By Laney Smith
I have this neighbor named Cantankerous Tom. Cantankerous Tom has earned his name, along with a few stripes and badges to set beside it, but we’ll get into that a little more, later. For now, I want to paint a picture of Cantankerous Tom. This man is somewhere between seventy and eighty years of age. If you could super-impose a photo of Lemony Snicket, Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, and Prince Philip, you would have Cantankerous Tom. He has these bushy, white eyebrows that seem to have a life of their own. He’s balding on top and the hair he has is fuzzy and bushy. He is missing about every other tooth and the teeth he does have all kind of jut forward, so when he smiles, those things step into the spotlight as though his lips are theater curtains and his teeth are the star of the show. They are stained and in bad shape – something Cantankerous Tom is very self-conscious about. Tom also walks hunched over, but that doesn’t slow him down. He’s fast and you have to keep an eye on him or he’ll pop up when you least expect it. One final note to help you picture this man – he wears the same clothes every day of his life. He always wears a thin, white undershirt, over-sized khaki shorts, white ankle socks and black slip on shoes. Have you got all of that? A seventy-to-eighty year old Lemony Snicket/Mr. Burns/Prince Philip with a hunched back, wearing an old white t-shirt, khaki shorts, white ankle socks, and black, slip-on loafer style shoes.
For the record, my kids get creeped out by Tom. They’re sixteen and nineteen, and they’re still horrified that he’s going to lock them away in a dungeon and roast their bones. I fear they may be right.
Since the first day we met Cantankerous Tom, he has hunted for any reason to tattle on my kids. They’re really good kids and I got lucky. So, since there is little to snitch on them for, Cantankerous Tom invents things. Apparently, Tom is a mind reader.
I was getting in my car to go teach my weekly writing class in Palm Springs. Here comes Cantankerous Tom, hot-footing it to catch me before I got in my car and pulled away. For an older man, he gets where he’s going in a hurry. Anyway, I tried to appear oblivious to his efforts to catch up to me.
“Hey! Hold on there, just a minute, Missy,” he called out.
“Tom! How are you?”
“Well, I just had an experience with one of your boys that I thought you should know about.”
“Really? What might that be?”
“Well, your oldest boy seems to think that he can just snub me when I speak to him. He just walked right past me when I said hi, earlier. He thinks he’s gonna get under my skin. He thinks he’s gonna outsmart this ol’ guy. Ain’t happenin’, Bub!”
“Well, Tom, did you happen to notice if he had his hearing aids in? He’s hearing impaired, you may recall. A lot of times, he just doesn’t hear people when they talk to him.”
“Well, that seems like a convenient excuse, don’t you think? He looked right at me. Then, he jerked his head away. He thinks I didn’t see him, but I did and he knows it.”
“I’m sorry about that. I will talk to him.”
“Yeah! I figured you’d give him a talkin’ to. So, where are you off to?”
“I’m running late. Today is my writing class day. Remember? I told you last week that I go to Palm Springs, every week, to teach that class. So, I should get going.”
“Well, where abouts is it in Palm Springs? I know that town very well.”
“It’s over at the college.”
“Well, where at? I can tell you a short cut, if you can tell me where it’s at.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I just put it in my GPS and that tells me the fastest route.”
“Oh, you have the address?” he asks, lifting his bushy eyebrows. “Let’s hear it.”
After I tell him the address, he still has no clue where the place is. So, he wanted to see a map. I pulled up the app on my phone and I put the address in so I could show him where it was on the map. I had forty-five minutes and the app said it would take an hour to get there, thanks to traffic for the Coachella Music Festival. He held my phone, studying my little map, trying to place where my class was going to be. In truth, Tom knew I was running late and he was being ornery. This is one of many reasons he has earned his name. Anyway, after a few minutes of him closing the map, trying to get it big enough so he could see it, and trying to show me the places he knew – none of which were in my path of travels – he finally handed my phone back.
“Didn’t you say you’re going to be late?”
“Yes. I really have to go. I’ll visit with you, after I get back.”
“Well, I won’t be here, this evening. I have to go run a few errands. I gotta get some cat food. I need more laundry powder. Then, I suppose I should check my post office box. I wanted to put gas in my car. Then, I –“
“Tom,” I interrupted, “I hate to be rude, but I am going to be so late.”
“Well, when I was working, we didn’t get chances to come in late. We had to be there when they said, or else,” he said, shaking his head. “You didn’t want to be late because that was a character flaw, you know. It sure is a different world, now.”
“Yep! OK, I’ll see you later.”
I ducked into my car, in spite of the fact that he was still talking. You had to, sometimes. Tom didn’t want to visit for a long period of time – and there is good reason, as you will see. However, if he thought you were running late, he could talk for days. Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Cantankerous Tom, and you will get to know him as I share his antics with you. You will find he is a rather interesting, mysterious character. Like me, you will find yourself puzzled and intrigued by some of these Cantankerous Tom stories. Maybe Tom is just misunderstood. Then again, maybe Cantankerous Tom is a true villain – flesh and blood. Maybe you can help me figure out this complex, suspicious, creepy man.