“Gateway to the Stars” by Matthew McGevna (from Long Island Noir)
Gateway to the Stars
by Matthew McGevna
Mastic Beach, Long Island (from Long Island Noir)
Great with fear, Nick was deliberate about getting out of his car just as the policeman had told him. The order came after Nick was ordered to cut the engine because the noise from his broken muffler was “waking up the neighbors.” It was seven p.m. Late January. Nick was just about to cross over the Jessup Lane Bridge, which led to Dune Road in Westhampton Beach, a strip of wealthy homes built on a barrier island. Nick knew that the gravelly sound of his muffler roaring past Main Street would draw the attention of the village cops. He had no delusions. Even if he’d somehow gotten over the bridge, he’d still have the bay constable to deal with. It wasn’t that he picked his poison—his poison had picked him. He’d seen the reflector strips on the doors of the cop car just as he rounded the tall hedgerow and he knew he was caught—no time to debate whether he should try to make for the bridge, before the lights spun suddenly behind him. They illuminated the interior of his car. He could practically read the e-mail he’d printed out—between his sixteen-year-old brother Jeffrey and the lowlife who’d invited him to his beach house. In the dead of winter, it wouldn’t be hard to narrow down the few houses with the lights still on inside, and fortunately “The Famous Mr. Ed” provided the address and a description of his house (which he warned Jeffrey he’d never find—buried as it was behind all the ivy and scrub pine). A white, circular observation tower rising from the roof where I do all my meth and meditation, he’d written. Thank you, Facebook. Nick was lucky Jeffrey was somewhat readable—lucky that he’d paid attention one day to Jeffrey’s favorite song, Janis Joplin’s “Summertime.” Nick was only half-listening.
“One of these mornings, Nick, you’re gonna rise up singing,” he’d said.
“By rise up, you mean OD and choke on my puke?” Nick remembered joking.
But Jeffrey shot off, “You don’t get it,” before he could detect Nick’s humor. Trying to have one of those brotherly moments.
Earlier tonight, somehow Nick had remembered this, and with his mother sobbing in the other room, he went on Facebook and tried to hack into Jeffrey’s account, using any variation of Joplin’s song he could think of, before finally getting in with RISEUP. He’d gone straight to Jeffrey’s inbox and found two messages. One from their father. It had been awhile, but Nick recognized the shape of his own mouth in his father’s profile pic and shook his head in disbelief. Dad wasn’t on Jeffrey’s “friends” list, but there was a message waiting nonetheless, and the photo was an old one, from back when their father still lived with them. Back when he was a fairly quiet spectator, moving when Nick’s mother told him to move, remaining still when it seemed best to do so. It was taken before his father finally muttered to Nick in the middle of the night that he’d measured out his life in coffee spoons, and then got into his truck and pulled out of the driveway.
The note was brief but infuriating to Nick. How are you, where have you been, what’re you doing? For a moment Nick felt the urge to delete it. Instead, he rolled his eyes and moved on to the second message. Mr. Ed. Age: 16. Hometown: Oz. Quote: “Haytas only make me stronga.” The message to Jeffrey was written in the voice of God.
Good and faithful servant Jeffrey. Thou willest visit the house of true Dionysian worship: the 1333rd house of Dune Road, and thou shalt participate in much celebration and mirth, and thou must see that it is good, when one ascends Jacob’s ladder to the observation tower, where I myself do all my meth and meditation . . .
Douche bag. Nick printed the message and Googled the address. A photo of the house popped up in the search. From one of the local newspapers. It was a photo of two old men and an old woman. The caption read: Donna and Leonard Katzenberg donated $5,000 to Edward Schiffer’s charity at his home reception at 1333 Dune Road this weekend. Nick printed the article and read it while he drove out of Mastic Beach.
Edward Shiffer, the Famous Mr. Ed, hadn’t seen sixteen since 1970. An investment broker who owned a string of hotels. Nick had no idea what he was going to do when he got there, but before he even found his keys and told his mother he was bringing Jeffrey home, he’d grabbed his old Ken Griffey Jr. Rawlings bat—thirty-two ounces, and cherry-stained, with dings in the barrel from hitting rocks when he was younger. As he read the article he began to form in his mind exactly what he wanted to do, but probably wouldn’t. At the very least, the bat just might scare Ed Shiffer enough into getting facedown and not moving until he and Jeffrey were gone.
It was never going to work, Nick thought, and getting pulled over just before he crossed the bridge didn’t come without a little bit of relief. Perhaps he’d get the cop to do something legal. A little less violent. Something that might get Jeffrey some help and nab a pervert at the same time.
