Within Close Range – Florida Days: the teen years

Driving from the airport

to a new winter retreat –

a 20 story high-rise in Pompano Beach –

it’s clear things aren’t as they have been.

Gone are the Mid-Century neighborhoods

with small, tidy bungalows

and pastel-colored apartment complexes.

Gone are the small, neat streets

crammed with big, American cars

and the quiet, inland canals

with their 90 degree curves.

Modern high-rises now loom along the coast,

casting long shadows over these old ghosts.

Smothered by “The Strip”,

a popular stretch of beach –

and the only way to their new place,-

Nonna and Papa are forced to face

nubile, bikini-clad, beer drinking youth

balanced precariously between child and adult

unkempt,

half-naked –

all god-forsaken.

But Gina and I crave this uncharted world,

which we’re 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 closer we get to Nonnie and Papa’s,

the older the demographics begin to slant,

until beers and bikinis are soon replaced

by beer bellies and Platex bras.

The upside to the new zip code

is a bigger abode –

and a separate door to the outside world –

or at least to a corridor,

and an unused stairwell.

To Marlboro Lights

and poorly rolled joints,

and late night escapades with girls from New York.

Gone are our grandparents’ halcyon days

of minding their ways.

These are the carefree days of youth.

Of baby oil and B-52s.

Getting stoned in the sauna.

Drinking beers on the beach.

Somehow convincing Nonnie

to hand us the keys.

Of cranking up the radio

and rolling down the windows

to inhale the salty air

and the sweet smell

of being newly licensed.

Of boys on the beach noticing us

and Nonnie –

from high above –

noticing them, noticing us.

These are the Florida days

of pushing boundaries,

especially ones so poorly guarded.

Well past our very strict curfew.

Nonna is waiting and bleak.

She’s worked herself into such a state,

she’s lifted off her bunioned feet.

She cross-examines,

reprimands,

and threatens to send us home;

then leads us in to Papa

in the unlit living room,

Leaden and pacing.

My heart is breaking.

When all is said –

which isn’t much –

he turns his back

and sends us to bed.

The first thing we see in the morning

taped prominently to the fridge

is a newspaper clip with a giant headline,

“Girls Found Charred on Beach”,

and Nonnie,

with her back to us.

Sighing and tsk-ing,

but not saying anything.

Until behind closed bedroom doors,

on an all-day call with her sister, Rose,

we can hear her tell of all her woes;

heralded, at times, in a pitch so high,

dogs throughout the high-rise begin to cry.

This leads to quieter Florida days,

of shorter visits

and solo stays.

Now more observer than the observed;

studying Nonnie and Papa

in their Florida world.

In their well-aged routine of marital malaise.

Wondering if I know what a happy marriage is?

Hours of watching old ladies by the pool;

with their sun hats and cigarettes

and bad romance books;

their games of Canasta,

and over-tanned skin…

wondering if any

were ever really young?

When Papa leaves to tend to the store,

it’s hours of Gin Rummy,

and little more.

Alone with Nonnie,

playing round after round

on the windy, high-rise balcony,

sixteen floors from the ground.

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.

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,

returning with something powdery and sweet

or cheesy and crusty

and hot from the oven.

Such deliciously quiet moments

of simply doing nothing.

Oh these my Florida days.

Within Close Range: Dinner at the Celanos’

Dinner means waiting.

It means setting the table

with placemats and napkins,

and neatly set silver,

pitchers of water

and plates for your salad;

and waiting and waiting,

as smells from the kitchen,

from sizzling pans and simmering pots,

waft through the house

like intoxicating fog.

Making it hard to concentrate

on anything but the the clock,

and the driveway,

where we turn our attentions

every few minutes,

hoping for headlights.

Stomachs gurgling.

Tempers shortening.

Dad finally showing

and ever so slowly…

shedding his suit.

Un-harried.

Unhurried

to get the meal going.

Though children are moaning.

Haven’t eaten in minutes.

But dinner begins

when Dad’s ready to sit.

And no sooner.

Within Close Range: Bullies

Because our home’s so far away,

I’m the first picked up by the bus each day

and the very first stop after school –

which makes every student on our route

sit forty minutes more each afternoon

and me, an unwelcome sight.

Full of hormones and hate,

those in last few rows of the long, yellow bus

moan and groan

as soon as I climb on,

making me nervously skitter to the nearest seat

where I crouch and hide and wait.

The hardcore insults come later

and louder

cloaked in the anonymity of the rumbling and motion

of our rolling prison.

Deaf to what he hears,

the bus driver just stares ahead

and goes where he’s told.

United by the same neighborhood,

in the opposite direction,

they snarl and nip at the back of my neck –

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, backseat words

have more than their usual bite,

I step from the bus

and race to the woods,

searching for a way to shake the hurt

in the thick, dim patches of unpeopled forest.

