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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2001.
"that's what it's all about"
august 18, 2001
Mary and I talk on the telephone to her dad, Joe, every other Friday.
We got into the habit after his last visit to Texas. It's a nice way of staying in touch. I pick Mary up at work that Friday, we stop on the long way home at the post office to get all our mail from the week (we only go to our post office box once a week), then sit around our black breakfast nook table, drinking Spaten Optimator, opening all the envelopes, flipping through the book catalogs from different university presses, art catalogs, flower catalogs. By then, it's between five-thirty and six, time to call. We pull two telephones down onto the table.
The conversations are always great. In between jokes, we catch up on what we've been up to the past two weeks. Our most recent conversation, Joe brought up the audio tapes Mary and I made twenty years ago, asking if we have any with Joan on them. Joan was his wife, Mary's mother. She died in 1998, around Thanksgiving. "I'd love to hear her voice again."
Around 1982, and until 1984, when we switched to videotape, Mary and I got in the habit of occasionally audio-taping our lives. We have a giant's shoebox of these tapes now, having recorded everything from our remembrances of early childhood, our day-to-day activities in California, a toilet that made a really weird flushing sound in a motel in Tennessee, a dog we never saw, in Bangor, Maine, where it got pitch black at 3:30, who howled every night, the howl so tortured it sounded like throat tissue was destroyed.
I've always been fascinated by tape.
When I first started writing, I wrote a story about a couple who meet each Sunday in a deserted mansion, talking, drinking, making love on the wooden floor in one of the wide, cleared-out rooms, leaving a tape recorder running the whole time. After the couple break up because they argue so much, the man goes back to the mansion with the tapes the next Sunday, only now alone, deciding to erase one tape each Sunday, as a way of saying good-bye to her. After he erases the first tape, he rewinds it and listens to the static, like the lovelorn listen to Sinatra, but halfway through he hears words and phrases rising disembodied out of the static, as if vocalized by ghosts. Although the reader comes to realize what he's hearing are just bits of his own past conversations with his lover that weren't properly erased due to the imperfections of his recorder, he thinks he's picking up contemporary communications from another couple, and is happy that they, at least, have found true love, judging from the first tapes, but then distraught as their relationship, tape by tape, Sunday by Sunday, also deteriorates into bickering, and hurt silences, and bad words that stay in the mind, uncleanable, like black grease.
A few months after Mary and I started living together, in Santa Barbara, in 1979, we realized we really should pay a visit to her folks. There was some suspicion of me, because I had taken Mary away from her husband, much like she had taken me away from my wife (Joe, in fact, continued to call me by Mary's first husband's name for a while, but absentmindedly.) The visit went well. I don't know what they imagined they'd see attached to their daughter when they opened their front door, but certainly it seemed to help that I showed up in a three-piece gray suit.
We were invited up for Thanksgiving that same year.
That visit almost turned into a disaster, because of a cheeseburger.
We left San Mateo, on the San Francisco peninsula, where we were by then living, that Wednesday evening, after work, suitcases already in the car trunk, stopping at Oakland, at a Burger King, to grab something to eat on our way north to Sacramento, where Joe and Joan lived.
Not too far north of Oakland, behind the red leather steering wheel of our white Mustang, I started getting troubling twinges in my stomach. By the time we passed Vacaville, a perfectly-named town with a large state prison, there was a cold sweat on my forehead and cheeks, and my asshole was pulsating. I had to shit within the next five minutes. After ten miles of silent suffering, feeling it in my chest and legs, I told Mary my problem. Under the violet California night sky, decorated with jade palm trees, our car approached, whizzed by, exit after exit proudly announcing they had no service stations, restaurants, or other buildings equipped with rest rooms. Finally, desperately, we pulled off the highway, down an exit leading to nothing more than grass and woods.
I slid our Mustang along some dark sidestreets, parking at the curb of one, rushing out of the opened driver's door to a stand of waist-high green bushes ten feet from the sidewalk, bordering a chain link fence.
I was dressed all in white. White pants, and an English-style top with white strip tabs across the collar, a dozen pleats falling off each shoulder (it was the Seventies).
