Saturday, November 26, 2011



Bob Kline was a small man, a Celt of the red faced and red haired variety. He was intelligent if reading deeply in history and violently disagreeing with the bias of eminent historians means you are intelligent. But his interest in history was an avocation for him. He made his living teaching grade twelve students art. For him this was a natural thing for he was a practicing artist, a painter.

Bob had managed somehow to reach the age of forty-five without marrying, quite a feat in the small town he lived in where at any time there were dozens of mothers searching out eligible bachelors for their unmarried daughters. He was aging now but for some years he was a favorite topic of conversation in such circles for he had a good job, was educated, socially presentable and good looking. As well he had about him even in his forties, the air of naïve boy which attracted such matchmakers for they saw this as a sign of a pliable, moldable personality, to them the best kind of husband, one who could be taught his duties and place within the marriage structure with little trouble. Matchmakers, of course, find men attractive to themselves as the most eligible to propose to their daughters. Daughters have their own opinions on the matter.

Bob, although outwardly an affable, easygoing man, was in reality anything but. His love of reading and painting had made him a most cynical man when it came to the matter of marrying and the manipulations of those who propose he do so. Most women, he reasoned, wanted a man for their beds who also cut the grass, did home renovations and acted as a social consort. The bed part he didn’t mind for he was a passionately erotic man, but he felt no call to home maintenance and social consorting. He had no desire to have children. For him the world already had enough children, many of whom popped up in his classroom every September. All of these things – wife, children, home renovations, social consorting - would rob him of his interests and pleasures and he became crafty in defending himself against their incursions.

But his was a small town and the social mores strong. Admitting to such opinions would bring no end of trouble. So for most of the town, especially the matchmaking sections, he constructed an affable personality mask projecting a mild benevolence, having no strong opinions on anything, a good listener, a jovial companion at social gatherings. But behind this mask there was a layer of steel which repelled all commitment to the town’s almost universal solution to human loneliness and the need for intimacy – the nuclear family with wife, husband, children, in a stand alone, grass surrounded house.

Bob learned early that sexual desire was the gateway leading to that house. When he was twenty-four there had almost been a marriage. Fortunately the young woman in question decided another man would make a better husband and she was right for Bob would have made the most miserable husband imaginable. After this close brush, Bob decided that his Achilles heel – his need for a sexual relationship with a woman – would have to be dealt with or he would inevitably find himself beached upon the shoals of matrimony. He decided on abstinence as the best solution and threw himself into an iron schedule of work, reading, painting and exercise which would have stripped Don Juan himself of all sexual desire.

It didn’t work. The more he worked, exercised and deprived himself of sleep the more sex obssessed he became. In the middle of an art seminar the sexual attractions of the young women students at the table became so strong he became almost ill. Supervising the late period at the end of the day he began hallucinating the naked torso’s of beautiful movie actors. Although, with an iron will he stopped himself from masturbating, his self control condemned him to long hours of misery and many midnight walks. And even then he woke up frequently in the middle of the night thrusting like a mad dog and ejaculating all over the clean sheets he had put on the bed the night before. He soon learned he had taken on a dragon and the dragon was much more clever and much stronger than he.

Next he decided on pornography and sexual aids. There was nowhere in town to buy such things for it was a church going and morally correct sort of town, so he ordered videos and magazines by mail. From the magazine ads he ordered a life sized sexual doll one filled with warm water to create a simulacrum of the human female. All this went along quite well for a time but it became a little obsessive. At the end he was spending three nights a week watching porno and screwing his plastic doll and afterwards feeling disgusted with himself. After these sessions he found himself lonely and dissatisfied and came to the conclusion that such things could not act as a substitute for reality. With a real woman there was affection and response and something he had not thought of before – conversation, emotional flow. After mono sex he longed to sit in the semi darkness and talk to somebody and for this desire, as strong as the desire for orgasm, maybe even stronger, flickering images and plastic dolls were useless.

It was then that he thought he might give up his bachelorhood and marry some woman who did not want to have children. Perhaps he could find one who would like the old apartment he lived in where there was no grass to cut and no home renovations allowed. Possibly he might even find one who was socially disinclined and would sit at home evenings sewing or studying Hieroglyphics while he read his books and painted his pictures and thus he would be free of the vacuous conversations which took place at the town’s dinner parties. He decided to make a few discrete investigations but after three months of careful inquiries came up empty. He would have to move to a big city to find such a woman he decided and he hated big cities. He would rather simmer in the stew of his own unsatisfied desires than to pull up stakes and move to one.

It was some months after this that Bob read an ad in the personal section of the regional newspaper published in the big city one hundred kilometers away. A woman was looking for a sexual relationship with a man with no prospects of marriage involved. She did not say why no marriage but stated it as unequivocal and absolute. Bob read this ad several times for it seemed to him that it was a dream answer to his problem but only a dream for the big city was far away. But when he read the ad the third time he noticed that the PO Box was at the Delivery Service in his own town. He became so excited he almost shouted out loud but restrained himself at the last moment. He was sitting in the reading room of the town library. He copied down the particulars and went home to compose an answer. That night, before he went to bed, he dropped the reply in the mailbox outside his apartment.

Two weeks went by, then three. He decided that the woman had received many answers and had chosen one not his own. But who would send all these answers was a mystery to him. The ad stipulated that the man would have to be unmarried. There were plenty of married men in town looking for an affair he was sure, but he couldn’t think of one his own age (the ad said 23 to 30) who was not on the path to town normal marriage. But you never knew. Perhaps there were a few wierdos like himself scattered about here and there and she had chosen from a larger herd than he thought possible. But then, four weeks after he had mailed his reply, he received an answer.

The woman did not give her name. She wrote that until she met him she would rather remain anonymous and she hoped he didn’t mind. Although she lived in the same town to be sure, she proposed a first meeting in a coffee shop in the big city. She realized this would be inconvenient and mean a long trip for him, yet she thought it advisable under the circumstances. She would be at the coffee shop on such and such a date at such and such a time, a weekend of course. If the date was OK, then fine. If not would he please send her a note saying he couldn’t come?

Bob rose very early in the morning on the meeting date. He dressed in his best pair of jeans, ironed, his best white shirt and his most sedate sports coat. He wore hard shoes he had polished to mirrors the night before. He had calculated his time of arrival based on the usual 90 Klics an hour he drove on the highway. Just as he had planned he arrived at the coffee shop fifteen minutes early. He sat in his car in the parking lot looking in the rain splattered windows for any lone females. There were none. He looked about the parking lot for a car likely to be from his town but that was ridiculous for the cars in his town were the same as those here in the big city. After five minutes he climbed out into the steady drizzle of rain and walked into the shop.

There was only a scattering of people in the shop and he had his choice of seats. He sat in the corner farthest from the entrance facing the door. Six minutes after he sat down – he was counting them – a woman walked in the door. Without looking about her at all she strode to the counter and ordered a cup of tea. Then, without the slightest hesitation, she walked over to Bob’s table and sat down.

“Do you recognize me?” she asked.

“No,” Bob answered.

“That’s not surprising. X is a small town but not that small and I live outside the town, actually.” She mentioned the name of a small community ten miles outside. “I knew who you were right away, of course. Teachers are very public people. Everyone knows who they are.”

“I suppose. Well, since you know who I am perhaps you could tell me who you are,” said Bob.

“Lori is my first name but before I tell you my last I would like to talk a bit,” she said.

“OK,” said Bob, “Talk away.”

“I’m loaded. I don’t mean drunk, but rich. I come from a family which owns rather than works. We involve ourselves in philantrophy to keep ourselves busy for otherwise all we would do is clip coupons. I am a photographer but in a very small way. I shoot wildlife in the field and exhibit here in the city on occasion. Mostly I publish the photos on the net and let whoever wants to enjoy them to do so. I tell you this because from your own letter and my investigations I know you paint, so we have something in common there. Although I am rich and have no need of money from my work and have no desire to be famous, I am serious about the photography and work hard at it. I suppose I am telling you this to protest any inclination you might have to see me as a spoilt little rich girl dabbling in photography.”

“Investigations?” asked Bob.

“I’m afraid such things are necessary if you are in my situation. There are adventurers of all kinds out there and money attracts them like spilt coke attracts wasps.”

“OK,” said Bob, “I don’t mind, really. I have nothing to hide and I can see how someone in your situation, as you call it, has to be cautious but you could tell me, besides being rich, what exactly is your situation.”

Lori laughed at this. “I’m married.”

“But you stipulated in the ad that the man you were looking for couldn’t be married,” said Bob.

“Yes but I am married in a peculiar way.”

“What kind of peculiar way?”

“My husband is gay.”

“Totally gay or bi?”

“Totally gay although when we were first together he managed a few orgasms with me which he later told me were triumphs of the imagination. We married when I was twenty-one. I was very naïve and so was he. We live in a very insular niche of country society. In it you are not permitted to be gay, that is openly gay. Also you are not permitted to divorce. This rule is almost an absolute. As well I do not want to cause my husband who is a very kind, decent man, social grief. To divorce him is to break his cover. It would mean almost for sure that he would be ostrazied and he is very prominent socially, the chair of this and the chair of that. I know that coming from the more liberal world of the town you might find that hard to believe but it’s true nonetheless. We are perhaps forty years behind the time. We exist in a time warp.”

“So you want a sexual relationship outside your social group,” said Bob.

“It has to be outside my social group. It is impossible to have an affair inside; things are too insular; everyone knows everyone. But I would hope not just an affair.”

“What then?”

“The normal thing which goes on between a man and a woman.”

“Love and sex?”

“Love, sex, conversation, closeness.”

Lori did not ask Bob much about his situation for she already knew it. He had typed four pages describing it for his reply to her ad.

After another half hour of talk she asked, “Well, what do you think?”

“We should give it a go,” said Bob. “I would say the fit is pretty close, what about you?”

“Very,” said Lori.

At first they met in hotels at the northern edge of the big city. These were anonymous places where it was unlikely he would meet anyone he knew, impossible she would meet anyone she knew. But hotels are antiseptic places imparting coldness and lack of intimacy. They decided to meet at his place where granted people in the building would know he had a girl, but then they would not know her identity. She arrived in the late evening, half her face covered with a large pair of sunglasses, a dark kerchief over her short black hair. She parked the car two blocks away on a side street. She didn’t leave until two in the morning. He walked her to the car and came back to the apartment on foot. This sequence of events happened every Friday night.

