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.

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.

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.