By Adrienne Ross Scanlan
I remember seeing Leta in front of Al’s Quick Shop as I walked past Shaker and Elk on my way to Rose House. It was 1979, or thereabouts. I remember Leta wearing white sweaters, bell-bottoms, and friendship bracelets taken from charity bags left on Rose House’s steps. I remember her heart shaped face, her wide-open brown eyes. Do-good-girls, like I used to be, think we see women like Leta, but we don’t. A woman like Leta disappears for days, weeks, travels between cities, apartments, men. Where are her children? Swallowed up by adoption services, foster care, grandparents who can’t understand what went wrong.
I remember weeks would go by, and I wouldn’t see Leta, and I’d cross Andover, and she’d be back at Rose House. I’d have walked past City Hall’s marble building, McCallum’s Bar for lawyers and lobbyists, the Herkimer Bakery that sold day-old rye bread I’d buy in the morning on my way home from work, the loaves split with a seam down the center and studded with crescent-moon caraway seeds. But a quarter mile away the storefronts were boarded. Doors were chained at twilight. I’d walk fast, afraid of packs of howling dogs. I’d look straight ahead as if innocence was protection.
I’d be walking to my first job after college: night supervisor at Rose House, a shelter for fallen women, traveling women, abused women, women who had nowhere and no one. I played cards with them, watched TV with them, shooed them upstairs for the nine pm curfew. Once I spent my day off taking a woman to welfare. Hours in a crowded room. Five minutes with a caseworker who recited a list as long as my arm of documents needed to prove income, residence, existence. Years afterward, the woman would say hello, how are you if she saw me at the bus stop or grocery. I must have done something good.
I believed Rose House was about doing good. I believed I would do good by being there. If I did good, I would be a good person. I’d say Leta helped me be a good person. A good attorney. I hope.
I remember bits and pieces about Leta.
“What haven’t I done?” she told me as we alphabetized soup cans in Rose House’s pantry. “A waitress up in Schenectady, cleaning lady in Poughkeepsie, farm work out in Kingston. But no one’s ever had me put lentil soup on one shelf and French lentil soup on another. Whose bright idea was that?”
“Shhh. Let sleeping Sisters lie.”
Sister Luke and Sister Claire had entered convent life right after high school graduation. Their bodies were swallowed by fat from half a century of macaroni and cheese, Cheerios, cod, cheap convent foods. They waddled in blue skirts, white blouses, blue sweaters adorned with a brooch of a heart superimposed on a crucifix, blue kerchiefs if they left Rose House for the outside world. All lives are brutal; all lives disappoint. The Buddhists have it right: harm is inevitable, so do the least harm possible. But the Sisters’ righteousness was as massive as their bodies. Their voices were resonant with rage that had cowered children during their decades teaching in parish schools. I jumped at their footsteps. I couldn’t eat before leaving for work.
Sister Luke said Leta had been in an earlier marriage (…barely eighteen, she was from a good family, too…), while Sister Claire had whispered: Leta’s son is with the ex-husband, how could a mother lose her child?
I remember one morning when desiccated brown leaves swirled around our feet as Leta and I turned the corner from Rose House, me heading home, she to a family court appearance.
“I don’t go to church anymore. And my men sure don’t confess their sins, they enjoy their sins,” Leta laughed.
I laughed because she laughed. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I came from a family whose clothes were neat, whose floors were clean, whose voices were quiet. Like yours? We had simple, good rules. Like yours? Be kind. Be helpful. Share with others less fortunate. Show them our rules. Trust the rules. Trust the rule makers.
That Leta could laugh amazed me. I didn’t know, back then, that you could survive almost anything. Leta’s family had been in the Hudson Valley for centuries, a mélange of Dutch farmers, run-away slaves, Iroquois natives, and Irish immigrants all reflected in Leta’s high cheekbones and hatchet nose (broken and conked to the right making her sniffle), pale freckled skin, ebony curls, and lips that opened easily into a smile.
“The Sisters. What do they know about a man’s love, babies at the breast, after that all you need is air and water, don’t you know?”
“Sure,” I stammered, “I’ve been in love…”
Leta shot me a sharp look. Before she went her way and I went mine, I bought a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor, and as we ate and shivered in the cold, she said: “I feel sorry for the Sisters.”
What else did she tell me? I forget, but memory is my justice. Again, I toss her into oblivion. So, where did I hear her story? Gossip. From social workers and do-gooders like me carrying black bags and wearing brown shoes, shuffling from a cubicle at an adoption agency to a desk within rows of desks at a state agency. What’s client confidentiality among friends? There were bulging files at legal aid offices and emergency rooms. It was none of my business. I read it all.
She was a waitress at a steak joint near the courthouse when she met Edgar. He was balding at thirty-five with a half-crown of brown hair, a belly paunch, and a gleaming gold tooth. He held the door open for her and brought her roses. He said he was a lawyer. He said he had a house in Delmar he’d be inheriting from his mother. He said he wanted children. After the wedding, Leta discovered Edgar was a court clerk. But he was saving to go to law school, he was almost a lawyer what with all the forms he filled out, and who was she to look down on Edgar?
