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Schmidt Delivered

Chapter One

Yes, it's Schmidtie here. Hello hello. Yes, this is Schmidtie speaking.

He had knocked the telephone off his night table and was groping under the bed for the receiver. People shouldn't be calling a retired gent before nine. Or was this some sort of bad news? Charlotte!

I hope this is not an inconvenient time.

The speaker's voice was agreeably deep, with a mystifying rough intonation at the edge.

You don't remember me.

Terribly sorry, I'm not good at recognizing voices.

Look, there's no reason you should remember me, though people usually do remember my voice. I'm Michael Mansour. That's right, in this country I pronounce "Man-sower," not "Man-soor." Anything to make it easy for the natives. We met yesterday, at the Blackmans' party. You know who I am?

Now Schmidt had his bearings. Of course, the billionaire investor who backs Gil's films. Egyptian, or something, but I lodged firmly toward the top of Forbes magazine's list of the richest tycoons in America.

Of course. I've read about you, more than once. The king of bottom fishers.

Ha! Ha! I like that--you made a pun, right? But that's just how I make money. I'm a friend of Gil's, he gave me your telephone number. I'd like you and your wife to come over for lunch on Saturday. My house, at one-thirty, unless you want to take a dip in the ocean before we start drinking. Gil says you're his best friend. He's told me what kind of lawyer you were. I'm sorry we never got to work together. Anyway, Gil's friends are my friends. So you'll come? Excuse me, you're sure you remember meeting me? By the way, I've got a pool, too, if you don't like the ocean.

Considering Mr. Mansour's grandeur, this diffidence was touching.

Of course I remember, replied Schmidt, reaching for a high level of amiability. Elaine introduced us. Actually, the young woman I was with is my friend, not my wife. She's not here just now. Could I call you after I've checked with her?

He was telling a white lie. Carrie was right there, resolutely asleep, her head buried under the pillow. It would take more than the three rings of the telephone and Schmidt's talking sotto voce to Mr. Mansour to wake her when she was like that.

Your friend is gorgeous. Charming too. I figured she was your wife, and not your daughter, because she doesn't look like you. Anyway, congratulations! I want you to bring her, but come alone if she's busy. I can always have you over together another time.

I'll be in touch.

Having taken in the further news that Mr. Mansour was no longer to be found at his East Hampton residence, which he had abandoned to the more recent of his two wives, Schmidt wrote down the unlisted number. Not to worry, he would keep it to himself. Ah, the Crussel house on Flying Point Road in Water Mill? Yes, he knew how to find it all right. Yes, and find memories in that house as well, that the visit might endow with a new meaning not untinged with new bitterness, but he saw no point in mentioning that to Mr. Mansour so early in the morning.

The original owners of the house in question, Mr. and Mrs. Crussel, had been important clients of Wood & King, the firm where Schmidt had been a partner until he retired. A trusts and estates colleague, Murphy, took care of them, just as he watched over the modest affairs of Schmidt and his late wife, Mary, but Schmidt, who specialized in representing insurance companies in the loans they made, was usefully situated, in a manner of speaking, as the Crussels' neighbor who knew them socially. It fell upon him, therefore, to be the firm's unofficial emissary charged with maintaining and developing them as clients, through more frequent and more assiduous attendance at their lunches and dinners than would have otherwise been his style. Occasionally, as though leading a Great War charge a outrance, he had gone so far in his devotion to professional duty as to propel a giggling and squealing Olga Crussel into the surf and hold her up, with both hands, while she bobbed in the unthreatening breakers. These exploits established in the Crussel household his reputation for gallantry and limitless strength as a swimmer; they also gave the authority of revealed truth to his occasional, off-hand assurances that his partner, Murphy, knew what he was doing and could be relied upon.

