A year ago, one of my mother’s rare, brief letters arrived, bearing in its folds the reason for its being: Tom’s obituary. In two column-inches of newsprint, I learned that, at 38, he had died at home of complications from diabetes; that he was a lifelong resident of our hometown in the Midwest; that he was survived by a sister. My mother’s letter said he had been cremated the week before, so I was spared a cross-country trip for the service. To be honest, I wouldn’t have gone—would have told myself that I couldn’t get away, or made some other excuse. Tom and I hadn’t spoken in at least a decade, and we hadn’t seen each other for longer than that.Yet he had been my closest male companion through childhood, adolescence and beyond. He had been my original friend.
I thumbtacked the obit to the bulletin board near the desk in my study, among—and soon beneath—stalled drafts of poems, postcards, reminders of things to do. Sometimes I brought myself to find it, and I studied it, looking for some further insight among the few yellowing facts. Memorial contributions, it said, could be made to his church, though Tom had never attended any church in our years as friends. The home address given was not that of his family’s house on 33rd Street, two blocks from where I grew up, but of a residence across town, in a more urban, less prosperous neighborhood. When I had known him, he had two much older sisters and an older brother—a mythic brother, really—whose existence was demonstrated by a sepia-toned graduation photograph, and who had left behind a conflict with Tom’s late father years before, never to return. Legend further asserted that this brother taught at the school back East attended by the Kennedy children. Had one of Tom’s sisters and his brother died in the years since we had last talked? Or was this surviving sister the only sibling with whom he still had contact, given his history of familial conflicts?
There was also a photograph: Tom in his familiar aviator glasses, leaning into the frame, portrait-studio style, and looking off toward some horizon beyond the words surrounding his image. There was the burry, bristly, enviably unmanageable hair tapered and parted. There were the faint pencilings of a mustache he had first tried to grow at 15, and the clear, satiny complexion—infant flesh—bearing the slight shadow on the cheek, no doubt his ineradicable red. He didn’t smile. He never smiled in pictures, because he was cute and frail of frame, a runt, and had always been so. And he was desperate to be taken seriously—perhaps to take himself seriously—and to be seen as a man, worthy of his brothers legend. He might also have withheld his smile here because his diabetes had cost him several front teeth by his mid-20s. It was impossible to tell how recently the picture had been taken. He had always looked like a boy.
Besides the gravity in the announcement of his death, I kept confronting the crucial absences outlined by these details. Had he died alone? Was it sudden? Had he really gotten religion? Why was he living in such reduced circumstances? Did he have anyone in his life? I envisioned a ramshackle, buff-brick rooming house surrounded by commercial parking lots on the fringe of downtown, and within it a dim, chilly apartment that housed stacked, grimy dishes and tossed clothes, the enduring shambles of a bachelorhood renewed by a divorce more than a decade before. The chill in that apartment clamped down and squeezed the pity up in me—an unjustifiable pity, of course, for a life I had no right to judge as pathetic and somehow failed, though it appeared so.
At the time of our last talk, Tom still lived at the 33rd Street house. In fact, he had just inherited it after his mother’s death from a fall we both knew—but would not say—vodka had encouraged. He was thinking of selling the place, and he’d called me to see about the prospects of moving to the town where I then lived in Florida. He sounded eager to start a new life. The county sheriff’s office still employed him as a photographer and uniformed clerk—jobs he had always glorified by intimating that they also involved undercover work which had to be kept scrupulously vague. He thought the Sunshine State might be the place to pursue his long-held aspiration for a career as a real law enforcement officer.
He also sounded shy, nearly embarrassed, as he asked if it was possible to stay at my apartment for a few days. A graduate student, I shared a small, one-bedroom unit in a refurbished carriage house with my girlfriend at the time. Though I was surprised and genuinely pleased to hear from him, the mild apprehension in my “sure, no problem” must have struck him square and fortified any reluctance he had felt in calling me. We joked and reminisced, and hung up after promising to talk at the end of the week, when he had made his travel arrangements to Florida. We never spoke again.
