“The hole, we now knew, was the miracle of our Townhouse Association, a force that could swallow everything in its path.” A short story revolving around a mysterious hole poised to change everything for a tightnight community…
by: Gregory Golley
A hole appeared in the ground during the night. We first saw it from our breakfast room window. At that time it was only about two feet deep and three feet wide. Not huge, but a major falling hazard, and ominously close to the swing-set in the community park. A child could conceivably shoot right off the slide and disappear entirely into a hole like that.
This was early June. We hadn’t had any rain, so I knew it wasn’t a sinkhole. It looked as though it had been dug deliberately, neatly, and with machinelike precision. Perfectly round at the top with a neat cylindrical shape.
After I dropped the kids at school, I went out to the park to take a closer look. My neighbor Rick Palmer was already there with his dog, Chuck. Both man and beast were staring into the hole. Rick looked up as I approached. “You know anything about this?”
“I just looked out the window and there it was.”
We talked for some time about the hole and how it might have come to be in our Townhouse Association’s park. “Where’s the dirt pile?” Rick wanted to know. “Whoever dug this thing must’ve hauled away the dirt.” We stood at the hole’s edge where the grass ended and the dirt sides began, staring into it, our hands in our pockets. “A hole like this, there should be a dirt pile.”
“This hole’s a mystery in every way,” I observed.
“I’ll call the alderman and see if the city’s doing any gas or electrical repairs around here.”
“Or working on the water main,” I suggested. I’d been reading about the city replacing water mains in the neighborhood.
Rick dismissed this water main idea with a wave of his hand. “The water line runs along the street out front. It’s not anywhere near here.” Rick’s been the treasurer of the Townhouse Association for more than twenty years. I’m the president, but I’m new and I defer to Rick on most matters.
I work at home from a basement office, and for most of the morning I forgot all about the hole. But after lunch Rick called to tell me what he’d found out from the alderman. No gas or electrical or any other kind of work to explain the sudden appearance of a hole on Townhouse Association property. “Some kids playing a prank,” Rick concluded, grumbling on the other end of the line.
After school that day, my son Henry and his friend Noah covered the hole with branches and leaves. A “trap for prowlers,” they told me. It was ingeniously hidden. “It’s an excellent trap,” I admitted. “But listen. Be sure to remove all that stuff before you come in for dinner. We don’t want someone actually falling into that hole and breaking their neck.” I was trying to remember the exact wording on the Association’s insurance policy. A few months earlier, the AT&T guy had left behind a few traffic cones in the bushes bordering our parking lot. Now I placed one of those cones next to the hole as a fair warning to trespassers and homeowners alike. Due diligence.
When I went back out later to call Henry in for dinner I said to him, “Tomorrow I’ll hire you and Noah to fill up that hole, how about that?”
“But we like the hole,” Henry told me. “A hole’s no good unless it’s empty.”
“A hole’s not even a hole unless it’s empty,” I said, and we both laughed at this simple truth.
That night at dinner our conversation returned repeatedly to the subject of the hole in the play lot, what it was for and who’d made it. My daughter Lucy suggested that the hole had been dug by an “unholy race of rat-sized troglodytes” who would slowly take over the neighborhood under cover of darkness. Lucy’s thirteen and a huge horror fan.
“What are troglodytes?” asked Henry, intrigued.
“Cave dwellers, like we all used to be,” my wife Mariko told him. Mariko’s a paleoanthropologist at the university. “There’s nothing unholy about a troglodyte. Both of you eat your salads or no dessert.”
“I believe it also refers to a rock band in the sixties,” I added. But no one seemed interested.
The next morning, a Saturday, the hole was still there next to the play structure. In fact, it seemed bigger than before. About six inches wider and deeper, I’d say. And still no dirt pile anywhere to be seen.
“What’s with the hole by the swing set,” Kevin Brody asked when he brought his daughter Caitlin over to play.
“A hole has appeared,” I told him. “Nobody knows why.”
“We better do something about it before someone gets seriously hurt,” Brody said, not intending to do anything himself, of course.
“I’m going to have the kids fill it in,” I said.
That afternoon, instead of filling in the hole, Henry and some of his friends made a fort out of it. They constructed a roof from sticks and sheets of cardboard they salvaged from boxes in our recycling bin. Surprisingly, the hole was deep enough now for them to stand upright inside of it. They spent the day climbing in and out of it, installing shelves and outfitting the hole with such necessities as tennis balls, plastic swords, and a child’s didgeridoo. The kids tried to get Chuck to jump in with them, but he wasn’t having any of it. He preferred to flatten himself by the hole’s edge, whining and watching with his expressive brown eyes.
