My apologies for not posting this sooner. The new year has been off to a busy start!
Chapter 4–Part 1
After switching buses, George finally arrived in front of his apartment complex shortly after noon, thinking how not being employed left one a good deal of spare time. He lived in a gated community, though he wasn’t sure if the gate kept people out or in. It seemed more annoying than protective. All a prospective burglar had to do was walk around the gate; there was plenty of room to do so. Moreover, the gate never seemed to open and close properly. George had seen a car trapped in its metal jaws on more than occasion. Without a car, he had to walk through (or around) the gate every day and considered it not terribly problematic. The complex itself was not unique in any way and we need not spend an inordinate amount of time describing it (once you’ve seen one apartment complex—half-brick and half-beige aluminum siding— you’ve seen them all).
In any event, George climbed the stairs to his third-floor apartment, noticing that the ascent had gotten easier since he’d quit smoking. He slipped the key into the lock, opened the door, and stepped inside. Glancing around the small apartment, he observed all the extra space. It wasn’t so much that he was a minimalist in his taste for decoration and furnishings, though that is what he often told people, it was more the case that several of his possessions, most of them in fact, had gone the way of his car—that is to say, the court, in its infinite wisdom, had agreed with his wife’s plea and she maintained more than ninety-nine and seven-tenths percent of the material belongings acquired during the couple’s “marital bliss” (his wife’s terminology). In court, George pointed out that this period of ecstasy had lasted less than two years, and that, despite some pleasure and enjoyment (there was the time with the body harness), his wife’s character and disposition resembled a succubus from the netherworld. He also mentioned his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity—the numerous phone calls in the middle of the night, the seat adjustments in the car, the frequent deliveries of flowers, which George never ordered, etc. He also suggested that if the judge played his wife’s testimony backward he might hear a favorable reference or two to the Prince of Darkness. He started to add that she’d always demonstrated an aversion to sunshine and garlic before the judge cut him off. It should be noted, however, that our hero followed the sage advice of his attorney and did not let fall from his lips the phrase “spawn of Satan.” Rumor has it that after hearing the judge’s verdict, which was overwhelmingly in her favor, his wife exclaimed, “Thanks be to Lucifer!” and dashed out of the courtroom, late for a séance.
In any event, George sat down in the chair in the living room and thought a moment. Despite his comment to Theresa, he realized thinking constituted a threat of sorts and was not certain that the resumption of deep thought would be the best course of action. He sensed, correctly, that he was at a turning point, but knew not what he was turning away from or toward. It occurred to him that he should probably seek the counsel of his best friend, John. The two had been roommates at college and though they’d gone their separate ways, George had never completely lost touch with his pal. While George went to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D., John pursued a Master’s degree in business. His friend went on to become something of a tremendous success, at least financially; for John’s personal life had been characterized by some ups and downs. Still, George figured he could do much worse than seek his advice. John was recently remarried and had built a home in the area to accommodate his new family, which included two stepchildren, whom George had yet to meet.
George dialed and his friend picked up on the second ring. He filled John in on the details of what had recently transpired or at least his version of the events—as a wise person once said, probably a woman, there are two sides to every story and then there’s the truth. “I feel like I’m at a turning point, John, or a fork in the road. Well, not so much a fork. I mean since when do different paths look like tines? I guess it’s more like a divining rod, so to speak, a veritable—”
John interrupted for fear that identifying the appropriate metaphor would take George longer than either of them had to live. “George, let me ask you this: what exactly did you do in order to get fired?”
“Well, as I said, I didn’t exactly get fired. I mean I was fired, but then I got rehired, and then I—”
“I know, I know, but then you quit. What I’m asking is what prompted your boss’s Daley’s decision to fire you?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“Did you do anything offensive?”
“No. In fact, I didn’t do much of anything at all. I tried to write the Glendale report, but couldn’t do it.”
“There’s your mistake.”
“Not being able to write the report?”
“Partly. But before that you said you didn’t do much of anything. Haven’t I told you time and time again that the first rule at being successful in business is to look busy, even if you’re not doing anything? You have to look as if you’re engaged in a task, the most monumental endeavor of all time, and that only you have what it takes to complete the job. Do you still operate under the illusion that people employed by successful companies like Crucial Information, Inc. actually accomplish anything? Come on, George, we’ve had this conversation so many times.”
