Ballantine Reader's Circle: About Schmidt (Excerpt)
Schmidt's wife had not been dead more than six months when his only child, Charlotte, told him she had decided to get married. He was finishing breakfast at the kitchen table. The "Metropolitan" section of the Times
was in his left hand; as on every Saturday, he had been poring over the mutual fund quotation table to check the prices of two investments, one in small capitalization companies and the other in international equities, both of which he had bought on his own initiative, out of conviction, and had come to regard, irrationally, because the rest of his money was managed with reasonable success by a professional whom he left quite alone, also out of conviction, as the weather vane of his financial standing. The small capitalization fund was down, by ten cents. He thought that made it a loss of about fifty cents for the week. The international stocks were down too. He put aside the paper, looked at his daughter, so tall and, it seemed to him, painfully desirable in her sweat-soaked running clothes, said I am very happy for you, when will it be? and began to cry. He had not cried since the afternoon when the specialist confirmed the advice he had previously given to him over the telephone: Don't think of an operation, why mutilate Mary, it won't give her even one good year, we'll keep her as comfortable as possible. Meanwhile, you two try to have a good time. He held Mary's hand until they were out in the street.
The morning sunlight was blinding. He put Mary into a taxi--ordinarily, she would have walked home, but he saw that she was shaken, almost disoriented--caught one himself, proceeded to the office, told his secretary he didn't want to be disturbed, shut the door, called David Kendall, the family doctor who was also their friend, heard that he and the specialist had discussed the advice before it was given, and, lying facedown on the couch, wept like a boy, the parade of his life with Mary passing on the screen of his burning eyelids like some refurbished newsreel. That day he had been mourning the end of his happiness. But today it was the imminent collapse of a bearable existence he had thought he might be able to sustain. He didn't need to ask Charlotte who the man was: Jon Riker had been around for a long time before Mary began to die. That very minute he was probably shaving, in Charlotte's bathroom.
In June, Dad. We want to talk to you about picking the day. Why are you crying like this?
She sat down and stroked his hand.
From happiness. Or because you are so grown-up. I'll stop now. Promise.
He blew his nose elaborately, using a piece of paper towel he tore off the roll on the upright holder next to the sink. Of late, he was finding himself reluctant to use the handkerchief he always carried in the pocket of his trousers, saving it for some unspecified emergency when having a clean handkerchief would save him from embarrassment. Then he kissed Charlotte and went into the garden.
Jim Bogard, the new gardener he had hired at the beginning of the season, and his crew had been at work all week. He noted once more with satisfaction that dead leaves and broken branches had been raked, even from the mulched flower beds around the house and the more inaccessible spaces beneath the azalea and rhododendron bushes. The wilted yellow tops of Mary's lilies had been cut so close to the ground that one could not suspect the presence of the bulbs underneath; the Montauk daisies looked like topiary porcupines; the hedges of honeysuckle that enclosed the property on three sides, leaving it open only to the saltwater pond that lay beyond a stretch of fields beginning to turn light green with winter rye in this mild weather, had a prim and angular look. If his neighbor Foster decided to subdivide, or a developer finally got to him, it would not be difficult to plant out whatever monstrosities they might build: at worst, they could put up two or three houses. Of course, the feeling of open space and the view would be lost. This was subject of worry for him each year, when the potatoes had been taken in and farmers had time to turn their minds to money and taxes. He had been thinking of it during his last visit to the tree nursery, and noted the great number of mature bushes for sale and their prices, which weren't so high as he had expected. Should he take the initiative and talk to Foster about his plans? Mary had never wanted to tie up such a large part of her own money in the Bridgehampton property, and she didn't want to use his money, but Charlotte, really Charlotte and Jon--he would have to accustom himself to that formulation--might see the problem differently. One never regretted a purchase of land made to protect one's property.
