This is the prologue and first chapter of a novel with a unique approach to the vampire theme

 


 

A MOST MALIGNANT SPIRIT

a novel by

Zvi Zaks

By Light Unseen

Available at AMAZON, BARNES AND NOBLE, and others.

(About 100,000 words)

 

Part One

Prologue

Jonathan Harper's corpse was a bloody mess, but, repulsive though it was, the agonized expression on his face was worse; even the constable who found the body shivered at the sight. Officers launched an investigation, found a vagabond with Jonathan's brooch in his pocket and charged him with the killing. The man confessed to robbing a corpse, but proclaimed his innocence of murder up until the gallows' trapdoor sprung open and silenced him forever. Nevertheless, the police had no doubts of his guilt.

Archivists for the Perceptives tell a different story. They insist the vagabond was innocent. Jonathan's death in 1888—the year before A. Hitler's cursed birth—was just the latest in an ancient series. According to these archivists, Jonathan had to work late one night, and when he finally pushed open the thick wooden doors of the London bank, the sun had long since set. Wind howled and frost stung his face. He patted the pocket holding a bejeweled brooch intended for his fiancée and started walking towards his boarding house. The buildings along the empty roadway were like dark black cliffs lining an abandoned canyon. A cat crouching in the gloom hissed. Clouds passing over the moon cast shifting shadows like rats sneaking along the curbside. Jonathan shivered and buttoned the top of his coat.

Two blocks from his residence, the relentless smack of stiff leather footsteps on hard stone echoed behind him. He glanced back and saw a shadowy figure. Rumors of a demon that stalked young people and drank their blood had terrorized the city for weeks, and had left Jonathan's fiancée in constant dread. He had laughed at the idea, but now, with that ominous figure trailing him, terror colder than the wind pierced his chest. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had become dry. He walked faster. The footsteps drew closer. He panicked and ran.

A dark alley appeared, and with it a thought entered his head--hide here. Panting in terror, he entered the littered walkway. But the path ended after just a few yards, leaving him trapped.

The figure approached. You have nothing to fear, a voice in his mind said.

It lied. As the drab and weary looking form advanced, Jonathan knew this was the supernatural killer. With a grimace, he unbuttoned the top of his coat, and pulled out his defense—a silver crucifix. This holy replica, a gift from his mother, would surely protect him. His voice rang out in the night. "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost I bid you depart."

The specter ignored the adjuration and walked to his victim. He yanked the icon from its fragile chain and stared at it, turning it back and forth. "You've been reading too many novels. This doesn't bother my master." He stuffed the cross into Jonathan's coat pocket. "And it won't help you." He put his hand on the youth's shoulder and drew him closer.

A stench of vomit coming from that minion from Hell made Jonathan retch. "Jesus, save me," he said, his voice no more than a mumble. His hand struggled to trace the sign of the cross, but his neck obeyed the vampire and bent to the side, exposing the jugular to the apparition's lengthening fangs.

****

Before starting this odyssey, I would have believed the police report. Now I know better.

Part One

 

Chapter One

 

My involvement in this saga began on a warm summer night in 1990. It was a year before the first Iraq war and two years before Bill Clinton defeated Bush Senior. The Phantom of the Opera movie and Edward Scissorhands were playing. This was the first year of NC-17 ratings. East and West Germany united, Kevorkian assisted his first suicide, and airlines banned smoking on all domestic flights.

The moon was full and bright that night. Paramedics wheeled a girl—she could not have been more than sixteen—into the LA General emergency room. Her face was cherubic, but grime and tears stained her cheeks, and a strip of spiked purple hair divided her otherwise bald scalp. From my desk a few yards away, I saw her kick off the sheet covering her. She wore a leather vest and miniskirt, nothing more, and had left herself with legs akimbo, exposed. I sighed and got up to replace the sheet. Someone had taped to her chart an empty bottle of Xanax, the pills she had used to try to kill herself.

Brenda Anders, the ER resident, passed by while I was tucking the sheet under the gurney mattress. She snickered. "Eli, she's too stoned to care who sees her twat."

"I care," I muttered, but Brenda had already left to check her latest crisis.

A young orderly threw Brenda a glance and grimaced. "Is she always that bitchy?"

I shook my head. "No. The workload is stressing her out."

The number of people in the ER would stress out anyone. Brenda's loudest patient, an intoxicated biker, spat obscenities. A background of voices cried out in pain and despair, some loud, others scarcely audible, all reverberating from the dingy walls. Most of these wretches were Brenda's to care for.

