Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN SHORT STORY: INNOCENCE

SHORT STORY: INNOCENCE

Jack reached into the box of old things he was sorting and pulled out a large photograph he hadn't seen in years. It was showing its age. Some of the paper under the glossy finish had yellowed and some of the border was cracked and frayed, but the black-and-white image was surprisingly crisp and fresh-looking for forty-years old. It was a picture of Mrs. Nolan's second-grade class: Sweet, impish faces looking directly into the camera with broad, toothy smiles - city kids, with tousled hair and baggy clothes.

His seven-year-old face, head tilted to one side, smiling shyly above the round collar of a striped t-shirt, was in the back row where they always put tall kids for the pictures. In the front row, sitting in a plaid, cottony dress that looked more like a laundry bag, was Georgeann, with a big open smile, showing her missing tooth, and a stubby pigtail poking out behind each ear.

The picture filled Jack with nostalgia about that old neighborhood on 51st in Hyde Park and the way he and Georgeann used to explore the alleys and backyards and garage roofs - a patchwork kingdom of places to run and climb, of places to find things, of scary places and secret places.

He remembered bright, hot days with just a few puffy clouds in the sky, the kind of days that made you squint and wipe your eyebrows on the shoulders of your t-shirt so the heavy drops of sweat didn't get squeezed into your eyes. And he remembered the wide concrete pavement of the alley, with thick clumps of weeds growing in cracks and corners, shimmering in the hot sun like the pathway to a secret world behind the big apartment buildings.

There were rows of garages down the sides of the alley with gangways and gates to the backyards. And in every yard there were the big wooden porches and stairs, some elaborate enough, with several sets of stairs, to serve as forts and funhouses, all of them to be explored or used as hiding places. And there were hallways in some of those elegant old buildings that ran from the backyard to the front, a network of secret passages, tunnels and short cuts that honeycombed the neighborhood.

They used a fence or a tree to get high enough to reach over the top of a garage wall and pull themselves up, kicking against the rough bricks with their sneakers. Your arms stung when you first touched the big tiles on top of the wall, the way they baked in the sun, but you couldn't be a baby about that kind of thing. And the glazed surface of the tiles let you pull yourself onto the roof without getting sandpapered by bricks.

Sometimes you found good stuff up there, like balls or pop bottles, but mainly it was an adventure just climbing up and walking around, peeking down into backyards, hearing the crunch of gravel under your feet and feeling the hot sun almost like you were on the beach. Most people didn't care if they saw you, and the ones who yelled just added some excitement by making you run away scared.

Jack remembered their happiest adventure of all, the time they climbed the garage behind a house on 51st. It was hard to climb. There weren't any tiles, just a gutter to hold, and it wasn't a flat roof, it sloped steeply on every side. But they got up and crawled around, with the shingles scraping their hands and knees, to see what secrets were behind the garage.

There was a beautiful garden, all quiet and tree-shaded, behind some old row houses. You wouldn't even know it was there, the way it was surrounded by buildings. They sat back for few moments, catching their breath and just admiring their discovery of something they thought of as a lost valley.

They wanted to climb down and explore, but it would be hard getting back up from the garden so they decided to take a rest. They crawled to the next side of the roof where the brick wall of an apartment building offered a shady spot to lean against. They sat and ate penny candy they bought earlier at the little store with deposits from pop bottles they found.

And Jack remembered, when they were on the roof eating candy, the way Georgeann sat with her arms around her knees and the way she laughed suddenly and pulled up her skirt and asked Jack if he wanted to touch her underpants. It was something she did whenever no one else was around, and it was a secret pleasure that thrilled a seven-year-old boy.

When they peeked down again, there was an old woman with a wide sun hat and an apron working in the garden. She stopped what she was doing and looked up at them. There was such a sweet smile on her face, and she invited them to come down.

They took turns hang-jumping from the gutter, both of them looking scruffy and dirty from all their climbing, but the way the old lady smiled at them you could tell it didn't matter how they looked. She invited them to have a snack at a table and chairs on a little stone patio behind the house next to the garden. Jack sat there thinking he'd never seen a lovelier place.

The old lady brought them a tray of lemonade and home-made cookies. Then she sat down and talked to them while they ate.

Her name was Mrs. Beau, and she told them how her children were grown up and didn't live there anymore, but she still had lots of old toys in the basement. They could come in and play for a while after they finished eating. Jack couldn't imagine being any happier, sitting there by the quiet garden eating delicious cookies with Mrs. Beau.

But Jack's sunny, nostalgic thoughts about the picture were interrupted by something else, something dark and disturbing, something he never understood until those days were distant, faded memories.

He remembered how strange it was the first time he visited Georgeann's apartment. She took him by the hand to the bathroom and closed the door. Then she pulled down her underpants and lifted her dress, whispering for him to watch her go. She sat on the toilet with that smile that showed her missing tooth and her dress wound around her arms. Jack just stood there, staring, amazed how a girl could go and be all smooth like that.

And as they sat on the garage that day at Mrs. Beau's, nestled together against the wall, feeling waves of heat from the sun-baked roof, Georgeann started talking again about doing something else, something with his part and hers. Jack didn't really understand, even though she told him before just what you do. He liked seeing under her dress and touching her underpants, but this talk of hers always made him feel uneasy, and so he was relieved when she stopped and they went back to see the garden.

It was only now that Jack understood why she kept talking that way, why a little girl of seven, understood things he still didn't know a whole lot about when he left high school. Jack looked again at the picture of her laughing, innocent face, and he winced at the thought of the pain and sadness that it hid.

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