“In the moments my thoughts were adrift
And coasting a terrace, approaching a rift
Through which I could spy several glimpses beneath
Of the darkness the light from above could not reach.”
—Phish, ‘Rift,’ Rift (1993)
Thanks to the effects of the sedative combined with rabid terror, most of our conversation in the hotel room was a muddled blur in my head, but two of Grady’s words kept ringing through, sinkhole. Up and down the river, there are various deep spots and underwater caves, filled with thick, tar-black mud and catfish large enough to swallow a house cat. Anyone who grew up along the river knew them well.
The drive out to this particular hole follows some of the same roads that Tommy and I used to drive when we were young. I remember thinking when I drove into town that this place felt like a tomb. Some sort of relic that had been long buried in my past. The reference seems all too literal now.
My grandfather talked about death like it was all part of some kind of grand design. God’s plan and all that. At my mother’s funeral, he told me that it was unnatural for a parent to outlive a child, but he found comfort that she was being buried so near her home. “It’s fitting that she would die where she was raised,” he had said. I wonder vaguely if Marvin would come out and observe some kind of memorial after I was gone. A secret memorial service for one of the many hidden skeletons.
We are riding in what I can only assume is Louie’s car, a ’63 Chevy Impala, meticulously restored and maintained. My hands are zip tied once again, this time to the headrest on the passenger side of the car, and every time Louie hits a curve in the road, I can feel my ass sliding on the cold leather of the seat.
Karl is sitting in the passenger seat as Louie is driving, but he is turned, leaning against the side door so that he can keep an eye on me in the back seat. He’s holding a snub-nosed silver revolver, which he keeps pointed in my general direction.
When Louie hits a particularly deep speed bump, Karl bounces so high that he hits his head on the roof of the car. “Fucking hell! Why don’t you watch how you’re driving?” Louie brushes him off with a dismissive grunt. “You’ll think differently when I pull a Pulp Fiction on this piece of shit, and you’re helping me clean out little pieces of Scribe’s brains from your backseat.”
Louie finally turns and shoots daggers in Karl’s direction. He’s evidently touched a nerve. “Anything happens in the car, and I’ll be cleaning up more than just his brains.” Karl shakes his head and makes a scoffing noise, but he’s noticeably careful not to push too hard. “Why don’t you just put the gun away? He’s tied to the fucking seat. Ain’t goin nowhere.”
Karl leans back across the corner of the seat and glares in my direction. “Why?” he says. “Cause Scribe here is a slippery little shit. Ain’t that right, Scribe?” When I refuse to respond, Karl takes the butt of the gun and smashes it into my exposed knuckles, causing me to yelp with pain.
Louie slams on the breaks, bringing the car to a screeching halt in the middle of the road and slamming the back of Karl’s head into the front windshield. “Grady said to leave him untouched. Quick and painless, that’s what he said!”
Karl rubs his head, and talks out the side of his mouth. “You think I give a fuck about…” Louie grabs the gun from Karl’s finger and quickly cracks it against the side of his head. “Aww, man. What the fuck?”
Karl begins rubbing his head immediately. He clearly learned very little from his encounter with Gil Grady. “Don’t matter what you care about,” Louie says. “It just matters what Gil says.” Louie plops down the gun on the front dash, and it slides a few inches before resting against the windshield. “We’re almost there,” he says, pushing the gas and urging the car forward.
A quarter-mile down the road, Louie turns the car onto a side-road—a narrow, gravel covered alleyway that is barely visible from the main road. Louie maneuvers his massive old car down the lane as overhanging branches thud against the window and scratch against the top of the car. Louie grumbles his disapproval. “Grady shoulda let me bring your car.” Karl shrugs and continues to rub the knot that is swelling on the side of his temple.
Every once in a while, I can see the halogen lights of the Golden Eagle Bridge peeking through the cracks in the trees. Judging by the brightness of the lights, I would guess that we are maybe three-quarters of a mile down-river from the bridge, somewhere along the western bank.
I have no idea what time it is, but the sky is dark and overcast, leaving the glimpses of bridge lights as the only source of illumination.
Eventually, we pull to a stop, and Karl and Louie get out of the car. A moment later, Louie’s big, hairy hand reaches across my shoulder and cuts away the white zip tie, releasing my hands. He pulls me from the car, and pushes me towards a line of trees a few feet away from the car.
I spin around and hit Louie in the head with my elbow, desperate to get away, but Louie grabs me and throws me to the ground easily. He pulls out the knife he used to cut me free and puts the tip of the serrated blade a few inches from my left eye. “Grady said to do this quick, but if you try anything like that again, I’m gonna use this knife to gut you like a fucking fish. You understand that?”
