When I was in the fourth grade, we had a genius who lived in my closet and smelled of garlic. He lived on the third floor of our house in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, slept at odd hours of the day, and kept his mail in our cereal cabinet. It’s a credit to my absolute belief in the normalcy of my family, that I didn’t find this strange in the least.
The genius and I shared the third floor, which was basically a converted attic. His bed was near a large walk-in closet and that is where he kept most of his processions including his TV, while my bed was across the room.
Most nights, while I was trying to fall asleep, he would be watching TV. The light would emanate from inside the closet like some strange Close Encounters moment, backlighting his inert body. The sound would be just loud enough to be somewhat distracting, but not loud enough to be entertaining. He watched a lot of history and science shows.
How he came to live with us escapes me now, but what I do know, is that my father had known him for years, and the genius, being without a place to live at the time, had been invited to come live with us.
His name was Tom Paine, like the American revolutionary who wrote the influential pamphlet Common Sense, and his family was original from somewhere in California. Tom was an honest-to-god, off the charts genius. He was a charter member of MENSA and in fact was close personal friends with the founder. Tom’s IQ may have been off the charts, but he suffered from serious food allergies, various medical problems and emotional issues. He did not have great social skills and though brilliant failed to grasp societal norms. Common sense was not necessarily something that had been inherited along with the name.
Because of his many issues, Tom was on permanent disability. As a way to try to combat his illnesses, Tom was very into holistic medicine and ate raw garlic as a way to cleanse his body. It’s safe to say that he wasn’t sneaking up on a lot of people. When he was in the room, you knew it.
In the years that he lived with us, and even years later when he would get his mail from us, he would walk in unannounced, with this hair doing a pretty good impersonation of Albert Einstein, wave, open the cabinet over the stove where we kept the cereal and retrieve his mail.
Despite his troubles, Tom always seemed pretty happy, always had a nice word to say and though definitely a bit weird to a ten year old, was always a gentleman. He had become such a fixture over the years, that we barely noticed him.
I could be sitting in the kitchen with a friend and Tom would come in the back door, say hello, get his mail and leave. My friend would just look at me.
“What,” I’d say.
“Who the hell was that?”
“Oh, just a family friend,” I’d say, then go back to watching cartoons.
Almost nothing fazes kids and so I never really felt the need to explain Tom and my friends didn’t bother much with the comings and goings of adults. Tom was a genius, was a friend of my father’s, lived in my closet for a time, and he smelled powerfully of garlic. What else was there to tell?