Part 2 of 2
Continued from Part 1
George had only ever taken one trip without Millie, in the fall of 1951. A letter had arrived from the army asking him to fly to New Mexico.
"You don't have to go," she said. "You're not a soldier anymore. They don't even tell you in the letter what they want you to go for. Just 'project maintenance.'"
"I suppose I'll find out. Maybe one of those theoretical designs actually got built. Maybe I'll fly into George Gordon Airport." He swooped Jane into his arms and then up into the air. "Maybe they want to give your Daddy a medal! Valor in the face of bureaucracy!" Jane giggled.
He was gone two weeks, then three weeks, then four. They picked him up at Friendship on the afternoon of Jane's third birthday. Up until the moment she loaded the children into the Packard, Millie kept expecting the telephone to ring and George's tired voice to say he had been delayed yet again and would she get by for another week. She attacked the ingredients for Jane's birthday cake, the batter fleeing up the sides of the bowl. Don't ring, she willed the telephone.
But no, he was already there when she drove up, his suit rumpled and his shoulders sagging. He looked every bit as exhausted as he had sounded. She had been prepared to let him know the stress his absence had caused her, but instead she kissed his stubbled cheek. The kids leaned in to hug or possibly strangle him from the back seat.
"Sit down, both of you," he said, slapping their hands from his neck.
"Do you have presents for us?" Charlie reached over the seatback for the blueprint tube George was holding between his knees.
"Don't touch that! Sorry, kid. No presents."
Millie saw Jane building up a wail, and tried to head it off. "I have a lovely dinner planned for tonight. All of Jane's favorites, and steak for you."
"Yes, she got to pick for her birthday dinner, of course. Like a big girl."
He scratched at two days' growth of beard.
"Janie's birthday dinner. Of course," he repeated. "Janie, how would you like to pick your own present out tomorrow? Big girls do that."
The tantrum dissipated. In the backseat, Charlie began to run down a list of toys he thought Jane might like, all of which were actually toys he would like better. Millie glanced over at George, who was pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. She hoped to get a chance to ask him what was wrong, but when they got home he disappeared into his office. She busied herself making dinner. He snapped at the children twice for fidgeting over the meal; after losing patience a third time, he excused himself before they could sing to Jane.
That night, Millie rolled over in the bed to find George wasn't there. She checked his office, the kitchen, the children's rooms, the den, before finally noticing the unlatched patio door. The air and grass were already laced with frost. She wore a flannel robe, but wished she had put on shoes. George's sobs traveled down from the treehouse and across the lawn.
She climbed the giraffe's-neck ladder, crossed the bridge of the pirate ship. The first fallen leaves made some of the steps slippery. George cried like a child in the crow's nest above her. She wasn't sure which frightened her more, his strange mood earlier in the day or his tears now. Maybe he'd rather she climbed down, slipped back into bed, and pretended she had heard nothing.
Her foot crunched a leaf as she took her first step backward.
"Don't leave," he said.
She stopped. "George, what's the matter?"
"Don't leave, please," he said. "I had no idea. I had no choice."
She wanted him to continue. It wouldn't take much to keep him from speaking. One wrong word, one wrong step. She stood still, trying to figure out how close he was from the ragged sound of his breath.
"They said the scenarios were hypothetical."
"They were real, Mill. Defenseless, harmless things. Their ship was destroyed. They've been in there four years, and the Army wants me to design a newer, better place, to make sure they're stuck 'for the indefinite future.' I should have said no and gotten right back on the plane. 'For the security of the country,' the lieutenant said. He said to think of you, and Charlie, and Jane. I had to, you see?"
She didn't see. She waited for him to say more. She asked questions in her mind: who were 'they' and why were they stuck and why couldn't they go back and where couldn't they go back to? Why did he call them things? Was it better to know or not to know? She decided he would tell if he wanted to tell. Minutes passed. Shivering, she climbed four wooden rungs bolted to the trunk. An ungraceful shimmy brought her into the crow's nest. George, in his striped pajamas, sat in the corner, his knees to his chest like a child.
She wanted to go to him, to hold him as he had always held her, to tell him to put it behind him. Instead, she kissed him on the top of his head and leaned out over the edge. She had never been all the way to the top of the tree house before. From this solid perch she could see the delicate curves of her dormant gardens. Then past that, over the rooftops, past the lamplit neighborhood, out to the dark farmland beyond. She didn't know what time it was, but the faintest glimmer of dawn colored the place where the earth met the sky. Even at this height she trusted his workmanship. The platform was steady, the railing secure.
