I reconnected with my old friend Tom yesterday. We met in the 8th grade, and got in trouble that very first day, I seem to recall. He was one of the bolder kids who would sneak off school grounds to get their lunch from a nearby McDonald's. Several guys had done this successfully for a few days running. I'd been invited along, but was petrified at the thought of being caught.
Tom convinced me it was a breeze, a stroll in the park. We were laughing happily in anticipation of the tasty burgers we'd soon be enjoying, instead of the cafeteria swill, as we crept through the woods between the school parking lot and the McDonald's parking lot, and climbed the fence between the two. We came around from the back of the building, walked into the front door of McD's -- and straight into the path of our gym teacher, who was awaiting us, his arms folded across his chest and a "You're in deep shit, boys" expression on his very humorless face. First time I was ever suspended from school. A Bad Companion had led me astray! In later years, I would become The Bad Companion, the better to keep the tradition alive and moving forward...
Later that week (when we were allowed back to classes) I told him a joke-- whispered it to him-- in History class, and it cracked him up. He had (still has...) this loud, honking, very un-subtle laugh. While it denotes a fully functional sense of humor and an appreciation for all things absurd, and it does convey great amusement, mirth and glee, it sounds rather... demonic and awful. Like someone's choking a Baritone Duck. Sort of a cackle crossed with a growl. Think of Danny DeVito as The Penguin in the Batman movie. Those noises he made? That barking, guttural laugh...? But deeper, broader and raspier. Now you've just about got it.
So, he's trying to rein in his amusement at the joke, and he puts his head down amidst his textbooks, and his shoulders are shaking, and out comes "HNNAARRR!" followed by "HAAANNNNNK!" and then "YAAAAKK, YAAAAKKK!" The class starts to chuckle at this. and I'm beginning to come unglued. The teacher couldn't quite figure out where these sounds were coming from. "What is that? What is that noise?" she asks.
I reply "I don't know! I think it came from the hallway!" She actually opens the door and sticks her head out to have a look. Under cover of his shirtsleeve pressed over his mouth, Tom says "A DUUUCK! SOMEONE KILLED A DUUUUCK! FFUUUCKKK!" and the entire class is now peeing down their collective legs. She turned her attention back into the classroom just as Tom raised his head-- tears streaming down his face-- and took in about a half a lungful of air and let out another huge "FNAAAAHHARRR!", and punched me in the arm. We were busted.
We wound up in detention, where he continued to make sotto-voce duck sounds at me for the entire hour, causing me shake and giggle and to gibber and blow snot bubbles while he feigned total absorption in his English textbook and the Detention Monitor eye-fucked me and angrily scribbled my name down on the Incorrigible Little Shit List. It's probably gone on My Permanent Record, somewhere in Richmond.
We fell into this easy, irreverent, wiseguy friendship. Started smoking about the same time, experimented with other substances... And I don't mean we got lab coats and clipboards and ran double-blind studies of... well, you know exactly what I mean.
We went on to attend the same high school together, but we drifted in different directions. I learned to play the guitar, and hung out with hippies and artsy, musical types.Tom was a strong, tough kid, fast with his hands, a good fighter, and unafraid of anyone. I never, ever saw him bully anyone-- he was a bright, fair, smart, decent guy-- but I never saw him back down if he was wronged, challenged, insulted or interfered with. He had a code of honor that included never allowing anyone to insult or degrade a girl or a woman in his presence, and a natural protectiveness of anyone smaller and weaker. He looked like a hard-ass, but he wasn't mean or aggressive. He was kind of... a thug with class. He had this... knightly quality to him. It's hard to explain it. Tom was cool and tough and eminently capable of handling just about anything fate threw at him. He dug cars and motorcycles and mechanical stuff. We were very different, but always able to enjoy one another's company.
He knew Karate, could break boards and bricks with his hands, and was simply amazing with his feet. He and his older brothers frequented the Jhoon Rhee Karate Academy (a major school in this area-- Mr. Rhee may be seen in this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7PEMGuA6tw) and would sometimes stop in to spar with the senior classes, for a workout. One very impaired evening spent in his company, I saw him leap into the air and kick a ceiling ventilation fan loose from its housing. This happened to be inside the elevator in which we were then riding. I don't think his hands even left his pockets.
