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The Tree Houseby Angela Stockton


"The Tree House" is interesting as a period piece, however, as you read it, you need to remember that I wrote TTH between seasons 1 and 2, before Rick's second brother mysteriously disappeared, before we knew that the family home was sold after his father died, and especially before we met Peg Sammler.

Unlike "Pulling," which I wrote for Trish, TTH was not "commissioned" or inspired by anyone. I wrote it for myself alone, because from my first view of BMG, I was fascinated by two questions (more of those never-resolved subplots which H & Z seem to specialize in!):

1. Why, as the first notes of "Absence of Fear" are heard, is Rick shown in a pose that indicates that he's been reading to Jessie? She's long past the age at which parents read bedtime stories to their children.

2. When Rick picks up the phone in his bedroom, we're obviously supposed to conclude from the next scene (of Rick standing outside Max's coffee shop) that the caller was Lily. What did she say that sent Rick back to Max's to look for her, even as he's not certain that Lily will meet him there, or what she'll say if she does?



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" that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing. The end!"

With a flourish, Rick snapped shut his copy of The House at Pooh Corner. Jessie snuggled under her quilt. "Daddy, read me some more," she lisped like a three-year-old.

"And what shall I read you, dear Liza?" Rick asked, playing along. Grinning slyly, Jessie burrowed her hand under her pillow and pulled out Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Seeing the cover that clearly identified it as a book from the Oak Hollow School library, Rick attempted a stern frown, then threw up his hands and chuckled.

Karen had banned Andersen's tales (among other books) from her home because Andersen had been a lonely man whose personal unhappiness was reflected in many of his stories. Karen was afraid of giving Eli and Jessie nightmares with "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" who jumped into flames and was incinerated for hopeless love of a ballerina doll; or "The Wild Swans," seven brothers cursed by a witch and turned into swans, whose sister nearly lost her life trying to break the spell; or worst of all, "The Little Mermaid," who drowned herself when she couldn't capture the prince's heart. Although she'd bought them "The Little Mermaid" video, Karen never told Eli and Jessie that the tale it was based on had been much darker.

Unfortunately for Karen, she hadn't factored in the divorce. Since it left Eli and Jessie with two homes, there was nothing to stop them--especially Jessie, who enjoyed reading far more than dyslexic Eli--from borrowing or buying books almost as fast as Karen banned them, and simply stashing them at Rick's.

When Rick first learned about Jessie's scheming, he had wrestled with his conscience. Karen already thought he was too much of a pal to the kids, and he was sure she'd be furious about his failure to monitor their reading. But try as he might to understand Karen’s concern, he really couldn't picture Hans Christian Andersen as a monster under the bed. Jessie was extremely bright, she was in seventh grade, and wasn't she his daughter as much as Karen's? He'd decided on a policy of don't ask, don't tell.

Rick shook his head. "Another night, I'm afraid--I have to be at a jobsite first thing in the morning." Jessie didn't argue, but merely slid the Andersen book back under the pillow and turned her face up to Rick for her good-night kiss.

Rick never stopped marveling at nights like tonight when Jessie--such a fearless tae kwon do player that Master Kim routinely matched her against boys older and heavier; such a gifted student that she was far ahead of her parents' reading level at the same age--reverted to being a little girl, asking him to read to her at bedtime.

Not that he couldn't explain it: thanks to the interminable counseling Karen had arranged during and after their divorce, Rick could speak psychobabble as well as any layperson. He was convinced that Jessie's fondness for their homey bedtime-story ritual was her affectionate way of saying that for her, he didn't have to be a "Disney Dad." He'd never trusted the therapist who suggested that perhaps Jessie had not accepted the divorce and needed the fiction of an intact family, with Daddy home every night to tuck her in. He was her father, he saw her more than the therapist did, and to him, Jessie appeared to have taken the divorce in stride. Hell, she was such a mother hen, she worried about his adjusting to it.

Even facing his early wake-up call for the visit to the jobsite, Rick found it hard to turn down Jessie, knowing that she wouldn't ask him many more times. Surely she'd find it too childish once she reached puberty, which Rick figured would happen when Jessie turned thirteen. That was the age when Karen, her sister Phyllis, and his late mother-in-law, Mrs. Davies, had all started their periods. Small blessings, Rick thought: he wasn't sure he was ready for Jessie to become a woman at twelve.

Occasionally, if she had a heavy load of homework, her bedtime reading would become a tutorial. He'd already read one assigned book this semester, making Helen Keller's autobiography the most unlikely bedtime story he could remember, but more often she liked oldies, like tonight's The House at Pooh Corner.

