The sinkhole happened at the crack of a bat. It was with the baseball player’s swing, in a perfect collision of wood to stitches, that the earth rumbled and the ground opened in far right field. Witnesses reported that at first there was calm: attention hung on the ball as it soared above the right fielder, beyond the collapse in the grass, well over the fence. When the pitcher fainted on the mound, that’s when the calm broke. Broke like a levee, as the newscaster put it. Crowds rushed from the bleachers. Players evacuated the field. The pitcher was carried out in the coach’s arms. It took just a few minutes, then the stadium was empty.
Or so it was reported on the five o’clock news. As soon as the segment ended, the phone rang.
“God I can’t believe it,” Alice said. “It’s like a curse.”
This was not Alice’s first experience with a sinkhole. Where she’s from in Missouri, coal mining causes one every couple of years. The way she talks about it, you’d think the earth there is more crater than not. One happened at her brother Ethan’s friend’s birthday party, consuming the small inflatable pool and the table with the cake. Others were dormant in cornfields, sometimes taking months to be discovered. The most damaging, she said, happened in nearby Amish country. A sinkhole in the road there swallowed a full ox and a buggy.
“I guess it’s not too much of a coincidence,” I said. The newscaster said that fracking had long put our region at risk for earthquakes, sinkholes — the full platter of natural disasters.
“I guess,” she said. “Well tomorrow we’ll check it out.”
“Yes. Ethan and I always do. Meet us after last period. By the picnic benches.”
The picnic benches had been our “spot” since I started hanging out with Alice and Ethan last September. Before then, we’d keep seeing each other at the park. I’d be under the tree, reading. They’d be in the field, picking dandelions. One time, packing my things to leave, I heard a shout. Together they motioned me toward them. I closed my backpack and walked over.
“You’re Andrea, right?” the girl asked as I approached. “I think we’re in Film Club together.” I remembered her. Alice, the only girl in the school with political pins on her jackets and bags.
She smiled at me. “We’re just looking at this gopher hole,” she said, scooting a little to the side. Beside her was a small burrow, a laurel of dandelions around the rim.
Alice patted the ground. “Take a seat.”
Alice was two grades above me and Ethan was three below, but the age difference never really came up. We had a lot in common, especially because they were new to the neighborhood. They were new and, despite my having lived in this town for 15 years, I think all three of us felt like outsiders.
Alice and Ethan were waiting for me by the picnic benches. Alice packed a jumbo bag of chips for the road.
“Think this one will be as big as the railroad station one?” Alice asked, tearing open the bag.
“I don’t know,” Ethan said, taking a chip. “That one was pretty big.”
This speculation continued the duration of our 15-minute walk. As we neared the field, though, they quieted. The outline of the crater was obvious, even from a distance.
“Definitely bigger than the railroad station one,” Ethan said.
“Agreed,” she said. “Here we go,” she said, and we walked.
Someone had put a tarp over it, like a band-aid. Alice started pulling out the stakes. Ethan and I helped, then together we peeled back the plastic. The sinkhole’s diameter was maybe 10 feet. Alice walked to the rim, stopping so the toes of her Converses sniffed over the edge.
“Wonder how deep it is,” Alice said. The sinkhole looked like a punch in the mouth, the kind of blow that leaves blood and broken teeth. Debris clung to the edges like molars.
As we stood, a car turned off Randall Road, snaking up the gravel to the baseball field.
Alice glanced over her shoulder. “Someone’s coming —”
She grabbed Ethan’s elbow, and together we ran toward a small cluster of bushes behind the field.
“Ow —” Ethan said, skidding in the dirt. “It’s prickly back here.”
“Shh,” Alice said, making a little window out of the branches.
On the other side of the field, a man wearing khakis and a blue shirt with navy sweat stains was taking a box out of the backseat of a Buick. He shifted the weight of the crate in his hands, moving a golf club away from his face. He scanned the field, gaze smoothing over the bushes, then continued.
The man carried his load to far left field, 10 yards or so from the hole. He dropped the crate. Its contents jingled like Christmas ornaments. The man pulled out a champagne glass from the box and positioned it upright on the grass. Licking his index finger, he tested the wind. Then, taking his club, he did a few practice swings; on the third, he hit the glass, driving it into the hole. The swing made a schwa-clink sound as it collided with the crystal.
