Let George Do It
There’s no limit to what we would do for a good friend
By Joe Donohue
I’m in jail. How can it be possible that I, YMCA Volunteer of the Year, be in jail? Well, it was surprisingly easy actually, and all because I wanted to do somebody a favour. Doing favours, of course, is what we volunteers do.
My friend, George Michaud, had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I had first met George in my capacity as a freelance photographer ten years ago. I had been hired to shoot the new computer facilities at a school for the handicapped. George, who had taken early retirement from the oil business, was to be my contact at the school. He was fifty-five at the time, twenty years older than me. Within five minutes we were best of friends. Within ten minutes, I was offering to lead a group of kids on a monthly photo expedition, my first foray into volunteer work.
This brief snippet of conversation a few months back when the four of us were out for dinner – we’re both happily married, naturally – encapsulates George quite well:
Me: “Hey, I’ve just been nominated for Volunteer of the year at the Y.”
George: “That’s great Joe. Congratulations. By the way, I got a letter from the Archdeacon today, I’m to be honoured next month with a Distinguished Service Award”.
I was thinking of that and the presentation dinner in his honour as I went to visit him in the hospital the day after he had received the news.
Visiting George is not easy. You have to take your turn amongst the Church people, he was still their treasurer; the School people, he was on the Board; the Day Camp people, he paid July’s expenses; the Cottage people, he was president of the Lake Association; and the Food Bank people, he sponsored a pick up truck. As my status was as a friend, I good-naturedly deferred to all these worthy folk.
I mean you’re always doing something for somebody. Why don’t you spend these last few months being, well… selfish and rotten.
Finally it was my turn. I was with one food bank person and two visitors from the lake. Myra, George’s wife, stayed by his side. George was repeating for the umpteenth time what had quickly become a mantra.
“It’s inoperable, shouldn’t be more than a few months, I don’t want to know how much time I’ve got left, the best thing to do is to enjoy what time I have.”
“Hear hear”, said a visitor from the lake, looking very concerned.
“That’s the spirit, George”, said the food bank woman, bravely holding back her sniffles. The room was sombre, quiet.
“Why don’t you do something rotten? Kick an old lady down the stairs for example.” I couldn’t resist. The other visitor from the lake looked at me quizzically then started to laugh. So did Myra.
“I mean you’re always doing something for somebody. Why don’t you spend these last few months being, well… selfish and rotten.”
“I’ll think about it, Joe”, George grinned.
. . .
It was five days later before I got to see George again. In the interim he had successfully undergone a nerve block treatment to ease his pain. He was hoping to receive some half-day passes if he could manage to be relatively pain free for a few hours.
Incredibly, I was his only visitor. I sat in a chair at the foot of the bed. George was sleeping. I wondered how much time he had left. He didn’t want to know but I did. I was thinking “Why him?” There are so many much more deserving candidates.
“Okay, let’s do it”, George whispered, eyes still closed.
“You’re awake”. I rationalize quickly. “Let’s do what, George?”
He slowly opened his eyes and pulling himself laboriously up, he turned to me and said, “Let’s do something rotten.”
‘I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do and very well too. Now I want to do a few things I’m not supposed to do. I want to feel what that’s like.’
“What are you talking about?” Must be the medication.
“Last time you were here”, he said reaching for his water, “You said I should do something rotten. You’re right. I should and I will.”
“George, I was kidding, trying to lighten the mood.”
“But you were absolutely right. What am I going to do? I can’t exactly travel anywhere, I’ve got more than enough money to take care of Myra. My kids and grandkids are all well provided for. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do and very well too. Now I want to do a few things I’m not supposed to do. I want to feel what that’s like”. He seemed to be gaining strength as he talked.
“George, it’s the drugs, you’re rambling.”
“I know exactly what I’m saying and you’re going to help me.”
“George, I’m hardly Evil Incarnate myself!” A YMCA Volunteer of the Year and the recipient of the Archdeacon’s Distinguished Service Award do not the beginnings of a criminal gang make!
“It’ll be good for you too”. He knew and I knew he was going to prevail.
I was resigned. “What do you want to do?”
“Let’s knock out the Sly The Record Guy store downtown.”
“Er, George, I think that’s “knock over”.
. . .
I picked him up the following Thursday. Myra runs the Church boutique on Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm. She wanted to quit but George insisted she continue. George told her I’d be taking him for a drive in the country.
The plan was simple enough. I’d line up behind him at the cash. He’d give the cashier his CD, Mozart Horn Concertos, then scream in pain and faint. I’d yell at the cashier to help him. In the confusion, I’d run my copy of the Horn Concertos over the scanner, quietly slip out the store and he’d join me at Second Cup. Okay, it wasn’t the crime of the century but consider the perps!
Well, it worked.
I was on my second decaf mocha allongé when he sauntered in beaming as if he had next week’s lottery numbers.
“Good work in there, Butch”. I passed him the CD.
