Read The Dutch House Online

Authors: Ann Patchett

The Dutch House (7 page)

When lunch was over, and it was over soon enough because my father had no patience for restaurants, we walked him back to the car. I didn’t know if I was supposed to come home that night or the next day. We hadn’t talked about it, and I hadn’t brought anything with me, but there was no mention of my return. I was Maeve’s again and that was that. He gave her a quick embrace and slipped some money in her coat pocket, then Maeve and I stood together and waved goodbye as he pulled away. A cold rain had blown in during lunch, and while it wasn’t heavy, Maeve said we should take the subway to the Metropolitan and see the Egyptian exhibit because there was no point in getting wet. After the Empire State Building, the subway was the thing I’d been most excited to see, and now I hardly paid attention as we went down the stairs.

Maeve stopped and gave me a hard look just before we got to the turnstile. She might have thought I was going to throw up, which wouldn’t have been a bad guess. “Did you eat too much?”

I shook my head. “We went to Brooklyn.” There must have been some better way to tell her this but the morning was more than I knew how to shape into words.

“Today?”

There was a black metal gate in front of us, and on the other side of the gate was the platform for the train. The train came up and the doors opened and the people got off and got on but Maeve and I just stood there. Other people rushed past, trying to get through the turnstile in time. “We left too early. I think he and Andrea must have had a fight because she was going to come with us, Andrea and the girls, and then Dad came down alone and he was in a huge hurry to leave.” I had started to cry when there was nothing to cry about. I was long past the age anyway. Maeve took me to a wooden bench and we sat there together and she fished a Kleenex out of her purse and handed it to me. She had her hand on my knee.

Once I’d told her the whole of the story I could see there wasn’t much to it, but I couldn’t stop thinking that all of the people who had lived in that apartment were dead now, except for the sister who went to Canada and our mother, and they could easily be dead too.

Maeve was very close. She’d eaten a peppermint from a bowl by the door in the restaurant. We both had. Her eyes weren’t blue like mine. They were much darker, almost navy. “Could you find the street again?”

“It’s Fourteenth, but I couldn’t tell you how to get there.”

“But you remember the coffee shop and the shoe repair, so we could find it.” Maeve went to the man in the booth who sold tokens and came back with a map. She found Fourteenth Avenue and then figured out the train, then she gave the map back and gave me a token.

Brooklyn is a big place, bigger than Manhattan, and a person wouldn’t think that a twelve-year-old boy who had never been there before could possibly find his way back to a single apartment building he’d seen for five minutes, but I had Maeve with me. When we got off the train she asked directions to Bob’s Cup and Saucer, and once we were there I knew how to find it: a turn at the corner, a turn at the light. I showed her the bars our grandfather had put on the windows as a defense against knuckleheads, and for a while we stood there, our backs against the bricks. She asked me to tell her the names of the uncles and the aunts. I could remember Loretta and Buddy and James but not the other two. She said I shouldn’t worry about it. When the rain got harder we walked back to Bob’s. The waitress laughed when we asked for a cruller. She said they were gone by eight o’clock every morning. That was fine with us, seeing as how we weren’t hungry. Maeve had a cup of coffee and I had hot chocolate. We stayed until we were warm and halfway dry.

“I can’t believe he showed you where she lived,” Maeve said. “All the years I asked him about her, about her family, about where she had gone, he’d never tell me anything.”

“Because he thought it would kill you.” I didn’t like being in the position of defending my father to my sister but that was the case. Our mother’s leaving had made Maeve sick.

“That’s ridiculous. People don’t die from information. He just didn’t want to talk to me. One time when I was in high school I told him I was going to India to try to find her and you know what he said?”

I shook my head, stunned by the horrible thought of Maeve in India, both of them gone.

“He told me I needed to think of her as dead, that she probably
was
dead by now.”

And still, as terrible as it was, I understood. “He didn’t want you to go.”

“He said, ‘There are almost 450 million people in India now. Good luck with that.’”

The waitress came back and held up her pot of coffee but Maeve declined.

I thought about the bars on the windows of the apartment. I thought of all the knuckleheads in the world. “Do you know why she left?”

Maeve finished what was in her cup. “All I know for sure was that she hated the house.”

“The Dutch House?”

“Couldn’t stand it.”

“She didn’t say that.”

“Oh, she did. She made it known every day. The only room she’d ever sit in was the kitchen. Whenever Fluffy would ask her a question, she’d say, ‘Do whatever you think best. It’s your house.’ She was always saying it was Fluffy’s house. It drove Dad to distraction, I remember that. She told me once if it were up to her she’d give the place to the nuns, let them turn it into an orphanage or an old folks’ home. Then she said the nuns and the orphans and the old folks would probably be too embarrassed to live there.”