But the conversation got off to a bad start. The moment Nick said good evening, the cop said, “Stick your good evenings, give me your license and registration,” which Nick had at the ready. The cop took them. Said nothing until a smile of disbelief washed across his face and he shook his head. “How did I know you were from Mistake Beach?” he said. Nick said nothing. “I’m from there originally,” the cop added.
Nick said, “Oh yeah?” and the cop looked at him suddenly.
“Originally,” he repeated. “Pineway.”
“I’m on Mayfield,” Nick said, though he knew the cop had his license and could read. The cop gave him another look, as if to close the gap of familiarity.
“Are you bragging or complaining about that? Hope you’re complaining.”
“All right, step out of the car,” the cop said, backing away from his door. He tucked Nick’s information into his front pocket. Nick tried to ask him what he was stopped for, but the cop barked his order again and it startled him. Then he told him to cut the engine—that he was waking the neighbors—and, for the third time, to step out of the car.
“I know it’s not the quietest muffler,” Nick said when he got out, but the cop cut him off by nudging him back against the car.
“It’s not just the muffler. You also got a broken taillight, and you got a sticker on your back window obstructing your view, and your insurance is a week expired.”
“I didn’t notice all that.”
“Of course you didn’t—just like every other kid from Mastic I stop out here. What are you doing here?”
“You robbing houses?”
“No, my brother—”
“What about your brother?”
“My brother has been missing for the past two days, and I think he’s up in a house on Dune Road.”
“Why would he be there?”
“He’s got a drug problem.”
“Are you bragging or complaining about that?”
Nick paused. “I guess I’m complaining,” he said.
“Well, complain to your psychiatrist, not to me. Okay, what’s the rest of your bullshit story?”
“It’s not bullshit, there’s a guy on Dune Road who met him over the Internet and invited him to a drug party. Look, I’ll show you the e-mail.” Without asking permission, he turned and ducked through the open window of the driver’s side door. He felt a sudden force yank him back, and he was instantly on the ground with a knee in his ribs.
“You looking to get shot!” the cop screamed. “You never reach into your car like that—what are you reaching for?” The cop jerked him up off the ground and slammed him on the trunk. Nick yelled that he was sorry, but the cop told him to stick his sorries; to keep his palms and his right cheek down on the trunk. Then he went around to the passenger’s side of Nick’s car and yanked the door open. He grabbed the papers, including the e-mail. Stuffing them into his back pocket, he ripped open the glove box and pulled everything out. He moved to the seat cushions, the door pockets, and ran his hands under the seat.
“Where’s the weapon?” he yelled. Nick said he didn’t have one, keeping his face on the trunk. “Bullshit, everybody in your town’s got some weapon. Never stopped one that didn’t.”
From then on Nick would only answer direct questions. His knees could hardly hold his weight. His chest ached. He wanted to vomit.
He was reminded of why he’d never tried to help his brother. The last time was in the sixth grade. Jeffrey was eight. It was the day after the Fourth of July, and Jeffrey had gone off with friends to collect fireworks that hadn’t exploded—either because they were duds, had bad fuses, or were dropped by someone in all the excitement. His friends kept beating him to the prize—grabbing the spare firecrackers, bottle rockets, and jumping jacks before Jeffrey could reach them.
He came home crying, holding out three broken firecrackers in his palm while he rubbed his eyes and told Nick his friends weren’t being fair. One of them even tackled him to the ground, punched his ribs, and snatched the jump rope Jeffrey had found fair and square.
Nick rode his bike down to the kid’s house and called him out, shaking his fists at the front window. But the kid stepped out with his three older brothers: thirteen, fourteen, and sixteen.
Nick limped back home. His bike had been thrown over the fence into a sump. And the only thing Jeffrey could think to do was get mad that Nick hadn’t recaptured his jumping jacks for him, and storm into the house, slamming the door. He didn’t even stick around to hear Nick’s side of things.
The front door of the car slammed, and the cop had opened the back door to continue his search. It took seconds for him to see the bat lying across the backseat and exclaim, “Ah, I thought so!” He showed Nick the bat with a satisfied smile.
“I play baseball from time to time,” Nick said, which was a lie.
“And what were you planning to do with this tonight?”
“Nothing,” Nick said, which was the truth.
“We’ve had three smash-and-grabs this month on Dune Road. Think I got the guy who did ’em?”
“What’s a smash-and-grab?” Nick asked.
The cop came around the car, grabbed Nick’s shoulder, and flipped him over so he was faceup. Then he waved the bat at him.
