When they met that humid moonless evening twenty-two years ago, Willard Fitzsimons knew his secrets would be safe with George. Now, George was his best kept secret.
Theirs was a chance meeting. He’d taken his puppy, Butch, for a late-night walk in the park next to Teresa Alwin’s stately Victorian. After Butch did his duty, Willard sat under the ancient oak that straddled the park and Teresa’s backyard. He pulled out his pipe, scratched Butch’s ears, and enjoyed his favorite cherry-flavored tobacco.
A few puffs later, he noticed someone in the shadows in Teresa’s yard about ten feet away. He introduced himself to the stranger and struck up a conversation. Willard liked him immediately. Unlike most people he knew, George was a good listener. Non-judgmental.
From then on, he and Butch headed to the park around ten each evening. He’d smoke his pipe under the oak and confide his worries and frustrations to George. His friend’s blue eyes telegraphed empathy, and sometimes he’d nod in agreement, though it was dark and Willard wasn’t sure about the nodding. Willard grew fond of him. He was the first friend he’d ever had that just let him talk. Soon his lifelong shadow of loneliness began to fade.
One night he complained to George about his wife’s relentless remarks about his paunch, his comb-over, and the fact that he hadn’t had a promotion in over a decade. Turning sixty had been depressing enough without her daily jabs. He admitted to avoiding Maggie most nights, retreating to his electric train sets in the basement. After talking with George, he decided to tell her how he felt. She had apologized immediately, caressed his cheek, and never made fun of him again.
A few years later, he admitted to George he was under intense pressure to retire earlier than he’d planned. He hadn’t saved enough to retire comfortably. George helped him think through his options and Willard realized he could get a part-time job at the local hobby shop where he purchased his electric trains. It was the perfect solution and brought him more joy than any job ever had.
On his seventieth birthday, Willard told George about the unrewarding relationship he and Maggie had with their born-to-be-wild daughter. She’d left home at eighteen and had wandered the country for decades with one biker dude after another. Every few years she’d show up unannounced with whatever leather-jacket she was dating at the time. They’d use the shower and Maggie would rustle up some dinner. The minute they finished, they’d fire up their bikes and leave with hardly a goodbye. Thanks to George, Willard realized his daughter would eventually tire of her nomadic life and circle back to her parents. She lived an hour away now, and she and Willard had grown closer.
In his early seventies, his beloved Maggie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Willard had never felt so lost, so powerless. Night after night he paced under the oak moaning, weeping, venting. With George’s support, he found the strength to become a loving caregiver for his wife until she died. Afterwards, George listened patiently each night as Willard unpacked a lifetime of fond memories of Maggie.
When Willard turned eighty, he lost Butch to old age. The empty house made him feel empty inside. George suggested Willard adopt a puppy. He went to the animal shelter and rescued Lenny, a vivacious mixed-breed. The moment Lenny spotted George, he ran happy circles around him and slurp-kissed his face. Lenny had slurped George every night since. Willard could swear George’s belly shook ever so slightly each time Lenny licked him.
As the years passed, George’s patina, like Willard’s, had faded. The chip on his left toe grew larger, too. Still, he continued to welcome Willard each night with the same cheerful expression as the night they met. He was Willard’s special Sherpa who helped him navigate the rugged terrain of aging.
One July afternoon Willard took Lenny for a walk and saw Teresa Alwin’s daughter loading Teresa and a half-dozen suitcases into her SUV. The next day a for sale sign appeared on her front lawn. Willard shared the news that evening with George.
“I’m worried you could wind up in a dumpster, old friend.”
George’s eyes misted in the moonlight.
“I have a lovely garden. Would you like to move in with me and Lenny?”
George nodded ever-so-slightly from the shadows.
The following night, Willard grabbed his duffle bag on the way out the door for his ten o’clock walk with Lenny. The bag was much heavier on the way home.
He awoke grinning the next morning, poured a cup of coffee and headed to the garden with Lenny. He should have felt guilty, but didn’t. The dog ran circles around George, who was standing under the crepe myrtle. Willard sat on the wrought iron bench across from his friend and raised his cup. “Now we can talk anytime we want.”
A few days later, a woman stopped at Willard’s backyard fence while he was pruning his roses. She identified herself as Teresa Alwin’s realtor. “I see you have a gnome that resembles the one Teresa had in her garden. Hers went missing.”
“Oh, that’s George. He’s been my little friend since gnomes were all the rage twenty years ago.”
“Teresa’s granddaughter is wondering where Teresa’s went. She’d played with it when she was child. Thought he was magical.”
Willard smiled and chuckled. “Kids love gnomes.”
“Well, I’m sure Teresa tossed hers ages ago.”
“That happens when their patinas fade.”
That evening, Willard related the conversation to George.
“Was Teresa’s granddaughter a special friend?”
George pointed to his missing toe.
“Oh my. She must’ve been clumsy.”
He paused. His gut wrenched with guilt. “Do you want me to return you?”
George’s eyes misted again in the moonlight.
“No worries, old friend. This is your home for as long as I last. We’ll go to the dumpster together.”