• Fearsome Critters

When You Fall Through the Sidewalk Grate — Brooke Randel

I was walking down the street with a man I called Baby. We were going to look at loveseats, I remember that. Had to be a loveseat. The apartment was too small for a real couch. Anyway, we were talking about colors and fabrics and stuff when he switched topics on me.


“Have you thought about what I said?”


“About brown leather?” I asked. “I don’t think it looks like cow shit.”


“No, what I said yesterday.” He scratched the back of his neck. “About getting married.”


“Oh. Yeah.”


“Yeah?”


“Well,” I said, or tried to say but didn’t say because right then the sidewalk grate gave way. The grate slipped underneath me and I fell twenty feet below the sidewalk. Maybe thirty. It was dark.


“Baby!” he shouted.


“Baby?” I cried.


“I’m going to get help.”


The pit was dirty, but sparse. A layer of damp leaves covered the ground like a Persian rug. My legs were throbbing from the fall. My shoulder, too. I must have done a barrel roll.


After ten minutes or so, he came back to the edge of the sidewalk.”


“Baby,” he said, “I was just thinking. You still haven’t answered my question.”


“Did you get help?” I called out.


“You’re doing it again,” he said.


“I don’t know.”


“You don’t?”


“Not right now.”


“I think that’s all I need to know.”


“So, help is on the way?” I bellowed back, but I’m not sure he heard. The acoustics weren’t great.


I hugged my knees to my chest and wished I were a turtle. I wanted to make myself as small as I could. I started rocking back and forth.


“It’s not so bad.”


I looked around. There was a man with a rough beard sitting in the far corner.


“You’ll see. It’s really not that bad.”


“You’re here?” I said and then clarified, “You’ve been here awhile?”


“Fell three or four years ago,” he said. “That grate’s always been loose. I was walking with my partner just like you were walking with yours.”


“Oh, he’s not my, uh, anything. Well, not anymore.”


“Happens.”


I was still taking everything in. You have to understand, a lot had just happened to me.


“How?” I stammered. “How are you still here?”


“There’s a restaurant above us. Over there. Crumbs fall through and I collect them. Nice patio, that place. Big menu. Like I said, it’s not so bad.”


He handed me a jar of crumbs. They tasted salty and crisp. I could almost detect a tinge of parmesan. Not so bad.


I took a few bites and then returned to making myself a small dot of a person. I swayed back and forth like an uncertain comma. The swaying must’ve bothered him because after a while he crawled over and put one hand on my right foot. Then he put one hand on my left. I looked at him, but it was dark. He looked at me. We were both perfectly silent, perfectly still. And we sat, just like that, for a long time.


The next day, I was back to swaying, knees to chest, a human rocking chair. I swayed while he crawled about, refilling his jar. When it was close to full, he sat by my side again and we ate the crumbs in quiet turns. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what. I sorta stopped thinking in words. You know? The sentences you tell yourself? I was feeling things in the dark and words only got in the way. He held my feet when I rocked too much.


So it went, day after day, eating crumbs from the other side of the sidewalk grate and sitting close as can be. We rarely spoke and mostly sat, crawling about only when necessary. And somewhere in the hum of this routine, I stopped swaying. I didn’t even realize it right away, but when I did, it felt nice. Not being in pain feels nice, even in a pit under the city.


But something else changed, too. The restaurant got roaches. Our crumb supply ground to a halt. First from the competition, then from the health inspectors shutting the place down. Eventually, nothing fell through the cracks, not a single speck of bruschetta or spot of piccata. We savored what we had, but it wasn’t much.


Our hunger was knocking. At some point, it got too loud. He let go of me and stood. I followed suit.


“There’s a ladder over here.”


He moved with the stride of someone who had walked before. Of course, he had walked before. I just hadn’t seen it. My own legs were stiff as stilts.


How long, I wondered, had he known about the ladder?


Blindly, we grabbed the rungs.


How long had I?


“You first,” he said. “When you open the cover, go slow so your eyes adjust.”


I climbed up slow, lifted the manhole slow, and crawled out slow. My eyes adjusted. I crossed to the sidewalk along the east side of the street. He crawled out behind me, put the cover back on, and ran to the west side before a cyclist could hit him. We stared at each other from a distance greater than we ever had before. He looked different in the light and air pollution. I gave him a small smile that I hoped was filled with meaning, although I didn’t know what that meaning would be. Maybe he got it, I don’t know. He turned and we both walked away, in opposite directions. I went home.


The apartment smelled the same. My bed was made how I like it, with the cover folded over at the top. The pantry in the kitchen was still mostly peanut butter. Even my stack of books was in the same spot, same order. There just wasn’t a loveseat.