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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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the future is orange
october 1, 2004

What we do in our spare time changes over the course of our lives.

When I was in my twenties, I used to swim every day, either in the ocean, a swimming pool, or both. I so enjoyed swimming I even took up scuba diving, getting my PADI certification while I lived in California, kicking my flippered feet across the rippled ocean floor, twisting around in my abeyance, white bubbles rising, to watch a school of blue and green fish synchronize by. But I haven't scuba-dived now in twenty-five years, and the last time I swam was fifteen years ago. Will I swim again, something so commonplace, before I die? Feel again the magic of floating, legs out, arms up, in water, before floating in light? Who knows.

Mary and I went to a SuperTarget store a few weeks ago, threaded through the people pushing those garish red-plastic shopping carts in the wide aisles, walking hand-in-hand past the Food, Automotive, Gardening, Clothing and Electronics departments, to the one section we never visit, Toys.

We pulled three cellophane-wrapped board games off the shelves, brought them up front, piled them on the black conveyer belt, paid for them.

Like you, like everyone, I always enjoyed playing board games as a kid. The family gathered around the rectangular table, let the world go away, just us, blood, tonight, you can see the family resemblance in each face, everybody still young, no empty chairs, everyone watching the dice bounce across the board, parents' and childrens' eyes switching from the tumbled total to where those black, convex holes will move the player. So unlike today, when Mom is often absent in the evening, trying to score crack.

I don't know what made Mary and me think of board games, but when we did, we decided to try them again.

We bought Monopoly, Life, Clue.

Monopoly was always my favorite game.

The rules are simple. You roll your dice, move that number of squares around the board, then respond to the square on which you land. Most of the squares are properties-streets and avenues, railroads, utility companies. If no one owns that property, you can buy it, then charge rent whenever another player lands on that square. If the property is already owned, you have to pay rent to the owner. Most of the rents are fairly modest, but if you manage to own all the streets in a color group (usually three streets), you're allowed to build houses, then hotels, on that color group of properties. That's when the rents become exorbitant. The idea is to bankrupt the other players. To own so many properties, with hotels on them, it's impossible for another player not to land on one of your properties, and when they do land on one of your properties, to have enough money to pay your rent. They then have to quit.

Scattered around the board are non-property spaces that introduce an element of happenstance into the game. If you land, for example, on a Chance or Community Chest square, you have to draw a card, which might award you $25 for winning a beauty contest, or cost you $50 for street repairs. (One of the things I like about Monopoly is the costs of everything are kept quaintly low, making it more fairy tale, unlike Life, where you're often dealing in tens of thousands of dollars. In Monopoly, you start out with $1,500 dollars. Properties range in cost from $60 for Mediterranean Avenue or Baltic Avenue, to $400 for Boardwalk, the most prized property.) (When I was a kid, living in Connecticut, my family used to vacation at Atlantic City, New Jersey each year, before it legalized gambling, and I was astonished to discover the streets near the Atlantic City boardwalk matched the street names in Monopoly.)

The Chance and Community Chest cards introduce a sly satire into the game which goes back to its creation during the Great Depression. One cards directs you to go immediately to jail. Another announces you're been elected Chairman of the Board, to where you have to pay each player $50 (the word bribe is never used).

So one night, after sitting in our backyard garden with a beer, watching birds take turns landing on the sides of our feeders, we sat down at opposite ends of our black breakfast nook table. Using a long, sharp knife, the glint to it anticipatory of Clue, I slipped the blade into the cardboard underside edge of the Monopoly game, running the blade in a straight line to the nearest edge, then peeled off the cellophane as if it were a sheet of invisible man skin.

Mary lifted the colorful lid off the box.

Inside were all the familiar objects from childhood, like opening a time capsule. The little green houses, larger red hotels, different-colored denominations of Monopoly money, the faux silver player tokens (You remember them: top hat, sports car, locomotive, wheelbarrow, dog, shoe, cannon, thimble, iron, horse and rider, luxury liner, pot of money).

One change I noticed is that originally the playing board itself was a stiff cardboard sheet folded in half, whereas now it's a sheet folded in quarters, a cut through one of the four folds allowing this additional, space-saving doubling.

The squares were all still the same. Look! There's Go. And Free Parking, and the dreaded Jail, with its black and white hobo's face behind bars, and the thick color bar at the top of the Boardwalk square, still the same deep blue of a banker's Accounts ledger.

I appreciated Parker Brothers hadn't modernized the game, or otherwise tampered with it. All the simple blue, red and yellow graphics from the original game were still there (unlike chess, where the pieces are often recast as political figures, Lord of the Rings statues, Simpsons characters. We received a catalog recently which offered a "shot-glass" chess set. Each chess figure, pawn, bishop, knight, rook, king, queen, is glued to the bottom of a shot glass, all the individual shot glasses filled with whiskey before the game begins. Whenever you capture a piece, you have to down the whiskey in that piece's shot glass. Someone, I think it may have been Paul Krassner, said it's impossible to create satire in our modern age, because reality keeps frog-jumping over satire).

