Within Close Range – Heroes

Bundled past our noses to keep the icy lake winds from turning our ambitions, seeking refuge from the great indoors of winter, we head outside. No destination, just going forward, down the well-plowed road, gritty from salt.

Climbing the piles, pushed in great, icy, grey chunks to the side of the road, we reach the unmarred snow blanketing the golf course and “CRUNCH”, break the layer of ice formed overnight on top of the thick, powdery snow.

Shattering the winter scene’s muffled silence with each noisy footstep. 

The drifts almost swallow Mia and I, who are trying our darnedest to keep up with Jim and Kim, our cousin from Springfield – a tall, burly fellow, several years our senior, with a lilting voice, cherubic face and gentle soul; our very reason for forming this unlikely quartet which trudges on, until we come upon the frozen creek that crosses the course.

We follow this to two small ponds, where climbing down its banks, Jim slips and skids along the edges of the ice, while Mia and I head to a large culvert under an old, planked bridge dividing the ponds. Kim following, ever vigilant over his temporary wards.

Scrambling over the bridge to other side of the culvert, Mia shouts for me through the cold and dark, and I answer back, across the frozen water, from the opposite end. Clear is Kim’s silhouette hovering behind Mia, like a new mother bear,  

and our small voices sounding strong against the corrugated steel. 

Mia takes off one of her mittens and slides it through the giant, metal tube, along the leafy ice, right into my hands. I toss it back… and back it comes again. We do this several times, but Mia’s enthusiasm fades with each toss and I find myself stretching a little further into the dark. Her final, fainthearted throw lands the tiny, snow-caked mitten smack dab in the center of the culvert. 

“Whoops,” is all she has to say, having already sacrificed the mitten to the creek.

Hoping to avoid a lecture from Mom about another lost mitten, I begin a slow crawl toward the center, inching closer and closer to the wooly stray, hearing only my breathing, tinny and low, and Kim’s voice whispering, “Be careful, Annie.”

As I reach out to grab the mitten, all sounds cease, except one.

The ice below me pops and cracks and gives way, and suddenly I sink, face first, into the water. Swallowing it and gasping for air, I open my shocked eyes to the muddy scene at the mucky bottom of the culvert a foot below. 

Seconds tick forever, until someone takes hold of the hood of my bright pink jacket and yanks me from the icy water. 

Before I even have a chance to process what’s happened, Kim grabs me from Jim’s arms and starts to run toward home. Shock soon gives way to tears, as shivering wracks my small, drenched body. 

Kim’s worried mumblings make me cling ever harder, as he plows through the snow drifts toward home. 

Hand in hand with Mia, Jim follows quickly. Like a hero, silently.

Pressed against Kim’s heaving chest, I hear only his heartbeat and hurried footsteps fumble along the fairway and onto the road, never slowing until I’m safe within the warmth of Mom’s arms.

Where he apologizes profusely for something that wasn’t his fault.

Within Close Range – Grand Safaris and Sunday Afternoons

Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House. 

Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.

Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.

I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.

It’s electrifying.

Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.

Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.

Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly. 

Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.

Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.

Who wouldn’t.

Couldn’t.

Does.

The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon. 

No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent. 

Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there. 

There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.

Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.

Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.

“Click!” 

Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon. 

Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.” 

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.

Within Close Range: Flying

I dream of flying –
like the Flying Nun –
Lifting off the edge of the bluff with the wind.
Rising quickly toward the fat, lazy clouds
hovering over the great lake,
I swoop and circle the nearby harbor
where scattered sailboats bob below
in the calm of the bay.
But the familiar forms, 
hidden back among the trees,
at the edge of the crumbling bluff,
soon call me to the dusky shore.
To home.
And the glowing, kitchen window.
And the figure of Mom in her pink, plaid apron.
Ever regal, ever busy, in her blue and yellow kitchen.
I hover there, in the cool lake air,
listening to the oh, so happy sounds
of pots and plates clinking and clanking.
I try to guess what’s cooking
by what’s wafting through the windows.
Until a strong breeze lifts the aroma and me
back out, over the vast, rippling water.
Past the sunken, old pier
where giant carp spawn year after year.
Past the rocky harbor walls
standing hard against the waves.
Until the house and the cottage and the beach disappear,
and I begin to really soar
over endless stretches of dark and deep.
Crestfallen to find my bed
and solid ground beneath me
when I wake.

Within Close Range – Florida Days, the teen years

Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport to Nonnie and Papa’s new winter retreat – The Claridge, a 16-story, oceanside condominium in Pompano Beach, Florida – it’s clear things are going to be much different than in Hallandale, where their old apartment used to be.

