The next day, Ruth and I talked in my office. In class that day, we had been discussing "Prufrock." In the discussion, I had been focussing their attention on what the poem says rather than what it means, deliberately foiling the need to find meaning that students often bring to engagement with a poem, forcing them to understand the surface level of the poem first. When we talked about the ragged claws, they got the idea that Eliot was referring to becoming a crab, and immediately they wanted to move to meaning: Prufrock wanted a more limited intelligence; he wanted the silence and peace of the ocean floor; he wanted to move sideways. I pointed out that crabs are shore animals, and that the ragged claws could be a lobster's.
"Or a shrimp's," Ron Williams remarked. "He is shrinking." I looked interested, and he continued. "His pants are too long for him. He's going to roll up the cuffs."
"No, he's thinking about it." This was Ruth. "He's just thinking about it, not doing it. He never does anything. He's too scared. He's even scared of peaches!"
"My grandpa can't eat peaches or plums. He says they mess up his digestion something awful," Dianne Darby interjected.
"Thank you for sharing that with us," Ron muttered.
"He's getting old," Ruth said. "The stuff about rolling his pants cuff. Couldn't that be something to do with fashion, the way younger people dress?"
"How old is he, do you think?" I asked. "Prufrock, I mean." We had already talked about Eliot's age. They were not impressed that the poet had been twenty-five or so when he wrote this poem.
"Old. Middle-aged, at least. Thirty-five or forty," Dianne answered, amending as she considered her impressions. I wiped my face of reaction. I remembered being thirty-five; I remembered feeling very old indeed.
Ruth was reading intently as the discussion moved to the Shakespeare references. I explained the reference to Hamlet.
"This part about spitting out the butt-ends of your days? That's cigarettes, right?" This was Dianne again.
"Yeah," I said, turning back to her.
"The skewering, and the tobacco? It reminds me of grasshoppers. How they spit this brown stuff like tobacco when they're squashed?"
"Or stuck with a pin," Delmar Elias added.
"Is he really old, or does he just feel old?" Ruth said, looking up from the book.
"Now, you know I don't answer questions; I ask them. In this case, it's handy because I don't know."
"What do you think?" Dianne said to Ruth, mimicking my tone. A few titters greeted her witticism.
"I think what's really sad about the poem is not the fact that he's getting old. We start getting old the day we're born."
"Ohh. Perfound," Ron Williams murmured. Ron regarded himself as the class poet. Most of his contributions to discussion were sotto voce.
"What's sad is that he feels old. He thinks that the best of his life is behind him, and it wasn't much, at that. I think he's about thirty. It doesn't matter," she amended. "However old he is, he thinks his life is over, he feels like an old man, so he is an old man."
"Maybe he needs to get laid," Allen Summers interjected. He was assaulted with a barrage of withering glances, to which he retorted, "Hey, I didn't make it up. In the notes it says he's suffering from sexual inadequacy."
"That doesn't mean not enough, you dork, means not good at it." This from Allen's buddy Fred Talmanis, roused briefly from a studiously disinterested sprawl behind his desk.
"No name-calling," I said.
"Who writes those notes?" Ruth remarked. "Anyway, I think that one's just stupid. I don't see anything in here about sex. Does anybody else?"
"How 'bout going up the stairs?"
"Oh, so what? There's nothing about going to a bedroom. And even if it is, it could be his wife. And it isn't, anyway. People in England live in apartments, and it could just be steps to the front door."
The bell rang.
"We'll spend a few minutes on 'Prufrock' next time. Do me a big favor; read the poem again." A groan rippled through the class. I continued, "You know a lot more about it now than you did when you read it the first time. See if it means something different now." I paused. "It may be that you'll like it even less. I don't care. If you dislike it for reasons you can describe, that's fine." Allen and Fred were already at the back door, listening as Allen held the door open.
I began gathering my own books. Released, they headed out in a tidal rush of urgency. One or two, not having ten o'clocks elsewhere, moved more sedately. Ruth came up to my desk, standing where our paths would converge when I headed for the door. She turned with me and walked silently beside me, her head down. Awkwardly, I pushed the door open. She was on the hinge side; as she passed under my arm, she looked up at me, quickly, birdlike. In the hall she turned and looked me in the face. She was standing too close.
"You'll never tell us what you think."
I smiled. "That's the plan."
"But why?! You understand this stuff. We don't. We never know anything!"
"We each understand it differently. I just know more about it."
"Well, why don't you tell us, then?"
We began walking down the hall. "I do. I told you about Hamlet. I told you Eliot was a bank teller. I told you that he was about thirty when the poem was published, but only twenty-five when he wrote it."
"You didn't tell us about Tithinis, even when Dianne mentioned grasshoppers."
"Tithonus," I corrected. "What about him?"
"He longed for immortality, and he got it, but not eternal youth. He turned into a grasshopper."
"What about it?"
"Only that you wrote an essay on Tithonus and Prufrock," she said, with the air of a triumphant DA confronting a defendant. We walked toward my office while I considered my responses.
