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ralph robert moore
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like the ghosts they became
october 1, 2005
I woke the other morning wondering, are there many boulders in Boulder, Colorado?
At first consideration, it would seem the question could be cautiously answered, Probably. (As a side note, I'm sure the point at which corporations get towns and cities to rename themselves after their products is not too far away, small price to pay for a new library, more patrol cars, to where Boulder might become known as Men's Wearhouse, Colorado, much like I'm confident the day is near where we'll all be renamed after commercial products, and I'll be known, against my will, as Microsoft CNN McDonald's, after which, all uprisings quelled, and not as many uprisings as you might expect, parts of our bodies will get new names, and we won't get tennis elbow anymore, we'll get tennis Blockbuster).
But then, reflecting, I thought, maybe this is one of those cases where the obvious answer is wrong. Maybe the town was named after, for example, John Boulder. Or maybe "Boulder" is a linguistically corrupted approximation of a Native American word.
So I thought, why not just go on the Internet, and put this matter to rest once and for all?
I Googled "Boulder, Colorado", and found the Official Home Page for Boulder, which is located here.
The home page includes interior links organized under different headings. Under the heading "Things To Do", the first link is, "Channel 8 Television". Really? That's the best activity available in Boulder? Sitting in a room watching TV? Another link is titled, "Getting Around Boulder", which made me imagine a man in an earflap cap slowly inching his way around a huge boulder.
Under the Government heading, I clicked on, "About Boulder". That brought me to a page with a rather sinister-looking photograph of the city, dark storm clouds hanging above, evoking El Greco's View of Toledo. More trees than buildings. What looked like a castle to the left. No boulders.
The next picture down was of a bunch of people in baggy shorts, most with their backs to the camera, tents to one side, a photograph so poorly cropped it looked like a picture that had been taken accidentally, like when you're lifting your camera out of its bag, and your thumb accidentally depresses the shutter button?
But under this photograph was a link to "History of Boulder", so I was happy.
On that page, I learned "The Boulder Valley was first the home of Indians, primarily the Southern Arapaho tribe who maintained a village near Haystack Mountain. Utes, Cheyennes, Comanches, and Sioux were occasional visitors to the area." (Donald Barthelme commented once in an interview that he was a great fan of poorly written sentences, he felt a tenderness towards them. I'm sure he would have lovingly rubbed his long fingers under the furry chin of the phrase, "The Boulder Valley was first the home of Indians…")
The paragraph did, however, give me important information. Lots of Indians, so maybe my Native American theory was correct. Plus I learned there was not only Boulder itself, but also Boulder Valley. In the next paragraph, I discovered there was also a Boulder Canyon.
But nowhere on the page does it tell how Boulder got its name. Big rock? Founder? Native American for, "We raced to register as Denver, but tragically, James Denver had a faster horse"?
So I went back to Google, typed in, How did Boulder, Colorado get its name?
Wouldn't you think that would probably give me the answer I sought?
The search came back with 3.4 million results. (Like all search engines, even though a ridiculous number of results may be found, you can't search though most of them. After a few hundred links to search results, the search engine cuts you off. If you're not in the top 200-300 results, you don't exist.)
Google gives a brief excerpt from the page of each search result, usually containing relevant search terms. Here are the excerpts from the top ten search results.
So in other words, I couldn't find out on the Internet how Boulder, Colorado got its name. Maybe there's a big boulder in the middle of the city. Maybe a boulder fell on the city. Maybe someone important, in a gray suit, standing over a toilet, had a really, really bad case of kidney stones. Who knows?
I was equally frustrated trying to find out my mother's middle name.
In America, in order to exist, you need a Social Security number.
You can't start a new job without showing your Social Security ID card, and as part of our response to terrorism, where you're now guilty until proven innocent, you can't renew your driver's license without showing your card.
I'm currently unemployed. Plus my driver's license is up for renewal in November. So I really need my Social Security ID card.
Except I couldn't find it anywhere.
I had it in 1988, when Mary and I crossed the border from America into Canada, in the pacific northwest, on our way up to Alaska.
