Authors: Ann Patchett
“This is your house?” Maeve said.
“When your father died, that’s when you showed yourself. Both of you. He left this house to me. He wanted me to have it. He wanted me to be happy here, me and the girls. I need you to take him—go upstairs and get his things and leave. This isn’t easy for me.”
“How is this your house?” Maeve asked.
I could see the two of us almost as if we were reflected in her eyes, how ridiculously tall we were by comparison, how young and strong, basketball, construction work. I had passed Maeve in height long ago, just like she had promised I would. I was still wearing my clothes from practice, a T-shirt and warm-up pants.
“You can talk to the lawyer,” Andrea said. “But we’ve been over everything, every inch. He has all the papers. Talk to him as long as you want but for now you need to leave.”
“Where are the girls?” Maeve said.
“My daughters are none of your business.” Her face was burnished with the energy it took to hate us, the energy it took to convince herself that every wrong thing that had happened in her life was our fault.
I still didn’t fully grasp what was happening at that point, which was ridiculous because Andrea could not have been more clear. Maeve, on the other hand, understood exactly, and she drew herself up like Saint Joan to meet the fire. “They’ll hate you,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact. “You’ll come up with some lie for them to swallow with dinner tonight but it won’t hold. They’re smart girls. They know we wouldn’t just leave them. Once they start to look, they’ll find out what you’ve done. Not from us, but they’ll hear about it. Everyone will know. Your daughters will hate you even more than we do. They’ll hate you after we’ve forgotten who you are.”
There I was, still thinking I might be able to work something out, that maybe in the future Andrea and I would find a way to talk and she would see I wasn’t her enemy, but Maeve closed that door and nailed it shut. She wasn’t writing Andrea’s future—Andrea was doing that herself—but what Maeve said, the way she said it, it sounded like a curse.
Maeve and I went up to my room and filled my single suitcase with clothes, then she went down to the kitchen to get some lawn and leaf bags and came back with Sandy and Jocelyn. Both of them were crying.
“Hey,” I said, “hey, don’t do that. We’ll figure this out.” I didn’t mean that I would somehow smooth out this present moment, but that Maeve and I would be revealed as the rightful heirs to the Dutch House and overthrow the interloper. I was the Count of Monte Cristo. I had every intention of coming home.
“It’s a nightmare,” Jocelyn said, shaking her head. “Your poor father.”
Sandy was emptying my dresser into a leaf bag drawer by drawer when Andrea came and stood in the doorway to watch what we were taking. “You need to be gone before the girls get home.”
Jocelyn ran her wrist beneath her eyes. “I need to finish dinner.”
“Don’t finish dinner,” she said. “All of you go, the four of you. You’ve always been in this together. I don’t need spies left behind.”
“Oh, for god’s sake,” Maeve said, raising her voice for the first time in all of this. “You can’t fire them. What in the world did they ever do to you?”
“You’re a set.” Andrea smiled like she’d said something funny. She hadn’t intended to fire Sandy and Jocelyn. It clearly hadn’t occurred to her until just that minute, but once she’d said it, it felt right. “You can’t break up the set.”
“Andrea,” I said. I took a step towards her, I don’t know why. I wanted to stop her somehow, restore her to herself. She was never my favorite person but she wasn’t as bad as this.
She took a step back.
“I’ll tell you what we did to her,” Jocelyn said, as if Andrea wasn’t there. “We knew your mother, that’s what. Your mother hired us, first Sandy, then me. Sandy told your mother that she had a sister who needed a job, and Elna said, bring your sister over tomorrow. That’s who your mother was, everyone was welcome. People came to this house all day long and she gave them food and she gave them work. She loved us and we loved her and this one knows it.” She gave her head a small backwards hitch to acknowledge the woman behind her.
