Read The Dutch House Online

Authors: Ann Patchett

The Dutch House (9 page)

The house was overburdened with flowers. Andrea didn’t think we’d get enough, and so she ordered dozens of arrangements. If she’d been clever, she would have thought to forge some cards. Andrea had never understood our father’s place in the community; the flowers poured in from everywhere, from the people at church and the men who worked construction, the people in his office and at the bank. There were flowers from cops and restaurateurs and teachers, people my father had done quiet favors for over the years. The flowers came from the tenants who paid their full rent every month, as well as the ones he had carried in lean times. For the most part they were people I knew, but there were also flowers sent from people who were well before my time, people who had moved away or bought houses of their own. Some of their names I recognized from the ledger. The flowers made a continuous blanket across every table and over the piano. They balanced on rented pedestals and stood on wire easels. The house was a garden of impossible pairings and sudden explosions of height. There was no place to put down a glass. Andrea insisted that the arrangements that had been sent to Immaculate Conception for the funeral be gathered up and driven over to the house while we were at the graveside watching strong men lower his casket into the ground with straps. When we came home there were bouquets lining the front steps, and the doors of the house were opened wide. Andrea had put it in the obituary:
a reception to follow at the house
, forgetting that there were people like her who would come to gawk even on a day like this. Sandy and Jocelyn were in the kitchen making finger sandwiches that were being passed around by hired women in black dresses and white aprons. Sandy and Jocelyn were hurt because they hadn’t been excused from work to attend the service, and they were hurt that they weren’t deemed good enough to be in the front rooms filling glasses. “I guess it takes someone prettier than me to pour a glass of wine,” Sandy said. Maeve went back to the kitchen to be with them, spreading cream cheese on slices of soft white bread, a dish towel tied around the waist of her best navy dress, while I stayed in the front to look after Andrea and the girls. I usually had little patience for the way Norma and Bright followed me, but on this day I kept them close. If my father was no longer there to tell me what kind of man I should be, I still knew what he would have expected. The girls ran their fingers along the petals, dipping their faces too deeply into the clustered roses to breathe them in. They said they were trying to decide which bouquet was their favorite because their mother had told them they could each take one vase up to their bedroom, Maeve’s room.

“Which one do you want?” Norma asked. She was wearing a black cotton dress with smocking across the front. She was twelve and Bright was ten. “I bet she’d let you have one.”

In the spirit of the game, I chose a small vase with some strange orange flowers that looked like they must have grown on the ocean floor. I had no idea what they were, but I gave them credit for being orange on a day of so much terrible whiteness.

It seems funny to remember how worried I was about Andrea then. She’d been crying for four days. She’d cried through every minute of the funeral. In that short span of time since my father’s death she’d grown even smaller, her blue eyes swollen with tears. Again and again the people my father worked with came and held her hand, paying their respects in quiet voices. Neighbors who had never been invited to the house were everywhere. I recognized them, and they spoke to me warmly while trying to take in as much of their environment as discretion allowed. I met a quiet Swede who bowed his head when giving his condolences. He asked to be remembered to my sister. It turned out to be Mr. Otterson. When I told him to wait, that I would find Maeve and bring her back, he gave me a definitive no. “You mustn’t disturb her,” he said, as if she might have been up on the third floor crying instead of in the kitchen putting the sandwiches on trays. Father Brewer stayed on the porch, trapped against the house by two women from the altar society. When I saw Maeve taking him a glass of tea, I told her Mr. Otterson was there to see her. I’d only been talking to him a minute before but when we set out to look we couldn’t find him anywhere.

There was no place I could go in the crowd without being petted or hugged. The entire day was like a dream, in just the way they tell you it’s like a dream. How had my family shifted away from me? I had done so well with just one parent but now I could see that one parent was no insurance against the future. Maeve would go to graduate school soon enough, and I would live with Andrea and the girls, with Sandy and Jocelyn? I’d knock around in the house with only women? That wasn’t right, that wasn’t what my father would have wanted. He and I, I said to myself, but the sentence went no further. That was exactly what I meant to say about my past life,
he and I.

The fragrance of the competing flowers was beginning to overtake the crowded room and I started to wonder if Father Brewer was staying outside in order to breathe. From a distance I saw Coach Martin come into the foyer with the entire varsity basketball team, every last one of them. They had been at the funeral but I didn’t think they’d come to the reception. They’d never been to my house before. I took a glass of wine off the tray of a woman in a maid’s uniform and when she didn’t so much as look at me, I went in the bathroom and drank it.

The Dutch House was impossible. I had never had that thought before. When Maeve told me that our mother had hated it, I couldn’t even understand what she was saying. The walls of the powder room were bas-relief, swallows carved into walnut, swallows shooting through flowered stalks towards a crescent moon. The panels had been carved in Italy in the early 1920s and shipped over in crates to be installed in the downstairs powder room of the VanHoebeeks’ house. How many years of someone’s life had gone into carving those walls in some other country? I reached up and traced a swallow with one finger. Is this what our mother had meant? I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life. It didn’t go like that, of course, but on the day of his funeral I thought I was seeing the future.

As for the future, the first shots were quickly fired. Maeve came back to the house the next day and told Andrea she would quit her job at Otterson’s and go to work at Conroy. It didn’t need to be said that Andrea had never taken any interest in the business, and that she might not even fully understand what it was our father did. At her best she probably wasn’t competent to run the company, and in her present grief she was far from her best.

“I can make sure all the scheduled projects are completed,” Maeve said. “I can take care of payroll and taxes. It would just be for now, just until we decide what we’re going to do with the company.” We were all sitting in the drawing room, Bright with her head in Maeve’s lap and Maeve running her fingers through the tangle of Bright’s yellow hair, Norma on the sofa beside her.

