ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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as if surfing
july 1, 2004
I woke up the other morning, rather early, realized my eyes were open because one of our cats, Sheba, was repeatedly walking across my ribs, trying to get me up, to feed him, when two strange memories from my past came back to me.
The first memory was when I was twelve. My family had gone to an upstate Connecticut fair, the Danbury State Fair, the largest fair within driving distance. We went each year. You could see the lights of the Ferris wheel and midway from the highway, along with a huge, colorful billboard announcing which exit to take.
(I just googled "Danbury State Fair", and discovered it sadly no longer exists. It started in 1869, and went out of business in 1981, when the land was sold for a shopping mall. That final year, it had 404,000 visitors. The fair featured a midway, big top, and race track. I remember most of the incoming and outgoing traffic involved the racetrack, but I don't think we ever bothered with that area of the fair.)
The first few years we drove up there, I had to of course stick by my parents, but this year, I was deemed tall enough to go off on my own. The agreement was the family would meet under the front entrance bunting in one hour.
I wandered around for a while through the crowds, trying to decide the best investment for my quarters, when I came to an odd structure towards one side of the midway, off on its own.
Unlike most of the fair exhibits, which were open-sided tents where you tried to toss wide rings around the necks of large plastic soda bottles, or flip dimes from behind a bench onto a tabletop swiss-cheesed with dime-sized holes, this exhibit was a large, circular structure made of wood, smaller than a house, but still pretty big.
In front was a wide wooden door, padlocked. That immediately piqued my childhood curiosity.
I walked around a curved side, saw a man hawking the exhibit, inviting everyone to come inside. A few adults were entering, paying fifty cents, quite a bit for an attraction. The hawker kept tapping, with his pointer, a lurid-colored poster. I looked at the poster, saw what it depicted, drew my head back on my neck, hesitated, then turned over my two quarters.
Past the wooden door, steps led in a curl up to the top of the structure.
At the top, I walked out on an open-air catwalk that curved around the rim. Went to the solid wood half wall on the inside edge of the catwalk, like a lot of people, looked over the top of the half wall, down at the interior. The interior was shaped like a huge wooden bowl.
All of us waited under the evening sky for the door at the bottom of the bowl to open. Evidently, that wasn't going to happen until the catwalk was dangerously overloaded with paying customers. I looked around while I waited, at the crowd around the rim. I was, I realized with pride, one of the few kids on the catwalk, and apparently the only unattended kid. I'm entering the adult world, I thought to myself.
I don't remember now how long I waited, only that it was quite some time, probably half an hour, to where I was probably overdue in rendezvousing with my family, but I figured they'd understand.
Finally, when it was dark and dramatic, a man on the opposite rim of the catwalk started talking in a loud voice. "Ladies and Gentlemen," and on and on, his voice rising theatrically in the evening air. I think the performer he was histrionically introducing was The Amazing someone, but I forget the actual name.
As he finished his spiel, he pointed down dramatically at the double-wide doors at the bottom of the bowl.
There was a deafening roar. The noise revved up, revved up more, the doors falling open, a man sputtering through, into the bottom of the bowl, atop a motorcycle, its tailpipe already sending up dark, foul-smelling exhaust.
Now if the attraction were just a man on a motorcycle eventually building up enough centrifugal force to be able to climb up the interior curve of the bowl and ride sideways, perpendicular to the wood, just under our noses around the interior rim of the bowl, I probably wouldn't have stuck around, and I doubt most of the others would have, either.
But his motorcycle had a sidecar, and as insane as this sounds, strapped in the sidecar, looking twice the size of the driver, was a full grown, adult male lion.
When we saw the lion strapped in the sidecar, at the bottom of the bowl, craning its maned beige head around, looking up, puff-ended tail flicking around over the rear of its seat, we felt a thrill of fear. What if it got loose? What if it didn't like riding in a motorcycle sidecar, especially one spinning madly around, sideways?
The driver pulled goggles down over his eyes, twisted the ends of the motorcycle's handlebars to rev the engine, then started wobbily circling the bottom of the bowl.
Over and over again. Once or twice he cut up the curved slope a little, but then always ended up at the bottom again. Maybe the weight of him, the lion, and the motorcycle with its sidecar was too heavy.
After about twenty minutes of trying to rise up the side, the crowd gathered around the rim grew restive. A couple of men swatted their right hands at the air over the half wall, dismissively. There were mutterings of asking for a refund.
I don't know if this was a matter of showmanship, making us wait that long so the eventual success would be that much more thrilling, or if the driver just got desperate, but just as the crowd grew most bored, the driver, with a fearsome revving, like a rocket taking off, suddenly zipped up to the very rim of the bowl, people falling back from the half wall, screaming, and started riding sideways around the rim, the half wall bending and creaking each time he and the lion thundered past.
I rushed back to the half wall, like most of the others.
The cycle rode so close to the top of the half wall that each time the cycle thundered back along where I was standing, I could have reached out and touched the driver's arm, if I were that stupid. The lion, sitting next to the driver, his mane rippling in the generated wind, opened its mouth and started letting out these incredible, stereophonic roars.