Andrea’s eyes were round with disbelief. “That woman left her children! She left her husband and she left her children. I won’t stand here and listen to you—”
“There was never a kinder woman than your mother,” Jocelyn went on as if no one else was speaking. She scooped up my sweaters and dropped them into the open bag. “And a true beauty, right from her heart. Every person who met her saw it, and everybody loved her. She was a servant, do you know what I mean?” She was looking right at me. “Just like Jesus tells us. All of this was hers and she never gave it a thought. All she wanted to know was what she could do for you, how she could help.”
Sandy and Jocelyn never talked about our mother. Never. They had saved this bomb to detonate on exactly this occasion. Andrea put her hand on the doorframe to steady herself. “Finish up,” she said in a voice without volume. “I’ll be downstairs.”
Jocelyn looked at the woman she had once worked for. “Every single day you were in this house we said to each other, ‘What could Mr. Conroy have been thinking?’”
“Jocelyn,” her sister said, just that one word as a warning.
But Jocelyn shook her head. “She heard me.”
Andrea’s mouth opened slightly but there were no words. She was losing herself, we could see it. She took her blows and left us to our work.
What was I thinking on that day, in that hour? Not about the room I’d slept in pretty much every night of my life. Maeve said my crib had been in the corner where the couch was now, that Fluffy slept in the room with me at first so our mother could rest. I wasn’t thinking about the light that filled the room or the oak tree that brushed up against my window when it stormed. My oak tree. My window. I was thinking about getting the hell out of there and away from Andrea as quickly as possible.
We went down the wide staircase, the four of us each with a trash bag, and loaded Maeve’s car. The house was magnificent as we were walking away from it: three stories of towering windows looking down over the front lawn. The pale-yellow stucco, nearly white, was the exact color of the late afternoon clouds. The wide veranda where Andrea, wearing her champagne-colored suit, had thrown the wedding bouquet over her shoulder was the very place people stood in line to pay their respects to my father’s widow four years later. I picked up my bike and shoved it in the back of the car on top of the bags, only because I’d left it lying in the grass and all but tripped over it. Andrea was always telling my father to tell me to pick up my bike. She would tell him that when both of us were there in the room together, “Cyril, can’t you teach Danny to take better care of what you’ve given him?”
We kissed Sandy and Jocelyn goodbye. We made promises that once things were sorted out we’d all be back together, none of us understanding that we were out of the Dutch House for good. When we got in the car Maeve’s hands were shaking. She turned her purse over on the front seat and pulled open the bright yellow box where she kept her supplies. She needed to test her blood sugar. “We have to get out of here,” she said. She was starting to sweat.
I got out of the car and walked around to the other side. This was all that mattered: Maeve. Sandy and Jocelyn had already gone off in Sandy’s car. There was nobody watching us. I told Maeve to move over. She was fixing a syringe. She didn’t tell me that I didn’t know how to drive. She knew I could at least get us to Jenkintown.
The idiocy of what we took and what we left cannot be overstated. We packed up clothes and shoes I would outgrow in six months, and left behind the blanket at the foot of my bed my mother had pieced together out of her dresses. We took the books from my desk and left the pressed-glass butter dish in the kitchen that was, as far as we knew, the only thing that had made its way from that apartment in Brooklyn with our mother. I didn’t pick up a single thing of my father’s, though later I could think of a hundred things I wished I had: the watch that he always wore had been in the envelope with his wallet and ring. It had been in my hands the whole way home from the hospital and I had given it to Andrea.
Most of Maeve’s things had been sorted through and boxed up when Norma took her room, and many of those boxes had been taken to her apartment after college, as Andrea had said that Maeve was an adult now and should be a steward of her own possessions (a direct quote). Still, Maeve’s good winter coat was in the cedar closet because the summer before she’d had a problem with moths, and there were some other things—yearbooks, a couple boxes of novels she’d already read, some dolls she was saving for the daughter she was sure she would have one day, all in the attic under the eaves and behind the tiny door in the back of the third-floor bedroom closet. Did Andrea even know about that space? Maeve had shown it to the girls the night of the house tour, but would they remember or ever think to look in there again? Or would those boxes just belong to the house now, sealed into the wall like a time capsule from her youth? Maeve claimed not to care. She had all the photo albums. She had taken those with her to college. The only photo that was lost was a framed one of my father taken when he was a boy, holding a rabbit in his lap. That had somehow stayed behind in Norma’s room. Later, when we had fully realized what had happened, Maeve would be angry over the loss of my stupid scouting certificates framed on the wall, some basketball trophies, the quilt, the butter dish, the picture.