Some people noticed of course. It was a small town and what was going on outside the living room windows was a big draw, not like in the city where the cast of characters changed so often one did not even know who lived two houses down. Bob had a girl. Well, well. A secretive girl, head bound up and sunglassed like a Hollywood star slumming in her old neighborhood. Who could she be? One of the new young women teachers? No, they were all accounted for. An old flame? No, they were accounted for too. Parked the car on Bilby Street. What kind of car? A Beamer, a red Beamer sports car. Hmmmm. Somebody checked out the license number with a brother-in-law in the Police Department but it was registered to a company, a numbered company. Well.

One of his fellow male teachers asked Bob about the mystery woman. Bob fobbed him off with a, “Just an old friend.” Some old friend said the gossips, every Friday night nine till two. A very cozy woozy old friend. When one of Bob’s old girlfriends asked she got the same answer. Bob was sealed up tighter than a vacuum jar.

Eventually everyone gave up but this did not totally extinguish their curiosity. They still looked out their windows and watched the mysterious woman walking by. They guessed at her age. They guessed at where she came from. The city? Most likely. But one thing for sure, she had money. Teachers don’t drive around a Beamer sports car. The self- righteous whispered that a respectable woman doesn’t spend five hours in a man’s apartment. Some thought she was a high priced hooker but then somebody pointed out that five hours a week of a high priced hooker would consume all of Bob’s income. Maybe she was just an old friend as Bob claimed. But no, when he walked her back to the car Bob was far too happy and fluid for her to be just a friend. Some asked “and what do you mean by that?” but received silence for an answer. If you didn’t already know you were the kind to whom no one was willing to supply an explanation.

Bob’s nights with Lori meant a change in his social life. He never accepted invitations for a Friday night. He had season’s hockey tickets but missed all the Friday night games. He gave the tickets away to his pals on staff. When he did occasionally accept an invitation to a dinner party he was sometimes teased by the hostess – “A good thing it isn’t a Friday night, Bob.” The young, unmarried women on staff no longer looked upon him as a possibility even if a somewhat remote one. They became easier, more friendly and relaxed with him. If he came into the staff room when there were only women present they would even include him in the telling of a risqué joke. Before they saw him as rejecting women, a rebel against the natural order, but now they saw him as a rather peculiar member of the confraternity of men who love women, even if it was only on Friday night for five hours.

Lori had no problem arranging her Friday nights. She claimed she had a standing date for supper in the city with an old girlfriend which was true. But after the early supper she drove out to Bob’s. Her husband asked no questions and neither did anyone else. If a social occasion came up – one of her husband’s project dinners for instance – she refused to go. Her Friday nights with Bob were too important for her to give up. Whatever people thought about it, too bad. Let them think what they like. Let them go fuck themselves in fact.

This is what happened on Friday night. Lori entered the building with the extra key Bob gave her. She walked up the flight of stairs to the second floor and along the corridor to the very back. There she knocked on the door – it was always between nine and nine o five for Lori was the punctual type. Bob opened the door right away for he was waiting. Bob was naked under a terrycloth bathrobe. As soon as the door was closed behind her Lori dropped to her knees and, separating the sections of robe, took Bob, fully erected like a Pavlovian dog, into her mouth. She took her pleasure there for some time while Bob moaned and groaned so loudly the old woman who lived upstairs could hear him. When she did she was always tempted to bang on the floor with the handle of the broom but settled for a wry snigger and then continued watching her soap opera.

Bob was a disciplined lover and there was no question of him coming early yet by the time Lori had finished sucking and kissing his penis he was bulging like a stallion. Lori got up and they went into the bedroom. Here Bob sat on the edge of the bed while Lori undressed. This she did slowly and alluringly while Bob pleaded with her to hurry. The more he pleaded the more she slowed down. If he grabbed his penis she stepped forward and moved his hand away. Finally she was dressed only in a bra with cut outs for the nipples, crotchless panties, garter belt, silk stockings and high heels. Everything was black – Bob’s preference.

She then had him remove his robe and sit on his hands. She stepped forward, straddling his knees but taking care not to touch him. She took the extra black silk stocking she held in her hand and tied it as a blindfold around his head. But first she had him close his eyes while she rubbed it over his penis.

And there you go - anyone who has read porno will be able to fill in the rest. They orgasmed together some half hour later.

Afterward they showered, had coffee and talked a while. Then they watched a movie. One week Lori chose, the other Bob. They sat on the sofa, arms around one another’s shoulders and watched. When it was over they sat at the kitchen table, ate a sandwich made by Bob, who was a superb sandwich maker, and talked about the movie. The movies were mostly American and European classics. Sometimes they disagreed, one passionately liking a character for instance, the other hating them, one thinking an art film pretentious, the other thinking it profound. Sometimes this made them angry but neither were the kind to bear grudges. Sometimes Lori brought over photos from the series she was working on. Sometimes Bob showed her a painting or two. Twelve-thirty they were in bed again. At five to two Bob walked Lori to the car.

This went on for eighteen years while Bob aged from 27 to 45, Lori from 24 to 42. Although the hours they spent together – four hours a week and three days at a vacation spot twice during the summer – were short, nevertheless each was the emotional center for the other. They thought of one another almost every hour of the day and dreamed of having sex together at least once a week. Then a catastrophic thing happened. Lori’s husband died of a stroke while watching a hockey game. He had leaped up from his chair to cheer a goal and when he sat back down he slumped over to one side. By the time his pals got the paramedics to his side he was gone.

This was on a Saturday night. Lori came the next Friday but she was withdrawn. Her husband was not her lover but her dear friend. After all she shared with him a lifetime of social and family connections. It was as if a very close brother had died. With Bob, on the other hand, she had no such connections. She felt as if she were coming to the apartment of a stranger and although she came out of a blind loyalty to the man who was her lover, her sexual companion, her mind was full of doubts and self consciousness.

Her husband’s death also introduced a new note into their secret life together. It no longer had to be secret. She was a widow now and, after a respectable period for mourning, there was no reason why they could not see one another openly and even marry eventually. The realization that this was true was a little jarring for both. They had enjoyed their secret life together. That it had clear perimeters and was insulated from the outside world had become normal, comforting. After living so long in a warm, dark, secret place they were now about to be thrust out into the larger world and neither knew what they would find there or if they would like what they found there. For six months after her husband’s death, this made them anxious and wary with one another. They avoided certain topics like they were the plague. Their conversations often became rigidly formal as if to guarantee they did not stray into forbidden areas. Actually this unconscious strategy on their part made sense. It gave them time to think and adjust so that when the obvious leaped upon the table between them and could no longer be avoided, each had settled in their own minds what it was they wanted to say.
It happened one Friday night when they were eating sandwiches at the kitchen table.

“I suppose we could have supper in the city now on occasion if we wanted,” Lori said.

“Yes,” said Bob. “I suppose we could.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”

“Well, it’s such a strange idea in a way. I mean, excepting for the vacations when we go where no one knows us, we have never been in public together.”

“Do you want to have supper together?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Where shall we go then?” asked Lori.

“Where should we go?”

“Why should it be up to me?”

“Lori, don’t be so touchy. It’s just that you go into the city at least once a week. I haven’t been there in three years. The occasional time I did go to the city in the last ten years I ate fast food. I swoop in, get what I want, grab a bite and swoop out. I haven’t been to a decent restaurant there since I was in my twenties.”

“Well,” said Lori, “I suppose we could go to Tomos.”

Tomos was very upscale. It would be unlikely that a meal with wine, deserts and tip would be much less than a week of Bob’s salary. Even he knew this. Tomos had been around since before he was born. Even when he was in the city to study he had never been there. To him and his fellow students Tomos was a foreign country. They ate at fast food joints or hole in the wall places in the ethnic areas but mostly they ate peanut butter sandwiches at home.

Lori noticed his embarrassed hesitation and said, “I could host the first time. After that you can choose a place and host. What do you say?”

“OK,” said Bob.

Bob wore his polished cowboy boots, jeans, white shirt, tie and sports coat. He wasn’t out of place. Many of the businessmen at the surrounding tables were dressed in similar fashion. Lori wore a simple black dress with spaghetti straps. Although she was forty-three, tennis kept her muscles toned and she looked fabulous. In comparison, Bob thought, he looked aging and somewhat frumpy. At his request Lori did the ordering. When the bill came he read it upside down. It was larger than his week’s salary and that didn’t include the tip for the waiter and the Maitre de. The food was passable but only. You were paying for cache and exclusivity, not quality.

On the way back in the car Lori said, “The food wasn’t very good, was it?”

“No,” Bob replied.

“I haven’t been there for years,” she said. “William hated the place. Whenever we went to town together we ate hamburgers and chips. William was a people watcher. We would sit in the corner of the hamburger joint drinking coffee and speculating about the people who came in the doors. He would guess at what they did for a living, etcetera. I don’t think he was very accurate. He had a leaning toward convoluted tragedy and usually much simpler explanations are closer to the truth. Where are we going next week?”

“You’ll see,” said Bob.

“Oh, a mystery. I love mysteries.”

Vietnamese. The bill, including tip and wine, was twice what you would pay in a hamburger joint. A bargain for the food was delicious. Bob got the name and address from a fellow teacher. His pal told him the grandmother did the cooking.

“My friends,” said Bob, “tell me that the cook is the point. The décor is all very interesting but it’s the cook who makes the meal.”

And the décor wasn’t bad either. There were original paintings on the wall done in the ancient Chinese style, ink paintings of mountains, trees and wilderness huts. Very Taoist. Floating paintings with Chinese characters running down one side (or Vietnamese - he didn’t know the difference or even if there was one).

