Henry was the boy who lived next door to us when I was growing up, or so I thought.
I have photos of him at my first birthday party when he was around three. I found out years later that he actually lived in Macon, Georgia, a town about 165 miles away. The reality of the situation was that it was Henry’s grandparents who lived next door to us and Henry and his mother were only there visiting.
Sometimes his Dad, “Ed”, would be there, too. His dad was a handsome man with a great shock of thick black hair. He reminded me of Ted Williams, except Ed didn’t play baseball, or ever throw a ball of any kind around with Henry. And Ed didn’t seem to have a job much of the time. What he did have was a drinking problem. I liked him well enough, he left us alone, mostly, and when he was around, he used to take the two of us fishing.
Henry spent much of his early life at his grandparents’ house and when he got older, he spent the summers and the holidays there, too. Henry just always seemed to be around.
From an early age I was somewhat in awe of Henry. I was under the impression that he must be someone very special, because he had a newspaper comic strip named after himself, which I read faithfully. “Henry”, the only character in the strip was mute and when I say I “read” the comic strip, what I really mean is I looked at, and interpreted the pictures. I didn’t really learn how to actually read printed words until I was five or six.
Anyway, Henry looked just like the character in the comic strip and several years passed before I gradually came to realize that Henry was not the kid in the newspaper.
However, I was still impressed enough with Henry to go over to his house when my preferred playmate, Hughie, was not available and, besides, I was an only child and somewhat desperate.
Like me, Henry was an only child, and Henry, or “Hank” as he was now beginning to be called, was the only child I ever knew who acted the way he did. Hank smoked cigarettes and cussed from the time he was seven or eight. No one seemed to be particularly upset about it. A lot of people smoked and drank in those days.
Henry or Hank, like Huckleberry Finn, whose picture I had seen in a book, was often barefoot and seemed to be left in the care of his grandmother much of the time, but she was usually busy cooking, or hanging clothes on the clothesline behind the house to dry in the sun. I suppose Henry’s mother was working. But most mothers stayed home in those days and took care of their own children.
Henry’s grandmother was about as nice a person as I ever met, and she saw to it that Henry and I were fed a good solid lunch every time I was ever over there. No sandwiches or anything like that at Henry’s. Henry’s grandmother happily prepared wonderful midday meals for us including meat or fish, vegetables from her garden, real mashed potatoes and gravy, home-cooked biscuits, fresh-baked pies and sweet iced tea served in scalloped-edged aluminum- ware, topped off with little sprigs of mint from her garden. And she served it to us right there in her quiet sunlit-dappled kitchen on a white enamel table.
Henry’s grandmother also had a nice friendly dog named Sarah Punkin who lived on the back porch and in the yard. There was also a large fig tree in their yard from which Henry and his grandmother would sometimes gather figs, which she would place in a small basket and then Henry would go across the street and knock on doors in the neighborhood and sell them to neighbors to get a quarter, which was more than enough money to go to a movie or buy candy or soda or a slingshot or pea shooter or a balsa wood airplane or a comic book or any of the other things that a boy like Henry might need to make it through another hot Georgia afternoon.
Most of the time, though, Henry/Hank and I would go fishing in nearby Daffin Park. They kept a couple of bamboo poles with fishhooks and bobbers on them in the garage. We went fishing dozens of times. Henry always took along a bag of stale bread for bait and he would put a little piece on my hook for me. We were fishing for Bream, which were plentiful in the pond but we never caught anything. I told someone about this later and they said it was because we were using bread instead of worms. I think this caused me to lose some respect for Henry and as the years passed I saw less and less of him although it was fun to ride bikes over to the park the morning after the new year’s celebration, where we would fill a small paper bag with “duds”, firecrackers that had not exploded. If you had enough duds you could crack them open and fill a toothpaste tube with gunpowder and make your own dynamite. Or as Henry often did, you could just sit on the sidewalk in front of your house with a hammer and your paper bag full of duds and then place them one at a time on the sidewalk and hit them with the hammer.
Occasionally, after a big football game, Henry and I would ride our bikes over to the stadium the next morning when the place was empty and look under the bleachers for Pint Whiskeys. We would always find plenty of pint whiskey bottles with just a little whiskey left in the bottom. Drinking that made me feel like a man.
Henry also had a BB gun which he would use to shoot milk bottles or soda bottles in the lane behind his house. One summer day I looked out my bedroom window and Henry was standing in our driveway with his BB gun. Or maybe it was Hank. I talked to him briefly. It was during one of those periods when I was on the outs with him. I may have even told him to get off my property. And then he raised the BB gun and shot me in the chest the BB passing through the window screen. I played with him even less frequently after that.
By the time he was a teenager, Henry gradually began spending less time at his grandparents’. Or maybe I just stopped noticing he was there. By then, his father had turned yellow-orange and died from cirrhosis of the liver. I felt kind of sorry for Henry when that happened. Wasn’t there something someone could do? Why was he home and not in a hospital? One day I came home from school and was told that his grandfather died. A year or two later I got drafted and was gone for three years. By that time Henry was spending most of his time in Macon.
From time to time, though, Henry would return to visit his Grandmother and would park his cream-colored Corvette in front of her house. There was something about that Corvette that was joyless. It was the only Corvette I had ever seen that made me glad I didn’t own it. Gradually, I saw Henry less and less.
Then I saw Henry again years later, when I had just gotten out of the army and was hanging out down by the beach. I was glad to see him. We talked for a minute or two. I probably told him I had just gotten out of the army. Then he offered to sell me some pot. I didn’t smoke pot and was a little insulted that he assumed I did and that all I was to him was a potential customer. When he realized I wasn’t going to buy any, I saw his attention drift away to a bar near where we were standing and the next thing I knew he was inside, presumably trying to make a sale.
Once when I was back home from college visiting my parents, my father told me that Henry’s grandmother had fallen in the kitchen and she had called Henry up in Macon to come and help her up. Henry lived 165 miles away but he drove that cream-colored Corvette down to Savannah and in a couple of hours, helped her up off the kitchen floor. My father was mystified as to why Mrs. Draughon had not called him. After all, we lived right next door.
I told my father, “Mrs. Draughon is such a nice lady, I imagine she “just didn’t want to bother you”.
On a subsequent trip to visit my parents I was told Henry had died. I was shocked. He couldn’t have been more than 30 years old. He wasn’t murdered. He wasn’t killed in an automobile accident. He didn’t have some terrible disease. What was it, I wondered? My father didn’t know. I wasn’t about to ask his grandmother or his mother who was now living there full time, taking care of her own mother. I didn’t know anyone who knew him.
I never found out what happened to him and I guess I never will.
A few years later I was back from New York visiting my parents again for the holidays. My cousin was there. After dinner, my cousin and I went out to the driveway to play frisbee. The Frisbee sailed past me and landed near Henry’s house. The only person still living in the house at that time was Henry’s mother. I went over to pick up the Frisbee and stole a glance into the window of the room where so many years before Henry and I had spent many an afternoon reading comics and Ed’s Men’s magazines or watching The Andy Devine Show or Porter Wagoner and The Girls.
There in a chair not six feet away slumped Henry’s mother. She was drunk and I felt a strange mixture of sadness and pity as I looked at her. Her husband, her parents and her son and even the dog, Sarah Punkin, had all gone away and she was left old and all alone.