Meeting Tom


I don't know why I chose the booth next to him.

It was the second day of our marriage, and we'd spent the whole day driving. To make matters worse, we spent the better part of our driving, driving through southwest Minnesota and eastern South Dakota.

Apart from playing hide-and-seek in a Worthington memorial library, we hadn't been out much. When we lost the wonder at seeing cows on either side of the road, we knew we'd best look for a place to stay for the night.

Chamberlain's a small-town, which probably doesn't say much when you're in SoDak. No more than 2,500 people in it. It's the kind of small town a pompous city slicker like me would write a novel about.

You climb I-90 West over a hill-- thinkin' you're about to just get sleepy pasture, and suddenly you're met by hills-- with a grain silo looking like the tip of an eraser & a half-dozen trees made to look like crayon scribbles in the distance. For the first time in our roadtrip, we were the ones who felt small.

Before the hills that overlap each other is the mighty Missouri River & a couple bridges that tunnel their way across it. Apparently-- Tom said it, we believe it, that settles it-- the few runaway pillars that go from Chamberlain to halfway in the river used to be a bridge to an island where people did "all kinds of lovable things" until it got flooded out by the mighty Missouri.

You've already got an image of Chamberlain in your head, so long as you imagine a small-town trying to appeal to 21st-century tourists with a 19th century Main Street.

Apparently it's named after a railroad director, which is only noteworthy because Tom told us that we could look at one spot of the national railroad that runs through the town and see it make a sharp curve because they discovered dinosaur bones & had to build around 'em.

We wandered downtown Chamberlain for awhile. With the warm June air wafting around, I waited to see tumbleweed blow. Didn't see any tumbleweed. Did see a steak & espresso shop though. Can't even make that one up.

Tom was sitting at a booth by a window looking out at Main Street. We locked eyes with him the moment we walked in. It was a kind of glance-- coupled with a muttered hello-- that makes you feel welcome & afraid at the same time. Ever gotten one of those? He was the only one in the restaurant, other than a mom & dad busy pushing fries into their toddler's mouth.

Magically, I needed to pee. I pee quicker than Kasey does and I sure as heck didn't want to be the first one out, so I washed my hands real good. I even checked my phone that I knew wouldn't have any service.

I really don't know why I chose the booth next to Tom. About five or six booths lined up along the window, all of them with a wood vinyl that belonged either at a high school cafeteria or a '70s stationwagon.

Tom was right in the middle, and I just kind of sat myself down at the table behind Tom's. His left arm was draped over and reached ever so slightly onto Kasey's side. As we sat down, Tom slowly got up, muttering words like "salad" and "decrepit" in our direction. Kasey wants me to tell you that she was thinking about what the frick I could've been thinking at this point of the story.

I tried making married people conversation. You know, like you do when a stranger's elbows were just twelve uncomfortable inches from your wife of 24 hours. It was awkward, which I think is just weirdness you're not comfortable with.

After ordering, we told the waitress that we were from the Cities & wondered how old Chamberlain was. Tom had just gotten back, and he perked up. He made a gradual 90-degree turn while the waitress fumbled her answer. His forest green sleeves-- rolled up three times, maybe-- draped over the back again.

The waitress left to put our orders in, and that's when Tom opened up. Said she was a sweetheart before telling us that Chamberlain's a bunch of crooks.

Wait, what?

Said Chamberlain was a small-town trying hard to be a tourist town. Trying real hard for your money. He kept on. I noticed he didn't have a ring on his finger. I'm a Christian, so I guess I'm not s'posed to make snap judgments, but I couldn't help but wonder if Tom had a lot to say and no one really to say it to.

So after he finished talking & motioned back to his booth, we asked him if we could join him for dinner. I know delight looks different on everybody, but it looked like a seven-year old opening up a Lite Brite on Christmas morning on him. His mouth sputtered like a '60s Mustang that hadn't felt the keys turn for decades before he said he'd love our company.

Tom was in his late 50s maybe. His face was worn but aware and his hair was white and slicked back, though little streaks of blonde gave you a little glimpse of a charismatic man in his prime.

He wore a faded brown vest that made me want to ask if he ever watched Jurassic Park, but he already used the word 'Fauntleroy' so I figured we were from different eras & I should just shut up & listen. Which I did. And would've done better, except I kept looking at his bushy grey mustache and wondering if he'd get bits of french fry caught in there.

We snarfed down our food. He barely touched his, too busy telling us all kinds of stories. Pearl Harbor was a set-up from the top so America could have an excuse to get in the war, and his dad just narrowly escaped death there. Lewis & Clark trailed through Chamberlain before it even was Chamberlain. His dad had a third-grade education but ran the town. He's a Kraut (German), and he accidentally found out he was a descendant of Kaiser Wilhelm. He owns a Bobcat company and is worth millions of dollars. He didn't want us to take a picture of him if he was going to 'be sold,' which I'm guessing meant social media so that's why you can't see our picture with him.

Oh, and he shouldn't need a damn piece of paper to be able to carry a gun around. And he did, which I saw in holster as I was shaking his hand & saying goodbye.

Dr. Seuss once said that we're all a little weird, life's a little weird, "and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love."

I'm not sure whether to paint Tom to you as lovable, scary, or both. I guess that's most of us, anyway: we've got enough glimpses of light to draw you in & enough dark pockets to make you shutter & not want to come much closer.

Maybe it's the courage to keep drawing closer anyway that holds the power to throw some light & laughter in the dark places. I guess, in that way, we met Tom.

Loved him, even.


photo credit: downtown chamberlain, south dakota:

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