When I came upon the For Sale By Owner sign in the middle of the forest, I thought someone had played a joke. It wasn’t propped up against a tree or next to a rock or any other significant landmark. Someone’s house was no longer for sale. I skipped toward it, wanting to pick it up, turn it over. Take it with me so that when I got home I could tell Sheila and use it as a prop for my recounting. “Right there, in the middle of it all, someone left this sign,” I imagined myself saying. “As if the world itself were up for grabs.”
I was so occupied with the sign that I almost fell in.
It was a hole in the ground, right in front of the sign. Covered from distance by the growth of ferns and yellow saw grass. As big in diameter as a basketball player, and dark. I hadn’t even meant to stop, wouldn’t have, except some instinct locked my muscles and jerked my body to a halt. I stood there, aghast. Looking into it made me dizzy.
I remembered being a boy and sticking my head down the well behind my country house, dropping stones to see how long it would take for each PLUNK to reach me. I was fascinated with holes as a boy and even now I had the urge to chuck some unsuspecting slab of limestone down this one's belly.
I got on my own belly and inched forward, the way I had in Flagstaff, at the canyon. My whole head and neck were dangling over the hole and even though my body anchored me on solid ground, hands wrapped in tall grass like handles, it felt as though I were about to fall. I could see maybe twenty or thirty feet into the hole before it got too dark to make out the edges anymore. I whispered to myself, building up the courage to let loose a yell into the chasm, and when I did it there wasn’t an echo. I yelled again, and then stopped, nervous. There had to be an echo, hadn’t there? Nausea started in on my guts and I had to roll over and look at the sky. Then I looked at the For Sale sign again.
Did it belong to the hole? It was close enough - closer than it was to any of the other things in the immediate landscape. But who would be selling a hole? Who would even bother to claim a hole in the first place? I knew the answer to that second one - I would. When I was nine I’d dug my own hole near the bike path in my backyard, big enough around for me to sit in and deep enough so my head would only barely emerge if I stood my full height. I’d tried to con my cousins into paying to see a bottomless pit, not much, just a few nickels each. They’d been suspicious, but my aunts and uncles humored me, dropping coins into my soiled hands and pretending to be impressed. I’d had a fantasy about a bottomless pit since I was even younger than that, imagining that if I jumped into one I’d fall so long that falling became unremarkable. I’d die of thirst before I ever hit any bottom.
I sat up and pondered at the sign. There was a phone number on the bottom of it, written neatly in black marker. I had my phone.
“Hello?” a man said on the third ring.
“Hi. I’m calling about your…hole for sale?”
“Oh. Wonderful. Are you there now?”
“Yeah. Sitting by it.”
“Can you stay? I’ll be along as soon as I can.”
“Sure, I guess. How far do you have to—”
He’d hung up.
Good one, Elliot. What if the guy lives in the city? What if he commutes? You just committed to staying by this hole indefinitely. It was almost romantic. The hole and I had just met and here I was, prepared to give it hours of company. As it turned out, I only had to wait five minutes.
He came from behind me, silently.
I jumped when he spoke, which scared me twice as much because my legs were dangling over the edge. I turned around, sheepish. He was a tall man, at least seven feet, but slight, and the dark clothes he wore bagged around him like curtains. He wore old glasses, lenses milked and frames made of wire. His translucent gray hair and the wrinkles on his waxy face made me think of my grandfather in the casket. He smiled at me.
“She doesn’t like when you sit like that. Gets her excited.”
He gestured to the hole. I took my legs out. He laughed.
“My little joke.”
“Right.” I got to my feet, and he held out a hand that could have palmed a pumpkin. Shaking it was like being a kid again, and he did have that feeling about him. Like this man would make anyone who came near him feel not only small, but young. Foolish.
“Elliot,” I said, and the man nodded. He didn’t give his name.
“So you’re here because you’d like to purchase the hole.” He eyed me, like he was trying to figure if I was worthy of owning one.
“Maybe I’d like to. I don’t know much about it. As a prospective buyer I might have a few questions. How much is it worth? Does it have any special history, or a name? Have you had it appraised recently? Finally, is there any structural or water damage I should worry about?”
