ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2006.
years before i arrived
february 1, 2006
Joe, Mary's dad, stayed with us over the holidays. One night during his visit we had steamed clams.
I love steamed clams. I remember as a boy going to a local supermarket in Greenwich, Connecticut, asking the tall men in their short-sleeved white shirts behind the glass display case for a dozen cherrystones, the men always taking the time, even though I was just a kid with newspaper delivery money, to solemnly tap each clam on the marble counter, making sure the two shells of each clam closed in slow alarm, therefore proving the clam inside was still alive, before gently adding each clam to my brown paper bag.
When Mary and I lived in Santa Barbara, California, we'd go to the Enterprise Fish Company restaurant on State Street, down by the ocean (they pioneered mesquite cooking), and I'd always start with a double dozen steamed clams. There's something so joyous about being in a public place, aswarm with intersecting conversations, and having placed in front of you a large white bowl of opened clams, gray steam rising from their hard curves, set to one side of that bowl a smaller one with sunny melted butter, and on the other side, a medium bowl mysterious with the elemental gray of the hot clam broth (meaning, the water the clams were steamed in, each shell, as it opened, dripping its rich juices down into that water, until the water is as dark as the world is just after the sun sinks below the horizon, and which is nothing like bottled clam broth, an awful compromise as far removed from fresh clam broth as looking at a photograph of someone you love is from holding them in your arms, feeling their body warmth, smelling their hair). One time, a couple at an adjacent table asked me, "You're from New England, right?" Steamed clams are something of a New England dish. (Like the thousands of incidental people in one's life, who only have walk-on roles, or one line, I wonder where that couple is now, a quarter of a century later.)
It's been years and years since I've had steamed clams, so I wanted to try them again, a test dinner, before we served them to Joe.
Central Market, when it first moved into Dallas, had an impressive seafood section. Then as now, their glass-fronted counter stretched fifty feet, behind the glass dozens of different types of sliced fish, and whole fish (red snappers look beautiful on ice, cold orange jewels with staring eyes, but the market wasn't above the melodrama of adding a few whole monkfish, black nightmares whose snaggled fangs could never eat a pizza).
But back then, when Central Market first opened, on stout tables in front of the glass-fronted display cases they had a dozen good-sized aquariums, pushed up against each other, each filled with rising while bubbles and a different type of oyster or clam peacefully settled in sand at the bottom of the green sea water. Pretty impressive.
They did away with the aquariums a year or two ago. I asked one of the guys behind the counter about the disappearance.
"We finally figured out we were losing money every time we sold a clam or oyster. They were taking up too much space."
So Central Market reverted to displaying clams and oysters the traditional seafood market way, on cold white ice, behind the counter (there are still a couple of green aquariums, for alarmed-looking lobsters).
December 7, a Wednesday, after we stopped by Mary's cardiologist in the city for her monthly coumadin blood stick test, a light snow falling, the type of snow they call "six inch snow", meaning six inches between each snowflake, we made our way over to Central Market, sky the white of winter, flakes falling in the black-paved parking lot, crowded with colorful cars because it was lunch time, to pick up a large selection of cheeses we'd need over the holidays, some ground lamb for a pastitio I was going to make, and two dozen clams for my test steamed clams dinner.
The market offers a variety of clams. I settled on little necks, smaller than cherrystones.
The counter guy weighed the two dozen little necks on his scale, trowled some ice chips into the bottom of a clear plastic bag, then, holding up a large, black-handled chef's knife, poked the clear plastic bag all over, for about a minute, puncturing and repuncturing its air-filled space, to create enough air holes to allow the clams to breathe.
He aimed where his next knife poke would go. "They like a lot of air when they're out of their element."
That night, Mary heated a frozen dinner (she doesn't like clams), while I turned on the flames underneath a skillet, poured in some water, put on a lid.
Some people add all kinds of ingredients to steamed clams. White wine, garlic, herbs. Not me. I want them simple, the pure, fresh ocean flavor.