But the thing I couldn’t stop thinking about was the portrait of Maeve hanging there in the drawing room without us. How had we had forgotten her? Maeve at ten in a red coat, her eyes bright and direct, her black hair loose. The painting was as good as any of the paintings of the VanHoebeeks, but it was of Maeve, so what would Andrea do with it? Stash her in the damp basement? Throw her away? Even as my sister was right in front of me I felt like I had somehow left her behind, back in the house alone where she wouldn’t be safe.
Maeve was feeling better but I told her to go upstairs and sit down while I lugged what I had up the three flights of stairs to her apartment. There was only one bedroom and she told me to take it. I told her no.
“You’re going to take the bed,” she said, “because you’re too long for the couch and I’m not. I sleep on the couch all the time.”
I looked around her little apartment. I’d been there plenty of times but you see a place differently when you know you’re going to be living there. It was small and plain and suddenly I felt bad for her, thinking it wasn’t right that she should be in this place when I was living on VanHoebeek Street, forgetting for a minute that I wasn’t living there anymore. “Why do you sleep on the couch?”
“I fall asleep watching television,” she said, then she sat down on that couch and closed her eyes. I was afraid she was going to cry but she didn’t. Maeve wasn’t a crier. She pushed her thick black hair away from her face and looked at me. “I’m glad you’re here.”
I nodded. For a second I wondered what I would have done if Maeve hadn’t been there—gone home with Sandy or Jocelyn? Called Mr. Martin the basketball coach to see if he would have me? I would never have to know.
That night in my sister’s bed I stared at the ceiling and felt the true loss of our father. Not his money or his house, but the man I sat next to in the car. He had protected me from the world so completely that I had no idea what the world was capable of. I had never thought about him as a child. I had never asked him about the war. I had only seen him as my father, and as my father I had judged him. There was nothing to do about that now but add it to the catalog of my mistakes.
But did “back in the house” mean being there without Andrea and the girls? What would happen to them exactly? My imagination had yet to work out that part of the equation.
I had a late practice, so Maeve was already home from work when I got to the apartment. She said she was planning to make scrambled eggs and toast for dinner. Neither of us knew how to cook.
I dropped my book bag in the living room. “Well?”
“It’s so much worse than anything I imagined.” There was a lightness in her tone that made me think she was joking. “Do you want a beer?”
I nodded. The invitation hadn’t been extended before. “I’d take a beer.”
“Get two.” She leaned over to light her cigarette off the stove’s gas flame.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that.” What I meant to say was,
You are my sister, my only relation. Do not put your face in the fucking fire.
She straightened up and exhaled a long plume of smoke across the kitchen. “I’ve got it down now. I burned off my eyelashes at a party in the Village a couple of years ago. You only have to do that once.”
“Terrific.” I took out two bottles of beer, found the opener, and handed one to her.
She took a swig, then cleared her throat to begin. “So, to the best of my understanding, what we own in the world is pretty much what you see around you.”
“Which is nothing.”
I hadn’t considered the possibility of nothing before and a flush of adrenaline shot through me, preparing me for fight or flight. “How?”
“Lawyer Gooch, and he was lovely, by the way, could not have been nicer, Lawyer Gooch said the general rule of thumb is shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations, but we made it in two, or I guess technically we made it in one.”
“Which means what?”
“It means that traditionally the first generation makes the money, the second generation spends the money, and the third generation has to go to work again. But in our case, our father made a fortune and then he blew it. He completed the entire cycle in his own lifetime. He was poor, then rich, and now we’re poor.”
“Dad didn’t have money?”
