Read The Dutch House Online

Authors: Ann Patchett

The Dutch House (4 page)

W
here we ate dinner on any given night was dictated by a complicated set of household laws put in place by Sandy and Jocelyn. If our father was home from work in time then the three of us ate in the dining room, Sandy serving us our plates while we breathed in the oily scent of the lemon furniture polish that hung in a fog over the massive table. But if our father stayed late or had other plans, Maeve and I ate in the kitchen. On those nights Sandy put a plate of food in the refrigerator under a sheet of waxed paper and our father would eat it in the kitchen when he came home. Or I assumed he did. Maybe he carried his plate to the dining room to sit alone. Of course, when Andrea and the girls were there, we ate in the dining room. If Andrea was there, Sandy not only served our dinner but she cleared the plates as well, whereas if Andrea wasn’t there we each picked up our own plate at the end of the meal and took it back to the kitchen. None of this had been explained to us, but we all understood, just as we understood that on Sunday night Maeve and my father and I would gather in the kitchen at six o’clock to eat the cold supper that Sandy had left for us the day before. Andrea and the girls never ate with us on Sunday night. Alone in the house, the three of us would crowd around the little kitchen table and have a sensation of something close to being a family, if only because we were pushed together in a small space. As big as the Dutch House was, the kitchen was oddly small. Sandy told me that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants, and no one in the business of building grand estates ever gave a rat’s hindquarters (that was a very Sandy thing to say,
rat’s hindquarters
) if the servants had the room to turn around. There was a little blue Formica table in the corner where Jocelyn sat and shelled peas or rolled out pie dough, the same table where Sandy and Jocelyn took their lunch and dinner. Maeve was always careful to wipe the table down when we were finished and put everything back the way we found it because she thought of the kitchen as belonging to Sandy and Jocelyn. What little space there was was mostly taken up by the huge gas range with nine burners, a warming drawer and two ovens, each big enough to roast a turkey. The rest of the house was a polar ice cap in the winter no matter how high Sandy stoked the fires, but the stove kept the little kitchen warm. Summers, of course, were a different story, but even in the summer I preferred the kitchen. The door out to the pool was always open and there was a fan in the corner that blew around the smell of whatever was baking. I could be floating on my back in the pool in the blinding midday sun and smell the cherry pie Jocelyn had in the oven.
On the Sunday evening after Andrea’s daughters had been tossed in our laps, I was watching Maeve carefully, thinking that something about her was definitely off. I could read her blood sugar like the weather. I knew when she wasn’t listening to me anymore and was just about to keel over. I was always the first one to notice when she was sweaty or pale. Sandy and Jocelyn could see it too. They knew when she needed juice and when to give the shot themselves, but it took our father by surprise every single time. He was always looking at the space just over Maeve’s head.

But in this case, it wasn’t her sugar at all. While I had my eye on her, Maeve did the most astonishing thing I had ever known her to do: very casually, while spooning out potato salad, she told our father that it wasn’t our responsibility to take care of Andrea’s daughters.

He sat with this for a moment, chewing the bite of chicken he’d just put in his mouth. “Were you planning on doing something else last night?”

“Homework,” Maeve said.

“On a Saturday?”

Maeve was pretty enough and popular enough that she would never have had to stay home on Saturday nights, but for the most part she did, and for the first time I realized it was because of me. She would never have left me alone in the house. “There was a lot of work this week.”

“Well,” my father said, “looks like you managed. You can still do your homework with the girls in the house.”

“I didn’t get any homework done on Saturday. I was entertaining the girls.”

“But your homework is done now, isn’t it? You won’t embarrass yourself in school tomorrow.”

“That isn’t the point.”

My father crossed his knife and fork on his plate and looked at her. “Then why don’t you tell me the point?”

Maeve was ready for him. She’d thought it all out in advance. Maybe she’d been thinking about it since I objected to the tour. “They’re Andrea’s children and she should take care of them, not me.”

My father tipped his head slightly towards me. “You look after him.”

She looked after me morning, noon and night. Was that what she was saying? She didn’t need two more children to take care of?