Once the water was boiling in the skillet, I carried the sagging bag of clams over to our stainless steel sink, ripped open the plastic, dumped the ice in the other side of the double sink, and carefully rinsed each clam under the faucet. My thumbs could feel the slight grit of sand across the hard, curved backs of the shells. I rinsed each clam until their convex shells were smooth.
(The shells, incidentally, are beautiful. Subtle sheens of gasoline color across the dull, striated, porous light gray.)
I carefully tumbled the hard clams into the bubbling waters of the stainless steel skillet, put on the circular glass lid, to build up steam.
Mary and I bent our heads over the covered skillet to watch the agitated shells inside, and I could tell by the quiet smile on Mary's face she wished at that moment she did like clams.
As we watched, the clams gave up to the steam, one after another, suddenly, rapturously, spreading open their shell halves, exposing their pale orange meat.
Once all the clams had surrendered, I lifting the steaming lid, reached in with a black slotted spoon, transferred the spread-apart clam shells to a wide, white porcelain bowl.
I had half a stick's worth of butter melted in a smaller bowl. Raising the skillet, tilting it, I poured some of the incredibly rich, gray clam broth into a third bowl.
One of the joys of eating steamed clams, to me, is having to hunt with eye, wet fingers, fork, through the upraised separations of shell for the meaty nuggets inside. Just when you think you've found all the clams, a sad moment, you discover, in the shells, one you've missed.
The clams were delicious. The flavor is amazing, absolutely unique. Better than lobster.
After I finished chewing each of the wonderfully soft clams, then went back through the shells to scrape off, with the side of my fork, the pure meat "foot" attached to each iridescent interior shell, I turned my attention to the bowl of hot, gray clam broth, tilting the rim of the bowl up to my lips, swallowing down that incredible, origin-of-life flavor.
My dreams the past few years seem to be different from most people's dreams.
I say that, because in talking to other people, reading about others' dreams, it appears a lot of people dream a different, unconnected dream each night.
Most of my dreams are connected to each other.
Most take place in the same large town, one I've never been to in real life, and there's a continuity to them.
I call it a large town, because it has a business district, sidestreets off that main avenue with houses and street corner shops, and an outlying area of homes and, farther out, farms. But I think the population is probably under 50,000.
I don't know what the name of the town is, I never have, it's never occurred to me, in one of my dreams, to ask myself, What town am I in?
The longer I've dreamed about this town, the easier it is for me to navigate my way around, simply because like any new resident I've become more familiar with its layout.
It's a nice town. The people are friendly, sidewalks are clean, there doesn't appear to be much crime (although I really haven't walked around much at night).
It feels like a real town, rather than a dream town, because each month Mary and I have to sit at a kitchen table, pay imaginary bills for rent (we're renting a small cottage), utilities, satellite TV, etc., and periodically we have to go through the refrigerator and throw out, for example, iceberg lettuce that's gone brown around the cut edges.
I say there's a continuity to these dreams, because events that start in one dream carry over into subsequent dreams, often months apart (in waking life).
For example, I had a dream a few months ago where I walked down a street parallel to the main avenue, to a library located on a corner. I went inside, asked for the latest copy of the town's daily newspaper (it was the middle of a sunny, blue-skyed afternoon, I wanted to unwind, read in the hush of a library like I did as a kid.)
The librarian, polite and professional, everything you could possibly want in a librarian, told me the town's newspapers, both current editions and archives, were stored in the library across the street.
I went back outside, down the wide white stone steps into the pleasant, sunlit intersection, and Lo and behold, there was in fact another library right across the street.
Admittedly, that struck me as weird. Why have two libraries on the same block, across from each other?
The buildings weren't identical. Each had its own distinctive architectural style.
This other library did have all issues of the town's papers.
