The Rusty Door
by Craig M. Workman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Really hot summertime, 2018
Okay, so this is what happened the time I made my little brother vanish into Grandpa’s old pantry for good. Am I guilty for saying that? I suppose so. He should have been there for us. Well, as much as your father could be there when he was at three-hundred-plus bucks a day with that habit, that smack-your-arm and shove in the needle thing. Stanley and I watched him do it every day.
Stan would say something like what he said every time a six-year old was confused; he wanted me, the teenage idiot, to make it make sense. “Ned, is he taking medicine?”
“Yeah, buddy. Yeah. Come on.”
And we would go to that ugly-assed rusty pantry in the garage, and we would open that thing ten, fifteen, thirty times a day, as if some magic fairy or some other thing we knew by then didn’t exist had deposited a box of Fruity Fuzzles or Cheesy Rings or any of the other things the kids talked about at school but had never seen aside from the commercials on our black-and-white, dusty television in the basement. What can I say? We were hungry. I guess that doesn’t make much sense to you, but there you have it.
When comparing Stan and me, I guess I had always been the lucky one. Now, I wasn’t so sure. My little brother was always so nervous. Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t exactly excited to be living at home with a dad that would’ve sold us for a fix, but I wasn’t so sure I showed it as much as Stan. He grabbed onto his hands and twisted them all the time, and licked his lips like he was waiting for something. He had this twitch that looked like he was touching a live wire every few minutes.
I don’t really remember when it started, but it’s something I think about nowadays as I wander and think. The biggest thing about Stan being jumpy is that whenever my dad started to get on his case, Stan would look around wide-eyed for a few seconds, and then he would throw up all over the carpet or the kitchen or the moldy concrete in the basement next to the paint he had spilled.
And as always, I’d antagonize Dad by throwing something at his head so he would get out of my brother’s face and try me on for size. Stan would sit there next to his puke and shake his head and mouth: No, no, it’s okay, no.
After the big one would shove me against the wall or give me a backhand with his huge shiny ring, he’d leave with a slam of the crumbly door, and I’d go help Stan clean up. Our father would do his regular thing: throw away one or two of our shirts or socks, which I’d rescue from the trash later, and yell at Stan the way only our dad could: Hey, Stanley the Stain. Stain, you know, because you are one. On all of it. You killed my wife when you came out.
And after, we’d go and play Bolt Drop, or go get some of the books I stole from the library out from our spot under the bed and read to Stanley. He’d fumble with the necklace our mom used to wear: the gold harp on a dingy, silver chain our great-grandmother brought from Ireland, I think, and he’d listen to the words of whatever we were reading and nod silently, slowly.
“Sorry buddy,” I would always say.
“It’s okay, Neddy. He won’t always be mean to us.”
It seemed like a pretty crazy thing for a kid to say. At the time, I might have just chalked it up to something a scared six-year old thought when he couldn’t think of anything else. Other times when he said this, I was under the impression we were already nowhere, that this couldn’t be how the world was, and that other kids were probably doing cool stuff like we saw on those after-school specials on the little TV.
I didn’t want to crush him, so I always just nodded. Well, now I suppose he was half-right. Which half? Well, I guess it’s a kind of glass of milk full or whatever it is question.
Here’s the thing about food we always knew, but you might not: it’s important. I know now that Stanley and myself were what you might call underfed, but since I left with that pantry riding on top of the shopping cart, I’ve learned how some people eat. A few months ago, I went into a Save-Rite with a bit of cash I’d panhandled, and I think I had what some people would call a panic attack, or I don’t know. I hadn’t been in a grocery store since our mom was alive.
Food. Counting food and feeling that tingly, sickening rumble in my stomach, the one that Stan felt much more than I did. Thirty-one kinds of pasta, a coast-to-coast aisle of hundreds of boxes of cereal, a few dozen different labels of milk — I didn’t remember they came in gallons — and I can’t really remember what else. What a mistake!
* * *
The last morning Stan was with me was on a Saturday, and it was pretty cold, even though we were used to no heat. The letter I had opened the day before was from people called CPS; it was addressed to one kind-of-living adult and one dead one. The bright yellow paper said the school had reported us, and they were coming day after tomorrow to take us somewhere safe. We were pretty excited and so, of course, we threw the letter away and counted down the hours.
