The first time I saw George Pappas it was a bitterly cold winter day. He was wearing a plaid woolen scarf thrown carelessly around his neck and an elegant black wool coat with his hands casually tucked into the pockets. He did not appear to take heed of the cold but rather seemed to be on a stroll – and for all I knew he could have been doing just that. He was tall and very handsome with a head of thick black hair tousled by the winter wind. I was standing by the large window of a Hobby Shop that I frequented. The window ran across the entire front of the building and when he came into view I was unable to take my eyes off him. His physique and manner of movement simply compelled me to watch him.
The next time I saw him I was entering the Hobby Shop as he was leaving. He courteously held the door for me and offered me a soft smile. His liquid brown eyes were large and framed by thick velvet black lashes. His skin was alabaster. For the briefest moment I seemed captured by an inexplicable inertia – as helpless as a victim in a web – and then his eyes moved away from me and the moment was over. Time moved forward and so did I. My intention to ask the owner who this mysterious stranger was fell to the wayside as the hum of liveliness that often simmered within those walls blew my question aside.
The Hobby Shop was a delightful place – open and welcoming to all ages. It was a cavernous space filled with a conglomeration of things to do and buy. The walls and shelves were filled with all sorts of needlework possibilities from cross stitch and needlepoint to crochet and knitting – threads, yarns, hoops, and needles. There were oil, acrylic, and watercolor paints, brushes, paper, canvases, and paint by number. There was clay, wood, molds, and plaster. Scores of model planes, trains, and cars were stacked on shelves. There was an enormous worktable where several people at a time could work on their various projects or take a “how-to” class being offered. There was an even larger group of tables that held the replica of a small town and countryside with roads and railroad tracks winding all through it. There were streets and houses and buildings and cars and tiny people and lots and lots of tracks. Local boys came in to run the trains and were constantly enlarging and embellishing the landscape. Interestingly, the boys played and planned together amenably and were relatively quiet. They showed deep respect for the owner, Mrs. Ellen Sutton, for she had earned it with such a generous gift to them. There was no charge for them to come in and play with the trains for as long as they wished. And they came after school and on weekends in every season. Some of the boys had practically grown up there. Mrs. Sutton’s own son was grown and his love for all things train had been the catalyst for opening her beloved shop. The project had grown over the years and now it was something of a community center. Mrs. Sutton had set up tables here and there for other games as well – dominoes, checkers, backgammon, and chess. Toward the back of the store there were two sets of stairs on either side of the mammoth room that led to a large balcony area where there were more tables set up for chess as well as comfy chairs for reading. There were stacks of comic books and hardbacks as well. Kids could trade comics or books as they chose. Underneath the balcony was a roomy storage area that opened to the back of the building. The whole idea was an amazing act of service to her community and in some respects the Hobby Shop was her hobby. And it served her well. She was beloved by people of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Her arms and heart were open as wide as her door to welcome whomever came in. In turn her regular visitors would organically straighten up, sweep, take out trash, and offer her their time and assistance. She was grateful but did not take advantage of their gestures. It was an amazing experiment in grace, in my opinion. Many a friendship was fostered there and I’m sure there were countless lessons learned. I basked in the happy atmosphere often and made a few friends of my own.
The third time I saw George I was formally introduced to him. I had walked into the Hobby Shop during a weekday. It was early afternoon and there were only a handful of folks in the shop. George was standing at an easel wearing a canvas apron, casually holding a paintbrush, and studying the large canvas in front of him with an air of expectation. I could not help but notice him, as he seemed the largest, most dramatic presence in the room. Mrs. Sutton called out a greeting and followed it with, “Linda, I want you to meet George Pappas. George, this is Linda Taylor.” Without saying it, I heard the distinct implication that we were to be fine friends. George flashed me a charming smile and stepped toward me but then – realizing he might be sharing paint with me -instead of a handshake, placed his hand on his heart and offered me a slight gentlemanly bow. I was smitten. Mrs. Sutton went on gaily to say that George would likely be the new artist in residence and wouldn’t it be intriguing to see what he created on canvas in the days ahead? Indeed, I thought, and nodded my head.
