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Part One Chapter 1
Part Two Chapter 8
Part Three Chapter 16
The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. “Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,” she said.
“Is it a work friend?” Maeve asked. She was older and so had a more complex understanding of friendship.
Sandy considered the question. “I’d say not. Where’s your brother?”
“Window seat,” Maeve said.
Sandy had to pull the draperies back to find me. “Why do you have to close the drapes?”
I was reading. “Privacy,” I said, though at eight I had no notion of privacy. I liked the word, and I liked the boxed-in feel the draperies gave when they were closed.
As for the visitor, it was a mystery. Our father didn’t have friends, at least not the kind who came to the house late on a Saturday afternoon. I left my secret spot and went to the top of the stairs to lie down on the rug that covered the landing. I knew from experience I could see into the drawing room by looking between the newel post and first baluster if I was on the floor. There was our father in front of the fireplace with a woman, and from what I could tell they were studying the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek. I got up and went back to my sister’s room to make my report.
“It’s a woman,” I said to Maeve. Sandy would have known this already.
Sandy asked me if I’d brushed my teeth, by which she meant had I brushed them that morning. No one brushed their teeth at four o’clock in the afternoon. Sandy had to do everything herself because Jocelyn had Saturdays off. Sandy would have laid the fire and answered the door and offered drinks and, on top of all of that, was now responsible for my teeth. Sandy was off on Mondays. Sandy and Jocelyn were both off on Sundays because my father didn’t think people should be made to work on Sundays.
“I did,” I said, because I probably had.
“Do it again,” she said. “And brush your hair.”
The last part she meant for my sister, whose hair was long and black and as thick as ten horse tails tied together. No amount of brushing ever made it look brushed.
Once we were deemed presentable, Maeve and I went downstairs and stood beneath the wide archway of the foyer, watching our father and Andrea watch the VanHoebeeks. They didn’t notice us, or they didn’t acknowledge us—hard to say—and so we waited. Maeve and I knew how to be quiet in the house, a habit born of trying not to irritate our father, though it irritated him more when he felt we were sneaking up on him. He was wearing his blue suit. He never wore a suit on Saturdays. For the first time I could see that his hair was starting to gray in the back. Standing next to Andrea, he looked even taller than he was.
“It must be a comfort, having them with you,” Andrea said to him, not of his children but of his paintings. Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek, who had no first names that I had ever heard, were old in their portraits but not entirely ancient. They both dressed in black and stood with an erect formality that spoke of another time. Even in their separate frames they were so together, so married, I always thought it must have been one large painting that someone cut in half. Andrea’s head tilted back to study those four cunning eyes that appeared to follow a boy with disapproval no matter which of the sofas he chose to sit on. Maeve, silent, stuck her finger in between my ribs to make me yelp but I held on to myself. We had not yet been introduced to Andrea, who, from the back, looked small and neat in her belted dress, a dark hat no bigger than a saucer pinned over a twist of pale hair. Having been schooled by nuns, I knew better than to embarrass a guest by laughing. Andrea would have had no way of knowing that the people in the paintings had come with the house, that everything in the house had come with the house.
The drawing-room VanHoebeeks were the show-stoppers, life-sized documentation of people worn by time, their stern and unlovely faces rendered with Dutch exactitude and a distinctly Dutch understanding of light, but there were dozens of other lesser portraits on every floor—their children in the hallways, their ancestors in the bedrooms, the unnamed people they’d admired scattered throughout. There was also one portrait of Maeve when she was ten, and while it wasn’t nearly as big as the paintings of the VanHoebeeks, it was every bit as good. My father had brought in a famous artist from Chicago on the train. As the story goes, he was supposed to paint our mother, but our mother, who hadn’t been told that the painter was coming to stay in our house for two weeks, refused to sit, and so he painted Maeve instead. When the portrait was finished and framed, my father hung it in the drawing room right across from the VanHoebeeks. Maeve liked to say that was where she learned to stare people down.
“Danny,” my father said when finally he turned, looking like he expected us to be exactly where we were. “Come say hello to Mrs. Smith.”
I will always believe that Andrea’s face fell for an instant when she looked at Maeve and me. Even if my father hadn’t mentioned his children, she would have known he had them. Everyone in Elkins Park knew what went on in the Dutch House. Maybe she thought we would stay upstairs. She’d come to see the house, after all, not the children. Or maybe the look on Andrea’s face was just for Maeve, who, at fifteen and in her tennis shoes, was already a head taller than Andrea in her heels. Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent she was going to be taller than all the other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulders-back might as well have been her name. For years he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself. Even I could see how she might have been intimidating: her height, the shining black wall of hair, the way she would lower her eyes to look at a person rather than bend her neck. But at eight I was still comfortably smaller than the woman our father would later marry. I held out my hand to shake her little hand and said my name, then Maeve did the same. Though the story will be remembered that Maeve and Andrea were at odds right from the start, that wasn’t true. Maeve was perfectly fair and polite when they met, and she remained fair and polite until doing so was no longer possible.
“How do you do?” Maeve said, and Andrea replied that she was very well.
Andrea was well. Of course she was. It had been Andrea’s goal for years to get inside the house, to loop her arm through our father’s arm when going up the wide stone steps and across the red-tiled terrace. She was the first woman our father had brought home since our mother left, though Maeve told me that he had had something going with our nanny for a while, an Irish girl named Fiona.
“You think he was sleeping with Fluffy?” I asked her. Fluffy was what we called Fiona when we were children, partly because I had a hard time with the name Fiona and partly because of the soft waves of red hair that fell down her back in a transfixing cloud. The news of this affair came to me as most information did: many years after the fact, in a car parked outside the Dutch House with my sister.
“Either that or she cleaned his room in the middle of the night,” Maeve said.
My father and Fluffy in flagrante delicto. I shook my head. “Can’t picture it.”
“You shouldn’t try to picture it. God, Danny, that’s disgusting. Anyway, you were practically a baby during the Fluffy administration. I’m surprised you’d even remember her.”
But Fluffy had hit me with a wooden spoon when I was four years old. I still have a small scar in the shape of a golf club beside my left eye—the mark of Fluffy, Maeve called it. Fluffy claimed she’d been cooking a pot of applesauce when I startled her by grabbing her skirt. She said she was trying to get me away from the stove and had certainly never meant to hit me, though I’d think it would be hard to accidentally hit a child in the face with a spoon. The story was only interesting insofar as it was my first distinct memory—of another person or the Dutch House or my own life. I didn’t have a single memory of our mother, but I remembered Fluffy’s spoon cracking into the side of my head. I remembered Maeve, who had been down the hall when I screamed, flying into the kitchen the way the deer would fly across the hedgerow at the back of the property. She threw herself into Fluffy, knocking her into the stove, the blue flames leaping as the boiling pot of applesauce crashed to the floor so that we were all burned in pinpoint splatters. I was sent to the doctor’s office for six stitches and Maeve’s hand was wrapped and Fluffy was dismissed, even though I could remember her crying and saying how sorry she was, how it was only an accident. She didn’t want to go. That was our father’s other relationship according to my sister, and she should know, because if I was four when I got that scar then she was already eleven.
As it happened, Fluffy’s parents had worked for the VanHoebeeks as their driver and cook. Fluffy had spent her childhood in the Dutch House, or in the small apartment over the garage, so I had to wonder, when her name came up again after so many years, where she would have gone when she was told to leave.
Fluffy was the only person in the house who had known the VanHoebeeks. Not even our father had met them, though we sat on their chairs and slept in their beds and ate our meals off their delftware. The VanHoebeeks weren’t the story, but in a sense the house was the story, and it was their house. They had made their fortune in the wholesale distribution of cigarettes, a lucky business Mr. VanHoebeek had entered into just before the start of the First World War. Cigarettes were given to soldiers in the field for purposes of morale, and the habit followed them home to celebrate a decade of prosperity. The VanHoebeeks, richer by the hour, commissioned a house to be built on what was then farmland outside of Philadelphia.
The stunning success of the house could be attributed to the architect, though by the time I thought to go looking I could find no other extant examples of his work. It could be that one or both of those dour VanHoebeeks had been some sort of aesthetic visionary, or that the property inspired a marvel beyond what any of them had imagined, or that America after the First World War was teeming with craftsmen who worked to standards long since abandoned. Whatever the explanation, the house they wound up with—the house we later wound up with—was a singular confluence of talent and luck. I can’t explain how a house that was three stories high could seem like just the right amount of space, but it did. Or maybe it would be better to say that it was too much of a house for anyone, an immense and ridiculous waste, but that we never wanted it to be different. The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back across the wide lawn. Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.
