A Stray Like Me

Buddy left Joey under a tattered makeshift tent. “I’ll be back soon,” Buddy told him and walked a couple of blocks to the 7-Eleven.

Fifteen minutes later, Buddy returned, expecting Joey to be sitting up and hungry. Instead, he found him lying on his side with his tongue hanging from the edge of his mouth.

“Joey, wake up!” Buddy cried, hoping that the sound of his voice would revive him. Buddy rubbed Joey’s bristly fur, but he was as unresponsive as a piece of deadwood–eyes blurry and unfocused, no breath coming out of his dry nostrils. Buddy kissed him a couple of times and held him close, feeling his body growing rigid. 

People saw Buddy crying as they passed. A bunch of strangers with familiar faces, none of whom had the decency to ask what was wrong. Not once did anyone inquire if Buddy was all right or if he needed something. Not that he wanted their sympathy, but maybe some kindness would have helped.

Holding Joey’s head in his hands, Buddy closed his eyes and imagined Joey’s soul floating somewhere out in space, vulnerable in the vast universe, lost for all eternity.

A hand tapped his shoulder, and he looked up with tearful eyes. His friend Martin stood over him. “What’s the matter, Buddy?”

Joey died!” Buddy blurted out. “I was getting something to eat, and when I came back, he was like this.”

Martin looked down at his friend on the curb. The steam rose from Buddy’s Styrofoam cup and the uneaten buttered toast was making a stain in his paper bag. Buddy was tempted to tell Martin that he wished it was he who had died, but thought better of it.

Martin put his finger on the dog’s back to verify that he was indeed dead. Sad stuff,” he said. “I wish I had a bottle of whiskey for you right now. You could use it.”

Martin wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guy.  He had a pretty nasty life before he became homeless. Martin had told Buddy about all the fights he’d gotten into, how he was unable to hold down a job, and how he always seemed to rub people the wrong way. Because Martin couldn’t read or write very well, he had a chip on his shoulder. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do, Martin,” Buddy said. “This dog was the only thing that kept me going.”

You can’t leave him here, that’s for sure. Joey’s going to stink something awful.”

Martin took off his overstuffed backpack and had a seat on the sidewalk. He stared at Joey for an awkwardly long time.Guess we should take him to Animal Control,” he finally said.

With no alternative, Buddy agreed. He packed up everything quickly, put Joey into an oversized shopping cart, and followed Martin’s long, sturdy legs churning up and down the city streets.

A few miles this way,” Martin said with his backpack strapped tight.

Buddy tried to keep up with Martin, ignoring his thumping heartbeat and wheezy lungs. After a long climb up a steep hill, he got dizzy.  The earth swayed around him, and he collapsed right on the worst spot, falling into a pile of trash.

Buddy, Buddy!” Martin yelled and yanked him from the ground. Martin found an old newspaper by the curb and cleaned Buddy as best as he could. Meanwhile, a police car pulled up and wanted to know what the problem was.

My friend just had an accident,” Martin said.  “He’ll be okay.  I got everything under control.”

Cops were not to be trusted. All they did was try to get the homeless off the streets by arresting them or putting them in dirty shelters. Although this policeman seemed more helpful than most. He wanted to take Buddy to the hospital, but Buddy shook his head and told the officer that he hadn’t eaten and all he needed was some food. Buddy had been to a hospital about six months earlier. They said that he needed heart medication, but he didn’t have money or health insurance. And he certainly didn’t want to live in a shelter to qualify to get some.        

Martin brought back a pint of orange juice, a hot dog, and wet napkins from an Am Pm Mini-Mart and, after a few minutes of rest, Buddy was back on his feet. 

I’ll walk slower, Buddy. I promise. Tell me if you’re getting dizzy again.”

Buddy and Martin continued on their journey. They traveled down broken sidewalks, past abandoned factories, and packing plants that moved out to the suburbs because of the changing neighborhoods. They walked by murals of colorful children with rays of light playing off their fingertips. They trudged past used car lots and auto repair shops with broken-down jalopies and gas pumps out of commission.

A good two hours later, which was spent alternating between walking and complaining about their miserable city, they arrived at Animal Control.

I hate doing this to Joey,” Buddy said.

They’ll probably barbecue the poor thing,” Martin replied.

