Tommy is about 25 years old and still looks like the all-American college boy. He's just bought a modest two-bedroom bungalow in Menlo Park, not a bad start for a kid.
Yes, Tommy's a kid in my mind. He was born a few years after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The draft, the war in Vietnam are just history to him, something old people argue about — old folks like me, age 45. It's January, 1993.
Tommy's got rumpled hair, a pin-striped shirt, a briefcase, and jogging shoes. Dimples. A winning smile. He could star in a movie as the romantic interest of Julia Roberts. Tommy would play the good "friend" who she doesn't recognize as she throws herself at one bastard after another until finally she realizes…
I'm there because Isabella, my favorite decorator, is revamping Tommy's house. I'm installing new lights in every room, which requires an entire day of my crawling through his insulated attic wrestling with dust and Romex cable.
I have a bulbously infected finger that sends pain up my entire arm as I crawl.
After work I go straight to my daughter's high school where she is performing in a dance recital. She's the scholarship kid at a wealthy private school. In the audience, among the captains of industry, I'm the scholarship dad with gypsum dust on my blue jeans and fiberglass wool woven into my hair.
Back home, with a needle I pop my finger — and all the aches and stiffness go away not just from the finger but also from my entire body. Interesting.
The next day I arrive at Tommy's house at 8 a.m. and Isabella lets me in. Tommy sleeps until 9, makes himself a cup of coffee, and hands me a pair of white slippers. "You have to wear these in the house," he says. "Leave your shoes at the door."
"I'm sorry," I say. "Did I make a mess?"
"No. Nothing like that. My wife called from Japan and told me to tell you to wear them. It's a Japanese thing. She's Japanese."
"Okay. No problem."
"The Japanese are insane about dirt. In fact they're insane about everything."
"Um…" I don't know what to say. He's talking about his wife. Can this marriage be saved? He's also talking about several of my friends and also my brother-in-law and my three half-Japanese nieces, all wonderful people.
"Okay, Tommy," Isabella breaks in. "I'll make sure he wears the slippers."
Isabella, I notice, is barefoot.
Tommy goes to work. The sink is full of dirty dishes.
"Have you met his wife?" I ask.
"No," Isabella says. "I'm decorating her house, and I've never seen her."
"Who does the dishes?"
Isabella laughs. "I'm not going there," she says.
I work a 10 hour day wearing white slippers.
Isabella says Tommy designs computer games.
"Sorcery? Fighting crime? Does he do warfare?"
"Sanitized war," Isabella whispers. She tells me that Tommy has just joined a new company. "The house was a stretch. Money's a little tight." She whispers although we're alone, as if she thinks the house is bugged. (And maybe it is — working in the Silicon Valley, I always assume my every move may be recorded on somebody's hidden camera.)
On Tommy's desk I notice a sketch pad full of fantasy figure combat drawings with circles that — I'm guessing — indicate where software buttons will be placed. A man's arm pierced by a knife; a button on his ring finger with the notation: ESCAPE. No blood whatsoever.
After work I check messages and learn that my daughter is stranded at school where our junker car broke down, so I swing by and pick her up. She's just completed another dance recital and is still wearing her leotard and glittery makeup. In the front seat of my old truck, she shines like a comet as we drive up the dark mountain road.
I'm expecting the next work day to be short, just a few details to clean up, but Isabella meets me at the door with a whole new plan for the kitchen. Tommy's listening, fixing coffee. I say, "It'll cost another three hundred dollars." I smile at Tommy and say jokingly, "But with stock options you'll soon be a millionaire, right?"
Seriously, Tommy nods. "Uh huh." And he's out the door.
Isabella is glaring at me. "What are you doing?" she asks.
"I was just joking."
"Never talk about that. It's bad manners."
"Sorry. Does he really have stock options?"
"Of course. He'll make jillions."
That night I go to a party, a gathering of my friends and neighbors in La Honda. To my surprise, my little infected finger draws a lot of interest. Today it's bright red. A circle gathers around me. Somebody says I should see a doctor. A friend who is a dentist says I should soak it. Another friend who is a somewhat goofy college professor predicts that I’ll be dead in 3 weeks if I don’t get antibiotics.
The circle dissipates, and I'm talking to Zeke, who I don't yet know very well. Zeke says: "My finger got infected like that in 'Nam. Red like that, then it got worms." He holds up his right hand: three fingers. The hand shakes. Zeke's hands always shake.
"You get a purple heart for that?"
"Nope." He laughs, which ends in a hiccup.
"What did you do in 'Nam?"
"Survived." He glances again at my finger. "See a doctor, will ya?"
But I never do. My finger heals. Some things, the body can fix.
(Tommy is not the real name. Nor is Zeke.)
(Tommy has done very well in the years since 1993. Not jillions, maybe, but very well. For more about Zeke, go here.)