A letter to Tom

Dear Tom,

Here is a line I wrote down a few weeks ago: “You were like a big city to me.” I was at the Ritz in London when I came up with that, reading a book called Machine Dreams and drinking champagne with gold flecks gathered at the bottom of the flute. It was nighttime and the bar was dim and I was alone and wearing a new scarf. Which is to say that I was happy. I drank a few more glasses of that champagne, and as the room and my cheeks took on the according glow, I wondered if I had ever known someone who made me feel that way. Like a big city, I mean.

You’d laugh if I told you that you were the big city, with your stories that stretched on as long as the West Side Highway or the Verrazano at rush hour. “The big city! Who, Tom Dudley?” you’d say. How silly. You’d lived in White Sulphur Springs all your life. You were in your mid-seventies now, still coaching the basketball team. You went to church and shopped at the Food Lion. You were happily divorced (your words, not mine). The cancer had taken half your weight but you wore it like it was your idea to begin with—your baseball cap, your t-shirt tucked into blue jeans. These things were all true, you’d say, but a big city? Let’s be serious.

The first time I met you was last summer in a booth at the Route 60 grill, right there on East Main. I think Carolyn at City Hall had given me your number, said you’d be a good person to talk to about the flood. You’d lived in Mill Hill and lost your home. So I called, and you picked up. Within ten minutes there you were in the doorway. You walked over casually, easily, like life was too short to be wary of strangers.

I wish I remembered what you said when you sat down. Of course I wish I remembered everything.

Here is something I do remember: getting into a yellow cab on a bright March day five years ago. I always got nervous those first few visits to New York, especially in taxis. I’d try to voice an exact street address. What’s the cross street? the driver would grumble. My neck would burn with hives, because of course I never knew. But on that March day I did know: 77th between West End and Riverside, please. And off we went. I couldn’t help but laugh. The driver looked terrifically confused, and I caught him more than once studying my unfading smile in the rearview mirror. It’s true—I didn’t stop smiling on that ride. I think what it was, really, was that when the driver knew where I was going, understood my directions as valid and real, I felt for the first time that I knew where I was going, too.

Which is sentimental and overwrought and doesn’t make much sense, I know. I can hear you: Stop complicating things. But how else do I explain it, Tom? There was so much darkness during the months I knew you; deaths and angry phone calls and bad choices past midnight. But all that dissolved in our little booth at Route 60, the same one each time, where I’d drink coffee and you, in your thick honeyed voice, would tell me about your daughter and Germany and the old baseball team and how worrying was silly, all of it, always. Talking to you was like the upstairs bench at the Strand, like the honeycombed glass of the Hearst building and the sound of water lapping the edge of Brooklyn Heights. You—your stories, your laughter, your cursing—were the dizziness and chaos of the big city. That much was easy to see. But the best part was that you gave me a peace like cross streets.

Tom, when God took you back in March, I cried like nobody’s business. One of those ugly, heaving cries in the middle of the office. I batted away what I knew you’d tell me: Well, that’s how it goes. You gotta dust yourself off and move on. I was mad at you, too. You told me you’d send a picture of you holding the stuff I gave you—the Alabama ball cap and football, both signed by Nick Saban—but you never did. I know: I checked my mailbox every day. So that March afternoon I became doubly mad: how’re you gonna forget the photograph and then go away altogether? How’re you gonna do that, Tom?

You were like a big city to me, where people rush on by, where there is never enough time.

See you someday,