Sometimes they came into the city for early supper and after went to watch opera. Not live opera but a series put on every Friday night at a movie house of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Bob had never been to an opera but he fell in love with it right away. Lori knew all the plots, the composers, the history of performances and she whispered into his ear a steady stream of information during the film. Bob especially liked the warm, liquid voices of the contraltos. He noticed that after watching an opera their lovemaking was especially passionate. Lori said that the original function of opera, when you came to think of it, was a kind of stylized aphrodisiac for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. You could even call it a form of porno she said. But they keep their clothes on said Bob. Yes, said Lori but good porno is always about clothes. “You should know that,” she said.

A year and a half after William’s death they were sitting in a downtown café eating omelettes when Lori asked,

“If you lived in a house, what would it be like?”

“You want the truth?”

“Of course.”

“It would have a big oak staircase going up the middle. At the top of the staircase would be an attic, one big room with eight dormers. At one end there would be a long counter for painting, at the other bookcases and a Lazy Boy. In the middle would be a fireplace, a real wood burning fireplace, with comfortable chairs in a semi circle around it. The floor would be oak with a Turkish carpet at each end, bare in the middle. There would be lots of empty space. One bank of dormers would face northeast, the other southwest. No curtains. The windows would be high up enough there would be no need for curtains. It would smell of lemon furniture polish with a slight underlay of pipe tobacco.”

“A strange house - bachelor quarters suspended in the middle of the air with a staircase coming down,” said Lori. “Sounds like your apartment, blown up, with the walls removed.”

“Well,” said Bob. “I described my part of a house. Naturally it would be underpinned and surrounded by other parts which, being the person I am, I would be incompetent to describe. What do I know of kitchens, parlors and dining rooms? Or even bedrooms for that matter. My bedroom is a closet.”

“I know about kitchens, parlors, dining rooms and bedrooms,” said Lori. “I also know about plant rooms, libraries and even ballrooms for lack of a better word. Large rooms where you have parties I mean. I was brought up learning about such things.”

Bob didn’t reply to this. Instead he looked out the window where a great river of students was passing by.

“There is one in town for sale,” said Lori. “But the attic you were talking about has only six dormers and the oak staircase is at the front of the house, not in the middle.”

Bob took his eyes away from the passing students and looked at her. She was looking back with a queer expression on her face. Her eyebrows were raised and she had rounded her mouth until it was a pouting circle. This was her expression when she was being forceful but vulnerable. Bob felt for her. He was so inward, so self involved that he had made her force the issue. He grew suddenly ashamed of himself. But then what did he know of these things? How was he to know if he was the sort of man who could stand around in ballrooms as if he belonged there? He didn’t even know if he wanted to stand around in ballrooms.

“You think we should marry then?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Lori.

Bob thought about this for a minute. Then he said, “OK. Even if we didn’t marry we would be married, wouldn’t we?”

“Yes,” said Lori.

Every one in town was very surprised when the Banns were issued. Bob was almost fifty and he had his secret lady and they had thought that was that. When he died she would show up at the service wearing sunglasses and kerchief like the woman who use to put a rose on the grave of Rudolph Valentino on the anniversary of his death. Now he was having a church wedding with tuxes and gowns and the reception at the pavilion with just about everyone invited. And, very sensitively, the couple hired all three Ladies Church Auxiliaries to cater instead of bringing in a city company. Local seamstresses were given designs and they did up the gowns. It was early summer and they say the order from the local greenhouse, given three months in advance, was for more flowers and arrangements than they usually sold in an entire year. There were a lot of strangers from the hoity-toity community to the north but not so many that people didn’t enjoy themselves. There were kegs of beer, cases of liquor, a local country band and a fiddler.

The couple didn’t bother with a honeymoon. Neither were travelers and they went right from the reception to the old Victorian they bought a few months before, he in his tux, she in her gown lifted up to avoid the puddles, walking the few blocks from the hall just after midnight.

Bob still teaches but only half time. In the mornings, if you walk by the house you can see him through the uncurtained windows of the third floor, with a paint brush in his hand, looking down at some piece of work lying flat upon his table. If you walk down to the beach you will see Lori photographing seagulls or farther down on the breakwater, camera poised, waiting patiently until one of the young boys pulls a fish wiggling from the water.

Friday, August 12, 2011



Dottinger found the envelope in the mailbox on Wednesday morning. As was his usual practice, he glanced at it briefly, slipped it inside the pocket of his suit coat and went back into the house. While he was drinking his tea at the kitchen table he opened it with his penknife.

It contained a single sheet of paper and on the single sheet of paper was a single sentence in Times New Roman script. There was no salutation, no signature, and, on the envelope, no return address. “Please correct your behavior or consequences will follow.” It said.

Dottinger read this sentence three times, turned the paper over to look at its back and then set it down it on the table. He ruminated for a few moments before putting the paper into the envelope and tearing it into six or seven pieces. He leaned over from his chair and threw the pieces into the recycling box.

“Some fool!” he muttered to himself and then dismissed the whole thing from his mind. The world is full of jokesters, idiots and malicious pranksters. Dottinger had no time to waste on them.

Two weeks later he received another letter. The lack of return address on the envelope alerted him and he opened it standing in front of the box. Again a single sheet of paper; again a single sentence - “Correct or beware.” No salutation, no signature, no return address.

He became extremely irritated. In a fury he ripped envelope and letter into pieces, threw them on the sidewalk and leaped up and down on them. Then he felt foolish. Perhaps one of the nieghbours had witnessed his fit of pique. He examined the windows of the houses surrounding but could see only curtains or blank panes of glass. Relieved, he picked up the pieces and stuffed them into his pants pocket. When he returned to the kitchen he tossed them into the recycling. Then he once again dismissed the whole thing from his mind but this time it wouldn’t go.

The next day he was in the cafeteria eating rice pudding when the sentence came back to him - “Correct or beware.” The day after he was in court listening to a defense summation and it came back to him again. A week later, sitting on a park bench in front of his building eating a hot dog, “Correct or beware.” came to him as if it were a whisper sent out by a man from a nearby alley but, of course, when he swung his head around there was nobody there. Ridiculous. Perhaps he was overworking. What kind of Gothic, moralistic nonsense was this? Something out of MR James or Charles Dickens.

All of this annoyed Dottinger to no end. He was a modern man. The sentences meant nothing to him. Correct what? The underpinnings of such prophetic utterances escaped him entirely. They were obviously the work of a deranged neurotic, some envious person who wished to strike at him but could find no better weapon. But after three weeks the messages faded from his mind. He went about his business, working on files, presenting in court, interviewing witnesses and all thoughts of the letters disappeared from his mind. What a relief! His job was difficult enough as it was without his mind being preoccupied by such trivialities.

The next letter didn’t arrive until two months later. This time the sheet of paper contained a single word - “Beware!” The sender was, no doubt, a reader of Edgar Allan Poe, and like Poe a drug addict and a degenerate, or then again perhaps he was a biblical lunatic. He thought of turning this latest letter over to the police but then decided against it. What could the police do? No return address, no signature, probably printed on a machine in an internet café. And the lunatic, a watcher of forensic cop shows, most likely wore latex gloves while they were at their work. There would be nothing for the police to go on and they would think him overly cautious, a nervous Nelly.

There were a lot of people in jail because of Dottinger’s skills. He was a prosecutor and so good that for many years now he had been given all the high profile cases. Good, in this case, meant that he was effective. He convinced juries; he convinced judges; he was an expert at manipulating public opinion. He knew all the tricks necessary to belittle and even suppress contrary evidence. His trump suit before a jury was presenting the accused as the guilty one. Every move he made in the courtroom was made with this in mind. Every action of his body, every word that came out of his mouth had this one essential thing to say - I, a man of deep knowledge and authority, tell you that the defendant is guilty. If he were not then why is he here? Why have the police arrested him? The presumption of innocence is all very well but that is in theory, in books, something dreamed up as an abstract principle by eggheads and professors. In the real world the one brought into the courtroom is the guilty one. Otherwise why would he be in jail and be marched in wearing shackles? Innocent men don’t wear shackles; innocent men don’t spend their nights in steel cages.

So successful was Dottinger at this that he had never lost a single important case. Now sixty and approaching the end of his career he had received every award that his profession could give him. He had more honourary degrees than could fit on the walls of his office. He had published a ghost written book about some of his most famous cases and it was a local best seller. He had been roasted by his fellow lawyers and honoured by so many civic institutions he would have to refer to his files for a complete list. He could phone any of several hundred friends in offices all over the city, request a favour and have it performed within the hour. The newspapers had taken to calling him distinguished and he was; he stood out from the crowd as a man of high achievement.

Yet these three letters bothered him tremendously. There was someone out there who believed he had behaved dishonourably. And not someone seething with rage and hatred behind a curtain of bars but a person familiar with the literary language, an educated person, a person who knew the value of brevity, of the succinct phrase. The negative judgment of such a person rankled him. Thousands looked up to him as a public benefactor, as a man who had contributed greatly to the community. Hundreds had come up to him on the public streets, in the foyers of buildings, to shake his hand and thank him for his contribution. Yet there was one who sat in the judgment seat, one who sent him letters accusing him of unspecified crimes. The injustice of the thing was maddening.

After the third letter he began to think he should tell someone of these accusations. Once he almost began speaking of them to his wife but then suddenly pulled back. He made a lunch appointment with an old friend but the lunch went by without his bringing up the subject. He made an appointment with a psychologist he had seen on occasion over the years but then cancelled it. In the end the thought of speaking of the letters to another person became so repugnant to him that he could not bring himself to do it. It would be like pointing a finger at himself, walking into a courtroom where he was the accused not another. Why would he do that? Why would he give credence to such anonymous, cowardly accusations? Surely this was exactly what the letter sender wanted. Finally he decided that the best thing to do was to remain silent and to forget. The memory of the letters would slip from his mind gradually, a little at a time until they were completely forgotten.

But they didn’t. Rather than forget them they began to form an ever larger and more threatening shape in his mind. They began to colour his way of seeing things. He became a little depressed. When he went to the psychologist, he told him that mild depression was not unusual for a man at his stage in life. Dottinger did not tell him about the letters. His ‘stage in life’ he assumed referred to male menopause or the ending of his career or some such thing. More than likely these things were having a greater effect on him than he had realized. The letters were simply the trigger which had tripped them into action. He was a driving A type personality and it was often his kind who forgot the obvious - they too were human. The psychologist prescribed a mild antidepressant.

