Henry lived in a narrow alleyway next to a grocery store in the middle of Harlem. His makeshift house, which he used mostly as shelter from the elements, was made up of a cardboard roof held up by two rotting wooden posts. He would often swipe broken grocery cartons from the dumpster behind the store for replacement pieces, as rain and cardboard tended to be natural enemies. Sometimes, late at night, he would sneak in through a high window and treat himself to a free can of beans or peas or carrots. But never anything more—he knew the owners of the store would become suspicious sooner or later. He was very careful about most aspects of his life anyway. A big city could be a dangerous place if one was not careful. For Henry, the city he lived in was a tidal wave of hopes, dreams, and fears roaring down on a sea of feet, hands, and busy minds. He saw everything that went on (or at least everything within a block or so from the store). He saw people carrying on with their daily lives, racing through the world as if they hadn’t a single care in the world.
“People take things too much for granted,” he often thought. “Just look at me!” But Henry was hardly angry at his low state of life. Nor was he disappointed in himself. He knew how he had arrived here. Just six years ago he had been the operations manager of a well-respected toilet manufacturing company, earning a near six-figure yearly income. It hadn’t been the most exciting of jobs, but it did offer loads of leisure time. He used to spend most days lounging around in his tiny office on the second floor, sometimes dozing off in his chair, only waking when someone knocked on his door.
Once in a while, he would browse through legal documents, customer reviews, company budget statements, and the like, but other than that, he usually occupied his time playing Hearts or Minesweeper on his computer (both of which bored him to sleep before long). Sometimes, whenever he wasn’t sleeping, playing on his computer, or staring at the wall, he would walk downstairs and inspect of the workplace. Of course, he had always hated leaving his office, even for a few minutes. He didn’t have many friends and a lot of his co-workers found joy in cracking jokes about him. During his inspections, he would often hear them whispering back and forth then snickering as he passed by them.
“Where am I? Back in high school?” Henry would think to himself over and over again. But he had never been one to remain bothered too long. He would always crawl back to his office and sleep his troubles away. He had enjoyed the ease and comfort of his job. He had hated the work and the people around him, but loved the free time.
Henry’s smooth, easy ride came to an end one day, when a few faulty wires in the lighting set the maintenance room on fire. Henry had been playing “fling the gum on the office wall” at the time, when the sound of panic brought him outside to the terrifying reality. By time the fire department had arrived, the fire had grown into a wild roaring blaze, filling the air with smoke and ash. Henry remembered standing across the street, gazing in awe at the twisting orange flames lashing out of windows and consuming the wooden planks of the roof. Everyone else had been in tears or looked away from the fire in disbelief, but Henry had looked on with amazement. He remembered watching the building crumble to the ground and actually thinking to himself how amazing and, even, beautiful it was to see nature at work. It was an image he would keep in his mind forever.
Fortunately, there had been no casualties in the fire, since half the place was deserted that day, but the company had been hit in the chest, financially. Henry had never been really competent with managing his money, preferring to spend a chunk of it on his house and fixing up his small collection of 1960’s Corvettes. The rest of his money he invested in the stock market, but he had little knowledge of how that worked, and he lost almost all of it in a major crash. What little he had saved was spent on overdue bills and mortgage payments.
It was only a year and six months after the fire that Henry found himself standing in line at the unemployment office, along with all the other “bums.” He had thought lesser of them before, but he felt and understood, now, the struggle and disappointment of being out of work. He was in a new life now. No kids. No wife. No close relatives—just him, his little shelter, and an alleyway.
Henry sat up one Sunday morning in his little box, tossed the crumpled newspapers off of him, stood up to stretch, and began the tiresome search for a hearty breakfast. His stomach growled as he walked down the alleyway towards the main road, and he knew he couldn’t go too far without nourishment. As he walked wearily towards the open street, he looked up at the rows and rows of dusty windows on the sides of the tall apartment buildings. Most of them looked like they hadn’t been washed in ages, and a stranger to the area might have thought that the occupants had left in a dash a long, long time ago. But Henry knew better.
As he turned the corner, Henry noted that the weather hadn’t changed since the week before. The sky was a formidable gray, casting eerie shadows around the towering apartment buildings across the street. Tufts of wet rain clouds hung low to the earth, stretching on forever into the horizon. The sidewalk was still slick from past showers, and sheets of steam radiated like ghosts from its surface. It looked like it would rain again soon.
