Within Close Range: Within Close Range

It’s early spring and still outnumbered are the days of thawing, when the sun shines through the nearly impermeable grey just long enough to make the corral thick and pliable for the heavily-coated ponies to imprint the half-frozen peaks of ice and manure.  

With little inclination to be out of doors, Mia, Mark, Jim and I, along with cousins Mary, Gina and Bill, are all hanging out in the kid’s room upstairs, twitching and giggling and getting riled by Jim, the regular instigator of such behavior. 

But this time, instead of hanging around to help control the chaos, Jim leaves, leaving his younger siblings and cousins to deal with the consequences – the most important of which is that Mark is wound-up and dangerously near the one thing in the room Jim should have taken with him: his Benjamin Air Rifle.

Jim got the rifle for Christmas and had been target practicing with it that morning. Dad doesn’t like the idea of the eight-pump, .177 caliber pellet gun, but Mom’s Missouri farm roots makes her believe that it’s every boy’s initiation into manhood.

In Jim’s defense, he never shoots at living things – mostly targets, trees and tin cans. However, he does get an enormous amount of satisfaction turning its site on siblings for the sheer satisfaction of watching faces contort; which is likely where Mark got the idea.

Picking up the air rifle, he aims it across the room at Gina, sitting on the sofa. Each of us demands he put the weapon down, but Mark already has that look in his eyes which tells us he’s stopped listening, and before anyone can say another word, Mark presses the trigger and discharges what he thinks is air through an empty chamber.

Gina, already curled into a defensive ball, is hit. The lead pellet rips through her jeans and grazes the skin on the back of her left thigh, already bruising when we gather around to inspect the wound.

Everyone – including Mark – is stunned and silent.

Gina’s eyes grow wide and wild.

“You little fucker! You shot me!”

We all look to Mark for an explanation, but he’s off – like his shot – out of the room, down the back stairs, and out the door.

Having returned to the scene at the sound of Gina’s scream, it takes mere moments for Jim to form an angry mob to go in search of the lone shooter, now taking refuge somewhere in the damp, barren woods surrounding our house. We follow the leader around the backyard and back woods, looking for a spark of tell-tale color among the sullen, gray tree trunks. 

Then something turns… Jim’s allegiance. In an instant, we’re all in his sights and half-heartedly running for our lives. Finding a safe spot from his line of vision, I’m watching from the barn stalls when Jim spots Mark weaving through the trees and across the frozen patches of slippery leaves in the back circle by the cottage. 

He’s trying to make a break for the large stretch of trees just across the driveway. From there, it’s certain he can outmaneuver Jim through the woods to safety. The problem is the twenty foot stretch of open pavement.

But spring is in the air and Mark is feeling a little wild.

We all are.

Jim gives the rifle an extra pump and takes aim at the small figure now bounding across the asphalt. In one very lucky shot… he hits his target, and like a plastic carnival duck floating atop a painted carnival pond, Mark is knocked flat. 

Jim insists it was meant to be a “warning” shot.

As all games are officially over at the first sign of blood, Mark limps toward the house where he pulls down his sock to reveal the day’s second wound on the back of his ankle. Mom’s soon on the scene, shaking her head, calloused by the long history of Jim’s overzealous rough-housing; when Mark ends up with stitches and bruises and we end up with a friendly visit from social services. 

Ordering him into the kitchen (with everyone following close behind), she cleans and examines the wound and declares the pellet must have skimmed the surface of his skin (just like Gina’s had, but we felt best not to mention).

Satisfied with Mom’s answer, the hunter and all those hunted walk – and limp – away.

_______

Forty years later, having just had x-rays taken for an orthopedic shoe insert, Mark’s doctor enters the room and hangs the film on the light box, and with a strange look on his face, points to a light spot behind Mark’s left ankle.

“This is a metal object,” he says, “… and it looks like a bullet.”

Both Mark and the doctor stare at the very clear, small, rounded object appearing on the screen. 

“No, that can’t be right,” Mark insists. “There must be a glitch on your x-ray machine.”

But the doctor assures Mark that the object is no glitch.

“Do you happen to know how it got there?” the doctor asks, now looking a little sideways at his patient.

Mark stares at the small metal object imbedded in his achilles tendon and suddenly it all comes flooding back to him. 

Before leaving the parking lot of the doctor’s office, he sent this out to remind us all of a childhood within close range.