“You’re in enough trouble as it is, you wanna be a fuckin’ wise-ass, I’ll jam this bat right down your throat. You’ve been smashing windows and stealing shit from cars.”
“I have not!” Nick said.
“Then why do you have this?”
“I told you, I was heading over to that guy’s house. He’s got my brother.”
“So you were gonna do something with it—a minute ago you play baseball, now you’re gonna use it on someone?”
“I don’t know why I took the bat,” Nick said.
“Just shut the fuck up before you make it worse on yourself. You got any drugs on you?”
“I’m going into your pockets, if I stick myself on a needle you’re a dead piece of white, Mastic trash, you hear me? I’ll ask you once more.”
“I don’t do drugs,” Nick said “I’m a sophomore in college.”
But the cop said that meant nothing, and after the lie about the bat he didn’t believe a word he said. He had probable cause to search him. He recited his legal cover all while clutching at the outside of Nick’s pockets. Nick could see the cop’s breath pulsing into the cold night past his shoulder, as the cop rifled through his pockets. He came out with a few dollars and put them on the trunk. The wind blew them onto the street. Nick reached to catch them, which earned him another face-plant onto the trunk.
“Are you seriously on something?” the cop asked. Nick thought it was rhetorical, until the man stepped back and told him to undress. Nick must have looked as if he’d never heard English before. The cop repeated it, and told him he needed to complete his search.
“It’s January,” Nick said.
“You wanna cooperate and get undressed here, or in jail? It makes no difference to me—I still get a paycheck.”
Nick pulled his jacket off, slowly, while shaking his head. The cop told him to throw the jacket on the ground toward him. He did. The cop picked it up. Same with the shirt. Then the pants. He collected them all. His dirty sneakers, his socks. He told Nick he could pull his underwear down below his balls, turn slowly around, and then pull them back up. It was then that Nick first felt the cold—when a solid wind coming in from the bay slid through his underarms.
“Good—sit on the trunk of your car.”
Nick asked for his clothes back, but the cop was already making a retreat to his squad car, with Nick’s clothes held in a heap in front of him, like evidence. The cop asked Nick if he had a record, and Nick shook his head.
“Bullshit. You wanna tell me now, get your clothes back, or you gonna make me look it up?”
“Look it up!” Nick yelled. “I don’t have a record.”
“We’ll see,” the cop said, and slid into his car with Nick’s clothes.
Seated on the ice-cold trunk, Nick stared across the bay at the scattered lights that rose above the shoreline—like white holes punched into black paper. He could only hear the bay, leaping up with a spray to kiss the wind, while reeds sang softly between them, lined like Christmas carolers along the foot of the bridge.
What about afterward? he thought, when he tried to imagine his brother. He hugged his arms, now leathered from the cold. If Jeffrey is rescued, will he ever be saved? Will he appreciate it? Alter, or change?
He pulled his knees up—to fold the parts of his body not normally exposed into the parts that were. Get the back of his thighs elevated off the trunk. He thought to move to the hood, where it was likely still warm from the engine—but he stared into the cop’s windshield and thought better of it. Instead, he forced his mind away from the cold again, and thought of the ride out—the tree-lined boulevards, the loop through Main Street, and the theater marquee he’d driven past. The old-fashioned bulbs mounted beneath, pouring yellow pools onto the sidewalk. As if they’d blink and John F. Kennedy would suddenly be alive. Be superb again. Be hoisted on shoulders. Back before everyone had given up on the cure for death.
As he’d passed the marquee he was reminded of his first movie. Being taken by his father to see Snow White. He was ten, and Jeffrey was six. Nick had begged to see the movie all week. They were between paychecks, so his parents decided to leave Jeffrey home with his mother. On his way out, Nick turned in the doorway and saw Jeffrey’s blank face peeking out from behind Mom’s legs. Nick started to cry and asked if Jeffrey could come, but they said it was the only way.
Shivering now—his mouth stiffening at the jawline—Nick could only remember those few things. Jeffrey’s unmoved face staring quizzically back at him while he wept. His father finally “putting an end to this dinner theater” by shutting the door. And the dry taste of popcorn he barely ate.
Even in the cold, through clenched eyes, he pictured Jeffrey’s face staring back at him. Blank as lions from the kill. Could there be an afterward, after that?
In greater nightmares, Nick often fixed his mind on one solitary image. A cop coming up to his mother’s door. Wipers would nod across the windshield of his squad car. The only movement Nick would notice on the dull gray screen behind the officer. Are you Mrs. Mahler? he’d ask. Whatever the outcome. Dead or arrested. Nick had never allowed himself to imagine what would happen after.
