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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2004.

there's always a line
april 1, 2004

Mary and I came in from gardening a few Fridays ago, hot and sweaty, ready for a cold beer, when I noticed the little red message light on our phone blinking.

Standing above the phone, I pushed down on the Play button.

It was from an employee at Blockbusters. He had called to say our rental of the DVD Sylvia was past due. He wanted to know when we would return it.

Two or three Sundays a month Mary and I drive out to our local Blockbuster, getting there as soon as it opens, rent a half-dozen DVDs, stop on the way home at a fast food place, picking up cheeseburgers or chicken or enchiladas, bring all the bags into our house, rolling down the garage door, then spend the day in bed.

There's a lot to be said for laziness.

About a month ago, we picked out some DVDs we wanted, went over to the register. I pulled my blue and white Blockbuster card out of my wallet, handed it over.

The woman behind the counter, who's always been helpful, getting down on her knees to paw through the chaos of the returned DVDs spilling out of the overnight bin, searching for the DVDs we want that haven't yet been reshelved, used a handheld reader to pass a line of red light over the barcode on the back of our membership card.

She glanced at her computer monitor, glanced again.

"Did you know you have a $17.46 balance?"

I thought she meant a $17.46 credit, but in fact according to her records we owed Blockbusters $17.46, for returning a batch of DVDs late. I asked her what the titles were.

She rattled them off. All the DVDs have to be returned by noon on the Tuesday following the Sunday when we rent them. I distinctly remembered we had dropped the DVDs off in the return slot about a quarter to noon on that Tuesday.

But rather than challenge the late fee, we were anxious to get home, there was a line behind us, I didn't want to start our Sunday that way, I decided to just pay the $17.46.

And put it out of my mind until the phone message saying we hadn't returned Sylvia.

Again, I knew we had, and in fact since that Sunday of paying the $17.46, we had made a point of returning the DVDs by 8:30 of the Tuesday following our rental.

So something was wrong.

I called the number the clerk left, a little irritated.


Called off and on over the next half hour, to resolve the issue.

Busy, busy, busy.

Finally got through, was immediately put on hold.

A minute went by. Two minutes. It was the type of hold where there's no music playing, just dead space, so for all I knew, they hung up on me, on purpose or accidentally. But maybe they didn't, so I kept the phone against my ear. Did you know you can fit thirty million fog particles in a teaspoon? I didn't, but we were watching Discovery the other night, and they made that claim. There was a number you could call to get other factoids. But you had to pay so much per minute. How lonely do you have to be to do that? Is a 'fog particle' a drop of moisture? Thirty million seemed like a lot. Ancient Egyptians used pillows made of stone. I find that extraordinary. The first great race on the face on the planet, pioneers in astronomy, large-scale construction and body preservation, and it never occurred to them to use something softer? What if an ancient Egyptian princess invited her girlfriends to a sleepover, and they got into a pillow fight?

Ten minutes later, a woman came on, asked if I had been helped.

"No, I haven't. I received a message on my answering machine saying one of the DVDs I rented, Sylvia, is still out, but in fact we returned it this past Tuesday, about 8:30 in the morning."

"What's your name?"

"The account's under Ralph Moore or Mary Moore." (I can never remember which name. Same problem at the veterinary hospital).

Back on hold.

Only for a second. "Okay, I see we did get that DVD back, earlier today [Friday]".

"That's impossible. We haven't been out of the house all day. We returned it Tuesday."

She mulled that over a moment. "Okay, we'll remove the late fee from your account." (What had obviously happened was that whoever at Blockbuster was supposed to log in the returned DVDs on Tuesday had failed to log in ours. It had gone back up on the shelf, still under our rental, and someone else had checked it out. As opposed to the $17.46 late charge, where perhaps the same person had been too lazy to check the return bin at noon, or had pulled out our properly-returned DVDs before noon, but not entered them as returned until after noon.)

I mentioned the $17.46 charge, asked that it be reversed.

"When was that?"

"Two weeks ago."

"Oh, we couldn't possibly reverse that. That was way too long ago."

"Two weeks is way too long ago?"

"Yeah. There's no way for us to tell now if we had computer problems that day, or anything else. You should have questioned it at the time."

Which, admittedly, I should have. I realized I was bringing up the $17.46 because it had bothered me at the time, and was still bothering me, though I hadn't wanted to admit it. We shouldn't have to pay for the same DVDs twice, when we follow the rules. Blockbuster had been a nuisance to me with their sloppy accounting, and now I was trying to be a nuisance back, out of revenge.

