Underworld

I was thirty and I had nowhere to go.

So I just walked. Walking in the city is wonderful, the cheapest form of entertainment. You get to see everything. People fist fighting on one corner, a couple making out on another, a car accident, people dying in the street, a mother dragging a little kid who is crying, you see everything. I was on Broadway near Lincoln Center when I stepped off the curb and twisted my ankle.

I was limping. I thought I could make it to the subway but I had to sit down on a curb.

A car stopped and a man said, Hey, you need a ride?

I was so desperate that I said sure. At that time I also believed that you should just "go with the flow" and as long as you didn't do anything too stupid, you'd be fine. He seemed normal enough, and no one else was stopping to help me. 

In the passenger seat I told him where he I lived. He drove in the opposite direction. Okay, I thought, maybe he has to run an errand first.

I know a guy who can help with that ankle, he said.

I just need to ice it and rest, I said.

I know a guy, he said.

We were on the West Side Highway going fast when he turned off and drove into the Hudson. We started sinking.

I was trying to get out but the doors were locked.

Do you want to listen to some music? he said.

I want to get out of the car, I said.

Not now, he said. What, are you crazy?

We sunk down but the water didn't come into the car. Instead the car had turned into some kind of submarine and we were making our way deeper into the river.

We arrived at the bottom. There was a little town there with houses and shops and people swimming around. We parked.

He got out of the car and the water rushed in. I opened my door and I thought I was going to drown. I'm going to have to start swimming to the surface, I thought. But somehow I could breath. I touched my neck and felt my gills fluttering. When I was younger I had always been self-conscious about my gills but as an adult had never really questioned them.  

The man motioned for me to follow him and we went into an office.

The doctor came out and bandaged my ankle and applied this seaweed wrap that, I admit, felt delightful and eased the pain.

That'll be fifty, the doctor said.

I don't have that, I said.

What kind of a prank is this, he said, coming down here and not having the money?

I don't have any money, I said.

It's okay, the man who brought me down in his car said. He took out some shells and paid the doctor.

 

I noticed, the man said, your gills. When you were sitting on the curb with your hurt ankle, I thought, here's a man who's probably a little lost. Maybe he needs a home, a place to belong. Maybe he's always wondered about those gills. You're welcome to stay here, we have a place for you, but we have a favor to ask. If you decide to stay you have to go up there each year and find one person with gills. That's how we recruit people down here. That's the rule. And you have to get your first person tonight.

 

I swam to the surface. I thought about all the bills I had to pay, my job working at the department store, my directionless existence. I walked along the West Side Pathway. I looked at a lot of necks.

When I found someone with gills, I said, What if I told you there was a place for us? A place that we would belong. The man hit me. He was scared, I know.

I kept up my search. I was about to give up when I found a dog with gills. It didn't make any sense but not much does. It was a stray dog and very friendly and I took that dog and we swam down to the undersea city.

 

I own a store now. I have kids. I tell them about the world above us, about everything that happens up there. They are fascinated. I take them on field trips. We go to see the Little Mermaid on Broadway. This is so foolish, they say. Our life is nothing like this. Mermaids aren't real. This is so foolish.

It's just a play, I tell them. Not real life.