Authors: Ann Patchett
There was something like peace in those days. I was playing varsity basketball as a sophomore, or I should say I was sitting on the varsity bench, but I was happy to be there, earning my place in the future. I had plenty of friends and so plenty of places I could go after school, including Maeve’s apartment. I wasn’t trying to avoid being home, but like every other fifteen-year-old boy I knew, I found fewer reasons to be there. Andrea and the girls seemed to exist in their own parallel universe of ballet classes and shopping trips. Their orbit had drifted so far from mine that I almost never thought about them. Sometimes I would hear Norma and Bright in Maeve’s room when I was studying. They would be laughing or fighting over a hairbrush or chasing each other up and down the stairs, but they were nothing more than sound. They never had friends over, just like Maeve and I never had friends over, or maybe they didn’t have friends. I thought of them as a single unit: Norma-and-Bright, like an advertising agency consisting of two small girls. When I got tired of hearing them I turned on my radio and closed the door.
My father had spun away as well, making my own absence a convenience for everyone. He said it was because the suburbs were booming and he had an eye towards doubling his business, and while that was true, it also seemed pretty clear he had married the wrong woman. If we all kept to our own corners it was easier for everyone. Not just easier, happier, and the house gave us plenty of space in which to carry on our individual lives. Sandy served an early dinner to Andrea and the girls in the dining room and Jocelyn saved me a plate. When I came home from basketball practice I ate, regardless of the pizza I’d already had with friends. Sometimes I would ride my bike in the dark to take sandwiches to my father at his office, and I would eat again with him. He would unroll the huge white sheaves of architectural renderings and show me what the future held. Every commercial building going up from Jenkintown to Glenside had the name
on a big wooden sign at the front of the construction site. Three Saturdays a month he would send me wherever I was needed—to carry lumber and hammer nails and sweep out the newly built rooms. The foundations were poured, the houses framed. I learned to walk on rafters while the regular workers, the guys who did not go home to their own mansions in Elkins Park, heckled me from below. “Better not fall there, Danny boy!” they’d call out, but once I’d learned to leap from board to board like they did, once I was talking about the electrical and the plumbing, they left me alone. I was cutting crown molding in the miter box by then. More than school or the basketball court, more than the Dutch House, I was at home on a building site. Whenever I could I’d work after school, not for the money—my father considered very few of my hours to be billable—but because I loved the smell and the noise. I loved being part of a building being made. On the first Saturday of the month, my father and I still made the rounds to collect the rents, but now we talked about scheduling the cement truck for one project while making someone else wait. There were never enough trucks, enough men, enough hours in the day for all we meant to accomplish. We talked about how far behind one project was and how another was due to come in right on time.
“The day you get your driver’s license may well be the happiest day of my life,” my father said.
“Are you sick of driving? You could teach me.”
He shook his head, his elbow pointing out the open window. “It’s a waste of time, that’s all, both of us going out. Once you’re sixteen you can collect the rent yourself.”
That’s the way it goes, I thought, admiring my own maturity. I would rather have kept the one Saturday a month with the two of us together in the car but I would take his trust instead. That was what it meant to grow up.
As it turned out, I got neither. He died when I was still fifteen.
I’m sorry to say I thought my father was old when he died. He was fifty-three. He was climbing the five flights of stairs in a nearly completed office building to check on some window flashing and caulk on the top floor that the contractor told him was leaking. The day was boiling hot, the tenth of September. The building was still a month away from having the electricity turned on, which meant no elevator and no air conditioning. There were lights rigged up in the stairwell that ran off a generator that only made it hotter. Mr. Brennan, who was the project manager, said it must have been a hundred degrees. My father complained about being out of shape when they passed the second floor, and after that he said nothing. He was never fast on account of his knee but on this day it took him twice as long. He was sweating through his suit jacket. Six steps short of his destination, he sat down without a word, threw up, and then fell straight forward, his head hitting the concrete stair, his long body following in a tumble. Mr. Brennan couldn’t catch him, but he stretched him out on the landing as best he could and ran down the stairs and across the street to a pharmacy where he told the girl at the register to call an ambulance, then he rounded up four of the men working at the site and together they carried my father down the turns of the stairs. Mr. Brennan said he had never seen a man go as white, and Mr. Brennan had been in the war.
Mr. Brennan rode along in the ambulance, and when they got to the hospital, he called Mrs. Kennedy at my father’s office. Mrs. Kennedy called Maeve. Some kid came into my geometry class and handed a folded note to the teacher, who read it to himself and then told me to get my things and go to the principal’s office. No one comes into the middle of geometry and tells you to get your things because you’re going to be a starter at the next basketball game. When I went down the hall I had only one thought and it was for Maeve. I was so sick with fear it was all I could do to make myself walk. She had run out of insulin or the insulin wasn’t any good. Too much, not enough, either way it had killed her. Until that minute I never realized the extent to which I carried this fear with me everywhere, every minute of my life. I was the tallest boy in my class, and muscled up from basketball and construction. The principal’s office was a glass-fronted room that opened onto the lobby and when I saw Maeve standing at the desk with her back to me, her unmistakable hair in a braid trailing down her back, I made a sound, something high and sharp that seemed to have come up from my knees. She turned around, everybody turned around, but I didn’t care. I had asked God for one thing and God had given it to me—my sister wasn’t dead. Maeve was crying when she put her arms around me and I didn’t even ask her. Later she would say she assumed I knew because of the look on my face, but I had no idea. I didn’t know until we got in the car and she said we were going to the hospital and that our father was dead.
