Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2018    poetry    all issues

Summer 2018 Cover


Cover Michael Lønfeldt

Emily Rinkema
Child A

Alice Martin
A Hole to Nowhere

Fan Li
Dromedaries in America

Judy Colp Rubin
The Crossing

Rebeccah Dean
Forgotten Dreams

Marianne Stokes

K. Ralph Bray

Zoë Däe
Bugs Under a Spaghetti Strainer

Charles J. Alden
Double Feature

Ateret Haselkorn

M. M. Ehasz
A Shanghai Concession

Kitty Bleak
Sooner or Later

Barbara Fischer
From the Gentlemen at the Bar

Wendy Cohan
The Sweetness of Cowboys

Alice Martin

A Hole to Nowhere

The day the ground opened up marked six months that Monica had been living at home. This, to her, felt more monumental than the hole.

She noticed it first as she let her arthritic dog Clifford out to do his business. That’s what her father always called it, “conducting his business,” as if the dog were smarter than her just by shitting. What business did she have to conduct? She’d just woken up at 11am on a Monday and was standing on the weed-infested patio in an oversized T-shirt and socks up to her knees. In one hand, a cup of coffee. In the other, a cigarette. She never used to smoke.

Clifford found the hole by peeing into it. He circled it buzzard-style afterward, just like he did before he found a place to sit. He was a basset hound mix, and his ears hung almost as low as his eyes. He looked at her until she groaned and came over to inspect.

“It must be a sinkhole,” her mother declared when she got home at 4pm and Monica showed her. Mrs. Gentry was a public elementary school teacher who had recently discovered social media. Specifically, she enjoyed posting saint-like messages on her wall, too-long narratives which bemoaned the public school system while simultaneously declaring teaching to be the most noble profession. The posts were annoying, of course, but also made Monica sad in a way she didn’t like to think about.

“Do sinkholes start that suddenly?” Monica asked.

“Well, what else would it be?”

The two of them stared down the hole and a shiver crawled up Monica’s back. It was the same sensation she got when she realized someone was looking at her from a distance. The ground around the hole wasn’t cracked or grassless. Instead, the earth just tilted downward to darkness.

“I think it’s growing,” Monica said after a minute.

“Well,” Mrs. Gentry said, pulling her daughter away from the edge by her wrist. “Let’s ask your father when he gets home.”

Mr. Gentry, when he came home from work where he served as a construction site manager, insisted on setting up orange traffic cones around the perimeter. So no one accidentally fell in.

“I have extras in my trunk,” he said, as if they were normal things for a person to have.

That night, Monica stared out her bedroom window at the neon orange traffic cones, three of them glowing around the perimeter of the hole. When she heard a noise just outside her bedroom, she closed her eyes. She pretended she didn’t know that her mother cracked the door open to look in at her every night. She pretended she didn’t hear her mother sigh.

The next morning, the cones were gone and the hole was bigger. Mr. and Mrs. Gentry still had to go to work, and so Monica was left with the gaping monster. It was now roughly four feet wide and who knew how deep. Mr. Gentry promised he would “make some calls.”

Monica briefly considered doing so herself. Last time she was living here, five years ago when she was in high school, he might have asked her to do it. “I’m a busy guy,” he would’ve said. “And you’re my kid. What did we have you for?” He’d say it with a wide, squinty-eyed grin. It was Mr. Gentry’s chief belief that the ability to make friends was a man’s greatest asset.

But now neither he nor Monica’s mother ever asked her to do much. Since her homecoming, they’d treated her with the kind of fragility as someone who knew there had been a tragedy. In this case, the tragedy was her.

It had always been known that she was welcome to come home if she needed it. But when she arrived, carting the two suitcases that she’d dragged around New York City for two months while she looked for a job and slept on springy couches, her parents’ smiles had held small torn edges. They still barely asked her to rinse her dishes. So, fixing the hole was certainly not on her agenda.

Monica stood over the hole. Her dark brown hair dangled in greasy ropes, reaching into the crater like Rapunzel’s braid. She poured her coffee inside and waited for a distance splash. The silence lasted a full minute, and Monica left without ever hearing it break.

She let Clifford out, but made sure to put him on a leash after a brief mental image of him tripping over his ears and falling headfirst into the hole. Then, she came back inside, climbed the familiar carpeted stairs two at a time, and slipped into what used to be her bathroom. Since she’d moved out for college, it had been converted into the guest bath. The drawer filled with her old nail polishes, all gooey with congealed color and cracked with sparkles, had been emptied. Her old towels, marked with streaks of black mascara and beige foundation, had been chucked. Her collection of accumulated Bath and Body Works sprays and lotions, hotel room soaps and conditioners, all swept clean. Replacing them were tasteful bottles of body wash, plush navy towels, and a candle scented inexplicably like clean linen.

