I want to introduce you to this guy I know. I’ve never really known anyone quite like him. You can stop him at any time during the day, ask him how he’s doing, and it’ll go something like this.
“Hey, Thomas? How you doing?”
“It feels like there are four waves roaring and splashing around my brain, and it’s only when they crash together that I feel, whole.”
And that’s Thomas.
Most people in the office tend to avoid him because he’s kind of awkward, but I never do because he’s always got something amusing to say. You have to ask him a question, though, otherwise he tends not to speak. With Thomas a question asked is a question that must be answered.
For some reason he also has trouble looking people in the eyes, at least briefly during an encounter. He’ll focus on their chin with his head slightly cocked to the right. I don’t know why. I’ve asked him numerous times, and I always get the same answer.
“Hey, Thomas? Why do you only look at people’s chins? You never look them in the eyes.”
“It’s what I do. Can’t change it.”
Simple as that.
Last year I got to meet Thomas’ parents, Diane and Roy. I hadn’t known Thomas very long at this point, but he invited me to a family cook-out in the back garden one summer weekend. We were all wearing shorts and t-shirts, enjoying the pleasant breeze during the last hours of the day, and chatting about recent events on the news.
Well, all except for Thomas, who barely said a word the entire evening.
His parents, though, they were great. I hadn’t wanted to pry into Thomas’ medical history, but his parents volunteered some information over a couple of beers.
“I know what you’re thinking, Michael,” Roy had said. “Is it autism? Has he always been like this? Have we ever tried therapy or treatment?”
I replied honestly. “Yes to the first two.”
Roy sat forward. “You’ve never wondered if we’d tried to treat him?”
I shrugged. “Never thought about him being any different.”
At the end of the evening, after three cans of beer and two hamburgers, I had decided it would be best to be on my way. I thanked Thomas’ parents for their hospitality and stood up to go. Thomas sat still in his chair, staring at the lawn, occasionally pushing his lower lip forward so he could blow the tips of his long sandy blond fringe.
“You can say something now, if you like,” I said, watching his hazel eyes rise up to fix on my chin.
“Don’t need to,” he said.
Thomas waved his hand towards his parents. “They already did.”
I asked, suddenly curious. “Thomas, what have you been doing all evening?”
“Counting cars that have passed the house since you arrived.”
“One more car has to pass before you start your engine. Then it’ll be a prime number.”
“Very well,” I said, allowing a beer burp to blunder out. “I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” I walked around the side of the house to get to my car parked out the front.
Before I reached the car door, Roy grabbed my shoulder in a panic. “Whatever you do, Michael, please let another car drive passed before you start the engine.”
He was as white as a sheet. Between his gray mustache and wrinkled forehead, his pupils had dilated behind his reading glasses.
“Why?” I asked, mirroring his concern.
“If you don’t let it be a prime number it’ll drive him crazy. He won’t sleep. He plays these games with himself. I’ve warned him about counting before. Too many bad episodes.”
I nodded, frantic. “I’ll wait, I’ll wait.”
“Good lad,” said Roy, and he disappeared through the front door to the house.
I waited in the car for maybe ten minutes before another car passed. Breathing a sigh of relief, I reached into my pocket for the key. But as my fingers brushed the tip of the car key another car sped down the road. I hastily inserted the key into the ignition and cranked it, bringing the car to life. I wasn’t sure until the next day if I’d started the engine up in time.
Thomas didn’t show up for work.
When we are at work, we work in marketing and advertising for Hygieia, a large multinational medical company based on the outskirts of King’s Lynn in the county of Norfolk. Norfolk is a very flat part of the country, and full of countryside and wetlands. The town itself originally flourished on its location next to the Great River Ouse. Today, there is a considerably large industrial and commercial sector, and should one need to drink, as one frequently does in this part of the world, on the right street this need can be accommodated at almost every step.
Hygieia itself makes disposable plastic parts for various medical and pharmaceutical products. Thomas, despite his quirks, is actually very good at the job. In fact, I noticed that when he is on the phone, as we all are for much of the time, he deals so much better with people. I asked him about this once, too.
“Thomas, do you realize that on the phone you’re like a different person?”
“Same person, different code number.”
“What code number?”
“Put on the headset, enter the code number, and play the game.”
“What code number? You mean the phone number?”
“Put in the code number. Play the game. Put in a different code number, play another game. That’s the job, isn’t it?”
This is when I realized that Thomas saw his job as a collection of games and challenges. There was no person on the other end of the line, only a series of commands and instructions that would influence the way Thomas had to play. And he loved his gaming, which was perhaps why he was so good at his job.
Later I found out that he had all of the recent gaming consoles in his house, and shelves upon shelves of games to go with them. If ever you wanted to get through to Thomas, a game was usually a reliable doorway.