All our legs were shaky, once the show was over, as we went back down the stairs, everyone using the handrail. Grown men were staring at each other, hands smoothing the backs of their heads, grinning in disbelief. "Jesus H. Christ!"
The second strange memory that came back to me while Sheba waited impatiently for me to get out of bed, was the time my friend Peter and I sneaked into a nearby medical center late at night.
We were boyhood friends, living in the same general neighborhood. Near Peter's house, one block from it, was a small forest valley all the neighborhood kids played in, climbing trees, daring each other to jump from the top of one large rock to another, starting bright yellow leaf fires with filched matches. At the other side of the small valley was Greenwich Hospital.
And then one morning, we went through the trees at the end of Peter's street, ready for another day of playing in the woods, when we heard all this heavy machinery, men shouting.
We bent down, unsure what was going on, crept forward tree to boulder, until we could look down into the valley.
Bulldozers were plowing up the forest floor, men with chainsaws cutting down the trees.
We got as close as we could, to watch, but then a sweating, stocky man who didn't look like he was going to waste any time on a couple of kids, told us to beat it. When we held our ground, he marched over, swearing. We took off.
News went around the neighborhood that morning. It was all we kids talked about for days afterwards, how our forest was being chopped down and flattened. I think some of us may have even told their parents, but my impression is the parents, though sympathetic, thought it was a great idea. The woods were being cleared for a brand new building, the Greenwich Medical Center. (At that time, the concept of a building that consisted entirely of medical offices was new. Before, physicians would simply rent available space in an existing office building, their frosted door set in a hallway between similar doors for an attorney, a certified public accountant, a private detective agency. Or, a lot of times, physicians had their offices in their own homes.)
Much as we regretted losing our forest, we soon realized the contractors were, in effect, building us an immense new playground, one, in some ways, even more intriguing than the woods. Because, you see, the construction crew went home each night, but we kids stayed out until it was dark.
So we'd just wait until all the men had left the site, then pop out from between the trees at the periphery, over the rocks, and rush down to the half-completed building.
None of the structures had doors at this point, and in fact the massive structure was still at the stage of work where there were no stairs, just old wooden ladders leading to the second story. There were a couple of walls put up, but no floor for the second story. You had to tightrope across the two-by-fours to get from one upstairs area to the next.
It was a giant jungle gym.
As the walls did start going up, rather than climbing over the skeleton of a structure, you were able to actually enter that now-enclosed structure, abandoned though it still was. Visiting the site, and venturing within it, especially as it got darker and darker outside, was spooky. We'd dare each other to walk all the way down the plywood floor of a second story hallway, its sides already enclosed; walk deep down that hallway, stepping over nails and chunks of cut wood, and enter the doorless opening at the very rear. Peter wouldn't. He feared hoboes might be living in the silent offices at night, ready to slit a kid's throat.
I don't know how much time actually passed from the clearing of the forest to where the medical center first opened it wide glass doors for business, but it was years in kid time.
Once the parking lot was paved, and white lines drawn for automobiles, and landscaping put in, I went down one day, still a kid, walking across the wide lot, past parked cars, expecting at any moment to get yelled at, got my courage up, kept walking forward, put my hand on one side of the front double glass doors, pushed, and walked inside. I wanted to see what it looked like, now that it was finished.
To the right, as I nervously entered, was a brightly-lit pharmacy, a few people inside.
I realized instinctively I'd probably have a better chance of penetrating deeper into the huge mystery of this place if I kept walking, as if I had somewhere to go, so I strolled to the end of the front foyer, had to turn left or right, turned left, walked down that corridor, very few people in the clean hall, me just looking up at the name plates on the doors I passed, noting all the different specialties. At the end of the corridor was a staircase leading up and down. I chose up, walking across the length of the second floor, where all of us had played for so long while it was being built, then finally took the stairs all the way down to the basement floor, which evoked that same spookiness to me from before, maybe because it was underground.
I took the stairs back up to the main floor, pushed out a rear exit, out again on the parking lot.
I was real pleased with myself.
Not too long after that, I spent the evening at Peter's, watching TV. By the time I left, it was dark outside.
The walk from Peter's house to my own wasn't that far, just three blocks, and there were usually kids still outside, their parents on the front porches, or trimming hedges in a side yard, but this time, I decided to go home the long way, though the woods and down the valley to the medical center.
The huge parking lot was empty.
It was a shorter walk to go behind the center, but instead, I walked around to the front.
In fact, I walked up to the double glass doors in front.
Pushed against one of them.
Miraculously, it opened.
So what do you think I did next? Did I turn around and go home, or did I go inside the empty medical center?
The front foyer was dark. I walked quietly down the darkness, looking over my shoulder.
At the rear of the foyer, where a left or right decision had to be made, both corridors were dark. Scary.
I saw a light switch on the wall.
Could it possibly be that simple? Just flip up a switch?
I tried it. The left corridor, its entire length, flickered into light.
I went from door to door, trying each one. I certainly wasn't going to steal anything, I just wanted to more fully explore the mystery of this huge place. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked.
