“Coincidences always come in pairs.” So reads the fourteenth iambic pentameter line of Armin Ritter’s “Duetta,” a sonnet that means a great deal to me. It sounds as if he’s being ironic or deliberately stupid and might as well have written “String quartets always come in fours.” But the line isn’t a tautology. Two simultaneous events aren’t enough to make a coincidence. A coincidence is a coupling that can be all velvety and seductive, sleek as a couple of inveigling aristocrats; a coincidence can stand right in front of you, chin out, hands on hips, shouting. Coincidences are inward things; the incidents are outward but the co transpires between the ears.
For our senior year my two best friends, Nimala and Valeria, and I rented a house together three blocks from campus. Our landlady, Mrs. Ardekian, was a widow whose husband had for years been the University’s bandmaster. She herself created the position of “Mother of the Marching Band,” a role she kept up even after her husband died. Mrs. A. loved her tuba players, tradition, the University , its students and alumni. When they were flush, she and her husband bought a small, second house as an investment and the lease on this house passed each year to a group of seniors. For a time Mrs. A. gave herself the pleasure of personally interviewing all prospective tenants, serving juice and cookies in the living room of the Victorian pile in which she and her husband had lived together with several generations of female German shepherds. When Mrs. A. had to give up her home and the dogs, she moved into a retirement community and held on to the rental property. She let it on generous terms to seniors recommended by the previous year’s renters, whom she trusted to choose successors who not only wouldn’t trash the place but would keep it up. My friends and I got the coveted place thanks to Valeria’s being lab partners with two of the three women who had rented it the year before.
It was a neat little house, white with green shutters, on a small lot, garden in the rear, living and small dining room, three bedrooms, two baths, a full cellar. The kitchen appliances were old-fashioned and, perhaps for that reason, reliable. So was the furnace.
Nimala, Valeria, and I came back from Christmas Break in varying degrees of emotional turbulence. Mine was conventional enough: what to do with graduation staring me in the face. Nimala’s was more serious; she hadn’t gotten on at all well with her family. What had been merely tricky a few years before had now swollen, she said, to impossibility; that is, negotiating the contradictory injunctions to stick to her own kind and Americanize; to be independent while carrying out all that her parents’, aunts’, and uncles’ advice; to live both in Baltimore and Bengal. Valeria’s emotional tumult was of an entirely different character. Chip Stauffer, the third-year medical student she’d been seeing since the middle of junior year, had asked her to move in with him and she’d agreed. Chip had already had a one-bedroom apartment which Valeria said was plenty big enough.
“My parents didn’t make anywhere near the fuss I thought they would,” she said joyously.
Nimala rushed over and gave Valeria the kind of hug one hunter might give another who’s just brought down a twelve-point buck.
“So, you told Elyse and George.” I said. When Valeria had me to stay for a week at the Minetti mansion the prior summer, her parents had insisted I use their first names.
Valeria said primly that the secrets she kept from her parents were only little ones. The Minettis were rich and, it seemed to me, easygoing; yet they neither spoiled nor alienated their kids.
“Of course I told them. They’d have found out anyway.”
“Well, I don’t see why you expected a fuss. I mean, Chip’s a six-foot third-year med student,” mused Nimala. “My mother’d put on bangles and dance down Washington Street,” her voice fell “—if only Chip were Amartya.”
Valeria was radiant and feeling generous. “Look, I’m not going to stiff you guys. I’ll pay my share of the rent for the rest of the semester. A deal’s a deal.”
“If things don’t work out—” I began to say.
“Shut up!” screeched Nimala and tossed a toss pillow at me.
“Chip’s coming to pick me up in an hour or so. We’ll be taking most of my stuff tomorrow. Come on, Karen, be happy for me.”
I was happy for her, in a melancholy way that pleased her. When the estimable Chip showed up to bear her off she hugged us both tightly. It felt like the start of a honeymoon and, in fact, within the week she was showing us the ring. Gigantic stone.
So far no coincidence, I know. Be patient. They come in pairs.
Back in September, Valeria, a stalwart citizen, had ordered delivery of the local paper. I glanced at it over coffee late on the Saturday morning after she left us. This is where the irresistible coincidence comes in.
Because of the recession one of the reporters had begun a misery column, one story per diem, to put, as he unfortunately said, a human face on the statistics. The column was even called Human Faces and each awful entry was topped by a picture of someone looking frightened or defeated.
That morning, however, the photograph was quite different. It was a formal portrait, obviously out of date, of this fortyish man with close cropped salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a tie, a jacket, and wise smile. His name was vaguely familiar.
Armin Ritter, a local poet with a national reputation, is losing his home. Mr. Ritter, 67, explained that he had paid the original mortgage off but seven years ago, when his wife became ill and the cost of her care exceeded his coverage, he took out a new mortgage, “one of those adjustable-rate time bombs,” as he puts it. Ritter retired three years ago, at the mandatory age, from his job at the Registry of Deeds. A year later his wife passed away. The monthly mortgage payment doubled last year. The bank has given Mr. Ritter until Friday to vacate the premises. “Ever let the fancy roam,” Mr. Ritter rhymed gamely, “Pleasure never is at home.” The Ritters were childless. Mr. Ritter’s brother died several years ago. “I’ve been too settled for too long. Haven’t published a poem in a decade. Time to move on, I guess.” When asked what he planned to do, Mr. Ritter recited a nursery rhyme. I asked him to write it down for me.
