In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind

By Sarah Pinsker

Part 1 of 2

"Don't leave."

The first time he said it, it sounded like a command. The tone was so unlike George, Millie nearly dropped her hairbrush.

They were in their bedroom, in their home of sixty-six years. Outside the French doors, fresh snow settled on top of old snow. The lights in George's sprawling treehouse made it stand out against the otherwise unbroken white. George sat in the chair at the telephone desk. He was in the middle of changing his socks, one leg crossed over the other, when he dropped the new sock to the floor and coughed once. Millie glanced in the mirror on her vanity, caught him staring at her.

"Don't leave," he said again.

She turned around to face him.

The third time it arrived as a question, a note of confusion lurking in the space between his words. "Don't leave, please?"

He seemed to struggle with the next sentence, his last. "I'm sorry."

"What are you talking about, old man?" she asked, but he was already someplace else. He opened his mouth as if to say more, but no words came out.   

She had always been calm in the family's minor medical crises, but this time the words this is it blazed across her brain and crowded everything else out. She took deep breaths and tried to remember what she should do. She crossed to his chair, put her hand on his chest, felt the rise and fall.  That was good. She didn't think she could get him to the floor, much less perform chest compressions. She stooped to put the clean sock on his bare foot, then reached across him to pick up the phone and dial for an ambulance. Should those actions have been the other way around? Possibly. This is it.

"I'll be right back," she told him before leaving the room to unlock the front door. He was still in the same place when she returned, collapsed slightly to the right in the chair. His left eye looked panicked, his right eye oddly calm. She dragged the chair from her vanity over and sat down facing him. Behind him the snow continued to fall.

"I wonder if this will be the storm that proves too heavy for that poor old sycamore," she said, taking her husband's hand in hers and looking out at the treehouse. "I think this is going to be a big one."

It had snowed the day they met. Chicago, Marshall Field's, December 1944. He had held the door for her as they both exited onto State Street.

"Ladies first," said the young man in the Army overcoat, gesturing with the fat notebook in his free hand. He was shorter than her by a few inches, and she was not terribly tall; if he hadn't been wearing the uniform she would have mistaken him for a boy.

"Thank you," she said, giving him a smile over her shoulder. She didn't see the patch of ice beyond the vestibule. Her left foot slipped out from under her, then her right. He caught her before she landed, losing his own footing in the process. The pages of his notebook fluttered to the ground around them as he broke her fall with his body. They both scrambled to their feet, red-faced and breathless.

"Thank you again," she said.

He brushed snow off his backside and bent to grab several loose pieces of paper from the pavement. She picked at one that had plastered itself to her leg.

He pointed at it. "It likes you. You should probably keep it."

She peeled the page from her nylon and examined it. Even as the ink blurred and ran she could tell it had been a skillful sketch of the grand staircase and the Tiffany dome at the library. The soaked paper tore in two in her hands.

"It's ruined!"

"It's okay, I have more." He held out the others. She saw the Field Museum, the Buckingham Fountain, the building they had just left, all bleeding away.

She put her hand to her mouth. "Your drawings are ruined, and you've torn your coat, too."

He shrugged, touching the ragged edges at his elbow. "Don't worry about it. These were just for fun. Practice. I'm an architect. George Gordon. You don't have to memorize it. Everybody'll know it someday."

"Millicent Berg. Nice to meet you. And I'm sorry about your drawings, even if they were only for fun. Can I make it up to you?"

He scratched his head in a pantomime of contemplation. "I'd ask you to have lunch with me, but I've already eaten. You might let me draw another for you over coffee, I suppose."

Millie glanced up at the clock jutting out from the building. She shook her head. "I'm afraid I'm already late to meet a friend."

"Another time?" he persisted, rubbing his elbow in an obvious fashion. In another man she might have found it rude, but there was something about him that she liked. Too bad.

"Sorry. I'm only visiting Chicago until Tuesday.  I go to college in Baltimore," she said.

His grin chased everything ordinary from his face. "You may not get out of this so easily, then. I'm stationed in Maryland. Fort Meade."

Out of such coincidences, lives were built.

The emergency workers tore two buttons off of George's pajama top. Millie, who had dressed while she waited for them to arrive, slipped the buttons into the pocket of her cardigan. The EMTs checked George's pulse and vital signs. They talked to each other but not to her. She hovered behind them as they worked.

"Will he be okay?" she asked. Nobody answered her, and after a moment she wondered if she had asked out loud. She glanced at herself in the mirror. The old woman who had stolen her reflection several years ago stared back at her. They nodded to each other in greeting.

When one of the paramedics finally spoke to Millie, it was to tell her they didn't want her to ride in the ambulance with George.

"There isn't room," said the young one, the girl.