When I reached the end of hallway, I could have gone up the stairs, or even scarier, down the stairs, but I realized my courage was right at its edge, so I left out the back door, went home.
The next day, when Peter came by, I led him outside, to my backyard, out of parents' ears.
"Did you know you can go inside the medical center at night, when there's no one there?"
He didn't believe me at first, then finally did. I could see the idea intrigued him, the ultimate dare, but I could also tell the idea frightened him, not just hoboes this time, but police, angry doctors working late, who know what else.
It took most of the day to convince him to join me that night. I figured if there were two of us, I'd be more likely you go to the second floor, and the basement floor.
It took forever to get dark.
When it finally did, we walked side by side down the entrance road. I reassured him that if anyone stopped us on the road, we'd just say we were taking a short cut.
We had waited so long past closing time, at Peter's insistence, the parking lot was completely empty.
He had qualms about going forward, but I talked him into it.
We came up on the front entrance. I pushed the glass door. It opened.
I went through, pulled him through.
We started down the dark foyer towards the back, when Peter noticed an absolutely huge pool of blood on the white linoleum floor (all of what I'm writing is true, and none of it is embellished).
The pool was at the rear of the foyer, near where you had to choose left or right.
The blood was so wide across the floor you'd have to inch carefully along the wall in order to avoid stepping in it.
He immediately wanted to leave, of course, and I can't really blame him. Leaving, in fact, would have been the sensible thing to do.
But I was fascinated by the blood, the sheer amount of it, and my curiosity got the better of me.
We argued in whispers by the pool. I was going to look deeper inside the building for clues. Was he coming, or wasn't he?
He was a good friend. He swallowed his fear, came along.
We walked together down the right corridor, to the end. At the stairs, we had to decide, go up, or down?
I forget which one of us chose down, but that's the way we went.
At the spooky basement level, I flicked on the corridor lights. We walked quietly side by side, both jumpy. We passed the midway point, kept walking.
I heard something, told Peter to stop.
It took a while to realize what it was, a faint whirring noise. It sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it.
We walked a little farther down the corridor, when Peter pointed to a door. It was a door to the bathroom. I had used the bathrooms at the center once or twice. Each was about the size of a small closet. What had gotten his notice was that there was a line of light at the bottom of the door.
The whirring sound was the ceiling fan inside.
I crept closer to the shut door. "Let's knock."
Peter looked stricken.
"Come on," I whispered.
He shook his head violently. Said in my ear, "I'm going to leave!"
I looked at the door. Knock, or don't knock? And why did I want to knock, in the first place? What did I expect to happen? What did I expect, if the door opened, to see?
I didn't knock.
We crept out the back door of the center.
Peter never went back there. I still walked the corridors in daylight, but no longer at night.
When we were a safe distance away from the center, coming up on lighted Lake Avenue, cars going by, Peter punched me on my upper arm "You were going to knock!"
The other evening, Mary and I sat at the rear of our property, under tall trees, utterly exhausted, after working all day in our garden.
I raised an ice cold bottle of beer to my lips, Spaten Optimater.
Off in the distance, I could hear different lawnmowers buzzing away. Behind me, a hollow knock-knock-knock sound.
Turning around, squinting, I put my right hand over my eyebrows, as if in salute, and saw, up through the green branches, a woodpecker attached to the tall side of one of the telephone poles along the country road behind us, banging its beak again, knock-knock-knock, against the wood.
The sky above the roof of our house had been blue with puffed white clouds a few minutes ago, but now those skies were darkening.
Treetops whipped, leaves twirling down.
A strong breeze ahead of the storm blew against my face, the breeze, in this hot late afternoon, startlingly cold. It felt incredibly refreshing, my long hair pulling back from the top of my head, both temples, like a cold caress from three hands.
I turned to Mary, who was grinning at the sudden weather change. "I just felt a raindrop!"
Far in the sky over our home, black silhouettes of birds flapped across the brown and purple, fleeing.
Thunder rumbled. Deep.
The path in front of our feet started pocking with rain drops, pocking harder, until the dirt was bubbling.
Go inside, or not have enough sense and stay out in the rain, under the umbrella of the tall trees?
The main front of the storm arrived, sky cracking, wet wind rushing around us. Through the grayness of the downpour Mary and I grinned at each other, still seated, as if surfing.
My short story The Middle Leg, one of my Sex Act stories, will be appearing in the next issue of Frothing at the Mouth.
ACQ, Australia's leading medical journal for speech pathology, cited my Stroke Information page as an Internet resource for left-brain strokes in their June, 2004 issue. Special thanks to Dr. Caroline Bowen for bringing the notice to my attention.
For those of you who have asked, my novel Father Figure continues to sell really well. Over a year after its publication, it's the sixth bestselling "General Fiction" novel on the Bookbooters site (out of 703 novels); the fourth bestselling "Thriller" (out of 306 novels); the top bestselling "Horror" novel (out of 116 novels); and the top "Crime/Mystery" bestseller (out of 312 novels).