The Ancient Modern

Old Tom Has Some Work To Do /  Joshua Alan Sturgill

If he didn’t have such a severe stoop, Tom would have been quite a tall man, with wide shoulders and wide hands. I especially remember his hands: a patchwork of worn, smooth places crossed by rough, discolored scars. The hands of several different lives.

The doorbell chimes, and Tom’s heavy step and the smell of his unwashed clothes precede him into the bookstore. On hot, Kansas summer days the smell is overwhelming. Other customers avoid him or leave abruptly. Tom doesn’t notice or pretends not to.

He’s here for the free coffee, but as a pretext he says loudly to anyone at the front counter, “I have some work to do, and I want to look at some books. Come over here and let me tell you about my nonprofit. It’s going to be big. It’s going to help a lot of kids.” He shuffles into the next room and he pushes aside all the books on a display table, unloading his bag while he talks.

Tom carries an amount of notepads, old journals, pens and stacks of tightly rubber-banded scraps of paper. His large form looming over the small table, he spreads out the contents of his bag and drinks coffee as he writes. His cramped, minuscule words become a little smudged by the grease and sweat on his hands and shirtsleeves.

Charts, quotations, plans, sketches and schemes cover every bit of every page, marginless. Tom searches for a blank piece of paper in his bag or asks for one, and begins to write. After every few sentences, Tom draws a box around what he has written in place of paragraph indentations. Lists of names. Places he once wanted to visit. People who owe him money. Money he might make next week. Child-like pictures of buildings and floor plans.

Much of it concerns his nonprofit. For so many years, his nonprofit is close to getting off the ground. “I’ve got just the right location. I’ve got a deal on some lumber that’s going to bring in a lot of cash soon. I’ve been trading on some antiques I found. And then we’ll open up…” After years of hearing about the nonprofit, I’m still not exactly sure what it is. Or what it’s going to be. Only that “it’s going to help kids and keep them out of trouble.”

Tom talks while I straighten shelves and add new books. In our first conversation (how many years ago?) he asked if I’d been overseas. I said I’d been to China. This detail became Tom’s sole identifier for me, the thing he recalled every time we met. It was also a kind of stealth tactic for those afternoons when Tom knew he’d stayed too long but didn’t want to leave the store.

From long experience, Tom could sense when we had become impatient, and he had countermeasures. First: more coffee please. Then: so tell me about China. You were in China, right? What did you do there? Not seem unkind, I would tell him (again) about teaching English and (again) about visiting the Great Wall and (again) about how much Chinese I learned, which was very little.

And before I could interrupt him and say, “Tom, you’ve been here over hour and you know we’ve asked you to limit your time,” he would continue with, “I don’t know any Chinese, but I know some Latin! Listen to this…” And sure enough, in Latin, he would loudly recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Which I felt was really unfair of him. How does one go about interrupting an old man reciting his childhood prayer? But after stalling like this for awhile, when he seemed to feel that he could leave on his own terms, he would acquiesce with “now I suppose you want me to leave? Ok, ok. I’m getting ready.”

Half an hour later, Tom shuffles into the restroom. Twenty minutes after that, he emerges, gathers his books and papers and pens into the depths of his bag and leaves with a hearty goodbye. Sugar crystals and crumpled napkins and splotches of coffee are scattered over the table.

Over the years, I learned a lot about Tom. But I never got the information first hand. Tom rarely talked about himself, and never in detail. The local legend is that Tom had, sometime back in the 70’s, killed someone in a drunk driving accident. And afterward his life unravelled. Divorce, drinking, depression, homelessness.

Occasionally, he would mention a son or daughter nonchalantly, about birthdays or career moves or some need he was helping with. These references were always at odds with what seemed to be the given facts of his situation. He was going to buy an expensive Christmas present for someone. He was going to be director of a nonprofit. He was getting ready to move into a nice apartment he’d found.

When I met him, he had set up a temporary camp in his ex-wife’s garage and I once had to come looking for him there. We discovered Tom had “forgotten to pay for” a set of books he took from the store. On the history of the American Revolution? I forget the details. When we asked politely, then in very stern terms to pay for the books or to bring them back, he insisted “I’ll pay! I’m good for it. I’m just waiting for the Eagle to Land!”

Tom’s government check (he called it “the Eagle”) from the veterans’ department was his lifeline. “The Eagle has landed!” he happily announced whenever a check arrived. But after a few Eagles seemed to have flown past without landing, we set out to recover the books.

It’s a mark of the familiarity and duration of our relationship with Tom that we felt we could go confront him on his own turf and he would respect us for it. Also, Tom’s temporary shelter wasn’t far from the store, so the whole endeavour was a matter of walking a few blocks away, finding Tom and/or the books and heading back. The success of the mission could only be evaluated later. We didn’t know if the books were there (as Tom had told us) or long since “mistakenly” liquidated in the name of the nonprofit.

In any case, I felt uncomfortable turning in at the driveway of some elderly woman I didn’t know to visit the estranged and somewhat temperamental ex-husband living in her garage. But there were no cars in the drive or on the street nearby, so I hoped no one was home and no explanation would be needed. Though, come to think of it, I have the sense that she would have understood the situation without much explanation.

