Sinkhole by William Vernon

teenage boy on bench with his back facing us

Dad’s tooth extraction bled for four days, but he continued his routines with the only apparent minor alteration of one pouching cheek, by which I mean he drove away to work those days as usual, his damaged gum packed with cotton swabs. Maybe this practice made us all complacent. Only later did we find out that he hid in the back office with the door closed and did paper work while Mrs. Combs, his two-day-a-week secretary, was brought in full-time to handle all verbal contact with clients.

When that bleeding finally stopped, his nose bled. It would dry up, then start again. Trapped at home with this condition, his nose now full of cotton gauze, his head lying back on a pillow, gagging occasionally, he’d tell us he was improving. He’d be all right. John and I and our three-year-old brother Tom took him at his word and went about our usual play.

Mom, though, confided in our friend Earnestine Hauser, who’d studied nursing. Immediately Earnestine convinced Dad’s doctor to send him to a hospital. The specialists there found leukemia, advanced, virulent and untreatable, though we children did not learn this immediately. Mom and her sister, a registered nurse, stayed at the hospital and cared for him. My older sister Joan watched Tom while John and I were trusted enough to remain alone at home. To us, the situation was oddly exciting. Our lack of supervision left us free, and we liked looking after ourselves—as long as Joan showed up periodically with meals. We played without worrying, oblivious to the truth.

I saw Dad in the hospital twice, the first time his second weekend there. Father Krusling, the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church, shook hands with John and me.

“Your Dad’s thinking clear as a bell today,” he said. The comment seemed as odd as the handshake; this priest saw us all the time, serving for him at mass and other rituals.

Mom grabbed her sons’ arms and pulled us forward. “Say hi to your father, boys.”

Dad’s hand rose from under the sheet and touched John’s, then my hand. “How you guys doing?”

John and I whispered, “Okay.” Dad’s voice had cracked as if his throat hurt, his face was oatmeal white, and his smile revealed two missing front teeth. Gauze stuck out of his nostrils. Had that bleeding started again?

His eyes fluttered, gazed straight up, his hand dropped. “Glasses.”

Mom took his black framed eyeglasses off a table by the bed, wiped the lenses with a handkerchief from under her sleeve and put the glasses on Dad. He didn’t even adjust them. His hands seemed useless at his sides.

A smile displayed his missing teeth again. “Oh, there you are.”

Mom smoothed hair off his forehead. “Your father’s doing something special. He’s going to be baptized.”

Aunt Judy came to the bed beside us. “And he’ll have communion with us. After all these years. His first holy communion. Won’t that be something?”

Father Krusling appeared on the other side of the bed. A white, narrow vestment circled his neck, buttoned below his chin and hung down his chest. A blue-fringed white cloth was draped over one arm. With a thumb moistened with holy water, then with oil, he made a cross on Dad’s forehead. Dad said yes to a question about renouncing Satan and choosing to join the church. Then we all withdrew to the doorway while in whispers Father Krusling heard Dad’s confession. When we returned to the bedside, Father Krusling broke a large, round wafer, into six pieces, and beginning with Dad gave each of us a piece on our tongue. “Body of Christ.”

We each in turn said, “Amen.”

John and I kissed Dad’s cheek and rode home with Father Krusling. During the 25-mile ride, I wondered about the conversion. “Miraculous,” Aunt Judy had remarked. I’d heard Mom say, “He did it for me and the boys.”

Mom and Dad had argued many times about converting, but he always resisted as if remaining religiously independent were important to him. “It’s what’s in your heart that matters. What kind of life you live. Going to church has nothing to do with that,” he’d say. I’d also heard him argue religion with Father Krusling. So a conversion now did seem miraculous—until I thought about it. Why wait until now to do it when he could have been a Catholic like us long ago? He’d not done it in a weak moment. His “yes” to the priest had been emphatic and clear. Given these facts, I realized his motive was to try to make Mom feel better. He knew she was worried. The reality of being near death and the fear that might evoke in him never occurred to me.

The next Monday, a cold, rainy March day, I visited again. Mom had called home the night before and asked me to come. I took the same Greyhound Bus I take to school to the hospital. Aunt Judy, a nun of the Saint Augustine order and administrator of St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, met me in the hallway and told me to be brave. Father Krusling had administered the Last Rites during the night. She called Mom into the hallway, and Mom said that Dad didn’t have much longer to put up with his pain. He was bleeding around both ankles and on his back. “Just talk to him naturally. He’s all cleaned up and waiting to see you,” she told me.

The reality slammed into me and was no longer deniable. Dad wasn’t improving. He wasn’t getting well.

