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: Tornado Watch

The cement-floored, window-welled basement of the house is the biggest indoor space we have to spread out, but it comes at a price. My bare feet are regular magnets for misplaced thumb tacks; while misplaced gerbils, who disappear beneath appliances, leave the already dank underground smelling like fabric softener and tiny, rotting corpse.

It’s also the first place we head every spring when tornado season arrives and the local siren sounds, sending neighborhood kids scattering to their homes, and Mom shuffling everyone down below, where we wait for incoming reports.

With the TV and radio competing and other siblings playing, I stare out the small, ground-level window, half-hoping to see the funnel at the end of the our street, moving down its center, like a spinning top, whirling and powerless.

But I know a tornado isn’t powerless. It’s dangerous and threatening my world.

Comforting is the sight of Mom ironing; while through the grimy glass I wait for the mean, dark sky to lighten, the all-clear to sound, and life in the neighborhood to return to its routine.

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 Neighborhood

Just northwest of Chicago, in Deerfield, Illinois, King’s Cove is 1960s, middle-class suburbia, where Good Humor trucks and men in white hats sell Chocolate Eclair bars with the solid chocolate centers, as they jingle past weedless, well-mown lawns and small, tree-filled lots; where neighbors are friends, your best friends are neighbors, and school is the next block over. 

Our house in King’s Cove is an unmistakable yellow, like hard-boiled egg yolk, as is the wood grain panelling on the side of the Grand Safari station wagon after Mark, a paint can, and a brush are left unattended. And even though it’s small for seven, it never feels crowded, except in the one, tiny bathroom we kids share. All tangles and toothpaste.

Our yolky Colonial has all that we need, all that we know: a small front yard with a tiny patch of grass and a newly planted tree, a split rail fence, and a lawn in back. Dad built a treehouse here, where my best friends, Cherie Dusare and Lynn Bubear, and I hoist the ladder, shut the trap door, and nurture our first true friendships, formed by first experiences. 

And I begin to discover the courage to find my own voice among the din of four siblings.  No longer contented by blanket and thumb and going quietly unnoticed in our tiny world of well-worn paths through quiet backyards, which lead to school and monkey bars, and friends the next street over; where each winter, the Jayne’s sloping lawn next door turns to a sledding hill and every summer, the Beak’s back patio and mossy garden pond come alive in the shade of the trees.

I like to sit on the small, stone, vine-covered wall and watch big-eyed frogs, bold chipmunks and bright orange koi go about their business of being beside the small, trickling waterfall, in the dark, green garden of this house on the corner.

Across the street live Amy and Abbey, the dark-haired twins – and my friends – who dress the same and make me wonder what it would be like to see another… be another me?

But my best friends live at the other end of the block where the three of us sneak into the Dusare’s paneled living room, enticed by taboo and a best friend’s promise of seeing a picture of naked men. 

Tip-toeing and giggling as we cross the shag carpeting, socks and static electricity spark already heightened senses. Cherie knows exactly where the album is in the long, low, hi-fi cabinet with the accordion door. She grabs it and holds it to her chest, scanning the scene signs of adults. 

My heart beats through my crocheted vest. This is my apple. I take my first bite.

Thanks to dim, red lighting and well-placed fog machines it’s little more than a nibble. But my curiosity is peaked, and it’s my very first secret to keep with my first best friends from the neighborhood.

Within Close Range: The Flying Nun

Sitting on the basement’s wooden stairs,
staring down at Jim and Dad below,
knee-deep in water that doesn’t belong,
I see Dad is mad. Really mad.
Which makes me want to do something.
Say something.
“I wish I was the Flying Nun,” I sigh,
as I watch my favorite Barbie float by,
“so I could fly all over this mess.”
I long to soar above the world
on starched, white wings.
like Sister Bertrille each week on TV.
I want to make things better.
I want to put things right,
then rise above my house and over the trees,
around the schoolyard and up the street.
With this said, Dad suddenly stops being mad.
Smiling at me and shaking his head,
the earthbound task of clean-up begins.

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 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 Dance

When the station wagon rolls away from the curbside, dark and swarming with youth, I begin hunting for familiar faces or voices amid the chatter and the laughter. Desperate not to be standing alone among the dimly lit clusters huddling on the church lawn, cowering, I weave toward the bright light of an open door where a line of my peers is slowly filing into the basement for the Friday night dance.

Plenty of familiar faces dot the scene, but not a friendly one in sight. Until there, at the bottom of the crowded stairs, flash the comfortable smiles of good friends, as happy as I am at the sighting.

Into the dim and din of the dance, we move in a small, giggling mass to areas of equal un-interest: the drinks table, the snack counter – then, to the sidelines surrounding the dance floor, where tiny gangs of nervous pre-teens and new teens twitch, taunt and tell tales.

A group of boys laugh and push and swat at each other as they glance across the floor at a particular ring of girls. Finally, the boy with red hair and distractingly long limbs plucks enough courage to cross the floor toward the girl he’d been dared to ask to dance.

But just as he’s making his way across the vast, sparsely populated stretch of beige and green-checkered linoleum, a popular song comes on which springs the crowd – and his targeted partner – into action.

The dance floor erupts with awkward motion.

The moment – and momentum – are lost.

But the darkness emboldens, and as the first slow song starts spinning conquests are won, as the line drawn between the opposite sexes begins to blur.

Now the dare proves not only daring, but profoundly stirring.

Alluring.

One song leads to another, and another, and another.

New couples on the dance floor encourage others across the hot and cramped basement.

And the boundaries blur further.

Are any eyes on us? On me?

Retreating to the easy obscurity of a dark corner, I watch the clock on the wall – and my friends – whose eyes now focus across the room.

Across the divide.

Within Close Range: The Being in Basements

Some are reached by steep, wooden steps,
only at the end of which,
is a switch,
and salvation from the dark;
where cold, cement floors sting bare feet
and we search for cousins playing hide and seek
beneath an old, pine table,
and in cupboards stuffed with moth balls and old lives.

