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.

Within Close Range: Racing the Dark

Mia has a complex relationship with the Night. She’s a creature of it – active and creative – and stays awake well into it (later than most in the house), yet also seems determined to shun it with the use of every light available.

And when Night finally acquiesces to Sleep, it does so half-heartedly with Mia, often leaving her restless and wandering between this world and slumber’s.

Rare is the night she goes to bed before me, so lying quietly in our shared bedroom, I’ve listened and become well acquainted with her almost nightly routine.

With the rest of the house long dark and quiet, it begins.

CLICK.

On go the back staircase lights, and then, footsteps – Mia’s – coming up the old, wooden staircase. Her movement, quick and skittish. Around the corner she scurries, to the main hall and –

CLICK.

Her target, two doors down, is illuminated.

Muffled by a thick, carpet runner, I know Mia reaches our door only when she flicks the switch, re-illuminating our brightly patterned wallpaper of orange, green and yellow flowers.

After making as much noise as possible (slamming drawers and sliding closet doors, testing her alarm clock, etc.) does she slip beneath her covers, leaving every light on her path from family room to bedroom, burning bright.

Just as dependable as this, is the dialogue which follows.

“Mia, turn off the lights.”

“You turn them off.”

“You were the last one in bed! AND YOU were the one who turned them on in the first place!”

“So?”

“So? So, it’s only fair that you turn them off.”

“No.”

“Dang it, Mia, you know I can’t sleep with the lights on!”

Well-stashed below her covers, “Too bad,” comes her muffled reply. “I can sleep just fine with them on.”

I always claim I’ll do the same, but in less than a minute, with the lights searing wholes through my eyelids, I climb from bed and shuffle just outside our door.

CLICK. CLICK.

Off the hall and staircase lights go.

CLICK.

Off our bedroom lights go.

“Brat,” I call through the dark, as I feel my way back to my bed at the other end of the room.

It’s gone on like this for years.

But now Chris is off to college and Mia’s been given her own room, and I can’t wait. Not only because I’m anxious to have my independence, but even more, I’m anxious to see how Mia will handle hers.

However, she keeps delaying the move, bringing her things into her new bedroom next door one article at a time – over days, which is now turning into weeks. I offer to help. She gets offended and disappears. Mom finally has to intervene.

Begrudgingly, Mia throws the last of her belongings into the heap already in the center of her new bedroom and, tonight, faces sleeping on her own for the first time in her life.

I lay in my darkened room and wait for the familiar sounds of Mia making her way upstairs, speculating over and over again how she’ll handle the lights with no one in the next bed to do it for her. Will she leave them on all night? Doubtful. Dad has a sixth sense about these things and will be demanding “Lights out!” before long. Will she have the gall to call through the walls for me to do it?

She wouldn’t dare….or would she?…

CLICK.

On go the back staircase lights. Creak, go the steps.

CLICK.

On go the hallway lights.

CLICK.

On go Mia’s bedroom lights.

I listen carefully. Tracking her footsteps. Picturing her every move. Anticipating her thoughts.

CLICK. CLICK.

Off goes the stair and hall lights from below, as Mom calls “Sweet dreams.” and Dad warns “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Minutes later, there’s only one light left on in the entire house.

“Come on, Mia,” I whisper into my pillow. “How’s it gonna be?”

Then it happens.

CLICK.

Off goes the light.

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter—grumpf-creakity-creak-creak-cree.

And that’s the way it will be from this day forward. Night after night.

It’s a sound that never fails to bring a smile to my face.

CLICK.

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter—grumpf-creakity-creak-creak-cree.

Mia running from light switch to bed. Fleeing the unknowns of the night.

Racing the dark.

Within Close Range: Strange Bedfellows

I once woke to find Mia tucked snugly beside me in my twin bed, with most of the covers and most of the space. When I tapped her on the shoulder to point this out, she rolled over (our noses nearly touching), blinked, and groaned, “Anne, what are you doing here?”

“You’re in MY room.”

Looking around briefly, she rolled over again (taking the remainder of the covers with her) and, giving me a swift backward kick, sent me to the floor; where I lay, bewildered, but slightly in awe of her sleep-walking pluck.

We never really know when or what to expect from Mia’s nocturnal wanderings.

And so, returning home late one night, noticing that the light is still on in the den…

“Crap,” I mumble into the open fridge, that must mean Dad’s waiting up.

I begin to formulate one-word responses to his inevitable interrogation. With munchies in hand and alibis at the tip of my tongue, I open the door to the den, only to find Mia on the pumpkin orange sofa, sitting up and staring at the paneled wall ahead.