One person in particular, an emaciated, unshaven man, caught my eye. He rattled the side-rails of his gurney and intoned, "I am Christ Jesus, come to save the world." Parched lips and sunken eyes revealed severe dehydration while blood oozed from puncture wounds in his hands and feet. He could have been twenty or sixty. The chart said only that his landlady had found him nailed to a wooden cross on the wall of his apartment and had called the police.

His features looked Jewish, which was strange, because thinking you are Jesus Christ is a Christian delusion.

Fighting to keep my eyes open, I returned to the counter and continued writing notes on my patient, Consuelo Gutierrez, a middle-age lung-cancer survivor with pneumonia. Consuelo should have been the ER's patient, but I knew her and her worries of the cancer returning. Moreover, I could speak her language, Spanish.

Sheila, the head nurse, a buxom woman in her late thirties, bustled by to check the medication shelves. "Thanks for covering up that girl, Eli. I can't believe this place. It's a real zoo tonight. Is there a full moon?" Metal cabinet drawers squeaked as she pulled them open and rattled little glass bottles, releasing a medicinal smell.

My smile was wry. "There is, but that shouldn't make a difference."

"No difference?" She snorted, blonde curls shaking with mock indignation. "Are you kidding? Look at that hallway. One gurney after another with overdoses, psychotics or both. Poor Dr. Anders is two hours behind, and you say the moon makes no difference? Get real." She grabbed a vial from the cart and sucked yellow fluid into a syringe.

I laughed. "Don't worry. The ER will quiet down in another hour, though I'll be working much later."

She turned towards me with wide eyes and an uneasy giggle.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Uh, don't you realize? You just made another prediction."

I lifted my eyebrows.

"You don't know?"

"Know what?"

She took her stethoscope from her pocket and draped it around her neck. "Your predictions. My gosh. The nurses here laugh about them, but they're so accurate, it creeps me out. You don't just guess good, Eli. When you say the ER'll be swamped, we call in extra staff. The only time you were wrong, you were sick yourself and should have stayed home."

I grimaced. "Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm serious."

I swung my chair away. "Stop it. I don't want to hear that nonsense."

She adjusted the stethoscope and looked puzzled. "What's the matter?"

I forced myself to speak quietly. "Galileo wouldn't like it. I'm a 'Friend of Galileo.'"

She screwed up her face. "Friend of Galileo? The astronomer? What the hell is that?"

"A club I belonged to as a kid."

She held up her hands. "Galileo isn't upsetting you, Eli. You're so bummed out, you're quivering."

"It's not important."

She pulled up a chair, sat near me, and put the syringe on the table. "I've known you since you were a green resident. Your face says it is important. Spill it."

I took a deep sigh and let it out slowly. "When I was ten, my cousin had meningitis and the doctors said he would die. I had a premonition he would pull through, and he did—one hundred percent. After that, my mother kept talking about 'psychic powers' and saw any lucky guess on my part as proof. I got lots of attention, and at first it was fun. Then my Dad insisted I coach him in a card game. It didn't work. He lost his shirt, accused me of sabotaging him, and hit me." I hesitated. "He and Mom fought for weeks afterwards. It was a miserable time that taught me never to trust magic. The whole idea of ESP repulses me."

The corners of her mouth twitched upward. "I'm sorry, Eli. I didn't mean to pry."

I writhed at the memory. "It's all right. I shouldn't have snapped at you."

"Forget it. But I hope your premonition is right this time. I'm tired of these weirdoes." She scurried off to give her injection.

I shook my head. She too thought I had psychic powers. How could an intelligent and educated nurse like Sheila believe such crap?  She was right about one thing—the strange patients. Brenda's drunken biker, just fifteen feet from my desk, took first place for weirdness. The patient, a muscular, hairy man reeking of stale sweat and booze, struggled against his restraints and screamed that a vampire had attacked him. A long, bloody gash in his throat—a friend said he made it himself while on PCP—looked horrible, but was too shallow to endanger him.

"You Goddamned motherfucking bloodsuckers with Goddamned voices telling me don't fight. You smell like a shithole. Get those teeth the hell out of my neck!" he shouted.

The nurses would not go near him.

Brenda tried to examine him but his thrashing made that impossible. With a disgusted frown, she trudged to my desk and leaned towards me. "Eli, I'm going to do you a favor. This patient is a real learning experience. I'm going to let you have him."

