My story “Unfinished Business” first appeared in the August 2010 issue of Midwest Literary Magazine. That edition has since been archived, so I’ve reproduced it here in case you want to read it.
Let me know what you think.
“But Tom’s no more –- and so no more of Tom.”
Don Juan Canto the Eleventh, Stanza 20
It was summer like this when I had last seen Tom, and at that time, I never imagined seeing him again. But now, fifteen years later, I have.
I first met Tom was when my brothers and I decided to investigate the sewer pipe at the end of our street. We had just moved to the neighborhood and were looking for adventure. The pipe was large enough for small boys to walk into, and it entreated with a darkness blacker than night. A stream of gray water trickled from it into a pool, the beginning of a creek that today, is buried and forgotten.
Tom was alone on the opposite bank, squatting precariously in the shadow of a wild rose bush when we arrived. “I feel sorry for Jesus,” were his first, earnest words. “Some of the thorns they put on his head were this long.” He held his two small hands apart nearly a foot.
I remember thinking that I didn’t want to pursue that subject with someone who so clearly wore his faith on his sleeve. My religious training was mostly ritual, thus inadequate for debate. Tom’s was evidently more emotional, leaving no room for debate. Our religious difference was always an undercurrent, but it never seriously hampered our boyhood friendship. And it certainly didn’t prevent us from splashing into that black tunnel that afternoon long ago, after we dared each other into entering first.
Even in my imagination, only my mother could assume that a friendship dead fifteen years before would resurrect with a simple phone call.
“Guess who I saw at the grocery store, Greg,” she said before I could even put down the suitcases. “Tom Schloss, believe it or not. You remember him. I told him you were going to be in town this weekend. I said you’d call.”
I groaned but managed to make it seem the result of heavy baggage.
The phone call, it turned out, was brief and fairly painless. Obviously, my mother had a hand in this. Tom said he was glad to hear from me and hoped we could stop Sunday after church for a barbecue before driving back to Kansas City.
We set the time, then, after a few more polite words, hung up. I had forgotten the sound of Tom’s voice, but when I hear it over the phone, I immediately recognized him in it. The dark-haired, sallow-skinned, wiry boy with big ears. My age, yet more capable in any physical endeavor.
Tom lived with his mother and grandmother in a small house up the street from ours. Theirs was a spare and difficult life; they survived on his mother’s income as a waitress at a local greasy spoon. More than once Tom pointed out his father’s name in the phone book, listed under a different address. It seemed that by showing me his burden he might lighten his load. Apparently Tom never knew his father. Many times when I was younger I wanted to call the man to scold him, but I never knew what I wanted to say. And now, though I still don’t know what could be said, the name is no longer in the book.
We were eight when we met. He was to start third grade in the fall at the Lutheran school nearby and I at the Catholic school. Ours was a friendship of proximity at the start. That is the only way I can explain it; our lives were otherwise quite different. He loved sports. I books. He was fit. I was chubby. He was fastidious. I was a slob. He was an only child. I was one of eight. I had a father. He had none.
Yet we became friends, and shared interests grew over time. On our bikes to the mall. Swimming at the Y. He taught me to throw and catch. I introduced him to the Hardy Boys. We each had an aquarium of fish, a dog, and dinner at the other’s house once a week.
Now, all these years later, I had a weekend to prepare myself for dinner at his house again. But his own house this time, not his mother’s. With his wife and children, bringing my own along. And memories, filtered across time and space. Memories thought lost or left behind, now confronted and no less bewildering.
Tom’s present home is not far from where he lived as a boy. It’s within sight of the Lutheran church. I have no trouble picturing him getting married, having his children baptized, and worshipping twice a week there. Of course, he married a woman from the church. Her name is Penny, the same girl I used to talk with when I’d visit Tom’s school for his raucous basketball games. She was simple, demure, and unimpressed by my boyish bragging. She would be perfect for Tom.
Yet girlfriends would come later. Our friendship was forged first, in the pure years of boyhood, when the simplest questions held the deepest meaning and the simplest answers were held as truth.
Most days after school I would dash up the hill to Tom’s house. One afternoon –- we had just started eighth grade a month or so before –- I arrived there to find my fit, cocky, sports-obsessed friend subdued, stranded in his bed in a darkened room. I was soon initiated to the vicious side of irony.
