Arthur & George: The Quest
I haven’t told anyone but I’ve been searching for a job at one of those upscale chain restaurants because two weeks ago I discovered a lump in one of my balls and don’t have any health insurance at this place. Even at a chain I’ll probably have to wait ninety days before the full benefits kick in. I’m forty-three and I’m not stupid; that marble-hard thing is cancer. I’ve got no family, no girlfriend, only my friend George who’s got an undiagnosed but clear social anxiety problem. So I’m worried about who will take care of me if things get bad.
But the situation gets worse on Saturday. In fourteen years of working here, George’s never even been late, so I know something’s wrong when he doesn’t show up that morning to work the lunch shift. Recently I’ve spent all my free time putting in applications at every restaurant within a three-mile radius, but George hasn’t said anything about quitting. He cooks and washes dishes, now and then he throws pots and pans when one of the servers pisses him off, but he doesn’t talk much. The only phone he’s got is a landline, and the manager and I keep calling. We call for over an hour. George is like my brother, so I’m worried that he’s been robbed and left for dead in his apartment.
Monday comes and I still can’t get George on the phone. Now I’m really worried. I need to go check on him, but he lives thirty minutes from Winter Park. I can’t ride my bike all the way down Route 436 to his complex down by the Orlando airport. But Mondays are my day off and I can’t wait another day to make a trip out there, either; already I spent one day last week on the Internet at the library, researching the symptoms in my privates. Now I’ll lose out on the only afternoon I can count on for job-hunting, but I’ve got to find out what’s happened to George.
So I take the bus. I’ve never taken the damn bus before and hope I never have to do it again. I don’t own a watch so I’m not sure how long it takes, but probably a couple hours. I kill time by listening to some tapes I brought. I’m the only skinny white guy in black tight-rolled jeans, leather wristbands and a faded Ramones shirt on the bus. When people stare at me I just pretend not to see them, rewind some songs and listen again.
But I don’t listen. I worry about two things: my lump and George, mainly how my control freak best friend is interfering with me finding a new job so that I can afford a doctor to remove the marble from my ball and not suffer an early and pathetic death. I don’t have any pain, just an uncomfortable sensation of too much density down there which makes me shift in my seat every couple of minutes as if I’m sitting on a black hole.
Finally I’m at George’s doorstep, knocking, calling out his name repeatedly and yelling, “It’s Arthur!”
The door opens.
George leans against the frame and squints in the sunlight. He gives a faint hello but doesn’t move or invite me inside.
“What’s up?” I ask. “You haven’t been to work in two days. No one’s heard from you.”
“Sorry,” he says and then, “I must have turned the ringer off and forgot.”
I jump across the doorway. “Why didn’t you call in if you’re sick?”
“I’m not sick,” he says in a firm tone that takes me by surprise. “I don’t know what’s wrong. But I need rest. I don’t know if I can go back to cook on the line.” He rubs his eyes and I sneak further into the apartment so I can steal a good look at the place.
Nothing seems too out of the ordinary, but I catch a few things that strike me as odd. Next to George’s collection of Civilization games and shelf of Lord of the Rings collector figurines, he has stacked a tower of books about money: The Mindset of a Millionaire, The Investor Next Door, a whole bunch of titles. Pieces of colored paper and different sized bookmarks stick out from the pages at every angle. I find this odd because he never mentions anything about money to me. We stick to punk music and Middle-earth.
But I don’t ask about the books. In the kitchen, George dials the restaurant. As he holds for the manager, the laughter of the drunk bar regulars and noise of registers and silverware rattles the silence of his apartment.
The manager finally picks up and George apologizes for not calling sooner. Then he tells her that he’s been having chest pains. She tells him to take off all the time he needs to get checked out.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were having chest pains?” I demand as soon as he hangs up. George has had chest pain episodes before, just a by-product of his anxiety issue. I add, “Now I’ve burned up bus fare and a whole day to interview.”
“I’m scared,” he says. “Why do you all of a sudden want to work at another restaurant, anyway?”
As I unwind the Walkman headset from around my neck, my hands shake.
“Just tired of rolling burritos, I guess,” I lie. “You don’t have to stay there, either.”
He doesn’t say anything.
I open the door and give his shoulder a couple good thumps to calm him down. I say, “Let me know the stress test results.”