I laughed. "Good try, but no. I treated enough PCP freaks."

"Ah, but this one's been attacked by a vampire. His struggles ripped the puncture wounds into a gash. I'm sure you've never treated vampire bites before."

"I don't need patients with make-believe illnesses, but if the vampire himself comes to the ER, I'll take him."

Not amused, Brenda returned to her patient, whose urine showed PCP, as well as amphetamines, heroin and a couple of other drugs. No doubt about it, those chemicals fry brains.

"Hey, Eli," Sheila called. "Elizabeth Forest just came in. She's got a fever of 103°."

"Isn't she one of Andrew Netter's leukemia patients?"

She smiled with saccharin sweetness. "She sure is. Be a dear and take her case. Dr. Anders is way behind."

I glanced at my watch and yawned. It was 11:00 p.m. I should have felt compassion for this woman who had a "legitimate" illness—leukemia—in contrast to self-induced problems like drug overdoses, but I felt exhausted. "It's late, Sheila."

She patted my shoulder. "C'mon, Eli, Dr. Netter would want you to take over. Besides, you have the key to his office and her records. You said yourself you would work late tonight." She smiled again.

"Please, no more talk about predictions."

"Okay. But you know you won't finish before midnight no matter what."

She was right. I ordered a chest X-ray and blood tests on Mrs. Forest, and walked out of the emergency room into the moon-drenched night. Crickets called to their mates and a breeze carried the fragrance of eucalyptus as I jogged to Andrew Netter's office several hundred yards away.

Inside, pastel purple rugs blended with original oils hanging on textured wallpaper. A fifty-gallon aquarium burbled while indigo and bright vermilion fish swam through synthetic seaweed. I sat for a moment in the executive's chair behind the oversized mahogany desk, smelled the odors of wood and leather, and smiled. Sitting in that same chair, Andrew Netter had often said I could have an office like this if I wanted. No question that it was beautiful. The question was—did I want it?

Netter was my idol. A portly, graying gentleman a little taller than my 5'10", he wore a mantle of geniality and quiet dignity, and treated us lowly residents and fellows with uncommon courtesy. The big brother I never had, he often invited me to dinners in his elegant house or swimming parties in his Olympic-sized pool. Though as a rule I don't go to Christmas celebrations, I never missed his. His wife was less sociable, and his teenage children were downright rude, but Netter himself was a prince.

Six months ago, he invited me to join his prestigious oncology group after my training ended. I would be guaranteed status and money. Karen, my girlfriend, kept saying I would be crazy to refuse.

Yes, he had a nice office, and he'd be a good guy to work with, but the extravagant luxury around him made me uneasy. It seemed more for show than enjoyment.

Without warning, worry about Netter made my head spin. I shuddered. Could this be another damn premonition? I pushed the thought away, pulled Mrs. Forest's three-inch chart from the file cabinet, and leafed through the pages.

My pager buzzed against my hip. I jumped. The little green screen flashed, "Call Sheila stat."

I dialed the ER. Sheila picked up on the first ring. "Eli, get back here right away." Her voice quavered.

"What's wrong?"

"Just hurry!" she cried, and the phone went dead.

I grabbed the chart and sprinted back to the ER. Sheila's fear, audible even over the phone, frightened me. She could handle anything in an emergency room, so what had frightened her? If she was scared, it was serious.

A siren wailed as I ran to the emergency room and inside. A nurse pointed without speaking towards the curtain half shielding a gurney. I dashed to the cubicle and gasped. My idol, Andrew Netter, lay comatose and scarcely breathing, an empty bottle of sleeping pills taped to his chart.

Brenda worked on him with efficiency and admirable detachment while I stood motionless next to the gurney. She pushed thick needles into Netter's arm and mumbled something about a pulmonary doctor. The nurse next to me, a tiny Filipina woman, touched my arm. "Dr. Rothenberg, Dr. Anders is asking you a question." Her voice was gentle.

Brenda glanced up at me. "You okay, Eli?"

"Yeah, sure. What were you asking?"

"I know he's your friend. Would you like the pulmonologist to take over?" Brenda opened the stopper on the IV bag, letting clear fluid pour into his arm vein. Then she took a large syringe and plunged it into an artery in Netter's groin. Bright red blood filled the barrel and reassured me that at least he had enough oxygen.

I shook my head, trying to clear my brain. "Are you having trouble?"