He walked around the house and the garage, examining them closely. Here and there, Bogard's chattering Ecuadoreans had missed an apple. He picked up as many as he saw, threw them on the compost heap, and inspected, one by one, the garage, the pool, which was under a new cover he didn't like, and the pool house--really a strangely minuscule barn--they had been able to convert into a cottage and finish just before the thunderbolt of Mary's illness stuck. It had been her project: Schmidt preferred to have Charlotte and her guests in the house, under the same roof as he--which wasn't awkward since Mary required these young men to use the bedroom and bathroom with the shower stall off the kitchen--so that to see Charlotte at breakfast required no prearrangement. He could linger quite naturally with his newspaper at the kitchen table or in the wicker rocking chair and listen while she talked on the telephone or with the visiting friend, absorbing the texture of the day she planned.
Once the upstairs bedrooms in the pool house, with their Town & Country
bathrooms, and the red-tiled kitchen next to the changing rooms had been completed, the mornings became awkward for Schmidt. In theory, Jon Riker still occupied these new quarters alone, or with guests he and Charlotte had invited, but Charlotte would make breakfast there, and something inside Schmidt recoiled from the idea of simply walking in and sitting down with them. Mary had done it quite naturally and laughed at his formality. But he detested surprising others as much as being surprised himself. In his opinion, the whole point of giving the young people a separate house was to ensure their privacy. He was not to go there unless he had been invited; but since it was very rare that an invitation was issued, he would try to get around his own polite rules by telephoning to ask whether they would like him to bring the paper. Sometimes he got the paper early, before there was any sign of activity in the downstairs of the pool house. Jon was asleep, and, one could suppose, Charlotte as well--in Jon's bed. Then that pretext was unavailable, and he would watch miserably as Charlotte took the copy of the Times
he had bought for them from the kitchen table, carried it across the lawn, and disappeared behind the forbidding door of the other house.
Schmidt couldn't deny that the pool house turned out to be a blessing during Mary's illness. It had let Charlotte and Jon continue a relatively carefree sort of life alongside theirs, without calling attention to the disparity, and without unduly tiring Mary or forcing Jon to come face-to-face with the indignities, at first small, and then so shattering, of Mary's struggle. By then Charlotte had told them she was moving from her studio on West 10th Street into Riker's Lincoln Center apartment, and the fiction that she slept in her room in the big house while he spent the night in a lonely bed, perhaps working on documents he had brought from the office, had to be abandoned. There was nothing to be done: to suggest that she no longer bring him to the country would have been a useless provocation, one that would have surely made her decide to stay in the city. As soon as Mary died, though--in fact, the evening of the day they all came down from the city for the funeral--Charlotte moved Jon to the main house, into her sunny room with its bow windows and the blue Chinese rug Schmidt had bought for her at an estate auction in Amagansett, a room so particularly comfortable because it was in the more solid part of the house that had been added at the turn of the century. And that's how they had continued to live: his daughter and her lover separated from him by the stair landing and the upstairs hall between their room and the one where he slept, which he had shared with Mary. Schmidt did not protest; so far as he was concerned, the house was now much more his daughter's than his. Charlotte's plan, she had told him, was to continue to use the pool house for younger guests--her and Jon's friends--so that Schmidt's light sleep would not be disturbed by the pulse of alternative rock or the thud of bedroom or bathroom doors being shut without the care he had instilled in his wife and daughter. That was considerate, and Schmidt welcomed the restoration to the weekends of the morning ritual he liked. How was he to avoid, though, the sense that in these arrangements he was the tiers incommode?
Altogether, the house looked good. Mary and he moved to the country soon after he had negotiated an early retirement. Schmidt had found it indecent, yes more indecent than unbearable, to go to the office day in and day out, ostensibly affable from habit and collected the moment he set foot in that place, as though all were not in ruins, actually attend to work, and at times allow himself to becomes so caught up in a client's problem that he forgot Mary and, in any case, for long hours did not think about her, while she, virtually alone, was stretched on the rack. He put the Fifth Avenue apartment on the market. That it was much too large for them had become evident once they stopped entertaining; the wind that blew from Central Park down the side street was so strong that already in the winter of Mary's first operation the doorman needed to put his arm around her to keep her from being blown over while she took the few steps to a taxi; besides, with the abrupt diminution of the income Schmidt received from the firm, the expense of keeping and running that large place had become uncomfortably noticeable.
