I can see him at the far end of the crowd. Fogerty is steering members of our delegation over to him two at a time. I'm so junior my turn will not come for a while yet.
I'm starving and surrounded by tables at which cleancut young people from Austin, Texas are dispensing ribs. I don't dare eat anything. Ribs are messy and I'll definitely get the sauce on me. Maybe after I shake President Johnson's hand.
Belle would have loved to come meet him and was disappointed when we were told it was stag only. I wonder what she's doing today.
My brother Bernard the businessman complains sometimes about his wife Trina . I can see he has a hard time managing her. He's already had a couple of days where he didn't know where she was, and I heard him wonder if she was running around with someone behind his back.
I would never worry about that with Belle. For two reasons. First, the girl lives a really simple, open life and would never seek those kinds of complications. I know that as well as you can ever know something about someone else. Second, the girl doesn't like sex well enough to have it with another man.
Bernard said I was a fool to marry her and increasingly I think he was right. Our dad always said to pick a poor woman with no family so you can dominate her completely. But when Bernard married Trina in Sicily, he sampled the goods first. And that marriage didn't turn out to be a winner in spite of that.
I was very naive, head over heels for the beautiful young French Canadian girl. Bernard took me to Quebec in 1955 to try out the prostitutes. Worst move of his life, he says. I never even went with a whore up there, because the afternoon we checked into the Chateau Frontenac, I met Belle. She worked as a bilingual secretary in the hotel office.
I never met a woman with such poise. She was completely charming. She was only twenty then. I was just over forty. Madame her mother was a kind of purveyor. I don't know if she tried to marry Belle off to every well-to-do American man, or just me. But she certainly hurled her daughter at me, starting on that first night.
Believe it or not, though I've been with a lot of women, I've always been nervous around them. Bernard has arranged most of the adventures I've had, so I rarely had to meet anyone cold. Eventually, following Bernard's lead, I learned how to talk to whores and party girls, but I never knew how to speak to nice women. Belle was the first one I'd met in years, all on my own. And she made it really easy. She was so friendly and funny, she just put me at my ease. There were no complications at all. Each night, I asked her out for the next night and she immediately said yes. There were no shadows, no secrets, no hint of another life or a boy in the background. I felt as if this beautiful, charming girl hadn't fully existed until I got there. I didn't dare touch her. On the third night, she gave me a nice kiss on the cheek when I saw her back to the hotel.
I had a mistress in those days, Celine Weintraub, a Jewish girl from Kansas City who was a waitress at Senior's when we met her. Bernard rushed her off her feet in one night, and then instead of having her for himself, handed her to me. Celine was pretty but he had his eye on someone else at the time. He said, Here, you need a break. You've been working hard. Bernard was always generous to me like that. He explained how to set her up in an apartment a little distance away in Brooklyn, so I could keep things discreet.
Bernard always worried that I was too soft and sentimental. He had what he called his master plan, under which we would have Brooklyn at our feet. Bernard would handle the business side, while I would handle the politics. He figured that by working through the Democratic club I would reach a point of influence where I could handle the zoning, the liquor authority, anything else we needed. He was right. He said the only risk of failure was that I would turn out too mushy-brained to do the necessary at the crucial moment.
Bernard was married to Trina but constantly had women on the side. He said (and still does) that except for having a son, which he badly wanted, he should never have gotten married. You get the sense that if something happened to Trina tomorrow, he would never remarry, just raise his son and go hog-wild with the women. As if Trina already served her purpose.
I felt very differently. In truth, I probably even would have married Celine if she wasn't Jewish. She wasn't yet that far from being a good girl when we met her. But having her as a mistress wasn't good enough for me. Bernard can't understand why that isn't a perfect life, having a woman in an apartment nearby where you can go anytime, or stay away if it suits you. I wanted a woman in my house, in my bed every night. I had this loneliness that Bernard couldn't understand, because he never felt it.