Schmidt was pleased to recall that the house, of which Mr. Mansour was now the owner, was one of the few subjects about which the Crussels had not asked his opinion. A prizewinning Brazilian architect, a friend of a niece of the Crussels, had designed it. He had come out with her for a Fourth of July weekend and stayed in the large clapboard cottage that then stood on the site and that had been the Crussels' beach house ever since they came to the Hamptons. Sizing up the opportunity for new business--the large fortune, although discreet, was hardly unknown to connoisseurs of such matters--he made a rapid drawing of what he would, if the property were his, put in the place of their current dowdy home: a large, loosely flowing aquatic structure corresponding to Olga Crussel's inner self, with reception rooms and decks for entertaining in full view of the ocean and Mecox Bay, between which this astonishing acreage was located. Olga took the bait. For a Swiss banker, whose family had been, since the days of Calvin, a pillar of Geneva's patriciate, Jean Crussel was a prodigy of speed when he really wanted to make up his mind. Besides, he doted on his wife. The decision to go ahead was made on the spot, without so much as a call to Murphy or Schmidt or Olga's pet decorator. The cottage was torn down during one terrifying week, but construction of the new house dragged on. Getting it finished and moving in turned into the Crussels' race against senility and death. The old couple won the first leg: before the platoon of round-the-clock keepers and nurses had to be brought in, they did have two years' worth of showing off, at party after party, the Brazilian's construction, which in Schmidt's opinion--but perhaps he was unfair, having grown to like a good deal the unmourned old cottage--resembled nothing more than a motel crossed with an ocean liner a drunken skipper had carelessly run aground on the beach.

Jean and Olga were childless; the collateral heirs owned perfectly adequate summerhouses nearby and elsewhere. They put the property on the market and waited for years, unwilling, in the way of the very rich, to lower the asking price. That an even wealthier new man had at last put cash into the heirs' pockets and, presumably, stood ready to pour more millions into this raped dune was bound to be a very good thing for the local contractors, and for tradesmen in New York, London, and Paris. Perhaps for the economy, worldwide. Schmidt imagined that Mr. Mansour had already excised various sly improvements Jean Crussel made as soon as the Brazilian, busy with commissions for other masterpieces, had turned his back: remote-control switches that made the venetian blinds in the bedrooms go up and down and devices that adjusted slats without human intervention in relation to the angle of the sun, aluminum ramps and no-slip surfaces positioned strategically inside the house and on the decks to prevent a fall that might shatter decalcified bones, and the cabaret room with its circular dance floor on which Jean and Olga had daily practiced the tango and the paso doble under the surveillance of a teenage Arthur Murray instructress. He might have even put down a new deck at the shallow end of the pool to conceal the twin pink Jacuzzi tubs. That's where the spider-thin husband and wife, sometimes in the company of other octogenarians, soaked naked, lifting their candid and blissful faces to the forenoon sun. The revolution in all of this, thought Schmidt, remained to be seen and admired.

Should he nudge Carrie and awaken her? He decided against it. Instead, he advanced his hand cautiously under the covers, ran it over her breast, felt for her armpit, which was moist from sleep, let it linger there while with his nose he ruffled the rush of her black curls on the pillow, and quietly got out of bed. It was a pity. Right now he could do it, without the help Carrie was willing to give him even while she groaned with impatience. Failure going to bed, a makeup session in the morning: both the symmetry and the thought that, if he did wake her, she might attribute the satisfactory situation to his bladder rather than to his libido, were discouraging. He put on his pants and shirt, waited to put on his shoes until he was on the stairs, squeezed four oranges so that Carrie could have her glass of juice right away if she came down before he returned, did not drink any himself because he preferred to have it with her at breakfast, and drove to the post office and then to the candy store, where, each morning when he was in Bridgehampton, ever since poor Mary and he had first started coming there, he picked up the New York Times. The remaining errand was to get croissants, an important change in Schmidt's routine. Until Carrie decided, at the beginning of his long convalescence, that freshly baked croissants from Sesame, where her friend, formerly a fellow waitress at O'Henry's, had begun to work, would boost his morale, despite their outrageous price, he had invariably eaten for breakfast one-half of a toasted English muffin spread thinly with bitter orange marmalade. The other half he saved for the next day. Without question, the new regime was a huge, habit-forming gastronomic improvement. It had also brought about frequent chance encounters with Gil Blackman, whose own morning addiction was to scones, and introduced Schmidt to a daily spectacle he thought was perfect material for one of those hard-edged or, as some would say, downright nasty movies Gil had been making.