Why didn’t I pick up the phone when the week passed with no call? Why did neither of us make the gesture? I believed, somehow, that further contact with me would pain him—undoubtedly a rationalization for my own paralysis, or indifference. Yet his silence testified to a distance neither of us could broach alone, solitary as we seemed to ourselves in the remains of our friendship, most of which was memory. Had he been as relieved—cruelly relieved—as I to be free of our contact?
The selling of the 33rd Street house touched me as a poignant but inevitable farewell, a necessary transformation. When visiting my parents in the years after Tom and I did not call back, I often drove by it, noting, as in times past, that his car stood in the driveway or was absent—until one day I passed to see different cars parked there, new aluminum siding and window frames, and two children playing on a new swing set out front. Original friends don’t choose each other so much as they are tossed together by fortune, and they stay together—even if they are not ideal mates—because their world is small and their alternatives few, and the possibility of questioning and choosing their places in life remains obscured by the naturalness of the way things seem. I don’t remember where, or how, we met as children, though it must have been in the local public kindergarten. My first memories of Tom, however, occupy the 33rd Street house and surrounding property. The place became the spiritual center of our friendship, where we learned about intimacy and limits.
That house was not so much my second home as a new world where I could escape the wrenching and embarrassing conflicts in my family. Though not appreciably larger than our two-story place, it seemed richer, more refined and exotic—with a stone fireplace in the living room and built-in, floor-to-ceiling, mahogany bookshelves jammed with forgotten hardback novels; wainscoting in the dining room and beveled glass in the doors; an enclosed front porch mystically called the solarium; and upstairs, a laundry chute. According to Tom, his father had once headed a large construction company in the area before an associate betrayed and ousted him; that was why Tom was born in Australia during a sojourn at a building project and why the older neighbors called him “Dinkum,” a nickname at which he scowled frequently. It was also why his father then worked as a welder, he said, and why his parents had to sell off the large acreage that had once surrounded the house, on which a school and some of the neighborhood stood.
I was not a second son at Tom’s house because Tom was not so much a son himself as he was a late-arriving, “accidental” obligation to an older, busy, troubled couple. His willfulness and their weariness gradually removed him from the usual parental oversight. Thus, he and the house also embodied a kind of early freedom I might never have discovered on my own. For instance, Tom introduced me to worldly pleasures on one of my innumerable sleepovers. We must have been 10, perhaps 11 years old. His siblings had long before grown up and moved out, and his parents were at work. We had watched “rassling” on television with Toms grandfather—a failing, crusty, genial man who drank cough syrup and smoked crooked, rum-soaked cigars, and who would die within the next year. Grandfather abed, Tom opened the windows of his room, pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and three Playboy magazines. We sat drenched in the peeled white glow of a bare light bulb. I declined the offer of a cigarette, as I would for a few more years. Tom smoked lavishly on his bed, his nose runny and glistening from manifold allergies, his fingernails uncut and filthy as they would be into adulthood. He’d gazed aplenty at the magazines and reclined in his sophistication. I had never seen such things before, and I did not know they were supposed to be “dirty.” I hovered over the images, somewhere in that erotic zone of adolescence just before the first full-force erection arrives with clear neural instructions. A pure, sweet urge held me in a fine mesh of fascination. I remember one image: a woman standing in a red Corvette, her blonde hair flying, bare-breasted, wearing what I believe were white cotton panties. I turned back to her over and over, uncertain why I was drawn to her chest and that one cloaked region. I would look at other such images later, but never as I did on that night.
Tom relished these moments. He liked being the first and being in the know. His proud suavity crowned him like his cigarette smoke. He wore it the day he brought home his snare drum from his first lesson and instructed me in how to hold the sticks, casual about the ways of junior high school band members. He wore it when we hunched over cherry Cokes at the neighborhood drugstore as the older guys—who all knew him because of his sisters—talked about their cars and jobs and dates. He wore it partly because, like the smoke, it could not last long. He was too clumsy, too vulnerable. He didn’t finish things. After a time as a thundering band member, he retired his drum. The drugstore studs often gave us rides in their muscle cars, but they also called Tom “Dinkum Stink’m.” He sensed I could see these debacles, yet he also perceived that part of me was a great fan of his posturings, his cool, however much it was incommensurate with his station in the world. A simple stability in me approved of his comical swagger, and inflated it and, at the same time, declared it harmless—though, at some level, Tom seemed always to have been harming himself.