Coming into view behind the house was a backyard completely full of shopping carts: yellow-handled shopping carts from the local grocery store, around 40 of them, lined up in neat rows, each piled high with assorted odds and ends. Tom’s domain apparently extended beyond the confines of the garage. He had annexed a portion of the earth in order to organize and arrange his mobilized possessions under the open sky.

I called out “Tom?” and heard a voice answer from inside the garage. Tom opened a side door and looked out. His face broke into a slightly embarrassed but still humorous smile when he saw me. “I know what you’re here for,” he said. “Come on inside.”

Cautiously, I followed him in. Whether it had been built that way or later altered by Tom, the garage was more like a carport. It had no rear wall, and Tom’s living space extended out toward a privacy fence, making the whole thing look like some kind of half-covered patio or courtyard. As with the rows of shopping carts, I was struck by the odd combination of neatness and chaos. All was organized, obviously, but there seemed no unifying theme.

Clothes grouped by color, but lamps by size? Plates stacked deftly large-to-small in pyramids on the floor, but cups, bowls and old bottles tossed haplessly together in large crates? There was a system, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

Here you go,” Tom said, and lifted down our books from an end table stacked on a banged-up chest of drawers that (if I remember right) was full of old magazines. The books were all there, dry and clean. And I carried them back up the street. Tom seemed very happy that someone had come to visit him. I think it was the only time in my many encounters with him that I felt a genuine warmth without blustering or pretense.

* * * *

Some time after I moved to New Mexico, I got an email from the bookstore. Old Tom had died. He had a bad habit, walking as he did for miles every day though town, of not paying attention to where he was going. I saw this many times. Stooped and shuffling, hands behind his back and eyes to the ground, he seldom checked the traffic before crossing a street unless it was a busy intersection. Late one night, downtown, he blindly stepped out from between parked cars and was hit and killed instantly.

I heard that the woman who struck him wasn’t charged, and I hope this is true. Everyone knew Tom and his careless way of walking around. The police had years of interactions with himfrom jailing him for “forgetting to pay” for hotdogs from the gas station to helping him recover personal belongings lost or stolen by other homeless people (with whom Tom was frequently squabbling). Tom had a long history. Tom was a long history.

But I wonder if that woman still suffers for the unintended part she played in Tom’s history, if she has nightmares, how long it will be before she can drive in the dark without some sense of panic. When I think of Tom now, the image is of a stray bullet fired accidentally in a crowded room, ricocheting, haphazard, causing random injury to people and things.

The email said that after Tom died, his son came into the bookstore, introduced himself and thanked us for showing hospitality to his troubled father. Very seriously he asked us, “did he have

any debts? Did he owe you anything or take anything?”

I wonder, what did Tom owe us? Tom at his little table, talking, writing. He acts out a play in which he has money and means; he’s like the other customers who come in and look at what they want, buy what they want. He takes a new book off the shelf, opens it roughly and creases it with his heavy hands. In not a few books over the years, we still find Tom’s greasy grey fingerprints. Those books are spoiled in some sense. They’ve never been sold, but they’re no longer new. Does Tom owe us for those books? They remind us of him.

I remember the day (maybe it was January, it was terrible weather) when Tom stumbled in from the piercing cold, wet to his bones and smelling of more than stale body odor. He’d been ill with some digestive issue, and lost control of his bowels. The odor was nauseating. He came in and went straight to the restroom, staying in there for an hour while with water running in the sink and the toilet flushing many times.

I remember a few times when he got into loud, heated arguments with customers and we had to escort him out. So much damage. So much chaos. And was the chaos inside him even more than what appeared on the surface? I’m the kind of person who wants to see good in everyone. Yet, when I try to think of something good in Tom, I only remember that when he talked, when he told about his nonprofit, his schemes, his love for Italian food – the happiness of his stories never reached his eyes.

He had cold, inaccessible blue eyes that seemed fixed and frozen in a passionate make-believe, as if he were concentrating absolutely on willing his stories to be true. While his outward talk flowed on mechanically, deep inside himself Tom was engaged in a massive project: he was building a Great Wall to keep the pain of the past and the shame of the present far away. To banish them. To make them not exist.

Tom’s stories were really like charms and incantations. Maybe, if he could wait long enough or talk loud enough, then everyone who knew him then would be gone and everyone who knew him now would only remember his Pater Noster and his notebooks of wise quotations. The now would efface and supplant the then, and he really would be Tom the businessman, Tom the hero of a children’s support nonprofit, Tom the person everyone was glad to see.

But it was all a fantasy. Behind his eyes, behind the Wall, was a flood of hatred, anger. Against what or whom? Occasionally, I saw that cold anger in his eyes, waiting to leap out and become violence, or worse, grief.

So, did he have any debts? Anything I can replace for you?” Tom’s son asked us. “No,” we said. “No debts. Nothing you could fix.” And we sincerely thanked him for stopping in, and we told him that we missed Tom and his antics and his schemes. And maybe when we said it, it became true.

Because I hoped then (as I still hope!) that the bitter Tom we knew and the jovial Tom he himself pretended to be have somehow reconciled. That when the dam burst and the car struck and the wall collapsed, there was, behind them, not a flood of violence but simply a key. Isn’t Truth a kind of key? Solid and simple. And I imagine Tom holding that key with an almost disbelieving sigh of relief. Maybe wetting it with his tears or shaking it with his laugh. And he sets out, anew, without his stoop and without his schemes, to find what kind of doors that kind of key might open.


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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