TOM SOMETHING

fiction by Kevin Sampsell

Someone said I talk and act exactly like a guy they know. Tom Something. It’s actually not the first time I’ve heard this. I want to see who this Tom Something is. I can’t find him on the Internet, so I look in the phonebook and find him there. He lives on NW Hoyt Street. I go to investigate.

I hide in the bushes and watch people as they exit his building. This particular building has six units. It’s made of old bricks and shaped like a perfect square, like a Lego model. I figure it’s just a matter of time before I spot someone who talks and acts just like me. One man walks out with a dog on a leash and a cigarette in his mouth. He is too sleepy-looking to be like me, to be like my Tom. A younger man comes out later and he’s wearing an orange shirt that says Tim on it. Close, I think.

Crouching in the bushes becomes tiring after an hour and I emerge from its shrubbery to walk to the corner deli. As I’m brushing myself off, a man exits the building with a cell phone in his hand and a backpack hanging off of one shoulder.  

He is speaking into the phone as he walks past me. “T-O-M,” he spells out. “S-O-M-E-T-H-I-N-G.” I follow him. I think to myself, Maybe I should be a private detective. I seem to be good at it.

Tom says a list of numbers to the person on the phone. Tom says Yes and No into the phone. He explains some kind of problem with a machine that he owns but I can’t follow it entirely. He says the word Sorry and then several more numbers. As he speaks, I try to detect how we are the same. He hangs up the phone and walks into the deli.

I’m not really a sandwich guy. I never know what to say in a deli. I am confused by all the cheeses and meats. Where I’m from, there are only about five cheeses and four kinds of meats. I assume that all these blended-up meats that end with the letter i are from Italy or Poland, and I am from somewhere that is not those places. I watch Tom order his food and oddly enough, he also seems unsure about what to choose. He scratches behind his ear with his whole hand, like I do. He selects Pepsi from the long list of drink choices like I do.

When it is my turn to order, I find myself ordering the same sandwich as Tom. The kid taking my order seems disturbed by this, Tom and I ordering the same things, in the exact same tone and inflection. His eyes communicate to me that he is dizzy from déjà vu. I am pleased by this and I scratch my ear for emphasis.

Seated by the window, Tom pulls a notebook out of his backpack and starts writing something. I take my seat a couple of tables away, close enough to register the details of his movements but far enough for it to be subtle. I take a small journal out of my coat and start making notes. Even watching him out of the corner of my eye feels eerie, like it’s not him there, but rather a mirror in which I catch my reflection I study him the best I can and then our food is being delivered from behind the counter. The server has our Pepsis on the same tray in one hand, and our sandwich plates balanced in their other hand. For a moment, our food is so close to touching.

Between us, another man, close to my age, is working on his computer and drinking coffee. I see that this man is wearing the same shirt as I am. It’s gray with blue stripes. It’s a V-neck and has a pocket on its left side. I understand that we can’t all be unique, and even if we are, there are people all over the world wearing the same shirt as us this very same second and that does not mean everyone has a Tom Something that you can find in your phonebook.

I worry that Tom will notice this coincidence and become confused. He may even think that this man and me are the ones in this deli who talk and act and even look alike. But he would be wrong. He doesn’t know me yet. He hasn’t watched my actions and heard me talk in my voice, which might be his voice. He hasn’t had anyone tell him yet that he talks and acts like me. He hasn’t looked me up on the Internet or phonebook. He might just look up and think, Wow, these two guys in their matching Old Navy shirts.

I try to reason with myself. Why does it bother me that someone is wearing the same shirt as me? Is this other person inferior? Am I the only one who can wear this shirt? If this other guy is wearing the same shirt as me at the same time in the same building, does it make it a competition? Would I even care if Tom weren’t here?

I think, Yes, even if Tom weren’t here, I’d be put off by it. Put out. I would never want to wear the shirt again, knowing that another human wore it.          

Tom and I are eating the same sandwich. Not the exact same sandwich, but two separate sandwiches that are the same. No longer almost touching, but twenty feet away from each other. Arduously being chewed up and swallowed into our separate bodies, which more than one person has told me operate the same way. Talk and act the same way!

And we do! We, Tom and I, use the same number of napkins. The same number of dabs to the same corner of the mouth. We look out the window at the same time. We smile the same way at a toddler in the play area chewing on its own shoe.

The man in the same shirt as me gets up to leave and I shrink down in my chair, hoping he doesn’t notice me. I scrunch up my face to seem unfriendly. He pauses for a second at the door and looks around, like he forgot something. I don’t look his way but I can tell he’s staring at me. I feel his gaze on me for a long time and I am trying to remove him from the building with my psychic power, which I’ve been told is quite strong. After a few minutes, he walks up to the counter and orders a Pepsi. I am trying to ignore him, and not look in his direction. I am focusing on Tom. I feel a connection already. I wonder if maybe we’re related. Maybe brothers. Maybe I was adopted. Maybe he was adopted.

I stand to use the bathroom and so does Tom. We walk the same stride to the door, but it’s locked, in use. We both stand there, staring at our shoes. They’re nice, but not too nice. Bought at JCPenney. I listen to Tom’s breathing as we both wait. I sync up with him. Suddenly, I have to pee very badly.

The door opens. It’s the man wearing my shirt. I am flushed with embarrassment and anger. He slides by us and rushes out the door as if he’s been caught at something. I motion at Tom to go ahead. I’m willing to sacrifice my comfort for a moment longer. “After you,” I say.

He waves my courtesy away. “No, no,” he says. “After me.”

“Wait,” I say, because I am confused, at this moment, by our language. “After you?” I say. “After me?” I say. “After what?”

Tom’s smile looks like it’s squinting at me, and he laughs like I sometimes laugh. “Yes, you’re right,” he says. “After what, indeed.”

We both stand there in the deli, facing each other, feeling every second of time between us. “I’m Tom Something,” he says.  


Kevin Sampsell is a bookseller, small press publisher, author, and collage artist living in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in the Best American Essays and Best Sex Writing series and has been a notable mention in Best American Nonrequired Reading. His writing has appeared most recently in Longreads, Hobart, Radioactive Moat, Paper Darts, Deep Overstock, and on the Storytellers Telling Stories podcast. More info at kevinsampsell.com.