Ysrael Zendejas preferred to take the stairs despite the stiffness in his knees. He was still trim, straight-backed and brown as a nut but his high school football days finally caught up with him ten years ago. He lifted one leg after the other up towards his neat and simplified life in the brand new condominium, freshly painted and hermetically sealed, on Burbank Boulevard. Not as spacious as his split-level home in West Hills but he did not need all that room anymore. Ruth had let cancer take her three years ago this August. Their son, Nathaniel, a lawyer with the Oregon Attorney General’s Office, had flown down to Los Angeles for the unveiling of Ruth’s tombstone, and spent two full weeks helping his father find just the right place.
"You’re going to go crazy rattling around this huge place all by yourself," Nathaniel had said as he spooned tortilla soup past his thin lips as the two sat in a booth at the California Pizza Kitchen. "Absolutely loco, Papa."
So, it was planned, a bit too fast for Ysrael’s liking. Though he himself was a lawyer for many years, he had grown somewhat passive in retirement. And then with his wife’s passing, he seemed, at times, lost. So, Nathaniel took care of everything. He even made a tidy profit for his father on the house on Valley Circle and got a good deal on the condominium two miles away. "Close to two malls, Papa," Nathaniel had said. "Topanga Plaza and the Promenade." Ysrael had offered his son a wan smile. "Me, Papa, I prefer the Promenade. They’ve got Macy’s and a multiplex there."
Ysrael reached his floor, paused for but a moment and breathed deeply. The hall smelled of different foods (Chinese takeout, enchiladas, pizza, some kind of fish), dinners now past. He then turned to the left and walked four doors to his unit. He pulled his key from his pocket with his left hand and touched the mezuzah with his right. Both the key and the mezuzah felt cool, solid. Ysrael brought his hand down from the mezuzah, kissed his fingertips, slid the key into the lock with a SHOONK and then turned it with a CLEENK.
He settled down comfortably in his favorite recliner with a mug of decaffeinated Mocha Java (Ysrael was pleased to learn from his son that he now can buy Starbucks whole bean or ground at the Ralph’s), Vivaldi on the stereo, and the Los Angeles Times spread upon his lap. After no more than an hour, Ysrael dozed noisily. And he dreamed. Vibrant colors and sounds of spring swirled about him. And Ruth stood there by his side, incandescent and beautiful, whispering, "I’m waiting for you, my love." A brook gurgled happily and birds flew about, in and around lush oaks, singing Vivaldi’s spring (the largo e pianissimo sempre to be precise) with such rapture that Ysrael’s heart swelled with each successive note. And what must have been a woodpecker rapped softly, rhythmically, on a branch somewhere nearby. But the rapping grew louder, more deliberate, impatient. Eventually, the brook, trees and Ruth dripped away and Ysrael’s great, brown eyes popped open. He was back in his den and the woodpecker’s rapping moved from a disappearing tree to the front door.
"Damn!" Ysrael muttered as he pulled himself out of his chair. He walked deliberately to the door as the knocking grew louder. "I’m coming, I’m coming!" But he stopped, suddenly, two feet from the door. Who could be knocking? he thought. I haven’t buzzed anyone in. Must be a neighbor. Perhaps that widow, Mrs. Gurley from down the hall. Probably having trouble with her dishwasher again but, in reality, she has her eyes on me. ¡Dios mío! That’s all I need!
Ysrael took one more step and lifted his left hand to the doorknob. The smooth brass felt warm to the touch. That’s odd, he thought. But he turned it with a quick, irritated flick of his wrist and opened his mouth to say something rather unpleasant to Mrs. Gurley but he froze, mouth agape, once the door swung open. Before him stood a man, head tilted to Ysrael’s right, away from the mezuzah, smiling and humming to the Vivaldi that stilled played on the stereo. He held a beautiful, brown leather briefcase by his side.
Ysrael composed himself. "How did you get in the complex? Who buzzed you in?"
The man, who wore a finely tailored, blue pinstripe suit, a gleaming white shirt and crimson necktie, walked past Ysrael, through the small foyer, and into the living room where he gently lowered himself into the middle of the long, green leather sofa. He placed the briefcase on his lap, snapped it open, gestured towards Ysrael’s still-warm recliner and said in a soft voice, "Please, sit."
Because the man easily weighed fifty pounds more than he did (the man clearly made it to the gym on a regular basis), Ysrael closed the door and went back to his recliner. As the man shuffled through his briefcase, Ysrael realized that he must be some kind of insurance salesman.
"I’m insured to the hilt," Ysrael smiled.
The man looked up and laughed a little, sharp laugh. "Oh, no. I’m not selling anything. I am, however, here to bargain a bit." As he whispered this last statement, he pulled out a manila folder, closed his briefcase and put it down by his radiant Bostonians. He opened the folder. "Mr. Zendejas?"
Ysrael fell back in his recliner with a shock. "Yes?"
"Mr. Jesús Zendejas?"
