The Packing House

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Chapter 31 | Cleaning out the Garage

I skip tutoring and blaze a trail to Grandma’s house. I can’t believe I fell right into this setup. I’m pissed my mother sent me back here, under the guise of her work schedule. I guess she thought I wouldn’t come if I knew they’d planned to drag my father back around. The lies are stacking up and marinating in a pan of betrayal.

I double over and wait for the wave to pass.

Maybe they’re just trying to do their job. Still, they shouldn’t talk behind my back as if they know what’s best. They don’t have any right to mess with my life or force me to do what I don’t want to do.

All I care about is not failing tenth grade. Well, that and fixing things with Amber. I don’t want to have to go through either of these again. No one owned up to contacting my father. They could have asked first and found out what I wanted before they scheduled this meeting next week. I should have seen it coming.

I can’t think about this shit right now—it was years ago. My mother said she told him I ended up in the hospital when he ran off, but he must not have cared. He never called or wrote or visited. Years later, I heard about their divorce. I was in middle school, and my mother mentioned it like she was asking me to pass the salt.

“The divorce papers were finalized last week. It’s over between your father and me. Pretty good casserole, huh?” she said one night during dinner. There. Ka-boom. Divorce. She was so cold and detached, like it didn’t even matter.

“What?” was all I could manage. My throat clamped whatever I was eating, then I had to bolt. I lost everything in the toilet back at the townhouse. That was before she started dating all those different men, before everything went to hell.

When I reach Grandma’s house, my eyes are wild and bleary. If I don’t find something to do with my hands, I’m going to go ballistic, maybe lose control. I hope she has a chore.

Taking a deep breath, I try to calm myself, blowing the air out. The driveway runs along the side of the house, and the garage is separate. The garage door is open. All bets say she’s in the back yard, gardening.

“Grandma, I’m back.”

“Oh, hi. I didn’t see you there. Just weeding a bit.”

“Do you need any help?”

“Oh, no, dear. I’ve already got a helper. Maybe you know each other?”

Amber comes out of the garage, carrying garden gloves and gardening tools.

“What are you doing here?” I ask, dumbfounded.

“Helping your grandma weed the garden. What does it look like?”

I’m trying to complete the equation in my brain that explains why Amber is here, helping my grandmother, but there are too many missing variables. Before I’ve thought it through, I ask, “No. Why are you here?” Anger roils in my stomach on a low boil. Amber’s face shifts from pleasant to something that makes me burp up stomach acid.

“Joel, your grandma invited me. Who do you think has been helping her the last several years?”


She smiles and passes gloves to my grandmother. My mind scrambles to catch up. I guess it makes sense. Amber has known my grandmother since my grandfather’s funeral, years ago. I just never—she never mentioned she was doing this. Why would she—unless she’d been angling to gather intel on me from my grandmother?

“So you two don’t need any help?”

“No, dear. We’ve got this under control. Weeding gives my hands something to do, if you know what I mean.” I do a double take. I’d better get busy soon, or I’m liable to give Amber a puke show.

“What about the garage? Do you need anything done there?”

“Well, I hadn’t thought much of it, but I have a stack of boxes along the far wall that need to be gone through. I’d like to donate to Goodwill. Most of it’s your grandfather’s things, maybe some from your father and uncle. See what you can do.”

I never realized how similar we are. Grandma gives me a look before returning to her weeding. The garage boxes at least give me something to keep busy, and who wouldn’t want to know more about their family? Besides, with Amber here, the urge to duck and cover is screaming in my ears.

As I enter the garage, I estimate there are about a dozen boxes stacked along the side wall. I pull a trash bag from a nearby shelf and open the first box. Inside I find stacks of old comics: Strange Tales and others I’ve never heard of. Who collected these? They could be my father’s or grandfather’s. I see stories of vampires, werewolves, and swamp monsters.

I’m not sure Goodwill would want these, but maybe Grandma could find a collector who will. I make stacks on the ground and keep going. The next box has bundled letters. They’re pretty old. I can’t picture my father, grandfather, or uncle as writers.

I find clothes in the next four boxes. These appear to be my grandfather’s and still smell like him. When the scent of his pipe tobacco hits me, I’m reminded of the farm and his routine in the early daylight hours: feeding the few cows, the dozen or so chickens, and the rooster, the horse, and the pigs. I remember seeing him up and out, tending the animals, whenever I was up early.

The farm wasn’t very big, but it was big enough. I think that’s why they hired Uncle Steven, as we called him, to help manage the chores and the fields. Going fishing was a bonus. My grandfather let his pride get the best of him: he liked to think he could continue working up to his dying day. The truth was he needed the help.

When my father left, my mother asked Uncle Steven to help with watching us so she could go to work. I would have been bored if it weren’t for him. At least he could take us fishing. That continued until I ended up in the hospital. We left not long after I got out. Sometimes, I catch myself thinking how much I miss Uncle Steven. I guess he stayed and helped Grandma with the farm. Maybe I should ask.

I step out of the garage to check if Grandma is still weeding, and I don’t see her anywhere. Amber’s nowhere to be found, either. I figure they must have gone in the house.

I go back to sorting boxes. The next two yield books. I scan titles to see if there are any I might want. There are books on farming and planting, animal husbandry, and a Farmer’s Almanac. I pull out a book called Walden and flip through. Tucked between two pages, I find a handwritten letter. It’s from my father to my mother.


I’ve been assigned to an isolated post. While I’m there, you can stay in base housing with the boys. I’ll make sure there’s money in our account. I know this is a shock. I hope we can work through things. We just need some time. Time to get your affairs in order. Maybe the distance will help.


I can’t believe it. Is this real? Did my father leave because he was sent away? If that’s true, then he didn’t just leave us. There has to be more. Why didn’t he tell us once he arrived at his post? Maybe he did…

My thoughts swirl like the tremors shooting down my back.

Why didn’t he fight it? He could have stayed. They still divorced a few years later. A bomb implodes in my mind. Roads and buildings collapse as I try to reconcile what I just read with what I know, or thought I knew. Something isn’t right. I bet it has to do with my mother. I don’t think she told either of us the whole truth. Why the hell was I sent out here on a ruse, to have this impromptu meet up with my father? Maybe I should go through with it.

How else do I figure out what’s missing?

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