‘The plan was simple enough. I’d line up behind him at the cash. He’d give the cashier his CD, Mozart Horn Concertos, then scream in pain and faint.’
“You too, Sundance. That was exciting”. He took the CD, studied it for a moment, pulled out an 8 x 10 envelope from his pocket, put the CD inside and sealed it. The envelope had about ten dollars of stamps on it and was addressed to the store we had just knocked out, er, knocked over.
“What the hell are you doing? Did you put a return address on it too?”
“I don’t want to keep it”. He looked at me funny. Did I really think he wanted to benefit in any material way from this?
“Hell, give it to me then. I worked hard for this thing”. I grabbed the envelope. “How are you feeling?”
“Mentally I feel great but I think we better head back.”
He was quiet during the drive but as I settled him back in his bed, he looked right into my eyes:
“Thanks, Joe. Can we hit Prospero’s Books next week?”
On the drive home, I mailed the envelope.
. . .
We knocked over Prospero’s the following week. Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. I didn’t send this back. I convinced George to read it after me. He asked me if I wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail with him.
“You lead, I’ll follow.”
We liked the Bryson so much, we picked up another one at Purple Books the following week, Notes From A Small Island, “the funniest book of the year”, according to the Ottawa Citizen. Over the celebratory coffee, George broke the news to me.
“They’re moving me into the Palliative Care Unit as soon as space becomes available.”
‘Then George dropped another little bombshell. Next heist is Bermans and I want to be the one to grab the merchandise this time.’
“It’s good in a way. There’s always a counsellor available for the family.”
“Friends don’t always have the right words I’m afraid.”
“That’s okay Joe you do what you can,” he smiled.
We were quiet for a minute. “Are you scared?”
“Shitless, literally” he laughed.
“How’s Myra? I haven’t seen her all week.”
“She needs a break. After I’m settled in the Palliative Unit I’m going to convince her to go up to the cottage for a few days.”
Then George dropped another little bombshell. “Next heist is Bermans and I want to be the one to grab the merchandise this time.”
. . .
George had a couple of bad weeks after the Prospero’s Books ‘caper’. His liver was failing. He turned yellow. They drained him a couple of times and attempted a liver stent procedure. He rallied for a few days but the pain became so intense they redid the nerve block. He would wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. Myra hired a night nurse to stay in the room overnight just to be there. Needless to say Myra did not get up to the cottage.
One day the Archdeacon visited. It was too much for George. He slept the following two days and seemed to be failing quickly. We prepared the obituary and accompanying photo. Myra thought we should go for the picture of George in a suit, befitting his status as a successful businessman. I had taken the picture at the Distinguished Service Award presentation. I preferred a picture he had had taken of him and Myra at a Sears store (of all places) down in Florida, looking very casual.
My wife Susan and I visited him a few times during this period. He didn’t say much but he always seemed pleased when we came in. One day as we were leaving, George said ‘Bermans’ loud enough to be heard two rooms down. Susan asked me what that was about and I told her I had no idea. Lying to my wife now. Once you head down that slippery slope of crime…
I was fairly certain, despite that impromptu outburst, that our desperado days were over. Then, a couple of nights later as Susan and I were readying for bed, the phone rang.
“Joe, let’s do it tomorrow.”
“George you can’t be… are you feeling better?”
“I sure am and I’m willing to bet I’ll be even better tomorrow.”
“You really want to go through with this?” I was incredulous.
“It’s tomorrow or never.”
‘George said ‘Bermans’ loud enough to be heard two rooms down. Susan asked me what that was about and I told her I had no idea. Lying to my wife now.’
“How about never?”
“How about tomorrow?”
“What are you gonna tell Myra?”
“She’ll be at the dentist. This is really our last chance Joe.”
“Pick you up at ten.”
. . .
We had our coffee before the caper this time, partly to go through our plan, a bit more complicated this time, and also to give George a chance to rest. I set him at a table then went across the street to er… case the joint.
“This will be easier than I thought”, I said, returning to the table with two decaf allongés. I felt more confident than the situation warranted. “They’re renovating. There’s workmen everywhere, the floor’s dug up, display cases are open, stuff has been moved to the centre of the store while they put up new shelving, and they got a nice display of Waterford Crystal ten feet from an open door. I don’t know why it’s open. It’s almost like they’re begging us. George, are you with me?”
“I’m fine. What do you want me to take?”
“There’s a fine pair of salt and pepper shakers at the end of the Waterford table. Just put your hand over them and walk out after you hear me scream.” My cunning plan was to stumble on the half torn up cement floor and scream bloody blue murder.
“George, you really don’t have to this.”
“Yes I do, so let’s go” he got up and proceeded out, me following.
. . .
