Charred Toast

I ran into Jay Drucker in front of the Village Luncheonette on Forbes Avenue. Jay Drucker, MD, the father of an old college flame. We chatted briefly, and when I asked about Tom, the older man looked down. His face went pale. I dug my hands into my coat pockets.

Charred toast, grilled cheese, and hot dog aromas wafted out each time the door opened.

Tom’s fine.

I removed my right hand from the pocket and placed it over my heart. Oh, you had me going there. I adjusted my position and had the sensation of falling without a landing to catch me.

Dr Drucker reached for my hand. The hand covering my heart. His palm cupped the back and he wrapped his thin fingers under my palm and squeezed. The air cooled, and he added that Tom was fine considering the circumstances. My sigh reversed to a gasp. I’d lost touch with most of the mutual people in our lives and had heard nothing about him in years. Or anyone else. Maybe I should send holiday cards again.

The man’s hand did not move, nor did it warm up. His pale, mole-flecked skin felt like leather. For a doctor, I expected them to be softer.

Tom’s not in a good place he stated. I did not need to ask; the man volunteered more.

Framed. Set-up.

The sentences were defensive, slow, and laced with sadness.

Business partner. Shared hotel room. Left ahead of Tom.

My stomach tightened.

The man put a box of sports equipment into Tom’s car. Said, bring it back for me.

Dr. Drucker laid out the facts as he knew them. His voiced crackled, his jaw clenched, and if I had a tissue, I would have pulled one out for each of us. The result was a ten-year sentence at Maricopa. I mouthed the word wow. Dr. Drucker removed his hand and I let my hand drop to my side. He then clasped his hands and did something I don’t know I’ve ever experienced seeing someone do. He wrung his hands. I didn’t need to ask what drugs one might shove into a medicine ball in the back of a car.

We’d never been serious as daters and soon discovered were better suited as friends. If we found ourselves alone in our later years, we promised, we’d reconvene. I’d been widowed going on twenty years but had my friends. And my cat.

When I knew Tom, we all did a bit of wacky tobacky, but deal. Never. And never anything hard. Certainly nothing cartel connected. I’m not sure we knew the word cartel. In the 80s, pot was plentiful. Everyone had a dime stash in their underwear drawer. Well, everyone that Tom and I hung out with. We were not a wayward crowd, we just participated in the groupthink mentality of the time.

I was at a loss for words. A few cars passed by, but I took at least a minute to formulate something to say, and when I did, it felt pretty shallow. I’m so sorry to hear that, Dr. Drucker. I wanted to suck the words back in. I’m sure he’d heard that statement in abundance. Can I contact him, came out before I could put my brain into gear and mouth into park. Dr. Drucker nodded and said that Tom would be happy to have some news of the outside world. I didn’t ask how much longer Tom had or how long he’d been in. We forced close-mouthed smiles instead of goodbyes. Dr. Drucker moved around me and walked into the luncheonette. I waited until I saw him sit down at the counter.

He looked back at me and waved.

I waved in return, just as the alarm sent out its Seaside electronic melody. The blankets fell to the side, one slipping off the bed, as I sat upright, looking around in the darkened room for Dr. Drucker and the lunch counter. It was one of those dreams that seems too real. A half-sleep dream, my mother called them. The room did not smell of grilled cheese and hot dogs, which solidified the dream state. Dante, my cat, lay in a tail to nose curl on the pillow beside me.

Tom followed me through the brushing of teeth and making of coffee. All I had to do was Google and I would know that he was alive and well and basking in the last place I’d been aware of his whereabouts—the golden, sunny shores of California.

MyLife, WhitePages, and Spokeo brought up the last known location of Flagstaff, Arizona, but no actual address. And nothing to indicate Maricopa. But then again, jail listings probably would not come up as a regular street address in a listing’s history.

I found the jail’s website, clicked the Inmate Information page, and typed in his name and birthdate. That much I remembered. The computer timed out before it brought anything up. This is stupid, I said to Dante, who sat on the armchair behind me. I closed the computer and left it on the kitchen counter.

I managed the usual Saturday chores, ran into a few friends at Starbucks uptown, and looked through the event section of the Post-Gazette to find something to do that evening. I sent out a few texts to see who of my widow/divorcee group was up for an outing. Three responded, and we chose the ballet. I’d become a full-fledged cat-lady. Ballet and Fancy Feast.

It was Swan Lake, a favorite, but at intermission, with Tom unpurged from my revolving thoughts, I feigned a headache and left. In front of the Benedum Center, I pulled my sweater tight and hailed a cab.

