Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: NIGHT TIME ON THE SOUTH SIDE

The dark side of growing up in a city like Chicago.


SHORT STORY: NIGHT TIME ON THE SOUTH SIDE

John Chuckman

Jack wasn't eighteen yet, and, despite his unusual height, he wasn't much of a tough guy. He hadn't thought a lot about getting home until it was time to go. But when he left the office lights behind and said good-bye to the all the older guys driving home, none of them heading his way, and especially when he stepped into the silence of the dimly lit street with its blocks of industrial buildings, he began to regret taking the job.

Mr. Johnson's words from the interview came back to him, "The job starts Saturday afternoons, an' it goes till we're done. That's not gonna be before midnight, an' us'ally it'll be somethin' more like two in the mornin'. Is'at gonna be a problem without a car?"

He wanted the job so much. It was only part-time, but there was a good chance they'd make it full-time. Then he'd be out of the dusty library basement downtown where he'd worked the last couple of months since high school. And he'd be working for a big magazine with a chance of becoming something.

"No, sir, that's no problum. The I.C. doesn't run too often at that time, but I'll manage okay."

Except for seeing the place from the train, Jack didn't know the area around 22nd Street at all. There weren't any stores, not that stores would be open at two in the morning, but the light from their signs and windows would be reassuring. Instead, there were just the dim brick industrial buildings and the echoes of his footsteps.

But it wasn't many blocks to the station, and Jack was a fast walker. He got there quickly, but then he was fretting about how far down the long stretch of platform the train would stop, and that mattered because it would be a real short train, and, if he missed it, the next one wasn't for two hours. He decided to walk out about half way.

Suddenly, there were voices on the platform. He looked back carefully. They were just guys from some factory, he could tell from their lunchboxes, three of them standing together down where he'd just come from. He could hear bits of their conversation, and the sound of their laughter was reassuring. If they were regulars, they knew where the train stopped, so he walked back towards them.

Jack watched the yellow light bobbing in the distance, tiny at first but growing larger, glistening off the rails ahead of it. The silhouette of the train soon rushed out of the darkness, and its heavy bulk squealed to a stop.

It felt good to sit down, heading home, but he couldn't relax too much. If he dozed off and missed the 67th Street stop, he'd wake up miles from home on this line. He really didn't need to worry very much about staying awake, because he was just a little terrified about getting off to transfer at 67th Street in the middle of the night. It was the southern end of the 63rd Street ghetto.

He remembered that time late at night on the El, on an almost empty train, when he glanced over his shoulder and saw three black guys get on. He only saw them for a second, but it didn't look good, the way they stood in the doorway whispering, and one of them was wearing dark glasses.

He could hear them come towards him and stand in the aisle just over his shoulder, but he didn't turn his head again. That looked too much like fear.

Then the guy with the dark glasses was in front of him, dropping into the jump seat, close enough to brush Jack's knee. He leaned into the corner at the front of the car so his body kind of sprawled out towards Jack, and he cocked his head to one side. He was staring at Jack. Jack could hear the other guys sliding into the seat behind him.

Normally, the guy would have looked almost funny with a dark straw hat balanced on the back of his head, the brim all turned up, and a few scraggly tufts of beard dangling from his chin. But he just glared at Jack through blank, dark lenses.

Jack was determined not to keep looking since that's all some crazy guys needed to start trouble. He focused on the front window, where he couldn't see much in the dark outside, but there was a dim reflection of the two guys behind him. That could be the only warning he'd get.

Jack tried looking calm, while he frantically worked through each possibility, hoping he'd know what to do when the time came. Still, somewhere in the back of Jack's brain, there was a fragile little hope that his fear was exaggerated and unnecessary.

Jack remembered not being sure at first, but he thought the guy in front was saying something, so he looked at him again, with the mildest expression he could manage.

Even though all Jack could see were jiggly reflections of the car's overhead lights in his black glasses, there wasn't any doubt the guy was still staring. And he was saying something. His lips were moving slowly, mumbling really, through a menacing grin. It took a second, with all the blood rushing through Jack's head and the train roaring over the tracks, to catch the words.

"Hey, - whi' - boy, - you - is - gettin' - off - at - da nes' - stop."

That fragile speck hope just disappeared, and for a few seconds Jack had no idea what to do. There wasn't anybody in the car who could help him, and a fight against three guys was crazy. If he got off, and they followed him, he had a good chance of outrunning them, but maybe they'd just be happy he was doing what they said.

Jack jumped up just as the train jerked to a stop and the doors whirred open. He ran onto the platform, unbuckling his belt and pulling it off. He wrapped it partway around his knuckles, leaving the buckle end dangling, and started running down the platform. But as the small train screeched off down the elevated structure, lighting up the night with blue electric flashes, he realized he was alone.

"67th Street Station - transfer for local South Chicago train," came scratchily over the loud speaker.

Jack was the only one that got off. In seconds the doors slid shut, and he watched the huge I.C. cars glide off, carrying their neat rows of warmly lighted windows away into the night.