There was a naughty boy
And a naughty boy was he,
For nothing would he do
But scribble poetry.
Armin Ritter has won two prizes for his poetry. Eighteen years ago the University conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on him. Now, like so many others, he has joined the army of the homeless.
I remembered. In high school, in the days when my feet always hurt and I still dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina, I had been struck by a poem of Ritter’s in an anthology. I felt he had written it expressly for me—even to me—and that it was about a bond between us. Perhaps my old romantically ambitious self wasn’t so wrong. Anyway, I’ve never felt the urge to scoff at her. I put down the paper and went straight to my laptop and found the poem which is just two quatrains long.
Poet, Dancer, Tree
The poet aches just like the dancer’s toe.
Who knows of that broad gnarled beech
the agonies of its growth, what blisters,
what strained heavings through dirt, towards sky?
All beauty’s born of pain. Nothing strides
into the grace of form without labor.
And still, when words and limbs are tightly tuned,
who remarks the ground over which they glide?
I still liked what Ritter had written, though in a different way. I liked the way strides is echoed by glide; I paused over strained heavings and the ontological grandeur of through dirt, towards sky. Would any pubescent dancer disagree that beauty is close kin to pain? On top of this, the copper beech was still my favorite tree. So here was Armin Ritter, the poet who understood me when I was sixteen, with no place to lay his head. And here was I, a half-dozen years later, barely a mile away in a house with a spare bedroom. It felt more like a syllogism than a coincidence.
The idea took hold in me like a harpoon. When I laid it before Nimala she was flabbergasted and had a slew of practical questions.
“Would we be responsible for him if he got sick? Would we have to cook for him? He probably goes to bed a lot earlier than we do; what if we have a party? Wouldn’t we have to clear it with Valeria? With Mrs. Ardekian? And, you know, he is, you’ve got to admit, a strange man—I mean a stranger and a man … though I guess poets can be pretty strange in all kinds of ways. In fact, the whole idea is just weird.” She didn’t press me on any of these imponderables because she felt certain that Ritter would reject our offer even if we made it.
“He’s probably made plans,” she said. “Wouldn’t some poetry society rush to his aid? Publishers? Somebody?”
“Well, if he’s going to the Home for Homeless Poets, he’ll just tell us.”
I couldn’t have answered all her questions. I simply insisted it was the obviously right thing to do. I made a big point of the coincidence itself. “Don’t you think it’s significant?”
“Valeria leaving and … you know.”
At which bit of superstition Nimala smirked.
“Come on. It might be fun,” I thought to add.
“Fun? We’re twenty-one and he’s, what. Seventy? Eighty?”
“Oh well, then.” She laughed her best laugh, showing every one of her exceptionally white teeth, none of which had ever required a filling.
An Indian dental student she dated a few times to make her parents happy said to me pompously and in her presence, “It’s obvious Nimala is a very sweet and virtuous girl, impervious to Western decadence.”
We phoned Valeria who was still in the supra-lunary stage of her engagement and would have agreed to anything. “Go for it!” she more or less bellowed.
When Nimala suggested we phone Ritter I raised my finger and affected a Shakespearean tone. “No, noble deeds in person must be done or not at all. We have to go to his foully foreclosed house, and betimes.”
Nimala made a face. “Middle of the afternoon would be best. Unless he takes endless naps like Uncle Prasad. It would give us some time with him. I think we should get a sense of him before we, you know, make the big offer. Also, we don’t want to get there just when he’s sitting down to dinner.”
“Maybe you’re right. We should call first.”
“Generally speaking, I am right. You haven’t noticed? But you have to make the call.”
“Because I was right and because it’s your whacko idea.”
I felt suddenly nervous. Maybe the whole thing was absurd. But I was determined and tried to think what I’d say to Ritter.
“How’s this? Mr. Ritter, we understand you’re about to be homeless and we have a proposition for you.”
“Well, it’s certainly direct. But then we wouldn’t be able to get a feel for him. Don’t you think we should at least see him first?”
“How can I call him without explaining why.”
“Okay, then I was wrong.”
The force of the coincidence wasn’t completely dissipated. I really didn’t care about getting a look at him. Caution was cowardice. “Then let’s just call and tell him what we have in mind.”
Nimala shrugged dismissively. “You know he’s just going to laugh and say he’s moving in with some nephew.”
“Then it’s okay with you if I just come out with it.”
“We have a proposition for you? Makes you sounds like a Mafia guy—or Lady Bountiful,” cracked Nimala.
“The we wasn’t lordly. Or criminal. I just wanted to include you.”
Nimala, impatient, tossed her head. “Oh, whatever.”
I went looking for the phone book. Somehow it seemed more fitting than using the computer. Didn’t matter, though. A recording said the line had been disconnected.
“Poor man,” said Nimala. “No phone.”
“Okay. Back to Plan B. I’m free at three-thirty today.”
“No can do. That’s when my seminar’s supposed to end. Make it four-thirty. Okay?”
Around three a steady rain began. We put our umbrellas in Nimala’s Honda.
Ritter’s was a nice residential neighborhood so parking was no problem. The street was deserted in the rain, everybody working, in school, or lying drugged behind the drapes.