Down other stairs, parents send rapidly sprouting offshoots
(and their weedy accomplices)
to remain mostly out of sight, sound and smell.
New worlds explored in sunless rooms of cinderblock;
where mismatched 13-year-olds kiss, and later tell,
and budding musicians, mid black lights and bong hits,
learn to shake and rattle the house;
while in the dark and in a lawn chair, I learn to hang out.

Some sunken spaces are like snapshots
kept on a shelf in an old shoebox.
Still lives of vinyl bars and swivel stools
and down-turned glasses on dusty shelves, long unused.
Moth-eaten scenes of what might have been.
A gathering place for friends and kin
where woes of the week were drowned deep in cocktails
and lost in card games – or a top twenty song – to which most sang along,
as the stereo spun its new-fangled, stereophonic sound.
Curious but comfortless, being long-deserted and people-less.
Apart from the ghosts in the room.

My favorite sunken places are worn, but happy spaces
in which my favorite female faces
grow leaps and bounds beside me,
unconstrained and nearly unimpeded by upstairs edicts.
Sharing cigarettes, dance moves, inside jokes
and cases of beer bought just over the border;
making evenings fuzzy, and hangovers a new, underworld reality.
Playing pool, the juke box, the fool;
while trying to play it cool
when faced with firsts and friends far more in the know
about nearly everything that happens down below.

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.

Within Close Range: Runaway Days

My appointment card for our dentist, Dr. Van Hoozen showed up, which means getting to visit a really sweet man – who not only cares for people’s teeth, but the entire village of Hebron, Illinois, acting (at some point or another) as their president, fire chief and police chief.

However, it’s what takes place after the appointment that I’m most excited about: spending the day – alone – with Mom, wandering in and out of the small, rural towns at the northernmost tip of Illinois.

Mom always sees doctors’ appointments as day-long affairs away from household chores, homework givers, and other family members.

And I go along gleefully.

Quietly.

Watching her.

As she takes any turn she wants. Without a care as to where it will lead.

And there, between fields of crops, we discover chocolate shops, donuts stands, and greasy spoons, where lingering over plastic-coated menus, we truants smile at each other; then wander the narrow streets of farming towns, past century-old storefronts. Pausing, here and there, at the buildings needing care.

Checking to see that I’m trailing, Mom swiftly strides from one shop to the next, until disappearing through a large door of wood and glass.

And I give chase.

Soon blissfully lost amid rooms piled high with dusty shelves and dilapidated boxes, stacks of tables and towers of chairs – and books, filled with history and mystery and beauty.

Overwhelming my curiosity.

Here, she buys me an antique, tear-shaped compact of brass and rusty brown leather. Still inside, is its powder and flattened pink puff; under which I discover a tiny, brass hatch and remnants of bright, pink rouge.

Every now and then, as we meander home, I open my tear-shaped treasure to look at my reflection through its stained and smudged, tear-shaped mirror and wonder how many more reflections it has seen…

And what those faces might have been?

None happier than mine.

Spending the day running away with Mom.

Within Close Range: Rocky

You came to Dad as a hired thug,
but found a mentor and friend instead.
And a family who adopted you like so many strays –
the scarred, the scared, the castaways.
Giving you shelter and a place at our table,
away from the streets, the violence and struggle.
Into our home and into our hearts,
like each lovable loser, you’re family now.
Showing duty and reverence to Mom and Dad,
you become a different creature with just us kids;
when you shadow box and dance in an imaginary ring,
reciting poems of your strength, your knock-outs, your wins.
Filling our minds with fact and fiction,
which is which hardly matters when told with conviction.
We hang on every word from your kind, but battered face
and marvel when you flex your “guns” and chew on broken glass.
Your prized possession is a gold championship belt –
that you sometimes like to wear when doing work.
Yet something tells me you’d give the belt away
if you could simply sit and draw all day.
Freeing your imagination and your wonderful art;
which colors the brutal truth of your life
and what you did for the sake of the dollar,
for food for your dog and bread for the table.
With a smile ear to ear and a clue in your eyes,
I sense your words are mostly lies
to camouflage the things you’ve seen,
the things you’ve done.
Thrust into this world misaligned and alone.
Third grade over and you were gone.
Fighting to survive, then fighting on demand.
Forced to do that with your gentle heart and creative hands.
While the real you, the sweet, curious and tender you,
would prefer to make art of comfort and meaning.
A good reason for being.
In your white t-shirt and rolled-up jeans
above ankle-high army boots and a head shaved clean.
you lean on a rake, on a break from your chores,
spinning glorious tales to the curious, young horde.

Within Close Range: Strange Bedfellows

I once woke to find Mia tucked snugly beside me in my twin bed, with most of the covers and most of the space. When I tapped her on the shoulder to point this out, she rolled over (our noses nearly touching), blinked, and groaned, “Anne, what are you doing here?”

“You’re in MY room.”

Looking around briefly, she rolled over again (taking the remainder of the covers with her) and, giving me a swift backward kick, sent me to the floor; where I lay, bewildered, but slightly in awe of her sleep-walking pluck.

We never really know when or what to expect from Mia’s nocturnal wanderings.

And so, returning home late one night, noticing that the light is still on in the den…

“Crap,” I mumble into the open fridge, that must mean Dad’s waiting up.

I begin to formulate one-word responses to his inevitable interrogation. With munchies in hand and alibis at the tip of my tongue, I open the door to the den, only to find Mia on the pumpkin orange sofa, sitting up and staring at the paneled wall ahead.

“Hey.”

No reply.

“Meem, it’s late. Coming up to bed?”

Nothing. Not even a blink. So, I shrug and turn for the stairs.

“Where’s my friend?” I hear from behind.

Turning back around, I ask, ”What friend?”

“My FRIEND!” she replies sharply.

“What friend, Mia? I don’t who you’re talking about.”

“My FRIEND!” she repeats for the third time.

“Look, maybe if I knew what friend you’re talking ab-“

“Shut up, Anne.”

“All-righty, then,” I say as I head toward the stairs and bed.