What she meant, thought Millie, was that they didn't want to have to worry about her, too. She was spared the trouble of arguing when Raymond and his boyfriend Mark arrived.

"Don't worry, Grandma," Ray said. "We can ride behind them."

Mark helped her into the passenger seat of their Toyota. They were good boys. They took her to the salon, took her and George to dinner and to plays and concerts. Of all of the children and grandchildren, she was glad that Ray was the one who lived nearby. He was the one she trusted most to actually listen to her if she said something.

Mark dropped Millie and Ray at the emergency bay. After filling out insurance paperwork, they sat in a waiting room until a tired-eyed woman in scrubs appeared. An ischemic stroke, the doctor said, on the left side of George's brain. They had stabilized him. She could see him if she liked. Millie wondered about the phrasing. Did anyone ever say no, thank you very much, I've waited all day, but on second thought, I wouldn't like to see him? After so many hours in one position she struggled to get to her feet. Raymond offered his arm, and she leaned on him all the way down the hallway to Intensive Care.

The right side of George's face sagged, the eye tugging downward at the outside corner. His right hand lay limp on his hip. His left hand busied itself, roaming the white sheets in sweeping motions.

"He's awake, but not really responding to anyone," the doctor told her. What was the doctor's name? DeSoto, like the mouse dentist in the book she had read to the grandchildren. She could remember that. "The stroke was on the left side, so we're looking at right side hemiparesis, possibly hemiplegia. He probably will need therapy to regain speech, and that may be a long way off. For now, we'd like to see if he acknowledges you in any way."

Millie approached with delicate steps. The man in the bed looked like George with all of the Georgeness scooped out.

"Hello, old man," she whispered, just for him. A little louder she said, "Hi, George. It's me, Millie." That felt oddly formal, like an introduction. She didn't want to touch the dead hand, and reached instead for the roving one, his left.

He brushed her away with a force she hadn't expected and then resumed his interrupted motions. Millie fought back tears. He hadn't meant it, couldn't mean it, but the insult still bruised her.

"Believe it or not, that's a positive sign, Mrs. Gordon. That's the first time he's responded to stimulus."

Ray rested a hand on her shoulder. "He probably didn't know it was you, Grandma. He wasn't pushing you away."

Millie looked at the doctor. "Doctor Gordon," she said.

"No, I'm Dr. DeSoto." The young woman glanced at Ray.

"And I'm Dr. Gordon," Millie said. "Just so you know."

She lowered herself into the chair by the bedside, then looked up at the doctor and her grandson. They both knew everything, and knew nothing.

"He's drawing," said Millie. "All that motion. He's trying to draw. He's left-handed."

In their first months of courtship, she had once asked him to show her his designs.

"They're just buildings," he said. "Nothing special."

She couldn't believe that anything he did might be less than special. As far as she was concerned, everything about him was clever and funny and attentive and romantic. He had called her father to ask permission to see her, and replaced the ruined picture of the Tiffany dome with one of her college's stately main hall. He brought her handmade bouquets of paper roses, since it was still winter. Her friends buzzed about the fact that she had found an older man, a qualified architect, twenty-four to her twenty. They all dated Hopkins boys, rich and bland.

"Bring me some of your blueprints," she begged him one night in her dormitory's well-policed lounge. "I know it can't be the ones you work on for the Army, but maybe something from when you were in school? I want to see what you do."

"Really, they'll bore you," he said, but he looked pleased. The next time he visited, he had a leather portfolio tucked under one arm. He spread the diagrams on the table in the visiting room.

"Is this a skyscraper?" Millie traced the outlines.

He grinned his charming grin, with a touch of sheepishness built in. "Yes - but that one isn't being built or anything. Not yet, anyway."

"I can tell it's going to be beautiful. The doorways, the decorative touches. It's lovelier than the Chrysler Building!"

He leaned over to kiss her, though a sharp cough from the dormitory matron interrupted his course. "The Chrysler Building was what inspired me to do this, you know," he said, pushing his drawings slightly to the side to sit on the corner of the table, facing her. The enthusiasm in his eyes lit his whole face. "That and the Empire State Building. We lived in New York back then, and I would slip out of school to watch them going up. Nine, ten years old, and I knew right then that I was going to make things that people would want to see."

He pointed to other drawings in the portfolio: towers, mansions, a stadium. Millie was amazed at his vision.

"When do you get to start making these?"

  "As soon as the Army's done with me."

"I'll bet they don't have you designing anything as beautiful as this. Just barracks and bases."

"There are some interesting projects. Hypothetical stuff, with the engineers."


