:: Article

Too Much of a Good Thing

By Steve Himmer.

Workers all over forgot to turn up. They lost all sense of time to searching for just the right words, the right image, the metaphor that could decode the moment and let everyone name what no one was talking about. It had been on the tips of all tongues for more than a year but no one had managed to swallow it yet.

In school kids stopped short in the middle of math tests. Their minds had no space for sums as they chased down the right way to say it. Broken noses and shattered eyeglasses increased until gym class was cancelled—too many eyes off the dodgeball, distracted by the unspeakable.

Cars rear-ended each other at rates only body shops welcomed, but they too were struggling as the wandering minds of seasoned mechanics made rookie mistakes: the wrong bumper attached, a misaligned wheel, and in one case an engine left out altogether with the whole garage crew standing around the immovable object wondering what had gone wrong.

It was a Volvo, a wagon. A car for a family, for safety, for protecting the things a person holds dear and this particular person was an otherwise attentive suburban father who, while driving with a car full of groceries and kids bruised and bloodied from a clumsy half-coached soccer practice cut short for safety, forgot he was driving. He was thinking instead about what to call it, this other world that his had become, and he almost had it, he’d really come close. He had nearly pinned down the right words before he ran into a tree. The kids were all fine and hardly noticed, too deep in their own efforts when the accident happened. Most of the groceries survived.

No one was hurt beyond how much they already were just by being alive at the time.

Then the sinkhole appeared. One minute the lawn at the side of the White House was green and lush. One minute it was flat and whole and then it was gone, at least part of it was. The ground opened up a few feet from the bright marble wall of the building and rich, earthy darkness rose into sight. Into frame, too, for all the cameras already on site in the ordinary course of doing their jobs and without much to film or photograph that particular morning because no one from inside was talking. They couldn’t capture or transmit the smell, that rich, earthy smell, but it was there, too, and quite strong.

Yes, said everyone of all ages, whether they said it out loud or inside. They said it with glances shared across tables and across rooms and from car to car in traffic jams. They said it with shrugs and they said it with nods. With embraces of loved ones and handshakes with strangers more earnest and attentive than they had been for some time. They said it with improved math scores though children didn’t enjoy taking tests any more than they had. A sinkhole, said every person. A sinkhole, yes, that’s it exactly.

It felt good to put a name to it, the feeling. The state of things.

Photos of the sinkhole, a negative space in the green life of the lawn, so stark against the white marble wall, became popular wallpaper on phones and computers. Memes slapped on phrases uplifting and ironic and weird, all in a font called Impact which seemed right. Its presence became reassuring, a presence that grew every day while the sinkhole remained the same size. It didn’t grow larger nor did it shrink. It was itself, nothing else, reassuring to look at and to know it was there at the right hand of the national seat. It was deep enough and dark enough to hold all their worries and let folks get back to their lives.

The second sinkhole was less reassuring, opening as it did beneath a preschool from which every teacher and student and juicebox vanished. No one made that their wallpaper or declared that at last things made sense.

The third came beneath a bridge piling and vehicles fell by the dozens, then the fourth swallowed the south end of a football field and two tiers of seating, with only seconds left on the clock.

There was one at the border, a big one, and a detention center for migrants split right in half. The videos and photographs posted online showed a view through the space where walls had vanished. They showed some people locked up in cages, chain-link still intact, which was more than other people wanted to see. We have walls for a reason, they said. And we have floors. Why aren’t floors strong enough to stop this? Does our nation need better floors? This is clearly an issue of floors, and that’s what they talked about most.

The sinkholes kept coming, one after another and sometimes side by side.

Okay, said the people. Enough already, we get it.

They said it in their own ways but everyone said it. Some by drinking too much and cursing what fell within reach, others by walking dogs and scooping their turds then hurling those colorful bags down a hole. Some said it by shivering and catching pneumonia and even by dying against a chain-link fence exposed to the world, which others saw frankly as going too far.

The sinkholes became too much of a good thing. All anyone wanted, all they’d ever wanted was to know where they were. To put words to their world, not be reminded they had to live in it. Or that other people, people not like them, maybe, but sometimes people who kind of were, could disappear into the ground. Now they were worried at every moment and with every step that a sinkhole would swallow them next. A sinkhole at the White House was one thing, who cares; a sinkhole at your own house, no way.

Workers all over again stopped reporting. Math scores went back down until teachers gave up giving tests but the kids couldn’t even enjoy it. There was a name for it now, they had found it, but it was the only word that would fit in their mouths. People stopped speaking mostly, for fear of what could come out if they opened and for fear of what could fall in.

Steve Himmer is author of the novels The Bee-Loud Glade, Fram, and Scratch, and editor of the web-journal Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston. Twitter: @SteveHimmer.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 26th, 2020.