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Within Close Range: Tubular Bells

Built on a slope, at the end of a cul du sac, down a short, steep drive, everything about the holiday rental house feels dark, narrow, sunken, and really, really hairy.

The owners of the house on the outskirts of Snowmass, Colorado own several Huskies – or rather, several Huskies own this house as can be gathered by the Husky-related photos, ribbons, paintings and pillows. The neighbors next door also have one of these intrepid snow dogs, who sits on the frozen earth at the end of a chain by their front door, all day and all night. Quietly watching us come and go.

Everything about the rental house feels well-loved and lived-in – if not a little too; an ingenious plan (or a happy accident) to be staying where messes and mishaps can be easily forgiven. Easily hidden. With little worry of expensive damage or extensive injury.

So, determined to enjoy at least some of the family vacation (without the whole damn family), Mom and Dad make plans for dinner out, leaving the five of us with several pizza delivery menus, cash, and a warning to be on our best behavior.

By the time dinner is being noisily digested and discharged in a particularly fierce burping and farting duel between Jim and Mark, we’re already restless, as the explorable world around us shrinks to the cluttered rooms and narrow corridors of someone else’s life.

Someone who doesn’t like T.V.

That’s how Jim discovers the stereo.

Leaving him happily crouched over stacks of albums, Chris, Mia and I decide to get ready for bed before playing cards. Looking for a corner of the shared bedroom where spying eyes can’t see me in my undies, I find a spot between the window and bed where I shiver and squiggle into my nightgown.

A mournful howl just outside the window gives my goose-pimples, goose-pimples.

Peeking around the curtain and rubbing away enough frost on the glass, I see the Husky next door baying in the shadows of the bright moon. Receiving no reply to his woeful song. I linger at the window, hoping to hear an answer to his haunting moonlight serenade, but instead, hear strange noises from within.

Jim is up to something… We all sense it.

But before Chris, Mia and I even have a chance to express our shared concerns, the entire house goes completely dark.

Crap.

The Husky howls again, filling the pitch bllack room with his sorrowful song.

“Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” Chris shouts through the closed and now locked bedroom door into the dark and unknown. “Turn the lights back on!”

No reply.

There’s a tap on the door, but we say nothing.

There’s another tap.

Mark whispers meekly from the other side, “Come on you guys… Let me in…”

Now Mark has been Jim’s loyal minion many times in the past, so opening that door might very well mean an ambush. But Mark is a lousy liar – and an even lousier actor –  and his frightened pleas are a little too real. We feel our way, en masse, to the door, open it only slightly, and grabbing Mark’s skinny arm in the dark, Chris yanks the youngest through.

Rubbing his manhandled limb, he pleads innocence as we pepper him with questions, soon convincing us that he has no idea where Jim is, or what he’s up to.

Before long, we have our answer. From out of the pitch black, the familiar rise and fall of notes on a piano can be heard coming from the living room. The haunting song is “Tubular Bells”, better known as the theme music for, “The Exorcist”; a simple series of horrifically hypnotic notes currently sending shivers up millions of theater-going spines.

Even for those not old enough to see Linda Blair’s head spin, the tales of the movie’s shocking scenes (and cursed actors) have been playground fodder for months and it’s clear that Jim is committed to scaring the shit out of us, spending nearly an hour trying to figure out the house’s electrical panel so he could turn all the lights off, but leave the stereo playing.

Truly committed… or perhaps, should be.

As the terror-inspiring piano solo repeats for the umpteenth time, we feel trapped, defenseless, directionless. The longer we stay holed up behind a locked bedroom door, the longer Jim has to think of more ways to scare us.

It’s decided. We have to head into the dark. Face the music.

Find Jim, or he’ll find us.

Chris quietly unlocks the bedroom door and opens it a crack to see what she can see – which is nothing. She opens it a little wider. Still more black.

Tubular Bells is now flooding the bedroom.

He’s out there, somewhere.

Without ceremony, we shove Mark out the door first. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I watch his small, shirtless frame stall in the center of the hallway, not knowing which way to turn.

“Do you see anything?” Chris whispers.

If Mark replies, none of us hear it over the musical crescendo. He swivels right – as if he’s heard or seen something – and begins to head down the hallway toward the other bedrooms – away from all known exits. We feel obliged to follow, but as soon as the three of us step into the hall and turn toward Mark, a dark, moonlit, figure growls and lunges toward our tiny, hapless human sacrifice from a hallway storage closet half-way down.

All I see before pushing through Chris and Mia in a frenzied retreat is Mark’s body suddenly stiffen and spring a foot off the ground before collapsing into a heap on the hairy carpeting in the center of the dark, narrow hall.

Leaving Mark in the dark to fend for himself, Chris, Mia and I slam and lock the bedroom door.

Moments later, all goes quiet…

… too damn quiet.

We crack open the door to see what’s become of Mark, but he’s nowhere to be seen. His defection to the other side is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. And very unsettling.

In the still, dark bedroom of the still, dark house, all I can hear is Chris and Mia breathing, and the Husky howling, long and sorrowfully.

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Within Close Range: The Youngest

We watch the station wagon back out of the driveway. Mom waves through the open window before slowly pulling away. It’s just a few errands, but Mark is inconsolable. Tries to follow her.

Chris sweeps him up, but he squirms with all of his might and wins the fight. Falling to his knees, and then to all fours, the youngest of five laments the loss by slamming his soft head on the hard blacktop.

Shocked by the scene, I race to the street, hoping Mom will see me wave and shift to reverse. But the station wagon turns the corner and disappears from sight.

Back in Chris’s arms, I can see Mark’s forehead is already swollen and bruised. Pockmarked from the pavement. Gravel still clinging to his brow.

Silently, the three of us turn toward the house, motherless and miserable.

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Within Close Range: Tiny Terrors

I save every penny I can to buy things for my very first household: a two-story, six room, pale yellow Colonial with black shutters, rose-filled window boxes, and a square footage of about three.

