Read The Dutch House Online

Authors: Ann Patchett

The Dutch House (22 page)

C
eleste flung her diaphragm into the Atlantic on our honeymoon. In the early morning hours we watched it catch a gentle wave and bob away from the coast of Maine.
“That’s a little disgusting,” I said.

“People will think it’s a jellyfish.” She snapped shut the empty pink case and dropped it in her purse. We had tried to get in the water the day before but even in late July we found it impossible to go past our knees, so we went back to the hotel and Celeste put her swimsuit on so that I could take it off again. She thought we had very nearly waited too long as it was. At twenty-nine, she wasn’t going to put nature off another cycle. Our daughter was born nine months later. Over protests, I named the baby for my sister, and as a compromise we called her May.

Everything about May was easy. I told Celeste we could throw a tarp over the bed and I could deliver her myself if she felt like staying home, but she didn’t. We took a taxi to Columbia-Presbyterian in the middle of the night, and six hours later our daughter was delivered by one of my former classmates. Celeste’s mother came up for a week and Maeve came for a day. Maeve and Julie Norcross had grown fond of each other through the wedding preparations, and Maeve had found that things between her and Celeste were better when Celeste’s mother was around. She planned her brief visits accordingly. Celeste quit her teaching job at the Columbia school and five months later she was pregnant again. She was good at having babies, she liked to say. She was going to play to her strength.

But babies are largely a matter of luck, and there was no guarantee that what was easy once would be easy twice. Twenty-five weeks into the second pregnancy, Celeste started to have contractions and was sent to bed to stay. She was told her cervix was lazy, unable to hold the baby in place against the tireless pull of gravity. She took it to be a personal indictment.

“No one said it was lazy last year,” she said.

They would have kept her in the hospital if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was considered to be enough of a doctor to administer the medications and watch her blood pressure. What I couldn’t manage, along with work and Celeste, was taking care of May.

“We’re going to need to hire someone,” I said. Celeste had made it clear she didn’t want her mother moving to New York, and the idea of having Maeve come in to help wasn’t up for discussion.

“I just wish there was someone we knew,” Celeste said. She was frustrated and scared and angry at herself for not being able to take care of things the way she always had. “I don’t want a stranger taking care of May.”

“I could try Fluffy,” I said, though the suggestion was halfhearted. To call in Fluffy, like some other things, seemed to be taking a big step backwards. I was holding May on one hip and she squirmed and reached her chubby hands for her mother.

“What’s fluffy?”


Who’s
Fluffy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I never told you about Fluffy?”

Celeste sighed and straightened her blanket. “I guess not. No one forgets a Fluffy.”

In the earliest days of our relationship Celeste had asked about the small scar beside my eye and I’d told her I’d caught a backhand playing doubles at Choate. I wasn’t about to tell the pretty girl in my bed that my Irish nanny had hit me with a spoon. If I’d never even mentioned Fluffy then Celeste didn’t know about my father’s affair, either. It would have been difficult to put forward a candidate who’d slept with the employer and hit the child, but in truth I’d forgiven her for all of it. Like Maeve said, there was no holding a grudge against anyone from that time in our lives. “She was our nanny. She lives in the Bronx now,” I said.

“I thought Sandy and Jocelyn were your nannies.”

“Sandy was the housekeeper, Jocelyn was the cook, Fluffy was the nanny.”

Celeste closed her eyes and nodded peaceably. “I have trouble keeping the household staff straight.”

“Should I call her?” May, who had an uncanny ability to concentrate her weight, had turned into a fifty-pound sack of potatoes in my arms. I put her down beside her mother.

“Why not try? You turned out nice enough.” Celeste reached for our daughter, whom she could lie beside but not pick up. “At least it’s a place to start.”

And so it came to pass that, nearly thirty years after we had last lived under the same roof, Fluffy came to 116th Street to care for our daughter. Celeste could not have been more pleased with the arrangement.