Mariko and I observed all this from our yard, which abuts the play lot. We were weeding our vegetable garden and keeping an eye on the kids. Somebody had a toy periscope that poked up through the roof of the fort to spy on the surface world. Sometimes four or five kids would disappear into the hole for long periods. You could hear their furtive discussions and the low, plaintive drone of the didgeridoo. Whenever they did resurface the children seemed dazed by the sunlit world, preoccupied, almost transfixed by the hole itself.
It was a warm day in early June. Inspired by the pleasant weather, I rolled our grill into the communal park and several families joined us for an impromptu neighborhood barbecue. We grilled hotdogs and burgers and giant portabella mushrooms seasoned with garlic and soy sauce. Mariko prepared a platter of skewered shrimp, soaked in one of her signature marinades. Neighbors we hadn’t seen in months, attracted by the smell of food — or else drawn by the novelty of the giant hole — joined the party with six-packs in hand until the gathering became a full-scale Townhouse Association Picnic.
As darkness fell the kids played on the surface at the edge of their fort, roasting marshmallows and chasing the first fireflies of the season. Inevitably conversation among the adults turned to the hole on whose grassy edges we were enjoying the summer evening. Kevin’s wife, Amy, drank a few too many wine spritzers and began to speak with tearful urgency about the meaning of the hole. “I mean seriously, you guys, where do you think this hole came from?”
“It’s definitely symbolic of something,” Kevin said darkly.
“The ground here must be pretty unstable,” Rick Palmer agreed glumly. “A hole that size…” He was drinking a gin and tonic and frowning into the darkness.
“Symbolic of what, though?” Mariko said, sipping her wine.
Jamie Whistler was there with his wife, Linda. “I don’t believe in symbols,” he told us in his quiet voice. “Meaning is meaningless.” Jamie earns his living as an IT specialist, but his passion is music and he’s a composer in his own right. Mostly weird electronic stuff. “Sonic explorations,” he calls them.
“How does that even make sense?” Linda asked her husband. “How can meaning be meaningless?” She was sincerely curious about her husband’s statement.
“The hole is there,” he told her. “There’s nothing more to be said about it.” Jamie and Linda, too, seemed drunker than usual.
“Can we go back down in the fort?” Henry asked.
“No!” I said, a little more forcefully than I intended. “Time to go in. It’s getting late.”
“Not us, though, right Dad?” Lucy said. “Eve and I want to stay out here for a little while and watch the hole for supernatural activity.”
“Okay, but only for a little while.”
The next day, a Sunday, it rained all day and nobody went outside. From the breakfast room, I watched rain sweep the park in violent gusts, blowing wet garbage against the back wall of the Townhouse Association property. I imagined the kids’ fort filling with water, all of their paraphernalia floating at the bottom of a muddy hole. I asked Henry if he’d brought in his didgeridoo and he just shrugged. Kids can be so careless with their things.
By the next morning the storm had passed. After dropping Henry and Lucy at school, I went out to the play lot to assess the damage and to clean up a bit. But I found remarkably little to pick up. A few paper cups leftover from the party. A plastic fork at the base of the tree. There was no sign of the fort’s cardboard roof, no loose boards or sticks, no shelves, no tennis balls. In fact, there was no sign at all that there that ever been anything built into the ground. The only thing that remained was the hole itself. Only it was bigger now. Noticeably wider and a lot deeper.
I was staring into the hole, trying to estimate its depth, when Kevin Brody saw me from the parking lot. He was about to go to work. But instead of getting into his car, he came over to the chain link fence to talk to me. “Listen, hombre. What are we going to do about this thing? I’ve been talking to some of the other owners and we all agree. We can’t just ignore this huge-ass hole in the play lot.”
I had to laugh a little here, because at first I heard “huge asshole” instead of “huge-ass hole.” I can be very immature sometimes.
“Sorry,” I said to Kevin. “You’re right. Of course we should do something. But check this out, man. See how much bigger that hole is now? It’s almost as if someone is coming out here every night and adding to its size.”
Kevin came inside the fence and looked into the hole. “This is a problem,” he said. “This shit has to stop.”
“Let me think about it, okay?” I said. “As your president, I promise to come up with some kind of a plan.”
