The Packing House

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Chapter 18 | Pitching the Tent

At the post office, I buy a stamp for Amber’s letter and drop it in the slot marked Out of Town. I don’t even remember walking here.

As I sit on the bench outside, I can remember going up the side street to the main road and turning left. After that, I kept walking, but my mind went blank and I ended up here.

I look for water but the bottle is empty. Then I remember my second trip to the gas station. Gatorade. The hotdogs didn’t last out of the parking lot. The Gatorade’s warm but I don’t mind. Fluid helps.

My mind is still running, as if it could get away from the rest of me. Sometimes you have to go backward to move forward. I can’t get myself to zero in on one thing. While I sit and sip, I watch cars and people.

My mind whirs. A kind of numbness creeps over me. I can feel myself slipping away from center. There’s a chill. Maybe I’ve sat too long.

Although I don’t want to move yet, I force myself to stand, put on my backpack, and head back. The way here was uphill so I’m almost propelled down the sidewalk from the pitch of the slope.

The post office was just past the hill I saw when I first came into town. I slide toward the school as though pulled by an invisible string. Oddly, it reminds me of the staircase leading to the crypt in my nightmares when I can’t stop myself going back down, even though I know what’s around the corner.

The walk is quiet and eerie, like the moment before an earthquake or storm. I wouldn’t be surprised if tumbleweeds rolled past me. Did I stumble into a ghost town? I look around. There’s no one else in any direction. Sanderville weirds me out.

A car comes from behind and heads down the hill, its engine breaking the silence. Someone turns out of the side street ahead, their dog on a leash, then heads in the same direction as the car. I’ve heard Amber describe the rapture, but I didn’t think it was real. Even though this was just momentary, it still seems weird. I must be losing my mind.

I turn down the side street toward the school. There’s a slight breeze. The street has trees on both sides, including a willow, my favorite. Its swaying branches shimmer, pulled by the same force that pulls me. Maybe I’m not alone—I just think I am…

I wish that were true.

Then I wouldn’t be crazy or a runaway or someone who breaks into a locked school building. What other choice do I have? I am not going back. I can’t. I’ve got to see this through to the end, no matter what.

I wonder what other boys my age think about. They’re sports fanatics or homework fiends—if they even do it. I’d say most guys obsess over working up the nerve to ask the hot girl out from history class. Their biggest worry is how many sit-ups and push-ups they should do before bed. Me? I’m a whole other animal.

The school looks deserted. I don’t see any rapture piles of clothing left behind. Sounds echo from behind the school. Since I’m closest to the middle school, I head around the side.

Drum beats bounce off the back of the school. The marching band practices what looks like their halftime show on the football field. Reminds me I used to play trumpet one year.

The drums lead the students in groups, everyone trying to learn how to march sideways and play at the same time. They look small from where I am, but I can see enough to tell what’s going on. I come up behind the shed and dumpster and take a seat on a set of metal bleachers behind the baseball field.

I remember I have that pack of cigarettes I swiped from the janitor’s closet. The lighter was shoved between the clear wrapper and the packaging. Pulling one out, I tuck it between my lips and fumble with the lighter. Cupping my hands the way I’ve seen others do it, I tug on the filter, hold the lighter up, and watch the end smolder then dissolve into flame.

The sudden intake of smoke takes me by surprise, and I cough and sputter. Maybe I’m bringing something up from deep down. My hands shake, but I want to try these out, hoping they may take the edge off the recent craziness. I take a smaller pull and hold the smoke in my mouth. The taste reminds me of a campfire.

I take in a bit more each time until I’m used to it. I cough here and there, but not like when I started. Light-headed, I float away… drums in the background. The band repeats the same section over and over—eventually they get it—and so do I.

I take slow, deep breaths and try to hold the smoke as long as I can before I exhale. It’s like air on a foggy day. I can feel it as I blow out. Am I ready to face what it brings up? My heart beats too fast, like I just got off a roller coaster. I may throw up.

I get up from the bleachers. Maybe fresh air will help. Flicking my finished cigarette, I twist it with my foot. I might as well meander to the other end of the high school. Before I can get in the usual way, I need the band to finish and leave.

Partway down, I stop and lean on the fence. I’m on the paved side. My thoughts drift back to that time in gym class, a few months ago, when I had been thinking about breasts bouncing beneath a shirt and a redheaded girl I had seen a few times who caught my eye. I started to go hard. I was so focused on the thought of how her nipples might look, I’d forgotten I was in the locker room shower, in front of all the other guys.

The next thing I knew, the tent pole went up, and I must’ve flushed crimson.

I tried to explain to the guys gathering around me how I’d imagined this whole thing with a girl, but they still gave me a hard time all the way up until we moved. They would call me Tent Pole (or Boner) and whisper, “Sproing-oing-oing” when we passed in the halls. That never happened to the other guys, so I figured I was on the horny end of the scale. As usual, I’m some kind of freak.

