All Stories, General Fiction, Short Fiction

Keys in a Sewer by Dave Gregory

The house keys fell from my pocket when I reached for my gloves. Attached to a silver ring, they clattered on the sewer grate, slipped through, and disappeared with a splash.

I cursed, threw my head back, and considered the enormity of the problem: it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s; my wife was at a yoga retreat with her sister, in upstate New York; my landlord was probably out of town; I had only loose change in my pocket; less than a quarter-charge on my phone; and my bladder was almost full.

After donning the gloves, I tried lifting the grate but it wouldn’t budge. Recovering the keys was unlikely, what I wanted was a hiding place from my shame.

I blamed the bananas, half a dozen of them. They were the reason I’d left the house. Full of resentment, I carried them in a small green bag (along with a chocolate pastry – because the baked goods section was on the way to the produce aisles).

I hoped I’d inadvertently left a door unlocked at home. I never travelled more than twelve steps before going back to check whether I’d locked the front door, but I couldn’t remember locking or checking. Often, I’d also leave the back door unlatched after taking out the recycling, and I remembered tossing an orange juice carton after breakfast.

But neither door opened. Our windows were locked, as well.

We lived in a subdivided home, with the landlord in the adjacent unit. There was no answer. Two other apartments, upstairs, had entrances around back. A young couple lived in each. I knew their names but little else, except that their cars departed each morning and returned each evening.

I leaned against the porch rail, removed my gloves, and scrolled through the contacts on my phone until I realized I didn’t have my landlord’s number, only his email. I typed a message, pressed send, and waited. My bladder continued to fill.

To get a stronger Wi-Fi signal, I moved to the bay windows, pressed the phone to the glass, and searched for locksmiths. One business took my number and promised they’d call when the “key guy” returned. The second, a chain hardware store, kept me on hold, transferred me twice, then dropped the call. With battery power at ten percent, I called another store and got a similar runaround before a voice explained they couldn’t do house calls.

“You have to bring the lock to the shop.”

“I can’t do that, unless you sell me an axe.”

She paused. “I could transfer you to that department but I’d recommend just getting a duplicate key made.”

After banging the phone against my skull, twice, the low-battery screen appeared and the phone powered down. I mimed pitching the device into the street but couldn’t afford to let go.

My bladder about to burst, I wandered to the park behind the house, faced a wide, remote tree and urinated outdoors for the first time in years, splattering only a little on my shoes. Next, my bowels craved attention. Urgent attention. The nearest public restrooms were a fifteen-minute walk away. Certain I’d never make it, I gathered several large fallen leaves.

A lone woman walked her dog on the far path. I crossed my legs and waited in agony for her to vanish. After she left, a jogger passed. Once he disappeared, I turned my back to the tree’s dry side, dropped my pants, and crouched against the trunk. With relief came shame. I’d been locked out less than an hour, yet my animal nature had already surfaced.

Back at the apartment, I sat on the porch and waited, watching traffic. The chill made my nose run. I contemplated smashing a window and crawling through but worried about the house sitting cold and vulnerable while awaiting costly repairs that might not begin until after my wife’s return.

Motivated by hunger and boredom, I ate the pastry and one banana.

The sun was setting when Austin, my upstairs neighbour, arrived in his bright red car. He parked around back, then came to the front porch for his mail.

“You look cold,” he said.

I sniffed and explained my predicament. He called the landlord but got no answer.

“Look, why don’t you come up and we’ll sort something out?”

For the first time since meeting him two years earlier, I looked into Austin’s eyes. I accepted his offer and felt guilty for not getting to know him better.

An enthusiastic yellow lab greeted us at the door. “This is Boomer. My brother’s dog. He’s been here a week and has another five days with us. He hasn’t been out all day, so I have to walk him,” Austin said. “And I bet you need our washroom. It’s through there.”

I was grateful for clean, soft, white tissues and toilet paper. I washed my hands and felt human again, until I thought of Boomer in the park, sniffing my tree.

Austin returned and said he’d called around but couldn’t find a locksmith still open. He set his phone down, removed Boomer’s leash, and an awkward silence followed. I wondered what we might talk about and how long Austin’s hospitality would last.

The dog pressed his nose between my knees. The moment I petted him, he rolled onto his back, paws in the air, and wiggled, expecting a tummy rub. I obliged.

The apartment was small. The kitchen, dining and living area were all one room. A round, silver dog bed – nearly the circumference of the kitchen table – occupied much of the floor space. It offered just enough room for me to lie next to Boomer.

“We’re having hot dogs and coleslaw. Can I make a plate for you?”

I pointed to my cloth grocery bag. “I’ve got food in there. That’s what I locked myself out trying to get. I don’t want to impose.”

He raised an eyebrow. “It’s no trouble.”

“Feeding me rewards my stupidity. Really, I’m fine. I’d be happy hiding in a corner.”

“Suit yourself.”

I continued petting the dog. Whenever I stopped, Boomer reached for my hand.

Austin’s wife arrived. As Austin set the table, he explained my situation. Meaghan merely shrugged and asked if I was sure I wouldn’t join them for dinner.

“I’m fine,” I said. I meant it.

