The friendship of George and Richard was wrought with enough complicated feelings and nuances that I feel compelled to describe it in familial terms, but that does not provide the sort of shortcut I wish it would. I want to say, “They loved each other like brothers, and like brothers, neither one could imagine life without the other, but, also like brothers, they did not always enjoy each others' company,” but this is not quite right, because, through Beth as well as Molly (me), George and Richard were connected to each other for over 20 years, but their connection had its lulls and eddies, and there were whole years where they only saw each other at holidays, when Richard would be dropping Molly off at Beth’s apartment and, like clockwork (because George was set in his ways) it would be George who answered the door, having arrived at Beth’s place a couple hours earlier to help clean up for Molly’s visit, and George and Richard would have a brief conversation, not bothering to fill each other in on recent significant events, assuming that Molly took care of relating important news to all the outposts that comprised their makeshift family, which she did. However, these brief and apparently superficial doorway conversations were not insignificant to either man. After kissing Molly on the crown of her head and saying, “Have fun, kiddo,” as Richard walked back to his car, invariably anticipating the date he almost always had with one of the girlfriends of his life on the nights Molly stayed with Beth, there was also a portion of his consciousness that was considering the conversation he’d just had with George. George. George. George made funny quips referencing characters from contemporary British novels written by women, and Richard had never read any of these books. It filled him with pity for George that George’s life was so limited to books and Beth. But it filled him with gratitude that George had assumed Richard had read the books George spoke about. Did he spend the night at Beth’s, or just get to her place early this morning?, Richard would wonder, and if he got there the night before, what did they do that night (not sex, of course, but what movie did they watch on TV, or did George take her out for drinks and dinner?), and did childishly selfish Beth make him sleep on the couch, or give him the bed (Richard never knew that Beth always preferred sleeping on couches to sleeping on beds, much as her own mother had)? What does George think of me?, Richard asked himself. Unlike the friends he made at work, who drifted out of his life and never drifted back in, and who were, ultimately, expendable, Richard knew, during the years he and George acted as mere acquaintances, that George would always be in his life. Is that how brothers feel about each other? Is that the rhythm of brotherhood? I can only guess.
Then, there is the first year of the friendship of Richard and George. Before Richard and Beth’s brief marriage ended, before the afternoon a newly divorced Beth showed up at George’s bookstore, pushing Molly in a dark blue stroller, knowing instinctively that George would provide her lifelong safety the second he looked up from his book and smiled at her, it had been Richard who stopped by George’s bookstore all the time, sometimes as often as three evenings a week, after work. He didn’t know, during these visits, how significant George would become to the woman he would marry, the child he would have. He liked to spend a few hours in the bookstore almost the same way a celebrity likes to shop in a K-Mart unrecognized; in other words, to slum. But what is at the heart of the enjoyment people find in “slumming” is something genuine, though the act of slumming hinges on falseness. What is at the heart of slumming is the desire to experience another way of life.
Those are two stages of the friendship of George and Richard.
Beth moved to Phoenix, Arizona, during the bewildering summer of 2001. It was the most uncharacteristic act imaginable; she hated the heat, she hated even to leave her apartment sometimes for days at a time, and her survival depended on her proximity to George, who gave her money whenever he could and who even bought her groceries for her, often, knowing what she liked to eat, delivering the bags of food, Vodka and diet cola right to her doorstep. Nonetheless, she moved to Phoenix, Arizona.
Once Beth left the state of California, with all its legendary goldenness, George was a changed man. He became bewildered and wore a constant searching expression on his face. At this point in their friendship, Richard, with Molly’s help, became providers for him. They had him over for dinner every Tuesday, Thursday and any other night he seemed to want to linger at their house. In 2002, he began to rapidly lose weight. It was discovered he had renal cancer. I think this might be a common way for poor people (which he was by this time, having lost his store long ago) to die: the county hospital can perform surgery on a poor person, sometimes, when its budget allows for charity, but the patient might have to wait for months, and is sent back home as soon as possible. George’s chemotherapy treatment was in the form of a pill. He swallowed it and then retched and shivered, hardly able to move, for the next few days.
During this first bout with cancer, he lived with Richard and Molly for two months. Molly liked to behave particularly solicitously with him during this time, because she’d thought she would never get a chance to openly love him, that because of his reserve and shyness, she would have to permanently act like she took him for granted, as she used to when she was a young chile.
Richard began to think of George as a paternal figure during this stay. He noticed that when he told George about his day at work, George always asked follow up questions, and ended the conversations with an encouraging summary of the strong points of Richard’s character. Maybe I matter in this world, Richard came away from their conversations musing. Maybe I do.