"Oh no, I could do this with my eyes closed. I just thought maybe you wanted one of the attending docs."

A baby in the next cubicle cried in fury. My head spun. "No. You go ahead."

Brenda stuck a thick orange tube down Netter's nose to wash out his stomach. She even hooked him up to a respirator because his breathing had slowed so much. Andy Netter had become another overdose, another attempted suicide in the emergency room under the full moon.

Emergency rooms are strange places. The bright lights, constant alarms, scurrying white-garbed personnel, and the smells of sweat and dying create an unreal aura. Life and death decisions are so common we doctors become numbed to their importance and don't see agonized faces of fear, guilt and grief. But when the gurney holds your mentor, when your friend is covered with wires and tubes, life hanging on a machine, then the numbness disappears. Detachment vanishes, and the agonized face—at least for a while—is your own.

****

The ER emptied out at midnight, and I reached the tiny on-call room just before 2:00 a.m. Though exhausted, I tossed and turned in the narrow cot while ruminating on Netter's suicide attempt and also worrying about the strange premonition I felt just before Sheila's call. When sleep finally came, I dreamed of the patient with the neck gash, now a vampire himself, stalking the corridors of an ancient London hospital.

Next morning I checked on Mrs. Forest, who was feeling much better, and then visited Netter in the ICU. His face was pale and gaunt, but the breathing tube was out and he was awake. "How do you feel?" I asked, pulling up a chair.

He shook his head. "I have a headache."

"Do you feel like talking?"

He closed his eyes. "I've been such a fool." With the cardiac monitor pinging in the background, he told the story. He and his wife had been seduced by their huge house and its implied status, and had fallen into massive debt. Trying to catch up, he worked too many hours and neglected his family. His son had been suspended from high school for using drugs and his daughter was pregnant. Frantic, he saw his life deteriorating, but could not stop the downslide. The final blow was finding his wife with a lover. "That's when I took the pills," he said in a voice so low, I strained to hear him.

The confession overwhelmed me. To me, Netter epitomized the successful doctor, one whose footsteps I might follow; did those footsteps lead to such an end? I mumbled some platitudes and, fighting fatigue, left to finish rounds, Netter's sad image floating in front of my eyes.

I escaped from the hospital around mid-afternoon and went home, or rather, went to Karen's apartment. I had moved in with Karen Lodge five months ago. She was the most affectionate woman I had ever met, always hugging and touching me. I loved it. In her red Corvette, her long blonde hair framing long ruby earrings, she was gorgeous, a photographer's dream.

But I was Eli Rothenberg, a gangling, acne-scarred man from Philadelphia, the classic "before" model in a bodybuilder's ad. Instead of a sports car, I drove a Pontiac sedan. I could not find myself in Karen's picture, and that bothered me.

Karen should have dated a football hero, but I was a geek.  Even in second grade, I would spend hours reading about scientists like Darwin and Galileo who enlightened humanity and fought superstition. I read fantasy stories as well and often imagined myself a magician like Merlin or one of the legendary Jewish miracle workers of my grandmother's fables. Locked in mortal combat with evil wizards, I would vanquish them with cabalistic incantations to win the hands of fair, if imaginary, maidens.

After my Dad's card game and the chaos that followed, I chose Galileo over Merlin and put my faith in rationality like some people put their faith in religion. Camelot myths, superstitions, or anything else that reminded me of magical premonitions irritated me.

The fantasy maidens stayed with me for years since as a youth I felt too self-conscious to date. Medical school was not much better, even though med students are supposed to be irresistible to the opposite sex. When Karen and I started up, it amazed me. I had never dreamed such a beautiful woman would like me.

Karen's apartment, with plush maroon rugs, a picture window view of the mountains, and a balcony overlooking the pool, oozed luxury. Her furnishings, including a fine French provincial table and chairs, added to the air of richness, but I couldn't share her taste for expensive surroundings.

I liked her waterbed, a king-size hardwood piece with a carved sun god adorning the headboard. More precisely, I enjoyed the time we spent in the bed. We had our differences and occasional bitter arguments, but our sex life was always great.

The past few weeks we had talked about maybe making our relationship permanent. Karen was twenty-seven and didn't want to hit thirty without a husband, but like many men, the thought of getting married scared me.

My Mom did not like Karen—no surprise there. Dad was neutral, but to Mom, Karen epitomized the stereotype of a beautiful, scheming shixsa trying to steal her Jewish son.

