My friend is gone, three decades too early

The other day, my friend Tom checked out about 30 years too early. Can't really say I saw it coming. I could've sworn he was squarely in the group that would rage, rage against the dying of the light. (Note to bloggers: Dylan Thomas wrote that phrase.)

He wasn't my best friend in the world; I don't know if I even have one of those anymore. But I was always happy to see him, and I liked him a lot.

Tom worked at the Blockbuster on River Road and La Cañada Drive, but he only worked two nights a week, Mondays and Tuesdays. Over the years, I came to adjust my renting schedule so I could hang out at the store and talk movies with him. Just last month, I was there for about an hour, talking to Tom and another customer--a local restaurateur who happens to be the son of Elmore Leonard, who wrote Get Shorty, the original 3:10 to Yuma and one of my favorites, Out of Sight. The three of us swapped lines from Leonard's movies, to the chagrin (and occasional amusement) of the other customers. My personal favorite: Don Cheadle to George Clooney in Out of Sight, as the two men aimed guns at each other: "In a situation like this, there's a high potentiality for the common motherf----- to bitch out."

At first, ours was a seasonal friendship. Like Chance the Gardener, I like to watch. When primetime TV is in first-run mode, I watch a lot of TV. During the summer, the holidays and (more and more often these days) the times when everything on TV is reruns, I rent videos. As Tom and I became better friends, I began stopping by every Monday night, whether I was renting or not.

Tom was openly (and just this side of flamboyantly) gay, and he delighted in telling customers which actors and actresses "belonged to his club" (his words). Some names he would blurt out with a twinkle in his eye, and others he would spit out venomously, angry with the hypocritical public stances and private creepings these actors would undertake to maintain their macho status in Hollywood. He was especially unhappy with a guy who starred in Get Shorty. That should be nebulous enough.

He and I used to go to the movies. The first movie we ever saw together was the first Fantastic Four. It blew. We spent half the movie joking about whether, in that particular case, it was appropriate to leave an empty "homo seat" between the two of us.

Customers would come in looking for Saw XXVII and would leave with Dial "M" for Murder. He'd follow people around the store and say, "Don't take that!" Then he'd find a gem in the "classics" section and thrust it into their hands, saying, "Trust me." He loved film noir and constantly extolled the virtues of Rita Hayworth and other voluptuous movie sirens of the '40s, while never missing the opportunity to ridicule the stick-figured, fake-breasted creatures that pass for movie stars these days.

In a world that was more fair, he would have been in the movie business instead of worshipping it from a distance. But the Blockbuster thing was just a part-time gig for him. He also worked for some public-opinion research company. He owned a duplex and always drove around in really cool older cars. This past summer, he asked if I wanted to fly to Florida with him and help him drive back in a classic Cadillac he had arranged to buy from an online seller. I had basketball stuff to do, so I couldn't go. He went alone and then flew back home. The car wasn't what the seller had claimed it to be, and I was amazed that he was so disappointed that someone would try to pull a fast one on him over the Internet.

Trim and fit, with his short hair parted down the middle, he looked like a young Charlie Chaplin. He certainly looked much younger than he was, but as he moved into his 40s, he often lamented the fact that he lacked a partner and any real prospects. More than once, he asked me to write something about the lame gay scene in Tucson. I told him that such an undertaking would be better handled by someone younger, hipper and perhaps gayer than I.

Every time he would complain, I would say, "Oh, you're just mad because you missed your opportunity to date (former Congressman) Jim Kolbe." He referred to Kolbe as a "troll," and I never got around to asking him whether that was the standard definition, or if maybe it meant something different for him.

In recent months, he complained that his two best buddies had both gotten jobs in Flagstaff and moved away. He chided me for having missed a couple of Mondays and told me that I'd better not make it a habit, lest he become "alone and forgotten."

On Monday night last week, I went to the store and was told that he hadn't shown up for work. I didn't give it a second thought, but I do remember that when I got in the car, the CD player was blasting Earth, Wind and Fire's "Devotion." In the privacy of my vehicle, I often try to match Philip Bailey's falsetto as he sings the lyrics, "In everyone's life, there's a need to be happy."

All this time, I thought Tom was.