Jul/Aug 2019  •   Fiction

Gateway to the Rest

by Justin David Stone

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Troy called out of the blue Wednesday morning and asked me to drive up to St. Louis with him. Wednesdays are my day off at the restaurant so at first I was like I don't know Troy I got all this stuff I'm supposed to do plus I'm flat broke but he kept begging please Maizy please I got you. It'll be like one of our old road trips. Me and Troy used to be the king and queen of road trips. And I hadn't even seen him since we all got together at Aunt Connie's last Christmas so I said sure let's do it. I asked what was going on in St. Louis but he said nothing he had to pick up a paycheck from this dude. I told him I didn't know he was working in St. Louis but he said he just sold this thing on the internet and had to drop it off. I asked what it was but he said just some stupid thing. Some old drawers or something. I thought he sounded pretty good. Like old Troy the horse trader. When we finished the job he had a big plan to show me the Arc and everything cause we'd be right there.

When he picked me up I seen the drawers crammed in the back of his Honda but they was covered by a blanket. The front seats was pushed up so I had to bend my legs to get in. He said sorry there's not much room but I said that's okay I'm little. I was really glad to see him. He looked skinnier than ever but his eyes was bright and he was all smiling. Wearing his floppy cowboy hat with the big turkey feather. He said remember this hat? and I started cracking up. Whenever he wore it crazy things happened. He said remember that time the truck rolled down the hill? Of course I said. When he smashed up his leg so bad. Troy said if that didn't happen he probably would have joined the army.

We took the back way up 42 to see the country. I hadn't got out of the lake all summer. Tourists was still driving into town but we headed the other way. Troy said see you suckers later. The trees and fields glowed green and thick and I was real glad to be cruising. I didn't think how frigging hot it would be though. Right away I got soaked. Troy said sorry my air don't work but I said mine don't work either. His stereo broke too so we wasn't even jamming. But that was good because we got to talk about everything. Troy was smoking all my menthols since I'm trying to quit. He told me all these dreams he was having. One where his dad was still alive. Terry come out to see him in the garage and asked him what he was doing. He said Terry didn't look old or sick yet or nothing. He wished he could remember the rest. He didn't want to wake up but Terry said son don't worry about it. Then a dream we was all still kids in Bear Creek and me and him got married. I told him that's stupid, we was like cousins, but he said we didn't really get married, we was just little kids. Then another dream he had his old dog Rusty but his back got broke or something so Troy had to carry him around. Rusty felt real cold and Troy kept trying to warm him up without hurting his back more.

I told him how I dreamed my boss Phil Gunnelson kept trying to grab and kiss me at work. His wife Trudy was watching us real close and I wanted to disappear. I told Phil get his greasy hands off me or else. The restaurant was packed and all the food kept coming out wrong and the tourists was pissed. Troy said he knows Phil and that guy's a real asshole. I was telling Troy how sick I was working at the restaurant. All I seem to do anymore is work doubles every day and still I don't have enough money. Troy said I should just quit but I said and do what? There ain't nothing. Troy said he knows. If it wasn't for this paycheck in St. Louis he didn't know what he would do.

We laughed about all the shows we used to go see. Troy said remember that time we drove to St. Louis's first Lollapalooza in one and a half hours? When he had the Mazda? It actually took two hours but he said I was wrong. Cause the Wizard of Maz found the worm hole. We talked like that the whole way up. Three hours disappeared. I wish I had a tape recorder of everything we said.

But soon as we hit the freeway in St. Louis all the traffic jammed. Troy said his leg ached real bad and he kept rubbing it. He said it gets stove up more and more these days. If he didn't take his pills he couldn't do nothing. I asked if he ever got his disability but he said no, nobody gives a care. Sitting there in the glare we got hotter and hotter. Troy said it was supposed to be a hundred that day, but it already felt worse. Troy started worrying his car would overheat. He forgot to bring extra water. Then I kept looking at the gauge getting worried too. I told him he should blow the hot air and he said what? I said the hot air makes it cooler but he said he never heard of that and he drives this car all the time.

