Read The Dutch House Online

Authors: Ann Patchett

The Dutch House (2 page)

“Money,” Maeve said.

“Money,” our father said, nodding. It wasn’t a complicated idea. Even at eight I was able to figure it out.

“But they were wrong,” Andrea said. There was a tightness around her mouth. “Think about how beautiful this place must have been. They should have had more respect, if you ask me. The house is a piece of art.”

And then I did laugh, because what I understood Andrea to say was that the VanHoebeeks should have asked
her
before they sold the land. My father, irritated, told Maeve to take me upstairs, as if I might have forgotten the way.

Ready-made cigarettes lined up in their cartons were a luxury for the rich, as were acres never walked on by the people who owned them. Bit by bit the land was shaved away from the house. The demise of the estate was a matter of public record, history recorded in property deeds. Parcels were sold to pay debts—ten acres, then fifty, then twenty-eight. Elkins Park came closer and closer to the door. In this way the VanHoebeek family made it through the Depression, only to have Mr. VanHoebeek die of pneumonia in 1940. One VanHoebeek boy died in childhood and the two older sons died in the war. Mrs. VanHoebeek died in 1945 when there was nothing left to sell but the side yard. The house and all it contained went back to the bank, dust to dust.

Fluffy stayed behind courtesy of the Pennsylvania Savings and Loan, and was paid a small stipend to manage the property. Fluffy’s parents were dead, or maybe they had found other jobs. At any rate, she lived alone above the garage, checking the house every day to make sure the roof wasn’t leaking and the pipes hadn’t burst. She cut a straight path from the garage to the front doors with a push mower and let the rest of the lawn grow wild. She picked the fruit from the trees that were left near the back of the house and made apple butter and canned the peaches for winter. By the time our father bought the place in 1946, raccoons had taken over the ballroom and chewed into the wiring. Fluffy went into the house only when the sun was straight overhead, the very hour when all nocturnal animals were piled up together and fast asleep. The miracle was they didn’t burn the place down. The raccoons were eventually captured and disposed of, but they left behind their fleas and the fleas sifted into everything. Maeve said her earliest memories of life in the house were of scratching, and of how Fluffy dotted each welt with a Q-tip dipped in calamine lotion. My parents had hired Fluffy to be my sister’s nanny.

* * *
The first time Maeve and I ever parked on VanHoebeek Street (
Van Who-bake
, mispronounced as
Van Ho-bik
by everyone in Elkins Park) was the first time I’d come home from Choate for spring break. Spring was something of a misnomer that year since there was a foot of snow on the ground, an April Fool’s Day joke to cap a bitter winter. True spring, I knew from my first half-semester at boarding school, was for the boys whose parents took them sailing in Bermuda.
“What are you doing?” I asked her when she stopped in front of the Buchsbaums’ house, across the street from the Dutch House.

“I want to see something.” Maeve leaned over and pushed in the cigarette lighter.

“Nothing to see here,” I said to her. “Move along.” I was in a crappy mood because of the weather and what I saw as the inequity between what I had and what I deserved, but still, I was glad to be back in Elkins Park, glad to be in my sister’s car, the blue Oldsmobile wagon of our childhood that my father let her have when she got her own apartment. Because I was fifteen and generally an idiot, I thought that the feeling of home I was experiencing had to do with the car and where it was parked, instead of attributing it wholly and gratefully to my sister.

“Are you in a rush to get someplace?” She shook a cigarette out of the pack then put her hand over the lighter. If you weren’t right there to catch the lighter, it would eject too forcibly and burn a hole in the seat or the floor mat or your leg, depending on where it landed.

“Do you drive over here when I’m at school?”

Pop. She caught it and lit her cigarette. “I do not.”

“But here we are,” I said. The snow came steady and soft as the last light of day was folded into the clouds. Maeve was an Icelandic truck driver at heart, no weather stopped her, but I had recently gotten off a train and was tired and cold. I thought it would be nice to make grilled cheese sandwiches and soak in the tub. Baths were the subject of endless ridicule at Choate, I never knew why. Only showers were thought to be manly.

Maeve filled her lungs with smoke, exhaled, then turned off the car. “I thought about coming over here a couple of times but I decided to wait for you.” She smiled at me then, cranking the window down just far enough to let in a shelf of arctic air. I had nagged her to give the cigarettes up before I’d left for school, and then neglected to tell her that I’d started. Smoking was what we did at Choate in lieu of taking baths.

I craned my head to look up the drive. “Do you see them?”