Ritter’s about-to-be-former house was a fair-sized Dutch colonial with an attached garage. There was a sign on the lawn with a blunt tone.
Armin Ritter opened his door wide, not just the suspicious, shamed crack I expected.
He looked his age—balding, thin, face lined, dressed in old man’s slacks and a plaid shirt—but there was something youthful about him that you noticed right away. Most old people seem to have slammed the door and settled in with their certainties; but Ritter’s door was wide open in every sense. He didn’t look at the two of us suspiciously, but with expectation, almost with pleasure, eyebrows up, mouth forming a welcoming smile. I had the odd feeling that Ritter thought there might be something wonderful he could do for us. “Did you notice his eyes?” Nimala asked later. “Sharp as thorns, my auntie would say.”
“Mr. Ritter—” I started.
“It’s pouring,” he said as if a catastrophe had befallen us. “Come in, come in.”
He continued talking as we shuffled into the tiny foyer. Ritter held his arm out, pointing to the living room. “When your parlor looks like the Golden Horde has blew through it’s customary to apologize. So, sorry.” In fact, the room didn’t look ransacked but about to be evacuated. There were books, cartons, papers, plates, rolled-up carpets, old record albums and newer CDs, curtain rods, a lot of black plastic bags. There was a couch and two armchairs. Ritter cleared the couch by dumping everything that was on it behind it.
“Please,” I protested, not liking to see him exert himself.
“I’ve been foreclosed, you see.”
“Yes,” said Nimala. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Oh, and here I was thinking you just wanted to come in out of the rain.” Our first taste of what one critic called “the sly Ritter irony.”
“If we might just—”
“I could offer you some Dom Perignon and beluga on toast points,” he shrugged, “but even if you accepted…” He shrugged. “Well, there’s some tea. Would you like some tea?”
“No, thank you. But—”
“Now, now, please sit down. It’s a pleasure just to look at the two of you and I intend to go on doing it while you say whatever you want. Not interested in buying the house, are you?”
“No, Mr. Ritter, it’s not the house.”’
“Good, let the bank eat it, I say. Mit sauerkraut. Okay, then what?”
“It’s you we’re interested in,” said Nimala.
He kept his eyes on us as he backed his rear-end into one of the armchairs. “Now that’s flattering. You’re students?”
“I used to get a lot of letters from students. You’d be surprised how many. You know I wrote poems?” We nodded. “They’d usually been assigned a paper on some poem I wrote and wanted me to explain it to them so they could explain it to their teachers. I never explicated things very clearly. Still, it felt nice to be regarded as the horse’s mouth—as opposed to the other end.” He smiled with satisfaction.
I could tell Nimala was enchanted; I was becoming exasperated.
“It’s not about a poem, Mr. Ritter. We have a proposition for you.”
His eyebrows shot up again. “Proposition?”
“An offer, I mean.”
Nimala chimed in. “It’s just an idea we’ve had.” She turned toward me. “Well, Karen did. I’m Nimala, by the way.”
Ritter rose and held out his hand for us to shake. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Nimala. Karen.”
“Karen saw the article in the paper. And… well…”
I leaned forward to signify I was taking over the floor.
“Where are you planning to go, Mr. Ritter?”
“You have to leave here. According to the article, by Friday.”
“Um. Yes. Well, I’m not quite sure. Probably a motel for a few days, until I get my bearings.”
“Nothing … longer term?”
“So nice of you to be concerned, Karen. And unexpected.” He crossed a leg over his knee, a movement that seemed at once nonchalant and defensive.
I pressed on. “Then you have no real place to go?”
“Oh, real? A notoriously elusive concept. A Frenchman once wrote about being ‘at the disposal of life’. Of course he said it long before they invented garbage disposals.”
“Nowhere, then,” Nimala murmured with a moue so sympathetic Ritter might have been a kitten.
“Well, since you ask so kindly, I’ve applied to a few of those places they call artists’ colonies—you know, nice cabins all over the woods, a composer or novelist behind every third tree. A long-shot, but still.”
I was as relentless as a car salesman. “But nothing now? Nothing this week?”
Ritter glanced up at the ceiling. “The reporter thought Keats wrote nursery rhymes.”
Nimala gave me a pleading little nod, the high sign.
“Mr. Ritter, we rent a three-bedroom house near the University, about a mile from here. Yesterday our roommate moved out—or rather, she moved in with her fiancé. She’s going to continue paying her share of the rent. We’d be delighted if you’d move in with us—until, as you say, you get your bearings. Rent-free. I’m afraid it can’t be a long-term offer because the lease runs out when we graduate at the end of May. So, what do you say? Us, or the Bide-A-Wee?”
When I finished I looked over the room and thought of what power time and familiarity confer on objects. All this detritus must have been precious to him. But there was far too much for the “naughty boy” to bear on his back when he “let his fancy roam.” I supposed that, unlike memory, fancy travels light. Was this why he quoted Keats to the reporter and not Yeats or Tennyson—Keats who never aged?
Nimala dropped a silken net over his astonished silence. “I think,” she said slowly, “it would be an adventure to live with you, even for a few months.” If she didn’t sound like a Mogul princess at least she looked like one, especially when she lowered her gaze. “More of an adventure for us than for you, perhaps.” She looked up. “I’ve never lived with a poet.”
