STAIRS

1954 Wurlitzer Jukebox, poor condition, doesn't work, weather damage - asking $5k

Marcus attached three photos of the jukebox and hit SEND. He placed the phone in his pocket and immediately wished he hadn’t. Now he was stuck with the hillbilly owner while they waited for his assistant’s response. The two men shifted their footing. The sunlight streamed through the barn slats at a lazy angle, and in that light turned slow motes of dust. Those sunny specks mocked Marcus, mimicking the time that was slowly passing as he waited for the hillbilly to awkwardly force some conversation.

“So, uh,” the hillbilly began. “You just drive around and look for junk to buy?”

“I look for places with unique collectibles that my clients would be willing to purchase.”

“Kinda like that TV show, what’s it called...”

To his credit, Marcus didn’t wince. “Yeah, like that. Only those guys are more flea market rats than actual buyers. I send my assistant the specs for the item and they send me a rough market price.”

The hillbilly hawked and spat. “Man, phones these days can do everything. I got a Samsung, myself.”

Marcus realized the hillbilly was staring at him, waiting for some sort of interested response. His phone buzzed in his pocket. Thank god.

maybe $2k - pass

“I’m sorry Jimmy, but it looks like we’re not interested.”

“Oh.” The hillbilly nudged some dirt around in a circle with the toe of his boot. “I got something else. Something better.”

 

“Now, mind you, this arnt the kind of thing you could buy, it’s more of a curiosity,” the hillbilly explained as they walked down the outer hill of the barn, to the backside. “Like... people would pay to see it. Scientists, too. I don’t know if that’s something you could hook together for me.”

“That’s not really what we do, Jimmy,” Marcus said. Despite himself, he felt a tickle of intrigue. “Did you say scientists would want to see this?”

The hillbilly shrugged. “Or college professors, or the government. Someone. All I know is that my family’s sat on this for too long. Time to get some use out of it.”

They reached the cellar doors and slid them open on ancient tracks. The roar of the doors’ movement echoed back at them from the cool dark, and that familiar smell came to Marcus’s nose. Wet stone, mildew, shadows, cobwebs, rot, dirt. Endless dynasties of spiders and mice living and dying in secret.

Marcus’s eyes adjusted to the dark. A small, bare space. Walls of stone and mortar, thick wooden pillars and a few empty, rotted crates moldering against the walls.

The hillbilly walked inside and gestured to the floor. There was a 5x5 trapdoor in the center of the room. “My grandpa found this when he bought the farm. It was boarded up, nailed shut. Said it looked like it’d been that way for a long time.” He reached down and grasped the iron ring. Grunting, he lifted the door.

Marcus stepped foward and stared down into the hatch. A rickety wooden staircase descended into darkness, and the darkness went on forever in every direction. The stairs were made of simple hand-cut planks and nails, barren without handrails, and they traveled sharply to a small platform fifty feet down before splintering off into two more staircases. There were other staircases that he could see, hundreds of feet down, pale lines in the black. All of them branched off from this one, here at the top.

“Jimmy,” Marcus mumbled. “What is this?”

“I don’t know. None of my family ever figured it out. My grandpa said it was the stairs to hell. My daddy said it was what the earth was really filled with, instead of larva.” The hillbilly laughed. “My aunt, heck, she said it was a portal to outer space, once. No one really knows. All we know is that it was boarded up when my grandpa found it.  This is weird, right? You ain’t seen this before, I bet.”

“Why would you keep this secret until now?” Marcus took out his flashlight and shone it around into the darkness. He really could not see any walls whatsoever.

“Grandpa said he didn’t want to attract the looky-loos and the nutcases. The farm made a lot of money in those days so it didn’t make sense to come out with it and gum up the works, I reckon. The farm arnt doing so good these days. I could use the cash.”

Marcus clicked off the flashlight, rose to his knees and asked the obvious question. “Has anyone gone down there?”

“Once,” the hillbilly said, pointing. “See there? My grandpa hung a pulley. Tied off a rope to my uncle Anford, who was a kid, and strung it through. A kid would be less likely to break those stairs, they wagered. They handed him a lantern and sent him down. He trod in, slowly, the staircase creaking. My family watched the light get smaller and smaller. His voice was real faint. Eventually they got scared that he hadn’t reached the bottom and started yelling for him to come up.” A mayfly buzzed around the hillbilly’s face and he waved it away.

“The light didn’t reappear. They began to pull the rope to lift him out of there. The rope pulled and pulled, until they realized they were pulling more rope than they’d let out, and still no sign of my uncle. My grandpa kept pulling rope for a week, crying for his lost son. All that come up was more rope. In the end, a 1,000 foot rope lay in a pile in here and outside the door that my daddy reckoned must have been ten miles long, at least. They cut it, held a memorial for my uncle and burned the rope.”

The hillbilly shut the hatch. “Let’s go back outside.” Marcus got to his feet and they left the cellar. The air was as stuffy and still as before, but it was bright and welcome. “I was told one of the things my uncle yelled up before he walked out of earshot was that he couldn’t even hear his own voice echo down there.”

“Jesus,” Marcus whispered. He brushed his hands against his pants and shuddered. “Well, you’ve got something here, that’s for sure. I couldn’t say who to contact. Maybe call Guinness, or Ripley’s.”

“I will, I guess.” They walked back to Marcus’s car.

“Thanks for showing me the stairs, Jimmy. I hope I never see them again.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy said with a shrug. “I think about them a lot. I think at night about how if whatever’s in there made the rope go forever, maybe it does the same for people. Maybe my uncle’s still a little boy wandering around in the dark, not dying of hunger or thirst or loneliness and walking infinite stairs with a lamp that don’t run out of oil.”

They shook hands, said goodbye and Marcus drove off. He turned the radio on, and within moments it offended him and he clicked it back off. Before he’d gotten 500 feet down the road he called Jimmy and bought the jukebox.

END