We made a terrible mistake but even now it’s hard for me to say exactly whose mistake it was. Mr. Brennan’s? Mrs. Kennedy’s? Maeve’s? My own? Mrs. Kennedy made it to the hospital before us and was waiting with Mr. Brennan when we arrived. Mr. Brennan told us what had happened. He told us that he didn’t know CPR. Hardly anyone knew CPR in those days. His wife was a nurse and she had told him he should take the class but he hadn’t done it. There was such pain on his face that Maeve hugged him and Mr. Brennan leaned against her shoulder and cried.
They had kept our father in a small room off to the side of the emergency room so that we wouldn’t have to go the morgue. He was in a regular hospital bed, his tie and jacket gone, his blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck and stained with blood. His mouth was open in a way that made it clear to me his mouth could not be closed. His bare white feet were sticking out from the bottom of the sheet. I couldn’t imagine where his shoes and socks had gone. I hadn’t seen my father’s feet in years, since whatever summer it was we had last gone to the lake. There was a terrible, bloodless cut on his forehead that had been crudely taped together. I didn’t touch him, but Maeve leaned over and kissed his forehead just beside the bandage, then kissed it again, her long braid falling across his neck. She didn’t seem to mind his open mouth but it was horrifying to me. She was so tender with him, and I found myself thinking that when he woke up I would tell him how good she was, how much she loved him. Or maybe I would tell him when I woke up. One of us was sleeping and I didn’t know which one of us it was.
The nurse gave us too much time alone with him, and then the doctor came into the room and explained the nature of the death. He told us that the heart attack had happened very fast and that there was nothing that could have been done to save him. “Chances are he was dead before he fell. Even if it had happened right here in the hospital,” he said, “chances are it wouldn’t have been any different.” This was before I knew that doctors could lie as a means of comfort. Without an autopsy, he was telling us nothing more than a likely story, but we clung to it without question. Maeve was given papers to sign and in return received his suit jacket and tie in a bag, along with a manila envelope containing his wallet, watch and wedding ring.
We were very young, and our father had died. To this day I don’t think we were responsible. We came in the kitchen door and Sandy and Jocelyn were there and we told them what had happened. The second they started to cry I knew what we had done. Sandy had her arms around me and I twisted to get away from her. I had to find Andrea. It had to be me finding Andrea, she could not find us there, but as soon as I’d had the thought she walked into the kitchen, into the mess of the four of us and our collective, exclusive grief. She had heard the howling. Jocelyn turned and put her arms around her employer, something I would guarantee she’d not done before or since. “Oh, Mrs. Smith,” was what she said.
The look of terror that came over Andrea then—that look has stayed with me all these years. Long after I could no longer see my father on his hospital bed, I could still see the fear on Andrea’s face. She took a step back from us.
“Where are my girls?” she whispered.
Maeve shook her head the smallest bit, because of course by then she realized it too. “They’re fine,” she said, her voice barely coming out of her mouth. “It’s Dad. We’ve lost Dad.”
There was the plastic bag of his clothes on the kitchen table, the evidence against us. Later we would tell ourselves that we were sure Mrs. Kennedy had called her, but nothing had happened to make us think that. The truth was we had come this far and had never given Andrea a thought. Our cruelty became the story: not our father’s death but how we had excluded her from it.
Had we done a better job would the outcome have been the same? Had Mr. Brennan called Andrea and not Mrs. Kennedy (but Mr. Brennan had never met Andrea, and had worked with Mrs. Kennedy for twenty years), had Mrs. Kennedy called Andrea and not Maeve (but Andrea was rude to Mrs. Kennedy on the phone every time she called our father at work, never saying one thing more than “Let me speak to my husband.” Mrs. Kennedy would never have called Andrea. She told me as much at the funeral). Had Maeve left Otterson’s and rushed to the Dutch House to tell Andrea instead of coming to the school to get me, or if we had left the school together and gone to pick her up, the three of us going to the hospital, where would we be now?
“Right here,” Maeve would say. “We didn’t make her who she is.”
But I was never sure.
Andrea’s hurt was her prize blue ribbon, and in return what I felt in those blinded days just after my father’s death was not the grief for who I had lost but the shame over what I had done. Norma and Bright were solemn every minute they could remember to be, but they were still too young. The sadness was impossible for them to hold onto. Andrea kept them out of school the day after he died but on the next day they begged to go back. Home was so sad. I went back to school too, not wanting to be in the house with her. She bought twin plots in the Protestant cemetery and made clear her plans to bury him there beside the empty space where she planned to go to herself someday. That was when Maeve called Father Brewer. Andrea and the priest disappeared into the library for twenty-five minutes, the doors closed, and when they came out again my father’s rights were restored. Andrea had agreed to have our father buried in the Catholic cemetery. She held that against us as well.
“He’ll be all alone now,” she said when she passed me in the hall. No preamble. “Just the way you want it. Well, good for you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend eternity with a bunch of Catholics.”
The day after they were married, Maeve and my father and I were going off to Mass. Andrea was sitting alone in the dining room, and in an attempt to be friendly I asked my new stepmother if she and the girls wanted to come with us.
“You wouldn’t catch me dead in that place,” she said, and went on eating her soft-cooked eggs as if she had reminded me to take an umbrella.
“If she hates the Catholics so much you have to wonder why she married one,” Maeve said as we were climbing into the car.
And my father laughed, a big-hearted laugh of the kind we rarely heard from him. “She wanted the Catholic’s house,” he said.
Contrary to what Maeve assumed, I thought about our mother very little when I was young. I didn’t know her, and I found it hard to pine for a person or a time I couldn’t remember. The family she left me with—a cook, a housekeeper, a doting sister and distant father—functioned to my advantage. Even when I looked at the few pictures of her that were squirreled away, the tall thin woman with a sharp jaw and dark hair was too much like Maeve to make me think there was something I had missed. But on the day of our father’s funeral, my mother was all I could think of, and I longed for her comfort with an ache I could never have imagined.