It’s like what happened between Elias and me—completely blown out of proportion. So what if things got heated between us? What’s wrong with a bit of experimentation?

It makes me ashamed—racked with guilt even—for jacking off when I can’t stand it anymore. I just need relief. Most guys don’t start chasing girls until their voices drop and pubes grow in. These urges hit me much earlier than that.

There was an outhouse I used when I was very young, out past a corn field. It could have been at the neighbor’s farm, the one where that boy died. I had never been in an outhouse, but I couldn’t make it back to the house once when I needed to take a serious dump.

It was on this platform. The toilet seat was just a big hole, and in the dark sludge below was a foulness that knocked me over. I held my breath and sat down as quick as I could.

Then, I saw it. Porn. Someone had tacked up four laminated pages of naked people having sex. Why here? It’d been hung right in front of me. I couldn’t look away. I was mesmerized. There were naked men and women from the front, from behind, on top of each other—their mouths on everything. They looked like they were building up to something.

After I finished, I stood up. My eyes flicked across each naked body, taking a mental photograph to remember later. I felt an explosive wave tingling down my arms and legs. I pulled my pants up and left, feeling like I would puke if I stayed another minute.

I don’t think the nausea came from the smell. Such a weight—like I committed a crime—hung around my neck. I buried it deep down, but every time after that..., it didn’t stop me for long. What is wrong with me?

There’s still guilt, but now I’m not alone. Plenty of other guys do it. Hormones rage and up it goes. I think that’s why guys hang their arms between their legs. Any time I’ve had that happen, I’ve got to think of something gross, like the deer we hit one time while driving.

It had such a fierce look just before impact, trailing the edge of fear when it struck us. I heard the weight of its sickening thud smack against the front window. It tumbled down the passenger door—a bloody inkblot—followed by trails of red running down the glass. The car swerved, and our mother slammed the brakes, fishtailing until we stopped further down the road. I tried to muffle the sound with my hands. My heart was in my ears. All of us were breathing in and out like we had just run a marathon. After a few minutes, Jonathan and I got out, although I had trouble opening the door. The deer had crushed some of the metal and so it stuck.

That was back when we had a station wagon. I think our parents were still together, but I don’t remember my father being there. Maybe I have it wrong and he wasn’t around. I thought that was back when we went fishing all the time, too.

We walked back and stared at the bloody body. My mind took copious notes then, too—a picture frozen in time, just like of those naked bodies screwing. I could go limp just thinking about the broken bones sticking out, the tendons and slick blood. Uncle Brandon came and got the carcass, and we ate from it for months.

The band starts to head in from the field. I wander back to where I left my backpack and think about road kill. Already I picture the locker room where I’ll take a shower later—and what I’ll do. I wish I could stop. My balls shift in anticipation. Most times, once I’m finished, I’m a little calmer, like I can resist for a while until the next one.

I’m hungry, too. I hope they leave soon. My stomach and my privates have declared war in my gut. Both sides assert demands. I catch snippets of conversation from the band as they file into one of the back doors, a helpful distraction. I wait a few minutes. When no one’s looking, I make for the dumpster while I still can.

Once I’m on the roof, a thought flashes in my mind. If there are still students inside the building, I’d better not show myself to the front end. I look up at the second floor of the high school.

Last night, the buildings were empty. It wasn’t a concern. Today, there might be people still inside. What if the janitors are still there doing nightly rounds? I rush over to the door with the help of two by fours and duck behind that end so no one sees me. From what I glimpsed through the windows, it’s either the art studio or the library. I’m hoping it’s the library.

The blue of the sky deepens, and the sun dips into the lower half of evening sky. It’s that strange time of day where you can’t tell whether the sun’s coming up or going down. Stupid blue, I’ve heard it called. The clouds are brushstrokes with wisps of pink and orange along the edges. I’m reminded of Amber, of her absence. I can’t tell where this feeling comes from, how exactly it surfaces or why it pierces so keenly in the center of my chest. I know I can feel it, though, one memory’s sharp-edged blade, slicing me to the core.

The sky casts a reflection on the windows like slick magazine paper, and I can’t get a good look, even though I peek around the corner several times. If the sun shines, it looks bright enough for lights to be on. I’ve got more waiting to do and have no book to read. A barrage of images fills my mind, mostly from the outhouse. It’s suddenly clear. Someone planted those pages for me to find.

[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]


“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”—Genesis 3:5

I stumbled upon pornography in the outhouse,

a standoff at the cornfield’s boundary,

stunned by the taste of fruit in my mouth.

Serpents whisper when pants, a peeled

casing, sprawl behind the door latch smelling

of shit and piss, the rind at my feet.

Scaled eyes record each naked morsel

in a rush of blood, like God, shadowed

by the darkness breathing beneath me.

Repenting to the field, I fathom the firmness

of corn, hardened by its proximity to

acres of snake skins sloughed off, discarded.

Do I put on corn husks, or let light scald me into the sun?

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