The Thing at the Border:
But erecting a building on consecrated ground presents its own challenges. Wailing banshee? Use stone-wool insulation for soundproofing. Vengeful demonic presence? Mix a dash of salt into the foundation concrete. Ghosts? Use the phrase “historic charm” in the branding. Carlos is ready for anything.
He stands, americano in hand, in a neighborhood he usually avoids: at the edge of East Van runs Boundary Road, everything east of which is Burnaby. Shabby condos on the west side of the street boast “a Vancouver address!” on billboards, where white faces beam over glasses of wine. He briefly wonders if a house can be haunted by the ghosts of advertising; if the expectations of a golden life can torment the house-poor suckers who seek it. Will beautiful winos screech their hideous, vacuous laughter through the walls? Will phantasmal bachelorettes spell EASY on Ouija boards?
Carlos looks down into the hole. If all were going to plan, it would be filled with concrete, the budding foundation for skyscraping condominia. But, no, all it’s got in it is dust. Dust and teeth. Hundreds and hundreds of teeth.
Ihor strides up to Carlos, his large stature giving him as much a demeanor of authority as can be assumed by a man standing next to a hundred-foot gullet of fangs.
“Hell of a thing,” he announces.
“I don’t really see the problem,” says Carlos with a sip. “If anything, all those teeth should just help hold the foundation in place. They’re not …moving, or anything, right?”
“Like, biting? Hell no. It’s just a pit. You know, like, a pit with fangs sticking out everywhere.”
“Yeah. So, I guess I’m not seeing the problem.”
“Structurally? No. It’s just been hard to get the workers to keep at it.”
“On account of none of them wanting to work – ”
“…in a giant ground-mouth. Gotcha. Have you considered temp labour?”
“Those guys any good?”
“Not really. But they’ll do it. You’ll still need someone to pour the concrete, but you can just have temps in the pit. Outfit them with some magnesium placers or whatever. Never trust temp tools.”
“If that fails, we could always hire a dentist,” chortles Ihor. “Wanna get lunch?”
Carlos tosses his empty coffee cup into the chasm, hoping to hit one of the teeth.
“Can’t. Got a thing with Ines.”
The Thing with Ines:
Carlos sits at the restaurant, feeling that the chicken a la king is more like chicken a-lacking. Ines nurses a sparkling water.
“But you can’t just sell it,” he tries again. All they seem to do is fight these days.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you say that…”
“It was our home!”
“It’s a house, Carlos. It wasn’t a home to me. It sure wasn’t a home to mom.”
“What the hell does –”
But an instinct, perhaps one of self-preservation, keeps him from probing the shadows.
“Never mind. He left it to you,” he broods, burying an urge to shout. “Do what you want.”
Carlos looks out the window, over the concrete landscape, over the real estate ambitions, financial geysers and vortexes, to the mountains beyond.
“You should come by,” she says, like it’s charity. “See if there’s anything you want.”
How Is This Worse Than the Teeth Thing:
The atmosphere in the Gorilla Labour Services office is both anticipation and dread. Men sit in chairs along the wall, waiting to be called, half hoping they won’t be. Whatever they fear from the day, though, not one of them has an imagination worthy of the future.
Construction companies pay and treat employees better than Gorilla pays and treats its temps. The only incentive to working at Gorilla is that if you can do the work, you can get the work. No bank account, clean criminal record, education, permanent address, references, or phone number required. This is where the broken or waylaid seek a final exploitation, one that hardly bothers to masquerade as opportunity. This is where the racialized, the addicted, and the criminalized can still contribute to an economic world that won’t otherwise touch them.
A dozen men are called up, selected by some tactical or political process none of them can claim to understand. They take work sheets, supplies, and leave.
The ones with cars get to the site sooner than those taking the bus.
“Oh, yeah, a tooth hole,” says one of the men, Phil, as he hops out of his truck, “They never said it’d be a tooth hole.”
Phil’s imagined authority among the others rests, seemingly, on his feigning familiarity with every situation. Oh, sure, he can apply stucco. Does it all the time. He’ll detail your car, too. He’ll do the electrical. Teach you German. Tooth hole? No problem.
“You first, then,” answers Blake.
The men gather at the top of the plywood ramp that descends into the pit, each trying to seem as nonchalant as their unwillingness to move will allow.
“It’s just sediment,” Phil snaps. “Looks like teeth, is all. Igneous sediment. Knock one of those suckers down and you can sell it on E-bay.”
“After you,” replies Blake, not one to get sedimental.
Phil’s uneasiness ferments into anger, but he can’t tell where to aim it.
“It’s just sediment!” he barks. His insistence has him cornered, though: he has to put his money where the giant mouth is. With an indignant growl, Phil wobbles down the creaking ramp.
“See?” he yells up, as if surviving the descent means anything. He steps closer to the far wall of the pit. Foot-long fangs jut out in uneven rows all along the hole. The air is thick.