George was certainly not a quick study. He revealed himself slowly as spun silk unwinding from a spool. And George was no ordinary spun silk, No! He was surely AuVer a Sole silk – so prized in the couture industry. It was apparent that he was a voracious reader with a broad appetite that included history, the classics, science fiction, biographies, and poetry. His ability to quote verse was impressive and always elegantly suited to the topic of conversation. He enjoyed the romantics – Shelley and Keats – but also the transcendentalists – Emerson and Thoreau – as well as Gibran and Neruda. And he was fascinated by Sylvia Plath. But then aren’t we all, just a little? At least I am – that tingle of darkness and the contemplation of death have always intrigued me. I suspected it was the same for George and it added a bit of spice to the mystery of him.
The first painting George completed was an abstract piece – oil on a large canvas roughly 16 x 30. The piece was done in equal sections of paint in hues of green ascending from the darkest to the lightest and fading to white at the last top section. It should have been titled “A Study in Green” but I cannot remember now whether or not he even titled it. The painting sat on the canvas for some time sans George. People who had watched his process remarked on it – some particularly praising his precision. I appreciated his work – its order, the gradually fading green hues but not being a fan of green I can’t say I liked it very much. However, Mrs. Sutton glowed with pride whenever anyone remarked on it. It seemed that she had taken him under her wing and she fussed over him as if he were her own son. Mrs. Sutton’s best friend, Sylvia Bishop, had also taken a keen interest in George. When George did not show up at the shop for a few days the both of them fretted and wondered if he was unwell. They were not sure where he lived and he was not answering at the phone number they had for him. They had both speculated that he had a troubled past but exactly what that trouble was they did not know. Although they had engaged in many conversations George had divulged very little personal information. Still they both felt he was a lonely soul and believed it their duty to befriend him. I must say that I agreed with them.
At length George showed himself although he looked thinner than I remembered and there were dark circles under his eyes. He dismissed the clucking about saying that he had been sick with a bad cold and had been sequestering himself with hot tea and honey. It was apparent that he enjoyed the attention he received even as he waved us away. He donned his paint apron, put another larger canvas on the easel, and began eyeing the white space before him. I figured the artist was back in residence and all would be right with the world soon enough. Mrs. Sutton and Sylvia were relieved by George’s presence but they were suspicious that more was afoot than George let on. The two of them were not content to let it go without further investigation. Sylvia was an anesthetist and had more than a few connections in the medical community. Mrs. Sutton also had an army of friends who were professionals at her disposal. And so it was that after some time and a bit (or perhaps a lot) of sleuthing the two friends uncovered some interesting facts. George was actually staying at a halfway house of sorts since his discharge from a state mental institution. How they came by this information I am unsure but they knew it to be solid. How long George had been in the institution was unclear but what was known for certain is that he had been housed there due to a very tragic event. It seems that George had been born into a terrible circumstance. His mother was emotionally disturbed and had abused him in unspeakable ways. Her irrational and troublesome lifestyle had come to light by way of her neighbors and law enforcement had removed her kicking and screaming from her filthy, rodent infested home. Upon entry they also found George under a bed barking like a dog, whining and shaking. The neighbors had not even known he existed. It was too horrifying to even imagine what his life must have been like. Even so this information did not lessen George in our eyes. Rather it served to make him appear heroic. We were all beyond impressed that he had risen from such horrific conditions. Yes, he was a tragic figure yet he retained his mysterious allure. We more acutely appreciated his intellect and creative talent. George not only painted he also wrote poetry. In fact at times it was difficult to know whether he was quoting a famous author or composing his own verse on the spot. This delighted him no end and when asked who was the author of some such quote he would make us guess. If he happened to be the author his eyes would sparkle and he nearly always clapped his hands in glee.