Karen didn't come home before 6:00 most evenings so I dropped onto the sofa and fell asleep. A kiss on my forehead and a "Hello, sleepyhead," ended my nap.

I smiled at her and yawned. "Hi, sweetie." I stood and walked to her kitchen, a small area, but equipped with every appliance imaginable. I put leftovers into the microwave. "Did you hear what happened in the ER last night?" I asked in a soft voice. The little oven hummed as the smell of chicken and buttery potatoes filled the kitchen.

"No, I didn't hear anything. Did you hear what happened in administration today? The CEO called an emergency meeting on HMO contracts, giving me just three hours to update my summaries. Then my hard drive crashed. I swear I was going crazy." She set the table, sat down and attacked her meal. Sweaty and with her burgundy business suit rumpled, she looked not at all her usual glamorous self, but had I not been so upset by Netter, that would have made her even more desirable.

I joined her at the table and stared at my plate. "Andrew Netter tried to commit suicide. Took an overdose of pills."

"Oh Eli, that's a shame." She stopped eating and reached her hand out to mine. "But I'm not surprised." She turned back to her meal, a faint smile on her face. "He found out that his wife was screwing around, right? Don't worry. His group will want you even more if he doesn't go back to work."

I looked up at her, opened my mouth, closed it, then finally spoke. "How did you know?"

She shrugged. "Everyone knows. It's his own fault for working so much and ignoring her."

"I didn't know. Neither did he." I stared at my plate. "I'm not hungry." I stood, went to the living room couch and opened a hematology journal. Instead of medical articles, the pages opened to classified ads. "Position available, northern Minnesota." What a laugh. Who would leave southern California for there? "Hematology research grant, London and Munich." That sounded more appetizing, but not practical.

 Next morning, Karen left before breakfast to try to salvage her ailing hard drive. I fed her cat, sat at the wooden kitchen table and sipped coffee while my mind churned. At a party some weeks ago, someone told a rabbi-minister-priest joke in which the rabbi throws his collection money in the air and says, "What God wants, he'll keep. I'll take the rest." Karen had laughed and clapped her hands. I felt as if I had been slapped. I felt the same now.

I picked up the medical magazine and reread the ad for the European fellowship. St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London and the University of Munch had joined to sponsor a year of research in hematology, along with teaching and clinical duties. That would be fun. Except for a couple of quick visits to Tijuana, I had never left the United States. To leave now was irrational. After all, I had a promising career and a beautiful, rich girlfriend in LA. Yet both of these had lost their gloss. I needed a drastic change if I wanted to avoid Netter's fate.

I applied for the fellowship. I sent a letter with copies of my diplomas, credentials and reprints of my published research to London and Munich without telling Karen. Six weeks later the answer arrived in my mailbox—I had been accepted. I would spend six months with a Dr. S. W. Rodger in London and another six with a Dr. Hermann Körnig in Munich. They would send contracts and give further details. I would be in Europe for a full year.

In retrospect, the grant, a strange mixture of two hospitals in two different countries, had come too easily to be natural. Nevertheless, when the acceptance letter came, my only reaction was a broad smile.

****

That evening, after we had gone to bed, I told Karen about the grant.

"That's nice," she said in a sleepy voice, her forefinger tracing warm, comfortable circles on my chest. A moment passed. "How long is it for?"

"A year."

The finger disappeared. "Are you going to take it?"

"Yes. I think so."

She sat up, turned on the nightstand lamp and looked at me. Waves in the waterbed crisscrossed. "You're going away for a year? When did you apply for this grant?"

"Oh, about a month, month and a half ago."

Her brows furrowed. "Eli, why didn't you tell me sooner?"

I shrugged and looked away. "I didn't want to upset you. It seemed like such a long shot I never thought I'd be accepted."

She stared at me, round-eyed. "You're not proposing marriage and asking me to come with you, are you? Not that I want to leave LA."

I gulped. "Well no, that's not what I was thinking."

"And what am I supposed to do while you're gone?"

"Ah, I don't know. I guess I can't ask you to wait."

Her voice rose. "You mean you're dumping me?"

"Well, maybe I should have told you sooner."

"You bastard, you selfish bastard." I winced. She threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, stomped over to the closet and covered her short, pink nightie with a long, blue flannel robe. I winced again.

"Come on, Karen. You know I've always wanted to do research. This is the chance of a lifetime."

