The Explorers

The four men have come to a decision. This over beers while sitting on lawn chairs in the Electrician’s garage. The Electrician leans against a workbench wiping his hands on a rag, nudging a socket set on the floor with his toe. He has an impressive array of tools. More than once someone has said to him, you could open a tool shop right here in your garage you’ve got so many.

The men’s wives are displeased with their husbands’ decision. Have you forgotten what happened last time, they ask. (The men have not. How they drove around lost getting on each other’s nerves until they gave up. Everyone returning home sullen and ornery. One of them so upset a year later he remains on poor speaking terms with the others. Things were said on this trip that that man is unable to forgive, he feels. Had they cleared the air they would still be a group of five.)

But this year the men are convinced they have it figured out. On the evening before their departure the Salesman explains again to his wife why things will be different this time around. See, he says, last year we’d all gone in the Banker’s Suburban. (The Banker being the one who left the group.) That was the problem, says the Salesman. Despite its size the five of us were too cramped in there. Plus the car acted as a barrier. A shield preventing us from reaching our destination. He asks his wife, do you know that book about zen and motorcycles? She doesn’t. Well it’s like that, he says. The guy’s more connected to the road when he’s riding a bike. So think how much better if we’re all on foot this time. Like those men who climb Everest without oxygen tanks. The trip takes longer but they become one with the mountain. One with the mountain, she says. He says, we will be like those hunters who, upon seeking their quarry for days without success, finally realize they must head into the woods without compass or rifle and only then are able to come face to face with their mythical elk. So this place you’re looking for, she says, it’s your mythical elk. Or moose or bear, he says, whatever, you’re missing the point.

What will you do when you find it, she asks. Oh well we’ve thought about that. (This is not true.) Maybe put up a plaque, he says. A plaque, she says. How will you know when you find it. He is about to say something like, look we’ve gone over this a dozen times, but just then the phone rings. Another member of the group, the Roofer, has called to run through a checklist to see if the Salesman has assembled his share of the supplies. From this one might think the Roofer is the leader of the group but he is not. There is no leader per se. The Roofer just likes to go over things. As the Salesman talks on the phone he absentmindedly opens the silverware drawer and separates the salad forks from the regular forks. Regular forks with tines going up, salad forks pointing down.

Early Saturday morning the men leave. All necessary arrangements have been made. This is another reason for their wives’ displeasure, as the women think that time could have been better spent with the families. Now the women will have no support chauffeuring the kids to their activities and no one to watch those kids while the women run their errands. Not that some of the men would have been that much help had they stayed home. Two of the wives are in fact looking forward to them being gone, a sentiment they readily express.

The Landscaper’s wife drives the men to a town several hours away. Using maps and charts the men have estimated that this is where their journey must begin. They will use a combination of GPS tracking and good old-fashioned intuition. They will use their phones sparingly. A phone tree has been set up so that when a member of the group calls each night his wife will notify the others of their location and progress. They have mapped out spots where they can recharge their phones (a bus station, a train station, a fire department where one of the men knows someone) as well as convenience stores, gas stations, and cheap restaurants where they can purchase food and drink. They will sleep nights in wooded lots next to service roads, in a county park that is no longer open but according to one of the men easy enough to gain access to, and on loading docks behind strip malls. In a pinch they might even sneak into an empty foreclosed home although they refrain from sharing this backup plan with their wives.

Compared to last year’s misadventure they are better organized and have a stronger sense of their elusive destination. They figure the journey shouldn’t take more than three, four days at the most. The Landscaper’s wife abruptly waves goodbye and drives away as the men walk four abreast down the street: the Electrician, the Salesman, the Roofer, the Landscaper. From behind only their legs and arms are visible, the rest of their bodies obscured by backpacks on top of which they have tied tightly rolled sleeping bags. They carry ample supplies: water bottles, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, magazines, Tylenol, changes of clothing, toilet paper, bags of gorp.

The first night, and no one’s thought to bring insect repellent. Where’s the fucking Skin So Soft, says the Salesman. The Landscaper and the Electrician head out to find a drug store but return empty handed hours later because everything’s closed except for a 7-11 which was all sold out of bug spray. They climb into their tents, two apiece, and lie there scratching the welts on their necks and inhaling each other’s air mixed with the smell of nylon.

