The Hole

Fiction
John Young


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Photo Credit: omefrans

In front of their row house was the big road. Not far beyond that and to the left were the hospital and the water. Behind his house was the whole neighborhood which spread over the big hill; all the other houses, the loops of streets, the five or six schools were there. He knew how to get to his school: one way, during the day, and without taking forever. He didn’t know what the water felt like since he’d never touched it and he’d never even seen the hospital close up. On the way to his friend Andre’s house, he saw a little more hood, but not much. The rest of it could have been China.

The world was too huge. The city—the hood—the street was too huge. There was nothing he really knew.

His grades, height, strength, weight, looks (except for glasses and extra-dark skin) were all average, average, average for a thirteen year old, and he knew it. Even so, he knew he couldn’t compete in this world or pretend to know how. He was no more than that dust mote floating there in the sunlight. The millions of dust motes in the dirty, cagey air, coming from the musty carpet were like the people in the world.

He knew nothing. He got Cs and maybe a B, but he knew nothing. “Do I even know my name at least?… Travis Taylor, Travis-Taylor-Travistaylor, Chtrashish A-lor,” and he’d get to speaking it so fast that he would stutter or so that it would start to sound really weird to him. So the answer came back: Nope, didn’t even know that.

He only guessed at it and got close enough to the correct words or names enough of the time. And there were so many other words that he should know but didn’t, and things he shouldn’t have forgotten but did. That thing at the ocean… called a “sure” or a “shure” or a “shore”… Who was there to ask?

And there was Andre who lived just around the corner—five row houses in total. It was summer, and they’d seen a lot of each other and had been bored together for most of June, all of July, and half of August, and then when Travis came home from Andre’s house one day, he wasn’t allowed to go back out that night because of the shooting. Andre ended up getting killed.

Andre had been his best friend, and he felt bad for wishing that he could have been there to see it happen because then he could have believed it really happened. He could have known at least that one little bitty thing. It was sick and wrong of him to want to know that it really happened, but at least then he wouldn’t have thought that someone was playing a trick on him. Maybe it was Bryant, his little brother, who was pure evil.

And that was another thing he didn’t know: how a twelve-year-old could be pure evil.

Travis sat on the carpet before dinner and held between his thumb and pointer finger a gray carpet fiber he’d picked out because it was loose. He looked at it, twisted it, smelled it, looked at the glue, where it had come undone, and he closed his eyes, thinking about what it looked like—but he had a hard time remembering. When he opened his eyes and saw that he hadn’t done a great job in picturing it in his mind, he cried.

When Bryant wasn’t around, he asked his stepfather if they could go to the funeral, and his stepfather said, “I’ll find out when”—and he was looking at the TV both times Travis asked. Both times (two separate days), it had been around three in the afternoon, when his stepfather got home from work. It was hard to tell what day it was because there was no school and TV is the same Monday through Friday. So, when he woke up on the afternoon of what felt like the third day, he couldn’t remember whether it really was the third day or whether he had just taken a nap on the second.

It was around five in the afternoon when he thought he would ask again (on either the second or third day), but he waited until dinner. The only problem was that Bryant was there.

Would his stepfather bring it up? He wasn’t in his work clothes. He looked a little relaxed.

Mom was taking the fries and hamburgers out of the bag. Then she went back to the kitchen to get Pepsi and rolls. Travis, his stepfather, Shelby (little sister), and Bryant were all sitting on the couch already. As he watched his mom work, he thought about asking her, but it wasn’t a good idea to ask her things on the days she worked, and he didn’t know if she worked this day or not. (She worked when she got called.) And if his stepfather said yes, then it was yes. If he said no, then it was no.

“Lord, bless this food,” she said. “Amen.”

When Andre was alive, he used to say that his dad said grace and it was long and that his mom never said grace because that would have been really weird. Travis asked why they did it that way. Andre said he didn’t know.

Everyone reached for the burgers, fries, rolls, all at once—except for how Travis served his little sister first and then served himself. No one said anything about anything.

In spite of the heat, in spite of how he felt, Travis was hungry—maybe because he’d been lying down sleeping all day. And he took the fries and burger (though there weren’t many fries after Bryant had taken them all).

It tasted good. Half of it was gone from his plate (and he had taken as much as he could) when his mom said—

“What’s the matter, honey?”

Was she talking to him?

Hard to tell, but no—eyes on the TV—the answer was no. She was talking to his stepfather.

He was looking at the TV too, but nothing on his full plate was even touched.

Then he smiled stupidly and said as though he was saying something barely worth saying—

“I ain’t got no ketchup.”

