The dull New Jersey landscape passed in shapeless blurs. An uninterrupted pattern of melding browns and greys found relief only in the occasional bright traffic light, blinking once, then gone. Henry could find no landmarks in the monotony. He had no idea where he was and momentarily panicked at the thought he might have boarded the wrong train. The rain had stopped but droplets still streaked across the window disturbing the reflection of his smooth, oval face. The train began to slow. The lurching rhythm awakened some long forgotten muscle memory. Henry felt reassured. He was finally close to his destination.
His fingers played nervously on the tattered edges of his raincoat lining. The anticipation was a strange, almost transporting feeling. As the train screeched into the siding, Henry unconsciously took his place in the queue of departing passengers. He shuffled down the platform clutching a duffel bag and a worn leather briefcase. All his worldly possessions, he realized. Then a small, tense smile creased his face. There was nothing even faintly worldly about Henry Breckenridge Winston II, Princeton Class of ’51.
Across the tracks, the dinky sat patiently. He took his seat and began to breathe normally. Each intake of breathe energized him. The dinky sped through an inky night, pulling to a stop beneath the familiar fieldstone columns of the Princeton station. Henry emerged on University Place. He stood for a moment, confused by the changed facade of McCarter Theater, as he fixed the points of a new life compass.
Behind him a youthful voice inquired, “Do you need directions, sir?” Too late, mused Henry silently, much too late for direction. But he acknowledged the young man with a smile and dismissive shake of his head. He turned and began a slow, steady climb to Nassau Street.
Fifty years before Henry arrived at the same place, alone and with another small satchel, clutching a printed map of the campus as he attempted to decipher the route to Blair Arch. From there his grandfather had advised, he would have no difficulty locating Foulke Hall.
He had hoped his grandfather would be with him that fall but the old man had died, buried in his orange and black jacket. The young Henry was a stranger to the campus but had grown up surrounded by the Princeton memorabilia that crowded his grandfather’s library and reminiscences.
A much younger Henry sat on the library’s worn Persian carpet. He would trace the bold blue and faded red patterns like rivers, troubled when his fingers found a worn patch, perhaps a deep unexpected lake. The memories were vivid. There he studied the framed pictures of his dead father, the Princeton scholar athlete with straight white teeth and even smile. “Such promise,” the elder Henry moaned wistfully, his voice trailing off with a shudder of emotion.
Henry did not remember his father, killed not long after his birth. Sitting on the library floor, he studied the picture searching for some hint of familiarity, some semblance of himself. It was like looking at a puzzle. If only he could find the right edge or angle perhaps the mystery of who he was would come into focus. Maybe the picture would speak, in a reassuring kindly voice. But there was never a clue and Henry grew into a young man who felt somehow adrift in a demanding world that moved too fast.
The old man mistook Henry’s fondness for the library as a growing interest in Princeton. “It’s your legacy my boy” his grandfather stated with authority. And so as Henry prepared for his ultimate journey east with legacy hanging about his neck, a heavy unconnected chain, he was aware his grandfather saw him as a mere vehicle for continuing the family tradition with diminished concern for Henry’s personal desires.
His Princeton years passed uneventfully. Henry made few friends even among roommates. He once exchanged animated greetings with a classmate from his school days in Cleveland. Later he realized the upper classman was waving him back to his dorm as Henry had forgotten the awkward but requisite frosh beanie. In junior and senior years he roomed alone. His fondest memories were of sitting in classrooms where the windows framed beautiful visages of the Princeton campus. Classmates interpreted his ennui as a sort of snobbishness. As neither a prep school standout nor a public school valedictorian, Henry fell into the uncomfortable niche of legacy. There were, of course, notable professors with dynamic lectures burned into Henry’s brain. But with family business as his future, he prepared himself for life after Princeton with haphazard course choices.
Life back in Cleveland eventually found Henry rudderless once again. Within a few years, the family business was sold and Henry settled into a small insurance office owned by a family friend. His wife, a debutante attracted by the cache of Henry’s assumed trust fund and pedigree, soon left with their young daughter. Blanche soon remarried, choosing a prominent attorney trained at Yale. Henry referred to him as “the bulldog.”
Years drifted by as Henry grew more and more detached from life. He attended his daughter’s wedding and watched “the bulldog” gracefully waltz her down the aisle. Occasionally, a card might arrive announcing some Princeton alumni event in Cleveland, but Henry never responded. When the notice of his 25th reunion arrived, he stuffed the information packet in his briefcase, eventually leaving it in plain sight. It was the promise of the jacket that beguiled him. He envisioned himself putting it on for the first time, arms outstretched as in victory. Like the winners of the Master’s, claiming his Princeton jacket would be the seminal event of a lackluster life.
When the great day came, his transformation began. Standing in line in the uniform of the day, ordered from Langrocks, Henry experienced a swell of camaraderie that buoyed him as if on the crest of a wave. Slaps on the back and shouts of recognition by fellow classmates: “Where have you been, old boy?”
“Hey Breck!” his nickname resounded in his ears. No more than a few words, a simple greeting, as they hurried on. His classmates had become captains of industry, nationally known politicians, and award-winning artists, but that jacket was the great leveler of success and failure. They shared equally in the brotherhood of Princeton. Men of a former generation for whom the world held nothing but promise.
The weekend flew by. Henry reveled in the companionship of orange and black. If only he could sustain these feelings of worth and fellowship. On his return to Cleveland he began to hatch his plan. His final salvation from ennui and abject loneliness. He would return to Princeton to recapture his youth living out his days.
