By Eric Dezenhall
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Eric Dezenhall
All rights reserved.
A TIME TO KNEEL
"There was no misunderstanding. This was a conflict."
Labor Day — Margate, New Jersey (three months earlier)
"You didn't see Barium Enema on that goddamned program, did you?" the governor accused me as soon as I answered my cell phone, which I had programmed to ring to the melody of Bruce Springsteen's "Cadillac Ranch."
I was walking along the surf with my son Ricky, six, and daughter Lily, four. I promised them one last walk on the beach before we packed our cars and drove forty miles inland to where we were living in Cowtown, South Jersey.
Rebound fired his charge quickly, his voice sounding uncharacteristically high, tinny, and not at all gubernatorial. I pictured his vocal cords vibrating like the high-tension wires on the Ben Franklin Bridge. While his natural voice wasn't that deep, he usually deepened it when he was on camera. Rebound rarely called me directly, because he didn't want his words pirouetting between transmission towers from the Pine Barrens to the Hudson River and onto the ten-o'clock news. When he did call me himself, he usually opened with a fraternal "Yo, genius," then talked in code, but today he just aimed directly and fired.
"I saw the show," I said, plugging my left ear with my finger. A chestnut- colored man slathered with baby oil and wearing a toupee that resembled a dead Yorkshire terrier had just begun blasting Shirley Bassey's "History Repeating" from a boom box. A Main Line Philly Jewish young professional was attempting to extricate himself from a discussion-going-nowhere with a South Philly Irish girl. A Cherry Hill-type doctor/entrepreneur lectured a disciple on how to hide money from his avaricious wife. A crew of buff guidos fiddled with their gold chains as an excuse to flex their biceps. A gaggle of big-haired women in their forties speed- walked on the matted sand like ducks with diarrhea. A trio of mobsters sucked Havanas. A lone retiree clipped his toenails, covering the droppings with sand. Four bubbies played mah-jongg beneath an umbrella emblazoned with the Eagles logo. Two whippet-sleek Center City hotties with expressions of romantic betrayal glanced mournfully at me while I took Lily's hand.
"That's it? No genius advice?" the governor asked. The invocation of my genius was not meant as a compliment today. I sensed Rebound was smiling. Clients secretly like it when their well-paid guru fails to deliver because it validates an unconscious suspicion that they really don't need guys like me. Good work is punished because it makes you indispensable, which is resented.
I had indeed watched Barri Embrey on Election Throb last night. The Throb, as it was informally called, was the top-rated cable television program covering the midterm vote nationwide. The host frequently invited on as guests local print reporters covering hot races. Rebound was running for the U.S. Senate, which many speculated was his intended stepping-stone to the White House. Reporters such as Barium Enema loved to appear on The Throb because it gave them national exposure, plus it allowed them to editorialize and dish the kind of gossip that would have been considered journalistically unseemly in print. There was a direct correlation between making a witty sound bite and being invited back on The Throb; therefore a smart reporter like Barium Enema worked closely with the show's producer, who would set her up for the evening's zinger.
On last night's show, the subject matter was an intern program that Governor Rothman had established to help New Jersey communities that had been affected by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Mindy, the latest natural catastrophe that candidate Rothman had pledged to reverse. The intern program was entitled "A Time to Heal," and was staffed by students from New Jersey colleges, largely female. Rumors began circulating last spring that the governor had taken disproportionate interest in A Time to Heal upon meeting the nubile interns who had appeared with him at a Trenton photo op. During speculation at a nearby Starbucks about how these young women had earned their coveted internships, the wags in the press corps had informally renamed the program "A Time to Kneel."
So it came to pass that when The Throb's host, Gordon Kinney, in a tsunami of sanctimony, asked Barium Enema about how young women earned their coveted A Time to Heal internships, she disclosed with a not-quite- spontaneous smirk, "Nobody knows for sure, Gordo, but the press corps calls the program 'A Time to Kneel.'"
Much studio laughter, but Barium Enema remained calm above her Chiron:
[South Jersey Probe
The other off-site panelists broke up laughing, a courtesy that pundits afforded each other with the understanding that their quips would receive reciprocal guffaws. (I hadn't appeared as a guest on The Throb in a while. Gordon Kinney didn't like me, perhaps because I casually asked him in the Green Room, "What's happening with your bad self?" which Kinney, a fair-skinned black man, wrongly interpreted as a citation of his race.)