“The fleas were everywhere!” I heard Fluffy saying to my wife the day after we’d hired her. I’d just come in the front door and I stood in the tiny entry hall to listen. I wasn’t eavesdropping, the apartment was too small for that. They knew perfectly well I was there. “The first time I went over to meet the Conroys they were standing there scratching. I was dying to make a good impression, you know. I’d been the caretaker for the house when it was empty and I was hoping they’d keep me on, so I put on my best dress and went over to introduce myself, and there they were with their pile of boxes. I could see the fleas on Maeve’s little legs. They went after her like a sugar loaf.”

“Wait,” Celeste said, “didn’t you live in the house?”

“I lived in the garage. There was an apartment on the top where my parents had lived when they worked for the VanHoebeeks. Of course I stayed in the house when I was taking care of the old lady, I never left her alone. But after she died, well, the whole business made me sad, so I went back to the garage. I’d grown up there. I had been one of the house girls, then I was the only servant in the entire place, then I was the nursemaid, then I was the caretaker, then I was the Conroys’ nanny, first for Maeve, then Danny.”

Then you were the mistress
, I thought, putting down the mail.

“I was good at all my jobs, except being the caretaker. I was awful at that.”

“But it’s completely different work,” Celeste said. “Taking care of people or taking care of an empty house.”

“I was afraid of the house. I kept thinking the VanHoebeeks were still in there, that they were ghosts. I just couldn’t imagine the place without them, even if they were dead. I could barely make myself dart in there once a week and look around at the height of the day, so I didn’t know the raccoons had eaten their way into the ballroom with all those fleas. They must have just hatched because there were no fleas when the banker came and there were no fleas when the Conroys came to see the house, but by the time they moved in the fleas were everywhere, you could see them hopping around in the rugs, on the walls. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they’d put me out on the spot.”

“The fleas weren’t your fault,” Celeste said.

“But they were, if you think about it. I was asleep at my post. What do you think? Should I put this girl down and make you some lunch?”

“Danny?” Celeste called. “Do you want lunch?”

I came into the bedroom. Celeste was stretched out in our bed and Fluffy was sitting in a chair with May asleep in her arms.

Celeste looked up at me and smiled. “Fluffy’s been telling me about the fleas.”

“His mother kept me on,” Fluffy said, smiling like it was something I had done myself. “She wasn’t much older than I was but I acted like she was my mother. I was so lonely! And she was so kind. As miserable as Elna was, she always made me feel like she was happy I was there.”

“She was miserable because of the fleas?”

“Because of the
house
. Poor Elna hated the house.”

“I could stand some lunch,” I said.

“Why ‘poor Elna?’” Celeste asked. Ever since I’d told her the story of my life, my wife had held my mother in particularly low regard. She believed there could be no reason to leave two children.

Fluffy looked down at my daughter asleep on her chest. “She was too good to live in a place like that.”

Celeste looked up at me, confused. “I thought you said it was a nice place.”

“I’ll go get sandwiches,” I said, turning away. I wanted to tell Fluffy to stop it, but why? She was telling these stories to Celeste, the only person in the world who wanted to hear them. Fluffy told Celeste the stories of the Dutch House like Scheherazade trying to win another night, and Celeste, whose mind was finally off her troubles, wouldn’t have let her go for anything in the world.

Kevin came early, and spent his first six weeks of life in an incubator box, staring at us through the clear plastic wall with his frog eyes while Fluffy stayed home with May. “Everything’s fine,” Fluffy would say to me, kissing my daughter on the head, a series of rapid-fire pecks. “We’re all where we need to be.” Maeve came up on the train while Celeste was in the hospital, as much to spend days with Fluffy as with her namesake. Maeve and Fluffy had an insatiable appetite for the past when they were together. They went through the Dutch House room by room. “Do you remember that stove?” one of them would say. “How you had to light the burners with a match? I always thought I was going to blow us all to kingdom come, it took so long for the fire to catch.” “Do you remember those pink silk sheets in the bedroom on the third floor? I’ve never seen sheets like that again in my life. I bet they’re still perfect. No one ever slept in that bed.” “Do you remember when the two of us went swimming in the pool, and Jocelyn said it wasn’t good to have to see the nanny splashing around like a seal in the middle of a workday?” Then they would laugh and laugh until May laughed with them.