So I leave, more uneasy than when I arrived. I board the bus listening to the Ramones, “We’re a Happy Family”—one of our favorite songs from back in the days of our youth, George and me. I hate lying to George, but he’ll only get more upset if I tell him about the marble in my ball. And what if he’s about to have a massive heart attack any minute? George’s afraid for himself; I’m afraid for the both of us. I feel like I’m in one of those nightmares about work that I get once in awhile, usually after a busy weekend: the restaurant is slammed, a dozen orders strung across the line, but for some reason I’m cooking by myself, drowning in tickets and fryer oil. On the ride back to Winter Park, I avoid the glances of the other passengers by staring out the window. I don’t want anyone to notice the tears behind my drugstore shades.
The next day, George calls me during my lunch shift and says he wants to meet for dinner at the Thai place—our usual spot in the K-mart shopping plaza. He refuses to tell me anything more, just that he spent the morning at the doctor’s office.
I arrive to the Thai place at 6:30 and order a Singha. I’m halfway through my beer before George strolls in. We talk about the diagnosis. The doctor found George to be one-hundred-percent healthy, with the exception of his ten-pound beer paunch and a couple of infected toenails.
“And I don’t know if I’m coming back to work,” he says proudly.
“But the doctor found nothing wrong,” I say.
“That’s doesn’t mean I’m all right,” he says. “Whatever those pains were in my chest, they were real. And you know what?”
George brings out a map and unfolds it right over our appetizers. One corner dips into the peanut sauce, but he doesn’t even care. And he starts yakking about finding lost cities. How we spend all this time talking about fantasy worlds when the ruins of whole civilizations we barely know anything about are right here, ruins plain as the dumplings on our plates. “I get too stressed out over that kitchen printer spitting out orders,” George says. “Those chest pains are a sign I need to follow my passion.”
This is only partly true—George likes to blame the busy kitchen for his stress blowups and silent frenzies when the real cause is the people, the ex-con line cooks and coked-up waitresses making him nervous. This is also the most I’ve heard George speak at one time since his mother’s funeral. “Passion?” I ask.
“I want to go on a quest,” George says. “A real one.”
The only quest I have known George to go on for the entire duration of our lives has been to fetch tamales in the walk-in. “I thought you enjoyed cooking,” I say. “I’m close to finding another job. Maybe we can work at a new place together.”
“Nah,” he says. “I don’t want to work, or go back to school, or volunteer. Don’t you ever think about death, Arthur? How you could spend your whole life in drunk Poppy’s kitchen and miss out on everything?”
I look away, at a dated poster of the gold reclining Buddha on the wall, a Thai Air advertisement for Bangkok. “You’ve got money in the bank,” I say. “I need to find a job. With benefits.”
“You can’t work forever,” he says. “I know you only like fiction, but maybe you should read up on how to invest.”
I don’t say anything. Our food arrives and we dig in like my cats feasting at their bowls. Underneath the table, I tug the denim away from my crotch. Is a dull ache starting up in my lower middle or am I just being paranoid about the lump? Things have never felt like this between the two of us, all charred meat and gristle.
“Something wrong with your chair?” he asks, eyebrows knitting in a ‘ w.’
“Easy to talk about going on vacation when you’ve got a cushion,” I say, curling my tailbone into the seat. “And that’s what this quest idea is—a vacation. Hell, go for it. I’m surprised you’re not on Easter Island right now.”
George shoves his plate and beer aside. He says, “What do you think the world owes you, anyway?” Then he yanks out the plastic binder clip he uses to hold his cash and peels off a bill.
I feel small, as if all of a sudden I’ve turned back into a five-year-old. “I don’t know,” I grumble. “Fun, if I could afford it.”
George just sits there and stews. I ask for the check and take-out boxes, although I pause for the first time because I usually give my leftovers to George since he hates to cook at home and will otherwise live off of deli sandwiches. But he gets up to leave before I can decide and slams his chair into the table so that my beer sloshes onto my Pogues t-shirt (another classic).
“Fun is free,” he says, folding his map hurried against his chest. “You only have to want to invest in it. I don’t know why, but you don’t.” And he stomps on out the door.
I pick up the ten-dollar bill he left, not even enough to cover half his order, but this is typical. He hasn’t looked at the price side of a menu since over ten years ago when his mom passed away and he found out he didn’t have to rely on his paycheck.
What is this fight about between us? What no one else but me knows about George is that his mother left him tons of stocks and mutual funds, plus her property up in Pennsylvania, so he could live off that income at any time (plus he pays his own heath insurance). He’s pretty embarrassed about having money, but what aggravates me is that he knows what I make and he’s never mentioned any investment books or offered to give me a loan. It’s a lot easier to embark on fun, insane quests with money. And also to save your life. George wouldn’t be able to argue against that.
