Sounds of Silence

by Sascha Fink

Sneaking into Tom’s trailer was hard; the door clicked no matter how gently I closed it, and it was audible from every area. Despite the soft click, when I first arrived I walked softly, unsure if he was sleeping or not. Tom sat with his back toward me facing his computer. He was not sleeping.

The air was hot in Tom’s trailer. The shiny exterior was supposed to reflect the rays of the sun, but instead made it feel more like an oven. I wasn’t there for more than two minutes before I began to sweat. The moment I stepped inside, the temperature jumped fifteen degrees. It was the temperature concerned me most; I wondered how a human could live in conditions like that. Each time I visited Tom to drop off fresh groceries, I walked through his house and wrenched open the windows that were not rusted shut. Today there was a breeze. It wasn’t strong, but it was there.

Tom was drenched in sweat. There were big circles of sweat under his arms and a circular sweat pattern on his back. His body odor was dense and stuck to the lining inside my nostrils. The personal stench mixed with the overpowering reek of day old scrambled eggs and the decaying Buffalo wings sitting in a small pool of water in the kitchen sink was toxic. Not long after I moved into the belly of the tin box, I felt weak, but once the noxious air shifted a bit with the hot air that blew in from the windows it was better.

Tom squirmed in his torn and broken desk chair, but never turned toward me. His eyes were focused intently on the images on his computer screen. I cringed when he shifted again, revealing a portion of what was keeping his attention. When Tom heard my car pull onto the gravel space next to his trailer, he put movies on his computer that offended me. He did it on purpose of course, knowing how much movies like The Human Centipede nauseated me. Often it was pornography. Something deep down inside told me he wanted me to be horrified and he wanted me to hate him, but I knew him too well and for too long to despise him. Pity? Yes, but I couldn’t hate Tom no matter how hard he tried to make me.

I put his groceries away in the cabinets and refrigerator, which, surprisingly, were always neat. The rest of his house wasn’t as fortunate. I never understood the reason why certain areas in his trailer were disasters and why some areas were tidy. Something in Tom’s head assigned strange values to his possessions, values which I neither shared, nor could impress upon him. The coffee table was littered with music magazines, and mirrors with a light dusting of white powder. Individual dollar bills that could have been used to buy a bit of dignity were, instead, rolled up and caked with cocaine. I resisted the urge to pick up the mirrors and rinse them off. A few years ago I washed Tom’s mirrors, and he refused to let me in for three months, locking his doors and barricading himself inside. Even though the residue was not enough to get Tom high, I think it was a reminder of the numbness he experienced on a daily basis.

The bookshelves were always a disaster but were an essential window through which Tom’s magnificent past could be seen. Homer, Paine, Voltaire, Pratchett, and Gaiman. He had books on the Battle of Thermopolyae, and the Prussian Wars in the time of Catherine the Great; his shelf was the history of man in printed form. The books by Tolkien, Rousseau, and Josephus lay dog-eared and tattered, remnants from a past when Tom derived pleasure from things other than drug highs.

Knowledge used to be his addiction, but it was that very addiction that ruined him. He had no control. Tom devoured ideas, and when he was no longer fulfilled by words, he sought to expand his mind through spirituality. But it still wasn’t enough. Tom used drugs to expand his mind further, but needed alcohol to temper the intensity of the thoughts. And one night, when he was numb, he decided to try and calm his thoughts further and got into a car with the intent to seek enlightenment at the beach three miles away. The crash didn’t kill him, cracking his skull open instead. It would have been kinder if it the crash had killed him.

Tom’s library was extraordinary. Somehow he made the bulk of books fit into the small space of his trailer. But since he didn’t read anymore, I always wondered why he didn’t pack most of the books away. Sometime later, I thought that might be the last connection he had to the life that slipped away from him. Borrowing his books now and again was something I was guilty of. I would take one that interested me and return it a few weeks later. Someone needed to read and re-read them instead of letting them lay dormant. I didn’t think he ever knew or cared that I borrowed his books. They were the past, just like I seemed to be.

Under the deep layer of dust lay scattered pieces of Tom’s life shoved angrily in the spaces not otherwise occupied by his books. There were old photographs of Tom and author Hunter S. Thompson at a bar in Nevada, and Anne Rice at one of her coven parties. The photos were yellowed and bent and lay next to a small container of sand he snuck past customs from his trip to Egypt. Tom spent time on the road, he howled, he rose, he was wrathful, he searched for meaning, he was civil and disobedient, and he shrugged.

Buried deeply under a stack of Playboy magazines, the edge of a book peaked out at me. I was surprised I hadn’t seen it all the times I rooted around his books. The title on the broken spine was peeled, but I could still read the words: Catch-22. I smiled. Fanning through the pages, I saw all of Tom’s notes, tabs, and dog eared pages. I stopped to read a few notations and realized that in the margins, Tom wrote down some of my thoughts. Many years ago when Tom’s mind had yet to be clouded by chemicals and broken by a glass windshield, we sat sipping tea and espresso, discussing John Yossarian. Tom’s spirit was gone, and I wondered if Tom and Yossarian now agreed that man was simply garbage.