The draw of Monopoly is that whatever your own life situation may be, you're allowed to be reborn, and start again. This opportunity had to be especially attractive during the Great Depression (Charles B. Darrow, who invented the game, was unemployed at the time he offered it to Parker Brothers). Just lost your farm? On this flat board, with a little dice-tumbling luck, and some common sense, you can own whole streets. Just lost your job? You can hold out your calloused palm to receive the count-out of a modest pile of colorful money, even though that pile is only play money. For an hour, an evening, it's real, and a small, pink five-dollar bill lights a cigar as well as a greenback.

So we played.

Tumbling the dice over and over again reminded me how important dice have been in history. Different number combinations on the two die carry specific names, redolent of our past: Snake Eyes, Boxcars, Little Joe. Monopoly is essentially a kid-friendly version of gambling. You don't lose real money, but still get the thrill of winning at dice, the two-by-four smack across the forehead of losing.

You start at the 'Go' square, flush with cash. As you journey around the board, the price of the properties increases, from $60 for Mediterranean Avenue at the square just beyond Go, to $400 for Boardwalk just before you arrive again at Go and get $200 more dollars. Your journey each circuit, in other words, starts you in ghettos, delivers you to mansions. You learn something, while still a child. It's more fun to be rich, than poor.

Playing this game from our childhood led us to thinking of foods from our childhood.

At first, of frozen foods, specifically, TV dinners.

When I was growing up in the fifties, you ate either your mother's food, another kid's mother's food, or restaurant food. There was no such thing as going to the supermarket and buying a frozen dinner.

That all changed. The two most enduring influences from the fifties, in fact, might well be the atomic bomb (created in the forties, but not truly feared until the fifties), and TV dinners.

In 1954, Gerald Thomas, an executive with C.A. Swanson & Sons, a food supplier, found himself, after Thanksgiving, with 270 tons of unsold turkeys.

The turkeys were packed in ten refrigerated railroad cars, 520,000 pounds of turkey in each car, the cars themselves continuously rolling across America, back and forth, because there wasn't enough room in the nation's existing climate-controlled warehouses to store them.

Think of it for a moment. Almost 300 tons of turkey riding the rails back and forth across our nation, in early morning as the cock crows, mid-afternoon, kids standing by their bicycles, watching the tall black wheels rumble by, late at night, crows flapping across the yellow and gray moon. All those turkeys waiting for an idea.

And Gerald Thomas got an idea. Airplanes back then used compartmentalized trays to serve their food. Less chance of spillage on your lap. Why not cook the turkeys, slice them, put them in aluminum trays with typical turkey accompaniments?

So he hired two dozen women, gave them ice cream scoops, had them fill five thousand aluminum trays with sliced turkey, corn bread stuffing and gravy in the largest compartment of the tray, buttered peas in a smaller compartment, and sweet potatoes in the third compartment.

The dinners sold for 98 cents.

Quite a few people in the food industry thought five thousand frozen turkey dinners was ridiculous. He'd never sell that many. How many did he wind up selling that first year? Ten million.

Most people didn't own freezers back then, so the majority of TV dinners bought in stores were cooked the evening of the day they were purchased.

I ate my first TV dinner probably in the late fifties, when I was about eight or nine. It took my mom a few years to get over her skepticism, and put some of the cold packages in her shopping cart.

Kids, on the other hand, are most open to new technology, since new technology is a breath from the future, where they'll be spending most of their lives.

I remember how fascinated I was, lifting the thin, steamy aluminum foil from my first TV dinner.

This was definitely something my mother hadn't made. This dinner was made by strangers I'd never met, in an area of the country to which I might never travel.

Plus the arrangement of the meal was weird.

When we gathered around the kitchen table for Thanksgiving, turkey took up one area of the round plate, stuffing, another.

But here, in this rectangular tray, made of aluminum rather than china, you didn't see the stuffing at first. You had to fork and knife into the thin white turkey slices to see the stuffing was underneath the turkey.

I can't describe to you how radical a concept that was for a kid. I do want to say I immediately realized I wasn't getting as much turkey with a TV dinner as I would at a family Thanksgiving dinner- I even realized the plumped-up stuffing under the thin turkey slices was a ploy to make it seem you were getting more turkey than you actually were-- but I didn't care. That Swanson's Turkey TV dinner was my first ever taste of processed food, and I loved it. The food was so processed- nice, even slices of white turkey breast, carefully fanned- it was almost artificial. By its aluminum arrangement, the turkey TV dinner seemed to exult in its artificiality.