“Another day, another misery,” Henry grumbled. He was used to this kind of weather. That’s not what bothered him. It was typical summer weather. But some people were usually very snappy and impatient at times like these. Henry knew he might
run into a little bit of trouble along the way. At least the street wasn’t that busy. It was
still early and most of the local community were in church processions, anyway. The grocery store Henry took refuge next to wasn’t very big at all, only covering a small corner of the block. Henry thought back to when he had gone to the owner of the store to ask for a job, just out of the curiosity of seeing what he would say. He still remembered what the owner had told him: “You’re a mess, Henry,” he had said. “You’re unkempt, unclean, a complete dirtball. I can’t have you drivin’ customers away…”
Henry’s stomach tightened as he tried to keep from laughing out loud at his silly little confrontation. “Dumbass,” he thought to himself as he strolled down the near-deserted sidewalk. “Oh well…I’ll just keep sneaking cans of food from him.” A devious smirk spread across his face. He felt better about the day already.
An hour or so later, Henry sat back against inside his little shelter, tucking his hard-earned prize close to his body. He held in his arms a near- full bottle of wine and a tightly wrapped block of cheese. “What a lucky man I am today,” he chirped. Usually all he could find were moldy pizza crusts or rotten fruit in the dumpster, but he knew better than to touch those, lest he get a bacterial infection or worse—food poisoning.
Henry unwrapped the cheese and broke off a piece. It was dry and crusty and didn’t feel very appetizing, but he knew what most people said, that cheese only gets better with age. He popped the piece into his mouth, allowing his saliva to coat it first, then digest it and release its flavor onto his taste buds. He chewed slowly, staring at the brick wall. “Mmm…sharp cheddar…probably no more than a few weeks old.” He broke off another piece and savored it, still staring at the wall.
“You know, if you had a mouth, wall, I’d feed you some too.” Henry smiled at his remark, and continued eating his breakfast. “You’re my only friend, wall, do you know that?” He asked the wall in between swallows. His expression grew solemn. “Of course you don’t…You’re a god damn inanimate object!” Henry threw his head back and boomed with laughter. Several people passing by on the open street looked in his direction, but he did not notice.
Henry finally settled his jiggling belly and turned back to the wall. “You know, wall? I never had a friend as cool as you. Of course, I’ve never had any friends anyway. Boy, you should have seen some of the assholes I’ve had to work with in the past! They always laughed at me, called me a loser.” Henry glared at the wall with angry eyes and stood up, his voice growing louder. “Well, you know what, wall?” he boomed. “They are the losers! Not me! They can all go to hell as far as I’m concerned! I don’t have to see none of them ever again!” Henry kicked the brick surface of wall with the sole of his shoe, sending a loud “clap” echoing up and down the alleyway. A sharp pain went through his foot and he stumbled as he hopped up and down holding it in is hand. “Damn it, now I’ve hurt my foot! It’s all your fault wall!” Henry couldn’t help but burst into laughter at his silly actions. “I’m such a screwball, I am,” he told the wall. He set his foot back down on the ground, still stumbling a bit. “That’s what they called me where I used to work…a fucking screwball. But it doesn’t matter. I’ll show them all, one day, wall. You’ll see. I’ll regain my wealth and just laugh in their stupid faces!”
Henry turned and began to make his way back to his shelter, when a loud crash of metal on pavement erupted from the alleway. He froze for a moment, jerking his head to the sound. An aluminum trash can had tipped over next to the grocery store dumpsters. Its contents were scattered in every which way: egg cartons, banana peals, slime covered plastic bags. It was a mess. “Probably a rat,” Henry thought, as he walked towards the overturned trash can. He picked up a jagged piece of a wooden post lying on the ground and gripped it tightly in his hand. As he approached the first dumpster, he heard crying. It wasn’t like the loud cry of a baby, but soft and delicate—almost whimpering, it sounded like. Henry lowered his weapon, and moved aside some of the scattered debris. A sharp, black nose emerged from underneath some ruffled newspapers, followed by a short, brown snout and two eyes that gleamed like glass, even in the pale afternoon light. Henry relaxed and picked the newspaper off the small critter.
“Hey there, boy,” He cooed softly. “Where did you come from?” The puppy looked up at Henry, its eyes full of fear and confusion. Several deep scars covered its face and body like old wrinkles, and patches of raw pink skin shown through its thin black coat. “Good lord…what happened to you, boy?” Henry asked the puppy. “You look like you’ve had a nasty spell with a razor or something.” The puppy immediately began to tremble. Henry’s eyes softened. “Oh, it’s okay boy. I’m not gonna hurt you.” Henry put his hand down to pat its head. The puppy retreated swiftly, landing back a foot or so. It kept its paws arched and spread out, ready to dart away again, keeping its soft eyes directed at the dark looming monster in front of it.