Gone are the 1950s neighborhoods with small, tidy bungalows and low-rise, pastel-colored apartment buildings. Gone are the small, neat streets with big, American cars and the quiet, inland canals with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the crowded coastline, casting long shadows over old neighborhoods struggling to stay relevant. Mostly replaced by “The Strip”, a popular stretch of beach along Ft. Lauderdale’s A1A – and the only route from the airport to the new condo.

Where nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking college students on spring break have flocked and balanced precariously on the fence between adolescence and adulthood for generations.

Having to navigate through the hoards of unruly, unkempt, half-naked youth makes both Nonnie and Papa mumble and grumble – a lot – but I’m mesmerized by this uncharted world, this untamed, southern gateway to my teen-dom; which Gina and I are slowly cruising past in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac filled with the sounds of Perry Como and the smell of Jean Nate.

The further The Strip fades into the distance and the closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s, the older the demographics skew; until a stone’s throw from this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, beers and bikinis are completely overcome by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code is the bigger apartment – which means a happy, across-condo relationship between Nonnie and Papa and Gina and I. Like the apartment in Hallandale, this guest room has a separate door to the outside world (or at least to a main corridor), and much to our teenage delight, the next door over leads to an unused stairwell, Marlboro Lights, poorly rolled joints, and late night escapades with New York girls and their East Coast drinking games.

Gone are Nonnie and Papa’s halcyon Florida days of total authority and complete control. These are the carefree days of baby oil and B-52s, getting stoned in the sauna and drinking beers on the beach.

Of convincing Nonnie to hand over the keys to the Caddy, rolling down the windows, turning up the radio, and inhaling the salty air, the Florida sunshine, and the sweet smell of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us and Nonnie – through binoculars from her balcony sixteen stories up – noticing them, noticing us.

These were the Florida days of pushing boundaries, especially ones poorly guarded.

I blame Gina.

Mostly.

I’d never have the guts to go beyond the Claridge’s pool gates if she didn’t first get that glint in her eyes, which always urges me to follow.

Down to the beach.

Well past dark.
Well past curfew.

Who knows how long Nonnie has been pacing in front of the newly identified escape route, but we’re barely through the door before the tirade – which nearly lifts her off her tiny, bunioned feet – begins.

She cross-examines, reprimands and threatens expulsion; then leads us to Papa waiting in the living room, leaden and pacing.

Looking angrier than I’ve ever seen him.

Louder than I’ve ever heard him.

When all is said – which isn’t much – he turns his back and sends us to bed.

Things are now different between Papa and me, not being who he wants me to be.

When Gina and I un-eagerly make our way to the kitchen the next morning, the first thing we see is a newspaper article with the headline, “Girls Charred on Beach”, scotch-taped prominently on the refrigerator and Nonnie, fiddling with something at the counter, with her back to us, sighing and tsk-ing, but not saying anything.

She spent the remainder of the morning behind closed bedroom doors on a call with her sisters, Camille and Rose, filling them in on two of life’s latest disappointments; heralded, at times, in a pitch so high, dogs throughout the 20-story building begin to bark.

This leads to quieter Florida days, when solo visits mean I’m more observer than observed; studying Nonnie and Papa in their well-aged routine of marital indifference.
Wondering if I know what a happy marriage looks like?

Watching the old ladies down by the pool; with their straw sun hats and bad romance novels, their games of Canasta, endless cigarettes, and overly suntanned skin… wondering if they were ever truly Young?

When Papa returns to Chicago to tend to the store, it means hours of Gin Rummy, alone with Nonnie, on the breezy, but sheltered balcony, way above the Atlantic ocean; where 8-track cassettes of Liberace and Lawrence Welk teach me tolerance, and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies. Happy to stay indoors and in our nightgowns.The condo is especially quiet on days like these. No washing machine or television reminding us of other things. Other lives.

No dinner out or big meal in.

We barely move. Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears (while I practice the art of the shuffle) and returns with a plateful of sweet, powdery pizzelle and cold milk, or calzone, cheesy and crusty, and hot from the oven.

Delicious Florida days of doing nothing.

Within Close Range: Florida, the early years

Florida Days: the early years

The first apartment Nonnie and Papa buy to escape Chicago’s meanest of seasons is in Hallandale, on Florida’s east coast. It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom built at the corner of an inland canal; brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites, and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.

A peculiar land of tropical scents and strikingly unfamiliar sights. Far removed from the only place I know, home.

Put to bed too early, I lie in the back sitting room-turned-bedroom for hours on end, tossing and turning on the hard and lumpy sofa-bed. Listening intensely to the unfamiliar sounds of apartment living, made especially audible by the glass-vented door in my room that opens onto the building’s exterior hallways.

My slatted portals to this unknown world.

