Banquet Before Dawn
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"Catches the stark lights and sweat of a campaign with biting realism." - Les Whitten
THE black limousine picked its way cautiously around the potholes on the rain-slicked streets, past the darkened hulks of aging buildings. Only the tentative cheerless lights of many bars, embedded like dulled cat’s eyes in the unrelenting blackness, testified that human life was out there somewhere.
A light turned red. The big car stopped. Suddenly a burst of brightness illuminated a fender as a drunk staggered from a bar, hands outstretched for balance.
“He’ll go home now and beat the shit out of his wife,” Fitz said, rolling up the window, as if the act of closing it would choke off his outrage.
Ashamed of his breed, Sully thought, his eyes closed, his head resting against the gray downy interior. Shoes off, his feet were propped stiffly against the backless jump seat. No sleep ever came to him in moving vehicles, only a peculiar state of languor, where the brain shed physical sensation and thoughts became abstractions, images coldly clear, perceived within icicles with sounds expressed in echoes.
The afternoon replayed itself in his senses.
“I’m John J. Sullivan, your Congressman.” It came always as an endless programmed recorder with his voice triggering an outstretched hand.
“Congressman Sullivan,” he said in a charade hopelessly performed before the tiny woman, gold chips glistening in a toothy smile.
“Koon-grass-man,” she mimicked.
She giggled shyly and clutched her net shopping bag with its jumble of potatoes and bananas. He knew she had not understood. Smiling, he patted her shoulder.
“It’s an invasion,” he mumbled. “This whole goddamned neighborhood is spic. What the hell happened to the Polacks, the Guineas, the Hebes? The whole fucking Eighth Congressional District is playing musical chairs.”
He told Perlmutter, who trotted by his side while Fitz waited like some Mafia hit man in the driver’s seat of the black limo, to get Ramirez down from Washington by tomorrow. Somebody had to translate that spic shit.
“You call yourself a district leader,” he told Tom Mullins later—“good old Moon” to the boys. “Must be five, ten thousand new spics in this neighborhood since two years ago. Get yourself some spic subleaders. The world’s a-changing, Moon.”
“I know, Sully. But I ain’t changin’ with it. It’s goin’ too fast for old Moon. We need some real good Portarickens to handle this district. They’re comin’ in like ants chasin’ a puddle of molasses. Now I go to the meetin’s and I don’t know what they’re speakin’ about, chirpin’ so damn fast and arguin’ all the time. Not like the old days, Sully.”
Moon shook a red jowly face. Old Brooklyn political war-horse. He knew the curtains were closing. The old breed was dead as Kelsey’s, and all that reminiscing was bad for his psyche and, worse, bad for the campaign. You don’t stay in Congress for twenty-six years representing this Brooklyn polyglot by reminiscing. No goddamned last hurrahs for John J. Sullivan! The next guy who told him he was a politician of the old school, he’d kick right in the nuts. He had built up too much seniority for that. The trick was getting reelected, even if the district were suddenly swarming with Martians. He’d find a way to get the Martian vote. Sniveling sentimentality is a great tool, but if it is turned toward you it becomes a cannon aimed right at your political guts.
All the landmarks were crumbling fast. It was difficult to get a handle on the district no matter how it was gerrymandered.
The Jews were long gone, and with them their stores. Sands shifted so fast you couldn’t get a foothold. The only certainty was decay. Mildew. Dry rot. It was everywhere.
Back when he was a kid, the Irish, the Poles, the Jews, even some of the Italians, who hated geographical change, were still commanding the mountain. The neighborhood was everybody’s whole world. America was maybe ten square blocks with a subway that led to foreign lands like New York, which was Manhattan, and Far Rockaway, which was the Riviera.
All that was left now of the Polish, the Irish, the Italians, was dregs. Dregs! He was stuck with the dregs. Walking in their muck. Listening to their howls of frustration, like hungry dogs trapped in a decaying kennel.
Nevertheless, he’d have to slop around after them for the next few days to get himself reelected. He really hadn’t expected a primary fight, not at this stage. Even when this Aram Yomarian had filed, he hadn’t taken it seriously. Even now the campaigning seemed superfluous. Hell, he was John J. Sullivan. But Yomarian, whoever he was, seemed to making a real effort.
“A few days’ campaigning is all you’ll need,” Fitz had said. “This Yomarian is just a pinprick on the ass of time.”
It was Perlmutter who persuaded him.