Ritter began to laugh and when he stopped took my left hand in his right one, Nimala’s in his left. “So this is what it means to be at the disposal of life. All right. Yes, yes, I gratefully accept your most generous offer. But on one condition. I’ve lost my house but I’m not entirely destitute. There’s what’s left of my pension and Social Security too. I insist on paying my way. Oh, a second condition: you let me cook for you once in a while. Oops, and one more: you won’t be annoyed if I write verses under your roof. You see, I’m trying to finish a book.”
“That’s wonderful,” exclaimed Nimala.
“We’ll see,” he said solemnly and released our hands. With a little groan he stood up straight so we were looking up at him. “The working title ‘s Last Poems.”
We found a self-storage place outside of town—bottomland with a sort of necropolis of concrete oblongs, metal doors with huge padlocks. We rented a van for a day and called in a couple of boys to help move the stuff to which Armin Ritter was unprepared to bid adieu. To the house he brought only clothing, one carton of books, another of towels and linens, minimal toiletries (Nimala: “Did you get a load of the shaving mug and brush?”), his sound system and quite a number of CDs, more classical but also some jazz from 50s and 60s. Of a wooden lamp he said, “I made it myself. For writing under.” There was also an old Cutty Sark box with “MSS.” inked on it. (“Figure maybe one poem a month worth keeping, for a dozen years.”) For writing he had an antique Smith-Corona portable, but his prize possession, which he kept in a special box and held on to tightly in the van, was a big black German fountain pen. “Poems ought to be hand-made; every word should have weight,” he explained when he let us look at it. Fountain pens and shaving brushes. “The peculiar beauty of the obsolete,” as he says in “Yawls and Spitfires.”
“Cute,” said Nimala later, shaking her head. “No cell phone.”
“And no computer,” I added.
“Oh, my God.”
When everything had been set down in Valeria’s old bedroom we had our first dinner, volunteers included. Even though it was under forty degrees, the boys grilled burgers and kielbasa on our old hibachi. Ritter wasn’t exactly voluble but what he did say was charming. Mostly he let us talk. After the boys left the three of us went upstairs. He stood in the middle of Valeria’s bedroom looking both lost and found; Nimala and I lingered just outside the threshold.
“You’ll be comfortable?”
He sat down at Valeria’s little oak desk, ran his hand over the green blotter he’d put on it, and started arranging things.
“The art of our necessities is strange,” he said, musing and quoting, while toying with his talismanic pen. “But you’ve placed me in no hovel on a heath. This is a palace. A mansion. No wind, no rain, no cold—not even the chill loneliness of a widower. Karen, Nimala, let me thank you with tomorrow’s dinner. Right now, though, I need to write. To try, I mean. You shouldn’t ever keep her tapping her toe. It’s risky. Ungrateful.”
And so we left him feeling luckier than Lear. As for Nimala and me, we felt like two revised daughters.
The music began near midnight. A late Beethoven quartet played low, diffidently.
The dinner was French so it required a lot of cooking and a load of ingredients. While we were in class, Ritter walked four miles in the gelid January gray to buy what he needed at a specialty shop. Wine too—Nuit St. Georges the label said. Neither of us had ever eaten so well or so much, certainly not in our little house. He’d even typed out a bill-of-fare and drew curlicues around it.
Salade fraicheur avec crabe
Andouillettes (delicious miniature sausages)
Terrine do tomates avec poivrons et basil
Fromage St. Marcellin et Citron Sorbet
Ritter took such obvious pleasure in our pleasure over his offering that we fell into a sort of positive feedback loop: Nimala and I going “Mmmmmmm,” Ritter beaming and dishing out gut-busting seconds.
Afterwards, he insisted on doing the washing-up.
“Don’t you have studying to do?”
“Alas,” sighed Nimala, rubbing her tummy.
“I have to finish Northanger Abbey. Gothic Lit. Can’t imagine why I took it.”
“Astringent and corrective,” said Ritter. “Always made me think of Don Quixote.”
I’d forgotten that he’d probably read everything.
“How?” I asked.
“The ills that come from reading too much of the wrong thing.”
I picked up the sauté pan he’d just rinsed and began to dry it, but he shooed me out of the kitchen. “Go, go. Read, read.”
With all those calories français inside me, I fell asleep over Northanger Abbey, which isn’t a patch on Pride and Prejudice. I woke on the couch, or half-woke, yawned and dragged myself upstairs, leaving the novel where it had fallen, spread-eagled on the floor. There was light under Nimala’s door; Ritter’s was open. He was seated at his desk, apparently looking over items from his carton of mss. Which was next to the desk. No music.
“Good night,” I said drowsily. “I’m turning in. Austen and andouillettes are soporific.”
He chuckled and wished me good night. “Good digesting, too. Nietzsche claims it’s the origin of philanthropy.”
In the middle of the night I detected whispers of Mozart and Smith-Corona.
I was up at eight. Nimala, with her late class schedule, slept in. Ritter wasn’t in the house, but he had set the table before leaving. Laid next to one plate was Northanger Abbey with a sheet of paper inserted between its pages. Here’s what he’d left for me:
Going to Bed with Jane Austen
I imagine her fluttering as I clamber in
like a dove disturbed in her cote, cranky
but interested, black agate eyes missing nothing
of the comedy of pose, of sheet, of weight.
