I don’t know how to dress. It’s easier to just say, "Oh, you’re right—this skirt and blouse have no business being together on the same body. That’s what I get for dressing in the dark."
I feel that way about my life in general. I know it doesn’t look very good, but I seem to be missing the specific talent to do anything about it.
Getting through law school was probably the only thing I ever did on purpose that might have been a good idea. Even a lousy lawyer can usually make enough money to stay a little north of the poverty line, and I’m not a lousy lawyer. I’m unconventional. A little spotty at times on the finer points, but I usually do okay for my clients. Nobody’s asked for their money back. Not yet, anyway.
Maybe I’m just a product of my environment. I’ve lived in the Hamptons my whole life, minus the time spent in college and law school. That period away taught me that standard notions of reality aren’t always applicable to the East End of Long Island. The outside world thinks living here requires a Bentley, a face-lift, and a shingle-style home the size of Buckingham Palace. The truth is a lot more complicated than that. You see a lot of swells in capped teeth and riding boots, but also dusty valiants in tool belts, and long-legged, high-heeled salesclerks, like you’d see anywhere. But dig a little deeper and you’re as likely to find a saint—or a Mensa genius—as you are a deviant or certified nut job lurking right below the surface.
I know this because these are my beloved clients.
I used to have a home office, but I’d made the house such an unlivable pile of crap that I moved into a room over a row of shops along Montauk Highway, the traffic-clogged two-laner that strings together the Hamptons. The town I’m in is called Water Mill. I like the place because there’s a coffee shop and a Japanese restaurant within a few seconds’ walk, and I can look out the window at a giant windmill whenever I don’t want to look at the brief I’m writing, which is most of the time. I can also see the gates to this glorious old estate right at the head of Mecox Bay that’s been a nuns’ retreat for as long as I can remember. The word is they’re going to sell it off to a private group of jillionaires, which explains how such an incredibly valuable piece of property could still be undeveloped. They just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
Being Irish Catholic, I can’t help wondering if the nuns threw in a few indulgences as part of the deal. I think that kind of thing as quietly as I can, so my dead old man doesn’t hear me and try to reach out from the beyond and whack me on the head.
Disappointing my old man was a reflex of mine. It almost killed him when I gave up a solid Irish name like O’Dwyer for Swaitkowski when I married that adorable dope Potato Pete. That’s what we called him in high school because his family owned the biggest potato farm on the East End. Which, like the nuns’ place across the street, got the attention of real-estate developers, and soon after got converted into a tidy fortune, a chunk of which my husband used to buy the Porsche Carrera he flew like a jet fighter into a big old oak tree.
I sort of almost loved Potato Pete, so I kept Swaitkowski after he died as a kind of memorial. I also think it makes sense for me to have a name nobody knows how to spell or pronounce and gives me license to kick the shins of any chowderhead who thinks Polack jokes are funny.
Like everyone else, Sergey Pontecello had trouble with the name when he introduced himself to me one day in early fall at my office in Water Mill.
He’d made it through the door, which was an accomplishment of sorts, given all the junk that somehow got piled up everywhere. I could see him wondering where he was supposed to sit.
"Just call me Jackie," I said to him, shoveling a stack of paper off one of the chairs I’d promised myself I’d keep clear for visiting clients.
"People have trouble with Pontecello, too," he said, trying to get comfortable in the old leather chair. "It’s the c. You’d think they’d know better. Anyone ever play a sello?" he asked.
"You drink coffee?" I asked him. "Tea? Orange juice? Martini? Just kidding."
He smiled weakly.
"The martini sounds very good, but I should wait until at least four o’clock."
Sergey wasn’t a very big guy. Thin, with a long nose and a missing chin that would encourage a cartoonist to turn him into a rat. His hair was too black to be natural, especially given his age, which I guessed to be late sixties. His eyes also didn’t fit the hair. They were either yellowy brown or yellowy gray; I can’t remember. But they didn’t make him look all that healthy, or happy.
"I’m sorry, Mr. Pontecello. Here we are just meeting and I’m making stupid jokes."
"It’s fine. I was warned," he said, smiling.
Not wanting to pursue that, I slapped the top of my knee and asked, "What can I do for you?"
"I need legal advice."
"I will do my best," I said gravely.
"I need to perform an eviction. Things have finally reached that point. It’s intolerable."