“They had seven good years before the bankers started jumping out of windows,” Maeve said, giving our predecessors their place in history.
The first I ever heard of the property that had been sold off was that first day Andrea came to the house. She followed our father to the foyer and was looking out at the front lawn.
“It’s so much glass,” Andrea said, as if making a calculation to see if the glass could be changed, swapped out for an actual wall. “Don’t you worry about people looking in?”
Not only could you see into the Dutch House, you could see straight through it. The house was shortened in the middle, and the deep foyer led directly into what we called the observatory, which had a wall of windows facing the backyard. From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.
Our father glanced towards the ceiling and then to either side of the door, as if he were just now considering this. “We’re far enough from the street,” he said. On this May afternoon, the wall of linden trees that ran along the property line was thick with leaves, and the slant of green lawn where I rolled like a dog in the summers was both deep and wide.
“But at night,” Andrea said, her voice concerned. “I wonder if there wouldn’t be some way to hang drapes.”
Drapes to block the view struck me not only as impossible but the single stupidest idea I’d ever heard.
“You’ve seen us at night?” Maeve asked.
“You have to remember the land that was here when they built the place,” our father said, speaking over Maeve. “There were more than two hundred acres. The property went all the way to Melrose Park.”
“But why would they have sold it?” Suddenly Andrea could see how much more sense the house would have made had there been no other houses. The sight line should have gone far past the slope of the lawn, past the peony beds and the roses. The eye was meant to travel down a wide valley and bank into a forest, so that even if the VanHoebeeks or one of their guests were to look out a window from the ballroom at night, the only light they’d see would be starlight. There wasn’t a street back then, there wasn’t a neighborhood, though now both the street and the Buchsbaums’ house across the street were perfectly visible in the winter when the leaves came off the trees.
“Money,” Maeve said.
“Money,” our father said, nodding. It wasn’t a complicated idea. Even at eight I was able to figure it out.
“But they were wrong,” Andrea said. There was a tightness around her mouth. “Think about how beautiful this place must have been. They should have had more respect, if you ask me. The house is a piece of art.”
And then I did laugh, because what I understood Andrea to say was that the VanHoebeeks should have asked her before they sold the land. My father, irritated, told Maeve to take me upstairs, as if I might have forgotten the way.
Ready-made cigarettes lined up in their cartons were a luxury for the rich, as were acres never walked on by the people who owned them. Bit by bit the land was shaved away from the house. The demise of the estate was a matter of public record, history recorded in property deeds. Parcels were sold to pay debts—ten acres, then fifty, then twenty-eight. Elkins Park came closer and closer to the door. In this way the VanHoebeek family made it through the Depression, only to have Mr. VanHoebeek die of pneumonia in 1940. One VanHoebeek boy died in childhood and the two older sons died in the war. Mrs. VanHoebeek died in 1945 when there was nothing left to sell but the side yard. The house and all it contained went back to the bank, dust to dust.
Fluffy stayed behind courtesy of the Pennsylvania Savings and Loan, and was paid a small stipend to manage the property. Fluffy’s parents were dead, or maybe they had found other jobs. At any rate, she lived alone above the garage, checking the house every day to make sure the roof wasn’t leaking and the pipes hadn’t burst. She cut a straight path from the garage to the front doors with a push mower and let the rest of the lawn grow wild. She picked the fruit from the trees that were left near the back of the house and made apple butter and canned the peaches for winter. By the time our father bought the place in 1946, raccoons had taken over the ballroom and chewed into the wiring. Fluffy went into the house only when the sun was straight overhead, the very hour when all nocturnal animals were piled up together and fast asleep. The miracle was they didn’t burn the place down. The raccoons were eventually captured and disposed of, but they left behind their fleas and the fleas sifted into everything. Maeve said her earliest memories of life in the house were of scratching, and of how Fluffy dotted each welt with a Q-tip dipped in calamine lotion. My parents had hired Fluffy to be my sister’s nanny.
* * *
The first time Maeve and I ever parked on VanHoebeek Street (Van Who-bake, mispronounced as Van Ho-bik by everyone in Elkins Park) was the first time I’d come home from Choate for spring break. Spring was something of a misnomer that year since there was a foot of snow on the ground, an April Fool’s Day joke to cap a bitter winter. True spring, I knew from my first half-semester at boarding school, was for the boys whose parents took them sailing in Bermuda.
“What are you doing?” I asked her when she stopped in front of the Buchsbaums’ house, across the street from the Dutch House.
“I want to see something.” Maeve leaned over and pushed in the cigarette lighter.
“Nothing to see here,” I said to her. “Move along.” I was in a crappy mood because of the weather and what I saw as the inequity between what I had and what I deserved, but still, I was glad to be back in Elkins Park, glad to be in my sister’s car, the blue Oldsmobile wagon of our childhood that my father let her have when she got her own apartment. Because I was fifteen and generally an idiot, I thought that the feeling of home I was experiencing had to do with the car and where it was parked, instead of attributing it wholly and gratefully to my sister.
“Are you in a rush to get someplace?” She shook a cigarette out of the pack then put her hand over the lighter. If you weren’t right there to catch the lighter, it would eject too forcibly and burn a hole in the seat or the floor mat or your leg, depending on where it landed.
“Do you drive over here when I’m at school?”
Pop. She caught it and lit her cigarette. “I do not.”
“But here we are,” I said. The snow came steady and soft as the last light of day was folded into the clouds. Maeve was an Icelandic truck driver at heart, no weather stopped her, but I had recently gotten off a train and was tired and cold. I thought it would be nice to make grilled cheese sandwiches and soak in the tub. Baths were the subject of endless ridicule at Choate, I never knew why. Only showers were thought to be manly.
Maeve filled her lungs with smoke, exhaled, then turned off the car. “I thought about coming over here a couple of times but I decided to wait for you.” She smiled at me then, cranking the window down just far enough to let in a shelf of arctic air. I had nagged her to give the cigarettes up before I’d left for school, and then neglected to tell her that I’d started. Smoking was what we did at Choate in lieu of taking baths.
I craned my head to look up the drive. “Do you see them?”
Maeve looked out the driver’s side window. “I don’t know why, but I just keep thinking about that first time she came to the house a million years ago. Do you even remember?”
Of course I remembered. Who could forget Andrea showing up?
“And she said that business about worrying that people were looking in our windows at night?”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the foyer was flooded in the warm gold light of the chandelier. Then after a pause the lights above the staircase went on, and a few moments after that the light in the master bedroom on the second floor. The illumination of the Dutch House was timed so exactly to her words it nearly stopped my heart. Of course Maeve had been coming to the house without me. She knew that Andrea turned on the lights the very minute the sun went down. Denying it was just a bit of theatrics on my sister’s part, and I appreciated her efforts once I realized them later. It made for one hell of a show.
“Look at that,” I whispered.
There were no leaves on the linden trees, and the snow was falling but not too heavily. Sure enough, you could see right into the house, through the house, not with any detail of course but memory filled in the picture: there was the round table beneath the chandelier where Sandy had left our father’s mail in the evening, and behind it the grandfather clock that had been my job to wind every Sunday after Mass so that the ship beneath the 6 would continue to gently rock between two blue rows of painted waves. I couldn’t see the ship or the waves but I knew. There was the half-moon console table against the wall, the cobalt vase with the painting of the girl and the dog, the two French chairs no one ever sat in, the giant mirror whose frame always made me think of the twisted arms of a golden octopus. Andrea crossed through the foyer as if on cue. We were too far away to see her face but I knew her from the way she walked. Norma came down the stairs at full speed and then stopped abruptly because her mother would have told her not to run. Norma was taller now, although I guess it could have been Bright.
“She must have watched us,” Maeve said, “before she ever came in that first time.”
“Or maybe everybody watched us, everyone who ever drove down this street in winter.” I reached into her purse and took out the cigarettes.
“That seems a little self-aggrandizing,” Maeve said. “Everyone.”
“They teach us that at Choate.”
She laughed. I could tell she hadn’t been expecting to laugh and it pleased me to no end.
“Five whole days with you at home,” she said, blowing smoke out the open window. “The best five days of the year.”
