Catching up with Tom
When I was a little boy, I had an imaginary friend named Tom. Having the advantage of imaginariness, Tom took many forms. Sometimes he resembled Jack Kennedy, our nation's sexiest president and a man whose eyes eerily followed you around the living room in the picture my parents hung on the wall across from the Pope, whose eyes also moved. Other times Tom resembled Santa Claus or St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson; once in awhile he bore an uncanny resemblance to TV sing-along man Mitch Miller.
Tom was married to my big sister's imaginary friend, Sue. Tom and Sue were the imaginary parents of my little sister's imaginary friend, Anthea. Together, the six of us would all ride our bikes to the park, where we'd spend lazy days swimming in the pool or playing our favorite game, which was trying to get Anthea going so high in the swing that it would hurl her into the brick wall of the shelter house, against which her head would split open, whereupon Tom — did I mention he was also a doctor? — would stitch Anthea back together. On those rare occasions when Anthea's injuries were too extensive, Tom — who was also a priest — would administer last rites. This always made my little sister cry until we told her to simply imagine a new Anthea.
I thought about Tom the other day during a rare moment of boredom. Because I have kids, I don't get bored. The last time I remember being bored was in 1986, before my kids were born and after Reagan's dementia had begun to really show, so my outrage had become softened somewhat by sympathy.
After all those years, boredom was quite an unexpected feeling. It took me back to the languorous days of my childhood, when imagination could turn hours into seconds or a tricycle into a rocket ship or, later, Cindy Whittaker in third period English class into ... naked Cindy Whittaker in third period English class. It makes me want to weep for today's kids, who have had imagination robbed from them by TV, instant messaging, video games, virtual reality, digital music, video iPods, soft porn on television, growth hormones, steroids, Crest Whitestrips, Photoshop and cosmetic surgery.
Of course, the only problem with boredom ... is that it's boring. So I summoned Tom. I figured, What the hell?
It was great seeing him again after all these years. He looked handsome. Fit and charming but slightly wizened, sort of like Steve Martin, if Steve Martin had Neil Young's unhinged eyes. We caught up and exchanged a bit of good-natured ribbing. He said he always knew I'd turn out to be a liberal because I wet the bed and sucked my thumb well past the age when such behavior is socially acceptable. I reminded him that with a blink of my eyes, he could spend the rest of his life working for social justice and listening to NPR. God, it was just like old times.
It turns out he and Sue still live in my hometown, where they work part-time as imaginary friends to patients in the local nursing home, Irritable Corridors. Anthea is all grown up now and living in Antwerp, where she's the imaginary friend of the president of a labor union representing the workers in a socially responsible diamond-cutting factory.
A lot had happened to Tom since we parted ways back on that day when I was all alone and thinking about Cindy Whittaker and he barged in on me, and I had to banish him from my life.
During a brief separation from Sue, Tom hitchhiked across America, earning money by performing the role of Henry David Thoreau in a long-running musical version of On Civil Disobedience in a traveling dinner theater. When the company closed its tour in Washington, DC, he hired on with the CIA as an undercover spy, which was easy at first because he's invisible to everybody except me. But CIA work proved too exacting for Tom's freethinking ways and he missed Sue desperately. After he promised to soften his personality by reducing his emphasis on the Lennon hemisphere of his brain in favor of the McCartney side, she agreed to give him another go.
Back home, Tom got hooked on computers and began corresponding with a young hobbyist about a computer program called BASIC but decided not to pursue it professionally because A) it didn't seem like it would ever become a viable business; and B) he didn't want to become — quote — "nerdy enough to scare the serifs off a Palatino manuscript of The Mark of the Beast." It was one of his few mistakes.
Instead, Tom tried his hand at writing. He penned a marginally successful novel — a science-fiction morality play about an everyman named Jim who overcomes his youthful bedwetting and thumbsucking to become the world's first liberal commodities baron, speculating in the lucrative nonpareil and ganache markets of the 1980s. (Perhaps you've read it: Candyass Capitalist?) A famous Hollywood producer recovering from conscience transplant surgery optioned the movie rights but the project never got off the ground because the producer died when his body rejected the new scruples.
Despite the setback, the movie rights paid handsomely, and Tom soon found himself awash in luxury-priced sobriety alternatives. Once, during a vision quest on a mountaintop sweat lodge in the Sierra Madres, he imbibed a half carafe of liquid mescaline and spent the next 72 hours rapping with Kierkegaard and Confucius over the problem of reconciliation in the nuclear age, only to come down from the buzz and discover that both philosophers had merely been his own knees.
Crawling out of the fetal position, he swore off chemicals forever and began a strict diet of organic seitan and miso, while restricting his inebriation to single malt Scotch, the occasional Ginjo sake bong, and the historical fiction of Newt Gingrich.
The Gingrich-dabbling led him to neoconservative politics, but he found its tenets too greed-centric and bigoted, so he returned to his first philosophical grounding, transcendental feudalism. This led him naturally to Wal-Mart, where he invented the profession of Extreme Greeter. As usual, Tom was ahead of his time: Wal-Mart dismissed him for practicing creativity on company time, but not before curiously giving him a going-away gift of a Remington 30-aught six semiautomatic rifle, which apparently in America is given to all workers who can't hold down a job at Wal-Mart. Being familiar with Checkov's famous rule that if you introduce a gun into a story you must fire it, Tom immediately unloaded the Remington into the bowels of an annoying co-worker, Randy Schmitter, who was — praise the Lord — also imaginary.
Down on his luck and unemployed, Tom turned to religion — a secret sect of Morey Amsterdam worshippers who interpret the Dick Van Dyke show literally. Through the support of his faith, Tom made a comeback and he and Sue eventually parlayed a small inheritance of Sue's into a successful chain of specialty stores called "Just Shingles," which caters to the suburban sprawl and herpes-virus-remedy markets.
It was at this point in his story that Tom stopped himself with a blush, turned to me and said, "Enough about me. What have you been up to all these years?"
"Oh," I said. "You know. Same ol' same ol."
"How's your sister Mary? Did she ever get her nose out of all those books or turn off that ridiculous 'Galloping Gourmet?' What a total waste of time!"
"Actually, that stuff came in handy," I said. "She wrote a novel. The Triangle Pose. You should buy a copy today! It also makes a great holiday gift!"
"I'll do that. So anyway," he said, "One day Keith Richards called me and said he needed an imaginary friend for the Stones' North American tour..?"
Tom went on and on. And as great as it was to see him again, he was beginning to get on my nerves a little bit. He seemed more self-absorbed than I remembered. And, frankly, some of his stories seemed a little bit implausible. So I snapped my fingers and just like that he was gone.
And really, what more can you ask for in a friend?
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Portions of this essay originally appeared in Louisville Magazine.
Jim Welp writes the "What A Week" column for Louisville alt-weekly LEO and contributes to Louisville Magazine. By day, he's the director of electronic communications at Bellarmine University.