"You know, some people would consider hunting up obscure essays by your teacher a form of brown-nosing."
"You're a good writer."
"It's just the truth. I thought you liked honesty? You are. I tried to read some other things in that journal. There was an essay about 'Sailing to Byzantium.' It was gobbledegook. We learned more from class discussion of Yeats. I understood what you wrote about Eliot, and it made me think about the poem." She paused. "It didn't make me like it any better." She hesitated again. "In fact...."
"Well, I like your poem about being middle-aged better. The man in front of the mirror, talking to his wife? Do you miss her sometimes?"
We were at my door, which stood open. "Ruth, I don't want to hear what I think. I know what I think. I want you to think. Reading my publications will bias your own point-of-view"
"It didn't," she interjected.
"It's a waste of time," I continued. "Scholarly publications aren't addressed to the casual reader; they're for fellow specialists. That essay on Yeats, for example, is a major piece of Yeats criticism."
"I can read what I like," she said defensively. Then, changing the subject, "I wanted to talk to you for a minute."
"OK." We walked in. Claudine was there, grading papers. She smiled a greeting and went back to her work. I leaned against my desk and faced Ruth. She sat down, put her books down, stood up again and walked to the bookcase. She pretended to read book titles. Finally she faced me.
"I'm writing poetry. Will you read it?"
"I'd rather not. It's not that I'm not interested"
"It's no good."
"It's not that. I just" I hesitated, looking for the best explanation. I crossed my arms, and my ankles, and looked at the floor. "I read poetry professionally. I don't know what constitutes a 'promising' poet. I would just find fault with it."
"I want to know what's wrong with it."
"Take a poetry class. Betty Hesseman is a good poet and a good poetry teacher. Take her class."
"I will. But I want someone to read it now. I don't like it, but I don't know what's wrong with it."
"Ruth, we have a good relationship. I like your writing and you like my teaching. I can react to your essays confidently, telling you how they are good and what will improve them. I don't know anything about developing as a poet. I never even took a creative writing class"
"Then why should I? You write poetry."
Ignoring her interruption, I went on. "Your poetry probably isn't publishable yet, except in Solstice. By my standards, it's probably not very goodnot because you don't have what it takes to write good poetry, but because you're inexperienced as a poet. Take it to Betty. I'll ask her to read it and decide if you should take her class."
"So you won't read it if I give it to you? I can put it in my journal." Our eyes met, two wills facing each other down. We stood like that for what seemed a full minutelongerme looking for the right choice, her challenging me to refuse her again.
She said, "You're just like Edgar, you know. In Hummingbird. So afraid somebody might..." She stopped and looked at Claudine, who was studiously ignoring us.
Get close to me, Ruth? I thought. We left it unsaid. Ruth was barely five feet tall. My entire head was above hers. Her hair smelled cinnamony. An olfactory hallucination? Her hair was the color of cinnamon. Darker. I looked over her, out the open door. I felt like Goliath facing a David he didn't really want to hurt.
Claudine got up. "Guys, I'm going for a cup of coffee. Want some?"
"Yes, please," Ruth said. I shook my head. Claudine walked out. The coffee machine was one floor down, in the departmental office.
"All right. Yes. I'll read it. But remember, poetry is personal, like babies. Even if you know your baby's nose is ugly, having someone else tell you so, especially someone who specializes in judging babies, is, well, not pleasant."
"I don't care."
"There's one more thing. An emotion, a reaction to personal events, can be deeply personal and honest. It can be cathartic. That's why I encourage private journals. Poetry is not private; it's public, and honest and true emotion are not enough to make good poetry. Go ahead and write about the things you care about, but don't show them to anyone, not me or Betty, as instances of poetry until they've been on paper long enough to allow you to distance yourself from the emotion and talk about the craft. Asking someone to evaluate your emotions, even disguised as discussion of poetry, is cruel to yourself and the reader."
"You mean my father."
"You know about it."
"I know he died. I don't know much more about it."
"He shot himself. In the kitchen." She paused and then added, "with the revolver," and began to laugh in quiet, hysterical gasps. She choked on tears. I was taken utterly by surprise; I reached out towhat?pat her shoulder, I suppose. And she stepped forward into the extended arm. Then she was crying on my shoulder, gathered into my folded arm. I stood like an amputee, my other arm dangling helplessly. Her head was just chest-high. I raised the other arm, embracing her and patting her back with the arm she had appropriated. I heard Claudine's heels in the hall.
Ruth sniffed guiltily and lifted her head. She stepped away, snatching a tissue from my desk. Claudine appeared in the door, carrying two steaming styrofoam cups. She took in the scene with a deft, professional glance. She handed one cup to Ruth, who murmured, "Thank you." Claudine turned to me.
"I just came back to bring that. Annabel ambushed me in the hall. She needs a professional opinion on a dubious absolute construction. See ya." She disappeared again, fleeing with thin dignity.