I have plenty of passions: music, building airplane models, collecting old bottles, reading Hunter S. Thompson, rescuing stray cats. But maybe George’s talking about a different kind of passion, not one you invent alone but one you can only feel with someone else. Who will I eat with at the Thai place if George leaves? The last thing I want to do is have to ask George for money, but what if I don’t tell him about the lump and he disappears for good? Finding a new job is already taking too long. Will I have to take the bus to the doctor’s office to get the bad news, with no one to drive me or to call when I get home except the crackheads at the restaurant?
I can’t imagine life without George, my blood brother since we were thirteen. All the cats in the world couldn’t make up for our friendship (plus I already have fifteen kitty mouths to feed and Mama T.’s litter is on the way.)
Two hours after our fight at the Thai restaurant, and I’m still pacing and tossing the cats around. One of the reasons I’m so unnerved is that the usual ritual with George and me has been interrupted. After our weekly dinner out, he comes over to my place and we play chess on my Tolkien special edition set.
I’m secretly hoping George will want to apologize for storming out during dinner and call me first, but then I think about how much his chest pains, real or not, have weirded him out. He’s not going to call. More than ever, the denseness in my scrotum seems to creep up my leg and into my gut as I roam my apartment. I miss my friend. Last week we stumbled upon an old Fellini flick on late-night cable and laughed our asses off. Few people are so simply entertained.
So I call. He answers and apologizes right away for how he acted at the restaurant. But when I invite him over, he breathes into the phone for a moment and then says, “Sorry. I’ve got plans.”
“Plans?” I ask, rejection welling up in my throat.
“I’m actually going to check out the Orlando Chess Club. They meet every Monday night at the downtown library. Want to come?”
“I don’t know,” I stutter. I picture us walking into a library bright with strangers, having to make introductions, feeling awkward and making dumb chess moves because all I’m worried about is my ball. I say, “That’s not really my thing.”
“It’s free, at least,” he answers. “We could use some more friends, Artie.”
I unzip my jeans and feel around until I find the lump. I picture the days ahead, clocking my hours, coming home sticky with fajita juice until I’m too sick to work anymore. I tell him, “Maybe you can bring by one of those investment books tomorrow.”
“Sure. Are you okay?”
Why can’t I just tell him about the marble I’m pressing between my fingers, how scared I am? It’s not really the money; he’ll give me money if I explain it alright. But I’m afraid it’s too late for us as friends, and he’s already gone.
“Might be fun. You coming?”
“Thanks,” I say, adding, “I just don’t feel like it.”
I click off the phone and chuck it hard at the far end of the couch. Kitties scatter and yowl, bewildered. I pull one to my lap and cry.
That night George knocks at my door around midnight. I’m up, watching old Star Trek episodes on the Sci-Fi channel and smoking a clove. He barges in with a backpack overflowing with ingredients like a taco salad—a compass dangles from one clip, a beaded-and-feathered amulet we made in Eagle Scouts from another. Alarmed but mostly pissed off, I pop up from the couch.
“Going camping?” I can’t help asking.
“Just stopped to say goodbye and drop off some food. Only room for packaged goods where I’m heading.”
“Where’s that?” I ask, worried.
“If I told you, you’d have to come along,” he says.
“What about your place? You can’t just leave.”
“My sister’s coming down next week. She’ll pack it up in storage.” I hurry to the mini-fridge for a Rolling Rock, offer one to George with the hopes that I can stall him but he refuses. Now this hurts and frustrates me even more. My best friend standing there, ready to blast off to who-knows-where with his backpack busting open and not having the decency—not caring enough—to delay his departure and have a goddamn beer.
“You can’t just leave and not tell anyone where you’re going,” I yell. “That’s crazy. People disappear forever like that.” I shove the opened beer toward him.
“I’m fine,” he says, waving his hand in a “no thanks” gesture.
I take him in from top to bottom—the packages of macaroni and cheese and marshmallows sticking out of his bag’s top flap, the maps tucked into his jacket pocket. Panic strikes as I realize once George leaves out that door, I will have to battle disease and death alone. Unless I can convince him otherwise.
“Take me with you,” I beg. “I might even have a better shot at a job somewhere else.”
“A man’s quest is his own,” he says, backing away toward the door. He stumbles and almost trips as three of the meowing cats twine in a figure-eight between his legs. “You will find your own path, brother.”
The screen door floats to a close behind him.
“Hold on,” I say, but the right words clog my throat. I race down my porch steps. George flicks on his headlights. Too late, I blurt out, “I’ve got cancer in my balls!”
And he’s gone.
I always pictured George right there if I had to face getting sick or death, maybe because I had never thought of me deserting him. I’d told his mom I’d look out for him, since we both didn’t think he’d ever get married. But now as I stand there with the tree frogs chirping I must ask myself, who am I without George?