“Danny’s my brother. Those girls have nothing to do with us.” Everything my father had ever taught her was used against him now:
Maeve, sit up straight. Maeve, look me in the eye if you want to ask me for something. Maeve, get your hands out of your hair. Maeve, speak up, don’t expect that anyone will do you the favor of listening if you don’t trouble yourself to use your voice.

“But if the girls were your family, you wouldn’t mind?” He lit a cigarette at the table with food still on his plate, an act of aggressive incivility I had never before witnessed.

Maeve just stared at him. I could hardly believe the way she held his gaze. “They’re not.”

He nodded his head. “When you live under my roof and eat my food I suppose you can trouble yourself to look after our guests when I ask you to.”

There was a drip coming from the kitchen faucet.
Drip, drip, drip
. It made an unbelievable racket, echoing off the walls just like the renters said when they complained about their own faucets. I had watched my father change enough washers to think I’d have no problem doing it myself. I wondered, were I to get up from the table and look for a wrench, if either of them would notice I was gone.

“You didn’t ask me,” Maeve said.

My father was pushing back his chair but she beat him to it. She got up from the table, her napkin still tight in her fist, and left the room without asking to be excused.

My father sat for a while in his customary silence then put out his cigarette on his bread plate. He and I finished our meal, though I don’t know how I stood it. When we were done, he went to the library to watch the news and I cleared the table and rinsed and stacked the dishes in the sink for Jocelyn to wash in the morning. It was Maeve’s job to clean up after dinner but I did it. My father had forgotten about dessert. There were lemon bars in a shallow dish in the refrigerator and I cut one for myself and got an orange for Maeve and took them both upstairs on a single plate.

She was in her room, sitting on the window seat with her long legs straight out in front of her. She had a book in her lap but she wasn’t reading it, she was looking out at the garden. The room was angled to the west while not facing west directly, and the way the last bit of light fell over her, she looked like a painting.

I handed her the orange and she dug in her nails to open it up. She bent her knees so I could sit down in front of her. “This doesn’t bode well for us, Danny,” she said. “You might as well know that.”

S
ix weeks after she left for her freshman year at Barnard, Maeve was summoned back to Elkins Park for the wedding. Our father married Andrea in the drawing room beneath the watchful eyes of the VanHoebeeks. Bright dropped handfuls of pink rose petals on the Spanish Savonnerie rug while Norma leaned against her mother and held two wedding bands on a pink velvet pillow. Maeve and I stood with the thirty or so guests. That was when we learned that Andrea also had a mother, a sister, a brother-in-law who sold insurance, and a handful of friends who tipped back their heads to gape at the dining-room ceiling while the cake was being served. (The dining room ceiling was painted a shade of blue both deep and intense, and was covered in intricate configurations of carved leaves that had been painted gold, or, more accurately, the leaves had been gilded. The gilt leaves were arranged in flourishes which were surrounded by circles of gilt leaves within squares of gilt leaves. The ceiling was more in keeping with Versailles than Eastern Pennsylvania, and when I was a child I found it mortifying. Maeve and my father and I made a point of keeping our eyes on our plates during dinner.) Sandy and Jocelyn served champagne at the reception, wearing matching black uniforms with white collars and cuffs that Andrea had bought for the occasion. “We look like matrons at a women’s penitentiary,” Jocelyn said, holding up her wrists. Maeve came back to the kitchen every time another bottle of champagne needed to be opened because she had announced with great bravado that popping corks was pretty much the first thing she’d learned to do in college. Champagne was just a loaded gun as far as Sandy and Jocelyn were concerned.
The wedding was held on a fall day of such brightness that the light seemed to be coming not just from the sun but from the grass and the leaves. All of the windows in the back of the house were triple hung and went to the floor, and for the occasion my father took the trouble of opening every last one of them, something I’d never seen done before. Open, the windows made a dozen doors onto the back terrace leading to the pool, which had been filled with water lilies. Who knew that water lilies could be rented for the day? Everyone was going on about how beautiful it all was: the house and the flowers and the light, even the woman who played the piano in the observatory was beautiful, but Maeve and Sandy and Jocelyn and I knew that all of it was wasted.

