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Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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"we are required to ask, sir"
august 1, 2006
The Texas town in which we live has gone again, as it does most years, to mandatory water restrictions.
Springs here are as beautiful as Spring anywhere else in the world (it's hard to imagine a place where Spring wouldn't be beautiful, all those green buds spreading joyously apart, like thighs, letting out ten thousand colors, bird beaks tapping against each other, male courting female with a tilted sunflower seed.)
But Summers are something you watch from inside, from an air-conditioned kitchen (except for early each morning, when we go outside long enough to follow one of the grass paths of our garden to pick an extraordinary number of cherry tomatoes, red and warm).
Our temperatures have been over one hundred degrees, afternoon after airless afternoon. No rain. We pass through the drizzle of tiny pink blossoms blowing off our crepe myrtle, pulling down the bird feeders from the branches, sliding seed inside, raising them back up, like vespers, spraying out the water from the cement birdbaths (standing water hatches mosquito larvae), refilling their basins.
A month ago the phone in our bedroom rang. Picking up the receiver, I heard a recorded announcement from the town about the water restriction. (Whenever there's imminent danger of a tornado touching down, the town causes all the phones in each house to ring. There's no message if you pick up. When the sky is low and yellow, air so still dogs are afraid to bark, all those phones suddenly going off in your home is eerie.)
Like most government announcements, the phone message was not very clear.
Residents could only water on garbage pick-up days, in our neighborhood meaning only on Tuesdays and Fridays, from six o'clock in the evening until ten o'clock in the morning.
No outside watering at all was allowed on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
That didn't make sense to me.
If we could water on Tuesday, from six o'clock in the evening until ten o'clock in the morning, wouldn't that mean we could water until ten o'clock Wednesday morning?
This was an important point, because we had to water if we didn't want everything green we owned to die, but if we watered outside the allowed time periods, we'd be slapped with a two thousand dollar fine (we'd also have to pay a two thousand dollar fine, even while watering during the approved time periods, if the run-off from our water exceeded ten feet, for example if we were watering our front lawn, and some of the sprinkler's water ran down the sidewalk or our driveway by more than ten feet).
So I called city hall.
"I just want to clarify the city's water restrictions schedule."
"We live on the east side of town. So we have to water on Tuesdays and Fridays, right?"
"The announcement about the water restrictions says that on those days we can only water between six o'clock at night and ten o'clock in the morning."
"But then the announcement also says no watering at all is allowed on Wednesdays and Saturdays."
"Those are water-free days."
"So… for example, on a Tuesday, if we can only start watering at six o'clock Tuesday night, and have to stop watering ten o'clock in the morning, does that mean we can water on Wednesdays, up until ten o'clock in the morning?"
"But then why does it say, No watering at all on Wednesday? Shouldn't it say, no watering at all after ten o'clock Wednesday morning?"
"Well, the intent is that you can't water on Wednesday, but if Tuesday is your garbage pick-up day, you can water between six o'clock Tuesday night and ten o'clock in the morning."
"The following morning. Wednesday morning."
"So it's okay for us to water on Wednesdays, before ten o'clock."
Except, it wasn't.
I was talking to the City's water department. And their official spokeswoman said you can water until ten o'clock Wednesday morning. That's what the automated phone call said. That's what the City's official website said, and that's what the flyer we received in the mail, from the City, said.
But it wasn't true.
It turns out, you can only water from a minute after midnight on Tuesday until ten o'clock that morning, then from six o'clock Tuesday evening until midnight.
Eventually, after receiving a large number of complaints about the contradictions in its instructions, the City corrected itself.