That night I fix up a washcloth with ice cubes and hold it against the swelling, more awake than ever. Lack of friends feels like a greater, scarier abyss than the lump. But when I reach down to poke my ball again the lump seems to have gotten bigger. What if I’ve waited too long?
The possibility of gripping death in my very hand opens up something exciting in me though, like rounding the bases during a good kickball game. If my life could be more like recess than a job with benefits, how do I discover my own path like George did? It’s like I’m slowly peeling back my skin and remembering who I was once, the kid who suggested to Goofy George (that’s how the rest of our class heckled him) that we become blood brothers. “For life,” I’d told him. I should have been scared of getting beat up (puny runt that I am) but back then I pretended so much like I was one of the wild, mouthy Sex Pistols that I believed it a hundred percent, and so did everyone else. No one bothered us after we became friends.
I go to bed with nine of the kitties curled around me instead of the usual seven. I have to start thinking about getting some real pussy, I think to myself and start to laugh but then stop when I realize the marble in my ball might have already jeopardized that, plus George won’t be around later to hear this new joke. A man’s got to have at least one true friend to meet up with for dinner or a beer, even to just sit around and listen to scratchy records with. A friend to ride across town on a bus to check on, or to pick up groceries for and stick injections of morphine into his cold skinny tush eventually—how could I have missed that?
Before turning off the lamp, I watch the cats scamper around the room. I think topsy-turvy: instead of nine cats and one friend, maybe I should have gathered nine friends and one cat. Friendship shows a person who he really is—without it, one can only ever partly know himself.
I dream that my rented bungalow is a shop, and I’m the clerk. All the airplane models and dusty bottles and even my prized albums are for sale. I even give away the cats.
In the morning, I awake to Mama T. giving birth to her kittens at the foot of my bed. I call the restaurant and announce I won’t be coming in for my shift. Their little new lives make me think of my own.
A week later, I start a new job at a breakfast place, corporate, with decent benefits and no drunk bar customers demanding special prep requests for their carne asada and buffalo wings.
I hear nothing from George for thirteen days. Then one afternoon I get home from work and my machine spews ten messages, all from him. In some of the messages, he’s upset and sounds scared. But he leaves his location and promises to wait there until I can arrive, even if it takes me until payday to afford the trip.
I dump cat food into giant bowls, throw a few changes of underwear and music (Queen, The Thrill Kill Cult) into a duffel bag. I catch a city bus and this time don’t care who looks at me funny. I stare at them back.
At the Greyhound station I buy the ticket to New Mexico. Only after we’ve been on the road for a couple hours and merge back on the highway at Gainesville do I realize that I have lost my new job after less than a week.
But I must find George and make sure he’s okay. And this time I’ll ask straight out if he’ll help pay for my treatment. Out of frustration, he’ll probably stomp a tumbleweed flat and curse at me for not telling him the truth months ago.
On the flat stretches of highway I devour a wilted Thompson paperback, my fifth read. But for the first time I stop partway through and dog-ear the page. Maybe all this time I should have been living my life more like my gonzo hero instead of just reading his accounts.
I spend three cramped days in the Greyhound bus, which smells of stale body odor and tuna fish. Once I reach New Mexico I take a town bus, and at the last small town stop I hitch a ride from a local to George’s campsite. I recognize George’s tent right away—he’s pitched it as close to the entrance of the camping grounds as possible. Unshaven and sunburned as a copper pot, George bends over an old charcoal grill roasting chicken and vegetables on rough skewers made from sticks.
As soon as he sees me George drops his fork, runs and grabs me in a tight hug.
“What’re you doing out here?” I ask.
“I can’t make it on my own,” George cries into my shoulder. The material of the t-shirt is so worn, his tears pour right through to my skin. “I’m a millionaire. But I’m too scared.”
George is a kind-hearted man but full of his own troubles and his confession reminds me of my own sick ball which has increased in size over the past couple of weeks. I noticed this just today when the bus stopped and I was taking a piss (on a giant cactus, my first time).
“Hey, man,” I say, “I don’t know how to live without a stupid job.” But that’s all I can manage because my throat feels like it’s being squeezed by a choke chain. Later on I can confess about my marble ball. Just picturing our talk ahead, I feel better.
George straightens up, offers me a clean shirt (Jane’s Addiction, two sizes too big) and a swig from a warm bottle of Cuervo Gold.
I don’t need the tequila, though. Before us is the sunset in the desert and endless time, endless space. I feel like I am God because I feel free from everything—a new me and the original me all together, the punk who never hesitated to invite the weird kid to hang out and listen to David Bowie albums. I slide my headphones over my ears and smile.