Surprised by Love on the Streets of Purgatory

He didn’t have a lot of sympathy to go around, but the dog’s pathetic state moved him, and he shared his half-eaten sandwich. When the dog had finished eating, she sat next to him and shyly licked his hand. At the crossroads of despair, a homeless man unexpectedly found love.

James Kelly and his dog lived in the Liberty City occupation outside Berkeley’s Old City Hall. David Bacon photo

 

Short Story by Beth Sherwood

Author’s Introduction: My story was actually inspired by a homeless man whom I used to see on my daily walk home from work. He often stood with his dog at an intersection along the route. I worked at a restaurant at the time and I began occasionally bringing scraps for the dog and any leftover items for the man.

He was very appreciative and his dog was very sweet and well-behaved. Then I stopped seeing him. I wondered if he had gone to another location, but after about a week, a makeshift cross appeared on the corner where he would stand. I didn’t know his name and had no idea how to find out if something had happened to him. Then I wondered about the dog. If something had happened to the man, what had become of his loyal companion?

It really brought home how much homelessness strips people of their humanity and even their identity. I never found out anything more about him, nor did I ever see him again. The following story is basically my ode to a man whose name I never even knew.

***

The Streets of Purgatory

He lay listening to what was left of the storm. The torrent had been reduced to a slight drizzle and ultraviolet light no longer snaked across the sky. He was reluctant to get up, enjoying the rare moment of serenity. A cool breeze followed in the wake of the storm, offering a temporary reprieve from the usually relentless humidity.

He felt Jenny breathing beside him. She too seemed to be relishing the peacefulness of the afternoon. At that moment, he felt almost content. He knew he had to get going and he reluctantly got to his feet. Jenny followed his cue, stretching as she rose.

The slightly decrepit carport sat slightly behind AJ’s corner store. He was grateful to AF for allowing them to take refuge in the carport and didn’t want to overstep and risk having the invitation revoked. He grabbed his bag and discreetly made his way to the side street so as not to cross in front of the store. Jenny dutifully trotted alongside him, her tail wagging slightly. He had a length of rope that served as a leash, but it was mostly for show; he had an innate understanding of her role.

They crossed the street and took their place on their customary corner. Jenny lay at his feet. He watched the procession of cars go by, a few slowing to give him some loose change. The rain tended to make people more sympathetic, although he had discovered that there was a fine line. In a downpour, people didn’t want to roll down their windows in order to give money. It definitely wasn’t worth spending two days in damp clothes.

However, in the immediate aftermath, when the torrential rain was still fresh in everyone’s mind, the handouts were more forthcoming. Of course, he still got the usual dirty looks and comments from the curmudgeons, but he did his best to tune them out. What bothered him more, even now, was the people who averted their eyes and pretended not to see him. His old life was barely a memory and the people who looked right past him made him feel like little more than an apparition. Still, he reflected, before joining the homeless republic, had he been much different?

A group of teenage boys, who were headed to play bocce on the neutral ground, walked past. “Awww, look how twee — a dog and its mongrel,” gibed the leader-apparent. Another threw the remainder of his Slushie in their direction. The lid flew off and the sticky liquid sprayed them both while the other boys brayed with laughter.

A car slowed down and he approached the window. A middle-aged woman handed a large can of dog food to him. “How can you take care of a dog if you can’t even take care of yourself?” she asked reproachfully.

“Thank you, ma’am,” was his only response. Perhaps on some level he deserved it; he hadn’t been much of a husband or father.

 

A young woman with her dog in the Liberty City occupation outside the old Berkeley City Hall. David Bacon photo

 

As was usually the case, things hadn’t started out like that, but money woes had taken their toll. The constant stress and tension had chipped away at his pride and resilience. He started drinking. The more in the hole they got, the more he drank. The more he drank, the more they fought.

He still felt shame remembering how he’d been and how their daughter would hide in the bathroom of the one-bedroom apartment because she slept in the living room where they were fighting. Except on those nights she would end up sleeping with his wife while he slept on the sofa.

Often, waking up on the couch was his only clue that they had fought, at least until his wife would emerge angry and silent from the bedroom. Worse than her simmering ire was the fear and worry in his daughter’s eyes.

He wanted so badly to fix things, to get everything back on track. If only he could catch a break and get back on his feet, he would make it all up to them. He hated his inability to take care of his family and the increasingly impotent feeling that accompanied it, yet he couldn’t see a way out of the ditch. His shame found a companion in self-pity.

He knew his wife wasn’t trying to nag about the bills, they were just due, but he resented it all the same because each time it reminded him of his failure. And so, he continued to drink and found himself waking up on the sofa more and more often. He also found himself waking up late for work, ultimately resulting in the loss of his job.

When he lost his job, his wife finally threw in the towel. She and their daughter went to Houston to live with her parents. Things quickly went from bad to worse. He got work doing odd jobs but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. The lights were turned off and an eviction notice followed shortly thereafter.

He sat in the dark drinking his second 40 ounce and trying to figure out what to do. It was too hot to sleep and he decided to get another 40. En route he was pulled over and subsequently arrested for DUI.