“Why take the chance? You’ve had challenges before. This one could be somewhat effective. Nothing is forever in this business.”
“You think old Sully is getting old, getting vulnerable?”
“It’s just insurance. That’s all. Insurance.”
Sully knew, though, that age was creeping up on him. He was just shy of sixty. My God, sixty! The campaigns themselves seemed to come up faster than they had before. And the names and the faces changed so fast. They moved before his eyes swiftly, merging from campaign to campaign. Perlmutter was right. Nothing was dead certain anymore. That’s why he also let Perlmutter sell him on the poll.
“Let’s see what we really have in that district,” Perlmutter had said.
“All I know is it’s getting blacker out there,” Fitz said. “Like they’ve painted it with a tar brush.”
Sully opened his eyes as the limousine rumbled across a manhole cover. He focused his eyes on April, who slouched like a cast-off puppet against the black corner of the seat.
He could see the sag in her forty-year-old face, the age emphasized brutally in repose. The sweet pert-nosed, June Allyson Irish face losing its roundness as the jowl began, ever so slightly, to change the small diameter of the facial outline. Aging was so much crueler to a thin-skinned, alabaster-faced Irish girl. He put his hand out and moved it up her inner thigh, feeling its softness beneath the panty hose, then letting his palm rest against her crotch. She acknowledged his caress by putting her hand on his, pressing it hard against her.
It was pure abuse, this campaigning, he thought, shaking his head in an involuntary shudder. Aside from the torture of the mental anguish. It was an affliction, a disease in the very marrow of his politician’s cells that never remitted completely; like a boil, growing into an unlanceable pustule until the moment of electoral truth, when, depending on the outcome, it reverted to healthy skin again or created a permanent sore.
Suddenly the car lurched, shaking them forward as Fitz jammed on the brakes for a light.
“For chrissakes, Fitz,” Sully said.
“I shoulda jumped it!”
Sully looked at his watch. “Nearly two in the A and M.” He removed his feet from the jump seat and kicked it back into its compartment. Then he slapped April on the thigh.
“Nearly home, troops.” He looked into the murk as the car rolled swiftly over the aging streets.
Fitz took a sharp right, and the car shuddered to a stop in front of the Grand Dutchman Hotel. Even in the darkness the Grand Dutchman, despite halfhearted cosmetic attempts, including a highly polished genuine brass nameplate, could not disguise its present circumstances. Once the pride of Brooklyn, with its impressive brick facade, the hotel had been the only place to hold a proper ball. Now it was only a matter of time before the advent of the wreckers’ ball. It was the only sizable hotel left in the Eighth District and, therefore, the only possible hotel for a campaign headquarters. Besides, they were able to bring the SULLIVAN FOR CONGRESS banners out of storage in reasonable condition. They had been tailor-made to fit the Grand Dutchman’s ancient marquee, which, slightly awry, and surely dangerous, somehow continued to escape the eyes of the city building inspectors. And yet, amid the endless rows of decaying brownstones, the crumbling cement stoops, and the broken or boarded windows, the old Dutchman looked almost glitteringly alive, a grand old whore in a sea of skinny needle-tracked hookers.
The lobby had been designed as the interior court of an old Tudor castle, with soaring turrets and moon-shaped openings. A huge chandelier, with hundreds of flame-shaped bulbs, was now only sparsely lit. One could imagine the carved high-backed chairs, massive oak tables, potted palms, thick Oriental rugs, and, pride of the house, the staff of uniformed midgets complete with braided epaulets and pillbox hats who discreetly carried chalked paging signs. It all actually happened once, right here. A trip to the musty archives of some dilapidated Brooklyn library would bear witness. Brooklyn really once had society, names with Van as a prefix, old families, tea dances, dowagers, and gentlemen’s clubs.
One could still see the shredded vestige of an Oriental rug, the tattered remnant of a carved chair, one leg amputated and replaced by some kitchen variety, and the little pillboxed midgets replaced now with one black man in mismatched uniform who also served as elevator operator, pimp, and after-hours bootlegger. His name was Wilson, and he had been there, slow-paced and red-eyed, for the whole twenty-six years of Sully’s political memory.
“How do, Mr. Congressman.”
“Wilson, you old black son of a bitch,” Sully would say always, even now, when the social appellation had sinister political overtones.
Sully’s group made clicking noises on the marble as they arrived. The rumpled clothes, sprouting beards, even April’s patchy makeup appeared a soaring sartorial triumph in the lobby’s gloom as they passed into it. The desk clerk, a lumpish pale man in tattered brown cardigan, switched off the snowy black-and-white TV as he hurried to intercept them.