Maeve looked out the driver’s side window. “I don’t know why, but I just keep thinking about that first time she came to the house a million years ago. Do you even remember?”

Of course I remembered. Who could forget Andrea showing up?

“And she said that business about worrying that people were looking in our windows at night?”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the foyer was flooded in the warm gold light of the chandelier. Then after a pause the lights above the staircase went on, and a few moments after that the light in the master bedroom on the second floor. The illumination of the Dutch House was timed so exactly to her words it nearly stopped my heart. Of course Maeve
had
been coming to the house without me. She knew that Andrea turned on the lights the very minute the sun went down. Denying it was just a bit of theatrics on my sister’s part, and I appreciated her efforts once I realized them later. It made for one hell of a show.

“Look at that,” I whispered.

There were no leaves on the linden trees, and the snow was falling but not too heavily. Sure enough, you could see right into the house, through the house, not with any detail of course but memory filled in the picture: there was the round table beneath the chandelier where Sandy had left our father’s mail in the evening, and behind it the grandfather clock that had been my job to wind every Sunday after Mass so that the ship beneath the 6 would continue to gently rock between two blue rows of painted waves. I couldn’t see the ship or the waves but I knew. There was the half-moon console table against the wall, the cobalt vase with the painting of the girl and the dog, the two French chairs no one ever sat in, the giant mirror whose frame always made me think of the twisted arms of a golden octopus. Andrea crossed through the foyer as if on cue. We were too far away to see her face but I knew her from the way she walked. Norma came down the stairs at full speed and then stopped abruptly because her mother would have told her not to run. Norma was taller now, although I guess it could have been Bright.

“She must have watched us,” Maeve said, “before she ever came in that first time.”

“Or maybe everybody watched us, everyone who ever drove down this street in winter.” I reached into her purse and took out the cigarettes.

“That seems a little self-aggrandizing,” Maeve said. “
Every
one.”

“They teach us that at Choate.”

She laughed. I could tell she hadn’t been expecting to laugh and it pleased me to no end.

“Five whole days with you at home,” she said, blowing smoke out the open window. “The best five days of the year.”

A
fter her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there she’d be at the dining-room table again, chastened by her absence at first and then slowly warming over time. Andrea, fully warmed, talked about nothing but the house. She was forever going on about some detail of the crown molding or speculating as to the exact height of the ceiling, as if the ceiling were entirely new to us. “That’s called egg and dart,” she’d say to me, pointing up. Just when she’d reach the point of being truly intolerable, she’d disappear again, and the relief would wash over Maeve and me (and, we had assumed, our father) with its glorious silence.
There was the Sunday we came home from Mass and found her sitting in one of the white iron chairs by the pool, or Maeve found her. Maeve had been walking through the library and had seen her through the window just by chance. She didn’t call for our father the way I would have, she just walked around to the back door off the kitchen and went outside.

“Mrs. Smith?” Maeve said, shading her eyes with her hand. We called her Mrs. Smith until they were married, having never been invited to do otherwise. After they were married I’m sure she would have preferred us to call her Mrs. Conroy, but that would have only intensified the awkwardness, seeing as how Maeve and I were Conroys as well.

Maeve told me Andrea was startled, and who knows, maybe she’d been sleeping. “Where’s your father?”

“In the house.” Maeve looked over her shoulder. “Was he expecting you?”

“I was expecting
him
an hour ago,” Andrea corrected.

Since it was Sunday, Sandy and Jocelyn were both off. I don’t think they would have let her in if we weren’t home but I don’t know that for sure. Sandy was the warmer of the two, Jocelyn more suspicious. They didn’t like Andrea, and they probably would have made her wait outside until we got home. It was only a little cold, a nice enough day to sit by the pool, the sunlight glittering across the blue water, the tender lines of moss growing up between the flagstones. Maeve told her we’d been to church.

And then they just stared at each other, neither of them looking away. “I’m half Dutch, you know,” Andrea said finally.

“I beg your pardon?”

“On my mother’s side. She was full-blood Dutch.”

“We’re Irish,” Maeve said.

Andrea nodded, as if there had been some disagreement that now was settled in her favor. When it became clear there would be no more conversation, Maeve went inside to tell our father that Mrs. Smith was waiting by the pool.

“Where in the hell did she park?” Maeve said to me after our father had gone outside. She almost never swore in those days, especially not right after Mass. “She always parks in front of the house.”