The local train wasn't there yet, but he could see he was completely alone. Down the middle of the platform a row of lights capped by metal dishes made little umbrellas of yellowy light. The platform made Jack think of a long, empty pier sticking out into the lake at night.

The old apartment buildings near the tracks were quiet and dark except for a few dim, yellowy lights on back-porch stairs. Little gusts of wind rustled the leaves of trees you could barely see, and you could hear those reedy and chirpy sounds of insects in the weeds that grew along the tracks.

Again Jack didn't know where the train would stop, but he decided it was best to stand where he could see the door to the street. The trains ran on a high embankment in that area, passing over streets like 67th on viaducts. Every rustle or creak of the trees made him look down the long flight of stairs to the doors.

Then he heard the slight hiss in the overhead wire that told you a train was coming. He turned and watched it race towards him through the dark, the headlight bobbing around from the dips and sways in the track, making him think of a boat speeding to his rescue over a deep, dark lake.

A week later Jack was walking towards the station again, dreading the trip home, wondering how many times you could take a chance before something happened, when the lights from a car came up from behind. It startled him a little. He turned his head but kept walking. The car rolled up to the curb just ahead of him. A guy yelled out, "Which way ya goin'?"

He sounded friendly. Jack answered without really thinking about it much.

"Out ta South Shore."

"I'm headed out that way. Jump in. I'll drop ya off."

Normally, Jack wouldn't think of taking a ride from a strange guy. His mother pounded that into his head when he was little, but he was tired, and the guy looked alright, a little on the hoody side with dark hair swept back and a white t-shirt, but lots of guys looked like that. He sounded okay, and Jack figured he worked somewhere around there. And there was just something about being asked like that, it took an effort to say no, and if the guy was weird, Jack was alone on the street with him anyway. So he got in.

"Thanks."

"Whereabouts ya wan' me ta drop ya?"

"As close ta 79th an' Jeff'ry as you're goin'." Jack thought it was better not to give his address.
He could walk home easily from around there.

"Okay."

They rode up the Outer Drive without talking, but underneath the quiet, Jack sensed something that worried him a little, a kind of a tension or impatience. But at times like that you can never be sure you're not just imagining things, and you don't like thinking bad things about a guy doing you a favor.

They turned off the Drive into Jackson Park, heading for Jeffery Boulevard, and pulled up to a stoplight. It was a little eerie sitting at the stoplight in the middle of the night with no cars or people around.

The guy suddenly turned to Jack and asked quietly, "Don't s'pose ya'd go for a li'le blow job now, would ya?"

All Jack could think about was getting out of the car. The guy was fairly well built and ten years older. His chances in a fight weren't good. He grabbed the door handle and opened it.

"Thanks, I'll get out here," he said with an amazingly polite tone. No matter how strange it seemed, something told him to keep it polite.

"Ya sure ya wanna get out here? This is nigger country."

"That's okay, I changed my min'. Thanks," was all he could think of saying as he slammed the door. He was surprised the guy just drove off. Jack watched the tail lights heading away for a few seconds.

He crept into the bedroom later, feeling exhausted from the long walk home and the fear. His brother was snoring, sound asleep. He could hear his mother, too, snoring in the living room. Everything seemed so ordinary and peaceful in the little apartment.

He got into bed wondering what he was going to do about coming home in the middle of the night. If he couldn't think of something, he'd have to quit the job. He was tired of being scared.
He wouldn't tell his mother any of this. It would worry her too much. He drifted off to sleep, despite the snoring, thinking if he only had a gun, he wouldn't worry about any more creeps.
That Sunday afternoon he told his brother about what happened.

"Ya know, Kid, travelin' at night like that ain't so great. Las' night this creep got me in a bad situation. It was part my own fault for ever takin' a ride, but I only went 'cause I'm tired a worryin' if I'll get home on the train.

"Don't tell Mom none a this. I'm only tellin' you, 'cause maybe ya can help."

"Jeez, Lips, ya better be careful! What could I do?"

"Ya 'member tellin' me how ol' man Shapiro keeps a couple a small guns aroun' the drugstore just in case, an' how he got one for the guy daliv'rin' milk?"

"Yeah, that's right. Ya mean ya want me ta see if he can get ya one?"

"That's what I was wonderin'. Could ya try an' see? I can't think a anything else ta do, 'cept quit."

"Sure, I'll ask 'im Monday when I do daliv'ries. He'll prob'ly be able ta."

That Monday evening his brother signaled him to come into the bedroom after supper.

"Shapiro says he can get ya a derringer or a 25-caliber automatic."

"The automatc'd be best."

"He wants fifty bucks for that."

"Okay, I got the dough in the bank. I'll get it right away. Do I jus' give it ta ya or what?"

"He said that'd be fine."

"Well, thanks, Kid. Maybe ev'rythin'll be awright."

Wednesday night his brother had the gun. He also had a little file card with some stuff typed on it that Shapiro wanted Jack to sign and return.