(Along similar lines of a breakdown in customer service, Mary recently lost the ability to access her e-mail. We called her ISP. After some experiments, we realized she could access her e-mail if she disabled Norton Internet Security. I called Norton, on a Friday. Explained the problem. Norton Security enabled, no access to e-mails. Norton Security disabled, full access. After listening to my problem, the "technician" on the other end of the line said Norton was receiving an "unusually high number" of calls, so he wouldn't be able to help me that evening. He promised someone would call me back within forty-eight hours (three weeks later, we still haven't heard back from Norton. We never will.) He then asked me, "Can I help you with any other problem, Sir?" "Well, you weren't able to help me with my first problem, and even if I did have another problem, you couldn't help me tonight, because of your high call volume, right? So why are you even asking?" "We are required to ask, Sir." "But if I had another problem, you couldn't help me, right?" "That is correct. Is there indeed another problem I could help you with, Sir?")
Because we had a limited time each week to water, that meant we had to start sprinkling as early as possible each Tuesday and Friday morning.
Each Monday we set up the sprinkler in the evening in our backyard garden, so I can turn it on early Tuesday morning, around five o'clock a.m.
As peaceful as our garden is mid-morning, at five a.m., still dark, full of insect sounds, yellow moonlight, the garden is creepy. We have a subspecies of cicada, olive green with black decorations, rectangular, head joined to body as if fused, that screams when it flies. Small as the cicada is, the size of your thumb, the scream nonetheless sounds like a human screaming. If two whizz behind my head at the same time, in the outdoor darkness, it's enough to make me hunch my shoulders. High scream, new scream (I pretend they're all screaming for ice cream).
I swing open the back door of the kitchen, after turning off the burglar alarm system, exposing the large square of cement patio, little wings fluttering up, and away.
I step outside, one step, two steps, three, four, to the edge of the patio, on its left side, reach my arm down past the chest-high hedge, locate with my invisible fingers the iron spigot, twist it left, left.
Hear, off to my far right, in the blackness, the hiss, sputter, rise of the sprinkler starting up.
Back up, one step, two steps, three, four, to the closed door, open it, slip back into the kitchen.
One time, years ago, after turning on the hose, I was back inside the kitchen, back door closed, lock turned, when Mary, eyebrows raised, looking at the back of my shirt, said, "Oh my God. Don't move." Saw her getting ready to swat something large off my back, right hand raised, just as I became aware of an upwards-moving, multi-legged weight on the back of my shirt.
This past month, July, I wrote my first play.
It's called Duck Eggs.
Because it is my first play, I tried to keep the structure as simple as possible. One scene, two characters. Half an hour long. The complexity comes from how the play moves from humor to drama, and during that change in tone, how one of the characters (and the audience) gradually realizes the true meaning of the situation.
I learned a lot in the process.
When I write dialogue for a story, I tend to edit it pretty severely, to convey just the essence of the exchange. But when I tried that editing method with my play, I realized it wouldn't work. What sounds like "natural" dialogue in a story that's read silently, sounds too pared down, and therefore unnatural, when spoken on a stage. I needed to loosen up the dialogue, add some of the empty words ("Well", "I don't know", "Yeah, but"), we all use when talking.
Another learning experience was that in a play it's harder to describe something that takes place "off-stage".
In a story, writing in the third person, it's easy for me, in the voice of the author, to provide whatever amount of detail I want for a scene that occurs outside the main action. The reader is familiar with the convention.
In a story, that off-stage remembrance isn't a problem.
But in a play, because now it's Sam speaking, rather than the author, you can't have him use the same words to describe his memory of when he first met Sue. Because although authors speak that way all the time in their stories, real people never talk with that precision.
See what I mean?
On the other hand, one thing that's easier about writing dialogue for a play is that you don't have to worry so much about making each person's dialogue sound distinctive. The fact that different actors are speaking the dialogue does that for you.
During this same period we learned, over TV, of Kenneth Lay's death. Ken Lay, in case you aren't aware, was a greedy, selfish pig, the CEO of Enron, who buried his two-nostriled snout in the trough to gobble up as much money as he possibly could, even though doing so ruined thousands of lives.
I heard the news with mixed emotions (I had always hoped Bill Gates would die first).