When the cars started moving, we seen there was a real bad wreck. A Walmart big rig was flipped over, laying right on top of a mangled motorcycle. Troy said, look you can see the blood, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to think about that guy. Everybody was going real slow to get a good look. Troy slammed his brakes cause he almost hit a dude in front of us. Watch out for the cops, I said. They was waving everybody through. Troy said he seen this every time he went to St. Louis.

We finally pulled off the freeway and started driving through an old neighborhood with a bunch of leaning trees and saggy houses. Troy said he was hungry but there wasn't any good place to eat here. I remembered I hadn't eaten anything all day and was hungry too. He said we could get something later at this other place he wanted to take me.

Troy parked by a old brick house on a hill and there was a little boy on the porch. I thought this was the place we was supposed to drop off the drawers but then Troy said that's my son. I thought he was joking but he got out of the car and started toward the house. All I could do was follow. He limped on his leg real bad from being in the car. He had to lift it up each stair to the porch. I went to help him but he said he was fine. The little boy watched all quiet. Red hair just like Troy's. Troy said hi is your mom home? He pulled something out of his pocket. Some little superhero red guy. Troy said here I got this for you. It's a collector's item. The boy took it and looked at it. Then the front door opened and this skinny chick with long black hair came out. I knew her from somewhere but couldn't remember. She looked mad as crap but said come in.

The house looked a lot nicer inside, all clean and homey. Cool antiques for the furniture and a bunch of framed pictures on the walls, water paintings of plants and nature scenes, some even looked like the lake. Troy told me the girl made all them herself but she shook her head and said she only made a few of them. She was getting pissed. I had no idea what was going on. I didn't even know Troy had a son. I didn't know how or when he could have made a kid in St. Louis. I thought we was supposed to drop off this thing. I felt like I shouldn't be there. The chick said one second and disappeared in back.

Troy sat on the couch by the little boy but he wouldn't say nothing. I asked him his name and he said Brandon. I asked how old he was and he said five. He wouldn't look at me or Troy. Just staring at the toy, twisting its little arms and legs. Troy told him we come to St. Louis to see a show.

I got super embarrassed. I didn't know why Troy was lying to him about us coming to see a show. I felt terrible for everybody so I went outside to the porch.

The chick was out there. Which was weird because I thought she was in the back. She was smoking a cigarette and looking at her phone. She asked my name and I said Maizy. Her name was Tonya. I asked how she knew Troy and she said she used to come down to the lake some summers with her folks. Then I remembered seeing her at parties. She thought she remembered me too. I said I used to be goth, and she said oh yeah. She said Troy made her fall in love with him but she didn't know how she could be so stupid. She asked if I was his girlfriend and I said no way, we just all grew up together. She sounded smart, and talking to her made me embarrassed. I told her I was sorry, I didn't know none of this but she said that's ok.

Troy come out to the porch. He pulled some cash out of his pocket and gave it to her. He said I'm sorry that's all I got right now. She told him don't start worrying about it now. He said he wanted to help. He was getting a new job and she said oh yeah doing what? but the cat got his tongue. She shook her head at him. Troy said we should probably get going.

When we got down to the car Troy looked at his cowboy hat on the dash. He thought about it and then grabbed the hat. He said sorry, just one second. He dragged his bad leg all the way back up to the house. I watched him knock on the door. He waited and knocked again but she wouldn't answer. He said something to the door. How he wanted Brandon to have the hat.