And so we went to find the car, looking first on the far side of the house and then back behind the garage. When none of the obvious spots panned out we walked down the driveway, the pea gravel crunching beneath our Sunday shoes, and onto the street. We had no idea where Andrea lived but we knew she wasn’t our neighbor, she hadn’t just walked over. Finally we found her cream-colored Impala parked a block away, the front left corner crumpled in on itself. Maeve crouched down to inspect the damage and I went so far as to touch the hanging fender, marveling at the headlight which had been spared. Clearly, Andrea had banged into something and she didn’t want us to know.

We didn’t tell our father about the car. After all, he didn’t tell us anything. He never talked about Andrea, not when she was gone or when she was back. He didn’t tell us if he had her in mind for some role in our future. When she was there he acted like she’d always been there, and when she was gone we never wanted to remind him for fear he’d ask her back. In truth, I don’t think he was particularly interested in Andrea. I just don’t think he had the means to deal with her tenacity. His strategy, as far as I could tell, was to ignore her until she went away. “That’s never going to work,” Maeve said to me.

The only thing our father really cared about in life was his work: the buildings he built and owned and rented out. He rarely sold anything, choosing instead to leverage what he had in order to buy more. When he had an appointment with the bank, the banker came to him, and my father made him wait. Mrs. Kennedy, my father’s secretary, would offer the banker a cup of coffee and tell him it shouldn’t be much longer, though sometimes it was. There was nothing the banker could do but sit there in the small anteroom of my father’s office, holding his hat.

The little attention my father had left at the end of the week he saved for me, and even that he made part of his job. He took me with him in the Buick on the first Saturday of every month to collect the rent, and gave me a pencil and a ledger book so I could write down how much the tenants had paid in the column next to what they had owed. Very soon I knew who would never be home, and who would be right there at the door with an envelope. I knew who would have complaints—a toilet that ran, a toilet that was stopped, a light switch that was dead. Certain people came up with something every month and would not part with their money until the problem was resolved. My father, whose knee had been ruined in the war, limped slightly as he went to the trunk of his car and pulled out whatever was needed to make things right. When I was a boy, I thought of the trunk as a sort of magic chest—pliers, clamps, hammers, screwdrivers, caulk, nails—everything was there. Now I know the things people ask you for on a Saturday morning tend to be easy fixes, and my father liked to do those jobs himself. He was a rich man, but he wanted to show people he still knew how things worked. Or maybe the show was all for me, because he didn’t need to drive around picking up rent any more than he needed to drag his bad leg up a ladder to inspect a patch of loose shingles. He had maintenance men for that. Maybe it was for my sake that he rolled up his shirt sleeves and pulled the top off a stove to inspect the heating element while I stood there marveling at all the things he knew. He would tell me to pay attention because one day the business was going to be mine. I would need to know how things were done.

“The only way to really understand what money means is to have been poor,” he said to me when we were eating lunch in the car. “That’s the strike you have against you. A boy grows up rich like you, never wanting for anything, never being hungry”—he shook his head, as if it had been a disappointing choice I’d made—“I don’t know how a person overcomes a thing like that. You can watch these people all you want and see what it’s been like for them, but that’s not the same as living it yourself.” He put down his sandwich and took a drink of coffee from the thermos.

“Yes, sir,” I said, because what else was there to say?

“The biggest lie in business is that it takes money to make money. Remember that. You’ve got to be smart, have a plan, pay attention to what’s going on around you. None of that costs a dime.” My father wasn’t much for imparting advice, and this seemed to have worn him out. When he was finished, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and ran it across his forehead.

When I’m in a charitable mood, I look back on this moment and I tell myself that this was the reason things played out the way they did. My father was trying to give me the benefit of his experience.

My father was always more comfortable with his tenants than he was the people in his office or the people in his house. A tenant would start in on a story, which sometimes was about the Phillies’ inability to pitch against Brooklyn and other times was about why there wasn’t enough money in the envelope, and I could tell by the way my father was standing, the way he nodded at one part or another, that he was paying attention. The people who were short on the rent never complained about a window that was painted shut. They only wanted the chance to tell him what had happened to them that month, and to assure him that it wouldn’t happen again. I never saw my father scold the tenants or make any threats. He only listened, and then he told them to try their best. But after three months of conversation, there would be a different family living in the apartment the next time we came back. I never knew what happened to the people with hard luck, but it happened on some day other than the first Saturday of the month.