Then, propped on one elbow I’d pronounce, “This is
what happens after all the novels are over,
Jane–what you, knowing everything in
miniature, didn’t ever know …” But then
I’m sure she’d laugh–and what a laugh!
My pompousness explodes like a wineglass
spilling amour-propre all over the queen-sized bed.
I am discomfited, delighted; I am
ashamed, amused; while she, she is at her ease.
Rational conversation and sublime gossip
fill the remainder of our night until,
like that famous sultan, I finally fall
asleep, putting matters off yet another day.
Ritter had written this poem just for—just to—me. No doubt about it. “For Karen Krauss” was typed under the duplicitous title.
I wrote him a thank-you note and slipped it under his closed door.
Loved the poem. Thank you, thank you. I’ll prize it always.
p.s. Do you often fantasize about defunct female authors?
Over a more conventional dinner that night Ritter and Nimala got into a discussion of religious restrictions on women. It began when she complained to him about her parents, how they wanted her to Americanize and, just as much, not to. I didn’t pay close attention to what she said, having heard her on this topic dozens of times. But I did listen to Ritter.
“It’s not that unusual,” he said. “I’ve often thought that what matters for immigrants in America isn’t what year it is but which generation they’re in. It’s second that has it toughest.”
“That’s me. Generation Deux.”
“Should be some comfort that millions have gone through it.… Here’s a story. Once I was helping this fellow I knew study for his citizenship exam. We got to talking about the meaning of the Declaration and he said, ‘I think what our Founding Fathers meant…’ That pronoun! Our. I could almost have cried.”
“You’re a patriot!” I exclaimed. “I thought you’d be a citizen of the world. I thought that’s what all poets were.”
“Not all. No. But I do think of myself as a patriot. In fact, I love my country too much ever to be a nationalist.”
There was music that night, also the next. Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The following morning it was Nimala who had a poem to digest with her late breakfast.
Beneath the immaculate linen and
those cotton socks two comely ankles swell.
Is to think of them to be led astray?
To contemplate how the bones flow so, to
wonder what is bone, what flesh, stroking
with one’s mind the unrepeatably dear
concavity between shin and calf, a
triumph of trillions of contingencies;
to caress even the curt yet tender words, the
firm Teutonic nouns—ankle, thigh, throat,
knee, brow, breast—into which a body can
be butchered or beloved? Nudity,
is vast, he warns, particularly woman’s,
albeit Solomon himself seems to
crawl like some besotted beetle hopeless
of the whole so seeking mastery of parts,
anatomizing desire with
analogies—breasts like twin fawns, teeth
like shorn ewes—a pastoral, goatish lust
born of a mind that likewise conceived the
Temple cubit by cubit. Is her hair
naked, her contralto nude only because
their tones are beautiful to beguile
and divert, because all that is unclothed
even in imagination must distract
us from our joyless prayers and loveless
commandments, thwarting the profane
redemption of modest metaphor?
Even “the voice of a singing woman,”
the sage chides, is nudity, naked sound
that dissipates thoughts of his jealous
God whose table must be primly laid,
no ankles touched beneath its spotless cloth.
Ritter watched her read it in almost the same way as he had watched us down his souris d’agneau.
“I love it,” she said enthusiastically. “But who’s this Caro and why the table?”
“Joseph Caro was a medieval rabbi. He wrote down a bunch of laws which he titled Shukhan Arukh, which means the set table. He was afraid that women would distract men from thinking about God all the time, because of what he called their nudity. By Caro’s logic their nudity was anything that might distract a man and so he considered the voice of a singing woman to be the same as nudity. It’s not just the ankles.”
“Such erudition!” said Nimala, delighted.
“Such transparent repression,” I chimed in.
“Patriarchal religions are all suspicious of women, especially their effect on men, of course. Projection’s what Doctor Freud called it.”
“You’re a feminist?” I asked, still looking to slap labels on Ritter.
He laughed. “Back in the early 70s, when Women’s Lib gushed out of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements—just the way Women’s Emancipation did from Abolitionism a hundred years before, by the way—a woman poet demanded to know my position on sexual equality.”
“And you answered. . ?”
He shrugged. “Of course I said ‘of course.’”
“No fool you,” said Nimala evenly. “But I love that you dedicated the poem to me. Is it going in your book?”
Ritter raised his palms. “Oh. The book. Maybe. You think it’s good enough?”
“Good enough? It’s splendid. I want my parents to memorize it.”
And so a pattern, like Caro’s table, was set.
When I was a sophomore I took a Victorian Lit course with Professor Morse. It was a solid course and Morse was a good professor: prepared, knowledgeable, articulate. Only passion was lacking. At the time I figured that it wasn’t surprising that an expert on Matthew Arnold should seem staid, serious, diligent—in short, Victorian. Morse was admirable but not lovable and he really did seem to embody the earnest spirit of the age about which he lectured.
Then, in February, a janitor discovered Morse dead in his office and the campus went into shock. His students had no explanation. Everything had seemed perfectly normal in his senior seminar. The topic was Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, a sad tale but not one anybody was going to kill himself over. The University President put out a mass email so clogged with clichés it sounded like a form letter. I was terribly upset. Pillars like Morse aren’t supposed to collapse. Stability isn’t supposed to be precarious.
