Authors: Susan Isaacs
“I will Really, Barb. I promise you. It’s over. It just died, and I never noticed its going.”
I realized how dead it was that afternoon. I sat on a chair in Paterno’s office with the rest of the City Hall staff, about a foot away from Jerry. I stared at his profile, the clean cut of his jaw, his remarkable nose. I looked down at the hand draped casually in his lap. And I felt nothing except admiration for the God who had created such a man. And a little sadness.
“Jerry,” I said, tapping his arm just before Paterno came into the room. “I’d like to talk. It’s—”
But Paterno came barreling in. “You want to know what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Goddamn it, Morrissey, let me do the talking. Seven this morning I’m home, having breakfast, and the phone rings. Hello. Who is it? Richard Black of the
and Richard Black wants to know what’s with my campaign coordinator, Mr. LoBello. And I say, he’s upstate, in Watertown, I think. Can I help you, Richard Black? Can Morrissey help you? What would make you happy? Well, he says, I just want to know what you think about LoBello’s going over to Larry Parker.” No one moved except Jerry, who had obviously heard the news before. He shifted around uneasily in his chair. “So I said to Richard Black, Well, we just weren’t happy with the results Mr. LoBello was getting. He’s not what he was cracked up to be, so we had to let him go.
“Now listen, Black’s still working on the story, and it won’t be out until tomorrow. So before that, I want you all to go through your files, each one of you. Is there anything missing? Has that bastard stolen anything? I don’t want any nasty surprises.”
Jerry rose. “It goes without saying that we tell everyone he was fired last Friday.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t have to say that, bottom line, this is all for the best. LoBello’s full of hot air; he’s perfect for a windbag like Parker. They’ll fizzle out together. All right, now. Any comments? Suggestions? Questions?” No one spoke. Jerry jerked his head around the room. He appeared more ill at ease than I’d ever seen him, hands stuffed deep in his pockets, his legs stiff as he paced the office. “Okay. Let’s get to work. We’re still in business.”
Eileen raced out, as if late for a court appearance. Joe Cole and the economic affairs expert put their heads together and emitted the low grumble of male talk. As I walked toward Jerry, he joined them and hustled them out of the room. I turned to Paterno.
“I’m sorry, Bill.”
“Thanks.” The glow of fury had left his face and his skin looked ashen. “I appreciate it.”
“I hesitated to say anything before, but…”
“What?” he demanded.
“LoBello might have Xeroxed a lot of our stuff. If he did, we won’t find anything missing.”
“Oh, shit.” He rubbed his hands over his face. “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so goddamn obvious. Sorry about the language,” he muttered.
“Tell me what you think. Are we better off without him? Forget what Morrissey said. The truth.”
“The truth is Appel’s spending it as fast as they can print it and Parker’s got the advantage of incumbency. Plus LoBello. Lyle’s an arrogant, ineffectual peacock ninety-five percent of the time, but the other five percent he can be dynamite. You know that. You can’t just forget about him. So, the truth is, I think you’re in trouble.”
Paterno exhaled slowly. “I do too. Every day things get worse. I can feel it fading.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Remember the beginning of the campaign, Marcia?” I nodded. “Things aren’t turning out the way we thought they would, are they?”
he last week of August was almost unbearable. The temperature soared. The homicide rate actually decreased because people were too enervated to kill. Dogs whimpered as they walked on the searing pavement. On the fifth day of over one-hundred-degree weather, David came home from his office, his face flushed and damp, and knocked a spinach soufflé across the kitchen counter. “How can you expect me to eat anything hot?” he shouted. “How?”
He apologized almost immediately. “I’m sorry. The heat got me. Just walking those few blocks.” He bent over and inhaled the soufflé. “It smells wonderful.”
He smiled. David had been well trained. “You didn’t have to fuss with dinner. You’ve been working so hard.”
“It’s okay,” I replied, arranging pieces of roast chicken on a platter.
“I can’t get over the heat,” he said pleasantly. “Do you know, I just realized—walking home—that I’ve never been in the city in August before. I had no idea….”
