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Photo by
Gary Frisch

2022 Thomas Hickey Creative Writing Contest Winner in Creative Nonfiction

Sinkholes

Scott Tallow

I clambered down the banks, my feet sliding in the mud and digging trenches down to the firmer ground beneath. I reached the shore and placed my stained white sneakers among the small stones there. I watched bubbles swirl around a small pool at the edge of the river. Above, water was pouring through the holes cut in a rusting steel dam. It had been abandoned many decades ago, and now the water poured out of it with the roar of a jet engine at takeoff.

I prayed to God. 

I asked him to allow the earth to open its mouth and swallow me as it had swallowed Korah and his followers in the Book of Numbers. I wanted the mud to eat me.

***

The Keweenaw Peninsula juts like a broken thumb into the midst of Lake Superior. Living there in winter was like living in a black-and-white photograph. It snowed often; an inch every day from the first of November until the last of May would have made for a below-average year. Even when it wasn’t snowing, the sky was a uniform gray that spanned the entire horizon. The world seemed as if its colors were being slowly consumed. However, on the rare day the sky cleared and the sun shone, it was as if a child had scrawled with the brightest, most cartoonishly vivid blue crayon across the frame of the picture. It was on such a day that I drove to the Redridge dam for the last time.

It was May, the snow just beginning to melt, which left the steep embankments beside the dam slick and wet. The dam, that old behemoth, was hidden behind the wooded hills next to an all-but-abandoned ex-copper-mining town ten miles west of the modest Highway 26.

I had found the dam during one of my improvised road trips. I would leave my quiet and lonely apartment in Houghton, where I had lived for nearly three years, and set out for nowhere in particular. I might end up in L’Anse or Copper Harbor, some 30 miles south or 45 miles north, respectively. One time, I had even driven all the way to Ontonagon, an hour west, starting off in the early evening when the sun ducked and dodged between hills like a gunfighter running from cover to cover, and ending with me rolling my SUV onto the dock under the darkness of a broken streetlight. The road had ended and only the waves of the lake were ahead of me. Exploring the Upper Peninsula was like rummaging through an old closet of antiques long ago packed and forgotten. Every time I left Houghton I would find a sawmill, a copper mine, a dredge, or some other remnant of industry that had faded into uselessness nearly a century earlier. But of all these, the Redridge dam was my favorite.

I loved the giant steel trusses that pierced the earth on either side of the river, holding the dam against the pressure of the water. I loved the twisting trails that led from the road to the dam, winding around and between tree roots and shooting up over slopes. I loved the water, at furious motion in some places, and still enough to bounce mirror-perfect reflections in others. Most of all, I loved the camaraderie. Placing a hand on the cool and rough surface of one of its beams was like placing a hand on the shoulder of a friend who understood what it was to be forgotten and useless. What better place could there have been to die?

I just wasn’t brave enough to do it. I hadn’t the courage to fill my battered blue suitcase with stones from the edge of the shore, tie it to my ankle and leap into the reservoir above the dam. I thought about it often. I planned. I stood in high places, gazing down and trying to work up my courage, but I was as inept at suicide as I thought I was at anything else. So I prayed for help in the form of a grave that would open itself up for me.

It hadn’t been the first time I’d prayed for death. Previously, I’d envisioned a peaceful journey home. Surely God could put an end to my misery and cut to the conclusion. He could take me up in a chariot like Elijah, or in a bus like in The Great Divorce. My dad had given me a copy of that book. He’d known I was struggling, and I think he found it easier to let someone else speak for him. I’d been too stubborn to listen to my father when he’d tried to teach me about redemption by telling me stories of Admiral Nimitz on the USS Decatur and Frederick the Great at the Battle of Mollwitz. But I would gladly read a book. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand Lewis’ and, by proxy, my dad’s point until many years later.

However, this time, when I prayed at the dam, I was more earnest than I had ever been before. I didn’t care if my death were painful. I didn’t care if God treated me like the worst of sinners instead of like the most venerated of saints and prophets. Behind my words was a threat that if he didn’t help me I would finally marshal the courage to throw myself into the water. I was daring God to prove himself.

***

A few weeks later, sinkholes opened up all across the county. In Houghton, there was a road named Agate Street, which was so steep that when driving down from the top of the hill it was hard to avoid the sensation that at any time the car might flip back over its front and roll uncontrollably in a wild somersault into the river. That June, the concrete flowed like water down the slope, leaving a jagged landscape of slabs resting at odd angles, sandy earth released from underneath the road, and still-flowing dirty water. On the other side of the river, past the only bridge connecting the northern half of the peninsula to the rest of the world, a town lost its entire main street into a hole. Businesses disappeared in an instant. Elsewhere, a basement collapsed on a sleeping person. His father dug him out, evacuated him by boat, and rushed him to the hospital. That night, it was reported, he died at the age of 12.

At the time I couldn’t help but see that kid’s death as an insult. It was as if God were saying, “See? I can do it, just not for you.” These days I can’t help but feel guilty about that. I had selfishly appropriated someone else’s genuine and unrelated tragedy for my own narrative. Then again, what if he really did die because of my prayer? Surely that would reflect even more poorly on me.

It was unsurprising, but nevertheless heartrending, when a few years later I learned my little brother was engaged in the same struggle with depression. Mental illness oozes through our family like a dark and viscous grease that resists any attempt at cleaning. I wash my hands until they turn dry and split open, only to then find an unnoticed smudge on my shirt collar. I lift my hands up to my face and am met with the heady smell of grimy oil.