Those were the days when he was a student at the University, and I was at home nurturing a child without a husband and with no prospect of a life befitting my appetite for knowledge. Tom went to school for the both of us. Instead of selling textbooks back to the bookstore, he gave them to me. He always made a copy of his lecture notes and passed them on. Everything that entered his brain was shared. I inhaled all of the facts and ideas, and when I went to college years later I was prepared. I sailed through school effortlessly, often checking back to the notes that I carefully preserved for nearly ten years.

Tugging on the book gently, I freed the precious memory from its tomb. It was a symbol of better times; times when the only thing that mattered was the latest Avant Garde magazine, a badly written poem filled with vulgar ideas, or foreign language film. Happiness for Tom was being misunderstood because he was too intelligent.

“Please leave that one alone,” he said, his voice strong. I looked through the doorway and could see him leaning over the back of the desk chair facing me. The bodies on the screen of the computer were still. He had placed it on pause, perhaps for my sake, or perhaps to indicate his seriousness.

“You have your own copy. You don’t take mine. I gave you my thoughts. Too many things in there. Too many things. Too many things. Ideas. Ideas. They were my ideas.” Tom put his finger to his head and tapped it on his forehead multiple times. His hand trembled, but he had to show me where the thoughts were. He remembered something about his life, and he knew I borrowed his books. I blew the dust off the top of the book, and carefully slid it back onto the shelf. That made me happy.

“So Tom, can we talk today?” I asked. I already knew the answer, but I tried to tempt him. “I finished the book you told me to read,” I continued, “Do you remember the list?” I waited a moment, but no answer was forthcoming. “Tom, I read Malthus. Do you remember asking me to read it?” I sighed and dropped my head. He asked me to read it six years ago, before his accident. Inside my journal was a battered and beaten piece of paper folded far too many times, the ink faded and smudged. In his horrendous handwriting, Tom wrote down a list of 150 books he thought I should read before I died. Every time I read a book on the list I asked Tom if he remembered telling me to read it. He never answered.

Tom turned back toward the computer screen and started the movie again. He turned up the sound. Chainsaws and screaming. This was the way Tom told me it was time to go. Tom ran his fingers through is greasy hair and wiped his hand on the leg of his dark blue boxer shorts. Filth was caked under his fingernails.

While I was there I cleaned. I pulled the plug in the sink and drained the rancid water. Within moments the smell in the trailer improved. Looking at the debris in the sink I could see that Tom had been eating. Many of my visits were nothing more than an excuse to see if he was taking care of himself. From the mess in the kitchen I could tell that Tom had cooked recently even if he had not had a shower in many days, and I spied uneaten crust from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that weren’t quite stale; perhaps it was the day’s lunch eaten shortly before I arrived. I could hope. The milk in one of his plastic mugs hadn’t congealed yet which was also a good sign. In the type of heat in his trailer, milk wouldn’t stay liquid for more than an hour.  

After cleaning the dishes and taking out the garbage, I checked Tom’s prescription bottles. Counting back the days from the date filled and the amount of pills still in the bottle, I could tell it had been about a week since Tom took his propranolol and far too long since he took his anti-seizure medication. The propranolol handled his tremors, and the aggressive behavior which resulted from the brain injury and from drug use. His seizures were less frequent than they had been right after the accident, but the doctors were cautious. He usually never went more than two weeks before he realized that he couldn’t live anymore without his meds. This was his dance: The Tango de la Tom. There was nothing I could do if he refused to take his meds. Calling him, keeping an eye on his enigmatic status updates on Facebook, and visiting more than usual was the only recourse.

Wiping my hands on a dishrag, I walked back into the office. It was tempting to run my fingers through his hair lovingly. I tried but he jerked his head away, still focused on his movie. Sometimes he let me give him a kiss on the cheek accompanied by a lingering hug. He never hugged back, but I pretended he did. Sometimes, like today, I couldn’t touch him at all.

I didn’t say goodbye. I never said goodbye. If I said goodbye, Tom might think I wasn’t coming back. He knew I was going, and I hoped that deep down inside he was sad that he would not see me for a few days, a week at the most. Tom had no one else. I was his last friend. He pushed everyone else away. Sometimes you know what goes on in someone’s heart, and I suspected he was embarrassed that he wasn’t Tom anymore, and didn’t want anyone to see him as a walking corpse. To me he wasn’t a walking corpse. The thoughts were all inside his silent mind. What a horror it must be to know what you were like before through the lens of what you are like now, realizing that it can never be changed.

I got into my car and started the engine. The air conditioner quickly cooled the inside of the car, and I began to feel better, less faint. Looking up at the windows once more I saw Tom peeking out. When our eyes met he disappeared. I’d be back whether he liked it or not, and I know he liked it. Since the accident, Tom has a darkness inside; it is the darkness of a mind that has memories of the past and can almost reach out and touch before they disappear. It is a mind shrouded in darkness and silence that once drank in the light and sung the songs of life. I can see that in his eyes when I talk to him; he doesn’t have to tell me with words. One day I hope he can catch one of those memories and for a moment and break through the silence.



Last Updated: 4/8/13