We were partners of a sort, even when in the company of friends our age. After his day in the local public school and mine in the Catholic, we swept through imaginary adventures, pretending to be secret agents. We played pick-up football and playground baseball. We lolled through the summer, sitting on his porch in the night odor of cut grass and looking at downtown lights in the distance. Car crazy, we built model racers relentlessly, some in imitation of those on posters plastered across our bedroom walls, accumulating huge stocks of spare parts and customizing paraphernalia. In the old summer house behind the garage—a single oak room, with an attic, that once housed the acreage caretaker—we cleared away stored furniture and rubbish and established a place to build and store our models. With a black marking pen, we drew a sign on a sheet of fiberboard and hung it above the door: Tom & Don’s Speed Shop.
Some time after this, Tom turned to me and announced that his father had cancer and was going to die. He said it quickly, almost matter-of-factly—uneasily, it seems now. I accepted the news without more than a forgettable comment, probably because I didn’t know what to say. At 12 or so, I had not known death, though Toms grandfather had died the year before. A part of me also thought Tom might be lying about his father, to garner my sympathy—though I couldn’t see why he would do that. The next several months witnessed his father’s transformation from a tall, whiskey-flushed man in khaki coveralls to a stooped scarecrow sucking his last days through a milkshake straw, his few words popping and gargling from a tumorous throat. Remote in his health, he became, in his decline, our odd intimate, especially in his last summer during which Tom’s mother worked days as an aide at a nursing home. We would accompany him on errands, he hunching over the steering wheel, barely able to raise his head. We would try to speak softly when in the house or playing at the speed shop, so as not to disturb his lengthening sleeps.
In those long months, Tom, too, began a transformation that seems obvious now but was then obscure. He grew more willful with his mother, more petulant, no doubt out of confusion and sorrow. Repeatedly, his fury sprang at the order of things as he discovered his new powers, often driving himself, and sometimes me, to precipitous emotional edges. For instance, I walked up the driveway one afternoon to rendezvous, as usual, before we began our newspaper routes. Tom and two of our friends stood in what had been the garage—a ramshackle structure with a rotted, gaping roof and sagging red tile walls. To the shock of all present, Tom had swung a sledgehammer at the supporting beams and bricks, toppling the walls. The others had taken whacks while he’d rested, and then he’d resumed. He pounded and pushed with a fierce concentration—the rest of us laughing nervously and glancing around for the trouble that was sure to arrive—until we all stood taller than the surrounding rubble. At nearly that moment, the back door opened, and Tom’s father appeared not in his robe but work clothes. In great agony, meager and barely able to move, he must have risen at the sound of the blows and struggled to dress during the wrecking. He shuffled, head down, mute until he stood before us.
“Goddamnit, Tom!” he mumbled almost inaudibly, breathless like a gutshot infantryman in a Hollywood epic. “What do you think you’re doing?!”
Tom stared into his father’s face. “Well,” he replied, his tone oddly light, “we’re going to rebuild the thing, but first we have to clear away all this junk.”
in the silence thereafter, we waited, stranded, hysterically still, until Tom s father turned and went back into the house.
Later that summer, Tom and I fought as we hadn’t before. The circumstances of the conflict are no longer clear, but we ended up shouting at each other in the speed shop. Tom threw boxes of parts, and I broke some models and walked out. I had only marched 20 or so paces when I heard him call to me. I turned to see him pull down our Tom & Doris Speed Shop sign and break in it two.