Had Schmidt dared, he would have presented a treatment to him in writing: It's a few minutes short of nine o'clock. The Mercedes station wagons, Range Rovers, BMWs, and Jaguars have assembled on the gravel in front of Sesame's locked front door. Men with two days' growth of beard are kissing women wearing what would seem to be cotton nightshirts and flip-flops. These women have rushed here straight from bed, you can still smell it on them, before they brushed their teeth. Also a Toyota, which looks out of place. The fellow in it might as well be invisible. He doesn't kiss anybody and nobody greets him. In fact, he has parked off to the side, but he's in the way so he gets dirty looks. Imperceptibly, a line forms. At nine sharp the door opens. Easy does it. God help you if it looks as though you might want to cut in. This crowd would tear you limb from limb. They're into serious fun. Now not all the women are in nightgowns: they've been joined by others in riding clothes with no breasts and hair that looks as if it's been soaked in chlorine, women in sweat clothes so wet you think they've actually been running, and fat guys with tits and horn-rimmed bifocals in tennis whites who may or may not make it to the tennis court. Little girls got up like scaled-down sluts, with chipped lacquer on fingernails and toenails, whine about bagels. Tomatoes, two of which go at what the fruit stand one hundred yards down the road would charge for eight of the same size; little plastic containers, five dollars a pop, of oil and vinegar with salt and pepper settled at the bottom, just stir and pour this dressing over the tomatoes or the lettuce and arugula that are also available in little Baggies at one dollar per leaf; prebrowned sausages ready to eat as soon as they're warm (assuming a pair of hands can be found to put them into a frying pan and on the stove, otherwise don't bother, just serve them "at room temperature"); mineral water and fruit juice in bottles like champagne splits for consumption on the premises or in the waiting Range Rover. Wads of hundred-dollar bills. Give me three pounds of this, give me a quart of that. These commands are barked at the imperturbably polite boys and girls behind the counter, as though no mode of address other than the imperative exists. The boys and girls write it all down very neatly. A lanky old codger with blue eyes that have seen better days and a thin mouth diffidently picks two croissants from the basket. He hesitates. The purchase is too paltry. Should he just stuff them in the pocket of his cotton jacket and walk out, instead of bothering the help about a four-dollar transaction? Nuts, he won't shoplift, but he'll show respect. One of the bony women lets him back into the line. He lays the croissants on the counter, asks for fresh goat cheese from Vermont and, because he likes it and it's suitably expensive, a wedge of English blue.

But Schmidt doesn't write his version of Ali Baba's cave or tell his friend Gil about it. For all his bluff manner, Mr. Blackman is very sensitive. Schmidt fears that he might be offended by Schmidt's point of view on these morning proceedings in which they are both such regular participants.

Back in his own kitchen, at breakfast with Carrie. Her presence is a miracle. Worshipful Schmidt knows that she is naked under the gorgeous ruby-red silk man's bathrobe made up for her by a shirtmaker in the place Vendome whom Schmidt's father favored. Schmidt had her measured for it in Paris, during the spring vacation. There is no resource of her sallow and triumphant body yet unexplored by his eyes, lips, and hands. Her voice, hoarse and weary but tender as a mother's when she nurses and coos at a child, fills his memory. When the jazz station he listens to on his car radio plays a Billie Holiday song, Carrie becomes so absolutely present that he blushes. Prudence, above all, prudence. But after he has kissed her on both cheeks, his hand somehow finds its way under the silk, touching the undersides of her breasts, and then the nipples, which harden immediately. The hand wishes to descend, toward Carrie's flat stomach. He restrains it, already reassured. If she remembers how it went in bed last night, she has forgiven him. Or she has forgotten--she fell asleep long before he did.

Hey Schmidtie, a woman called. She said she is Mr. Mansour's secretary and asked if we have a fax machine. She wants to fax directions to his house. I said you'd call her back. Who's Mr. Mansour?

A very rich man, friend of Gil's. You saw him at their house. Bald, on the small side, and tanned. Some sort of Egyptian Jew, I think. Or maybe he's Moroccan.

Yeah, I saw him. Was he standing next to Gil most of the time? That guy undressing all the girls with his eyes?

No doubt, especially you. He telephoned first thing this morning and invited us to lunch on Saturday. I said I'd ask if you want to go. He's divorced recently. This may be part of filling out his new social life with a few new faces. Or maybe it isn't. He's got so much money he can order guests from a caterer.

He thinks we're married?

