Read Close Relations Online

Authors: Susan Isaacs

Close Relations (7 page)

“I don’t know,” Paterno muttered, shaking his head slowly back and forth. “It’s so soon.”

“Jerry’s right,” Eileen said. “And it would give us an extra month to fund-raise, to approach a lot of heavy contributors before everybody else does.” Although she and Jerry routinely sniped at each other, their political judgment was remarkably compatible. According to Jerry, they didn’t dislike each other at all; they were simply too much alike, coming from similar lower-middle-class Irish backgrounds, to find each other interesting. Bickering, he explained, helped them to keep awake in each other’s company.

Eileen acknowledged that their outlooks were very similar but felt obliged to inform me that men like Jerry were, beneath a thin layer of charm, sexist, narcissistic, and anti-intellectual. When we were alone, she teased me about being a sucker for a pretty face and called him names like Heartthrob. She had suggested that men like Jerry were a dime a dozen in her old neighborhood in Jackson Heights.

“Thank you for your support, counselor,” Jerry said, flashing her a wide, bright-toothed smile.

And it did seem that she avoided men like Jerry, selecting soft, quiet, bookish men to date, men whose pale lips matched their eyeglass frames, men who called to discuss the body politic.

Eileen turned from Jerry back to Paterno. I felt bad that they couldn’t enjoy each other, because I wanted the three of us to be friends. But each said they had enough of the other in the office, so my friendship with Eileen was limited to long lunches and to evenings when Jerry was busy. She came to our apartment only once, when Jerry was safely in Houston at the Democratic Convention. She had gazed around the living room and asked, “Kathye Baron?” I had nodded. “Well, she certainly tried, poor thing.”

Eileen was five years younger than I, thirty, but I thought of her as more than my peer. She never acted uncertain. She maintained a dignified distance from the raucous, boorish, political world she worked in. She could ignore the crass and smile at the grotesque. People felt calmer in her company; she exercised a kind of tranquilizing charisma: Our Lady of the Law.

She even looked a little like a madonna, full of pastel composure. She had placid green eyes and pink cheeks and light hair. Her hair was her best feature, a blond so pale it barely missed looking white. It was not very thick, but she had let it grow and piled it on top of her head with combs or barrettes, so it looked heavy, opulent. My mother would have pointed out her sharp nose and thin lips.

But I felt Eileen’s was the most congenial expression in the room, so I addressed my remarks to her. “It’s not too soon,” I suggested. Although I never minded attending meetings, I didn’t like to speak at them. Invariably I’d be challenged or interrupted or snapped at, and I’d stutter, turn red-faced, and wind up addressing clumsy remarks to the carpet. I preferred taking notes, so afterward, alone with my typewriter, I could declaim in an incisive, assertive fashion.

“Good. Glad you’re speaking up,” Paterno said. I smiled at him, then lowered my head. “Wonderful,” he enthused. I looked up at him and he said softly, “You were talking kind of low. What did you say?”

“I said, it’s not too soon to declare your candidacy. I can understand your wanting to wait for the end of the mourning period, but you really should do it very soon.”

“Why soon? Why not wait until May?”

“Because of the poll,” I murmured, wishing now that Jerry and Eileen would leave the room. My articulateness is inversely proportional to the number of people in a meeting. With just one I can be dynamic. With two I can hold my own. I fade with three and with five or more become indistinguishable from the furniture.

“Marcia, what do you mean by the poll?” Jerry asked in the gentle, patient voice people use when dealing with a retardate. He knew I didn’t excel in public speaking.

“I mean …”

“Which poll?” Paterno demanded. “Our poll? The


“Marcia,” Eileen said, “would it be easier if we cut open your gut and read your entrails?”

“Yes,” I answered. “What I mean is, I’m referring to our poll, the one Victor Chang took.” The three others nodded. “Your upstate recognition factor is only twenty-two percent, and you need time to build that up.”

“Hmmm,” Jerry said.

“Ummm,” said Eileen.

“And that twenty-two percent isn’t a solid figure. Remember what Victor said, Bill?” Paterno blinked his black, bulgy eyes and caressed a liver spot on his right hand.

