New Year’s Eve, eight o’clock in the morning. Sixteen more hours until the end of another shitty year of a shitty decade. What would the year ahead bring? For the nation that had—unbelievably, miraculously—overcome its history and was sending Barack Obama to the White House, Schmidt hoped it would bring redemption and cleansing. He was caught off guard by the tears that filled his eyes with the sleeve of his parka to wipe away. Sweet tears of pride. Was there anyone, he wondered, outside Obama’s family, of course, whose affection for the man was as great and as pure as Schmidt’s? He dared to think there wasn’t: his feelings for this extraordinary young man transcended partisan politics. They had little or nothing to do, he thought, with his having backed the Democratic ticket in national elections ever since Adlai Stevenson’s second run for the presidency. The first time around, he had been too young to vote, but in 1956, realizing that Ike was going to win, he cast his vote against him out of principle and also for the fun of exasperating his father, who had adopted the reactionary convictions of his Greek shipowner clients along with their taste for custom-made shoes and suits. No, this love—why not use that word?—for Obama existed on an altogether different level, melding with Schmidt’s love for his country. Schmidt had another, more personal reason to rejoice: the hope that the curse he had laid upon himself thirteen years ago—a curse compounded of all the worst in him: jealousy and its cognate envy, blind pride, and quick unforgiving anger—had been conjured. Perhaps there was a better time ahead for him as well.
He picked up the New York Times at the beginning of the driveway, walked back to the house, and before going in checked the thermometer on the front porch. A chilly twenty-five degrees. With luck, by late morning it would be noticeably warmer, a good thing, inasmuch as he wanted Alice’s adjustment to the caprices of Eastern Seaboard weather to be a gradual one. Four days earlier, the temperature had risen to an astonishing fifty-eight degrees, a record Schmidt had read in the Times. Christmas Day had been a cooler but still ludicrously balmy fifty-four degrees. According to the Times’s weather forecast, the pendulum would swing all the way back on the first day of 2009: low of ten, high of twenty-five. He deposited the newspaper on the kitchen table and went out again for his ritual morning inspection of the property. Sonia would be arriving in a few minutes to put his breakfast on the table. It was an unnecessary task—he was quite capable of preparing his own breakfast—but there was so little work in the house these days that, believing firmly that nothing demoralizes staff as quickly as idleness, he felt pressed to find things for her to do. The big snow—more than five inches—dumped on Bridgehampton in the space of a few hours the week before Christmas had melted in the warm weather, reviving the grass. It sparkled green as in early June. Everything else looked good too, especially the azalea and rhododendron on the far edge of the back lawn. Somehow the marauding deer had spared them, even without the usual protective black nylon netting he had instructed Gus Parrish not to use. When the gardener, taken aback, had asked why, Schmidt heard himself admit the embarrassing truth: the netting made the bushes look to him like prehistoric beasts poised to advance on the house. The sight made him uneasy. It was Schmidt’s turn to be surprised when Gus acceded to the wish without the least indication of thinking his client had gone bonkers. Such discretion was cause once again for Schmidt to congratulate himself on having hired Gus’s outfit to take over when Jim Bogard’s nephew finally followed his uncle into retirement. All told, the Bogards had looked after the property since before it had passed to Schmidt, when it still belonged to Mary’s aunt Martha, and he and Mary, his late wife, and their daughter, Charlotte, would come to spend weekends and vacations there as Martha’s nearest relations and guests. Confidence is rewarded more often than mistrust. He had told Gus that he had a special reason for wanting the place to look spick-and-span on New Year’s Eve, and Gus had come through. In fact, Schmidt’s experience with Gus had led him to believe that when it came to reliability and finish, which at Schmidt’s old law firm was quaintly called “completed staff work,” Gus’s people were to other gardeners in the Hamptons what Wood & King had been to the lesser breeds of New York lawyers practicing personal injury law out of offices near City Hall or Borough Hall and, ever since all restraints on advertising had broken down, touting their services in Spanish-language ads in subway cars. Gus’s eye-popping bills were part and parcel of the deal, and they too recalled W & K. The name of each of the friendly Colombians who lavished care on Schmidt’s lawn, edged the flower beds, and blew away fallen leaves with the infernal roar that threw into a panic Schmidt’s old Siamese Sy and his new Abyssinian kitten Pi, was followed by his billing rate, a description of the services performed, and the time spent on the task. The hours, Schmidt was sure, were discreetly padded, a time-honored practice of W & K associates as well. Telephone call with Mr. Schmidt, so many tenths of an hour, revising a memo in accordance with his remarks, two hours and seven-tenths of an hour, researching at Mr. Schmidt’s request points X, Y, and Z to back up the memo, eleven hours and one-tenth. Really, Mr. Schmidt would ask himself: eleven and one-tenth hours in one day? Whether the invoice was from W & K or Gus, the billable-hour entries would be followed by a list of expenses subject to reimbursement. Telephone toll calls, postage, messenger services, duplicating, late-evening meals, and taxi fare home from the office became, in the backup to Gus’s bills, so many bags of eight sorts of fertilizer and weed and insect killers, and when the chattering Colombian ladies, who planted and weeded, joined the crew, also bulbs and plants and potting soil.