“No,” Andrea said.

At first Maeve thought maybe Andrea doubted she was capable, or doubted it would be what was best for the company or, God knows, best for Maeve. “I can do it,” she said. “I used to work in the office in the summers before college. I know the books. I know the people who work there. It isn’t so different from what I do at Otterson’s now.”

We waited. Even Bright looked up for the explanation that would follow, but nothing came.

“Do you have another plan?” Maeve asked finally.

Andrea nodded slowly. “Norma, go tell Sandy to bring me a cup of coffee.”

Norma, anxious to get away from the tension and the boring conversation, leapt to her feet and vanished.

“Don’t run!” Andrea called behind her.

“I’m not talking about taking over,” Maeve said, as if maybe she’d been seen as overreaching. “It’s just for now.”

“Your mother would have made you cut that hair,” Andrea said.

“What?”

“I must have said it to your father a hundred times: make her cut that hair. But he wouldn’t do it. He didn’t care. I always wanted to tell you myself, for your own good—it’s appalling—but he wouldn’t let me. He always said it was your hair.”

Bright blinked up at my sister.

The comment was so strange that it was easy to push it away, put it down to grief, to shock, whatever. Andrea couldn’t really have cared about Maeve’s hair. The flowers from the funeral were everywhere. I kept thinking what a catastrophe it was going to be when they all died. I wondered if our conversation should have started with something smaller—an offer to empty the vases when the time came, to write the thank-you notes. “I can pick up the rent on Saturday,” I said, hoping to bring us back to the land of the reasonable. “Maeve can drive me. I know the route.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

This I didn’t understand at all. “I’ve always collected the rent.”

“Your father always collected the rent,” Andrea said. “You rode in the car.”

A silence came over the room that none of us knew how to get out from under. I felt the VanHoebeeks’ eyes drilling into my skull. I always did.

“What we’re trying to say is that we want to be helpful,” Maeve said.

“I know you do,” Andrea said, and then tilted her head sideways and smiled at her daughter in my sister’s lap. “You know she does.” She looked up at us again. “I don’t know how it can take so long to bring a cup of coffee. You know they have a pot of it in the kitchen. Maybe they think it’s their coffee.” Andrea tapped her open hands on her thighs in a gesture of impatience, then stood. “Looks as if I’ll have to get it myself. You know what they say, don’t you? ‘If you want something done right.’”

We waited for quite a while after she left, Maeve and Bright and I, and then we heard footsteps upstairs. She had gone up the kitchen stairs with her coffee. The interview was over.

In the two brief weeks after his death, I grieved both the loss of my father and what I saw as the postponement of my place in the world. Had there been the option, I would have quit high school at fifteen and run the Conroy business with Maeve. The business was what I wanted, what I expected, and what my father had planned for me. If it had come before I was ready then I would just have to get ready faster. I didn’t believe I knew how to do everything, not by a long shot, but I knew every single person who could help me. Those people liked me. They’d been watching me work for years.

The rest of my problem was a marriage of sadness and discomfort that could not be picked apart. Andrea avoided me while the girls stayed close. Either Norma or Bright came into my room almost every night to wake me up to tell me their dreams. Or they didn’t wake me up but I’d find one of them asleep on the couch in my room in the morning. The loss of my father was their loss too, I guess, though I could barely remember him ever speaking a word to either of them.

Then one afternoon I came home from school, said hello to Sandy and Jocelyn, and made myself a ham sandwich in the kitchen. Twenty minutes later Maeve flew in the back door. She looked like she had run all the way from Otterson’s to the Dutch House her face was so flushed. I was reading something, I can’t remember what.

“What’s wrong? Why aren’t you working?” Most days Maeve didn’t get off until six.

“Are you all right?”

I looked down as if checking to see if there was blood on my shirt. “Why wouldn’t I be all right?”

“Andrea called. She told me to come and get you. She said I had to come right away.”

“Come and get me for what?”

She ran her sleeve over her forehead, then put her keys on top of her purse. I don’t know where Sandy and Jocelyn had gone but at that moment Maeve and I were alone in the kitchen.

“She scared the shit out of me. I thought—”

“I’m fine.”

“Let me find out,” she said. I got up to follow her, seeing as how I was the one who was supposed to be going someplace.

We went to the foyer and looked around. I hadn’t seen the girls since I came home but that wasn’t unusual. They were forever practicing for one thing or another. Maeve called Andrea’s name.

“I’m in the drawing room,” she said. “You don’t need to shout.”

She was in front of the fireplace, standing there beneath the two massive VanHoebeeks, just where we first found her all those years before.

“I came from work,” Maeve said.

“You need to take Danny.” Andrea was looking only at her.

“Take him where?”

“To your house, to a friend’s house.” She shook her head. “That’s up to you.”

“Is something going on?” Maeve was the one speaking but we were both asking the question.

“Is something going on?” Andrea repeated. “Well, let’s see, your father died. We can start there.” Andrea looked very nice. Her hair was put up. She was wearing a red-and-white checked dress I didn’t remember, red lipstick. I wondered if she was on her way to a party, a luncheon. I didn’t realize she had gotten dressed up for us.

“Andrea?” Maeve said.

“He isn’t my son,” she said, and right there her voice broke. “You can’t expect me to raise him. He isn’t my responsibility. Your father never told me I was going to have to raise his son.”

“No one’s asking you—” I started, but she held up her hand.

“This is my house,” she said. “I deserve to feel safe in my house. You’ve been awful to me, both of you. You’ve never liked me. You’ve never supported me. I guess when your father was alive it was my obligation to accept that—”

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