“Hey.”

No reply.

“Meem, it’s late. Coming up to bed?”

Nothing. Not even a blink. So, I shrug and turn for the stairs.

“Where’s my friend?” I hear from behind.

Turning back around, I ask, ”What friend?”

“My FRIEND!” she replies sharply.

“What friend, Mia? I don’t who you’re talking about.”

“My FRIEND!” she repeats for the third time.

“Look, maybe if I knew what friend you’re talking ab-“

“Shut up, Anne.”

“All-righty, then,” I say as I head toward the stairs and bed.

Passing the boy’s room, I notice that the television is blaring and Mark is still lying on the sofa, face down, with a cat on his shirtless back and a dog at his feet. I turn the T.V. off and gently tap him on the shoulder.

“Kid, you should head to bed,” I whisper, and then start for my own.

Mark raises his head suddenly and calls out, “Anne-Anne-Anne… Would-you, would-you, would-you…open-the-open-the-open-the-open-the-“

Then nothing. He simply collapses back onto his belly and into his dreams.

“Open the WHAT?” I scream from the inside, fearing that if I turn around I’ll likely see Rod Serling, cigarette in hand, furrowing his thick, dark eyebrows as he begins to explain the strange tale of the my sudden plunge into madness.

“I’m way too stoned,” I mumble as I head to the comfort of my room.

Before I get there, however, I notice the lights on in Mia’s bedroom and feel compelled to investigate.

Damn you, Rod Serling.

I find Mia sitting on her bed, doused in light, with a drawing pad in her lap and a peculiar look on her face.

But what I find even more disconcerting is how quickly and stealthily she made her way from the den to her bedroom – up the creaky stairs and down the equally creaky hallway, just feet from where I was in the boys’ room – without my noticing.

I glance up to the mirror above Mia’s desk, where I find instant comfort in seeing both our reflections, and enough cool to ask Mia about her missing friend.

She looks up, but says nothing.

“Your friend,” I’m tortured to press. “The one you were looking for earlier?”

She scrunches her face and tilts her head, slightly.

“Where’s my pink purse?” are the next words out of Mia’s mouth.

I don’t know how to respond. We just glare at one another.

“What?!”

“My pink purse!” she repeats unhappily.

“Okay… now you’re looking for a friend whose name you don’t know AND a purse that’s pink… Am I getting this right?”

“Shut up, Anne.” is all she has to say. And all I can take for one night.

The following morning, both Mia and Mark deny any knowledge of the previous night’s events.

But we know the truth, don’t we, Rod?

Within Close Range: Laps

I look into Mia’s bloodshot eyes for the challenge.
And off we go.
Stroke for stroke. 
Lap after lap.
Ten, twenty, thirty.
Keeping an even pace.
No sign of the other’s weakness.
Forty, fifty, sixty. 
Tiring, but single-minded.
Who’ll be first to surrender?
Seventy, eighty, ninety.
I can hear, in my non-submerged ear, Mom calling.
But grumbling stomachs and dinner be damned.
Closing in on a hundred laps, Mom calls out again.
“Okay,” Mia gasps, “let’s stop at a hundred and four.”
Rejecting her offer, I push off once more.
And she follows.
Hundred and four. Hundred and five. Hundred and six.
Mark’s now standing poolside.
Tiny hands on tiny hips.
Dinner is getting cold and Dad is getting mad.
I call an immediate draw.
My opponent responds with a nod.
I climb out, expecting her to follow.
Instead, Mia slowly sinks back in the water.
And with an enormous grin,
pushes off the shallow end
for her victory lap.

Within Close Range: Family Vacation in Ten Small Helpings

In the early 1970s, Mom and Dad take us on a Christmas ski holiday to Park City, Utah.

 Airplanes

Seven eager faces.

Shiny new snow suits. 

Plane bound for Utah.

Minor complications.

 Airplane sickness.

Brothers’ twitchiness.

Three hour restlessness.

Homicidal stewardess.

Snow Bound?

Five anxious, young passengers 

press noses against windows 

as we climb the mountain in the rental sedan.

Looking for that wonderful white fluff. 

But all we see is brown and green stuff.

Dad keeps saying, “Just give it time.

The more snow you’ll see, the higher we climb.”

We have little reason to doubt him. 

Bloody Mess

Quietly miserable, swabbing her bruised, stitched and swollen gums, and wanting no part of the fight over first-night bedroom rights, Chris waits for things to settle, then drags a blanket, grabs a pillow, and collapses in tears on the sofa til morning.

