Authors: Louis Begley
“MESMERIZING … EVOCATIVE …
Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating and complex character…. [He] uses his intimate attunement to the language, habits and assumptions of the upper classes to reveal the tiny cracks in the system and to excavate the subtle cruelties and disarray that lie quietly beneath the surface.”
Los Angeles Times
“Albert Schmidt is another of Begley’s brilliant impostors, though this time an impostor unaware of his own charade…. With icy, eerie brilliance [and] by blinding his flawed hero, Begley has painted an indelible portrait of a man with a hole where his soul should be.”
“Witty … Begley has a flair for lies…. The book’s cultivated, assured tone makes its flashes of bitterness and anger all the more striking.”
“A remarkably fine novel … [Begley] has written a subtle novel and accomplished it with exquisite skill.”
Newark Star Ledger
“[A] tart and stylish book … Having successfully portrayed outsiders in his previous works, he has taken on the consummate insider and treated him with grace and understanding.”
“An elegant, precise, full novel about a lawyer’s startling transformation … A sly, sharp portrait of an amoral but appealing figure, and of the declining world of privilege that has shaped him.”
“A powerful story of a man’s fall from grace.”
By Louis Begley
THE MAN WHO WAS LATE
AS MAX SAW IT
Già che spendo i miei danari,
Io mi voglio divertir
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
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 a 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 him 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 struck. 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 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
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
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 become 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.