I fell in love with TV dinners right away, just like every other short-haired kid in America. When my Aunt Mary brought her curly-haired beau over to our house to meet our family, once I got past the shock of him being in a suit, something my dad rarely wore, one of the biggest surprises to me was when he said, in a gracious, deep voice directed to my mother, that he was looking forward to a home-cooked meal. Living alone as a bachelor, all he usually ate were TV dinners. As soon as he said that, I thought, Wow! Imagine being an adult, and being able to eat TV dinners every night.

In 1955, Swanson followed up its turkey dinner with a fried chicken dinner. Again, the fried chicken pieces were nowhere near as good as what you could get at home, or in a restaurant- the mashed potatoes in their triangular aluminum compartment were too white, too wispy, with their center yellow stain, but nonetheless delicious; the nature of thawing and, in the same process, cooking the fried chicken tended to leave the pieces orange with a flat bottom side that was a little soggy-- but the aluminum space-age aspect of the dinners totally seduced me. (The Fifties were probably the most optimistic decade of the last century. We had to worry about the atomic bomb and communism, rock and roll didn't exist yet in popular culture, but there was a sense, in each daily edition of the newspapers, that thanks to white-frocked, test tube scrutinizing scientists, we were hurtling forward into an era, within our lifetimes, in which disease would be eradicated, clothes disposable after one wear, and we'd be vacationing on the moon with upside-down fishbowls on our heads. That sounds laughable now, a caricature, but it wasn't laughable back then. We actually believed it was going to happen, and it's truly sad it didn't).

Around about the same time, canned food transformed.

Before, canned food had been mostly vegetables.

But then the Chef Boyardee brand of canned foods came out, offering canned spaghetti and meatballs, canned ravioli, and a number of other Italian dishes.

There actually was a Chef Boyardee.

His real name was Hector Boiardi. He worked in a number of hotels and restaurants in the early nineteen-hundreds, and catered Woodrow Wilson's wedding.

He established his own restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio called Il Giardino d'Italla, changing his name to Boyardi, to Americanize it, changing it again, a few years later, to Boyardee to make the pronunciation even easier.

His spaghetti sauce was so popular he began selling it separately, as a take-home item, in milk bottles. The demand for his products soon outgrew his production facilities in Cleveland, so he moved to Pennsylvania (where his food production facilities were used to prepare food rations during World War Two).

The two Chef Boyardee products I remember most from my childhood are his canned spaghetti and meatballs, and his canned ravioli.

The canned spaghetti was truly awful. You used a can opener to release the top lid from the can, then held the can, opened-end down, over a small skillet or pot, watching the wrapped mess of orange noodles slowly extrude from the can, along with marble-sized meatballs that didn't taste at all of meat. They were the worse processed Italian food I've ever eaten.

His ravioli were a little better.

You could get a can of cheese ravioli or meat ravioli. I always preferred the cheese, because again, the meat had a slightly unwholesome aspect to it, minced too fine, until it was gritty.

Usually, with the ravioli, some of the soft, square raviolis would have a split side, a consequence of factory production, where the "cheese" or "meat" would ooze out into the surrounding bright orange sauce.

But I loved them anyway, precisely because they were so processed.

They certainly weren't real food, but that novelty in and of itself was attractive to me. I was eating something so removed from anything good it felt like I was living on a spaceship. I was eating future food.

A few years later, I was able to wash it all down with an "orange-flavored powdered breakfast drink" that was the "drink of the astronauts", namely, Tang.

Given the color of the fried chicken in Swanson's TV dinners, the color of Chef Boyardee's spaghetti, the color of Tang, I came, as a kid, to a conclusion.

The future is orange.

It's that time of year when orb weavers return again to the garden paths and roof overhangs of north Texas.

Mary and I keep a long stick, hip high, outside our back door, the dry, slender trunk of a long-ago rose tree, its top knob the tree's modest root ball, the snaky roots long broken-off.

When we walk through the paths of our garden, especially in the dewy mornings, we swing the rod ahead of us, circling it in the air, as if casting spells, to snag any white webs we might otherwise walk into, and pull them sideways, off their span across brick and branch, to one of the flower beds. Sometimes, rolling the end of the stick in mulch to rub off the sticky accumulation of web, we get to see a spider, back hunched in frustration, scurry away.

The other day, we spotted a wide, white web stretched across one of our garden's back paths, a yellowed leaf from a nearby althaea bush caught in the web's geometric center, reminding me of the red star decals people in the sixties stuck on their sliding glass doors as a visual warning that here was glass (I have so many memories from childhood of adults walking nose-smack into closed sliding glass doors, or sitting down at a dining room table, the chair suddenly collapsing under their weight, elbows jerking up, bottoms of their shoes rising in the air, that I sometimes think I must have been raised by a vaudeville troupe constantly refining their art).

