The Packing House

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Chapter 4 | Lecture Notes

Just my effing luck. I don’t even make it to the library before the skies rip open. Clouds clatter, tossing thunder and lightning in a game of cosmic catch. Rain joins the party. Not the gentle spring kind; the soak-your-clothes-to-your-skin kind of rain.

By the time I reach the entrance, my sweatshirt looks more like a dress than something to keep me warm. Forget warmth. My teeth bang together so bad, I make a grand entrance to the normally quiet atmosphere I love. Twenty pairs of eyes glare in unison. Not that I can see much through wet glasses.

Great.

Withdrawing to a back corner, I pull my sopping-wet sweatshirt as tight as I can around me. Maybe if I sit here long enough, I’ll dry off and feel my feet again. All men are created equal in cold weather. The same is true for cold water. My ’nads retreat so far back, I doubt I’ll ever have children at this point.

I think I’ve found the quiet corner, but a family comes in and makes camp in the open chairs next to me. The mother and father help each of their sons out of matching raincoats and hang them over an empty chair.

When the chair dumps, spilling coats, a flash of a memory slices across my eyes between blinks…

…He shoves me from behind. His weight presses me to the floor…

“Daddy, help me find a book about pirates,” the younger boy in front of me says.

…You had this coming. Make a sound and you’re dead

“Mom, I’m going to find the next book in this series,” the older boy says, before heading to the young readers section.

…Not a word…

“I can help you with that honey,” the mother replies. The father and his son return and begin looking through their books together.

Time for me to bail.

“Didn’t know this was your spot,” I mumble as I exit.

“Oh, we’re sorry. We can move somewhere else.” Too late.

…Make a sound and you’re dead…

I’m still shivering, anyway. I hope they have a bathroom with a dryer. That could help me regain feeling in my extremities before winter sets in.

My vision is blurred before I reach the bathroom. I don’t care. No one here knows me, so what does it matter? I already stick out like a foster-child reject. Probably couldn’t even find a family dumb enough to take me in. The only small concession I find is a push button dryer in the men’s room. I must hit the button at least five hundred times until my clothes are dry-ish.

My eyes still burn from the family on display back there. Must be nice to have it all. Our mother and father split when I was young.

Who pushed me down?

All I remember are the fights and the yelling. Doors slamming, pictures falling off the wall, shattered glass. Maybe if my parents had been together longer, the words of each fight might still buzz around my head. Fuzzy bits of memories linger, like my father’s smell on a plaid shirt. Old Spice.

It couldn’t have been him, could it?

I wish I could choose which memories to erase.

We don’t have the money it takes to flaunt ourselves through the library in coordinated raincoats, galoshes, and umbrellas.

What do I have? Nothing. And no memories to go with a big fat zilch on the side.

Why can’t I recall large portions of my childhood? I remember I grew up near the ocean, but that’s it. I guess I’ve been back a handful of times since we moved away, now that I think about it. Amber lived nearby. Her family wasn’t perfect, but neither was mine. Her mom rode her pretty hard, like a bad dream you can’t escape from. Her father seemed nice enough, not that I know much about having a father around, someone who cares about me over his own agenda.

But now, my mother has these different guys she sees. They come over and try to “be a friend.” I don’t want to be friends with any of them. Who knows if they’ll even stick around long enough to remember our names? Why bother?

The most recent one is a tough guy. He gets along pretty good with my mother. They’ve gone out for a few months. At least they did until he tore through the house. Jonathan and I’ve been calling him Terror Man for so long, I might’ve forgotten that Samuel’s his actual name.

When I leave the men’s room, the family is gone. Good riddance. I am determined to stay until the library closes, so I have less awake time when I go home.

It’s peaceful again, but I can’t bring myself to read. When I don’t want to read, I write. It’s the charged atmosphere I love, everyone in their own solitude. I pull out a notebook and pens. Somehow I think I can coax words to help me out of this mess.

Maybe it’s just another way to run away.

When I write, I’m closer to finding myself, the edge of my soul held up like a reflection. Words begin to orbit, almost tangible around me. Time to get them down on paper.

I’ve filled at least ten notebooks with stories and poems. Not sure where they all come from or why I can pour words out like water, sometimes like flames. When I write, not even a book distracts from the empty page before me.

The librarian’s voice startles me before I look up and realize it’s closing time. I grab my stuff and head for the exit. At least the rain has stopped, and so have my tears.

I’m in for a lecture when I get home. All I did was delay the inevitable. No rush to get back to that. The weather outside gives me a false sense of security about my mother’s word tsunami when I arrive home. She precipitates at full-force when I walk in the door. I should have seen it coming.

“And just where were you, young man?” she demands. “Who do you think you are, running off when the house is torn up like this? I need to be able to count on you.”

Right, this crap only happens to her all those times we have to move.

“Okay, I get it. I lost track of time,” I say instead.

Then she hits me with, “I cannot believe you’d leave Jonathan. He’s too young to be left by himself for that long.” This part is laughable.

“Jonathan can take care of himself just fine. Trust me.”

Geez. I didn’t know she wasn’t going to come right home. Maybe she told me that on the phone, but all I heard was blah, blah, blah. She doesn’t look hurt or anything. Another flash flickers between blinks.

…He shoves me from behind. His weight presses me to the floor…

“Where has this attitude of yours come from, lately? You think you can talk to your mother like that? I will not tolerate anymore…”

”…You had this coming. Make a sound and you’re dead…”

After a few of her best zings, the rest drifts into the background.

I’ve gotten so good at hiding behind my eyes, I can absorb it like a sponge and squeeze it out later. I could probably draw the blood back into my veins if I had a cut. An inaudible grunt or two, followed by an “uh-huh” here and there, and she can talk for hours.

