Karl’s Hellmouth by Jonathan Gourlay

The backyard s’mores party for the neighborhood kids on the last day of school was the perfect time for Karl to show off his new fire pit. The pit was tubular, silver, and more than a little phallic. Smoke got sucked into the sides of the contraption and kept it from the women’s hair and clothes. (Which, Karl thought, they would appreciate and compliment him for.) Karl could see his convex reflection on its’ shiny, perfectly smooth surface. What a man he was.

It was one of those backyard parties where, in a movie, everyone would start sex-swinging or be secretly in a coven or perhaps be complex robots unaware of their own nature. It was the way of the suburbs to imagine that the exotic and chaotic lurked beneath the quotidian surface. The blandness was sinister. Like, clearly sinister, evil, horrible, a desecration of the earth itself to live like they did — destroying large swaths of prairie to install big box stores, extra wide parking spaces, and identikit houses that wanly gestured toward an imagined, vaguely feudal, European, past that was pure fantasy.   Yet people fled here from the city because they felt it was safe for their children.

“Oh, is that the 3000 model?” asked Roland, from two-houses and a quarter mile down the street.  

“It’s the next gen. Called the ‘Hellmouth’,” said Karl, chuckling.

“I’ve never seen a pit like that,” said John (with the glasses). “I’ll give it this: it’s taller than mine.”

“It sure gets hot, I’ll tell you that,” said Karl proudly. “I had to dig a space for it with the mini backhoe. Then I re-did the surface in limestone.”

Karl’s very attractive wife Nancy approached.

“Did Karl tell you about his second act?” asked Nancy.

Nancy had a way of speaking about things in public which Karl would rather not speak about.

“Oh yeah?” asked John (with no hair). “What’s your second act Karl?”

“Well, probably more of a fourth act. You know, the one right before everyone dies,” said Karl.

They laughed. Karl was good with a quip, and he was proud of this one because he was thinking of Hamlet, which was a play by Shakespeare. It was a smart thing to reference at a backyard s’mores party on the last day of school in June.

“He’s learning how to use big machines,” said Nancy.

“It’s just a forklift right now. I’ll be using the excavator next week,” said Karl.

“Wow. Cool!” exclaimed Roland, lifting his hard seltzer in honor of Karl’s new job as a heavy machinery operator.

Roland was an architect who never seemed to do anything but talk to clients and get paid a lot of money.

“Careful, honey,” said Nancy to one of the children, whose name was something like ‘Craven’, carrying a sharp skewer towards the Hellmouth.

“I heard forklift operators make a lot of money,” said John (with the glasses). John was a computer programmer who worked out of an office on the second floor of his garage. Karl’s garage did not have a second floor nor an office.

“I envy that kind of work,” said John (with no hair). “I’m always grading or going to meetings or talking to students. Doesn’t matter the time of day or day of the week, they just text, you know, with questions and little dramas. It would be nice to just lift things and go home.”

“It will free up time for his art,” said Nancy, attractively.

“Ah yes, your art,” said Roland, condescendingly but not so condescendingly as to be inappropriate. “You know, Wallace Stevens worked in insurance.”

“Who’s Wallace Stevens?” asked John (with the glasses).

“Poet,” said Karl. “Looked at blackbirds in his spare time.”

“Karl was recently published online,” said Nancy.

Karl wished she wouldn’t mention it. Who cared?

“Well, we all need hobbies,” said John (with no hair). John played keyboards in a rock band of dads called the “Used-to-be 52’s.”

“That’s cool, Karl. Where can I find it?” asked Roland. Roland knew exactly when to push for more information when none was necessary.

“Oh, just search Elmington Review,” said Karl. “It’s, um, their first issue.”

Karl threw more wood into the Hellmouth. With the Hellmouth, you didn’t have to stack carefully, you just tossed anything burnable in and it burned. (But not the Elmington Review, which was only online.)

“Well, I’ll leave you boys to compare fire pits,” said Nancy. She bounced away beautifully.

“Gotta admit, that’s a nice pit. Hot as the blazes too,” said John (with the glasses).

“Yup. Hottest model yet. Energy efficient,” said Karl.

“So you gave up on novels?” asked John (with the glasses).

“More like they gave up on me,” said Karl.

“I wrote one last month. Part of the Grim Catacomb Universe. Kind of a fanfic thing,” said John (with the glasses).

Occasionally the four of them, two Johns, Roland, and Karl, got together to play Grim Catacomb. They began around 9PM and were so drunk by midnight that they would forget to complete the game. (In the best of circumstances Grim Catacomb took four hours to complete.)

“We should play sometime soon,” said Roland, draining his seltzer.

“Where did the kids go?” asked John (with no hair).

Karl looked around. Here was his small backyard. The soccer net for his son. The pile of dirt from his recent excavations. The flowers he had planted for Nancy. The not-very-well tended grass. Weeds poking through. Yes, here was his small backyard. But no end-of-school party.

Karl walked over to his gate. He opened the gate and felt more than saw the abyss that had swallowed the world beyond the backyard. He looked back at the two Johns and Roland. They had fresh White Claws and were joking about the phallic nature of the fire pit.

“Throw another log in the dick-hole,” said Roland, laughing.

Karl walked toward the Hellmouth. There was his reflection, convexly portrayed in a circus-funhouse kind of way in the fire pit. Where was his face? There was a distinct lack of a person in his reflection. He had been replaced by a shallow darkness. A starless night. A bowl of ash.

Jonathan Gourlay (he/him) is a writer living near Chicago. Recent stories have appeared in Archetype, Ab Terra, and Sundial magazines. He is the author of a memoir, Nowhere Slow, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Twitter: @jgourlay

Website: www.jgourlay.com

Instagram: @mangohaiku