My Short Stories and Articles…
A Short Story of Childhood Change in the Pacific Northwest
By Richard Sutton
This short story was originally published in EFiction Magazine in the September 2011 Issue
©2013, all rights reserved by the author
Paul sat at the end of his bed, limp hair hanging into his eyes. The bedding was already stripped off and packed away, so the lumpy mattress tick gave the almost-empty room a somber tone. He held the plastic airplane carefully in his right hand and tried to maneuver the cardboard box around beneath it, on the floor, to hold it complete, wings and all. It wasn’t going so well and it was making him angry.
He’d worked for hours finishing the bomber several months before and knew every rivet and mold seam. He’d been especially careful not to get any glue on any of the outside surfaces that showed. He was proud of how it turned out. The clear bubble windshield glinted in the room’s meager light. He turned it over carefully and spun one of its landing gear tires around a few times and then with eyes beginning to tear again, he held it with both hands at the wing tips and suddenly crushed it into a mass of gray plastic shard. The pieces fell slowly from his hands into the box below.
He heard his mother’s voice down in the kitchen, singing the corny road song he so thoroughly hated. There were clicks and clangs as she packed up the last of the cookware. He glanced around his room. The four walls were now bare. Only small tags where the tape holding the posters had lifted the paint, left evidence of Paul’s short occupation. The ones he thought were worth saving were rolled up and standing in the corner near the door. The rest had been crumpled up and tossed. There would be a lot of garbage at the curb this time.
Paul brushed his hair from his eyes and recalled the piles of curbside garbage holding their ground each time as the car pulled away. He’d climb up into the dusty hammock of the Packard’s rear window boot and watched each garbage pile grow smaller and smaller until it disappeared entirely in the distance or at a turn.
“Paul,” his mother called from the stairwell, “How’s your packing going?”
“Fine, Mom” he called back.
“Good, because Daddy will be home from work in an hour” He heard her footsteps trail off, echoing against the bare wood floors.
The last of his small private things – the treasures he kept in little boxes and jars – were rounded up from the top of the closet shelf and the big dresser. He pushed the pile of broken plastic in the box aside and carefully fitted each of the items into the corners. Then, from the floor nearby, scooped up armloads of underwear and T-shirts and dumped them into the open box. That was the last of it.
Paul carried the box over to the door where it joined the four others already waiting. His name was marked in large, squarish letters on each one. One last look around and he walked out of what had been his bedroom and into the hall to the star landing and stood peering down the stairs to the floor below.
He wiped his red eyes with his fists. I’m no cry-baby, he repeated to himself a few times before slowly descending the stairs. With a small show of defiance, he put both hands into his jeans pockets, almost daring his feet to slip off the bare stair treads.
“Then they’d be sorry” he muttered under his breath. Step by step, he left his last life upstairs. As the first floor landing got closer, he felt his eyes tearing again.
“No you don’t, cry-baby,” he muttered aloud as his feet stood firm on the landing.
From the kitchen, he heard his mother singing “…we’re on our way to somewhere, the three of us and YOU!” The brainless song was a well-worn family tradition. It was from one of the awful Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road Show movies. Whenever one was on TV, Paul was required to sit through it. Ever since he could remember, this stupid song had been sung so many times it had a life of its own inside his head. He started to mouth the rest of the song, without thinking and began walking towards the kitchen door.
“Cuanta la gusta, la gusta, la gusta…” It rang in his ears as his mother’s voice carried throughout the house.
“Paul,” asked his mother, hearing him shuffle into the room, “Are you finished?”
He nodded. She was kneeling upon the torn linoleum, sealing the top of the box she had just finished packing with masking tape. There were six other brown cardboard boxes stacked up against the back door, each with a white cross pattern of tape. He recognized the pattern. It was the same one every time. Some of the boxes had several layers of tape crosses from previous uses.
She got to her feet and carried the box to join the others, then turned, looked into his eyes for a time and asked him “How’re you feeling honey?”
He turned away from her so she could not see his red eyes and answered “Fine, Mom.”
She asked again, “You sure, honey?”
“Sure, Mom.” He answered, flatly. His eyes followed the curling linoleum along the wall until it met up with the boxes and added, “We’re Gypsies, aren’t we Mom?” He knew she wanted to hear him say it.
“That’s right, son” she replied brightly, “Gypsies. Made for the road and adventure!”
She walked over and embraced him in a big hug from behind. Same words, same hug. It was his job now to keep quiet until Dad’s homecoming meant he’d probably have to repeat the performance again. Meanwhile, he had to find something to do to keep busy, or his head would explode.
