Within Close Range: The Phone at the End of the Hall

The phone at the end of the hall, right next to my room, comes to life in the middle of the night; its merciless metal bells clanging, resounding off the tall walls of the winding front steps, and down the long, carpet-less hallway.

Startled from my dreams and tormented by its unanswered ring, I crawl over whichever dog or cat is hogging most of the bed and quickly shuffle toward the noise, hoping to get to the phone before another blast of the bell pierces my brain.

Fumbling for the receiver – and words – I already know that the only kind of news that comes in the middle of the night is usually bad. Or at least not very good – and if I’m answering the phone, it means Mom and Dad didn’t, and I’m about to be made the reluctant messenger.

Sleepless in the hours that follow. Anxious to hear the garage door rumble. Hoping the yelling and the lecture happened during the ride home.

And that all the gory details will come over a bowl of cereal in the morning.

Happy everyone is back and in bed. And all is quiet at home again.

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.

Within Close Range: Speech Class

Walking hand in hand through the woods to Sherwood Elementary – just Mom and me – I stay in the playground, hanging by my knees against the cool, metal monkey bars; looking upside down at the grey, September sky, wondering what I’ve done to make Mrs. Paschua, my first grade teacher, want a meeting.

On our way home, Mom explains that they talked about the way I speak and why I might have troubles with certain sounds. Mrs. P. thought Mom might be the reason – perhaps a foreigner (with that foreign-sounding name). I giggle when Mom tells me how surprised my teacher was to discover that Mom – that we – are as alien as apple pie.

But I love the thought of someone thinking I’m different. It makes me feel special – a little exotic.

Sherwood Elementary thinks I’m special too. Enough to take me out of class each week to send me to speech therapy, where they work the entire year to make me sound just like everyone else.

Within Close Range: The Great Chicken Debate

Whether going out or eating in, food either consumes Nonnie’s thoughts or busies her hands for hours each day, managing laborious feats and four-course, Italian feasts – piping hot dishes of handmade manicotti or tender, breaded cutlets, garlicky vegetables, hot rolls, vinegary salads and sweet desserts.

Second helpings are always encouraged at Nonnie’s dinner table and praise for the cook, expected – as well as a little too vehemently rejected.

The three greatest mis-steps at this Italian table?

One: cutting spaghetti. Either twist it or prepare for a gentle cuff on the back of the head from Papa.

Two:  if all diners are not seated at the table while the food is still visibly steaming… Nonnie will burst several blood vessels.

And three:  never…EVER… say you’re not hungry. Utter blasphemy.

We like to rattle her with unexpected visits and ravenous appetites, watching her forage through the refrigerator and freezer, brimming with outwardly unidentifiable, but doubtlessly delicious leftovers, sealed inside ancient Tupperware and old Cool Whip containers. Happy to see us, but perceptibly agitated that she can only offer what she sees as barely acceptable fare, each serving is dished up with a generous dollop of misgiving.

I’ve never known anyone as good at cooking as Nonnie, who complained about it more.

So it’s little wonder that while visiting in Florida, the moment Papa announces we’re having dinner out, a palpable – near frenetic – excitement  electrifies the apartment.

Following the proclamation, Nonnie spends most of the day in her housecoat, in a walk-run, making sure everyone’s dress clothes are pressed precisely, her hair is maintaining its proper “do” beneath a sea-green hair net, snack intake is severely monitored, and her sisters, Camille and Rose, are consulted and updated (via long distance) on EVERYTHING.

For Nonnie, dining out is the equivalent to an audience with the Pope.

For me, such an event proves far more predictable than papal. More “Holy Cow” than Holy Spirit.

And it most definitely means Italian – old school – with its enticing smells and curtained nooks, smartly dressed waiters with thick accents, and an animated maitre d’ who greets everyone like family. It means trompe l’oeil walls of rural Tuscan scenes, rich, red fabrics draping doorways, and rolling dessert carts filled with cannoli and tiramisu.

From well below the mouthwatering chaos, I watch the loaded serving trays — piled high with pastas and soups, roasted chickens and fresh seafood — pass deftly overhead, with a “Scuza, Signorina!”, until a hand on my shoulder gently guides me out of the busy traffic and into a chair in front of a round table covered in linens and complex table settings.

A fast-moving figure from behind casts a well-aimed cascade of ice water into one of the two stemmed glasses set at eye-level before me.

Tempted and tormented by big baskets of breadsticks and freshly baked rolls, my hand’s gently spanked away from a second helping.

“You’ll spoil your dinner,” Nonnie scolds. (When what she secretly has in mind is a bakery heist for tomorrow’s breakfast.)

Excitement rises with the arrival of the menu which ignites imaginations and appetites.

Wherein the problem lies… with inexplicable regularity, when presented with an abundance of choices, Nonnie almost inevitably orders veal.

The choice seems harmless, but it’s enough to make family members cringe and Papa’s blood boil – not because baby cow meat is one of Nonnie’s favorite things to eat, but because every time she orders veal (whether Marsala or Picante, upscale joint or neighborhood favorite), she usually ends up taking only a couple of bites.

One for eternal optimism.

The other, raging cynicism.

Then raising her head from her plate and, wearing utter disappointment as a mourning veil, complains meekly but unmistakably.

“This isn’t veal… This is chicken… I’m sure this veal is chicken.”

And like clockwork, another battle in Nonnie’s tireless crusade to unmask poultry dressed in calves’ clothing begins, prompting children to slip lower in their seats and adults to start commenting about the day’s weather; while Papa bows his head and sighs with exasperated disbelief.

He and his wife then begin a short-lived, but emotionally escalating and frustrating exchange that will end with Papa vowing to never take Nonnie out to a restaurant again, and Nonnie looking self-righteous, misunderstood and miserable, as she rummages through her dinner-roll-filled-handbag looking for a tissue.

The drive home is what I imagine floating in space is like.

Silent. Solitary. Dark.

Except for the lights emanating from the dashboard (most particularly, the green turn signal arrow which Papa habitually leaves blinking) which let me know other life forms still exist.

A few days pass, then Papa announces we were going out to dinner.

Again. (Sigh.)

Nonnie’s excitement rises anew…

Until the waiter approaches her with his pen and pad in hand, and with all eyes anxiously upon her… she orders the veal.

And Papa ends up swearing that it’s the very last time he’ll ever take her out to dinner.

A vow he’ll repeat until the day he dies.

Nonnie, however, will work tirelessly in her quest for veal for decades more.

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.