Our father couldn’t marry Andrea at Immaculate Conception or ask Father Brewer to come to the house to marry them because he was divorced and she wasn’t Catholic, which made it seem like they weren’t really getting married at all. The ceremony was performed by a judge that none of us knew, a man my father had paid to come to the house to do the job, the way you’d pay an electrician. When it was over, Andrea kept holding up her glass to the light, remarking on how the champagne matched the color of her dress exactly. For the first time I was able to see how pretty she was, how happy and young. My father was forty-nine on the day of his second wedding, and his new wife in her champagne satin was thirty-one. Still, Maeve and I had no idea why he married her. Looking back, I have to say we lacked imagination.

* * *
“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” I asked my sister. We were sitting in her car, parked in front of the Dutch House in the broad daylight of early summer. The linden trees kept us from seeing anything except the linden trees. I had thought the trees were enormous when I was young but they’d kept right on growing. Maybe one day they’d grow into the wall of Andrea’s dreams. The car windows were rolled down and we each kept an arm out—Maeve’s left, my right—while we smoked. I had finished my first year of medical school at Columbia. It would be the summer we would quit smoking, more or less, but on this particular day we were still only thinking about it.
“I see the past as it actually was,” Maeve said. She was looking at the trees.

“But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

Maeve took a drag off her cigarette and smiled. “I
love
this. Is this what they’re teaching you in school?”

“Introduction to Psychiatry.”

“Tell me you’re going to be a shrink. It would be so beneficial.”

“Do you ever think about going to see a psychiatrist?” This would have been 1971. Psychiatry was very much the rage.

“I don’t need a psychiatrist because I can see the past clearly, but if you need to practice on someone, then by all means, be my guest. My psyche is your psyche.”

“Why aren’t you at work today?”

Maeve looked completely surprised. “What kind of stupid question is that? You just got here. I’m not going to work.”

“Did you call in sick?”

“I told Otterson you were coming home. He doesn’t care when I’m there. I get everything done.” She tapped her ashes out the window. Maeve had worked as a bookkeeper for Otterson’s ever since she’d graduated from college. They packaged and shipped frozen vegetables. My sister had won the math medal at Barnard. She had a higher cumulative GPA than the guy who’d won the math medal at Columbia that year, a sweet fact she learned from the guy’s sister who was also Maeve’s friend. With all of her knowledge and ability, she not only managed the payroll and calculated the taxes, she improved the delivery system, ensuring that bags of frozen corn would be quickly ferried to the grocers’ freezers throughout the Northeast.

“Are you always going to work there? You should go back to school.”

“We’re talking about the past, doctor, not the future. You need to stay on point.”

I tapped at my cigarette. Andrea was the past I wanted to talk about, but Mrs. Buchsbaum came out of her house to check the mail and saw us sitting there. She came straight to my open window and leaned in. “Danny, you’re home!” she said. “How’s Columbia?”

“It’s like it was before, only harder.” I had gone to Columbia as an undergraduate also.

“Well, I know this one is happy to see you.” She nodded her head to Maeve.

“Hi, Mrs. Buchsbaum,” Maeve said.

Mrs. Buchsbaum put her hand on my arm. “You need to find your sister a boyfriend. There’s got to be some nice doctor at the hospital who doesn’t have time to look for a wife. A nice tall doctor.”

“My criteria go beyond height,” Maeve said.

“Don’t misunderstand me: I always love to see her back in the neighborhood, but still, it worries me.” Mrs. Buchsbaum was speaking only to me, as if she and I were in our own private section of the car. “She shouldn’t just be sitting out here by herself. Some people may get the wrong impression. She’s welcome, of course, I don’t mean that.”

“I know,” I said. “It worries me, too. I’ll talk to her.”

“And this one across the street.” Mrs. Buchsbaum gestured vaguely towards the linden trees with her forehead. “Nothing. When she drives by she does not wave. She does not acknowledge that anyone else is here. I think she must be a very sad person.”

“Or not,” Maeve said.

“I see the girls sometimes. Do you see the girls? They have better manners. If you ask me, they’re the ones to feel sorry for.”

I shook my head. “We don’t see them.”

Mrs. Buchsbaum squeezed my forearm and then waved goodbye to Maeve. “You can always come in the house,” she said, and we thanked her as she walked away.

“Mrs. Buchsbaum corroborates my memory of the past,” Maeve said when we were alone again.

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