Years ago, I discovered a cure for hypochondria. I’d been looking for a cure for most of my life, having suffered from perpetual, obsessive inventory of personal symptoms for decades. The mysterious, internal disease had yet to be diagnosed, but the symptoms were many, ranging from heart palpitations to potentially fatal numbness of the fingers. Sometimes even an intense awareness of my fingers could qualify as a symptom of…something. The anxiety had already driven me from my job as a college art instructor and had eyes to ruin my blossoming career as an unemployed freelance illustrator.
So I decided to chuck it all - the pressures of the illustration work, the mind-numbing, retail day jobs, the generic, suburban landscape – all the things I blamed for sparking my crippling anxiety, to move to the secluded hill country of Spartanburg, SC. Here, I was determined to start fresh with the most anonymous, low pressure lifestyle I could imagine. So I enlisted to serve my country with a tour of duty in the Salvation Army. It sounded pretty good, actually. I spent a good deal of time sifting through thrift store wreckage anyway, and the idea of working with garage sale leftovers was about as decidedly uncorporate as an anti-establishment malcontent like me could imagine. I managed to convince the store manager that I knew how to drive a truck and she, after a moment’s suspicion about my college-educated motives, hired me on the spot. I was off on my sweaty adventure.
Immediately, I knew I was in over my head. Thirty years of couch-bound activities had left me unprepared for the parade of refrigerators and sofa beds eager to crush my puny ass as I huffed and wheezed them down apartment stairs and into the truck. After a couple of weeks the lifting got a little easier, but my day nonetheless consisted of nonstop bruising, scraping and laceration of any available limb (not to mention spider bites galore). And here, among the crushed thumbs and fractured kneecaps, I discovered the cure for hypochondria: a person suffering from genuine injures everyday has no need to speculate about imaginary ones. Where I had once been concerned about invisible abnormalities that might develop into terminal ailments, I now had more immediate concerns. Like, can I close this gash in my leg with a stapler? Or, did that dishwasher colliding with my head dislodge my eyeball or does it just feel that way? Every new dawn held the promise of a lost tooth or cracked vertebrae. I was feeling much better.
In sharp contrast to my weakling self was my truckmate, Arthur Wooten, a six-foot-four, 300-pound colossus, able to lift Craftmatic Adjustables with one hand while breaking down locked doors with the other. In addition to handling the heaviest furniture, he was also the most entertaining Salve Arm employee. Arthur had the imagination of a first grader and the emotional intensity of an undiagnosed schizophrenic (which I suspect he was). He loved pimped cars, Led Zeppelin and plush toys. And anything that could possibly serve as a hat, from lampshades to flowerpots and sweetgrass baskets, he would wear on his head throughout the day’s pick-ups. He passed the time in the truck cheerfully improvising songs about our daily adventures with invariably hilarious results. It was like having my own personal Wesley Willis aboard, only with the strength of ten men.
I was never certain about Arthur’s history and how this infant behemoth, who was desperately in need of adult supervision, wound up alone and working hard labor. Granted, many of the Salvation Army grunts were low on mental strength and unable to manage their income sensibly (their monthly wages usually gone in a weekend of binge drinking), but Arthur was particularly helpless. Though he considered himself an automotive engineer, his ’85 Ford Escort sat, rusted and inoperable, in the backyard of his apartment building. This meant his brand new best friend, Ashley, had the honor of driving him to cash checks, pay rent and shop for groceries. The latter chore required accompanying Arthur down every aisle, advising him to spend his money on food ingredients rather than fill his cart with $100 worth of tin foil and birthday candles. I made the mistake of trying to “teach him a lesson” once by keeping mum while he spent most of his paycheck on a new Nintendo gaming system. Naturally, it was me who had to return the damn thing for him when he ran out of lunch money a few days later. Just as it was me who had to medicate him when he got sick, feed him when he went broke and advise him against every method of wasting money he concocted in his childish imagination. But Arthur repaid this, one hundred fold, when he saved my life.
Saturday was dump day, when all the week’s merch that had not sold during the week was loaded up and taken to its final resting place at the county landfill. We’d find ourselves literally knee-deep in last year’s Burger King promotional toys while hurling torn sofas and punctured waterbeds to their doom in the canyon below. Our first stop was to unload the electronics, which had to be dumped onto a mound of segregated metal and plastic appliances. And it was here, tossing a TV, that I lost my balance and began to dive headfirst into a pile of shattered monitors, rusted swing sets and various jagged, rusted edges. Just as I was trying to decide which way to hurl my body for the least lacerating impact, sure that I was headed for a brutal, multiple-fracturing death, I felt myself being gingerly lifted by my collar and placed back in the truck.
“Arthur, you just saved my life,” I said.
Arthur just readjusted his wicker basket and continued happily hurling Zeniths. On the drive back to the store, he made up a song about all the body parts I would’ve broken in the appliance pit, had he not fetched me from my fate, and I suddenly felt very ashamed of ever having suffered an imagined illness.
Soon, summer reared its blistering head and the heat cooked me to my senses. I left the Salvation Army life of sweat and strain for a soft, government job, quickly returning to my pudgy, air-conditioned self. I went back to visit Arthur a few weeks later, bringing him a copy of Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits (he had become a fan while listening to my be-bop tapes in the truck). But, much to my disappointment, he was gone, having relocated to the Salvation Army store in Anderson. I hope, wherever he is now, that there’s someone there to advise him in the grocery aisles and endure his unique gifts as a songwriter. Believe me, when the going gets tough, you’ll be damned happy he’s nearby.
The vision I will always have of Arthur is the day he caught the frog. We had just pulled up to someone’s house to load up their donations when he spotting the thing hopping across the driveway. I turned from the garage to see him opening the door of the cab, frog in hand.
“You’re not putting that frog in the truck, are you?”
Arthur turned and smiled guiltily, giving me a look that admitted he had, in fact, intended to take the frog along for a ride. It was at this point that I realized that I was living a Steinbeck novel. I was George to Arthur’s Lenny, a character too innocent and well-intentioned to survive alone. Like Lenny, Arthur would’ve been happiest tending the rabbits (or the frogs), but it was only his great physical strength that was useful to a workaday world. Like George, I was charged with keeping my friend’s juvenile mind focused on practical matters. At least we weren’t Joads.
We finished loading the truck and drove off to our next scheduled pick-up, Arthur bopping along to Brubeck in his improvised hat. The frog stayed behind.