“This one’s amazing,” I said, the morning of the incident, and pulled the wooden magnet from the fridge. I turned it around in my hand.
Alistair’s basement room was in its usual state. Newspapers were piled waist high beside the refrigerator, and the basement window overlooking mom’s foxglove flower garden laid above them like a makeshift coffee table. Droppings and shredded newspaper bits were scattered on his shag carpet, evidence of uninvited guests. His old, real, coffee table leaned on the far wall by the bathroom after Fergusson, my parent’s miniature schnauzer, smelled the rat urine and decomposed food, and decided it would be a suitable spot and shit on it.
The refrigerator was the only spot that Alistair, my dad, cleaned. It’s face had never dulled, and retained its Arctic white color, barely visible now from all the magnets that littered its surface.
Alistair’s chest puffed up, and he walked around the the fridge, a smile blooming out of the corner of his lips. It was the second to last smile I would see on my dad’s lips.
“When’d you get this one?” I asked.
“The VP of accounting went to Holland for a few weeks. He gave it to me when he returned about a month ago,” Alistair said. “You’d have seen it before if you visited me more often, son.”
The magnet was a miniature wooden replica of the brothel houses in the red light district of Amsterdam, the wood carved to look like a brick, three story building. A street sign on the front marked the location as De Wallen Avenue. Two windows on each floor revealed two busty women with painted not-so-round black blotches for eyes. Rates were etched on a sign above the doorway. I held the magnet up diagonally, peering into each ladies’ room. They were backdropped by an angry red wall, and each room contained a stool and a small, purple bed.
Alistair watched me the entire time. He smiled, inhaling deeply and taking the magnet from my hand.
“Wait till you see this,” Alistair said and flipped a small unseen switch. Above the second windows, the words AMSTERDAM SEXCLUB lit up in fluorescent orange letters. The rooms were also illuminated, baking the inhabitants of De Wallen Avenue in an infernal glow. Runny streaks under the figurine’s eyes made them appear as though they were crying.
“Pretty sick,” I said.
“Sick? No, I thought it was neat,” Alistair said, a little hurt.
“That’s what I…Sorry, never mind,” I said.
Alistair placed it back on the fridge. He watched it for a second and sighed, a shadow of his former smile on his lips. He flipped the switch off and turned to look at me.
“Battery costs more than the magnet, believe it or not.”
We didn’t say much after that, and for about a minute we just stared at his fridge. I didn’t come down to his room often. The weight of our silence bore down on me.
“You should go,” I said, finally, tracing my finger on the refrigerator’s handle. “To Holland, I mean.”
It came out sounding flat, with not much hope. I still don’t even know why I said it.
“Maybe,” Alistair said, bending down and admiring his collection. I had already lost him. “Heidi gave me this double decker bus magnet from London when she went on her honeymoon. Five summers ago, I think.”
I rolled my eyes.
One from Brazil was simply two enormous ass cheeks with a small, barely visible thong tucked in between. A small goldfish magnet from Japan that was carved from stained opal. An Egyptian pyramid made from glass that had golden flakes trapped inside. A cross from Jerusalem. A bottle opener from India that had nothing to do with the country, and was probably made in a Chinese sweat shop and embossed with India’s flag. There was the Great Wall of China. Countless others.
“The intern brought the Brazil one,” Alistair added. It was a little too raunchy for him.
“Oh!” I said, remembering why I had come down to his room in the first place. “Mom asked me to bring this down to you.”
I reached into my pocket and fished out a package, wrapped in crinkled parchment paper.
“Mail from your clients, I guess. Probably another magnet. Pakistan, maybe,” I said and handed him the package.
Alistair was a financial consultant for various accounting firms. On occasion, his clients would send him magnets from their travels around the world. They would find a home, and company, on the face of his refrigerator. When out of space, the older magnets were boxed until Alistair decided to rotate them out.
“This one doesn’t have a return address,” Alistair whispered, talking to himself. He tapped his index finger on his lips.