“Congressman Sullivan!” he screeched across the cavernous void. He emerged through a side door to confront them. He was short, with a graying crew cut like a rug with half the nap worn through.
“Mr. Marbury has been waiting. He wants to see you.”
“Now?” Sully looked at his watch and pointed it in front of the desk clerk’s nose. “It’s two in the morning.”
“I’m sorry, sir. He’s been waiting all night. I’m just following orders.”
“The Congressman will see him in the morning,” Perlmutter said. “Besides, who is Mr. Marlowe?”
“Marbury,” the clerk corrected. “He’s from the owners.”
They looked at each other.
“And it can’t wait till morning?” Sully asked politely. He knew what was coming. Like an actor, he was rearranging himself into character.
“I’m afraid not, Congressman Sullivan. You see, he’s given strick orders not to let you up in the elevator, and while you were gone today, he changed the locks on the suites.”
Beyond the clerk Sully could see Wilson’s head nodding affirmatively.
Sully bit his lip and smiled. The bloodsucking begins! Then he patted the man on the arm, snugly into his role now.
“I know it’s not your fault,” he said. “We’ll be glad to see your Mr. Morris.”
Fitz and Sully followed the desk clerk through a long badly lit corridor. Not a word was exchanged. How much did we owe them? Sully thought. One thing would be certain: They would know. A mental picture of the file cabinet in his office stuffed with past-due bills popped into his head. Bills! They flooded in on him like a tide.
They followed the desk clerk into a ground-floor suite. A tall, thin, bald man rose and extended his hand. He was tieless and had obviously been dozing. Files lay on a desk beside him.
“I know this is an inconvenience for you, Congressman Sullivan, but there was simply no way to get in touch with you. Care for a drink?”
Sully could detect a slight, very slight, trace of the South in the man’s inflection. Of course he would have a drink. The man poured tumblers of scotch for him and for Fitz. The desk clerk left the room.
“This is my AA, Tom Fitzgerald,” Sully offered.
They shook hands. Sully sized the man up. Obviously, he was the man with the books, charged with the task of eking out cash flow for nameless investors who would milk the dying Dutchman until the property found another life in a more profitable form.
“Good luck on your campaign,” Marbury said.
“I’ll drink to that,” Sully said, taking a deep draw on the scotch. He watched the man as he drank. Poor fellow, he thought. If only he showed some indignance. Sully could handle that. But humility! Humility was a lethal weapon. He kept silent. Sully was tired. His palms began to moisten. Don’t panic, he told himself. It was his favorite private admonition. Marbury took a folder off the desk and opened it.
“I’m an agent for the owners. Anything I say to you is in that context, nothing personal. The fact is, Congressman Sullivan, you owe us ten thousand three hundred seven dollars and forty-three cents, going back to 1969. That’s more than five years since we received a single payment. You’ll have to admit, from any point of view, that we have been patient.” Marbury’s eyes avoided his as he spoke. Dammit, the man was embarrassed. Sully wanted to say, “I know. I know how hard it is.” He said nothing. It was just as bad on the receiving end. Where had all the money gone anyway?
“Look at this folder: letters, dun notices, telephone calls. Not one single response. Not one single dollar.”
“Are you sure you mailed this correspondence to the right address?” Fitz asked, his round face crisscrossed with veiny streams, his watery faded blue eyes a picture of boozy Irish innocence. He had played this game many times.
“Now really, Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“What was that figure again?” Sully said.
“Ten thousand three hundred seven dollars and forty-three cents.”
“Make a note of that, Fitzgerald,” Sully said, feigning annoyance, as a company president might have ordered an underling. “Have we ever seen the backup on that?”
“I’m not sure, Congressman Sullivan,” Fitzgerald said, his whole demeanor a caricature of obeisance. “I’ll have Perlmutter check it out.”
“It sounds fantastically high,” Sully said. “I just can’t believe that my office could have overlooked it.” He drank deeply. “I’m just a harassed Congressman, employed by the people. Modestly employed, I might add.” Why couldn’t he wait until after the campaign to do this? Sully wondered.
“Believe me, Congressman Sullivan, in the past five years you have received so many Xerox copies of these bills it would fill a whole file cabinet.”
And probably does, Sully thought.
“I guess people come before money,” Sully said.
“Constitutents. My people. That’s what I do, you know. I help people. I speak for them.”