After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there she’d be at the dining-room table again, chastened by her absence at first and then slowly warming over time. Andrea, fully warmed, talked about nothing but the house. She was forever going on about some detail of the crown molding or speculating as to the exact height of the ceiling, as if the ceiling were entirely new to us. “That’s called egg and dart,” she’d say to me, pointing up. Just when she’d reach the point of being truly intolerable, she’d disappear again, and the relief would wash over Maeve and me (and, we had assumed, our father) with its glorious silence.
There was the Sunday we came home from Mass and found her sitting in one of the white iron chairs by the pool, or Maeve found her. Maeve had been walking through the library and had seen her through the window just by chance. She didn’t call for our father the way I would have, she just walked around to the back door off the kitchen and went outside.
“Mrs. Smith?” Maeve said, shading her eyes with her hand. We called her Mrs. Smith until they were married, having never been invited to do otherwise. After they were married I’m sure she would have preferred us to call her Mrs. Conroy, but that would have only intensified the awkwardness, seeing as how Maeve and I were Conroys as well.
Maeve told me Andrea was startled, and who knows, maybe she’d been sleeping. “Where’s your father?”
“In the house.” Maeve looked over her shoulder. “Was he expecting you?”
“I was expecting him an hour ago,” Andrea corrected.
Since it was Sunday, Sandy and Jocelyn were both off. I don’t think they would have let her in if we weren’t home but I don’t know that for sure. Sandy was the warmer of the two, Jocelyn more suspicious. They didn’t like Andrea, and they probably would have made her wait outside until we got home. It was only a little cold, a nice enough day to sit by the pool, the sunlight glittering across the blue water, the tender lines of moss growing up between the flagstones. Maeve told her we’d been to church.
And then they just stared at each other, neither of them looking away. “I’m half Dutch, you know,” Andrea said finally.
“I beg your pardon?”
“On my mother’s side. She was full-blood Dutch.”
“We’re Irish,” Maeve said.
Andrea nodded, as if there had been some disagreement that now was settled in her favor. When it became clear there would be no more conversation, Maeve went inside to tell our father that Mrs. Smith was waiting by the pool.
“Where in the hell did she park?” Maeve said to me after our father had gone outside. She almost never swore in those days, especially not right after Mass. “She always parks in front of the house.”
And so we went to find the car, looking first on the far side of the house and then back behind the garage. When none of the obvious spots panned out we walked down the driveway, the pea gravel crunching beneath our Sunday shoes, and onto the street. We had no idea where Andrea lived but we knew she wasn’t our neighbor, she hadn’t just walked over. Finally we found her cream-colored Impala parked a block away, the front left corner crumpled in on itself. Maeve crouched down to inspect the damage and I went so far as to touch the hanging fender, marveling at the headlight which had been spared. Clearly, Andrea had banged into something and she didn’t want us to know.
We didn’t tell our father about the car. After all, he didn’t tell us anything. He never talked about Andrea, not when she was gone or when she was back. He didn’t tell us if he had her in mind for some role in our future. When she was there he acted like she’d always been there, and when she was gone we never wanted to remind him for fear he’d ask her back. In truth, I don’t think he was particularly interested in Andrea. I just don’t think he had the means to deal with her tenacity. His strategy, as far as I could tell, was to ignore her until she went away. “That’s never going to work,” Maeve said to me.
The only thing our father really cared about in life was his work: the buildings he built and owned and rented out. He rarely sold anything, choosing instead to leverage what he had in order to buy more. When he had an appointment with the bank, the banker came to him, and my father made him wait. Mrs. Kennedy, my father’s secretary, would offer the banker a cup of coffee and tell him it shouldn’t be much longer, though sometimes it was. There was nothing the banker could do but sit there in the small anteroom of my father’s office, holding his hat.
The little attention my father had left at the end of the week he saved for me, and even that he made part of his job. He took me with him in the Buick on the first Saturday of every month to collect the rent, and gave me a pencil and a ledger book so I could write down how much the tenants had paid in the column next to what they had owed. Very soon I knew who would never be home, and who would be right there at the door with an envelope. I knew who would have complaints—a toilet that ran, a toilet that was stopped, a light switch that was dead. Certain people came up with something every month and would not part with their money until the problem was resolved. My father, whose knee had been ruined in the war, limped slightly as he went to the trunk of his car and pulled out whatever was needed to make things right. When I was a boy, I thought of the trunk as a sort of magic chest—pliers, clamps, hammers, screwdrivers, caulk, nails—everything was there. Now I know the things people ask you for on a Saturday morning tend to be easy fixes, and my father liked to do those jobs himself. He was a rich man, but he wanted to show people he still knew how things worked. Or maybe the show was all for me, because he didn’t need to drive around picking up rent any more than he needed to drag his bad leg up a ladder to inspect a patch of loose shingles. He had maintenance men for that. Maybe it was for my sake that he rolled up his shirt sleeves and pulled the top off a stove to inspect the heating element while I stood there marveling at all the things he knew. He would tell me to pay attention because one day the business was going to be mine. I would need to know how things were done.
“The only way to really understand what money means is to have been poor,” he said to me when we were eating lunch in the car. “That’s the strike you have against you. A boy grows up rich like you, never wanting for anything, never being hungry”—he shook his head, as if it had been a disappointing choice I’d made—“I don’t know how a person overcomes a thing like that. You can watch these people all you want and see what it’s been like for them, but that’s not the same as living it yourself.” He put down his sandwich and took a drink of coffee from the thermos.
“Yes, sir,” I said, because what else was there to say?
“The biggest lie in business is that it takes money to make money. Remember that. You’ve got to be smart, have a plan, pay attention to what’s going on around you. None of that costs a dime.” My father wasn’t much for imparting advice, and this seemed to have worn him out. When he was finished, he took his handkerchief from his pocket and ran it across his forehead.
When I’m in a charitable mood, I look back on this moment and I tell myself that this was the reason things played out the way they did. My father was trying to give me the benefit of his experience.
My father was always more comfortable with his tenants than he was the people in his office or the people in his house. A tenant would start in on a story, which sometimes was about the Phillies’ inability to pitch against Brooklyn and other times was about why there wasn’t enough money in the envelope, and I could tell by the way my father was standing, the way he nodded at one part or another, that he was paying attention. The people who were short on the rent never complained about a window that was painted shut. They only wanted the chance to tell him what had happened to them that month, and to assure him that it wouldn’t happen again. I never saw my father scold the tenants or make any threats. He only listened, and then he told them to try their best. But after three months of conversation, there would be a different family living in the apartment the next time we came back. I never knew what happened to the people with hard luck, but it happened on some day other than the first Saturday of the month.
My father smoked more as the day went on. I sat beside him on the car’s wide bench seat, looking over the numbers in the ledger or staring out the window at the trees as they flicked past. When my father smoked I knew he was thinking, and that I was meant to be quiet. The neighborhoods got worse as we headed into Philadelphia. He saved the very poorest of his tenants for the end of the day, as if to give them the extra hours to get together what they owed. I would rather have waited in the car on those last stops, fiddled with the radio, but I knew enough to skip the part where I would ask him to let me stay behind and he would tell me no. The tenants in Mount Airy and Jenkintown were always nice to me, asking about school and basketball, offering me candy I’d been told never to accept. “Looking more like your daddy every day,” they’d say. “Growing up just like him.” But in the poorer neighborhoods things were different. It’s not that the tenants weren’t nice, but they were nervous even when the money was in their hand, maybe thinking how it had been the month before or how it would be a month from now. They were deferential not only to my father but to me, and it was the deference that made me want to crawl out of my skin. Men older than my father called me Mr. Conroy when I was no more than ten, as if the resemblance they saw between the two of us was more than physical. Maybe they saw the situation the way my father did, that someday they’d be paying the rent to me and so had no business calling me Danny. As we climbed the steps of the buildings, I peeled off chips of paint and stepped over the broken slats. Half-open doors flapped on their hinges and there were never any screens. The heat in the hallways either ran to tropical or didn’t run at all. It made me think what a luxury it was to rattle on about a faucet in need of a washer, while failing to remind me that this too was a building my father owned, and that it was well within his power to open the trunk of his car and make things better for the people who lived there. One by one, he knocked on the doors and the doors opened and we listened to whatever the people inside had to say: husbands out of work, husbands gone, wives gone, children sick. One time a man was going on about not having the rent because his son had been so sick and he had to stay home himself and watch the boy. The boy and the man were alone in the dark apartment, everyone else had gone I guess. When my father had heard enough he went into the living room and picked up the feverish child from the couch. I had no idea what dead looked like in those days but the boy’s arm swung back from his side and his head dropped back in my father’s arms. It put the fear of God in me. If it hadn’t been for the deep congestion of his breathing I would have thought we’d come too late. The air in the apartment was heavy with the mentholated smell of suffering. Maybe the boy was five or six, he was very small. My father carried him down the stairs and put him in the Buick while the boy’s father came behind us saying there was no need to worry. “It’ll be nothing,” he kept saying. “The boy’s gonna be fine.” But he climbed into the back seat of our car all the same and rode beside his son to the hospital. I had never sat in the front of a car while an adult was sitting in the back and it made me nervous. I could only imagine what the nuns would have said had they seen us go by. When we got to the hospital, my father made arrangements with the woman at the desk, and then we left them there, driving back to our own house in the dark without saying a single word about what had happened.