Henry took a step forward and tried again to pet it. The puppy jumped back, just as before. Henry withdrew his hand. “Okay, I can see you don’t trust me. That’s fine with me,” he grumbled and turned around to head back to his shelter. He hadn’t gone five steps when he heard the whimpering sound again. He took one look over his shoulder, and there was the puppy following him only a few feet behind. It stopped as Henry stopped and sat down, wagging its tail furiously.
“Well, you’re certainly an odd little guy, aren’t you? I’ll bet your just lost and looking for some company, aren’t you?” Henry looked both ways up and down the alleyway as if hoping to see the dog’s owner running up to claim their lost pet, but it was empty. He looked back down at the puppy, seeing its glass eyes staring through him and its pink tongue hanging out as it panted. Henry admitted a sigh of defeat. “You’re not going to stop following are you?” The puppy cocked its head slightly in miscomprehension. “Okay, I’ll let you come with me, then.” Henry turned and walked back to his shelter. The puppy followed his every footstep closely.
Henry slumped back down inside his shelter and picked up the bottle of wine and cheese, and began to finish his meal. The puppy kept its distance. “Let’s see…I would say that you’re a terrier of some sort,” Henry said, looking the puppy. “What do you have? A white body, black spots? Short little nose? Small pointy ears?” The puppy tilted its head as if trying to understand Henry’s words. “Where did you come from anyway? Did someone drop you off? Or did you runaway?”
There was silence. The puppy still stared back, hardly moving. “Well you don’t seem to like humans very much, that’s for sure...or at least you’re timid around me, anyway. Not that I can blame you. Those are some nasty scratches you have all over you. From the looks of it, I’d say you’ve been abused by someone or something. That’s such a shame. You seem like such a nice little guy, too.”
Henry sighed and broke off a piece of cheese and held it out to the puppy. “I’ll bet you’re hungry aren’t you, boy? You’re a boy aren’t you?” Henry craned his neck and peered under the dog’s legs. “Yep, you’re a male alright!” Henry chuckled softly. He held the cheese out again. The puppy’s eyes lit up and it got to its feet, cocking its head like before. Henry shook the cheese in his hand. “Here, boy…I ain’t gonna hurt you. Come on, boy. Take the cheese. I know you’re hungry.”
The puppy moved one of its front legs forward. “That’s it boy,” Henry encouraged, “Its just cheese.” The puppy moved its other leg forward, then its back legs. Henry held the cheese out farther. The puppy sniffed it closely with its round little nose and then gobbled it up in a second. “That’s it, boy,” Henry continued. The puppy licked Henry’s hand several times. “You sure like that stuff don’t you? Here have some more.” Henry laid the rest of the cheese on the ground and the puppy tended to it immediately with hungry eyes. Henry laid a hand on the puppy’s neck and stroked its soft silky coat. This time it did not jump back. “Gee, all it took was a little food for motivation!” Henry thought. He turned to puppy, who was savoring the little yellowish crumbs off its snout. “I think I’ll name you…Chester. Sounds like cheddar, and you love cheese…or maybe I’ll just call you Chez? How does that sound, boy?” As Henry said this, the puppy looked up at Henry, gave a shrill yelp, and jumped up into his lap.
“Well look at you! You certainly warm up quickly when there’s food to be had!” Henry gave a soft chuckle as the puppy licked his face with joy. He pushed the puppy back with his palm, and smiled. “You’re a cute little guy aren’t you?” Henry sat back against the inside of the shelter, and shut his eyes, still stroking the puppy’s head. As he pet down its back he ran across the fleshy bump of a scar. Henry opened his eyes and looked down, cringing at the sight of it. “Don’t worry boy,” he comforted. “I’ll take care of you.”
Henry awoke the next morning to find himself being smothered by a strange, wet, sticky substance. It covered his cheeks and eyelids, and dribbled down and clung to his chin. He wished he could open his eyes to see what it was, but they were fastened together by fatigue and discharge. “What in Gods name is goin on?” He cried.
Henry popped open his eyes and there on top of his chest Chester was perched, paws spread out clasping onto his shirt, tongue hanging out, tail wagging playfully, eyes as soft as ever. “Chester,” Henry mumbled. The dog continued to lick his face. “Alright, get off of me you silly mutt!” He pushed Chester back down off his lap. Chester flopped down by his side, wagging his tail as joyously as ever.