"Made up. Like out of the pulps. Barracks for soldiers who are ten feet tall, prisons built into the side of mountains, guard houses underwater. I know it's all ridiculous stuff, kid stuff, but it's fun to imagine. The engineers tell me what is and isn't possible. I draw, and then they take my sketches away or tell me things to change. Mill, I thought my skyscrapers would be the future, but they're showing me all kinds of futures I hardly know how to think about."

When he proposed to her a month later, she said yes. She loved the sweet touches, but also the dreamer architect. She wanted to be part of the future he envisioned.

A nurse brought a piece of butcher's paper into George's hospital room, and Dr. DeSoto put a fat marker in his hand. Millie sat in the chair by his bedside. Their son Charlie, Charles now, brought in a second chair to sit next to her. Jane was due on a flight that evening. The room was getting crowded, but Millie didn't know whom she could ask to leave. She contemplated stepping out, excusing herself to go to the bathroom or the vending machine and not coming back. No, she would never get away with it. Charlie had become a hoverer, attending to needs she didn't have, fetching her tea and a pillow for her chair and antibacterial sanitizers that turned her skin to paper.

The odor of the marker cut through the hospital smells. Why was it only the acrid scents that came on so forcefully? Charlie had brought two huge bouquets, but Millie couldn't smell the flowers at all. Then again, it was winter, and these bouquets must have come from a supermarket or the hospital gift shop; they were probably scentless. She thought for a moment of the paper flowers that George used to make for her during the months that nothing bloomed.

George's good eye opened. He didn't seem to focus on anything in particular, but he began to draw again. Quick, sure strokes.

"The marker's going to bleed through the paper!" Charlie half-rose from his chair.
"Let it," said Millie. "White sheets are boring anyway."

"Wait until the hospital bills you for them," her son said under his breath. He had perfected that stage mutter at the age of five. She ignored it, as she always had.

Millie had seen enough of George's blueprints over the years to know that this was an unusual one. He started from the center, instead of the perimeter. The sweeping motions he had made without the pen in his hand now transformed into curved walls. Thick walls, judging from the way he returned to them over and over. Shapes she had never seen him draw in any of his professional work.

He labored for an hour. Dr. DeSoto excused herself, saying she would be back.

"Should we stop him?" Charlie asked at one point. "He's exhausting himself."

"He's almost finished, I think," said Millie. His hand was slowing down, making finer adjustments now. The thickness of the marker obscured the delicacy of his sketching. What was going on in his head?

Someone echoed that thought, and she looked up to see that the doctor had returned. Dr. DeSoto gently took the marker from George's hand, which trembled now. She held up the drawing.

"What did he draw?" Millie strained, but was unable to see well enough at that distance. The doctor brought it closer.

Charlie was the one to say it out loud. "I think it's some kind of prison."

Examining the sketch up close, she knew he was right. Thick concentric walls, ramps that suggested someplace far underground. No windows, no doors, except to and from the central guard tower. This was a place nobody was meant to leave.

In the early years, when he and the other junior architects were first throwing their hats into the partnership ring, George often stayed out for a drink after work or a late night in the office. They attended dinner parties and groundbreakings. Millie loved the meetings with new clients and their wives. She liked to watch George sell them on his vision for their buildings as if his ideas were their own.

"When I make partner, I'll build us our dream house," he said. In the meantime, they moved out to the county. He did his best to balance work and new fatherhood, though it was clear that fatherhood was tipping the balance. He started the tree house when Charlie was still an infant, making preliminary drawings with the baby asleep in the crook of his right arm. Millie would wake up to find the two of them in George's office. "We couldn't sleep, so we thought we'd get some work done," he would say. The early years were all sketches and crumpled paper, false starts and fresh ones.

"They're too young to ask for a tree house," Millie said once, after Jane was born. "How do you know they want one?"

"Look at that tree," George said, pointing to the enormous sycamore in their yard. Its leaves blazed gold and orange in the soft October sun.  "How could they not?"

He started the actual construction when Jane was a year old and Charlie was three, working through the weekends and summer evenings. Millie didn't help with the tree house. Instead, she lingered in the garden, seeding and weeding and nurturing her flowers. She had only recently discovered the joys of gardening, but already it was becoming a passion for her. More than that, it was a chance for them all to be together, even if they were involved in different projects. She dug to a soundtrack of hammer and saw. A slight note of sawdust drifted in the air beneath the heady aroma of her roses and peonies. She liked listening to George explain to Charlie what he was doing, and loved the ways in which he involved Charlie, starting a nail and then inviting the boy to finish it. "You're some builder, kid. Look at that workmanship." If Millie could have bottled a moment, it might have been one of these.

As the children grew older, George allowed them to assert their own personalities on the design.

