Within Close Range: The Car Ride

Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.

Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.

It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.

A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.

I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.

“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”

Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.

Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.

Within Close Range: The Elevator

From the time the youngest of us is moving independently of a parent, Gina, Mary, Mia and I are seen as a small, drifting quartet of cousins at family gatherings. Two distinct gene pools, one common goal: to discover new spaces and unknown places, where no eyes and “No!”s could block our intentions.

Not to sit and behave, but explore the dark closets and dusted cabinets of quiet rooms far from grown-ups, though never far from mischievous brothers.

Gina usually rouses us to expand our adult-free borders; opening doors and waving us through – and when things don’t kill us – boldly stepping past us. Reassuming command.

And we follow.

Just as we do when she leads us out the door of Nonnie and Papa’s apartment and down a long, humdrum hallway of dubious hues, and thick, padded carpet that silences our patent leather footsteps and makes us whisper.

Without any wear on my new, leather soles, I slip and I slip as we pick up the pace of our great escape, past dark, numbered doors behind which come the murmurs of TVs and mumbled voices, and other people’s lives.

Our little flock focuses on the big, brown, metal door at the end of the hall which will lead us to uncharted worlds and unsupervised floors; to a quiet, pristine lobby where unsat-on furniture needs to be sat on, and plants are dusted; and the floor is so highly polished, it glitters and gleams like a magical, marble lake that I want to skate in my stockinged feet.

Mary presses the button with the arrow pointing down. The elevator hums and clicks and begins to move, and the newly learned numbers over the door blink in slow succession, until the lift stops and the door slides open.

In our reluctance to fully accept our independence, we hesitate and the door glides shut. But there’s an unspoken allegiance, so Mary re-presses the button, and back open it slides.

Pushing us into the small, room with dark wood panelling, Gina reaches for the lowest button, and off we go to the little known land of the lobby. I can see its floor before the door is fully open. It shimmers and shines and lures me from the safety of my flock and the moving box.

Gina follows.

Mary follows.

Mia doesn’t.

We watch her tiny body disappear behind the sliding, metal door.

Mary and Gina’s big, brown, Italian eyes go wide and I feel something – panic – suddenly rise. The elevator starts moving, the numbers start lighting, and Mia’s now off on her own adventure – without Captain or crew, or even a clue, as to where she’s going.

At a loss for what to do, we just stare at the door of the moving contraption which slowly ascends to the top floor and stops. Will she get off and try to find her way back to Nonnie and Papa’s? Does she even know what floor they live on?… Wait… Do we?

With this grim realization, the once strong lure of shiny floors and silky chairs is now replaced with powerful thoughts of Mia and Mom and home; of familiar faces, full plates of pasta, filled candy dishes.

And facing consequences.

Worried and wordless, we hear the elevator again click into motion and anxiously watch the numbers descend, kind of hoping when the door slides open, we see a familiar grown-up, or… Mia!

Standing in the exact same spot in center of the elevator where she’d been deserted, looking slightly startled, but happy to see us. Before losing her again, we jump in and watch the elusive lobby disappear behind the sliding door.

Now all we need to figure out is what button will lead us home.

Gina presses all of them.

When the elevator next stops, we hope to recognize something or someone, but nothing and no one is there. The next floor offers a replica of the last and I feel tears bubbling just below the surface. As the door opens to the third floor, it reveals a sight I thought I’d never be happy to see, Jim and John, sent out to search for their sisters and cousins.

“WE FOUND ‘EM!”, Jim hollers, as the boys race back down the brown and beige hall, to the front door of the apartment where Nonnie stands shushing… and waiting… with oven mitt and apron, and a look of consternation.

A scolding is at hand.

Gina smiles at each of us, then turns toward Nonnie.

And we follow.

