It was a Sunday in May, the end of a freak cold snap that had killed all the tulips alongside the stone wall behind the old house. All night the wind had howled and whined and whirled and bustled around the two-story frame structure and the rickety barn and the old shed until suddenly it had stopped. And all was quiet.
George Henley lay motionless in his bed listening to the silence of the house before he started his day. Each morning he got up an hour before Emily so he could read his paper without her constant chatter or her spoon clicking endlessly against her coffee cup. The rest of the day he sat behind his desk at Miller & Fitzer’s and audited an endless supply of accounts. Then at 5:30 pm he would come home to his usual dinner—let’s see, today was Friday, so it would be broiled haddock, a baked potato with one pat of butter, no salt, and sliced carrots, steamed—and he would sit in his recliner in the living room and watch Emily’s shows on TV. At 10 pm he would kiss Emily on the cheek and go up to bed.
George sat up, slid his feet into his slippers, and put on his plaid robe. He was not a short man, but he was slight of build, so most people thought of him as small. He was well into his forties now, and his hair was becoming more black than brown, and it was much thinner, he’d noticed, but if he combed some of the longer hairs from the sides up across the middle, you could hardly notice.
When he came downstairs, it was 6:30 am. He stopped at the front door to pick up the Daily Gazette, then padded down the hallway, yawned, and opened the kitchen door. As he was about to step into the room, he saw it—a large, round hole in the kitchen floor.
The kitchen was a large, square room, and the hole took up most of it, leaving just enough of a ledge to walk around the perimeter, starting with the refrigerator, then the stove, then along the countertops to the sink. Yesterday, there had been a lovely round oak table and six chairs handed down from Emily’s grandmother that sat in the center of the floor on a blue hooked rug. This morning, they were completely absent.
George stood in the doorway for a long time. He kept looking into the hole, trying to see how deep it was, but he was on the darker side of the kitchen, and he needed to get across the room to the window where it was lighter. With his back to the hole, he began to inch his way around the kitchen, stepping very carefully and holding onto the appliances and the countertops for balance. When he got to the sink, he grabbed onto the faucet, took a deep breath, and leaned out over the hole, just a little bit at first, then even further, then finally out as far as his arm could stretch. He expected to see the table and chairs and the hooked rug lying in a heap, but all he saw was a blackness, blacker than coal.
“This is incredible,” he said to himself. He didn’t know what to make of it. He’d never heard of this happening anywhere else in the area, and he’d lived here all his life. Certainly, nothing like this had ever happened to him, that was for sure. In fact, nothing at all had happened to him ever. He and Emily led very quiet lives.
He needed to test this out. Still holding onto the faucet, George leaned over and opened the cabinet under the sink to see what he could find to toss into the hole. He reached into the garbage can and grabbed an empty ketchup bottle with dried ketchup still pasty around the rim. He leaned over, hesitated for just a moment, dropped it straight into the hole, and listened for it to hit bottom. He didn’t hear a sound. He wiped a bit of dried ketchup from his hand onto his pajama bottoms and reached into the garbage can again. This time he found an empty juice bottle. He listened again for the empty clunk when he expected it might hit bottom. Again, he heard nothing, just a strange hollow quiet, an eerie curious quiet.
This was crazy. He felt puzzled but at the same time his stomach was welling up in an unidentifiable excitement. He was reaching in for something else to drop when he heard the soft sshhh, sshhh, sshhh of Emily’s terrycloth slippers as she scuffed down the hallway. She was yawning as she opened the door, her hand covering her mouth, her eyes closed.
“Stay where you are,” George said. “Don’t move.”
Emily’s large body teetered at the edge of the floor as she opened her eyes and saw the hole. Then she saw George standing on the other side of the room holding onto the faucet. She looked again at the hole. Cool air rose out of the blackness and she shuddered.
“What did you do with the kitchen floor, George?” She pulled her robe tighter around her bosom. Her face was lined in a permanent frown. “And where’s Grandmama’s table and chairs? And the rug?"
“I didn’t do anything,” George said. “It was like this when I came downstairs. Just look at that hole.” He leaned over again and tried to see the bottom.
“Well, where did it come from?" She continued. “Things like this don’t just happen while you are sleeping.”
“Well, this thing just happened while we were sleeping.” His voice was quiet as he spoke, but his eyes sparkled as he reached again into the garbage pail and pulled out another beer bottle. “Watch this.” He leaned over the hole and held the bottle poised, waiting to let it drop. “See if you can hear it when it lands.”