The old man smiled big. “Let’s start with the water damage.”
“Nine summers ago I sat out here with a hose I had snaked from my home. More than a mile of hose. I pumped out an entire pond’s worth of water, seeing if I could fill it up. Couldn’t. Didn’t get any fuller than it is right now. Structurally, she’s about as sound as a hole is going to get. Most empty parts in the ground are caves, or are dug out like mines, and those all have structural problems. Cave-ins. But here, look. This hole just goes straight down. What’s going to cave in?”
“You’re a natural born hole salesman.”
“Or I would be, if I’d ever sold a hole before. Mostly I consider myself a poet. Now listen, I can’t address your appraisal question, because I’m not familiar with real estate. Never dealt with any of those house people. But this hole has a history, sure. Been with my family for a long time. My uncle died and left it to my brother and I when we were sixteen. Used to be kind of an obsession with us. We’d come out here and camp by it on weekends. The next summer my brother got into some trouble and ran away. The police were on him, and he would have gone straight off to prison. They never found him. I came out here a week after he’d gone and found one of his shoes right on the edge. In the shoe was a little note for me.”
“He jumped in?”
The old man nodded. “I was under the impression this was a kind of special hole, the kind that doesn’t stop. So I figured he might still be alive. I spent the next four days on my chest, yelling down the hole that I loved him and that I knew he was all right. But Mister Elliot, that was seventy years ago.”
“No need to be. I’ve made peace with her since then. I feed her things, sometimes.”
For a second, I thought he meant me. Way to be, Elliot. The crazy old man is going to push you in. A sacrifice to the hole god. He didn’t make a move toward me, but I put my left foot behind my right to brace myself if he tried anything. How many dead things were at the bottom? I guessed a lot.
What sort of things?”
He waved his hand. “Chairs, desks. Televisions. Once a piano, and that time I was sure I’d hear it hit, explode in a symphony of taught strings set loose, keys dancing against her walls. But no. I mentioned my poetry, didn’t I? She’s the only one who's ever read it. I fill a wastepaper basket with crumpled bits of verse, douse it in butane, and just before I tip it, I light a match. That’s when I can see the furthest into her. Until the light is just a winking in the distance, like a satellite in the night sky. Over the years I’ve probably filled her with a landfill’s worth of odds and ends. Of course, filling is most likely the wrong word.”
I wasn’t sure how much of this I believed.
“Did you name it?”
He shook his head. “Not me. I don’t know who did. But her name is Lenore.”
“Oh.” It explained the way he spoke of the hole like it was some old ship, or stranger, an actual woman. I puffed out my chest.
“Well, sir. I’m impressed. I’ve never seen such a hole, and I’m sure it’s the only one like it. I can’t imagine how much you’d be selling it for.”
The old man started chewing his cuticles. “What would you do with her?”
I hadn’t thought of it. I hadn’t even decided I wanted the hole, but something in the back of my mind knew that if the price was anything I could pay, that I would do my best. It was Sunday afternoon, I was at probably the end of my hike, and at the moment nothing seemed more important than owning this hole.
“I don't know. Maybe rappelling. Rock climbing. Bungee-jumping, even? Try to get to the bottom and come back up.”
He nodded. “I would sell it for something small. Do you have…a bottle of water and a flashlight?”
I did. I passed him my CamelBak and a small LED flashlight I dug out of my pack. He traded me a piece of folded paper from his back pocket. He pointed to several lines, and I signed them. Then he signed a line, and I put the paper in my pack. Lenore was mine. I dialed Sheila. She either wasn't going to believe it, or she wasn't going to care.
The old man looked at me, wistful.
“You won’t get to the bottom. None of us will. But we’ll make the best of the journey.”
He went to the edge of the hole and looked down into it. The water bottle was strapped to his back, the straw in his mouth. He clicked on the flashlight and looked back at me, winking. Then, before I could move, he pitched forward and disappeared.
“SEVENTY YEARS,” I could hear him yelling to his brother,
“SEVENTY YEARS' HEAD START!”