It was a lucky day for the photographer who caught the shot. Melanie wore a bright red muffler that matched her cheeks and set off the flurry of yellow hair that bounced above it. She stood firmly in the middle of the sidewalk on a frozen dirty New York street, blue eyes blazing, arms spread wide. Her words came out in frosty puffs. She was speaking Spanish.
In front of her a half dozen Puerto Rican youths with nail-studded two-by-fours and other homemade weapons shifted their feet and spat obscenities. Behind her, the sidewalk had cleared except for one old man who stood in the doorway of his small grocery, a shotgun clutched in his arms. The boys had come to teach him a lesson--he and his fat Italian wife, who counted every piece of fruit. And Melanie Lombard, hearing the angry clamor from down the block, had intervened, placing her slight body between age and youth, between have and have-not, between fear and anger.
The first boy called her bluff--he tried to step around her, daring the old man to use his weapon, taunting him with smirks and gestures. Melanie was faster, blocking his path with her small frame and tilting her head to meet his eyes. She was a New York City councilwoman--somebody important, even then--and the boy knew it, but that wouldn't have stopped him. He was a street child, filled with primal wrath and battered defiance; he seethed, ready to explode--then, suddenly, his coiled muscles slackened in confusion. What made him fling his board onto the sidewalk and walk away is still their secret, something she whispered to his face, in his language, something now only he knows.
It played in the Times the next day as bravado in black and white. What most people remember, though, is the full-color poster that launched the campaign that made Melanie Lombard the first woman president of the United States. Created fifteen years later by a savvy aide who saw a way to quicken the national pulse with a single image, the poster featured that same photo: Melanie with her red muffler and red cheeks, five feet four inches of blond courage, facing down everybody's fears in the form of Enrico Perez, with his pals threatening in the background. For millions of people, that image spoke to an underlying sense of helplessness; of course, it made Melanie Lombard a superhero.
The poster was particularly effective in the five boroughs where that same Enrico, now a grown-up ACLU attorney, served as her campaign manager. People still associate Melanie with the red muffler, but sometimes they forget its history. I've probably told this story a hundred times.
She wasn't wearing her famous red muffler that day. She had on an expensive tailored suit, befitting her new position. It was a suit I had never seen before, and a far cry from the caliber of clothes we had worn during those years we shared a wardrobe. On television, it appeared a soft beige--before it was splashed with blood; I only glimpsed it clearly for a moment. It's Hank's face that stands out the most on the TV clips. Stark, scarcely human, his shock splits your reason; his pain brands your heart. Melanie is barely seen at all; she falls too quickly. How does the world end? With the zing of a bullet; the ring of a telephone.
Copyright © 1996 by Rachel Canon