Emily stopped talking and listened intently. She held her bathrobe closed at her throat with one hand. George let the bottle go, and again there was nothing but silence.
“It must be a deep one,” He said, slapping his knee. “This is incredible.”
Emily shot an angry look across the room. Then she held onto the back of the stove, then the counter, as she moved carefully around the hole, until she reached the coffee pot. There was about two feet of floor on that side of the room, about a foot less than her body needed.
“Just don’t look down,” cautioned George, as he rooted around in the garbage can for something else to sacrifice.
Over near the dining room, the floor was two feet wider. George sidled over there and pulled two dining chairs just inside the doorway, then sat down and continued to stare at the hole. Every once in a while he’d slap his knee again and say, “This is really something, isn’t it?”
Emily held onto the faucet as she filled the coffee pot with water and scooped dark, rich coffee into the basket. When it was brewed, she filled two coffee mugs with coffee, sugar, and cream, and slid them along the top of the counter until she was close enough to hand them to George. When she reached the chair, she sat down alongside him and stared into the hole, too. They sat in silence for a long while, the only sound the clicking of Emily’s spoon against the mug as she stirred her coffee.
“That clicking drives me crazy,” he said very quietly. “That clicking always drives me crazy.”
Surprised, Emily looked at George and stopped stirring. “Well, why haven’t you ever said anything if it drives you so crazy?” They sat in silence once again.
“What are you going to do?” she asked finally. Her face wore the expression of a long sigh, her eyebrows pointing upwards, her forehead lined.
“I don’t know,” he said. He honestly didn’t know. Just take some flooring and cover it up. But then it would be cold in the winter. He probably couldn’t fill it up with anything first since it was so deep.
“Well, we have to do something,” said Emily. “We can’t live like this, George.” She resumed her stirring and clicking.
George leaned over the hole and looked in. How deep could it be? It had to end somewhere. He listened to the clicking of Emily’s spoon for just a moment before he grabbed it out of her hand, stretched his arm out over the hole, and let the spoon drop into the silence.
“George, that was a good spoon.”
“That clicking was driving me crazy.” George smiled ever so slightly and leaned back in his chair to finish his coffee.
George sat there for most of the day. Before lunch, he went upstairs to shower and change his clothes. But every once in a while, he walked through the rest of the downstairs and checked the flooring, cautiously stepping into each room as though he were testing spring ice. Mostly, however, he sat and stared into the hole, occasionally dropping things in when Emily wasn’t watching, and listening for a sound.
“George, have you seen the newspaper?” Emily asked. She always let George read the newspaper first, then she’d sit with her second cup of coffee, clipping coupons and doing the crossword puzzle.
“I haven’t seen it,” George said.
Later, she slid along the side of the kitchen to the counter near the refrigerator. “Here, Kitty, Kitty. Where’s mama’s little puddy?” She poured some cat food into the cat’s bowl, although it was already full, then started calling for Kitty again. She treated the cat like a child. George often heard her talking to the animal as it purred and did its figure eights around her ankles. Around George it hissed and got its fur up.
“Have you seen my little puddy, George?”
“I haven’t seen it,” George said.
On Monday, George was still sitting by the hole. He hadn’t shaved since Friday, and he still wore the same clothes he had put on the day before. The long strands of hair fell away from the top of his head and hung from the sides like bits of fine string.
“George, you have to do something,” Emily said. “We can’t live like this.”
“Yes, you’re right. I’m thinking about what to do.” He ripped off the front cover of his Time Magazine and carefully folded it into an airplane, and sailed it into the hole.
“Well, do something soon. Do you want more coffee before I leave for the grocery store?” She side-stepped around the side of the kitchen and reached out for George’s coffee mug. “Where is your coffee mug,” she asked.
“I haven’t seen it,” said George.
When Emily arrived home that afternoon, George was still sitting near the hole. He had pulled a small table and a floor lamp from the family room and had an open phone book, a paper tablet, and a pile of number two pencils in front of him. He was writing on the tablet.
“Are you looking for someone to fix the hole?” Emily asked.
“How do you spell Kerrigan, with a –C or a –K?”
“With a –K. Does Phil Kerrigan fix floors?”
“I don’t know if he does or not,” said George. “I’m inviting him to the party. We’re going to have a party.”
“A party? We can’t have a party,” Emily said. “We have a hole in the kitchen floor. Get serious, George.” Emily stood there looking at him, tapping her foot, and shaking her head.