Mom sighed, and as she was joking about how he could get it himself, she was on her way into the kitchen to get it for him.

She put it on the table.

He was watching TV.

A minute passed.

“Oh,” he said, figuring out that the ketchup was in front of him. Smothered his fries. “I hungry.” And he ate it like he was starving.

Travis wanted to ask now, but he knew his mom could yell at him. That, and he was scared, scared that his stepfather would say, Oh, it was today and you missed it. And he was scared that Bryant was going to use it against him, but Bryant was going to use something against him, didn’t matter what.

But then Travis imagined that it really could be tomorrow (since he couldn’t even remember how many days it had been, two or three) and if he didn’t ask now, he was going to miss it for sure. And why did it matter so much?

He had no idea why, but to miss it was a real, true horror—nothing less than one of Bryant’s little guns or his poisons or his friends. He wasn’t really sure, but though it wouldn’t have killed his body, it would have been like being shot. That feeling that he got when he couldn’t remember what the little pieces of carpet looked like—that feeling that made him cry—could have been even worse. It wouldn’t have been just that he would forget his friend… it was hard to put it into words… it would have been like losing his soul. It would mean that he knew nothing, was nothing, meant nothing, and was better off dead. It would have been like Andre never existed.

And even if he asked and got beaten up or spit on or smacked, anything would have been better than not going to the funeral.

But his stepfather never, ever touched him; never. Never ever did Travis remember his stepfather touching him. Never, never, never, ever. And he really couldn’t even remember, now that he thought about it, his stepfather ever looking him in the eye. And his stepfather called Travis by his name just as often as Travis called his stepfather “stepfather” or “pa” or “dad” or anything at all. It never happened.

Bryant would hit him though, or he would use his sponge—that sponge… that made up his nightmares.

“Umm…”

No response.

“Umm. I want to go to the funeral.”

His stepfather’s eyes didn’t turn from The Mo’Nique Show.

“What about the funeral?” he continued.

“Ain’t much ketchup,” he said.

“It’s enough,” said his mom.

“I want to go to the funeral.”

For a while—a good three minutes—everyone but Travis was watching the TV. There was a man on who kept shouting, “That’s not what I said! That’s not what I said!”

“I want to go to the funeral.”

Then, as he usually did, his stepfather jumped right into the conversation as though he’d been there all along.

“I don’t know when it is!” he said shrugging, eating.

“You said you was going to find out.”

“I’m going to change this.”

“I don’t care,” Mom said.

“Can’t you ask them?”

“Who you talking about?” asked Mom. “Ask who?”

Stepfather never asked questions.

“Andre’s family. Ask them!”

The pudginess, the big pores, the sweat—the rashy looking black stains on this stepfather’s face said a whole lot, but none of it had to do with why they weren’t going to the funeral. Or maybe they did.

“You can ask them.”

His stepfather was looking towards Travis as though he still seemed to listen to the TV and probably would have for a while.

After another half-minute, Mom said—

“It was today. The funeral was today.”

“What?”

“The funeral was today. At least I think. The pastor was in a black car.”

“Why didn’t you… find out—damn it.”

He never cussed—never—but they didn’t even look. They didn’t know why not any more than he did.

His gaze went to the plate of burger and didn’t leave until he ate each bite extremely slowly. His stepfather was flipping through the channels, his food all wolfed down at once now that he got his ketchup; his mom was in the kitchen; his little sister had gone to her room, but (how could he not notice?) Bryant was still in the living room, now across from him, a bunch of food still on his plate. (He was so stringy; his face like those bodybuilders’ muscles; so stringy.) He mashed down a fry with the flat part of the fork and watched the oil ooze. His gaze went to Travis and just sat there. Travis looked down.

Something about his brother’s eyes—some trick of shadows or how he squinted viciously all the time or the sharp bones that were over each eye, his eyes, at least to Travis, when he was a few feet away, looked all black. Devil’s eyes. And how could his face be like that? All strings? Travis had a soft face; Shelby had a soft face; their mom had a soft face.

Looking away didn’t do much good.

“You know who killed him?” Bryant asked.

Their stepfather was sitting right there on the same couch.

Bryant sniggered. “Punk.” A pause. “The boys killed him because he was a punk. Now you a punk. They going to kill you. They’s coming to get you.”

Stepfather was a fungus there.

Travis took his plate to the trashcan behind—something he had to do, although it gave Bryant a chance to cut him off at the hall.

Just as Travis neared the exit, so did Bryant.