I stood by the bed for a minute before Dad noticed me. He took my hand, then dropped it as if his hand were too heavy to hold up. In a strained, raspy voice that suggested how much effort speaking was for him, he asked if I’d been playing any baseball. Batting? Shagging balls? Pitching? No, I told him, it was too wet. It’d been raining for a week. Did I know what team I’d be playing for? He’d helped set up Lebanon’s Babe Ruth League, which would start in May with four teams. I told him the Tigers. Good, he said. Bud Philpot and Glenn Sergeant are your managers, and they know the game. They’ll help you improve. They’d promised to pick me. How did I think the Cincinnati Reds would do this year? So he got me going on Gus Bell, Johnny Temple, Roy MacMillan, Ted Kluszewski and the others. Then he talked about fishing. Now was the time to throw a line in the water. Spring was when the big ones would bite.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll go fishing the first good weather we have.”

Our talk was so normal, it relaxed me. We could have been tossing a baseball back and forth in the front yard. I imagined fishing a couple of deep holes in the creek by our house and started to mention them to Dad.

But suddenly he shuddered, then asked me to take care of Mom and my brothers. I responded automatically, shocked back to the way things really were. I stared at him more closely and noticed red flakes in his nose and on the sheets, tufts of hair on his supposedly shaved cheeks. The normality of our talk had blinded me.

Mom said, “Let’s not tire him out. Kiss him goodbye, Bill.”

I kissed a cheek, smelled blood, and Dad’s hands and arms tugged on my back, but without any strength. I remembered him hugging me so hard I couldn’t breathe. Him throwing a baseball so hard, it stung my palm through a padded catcher’s mitt. Him launching a ball straight up so high, I had trouble catching it. Him effortlessly carrying a large concrete block in each hand while building our house. Now he was old. His age of 46 seemed ancient.

I didn’t say I love you. Nor did he say it to me. Someone led me out of the room. Once I’d turned my back on him, I began sobbing. The women held me until I said I’d be okay. “You’ll have to grow up quicker now,” one of them said. “You’ll have to be a man.” Outside the building, I sat on a bench at the bus stop and cried soundlessly, head bent forward. Eventually, a woman in a white nursing outfit and knitted, black shawl sat beside me and said something. I muttered an answer and she patted my back.

I took the first trolley bus that came by without looking at its number. Luckily, the three RTA lines passing the hospital went directly downtown on the same route my Greyhound Bus used. I cried the entire mile along Main Street, sitting alone against a window, gazing out, then hurriedly walked the block to Ludlow Street from my stop. I wiped my eyes, went inside Chaminade High School, reported my presence to the secretary, explained my tardiness, and hurried into Brother Modica’s Latin class. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. Chanting the conjugations of common Latin verbs with my classmates centered my mind on something other than Dad.

Wednesday morning at about 3 a.m. the telephone woke me. I knew what the call was. What else could it be at that hour? I lay open-eyed and listened to my aunt’s voice for confirmation.

“When did he go?” Pause. “Ruth, are you okay? Do you need me there?”

I stared into the darkness and wondered if John was awake. A big dresser separated our twin beds. Tom made no sound from his crib in the room across the hall. I decided to let them sleep through the night. They could learn the truth tomorrow.

Aunt Judy hung up and came down the hallway making faint scuffing sounds on the rug. They paused at our closed door and I held my breath. Then she continued on into our parents’ room, which she was using, apparently thinking the same way I’d just thought about letting my brothers sleep. Good. I didn’t want to talk. Her door closed softly, her beads rattled so I knew she was kneeling, hands clasped on Mom’s bed, saying the rosary. She wore a big rosary that circled her waist like a belt during the day, but not to bed, so she’d picked the rosary up off the rocking chair where she always draped her gray habit before slipping under the covers.

Dad’s bed was empty and would be forever. Dad had asked me to take care of Mom and Tom and John. How could I do that? I couldn’t even take care of myself. The darkness around me seemed as heavy as the blankets pressing down.

The next day everything was out of kilter. My mother, Aunt Judy, my sister Joan and her husband Frank sat at our kitchen table, weeping, consoling each other, and “making arrangements.” They talked about telephone calls to two funeral homes, one in town and one in New Lexington; calls to a church here and one there; to various friends and relatives. Somebody scratched a list onto crinkly paper.

Then the dialing sound and the hollow voices began, and what they said repeatedly was so repugnant it drove me outside. I wandered up into the neighborhood above our house in the valley, eventually to the Lichty house where I saw a loose basketball in the grass and began shooting at the basket attached to their garage. I’d shoot, rebound, dribble, shoot, rebound, dribble. I’d left John and Tom in the den watching TV. What could I do to help them? I ran faster, dribbled harder, played more intensely as if trying to tire myself so I’d fall asleep from the effort. About noon, a neighborhood friend showed up. Wordlessly, we played three games of Horse. Then he had to get back to school and disappeared.