“I’m sick,” he said quietly, without lifting his head from the pillow or giving me a glance. The sheet, so threadbare it was like gauze, was pulled up to his shoulder but folded back neatly just as he liked it.
I could tell it was not simply the usual cold or upset stomach we often shared. This was something of his alone. I slid down the wall and sat on the floor beside his bed, waiting for the few words of explanation that would eventually escape his lips.
“I have some spots on my lungs,” he said. A minute of silence, then, “They took X-rays.”
Nothing else was said that expanded on those few words. There was more conversation, clipped and infrequent. I had my few questions, but they found no answers. Neither of us understood then how the world had changed that afternoon.
He didn’t have any details, but he didn’t need them. No doubter this Thomas; for him it was a sufficient explanation, and he lay unmoving on his bed in strict obedience to a doctor’s declaration that he was unwell. To him my questions were extraneous. Springing from doubt. Doubt of a doctor’s word. Doubt of Tom’s new role. To Tom my doubt was a kind of arrogance. He told me I should pray for him.
I was certain Tom could leap out of bed that moment if he wanted and join me in the sun to toss a ball or ride his bike. His sickness didn’t sound like the kind of thing that could snatch a boy who was seemingly healthy one day and plunge him into a sick bed the next. He was being inconvenient. It was only his respect of elders, who told him he was sick, that bound him to that bed.
I was wrong, of course. I don’t know when the word was first uttered, or by which of us, but cancer is what had struck. Yet I still considered the whole business just a temporary interruption in the flow of our lives.
And at first it was. He did rise from the bed. We returned to many of our former activities, though at a more careful pace. That winter passed, spring came, and I finished the eighth grade, anticipating high school in the fall. Tom was sick much of the time because of his chemotherapy. The morning treatments and the ensuing nausea and chills robbed him of much of the eighth grade. It was no surprise when he gravely announced that he would have to repeat.
Tom lost his hair. This fascinated me. Whole handfuls would come out with each brushing, like over-ripe fruit hanging from a branch, ready to fall with the slightest breeze. I thought that if he stood in a strong wind it would all blow from his head. Now and then I would pluck a hair to reassure myself of this unlikely reality. His objections eventually stopped.
He had been careful about his grooming and liked his hair trimmed neatly. But once it began falling, he apparently saw little need in cutting it. Before it was gone altogether, long wisps flowed from behind his ears, and he looked like an old man.
By early June he was completely bald, but he want with me to the pool one afternoon because, he said, my summer crew cut made us look like a matched set and he wouldn’t feel as self conscious.
We splashed around in the water and swam a little, but Tom tired quickly, and we spent most of our time just sitting in the white wooden chairs set in straight rows, discovering an interest in girls.
As we sat, our eyes closed to the hot sun and the reflections from the water, he whispered to me, “I’ve lost all my hair,” adding after a moment, “All of it.” I remember the sound of a splash then, coming across the water from the deep end when a diver struck it, the squeal of little children, and those words. I opened my eyes and turned to him, but he looked asleep.
This morning before the barbecue, I woke earlier than normal and was short on patience as we packed our luggage. This drive across the state is a tedious one, and because we delayed it to have lunch first, we are now driving into the setting sun.
To break the monotony of the road, I try to imagine Tom and his family at church. Their simple, honest worship –- the faith of survivors –- is alien to me. It’s something I almost envy. I’ve long since liberated myself from superstition and dogma. I’ve come to believe that talk of God and salvation is really no more than something you tell children so they won’t be afraid of the dark. But there are times when I want to escape from the cold, intellectual comfort of disbelief and find a simple, sure still point to grab with both hands.
His faith became his biggest comfort as he grew. The cancer simply confirmed his belief that arrogant science was finally helpless; only Jesus could heal him. Or take him if that was the plan.
The week I was to start high school, the doctors had discovered a lump in Tom’s left arm. His cancer wasn’t arrested but spreading. I understood this, but I was heartened to hear that they could remove the lump with a simple operation.
When Tom returned after three days in the hospital, he had a brilliant red scar on his upper arm. He showed it to me with pride and warning. It was something he had that I didn’t, and at the same time, he seemed to imply, it was something that could strike me too at any moment.