She sat down beside him. "You're a good man, and a good husband, and a good father," she said. "Whatever you did, I'm sure you had to do it." After a moment, he put his arm around her. She knew that whatever he had allowed to surface he now had buried. Who would have imagined that such an intimate moment would become the line between before and after? Maybe she should have asked more, pushed more, given more comfort. How had it taken sixty years to come back around to the things he had spoken of that night? That night, she had no idea what he was talking about. She had let it go, let him carry it alone.
Millie dialed Raymond first thing when she woke up. Mark answered the phone, half-asleep, and she realized she had no idea what day of the week it was. If it was a weekend she was calling far too early. Mark put Ray on.
"I think I lost a day at the hospital," she said by way of apology.
"It's okay, Grandma. What's up?"
She took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you would do me a favor if you're planning on coming... no, actually, that part doesn't matter. Regardless of whether you're coming to the hospital today, I was wondering if you would stop by the house and help me look for something."
"No problem. What and where?"
"I'm not sure exactly what, and I'm guessing at the where. There may be nothing. I'm just curious, and I can't go up there myself."
"Up there?" he asked.
"The top of the tree house."
When Charlie woke, Millie insisted that he leave for the hospital without her. "Raymond is on his way," she said. "He'll take me."
"Why are you dragging him over here?" Charlie poured coffee into a mug for her, then rummaged in the cupboard until he found a travel cup for himself. He took the milk from the fridge, sniffed it, and then splashed some into her coffee and some into his own.
"He's going to help find some paperwork I misplaced." Before Charlie offered his own assistance, she added, "I had asked him to put it in a safe place for me, so it makes sense for him to be the one to figure out where he put it."
He clapped the lid onto his cup and gave her a smile of sympathy. "Like his uncle, huh? Do you remember all the stuff I never saw again that I had put away for safekeeping? I still expect you to call someday to say you found my Brooks Robinson rookie card."
She kissed him goodbye and managed to push him out the door. Poor Raymond didn't deserve to be lumped in with Charlie on this one. Nobody lost things like Charlie.
When Ray arrived, she explained what she wanted him to search for, or rather the fact that she had no idea what he was searching for, but he would know it if he found it. She made him put on one of George's hats and a pair of gloves before sending him out to the tree house.
Once he had stepped outside, Millie set about her own search. She made her way down the hallway and pushed open the door to the office. The air in the room was cold and stale; though Millie would be sitting at the drafting table in a few weeks to plan her spring gardens, neither she nor George had much use for the room in the winter. As in their bedroom next door, the windows faced the backyard. She watched Raymond's progress through the snow before turning to the task at hand. She didn't know if George had kept anything here that might explain his actions, but it was worth looking.
She started with the file cabinets: not hers with the house bills and contracts and warranties and receipts, but the wood-faced one he had built for himself. The drawer slid open easily. The plans inside were neatly labeled, arranged alphabetically. What might she find here? "S" for "secret." "P" for "prison." Unlikely.
The phone rang. Once, twice. Why had they never put a telephone in the office? Three times, four. The bedroom was closer than the kitchen, but she wasn't yet ready to sit at the desk where George had been. Five rings, six, seven. The ringing paused, then began again. She wasn't sure she wanted to speak to anybody who wanted to reach her that badly.
She lifted the phone from its cradle.
"He had another stroke, Ma. They don't know if he's going to wake up." Jane was crying. Millie tried to comfort her, feeling absurd in doing so. How could she explain that she had already begun mourning George as she had picked the buttons of his pajama top off the floor?
"Hang on, Janie," Millie said. "We'll be there as soon as we can. I have to wait for Raymond to come back inside."
She hung up and leaned against the doorframe. From the kitchen doorway, she saw into the den. George's childhood desk stood in a dark corner beside the stairs; he had brought it back to the house after his mother's death in 1969. Funny, the things that become background, beneath notice. She hadn't given that desk a second thought in years.
The writing surface swung upward on protesting hinges, revealing layers of children's hidden treasures: a princess doll from some Disney movie or another, a metal car, a comic book, some foreign coins, the joke wrappers from several pieces of Bazooka gum. Beneath three generations of lost toys, she discovered something else: a piece of plywood. It took her some effort to pry loose the false bottom.
Inside, she found a small leather-bound notebook of the type George had carried when they first met. George had signed and dated the inside of the front cover, 1931. Each page was filled with diagrams. Castles, skyscrapers, scaled city maps, all done in a more fanciful version of George's trained hand. Everything he had put away of himself, bound into one sketchbook.
In retrospect, Millie was able to look back on that single trip and the confession in the upper branches of the sycamore as a turning point. They climbed down as the sun rose, dressed the children, drove downtown to run some errands, went to Hutzler's for an early lunch and a belated birthday present for Jane. Life seemed back to normal. Millie put George's upset out of her mind over shrimp salad on cheese toast. Later there were other conversations, bigger battles. It was easy enough to say in hindsight that George had become different overnight, but by the time she noticed, the changes had already taken root. By the time she noticed, the architect was gone.
