The Packing House

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Chapter 7 | Trailer Trash

Jonathan and I get in the car while our mother locks up. The sun is an orange smear pulling us toward the main road. We run through fast food for burgers and fries and then head west out of town. Crap food seems to fit. It’s almost funny. Almost.

Following along with our route, I notice the mountain ahead. I finish eating and open my book. I need something to distract the alarms firing. My mother must have found a place; no reason to be freaked out. But something lodged has broken loose and is rattling around in my thoughts. The electricity that kept getting shut off at the homeless shelter; my mother’s empty promises, “It’s just temporary,” or “Until we’re back on our feet.” I don’t want to remember any of these thoughts. Instead, I read.

Next thing I know, we’re off the highway and entering a trailer park that looks like a bunch of metal coffins sliding down the slope. I clearly overreacted. We left pavement back by the highway.

I hate being the bastard child of Poor and White Trash.

Residents stare as we drive in; gravel crunches beneath our tires. A dirty girl looks up from the pothole she squats in, covered in filth. She goes back to digging with what used to be a spoon. I glance at Jonathan. He stares out the window at the rows of dingy trailers, but I’ve seen too many of the signs already: bits of needles near several trash cans and bandages in obvious places.

I stifle the urge to scream or gouge my eyes out.

We’ve arrived at the Meth Lab Mothership. Too many vacant eyes to be a coincidence. Nearby, a dog’s barks echo, their clipped bursts bouncing off the outside trailer walls. We drive partway down the first row and turn in next to a yellowed, browning trailer. Something smells awful, like gasoline. It wouldn’t take much for one of these to go up in flames.

“What’s that smell?” My face contorts.

“Kerosene,” my mother says. “Most of these are heated by outside tanks.” She points to ours, a rusty tooth in a gravel yard. There’s a wooden stoop going up two steps from the dirt. My mother has reached a new, all-time low.

“I just saw your girlfriend,” I jibe at Jonathan. “She thinks you’re kinda cute.”

“Screw you,” Jonathan fires back, muttering below our mother’s radar. “At least I’ve had a girlfriend.”

We get inside just as the rainstorm tears across the sky, hammering the roof and sides of our tin-metal trailer in a hail of stray bullets. Now all we need is a burlap sack and baseball bats to lighten the mood.

My mother snaps at everything. Even mellow Jonathan oozes a few too many F-bombs. Maybe his brain completed the equation that he’s gonna lose swim team with this move. I sound the retreat. The role of my bedroom is to be played by a closet. Tiny doesn’t even begin to describe this space. At least I still have my book.

As we enter each room, we have to duck under the doorframes. The air is musty and damp. Already, claustrophobia sets in. The acrid smell of kerosene seeps into every piece of clothing, every pore, and reminds me of sulfur. I can’t stop imagining fire licking these walls. I start to cough and continue late into the night, losing count of how many times I have to use my inhaler.

There is no furniture, and everything is dingy brown. It’s like a time warp. Inside the front door, there’s a small kitchen, the living room, and a narrow hallway that leads to two miniature bedrooms with a tiny bathroom sandwiched between. The place ends with a master bedroom at the back. There’s an exit door leading out of our mother’s room, but it feels like there aren’t enough escapes.

The walls begin to press in.

After an hour or so, the rain subsides, and we make a break for our bedding and a few essentials. Luckily, there’s the weekend to try and get our furniture. We’re paid through the end of the month.

Our mother wants to avoid another confrontation with Samuel at all costs, it seems, although we haven’t heard many details about the fight that left our townhouse pulled apart and gouged in places. All signs point to her wanting to end it with him and his not being ready. I doubt his response will get him anywhere. We’ve seen crazy before.

I’ve already claimed the first bedroom so Jonathan takes the one closest to our mother. We set up pallets on the floor, and I read until we have to try to sleep. If all goes well, the coast will be clear tomorrow, and we can make a run for our furniture. I go to our mother to dig up more information.

