Within Close Range – Best Friends

We try to light it squatting beneath an old, planked bridge.
Like naughty, little trolls.
Laughing and cursing the unrelenting wind and an almost empty box of matches.
Coughing. Giggling. Coughing.
Startled by the snap of a twig.
Whispering and waiting for something in particular.
Not caring about anything in particular.
Until the tiny roach sticks to my mouth and I wince.
Pulling the burning paper from my lower lip.
Betsy laughs.
Which makes me laugh.
Even though it hurts like hell and my lip is already blistered,
making me to worry about how I’m going to explain the burn to Mom and Dad –
who notice every pimple.
But then I stop caring.
Content to be beside my friend.
Standing firm against the bitter lake winds.
Feeling happy just to be,
we walk beside the tiny creek.
Sudden cravings hasten our final footsteps.
Down the deserted road of my secluded neighborhood.
Stepping over acorns and twigs fallen from late October trees.
Side by side.
Stoned.
Smiling in the comfortable silence of a very, best friend.

Within Close Range: Betsy’s Dad’s Den

Each time I lit the candle, a rich, earthy fragrance brought forward hazy memories, vague images which came briefly into view and then vanished amid so many forgotten days. 

I’d light the candle and back they’d come.

Out of focus, but strong.

One day, with the faint but familiar fragrance still in the air, still teasing my middle-aged mind, I reached for the smoky-colored glass containing the candle and turned it over, hoping the label would reveal something – anything, that might re-animate these mislaid memories.

And there it was, my answer. Pipe tobacco.

Almost immediately, a clear vision from those indistinct days came to me; a beautiful memory of Mr. Gould’s den, tucked in the corner of the Gould’s grey-green, two chimney Colonial, which sat a short block from the edge of Lake Michigan.

You could find it by heading straight east down Scranton Avenue, the main street of Lake Bluff’s hardly-a-downtown business district.

The old house sat in a quiet spot amid tree-filled lots and winding ravines and looked as if it had been there almost as long as the venerable trees which towered over it.

Stepping into the Gould’s house was like stepping out from the Way Back Machine with Mr. Peabody. Everything from its old plaster and uneven, wood floors, to its cozy nooks and small, sunlit rooms filled with old things, incited my imagination.

And the kitchen – old bricks and beams – will always smell of fresh-baked bread. 

Betsy and I would cut thick slices off a golden brown loaf cooling on the tall counter and sink our teeth into the still warm, chewy insides that hinted of honey and butter and left our fingers powdered with flour, and my stomach hungry for more.

With the final crusts of bread stuffed into our mouths, we’d climb the steep, narrow, crooked flight of stairs to Betsy’s room, straight ahead. 

Two rooms, really. One being her bedroom, the other a small, summer sleeping porch with northwest walls of old, paned windows; where generations of restless sleepers sought lake breezes during the dependably hot and humid Midwest summer nights. 

Cots and cotton nightgowns. 

Late summer sun and the strident thrum of crickets. 

An old Victrola winding down a ragtime tune – tinny, scratchy and lazy to finish.

Another time still haunted the corners of this room. 

Before the piles of fabric, patterns and sewing stuff cluttered the small, bright space at the corner of the Gould’s old Colonial near the lake, where we’d spread out across Betsy’s high bed and talk dreamily about our four favorite men: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Spinning their albums until daylight left and my ride home appeared at the front door.

The rest of the upstairs was a mystery to me, being two-thirds occupied by teen brothers, whose rare appearances and even rarer visits to Betsy’s room usually lasted briefly and annoyed her thoroughly.

It simply scared the shit out of me.

On occasion, when Betsy sought out her dad during my visits, we’d wander back down the creaky, old stairs, through the dark front entry hall (which no one ever seemed to enter through) to the one and only place I ever recall encountering Betsy’s dad.

His den.

With a timid rap on the solid, old door, we’d hear his gentle voice give permission to enter this space, his special place.

His sanctuary.

And it was here, as the door opened and I entered behind my best friend, that the smell of sweet and spicy, earthy and smoky, became an inexorable part of me.