“I knew Morse,” said Ritter when I told him the news, which I did as I walked in the door.
“Not all that well, but yes, we got together a few times. He was a good man and an brilliant reader. Did you know he loved jazz?”
“No, I didn’t know that.” It was hard to put the earnest, controlled Professor Morse together with jazz.
Ritter sighed. “Played a little piano.”
“You don’t seem all that surprised.”
Ritter rubbed at his chin. “No? Maybe it’s my age. After sixty no death is as much of a shock as it is at twenty.”
I looked at him more closely, sitting there on the couch. “So, nothing more?”
“He was a depressive, Karen.”
“I don’t know clinical, not clinical. He kept up a good front but Morse was like a dog’s ear in winter—even colder on the inside than out. He once told me he felt like he’d fallen down a well with stainless steel sides. But I didn’t expect this. No.”
Then he got up, went to his room, and shut the door.
Nimala didn’t know Professor Morse but his death was all she could talk about over the turkey breast and red potatoes Ritter had roasted for us.
“The funeral’s Thursday. In the Chapel. I can’t go. Organic midterm. You going?” she asked me.
I looked over at Ritter, who had said nothing at all.
“I don’t know?”
“Will you go with me. Please?”
“Wouldn’t you rather be with your friends? Classmates?”
I thought it over. “No. I’d rather be with you. Please?”
And so we went together to Morse’s funeral, to the Chapel and even to the cemetery where Ritter briefly put his arm around me. It was thin but felt like a cable. It was freezing and there was snow on the ground but that wasn’t why he did it.
As I drove us home he suddenly said “February.”
“Longest month of the year, isn’t it?”
That night it was Bill Evans and Miles Davis the next.
On Saturday morning Ritter put a two sheets of paper under my fork, an elegy à la Ritter.
How About You?
After the chaplain finally shut off
the dripping faucet of his oily words
in which sense he felt was nearly made; after
his sister read his allegedly favorite
poem, three of his musician cronies
tramped up to the drums piano bass
secreted behind the pulpit and
rendered a loose and lachrymariffic
Someone To Watch Over Me, riffing with
eyes half closed though, given he’d hanged himself
in his office, no one there supposed he
believed anybody watched over him;
in fact, the Gershwin was a request from
his wife over whom he’d lovingly watched,
a truth featured in several eulogies,
who looked as though she’d endured successive
catharses after watching all the lost
plays of Sophocles and Euripides,
so drained of pity terror blood that she
scarcely noticed her two daughters, over
whom he’d also lovingly watched, one to
either side of her, fiddling with her skirt
staring across her at one another,
their perpetual war suspended by
this rude truce. He’d also watched, it seemed,
over colleagues, not all of them younger,
and students who looked at the wife as they
jokelessly spoke; the jazzmen played well
but we listened the way you do when the
music isn’t meant for you. After the
song a minute of disquieting quiet
before the provost stepped up to declare
official sorrow, the sadness of the
secretaries vice presidents trustees
then suavely announced the scholarship fund
and where our contributions should be sent.
Maddening morning traffic, we made the
slow-motion drive to the cemetery
whose ashes maples sycamores copper
beeches looked as if they’d live forever.
“Why ‘How About You’?” I asked when he came downstairs.
“Don’t you know the line? Cole Porter,” he said dryly. “I love a Gershwin tune—how about you?”
Nimala and I decided to throw Valeria a party. What we had in mind was a sort of engagement/bridal shower/girls’ night out/spring festival/pre-graduation shindig. We set the date for a week before Spring Break.
When we told Ritter about the party he made an awkward joke about Pentheus and the Bacchae. I’d noticed that he’d been getting more and more classical that week.
“Don’t you worry,” he assured us. “I’ll make myself scarce. I’ll be spending the evening with another of the spouseless. Nice lady, very good cook.”
So far as I knew, Ritter ha never been invited anywhere before.
“She invited you for that Saturday?”
“Well, actually she invited me to dinner a couple of months ago. I just plan on accepting now. The bus goes almost right by her place. Look, I’ll probably be back in medias your saturnalia but I’ll just tip-toe upstairs. You won’t even know I’m here.”
Nimala crinkled up her eyes. “Ah you’re shy, aren’t you? We’d love to introduce you.”
“Shyness doesn’t enter into it,” he said brusquely.
I teased him. “I’d think by now young women would’ve lost all their mystery.”
He raised a finger. “Let me tell you something about the terrifying power of young women—even little girls. You’re dangerous. You can shatter any man’s ego—Olympic champions, truck drivers, Presidents of the United States, makes no difference.”
Nimala showed him every one of her lovely teeth. “And how do we do that?”
“Simple. Here, I’ll show you.”
He pushed us across the kitchen into the doorway, shoulder to shoulder. Then he retreated to the living room.
“Now,” he shouted, “when I come back into the kitchen put your hands over your mouths, look at me, at each other, then—giggle.”
Ritter could crack us up whenever he wanted to.
I once got up my nerve and asked him why it was that nobody from the poetry or academic worlds had offered him any help.
“I’m not a joiner.”