"No, my own home. The home I shared with my wife for more than thirty years. My late wife. As of quite recently. She had an unfortunate fondness for tobacco. She’d convinced herself that a cigarette holder obviated the effects."
He seemed to drift off somewhere for a second, then snapped back.
"It’s her sister. She doesn’t seem to understand the situation."
"She’s in your house?"
He nodded, the gray cloud that floated around him darkening a shade or two.
"I’m told real estate is your speciality."
He pronounced the word speciality like they do in England. It reinforced his distinct accent.
I didn’t let him in on the fact that real estate was every lawyer’s speciality in the Hamptons.
"Oh, yes. You might say real estate is my forte," I said, dropping the second syllable in case he was actually a Brit who knew the proper pronunciation.
"So, how do I toss that miserable woman out on the street?"
I sat back in my chair.
"When you’re discussing an eviction, try not to say things like ‘tossing’ and ‘out on the street.’ You never know who’s listening."
"I suppose you’re right. But ‘miserable’ will have to stand."
That’s when I got a cup of coffee for myself and one for Sergey, whether he liked it or not. I needed the caffeine and a chance to decide whether I should listen to more of his story or pass him off to one of my less favorite competitors. I decided on the story, but only because I was bored, sick to death of reviewing title searches, slightly sorry for the old rat, and prone to making reckless decisions, none of which were good enough reasons, but that’s me.
"So, give me the rundown," I said, clicking a ballpoint pen over a fresh yellow legal pad. "Nice and slow. I write like a third grader."
He was wearing one of those old-fashioned rayon shirts with the sleeves a different color from the body. Reminded me of Howard Hughes. His slacks might have been made of the same fabric. There wasn’t a wrinkle to be seen. He put a hand on each knee when he talked.
"The house in Sagaponack has been in my wife’s family since the early 1930s. Her father was a professor of medical history at Fordham. I don’t believe they even have that curriculum anymore. In those days, a man of fairly average means could actually have a summer home out here, if he was willing to drive the four hours out from the City."
Yeah, yeah, I said to myself. Heard it a billion times. Geezers wallowing in future shock. Sorry if that sounds unkind, but you’d get tired of hearing it, too, if you lived out here.
"So she inherited the house? Her and her sister?" I said, wanting to jump to the obvious.
His face reddened.
"Of course it went to the children. Elizabeth, my wife, and her sister, Eunice. Both Hamiltons. That’s never been in dispute."
"Okay," I said, writing down the words "okay" and "both names begin with an ‘E.’ "
"Elizabeth and I were the only ones who cared about the house. Eunice ended up in Arizona married to some Bohemian so-called artist."
"Bohemian with a beret or a guy from Czechoslovakia?"
"Both, from what I understand," he said, looking disgusted. "Anyway, since we were maintaining the property, and the sister seemed to have little or no interest, she agreed to sign quitclaims giving Elizabeth the house. Elizabeth and me, her husband, I might add."
He touched the tips of his fingers to his tongue and then ran them over his oiled hair, his hands betraying a slight tremor.
"Seems pretty straightforward," I advised. "I assume there’s a will. Are you the only beneficiary of your wife’s estate?"
"Of course. I’m sure it’s in order. Elizabeth took care of all those matters quite capably."
"You haven’t looked at the will?"
"Of course not. Everything that was hers is mine. Nothing has changed. Why should I bother with a will?"
There were so many reasons, I didn’t know where to start.
"So who gets the house after you?"
"We didn’t have children, so charity, of course. Don’t ask me which. As I said, Elizabeth took care of those things. I couldn’t be bothered."
"Do you know why Eunice believes she can take possession of the house?"
"Who knows? She tells me the quitclaim is invalidated by Elizabeth’s death. Which is absurd, of course."
I thought it was, too, based on what he was telling me. But one of the things I’ve learned getting to the ripened age of thirty-eight is to be suspicious of everything my clients tell me, at least at first. The sad fact is they rarely tell you the truth and never nothing but the truth, whether they swear to God or not.
"You have the quitclaim, I assume?" I asked him.
He looked displeased by the question.
"Of course. In a safe-deposit box. Do you have any idea what that document is worth?"
Another thing I’m sick of hearing is how much somebody’s house in the Hamptons is worth. Especially when they give you the spread, the basis to current value. Five thousand to five million is not uncommon.
"No. What is it worth?"
"At least five million dollars."
I could have told him property owners were registered with the tax office, so I didn’t need the quitclaim itself to assert a claim. But why spoil the fun of a safe-deposit box?
