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: This Mile of Road

I love the final miles to our back door. The everyday sights of tree-lined neighborhoods, sleepy main streets, and stretches of flat fields and crisp, white barns silhouetted against waning sunlight.

After a successful fight for window rights, I’ve rolled mine all the way down, ignoring the moans of siblings wishing to remain buried in the stuffy confines of the car. Sticking my head as far out as I can, searching the darkening skies for the first star of the night, I inhale summer – long and hard – accepting the occasional collision with a bug on its own nocturnal journey.

Sheridan Road (which extends north all the way from Chicago) is the final stretch from Lake Bluff to home, straight and scarcely inhabited – except for the occasional sighting of the reflective, red eyes of wildlife at its edge hoping to survive fields and forests, cars and trains, on their way to wherever.

Alongside Sheridan Road, for much of the way, runs the Northwestern Railroad. Its green and yellow cars, faded and familiar, appear beside us long after its piercing horn signaled its approach. I race the train, stepping on an imaginary gas pedal on the candy wrapper-riddled floor. Pressing harder and harder, as if my desire will make Dad drive faster and finally beat the northbound beast.

But the train rolls past our station wagon and all I can do with the same, old loss is gaze into the windows of the passenger cars; into the yellow-tinged lights where, returning from leave, the white-capped sailors of Great Lakes Naval Base lean heavily against the worn, green leather seats and dingy glass. Their lonely figures the last thing I see before Dad signals right and I close my eyes for the final mile to our front door.

There is comfort in this blind ritual; in the knowledge that I know this mile of road so well that the sight of it is secondary to the feel of its curves, the sounds of its inhabitants, the smells of fresh cut fairways, and a giant of a freshwater lake.

Unlike the miles behind us, we travel more leisurely along Shoreacres Road. Breathing easier and rejoicing in nature. In the great, silent custodians – the Maples, Oaks and Elms – which stand over nearly every inch of it; shading us from the summer sun like a vast, green awning and warming us with their blazing, dazzling, daring reds, yellows and oranges in the autumn. Come winter, tree-lined comfort turns to forest mischief when laden branches drop dense clumps of snow on our hoods and on our heads, surprising us and swamping us as we pass below.

The first curve is less than a quarter of a mile along, and drifts sharply to the left, as it begins to follow a tiny, twisting creek, where moonlit nights make the water dance and daylight hours invite Mallards to its mossy banks.

Each fall, just before the curve and the creek, an old Black Walnut tree drops heaps of its brown-green nuts onto the road, which explode beneath the wheels of the wagon as a call to local wildlife who delight in the meat of the thick-shelled nuts and a seasonal signal of that first turn.

Up ahead, I can see in my mind where the road abandons the tiny creek and veers ninety degrees to the right, toward much greater waters. We call this part of the road, “The Straight-Away” because it’s the longest, lineal stretch in the mile journey, inspiring newly licensed teenagers to ignore speed bumps.

Sticking my head even further out the car window as we head down this long strip of cracked and well-worn pavement, I envision the great expanse of manicured green to my left, the tangled woods to my right, and just ahead, at the end of The Straight-Away, the exact spot where lake Michigan demonstrates its greatness by influencing the weather around its shores in a sudden shift from the warm, near-stifling humidity of a Midwest summer night, to a sudden, clammy chill – like leaving the glow of a campfire. Even sleepy siblings will reach a hand out the nearest window to feel it. Because feeling it, is feeling home.

At the end of the Straight-Away, Dad will turn left and we’ll soon pass the old, white clubhouse standing at the edge of the bluff on the right. I imagine it ’s covered in fog and dimly lit by the street lamps lining its long, unapproachable entrance.

Just past the clubhouse, the wagon gently turns left, bringing us past a faded, old, foamy green water-tower that stands at the entrance of our neighborhood. A sad sentry – rusted and outdated, and destined for demolition – its large, steel legs, are our gateway to high jinks in the forests and on the footbridges of the golf course just beyond.

An expansive, white, Georgian house is next on the left; with three, enormous, old pines nearly hiding its existence. Planted long ago in a very neat row, they dominate even the grand, columned entrance. Each pine is a story higher than the two-story house: shadowy and green and fabulously fragrant after a spring shower; while giant villains in the fog, and enormous yuletide beacons, strung from top to bottom with tiny, bright, white lights that always make me cheat – and peek.

Across the road from where the pines stand tall, there’s a big, brutish fence, behind which stands a tragic folly created by a strange woman named Felicia. (We call her Fishy.) On the nights when its colossal, indoor tennis court sets the sky and woods on fire with its jarring, unnatural lights, I hear my father grumble and briefly my eyes for chance to see if, in between the pickets, I can catch a glimpse of this sad, slightly mad, lonely woman, living her sad, slightly mad, lonely life.

Happy to be past it and moments from home. Minutes from bed.

A slight right at the fork and our driveway’s just ahead, on the right. I know exactly when we’ve turned onto it by the sound of gravel crackling like popcorn beneath the wheels of the wagon as it winds its way through the woods and the summer smells of wild onions and Queen Anne’s lace, pungent and sweet.

And familiar.

Bringing me ever nearer to sleep.

Only when I hear the garage door begin its sluggish retreat and the dogs begin to bark, do I open my eyes and end the game, content for having found my way home again.

