Charles by Shirley Jackson, 1949
The magic trick:
Using a brilliant beginning that both points to and obfuscates the ending
“Charles” builds to an ending that would make O. Henry proud. It has that same kind of magical combination of predictably surprising.
We get set up from the start. The mother begins the story with such a clear vision. She says, yeah, my boy changed when he started kindergarten. The little boy of before was gone.
As the story goes on she forgets or we forget or we both forget. We get wrapped up in the fun of Laurie’s stories, manipulated perfectly in time for the finale. And that’s quite a trick on Jackson’s part.
The day my son Laurie started kindergarten he renounced corduroy overalls with bibs and began wearing blue jeans with a belt; I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweet-voiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.
He came home the same way, the front door slamming open, his cap on the floor, and the voice suddenly become raucous shouting, “Isn’t anybody here?”
At lunch he spoke insolently to his father, spilled his baby sister’s milk, and remarked that his teacher said we were not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
“How was school today?” I asked, elaborately casual. “All right,” he said. “Did you learn anything?” his father asked. Laurie regarded his father coldly. “I didn’t learn nothing,” he said.
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