Read Close Relations Online

Authors: Susan Isaacs

Close Relations (2 page)

“Don’t apologize,” he said. “It’s just that I have to keep a clear head during daylight hours.” And he even gave me a bonus, a grin.

Jerry Morrissey was a very good politician.

The crowd in the parking lot surrounding Alexander’s Department Store grew thicker, waiting for Gresham. They were people I considered of my ilk. There were women a decade younger than I, in their mid-twenties, placating toddlers with a pretzel or a bottle of orange juice; pairs of middle-aged women in synthetic furs, fifty-year-old tigresses and leopards, pawing in their shopping bags to retrieve and display a polyester sweater, unbelievably discounted; a sprinkling of older men, retired, faces blank and ashen after forty-five years of shuffling paper under the fluorescent lights of Metropolitan Life.

The crowd grew even heavier, responding to the come-on of Gresham’s advance team, young men with electronic bullhorns. “Ladies and gentlemen, in just a very few minutes, the governor of this great state will make an appearance right here! In Alexander’s parking lot! Don’t miss this opportunity, ladies and gentlemen!” Two sound-equipped trucks cruised the streets, luring the patrons of boutiques, delicatessens, beauty salons, and furniture stores with the same pitch. “Governor Gresham is coming! Come see him, ladies and gentlemen!”

Jerry shifted around, switching his weight from one foot to the other. He did not complain that his back ached, although it obviously did. He grew angry at frailty, even though he was discovering, at forty-seven, that he was increasingly susceptible to viruses, pains, allergies. He equated illness with weakness. For Jerry, a person was either fit or dying.

He lifted his cleft chin toward the truck, pointing it at Paterno. “Look at him. He has his hand around his wrist. I bet he’s taking his goddamn pulse again.” Paterno’s mild hypochondria annoyed Jerry terribly. It made him feel he was working for someone who was less than a man.

“Come on,” I said, believing he took Paterno’s weakness too seriously. “He’s just sitting there quietly, waiting for things to get moving. When he’s worried about his health, he twitches—you know, feeling for lumps under his arms or palpating his stomach.”

“Marcia, he was complaining about chest pains again last night, right before I dropped him off. We went to that German-American cultural thing, and he must have put away about ten pounds of bratwurst. Then, on the way home, he puts his hand against his chest and kind of looks away, out the window. So I say, Anything wrong, Bill?’ and he says, ‘No. Nothing. A little tightness in my chest. It must be gas.’ So I agreed with him.”

“You could have been a little more sympathetic.”

“Sure. Right. Then I could have had the fun of spending the night at the emergency room at New York Hospital while he gets another EKG. Do you know how many man-hours have gone into giving that guy cardiograms? It’s crazy. I’m not going to play his game.”

“But he’s been lonely since Terri died, living in that big house all by himself. He wants attention.”

“So let him get married again. We could use a good wife in the next campaign.”

I turned away from Jerry, partially because I didn’t want to argue with him. I knew he’d be in a testy mood if his back was bothering him. And also, I still had trouble—even after two years of living with him—in fighting with him and looking at him at the same time. His handsomeness was glaring enough to be distracting.

Generally, handsome is an easy word, casually bestowed. It is withheld only when a man possesses a major flaw, like inch-thick glasses or a forehead studded with blackheads. Any man with reasonably even features is called handsome by someone, as long as he keeps his weight under an eighth of a ton and doesn’t drool.

Beautiful is a more exacting adjective, saved for special occasions. Women with pleasant features can be attractive, cute, nice-looking, or pretty. My mother told me I looked pretty on my wedding day, although there were mitigating factors: I had had my hair straightened and I was marrying a future physician. Jerry now and then said I was pretty, but I think he was simply declaring his preference for women with my coloring. He could have said “I like blue-eyed blonds” instead. For I am not really pretty. I get my eyes from my Grandma Malke, who, as a girl, stood by the family pushcart twelve hours a day peddling herring. They are quite ordinary pale blue eyes, washed with the same gray as Grandma’s herring. As for the blond hair, every humid New York summer it contracts from a smooth yellow cap into a crazed kink. And I am short, so overall I look like a stunted Scandinavian. But I’m pretty enough for politics, where women routinely look intense and blotchy, like the “before” picture in a magazine makeover.