During the night the Electrician gets up to pee, trips over a tree root, and smashes headfirst into the trunk of a tree. In the morning they laugh at the scab crusting in his eyebrow.

They find a Mobil station where they buy coffee, juice, donuts. The Salesman buys a burrito. What, he says, I don’t eat donuts. Afterwards they find themselves on a winding road on the outskirts of some suburb. The road has no shoulders and the cars are traveling fast so the men walk single file. A pickup rushes by close enough that its side mirror clips the Roofer’s hand. That asshole, I think he broke my finger, says the Roofer. They walk all day. That night they eat in a Wendy’s then set up camp inside a clump of trees in a lot behind an industrial park that as far as they can tell has no security cameras.

Day three. Although the map indicates they are passing through one town after another the neighborhoods blend without differentiation. The roads continue to curve in winding arcs that double back. This frequently throws the men off course. They get lots of looks. On the first day of their journey they had waved hello to the elderly men washing their driveways with hoses, the women backing out in their SUVs, the men mowing their lawns, but now that it is day three they no longer feel the urge and walk with a plodding determination, arms heavy at their sides. They are careful not to make eye contact with kids on bikes or little girls writing in chalk on the sidewalks. In the late afternoon they take a break and lean their backpacks against the curb and sit on the sidewalk. Within minutes a woman comes out of her house and asks if she can help them. They say no thank you. Minutes later a police cruiser pulls up. They are used to this as several times each day a police car appears from out of nowhere and they are asked about their business. When the men ask for directions the police are of no help. That afternoon the men eat crackers and hard salami in a ditch alongside a golf course. This is around the time when the Salesman realizes he has lost his wallet and along with it his license, credit cards, and over three hundred dollars.

On day four a child opens the front door of a home and a dog rushes out and chomps the Landscaper on the ankle, breaking the skin. The others shoo the dog away and the owner comes out of the house demanding to know what in hell they are doing to his dog. Words are exchanged until the Electrician says come on let’s go, we’ll pick up some bacterial ointment first thing we can.

On the morning of day five it is not yet nine o’clock and the temperature is in the high 80s. A shower passes through and after it departs steam rises off of the men’s necks and shoulders. They are sunburned and in need of showers. Their eyes are heavy as they have had little sleep. During the previous night the police found them behind a dumpster in back of a Friendly’s and made them leave.

Today is the day they decide to call it quits. They come to this conclusion at a truck stop on an exit ramp leading to the highway. The cashier, a middle-aged woman, notices their backpacks and asks them where they’re headed. They explain their quest and that they are on their way home now. Did you take pictures, she asks. Pictures of what, they ask. The hole, she says. The center. That’s what you came here for isn’t it, and points to a table in the corner covered with used lottery tickets in the center of which is a shoebox filled with old postcards.

The postcards are like the ones found in roadside antique stores. Photos of train stations and city halls and town squares in different states. Look in the back, says the woman, and in the back of the shoebox are several postcards showing a little house with a white picket fence. Standing in front of the house is a smiling man with a pipe in his mouth. He’s holding a briefcase and his arm around a smiling woman wearing a flowered apron. In front of them in their lawn is a jet black hole a few feet wide, a little dog sitting next to it with its head cocked as if listening to a noise down inside that only it can hear.

The caption reads: The Epicenter of Suburbia

But it don’t look like that no more, the woman laughs. That house is gone. Swallowed up.

They find it just where she told them it would be, in the rear of a gated community. Whispering Pines. There’s a booth at the entrance with a teenager sitting inside leaning back in his chair with his feet sticking out of the window. As the men approach the kid stares at them without removing his headphones. Is this where the Center is? We came here to see the Center. They start to speak again but the kid cuts them off saying, Got to see some ID. He writes down their license numbers on an index card then nods his head in the direction of the road entering the development.

The homes are McMansions with two and three car garages. Each home has a large second story window above the front door through which a chandelier can be seen. That’s what they call the money shot, says the Landscaper. What do you mean, asks the Salesman. Those giant windows that show off the chandeliers. See how each house has one. Money shots.