Passing the boy’s room, I notice that the television is blaring and Mark is still lying on the sofa, face down, with a cat on his shirtless back and a dog at his feet. I turn the T.V. off and gently tap him on the shoulder.

“Kid, you should head to bed,” I whisper, and then start for my own.

Mark raises his head suddenly and calls out, “Anne-Anne-Anne… Would-you, would-you, would-you…open-the-open-the-open-the-open-the-“

Then nothing. He simply collapses back onto his belly and into his dreams.

“Open the WHAT?” I scream from the inside, fearing that if I turn around I’ll likely see Rod Serling, cigarette in hand, furrowing his thick, dark eyebrows as he begins to explain the strange tale of the my sudden plunge into madness.

“I’m way too stoned,” I mumble as I head to the comfort of my room.

Before I get there, however, I notice the lights on in Mia’s bedroom and feel compelled to investigate.

Damn you, Rod Serling.

I find Mia sitting on her bed, doused in light, with a drawing pad in her lap and a peculiar look on her face.

But what I find even more disconcerting is how quickly and stealthily she made her way from the den to her bedroom – up the creaky stairs and down the equally creaky hallway, just feet from where I was in the boys’ room – without my noticing.

I glance up to the mirror above Mia’s desk, where I find instant comfort in seeing both our reflections, and enough cool to ask Mia about her missing friend.

She looks up, but says nothing.

“Your friend,” I’m tortured to press. “The one you were looking for earlier?”

She scrunches her face and tilts her head, slightly.

“Where’s my pink purse?” are the next words out of Mia’s mouth.

I don’t know how to respond. We just glare at one another.

“What?!”

“My pink purse!” she repeats unhappily.

“Okay… now you’re looking for a friend whose name you don’t know AND a purse that’s pink… Am I getting this right?”

“Shut up, Anne.” is all she has to say. And all I can take for one night.

The following morning, both Mia and Mark deny any knowledge of the previous night’s events.

But we know the truth, don’t we, Rod?

Within Close Range: Spring

When wildflowers peek through the damp, leafy forest floor,
windows are flung wide open,
welcoming in the cool, lake breezes
and the smells of spring in the land’s reawakening,
like the thawing corral, heavy with sweet-smelling muck
flung here and there by high-spirited ponies.
Impatient to walk barefoot across the newly sprung lawn
emerging from the still cold ground,
I make tracks across the yard to the edge of the bluff, and back
and coat my toes in mud and early grass.
Spreading spring throughout the house.

Within Close Range: Mutton Stew

I’m in the middle of the pine-paneled restaurant at Boyne Mountain Resort (somewhere at the top of Michigan’s mitt), sitting in a large, carved pine chair – twice as large as it needs to be. 

Looking around the big, round table, there are siblings to the left and siblings to the right, with Mom and Dad straight ahead; and everyone capable of reading the menu, is. Scanning mine for a third time, my eyes keep returning to the word “stew”, which conjures a mouthwatering picture in my head – big, chunks of tender meat in a rich, dark gravy.

“How different could mutton be from beef?” a voice in my head insists – repeatedly – drowning out all inner arguments and already placed orders.

It’s my turn.

“I’ll have the Mutton Stew, please.”

The waitress looks up from her pad, hesitates, and then looks to Mom and Dad.

“Oh, Annie, you won’t like that,” Mom gently suggests. “It has a very strong flavor.”

But I protest.

“Anne Elizabeth.”

“Please, Dad,” I plead, revving the perpetually high-powered motor that drives most eight-year-olds.

Mom urges, once more, to reconsider, but I remain unflappable. The lady is waiting and “The Troops” are hungry and restless. Dad raises his eyebrows, then nods to the waitress.

“All right then, Mutton Stew for the young lady.”

Triumphant, I can already taste the dark, rich gravy. Minutes seem like hours. The baskets of crackers and breadsticks and the pats of butter on small mountains of ice in the center of the big, round, constantly spinning, Lazy Susan are rapidly disappearing.

Beyond the large, glass windows overlooking the resort’s ski hills, the slopes are ablaze and white and dotted with skiers still eager to slip and slide down the gentle, rolling, Midwestern hills. It’s a wonderful sight, but the hungry voice in my head has recently enlisted my stomach, now rumbling, low and loud. Until the waitress returns with her overburdened tray, all I can think about is stew.

Burgers and fries pass by my eyes. Mom has soup and Dad’s given pasta. It takes two hands to carry the large, shallow bowl heading my way. I’m so excited, I can hardly keep still in my seat. My eyes eagerly follow the large, round bowl to the place setting in front of me and I look down to see…

… a sea of grayish-brownish goo; its foul smell already invading my nostrils.

Pungent.

Powerful.

Horrible.

My hunger instantly retreats, but all eyes at the table are on me. Even the waitress is loitering nearby, which means I can’t possibly back down before the first bite and so, with reluctance, I grab the smallest spoon and in it goes.

Releasing more stink from the bowl of brown-gray gloom.

I scoop up a small, dark morsel; highly doubtful about this dubious-scented mouthful.

It’s instant repulsion. Unbridled revulsion. A funky chunk of grisly meat that my tongue and teeth want to reject and my throat wants to eject into the clean, white napkin in my lap. But it’s swallow it, or my pride. 

The mutton punishes me all the way down.

Without a word, Mom and Dad turn their attention to their own plates. All follow.

While I’m left alone to stew.

Within Close Range: Ms. O’Hara

She strides down the halls of Lake Bluff Junior High, with her shoulder length, ginger hair parting seventh and eight graders like the Red Sea. Always looking as if she’s ready to mount a spirited steed, wearing brown and beige tweed, and a steely, determined expression.

She tries to fill young minds with old tales of the rise and fall of nations and heroes, cultures and convictions; and her classroom walls, laden with maps and relics, attest to all she has invested in the cause.

Rarely standing still, the fiery, young teacher has a fiery will to make her students listen; marching up and down the crowded aisles, often wielding a rather persuasive attention-getting device, which comes down with a “CRACK!” on desktops of students attempting to nap.

NOT in Ms. O’Hara’s Social Studies class.

