by Meredith Counts
A sinkhole swallowed up the second nine of Earl and Ellie’s Big Yippee Putt-Putt and a good portion of the parking lot, which meant that the whole place was taped off and unsafe for business. Laurie, Jessica, and David Vanwell, the grandchildren of Earl and Ellie Vanwell, had grown up helping out around the mini-golf course for free, scooping cones, renting out putters. Now Arnie, the big fiberglass T. rex you used to see from Hwy 39, was upright and visible in a flat-bottomed pit twenty feet below street level. Now Earl and Ellie were gone and their grandkids were all teenagers and a court order shuttered the whole establishment and the kids were able to get jobs outside of the family business. Actually, they had to get jobs. With no Yippee money coming in, their mom, Lee, needed the help. There was the mortgage on the house and not much savings. The business had been the one thing the family-owned outright. Now, the place was busted into the earth, a liability.
The ground collapsed one early morning in April, right before the busy season. No one was hurt, but the Vanwells were screwed. It had been an unusually rainy year, but who could have known to expect something like this?
The Burger King next door was untouched and remained open, selling soft serve for a buck to the same people who used to buy three and four-dollar cones for the whole family after a round or two of mini-golf. The Burger King was doing even more business than usual now that the sinkhole had become an attraction. Instead of staying away from a place where the ground could collapse beneath them, people wanted to get a closer look. They wanted to pose for pictures and dangle their toddlers over the edge. Teenagers snuck in at night, getting high and peering in. The sunken area was littered with pop cups and burger wrap. Someone had lost a white basketball shoe with red laces down there.
Earl and Ellie were both gone, in different ways. Grandpa Earl had died. Grandma Ellie was living in a nursing home with good security. She had escaped two previous nursing homes many, many times, usually in her nightie after dark with bare legs and her face dolled up, meaning to go down to the Starlite Roadhouse. That place had burned down shortly after she’d married Earl Vanwell but before baby Lee came and before E and E invested an inheritance in the putt-putt and then bought it outright from co-owners in the eighties.
With her dad gone, her mom checked out and the family business in a literal hole, Lee was a mess. It made her hate herself to ask the kids to pitch in financially. She could hardly stand to go back there. She drove way out of her way to avoid passing it. The township said they needed to fix it up fast or hire 24-hour security, but there was no money. Insurance was a real tangle and Lee had paid too much for unhelpful legal advice from a city guy who never picked up his phone. Lee had sunk, not unlike Arnie the T. rex, into a depression. She had been tireless since the kids were little and their dad took off for Vegas. They’d never married, but still.
Lee had been a coffee-fueled, care-taking machine since he’d gone, scrubbing the whole interior of the Big Yippee, and much of the exterior, scrubbing her own home and children, but now she was done.
She divided her time between her bed, the bathtub and hunched over the computer with a slide scanner, uploading images from her happy childhood to put on Facebook. Their little dog followed her mournfully to and from her different stations. The kids realized, even if they didn’t have the words for it, that Lee had retreated to her memories of a time before putt-putt was retro. Before the earth swallowed up her inheritance. Earl and Ellie still had dark hair back then. Even Arnie looked younger. A cute picture could get a dozen likes, easy. Her cousins all fondly remembered working summers at the Big Yippee.
This is what Lee was doing while her eldest kid, Laurie, sat counting her tips from waitressing at their kitchen island, smoothing and stacking ones, rolling change. Lee was at the computer within earshot but also absent, in a state of fugue. David and Jessica were on the couch watching a show called Ghost Hooker.
Laurie and David had both started working at the Waffle House-type place in town. Laurie was waiting tables, David bussing. He hoped to work up to become a fryer before summer’s end. Laurie was practical and saw that this was a job she could do forever or while getting a degree part-time. They each got a free meal from a menu shorter than the menu that customers picked from. David, stupidly, had taken up smoking because that was how everyone else there spent their breaks.
Jessica, the middle child and always committed to doing something different, was working as a nighttime janitor at the car dealership up the highway. They only had her in on Friday and Sunday nights when the place needed deep cleaning, yet she felt special. It was glamorous, working at a place where the other employees, the daytime people anyway, wore suits, but it was throwing off her schedule. Jessica had despised cleaning at Earl and Ellie’s, preferring to perch up at the cash register where she got to deny people who tried to pay with AmEx and announce visitors’ turns to hit the green, sometimes cheating the tee-times to make jerks or cute guys wait longer.
When the doorbell rang they were all surprised. The little dog, Peanut, barked like crazy at anything. Lee didn’t even look up, so David scooped up the dog while Laurie got the door. No one saw Jessica look hard at Laurie’s cash, thinking. It was already counted; besides she was in leggings and a sleep-shirt, no pockets.
The woman in the UPS uniform had Laurie sign and left her holding a heavy package the size of a shoebox. Jessica came to see if it was anything she wanted. The return address was the Clark County Coroner-Medical Examiner.
“What’s a cuh-ROH-ner?” she asked.
“YAP! YAP! YAP!” said Peanut.
Outside there was a screech, a honking of horns, then squealing tires and more honking. Out the front window, Laurie saw Brayden Arthur from the down the road in the red Mustang he’d just gotten for his sixteenth birthday. Jessica laughed. She had a crush on the little prick, who’d come fast around the corner and nearly sideswiped the UPS truck.
