April 18, 2012 § 19 Comments
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.