Our father had been gone a few days, and so we started with our usual weekend game of Bolt Drop in the garage. Once the roaches got out of the way, it was a great way to pass the time. Stan came up with it one day when we were hiding out there. The only things we really had to do anyway were letting them get in our stuff and figuring out what to do when they weren’t making us make them money.
He would set up an empty green bean can next to the back tire of the rusty convertible that I had never ridden in, and a Super Value!-brand corn can on the other side of the garage, so we could bounce our shots off the pantry. And yes, I mean that upright, one-doored, bullet-proof hulk of a thing with the numbers 305 stenciled on the door in faded, orange paint. It was only supposed to be our Bolt Drop backboard. That’s all.
Stan had the first shot, just like always. He stood by the old car and put the rusty bolt to his nose and dropped it. Clink. He nailed that first one every time, and I remember how happy he was playing it with me.
And when he smiled, the gaps in his smile from losing two teeth at once the night before reminded me I needed to go through the couch cushions later to find some change to give him. Better to have him believe in a few nice things before he gets older and realizes the Tooth Fairy is the least of the lies.
Since he made this shot, now came the difficult part of our sport. He put the bolt over his head and grinned again, and then frowned. “Remember that one commercial on the TV with the funny robot that sells a cheeseburger, Neddy?”
I did remember. They had looked good.
“Yeah, Stan. Burger Bin?”
“What if we each had our very own personal cheeseburger?”
He threw the bolt, and it was a backboard shot, off the pantry, and into the green bean can. The pantry echoed for a few seconds, and a bit of rust fell from the door in a cloud.
“Yeah, buddy. That would be great.” It would be more than great, I thought.
It was my turn to do the nose-shot, and so I leaned down to grab the bolt from the can, and I smelled something strange. Something good, but strange. My nose-shot had to wait for a moment, because I suddenly thought my little brother had somehow played one hell of a joke on me.
“Stanley, did you get burgers or something?” I said. I scanned the garage, waiting for the punchline, though I knew he had been with me all morning, and even if he had a way to get to the Burger Bin, we had no money and, after all, my brother was six.
He showed me his missing teeth again and shook his head east to west and came to my side of the garage. I noticed that other than the smell of food, my brother needed a bath. One more thing to remember to do later. Once Stan lifted his chin and snuffed at the air, his mouth tightened into an O, and he moved closer to the pantry.
“It’s in there, over there. It’s in there. Maybe it’s in there.”
I shook my head and got ready to go inside, because this didn’t seem so funny. But I put my head next to the pantry where his was. What was this?
“Hold on, buddy. Back up a little bit,” I said. I turned the rusty handle and forced the door open, and on the top shelf of the pantry, we saw two things we had never seen before in person: Two bright yellow packages that read Burger Bin Robo-Cheese on the wrappers. I grabbed them and showed them to my little brother as if they were the rarest comic book in the world. They were still warm. Really warm. I unwrapped one of them, and Stan grabbed at it.
“Back up a little bit,” I repeated. I opened the bun, looking for some reason this was happening, but all I could see was a really big piece of meat, lots of cheese, and all the other stuff they showed in that commercial. I took a bite, and my stomach felt as if I could be happy for once. I would have thought it was a dream, but no food ever tasted this good in my dreams.
It felt like I was looking down a long tunnel for a moment, and then I handed the other one to my brother. “Well, here you go, Stan. I guess you could’ve wished for a soda and some fries, too.” Stan laughed at that bigger than I did. It seemed neither one of us could believe what had just happened, but we were too hungry to turn it down.
“That’s a funny...” Stan dropped the last part of his burger on the floor and made a sound like a cowboy herding cattle in that old western show we used to watch. He stretched out his hand and pointed to where we had just found heaven-on-earth.
I turned around to see two purple cups and two steaming orders of french fries on the top shelf. “What is this thing, Neddy? It’s magic? What’s it mean?” I laughed so hard at the sight of this new stuff I almost choked on my burger. Stan said it right, I guess. What was this thing?
“I don’t...” I started. My words sounded like someone else had spoken them on a radio in the other room, but it was me. Stanley waved his arm as if he had a magic wand in his hand like Mickey Mouse in that show. “Neddy?”
“Are we magic now?”
“Lock the garage door. Let’s eat.”
Copyright © 2020 by Craig M. Workman