James Fowler

        As Dodi Snipe is whacking her twin brother Momo over the head with a badminton racket, she suddenly finds herself staring at his belly button. That is, she is sunk down to her knees. Not kneeling, mind you, but standing knee-deep in a hole. Her brother doesn’t bother why, just takes advantage to get in a few good pops of his own.
        “Stop it, crudly,” she warns, using her dire-consequence tone, her fire-ants-in-the-sneakers tone, which Momo has been trained to observe.
        Once she has crawled out, they contemplate the hole together. There is nothing special about it particularly, beyond its instant appearance. As for its uses, different views can be taken. Momo is all for filling it with water and throwing in the neighbor’s cat. Dodi leans more toward a time capsule to be dug up in the distant future, say, five years. The ensuing argument over what items to include carries them indoors, where they drift off in forgetful play.
        Exiled from the house later that day, they find the hole much deeper and larger, big enough now to bury a cow. They have always wanted a proper swimming pool, and it looks as if the god of backyard holes is answering their prayers. So rather than tell their mother, who would just want it filled in, they poke the edges with sticks and bicker over the guest list to their pool parties. On the verge of reaching an agreement, they look up in time to see the rusty swing set topple headlong into what can now only be called a crater. It settles at the bottom with its legs sticking up road-kill-fashion.
        At this point the thought crosses their twin mind that the hole could just as easily decide to head for the house as away from it. Running inside, they scream unintelligibly, though their mother does catch the words tumbled and hole. The first image that comes to her is of some playmate with only a pair of upside-down feet showing. When she sees the true situation, though, her own refrain of “Omigod, omigod!” drowns out her offspring’s clamor.
        Drawn by the nonstop shrieks, neighbors start to gather. Mr. Snipe is summoned from work, along with the usual array of 911 responders. Within the hour quite a crowd stands gawking into the hole as police officers try to contain it and its admirers with a perimeter of yellow tape. This may not be the first such hole in local memory, but it is off to an impressive start. With any luck it will turn on the Snipe abode and provide many days of suspense and ill-natured speculation. Neighborhood kids begin to figure the profits to be made off concession stands.
        For the present the Snipes are allowed to stay put. Town officials monitor the site, though not as diligently as do those living close to its edge. Hardly an hour passes without at least one pair of Snipe eyes peering out a back window. At night the usual creaks and cracks now seem prelude to a house-splitting catastrophe. The twins take to sleeping under their beds, preferring the comfort of a mattress on top of them should the roof cave in. Momo also affords this security to his prized collection of lizard skulls. Their mother has cleaned the house sufficiently so that paths to the exits are unobstructed. Daddy Snipe has marked them out with duct-tape arrows sprayed Day-Glo orange.
        After a week, though, the hole does nothing more except send out a gully to capture part of the back fence. So fill is brought in by the truckload, and the neighbors cast around for something else to combat their boredom.
        They don’t have long to wait, as one Wednesday afternoon a car vanishes at the Dairy Maid drive-in window. The cashier finds herself offering a cardboard tray with dip cone, vanilla shake, and Rocky Road sundae to thin air. Nobody is hurt, but the owner does get tired of jokes about underground parking and booby hatches for those paying with bills larger than a twenty.
        Funny remarks dwindle when the backstop fence and one set of bleachers take a header at the youth-league field. Now this thing is getting personal and gains the whole town’s attention. There’s not a lot to do in Ollala, and any loss is keenly felt. Common wisdom has it that kids deprived of healthy activity will soon turn to drug use and gang warfare. Otherwise good youngsters will club one another with bats and pawn their gloves for marijuana starter kits. And why should the people of this fair town believe any different?
        As Nature is a rather slippery and vague culprit, public opinion goes in search of a more definite donkey on whom to pin this tail. Fired by the successive collapses at a self-storage unit, a Victorian-style house serving as a law office, and a key intersection, public opinion converges on county farmers as the likely suspects. After all, they are constantly pumping water to supply the quenchless thirst of their tangerines, avocadoes, and strawberries. It stands to reason they could have sucked the area aquifers dry, causing the earth above them to buckle. What’s more, they have caused this lateral damage entirely below the town, escaping the effects on their own land. A nicely colorful illustration in The Ollala Plainspeaker shows how it could have happened for the benefit of those better with pictures than words. Talk starts circulating of a class-action lawsuit, courtesy of the gone-under firm.
        One of the accused writes a letter to the paper saying the charge is a load of hogwash. With seventy-plus inches of rain a year, area farmers have no need to pump a lot of groundwater. He then goes on to lambaste town dwellers in general for being a bunch of hand-biting ingrates.
        For the next few Saturday mornings, tension levels run high at the farmers’ market.
        It doesn’t help that in the interval the ground gives way with alarming regularity. Like lightning, though, it strikes with a seemingly random will. A duplex splits neatly down the middle. Across town, the front half of a two-story house shears away, leaving a cross-section of rooms open to public view. At a strip mall the roof ends up as wavy as a piece of modern Spanish architecture.