“Bastards,” the man said, holding his hand as a visor and watching the shards flutter into the hole. He picked another from the box, placed it on the grass, and again drove it into the hole. “Fucking bastards.” For the next few he picked up speed, until he’d smashed all 50 or so. Then he took the crate and the club, dropped both in the sinkhole, and returned to his car.
Alice pulled back from the branches.
“What the hell was that?”
“Wonder whose glasses those belonged to,” Alice said.
“A country club is my guess. He had that golf club.”
“Man. What a waste.” Alice pushed at the dirt with her heel, then looked up. “Do you want to stay here a while? See who the other visitors are?”
Ethan nodded. I checked my watch.
“Okay, yeah. For a little while.”
After a few hours with no activity, I went to get us sodas from the vending machine. When I got back, I handed Alice and Ethan cans of coke.
“You missed it,” Alice said, popping the tab. “Two guys, right in a row.” She drank some, then wiped her lip. “Pitching stuff from their bachelor days. A framed Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition poster. Hooters souvenir cups.”
For the next few hours, Ethan made a little fort with branches while Alice and I talked about what, hypothetically, we would contribute to the sinkhole. For both of us, the problem was ownership — she didn’t own anything valuable enough to be considered worthwhile, and I didn’t own anything that felt enough like mine.
Ethan was furnishing a stick chimney when Alice spotted Peter Maxwell riding up on a bicycle. Peter, a schoolmate of ours, parked his bike in the lot. He unzipped his backpack and removed several objects: a ball of string, a small tape measure, a yellow notepad. He walked to the sinkhole and circled it, unraveling the string. After he’d measured the rope length with his tape measure, he started scribbling furiously on his notepad. “Square root of pi …” he mumbled, chewing on his pencil, “… carry the four … Pythagoras … Machu Picchu … three-hundred and twelve … Fibonacci … aha! Sinkhole!”
Satisfied, Peter dropped his tools and utensils back in his backpack. But, walking back to his bike, he stopped. From his back pocket, he pulled out a crisply folded sheet of paper. Opening it, he scanned it once over, then crinkled it and raised his fist. “Goddamn you, Mr. Lucas! ‘C’ my ass. History my ass!”
He stormed back to the sinkhole and threw the paper in. The wind lifted it upward like an origami swan, somersaulted it acrobatically, then returned it to the rim.
“Dammit,” Peter said.
His second try was successful. “Hah,” he said, dusting his hands. “Take that!” He returned to his bike, knocked the kickstand, and pedaled away furiously. I checked my watch.
“It’s seven,” I said.
“So we should probably get going.”
“But we’ll miss all the really good stuff if we leave now,” Alice said. “I bet all the CSI shit happens at night. Maybe someone will dump a dead body.”
“I’m ready to go home,” I said. Ethan yawned. “I’m fine coming back tomorrow, if you want.”
“Ok,” she sighed. “Your call.”
Alice and Ethan, as much as they knew about sinkholes, couldn’t answer how municipals filled them. I was googling this question when my mom came in and sat on the edge of my bed. She asked if I wanted to come taste wedding cakes with her tomorrow. “Maid-of-honor stuff,’ I think she called it.
She was marrying a guy named Drew, a cable man, and the wedding was in a week. I knew weddings required planning, and as maid of honor, I knew I was supposed to attend at least some of it.
When I called Alice to tell her I had to bail, I didn’t think she and Ethan would go on their own. But the next night, the phone rang.
“Blueprints and floor plans. That’s what this one guy threw in.”
“You went to the sinkhole?” I asked.
“Yeah. Then some girl came up with a red wagon full of stuffed animals. She lifted the wagon handle and let them all tumble in, like a dumper truck. I’m telling you, this is the kind of shit you just can’t make up.” There was a pause. “So, can you come tomorrow?”
“No, I have to help my mom again.”
“Oh, ok.” The line went silent. “We’ll fill you in then.”
I moved the laptop off my knees.
“It’s really worth going back?”
“Sure it is.”