Within Close Range: The Car Ride

Much of my early views of Florida are seen above a sea of car upholstery, through rolled up windows, where the only things visible are the tops of Palm trees and passing trucks, condos and clouds, and Nonnie and Papa’s heads hovering over a wide expanse of leather stretched across the latest Cadillac’s cavernous front seat.

Here, conversations are muffled, and occasionally in broken Italian, so young ears can’t possibly understand; and elevator music-versions of Rock ’n Roll songs play softly; where Papa’s cautious, half-mile-to-execute lane change regularly causes the turn signal to remain blinking.

It must be an audio-visual black hole, oblivious as he is to both the flashing green light and the constant clicking for miles on end.The sound of it lulls me into a stupor, until Nonnie finally notices the signal of perpetual motion and snaps at Papa to turn it off.

A few miles pass and all is peaceful, until the car begins to fill with a terrible smell.

I turn to my cousin, John, who’s holding the backseat’s cigarette lighter, with a smug yet sorrowful look on his face, as the smell of flaming follicles slowly wafts through the well-sealed compartment.

“What’s burning?!” Nonnie shrieks, “Something’s burning! Jimmy, something’s on fire!”

Papa pitches the lumbering Caddy to an empty parking lot at the side of the road, unrolls the windows, and orders everyone out of the car. Nonnie stands there mumbling and grumbling and shaking her head while he makes absolutely sure nothing else has been set on fire.

Throwing John one, last incredulous look – Papa orders everyone back in the car before signaling his return to the road. Where, for the final miles to the restaurant, I lose myself in the smell of burnt hair and the click of the sedan’s left blinker.

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: Heroes

Bundled past our noses to keep the icy lake winds from turning our ambitions, seeking refuge from the great indoors of winter, we head outside. No destination, just going forward, down the well-plowed road, gritty from salt.

Climbing the piles, pushed in great, icy, grey chunks to the side of the road, we reach the unmarred snow blanketing the golf course and “CRUNCH”, break the layer of ice formed overnight on top of the thick, powdery snow.

Shattering the winter scene’s muffled silence with each noisy footstep. 

The drifts almost swallow Mia and I, who are trying our darnedest to keep up with Jim and Kim, our cousin from Springfield – a tall, burly fellow, several years our senior, with a lilting voice, cherubic face and gentle soul; our very reason for forming this unlikely quartet which trudges on, until we come upon the frozen creek that crosses the course.

We follow this to two small ponds, where climbing down its banks, Jim slips and skids along the edges of the ice, while Mia and I head to a large culvert under an old, planked bridge dividing the ponds. Kim following, ever vigilant over his temporary wards.

Scrambling over the bridge to other side of the culvert, Mia shouts for me through the cold and dark, and I answer back, across the frozen water, from the opposite end. Clear is Kim’s silhouette hovering behind Mia, like a new mother bear,  

and our small voices sounding strong against the corrugated steel. 

Mia takes off one of her mittens and slides it through the giant, metal tube, along the leafy ice, right into my hands. I toss it back… and back it comes again. We do this several times, but Mia’s enthusiasm fades with each toss and I find myself stretching a little further into the dark. Her final, fainthearted throw lands the tiny, snow-caked mitten smack dab in the center of the culvert. 

“Whoops,” is all she has to say, having already sacrificed the mitten to the creek.

Hoping to avoid a lecture from Mom about another lost mitten, I begin a slow crawl toward the center, inching closer and closer to the wooly stray, hearing only my breathing, tinny and low, and Kim’s voice whispering, “Be careful, Annie.”

As I reach out to grab the mitten, all sounds cease, except one.

The ice below me pops and cracks and gives way, and suddenly I sink, face first, into the water. Swallowing it and gasping for air, I open my shocked eyes to the muddy scene at the mucky bottom of the culvert a foot below. 

Seconds tick forever, until someone takes hold of the hood of my bright pink jacket and yanks me from the icy water. 

Before I even have a chance to process what’s happened, Kim grabs me from Jim’s arms and starts to run toward home. Shock soon gives way to tears, as shivering wracks my small, drenched body. 

Kim’s worried mumblings make me cling ever harder, as he plows through the snow drifts toward home. 

Hand in hand with Mia, Jim follows quickly. Like a hero, silently.

Pressed against Kim’s heaving chest, I hear only his heartbeat and hurried footsteps fumble along the fairway and onto the road, never slowing until I’m safe within the warmth of Mom’s arms.

Where he apologizes profusely for something that wasn’t his fault.