I close my eyes for one more game. I pretend to be fast asleep, so Dad will carry me the final steps to my bed, and to my dreams.

Within Close Range: Tiny Terrors

I save every penny I can to buy things for my very first household: a two-story, six room, pale yellow Colonial with black shutters, rose-filled window boxes, and a square footage of about three.

Placing my tiny, new items in their tiny, proper places, house proud and satisfied, I head downstairs to the laundry room for dusting rags. I’m only gone a few minutes, but as I come around the front facade of my beautiful home – thinking of fake-watering my fake flowers – I’m shocked and horrified.

The tiny patriarch of my miniature clan is not where I left him, sitting on the living room sofa with a wee book in his lap.

Daughter is still at the piano where I left her, but slumped over. Arms splayed across the keys.

I find Father directly above, in the four poster bed, pant-less and laying rather indelicately on top of Mother; while in the bathroom, next door, Baby has been stuffed – diapers up – in the porcelain toilet with the long chain pull.


My fearful but transfixed eyes move to Grandmother’s room next door, slightly disappointed to find nothing – no one. Maybe Grandmother’s safe.

But the thought is fleeting when in the kitchen below, I find my sweet, old, grey-haired Grandmother, and her tiny bun I carefully brush with the tip of my finger, has been shoved in the oven of the cast iron stove. The soles of her sensible shoes searing into my memory.

But where’s Son? He’s not in the fridge, under the sofa, in the clawfoot tub. Searching both floors of the colonial, there’s only one place left…

Slowly raising the balsa-shingled roof (lof my pale yellow, Colonial house with black shutters and rose-filled windows boxes, (which Jim was forced to cut and glue as punishment for his last dollhouse infraction), I can’t see him anywhere.

Then I spy the tiny trunk in the corner…

Oh, the tiny horror.

Within Close Range: The Universe Upstairs

The adult-free upstairs is our universe, our private world of fun and games and funny voices, where Jim’s rolled up socks turn into stink bombs of such infamy that as soon as you see him take off a shoe, you run… as fast as your stockinged feet along a polished wood floor can take you.

It’s also where fuzzy, red carpeting turns to molten lava as chairs and tables become bridges, and the sofa, an island where captives and carpet monsters fight to the death in battle after battle.

In the universe upstairs, sloped-ceiling closets and dark crawlspaces (too-small-for-adults places) become hideaways where we can bring pillows and posters, flashlights and stuffed animals, and write secrets and swear words on the 2 x 4s and plaster board; as we listen to Mom in the kitchen below.

Until the heater switches on and the great metal shafts fill with air and fill our ears with rumbling.

At the very top of the back steps, behind a tiny door (not more than three feet square), Jim spent all day building a spaceship. Fabricated from old outlets and switches and a roll of duct tape.

With Mark as his co-pilot and imagination as his rocket fuel, he rallies us to climb into his crawlspace capsule. I sit back in the darkness, surrounded by boxes of memories – Mom’s heirloomed wedding dress at my elbow and Christmas decorations at my back – anxious for the countdown.

Excited for blast off.

For leaving the earth far behind.

Calling to his co-pilot to flick switches labelled with a big, black magic marker, then moving his hands up and down his own duct-taped controls, I hear the sputters and rumbles of Jim’s vocal-powered rockets.

Hugging my big, Pooh Bear, I watch our fearless pilot, in the beam of a dangling flashlight, lean back and call to his unlikely crew through the cup of his hand, “Hang on! Here we go! Ten… Nine… Eight…”

Jim’s rumbles begin to rise.

“Seven… Six… Five… Four…”

I feel the crawlspace shake and rattle.

“Three… Two… One… BLAST OFF!”

I squeeze that silly, old bear and close my eyes to see the fast-approaching cosmos…

And there I float in the infinite black. In the infinite stars. Until Jim shouts, “Meteors!” and all hell breaks loose in our top-of-the-stairs cockpit.

The hallway light suddenly cuts through the cracks and the dark – and the meteors – and the call of dinner brings us back to earth.

Within Close Range: Inspection

Mom and Dad’s bedroom is on the first floor of the house (at the southern end of everything) allowing them to frequently escape to its sunlit, coziness and away from the five, wild seeds they chose to sow.

This leaves the entire second floor almost entirely adult-free, except for the occasional laundry delivery from Mom and the much less occasional visit from Dad – more ceremonial than social – and usually the result of winter restlessness or weekend thunderstorms keeping him from the golf course.

We only know of his plans when we hear, “INSPECTION in ten minutes!” sound from below, at which point all present scatter from the upstair’s common room to our respective bedrooms, where we begin frenzied attempts to hide all clothing, toys, towels, glasses, plates, books and general shit we’ve left strewn everywhere.

Depending on his level of bother, Dad might only scan the surface of the bedrooms and bathrooms. It’s something each of us quietly prays for as he passes dressers, drawers, desks and closets, cluttered and crammed with quickly concealed crap.

If his heart really isn’t in it, he might demand some dusting and vacuuming, to be inspected later – which will likely not occur – and then disappear below. Knowing this, we’ll half-heartedly obey before returning to reruns, twitching on each other, and littering.

However, if Dad’s disposition is grim, he delves further, looking under beds and behind shower curtains, and, if he’s in a particularly foul mood, sliding open a closet door…

At which point, we’re positively doomed.

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: 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.