“Think we can go back?” I ask in her doorway.

“I have the neighbor watching for signs when he comes and goes. He’ll probably go in and look around. Once he realizes we’re not there, maybe he’ll look elsewhere, which is why I left papers by the phone for him to find so he’d think we’re moving back to the shore, near your dad’s family. Once he’s on that trail, we can go back,” she concludes, triumphant.

“Foolproof,” I say. “Unless he sees we left our furniture and decides to wait us out.” My mother doesn’t like the sound of that. In response, her bedroom door slams in my face.

“I guess we slum it for a while,” I say, poking my head into Jonathan’s tiny bedroom.

Umph,” he replies. No one’s talking. Forming a pallet with my bedding, I read until my eyes are so heavy I begin to drift. I startle a few more times before shoving a bookmark in and climbing under the covers.

Here in my miniature bedroom, the shadows are new and ominous, bent at funny angles with jagged teeth. I try to think of something to avoid the inevitable dream and stone stairs, but I know damn well it’s pointless. I tuck in as tight as I can, but covers offer little protection. I’m bombarded by strange new noises: the dog on its chain leash; an animal digging through the trash; someone yelling, “Shut up, will ya?” I drift off before I know it.

In the morning, I jolt awake, anticipating the visit from my demon again. Only it doesn’t come, which irks me. These nightmares have too much influence. I can’t go on night after night and wonder if I’ll wake up screaming again, running from some fiery terror.

Then I realize where I am; I smell kerosene instead of sulfur. My head pounds. I hope our mother brought aspirin. I don’t hear anyone up, but that could just be the lack of furniture.

Jonathan’s up, eating a donut from the open box on the kitchen counter. Our mother leans against the counter and sips a gas-station cup of coffee. I nab a donut and grab some carpet in the living room near Jonathan. He gives me a nod before finishing his.

“They’re not bad,” he says.

“They look good,” I say.

“We’re gonna head out soon, so grab what you’re gonna eat now, but keep it short. I’m still working on coffee,” our mother says. She grips the cup with both hands and sips with long intakes.

“Any juice?” I ask, turning to our mother in the kitchen. My tongue works to find every bit of donut still stuck in my teeth. She shakes her head. I can already tell this is going to be a bottomless food day. No matter how much I eat, I’ll still be hungry.

I finish a second donut and grab my backpack, making sure my book is inside. We could get stuck, if Samuel surprises us. This bites. It’s like we’re walking straight into a burning building, trying not to notice the smoke. Everywhere there’s smoke, there’s fire. No way we won’t get singed.

“Can’t we go to the Salvation Army, the thrift store, or a church?” I ask, claiming shotgun in the front seat before I realize the words have already left my mouth.

“Joel, he’s not going to be there. He’ll have come and gone. Sam thinks we’re headed back to the shore. He’ll check there first.”

That’s where Amber lives, by the shore. Except for short visits here and there, I haven’t really seen my dad’s side of the family since I was young. They live there, too. It’s been nearly a decade. The urge to return begins to rise.

As we head back to civilization, I read, but I can’t ignore stomach growls that shove me back to reality. It’s going to be a long day. I dig around my backpack and score peanut butter crackers. Jonathan perks up.

“Help a starving brother,” he pleads.

“Fine,” I say, tossing a few back for him to scrabble after. I haven’t forgotten about our fight from earlier, and I’m not entirely over it yet.

It’s nowhere near enough. I’m looking for more when my mother breaks the silence. “I’ll stop for food once we check on the house.” We cheer loud and long. As bad as a confrontation might be, I’m almost willing to hope Samuel is there, so we have to go some restaurant that doesn’t have a drive-thru to avoid him. I try to read. It’s futile. I go over the same sentence three times before noticing I still don’t know what I’ve just read. My mind stalls out. I need a jumpstart.