Tom had some good days but mostly bad ones that winter. He returned to chemotherapy and his schooling suffered. By Christmas there was no pretense that he would complete eighth grade that year either.
With the spring he learned that the surgery on his arm had failed. Whatever it was they had hoped to excise has returned. Only this time the treatment would be more radical. He was outwardly resigned at the news, though I think even in his faithful heart there was a storm of confusion, anger, and despair. The doctors were to amputate his left arm.
His sickness, which I could never really grasp, suddenly became real to me. I would float in the pool, where my limbs were weightless, and imagine a void where part of my body had been. Again I was certain that there was a mistake. Tom had an arm that worked perfectly well, no matter what the doctors said. It caught balls, steered his bike, and pulled him through the water. But the doctors were determined to cut it off.
And they did.
“God has a plan for all of us,” he told me when I first saw him at home after the surgery. Even at 14 I understood the comfort that lie offered, and again I didn’t take the challenge. Tom sat in a chair before the TV, which droned without notice. His face was gray; his clothes seemed empty. Immediately I was struck by his lack of proportion.
There was no displaying of his new scar, so I never got to see what was left of his shoulder after this surgery. But I could tell from the droop of his robe that a good piece of him was gone.
Tom became a convalescent. He never really got any better. Nor did he bother to relate for me the latest reports from his doctor. His hair finally returned, but not his spirit. Or rather, his spirit transformed. He had always been religious, but now he kept a Bible on the table beside his chair, and sometimes when I would sit with him in the cool, dark house, he would open it in his lap and labor over the sentences, tracing his finger across the lines.
Soon after that the youth minister of his church was often at Tom’s house when I would come to visit. He thought that since I was Tom’s best friend, the three of us should pray together for God’s guidance and comfort. I submitted once, but when the minister grasped Tom’s hand and mine, I was left with the empty hand that couldn’t complete the circle. I soon learned to recognize the minister’s car.
Through the summer, Tom rarely left his house except to visit his two healers, the church and the doctor. My visits became less frequent as other activities and interests increased. I would return for a rare meal, and I always extended him an invitation to join me in some activity, hoping to entice him our of his dark house with descriptions of the interest that occupied my time. And he always declined, often barely mustering the energy sufficient to say no. Beyond those infrequent dinners, we saw little of each other.
Essentially the friendship ended then. As the sickness overtook him, I found I wanted less to do with him. I rarely saw him, spoke of him infrequently, and eventually let my thoughts be occupied by other people and fresh ambitions. After leaving for college, I’d closed the door on that part of may past.
I couldn’t imagines successfully renewing the friendship now. But once the car was packed this morning and we’d made our good byes to my parents, we drove the few blocks to Tom’s boxy little home on a modest plot near the church.
We were barely out of the car when Tom rose from the ground by a weedy flower bed, waving his hand to greet us. A miracle. A winning battle against the odds; he stood before me.
“Greg, it’s good to see you!” he called with the calm, honest voice I recognized from the phone.
The gap of years had left me unprepared. I was alarmed by his shape, by the empty sleeve pinned neatly to the front of his white shirt, as though I hadn’t known his arm would be gone. Yet I managed to recover from my instant of horror and returned Tom’s greeting with one of my own. I had cautioned my children not to star or ask any questions about Tom’s arm, and they were good. Yet I was unnerved. It was almost as though no one else saw him.
“How are you?” I said automatically, then wondered if it was the wrong question.
“I’m good, Greg.”
Behind him came his wife, Penny, with a cautious smile, and their two children. There was no glint of recognition in her eyes, yet I remembered her.
Introductions went around and we all shook hands, smoothly and easily. Then Tom whistled at our car.
“So how do you like your fancy minivan?” as he stepped in the open door.
“We’re happy with it.”
Tom leaned over the seats, examining the space and the appointments, hefting his weight on his one arm with an ease and agility that surprised me.
“Want to drive it around the block?” I said eagerly, then winced again. Penny stood unmoving outside the minivan, and I feared that my offer had come across as a gross flaunting of supposed wealth. I didn’t even know if Tom could drive a car.
“No, thanks,” he said quickly. “I’ll stick with my Nova. I hear the engines in these things are real hard to work on. I like a big hood with lots of space so I can get around.” I saw Tom’s car sticking out of the back of his garage, and I realized the faded, rusting box was the same brown Nova his mother had bought in a fury of extravagance years ago. Tom had obviously bought it from her, then kept it in repair himself.