The story I want to tell you about Thomas began a week and a half before Christmas, 2013. Rachel, our department manager, called me in my cubicle to meet with her in her office. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, and so I thought nothing of it and headed over. Rachel and I had been in the same year in high school, and we had brought each other numerous drinks over the years for an uncountable amount of nights out.
“Hey, Matthew. Have a seat. I’ll be right with you. Oh, would you mind just pushing the door closed?”
Rachel was on her feet behind her desk, pacing as she held her iPhone up to her right ear. Strands of her long blonde hair were hanging belligerent outside of a large metallic clip on the back of her head, and there was a faint white smear on her purple blouse. I pushed the door closed and took a seat at her desk, listening as she finished up her phone call. Rachel had a tired and breathy voice, and as much as I hated to admit it to myself, I knew she could’ve done well as a phone sex operator.
“Mother-in-law is coming in town,” she said eventually, lowering the phone. “I don’t know what to do with her,” she paused. “Never have.” Rachel sat down and rattled a few keys on her keyboard. There were thick puffy dark bags under her doleful brown eyes, and yellow eye crust begging to be scratched.
“Doing nothing with her is doing something,” I suggested, hooking my feet behind the legs of the chair.
Rachel smirked. “Don’t think my husband would buy that argument, but thanks for trying.”
I shrugged and turned my hands over in gesture.
Rachel pivoted sideways and looked at me over the length of her shoulder. “I want to try something different with you, Matthew.”
Of all the possible rebuttals I remained silent, watching with intrigue as Rachel’s idea rolled around her rubbery face. When it hit her lips she puckered them forward in offering. “You see, Michael,” she said, sitting back and interlocking her fingers. “I need somebody to meet with a potential client in Aspen, Colorado.”
“Don’t you usually send Moira and Phillip?”
Rachel’s eyes narrowed and her index fingers came together like she was shooting a gun at me from her stomach. “I need you to meet with them.”
My pulse quickened and a vacuum opened in my chest. I sank lower in the chair. “Me?”
“Me and Thomas?”
“Yes,” she hissed.
My mouth dropped open and I pointed over my shoulder to the door with my thumb. “Have you met Thomas?”
Rachel rolled her eyes and sat forward, putting both of her hands down on the desk. “Look, I know he’s a bit awkward. But a quick glance at the performance metrics and you’ll see that he out performs everyone in the department. He knows the business.”
I protested. “He thinks it’s a game.”
“Well, it kind of is, really, isn’t it?”
I took a deep breath to dampen my frustration. “You’re not listening to me.”
“You came in third on the metrics,” fired Rachel, pointing at a spreadsheet on her computer monitor.
“Who was second?”
“Ugh,” I grumbled. “I hate Emma.”
“So do I,” Rachel concurred. “But listen,” she pressed on. “I’ve seen you and Thomas work together. You can get the best out of him. Do whatever you have to do to make it easy on yourself. But I want you and Thomas to go. If you can win him over, not only will it be our first market in the United States, but it’ll be positive growth for the company, more shareholders, more employees, and,” Rachel rubbed her thumb in circles over her index and middle fingers, “more money.”
“And Moira and Phillip?”
“Moira’s on sick leave and Phillip is about to be let go. But shh about that.”
My face lit up. “Oh, you know what? I don’t have a passport.” Rachel stared at me across the desk. Her informed frown drained the sparkle from my eyes. “Oh, that’s right. We ordered passports at the same time last year for Ibiza.”
I felt shamed into silence, and Rachel let it linger on for few good seconds. “So, you and Thomas,” she concluded.
I hoped for a definitive and comforting thought to materialize, but all I received was white noise between my ears. I had no idea how it was going to go with Thomas. “When are we going?” I asked, resigned to my fate.
Rachel turned to her computer and pulled up her calendar. “Oh, that’s right. I was debating whether or not to tell you that before I told you about going with Thomas.”
“And?” I asked, my tone dropping with my enthusiasm.
I looked up at the ceiling and laughed. “This coming Monday?”
“Of course it is.”
Rachel’s eyes darted from wall to wall, settling on me for not more than half a second at a time. Her mouth pulled up into a nervous grin, and I could see a modicum of apology stuck in the folds of her cheeks. “You didn’t need to check your calendar did you?”
I looked down at my knees and shook my head. “Okay,” I sighed and stood up. “I’ll go break the news to Thomas.”
The thought of an all-expenses paid trip to one of the prime tourist hotspots in the United States was exciting, but it was a step up for me. I only ever talked to clients over the phone, and as they were already in our pocket I just had to keep them happy. Convincing somebody to choose our services when they had other options was another matter. What if we went all that way on the company dime and we failed to convince them? And then there was Thomas.
I just hoped the bubble he kept himself in was mobile.