“That’s what my mother said of me—with disapproval, you understand. She was of the it’s-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know school. Poets and academics love conferences, societies, associations—things to join. They network like spiders. I never networked. I found a quiet, undemanding job that wouldn’t interfere with my writing, assuming I could do any. Some poets know my work, I guess, but hardly any know me. I did get acquainted with some academics—poor Morse, for example—but I never had the chutzpah to teach.”
“Rather publish than perish? Well, did you ever do a public reading.”
“Once,” he growled.
I don’t know if Ritter was an unusually wise man for his age but we felt he’d do. Of course he had habits and eccentricities that annoyed one or the other of us. The late-night music and typing were okay; we’d gotten used to that in the dorms. But Nimala could be exasperated by the moodiness that sometimes made him laconic and by what she called “an old-man smell” wafting from his room. I never noticed it myself. But I have some trouble with his constant literary allusions and the way he’d throw foreign phrases into our chats: und so weiter, succès d’estime and, once, medio tutissimus ibis (my least favorite). I felt as if I were being tested and I didn’t think he had the right. Of course, we did things that set his teeth on edge too. He’d wince if we split an infinitive or used a crude word. I soon realized that Ritter had some illusions about women, at least young ones, and that Nimala and I were inadvertent iconoclasts. To tell the truth, shocking him rather pleased me. “The way you talk about your boyfriends!” he once burst out over dinner. It was quite gratifying. I never cared for being romanticized and told myself it was good for him and for his writing to get over his creaky, Tennysonian notions. If he loved us, well that was all to the good, but he should love us as we were.
Ten girls came to the party. There were presents for Valeria, including some crude gag-gifts I’d have liked Ritter to see, plenty of beer and wine. Nimala and I baked a cake and cooked up a ton of finger-food. It was a raucous affair and, though we kept one ear cocked, we didn’t hear Ritter let himself in and creep up the stairs. We played loud music, sang along karaōke-style, and laughed like maenads. The party didn’t break up until after two and after midnight we forgot all about him. If he was playing Handel or Sonny Rollins up there, we never heard him.
Late the next morning, staggering into the kitchen with our hangovers, Nimala and I were presented in the usual fashion with this long poem:
The best tight harmony since the Everly
Brothers, said Rolling Stone. Rapturous, the
audience’s mouths fell open. Sure, sure.
Rapturous. We know about rapturous,
starvation too, can recall the reeking
hairy men pissing over their gunwales
hooting polyglot filth, watched them forget
their mothers and their whores, grow thinner and
waste away. Those were the days. Their empty
mouths fell open too. Slain by rapture.
Oars we could cope with but not steam, surely
not submarines. And our hair, these scaly
warbler’s feet. Get with it, girls, our agent
yelled. Times change. Cut the tresses, get some Doc
Martens, then we’ll see what we can do.
They say he sang more sweetly than we, waves
and wind contending, song washed by song as
the heroes rowed like bats out of hell. They
claim we fled, offed ourselves in frustration
when the truth is we never heard a word,
not one note. Ligea’s lethal soprano
was blown back against the wrack and rocks,
his tenor gulped by gulls and whoosh of wave.
Now we’ve gone electric, amplified sugar,
fishnet stockings, minis, beaucoup cleavage.
Parthenope vamps, Leucosia sighs,
and in Euxine Honey Ligea soars
above high C. Our hugest hit so far.
You’d think he’d have noticed we’re a trio.
Beeswax in their ears? Roped to the mast? Sure.
Some guys you just can’t reach; duty hardens
their souls or music is just a cage to
them or they can’t get into voices that
are nude, cool, humid, smooth, round, inveigling
with words beneath words, sound under sound,
who never go beyond sandy shallows
to the bottom of green forgetfulness.
He was one you couldn’t tie down. That’s all.
Sex and drugs ensnare, marriages, contracts,
Love—these are our trade, our constant themes.
Hands held high, they sway through noisy surf,
boys and girls wrapped up in our strands of sound,
starving, drowning in eager ecstasy.
Swimmers in seaweed. Victims of harmony.
Nimala sucked up the expectations of her parents with her mother’s milk and built her life on a disjunction: good grades or worthlessness. So when she got a C on her microbiology final, she tumbled into an abyss that had long been prepared for her.
“You’ve been accepted by three med schools,” I reminded her. “There’s going to be a cum laude after your degree. I’m proud of you. It’s only one test, a meaningless one at that.”
I didn’t see that it was useless to console her in this way because the crisis wasn’t academic but existential. And it was only sharpened by the panic all seniors feel but only admit to in jest.
It was Ritter who pulled her out of her funk. One rainy May afternoon I came home and heard his faint voice coming from upstairs, evidently from Nimala’s room, in which, so far as I knew, he had never set foot before. He had never been in mine, either.
Ritter was delivering a fanciful lecture about how human societies had originally been matriarchal. He piled on the evidence, everything from the Venus of Willendorf to Ishtar, Isis, Astarte and the White Goddess, from Mycenaean queens to the Old Religion of North Europe with its witches.
