A hand reached out and touched my shoulder.
"Are you Jewish?"
I tensed and kept walking. By now the man in the long black coat was walking beside me.
"Sir?" he asked.
Maybe it was the Styrofoam quart of matzo-ball soup and the plastic bag full of hallah I was holding that tipped him off. Whatever, I didn't like the accusatory tone that accompanied his question.
"Are you Jewish?"
The people walking up and down Devon didn't seem to be paying any attention to the man with the black coat and the long black beard and the big black hat. He was a little guy, but his demeanor was so fierce that he was a little frightening. He asked the question a third time.
"Are you Jewish?"
I didn't really want to answer. Maybe because I didn't think it was any of his business. Maybe because I remembered the time in fifth grade when Michael Hennessy told me he hated all Jews, except I was OK. Maybe because I remembered walking home with Judy from our second-grade field trip to a synagogue and having her tell me that that was the stupidest religion she'd ever heard of: "What language was he speaking? And why don't you have Christmas?" Maybe because I remembered the time I went over to Tom's house for a sleep-over party, and his father stared me down and asked me if I'd been enjoying the television miniseries Holocaust.
But though I ignored him, the man did not let up.
"Are you Jewish?" he asked.
"You're Jewish," he said.
I avoided responding.
"My parents are," I said finally.
"If your parents are, then you are," he said, and motioned for me to follow him. "Then come with me."
"I don't think so," I said.
"Come with me into the mitzvah tank."
He pointed to the big gray van parked in front of the Bagel Restaurant. The back of the van was open, and inside toward the front was a little altar.
"I don't think so," I repeated.
"Look," he asked, "what's your name?"
"Klaus," I lied.
"German Jewish," he said. I nodded.
"My name's Michael," he said. "What we do is, we find Jewish people. We bring them into the back of the van and we do a little blessing. It's very simple, and you'll feel better about yourself."
He took me by the hand and led me to the truck.
"It's a mitzvah," he said. "Come inside."
"Look," I said, "I appreciate this, but you've got the wrong guy." I began to walk away, and Michael walked briskly after me. "Find somebody else, all right?"
Then I started to run, with Michael pursuing me. I dashed down the street in my Reeboks as he shouted after me, his black coat flying in the breeze, "It's a mitzvah!"
I ducked down an alley, and he gave up the chase. I slowed down and lit an imaginary cigarette. I took a deep breath, and strolled aimlessly through the neighborhood. Kids with black coats and black hats were playing Nerf football in the alleys, mothers with babushkas were pushing strollers, a little blond kid with earlocks dangling to his chin was riding a Huffy bicycle with training wheels.
I was about to cross Arthur Street when I heard the screeching of brakes. A car door opened and shut.
It was Bob. I hadn't seen him since high school. I hadn't talked to him since he called me up and asked me to go with him to see some teen sex flick called Private Lessons.
"No, I couldn't," I'd told him. "I'm staying home to watch The Wizard of Oz."
His hair had thinned at a miraculous rate, but he still had that vacuous, glassy-eyed expression I remembered so well. We chatted for a while, talked about college and assorted other harmless stuff.
"And what've you been doing?" I asked.
"You're gonna laugh," he said.
"I'm not gonna laugh," I said.
"I'm going to be a missionary," he said.
"Oh really," I said, and stifled a laugh.
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I'm on my way to a Bible class right now."
"That's great," I said. "Good luck with it."
"Hey," he said, "why don't you come with?"
"No thanks," I said. "I've got a lot of stuff to do."
"Well," he said, "then how about some other time?"
"I really doubt it, Bob," I said.
"How about one hour?" he asked. "Any hour. You and me, we'll go into my apartment and we'll read some of Genesis."
"No," I said, "I don't think so."
"Why not?" he said. "Aren't you interested in Genesis?"
"Not since Peter Gabriel left the group," I said.
"I don't think you're taking this seriously," he said. "I'm going to be a missionary. I'm someone you should be talking about religion to."
"I guess," I said. "But what does that mean? A missionary? I mean, are you converting heathens or what?"
"Pretty much," he responded. "I want to go to Africa."
"That's close," I said.
He put on a serious face. "Look," he said. "There are a lot of niggers there who need Christ."
"A lot of what?" I asked as my jaw dropped.
"You know," he said. "Godless niggers."
"It's been nice talking to you," I said, and began to walk away.
"Aww, come on," he said. "Just an hour of you and me alone,
studying the Bible. We can exchange ideas. It would be informative."
"No," I said.
"Give me one good reason why not," he demanded.
"I'm Jewish," I said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.