April 18, 2012 § 19 Comments

I learned the name for what he was from a friend who was a psych major.

Tom was an isolate.

Always alone, he was not hated. And he wasn’t a square peg in a round hole. For him there was no hole. He belonged nowhere. Tom was so little noticed it was as if he didn’t exist.

His official title was bookkeeper. He opened and closed the metal drawers of the file cabinets in Library Technical Services. He shuffled papers and walked invoices back to our desks for revision, delivering each with an apology and a stiff bow.

Neatly dressed, he wore a white shirt and a tie, dark pants and often one cloth shoe. Large and thick in the middle, his physical profile almost doomed him to diabetes, which he had. He was losing his toes, one after another, to his illness.

We speculated, when we thought about him at all, wondering if he had been locked in a closet for the first few years of life. He had no social skills, only canned responses that were often not responses at all. One of his favorite phrases was, “Picky, picky, picky.” It was a response in all kinds of conversations.

If he’d had a wife she would have trimmed the long curling hairs at the outer corners of his eyebrows. But he didn’t. And I suspect he had no one who would call him a friend.

When he disappeared from work for another toe amputation his empty desk haunted me. Who was taking care of Tom when he couldn’t take care of himself?

I got his number and called him. No one was taking care of him and he needed groceries.

My supervisor, a proper older woman named Jane, advised me against going to his home. Her carefully phrased warning implied that she worried about what he might do to a woman alone. We had no clue what he was capable of, that’s how little we knew him.

But he needed groceries.

I assured Jane that, even on his best day, I could outrun him.

His grocery list was sad. It was all diet soda and Jell-O and chips but I picked up what he said he needed and followed his directions to a place behind Momo’s Pizza.

Tom’s home was a motel room turned efficiency. One wall was floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with videos. Otherwise, it looked very much like any one-night-accomodation off an interstate.

I handed him a soda and put his Jell-O in the fridge. We talked a while. Tom always had an eager look when anyone spoke to him, like a neglected dog basking in unexpected attention.

It was after I left the job to become a full-time writer that a new library director moved Tom from his desk in Tech Services to the mailroom, and when he couldn’t stay on his feet for an eight-hour shift declared him unfit to do his job and fired him.

After that run of grocery deliveries, Tom and I had gotten in the habit of sometimes talking on the phone. We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to keep his health benefits going using Cobra–and mine as well since the state had privatized medical services with a company ironically named “People First” that dropped both of us several times.

Then one day a coworker from the library called me to say that Tom had died. He had been found in his room by one of the other motel room dwellers—a friend I hope. By the time I’d heard of his death some distant family member had already come to deal with his body, empty his room. There was no service, nothing to commemorate his life or his death.

The motel has since been razed, student housing built in its place. Still, when I pass the turn I would take to go to Tom’s I make a point of thinking about him, thinking about him hard.

It’s too little too late. Still, it feels necessary to acknowledge that Tom once existed. He was odd and he was harmless and he was always alone.

In comparison, those of us who know how to work the system called life have it so easy.

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§ 19 Responses to Tom.

  • craig reeder says:

    so sad. should make us all feel lucky and blessed by comparison.
    some folks just get a raw deal, and there’s no rhyme or reason. but there is sometimes, compassion, and you delivered.


  • grandoldbard says:

    Touching story, Adrian. Your writing has always impressed me for its seemingly artless simplicity. I wish I could achieve it-it ain’t easy. I wish I could do as well.


  • grandoldbard says:

    Touching, Adrian. Your style has always impressed me for its seeminmg artless simplicity. I wish I could achieve that. It ain’t easy.


  • deb reilly says:

    “Only a little” was probably just right for someone like Tom. More might have overwhelmed him. Your story brought tears to my eyes.


  • judyransom says:

    Very touching story, Adrian. Tom was very fortunate to have a good friend like you!


  • Judy says:

    Beautifully written. I see Tom and wonder if it fits the real Tom. Thank you!


  • ammaponders says:

    Ah, thank you. I don’t always give proper value to “presence.” That’s what you gave Tom and it matters a lot in this world.


  • Iris Melton says:

    Such a sad story, Adrian. Thanks for sharing and taking the time to show compassion to a lonely soul.


  • A beautiful piece. You made this person come alive for me. It’s a tender and yet dark memory. Truman Capote style.


  • Eden says:

    This is the week of remembrance. At least that is how it seems to me… This week a fellow ROWer posted a piece about the death of a young woman in England a few years ago (google “Joyce Carol Vincent”), another post meorialized the loss of a coworker that he had only known through a few company picnics… Even at mu husband’s work… Three of their sales staff died last week, people who had welcomed my husband to their homes, shared their family time for a few day will my husband had to handle some on-site tech support for their customers… He had to find out through an old supervisor stopping in for a staff meeting.

    But… in all these cases, as in yours, there is a story. And someone who told it. Just as you did.

    Just as you did.


  • KM Huber says:

    There is such story in Tom, which on some level, even before this post, you knew, I suspect. As Tom’s story seems to be absence of presence, your passing along his story widens the ray of hope for us all. We are reminded of our own stories of many characters and reminded that each one deserves a scene, no matter how short or succinct.

    Beautifully written, Adrian.



  • Mary Z Cox says:

    Interesting story 🙂 An old friend of mine passed away while we were out of the country in April. Only knew about it because his son took over his FB page afterwards and posted a few notices. Brought up his obit online and read it, and was so disappointed to see it was a short paragraph, that said he died in his home and was survived by his parents and two children. He is the same age as me–but it did not mention what he had done for a living, any of his ex wives, or that he had been a talented musician and singer.
    Really nothing–and this was a very socialable man loved by many– with lots of friends.
    I don’t know for sure, but kind of suspect he may have ended his own life. 😦 He sent me a message on fb about a year ago and told me that his last girlfriend had left him, he was bankrupt, his health was bad and he couldn’t get disability, his savings were spent, and only his mother still loved him–but not to tell anyone because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was not just fine.)
    But, it does leave a hole in your heart when someone that is your contemporary (whether a much loved friend, or just someone unnoticed around the office) suddenly disappears from your life. Many believe that we all share the same spirit and I think that must be true 🙂


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