Within Close Range: The Devil at Lake Forest Cemetery

There’s a grave in the corner of the Potter’s Field at Lake Forest Cemetery.
Rumors tell of devils and demons,
of curses and misfortune;
of strange things happening to graveside visitors.
But I’m curious.
And bored.
Finding two equally bored cohorts, we head out in my convertible.
Autumn whipping our hair.
The heater blasting on our legs as we wind along Sheridan Road,
beneath the red, yellow, orange and brown leaves
silently floating to the ground on the fishy lake breeze;
shrouding the lawns, the sidewalks, the forests, and the last season,
in moist, earthy layers.
Entering the cemetery beneath its great, grey gateway,
we haven’t a clue as to which way to go;
only away from the grand mausoleums and stone angels
that mark the graves of the rich and powerful.
We find the unmarked field down a short, dead-end lane
already twice passed.
A small, unkempt and inconspicuous patch.
No statues, flags, or flowers.
No benches or shade for mourners.
Just a sad stretch of grass, cornered by a chainlink fence,
choked with neglected vines and scraggly branches of struggling pines.
Phil and Betsy step into a small ravine separating us from the forgotten field.
Their feet, ankles and shins sink into a river of yellow and brown leaves
and I’m startled by the thought of them disappearing.
Swallowed by some, strange, autumnal underworld.
Eased only when both climb out on the other side.
Wandering up and down the quiet plot, we find nothing but nameless headstones. Unadorned and unnoticed.
So many stories untold.
Until we happen upon a half-buried cross at the very corner of the lot
where the wealthy suburb’s poor were given their unsung plot.
Barely legible, Damien, is scratched in a crudely made crucifix,
toppled by wandering roots of the towering, lakeside trees.
Smothered by overgrown grass and thick, green moss.
Who cared enough to mark a life among the many lost?
Hovering over the grave, we tell our own tales about death, the damned and Damien,
until the daylight suddenly disappears behind a dark cloud rolling in off the lake,
silent and mountainous, like a great, grey whale.
All at once, wicked gusts of wind turn the sky to twisting, twirling, whirling leaves.
Turning our backs to its unexpected violence, we race to the car,
laughing and swearing and shivering in our meager layers.
As the last roof latch clicks into place, the sky over us turns black and wild,
shaking the convertible.
I clutch the wheel and smile at my friends.
A seasonal storm… or something more sinister?
Best to ask later.
I turn the key, but nothing happens.
After a moment of startled looks and nervous laughter, I try again.
Not a sound, except the pounding rain and my impassioned pleas.
On the third try, the engine fires up and my shaking hands quickly shift the car into gear.
Phil and Betsy urge me forward a little too loudly.
Just as the cemetery gates appear in the rear view mirror, the violent storm ends,
and the sun, as quickly as it had abandoned the scene, reappears
as we hurry away from Damien’s grave
on this strange, but strangely perfect autumn day.

Within Close Range: The Dance

When the station wagon rolls away from the curbside, dark and swarming with youth, I begin hunting for familiar faces or voices amid the chatter and the laughter. Desperate not to be standing alone among the dimly lit clusters huddling on the church lawn, cowering, I weave toward the bright light of an open door where a line of my peers is slowly filing into the basement for the Friday night dance.

Plenty of familiar faces dot the scene, but not a friendly one in sight. Until there, at the bottom of the crowded stairs, flash the comfortable smiles of good friends, as happy as I am at the sighting.

Into the dim and din of the dance, we move in a small, giggling mass to areas of equal un-interest: the drinks table, the snack counter – then, to the sidelines surrounding the dance floor, where tiny gangs of nervous pre-teens and new teens twitch, taunt and tell tales.

A group of boys laugh and push and swat at each other as they glance across the floor at a particular ring of girls. Finally, the boy with red hair and distractingly long limbs plucks enough courage to cross the floor toward the girl he’d been dared to ask to dance.

But just as he’s making his way across the vast, sparsely populated stretch of beige and green-checkered linoleum, a popular song comes on which springs the crowd – and his targeted partner – into action.

