Memoirs of a Girl Called Tom

I guess I ought to start at the very beginning, seems logical, I suppose. My name is Tomessina White, as my mother christened me, and I was born on June 20, 1926. My mother used to tell me about the huge storm that blew in the night I was born. Oh how the wind howled and the rain beat down on the roof of our small house. And the thunder pounded the heavens and the lightning clapped its hands and flipped the light switch for the heavens on and off. She told me it did this all night while she was giving birth to me and she knew, through those long unforgiving hours, that I would be special, that I would be different than all the other little girls in our town. My birth had taken the longest. The storm ended at 6:48 in the morning, the exact moment when I was born. And she was right. I was different.

Every year since then, on the night of my birthday, the wind moans and the thunder rumbles, reminding the small town that this is my birthday and no one else's. But my mother says these storms are nothing like the one when I was born. As always it ends at 6:48 the next morning.

Tonight as I write this, I hear those winds howling, and the rain beating down. I hear the thunder pounding heaven and the lightning flicking that switch one too many times, and I know, this is the storm my mother had been telling me about all those years. I have a feeling this is the end. I haven't been feeling well these past few days, and with this storm coming up, I know. It scares me to think I'm almost 79 years old. Just where exactly did the time go?

I remember my grandmother made me a pretty pink dress for my birthday once, and I wouldn't even look at it. Instead, I went downtown and bought a pair of blue overalls with the small amount of birthday money I'd received. I never liked pink and I hated wearing dresses. As

soon as I was able to take control of my own clothes, when I was five, I stopped wearing dresses all together and wore the used overalls once belonging to the neighboring boys.

Everyone seemed to think I was an insolent child for the way I dressed and the way I played with the boys and ignored the girls. But I didn't pay them any attention, I just went about my own business and ignored them whenever they tried to teach me what girls aught to do and how girls aught to dress, versus how I dressed and how I acted.

Oh those were the days! I could catch more fish than any boy around. I could shoot better than them too. Benny Rogers hated the fact that he'd been the one to teach me how to shoot. We were regular pranksters, stealing chickens out of Old Man Winter's yard and then throwing them into Mrs. Jackson's pantry. They knew it was us for sure, but there was never any way to prove it, so nothing ever happened to us. We never got in trouble for anything at all. We would just watch Old Man Winters rant and rave from behind some bushes and when he'd gone back inside his house we'd laugh so hard some of the boys nearly peed themselves! I was a regular Tom Boy back then and everyone had taken to calling me Tom for short.

These days, they still call me Tom and I still have a rifle hanging on my wall. Anyone tries to come in here and rob me, I just pull that thing off the wall and they're outta here faster than a flash of lightning. Oh I could do anything the boys did back in those days, back when I wasn't so old!

I'd get into regular fist fights with the boys and of course, I usually won. They did their worst to me, tripping me and trying to get me while I was down, that's how I knew they weren't being nice just because I was a girl. They treated me like one of them. There were times when we'd get into verbal fights about who's turn it was to steal Old Man Winter's chickens. Sometimes I'd get so fed up with the boys and their arguing over the same thing every week that I'd just get away and let them argue it out by themselves.

Anytime I ever wanted to be alone, I would climb this big old oak tree and hide up in the branches so no one could find me. It was my own secret hiding spot. And it served well for many years until that one day. A new family had moved into the area, the Bickfords. They had a son, named Tom, though his wasn't a nickname like mine. He came to hang out with us on that first day after he'd helped his parents move in. He took up Benny's rifle and shot ten rounds straight into a bull's-eye nailed to a tree. I'd only been able to do nine and I'd always been proud of that. None of the other boys could top my record, but along came Tom Bickford, and he topped my record. I turned away then, and ran away to my hiding place in the tall oak tree. I just had to get away. I couldn't stand the thought of a boy topping my record like that!

I'd been up there only half an hour, sulking to myself, before I realized that Tom had followed me there. He climbed up the tree and attempted to sit next to me on the branch but I pushed him back into the trunk. We fought some up there in that tree for a few minutes before I finally gave up and let him sit next to me. I really didn't want to, but I sensed that he wasn't going to go away easily.

He suggested making a deal up there that day, that if I could beat him at arm wrestling in the tree, then he'd count me as a friend forever, and if not, then he wouldn't. That sure was the hardest arm wrestling I'd ever done, specially in a tree, but after fifteen minutes or so, I finally got his arm down. He just stared at our arms lying on the trunk and then up at me. I could tell he was in shock, but that day we became fast friends. Sure he's beaten me at arm wrestling a few times since then, but it's all good, no one can't win at everything all the time.

