“They called me a magnate tonight,” he said, as he ducked his narrow, hatted head below the bannister, searching for Meredith in the dusty attic.
“A magnate. They called me.”
“Were you stuck to something?” She thought this was quite clever. He nearly scoffed and stood proudly in a manner she knew all too well. She smirked knowing he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of a response, but that in the morning he would say something along the same lines and expect a giggle or a compliment back. “I’m very proud of you, George. I sincerely am.”
She made her way from behind a mountain of old and unwanted furniture to where he could see her. His shoulders softened at the sight and, though most wouldn’t even notice it, the corners of his mouth ever so slightly tightened and he tapped his crow tipped cane on the dusty wood floor. For George, that was a colorful dance down the street. And Meredith knew it. She might have been the only one who ever did.
“Eggs, I think. Perhaps some toast and bacon if we have it.”
And with that he was off to his study and their personal moment was through. She wiped her hands and followed him down the attic ladder-stair, accepting his hand as support as she neared the floor, then listened to his unmistakable limp echo down the long hall and through the double doors before she ventured down to the kitchen.
The study was spotlessly clean thanks to Meredith. A job not many would tackle with the care and consideration she did. Each of the one-hundred thirty-seven shelves that line the walls of the once-banquet hall, now study are littered with figurines, busts, books, keepsakes, what-have-you’s and perhaps even a few trinkets. She once made the mistake of referring to something on one of the shelves as a toy. George’s mouth tightened and he tapped his crow headed cane, similarly but not at all the same as he had done in the attic. And again, Meredith may have been the only one who would’ve known the difference.
She’d tried to apologize, knowing she’d insulted him. Everything in that room meant something monumental to George.
But, as could be guessed of a magnate such as George VanWilloughby III, he was not, as he would say, “natured for such expressions of sincerity.”
“This is heartily unnecessary, Meredith. Now, please, a brandy with my tea this evening.”
That was all she had expected and was much more careful about her choice of words after. In the six years, nine months, seven days and thirteen hours she’d looked after the four-story brownstone at 241 Clark Ave, this was one of three times George, who despised being referred to as anything but George, became cross with her. The first was for addressing him by title and surname on her first day.
Of course, of those three times, the closest to ill-mannered George ever became was the second, when Meredith, unaware that George had come home for a mid-day bath, a respite from his penthouse office in a high-rise not but three blocks away, walked in on him just as his trousers hit the floor. The fresh bundle of laundry flew from her hands as she screamed, mostly from the fright of not knowing anyone was in the room, next for that of seeing her employer wearing nothing from head to mid-calf. His socks were still tightly buttoned to their garters. “It was quite the sight,” she would much later, quietly and drunkenly, admit to her best friends, who manage the houses on each adjacent side of 241.
George, understandably, was also quite startled. He stood straight up in shock, his jaw dropped and though every gentlemanly nature in him tried to stop it, a high-pitched, youthful squeal escaped him. This was followed by a series of coughs and stutters as he twisted and folded his aging body to conceal himself best he could, eventually grabbing one of the flying sheets Meredith had let loose in her moment of shock.
The event was never discussed, and for six days after, Meredith made not so much as eye contact with George. She went so far as to run from the drawing room, one evening, when she’d heard his unmistakable limp nearing.
She loved George, though. Ever so much. She found comfort in his stern and often unreadable demeanor. She enjoyed being the only one in his life who could read his reactions. And was frequently asked to do so by everyone from his children and friends to his business partners and investors, the very same who, that evening, had deemed him a magnate.
Meredith made the eggs, bacon, toast and tea. She poured a small brandy, knowing he wanted it but didn’t want to come off as too proud and ask for a celebratory drink. She slowly and carefully climbed the main stair, a soft breeze following her up, wafting through the tapestries, making them dance in the late evening light. Making her way down the hallway to the large double door, she took note of the ornate rug that ran the length and how George’s crow-headed cane struck it in the same spots every time he came and went.
He was such a man of ritual and measure. When he started his first business, a newspaper stand, when he was seven, he was meticulous about how the papers were stacked and organized; he took the same route to and from his stand every day, at the same time, touching the same four corner stones of he same four buildings every morning at exactly 6:13, 6:15, 6:16 and 6:18 am; he accepted every payment with his right hand as he passed the paper with his left; and whether he’d sold out or not, he would leave his stand at 7:08 pm to arrive home at exactly 7:30. His precision and compulsion only increased as his entrepreneurial savvy did. By 18, he’d started his own paper. At 30, he owned five. And throughout the following two decades, acquired and expanded businesses in fields ranging from science and manufacturing to real estate and the arts. He was a magnate. At 63, he purchased the brownstone at 241 Clark Ave and fired the entire house-staff that had been working there. They had a much more difficult time with his particular ways than Meredith did.
“You’ll call me George,” he calmly and definitely stated in response to her curtsy and introduction. “I prefer breakfast in the evenings. I take jam on my toast. I eat lunches out while at work. And you needn’t worry about cleaning or tending to the garden. I don’t use it or need it.”