Henry relaxed and heard his wine bottle fall out of his hand and clang on the ground. He looked down at it and saw that it was almost empty. “Damn,” Henry thought, “I wish I would have saved some for today. Damn it!” As Henry cursed himself for not making his wine last through the week, Chester nudged a small object into his open hand. Henry picked it up and brought it to his face. He squinted at first, trying to see through the blurry veil of tears covering his drunken eyes, and then saw what it was. “An apple. Why would you bring me an apple, Chez? Why couldn’t you bring me some more wine?” Henry stared coldly down at the puppy. “Well…it is food, anyway. Thank you Chester.”
Henry patted the dog’s head and brought the juicy apple to his lips and bit down. The apple squeaked, and suddenly Henry’s mouth was filled with the unsatisfying taste of old rubber. Startled, Henry threw the fake apple by his side and spit several times, trying to dislodge the awful taste from his tongue. “Ugh! Why the hell would you give me fake food you dumb mutt?” Henry cursed. Irritated, he picked up the apple and threw it at Chester. It bounced off the dog’s head and rolled a few times, landing at the foot of the brick wall. Chester turned around in a dash and raced eagerly to fetch it. He picked it up in his mouth, holding on to it with his firm little teeth, and brought it back over. He dropped it in Henry’s lap. Henry just looked dumbfounded at the little round face and pudgy black nose staring up at him. “You’re a funny little guy, you know that?” he asked the dog. “You’re a real a real smart ass too.”
Henry picked up the apple and let a heavy sigh escape his lips. He climbed to his feet, holding the rubber toy out in his palm. Chester eyed it closely and spun around in a circle, wagging his tail with joy. Henry stared in disbelief, his face sore with careless aggravation. “Look, if you’re just going to play around and bring me fake food, then quit hangin’ around me! Beat it!”
Henry threw the apple down the alleyway. He heard it hit the ground and bounce several times on the pavement. The sharp “click-clack” of Chester’s paws was right behind it. Henry watched as he tackled it and brought it back, setting it right back down at his feet. Heat swelled from the back of Henry’s neck to his face, as he grew angrier. The veins in his neck popped out as he strained his jaw and gritted his teeth. “Now I told you to get out of here! Now get!” He shouted and lunged forward, stamping his foot down. Chester just stood there wagging his tail, not even fazed by Henry’s sudden movement. “Beat it!” Henry threatened again. He picked up the slobber-coated toy and threw it once more. Chester just stared straight as it bounced off his head. Henry growled and picked up a rusty metal can next to his feet and threw it. Chester still did not move, even as it hit him in the rib cage.
Henry now picked up a large sharp rock and hurled it at the dog’s face. He watched as it hit Chester square between the eyes. Chester yelped in pain, stumbled for a moment, and then fell to the ground. He was down for only a short moment and then scrambled to his paws and ran off away from Henry. Henry watched in amazement as he galloped down the alleyway, trying to run from the searing pain. Henry just shook his head, laughing. “Caught the son of a bitch by surprise!” He said, humoring himself. “Well, that’ll teach him.” Sighing with relief, Henry stumbled back to his shelter and sat down to drink what little drops remained of his wine. He continued snickering to himself and shaking his head. “Dumb mutt.”
When Henry looked up again, Chester had stopped and was staring back at him. He could see blood trickling down over Chester’s face, dripping into a pool on the ground. Henry could see the pain swelling up in Chester’s eyes, and the sheer anger and confusion curling up his lip, exposing his sharp canines.
Henry’s eyes froze on Chester’s teeth, and suddenly he felt unsure whether he should be afraid or not. For a moment he thought Chester was going to leap on him and chew him to pieces, but Chester just turned and walked quietly down the alleyway. Henry watched him until he fell out of his range of sight.
That night, Henry saw a strange yellow light. It seeped and floated down the dark alleyway, and hovered over his little shelter. At first it looked like mist caught in the glow of a street light, but Henry knew it was rare to see mist in this part of the city, especially it being as warm as it was. As he stared at it, he noticed it began to twist and stretch into different passive forms. “I must still be drunk,” Henry thought.”
The light kept twisting and turning until Henry saw the shapes of two beady eyes. A chill went through him as they stared angrily at him. He blinked several times, trying to dislodge terrifying image from his view. But the vision stayed. It twisted and turned again, until it became two sharp fangs. The light beamed down and growled at him. Pain swelled up in Henry’s chest, and he jumped back inside his shelter, curling up into a helpless fetal position. Tears began streaming from his eyes.
“He was just a little guy,” he kept saying to himself. “What could he ever do to me?” But his own consolations gave him no comfort. The light never left his mind. Every time he tried closing his eyes, he would see those terrible fangs and those forbidding eyes, and he would feel nothing but fear. He could not cry away the image or his guilt, for there it would remain, a stranger in his mind forever.