 

The rumor about my maternal grandparents was that they’d met in a mental hospital. It was an exaggeration meant to be funny. He was a doctor, and she worked for the hospital in some minor capacity. But knowing my grandfather who sometimes nervously waited near the front door of his home with a baseball bat in anticipation of intruders who never came, and knowing my grandmother who forced the contents of a beer can down my sister’s six-year-old throat despite her repeated protests, all apparently in good fun, this joke about their mental health made sense.

Their daughter, my mother, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder not long before I was born. As my siblings and I were growing up, she tried to keep it hidden from us, but she wasn’t always successful. Once, when I was maybe 12 or 14, I was riding in the leather front passenger seat of her beige Buick LeSabre Custom while she contemplated out loud whether or not to swerve into oncoming traffic. At that age, I didn’t quite understand why that was happening, but I hoped that if I could convince her to go home and get some sleep, things would be okay the next day.

I thought my older sister might remain unaffected, that she, in her innocent and oblivious way, could remain clean forever. However, she became the first of us kids to clearly fall into mental illness. She was found stumbling around the streets of Milwaukee unable to tell the officers even her own name, and I became the person who drove her to therapists in Madison or Oshkosh or Appleton because she couldn’t drive herself anymore. I dug through the faintly musty records in a store on Atwood Avenue trying to use up the time between when I had dropped her off and when I could pick her up again, wondering about the details of what had happened. She didn’t really want to tell me why she had moved back from college to stay with Mom and Dad or why her high-school-aged brother with a brand new license had to drive her around. On the way home, she asked if we could listen to music without any words, so I put on an album by Pierre Henry.

I hoped I might remain unaffected too, but I was so doused in the muck of mental illness that I was entirely unaware of how someone unaffected by it thinks and acts. Such a person doesn’t have to worry about how stony they can keep their countenance while lying to their doctor about whether or not they’ve ever considered suicide. Such a person doesn’t fantasize about their middle school bus overturning down a cliff, resulting in a single casualty. I thought I had been living a normal life free from the stain of depression, and it was only after it had gotten so bad that I was begging for death that I could look back and realize how long I had been under depression’s influence.

When my brother replaced his curtains with heavy, black fabric and taped over the edges to keep the light out, it reminded me of when I had hung blankets over the side of my lofted dorm room bed to create a space where I could be comfortable and alone. When he stopped going to high school, it reminded me of when I didn’t bother attending my college finals because I had missed too many classes to pass anyway. When he got into screaming fights with Mom and Dad where he would slam doors so hard he broke the handles, it reminded me of an afternoon my senior year of high school when I sat with Mom in a Dairy Queen parking lot across the street from the psychiatrist’s office eating an apple Blizzard, listening to Bizarro over the car speakers, and trying to think of the words to explain why I wanted to die.

I had muddled through a version of every experience he would end up having, and yet I was utterly useless in knowing what advice to give. The only remedy that had ever helped me was medication. However, I knew my brother was philosophically against taking mind-affecting meds.

When he was a kid, maybe around eight or ten, my brother had been diagnosed with ADHD. It got to the point where he had trouble eating, and, as a result, was severely underweight. He would spend several days at a time without eating so much as a saltine cracker. This would be followed by a heedless binge where he would down half a dozen chicken breasts, an entire loaf of bread, a stick of butter, and two miniature pies in one sitting. His condition made him unaware of his hunger until it began to scream so loudly that it dwarfed every other impulse and all he could do was eat.

As a result, he was placed on medication. I never learned the details, but I gathered it was some variant of amphetamine. While he was on medication, he could eat regular meals and look someone in the eye while having a conversation. He could be a functional and regular person, but he hated it. I’d hear his voice through the door of his bedroom every morning, arguing with Mom about taking his pills. He’d shout that they turned him into someone else, and he hated becoming that person. They destroyed the person he truly was and left behind only a hollow imitation of a person.

At the time, I didn’t fully understand, but he was right.

Whenever I swallow my medication, I shove my head under waves, hoping that it might drown. It belongs to the part of me that clings to misery like a tick burrowing into flesh. It’s the part of me that stares at the hundreds of dead flies littering the stairwell of my apartment building, wishing I could lie down among them. It’s also the part of me that can cry along to the lyrics of Black Sheep Boy or become so lost in Titus Groan that reality starts to seem like a forgery imposing itself into a place it doesn’t belong. I murder that person daily, but it’s more a part of me than anything else. 

I’ve made that bargain of trading a piece of myself for contentedness, but how can I ask my brother to do the same?

 

At the end of this past semester, he dropped out of his first year of college just like I dropped out the day after I left Redridge. At the beginning of the semester, after helping him move in to his single-occupant dorm, I took myself on yet another of my explorations. I found a nearby place named Devil’s Hole where an uneven wooden staircase leads down into a gulch surrounded by steep, bare rock. The tall sides of the hole prevent any outside sound from reaching the bottom, so that when one stands on the bank of the creek as it trickles through the gorge, the murmuring water speaks louder than any other voice. I can’t help but wonder if my brother has gone there too, and if he has spent his days there, at the bottom of Devil’s Hole, praying.

Scott Tallow is the alias of a UW-Platteville undergraduate student who wishes to remain anonymous.

Gary Frisch is a retired teacher who now owns Spirit Lake Coffee Roasters, plays music gigs, enjoys adventures on his motorcycle, and writes a little poetry and music. Gary lives in Baraboo, received his undergraduate degree at UW Platteville, and earned his Masters in Creative Writing from Wilkes University.