"I want a giraffe," said four-year-old Charlie, and so George tore out the conventional ladder and constructed a wooden giraffe with stairs built into the neck.  When Jane wanted a Rapunzel tower, George built a platform accessible only by a thick flaxen braid. Long after the structure was completed, if one of them asked for a new element he found a way to incorporate it.

"Someday they'll stump you," said Millie.

"They haven't yet," her husband replied. He was right; they never did. The project that she had envisioned as a simple Our Gang style fort began to assert itself in contrast with her manicured flowerbeds. Over the years he created a pirate ship deck, a Pippi Longstocking wing, a Swiss Family Robinson addition, byzantine passages and secret compartments, and a crow's nest high in the branches. He wired it with thousands of lights, which switched on by timer every evening and danced like fireflies in all seasons.

He didn't let the sycamore limit his vision. He strayed yards from the tree in some directions, like an invasive vine. The tree was merely a guide; Millie suspected that if the tree were hit by lightning, George's structural supports would hold it in place. Some additions were more aesthetically pleasing than others, and some looked better in one season or another, but George didn't care about the aesthetics of the project; he seemed happiest when the whole thing was overrun with children, theirs and others, which was most of the time. The only thing he ever refused them was a rocket. "Spaceships aren't made of wood," he said, with more seriousness than Millie thought the topic was due. "It wouldn't make any sense."

Jane arrived from Seattle, buzzing into the room with the manic exhaustion of air travel. Hugs all around. Millie marveled, as always, at the fact that two such quiet people had created two such loud ones. Five of the six grandchildren were loud too, everyone but Raymond. Maybe silence was a recessive trait.

Charlie and Jane spent ten minutes arguing over who would stay the night and who would take Millie home. Millie wasn't sure if she was the prize or the punishment. In the end, Jane said she wanted to spend some time alone with her father, since she had only just gotten there, and Charlie said that he and Millie could both use some proper sleep in proper beds, and it was all decided. Millie considered arguing that she wanted to stay at the hospital as well, to make the point that she had a say in the matter. Truth be told, she did want to leave. Too much time in a hospital wasn't good for anyone, even a visitor.

She took George's sketch with her, folding it across her lap for the ride home. Charlie was a good driver, but everything felt too fast. The car was some strange rental, full of glowing buttons and gauges, like the cockpit of an airplane.

"We're going to have to make some plans," said George—no, Charlie. How strange that her son was now older than her husband when she pictured him in her mind. She knew he was Charlie. George never took his eyes off the road, but Charlie stared at her now, waiting for her response to his statement. What kind of response did he expect? She fought the urge to say "duuuuh," as the great-grandchildren did.

"Look where you're going, Charles." Millie pointed at the windshield. Charlie shifted his eyes to the road, but continued throwing glances her way.

"You've done a great job of staying independent, but if he needs rehab you won't be able to take care of him."

"I know," said Millie.

"And I'm not sure it's wise for you to stay in that big house all by yourself."

"Raymond checks on me."

"He's a good boy. I'm glad he lives so close to you. Still, he can't be expected to take on all the responsibility."

"I'll be fine," said Millie.

"You have to consider—"

"I'll consider."

"You're eighty-eight years old. The fact that the two of you have been able to live on your own for this long is a minor miracle."

"I'll consider," she said with finality.

They drove the rest of the way in silence. The snow that had fallen the day before had compacted. Charlie left her in the car with the engine running while he shoveled and de-iced the walk. Even from a distance she saw his exertion. How strange to watch her son grow old. Did he consider himself old? If he was old, what did that make her? Red faced and sweaty, he helped her up the salted steps.

Later, alone in her bedroom, Millie reached into the pocket of her cardigan and pulled out the two buttons from George's pajama top. She wondered what had happened to his pajamas now that he was in a hospital gown. These would be easy enough to sew back on for him, if they would only give her back the shirt. George was forever losing buttons, busting them off outgrown pants or catching his shirt on the edge of his drafting table. This time it wasn't his fault, of course.

She went through the motions: brushed her teeth, changed into her nightgown, walked her brush through her hair. No need to look in the mirror; she knew she was a mess. Instead, she looked out at the illuminated treehouse. What would happen if George wasn't around to change the lights? She couldn't bear the thought of it going dark for a single night.

Maybe Charlie was right, and they should consider moving someplace easier to maintain. If George passed, maybe it would be better to be elsewhere than to live with the memories that suffused each corner of this house. She couldn't think of a time when she had spent a night in the bed alone. No, that wasn't true. How had she forgotten? There had been a whole month in 1951, the year everything changed.

Read Part 2

Sarah Pinsker is a Baltimore-based singer/songwriter. She has three albums on various indie labels and a fourth forthcoming. Her short stories have been published in Daily Science Fiction, Nine, Stupefying Stories, and other publications. She has always wanted a treehouse. Please visit her website for more information.


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