It was around five, on the last of my three days off, when the phone rang.
The voice was barely a murmur: "Gee ... You there, Gee?"
"Who is this?" But I knew. Only one person ever called me Gee. My father.
"Dad?" I could hardly believe he was calling. We hadn't spoken in over five years.
"Listen, Gee. There's something fishy going on around here."
"What is it?"
"I can't talk on the phone right now. Someone might overhear."
"Aren't you in your place?"
"No. It's a pay phone. I think they've got all the phones bugged."
"What are you talking about?"
"They're dropping like flies, Gee. Like goddam flies."
What the hell was he talking about? After all, he was living in a senior housing complex. Government-subsidized, well-maintained, and one that he was damn lucky to have gotten into. Even though he had called it "God's little waiting room."
"Dad, where you're living, people die all the time." It sounded harsher than I had wanted.
"I know, that. What do you think I am ... a schmuck? But too many've died, lately. Untimely deaths ... deaths that no one's expected. It seems like the meat wagons, like vultures, show up every night to cart them away."
"And you want me to ..."
"Yeah, Gee. You're a cop... a detective, no less. You've gotta look into it. Listen, I've gotta go."
There was a click, then dead air.
* * * * *
My father was never one for alarm, never one for backing down. He was the most ornery person if you'd gotten on his bad side, but few people ever did. His customers used to come into his drugstore just to provoke him, knowing he'd respond with a string of invectives and curse-word-laden insults. Then, after, they'd all have a good laugh. Down deep, though, he was a softy. That is, until we moved him into Northridge Creek and he told us that we were dead to him.
My sister and I had pulled a lot of strings to get him to the top of the short-wait list, and remembering his acid words when we dropped him off still makes me cringe. But we had no choice, not after our flyweight mother lost her twelve-round bout against the malignant heavyweight champion of the world, and my father's health began to careen downhill as well.
The next day, I set aside the folders of active cases, and did a computer search of deaths cross-referenced by address. It was not particularly difficult, since all of the streets at Northridge Creek were named for southern trees. Such bizarre pretentiousness. We were in central New York State and there was no creek anywhere nearby.
But I did find what appeared to be a disproportionately large number of deaths, including a recent spike, but none were deemed suspicious, or our criminal investigations unit would have been called in. I had no way of knowing if the blip was within normal range or something ominously more than a statistical anomaly.
I decided that after work, I'd drive out to see my father.
* * * * *
I have always hated gated communities.
Not only did I have to sign in, but I had to produce identification. Flashing my gold badge was not enough.
It was a late April afternoon, the rain had stopped, and the place was lush and vibrant. Luminous, white-blossomed pear trees overhung Palmetto Drive. Weeping cherries with drooping branches of delicate pink flowers trees contrasted with brilliant yellow forsythia hedges. The "baby" reds and greens made me almost want to live in this visual paradise, until I remembered my reason for coming.
I made a right onto Tupelo Court, pulled into a visitor's spot and placed the parking pass I was issued on the dashboard. My father lived at the far end of a long, one-story building. That, too, was a stroke of luck; he had windows on three sides of his apartment. I know he appreciated it, but he would never admit it. When he caught me watching him as we helped carry his belongings in, he abruptly turned a smile into a frown.
An old man in khakis and a golf shirt shut the door behind him and stepped out onto the walkway. I had the feeling he'd been watching and waiting. "Hey, you! What brings you out here?"
"I'm Gary Greenblatt. Saul's son."
"I never knew he had a son. He never mentioned either you or your sister."
I made a mental note of his slip as he continued. "You haven't been out here much, have you?"
"No. It's the first time since he moved in."
"Well, you know you should've checked in on him. He's not doing so great." His tone was raw, accusatory.
I wanted to answer back with, "You haven't walked in my shoes, so what the hell would you know?" but I held my tongue. Before he could say anything else I cut him off. "Listen ... I don't have much time. If you'd excuse me, Mr. ... uh ..."
"Rankin. Irv Rankin."
"It was good to meet you." What a son of a bitch, I thought.
He scowled at me as I pressed the button next to the door. A buzzer rasped inside. The door opened a crack and then my father opened it wide to let me in. Inside, it was sweltering and stifling and it smelled moldy and old. It had been unseasonably warm, but no window had been opened. Plus, he was wearing an old flannel shirt, buttoned to the top.
