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"Patriots," The Novel -- Part One

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HuffPost readers have an advance, exclusive peek inside David Frum's much-buzzed-about new Washington political satire, "Patriots," which will be serialized this week -- the first novel ever serialized on the Huffington Post.

Chapters from the book will be posted daily for the coming week, with the full novel available for downloading on April 30, or in paperback form on May 7. You can read Frum on why he decided to write fiction here. To read the next installment, click here.

~ CHAPTER ONE ~

I DIDN'T GET the job through merit, my girlfriend said. But then, I didn't get my girlfriend through merit either.

I got her the way I get everything.

"What's your name?" she shouted over the party noise.

"Walter."

"Walter what?"

"Walter Schotzke."

"Like the mustard?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Kind of funny to be named after a mustard."

"The mustard's named after me."

That's how it had started with my previous girlfriend, and the one before that, and the one before that. After a couple of months, though, visions of the glamorous life of the future Mrs. Walter Schotzke bumped up against actual life with Walter Schotzke.

"Walter, where are we going?"

"I'm going to play a little Xbox."

"No I mean us -- where are we going?"

"You want to play Xbox too?"

Valerie never asked such questions. I don't remember exactly how she ended up living in my apartment. Or telling the cleaning lady what to do. Or becoming best friends with my grandmother. She just did it.

She was doing it again that morning.

"Hey," I said sleepily. "It's 6 AM!"

"Don't you like it?" Valerie murmured from beneath the covers. "Do you want me to stop?"

"I like it," I admitted. "But I'd like it better at nine."

Her tousled brown hair and big matching eyes emerged from below the sheets. "We have to be on the road by nine. It's your grandmother's birthday. We're expected for lunch."

Oh no. I protested: "I'm not going!"

"Don't be silly, of course we're going." The long straight nose pointed downward to its target. "Now shhh -- we're going to start the day in a good mood."

Three hours later, and my old Range Rover was inching across the Whitestone Bridge on the way to Little Compton.

"I can't believe I'm doing this."

Valerie rested a calming hand on my forearm. In black slacks and beige silk blouse, she looked demure, even prim: not a hint of the seductress of three hours before. The long dark-brown hair that had bounced so wantonly before dawn was now tied into a sporty ponytail.
"Your grandmother is the only family you have."

"That's not my fault."

"She loves you."

"She loved my dad. Me -- I remind her of my mother."

"Your dad was a great man."

"Fine. I know. Everybody says so. They don't add anything to his reputation by trashing my mom."

"Your grandmother doesn't trash your mom."

"She enjoys hearing others do it."

"Besides, she gives you all your money."

"She doesn't give me money. It's my money."

"Well she decides how much of it you can have, which is next to the same thing."

Three more hours, and we were pulling past bare late autumn trees into a suspiciously empty driveway.

"Where's everybody else?" I demanded.

Valerie opened the car door. The smell and sound of ocean poured into the cabin. "The other guests are joining for dinner. It's just us for lunch -- your grandmother thought that would be nicer."

"It would be nicer to eat my lunch in the tiger cage at the zoo."

"That's not funny."

"I don't want to stay for dinner with her dismal friends. And I don't want to drive back to the city in the middle of the night."

"You don't have to drive back in the middle of the night, we're staying over. I packed your toiletries and a tie."

Valerie opened the back of the Range Rover. She extracted a small powder-blue suitcase and presented it to me to carry.

"Staying over? Where? Grandma never allows unmarried couples to stay over."

"Well, she and I talked about it, and she said she'd make an exception this one time. Hey -- there she is. Happy birthday, Clara!" Valerie ran across the gravel and up the two verandah steps to kiss my grandmother's proffered cheek.

"It's wonderful to see you, Valerie. Hello, Walter."

"It's so good to see you too!" Valerie beckoned to me. "Come kiss your grandmother."

I did my duty.