I think what truly ended up drawing us together was that we were a match for each other. I usually beat the other boys at whatever game we were playing, but with Tom, sometimes he beat me and sometimes I beat him. And me being a girl just as good as he was had an effect on him too, I'm sure.

Over the years we rivaled each other on friendly terms. When we got out of high school, Tom and I, we spent a lot of time with the other boys at the bar in the next town over since we didn't have one in our own sleepy town. In between bar fights, pool games, and bets on who would get drunk first, Tom and I talked to the bartender, memorizing everything he told us about bartending. He explained what drinks could be mixed with what and what the outcome would be. I didn't know what I was going to do with this knowledge but I just couldn't stay away from it, it interested me so much.

None of the others knew where my tree was. Only Tom Bickford knew. It was our secret, and we'd go up there many nights, sometimes drunk, sometimes not. We'd talk about our dreams and what we wanted to do with our lives. Neither of us had a job. In fact, I'm not sure if many of the boys did. We hadn't a clue how we were going to make money. But we discussed various jobs and tried to picture each other doing different things. He suggested wrestling for money. Real wrestling. But I reminded him that even though we wrestle ourselves, and we wrestle fair, we make sure we don't kill each other. In real wrestling, they wouldn't care. He agreed he wasn't ready to die just yet and I knew I wasn't either. Of course, we both liked to wrestle, but everyone knows you can't wrestle if you're dead. So we thought on. I suggested being a maid, because I was out of suggestions and it was the only thing I could think of to bring in a little extra cash. Tom just looked at me and laughed. And then I laughed at the thought of me on my hands and knees scrubbing floors. There was no way I would ever do that.

Nothing ever sounded good until the night Tom looked me in the eyes, rather suddenly, and said "bartending!" like the thought had been beamed down from heaven into his head. I looked at him, and thought about it, and slowly nodded my head in agreement. Why hadn't either of us thought of that before?

It was settled that night. We would build a bar, right here in our town, using the boys we'd grown up with as workers. When we finally got around to selling booze we would pay the boys what they were owed. We didn't know where we would get the first startup money, but we figured we could do some odd jobs around town, scrape up some change. But somehow we would get it done.

It took us at least two years to get enough money to buy the supplies and we worked hard for it. There was no other job we wanted to do more, so we kept at it. And eventually, we got the boys together and after a few months we had a one-room bar with a small two-bedroom apartment above it. We called it "Tom and Tom's Bar."

We never got married. That's the reason for the two-bedroom apartment. He had his room and I had mine. Though when we wanted to get away, we would still go climbing that tall old oak tree which was now in our small backyard. So no, we never did get married. Being married would force him to "settle down" and act respectably and he didn't like that idea. I, myself, hated the thought of having children. I was a Tom Boy after all, and there was no way I was going to settle down and raise kids. I was still a kid myself and so was Tom.

We'd get some guys coming in real drunk at the bar and we'd play tricks on them, just to be funny. Everyone loved to watch what happened. I told Jenkins once that he'd given me all Canadian money and I couldn't accept it. He went berserk, pulled out his wallet and gave me the remaining money that was in it. I told him it was all Canadian. The poor guy couldn't see straight and nearly had a heart attack, until I told him it really was American and not to worry about it. Another time, I told Bobby Dinks that his girlfriend had come in the bar looking for him and was standing right behind him. He was so drunk, you shoulda seen it! He spun around, almost fell over, and Tom caught him, cause it was Tom standing behind him the whole time. Well, Bobby just leaned in and spit out an "I'm sorry honey!" before plastering a huge kiss on Tom! The whole place was in an uproar! And no one let him forget it for several months afterwards. And I think I heard someone talking about it just the other day too!

After all the boys who'd helped to build the place were paid many of them actually stayed on as real hired help. Benny Rogers was our tough guy who looked out for trouble makers. Though in those days, we didn't worry too much about that. People came in to get drunk and have a good time. We were not about to stop them. Only when they started busting up the place and breaking things would Benny throw them out.

We had a good business going for a long time. We brought jobs to the locals in our town and provided them with a good time and a good drink. Things were going well for us for a long time. Even though I could pull the worst pranks on anybody, the town was respecting me more then. They seemed to realize I was just having fun, right along with Tom and the others. No one bothered me about my overalls or hanging out with the boys. Sure, I know some of the older women still hated that. I overheard them a few times around town, talking about me, but no one else seemed to mind. Guess it entertained them all. Who knows.

Sometimes when Old Man Winters would come in, we'd get to teasing him about his chickens and he'd start to rant and rave about the whole thing, even though we only did it on extreme rare occasions these days just to remember the old days. Then I'd offer him a beer on the house, and he'd quiet down and smile and actually say I was a good kid. It's amazing what a good drink'll do to anybody!