The sounds of the apartment people returning from the pool, the shops, the grocers; of doorbells ringing and little feet skipping, and hugs and kisses and friendly greetings. Of moist, ocean winds, carrying the scent of orange blossoms and creeping jasmine, algae, brine and fresh oiled asphalt.

Breathing in the ladies’ perfumes as they stroll past the open vents, I’m fascinated by how to their laughter bounces against the cement walls of the nearby stairwell and how happy words instantly disappear with the slam of a heavy car door.

Murmurs from the television in the living room add to my apartment-living symphony with its familiar sounds and flickering lights that seep through the bottom of the door, casting short, cryptic shadows on the thickly carpeted, recently vacuumed floor.

Comforting is the knowledge that Papa is in his chair in the room next door. Feet up, arms folded high across his belly, and a large RC Cola at his side. Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper, or growling at the Chicago Bears.

Lying in the still and unfamiliar dark, after Papa finally turns the television off, the inland water’s slow, buoyant motion, lulls me into a deep, scented sleep.

Waking in the morning to mist creeping through the vents, I linger on the lumpy mattress and listen to the apartment people as they begin their days, until wooed by the sounds of those stirring, I stretch toward the clanking of kitchen utensils and the smells of breakfast cooking on the other side of the wall.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Of sand slipping away beneath my feet at the edge of the ocean and seashell hunts as the sun dips low; of Nonnie’s bunioned toes and skinny, seagull legs dipping into the foamy waves, but never past her ankles.

These early days of sunset walks along a stretch of beach that leads to a lighthouse and a tottering, creaky wharf where Papa likes to walk.

And I like to walk with him.

Where fishing boats have funny names and a tiny gift shop, in a weather-beaten shanty, sells orange gumballs packed in little, wooden crates.

Which Papa buys for his Pie-Face.

Of bright, green lizards skittering across pastel walls, and pats on the head by terrycloth clad men playing cards in the shades of umbrellas. Where suntanned women with their giant bosoms and ever-blooming swim caps wade in the shallow end, with big, dentured smiles for the little one visiting Lenore.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Sledding

The toboggan’s scarred and battered prow, with its narrow strips of varnished wood, scratched, warped and dinged, attests to its long history of snowy campaigns.

Trees and rocks eternal foes.

Its red, vinyl pad, cracked and beaten. Its plastic rope ties ever-untying.

It takes little prodding to initiate sledding on the golf course near our home. After a few phone calls, friends from town gather at our back door with a variety of apparatus, ranging from plastic school lunch trays to super-duper downhill racers.

Like a procession of well laden ants, we head down Shoreacres Road and into the heart of winter with spirits high. During the mile or so journey to the ravines, the boys can’t wait for the final destination before throwing themselves and their sleds at slopes of snow – even the dingy, frozen piles left by the plows.

Cheeks crimson, noses dripping, devilish smiles rising, and big boots trudging heavily, they jettison themselves, scraping briefly atop the icy, roadside heap.

Undeterred, the flatter, frozen road ahead spawns another attempt, and the unsuspecting walking there find themselves not indirectly in the path of another misguided trajectory.

Leaving victims strewn in the wake, shouting obscenities, in between fits of laughter.

Crossing thigh-high snowdrifts, pushing against the penetrating Lake Michigan winds, we know there’s reward in the shelter of the woods. In the rise and fall of the ravines just ahead.

By the time the last of the stragglers arrive, bodies are already hurtling down the small, steep hills – feet first and head first – as untouched, uncharted snow is quickly trampled smooth and slick.

So the boys and their sleds can go fast and faster toward the woods below, laughing like hyena, until the next sound is cracking plastic. Followed by moans, grunts, more laughter… and a few more well chosen profanities.

More than slightly apprehensive to sled in tandem with these boy rocketeers, I also know I’ll never gain the speed I crave when sledding solo. So I climb aboard, wrap my arms around their thick, damp, denim layers and look below, to a hand-packed jump designed to make you fly.

Pleading for caution, I know full well that caution is about to be damned.

Down we go, straight toward the jump and into the air. But the moment is fleeting before losing my hold, my pilot, a boot, and a glove. Yet gaining a face full of snow and a smile from ear to ear.

From a resting spot at the top of the hill, I watch the boys with their boundless bravado, attempt daredevil moves of surfing and spinning and bumper sleds. Determined to create one more spectacular crash before the snowy adventure can be considered a success.

By the time the sun begins its early descent, the dampness has sunk deep into our layers and it’s time to stumble home, iced-over and exhausted. The older boys taking turns pulling along the little ones with nothing left to give.

Each step energized by the thought of the warmth that will embrace us when we open the back door. Fueled by the knowledge that a crackling fire and hot chocolates wait at the other end.