THE HOLE WAS AT THE END of Tal Walker's driveway. It's paved over now. But twelve summers ago Tal climbed into it and never came up again.
Weeks afterward, my mother would hug me for no reason, pulling me tight against her each time I left the house and later, at night, before I went to bed, she'd run her fingers through the bristles of my crew cut and lean close to me, whispering my name.
Tal was ten when this happened, and I was eleven. The backs of our yards touched through a row of forsythia bushes, and we had been neighbors and best friends since my parents had moved to Virginia three years before. We rode the bus together, sat next to each other in school, even slept at each other's houses, except in the summer when we slept out in the plywood fort we'd built under the Chinese elm in Tal's backyard.
Tal liked having the hole on his property. It was something no one else in the neighborhood had and he liked to talk about it when we camped out in the fort. The opening was a manhole that Tal's dad had illegally pried open, and it led to an abandoned sewer underneath their driveway. Rather than collecting their grass clippings and weeds in plastic bags as everyone else on the street did, the Walkers would lift the steel lid and dump theirs into the hole. It seemed like a secret, something illicit. We never actually knew what was in there. It was just a large empty space, so murky you could not see the bottom. Sometimes Tal would try to convince me that a family of lizard creatures lived there, just like the ones he swore he'd seen late at night by the swampsix-foot-tall lizard people that could live on just about anything, twigs or grass, and had special vision that enabled them to see in the dark.
That was twelve years ago. My family no longer lives in Virginia and Tal is no longer alive. But this is what I tell my girlfriend when I wake at night and imagine Tal talking to me again:
It is mid-July, twelve summers ago, and Tal is yelling to me over the roar of the lawn mower less than an hour before his death. His mouth is moving but I can't hear him. Tal is ten years old and should not be mowing the lawn, but there he is. His parents are away for the day on a fishing trip at Eagle Lake, and Kyle, his older brother, has offered him fifty cents to finish the backyard for him. Tal and I are at the age when responsibility is an attractive thing, and Kyle has been nice enough on a few occasions to let us try out the mower, the same way my father has let us sit on his lap and drive his truck.
It's drought season in Virginia. No rain in two weeks and the temperature is in triple digits, predicted to top out at 105 by evening. The late afternoon air is gauzy, so thick you can feel yourself moving through it and when I squint, I can actually see the heat rising in ripples above the macadam driveway.
Tal is hurrying to finish, struggling through the shaggy grass, taking the old rusted mower in long sweeping ovals around the yard. The back of his T-shirt is soaked with sweat, and from time to time a cloud of dust billows behind him as he runs over an anthill or mud wasps' nest. It is the last hour of his life, but he doesn't know that. He is smiling. The mower chokes and spits and sometimes stalls and Tal kicks at it with his bare feet. In the shade of the Walkers' back porch, I am listening to the Top 40 countdown on the radio, already wearing my bathing suit, waiting for Tal to empty the final bag of clippings into the hole so we can go swimming at the Bradshaws' pool.
The Bradshaws are the last of the rich families in our neighborhood. Their children have all grown up and moved away, and this summer they are letting Tal and me use their pool two or three times a week. They don't mind that we curse and make a lot of noise or that we come over in just our underwear sometimes. They stay in their large, air-conditioned house, glancing out the windows from time to time to wave. We swim there naked all the time and they never know.
It's strange. Even now, I sometimes picture Tal at the end of the driveway just after he has let the mowing bag slip into the hole. He is crying and this time I tell him not to worry about it.
"Let it slide," I say. "Who cares?"
And sometimes he listens to me and we start walking down the street to the Bradshaws'. But when we reach their house, he is gone. And when I turn I realize he has started back toward the hole and it is too late.
In the retelling, the story always changes. Sometimes it's the heat of the driveway on Tal's bare feet that causes him to let the bag slip. Other times it's anxiousnesshe is already thinking how the icy water is going to feel on his skin as he cannonballs off the Bradshaws' diving board. But even now, twelve years later, I am not sure about these things. And I am not sure why the bag becomes so important to him at that moment.
It is said that when you are older you can remember events that occurred years before more vividly than you could even a day or two after you experienced them. It seems true. I can no longer remember the exact moment I started writing this. But I can remember, in precise detail, the expression on Tal's face the moment he lost the mowing bag. It was partially a look of frustration, but mostly fear. Perhaps he was worried that his father would find out and take it out on him or Kyle as he'd done before, or maybe he was scared because Kyle had told him not to screw up and he'd let him down, proven he could not be trusted.
In the newspaper article, the hole is only twelve feet deep; they'd had it measured afterward. But in my memory it is deeper. The bag is at the very bottom, we know that, but even on our bellies Tal and I cannot make out its shape in the darkness. Warm fumes leak from the hole, making us a little dizzy and our eyes water, a dank odor, the scent of black syrupy grass that has been decomposing for more than a decade. Tal has a flashlight and I am holding the ladder we've carried from his garage. If Tal is nervous or even hesitant as we slide the ladder into the hole, he does not show ithe is not thinking about the lizard creatures from the swamp or anything else that might be down there. Perhaps he imagines there is nothing below but ten summers' worth of grass, waiting like a soft bed of hay.
