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ralph robert moore


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ralph robert moore

Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Robert Moore.

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Return to lately 2006.

i've never seen an empty one
november 1, 2006

Early in October, Mary and me in our bedroom, the black phone rang.

I turned down the TV, bar of yellow rectangles along the bottom of the screen shrinking to the left. Picked up the phone.

The new Director of Client Services at the company where I work said Hi, introduced herself.

I 'telecommute', meaning I work from home, doing my work over the Internet. Telecommuting is a necessity for me, since Mary had her stroke in 2002. I can't leave her alone all day.

The company I work for is located in Illinois. I write all the plan documents for the company, meaning all the legal documents used to establish the terms and conditions of the self-funded health care plans our clients, employers located mostly in the Great Lakes region, have established for their employees.

I've never met any of the people I work with. They're voices over the phone, emoticons in emails.

The Director started by saying how sorry she was to hear my Dad passed away the previous week. I lowered my head, thanked her.

"Unfortunately, I have some bad news. I've decided to hire someone to head our compliance department who will work in our actual office in Illinois, rather than telecommute."

She told me my last day of employment would be Friday the 13th.

So I'm unemployed again.

I was hired by the company a year ago. Almost immediately after I was hired, the company was acquired by a new owner. He had his own ideas about how a company should be run, but unfortunately had no experience running this type of company. Soon after he acquired the company, the President who recommended me for the position quit, as well as the Director of Client Services who interviewed and hired me, as well as her replacement, as well as the key person in the department I worked with most closely.

In the course of that year, nearly everyone I knew, even just through phone calls and emails, had left the company.

As had the clients. The company lost a significant percentage of its customers.

After that first year, the new owner apparently realized he didn't know as much about running a company as he thought he did, and sold the company back to the original owner. I hope they're able to recover.

It was odd, though, while I did work for the company, because I was included in the general employee email list, which meant I received a lot of emails that had nothing to do with me, a thousand miles away, but which I still found evocative of the working environment up in Illinois:

The back door code has changed to 436.

It's starting to rain. Please make sure your car has all its windows rolled up.

So-and-so wants to celebrate our baseball team's win by taking us all out to Smiley's Pizza after work this Friday. Spouses welcome!

And the most common email in all businessdom:

We'll be cleaning out the refrigerators this Friday at 3:00 p.m. If you have any items in the refrigerator, please remove them or they will be thrown out.

So how do I feel, being unemployed again?

Actually, not so bad.

There's an excitement in being cut adrift. The force of one door slamming shut blowing open so many other doors.

What will happen next? Where will I wash up?

I don't know.

The week after I became officially unemployed, Mary and I decided to visit a new Costco that had been erected in a town adjacent to our own, easily accessible from the highway.

We had heard of Costco, but had never been inside one.

Costco is a large chain of discount stores, like Wal-Mart and Target, selling everything from food to clothes to kitchenware to electronics.

What makes Costco stand out from most large chain retailers is the range of items it sells, everything from baby food to coffins; and the fact you have to pay an annual membership fee (fifty dollars) in order to shop.

We pulled into the parking lot around lunch time in the middle of the week.

You would expect the lot to be packed during that prime shopping hour, but in fact we were able to park right near the front entrance, only a handful of cars in the huge lot.

Walking into the store was a bit like walking into the cold war days of East and West Berlin.

A guard stood at the entrance. Behind him, to the left, was entry into the store proper, very few shoppers in sight. Behind him to the right was a narrow corridor people who weren't paying members had to go through, in order to get permission to walk around and decide if they wanted to join.

The two areas inside were divided by a chain link fence running the depth of the store, tall enough so non-members couldn't scale the wall to get to the shopping area without passing through the reception area (in fairness to Costco, I should add the tall chain link fence, however incongruous it might be to see something like that inside a building, didn't have barbed wire across its top).

We waited at the reception counter for one of the two women behind the counter to finish with their customer (I have to say, both women may be wonderful people, but they were absolutely in no rush whatsoever, and although each had their own window, they were both helping the same person).

Once we got past the reception checkpoint, we were left to wander down the back of the store, along with another couple, following the tall chain link fence on our left, trying to figure out how to get into the store proper. No signs, nothing.

At the very back of the store, the chain link fence cut at a right angle across our side, blocking us in, abattoir style.

We finally wound up sneaking our way through an unoccupied cash register lane, like lifting the flap at the back of a big yellow circus tent pitched in the red dirt just outside a medium-sized town in Oklahoma, dogs that don't bite milling around the oft-lifted flap for a head-petting, liquid brown eyes, huffing pink tongue, before the duck-under.

I thought, This is the way they introduce Costco to potential new customers?

Fortunately, no sirens went off, so we were able to roam freely down the wide aisles.

We were immediately disappointed.

A lot of these so-called wholesale stores advertise themselves as being "no-frills", but Costco is really no-frills. It makes Wal-Mart look like a boutique shop on Rodeo Drive.

The inside has an extraordinarily high metal ceiling, so that you feel you're walking around inside a huge airplane hanger that was hurriedly stocked after the first reports of the dead rising from the ground to eat the living.

There's no attempt at arranging merchandise in an attractive manner. No eye-catching signs, no pleasing colors, no cheerful music. You want sweaters? Here's a huge, fucking pile of them. Start digging.

We gravitated to the grocery section of the store, and specifically to the frozen food area.

Like most supermarkets, the frozen food is displayed in upright freezers.

