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The Dead Wives Club, or Char in Love

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Lisa Palazzo with her two daughters and the baby boy she recently adopted. She nows lives with another fireman.  

Then Char told Mad, “I need a bar.” When no one was looking, they grabbed each other and sneaked across the street. Char wasn’t much of a drinker, but there she was, trying pink Cosmopolitans, six of them. Eventually, the captain spotted them, and the two tipsy GWs had to return to the funeral home, though before being escorted out, Char managed to grab one last Cosmo in a paper coffee cup.

When they returned, Lisa started shouting, “Where did you two go?” (She was nervous about sitting next to the mayor. “I’d never met a mayor before,” she said.)

“The bar,” Char told her. “But don’t worry, we brought one for you.” Char handed her the coffee cup.

Then Lisa pulled Madeline into the chair of honor—the two of them squeezed into the seat next to the mayor.

“See what it feels like,” Lisa said. They put their heads down. Their shoulders, their backs shook. Passersby touched them gently. Later, Madeline said, “They all thought we were crying.” Really, though, they couldn’t stop their nervous giggling.

Char was stowed behind a row of uniformed firemen, where she sat and pulled the stray threads off their jackets.

At Mike’s memorial, a few weeks later, Char was following the A-and-W diet—Altoids and wine. She worked out a system with Joe Sykes, a Staten Island fireman who’d known Mike since they were 6 years old. Hundreds of people stood on a receiving line. Char hugged so many firemen in polyester uniforms that a red sore spread across the bottom of her chin where it rubbed their shoulders. Civilians in ordinary coats and ties approached, too. Char shook their hands.

When Joe spotted civilians approaching, he’d say, “Char, would you like some water?”

“Thank you, Joe,” Char would answer sweetly.

He’d hand her a glass of wine, which she drank as she shook civilian hands. When firemen neared, Joe would hand her the Altoids, and she’d go back to hugging. It was craziness, “accepted craziness,” Joe would say later.

At the funeral home, Char finally broke down. Her son had sobbed as the oak coffin came off the fire truck until Char whispered, “He’s not in there.” (Empty coffins were the original widow’s joke.) But how long could she insist Mike was just missing? Char fled to the funeral home’s basement.

“The show’s waiting for you,” Joe said when he found her.

“I don’t want to be in the show,” Char answered.

“Char, this is the only time the show won’t go on if you don’t come.”

Joe was so great. Char talked to him a couple times every day, the way she’d talked to Mike. He laughed with her—“It’s weird, we actually had fun,” Joe says —and drove her around, throwing his siren on if traffic backed up. He was by her side at the morgue where Char’s kids got their mouths swabbed for DNA identification. Tears ran down her 13-year-old’s face, and the medical examiner, unfazed, just said, “Open.”

About a year later, Madeline would fall for the firefighter assigned to help her—it was Gerry Koenig, who’d delivered the bad news to Char—and some didn’t like it. He’d been her husband’s close friend. Also, he was married, though the marriage was troubled. “In the beginning, nobody was really happy about it” was how one fireman from their station put it. “We were supposed to stay away from that kind of thing.” They wondered about Gerry’s motives. By now, everyone knew the widows expected a windfall. Had that affected Gerry’s thinking? But Madeline knew Gerry wasn’t insincere. “I miss him, too,” he’d tell her. “Gerry loved my husband, too,” said Madeline, who, nonetheless, sometimes called Char in tears, unsure if she was doing the right thing.

Char knew how sadness could open you up to someone. “It’s just total grief and dependency, and you don’t realize what’s happening. I depended on Joe 100 percent. I became very attached to this man, as attached as I was to my husband.” Joe is happily married and has quadruplets. His relationship with Char wasn’t romantic, though she once told him, “I wish you could marry two people. You could stay married to your wife and marry me too.”

“That’s what she needed to feel at that time,” Joe says, “I was grieving, too. She helped me get over a lot of things.” Joe counted: He’d worked with more than 100 of the dead firemen.

“Joe basically stayed around long enough for me to let go of that,” Char said. “For me to be able to stand on my own two feet.”

Staten Island is a boomtown of affordable housing, where every third or fourth block seems to hold a subdevelopment of near-identical homes on tenth-of-an-acre lots. It’s the perfect setting for firemen seeking middle-class family life. Firemen tend to be family men, and sometimes live in two-family houses with relatives (who make convenient babysitters), or on the same block with them, or, like some firefighter brothers, back-to-back, so they can share one large backyard. On Sundays, extended families—including, as in Char’s case, three generations of men with the same name—convene for dinner or, on a warm day, backyard barbecues, the smell of which carries all the way to the ferry.

After almost twenty years on the job, a fireman can earn a respectable $72,000, though with heavy deductions against future benefits, he takes home just $1,009 every two weeks, one reason so many firemen’s wives work. Still, a fireman loves his job. He can schedule an entire workweek in two days, which allows time to work a second job, coach the kids’ teams, and still grab an afternoon by the pool he put in with his firehouse buddies. There he’d sit, beer in hand, and wonder, as one fireman phrased it, “What are the poor people doing today?”

Of course, every contented fireman knows one shining irony. As Mike sometimes ribbed Char, “I’m worth more to you dead than alive.”


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