Monica lit the candle, shoved one of the oversized towels against the crack under the door, and lifted the lid of the toilet. A water bottle bobbed inside. She unscrewed the lid and dumped her stash into her lap, packed the bowl in the hammock her too-long T-shirt made between her thighs.

Spring was coming and the birds were loud outside the open bathroom window as she smoked. She wondered if it was the same family of birds that woke her up on weekends when she was young. Did they return home, too? Or did they get as far away as possible? Maybe they tried, but always ended up coming back anyway.

Her phone trembled on the tile floor, a low groan. She answered it with her big toe and listened to Josh tell her he was in the neighborhood.

“Yeah, I’m here. You can come see the hole.”

“The what?” he asked. His voice still sounded the same as it had when they were in high school, a bit too high pitched but perfectly intonated, as if he’d copied it entirely from teenage soap operas on television.

“There’s a hole in my backyard.”

“Like a sink hole?” he asked.

“Not like a sink hole,” she said, and blew out a cloud of smoke. She wished she could blow smoke rings but until recently her marijuana usage had been too infrequent and casual to allow for such tricks. Maybe she’d learn. Maybe she’d use the next six months to pick up talents like rolling your own joint and driving while high. Life skills.

She’d finished the bowl by the time Josh got there. He knocked on the side door next the garage instead of the front door because he’d grown used to her home during their high school years. High school boyfriends, Monica had learned, continued to feel entitled to familiarities even after they were exes. Girls always worried about lines being crossed but boys reveled in their seeming nonexistence.

Monica held the screen door open for him with her foot while she held Clifford back from climbing up his leg. Clifford, the traitor, still preferred men, and Josh in particular.

“Coffee?” she asked. She’d pulled a pair of running shorts on for the occasion, but still wore the thread-bare WashU T-shirt she’d slept in. She didn’t like wearing it in public anymore because people always asked if she went there. Then she’d have to explain, why yes I did, but I live at home now.

“I’m quitting,” he said.

“Why waste the energy quitting coffee?” she said as she led him to the patio. “Shouldn’t you save that kind of determination for quitting something important like drinking hard liquor?”

“Headaches,” he said. They stood together on the patio and he whistled. “What the hell is it?” he asked.

“A hole to nowhere,” she said.

“A what?” he asked.

“You know,” she said. “Like that time we went to Topsail Beach with my parents. Sophomore year? We were digging a hole in the sand and you wanted to stop but I wanted to finish it and you asked when I’d know it was finished and I said I’d just know.”

“Oh yeah,” he said and smiled. “I called it your hole to nowhere.”

“Right,” Monica said. But she wasn’t smiling.

They walked up to the hole and looked inside. While he was staring, Monica snuck a glance at Josh. He was taller than her now, which hadn’t been the case when they dated in high school. She’d always been tall, and had gotten a fair amount of ribbing from her friends (and her father) about Josh being shorter than she was. But he’d always been good looking in a boyish kind of way, big cheeked with blonde hair and large eyes. His hair was darkening now and the frames he’d started wearing in his twenties only made his eyes look bigger. His shoulders were broader, but something about the roundness of his face, the fullness of his chin still made him look young.

She, on the other hand, felt like she’d gotten smaller. Certainly slimmer, but not in the good way. Friends always said you lose weight in your boobs first. Her whole body felt a bit concave these days, her posture slouched forward so her shoulders closed inward around her heart. It wasn’t because she’d moved home. This’d started in New York, when she couldn’t get a job. Stress always made her stop eating.

“What are you doing today?” Josh asked after he grew bored of the hole.

She shrugged and he offered her a ride.

“Where?” she asked.

He grinned. “Does it matter?”

Turns out he was headed to the old high school to drop off baseball equipment. He worked for the local community center now, running summer programs and sports leagues for kids. They collaborated with the school a lot. Her house was on the way, kind of. But she knew that wasn’t why he stopped by. He’d dropped in at least twice a week for the last two months. Once, Mrs. Gentry came home before Josh had left and found them sharing a cigarette Monica’d convinced him to smoke on the patio.

“What’s he after?” she’d asked Monica.

“Probably sex,” she said and Mrs. Gentry gave her a hard eye that said she knew Monica was joking but still didn’t want to pursue the banter. Monica had shrugged. “Company, I guess.”