I stood facing him. A tear, magnified by a coke-bottle lens, wetted his cheek.
Then we hugged. My father's body felt bony and frail. He had lost a lot of weight.
We unclenched, and then he said, "Boy ... look at you! That wife of yours - Rachel, isn't it? - must be feeding you real good."
I patted my stomach. "Give me a break, will 'ya, please?"
"And how are the kids?" As if continuing a conversation from just the day before. I wanted to scream, "It's been five years, Dad!" but, instead, I said, "Well, Sammy's in junior high. He's getting good grades - A's and B's. He loves math - just like you, Dad. And he plays in the Babe Ruth league. You should come out and see him pitch some day. He has a wicked slider."
"What about your girl?"
"Julie's in sixth grade. We can't believe she'll be taking the bus to junior high in the fall. She has some voice; she sings all the time. She even made all-state chorus. And get this: she got herself a job, singing in a church choir. My about-to-be a bas-mitzvah Julia Greenblatt ... the lead alto at the Second Baptist Church."
My father chuckled. Then he palpably weakened.
"Enough standing. Come ... have a seat." He pressed a button on the remote to unmute the TV, and turned the volume up even higher - Alex Trebek was giving the final Jeopardy answer - and then he limped to the threadbare sleep sofa that he had insisted on bringing with him. He eased himself down, patted the cushion next to him, and placed a bent finger to his lips.
We watched through the commercials and the beginning of Wheel of Fortune. Finally, I leaned over and whispered into his ear, "What gives?"
He waved his hand around, and whispered back. "Can't talk here."
"You want to go for a ride?"
He nodded, and he let me take his arm to help him up.
* * * * *
I held his door open as he got into my unmarked Crown Vic. Even a baby gang-banger could tell it was a police car, with its rear deck lights and the strobes "hidden" behind the grill.
As I helped my father fasten his seat belt, I noticed the rustle of curtains in the window two doors down - Irv Rankin's place. I chose not to mention it to my father, who kept watching out the window as I backed up and then drove off.
After I surrendered my parking pass, I made a right turn onto Route 13. My father sighed and took a long, deep breath.
I drove for a while as the sun's cast turned from yellow to orange. When we got close to the cut-off for Newfield, I asked, "You want to stop for coffee or something?"
"Nah. I don't drink much coffee anymore. Especially this late. It'd keep me up all night. That's all I'd need." Then, he added, "I don't sleep so good as it is."
"You want me to keep on driving?"
He nodded. In my rearview, I saw a blue sedan racing up from behind, but then it suddenly backed off. I chuckled to myself.
After more silence, I asked, "Okay, Dad. What's going on?" I was going to make a remark about the car not being bugged, but my father's palpable anxiety stopped me.
"It's the ones I call 'the zekeinim.' You know what zuh-KAY-nim are?"
"Not really." The word sounded Jewish. But I didn't know what it meant.
"The zekeinim are old people, like village elders, or altercockers" - he chuckled to himself, then shook his head - "but the zekeinim where I am are killing people."
"What do you mean, killing people? Killing people ... how, exactly?" I skidded left onto a dirt road and pulled over to the side.
"Keep going," he said.
"Just do me a favor and drive a bit further ... and then turn around." My father sounded so spooked, I did what he asked.
A few minutes later I asked "Is here okay?" He nodded, so I stopped, lowered my window and then switched off the ignition. I turned to him. "What the hell is going on?"
"You're not going to believe this ..."
"Trust me. You couldn't make up some of the stories I've heard."
"These sons of bitches are worse than anyone I've ever known - even back in school, when I had to fight the anti-Semites with these two fists." He lowered his raised hands and then massaged one with the other.
I waited a moment. Then: "Who are these 'sons of bitches'?"
"Irv Rankin is one of them. The official greeter, the group interrogator, the bastard. Gives everyone the third degree. You met, him, of course." I nodded. "His wife is no better.
"And there are the others. The Kleinfelters, who live in the next building. The Epsteins and the Burnbaums, from two over. And the reigning bitch, the widow Romanoff, who, believe it or not, I once had a thing for." He glanced at me, but then continued. "She doesn't have the foggiest idea, but they'll turn on her, too, one day."
When he was silent again for a while, I gestured "come on ... tell me more."
"It's not like they're killing anyone with guns or knives or poison or anything like that. Well, it is sort of like poison. When they gang up on someone, they spread gossip and tell lies. They belittle and malign."