But here the freezers extend a scary distance to the rear of the hanger, with no customers anywhere, and the foods they offer are not the national brands most of us know, but instead large, white, generic cartons of, for example, chicken quarters or pre-formed hamburger patties.

At the front of each frozen food aisle a woman offered free food on a tray of small white paper cups.

We politely demurred each offering (I'm the type of person who does not scoop a cracker into the common bowl of pimento cheese crab dip that's been sitting unattended on top of the seafood counter for a couple of hours).

I did look into one array of white paper cups, just to see what free food they were offering. In this case, each cup contained one small, orange chunk of canned pineapple.

Another, more aggressive woman insisted we try one of her small paper cups, inside each of which was a quarter of a microwaved fish stick. If I had taken a picture of that quarter of microwaved fish stick, the brittle brown skin with dry, flaked white at both ends of the amputation, I would have called the photograph, Sadness. I touched my right palm to my stomach. "Thanks, but we just ate."

She reared her head back in good-natured astonishment. "Eating before you come to Costco? Nobody does that. Stick around, and in another hour we're going to be offering free broiled steaks!"

Given that I doubted Costco would suddenly switch from the corporate parsimony of offering a single pineapple chunk or a quarter of a fish stick, to the extravagance of offering free broiled steaks, I didn't bother to reply beyond a polite smile and a sudden, faked interest in something on the other side of the store. The truth is, these free-sample women, although I am sincerely glad they've found jobs, and I'm sure they're all decent people, and I do mean that sincerely, were nonetheless starting to remind me of those people at bus stops who, unbidden, start talking about the CIA while scratching both upper arms.

There was a Fresh Produce section after the frozen food section. You had to walk into a separate room, the size of an emporium, which was extremely cold, I mean really, really cold, and unlike any other "fresh produce" section I had ever seen. Normal supermarkets I've been in, the fresh produce section has fruits and vegetables loosely arranged in bins. You grab a plastic bag, the type that's really hard to open, why are my fingertips so dry, then hand pick as many green beans as you want, drop them in the bag.

But here, the fresh produce section consisted entirely of tables with sealed cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other, each box labeled brussel sprouts, tomatoes, or lettuce.

It's hard to convey how creepy that was.

Because everything is sold in drab, institutional-sized cartons, Costco's ideal market seems to be paramilitary groups plotting to overthrow the government. Drive down from the hills once a week, five guys in camouflage pushing metal carts down the aisles, load everything hand over hand into the beds of the blue pick-ups.

We wandered down the non-food aisles at the rear of the store. I was hoping to see the coffins, I've never seen an empty one, but no such luck.

As a result of my Dad's death, there were a number of forms I had to sign, get notarized.

I used to be a notary public myself.

We live in a relatively small town. It was hard to glean, out of the populace, who might be a notary.

I got on the phone, opening the yellow pages, calling different banks.

Almost every one of them would only provide notary services for people who were customers of that bank. Their right, certainly, but since our bank was located in Dallas, with no branch in town, that didn't help.

I finally found one bank, Washington Mutual, that would notarize a signature for a non-customer, for a six dollar fee per document.

Mary and I set off in our car, but had trouble locating the bank.

Up on our right was a small office of a local State Farm agent. Surely an insurance agent would have a notary on staff.

We pulled into the tiny parking lot.

Beeped our car to lock it, walked through the front door.

It was like walking into someone's living room. A couple of easy chairs, an incredible number of oversized, framed sports memorabilia items on the walls. Troy Aikman's autographed football jersey, the guy's got big shoulders; a collection of signed baseballs; an NHL group photograph of all the hockey players, their signatures running up and down the white right and left margins. Plus a lot of larger than life autographed pictures of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

The framed photographs filled every inch of wall space in the reception area, all the way up to the ceiling, except we noticed on the east wall, between two giant basketball action pictures, hands lifting an orange basketball over the net, the dunk celebrated with spiky autographs, like stadium cheers, there was a blank wall space, three feet long by two feet high, a bare nail towards the top.

Had someone stolen that picture? What was it of?

There was no one at the reception counter at the back of the room, so we had plenty of time to look at the displays.

Finally, a heavy-set blonde woman came out. "Can I help you?"

"Do you have a notary?"

She nodded at one of the doorways. "She's with a customer. Do you want to take a seat?"

Indeed, we could hear a disembodied female voice talking beyond that doorway to what sounded like an elderly man.

We sat down in the two easy chairs.

Time passed.

The elderly man had an extraordinary number of questions. Because we had so many errands to run that day, I was a bit irritated at first, but soon came to appreciate the exquisite nuances he could bring to the plainest of questions.

"Your name is Floyd Dramer?"

"Actually, it's Frank Dramer."

"So should we make out the policy to Frank Dramer?"

"Well, the thing is, my son is also named Frank Dramer, which is why they call me Floyd Dramer, but he's not a junior. He's Frank Dramer in his own right."

"So should I write in Floyd Dramer?"

"Well, the thing is, my brother is Floyd Dramer, so that might confuse the issue."

Which was nothing compared to when the agent tried to establish where he lived.

But you know, I'll remember that day.

There's a point after bad news when the world swings back into focus. My Dad had just died, I just lost my job, and here we were, Mary and me, sitting in this strange living room, surrounded by all these autographed photographs of sports heroes and Texan politicians, looking down at us like moose heads, and it was fun. Something we hadn't expected, but could appreciate the weirdness of.

From where we sat in our separate easy chairs, we smiled at each other, blew a kiss.