He decided to take a vacation. The office didn’t mind; his work in the past few years had become increasingly administrative. The essential could be shifted to another; the non essential could wait for his return. Although she could not come herself because of her work, his wife encouraged him to go. She had noticed the signs of stress. He needed a break; he needed to relax.

Every year for the past twenty years Dottinger and his wife spent the two weeks over Christmas and New Years at a Villa on the west coast of Mexico. It was a fine brick and stucco affair complete with servants and owned by a Mexican friend who was high up in the Mexican Justice Department. The villa was on a hill overlooking the beach and at the end of a gravel road. It was summer in Dottinger’s city and therefore winter in south Mexico. “It will be cool.” Julio said on the phone but cool in Winter Mexico was in the low to mid twenties, plenty warm enough for a northern boy to walk on the beach and even to swim, in what was to him, the warmish sea water.

He arrived by taxi on a Sunday afternoon. The servants were at the gate to meet him, housekeeper, cook and gardener-caretaker. They lived in year round while Julio and his family only came for the summer months. The cook and caretaker could speak Spanish only but the housekeeper had spent ten years in San Diego and spoke a heavily accented English. Dottinger himself could get along in Spanish if the conversation were slow and there was not too much sophistication in tenses. The Housekeeper showed him to his room, a guest room he and his wife occupied on their yearly visits. It overlooked the beach and from its balcony one could look far off to sea in the direction of the Polynesian islands.

He had found the plane trip long and taxing. His legs ached, his ears ached and a headache was beginning to bloom from the base of his skull up into the sore and tender flower of his brain. This was normal he told himself. He had never been a good traveler. Confinement for long hours in a plane seat had always been torture for him. He had tried to read but he was too distracted. The films offered were moronic; the magazines gibberish. He lost himself for a while watching the California coast go by out the window but for the most part he fidgeted. He drank four ounces of whiskey. He seldom drank more than two. But rather than make things better the liquor made them worst. When the housekeeper left he closed the drapes and lay down on the bed. Down on the beach, below the bluff at the back of the house, the surf was pounding. His head was also pounding and he felt a touch nauseous. But he forced himself to lie still, on his back with his knees drawn up to relieve the lumbar muscles and, after a half an hour, he fell asleep.

When he woke he found he had slept much longer than he had wanted; night had fallen and the room was completely dark. Then a queer light began to grow in one corner of the room, a strange bluish light which, rather than repel or replace the darkness, appeared to be a species of darkness itself, an unnatural glow which fed on the darkness. A man was hanging in this darkness, suspended in the air on a twisted bed sheet secured around his neck by a knot. The man was dead. His arms hung limp at his side with a clear finality. His tongue protruded from his mouth, black, swollen and grotesque. His head hung off to one side at a weird angle, the spine surely snapped, and, although it seemed that he was beyond all doubt dead, his eyes were open and these open eyes were looking across the room at Dottinger.

Dottinger didn’t move. The eyes were devoid of emotion except, perhaps, a slight tinge of inquiry as if somebody were looking at the world of the living from beyond the world of the living, somebody possessed of a cool reptilian curiosity as to what might be found there. When the minute expired the figure suddenly disappeared as if an illusionist had snapped his fingers and it was gone, a matter of lighting and desperate, fevered attention.

Dottinger couldn’t bring himself to move for another ten minutes. Then he slipped off the bed and crawled across the floor on his hands and knees. He slid his hand up the wall until he came to the switch. Turning it on the room filled with fluorescent light. He whipped his head around and examined the corner where the figure had been hanging. Nothing. He climbed to his feet and made a circuit of the room. A perfectly normal room with a carpet, a bed, a bureau, nothing unusual, nothing otherworldly. He decided it was a nightmare. One of those terrible nightmares during which one is certain one is awake but still a nightmare; it wasn’t real.

In the kitchen he heated the plate of tamales the cook left out for him and ate them at the counter. The servants had their own quarters and never came into the main area of the house after eight at night. The clock above the stove said eight thirty. He put the empty plate into the sink and walked into the living room. There, against the far wall, was a large screen TV. Beside it was a long, low shelf filled with DVDs. In one corner of the shelf was a small English language section. Julio, like many educated Mexicans, was multilingual - English, French and Spanish.

He picked out a Clint Eastwood movie and put it in the machine. “A Fist Full of Dollars.” When the movie was over he fell asleep on the sofa and didn’t wake until morning after the room had filled with daylight.

He spent the day on the beach. The cook packed him a lunch and, after setting up a spot below the house with chair, umbrella, etc, he went for a long walk along the strand. He raised his hand in greeting to three old women digging clams. Low tide, the white roll of the breakers, driftwood, the pregnant swampy smell of the sea, all this filled him with a sense of reality which helped to dispel the horror of the night before. When he came back to his spot the sun had climbed high into the sky. He ate his lunch and fell asleep in his chair.

When he awoke there was a man sitting on the sand nearby, a tall, elegant man with a close cropped beard wearing a broad brimmed hat. Dottinger recognized him from dinner parties he had attended with Julio over the years - a Doctor Estanza, a surgeon from the city who owned a villa a little further down the shore. When he realized Dottinger was awake he turned, smiled and said. “A beautiful day, Mr. Dottinger, if somewhat cool.”

“Warm for a cold blooded northerner, Doctor.” “Well I suppose that’s true. In your city it would be now what we have here but in the minus range.”

“Pretty close.”

“I was there twice for conferences, just after Christmas each time. I went for walks bundled up in borrowed northern gear out in the country where friends had a cottage. We walked along a gravel road. I must say I was glad to get back to the house where there was a roaring fire but while we were walking it was fascinatingly beautiful. The clean crisp snow, the deep black sky with stars burning clear and bright. Most of us southerners don’t realize how beautiful and enchanting the north can be. We just think of the cold and shudder.”

“Would you like coffee, Doctor?” Maria, the cook, had packed a gigantic thermos of coffee. The Doctor gave his assent and Dottinger poured them both a mug full. The coffee was dark, rich and strong and the Doctor drank it appreciatively. He held his cup in both hands, elbows propped on his knees.

“Maria tells me you had a nightmare.”

“I had a dream, Doctor. I suppose it was a nightmare. What is a nightmare but a terrible dream?”

“You screamed.”

“So they told me in the morning but I was unaware I was screaming in the night when the nightmare happened.”

“Julio phoned me from the city and asked me to come see you. He says you have been under stress and he became worried when Maria phoned and told him you had a nightmare.”

“Very kind of you Doctor.”

“Perhaps you could tell me about your nightmare. It is almost always better to speak of these things to another rather than keep them to ourselves.”

Dottinger thought about this for a moment and then said, “I saw a ghost, an apparition.”

“Perhaps you could describe it to me as best you can.”

Dottinger described the apparition as accurately as he could. When he was finished the Doctor said, “My God!”

“Exactly,” said Dottinger. They sat drinking coffee in silence for a few minutes then the Doctor said.

“Who was it Mr. Dottinger?”

“A young man I sent to jail thirty years ago. One of my first cases as a prosecutor. He was convicted of first degree murder. He hung himself in his cell 3 months after his sentence began.”

“Was he guilty?”


“Did you know that at the time of his conviction?”

“Not for sure but I suspected it. Another man confessed to the murder some years after. There was physical evidence which proved this beyond a doubt. At the time of the conviction I had serious doubts but I suppressed them. Even worst I suppressed evidence which, if it had been brought out at the trial, would had led to his acquittal. When the young man hung himself there was an inquiry. It would have gone bad for me but his people were poor. They couldn’t afford lawyers to batter away until some of the truth came out. Instead a court appointed lawyer went through the motions. Nothing of real danger to me came out. Everything was hushed up and swept under the carpet. I was exonerated. Strangely, the fact that I had played dirty and got away with it helped my career. Five years after the trial I was appointed Chief Prosecutor. I was seen as a tough guy, as a man who sailed close to the wind and got results.”

“And this young man who killed himself was the apparition?”


“But the face of a hung man is considerably distorted, is it not?”

“Yes indeed. Even his own mother might not recognize him. But as I told you all during his appearance the apparition was looking straight into my eyes. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the young man I told you about.”

“What kind of look? Accusing?”

“No. He looked like he was trying to figure something out. It was a look of mild yet knowing inquiry.”

“What was his name.” “Joey. Joey Higgins.”

“And what will you do if he comes back?”

“Go mad, surely.”

“Well, that’s one alternative. Can you think of any others?”

“Yes. I could kill myself.”

The Doctor smiled. “We could all do that, Mr. Dottinger. That’s what Joey did. Do you think that’s why he appeared? He wants you to join him?”

“No. His look was a look of inquiry not one of demand or accusation. He’s leaving it up to me.”

“And so will I Mr. Dottinger but I do have a few suggestions.”

“Suggest away.”

Doctor Estavan suggested away. Dottinger listened carefully for two reasons. The Doctor was a serious man and the Doctor accepted the reality of the apparition. He didn’t need his back patted by some well meaning moron.

When Dottinger entered the bedroom that night he entered in much the same mood as a prisoner would enter the cell from which they would take him the next morning to be executed. Yet he entered; he felt he had no choice. Before climbing into bed he took one of the pills the Doctor prescribed, a mild muscle relaxant. After an hour of miserable self awareness he dropped off into a restless sleep.

When he awoke it was pitch black. He pushed the light button on his watch; it was 5:03 PM. In the distance the sound of waves hitting the beach. How many billions of human beings had lain awake listening to that sound? How many had died with those waves swinging out the last rolling rhythms of consciousness?

When he gathered himself somewhat he turned his eyes slowly to the corner. It was as black as the rest of the room. He began a brief few minutes of hope that the fact he had dreamed the apparition was itself a dream. Then suddenly, without the slightest warning it was there, as if, again, the illusionist had snapped his fingers and out of nothing appeared a terrible something. The slumped head, the twisted sheet, the black tongue, the slight, rhythmic sway of the body. This time, however, the head came up and the bloodshot eyes looked directly into Dottingers. They fixed him to the bed as surely as if they were spikes driven through his flesh into the ornate wooden bedstead. Bloodshot were those eyes, with overly large black pupils, glittering and inflamed, surrounded by dull grey whites spread with a spider’s web of tiny red rivers.