She did tend to the garden. She turned it into quite a beautiful and pleasant place for afternoon tea, a late morning brunch, or a late night smoke. But only when George was away, of course, and only with his blessing. She would never do anything to risk losing her job, but more importantly, would never do that to him.
On the five such occasions, Meredith, in fact, had locked all the other doors in the house, including the upstairs bath where she saw George preparing for his midday bath, and had kept the key safely in her pocket throughout the visits.
The friends that worked on each side of 241 had shown Meredith each and every room of their houses. Every closet and garment of lavish clothing, every secret stash of liquor and hidden safe. Yet, no matter how much they scowled and insisted, Meredith never let them in, never gave them more than a sprinkling of information about George.
Trust was important to Meredith. As was honor and ones word given. It mattered not to her that George would’ve never known. She told him no one would enter any room but the kitchen and the garden, and only the kitchen because that was the most direct route from the front door to the backyard.
She’d never had a backyard growing up or at any point during her adult life. She’d been raised in apartments smaller than George’s study, sharing rooms and beds. That’s why she respected and enjoyed George. He’d started working at 7 years old as well. He’d known what it was to be a child no one saw as a child. “I wasn’t a child selling papers,” he told her one night as she drew a fire, “I was a business. I was a transaction. And when they’d bump me and push me as I carried my stand to and from my corner every morning and night, I wasn’t a child. I was one of them.”
Meredith loved it. He understood. She, of course, didn’t reply, and never explained that she knew exactly how he felt. That she had started collecting laundry and running a cleaning service with her sister at that same age. That she knew that feeling of not being a child or an adult, but being a business, a transaction. It bonded her to him, that moment. She felt understood. She began looking forward to the nights she heard a slight lift in his left foot and his crow-headed cane tapped the floor a bit more briskly. Those were the nights she might get a story, a quip, an insight further into George.
“Breakfast should eaten last in a day. To start a day with such delight is to set oneself up for disappointment before lunch. Eggs, bacon, toast and jam. This is how one ends a day, how one reflects on if this meal is something earned and deserved.”
She would sit in the kitchen, after, sometimes for hours, enjoying her plate of eggs, bacon, toast and jam, picturing him in the fire light, musing and orating. Those were her favorite nights. Which is why she so closely listened to his unmistakable limp as he made his way to his study. A lift in his left foot. It was to be one of her nights.
As she neared the study, she felt butterflies in her stomach, wondering what he’d discuss tonight, what she’d learn of him, especially on a night he was feeling such pride that he almost laughed at a joke.
She turned the old worn brass door handle, nudging it open and entering quietly as to not disturb. His chair was turned towards the window overlooking her garden. All she could see was his narrow head peaking over the top of the burgundy leather. She set the tray in its spot on the table near the fire and began to tend the fading embers, adding another log and shuffling that which was there. He didn’t stir or move. She looked over at him, hoping and waiting. Alas, nothing.
She slowly made her way to the door, excitement seething for any sign of conversation. She even stopped to wipe an imaginary smudge from the forehead of George’s favorite bust – that of Johannes Gutenberg, the goldsmith who had discovered the printing press, whom he admired and appreciated. “Without him, Meredith, who knows what the world would be?”
He’s looking out at my garden, she thought. Which made her feel quite good, actually. She was unaware he’d ever noticed what she’d done with it – the flower beds, the cobble stone path, the nooks perfect for tea or a smoke, the ivy, the fountain… She had done it all for her, of course. But it made her feel all the more special, on this night, that he was looking out at it. And she simply couldn’t stop herself from asking.
“Is there anything else you might be needing, George?”
He would never be so rude as to not reply. Something was wrong. She crept towards the desk, bracing herself on the corner of it as she turned and saw. Her heart dropped and tears found her cheeks before she could even form a thought.
She ran out of the room and downstairs to the phone to call for a doctor. But there was nothing that could be done. Meredith knew this already. His body had gone cold. He was gone.
She wandered back to the study, awaiting the doctor and George’s business partners and children. His last meal still warming by the fire, his crow-headed cane resting against the desk. She walked around and stood next to him, looking out at her garden. She stepped closer than she ever had, resting her head slightly on his for a moment, seeing exactly what he was seeing in his last moment. And as her heart had dropped upon finding him, it warmed and wept when she thought that just maybe he was looking out there wishing she’d been sitting next to him or staring back at him. If, by some chance, he’d cherished those seven years as much as she had.
Meredith was offered an opportunity to stay on with the house after the sale. George’s lawyer was purchasing it and moving in with his family. He urged her to stay. But she had tended 241 for long enough and the thought of walking those halls and not hearing George’s crow-headed cane and his unmistakable limp was too sad for her. She asked if she could come visit the garden from time to time. “Of course. Please do.”
She never did. She left 241 the morning after the funeral and never returned. She moved to the country and built herself a garden with a cobble stone path, flower beds, nooks for tea or smoking, and a beautiful fountain. She ate breakfast for dinner every night and read herself to sleep. She dreamt of George here and there and his undetectable reactions. And on each of those mornings, she would walk to town and buy a paper from the young man selling them in front of the grocer.