"Ruth, are you seeing a counselor?"
"You mean the campus shrink? Sure. She says I have unexpressed guilt feelings." She sniffed angrily.
"She can help you talk through your feelings, even if she doesn't understand everything. How are your sisters doing?" We were standing a few feet apart. Ruth was looking at the rumpled kleenex in her hands. She held it in both hands, like a crushed hymnal.
"My mom didn't even come back for the funeral. Uncle Blaine wrote her. She sent flowers, and a check for three hundred dollars. And a note, saying she could send more, if we needed it."
"Would her being there have made a difference?"
"Yes! Because I'd've killed her! She's the one who oughta be dead, not him." She began crying again. This time I stepped forward and gathered her against me, holding and soothing her while she wept. I stroked her head, more sympathetic than self-conscious. The hand still holding the kleenex was trapped between our chests. At last, when it seemed she was done, I spoke over her head.
"Ruth, stick with the counselor, OK? And I'll read your poetry, as long as I reserve the right to tell you nothing, absolutely nothing, about it, whenever I want. OK?"
"What good is that?" she said, her tone sleepy, into the fabric of my jacket.
"I'm not saying I won't comment on anything. I'm just reserving the right to keep silent. Selectively." She tilted her head up to look me in the face again. Her face was suspicious, uncomprehending. "I'll give you tips and suggestions, point out problems, mark things I like. But you don't get to demand reactions; you don't get to ask me what I thought of this and that. Any time I say, 'No comment,' that's the end of it. OK?"
"This sounds pretty dopey. But OK." She leaned into my chest again. She was not crying.
"And stick with the counseling. You need to be sure of your own feelings, because your sisters have the same kinds of feelings, and they are going to need someone strong and stable for a while."
"They're living with Aunt Colleen and Uncle Blaine."
"So they're out of the school."
"No. It's the same school." She opened the hand on my chest; I could feel her palm and the lump of kleenex. After a moment's consideration, she said, "Oh. Yeah. Kids can be real pricks." She stopped again, then went on. "They're seeing a psychologist in Greeley. There's lots of money. My cousin is at the ranch for now. Uncle Blaine says to sell the place and use the money to get good educations, all four of us."
It was in her hair: the cinnamon smell. Her back was firm and her spine a shallow depression roped with firm muscle. I held very still. Something stirred; I willed it quiescent.
"I guess we'll do that," she concluded. She was leaning into me, her body pressed against mine. She sniffled again.
"Is he the executor? Blaine? Your guardian?"
She drew away. She did not look up. "Aunt Colleen is Daddy's sister." We both stepped away from the center of our contact. She pulled another kleenex from the box, honked into it indelicately. She took another and wiped her eyes.
"Are they going to take care of the kids?"
"Yeah. That was in the will. Ann will come to Red Rocks next year. Then it'll be just Marie and Doris." Her eyes were puffy from crying, but dry. Some mascara was smeared under one eye. I wanted to reach a tissue to it. I turned completely away, moving inconsequential things on my desk.
"You'd better stop by the ladies' room."
"Yeah. I gotta go." She picked up her books and left. Five minutes later, Claudine was back.
"Sorry," she said as she stepped through the door. "I didn't know what to do."
I laughed ruefully. "Neither did I." I explained what had happened, told her about the suicide. "I think she either blames herself, because it wouldn't have happened if she hadn't told on him, or she will, when she thinks that through."
"Well, and in a way, she would be right."
I was shocked; it must have showed. Claudine read my expression and went on, trying to explain.
"Thomas, it wouldn't have happened if she hadn't told. Or if it had, it might have been for some other reason, not to escape the punishment she called down on him. Maybe she never thought of having the choice between the way things were and him dead. You and I know that something had to be done. But she isn't so sure. You said it: she felt inconvenienced, not scarred."
"Would she be sure if he'd started pumping her fourteen-year-old sister?"
Her cold glare rejected my vulgarity. I tried to keep my imagination, and my anger, focussed on that reedy, vicious sound that had threatened me on the phone, but it was no use. Against my will, what I saw instead on the screen of my mind's eye was Claudine, her cheek a pattern of rich green laced with black veins, her eyes shut in devotion, kissing bruised knuckles with love and devotion. I stared back as coldly but not, I think, as bravely.
"Maybe she would," she said after a moment. "But if he hadn't yet, maybe he wouldn't've. And if he wouldn't've, then maybe she'd rather have been abused by a live father than have none at all."
"She loved him." I said it angrily, contemptuous of the verb.
"Yes," she said curtly. "She loves him." She turned away, crossed the room, and sat down at her desk. "People do that, Thomas," she added, not looking up. Her back excluded me with such intensity that I made to speak, did not, and left the room. I stood at a window in the hall, smelling cinnamon on my shirt, imagining the smell of that black hair where Ruth's had been just a moment ago. My eyes filled with tears: of anger, of despair, no doubt of self-pity too. Returning to my office, I looked at the tight edges of her body. I took up a few books and went to the library.