Placing my tiny, new items in their tiny, proper places, house proud and satisfied, I head downstairs to the laundry room for dusting rags. I’m only gone a few minutes, but as I come around the front facade of my beautiful home – thinking of fake-watering my fake flowers – I’m shocked and horrified.

The tiny patriarch of my miniature clan is not where I left him, sitting on the living room sofa with a wee book in his lap.

Daughter is still at the piano where I left her, but slumped over. Arms splayed across the keys.

I find Father directly above, in the four poster bed, pant-less and laying rather indelicately on top of Mother; while in the bathroom, next door, Baby has been stuffed – diapers up – in the porcelain toilet with the long chain pull.


My fearful but transfixed eyes move to Grandmother’s room next door, slightly disappointed to find nothing – no one. Maybe Grandmother’s safe.

But the thought is fleeting when in the kitchen below, I find my sweet, old, grey-haired Grandmother, and her tiny bun I carefully brush with the tip of my finger, has been shoved in the oven of the cast iron stove. The soles of her sensible shoes searing into my memory.

But where’s Son? He’s not in the fridge, under the sofa, in the clawfoot tub. Searching both floors of the colonial, there’s only one place left…

Slowly raising the balsa-shingled roof (lof my pale yellow, Colonial house with black shutters and rose-filled windows boxes, (which Jim was forced to cut and glue as punishment for his last dollhouse infraction), I can’t see him anywhere.

Then I spy the tiny trunk in the corner…

Oh, the tiny horror.

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Within Close Range: The Universe Upstairs

The adult-free upstairs is our universe, our private world of fun and games and funny voices, where Jim’s rolled up socks turn into stink bombs of such infamy that as soon as you see him take off a shoe, you run… as fast as your stockinged feet along a polished wood floor can take you.

It’s also where fuzzy, red carpeting turns to molten lava as chairs and tables become bridges, and the sofa, an island where captives and carpet monsters fight to the death in battle after battle.

In the universe upstairs, sloped-ceiling closets and dark crawlspaces (too-small-for-adults places) become hideaways where we can bring pillows and posters, flashlights and stuffed animals, and write secrets and swear words on the 2 x 4s and plaster board; as we listen to Mom in the kitchen below.

Until the heater switches on and the great metal shafts fill with air and fill our ears with rumbling.

At the very top of the back steps, behind a tiny door (not more than three feet square), Jim spent all day building a spaceship. Fabricated from old outlets and switches and a roll of duct tape.

With Mark as his co-pilot and imagination as his rocket fuel, he rallies us to climb into his crawlspace capsule. I sit back in the darkness, surrounded by boxes of memories – Mom’s heirloomed wedding dress at my elbow and Christmas decorations at my back – anxious for the countdown.

Excited for blast off.

For leaving the earth far behind.

Calling to his co-pilot to flick switches labelled with a big, black magic marker, then moving his hands up and down his own duct-taped controls, I hear the sputters and rumbles of Jim’s vocal-powered rockets.

Hugging my big, Pooh Bear, I watch our fearless pilot, in the beam of a dangling flashlight, lean back and call to his unlikely crew through the cup of his hand, “Hang on! Here we go! Ten… Nine… Eight…”

Jim’s rumbles begin to rise.

“Seven… Six… Five… Four…”

I feel the crawlspace shake and rattle.

“Three… Two… One… BLAST OFF!”

I squeeze that silly, old bear and close my eyes to see the fast-approaching cosmos…

And there I float in the infinite black. In the infinite stars. Until Jim shouts, “Meteors!” and all hell breaks loose in our top-of-the-stairs cockpit.

The hallway light suddenly cuts through the cracks and the dark – and the meteors – and the call of dinner brings us back to earth.

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Within Close Range: Inspection

Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the first floor of the house (at the southern end of everything) allowing them to frequently escape to its sunlit, coziness and away from the five, wild seeds they chose to sow.

This leaves the entire second floor almost entirely adult-free, except for the occasional laundry delivery from Mom and the much less occasional visit from Dad – more ceremonial than social – and usually the result of winter restlessness or weekend thunderstorms keeping him from the golf course.

We only know of his plans when we hear, “INSPECTION in ten minutes!” sound from below, at which point all present scatter from the upstair’s common room to our respective bedrooms, where we begin frenzied attempts to hide all clothing, toys, towels, glasses, plates, books and general shit we’ve left strewn everywhere.

Depending on his level of bother, Dad might only scan the surface of the bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s something each of us quietly prays for as he passes dressers, drawers, desks and closets, cluttered and crammed with quickly concealed crap.

If his heart really isn’t in it, he might demand some dusting and vacuuming, to be inspected later – which will likely not occur – and then disappear below. Knowing this, we’ll half-heartedly obey before returning to reruns, twitching on each other, and littering.

However, if Dad’s disposition is grim, he delves further, looking under beds and behind shower curtains, and, if he’s in a particularly foul mood, sliding open a closet door…

At which point, we’re positively doomed.

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Within Close Range: Tornado Watch

The cement-floored, window-welled basement of the house is the biggest indoor space we have to spread out, but it comes at a price. My bare feet are regular magnets for misplaced thumb tacks; while misplaced gerbils, who disappear beneath appliances, leave the already dank underground smelling like fabric softener and tiny, rotting corpse.

It’s also the first place we head every spring when tornado season arrives and the local siren sounds, sending neighborhood kids scattering to their homes, and Mom shuffling everyone down below, where we wait for incoming reports.

With the TV and radio competing and other siblings playing, I stare out the small, ground-level window, half-hoping to see the funnel at the end of the our street, moving down its center, like a spinning top, whirling and powerless.

But I know a tornado isn’t powerless. It’s dangerous and threatening my world.

Comforting is the sight of Mom ironing; while through the grimy glass I wait for the mean, dark sky to lighten, the all-clear to sound, and life in the neighborhood to return to its routine.