Tom and I were notorious bar fighters and whenever there was a lull in business I'd put Benny or one of the other boys behind the bar and Tom and I would go at it, fist to fist. We fought fair and the patrons loved it. They never knew which one of us would win and that thrilled them. As we fought I could hear people putting bets on us. It was a great thing we had going and everyone seemed to love it, though as the years went by we did it less and less. I guess that's what happens when you get old.

We spent fifty years of our lives running the place. Can you believe that? But then, one fateful night, Old Tom Bickford passed on in his sleep and that was the end of our joint ownership. There isn't much to say about it except to lay it out straight. Under my direction we put him to rest underneath that tall old oak tree where I knew he'd be happy. That was ten years ago now. I ran Tom and Tom's by myself for five years before I finally quit and handed it over to Benny and some of the other boys. I stop in there every now and then. At least once a week if not more. It's hard not to when you live above it. The other bedroom now serves as my living room.

Earlier this evening I found myself sitting at the bar just as the rains came flooding down and the thunder began it's loud pounding. I sat in a dark corner, as sober as could be, without a drink in my hand, and watched everyone else drinking and having a good time. This place wouldn't even be here if it weren't for Tom and I. If we hadn't become friends, we never would have built this place, and these people wouldn't be here now, having fun. Instead, they'd be at home, lying on the couch in pure boredom with their wives screaming at them to get up and do something! Picturing that in my head made me smile.

That's when Benny saw me and came over.

"Hey Tom! I didn't know you were here! Why aren't ya sitting at the bar?"

"Felt like the corner tonight I guess. How's the money rolling in, Ben?"

"Same as ever. We're as good as gold!"

"That's what I like to hear. Say, you wanna hit me up for a beer? I guess I could stand to have one."

"Sure thing, coming right up."

So, this is what it comes down to, I thought. My last night. My last beer. What about a last fight? I went up to the bar and sat down on a stool next to a bug burly guy I'd never seen before. As Ben handed me my drink, he whispered that the guy was a trucker from out of town, going by the name of Break Lights. I sized him up and smiled.

"Hey, Break Lights! You wanna arm wrestle? Or shall I take you down on the ground?"

"Who wants to know?" Break Lights asked in a deep voice as he turned around.

He looked at me, and burst out laughing. "Sure, Granny, I'll arm wrestle ya. But if I break your arm, I ain't sayin' I'm sorry."

I took a long swig of my beer and put my arm up. He put his up and we began to arm wrestle. It went back and forth for a while. I watched Break Light's face, as his eyes grew wide at my strength. I put his arm down, almost breaking it on the edge of the bar. He began to swear then as he stood up and backed away from me in great surprise. I chugged down the rest of my drink in one swallow and put the bottle down. God, that felt good!

"If I break your arm, I ain't sayin' I'm sorry either," I said.

The guy sat down at another table a safe distance away from me, and eyed me over his drink. I just turned back to Benny and we had a good laugh over it all.

I wondered how people cope when they don't know the end is coming. I suppose they don't. I wondered what others would do if it was their last night on earth and they knew it. I looked around the bar, at the long mirror, and the long shelves of alcohol. I'd led a good life. Not much ever brought me down. I'd built up a good business with Tom and I was sure Benny'd take good care of it.

I saw the other guys running the bar, and gave them a wave as they hustled drinks to wanting patrons. Benny asked me about another drink, but I shook my head. I said goodnight to him and some of the boys nearby and headed for the door. Sitting near the door I found Old Man Winters nursing a drink. The poor guy should be dead by now, but he's still alive and kicking as sure as I'm writing this.

"Winters, how're your chickens doing? You loose any lately?" I asked, leaning down towards him so he could hear me.

I watched his face turn red, and he began his ranting and raving all over again. I never could understand why he got so riled up every time, even when we were only joking. Suppose he never knew that till he got home to check on them though.

"Don't worry about your chickens. I didn't steal them this time," I assured him before hollering to Benny to get him a drink on the house.

Said goodbye to the place then. I know they didn't get my meaning when I left, but by the morning they will. I went out to the oak tree and I sat by Tom's grave. I didn't say anything while I was there and I didn't even say goodbye when I left.

I guess people like Old Man Winters are like those spirits that just aren't ready to leave this earth yet. Maybe he's not at peace yet. Maybe once both Tom and I are gone, if the others don't keep teasing him about his chickens, maybe then he'll be at peace and move on. Either way, I know I'm ready. I've lead a good full life and I've enjoyed every moment of it. I guess God knows I'm ready to move on too. Those strikes of lightning and that thunder keep getting louder and longer by the minute. Guess that means it's time to say goodbye.

Tom, I'm coming to meet you, and together, we're gonna build more bars than heaven can handle!