“We’re people, too, Mr. Sullivan.”
“It’s not the same thing.” Sully hoped he had sufficiently hidden the panic.
“All we’re asking is that you pay your bills. That’s the American way, right?”
“Oh, Jesus,” Sully said. Then, turning to Fitz: “How come we let this go so long, Fitzgerald?”—as if good old Fitz had anything to say.
“Congressman, really,” Fitz said bravely. “Campaign finances are handled by the committee. If I were to bother you with every stinking detail, how would you help run this country? You’ve got a lot more important things on your mind.”
“Now why can’t you have that attitude,” Sully said wistfully, turning to Marbury.
“I wish I could,” Marbury said.
“Why can’t you just wait . . .” Fitz began. Then checked himself.
“Gentlemen, please. It just won’t do you any good.”
“You’re a mean man, my friend.” Sully said, finishing off his glass.
“Real mean,” Fitz repeated.
“I don’t think you should put this on a personal level.”
“Hell, everything is on a personal level.”
“Congressman Sullivan,” Marbury said. “I know you have a great deal on your mind, and you might consider this a mere detail. But this is a business. I have investors to satisfy. I have bills to pay, commitments to meet. Now, for five years, in deference to your distinguished position, we have refrained from taking any legal action. I’m afraid we can’t wait any longer.”
“I do understand your position. But the fact is, Mr. . . .”
“. . . we’re not business. The matters with which we wrestle require our very sinews, our very sinews, for they affect our survival as a nation. True, sometimes we might be remiss in business matters. Pure oversight. Probably bad office priorities. And certainly, in the press of a campaign, bookkeeping difficulties arise. Now. . . .”
He was deliberately becoming expansive. Words. Words. His only recourse, like good friends, unfailing.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, Congressman,” Marbury said. He was getting testy. Collecting back bills was an art form to which Marbury obviously was no stranger. “But as we see the situation, we have got to have payment. I am perfectly willing to start legal proceedings, especially now since this conversation. It simply can’t be ducked anymore. Five years is a long time. Frankly, I approved your moving back to the Dutchman for the campaign so that I could at least get you to listen to our side. So”—Mr. Marbury slapped his hands down on his thighs with an air of finality—“I want ten thousand dollars now. I’ve locked you out of your rooms. I fully intend to start legal proceedings against you with all the attendant publicity. I know you’re going to have a tough primary fight on your hands, and it wouldn’t be nice, no, not nice at all, for you to be characterized as a deadbeat. Congressman, have you ever seen a credit check on yourself?”
The game was up, and Sully knew it. Perhaps it was simply too early in the morning to think straight. He could only surrender now. It would be better if he were fresh.
He stood up. He was going to lose this contest, but he would do it his way. Besides, what were his alternatives? His suit was rumpled, his collar soft and wrinkled. Surely, there were black sweat stains inside the band.
Sully was tall, heavy, and had overlong gray hair, still steely but obviously heading swiftly toward pure white. Like Fitzgerald, his cheeks were laced with networks of veins, most probably that irrevocable condition of the thin Irish skin and an appetite for whiskey that could reasonably be called a tribal condition, perhaps even a genetic certainty. When he smiled, as he was doing now, a deep dimple etched itself beside his chin, and the skin around his light-blue eyes crinkled. It was just one other curse of the race, that quintessential charm in his eyes, in the way his mouth curled upward around the teeth, his stance, a kind of skeletal dignity like a posed Edwardian tintype, and beyond all, the tongue, plumbing poetic depths of imagery, words summoned somewhere deep in his Gaelic mind, activated by booze, a strange aberration of chemical change.
“Do you know how Congress works, Mr. Marlin?” I’ll be fucked if I acknowledge that man’s identity, Sully thought.
Marbury let it pass.
It was obvious that he was not connable. But the words, even in defeat, were necessary for him to say.
“Congress is like a little stock exchange. The currency is, well, favors. He helps me. I help him. There’s a lot of little mental IOU’s passed around. And when you’ve been in Congress for going on fourteen terms, you’ve got pockets full of IOU’s. Why, a little research will show you just exactly where I stand on the various committees, and you’d be surprised how many friends we have right here in Brooklyn, right here in my own little country. This is my country, you know. This little Congressional district. You’d be surprised how many judges owe me favors, and even little fellows like zoning officials, building inspectors. Why, would you believe I number among my close acquaintances even people who work for the Internal Revenue Service? How did I meet those people, Fitz?”