The man who replaced him was similar in most ways, but without any hint of boyishness. The only remnant of the child who had sketched skyscrapers was in his work on the treehouse; he still mustered enthusiasm when planning something with Charlie and Jane. He ceased to bring designs home from the office at all.
"Work can stay at work," he said.
She was baffled that someone who still poured so much of himself into a project for his children had stopped putting anything into his occupation. She watched as he was passed over for promotion after promotion, never progressing beyond junior partner at any of the firms he worked for.
"They wanted me to work overtime," he'd say after leaving another job. Or, "They wanted me to travel."
"So travel! The kids are old enough that I can manage for a few days on my own."
He just shook his head. It was as if he knew every trick for self-promotion and then set about sabotaging himself. Millie didn't complain. When money was tight, when Jane needed braces or when a storm blew the roof off the garage, Millie found work. She tried not to resent the change. Whatever it was the other architects had that drove them to create no longer seemed to be a part of George. He designed bland suburban houses, and later strip malls and office parks. The high-rises and mansions and museums went to other, more ambitious draftsmen.
"Show me your designs," she begged him. "The projects you want to work on."
"They're only buildings," he said, shrugging. This time it was true.
"A new subdivision?" She tried to ask in a way that sounded excited.
"Yes. A whole neighborhood, but just three different house designs."
"Are you designing all of them?"
"No, I'm in charge of the four bedroom, but I have to work with another fellow so that they look like they came from the same brain."
"You're very talented, you know." She said this as often as possible without sounding trite. "I wish you would get a chance to make all those things you used to talk about."
He laughed and turned away from the drafting table. "You're sweet to say so, but it's not art. It's just my job. I make what they want me to make."
When the wives of the firm's partners mentioned their husbands' latest endeavors, she smiled and volunteered nothing. If he didn't want to be an artist, he didn't have to be, but she couldn't understand how he took pride in his draftsmanship and dismissed it at the same time. Try as she might, she was unable to put her finger on what exactly he had lost. How could she complain about a man who helped with the dishes every night, who read to the children, who taught them to measure twice and cut once? She tried to encourage him, but he turned everything around.
"Why don't you get another degree?" he asked one day, after the children had both started high school. "You've always wanted to learn more about your plants."
She did it, half hoping to motivate him again as well. She had a master's degree and a doctorate in botany by the time she realized she would never goad him into competing with her. He let her take over his office and his drafting table when she needed them for her garden designs. He corrected others when they assumed he was the doctor in the family, and spoke of her accomplishments, but never said a word about his own. When she tried to brag to others about his work, he responded with self-deprecation. She hated herself for wishing him to be anything other than what he had become, and worked on loving him for the person that he was. He was a match that refused to ignite; she felt selfish for wanting him to burn brightly.
Over time, it ceased to matter as much. Her career bloomed, and she learned not to press him about his. The children grew up and left and came back and left and had children of their own. In retirement she found him to be much easier company. She enjoyed watching his comfortable way with the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and loved it when he began to design new tree house additions for the new generations.
She wasn't sure if it was fair to judge anyone by the man he had been in his twenties. The person you marry is not the same person you grow old with. She was sure he could say the same thing about her. She was sorry it had taken her so long to learn that, to stop pushing him, but that was probably the way of it.
Raymond drove her to the hospital, then returned to the house. "I'm onto something," he said, kissing her on the forehead and dashing out again. Millie watched reruns from the straight-backed chair beside George's bed. Jane and Charlie took turns beside her, occasionally slipping out to talk in the hallway. She thought she heard Charlie say "retirement community" at least twice.
She let the TV distract her. Every man on television seemed to be an architect. Every sitcom and every movie, from the Brady Bunch on, seemed to feature some young man with blueprints and skyscraper dreams. Why was that? It was artsy but manly, she supposed. Sensitive without being soft. A perfect occupation for a man with a creative side who also wanted to support his family, at least until the day he decided he didn't want to do it anymore. That didn't seem to happen on television.
Raymond arrived back late in the evening, the glow of success evident in his face. It only took him a moment to convince his mother and uncle to go grab some dinner before the cafeteria closed.
"I think I found what you were looking for, Grandma." It was amazing how much he looked like a young George when he smiled. Taller, thankfully for him, and with a strange lop-sided haircut, but with the same rakish confidence that she had so admired. She returned the smile. She hadn't really thought there would be anything to find, but it had been worth a shot.