I also was on the edge of being elected to the state assembly. I had already been told that the next year, 1956, would be my turn. The first rule of politics is, make no messes. On the one hand, a lot of the guys had mistresses. On the other, they were all married, and the word to me was, find a nice wife before the election. I decided I would have the wife, no mistress. Nobody would think less of me for it, and given the amount of finagling there would be in my work, I thought it would be nice to keep things really simple in my private life. Fogerty always did. He's been married to Mrs. Fogerty for thirty-five years. He would take a bag of cash without blinking an eye, but if you sent Raquel Welch to his hotel suite wrapped in a pink ribbon he wouldn't even look at her.
When I met Belle, I knew this wasn't a woman you run around on. Over the four nights, Bernard was working on me pretty hard to try her out before I made any promises. First he said, if you must have a virgin, just fuck her and forget her. I couldn't do that. Then he said, if you bring her to New York, bring her as your mistress. What about Celine, I said. We'll find another solution for her, Bernard said. I knew that I should propose to Belle on the last night, but Bernard was hanging on my arm so hard, I couldn't do more than ask her to come to New York. As your wife? Belle finally asked. Why don't you come, then we'll see?, I replied. She didn't get angry, but she was really disappointed. All of the spirit went out of the evening, and she asked me to take her home early.
Back in New York, I couldn't stop thinking of her. I knew I made a mistake. Even Celine knew there was something wrong. Bernard did everything he could think of to distract me, but nothing worked. I realized, I must have that girl, whatever it takes. I was waking up every morning aching, like I was no longer complete and only Belle could fulfill me. I had it bad, I tell you. After three weeks, I called Belle and said, I'm coming back up. I have to see you. I took the train back to Quebec and took her to dinner at Aux Anciens Canadiens. I offered her the ring, on bended knee. The whole restaurant was watching us. She said yes on the spot. Her wonderful smile. I'm the happiest man on earth, I said. We were married three days later.
I told her, with you behind me, I can do anything. I'll be in the assembly next year, in five years I'll be in Congress, in ten senator. Who knows, maybe I'll be President in twenty years, and you'll be the first lady. Can a Canadian be first lady, she asked. Why not, I said. There's nothing in the Constitution against it, and you'll take American citizenship anyway. I was a child again. I wasn't this happy since I played in our old front room in Bensonhurst with my toy soldiers. Back then when an afternoon with my toys was all it took to be happy.
I was so much in love with Belle that the sex thing didn't matter. I just figured it would take care of itself. Five years later, I was still hoping.
Its a cruel joke that God made a woman so beautiful and tender who just doesn't care about sex. When I married her, there were a lot of jokes, especially because she's so much younger. You keeping up all right with that young wife of yours? Better watch out for that ticker, pal. To this day, everybody thinks that Belle must be a mink the way Bernard says Trina was. At it every second. Loves it.
Some women are shy and frightened. They have inhibitions, won't look, won't touch. Belle wasn't like that at all; she was like a companion, who cheerfully shares your hobbies though they mean nothing to her. Belle has sex the way she goes fishing. She is sharing your activity. She's not afraid of the fish. She'll admire it, laugh about it, to be a good friend. It just doesn't much interest her.
For a long time I didn't even notice. Belle was a virgin when we married, after all. I broke her cherry on the first night. For months after, it was like making love to a statue. She just lay there. She wasn't upset or bored. She smiled at me; she was happy I was enjoying her. She just didn't move, didn't make any noise. I figured, she's new to this, she needs me to teach her everything. If I asked her to move, she did. Touch me here, she did. But no excitement or passion. The biggest reward I ever had, a little gasp when I worked hard on her for a long time. I could never be sure I hadn't hurt her. I said, don't I excite you? She said, you're a kind and good man. And very handsome. I became bitter, when we had been married six months. Maybe there is some other man would excite you more? Certainly not, she answered. I don't think you like sex, I told her. Its very pleasant, she said. Its nice to see you so happy. I pressed her about it. I told her, there are women who lose their minds when a man's inside them. Maybe I'm just not built that way, Belle said.
I found the limits of what she would do. I asked her to kiss me there and she laughed and said, I won't do that. Nothing would ever change her mind, or even make her take me seriously when I brought it up. I thought one day, its like Bernard. He's my brother and he loves me, but nothing in the world would persuade him to go into a movie theater. Its noisy, he says, its hot, your feet stick to the floor, and the movies aren't any good. While me, I love the movies. That's all it is to Belle. I'm asking her to do something she doesn't want to. We do these little things for each other, I said. She answered, I do all sorts of things, but not that. End of discussion. Bernard won't go to movies, Belle won't go down.