I disappear among the ember-colored leaves

which cap the many trees of Shoreacres

before the heavy freeze

steals the color from the land.

And there, I simply am.

Where I step to the sound of my breathing,

the movement of the clouds,

and to the busy hush of forest life about,

reminding me to go about my own;

and to heal my wounds

with the comforts of home.

One Square Mile

We’d been in Prescott several months

before I felt quite brave enough

to wander a mile of state trust land

neighboring our windy, new hillside home.

Raised in the Midwest, it was like another world

harsh and barren – and continuously warned

of giant spiders and big mountain cats,

poisonous snakes and thieving rats.

Instead, I learned of high dessert ways,

where life and death are on display.

In each cow for slaughter in the shade of a pine;

in the shy, white blossoms of the desert moon vine;

which shun the sun all summer long,

closing their beauty to everyone.

Then as the gentle night unfolds,

so does each petal, bright and bold.

And fleeting.

In every piece of a recent kill,

neatly picked clean from above and below,

until nothing remains but an armful of bones

to bleach and decay in the perennial sun.

Each time I’ve wandered this rolling terrain,

it has begged more questions and felt more sane;

and given me moments I’ll relive again

with a broad, happy smile for all that’s been.

Of days making circles within this wild square,

with the weight of the world or nary a care;

the moment the dogs and I walked up a hill,

where a herd of pronghorn stood scattered and still.

Two dozen, or so, at rest and at play.

Not bothered enough to run away.

Even as the dogs whined and pulled at their leashes,

they just raised their heads, and I stood speechless.

With earthy colors of white, black and wheat,

small groups spread out, but young close to teat.

Watching us.

Watching them.

Feeling the ache of the dogs in my arms,

and wanting to keep all present from harm,

I called for calm and aimed for home,

turning my pack from the wondrous tableau.

We hadn’t gone far when I felt the ground shake.

The once placid herd was now wide awake.

The dogs were frantic. Nearly pulled off my feet.

I turned to see the herd and me just about to meet.

Digging in heels and holding on tight,

I stared to the eyes of the leader in sight.

With the herd right behind, and us just ahead,

it was up to this doe as to how this would end.

At the very last moment, the doe darted right,

followed close by her clan, who were now in full flight.

The spray from her hooves shot into my gape,

as we watched the herd and our narrow escape.

Just the other side of a short, fat tree

the pronghorn passed just feet away.

Turning with the herd, thus turning their keeper,

the dogs spun me round, so I dug my heels deeper.

But instead of the group going forward and gone,

the leader turned back from where they had come!

A dust cloud of pronghorns surrounded all sides.

Dogs yanking and whining and losing their minds.

All I can think is, “Keep anchored! Hang tight!”

And that no one was going to concede this wild sight.

For how could I make someone truly believe

that I was in the middle of a pronghorn stampede?

When the final white butt disappeared in the dust,

leaving us trembling, I laughed – as you must.

“Holy shit!”, I screamed out, again and again,

as I looked for my breath and steadied my friends.

We climbed the last hills of this special square mile,

to our tame, little world, where we’d rest a while

and dream of dust clouds.

I’m fine.

I’m fine.

That’s what you want to hear.

I’m fine.

I’ll say it loud and clear.

I’m fine.

It’s easier this way.

I’m fine.

Pretending everyday.

I’m fine.

It’s normal to wake in tears.

I’m fine.

Haven’t had a break in years.

I’m fine.

Trying to find that level ground.

I’m fine.

Wondering who I hope will stick around.

I’m fine.

Cause that’s the me you want to see.

I’m fine.

But she’s the she I no longer care to be.

I’m fine.

Losing something which never was.

I’m fine.

Just keep going, cause that’s what one does.

I’m fine.

Trying each day to set things right.

I’m fine.

But waking most days too tired to fight.

I’m fine.

Wondering if death came before dawn.

I’m fine.

And if Mom is alive, how to stay kind.

I’m fine.

Cause every day it’s just the same.

I’m fine.

The same recording on endless play.

I’m fine.

While the rest of the world gets on with its day.

I’m fine.

As hair by hair, my years now show.

As lines overtake my burrowed brow.

As my strength builds, then suddenly goes.

As the walls of my home begin to close.

As each day’s remnants turns to dust.

As I do each day what I know I must.

I’m fine.

I’m fine.

I’m fine.

Death, the Kingbird, and I

Death rapped on our window at dawn

so I leapt from bed and out the door

to shoo it away.

But there, below the window,

in the morning shade of the Mulberry tree

a Western Kingbird lay.

Damn it, I cried aloud to death,

I’ve tried to keep you at bay.

How many window decals do I need

to keep them all away?

You silly thing, I said to the bird,

and scooped to pick her up.