I finished the call, hung up, feeling dissatisfied, like we all do so often nowadays with the level of service we get.

But I didn't get mad.

Maybe I'm maturing, maybe I'm just losing testosterone as I get older, but I'm not as angry as I used to be. More often than not, I let things slide. I try to find humor where once I felt only anger.

That's not always the case.

I have thousands of folders in my mind, nearly all of them a bright, banana yellow, but one particularly dog-eared folder holds memories of all the people who have 'wronged' me in my life.

I'm talking about brief encounters you have with someone, usually a stranger, where that person behaves rudely, and the situation ends without you resolving the conflict to your satisfaction.

Years ago, Mary and I were at J.C. Penney's, waiting to pick up a delivery from their catalog department, when another couple barged ahead of us, although it was obvious we were next in line. They knew we were ahead of them. They just didn't care.

I walked up to the guy, put my hand on his shoulder, looked him in the eye, and said, "We were ahead of you." Then I looked at the clerk behind the counter, told her our name, and instead of going in back for their order, she went in back for ours.

The wife looked offended. She snapped, "I didn't realize there was a line."

I gave her my most condescending smile. "There's always a line."

That encounter didn't bother me in the least, because I 'put them in their place'.

What the dog-eared folder contains instead are those memories where I wasn't treated right, and for whatever reason, didn't do anything about it.

Here's two examples from the crowd of strangers on the subway platform who have insulted me in my life, where I didn't right the situation. I walked away. These examples may seem silly to you, but not to me. (I suspect you might have your own folder, just as dog-eared as mine.)

A middle-aged Englishman in Maine, at a car wash, after Mary and I had cleaned our Ford Mustang, which we were going to give to a couple the next day, as a gift, since we had just bought a new car, and the Mustang was getting impossible to start (the husband loved restoring old cars). After washing and drying the car we got back in the front seat, to drive it home, and the engine just would not turn over. During the whirrs it kept almost turning over, and I knew if I bent the ignition key to the right long enough it hopefully would, but it was tense, what would we do if it didn't start, it was getting dark, and out of nowhere this middle-aged guy showed up, draping his forearms above the opened window on the driver's side, giving me an exaggeratedly exasperated look, facial features imitating the car trying to start, obviously meant to get my goat, for no reason other than to dump on two people who were having a bad time. What did I do? Nothing. I went back to trying to get our car started, while he continued to mock my efforts. My focus was on getting Mary and me home.

A young guy in a market Mary and I used to go to in Burlingame, California. We had ten dollars in change coming, but he handed me a dollar. I said, "You owe us ten dollars. This is only a dollar." He cut a sly look to his girlfriend, who was hanging out at the end of the cash register counter, where the bag boy usually stands. It occurred to me then his behavior was for her benefit, showing off. In an elaborate voice meant to underline its insincerity he said, "Oh, I'm so, so sorry Sir," and handed me the other nine dollars. What did I do? Nothing. We were in a hurry, and I didn't want to waste time calling the manager over, arguing over the cashier's attitude.

You get the idea. If you don't, I have dozens of additional examples.

Those situations where I didn't 'stand up for myself' have continued to bother me over the years. I replay them occasionally in my mind, always with a feeling of inadequacy. I behaved the way I did at the time because it was for a greater good, but I would be less than honest if I didn't admit such encounters made me feel used. Like I should have said something. Situations where someone didn't respect me, and I let it happen.

For all the good people we encounter in life, who make us smile, who radiate a sense of 'all is well', there is always the occasional jerk who wanders in, with his little smirk, his mismatched moustache, his weird resentments, when we least expect it.

And I must also admit, to be truly honest, that more than once I've been that jerk, in someone else's life.

It occurred to me that although I can never resolve the actual situations that still bother me, since they're cast in the hard stone of the past, maybe it was time to at least once and for all resolve them in my own mind, to simply accept that was what happened each time, and move on.

To highlight the folder, hit Delete.

I'm still working on that.

Mary and I were returning from the city the other day, from a blood cholesterol test Mary had to take, and had reached the rolling green hills, no buildings in sight, just before the highway exit to our town, when an incredible rain started.

It was the most violent downpour we'd been in, in years.

The rain was so overwhelming it quickly didn't matter our windshield wipers were on full speed. We couldn't see anything beyond the glass. Just the humid splotches of our breaths.

All the cars around us on the highway slowed to a stop. Melting red brake lights.

The spindly overhead highway lights blinked and popped, went out.