Phil notices a discarded coffee cup at his feet: the familiar image of a mermaid smiles up at him. He picks it up, pours out the remaining ounce of americano, and impales the cup on a tooth.
“So sharp,” he mutters, as the tooth slices through the waxed cardboard.
“You guys here to work, or what?” he yells back.
“Where’s the supervisor, huh?” he hears one of the men retort. “What’re we supposed to do?”
Phil wonders if they weren’t just hired to defang the pit. He tries to suppress the ugly thought that they were hired to feed it. Having proven his fearlessness, surely now it’s acceptable for him to climb out.
Phil starts his ascent, but the ramps sinks and sways underfoot.
“Blake!” he shouts, hoping his urgency sounds more forceful than fearful. He hops back to the dirt, but that’s not what it is anymore: a spongy, doughy mess envelops his boots.
“What is that?” yells Blake.
Phil wiggles and writhes, but he, too, is sinking. All he manages to do is fall onto his hands. The pit is filling with a dusty cloud, and somewhere behind him something gurgles.
A little trickle of brown curls its way out from the cloud and around Phil’s now goo-submerged forearms. It smells comforting.
“Phil! Get up!”
The liquid rises quickly; up his arms, up his nose, over his back. Phil struggles desperately beneath it, and only the liquid’s softening of the muck allows him to slip free and swim to the surface.
“Phil!” Blake calls from the ridge above. “There’s something in there!”
“I think – I think it’s coffee!” Phil sputters over the cacophonous gargling.
“No,” yells Blake, with a terror in his voice Phil might normally enjoy, “There’s something swimming!”
This Is Awkward:
Carlos peers into the dark pool that used to be a mouth that used to be just a good, polite foundational pit.
“I’m telling you,” Ihor replies. “Just wait.”
They needn’t wait long. A green head pops out of the murk. Its black eyes stare at Carlos. It swims closer.
“So sharp!” it chirps.
“You want to explain that to me?” Ihor booms, like it’s Carlos’ fault. “Damn thing ate a temp!”
Carlos takes no notice. He crouches down, a few feet away from the creature’s carnivorous smile.
“You’re a mermaid?” he asks.
“I’m a hole!” it sings.
“This was a hole. Now it’s not. It’s a toothy pool thing with a mermaid in it.”
“Am I a good hole, Carlos?”
“It’s never talked to anyone before,” Ihor grumbles. “Can you tell your new friend to leave us to our development project?”
“You’re a good hole,” Carlos tries.
Closure, or Whatever:
Carlos is ignoring his buzzing cell. He stands in his late father’s garage, a shrine to abandoned ambitions and hollow self-aggrandizement. Unused tools, a bucket of cigarette butts next to a reclining chair, and, balanced laughably, cruelly, across the thrift-store-purchased head of a buck, his father’s rifle.
It feels like the ruins of a kingdom. Here was the throne of masculinity, strength, and silence; here was the place his father retreated when he didn’t want to talk, had nothing more to yell. But, of course, his sister couldn’t abide any of the tragic dignity of such a figure. No, this was only the lair of the abuser, another brute in a ubiquitous army of insensitive men. All the notches on Carlos’ personal compass that he’d carved as a child – the cool-headed detachment, the toughness, the careful measures of self-assertion and self-suppression – they were just stars on his brutish male uniform, then. To hell with her.
At the dead of night, the mermaid sings. It lures unhoused wanderers toward the pit. For six nights in a row, for the viewing horror of CCTV, it feasts.
A Carnivorous Carnival:
“All right, so it eats people sometimes,” Ihor cajoles with mounting impatience, “The developers still say it’s the way to go. Their choice.”
“A tourist trap? Come on,” urges incredulous Carlos, “We both know that’ll end literally. Give me another week, I’ll find some way to get rid of the thing. You’ll have your pit back.”
“Listen, uh, here’s the thing.” Ihor shifts uncomfortably, as if hell might open beneath him. “We both know this neighborhood has a problem.”
“Yeah, a problem. We want to give people good lives. Beautiful condos. The dream. But we’re basically on a homeless highway. I don’t know why they come through here, but they do. That’s not part of the dream. And, well, the plan is, well – we make money off this mermaid in the day, let it out at night. It can eat if it wants to. That’s not our business. But, if it does, you know, we’re just trading bums for tourists.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“You’re getting a nice bonus, man. That means your job’s done. So, we don’t really need to consult you here.”
Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence:
Carlos sits by the edge of the illuminated coffee pit, ignoring the cheerful music grinding its way through the tyrannical speakers. He comes every Tuesday evening, when nobody else is there, to talk to the fattening mermaid. He’s still the only person it speaks to.
“Am I a good hole?” it asks, as it always does.
“Look around,” he sighs. “All the lights, the music, the gift shop. This whole building. This is all for you,” he says, wondering why the pit had amplified and returned what he’d fed it. If he’d tossed in a box of Fruit Loops, would he now be sitting in an aviary? “You’re the perfect hole.”
The perfect hole, he reflects, is one that doesn’t seem empty.