“Take it to mom,” Laurie said.
The box gave Laurie a bad feeling. She didn’t want to touch it. She didn’t want to see her mom’s reaction, or worse, she didn’t want to see if their mom was too zoned out to react at all. While Laurie went upstairs and Peanut finally settled down and stopped barking, she heard her mom start to cry. She went into the bathroom and turned on the radio. She plugged in the curling iron thinking she could hide out for half an hour working on an elaborate hairdo, but soon there was a knock at the bathroom door. The doorknob jiggled, but Laurie had locked it. You had to in this house, honestly.
“Baby, will you turn down the radio? Baby, please, I’ve got some bad news.”
Slowly, Laurie unplugged the curling iron. She looked at herself in the mirror. Her dad had been out of the picture for a dozen years now. Did she look like him? She didn’t look like the photos of the man in their baby albums. Sliding the button to turn off the radio, she opened the door and hugged her mother. They looked alike, Lee and Laurie. Before the sinkhole, when her mother was happier, people mistook (or at least pretended to mistake) them for sisters. Grandma Ellie thought Laurie was Lee, but Grandma Ellie could time travel without getting out of her chair.
They were like two peas, Laurie and Lee.
When Laurie opened the bathroom door for her mother, neither of them had to say it out loud; the box contained what was left of her long-absent father.
Lee collapsed a bit into her oldest daughter as they went downstairs and back to the kitchen. Laurie gave her a side hug and felt guilty that she wanted to clean up her tip money. David was quiet. Jessica wept. She had always been so sure their dad would come back for her, just her. Outside, Peanut barked to be let in.
Inside the box, a letter offered an explanation and brief condolences. Apparently, his brother had been notified, and as next of kin had taken care of the deceased’s belongings but directed that the ashes should come home to Lee.
Lee finished reading and said, “Just like that whole family. Old Jimmy Hurley cleans out David’s things but didn’t want to be stuck with burial costs.”
In the box, the brick of cremains was wrapped in heavy black plastic, sealed with packing tape. Lee walked to the kitchen sink, her hands on the metal lip of it. She looked out the window.
“Now this,” she said.
She spun around, grabbed a knife from the knife block and stabbed it into the black plastic wrap, slicing a long gash. A puff of dust rose up out of the cut. “Now fucking this,” she said.
“Mom!” Jessica yelled, shocked.
Lee never swore around the kids, but Dave coming home after all this time as a box of ash was too much. Too fucking much.
“Get in the car,” Lee said.
They just stood there.
“I said get in the car! David, let Peanut back in. Laurie, pick up your money. Jessica, put on some real pants. I will meet you all in the car in three minutes.”
She slammed the bag back in the shipping box, split-side-down.
Jessica called shotgun and Lee drove them to the E and E. It was the most alert they’d seen their mother in months. It was also the first time since the sinkhole that they’d all been there together.
“This would have only confused your grandma,” she said.
Then she unbuckled, grabbed the box of their dad’s ashes and said, “Come along, children. We’ll say goodbye to your dad. He always thought this place was tacky. Serves him right.”
It was a still day at the edge of the sinkhole. Arnie the T. rex looked like his tiny arms might reach out and grab seagulls as they wheeled around the hole diving for litter.
She made the kids stumble through an “Our Father.” As everyone said “amen,” Jessica plowed through with the “for thine is the kingdom” part to show off, though none of them had grown up saying it that way.
“Does anyone want to say anything?” Lee asked the kids.
“I thought we would see him again,” said David, his namesake.
“Yeah, was he sick or what?”
“You read the letter. You know as much as I do,” Lee said.
Then she asked, “Who wants to scatter him?”
They just looked at her.
“Well, Dave,” she said to the box in her hands, “we had fun while we had fun and here we are now. I wish you’d known your kids because they’re all great. You always wanted more, so you missed out on us right here.”
With that she pulled apart the opening she’d cut into the brick of ashes, at the same time pushing it away from her, pushing it over the edge of broken blacktop into the hole. It fell fast, as things do, without ceremony. A small trail of dust floated below them, another cloud of it puffed from the bag at the sinkhole floor once it hit. The birds didn’t seem to care. Some of the grass down there that got sun was still growing. Lee dusted off her hands on her jeans.
“I do not know what to do next, kids. I just don’t know.”
They looked around.
“Should we get ice cream?”
A year ago, this would have been a traitorous suggestion, but the soft serve at Burger King’s was no longer any competition to the ice cream counter’s profits at Earl and Ellie’s.
They walked as a family all the way around the sinkhole, down to the highway and back up the Burger King side and went in for dollar cones. Jessica had chicken strips instead. The lunch rush was over. Someone was mopping. They were able to grab the booth that faced the putt-putt side window. There was a lot to be figured out over there, but now they were facing it, literally facing it across the chasm anyway, and that was a start.
Meredith Counts was born in southeastern Michigan, and has lived in Minneapolis, Chicago, and further north, up in Michigan, before returning home. A freelance writer and editor, she’s one of the founding editors of Dead Housekeeping and is sorting the archives of Detroit poet, Jim Gustafson. You can find more about her here.