The wipers swept back and forth, like metronomes, marking time to the counter beat of fat splattering droplets, punctuated by lightning flashes and thunder’s bass drum booming. Sheets of water rolled across the black asphalt, gleaming and shimmering beneath white hot bolts lancing the night sky. This was a drive that even in my wildest dreams I never imagined taking. I warned him, but it did no good, probably because it had been so easy.
In recent months I grew more concerned, especially during my last visit to his apartment. Tom had acquired an increasing appetite for nice things, which included wine, women, and song. “It’s part of the lifestyle,” he insisted, as he searched for a fine wine in his rack, “I have to maintain my own personal vanity.” Tom, like the proud father of an infant, gently cradled an expensive bottle of white wine in his hands. “This is perfect for the occasion.”
My mouth salivated. “What’s the occasion?” I anticipated the consumption of a fine vintage that had to cost over fifty bucks, which in Tom’s cellar was a cheap wine.
“Joan’s coming over tonight for dinner—and dessert.” Tom grinned, as he slid the wine into his refrigerator. “Want a beer?” he asked, scanning the contents of the door.
“Sure,” I replied, disappointed, though I knew his beer was excellent.
Tom popped the caps from two bottles of dark Belgium beer and handed me one as he sipped his cold brew. He then went to the new stereo and held his hands up, like the glamorous gal on some game show introducing the grand prize. “What do you think?”
“What happened to your old one? It was pretty damn spectacular.”
“Bigger speakers, better subwoofer, and it has the optical port so I can use it as my home theater.” He stood straight, grinning, and proud of his upscale entertainment center.
I pointed my beer bottle toward the black flat screen. “I see your TV’s grown since my last visit.”
“Well, the other one wasn’t 4K and I like the bigger screen.”
“So, seventy-two inches wasn’t big enough for you?”
Tom patted the giant TV. “When I saw it on the showroom floor, I couldn’t resist it.”
“I think you got a problem with impulse control, buddy. You can’t seem to resist anything.”
He shrugged his shoulders and flopped down next to me on the leather couch and picked up the remote. A moment later the screen came to life and the opening credits of his favorite movie practically blasted us from the couch. Once again I sat with Tom, watching—each time on a bigger and better TV—Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
The near simultaneous FLASH-BOOM ahead startled me back to the drive, silhouetting great trees and large buildings, as I entered the grounds of the sprawling facility. Rain speared through headlight beams, sparkling in the intense halogen lights.
That first time, back in high school when Tom and I watched To Catch a Thief on his little portable color TV, it changed him. He hated the dull family that had raised him. He called his father Mr. Middleclass, as the man had no ambition beyond his job at the water works. Tom was a sucker for glamor and when he saw Cary Grant nimbly crossing the villa rooftop, he understood his future, which began by taking up the challenge of opening the large safe left by the previous homeowner in his father’s garage. Tom devoured everything he could find about locks and safes. One day after school he invited me over to his house and we went to the heavy steel box with no known combination. Like a pro, he knelt in front of the dull gray door and grinned. “Check this out.” He kept staring at me and not the safe. “I won’t look, just to prove to you I can do it.” He blew on his fingertips, then gently grasped the large brass dial and leaned in close to listen.
“You’re nuts. You can’t—”
“Shhhhh,” he said quietly. “Let the master work.” And so he did. Within a few minutes he slowly worked the dial back and forth, then grabbed the handle. It turned. CLICK. The heavy door swung open.
“Holy shit!” I was impressed. “What was inside?”
“Nothing. But that’s not the point.”
A few weeks later when we got together he pulled out a piece cut from the newspaper and handed it to me. “Here, read this.”
It was from the local police blotter. “The Blue Salmon restaurant was broken into over the weekend. An undisclosed amount of cash was taken from the safe. The police found no clues and believe it was an inside job.” I looked at Tom who beamed with pride.
“I’m good.” He burst out laughing and at that moment, a month before his eighteenth birthday, Tom, the Cat Burglar was born.
The rain fell harder as I wound through the streets of the old New England facility, trying to read small street signs in the dark and rainy night. Eventually, on the third pass along same road, I found the street I sought and turned onto it. Lightning flashed again and a hulking brick building with big windows became visible for a moment. My destination was ahead.
Tom’s career had flourished. His skills improved. His targets grew ever more impressive. I had moved away and only periodically came back to visit, but when I did Tom would brag about his exploits and showoff his ill-gotten gains and his improved lifestyle. “You’re one crazy dude,” I said about a year ago. “You’re gonna get caught.”