As she canters through the halls with her tousled, red hair, Ms. O’Hara seems fearless and confident and cool, loath to play any part the fool. No one dares question how tough she can be. But I can see.

I can see in those eyes often wild with frustration, an impish will and inclination, lurking in the quiet shadows of a stern reputation. And once in a while, a small, smirking smile, which she’s been hiding all the while, will arise; first in those eyes, then form upon her lips – hands on hips – and eventually she’ll soften, dissolving my inhibition to hang nearby and feed on her powerful presence.

Made even more formidable in her red, Camero convertible.

She likes to rev its engine and make the boys grin, revealing the mischievous side within. Then hitting the gas when all signs of the school are past, she vanishes amid the village trees, in her brown and beige tweeds.

Into the reds and yellows and browns of autumn, and into my earliest images of a strong, modern woman.

Within Close Range: Mr. Hastings

I don’t like science.

But I like Mr. Hastings, my 8th grade science teacher.

A tall, unlikely comrade with his horn-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and barely there, gray hair; with his starched, white, short-sleeved shirt – which never varies – but for the cardigan he wears when a chill is in the air.

Schooling restless, new teens hovering absent-mindedly over Bunsen burners and long braids, sharp scalpels, squeamish lab partners, and former frogs, must have its days.

Especially with the likes of me, barely squeaking out an apathetic C.

Yet Mr. Hastings rarely raises his voice. Rocking the cinder block walls with his frustration only once. Maybe twice.

Still I keep myself invisible behind students and books and beakers. Slipping in and out of class. Answering questions only when asked. Until I see some things on the science teacher’s desk.

Sitting on an old newspaper, near little, brown bottles, some brushes, and neatly folded rags, sit several pieces of small-scale dollhouse furniture, which somehow this giant-of-a-man created with his two giant hands, and a crippled right arm due to Polio.

Even though my female peers are now more interested in boys than theirs, there is little else that I adore more than my dollhouse.

Earned, gifted, and more than occasionally lifted from my Dad’s loose change I amass what cash I can to fill my two bedroom, one bath, pale yellow Colonial, with its newly shingled roof of hand-cut, balsa wood. (Jim’s community service for repeated dollhouse abuses.)

I inch my way closer to the old newspaper, longing to get a closer look at the tiny treasures which I normally have to view behind a locked, glass, display cabinet, guarded by a grumpy, old man, mistrustful of all youth.

Mr. Hastings notices. And there we begin – girl to man – sharing a common devotion.

Lifting a teeny-tiny chessboard into the palm of his illogically enormous hand, this towering 8th grade science-teacher-of-a-man describes with great care how he cut and varnished each itsy-bitsy square.

And I listen.

Ignited by his dedication.

Astonished by each delicate piece of miniature perfection.

I still don’t like science.

But I’ll always like Mr. Hastings, with his perfect bow tie, his pressed short-sleeved shirt and barely there, gray hair, and his remarkably gifted hands.

Within Close Range: Mr. Dieden

I hate P.E. and the sight of green once again spreading across the corner of Artesian Park across from school each spring.

The southeast corner, to be exact, where I suffer through the tortures of Physical Education with activities such as catching a first softball… with my nose… and the annually humiliating 400 yard dash, a quarter mile of side cramps and red-faced misery.

Nauseous and breathless.

Always one of the last to stumble over the finish line.

Destined, in Mr. Dieden’s eyes, to be stuck at the bottom of life’s climbing rope forever.

“Walk it off!” he likes to holler unsympathetically to us stragglers, scattered and collapsing at the side of the coned-in track, circling the corner patch of park grass.

Mr. Dieden, with his crisp, white, short-sleeved shirt and shiny, bald head.

Mr. Dieden, with an ever-present whistle around his neck and clipboard in hand.

Who makes me write: “I will never say ‘Shut Up’ in Mr. Dieden’s 6th period gym class again.”

1,973 times. (One sentence for each year.)

Didn’t even get the “up” out before his voice echoes off the old gymnasium walls, “Miss Celano. I’ll see you after class.”

Like he’s been waiting for it. Hoping for it.

Never a word to Jeff, on the other side of the net, about his “gold bricks and rich brats” remark.

Within Close Range – Grand Safaris and Sunday Afternoons

Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House. 

Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.

Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.

I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.

It’s electrifying.

Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.

Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.

Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly. 

Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.

Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.

Who wouldn’t.

Couldn’t.

Does.

The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon. 

No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent. 

Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there. 

There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.

Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.

Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.

“Click!” 

Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon. 

Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.” 

Within Close Range: Flying

I dream of flying –
like the Flying Nun –
Lifting off the edge of the bluff with the wind.
Rising quickly toward the fat, lazy clouds
hovering over the great lake,
I swoop and circle the nearby harbor
where scattered sailboats bob below
in the calm of the bay.
But the familiar forms, 
hidden back among the trees,
at the edge of the crumbling bluff,
soon call me to the dusky shore.
To home.
And the glowing, kitchen window.
And the figure of Mom in her pink, plaid apron.
Ever regal, ever busy, in her blue and yellow kitchen.
I hover there, in the cool lake air,
listening to the oh, so happy sounds
of pots and plates clinking and clanking.
I try to guess what’s cooking
by what’s wafting through the windows.
Until a strong breeze lifts the aroma and me
back out, over the vast, rippling water.
Past the sunken, old pier
where giant carp spawn year after year.
Past the rocky harbor walls
standing hard against the waves.
Until the house and the cottage and the beach disappear,
and I begin to really soar
over endless stretches of dark and deep.
Crestfallen to find my bed
and solid ground beneath me
when I wake.

Within Close Range: Florida, the early years

Florida Days: the early years

The first apartment Nonnie and Papa buy to escape Chicago’s meanest of seasons is in Hallandale, on Florida’s east coast. It’s a small, but airy, two bedroom built at the corner of an inland canal; brightly decorated in yellows, greens, blues and whites, and perpetually shaded from the Sunshine State.

A peculiar land of tropical scents and strikingly unfamiliar sights. Far removed from the only place I know, home.

