THREE DAYS AFTER my grandmother's birthday party, Valerie and I rode the train to Washington to tour apartments. She made her choice of home as decisively as she'd made her choice of me.
"It's perfect!" she announced of the fourth apartment on our list. "You can practically walk to work from here. The second bedroom is worth the money. We can turn into a TV room so you can play a video game without worrying that you're bothering me."
"There's a gym in the building," the agent added helpfully.
"That's fantastic!" said Valerie. "We can get you exercising more regularly."
I shot the agent a dirty look, but her back was already turned. "Come see the roof deck."
A few moments later, the three of us overlooked more domes and columns than the Caesars ever built. The agent's finger traced the skyline. "You can see the National Archives just over that building. There's the Washington Monument! And look -- the Capitol!"
We signed the papers that afternoon and moved a week later. My New York apartment had been decorated with family hand-me-downs. Somehow, Valerie persuaded my grandmother to release a small moving and furnishing fund. I told her she could decorate the apartment any way she wanted. What she wanted was to live in an apartment that looked like a room from a W hotel, all white and beige.
Until the new furniture arrived, the only place to sit (other than my soon-to-be-discarded old bed) was a lurid red kilim sofa that my mother had bought to outfit my first prep school dorm room. Aside from a few photographs and postcards and a pair of gold cufflinks, that sofa was my only inheritance from my mother. Everything else had gone to settle her debts, except for a few pieces of jewelry somehow reclaimed by my father's estate and now safeguarded in a trust-fund safe.
In the echoing apartment still smelling of fresh paint, Valerie cooked an improvised dinner in the two pots that had survived her purge of my old junk. "Until I can find a job and start contributing to the rent, it seems the least I can do," Valerie said as she poured sautéed tomatoes and onions over brown linguini. "It's the easiest recipe in the book. I'll try something more ambitious tomorrow."
"Maybe I should learn too."
"Later. There's something else you have to study first."
She disappeared for a moment, then returned with a new-looking brushed-chrome tablet computer. She laid it on the insta-table in front of me.
"Don't worry, I didn't pay for it. There was a little money left over from your grandmother's furniture budget. But I did buy these."
She hunched over the tablet and touched the screen. "Subscriptions to the Washington Guardian, the Wall Street Transcript and the New York Tribune. I signed you up for the morning bulletins from SitRep.com and HillCall. I've also downloaded for you that new book about the war in Mexico that was reviewed in the Tribune last Sunday."
Valerie registered my lack of enthusiasm.
"I'm not trying to pile up homework for you. But it probably would be a good idea if you understood what happened in the election."
"I know what happened. The black guy lost."
"Maybe a more sophisticated answer?"
"The crippled guy won."
"Please -- read."
"I do read!"
"Yes, but usually not until after you've failed the course. Remember that party at the Ambersons in March?"
"Was that the breast-cancer party or the famine-in-Africa party?"
"Don't be sarcastic. Anyway I got into conversation there with your old headmaster from Wellfleet."
"Jesus, Valerie, what are you, the Stasi? Can't a man have any secrets?"
"He said, 'If Walter had handed in more of his assignments, he'd have done much better at school.'"
"He meant it kindly. Now here's the chance to let the world to know what you can do. Make this chance count."
I collected the empty plates to put in the dishwasher
"Don't run away," she said as I stood up.
"My best trick."
TOMORROW: The worthless Walter begins his lowly job in Senator Hazen's office -- and meets a boss much fiercer than his grandmother. Continue to Part Two.
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