George stood up slowly and faced Emily across the hole. He shook his head back at her. “Do you realize what we have here?” He spoke slowly and emphatically. “This is really something. There isn’t a hole like this anywhere in the city. In fact, there never has been.” He took the pencil from behind his ear and scratched the side of his head with it. Then he held it out over the hole and let it drop. It disappeared into the silence. He sat back down at the table, grabbed another pencil, and continued his list.
The party was, as they say, a huge success. Everybody who was anybody was there, eager to see the hole in the Henley's kitchen floor, ready to discuss whether or not it really was the first of its kind.
Luckily, it was a warm Saturday night and the cool breeze from the hole was refreshing. Emily set up the food in the dining room where it would be safe, but George put the bar right there in the kitchen, over near the sink, and he dared the men, and even a few of the ladies, to come over and mix their own drinks. Early in the evening, everybody but Phil Kerrigan declined and had their drinks passed over to them. As the evening wore on, however, mostly everyone filled up with bravery as well as beer and cocktails, and took their turns mixing drinks right alongside of George.
After a couple of hours, someone got a two-by-twelve out of the shed and laid it across the hole so that the guests could walk from the dining room to the kitchen sink and back again. At first they did it one at a time for safety reasons, but later on they came out two at a time and met in the middle where they would try to switch places without losing their balance. Once, they almost lost Sarah Findley, but George pulled her upright just in time and helped her back across to the dining room. Sarah sat down heavily on the dining room chair and laughed nervously. Then she helped herself to the chips and onion dip.
Phil Kerrigan could throw his voice, and each time one of the ladies went across the two-by-twelve, he threw his voice into the hole saying, “I see London, I see France…” and the ladies would squeal and tuck their dresses between their legs and hurry across the board.
By the end of the evening, everyone agreed it was the deepest hole they had ever seen, as well as the best party they had ever been to. Even the Daily Gazette was there to take pictures and get a few quotes from George for the morning edition.
As the guests left, Emily glared as George invited them back out whenever they felt like seeing the hole. Emily wasn’t much for unannounced company; she preferred a phone call first. Nevertheless, George slapped the men on their backs and kept the invitations coming.
Emily walked back into the dining room and began to tidy up the table, putting paper plates into piles and emptying glasses. “I don’t see how grown people can make such a mess,” she said.
George was still smiling from the party. He hadn’t had this much fun in years. Everybody was impressed with the hole. Maybe they could have a Fourth of July picnic here. They could send the fireworks off down the hole instead of up into the sky. And Labor Day might be fun, too. Did they do fireworks on Labor Day?
He watched Emily slapping the trash into neat little piles. “Go on up to bed,” he said. “I’ll clean up.”
“There’s such a mess.” Even as she spoke, she was walking towards the stairs, and soon she disappeared. “I can’t live like this, George.”
George picked up the trash bags one by one and tossed them into the hole. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
On Sunday morning Emily came downstairs dressed for church. “Maybe if I pray hard enough, this hole will disappear.” She looked around the kitchen incredulously. “Why, George, the kitchen is spotless.”
George sat on his dining room chair looking into the hole. He didn’t look up as Emily spoke or as she sidestepped over to the kitchen sink.
“Where’s the coffee pot,” she asked.
“I haven’t seen it,” George said.
Emily looked at him long and hard. Finally, she asked, “Are you all right?” He had shaved for the party, but once again his jaw was darkened with a stubbly growth and his hair seemed to spring from his head like electric wires. He still hadn’t looked up from the hole.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Why don’t you run off to church and save us all?”
By the end of the week, everyone seemed to have forgotten about the hole in the Henley's kitchen floor. George scratched his beard—he had a small beard now—and shook his head thoughtfully. “It certainly is strange,” he said to himself.
"Mother and Dad think I should spend the weekend with them,” Emily said. She was making instant coffee in Styrofoam cups. George waited until her back was turned, then tossed the large photo album of her family into the hole. Out of habit he listened for a moment but heard nothing.
“Why don’t you go, then.” He leaned over the hole. He noticed Emily’s terrycloth slippers under her chair and tossed them in. “Maybe they could come over and pick you up.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, I think I will.” She picked up the phone and dialed the number.
“Why don’t you tell them to bring the dog.”
Emily packed her overnight bag and met her folks in the driveway. George suggested they all come in for a while, but they left right away. She would be back on Monday. He waved as they drove off and squinted into the sunlight. It was the first he had been outside in weeks. It felt unnatural, and soon his head began to ache. He turned and went back inside.