Tom stepped out of the van and closed the sliding door with a vigorous tug. He looked surprisingly fit, as he had before the sickness came. His face tanned, hair thick and clipped in the straight bangs he wore as a boy. His clothes hung from his frame as though he wore them merely for modesty with no claim of fashion and little to fit. The short sleeved white shirt was frayed a bit at the tips of the collar, the fabric thinning yet neatly ironed. A sturdy brown belt cinched his black pants at the waist. The right leg was shiny down the right thigh while the left still had a rumor of its original crease.
On his feet were a pair of well polished, black work shoes. Sensible shoes with padded soles and thick black laces. I remembered how meticulous he was about tying his shoes. He could spend five minutes twisting and adjusting the laces, often retying them so the loops were equal length and lay on opposite sides of his insteps. I wondered how a one-armed man tied his shoes. Were loafers too dissolute?
I guessed that he was still in his church clothes from the morning, envisioning a black jacket draped carefully over the back of a chair in the house. On it lay a plain black clip-on tie. Simple. Even ascetic.
The children scurried off together to a far corner of the yard where some toys waited, taking to each other easily.
Tom steered me toward the battered barbecue grill standing near the porch.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said quietly, maybe even honestly. There wasn’t reserve in his voice. Just calm. I couldn’t judge him, and I wondered how he judged me.
“Remember how we used to have dinner together?” he asked.
“I always enjoyed those meals.”
As I stood beside him, and before I realized what was happening, Tom hoisted a bag of charcoal and poured some of it into the grill. The noise startled me.
“I can get this done while the kids are over there,” he said. Then he set down the nearly empty bag, and, after arranging the coals into a black pyramid, produced a box of wooden matches from his pocket. With single-handed deftness he extracted a match and struck it on the edge of the grill. He poked it around the coals, igniting the wads of newspaper waiting there. Then he put the lid on the grill and opened the vents to create a draft. Pallid smoke curled into the sky as the paper was consumed.
The whole while I was ready to help, but I held my words for I didn’t know if it was needed or wanted. Already I felt out of step.
Penny and my wife, Ann, had gone into the house. I could see that the roles in the family were clearly and conventionally drawn. Variations would be considered merely trendy puffery to the rock solid traditions they both honored though Tom never really knew.
“What are your interests these days, Greg?” he asked as we walked to a pair of weary looking lawn chairs in the shade of his giant maple trees and seated ourselves. Not quite facing each other but looking across the yard to our children. The trees were ancient and immense, vaulting over the house, defining the height and whispering in the wind. A pair of crows watched us from above.
“What have you been doing with your life?” he asked.
“Commodity trading,” I said. “Mostly wheat, other grains, sorghum.”
He nodded, I think automatically. Polite, but I suspect he had no idea what I was talking about. I feared he thought I was trying to impress him.
The second fall after he’d lost his arm, my mother would tell me she’d heard that Tom had actually started high school. This was after he’d failed to complete the eighth grade twice. I assumed he was allowed to attend simply to let him feel he was still part of the world. Or perhaps he was just too old by then to return to grade school. After dismissing the news at the time, I’d never considered it again.
The question on my mind as we watched our children play in the dappled shade was what his interests were these days. But as I sat silently, waiting for Tom to bring it up himself, our wives came down the porch steps carry a pitcher of grape Kool-Aid and some mismatched plastic cups.
No sooner had they delivered the drinks to the picnic table than they departed, returning to the house. I could hear my wife exchanging some comments with Penny, though about what I couldn’t tell. I suppose their intent was to let Tom and me “catch up,” and with the kids across the yard and the wives in the house, Tom and I were alone.
“You remember St. John’s Hospital?” he asked.
Of course I did. It was where Tom went regularly for his treatments and where he was carried when everyone was sure the end had arrived. It was a giant research hospital a few miles up the highway, and though he disappeared into it frequently, though he’d spent much of his youth in it, I was never allowed to visit him there. Nor did I want to as I reflect on it.
“I work there now.”
For an instant a chaos of unlikely possibilities rushed into my head. Oncologist? Pediatrician? Chaplain? My lack of contact with Tom allowed my imagination a ridiculous range.
