Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: COURAGE

Again, biographical anecdote as short story.


SHORT STORY: COURAGE

John Chuckman

It was lunch time, and Jack was hungry. He was thinking all the way home about having a can of soup. Tomato soup sounded good. Yes, he'd have that, with lots of crackers crushed up in it and pepper floating on top.

It was more than six blocks to school, and coming home for lunch meant he walked it four times a day, but Jack didn't mind. He loved walking through the neighborhood, once you got away from Kozmynski. University Avenue was a beautiful, mellow street lined with sun-dappled old apartment buildings and huge elm trees. All the streets around his part of Hyde Park were like that.

You didn't run into as many creeps walking home for lunch as you did after school. Anyway, coming home was a lot better than hanging around school. He hated the place. You always had to be worrying about things like guys running up from behind and hitting you in the head or pushing you down. That's why old Miss Hodgkins, the principle, kept a club in her office, and she didn't go into the schoolyard without it.

Jack was only nine years old, but he'd been coming home to make lunch ever since they moved from the old apartment on 51st. This was a lot better building, with no mice or roaches or anything, but it was when they found out about his new address at school that they transferred him to Kozmynski.

His mother cried when she found out. It made going to work every morning a lot harder on her. She knew what kind of a rathole it was, but there was nothing she could do. He'd just have to be brave for a while. She showed him how you do everything for lunch. She trusted him about using the gas and locking up. And he was proud of the way he could cook stuff like a can of soup or spaghetti or make a tuna-fish sandwich. He figured that was pretty good for a kid his age.

Jack turned in at his building before he got to the courtyard. He crossed the grass and walked through an archway in the creamy colored stone underneath the first-floor windows by the corner of the building. They always called it the tunnel when they were running around the neighborhood playing. It led to the gangway with all the back porches for his side of the building. It was closer than using the front door. He ran up the back-porch stairs two at a time.

There was just one thing now about coming home: Jack was still a little nervous from the time a few months back their apartment got robbed. He remembered all the drawers pulled out and stuff dumped all over. They didn't get anything, there wasn't much of anything to get, but it was still bothered you the way they threw all your stuff around. His mother got a good, new lock on the door, so there wasn't really anything to worry about, but still....

Jack turned the key in the lock and cautiously opened the door. He paused for a minute to run his eyes over everything and make sure it was okay. There was something dreamlike about the tiny, quiet apartment with the sunbeams pouring through the kitchen window, making patterns of window panes and plants across the shadowy floorboards of the front hall beyond the kitchen. The only sound was a steady clicking from the clock on the wall. It was a black plastic cat with eyes that moved back and forth with each click.

Something wasn't right. Back in the small hall that had the Murphy bed and some cupboards, a door was open, and in the shadows Jack was sure someone was standing there. He was pretty sure he could see shoes, like someone was standing behind the clothes hanging there.

He was too nervous to go in. He didn't know what to do, but he sure wasn't going in. He'd just wait for a while on the back porch. If nothing happened, then maybe he'd try going in. He stayed right in the doorway so he could see if anything moved.

Jack stood there for a while, every muscle tense, picturing some guy jumping out of the closet at him. As long as he was on the porch, he was pretty sure he could get away. He was a fast runner.
Finally, he decided he had to go in. There wasn't a whole lot of time left before he had to go back to school. He paced back and forth in front of the doorway a few seconds, breathing hard, his heart thumping. Then he walked in, slowly, never taking his eyes from the shadowy hallway. He froze when the floor creaked, but nothing in the hallway moved. He made his way to the drawer by the sink, pulled it out as quietly as he could and got out the paring knife.

Jack took a last large gulp of air before he headed into the hall, knife first. Almost as soon as he got near the closet, he could see there was nothing there but some old shoes of his mother's on the floor. Someone hadn't closed the closet door in the morning. Jack breathed a huge sigh of relief.

He went back to the little kitchen and looked at the clock. There wasn't any time left for soup. He put the knife away, opened the icebox and stood looking around inside. He reached for the milk carton and tipped it up for several good gulps. Then he got the ketchup and a couple of slices of Butternut bread and brought them over to the counter by the sink. He shook some big splotches of ketchup on the bread and put the bottle back.

He took one big bite of the ketchup sandwich before turning and going out the back door, stopping to lock it carefully, pulling the handle to make sure it was locked, just like his mother taught him. He figured he was leaving just in time to get to school for the bell. That's the way he always timed it, so he didn't have to stand around in the schoolyard.

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