“Mom, should I put the boxes on the front porch?” He asked her, looking up. She was gazing out the window, a blank expression on her face.
“Sure, Paul. Daddy will appreciate the help,” she replied without looking away from the window. She then released him and began gathering up dishtowels and the remaining few items on the counters. A single empty box gaped from the table.
Paul turned and picked up the first kitchen box. It was heavy and he had to struggle a bit to get both hands on its corners securely, but he held it to his chest and marched out of the kitchen and out to the front door. With a little balancing effort, he managed to push the latch and the front door swung in. He sidestepped around it and carried the box across the warped porch floorboards to join the other stacked boxes.
The reek of the paper mill made him shudder. “P.U.” he said aloud and a small spark of happiness leapt up from his chest. By tomorrow morning he realized, he’d never have to smell that giant fart again.
Over the course of the seven months they’d lived in the house above the mill, his mother never seemed to notice the smell. The first few times he’d made a comment, she’d change the subject. He got the idea he shouldn’t say anything, so he didn’t, but it was strong enough to peel paint. His few chums at school used to hold their noses until the bus came every morning, but even leaving the neighborhood was little relief. The sulfurous stink penetrated even the school walls when the wind turned.
He knew he should be glad to leave. It was a shitty, stinky town and a shitty, stinky house.
Above him, he heard a sharp squawk and saw the old gray and blue jay sitting just above the height of the porch roof on a branch of the big Spruce. A splash of bright blue against the blue-gray of the tree and murky gray of the overcast sky. The bird’s bright feathers and raucous voice had cheered him every morning since they’d moved in.
“Hey, bird,” he called out “Will you miss me?”
He got no answer, but he really didn’t expect one anyway. He went back into the house and carried each remaining box out, stacking it into place on the porch until the wide porch was so filled up, no windows could be seen. The door alone provided any possibility of passage. Paul thought it looked like some kind of fortification, a military battery, or … a prison. Yes, that was it: it looked like a prison wall.
He walked to the road’s edge and without thinking, opened the mailbox door, letting it fall and hang there. Stupid box looks like a big, ugly mouth, he thought. He wished he had a baseball bat in his hands and he’d flatten the stupid gaping thing. He returned to the porch and sat down at the end facing the garage. His legs dangled over the edge and he kicked them back and forth as he remembered the school year in this stinky, shitty town.
Bobby Mason had been the only one who’d stuck by him when that nasty girl threw the trash can lid at him and sliced his knee open on its sheet metal edge. He hadn’t cried. They both looked into the deep wound where the crème colored bone glinted out from the bloody ravine. It was really gory. Bobby helped him wrap his T-Shirt around it and he’d hobbled back to Bobby’s house. Bobby’s Mom called his Mom and she came to get him. It meant stitches.
Except for that day and the proud day he’d caught the fly ball after school, the rest was a muddy blur. He’d played “The New Kid,” same as ever and after the initial curiosity waned, Paul was pretty much left alone by his classmates. His teachers gave him good marks, but always added “…works below his potential, not a team player…” or some such bullshit. Bullshit. He’d be a great team player if he ever felt like he was on a team of more than one.
He’d said goodbye to Bobby and the few that he hung out with the day before. He told them he’d write. He knew he wouldn’t. None of his teachers made any fuss about it and that was just fine. He already couldn’t remember their faces clearly.
Paul stopped kicking his legs and looked up the street for any sign of his father and the U-Haul truck they’d be driving south in. He already missed the Packard. Daddy had sold it to a sour, old guy at the end of the block. In a few days, after the truck was unloaded, Daddy would buy a new car. Probably smaller than the big Packard. Paul saw their neighbor, Mr. Engle coming home in his wood-paneled Ford station wagon. Now, that was a cool car. You could even sleep in the back, like in a tent. Mr. Engle tooted his horn at Paul as he made the turn into their driveway. It sounded like goodbye.
No sign of his father, so Paul stood up and walked back into the front door as his mother went into her version of another “road song.” He flung himself down on the ratty old couch. As the minutes passed, he felt his eyes tearing again and made his hands curl into tight fists until it hurt enough to stop the tears. At least it wasn’t raining. It rained almost every day they had lived there. Between the stink, the rain and the grim looks on most everybody’s faces, it wasn’t much fun. He was remembering the cockamamie story his father had laid out the year before, explaining the upcoming move. It was so complicated and silly, that even Mom lost track and asked him to tell it all again. Finally, Daddy threw up his hands and said “We’ve gotta go. There’s a better place ahead… just over the hill.” Paul had liked the sound of that: just over the hill. He’d thought at the time, that it meant they’d only be moving a short distance away, but by the time they were unloading under the big Spruce, they’d crossed over three state lines and put more than 1000 miles under the wheels of the Packard. When the car first stopped in front of the two-story clapboard house with the peeling paint, Paul wondered what his father could have meant. A Better Place, it wasn’t.