The dance floor erupts with awkward motion.

The moment – and momentum – are lost.

But the darkness emboldens, and as the first slow song starts spinning conquests are won, as the line drawn between the opposite sexes begins to blur.

Now the dare proves not only daring, but profoundly stirring.

Alluring.

One song leads to another, and another, and another.

New couples on the dance floor encourage others across the hot and cramped basement.

And the boundaries blur further.

Are any eyes on us? On me?

Retreating to the easy obscurity of a dark corner, I watch the clock on the wall – and my friends – whose eyes now focus across the room.

Across the divide.

Within Close Range: The Being in Basements

Some are reached by steep, wooden steps,
only at the end of which,
is a switch,
and salvation from the dark;
where cold, cement floors sting bare feet
and we search for cousins playing hide and seek
beneath an old, pine table,
and in cupboards stuffed with moth balls and old lives.

Down other stairs, parents send rapidly sprouting offshoots
(and their weedy accomplices)
to remain mostly out of sight, sound and smell.
New worlds explored in sunless rooms of cinderblock;
where mismatched 13-year-olds kiss, and later tell,
and budding musicians, mid black lights and bong hits,
learn to shake and rattle the house;
while in the dark and in a lawn chair, I learn to hang out.

Some sunken spaces are like snapshots
kept on a shelf in an old shoebox.
Still lives of vinyl bars and swivel stools
and down-turned glasses on dusty shelves, long unused.
Moth-eaten scenes of what might have been.
A gathering place for friends and kin
where woes of the week were drowned deep in cocktails
and lost in card games – or a top twenty song – to which most sang along,
as the stereo spun its new-fangled, stereophonic sound.
Curious but comfortless, being long-deserted and people-less.
Apart from the ghosts in the room.

My favorite sunken places are worn, but happy spaces
in which my favorite female faces
grow leaps and bounds beside me,
unconstrained and nearly unimpeded by upstairs edicts.
Sharing cigarettes, dance moves, inside jokes
and cases of beer bought just over the border;
making evenings fuzzy, and hangovers a new, underworld reality.
Playing pool, the juke box, the fool;
while trying to play it cool
when faced with firsts and friends far more in the know
about nearly everything that happens down below.

Within Close Range: Streets of Saltine

It happens every few months or so.

There’s never any warning… except that it can happen at any time.

All it takes is a gathering – a restless mob brought together by the arrival of bags from the grocers, the disappearance of anything mildly amusing on television, and as the most logical response to the endlessly gray, listless, Midwestern days.

All it requires are two essentials: a box of saltine crackers pulled from the aforementioned grocery bags, and the disappearance of the herd boss to the back forty.

The challenge comes forth – hushed but fierce – with the flash of a sneer, a glint in the eye, a furtive glance to the cupboard, the challenger, then the cupboard once more.

The seasoned contestants: Jim (spurred into battle by a thirst for victory and an appetite for salt) and myself (the middle, misunderstood child), roused to competition by the absence of anything even slightly better to do.

With the doors leading out of the kitchen quietly closed, siblings crowd around the kitchen island, anxious for some mastication action.

The challengers sit facing each other across the well-worn, linoleum countertop the color of vanilla ice cream. With the large, rectangular box of Premium Saltines placed between us, brows knit with steely determination, as eyes focus on the cracker skyscraper growing higher and higher before them.

“Water!” Jim calls to his ever-faithful minion, Mark.

“Wimp!” I prod my already over-stimulated sibling.

“Ready when you are,” he whispers through a half-chewed plastic straw dangling from the corner of his smirk.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I swallow, feeling the moisture completely evaporate from the tip of my tongue to my tonsils.

The objective: to finish the pile of crackers and be the first to whistle.

The rules: no water during the match and the whistle (as judged by spectators) must be crisp and clear.