        Business is good at the two local motels, which soon fill up with refugees. Even the four rooms at the Tyrol Inn are booked. Usually they stand vacant except for the odd curiosity-seeking tourist.
        This particular enterprise dates back to the 1950s, when a WWII vet, Sonny Randall, missing the Alpine glories he had glimpsed in the war, decided to grace the flat, hot, wet Florida landscape with a Swiss chateau. Buying a parcel of land along Lake Ollala, three miles from town off the old highway, he proceeded to realize his dream one piece of decorative lumber at a time, assisted only by a wife of saintly devotion and endurance. The son, Fred (Friedrich at baptism), came on the scene much later, almost as an afterthought, a bid for montane, lacustrine dynasty. This little complex, quickly dubbed Randall’s Folly by the locals, has somehow survived and, what’s more, incrementally grown in the succeeding decades. Given space in just enough tourist guides, passed along by just so much word of mouth, recalled at infrequent intervals by Ollalans themselves, the Tyrol Inn wobbles on as a taste of Bavaria in the subtropics.
        To make the experience complete, Sonny knew he had to include an authentic restaurant, though he never bothered much with the subtle differences between Swiss, German, and Austrian cuisine. As long as the menu offered a hearty selection of schnitzel, goulash, brats, Black Forest cake, and strudel, the proper note would be struck. Taped oompah music would amplify it.
        The cellar atmosphere was more of a challenge. Despite the skeptical dubbing, the project did not have a fool for its author. Sonny knew that if he tried to dig a true cellar, he would forever be fighting mold and seepage. Instead, he elevated the lobby and placed steps leading down to the ground-level restaurant at its rear. To enhance the effect, he built it without windows. Dim lighting would spot each table with an inverted bushel basket for lampshade. On the walls he hung photos of German castles, and stationed suits of armor in the corners. With a seating capacity of twenty, the room felt tucked away, snug. As dinner host, Sonny circulated among the tables in a pair of lederhosen. Maybe the fact that he was willing to serve beer to minors if accompanied by their parents was one indication of an assumed sovereignty, as if he had established not just a whimsical tourist attraction but a principality with its own laws and customs.
        Even those who disapproved—and there weren’t many—never complained to the liquor licensing board. While easy to laugh at this determined eccentric from a distance, few actually crossed him. There were stories.
        The Tyrol Inn included a sort of mini-museum that started with Sonny’s war souvenirs, stuff from flags and uniform articles to more exotic things like an eagle-mounted coffee urn and swastika-emblazoned gramophone. Building on the larger theme, another room housed cuckoo clocks, and a third contained a respectable assortment of Frankenstein memorabilia. Having gotten wind of this Deutsche compound, and misunderstanding its proprietor’s allegiances, an Aryan Sons group showed up one day and began paying its own tribute to the fatherland. In the midst of some sieg-heiling, Sonny pulled a Luger from behind the counter and threatened to fill them with genuine German lead. A bayonet sharpness in his eyes convinced them that this was not simply an empty gesture, and they trooped back whence they came.
        Having died in the early 1990s, the legendary inn founder is not around to relish the new, more varied topography of Ollala, a town he always thought a drab eyesore. He would approve of the leaning water tower and the seventy-yard trench along the main drag.
        And while they bemoan their collective fate, the townsfolk have found some comfort in affliction. Everyone, after all, can think of someone it would do the heart good to see swallowed by the earth. When the front steps of the Methodist church suddenly lead underground, the Pentecostals take it as a sign of salt that has lost its savor. Then the latter pulpit sinks beneath the surface, and the tiny Episcopal congregation can almost think it a judgment upon the judgmental. Almost.
        For ground above a drained aquifer, it does seem to have a lot of water in it. All the holes steadily fill to the brim. A few broken water mains have contributed their share, but the earth in general is like a soaked sponge. County and state inspectors determine that decades of leakage from the town’s water system have supersaturated the soil, leading to widespread collapse.
        Fingers primed for pointing stab the air. At an emergency meeting, Dewie Monroe, arch-nemesis of local officials, blames the council for its wasteful, negligent ways. He grows even hotter when a microphone picks up a council member’s muttered aside that he’s just got a palmetto stuck up his butt. The mayor reminds the crowd that voters turned down two bond referendums aimed at replacing those ancient pipes, prompting Citizen Monroe to launch into an anti-tax tirade ringing with tea parties, Minutemen, and stars and stripes forever. After several hours of wrangling, the only consensus is that Ollala has to be declared a disaster area, with the state or federal government picking up the bill.
        Lucky residents take what insurance money they can get and abandon their Swiss cheese town. Others find they aren’t covered because their insurers reserve sinkholes for supplemental earthquake policies. Guarding against hurricanes, these homeowners have been sucker-punched below the belt. So they just walk away and leave the banks to ruin their credit scores.
        Even those who want to stay have few options. The firmer land on the town’s outskirts is owned by the indignant farmers, who demand wildly inflated prices for their acreage. Threats of annexation are hollow, because the town can’t afford to fix its own infrastructure, much less extend services. Its bond ratings have been downgraded so far as to make its debt issues radioactive.