Put to bed too early, I lie in the back sitting room-turned-bedroom for hours on end, tossing and turning on the hard and lumpy sofa-bed. Listening intensely to the unfamiliar sounds of apartment living, made especially audible by the glass-vented door in my room that opens onto the building’s exterior hallways.

My slatted portals to this unknown world.

The sounds of the apartment people returning from the pool, the shops, the grocers; of doorbells ringing and little feet skipping, and hugs and kisses and friendly greetings. Of moist, ocean winds, carrying the scent of orange blossoms and creeping jasmine, algae, brine and fresh oiled asphalt.

Breathing in the ladies’ perfumes as they stroll past the open vents, I’m fascinated by how to their laughter bounces against the cement walls of the nearby stairwell and how happy words instantly disappear with the slam of a heavy car door.

Murmurs from the television in the living room add to my apartment-living symphony with its familiar sounds and flickering lights that seep through the bottom of the door, casting short, cryptic shadows on the thickly carpeted, recently vacuumed floor.

Comforting is the knowledge that Papa is in his chair in the room next door. Feet up, arms folded high across his belly, and a large RC Cola at his side. Grinning at Clem Kadiddlehopper, or growling at the Chicago Bears.

Lying in the still and unfamiliar dark, after Papa finally turns the television off, the inland water’s slow, buoyant motion, lulls me into a deep, scented sleep.

Waking in the morning to mist creeping through the vents, I linger on the lumpy mattress and listen to the apartment people as they begin their days, until wooed by the sounds of those stirring, I stretch toward the clanking of kitchen utensils and the smells of breakfast cooking on the other side of the wall.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Of sand slipping away beneath my feet at the edge of the ocean and seashell hunts as the sun dips low; of Nonnie’s bunioned toes and skinny, seagull legs dipping into the foamy waves, but never past her ankles.

These early days of sunset walks along a stretch of beach that leads to a lighthouse and a tottering, creaky wharf where Papa likes to walk.

And I like to walk with him.

Where fishing boats have funny names and a tiny gift shop, in a weather-beaten shanty, sells orange gumballs packed in little, wooden crates.

Which Papa buys for his Pie-Face.

Of bright, green lizards skittering across pastel walls, and pats on the head by terrycloth clad men playing cards in the shades of umbrellas. Where suntanned women with their giant bosoms and ever-blooming swim caps wade in the shallow end, with big, dentured smiles for the little one visiting Lenore.

Oh these, my Florida days.

Within Close Range – Shattered

It’s a new found freedom, riding a bike through my cousins’ neighborhood, unattended by an adult, or an older sibling.

The streets are busier and much bigger than what our secluded, little subdivision has to offer and Gina, Mary and I are headed, unattended, to Nonnie and Papa’s apartment a few miles away.

The furthest I’ve ever ridden my bike is two blocks over.

Hopped up on sweets (following multiple raids of Nonnie’s unrivaled candy stash) and the even sweeter taste of pedal-powered independence, it’s little wonder why, when Nonnie tells me she has something to give me for my birthday and shows me a beautiful, porcelain doll, I want to take possession of it.

Immediately.

Nonnie refuses, at first, insisting that she bring it to Aunt Ar and Uncle John’s when she and Papa come later.

But as an obvious and well-chosen favorite, my sugar-induced swagger wins her over and she wraps the doll in an old towel, puts it in a thick, white plastic bag.

Hesitating before handing it over.

With a frown.

She follows me out the apartment door. Her tiny, slippered feet shuffling at my heels all the way to the elevator. As the automatic door glides shut, I hug the plastic bag and lower my eyes, avoiding Nonnie’s last pleading look.

Seeing her watching from her living room window three stories up, I carefully place the reluctantly released gift into the metal basket of the bike I borrowed from John, grab the handlebar and, with an air of overplayed nonchalance, attempt to kick my leg OVER the center bar that boy’s have on their bikes for no apparent reason.

I fall short.

Brutally kicking the bike to its side.

Launching the fragile contents out of the basket and onto the cement sidewalk.

Mary and Gina, both straddling their bar-less bikes, each with a foot on a pedal and a look of fleeing in their eyes, are slack-jawed. Stunned silent. Like they’ve seen a terrible accident at the side of the road.

Neither can look away from the body in the bag.

Even though the sight of it is truly dreadful.

Yet nothing compared to what my eyes are about to search out: Nonnie, three floors up, bearing witness to it all.

Witness to my fall.

My failure.

Her eyes never once leaving me, refusing to budge from the window of her velvety world of gild and glass, of lacy figurines, candy-filled cabinets, and porcelain dolls.

Less one.

Of obvious favorites and grave disappointments.

Of which I’m now the latter.

With my sugar-buzz busted and my confidence shattered like the small, doll’s head, the procession home is silent and somber.

Nonnie never utters a word about it to me that evening.

(Helped by the fact that I avoid her like a tiny, Italian Plague.)

But her silence is deafening.

Within Close Range – Bullies

Being the furthest away, I’m the first to be picked up by the bus in the morning.

Following the same logic, I’m also the first one dropped off after school.

This means that every, single kid on our route has to sit on the bus an extra forty minutes each afternoon.

Just for me.

Full of hormones and blind hatred, the kids in last few rows of the long, yellow bus make their displeasure over my arrival well-known almost daily.

Moaning and groaning as soon as I appear, making me nervously skitter to a seat near friendlier faces and the exit.

The hardcore insults come later, cloaked in the anonymity of the rumbling and motion of the bus.

“Fucking Loser.”

“Rich Bitch.”

“Father Fucker.”

Deaf to what he hears, the bus driver just goes where he’s told.

In the opposite direction of where every kid on the bus – except me – lives.

United by the same neighborhood, my after-school assailants snarl and nip at the back of my neck like chained dogs, piercing my thin skin.

It’s us versus them in every nasty word. But the “them” they think I am is absolutely absurd.

When their rabid, back row words have more than their usual bite, I step from the bus and veer off the road, searching for a way to shake their words in the thick, dim patches of unpeopled forest.