Stunned and afraid

she fluttered her wings,

flipping helplessly in the dust.

With soothing words, i tried again.

cupping hands around my little friend.

Who showed little life.

Who looked near the end.

But I was not interested in welcoming death,

so finding a box and trying my best,

I set the bird down in a soft, cotton nest.

A gentle stroke upon her head

and down her narrow bill.

Her wide, black eyes, now closed.

Her gray and yellow feathers, still.

Death, I see, is stopping by.

So I leave the Kingbird,

– and this mourning scene –

to have a good, long cry.

For the bird,

For the world.

For me.

For death hovers over this house.

It simply can’t be helped

with a 90 year old mother about.

Although uninvited, it came for a visit.

Not much to be done

except to face it.

I returned to the box

with the poor, little bird.

And, once again, I cursed aloud.

Reaching down for one final stroke,

suddenly the Kingbird woke,

and flew in a flash

to a neighboring tree,

leaving me

and death

behind today.

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.

The Water Jug

There once sat a giant water jug in the corner of the plaza

of a tiny, wind-beaten, anywhere town.

The brown and green mottled jar

well over two meters in height

had been there for as long as anyone could remember;

and no matter the day, time, year, or generation,

the jug was always filled with water,

ever fresh and cool within its thick, clay walls.

A clean, wooden sipping ladle, soft to hold and handle,

tied to a braided rope of gem-colored ribbons,

always hung about the shiny brass spigot

found one-third the way up the vessel, at a height for all to reach.

Below this, sat a large stone trough,

which caught each precious drop,

and where all the town’s creatures came to sit and sip.

No one ever dared lay claim to be the one who filled the giant jar,

for all knew that to keep it thus, meant miles of travel

and toting to and from the nearest well.

“Such a blessing, indeed,” they would remark to each other as they drew from the tap,

“to have such a friend – or friends – as these!”

Some curious folk tried, here and there, to lift the jug

to see if its source was, perhaps, not a person, but a spring, or pipe.

But the jug wouldn’t budge.

And, once more, attentions would turn elsewhere –

away from the shiny, earthen jar that watered their gardens and helped make their broth;

cleansed and nourished them.

Its mysterious origin would fever the imaginations of the town’s newcomers,

but soon they too, would, without much thought,

take from its bounty as one takes a breath.

The years passed.

The town got bigger.

And the jug continued to give… as best it could.

No one noticed when the braided silk ribbon holding the ladle frayed and finally fell,

splitting the old, weatherbeaten, wood scoop in two.

The faded, unravelling rope blew away with the winds,

and the ladle pieces were soon buried in the dirt kicked up by another,

and another, and another at the spigot.

So it should come as no surprise that no one noticed the first crack –

a hairline near the top, by the lid (now missing its knob).

Or the second, at its base in the back.

And how could anyone have known

without ever lifting the high, heavy lid – long devoid of its handle –

that the jug was now only able to half-way fill?

More years passed and more people came to settle near

and depend upon the water jug in the corner of the old plaza,

not paying much mind that the spigot was getting harder to turn

and the water came in troubled spurts.

Because came it did,.

So, on they went with their lives.

While the cracks in the vessel grew long, and dark, and moist.

One afternoon, an elder from the town

(a sweet and gentle fellow with a crooked grin and wicked humor),

sat upon the old stone trough, scratching a scraggly, stray dog behind its ears,

filling his modest kettle,

when he felt a drop on his head.

He looked hopefully to the sky, but saw not a cloud,

when down came another.

Wiping the tear-sized drip from his eye, he stood atop the trough for a closer look

and there he discovered the crack,

now beginning to seep.

His old heart raced, as he began a thorough examination of the giant earthen jug,

soon discovering,

much to his own surprise,

not only dangerous weaknesses everywhere;

but its sad state of neglect.

“What has happened to thee, Old Friend?” sighed the elder

as he grabbed his kettle and turned toward home,

laden with dark thoughts of how the town would fare without it.

Early the next morning, as the sky began to brag,

the old man was already at the water jug with his bucket, trowel, and cement.

After mixing a small batch, he began the patchwork at the bottom,

and worked his way up.

At first, no one in the town took much notice,

but the old man didn’t mind. He was enjoying the work.

He felt useful, helpful – important for the first time in years.

But his work came to a halt as he struggled for some time

to reach some of the biggest cracks at the top of the great jug.

“May I?” a tall lady with bright blue hair finally asked,

setting down her cats, and picking up the trowel.

Before long, other folk began to gather at the water jug in the corner of the old town plaza,

bringing brushes and brass polish, flower pots and benches

– even a new knob for its lid.

It was when the lid was lifted for repair by two of the town’s strongest,

that the water was discovered to be a scant distance from dropping below the spigot,

instantly turning the spontaneous, happy gathering into a very different moment.