"How could that ...?"
My father sighed and interrupted me. "Let me explain it to you best I can.
"You know, on the Discovery Channel, when there's a show about hyenas, or wild dogs, or wolves? And how they work in packs to force a gazelle away from the herd, or a wildebeest or a baby moose ... whatever?"
"Yeah, and ...?"
"And then, they attack and kill it? Well, some of the animal parents feel a loss, but not for long. Poor dumb bastards. Here, the weakest ones are already by themselves. Many of 'em are already sick and depressed, so it doesn't take much to push them over the edge."
"But how do they do it?"
"I gotta explain everything to you, kid?"
"Dad, c'mon ..."
"Okay. It's like this. Most of this is from a Torah class I go to every Tuesday morning at the clubhouse. Don't laugh. You know how I feel about the religion, especially those black-hatters. But the rabbi's actually pretty good, and there's always a discussion." At least my father was keeping active.
"You ever hear of Lashon Hara?"
"Isn't it something like the evil eye?"
"Well, you're close. It's speaking evil of someone. Let me explain. There are three kinds of Lashon Hara, which is really the general term. First, there's Lashon Hara itself, which is speaking the truth to hurt or disparage someone. Then, there's Rechilut, which is a combination of truth and embellishment. But the worst is Motzi shem ra, which is spreading malicious lies to destroy someone. This one supposedly murders the good name of a person. And it's against Jewish law to spread negative information about someone, especially if it's untruthful."
"Jesus Christ, Dad. I feel like I'm back in Hebrew school. And you know how much I hated it."
"Take it easy, Gee. I'm almost done."
I glanced at my watch. My father gave me a look and then continued.
"Now take that wildebeest separated from the herd. He's not feeling so well lately. After all, he is getting old. He hasn't been eating well but he now he's eating even less. He doesn't sleep too well. He has worries and fears. He's terrified of dying. He's depressed - that's something no one wants to talk about. He can feel his heart pounding when he's lying in bed at night. He sees the flashing lights of ambulances as they rush by, but he hears only their rumble on their way out. What chance do you think an old, sick wildebeest has against voracious predators?"
"Let me get this straight, Dad. Are you saying that the zekeinim purposely single someone out, and then use Lashon Hara to destroy that person? And that that kills them?"
"Yup. That's it in a nutshell. They make them lose their will to live. And then they die. The end ... those miserable bastards."
We sat in silence as it grew darker. The only sounds were from the wheezing next to me and a wide-awake mockingbird practicing its repertoire.
What the fuck was I supposed to do? The only forensic evidence I had was the statistical aberration that could - and would, of course - be explained away. How could an investigation be undertaken? Where to start? Whom to interview? What questions to ask without sounding like a goddam fool?
But I knew one thing. I had to get my father out of there.
* * * * *
Five years before, things were different. Rachel and I were going through a rocky time, compounded by problems she was having with her parents. Sam and Julie always seemed so demanding. There were times when I was afraid that Rachel would lose it.
Maybe I've always been too harsh, too quick to judge, too quick to anger, especially when I'm under stress. I'd like to think that I've mellowed some. I'd like to think that working through and conquering the strife with Rachel and the kids the past five years has had a lot to do with it. And there were the requirements of the job, where patience and self-control were essential.
My mother's downward spiral was tough on all of us. Many said her death was a blessing. But the ordeal was especially rough on my father. I realize that now, and I wish that I had more rachmonis, more sympathy, back then.
I've tried to keep my big mouth shut and think twice before blurting out something stupid: something that would hurt someone; something I'd have to apologize for; something that I was sure to regret. This time, I wanted to put it to him the best way I could, so my offer would be accepted. So it - and I - wouldn't be rejected out of misplaced pride. I thought for a few moments and then said, "Dad, I'd like to have you stay with us for a while. How about it?"
He turned towards me. In the moonlight's shadows, I noticed a tear on a sunken cheek. "Do you really mean it?"
"Yes, Dad. I do. Starting tonight. What do you say?"
"What about Rachel?"
"Don't worry. I'm sure we can work it out ... So ...?"
"Sure, son. Thanks."
I unbuckled and reached over to hug him. Then, as I pulled away, he turned to look out his window. In his reflection, I was sure I saw him smirk.
Rev 6 / June 24, 2007
June, 2007 Copyright © 2007, Lloyd B. Abrams