Victor Chang was the newest polling star in the political firmament, although he twinkled on a limited wavelength. He told the
New York Times
that he felt “morally obligated” to work only for “decent Democrats.” For a fast ten thousand dollars, he had done a quickie poll upstate the week before which showed Paterno with a “fluid twenty-two” percent of the respondents claiming to recognize his name. Apparently, ten percent of these voters approved of Paterno’s skills as a negotiator and “urban manager.” Another eight percent knew him but disapproved of him, believing that he had usurped the mayor’s role during the police and sanitation strikes, this despite the fact that the mayor’s only recognizable asset was his ability to keep his ears clean.

Of the remaining four percent, half had him confused with Fiorello LaGuardia, although Chang insisted that this was a plus; people still held the late LaGuardia in high esteem. The other two percent thought Paterno was someone outside of politics; a nightclub singer, a football coach, and a Mafia don were suggested identities.

“Well,” I said to my shoes, “what do you think?”

Eileen, who would never address her feet, cleared her throat and eyed Paterno. “Marcia’s right,” she announced. “We have a good, solid base down here, but we can throw the whole thing if we just concentrate in the metropolitan area. You’ve got to start calling in your upstate cards, Bill. And don’t forget, with the new campaign finance statutes …”

“I know,” Paterno said, inserting his upper lip between his teeth and gnawing on it.

“Now that Parker’s in,” Jerry said, referring to Gresham’s lieutenant governor, who had risen to the number-one position on a bite of knish, “you can’t just sit back and be Catholic. You’re going to have to woo a lot of people you don’t particularly like.”

“I know, I know,” Paterno declared. His mouth grew tight, giving him a grim expression. “What kind of support do I really have up there?” he asked Jerry.

“You really want to go through this again?” Jerry gave Paterno a cool, blue, patient stare.

“I want to go through it again.”

“Mother of God,” Eileen whispered.

“What? What did you say, Eileen?” Paterno demanded.

“I said, ‘Mother of God,’ “she responded forcefully.

“Oh.” As usual, Paterno backed down. He even offered her a small, conciliatory smile. Eileen was convinced that Paterno put up with her because of her legal expertise and because he secretly, passionately desired her. She was as romantic as a Victorian maiden. Professionally she may have fought with frigid logic and cold sarcasm, but privately she placed monogrammed packets of sachet in each drawer and interpreted men’s glances according to their degree of significance. Paterno’s bulgy eyes gave him an almost perpetually significant look. I agreed that he admired her—no one knew New York election law better than she—but thought his glances quite insignificant.

Politicians have a reputation as insatiable studs, continually tumescent. They are rumored to go through aides and secretaries like an electric drill through a wooden plank. But many of them aren’t sexual at all. Their energies and interests are focused on personalities, on plots, on simply recollecting the name of the district leader’s spouse. Some grow weary because they work hard. Paterno’s appetites were huge, but they were not sexual. Not that he behaved like a castrato. He appeared to be a normal man. He had had two children, and his late wife, Terri, had seemed reasonably content; at least she never had a hungry, crazed, Anna Magnani look. But I never saw him breathe hard for any woman. Paterno was solicitous of Eileen because he valued her expertise. Also, he probably had visions of feminist hellions who would spring to her defense and tear his limbs off if he fired her.

But Paterno’s gentility could go only so far. He was less patient with Jerry. “What the hell do you know about anything?” he’d often snap, or “Who’s feeding you your information, Morrissey? Boss Tweed?” Jerry, in turn, treated Paterno as though he were not completely
compos mentis,
explaining political maneuvers in a maddeningly slow, simplistic fashion or giving Paterno a list of phone calls to make, people to cajole or soothe on some particular issue. “Now don’t forget, Bill,” he’d say, “if they’re not there, leave word you called.”

They seemed like opposites: tall/short, handsome/homely, calculating/emotional, and in many ways they were. But, at work, the opposites attracted and merged, forming a complete political being.

“All right,” Jerry said, uncrossing his legs, leaning forward toward Paterno’s desk. “I’ll go through the names again, the county leaders, assemblymen, and senators who owe you. Some owe you from years ago, when you were up in Albany. Those are—” and he reeled off a list of six or seven names. Paterno, who had lifted up a pen as Jerry began to speak, put it back on his desk after the third name. “Now, the next group are people who owe you from when you were chairman of the constitutional convention. Are you ready?” Paterno nodded seriously, then looked annoyed. This time Jerry whizzed through a dozen names, five of whom I had never even heard of. I was tempted to ask who they were but didn’t want to embarrass Jerry by making his list sound less than the definitive one of New York State Movers and Doers. “Anything else?” he asked Paterno.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s the matter, Bill?”