He sat down on his dining room chair. Emily’s chair was still there next to his so he stood and picked it up by the seat, held it out, and let it drop. Then he sat back down and stared into the hole once more. The coolness rose up like air emitted from a cold radiator.
He could imagine the chair falling and falling through the black space, spinning as it picked up speed, going deeper and deeper into the darkness. He wondered how far it would go and whether it would ever hit bottom. Or would it just keep falling forever? What would it feel like to move through space forever? To have the freedom of falling endlessly, never having to touch another person or another thing. Never having to hear another voice.
“George, I’m home.” Emily arrived late in the afternoon on Monday and put her suitcase in the hall. The house seemed so empty. Her Duncan Phyfe sofa no longer stood against the living room wall. She had loved that sofa so much that she didn’t allow anyone to sit on it. Not even George. The picture of the Grand Canyon was gone, too. She had bought that at the church bazaar seven years ago. Everything was gone. Everything except George’s recliner with the worn seat.
She walked into the kitchen and found George in his spot near the hole. He sat in the dining room chair as usual. Suddenly she felt frightened. Something very strange was going on here, something more than last week. George had a full beard now and his hair sprung around his head like a corona. His eyes seemed to stare right through her, and he didn’t blink. It was as though he had been awake for a very long time and was straining to keep his eyes open. Yet at the same time, he seemed relaxed, as though he’d been sleeping for days.
The kitchen was empty. All of her dishes were gone. And so were the wall clock, the silverware, and the toaster. Even the little plaque she had bought at the county fair that said “Emily’s Kitchen” was gone from the wall. It was as though she had never existed.
She went to sit down on her chair next to George, and she noticed it was gone just in time. “George, where is my chair?” The small table was gone, too.
“I haven’t seen it,” George said. He was leaning over the hole again with his head cocked to one side as though he was listening for something.
Emily listened, too. But there was no sound at all—just the sound of air moving. It was like when George had taken her on that awful ride at Happy World when they were younger. They had sat in a car with wheels on tracks and went down, down, down, deep into the damp ground through a cool, dark tunnel.
“George, what’s happening to you?”
George was silent. He just stared into the hole. He didn’t look up much anymore, and he didn’t look up when Emily spoke.
Emily was tired of this hole that was disrupting their lives. Something had to be done. “Something has to be done,” she said.
“Yes, you are right.” He still hadn’t looked up. “It’s cold,” he said finally. “Why don’t you get yourself a sweater?”
“Yes, I think I will.” Emily knew she still had one packed in her suitcase. She walked away from the kitchen and toward the front door.
George sat in the kitchen alone. It was quiet again. He wondered how far into the hole you’d have to go before your voice could no longer be heard. He moved off his chair and sat at the edge of the hole. He kicked his shoes off one at a time and let them fall into the emptiness. The cool air felt good against his feet.
What was the reason for this hole? There was a good reason for everything, that much he knew, but this one escaped him. It was a puncture in his life, a perforation of his soul, a cavity that needed filling. At first it had opened up and let something in. Now it seemed like a way out.
Emily pulled her sweater around her and started back toward the kitchen. At the door, she hesitated instinctively. She no longer knew what to expect when she entered any room in this house. George was too strange for words, and he was going to have to pull himself together. Otherwise, she would leave him until he did. She couldn’t live like this anymore.
She would tell him that right now. She pushed the door open slowly and looked in. George’s chair was empty. She stepped inside and edged over to his chair. The seat was still warm.
“George, where are you?” There was no answer, no sound at all. “I knew it. He’s gone down that hole,” she said. She got down on her hands and knees and called his name into the darkness.
She hardly felt the nudge, just two hands gently on her behind, and soon she was falling, falling, falling…
George sat on the edge of the hole. He looked at his watch and noted the time. Soon he would know how long it took before Emily’s voice could no longer be heard. Outside the wind was picking up once again. George felt a sudden rush of air from the hole and breathed deeply, letting the cool air into his nostrils, letting it fill his lungs, breathing deeply again and again, and feeling alive.
Virginia Wells holds an MFA from Florida International University. She is a past recipient of the FIU Student Literary Awards for fiction, and her work has appeared in Ladies Home Journal, The River Oak Review, and Sun Dog Review. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in Comparative Studies at Florida Atlantic University. She resides in Mauldin, South Carolina.