“What do you want?” Dottinger asked. But the spectre said nothing. With its enlarged black tongue jamming the full opening of its mouth like a gigantic swollen leech, how could it give speech? But it looked. It looked at Dottingger where he lay on the bed with intelligent, insistent eyes which did not move, even for the flickering of an instant from his face.

Then something dawned on Dottinger, something truly horrendous. At first he pushed it away. It was terrible. It was perverse. It was inhuman. But all his pushing was of no avail. Finally, after looking into those eyes for what seemed half a lifetime, he said. “You want me to watch.”

The light in the spectre’s eyes suddenly changed. It grew less focused, less obsidian, less insistent. It softened. Then Dottinger witnessed the most terrible thing.

Off to one side of the spectre appeared a stool. The body ceased its swaying and, placing its feet on the stool, it brought itself up to a standing position. The hands come up from its sides and untied the now slackened sheet from its neck. The tongue deflated like a child’s balloon slipping back into the mouth behind a set of thick, smacking lips. The face lost its look of swollen distortion and Dottinger was looking into the face of Joey Higgins as he last saw him in the courtroom, a stunned, somewhat dull witted boy with the slack, benevolent face of a natural innocent. The sheet, its upper end still hanging from something above the light in the obscuring darkness, dropped its lower end across the front of his body, draping over his chest and waist down to his knees. With both hands he lifted up this lower end and held it out to Dottinger. It was obvious that the spectre meant this as an invitation.


When Dottinger did not respond to the knocking at his door the next morning the servants refused to enter the room. It was Doctor Estanza who found the body. The Doctor had to call on the full authority of his profession and class to force the gardener to come with him and hold up the body while he cut the sheet with a knife from the kitchen. Of course Dottinger was dead. The Doctor already knew that. The engorged black tongue, the lifeless, bloodshot staring eyes left no doubt. However, he applied his stethoscope to the corpse’s chest to make sure for he was both a thorough and a hopeful man. He may as well have applied it to a fence post for Dottinger was very inert and very dead.

Dottinger was sent home in a steel coffin packed with dry ice in the cargo hold of a plane where returning vacationers were ignorant of its presence. Two of the crew members were made nervous by a corpse on board probably because they were Catholic and superstitious. The captain crossed himself twice before he turned on the engines and one of the stewardesses said a prayer for the dead while she was smiling at the entering passengers and hanging up their jackets in the closet behind her. The other four crew members were irreligious. Dead bodies didn’t bother them.

Dottinger was buried with honours. Politicians, judges, police officials were all present. Most of the one thousand people who attended the funeral were lawyers. The courts were closed for the morning and one crass young lawyer cracked that the crooks were finally getting a break from Dottinger.

There was an old woman in the last row who had taken five minutes to ascend the Cathedral stairs. She was a thin, dried out woman whose body seemed composed of twisted rope dried too long in the hot sun. When she sat in the pew she held the two canes she used to walk with on her right side, one parchment hand upon both crooks as if these two sticks were the symbols of an authority of much longer duration and much greater power than the authority of the strutting men who filled the pews around her. One of the lawyers, a kind and decent young man, had got her a cushion so she sat comfortably. During the service she didn’t stand or kneel with the rest of the congregation; that would have been too much for her.

She remembered Joey much better than she remembered Dottinger for Joey was her son and Dottinger she had seen only in court on a dozen occasions. During the service she remained severe, stern, dry eyed. She hadn’t come for Dottinger; she came for her son. But when the service ended and she climbed to her feet and the people poured past her and out the doors and all these affairs were at an end and there would be no more and her son’s suffering and death would now become a merely private affair held in the hearts of a half dozen who had already mostly forgotten, she was suddenly overcome. The image of a child’s face appeared in her mind, a beautiful, innocent face filled with stunning, disarming delight and then despite her efforts to hold it, it faded, faded and faded until it was gone and she could bring it back no more. She did not sob, for things were too far gone now for such a demonstration. Instead, looking into an anguish only slightly diminished by long years as its familiar companion, bringing a handkerchief up to her lips, her eyes filled with hot tears which streamed along the furrows of her old face to drop with the slow regularity of candle wax from her gaunt cheekbones to the floor below.

Sunday, February 6, 2011



When I first met Ranke he was living on the eighteenth floor of a high rise, not far from the university, in a two bedroom apartment. The main area, the living room/dining room, was a rectangular box leading onto a balcony overlooking the river. This large area was filled with boxes, piles of magazines and leaning towers of plastic file cabinets stuffed with papers. The second bedroom was piled high as well. The master bedroom was jammed with boxes of books five feet high and leaving only a skinny corridor which led to the bed, a rat’s nest of twisted sheets and blankets where Ranke rested his long, thin body six or seven hours a night.

“Why don’t you hire a cleaning lady?”

“She would lose things on me.”

“Well, as it is now, don’t you lose things on yourself?”

“True enough.”

We were eating pizza on the only empty space on the living room floor, a spot in the corner ten feet square. Ranke had spread a stained tablecloth between us and we sat crosslegged before it eating pieces of pizza out of the cardboard container. There were no curtains on the windows. Ranke claimed that curtains on the eighteenth floor were optional. He had been living like this for six months.

“I have an aunt who does cleaning.”

“I’d have to think about it.”

“No you don’t. You have to do something about it.”

Ranke had just shoved a large section of pizza into his mouth. He rolled his eyes. When he had swallowed enough of the pizza to talk he said, “OK. Give me her phone number.”

“Uh uh. I’ll give her your phone number. You’ll forget.”

He thought about this for a few minutes. He looked around at the piles of boxes and papers then gave out a sigh. “I’ve always lived in residences. The work load at the university is truly insane and I can’t live without putting in so many hours a week at my writing. But the semester ends in two weeks so then I’ll have some time.”

I gave aunt Rosa his phone number but told her to wait a week and a half before phoning him.

At thirty five, Ranke was a professor at one of the big American universities. He had published three books and spent two months a year guest lecturing around the country. His ideas were controversial. In the philosophy world he had the reputation of being an up and comer who was just about to step onto the main stage. Just before he lifted one of his long, gangly legs to do so, he changed his mind and made a radical shift in course. He applied to our small university in our medium sized city, a university which was mainly an undergraduate teaching institution. The committee who received his application for the vacant position couldn’t have been more surprised. There were rumors of a nervous breakdown (untrue), marital problems (he was unmarried), alcoholism (he didn’t drink), and a homosexual affair (he wasn’t gay but even if he was the times were such that this would not have affected his career). The committee had little choice but to accept his application and give him the appointment.

The apprehensions about Ranke’s coming were high. He was looked upon as a high roller bellying up to a small table and those already at the table were nervous. He had negotiated teaching one less course than a professor of his rank usually taught and this caused some resentment. People spoke out against it but the majority of the committee accepted, quite rightly, that he was a writer, regularly published and the one less course would be necessary to give him time to continue writing. His prominence in the field would bring prestige to the university and be more than enough compensation.

Ranke was very aware how the other professors would see his appointment. When he arrived he was offered a choice of four offices. He took the smallest one, a cubbyhole in the corner of the administration building basement. He attended all faculty meetings but he seldom spoke. He made it clear that he had no political ambitions. This was easy for Ranke for it was true. He did not look upon the offices of chair or vice chair as a reward; he looked upon them as a punishment. He refused to be coopted by any of the factions. He was deferential to the older professors and helpful to the young ones. He taught his undergraduate classes with vigor and competence. His kept the numbers in his graduate seminar to a limit and although there was always a waiting list the other professors could hardly blame him for that. By the end of his second year Ranke was accepted for what he was – a man who wanted a quiet place where much of his energy could be put into his writing. He did not threaten anyone and his personality, mildly aloof and somewhat eccentric, was not out of order for any university anywhere.

Ranke had a reputation as being radical in his philosophical writings. He was radical in the sense that he was a deep thinker but he certainly was not in any radical chic sense of the word. Professors who created careers for themselves as celebrities disgusted him. That a serious person would think he could make a contribution slinging about the inane categories of pop journalism never ceased to amaze him. Projectors and world savers seemed to him to be hopelessly deluded. According to Ranke much frenetic human activity proceeded from a kind of madness and the source of this madness was seeing human beings as creatures somehow outside of what he called the cycles of the natural world. To see human beings as separate and apart from these cycles, as somehow above them, was a deranged view and yet was the basic assumption underlying western thought since the French revolution. To accept this assumption, which he considered to be wrong headed, was to deny oneself the possibility of intelligent inquiry. To accept this assumption, or at least to accept it without vigorous examination, was to be an ideologist not a philosopher. He claimed the role of the philosopher should be to attack untruth for only in that way could there be a possibility of the real truth emerging.

Ranke elucidated these ideas in a series of three books published by a university press in America. They sold well for books of this kind. His six graduate students read them and three of the junior professors (including myself) but other than that there was not another person at the university or indeed in the whole city, who had opened their covers. This did not depress Ranke or make him indignant. On the contrary he was delighted. He had come to consider anonymity to be the natural state of a sane man. When his old lecture tour company bombarded him with Emails and phone calls he refused to answer. “That’s in the past,” he said. “I’m a man of coffee shops and text from here on in.”

Aunt Rosa phoned Ranke on a Tuesday morning when he was in his office marking papers.

“This is Rosa Mondano.”


“My nephew told me to phone you. He said your apartment was a mess.”

Ranke laughed. “Well, yes it is.”

“Perhaps you could describe it for me.”

“It’s mostly books. Piles and piles of books, mostly still in boxes. And stacks of papers, filing cabinets, magazines.”

This surprised Rosa. I had told her very little, not wanting to prejudice her against Ranke. Even though they were perhaps eighty percent of her business, aunt Rosa could be very judgmental on the topic of sloppy bachelors. She fell back on one of the standard questions asked by cleaning ladies.

“Do you want me to clean under the furniture or just go around it?”

“There is no furniture.”

“No furniture?”

“That’s right. No furniture.”

“My God!”

Ranke was about to make a joke about his not believing in God but decided not to. This was fortunate because aunt Rosa is a fervent Catholic.