My father smoked more as the day went on. I sat beside him on the car’s wide bench seat, looking over the numbers in the ledger or staring out the window at the trees as they flicked past. When my father smoked I knew he was thinking, and that I was meant to be quiet. The neighborhoods got worse as we headed into Philadelphia. He saved the very poorest of his tenants for the end of the day, as if to give them the extra hours to get together what they owed. I would rather have waited in the car on those last stops, fiddled with the radio, but I knew enough to skip the part where I would ask him to let me stay behind and he would tell me no. The tenants in Mount Airy and Jenkintown were always nice to me, asking about school and basketball, offering me candy I’d been told never to accept. “Looking more like your daddy every day,” they’d say. “Growing up just like him.” But in the poorer neighborhoods things were different. It’s not that the tenants weren’t nice, but they were nervous even when the money was in their hand, maybe thinking how it had been the month before or how it would be a month from now. They were deferential not only to my father but to me, and it was the deference that made me want to crawl out of my skin. Men older than my father called me Mr. Conroy when I was no more than ten, as if the resemblance they saw between the two of us was more than physical. Maybe they saw the situation the way my father did, that someday they’d be paying the rent to me and so had no business calling me Danny. As we climbed the steps of the buildings, I peeled off chips of paint and stepped over the broken slats. Half-open doors flapped on their hinges and there were never any screens. The heat in the hallways either ran to tropical or didn’t run at all. It made me think what a luxury it was to rattle on about a faucet in need of a washer, while failing to remind me that this too was a building my father owned, and that it was well within his power to open the trunk of his car and make things better for the people who lived there. One by one, he knocked on the doors and the doors opened and we listened to whatever the people inside had to say: husbands out of work, husbands gone, wives gone, children sick. One time a man was going on about not having the rent because his son had been so sick and he had to stay home himself and watch the boy. The boy and the man were alone in the dark apartment, everyone else had gone I guess. When my father had heard enough he went into the living room and picked up the feverish child from the couch. I had no idea what dead looked like in those days but the boy’s arm swung back from his side and his head dropped back in my father’s arms. It put the fear of God in me. If it hadn’t been for the deep congestion of his breathing I would have thought we’d come too late. The air in the apartment was heavy with the mentholated smell of suffering. Maybe the boy was five or six, he was very small. My father carried him down the stairs and put him in the Buick while the boy’s father came behind us saying there was no need to worry. “It’ll be nothing,” he kept saying. “The boy’s gonna be fine.” But he climbed into the back seat of our car all the same and rode beside his son to the hospital. I had never sat in the front of a car while an adult was sitting in the back and it made me nervous. I could only imagine what the nuns would have said had they seen us go by. When we got to the hospital, my father made arrangements with the woman at the desk, and then we left them there, driving back to our own house in the dark without saying a single word about what had happened.

“Why would he have done that?” Maeve had asked me that night after dinner when we were in her bedroom. Our father never took Maeve to collect the rent, even though she was seven years older than me and had won the math prize in school every year and would have been so much better with the ledger it was ridiculous. On the first Saturday of every month, after we’d been excused from the table and our father had gone to the library with his drink and the paper, Maeve would pull me into her bedroom and close the door. She wanted a recounting of the entire day, blow by blow: what had happened at every apartment, what the tenants had said, and what our father had said to them in return. She even wanted to know what we’d bought for lunch at Carter’s Market where we always stopped for sandwiches.

“The kid was really sick, that’s all. He didn’t open his eyes once, not even when Dad put him in the car.” When we got to the hospital, my father had told me to go to the men’s room and wash my hands, to get the water hot and use soap even though I hadn’t touched the boy.

Maeve mulled this over.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, think about it. He hates sick people. Has he ever so much as crossed the door of your room when you were sick?” She stretched out on the bed beside me, fluffing the pillow under her head. “If you’re going to put your feet on my bed then the least you can do is take off your filthy shoes.”

I kicked off my shoes. Did he sit on the edge of my bed and put his hand on my forehead? Did he bring me a ginger ale, ask me if I felt like I was going to throw up again? That’s what Maeve did. That’s what Sandy and Jocelyn did when Maeve was at school. “He never comes in my room.”

“But why would he have done all that if the boy’s father was there?”

I almost never got to an answer before Maeve did but in this case it was perfectly obvious. “Because the mother wasn’t there.” If there had been a woman in the apartment he never would have put himself in the middle of things.

Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her. Of course Sandy and Jocelyn mothered us. They made sure we were washed and fed and that our lunches were packed and our scouting dues paid. They loved us, I know they did, but they went home at the end of the day. There was no crawling into bed with Sandy or Jocelyn when I had a bad dream in the middle of the night, and it never once occurred to me to knock on my father’s door. I went to Maeve. She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.

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