I had spent every August in either New York or Washington. “Is it cooler on the Riviera?” I screamed. “Go ahead! Leave! Go where it’s cool. You can talk French with your goddamn cool friends. You can eat cold food until you choke on it, for all I care. Good-bye. Have fun in Cannes.” I thought I had energy to shriek for another five minutes. Instead, I swooned. Feeling helpless and very foolish, I found myself slumping to the floor. David saw me and caught me in time. “I’m all right,” I said.
“Are you sure?” He looked frightened.
“My air conditioner broke down completely. And I couldn’t get the window open. Oh, David, it’s like working in Hell.”
At headquarters, the stench of mildew grew so strong that I held my breath as I rushed through the corridor. The hotel management, aware of our short-term lease, claimed they could not stanch the march of the rot; it was a “structural problem,” they explained ominously. And they felt bad about the air conditioners, but the machines could not tolerate such humidity.
One evening, when I was working late, rehearsing Paterno for his final debate, I glanced up from my notes to look at him. His face was glossy with perspiration. His nostrils were quivering and his teeth were clenched together, like a child trying hard not to cry.
“What’s the matter, Bill?”
“Come on,” I insisted.
“You know the Medicaid speech I was supposed to give in Hempstead, for the senior citizens? Well, you know who the audience was?”
“One senior citizen. I’m in this big hall, up on the stage with a podium and a microphone, and there’s only this one real old guy, sitting in the second row. So I ask Jill, the advance man—lady, woman, whatever—I ask her, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she looks blank, and the guy, my audience, says, ‘Who’d come out on a day like today to hear a politician?’ So I asked him, ‘How come you’re here?’ And he says, ‘I’m a reporter,
Paterno.’ Just like that,
And then he takes out a pad and pencil and kind of licks the point of the pencil and gives me this look, like it’s my fault it’s a hundred and three degrees and on account of me he’s risking a major stroke. So I gave the speech, standing right up there, and when I’m finished this guy just flips his pad shut and walks off.”
“Bill, it must have been awful.”
“Terrible. Then Jill starts crying, trying to explain it’s not her fault that half of Nassau County has dropped dead from prickly heat or something and the other half doesn’t have the energy to walk out the front door. I mean, they’re scheduling me for ten-twelve hours a day, Marcia. It’s killing. I go out to Suffolk County, to that shopping center in Huntington for a rally, and it’s a rally for eight people. Two thousand ‘Paterno can do it’ buttons and eight people. Do you know what that feels like?”
The combination of heat and humidity finally wore out the building itself. Half the ceiling in Joe Cole’s office crumpled, and a chunk of plaster grazed his head. He refused to go to a doctor. “But you have a bump the size of an egg,” I said.
“It’s a small egg.”
“You really ought to have it checked.”
“I ought to have my head examined for working here. Crazy place. Pigsty. It’s going to collapse before election day. You’ll see. We’ll all be buried.”
“Better now than then,” I said.
“Yeah. Did you see the last poll? Appel’s moving up again.”
“Do you think he has a shot?”
“Marcia, he’s buying so much TV time that they hardly have room for regular programs.”
“But his ads are so slick.”
“But they’re so good.” He rubbed a patch of scalp near the bump. “Well”—he sighed—“at least I don’t have to run out and buy a suit for a victory party.”
I tried to seek refuge with Eileen. I stepped into her office and closed the door quietly behind me. “Oh. I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.
She looked almost ill. Thin to begin with, Eileen had lost even more weight. In a sleeveless blue cotton dress, she looked like a tall frail child. The two bones of her forearm shone through her skin. Her hair seemed so pale it looked white.
“Eileen, are you all right?” She nodded. “Are you sure? Have you been taking care of yourself?”
“I’m okay,” she muttered.
“Look, why don’t we go somewhere cool and get a drink,” I suggested. “It’s been ages. I’m sorry I haven’t had time to talk, but things have been happening so fast.”
“I can’t talk now,” she said, rising from her desk. She moved with her usual vigor, standing on tiptoe and searching through her bookshelves.
“Hey, it’s been all summer. I know you’re busy. I’m busy. But it will do us both good to take a half-hour break. Anyway, I need your advice. It’s really important.”
“I can’t talk. I have a brief due. And compliance papers for financial disclosure. Please.” She picked up a sheaf of papers from one of the shelves and leafed through them so rapidly I thought she would shred them. “Some other time,” she said, not looking up.