Reaching the bushes, I pulled down my white pants, fruit of the loom underpants, aiming my bursting asshole against the innocent green and yellow leaves of the bushes.
As my indigestion noisily sprayed out my backside, and I can't tell you how good it felt to release it, halogen lights flared whitely above me, dozens of cars suddenly honking through this secluded dark lane, twin headlights yellowly illuminating my face and bent-over posture, girls standing up out of back seat windows, waving pendants. Over a public address system, on the other side of the chain link fence, which the lights now revealed as a baseball diamond, a male exuberantly shouted, amplified, as the last of the hot diarrhea spat spectacularly out of me, 'Play ball!'.
Wiping myself with the few Kleenex we had, too weak to pull up my pants, I hobbled, bent-over, waistband still down around my ankles, across the grass back to our car, absolutely bereft of dignity, trying to ignore the dozens of passing automobiles, their sidewindows now filled with flattened noses and astonished eyes.
Fortunately, after that one bush stop, my stomach behaved, and the visit was a great success. The four of us started seeing each other every other month or so, and always had a wonderful time. Mary and I never again stopped at a Burger King on our way up the California coast.
In looking through our old audio tapes last weekend, Mary and I found we had one recording with Joan's voice, a half hour conversation of the four of us, from October 3, 1982.
Nearly twenty years ago. A generation.
We're sitting, the four of us, in Joe and Joan's living room in Sacramento. It's late Friday night. Everything is dark outside. We've been drinking for hours, which is reflected in the laziness of our voices. Mary and I have stopped here for a week before leaving California for good to drive cross-country, to Maine.
The tape starts with me testing the reach of the recorder's abilities, saying, "Blah, blah, blah." Mary repeats the same vocalization, as a test, as does Joe. Joan then says, "I hope I can think of something more intelligent to say than, "Blah, blah, blah."
What we talk about is probably unimportant, beyond the fact of the voices captured on tape talking about anything. To me, surprisingly, what evoked the most was the rapid slap sound of Joan shuffling cards while we talked. She always liked to play solitaire during our conversations, wherever we were, sitting in an easy chair with a TV table set in front of her.
Mary and I were unsure how we'd feel, listening to the tape after so many years, but in fact neither of us felt sad, just happy that we could, fortunately, "Hear her voice again."
I don't know what happens to the past. I don't know if it truly goes away, so that all that's left is its absence, like the bright shrinking dot behind your eyelids after a flashbulb goes off, or if in fact it stays, but in rooms we can no longer walk into. I like to think the latter. I like to think that even as I type these words in bright sunlight, somewhere behind me, just as tangible, is forever a warm California night I see now only through sounds, four people seated in semi-darkness, laughing, clearing throats, ice cubes in their drinks chinking, amid the occasional buzz of cards shuffled and reshuffled, almost, but not, or maybe yes, endlessly.
When we first moved into our home, ten years ago, we signed up for cable TV, which cost, as I remember it, about seventy dollars a month. Included with this monthly fee, at no additional charge, was bad reception, indifferent customer service, and repeated system failures (I remember we received, at the time of installation, a sticky-backed yellow square of black numbers to call for service. One of the numbers said, In Case of Emergencies Only. That never made sense to me. What, associated with our service, would constitute an emergency? Someone broke into our home and is strangling me with the TV cable?)
Anyway, we were dissatisfied with cable almost immediately. As often happens in life, a solution showed up right away, this time in the form of a flyer advertising satellite TV someone hung off our front doorknob. We called the number, and a week or so later had a ten foot dish in our back yard. Through it, we were able to receive hundreds of TV stations, as well as something known as 'wild feeds', meaning unedited broadcasts sent out live over satellite trucks in the field, where reporters are broadcasting "on the scene" of a breaking story. The wild feeds were fascinating, because you'd see the TV reporter before, during and after their minute or so of official airtime. Before, they'd either be touching their hair, pulling down on their jacket, or eating. During, of course, they'd be the model of solemn professionalism. After, they'd often be absolutely distraught, bemoaning over and over a word they had tripped over.
