The Packing House

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Chapter 29 | Grandma's House

We pull up to a house that looks like it shrank in the dryer. Suddenly I’m the Jolly Green Giant. I have to duck when I go inside.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the smell. Right off, I catch Grandma’s signature dish. It brings me back, like I never left—the sauce and the gooey cheese and layers upon layers of buttery noodles, under a cloud of humiliation over tucking tail and leaving. I’m not going to think about that now.

My aunt is here with her three kids and my grandmother. I hear Althea’s laughter when I walk in. I don’t remember all their kids’ names. Some were born after we left. The oldest is Emily. We used to play in the back yard. I wonder if they live in the same place. This isn’t the same house Grandma had when Grandpa was still alive. They had a farm. She kept it a few years after he passed but moved here just after the neighbor boy died and Uncle Steven disappeared.

My aunt watches me fidget. She brings me over, reintroduces me to Emily, their older son, Cody, and youngest son, Christopher. Seeing them makes me feel old.

I have a seat next to Grandma after giving her a hug and telling her the lasagna smells insane. I smirk at the tablecloth: I think the same one has been on this table for more than a decade. It has a plastic coating on top and cotton batting beneath. It’s the same sunshine yellow I remember etched on my memory, along with her Tupperware containers and canning jars in the pantry.

I would bet a million dollars they’re all still there. I want to go see if I’m right, but I can’t wait to eat, even though we snuck food on the way. I share a glance with Uncle Brandon, and he kicks into host mode, offering to cut and serve. Grandma asks us to bow our heads as we say grace. Some things never change.

Sometimes I don’t want them to.

Everything tastes as good as, if not better than, I remember. I eat a second helping before my belly bulges, distended under the strain. I’m going to hurt later, but it’s so worth it. I moan, rub my belly, and push away from the table.

“That was ah-may-zing, Grandma.”

“You’re quite welcome, Joel.”

“No one cooks like Mom,” Uncle Brandon says before realizing he just put his foot in his mouth. The “Ow!” presumably in response to Aunt Althea’s foot firmly reminding my Uncle’s shin how he blew it. We laugh. Uncle Brandon shoos Grandma and Althea to relax in the living room while the rest of us clear and put away.

I take the opportunity to peek in the pantry. Just as I remember it. The copper molds are hung around the top of the wall a few inches away from the ceiling. So many things I thought were lost to my childhood; only now do they come flooding to the forefront.

Grandma puts me in the front bedroom. I set my things on the floor by the dresser and change to shorts and a T-shirt then say goodnight to the family and head to the bathroom to brush teeth. Everything here is too quiet and peaceful. Calm before the storm.

I’ll start at Ticonderoga High in the morning, so Grandma says goodnight, and I’m on my own. I ask if I can borrow a few books, and she shows me where she keeps them in the study, the room behind mine.

“Of course, there’s a Bible on your nightstand, but you can choose from these ones if you like,” she says before heading back to her bedroom. “Good night, Joel.”

I pull several that look interesting. I’m so relieved to be in a normal-sized room.

I wait for the punch line or the camera crew to bust in and laugh along with the live studio audience. This was all a prank. I’ve been punked.

Nothing happens.

I’m weary from travel but not tired enough to sleep, so I pick up a book. Before long, though, my head bobs and jolts me awake as it tips forward, so I give up and go to sleep in my comfortable, non-trailer-park bed. It’s a full size with a bed frame and box spring. I can’t remember the last time I was in a bed this big that I didn’t have to share with Jonathan. I stretch out and drift off.

In the morning, Grandma fixes breakfast while I stumble for the shower. There is an alarm clock here, so I get up on time. The shower is wonderful, and I don’t remember waking even once during the night. Not even a hint of a nightmare.

Grandma’s shower has amazing water pressure. I think I’m in too long or had it on too hot, because I’m a red sausage when I come out. Steam covers the bathroom mirror and pours from the walls like summer sweat. I tuck a towel at my waist and head to the bedroom.

“Breakfast is ready.”

“Thanks, Grandma. I’ll be right there.”

The urge to pinch myself overwhelms. I must resist. After I’m dressed, I head to breakfast where Grandma sits drinking coffee and juice while reading the paper. Her pills and vitamins are in a small cup next to her. Old people and their routine habits fascinate me.

I’m reminded of several times I spent in the kitchen with Grandma, working on cookies or making a treat. I think of the peanut butter and confectioner’s sugar balls we would roll out on wax paper. For breakfast, Grandma made eggs and toast with strips of bacon. I wash this down with orange juice, and we head out the door.

“I’ll drive you in for your first day, but watch the route. It’s very easy to get there. You can walk home on your own.”

She’s right. We drive two blocks up the street to the right and then turn left. One block up and we hang another right along a main road that’s a divided highway. This part sparks a memory I can’t seem to place.

“Why is this road familiar?” I ask.

“It’s the same one our farm is on, just outside of town.”

After three or four blocks, we turn left into the parking lot. I can still picture the way the farm was surrounded by a grazing field up by the road and a barn and chicken coop further back, behind the main house. The field beyond was mostly corn; the outhouse I remembered was at the back field. I wonder if it looks the same, now that there are new owners.