“Probably because you’re the second-ranking member of the House Banking and Currency Committee, the committee that has to approve all that money the government spends,” Fitzgerald pointed out.
It was the beginning of the full routine, like a vaudeville act.
Marbury stood up and poured himself a drink. The façade of solicitude he had carefully maintained fell away, leaving the formidable bill collector.
“Please cut out all this horseshit, Sullivan. You’re not talking to one of your ass-kissing constituents. Just tell me you’re going to pay me by tomorrow and I’ll see that you’re let into your rooms and you can all go to sleep. And if I don’t get paid by tomorrow, I’m going to throw your ass right out of this hotel. It’s just too goddamned late to listen to your intimidating bullshit.”
Sully looked into the man’s hard eyes. The sense of panic returned, washed over him. He felt like a swimmer before the onslaught of a giant wave.
But the panic receded. Yes, a lawsuit in the middle of the campaign could be more than an annoyance. It could sound the clarion for all the other bloodsuckers, all the others, who could descend on him like vultures. The sky would be thick with them, and no amount or quality of words would work against them. He knew that like he knew the map of his own face.
He could, of course, move the campaign headquarters out of this fleabag hotel. But his headquarters had always been here. It was more than a tradition. How many testimonials had he received here, in the Dutchman’s ornate wood-paneled ballroom? How many cold chicken dinners had he eaten here? And the rousing speeches, with his words rolling over that sea of good old red, boozed Irish faces, deep, dark Italian faces, wide-jawed Slavic faces, grandiloquent phrases roaring over the never-quite-balanced PA system. “That great statesman and pearl of humanity, Joseph Patrick Corcoran”—or was it Carmine Belldosa or Zoltan Wyshokowski? And later in the big suite, in the clouded perfume of good cigar smoke, the great old political talk and the booze, the sweet old booze roaring into the Irish gut—even, cliché of clichés, the sweet old Irish songs complete with red-rimming tears. There was only one place for John Sullivan’s campaign headquarters.
“You’ve got your crust, Maynard,” Fitz began. “This is not a hotel. It’s a hot-bed joint, and it’s in violation of every conceivable housing code in the city of New York. It’s a shit house, that’s what it is, and, frankly, the only thing that gives it any value at all is the fact that every two years we make it Sullivan for Congress headquarters.”
“Don’t do me any favors,” Marbury said.
“We could have this place closed down tomorrow, Sully. There’s enough violations here to fill an encyclopedia.”
“I strongly advise that you keep that can of worms closed, gentlemen,” Marbury said.
Fitz hadn’t yet realized that their hand was played out, that the intimidation hadn’t worked its magic. He picked up the scotch bottle and poured himself a stiff shot, pouring two inches into Sully’s glass as well. Sully drank deeply. He knew many men like Marbury, hard men. They were the bottom-liners. Humorless men. Somehow, he’d have to find the money by tomorrow.
“I really don’t think I can raise it all by tomorrow,” he conceded at last. He could still be a dignified loser. “Have you any idea how much it costs to run a campaign in this district?”
“All I know, Congressman, is that you owe this company ten thousand three hundred seven dollars and forty-seven cents, and I want ten thousand tomorrow.”
“This is not exactly a banner year for political contributions,” he said. As a matter of fact, it was a disaster year. Worse, he was facing what appeared to be stiff primary opposition from a do-gooder political novice. What was his name again? Yomarian. Aram Yomarian. All day he had seen his posters, the swarthy smiling face. Aram Yomarian, a goddamned Armenian, a twenty-eight-year-old hotshot. In his pictures he had tight curly hair over a low forehead. Like an ape, Sully thought, knowing it was not true at all, because Yomarian had a fine, pleasant face.
“You’ve made your point,” Sully said, rising again. “Thanks for the drinks. It’s been an enlightening discussion. I’ve really learned a great deal about the avarice and mendacity of the human animal. I must say that from now on this old monument to the glories of the past will somehow never seem the same.”
“It’s a shit house, Sully, an old broken-down shit house.”
“I’ll be staying over until six tomorrow evening,” Marbury said. “I know you will find the money.” He picked up the phone and called the desk man, who appeared quickly and escorted the two men back to the lobby.
April Garner and Marvin Perlmutter were sprawled across two ancient threadbare couches. Sully shook April gently. She rose automatically, and Perlmutter, as if by telepathy, shook himself awake and followed them into the broken-down elevator. It smelled of urine.
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