When he was released, he found himself with only the clothes on his back, a dead cell phone, and a few bucks. His car had been impounded and his belongings had been disposed of by his landlord.

A homeless man and his dog sleep on Market Street in San Francisco. His wheelchair is behind a tree. Lydia Gans photo

 

He wandered around in a daze the first day, wondering how things had snowballed so quickly. He spent the first night in the doorway of a vacant building. The term “homeless” had not yet entered his vocabulary. He was just down on his luck and had suffered a setback.

He spent a few more nights in the same doorway after discovering that he couldn’t get into a shelter without an ID, which had gone missing at some point during his arrest. He also discovered that resources for those on the street were shambolic at best. He began asking for handouts on street corners, spending whatever he collected on booze. It helped numb him to the reality of living on the street and the fear that accompanied sleeping in the open.

One night about six months later, he sat behind an empty warehouse sipping the fruits of his labor when he was startled by a sound behind him. He tensed up, fearing that some fresh hell was about to befall him. Instead, a bedraggled and emaciated dog emerged from the shadows. Her neck was raw and devoid of hair and she had several scars on her face and body. Her ribs and spine protruded pitifully.

In those days he didn’t have a lot of sympathy to go around, but the dog’s pathetic state moved him. He shared the half-eaten sandwich and fries someone had given him. When she had finished eating, she sat next to him and shyly licked his hand.

It had never been a conscious decision to keep her. She had been there when he woke up in the morning and had followed him when he headed out. He found himself spending less on alcohol in order to buy food for her. He felt safer sleeping when she was with him and he also realized how much he had missed even the smallest display of affection.

Even on the limited rations, she began to fill out and her neck healed. She naturally assumed the role as his sidekick and soon it was hard to remember the days before she had turned up. He named her for his daughter who had always wanted a puppy called Jenny.

That had been three years ago.

One afternoon, he noticed that Jenny kept licking her foot. Upon investigating, he discovered an angry-looking sore on the side of her foot. That evening he got some peroxide and cleaned the affected area and attempted to cover it with a sock from his last clean pair. But the ground was still wet from the rain and the sock quickly became sodden, so he removed it.

Over the next few days, he cleaned the wound repeatedly, but it was clearly infected. He was at a loss. He hated seeing her suffer and knew she needed treatment, but was afraid it would mean surrendering her.

“Hey, excuse me,” a woman’s voice broke through his thoughts. He saw a woman whom he recognized as an occasional donor, one who always had a smile and a kind word. “I noticed your dog is limping. I work for a vet. Mind if I take a look?” He nodded his assent.

After a moment, she looked up, her face grim. “She needs to go in. It’s beyond something that can be treated with a topical. Can I bring her in? My boss will treat her. I’ll work something out.”

He was reluctant, but what else could he do? He let the lady take Jenny, watching with a heavy heart as they walked away. “I’ll bring her back,” the lady called over her shoulder, seeming to read his thoughts.

That night he could barely sleep. He missed the comfort and security he felt having Jenny nearby. He rose early and headed to his spot. He didn’t want to risk missing the woman. As the hours ticked by, he was more intent on looking for her car than on collecting. The woman didn’t come that day. Or the next. Or the next.

Walking listlessly to his spot in the morning, he caught his reflection in a store window. He had conditioned himself to avoid looking, but on this morning he forced himself to look. In his mind’s eye, he still looked like he had before he had become homeless. The person looking back bore little resemblance to that image.

He wondered if his wife or daughter would even recognize him. He was glad that they were in Houston and not likely to see him begging in the street. His daughter was almost fifteen now; he wondered blankly what she looked like.

 

A homeless man sleeps with his animal friend near a freeway offramp. Dogs are the most loyal friends of many homeless people, and are cherished because they give unconditional love in a friendless and often hostile society. Photo by Tia Torres Cardello

 

Almost a week had passed. He felt more lost than ever. He stared blankly at the passing cars, not caring if they gave or not. He was consumed by loneliness.

He tried to tell himself that Jenny would be better off, that she would have a roof over her head and regular meals. He felt selfish for wanting her back; he hadn’t been able to take care of her any better than he had been able to take care of his family and she deserved better.

Suddenly, he saw a gray car pull over across the street and his heart skipped a beat. He held his breath as he saw the woman getting out of the car, then reaching into the back and emerging with Jenny.

Jenny spied him and broke into a run, pulling the lady behind her. She practically threw herself into his arms and he could barely hold the wriggling, wagging mass. Unable to speak, he looked at the lady who stood watching the emotional reunion like an awkward voyeur.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t talk to you sooner,” the lady began explaining. “My mother had a heart attack and I had to go out of town the day I brought her in. I didn’t have any way to reach you. She had a staph infection and had to be treated for a few days, but she’s doing much better. Everyone at the clinic adored her, but she never settled in. She obviously missed you. She definitely doesn’t like the leash.”

The lump in his throat made it hard to speak. He finally managed a gruff “thank you.” The lady smiled and headed back to her car, waving as she drove off.

Jenny finally calmed down and they made their way to their corner. And although nobody noticed, that afternoon his step was a little lighter and his shoulders a little straighter.

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