“I haven’t had time to buy any yet and besides even if I did, with all the books, papers and filing cabinets, there would be no place to put it.”

“I see,” said Rosa. “So you have an apartment which is basically unpacked and even if you unpacked it there would be nothing to unpack it into.”

“Exactly,” said Ranke delighted that they had come to a meeting of the minds so quickly.

“You need bookcases to begin with.”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Not cleaning. But someone has to put the books in the bookcases when they are installed and then clean afterwards. Do you want me to do that?”


“Well what?

“They would have to be put in the cases in a certain sequence. If they are not in a certain order I wouldn’t be able to find anything.”

“If you write out for me how you want it done I can do it. How many books?”

“Several thousand.”


“Yes, quite a few.”

“I will have to phone one of my cousins. He makes and installs bookcases. As for me, how long do you think the unpacking and cleaning would take?”

“I have no idea.”

“I would have to charge by the hour.”

“That would be OK.”

“My cousin will phone and come round to give you an estimate. If you make a deal with him I can come and help him move things around while he is installing. Bookcases can be expensive.”

“I know.”

“OK. Freddie will phone you, maybe right away. I’m going to phone him now.”

Two weeks later Freddie and his helper brought the bookcases up the freight elevator and installed them in Ranke’s apartment. Rosa moved the boxes around so they could do their job. When they were finished, paid and gone, Ranke explained to Rosa how he wanted the books arranged. Rosa first listened carefully to get the general idea. Then she made him go over it again while she wrote notes on a yellow legal pad. When she was finished with this she took out some sticky notes. She jotted down notes to herself and stuck them on the appropriate boxes and bookcases. This completed, using her legal pad she went over with Ranke how she planned to do it. Ranke had to make only two minor adjustments. He was impressed.

“Your aunt Rosa is smart,” he said to me in the corridor the next day

Ranke had the summer off and spent most of it writing. He rose early, six o’clock, and went for breakfast at a nearby diner. Afterwards he walked for an hour, usually on a path along the river. He was at his computer by eight and worked, with short breaks to make tea or have a sandwich, until eight o’clock in the evening.

He had dinner at the Chinese restaurant which he preordered and was placed before him as soon as he sat down. By nine he was in his reading chair where he read until bedtime at one PM. This rolled around the seven days of the week excepting for Friday night when he went to a movie sometimes alone, sometimes with a male friend. Once a month I went with him myself. With this kind of schedule Ranke, who when writing had an intense, voracious concentration, finished a book he had spent his spare time in the winter blocking out. His books were usually about 350 pages. On a good day he could produce twenty corrected pages. “But that’s only if the major thinking is already done,” he told me. “Then you can concentrate on the bits and pieces and that’s what the actual work of writing is all about.”

We were walking along the river path after leaving the movie house. It was a lovely summer evening, cooling now after a hot day, with a breeze from the northwest. Ranke in his shorts with long spindly legs, resembled a two legged spider or one of those thin, gossamer water bugs who skim the surfaces of summer ponds. He wore a white T shirt emblazoned with the motto of a fund raising project. Professors at the university were constantly buttoned holed to buy these T shirts, not that Ranke minded. He never attended the events and buying the shirts was an easy method of atonement. Ranke was the only one I knew who actually wore them. Most gave them away to the Sally Ann or a poor relative. We were walking briskly for Ranke set the pace and with his long legs and nervous energy. With my much shorter legs I scuttled along beside him.

“Your aunt Rosa is a gem,” he said. ”In five days she had all the books organized. Then she cleaned the place from top to bottom. If I hadn’t gone to the library for the day she would have cleaned me too, I’m sure. Now she comes in once a week. You could eat off the floor. You could drink out of the toilet bowl. I now have a dining room table which Rosa instructs me I am not, under any circumstances, to pile high with books and papers. I have a reading chair, a lazyboy, which is a delight. I have a small couch. I have patio furniture on the deck. I have a bedside table. I give Rosa a fistful of money and off she goes to the furniture stores. Three days latter comes a knock on the door and two guys wheel something in on a dolly. Excepting the walls lined with bookshelves, in turn stuffed with books, which of course marks the place out as the den of an egghead, it looks like a normal human being lives there. I put my foot down though when she wanted to buy dishes. Why would I want dishes? I always eat out and the odd time I eat in it’s out of pizza boxes or foam containers. I don’t need dishes.”

I gave an empathetic grunt for I knew what aunt Rosa was like and could sympathize.

“She gave up after I dug my heels in but I do believe she’ll bring it up again. It’s a little like being married, having a cleaning lady. Maybe I might take an afternoon and go to the Sally Ann and buy some mismatched pottery plates and cups and so on. That would preempt her wearing me down and ending up with some horrible flat wear covered with gigantic roses or some such horror. That’s what the lazy boy is like but with dahlias. I cover it with a sheet but take it off on Friday morning before Rosa comes. What do you think?”

This question, and the speech before, flabbergasted me. I had always assumed that Ranke would be aloof and distant with Rosa, very formal and correct. That he actually argued with her about furniture and plates threw me for a loop. That he was about to spend an afternoon, which for Ranke would be translated into ten pages or so, buying old cutlery to cut her off at the pass, so to speak, was unbelievable. I looked at him. He was smiling, his long, bony face bobbing a little with the rhythm of his walking. He was enjoying his little contest with Rosa. He was looking forward to an afternoon at the Sally Ann.

“Do you have a cabinet to put it in?”

“Oh dear, I never thought of that.”

“If Rosa comes and the dishes are on the dining room table, she will want to go out and buy a cabinet. If you saw the cabinets in Rosa’s house then you would not want her buying you cabinets.” “Perhaps I could find a cabinet at the Sally Ann.”


He suddenly veered off the path and headed for a park bench sitting beneath a willow tree. We both sat down.

“Perhaps you could come with me and give me a hand,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon Ranke and I went to the Sally Ann. We filled three boxes with assorted plates, cups, saucers, bowls and cutlery. We found a stand-alone cabinet, upper doors glassed, bottom wood paneling, with two drawers for cutlery in between. There was a chip here and there but Ranke liked chips. “Perfect things depress me,” he said. The cost of all this was very reasonable. We loaded it into the back of my quarter ton and took it to his place.

The next Sunday, my girlfriend and I went to Rosa’s for supper. She had a family supper every Sunday and we went at least once a month. Rosa’s house was a large older three story on a well kept working class street. There were huge old elms all along the street. Rosa’s front yard was framed by tall lilacs, now in bloom. Their scent was everywhere. The place was packed as usual. Rosa and her husband, Roberto, had ten children, five still at home, and ten grandchildren, mostly babies and toddlers. They were all there, the married ones with husbands or wives. Three of Rosa’s sisters were there, two with children or grandchildren. First cousins, second cousins, uncles, grand uncles. The kitchen at the back was jammed with women cooking. The living room was jammed with men drinking homemade beer. From the kitchen came, in addition to the sound of fifteen women laughing and arguing, the smell of tamales. My girlfriend and I barged through this crowd and made it out onto the rear deck.

The women behind us complained. “So you are too important to speak with we Mexicans now, eh professor? He used to be a little snotty nosed boy begging for tamales, but now he has no time to say hello.” They came out laughing onto the deck and talked for a while then went back in to continue cooking. Rosa stayed behind. My girlfriend went into the kitchen with a notebook. She wanted Aunty Emily’s tamale recipe.

The deck was large and open and partially hung over by a willow with bright green- yellow leaves. The tree shed and in places the deck floor was covered with leaves and willow twigs. The railing around was filled in with cedar boards, high enough so when you sat down you couldn’t see over but if you stood up you could lean your forearms on the railing and look down the length of the rear street. This is what I was doing when aunt Rosa came through the door and said, “so!” I turned and gave her a hug and sat down in a lawn chair.

“Have you been to Ranke’s place lately?”

“No, Aunty Rosa,” I lied.

“He went crazy, Eduarto. He went out and bought a truly hideous cabinet and filled it with junky dishes any normal person would throw in the garbage. And after I offered to go out and buy him nice new ones. Do you think he has money problems, Eduarto? Maybe all that furniture I bought for him and the bookcases - maybe paying for all that cleaned him out.” “I doubt it, Aunty Rosa. He has a good salary and he has royalties from his books so I don’t think a little furniture would cause him a problem. Maybe he just likes horrible cabinets and junky dishes.”

Rosa looked at me suspiciously. Men were known to join together in heretical cabals even against their own families. “I wonder how he got all those things from the Sally Ann up to his apartment.” Rosa knew I had a quarter ton.

“I suppose they have a delivery service.” She continued to look at me searchingly but I called on the disciplines learned in childhood for the protection of vital information and kept a straight face. She shrugged and changed the subject.

“He has dirty books, Eduarto.”

“Most bachelors have dirty books, Aunty Rosa.”

“Being in the majority doesn’t make it right.” “True.”

“He has quite a collection. He doesn’t try to hide them. He keeps them on a bookcase in the bedroom. Naked women and so on.”

“And so on?”

“Don’t be cheeky. You know what I mean.” I didn’t but I managed to look suitably chastened.

Aunty Rosa’s theories about sex were traditional Catholic ones. Sexual activity was for the married state. Sexual activity, even in the married state, should be aimed toward conception and having babies. There were some exceptions. Old married people for example, and surprisingly for Rosa, gays. Here she parted company with official church teaching. When she was a young woman she became friends with two gay men who lived together. She could not accept that these kind and generous men, who were as faithful to one another as she was to her husband, were living in sin. She decided on this matter, and this matter only, the scientists who claimed sexual preference to be hard wired into the genes, were right and the church’s position was old fashioned and ignorant. This showed Rosa’s essential humanity. When faced with a choice between human beings standing in the flesh before her and the theories of Theologians, she chose the human beings. I think, however, that the labor of making such an exception was heavy and tended to reinforce her more rigid views in other areas. Wire pulling bachelors was not a subject to be taken lightly for Rosa. It was the responsibility of right thinking persons to lead such sinners out of the slough of despond.

“Ranke you moron! Why didn’t you hide your dirty books under the mattress like normal people?” This I said to myself, of course. Such things are not to be said to Aunty Rosa. It was just like Ranke to leave such things out in the open. He probably had not given the slightest thought to Aunty Rosa’s reaction. I suppose I should have warned him. In things not concerned with the intellectual world, Ranke could be very naïve.

