SINKHOLE by Walter B. Thompson
WORD WAS OUT: THAT MORNING, the earth had swallowed up Albert Toovey’s house and all of its contents—his bedroom, his pantry, his plasma TV, his swimming pool, his three iguanas, his old football trophies. I heard the news over breakfast.
I was in sixth grade, inclined to stay in bed if I could, even on school days. But my Mama would wake me before seven every morning, seizing my left arm and pulling me from my bed until I was forced to open my eyes. Sometimes she left me halfway on the floor, and I would fall back asleep with the top of my head against the carpet and my toes still warm under the sheets. On the morning of Albert’s sinkhole, she had managed to drag me to the breakfast table by seven thirty. She’d been reminding me that I was a growing boy, that I needed more than just a banana for breakfast and a plain turkey sandwich for lunch. I didn’t feel like a growing boy, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
Daddy appeared at the back door, seemingly out of nowhere. Neither Mama nor I had known he’d been out in the first place. His face was pale and his hat brim was pulled low, which usually meant he was in no mood to talk. But when he came into the kitchen and saw the two of us staring at him, frozen like statues, me with a spoonful of Apple-Oh’s an inch away from my mouth and Mama hovering near the microwave with her eyes wide, Daddy sat down and told us the whole story. He started out by saying, “I can’t explain it, so don’t ask me to.”
It had taken just a few seconds, he said. Albert had been out for what he called his morning jog, which was really just him walking outside in his bathrobe, lighting up a cigarette or two, and circling the cul-de-sac. Albert’s wife had left him for a Canadian hockey player the year before, and he’d let himself go. Let the water come up to his chin, as Daddy said. Albert was the only eyewitness to the sinking of his house, but, since there was nothing left but a hole in the ground, nobody had a reason to disbelieve his story. According to Albert, it, meaning the earth, the planet itself, took a deep breath and inhaled his house down into the depths. There was an actual sound, a suck, he said, then all the crashing of the timbers and plaster and foundation, terrible splintering and tumbling and whooshing, and then silence. “And then what did you do?” everyone asked Albert. “What could you possibly do?”
“I finished my cigarette,” he said, “and then I cursed my unholy luck.”
People liked Albert. He had a fine reputation around the town of Canterbury as a man who held his head high. He made it clear that to be pitied was to be worthless, and who couldn’t respect a view like that? Daddy called Albert a “fine businessman,” which meant that Albert had come into the bar and gotten drunk and offered Daddy a few opinions about the world that Daddy found favorable. Even I knew that selling insurance wasn’t much of a business. This was just the way that Daddy spoke about people sometimes. As a bartender, he said, you had to be able to grant people a grander identity than they expected. But in the end, Albert was an exception to the rule. “Just a person,” Daddy said. “Just a person with dreams.”
It was early, just after dawn, when Albert’s house was lost, and Daddy had been out when he heard the fire engines moaning down Parnell Street, two blocks away. “When I got there, it was like a bomb had gone off,” he said. “Smoke rising from the crater and fire trucks parked willy-nilly all over the cul-de-sac, and poor Albert in his bathrobe, covered in dust.”
“Can I go see it?” I asked
“You’ve got school,” Mama said. She was still standing next to the microwave.
“It’s dangerous, Sam,” said Daddy. “A deep old sinkhole. Can’t even see the bottom yet, with the smoke and dust still swirling.”
“I don’t care about the hole,” I said. This was a lie. All I cared about was the hole. “I want to tell Mr. Toovey sorry about his house. About his pool and his iguanas.”
Daddy smiled. He had what I’d heard people call a “gentle face.” When he smiled, he looked like the man in the moon. “There will be plenty of time to tell Albert those things. It’s nice of you to think that way.”
Mama walked around back of Daddy, set a plate of sausage biscuits in front of him, and gave me a look that showed she knew I wasn’t really thinking that way. “Does Albert have insurance himself?” she asked.
“I was afraid to bring it up,” Daddy said. “My guess is no, but, since he’s in the business, he’ll find a way around it.”
“Imagine,” Mama said, “Living your life thinking constantly about accidents happening to other people, and then having something like this happen to you.” She circled back behind me and loaded three more sausage biscuits from the freezer into the microwave. Sometimes Mama would spend the whole morning like this, swooshing around the kitchen in her dress and apron, circling Daddy and me at the table. She reminded me of a big land bird—a cassowary, an ostrich. She’d been moving around more since my brother Simon had left for the army three years earlier. She walked around the kitchen, around the house, around the neighborhood. Vacuuming and walking, eating and walking, talking and walking. She walked to work—as a secretary at Dr. McTeague’s dentist office on the other side of town. Daddy walked as well, but only in the very early mornings. I thought it was strange that they never walked together. All the movement—work, errands, groceries, back, forth, here, there—made it harder to talk to them, but we were all just waiting, really, to hear from my brother. Simon made the moving stop when he called every couple of weeks. Before he had left for the Gulf, he had sat Mama down and shown her how to work a video chat. Daddy had refused at first, telling Simon that if he got over there and felt like talking to his old man, he could call the bar the old-fashioned way. But after a couple of months, Daddy started hovering behind Mama and me when the video chats started, bent slightly at his knees to see the screen between our heads. Simon hadn’t called the bar many times; Daddy didn’t say so, but it was clear. We moved the computer into the dining room, which was connected to the kitchen and the front staircase and the den, and left the power on at all times, so that Simon could call us whenever he wanted and one of us would be guaranteed to hear the strange, bleating ring of the video chat echoing around the house. During the first chat, Simon, who looked clean and tan and fresh, had held the laptop in his hands and pivoted it around his tent. I saw bulky brown netting hanging from the walls, and two black soldiers playing checkers on a cot in their underwear, and a machine gun leaning comfortably against someone’s backpack. Simon stopped the circling at the tent entrance, where a bright white light was gleaming in from the outside world. The image fluttered for a moment, and the light broke into fat rectangular pixels before resolving itself again. Simon’s head floated into the screen. He smiled.
“Is that Iraq out there?” I asked him.
“No, Sam. I told you. That’s Qatar out there,” he said. “We don’t head over to Iraq for another month, remember?” It was strange to hear him scolding me from the other side of the world, his voice slightly metallic in our computer speakers. But it felt good to know where he was going. He wasn’t supposed to be telling us the secrets of his mission.
Now, Simon was in Iraq, the sandbox, as he liked to call it. We hadn’t heard from him in three weeks except for an email to Mama that was four lines long: Mama I’m safe and sound. Lots of night patrols not much sleep. Boy would some of your strawberry shortcake hit the right spot. Love Simon. At night, I thought about the date at the top of the email: October 1st. I said it out loud to myself. “October first, October first.” It sounded solid and substantial coming out of my mouth. “October first.” An irrefutable date.
At Canterbury Middle School that day all conversation focused on the sinkhole. As usual, I did my best to listen and never speak. Sometimes, kids would approach me and ask me questions. My Daddy, after all, was a bartender, so I was in a better position than most to overhear town gossip. My strategy was to keep myself small, quiet, maybe even stupid. In this way, I was unlike my father or my brother, but I was comfortable.
In science class, we spent an entire lab period discussing the sinkhole. Our teacher, Darren K. Simms, was a short, bony man with a bad goatee. He often lost track of what curriculum he was supposed to be teaching and allowed his lectures to veer off into unscientific directions: the Titanic, the films of Stanley Kubrick, his problems attempting to build a deck with his own hands behind his trailer. William Ash, who’d grown six inches over the summer and started dating a high school girl, once called Mr. Simms a douchebag to his face, but the insult had only confused him. Today Mr. Simms was possessed with a manic furor regarding what had happened to Albert Toovey. We sat at five black tables in his basement classroom.
“Most holes, especially ones of this size, aren’t common in middle Tennessee,” said Mr. Simms. “Florida, maybe. But this one might turn out to be truly unique.” He cupped his hands together again and again as he spoke, producing a hollow popping rhythm that punctuated his words.
“What do you think caused the sinkhole?” asked William Ash. He was doing all he could to keep Mr. Simms off-topic. I liked it when William spoke, because it meant that Gretchen Mills, who sat across from me, would have an excuse to stare at William, and therefore I would have an excuse to stare at Gretchen’s breasts.
“The causes of a sinkhole,” Mr. Simms said. “I’m glad you asked that Mr. Ash. You see, it is my belief that this particular sinkhole was caused by the collapse of a cave roof. For a long time, people around Canterbury have wondered if there are caves in the limestone bedrock beneath us…yes, Ms. Mills?”
Gretchen had her hand up, and just before she lowered it and spoke, I caught a glimpse of the tender, white bald spot under her arm where she had shaved, possibly just that morning. “My mother told me that those caves were dug by the Indians. She says that Albert’s house falling in is the Indian ghosts coming for revenge on him cause his great-great-great-grandfather was cursed by a medicine man.”
Gretchen had been the first girl in our grade to shave her armpits and her legs. Sitting across from her that year was the most remarkable and serendipitous accident of my life. Seats in Mr. Simms’s class had been assigned, not chosen, and for once I was not squeezed aside to the table of pariahs, nose-pickers, acne monsters and mutes. I spent most days wondering if Gretchen had considered me for one second, one miniscule fractional portion of her day. The spring before, at a Canterbury High varsity baseball game, I hid myself under the towering bleachers and listened to the sounds around me—bats cracking, gloves popping, cheering, crickets. I heard Gretchen Mills’ laugh above the rest of the crowd at several moments. She was sitting with a group of her friends, enjoying the game and a soda. Each time she laughed, I would draw a small, five-pointed star in the dirt next to my feet.
“Well, Ms. Mills,” Mr. Simms said, “those Indian ghost stories can be entertaining, but I’m afraid this is just a case of slightly soluble limestone wearing away. We won’t know for sure, of course, until the volunteer fire crews climb down into the hole later today. Rumor has it that the caves go miles deep under the earth. Those firemen might be the first humans to set foot down there.”
“I hope they’re good Christians,” said William Ash, “or else they might be easy prey for those Indian ghosts.”
Gretchen seemed to approve of this comment very much, and she began staring at William with intensity, as if she were trying to telekinetically turn his head towards her. William, as always, played it cool and kept his eyes on Mr. Simms. I’ll protect you, I said to Gretchen in my head. I’ll protect you from the Indian ghosts and everything else.
After school, I walked straight to my Daddy’s bar. The Bend was packed to the door, busier than I’d ever seen it at four o’clock on a school day. When I squeezed my way inside I saw the reason: Albert Toovey was sitting at a table in the center of the room, still wearing his bathrobe, taking shots of whiskey and telling the story of the sinkhole again and again. “Like so many unfortunate citizens of our country,” he said as I skirted past, “I have not been blessed with good fortune in my life, but I have tried to alleviate that curse with hard work and… honorable living.”
“Hey Daddy,” I said when I reached the bar. Daddy was opening a fresh bottle of Jim Beam and he winked at me as a greeting.
“Business is good,” he said. “Poor old Albert. Turns out he didn’t have the insurance. Everyone is buying him drinks.”
“Daddy. I want to see it,” I said. I used my quietest voice possible. I didn’t like it when people noticed me sitting at the bar, and Daddy knew that. It wasn’t a whisper; I wasn’t lowering the volume. I was just hiding myself in the words. Only Daddy, Mama and Simon could hear me when I spoke in the super-quiet way. At The Bend, my family could hear me even amidst the clacking of shot glasses and the shouting and the Skynyrd on the jukebox.
“Sam, it’s a hole,” Daddy said. “It ain’t going anywhere. I’ll take you in a couple of days, when things calm down around here. Besides, the firemen haven’t even gone down inside yet.”
“Too much smoke and dust still. It’s like a chimney, that hole. They may have to wait until tomorrow.”
I pictured the first Canterbury volunteer fireman being lowered with a rope into the sinkhole. I wondered how frightened he would be. Surely he would know about the Indian ghosts. Surely that would be creeping into the back of his mind, as rational a fireman as he was, and surely he would curse the fact that he had drawn the shortest straw, that it was his rope being lowered first, that he would be the one to see what lay beyond the smoke.
“Sam,” my father said. “I’m thinking about offering Albert a place to stay tonight. We’ve got Simon’s bed. Do you think your Mama will be okay with that?”
I shrugged. It had been so long since I had spoken to Mama about Simon.
Daddy had bought The Bend in 1984, the year after Simon was born. He’d been a trucker up to that point, but his new son had forced him to plant some roots in Canterbury, his hometown. He and Mama had run the bar together for twenty years. They had sweated out the hard times, using a little calculator to add up every night’s sales, calling out numbers to each other until five in the morning. Sometimes they had been too tired to take Simon and me home, and we’d all slept on three cots that were kept in the bar pantry. I was small enough to curl up with Mama on one of them. After Simon left, Mama had gotten the job at the dentist’s office in just three weeks. It was a part of keeping herself busy, she said, but Daddy had told me in private that she’d gotten the job because the people at a dentist’s office were usually strangers, and less likely than the people at The Bend to ask her questions about the war.
An hour after I arrived, the crowd around Albert parted somewhat so that the man of the hour could stand on his chair and make a toast. “To my dear friend, Mister Simon Samuels Senior!” He held a shot glass full of brown-amber Jim Beam towards the ceiling. “Who has graciously offered me a temporary place of residence in his home.” Albert and the people surrounding him gulped their liquor in unison and smiled in the direction of the bar.
“Simon Samuels, a good man,” several people shouted.
Daddy offered a succinct nod and resumed his pouring of Beam.
I stayed at the bar all day long and finished my English homework in the crowded, beery haze. At eleven I fell asleep on one of the cots in the back room, but I awoke just a few hours later to the sound of Daddy saying my name.
“Help me walk Mr. Toovey home,” he said.
It took us forty-five minutes to walk the three blocks between The Bend and our house. Albert was a portly man, and Daddy and I could barely manage to balance him between us. Albert’s bathrobe was wet with beer stains, and his breath reeked of cigarettes and vomit. At one point, he fell out of our arms and landed on both knees on the sidewalk. He put his hands together and began praying. “Dear God,” he shouted. “Please let Jeeves and Lily and Jaguar be safe!”
“Up we go, Albert,” Daddy said. “You’re making quite a racket here.”
We reached our house and Daddy rapped on the screen door that connected to the kitchen. A light came on and the door opened and there was Mama, still in her dress. She’d either been dozing on the couch or hadn’t bothered to fall asleep at all. Her black hair was tied above her head in a bun, which made the shape of her face sharper.
Mama looked us over. “Where’s he gonna sleep?”
“Simon’s bed,” Daddy said. “If that’s okay.”
Mama didn’t speak or nod or anything. She simply stepped aside to allow us passage through the kitchen and up the stairs. There weren’t many things decorating Simon’s room: a dresser with a few swimming medals arranged neatly in a rainbow shape across its surface, a bed covered by a plain white blanket, an old Ozzie Smith poster on the closet door. Above the bed, Mama had hung a photo of Simon marching during his graduation from basic training.
We let Albert Toovey fall onto the bed. The springs of the mattress strained and groaned, and for a moment I thought the frame would collapse under Albert’s body. I asked Daddy if we should take his shoes off, but he just shook his head. Then, as if waking from a strange dream, Daddy narrowed his eyes at me and said, “Sam, it’s four o’clock in the morning. You have school tomorrow.”
But when I retreated to my own bed, I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were bouncing in unfamiliar ways inside my head. Albert Toovey hadn’t had insurance. Everything he ever owned was gone. All that was left was a deep, dark hole. If Gretchen Mills was right, the sinkhole had opened the way for the Indian ghosts to walk into the world. They could invade Canterbury and overpower us in our sleep and carry us like helpless little babies into the caves.
It was past five when I heard what I thought was a tap on my window. My heart almost stopped. I sat up in bed and listened close. After a couple of minutes, I heard the sound again, but it certainly wasn’t a tap on the window this time. It sounded more distant, like someone had been standing in our street and had struck a snare drum. Tap, clack, tap, clack. The kind of sound you could hear only if everything was quiet and your mind was in a perfect state of anticipation. I climbed out of bed, laced up my sneakers, and looked out the window.