“Why would he have done that?” Maeve had asked me that night after dinner when we were in her bedroom. Our father never took Maeve to collect the rent, even though she was seven years older than me and had won the math prize in school every year and would have been so much better with the ledger it was ridiculous. On the first Saturday of every month, after we’d been excused from the table and our father had gone to the library with his drink and the paper, Maeve would pull me into her bedroom and close the door. She wanted a recounting of the entire day, blow by blow: what had happened at every apartment, what the tenants had said, and what our father had said to them in return. She even wanted to know what we’d bought for lunch at Carter’s Market where we always stopped for sandwiches.
“The kid was really sick, that’s all. He didn’t open his eyes once, not even when Dad put him in the car.” When we got to the hospital, my father had told me to go to the men’s room and wash my hands, to get the water hot and use soap even though I hadn’t touched the boy.
Maeve mulled this over.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, think about it. He hates sick people. Has he ever so much as crossed the door of your room when you were sick?” She stretched out on the bed beside me, fluffing the pillow under her head. “If you’re going to put your feet on my bed then the least you can do is take off your filthy shoes.”
I kicked off my shoes. Did he sit on the edge of my bed and put his hand on my forehead? Did he bring me a ginger ale, ask me if I felt like I was going to throw up again? That’s what Maeve did. That’s what Sandy and Jocelyn did when Maeve was at school. “He never comes in my room.”
“But why would he have done all that if the boy’s father was there?”
I almost never got to an answer before Maeve did but in this case it was perfectly obvious. “Because the mother wasn’t there.” If there had been a woman in the apartment he never would have put himself in the middle of things.
Mothers were the measure of safety, which meant that I was safer than Maeve. After our mother left, Maeve took up the job on my behalf but no one did the same for her. Of course Sandy and Jocelyn mothered us. They made sure we were washed and fed and that our lunches were packed and our scouting dues paid. They loved us, I know they did, but they went home at the end of the day. There was no crawling into bed with Sandy or Jocelyn when I had a bad dream in the middle of the night, and it never once occurred to me to knock on my father’s door. I went to Maeve. She taught me the proper way to hold a fork. She attended my basketball games and knew all my friends and oversaw my homework and kissed me every morning before we went our separate ways to school and again at night before I went to bed regardless of whether or not I wanted to be kissed. She told me repeatedly, relentlessly, that I was kind and smart and fast, that I could be as great a man as I made up my mind to be. She was so good at all that, despite the fact that no one had done it for her.
“Mommy did it for me,” she said, surprised that I’d even brought it up. “Listen, kiddo, I was the lucky one. I got years with her and you didn’t. I can’t even think about how much you must miss her.”
But how could I miss someone I’d never known? I was only three at the time, and if I knew what was happening I had no memory of it. Sandy was the one who told me the whole story, though parts of it I knew of course from my sister. Maeve had been ten when our mother first started to leave. One morning Maeve got out of bed and opened the drapes over the window seat to see if it had snowed during the night and it had. The Dutch House was always freezing. There was a fireplace in Maeve’s bedroom and Sandy kept dry wood on the grate above a bed of crumpled newspaper so that in the morning all Maeve had to do was strike a match, something she had been allowed to do since her eighth birthday. (“Mommy gave me a box of matches for my eighth birthday,” she told me once. “She said her mother had given her a box of matches when she turned eight, and they spent the morning learning how to strike them. She showed me how to light the fire, and then that night she let me light the candles on my cake.”) Maeve lit the fire and put on her robe and slippers and came next door to my room to check on me. I was three, still asleep. I had no part in this story.
Then she crossed the hall to our parents’ room and found it empty, the bed already made. Maeve went back to her room to get ready for school. She had brushed her teeth and washed her face and was halfway dressed when Fluffy came in to wake her up.
“Every morning you beat me,” Fluffy said.
“You should wake me up earlier,” Maeve said.
Fluffy told her she didn’t need to get up any earlier.
The fact that our father had already left the house wasn’t unusual. The fact that our mother wasn’t in the house was unusual but not without precedent. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy all seemed to be themselves. If they weren’t worried there was no reason to worry. Our mother was the one who took Maeve to school but on this morning Fluffy drove her, letting her out with the lunch that Jocelyn had packed. At the end of the day Fluffy was there to pick her up again. When Maeve asked where our mother was, she shrugged. “With your father, maybe?”
Our mother wasn’t there for dinner that night, and when our father appeared, Maeve asked him where she’d gone. He wrapped her up in his arms and kissed her neck. Such things still happened in those days. He told Maeve her mother had gone to Philadelphia to visit old friends.
“Without saying goodbye?”
“She said goodbye to me,” our father said. “She got up very early.”
“I was up early.”
“Well, she was up even before you, and she told me to tell you she’d see you in a day or two. Everybody needs a vacation.”
“From what?” Maeve asked, when what she meant was, From me? From us?
“From the house.” He took her hand and walked her in to dinner. “This place is a big responsibility.”
How big of a responsibility could it have been when Jocelyn and Sandy and Fluffy did so much of the work, when the gardeners came to take care of the lawn and rake the leaves and shovel the snow, when Maeve would have done anything in the world to be helpful?
Our mother wasn’t there when Maeve woke up the next morning, and again Fluffy drove her to school and picked her up. But when they came back to the house on that second day, our mother was sitting in the kitchen drinking tea with Sandy and Jocelyn. I was playing on the floor, taking the lids off all the pots.
“She looked so tired,” Maeve told me. “She looked like she hadn’t been to sleep the whole time she’d been gone.”
Our mother put down her cup and pulled Maeve into her lap. “There’s my darling,” she said, and kissed her forehead and kissed the part of her hair. “There’s my true love.”
Maeve put her arms around our mother’s neck and rested her head against our mother’s chest and breathed her in while our mother stroked her hair. “Who gets a girl like this?” she asked Sandy and Jocelyn. “Who gets such a beautiful girl who’s kind and smart? What did I ever do to deserve a girl like this?”
Some variation of this story happened three more times.
Over the course of the next two months, our mother was gone for two nights, then four nights, and then a week. Maeve started getting up in the middle of the night to check our parents’ room and make sure she was still there. Sometimes our mother was awake, and she would see Maeve at the door and lift up the covers and Maeve would float across the room to the bed without making a sound and slip into the warm curve of her body. She would fall asleep without thinking, her mother’s arms around her, her mother’s heartbeat and breath behind her. No other moment in life could match this.
“Why don’t you say goodbye to me before you leave?” Maeve would ask her, and our mother would just shake her head.
“I could never do that. Never in a million years could I say goodbye to you.”
Was our mother sick? Was she getting worse?
Maeve nodded. “She was turning into a ghost. One week she was thinner, then she was paler, everything deteriorated so fast. We were all folding up. Mommy would come home and cry for days. I would go and sit with her in her bed after school. Sometimes you’d be in the bed with her, playing. Whenever Dad was home he always looked like he was trying to catch her, like he might as well have been walking around with his hands out. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy, they were all nervous as cats by then, but no one talked about it. When she was gone it was unbearable and when she was home it was unbearable in a different way because we knew that she was going to leave again.”
When finally she did leave again, Maeve asked our father when she was coming back. He looked at her for a very long time. He didn’t know what part of the truth he was supposed to tell a ten-year-old, and what he decided on was the whole thing. He told Maeve our mother wasn’t coming back. She had gone to India and she wasn’t coming back.