He did. I explained that we aren't.

And he still wants us both? Mr. Schmidt and his Puerto Rican girlfriend?

Of course, he does. He wants dreary Mr. Schmidt only because he'll bring his delicious friend. He thinks you're beautiful. He told me. Everybody does. Beautiful and insanely adorable.

Don't shit me, Schmidtie. He asked for me because he thinks I'm your wife. Hey, no that's not it. He wants me there to wait on tables!

How many variations of this exchange have they gone through? Like "Greensleeves" played into your ear over and over when the dentist's receptionist puts you on hold.

Carrie, he said, you shouldn't think like that. You are a gorgeous, young American citizen. If you really have the silly idea that people look down on you because you're living with an old guy who isn't your husband, let's fix it. Please consent to become the beautiful, adorable, and proper Mrs. Schmidtie Schmidt! All you need to do is say yes. My people and I will take care of everything else.

She looked away. One afternoon, almost two years back, soon after he had recovered from the accident, while they were out on the back porch, he had taken her hand and whispered, Please be my wife. Everything seemed right for it. Bryan, her part-time boyfriend, was out of the way, cleverly dispatched to work on the house Schmidt had inherited in Palm Beach, to restore it to its pristine condition. He had as good as put that repulsive fellow into long-term storage! Neither he, nor Bryan's predecessor, Mr. Wilson, would handle Carrie's body again. In the case of Mr. Wilson, who had bounced off the windshield of Schmidt's totaled car, Schmidt liked to think that was a dead certainty.

She had stared blankly at him, then as now, but even so he had gone on to argue his case.

Look, it's all come together. Charlotte has her Jon Riker. They're married. He's made an honest woman of her. He says that, not I! I've given her money and furniture and silver out of this house. Everything she wants--for the time being anyway! They'll drift away from me, farther and farther. Why shouldn't you and I be married? Come on, sometimes I even think you love me. Maybe almost as much as you loved Mr. Wilson!

As always, when he showed the poor judgment or bad taste to mention Mr. Wilson, or she brought him up herself, big tears appeared in the corners of her eyes and ran down the sides of her nose. He kissed it dry.

Man, she said, what's with you? You know I love you. I've loved you since the first time. Hey, I practically had to rape you! I want to live with you. But I can't marry you. Jesus, you're more than forty years older! Even your daughter's older than me. What happens when we can't do it anymore? I'm supposed to lie in bed at night and play with myself while you read?

I hope that won't be for quite a while, he answered. Remember how you asked me whether people could love each other and not do it all the time? I told you they could. They get used to showing their love in different ways, they give each other pleasure.

Like how? Fingerfucking me? Thanks a lot, I had that with Mr. Wilson when he couldn't get it up no matter what I tried. Hey Schmidtie, we're doing fine. Just leave it alone.

Sure, he'd resolve to leave it alone, if only to avoid being reminded how completely right she was and what desolation awaited him down the road if he wasn't lucky enough to die soon. But the subject had a queer way of forcing its way in, for instance when anything concerning money came up. Soon after she moved in, and time and again afterward, he told her that she didn't need to be a waitress; it would take forever to save enough to put herself through college. Of course, he knew he was exaggerating. More was at stake for him than the date on which she would receive her diploma. Why not quit, he pleaded, and let me pay for your education? What's the point of refusing my help? Her invariable reply: You want to turn me into a gold digger. Thereupon, just as monotonously, he'd tell her that was nonsense; they were living in the same house and eating the same food anyway, just like a husband and wife. The least he could do was to make it possible for her to enjoy those privileges that his wife would be entitled to as a matter of course. She would shake her head and say, I'm not your wife. Charlotte and Jon will say they had me figured out all along. I'm after your money!

Inspiration came to him at the end of one of those dreary exchanges. He would hook her by the gift of a tiny BMW convertible, the car she thought was the coolest in the world. The sales manager delivered it in person to the house during lunch and, as arranged, left the keys on the seat. As soon as they had finished eating, Schmidt said, Look, there is something in the driveway I want to show you.

At first she just stood there, staring very seriously at the little car. Only after he repeated twice, Go on, it's yours, did she look to him for permission, open the door on the driver's side, ease her body in delicately, as though the chassis were going to break at the least false move, and run her hands over the steering wheel, the glistening dashboard, the black leather.

