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: Whiplash Willie

Barely able to see over the dashboard of the ample sedan, toes stretching to reach the pedals, Nonnie is an Italian force on four wheels navigating the gridlock of suburban Chicago.

Her style is unique – driving with more emotion than convention, more conversation than paying attention – usually resulting in last minute lane changes and unpredictable turns, and me sliding from one side of the bountiful back seat to the other.

When the story she’s spinning is a doozy and Nonnie gets roused (which it usually is, and she usually does), up goes her pitch and its volume, and down goes her tiny, bunion-ed foot on the gas pedal, causing the great, lumbering beast of a car – and all its passengers – to lurch forward.

To compensate for accelerating while accentuating, Nonnie then braces herself against the steering wheel and brakes, throwing her kin back against the pristine upholstery.

Repeating this action with each grand inflection.

It’s how she got the nickname, Whiplash Willie, and why, when I see her begin an earful of a tale to whoever called “Dibs on the front seat!” first, I know what’s coming.

We all do.

Buckling up, I pray the story stays short.

And my neck stays strong.

Within Close Range: Uncle John’s Burgundy Velvet Tuxedo Jacket

Uncle John has a burgundy, velvet tuxedo jacket. For decades, he’s worn it to every black tie event, and Aunt Ar makes sure there are plenty.

Atop a sea of black and white convention, the tall, dark man moves quietly in his curious, velvet burgundy.

Well-heeled and headstrong, he ever insists, as long as the jacket fits – it fits.

Unswayed by the loud public statement his offbeat fashion statement makes for such a guarded, taciturn, conventional man.

Within Close Range: Tubular Bells

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

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

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

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

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

Someone who doesn’t like T.V.

That’s how Jim discovers the stereo.

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

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

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

Jim is up to something… We all sense it.

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

Crap.

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

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

No reply.

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

There’s another tap.

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

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

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

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

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

Truly committed… or perhaps, should be.

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

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

Find Jim, or he’ll find us.

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

Tubular Bells is now flooding the bedroom.

He’s out there, somewhere.

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

“Do you see anything?” Chris whispers.

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

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

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

Moments later, all goes quiet…

… too damn quiet.

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

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

Within Close Range: The 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: 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.