Raising myself from a battle lost and the living room floor, I’m at the ready with my couch-envy unpleasantries as soon as I open my eyes. But my intentions are met by Chris’s very pale face pressed against her blood-soaked pillow and all that comes out is “MOOOOOOOOOOOOM!”

Arriving at the grisly scene, Mom keeps repeating the same strange thing:  “She’s hemorrhaging!” she screams, hopping in place, “She’s hemorrhaging!” But Chris insists she’s doing okay – with trembling words, blood-encrusted lips, and a heartbreaking smile – better everyday.

Insensitive commentary and contorting faces are nudged toward the kitchen, before she has a chance to think differently upon seeing her reflection.

10-point Dismount

“Ka-tonk, ka-tonk” echo the steps of our rigid boots off the neighboring condominiums and mountainside. Though the surrounding snow looks old and icy, the skies are cloudy and promising and our spirits are high. Even Chris (who barely has enough blood to raise color in her cheeks) manages to perk up. 

She and I board the first ski lift together, admiring the birds’ eye view of our alpine surroundings, paying little mind to the conditions below until we reach the top of the run, where we see attendants shoveling meager remnants of old snow onto the chairlift landing. 

Clearly groggy from blood loss, Chris readies herself by putting her hand firmly on my left leg, then pushing off my thigh, shakily slides forward at the designated mark, leaving me involuntarily planted in the seat and quickly heading toward the 180 degree turn that will take me back down the mountain. With lightning reaction, one of the attendants yanks my arm and whisks me off the chair and onto the ramp they’ve been trying to repack with snow. 

“Scraaaaaaaaaap-p-pe,” go my brand-new skis over the exposed gravel, and down I go, into a pile of hard, dirty, grey ice. 

Lifted from the ground by the fellow who launched me there, humiliated and bruised, I grimace and sidestep over to Chris, who smiles weakly, revealing her black and blue gums and blood-stained teeth.

“Sorry.” 

I want to kill her, but her oral surgeon seems to be doing the job for me.

Albeit very… very… slowly. 

Oh Christmas Tree

Snow-barren slopes concede to an afternoon of hot crepes, holiday displays, a Scotch Pine and rekindled spirits. 

But the yuletide log is soon doused by the grunts and frustrated grumblings

of father and eldest son unsuccessfully attempting to level and stand a 10 foot pine without the aid of a saw – or a tree stand. 

Trying bowls and buckets, waste baskets and garbage bins, tempers are fraying.

Shying away from the ill-fated scene, Mark heads to the television. Click – OUR PRICES ARE INSANE!! – Click – and the lord said unto Mos – Click – BLAH – click – RAH – click – click – click –

“LEAVE IT!”, Dad ROARs. (Had there been any snow on the mountain, we’d likely have just been buried by it.)

This startles Jim, who lets go of the tree, which crashes to the ground, mere inches from Dad, who suddenly decides to take a long, walk, where he’ll cool off, giving Mom time to devise a tree-standing plan, leaning but triumphant.

Out of Order

We all stare wildly at the television, newly kaput. 

Jim and Dad fiddle futilely with its back.

Mom turns on the radio hoping to lighten the mood.

But the only thing she can find is static. 

No music.

No television.

No snow. 

No skiing.  

No reason to go on, really. 

If Walls Could Talk

“Eeeek!!,” comes a scream from the downstairs bathroom. 

With absolutely nothing else to occupy the hours, everyone runs to where Mia is standing, wrapped in a towel, dripping with soap. 

“Who’s using the hot water?” she cries out, shampoo stinging her eyes. 

But all who can be blamed stand before her. 

“Mom, are you running the dishwasher?” 

“I would be IF it was working!” she snaps, finally showing signs of strain. 

With the news of no hot water for days, the cursed family lets out a collective sigh – as if the condo sprung a leak.

Which, at this point, seems entirely possible. 

From Here On Out

After three hours in the car, searching unsuccessfully for snowier resorts, the mood has dipped so low it’s nearly impossible to think of what else could go wrong.

It isn’t long before we have the answer.

Pulling up to the condo, the rental car begins to sputter and choke, and then… it dies. 

We remain still and silent in the back seat, exchanging frightened side glances, waiting for the explosion. 

Dad and Mom sit staring straight ahead through the frosty front windshield.

Neither moving. 

Or speaking.

Then, as if a sweet, tropical breeze blew in through the now dormant air vents, they turn to one another… and start laughing.

Loud. 

And hard. 

Causing a chain reaction.

Drop Kick to Victory

At the suggestion of Charades, family members begin frantically looking for ways out – fiddling with the dead TV and staticky radio, pretending to read, or to die, suddenly. 

