The saw-toothed January wind carved a swath through the alley, searching blindly with tendril-fingers, reminding all it touched of their mortality. Wendell awoke inside his box with a cough and listened to the noises of the world, hardly hearing the clattering of his teeth. His body was tight and sore from sleeping scrunched in the cold. He couldn’t feel his toes.
Rain began to patter and dance atop his box, and, with the temperature dropping, it would only be a matter of time before he would have to go to the shelter at night.
Wendell didn’t want to go the shelter. Outside the smells didn’t bother him, but at the shelter, there was no place for them to go but up his nose. Ever since his cocaine period his nose had been very sensitive.
He rolled onto his back. The rags in his box shifted and the box creaked-its days were numbered. He stretched his head out of his box, opened his mouth, and drank the icy freezing rain. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about hydration.
He heard rummaging across the alley. Either Earnest or Melinda must be up, he thought. He turned to look, seeing Earnest lunge out from under his pile of rags and Charlie Brown-Halloween-ghost blankets.
Melinda looked like shit yesterday, he remembered.
Then he saw Earnest lunging again. Only then did he realize he was lunging at something. It was a toad.
At first he wanted to laugh, but something killed the urge as it made its way up from his gut.
Earnest needed three or four lunges-he wasn’t the most athletic guy-before he snagged the amphibian. Sitting up, he looked at it once, raised it to his mouth and bit its head off. Wendell couldn’t watch Earnest pulling at toad sinews for long, and his eyes returned to the pile from which his alley-mate had come. A leg and part of another stuck out, disembodied and wooden. At first he didn’t think much of Melinda’s immobile legs.
Then Earnest began choking on a toad bone. He coughed and heaved, turning and writhing over a handful of bursting trash bags.
The legs still did not move.
Wendell dragged his shivering, bony frame out of his sagging carton and over towards Melinda’s legs. He pulled at rags and soiled blankets until he uncovered Earnest’s girlfriend. She had never been much to look at, but she had definitely been more attractive without a bluish, vomit-encrusted face.
Wendell sat back down a few steps away, his back to a building wall, feeling the rain slice at his face and listening to Earnest chomping at the toad.
His eyes roamed the place he had come to call, at least temporarily, home. He looked at the rags and bulging, bursting trash bags, the strips and strands and scraps, the books, newspapers and magazines, the broken glass shining inside the puddles of freezing rain, the carburetor, the stripped bicycle, the posters of events long past, the shopping cart with the broken wheel, the bits of rotting food and oilstains, discarded, formless clothing, a golf bag with a broken umbrella inside, a shoe, a bathtub, another different shoe, some bowling pins, the walls of the buildings with paint flaking away or with crumbling corners: all of the furniture inside his home.
“Hey, man, listen,” he said to Earnest without looking. “You ever get tired of it all? I mean, look around. You woke up in the middle of…this, next to a dead girlfriend, and now you’re eating a toad.”
Earnest coughed and gagged, scraping at his tongue and flinging himself disgustedly over the trash bags.
“Blaaachhhh!” he shouted, still scraping. It sounded like he was holding his tongue. “Toadth gif u warth! I thoud ih wath a frogh!”
Wendell hung his head, still shivering. He looked at his own legs and saw a puddle growing around them, and not because he wet himself. For the first time in a long time, he found himself dissatisfied with his station. He turned his head up again for more water and found it had turned to snow.
“Climate change my ass,” he mumbled.
He got up and began to move, not really knowing where. At first he just wanted to get warm. Then, the more he moved, the more he wanted to move.
He shut off his head and let his body take over. It started doing a little boxer’s shuffle, as it had so many years ago when he thought he was going to be somebody.
The shuffle got his blood flowing, and he felt good. He started to jab and uppercut, threw a right cross.
“Go get ’im, Mayweather!” someone shouted from above. Wendell heard laughter.
He stopped boxing, but not out of shame. He had forgotten how good it had felt to box, or even just to move. Was it so wrong to want to be able to do these things? he asked himself. To be able to box or just train when I wanted? It wasn’t illegal-why haven’t I done it?
Answers came fast and hot, that all tried to put him in his place. No money, no food, no home, no gym, blah, blah, blah. They were all just words. If I want to box, he said out loud, I’m gonna box.
He started to jog slowly, jabbing the air regularly as he had so long ago.
“C’mon!” he would say, every now and then. “I got this. Bring it now!”
There was more laughter, but Wendell heard nothing. Fighters hardly ever do.
If Earnest had lived to see the day, he wouldn’t have had to travel far to find his old friend. A few blocks away a sweaty, dilapidated gym stood in a side street not that different from the alley where he and Wendell had spent time together. If by chance Earnest had wandered in there, at almost any time of the day or night, he would have found his old friend working there as a janitor.
It isn’t much, Wendell might have said, but I can train when I want, and I have a place to crash in back there. And I can even get a warm shower whenever I want.
He would have found a happy ex-homeless man, and maybe he would have been a little jealous. But he had never gotten the chance.