Maeve could never make up her mind what part of this story was the worst: that her mother was gone or that India was on the other side of the planet. “No one goes to India!”
“Maeve,” he said.
“Maybe she hasn’t left yet!” She didn’t believe him, not for a minute, but if the story had been started it needed to be stopped.
Our father shook his head but he didn’t reach for her. Somehow that might have been the strangest part of all.
This was the story of our mother leaving, and this was the point at which the story stopped. There should have been questions, explanations. If she was in India our father should have gone to find her and bring her back, but none of this happened because Maeve stopped getting up in the morning. She wouldn’t go to school. Sandy would bring her Cream of Wheat on a tray and sit on the edge of her bed, trying to talk her into taking a couple of bites, but she said Maeve was rarely persuaded. Everyone saw it as the understandable sickness of a girl longing for her mother. They were all suffering from some related version, and so they let the child sink down into it, never really thinking about the fact that she would still drink her orange juice, and drink her glass of water, and drink the entire pot of chamomile tea. She’d take her cup into the bathroom and fill it over and over again, until finally she stuck her head in the sink and drank from the running tap. Fluffy would bring me into Maeve’s room and put me in her bed and Maeve would read me a story before falling back to sleep. Then one afternoon, less than a week after our mother left for good, Maeve didn’t wake up. Fluffy shook her and shook her and then scooped Maeve up in her arms and ran down the stairs and out to the car.
Where was everyone then? Where had our father and Sandy and Jocelyn gone? Where was I? Sandy said she couldn’t remember. “Such a terrible time,” she said, shaking her head. What she knew was that Fluffy drove Maeve to the hospital and carried her into the lobby where some nurses took the sleeping child from her arms. She stayed in the hospital for two weeks. The doctors said the diabetes could have been brought on by trauma, or it could have been a virus. The body had all sorts of means to deal with what it couldn’t understand. In the hospital, Maeve swam in and out of consciousness while they worked to stabilize her blood sugar. Everything that happened to her was part of a dream. She told herself her mother wasn’t allowed to visit, a punishment meted out to both of them for something she had done and couldn’t quite remember. The Sisters of Mercy, all friends of our mother’s, came to see her. Two girls from Sacred Heart presented her with a card signed by the entire class, but they weren’t allowed to stay. Our father would come in the evenings, though he said very little. He would hold Maeve’s foot through the white cotton blanket and tell her that she needed to get better now, no one was up for this. Jocelyn and Sandy and Fluffy took turns staying with her in the room. “One of us for you, one for your brother, and one for your father,” Sandy would say. “Everyone’s covered.” Sandy said that when she needed to cry she would wait until Maeve was asleep, then she would go out to the hall.
After Maeve came home from the hospital things got worse. Logic said our mother’s absence had made her sick, and so logic concluded that further talk of our mother could kill her. The Dutch House grew quiet. Sandy and Jocelyn and Fluffy devoted themselves to my sister, the needles, the insulin. They were terrified of the way every injection changed her. Our father would have nothing to do with it. Fluffy, who in those weeks slept in the bed with Maeve, ended up taking her back to the hospital in the middle of the night. Again, they worked to stabilize her, again they sent her home. Maeve would cry and cry until my father would come into her room and tell her to stop. They had all become characters in the worst part of a fairy tale. He was now a hundred years old. “Stop,” he would say, as if he could barely make the words. “You have to stop.”
And finally, she did.
Nearly two years into her irregular tenure, Andrea walked in the house one Saturday afternoon with two small girls. Say what you will for Andrea, she had a knack for making the impossible seem natural. I wasn’t clear about whether it was only Maeve and I who were meeting her daughters for the first time, or if the existence of Norma and Bright Smith was news to our father as well. No, he must have known. The very fact that he didn’t look at them meant they were already familiar. They were much younger than me. Bright, the smaller of the two, looked like she should have been on a Christmas card, fair like her mother with flushed cheeks and blue eyes, a big smile for everyone. Norma had light-brown hair and green eyes. She was no match for her shining sister, if only because she was so serious. Her lips stayed pressed together in a straight line. Clearly it was Norma’s job to look after things.
“Girls,” their mother said, “this is Danny, and this is his sister Maeve.”
We were shocked, of course, but in our heart of hearts we were happy too, certain that the Smith girls would spell the end of Andrea for good. Our father wasn’t about to put up with two more children in the house, especially not two more girls. Who had been taking care of them on all those Saturday nights she’d come to dinner, never once mentioning she needed to get home? This would not be forgiven. When we stood at the door and said goodbye to the three of them after what had been a comparatively brief visit, we thought that we were saying goodbye for good.
“Sayonara, Mrs. Smith,” Maeve said that night in the bathroom as she put the toothpaste on my toothbrush and then hers. I was perfectly capable of handling a tube of toothpaste but this was our ritual. We brushed our teeth together then said our prayers.
“Buenas noches, Bright and Norma,” I said. Maeve looked at me for a second, not believing I’d come up with that, then she started laughing so hard she barked like a seal.
Maeve and I were forever under the impression that we were moments away from cracking the code on our life, and that soon we would understand the impenetrable mystery that was our father, but we’d misread the appearance of Andrea’s daughters completely. It was not some half-baked introduction. The final disclosure that Andrea came as a package deal was proof that she had fully assimilated, and we, somehow, had missed it. Soon the girls were regulars, sitting with us at the dinner table or taking off their socks to splash their feet in the swimming pool—neither of them knew how to swim. It felt strange to have other children around. Maeve and I both had friends at school but we went to their houses for parties and studying and sleep-overs. No one ever came to the Dutch House. Maybe it was because we didn’t want to draw attention to our motherless state, or we feared the house would subject us to ridicule, but really, I think we understood that our father didn’t like children, which was why it made no sense that he’d let these two in.
One night the girls showed up with their mother who was wearing a very fancy blue silk dress. Bright kept running her hands across the full skirt to make it rustle like blowing leaves, while Norma made a game out of trying to step only on the small black squares of marble in the foyer. Andrea announced to the four of us that she and my father were going out for the evening. With no warning at all she planned to leave the girls for Maeve and me to mind.
“What are we supposed to do with them?” Maeve asked, because truly, we didn’t know. They weren’t our responsibility. We had never been alone with them before.
Andrea waved her question away. She was ebullient in those days, as if everything had been decided. Maybe it had. “You’ll do nothing,” she said to Maeve, and then gave a great smile to her girls. “You take care of yourselves, don’t you girls? Do you have books? Norma, ask Maeve to get you a book.”
Maeve had a stack of Henry James novels on her bedside table. The Turn of the Screw? Was that what they wanted? Our father came down the wide stairs in his best suit, eyes straight ahead. He was holding onto the banister, which meant his knee was hurting him, which meant he was in a bad mood. Would Andrea know that? “Time to get going,” he said to her, but he didn’t have a word for the rest of us, not a thank you or goodnight. He went straight for the door. I think he was ashamed of himself.
“You be perfect,” Andrea sang over her shoulder and followed our father out. He wasn’t waiting for her. The two little girls looked stricken until they could no longer see the top of their mother’s hat, and then they started to cry.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Maeve said, and went off in search of Kleenex. In fairness to the girls, it wasn’t as if they were wailing. In fact I think they were making their best effort not to cry, but it overtook them all the same. They sat down together in a single French chair. Bright dropped her head onto her sister’s chest and Norma buried her face in her hands like they’d just gotten news of the Apocalypse. I asked them if they really did want a book or if they wanted to watch television or if they wanted ice cream. They wouldn’t look at me. But then Maeve came back, handed each of them a tissue, and, speaking as if no one were crying at all, asked if they would like to see the house.
Even in their misery, it was clear that Norma and Bright heard her. They wanted to keep crying, as crying was the direction the evening was headed in, but they snuffled less in order to listen.
“The foyer is not the house,” Maeve said. “It’s just a little part of it. Please notice that you can see all the way through it. Front yard”—she pointed to the door where they’d come in, then turned in the opposite direction and pointed to the windows in the observatory—“back yard.”
Bright sat up to look in both directions, and when Norma had leaked out the last of her tears she gave a tentative glance as well.
“You’ve seen the dining room and the drawing room.” Maeve turned to me. “I think that’s it, right? I don’t think they’ve been in the kitchen.”
“Why would they have been in the kitchen?” I was trying not to be sullen—the girls were the ones who were sullen—but I could think of about a hundred things I would have rather been doing with my evening than entertaining Andrea’s children.