But those nightmares had stopped awhile ago. Nick wasn’t sure when. He figured the mind could only hold so much before it either stops dead or says: Do what you must. I can’t feel you anymore. But since he was only twenty, midway though his sophomore year at college, his mind didn’t stop, and so he did the latter. Jeffrey drifted in, and through him, around him. Left when Nick arrived, arrived when Nick left. Somehow the milk in the fridge needed replacing. The cereal was left out. A door slammed. Someone turned on the shower and a voice mumbled from it. That voice, which never asked a question. Shouted. Sang. Needed something—a ride to the store for cigarettes, even. Nothing. Mumbles. The occasional hums from its room late at night, when the stuff hits the veins and the limp body leans back against the baseboard. Mmmm. Mwahhh. The numb sound of the voice breathing, as if through a straw.
Somehow a door would be locked, and Nick’s mother would bang to be let in. She’d know, but not really know, what he was doing in there. She’d suspected often, but only caught him once. Jeffrey had found his old skates and his hockey stick one day, and rolled through the house laughing, out onto the porch, sloshed across the grass like wading through water, and moved into the street. Nearly hit by a car, he spun around. Slap-shot a rock as it passed. Ducked away from another car that honked. Then he skated off. Crashed into the mailbox and bounced the back of his head off the street. When his mother ran out to him, some blood had trickled from his ear.
She was too nervous, sitting in the waiting room, to wonder about how they would pay the bill for his stupidity. That was Nick’s father’s job—staring up at the TV as if he were paying attention to the woman on Maury obsessed with knitting dog clothes. Her family crying and begging her to stop. He shook his head and stood up, muttering, “How the fuck does this happen?”
It happens, so said the doctor, because acid makes it happen. They found it in his system. It was complicating his concussion. Nick’s mother wanted to see him. His father was pacing the floor, repeating stories of wrapping the bleeding heads of drunken sailors back from shore leave before they got shipped off to Vietnam. He hated the sight of bandages. He’d go in, he said, and make sure to only look at Jeffrey’s feet. But the doctors wouldn’t let either of them visit just yet. There were “hurdles,” they said.
After that, Nick’s mother put Jeffrey in all sorts of therapy sessions, which made the ghost in Nick’s house seem like a ghost finding final peace. Drifting away. Only the stories of him began to fill the rooms. How long he’d been using. How poorly he fit in at school. And another piece of puzzling information that had somehow been tucked away from his parents all these years: he had a vastly above-average IQ. A “superior genius” rating, said one doctor—and he asked if they hadn’t noticed this. They hadn’t. Nick’s father had actually suspected the opposite. The doctor asked if they’d ever witnessed Jeffrey pick up a violin, or sit at the piano and start making sense of it, but they admitted that they never had instruments lying around the house. They weren’t really music people, Nick’s mother said, though that wasn’t really what she meant.
“If you had instruments, you might have caught this. It’s generally where extraordinary intelligence plays itself out,” the doctor said. He shook their hands after the meeting.
Nick could offer nothing to the investigation his parents launched after that—to get to the bottom of who knew about Jeffrey’s genius. The only thing Nick was able to contribute was an instance when they were in elementary school waiting at the bus stop, and fat Danny Yukely was challenging other kids to fight, and Jeffrey told Nick that Danny was the only person he would never fight because he had no “triangles.” He was only circles. When they boarded the bus, Nick asked him what he meant. Jeffrey—second grade and laughing all the time—went into an explanation of a system of his own making, that people are made of shapes, mostly triangles, and you can beat people who have a lot of triangles because triangles are clumsy. He could see when people had triangles and when people didn’t, and fat Danny Yukely didn’t. He was all circles. And circles could not be knocked over. No one’s ever seen an upside-down circle, have they?
When Nick’s mother finished listening to this story she told Nick it sounded idiotic. Nick agreed. “Except,” Nick said, squinting, “I still remember that because it’s sort of true.”
The car door slammed again. And the cop—all circles, Nick suspected—was carrying his heap of clothes in front of him. He stepped a little closer and threw them at Nick, who instantly snatched as much as he could from the air and started to dress. His jaw shook terribly.
“All right,” the cop said. “Doesn’t look like you have a record.” Nick nodded. The cop noticed and added, “So I was right again.” Nick was too cold to question his logic.
“My brother,” was all he could mutter, and the cop pulled the e-mail out from a pile of things he’d grabbed during the car search.
“Your brother’s doing drugs?” He shook his head in disgust. “Younger or older?”