"Will you be, uh, probing this further?" Host Gordo asked Barri Embrey, satisfied with his pun.
"It's important to stress that right now it's all just rumor," Barri said with a furrowed brow. "But it's clearly something the Rothman campaign is wrestling with, given the family focus platform of his Senate race."
A solid comeback. First, kick 'em in the gonads with the vivid but unsubstantiated allegation. Second, follow up with the chin-scratching journalistic qualifier about the need for substantiation. Finally, stress the existence of the controversy (that you created) in order to justify it as legitimate news that The People demand be monitored.
I could still hear Rebound's prosecutorial breath on the phone.
"It's hard to retract gossip, Governor," I said. "You're a public figure. It's part of the job."
"Look, I needja down here now." I held the phone away from my head.
That was it. I had been summoned. Rebound was big on summoning. There was something about issuing a directive and having a nervous white guy materialize that really got him off. This time it was different. Rebound's voice wasn't the same. He was scared. To a pollster two months shy of Election Day, this meant that whatever was on the candidate's mind was my fault. As much as pollsters fancy themselves analysts of complex data, the best of us are at root instinct players whose gift is an internal radar as opposed to superior intellect. At the moment, my radar was sensing the presence of a hostile craft flying into the salt-scented airspace of Rebound Rothman. Among other things, this meant that I had to abandon my family and get over to Rebound's beach house, which was a half-mile away. I despised this ritual.
I rented a beach house in Margate during August through Labor Day. My wife, Edie, is from South Jersey, and her parents have a ranch near Cowtown. We had moved into a cottage on the Cowtown grounds from the Washington, D.C. area when my father-in-law had a hip replaced late last spring. Edie was stricken with worry about her father and wanted to be close to her parents, and I could run my business from a cell phone and laptop, so I agreed to the move. The kids would start at a private school in South Jersey in a few days. I didn't know how long we'd be staying, but it looked like it would be at least for the next school year. Prior to my father-in-law's operation, I had hoped to build a house in suburban Washington horse country on land I had owned for a few years, but I was uprooted, a familiar trend in my existence. At least I was with my family. At least I finally had a family, an enterprise I had begun in midlife.
Officially, Cowtown was named Pilesgrove; however, abutting the Morrises' property was the legendary Cowtown Rodeo. That's correct, smack-dab in the heart of South Jersey was an active rodeo that had entertained people across the Delaware Valley for decades. I had gone to countless birthday parties here as a kid.
While New Jersey was thought of by most visitors as a collection of chemical plants and concrete exit ramps, that was North Jersey. South Jersey was largely rural, with a thriving dairy industry, not to mention a lucrative cranberry and blueberry industry in the heart of the Pine Barrens, the vast, legend-filled woods that comprise a quarter of the state. It was in the Pine Barrens that the fabled Jersey Devil supposedly dwelled, the mutant thirteenth child of Revolutionary-era settlers.
"Okay, midgets," I told Ricky and Lily, who were shin-deep in the surf. "We need to go back up. Daddy has to see the governor."
"I hate the governor," Lily said, knowing neither who the governor was nor what hate meant. She just knew I had to extricate them from the beach, and that their mother was going to spray their father with a semiautomatic weapon moments after I announced that I was Rebound-bound. As we trudged off the beach, we passed a melancholy young couple talking on the seawall. Lily stared at them too long after she saw the young woman wipe her eyes.
"She is crying," Lily said. "Why is the lady sad?"
"Keep your voice down, Lil. They want to be private," I said.
"Why is she sad? Why is she crying? Did he hurt her?" Lily inquired with no less subtlety. I grinned the grin of constipation at the couple because they almost certainly heard Lily. I explained the scene to her as best I could.
Labor Day was a dangerous time of the season because everybody knew it was the end. This lead to frantic liaisons by collegiate lovers, last-ditch efforts to recover rent deposits from ornery landlords, and desperate "blowout sales" by swimwear peddlers.
I wasn't above these autumnal sentiments, which I tied to my worsening professional burnout. Most pollsters would be thrilled to be such a close confidant to a sitting governor with national ambitions, but despite Edie's resentment of my job, I, too, was tired of being in a service business where deluded clients demanded that I slave endlessly in order to achieve unattainable results. I was a pollster, not a mystic, but pixie dust was what political consultants were selling nowadays. Given my malaise, I had developed the habit of asking the same question of everybody I knew, and even some I didn't: How much money did I need to retire? The answer was usually a very unsatisfying "It depends," which threw me into a silent rage that just compounded the problem. When my head cleared, I concluded that I was a member in good standing of the middle class, but fell far short of having the kind of cash that would permit me to tell the governor where he could shove his Destiny.
