Within Close Range: This Mile of Road

I love the final miles to our back door. The everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.

After a successful fight for window rights, I’ve rolled mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car. Sticking my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.

Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and scarcely inhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.

Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us long after its piercing horn signaled its approach. I race the train, stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my desire will make Dad drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.

But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the passenger cars; into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass. Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.

There is comfort in this blind ritual; in the knowledge that I know this mile of road so well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways, and a giant of a freshwater lake.

Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it; shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn. Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.

The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek, where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.

Each fall, just before the curve and the creek, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a call to local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts and a seasonal signal of that first turn.

Up ahead, I can see in my mind where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right, toward much greater waters. We call this part of the road, “The Straight-Away” because it’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, inspiring newly licensed teenagers to ignore speed bumps.

Sticking my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement, I envision the great expanse of manicured green to my left, the tangled woods to my right, and just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores in a sudden shift from the warm, near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like leaving the glow of a campfire. Even sleepy siblings will reach a hand out the nearest window to feel it. Because feeling it, is feeling home.

At the end of the Straight-Away, Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff on the right. I imagine it ’s covered in fog and dimly lit by the street lamps lining its long, unapproachable entrance.

Just past the clubhouse, the wagon gently turns left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.

An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine is a story higher than the two-story house: shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower; while giant villains in the fog, and enormous yuletide beacons, strung from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.

Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence, behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) On the nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights, I hear my father grumble and briefly my eyes for chance to see if, in between the pickets, I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.

Happy to be past it and moments from home. Minutes from bed.

A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we’ve turned onto it by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the wagon as it winds its way through the woods and the summer smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.

And familiar.

Bringing me ever nearer to sleep.

Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.

I close my eyes for one more game. I pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed, and to my dreams.

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.

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.

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.

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.