Maeve went off to find a flashlight and then opened the door to the basement. “Don’t use the handrail,” she said over her shoulder. “You’ll get splinters. Just pay attention and look at your feet.”
“I don’t want to go to the basement,” Bright said, peering into the darkness from the top step.
“Then don’t,” Maeve said. “We won’t be long.”
“Carry me,” Bright suggested. Maeve didn’t even answer that one.
Norma stopped two steps down. “Are there spiders?”
“Definitely.” Maeve kept going. She was looking for the string that hung from the single lightbulb in the middle of the ceiling. The girls considered their options: up or down, and soon enough they followed her while I brought up the rear of the expedition. The girls were both in dresses, white tights, and patent leather shoes. The basement of the house was from another century. It bore no relationship to the structure that sat on top of it. In certain corners the walls devolved into piles of dirt. I had once found an arrowhead there. I would have dug around for more but the truth was I didn’t like the basement myself.
“Why do you come down here?” Norma asked, half in horror, half in wonder.
“I’ll show you.” Maeve then turned her flashlight to the far corner of the room until the beam bounced off a small metal door in the wall. “That’s the fuse box. Say a light burns out in the upstairs hall powder room and you know it’s not the lightbulb. Then you have to come down here and check the fuse box. Sometimes if we’re out of fuses we’ll stick a penny behind it to make the old one work again. And if the heat goes out you have to come down here to check the furnace, and if there’s no hot water you have to check the boiler. It could just be that the pilot light’s blown out, in which case you’ve got to be careful lighting a match. There could be a gas leak. Boom,” she said flatly.
Honestly, I had no idea.
Maeve went bravely ahead while Norma and Bright and I tried to stay in the general vicinity of her flashlight’s beam. She opened a wooden door that creaked so loudly the girls pressed against me for a second, then Maeve pulled another string, illuminating yet another bare lightbulb. “This is the basement pantry where the extra food is kept, just in case you’re here and get hungry. Sandy and Jocelyn make pickles and jams and stewed tomatoes. Pretty much anything that goes in a jar.” We looked up at the shelves of immaculate jars, every one labeled with a date and organized by color, golden peach halves floating in syrup, raspberry jam. There were crates of sweet potatoes and russets and onions on the cold floor. I had never exactly thought of being rich until then, seeing all that food stored away in the presence of those little girls.
When finally we were ready to go up again, Bright stopped and pointed to the boxes stacked beneath the stairs. “What’s in there?”
Maeve turned her flashlight to the musty tower of cardboard. “Christmas ornaments, decorations, that sort of thing.”
Bright looked cheerful at the mention of Christmas and asked if she could open the boxes. It stood to reason that where there were ornaments, there would be presents, maybe even a present for her, but Maeve said no. “You can come back at Christmas and open them then.”
I didn’t say a word to Maeve that night when we brushed our teeth, and when we said our prayers I left her out.
“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be mad.”
But I was mad. I got into bed mad. The tour had occupied the entire evening. She had shown them everything there was to see: the butler’s pantry where dishes were kept and the tablecloths were rolled onto wide spools, the closet in the third floor bedroom with the tiny door in the back that led to an attic crawl space. She let them spin around in the ballroom, pretending to waltz. It had never once occurred to us to dance up there. “Who puts the ballroom on the third floor?” Norma had asked.
Maeve explained that when the house was built a third floor ballroom was considered the height of fashion. “A fad, really,” she said. “It didn’t last. But once you’ve put a ballroom on the third floor it’s pretty much impossible to move it.” Maeve showed them every last bedroom in the house. Norma and Bright both agreed that Maeve’s room was best, and they sat in her window seat while Maeve closed the draperies over them. The girls squealed with laughter and then called, “No, don’t!” when she opened the draperies up again. When the tour was over she brought a stepladder from the kitchen so they could take turns winding the grandfather clock, even though she knew I did that myself first thing Sunday morning.
Maeve sat beside me on my bed. “Think of how overwhelming the house must be to them, how overwhelming we must be, so if we showed them everything instead of just the nice things it would be, I don’t know, friendlier?”
“It was very friendly,” I said in a voice that was not friendly.
Maeve put her hand on my forehead, the way she did when I was sick. “They’re little, Danny. I feel sorry for anyone who’s that little.”
She had put them in her own bed, and when our father came back with Andrea they each carried one sleeping girl down the stairs and took them out to Andrea’s car. Maeve had to run down the stairs after them. They had forgotten the girls’ shoes. Maeve told me Andrea was a little bit drunk.
To the long list of things my sister never got credit for, add this: she was good to those girls. If my father or Andrea was in the room, Maeve would politely ignore the children, but leave her alone with Norma and Bright and she was always doing something nice—teaching them to crochet or letting them braid her hair or showing them how to make tapioca. In return they followed her through the house like a pair of worshipful cocker spaniels.
Where 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.”
Six 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.
* * *
After Andrea and the girls had moved into the Dutch House and Maeve was back at school, my father and I were closer. My care had always been my sister’s responsibility, and now that she was gone he took an unexpected interest in my schoolwork and my basketball games. No one thought that Maeve’s role in my life was transferable to Andrea. The real question was to what extent I, at eleven, was old enough to lead an unsupervised life. Sandy and Jocelyn did their part as always, keeping me fed and telling me when I was not allowed to go outside without a hat. They had keen antennae, both of them, for my loneliness. I could be doing homework in my room and Sandy would knock on the door. “Come study downstairs,” she would say, then turn around without giving me the chance to answer. I would go, algebra book in hand. In the kitchen, Jocelyn would turn off her little radio and pull out a chair for me.
“Everybody thinks better around food.” She sliced off the heel from a loaf of bread she’d made and buttered it for me. I have always been partial to the heel.
“We got a postcard from Maeve,” Sandy said, and pointed to a card caught to the refrigerator with a magnet, the Barnard library covered in snow. The fact that the card was displayed was proof that Andrea never went in the kitchen. “She says we should keep feeding you.”
Jocelyn nodded. “We hadn’t planned to feed you once she left, but if Maeve says we have to then we have to.”
Maeve wrote me long letters, telling me about New York and her classes and her roommate, a girl named Leslie who worked the dinner shift in the cafeteria every night as part of her financial aid package and then fell asleep in her clothes while she tried to study in bed. Maeve gave no indication that school was difficult or that she was homesick, though she always said she missed me. Now that she wasn’t around to help me with my homework, I wondered for the first time who had ever helped her when she was young. Fluffy? I doubted it. I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my book.
Sandy looked over my shoulder. “Let me see that. I used to be good in math.”
“I’ve got it,” I said.
“You only think you want to get rid of your sister,” Jocelyn said, clapping her hand on my shoulder in a firm manner so as not to embarrass me. “Then when she’s gone it turns out you miss her.”
Sandy laughed and swatted Jocelyn with a dish towel.
She was only right about half of it. I had never wanted to get rid of Maeve. “Do you have a sister?” I asked Jocelyn.
Sandy and Jocelyn had both been laughing and then at the same time they stopped. “Are you kidding me?” Jocelyn asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, wondering what had been funny and then not funny, but in the second before they could correct me, I saw it: the similarity in these two women I had known before knowing.
Sandy cocked her head. “Danny, seriously? You didn’t know we were sisters?”
In that moment I could have told them all the ways they favored each other and all the ways they looked nothing alike, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I had never wondered who they were related to or who they went home to. All I knew was that they cared for us. I remembered Sandy being gone for two weeks when her husband was sick and then again for a few days when he died. “I didn’t know.”
“That’s because I’m so much prettier,” Jocelyn said. She was trying to be funny, to let me off the hook, but I couldn’t see that one was prettier than the other. They were younger than my father and older than Andrea but I couldn’t narrow it down any further than that. I knew not to ask. Jocelyn was taller and thinner, her hair an unnatural shade of blond, whereas Sandy, whose thick brown hair was always held back with two barrettes, maybe had the nicer face. Her cheeks were pink and she had very pretty eyebrows, if such a thing were even possible. I didn’t know. Jocelyn was married, Sandy a widow. Both of them had children, I knew that because Maeve gave them whatever clothes we’d outgrown. I knew because when one of their children was really sick they didn’t come to work. Did I ask them when they came back, who was sick? Is she better now? I did not. I liked them both so much, Sandy and Jocelyn. I felt terrible for failing them.