Belle is a happy woman. I don't really understand it. Everyone thinks a woman who doesn't enjoy sex is crabby, a man-hater, missing a big piece from her life. I know what she needs! men say to each other. Belle lives in our house like a happy cat. Nowadays, I'm not even around. I'm up in Albany all week, in the district only on weekends. I call her on the phone almost every day. Hello, darling, she says, with that wonderful accent. It makes me melt as much today as it did nine years ago. I want to say to her: why are you happy? How come you trust me? I could be running around up here with all kinds of whores and party girls, getting a blow job every hour. Don't you care? I asked her that once, not so directly, and Belle said: I trust you. That's what it comes down to, every time. You're a kind, good man. You take good care of me.
I take marriage more seriously than Bernard. Compare our luck: he married a woman who (as he says) would have fucked him in the Coliseum or on the Palatine Steps, in full view of all the troops, if he asked her to. She adored him; Bernard was the sun and the moon to her. She loved him as those Italian women can, like in an opera. And he didn't care about that and threw it all away, so that she lives in his house like a ghost while he runs around with Celine and others. Me, I got rid of Celine when I married, gave her to Bernard, and I've been faithful all these years. To a woman who wouldn't be upset if we gave up sex entirely and lived together like brother and sister.
I watch Fogerty run around on the lawn, steering people to the President. Under my suit jacket, my white starched shirt has become a dishrag. I want to take my jacket off, as some others have, but I can't; I'm embarrassed by the sweat. Fogerty alone seems to have remained cool. He is a sort of huge wrinkle with pale blue eyes. The oldest man in the world.
Sometimes I feel desperate. I look at Belle and think, she loves me the best she can. But she wasn't really made for love, just friendship. And I feel very lonely. I did a stupid thing once. Belle sees the best in people, so she tolerates Bernard. She would hate him if he she really knew who he was, but I've seen to it she doesn't. But this one time, I said to her, Bernard says I should hit you, if you won't do what I want.
So Bernard hits Trina? she asked.
Didn't you know?
I thought so, but I wasn't sure. Trina doesn't talk about it.
She thought it over a little while, and said, Do you know why you don't hit me, Charlie?
Its not my nature, I said.
And do you know what would happen if you ever did?
You'd get on the next train to Quebec.
Don't ever forget that, she said.
When we got married, Bernard was very angry. I made him talk to me, when I needed his help trying to figure out what to do about Celine. I was thinking he would go see her for me, give her a ticket back to Kansas City. I couldn't imagine she would stay in New York after I dropped her. Instead, Bernard took her over himself. He always liked her; he only gave her to me in the first place because there was someone else he had his eye on at the time.
When he finally relented, he said to me: Whatever you do now, don't bring the mother to New York. They'll form a little party of their own against you and really run your life. I knew he had never agreed to relocate Trina's mother from Sicily, no matter how much they asked.
Almost every argument or disagreement I ever had with Belle, Bernard put me up to. He'll say, Tell her this or that, and I'll go along with it, and there will be a problem. I always end up giving in anyway, and I probably would have with the mother as well. But she didn't want to come to New York. As it turned out, Maman had cancer. She already had been diagnosed the first time I went to Quebec. When she practically shoved Belle at me, she knew she didn't have but a year or so left. She was desperate to get her daughter settled before she went.
When I got elected to the assembly, Belle told me she wanted to look for a job. I said, No wife of mine will ever need to work. She said I would be away all week and she would be very bored in the house by herself. I suggested we have a baby right away. Belle was very coy for a moment, taking my collar and petting my cheek. She kissed me and said, We will if you really want to, but would you mind if we didn't have a baby just yet? I'm only twenty-one. I agreed, as I gave in to everything Belle ever wanted. To tell the truth, I was a little afraid of it myself. Dad wasn't such a bargain, that I felt I would be such a good father to a kid. If I ever saw the look in my son's eyes that we had when dad beat us or when he yelled, I would want to fall on the floor and die. Something in me said, just let it alone. You have a beautiful wife and a great life. What do you need a kid for.