The community is completely empty. No sign of children or housewives or stay at home dads. No landscapers spreading mulch around foundations. Not even a lone sprinkler spraying a lawn.

It’s a big development, fifty homes, easy. Eventually they make their way to the far end. At first they don’t see it. But then there it is, a trail leading into an empty lot filled with waist-high weeds. Alongside the trail, some distance from the McMansions, is a much older split-level ranch in need of a paint job. A Big Wheel faded by the sun sits in the driveway and one of the bay windows has a blanket hanging across it instead of drapes. Behind the window a small dog is yapping. The yard is covered with spots of grass dead and yellowed from dog pee. A small sign lists near the front door: “This Home Protected By Angels.”

The men make their way down the trail until they come to a broad opening in the earth a quarter acre wide and surrounded by a chain link fence. At the bottom of the sinkhole are shopping carts, tires, abandoned washing machines, a refrigerator, and even a car chassis. On the other side of the hole are two boys wearing black jeans and skull shirts and red Chuck Taylors. They’re lighting firecrackers and tossing them into the hole where the explosions echo. They’re very businesslike about it, emotionless. Bored.

The Electrician calls out to the kids. You guys live around here? The boys stare at the men then disappear into the brush.

The Salesman gets out his camera and tripod and takes a picture of the four of them standing in front of the fence.

They hang out there for as long as they can stand it.

As they head back toward the development an elderly woman comes out of the house with the Big Wheel in the driveway. She’s tiny, can’t be more than four feet tall, dressed all in black with a kerchief tied around her hair. She resembles one of those little witch dolls with the shrunken apple heads.

She sees the gash in the Electrician’s forehead and breaks into a toothless smile. Then croaks, you want make-a the wish? Everyone make-a the wish be needing the bones. Bones for wishes.

Make a wish?

In the hole. You throwing the bones, the wishes come.

We don’t have any bones.

She laughs. We know you got no bones. I getting them, you waiting here. Four dollars. Throw in the bones and make-a the wish.

You want a dollar a bone?

No no, she says, pointing at each man in turn. Four dollars you, four dollars you, four dollars you, four dollars you. Four dollars, each-a the man.

The men start to move on except the Landscaper. Hold up, he says. I mean we came this far. Then to the old woman, alright lady I’ll bite. Here’s ten.

No no. She stamps her feet. She’s wearing Little Mermaid slippers. Four each. Make-a the wish.

The Roofer says for crying out loud and gives the woman the rest of the money. She goes back inside. Is that even a real accent do you think, says the Salesman to his friends. A minute later she comes out with a plastic grocery bag filled with chicken bones and hands it to the men without another word before returning to the house.

The men return to the hole. Which do we do first, says the Electrician. Make the wish or toss the bones. I think the wish comes first, says the Roofer. Right, like you know, says the Salesman. But it does seem like the proper order and one by one they make their wishes then lob their bones over the fence. Down in the hole cats slink out from under appliances and sniff the new offerings.

Smack dab in the middle of the Roofer’s front yard is a decorative wishing well. His wife had ordered it from a catalog. It’s made from faux brick and over the hole there is a white plastic bucket dangling on a white plastic chain. Inside the bucket his wife has planted impatiens.

Late one night when she and the kids are asleep he stands by this well. He has turned off the motion detector lights over the garage so he won’t trigger them and risk his neighbors seeing what he’s up to. Into the well he drops some of his daughter’s old dollhouse furniture. A tiny sofa, a washing machine, a refrigerator. Also one of his son’s old Matchbox cars. Had he a firecracker he would have thrown that in too but he doesn’t so he takes a last drag of his cigarette then drops that in instead.

He goes into the backyard where the year before they had buried Mr. Dimples and digs him up. He is careful not to let his remains fall out of the dishtowel they’d wrapped him in. He weighs barely anything at all and he drops the shrunken matted body into the well then for good measure tosses in some eggshells and coffee grounds from the kitchen garbage. Caps it all off with two bags of potting soil.

He lights another cigarette and smokes it in the dark.

Make-a the wish, he says.

Well I got your wish. I got your wish right here.

Image: “The Lavender Pit” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Scroll to Top