"There are a bunch of compartments all over the tree house, but most of them are still filled with toys and baseball cards and stuff. Anyway, I remembered that one time my cousin Joseph was chasing me 'cause he wanted my Steve Austin action figure. I didn't know where to put it that he wouldn't find it. I was almost to the top when I realized that the metal struts that support the crow's nest are hollow, if you have something to pry them open with. I had my pocket knife with me. The first one I opened had something wedged in it, so I stashed Steve Austin in the second one until Joseph went home. Never thought to look at what was in that first one until now."
With a flourish, he produced a blueprint tube from behind his back. "I opened it to make sure there was something in it - there is - but I didn't look at what's inside."
She tried to keep her voice from quavering. She hoped the others would stay away from the room a little longer. "Shall we?"
Ray slid the rolled paper out, laying the drawing across George's legs.
"George, we're looking at the blueprints you hid." She thought it was only fair to explain what was going on.
This was the same prison he had drawn on the butcher paper. Done on proper drafting paper, and more detailed, but still with an unfinished quality. He wouldn't have been allowed to bring the actual plans home; he must have sketched it again later. Her eye roved the paper, trying to understand the nuances of the horrible place. She had seen enough of George's plans that they rose from the paper as fully formed buildings in her mind.
"It's the same," she said, but as she said it, she caught the flaw that she had missed in the cruder drawing. She looked closer, but there was no mistaking it. In this all-seeing prison, a small blind spot. To her knowledge, George had never made an error on a blueprint. Had he done the same thing on the original? Had anyone else noticed, in the engineering or the construction? She had no way of knowing if this sketch was true to the thing that had been built, or if he had changed the design in retrospect. She could still only guess at what to say to ease his mind.
Millie leaned over to kiss George's stubbled cheek. She whispered in his ear. "Maybe you did it, old man. Maybe you gave them a chance."
Jane spent the drive home updating her mother on her own work and the escapades of various children and grandchildren. Millie lost track, but appreciated the diversion. When they got to the house, her daughter headed straight for the kitchen.
"Tea?" Jane was already picking up the kettle.
"Tea would be wonderful," Millie agreed, before excusing herself to the bedroom.
She crossed the room in the dark and opened the French doors, letting the winter air inside. She had never tired of this view, not in any season. Tonight, the light of the full moon reflected off the snow and disappeared in Raymond's footprints. The naked branches of the sycamore were long white fingers outlined in light; they performed benedictions over the empty platforms of the tree house.
Millie stepped through the doorway and onto the patio. The drifts were nearly up to her knees. She took two more steps, toward the tree. The cold made her eyes water.
She wished she could go back to that night in 1951, ask George what he had done and how she might share his burden. She was too late for so much. She allowed herself to grieve it all for a moment: her husband, their life together, the things they had shared and the things they had held back. It surrounded her like the cold, filling up the space expelled by her breath, until she fixed her eyes again on the treehouse. Everything missing from the body in the hospital was still here. The Georgeness.
"Oh," she whispered, as the day hit her.
"I won't leave," she said to the tree. Raymond would help her, maybe, or she would hire someone who would. The lights continued to dance after she had made her way back inside. They danced behind her eyelids when she closed her eyes.
Millie remembered the dream house that George used to promise her, back when this was a passing-through place, not their home. She was suddenly glad he had never gotten the chance to build it, that he had instead devoted himself to countless iterations of one mad project. Even the best plans get revised.
In the morning, there were pamphlets for a retirement village on the kitchen table.
Jane looked apologetic. "Charlie says we should talk about your options."
"I know my options," Millie said, setting a mug down on one of the smiling silver-haired faces.
She refused to let Jane help with the briefcase she carried with her to the hospital. When they got to George's room, she sent Charlie and Jane to get breakfast.
"I'd like some time with my husband," she said.
Then they were alone again, alone except for the noisy machines by the bedside and the ticking clock and the television and the nurses' station outside the door. None of that was hard to tune out.
"We're going to draw again, old man."
She opened the briefcase and pulled out a drawing board, a piece of paper, and a handful of pencils. She managed to angle a chair so that she was leaning half on the bed. George's hand closed around the pencil when she placed it against his palm. All the phantom energy of two days previous was gone. Her movement now led his, both of her hands clasped around his left.
He was the draftsman, but she knew plants. They started with the roots. She guided him through the shape of the tree, through the shape of his penance. Through every branch they both knew by heart, through every platform she had seen from her vantage point in the garden. The firehouse pole, the puppet theater, the Rapunzel tower. The crow's nest, which had kept his secret. Finally, around the treehouse, they started on her plans for the spring's gardens. All that mattered was his hand pressed in hers: long enough to feel like always, long enough to feel like everything trapped had been set free.