It wasn’t that Mrs. Gentry didn’t like Josh. In fact, Monica’s parents had always felt that it was a mistake that they hadn’t stayed together. Of course, Monica liked to remind them when they started feeling too bad for Josh, it was he who’d said if she went to an out of state school they’d have to break up. What did they want her to do? Stunt her ambition?

She was doing a pretty good job of that by herself, a hard, dark thing inside Monica reminded her.

Whenever she was in Josh’s car, Monica felt a deep well in her stomach, as if her nostalgia could eat her from the inside. She still knew by feel exactly how far back his seats went, because of their many failed attempts to have sex there. And the smell, a not all together unpleasant scent of old French fries and grassy cleats, gave her the desire to both cry and touch herself. It wasn’t that she missed him, but the force of habit made her think about things she felt belonged to another person.

They sped past the sites of their many dates. The grocery store where they found the ladder to the roof and got drunk off boxes of wine. The gas station where they first kissed and Josh had left her in the convenience store so he could go break up with his current girlfriend and stop feeling guilty. The track field behind the high school where they’d trekked on a snow day from her house, mittened hand in mittened hand, to go sledding on the lids of the school’s garbage cans. There was an uncanniness to these places, a familiarity that was no longer real. Monica remembered why she hardly ever left the house since moving home.

Josh left Monica parked in the car while he ran the equipment into the clubhouse by the baseball fields. Afterward, he asked if she wanted to stop for lunch but she said she’d rather go home. On the way back, she rolled down his window and stuck her head out into the breeze to try to remind herself who she was. Monica Gentry, who went to Washington University, who majored in Philosophy, who moved to New York to become and a writer, or an artist, or important in some way. Who hadn’t failed, exactly, but who’d run out of money and needed to go home. Other friends of hers, friends from families with the cash to fund them, friends who never talked about their hometowns or their parents when it wasn’t to complain, friends who Monica had never resented until after they’d left college, were still there. They texted her now and then, but the messages had grown less frequent as the months went on, and the momentum that Monica had always associated with Who She Was, she had to admit, was slowing.

Not just slowing. Screeching to a halt, she believed was the phrase.

“You didn’t used to be so sad,” Josh said as they got close to her neighborhood.

He sounded not angry so much as disappointed, which enraged her. What right did he have to be disappointed in her? What did she owe him? A happy face? He was the one who asked to come over every week. She couldn’t even tell if she enjoyed his visits, or if just his presence made her feel worse. Worse, because she missed him. But also worse because she didn’t, not the way she thought she should. Sometimes, she felt the desire to lean over and kiss him, but only so she could feel someone’s lips on hers and remember what it smelled like to be so close to someone who really knew her.

“You want me to fake it?” she asked. It was a line from an argument they’d had a month after they’d started having sex in high school. She’d admitted he couldn’t make her come and he’d asked her to leave. She doubted he remembered, or maybe that was the exact kind of thing boyfriends didn’t forget.

“I’m just making an observation,” he said. His eyes flashed to hers and then back at the road. “Why did you come back here anyway?”

“Like I had a choice,” she said.

He pulled up in front of her house but didn’t cut the engine. He was waiting for her to get out. When she hesitated he said, “But you did, though, Monica.”

She left, and he didn’t ask to come over a second time that week.

In the week that followed, the hole kept growing. She watched it from her bedroom window on the second floor. First, it ate the stump of the tree that had died the year she’d gone to college. Then, it ate the rosebush she’d planted with her mother when she was seven. Yellow, because that had been her favorite color and her mother remembered, even though no one else did. It ate the old swing set that had rusted over with age and grown mold in the butt curve of the seats. “We probably should have thrown it out years ago,” Mr. Gentry said. But even he was having a hard time keeping the concern from his voice. Next up, it would eat the patio where she used to put on plays in her pajamas for her patiently smiling parents.

A police officer and three firefighters had come to look at it first. They’d wrapped CAUTION: DO NOT CROSS tape around it, only for the trees holding the tape to bend and tumble into the hole, too. They’d brought in city planners, architects, landscapers, scientists. Soon, people from town started dropping by in their Honda Civics and Jeep Caravans to look. Mr. Michaels, Monica’s old English teacher came by.

“I didn’t know you were back in town!” he’d said, like it was a good thing. She didn’t want to tell him that he’d been wrong about her when he’d written a sticky note on her paper that she was talented, bound for big things. She doubted he even remembered that.

Still more people came. Photographers, politicians, families, journalists. The businessmen came, too. At first they’d asked Mr. Gentry how much he might sell the land for, so they could charge admission to people who came and stared. But soon they stopped asking. At the rate the hole was growing, Mr. Gentry wouldn’t own it for long. It was beyond him. It was beyond any of them.