The Bermans building with its massive brass doors opening to a gigantic showroom replete with imposing marble columns was constructed, like the banks of the same era, to inspire respect bordering on awe for the giants of Commerce. The effect was always wasted on me. I would wonder how many families would be able to eat for a week on the sale of just one of the door handles. Now the doors and columns stood as the only remnants of its once great past. The building was being gutted to better serve the changing needs of the discerning 21st century consumer. I don’t know what that means either but that’s what the sign said. All I know is at the moment it looked like a sad reminder of a bygone era. You’d almost feel sorry for the old place if you didn’t look at the prices. The tiny pair of Waterford shakers had been reduced thirty percent to $110.
‘A two by four had smacked me flush in my right cheek. … I saw George out of the corner of my eye. He grabbed a large crystal vase and headed for the door.’
We split up as soon as we entered. George wandered over to look at some gold bracelets, I stopped at the ladies watches. There was a beautiful, sleek silver Omega, a steal at $4,500. Stealing it was the only way I was ever going to get it. The last watch I bought Susan was a Rolex off a street vendor in New York for $10 eight years ago. Don’t laugh, it still runs.
“Present for your wife, sir?”
“Just looking, thanks.” The polite way of saying “fuck off”.
“The Omega is a gorgeous piece sir. You have excellent taste”. My God, he really thinks he has a client here! He took the watch out of the display case and handed it to me. It felt beautiful. I handed it back reluctantly.
“A little out of my league I’m afraid.”
“We have a layaway plan sir.”
“No thanks.” I started walking towards the Waterford table – George was several feet ahead of me.
“Perhaps, sir, one of the other Omegas. I could show yo…”
I stopped. “No, I’m really not interes… SHIT!” A two by four had smacked me flush in my right cheek. As I turned around to scream at the guilty party, I saw George out of the corner of my eye. He grabbed a large crystal vase and headed for the door.
He was a few feet from the door when I saw him stumble. The vase was too heavy for him. I could see a guard rushing towards him. I think I heard the crash in my mind before it actually occurred. George had collapsed.
The guard got there first. I was right behind him. I laid George on his back and grabbed his right hand. He was still breathing.
“George”, tears welled in my eyes. How could I have been so stupid? “Can you hear me George?” He squeezed my hand.
“Do you know this man?” The guard was hovering a little too closely.
“Did somebody call 911?” I was frantic. “We’ve got to get him back to his hospital room.”
“Well there’s the matter of this attempted theft Mr…?” The guard wanted to control this situation.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The vase, he was going out the door with it. Can I have your name please”.
“He wasn’t going out with it, he was looking for a cash in this dump. Has somebody called 911?”
“They’re here,” a voice said.
I explained his situation to the paramedics. They packed him up very smoothly and radioed ahead to the hospital. I was boarding the rear to sit beside George when I was yanked back.
“I’m still going to want to charge him,” the guard said.
“Charge this, you idiot”. I hit him, hard, very hard, and that’s how I ended up in jail.
. . .
I only had to spend the one night in jail. My lawyer, operating on the “best defence is a good offense” theory, met with the Bermans people the next morning. If Bermans drops the assault charge, we’d be willing not to tell the media about how Bermans wanted to prefer charges on a terminally ill cancer patient based on very dubious evidence. We will however be proceeding with the lawsuit over the vicious hit I had taken from the 2 x 4. Allowing customers to roam around what is essentially a construction zone is tantamount to criminal negligence.
One of their lawyers, thinking ahead to next week’s grand reopening, asked point blank how much it would cost for us to forget the whole incident. I whispered something to my lawyer. She raised her eyes in surprise but agreed. Then they agreed. Should the $10 Rolex ever fail, although it shows no sign of doing so, Susan will be pleased with the Omega. It’ll be a present from George.
. . .
George lasted another month succumbing two days after his sixty-sixth birthday. We visited him at least twice a week. Sometimes he was lucid, sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t matter. It was just good to be around him. On those good days we’d manage a bit of conversation before he’d drift off. But only once did I hear him allude to our recent crime spree.
“I don’t know what I’m waiting for Joe. I just can’t seem to let go.”
“There’s no rush George. You’ll know when it’s time.”
“You really think so?” His voice was barely a whisper.
“I don’t know. That’s what they say.” I wished I could come up with something better.
“Good old ‘they’. They’ve got an opinion on everything.”
“Yeah, but they’re usually right” I replied. “At least that’s what they say.”
He smiled. “I don’t think we’ll be having any more adventures though Joe”
. . .
I saw him smile one last time the day before the end. He was sleeping. I was leafing through one of our Brysons. A nurse I had never seen before came in.
“Oh, are you one of his sons?”
I looked over at George “No, I’m not that lucky”, I replied slowly. His face seemed to relax a little. I like to tell myself it was a smile.
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Joe Donohue is a photographer who has frequently exhibited in Montreal, Toronto and New York. In 2007 Joe had a solo show at Harry’s Bar in Paris. His work can be found in many private and public collections, notably La Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec and the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 2008, he received a prize from the Applied Arts Photography and Illustration Magazine Awards for “Le Vieux Port”. See more of his works at joedonohuephoto.com