Paul was alerted by the squeaking of heavy springs and the squeal of brakes as his father and the truck backed into the driveway over the pothole near the street. He got up from the couch and peered out from the now open door to watch the truck slowly backing closer. Right up to the porch. Paul’s father got out of the driver’s side of the cab and a big, ruddy faced fellow with a flattened cap climbed out of the passenger side. Paul grinned at his father, who threw up the truck’s big roll gate with a crash and brought out four heavy, wide boards, which were used to bridge the gap between the truck’s bed and the front porch. The other man helped secure them hammering a nail in each one into the porch floor.
“Paul, meet Mr. Jenkins, from work – he’s going to help us load the truck up!”
Mr. Jenkins slowly stuck out his big hand and Paul shook it. Mr. Jenkins smiled and then turned back to Paul’s father, asking, “What’s first. Tom?”
By this time, Paul’s mother had come to the door and nodded to Mr. Jenkins with a smile. The two men began deliberating the sequence of loading the furniture. Paul heard the jay squawk out a couple of times and Paul looked up just in time to see the bird fly off behind the house and out of sight.
After a couple of hours, the sun was starting to slide down behind the heavy curtain of smoke the mill sent up daily. Paul’s father strode into the now empty kitchen and called the Pizza joint down the road to deliver a big pie. “Be sure to put extra peppers and cheese on it,” he added as he closed out the order and got the price.
The last furniture remaining was the well-used, folding card table and four metal folding chairs. Mom was sweeping out the corners and Daddy carried down the last upstairs box as Paul set up the table. Paul arranged the chairs around the table and Mom brought over an old Chianti bottle with the Raffia wrap around the bottom. She’d been burning candles in it until the colored wax drips formed a rainbow over the bottle’s sides and into two hard little pools where it had run down to some table, somewhere. She placed this in the middle of the card table and lit the candle stuck in its neck, next to a quart of Olympia beer. Three empty glasses came next and finally, as the Pizza guy climbed up around the truck and onto the porch, another glass with milk in it was set in place for Paul.
Soon, the steaming Pizza was opened up on the table. Mr. Jenkins took the chair across from Mom and soon everyone was filling their stomachs. Daddy and his co-worker spoke of the job and a few odd-balls working in the plant.
“I sure won’t miss him.” Daddy blurted out with a laugh after Mr. Jenkins mentioned the foreman. Paul had heard some stories. Not all of them around the table and most of them with words he wasn’t supposed to even know.
Paul drained his milk and put his glass down empty on the table. He didn’t expect his father to notice, but he did. Daddy asked Mom, “Honey, bring us another empty glass for Paul. He looks thirsty.”
She raised one eyebrow and gave Daddy a look, but he said, “Paul’s old enough for a little beer. It won’t hurt him.” He winked broadly at Paul who smiled back.
The last slice of Pizza went to Mr. Jenkins, as Paul gulped the last of his half-glass of suds. With a satisfied expression on his face, he let out a big, uncontrolled burp, which made Mom give Daddy a stern look, but made Mr. Jenkins laugh out loud. Dad and even Mom joined in and Paul blushed bright red. After a little more grown-up talk, Mr. Jenkins excused himself, giving his friend a powerful goodbye handshake.
“Best of luck to you, Tom” he said, “and your family. You’ll be in a better place than the rest of us.” Paul thought, just over the hill. Mr. Jenkins walked over to Paul and gave him a pat on the head, then left. So here it was: there’d be a new house in a new town and a new… old car, in a couple of days.
An hour later, after Daddy had pulled the truck roll-gate down and thrown the big lever lock. They piled into the cab. Mom had opened up a small space under the couch, between two chairs where Paul could sit on the floor of the truck, on a couch cushion, behind the bench seat in the cab. Dad brought up his tool box and pushed it into another space behind the cab seat and climbed in.
With a grin Paul’s father proclaimed “Gypsies… we’re OFF!” The truck grudgingly rattled into gear and lurched past the pile of garbage and away from the stinky house in the shitty town.
After the sun was down and the highway lights were glaring off the windshield, Paul’s father remembered something and called back, “Paul, are you still awake”
“Sure, Dad,” came the reply from behind the seat.
“Did you get your model bomber to fit in one of the boxes?” Daddy asked.
“Sure Dad,” said Paul, “It fit right in.”