Sandy shook her head. “Boys,” she said, and with that single word excused me from all responsibility.
There was a phone at the front desk of the dorm where Maeve lived. I had the number memorized. If I called her, some girl would be dispatched to the third floor to knock on her door and see if she was in, which she usually wasn’t because Maeve liked to study in the library. That whole transaction to find out she wasn’t there and then leave a message took at least seven minutes—approximately four minutes longer than my father thought a long-distance call should last. So while I was desperate to talk to my sister and ask her if she knew—and if she did know then ask her how she’d neglected to tell me—I didn’t call. I went into the drawing room where I stood in front of her portrait, cursing quietly to myself under her benevolent ten-year-old gaze. I resolved to wait until Saturday and ask my father instead. With every passing day the similarities between Sandy and Jocelyn became glaringly obvious: I saw it every morning as they stood side by side in the kitchen when I left to catch the school bus, I saw it in the way they waved like a couple of synchronized swimmers, and of course they had exactly the same voice. I realized I had never known which one of them was calling for me when I was upstairs. What could have been wrong with me that I’d missed all that?
“What difference does it make?” my father said when finally it was Saturday and we were off to collect the rent.
“But you knew.”
“Of course I knew. I hired them, or your mother hired them. Your mother was always hiring people. First there was Sandy and then a couple of weeks later Sandy said that her sister needed a job, so we wound up with the pair. You’ve always been perfectly nice to them. I don’t see the problem.”
The problem, I wanted to say, was that I was asleep to the world. Even in my own house I had no idea what was going on. My mother hired them because she knew they were sisters, meaning she was a good person. I didn’t even know they were sisters, meaning I was a toad. But that’s me layering the present onto the past. At the time, I couldn’t have begun to say why I was so upset. For weeks I tried to avoid Sandy and Jocelyn whenever I could, but that was impossible. Finally, I resolved to believe that I had always known who they were to each other, and that I had forgotten.
Sandy and Jocelyn had always run the house with complete autonomy. Maybe on occasion we would tell them how nice it would be to have beef stew with dumplings again, or that wonderful apple cake, but even that was rare. They knew what we liked and they gave it to us without our needing to ask. We never ran out of apples or crackers, there were always stamps in the left-hand drawer of the library desk, clean towels in the bathroom. Sandy ironed not only our clothes but our sheets and pillowcases. There was always a bright row of silver-topped insulin bottles that shivered on the refrigerator door whenever Maeve was home. They sterilized syringes, back in the day before they were disposable. We would never tell them the laundry needed doing or a floor needed cleaning because everything was done before we’d had the chance to notice.
All of that changed after Andrea arrived. She made weekly menus for Jocelyn to follow and gave her opinion on every course: there wasn’t enough salt in the soup; she had given the girls too many mashed potatoes. How could they be expected to eat so many mashed potatoes? Why was Jocelyn serving cod when Andrea had specifically told her sole? Could she not have troubled herself to check another market? Did Andrea have to do everything? Every day she worked to find something extra for Sandy to do, dusting the shelves in the pantry or washing the curtain sheers. I no longer heard Sandy and Jocelyn talking to each other in the halls. I no longer heard Jocelyn’s spectacular whistling when she arrived at the house in the morning. They were no longer allowed to call up the stairs to ask a question, they were to walk up and find us like civilized people. That’s what Andrea said. Sandy and Jocelyn made it a point to be less visible, more civilized, to work wherever we were not. Or maybe that was me. I was in my bedroom more after Maeve left.
There were six bedrooms on the second floor of the house: my father’s room, mine, Maeve’s, a sunny room with twin beds where Bright and Norma slept, a room for the guests we never had, and the last room, which had been made into a household office. There was also a sort of sitting area at the top of the stairs where no one had ever sat until Norma and Bright showed up. They seemed to love to sit at the top of the stairs.
Andrea announced her plans for the reconfiguration one night at dinner. “I’m going to move Norma into the room with the window seat,” she said.
My father and I could only look at her while Sandy, who was refilling the water glasses, took a step back from the table.
Andrea noticed nothing. “Norma’s the oldest girl now. That’s the room for the biggest girl.”
Norma’s mouth opened a bit. I could see that all of this was news to her. If she had wanted to be in Maeve’s room it was because she wanted to be with Maeve.
“Maeve’s coming home again,” my father said. “She’s only gone to New York.”
“And when she comes back to visit she’ll have a beautiful room on the third floor. Sandy will see to that, won’t you, Sandy?”
But Sandy didn’t answer. She held the water pitcher to her chest as if to keep herself from throwing it.
“I don’t think we need to do this now,” my father said. “There’s no shortage of places to sleep around here. Norma can have the guest room if she wants it.”
“The guest room is for our guests. Norma will sleep in the room with the window seat. It’s the nicest bedroom in the house, the nicest view. It’s silly to hold it as a shrine for someone who doesn’t live here. Honestly, I thought that maybe we should take the room ourselves but the closet isn’t very big. Norma has such little dresses. The closet will be fine for you, won’t it?”
Norma nodded slowly, both horrified by her mother and mesmerized by the thought of that window seat, those wonderful drapes that could close a person off from everything.
“I want to sleep in Maeve’s room,” Bright said. Bright hadn’t adjusted to living in so much space and she clung to her sister in the way I had clung to mine.
“You’ll each have your own room, and Norma will let you visit,” her mother said. “Everyone will adjust just fine. It’s like your father said, this house is big enough for everyone to have her own room.”
And with that the matter was closed. I never said a thing. I looked at my father, who was apparently now the father of Norma and Bright as well, hoping he would give it another shot, but he let it go. Andrea was a very pretty woman. He could give her her way now or he could wait and give her her way later, but either way, she was going to get what she wanted.
All of this happened around the time I’d fallen in love with one of the VanHoebeek daughters, or rather with her portrait, which I called Julia. Julia had narrow shoulders and yellow hair held back by a green ribbon. Her portrait hung in a bedroom on the third floor of the Dutch House above a bed no one ever slept in. With the exception of Sandy, who ran the vacuum and wiped things down with a dust rag on Thursdays, no one but me set foot up there. I believed that Julia and I were true lovers thwarted by the misalignment of our births. I worked myself into such a state over the injustice of it all that I once made the error of calling my sister at Barnard to ask if she had ever wondered about the girl whose painting hung in the third-floor bedroom, the girl with the gray-green eyes who was one of the VanHoebeek daughters.
“A daughter?” Maeve said. I was lucky to have caught her on the phone. “They didn’t have any daughters. I think that’s Mrs. VanHoebeek when she was a girl. Take the painting downstairs and look at them together. I think they’re both her.”
My sister was fully capable of teasing me until I could have bled from my ears, but just as often she spoke as if we were equals, giving me an honest answer to any question. I could tell by her voice she wasn’t joking, or even particularly paying attention to what I had asked. I ran up the turning staircase to the third floor and stood on the unused bed to lift the carved gilt frame of my beloved off the wall (the frame was grander than what she would have wanted and not as grand as what she deserved). My Julia was not Mrs. VanHoebeek. But when I carried the painting downstairs to lean it on the mantelpiece, it was clear that Maeve was right. They were paintings of the same woman seated at either end of her life, old Mrs. VanHoebeek with the black silk buttons marching up to her neck and young Julia caught in a breeze. And really, even if it wasn’t the same woman, such a likeness made it clear how one day the daughter would become the mother. Then Jocelyn came around the corner and caught me standing there looking at the two paintings together. She shook her head. “Time flies,” she said.
Sandy and Jocelyn moved Maeve’s things up to the third floor. At least the room faced the back garden like her old room did. At least the view would be more or less the same and arguably even better: fewer branches, more leaves. But the windows were dormers, of course, and there was no window seat. The new room was also a fraction of the size, and under the eaves so the ceiling sloped. As tall as Maeve was she’d be hitting her head every other minute.
The whole depressing enterprise of turning Maeve’s room into Norma’s room took longer than anyone could have imagined, since once Maeve’s things were out Andrea wanted the place painted, and after it was painted she changed her mind and started bringing home books of wallpaper. She shopped for a new bedspread, a new rug. For a couple of weeks the redecoration was all anyone heard about, but it wasn’t until Maeve came home for Thanksgiving that I realized none of us had been brave enough to inform my sister of her exile. Surely that was my father’s job, and surely the rest of us would have known that he would never do it. Maeve was in the foyer, swinging me around, kissing Sandy and Jocelyn, kissing the little girls, and suddenly we all understood that she was about to go upstairs and find a raft of dolls spread across what had been her bed. In that moment it was Andrea, always the general, who showed presence of mind.