And I had it the following year, when we finally stopped traveling and settled in Texas, and I got hired at a Dallas company.
But I haven't seen it since. It's something you take for granted is in your possession, but don't check for every day, like your soul.
Mary and I have a huge amount of paraphernalia. Boxes and boxes and boxes of documents, photographs, mementoes, etc. of our life together.
I looked in the obvious places, couldn't find the little card.
I went on the Internet, to the Social Security site, to see what I needed to do to get a replacement card.
They have a PDF application you can download.
I print it, look through it, realize I need to know my mother and father's full name, first, middle, and last (in my mother's case, last name at the time she was born, i.e., her maiden name.)
My father's full name is the same as mine (I was the first born). I know my mother's maiden name, but not her middle name.
I went on a number of genealogy sites, but most of them want you to pay a huge amount of money in order to access their files, and even then, there's no guarantee, after you charge all this money to your credit card, they'll have the information you need.
So I spent a lot of frustrating time paging through sites. I finally ended up on a site put up by the Mormons in Utah, which was useful, to a point. The site provided me, free of charge, with my mother's date of birth, and also, amazingly, her full Social Security number. But no middle name. They had on-line records of birth certificates, which would include a middle name, but the records were highly fragmented, like, "Records of Births in Rhode Island Between 1809 and 1853; Records of Births in Bexar County, Texas, Between 1731 and 1762."
My mother died in 1998. Her obituary would have appeared in the Greenwich Times, a daily newspaper published in Greenwich, Connecticut. (Which made me think of great, old-fashioned deli sandwiches. When I was a kid growing up in Greenwich, Greenwich Avenue was a long, down-sloping avenue of mom and pop stores, most of them now bought out by boutique shops trying to be Rodeo Drive. Greenwich had some terrific delicatessens, rye bread sandwiches rising in the center with incredible, aromatic sliced meat, like the red lips at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the yellowest mustard I've ever seen starting to ooze out from where the tall sandwich has been expertly sliced into halves, although the goyim residents used to complain it was unfair Jews were able to stay open on Sundays, ignoring the blue laws. But the Christians still stood in line at the delis each week after church).
So I e-mailed the publisher of the Greenwich Times, asking him if he could take a look at my mother's obituary, tell me what her middle name was.
He wrote me back that same evening. Her obituary listed a middle initial only, "M".
She was Irish. Megan? Molly? Maureen? Margaret?
I never knew, or forgot, my mother's middle name was my wife's name.
Next step: I could either mail the application to the Social Security office, with an original picture ID, like a driver's license, or show up at the nearest Social Security office.
I couldn't mail my current driver's license, because I needed my license to drive, cash checks. I couldn't find any of my old licenses (probably with my Social Security ID card, a nest of unpaired socks), so Mary and I decided to go over to the nearest Social Security office.
The office was located in a bad section of town, like most government buildings (I guess they do that to revitalize the neighborhood).
We got there at nine in the morning.
Big building, completely dwarfing, on either side, the nail salon and bordered-up dollar discount store.
On the sidewalk outside, twenty feet from the double-doored glass entrance, a sign read, "Line Starts Here".
Since there was no line, we pushed through the doors, me thinking, What luck! We came at a slow time.
Inside, it looked like a large church. Twenty-foot pews, row after row, aisle after aisle, filled with people. I mean completely filled, shoulders touching. This huge mass of seated humanity waiting to be called sometime that day to the two tiny windows that were open.
Nothing like a deli counter, where you pull a black number off a roll. It wasn't at all clear how you got in line.
I turned to Mary. "Life is short."
The next morning, pouring coffee, I pulled out every box of mementoes we had, dozens of them, using the large black table in our breakfast nook as our command center, emptying each box in turn, pawing carefully through the contents, searching for an old driver's license I could mail with my application, so we wouldn't have to spend six hours sitting in a pew, eventually hearing, after two hours of staring straight ahead, all the grisly details about our seated neighbor's twisted-around-itself intestine operation.