“Younger,” Nick said.
“So this is your fault. Okay, here’s what’s up. As far as I’m concerned he’s over on Dune Road, he’s the bay constables’ headache. If he’s still alive. I’ll radio his name to the constables. If he turns up, we’ll let you know. But you should know, I’m keeping this e-mail and he will be under arrest.”
“What about Ed Schiffer?” Nick asked.
“Don’t worry about him—I’m telling you about your brother—he’s out here, he’s using substances, if we find him, he’s ours. But you’ll be notified.”
“He needs help,” Nick said, though he knew it wouldn’t matter. “He’s a prodigy—he’s supposed to do better things.”
The cop asked him what a prodigy was.
“A genius,” Nick said.
The cop made a fart noise. “Some genius.”
“Will he get help if we find him?”
“Not up to me.” The cop was writing something. “And what do you mean we?”
“Can’t I go look for him? On Dune Road?”
“Are you drunk?” the cop asked. “Say the alphabet.” Nick said it. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. These are yours.” He handed Nick four tickets and his information. “You’re gonna get into your car and you’re gonna swing the front end around so it’s facing north, okay?” Nick nodded. “Then you’re gonna take this road all the way up to the roundabout, and you’re gonna take the left exit. Got it?” Nick nodded again. “That road leads straight into Mastic and Mastic Beach. Go there. Stay there. We’ll call you if we hear something.”
Nick, realizing he’d been listening to false directions, shook his head and looked at the tickets.
“You in college?” the cop asked. Nick nodded. “Get good grades?”
“Dean’s list,” he said quietly.
“Are you bragging or complaining?” the cop said with a slight smile.
Nick laughed a little. He started to walk away. The cop called out to him. Nick stopped. The cop walked closer.
“One of these days when you get a house out here, you’ll realize why we’re so by-the-book. This is the gateway to the stars; there’s a lot of money out here, and they don’t want just anybody drivin’ around. Sorry I had to be a hard-ass, but you understand, right?” He waited for an answer, but none came. “I mean, look at me, I come from the same town as you—I didn’t get it either, but these people, they’re real intense about riffraff coming into the village. People bringing fights and stealing shit—people like your brother, all due respect, you know?” The cop was again answered with silence. “No hard feelings,” he said, and turned to walk away. “I hope we find your little bro.”
Minutes later, Nick was reaching the roundabout where he needed to yield, and noticed that the cop had followed him out. He locked stares with him in the rearview mirror, and the cop nodded to him just as the circle cleared. They parted ways.
His body warmed as he blasted the heat and watched the slick surface of Twin Ponds glide by his passenger window—frozen under a foot of ice. Winter birds waddled with their young through paths cleared by skaters. Every star was visible. It made everything inside Nick seem immense. Earth, a place to be swallowed. Mastic Beach, a labyrinth. Guilt, anger, love—unavoidable. Life . . . long. Stars . . . mighty things to hide between. Waddling birds and their roost . . . sage in their simplicity.
It stuck in his chest to think so, but just then he wanted Jeffrey to run. Run and hide, and disappear. Even if it meant he would never see him again. Jeffrey wasn’t part of the same world, Nick knew this now. He’d break spirits that tried to ground him. Was bigger than all of them—Nick was mistaken to try and find him. For what, and who would he find? And do what? And how would he convince something that had sailed away so long ago to come back over the bridge? To his own destruction? The cop even told him so.
He shook his head at how, just hours ago, he was praying to find him—a short while ago he breathed with relief that a cop might be able to help him. Now he couldn’t imagine a worse fate, and wasn’t that how the world he lived in really was? Always having to wait for a bad thing to happen so it makes way for something potentially good?
He pulled into his driveway and idled there. The heat was still on. Light bled white and silver onto the frost-speckled lawn when his mother pulled the front door open. He watched her peer through the reflection of their glass door, shield her eyes, and press her face against the glass.
She focused on Nick. The exhaust pulsed—spat clouds of mist around his car. Nick watched her and then looked over at the empty passenger’s seat where he knew his mother was hoping to see her other son. He looked at the seat and half smiled at Jeffrey. Not there, but never before so close.
MATTHEW McGEVNA received his MFA in creative writing from Southampton College in 2002. His fiction has appeared in Ozone Park Journal, Karamu, Confrontation Magazine, and Epiphany Magazine. The story included in Long Island Noir is part of a collection based on his experience growing up in Mastic Beach. He currently lives in Center Moriches, New York, with his wife Joanne and his son Jackson.
Posted: May 10, 2013
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