It was a heavy little thing, dark gray metal, showing signs of wear, shaped just like a model of an Army forty-five. Jack ran his finger over some engraving on the side of the barrel. The words were Nationale Fabrique, Belgique.

"Oh, Jeez, Kid, this is neat. Thanks a lot. Do ya think he could get me some bullets?"

"I'll ask 'im."

"Well, even without bullets, not too many guys're gonna argue with this."

"Okay, but ya better be careful, Lips."

Each evening Jack spent a few minutes sitting on the creaky floor boards in front of the little bedroom closet, holding the gun to get the feel of it and, really, just admiring it like a remarkable secret treasure. He even took it apart once and put it back together, proud of discovering that it worked the same way as the forty-five he'd handled in ROTC.

He started thinking a lot about how he was going to carry it. You couldn't put it in your pants, he tried, and it pulled down the waistband. Besides, you could make out the shape of it against his leg. And when he tried it in the thin cotton jacket he wore at night, it hung there in his pocket like a paperweight in a sack, pulling the whole side down with its dense, hard weight, but at least you couldn't tell what it was. He'd have to keep his hand in his pocket and hold it when he wasn't sitting.

And he started thinking about just what would have to happen for him to pull it out. He relished the thought of surprising some creep with it, giving him a little of his own medicine. Maybe it was better not to have any bullets. He sure didn't want to go shooting anybody. Then he thought about what he'd do if the creep had a gun, too. Things weren't so clear, especially when you didn't have any bullets. He really didn't know what he'd do, and he didn't like thinking about it.
On Saturday, not long before he started getting ready for work, his mother called Jack into the kitchen where she was standing next to a little pile of laundry.

"Jack, I was doin' some warsh down in the basement, an' I foun' somethin' in Joe's pants." She held out the card he had signed for Shapiro and gave him a really stern look. "Does this mean you have a gun?"

Jack's face felt like all the blood was drained out of it. "Yeah, I only got it 'cause I jus' don't feel safe comin' home late at night like that."

"It doesn't matter what the reason is. There'll be no guns in this house. Now, go an' get that thing right now an' give it ta me."

Jack went to the bedroom and got the gun from behind a stack of stuff in the closet. When he came back, his mother put out her hand to take it.

"Are there any bullets in this thing?"

"No, Mom. I hope you're not jus' throwin' it out. That cos' me fifty bucks."

"Oh, don't worry none about that. I'm takin' this back myself an' tellin' Shapiro a thing or two 'bout sellin' guns ta kids. I'll get that money back from 'im. You can count on that.

"An' I don't want ya doin' nothin' stupid like this ag'in. Is 'at un'erstood?"

"Yeah, Mom, but he only sold it ta Joe 'cause a me."

"I don't care. You ain't much more'an a kid yourself. An' regardless, ya ain't got no business with somethin' like this. He oughtta have the brains ta know that! An' look who he sol' it ta, your brother. Why he's just a baby."

"Ma, Joe only did it 'cause I tol' 'im I was scared commin' home at night."

"Well, you'll jus' hafta give up on that job then. I know ya like it, but if you're not feelin' safe, give it up. One thing's for sure, you're not runnin' aroun' the city a Chicago with a thing like this."

Jack went to the bedroom and stretched out on the bed. In a couple of minutes his brother came in and stood in the doorway with one hand on the frame.

"Sorry, Lips, 'bout the card."

"'at's okay, Kid, it's prob'ly jus' as well. Who wants ta go gettin' in that kinda trouble, anyhow? I wasn't thinkin' too clear when I asked ya 'bout gettin' it."

"So whatcha gonna do?"

"I'm gonna quit. Forget about workin' for a magazine. What choice is there with aw the nuts runnin' aroun' out there at night?"

"You'll fin' somethin' else."

"Yeah, I guess. I sure hope Mom doesn't go goofin' things up with Shapiro. Ya know how she can be. She'll go in there like gangbusters."

"It's okay. He'll un'erstan', an' if he don't, I can do daliv'ry for somebody else.

"Oh, I meant tell ya, Lips. Las' week I saw Molyneaux at schoo'."

"Yeah, really, what's he doin'?"

"He ain't teachin' at Bradwell anymore. He's a vice-principal someplace. I don't know what he was doin' at schoo', but he saw me an' asked what ya were doin' these days."

Jack was visibly affected by the idea of his favorite old teacher asking about him. He was the kind of teacher you'd want to go see when you got to be big shot on a magazine and tell him all about it.

"So what'd ya tell 'im?"

"I jus' said ya were workin' down in the basement at the library."

"Jeez, Kid, cou'n't ya make it soun' a li'le better 'an that? Whatcha go an' tell 'im I'm workin' in a basement for?"

"Well, I cou'n't think a what ya call your job. Ya work in the basement, don't ya?"

"Yeah, but ya di'n't hafta go sayin' it like that."

"What was I s'posed ta say, huh?"

"Oh, I don' know. I s'pose it ain't gonna soun' real great no matter how ya say it."

"Well, anyhow, he said ta say hi ta ya."

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