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Within Close Range: The Pressure of Writing

She moves up and down the rows of desks, filled with tiny, crouched figures, hovering over lined paper, clutching #2 pencils. Filling the aisle with her middle-age width and Avon perfume, I feel the warmth of her body and breath as she leans over me and sighs.

We’ve been here before.

I’m just not getting this pencil-holding thing.

I thought I was doing it right. The letters on my paper look pretty much like everyone else’s. Pretty much.

But every time she stops at my desk, she gently, but very firmly cups her hand over mine and squeezes, until she forces my tiny, anxious fingers to curl around the long, yellow pencil with the well-worn pink eraser.

“A firm grasp,” she says, trying to sound patient about my substandard pencil holding, “is the key to proper penmanship, my dear.”

Not wanting to disappoint her – again – I clench that pencil as if my very breathing depends upon it, until my fingers cramp from it, and the lead of the pencil presses so hard against the paper that the letters bulge through the opposite side.

When she asks us to turn our papers over and sit quietly until everyone finishes, I close my eyes and feel each raised letter with my fingertips. Wondering whether any one else has to press that hard – work that hard – to squeeze out the letters and words, and sentences, anxious to burst forth.

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Within Close Range: The Nights There Are Fights

My bedroom is at the end of the second floor hallway.
Right above the living room and Mom and Dad’s bedroom suite.
I hear fights my siblings don’t – or at least don’t tell me.
A hard thing to bring to a game of H-O-R-S-E.
On the nights there are fights, I never feel more alone in this full house.
Sinking through the empty blackness of my room.
Drowning in the fury and the screaming and my pillow.
Desperate for it to stop, or for me to find the courage to make him stop.
Picturing the nearest item that will offer the hardest blow.
A cane from the stand, just down the stairs, and through the door below.
… If I hear it once more…
But I never find the courage, just anger and confusion,
and early recognition of a marriage in malfunction.
Making monsters in the madness and words into weapons.
And me into a quivering mess under my blankets in the dark of my room.
Praying for it to stop, or me to sleep.

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Within Close Range: The Neighborhood

Just northwest of Chicago, in Deerfield, Illinois, King’s Cove is 1960s, middle-class suburbia, where Good Humor trucks and men in white hats sell Chocolate Eclair bars with the solid chocolate centers, as they jingle past weedless, well-mown lawns and small, tree-filled lots; where neighbors are friends, your best friends are neighbors, and school is the next block over. 

Our house in King’s Cove is an unmistakable yellow, like hard-boiled egg yolk, as is the wood grain panelling on the side of the Grand Safari station wagon after Mark, a paint can, and a brush are left unattended. And even though it’s small for seven, it never feels crowded, except in the one, tiny bathroom we kids share. All tangles and toothpaste.

Our yolky Colonial has all that we need, all that we know: a small front yard with a tiny patch of grass and a newly planted tree, a split rail fence, and a lawn in back. Dad built a treehouse here, where my best friends, Cherie Dusare and Lynn Bubear, and I hoist the ladder, shut the trap door, and nurture our first true friendships, formed by first experiences. 

And I begin to discover the courage to find my own voice among the din of four siblings.  No longer contented by blanket and thumb and going quietly unnoticed in our tiny world of well-worn paths through quiet backyards, which lead to school and monkey bars, and friends the next street over; where each winter, the Jayne’s sloping lawn next door turns to a sledding hill and every summer, the Beak’s back patio and mossy garden pond come alive in the shade of the trees.

I like to sit on the small, stone, vine-covered wall and watch big-eyed frogs, bold chipmunks and bright orange koi go about their business of being beside the small, trickling waterfall, in the dark, green garden of this house on the corner.

Across the street live Amy and Abbey, the dark-haired twins – and my friends – who dress the same and make me wonder what it would be like to see another… be another me?

But my best friends live at the other end of the block where the three of us sneak into the Dusare’s paneled living room, enticed by taboo and a best friend’s promise of seeing a picture of naked men. 

Tip-toeing and giggling as we cross the shag carpeting, socks and static electricity spark already heightened senses. Cherie knows exactly where the album is in the long, low, hi-fi cabinet with the accordion door. She grabs it and holds it to her chest, scanning the scene signs of adults. 

My heart beats through my crocheted vest. This is my apple. I take my first bite.

Thanks to dim, red lighting and well-placed fog machines it’s little more than a nibble. But my curiosity is peaked, and it’s my very first secret to keep with my first best friends from the neighborhood.

The Light of Day

The following short story was inspired by the hauntingly beautiful winter scene pictured. I found this small, 4 x 6, unsigned, pen and ink on paper at a barn sale in Wisconsin many years ago. It remains one of my very favorite pieces. 

Katie keeps the meager fire burning in the small cottage at the edge of the woods, watching her mother twist and turn. Hearing her quietly moan.

Looking around the cabin, she’s desperate for something to do – some way to be useful. But all’s been done in the last two days since the contractions began. So all there is to do is be there when her mother calls, and wait.

Motionless at the kitchen window, she watches the rising sun slowly define the intricate silhouettes of the barren trees behind the barn.

What will the new light bring?

But she’s exhausted and the light is dim. Wiping away the frost and the fog with the apron she’s been wringing in her small hands, Katie watches her father through the kitchen window as he prepares the wagon to fetch the midwife from town. Hitching the horses in the pale light of the lantern, she marvels at his ease and compassion. Patting each of theirs rumps and their necks, and rubbing their broad, long noses, he gently rouses his team to their unexpected task.

Clouds of breath rise from their nostrils and disappear into the cold and still of the mid-winter’s morning as he moves swiftly around the massive beasts, laying the harness as he has hunderds of times before. With bridles slung over each shoulder, he warms both metal bits beneath his thick coat before putting it in their mouths; and for his daily thoughtfulness, each horse lowers his high, heavy head toward him when he holds out their bridle.

Katie smiles.