Soon after high school, Tom fell in with a motorcyle gang -- or a "club", as they'd have you believe. I think the club's hobbies consisted largely of transporting questionable items to various undisclosed locations and battering other "club" members. He bought or built several bikes from the ground up, and turned into quite the outlaw and brawler. It kind of came with the territory. He amassed quite a number of injuries, between automotive accidents (he wrecked more cars than I think I ever rode in...) and physical altercations with other guys who were stupid enough to tangle with him. I used to joke with him that if he lived to be 30, he'd be nothing but scar tissue and a crooked smile. We drifted apart, and came back together quite by chance.
I was riding with my mother one terribly rainy afternoon when I spotted an unmistakable silhouette slouching along the side of the road, bent low, hurrying against the storm. "Hey, can we give this guy a ride, Mom? I think I know him.." We pulled over and I waved him into the car. He gratefully hopped in and unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a small cat-- one of his mom's several pets.Tom, temporarily without a working car, was trying to get to the vet's office, several blocks away in a thunderstorm. I marveled at the tenderness this rather frightening-looking guy was showing to this weak, trembling, coughing cat.
It turned out that he and his brothers were living with their mom in the apartment building right across from ours. My mom was a sucker for animals, and when she learned that Tom's mother had several pets, she simply had to meet her, and tell her how impressed she was by this young man, who'd walk through a storm to see that her cat got medicine. OF COURSE they became each other's instant best friends, a happy turn of events that would last more than 25 years, until my mother died. Tom's mother actually fixed my mom's hair and makeup, humming gently over her coffin, primping and adjusting and making sure she looked * j-u-s-t * a-s * n-i-c-e * a-s * c-o-u-l-d * b-e*, prior to her viewing at mom's funeral-- they were that close.
It was great having them for neighbors. One day I was trying to mount a black light fixture to a piece of board in order to hang it up in my room-- the better to make my posters LEAP out at me from the walls, but I lacked any sort of tool to cut it down to the proper size. I went to see if I could borrow somethingl from Tom to lop off about 8 or 9 inches of this cheap pine so the fixture would fit it properly.
"Naahh; I don't own a saw, but... how long's it need to be?" he asked. I held the light fixture (a long, narrow fluorescent tube) up against the wood. He nodded, made a nick on the edge of the board with his fingernail and then held the board against the wall of his living room so that the extra bit extended out into the hallway, lying flush against the doorframe. "Lean against this. Brace it with your hands, here and here" he said. I did-- fool that I was-- and he spun around sideways, jumped up and kicked the end of the board. The excess wood snapped clean off, and I was propelled backwards onto my ass on the carpeting. The fixture fit perfectly.
Once we were finished with school, life changes took us hither and yon, and we lost touch. Our moms communicated regularly, and told one another about the latest triumphs or tribulations of their kids. I hadn't seen him since my mom died, and I caught up with him again at his own mother's funeral, several years later. We fell into an easy reminiscence and made plans to get together again soon.
He and his wife came over for dinner last night, and we spent a comfortable evening catching up. What changes the decades have wrought. Tom lost a kidney to cancer a few years ago, and radically changed his lifestyle. He said to me over dinner: "You know, there was a time when I had a girlfriend who danced in a titty bar. I'd spend all night, damn near every night, in that bar. I'd snort methamphetamine in the men's room, and sit at the bar grinding my teeth, completely wired, sucking down booze and assembly-lining Marlboros into my yap. I’d just get fucked up and watch her dance-- and the only exercise I ever got was when I'd knock the shit out of some clown who tried to play grab-ass with her..." and here he displayed his hands, the size of canned hams, with scuffed, scarred knuckles like old baseballs.
"Yeah; those days I'd knock back tequila, whiskey, moonshine, hell-- whatever was handy--
and I always carried a gun. Today I carry a fuckin' cell phone and I drink filtered water. What the hell happened, man? It's weird. Never thought I'd be... this guy." Hell; we're just glad to be anywhere, these days.