The cat rubbed against my legs as I pulled my shoes off in the front hall. I filled a rounded goblet with a deep garnet-hued Burgundy and popped the computer open. First, I found Dr. Drucker. It turns out he’d passed away two months earlier. A ghost had visited me in my sleep. Mrs. Drucker, whom I’d never met, was listed as predeceased. I mentally noted to send a condolence when I wrote to Tom. But it was Tom I needed to know more about.

I returned to the jail website. Instead of the inmate page, I clicked on the Mugshot link. After several scrolls, an older version of Tom, with gray hair, and lifeless eyes appeared. Tom Drucker was in the Maricopa prison system. I took a gulp of wine. I looked again.

No doubts. Tom Drucker, Maricopa number 0213697843.

Maybe it came to me in a peripheral conversation, and it entered my subconscious. Why did Dr. Drucker show up at the Village Luncheonette in Squirrel Hill? The place was closed. It didn’t fit. Tom was from Alexandria, VA. We’d met at Bucknell. Too many places mushed into one dream.

Tom Drucker was in jail, and I learned about it from a dream. Lost in untangling the oddity of what I’d learned about Tom and how I’d learned it, the wine dropped below the half-way mark.

Dr. Drucker had died. Tom had last lived in Arizona. His LinkedIn listing indicated he’d worked for Mesa Gym & Fitness Supplies as a sales manager. The LinkedIn photo looked like Tom. Vibrant and energetic. Against the teal background of the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office Mugshot listings, his blue eyes looked sullen. Gray. Lifeless.

I finished the wine and refilled the glass.

Further research brought me to an address and how to send mail to inmates.

I’d only met Dr. Drucker a few times; long weekend visits and at graduation. By college’s end, Tom and I had broken up, but we remained friends. We lost touch within a few years. I never looked back, never attended reunions, and most of our mutual friend groups shifted after we stopped dating. There was no one in my awake world who could have alerted me to Tom’s dire situation.

I finished the second glass of wine and lay down on the couch, pulled a blanket over myself, and hoped Dr. Drucker or Tom would visit me again in my second block of sleep, and tell me more. I did not set an alarm.

At 3:12 a.m., a couple of animals, racoons most likely, knocked over garbage cans in the alley behind the building. I’d been asleep for about four hours, and no one had paid a visit to my subconsicous as of yet. But Dr. Drucker had not shown until my second fit of sleep the night before, and that second sleep was always a half-sleep; deep enough to feel like I had conked out, and light enough that I thought I was aware of everything in the physical world.

The second shift of sleep came, but instead of Dr. Drucker, Tom came this time. We were in front of the Village Luncheonette, but he didn’t stand on the street as his father had. He stood behind a wall of jail bars. Just bars; a divider between us. I tried to reach through. I tried to call out to him. He looked at me. His sleepy blue eyes in sunken dark divots. He just stood there with his hands down at his side. The moment caught me between dreaming about him and willing him to be there. It was the older him. The mugshot him.

I awoke to Dante sitting beside me on the couch engaged in her morning bath. Tom and all traces of metal were gone.

I popped a pod into the Nespresso. While the coffee hissed, I pulled out a box of white Crane note cards. I ran my finger over the cotton/linen paper. It seemed much too formal for a letter that would pass through the US mail on its way a prison mailroom. I took the double espresso to my office and pulled out a small legal pad.

I wrote ‘Dear Tom’ at the top of at least six pages, ripped them off, crumpled them, and threw them on the floor for Dante to roll around with. Should I say I’d heard from his dead father he was in jail on fabricated drug smuggling charges? It was the truth. He’d think I still smoked dope and had experienced a marijuana induced vision.

I filled out four pages, back and front, updating Tom about my life and how sorry I was about this situation. I chose a plain white envelope. The whole packet seemed more jail-worthy. The sign-off was the hardest. Sincerely came across as insincere, and love had ended too long ago. I settled on fondly.

Within three weeks, a return letter on Maricopa Sheriff embossed stationary landed rested in the door mail slot. Much nicer than what I had sent to him. We corresponded for a handful of rounds. The spaces between the letters widened, and eventually drifted off. In those few letters, I learned he’d never married. He loved the dry heat of Arizona, and he had no children. Going forwad there was no job or home to return to upon release. The unsayable. I did not think an invitation was in order.

I remained in my life. Tom stayed locked in his, and Dr. Drucker never plagued my half-dreams again. I thought little of Tom, other than in passing, until a few years later when a letter came from him about his upcoming release. He asked if he could come to visit. A short visit. To get back on his feet.

It took me a week to answer.

He showed up looking skeletal and hollow. He’d come to me in a dream and now appeared as a ghost on my doorstep. I’d fixed up the guest room for him. I made grilled cheese. It seemed appropriate.

He gained some weight back, helped around the house doing things I had long let go, and we became companions. And when we sat at breakfast, sipping our morning coffee, I often reached out and ran my finger over the back of his hand. I was just making sure he was really there.

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