"Do research if you want. Do whatever the hell you want. But for Christ's sakes, you could have told me. It's so humiliating, having a creep like you sneak away like this." She started to cry, then grabbed my arm and, almost dislocating my shoulder, yanked me out of the bed. "I don't care how much money you'll make. Get the hell out of my bedroom."

I trudged off to the sofa where I tossed and turned for hours. Not telling her earlier had been piggish, but where had the comments about me being a creep and earning a lot of money come from?

When I awoke next morning, she had already left. After work that afternoon I found my bags packed and a note taped to one of them:

 

Eli,

I've gone to visit my parents. Get your things out of here before I return.

Karen

 

What a way to start a trip.

****

Consuelo Gutierrez was the first patient I told about Europe. She did not like it. She said in Spanish, "Don't leave, doctor. No one else in this clinic speaks my language."

I looked away. "Several nurses speak Spanish."

She looked down. "They don't like me." Then she cleared her throat. "Ah, Doctor…"

I knew what she wanted to hear. "No, Mrs. Gutierrez, there is no sign that the cancer has returned. That pneumonia last month didn't mean cancer."

She sighed with relief. "Thank you, Doctor. I will miss you," she said, and walked with slow, small steps from the examining room.

I felt like a deserter.

****

Telling Netter was worse, like abandoning my father. For several seconds we avoided each other's eyes over that huge desk.

"Andy, you know I've always wanted to do research, at least give it a try."

"Yes, I know."

The aquarium bubbled in the background. "It has nothing to do with your…with what happened."

He frowned. "Please, Eli, don't bullshit me."

I thought of the patients in his waiting room. Some were poor, but most wore furs or custom tailored suits. "I'm not cut out to be a society doctor."

"Funny, I never thought of myself as a society doctor."

"I didn't mean it that way."

"It's okay. I've been looking at things in a different way since that…incident. I have a lot of changes to make. But don't worry about me. I'll never do that again." He took off his glasses and leaned forward, holding his bald scalp with his hand.

I stared down at my shoe and rubbed it on the plush rug. "I'll write you, Andy, and let you know how I'm doing."

He sighed and looked off to the side. "Yeah, I'd like that." He showed me out of his office, that expensive office with the mahogany desk and textured wallpaper. I had always disdained that luxury. Now that it was unlikely ever to be mine, I missed it.

****

Twelve weeks later, my belongings sat in storage, the Pontiac sold, and my clothes packed. All was ready for me to leave LA. A friend, Bob, drove me to the airport in his father's Cadillac. To my surprise and discomfort, Karen came with us. As we drove, the three of us in the front seat, I smelled her delicate perfume and saw her beautiful smile. Her face ignored me, but her thigh pressed against mine. Expressing regret at the breakup? Taunting me with what I was leaving?

Was leaving Karen a mistake? In spite of the rough spots, I had enjoyed that half-year with her a lot. Standing in front of the bustling terminal entrance, I wanted to embrace her. Instead, we shook hands.

We had planned a rich life together. In Netter's office, I would have earned a six-figure income for us to buy a seven-figure house, a Mercedes and a Porsche. Our two children would have gone to the best schools and we to the best country club. And we would never have recognized anyone who had known us when we were poor.

Would I have paid the same price as Netter?

Then I saw the cross hanging from her neck. She didn't attend church with any regularity, but she did wear that pendant from time to time when we first dated. Though just an inch of filigreed metal, it felt like a bug whispering in my ear, "I do not share your values or your aspirations. I am different from you." It distracted me most when we made love.

"It's just a necklace, Eli, an heirloom from my grandmother. Don't take it so seriously," she said. My intellect understood, but that inner voice would not be quiet. After a while, she put the cross away. Now once more it hung from a chain around her neck.

Today, I wore my own symbol, a mezuzah—a pendant containing parchment with a specific verse from the Bible. If any Jewish sign matches the cross, this would be it. Were Karen and I still together, we could have a war of the icons. But one difference stood out. Her cross hung in public for everyone to see. The mezuzah lay under my shirt, a private statement.

Yes, I had to leave LA. Andy's suicide attempt proved how dangerous country clubs and Porsches could be. Karen also focused on pretty acquisitions, but presented an additional danger—the temptation to forget my identity. Though I and most of my family looked down on orthodoxy, being Jewish had been important to us all. Non-Jews might think it silly, but to me it was clear. To avoid the twin perils of assimilation and materialism, I had to make this trip.

© Zvi Zaks 1998



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