“I asked him…”

“Oh my God!” I interrupted. “Surely you didn’t ask him about the magazines?”

Rosa frowned. She gave me a censorious look as if I were a little boy whose ignorance was truly astonishing. “Are you crazy? If I asked him about the books he would have a heart attack and fall down and die at my feet. Of course I didn’t mention them. And after all, his bedroom is his private place. I have no right to bring him to task for the things he has there.”

“Hmmmmm,” I said.

“But that doesn’t mean that we should leave the poor man to flounder about in his depravities.” When Rosa talked like this it reminded me of Victorian evangelical pamphlets. I had to exert myself not to smile.

“So I set him up for a date with Clara,” she said.

“You what?”

“I arranged a date between him and Clara.” Clara was Rosa’s oldest daughter. She was a lawyer who lived in a small house three doors down on the same street. I had never heard of Clara dating and had assumed she was either not interested in men or secretly gay.

“And he accepted?”

“Of course he did you ninny. Who wouldn’t accept a date with Clara? Such a beautiful girl!”

Clara was thirty- three but Aunty Rosa still thought of her as a girl. She was beautiful, as Rosa said, in an austere, formal sort of way. While Rosa herself looked decidedly Mayan, broad, squarish face with wide, tall forehead and wide mouth, Clara face was much more aquiline. She always reminded me of the paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs, paintings of princesses or Queens with arched eyebrows. The Moors came from Egypt to Spain and the Spaniards from Spain to Mexico, so it was not too far fetched to think some of Clara’s forebears were Egyptian princesses. Clara was always well dressed and well groomed. She practiced family law and because she took so many legal aid cases, she probably made less money in a year than Rosa. She shared a house with Rosa’s mother, both Clara’s grandmother and my own, a grand old lady of seventy-five. Grandmother no doubt paid most of the expenses for the house. She was a widow and her husband, a real estate developer in Mexico City, had left her a considerable sum. I was surprised that Clara agreed to go out with Ranke but I was astonished that Ranke agreed to go out with anyone. I had thought of him as one of those men who live their life without a woman. There were women professors at the university who were obviously interested but Ranke was an expert at putting them off by pretending he didn’t notice. His next birthday Ranke would be forty. Maybe he changed his mind.

“They are going out next Friday night. So you will have to go over and see Harry (Ranke’s Christian name) and talk to him about it.”

“Talk to him about what?”

“Going out with Clara, of course.”

“Aunty Rosa, the man is almost forty!”

“In body perhaps. But as for women he is perhaps eighteen. He’ll need someone to talk to. A man.”


“It’s your responsibility. You are his friend.”


“I don’t mean about sex if that’s what you are thinking. I assume he knows something about that. Both he and Clara are, well, eccentric. I mean you could see them going to a restaurant and each reading a book as they eat their meal. She is almost as bad as he is. If her house caught fire it would probably burn down the city she has so many books in there. But at least with Clara, it’s neat and tidy. Harry, left to his own devices would live in a ratty warehouse piled high with books. I mean you should subtly introduce things like, for instance, when he picks her up he doesn’t just park at the curb and honk the horn. Or he doesn’t talk obsessively about the book he’s writing. That sort of thing. I myself am going to talk to Clara. She has a tendency to go on about her cases, some of which are very depressing. Sometimes Clara, in the middle of a social gathering, will stand up, walk out the door and go home without saying anything to anyone. They are both very smart people but when it comes to social things their minds are a little loose.”

“OK, I’ll go talk to him.”



“What’s wrong with today?”

“OK, today.”

“I’ll get the phone.” Rosa left and in a minute returned with the cordless.

Ranke and I went to the Chinese restaurant. He had combination A which is what he had every time I had been there with him. He told me that sometimes he had combination B but I suspect this was untrue and he lied because he was embarrassed about his obsessive connection to combination A.

“Hsu Yin, from the age of twenty, ate only rice gruel, and he lived to one hundred and twenty. That means he spent one hundred years eating rice gruel,” I said.

“What is rice gruel?”

“Watery rice.”

“And who is Hsu Yin?”

“Twentieth century Chinese Zen teacher. Died nineteen fifty-nine.”

“I remember now. I read his autobiography.”

“What did you think?”

“An impressive man but I like the Japanese Zen guys better. Hsu is a bit of a religious fanatic.”

“It’s true that he was more old style but after all he was born in the traditional China of eighteen thirty-nine. The modern Japanese guys talk a more psychological language. Which we intellectuals steal from by the way.”

“That’s always the way. Powerful and compelling ideas always come from deep down in a culture. The intellectuals merely give them verbal expression. Try telling that to your average academic.”

Needless to say I did not speak with Ranke about his date with Clara. When Aunty Rosa phoned later that night I lied through my teeth but very cleverly stayed away from specifics. Rosa had a mind like a steel trap and I was not going to be caught in her crafty cross examinations. After a few half hearted attempts to give me the third degree she said goodbye and hung up. After a long day of cooking and serving and cleaning, she didn’t have the energy.

In the middle of that week my girlfriend and I went to the lake. Her family have a cottage an hour out of town and we spent three weeks, swimming, walking, reading, watching movies and screwing. The weather was gorgeous. Bright sunshine every day but yet not the uncomfortable, humid heat that we sometimes get in the summer. The cottage was old style – no phone. We left our cells in the city. The second last day before we left to go back to the city, when I retrieved the mail from the box, there was a letter from aunty Rosa. I was to attend the next Sunday dinner. How Rosa found out Lori (my girlfriend) and I were coming back on Saturday, I don’t know. As far as we could remember we had told nobody. We joked that aunty Rosa had supernatural ways of collecting information perhaps through the intervention of some saint or other.

That Sunday when we arrived at Rosa’s, Grandmother was sitting in a stuffed chair on the back deck. Before her on the table was a glass of wine. At seventy-five she was still a very impressive woman. There were streaks of jet black in her otherwise gray hair. She was wearing a formal, old fashioned dark blue dress which perfectly complimented the old world air she carried about with her wherever she went. Grandmother was intelligent and well read. There was very little South American literature she hadn’t read and in the past few years, bored, as she put it, by the too serious, pretentious nature of the humanist tradition, she had taken to reading Fantasy. Sometimes she would start a conversation with a short character analysis of, say, Aragorn, from Tolkien’s novel, perhaps comparing him to Arthur from The Once And Future King. She talked about these characters as if they were next door neighbours, who upon returning from their adventures, dropped in for tea and a chat and perhaps a discussion on the possibility of purposeful human action. In her youth she had been an anti-clerical socialist but now, if pressed, called herself an anarchist, with reservations. “I am an anarchist,” she would say, “who believes in a strong central government.”

I never met my grandfather. He died in Mexico City of a heart attack at the age of forty-seven. Grandmother then wrapped up her financial affairs and moved her large family (Twelve children) to Canada. When the older grandchildren were around, in what was probably a conscious effort to transmit to them some family history, she would sometimes speak of him. Apparently he was one of those bantam roosters who have the energy of six men and the appetites of ten more. Grandmother was careful to inform her grandchildren however that he was sexually faithful to her while intimating, with certain archings of the eyebrows and other womanly body language, that she, in her heyday, was more than a match for him and thus during their marriage, at least that appetite was well satisfied. She referred to her dead husband as the bandito, a name which expressed her dislike of some of his business practices which were on the sharp and sleazy side. He connived, he bribed and sometimes, apparently, he even intimidated. “Let’s admit it,” she would say. “He was an out and out crook.”

Once, when she was rattling on about her husband’s nefarious financial dealings, one of the grand daughters (mischievously and evilly intelligent) asked her if he was such a moral monster then why had she married him. Grandmother stopped and looked at her intently as if she were about to deliver a blistering lecture but then suddenly relented and smiled. “Because he was like you, Ella, sharp witted and full of erratic, troubling energies, excepting, of course, he was a man. He was handsome, wore tailored suits like an Englishman and was utterly unromantic. I was twenty five and sick of half witted fools who would say anything to get into bed with a woman. He proposed marriage as if he were offering me a partnership and I accepted. He was very sexy. Bone structure is important too perhaps but ultimately it is energy that gives sex appeal and my bandito had no shortage of that. Probably the truth of the matter is that women like a man to be a bit of a bandit. It spices things up. We had a very good time in bed. We had twelve children which should be good enough for you northerners who are always in search of empirical evidence.”

“Mama!” cried Rosa.

“Hush girl. The children have to learn about these things. Better here than on the street corner.”

That Sunday grandmother was in a good mood. When I sat down she pulled out a package of cigarillos and offered me one. When I declined she lit up herself.

“Now tell me about this Harry Ranke.”

“What do you want to know, Grandmother?”

“Everything. You have my permission to babble.”

“Well, he’s a professor…” “No, no. Not that stuff. I already know that. I read two of his books and they are brilliant. But often that says nothing about the author personally. Many brilliant men are basket cases when it comes to ordinary affairs. I want to know what he’s like as a person in the everyday world.”

“Well he spends most of his time reading and writing…”

“Goodness gracious you are quite hopeless. I will have to ask you specific questions as it is clear you don’t have a clue what I am talking about. Have you gone out to eat with him?”


“How does he eat?”

“He likes Chinese food.”

“Fine. So do I. But how does he eat this Chinese food – fast or slow.”

I had to think about this. “Fast.”

“With relish?”

“Oh yes. Ranke likes his food. It surprises me that with how much he eats that he doesn’t put on weight. He’s as skinny as a rail.”

“And does he like other kinds of food?”


“Such as?”

“Italian, Greek. Just about anything I think. At the faculty meetings there is a smorg and Ranke piles up his plate with a bit of everything.”

“Rosa tells me he has pornographic magazines but it is impossible to get any solid information from her. “What kind?” I ask her and she looks at me blankly. For Rosa there is only one kind of porno mag and that is a bad one. What does he subscribe to?”

“Playboy. Hustler and a few others.”

“A few others?”

It is useless to try and sidestep grandmother. “B and D.”