Until you drew near enough to see the deep creases around her mouth, the polished black cane in my grandmother's hand was the only clue that the birthday she was celebrating lay on the further side of eighty. She stood straight and tall and slim; her white hair still full and thick.

I followed my grandmother and Valerie into the familiar front hall. When my grandparents bought the house in 1954, my grandmother had repainted the old dark wood paneling bright white. Between the panels, she had pasted lurid wallpapers: white and lime; white and tangerine; white and watermelon. You could almost make a fruit salad out of her color choices.

Around the corner from the hall, on the way to the (raspberry mousse) guest bathroom, there glared a huge dark oil portrait: the founder of the family fortune.

The ancestral Schotzke had been short and round, black-haired and red-faced. Luckily for me, I had not inherited any of that. In late middle age, my great-great grandfather had married a pretty girl from the old country, with the result that his two sons and four daughters emerged significantly less short, less round, less black-haired and less red-faced than their progenitor. My grandmother had improved the family looks even more, and as for my mother -- well, she stopped traffic, quite literally. In her last year of high school in New Jersey, she had skipped class to spend a day with friends in New York City. A motorist on Canal Street gawked at her minidress so hard that he smashed into the car in front of him. When the rear-ended driver jumped out of her car, the driver who had caused the accident just pointed at my mother. The rear-ended driver happened to work for one of the big New York modeling agencies. A star was born.

Valerie and I walked through the hall into my grandmother's sunroom. I'd spent a lot of summer afternoons playing on the lawn beyond those windows. My mother would be away filming one of her direct-to-cable movies. My father would be traveling in Europe or the Middle East. Between sessions at summer camp, I'd be deposited with two distracted old people.

Those empty summer days blur together in my memory now, but there's one I will never forget. It was after my parents' separation, but before my father's death. My grandfather was serving late afternoon drinks on the verandah to some business friends. I was indoors, lying on the sunroom floor, watching an ant crawl across the aquamarine carpet. One of the guests began to talk loud and to laugh in a way I did not like.

"I saw your ex-daughter-in-law's new movie last night," he boomed. "That girl may be crazy, but you gotta appreciate her body."

My grandfather's voice abruptly turned icy. "That's the mother of my grandson you're talking about, and don't you ever forget it."

The loud man started to apologize. Through the wall of the house, I heard my grandmother's voice, low and fierce. "I wish she wouldn't forget it."

Settled now in that same sunroom, my grandmother and Valerie exchanged pleasantries about the plans for the evening's party. At one o'clock, my grandmother's shuffling ancient houseman, Eduardo, opened the door to the Chinese red dining room.

We took seats. Eduardo passed a platter of grilled sole around the table. My grandmother served herself first, her one deviation from a lifetime's worship at the altar of Emily Post. She never trusted anybody to know what to do with the serving spoons unless she demonstrated. What she was demonstrating today was how to find the Guinness Book of Records smallest slice of sole ever imagined as a meal. Valerie served herself the runner-up. Eduardo presented the platter to me last. I reached for a piece, then a second, then a third. Valerie and my grandmother looked at me curiously. I dropped the third fillet to rejoin the rest of the school. The platter vanished into the kitchen. Next passed a dish of tiny boiled potatoes, then tinier roasted squash and miniaturized zucchini, then finally a great silver boat filled with butter sauce. My grandmother spooned out just enough to lubricate a contact lens. Valerie emulated her. I splashed sauce all around my plate.

After Eduardo poured white wine into our glasses, Valerie excused herself to retrieve something from her powder-blue suitcase. A moment later, she reappeared and placed a lavishly gift-wrapped box on the dining-room table.

"Oh Valerie, how thoughtful of you!" exclaimed my grandmother.

"Walter and I found it in London, when we stopped on our way back from South Africa last month. Your friend Mr. Henchley helped us." The paper rustled, the latch on the wooden box was popped, and my grandmother's ringed fingers extracted from the padded interior a statuette of a flirting couple: a big-titted girl in a too-tight dress with a come-get-me smile painted on her porcelain face and a young man who looked like he'd rather go get the pageboy at stage left.