Rick turned off Jessie's light and shut her door, and began his nightly routine of checking that lights and water taps were turned off, doors and windows locked, The Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal tossed into the recycling bin, magazines returned to bookshelves. Under the sofa he found an Architectural Digest that was so old, he had forgotten that the cover illustration was of a gazebo with daylilies planted around its base. Flinching at the sight of the lilies, he shoved the magazine into his kitchen garbage. He exchanged good-nights with Eli, who was drying a load of laundry. As Rick made his rounds, he thought, inevitably, of what he had never told Jessie or Eli: that as much as he had always loved reading to his children, doing so was forever linked to one of his most painful childhood memories.

Inexplicably, for someone who worked so much overtime and drank so much Scotch, his father suffered from insomnia once or twice a month. Household noises--or even street noises, since the house had no air conditioning and they slept with windows open all summer--would bring him charging out of his bedroom, shouting at one and all to shut up, as if his family could control people who chose to honk their car horns. The master bedroom was on the second floor, but if Pop were tossing and turning, his wife and sons had to tiptoe around the house and speak barely above a whisper. Often Pop even forced them to turn off the TV, not caring if he deprived them of a favorite program.

During the school year, this was less of a hardship, since Ricky and Mikey were early to bed on school nights. But in the summer, they chafed at Pop's punitive rules, especially since he also forbade them from leaving their own yard after dark. To keep her rambunctious boys quiet, Mom taught them board games and card games, or read to them. In warm weather, they'd sit outside in the front porch swing; in bad weather, they'd gather in the kitchen.

One summer night when Ricky was nine, Mikey was almost eight, and Mom was three months pregnant with their baby brother, she picked up a few volumes of Dr. Seuss and carried them to the porch. Mikey followed her, holding the mosquito repellent. Deprived of the TV, Ricky would have preferred to curl up in bed with his newest Black Stallion book. But Mikey found it hard to be quiet, and for his sake, Ricky chose to sit with him. Besides, the evening promised to be entertaining; Dr. Seuss always sounded funnier in Mom's accent.

Born in Scotland, Mom had met Pop in West Germany, where he was in the Army and she held a civilian job with the RAF. Not having grown up with Dr. Seuss, she discovered him along with her boys and laughed at his stories as heartily as they did. On this night, she was reading Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book and was already having trouble keeping a straight face when she tried to say "the Hinkle-Horn Honking Club." At that bit of Seussian nonsense, she simply lost it and bent double with laughter. As always, the boys joined in, and they all leaned against each other on the porch swing, giggling until they were limp.

Suddenly they heard Pop's heavy feet thudding on the stairs. Since Pop tyrannically demanded that his boys stand when he entered a room, Ricky and Mikey scrambled down from the swing. Before they had time to do more than exchange worried glances, Pop pushed open the screen door and strode onto the porch in his pajamas. Cursing in stronger language than his sons had ever heard before, he grabbed the book out of Mom's hands and flung it toward the boys.

Ricky anticipated Pop's wild pitch and ducked. Mikey didn't, and yelped with pain as the hard cover struck his scalp. Screaming, Mom bounded off the swing and thrust herself between her boys, who were howling in terror, and Pop. Wild-eyed, Pop swung his arm back as if to slap her.

Suddenly, from the yard a deep male voice boomed, "Evenin', Miz Sammler."

Rick wasn't religious then or later, but he often thought that this moment was the closest he had ever come to believing in guardian angels. It seemed to him that at the very moment he and his mother and brother needed them, two angels had just materialized on his front lawn in the unlikely forms of their neighbor, old Mr. Jernigan, and his dachshund, Weenie.

Though all the neighbor kids liked him, most of their parents considered Mr. Jernigan a busybody. Some of them were sure the retired postman wasn't really fond of dogs (what postman was, they asked) and had acquired Weenie only as a pretext to walk around the block morning, afternoon and night, and spy on all his neighbors. Mom, though, sided with the kids; she liked Mr. Jernigan because he had visited Scotland and lent a sympathetic ear whenever she felt homesick. In turn, she endeared herself to him by helping Mrs. Jernigan with housework when the older woman's arthritis bothered her.

Now Mr. Jernigan, chewing a toothpick and holding Weenie's leash, was standing at the foot of the Sammlers' porch steps as if he saw nothing at all bizarre about paying a social call on a woman about to be beaten up by her husband.

"Evenin', Miz Sammler" was all he said, but while he spoke to Mom, he stared at Pop so intently, the boys weren't sure he even blinked. Pop wasn't at all embarrassed that he had been about to hit Mom; more than one Joe Six-Pack on the block saw nothing wrong with that, nor with belting an unruly kid. But throwing a hardcover book at a small boy whose only offense was laughing, then turning on his pregnant mother for trying to protect him, was more than even the worst lout could defend. Mr. Jernigan said nothing and moved not a muscle: for a few agonizing seconds, he just stared at Pop in cold, silent judgment.