"No, no. Not anymore, I mean," Ysrael said through a cough. "I changed my name to Ysrael, after I converted." He didn’t know why he answered this stranger at all but, for some reason, he couldn’t control himself.
Ysrael coughed again. "Why, yes. To Judaism. Thirty-five years ago."
The man riffled through the file. "No. That can’t be. It’s not in here."
"I was raised Catholic, you see. But after I met my wife, Ruth, who was a Jew, I fell in love with Judaism. I studied for years. Converted after we married."
"No," the man repeated as he put the folder down on his lap. "There’s nothing of this in your file."
"It’s true. I do not lie." Ysrael smiled. "I changed my name after I converted because, as you can imagine, you get a lot of strange looks at Temple when you say your name is Jesús. Even if it is pronounced the Spanish way and even though Jesus Christ was a Jew himself."
The man’s eyes bulged. And then, ever so slowly, his eyelids lowered and he let out a little snicker. "Ah! That explains the mezuzah. I figured it was left by the prior owner."
"No. My wife bought that for me when I converted."
"Wait until they hear about this at the home office!"
"And where’s the home office?" Ysrael asked finally getting curious again.
"Hell, of course."
At that moment, Ysrael knew he should have been startled or, in the very least, confused. Perhaps, he thought, after several decades as a criminal defense attorney, he was not shocked because he had heard millions of very strange utterances. Ysrael laughed. "Hell? That’s rich."
The man returned the laugh. "Well, you see, Jes – I mean, Ysrael, you are going to die tonight, in your sleep, very peacefully, and I wanted to make a little deal with you. But, because you’re no longer a Christian, my hands are tied." He reached for his briefcase, snapped it open and slid the file back in.
Fear did not creep into Ysrael’s heart. He was merely puzzled. "Why can’t you make a deal with a non-Christian?"
"Well, you realize that Torah makes no direct reference to either Heaven or Hell, don’t you?" He snapped his briefcase shut for emphasis not without a little irritation.
This whole issue of the afterlife was the biggest chasm Ysrael had to leap when he started his Judaic studies all those years ago. Heaven and Hell, particularly for Mexican Catholics, were as real as the nuns and priests who taught him how to be a "good" Christian. But then, reaching back to his wonderful, long meetings with Rabbi Burke (as well his son’s own Torah worksheets from grammar school), Ysrael said, "Ah! What of Gan Ayden and gehenna?"
The man paused, scratched his goatee, and thought for a moment. "Hhhmmm. Interesting point, Ysrael. Interesting point. But those were concepts of Talmudic times. And, besides that, those were actual physical places, here on earth. Very different from reality. My reality."
The man was, of course, correct. As a post-Talmudic Jew, Ysrael believed in the immortality of the soul. But as Maimonides wisely noted, there are neither bodies nor bodily forms in the world-to-come, only the souls of the righteous. He looked at the man and said simply, "You are right."
"I must be going," said the man as he stood up, knees cracking just a bit. "Many more trips tonight. I apologize for the inconvenience."
Ysrael stood, as well, and his knees echoed the man’s. "No problem, really." Ysrael suddenly laughed. "My father used to say, ‘De puerta cerrada el diablo se vuelve.’"
"Languages were never my forte," said the man.
"From a closed door, the devil goes away."
The man chuckled. "Again, Mr. Zendejas, I’m sorry about all this."
"Except that business about me dying tonight, and all, it was sort of nice having a little company. But I have two questions for you, if you don’t mind."
"It’s the least I can do. Shoot."
"First, by your existence, does that mean Jesus Christ was, indeed, the Messiah?"
"No. Next question."
"Yes, well," and Ysrael looked around and coughed a bit. "Well, what was the bargain you planned to offer?"
"Oh, that. You know. The usual. I’d bring back your wife and the two of you could live for ten happy years together."
"In exchange for my soul, I suppose."
"What else would I want?"
Ysrael rubbed his hands together. "Now that would be tempting, indeed!"
"But I can’t offer it. I couldn’t offer it to a Buddhist, a Hindu, an atheist, or any other non-Christian. I’m sorry. Rules are rules."
With that, the man headed towards the door, nodded a goodnight, and was gone. Ysrael sighed and sat down in his recliner. Vivaldi still played in the background. He let out another sigh, closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep. His mind eased into the same wonderful dream he was having before the man came to visit. The lush greenery, playful brook, singing birds and his beautiful Ruth. And in his sleep, Ysrael’s heart stopped. And as he slipped from this world into the next, he found himself lying in Ruth’s arms as they lay in the clover.
"My love," Ruth said. "I’ve been waiting. What took you so long?"
Ysrael kissed Ruth’s soft, young cheek (for they were both in their twenties now), and noticed with delight that she smelled of fresh lemons. He said, "Oh, mi amor, I had a visitor. Please forgive me."
She pulled him closer and nuzzled his thick, black hair with a laugh. "Of course, my love," she cooed. "Not another thought of it."
first published in Facets (Vol.1, No. 2, April 2001)