An hour and a half had passed; Mrs. Lichty brought me out a soft drink and a ham sandwich with tomato, lettuce and mustard. I thanked her, ate seated on the stone wall along her driveway, laid her flowery China plate on her back porch, then continued playing. When 4 p.m. came around, I left Lichty’s to deliver to my newspaper route, then parked my bike in our garage, grabbed my own basketball, and without going inside to see Mom or anyone, hurried back to Lichty’s. Drizzle was falling by then, but I played on. At 6:30 Mrs. Lichty suggested I ought to go home and eat supper. I told her I was all right, and although it did occur to me that the constant thump of my basketball might be bothering her family, I played on.

Mr. Lichty could just put up with it. He’d come home from work while I’d been delivering papers, as shown by the white company van parked in the garage. His son and daughter were inside their house eating supper with him. I’d never have another meal with my father. I pounded the ball against the pavement as if it were evil.

About 7:30 my mother emerged out of the darkness; she’d taken the wet trail from our house, uphill through the trees to Lichty’s backyard. “You need to take a bath and eat.” She went to the garage, turned off the lights and grabbed my elbow. “Come on.” I cradled the ball in the other arm and let her lead me down into the gaping valley that was now her property.

“You have to stay home and help your brothers, Bill. I’ll be very busy the next few days.”

“Okay.”

“Watch them. Be sure they’re eating, cleaning up and safe. I have things to do. Okay?”

“Sure.”

“We’ll have to work more together now than we ever did before.”

“I’ll help.”

“I’m counting on it. You’re the man of the family now.”

But I didn’t know what to do or how to help beyond what she’d told me to do.

The funeral home visitation in Lebanon was a crowded affair at which I sat back away from the casket, tended to John and Tom, avoided the people, listened but said very little. Same thing with the New Lexington visitation and, finally, the burial at the cemetery across the road from the house that Dad had built, the first house that I remember living in. I kept my brothers out of people’s way and tried to bother no one.

Events swept us along, a three-day blur of people saying the same things over and over. Finally we were home, but Dad was absent. I’d learned that he had many friends. He’d been loved, and the affection people felt for him seemed to have transferred to his family. How he’d impressed people so deeply, I wasn’t sure. He’d been friendly and a good conversationalist. I’d seen him help other people. But did I really understand him? I didn’t think so.

Aunt Judy left after one more week at our house, and that very evening Mom called us boys to the dining room table and explained that she’d decided to take over Dad’s business, which would require studying and passing a test to become a licensed insurance agent. She’d begin working at the office immediately so she needed our cooperation. Okay?

Yes, we said then helped her schedule jobs we would do, namely make our beds, clean our room, put dirty clothes where they belonged, wash and dry the dishes, dust and vacuum the rooms.

She asked if I could do the mowing or should she hire someone. I said I could do it. I’d been helping Dad mow, using the push mower to trim. I’d also mowed the whole three acres by myself once last year.

“Well, you’ll have to do it all by yourself from now on. At least once a week.”

I said, “The riding mower’s broken, but the push mower’s all right. I’ll mow the whole yard with that.”

“Oh, maybe I should just hire someone.”

“No, I can do it.”

“We could just cut the grass in front and let the yard go wild on the other side of the drive.”

“It’s not that big,” I said. “I can do the whole thing”

That night I went outside and wandered around the yard, which was my responsibility now. Spring had arrived. The flowers Dad had planted were up, daffodils and tulips. Rabbits ran away from me as I crossed the lawn to the driveway, and moisture from the grass seeped through my shoes and wet my toes. I followed our gravel to South West Street where I could hear dairy cows in the field beyond, the bells on their necks tinkling occasionally. Holsteins. I pictured them out there, moping around, chewing their cud, totally complacent, indifferent to the darkness, unaware of any problems or dangers.

Unlike me. A new sense of what was normal had settled in my mind. What normal used to mean was now qualified. I knew the ground might seem solid, but it wasn’t. It was like New Straitsville, Dad’s hometown, where the earth had opened up in places and swallowed whatever was on it, entire houses even. For years, sinkholes had been appearing. Burned-out seams of coal had left the surface too thin to support much weight so in places it would suddenly collapse.

That’s how life was. Look at what happened to Dad. Time worked on people the same way, burned through their insides and hollowed them out. Then they collapsed. From dust we came, to dust we shall return. I’d heard the Biblical incantation many times the past few days. When and how death came were the only questions. Dad had accepted his fate gracefully, but I didn’t know how to implement his example. I had to be a man now, but what exactly did that mean?

Bill VernonBill Vernon’s poems, short stories and nonfiction have appeared in four poetry chapbooks, anthologies and journals such as Yankee, Albany Review, Cincinnati Review, Blue Unicorn, The Archer, Grasslands Review, Poetry Ohio: Special Issue Of The Cornfield Review, The Runner, Hemlocks And Balsams, and Passages North. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.

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