At the call of “Go!”, the briny bout begins; hands greedily grabbing cracker after cracker, shoving them into already crammed mouths. Crumb fragments fly across countertops and cupboards, striking innocent bystanders who instantly retreat to all corners of the red brick, kitchen floor.

Teeth are gnashing.

Siblings laughing.

Opponents are trying not to choke, or chuckle.The cardinal rule of the cracker eating contest: He who laughs least has the last laugh.

Sadly, this is my Achille’s heel. Watching my brother spew saltines always brings me to trouble-breathing-can’t-swallow-verge-of-choking-hysterics, rendering me hopeless.

Expelling a final barrage of crumbs, Jim spits forth the first whistle, followed closely by a victory lap around the kitchen, passing the defeated and the disgusted. Arms raised victoriously, he waves to the imaginary crowds and makes cheering noises.

A pain in the ass in victory, and a danger in defeat.

There have been times when I spewed forth the earliest whistle, winning the coveted prize of immunity from all post-competition clean-up, but, for me, the fun has always been in the unfettered indulgence of doing something utterly pointless.

Within Close Range: Stanley

Having had enough of Florida’s winter fun and sun for the. day, I’m sitting in front of the television in Nonnie and Papa’s 18th story living room, when the doorbell rings. Papa’s back at his store in Chicago and Nonnie’s in the kitchen making lunch, so I shuffle across the plush wall to wall, to the large double-doors.

And there, on the other side, stands a tall, slender figure with short, blonde hair and frosted highlights; impeccably dressed in a pastel pink shirt, a flowered, silk kerchief, and crisp, white linen pants.

The stranger asks if Lenore is in.

I turn toward the kitchen and holler, “Nonnie, there’s some lady here to see you!”, before scrambling back to the television.

It’s the first time I’ve met Stanley, Nonnie’s friend (and hairdresser), who also happens to live in the same building with his boyfriend, Roger. I would have felt embarrassed after learning of my gender mistake, but according to Nonnie, he was never more complimented.

Not only is Stanley Nonnie’s most colorful and lively Florida companion – by far – but he can make her giggle more than anyone (besides my great aunts) I’ve ever seen. Even more intriguing is that Nonnie astonishingly and unreservedly gives Stanley center stage. (It’s hard not to.)

In return for stepping back from the preferred spotlight, Stanley showers Nonnie with adulation for her fashion sense, culinary skills, and interior design flare.

It’s a match made in heaven. (Even though Nonnie has to whisper a lot when it comes to talking about her new friend.)

At Stanley’s invitation, we visit their little slice of beach-side paradise two floors up.

It has the same exact layout as Nonnie and Papa’s, in reverse. But that isn’t what disorients me.

It’s the feeling that I’ve just entered another dimension where Nonnie’s alter ego is given free rein. Where, with unimpaired power, her better dressed Doppelgänger has adorned every nook and cranny, every floor and piece of furniture, with textile and tactile expanses of purple.

With chintz and animal prints.

Golden cupids and satin pillows.

Velvet love-seats and silk bed sheets.

And endless yards of draped chiffon.

Where opulent silk flower arrangements sits on every gilded credenza and a colorful porcelain dog, cat, or bird resides around every corner.

As Stanley sweeps from room to room with measured grace and exaggerated ease, Roger – a dark, quiet man (who left a wife and kids, and a lie behind) – stands in the background, smiling contentedly. Proud of his plush and private paradise, where he and Stanley are completely free.

Even though, to me, Stanley seems as free as he can be; floating ahead of us into the newly wall-papered kitchen.

Stepping in behind Nonnie, I first think the effect of the sun streaking through the large bay window overlooking the Atlantic is playing tricks on my eyes, until I realize the walls are choked with make-believe flowers of reds and yellows, oranges, pinks and whites, splattered against a dark purple backdrop – as if the Spring, or perhaps the Easter Bunny, had exploded.

It’s absolutely glorious.

And so is Stanley.