From his hand low at his side, a short piece of wood like a chopstick held at its end a little piece of blue-green sponge. This was tied with a metal twisty-tie and could have been moist with something.

“You want this, punk?”

Travis looked at this and then into the black eyes again in spite of the fear because it hinted of whether his brother was going to use the sponge or not.

Travis shook his head. “No.”

“No?”

“Why not?”

“…I…” He wanted to say: because I would rather die and take you with me!

The thing on the stick was horror. It was pain, death, loss of brain. Damage. It was a drug, he was sure, sure, sure, sure. Anything he knew—at all—even his name—would vanish!

“No…”

And he knew that he was close to wetting himself but had held it off in time.

“My friends is coming over…”—and he flicked the little stick at Travis and missed. Travis moved away, pretending he wasn’t horrified.

Ok, thought Travis, right there is a spot on the floor that I’ll have to avoid from now on…

 

Andre, in a lot of ways, was really unlike Travis. Andre liked stories, Travis math; Andre sports cars, Travis running shoes; Andre light-skinned girls, Travis dark-skinned girls; Andre could talk for a long time with one girl (Daysha who was just a friend), but Travis was all nervous with all girls. They were different in a lot of ways, but both of them were sure that he didn’t know anything. Both of them didn’t understand why anyone would ever join a gang, when he could just be by himself. When they had been together for the last time, they’d found the “secret passageway” (that didn’t go anywhere)—and both of them were amazed by it. Amazed by a little hiding place as though it held treasure—even though it clearly didn’t.

They would never miss him in the basement; they would think he was in his room. If they ever looked in his room, Shelby always covered for him since she loved him. She always kept her door open to guard her brother’s closed door. She always used to say, “I think he’s at Andre’s.”

And maybe she still could say it and they’d believe her.

The basement door and steps took a lot of caution—a rusty knob and mechanism, stepping on the far side of one board and the opposite side of the next.

And at the bottom of the stairs was the only light. No flashlight in the house. He turned it on, got a look at the obstacles, and then turned it off and walked silently to the far wall. There were no windows. The room was narrow, and there was no “path” from the light bulb to the far wall. He moved around one old couch and a big wire clothes rack that was on top of it—he moved, delicate around a lot of left over insulation, cushions, the water heater, and lots of garbage bags filled with clothing. It was dirty down here; the air was all used up by the dirty, breathing trash.

At the far end, set into the empty wall, was a wooden panel (all the walls were wooden panels) that was so slightly squeezed into place that it could be pulled out very carefully as though it were on a hinge. Behind the panel, the insulation brushed against his right shoulder as he moved to sit on the square foot of plywood that covered some sort of water pipe. His feet touched the rough, splattered concrete, and as he pulled the panel back into position, it kept pressure on his left shoulder.

If ever he grew a couple more inches, he would have had to lean forward because of the beam of wood grazing his hair. Half an arm’s reach in front of him was where the insulation started again. He could, if careful, pull the panel back—and he was invisible—like an air bubble in a cake.

And was invisible.

And didn’t exist.

And the whole thing was a sure accident—like his existence.

*

Smell… smoke, weed. How could he have possibly smelt it before he even heard them on the steps? But he was sure he did. Had they been smoking it all through the house and no one said anything?

But here they came. There were three of them. Their steps came, pa-puhm, pa-puhm on the stairs in three sets—and this happened after he had been hours in the dark, sitting there awake without even thinking about sleeping since he’d been sleeping all day. Even if he’d had his watch, he wouldn’t have been able to tell what time it was because there was no light at all and no light on the watch. It was probably around 2 or 2:30 in the morning.

Their pa-puhms all got to the bottom and there was a big delay until they got the light on. When they did, they left it on and were able to make their way around the boards, insulation, cushions, cans. They were sitting (or maybe just two of them) on the couch that he had never sat in because it just seemed like some sick, dirty thing that they would have used—and he was right. It was a couch—with cushions—like a sponge that had soaked up his brother’s… personality (not a good word)… his brother’s… curse (the perfect word)—had soaked it up and threatened to poison Travis.

The weed smell was gone. At least, when he drew in a slow breath across his clear nostrils, he couldn’t smell anything but mold. It could have been that he just imagined it. But it didn’t really matter; he wasn’t afraid of what a little bit of smoke could do to him.

A line of light sliced diagonally across his legs and there could have been some light on his face if he had to guess, but it was really nothing to fear. From how he sat, he couldn’t see them through the crevice, but in the silence he could hear every word.

Bryant was cussing about someone Travis didn’t know, saying he wanted to cap him.

