The Day Fritz Died
On the morning of July 8, 1995, Aspen learned that Fritz Benedict, one of Aspen’s leading postwar architects, had died. He was gravely ill, so the news was not unexpected, and I had known him long but not well. His presence, however, literally hovered around me, for – along with designing my house – he had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, whose houses leavened the Chicago suburbs where I grew up. The passing of Fritz felt like the snapping of a last link to some part of my origin.Still, July 8 led forward, in my case to a dinner at a house I had never seen. A friend of a friend wanted me to meet an incoming musician, master of I forget what instrument.I am always relieved when the details of verbal directions appear on cue. Having correctly negotiated several turns, I parked by one other car, an abandoned-looking sedan, and took the boardwalk that had been promised. The Roaring Fork was in flood and the slats, curving through the weeds, sank gradually into the water so that my shoes were soaked when I reached the house. A grizzled hound came out to welcome me. A smaller dog, part shelty, tried dispiritedly to bite me, then slunk off. I shouted hello. The shelty barked from another room, then there was only the slur of rising water. I spotted an upright piano and played, in minor ninths, the horn flourish that launches horse races, a riff so grating it will raise anyone able to protest. No one did. I opened one of the beers I’d brought and stepped to the deck.I had wanted to spend time staring at the surge of high water and here, just before sunset, I was. I settled on planks mere inches from the waterline. The swiftness and hush of this current swept the platform with unfathomed power. Willows and spruce waded like mangroves. Warblers trilled half-seen – why hadn’t I brought my binoculars! A half-year-old fallen Christmas tree, auburn and sere but still in its stand, trailed from the deck to the water, where a green hose screwed to a faucet writhed around it like a sea snake. A sunken lawn mower merged with its prey. I wondered if the event I had come for was in the works.The dining table was strewn with stale bread and several half-consumed bottles of wine. When I opened the refrigerator, a cat I hadn’t seen leapt from the top of it, over my shoulder and through my nerves like a jolt of electricity. The most recent newspaper was four days old. I was struck by a melodramatic thought: Had there been foul play? The shelty eyed me as if he resented his own impulse to aggression. I tossed him some stale bread: We don’t have to stand on ceremony; you don’t have to bite me. He allowed me to check the other rooms, a domestic clutter with no nasty surprise. I returned outside, where the current was disassembling some billowy white clouds. Voices and the crash of paddles sounded from below the willows.”We’re getting nowhere,” commented one. The other laughed, paddled some more, then said jovially, “Oh fuck.” At last the two kayakers hove into view. The flood was so still that I didn’t have to raise my voice to offer them a choice of beer or wine. “That’s tempting,” answered one, “but we need to get off the river before dark.” They grappled forward a half-minute more, then gave up and leaned backward on their swirling kayaks, letting the river take them as the sky revolved.The phone rang. Unsure of protocol, I answered. “Hi,” said a woman, “it’s Carly’s mom. Is she there?” I explained my odd circumstance. Carly wasn’t here; could she tell me whose house she had called? “Sorry. Carly said she’d call when she got there, but she didn’t say where there was.” She hung up.The billowing clouds had deepened to a dome by Tiepolo, full of cherubic pinks and powdery blues. I studied the water’s smooth muscularity, its sluicing froth in the middle, its curling backwash on the sides sucking and overflowing the banks, its surface quiver over forces not to be grasped. It was a night for chaos theory. The next day I learned that Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise had been played in honor of Fritz at the music tent. I must have been in the same mood, for I settled at the upright and played Rachmaninoff. Old uprights often satisfy me more than the grands one is supposed to prefer, and this one was throaty, deep and miraculously in tune. I wanted to leave by daylight lest the aspiring biter be spurred to his duty by dark, but first I thought I should show my appreciation for the nice time. I scrubbed years of grunge off the keyboard.The shelty had retired and I waded the slats to my car. Just as I reached the highway, a coupe pulled in. I followed it back to the house, hoping to shed light on the evening. Three people got out. I explained to the oldest who I was and why I was there. “Oh my god,” said the woman, mortified. The friend who had invited me had inexplicably taken off the previous day and the musician had canceled because he was overscheduled. Also, her house was about to drown. In the swirl and upset she forgot that a stranger had been invited to dinner. “You must stay for wine and burritos,” she said. She introduced me to her son and his date, Carly. “Your mom called,” I said to Carly.Now I was back in the house and formally introduced to the part-shelty. The hostess poured wine and wanted to know everything about this friend of mine who had unceremoniously decamped. I felt uncomfortable analyzing the character of someone I didn’t understand to someone I didn’t know, but she persisted. She knew his downside, but surely there were things to be said in his favor. “He has very regular features,” I offered. “He’s always rather reminded me of Clark Kent.””Asymmetrical faces are more interesting to look at,” she replied.Conversation, ultimately bolstered by burritos, carried us into, though not through, a second bottle of wine. I rose to make my second departure.”You can’t go yet,” she said. “We have to take a memorial swim for Fritz.”In a flood? Hadn’t Aspen had enough death for one day?”I’m talking about his pond. It’s just downstream from here. You can follow my car in yours, then drive home.”I trailed her to the highway and down another road I didn’t know, to the water’s edge. When we doused the car lights, the night was deep-shadowed and luminous. Nervous about the water, I stripped, waded a steep bank and flung myself to its mercy. I was amazed that Fritz’s backwater, fed by cascading snowmelt, was so warm, with no tugging current. Its volume seemed to expand as I struck out. I reached a far bank and kept swimming. My hostess yelled, “You OK?” I yelled back that I was. She yelled again. “I’m fine,” I yelled. She yelled some more. “I’ll be back when I’m back,” I yelled. Then I just swam.I swam along aspens like black spangles against the night, past the looming spires of spruce. It was a long time since I had swum, but instead of tiring I gained strength. The darkness, the warm suspension, the reaching and kicking, the beer and wine in the blood all made my mind race. Fritz himself still eluded focus. What gripped me was that an invitation to a flood, a deserted house, an old upright, kayakers, a phone call to a place neither party could name, an abandoned hostess, a conflicted dog – a night of non sequiturs climaxed by a swim – was the very essence of the Aspen I had first tasted as a child and of which Fritz was, in both senses, a leading architect. Bequeathed for an evening was that bohemian, irrationally intense, casually heartbreaking improvisation that was midcentury Aspen, linked to conformist America by fraying mountain roads just as, on July 8, 1995, an oddly angled wooden house was only approachable by a boardwalk through a flood. I swam out my memorial, less for Fritz, whose trajectory was complete, than for the time and town he threaded with his long, inventive life. I climbed out, pale, purged, and thanked my hostess.Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay, which was first published in the Aspen Times Weekend Edition in 1995, is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.
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