The Packing House

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Chapter 37 | Storm Front

Over the next few weeks, I buckle down and focus on completing my daily schedule. I can’t block out every whispered comment at school, but it helps to be doing something. I’ve lived more than half my life without the full knowledge of Uncle Steven, and I’m determined to live the rest of it without letting him overtake my thoughts, haunt my dreams, or keep me under his hold.

Some days are easier than others.

After finishing the sorting job at the Porter’s house, including the attic and the shed, I load what I’ve sorted from my grandmother’s garage into her car. Then Grandma takes me over to the farmhouse to get the remainder, and we bring it to Goodwill. I’m glad to be done with this chore. It’s a weight lifted to be moving on. I hope the next one isn’t as traumatic.

One day, in English class, Mr. Castell calls me up to his desk while the class works on our study guide for the play.

“Joel, I want to talk to you about your writing. I know you’ve been working on the poetry portfolio, and you’ve turned in a few poems for me to check your progress.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure poetry is my thing. I can’t think of some of the rhymes.”

“That’s just it. Maybe the reason you’re struggling is because you’re trying to make it something it’s not. If your poetry is structured in free verse, don’t try to nail it down into the form of end rhyme.”

“So, I don’t have to make it rhyme?”

“No, you don’t, and I want you to write it the way it comes out. Just let it happen. Free verse has its own structure, too. Use the other poetry devices from the packet to give it form and function. Rhyming doesn’t make it poetry.”

“Okay, I’ll give it a try.”

“Good. Let me see how it turns out when you’re not trying to butcher it. And maybe you should join the poetry slam that’s coming up.”

“I already talked to Padma. She said all the slots were filled for this year’s team.”

“Well, you’re in luck, because there’s a slot open from what I’ve just heard. There’s been a last minute cancellation.”

“I’ll ask about the opening at tutoring.”

As I stand, I feel my gut plummet. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it as a writer. I can’t even impress my English teacher. Does he have any idea how long it took for me to come up with some of those poems? Now I have to start all over. I spend the whole afternoon in the Writing Center, trying to hammer out one poem without forcing the rhyme. At least I kept my initial outlines and cluster webs, so I don’t have to start from nothing.

Padma confirms there has indeed been an opening. After looking at my poems, she encourages me to come to practice. I’m not sure; I need to clear my head.

After school, I take the bike and head to the shore, away from my grandmother’s house. Even though it’s cloudy and somewhat windy, I am determined to get to the ocean. Not many others are out. I see some other bikers, a man run-walking his dog on a leash next to him, and a woman walking in what looks like a winter coat. Did she not get the memo it’s spring? I find it funny how the locals act when the temperature is slightly off from perfect beach weather.

I prefer it like this, overcast with the ocean churning away on the edge of a storm. There’s a tangible charge to the air; the hair on my arm stands up on end. Out at sea, I spot a ship cutting through the green frothy waters. After parking my bike, I head down from the boardwalk, peel off my shoes and socks, and drop them in a spot at the top of the hill. Then I head down to the edge, where the waves collapse into the sand, each a fervent, tiny death of its own.

I can feel something coming.

It reminds me of the sensation of drowning. As I walk along the shore, watching the tide come in, I notice the beach stretches as far as I can see in either direction. Behind me, the boardwalk is deserted. Before me, the huge ocean crashes, reminding me how small and insignificant I am. Above me, the clouds press together and darken, reflecting the water, seething and tumbling below. This is nothing like Amber’s letter, when she read her Bible at the beach and found God, unless He’s pissed at me.

Along the horizon, I watch the ship moving slowly in front of me. I hear a crackle before the first of several lightning bolts flash and rip across the sky. The clouds open, and a heavy torrent of rain slams like needles into me, the water, and the sand all around. No matter what I do, I’ll be soaked, so instead I stretch out my arms and surrender.

Once, when Uncle Steven was watching Jonathan and me, he was angry and yelling at me for something. I can’t remember why. We were in our grandparents’ living room. The television might have been on. I just remember him grabbing me by the hair and dragging me down the hallway. My brother screamed and covered his head with a pillow. I watched him cower on the couch as I was dragged toward the bathroom.

Uncle Steven shoved the curtain aside and turned on the shower full blast. As I pleaded and cried out for him to stop, to please let me go, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, just let me go, he gripped me by the hair and held me under the water until I was drenched through my clothes.

Next, he took me to the bedroom and bent me over the edge of the bed to give me a beating, or so I thought. He yanked my pants and underwear down as I sobbed into the blankets. I was beyond the thought that words could help me at this point. I stiffened, waiting for the first spank, but instead I felt his hand, wet from something, rubbing between my legs and up my backside. Then I knew.

He entered, tearing into me. It felt like the largest bowel movement I could ever have, and each thrust tore a little more. My face was shoved into the blankets, but I could hear him huffing and wheezing behind me, finding a rhythm, a strange urgency to his haste. When it was over, I lay there, pants around my ankles, my clothes heavy from water, and I wondered if the rawness—the burning pain—would ever go away.

Now, standing at the ocean, I face every drop with arms raised, fists and jaw clenched, and a scream rises up from somewhere deep and painful, shattering me to the bone. I realize I’m crying, but I don’t care. This kind of rawness took a long time to surface, the storm itself drawing it out of the ocean depths. I scream again and again, until I can’t hear myself over the pounding in my ears.

Eventually, the rain subsides and slows, calming me. I sit on the hill, up far enough to stay out of the rising tide. I look for the boat and realize it’s gone from sight. I am alone on the beach, with black thoughts and painful memories.

Strangely enough, I’m better after being soaked, hollowed out by screams, and sobbing until the rain has washed away any lingering tears. I wipe my face, but it doesn’t matter. The rain hasn’t stopped completely. I stand and walk.

My grandmother must wonder where I’m at. I stop at a bench on the boardwalk, put my shoes back on, then walk my bike toward Grandma’s house.

Does any of this make sense? I can’t tell which end is up or if I’m moving in the right direction. Words swirl in my mind, churn like the sea. I feel an urgency to capture this, share it, to release what has been pent up for too long. This is not meant for me to carry alone. I’ve got to tell someone. But who? How? Where do I even begin?

When I get home, Grandma scolds me for getting caught in the storm, but she’s glad I’m okay. She sends me to the shower and heats water for tea. We sit in the living room when I’m clean and dry, sipping together.

In my gut tumbles a surge of energy, as if I drew in the charge of each lightning bolt while I screamed beneath the storm. I feel it wriggle around, a powerful force rising like a tide inside of me. I know what I have to do—I need to write; sort it out on paper before I lose my mind.

“How’s the tea, dear? Warm enough?”

“It’s wonderful, Grandma. Thanks.”

We sit together and listen to classical music. Afterwards, I stay up half the night writing poem after poem, like a dam has burst and the words tumble out from a well I never knew was there before. My hands shake with their own electricity as I write, sometimes faster than I can keep up with.

I stay up and write until every word has found its way to the page, and then I realize I know how to take back what he stole from me.

[From the journal of Joel Scrivener.]


Along the shore

beside the sea,

I step from rock to rock,

the cold and spray

fog rolling in.

Seaweed peels

off the dock,

glazed figurines

sinking to their graves.

The sand is burdened,

my clothes are drenched by

the great gray fog snail of the ocean.

Out on the sand surrounded

by the pathway of shorebirds,

the houses are weathered, brittle,

dun-colored children

clustered in the wet sand.

What instinct harbors a migration?

We each hinder the step our souls take

trudging through this hidden dance

when the tide is out, and the sand

glistens with its own inner light.

I wait there, torrential and damp,

for the waves.

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