The package didn’t have postage either.
“Let’s have a look,” Alistair said, ripping the package open and dropping its contents onto his hand.
A magnet, like I had thought. At first glance, when it plopped in Alistair’s hand, I thought it was a piece of coal, and the no return address made sense. Then the depth of the blackness struck me, and I knew it was something more. It was as black as the closet seems when cracked an inch too wide, and as vast as the space under my bed seemed when I was five-years-old. It filled me with the same dread of real danger, though I couldn’t explain why.
It was a small, oval shaped obsidian stone. Its surface appeared smooth, powdery in texture. At different angles, tiny crystals flickered out like an bouquet of flames. Alistair closed his fist around his new magnet and shut his eyes. He breathed in deep, and opened his fist. Touched it with his fingers, petting it. He couldn’t stop himself.
Despite my reservations, I plucked it from his hand. It was cold, and heavier than I would’ve thought. I placed it on the face of the fridge, shuddering.
Alistair gazed at the magnet, rubbing the palm of his hand with his fingers as though it left a pleasant residue behind.
A dimple on his face spread into a smile that took up the space from ear to ear.
The way mom recounted it when the police came, she was sitting on the couch watching Jeopardy when the TV went out. I was there by the time they showed up, sitting beside my mom and holding her hand. She was shaking, watching out the window as if expecting Alistair to walk in at any moment.
The TV popped once, as Alex Trebek revealed the double jeopardy answer.
Pop. Puh-Puh-Puh POP.
Then Alex was sucked into a void from the edges of the television into a small point in the middle of the screen. The scent of burnt elastic touched her. It smelled of burning tires and exhaust. She wrinkled her nose at it.
“Alistair!” She called.
The rat-at-tat of the broken fan drowned out her voice. It was summer, and triple digit heat hit them like a plague of inappropriately costumed tweens in October. The fan had been running non stop for days. .
She got up and walked over to the basement door. A big woman, my mom normally avoided going down the basement steps. Her belly had become a hazard to herself, and I was always afraid she’d miss a step and land herself in the hospital from a broken neck or, worse, in the morgue.
“Alistair?” She called again.
She walked down the steps to her husband’s basement room.
The familiar odor of re-worn gym socks, decomposed TV dinners, and sweat greeted her midway down the steps like an intolerable family member.
“Alistair?” Martha said, worry entering her bloodstream and escaping through her words.
“It smelled like dying,” Mom said to the cop. Then she laughed, sounding like a sharp exhale of pent up worry and shame.
“It’s a working man’s smell. That’s all,” she added. It was one of her countless excuses for my father’s odd behavior.
Alistair realized the SEXCLUB’s lights were still on a few hours after I had left. He went over to it and watched it for a few minutes. I could imagine him hearing the hustle and bustle on the street of De Wallen Avenue, seeing the cyclists weaving in and out of traffic like a flock of doves, the passing pedestrians exclaiming and pointing at the lovely escorts, sitting at the display windows like perfectly packaged Barbie dolls.
Alistair’s turned around towards the staircase, although the voice did not belong to Mom.
“YOU! OLD MAN!”
A small hand waved from within the Amsterdam Sexclub’s topmost window. Blotches of tar for eyes, still steaming and trailing down the figurine’s cheeks, stared out at him.
“You don’t want to come here,” the figurine said.
Alistair fumbled for words.
Another popped it’s head out of the bottom window and chimed in. “It’s full of sex. S-E-X. Twelve year old hookers with gonorrhea taking creeps older than you into their mouths like candy.”
His soccer hooligan double-decker bus’s doors swung open and a tribe of Manchester United fans marched out onto the white face of the refrigerator and looked up at Alistair. Their faces could barely be made out they were so puny.
“Don’t come here either,” they said in unison, sounding like a chant. “Full o’ us. We’ll knock your head in. Use your teeth to make bracelets to sell back to tourists like you.”