”…Not a word…”

Without a father around, my mother vomits whatever words are pent up. I just half-listen, nod a little, and she’s off for a good thirty-seven minute clip. No, really—I’ve checked the clock, even kept a record, and she averages out to exactly thirty-seven minutes without a pause or coming up for air.

Where do I go during all that time? I read in such a way, it doesn’t look like I’m doing it. She continues with a “when I was your age,” followed by a “kids these days.” Does she think any of this helps? Probably makes her feel better. It’s hard to tell if she’s more shaken up than normal, or if this is her playing out the drama.

My mother doesn’t understand what it’s like. She sure as hell doesn’t get what it means to be me. Letting her boyfriends issue consequences to us doesn’t equal love. I’d rather have a father than a long line of Samuels.

I pick up a few things that I need to know at school, but not everything I need.

One thing I need is for these flashes of remembered conversation to not be my father. Was that why he left? I’ve heard PTSD come up in conversations, but I just thought he was screwed up from some war. My mother’s no better. They should’ve had their shit together before bringing me into the world.

By the time she’s done with her lecture, I might as well be a pile of bones looking back.


I wouldn’t make it through school without reading as my out. Most of my teachers are duped, just like my mother. But my Algebra II teacher won’t fall for it. He’s too literal.

First off, he’s got me in the purgatory front row, dangerously close to the designated call-on-me seat. I have to give him all my focus or, the minute I drift, he calls on me. Students who don’t give good answers have to write the problem on the board. Then the boy behind me starts in. He puts something in my hair and talks smack but low, so only I hear it.

“I heard you’re one of those fag-gots, aren’t you? You know how to go down on a guy, right?”

More fallout from the YouTube thing.

“You would know.”

Jonathan’s been funny lately. I wonder if he’s behind this. The heat chugs up my back, my neck, to the tips of my ears, jagged tongues of fire lapping upward until I’m engulfed in flames. I’m not gay, but I’ve dealt with Math Punk’s kind before. That’s not what pisses me off. It’s the crap he throws in my hair. Math Punk needs to stay out of my personal space.

“Cocksucker.”

This time I don’t hesitate.

Just as quietly as he whispered to me, I whisper back, and while the teacher puts a problem up on the Smartboard, I mutter-growl, “Keep it up, jerkoff, and you’ll regret it.”

This is what he wants. I don’t have to look at him to tell he’s got a huge smirk smeared across his face. Maybe his buddies egg him on.

“’s ’at right? I bet you swallow, too. You gonna do something about it?”

“That’s two,” I fire back.

“Looky here, pretty-pretty princess. No one’s impressed you can count. Word is you’ve sucked off half the swim team, including Elias Stone’s big dick.” This is the last thing he says before I pull the thirty-pound Algebra II book from underneath my desk, stand up, and pivot, all in one choreographed, smooth movement. My arms go rigid. My hands grip tight to either end of the book. I watch frame by frame in slow motion as the book crashes into the left side of his face. He staggers forward and then topples like a ragdoll out of his desk into a puddle on the floor.

“Leave. Me. The hell alone!” I shout, thrusting the book down and seething in great gasping huffs. Everyone freezes. We’re playing a giant game of freeze tag. I must be “it.” I’m the only one who moves. I pick up the textbook and toss it on my desk. Guess I schooled him. Or I’ve become what I’ve feared: I’ve become him.

I’m panting. The wave seeps out of me like a deflating balloon. Mr. McKinley comes to his senses. “Guidance office. Now!” His eyes lock onto my trajectory and follow me with a heavy bead until I’m out of his classroom and on my way to get some “guidance.”

I spend the next eighteen minutes waiting in the small seating area just outside a cluster of offices, while an antique copier is serviced by a man who does not seem to know what he’s fixing. I stare at the wall to avoid the stereotypical butt crack. I’ve no interest imprinting that in my catalog of images that can’t be scraped off my mental picture file.

There are no windows where I sit in guidance-waiting-room hell. I keep checking my hair to see if I got all of the spitballs. Friggin’ jerk.

How will Ms. Truman lecture me this time? Will she take the obvious route and say how she’s disappointed in me, not living up to my potential? Will she tell me how my actions forced her hand? My muscles tense, thinking out various scenarios.

Some teacher must have had a birthday; there’s fresh butter-cream-frosted cake in the teacher’s lounge. Did all the adults suddenly make a beeline for their early afternoon cake fix? Who knows what teachers do in there?

I look up, but there’s still no one back here. My theory may be right. That’s where they all must be—the teacher’s lounge. When the bell rings, I slink out to the flow of students heading to class and get lost in the crowd. I never hear anything else about the Math Punk incident again.

Maybe my luck has turned.



Dear Amber,

Remember our trip to the lighthouse? I think my shoulder still hurts. Ha! Will we ever go there again? I heard it fell down—the ocean reached up and swallowed the lighthouse whole or something. Are they going to rebuild it, do you know?

You asked me to write you a story, so I’ll include my latest with this letter and a poem. I don’t know if it’s any good. I wish I had more to say, but things aren’t great here right now.

Signing off for now,

Joel



BENEATH THE DOCK

I sleep. The beach,

with the moon seagull-perched

over my shoulder, presses

against the last stars clinging

like sand on chilled skin.

I slip into the sleep of shells

making their way to shore,

discoveries beside the dock at night.

In the space between thunder,

the red pulse of the lighthouse

confounds me, blinks back rivulets.

Under waves of sunlight sliding

beneath eyelids, the tide unalterably

rises, proclaiming a loneliness,

a distance only gulls understand.

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