“Maybe early next week. We’ll have a long lunch.”
“No. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Eileen, you’re putting too much pressure on yourself.”
Her voice rose to a pitch higher than I had ever heard it. “I have meetings. Obligations. Please! I have to work!”
The Friday before Labor Day weekend, I walked into Jerry’s office. “We should talk,” I said.
“I’m busy now.” He collected the pencils and pens on his desk and put them into a coffee mug.
“Please. There’s not that much to say. You know that as well as I do. It’s been so painful and awkward—”
“I have to go. I’m having drinks with a guy from
“Jerry, why can’t we be honest? Come on, we were such—”
“I’ll talk to you when there’s time. I’ve got to go now.” I watched as he stood. He took a deep breath to compose himself, hooked his jacket over his index finger, and—with the grace of a Barrymore moving upstage—strode out of his office.
Two hours later he retained his matinee-idol stance as he slouched against the wall of his office, handing out small smiles to the volunteers as they trooped in to watch Lawrence Parker on television. The governor had called a news conference for six thirty in the evening; he would be carried live on almost every news show in the state.
Paterno paced up and down the room. “I don’t get this,” he said to me. “What’s he doing?”
I rubbed my hands together nervously. “I don’t know.”
Jerry grinned at one of the college kids. She blushed.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Empire State of New York,” Parker began. “I want to talk to you.” There were titters in the office. Most of the staff and the volunteers sat on the floor or leaned against walls in imitation of Jerry. Many followed his cue and snickered at Parker’s oafish countenance, his thick features, his liver-spotted temples, his slow, mechanical delivery of inanities.
“This is a very, very important thing I have to say.” The titters became laughs.
Parker went on, “I am going to talk about the thing no man wants to discuss, a problem that when it’s talked about at all, is talked about in whispers. But it’s my problem and I want to tell you, my friends of the State of New York.”
“Morrissey,” Paterno said in a hushed voice, “what do you think it is?”
“I don’t know.” Jerry traced the outline of his upper lip with two fingers. “He’s always had a girl friend. And his wife. Never heard anything funny about him. It’s probably something stupid.”
“I believe in honesty,” Parker was saying.
“Marcia?” Paterno asked.
“LoBello’s making a move.”
“Stop it,” Jerry called from across the room. “They’re in third place. They know they’re dead.”
“The problem is,” Parker announced, and then paused for a deep breath of courage, “prostate!”
“Jesus!” Jerry said.
“Later this evening, at exactly nine o’clock, I will be entering University Hospital in Buffalo where doctors Herbert Ungerleider and Nicholas Peterson will, tomorrow morning early, perform a prostatectomy.”
“Did you see how he pronounced that?” I demanded of Paterno. “He’s rehearsed—”
“So what?” Jerry interrupted.
“Now, why am I telling you this?” Parker continued. “I could have had my press secretary announce that I was tired or tell you I had a bad cold. Ha! How many times have you heard that one during a campaign?” Parker rubbed the bottom of his nose with the back of his hand. “I could have said I couldn’t campaign because of the press of state business. You know. I’m sure you’ve heard that one too, over the years of voting you have partaken in.”
“Can you believe this?” Paterno said. “Who let him do this? Disgrazia.”
“It’s just as though he was formally pulling out,” Jerry observed.
“But too many men have trouble upon urination
to talk about it. Too many men are ashamed to pay a visit to their doctor, and believe you me, they pay for it in the end.” The younger staff members and the volunteers hooted or rolled on the rug in silent laughter.
“And you know, ladies and gentlemen, what the bottom line is,” Parker proclaimed. He was nearing the end of the five minutes the television stations would grant before cutting him off. “The bottom line is that we lose good men, good citizens, to diseases they don’t have to die from if they just saw a urologist or even a regular doctor.
“Today I went to church and prayed. And now, as I leave here and go home to my lovely wife, Gertrude, and pack and then go to the hospital, I ask that you pray for me too. I won’t see you again probably before the election, so I thank you now for your support. And I only hope my speaking out has not offended you. I hope it can help other men, so they won’t try and keep secrets from everybody. Thank you and have a good evening.”