“Of course men bowed down to women, magical creatures with the power to bring forth life. If God is a cosmic parent, then which parent came first? Thus the big hips and boobs and vaginas on the earliest cult artifacts. Couldn’t be more obvious. So why did things change? When did the earth goddess who threw parties and wanted everybody to be fat and happy, get displaced by the stern, legalistic sky god who wanted everybody to be behave? It happened over and over again. The Bible has just one version. But why? Well, my dear, my hypothesis is that some particularly bright troglodyte figured out how babies are made. He must have been a genius. After all, it’s hardly obvious. In the last century you could still find tribes who thought women got pregnant by walking by spirit abodes or when the recently deceased dove in their ears. Impregnation and gestation aren’t self-evident. I never knew a kid to figure the business out on his own. So it was a big achievement, figuring it out. Now, imagine how this new theory would have hit the men, what it did for their amour-propre. She didn’t do it, I did it. She’s the field but I’m the husbandman. She is, but I do. In no time it’s pyramids, ziggurats, skyscrapers; it’s purdah, burka, no votes or property rights. It’s primogeniture and chastity belts. You mean they didn’t teach you any of this? Nobody explained why new daddies hand out cigars?”
By now Nimala was giggling. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” she burbled.
“Well, not this time.”
That night Ritter’s Smith-Corona was accompanied by a Brahms’ sextet and in the morning Nimala found this poem under her cereal bowl:
You know it’s mere vanity, this wishing
to be told you’ve been a swan all along,
needing a license to breathe someone else’s
air; yet the want of a nod or some smudged
stamp has left you stateless, a refugee
tiptoeing through your shattered globe,
forlorn and feckless and unshod.
I see you, conquistador of deserts,
wandering your room, charting each square and
minim of its narrowness: warped walls, the
unexpansive ceiling, two dismal lamps.
Have you done your uttermost then, pushed
self to self’s last frame, where it says The End?
Have you forgotten that—for such as you—
it’s the inside of the camera that
shadows forth the warrantless world?
The best runner outstrips her exhaustion,
ignores the finish and forgets the start,
moved, not by the wreath, but inside her heart.
The week leading up to graduation was bittersweet. I was eager to move on yet reluctant to part with anything or anybody. Our families would be coming to make a fuss and take pictures and weep and then bear us away. Nimala and I had to consider which juniors to recommend to Mrs. Ardekian. There had been no lack of supplicants: wheedlers, pleaders, bribers.
“Don’t you think we should give the guys a turn?” Nimala said.
“They might trash the place. Guys are so messy.”
“Not all of them. Ritter’s neat as a needle.”
“Pin, needle. Whatever.”
“But Ritter’s not twenty-one.”
And that’s how we finally spoke about the taboo subject that had been eating at us, Ritter’s future.
The letter came that week, telling Armin Ritter he had been granted residency at Rheinach Artists’ Retreat in Wisconsin from June 15 through August 31. Food and lodging included. “Congratulations. We shall be honored to have you with us.”
“On Wisconsin,” he said after reading the letter to us. He wanted us to be proud of him, I think, and not worry.
A celebration was required. Nimala and I baked another cake and followed an online recipe for coq au vin. We played sixties golden oldies, the music of Ritter’s youth, and made him sing along. We both bought presents for him. Nimala gave him two reams of paper and a disk of Scarlatti sonatas. I gave him Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach and a bottle of black ink.
“The stationery stores don’t even carry bottles of ink these days,” he had once complained with that querulous indignation the elderly can suddenly feel about change. A bottle of ink could stand for a lot of things, I guess.
That night, almost our last, he played both his new disks; there was some typing at midnight, and in the morning we had our final poem from Armin Ritter:
As I grow older so the world grows
more complex, and more forgetful too,
as if wisdom and ignorance joined hands,
pressed cheeks, and staggered through a clumsy dance
to time’s swift jigs and slow sarabandes.
Life’s banal days and undistinguished nights
must not be despised since they’re all I can
return to from my odysseys, my flights
through the exotic latitudes of my dreams.
Though quotidian tunes weary our ears
with routine rhythms punctuating years,
such music’s always sweeter than it seems.
We gave it a formal reading, Nimala and I alternating lines. We applauded; Ritter bowed. Then we both gave him a kiss on the cheek and Nimala burst into tears.
The following January I was in New York being a graduate student at Columbia when I received a package from Ritter. It contained his book, Last Poems, in which he had included all the verses he had written for or because of Nimala and me. On the flyleaf was an inscription in German. “It’s the native language of my Pelikan,” he’d once joked when I’d asked him about his talisman. “My chief link to tradition. A present from Amanda. My wife.” I remember realizing that this was the only time he had mentioned his wife’s name, or even spoken of her.
With his big black pen he had written Eine Muse ist wo Sie sie finden. A. Ritter.
An enclosed note informed me that the book won a minor prize and, on its strength, he had been invited to join the faculty of a creative writing program in Colorado. “I accepted and begin my new job this month. I’m to teach poetry but I doubt poetry will learn much. So, I’ve got a new home.”
I would like to have known where he lived from September through December. I hate to think of him in a motel.
That was two years ago. Two days ago I read Ritter’s obituary in the Times. It wasn’t long but it was dignified, the kind a respected minor poet—a poet one reads chiefly in anthologies—would receive. There was, of course, no mention of his semester in Mrs. Ardekian’s little house.
I phoned Nimala in Los Angeles. She had received a copy of the book too and, of course, we reminisced.
So I suppose I am filling in a blank in his biography with this little memorial, my tribute to our noble, homeless knight, the poet Armin Ritter.