As a veteran man of action who believed in tackling life's challenges with alacrity, I took responsibility for my midlife funk by doing something totally original and intrepid: I bought a silver Porsche Carrera. To Edie, a devout minimalist, this was treated as a sin on a par with adultery. To my late grandfather, Mickey, my purchase would have been considered an outrage that would cause the God of the Old Testament to descend upon me with Passover-style plagues. To Mickey, understatement with blood money was superior to flashiness with honest wealth. That the vehicle was made in Germany would have made his eyes shoot from his head the way Wile E. Coyote's did when he recognized that the Road Runner had run him off of a cliff. I believed in Old Testament wrath, and suspected that my deceased grandfather had considerable juice with the Big Guy: I operate under the principal that God is not interested in weighty issues (e.g., genocide prevention) and would prefer to devote his powers to arranging for my bank to have only one teller, a recent immigrant from Ghana who spoke no English. In the spirit of my theology, when I drove out of the Porsche dealership, I pulled the knob off the gearshift, and had to immediately turn around to have it reset. As the repair got under way, my stomach churned in the waiting room, and I began to despise my new motorized testicle. The Porsche in question now sat in the driveway of our rented beach house, the sun's reflection against the sparkling paint blinding me through my sunglasses.
The kids ran in the house and upstairs to "say good-bye" to their bunk bed. Edie stood at the doorway to their rooms. I was scared of her. I think it was because I suspected she was perfect. Now I had to break the news that I had to go to see Rebound, whom she loathed. I lingered at the bedroom door as Edie felt the kids' bathing suits to see if they were dry enough to slip right off and pack.
Edie had a stern look on her face. Her long brown hair fell around her shoulders. Her eyes were grand cocoa-covered almonds reflecting her Lenape Indian heritage on her father's side of the family, balanced on either side of a patrician nose that turned up at the end. Edie's nose reflected the ancestors on her mother's side — the ones who had arrived on the Mayflower and told her Dad's forebears to slide over westward. She was wearing one of my flannel shirts and an old pair of jeans. No makeup. This was Edie's standard attire, and I loved her for it.
"These bathing suits are still wet," she told Ricky and Lily. "I told you that you could get your toes in the water but not go in. Jonah, why did you let them go in? Now I have to throw them in the dryer!"
"I didn't let them go —"
"Then why are they wet?"
"They went in up to their shins. Maybe some splashed up. I don't know —"
"I know. He called, and you were distracted."
I had been scalped by the Indian and stung by the WASP. If you look up "futility" in the dictionary, you will find a picture of me fighting with Edie. She never found it to be in the realm of possibility that I could be anything but wrong.
"As you know, I conspire to make your life harder," I said.
"So what is it?" Edie asked without looking at me. She threw the bathing suits into the dryer.
"I'm sick of my job," I said.
"You're at that age."
"That doesn't make it any easier."
"Is it your conscience?" she asked, setting the dial.
"Do you see yourself retired?"
"I can't retire."
"Is this your inoculation effort justifying that Governor Narcissus summoned you?"
I was always hoping she'd be stupider. "He sounds upset."
"That's his management style. He lobs missiles to keep people on the defensive, and you fall for it every time."
This was true. Rebound rescued me from career oblivion when he hired me to handle his gubernatorial campaign after I found myself embroiled in the second ethics scandal of my career. I felt Failure snoring under my bed, and one stupid move would wake up the beast. Rebound intuited this and tweaked it mercilessly, which I permitted in order to remain employed. But the fact remained that I had gone through life one step ahead of disaster, something that Edie, with her oak-solid upbringing, could not process from her frame of reference.
"He's the governor," I said.
"He's a diva."
"He's up for reelection," I said.
"So, you have to go and change his diaper?"
I heard our children titter at the word diaper.
I searched for a snappy comeback. No dice. "This is my job, Edie."
"Then go. Do your job." Edie dragged out the word job.
Whenever she did this, it left me with the same feeling I had after my mother died, which was within a year or so after I lost my dad: Alone. I had learned that with Edie, "talking about it" was worthless. My business summoned, and she wanted me home packing.
I slipped down the staircase and kissed my two naked children goodbye. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shakedown Beach by Eric Dezenhall. Copyright © 2004 Eric Dezenhall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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