, the Catholic nursing home on New Scotland Avenue was not what Winnie imagined. A nurse explained that he and Helen had separate rooms. She asked for directions to Harry’s room. At the end of a long corridor, she found his empty bed made up with a mustard-colored shaggy comforter. On the bedside table, a hospital-issue plastic water pitcher, and a framed picture of he and Helen as young war lovers, she in crimson lipstick with that same unmistakable intensity in her gaze, and he jovial and goofy in his uniform. Winnie followed the musty smell of overly cooked vegetables to the cafeteria and found them sitting at the end of a group table. Both were in wheelchairs. Winnie leaned down to their height. Harry smiled, his remaining teeth protruding. Helen scoured, sending her painted left eyebrow into a sharp 90-degree angle. “I didn’t think we’d see you again,” she said.
Harry offered her his tapioca cup and patted her shoulder. “I know you, I know you!” She could have been his student; she could have been his daughter. Had Helen not been there, she wasn’t sure which identity she would have claimed. Artist from Amsterdam. Borscht maker. Daughter.
When she went back to work, she entered the elevator and looked downward at the brass stamp below her feet. Staley, with its two serifs.