What sealed George as a truly tragic figure were his frequent references to a young girl named Amber. He described her as an exotic beauty with luminescent, nearly transparent skin and golden hair that smelled both sweet and woodsy. He spoke of her reverently and with a certain sadness. He spoke endearingly of her frail figure, fluid movements, and gentle voice in verbal compositions that painted a tender albeit vague picture of her. It was certain that Amber was the love of his life. But who she was exactly was not clear. Was she a sibling? Or perhaps an unrequited love? We dared not ask but waited for George to reveal this to us as we feared he had lost her in some dreadful way – particularly when George once referred to Amber and added this verse from Shelley:
“We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!—yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever…”
George and I often went on walks together or enjoyed a cup of tea at a small café around the corner. I enjoyed his company. He was ever inspiring me to read something that I would never have read on my own – introducing me to the likes of Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I am not a fan of science fiction and had at that time only ever read one other work of that genre. Of course, Capote was well known but I cringed at the topic until George piqued my interest. These specific titles did not become my favorite but the works broadened my mind, as reading tends to do. George also knew Greek mythology well and I had been a fan since childhood so I reveled in his knowledge and perspectives. We were never at a loss for conversation. There were times when George seemed strange to me – distant and dreamy – but I had never known anyone like him. I was, quite simply, fascinated by him. It didn’t hurt that his face looked like a perfectly chiseled piece of artwork that I never tired of looking at.
George’s next painting was a still life of apples in a bowl sitting on a table next to an empty wine bottle. The compilation was done in hues of green with one “perfect apple” (his words) at the top of the bowl painted a luminous white. The greens were exactly the same as his previous abstract, which I found interesting but I made no mention of this. However, the white apple particularly captivated me and I asked George if it had any significance. He said it represented purity. I waited for him to elaborate but he made no further comment. I was left to ponder this on my own. I suspected he was thinking of Amber.
Soon after the white apple painting Mrs. Sutton and Sylvia uncovered another bit of news about our George. The house where George was living was owned by an older gentleman that was believed to be gay. The gentleman’s sexual preferences would not have concerned either of them except for the fact that they both had some reason to believe that he might be taking advantage of George. On consideration it might have explained George’s ability to be so well dressed on a zero budget as well as his secretive MO. However, the gentleman might simply have been generous and George’s MO had nothing to do with his living situation. I was of the opinion that they were both making something out of nothing – and certainly nothing that was any of their business. Besides both of them were very religious and I wondered if their religious beliefs came into play here. They fluttered and buzzed about this for a time. I just listened. In the end neither of them said a word to George and gradually they let the issue lie.
George’s next painting was also on a large canvas. Again he chose to do a still life. This time the subject was eggs in a basket with yet another wine bottle sitting nearby. He began by painting the top egg on the pile a luminous white. Sylvia stood beside watching him paint the first egg and asked him if the eggs were going to be perfect eggs. He responded, “She shines, the one white love of my youth, which all sin cannot stain.” Unfamiliar with the words, I asked if he was composing another poem. He glared at me, which was unlike him, and growled that it was a line from a poem by D.H.Lawrence. Sylvia and I exchanged puzzled glances but did not make further comment.
George’s progress on the egg painting was much slower than usual. He left it alone for days at a time and then painted over things he had already painted.
As he slowly proceeded in his work it appeared that the eggs were going to be green with one perfect white egg at the top of the group. I resisted the urge to tease him about the green eggs (you know, from the Dr. Seuss book, “Green Eggs and Ham”). I sensed that he might be too fragile – especially after the morning he quoted from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Nothing But Death”. The recitation unnerved me with these lines: “….we die going into ourselves, as though we were drowning inside our hearts, as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.” It seemed that George had taken the words into his own being. It concerned me.