I agreed to the job also, and Belle went to work as a bilingual secretary in the French department at Brooklyn College. And the next years were wonderful, except for the sex thing. They would have been perfect if Belle had a little passion, a little excitement for it. But she was goodnatured, the best, friendliest girl in the world, patient and cooperative while I had my pleasure. Up to the point of the things she would never do, which I almost got used to not having.
Three years ago, I told her, I'm ready for a son. I don't know what changed in me. It might have been the loneliness that made me do it. I was a little jealous of Bernard. I'd seen John grow up decent. I figured if my brother, who was more crooked than I am, could raise a good boy, so could I.
Every other woman I ever knew was desperate for children. Even Celine, who should have known her life had no possibility of them, would cry sometimes and talk about kids. Not Belle. When I told her I was ready, she said, If you want to, we will. If I never asked, it seemed like she would be perfectly happy not to have a child. She had her little job, her sunflowers, her friends on the street, me on the weekends. What kind of woman needs so little? I could never understand my wife. She didn't want jewelry: she had a few nice pieces I bought her and that was it. She didn't ask for trips to Europe or the islands, though we went a few times.
So I stopped with the condoms. It made the sex a lot more exciting for me, coming in her unprotected. It didn't seem to make any difference to Belle, though. Every time we made love, I thought as I came, Maybe we just made a baby. It was a sweet feeling. I felt I loved her even more than I had, the last few years. I imagined her pregnant. But Belle wasn't any different. She smiled as she always had, happy I was happy.
Its been three years, and she never got pregnant, so there's something wrong. I've started to give it up. Its so personal that I can't even talk to Bernard about it. It means there's something broken in one of us. To be told it was me would kill me. To find out Belle is barren would kill me. I'd rather not know.
I ran around with a lot of party girls Bernard found when we were younger, but I never knocked anyone up. Celine had an abortion last year, Trina had John, and I remember Bernard got one other girl in trouble in the old neighborhood around 1940. Celine never got pregnant in the years she was with me. So maybe I can't do it. Then I'm glad Belle doesn't care if she has a baby, because she might love me less and look at other men if she did.
The next step, if I wanted it bad enough, would be to run to doctors and undergo all sorts of tests. There might be drugs, surgeries, God knows what. I get scared when I think of it. Belle never brings it up. I can't go through that. That's why I'll probably just let it go.
Belle said, we could adopt one of you want. What, I answered, and raise a stranger? The Chalfins don't adopt.
Bernard said, What do you need a son for? You have mine. In six or eight years, he could work for you in Albany. If you had your own kid you'd have to wait eighteen or twenty. You'd be seventy then.
I thought: he wants to make John my heir so that everything I have will come back to him. I see his game.
Fogerty comes over to me now. You look really sharp, kid. Not like these other mooks over here. The President's going to eat you up. I hope to God not, I said.
I'm fifty years old and only Fogerty calls me kid any more, because he's thirty years older.
I follow him across the lawn to where the President stands. He's wearing khaki pants, like the bottom half of a military uniform, and a short-sleeved checked shirt. He's still talking to Flanagan and McMurphy, telling them some kind of story, as we come up. Fogerty hovers, waiting for a break so he can introduce me.
....When you live on a ranch, President Johnson says, you get used to stopping to piss wherever you are. You ride across your land all day, you're not going to wait til you get back to the house. So when I got in politics and the journalists began to come out to see me, I'd let them follow me around. And I still never thought anything of it; I'd just stop where-ever I was, and take a leak in a bush. Then one day, this big famous reporter from the Times---you know the one I mean---says to me, Mr. President, aren't you afraid a rattlesnake will bite it? And you know what I said?
What did you say, Mr. President? Flanagan asks, with his shit-eating grin. I notice he is sweating buckets. It is pouring off his oily forehead. He makes me look cool, calm and collected. Fogerty is right: I'm a class act compared to these guys.
President Johnson goes on: I told him, hell, it is half rattlesnake. And laughs: a bellow like a bull.