My grandmother studied the nauseating object with genuine delight.

"It was made for King Louis of Bavaria. Mr. Henchley bought it at the Ratonne estate auction. He says it's very rare and important."

"It's beautiful," my grandmother agreed after a connoisseur's pause. I winced as I anticipated the invoice from Mr. Henchley. Valerie was fibbing about the "Walter and I" bit. On our first morning in London, as I slept off the business-class champagne, Valerie had slipped out to "meet friends." But my grandmother accepted the improbable story and smiled an unforced smile at me: "Your taste is improving."

The wine did not return.

After lunch, we returned to the sunroom. The carpet had faded over the years, but the orange cushions on the white wicker chairs glared as luridly as ever. Eduardo shut the doors upon us, and my grandmother proceeded direct to business.

"Walter, neither of us is getting any younger. You are 28. At your age, your father was already heading all of our overseas operations. You on the other hand have been let go from two different investment banks. The marketing job did not work out. The volunteer teaching program thought you should employ your talents elsewhere. The Peace Corps turned you down. You would not consider the military. I spoke to the people at General Brands, and while there will always be some kind of a job for a Schotzke, I'm not prepared to ask for that job until I feel more confident that you will meet your responsibilities. Frankly, I had almost run out of ideas."

I stared at the carpet in front of my feet. No ants today.

"But it's important that a young man with your advantages in life contribute something to society. After Valerie and I talked last week, I had one last thought. You remember Senator Hazen?"

My grandmother always spoke to me as if I could not be expected to remember anything other than the schedule of trust fund pay-out dates. Valerie sensed my reaction, because she caught my eye to look pleadingly at me. I bit back my words and nodded yes.

"Good. Senator Hazen used to do some of your grandfather's legal work before he entered politics. He was wonderful to us after ... after we lost your father. He has an opening in his Senate office in Washington. Filing, answering the telephone, tasks even you cannot mishandle. I told him you would be delighted to accept. You'll meet people. It will pull you out of yourself. Perhaps you'll learn something about this country that has been so good to our family."

Another pleading look from Valerie, and I bit back my words again. Without waiting for me to speak, my grandmother asked Valerie: "Will you help Walter organize the move?"

Evidently calling a moving van fell into the category of tasks it was possible for me to mishandle.

"Of course!" Valerie answered.

Now at last there was a short pause, a chance for the accused to pronounce a few words to sway the court.

"Grandma, I don't think I really want to ..."

My grandmother frowned, cut me off.

"If you don't want to, you have until next month to produce another idea for full-time, year-round work of some use to society. Otherwise, the distributions from the trust funds will stop until you inherit under your father's and grandfather's wills. And that does not happen until you turn thirty-five."

"It's a wonderful idea!" Valerie declared. She grasped my hand to turn me toward her. "Your friend Samir is in Washington -- you always say nobody ever made you laugh like Samir. Charlie Feltrini -- you like him! And Annie Hampton from your class at Brown. I read in your alumni magazine that she just got an economist's job at the Treasury Department ..."

She was reading the alumni magazine?

"Annie Hampton was my girlfriend in junior year."

"I know," she replied serenely. "Annie and I are Facebook friends."

Outmaneuvered, as usual. I tried again. "But Valerie, what about you? It's a long train ride." That came out sounding even more sarcastic than I had intended. Valerie only smiled lovingly. "I'll come with you. Don't worry, I'll find work." Still holding my hand, she finished, "Thank you, Clara. It's such a great chance for Walter. We both appreciate everything you do for us."

My grandmother smiled back at her. "Thank you, Valerie." The smile vanished as she turned to me. "You're welcome, Walter."

~ CHAPTER TWO ~

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.

"Valerie!"

"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.'"

"Wow, thanks."

"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.