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Sweet Evening Breeze

The home of this “genius with little talent,” as T.S. Eliot said of Miss Barnes, was brutally cramped—one tiny, robin’s egg–blue room with white molding. The kitchen was such a closet that the refrigerator hummed behind French doors in a little pantry packed with ironing board, vacuum, boxes of faded cartes d’identité, linen, and, so my covetousness led me to think, hoarded Tchelitchew costume sketches. Great adventures, I was sure, awaited me in the clutter—bibelots on the mantel and side tables, picture frames on the floor turned toward the wall, shoeboxes under the fat wing chair. On either side of the fireplace were bookcases. Her low, narrow bed was flush against one of them. Two plain wooden desks dominated the dark room. Stacks of letters and papers had accumulated on them like stalagmites. Meticulously labeled envelopes warning “Notes on Mr. Eliot,” “Notes on Mr. Joyce” rested near a portable typewriter. The blank page in the Olivetti manual had browned.

The booming voice was deceptive. Miss Barnes was shrunken, frail. The Lazy Susan of medicines on the night table was so large that there was scarcely room for the radio, spectacles, and telephone. Her introductory remarks were brief. She came down hard on the point of my being there. “See that you don’t grow old. The longer you’re around the more trouble you’re in.” Miss Barnes had been old for so long that she looked upon herself as a cautionary tale. The first day of my employ I was told to see to it that I never married, never went blind, was never operated on, never found myself forbidden salt, sugar, tea, or sherry, and, above all, that I was never such a fool as to write a book.

Yet there was a hypnotic liveliness to her, moments when the embers of flirtatiousness flared. The thin white hair was swept back and held by two delicate combs. She wore a Moroccan robe trimmed in gold, opaque white stockings, and red patent-leather heels. Her eyes glistened like opals in a shallow pond and her skin was pale as moonlight. Her mouth was painted a moist pink, her jaw jutted forward, her bearing was defiant, angrily inquisitive. The tall, stylish eccentric of the Berenice Abbott and Man Ray photographs lived on somewhere inside the proud recluse who cursed her magnifying glass, her swollen ankles, overworked lungs, hardened arteries, and faulty short-term memory. “Damn, damn, damn,” she muttered.

My inaugural chore was to refill the humidifier. Under her scrutiny this task was far from simple. Her hands flew to her ears. “That’s too much water. We can’t have that.” Next Miss Barnes wanted me to excavate an unmarked copy of “Creatures in an Alphabet.” Stray pages were tucked here and there, none clean enough for her. She settled on one version of the poem, retreated to the bed, and set about crossing out the dedication. “Can’t have that. He ruined my picture.” The explanation of how some well-meaning soul had smudged a portrait when he tried to wash it gave way abruptly to a denunciation of modern pens, how they were not made to last. I gave her my Bic, told her to keep it. “Why thank you. Would you like to support me?” She sank into the pillows and laughed, dryly, ruefully, as one would at a private joke.

By some sorcery the laugh became a racking cough. She clutched a wad of tissues and coughed, coughed. I tried to help—water? A pill? She held up her hand for silence. The barking subsided. She sat for some time with head lowered, fists in her lap. Then she looked around, as if disappointed to find herself still in the same place. Fearing dizziness, she asked me to fetch her black handbag. She found the leather coin purse, from which she slowly extracted five one-dollar bills. She laid them on the bed in a fan shape and commanded me to “run along.” She pushed the pages of “Creatures in an Alphabet” away, like a patient trying to shove a tray of Jello and thin sandwiches from view. Miss Barnes was tired. Asking for a fresh copy of that poem was a symbolic gesture—she was no longer a writer at work. At least she had an air conditioner, I thought, as I closed the warm gate to the street and put a match to the cigarette I was not permitted to smoke in her presence.

I learned not to call and volunteer: Miss Barnes turned me aside with mandarin courtesy. I went when summoned, which was not often. If I arrived early she implied that the zeal of the young was inelegant, and if I came late, panting, she stated flatly that the young were hopelessly self-absorbed. Miss Barnes thought my given name, Darryl, with its contemporary dixie-cup quality, ridiculous, and my surname, Pinckney, with its antebellum echo, only barely acceptable. I had to admit that it had the goofiness of a made-up name. Delmore Schwartz, what a beautiful name! Delmore Schwartz is said to have exclaimed.

I went to the market—“What’s an old woman to eat, Mr. Pinckney, I ask you”—for bananas, ginger ale, coffee ice cream, hard rolls, and plums. “Not the red ones, the black ones. When they’re good, they’ve white specks on them.” I rushed out to the hardware store for pesticide and back again to exchange it for a brand to which she was not allergic. I went to the shoe repair and back again to have her black heels stretched even more. “I forgot. You’re young. Don’t mind running up and down the steps, do you?” And, of course, I stood on line at the pharmacy.