“I make them laugh, Carlos,” it says. “The little ones. The meaty ones, too.”
“That’s because they like you.”
“Do you like me?”
He does like the mermaid. It doesn’t apologize for being what it is. It doesn’t ask forgiveness. It finds a way to fit into the world that it was born of, singing and making money. A little warning light in the back of Carlos’ brain prevents him from admitting his fondness, though.
“Think I come here just for fun?”
“Am I a good hole?”
“I leave sometimes. At night.”
“I know. But don’t tell anyone else.”
“I want to see everything.”
A Final Thing with Ines:
Carlos sits at their usual table, finding the dahl and rice to be more dull than nice. Ines nurses a sparkling water.
“So, that’s it? Sell dad’s place and leave?”
“I don’t like it here. I want to travel,” she replies, evenly, “I want to see everything.”
“Vancouver’s a great city,” he declares conclusively, pointlessly.
“It’s a hellhole. It’s impossible to live here. No one can afford it, and everyone’s miserable about it.”
“Sure! Helping them put up condos to sell to millionaires to sit on and flip. This whole place is just smoke and mirrors. Hide the poverty under the beauty, hide the racism under the tourism, hide the – ”
“Stop. I get it. So, you don’t like Vancouver. It wasn’t a home either, I guess.”
“That’s not what I mean. I just have to live my truth.”
Carlos wonders why they always have to fight, and why her truth always comes at the expense of his identity.
Carlos hands the mermaid its present, though giving a paper present to a sopping monster seems foolish. Carefully, carefully, the mermaid unfolds it.
“It’s a tourist brochure,” Carlos explains. “That’s Vancouver.”
The ocean glitters, the city’s cradled in the mountains’ arms.
“Yeah. There’s even a thing about you on the back. They’re saying you came from the sea. Pretending you’re a part of the native folklore.”
“Yeah, yours. Now you can see everything.”
Carlos tries not to think about how the last thing he likes in the city is packing her bags to go see the world. Maybe he should’ve been nicer. Maybe he could’ve asked her to stay.
“It’s better this way, maybe,” he says. “The photo. It’s perfect. Maybe sometimes the tourists are right. Better not to look at all the darkness underneath.”
“Am I a good hole?”
Tuesday, Later at Night:
Carlos sits in his car, finding the rum to taste a little rum. He’s alone on Boundary, maybe alone in the world, outside the entrance to the mermaid’s flashy lair. The marquee shines its lies to no one.
He could call her, but he knows he won’t, pinned under the ruins of his father’s kingdom. Or maybe he’s the rightful heir; hero by day, monster by night. Maybe his face should be on a tourist brochure, urging strangers to step over the panhandlers, keep out of the garage.
But the city’s veneer couldn’t woo her, his father’s strength didn’t protect her, and Carlos’ silence won’t do either. Maybe, he or the rum thought, she couldn’t be a sister if he wouldn’t be a brother.
Eventually, as he knew it would, the mermaid drags itself out into the sidewalk, singing its hunting song. It’s a beautiful melody; comforting, like the coffee that’ll drown you. Maybe the tourists are right.
Carlos steps out from his car. The mermaid turns to him excitedly, as to a father. It doesn’t know what a rifle is, so it keeps smiling.
“Am I a good hole?”
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay
7 thoughts on “Shut Your Hellhole by Gabriel Munro”
What I mainly loved about this is – I need to go back.
Not want, not, am slightly curious – I need to re-read. It has left me having to go back.
At first I thought of the bodies in The Great Wall Of China and then we had a Mermaid!
I’ve either missed or not sure about the line about him seeing the teeth and his ‘image of a mermaid’.
If you only read the line at the end it makes you splutter!
Overall, this is so weird I want to read it again and again until I get a handle on it.
The title, in a word, is fantastic. Catches attention. The story lives up to the title. Utterly unpredictable, realism yet the suspension of reality, clever headings. Another mouth to feed, I suppose…
Portland Oregon is a lesser hellhole.
What a fantastic read. Great imagination and wild imagery mixed with a very mundane, world weary MC and familiar backstories of lives unfulfilled. There were some brilliant lines in this and I enjoyed the diner meal puns to lift the mood. Good imaginative job all round!
Uh-oh! The ending left me surprised and wondering. Is this goodbye mermaid? And the hole with teeth and then the coffee and mermaid is imagination put to the task. I really enjoyed the parallel story of love, loss, and moving on, and its indirect significance. Entertaining! 🙂
It perplexes me why Carlos wants to shoot the “mermaid” at the end, but other than that, highly imaginative and funny and because I’m from Vancouver, I get all the references, Gorilla temp., etc. That thing about the teeth in the hole is great. Can you say rebar? There’s construction everywhere here and indeed lotus land is becoming a bit of a hell hole. Coincidentally, I was back visiting on Boundary Street just yesterday, dropping off a friend. Hope he’s ok.
With a name like Munro what do you expect? Very imaginative, mysterious, and intriguing. Where is part 2?