Authors: Susan Isaacs
The blast of noise was even stronger than that following his introduction. Shouts and applause, the thunder of approval, indicated that another four years were his, no need to ask. “Thanks.” Pause. “Thanks a lot.” Another grin. Wait until noise dies down. “I’d like to tell you a few of my ideas.”
“Listen,” I said to Jerry, “do you think Bill could inspire that sort of reaction? That exuberance? That love?”
“No.” Jerry ran his fingers through the gray part of his hair. “But that sort of love isn’t necessary. It’s too volatile. It can’t last.”
Jab a finger at audience. “The rights of the middle class have to be protected,” Gresham was explaining, “because if the majority cannot live in peace, there will be no peace for rich or poor.” The majority seemed to agree, because the tumult began again.
“It’s lasted three years,” I said.
“What?” Jerry yelled over the applause. “I can’t hear you.”
“I said it’s lasted three years!” I stood on tiptoe, my hands forming a megaphone around my mouth, aiming my voice at Jerry’s ear. “They’re as wild about him now as they were during his last campaign.”
“Horse shit!” The crowd’s excitement had wanted somewhat, so Jerry’s “horse shit” was heard by quite a few people standing near us. Even a cop turned, eyed Jerry suspiciously for an instant, and then, assured that he was not dealing with a potential rat-faced assassin, an Oswald or a Ray, turned away.
“Not horse shit,” I murmured. “Look.”
Gresham bent over, reaching out to a woman in the crowd who had maneuvered near the edge of the flatbed truck. She offered him something. He took it and held it aloft. It was a pale brown square, a knish, half wrapped in a rectangle of flimsy white paper.
“This is why I like campaigning in Queens,” Gresham enthused. “A knish. Real food!” The crowd beamed as the Ultimate
their Beloved Non-Ethnic, smiled and inhaled, seeming to savor the greatness of the knish. The dignitaries seated behind him put smiles on their faces, showing they too were enjoying this moment. Paterno’s eyes were wide open; he was probably hungry and, could he have gotten away with it, would have grabbed the knish from Gresham’s hand and stuffed it into his mouth. “Fantastic!” Gresham took a large bite. Too large, his nanny would have said. The clapping began again, the crowd expressing its pleasure at the communion of candidate and knish.
The applause ebbed, and then it ceased.
Gresham’s face turned red, then purple. His grin contorted into a grimace. His long, muscular arms flailed about, as if he were doing some crazy boogie for the folks.
“Je-sus,” said Jerry.
Paterno was up first, reaching Gresham at the same time as his advance man and his state trooper bodyguard. The governor’s mouth had dropped open, his tongue flopped out, and he would have fallen if the state trooper hadn’t grabbed him around the waist and held him up. But Gresham was too big for one man, and the trooper would have keeled over had not Paterno and the advance man propped him up. Within seconds, two cops were on the stage, followed by a News Alert cameraman.
“My God,” said a wizened little man standing near us. “Something is wrong up there.”
One of the cops, a huge black man who looked like a defensive blocker for a successful team, moved behind Gresham and instituted the Heimlich maneuver. He held his hands under Gresham’s diaphragm and squeezed, attempting to push the air up and out of the governor and, with it, the offending glob of knish that was choking him.
But the giant bite of knish did not fly out of Gresham’s mouth. Paterno grabbed the microphone that had fallen to the floor and yelled into it, “Is there a doctor? Is there a doctor anywhere?”
Seconds later, a man pushed past us. “I’m a doctor,” he kept calling, all the way up to the truck. Later reports in the
indicated that he was Steven H. Greenlick, a dermatologist.
I heard whimpering around me, fearful bleats, moans of “God” repeated over and over. Gresham could be held up no longer. He pitched forward and crashed to the floor. The police, politicians, state troopers, and Dr. Greenlick pushed and shoved each other as they moved around, trying to save the governor.
I swallowed guiltily, great gulps of saliva. The air felt colder and seemed to solidify around me, pierced only by the crazed, atonal moan of an ambulance that must have been summoned. It screamed up Queens Boulevard, racing toward Gresham.
“Why can’t they do anything?” I whispered.
Jerry shrugged and continued to stare at the truck. I closed my eyes. “Marcia,” he said a moment later, poking my arm. “Look.”