Even now, that gesture pierces the boy I was, partly because I see that it introduced us to an adult truth. A few minutes later, Tom approached me on the front lawn of the nearby school. I had bounded of! and sat and wept, ashamed of my tears but unable to restrain them. The breaking of the sign had astonished me. Only now do I have a word to name what I felt: betrayal, on the order of a lover’s unfaithfulness. Tom and I talked, and looked at the sky and, eventually, reconciled. We had discovered the risk in our trust of each other. For some months, the speed shop remained in disrepair, until we finally packed up our model-building paraphernalia and took it home and made the place into a clubhouse for all the friends in our circle.
In the fall after Tom s father died, my parents finally allowed me to transfer from the Catholic school to the public school Tom attended. This furthered the changes between us. Since kindergarten, what I knew of public school life derived from Tom’s anecdotes and those of a few others. On the first day of class, I entered the seemingly vast junior high building with Tom in the lead. He introduced me to his friends, showed me around. It was vintage, big-time Dinkum, brimming with the frisson of adolescence and the determination to impress.
And I was impressed, though not as he might have wished. With time, it became clear that Tom did not belong to the most elite cliques, as his stories had implied. He was not the great glad-hander and universal mover and knower, but one on the margins of a cruel and utterly clear social structure. I, of course, was a newcomer and a nobody, which may have quickened these insights. Yet, in them, Tom and I also found ourselves in a familiar relationship. Eventually, we ceased any efforts to be with each other at school and saved our friendship for evenings and weekends and summers.
The following year, Tom decided to go out for the wrestling team. He talked of joining the Marines, of becoming a cop, and he thought that if he could excel at one of the lower weight classes, he could build himself up. Throughout the summer, he seemed to be weak and constantly sleepy. Heading for my paper route in the afternoons, I would enter the 33rd Street house without knocking, since his mother was at work, and find him nearly comatose upstairs. I attributed it to his variable hours and general defiance of his mother’s enfeebled rule, both of which I encouraged and shared. The required physical for the wrestling team offered a different explanation, however: a severe case of diabetes.
Just as at school, Tom attempted to show me around the hospital during the weeks of his stay there. It was the same facility in which his father had died. As we strolled the hallways, I remembered the night we stood outside his father’s room, how when the door opened and his sister ushered him in, we could see his father’s bony feet kicking as he thrashed for his last gasps. Tom seemed to have entered another realm that night, and his illness seemed yet another realm. It was beyond me and always present. In the kitchen after he returned home from his stay in the hospital, his mother instructed me and two other friends—all aged 14—-in how to prepare and give Tom a special injection, should he lapse into a coma. The needle and the little brown vials stored in the refrigerator bestowed upon us a responsibility which, for the most part, I took seriously and was relieved to ignore.
Fortunately, I never had to administer that injection. I don’t know if I would have been able, as cowardly as I am about needles. Once the glamour of his new condition ebbed, Tom carried his illness like arcane knowledge for everyone to regard and for him to deny. In all the days and nights in the 33rd Street house, I rarely saw him give himself his shots. Still, he sometimes used his burden as a means to make us verify our care—either by our asking if it was wise for him to eat a particular food or drink so much alcohol, or by our pretending not to notice. For him—the slightly-built boy now facing an irrevocable slight—there would be no Marine Corps, so he cast himself, however questionably, into a future as a police officer. He also careened between being his body’s ally and its vengeful pun-isher, until his abuses almost seemed the norm.
Toms obvious vulnerability usually attracted girls, as did his good looks. Though he was sexually active by 15, he generally maintained a delicate silence about the particulars. In high school, for instance, I hitchhiked across town to his girlfriend’s house a couple of times. Her parents were out, and she and Tom would occupy a bedroom upstairs for two or three hours, while I sipped gin and listened to music at the bar in the basement, so as not to hear the bed-springs. Afterward, thumbing back, without strain, we spoke of anything but what had transpired. At that time, I was excited and shy about girls, terrified of going even for that first kiss. Others in our group razzed me about it. Perhaps Tom suspected there might be something wrong with me, since I seemed almost catatonic with fear at the come-ons of his girlfriend’s friends. He only mentioned the matter once or twice, tangentially. He sensed in me, I think, a fragility he understood, and left it alone.