Right then two huge dudes parked their jeep right behind us. I got a sinky feeling in my guts. Troy saw them and started hobbling back to the car. In the mirror I watched them jump out. They was all buff with shaved heads and tattoos and looked pissed. They stopped Troy on the sidewalk and asked what was he doing here. Troy said we just come up for a show and wanted to say hi. The biggest dude put his face right in Troy's saying something I couldn't hear. Troy's face started crumpling up. I thought oh crap. He was squeezing his fists and getting red like he used to do in his fights so I got out real quick and yelled hey what's going on? The dudes turned and saw me. I could tell me being there kind of changed everything. I told them we was leaving. I said come on Troy. Finally he stepped to the car, staring over his shoulder at them. They laughed and said don't come back Troy-boy and watched us drive away.

We went back to the freeway and started driving downtown. Troy wouldn't talk. Finally I asked when he had a kid? He said what you didn't know? I asked why he told him we was going to a show and he said he didn't know what else to say. Then he said he was just joking, the kid wasn't his. He loved Tonya and wanted to help them. I couldn't figure out why Troy was lying so much but I didn't say. I asked why he brung me along on all this. He said I was his best friend. Nobody else would help him. He loved me and had been needing to see me. He said we could get a room and stay here in St. Louis, just the two of us, even for a long time if we wanted to. I told him shut up, he knew I didn't like him like that. He's family. He said thanks, you're the last friend I got. I told him that's not true. Everybody loves you. He said nobody understood him. He'd been thinking how if he died nobody would even know he was gone. I said nobody would know what to do without you, Troy. Your mom.

Traffic jammed again on the downtown freeway and I started flashing hot. Troy said it was probably a hundred ten in the shade but there wasn't no shade. My head pounded like the end of shifts. Sun blasted off the cars, all the mirrors and metal. My stomach twisted. Troy said you all right? and I said no the light was like shards in my eyeballs. He said smoke a cigarette and offered me my own menthols. I said no I'm trying to quit. He said just open the door and lean out if you need to puke and I said thanks a lot. He said we're almost there.

We left the freeway and took a bunch of side streets toward the river. An old factory area with empty buildings and warehouses. Water puddles everywhere even though it didn't rain. The car kept splashing through them. Every time we did it made me sad. The splashing sounds and spraying water and warm wet smell reminded me of being a kid. Playing in Bear Creek when it was burning up outside in the summer, Connie and you guys and all us kids. I always wish we could go back there. Even after mom died you never let me feel alone.

Troy kept driving in circles making turns and turns and turns and I asked if he knew where we was going. He said yeah. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and was trying to read it while driving, leaning to look at street signs. He said I can't read this. Who wrote it? I said. He said he did but it was a couple days ago. I said what are we looking for? and he said Smithton Street. I said Smithton? I seen that way back there. He said you did? Why didn't you say anything? I said cause you didn't tell me nothing. Just turn around and go back.

Troy whipped a big U-ey in the road and started speeding. I told him slow down but right then we hit a big water hole and the car bucked and a big wave came over the windshield, right in our windows, soaking us. Troy started cussing up a storm and I said slow down! He turned on the windshield wipers but one of the wipers broke and flew off. Troy started punching the steering wheel. I yelled hey stop it! He parked the car and jumped out, almost falling on his leg. He started walking back to grab his wiper but I said let me go.

Brown and rusty buildings with boards and holes in the windows surrounded us and we was the only people there. Just a bunch of empty cars, some that didn't have tires or nothing. My head throbbed worse than ever. I felt like me and Troy was in a dream. I wanted to put my hands and face in a water puddle but they had oily rainbows. I found the wiper and brought it back. Where is everybody? I said. Troy said I don't know, come on. He climbed in the car and stuffed the wiper under his seat, saying I'll fix this stupid thing later.

Finally we found Smithton Street and the place. A tall old red brick apartment building that seemed to go straight to sky. Walls all sooty and grimy. We parked in front and got out. When I looked up I could see some rooms had windows broke out. A bunch had plastic fans. A person I couldn't see looked down and said something but I didn't know what. I said to Troy is that them? He said I don't know, I don't think so. A sign on the door said Park Avenue, which didn't make sense cause we was on Smithton. Two old looking dudes came out. They had on suits and stuff but the suits was wrinkled and dirty. They smelled like a basement. They looked me up and down real good and asked if I wanted to go to the bar with them. Troy said I was with him. They laughed and told me they'd be down the street if I wanted. I told them I don't date child molesters and that shut them up.