The day the patio began to tilt and slide was the day that Monica’s father finally announced they had to move. This was how big decisions were made, when her father could no longer make light of a subject. Mrs. Gentry had been saying for days that they needed to leave, but it was only when Mr. Gentry acknowledged it that anything become real. Monica wasn’t sure why this was, or why she’d never noticed it before now.

“We don’t have time to move everything,” he noted at breakfast. He said it with a clip to his tone, the way an executive may deliver news about losing assets. He said it while reading the newspaper, his eyes glancing through his rimless reading glasses. He said it over eggs and orange juice. He said it, and Monica thought her heart might explode.

“This is crazy,” Monica said. Her voice maintained the flatness with which she’d addressed everyone in her life for the past six months. If something was fazing her, she would make them believe it wasn’t.

“Yes, but sometimes that’s life,” Mr. Gentry said. “Sometimes we have to be willing to lose what we have because we don’t have a choice.”

Monica narrowed her eyes at him, taking this as some kind of metaphor or personal offense. Mrs. Gentry caught Monica’s eye and tried to smile at her but Monica just stared back down at the pooch of her poached egg. It was harder to keep the sting of tears out of her nose when her mom looked at her that way.

Monica spent the rest of the day, while she was meant to be packing her essentials, watching the hole from her window. The hole was so wide now, if you stood in the center of her room and look straight out, you might think she lived in the middle of it. A scientist who’d come over last week from UPenn suggested that it was developing its own gravitational pull. He’d said this with excitement, and had taken a video on his phone, as if it were some kind of miracle.

Now, even when she knew she had something important to do, Monica couldn’t look away. That was the thing about the hole that no one, not any of the scientists or psychiatrists or philosophers or spiritualists, could understand. It had a hypnotical quality, her hole. A vastness, a darkness, a depth that made your soul feel like it was already falling, tumbling and tipping like the trees, willing itself to drop into nothing.

Sometimes, Monica liked to imagine that she’d started the hole with the sheer force of her desire, that it yawned and ate for her, and that each centimeter it grew was a beat of her heart. Other times, the thought terrified her, and she’d never felt so lonely. She thought now about calling Josh, but he hadn’t come by, not even to look at the hole, since they’d last spoken. And she didn’t want to be the one who broke the silence. She didn’t need anything from him, or anyone really, and she never had. She told herself this until the words stopped sounding angry and instead just sounded bland.

That night, the last night they would spend in their house, Monica lay in the blue-lit darkness of her room, staring at the rim of the hole from her mattress. She heard padded footsteps outside her door and closed her eyes as her mother pushed into the room. The floor sighed where her mother stood beside the bed and watched her. Monica prickled with irritation just like she always did on nights when her mom came to check on her. But then her annoyance melted away as the sheets moved back and Mrs. Gentry slipped into bed beside her, like she used to do before Monica’s first day of school every year. Monica had never been able to sleep before the first day of school. Her father said she was too excited, but that wasn’t the truth. She was scared, petrified of what she both wanted and didn’t want, the emptiness of growing up, the casual cruelty of almost everyone, the boundless expectations that she both thought she depended on and always seemed to ruin her. On those nights Mrs. Gentry would come in and lay beside her daughter, run her fingers through her hair from root to tip, hum songs that Monica had known from birth and didn’t need the words to recognize. They were the songs of her heart.

Mrs. Gentry lay beside her now and whispered, “I know you’re awake, honey.”

When Monica opened her eyes, she was surprised to find that her eyes were wet. She’d been so busy feeling nothing that the pull in her chest now almost choked her.

“What if we just don’t leave,” she asked her mother, softly because if she spoke any louder she knew she would cry. “What if we just stay here forever and let it swallow us. Would that be so bad?”

“Maybe not,” Mrs. Gentry said. “Maybe there’s something beautiful down there.”

Monica turned over and faced her mom. She’d never done this before, she’d always let Mrs. Gentry comfort her back, pour her love into her hair. Now, they looked at each other in the dark room and Monica saw both that her mother was old and had been crying.

“I don’t need it to be beautiful,” she said. “I don’t need it to be anything.”

Mrs. Gentry tucked all Monica’s hair behind her ears in a way that always made Monica think she looked like a five-year-old. But for once she didn’t mind.

“Honey,” Mrs. Gentry whispered so low Monica could barely hear her. “We have to leave, and you do, too.”

“What about the house? What about our memories? What about me?” she asked.

