Authors: Ann Patchett
“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.
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
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 paper and others staring out at the street. “They made their own crullers. I’ve never found anything like them. On Sunday after church there’d be a line down the block. See that shoe shop? Honest Shoe Repair. That’s always been there.” He pointed again, a shop window barely wider than the door itself. “I went to school with the kid whose father owned it. I bet if we walked in right now he’d be there, banging new soles onto shoes. That would be some sort of life.”
“I guess,” I said. I sounded like an idiot but I wasn’t sure how to take it all in.
He turned the car at the corner and again at the light, and then we were on Fourteenth Avenue. “Right there,” he said, and pointed to the third floor of a building that looked like every other building we’d passed. “I lived there, and your mother was a block back that way.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Right behind us.”
I kneeled on the seat and looked out the back window, my heart in my throat. My mother? “I want to see,” I said.
“It’s just like all the other ones.”
“It’s still early.” It was Maundy Thursday, and the people who went to Mass had either gone early or they would go late, after work. The only people walking around were women out doing their shopping. We were double parked, and just as my father was about to tell me no, the car right in front of us pulled out like it was issuing an invitation.
“Well, what am I supposed to say to that?” my father said, and took the space.
The day had turned overcast since we left Pennsylvania but it wasn’t raining and we walked back down the street a block, my father limping slightly in the cold. “Right there. First floor.”
The building looked like all the others, but to think that my mother had lived there made me feel like we had landed on the moon, it was that impossible. There were bars over the windows and I raised my hand to touch them.
“Those keep out the knuckleheads,” my father said. “That’s what your grandfather used to say. He put them on.”
I looked at him. “My grandfather?”
“Your mother’s father. He was a fireman. A lot of nights he slept at the station, so he put bars on the windows. I don’t know if he needed them, though; not much happened back then.”
My fingers curled around one of the bars. “Does he still live here?”
“My grandfather.” I had never put those two words together before.
“Oh, heavens no.” My father shook his head at the memory. “Old Jack’s been dead forever. There was something wrong with his lungs. I don’t know what. Too many fires.”
“And my grandmother?” Again, the sentence astounded me.
I could tell by his face that this wasn’t what he’d signed on for. He only wanted to drive through Brooklyn, show me the places he knew, the building where he had lived. “Pneumonia, not too long after Jack died.”
I asked him if there were any others.
“You don’t know this?”
I shook my head. He peeled my fingers off the window bar, not unkindly, and turned me back towards the car while he spoke. “Buddy and Tom died of the flu, and Loretta died having a baby. Doreen moved to Canada with some fellow she married, and James, James was my friend, he died in the war. Your mother was the baby of the family and she outlasted all of them, except maybe Doreen. I guess Doreen could still be up there in Canada.”
I reached down deep to find something in myself I wasn’t sure was there, the part of me that was like my sister. “Why did she leave?”
“The guy she married wanted to move,” he said, not understanding. “He was from Canada or he got a job there. I can’t remember which.”
I stopped walking. I didn’t even bother to shake my head, I just started again. It was the central question of my life and I had never asked before. “Why did my mother leave?”
My father sighed, sank his hands down in his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.
“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off
coat and giving it away too.”
“But aren’t we supposed to do that?” I mean, we didn’t do it, but wasn’t it the goal?
My father shook his head. “No. We’re not. Listen, there’s no sense wondering about your mother. Everybody’s got a burden in life and this is yours. She’s gone. You have to live with that.”
After we were back in the car the conversation between us was done and we drove into Manhattan like two people who had never met. We made our way to Barnard and picked Maeve up right on time. She was waiting on the street in front of her dorm wearing her red winter coat, her black hair in a single heavy braid lying across her shoulder. Sandy was always telling Maeve she looked better when she braided her hair but at home she’d never do it.
I was overwhelmed by the need to talk to my sister alone but there was nothing to be done about it. If it had been up to me we would have said goodbye to our father on the spot and sent him home, but there was a plan for the three of us to have lunch. We went to an Italian restaurant Maeve knew not far from campus, where I was served a giant bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce, something Jocelyn never would have believed possible for lunch. My father asked Maeve about her classes and Maeve, basking in this rare light, told him everything. She was taking Calculus II and Economics, along with European History and a course on the Japanese novel. My father shook his head in disbelief over the novel part but offered no criticism. Maybe he was glad to see her, or maybe he was glad he wasn’t standing on a street corner in Brooklyn talking to me, but for once in his life he gave his daughter his full attention. Maeve was in her second semester and he had no idea what her classes were, but I knew everything:
The Makioka Sisters
was her reward for having finished
The Tale of Genji
; her economics professor had written the textbook they used in class; she was finding Calculus II to be easier than Calculus I. I stuffed my mouth with spaghetti to keep myself from changing the subject.