I tried to imagine such a thing. Hate the dining-room ceiling, sure, but the entire house? There was no better house. “Maybe you misunderstood her.”

“She said it more than once.”

“Then she was crazy,” I said, but as soon as I said it I was sorry.

Maeve shook her head. “She wasn’t crazy.”

When we got back to Manhattan, Maeve took me to a men’s store and bought me extra underwear, a new shirt, and a pair of pajamas, then she got me a toothbrush at the drugstore next door. That night we went to the Paris Theater and saw
Mon Oncle
. Maeve said she was in love with Jacques Tati. I was nervous about seeing a movie with subtitles but it turned out that nobody really said anything. After it was finished, we stopped for ice cream then went back to Barnard. Boys of every stripe were expressly forbidden to go past the dorm lobby, but Maeve just explained the situation to the girl at the desk, another friend of hers, and took me upstairs. Leslie, her roommate, had gone home for Easter break and so I slept in her bed. The room was so small we could have easily reached across the empty space and touched fingers. I slept in Maeve’s room all the time when I was young, and I had forgotten how nice it was to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the steadiness of her breathing.

I ended up staying in New York for all of Friday and most of Saturday, and if Maeve ever called the house to let anyone know our plans, I wasn’t there to witness it. She said she’d been studying too much to do all the tourist things she’d meant to, and so we went to the Museum of Natural History and the zoo in Central Park. We went to the top of the Empire State Building in spite of the rain and all we could see were the deep wet clouds we were standing inside. She walked me around the Columbia University campus and told me that this was where I should go to college. We went to Good Friday service at the Church of Notre Dame and the beauty of the building held my attention through nearly half of that interminable exercise. Maeve finally had to excuse herself and go out to the vestibule on the side of the church to give herself some insulin. She told me later that people probably thought she was a junkie in a sweater set. Late on Holy Saturday she took me to Penn Station. She said Dad would want me home for Easter, and anyway, we both had to go back to school on Monday. She bought me a ticket, promising that she would call the house and tell Sandy when to meet me, making me promise I would call her as soon as I got home. Maeve gave the porter a tip and asked him to seat me next to the safest-looking person on the train, but as it turned out there were only a handful of us going to Philadelphia in the late afternoon of Holy Saturday and I had a whole row to myself. Maeve had bought me the book about Julius Caesar I had begged her for in Brentano’s but I wound up keeping it on my lap and looking out the window the entire time. The train was past Newark before I realized I’d forgotten to show her the apartment building where Dad had grown up, and that she had forgotten to ask.

I hadn’t thought about Andrea at all while I was gone, but now I wondered if there had been some god-awful fight. Then I remembered what my father had told me, that the things we could do nothing about were best put out of our minds. I gave it a try and found that it was easier than I imagined. All I did was watch the world shoot past the train window: towns then houses then trees then cows then trees then houses then towns, over and over again.

Sandy picked me up at the train station as Maeve had promised, and I told her all about the trip in the car. Sandy wanted to know how Maeve was doing, and about her dorm room, which I told her was very small. She asked me if I thought she was getting enough to eat. “She looked so skinny at Christmas.”

“Do you think?” I asked. She seemed just the same to me.

When we got back to the house they were all eating dinner, and my father said, “Look who’s back.”

There was a setting at my usual place.

“I’m going to get a rabbit for Easter,” Bright said to me.

“No you’re not,” Norma said.

“Let’s wait for tomorrow and see what happens,” Andrea said, not looking at me. “Eat your dinner.”

Jocelyn was there, and she gave me a wink as she brought me my plate. She’d come over to help since Sandy had to get me at the station.

“Are there rabbits in New York City?” Bright asked. The girls were funny the way they treated me like I was already grown, closer to my father and Andrea in age and station than I was to them.

“Loads of them,” I said.

“Did you see them?”

In fact, I had seen rabbits in an Easter window display at Saks Fifth Avenue. I told her how they hopped around the ankles of mannequins in fancy dresses, and how Maeve and I had stood out on the street with crowds of other people and watched them for a good ten minutes.

“Did you get to see the play?” Norma asked, and then Andrea did look up. I could tell how crushed she’d be to think that Maeve and I had done something she wanted to do.

I nodded. “There was a lot of singing but it was better than I thought it would be.”

“How in the world did you get tickets?” my father asked.

“A friend of Maeve’s at school. Her father works in the theater.” I didn’t have much experience lying in those days but it came naturally to me. No one at that table would have checked my story, and even if they had, Maeve would have backed me without a thought.