We enter through the east side of town. My mother makes the turn onto Locust and heads into our development. Our former development, I remind myself. Off to the right, the wooden playground sits, and bulldozers and road equipment prepare to encircle the structure in black tar sidewalks.

They’ve already started on the side closest to the road. I’m mildly intrigued, but my thoughts wander back to Samuel. I don’t see his car, but that doesn’t mean much. He could have parked and walked over. Another thing, Samuel’s a big guy. I doubt Jonathan and I could take him, if it came to that. Plus, we’ve seen what he can do to stair railings and bathroom doors.

My mother turns into the parking lot and finds a close spot. One of the neighbors a few doors down, that black guy mom’s dated, has a truck; he said he could help us move the big pieces. He seems nice, but I don’t remember his name. He’s been over a few times. I always ducked out. I didn’t want to know more than that. I took my book and ran.

The coast looks clear, so we head in like we’re not trying to sneak away. Maybe we should have done this at night. The house is too quiet. I wonder if the kitten is still okay. Jonathan’s edgy. He makes a beeline for our bedroom.

My mother heads into the kitchen, so I start with the dining room table. How many times have I taken this thing apart? Loosen a few screws and it’s in pieces; the top comes apart and can just clear the back hatch. Jonathan will have to sit on the table, or he’ll ride shotgun while I follow in the truck with whatshisname. We have the car loaded in no time. Jonathan tells me the kitten is okay. A bit shaky but alive. He decides to come clean. I pull up a front-row seat.

“Mom, I need to show you something,” Jonathan says, heading up the stairs. “I’ll be right down.”

“What’s this all about?” she asks me. I shrug. Jonathan comes back down with the box. I can tell it needs to be cleaned out.

“Mom, a friend from school asked me to watch this kitten for her. I didn’t know we’d move this soon, and I was afraid you wouldn’t let me keep it. I’m sorry. Can we keep it until I can work out other arrangements?”

“You should have asked permission.”

“I know that now. I’m sorry, Mom. I saw other pets at the trailer park. Can we please keep it?” I can’t believe she doesn’t see right through his pathetic performance. If it were me, I’d be nailed to the wall.

“If it’s just a short while. You’re in charge of upkeep.”

“You’ve got it.” Jonathan beams.

“It’s a small trailer. It wouldn’t take much to smell up the place. You’d better keep that box clean.”

“I will, I promise.”

“We can get food and litter, but don’t get any ideas. We’re not keeping it.”

“I can live with that,” Jonathan says. We head over to check on the neighbor with the truck.

His name is Mr. Davis. He’s also the one who rides the motorcycle.

“Any chance you could help us with our move?” my mother asks, leaning in his doorway. My stomach twists when I realize she’s flirting. Ew. I do not need to see my mother this way. It’s like walking in on her having sex, which has happened. I taste stomach acid.

“Sure, I’ve got time.” He moves in close, placing a hand on the side of her arm.

“We don’t have a lot, mostly mattresses, a couch, and a dresser. I’ll owe you one, big time,” she says, twisting so her hip rubs against him. He smiles. I’d better get out of here.

We don’t have much to move. What we do have will make the trailer seem more cramped than it already is. At least there will be furniture. I’m not complaining, not about that.

“Let me get my rigging, and I’ll be over. You can have the boys bring down their mattresses.”

“Thank you,” my mother says, tossing a broad smile over her shoulder. “I couldn’t do this without your help. It’s just, with the police involved…” She trails off abruptly, like she’s going to cry. Reminds me of the way she’s talked to everyone about my asthma.

Oh, boy. Here we go. Instead, she takes a deep breath in and exhales.

“Okay, boys. You heard Mr. Davis. Let’s get those mattresses downstairs.” I get the hell outta there, Jonathan trailing, before they start doing it right in front of us.

Just as we’re coming up the sidewalk, Samuel opens the door of our townhome and walks out to meet us. He looks pissed off, probably at my mother. Maybe he needs a Terror. On second thought, maybe not.

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