I once knew Tom but I wouldn’t say well. Our paths crossed first in grade school where we joined a class of small town kids growing up Catholic in the fifties. The girls wore drab blue uniforms and the boys donned neckties. The nuns did their best to share their limited grasp on math, reading and, most importantly, the love and wrath of God.
None of us took the catholic strictures too seriously as we tore around the dusty playground or chattered aimlessly together as we lined up in the dark brick basement hallways painted in glossy grey while waiting to use the lavatory. As each boy emerged from the dank bathroom trailed by the overpowering whiff of disinfectant another would lurch through the arched portal to do his duties. I’m sure that in those formative times none of us, twitching and laughing to the annoyance of the good sisters, really were able or even ready to absorb the significance of the world defined by our teachers and their parish priest overseers. Although the word “soul” was liberally tossed about in our instruction it had the same significance as words like “assumption” or “eternal damnation”. We thought those terms fit right in with other laughers like “spontaneous combustion” or “immaculate conception”
But upon reflection perhaps a few of my classmates were more prescient in these matters. Maybe one or two heard the reproach of the sister, together with her smell – vaguely of dirty socks – and the rattle of the beads hanging from her waist and maybe recognized in that magical sensory amalgam a foretelling of weighty matters yet to come. If anyone it was Tom’s eyes that narrowed at certain moments. It was he that froze his gaze momentarily on a treetop arching over the school steps or lingered intently on the map hung to illustrate far off lands we would probably never know more intimately then at that moment.
Years of our youth passed in that remarkable way when time is nothing and yet is everything. I remember vividly how we beseeched all the gods known and unknown to bring us the blessed first day of summer vacation. Soon enough we were looking for any device to slow down the passage of the last days of August. I know Tom felt this way. We all did but, in fact our paths increasingly diverged. Originally we were pals and rode bikes, played Red Rover and went to Saturday matinees together. Later my interest in sports drew me to a different crowd and I would only see him at church – his family was more devote than most – and at the library. He wasn’t really smarter I don’t think but surely more serious than most. In fact at one point it was rumored that he might consider becoming a priest. Our slang was tame back in those days but most of his classmates considered this a freaky notion and helped to set him further apart. It may have been at around this time that we were preparing for college and more weighty topics were competing with our adolescent fascinations in our heads.
It was a freshmen survey course on religion that prompted my reconsideration of the notion introduced in grade school; soul. Despite the confusing confluence of academia and popular culture – “The Godfather of Soul”, “Soultrain” and the most beautiful “Soul Sisters” – I felt I had a rudimentary understanding of the word. I stood assuming I had a soul since at that moment in my development I had not discarded the effects of my childhood catechism. That would come later. But it was then that my thoughts went to my old friend Tom. I was suddenly sure that his long gazes were somehow connected to his soul awareness. I wondered what that was like and what it would mean for his life.
As these things go this story was a little slow in playing out. It wasn’t until more than 40 years later when, stuck for hours in a weather delay at O’Hare, our paths once more crossed. After the surprise of the initial meeting and the whirlwind catch-up talk came to a close we were already into our third pour (me a beer, Tom bourbon) the pace of our give and take slowed and we made allowances for more reflection. High on our bar stools we discreetly took stock of each other. I like to think my regimen of exercise and devotion to fitness has served me well. For Tom the years had taken a toll. Crow’s feet, jowls, thinning hair and a distinct paunch were evident even under his rumpled corduroy jacket and billowing flannel shirt.
As time passed the conversation flagged but all along I had been scanning his eyes for that astute, alert, aware look from so long ago. Had it never existed? Had I been so wrong? Finally I screwed up my courage and broached the topic head-on; Tom, what about your soul?
The silence that followed left me embarrassed and feeling foolish. Finally he signaled to the bartended for one more round. I was already way passed my puritanical limits for alcohol but how could I deny him as he prepared to enter what is clearly a painful portal of his own making. Here is what he said next:
“I always had a plan, a path, a course. Most didn’t know that about me and I understand why. My plans were never well marked, my navigation was never plotted on a map. For me it was always an inner compass that was at work. Perhaps this is what you are calling a soul. For me it was a clarity and a certainty that I would be true. If true then surely I would come through perfectly. Can you imagine, I really thought that: perfectly.
Well, you know I have now been walking the planet for over 60 years. It seems that along the way the perfect fell victim to another something else. Not sure what word describes that something but I am laboring hard to understand what it is and why it has come to be and how I feel about it all.
Weird. Recently I climbed into my old two-seater to run an errand. It took several tries to fire up and I realized that I was extremely low on fuel. Fumes low. You see my internal voice says why waste time, refuel as seldom as necessary. Fucking internal voices I cursed! So I head out to the filling station. Two thirds there and it starts to sputter. Don’t quit I scream! She lurches back to life and the exhaust lets out a cry of ragged determination and soon the station is just across the street. But I’m stuck at a red light and the engine dies! Shit I shout! I mean I wanted this to perfect. One more turn of the key, then I ram it in gear and lurch across the intersection to the waiting pumps. Sweet Jesus I’m alive with adrenalin! Body and soul I’m alive! It really felt right”
With this last rush of words Tom tips and empties his glass, steps off his stool and concludes: “So that’s the story my friend. Not so profound, eh? My soul is really a bent and broken and misplaced compass? My existence was marked at that moment by a car ride? Well, I guess yes.”
As I said from the start I didn’t really know Tom all that well.