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ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Robert Moore. All rights reserved.
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april 1, 2006
Monday, March 13, two-thirty in the afternoon, our front doorbell rang, followed immediately by rapid knocks.
I was upstairs in my study, working. Mary was downstairs in the bedroom.
We don't answer our front door.
The thing is, it's almost always a neatly-groomed salesperson, and it just takes too much energy, trying to talk over their enthusiasm.
After a few minutes, the multiple door bell rings began again, followed by more rapid knocking.
I leaned over the half-wall of my study, glanced down into our two-story living room, foyer.
Mary was in the dining room, off the foyer, looking through the blue drapes as whoever had knocked walked away.
Two young men.
They weren't carrying anything to sell door to door.
I went back to work.
Five minutes later, Mary called up to me.
The two men were in our backyard, studying the back of our house.
They rang our front doorbell to see if we were home, got no response, went around to the quiet country road behind our property, got over the privacy fence.
Our home is half an hour from Dallas, in a small town of 30,000. We have goats for neighbors. Crime here is virtually non-existent.
I watched them a moment to see what they were up to, then let them see me, asked them what they were doing in our backyard.
They were both average height, one stocky, one thin. The stocky one said something, but too low.
He answered in a louder voice, but still mumble-mumble.
"I can't hear you. Say it again."
"Is it okay if we cut through your yard?"
Which was ridiculous. All the backyards in our neighborhood have six foot high privacy fences. You can't "cut through" someone's yard without hoisting yourself up over the fence. "Get off our property. Use the side gate."
Which they did.
They weren't at all confrontational. No raised middle finger, no sullenness.
After I chased them off, I went into the bedroom, called information for the town's police department, dialed.
Got one of those "Welcome to Limbo" automatic answering systems, where you have to listen to a cheerful recorded voice droning on for a long minute, then have to choose from a limited number of options, most of which dealt with warrants.
I hung up, dialed 911.
The woman who answered asked me to describe the two.
"They looked like teenagers, or early twenties, both African-American, one stocky, one thin, the stocky one was wearing a white cap, it looked like it was made of wool."
"It was a wool cap?" I could hear her rapidly typing as I talked.
"It looked like a wool cap." I tried to think of how to describe it. I remembered a Devo poster from the early eighties, a cartoon of Devo on stage, a mass of featureless faces in the audience, a cowboy Stetson atop one of the mannequin heads, which I always took as Devo being honest, saying, We don't remember our fans, we just remember their occasional weird article of clothing. "It was circular, and it looked soft."
"We'll send out a patrol car, sir."
I called our neighbor Jim, let him know what happened, for his own protection. He said he'd contact the other neighbors. Mary and I felt unsettled the rest of the evening. Around seven we sat at our breakfast nook table, working on our food list. (Lady, one of our cats, lifted a MapQuest print-out up into her fangs, meowing in a loud voice, neurotically chewing the paper to jagged little pieces. It's impossible to tell if she enjoys doing that, or is in some roiling psychic trauma. I wondered what she would do as an equivalent if she were human, decided it would probably be cutting her thigh with a razor blade.) We found ourselves repeatedly glancing out our back windows, to see if the two had returned, Dumbledee and Dumbledangerous, like the person who keeps slipping his or her fingerpads onto the lump that has suddenly swelled underneath the left side of the jaw. Has it gotten larger?
The vague worries we all live with, cancer and crime.
It's such a simple request. Let our lives stay happy.
Exactly one week after the incident, once again at two-thirty in the afternoon, us lying in bed, watching a Law and Order repeat we had recorded with our satellite TV's DVR function, there was a sudden crash out in the living room, aluminum mini-blinds vibrating like the uplifted tail of a rattlesnake.
I rushed out.
It was the cats. They had been sitting on the living room window's white sill, watching through the glass as a lizard sunned itself on the window's outside hot brick ledge. One of them had gotten too excited, trying to crawl through the mini-blinds for a closer look, dropping the heavy bottom of the blinds to the floor, just coincidently exactly one week after our doorbell rang.
We decided to have a home security system installed.
I went on the Internet, looked at the different home security company websites, Brinks, ADT, Protect America.
I called the sales department of the company we chose. As it turned out, they had an installer in the area. He could come out to our home that very day, between five and seven.
Normally, we like to keep our evenings free, for projects, but it would be nice to have the system up and running, since we'd be in the city most of the next day. So I said, Okay.
Near five, we got another call from the company. Actually, the guy couldn't show up until nine that evening. Nine to nine-thirty. We agreed.
He rang our doorbell at nine-thirty, darkness outside. Big guy, big belly, balding head, named Bob. Immediately, in our kitchen, he got on his little silver cell phone to have someone deliver more alarms (we had decided to put "contacts" on all three doors, and all seventeen of our windows, downstairs and upstairs. We also had him install a "glass-breaking monitor" in our master bathroom, on the wall directly across from the large picture window over our marble tub.)
"I'm going to start by programming the units, which takes up most of the time." We watched TV in the bedroom, hearing him out in the kitchen, lots of beeps, an artificial voice every so often saying things like, "Office sector, window ten, armed."
A little before eleven he had our entire home protected. The system comes with a central unit about the size of a telephone, which controls all functions. He walked us through the steps of how to arm the system, disarm it, check over the phone while we were away to make sure there hadn't been a break-in, etc.