We were parked on the highway, in the fifty-five miles per hour lane.

Then the hail started.

The little frozen balls drummed down on the hood of our motionless car, across the roof, our shoulders flinching.

The air outside turned from the dream light of early sunset, to pitch black.

Deep rumbles of thunder overhead, God's lips too close to the microphone. Crazy lightening paths above the hill we had been rising towards, lightening going sideways, upside down.

When we finally got home, all the digital clocks, on the microwave, VCR, bedside alarm clocks, were flashing, like a seventies discothèque. I looked at the windowsill in our breakfast nook. There was a pool of water inside, on the white sill. The first time water had ever entered our home, in a dozen years, from a storm.

A few nights later, I woke at two in the morning. Could not get back to sleep.

(We had spent the day out in our garden. I finally figured out how to get our chainsaw working (and in fact later took it apart to clean it and tighten the chain, the machine sitting in my lap while I worked on it, like a smiling baby crocodile). I clambered up a tall stepladder again, beside a tree, raised the chainsaw over my head, shirt tail tugging out of my waistband, and let it rip. Sawdust flew everywhere. Some of it's probably still in my hair. At one point, I released my grip on the red-for-danger trigger long enough to peer up, on tip toe, at how the sawing was coming. The interior of the dark-barked limb, chain-sawed about halfway down, looked exactly like the cooked white meat of a hacked-at turkey breast. This revelation stunned me.)

Finally, around three o'clock, still sleepless, I got out of bed, went upstairs to check my e-mails, lit a cigarette, cats all around me, tails up, thinking they were going to get fed early, and suddenly felt ill.

It was one of those bouts of sickness where you lurch into the bathroom, leave ten minutes later, thinking you're all right, then lurch back in.

On and on, until seven in the morning, Mary by this time stirring under the sheets.

I made coffee, fed the cats.

Later, mid-morning, we were both out in the kitchen, ready to start breakfast. I suddenly remembered I had had a dream about Rudo, our long-haired black cat we had had for years, but had to put to sleep last year. He's buried in our backyard, under a sculpture.

"I dreamed about Rudo last night."

Mary was surprised.

"He was outside." (That's our worse nightmare, that one of our cats, all of them with declawed front paws, all strictly house cats, would accidentally get outside, where they'd be defenseless).


"He was running around through the neighborhood, I could hear dogs barking, there were a few mean cats in the streets, but he was okay. It was so good to see him again. He ran up to us on the sidewalk, it was him, it was really him, and he said he loved us, he was happy."

"Did he meow?"

"I don't know how he talked to us. It wasn't vocalized, like English. He just gave a sense to us, looking up at us, he was happy, he was okay."

My eyes teared up. You never know when grief over a death will return. "I realized it was his ghost. So he was safe. The dogs couldn't get to him."

I'm pleased to announce my story The Machine of a Religious Man has been bought by Midnight Street, the new U.K. publication put out by Trevor Denyer, who formerly edited ROADWORKS. In buying the story, Trevor called it, "…a step beyond into a world that has a frightening, surreal quality. Well crafted, original and chilling!" Machine will appear in an upcoming issue of Midnight Street.

I mentioned a couple of Latelys ago a story of mine, The Woman in the Walls, was under consideration for one of the best of the annual horror anthologies. Happily, I can now say it has been purchased for the anthology. Woman will be appearing in the 2004 edition of Darkness Rising, edited by Mick Sims and Len Maynard. The critic Paul Kane has said of Darkness Rising, "Like the old Pan collections of horror stories, this will probably grow into the essential anthology series for writers and readers alike." The hardcover edition will be published in September of this year, by Prime Books, followed sometime later by a paperback edition. In accepting Woman for the anthology, Mick called it, "Very, very good…totally original in idea. Confidently written and quite horrible, yet told with a light touch."

I've posted a new essay/recipe in the Friends Before Food section of SENTENCE, this one on Steak and Pepper Sandwiches, one of the great delights of my seaside childhood. You can read it here.

My short stories When You Surfaced, Sex on Sheets, Daddy's Glad Hands, and Beaten Up By Girls are now available as PDF files as well as HTML files, in the Fiction section of this site. I don't like to read PDF files on the Internet- it feels like they're sliding all over the screen- but they do produce a superior print copy, for off-line reading.

And finally, and most importantly, I want to say a special hello to one of my fans, Jean Fortin, who's been serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian armed forces. I wish you the very best, Jean. Thanks for the good work you're doing for all of us. My prayers are with you.