In fact, I did conceive a plan that very evening. But I kept it to myself. My idea was to place a camp chair in the play lot by the edge of the hole after everyone was in bed and sit there myself as long as it took to see what was going on with that hole. I intended to stand watch, in other words. Old school. I suddenly found myself very determined to get to the bottom of our hole problem, so to speak.
It was eleven-thirty by the time I went out to the park. I had to wait for Mariko to go to sleep because, as brilliantly simple as my plan was, she never would have approved. For one thing, our city was experiencing an alarming uptick in crime. Tensions were high. But the way I looked at it, what better deterrent to crime than a middle-aged man sitting in a camp chair at midnight?
I brought my cell phone, a little battery-powered reading lamp — the kind that clips onto your book — and two beers. The book I’d brought to read was a Christmas gift from Mariko I’d never gotten around to, something called Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.).
I placed the chair about three feet from the hole and settled in for the night. There’s no light in the park, but the area gets plenty of ambient illumination from the streetlights on Lake Avenue and from Rick Palmer’s motion sensitive security lamp. Our own dimly yellow yard light didn’t do much, I discovered.
I popped open one of the beers — a Canadian triple blonde called La Fin du Monde — and launched right into Sea Power. The admiral begins his analysis with a quote from William Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Shakespeare apparently said, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
That certainly put a perspective on things. I looked up from the page, took a long draught of beer and peered wisely into the darkness. Everything normal so far. A few cars whirred past on Lake Avenue. Something that looked like a pigeon flew by, very swiftly, under the streetlamp. Wasn’t that unusual, though? A pigeon at night?
I shifted in my seat then and my movements set off Rick’s motion-sensitive security lamp. That’s when I spotted a large possum ambling along the edge of our yard. He seemed to be grubbing around in Mariko’s newly weeded vegetable garden. This well-fed animal would shove his pointy face into some leaves then lean back chewing and looking around, like a child working at a bowl of cereal. He was actually pretty cute, except for his rat-like tail. As I watched the possum help itself to some collard greens it occurred to me that this nocturnal being must understand everything he needed to as a matter of instinct and practical experience. A possum like that must know all about the instability of the ground beneath him. If only he could explain it to me.
Rick’s motion-sensitive security lamp had gone dark again, but I continued to watch the possum in our yard’s yellow light until the creature finally spotted me in my chair. Our eyes locked onto to each other, but the animal showed no sign of alarm. He just kept chewing and staring at me. As we sized each other up I felt something cold creeping across my lap and down my legs, filling one of my shoes like a liquid. In fact, it was a liquid. It was my triple blonde Canadian beer!
Apparently I’d nodded off there for a minute and the bottle had toppled over in my lap, soaking the cover of Sea Power before running down my pant legs and into my shoe.
I stood up very suddenly to assess the damage only to realize that, during the few moments I was out, the opening to the hole had widened by several feet. My chair was now just inches away from the edge! And I couldn’t even see the bottom.
I stumbled back and let out a string of curse words I won’t repeat here. Suffice it to say I was spooked. And a little pissed off, too. What was happening to our playground? And why couldn’t it have happened when someone — anyone — else was president of the Townhouse Association?
The next morning I narrated this disturbing experience to Jamie Whistler when we passed each other on the street. He listened to my tale without any sign of surprise. After thinking about everything I’d told him, he suggested we use technology to do the job. “I’ve got a night-vision security camera I could set up over there if you want,” he told me. “Field biologists use these things all the time.”
“At this point I’m willing to try anything,” I said.
And so Plan B was set into motion. Anyway, I thought it was. I was actually wrong about that. Because later that day, when I saw Jamie and Linda in the parking lot — Henry and I were out there tossing a Frisbee back and forth — Jamie came over specifically to retract his offer. “Look,” he said. “That camera I promised to lend you? I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”
“Oh?” I sent the Frisbee flying in Henry’s direction.
“Yeah, Linda doesn’t like the idea.”
Linda came over now to stand by her husband’s side. She knew what we were talking about. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said.
“Are you worried about someone stealing the camera?”
“That’s not it.” She looked away. “It’s just…” Now she seemed to shiver a little. “Do you really want to know? I mean, do you really want to see exactly what’s happening?”
“Certainly I do,” I told her. “How else can we fix the problem?”
She hugged herself in the afternoon breeze, even though it was a warm and sunny June day. “Okay, here’s what I think. I think if we set up that camera and record exactly what’s happening at night…That’s something that will change our lives forever. We should think very carefully before we do that.”
