Saturday, September 22, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: HOMESICKNESS

A prose-poem

SHORT STORY: HOMESICKNESS


It was such a beautiful day. Perfect. The sky was blue, the kind of blue, infinite and crystaline, you only see on the prairie. You sensed its vast expanse even though you only saw patches of it through the leaves overhead.

The sun penetrated the leaves in beams, mellow golden beams. Beams thick and textured with the microscopic fluff of a hundred nameless wildflowers. Wildflowers whose pungent scents perfumed the air, drifting in from empty lots and schoolyards, railroad tracks and even cracks in sidewalks.

And the trees were filled with the buzz and hum and drone of insects. The sidewalks and front yards shimmered with a mottled pattern of fuzzy, leafy shapes and splotches of golden brightness. Everything had the rich, textured warmth of antique photographs.

Jack was walking on a street he had walked a hundred times before. He was in no hurry. He wasn't going anywhere. Just walking, almost drifting really, feeling the warmth and easy comfort of a place he knew intimately, a place detailed and rich in his memory, a place he belonged and that belonged to him. The old neighborhood in Chicago.

It was all still there, everything he loved. He was deliriously happy to see it again. He'd been homesick for it so many times.

The old apartments, block after block of them, solid and dignified. Bay windows and courtyards, set back on grass. Streets canopied with trees. Rows of elms like natural cathedrals over grassy parkways. The buildings all of brick, mostly red or brown, but a dozen shades and textures. A hundred variations in design. Sills and pediments, creamy terra-cotta, lustrous in the sun. Courtyards embracing gardens. Front doors, heavy and beautiful, made to welcome people home from work.

The shopping streets like cozy, urban villages. Busy with people coming home from work. Walking from the train. Stores with names that seemed important, unchanging points in a child's happy landscape. Faces and voices as much the fabric of neighborhood as window fronts and signs and awnings.

Every block was lush and heavy with memories, the way empty lots are overgrown with wildflowers in the buzzy, summer heat. Running through alleys. Climbing porches and roofs. Catching his heels in the hot tar of sun-baked streets. Wiping the stinging sweat from his eyes. The shimmery path down sun-baked sidewalks. Pushing a creaky paper cart, hoping to make every third-floor on the first throw. Walking seriously to school.

Hot summer nights, velvety twilight dotted with the tiny, yellowy blinks of lightning bugs. The soft murmur of old people in lawn chairs in the front yards outside their apartments, cooling off before bed, gossiping, making a neighborhood.

A little further on Jack heard waves lapping and poplar trees rattling. He was in the park along the shore.

He saw the beach, golden yellow sand with white waves ruffling in from glossy swells on the lake's blue, translucent surface. Covered with people on blistering summer days. Water like a warm bath, lapping gently. The pier, huge rocks where children climbed, laughed and screamed in the splash and chill of deeper water, or sometimes watched people fishing in the soft quietness of evening. More lawn chairs in the park with old people whispering and nodding as darkness fell.

In winter they climbed icebergs along the beach. Explorers and mountain climbers building a fire. A hole in the sand to protect it from wind. The smell of roasting potatoes or apples.

Ice-skating in the park under the lights with music playing and big flakes falling. Crack-the-whip and tag. Hoping for the touch of a girl's hand or a frosty-breathed smile before crunching your way back, past cheery, steamy store windows, to a cozy, overheated apartment.

And he remembered seeing her the first time. Arms full of books. A warm face laughing girlishly. Her dark blue coat flapping carelessly against the tops of her knees. Long dark socks hugging underneath. The braid of her hair dancing from side to side, chestnut rich, long down her back. Wispy bangs over eyes, blue and heavy-lidded. Cheeks and ears, neck and knees, blushed, as warm- and soft-looking as the coat of a young horse.

Jack awoke. At first, all the comforting sensations of his dream lingered. Then they faded quickly like the image of a light bulb after it's clicked off.

He sat up in bed and started to feel anxious. He remembered where he was and why.

The war. Safe in Toronto from the faces full of hatred, full of anger, the shouting and the killing. Things he never knew were part of what he loved. Things he wanted no part of. Years of loneliness and bitterness in a place he felt no love for and felt no love for him. A homesickness so overwhelming he really thought he couldn't take it any longer. Thinking the madness would never end. Always hoping he could go back when it was over.

And then he remembered what he didn't want to remember. Everything he dreamed was gone.

He remembered the pain of seeing the broken place he loved. After so many years. The park tired and patchy and overgrown. Abandoned. Not a poplar tree left. No summer voices on the beach. The shopping street desolate, scarred with bars and boards, empty stores and paint-smeared walls. Not a sign or a window with a name he knew. And strangers lived in all the buildings now. With eyes that feared or made you fear.

No comments: