Solid Ground

Michael Croley

I just saw her get swallowed whole. She might have been twenty yards away and then the earth was opening up and she was gone. I was on my front porch, gathering the mail, when that pretty young woman came past in her car, bobbing her head to some song on the radio, and then the worst sound I’ve ever heard came tearing up from the ground. The concrete crackled and screeched and her car vanished. She screamed the whole way down. I couldn’t hear that but I saw her mouth open and the tendons in her neck straining. I didn’t know whether to go to her or stay where I was. One by one the doors on our street opened to take inventory of the noise and then once we saw the damage we made our way to the hole, searching into its blackness and then lifting our heads back to one another. We couldn’t see anything except for the broken chunks of asphalt and dirt. It was like the earth had been hollowed out and no trace of that car, only slivering earthworms burrowing back into the exposed soil. The pit was so deep I thought of it going all the way to China like we believed when we were kids but then I just thought of that hole going on forever—through the earth and into space. I imagined that poor woman falling without end.

I gave myself chills with such thinking and I backed away and went right to the porch and sat down. The police and fire departments showed up and started clearing people out. Seemed like half the crowd moved onto my front lawn and all of them snapping pictures with their phones. I hollered to one of the officers, Icie Harp’s boy Randy, and told him I didn’t want them on my lawn. It wasn’t that I was worried about the grass or my flowerbeds like I told him, but that I needed space. I needed to be able to go into my house and try to forget that dark emptiness. Before long I knew the television crews would show up and start interviewing every hick we have in town, making us all look like a bunch of fools—that’s what makes for good news these days—when what really happened was that a woman was disappeared and lost.

The officers and firemen pushed the crowd toward the sidewalks to make way for search teams and vehicles but as those men went to work, rigging themselves up in climbing equipment and surveying the hole, they kept glancing back over their shoulders. Like the rest of us, they couldn’t turn away.

“They’ll stay off the lawn, Mrs. Anderson. I’ll make sure of it.”

“What about that woman?” I said.

“They’ll do what they can to find her.”

“She’s gone,” I said. Men were now lowering themselves down into the hole.

He didn’t even react. “We don’t know that. You should go inside and rest. I’ll come get you for a statement in a little while.”

“What sort of statement?”

“You were the last person to see her,” he said. “You were the first person to see this.” He turned to the hole.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“We’ll need your statement to file a report,” he said.

“There’s nothing to say.”

“We just want you to tell us what you saw.”

“What I saw is what you see there.” I pointed to the assembled crowd. I stood up and started into the house and Randy stepped toward me, or at least I thought he did, and I held my hands out for him to stop, which confused him. I didn’t want to be bothered by him or by anyone, for that matter. I went inside and locked my door.

“Mrs. Anderson,” he called through the glass. “I didn’t mean to scare you but I’ll need to come back later.”

I remained quiet. His dark figure came through the curtains, head cocked to the side, listening. Finally, he stepped away and I did too. I went to the sofa and sat down with the house turned off. I kept remembering the earth ripping apart and seeing that woman’s honey-colored hair, her throat fully exposed to the light.

 

The next morning yellow tape surrounded the scene. There were some gawkers but mostly it was just neighbors who’d walked down the street for coffee. The dog walkers cinched their leashes around their hands when their dogs began to circle the hole, sniffing and prodding with their muzzles, tails pointed toward the sky. Icie’s boy was down the street, parking his cruiser and setting up traffic cones.

For most of the night I had stayed by the window, watching as the rescue teams moved in shifts. Three went down and three came back up. Bright floodlights tried to show them a path and lit up the street and the front rooms of the house. From the minute she fell, something inside of me sensed I would never see the woman again, that none of us would, and yet I still wanted very much to walk out there and peer down once more.

When my husband Everett was alive he used to get mad at me about the way my imagination could run. He said I dreamt too much and wasn’t practical but I used to tell him being practical doesn’t allow for any joy and what good is a life without joy.

“But you always go dark,” he said. “You never think about the good that can come from something.”

He may have had a point. I am prone to melancholy so when I walked off my porch and into the yard, I tried to imagine that woman landing someplace safe and gentle. I tried to think of where that might be and what came to mind were those gilded images of heaven in the Bible I gave up on long before I was an adult. They’re just too perfect and too out of sync with what’s actually beautiful on this earth and in this life, so I pictured her falling into a field of blue wildflowers and clover or tall grass near a hillside shaded by oaks and sycamores with a picnic blanket spread beneath their leaves and the sun overhead and a cooling breeze. A blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. Then I had to shake the image from my head because it was too damn foolish given how she had left, given the ugliness and violence of how she was taken.

“Ready for that statement, Mrs. Anderson?”

It was Randy. He’s nearly the same age as my son and I can never think of him as an officer of the law, but rather as a boy who is playing dress up. I see him as a child, riding his bike across my lawn and jumping the sidewalk. I keep expecting him to tell me he has a Halloween party to attend but he is a man now with a wife and child at home.

“How’s your mother?” I said.

“She’s fine. Says to tell you hello. She saw your house on the news and asked after you. I told her you were feisty as ever.”

“Don’t go spreading rumors, Randy.”

“No rumors, ma’am. Just the truth.” He smiled big and wide and I thought to myself he must be a good son.

“What do you need to know?”

“Just what you saw.”

“Who was she?” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“The woman. Do you know who she was?”

“We haven’t a clue. No one has reported a missing person. As far as we can tell you’re the only witness. Everyone else was inside when the sinkhole opened up.”

“Only me.”

He nodded.

“She was driving down the street without a care.” I stopped. I didn’t know how to tell him what I saw. I had convinced myself overnight the young woman looked me in the eye as she fell below the world, that I was the last person she saw before darkness overtook her.

“Mrs. Anderson? Can you go on?”

“She didn’t see it coming. She was singing, mouthing along with the words then there was the sinkhole opening up and it was over. It was so fast and so loud.”

“Anything else? Did you see a license plate? Do you remember the make of the car?”

“The car was light blue. Japanese. That’s all I can recall. The things that must have run through her head once it started,” I said.

He penned something in his notepad and told me he would type it up and bring it back for me to read over if I wanted. I was about to say no, that I’d said all I needed, but something told me I should tell him I wanted to look at it one more time. Just then the radio on his shoulder crackled.

“Go ahead,” Randy said.

A clear voice came back. “We’ve got another sinkhole.”

He turned to me. “I’ve got to go, Mrs. Anderson. I’ll stop by later.”

Then he was running toward his cruiser and hopping in. The roof flared blue and the siren rang through the neighborhood trees. I had the urge to get in the car and follow but I didn’t want to be in the way. When I turned the news on an hour later, there was Randy in front of Mills Hardware, saying nobody was hurt and answering questions. The phone rang and I checked the Caller ID.

“Hi, Sam.”

“Mom, are you OK?” His voice was urgent.

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I saw the news. Right in front of the house?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, though another one just opened up across from the hardware store.”

“Is there any damage to the house? Where were you when it happened?”

“I hope Mills is OK,” I said. “He’s getting so old I can’t imagine how he keeps a store these days.” I walked to the front of the house. I couldn’t stop looking at the spot.

“But what about you? Should I come home?”

“You should always come visit your mother. You and your sister both should come home more often, but you don’t need to come home on account of this. It’s just strangeness. No telling what’s caused it.”

“Fracking,” Sam said. “All that damn fracking. Those fuckers just keep tunneling through the earth like a bunch of overgrown ants. They’ll suck the earth dry until we’re all on fire.”

“You don’t know that. And stop cursing.”

“We don’t not know it. Remember the earthquake last year? And those others up in Ohio? That’s all because of fracking.”

“Well, son. You’re not the one that has to live with it, are you?”

The line went silent. I shouldn’t say such things to him because I know he is concerned—and probably right—but I’m the one that lives here. Not him. He left when he went off to college and he’s never come back and he’s not going to. Before he could say anything more I saved both of us and said, “I’ll be fine. Have you talked to Heather?”

He gave me a reluctant sigh but answered. “I talked to her yesterday. She seemed to be doing good.”

“And when are you two going to come home?”

“We think at the end of summer.”

“Well, I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere. At least I don’t plan on it.” It was hard for me to say more, to tell him I miss them, and that the days get lonelier with each year. They are in the middle of their lives and I remember what that was like for Everett and me but our only aim was to have them, to raise them right—to be true and good people. They want more than that, it seems, and we encouraged them to leave, to experience a world past Fordyce. They listened to us and they have gone. My loneliness, in this way, is my own doing.

“I’ll call again tomorrow,” Sam said.

 

The newswoman from Lexington, thankfully, wasn’t some young child fresh out of college. She appeared to be in her early forties, though her hair was stiff enough it could have stopped a brick. When she came to my door I politely declined, though she tried to insist I was “integral to the story.” I told her if she wanted to do some good, she should find out who that woman was and locate her people. That’s what was most important. She left the porch with a short cameraman trailing behind her and they set up camp on the sidewalk.

I went up to the second floor and watched her from behind a parted curtain. Nobody was lining up to talk to her but nobody walked away when she approached, either. Past her, the firemen were still at it, still going down in threes but their attitude was a lot different than on that first day. They laughed above ground and sipped on coffee. They might as well have been standing around a fire in someone’s backyard. No one cared about that girl anymore. No one, it seemed, except me.

That night, after I watched our little town on the news, I went outside. They had already given up night searches. Police barricades and heavy equipment surrounded the hole but nobody was there. I squeezed past a barricade and ducked under some police tape. The neighborhood slept and I shined a flashlight into the opening. I saw what I expected but then I sat down and let my legs dangle above the dirt. The asphalt still held the day’s heat and I ran my hands along road’s broken edge and felt the soft crumbling of it at my fingertips. The sky was full of stars and I turned off the flashlight so that I was in the dark. I pictured that poor woman once more. Where was she headed? Who was expecting her? What kind of life had been taken? The crickets’ whine was high in the air. I have more days behind me than in front of me, which is something I’ve thought about more and more in the last five years since Everett’s passing, but I don’t know how to make them last or count. And that girl was gone before life even began for her. Without thinking much, I found my foot searching for a place to step, my body lowering itself into that hole. There was a makeshift ladder constructed that was only four rungs tall, like one you find in a swimming pool for the rescue workers, but it was on the opposite side of me. The flashlight I had was small enough to be held in my mouth so I turned it back on and placed it there then bent my neck downward to see where my feet might land if I pushed off with my arms. There seemed to be a ledge of dirt that would hold me so I took a careful step forward and felt its solidness. Then another.

My eyes were level with the road and below me it was as if a path opened up into nothing. Nothingness, I corrected myself. I wanted to sit down in that space and let the earth cover me, but why I wanted to escaped me. I didn’t want to die; I wasn’t ready to leave this life, but maybe I wanted to know what it might feel like to be below rather than above. I made a motion to sit with a slight shuffle step to my left and slid, the dirt giving way underneath me and I let out a scream that made the flashlight fall from my mouth and tumbled quickly toward the darkness and I flailed my arms toward the edge and grabbed the jagged asphalt and managed to keep myself from falling. I kicked like a cartoon character trying to find a foothold until finally my toe struck something solid. I was sure I was going to fall and, confronted with the danger, my heart beat faster; my fear churned; I pressed my body as close to the edge as I could. Soft dirt touched my cheek and then, despite myself, I felt wet tears at the edges of my clenched eyes. I opened them wide to see only the night and then inch by inch, I made my way to the ladder where I pulled myself up to the road and then I lay flat on my back, collecting my breath but unable to stop the tears.

 

Three weeks later the sinkhole was filled. They did bring in geologists from the university and some structural engineers to study the hole, but they said there was too much earth to move and too much to risk peeling the road back to search any longer. So they showed up one day and dumped load after load of concrete and sand into the pit and then they poured new asphalt and tamped it down with a road roller. I watched all this over the course of four days and when they were done a black flat rectangle covered the street and somewhere underneath it all she was still there. I thought of her beating against the roof of her car and somehow making her way out, crawling through all that sediment and dirt only to find one more layer of darkness she could not claw through. It kept me up and I found myself going out there nearly every night, standing right in the middle of the newly repaved surface—beside where I had lain.

Cars rolled right over top of it and with each one I waited, expecting the earth to open up again, but it never did. I thought of the one time Everett and I went to New York. We had been planning that trip for months and two days; before we left, I took ill with a terrible cold and fever. We shouldn’t have gone, and as we walked up and down Fifth Avenue I shook with chills. Every step of the way Everett said we could go back to the hotel room but I wanted to keep going, to keep looking in those big store windows at clothes that were more expensive than our mortgage. I wanted everything. At Bergdorf Goodman there was a scarf in the window that stopped me in the middle of the sidewalk. A marvelous golden cashmere with specks of marled blue and fringed ends. Everett didn’t even have to ask what I was looking at. “Let’s see how much it is.”

“We can’t afford it,” I said.

“We can if you want it.”

“It’s not practical,” I said, using his own argument against him.

“You can’t always be practical. You’ve got to enjoy yourself.” He winked and tugged at me, but I didn’t budge. I don’t know if I had ever wanted anything more and yet I couldn’t take one step toward the store.

He walked in without me. And though I put on a show of being angry and upset, of talking about the expense, when we got to our room that night I pulled it from its box and tissue paper, and the first thing I did was brush the soft fabric across my cheek.

We went out that night and I put the scarf on and I loved it so much I didn’t want to take it off when we sat down to dinner. For a few hours my fever and chills left me, and on our way back to our hotel, every time we passed a window or mirror, I stopped to notice the scarf, not believing it was mine. I clutched at the fabric as if it might fly away. On the sidewalk those metal grates from the subway whooshed hot air past my knees. I hated walking over top of them, fearful they might give way.

“Let me on the solid ground,” I told Everett and he traded places with me, smiling like I was a silly child.

At Mills Hardware I walked up to the resurfaced road, noticing its blackness already fading.

“Hell of a big hole,” Amos Mills said, coming out from the store.

“I’ve seen bigger,” I said.

“Yes, you have,” he said. “I still can’t understand how a car disappeared. I can’t believe nobody has come to search for that woman.”

“Maybe she got turned around and was lost. Just passing through town on her way to someplace else.”

“Must have been. I feel for her family. They’re going to come calling one day. They’ll figure it out and they’ll show up and you’ll see them, Alice. They’ll be standing right outside your house looking at a discolored patch of road and maybe everybody else will believe them to be crazy but you’ll know who they are and why they are there.”

“I never thought of that,” I said, “but you’re right.”

“I don’t envy you that one.” Then, changing the subject, “How are the kids?”

“They’re fine. Planning to visit soon.”

“You don’t think they’ll ever grow up when they’re babies and you’re up all night after them but then they leave and you don’t know if they’ll ever come back, do you?”

“That sounds about right,” I said. “And yours?”

“They’re fine. They’ll come back for Labor Day. You think it’s finished?” he said, pointing to the hole.

“What do you mean?”

“Are they done opening up?”

“My son doesn’t think so,” I said.

“I hope he’s wrong.”

“Me too,” I said.

Later that night, I called Sam and Heather. I needed to hear their voices even if it was for just five minutes. They told me they would come at the end of the summer to visit. They promised. They asked how I had been and Sam, trying to take on Everett’s role, asked how the house was, if it needed anything. In some ways, it’s quite sweet how they try to take on our old roles and in others I can’t stand it, but I was lonely and I needed my family. Heather told us about a new patient, a child actor she said we would know if she could tell us her name, who has been coming to her for a month for counseling. We listened to the more interesting details and tried to guess at who it was, but she wouldn’t give a name. Then, feigning sleepiness, I told the children I had to go. Hearing their voices had made me lonelier and when I got off the phone, I thought I would just go right up to bed. I began flipping off lamps and light switches when the moon came out from behind a cloud and its white light fell on the road, on the patch. I opened the door.

The wind was in the leaves and I smelled rain coming, but the light was on the road. I walked behind the house to the shed and pulled out an old pickax of Everett’s. The wood on the handle was worn smooth and I carried it out to the road. I took a mighty swing and jabbed into the patched surface. The ax bounced right back, not even nicking the asphalt and nearly toppled me, but I steadied myself and I took another swing. Then another. I tried to hit the same mark to soften the spot. The wind blew hard and the moonlight left and I struck the road again and again, trying to keep up a rhythm, but I couldn’t. Breathless, I dropped the ax and sat down on the curb. Blisters had already formed on my hands and I rubbed them. The asphalt had what looked like only a scratch on its surface. I was never going to break it.

 

The end of summer arrived and with it, Sam and Heather. I spent a week getting the house all straight for them and going to the grocery for their favorite foods. It took my mind off the awful events of the spring, the image of that poor woman. The two of them home were something like a storm and the house, for a few days, was alive like it used to be with their energy and talk, meals around the dining room table, and the steady hum of a television or stereo in the background. Heather and I cleaned out the attic and Sam took care of my landscaping, asking how the pickax had become so bent and nicked. When we went to church, everyone told them how happy I must be to have them home.

I was happy to see them. We sat down in a pew in the balcony and I took note of the cracks in the eggshell-colored plaster. It is a good old church, comforting, and I felt safe between my children, the first time I had ever had such a feeling—that of the protected rather than the protector. The preacher gave his sermon about how Jesus said He would never leave us, that He would never desert us, and I thought about how Everett and I shouldn’t have waited so long to have them because the truth of life is I will desert them. Everett already has. Life is an odd miracle to me. It is so simple and true—the movement of breath into a body and its exhalation—and then, like those breaths, it is fleeting but with such hard parting.

I’d been looking out the window every day for a couple that might have resembled Everett and me to show up and stare at the road, but no one came. It was as if that woman, that girl, had no people. The preacher read from the Book of John, quoting Jesus, and I took up Sam and Heather’s hands and gave each one a good squeeze, which they returned. They were leaving in the morning and I would count down the days until their next visit. I thought I might cry if I focused on it too much, so I picked up a hymnal and thumbed through its pages.

After lunch I went up to the office and turned on the computer, and I started looking up sinkholes on the Internet. There was our town. There was the news article from the paper and one on CNN. An “unknown motorist,” each one labeled the woman. She couldn’t have always been unknown, I thought. Not someone who screamed for the life inside her all the way to the end.

The children were in their rooms, readying suitcases for an early morning drive to the airport. They refused to let me follow behind in the car and watch them off and it was as if I had already begun to allow the knot of loss and leaving form below my sternum. I wanted them both to stay and yet I knew I could never ask them such a thing—a life here is not what we ever wished for them. Just then Heather’s voice called to me and I rose.

She was standing in the hall, holding my golden scarf.

“Mom, this is gorgeous.”

“Your father bought it for me when we went to New York.”

“Why didn’t you ever wear it?”

“I did there. It never seemed to fit in here and I could never find the right occasion for it.”

“It’s lovely,” she said, thumbing the fabric.

“What is it?” Sam said.

“A scarf,” she said, holding it out to him. “She’s never worn it.”

“I did once,” I interrupted.

“You’ve kept it in the attic all these years?” Sam said.

I nodded. “Take it,” I said to Heather. “Your dad would be happy you have it and I will be, too.”

“I can’t,” she said.

“You’re going to get it one day,” I said. “You both are going to get everything that’s left, so you might as well take it now while I can see you enjoy it.”

“Mom, that’s so morbid.” She turned to her brother who turned back to me, but I only shrugged my shoulders.

“But it’s true. Take it. I want you to. Here.” I took the garment in my hands and placed it around her neck and knotted it for her. “You look beautiful. Doesn’t she?” Sam nodded. I stood behind her and faced her toward the mirror and then there was Sam looking, too. The three of us alone in the hallway. Heather turned and kissed my cheek and the fabric brushed my neck.

“Mom?” Sam said. “Do you know those people?”

Through the transom window above the front door we saw a man and woman standing in the road.

“They’ve been out there for fifteen minutes,” he said. “They haven’t said a word to each other.”

I put my hand up to my heart. There was a genuine ache and pain and I stood between Sam and Heather and I knew.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

“Who is it?” Heather said.

“The parents,” I said. “They’ve come to see her.” I noticed a bouquet of wilting flowers in the man’s hand. They had on church clothes.

“You want us to go out with you?” Sam asked.

“No, you two just get your things together. I’ll be back in a minute.” I opened the door and the rush of a breeze entered. The couple lifted their heads and I walked down the steps to the sidewalk. The man put his arm over the woman’s shoulder and she clasped it.

I was aware of Sam and Heather standing in the doorway, so I turned to them and waved for them to close the door and they obliged. Then I stepped off the sidewalk and called to the couple.

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