Under the tiles in front of the fridge the hole deepened, wood warped and worn from wetness and footsteps. We asked the maintenance man to check it out. He became visibly annoyed, started it days later and left the floor in front of the fridge undone, a crusty rusted open hole that polluted all of our meals. A small canvas sheet was stapled over it with little effect. Two days of the stench and he still hadn't come to finish or at least patch it up.
"I can't deal with this anymore," I told Rosario. "I'm gonna have to look myself and figure something out. I can't think straight with the smell."
"Baby, no. If you fuck something up, they'll blame us and do nothing." His gracefully curled eyelashes worked with the pout contained in those round cheeks. Sometimes Rosario's dewy beauty disarmed me (especially when I was his baby), but not today.
"I'll be right back," I said, ran downstairs and grabbed a long steel bar to pry the tiles around the hole for a better look. I guessed the spot beneath the hole, then cleared the messy floor space in the office.
"What're you doing?" he called down. I started up the stairs and flashed him the bar. He rolled his eyes and moved out of the way.
"You think you can manage to cover it up? He left the tiles over there," Rosario said. He pointed near the low shelves that desperately needed to be dusted. In a pile were the same flimsy tiles that needed replacing. Repairs here were always quick, fixes that prolonged the apartment's problems.
"I didn't plan on covering it again, I just wanted to see what the smell was about," I told him. "There has to be a reason it smells like that and I need to end it now!"
I pulled the staples from the floor with the tip of the steel bar and tossed the sheet to the side. At first the old adhesive cracked with resistance, but the tiles that surrounded the hole came up pretty quick. Under the tiles were layers and layers of wood in different points of decay.
The hole bled over into small portions of these other spaces, otherwise I wouldn't've made a bigger mess. Wood chips and splinters were all around our feet so I told Rosario to stand back. His size 13's stepped over the edge of his chanclas, his huge toes near all the shreds worried me.
Overall, the hole was four or five feet wide. We could only see the darkest black, impenetrable even with a flashlight. I reached in and grasped at cold air. There was nothing immediately under the floor.
The smell intensified with all this exposure, so I walked to the closet and grabbed a scarf to wrap around my face. I came back and sat on the edge. I could feel how the floor caved slowly under my wide butt cheeks. I leaned in and reached for a surface with my foot, still felt nothing.
Rosario stepped in toward me—"Emile, you need to be careful!"
"Hey, stand back! The floor isn't the best over here," I warned him. Just as I put out my arm to push him back, the wood under me started to give. We both screamed and he reached for me, fumbled like he always did. We lost each other as the hole opened and took me.
I closed my eyes and expected to crash through the office ceiling. Instead, I fell a few seconds longer than anticipated and landed in a heap on a wooden landing. The planks were nearly as worn as our kitchen, but from a different tree. I looked up for the hole in my kitchen floor and saw nothing, just that same darkness from before. From the landing a set of steps went down. Behind me was a metal door with the type of handle you pull, not turn. After I checked myself for bruises (a long scrape on my shin from the fall), I stood and tried the door. Locked, firm and unmovable with any pressure I put on it.
The stairs shifted under my steps, a railing appeared as the rest of the basement filled in like a drawing. It was a large space. Tons of cardboard stuffed in larger boxes, napkins and various other food service stocks on racks, a hallway full of bottled drinks. Pipes littered the cement walls and ceiling as a network of fluids and debris flowed throughout.
The room converged on a larger hole, a perfectly cut cylinder three feet deep. It must've emptied itself from the bottom. At least seven different pipes aimed into the hole steadily pissed different color liquids to form a slimy bisque. This was where the smell that continually ruined my appetite came from.
I ripped a bit of cardboard and pushed a small piece down into the muck. A single deep glug from the pooled slime sucked the cardboard from my fingers like a machine. A strong burst of the odor fit itself into a sliver of smoke that rose and gave me a vulgar kiss, my reward for feeding it. I needed help if I wanted this smell contained.
I gave a second look around and acknowledged somehow I was in a restaurant's basement storage. I fumbled through the drinks, searched for a brand I knew Rosario liked. He would need some type of proof I wasn't lying once I found my way back. A voice came sharp from behind me.
"Hey you! That shit, on your first day? You gotta play it safe for at least a little while here," a man said to me as he dumped dirty mop bucket water into the hole. I drew toward him, ashamed and empty handed.
"I'm messing with you, you can grab what you like. They don't notice little things like that here." He waved me back to my business with the back of a hairy, dark brown hand.
I walked back with two juices and tucked one under my other arm so we could shake hands. He was a bit a smaller than me, old with a mustache and eyes that expressed most of what his face couldn't.
"Hey. What's your name?" I asked.
"Diego. Y tu?"
"That's not who they told me was coming... But I've waited a while now and it doesn't matter to me. We have a lot to get done. Vente!"
Before I could ask where we were, he took off through a doorway that led down a hall I hadn't noticed before. We passed through a small room full of clothes, bags, clean rags in crates. After this, the hall slimmed to an unreasonable width. Diego turned sideways before he stepped up on a thick plank of wood installed over a spot where several large pipes converged. After I stepped up then stepped down, we walked through a tiny boiler room with a wet floor that led to another steel door, like the one from the staircase.
He held the door open for me, then we were in a dishwasher's nook. He pulled me gently by the shoulder to an older white woman and walked off.
"So you're the new one. Eduardo, right?" She didn't wait for a response and walked off. She wore a bandana, a white shirt with a black apron with red peppers printed all over it. The veins in her pink nose throbbed in their thinness. She came back around with arms extended and handed me a bucket full of cold shrimp.
"Can you clean these for me? Also, you're gonna be able to close tonight right?"
I didn't want to explain myself, explain the smell, explain the confusion of this basement, so I took the bucket. "What time are we open till?"
"Two A.M. Is that okay?" Her face showed that for many it wasn't (probably how I'd landed the job).
"Nah it's fine, can I just call my boyfriend first?"
"Sure," she said. "Phone's in the office, just leave things as you found them. The managers get sore over clutter."
I walked into the cramped office, found the phone and dialed what I thought was Rosario's number. A stranger picked up, began to bark out questions so I hung up. I called my own phone and after a few rings he answered.
"Hello? Who is this?" He sounded worried.
"Rosario? It's me, it's Emile. I'm okay."
"Where'd you go? It's been a while. I thought they only needed you for a few hours, I've been worried."
"Sorry baby, it's busy today. They're asking me to close, do you care?"
"I mean, I feel like I never see you anymore." He sounded apprehensive.
"Yeah, it's just been bad since we paid for the floor... It'll only be this way a few more weeks, then we can take that lil vacation. You still up to it?"
I felt Rosario's sadness through the line but held my own feelings out of the way. I didn't like to be away from each other either, but he was over dramatic at times.
"That sounds nice. You'll probably come up with some expense to keep us from going though," he said, about to list off various other complaints about me.
"Hey. Stop that. Watch a movie, read, go out tonight, something. I miss you but we can't say no to money."
"I know. I appreciate you doing so much."
"I'll see you in the morning, be good, don't be upset!"
We blew kisses in each others' ears and hung up. I went back to the corner and scraped shit from shrimp.
Corey Qureshi is a queer writer based in Philadelphia. They have work published or forthcoming in FIVE2ONE, CLÆR MAG, Prolit- and the forthcoming Imagoes Anthology. They also produce the Café Con Leche literary zine with their partner. Find them on Twitter and IG @q_boxo.
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