Then the whole face of the refrigerator erupted with voices with the same message.
The rowdy soccer hooligans, noticing the brothel and escorts just a few feet away from them, massed towards it and broke open the door, pulling the dolls, screaming, back into their rooms and closing their blinds.
Alistair opened his mouth to scream, but a noise that sounded like a hot tea kettle, or the way a wild rabbit screeches when it’s caught came from his throat and was drowned out by the rat-at-tat of his broken fan and mob of animated, rowdy magnets.
“And he was gone when you looked in the basement?” The police officer asked, clearly irritated at the normalcy of the situation. It wasn’t a missing persons case until more time had passed. “Could he have gone to the store? It’s only been a few hours.”
“He didn’t take the car,” Mom said, wiping her tears from the corner of her eyes, which were now puffy and red.
“I assume he can walk, can’t he?” The police scratched his head, looking stone faced at my mom as though she were crazy. I suppose in some ways she was.
Mom didn’t say anything.
“Mam,” the police said, “at this junction there’s nothing we can do. If he hasn’t returned in two days then call us. Unfortunately, these things–”
“He never leaves his room,” Mom said, barely above a whisper. She was looking down at her feet.
“What?” The officer said, with a cocked eyebrow. What a prick, I thought.
“HE NEVER LEAVES HIS ROOM!” Mom yelled, bursting out in tears from the desperation she felt. “HE HASN’T LEFT THIS HOUSE FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS!”
The officer looked first at her, then at me. Dumbfounded. He scratched something on his notepad, asked a few more questions, assured us he’d find him, and then left.
As he was walking out Mom tapped him softly on the shoulder.
“Please help him, officer.” She looked past him as she talked, “I’d hate to think what Alistair would do without me.”
There was a hole in the sound of the other magnets’s jeers and taunts.
The sounds from the magnets closest to the obsidian stone were warped, the way speakers sound right before going out. The crystals within the stone had not been this bright before, either. It carried a message also. It’s message was carried through the throngs of other magnets, and in the chaos of everyone’s separate message Alistair heard the stone’s, the way a collage of differently dressed people form a larger picture.
the stone told Alistair. Then, follow me.
Alistair took the stone from the refrigerator, holding it in his hand. He smiled. The stone was warm, and it felt good. It felt the way a stone feels after it’s been sitting in the sun all afternoon, and you hold it just after taking a cold dip in the pond. The rim of the refrigerator’s rubber lining glowed. Alistair gasped in surprise, and took a step backwards.
The noise from the magnets was immediate and powerful, reverberating through every inch of his body as though it were a tuning fork.
Alistair reached forward, and the voices calmed. He pulled open the door, and the light from the other side hurt his eyes. It was more than sunlight, it was something else. Something beautiful. Alistair crawled into the refrigerator on hands and knees.
And then he was gone.
The obsidian stone fell to the floor moments later, and when Martha came down to find her husband a few hours later, she kicked it under the refrigerator.
A year later I found it.
I learned of what happened to my father exactly a year after his disappearance and the day my mom decided the time to grieve had passed. I found the obsidian stone under the fridge as we were cleaning out his room. I held it for a second, remembering the foreboding I had felt when I took it in my hand, a year ago. It held none of that anymore, and the shimmer it had was gone. I placed it back on the fridge. Only the Amsterdam magnet remained of his collection. Mom had given the others away, and others still were stolen by cousins and nephews who’s kleptomaniac fingers knew no bounds. They were forgotten in a boy’s tub of toys, to be donated and then purchased with other oddities and knickknacks at a thrift store in Los Angeles.
“He’s not here anymore.” The figurine in the top window said, after telling me what had happened. “He’s in another place, but not dead. No, not dead.”
As time passed, her speech was slurred as if a serene sleepiness had overcome her. I supposed later that the power of the stone had worn off, and she was going back to wherever talking magnets came from. What I took from the ordeal was that my father, for this first time in his life, went on a vacation.
And never came back.