Jamie put his arm around his wife’s shoulder. “She has a point,” he said. “I’ve had time to think about this from every angle. Looking directly into that hole as it gets bigger? And recording it? I don’t think I’m ready for that.”
I looked at them both and nodded. These were intelligent, rational people. “Okay,” I said.
There was no more talk of cameras after that.
The days passed and summer vacation began. I called an owner’s meeting at the end of June to discuss the problem of the expanding hole, but hardly anyone came to the meeting. And those who did come could not agree on a solution. Some suggested we call an engineer to assess the problem. Others talked aimlessly about a variety of unrelated “existential threats.” Without consensus, we had no choice but to carry on in the face of circumstances no one could explain.
By now the hole was so deep you could no longer see the bottom. If you threw something heavy into it, a brick or a large rock, say — a trick Henry and his buddy Noah routinely performed — you had to wait several long seconds before hearing a faint dull thud deep in the earth.
Lucy and her friend Eve began to spend almost every evening at the edge of the hole, looking into its depths and talking in secretive tones. “Dad, I just thought of something terrible,” she said to me one night when I went out there to call her in. “What if someone tries to fill this hole up? Like someone from the city or something?”
“This hole? No one could ever fill up this hole,” I told her.
Before we knew it, Independence Day had arrived. The Townhouse Association organized our usual party in the park to celebrate. Our neighbors came with their folding tables and chairs, with bowls of bean salad and coleslaw, with packages of hotdogs and burgers patties and ice-chests loaded with beer and ginger ale. There was much less surface space in the play lot to set everything up in now, but we made it work. We sat around the edge of the giant hole as night fell and watched the kids ignite their fireworks. Black snakes uncoiled and pinwheels spun. Bang snaps cracked and bottle rockets flew. Some of the toddlers, too young to be trusted with this type ordnance, used the burnt-out ends of punks to cover their faces and arms with strange patterns.
Meanwhile Henry and his friends had stretched a long board across the mouth of the hole and were amusing each other by crossing the abyss like tightrope walkers, a sparkler in each hand, the light wavering and gleaming against the sides of the hole. The effect was really very spectacular. Even the most uptight parents cheered them on, no longer objecting to such feats of daring. The hole, we now knew, was the miracle of our Townhouse Association, a force that could swallow everything in its path. We’d already lost our community composting barrel and one of the stone benches. It was only a matter of time before the swing-set itself went in. One day even my house was going to slide into that hole.
I stood by the barbecue and watched the boys perform. Amy Brody was next to me, watching her daughter Caitlin fly out over the abyss on one of the swings. “Careful, honey,” she called out vaguely. Amy was drinking vodka and Mountain Dew and her voice seemed to vanish at the end of each sentence. She’d been telling me about some trouble at work. A new and difficult boss was making her life miserable, it seemed, and she wondered if she’d even have a job by the fall. “I don’t know anymore,” she told me, shaking her head. “Sometimes I worry about my future over there.” I listened with sympathy, but didn’t really share her concern. I knew what Amy’s future was. It was the same as everyone else’s. She would one day be swallowed by the hole.
After that Fourth of July party, we all stopped talking openly about the hole. It became more or less accepted as an organizing principle of life in our townhouse community. Sometimes, late at night, Mariko and I will lie in bed and talk very quietly about the days before the hole, when we might’ve lost a night’s sleep over an argument at work, or over someone’s bad report card. Such blindness! When I think about the man I was then, I want to grab myself by the shoulders and shout: “Wake up, man! Wake up!”
It’s September now. Before long the cold weather will arrive. When I pick up Henry and Lucy at the gate of their school, we walk home in the sun and speak about math quizzes and lunchroom dramas. Lucy and her friend Eve are writing a stage-play version The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe for the school’s Halloween performance. My gothic girl! I squeeze her shoulder (not for long, though, because it embarrasses her) and hold Henry’s backpack while he tries to extract a tennis ball from behind a sewer grate. In moments like these, I almost forget about the hole.
No, that’s not it. I don’t forget. It’s more like I’m in a joke whose punchline I already know and I just have to smile. It’s an overwhelming sensation. More powerful than fear. Bigger even than love.
Gregory Golley’s fiction has appeared in New Pop Lit, Coneflower Café, the Great Lakes Review (forthcoming), and Allium (forthcoming). His book, When Our Eyes No Longer See, was awarded Japan’s Miyazawa Kenji prize in 2015.