It was understood that the house near the beach was the place they both liked, in all seasons and every kind of weather. When Mary worried that he would feel trapped in Bridgehampton, and disoriented without his long-established weekday habits, he reassured her: he had spent more than enough years behind a desk, and they weren't really giving up New York. The two-hour bus ride to the city was itself a habit as comforting as any other; in time, they might look for a pied-á-terre, perhaps in one of the new condominium buildings people claimed weren't all that shoddy, and become the owners of a dashing pad on a high floor, surrounded by the sky and humming with central air-conditioning and kitchen and laundry machines no one had ever used before. Of course, they both knew there wouldn't be time for that. Mary's strength had lasted, miraculously, until the essential furniture and objects had been transported to the country and accommodated in the house. Afterward, waiting for the end was enough to keep them busy.
Decidedly, there was nothing wrong with Jon Riker. Schmidt had invited him to dinner one night--along with a group of other associates and two investment officers of a Hartford insurance company they all serviced--without in the least imagining that Charlotte would find him remarkably attractive. In fact he was surprised at her turning up, after Mary had warned her that the party would be business entertainment, one of those rank-has-its-obligations affairs older partners have to suffer through once in a while to make the hardworking young fry feel appreciated. But the next morning Charlotte said she was glad she had come. She thought Jon looked like Sam Waterston; that was her pronouncement, enough for Schmidt to get the picture. She had graduated from Harvard the previous year and was still living at home. The time to say what he really thought about Jon as his daughter's prospective beau was then, or over the course of the next few weeks. But he never told them--either Charlotte or Mary. He gave them only his office point of view: an excellent young lawyer, almost certain to become partner, except that he works much too hard. How will he find time to take Charlotte to the movies, never mind movies and dinner! Schmidt had behaved with decent consistency, of which he was rather proud, just as he would later, when he became Riker's principal, probably indispensable, supporter for partnership. Luckily for Riker, that process took place, and was concluded favorably for him, before he began sleeping with Charlotte; anyway before the word had gotten around or Mary had opened Schmidt's eyes, so that the firm did not need to face the dreaded question of whether the rule against nepotism was about to be breached.
But even if Charlotte had not just informed him that she and Jon had made their decision--now that he thought of it, couldn't Riker have gone to the trouble of coming to Charlotte's father to ask for her hand?--and it weren't too ridiculously late to speak to Charlotte with the utmost candor, there was still nothing he could say against Riker, or, more precisely, against the marriage, that wouldn't seem to her, and perhaps even to him, once the words were out of his mouth, quirky, possessive, smacking of jealousy or envy. What could he say beyond admitting that, outside the office, he didn't care all that much for the qualities that in time would make Riker such a useful, reliable partner in that beloved firm--which Schmidt was coming to realize he missed principally as a source of income and porous barrier against self-doubt--and that surely weren't the qualities he had hoped to find in a son-in-law? According to an Arab proverb that one of his partners with oil-rich Middle Eastern clients had assured him was genuine, a son-in-law is like a pebble, only worse, because you can't shake him out of your shoe. Schmidt knew that the Romans, on the contrary, had prized these intruders. If one really loved a woman, one loved her the way a man loved his sons and his sons-in- law. Since he regretted not having sons--at work, he had had a tendency to develop a strong affection for the best of the young men who worked with him, a feeling that was generally reciprocated until the associate he had singled out as his right hand and object of loyalty became a partner and no longer needed a father figure in the firm--he had hoped to have Roman feelings for the man who married Charlotte. But how was he to bestow them on Jon Riker?
