Henry Baker hated his name. He wasn’t crazy about the Baker, but it was his last name and he considered it a given. Besides, it was the only thing he had left of his father.
No, Baker was fine. Even Mom thought so. It was Henry he had a real beef with.
He loved his mother very much but he hated his name, and that was a problem because while she loved him very much, too, she may have loved the idea of having a son named Henry just as much.
Henry knew that names were important to Mom. Whenever he made a new friend, the first thing Mom wanted to know was his or her name – (not that he had many girl friends) – and then she’d consult her big book to see what the name meant. Whether it was popular but not too popular. Whether it hinted at foreign ancestry, whether it reminded her of a celebrity or a scientist, and whether she knew (and liked) someone by that name.
In fact, names were so important to Henry’s mother that she even told Henry to call her by her name instead of “Mom”. She was Elizabeth. (And never Liz or Lizzie, not Beth, Ellie or Libby, or Betsy or Bitsy, not even Lily). She was Elizabeth Baker, Mrs Baker to Henry’s friends, and Elizabeth to Henry.
And when you’re eight years old, there’s not much you can do about anything, that much was clear to Henry, but it was just as clear to him that there’s always something even an eight-year-old can do.
For Henry, that thing was telling everybody his name was Hank. He hated being Henry because of all the names he had ever heard, Henry – he thought – was the worst fit. Henry was the name of a boy who collected stamps and sang in a choir, went to bed at 8pm, and had Eggs Benedict and a cup of coffee for breakfast. A Henry knew nothing about football, not even the names of the three best players of all-time (Pele, Maradona and Platini), a Henry was clueless about punk and rock, and a Henry probably didn’t like Tarzan because “while we share most of our genes with the primates, it’s highly unlikely that a human could become the king of apes”.
Henry was the perfect name for a dullard, a simpleton who used long words, but who was clueless about how things worked no matter how many books he read. A Henry was simply a short grown-up, while Hank, well, he was the exact opposite of that. Hank was a man of action. Hank was street smart, Hank was popular, Hank was the one everybody would run to in a crisis.
Hank did not drink coffee.
On a hot summer’s day, a Henry would lie in his bed with a wet towel on his forehead, while Hank, on the other hand, had better plans. On a hot day, Hank rode his bike to the cliffs to go for a swim, or climb the ladder to the roof of their apartment building and have a private picnic there.
Today, on the hottest day of the summer, Henr–, um, Hank had an even better idea. Downstairs, all the way in the basement where the laundry room was, and the sauna, and the storage rooms, there was also a mysterious blue steel door that Elizabeth had warned him about.
“I don’t want you to go in there by yourself, Henry,” she had said. “It’s not dangerous, it’s just a cellar for potatoes and wine and such. Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“Is that where we get out potatoes?”
“No, Henry. We don’t have anything in ours. It’s empty. Go ahead, have a look, I’ll wait for you by the door.”
As soon as he had run in, he had felt the cool air on his skin. It was like a wet blanket on a hot summer’s day, but the difference between a Henry and a Hank was that a Hank would never use a wet blanket.
Hank grabbed a sandwich and the latest issue of Tarzan with him and skipped down the stairs – all 24 of them – to the first basement door. Hank opened it with the key that was hanging on a shoelace around his neck, and kept on walking toward the second basement door, which he also opened with the same key, and walked along the corridor toward the laundry room. About halfway through it, he stopped at the blue door, and pulled the metal handle on the door. The handle was stainless steel – these are the kind of facts Hank knew – and it had an interesting built-in locking mechanism that Hank decided to have a better look at later.
The door was heavy, heavier than any other door Hank had ever opened, but he managed to pull it wide open – of course – and as he stepped in, he was greeted by the sweet cool air he remembered from his earlier visit.
“Aaaaah,” he said, and as he walked all the way to the back, he heard the door close behind him. He leaned against the wall, and opened his Tarzan comic book.
He took a bite out of his sandwich, and let out another satisfied sigh. Life was good.
Four minutes later, the lights went out and Hank was sitting in the dark. He got up and feeling his way back to the door, tapped the walls to find the light switch but he couldn’t find any. He decided to open the door a little bit to get some light in (but to also keep the cool air in) but there was no handle on the inside.