Folks began pointing fingers at each other for taking more than their share.

Everyone finding blame everywhere but home.

All the while,

the elder, who sat carving on the giant, bent trunk of an enormous Cottonwood tree,

remained silent…

until he wasn’t anymore.

“It seems to me,” he said a little louder each time,

until by the forth, fed up, he filled his old lungs and croaked

“IT SEEMS TO ME!…”

Someone in the crowd finally noticed and a slow hush came over the townsfolk.

“It seems to me,” repeated the elder, as he very slowly and deliberately closed his knife,

took up the newly carved ladle, shoved it in his pocket, and shuffled toward the jar,

“that each and every one of us has benefitted from what this precious jug has given.”

Nary a sole could disagree, but what could they do?

What control had they over its mysterious bounty?

“Each of us has to give,” said the old man sternly, “for this vessel needs filling.

Give what you can, if only a drop.

Give what you must, for the cracking to stop.

Give what you will for the water to rise.

For the jug to replenish.

For the jar to provide.”

But the townsfolk felt they had done quite enough

with the mending and flowers, and paint, and stuff,

so off they went, back to their shops and their homes and their lives,

having convinced themselves that the jug would continue to supply their needs.

The next morning, the town’s Postmaster went to the jar

to soak her stamp sponge

and turned the handle of the spigot to find not a single…

droplet…

dropped.

She turned the handle harder.

Still nothing.

She got down on her hands and knees

and crouching under the old, brass faucet, stuck her long, thin finger up the pipe

with the hopes of dislodging the obvious offender.

The scene couldn’t help but attract attention from the folks going about their business in the plaza,

and in just a few minutes a small crowd was once again gathered at the giant water jug.

The Postmaster rose with what dignity she could,

and without bothering to wipe the dirt from her hands or knees,

said to the many familiar faces before her, “It has nothing left to give.”

The crowd refused to believe her

and grabbing the nearest ladder, the two same strongest, once again climbed to its top,

removed its lid,

and looked within.

There was water.

The crowd collectively exhaled.

“But only at the very bottom of the jug!” heralded the powerful duo from above.

Panic began simmering.

The greedy began plotting.

And the air became electrified with fear.

Now the elder,

who had been calmly watching the scene from the very same spot as the day before,

shuffled toward the center of the crowd, which quieted quickly.

“Give what you can, if only a drop,”

he repeated from the day before.

“Give what you must, for the cracking to stop.

Give what you will, for the water to rise.

For the jug to replenish.

For the jar to provide.”

“Go to your homes and go to your hearts,”

he said looking into each and every set of eyes that would meet his gaze.

“Fill your cups, your buckets, your glasses, your tubs.

For it’s time to give back to this watering jug.”

The crowd hesitated at first,

scratching their heads,

milling about,

kicking at the dirt and the dust,

causing a small group nearby to begin coughing.

Seeing his mother having more and more trouble breathing, a young man ran to the jug,

and with no thought but of that very moment,

cupped his hand and turned the spigot.

The crowd moved toward the jar with a great thirst.

But,

as the Postmaster had stated previously,

the water jug had nothing left to give.

Coughing gave way to sighs amid silence.

“Give what you can,”

whispered the elder as he wandered through the crowd,

placing his hands gently upon the shoulders of his friends, neighbors and kin,

“if only a drop.

Give what you must, for the cracking to stop.

Give what you will, for the water to rise.

For the jug to replenish.

For the jar to provide.”

And with that the crowd scattered about,

then slowly filtering back

– some with only thimblefuls –

others with great, overflowing basins and bowls.

While still others disappeared from the town completely.

One by one,

each offering was poured into the old, patched jug,

eventually filling it to its brim.

With the heavy lid placed back on top, the remaining townsfolk watched silently

as the elder pulled from his pocket the beautiful new ladle he had carved.

Stepping to the shiny, brass spigot, the old man’s crooked fingers turned the handle with ease.

and he filled the large, wooden scoop with water.

Turning to the crowd with a grand and crooked grin,

he took a refreshing gulp

the passed it to the person closest him,

and on it went.

As the ladle, soft to handle and hold,

was passed to young and old,

rich and poor,

newcomers and natives,

it continued to fill with cool, clear water

for the next and the next and the next.

Until all in the town had sipped from it and then,

without a word,

quietly returned to their homes.

Now one would have thought the story ended here.

That the townspeople had learned their lesson

and the water jug would be tended to from then on.

But folks, like the elder, passed away,

or moved on,

and newcomers settled in around the great, brown and green mottled water jug

in the corner of the old plaza,

having never heard the cautionary tale.

And those who were there,

as most tend to do,

forgot.

So the cracks reappeared

and the water level dropped.

Until one kind soul felt a teardrop on their head,

and looked up.