Within Close Range: Tubular Bells

Built on a slope, at the end of a cul du sac, down a short, steep drive, everything about the holiday rental house feels dark, narrow, sunken, and really, really hairy.

The owners of the house on the outskirts of Snowmass, Colorado own several Huskies – or rather, several Huskies own this house as can be gathered by the Husky-related photos, ribbons, paintings and pillows.The neighbors next door also have one of these intrepid snow dogs, who sits on the frozen earth at the end of a chain by their front door, all day and all night. Quietly watching us come and go.

Everything about the rental house feels well-loved and lived-in – if not a little too; an ingenious plan (or a happy accident) to be staying where messes and mishaps can be easily forgiven. Easily hidden. With little worry of expensive damage or extensive injury.

So, determined to enjoy at least some of the family vacation (without the whole damn family), Mom and Dad make plans for dinner out, leaving the five of us with several pizza delivery menus, cash, and a warning to be on our best behavior.

By the time dinner is being noisily digested and discharged in a particularly fierce burping and farting duel between Jim and Mark, we’re already restless, as the explorable world around us shrinks to the cluttered rooms and narrow corridors of someone else’s life.

Someone who doesn’t like T.V.

That’s how Jim discovers the stereo.

Leaving him happily crouched over stacks of albums, Chris, Mia and I decide to get ready for bed before playing cards. Looking for a corner of the shared bedroom where spying eyes can’t see me in my undies, I find a spot between the window and bed where I shiver and squiggle into my nightgown.

A mournful howl just outside the window gives my goose-pimples, goose-pimples.

Peeking around the curtain and rubbing away enough frost on the glass, I see the Husky next door baying in the shadows of the bright moon. Receiving no reply to his woeful song. I linger at the window, hoping to hear an answer to his haunting moonlight serenade, but instead, hear strange noises from within.

Jim is up to something… We all sense it.

But before Chris, Mia and I even have a chance to express our shared concerns, the entire house goes completely dark.

Crap.

The Husky howls again, filling the pitch bllack room with his sorrowful song.

“Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” Chris shouts through the closed and now locked bedroom door into the dark and unknown. “Turn the lights back on!”

No reply.

There’s a tap on the door, but we say nothing.

There’s another tap.

Mark whispers meekly from the other side, “Come on you guys… Let me in…”

Now Mark has been Jim’s loyal minion many times in the past, so opening that door might very well mean an ambush. But Mark is a lousy liar – and an even lousier actor –  and his frightened pleas are a little too real. We feel our way, en masse, to the door, open it only slightly, and grabbing Mark’s skinny arm in the dark, Chris yanks the youngest through.

Rubbing his manhandled limb, he pleads innocence as we pepper him with questions, soon convincing us that he has no idea where Jim is, or what he’s up to.

Before long, we have our answer. From out of the pitch black, the familiar rise and fall of notes on a piano can be heard coming from the living room. The haunting song is “Tubular Bells”, better known as the theme music for, “The Exorcist”; a simple series of horrifically hypnotic notes currently sending shivers up millions of theater-going spines.

Even for those not old enough to see Linda Blair’s head spin, the tales of the movie’s shocking scenes (and cursed actors) have been playground fodder for months and it’s clear that Jim is committed to scaring the shit out of us, spending nearly an hour trying to figure out the house’s electrical panel so he could turn all the lights off, but leave the stereo playing.

Truly committed… or perhaps, should be.

As the terror-inspiring piano solo repeats for the umpteenth time, we feel trapped, defenseless, directionless. The longer we stay holed up behind a locked bedroom door, the longer Jim has to think of more ways to scare us.

It’s decided. We have to head into the dark. Face the music.

Find Jim, or he’ll find us.

Chris quietly unlocks the bedroom door and opens it a crack to see what she can see – which is nothing. She opens it a little wider. Still more black.

Tubular Bells is now flooding the bedroom.

He’s out there, somewhere.

Without ceremony, we shove Mark out the door first. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I watch his small, shirtless frame stall in the center of the hallway, not knowing which way to turn.

“Do you see anything?” Chris whispers.

If Mark replies, none of us hear it over the musical crescendo. He swivels right – as if he’s heard or seen something – and begins to head down the hallway toward the other bedrooms – away from all known exits. We feel obliged to follow, but as soon as the three of us step into the hall and turn toward Mark, a dark, moonlit, figure growls and lunges toward our tiny, hapless human sacrifice from a hallway storage closet half-way down.

All I see before pushing through Chris and Mia in a frenzied retreat is Mark’s body suddenly stiffen and spring a foot off the ground before collapsing into a heap on the hairy carpeting in the center of the dark, narrow hall.

Leaving Mark in the dark to fend for himself, Chris, Mia and I slam and lock the bedroom door.

Moments later, all goes quiet…

… too damn quiet.

We crack open the door to see what’s become of Mark, but he’s nowhere to be seen. His defection to the other side is neither unexpected, nor unwarranted. And very unsettling.

In the still, dark bedroom of the still, dark house, all I can hear is Chris and Mia breathing, and the Husky howling, long and sorrowfully.

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: Tiny Terrors

I save every penny I can to buy things for my very first household: a two-story, six room, pale yellow Colonial with black shutters, rose-filled window boxes, and a square footage of about three.

Placing my tiny, new items in their tiny, proper places, house proud and satisfied, I head downstairs to the laundry room for dusting rags. I’m only gone a few minutes, but as I come around the front facade of my beautiful home – thinking of fake-watering my fake flowers – I’m shocked and horrified.