Until another moan comes from behind and she’s at the side of the bed before the contraction ends and her mom can see again. Gently wiping her brow with the apron, she squeezes tight when her mother grabs hold of her hand and clutches it to her chest.

Smiling again when her mother turns toward her.

Opening her eyes to her daughter, no pain can blur the struggle she sees in her young heart and old hands. She wants to hold her, to hug her tight and tell her everything will be well, but another bolt of pain seizes her thoughts and intents, and she releases her daughter’s hand, clutching the bedsheets instead.

Twice the dawn has come and gone and still the little one is all turned around and stubborn to leave. But I’m stubborn too, she repeats as she squeezes. And the midwife will be here soon.

Pacing the room, Katie hears a horse whinny and looks through the glass and the ice to see the foggy figure of her father climb to his seat, lift his collar against the cold, and call to his team. Running out the door to the edge of the yard, she watches her father disappear into the expanding light.

The horses’ hooves and wagon wheels crush the thin, icy layer that’s formed on top of yesterday’s heavy, wet snowfall, and the sounds of the departing wagon cut through the silence, the winter and the morning, like a tear in the universe.

His universe.

His happy home.

“Click-click,” he urges his horses, while urging himself to peace; to steady his breathing and steady their pace.

All will be fine. She’s a strong woman. Far stronger than me.

“And what would she say of this mood beyond hope?” he calls to his team, resting his eyes on the road up ahead, as the dim and grey of the dawning, winter day becomes brighter and whiter with the strengthening light.

The Gift Inside

The following piece of fiction was inspired by this box, found many years ago at an estate sale in southern Wisconsin, and by a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago.

The tuk-tuk spun around the corner of the centuries-old church, just missing a mother standing in the middle of the busy road, trying to get her miserable-looking teenagers to stand within spitting distance of each other, their father, and the stained glass building they walked three tension-laced miles to see.

Maria didn’t flinch.

Her long, brown hair sailed behind her as the little, red tuk-tuk jerked momentarily left, then hugged the turn and hummed up the narrow street to a shady spot below a gnarly, old tree growing through the courtyard wall of the ancient church.

Daily spirited by the desire to pay off the money she borrowed to buy the three-wheeler she’d been driving for someone else for long enough, Maria had been out looking for fares each morning as soon as the day’s first voices rose to her third floor window from the narrow streets cramped with crumbling, pastel buildings.

And in a couple of hours, eager tourists.

“Such a hard worker,” the old ladies on the streets called to her each morning from different stoops and stories where they hung their gossip and their laundry and looked to the cloudy skies with defiance.

“Such a lovely girl,” they’d laugh and shout down the narrow streets, good and loud, so Maria (already around the block) could still hear, “but too much putt-puttering and not any kissing!”

Setting off a chain reaction of neighboring howls coming from behind damp sheets and dangling undergarments.

Even the young men from the neighborhood would stop what they were doing to watch her pass as she doggedly criss-crossed the city in her shiny, red tuk-tuk.

And if they caught her eye and she smiled their way…

But Maria just saw her city.

And curious faces – of all shapes and sizes – in her rear view mirror. Swaying and smiling at each twist and turn. With cartloads in her care each day, she putt-puttered up and down the city’s rolling hills; laying bare the love of her birthplace, with its pocked and weathered walls and bustling river banks, its many histories and specialities.

The city’s recent reawakening filled Maria with such joy that she wore her smile like her old, lace-up sneakers – daily and for the same reason – from the moment she uncovered her bright red partner, until the deep dark of a new day dragged weary sightseers indoors to rest their blistered feet, and Maria up the stairs.

Each exhausted, but eager for the morning.

Quieting in the wake of the high season, the young guide with the easy smile decided to linger longer than usual in the shade of the churchyard tree and the stillness of the dead end. Taking a rag from below her seat, she circled her tuk-tuk.

Inspecting.

Polishing.

Proud of it – and herself.

But the tuk-tuk already sparkled in the filtered light of the autumn tree. She put the rag beneath her seat and reached into the striped canvas bag next to it, lifting out an oval box with thick metal molding, pointed and curved, and crownlike.

Sitting with her feet on the dashboard and the box on her knees, Maria carefully examined it – the cold of its molding and warmth of its wood; its tiny lock, with its tiny key hanging from a string tied to the handle.

Which, as she’d promised on the day she received it, still hadn’t been used in the lock.

Nuno, the young man Maria knew from the bodega around the corner from where she parked the tuk-tuk, surprised her one day, coming out from behind the wide, low wooden counter.

And she noticed how very tall he was.

She had never seen the dark-haired, dark-eyed, somber young man anywhere but behind the cash register and he hadn’t spoken a word to her in two years, just a smile-less nod each day he handed her change and her purchase. Now, all of a sudden, he wasn’t surrounded by massive walls of shelves stacked with bottles and boxes and tin mountains of sardines and appeared larger than life. His dark eyes looking straight into hers, but his face still and unrevealing, he was walking straight at her, with what looked like a small treasure chest in his hands.

He thrust the box toward Maria with great urgency, causing her to stumble back and nearly topple a tower of tourist magnets. With barely a moment to right herself, Nuno was unapologetically upon her, with the box still clutched in his outstretched arms.

“I made this for you,” his words tumbled out.

Maria had just found her balance when his words made her knees give way.

Bracing herself, she searched for something to say.

“That’s very sweet, Nuno, but I couldn’t take such a treasure from you.”

As she said it, the young clerk’s face dropped, as did his arms holding his handmade gift. Maria lunged forward to save it from hitting the old, stone floor, catching the box by its thick, wire handle.

She leaned against the thick, well-worn counter, comforted by its steadfast timbers.

“I’m so sorry, Nuno,” she smiled as she held the box up and began to admire its strength, warmth, uniqueness.

Why would you make me such a thing, Nuno?” she said looking at him for the first time since she first rejected his gift.

“The gift is not the box,” he said, surprising Maria again. “The gift is inside.”