Eventually, I found a girlfriend, though not a girl Tom knew. I had begun to roam in different arenas. Tom liked to play the rebel at school and rejected any involvement there. I’d been introduced to “popularity” and the system of gestures necessary to access and enhance it. I was becoming a joiner and doer, and a guy known for his wit—something like the figure Tom had once pretended to be— and I was hoping to learn how far I could go by being seen with the right people. Tom and I never discussed this split between us. I would circle back to the 33rd Street house less frequently but with regularity, and we would smoke and drink and hang out, as always. We graduated. I enrolled at the local college. In the room where Tom’s grandfather died, I finally cast off my virginity at 19 with an – older friend of Tom’s future wife.
His marriage that same year to Debbie, a hairdresser, proved ill-fated. He and Debbie moved into a minimalist apartment complex nearby and arranged their few belongings. Their early life there brimmed with TV evenings and decent home-cooked dinners, and they exuded an enthusiasm that seemed to infect my girlfriend and me. For a short time, she and I talked seriously, and foolishly, of marrying, stimulated most by the thought of picking out furniture together. Tangled in such giddiness, it seems to me now that we most resembled our parents of the World War II generation.
For Tom, marriage was another first, and perhaps the product of a hungering for anchorage against the storms of his own existence. More mature and more reliable, Debbie had lived on her own since her middle teens. She’d worked hard for what she had: a paid-off car, some clothes, cookware and a good sofa. As the months tumbled past, the role of mother and guardian to her young, reckless husband closed slowly around her. Nearly two years had to elapse before she began to realize how much she despised that embrace. By then, she and Tom had moved back to the 33rd Street house, partly to cut expenses. He attended law enforcement classes at the community college and worked at the county jail. I had dropped out of college for a semester, and I paid rent on the room where Tom’s grandfather had died and, technically, I’d given away my innocence. Debbie and I became pretty good friends. She was intelligent and talkative, and later she sought in me a confidant for the frustrations with Tom. Marriage had isolated her from old friends, and neither of us felt any connection with Tom’s mother, who also lived in the house but who seemed to work night and day, when she wasn’t drinking, and who was almost a ghost when she was a presence at all.
Ultimately, I moved out of the 33rd Street house after Tom, in a fury, accused Debbie and me of cheating on him. For some time, he had grown as petulant with Debbie as with his mother, and this incident marked a new level in the escalating conflict that continued until Debbie divorced him a few years later and eventually remarried. His indictment hurt not because I felt betrayal like that on the day he broke the old speed shop sign, but because his desperation awakened in me a pity that had lain dormant since childhood. I had to admit to myself, then, how much we had already left each other behind on our routes to elsewhere. A couple of years before, he had given me what was reputed to be his older brother’s Princeton sweatshirt, and I had worn it often. I browsed and read the books lining those beautiful mahogany shelves in the living room, while he never did. Instead, he spoke lavishly about the dangers of his job at the jail, all of the details gleaned, it seemed, from cop shows and, because of this, embarrassing.
Here, my memory of Tom evaporates, except for images from a few late visits and his call to Florida. A blankness remains, on which I try to inscribe some further meaning. In his fantasies, in all his “firsts,” Tom sought an outsized, perhaps even heroic life—though he wouldn’t have used such terms to describe it. He confronted barriers he probably couldn’t name, and neither of us asked many important questions of ourselves during our time together. Who in those years does? I turn now to survey the limits of my own half-vanished life and its untenable, sometimes harmful, ordinary bargains. Among my failings and unrealizable dreams, Tom stands and stares back at me, another “first” for him. Alternately 18, 20, 13, 24, he offers no word about how unfairly or inaccurately I’ve represented him here, nor any word about the present or the future. Instead, he swaggers, as always, almost on tiptoes. His eyes well with tears from a smashing tackle on the playground. Or he adjusts the badge on his uniform. Though long out of contact with him, I could, while he was in the world, at least wonder what had become of him. The wondering must be different now.