“Maeve, we’ve changed some things around since you’ve been gone. You’re on the third floor now. It’s very nice.”
“The attic?” Maeve asked.
“The third floor,” Andrea repeated.
My father picked up her suitcase. He had nothing to say on the subject but at least he was willing to go up there with her. What with his knee that bothered him on stairs, our father never went to the third floor. Maeve still had her red coat on, she was wearing gloves. She laughed. “It’s just like The Little Princess!” she said. “The girl loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic and make her clean the fireplaces.” She turned to Norma. “No big ideas for you, Miss. I will not be cleaning your fireplace.”
“That’s still my job,” Sandy said. I hadn’t heard Sandy get in on a joke in months, if there was in fact anything funny about Maeve moving to the third floor.
“Well, let’s go then,” Maeve said to our father. “It’s a long hike. We should get started if we’re going to make it back in time for supper. Something smells good.” She looked at Bright. “Is it you?”
Bright laughed but then Norma ran out of the room in tears, suddenly understanding what taking Maeve’s room might mean to Maeve. Maeve watched her go and I could see on her face she wasn’t sure whom she should be comforting: Norma? Sandy? Me? Our father had her bag and was already heading up. After a moment’s hesitation she followed him. In truth they were gone for a very long time, and no one went up to the third floor to rush them, to tell them that dinner was on the table and we were waiting.
Maeve came home again for Christmas that year but she stayed only a few days. She’d been invited to a friend’s house in New Hampshire to ski and could get a ride up with another Barnard girl who lived in Philadelphia. They were rich girls, all of them. Smart, popular girls who knew how to work a slope and aspired to read The Red and the Black in French. When she found out the dorms wouldn’t be closed at Easter, Maeve decided to stay at school. Plenty of her friends lived in the city, and there were always invitations to go to dinners. Besides, she had work to do. She could go to Easter Mass at St. Patrick’s and walk down Fifth Avenue with girls who did exactly that every year. No one could have blamed her, but I blamed her all the same. How was I supposed to get through Easter without her?
“Take the train into the city,” she said on the phone. “I’ll pick you up. I’ll call Dad at work and get it set. You can manage the train by yourself.”
I felt older than my friends at school, the ones with two parents and normal-sized houses. I looked older, too. I was the tallest person in my class now. “Boys with tall sisters wind up being tall boys,” Maeve had said, and she was right. Still, I wasn’t sure my father would let me go to New York by myself. Even if I was tall and a good student, even though I largely fended for myself on any given day, I was still only twelve.
But my father surprised me, saying he would drive me to New York himself and let me come home on the train. Barnard was about two and a half hours by car. My father said we would pick Maeve up and the three of us would have lunch, then he would drive back to Elkins Park without me. It sounded so nostalgic when he said it, the three of us, as if we had once been a unit instead of just a circumstance.
Andrea caught wind of the plan and announced at dinner that she would ride along. There were plenty of things she needed in the city. But after she thought about it some more she said the girls should come too, and that after they dropped me off at Maeve’s, my father could take them sightseeing. “The girls still haven’t been to New York, and you’re from there!” Andrea said, as if he’d conspired to keep New York from them. “We’ll take the boat out to see the Statue of Liberty. Wouldn’t that be something?” she asked the girls.
I hadn’t been to New York either but I wasn’t about to bring that up for fear I’d be seen as asking to tag along. By the time Sandy brought dessert, Andrea was talking about making reservations at a hotel and going to a show. Did my father know anyone who could get tickets to The Sound of Music?
“Why do you always wait until the last minute to make plans?” she asked him, then went on to discuss the possibility of lining up some interviews with portrait artists. “We need to have the girls’ portraits painted.”
I studied the final smear of the rhubarb crisp on my plate. It didn’t matter. I was only missing lunch, that ridiculous notion of the three of us. I was still getting my ride to see Maeve, and that was all I really wanted. It didn’t matter who was in the car. Disappointment comes from expectation, and in those days I had no expectation that Andrea would get anything less than what she wanted.
But in the morning, my father pushed through the swinging kitchen door while I was still eating my cereal. He tapped two fingers on the table just in front of my bowl. “Time to go,” he said. “Right now.” Andrea was nowhere in evidence. The girls were still in Maeve’s room (they slept there together, as per Bright’s prediction), Sandy and Jocelyn had yet to arrive. I didn’t ask him what had happened, or remind him that his wife and her daughters were supposed to come along. I didn’t go and get the book I planned to read on the train coming home or tell him we were supposed to leave two hours from now. I left my bowl of half-eaten Cheerios on the table for Sandy to find, and followed him out the door. We were ditching Andrea. Easter was late that year, and the morning was flush with the insane sweetness of hyacinth. My father was walking fast and his legs were so long that even with his bad knee I had to run to keep up. We went beneath the long trellis of wisteria that had yet to bloom, and all the way to the garage I thought, Escape, escape, escape. We beat the word into the gravel with every step.
I could scarcely imagine the courage it required to tell Andrea she couldn’t come with us, and she in turn must have started the kind of argument he found untenable. All that mattered to him was getting out of the house before she came downstairs to make another point in her case, and with that imperative, we fled. We were in the car hours earlier than we had planned.
If I asked my father a question when he was quiet, he would say he was having a conversation with himself and that I shouldn’t interrupt. I could tell he was having one of those conversations now, so I looked out the car window at the glorious morning and thought about Manhattan and my sister and all the fun we were going to have. I wouldn’t ask Maeve to take me to see the Statue of Liberty, Maeve got sick on boats, but I wondered if I could talk her into the Empire State Building.
“You know I used to live in New York,” my father said once we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I said I guessed I did. What I didn’t say was that Andrea had just brought it up at the dinner table.
Then he put on his turn signal to work his way towards the exit. “We’ve got plenty of time. I’ll show you.”
For the most part, what I knew about my father was what I saw: he was tall and thin with weathered skin and hair the color of rust, the color of my hair. All three of us had blue eyes. His left knee was slow to bend, worse in the winter and when it rained. He never said a word about it but it was easy enough to tell when it hurt him. He smoked Pall Malls, put milk in his coffee, worked the crossword puzzle before reading the front page. He loved buildings the way boys loved dogs. When I was eight years old, I asked my father at the dinner table if he was going to vote for Eisenhower or Stevenson. Eisenhower was running for a second term and all the boys in school were for him. My father clicked the point of his knife against his plate and told me I was never to ask a question like that, not of him, not of anyone. “It may be fine for boys to speculate on whom they might vote for because boys can’t vote,” he said. “But to ask an adult such a question is to violate a man’s right to privacy.” In retrospect, I imagine my father was horrified that I might think there was any chance he’d vote for Stevenson, but I didn’t know that at the time. What I knew was that you had to touch a hot stove only once. Here are the things I talked to my father about when I was a boy: baseball—he liked the Phillies. Trees—he knew the name of every one, though he would chastise me for asking about the same kind of tree more than once. Birds—likewise. He kept feeders in the backyard and could easily identify all of his customers. Buildings—be it their structural soundness, architectural details, property value, property tax, you name it—my father liked to talk about buildings. To list the things I didn’t ask my father about would be to list the stars in heaven, so let me throw out one: I did not ask my father about women. Not women in general and what you were supposed to do with them, and definitely not women in the particular: my mother, my sister, Andrea.
Why it was that this day should have been different I couldn’t have said, though surely the fight with Andrea must have had something to do with it. Maybe that, along with the fact he was going to back New York where he and my mother were from, and he was going to see Maeve in school for the first time, prompted a wave of nostalgia in him. Or maybe it was nothing more than what he told me: we had extra time.
“All of this was different,” he said to me as we drove from street to street in Brooklyn. But Brooklyn wasn’t so different from neighborhoods I knew in Philadelphia, neighborhoods where we collected rent on Saturdays. There was just more of everything in Brooklyn, a feeling of density that stretched in every direction. He slowed the car to crawl, pointed. “Those apartment buildings? When I lived in the neighborhood those were wood. They took the old ones down, or there was a fire. The whole block. That coffee shop was there—” He pointed out Bob’s Cup and Saucer. The people at the window counter were finishing a very late breakfast, some of them reading the pa