I disappear among the yellow and ember-colored autumn leaves which cap the many trees of Shoreacres, before the heavy freeze steals the color from the land.

Until the sound of my breathing, the movement of the clouds, and the wildlife going about their business, gives me the inclination to go about my own.

And to replenish my soul with the comforts of home.

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: The Greenhouse

Defying the somber shades of dead in a Midwestern Winter,

hidden beneath thick, mean layers of snow and ice.

green was something you could see, smell and touch

in Mom’s greenhouse.

Stepping down into its steamy realm was like discovering a distant jungle.

Moist.

Pungent.

Earthy.

Exotic.

I’d sit on the cement stairs,

arms hanging over the metal railing moist from the humidity.

Galoshes and socks dangling precariously.

Watching Mom dig her hands into a soily concoction.

Inhaling strange, sweet smells of bone meal and blood meal.

Manure and lime.

And life.

Nurtured with the same intensity Mom tended her flock.

Passionate and determined all should flourish.

Cultivating her offspring with a unique and fertile mix of love and cynicism,

melancholy, curiosity and eccentricity.

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.

Within Close Range: Albert

Albert has scared the shit out of dozens of people over the years.

He’s been an integral part of our family since Mom first brought him home from a golf trip to Pebble Beach, California, in the mid-seventies.

Ever since then, Albert just hung around.

Year after year, after year, after year.

He’s originally from London, but he’s classic Scottish from the top of his thick, tousled hair down to his argyle socks.

Always in glen plaid and corduroy.

He’s of average height, a gray-haired gentleman, with a full beard – both of which hint of their ginger youth.

In the pocket of his kinsmen’s plaid jacket, for as long as we’ve known him, Albert has always carried his pipe. Right beside this, he used to keep a battered, old tin of Prince Albert (his namesake) tobacco. He still has his pipe, but years ago, some sibling borrowed the rusty, bright red tin – likely to store their weed- and never returned it to the old man.

Albert never said a word.

But that didn’t surprise anyone.

Even though he’s always surprising someone.

So still and silent.

You might find him sitting in the sun porch staring out at the lake, or lying beneath the covers in one of the boys’ twin beds. He might be in the front seat of a car one morning, or on one of the chaises lounging under the stars one night.

His familiar, nonetheless frightening figure would linger in the shadows as I snuck through the house after curfew.

But Albert never tattled.

It simply isn’t in him.

He’s very predictable, but never who some guess he is: an uncle, a grandfather, an unsocial neighbor?

An ever-present family sentinel.

His light blue eyes fixed on the room. Out the window. On you.

Never blinking.

As we speak, he’s probably sitting in the basement of Mia’s house, where he continues to startle guests just looking to use the exercise equipment.

A bit unnerving, but dependably docile… and flexible. Even after years of being forced into the most unflattering positions for the sole entertainment of ourselves and others.

Creepy, I know.

But what can we do? He was so amusing for decades and even though he hasn’t done much since the last kid left the house, he’s simply part of the family.

Certainly worth the $200 Mom paid for Albert before the store manager lifted him out of the pro shop window, packed him in a box, and shipped him home.

Within Close Range: The Checkered Beacon

At the corner of Sheridan Road and Sheridan Place, right across from East Elementary and Lake Bluff Junior High School sits Artesian Park, two blocks of village green where every Fourth of July the grassy field turns to festival and carnival and fun and every winter, the sunken baseball diamond is flooded to make an ice-skating rink.

As soon as the temperature dips and the rink freezes solid, villagers swarm to the park, packing the small patch of ice with skaters of all ages, sizes and skills; with races of speed and games of Crack-the-Whip, hockey sticks slapping and half-hearted “Hamill Camels” spinning.

Huge smiles crowding pink cheeks.

The park’s field house is also opened, where a giant crackling fire in a giant stone hearth, hot drinks, long rubber mats and long, wooden benches, welcome skaters looking for secure footing and a temporary reprieve from the nippy wonders of winter.

Such happiness in hot cocoa and crackling fires.

In being a part of village life, instead of apart from it.

Layered, bundled, skated and packed into the station wagon, anxious to get to the rink and our friends, we watch Dad re-shovel the shoveled path by the garage. When Mom finally steps through the back door, all heads swivel toward the flash of candy apple red which has newly invaded the icy, grey scenery.

There stands Mom in an outfit the likes of which Lake Bluff villagers have never – nor will likely ever see again – a red and white checkered snow suit, with its belted jacket and matching knickers (Yes, that’s right, I said knickers.), red cable knit stockings, white knit gloves, and a matching, white knit, helmet-shaped cap with ear flaps and a large, snowball-sized pom-pom on top.

It’s something to be seen… and near impossible to miss.

She’s something to be seen.

But that’s usually Mom: statuesque, blonde, beautiful, incomparable. Ever the model. Not afraid to be individual, and always, always fashionable – even when that fashion might be questionable.

… at least from the viewpoint of her five, young impressionables.

But Mom is glowing.

Excited for the family outing. Eager to put her weatherproof, yet fashion savvy snow suit to the test.

But Mom is GLOWING.

Like a giant, checkered barber pole.

And everyone from Dad (whose briefly raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway) to Mark (who strains his tiny, bundled body to turn and stare wide-eyed at the walking tablecloth) – are stunned silent by the new outfit that speaks volumes.

As Dad winds the wagon toward town, whispers around the rear seats are exchanged. It’s agreed that the best course of action is evasive. A rapid, rear door exit will surely guarantee reaching the rink quickly and losing ourselves in the nameless, motherless crowd in moments.

As luck would have it, a parking space – one actually big enough to accommodate our Grand Safari station wagon – opens up right in front and above the bustling rink. There’s no more delaying the inevitable fashion statement that’s about to be thrust upon the unsuspecting citizens of Lake Bluff.

As soon as Dad docks the wagon and shifts into park, Jim and Chris leap from the center seat and never look back. In the very rear of the wagon, however,  Mia and I are at the mercy of Dad who needs to open our escape hatch from the outside (a major miscalculation), and who is leisurely lacing his own skates; while Mom struggles to wriggle a wiggly four-year-old into a pair of hand-me-down, oversized skates.