Maria turned the handsome, oval box of carefully bent wood and skillfully molded metal. It seemed far lighter than it should. She gently shook it near her ear and winked.

“You’re teasing me,” she said as she felt her cheeks turned red.

“I promise, I’m not,” Nuno insisted.

Setting the gift on the counter, Maria reached for the key on the string and slipped it into the tiny lock, but before she turned it, she found Nuno’s hand gently, but firmly on top of hers.

“Please promise me you won’t open it… Not yet.”

Maria looked into the eyes of the serious, young shopkeeper and even though the promise and its many unanswered questions made her uneasy, after her last rejection, she decided it best to accept this unexpected present.

Picking the box back up, she briefly hugged it to her chest with a smile, thanked him, and made the promise.

“You’ll let me know when it’s time?” she smiled as she turned toward the stained glass shop door, glowing red and blue in the waning sun.

“You’ll know,” replied Nuno, meeting her eyes for a moment then disappearing to the back of the shop, behind the large wall of warped shelves, thick with as many layers of paint as the generations who piled them high with boxes of goods not paid for with promises.

Lost in thoughts of what had happened just last week, Maria, rubbing the small key in her fingers, didn’t notice the elderly American couple until they were at her side, holding hands and umbrellas, with tired feet and hopeful smiles below ever darkening skies.

Putting the box into its bag and grabbing her plastic-coated maps, the young guide is soon taking the Americans to her favorite spots, where the tuk-tuk trails behind the city tram rattling along well-trodden tracks, passing worn buildings covered in weatherbeaten tiles, still bold and bright and remarkable in their variety and design.

Within seconds of the tuk-tuk rolling forward, uneasy thoughts of Nuno and his gift are replaced with the familiar smells and sights of her beloved city, its bustling centers filled with buses and tour guides and taxis, and tourists wanting to see it all in two and a half days.

Its ancient walls built upon ancient layers, held upright and together by scaffolding, hope, and netting like the graffiti which tags every part of the city.

A multicolored net cast over nearly every building.

Some powerful and profoundly beautiful.

Some angry, ugly, and rueful.

Telltale scars of its 20th century life.

But the city survived. Battered, but proud. Heart beating strong.

Maria sensed it around every corner, in stacks of salted cod on the shelves and fresh meats hanging from the windows; in the terraced, cobbled steps heavy with the scent of citrus trees, where residents sip dark amber wine and listen for the Fado singers to begin their nightly performance.

She heard it in the sounds of children laughing and screaming from the school’s rooftop garden and saw it in the dark, narrow shops piled high with dusty, unwanted goods, where crumpled shopkeepers long past keeping shop, hover at the entrance, searching more for conversation than customers.

Parked in front of one of these sleepy, old stores waiting while the American couple explores the ruins of a Roman arena, Maria’s thoughts wandered back to the box, her questions and, especially, her promise – none of which had left her since that day and all of which were beginning to weigh down her smile.

People in the neighborhood began to take notice.

“She hasn’t smiled since she got that box from Nuno,” they’d whisper down the alleys, as she slowly puttered past, wearing a distracted look like a pair of sunglasses trying to hide her unrest.

“What has he done to our happy girl?” they’d moan like the start of a sad folk song. “He must let her see what’s in the box before it drives her mad.”

And that’s just how Maria was beginning to feel, completely mad.

Each time she lifted it from its canvas bag to examine it and question it – which she did, again and again – she swore the box felt heavier. And the heavier it got, the more compelled she was to carry it with her.

Within a few days, Maria could be seen toting the burden down the long, narrow stairs and alleys, straining and frowning, but keeping her promise, until one day the box became too heavy for even her faithful, old, three-wheeled friend to carry up and down the hills of her treasured city.

She couldn’t take it any longer and leaving the onerous box in the immobilized tuk-tuk, she fumed and stomped toward Nuno’s shop, repeating all of the questions that had been troubling her nights and days.

Nuno saw her enter the shop out of the corner of his eye as he helped a young boy count his change to buy the very last pastry of the day. Only when the boy was out the door with a mouthful of custard and the tart half-eaten, did the young storeowner look toward Maria and nod.

“You must come and take your gift back,” she said loudly and without hesitation.

The young man stood frozen and silent behind the counter.

“Please, Nuno,” she begged with tears already falling from her tired eyes, “I can’t accept it and it’s too heavy for me to carry.”

The young man stared at her until she began to question her decision. Then, without a word, he walked out of the store, passing so close to Maria she could smell his disappointment.

But not looking at her.

Maria followed him out onto the cobbled street, jogging to keep up with his long, determined strides.

Approaching the shiny, red tuk-tuk, riding even lower with the weight of its mysterious gift, Nuno looked for the familiar canvas bag and reached inside, hesitating before lifting the box out.

His head sunk low.

“Inside is everything,” he groaned and shook as he strained to lift his gift. Maria’s heart sank, but she could already feel herself lighten as Nuno took the locked wood and metal box in his trembling arms and walked away.

It was days before she could drive past Nuno’s shop, she was shocked to see the shutters on its windows and a sale sign hanging from the stained glass door.

Maria brought the tuk-tuk to a sudden stop in front of the shop and jumped out, looking both ways down the street before peeking through a small pane of clear glass on the door.

Everything was gone.

The well-tended floors were now littered with newspaper and the once brimming shelves were barren and beaten. Maria’s eyes quickly found the only thing that remained, the oval box sitting in the middle of the low, wooden counter in the back of the shop.

Maria’s insides twinged.

The lock was open, but still latched, and its tiny key, which had always hung by the box’s handle, was nowhere to be seen.

She leaned her head heavily against the door and sighed. “How can I leave that box for a stranger?”

Stepping toward the door, she reached for the handle but stopped herself as soon as her fingers touched the cold brass.