“I operate the main toll gate for the parking lot,” he said. The offhandedly, “They want to promote me to shift supervisor, but I don’t know. I like it the way it is now.”
Relieved, my mind raced to fill in the blanks. A job a one-armed man could do. A job close to emergency care. A sinecure for one who had no ambition, no prospects, and no possible way to pay for the monument of medical bills that marked his life.
“So you decide who passes and who doesn’t,” I offered as a jest.
And he laughed. “Something like that. I’ve been doing it forever. Seems like it anyway. But I don’t mind.”
I could understand better now why he claimed to prefer the old brown Nova to carry him around. I realized that he would always live in this same house. He had no expectations of a more prosperous life. No illusions. But I sensed this was his paradise anyway. He had contentment.
And it seemed pleasing in its humble way. The trees swayed and sighed in the breeze. Children’s laughter drifted across the lawn. His house was old but sturdy, unlike the new one I’d had built that seemed determined to shake itself to pieces faster than I could come up with solutions.
“Let me pour you a drink,” he said, rising from his chair and crossing to the old card table that served as our picnic table.
“Thanks,” I said, and then I stiffened as I thought of a one-armed man handling a cup and pitcher. Yet he poured the purple Kool-Aid effortlessly. And when he was finished he brought the cup to his lips for a sip.
“Wanted to make sure it was mixed good,” he said as he passed the cup to me with a smile.
Tom poured himself a cup and joined me in the chairs. The drink had an aftertaste I didn’t care for, but I drank it as I thought I politely should. When it was half empty, I stopped. Tom sipped his infrequently.
“What have you been doing all of these years?” he said, still half facing me.
“Ah, wasting my time.” What account could I give him that seemed least foolish? Lackluster pursuit of ultimately unsatisfying possessions? Getting myself saddled with a career I despised when I dared to be honest? Bitterly cultivating studied agnosticism in reaction to a belief system that failed to interest me? Abandoning my past, my friends, my parents, my siblings? Each account seemed true enough. Damning enough.
Tom sat patiently, waiting for me to continue, or perhaps to begin.
“I kind of stumbled through college, not really knowing what I wanted to study. And then finding myself with a degree in economics after four years. After that came Ann and the kids. Then an MBA I just finished. Before it finished me.”
I realized then that even if we had not lost contact, we would have grown apart.
“Master’s degree in business administration. Sounds impressive, but mostly it’s just so I can keep afloat in my job.”
Would Tom have completed high school? After his freshman year he was stricken with the complete relapse that I was cautioned was the end. But certainly he must have achieved some education if he now ran a toll gate and was responsible for a cash drawer. Maybe a GED?
“Futures is the big deal in Kansas City.” That was my one pun, and I paused for his chuckle. But none came. “Seemed natural that I would fall into it.”
“I’m sorry. Futures?”
“Dealing in people’s hopes and fears. I sell the harvest before the farmer even sows the seed.”
“Oh. Sounds complicated.”
Seems there was nothing I could say to explain myself adequately. Yet we were different people. We had grown in different directions.
Before I could stumble any further, Penny and Ann came down the porch steps with the food.
“Cooking time,” Tom said, rising from his chair and finishing the last of his Kool-Aid.
Tom opened the lid of the barbecue and knocked down the glowing pyramid of coals with a stick. Then he put the grill on as Penny opened the package of hot dogs.
Ann joined me and offered an enigmatic smile, I suppose to express her impressions of Penny, but I failed to catch her meaning.
“What can I do to help?” I asked, perhaps saying something sensible for the first time.
“Nothing now,” Tom said as he poked with a fork the dogs over the flames. “I’m pretty good at the grill. Just enjoy the breeze while it lasts.”
The breeze did make a difference. St. Louis summers were always miserable, mostly from the humidity. I can remember visiting Tom in his house when he was sick. It was shaded by trees and stayed cool even in the summer. Though neither of our families had air conditioning, Tom’s mother had found the perfect arrangement of open windows to keep a cool draft coursing through their home. Often, when Tom was too weak or distracted to talk, I would simply sit in his dark house and enjoy the escape from the heat. If I left the impression of being a steadfast friend as well, that was fine.
“How do your kids like their hot dogs? I can burn them.”
I turned to refer the question to Ann but found that she and Penny had drifted over to where the children were playing.