The stuff he had written about Riker, with considerable eloquence, in the critiques that, according to office procedures, followed the completion of each important assignment, was true enough: with variations appropriate to the occasion, it was like what he had told Charlotte and Mary and what became, in due course, the necessary mantra of slogans he repeated wearily at firm meetings when Jon came up for partnership. These slogans were not contradicted by Riker's other attributes, which Schmidt liked less but hadn't felt compelled to mention because they had little to do with the criteria according to which his partners judged candidates. For instance, the narrowness of that strong intelligence: What did his future son-in-law think about, apart from client matters and deadlines and the ebb and tide of bankruptcy litigation (Jon's annoying specialty, the domain of loudmouth, overweight, and overdressed lawyers, thank God Jon didn't look or sound like them), spectator sports, and the financial aspects of existence?
Jon's talk about finances was sort of a mantra too, one that Jon repeated and Schmidt despised. After his clerkship, should Jon have taken a job with a firm that paid associates more than Wood & King did? How should he evaluate the loss of income resulting from his choice, if there had been one, against the possibly lower probability of partnership at some other more lucrative place--but had he "made partner" there, what a bonanza! Now that he was a Wood & King partner, was his generation's share of income sufficient (here the pocket calculator might come out of the neatly organized attache; case, Charlotte's lavish offering), or was too much going to older types (like Schmidt, but that was left unsaid), who had not had the decency to get out when their productivity declined? Should he buy an apartment or continue to rent, was it to be a condo or a co-op, how much would it cost him to be married if Charlotte stopped working, what price tag to put on each child? The evidence of Jon's having read a book since the first volume of Kissinger's memoirs, Mary's Christmas present, was lacking. On long airplane trips, of which Jon took many, Schmidt had noticed that Jon did his "homework"--an honorable enough occupation--caught up on advance sheets, read news magazines, or stared into the middle distance. There was no pocket book tucked into Jon's litigation bag or in the pocket of his belted raincoat that looked like a Burberry. Such had been Schmidt's personal observations during the early years of their working together, when they often sat side by side in the plane, Schmidt struggling, once his own "homework" was done, to stay awake over some contraband belles lettres. Discreet interrogation of Jon had revealed only one subsequent change in his traveling habits: as the proud owner of a laptop computer, he could also use the time to write memos to files and work on his checkbook. What was this young man if not a nerd, or in the slang of Schmidt's own generation, apparently coming back into use, a wonk, a wonk with pectorals? His Charlotte, his brave, wondrous Charlotte, intended to forsake all others and cleave to a wonk, a turkey, a Jew!
Schmidt kicked the last of the stray apples. His anger was like a bad taste in the mouth.
That final indignity was unmentionable. He could not have spoken of it to Mary: a word against the Jews, and she brought all the sins of Hitler on your head, but this marriage was not a matter of civil rights or equal opportunity or, God help him, the gas ovens. To the best of his recollection, no matter how deeply or how far back he looked, Schmidt was sure he had not once in his life stood in the way of any Jew. But now he was discovering that what didn't count at W & K (which had certainly filled up with Jews since the day he had himself gone to work there) and what could even furnish him at times some eyebrow-raising sort of amusement, as it had when Jews, beginning in the seventies, had begun to move into his Fifth Avenue apartment building, or joined one of his clubs, did count heavily when it came to his family, or what was left of it! This marriage would turn Charlotte, his one remaining link with life, into a link with a world that wasn't his--the psychiatrist parents he had so far escaped meeting, grandparents on the mother's side whom Jon occasionally mentioned, possibly uncles, aunts, and cousins he hadn't yet hear about. What might they be like? That contact with them would be unpleasant, that it would put a strain on his quiet good manners and composure, he was quite sure. Before long, they would cover Charlotte like ooze from the sea; they would absorb her and leave him out; never again would he be alone with her on his own ground; the pool-house kitchen and its hostile threshold were the microcosm of his future.
Excerpted from About Schmidt by Louis Begley. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.