While his wife and sons watched and tried not to even breathe audibly, Pop slowly lowered his hand and slid his gaze away from Mr. Jernigan. He glared at his family, then turned, threw open the screen door, and stomped back inside and up the stairs. As Ricky and Mikey burrowed into the trembling arms of their mother, Mr. Jernigan tipped his cap, drawled, "Night, Miz Sammler. Boys, take care now. C'mon, Weenie," and ambled away.

What sent Pop so terrifyingly out of control that night, his family never understood, but the image of Mr. Jernigan dining out on the story of his breakdown must have been an effective deterrent. But while he never again threatened to hit Mom, he sniped at her in ways that ranged from subtle to heavy-handed. Having heard her say repeatedly that Scotch was whisky and Scottish was her nationality, he knew that she hated to be called "Scotch"; he called her that anyway. If she heard an American word or expression that she didn't understand, he ignored her when she asked him to explain. He jeered when Mom tried to teach her boys German, mocking their accents even though he himself knew only enough German to order a beer and a whore. Like a true Scot, Mom loved lamb, which was hardly typical Kansas fare, and while it wasn't one of Pop's favorites, he'd always eaten it without complaint. Now, whenever she served lamb, he grumbled, "Lamb again?" Worst of all, the vacation in Scotland that Pop had promised her for their twelfth wedding anniversary suddenly became an unthinkable extravagance, and when his in-laws sent them money for the trip, he sent it back, sneering that Sammlers didn't accept "charity."

Whether emotional abuse was preferable to being slapped, Rick thought, only Mom knew, and she kept her opinions to herself throughout her marriage and her long widowhood. Rick guessed that since her Bible and her rigid Presbyterian upbringing ruled out divorce, she saw no point in discussing hypotheticals.

Rick always thought that this night had determined his career. For years he'd envied his friend Craig, whose home had a finished basement with half bath, table tennis set, and a wet bar, which Ricky and Craig loved to pretend was a soda fountain. Ricky was sure that if the Sammler basement were remodeled as a TV room and playroom, noise couldn't possibly reach the second floor. But he knew without asking that Pop would never fix up their basement. He had no time to renovate it himself, and he was too tightfisted to pay a contractor.

So Ricky designed a tree house for himself and Mikey. Pop grudgingly permitted his sons to raid his stash of odd-sized pieces of lumber (after Ricky shrewdly asked him during another "drop-in" visit by Mr. Jernigan); Mom made a previously unheard-of early withdrawal from her Christmas Club account to buy more materials; the Jernigans gave them some old sleeping bags; and Craig's father and grandfather became his contractors, building the tree house in the giant backyard maple and accepting only a case of beer as payment. True, Craig's grandfather, a retired carpenter, triple-checked all of Ricky's calculations--and, Rick realized years later, made adjustments quietly instead of pointing out Ricky's mistakes in front of Pop. But fourth-grader Ricky still considered himself quite the architect (even though he couldn't yet spell the word) and held his head high even in the face of Pop's snide references to the tree house as "that damn dumb crate."

Once it was finished, Ricky and Mikey retreated to the tree house in all but the most inclement weather whenever they sensed storm clouds gathering around Pop. Although that meant leaving Mom to deal with him on her own, Ricky didn't think of himself as a coward. He reasoned instead that if his very presence angered Pop, by hiding in the tree house he was protecting Mom, because if Pop didn't get angry at him, he wouldn't take his anger out on her.

Over time, Ricky designed improvements to his haven to accommodate his and Mikey's growth. Even after Pop's death five years later made a refuge unnecessary, he continued to tinker just for fun, and to maintain the tree house for his youngest brother. Mom hadn't dared to say in front of Pop that he was an architectural prodigy--Pop had made it so clear that he expected his firstborn to follow in his own footsteps as a city engineer--but on the day Rick graduated from architecture school, Mom boasted that she saw this day coming ever since the tree house went up.

Rick understood her pride, but inwardly he was upset that she mentioned the tree house in front of Karen. His fiancee knew vaguely that he'd designed a tree house, but not why, and the last thing he wanted on the eve of their wedding was for her to start worrying that all the Sammler men were wife-beaters. Years later, when he told her the whole story, Rick was stunned and hurt when Karen scornfully responded that he was deluding himself about building the tree house to protect his mother, and that "obviously" this was where he had learned his "pattern" of dealing with conflict by hiding from it.

His rounds completed with a check of the master bath, Rick entered his bedroom, smiling as he recalled how he and Mikey had handled the one design obstacle he hadn't been able to overcome: the tree house had no bathroom. What the hell, it wasn't as if anyone ever walked under the tree late at night! But his smile faded when he remembered that he and Mikey had drunk their first beer in that house. Pop had invited some of his union cronies over to watch a televised World Series game, and had stocked the refrigerator with beer. Confident that one bottle wouldn't be missed among so many, Ricky and Mikey, ages 13 and 12, had smuggled a beer up to the tree house and guzzled it that night. If only we hadn't made such a game of it, Rick thought in despair for the thousandth time, maybe Mikey...