He took a bite out of his sandwich and glanced at his watch. When he had got the watch as a birthday present just a few weeks earlier, Hank had been impressed with the dial that was coated with phosphorescent paint that glowed in the dark but now he was happy to see that it really worked.
It was ten to four.
He kicked the door a few times but it stayed shut. He tapped the walls from both sides of the door again but found no light switch. The darkness was starting to get to him. It began to hurt his eyes, and he started to see things.
He shut his eyes for a while. That helped. He could see clearly. Not with his eyes, of course, but he could assess his situation. The door was shut. There was no other door. Hank realized that he was trapped.
He opened his eyes again and checked the time. It was five to four. Elizabeth would come home by five, “at the latest”, she had said. When she got home and couldn’t find Hank, she’d come for him.
But surely others were walking along the corridor all the time, too, going to the laundry room or to get their bicycles, especially on a nice day like today. Hank walked to the door and pressed his right cheek against the cool blue door and filled his lungs with air.
And then he yelled at the top of his lungs.
“HELP ME, I’M STUCK HERE!”
No answer. Hank closed his eyes again. He always thought better with his eyes closed because that way, his brain had no distractions.
Yelling like that had been stupid. He remembered a Tarzan adventure in which the king of the apes was stuck in a cave and that it was important to use air sparingly. He could be stuck in the cellar for hours, even days, and he’d need the air. He had half a sandwich left, but in his backup plan, he was ready to kick in a neighbour’s storage space door and eat some of their potatoes.
What if nobody came, though? What if he’d be in the cellar for two months? Elizabeth would become a broken woman, and a neighbour would tell her that growing potatoes was good for her soul and she’d do it and then she’d bring her sack of potatoes to the cellar, and find Hank on the floor. Or Hank’s remains.
Just like in the Tarzan adventure in which he finds the lost city in the jungle.
“Stop it, Hank,” he said. “Somebody will come … sooner or later.”
He could barely see his watch’s dial anymore but he thought it was 4.30. He had been inside for forty minutes and he wasn’t cold, or hungry. Or sleepy. He was fine. He was more than fine. He was super fine.
He sat down with his back against the door, so that he’d hear any voices or footsteps from the other side.
Elizabeth would be angry at him, because he hadn’t left her a note on the kitchen table. How many times had she told him to always leave her a note. How many? Ten, at least.
“Even if you only go to the bathroom when I’m not home, I want to see a note on the kitchen table about it,” Elizabeth had said.
She hadn’t meant it literally, but for the first few weeks Hank had left a note on the table when he had gone to the bathroom, and then, slightly ashamed of his henryness, he’d thrown the notes into garbage right afterwards.
No note and no Hank would drive Elizabeth crazy, but she’d also go look for him. Maybe she’d call the cops. That would be embarrassing. To be carried out of the cellar by a policeman.
“We found your son, Mrs. Baker. The little monkey had fallen asleep in the potato cellar,” he’d say.
Hank was not going to fall asleep. He sat up and pressed his ear against the door again.
Time passed, but Hank had no idea how long he had been inside the cellar. He couldn’t see his watch anymore. He couldn’t see his feet or his hands, either, which was a strange feeling. He knew he was wiggling his toes, but since he couldn’t see it, he didn’t quite believe it.
There’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light, Elizabeth used to tell him when he was a kid. When he was six and afraid to go to sleep because he thought there was something under his bed. He had been such a Henry then.
He almost laughed.
And then he almost cried.
And right then – right then – just when Hank was about to burst into tears, he heard the sound of the second basement lock rattling, and then the door opening.
“Henry?” somebody said.
“Elizabeth?” he yelled.
A pause. Hank was afraid that Elizabeth was going to turn around and walk away.
“HENRY, ARE YOU HERE?”
“I’M IN THE CELLAR”, Hank yelled and beat the door with his both fists. He kicked the door, too.
He heard footsteps in the corridor and how they stopped at the blue steel door. The handle made a clinking noise and the door opened. Hank took a step back, Elizabeth took a step inside the cellar.
“There you are!” she said and wrapped her arms around her son.
Elizabeth smiled and kissed him on the forehead.
“That’s right, Henry. Mom’s here,” she said.
“Mom and Hank,” Hank said and squeezed Elizabeth.
“Mom and Hank,” Elizabeth said.