Placing her hands in the pockets of her jeans, Maria turned away from the shop with a smile, climbed into her shiny, red tuk-tuk, and put-puttered away.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Hat

I saw a girl in a red velvet hat with feathers to one side.
Meeting her eyes, I smiled.
She grinned, but shyly turned her gaze.
So I studied her young silhouette
and thought of long past days.
Of ladies in fabulous hats and fitted suits,
with cigarettes and sassy comebacks
for men in Fedoras, white shirts and ties
who secretly longed for the pretty, young ladies
in red, velvet hats with feathers to one side.

This hat is available at my Etsy shop, ChannelingNonna.

The Toy Train

Staring at the corner of his small, shaded, shared room which smells of disinfectant, death and old wool, all that’s left of Jake’s life stands on the shelf before him: a couple of dusty, unframed photos (faded images of lost faces, youth and health) on a teetering pile of once comforting books, earmarked and yellowed, barely held together by their cracked and broken bindings.

Lifting them from their place would reveal a thick outline of their long neglect but the books are now just painful reminders of his last stroke and the words are un-consoling strangers among the unclear images that come, and mostly go, of what’s come and all but gone in Jake’s long, lonely life of merely living long.

Yet there’s something on that meager shelf the old man treasures which came to him one summer from his only uncle, Joe, a large, quiet man with the strength of a bull, who worked his whole life in the northern logging camps, bringing down trees, building other men’s wealth.

The meeting was brief but the moment still strong in a desperate childhood filled with hunger and want. He’d come down from the highland forests the August Jake turned six. The air was stifling – thick, as was Joe’s large frame filling the door of the derelict cabin where the boy and his mom scratched out their living mending shirts, washing laundry, running errands – any work to be found up and down the great, green mountain.

The unexpected visit surprised Jake’s mom, who hadn’t seen her brother since they were young. Sent off as soon as they could earn a living on their own. She embraced the waist of the burly, bearded man, who returned the hug with one, massive, tree-trunk-of-an-arm, then turning to his only nephew with a wide, toothy grin, Joe revealed his hidden arm, where two objects lay in his giant, calloused palm.

With fingers big as branches, with bits of paper, bark and wire, the woodsman had turned simple scraps he’d found around the camp into a logging train, with its smokestack engine coupled to a car fully loaded with tiny, timbered logs tied up with string.

“Ain’t much.”

But it was everything.

Sitting at the large, well-worn work table together, Jake’s uncle and mother searched for words to close the gap of so many years, while the boy rested his chin against his sinewy, tanned arms, crossed atop the hard-scrubbed pine, staring eye-level at the train.

Hesitant to touch it for fear it would, like a fidgety spirit, fade away.

Or worse, break in his young, but hardened hands.

Just studying it – knowing it was his – was more than enough for the boy.

The brief visit would be the first and last time he would see his Uncle Joe, whose large, lumberjack’s frame had barely left the shadow of the shack before the grind of what would be Jake’s life had begun again.

Having that train in his sight each day – the one made just for him a lifetime away – made even the strangest places left behind and those ahead, endurable.

And Jake feel fairly human.

Within Close Range: Annie, Annie, Are You All Right?

Built in the early 1970s to house the freshman and sophomore classes, Lake Forest High School’s West Campus is a giant, brick and cinder block monstrosity which was designed with all the charm and comforts of a state penitentiary: sterile, uninviting, uninspiring, practically windowless, colorless, and completely joyless. 

Its warden is Mr. Kleck, the West Campus Principal, who’s secretly been given the nickname “Banana Fingers” for his freakishly enormous hands. He roams the academic dungeons in his plaid polyester sports coat, smelling of cigarettes and body odor; wielding his insignificant power with what appears to be more brawn than brain.

Wishing to remain far beneath the high school radar, I’ve done everything I can to steer clear of Mr. Kleck.

Such best laid schemes…

After watching an outdated State of Illinois Board of Education documentary on health, hygiene, and the hazards of smoking, including pie charts and diagrams, mildly graphic surgery footage, phony teens in dungarees, and a man blowing smoke rings through a permanent breathing hole cut into his larynx…, us boys and girls set off for our respective locker rooms, down separate cement staircases, to pick up books and head to our next class. 

I never see the last step.

Somewhere before the first landing, the clog on my right foot attempts a daring but foolish escape – getting only as far as the arch – so when my half-shoed foot mis-lands at the metal edge of the cement step, I plunge toward the crowd of surprised friends and new enemies walking down the stairs just ahead of me. 

Twisting and hurtling through the innocent and unsuspecting, bodies are strewn to the sides of the steps against the cinder block walls. I come down hard on my back, momentarily unaware of all but the grim, fluorescent-lit ceiling above and the cold, cement floor below. Returned to the moment by the moans of the stunned and wounded getting to their feet, I attempt to do the same, but am gently pushed back to the unforgiving concrete by our gym teacher, Miss Bradshaw.

“You can’t move,” she states.

“I’m fine,” I reply with an embarrassed smile, attempting to sit up again.

“No,” she says as she pushes me to the ground (a little more firmly this time), “I mean I can’t let you move. Kelly, run and get Mr. Kleck.”

“I’M FINE!” explodes against the cinder block surroundings. 

Faces grimace.

“I’m sorry, Anne. It’s school policy. Mr. Kleck has to make sure you’re not injured.”

While the remainder of the class is sent on their way, I lay there like a one-shoed idiot, waiting for the dreaded Banana Fingers, imagining how the news of my nose dive is already spreading through the bleak, inhospitable halls of West Campus.

Mr. Kleck appears, sprinting unnecessarily up the flight of stairs; his figure looming over me like an oppressive cloud of brown plaid and Aqua Velva. His giant, cigar-shaped fingers moving toward me, shadowing my entire, horrified face.

Demonstrating the correct workings of all my moveable body parts, I hastily answer all the questions, eventually ensure my captors I have no need for an ambulance, lawyer, or help up, and hobble away, bruised and humiliated.

Less than two weeks later, it happens again – a near carbon copy of the last plunge. This time, however, most classmates have learned to give me plenty of berth on the staircase and fewer casualties are reported. 

