When I discovered the newspaper clipping of this story in my middle school yearbook, it had been at least 20 years since I had read it. My mother used to keep a framed clipping on the wall in an upstairs hallway of her house. But we always just pointed and chucked as we went by. I never stopped to read or remember.
Last night, not only did I read it, but I typed it into my laptop. I had to resist the urge to edit the entire time I was typing. I wanted to change this word or that word and constantly reprimanded my 14-year-old self for certain word choices or clichés.
It was more important to preserve what it was than to make it better.
I really don’t believe that.
At any rate, this morning, one of you asked me a question I’ve been asking myself for 34 YEARS. She said, “What would you have titled your story back in 1985? Would you choose a different title now?”
Oh, what a question that is.
I tried to blame the Tallahassee Democrat for their terrible alliterative title. And it IS a terrible title. But the fault lies with me. Because I sent it in without a title. I knew it didn’t have a title. Everything has to be titled.
I didn’t know what to call it. For 34 years, I’ve been asking myself what it should have been called and I still don’t know. I was lamenting this again to Todd last night and he said, “It doesn’t matter now. It’s Sinkhole Sadness. That’s its title.”
I need someone to give it a real one. Clearly, this is beyond me.
The other thing I will mention about the story is that near the end, the main character calls his friend a “stupid fool.” When I wrote the story, that was the only thing that seemed to fit the integrity of the desperate moment he was in. That was all well and good until I won. When I got word that I had won, I questioned the words, based on Matthew 5:22 stating that if “anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. I remember calling the Democrat reporter in charge of the contest and discussing my concerns. We had a good discussion. Ultimately I kept the original phrase in, probably for the same reason it ended up with the title of Sinkhole Sadness. I couldn’t think of anything else.
So here it is. There are so many things wrong with it. Some of them go with 1985. Some of them go with the writer being a melodramatic 14-yr-old girl. It’s mostly bad, with a few good moments that peek through the Sinkhole Sadness clouds.
I surfaced, gasping for air, and glanced nervously around for my pursuer. Impulsively, I scratched at a raw mosquito bite at the back of my neck. My eyes shifted and searched but all was still, almost as if the earth was holding its breath.
I went under but immediately resurfaced, coughing up a mouthful of dirty water.
“Charles?” The uncertainty in my voice skipped across the spans of the water. I weighed the possibilities of his unexplained exit and decided that he had given up to go home. The sinkhole had always been his least favorite place to play anyway.
“It figures,” I almost jumped at the loudness of my own voice. “I hate Charles sometimes.” Angrily, I swept up my blue towel from its spot next to Charles’ belongings. I wiped my face and began the trek home along the rough dirt path.
I unlatched the front gate and hopped quickly around the back of the house, the heat off the ground scorching my calloused feet.
“Mom, has Charles been by here?” She looked up at me from her crouched position next to the garden. She sigh, her blue eyes tired and glazed.
“No, honey, I haven’t seen him today.” My face twisted in confusion as I trudged up the steps and entered our house. Dazed, I reached for the phone and dialed Charles’ house automatically.
“Hello. May I please speak to Charles?” His mother had answered.
“He’s not here. I thought you and Charles were off swimming.” My mouth dropped open and my blood iced up.
“Oh no…the cave…” I left the phone dangling on the end of its cord. I leapt off the back steps and without slowing, I shouted, “Mom, call the police and meet me at the sinkhole. It’s Charles!”
Nausea swept over me like a huge tidal wave but I ran blindly, fleetingly. My throat drained dry and my tongue clung helplessly to the roof of my mouth. The water was ahead just as I had left it. I stopped at the edge of the water and looked down at Charles’ worn sneakers and yellow towel. I suddenly remembered seeing Charles’ possessions earlier. Only then, it hadn’t registered. The roar of engines filled my ears, drowning out my thoughts.
I turned slowly, trying hard to understand. I squinted, but the people climbing out of cars were blurred and unrecognizable.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” My mother reached for me but I backed away, shaking my head.
“Don’t touch me,” I said. “Find Charles.”
The policemen were already searching for him in the water. I turned my back on the blinding, golden rays of the sun that continued to shine despite the sickness traveling through me; despite all the confusion caused by a simple game.
I sat down, wrapping my arms around my knees, and tried to block out my fear. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. I jumped up , startled, and stared into the sensitive face of a wet and shivering policeman.
“Son, we found your friend.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder. Following his gaze, I spotted a wet body lying still on the ground. I ran around the policeman, who turned to watch me, and knelt on the ground beside Charles. I took his hand and shook it. The coldness and stiffness of his hand stunned me, causing me to drop it in fright. His eyes were fixed on something in the sky. I looked up and then back at him. My eyes grew wide at the sudden realization. I stood up and clamped my jaw tight.
“Charles,” my voice cracked. “You stupid fool!” I turned and ran, my legs pedaled furiously by some unknown force. I stopped finally and sat down against a tree that shaded the edge of the dusty clay road.
Pictures of the scene at the sinkhole washed a wave of guilt over me. The guilt was a cement block on my head, weighting my small body to the ground. A single crystal tear rolled off the tip of my nose.
The past hour of tragedy was confused and scrambled and I was unable to piece it together. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I could not get up.