"Okay, Mr. Pontecello, I’ll need to make copies of all your documentation. We can do it at the bank, so don’t worry about losing anything."
This clearly pleased him.
"Splendid. So when do we arrange for the eviction?"
He said "the eviction" the way other people might say "festivities."
"Well, technically, I don’t think this falls into the eviction category. That’s more like when you want to remove someone from a separate rental property. Is the house your official residence?"
"It is. We gave up the place in the City years ago."
"And she’s not paying rent?"
He chuckled an evil little chuckle.
"Oh, no. But she’s threatening to charge me."
He nodded and took a deep breath, struggling to maintain forbearance. "I invited her to stay at the house for the funeral. She hadn’t been there for, Lord, decades, always choosing to stay at the club in Southampton. Having her at the house seemed like the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances. That was a month ago and she’s never left. Last week she reports to me that she likes the air on Long Island and has decided to take possession of the property, thank you very much. She offered to pay the movers to pack and ship our things to wherever I wished. Our things. The whole house is our things. How ridiculous can you get?"
I had an answer for that, too, which was a lot more than you could possibly imagine, buster, but I didn’t say it. Instead I asked, "You said ‘our’ things. Does that include Elizabeth’s?"
His face shifted slightly from outrage to grief.
"Yes. I’m only now going through her unopened correspondence. It’s not a pleasant process."
"Do you know if Eunice has a lawyer?" I asked.
He shook his head.
"No. I don’t know. No one she’s told me about. Not that we’re talking. She’s talking, I’m not listening."
I spent the rest of Sergey’s free hour getting his vital statistics and breaking the news that he’d have to pay for all the other hours, beginning with the first eight paid in advance, by personal check if he wanted, but not to expect me to do anything until it cleared. This was one of the few practical things I learned from my father, who had a civil engineering practice Up Island. Never work off your own money. If customers aren’t willing to commit up front, they’re getting ready to stick it to you.
Sergey took it all pretty well. He had to, after making such a big deal about owning a five-million-dollar house. Claiming to own. When I asked him why he didn’t already have a lawyer, he told me he used to, but the guy had died.
Ah, I thought, great new marketing strategy. Outlive the competition.
I stuffed one of my business cards in the chest pocket of his Howard Hughes shirt and gently shoved the beleaguered old guy out the door. After being reasonably sure no fresh clients were about to appear, I took a break to finish the latte from the morning that I’d stuck in the refrigerator for some reason and an inch-long roach I knew was lurking in the ashtray under a week’s worth of stubbed-out Marlboro Lights. I like the idea of smoking dope and drinking coffee at the same time. Let the caffeine and tetrahydrocannabinol fight it out. Winner gets to pick whether you go uptown or down.
I was going to use the break time to stare at the windmill, but instead found myself pecking at the computer keyboard, wandering on to the Town of Southampton municipal site, then using the password they gave me as an officer of the court to sneak into areas where I didn’t belong, like where the tax department kept their property records.
The database was easily accessible by typing in either owner name or address. So I put in both.
There it was. Sergey and Elizabeth Pontecello, 34 Hunter’s Plain Road, Sagaponack, New York. The tax map told me more. The address was in an area where five-million-dollar houses were a regular thing. In fact, five million was probably the cost of the ante.
So Sergey was telling the truth, at least to that extent. After copying down the name and address, I clicked out of the screen and headed over to the first stop on a routine title search. It looked like Sergey’s taxes were all paid up. He was about to get reappraised, the result of which would probably come as an unpleasant surprise. It always did. Reappraisals are a good governor on the urge to brag about how much your house is worth, especially in earshot of the appraiser.
I was about to get back to my paying work when for the hell of it I checked for mechanics’ liens. Not an unusual thing for an older, longtime homeowner to get into it with a contractor, now that the price of a kitchen rehab used to buy the whole house.
And there it was. Not a mechanic’s lien, but something I hadn’t expected. A mortgage. Actually, one mortgage in the form of a credit line for $45,000 and a personal note, totaling $4,685,000. Most of the value of the house.
Lien holders Harbor Trust Bank and Eunice Hamilton Wolsonowicz, respectively.
I burnt my fingers putting out the nearly extinguished roach. Good lesson. Never mix curiosity with cannabis. Nothing good ever comes of it.
Excerpted from Short Squeeze by Chris Knopf.
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Knopf.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.