Troy went to the call box and pressed upstairs for who we was meeting. The dude answered hello? and Troy said yeah, it's Troy McDevitt, I got your thing down here? The guy said you're late. Hold on a second.

A stray dog was hanging around and Troy kept trying to pet it but it wouldn't let him. He would run away a little bit and then turn around and look at us again. His hair was tangled in clumps. Troy kept saying come here boy, come here boy, but he wouldn't come. Troy said even dogs don't like me anymore. That dog's probably got mange I said but Troy said he'd still take him home. He reminds me of my old dog Rusty. I said Rusty was a good boy.

Finally this dude come down. Right away I didn't like him. Big bald guy. His arms had muscles but one was all melted. His head and arm both was red and slick and plastic-y like a bad old burn. One eye poked out of a white spot. He kept staring at me. Straight at my tits. He said to Troy well where is the thing? We went over to the car and looked at it. The dude told Troy he had to carry it inside but Troy said sorry he can't, his leg's all messed up. The dude said his back was messed up even more so we had to haul the thing or there wouldn't be any deal. Troy sucked in his breath and asked if I could help.

When we took off the blanket and pulled the thing out of the car I could see it was real old dresser drawers. Beautiful dark wood carved with vines and leaves and flowers and stuff. It looked real familiar to me but I didn't know right away from where. I said this is antique, Troy, why are you selling this? He told me don't worry about it. I asked him where he got it and he said he found it on the side of the road. The burned guy said come on I don't have all day.

The dude lived way on the top floor. He said the elevator don't work right now so the stairs is the only way. I thought it was impossible to carry the dresser all the way because it was so heavy and Troy's leg was so jacked but Troy said let's do this. The building was way hotter inside than out and we got drenched with sweat before we even pushed the dresser up one floor. And there was I don't know how many floors to go. The stairs was real steep and narrow. Reeked like mildew and wet dog. I kept feeling like we would drop the dresser and fall all the way back down. Troy's eyes got real small and he wasn't saying nothing. His leg was sticking out and he kept bracing himself against the wall to lift the dresser one step at a time. I pulled from the top but my hands was all sweaty and sore and I could barely hold the thing. I was so scared to drop it on Troy. I've never been so tired and worried. The dude stayed just ahead of us on the steps watching the whole time. Wouldn't lift a finger. He said it was hotter in St. Louis today than anywhere else in the world. A hundred fifteen he said. Troy was fuming and I didn't want there to be a fight. I told Troy hold on we was almost there. He kept having to stop and rest and just stared into the dresser, water running off his face. I noticed my t-shirt was all wet and you could see my bra and skin and the guy was staring at me so I kept trying to hide. I could feel him breathing on me.

We did 19 floors like that. I'll never know how we did.

When we got all the way up the guy said just leave it by his door. Troy asked if he could go inside and use his bathroom but the guy said it don't work. He told us it would have been a lot smarter to take the drawers out of the dresser and carry them one by one. I couldn't believe he didn't tell us that before but we didn't think of it either. He was checking the dresser out and said it didn't look the same as on the internet but Troy said it's the same goddamn thing.

The guy opened one drawer and I saw piles of these old letters and postcards. I could tell they was from a long time ago. I said whose letters is these? but Troy said he didn't know. Troy told the guy we had a deal. The guy said I'll give you fifty for it but not a hundred. Troy was beside himself. I picked up one of the envelopes and the address said Patricia McDevitt and I couldn't believe it. I said hey these is your mom's letters. Troy told the guy how about eighty? and the guy said forty. He told Troy he had somebody coming over soon so Troy better take it or leave it. Troy's face burned bright red and he took the forty bucks.

