The Packing House

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Chapter 36 | Writer's Cramp

When I get to the Writing Center, it’s not too full; maybe six students working with tutors. Who else is here because they have to be?

I sit at a vacant table and wait for the next available tutor. Meanwhile, I pull out my math homework and English writing portfolio. Screw math; I work on a poem. My mind is all over the map, but I can sense the seed of an idea forming. I try using the cluster method Mr. Castell suggested. I write down words, draw ovals around them, and use connecting lines to link them without focusing on the connections.

“Why are you here?” I hear from a familiar voice. Turning around, I see the connection. Amber. I asked her the same thing in my grandmother’s back yard.

“I have to be here. It’s mandatory. What about you?”

“Oh, I’m a volunteer. It’s for an internship I want to get into next year. I do this and the Poetry Club. I’m trying for an Ivy League school, and that process starts now.”

I saw her talking with her friend the other day, but I had no idea she worked here. The more I get to know about Amber Walker, the more I know she’s beyond my reach. If she’s going off to an Ivy League college, she’s looking for a doctor or lawyer type. My biggest aspirations are to write and get published. Maybe read at a poetry slam. I have as much of a chance to impress her as I do of identifying a new mathematical theorem or identifying something smaller than a quark. I’d better ask for help with chemistry while I’m at it.

“I need help with geometry and chemistry. I have a test soon.”

“Joel, did something happen to you? Are you okay?”

“What, my bandages? Nah, it’s nothing. Just fightin’ the bad guys. I’ll be okay.”

“Is it bad?” She looks me dead in the eye.

“Honestly? Sometimes, it is. It really is. But I’m fine now. Really.”

“You take care of yourself, Joel.” She leans over and gives me a hug, whispering, “We all have things we keep to ourselves. I’m praying for you.”

“Uh, thanks.” I don’t know how else to respond.

“There are several tutors here. I’ll see who’s up next on the rotation.” She turns to leave, checks her cell phone, and excuses herself, saying, “I’ll be right back.”

After a few minutes, while I’m working on the poem again, wondering if words on a page might get her attention—I look around—hopeful. Is Amber a tutor? Would she seriously help me? Amber is one of the few people in the world who knows me, with all of my family troubles and ups and downs over the years; if there’s anyone I want to talk to right now, it’s her. Although I’m not ready to say anything about Uncle Steven—I may never be. Which reminds me: I never asked her what happened with her stalker. Everything’s been so messed up, I haven’t had time to ask.

A question startles me from my thoughts.

“Are you Joel? Amber said you needed help with math.” I nod. The girl is attractive; she’s the one who was with Amber the other day. She has thick, glossy hair pulled back in a flowered silk scarf, medium skin, and smoky eyes. She’s rockin’ the nose ring, too.

“Is, uh, Amber coming back?” I keep thinking about the hug and what she said. Maybe…

“Oh, I don’t think so. Her boyfriend just came to pick her up. You’re that guy with the… bandages.” A flash of recognition washes across her face.

I look down at my wrists, even though I know they’re there. I can feel my skin itching beneath. I look back up. She glances nervously away. What did she say?

“I can’t believe she’s already dating a senior. It’s only her freshman year. My name’s Padma.” She sits down, setting a leather bag on the floor next to her.

“I see.” I try to hide the disappointment in my voice.

“I think I can help you with… geometry, was it? Anything else?”

“Well, besides this poetry portfolio I have to write to pass English, I could use some help with chemistry.” I can’t help myself. I keep looking around for Amber, like she’ll come back if I will her to do so.

“Not many boys I know write poetry.” Padma rakes her hair across the back of her neck into a silky twirl between her fingers and holds it over her left shoulder. Now I remember: I’ve seen her do the same thing in the cafeteria, like she’s trying to keep her hair out of her lunch. Only, here, it’s because she’s concentrating on something. That and she was the one passing out flyers for the regional poetry slam the other day. I wonder if she’s involved.

After an awkward pause I say, “Maybe we should get to work,” and Padma shifts from introductions to reviewing my geometry terms for the test. Only, I can’t concentrate. Well, I can concentrate, but not on what I’m supposed to be.

Instead, I think sine refers to the heart shapes Amber and I might draw in the air, the letters we write to each other, and how those could be more like love notes. I imagine opening scented envelopes from Amber, addressed in her perfect cursive with hearts over all the “I’s” and arrows over all the “T’s”. When I think of tangent, I picture us leaving the Writing Center and heading down to the beach to hold hands along the boardwalk. Cosine makes me think of buying a car together, dating, going exclusive. For a guy who’s got no chance now that Amber’s spoken for—with a senior, no less—I don’t know where any of this comes from and why it comes so suddenly, but I’m in no shape to do anything about it. I need to heal first.

“—Are you even listening to me?” Padma is asking as she plays with her hair scarf.

I nod, a shock of embarrassment spreading across my face.

“I mean about these terms. Just remember SOHCAHTOA, and you’ll be fine.” I think she rolls her eyes, maybe tucking a smirk behind her ear. What is that supposed to mean? Does she know something about Amber and me? I’m confused. Instead of saying anything about her body language, I work on getting through the sample problems for each side of the right triangle I’m studying. We finish with the Pythagorean Theorem. I think I’m ready.

“Is there something wrong?” she asks.

“No. Why do you ask?”

“You seem awfully distracted since Amber left. Do you like her or something?”

“Uh, not exactly.”

“I see. You mentioned a poetry portfolio. Well, if you think you’ve got poems worth sharing in front of a crowd, we practice weekly, on Thursdays.” Which reminds me…

“Can I still sign up for the poetry slam?”

“Actually, all the slots are full, I’m afraid. Maybe next year.” Damn.

She looks around and then leans over, whispering next to my ear. “You should probably know her boyfriend’s about to ask her to senior prom. If you were planning on making a move, you might’ve just missed your chance.” Padma stands and excuses herself. “Good luck on the test.” I couldn’t have heard her right. I’m too late.

My insides suddenly slam down to the bottom of my toes with nothing left to hold them up anymore. They cramp up from the strain. I’m dashed among the rocks by an unforgiving ocean, finally reaching the shore of reality. I cover my head with my arms, wishing the table beneath me was a hole I could bury my head in or an ocean that could drown me and finish off the job.

[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]


John 5:4

Most days I wander thick fields,

watching sharp movements of the pine.

I cross the fence through waist-deep grass,

keep pace under boughs still wet with rain.

When the storm hits cold stones below

my feet smell like wind stirring the water.

What pinches the switch of my soul?

Such marks feed heat like hot scraps

of desperation raging the storm.

The branch comes crashing down, tangles itself

in the fence. My hands hurry to build an earthen ladder

from the remains, wrestle God against the open spaces,

throw down language from a new Babel.

A dry thirst pulls up from the well an ocean,

a puzzle with missing pieces, and questions

we’ve never been brave enough to regret.

The earth grips cracks near the well

in deep rock where mud salves my eyes;

I climb an inner rope to sight,

yet here I am clinging to the earth.

What do I hope for in the depth of the well?

Sometimes the ocean stands from its stone valley,

stretches, curves up over breakers where I now

crouch, watching seaweed curl, spread out like needles

around a fire. Here, small crabs, angry and clambering

stomp back beneath the rocks away from light and eyes.

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