Leta settled in. She and Edgar lived in a Maple Street apartment building. I lived there years later. I didn’t stay long, but I know the kitchen had black and white linoleum, a gas stove with a soup pot. People living there remembered Leta and the smells of her pot roasts, pork chops, and other good meals a good wife makes. There were smells; there were sounds. Soon she was pregnant. The restaurant fired her. Edgar punched her that night. Leta told me that Edgar told her, sorry if I hurt you, we said we’d save for law school, why did you let this happen to me, you want me to be a clerk until I die? Leta iced her lips and said, we’ll have a beautiful baby, we need to stay to that and hold steady.
She nursed Daisy and roasted chicken with potatoes and mushrooms, never had more than beer in the house, and kept the baby quiet while Edgar studied for the LSATS. His drinking buddies were cops from court. Leta became pregnant again. Edgar kicked her in the belly. Lily was born early. The girls were so young Leta couldn’t have gone back to work even if she wanted to. Edgar complained about lots of mouths to feed on his hard-earned salary, did Leta love him, or just the girls?
One night, he was too loud when he beat Leta. Yes, you’re right, it’s odd that I would know this, but it’s one of those ways my life keeps stumbling over Leta’s. Years later, the neighborhood around Al’s Quick Shop started gentrifying, and my husband snapped up a brownstone. Al’s became Albert’s Coffee Shop, but for a while, it was still Al’s where old-timers bought beer and Marlboros, and shared stories. So, I know that Edgar’s police friends came. I know the judge who dismissed the charges. He knew Edgar had almost gone to law school except that he had a family to support. Daisy was three. Lily was a year and a half. Leta made bread. She went shopping. The grocery clerks saw her black eyes. The emergency room nurses took her photograph and wrote in her file: patient expresses remorse w/ maternal feelings (“…I can’t lose these babies too…”) & avoidant responses…(“…he hit me & I’d think, I’ll get the girls a puppy, take them to the park, that will make it up to them…”). Once I would have said, that’s her problem, and given it a label like borderline personality. Now I would say, that’s the way she was, and maybe still is, to hope for love like a pit-bull at a bone.
She went to her parents’ house. She went to her sisters’ apartment. Edgar came calling with chocolates for Leta’s mother, roses for her sisters. Leta’s brother wouldn’t interfere with a marriage made by God. Edgar telephoned and put Daisy and Lily on the line. Leta went home.
One January night, as Edgar and Leta were walking past Skye Street’s bars, Edgar took Leta down an alley and made her take her clothes off. He had a knife. He made her blow him (“perform un-consenting oral sex” as it said in one of Leta’s many files). He left. He took her clothes.
A man, drunk from one of the bars, couldn’t wait for the john. He had stumbled out the kitchen door and into the alley, urinated, and came back into his bar shouting there’s a naked woman, not a stitch on, who called for the whore, she’s outside. The bartender got tired of telling him shut it pal. The bartender went into the alley. He saw Leta white as a ghost and ran inside. I’ve been in that bar with that old bartender, and he pauses, and closes his eyes just at this point in the story, as if he’s praying, or giving thanks, or both. One of the customers heard the bartender call for an ambulance and, by some guardian angel Leta didn’t know she had, it turned out he was a general practice doctor up in Troy. He knew hypothermia when he saw it.
The police took Leta to the emergency room. Then they took her to Rose House.
Rose House provided three nights of safety, meals, and referrals to medical clinics, legal aid, and other institutions of compassion. It was an abandoned convent with a four-inch thick door. Foot high stone steps had to be negotiated to reach that door. Decades later, vacationing in Belize, I climbed steps just like those to ancient Mayan altars where captives had their hearts ripped out.
Sister Luke and Sister Claire set the table with the teacups face down in the saucer and the teaspoon perpendicular to the fork, would not eat with the guests, forbade me from eating with the guests, were virgins yet took the guests — widows, wives, mothers, girlfriends— into Sister Luke’s office for lectures on what it meant to be a good woman, praised poverty and begrudged me my government-funded CETA job ($6,000 and peanuts, if memory serves), believed that every bag left on their doorstep and filled with Campbell Soup was a miracle from God, let each other cheat at Scrabble, held each other sobbing, danced jigs on Easter, wore gold bands as brides of Christ but were truly married to each other (Were they lovers? I haven’t a clue), and who I hope died together because neither could have withstood life without the other.
Every night, the Sisters smiled at me, wished me goodnight, walked up three flights of creaking stairs to their suite, and telephoned me in a fury that a hair had been left in the bathroom sink, the night log entries were too long (or too short), the sheets not folded to tight squares (or folded so tight that raised lines appeared), or that I had taken a glass of water into the office, and I’d better confess. They never apologized any more than for Sister Clare’s drunken Saturday happiness. But for me, it was a test at school. There was a right answer. There was a wrong answer. I’d been an A student. I could learn the rule to sort the bath towels first by color and then size. I could learn the rule to put cinnamon in the oatmeal only on Sundays, and raisins and sugar only on Christmas morning.