But Jerry was objectively, truly, and irrevocably handsome. His looks were so classically lovely they were dazzling. They startled people who met him for the first time, for such looks do not normally appear in mundane contexts. They seem to demand at least a tuxedo and a microphone, not a rumpled blue suit and the I.R.T. subway.

Jerry, at the height of middle age, was a joy, a treat. His chin was still rugged, magnificently, squarely carved and then, miraculously, cleft dead center, giving the glorious strength of his jaw just a quarter inch of vulnerability.

And the thick, straight, soft black hair, now shot with sparks of silver at the temples. It called out to fingers for a run-through. It curled into teeny o’s at the nape of his neck.

The nose? It goes without saying. Perfect and straight. None of that Boston Irish thickness around the nostrils or that crude County Limerick pug. It was a nose to make the chief of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital eat his heart out.

But the eyes were the best, the Oscar winner in a face of nominees. Blue. Real blue, not drained by gray like mine. Not flecked with brown or pushed around by the threat of green. Jerry’s eyes were true blue, deep and so soft that you wished you could stroke their color, lick them.

Such a face.

The crowd pressured us, growing, taking up space. The cops set up wooden barriers and began herding everyone behind them.

It was an unnaturally warm February day. Several people, coats hanging open, faces damp, glanced around, perhaps fearful of being seduced by Gresham into forgetting their dentist’s appointments. But most stayed and more joined them, attracted by the tumult, by the blast of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “East Side, West Side” booming from the huge round speakers atop the cab of the truck.

“You know,” said Jerry, “I once tap-danced to ‘East Side, West Side’ in the fifth grade, in the school talent show.”

“You? Really? You tap-danced?”

“Yeah. My mother made me take all these lessons. She thought I’d be the male Shirley Temple. But I lost to this redheaded kid, Paul Rooney, who sang Anchors Aweigh.’ Little bastard wore a sailor suit.”

Gresham’s advance team was putting on the pressure, whipping up the crowd. “In just a brief moment or two, ladies and gentlemen, Governor Jim Gresham will appear right here….”

The crowd waited. They wanted to see their governor. It was more than the hoopla, more than curiosity. They loved him. Gresham was perfect for New York: an aristocrat with dirty hands. He played sea chanteys on his harmonica. His doctoral dissertation at Princeton had concerned his great grandfather’s diplomatic missions during World War I. He had given up an assistant professorship at Columbia to live in East Harlem, where he had instituted a successful consumer mathematics program. And he was good-looking, with great Paul Bunyan shoulders and a thick blond lumberjack mustache.

“They have a great ad campaign,” said Jerry, a little bitterly. “No slogans, no copy at all, just pictures of Gresham at work. All candid shots: at his desk, talking to people on the subway, having dinner. There’s this picture of him sitting down with an Italian family. He’s got this monster loaf of bread in his hands and he’s tearing off a piece and you see ten smiling Dago faces around the table. He’s the only one with a blond mustache.”

“Jerry, be quiet.”

Gresham was so much the aristocrat that he was beyond class, so secure in his position that he could comprehend the needs of all the people. He was Gresham the Good, Gresham the Invincible. Paterno, who probably began coveting the governorship the day he learned the office existed, had, after a few perfunctory conversations with supporters, decided that challenging Jim Gresham in a primary was faster suicide than a revolver to the temple. He took Jerry’s advice, which was that if Gresham, in his second term, decided to try for the Presidency, he would rather bestow the governorship on a man who would not embarrass him, like Paterno. The current lieutenant governor, Lawrence Parker, né Piatagowski, had been one of Gresham’s few public mistakes.

“Okay, get back, everyone,” a cop ordered, stretching out his arms to herd the last few strays behind the barricade. On the platform of the flatbed truck, Paterno sat stiffly on a gray metal folding chair, three seats away from where Gresham would be.

“He’s sweating,” I commented. “Why is he so nervous?” Paterno’s high, furrowed forehead was shiny with perspiration. With his sallow complexion, it gave him a sickly look. “Do you think it’s because he’s with Gresham, that he feels so much is riding on their relationship?” Paterno’s dark eyes darted about the crowd, as if he were searching for someone who loved him. He was a small man, about five feet six inches, and beside the mayor, the borough president, and the city comptroller, he looked quite fragile. The only things big about Paterno were his eyes, huge and a little protuberant, his great forehead, and his stomach. He had a huge appetite, and all the food he ate seemed to settle in his belly, as if the rest of his small body was not equipped to assimilate it. If a frog who’d been kissed by a princess turned into a man, he would look like Paterno and not like the prince in fairy tales.