I opened my eyes, half expecting to see Gresham leap off the floor and wave. But he lay there still, and the police and troopers and pols and Greenlick backed away.
“Christ,” Jerry muttered.
photographer scooted around the stage and stopped in front of Paterno; she focused on him and began shooting. He had begun crying as she approached.
A cop pushed back against the crowd saying, “Get back. Get back.” It wasn’t necessary. Everyone remained motionless, even after the ambulance arrived, even after Gresham’s once-powerful six-foot-six-inch body was squished onto a stretcher made for lesser men. The crowd started to shuffle only as the ambulance drove out of sight.
I whispered, “My God.” The air grew icy, numbing me. Then I sensed, more than felt, Jerry wrapping his arm around my shoulder. “It’s awful,” I added, realizing that the strange feeling on my face was the frosty path made by tears running along my cold skin. I sniffled. “It’s like a nightmare, Jerry.”
“Well, it’s going to put quite a crimp into the knish business,” he observed.
y uncle, Julius Lindenbaum, furrier and family man, yanked open the door a second after my pressing the lighted button that set off a four-note chime. “Marcia honey,” he boomed. “Did you hear about it?”
“You mean about the governor?” I mumbled the last two syllables into his blue alligator as he gave me one of his specialties, a crushing hug, squeezing my arms to my sides and squashing my face against his shirt.
“Terrible,” he said, leading me into the house. “Ever wonder how come it’s Democrats who always die?”
My mother’s sister, Aunt Estelle, and her husband, my Uncle Julius, lived in Jamaica Estates in the borough of Queens, one of those upper-middle-class areas of New York City so greenly landscaped, so secure with its oak doors and brass knockers, that if you clapped your hands over your ears and refused to listen to the residents’ accents, you could imagine yourself in Shaker Heights or Bellaire.
Their house was a colonial, red-brick, two-story, with a large central hall. On the left of the hall was a beige living room; my aunt had determined that monotones were quietly rich-looking. On the right was the dining room, filled with brilliantly waxed dark furniture: table and chairs, of course, and a huge breakfront displaying the Lindenbaum Collection of Extremely Fine China, and a buffet—with a marble top for serving and long thin drawers underneath—for holding Aunt Estelle’s sizable stock of ecru tablecloths.
“Hello, Marcia.” As I walked into the living room, I saw my mother.
“Hi, Mom.” Observing her sister’s dictum on monotones, my mother wore a brown dress. However, since she was the poor relation, she looked fittingly ill-clothed. The dress clung to her everywhere except the waist, like a late-fifties chemise with static. “How are you?” I asked.
“All right,” she answered. “I saw your employer on the news. Did he say anything to you about having seen …?”
“I was there.” I said it simply, knowing I had scored so many points with those three little words that I could afford to toss them off. My Uncle Julius even waved his hairy arm graciously, offering me a seat anywhere on their couch.
“Oh?” she murmured.
“I’ll tell Aunt Estelle you’re here,” Uncle Julius said. “She’s in the kitchen, but don’t say anything till she comes, so it’s still fresh in your mind.” He lumbered out of the living room, anxious to find my aunt and, I think, relieved to get away from my mother and me. Uncle Julius did not seem comfortable with people who could not afford fur.
“Well,” my mother said, “you picked an exciting career.” Her voice was thin, weary. It sounded about five minutes from dead.
She spoke a little like she looked. My mother is plain-looking, short—like me—and dried out like a parched, neglected houseplant. It’s as if the routine of living—pouring orange juice, applying deodorant—sapped her strength. Even when I was a child thirty years ago she was the same, sighing after tying each shoelace, silently serving me peanut butter sandwiches which she never had enough energy to cut into halves. Nothing I did, knock-knock jokes, making perfect hospital corners on my bed, graduating number six in my high school class, made her perk up.
As a young woman, she must have possessed some élan, an aspiration or two, because as a child I heard stories about Hilda saving up to buy a Packard, Hilda keeping company with a Columbia boy and making plans to go to Hunter College, Hilda forgoing the movies so she could buy fresh flowers every day to pin on her lapel.
But after high school she spent four years typing up tax returns for an accountant with offices on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. Then she met my father, Victor Green, certified public accountant, when he was hired to fill the opening left by another accountant, who had suffered a paralytic stroke during tax season.