I haven’t been out of this room in five years. You’d think I’d be climbing the walls, wouldn’t you?”

Yes.”

I am.”

Miss Barnes was not above a little drama and I believed she exaggerated the extent of her isolation. She had a brother in Pennsylvania, a nephew or some such in Hoboken. Regularly her devoted “boy,” an East European in his sixties, came to wash the floors and walls. I had heard that two elderly gentlemen, her doctor and her lawyer, still climbed the stairs to pay their respects. There were romantic rumors—one had it that an heiress to the company that supplied paper to the US mint sometimes stepped from a great car to call on the friend of her expatriate youth. I hoped the radio was a comfort, that it filled her room with music, voices, but it was never on in my presence, during business hours, as it were.

She was reasonably informed about large events, seemed up on literary gossip. The TLS was stored in a basket like kindling, the light-blue wrappers unbroken. If she did not have much to say about the outside world, well, she had lived a long time. The ways in which most of us burned up daily life were, to her, pure folly. “What fools are the young.” I am sure Miss Barnes managed to do a great deal of wrangling by telephone. She had a combative, litigious streak, an outgrowth, perhaps, of the yearning to take hold, to fend for herself. Rights and permissions had become an obsession that filled the place once occupied by composition. She dismissed me before she dialed the number of some unsuspecting publisher.

It was bad manners to be too curious. Many had been banished. She spoke of one former helper as being “stupid as a telephone pole.” She fumed against one enterprising character who had insinuated himself into her confidence, gotten into her will “with both feet,” and then packed up cartons of treasure. She claimed to have been relentlessly ripped off, down to the monogrammed spoons, but I wondered about that since, evidently, she regarded the sale of her papers as a kind of theft. As for admirers, those pilgrims and would-be biographers who brought her “one bent rose from somebody’s grave,” she declared that they wanted her on 42nd Street standing on her head with her underwear showing. Some acolytes, she said, had taken advantage of her failing eyesight to smuggle out a souvenir or two. She complained that a bookstore in the vicinity had, without her consent, used the name her father had conjured up for her, and that when she called to protest the manager hung up on her.

Pessimism Miss Barnes wore as regally as a tweed suit and perhaps an early career as a reporter had taught her not to expect too much of the “hard, capricious star.” Everything and everyone came down to the lowest common denominator in the end. “Love is the first lie; wisdom the last.” The one time I was foolish enough to quote from her work she looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Am I hard of hearing,” she screamed, “or do you mumble?” That was a break, the possibility she hadn’t heard. “You’re shy, aren’t you? Pretend that you aren’t.” I wanted to be different, to be one who did not ask about the cafés, the parties, Peggy Guggenheim, or her portrait of Alice Rohrer over the fireplace.

Her seclusion was a form of self-protection as much as it was a consequence of age. Even if she had been temperamentally capable of going off, like Mina Loy, and leaving everything to scavengers, it was too late. When Miss Barnes was on a roll, launched on a tirade fueled by grievance, her tiny figure seemed to expand and take up the whole room. The bold voice forced me into a corner, words came like darts. I had the feeling that the locksmith’s clumsy work stood for something larger, that it was simply an occasion for the release of fury. I nodded and nodded as she pointed to the scratches around the new cylinder in the door. “You mustn’t say ‘Oh really’ again, Mr. Pinckney.” Then the inevitable deflation, that rasping cough. I stood very still, like an animal waiting for a hunter to pass.

The temper had its source in the underground fire of physical pain. Once I was sent away minutes after slipping through the door because clearly she was having a rough day. Though Miss Barnes, like most old people, talked of her ailments—“I can’t breathe and I’m going blind. Damn.”—she did not want a stranger to witness her private struggles. She arranged five dollars on the bed and apologized for having ruined my Sunday. I told her that I admired her work, that coming to see her was one of my few joys. “You’re mad. You’re absolutely mad. Well, there’s nothing we can do about that.” I refused the money. Miss Barnes did not part with cash easily. In her life she had been broke and stranded more than once. My wage she regarded as wildly generous, a gift to, say, the United Negro College Fund, because she thought of dollars in terms of a prewar exchange rate. She insisted, gave me a bill to mail so that I would feel I had earned my pay. “I used to be like you. Not taking the money. It didn’t matter.” She wagged an index finger. “Make money. Stuff it in your boots, as Shakespeare said.” Behind me I heard the bolts slide across her door.

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