Although orb weavers most often spin their webs in green landscape, they also spin webs that slant from eave to rooftop.

I trudged upstairs the other morning, leaving behind me the smell of percolating coffee, to check my e-mails. It was purple outside.

My upstairs study is surrounded on three sides by floor to ceiling bookshelves. The fourth wall is a half wall, overlooking the ceiling of our two-story living room.

The south side of my study has a small, arched window about five feet wide at its base, three feet high to its curved top. A little bit above it, on the ceiling, is a rectangular skylight, which always lets me know when it's raining, because of the loud taps against its transparency.

The arched window looks out on the green treetops in our backyard.

When I glanced out the arched window that morning, I saw an immense spider web.

It was slanted, in profile, so it appeared to have zero dimensions.

I walked over to the window, angled my head to one side.

Now I saw not only the white, clean cotton strands of the web in the brilliant dawn, but also the darkness of the spider that built the web.

It was a large spider.

To me, a spider with a leg spread of a quarter is small. A spider with a leg spread of a silver dollar is uncommon, but not too alarming. This spider had a leg spread twice that size.

It was a big fucking spider.

I recognized it immediately, by its big black egg-shaped abdomen with yellow side stripes, as an argiope aurantia, commonly called a "Yellow Garden Spider", "Golden Orb Weaver", or, and this pleases me, a "Writing Spider".

Because of its size, it was obviously female.

The size of the spider, I have to admit, was both beautiful and frightening. Like comparing a small diamond to a large diamond, forget the worth for a moment, it's simply that with a large diamond you get to see so much more detail, the individual facets, and that's the way it was with my spider. Because it was a giant, I could admire and feel a mammal's repulsion at its skinny architecture, could actually discern the little knobs, like so many knees, occurring along the articulations of its long, sharp black legs.

As I watched it each day, outside my study window, it wove a patch of white cotton in the center of its web, shaped like a shield. What could that possibly be for? But once it finished the shield I realized. It crawled behind that cotton, so it was invisible to the pathways of flying insects.

Can you imagine how horrible that must be? To be speeding merrily through air, unencumbered, then suddenly snagged? Elbows lifting, trying to get free of this white sticky stuff, your irritated effort setting off vibrations along the triangular strings, getting more enmeshed than before, seeing this huge, high black hunger with its sideways maw ripple towards you, like Christ walking on water?

Looking at my scary spider, I remembered Frank's Place (CBS, 1987-1988), a "dramedy", as that term was used back then, concerning a black man (Tim Reid, who was also co-executive producer), a college professor in Boston, who inherits his estranged father's New Orleans restaurant.

My favorite episode concerned a homeless man who moved into the large, empty cardboard boxes thrown out in the alley beside the restaurant. The man refused to leave once Tim Reid discovered him, and in fact behaved in a rude way each time Reid went out into the alley, challenging Reid's basic beliefs. Eventually, at the end of the episode, Reid gets the bum evicted. The episode ends with Reid going back out into the alley, looking at the now-empty boxes. The implication is he misses the challenges the bum threw at him. "Love your enemies, because they are the ones who will make you change."

So that's how I feel about my spider. She'll not last beyond the first frost, although her web-suspended eggs probably will. I have to admit, each time I go up to my study, I check to make sure she's still there.

She's a writer, like me.

The other morning, I sat out in our breakfast nook, at our black table, sipping my first cup of coffee of the day, lighting a cigarette, getting ready to pay bills.

Mary and I had played Clue the night before while we waited for dinner to finish cooking.

At one point, near the end of the game, we both uncapped new bottles of beer. As always happens, as soon as I took my first sip of the beer, the cold brown brew within bubbled up, spilling over the mouth of the bottle (every time I open a beer, my first sip causes the beer to rise up out of the glass mouth of the beer, spilling down the side. That never happens with Mary's beer. In fact, we've even switched bottles immediately after opening them, as an experiment, and it's still my beer that rises, spills over. Why is that?)

So there was some dried, spilled beer on the glossy black tabletop as I pulled the first bill out of its white envelope. The overhead ceiling fan swept my flicked cigarette ashes out of the ashtray, across the dried beer. I absent-mindedly swiped at the ashes on the table, revealing dusty cat paw patterns across the stickiness on the black gleam, where our cats had padded across the beer during the night, the small, five-toed patterns looking like alien fingerprints.

My story "Las Vegas", one of the Recorded Occurrences stories, will be in the next issue of Lullaby Hearse (in their prior issue, they published my novelette "This Moment of Brilliance").

My essay "God" will be in the next issue of Songs of Innocence (and Experience).