Within Close Range – Florida Days, the teen years

Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport to Nonnie and Papa’s new winter retreat – The Claridge, a 16-story, oceanside condominium in Pompano Beach, Florida – it’s clear things are going to be much different than in Hallandale, where their old apartment used to be.

Gone are the 1950s neighborhoods with small, tidy bungalows and low-rise, pastel-colored apartment buildings. Gone are the small, neat streets with big, American cars and the quiet, inland canals with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the crowded coastline, casting long shadows over old neighborhoods struggling to stay relevant. Mostly replaced by “The Strip”, a popular stretch of beach along Ft. Lauderdale’s A1A – and the only route from the airport to the new condo.

Where nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking college students on spring break have flocked and balanced precariously on the fence between adolescence and adulthood for generations.

Having to navigate through the hoards of unruly, unkempt, half-naked youth makes both Nonnie and Papa mumble and grumble – a lot – but I’m mesmerized by this uncharted world, this untamed, southern gateway to my teen-dom; which Gina and I are slowly cruising past in the back seat of a tightly sealed Cadillac filled with the sounds of Perry Como and the smell of Jean Nate.

The further The Strip fades into the distance and the closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s, the older the demographics skew; until a stone’s throw from this modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, beers and bikinis are completely overcome by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code is the bigger apartment – which means a happy, across-condo relationship between Nonnie and Papa and Gina and I. Like the apartment in Hallandale, this guest room has a separate door to the outside world (or at least to a main corridor), and much to our teenage delight, the next door over leads to an unused stairwell, Marlboro Lights, poorly rolled joints, and late night escapades with New York girls and their East Coast drinking games.

Gone are Nonnie and Papa’s halcyon Florida days of total authority and complete control. These are the carefree days of baby oil and B-52s, getting stoned in the sauna and drinking beers on the beach.

Of convincing Nonnie to hand over the keys to the Caddy, rolling down the windows, turning up the radio, and inhaling the salty air, the Florida sunshine, and the sweet smell of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us and Nonnie – through binoculars from her balcony sixteen stories up – noticing them, noticing us.

These were the Florida days of pushing boundaries, especially ones poorly guarded.

I blame Gina.

Mostly.

I’d never have the guts to go beyond the Claridge’s pool gates if she didn’t first get that glint in her eyes, which always urges me to follow.

Down to the beach.

Well past dark.
Well past curfew.

Who knows how long Nonnie has been pacing in front of the newly identified escape route, but we’re barely through the door before the tirade – which nearly lifts her off her tiny, bunioned feet – begins.

She cross-examines, reprimands and threatens expulsion; then leads us to Papa waiting in the living room, leaden and pacing.

Looking angrier than I’ve ever seen him.

Louder than I’ve ever heard him.

When all is said – which isn’t much – he turns his back and sends us to bed.

Things are now different between Papa and me, not being who he wants me to be.

When Gina and I un-eagerly make our way to the kitchen the next morning, the first thing we see is a newspaper article with the headline, “Girls Charred on Beach”, scotch-taped prominently on the refrigerator and Nonnie, fiddling with something at the counter, with her back to us, sighing and tsk-ing, but not saying anything.

She spent the remainder of the morning behind closed bedroom doors on a call with her sisters, Camille and Rose, filling them in on two of life’s latest disappointments; heralded, at times, in a pitch so high, dogs throughout the 20-story building begin to bark.

This leads to quieter Florida days, when solo visits mean I’m more observer than observed; studying Nonnie and Papa in their well-aged routine of marital indifference.
Wondering if I know what a happy marriage looks like?

Watching the old ladies down by the pool; with their straw sun hats and bad romance novels, their games of Canasta, endless cigarettes, and overly suntanned skin… wondering if they were ever truly Young?

When Papa returns to Chicago to tend to the store, it means hours of Gin Rummy, alone with Nonnie, on the breezy, but sheltered balcony, way above the Atlantic ocean; where 8-track cassettes of Liberace and Lawrence Welk teach me tolerance, and the importance of a wickedly good game face.

Happy to see the rainy skies. Happy to stay indoors and in our nightgowns.The condo is especially quiet on days like these. No washing machine or television reminding us of other things. Other lives.

No dinner out or big meal in.

We barely move. Rarely talk.

Occasionally, Nonnie disappears (while I practice the art of the shuffle) and returns with a plateful of sweet, powdery pizzelle and cold milk, or calzone, cheesy and crusty, and hot from the oven.

Delicious Florida days of doing nothing.

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.