“I know, but if I’m working for a company and they’re paying me, I believe I should be doing something that helps them. How could I collect a paycheck in good faith if I knew I wasn’t producing anything of value, or increasing their damn business, so to speak?”
“George, don’t ever let me hear you say that again!” John cried.
“I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have used the word ‘damn.’”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t want to hear the words ‘good faith’ and ‘business’ in the same sentence ever again. Those words ‘good faith’ are anathema when it comes to making money. And then there’s that whole bit about you not knowing what the company does. Since when has that ever stopped anyone from starting, working for, or investing in a business? I know I’ve told you this before, George, but I’ll say it again: your problem, your number one difficulty in life is you think too much.”
“You’re right, John. I’m so glad I decided to call you. I knew you’d talk some sense into me.”
“Listen, what are you doing for dinner tonight?”
“Not much of anything.”
“Why don’t you come over? You can meet Peg and see the new house. Unfortunately, the kids are away visiting their father, but I’ve really been anxious for you to meet my wife.”
“I’d like to, but I don’t have a car—er—at this particular moment.” George was too embarrassed to admit the truth. He’d only talked to John over the phone during the past year or so and his friend was not fully aware of his circumstances, especially his negative cash flow.
“Is your car in the garage?”
“Yeah, that’s good.”
“I mean, yeah, my car is, uh, being serviced.” This was not a complete falsehood: the condition of the car when it was repossessed forced the bank to work diligently to restore it to even a vestige of its former glory.
“Well, I can send my driver to pick you up around five if you wish.”
“You have a limo?”
“No, not exactly; it’s a Lincoln town car.”
“Wow, that’s still pretty impressive.”
“Yeah, well, Peg doesn’t like to drive, so it serves a dual purpose. Anyway, can I have him swing by later to pick you up?”
“That’ll be fine. Thanks, John.” He gave his friend directions to the complex and told him to tell the driver he’d wait for him outside the gate, so as not to inconvenience him. In actuality, our hero had not fully deciphered the terribly enigmatic process of letting someone in the gate via cell phone and was a bit embarrassed by his inability to do so, though of course there was no reason to be. For several of us, I’m sure, can relate to being inconvenienced by the very technology that is said to make our lives easier.
“I look forward to it, George. It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.”
George spent the remainder of the afternoon thinking. By the time five o’clock rolled around, he’d worked himself into a dither. He couldn’t forget John’s words that his problem stemmed from thinking too much. Somewhat reluctantly, he admitted to himself seldom a moment passed when he was not engaged in rather deep meditation concerning a certain idea, theory, or work of philosophical import. At the end of the day, he was forced to admit that thinking had not gotten him far—especially if one considered things from a practical perspective. For example, he knew he had to start making money soon, if only to pay his rent, utilities, alimony, and a wide variety of other bills, but exactly how to do so eluded him. George possessed the ability to think of things that have seldom if ever been contemplated; indeed, he was a walking receptacle of esoteric notions, rarefied theories, and intriguing, untested hypotheses. But when it came to making a buck, eking out an existence, he didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t that he looked down on physical labor. In fact, the reverse was true: he thought those who worked with their hands were the most remarkable and admirable people. Nor was it an aversion to work per se that prevented him from trying to make money. It was more a feeling that whatever he did or could do just didn’t seem to matter a great deal. How could a person pick one thing and then do it all their lives? Especially when in the grand scheme of things, most occupations bore little social utility.
The driver pulled up to the curb and George ducked inside the back of the Lincoln. It was a short trip and there really wasn’t much to talk about. In less than ten minutes, the driver turned into a freshly paved, semi-circular driveway in front of a palatial home: a three-story, brick and stone structure with black awnings and shutters. The landscaping was exquisite and displayed a wide variety of plants and trees suitable for an arboretum: several lush maples and birches, azalea bushes, anemones, and ferns. On the west side of the home stood a wooden gazebo, its peaked roof glimmering in the sun. Though the backyard wasn’t fully visible, the edge of a pond and a rose-covered trellis could be glimpsed around the side. George took all of this in during the time it took to get out of the car and walk the few steps to the front porch, where John stood in anticipation of his friend’s arrival.
