Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ranke

Ranke


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.”

“Ah.”

“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….”

“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.”

“Goodness!”

“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.”

“Maybe.”

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 na├»ve.

“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.”

“Well,….”

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

“Hmmmmmm.”

“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.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Clothing?”

“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.”

“Who?”

“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.”

“Yes.”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“They?”

“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?”

“Well….”

“Is she in the living room?”

“Yes.”

“Then go ask her now.”

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

“What did she say?”

“Yes.”

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

“Very.”

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?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“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.

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