We both stare into the hole for a moment, then Tal mounts the ladder carefully, the flashlight clamped between his teeth, and just before his mop of blond hair disappears, he glances at me and smilesalmost like he knows what is going to happen next.
A few seconds later I hear him say, "It smells like shit down here!" He says something else and laughs, but I can't hear what it is.
The flashlight never goes on. Not after I yell to him. Not after I throw sticks and tiny stones into the hole and tell him to stop fooling around. Not even after I stand in the light of the opening and threaten to take a whiz on himeven pull down my bathing suit to show him I am seriousnot even then does it go on.
Later, in the tenth grade, a few years after my family had moved to Pennsylvania, I received a letter from Kyle Walker. He was living and working in Raleigh since high school. In the letter, he said he wanted to know what had happened that day. He'd always meant to ask me, but could never bring himself to do it. There was no one else who had actually been there, and it would help him out if he knew the details.
A few days later I wrote him a long letter in which I described everything in detail. I even included my own thoughts and a little bit about the dreams I had. At the end I said I would like to see him sometime if he ever made it to Pennsylvania. The letter sat on my bureau for a few weeks, but I never mailed it. I just looked at it as I went in and out of my room. After a month I put it back in my desk drawer.
Two firemen die in the attempt to rescue Tal. Two others end up with severe brain damage before the fire chief decides that they are looking at some seriously toxic fumes and are going to have to use oxygen masks and dig their way in from the sides. Later the local newspaper will say that Tal and the two firemen had probably lived about half an hour down there, that the carbon dioxide had only knocked them out at first, but that the suffocation had probably been gradual.
There is a crowd of people watching by the time the young firemen carry out Tal's body and strap it onto the stretcher. He no longer seems like someone I know. The skin on his face is a grayish blue color, and his eyes are closed like he's taking a nap. Seeing Tal this way sends Kyle into the small patch of woods on the other side of the house. Later that night Kyle will have to tell his parents, just back from their fishing trip at Eagle Lake, what has happened. There will be some screaming on the back porch and then Kyle will go into his room and not come out. For years everyone will talk about how hard it must have been on him, having to carry that type of weight so early in life.
When the last of the ambulances leave, my mother takes me home and I don't cry until late that night after everyone has gone to sleep, and then it doesn't stop. Tal's parents never speak to me again. Not even at the funeral. If they had, I might have told them what I sometimes know to be the truth in my dream: that it was me, and not Tal, who let the mowing bag slip into the hole. Or other times, that I pushed him in. Or once: that I forced him down on a dare.
That is the real story, I might say to them. But I will not tell them about the other part of my dream. The part where I go into the hole, and Tal lives.
MY FATHER IS A FAILED documentary filmmaker. I say failed because he made only one film in his life. But for a short time in the late seventies, when I was growing up, he achieved what he would later refer to as moderate fame. The source of his moderate fame was a short documentary film about a group of Shoshone Indians living in southern Nevada. I doubt that anybody remembers the film now, but in the weeks and months that followed its release, my father received critical acclaim at several small film festivals, earned some grant money, and garnered enough hope and courage to continue making films for another ten years. To my knowledge, he never completed another film after that, but instead spent the next ten years of his life jumping around from one project to the next, shooting for several weeks or months, then eventually abandoning the current film for another that he believed had more potential.
My mother and I were living in southern California, where she worked as a lawyer, and every few months my father would call from a different part of the country with news of his latest conceptit was always his best yetand ask my mother to sell something of his, or cash a bond, or take out another mortgage on the house. And finally, when there was nothing left to sell, he began to simply ask her for loans. Technically my parents were separated by then, but my mother was still very much in love with him, never stopped loving him, and worse, she believed with an almost stubborn myopia in his talent. She wanted my father to succeed, perhaps even more than he did, and to this day I still think this was her greatest flaw.
I can say now, twenty years later, that my father was never destined for the type of fame he once hoped to achieve. He was never meant to be a great filmmaker (few documentarians are), and he was never meant to receive even the lesser distinctions that so many of his contemporaries enjoyed. The small amount of talent he did possess only seemed to serve as a source of frustration for him, a constant reminder of some vague, unrealized potential. But at the timethis was in my early childhoodI believed fully in his potential, and though I missed him dearly, I never once faulted him for being away so often. By the time I was twelve, my mother and I had become more or less accustomed to his absence in our lives. We were used to the way he showed up every few months to edit film stock, the way he promised each time that he would come home more often, and the way he would then leave, a week or so later, just as suddenly as he'd arrived. The few months each year that my father was home, he would spend down in our basement, buried in film stock, researching his next project or sometimes editing footage from past projects he planned to resume. The basement became his refuge. His designated workspace and also his bedroom since my parents had separated. When he was not down there, he kept the door locked at all times, and though it seems strange to admit now, in all the years we lived in that house, I can still remember only one occasion when my father actually allowed me down there. It was the winter I was ten. My father had needed some help carrying some boxes up the stairs, and after several loads, he simply thanked me, patted me on the back, then turned around and locked the door behind him.