Buddy was too short of breath and his heart beating too loud to argue. Martin reminded him of a student that he once had in junior high who said anything that came into his mind, no matter how stupid or awful it was. Buddy had many challenging students back then, but he was too fragile to deal with them in the right way. Instead, Buddy beat up a thirteen-year-old kid until he couldn’t talk back anymore. The next thing Buddy knew, he was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown and soon found himself, like Martin, wandering the streets, sleeping under bridges, and going from one corner to the next.

 Buddy held Joey like a sick child as they entered the facility, greeted by a crowd of noisy strangers who all seemed to be staring. After a while, a homeless person learns that people stare because they fear becoming like them. But eventually, the homeless learn to tune out the cruel and insensitive ones and focus on what they need to do to get by. 

At the reception desk, Buddy rested Joey on the ledge by the glass window. The woman gave him a cross look. She ordered Buddy to remove his dead dog from the counter. “People put their hands on that!” she snapped.

Before Buddy could say anything, Martin flipped, cursing at the woman and threatening to scratch out her eyes. A security guard quickly intervened, removed Martin from the premises and promising to call the police if he tried to come back.

Wait for me outside!” Buddy shouted as Martin was hauled away.

Sorry,” Buddy said to the lady. “My friend cares too much.” 

She didn’t accept his apology nor change her attitude. “Someone will get your dog,” she said indignantly.  “Find a seat and don’t cause any more trouble.”

Buddy continued to hold Joey while he swayed back and forth in his seat like a mother comforting a baby. He kept hoping that the dog would give some sign of life, and periodically checked to see if his eyes were open or chest moving.      

A little girl pointed to Buddy and called out, “Mommy, why is that man talking to a dead dog?”

The mother put her finger to the girl’s lips and said “hush,” but the child continued to stare, looking at Buddy as if he were a freak in a circus about to do something crazy. He wanted to tell her: I’m not a freak. I’m sick and destitute, you little brat! 

Buddy bit his tongue. He sat in the hard, plastic chair and watched the children get back their cute pets—dogs and cats full of energy. He thought about what a treat it would be to have Joey again.

The little girl’s tail-wagging poodle was delivered to her. Buddy smiled when she glanced back at him. “Mommy,” she said, “let’s take Reggie to the park and let him run.” 

Joey loved the park. He felt free there. He could sniff, bark, and piss whenever he felt like it. In the park, the world was his oyster.

A rather bulky man wearing medical gloves and a dirty white vest came out through the swinging double doors of the back room. He had a blank look like a robot. The man scanned the place for the right animal and, eventually, spotted Joey wrapped in a blanket. 

Is this the dog?” he asked. He didn’t even want to know the dog’s name, seemed to see Joey as just another animal to deal with.

Buddy nodded. “Yes, this is Joey. My name is Buddy Wallace.”

Without saying a word, the man wrapped the dog as tightly as he could in the blanket like a big burrito and picked him up in his massive arms.

“Wait!” Buddy yelled.

The man stopped in his tracks. He was surprised by Buddy’s powerful voice.

I’ll wait here until you’re done cremating him. Then I want Joey’s ashes. I gotta have him with me.”

The man must have heard the desperation in Buddy’s voice because his mood softened.  He handed Joey to someone else, then retreated through the double doors. Soon, he returned to say, “It will take a couple hours. I convinced the doc to make an exception.”He shared no other words and didn’t seem interested in a thank you.

Buddy stared at the man who carried Joey off to the back room. As he watched Joey for the last time, he wanted to go into the fire with him. Buddy closed his eyes and imagined him and Joey being burnt together beyond recognition, two strays with a painful past ending up as a pile of ashes on the hot oven floor, charred in friendship for eternity. Together, they would be cleansed of all their awful memories, sanctified by the burning flames.

There was something pleasant about the thought of death: being free, finally having no more worries, existing in a state of nothingness without being hungry or cold. 

Buddy smiled as he remembered finding Joey under an elm tree, skinny and weak, his paw pads cracked and bleeding. He was a poor, wounded soul, vulnerable, much like Buddy. He took him inside his makeshift tent and fed him anything that he could get his hands on, from half-eaten hamburgers to stale bread.

Two hours later, the large man in the dirty white vest came out through the swinging double doors, carrying a wooden urn. He gently shook Buddy’s arm in an attempt to wake him up. Buddy remained motionless, a half-smile on his face.

“Mr. Wallace?” the man repeated. “Please wake up.”

 But Buddy wasn’t sleeping. He had died sitting on the plastic chair in a room full of strangers, dreaming of being with his dog, Joey, in the incendiary of hope.