by Dave Wisker
Miri was checking her mailbox when she heard the cry, followed by a faint thud, further down the hall. She dropped the mail in the lobby and hurried towards the sounds. The hallway was empty; not unusual for ten o’clock in the morning. She was one of the few tenants in the building who worked nights and had just come off a grueling fifteen-hour shift at the hospital.
The sounds had come from Mister Beck’s apartment. His door was ajar. She tried entering but was blocked by his body on the floor. She peered inside before trying to shove the door open. He was lying in a fetal position, dressed in an undershirt and pajama bottoms, clutching his chest in agony.
She pushed inside. “Mister Beck!” Her voice was sharp, to cut through the pain. “I’m here to help. Can you hear me?”
Beck nodded, then groaned, rolling on his back. His breath came in short gasps.
She had never seen him look so frail. In fact, Miri had never thought of him as frail at all, even though the consensus in the building was that he was in his late eighties at least. Mister Beck had always appeared hale to her: the few times she had seen him walking on the street he was tall and erect, posture perfect, not seeming to need the walking stick he always carried.
She imagined him as having been strong and vigorous as a youth. Until now. She had never seen him dressed in anything but an elegant gray suit with a crisp white shirt and tie, and a woolen greatcoat when it was cold. His gait was dignified, slowed only perhaps by a touch of arthritis.
She pulled off her coat and knelt beside him, wadding it up under his head.
He looked at her, pure blue eyes pleading. “Bitte,” he whispered.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I know what to do.”
His eyes squeezed shut from a pain spasm, then relaxed suddenly. Miri reached out to his neck to check his pulse. It was rapid — probably from adrenaline — but regular. His morning stubble felt out-of-place to her; in their few encounters, Miri had never seen him unshaven.
She remembered liking his fastidiousness, smelling only of soap as he passed by in the hall, or when he stood next to her at his mailbox. He rarely spoke, and then only to reluctantly exchange pleasantries in a heavy European accent. Mrs. Gutierrez said he may have been German or Czech; nobody knew. She thought he had been a precision machinist. His wife had passed away years ago.
There wasn’t anything more Miri could do before calling for help, but she wanted to make sure he was comfortable before she retrieved her phone from her purse, which she had dropped on the floor, just out of reach.
“I’ll be right back, Mister Beck,” she said. “I just have to get my phone to call for help.”
She leaned across him to adjust her coat behind his head, and as she did so her gold necklace with the Star of David medallion slipped out from inside her nurse’s scrubs, and swung close to Beck’s face. He stiffened beneath her and Miri, alarmed, looked at his face. He was trying to speak.
“What is it, Mister Beck?” she asked.
His lips drew back. “Dreckige Jüdin!” he hissed.
Then he spat in her face.
Miri reared up, more in surprise and shock than disgust; she’d seen and experienced far worse in the ER. So that’s the way it is, she thought.
Yet he had always been polite the few times they had spoken; perhaps having a Swedish father had enabled her to fly under this nasty old anti-Semite’s Jewdar. Saying nothing — her training kicking in now — she calmly wiped her face with a sleeve, and started to look for her phone. It was time to call 911.
She almost missed seeing the small black tattooed letters, there on the inside of his left arm, near the armpit: AB
She knew what those letters meant. They were his blood type. His mark of Cain. This was no ordinary anti-Semite she was trying to save, like the panhandler last week who asked if she were Jewish because she had handed him only a dollar. The tattoo meant he was old school, the real deal. Mister Beck, their dignified, fastidious neighbor, had been a member of the Waffen-SS, and who, in a different time and place, would have killed her without a moment’s thought.
Pushing past her revulsion, Miri turned and slid across to her bag. It was a relief not having to look at him. She felt as if she were moving through molasses, as every muscle, every nerve, protested her helping the monster lying on the floor.
But part of that was exhaustion, too: she had spent the last fifteen hours in the NICU working to save a preemie crack baby born that night. Nobody thought he was going to make it. She had watched over him: tiny, scrawny, nearly hidden by the mass of tubes and wires, his entire life so far measured only in hours, and defined by struggle against odds no innocent human being ever deserved to face. Miri nicknamed him Rocky. She stayed well beyond her shift, determined he wouldn’t have to face those odds alone.
“Don’t worry,” she had cooed to him. “I’m not leaving you.”
She went home only when his condition finally, almost miraculously, stabilized.
Thinking about Rocky enabled her to pull out the phone, but she made the mistake of glancing back at Beck again before dialing. The pain must have eased, because his grimace had now transformed into a self-satisfied sneer.
You’ll make the call, it seemed to say. You’ll make the call, even though you know what I am. Life doesn’t forgive weakness. And that’s what you are: weak. You all were.
Time was running out. Miri knew how long it would take the paramedics to respond, and how much time was left before it would be too late. Her training screamed at her to make the call.
She sat back on her haunches, staring at the phone. Instead of calling, however, she found herself touching the medal at her neck. It had belonged to her great-grandmother Miri, the one who never made it out of Poland. Had she been in the crowd when the Germans marched through Krakow? Could she have also been the recipient of Beck’s contemptuous look?
These possibilities blurred Miri’s vision for a moment and, when it came back into focus, the phone had somehow morphed into her great-grandmother, not the kindly, untroubled woman she remembered from the family’s only picture, but stern now, as unforgiving as stone, staring back at her namesake with dark, bottomless eyes. Then she wafted away, like smoke, revealing massive stone structures beside an ancient river, dazzling white beneath a desert sun. And then a different, far older blood mark, brushed in haste upon a doorpost.
An awful, elemental empowerment welled up within her. Miri could almost feel the ridges of muscle forming over her shoulder blades; her fingers longed to wrap themselves around the pommel of a righteous sword. And in a searing moment of transcendent, vengeful clarity, she finally understood why the Angel of Death takes no name.
It was time. Miri crawled back over to Beck, leaving the phone on the floor, within his sight but well beyond his reach. He stared at her, chest heaving. She cradled his head in her lap. He tried to struggle, but had little strength left. She turned his head, forcing him to look at the phone.
“Don’t worry,” she murmured. “I’m not leaving you.”
Copyright © 2016 by Dave Wisker