I nod quickly and Louie pulls me to my feet, shoving me towards the trees. “Keep going,” he says, pushing me into the brush. As we walk a ways into the timber, I can hear the flow of the river, quite a ways below us. Wherever we’re headed, it must be fairly close. Before long we’ll wind up falling headlong in the water below. When we reach the sharp edge of the bluff, I quickly glance down at the muddy water. With the slight glare from the bridge reflecting off the surface, I can make out the break of the water, maybe thirty feet down. Louie grabs my shirt and yanks me back away from the edge of the cliff, pushing me to the right and motioning down river.
Every once and I while, I hear Karl’s footsteps shuffling through the brush as we draw closer to our destination. After a few hundred yards, Louie yanks me back again. I can feel my feet slip out from under me, and I topple backwards onto my ass, my legs dangling out in space over the unseen edge of the bluff.
Pulling myself up to my knees, I lean forward and peer over the side. We’re too far away from the bridge now for me to see much of anything, but I can hear the currently lapping violently against the bank below.
This is it. We’ve reached the sinkhole. When we were kids, we loved to tell the stories of Gil Grady’s exploits around town. His secret stashes of guns or money, the lonely graves and abandoned mine shafts that held the corpses of those foolish enough to cross him. The favorite rumor was one of these sinkholes in the river, a little side pool filled with brackish water that flowed backwards and down into a submerged cave. If the rumors are true, the black water flows into a submerged gave that’s hundreds of feet deep.
It always seemed like bullshit when I was a kid. One more urban legend. I wonder how many other men are entombed down there, below the rough surface of the cold water.
I can feel the tip of the gun poking me between the shoulder blades as I look out into the darkness, and I wait for the sound of the gunshot that’s going to end my life. I think again about Tommy, and I wonder if he was this scared at the end. He always seemed so strong, so at ease with the inevitability of death. Even when the cancer sucked him down to nothing but skin and bones, he was strong. Determined. Level-headed.
I always feel ashamed when I think about it.
I feel shame because I’ve always known that I could not do what he did. It didn’t take Louie or Karl or the snub-nosed pistol to tell me what I’ve known my whole life—I could never have the strength that Tommy had. As I sit here, in my moment of reckoning, I am absolutely, unequivocally terrified. I don’t have the strength to face it the way he did. I am weak. I have always been weak.
Louie steps up behind me and grabs my hands. “Now don’t you take another swing at me, you hear me? Gil ain’t got nothing to go on but my word when it comes to how this ended. You just make it easy on yourself.” I feel numb as he binds my hands together. For a moment, he disappears off into the brush to my right. When he re-emerges, he’s panting hard and dragging a lug of concrete shaped like a bucket.
“The fuck is that?” Karl asks.
“It’s a weight dumbass.” Louie points to a metal loop rising out from the center of the mass of concrete. “We got a bunch of these over there in the weeds. You tie their hands and feet so they don’t come bobbin up.” Louie shakes his head, clearly annoyed with the newbie’s lack of sinkhole experience.
I can feel myself beginning to tremble uncontrollably. Tears and snot running down my face. I want to beg, but when I open my mouth, nothing escapes. It feels like my chest is a vacuum, sucked completely clean of all the air.
My heart starts to pound, and I can feel my chest lurching as I try to breath in a fresh gulp of air. Louie comes over and pats me on the shoulder, his voice almost soothing in my air. “You calm down now,” he says. “This is gonna be over with quick. I promised you that, you’re doing fine.”
The sheer stupidity of the moment is more than I can bear. My captor, the man who is seconds away from putting a bullet in my brain and dumping my corpse off the side of a bluff, trying to sooth me in my final moments. Only in Culver County.
After he binds my wrists and feet to the concrete block, Louie backs away and takes a deep breath.
This is it. After all the moments of pain and joy, the whole damn thing boils down to this one, inescapable moment.
I think about a story that I read in high school, by Ambrose Bierce. About this confederate sympathizer who’s being hanged for treason, trying to blow up a Union-controlled bridge. The story is this whole fantasy that occurs in this guy’s head while he drops a few feet through the air before he’s hanged.
Seemed stupid to me at the time, but it makes sense to me now. Like everything else, time is relative, and with only a few seconds to live, it feels like I can feel ten seconds in between each heartbeat. The sound of the river below seems deafening as I wait for that shot. The very last thing I am ever going to hear.
When an impossible amount of time passes and the shot still hasn’t come, I carefully turn my head to throw a cautious look over my shoulder. Louie is stretching out a gun towards Karl, the same bullnosed pistol he had been holding in the car. Karl is shakes his hands violently. “Naw, man. No. You’re going to do it,” he says backing perilously close to the edge of the bluff behind him.
Louie shoves the gun up in his face. “Grady says it’s gotta be you,” Louie says. “Now take it.”
After a few more seconds, Karl reluctantly takes hold of the pistol and walks slowly towards me, stopping after a few feet to look back to Louie. “You sure they’re not going to find him?” he asks.