        Previously a drive-by town along the interstate, Ollala now draws catastrophe buffs, reporters, and the wandering idle. A whole line of products—T-shirts, bumper stickers, beer cozies, even a DVD—is quickly developed. Unemployed locals scramble to lead the most ruin-mongering tours, freely trespassing on condemned property to give their customers dramatic views. Several guides tell plausible lies, like the story about the family dog that sensed a house’s imminent collapse and led everyone to safety by leaping up and putting its paw on the garage-door opener. Some visitors discover that this latest Florida attraction is fully interactive. Coming upon an upended busload of Japanese tourists, they take gleeful advantage of the photo opportunity.
        This influx is hardly enough to save what remains of the town. Official recovery assistance is slow in coming, if indeed it ever arrives. Ollala seems not to have many friends in seats of power. The all-but-spoken attitude, it’s their own damn fault, keeps the spigot of public funds from flowing. Locals cite all the rebuilding that goes on along flood-prone rivers and low-lying coasts. Actually, most of them oppose the use of tax dollars in these cases, but if the hog of government is going to have all those teats, they don’t mean to get squeezed out as the litter’s runt.
        But then something like relief appears from the private sector. With the rate of collapse subsiding, a concern starts buying up all available property at bargain-basement prices. Heavy equipment rumbles in, demolishing damaged and intact structures alike, all but the most historical or interesting buildings. Signs declare that the town is now a TRI Project.
        Ollala civic leaders bend over backward as the project reps offer to lay down a whole new water network. Engineers and architects roll out a master plan for a revitalized community. Since the alternative is certain death, the permit issuers get busy permitting.
        Throughout it all The Ollala Plainspeaker lurches along schizophrenically, drawn between free-market boosterism and small-town suspicion. Thumbing its nose at the government with its red-tape bowtie, the people’s spokesman also gently probes the white-knight development corporation to ensure that it shares local values. Anything beyond gentle inquiries would be untoward, given that TRI ad revenue is keeping the now-weekly paper afloat.
        In time, blueprint abstractions start gaining wood-and-steel dimensionality. During the expedited planning period, full-color drawings were not produced, though promises of consistent design were made. The predominance of A-frame structures becomes steadily apparent. Also, rather than fill in the numerous waterlogged craters, landscape engineers connect them with cleverly graded streambeds flanked by winding pathways. These routes for foot and bike traffic proliferate as roadways diminish to a bare minimum. Vacant areas that would normally beg for development seem given over to greenery for its own sake.
        As frameworks are fleshed out, the project’s true aspect begins to show. Ollalans who don’t like what they see refer to it as the Olympic Village. An architectural digest with a different opinion praises its “intriguing blend of Alpine and American Craftsman styles, as cottage and chalet meet bungalow.” In the larger structures, apartments occupy the regions above ground-floor retail space. Lines of townhouses give the illusion of a sloped street by gradually declining from three stories to one in height. Reversing the Levittown model, separate dwellings are largely avoided, and no private living space has more than 2000 square feet.
        Just about the time that this Ollala New Town is baring its face, the Plainspeaker gets to the top of TRI’s corporate pyramid. The hand ultimately signing the checks belongs to one Friedrich Randall. Longstanding rumors about Cpl. Sonny Randall’s return from the war with a dragon’s hoard of German gold coins now seem verified. His son and heir, once better known by the moniker “Kraut Boy” than his Christian name, would have few fond memories of old Ollala or its school system. Among the labels assigned this rebuilding of a town core from scratch, Randall’s Revenge gets most play among chagrined citizens.
        The holdovers, anyway. Because a new breed of young and old, a virtual immigrant wave, repopulates the place. Community-minded couples with an eye toward raising a family in a modest, craft-oriented setting flock here, as do retirees who recall growing up in distinctive ethnic neighborhoods of large cities. Ollala sees its first Seminole art gallery, bike shop, and kosher deli.
        Fred Randall isn’t seen much in town. A man accustomed to living on the outskirts, he continues to manage his inn and dream novel civic dreams in private. Resentment toward him for disregarding indigenous Ollalan values and imposing his own vision is tempered by grudging respect for his enterprise and success. And a stacked pastrami on rye with a side of kugel has its persuasive powers as well.
        Old guard like Dewie Monroe stick around to oppose every initiative on principle. Taxes are undeniably higher, what with the increase in property values and dubious undertakings such as a first-class public library and outdoor amphitheater. There’s just no sense in such things when a school library and gym already serve perfectly.
        Often seen tearing along the pathways are the Snipe twins. In their own way they have adjusted to the New Town. The many pools and streams give them countless hours of trolling pleasure. They have also picked up on some of the cultural enrichment. Now when Dodi calls her brother a kreplach head and hangs crawdads on his nipples, he offers to throw her off one of the quaint arched bridges. When the amphitheater is finished, they plan to go crashing down the steps on their dirt bikes. Then the acoustics will have to be tested with shouts and whispers. It’s all a new stage, and stages have to be filled somehow or other.

“Sinkhole” was published in the 2014 edition of The Labletter.

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