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 15 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 six 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.”
From the book: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Copyright © 2019 by Ann Patchett. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.