My father was not a Columbia boy. He had five years of night school at Brooklyn College and, from their wedding picture, appears as pale and ordinary looking as I remember him. Definitely not the Ivory League type, as my Grandma Yetta would have said. So Hilda Shochet Green traded her dream of a Packard for the reality of a Toastmaster. They moved to a tiny apartment on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Instead of buying a sprig of sweet lilacs, she bought waxed apples and bananas for the green glass bowl on their dinette table.
“How has the television coverage been?” I asked her. “Did they have any footage …?”
“Uncle Julius asked us not to discuss it until he and Estelle can hear it together.” She did not look at me as she spoke.
I shifted around on Aunt Estelle’s beige couch. I don’t think my mother trusted me. She seemed to suspect that I was perpetually on the verge of doing something crass that would further decrease her status in the family, like passing gas or mocking a cousin’s choice of stemware. “How have you been feeling?” I asked.
“All right. Oh, I was reading
“Any good articles?”
“Let me think. Oh, they had one about the wives of the ones who aren’t circumcised.”
“What?” I asked, momentarily more confused than curious.
“These women have a very high rate of it.” She stretched her short arm across my aunt’s long coffee table and took a cashew from a crystal bowl.
“A high rate of what?” I demanded.
“You know what I mean, Marcia.” She held the nut between her thumb and index finger and nibbled it delicately with her front teeth.
“No. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Cancer,” she hissed. “Cancer of the vagina.”
“You mean cervical cancer?”
“Whatever.” Her next selection was an almond, which she examined closely, as if it were a new and fascinating species.
“Mom.” She turned to me, her weakly colored brown eyes trying to fix on mine. “Why did you bring up the subject?” Her eyes returned to the almond.
“I was just making conversation.”
“Come on, Mom. You’re thinking about me and Jerry.”
“I most certainly was not,” she countered.
“Mom,” I said, “he’s a decent person. He’s clean. Cleaner than I am. He takes two showers a day.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Who said it was funny? I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
“My girls having a good time?” Uncle Julius loomed on the threshold of the living room.
My mother and I both smiled and nodded at Uncle Julius.
“Good. Good. Estelle will be in in just a minute. You didn’t cheat, did you, Marcia? I hope not a word—”
“I’m saving it all for you and Aunt Estelle.”
“Wonderful. Well, just make yourself comfortable.” He stalked the living room and sat at the other end of the couch. It was a leviathan of a sofa, a sectional that wound its eighteen feet around two sides of the living room. “You want a drink, Marcia?”
“A drink?” my mother muttered. Our family, of course, did not drink before dinner, although once at the table, a glass of tomato juice with an overhanging lemon wedge was de rigueur.
Uncle Julius spoke fast. “I got some Cherry Heering and some Dubonnet. Or do you want something harder? Scotch?”
Uncle Julius shot my mother a fast glance: See, Hilda, at least Irish isn’t contagious.
“But if you want something, don’t let me stop you.”
I could not imagine anyone stopping Uncle Julius. He combined a massive, czarlike presence with unwavering self-assurance. The resulting force was so powerful it seemed elemental. I could no more deflect his hugs and prolonged cheek kisses than I could order a hurricane to leave New York and go blow on New Jersey.
Because he never questioned himself, no one ever questioned him. Women accepted his suffocating embraces, pulling their lips inside their mouths so as not to smear lipstick on his shirt. Men fought not to wince as Uncle Julius shook their hands and squashed their knuckles. Did you ring his bell, collecting for Cystic Fibrosis or the Heart Fund? He’d bellow a “hi, sweetheart” and tear off a fast twenty or two from his roll of bills and stuff it into your hand. Was your son having trouble getting into medical school? Don’t worry, Dave, I’ll speak to a couple of people. Uncle Julius, apolitical, not even registered to vote, understood power. In Jamaica Estates, he was a mover, a doer. And he demanded no quid pro quo, although obviously, if he had managed to get your semiliterate daughter a summer job at the local library, you bought your lynx at Julius Lindenbaum Fine Furs Ltd. when the leaves began to fall.
“How is Barbara?” I asked him. His daughter, my cousin, was six months older than I.