“Sure he’s sweating,” Jerry conceded. “He’s wearing long johns.”

“Why? It’s warm today, for God’s sake.”

The sound equipment shrieked a wild, high-pitched cry and then calmed down, emitting only intermittent crackles, random pops. “And seated next to the Mayor of this great City, ladies and gentlemen, the President of the great Borough of Queens!” The reflexive booing of the mayor subsided, and the crowd, responding a little to the manic joy in the advance man’s voice, applauded lightly.

“I know it’s warm today,” said Jerry, sounding peeved. “But it’s February. And you know Bill. If it’s February it’s winter and if it’s winter it’s cold and if it’s cold he needs long underwear, so he won’t get the chills and die.” Even in frigid weather, politicians do not like to be seen in overcoats. They feel it makes them look weak, vulnerable, old.

We watched Paterno lift the back of his hand to his face, ostensibly to massage the tip of his nose. He wiped some perspiration off his upper lip.

“And, ladies and gentlemen,” the advance man continued, his voice soaring to new heights of ecstasy, “the President of City Council, the man from this wonderful Borough of Queens who almost single-handedly settled the police strike
the great garbage strike, ladies and gentlemen, the son of immigrant parents who rose to become a great New Yorker, a truly great American, William Paterno!”

Shoving my handbag under my right arm, I applauded furiously, accidentally poking the woman next to me with my left elbow. Reflexively, she started clapping, a gold crucifix bopping rhythmically each time her upper arms crashed into her huge balloon breasts. Jerry, on my right, stuck two fingers between his lips and gave a piercing, practiced whistle. It was not the sort of sound people anticipate from an adult. Several glanced around, looking for the acne-ridden fifteen-year-old responsible; unsuccessful, they applauded anyway, not without enthusiasm.

“Hear that?” Jerry demanded, his eyes moist, sparkling. “They love him.”

Bill. They love Gresham.”

“Marcia, you’re wrong. They just know Gresham better. He’s been more visible, that’s all. If Bill had as much coverage …”

“If he had as much coverage, he’d be better known, period. He’s not the sort to inspire love. Respect, sure. But he can’t—”

“Bullshit,” Jerry snapped. “You’re talking defeatist bullshit. No wonder …”

A woman stood on the other side of Jerry, an ordinary, upwardly mobile Puerto Rican woman in a subdued beige coat. She was in no way remarkable except that she was staring at Jerry, her eyes traveling the circuit, her jaw drooping, so that I, on his left, could peer past him and look inside her mouth, where a reservoir of saliva had accumulated around her bottom teeth. She did not, of course, notice me, even when I rubbed against him familiarly.

Jerry sensed her glance and turned his head to look at her. Most women, upon being discovered, would have averted their heads or pretended to be searching for a friend just past Jerry. That always happened on the subways and at parties. But this one kept staring, examining him unselfconsciously, as though he existed in another sphere and could not sense her presence.

He leaned down and whispered into my ear, “Weird lady,” and grasped my arm, maneuvering me a few feet closer to the flatbed truck.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” the advance man said, his tone growing calmer, almost reverential, “the man who needs no introduction. Ladies and gentlemen of Queens, Governor James d’Avonne Gresham!”

From where he had been secluded, Jim Gresham strode around the side of the truck and leaped up onto the stage. The crowd bellowed its delight, the roar bouncing off the storefronts on Queens Boulevard and returning to the parking lot, refueling the excitement. Whistles, screams, squeaks, sighs, and gulps of suppressed desire, surreptitious peeks at the bulge, probably visible at ten yards, under the fly of the gubernatorial jeans. This brave new man, this radiant leader, this easy, self-assured great guy beside whom all other politicians seemed as attractive as Quasimodo, sauntered up to the microphone.

“Hey,” Gresham began, “I’m glad to be here. But I’ve got to tell you something. I didn’t come here because I was in the mood for a drive through Queens. You know why I’m here.” Pause. Grin. Swivel head slowly. “Pretty soon I’ll be asking you for another four years.”

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