Within Close Range: short stories of an American childhood – Annie, Annie, are you all right?

Everyone is anxious to be outside when spring comes to the Midwest.

And even though patches of mud-colored snow and ice still mar the school grounds, all I can see is sun and green because I’m sporting a new pair of white, Calvin Klein jeans, and red leather, Dr. Scholl’s sandals.

Making half-hearted attempts to throw a Frisbee to each other during lunch break, Jean, Megan and I are just happy to be breathing fresh air daily denied us in the newly constructed prison we call high school.

This semester, we’re in health class together being taught the basics of CPR. To help us, we have “Annie”, a training manikin in a spiffy red track suit, who inspires far more sexual asides than careers in the health care industry.

The first thing we’re taught when approaching the polyester-clad casualty is to ask:

“Annie, Annie, are you all right?”, while gentle shaking her shoulders; and if this fails to get the proper response – which it inevitably did – then it was time for cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

I think.

I haven’t really been paying attention.

None of us have.

So things don’t bode well when chasing the disk in my new, wooden, single-strap, Dr. School’s sandals, they hydroplane on the slippery, spring surface, sending me skimming across the old ice and new grass, into a cold, muddy puddle.

Slamming me hard against the half-frozen earth.

Searching for the wind knocked out of me, I bolt upright to see Jean and Megan racing my way. First to my arrive, Megan kneels by my side, and shaking me vigorously, asks:

“Annie, Annie, are you all right?!”

Then falls into a fit of laughter.

Jean isn’t laughing.

Grabbing me from behind with the strength of an Amazon, she lifts me off the ground and thrusts with all her might at my abdomen.

I don’t know whether to laugh, vomit, or pass out, but manage to signal, “That’s NOT it!”

and for Jean to release her hold.

Exhausted and humiliated, I slip to the ground – grateful to be alive but wishing I was dead.

Arm in arm, in the full day’s sun, we walk across the sparse spring lawn, revealing my grassy, mud-stained ass and “big girl” undies – now exposed – thanks to that lethal combination of white pants and puddles.

When Mrs. Waldeck, the School nurse, looks up from her desk,

it’s hard to tell whether her expression is anger, aggravation, or pity.

It certainly isn’t surprise.

Mumbling something about pinochle as a proper past time and a big bonfire for burning all clogs and sandals, she leads me to the back room where I can wash up; then offers the unsatisfactory suggestion that I slip on my gym shorts for the remainder of the day.

My face says it all, so she hands me the phone and suggests I call home.

Mom, as is the norm, is nowhere to be found.

Apparently, the day’s humiliation is far from over.

And this Annie is feeling anything but all right.

Within Close Range: Anita

Anita was one of those agile girls

whose limber and daring I envied.

Her front flips and back flips,

backbends and full splits.

I couldn’t even cartwheel.

I did a competent somersault,

but it garnered little praise.

So, I spent a good deal of time

just laying in the grass.

Observing.

Awed by long, lanky, bendy bodies –

especially Anita’s –

twisting, turning, and taking flight.

Wondering why and how

she could do such things so skillfully,

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 added double-jointed

to her impressive athletic ability.

She’d often demonstrate her loose-jointed trait

by bending her willowy hand the wrong way;

masterfully mis-shaping her long, freckled arm,

as if made of soft, moist, modeling clay.

She could do the same with her shoulders and knees

until her bowed silhouette looked strange indeed:

a favorite umbrella blown inside out

by a rib-bending gust in a strong, spring shower.

Illogical and ludicrous.

Almost cartoonish.

Watching her move I felt ever defeated,

disjointed,

dysfunctional.

A dyed-in-the-wool, tried and failed tumbler.

Forever to watch from the shade of a tree,

where I marveled at my elastic friend,

who could bend,

and bend,

and bend,

and bend.

Within Close Range: Betsy’s Dad’s Den

Each time I lit the candle gifted me, 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 will-menopause-ever-end-addled mind, I reached for the candle and turned it over, hoping the label would reveal something – anything – that might re-animate these mislaid memories.

There was my answer.

Pipe tobacco.

And Mr. Gould’s suddenly den came into focus.

Tucked in the corner of the Gould’s old, 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 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 oh, the kitchen – old bricks and beams – always smelling 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 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. 

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, grey-green, two chimney, Colonial near the lake.

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) to the only place I ever recall seeing 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 a part of me.

As did the sight of Mr. Gould 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 and meticulously constructed, painted and engineered within ridiculously constrained 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; above a glass-topped coffee table filled with shells and sticky sand from spilled milks.

Each night (Betsy would tell me), without fail, her dad would close those long, mustard-colored curtains overlooking Scranton Avenue 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 stop what he was doing, 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 were out of reach.

Yet now reach out.

Calling me back to the old, grey-green, two-chimney, 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.

The Eyes

You won’t see my eyes

across this divide

that widens

and deepens

each day.

My gaze is turned

downward

into the rift

where much that was

has slipped away.

Into the dark 

of misaimed deeds

selfish wants

always needs.

Not convenient

if I bleed.

So pardon me 

if our eyes don’t meet

the steps are precarious

below these feet.

I need my focus

on footing strong

on solid ground,

and grounded ones.

I know what lurks

behind those eyes

who make believe

with all those lies

that everything will be okay

and once again I’ll

look your way.

But keep your eyes

upon your path

of weblike turns

and sticky tracks.

And let me keep 

my tired eyes

focused ahead

where my truth lies.

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 blistering.

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.

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.