Within Close Range: Megan’s 1959 Split-level Ranch

In Megan’s bedroom, half a flight up the 1959 Split-level Ranch with pink brick and putty colored paint, I fidget with a funky, multi-colored fiber optic lamp, while she plays records and introduces me to jazz, and we wait for her parents to leave and best friends to descend upon the many leveled house. 

We use the un-parented hours to nurture this hand-picked clan, filled with constantly morphing personalities birthed from overactive glands and imaginations, and recently recognized skills as poets, actors and musicians; as Pig Out Queens and Homecoming Queens, Make Out Queens and Dancing Queens. 

Never enough crowns for all those Queens. Never enough time to be all the things, but always enough room on the dance floor. Though all signs point to clumsy and shy, my pelvic-thrusting friends are determined to try to make me Hustle and shake my groove thing in the ground-level living room of metallic gold and green.

Sweating and spinning and dipping. Air Band greats ever in the making. Drinking and joking and choking with laughter. Using voices and faces to find inner traces of people and places. Writing truly foul lyrics to sweet Christmas carols – using every nasty word we can muster to repulse and to fluster.

Years of piano lessons color the scene, mixing Joplin, Pachelbel and Winston into the frenetic hours of being girls, and being teens. Ceasing only long enough to ransack the family’s world of snacks in the very lowest level of Megan’s Split-level Ranch. Like chubby, pubescent picnic-bound ants.

A fairytale kingdom of infinite munchies. Tupperware and tins and tightly sealed snacks of caramels and pretzels and cookies – wafers and Fudge Stripes, shortbreads and sugar. Enough to make teens, with all their snacking needs, merry and me, ecstatic, for all the food my Mom’s cupboards have never seen.

Megan’s kitchen is where I first try it, but Mom refuses to buy it, so I look for this Chef Boyardee diet on other kitchen shelves. I like my SpaghettiOs straight from the can, finding the same comfort in it as in my friendships and the many hours spent at the 1959 Split-level Ranch, being terribly saucy, truly effortless, full of crap, and distinctly gratifying.

Within Close Range: Sledding

The toboggan’s scarred and battered prow, with its narrow strips of varnished wood, scratched, warped and dinged, attests to its long history of snowy campaigns.

Trees and rocks eternal foes.

Its red, vinyl pad, cracked and beaten. Its plastic rope ties ever-untying.

It takes little prodding to initiate sledding on the golf course near our home. After a few phone calls, friends from town gather at our back door with a variety of apparatus, ranging from plastic school lunch trays to super-duper downhill racers.

Like a procession of well laden ants, we head down Shoreacres Road and into the heart of winter with spirits high. During the mile or so journey to the ravines, the boys can’t wait for the final destination before throwing themselves and their sleds at slopes of snow – even the dingy, frozen piles left by the plows.

Cheeks crimson, noses dripping, devilish smiles rising, and big boots trudging heavily, they jettison themselves, scraping briefly atop the icy, roadside heap.

Undeterred, the flatter, frozen road ahead spawns another attempt, and the unsuspecting walking there find themselves not indirectly in the path of another misguided trajectory.

Leaving victims strewn in the wake, shouting obscenities, in between fits of laughter.

Crossing thigh-high snowdrifts, pushing against the penetrating Lake Michigan winds, we know there’s reward in the shelter of the woods. In the rise and fall of the ravines just ahead.

By the time the last of the stragglers arrive, bodies are already hurtling down the small, steep hills – feet first and head first – as untouched, uncharted snow is quickly trampled smooth and slick.

So the boys and their sleds can go fast and faster toward the woods below, laughing like hyena, until the next sound is cracking plastic. Followed by moans, grunts, more laughter… and a few more well chosen profanities.

More than slightly apprehensive to sled in tandem with these boy rocketeers, I also know I’ll never gain the speed I crave when sledding solo. So I climb aboard, wrap my arms around their thick, damp, denim layers and look below, to a hand-packed jump designed to make you fly.

Pleading for caution, I know full well that caution is about to be damned.

Down we go, straight toward the jump and into the air. But the moment is fleeting before losing my hold, my pilot, a boot, and a glove. Yet gaining a face full of snow and a smile from ear to ear.

From a resting spot at the top of the hill, I watch the boys with their boundless bravado, attempt daredevil moves of surfing and spinning and bumper sleds. Determined to create one more spectacular crash before the snowy adventure can be considered a success.

By the time the sun begins its early descent, the dampness has sunk deep into our layers and it’s time to stumble home, iced-over and exhausted. The older boys taking turns pulling along the little ones with nothing left to give.

Each step energized by the thought of the warmth that will embrace us when we open the back door. Fueled by the knowledge that a crackling fire and hot chocolates wait at the other end.

Within Close Range – Best Friends

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

Within Close Range: Betsy’s Dad’s Den

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

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

Out of focus, but strong.

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

And there it was, my answer. Pipe tobacco.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cots and cotton nightgowns. 

Late summer sun and the strident thrum of crickets. 

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

Another time still haunted the corners of this room. 

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

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

It simply scared the shit out of me.

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

His den.

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

His sanctuary.

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

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

Ever engaging his hands and his mind.

Creating. 

Drawing. 

Building dreams.

And ships in bottles.

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

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

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

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

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

And his deliciously fragrant pipe.

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

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

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

Yet now reach out to me. 

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

To Betsy’s dad’s den.

To his ships and his pipe and the sweet aroma.

To fresh baked bread.

And lazy afternoons.

With best friends.

Within Close Range: Anita

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

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

I couldn’t even cartwheel.

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

Observing.

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

Or was it the passion to try?

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

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

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

Almost cartoonish.

Illogical and ludicrous.

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

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

Disjointed. Disfigured. Dysfunctional.

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

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

My Friend

My beautiful friend, with the beautiful smile.

Weighted by fear.

Flattened with worry.

Wanting happiness, but not minding your own.

Keep it simple.

Keep it clear.

Take a long, deep breath.

And another.

Take hold of the thing that gives you power.

That powers your passion.

That fills you with fire.

Be fearless.

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

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