Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: DARKNESS

SHORT STORY: DARKNESS


It was getting really late. Jack never wore a watch, but the contrast between the sky and the landscape had almost disappeared. Only the stars let you tell one dark mass from the other.

There wasn't a lot of traffic on the road, and for long periods it seemed the only thing disturbing the shadowy fields and barns was the fragile bubble of light surrounding the car as it quietly rose and fell and turned its way through the Pennsylvania mountains.

Jack was driving from Montreal to Chicago on the U.S. side. Although he'd driven home many times, he'd never made this drive. It was going to take him longer than he thought when looked at the map, but that didn't really matter. He loved long distance drives. And he was excited about getting back, if only for a couple of days.

Jack remembered the first time he went home so clearly. His homesickness was more than he could stand. He missed his place, he missed the way people talked to each other, he missed everything about home.

The thing Jack remembered most was being downtown in the park. He sat on a bench near Michigan Avenue just looking around, feeling like he'd been away for ages. It was a sunny day with small, puffy, white clouds drifting across the sky, a really beautiful day.

He could feel the hot sun across his back. The heat and the smell of the park reminded him of being a kid. The smell was the smell of empty lots, baking in the sun, full of weeds, the smell of the prairie.

He sat there on the bench, and it just seemed like everything was moving in slow motion. All the traffic on the street hardly seemed to move. It was like his brain was slowing everything down so he could take it all in. And the colors of things seemed so intense and new, even the green on the buses.

After that Jack was surprised how normal things seemed for everybody back home. He remembered how he watched people shop at all the familiar stores on 79th Street, laughing as they went for lunch at the Bon Ton, pulling carts full of groceries back to their apartments on sun dappled sidestreets, acting just like nothing had changed. It made him feel a little strange like he was in a dream or like he was a ghost watching people go on with their lives.

But that was a big part of why he kept going back, just to see that normality. He needed it to keep going. It was such a release from what he felt most of the time now, living in a place where people were so indifferent to everything he knew and cared about. Still, it made him feel like he was doing something he shouldn't be doing.

Jack started out of his reverie and glanced down at the dashboard. The car would need gas pretty soon. He didn't like letting it drop below a quarter. The idea of running out of gas in a strange place like this at night was scary.

A glow ahead on the left behind a hill looked like some kind of business was coming up. There might be a place to get some gas.

As the car got to the top of the hill, Jack was relieved to see an Esso station with a cheerful umbrella of light around the pumps.

The place was empty except for two or three men standing near a pickup truck at the far end of the lot where it was fairly dark. Something about the scene made him uneasy. It reminded him of creepy stuff that used to happen in Chicago, stuff he tended to forget about. He could feel old instincts take hold of him.

He didn't look directly at them as he began gassing up the car, but he kept aware of their movements out of the corner of his eye.

He heard their voices rise and saw some movement. Jack couldn't help looking directly over to see what was going on. The men had just removed something from the back of the truck.

They were holding some kind of animal, a good sized, brown animal, something like a woodchuck. Actually, just two of them were holding it, with its belly up and its feet splayed out. The third guy was poking it with a stick. They were all chuckling as they watched it squirm and twist.

Jack looked away, angry and afraid. You didn't want to stare at guys like this. But in just a minute, he heard more noises and sensed they were walking. He looked over again.

They had moved apart, maybe twenty feet apart. They were facing each other. Suddenly one of them kicked something the way you kick a football by dropping it from your hands.

It was the animal, curled up to protect itself. As it hit the asphalt and spun helplessly towards another guy's boots, he yelled out, Jack thought probably for his benefit, "Ya shouldn't oughta do that that there's cruelty!" They all snorted and laughed.

Jack's mind raced with thoughts of what he could do to stop them, fantasies of being a hero, but he knew at the same time it was useless. There were three of them, dressed in dirty camouflage. The truck certainly had guns in it.

He finished gassing up and walked toward the station to pay. He tried not to listen, but the only sounds in the night were the thuds of the animal's body as they kicked it back and forth and their insane laughter.

There wasn't any hope of help in the station. Just a kid with a glazed over look sitting, listening to the radio.

On the way back to the car he could hear them again, kicking and laughing. It made him sick. He just wanted to drive away as quickly as possible.

Jack drove out, shaking with fear and anger. He hated feeling so helpless. He'd felt like that so many times.

A dark wave of memories rushed over him. Other memories of growing up on the South Side. The angry black faces that terrorized a little kid starting school alone in the broken remains of an old neighborhood. The one who cornered him with a knife and stood there laughing at his fear. A maniac in high school who talked quietly about how much fun it was watching niggers run for their lives in his headlights when he cruised the ghetto with his buddies. The emotionless, young cop who told him how you needed some action now and then to keep sharp and then told him about a robbery where he got to shoot a jig kid in the face.

That was what they had set loose, men like that. Jack knew that as soon as they started the war. He couldn't understand why more people didn't know that. How easy it was to imagine the men at the gas station kicking a man senseless, a prisoner, somewhere in the jungle where he would die without anyone hearing his screams.

That was the stuff he never let himself think about when he came home. He didn't have the resources to deal with such complete bleakness, not after the survival he called his childhood, not with the loneliness that was his life now.

He just wanted to remember those few things, those precious few things that had given his life some richness, some meaning in all the chaos he felt swirling around him since he was a kid. He wanted to get home to his mother's cozy little apartment, to see his kid brother. He wanted to walk around the neighborhood. He wanted to sit by the lake.

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