Basically, if you arm the system and then leave the house, you have forty-five seconds to shut the door through which you're exiting. Then the system is armed. Once you come home, from the time you breech one of the door or window contacts, you have forty-five seconds to disarm the system, with a numerical code, so the siren won't go off. He deliberately waited longer than forty-five seconds, letting the siren kick in. It was so loud it vibrated our ears.
"What if we want to open a window, but still want all the other windows armed?"
He raised a right forefinger. "Disarm the system, open whatever windows or doors you want, then arm the system."
He disarmed the system, opened a window in our breakfast nook. Armed the system.
"Kitchen sector, window eight open. System armed."
It's actually kind of cool. Like living in a spaceship with air locks. Plus we got decals to put on our doors, and a metal push-in-the-ground sign to put out front. The entire system, with our add-ons, cost four hundred dollars, with a monthly monitoring fee of thirty-five dollars.
The central unit has a twenty-four hour battery built into the unit, in case of power failure, and is connected to the phone line to download new features.
If you're going to be in for the evening, you can program the unit to set off the alarm and call the police immediately, rather than waiting forty-five seconds.
The other morning, as I normally do, I worked upstairs for a couple of hours, came downstairs, pulled on some clothes to check our mail while Mary started breakfast. She disarmed the system for me. As I was walking down the sidewalk to the cluster of mailboxes, air crisp, I thought, I'm outside the safety zone! I looked around, at the long curved street, the tall green treetops.
We found out a few weeks ago Mary's kid sister, Katy, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. When Katy went in for additional tests, it was discovered the cancer had spread to her brain. She moved in with her son Ritchie and his girlfriend, receiving hospice care. She made a decision to be cremated, with a wake, but no funeral. She wanted her death to cost as little as possible.
I first met Katy years and years ago, during one of the visits Mary and I made to her parents, Joe and Joan, who were living in Sacramento at the time (we were living in the San Francisco area).
I immediately liked her. She's that type of person.
Intelligent, great sense of humor, artistic, just generally someone who was a lot of fun.
She'd visit Mary and me occasionally in San Francisco, or we'd see her at Joe and Joan's. Once Mary and I left California, to travel across the United States, in the early eighties, we never saw her again. I can't even remember now, more than twenty years later, what the occasion was of our last get together, though I believe it was in Sacramento, and may have been for her daughter's birthday party.
In 1996, when Mary and I flew up to Milwaukee for her mom Joan's funereal, I spoke to Katy briefly on the telephone. She was living in Oregon by then. Even over the long distance line, the passage of fifteen years, I immediately recognized the same cheerfulness and youthfulness in her voice.
I remember one time, back in the early eighties, when Mary and Katy picked me up for lunch while I was still working at Barclay's Bank in San Mateo, California.
The three of us, with Katy's toddler, Constance (now Connie, now pregnant with twins), went to a nearby park, sitting on a green bench, eating fast food, catching up.
Constance, maybe three or four at the time, so long ago, meticulously went through her white bag of McDonald's french fries, little fingers lifting out ones that were browned, fussily tossing them away, onto the concrete path of the park.
A trio of teens, tanned brown by the sun, went by on the path, loud, shoving each other's shoulders.
Constance lowered her head, disapproving. Looked at them from under her blonde eyebrows.
I leaned over her small face, pointed to the I Ching litter of brown french fries on the path, the retreating brown backs. "Bad french fries."
It got a laugh.
Katy always knew how to laugh. It wasn't a social laugh. It was a laugh filled with life, sometimes even a couple of snorts.
I don't know how to travel into the past.
Go back into your childhood, when you were a pupil in class. Here I am, at my blonde-wood school desk, I've got an eraser too large for my small fingers, an institutional eraser shaped like a bar of pink soap, supposed to last the entire school year, passed down to next year's students, dark, spiraled lines of rubber rolling off each time I rub its tilted size across a pencil error. Imagine if you could actually go into the past, be there, like you're here, sitting in a chair reading these lines, if you could feel again the heaviness in your small palm of that pink eraser, instead of my weightless words trying to evoke that heft.
But I can't. Anymore than I can smell those fortunate french fries allowed to stay, upright and salted, in Constance's white McDonald's bag.
Too many years.
She died March 11, at 6:11 a.m. Pacific time.
Like we all do, she ran her marathon. She's burst through the yellow ribbon. Everyone was waiting, applauding. Whistles between two fingers held up to the teeth.
Joe, her dad, flew from Milwaukee to Oregon to spend some time with Katy before her death.
During his stop-overs, through sheer happenstance, he received a ridiculous number of free drink tickets, like putting a coin in a public phone to call an ambulance and getting flooded with a tumble of quarters. Sometimes, God's kindness is small.
After her death, Joe wrote us about going back to church.
Who's to say? We love our cats, but realize they're unaware of so much going on around them that we, as humans, easily perceive. Language, electricity-- it would be a long list. Just as we play with cats, perhaps ghosts play with us. There may be patterns all around us we only occasionally glimpse, and dumbly dismiss as coincidence.
Katy's oldest sister, Ellie, who also took care of Katy in her final days, wrote Katy's obituary. Here's a part of it:
We'll miss you, Katy. We always thought there'd be a time we'd get together again.
We will, but not here.
My short story Visibility, originally published in ROADWORKS, is being reprinted in Revelations 3:3. It'll be out next month.
Katy at age 14 (October, 1971). Photo by Joe Meier.