“Uh, rare, I think.” They would often eat hot dogs right out of the package. “Don’t burn them, please. The kids won’t touch them at all.”
“Can do,” he said as he set down the fork. Tom reached for the package of buns, but I interceded.
“Let me do something,” I said in feigned objection. I arranged the buns on the plates so Tom could drop a dog in each one.
Yet when he tried, the buns would not open. Tom pushed the hot dog against the unyielding bread, but he could not find the split.
Thinking I had placed the buns bottom up on the plate, I quickly grabbed one and examined it. The problem was that these buns were never split. They were a brand a didn’t recognize, and I assumed Tom’s grocery budget called for economizing wherever possible. Probably Penny bought these to save money and would cut them open when she was ready to use them.
“Here,” I said as Tom temporarily retreated with the hot dog. “Let me split these somehow before the hot dogs burn to ashes.”
Using my two thumbnails, I managed to tear a trench in each bun that would have to serve.
Meanwhile, Tom was busy rolling the hot dogs across the grill, away from the spread of glowing coals.
“Try this,” I said, bringing a plate over to him. “This ought to do.”
“Just in time,” Tom said, forking a blistering dog and dropping it into the bun.
The heat from the grill was intense, and I backed off involuntarily. Tom still stood beside it, marshalling the hot dogs and awaiting more buns to deliver them from the flames.
I hurried over with a plate in each hand, and Tom quickly served up two more. Soon we had all eight hot dogs off the fire, and Tom was busy closing the vents to snuff the coals.
“Team work,” he said happily, joining me at the table where the food waited. A bag of chips, mustard, ketchup, and some relish were collected there.
Sweat rolled down Tom’s forehead, and I realized how hot it must have been for him hanging over the fire.
“Here, let me pour you some more Kool-Aid,” I said. “You look a little charred yourself.”
“Oh, no,” he objected. “Save it for the kids. It’s all we have, I think.”
“Well then, drink mine,” I said, thrusting my half empty cup toward him.
“Thanks,” he said with the same voice I’d heard on the phone. I turned to call our wives and children to join us.
Ann is now asleep in the seat beside me. In the back, the kids are bent over their pillows, the droning miles of the highway having carried them off to sleep as well. I wonder what they are dreaming as I blink at the sun and rub my watering eyes, knowing the trip will end eventually.
Tom’s mother once related to me his last trip to the hospital. He’d been getting worse through the year he turned fifteen.
The doctors had told her that she should prepare for the worst, probably only in a few months. This was passed on to all of us who knew him.
One night she was awakened by the sound of his labored breathing. She found him in his room, on the cold tile floor, the bed sheet coiled tightly around his legs. He didn’t have sufficient strength to drag himself back into bed. His skin was gray and puffy to the touch. His eyes were vacant. He didn’t recognize her and could only moan responses to her frantic questions.
A neighbor took them to the hospital. Apparently he grew more lucid there for she told me that he turned to her and said, “The only thing I want now is to go to Heaven.”
That was fifteen years ago. What does a fifteen-year-old boy really think about when he believes he is going to die?
When we left my parent’s house this afternoon, we drove past the Lutheran church on a short cut to the highway. Beside it was the church cemetery, which started me thinking about Tom. I thought I had outrun the memory.
I had abandoned him. I think I realized it then. I certainly see it now. I didn’t want to face his sickness. I didn’t want anything to change. If it wasn’t to be on my terms, I wasn’t going to accept it at all. I would simply cut it off, cleanly and coldly. Then be on my way. What must he have thought?
If there are ghosts, this is the one that haunts me. How can there be forgiveness? What is the judgment that awaits me? What penance? Will I be passed, or will I be denied?
No breaking of bread, no matter how contrived or heartfelt, no rationalization can heal the wound. Forgiveness will not come from an imagined future of simple living. That is not where his contentment truly lies. That is not how this uneasy memory is to be settled.
She told me his head nodded after he voiced his hope. And then he died.
He’s been gone now for exactly as long as he was alive. It’s the summer of an anniversary perhaps only I realize. And what still remains is probably what will always remain.
We were different, he and I. Tom had dreams, and they were denied. I had dreams, and they were granted. He had faith. I had doubt. He has peace. I have struggle. He was missing an arm, yet he was whole. I have a whole body, yet I think I am lacking a soul.