I had bought Celeste a brownstone just north of the Museum of Natural History right after May was born and worked on it myself on the weekends—a big four-story, beyond our means, the kind of house we could stay in for the rest of our lives. The neighborhood was imperfect but it was better than the one we were in. The winds of gentrification were starting to shift towards the Upper West Side and I wanted to get ahead of them. To make a new life we would have to travel all of twenty-five blocks. I would pay Sandy and Jocelyn to come up on the weekend and, along with Fluffy, get our things boxed and unboxed.

“We’re moving
now
?” Celeste said while we sat in the waiting room of the NICU. Visiting hours started at nine.

“There’s never a good time to move,” I said. “This way Kevin can come home to his new house.”

The new house had four bedrooms, though we kept Kevin and May together in one when they were small. “Less running around to do,” Fluffy said. “There are too many damn stairs in this place.” Celeste agreed, and had me squeeze a single bed into the crowded nursery. She’d had an emergency caesarean in the end, and she said she’d just as soon not have to go too far when one of the children cried.

One night, after getting Celeste a sweater from our bedroom on the top floor, then turning over a load of laundry on the ground floor, then changing May’s diapers and getting her another outfit on the third floor and taking the soiled clothes back down to the wash, Fluffy fell onto the couch next to Celeste, her cheeks flaming, chest heaving.

“Are you okay?” Celeste asked, Kevin in her arms. May took a few uneven steps in the direction of the fireplace where I had just laid a fire.


May
,” I said.

Fluffy pulled in a deep breath then held out her hands, at which point May turned around and toddled straight to her.

“Too many damn stairs,” Celeste said.

Fluffy nodded, and in another minute she found her breath. “It makes me think of poor old Mrs. VanHoebeek when she was dying. I hated all those stairs.”

“Did she fall?” I asked, because I did not know one single thing about the VanHoebeeks other than they’d manufactured cigarettes and were dead.

“Well, she didn’t fall down the stairs, if that’s what you mean. She fell in the garden, out cutting peonies. She fell over in the nice soft grass and broke her hip.”

“When?”

“When?” Fluffy repeated, temporarily stumped by the question. “We were well into the war, I know that. All the boys were dead by then. Mr. VanHoebeek was dead. Me and the Missus were alone in the house.”

Fluffy had tried to call Celeste
Missus
when she first came to work for us but Celeste would have none of it.

“How did the boys die?” Celeste pulled the blanket up around Kevin’s neck. Even with the fire going the room was cold. I needed to work on the windows.

“Are you counting all of them? Linus had leukemia. He went young, couldn’t have been twelve. The older boys, Pieter and Maarten, they both died in France. They said if the US wouldn’t take them they’d go back to Holland to fight. We got the word that one of them was gone and it wasn’t a month later we had news about the other. They were beautiful men, like princes from a picture book. I could never decide which one I was more in love with.”

“And Mr. VanHoebeek?” I sat down in the big chair near the fireplace. The clock ticked out the minutes of the night. I hadn’t meant to stay with them and yet I stayed. The living room wrapped around us in the flickering light. I could hear the cars racing up and down Broadway a block away. I could hear the rain.

“Emphysema. That’s why I never did smoke. Old Mr. VanHoebeek smoked enough for every member of the family. It’s a terrible death,” Fluffy said, looking at me.

Celeste pulled her feet up beneath her. “So Mrs. VanHoebeek?” She wanted a story. May babbled for a minute in Fluffy’s lap and then settled as if to listen.

“I called the ambulance and they came and picked her up out of the garden and carted her off. I drove over behind them in the last car we had. My father had been the chauffeur, you know, so I knew how to drive. I asked them at the hospital if I could sleep in the old lady’s room, keep an eye on her, and the nurse told me no. She said they were going to have to put a pin in her hip and that she’d need to rest. My parents had found a job together in Virginia, all the other servants had been let go through the Depression. I was the only one left in the house back then. I was more than twenty and I’d never spent the night alone in my life.” Fluffy shook her head at the thought. “I was petrified. I kept thinking I could hear people talking. Then at some point after it got dark I realized that I was the one who was there to keep the Missus safe, not the other way around. Did I think this tiny old woman had been protecting me?”

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