The street was empty but covered in a semi-glaze of fog. Sunrise was only an hour or so away. I watched the two dogwood trees in our front yard for several minutes, counting as one, two, three leaves fell from their branches. Then I saw a small dark shape moving in the space between the skinny trunks. I recognized the shape at once from one of the posters in Mr. Simms’s classroom: iguana.
The hallway was dark, and all the doors in the house were open. Ghosts could pass through this place perfectly, I thought. Nothing to shield them or make them stop to think. Everything laid out plain as day. I passed Simon’s room and watched the fat man on my brother’s bed. His stomach moved up and down—a big bubble. “Mr. Toovey?” I said. I knew I was speaking in the quiet voice, and even if I screamed Albert wouldn’t wake up. “I think one of your iguanas is outside.”
I walked into my parent’s room, where the light was cold and blue coming through the curtains. When they slept, my parents looked like strangers to me. Maybe it was the silence and the stillness. I had watched them sleep before and had the same thought: they could be two people anywhere, asleep. Mama wrapped up tight in a cocoon of quilts on the left side of the bed, her black hair falling on her cheek, her mouth open. Daddy on his stomach, still in his clothes from work, still smelling like his bar, his hands buried under his pillow and his elbow only two inches away from Mama’s mouth, feeling her breath. I thought about waking them up to tell them about the iguana. But I couldn’t stop staring at the space, the two inches of plain white bed sheet, between Mama’s mouth and the point of Daddy’s elbow. After a few minutes, I decided I could handle this by myself.
I crept down the stairs, found my windbreaker draped over a kitchen chair, and walked out the front door. The iguana was still there, standing in the wet grass between the dogwoods. I reached down and ran my finger across the scales of its back. The iguana didn’t move. It just blinked one eye in my direction.
I recalled Albert’s drunken prayer from a few hours earlier. “Are you Jeeves, Lily or Jaguar?” I asked the iguana. It began to walk away, moving its feet in circular strides. I followed as it climbed from our yard onto the street. Then it stopped again, and I decided that it wanted to be picked up and taken somewhere. So I picked it up and began walking towards Parnell Street.
Canterbury was silent around me as I moved: I was a spy, a secret. I was out on patrol. I turned onto Parnell and a small white car drove slowly past me. Its windshield was covered in a thin fog, except for a small oval near the bottom that had been cleared away by the defrost. It was barely enough room for the driver to be able to see the road even a foot in front of the car. At the end of the street, I saw the grey-brown smoke, still rising.
The sinkhole was as big as I had imagined it to be—a gaping mouth in the ground between two suburban houses. I thought of the people sleeping in those houses. Or was there anyone there? Had Albert’s neighbors left out of fear that the hole would grow bigger and swallow their homes next? Had they taken their possessions with them? Instead of a yard, there was the ripped and corroded edge of a giant crater. I tried to guess where Albert had been standing when it happened. I found a spot near the end of Albert’s driveway and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I imagined the house going down just that quickly. In the blink of an eye.
The smoke drifted up from the dark of the hole with ghostly certainty. It was escaping. There was no one else there: no firemen, no bystanders. Just me, Sam Samuels, with an iguana in my arms. I didn’t want to speak. The hole in front of me had some sort of intelligence. It had powers beyond my imagination. It had swallowed up a man’s life and then regurgitated one small lizard and sent it to me. I could not send the iguana back empty-handed.
I held the creature up to my face. Its gaze settled on me expectantly. I felt its scales crinkling under my palms as it swiveled its tail in the air. I couldn’t tell where its ears were, so instead I whispered into its bulging eyes. “If you see my brother before I do,” I said, “tell him it’s only temporary. Tell him Albert Toovey won’t sleep in his bed forever. If you tell him that, I’ll tell Albert that you’re okay.”
I placed the iguana on the lip of the sinkhole and watched as it turned its head left, then right, and vanished downward into the darkness.
I returned home. From the street, I saw that the kitchen light was on. Mama was awake. She was starting breakfast, drinking coffee, letting her eyes adjust to the morning. She was waiting for me.
WALTER B. THOMPSON is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. His work has previously appeared in The Writing Disorder, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin, where he was the 2014-2015 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.