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “Stupid people get caught. I’m not stupid.”
Not long after that last visit to Tom’s apartment, when we watched the movie together, he called. “Hey, buddy.” He sounded distant.
“Hi, Tom. How’s it going?”
There was an unusual silence from Tom. I waited until at last he spoke. “I should’ve listened to you.” His voice was subdued and flat.
“What happened, Tom?” It was a rhetorical question. I knew the answer.
“Last month I got pulled over for a busted taillight. I must have looked as nervous as I felt. The cop asked if he could look in my trunk.” Tom went silent again. “I was coming back from a job and the trunk was full of tools and my haul. What else could I say but yes?”
“Why did you do that?”
“He would have just made me follow him to the station and gotten a warrant to look anyway. I knew I was busted.”
“Oh my God, Tom.” Now it was my turn to be silent.
“Too many years in Catholic School I guess.”
“I spilled my guts to the cops and cleared up a dozen unsolved robberies.” He chuckled weakly, even in his despair he felt proud of his accomplishments. “My lawyer said that was a good idea, plus I returned everything I could. He seems to think I should get away with probation, because I have no criminal record.”
When I got off the phone I was stunned they caught him—at a traffic stop of all things. I didn’t hear from Tom for a month and then got a call from his brother Sam, who brought me up to speed. I listened in horrified silence as Sam told his brother’s sad tale.
“The Judge decided to make an example of Tom. Gave him two six month back-to-back sentences in the County Jail.” Sam’s voice quivered.
I pulled up in front of the huge building, lightning flashed and I approached the double eight-foot high white doors and pressed a button. From within I heard a bell ring. I waited in the rain, as lightning streaked and thunder rolled about me. A few minutes later the muffled sound of keys jangled behind the white enamel panels, then a CLICK and the great door swung partway open into the entryway.
“Yes?” A short round, bald man about forty stood behind the crack wearing khaki pants and shirt, holding an enormous ring of keys in his withered fist.
When I found my voice I said, “I’m here to visit someone.”
The gnomish looking man let me in, pushed closed the great door with a thud, and then sized me up and down with his little piggy eyes. “Wait here.” He turned and fumbled with his keys and opened another door, then disappeared, leaving me alone.
I looked at my wet shoes on the black and white tiled floor, water spreading from my feet and remembered what Sam had said. “Two days ago Tom was put in a group cell with nine other guys. He got raped and beaten his first night … He tried to kill himself.” Sam stopped a moment to collect his thoughts. “They put him in solitary last night. This morning they shipped him up to Winslow, near where you live.”
Winslow was the State’s last remaining big mental hospital. They transferred Tom to the criminal ward to serve out the next year of his life. Sam asked me to check in on Tom and see how he was doing. I reluctantly agreed.
The keys jangled again and the gnome swung the door open, motioning me inside. If he didn’t have the keys, I’d have sworn he was an inmate. The man slammed the door behind me and locked me in. I felt very uncomfortable. He brushed past and guided me to a desk, illuminated by a single lamp, casting a pool of white light onto an open comic book. Another man, who resembled the key holder’s twin brother looked up. “Who do you wanna see?”
After I explained, the first man led me up a wide flight of stairs to the next floor. Our footfalls echoing eerily through the cavernous wide hallway, flanked with a series of closed doors with glass windows and wire mesh. Ahead in the dimly lit hall a shaft of light slanted from a set of windows on one side, illuminating the floor. We stopped in front of another door. The man manipulated his keys, opened it, and let me inside. When I heard a loud CLANK I turned to see another exit barred behind me.
“Who are you here to see?” A large man with a square head, topped with blonde fuzz sat at the table, wearing the same khaki clothes. From his grim looking middle-aged face, cold eyes gazed at me. I told him Tom and he then said, “Empty your pockets onto the table … and gi’me your belt too.”
When I complied, the six-foot-six giant rose and pulled out his own keys and open another portal. “Your friend is over there.” He pointed into the large common room with multiple tables and chairs. The pale green walls looked sickly under the rows of overhead fluorescent lights. In the far corner sat an isolated figure hunched over a table. “When you want out, knock.” With that he sealed me behind a fourth barrier.
I made my way through the room past a pair of older men who sat playing cards, talking in low voices. In the another corner a TV played quietly, around which a small group huddled in the cold glow of the flat screen, as if sitting before a campfire. I saw only men in the room ranging in age from twenty to sixty.