After ten years, the satellite dish slipped off its mounting, so that it aimed its huge, wire-meshed dish off to one side, directly pointing at our neighbor's house as if we were brazenly spying on them.
We didn't want to go back to cable, so we had someone come out and install a Dish TV satellite dish, which is about the size of a large pizza.
I like Dish TV. We get a little over 150 channels, all of them digital, which means clear, crisp images and great sound.
This morning, Mary and I were lying in bed, wanting to watch something on TV while we drank our coffee.
A feature of Dish TV is that you can press a button on the remote, and it brings you to a screen where you can scroll through a list of what's currently on, with a description of each item.
We went to the movie section of the scroll first.
Here's Dish TV's description of the 1998 movie Captured:
"A crook steals a wealthy enemy's car, unaware that it has been converted into a remote-controlled torture chamber."
We will probably never see this movie, because we can kind of guess how the plot's going to turn out.
Stay the Night (1992):
"A Georgia teen's mother entraps his lover, whose husband he has been lured to kill. Based on a true story."
It took me a reread to sort out the antecedents to the pronouns (and given that the description can only contain a small number of words, how important is it that the mother is from Georgia?) 'Based on a true story' to me is a contemptible phrase, up there with 'It was new to me', and 'You can't judge me. Only God can judge me.'
Theory of Flight (1998):
"A man building a bi-plane hires a gigolo to help a woman with motor neuron disease fulfill a wish."
Much too Lifetime Movie-ish, where the men are either snarling wife-beaters, compulsively fucking every female cast member over eight, usually from behind, usually breasts-down across mahogany desks, doctored appointment books and revised wills vibrating off the edges, or slim, gentle-eyed bears waiting with their leashes in their paws outside the heroine's corner office while she closes a big deal over a speaker phone, leaning back in her swivel chair.
But Dish TV does include RFD TV, which is a compendium of locally-produced TV shows from small towns across the nation, the sort of fare you usually can only catch on cable access channels.
And blessedly, this morning on RFD they had something called Big Joe's Polka Show.
Picture a TV screen, and picture on that screen murky images shot way too far back, exposing too much emptiness around the people, and the type of bottom-of-the-well sound system usually associated with porno movies.
Big Joe himself is an old man in a glittering dark blue jacket, stitched accordion keys on both wide lapels, who lounges so far back in his chair on the stage he's one notch away from lying in a hospital bed, holding the black microphone up to his pale lips, introducing the polka bands, who have names like Whoopee and the Dairyland Dutchmen, and the Polka-Nuts.
All the band members wear red, green or white open vests, and black shorts, their faces, as they play, either glum or displaying monkey grins. They perform on a raised stage in front of what looks like a row of used funeral parlor flower arrangements. They occasionally joylessly shout out, "Hey! Hey! Hey!"
The show itself is shot inside what has got to be the largest interior space I've ever seen, so large it recedes to black pools, an area the size of a football field in front of the stage laid-out in tremendously large squares of bare plywood flooring, across which a dozen or so couples hop in polka steps. The couples themselves are old, the men gray-haired and pot-bellied, the women wearing puffy white or red blouses, with white-ruffled collars and cuffs, that look like they were made out of kitchen curtains.
Beyond the plywood dance floor, occasionally glimpsed in the camera shots, are rows of nearly empty picnic tables receding to infinity. Mary said, I hope there's a lot of beer pitchers.
Since there are no windows in this vast open space, it's impossible to tell the time of day. The show may be broadcast from a bomb shelter. It may be broadcast from the future.
The four of us, Joe, Joan, Mary, myself, love German food, German oompah music, and that sort of kitschy attitude at once laughable and endearing. The show, although Mary and I got quite a few laughs from it this rainy Saturday morning, also made us feel closer to Joe and Joan. I could picture the four of us watching it, cracking jokes, sharing love.
The last number the band on stage did was, "A polka version of the Texas classic, Hokey Pokey."
"You put your right foot in, put your right foot out, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about, you do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around, that's what it's all about."
Maybe it is.