“Ah! Well at least we see a bit of old world sophistication. Does he watch movies?”

“Yes. His taste in movies is eclectic. He even likes a good shoot em up.”


“Functional but he does have two nice suits that he had tailor made. To the university he wears expensive hand sewn shirts he gets from a Chinese tailor on Ellice.”

This went on for some time until grandmother was satisfied.

“Well, what do you think?” I asked her.

“An interesting man. He and Clara should get along just fine.”

“You mean they are still going out?” I had secretly thought that Ranke would take Clara out once or twice to satisfy Rosa and then the whole thing would die out.

“Yes. They go out twice a week now. And Rosa has that look of the satisfied young woman so I think they are having sex and probably vigorous and stimulating sex at that. But don’t tell Rosa. If she hears we will have to put up with quotations from boring papal encyclicals.”

Since Ranke now went out with Clara on Friday nights, we shifted our Chinese dinner dates to Wednesday. Ranke seemed to me to be warmer in his dealings with me. He mentioned that he and Clara went to see this or that film or ate at this or that restaurant. He laughed more easily. He dressed more carefully. On the cooler nights he wore slacks and hard shoes, polished. He and Clara went to an exhibition of prints and bought a few. He had them framed and Clara had helped him place them on the walls of his apartment.

Three months after they started dating the new school year began. I had a brand new course to teach and my spare time in September was taken up with preparation. Then, one morning I was walking back to my office from an early class when I met Ranke in the corridor.

“Come with me,” he said and started off at a blistering pace towards the cafeteria. When we arrived he chose an isolated table at the back and went to the counter coming back with two coffees. He sat down. He was frowning.

“Your grandmother insists on marriage.”


“Your grandmother. She insists that Clara and I get married.”

“My God!”

“That’s what I said. And I don’t even believe in God. I wonder what ever happened to modernity?”

“Grandmother never heard of it.”

“Apparently. Not that she was unpleasant, mind you. She was very polite and correct just like a well brought up German grandmother, but one from the old days, you know? Today, on the whole, grandmothers do not intervene.”

“Did she tell you this when Clara was there?”

“No, she’s far too discreet for that. I arrived early one night to pick up Clara but she hadn’t come back from the courts yet. She told me then.”

“Did Clara say anything about it?”

“No. I don’t think she even knows the old lady said anything to me. Or at least she hasn’t mentioned it. I didn’t say anything to her because if she doesn’t know she would be mortified. It’s a tricky situation.”

“Grandmother can be quite sly.”


Ranke fell silent and I said nothing. I thought it best to let him take the lead. After a few moments he said, “Clara’s Catholic.”

“Like her mother.”

“Yes but different. She’s an oppositionist. She believes in the ordination of women and elected bishops. Did you know that she was in a convent when she was younger?”


“And you didn’t tell me?”

“You didn’t ask me.”

He looked at me severely.

“I was afraid of Rosa. She told me not to.”

He thought about this for a while and then said. “That’s understandable I suppose.”

I went to get us another coffee. When I sat back down Ranke said, “no doubt they will want a church wedding.”


“Grandmother and so on.”

“So on?”

“Clara, Rosa, your mother. All those women.”

I said nothing.

“Am I being paranoid?”

“Well my family is matriarchal. The men make jokes and watch soccer and the women line up the marriages. What does Clara say?”

“I haven’t spoken to her about it. After all I can’t talk to her as if it were theoretical. That would be monstrously insensitive. But I’m going to soon. After all if we are going to marry it has to be done somewhere. I suppose it may as well be in a church.”

The following day I flew to the west coast for a conference. The conference lasted five days. On the third day Rosa tracked down my Hotel room. She left me messages to return her calls but I didn’t. On the last day, crafty and clever as always, accepting that I wasn’t going to call her, she left a message instructing me to come to the next supper. When she saw my truck parking on the street outside her house, Rosa came outside onto the front porch. She grasped both my hands and dragged me through the house onto the empty back deck.

“An October wedding!” she said.

I already knew this from talking to Ranke on the phone but I pretended to be surprised so as not to spoil Aunty Rosa’s enjoyment.

“Wonderful!” I said. Aunty Rosa looked at me suspiciously but decided that I was not being ironical and smiled a benevolent smile. She loved weddings. Ranke had suggested a caterer but when Clara mentioned this to Rosa she would have none of it. She would organize the women’s cooking and the men would transport it and arrange for the drinks and that was that. She was already making lists. The ceremony would be in St. Anthony’s and the reception held downstairs in the hall. A Latino band and a Metis fiddler. Consuela, one of my first cousins who worked in a bakery, would make the cake. Rosa informed me that it would be my job to pick up the cake at noon and transport it to the church hall. When I protested that I was best man she snorted.

“And what do you have to do on the wedding morning? Shave, brush your teeth? You’ll manage.” She took a small notebook from her pocket and checked off an item on one of the pages. “Now,” she said, poising her ballpoint above the notebook, “are you paying for the cake?”

“Does the best man usually pay for the cake?”

Rosa looked at me pityingly. She shook her head slowly from side to side. “In anything other than career and making money, you young people are terrifyingly ignorant. Of course the best man doesn’t pay for the cake!”

“Well, then why are you asking me?”

“I just thought it could be your wedding present. That way you won’t give them a fourth toaster or something like that. And it will help them with the expenses of the wedding. Well, what do you say?”

“Yes, I will pay for the cake.”

“Good.” She checked off another item on her list. “And Lori will be a bridesmaid.”

“She will?”

“Of course she will. All young women love being bridesmaids. But you will have to ask her. That’s proper procedure. So when are you going to ask her?”


“Is she in the living room?”


“Then go ask her now.”

When I came back I sat down and lit a cigarette.

“What did she say?”


“See, I told you. All young women love to be bridesmaids. Was she happy?”


Aunty Rosa checked off another item. She flipped to another page. “Mama will be paying for the bridesmaid dresses. The Collins girls will be making them.” She wrote a time and address on a blank sheet and tore it out of the notebook. “This is the time and address for the fitting.”

I put the sheet of paper in my pocket.

“Mama will phone you about where you go to get fitted for the tuxedo. I warn you that she will have already instructed the shop owner about cut and so on. You will not be doing any selecting, you will be measured and that’s all.”

“Yes, Aunty Rosa.” “I thought I would tell you. Mama’s taste is conservative. She thinks weird colors and fluffy things on a man are not to be tolerated.”
Carla and Ranke came in a half hour later. Roberto opened six bottles of good wine and formally, with many rhetorical flourishes, announced the date of the wedding. I thought Ranke would find all this rather excruciating but, on the contrary, he was enjoying himself. When the announcement was made he learned over and kissed Clara on the cheek. A little three year old grandaughter with red hair and pink cheeks decided that she liked Ranke a great deal. She followed him around until when he sat on the coach she crawled up and sat on his lap. When everyone sat at the table and the little girl’s mother insisted she sit in her chair, she wept so bitterly Clara picked her up and sat her on Ranke’s lap. There she happily ate her meal while telling Clara and Ranke the names of her playmates at daycare and singing several daycare songs slightly off key.

Grandmother said to Ranke as they were leaving. “Too bad my old bandit wasn’t still around. He would like you. Dissenting intellectuals have a bit of the bandit in them and he would have recognized it right away.”

The wedding ceremony was conducted by a large bellied Jesuit with a full beard, Father Ramiro. Grandmother made generous donations to his community development project in Mexico and in return Father Ramiro skipped over a few documental formalities which both he and my grandmother thought to be unimportant. He had a booming voice and the vivacity of his personality was so delightful he turned the ceremony into what it should be – a happy celebration.

Aunty Rosa had the men load the tables until they groaned and squeaked in protest. Then she had them add a little more. She herself rushed about from place to place arranging this and arranging that, delivering dripping bottles of Mexican beer to the sweating band members, sending Roberto out for more chairs. Grandmother refused to sit at the head table. She considered this to be a place for the young and riotous and she was no longer young and riotous. Instead Rosa set up a table off to the side where, somewhat like a grand dame of the Empire, she received and held court. When the couple had left for the hotel with the ensemble hooting and hollering them out the door, grandmother, who guarding her dignity did not leave her table, beckoned me over. I sat on her left, Rosa on her right. Across the table were three of my aunts. Grandmother poured me a glass of wine. She had brought her own supply claiming that wine served at weddings was undrinkable other than by people who didn’t know any better. I tasted it. It was very good wine, a little sweetish with the slightest taste of the grape left in. Lori had gone with the other bridesmaids to the door to see off the couple. On returning she passed by our table giving a little wave of recognition. Grandmother watched her pass by and then turned to me.

“Such a beautiful girl! How old is she?”


“And do you plan on waiting until she is an old woman before you ask her to marry you?” The aunts seconded this question by peering at me searchingly waiting for what I had to say for myself. When I didn’t reply (I was so flabbergasted I didn’t know what to say) Grandmother laughed.

“Now, Eduarto, don’t take offense. You must forgive we older women for interfering in your affairs. We are hopeless busybodies and our mothers and grandmothers before us were also hopeless busybodies. But then again if we were not, where would marriages and babies come from? How would the human beings replace themselves?”

Grandmother smiled her most gracious smile and poured more wine into my glass. Just then the band started to play, first a horn filled, blazing introduction and then the female vocalist appeared and moved to the front of the stage. She was a middle aged woman, overweight with graying hair. Even in her youth she would have been no great beauty. When she stepped up to the microphone you first felt for her a kind of shame that somehow, inappropriately, this motherly woman had been called upon to sing a song perhaps better reserved for the young and the beautiful. You felt that something embarrassing was going to happen and that somehow your very presence made you complicit. But as soon as she began to sing all such thoughts were pushed from the mind by the clarity, the great feeling and the beauty of her voice. Starting simply, as if she were an ordinary country woman about to have her say, it slowly bore its way into the center of one’s attention, the throaty, powerful, liquid tones of her voice delivering to the body, suddenly discovered in its inevitable chair, a heart rendering lament, full of the sadness of being human and adrift on a great, long river of time and sorrow.
When this incredible performance was coming to its end, I looked into the faces of my aunts and my grandmother. Their eyes were closed and tears were running down the worn, wrinkled skin of their aging faces.