Grandma heads for a handicapped spot near the entrance. Ticonderoga High School is a modern brick building with two floors and lots of windows. A large walking area in front of the school leads to the flag poles and the drop-off circle. There’s a long narrow roof over the walkway, the kind you might find in a bus station terminal. It reminds me of various stations on the trip out here.

Grandma gets out the manila envelope with my records while I grab my backpack and the lunch she made. We head in under the front portico, where we have to be buzzed inside.

I guess Sanderville was behind the times. No chance I could break in here overnight. I see security cameras and scanners by the doors. Lucky for me Grandma’s cooking and comfortable bed slays school food and the teacher’s lounge couch any day of the week. I think I’ll stick to Grandma’s house.

Once I hand in my papers, Grandma takes over and I take a seat. There’s a question about my schedule. The secretaries take my paperwork and head over to guidance. Since I brought failing grades from Broad Run High School and wasn’t at Sanderville long enough to turn things around, this is my last shot to keep from repeating tenth grade.

By the time the paperwork is complete and Grandma heads home, it’s partway through first period before someone walks me to class. Amber is here. This is her freshman year. Her house isn’t far. I’ve got to find her before the end of the day. My mind whirls and flutters. She knows me better than anyone else.

Starting over at another high school—the fifth one so far—is hard enough without doing it alone, especially with Amber this close. I’m nauseous and excited, even giddy when I go into the class. The teacher looks at me a bit funny when I reply to her, “Welcome to American history” with too much exuberance.

“Thanks,” comes out of my mouth before I can stop it. More like a squawk than anything. Giggles erupt from the back of the class. I take my fire-engine-red ears and cheeks to a seat near the windows. Mrs. Dixon brings me my textbook. When we open to chapter seventeen, I try to lose myself in the Salem witch trials.

I focus on taking notes. Most everyone at least feigns doing some semblance of work. Another chance has been put in my lap, and I want to take it this time. Sure, I could blame it on the nightmares, my crummy home life, or my single-parent family. But at some point, I have to own up.

It’s nice being around more functional family. My mother and Jonathan are too self-absorbed and busy with their own demise. Just being around them pulled me into a morbid tailspin, like a toilet endlessly flushing.

Here, I can breathe the ocean air, recharge on the beach, and spend time with my grandmother. If I do it right, she might let me stay. What am I missing back at the trailer park? Sanderville is nothing like Oceanside. I could get used to this.

My next class is English, and I ask for directions on my way out. It’s upstairs, about midway down the front wing. According to the schedule, my teacher’s name is Mr. Castell. All the teachers stand in the doorway between classes; must be some kind of protocol.

“I’m Joel Scrivener, your new student.”

“Hi, Joel. Mr. Castell. Nice to meet you. My first failing student of the year.” He glances over his shoulder at the students entering class. “And not because they don’t try, but I do not tolerate failure here. You got me?”

“Loud and clear.”

That went well. Right off the block and I stumble in the race. English is usually my best subject. All I brought with me was a failing grade. I’ll have to show him what I can do.

The class is about a week or two into a play about the Salem witch trials. What’s with all the teachers who like to do their teaching units across core classes? Maybe chemistry class will be about testing each other to see if we’re a witch or a—what’s the word? Warlock. Math will cover the effects of witchcraft on the New England economy. I can’t wait.

Since this is a play, Mr. Castell wants us to read it aloud in class, each of us assigned a part. I have the whole first act to get caught up. I’ll be assigned a part tomorrow. For now, I get to listen. The hardest part is the strange way they talk, almost too formal or proper. I could be in church or something. The girls in the play lie to the town like they’re in league with the devil. They were just trying to get the boys to like them.

Next up is chemistry, and Mrs. Woerther has us doing a lab on different kinds of plastics. I think we make a bouncy ball, but mine is lumpy and bounces funny. Right before lunch, I have geometry with Mr. Reidinger. He has the personality of a calculator. I may need a private tutor to understand what everything means.

I stand inside the doorway, not sure if I’m in the lunch line, and scope out seating. Instead of the usual long tables, this cafeteria has a sea of round tables with six or eight chairs apiece, a slice of pizza for each seat. I choose a table with about half the seats occupied.

It takes me a few minutes to get lost in my brown bag and thoughts before it hits me that I haven’t seen Amber. Maybe she’s at a different lunch. No sooner am I struck by the thought than I look to the right, and she walks out of the lunch line and heads to a table near the other end of the cafeteria. I haven’t seen a picture of her in a while, but I’m certain it’s her. Time slows. I may hear actual music. A waltz. She’s stunning, and I’ve forgotten to breathe. She walks with a friend, and they laugh together, but all I see is her smile and those eyes…

I take a huge bite of my sandwich. I must have shoved a third of it in with one large chomp. As I look up, I see her frozen at her table, poised to sit, her hands still on the tray she’s just put down. She stares right at me.

“Joel? Is that you?” she asks in such a loud voice the majority of the cafeteria goes stone silent. She leaves her tray and waltzes over. All eyes are on me, the new kid.

I don’t remember standing up.

When she pulls me into an embrace, it’s like she isn’t thinking about it. My hand slides to the small of her back and, bam, we’re back in that moment we discovered together in closet darkness, the place where we knew…

“What are you doing here?” she asks and then pushes me away. “I thought you ran away from home.” Everyone listens for my answer. Fortunately, they can’t hear what I’m thinking. I’m stuck on the answer to her first question.

Dying of embarrassment.

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