Here's where the continuity comes in. I remember reading in the town paper around October of last year (waking life time) of a new movie that had just been released theatrically. From the review, it sounded pretty good, something Mary and I would like to see. This past week, January 2006, in the library across the street, I read a second review of the same movie, for its release on DVD.
Am I causing the continuity?
Did I decide to put two libraries on opposite corners, or did a committee in town hall vote on that, years before I arrived?
My dad went back to the hospital, this time for pneumonia and blood loss. He's in his eighties. I tried calling him, Texas to Connecticut, at the hospital Saturday morning, December 10, but the long-distance phone rang and rang and rang.
I tried a few hours later. He picked up on the second ring.
His voice sounded strong, but congested.
He doesn't know how he got the pneumonia. It's the non-contagious type. The nurse at the assisted living facility where he has a room examined him on December 7, arranged to have an ambulance take him to Greenwich Hospital (he has his own car, a coveted reserved parking space at the facility, but the nurse wisely didn't want him to drive to the hospital on his own).
He told me his sides hurt terribly, from coughing so much. Several times during our conversation, he had to stop talking, to cough off-telephone.
More troublesome is his blood loss. He's losing a pint of blood a week, but the doctors don't know where the blood is going. There's no obvious bleeding. "I wake up, there's no blood on my clothes." So he's had a number of blood transfusions. "They're pretty easy. There's no pain."
Mary and I went outside to put up our Christmas lights in front of our home, a string of icicles illuminated with tiny white bulbs hanging above the wide garage door, a short Christmas tree to the side of the front door, an illuminated doe at gaze underneath the still-green boughs of the ligustrum hedges; and to clear the frost-fried brush from our backyard garden.
Outside our breakfast nook window, the lantana and zinnia that provided beautiful, bright-colored flowers all summer, butterflies fluttering, hummingbirds helicoptering in, had turned to rust, stems and branches brittle. I leaned over them, long hedge clippers in my green-gloved hands, chopping down until I had a huge, cotton-candy pile of cut branches on the garden path behind me. Even in a crisp, cool wind, your shirt buttoned up like David Lynch, there's nothing more fragrant than the chopped branches of a lantana bush.
We bundled all the chopped branches, squeezed them down into thirty-gallon garbage bags, dragged the bottoms of the heavy black bags across the wooden floor of our kitchen, cats' noses lifting, sniffing, to the white door leading to the concrete floor of our garage.
Once all the fragrant dead branches were bundled, we stomped around the paths of our backyard garden, crunching over dead orange and yellow leaves, to make sure our garden was neat. We leave our leaves on the ground, where they fall. Leaves are an excellent source of nitrogen. Years ago, when I was a child, growing up in Greenwich, homeowners, including my dad, used to rake all the leaves in the yard into a tall pile, then burn them. Crazy, a waste of a natural fertilizer, but the smell of the rising smoke was wonderful, an autumn smell.
Eventually, the town banned leaf-burning.
Before that ban, the family used to gather around the huge pile of dried five-pointed Maple leaves, towards sunset, watch as my tall dad, black-haired back then, tossed a flaming roll of newspaper onto the heap of leaves, everyone standing back as the yellow, orange, red flames spread, rose, snapped. We were doing something dangerous, playing with fire, but we all agreed we would, the heat intensifying until it was enough to give you a sun tan, back when we were fab.
As promised, I'm offering the complete text of my novel Father Figure as a free download. Father Figure was published in 2003, got some great reviews, was a bestseller at its publisher's site for over two years, but then the publisher, Bookbooters, went out of business. I thought of selling the novel to a new publisher, but then decided, why not just let people read it for free? So if you're interested, you can download the complete text in PDF format here.
In other publishing news, my short story The Little Girl Who Lives in the Woods has been bought by Read By Dawn, a hardcover anthology published in Scotland, edited by the great Ramsey Campbell, who's also contributing a story of his own, and who has been called, by the Oxford Companion to English Literature, "Britain's most respected living horror writer."