The tiny patriarch of my miniature clan is not where I left him, sitting on the living room sofa with a wee book in his lap.

Daughter is still at the piano where I left her, but slumped over. Arms splayed across the keys.

I find Father directly above, in the four poster bed, pant-less and laying rather indelicately on top of Mother; while in the bathroom, next door, Baby has been stuffed – diapers up – in the porcelain toilet with the long chain pull.


My fearful but transfixed eyes move to Grandmother’s room next door, slightly disappointed to find nothing – no one. Maybe Grandmother’s safe.

But the thought is fleeting when in the kitchen below, I find my sweet, old, grey-haired Grandmother, and her tiny bun I carefully brush with the tip of my finger, has been shoved in the oven of the cast iron stove. The soles of her sensible shoes searing into my memory.

But where’s Son? He’s not in the fridge, under the sofa, in the clawfoot tub. Searching both floors of the colonial, there’s only one place left…

Slowly raising the balsa-shingled roof (lof my pale yellow, Colonial house with black shutters and rose-filled windows boxes, (which Jim was forced to cut and glue as punishment for his last dollhouse infraction), I can’t see him anywhere.

Then I spy the tiny trunk in the corner…

Oh, the tiny horror.

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: 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: 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: Sixteen Steps in Three Parts

Part One:

At the end of the front hall is a door leading to steps – sixteen in all – winding one-eighty to the upstairs hall; a four-paneled portal to the children’s domain, keeping first floor parents separate.

And sane.

It’s also vital for a game we play, set into motion by two things:  a large box arriving, and Mom and Dad leaving.

As soon as headlights disappear down the driveway, we begin grabbing every cushion and pillow from every sofa, chair and bedroom; and meeting at the top of the winding staircase, toss one after another over the railing until we’ve created a tottering stack of softness, penned in by the aforementioned door.

Flanked by wild smiles at the top of the stairs, Mark, in a Magic Marker race car (we secretly souped up earlier), is pushed down the steep, carpet-less track. But the dreaded hairpin turn half-way down, quickly ends the Cardboard Box Jockey’s run, just inches from where the ocean of cushions begins.

When the race car gets totaled and tossed aside, there’s still the pile of pillows.

We all agree.

Mark’ll jump first.

To make sure it’s safe.

And when he climbs from the pile unscathed, we each take turns taking the plunge, until failing to recognize Jim’s bored, half-crazed eyes, things take a turn and Mark suddenly finds himself dangling over the railing, as a Swanson’s T.V. Dinner threatens to reappear through fearless, but foolish, upside-down taunts.

Inverted arms defiantly crossed.

Jim slightly loosens his grip around the youngest’s ankles, and smiles like the devil.

But we know he’ll never let go… not intentionally.

Not specifically intentionally.

Part Two:

Changing Malibu Barbie’s outfit for her big date with Ken, I hear Jim making his way along the hallway, moving toward the curving, front staircase next to my bedroom.

As he passes the door and starts down the stairs, I’m suddenly, impulsively, spurred to action. (My future line of defense: Lack of Premeditation.)

Quietly reaching around the corner to the light switch at the top of the staircase, I-

Click.

Thump-bump-bump-HUMPF-thump-bam-thud.

Down Jim goes like an angry sack of potatoes.

“GOD DAMN IT! Who turned off the lights?!”

Tittering nervously, I creep away in the dark, feeling both revenged after years of big brother torment, and remorseful for my utter lack of foresight.

My ad-libbed evildoing results in a broken, big toe. And Jim’s thirst for my blood.

Damn my telltale tittering.

History soon has the gall to repeat itself when a few days later, there in my room – with no thoughts of wrongdoing, whatsoever – I hear familiar footsteps (now favoring one foot) heading down those cursed stairs.

Then something wicked this way come.

I tip-toe to the door, again, and quietly reach for the switch.

Click.
Thump…thump-thump-thump-bump-BAM-thud!

“ANNE! I’m going to kill you!”

With no parents home for refuge, I run for my life. Ducking and covering. Trying to avoid any siblings who might give me away. Which means ALL of them.

Finally hiding in the dark of the sauna, desperate for the familiar footsteps of a returning adult, I can hear Jim hobble and rage, screaming my name and vowing retaliation.

“I’ll plead temporary insanity.”

But un-consoling are the cedar walls surrounding me.

Guessing the worst is over (or a parent has returned) when the house goes quiet, I open the door to the outside world.

“Even if he’s still mad,” I reason aloud and unconvincingly, “he’ll never catch me with a broken toe.”

“Two broken toes!” growls a voice from behind the door.

Part Three:

With my bedroom right next door.

I know the comings and goings of all stairwell travelers.

I hear when Chris is breaking curfew

and Jim is looking for trouble;

when Mia is sleepwalking,

and Mark is shuffling downstairs for comfort.

From the bottom step, Mom’s “Sweet dreams”

gently rise into our bedrooms and into our dreams;

while Dad’s call for Inspection

bursts up the stairwell and down the hall,

like an air raid siren,

sending bodies scattering in all directions.

I listen for Mom and Dad’s footsteps below.

For Dad to toss his keys into the pewter bowl.

I listen for the sound of the staircase door opening.

Pleased to hear Mom’s high-heeled footsteps

slowly ascending the winding staircase,

to give good night kisses all the way down the hall.