It's amazing what you find going through old boxes. A letter Mary had written me to be read on the plane as I flew to New Orleans in the mid-nineties, to attend a seminar (the first time we had ever spent a night in separate beds in over fifteen years). It was a funny letter. I remember how much it touched me at the time, flying through the night, surrounded by strangers, trying not to cry. I reread the first paragraphs at the breakfast nook table, and like a song you haven't heard in years, had even forgotten, I remembered, That's how Mary used to talk, before her stroke. Her voice, her word choices, her cadence. A fat envelope, photographs of our cats, most of them dead now, long gone, it looked like from the early nineties, all the pictures out of focus, like the ghosts they became. We must have thrown the photographs in the envelope a decade or so ago, rejects we yet didn't want to permanently discard. Elf on the kitchen floor, looking up. Rudo on our bed. Chirper at a window. Plenty of matchbooks, from hotels and restaurants across North America. A piece of white cardboard, about the size of a bookmark, we had taken from one of our trips to Edelweiss Restaurant in Fort Worth ten years ago. We took it because it astounded us. You were supposed to stick it between the salt and pepper shakers, so the top stuck up, if you had to excuse yourself from your table. The printing across the top read, in black Gothic, Gone For Pee-Pee.
Sliding apart sheets of paper, different colors and weight, I saw a small, rectangular slip. Turned it over. It was my Social Security ID card, from forty years ago! Worn, to where the once-crisp cardboard felt like cloth, dog-eared, still readable.
Mary glanced up from shifting through receipts for appliances we no longer owned.
Her beautiful face spread in a smile.
We broiled steaks in our oven, and because I hadn't turned on the overhead exhaust fan, and the oven itself needed a cleaning, poor neglectful me, black carbon fused to the metal interior walls, I got a terrible coughing fit, one of those wrenching coughs that start at the bottom of the lungs, which you would think would clear my throat, but they never do, I had to cough again, again, again, and still felt congested. (What happened was, I lowered the oven door at one point to see how the steaks were doing, face dipping down, dumb mouth open, gray smoke from inside the stove rising, all those tiny black Chinese ideographs of soot floating out, spiraling down my throat.)
Mary wasn't affected by the smoke, fortunately.
We got in bed, watched TV while we ate, while I coughed.
Afterwards, still in bed, I kept coughing, finally cleared my throat.
But I started to get cold. Really cold. That painful chill emanating from the skeleton.
I shook under the covers, teeth chattering, thinking, this is crazy. The experience was frightening, but at the same time, I have to admit, it was also kind of interesting, because it was something I hadn't experienced before.
Mary threw an overcoat over my side of the covers, then slid under the sheets right up against me, putting her arms around me, holding me, rubbing my back while my body shook.
Eventually, I stopped shivering, but realized I would immediately get into another uncontrollable shivering fit if any unheated air got under the blankets with me.
I finally fell asleep, woke up past midnight, body soaked. Experimentally, I slid my right fingers out from under the layers of bedding.
I got out of bed, expecting the horrible, spine-bending shivering to come back, but it didn't.
Padded to the bathroom, to the walk-in closet. Peeled off my pajamas. They resisted the peeling, stretching, big white buttons and blue and gray stripes, like wet balloons.
Rubbed a large blue bath towel over my body, blotting my sweat.
Stooped over, slid open a white-wired drawer, pulled out a fresh pair of pajamas.
My side of the mattress was soaked. I wouldn't be able to sleep on it. I laid a fresh red bath towel on top of the wet leopard-skin sheet, climbed back in. Cocooned myself again, cream blanket pulled up over my shoulder, nodded off. Dreamed of Boulder, Colorado. Wondered, waking, how it got its name.
The U.K. magazine Thirteen has accepted my short story, "The Hole and the Spike", which will appear in its September issue.
Jonas Skendelis, the writer/journalist who previously translated my essay Space into his native Lithuanian, has translated my essay Dreams. The original English text is located here. His translation is located here. Jonas has also translated the work of Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.