He shook his head as if to clear it: he'd gone too damn far down memory lane this time. He looked at his bed, almost entirely covered with drawings, and sighed. Every time he turned his bed into a work area, he always regretted it when he was ready to turn in but couldn't see the bed for the drawings. Rerolling the damn things always seemed to take so much longer than unrolling them.

Just as he picked one up to roll it, his telephone rang. As always, he waited through two rings for caller ID, expecting it to be Jennifer, since none of Eli's girlfriends ever seemed to have been taught that calling this late was rude. To his astonishment, the number that lit up was Lily's.

After the way she'd blown him off at Max's, Rick wasn't sure he should answer; but if he didn't pick up the phone, Eli would, and he couldn't bear Eli's wink and nudge as he said, "Hey, Dad, it's for you--it's the mom."

He picked up the receiver. "Hello," he said, carefully emotionless.

"Good evening," came the familiar lilting voice.

"Good evening to you." Even as he told himself to let her lead this conversation, he added, "You're up late."

"I'm not--I couldn't go to sleep until I thanked you for--for raising such a fine son," Lily stammered. "I should have told you sooner."

Rick was surprised. "Well, thank you, he is a fine son. But I wasn't aware that you knew."

"Eli went out of his way to be nice to Grace the other night," Lily explained. "She was sure she'd be a wallflower at that Abell boy’s party, but he introduced her to some of his friends. She wasn't the belle of the ball, but she had a better time than she expected going in."

"I'll tell his mother. She deserves most of the credit," Rick said.

"I had to have a long talk with Grace before she agreed to go to the party," Lily continued. "It's so natural at her age to be afraid of new things and new people. I know Eli has a lot of friends because he's an athlete, so it surprised me that he understands what it's like to be different."

He's dyslexic, Rick could have said. He chose not to. The silence hung heavy, and he wondered what to say next. "Grace was afraid to go to the party?" he asked.

"Yes, she was."

"But you talked her into it."

"Yes. I may have to talk her into going to the next party, and the next, but at least this was a baby step in the right direction," Lily said.

A baby step, Rick thought. In three years, no woman, neither Lindsey nor any of her interchangeable counterparts, had appealed to him like Lily. But before he'd even thanked God for sending Lily into his life, she'd gone out of it. Her voice on the phone brought back the pain of her good-bye at Max's as if it had happened an hour ago.

He opened his mouth, then hesitated. For days, all he'd thought about was how much he wanted Lily back and how he wished she'd call him. Now that she had, he was at a loss for what to say next.

He could simply thank her once more for complimenting Eli, hang up, and most likely never speak to her again. And maybe I should, he thought. What if he started over with her and she bolted once more? He didn't want to imagine how much it would hurt to reopen the wound, especially if she were to return to that blowhard whom she described as her "ex-husband-sort-of." He'd gotten over women before that he thought he never would, and surely, if he made up his mind to it, he could get over Lily too.

But she did call me, he reminded himself. What had prompted her to do it? Was this her own baby step?

"Rick? Are you there?" Lily asked hesitantly.

This was no time to hide in the tree house, he decided, and his words tumbled out. "Lily, the other day--the last time we spoke--"


"Nobody's asking you to commit to anything more than a baby step. Like coffee with me at Max's. No sleeping together, no 'other things' if you're not ready. You and I--I don't care if baby steps are all we take for a while, as long as we take them together."

She was silent.

"Max's is around the corner from my office. It's one-stop shopping, coffee and motor oil in the same pot." He heard her faint laugh, and continued, "I can slip out and be there around ten tomorrow morning. Come meet me."

She remained silent for so long that he wondered if she'd put down the phone. Suddenly, to his amazement, he heard sniffling. "It's late," she said at last, obviously fighting back tears. "I'd better let you go."

He wanted to say so much more, but settled for "Good night, Lily. Sweet dreams."

"Good night, Rick," she replied, her voice still unsteady, and hung up.

Rick stared at the phone, wondering if he'd just heard a yes, no or maybe. He hung up slowly. Within seconds, the phone rang again. Forgetting about caller ID, he grabbed it immediately. "Lily?"

"I forgot--sweet dreams to you, too," he heard her say.

He exhaled a deep breath that sounded like "Liilleee." Before he could say more, she babbled, "Good night--again," and hung up.

Rick placed the phone in its cradle and looked down at the plans he still needed to roll up and remove from his bed. With a sudden motion, he grabbed his coverlet and shook it, and the plans slid onto his floor in an untidy heap. Hell, if they weren't folded tonight, he'd do it tomorrow. He was getting up early, wasn't he? He had to be finished at the jobsite in time to reach Max's before ten.

June, 25, 2001

Copyright 2001 Angela Stockton
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Based on characters created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz


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