Now, twenty five years later, a welcoming light spilled down the wide front steps of the Nassau Club. After some confusion, the Nassau Club being unaccustomed to overnight guests, Henry was shown to a small but adequate room. He accepted a key with a large metal fob with the solemnity befitting the Nobel Prize. “Will you be staying with us long, sir?”
“Perhaps,” Henry smiled, “perhaps, a while.”
He put away his few things, emptying his dop kit atop a worn oak dresser. He carefully unpacked his Princeton jacket, worn just that one long ago weekend. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and unfolded the map he found on the nightstand. Many new buildings had popped up like so many mushrooms in a forest glen. “Yes,” Henry nodded with satisfaction, “it will take years to explore.”
Henry began a routine that would persist for years without alteration. He would breakfast at the club, signing his chit with full signature, even years after he failed to pay his full monthly bill. He addressed the staff by name, with profuse thanks for the folded newspaper and refills of fresh coffee. Most days, he wandered outside. When the weather was unpleasant, he enjoyed sitting in the club’s library, newspaper in hand, sometimes nodding off against the wings of an oversized leather chair. The staff might bring him tea in the afternoon, always addressing him as “Mr. Winston, sir.”
He endured summers. Devoid of student energy, the campus was invaded by relentless tour groups of potential scholars. He was decidedly troubled by the move of the U-store to Nassau Street. Surely it was a sign of cheap commercialism. Oddly, he disliked reunions, fearing he might be discovered by some fellow classmate. He would take the train to Philadelphia, stay in a cheap hotel, and wander through museums, always happy to return to the peace of the campus.
As his finances grew thinner, he might take meals at his eating club where several classes adopted him as a sort of mascot. He represented the Princeton “Old Guard,” regaling them with stories about Einstein, describing the hidden tunnels under manhole covers and midnight escapades of his classmates. “Once,” he chuckled, “a friend had hired a ‘lady of the evening,’ keeping her hidden under his bed during the day. Guys were lined up in the hall with cash. She was a real firecracker!” He howled as though he had been first in line.
Most days would find him in a campus library secreted in a study carrel where he read and reread texts by Princeton graduates. He imagined himself in conversation with them solving great problems and advising presidents. He found he had a facility for probability and looked in vain for John Nash in anticipation of an energized chat. He wrapped his brain about Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates with a refreshing dose of John McPhee.
Students liked him and shared lecture notes and tips on free food. “McCosh, Room 12, at 2,” a student spoke secretively in code. Henry nodded. A meeting would disperse leaving behind unwanted sandwiches and donuts for the taking. No one actually engaged him in dialogue, though. He lived largely in his own mind, often happily losing track of time and place. Nights would always find him back in his Nassau Club room, now moved to a smaller space in the eve of the attic, where he imagined the trunks of some great men had once been stored.
The years took a toll as his hair turned white and his shoes hopelessly scuffed. He began to wear his orange and black under his suit jacket for extra warmth, even in spring. “I’ll just turn it inside out.” One’s jacket was reserved for “official” functions. The cuffs would always show for just an inch, reminding him where he was and why.
It was on a glorious spring afternoon that he first noticed the coed sitting on the plaza in front of University chapel. The campus was awash in color and the fragrance of flowering fruit trees. It was a day to be outside and time and place had frozen for Henry in the sublimity of his surroundings.
Something about her seemed familiar, yet she was no different than other students. A few days later he saw her at the entrance to Firestone. She greeted him with the question. “Henry? I’m Sarah.” She held out her hand in welcome. Henry graciously accepted it, though confused and troubled by the familiarity implicit in her voice. He carefully studied her face, and focused on her smile. There was something in her smile that both frightened and intrigued him. He became vigilant, scanning the horizon to make an abrupt turn should she come into view.
A few weeks later Henry sat watching a lacrosse match at Poe field, his rolled up program beating a tattoo on the bleachers as Princeton faced Yale. Suddenly, there she was beside him.
“Sarah, remember?” She fairly chirped.
Henry feigned ignorance.
“You went to Princeton, didn’t you?” She pointed to the edge of his now dirty and frayed reunion jacket, its lining sporting several tears.
“Nah,” he lied, “I bought this in a thrift shop.”
She persisted. “That’s the Class of ’51 jacket, right.”
“Why do you think that?” Henry stalled for time, fearing the continued conversation.
“I looked it up. The Alumni office has the class fabrics on file.”
“I didn’t know that.” Henry stared, dumbfounded. “You’re a very clever kid.”
“Well, I have to be,” that smile again. “I’m at Princeton. It takes more than a legacy.”
“Are you a legacy?” Henry could barely pronounce the word, fumbling to retain his disinterest.
“Fifth generation Winston.” She noted proudly, “my mother was in the first class of women. Followed my granddad, great, and great great.”
Her words left him gasping. Henry heard little else as Sarah chatted. The game ended and she left. Mind fogged, Henry mentally re-entered the room with the Persian carpet and that same smile frozen in time. But this time, the puzzle was solved. He felt connected across the years as if that room and this place were one and the same. He belonged, a part of something larger than himself.
A block away, Sarah pulled out her iPhone. “Mom, I found him! Yes, I’m sure. It’s granddad.”
Princeton won the day.
Christina Kales lives in Lawrenceville with her husband Bob, Class of ’58, and their dog Ellen. She studies creative writing at Drew University in Madiso