Again I said Troy these is all your mom's old letters and your grandma's and grandpa's and the whole family's. I knew all the names: McDevitt, Robinett, Jeffries. Lifetimes of letters. Everything was wrong and I couldn't think straight or know what to do. I said we have to take all these letters out before we sell the dresser but the guy said nope, too late, he already bought the thing. I told him no. The letters was different. But he said it was all together. Troy seemed to be shrinking. He said let's go, Maizy, and started lifting his leg down each step. He was breathing real raggedy and his hands was shaking. I felt the worst I ever felt. I knew we shouldn't leave all these letters. I begged the guy please, please, please, but he said no. He said he had to go. Right there my heart liked to stop. I had a terrible sinky feeling in my guts and couldn't do nothing. The guy dragged the dresser in his room and locked the door. Troy yelled come on, Maizy.

All the way back downstairs I didn't know what to do. Everything felt doomed. I wanted to just sit down and cry and never move. I knew it was hundreds of letters across I don't know how many years. Each one written by somebody to somebody else. Telling them how everything was and what they what was doing and how much they missed them. Even just to look at each person's own handwriting. Their souls. I remembered some of the stories you guys used to tell us and I knew I would never be able to forget this the rest of my life. Troy wasn't saying nothing. He was having a terrible time moving now but he kept scraping down each step, leaning against the wall and squeezing his fists and cursing to himself.

When we reached the bottom and was outside again I asked Troy why he was doing all this? He said it was a bunch of stuff you didn't want anymore. He said it was just sitting in the garage anyway. I said I bet you didn't even know and Troy said get in the car. He said nobody even writes letters anymore.

All of it hit me then. I told Troy no. I grabbed my purse and told him to wait his sorry ass down here. He said Maizy come on, please, let's just go, but I told him screw off. I ran back in the boiling building and all the way up those steps as fast as I could to the guy's room and when I got there I was heaving and I started banging on his door. He wouldn't open but he said who is it? I said it was me again and he said what do you want? I told him I wanted to buy the letters from him. He cracked the door open and stared at me. In the middle of his red burned face his eye had a white ring around it that was throbbing. He opened the door a little wider. I looked in my purse and only had like twenty bucks. I said please these are my aunt's and family's letters and I can't sell them. He said well you got any more money than that? I had some change in my purse too and he looked at it all. He said it wasn't even close. He said what about those rings?

I had on two rings. One was the fake gold ring from asshole Mike before we broke up. The other was mom's turquoise. The last thing she gave me. But I told dude they was the other way around. I said Mike's was my mom's and that I couldn't sell it cause it was so old. I said I would give him the other one but not the good ring. I felt crazy. I was crying and I kept saying please, please, please. He said he wanted the good ring. He said he had to go so take it or leave it. I told him ok you can have the frigging ring and I gave him Mike's piece of crap and all the cash and change. He said wait a second and shut the door. I heard him go get something and then I heard him open a dresser drawer and start grabbing letters. He cracked the door again and pushed out this trash bag with some of the letters but I could tell it wasn't nearly all of them. I said what about the rest? He said I didn't have enough money for all of them but this was a lot. I said there was two other whole drawers of letters.

He stared at me through the door gap. His eye was growing out of his melted face. He nodded at my tits and down at my crotch and said take off all my clothes and I could come inside. He'd give me all the letters I want.

I shot my hand up and jabbed my thumb into his eye. He tried to shut the door on my arm but his knees buckled and I pushed in. I stood above him squeezing hard as I could. I felt his eyeball give way and then felt jelly. Everything was a wet sucking sound. When I pulled out he just fell down. I grabbed more of the letters and booked it downstairs.

At the car Troy said what's the matter with you? I lifted the bag and told him I got the letters. He said I was stupid. I told him he was a asshole. He said why are you crying? and at the same time we seen I had blood and red jelly all over my hand. He said what happened? I said get out of here.