Sister Luke and Sister Claire welcomed Leta as if she were a schoolgirl who would be so pretty once the nuns taught her how to wash. Leta stayed for three nights. Then she stayed for eleven. This was the closest the Sisters came to heresy.
Leta watered Rose House’s houseplants, roasted chickens with rosemary and lemon, and cleared window boxes for herbs. Leta, the Sisters declared, had a future. She could become an LPN or remarry (the Sisters would look at their feet never saying “divorce”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had asked priests about widowers in their parishes.
Rose House didn’t take children. Leta cried for Daisy and Lily and her long-gone son (they’ll cry when they see me, they’ve forgotten me, they won’t cry when I leave, they’re hungry, they’re snuggling under blankets, they’re dreaming of flowers and clowns…). The other guests couldn’t sleep. I moved her out of the dormitory and into a room where she cried alone. Daisy and Lily were with Edgar. Maybe he still harbored dreams of becoming a lawyer, dreams that would wither in a protection order’s light of day. Edgar made accusations: Leta hits Lily, it’s why my little girl’s so slow, I’ve got to get custody, Leta left the kids alone for a whole day.
A day Leta spent in the emergency room.
Leta went back to Edgar. She left Rose House one morning and didn’t return by the nine pm curfew. Sister Claire snapped her fingers at me and said PB & J sandwiches, tomato soup, what more do these women want? I stripped Leta’s bed. I folded her Goodwill clothes. I waited for the next woman.
A few weeks later, Leta was back. She had to ask permission, Sister Luke said. And it was only because we had an empty bed, Sister Claire said. But they patted her shoulder, took her to welfare, and filed for custody along with a protection order. Leta got Daisy and Lily on paper. Edgar had the girls. Leta had no money for an apartment. The nuns found Leta a job as an elderly woman’s caretaker paying room, board, bus money. No children allowed.
Leta went back to Edgar. She returned to Rose House. She went back to Edgar. She left Edgar. But first she became pregnant again.
What happened next is that it was a cold night, and the doorbell rang. Now, I hope something like this never happens to you, but I hope it does. That’s wrong, of course, so I hope you’ll please remember this story. Yes, I know, your Android is beeping, and you have a HR webinar to get through, but please, stay a bit longer. Now, as I was saying, that night, I’d say it was three am or so. I’d been sleeping bundled under blankets on the TV room’s couch. Now, I’ve never been good at night. I wake slowly. I’m confused until I get coffee. So, what I remember is three blasts of the doorbell. I needed three just to tumble off the sofa, struggle into my robe and slippers, yawn and rub my eyes, and get to the door to say: “Who’s there?”
“It’s me. Open up. Please.”
Leta. It was a cold night. Wind. Howling dogs.
I felt sick.
I did want to let her in.
I hugged myself in the dark foyer.
I felt sick like one of those dogs in psychology experiments that get an electric shock if they leave their cage and an electric shock if they stay in their cage, and finally sit down and whimper and pee on themselves. All I had to do was open the door. Opening the door was the right thing. But the rule was that guests were to be back at Rose House by nine pm or not at all; women in emergencies could come after nine pm, but only if they were new guests. Right was wrong, wrong was right, and I yawned. I wasn’t awake yet.
I placed my palms against the door. I put my face against the wood. I heard Leta say something. I can’t remember what. That bothers me. I prayed that the right thing, the thing I was supposed to do, would just happen. It wasn’t being afraid of the Sisters. It was something about me I was seeing but couldn’t see, not yet.
Leta’s voice went silent.
I did want to open the door. But I didn’t.
Maybe that was for the best, for me at least. Something so brutal has its own clarity.
I went back to bed. What else could I do? It was cold. It was dark. I wasn’t really awake, anyway. I slept. I must have.
I don’t know where Leta went. I know there was wind. I know there were dogs.
The next morning, I put Cheerios, margarine, and skim milk out for the guests, toasted Wonder Bread, brewed bitter coffee. I went home.
Yes, I know, this isn’t what you wanted, and maybe you’re right, maybe I’m centering myself in the story of a marginalized person, but it’s the story I have to give.
Leta, the Sisters sputtered after they learned what happened, she knows the rules. After all we’ve done for her. We’ve broken enough rules…
I thought of Leta, and Rose House, and the rules. I quit. I waited for punishment. There was none.
The nuns remained at Rose House. Edgar remained court clerk. I found do-good work, but there was no going back. Then there was law school. I’ve been doing legal services for the poor ever since, mainly in this office. Sorry for the mess.
I never saw Leta again.
I needed to create justice somewhere. I learned that much, at least.
Copyright Scanlan 2021