Urban Spelunking

Back when we were young enough to have disposable incomes and time, we would wander periodically through the part of town filled with little shops and cafes and restaurants serving various ethnic cuisines that were not found in the surrounding suburbs we grew up in. Some of the shops – especially the ones that had more illicit products ranging from elaborate glass bongs to flavored glow-in-the-dark condoms – were well established, and being old enough to enter them was a rite of passage. Others came and went, most selling some mix of semi-precious gemstone jewelry and bohemian chic clothing with anime patterned vinyl wallets and used CDs and tarot card decks. There was always enough to look at to make the trip worth passing the day, and always the chance of finding some ring or bracelet I couldn’t live without until I got tired of wearing it.

That day was the first time I’d ever noticed the pet shop, and I never could find it again when I went back. Of course we went in when we saw the puppies in the window, because puppies. The shop was none too clean, but seemed legitimate enough; name brand pet food lined the walls. The puppies ran free through the store, apparently just a litter or two of non-descript mutts. There were birds in cages and hamsters and gerbils in aquariums throughout, but the puppies were the highlight, or so I thought before noticing the entrance to a black metal spiral staircase leading down underneath the store. I peered curiously over the railing, trying to get some sense of what was below. The shopkeeper noticed. “You can go down there,” he told me.

Briefly, I had visions of my face on milk cartons; this was how horror movies began. But the shopkeeper seemed nice enough, and my curiosity won out. We stepped carefully down the metal stairs, and entered a place that didn’t seem possible. Whatever I might have expected, it wasn’t this.

It was dark and cool and a little musty, and smelled of water and shale. Streams ran in a winding pattern through the stone floor, filled with brightly colored fish that also filled the backlit tanks set into the stone walls. The space stretched out the full length of the building. We wandered through what I could only think of as a cave, watching the fish drift lazily through the streams and dart around the tanks. It was quiet, worlds away from the bustling city and rowdy puppies. Just the cave, the water, and the orange and blue and purple fish, and our own thoughts and breathy exclamations of wonder.

I emerged at the top of the spiral staircase back into the brightly lit store filled with rough-and-tumble puppies feeling changed by what I had seen. “Pretty cool, huh?” the shopkeeper asked, and we agreed, wide-eyed.

Months later when I next drove past the spot where I remembered the pet shop to be, the storefront was dark and appeared empty. I’ve long since forgotten where exactly it was. But I still wonder if the cave is still there, and if someone is taking care of the fish.

Or did I just imagine the whole thing?

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