A word must be said concerning John’s physiognomy, and a certain amount of discretion is necessary in portraying him and his new bride, whom we’ll meet shortly. John was in his early-to-mid thirties, around the same age as George, of average height and weight. But despite his relatively young age—and I hope the reader will agree that he was young—he was slightly stooped, or hunched over and his shoulders sagged and projected outward, which caused him to appear as if he were crouching. Good posture is a rarity and this slight defect in John’s appearance might have gone unnoticed if it were not for his head and face, the combination of which were truly unique. He had unusually small eyes, ears, and nose, while his lips were rather elongated and thin. His prematurely gray hair cascaded in thin waves over his forehead and proceeded, unchecked, over his eyes and halfway down his face. These low-hanging bangs were like curtains waiting to be raised for the commencement of a play. He also breathed heavily, not in a lewd or salacious manner, but in a way that resembled panting; in the course of doing so, his tongue protruded through his teeth and was often on prominent display for friends, family, and passersby. Due to the logistics of his hair, he was also in the habit of interrupting every few words he spoke by sticking out his lower lip and blowing upward in a desperate attempt to remove the bangs from his eyes, if only to plot a proper course. He emitted a sound while doing so that was not unlike that of a cornet. So frequent were these musical interludes that we shall not mention all of them during our visit; however, the reader should keep in mind that they occurred constantly throughout and, if strung together side by side, might resemble a concerto in length, if not in melody. Overall, and I say this with great respect, his appearance was akin to that of a sheep dog and George always parted from his friend with the feeling he should contribute to the SPCA.
John greeted George warmly when he reached the top of the steps, his tongue lolling and his felicitations punctuated by a hair-blowing flourish. The two friends went inside after a brief, albeit extraordinarily polite, contestation of who should go first—with John insisting his friend should precede him, and George gently suggesting that the master of the house should cross the threshold first. Ultimately, they both conceded simultaneously and ended up sidling through the door at the same time, temporarily becoming stuck in the doorframe. They popped into the foyer and George was ushered into the dining room, which was spacious and contained a fireplace, an enormous china cabinet, and a long, mahogany table over which hung a beautifully framed reproduction of The Last Supper. George took his seat near one end of the tremendous table, while John positioned himself at the head.
“Well, John, this is, indeed, impressive,” George remarked, truly impressed.
“Thank you. We’re happy with it and so are the kids. It cost a fortune, but it’s worth it.”
George knew his friend had more than enough money to buy several homes of such elegance. John was a mogul, if a rather modest one, and he had never been able (nor had he the need) of successfully countering the urge to spend money on anything. While George could never remember exactly what constituted the bulk of John’s extremely successful enterprise, he knew his friend was in the manufacturing business and presided over a huge company that he’d inherited, along with the majority of his fortune, from his father. Though John never worked a day of manual labor in his life and had never wanted for anything, George admired him for his kindness to his friends and employees as well as his keen insight into the inner workings of the mind. Besides, the fact that John was in the business of actually making something, a rarity in this post-industrial era, garnered a great deal of respect from George. George believed that in manufacturing one could at least point to a finished product. Sure, you had to overlook the frequent outsourcing by multinational corporations to poor, developing countries and the subsequent child labor, sweatshops, and environmental degradation that occurred, but once you got over that, you could hold the finished item in your hands.
“So how’s business?” George asked.
“Oh, I can’t complain,” John replied. “And even if I did, who would listen?” This was a standard joke between the two friends and it was accompanied by some laughter and, on John’s part, a flourishing solo in an attempt to part the waves of hair that all but concealed his facial features.
“I know I’ve asked you this a thousand times before, but I can never seem to remember what it is you manufacture.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal,” John answered modestly. “I make widgets.”
“Sure you do,” George said grinning. “Everybody knows that’s the example used in economics classes to refer to any manufactured product. You know the bit about making the best widget at the cheapest price, etc.”
“Yes, I know all that. But the fact of the matter is I do make widgets, you know, the small devices and mechanisms crucial for the proper functioning of a variety of household and industrial products.” John said this by rote, as if he had to explain what he made on a regular basis.
“Oh, well, I still say it’s a stroke of genius. I mean, who would ever think of manufacturing something that everyone is so familiar with theoretically but doesn’t seem to exist in practice. Your father was a smart man, and you’ve obviously followed in his footsteps”
“Thank you, sir, but he was no Ph.D. like a man of your intellectual import.”
“Oh, please, it’s really no big deal.”
The effusions of this mutual admiration might have continued indefinitely if not for the event that immediately transpired. At first, George only noticed that things were starting to shift, and felt a small vibration that caused the dishes in the china cabinet to shake. John noticed the puzzled look on his friend’s face and gleefully cried, “Oho, Peg’s coming!”
To be continued…