Dad finally releases us, and leaving Mia to fend for herself, I make fast, teetering tracks to the ice, losing myself in a swarm of bladed, unbounded activity.

From the anonymity of the crowd below I watch, – mortified – as Mom’s checkered ensemble appears around the rear of our wagon, moving very, very slowly over ice and snow toward the rink. Giving everyone within a three mile radius ample time to take it all in.

Radiating red against the endless, ashen clouds.

Unembarrassed. Unaffected. Unbelievable.

Forcing me deeper into the throng of villagers, into the sea of somber, Midwestern winter gear. Commonsensical clothes in practical colors blending together like the dark waters of a deep, churning lake.

Unsteadying me.

Disorienting me.

Drowning me in denim and down; in unfamiliar faces and forms, swirling and twirling and lawless.

I feel panic rise and tears swell and wish everyone would just… STOP!

Until a beautiful beacon appears.

A sudden flash of something dazzlingly bright shining through the drab-colored chaos.

The most wonderful sight I’ve ever seen. Giving instant comfort. Guiding me home.

To the arms of Mom.

To the warmth of her hug.

Wrapped tight in all her red and white checkered glory.

Within Close Range: Chief – in three parts

Chief is an ornery Appaloosa, short and fat,

with black spots on the rump of his dirty, white coat

and the devil in his eyes.

Of little training and no past consequences.

A 9th birthday present from Dad – whose childhood pets were porcelain cats and poodles – and mostly Mom, a Missouri farm girl with her grandfather’s gruff, Scottish sensibilities, and steely confidence the challenges will make me a good rider.

I’m confident they’ll kill me.

From the other side of the pasture fence, Mom urges me to remount. Make him know who’s boss.

I struggle to my feet and limp toward the answer, now grazing on prairie grass and wildflowers from which he loathes to be distracted.

In between greedy mouthfuls, Chief raises his wild, blue eyes, beneath poorly cut bangs – which I like to cut.

Straight across.

Stooge’s Style.

No wonder he’s ornery.

He’s quietly watching my crippled approach and just as I’m within a few feet, with a flick of his tail, he’s off, across the long, wide pasture. Adding even more insult to my physical and emotional injuries with each unruly buck and bolt.

Mom’s words are unrecognizable from the far end of the field, but the tone is clear. So I move toward my spotted nemesis, expecting him to bolt again as soon as I get too close.

His long nose buried in the succulent grass, Chief stands his ground, this time, and lets me mount. A voice inside my possibly fractured skull warns me, but Mom’s is louder.

Barely settled in the saddle, I see something I hoped I wouldn’t. Chief lifts his head and pins his fuzzy, white ears flat against his thick skull. I know what’s coming and grab the reins and the saddle horn just before we take off in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable canter.

Somehow I remain in my mount, which annoys my little, four-hoofed devil, who swerves off his trajectory of terror, straight for a cluster of pines.

Two in particular.

Which stand a pony’s width apart.

I close my eyes, hold on tight and hope for the best,,, as Chief. – like yarn through an embroidery needle – threads us between the two pines at top speed.

Scraped from their stirrups, my legs are now bouncing off of Chief’s round rear-end as we pass through the pines into the open pasture toward Mom, who’s still lobbing impractical words over the fence.

I feel my grasp on the saddle-horn weaken.

And a resolve that I’ll soon be tasting earth, grow.

And I let go.

________________

Mom thinks a pal might keep Chief calmer. So early one spring, when the corral is beginning to reveal a winter’s worth of muck, comes Billy Gold: a blue ribbon, well-trained Palomino, which we trailered back behind the station wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri.

Chief dislikes the new arrival immediately.

I think he’s dreamy, with his white/blonde mane and ginger coat, still thick and warm.

I find great joy in feeling his hot breath and fuzzy lips tickling the palm of my cold, red hand as I feed him a carrot.

Mark and Mia are sitting on top of the pine log fence, watching – still unsure of whether we just brought home Chief’s evil ally – when I hear them both scream.

In my thickly lined hood, tied tight against the cold, lake winds, I don’t recognize any words – only warnings – and far too late.

Chief’s powerful teeth clamp down hard.

The pain in my right butt cheek is searing.

I’m howling.

Billy Gold bolts to the other end of the half-frozen corral, but Chief just stands there – a nose length’s away… staring… as I hop up and down, rubbing the wound he’d just inflicted.

Mark and Mia’s shocked silence explodes into laughter, followed by a closely contested race to the house to see who’ll be the first to tell the uproarious tale. Meanwhile, a purple-red welt the size of a small apple, banded by red marks defining each of Chief’s big, front teeth, grows and throbs with each step toward the kitchen door.

Where Mom, greets me with an ice pack and empathy.

_____________

When Chief isn’t trying to shed or eat one of us,

he’s astounding us with his ability to escape.

Devilishly clever.

Very regular.

The phone rings. Mom cringes, apologizes, then sounds the alarm,

steering the station wagon straight toward town.

We found him in a graveyard once, a foggy morning, one fall.

Striking terror in the old caretaker who thought he’d seen it all.

Until galloping across the graves, he saw a ghostly, pony-sized spright –

bad bangs bouncing in the soupy light.

Followed closely by a tall, beautiful, blonde

in flowing, full length, lime-green chiffon.

His hands still trembling when we waved from the road

as we slowly crept toward home with pony in tow.

But much of the time, Chief’s antics are close

and off I dash with grain and a rope;

tracking the wild-eyed Appaloosa’s sod-ripping route

through the blue-blood, buttoned-up neighborhood,

across disapproving neighbors’ pristine lawns

– while from behind windows, I see shaking heads frown.

One rainy, spring day, while watching my pony buck and bolt,

(as if in his very own, god damn, Wild West Show),

leaving hoof-sized divots pocking each meticulous yard,

Chief stops and pin his ears, which puts me on my guard.

Forward the pony charges and I’m sure we’re about to collide

When a voice – loud and fed up – calls from deep inside:

Make him know who’s boss!