She shook her head, glad to explain. “He had tons of money, just not tons of acumen. His young wife told him she believed that marriage was a partnership. Remember those words, Danny:
Marriage is a partnership
. She had him put her name on everything.”
“He put her name on all the buildings?” That didn’t seem possible. There were a lot of buildings, and he bought them and sold them all the time.
She shook her head and took another drink. “That would be for amateurs. Conroy Real Estate and Construction is a corporation, which means that everything in the company is gathered together under one roof. When he sold a building, the cash stayed in the corporation, and then he used it to buy another building. Andrea had him put her name on the company, which means she has joint ownership with right of survivorship.”
“All assets are passed by operation of the law to his wife because of joint titling. Are you following this? I know it took me a minute.”
“I’m following.” I wasn’t sure that was true.
“Smart boy. The same goes for the house. The house and all its contents.”
“And Lawyer Gooch did this?” I knew Lawyer Gooch. He came to my basketball games sometimes and sat in the bleachers with our father. Two of his sons had gone to Bishop McDevitt.
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. She liked Lawyer Gooch. “Andrea came with her own lawyer. Someone in Philadelphia. Big firm. Lawyer Gooch said he talked to Dad about it many times, and you know what Dad said? He said, ‘Andrea’s a good mother. She’ll look after the children.’ Like, he married her because he thought she was good with children.”
“What about the will?” Maybe Maeve was right about the second generation because even I knew enough to ask about a will.
She shook her head. “No will.”
I sat down in a kitchen chair and took a long drink. I looked up at my sister. “Why aren’t we screaming?”
“We’re still in shock.”
“There has to be a way out of this.”
Maeve nodded. “I think so, too. I know I’m going to try. But Lawyer Gooch told me not to get my hopes up. Dad knew what he was doing. He was competent. She didn’t make him sign the papers.”
“Of course she made him!”
“I mean she didn’t hold a gun to his head. Think about it: Mommy leaves him, then this slinky chinchilla comes along and tells him she’s never going to leave him. She wants to be part of everything he does, what’s mine is yours. She’ll look after all of it and he’ll never have to worry.”
“Well, that much is true. He doesn’t have to worry.”
“The wife of four years gets it all. She even owns my car. Lawyer Gooch told me that. She owns my car but she told him I could keep it. I’m definitely going to sell it before she changes her mind. I think I’m going to get a Volkswagen. What do you think?”
Maeve nodded. “You’re smart,” she said, “and I’m pretty smart, and I used to think Dad was smart, but the three of us together couldn’t hold a candle to Andrea Smith Conroy. Lawyer Gooch wants you and me to come in together. He said there are still a few things left to go over. He said he’d keep working on our behalf, free of charge.”
“It would have been better if he’d worked on our behalf while Dad was still alive.”
“Apparently he tried. He said Dad didn’t think he was old enough for a will.” Maeve thought about this for a minute. “I bet Andrea has a will.”
I drained my beer while Maeve leaned against the stove and smoked. We were delinquents in our own small way. “Two dead husbands,” I said, though Andrea must have been, what then? Thirty-four? Thirty-five? Ancient by the standards of a teenaged boy. “Did you ever wonder what happened to Mr. Smith?” I asked.
I shook my head. “Me neither. That’s strange, isn’t it? That we never thought about Mr. Smith, how he died?”
“What makes you think he’s dead? I always thought he put her out on the curb with the kids, and Dad must have driven by at just the wrong moment, offered them a ride.”
“I feel bad for Norma and Bright over there by themselves.”
“May they rot in hell.” Maeve stubbed her cigarette out on a saucer. “All three of them.”
“You don’t mean that,” I said. “Not the girls.”
My sister reared back with such ferocity that for a split second I thought she meant to hit me. “She stole from us. Do you not understand that? They’re sleeping in our beds and eating off our plates and we will never, never get any of it back.”
I nodded. What I wanted to say, what I did not say, was that I’d been thinking the same thing about our father. We would never get him back.