“How solid are they?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. How solid? Can we really rely on these guys?”

“I’ve spoken to them all within the last week. They’re with you. They just need a signal that you’re going to run. Look, you’re popular and they think you’ve got a good shot at beating whoever the Republicans put up. But you have to get through the primary before you can go after Republicans.” Paterno nodded his head up and down, very slowly, as if he were suddenly privy to a long-kept secret. “They know and we know that Parker is such a jerk it takes all his concentration to hit the urinal, but he has one thing you don’t.”

“He’s governor now,” Paterno said mechanically.

“Right. And in any political contest, there’s an automatic prejudice in favor of the incumbent.”

I found my voice again. “But the incumbent is excruciatingly stupid. I mean, Parker is publicly dumb.”

“As long as he keeps his clothes on and speaks something that people believe is English, the incumbent has an advantage,” Jerry said, still eyeing Paterno. His voice was strong, sure, without a single doubt. “But we’re not dealing with unsophisticated idiots. These upstate guys are not a bunch of dumb farmers.” Paterno was peering at Jerry, intrigued with this notion. “They know that Parker has an excellent chance of making an ass of himself in a general election. And they would very much like a strong candidate. Therefore, they will go to the man“—Jerry’s eyes moved to me and Eileen for a second, and he exhaled loudly—“or the woman who shows some strength and popularity. They know your clout here in the city. They know all about your—uh, sterling character and abilities. But they’re sophisticated enough to know that you’re not a known factor upstate. They want someone who will appeal to the dairy industry, the winegrowers, the apple farmers.”

“My grandfather was a farmer,” Paterno muttered.

“What did he grow?” Jerry demanded.

“I don’t know. Olives, I think.”

“What the hell good is your grandfather if you don’t know what kind of farming he did? And do you think it’s going to impress some megafarmer with fifty thousand cows that your grandfather grew a fig tree outside of Palermo?”

“We didn’t come from Palermo. We came from a little town—”

“Bill, save it for the Sons of Sicily breakfast. Look, they like you, but they want some assurance you’re in this thing seriously. They’re not going to put their asses on the line for you without a real commitment on your part. They don’t like Parker, they certainly won’t go for the rest of those cabbageheads. You’ve got to declare, though, go up there and make some sort of impact before they’ll risk offending the incumbent. And we’ve got to get a petition drive going if you want to get more than three signatures in Herkimer County.”

“I know,” Paterno said. He picked up a ball-point pen and rolled it between his palms. “But are you sure?” He seemed to be riding Jerry harder than usual. I glanced at Jerry: his eyes had narrowed, but he seemed more irritated than angry or defensive. I felt a little uneasy, though, because in trying times Paterno usually abandoned his normal querulousness; he would hang on every word Jerry uttered with the fervor of a young animal clinging to its mother. “Morrissey, I was just thinking that if—”

“Jesus H. Particular Christ,” Jerry snapped. “I’m telling you, Bill, you can’t sit around playing Hamlet. You’ve got to build an effective organization upstate.”

“Okay,” Paterno said, pointing the pen at Jerry, as though it were a long metal finger. “Let’s get into that.”

“Into what?” Jerry’s voice sounded cool, but his face began to flush.

“Into an organization. Who do we have?”

“Where? What do you mean? Upstate?”

“Anywhere.” Paterno’s voice had grown cooler than Jerry’s.

“All right. Down here, we have Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, and probably Manhattan. The Bronx is iffy because Bob Aponte keeps thinking he’s emperor instead of county chairman, but voter turnout has been so low for the last two years that it probably—”

“I’m not talking about backing. I know who’s supporting me, for Christ’s sake. I’m talking about staff.”


“Staff.” Paterno and Jerry were now into their high-gear, man-to-man politician dialogue. This happened frequently. Eileen and I were useful for specific functions, for legal counsel, for writing, but deep down I don’t think either man trusted our general judgment. They would ask us to meetings, consult us, listen to us, but when the conversation ranged a few inches beyond the specific, they behaved as though we had faded away. They could only hear each other.

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