We got a ways away and Troy stopped at a diner called The River Spoon. He said this was the place he was talking about. It was almost night and the diner was right next to the river with a bunch of empty parking lots. Troy pointed. Across the river the Arc was huge and dark. First thing I did was go in the bathroom and scrub my hands but no matter how much I washed I felt jelly all over them. Finally I stopped shaking and crying. In the mirror my face looked too big like a dream. When I came out Troy was slumped in the booth. He said he wasn't hungry but he wanted to get me something. I said you didn't eat nothing all day but he just shrugged. Out the window we could see the black water and the Arc.

And right then the whole Arc lit up gigantic and bright. Lights glowed, running up and down. Dang Troy said. That's the gateway to the rest. He said one time Terry took him to the very top. You could lean forward and put your head against the glass and look down at the ground. Like you was falling out of the sky. I said I couldn't do that in a million years. He said they don't let you go all the way to the top anymore anyway. Everything was closed now and it was just for looking at. I thought it looked like a fast food casino.

The waitress was a gray haired lady who pointed at the Arc and said we got here just in time. When my pancakes came Troy went to the bathroom. He stayed gone the whole time I ate. I kept looking at the reflections waving on the river. I thought how dirty it was. Being served by the lady reminded me how I had to work a double tomorrow and all weekend and I needed a new job but I didn't know what else to do. Finally Troy come out of the bathroom. In the fluorescent lights he looked real old. All yellow and bruised and damp. You ok? I said. He said he'd been having trouble sleeping. He paid the waitress and we left.

Outside was hot and muggy but a breeze blowed from the river. Everything smelled like fishy mud and gasoline. Troy said supposedly they was fixing downtown up pretty soon but he doubted it. I asked if he wanted me to drive and he said sure. Just get me back to the freeway I said, cause I have no idea where we are. He said pretty much keep driving away from the Arc.

Troy pushed his seat back and fell asleep before we even got out of the city. Holding his cowboy hat in his lap. The turkey feather was falling out so I stuck it back in. Troy looked like a little boy. The way his mouth hung open I could see his dentures was loose and the holes where he'd lost his teeth. Remember when he figured out how to whistle through those holes? He used to make everybody laugh so much. One time at Mike's we was all on the back deck real late and Troy was whistling loud, making the craziest sounds in the world. He had a whole opera worked out. We was laughing our butts off when somebody said hey look at that. Down by the trees at the edge of Mike's yard a coyote had come out of the woods. Standing there staring at us. I'd never seen anything like that. We was all amazed but Troy was blown away. He said I love those things. He was going to go talk to it. We told him don't but he went down the deck steps and started toward the coyote whistling come here boy, come here boy. His leg wasn't as bad then and he got pretty far but then the coyote ran back in the woods.

Troy slept the whole four hours back to Brumley. I drove slow with the windows down, listening to the bugs whir. I never heard them so clear before. I could hear each single bug in the dark woods and fields. They was louder even than Troy's snoring. When we got to my trailer I didn't want to but I woke him up. I asked if he was going to take these letters back to you. He said he just couldn't but please if I could. I gave him a big hug and told him I loved him so much. He said thank you, Maizy, I'm so sorry. I said for what? and he said for everything. I was right about the letters. Sometimes he didn't know what he was thinking anymore. I said that's ok, nobody does. I asked him to crash on my couch cause it was already so late but he said no, he needed to go meet somebody. I asked who? but he just said some dude. And then the weirdest thing happened. He wanted to give me his cowboy hat. I said I can't take that, Troy, it's yours. But he said please, Maizy, please. I think it's like he knew. He wanted me to wear it to the restaurant when I go tell Phil to fuck off. I said that's an amazing idea. He laughed his big belly laugh and said I love you so much, Maizy. He promised he'd call me later. Then I got out of the car and he drove away.

I'm so sorry.

I love you so much.