There were no more questions after that, so I kept the penguins at the Central Park Zoo and the dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History and
Mon Oncle
and the dorm room and all the rest of it to myself. I planned to tell my friend Matthew everything when we were in school on Monday. Matthew was half-crazed by the idea of seeing Manhattan. Andrea started up about tomorrow’s Easter lunch and how busy she would be, even though Sandy had told me in the car that every bit of the cooking was done. I kept waiting for my father to catch my eye, to give me some small signal that things had changed between us, but it didn’t come. He never asked me about my time with Maeve or the play I hadn’t seen, and we never talked about Brooklyn again.

* * *
“Don’t you think it’s strange we never see her?” I asked Maeve. I was in my late twenties then. I thought it might have happened once or twice.
“Why would we see her?”

“Well, we park in front of her house. It seems like we would have overlapped at some point.” We had once seen Norma and Bright walking across the yard in their swimsuits but that was it, and that was ages ago.

“This isn’t a stakeout. It’s not like we’re here all the time. We drop by every couple of months for fifteen minutes.”

“It’s more than fifteen minutes,” I said, and it might well have been more than every couple of months.

“Whatever. We’ve been lucky.”

“Do you ever think about her?” I didn’t think of Andrea often, but there were times when we were parked in front of the Dutch House that she might as well have been in the back seat of the car.

“Sometimes I wonder if she’s dying,” Maeve said. “I wonder when she’ll die. That’s about it.”

I laughed, even though I was pretty sure she wasn’t joking. “I was thinking more along the lines of—I wonder if she’s happy, I wonder if she ever met anyone.”

“No. I don’t wonder about that.”

“She couldn’t be very old. She could have found someone.”

“She’d never let anyone in that house.”

“Listen,” I said, “she was horrible to us in the end, I’ll grant you that, but sometimes I wonder if she just didn’t know any better. Maybe she was too young to deal with everything, or maybe it was grief. Or maybe things had happened in her own life that had nothing to do with us. I mean, what did we ever know about Andrea? The truth is I have plenty of memories of her being perfectly decent. I just choose to dwell on the ones in which she wasn’t.”

“Why do you feel the need to say anything good about her?” Maeve asked. “I don’t see the point.”

“The point is that it’s true. At the time I didn’t hate her, so why do I scrub out every memory of kindness, or even civility, in favor of the memories of someone being awful?” The point, I wanted to say, was that we shouldn’t still be driving to the Dutch House, and the more we kept up with our hate, the more we were forever doomed to live out our lives in a parked car on VanHoebeek Street.

“Did you love her?”

I let out a sound that could only be described as exasperation. “No, I didn’t love her. Those are my two choices? I love her or I hate her?”

“Well,” my sister said, “you’re telling me you didn’t hate her, so I just want to know what the parameters are. I think it’s a ridiculous conversation to be having in the first place, if you want my opinion. Say there’s a kid who lives next door, a kid you have no particular friendship with but no problems with either. Then one day he walks into your house and kills your sister with a baseball bat.”

“Maeve, for the love of God.”

She held up her hand. “Hear me out. Does that present fact obliterate the past? Maybe not if you loved the kid. Maybe if you loved the kid you’d dig in and try to find out what had happened, see things from his perspective, wonder what his parents had done to him, wonder if there wasn’t some chemical imbalance. You might even consider that your sister could have played a role in the outcome—did she torment this boy? Was she cruel to him? But you’d only wonder about that if you loved him. If you only
liked
the kid, if he was never anything more to you than an okay neighbor, I don’t see the point in scratching around for good memories. He’s gone to prison. You’re never going to see the son-of-a-bitch again.”

I was doing my residency in internal medicine at Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and every two or three weeks I took the train to Philadelphia. There wasn’t enough time to spend the night but I never let an entire month go by without visiting. Maeve was always saying she thought she’d see more of me when medical school was over but that wasn’t the case. There was no extra time in those days and I didn’t want to spend the little of it I had sitting in front of the goddamn house, but that’s where we wound up: like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory patterns. We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside. There had already been a few cold nights and the leaves on the linden trees were starting to yellow.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll drop it.”

Maeve turned away from me and looked at the trees. “Thank you.”

So alone I tried to remember the good in her: Andrea laughing with Norma and Bright; Andrea coming in to check on me once in the middle of the night after I had my wisdom teeth out, her standing in the door of my room, asking if I was okay; a handful of moments early on when I saw her bring a lightness to our father, his briefly resting his hand against the small of her back. They were minuscule things, and in truth it made me tired to think of them, so I let my mind go back to the hospital, checking off the patients I would need to see tonight, preparing what I would say to them. I was back on call at seven.

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