Steven Cuffari

Writer | Podcaster | Etc.

Basement Grate

The little boy, Manny, sat in the alley behind his building. The hot sun filled up every crack and crevice. Outside, there was little escaping it. But the boy didn’t notice the heat. He didn’t have enough sense to notice it. And he was preoccupied with a piece of curved glass from a broken bottle. He sat in the dry, sepia dirt and held the shard between the sun and a troop of ants around an anthill in the concrete. It seemed to him that they were scrambling around chaotically. The sun’s rays focused through the shard into a point of light. He chased an unlucky ant with the minuscule sunbeam. When he was able to hold the light long enough on the ant, it crumbled and fumed into the dirt. The boy was amazed at the result, but his amazement wore off quickly when he realized that the ant was dead. He knew about death. His grandmother had died recently. Amazement turned to sadness, and his look of wonder became a frown. He tossed the shard aside and stood up, carelessly dusting off his pants. He glanced up and down the alley. It was calm, dusty, deserted, filled with a persistent barrage of sunlight. Same as before. Sounds of the city quietly found their way to him. He turned to the back door of his building, sighed and kicked the dirt. Sweat dripped down his temple. Although he didn’t mind the heat, his body gravitated back to the cool corridors of his building. He happened to glance down at a spiderwebbed grate on the floor at the edge of the wall. On the other side of the grate was a small window. For the briefest of moments, he thought he saw a small red light blink in the basement. He stopped in his tracks. Instead of going inside, where his body was telling him to go, he crouched near the grate and lay belly down so he could peer into the darkness through the window. The sunlight illuminated a small part of the basement. The rest of it had no light. He stared and stared and stared into the darkness until, for the briefest of moments, the light blinked again. His imagination ran wild. The voices of his aunt and uncle telling him never to go into the basement echoed in his head. He remembered seeing his neighbors going down there, strangers, workers. He was an obedient child, but this time his fear and whatever prudence he had was replaced by insatiable curiosity. The wooden door of the basement was heavy and unbalanced. He stood in front of it and contemplated touching the doorknob until he did. He looked up and down the hallway. The building was quiet. Only sunlight came in, through the back door window. He was alone. Inside the building it was cool and dark. He felt alone, a feeling that only bolstered his audacity. With a slight twist of the doorknob, the door seemed to open on its own. He stepped back and let the door slowly swing open to the subterranean shadows. He had seen neighbors turn on the light, reaching around the right door jamb. He mimicked their movements, and a dim light above him flickered on. He went down the wooden staircase without looking back. As he disappeared in the darkness, someone entered the building through the front door.

Manny found himself at the bottom of the stairs, where the light from above just barely ventured. He saw the back alley window. It sent a small column of light through the window and onto the wall and floor, leaving the rest of the basement to the shadows. He stared again into the darkness, at where he thought the mysterious light would be. He stared and stared, and finally it blinked again. Nothing could stop him from getting closer to that light. His eyes were already used to the darkness, and he began to see what the light was attached to. It was quietly humming in a corner of the dusty basement. It was a deep freezer, and it was locked. He tugged gently on the lock, disappointed. The staircase creaked behind him, and he turned around. It was his uncle, who asked him what he was doing down there. He said he wasn’t doing anything and asked his uncle what the freezer was and what it was doing there. His uncle told him it was from one of the neighbors and that it would be gone soon. It was nothing to think about. His uncle led him back upstairs, and Manny looked back at the freezer, wishing with his whole heart that he could know its contents. He didn’t notice the smell that was beginning to develop down there. He didn’t have enough sense to notice it.