Why don't you take it out for a spin, he asked. We'll have coffee when you come back.

Instead, she got out. When she had finished kissing him, standing on tiptoe, her arms around his neck, she whispered, Oh, Schmidtie, this is so bad, I just can't say no to this car. You come too. Let's take this baby for a ride.

She put the top down. Somewhere on an empty stretch of Route 114, heading from Sag Harbor to East Hampton, past the road that leads to Cedar Point, looking for all the world like a child before the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, she floored the gas pedal. The car shot forward. Schmidt waited until the needle was back at sixty and put forward his proposition: Wouldn't it be nice to drive this car to Southampton College and back? You'd make me very happy, I want a college girl in the house. That way we would go on living here. I hear the courses in psychology are pretty good. You could major in that and get the diploma you need to be a social worker. If that still interests you. They have courses in acting and creative writing too. How about it?

He held his breath while she made a face. The grimace changed slowly into a smile, and she spoke.

Hey, you'll have a live-in college girl! I guess it beats fucking a waitress. Shit Schmidtie. You would ask me now. How can I say no to you?

A great idea, because it had worked. She liked the college, even let him help with her papers. An invitation from Mr. Mansour was hardly the most romantic of contexts in which to press his suit. Nevertheless, there he was, trying once more.

Carrie, my love, he said, swallowing the last piece of his croissant. I've just asked you again to marry me. Aren't you going to say something?

Yeah, I am. Thanks a lot, Schmidtie, but please drop it. We're OK the way we are. Nothing's changed. You're too old. I'm too young. We'd give Charlotte a heart attack. Your friends would flip out.

The Blackmans adore you, ventured Schmidtie. And they're practically my only friends.

That was true. Everybody had dropped him when Mary died, or he had stopped seeing them.

No reply.

But what about the estimable Mr. Mansour? Shall I say yes?

It was a mistake to have told Carrie that Mansour was very rich. That had only made her shy, not curious. Perhaps it would be less frightening to meet this fellow on her home ground. Therefore, he added, Would you rather invite him to dinner here? Or to lunch, on a day when you don't have classes?

Schmidtie, what's the matter with you? You've got rocks in your head? I don't know how to entertain. What's this guy's house like?

It's in Water Mill. Right on the beach, very modern and, in my opinion, too big and rather silly. I knew the old couple who built it. Before they became senile, I used to go over there quite often. Now they're dead.

OK. We'll go. But you'll tell me how to dress.

Schmidt dialed the number. A male voice with an identifiable Mediterranean accent informed him that he had reached Michael Mansour's residence.

Will you please tell Mr. Mansour that Mr. Schmidt and Miss Gorchuck--he still found it difficult to repress a giggle when, as was usually necessary, he spelled her name--will be glad to come to lunch on Saturday?

Somebody, perhaps Mr. Mansour's punctilious secretary, had been at work. Instead of giggling back or showing surprise, the voice replied, I will tell Mr. Mansour, and went off the line.

Carrie was hanging up on him too. It had taken her no time to dress, as she wore nothing under her blue jeans and shirt and combed her hair with her fingers. Ah, "That brave vibration each way free"! She ran down the stairs two steps at a time, blew a noisy kiss in Schmidt's direction, and was out the door. Film studies. She had enrolled in a special summer program. The class she was going to was a workshop. She wouldn't be back until midafternoon.

Each change in Schmidt's routine was like a mountain he was at first unwilling to climb, even if the result might be an improvement, such as greater comfort and efficiency or better value for his money. This was especially true of separating himself from an employee or disappointing a tradesman. Thus, he had not let go the Polish brigade of garrulous, familiar, and obese cleaning ladies, whose arrival on Wednesday mornings, in leisure clothes of bizarre colors surely chosen to match the paint of their gas-guzzling cars, heralded the two-hour passage through the house of a benevolent tornado that blew away dust but otherwise had little to do with cleaning and had constituted, in the period between Mary's death and the advent of Carrie, his principal contact with the world.

Use of this excerpt from Schmidt Delivered by Louis Begley may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright (c)2001 by Louis Begley. All Rights Reserved.

Schmidt Delivered
by by Louis Begley

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345440838
  • ISBN-13: 9780345440839