As did Mr. Gould, ever at his desk. Smoking his pipe. Sweatered like the perfect professor.

Ever engaging his hands and his mind.

Creating. 

Drawing. 

Building dreams.

And ships in bottles.

Magnificent, masted vessels of extraordinary detail. Masterfully constructed. Delicately painted and meticulously engineered within ridiculously constrained glass confines.

When finished, each ship would join the miniature armada that floated on a sea of books on wooden shelves, near paneled walls and paned windows with mustard drapes and a glass-topped coffee table filled with shells and sticky sand from innumerable spilled milks.

Like the room above, the windows of Betsy’s dad’s den overlooked Scranton Avenue.

Each night (Betsy would tell me), without fail, her dad would close those long, mustard-colored curtains and sit at his desk to busy his hands and block out the world.

Yet each and every time a car drove past, she found it most mysterious that her dad would draw the drapes back – just enough to watch the car pass – and then close them again and return to his task.

And his deliciously fragrant pipe.

And his secret snacks – Pepsi and Fritos – hidden beneath his desk.

And there he’d stay, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, making beautiful things for make-believe worlds.

I could have sat in there for hours exploring the books, the shelves, the bottles, and the mind of a quiet, creative man. All of which, as a child, were out of reach.

Yet now reach out to me. 

Calling me back to the old, two-chimney, grey-green, Colonial on Scranton Avenue.

To Betsy’s dad’s den.

To his ships and his pipe and the sweet aroma.

To fresh baked bread.

And lazy afternoons.

With best friends.

Within Close Range: Anita

Anita was one of those agile, young gymnasts whose limberness and daring were a constant source of admiration and envy.

She seemed to be able to do it all: front flips, back flips, backbends, splits.

I couldn’t even cartwheel.

I did a relatively competent forward AND backward somersault, but this garnered little admiration or support from my peers. So, I spent a good deal of time laying back on lawns.

Observing.

Awed, in particular, by Anita’s long, lanky, bendy body twisting, turning and taking flight. Wondering why and how she could do the things she did, when those skills so skillfully eluded me.

Or was it the passion to try?

But Anita’s dexterity defied the norms of stretchability because Anita was (and still is, I’ll venture to guess) double-jointed.

Be it slumber party or playground, upon request, she would good-naturedly demonstrate this unusual trait by pulling the tips of all four fingers back until the tops of her nails touched her forearm; misshaping her long, slender, freckled hand and wrist, as if made of moist clay.

She could also invert her knees and shoulders until her bowed silhouette looked as if it had been blown inside out, reminding me of an upturned umbrella on a rainy, windy day in The Windy City.

Almost cartoonish.

Illogical and ludicrous.

Her semi-regular recess demonstrations gathered curious, new kids to circle around and gasp at her unearthly elasticity – almost as much as when our classmate, Amy, popped out her false eye.

With a delicate balance of respect and horror, her bendable ways made me think of my Barbie, whose own bendy parts had long ago broken from time after time of forcing bendy poses. There were times I attempted to be like Barbie and my friend, but my body resisted and instead of smiling through it (like Barbie) and pushing through it (like Anita), I felt impossibly cramped and uncomfortable.

Disjointed. Disfigured. Dysfunctional.

Graphic images of parts breaking – snap!, like a twig – were stubborn to leave my imagination. So I quit trying.

Preferring to watch from the shade of a tree, where rubbing my knuckles and elbows and knees with their imaginary aches and graphically imagined breaks, I marveled at my double-jointed friend, who could bend and bend and bend.

My Friend

My beautiful friend, with the beautiful smile.

Weighted by fear.

Flattened with worry.

Wanting happiness, but not minding your own.

Keep it simple.

Keep it clear.

Take a long, deep breath.

And another.

Take hold of the thing that gives you power.

That powers your passion.

That fills you with fire.

Be fearless.

You’ll soon find the you that smiles more than once in a while.

And makes you my beautiful friend, with the beautiful smile.