What I missed on the third day, according to Alice and Ethan, was as follows: an old dried-up Christmas tree, a toilet seat (“Someone drove all this way to pitch a toilet seat. Who cares that much about a toilet seat?”) and a microwave.
On the fourth day: a cello case (“Full of counterfeit money is my guess,”) flyers for a business opening, a phone book.
The fifth: a paper shredder, a pleather armchair, roller blades, a hamster cage (“Ethan nearly blew our cover on that one. What sicko throws in a hamster? Jesus, this shit is depressing.”)
The next day Alice didn’t call. I almost called her, but decided against it; I thought maybe they didn’t go, and maybe it was better that they were moving on.
But Alice hadn’t forgotten. The morning after, my phone rang at the bridal store.
“We need to clog it,” Alice said.
“The sinkhole. We need to clog it.”
My mom came out, modeling a dress with lace. She ran her hands down the tulle skirt and spun in front of the mirror. It looked a lot like her old wedding gown, the one I’d seen in photos of her and my dad.
“Yeah,” I said, giving the dress a thumbs down.
“Are you in?”
“To clog the sinkhole.” I didn’t know what to say. “Never mind. You’re not listening.”
She hung up then, but when we came home that evening, Alice and Ethan were sitting on my front-porch steps.
“Hi, Ms. Besinger.” Alice stood up. “Andrea, we need to talk.”
“I’m sick of it being used as a trash pit,” Alice said, “I want to fill it.”
In Alice’s home, they didn’t fill cavities. Her dad was suspicious of dentists. You can survive without thousand-dollar dental work, he’d said when Alice and I came back from trick-or-treating with Ethan. Bad teeth builds character, he preached, wagging a stick of licorice.
“If we fill it, people will have to live with all the shit they want to get rid of,” Alice said.
In my home, we only filled some cavities. Take the hole in our wall. My dad punched a hole in the plaster one night back when they were fighting, and no one had ever patched it. My dad was angry but never violent, not until the night he stuck his fist in the wall. Stuck his fist in the wall like he was going to pull out a bouquet of flowers. He apologized afterward, but that was the end. My mom didn’t care that it was an accident. She said enough was enough.
For a while, there were still flakes of plaster on the ground. Eventually those got swept up, but the hole stayed. When my mom met Drew, she just covered the hole with a painting of a sailboat.
“I don’t want to give these people a way out, you know? It’s not fair. We sure as hell aren’t getting a way out,” Alice said.
What Alice said next, about her dad getting fired, about her dad not being able to hold a steady job, about moving back to Missouri, made me think of moving trucks. The way the movers my dad hired had noticed the hole in the wall and told my mom they’d fix it for a hundred bucks. She told them to be careful about scraping the couch on the hardwood floor.
“Can you help us?” Alice asked.
When we reached the field, it was sunset. Alice’s idea was to fill the sinkhole with equipment from the unlocked supplies closet, in which we’d found three crates of baseballs, an umpire’s uniform, four bats, an unexplained sombrero, sprinklers, a scoreboard and a hose.
By the time we’d pitched the hose, the second-to-last item in our possession, the sinkhole was filled to the brim. Strewn about carelessly, everything in the sinkhole looked dirty and exposed — a heap of dirty laundry. There was no more mystery to it. The romance was gone.
“What now?” Ethan asked, weighing the last item, a wooden bat, in his hands.
Alice smiled. She rummaged through the top of the pile, pulling out a baseball and a mitt.
She walked up to the pitcher’s mound, and I took first base. As we were assuming our positions, the automatic stadium light switched on. White light glowed in patches of mist on the field.
Alice punched her glove.
“You ready, Ethan?” Alice shouted.
Ethan took a practice swing. “Yeah!”
“Then, if you build it—”
Ethan smiled. “They will come!”
Field of Dreams. The quote. We’d watched it in Film Club. Like always, Alice talked through the whole film but quieted everyone at the end. Ends were what made a movie worth watching, she said.
Alice pitched. Ethan hit the ball. I made way as he sped past me at first and continued, grazing second base with the side of his shoe. Alice turned to watch. At third base we forgot it all — the hit, the catch, the sinkhole. With Ethan rounding the final corner then, all any of us were thinking about was home.