I don’t recall how I originally came to know George, only that he was a strong presence in my life for years and that with his death there was a space that could not be filled by anyone else. He came to all of my art shows, even though at times he could barely walk and had to shuffle his way every single day to Old City Java.
The first place I remember knowing George was Huntington Place off Sutherland Avenue. I did not live there but had many friends who did. George shared an apartment with a beautiful girl named Rachel, whom I also liked. Rachel spent most of her time arguing with her boyfriend while George nurtured his plants growing next to the steps of their apartment. And then there were the cats—a plethora of beautiful, ethereal cats, so white they seemed almost translucent—who would only come to George, and whom he fed and talked to daily, sometimes rescuing them when they got trapped underneath the building.
Even at age 75, George was quite good looking, with thick white hair, high sculpted cheekbones, and blue eyes that were pure innocence, which belied George’s true personality. Though at heart he was a kind man, he was prone to white lies to cover his trail and enhance his charm.
George was a perfect example of a common saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: “The only time an alcoholic lies is when he opens his mouth.” Still, George was charming and sweet, so one quickly forgot his lying nature.
George had raised his children in the throes of his raging alcoholism and consequent womanizing, so that even though he had been in recovery for many years, his family had little to do with him. His son had a beach house in Florida, which George greatly enjoyed, but he was only invited when his son’s family was on vacation, so that George’s trips were for the most part solitary except for casual acquaintances he met on the beach. Although he must have felt alienated from his family, he never spoke of it.
I often visited George for morning coffee. When I arrived, he would be reading a passage from his large, worn Bible. Sometimes he would read aloud from the Bible to me, after which we would sit in companionable silence, smoking together, sipping our coffee, and watching as the beautiful white cats wove their way around and through George’s calves, which were as shapely as a young coed’s.
George and I moved downtown to Summit Towers around the same time. George moved to the 10th floor, I to the sixth. We would go days without seeing each another, and then one of us would need some coffee, sugar, or any number of other things. George was as careless with money as I was, so we would also run into each other at Broadway pawn shops at the end of the month, then again at the beginning of the month when we went to pick our stuff up. He once, on impulse, paid money down to hold a violin for me but neither of us remembered to go and get it.
Each month George would rent a car for a day, take all of his friends out to lunch, be broke again by the 10th of the month, and then go begging for the rest of the month. Whenever he had his rental car, he would drive me around to pay my bills, and upon seeing a beautiful woman would yell out: “Butt alert!” Which drove me absolutely crazy.
“If you say that one more time I’m going to get out of the car,” I told him, at which point George would throw back his head and laugh uproariously.
Though he often got on my nerves, as I’m certain I did his, we were longtime friends and I loved him.
One Sunday afternoon I got a call from a mutual friend at Huntington Place saying that the police had picked up George as he was trying to use his downtown keys to get into his old apartment. The police told me he was very confused, not knowing where he was or even who he was. I wondered why they didn’t take him to a hospital instead of to his apartment at Summit Towers. George slept for hours and hours after this incident, and I began telephoning his son to determine where George should go next, for clearly he could no longer live alone.
I visited him as much as I was able at the nursing home in Oak Ridge where he was placed, and each time he pretended to know me, as I, in turn, pretended that he knew me and that everything was all right. Fortunately, he was well-liked by the nursing home staff, for he was still witty and charming.
To my knowledge his family never visited him, but eventually he was moved to Nashville where his grandchildren could visit him. It was only about eight months later that I read that George had died and been buried in a Nashville cemetery. “No services,” the obituary read. I was saddened by this, for George so loved a grand affair where he could dress up and show off a bit, but there it was. George was buried almost as an afterthought, an annoyance.
But however that may be, if George is in some other realm where he can read or hear about this article, know that it is written to honor you. For though you had your faults as we all do, you always had a kind heart, beautiful legs, and an exalted spirit, which I greatly miss.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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