George seemed to be losing weight. He again had dark circles under his eyes. It was clear that he was depressed. We were all worried about him and so one afternoon I suggested that we go for tea. As we sat sipping our tea George began quoting Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven, which took on a darker, more personal tone as I heard George saying the words……”Deep into that darkness peering……tell this soul with sorrow laden”. George’s dramatic effect was chilling and as he spoke of the “rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore” I knew he was referring to his own beloved Amber. My heart wondered along with both Poe and George if indeed there was “a balm in Gilead”. With the last “nevermore” he grew quiet and sat there stirring his tea as I complimented his recitation. George did not look up from his brooding but began talking almost as if to himself about death and dying. It frightened me and I felt out of my depth with him – knowing he needed help that my friendship could not give him. We took a long route back to the shop, which at first I thought would help loosen his dark clouds but George was on a descent I seemed helpless to stop. He embarked on a composition of his own that turned into a bloody dirge about Amber and gleaming knives and dripping red hearts. I regretted that we were on the long route with not another soul in sight. George turned his face toward me. He was smiling strangely and seemed to sense my discomfort. When I told him that I knew that was his own composition and it was a bit too grisly for my taste he laughed wildly. I quickened my steps – eager to be somewhere warm and friendly. I felt sick and helpless. By the time we reached the shop I only wanted to be rid of George – which only made me feel worse because I thought I was being disloyal to my friend. Still I left as quickly as I could. At home I reviewed the afternoon in my mind. In the warmth and solitude of my house I began to think that I had been silly to be afraid. It was just George being theatrical and me being hormonal. George had enough troubles without me labeling him as “dangerous”.
The next time I was in the shop George declared the egg painting finished. The colors and hues were the very same colors he had used in the abstract and the previous apple painting. It was beautifully rendered but such a strange composition with the basket of green eggs and the one luminous white egg perched atop the group and the stately green wine bottle standing alongside. George pontificated on the symbolism within his work – green the color of hope; white for purity; eggs for hope, purity and creation; and the empty wine bottle devoid of happiness. We all hoped that this would mark the ending of his current depression and we wondered what his next creation would be. But George did not put another canvas on the easel. Instead he began messing around with some clay and every now and again helping Mrs. Sutton with her current wind chime project. He seemed adrift and was mostly gloomy and sullen. His constant topic was death and dying and Amber. An ill wind was brewing.
I came into the shop one day to find Sylvia comforting Mrs. Sutton who was apparently shaken and weepy. George was nowhere to be seen. They told me that he had been helping Mrs. Sutton with her wind chimes when suddenly he grasped an empty wine bottle by the neck, crashed it on the side of the table, and then pointing the jagged bottle at Mrs. Sutton said very calmly, “you know I could kill you with this if I wanted to.” Mrs. Sutton had managed to maintain her poise and agreed that he certainly could but that she knew he wouldn’t do such an awful thing. He asked her why and she said because they were friends. He made no response but stood there staring at her and holding the broken bottle. After what felt to her like an eternity, George threw down the broken bottle and left the store. Mrs. Sutton was weak with relief and fear. Sylvia had found her holding onto the table but standing weakly where George had left her only minutes before. I had come onto the scene only a few minutes after that. Something needed doing but what? I was too young and inexperienced to have anything helpful to offer until it dawned on me that perhaps my experience with George at the tea shop and on our walk had more significance than I had allowed. Mrs. Sutton had called her husband to consult with him while I shared my tale with Sylvia. After Mr. Sutton arrived I left the three of them discussing next steps. I knew they were wise, level headed, experienced, and had people they could call on. They didn’t need me wringing my hands and helpless.
What we learned in the aftermath was that George had been diagnosed previously with schizophrenia. It was believed that his descent into his recent depression was the beginning of a psychotic episode. It was anyone’s guess where that might lead. Apparently he had been even more morose, surly, and threatening with housemates. He was believed to be hallucinating and had made threats to harm others as well as himself. Who made the decision to commit him to the mental institution I cannot say. Nor do I know how they went about it. All I know is that George was gone from our lives just as quickly and mysteriously as he had entered. His three paintings were all that were left to remind us that he had really been there among us. Those green paintings so full of hope and purity but devoid of happiness. As a parting note we learned that George’s beloved Amber did not exist – nor had she ever existed. She was a creature of pure fantasy. Quoting from one of George’s favored poets, Keats, “she dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu….”
Nearly fifty years have passed and I still remember those days with my strange friend. George will remain an unhappy conundrum – likely resigned to the tragedy of his childhood and mental illness. But I like to remember the best of him – his handsome face shining as he painted and dreamed of his “rare and radiant maiden whom the angels” and George named Amber.