But people are beginning to wonder. 

And this time, Mr. Kleck insists I visit Mrs. Waldeck in the school nurse’s office before returning to class, who meets me at the door of her office. 

She’s shaking her head. Scrutinizing my footwear.

Mrs. Waldeck hates clogs. 

And she loathes Dr. Scholl’s – just like the ones I’m wearing a couple weeks after my staircase accidents, when everyone at West Campus is anxious to enjoy the warming weather. 

There are still patches of mud-colored snow and ice all around the school grounds, but it’s officially Spring and I’m sporting a brand new pair of white, Calvin Klein jeans and red leather, Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Jean, Megan and I are on the front lawn of the high school throwing a Frisbee around. 

The three of us have been in health class together where we’re being taught the basics of CPR. To help us, we have “Annie”, a training manikin with a spiffy red track suit and the ability to inspire far more sexual asides than careers in the health industry. 

One of the first things taught to us is how to approach the injured party and determine what the problem might be.The introductory phrase we’re instructed to use is, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?” This is followed by some gentle shaking, after which comes the serious stuff – cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

I think. 

I haven’t really been paying attention. Neither have Jean or Megan.

So things don’t bode well when chasing an errant Frisbee, my wooden, single-strap sandals (slick with melted snow) send me hydroplaning across the new grass, into a cold, muddy puddle; slamming me hard against the still half-frozen earth.            

Searching for the wind knocked out of me, I bolt upright to see Jean and Megan racing my way. First to my side, Megan kneels beside me, grabs my shoulders, shakes vigorously, and with an enormous smile asks, “Annie, Annie, are you all right?!”, and then falls into a fit of laughter. 

Jean isn’t laughing.

Grabbing me from behind with the strength of her five brothers, my great, Amazonian pal lifts me off the ground and – grossly misdiagnosing my predicament – starts to perform the Heimlich Maneuver.

I don’t know whether to laugh, vomit, or pass out.

Eventually recognizing the international arm waving signal for:  “FOR GOD’S SAKE, STOP DOING THAT!”, Jean releases her hold and I slip to the ground exhausted and humiliated, but alive and breathing again. 

My “rescuers” lead me arm in arm across the lawn, past snickering peers given an even bigger laugh when passing reveals my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.

When Mrs. Waldeck looks up from her desk upon my arrival, it’s hard to tell whether her expression is more anger, aggravation, or pity. 

It certainly isn’t surprise.

Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper past time and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she leads me to the back room of the nurse’s office where I can wash up; then offers the terribly unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day, I can’t hide the dread of being exposed to further ridicule and, thank goodness, Mrs. Waldeck can’t help but feel sorry for me. She hands me the the phone and suggests I call home to see if my mother might bring a new pair of pants. 

Mom, as is the norm, is nowhere to be found.

Apparently, the day’s humiliation is far from over and this Annie is feeling anything but all right.

Within Close Range: Dad

I think the doctor’s last count was seven different incidents – each stroke leaving in its wake a little less Dad. One of the area’s of the brain that had been most severely affected was motivation, as was his ability to read and write. 

After the last big one, his peripheral vision was also shot, which meant no more driving. 

So Dad sat. 

And eventually he lost sight of everything that made him tick, gave him purpose, he was good at.

I watched the frustration in his once playful eyes when things weren’t clicking in his quick and clever mind; and quietly mourned the lengthening shadow that would eventually smother the once strong light, turning his weaknesses upon himself and others; until his needs pummeled Mom and his words became brutal. 

By the time we placed Dad in assisted living, the shadow was long and the void, wide. The once powerful figure could no longer focus, spent the days crying and the nights wandering, and missed the toilet.

Conversations were now repetitive communications, driven by a series of questions he’d ask again and again. Always about family, living and dead. Impossible to steer him away from this endless loop because it was all Dad had left to hold on to. 

It was the only way he could be more than a figure in the room, struggling for thoughts, for words, for loved ones.

For himself.

His body remained strong for quite long, but that didn’t surprise anyone. Dad had always been a natural athlete with a small, fleet build and a bold swagger. But eventually his muscles and mind began to atrophy after all those years of sitting.

Doing hours and hours of nothing. 

And after a while, his sinewy legs (which had hiked a thousand miles of fairways) twisted weakly beneath him; while cherished faces and times and places steadily stepped into the darkness.

Rare became the instants, during my all-too-brief, long-distance visits, when I saw that certain twinkle that came to his eyes when he was pleased, or about to be funny… or silly, or sweet.  

Dad’s wheezy, cartoon dog laughter was something, however, that endured and could happily be summoned to the great relief of everyone hovering uncomfortably in his small room scattered with pictures of loved ones, now mostly strangers.

Rarest was the sound of his powerful, steady, low voice, which throughout my life would sing in my ear when he used my pet name, or make my heart (and feet) leap when he used my middle, “Anne Elizabeth!”  

The years had made it weak and weary; a whisper of a voice, ever shaken by unaccountable emotions. 

I last heard Dad during a regular Sunday phone call. Jim handed him the receiver and he began to speak. I don’t recall a word of what he said because all I heard was this forgotten voice – strong and clear and compelling – which I hadn’t heard in ages and the instant made me ache for and anxious.

Anxious to hear Dad speak again. But Dad never did.

Yet in that flash, in those few words, he once again was my wings, my warden, my beacon, my banker, my mentor, my tormentor, my knight in shining armor. 

And everything felt right.

Then it didn’t.

And I cursed myself for not plucking the ether of that very brief moment and stealing that voice to stuff deep in my pockets, where I’d keep it to remind me of the Dad he used to be. 

The dad who’d gather us beneath the covers of their covers on stormy nights, when thunder rolled across Lake Michigan like a mighty wave and lightening set a gnarly, old oak outside their wall of windows afire with its flash of ghostly, silver-blue light. 