After they’d eaten, Meaghan opened a tin of dog food and scooped the slimy contents into Boomer’s yellow bowl, then added dried kibble from a large, crinkly bag. Once she set the dish on the floor, Boomer sprinted toward it, leaving me alone on the dog bed, feeling ridiculous.

Meaghan tried all five charging cables she and Austin owned but none fit my device. I considered borrowing a phone and asking my wife to send her keys by taxi but the fare, on a four-hour drive, would’ve been outrageous.

Boomer returned to his bed after the meal. He never tired of my attention, so I kept petting until a waxy film thickened across my palms and fingers. I rubbed my hands together and black rolls of crud fell away.

I drifted asleep thinking about my empty apartment, directly below, and the clean sheets on our comfy bed. When I awoke, Austin and Meaghan were on the couch, watching a game show. I watched as well, relieved that television inhibited conversation. When the program ended, they switched to some series I’d never seen. They started kissing during a commercial break. Boomer perked his ears.

That should’ve been my cue to leave but it was a dark winter night, I had no money, and nowhere to go. I thought of staying with a work colleague but everyone’s number was stored in my phone. Plus, I wanted to listen for the landlord’s pickup in the driveway.

“No, no, no,” Meaghan cooed as Austin unbuttoned her blouse. “Not here.”

He rose and led her to the bedroom, leaving the television on.

A fat paperback copy of Les Misérables rested on the window ledge. The only book in the apartment, it probably propped open the window each summer. I’d meant to read it since high school, so I grabbed the novel but television hindered my concentration. Even if I’d known which of the four remotes shut the set off, I appreciated a distraction from any bedroom noises.

I ate two bananas and watched one mindless program after another, until Meaghan emerged to use the bathroom. Austin also appeared and brushed his teeth.

“I’m sorry we’re not better hosts. We seldom have guests,” he said, on his way back to the bedroom. “Feel free to sleep on the couch.”

Warmth radiated from the dog, and Austin didn’t offer a blanket, so I said, “Thank you,” but stayed put.

“Help yourself to anything in the fridge.”

Austin turned off the television and overhead light, then closed the bedroom door. I wanted to read but it seemed disobedient to switch the light back on, so I nuzzled next to Boomer and fell asleep listening to him snore.

When morning light filled the apartment, I opened the book and was transported to the world of Jean Valjean.

I ate the last of my bananas. Unsure where to throw the peels, I put them in the cloth bag and tucked it in the pocket of my coat, which I’d hung near the door.

Austin awoke before nine and took Boomer for a walk, while I used the bathroom and drank from the faucet. When they returned, I was back on the dog bed, reading.

Austin called the landlord again. “I’m not having any luck. I’ll try some locksmiths,” he said, but no one answered on a Saturday morning.

Meaghan materialized from the bedroom and made eggs and toast. She offered to set a place for me but I declined.

“You must be starving.”

“I have my own food. I’m not big on breakfast anyway.”

After the meal, the young couple had errands to run. They asked if I’d stay with the dog.

“I’d be thrilled.”

“Is there anything you need?” Meaghan asked.

Indicating my progress with Victor Hugo, I said I was perfectly content.

I read all morning, stopping only to think of my wife. She seldom went away and I missed her. I also missed my couch, razor, laptop, and the nightstand where my phone-charging cable was neatly coiled.

Meaghan and Austin came home for lunch. I was starving but hated being an inconvenience so I declined their offer of a turkey sandwich. They departed once their plates were cleared away. I continued reading.

By the time my hosts reappeared, the sun was setting on my second homeless day. While they took Boomer for a walk, I used their bathroom. My digestive system had aligned with the dog’s. Once I was done, I found my spot on the silver bed and reopened my book. I calculated how many pages I’d read per hour, and how many hours remained until my wife returned, and was confident Valjean and Cosette would see me through.

When Austin and Meaghan sat down to hamburgers and potato salad, they didn’t ask me to join them, though they’d heard my stomach growl. After they finished, Meaghan prepared Boomer’s dish and the dog ran straight to it. A fourth meal had also been prepared. Meaghan set this plate of food on the floor, closer to the table, out of Boomer’s line of vision.

“That’s yours,” she said. “Get it before Boomer does.”

Rather than stand and walk, I crawled toward the plate. There was a heap of potato salad and two leftover wieners. I sniffed the food, looked at Meaghan, then Austin.

“Go on,” he said. “It’s all for you.”

I lowered my lips to the plate and ate without utensils, happy to be so completely understood.


Dave Gregory

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay


4 thoughts on “Keys in a Sewer by Dave Gregory”

  1. Hi Dave,
    Brilliantly strange!
    It takes dogging to a whole new level.
    Entertaining and weird, I couldn’t ask for any more!
    All the very best my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very entertaining, and concisely written. My grandfather once told me that his uncle got so pissed with one of his kid’s table manners that he grabbed the boy’s plate and set it on the floor. “If yer gonna eat like a goddam animal, there you go.”
    I meant to comment yesterday on your fine story. But I deliberately skipped doing so. I wanted to see what was so special about ignoring other people’s work. Sadly, I couldn’t see what the others must see. Like your story, though.


  3. The protagonist was kinda obsequious, he’d never be the leader of the pack. I thought it might be a commentary on homelessness at first, then it changed into a dogged metamorphosis. That was funny how he escaped with his Jean ValJean book.


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