I drop the bucket of grain.

I drop my pony’s halter.

I gather all my courage.

The universe is about to alter.

I set my feet and stand my ground and watch him close the gap

and just as he’s within arm’s length, I reach out and I SLAP!

I swat him at the tip of his long, white snout.

Suddenly, all Chief’s piss and vinegar’s done – run – OUT!

With a half-hearted snort, he lowers his poorly banged head,

turning his devilish focus on the grain bucket, instead.

And with noses aligned, we linger toward home,

understanding more about each other than we’d ever known.

Within Close Range: Summers on the Edge

There us peace in the familiar sounds of summer at Shoreacres.

The Northwestern train keeping to its schedule.

Bank Swallows calling to their colony as they swoop to and from nests pockmarking the sandy bluff wall.

The harbor’s baritone foghorn warning boats buried in Lake Michigan’s mist.

Even the sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to the north chime in, drilling up and down the parade grounds.

Marching.

Grunting.

Singing and rhyming.

Voices hovering in the air like ancient tribal chants.

Laying on the lawn overlooking the lake, I close my eyes and ease into the familiar sound of the sailors’ strong, low voices.

And the marching band practicing its spirited battle hymns.

Miles away, but strong and clear.

Carried to my ears by the lake winds cutting through the thick, moist air that smells of fresh cut lawn and freshwater fish.

Sun-filled days of climbing up and down the bluff where the path used to be before the lake rose and stole chunks of land, leaving little but swallow holes and sand – and killer cool ledges for daring leaps by reckless kids who take to the skies, then aim for the beach, landing in the soft, thick sand below – hot on the surface, but damp and cool just inches beneath.

Wriggling my toes further into the moist earth, I try to recapture the wind knocked out of me in the landing, until voices from above goad me into action and I’m forced forward again, down the soft, crumbling bluff, to a rugged line of boulders Dad had dropped on the beach in his failed fight against this infamously wicked lake.

Then one by one, into the water and waves we wade, trying to dislodge sand from our swimsuits and butt cracks. Feeling the lake’s strong, cold undertow at our feet and the strong, hot sun on our heads.

Watching our Lab, Heather, joyously and tirelessly swim after a stick bobbing on the waves.

Silly dog.

Then up to the top we head to bound down again.

And again.

And again.

Long summer days invade the nights, inspiring late nights of Ghost in the Graveyard and Sardines and a world of hiding places scattered around our acres and outbuildings, where we squat amid the fireflies’ ambitious flickering and whisper above the crickets and cicadas charging the atmosphere with their measured, mesmerizing songs.

Reminding me that I am never really alone.

Standing at the edge of the bluff on the Fourth of July, with the comforts of home just steps away, we watch the fireworks displays from Chicago to Waukegan, “Ooohing” and “Ahhing”, mimicking the faraway crowds and slapping at mosquitoes determined to disturb our private celebration.

Mom unfreezes boxes of brats and burgers to feed a small army, which eventually arrives with empty stomachs and pockets full of bottle rockets, sparklers and Roman candles ample enough to light the skies and the lake, and disturb our quiet neighbors long after the distant festivities have ended.

But the best displays I witness from the brink are the summer thunderstorms rolling over the Great Lake, and the lightening exploding in sky-wide, silver-white bolts and bursts.

I feel fortunate.

And irrelevant.

On gentler nights when the moon is full and bright and we can see our way down the bluff to the beach, my siblings and I wade into the vast, still water.

First, up to our knees. Then our bellies. Then our chests.

Eventually emboldened by the bright moonlight and calm, glassy water, I swim further from the shore and my companions.

Through strange patches of warm in the perpetually cold, inland water.

Scanning the dark stretch of water in front of me and turning to see the sparsely lit shoreline now well behind me, the calm in my mind begins to churn and I begin to worry about what lurks just below my feet – and in those warm patches – and start paddling madly toward the beach and the nearest sibling.

Not stopping until I’m close enough to feel the sand below my feet, or see a smile in the moonlight.

Finding enormous comfort and calm in the motion of another’s treading water.

In their laughter.

In their teasing.

These are the endless days spent layered in sand and sun tan oil. Brown and blissful.

These are the days of sleeping well into the afternoon, or until the smell of breakfast cooking below wafts into my room…

or my class schedule arrives in the mail all too soon.

Within Close Range: Starting to Drown

I struggle when Mom tries to put on my water wings, promising that if she lets me go in without them, I’ll be super careful – stay shallow.

Eventually, she gives in and along the pool’s edge I shimmy until my toes no longer touch the smooth, white bottom and Mom is no longer hovering.

Holding tight to the edge with one hand, I dip below the surface and open my eyes in the clear, blue where I can see the bigger kids dunking and diving in every direction.

Wingless.

Fearless.

Floating and free.

The center of it all is now the place I most want to be, so feeling the rough, concrete surface of the pool deck pressing into the fingertips of one hand, I stretch the other toward the forbidden zone.

The fun.

My future.

And I let go, stretching my nostrils skyward and doggy-paddling furiously toward the deepest waters.

I set my sights on Chris, who’s in the center of the pool talking to Dad, standing at the edge of the shallow end, but half way to her suntanned back, my arms and legs suddenly betray me and before I know it, down I go, pool water filling my nose and mouth.

I scramble for the sun and the air.

For a voice.

For Chris.

But each time I break the surface, my pleas are instantly drowned and I’m still out of reach of that suntanned back.

In the instant before I go under again, I can hear Dad’s voice, but I can’t see him and he can’t see me because Chris is directly in line between us.

And with all the commotion.

Someone please see me.

But no one does and, once more, I sink.

This time, the thought of not reaching air again – or even worse, reaching it and losing it again – terrifies me. I claw for the murky surface, now light years away, but desperate thoughts weigh heavily on my tired legs.

And I want to stop trying.

Arms abruptly pull me to the surface, then to the side of the pool, where another strong and sure pair guides me to the warmth of the concrete deck, where I vomit up pool water and begin to cry.