“Sneak up and get right in the ear.”

And then repeated it.

The other two were agreeing (he guessed), and that was all they really had to say about that.

“I’m sick of this weed, yo,” said one of the other two. “These seeds is crap.”

“You should grow it down here,” said the second one to Bryant.

Bryant responded, “My bro a bitch, yo. He’d call the cops.”

“That’s some messed up bullshit.”

“He would.”

“Then you should cut his ass.”

“He a punk. I got a thing of wood that got a sponge on the end. I tell him it’s acid on it. He gets scared.”

(Acid? Bryant never said anything about the sponge and the stick; he had only done a great job pretending that it was dangerous. Acid?)

“Acid like the shit you drop?”

“Huh?”

“You know, get high with?”

“No, like the shit you burn a n— with,” said Bryant.

“You burn him with it?”

“No, man, ’cause I ain’t got it!

There was a little pause. Then one of the other two (their voices were hard to tell apart; they were both soft) said—

“You got any of that shit, yo? That shit good.”

“Naw, man. Just this weed. This seedy-weed.”

“So why you tell him you got acid on it when you ain’t got it.”

“You stupid, yo. You ain’t listing to what I saying. I ain’t got the burn-you acid, and I ain’t got the other shit either. If I had the other kind, do you think I would get him with it if I had it?”

“Then cap him.”

“You cap him. I ain’t getting caught for some bullshit.”

“You want me to cap your little brother?”

“He ain’t my little brother. I ain’t gonna waste my time with him when I got too many other n—s to cap. What you keep talking about him for anyway. You’se gay?”

They both said “fuck you” to the other one.

A long pause this time. Someone said, “Careful!” They were probably rolling up that cheap weed.

So how funny is this? That there wasn’t anything on that sponge and his brother couldn’t even get the stuff (either kind of acid) and if he could get it, he’d use it on himself, and his brother wouldn’t cap him even if he had a chance because he was scared to. So the sponge was… a joke?

Travis laughed noiselessly, tensed his abdominal muscles and rocked forward and backwards, thrilled, thrilled, and came back to an easy rest in the chair. It was a joke, and he finally got it.

A few minutes later he heard a lighter flick and the three boys were quiet as they smoked. The smell did make its crippled way over soon enough; it smelled like a stale cigarette. He laughed again to know that they were smoking the cheapest pot in the hood.

“Shit, yo! I burned myself.”

“Dumb ass.”

It was damned funny, and the stink was something like victory. Maybe the smell was making him a little dizzy, but not enough to matter. He would have loved it if one of them went into shock and started shaking, and then he would have gotten to see the other two cry like babies. Or it would be great if the bulb burnt out and they all wet themselves because they were scared down here in the basement at dark. They had that kind of softness—he knew it—but stuff like that was for the movies.

And it would have been pure movie stuff if he jumped out of the wall and knocked the joint out of their hands and plucked all their heads off like flowers, one by one, and let them bleed all over the basement until they were skeletons. But that was movie stuff too. How could his brother keep this up without getting killed pretty soon anyway? Movie stuff wasn’t for him. After all, he was just starting to get to know something about himself (of all things). Something real. Movies were fake.

They complained for another twenty minutes, mostly about how bad the weed was and how they were going to buy from someone new but they were worried that if they cut out “Lil” that they would get shot. Then they all three left their reek, climbed back up the stairs, leaving the lights on. The last thing Travis heard was his brother saying, “If he ain’t with his crew, like I says, he gonna get it in the ear.”

It was about that boy whom Travis didn’t know.

When they were all gone, he said aloud, “Go ‘head,” and smiled.

 

Holes (he had no idea there had been anything) in the wall—the exterior wall—showed that it was dawn. Smaller than BB-sized holes showed dawn.

He had slept for a little bit in this hole-in-the-shape-of-his-body, and then had to go to the bathroom. The wall swung out, swung back in—closed back like a box of candies only he owned and would come back to. The little box was the last thing he’d found with Andre, and now that he was out of it, no longer looking at it, he smiled and breathed deeply (breathed victoriously the lingering reek) thinking that he in fact could see that place, could know it, could remember it just as much as anyone else who had a chance in this world. He knew something. He only needed to start small.

And he smiled, believing he had the guts to find that sponge and touch it.

pencil

In the last year John Young has published an op-ed on compulsory education in the Baltimore Sun and two articles in the on-line journal, The Christendom Review. He is a career Spanish teacher at Baltimore City College High School. Email: jclaytonyoung[at]hotmail.com

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