The person of my destination didn’t move as I slowly approached. I felt very strange seeing my friend of many years in this mental hospital ward. His shoulders seemed to have disappeared altogether, sloped down, and his head still resting on his arm. When I stood opposite Tom he paid no notice. “Tom?” I asked softly. There was no reaction and I waited a moment. “Hi Tom … It’s me.” I slid back a wooden chair that squealed on the shiny tile floor, lowered myself, and waited.
Slowly Tom’s head lifted from his forearm and stopped about halfway up. His dead eyes peered at me from under his brows. They were red. It was obvious he’d been crying. It didn’t appear as if he recognized me. Tom looked horrible, frozen in that position while we sat in awkward silence.
“Tom,” was all I could manage. I felt sick to my stomach, remembering the last time I saw him proudly showing off his latest stolen TV. I swore it was another person, but closer inspection revealed it really was Tom.
After a while he spoke slowly and barely audible, “Why did you come?” There was no emotion in the voice.
“I’m worried about you. Sam told me what happened.”
He looked away, embarrassed that I knew of his rape and attempted suicide.
At that moment I felt like an intruder, prying into the depths of another man’s crushed soul. Why was I sitting there in the criminal ward of a mental hospital? I didn’t have to come. I didn’t have to see my friend broken and miserable. Was it morbid curiosity? From my side of the table, I looked across at someone I’d known since high school, someone who I knew to be very smart and clever, perhaps too clever, driven by a desire to lift himself from the boring and frugal surrounds in which he’d grown up. What I saw, huddled in that chair, stooped shouldered, and trembling was the shattered shell of a young man, not yet twenty-five, but who looked more like a worn out husk of seventy. Never in my life have I seen a man so totally broken, so empty, and lifeless than the sight of Tom crumpled in the corner of the ward. I looked at the other men and wondered how they must have looked and what circumstances brought them to this place of confinement.
Tom turned back toward me, without looking and lowered his head to his forearm, we spoke no word between us. I just stared, feeling totally helpless. Maybe I should have given him a few days to adjust to his new surroundings and get past the immediate shock and pain of the brutal rape and beating. Naturally, I wanted to ask him about that experience, but knew better. I never asked him and he never told me—ever. We just sat in silence, periodically the window flickered as lightning flashed outside.
As Tom didn’t offer any conversation and I couldn’t think of anything to say, certainly discussing the weather or some other neutral subject seemed completely inappropriate, I realized my visit, despite good intentions, was a bad idea. No man so raw wishes to be exposed to anyone, let alone someone who knew him well. There was only one thing to do. Leave the poor wretch in peace and let him heal with the help of the professionals. At least there was one consolation, Tom would serve out his time in the hospital and not have to return to the cage in the County Jail. Obviously, to do so would kill him.
I slid my chair back. It squeaked again as I stood. Tom remained motionless. There was nothing more to say and I didn’t think he had anything to offer. “Well, Tom,” I began and then paused to take a last look at the shattered human being before me. “I guess you don’t feel much like talking or visiting. It was a bad idea for me to come here tonight. I’m sorry for that. The last thing I wanted was to make your pain worse than it already must be,” I talked at the top of his head and felt my words just bounce off. “Well, Tom, bye. Take care.” With that I turned to leave.
Much to my surprise, behind me came a weak and fragile voice. “Wait.” I stopped and slowly looked back. Tom had lifted his head again, not all the way, but enough his eyes were barely visible beneath his brow. I waited for him. His eyes fixed on mine. There was no light from within, he looked like a corpse. At last he spoke. Was it a lamentation or a warning, I couldn’t say, maybe both, but the words were spoken quietly and deliberately. “Whatever you do … avoid the criminal justice system at all costs.” Like an ancient Greek oracle, he lowered his head and once more fell silent. I went to the door and knocked.
The rattling of keys released me from the first two doors and once again I was in the escort of the old gnome. With new perspective, this man looked pretty good compared to Tom. When I heard the big door close behind me and stood in the rain, lightning flashing, though much farther off, I felt a sense of freedom I never experienced in my life. I was on the outside and Tom was inside. There was nothing facing me at that moment, no trouble I could imagine that came anywhere near as close to what Tom was going through. The rain spattered on my face and it felt glorious. I even felt guilty for a moment, happy I was free and Tom was not. But the guilt quickly passed when I realized Tom became a victim of his own circumstance and that he had ignored the advice he imparted to me. Unlike Tom, I would take that advice to heart, because I never wanted to be on the inside looking out.