In our small tent of sheets, with our heads tucked close together, he’d tell us ghost stories – while Mom helped us count the seconds between the lightening and thunder – and make us giggle with gentle tickles, until the storm passed and we were brave enough to return to our beds upstairs. 

The dad who’d grab the garden hose on hot summer days and with a devilish grin, spray little children who’d dare to cross his thick, green lawn.

The dad who’d takes us on Sunday drives to special, secret destinations, inspiring me to seek out my very own adventures.

And who always gave long, strong hugs of immeasurable comfort.

Who, after raising five children excelling in bad behavior, gradually mellowed and raised the white flag in the form of a hanger he’d found in a closet, draped with some stuff we grew on the bluff and planned to smoke later. 

Walking into the family room where three-fifths of us were lounging and asking very calmly about what he was holding and its reason for hanging, Dad reached for a bud, gave it a squeeze, and hung the harvest from the nearest lampshade.

“It’s not dry yet,” was all he said before leaving the room and all of us slack-jawed.

Such a dry sense of humor.

But Dad also had a temper that no one liked seeing, when all that charm and good looks disappeared behind a mask of unreason, and I was left angry, helpless and confused about how a man so loving and generous could have such potent demons.

But then I got older and my very own demons got bolder, as most people’s do.

So, the Dad I choose to remember is the one that no matter how mad we’d get at each other, by day’s end, “I love you” were always the last words I heard.

As a powerful presence. 

A stubborn dreamer.

A cocky, passionate schemer, who pursued his passions head first, wholeheartedly, sometimes very foolishly, with great success and equal failure. 

His greatest achievement  – a bountiful life, not only in the hearth, but in the home, until off we flew to foster big dreams and face demons of our own.

So, I’m grateful for the moments I talked to him about nothing, apologized for everything, and thanked him for the lives he set in motion – even though he wouldn’t remember any of it by the time the call was over.

But love is in the giving. 

In the moments Dad heard, “I love you.” 

So, I’d tell him different stories about our faraway lives, and in between the same questions and his uncontrollable tears, I‘d try to fill his soon forgotten moments with love and laughter.

And long distance hugs of immeasurable strength and comfort.

Within Close Range: Good Friends and Bad Decisions

Meeting Betsy after dinner at Nonnie and Papa’s. But not before swiping a bottle of booze from their liquor cabinet. Having just been dumped, Betsy’s determined to drown her sorrows. As her best friend, I’m determined to be right by her side. Swig for swig.

Bad Decision Number One.

The cabinet where Nonnie and Papa keep the liquor is in the apartment’s entryway. I’ve rarely – if ever – seen a bottle taken from inside. I’d come across the contents years ago while searching for sweets Nonnie always tucked away in little, glass dishes and old, plastic boxes, in closets, pockets, drawers and, in cabinets, throughout the apartment. The non-candy contents of this particular cabinet meant nothing to me.

Until now.

Taking a moment before dinner to slip into the entry, I squat in front of the small cabinet and quietly open the door. My knees crackle (reminding me of Sunday’s forced genuflecting), and I cringe, as if the telltale sound can surely be heard above the TV.

My heart is pounding through my chest. Catholic guilt is coursing through my veins.

I see bottles of all shapes and sizes. Some look old, dusty, half-drunk and wholly forgotten; while others, still in their special holiday wrapping, look ready for a party they’d never be invited to, and in front all of these, a brand new, unopened quart of Jack Daniels. THIS is the bottle I’ve decided to get drunk with for the very first time.

Bad Decision Number Two.

I’m antsy, anxious and on edge about the heist all through dinner, causing Nonnie and Papa to give each other sideway glances. But I worry myself over nothing. With Nonnie washing up in the kitchen and Papa already in his recliner snoring, I say my good-byes, slip the bottle into my purse, and slide out the door; wondering how soon – if ever – the missing bottle will be discovered, and who will be the first blamed.

Jim, likely… I can live with that.

In minutes, Betsy’s in the car with Jack and me, and we’re heading to Janet Kerf’s party, already in full swing. Scuttling through the crowded, parentless house, to the backyard and the back of a garden shed, we crack the seal.

Bad Decision Number Three.

Timid first sips burn our throats, but quickly warm our insides against the evening’s autumn chill. The more we pass the bottle to each other, the less we care about the burning, the cold, or the dangerous level of alcohol we’re consuming.

Blurred Decision Number Four.

Betsy’s Ex, who we knew to be there by reports from friends making their way in and out of the packed party, becomes the slurred focus.

Blurred Decision Number Five.

Emboldened by my best friend’s broken heart and half a quart of Tennessee’s finest, I wobble my way through the backyard, the kitchen and into the Kerf’s living room where – in the very center of the Lake Forest High School student body – I proclaim at the top of my extremely powerful set of lungs: “Kelly Walsh is an asshole!”

Bold Decision Number Six.

I shout it loud enough to be heard over the blaring music AND din of teenage voices. All heads within earshot – including Betsy’s Ex – turn my way. Having never met, I don’t really know Kelly Walsh and I couldn’t really say whether or not he is, in fact, an asshole. But my best friend – and Jack Daniels – said he is, so I feel justified in my stunning outburst, which momentarily catapults me out of high school obscurity.

The swaying crowd is more confused than concerned and I abruptly stumble from the house and back to my very drunk friend before anyone has a chance to question my center-of-the-party proclamation.

With the ex-boyfriend properly cursed, Jack Daniels completely consumed and friends really concerned, I’m led to a phone where someone helps me dial home and Chris answers. I babble and burble and beg for her help, then return to the back of the garden shed, where me and my best friend wait to be poured into the back of Mom’s car.

The next morning, after having spent most of the evening taking turns hovering over the toilet, Betsy and I are woken at 7 a.m. with a head-splitting phone call and unwelcome reminder that I’d promised to drive friends to an away football game – which would mean following behind a bus filled with a merciless multitude who witnessed my really bad date with Jack last night.

Bad Decision Number – oh, screw it.