“We still have those things,” Mrs. Gentry said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“You’re lying,” Monica said. “There’s everything to be afraid of.”

Mrs. Gentry thought of that for a while and then said, “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

Monica turned back around and Mrs. Gentry sang with her throat until they both fell asleep.

In the morning, Monica woke up to a slanting room. Hers, the southern-most facing room of the house, had begun to tip with the foundation. Mrs. Gentry was gone, and late morning sun filled the room like a slap. Monica saw it didn’t matter that she hadn’t packed. Sometime in the night, her mother had done it for her. Missing were her perfumes and hairbrushes and clothes. Her boundless bookshelves had lost their teeth. The bin by the window that had always held her pile of stuffed animals was nearly empty. Her mother had known just which ones to take.

After Monica showered and went downstairs, she was surprised to find Josh at the table, drinking coffee with her parents.

“I came to help,” he said. “I thought you could use a second car.”

Monica picked at the hem of her T-shirt. “Want to come look at the hole?” she said.

“Not really,” he answered, but he smiled. “That shit is freaky.”

“The military came by this morning,” Mr. Gentry said. “They are evacuating the whole neighborhood now.”

“It’s just a hole,” Monica said, adopting the same flat tone she always used in the daytime. “It’s just our hole. Everyone doesn’t need to leave.”

“Well, babe, it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon,” Mr. Gentry said. He snapped off his reading glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “Seems that the neighbors have been scared of it for quite some time now.”

“It has to stop growing sometime,” Monica said, more to Mrs. Gentry than her father. She smiled at her daughter but kept her lips closed tight. They didn’t speak about their secrets in front of other people.

“We hope,” Mr. Gentry said. “But the military seems concerned. They say the government wants to run a bunch of tests, see how they can stop it.”

“They can’t. It has to stop on its own.” Monica didn’t know how she knew this. She just did.

“That’s a lovely thought,” Mr. Gentry said with the same unthinking condescension he often directed at his wife, but Monica had never recognized until this moment was occasionally also directed at her. “But what if it never stops? What if this is the end of the world?”

“Then it’s the end of the world,” Josh broke in with a shrug. He looked at Mr. Gentry and then at Monica. “If it is, then what’s the use of staring at it all the time?”

Mrs. Gentry patted Josh’s hand and collected their nearly empty mugs.

When it came time to load the cars, Monica said she’d go in Josh’s. Clifford went in her parents’ van. He could leave without hesitation, but Monica decided to go back in one last time. She walked through the house, and thought of how it smelled, of lavender laundry detergent and old rugs, wood and lemon hand soap. Every place smelled different, and some smells would never exist again. She ran her hands along the walls and shuffled her feet to feel every floorboard. She tried to memorize every inch of the two-story house, with its big windows and wood-paneled walls. The stairs groaned in all the places she’d committed to memory. The house was old fashioned and always felt too warm in the summer and too cold in the winter. So why did it feel perfect right now?

When she left the house, her father was impatient to leave, but Josh was just sitting on the lawn, tying knots in blades of grass. He stood when she came out and opened the car door for her, like they were going to prom instead of fleeing the scene of a disaster.

Once they drove off, following her parents, Monica noticed all the neighbors packing their cars too, leaving their lives behind. She hadn’t thought about them at all. She’d been busy thinking about herself.

“I’m not going to sleep with you, you know,” Monica said once they’d left the neighborhood. “In case that’s why you’re doing this.”

Josh grinned and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “Well, that would be nice. But it’s not why I’m doing this.”

“Didn’t you ever move on?” she said with an aggressiveness they both knew was fake. “Why are you still the same?”

“I have moved on,” he said. “And so have you. Doesn’t mean we can’t still do this, too.”

After a minute, he turned on the radio and the tinny sound of it from his broken-up speakers made her smile. Even after they’d left the neighborhood, she still saw people clattering into their cars, stuffing their trunks full of bags, as if the hole was on their doorstep and not hers. She’d never seen so many people outside their houses at one time, scared of the same thing. There was something comforting about it.

The song ended and another one began. Josh rolled down the windows like he knew she liked but he didn’t try to take her hand. Monica leaned back into the breeze and didn’t even mind that she had no idea where they were going.

Alice Martin received her BA in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill, where she was awarded the Max Steele Prize in Fiction. She’s worked at Writers House, LLC, Folio Literary Management, and Algonquin Books. Her writing has appeared in the Carolina Quarterly, Appalachian Heritage, and The Bookends Review, among others. She’s currently a graduate student at New York University and a regular contributor to Shelf Awareness. You can find her on Twitter @AliceJeanMartin.

Dotted Line