And even though total indifference finally sits itself down for the game, it isn’t long before everyone – including Dad (who rarely participates in such things) is wise-cracking and happily taking their turn. 

Teammates are syncing like well-oiled, mind-reading machines. Pantomimes are performed with dexterity and artistry. Guesses are made with certainty.

I’m up. My clue: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” 

I begin by acting out the hand-cranked camera. 

“Movie!”, my partner, Mia, calls out. 

I tip one finger to my nose, then swiftly thrust forward a number of fingers.

“Six words!” she fires in succession.

I tap my nose and squeal with delight. My brain is reeling. 

Catching a glimpse of Dad out of the corner of my eye, his infamous intolerance and abhorrence for the family cats suddenly flashes before me. 

Meeting Mia’s eyes, I drop kick an invisible object, then point to Dad. 

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof!” she screams, leaping from her seat to join me in a victory jig around the living room. 

Stunned by the veiled clue and breakneck victory, everyone is laughing. 

Everyone but Dad. He just looks confused.  

As One

Snowless.

TV-less.

Auto-less. 

No hot water or dishwasher.

No music or phone.

No one restless for change.

Just contented days together

in a world we,shape and shift 

with our individuality,

our familiarity,

our imaginations.

Within Close Range – Grand Safaris and Sunday Afternoons

Dad regularly rallies the family into the Pontiac Grand Safari for destinations unknown; the adventure often beginning after all that Sunday genuflecting, and gobbling down stacks of syrupy pancakes from the Golden Bear Pancake House. 

Dispersed from fore to aft, in the enormous, paneled wagon. Mark’s in front with Mom and Dad. Chris and Jim, by birthright, take the center. Leaving the rear-facing, back seat to Mia and me. The perfect spot for making faces at innocent travelers and gesturing to passing truck drivers to sound their horns; and when a trucker pulls the wire and toots his horn, there’s plenty of room to hide down below, where we can squirm and giggle until the semi rumbles past.

Once we catch on that we’re not going home, through a series of lipped words, nods and head tilts, one of us will be chosen to ask Dad where we’re going – all of us knowing full well what his glorious answer will be.

I’LL never tell!” he sings as he smiles and looks to us in the rear view mirror with his dark, playful eyes.

It’s electrifying.

Sure to be somewhere wonderful, we’ll find ourselves in a faded, old amusement park on its very last go-round; an old-fashioned, ice cream parlor, in a long forgotten neighborhood; an apple orchard serving cold, sweet, back-teeth-tingling cider and fresh made cinnamon-sugar donuts, thoroughly warm and wonderful.

Somewhere we can be all together in the moment and in the memory.

Admittedly, the excitement of the adventure sometimes wanes with the miles it takes to get there, and things can get ugly. 

Ugly enough for Dad to pull over on a long, straight, narrow, stretch of road in rural Illinois, near a solitary farmhouse surrounded by a seemingly endless pasture. Here, he makes each of us exit the wagon – even the littlest, Mark, who’s lifted from Mom’s lap and placed unceremoniously into Chris’s surprised arms.

Mom stays quiet and seated for our expulsion, but all eyes are focused on Dad, who’s already back behind the wheel.

Who wouldn’t.

Couldn’t.

Does.

The Grand Safari disappears over a small hill… and then the horizon. 

No one has words for what just happened. We just stand there, stunned and silent. 

Leaning against the barbed-wire fence surrounding the field, looking at the farmhouse in the distance, I wonder what it would be like to live there. 

There’s finger-pointing, but few words spoken because each of us is well aware of our role in this road trip gone wrong.

Mark’s becoming a burden between Chris and Jim’s arms, the blood from a cut on my knee (from leaning against the barbed-wire fence) is beginning to spread across my new, thick, white, knit leotards, now torn; and all promise of a happy outing has been extinguished by the time we see the Grand Safari re-appear in the distance.

Dad steps from the station wagon, as if from a hearse, and lines us up against the fence, steps back, and… smiles – huge, laughing smile, moving each of us to do the same – which is when Dad makes his move, revealing the Polaroid camera hidden behind his back.

“Click!” 

Still grinning with the photo now in his hands developing, he orders us back to the wagon. 

Overjoyed to be back in our rear-facing, upholstered prison, I console myself with a handful of mints swiped from the hostess counter of the pancake house, and in the certainty that the next time Dad turns the Grand Safari toward another Sunday adventure, all thoughts of past car trip hardships will be disappear in a “click” from the moment we hear the words: “I’LL never tell.”