Louie shakes his head. “No way,” Louie says. “That hole goes down forever. The catfish at the bottom gotta be the size of a Labrador.” He nods off past my shoulder into the darkness. “Any part of him pops up again, it’s gonna be a few bones, picked clean, and the current will wash those all the way to the Mississippi.”
I shuddered and threw up again, retching what was left of my stomach contents over the edge of the cliff. I had no reason to doubt Louie. In all the time that I lived in Culver County, I had never heard of a body washing up on the shore, other than a few lonely bastards that had thrown themselves off the Golden Eagle. Certainly, I had no reason to doubt that Gil Grady had amassed a tidy little pile of corpses over the years, and many of them were undoubtedly still chained to blocks of cement in the water below, what was left anyway.
One way or another, Gil Grady knew how to make a person disappear. That much was obvious.
As Karl steps forward, he nods to Louie and says “Ok,” but I can hear the waver in his voice. For all his blustering and anger, Karl was just as scared as I was one it came the moment of truth.
“You don’t have to do this, Karl…” Before I can say another word, Karl bashes me between the shoulder blades with the butt of the gun.
Louie steps forward from behind and grabs Karl. “You’ve got to shoot him first,” he says. “It’s gotta be quick.”
“I know, I know,” Karl shrieks, his voice cracking at a bizarre pitch as the fear takes hold. “Just back up and let me do it.”
I raise myself back up onto my knees and puff out my chest, attempting to summon some kind of dignity in those final moments. Slowly, but deliberately, the terror that has been gripping my chest is suddenly replaced by something else. An odd mix of anger and defiance that I have never felt in my entire life. I stick out my chest and raise my chin up to the sky, and begin to shout back at Karl behind me.
“You’re not going to do it! You haven’t got the balls to pull the trigger, and you know it…” I have no doubt that Tommy is giving me this courage. Willing the stubborn hate into my chest like a clown blowing up a balloon. “Whistler should have known it, too,” I continue. “You’re too big of a pussy to finish it…You always have been.”
I expect the gun shot to ring out at any moment. I’m sure that his anger is rising. I’m pushing his buttons, and it will only be a few seconds before his temper explodes.
I close my eyes and I think about Caroline for the first time in a long time. Caroline…the one I let walk away. The only other girl besides Aimee that had ever made me feel alive. She had always made me smile, covered me up in a blanket of warmth. She isn’t a ghost, at least not like Tommy or my mother, but I can still feel her haunting me just the same. One more unfinished dream. One more stone cast into the current.
It’s hard not to wonder if I’m the root of it all. All those ghosts, all this ruin. Somehow it feels like I’m the cause. That’s something my grandfather used to talk about. The root of a problem, killing your fears right at the nub. He was neurotic about taking care of his lawn, descending on any weed that entered his yard like an army declaring war. I remember him spraying at piece of crab grass once, telling me how important it was to end the whole life cycle of the plant. Cut it out at its source.
Staring over that bluff and waiting for that final moment, it was hard to ignore the fact that I was the root, the one constant that held all this chaos together. In some ways, maybe I deserve the bullet in that pistol. That’s what Whistler had told me a long time ago. We’re in collision with all those stones, the ones we’ve thrown.
Finally, I hear Karl say the words I’ve expected all along. “Fuck you,” he says. Simple. Direct. Devoid of poetry or histrionics. A fitting end to all that we have shared.
Instead of a gunshot, though, I hear a dull thud, followed by a quick scuffle. I turn quickly, falling off my knees and landing on my ass at the edge of the bluff. I nearly fall backwards over the edge, but I’m still anchored to the heavy block of concrete. By the time I awkwardly wriggle my arms and legs around to see what is happening, all four hundred pounds of Louie’s bulk comes slamming into the earth next to my face.
Louie stares back at me with a strange expression. His eyes are open and his mouth is moving, as though he was talking, but I can’t hear anything. He just stares flatly back at me, opening and closing his mouth like a fish marooned on its back out of the water, suffocating in all that fresh air.
A few seconds later a stream of blood trickles over his brow and down his nose, depositing a thick black puddle on the dirt under his face. Just as his expression begins to change, as though he might try to push himself back up off the ground, another blow comes raining down on Louie’s head. This blow is followed in quick succession by a second and third, each impact digging a crater into his skull. I’m close enough that I can hear the bones break, each swing splashing me with a fresh stream of blood and gore. Soon the cracking sound stops. For good measure, the assailant slams Louie’s head two more times, but this time, the sound sounds more like a ripe melon. Though Louie’s right eye is still staring up at me, glassy and blank, I cannot even recognize the rest of his pulpy, mangled face.
I take a deep breath, and turn to see my savior, standing above me. He’s trembling slightly, and he’s holding a thick wooden stick. A walking stick that’s all too familiar, and the marble stone at the end of the staff is still dripping blood.