He heard Sonia’s car on the driveway, a white Mercedes, and a fairly late model no less, the provenance of which had been puzzling him ever since the summer when she first showed up in it. Did it belong to a boyfriend? Had she won it at a church raffle or bought it with her savings? In the latter case, he was overpaying her. But how would he get the answer if he persisted in not asking the question? Time for breakfast. He greeted Sonia and sat down. The coffee was boiling hot and strong, the yogurt not half bad, the grapes excellent. Missing were the croissants and scones that he used to buy each morning at Sesame, the wonderful caterer where he still got chicken salad, cheese, and ravioli in brodo. The memory of those pastries, banished from his breakfast table by Dr. Tang, the Chinese-American lady who took over from his old friend and family physician, David Kendall, upon his retirement, made his mouth water. It made him wonder, too, whether he knew anyone who had not retired. Yes, of course: Gil Blackman, his college roommate and best friend, still making films; Mike Mansour, as busy as ever with his billions; and the splendid Caroline Canning and her awful husband, Joe, scribbling away.
Silly business, Schmidt thought, Dr. Tang’s attention to his diet. In their own way so were the ministrations of Gus and his predecessors, continued in accordance with his orders every year since Aunt Martha died and left the house to Mary. How many years did that make? He shrugged: almost forty. How much longer would they continue? His guess was no more than ten years. He had asked Dr. Tang whether she could foresee the form in which death would come for him. You won’t scare me, he had said, everyone has an appointment in Samarra, and I own a cemetery plot with a view of Peconic Bay I rather like. She laughed gaily in reply and told him that with a patient in such good health it was impossible to predict. Schmidt’s simultaneous translation was Don’t ask stupid questions, leave it to team death, they’ll figure it out. Ever polite, he had merely laughed back. In truth, he had his own hunches: stroke or cancer, demonic diseases that don’t always go for the quick kill. But whatever it might turn out to be, no one, absolutely no one, would get him to move into a nursing home. If he was compos mentis, and not yet paralyzed, he would find his own way to the exit. Otherwise, the instructions left with Gil, naming him the sole arbiter of Schmidt’s life and death, should do the job, with a little friendly nudge from Gil if need be. It was no more than he would do for Gil, who had made his own arrangements giving Schmidt the power of decision. Dementia, the illness most likely to cut off the means of escape, held more terror than any other. But he had not heard of a single ancestor, going back three generations, who had been so afflicted. The other side of the coin, the agreeable side, was his overall good health. Once he got going in the morning, he was still quite limber. In truth, he doubted there was much difference between his condition thirteen years earlier, when he first called on Alice in Paris, to take an example that preoccupied him, and the way he was now. Not unless you wanted to fixate on the deep lines, running to the corners of his mouth, that had only gotten deeper or the hollow cheeks or the fold of skin sagging from his neck. Taken together, they gave him an expression so lugubrious that efforts to smile made him look like a gargoyle. The situation was less brilliant when it came to his libido and sexual performance. The grade he had given himself when last put to the test had been no higher than a pass, but as he had told Alice, he had not yet tried any of the miracle pills that old geezer-in-chief Bob Dole swore by on television. Besides, the test in question had been unfair: the lady whom he may have disappointed could not hold a candle to the incomparable Alice. Did his age and the ravages of time make it reprehensible to keep overpaying the Hampton mafia of gardeners, handymen, carpenters, and plumbers for the pleasure of having everything at his house just so? Or to pay the outrageous real estate taxes that financed town services, neatly itemized on the tax bill as though to taunt him by proving that he derived no personal benefit from them? Hell, there were lots of men unable to get a hard-on and lots of women who had faked orgasms until the blessed moment when they could finally declare that at their age they’d given the whole thing up, living comfortably in houses much grander than his. Spending more money than he! Why shouldn’t he do the same? He had to live somewhere, and this was the place he liked the best. Who was there to complain about it? It was his money, his to spend or give away. He no longer had a legal heir, and his bequests would be covered by his estate many times over, leaving a handsome pile for Harvard. Unless he decided to leave the bulk of that money instead to Alice, in which case Harvard would still receive an elegant though no longer extravagant gift. Alice! Alice would be in Bridgehampton in four hours! In his house. She would be sleeping under his roof. Would he have preferred to receive her elsewhere? For instance, in some cutesy cottage in Sag Harbor with crooked floors and a permanent smell of mold? The answer was a loud and clear no: the costs be damned!
He told Sonia that he was going out to run errands, and no, she didn’t need to stay to help with lunch, or to clear and do the dishes afterward, and that if his guest Mrs. Alice Verplanck called while he was out she was to say that he would be home within the hour and would call back. In fact, he didn’t believe her cell phone would work in the U.S., but it was possible that she’d use the driver’s. Elated and anxious, he got the Audi station wagon out of the garage, the successor to the Volvo he had traded in regretfully at the one hundred forty thousand mile mark, and drove first to Wainscott for fish chowder, then back west on Route 27 to Sesame for the bread and cheese and ravioli in brodo
that would be their lunch on New Year’s Day, as well as croissants that would be Alice’s breakfast, and finally back to Bridgehampton, where the florist had prepared the small bouquets he had ordered for the kitchen table and for Alice’s room. That took care of their needs through New Year’s Day, when only convenience stores would be open in the Hamptons. Restaurants would be closed as well, but he didn’t need to worry about dinners. They were going to Mike Mansour’s New Year’s Eve party, and Gil and Elaine Blackman had invited them to dinner the next day, a thoughtful gesture that had made Schmidt childishly grateful.
Excerpted from Schmidt Steps Back by Louis Begley. Copyright © 2012 by Louis Begley. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.