Read Trophy Widow Online

Authors: Michael A Kahn

Trophy Widow (4 page)

I took a wary step back, but it was quickly apparent that Tracy was no kick boxer. She was delighted to see Maggie, and started rubbing up against her with her wings spread. Maggie gave her a hug around her neck, and Tracy pecked playfully at Maggie's shirt buttons. She took a step toward me, tilting her head to stare.

“Hi,” I said to her, smiling.

Tracy lowered her head for a better look. Her huge dark eyes were framed by impossibly long lashes. As she studied me, there was a deep, booming roar off in the distance. Tracy quickly straightened and turned to look.

“What the hell was that?” Benny asked.

“Oh, good,” Maggie said, shading her eyes as she stared at a pair of ostriches who were slowly circling each other about fifty yards away. “It's Regis and Kathie Lee.”

I burst into laughter. “You're kidding.”

Maggie turned to me with a smile. “They're about to mate. You'll be able to see the way it's supposed to be done. We have Rush on video.”

“On video?” Benny repeated.

Sara turned to him and nodded triumphantly. “It'll be Rachel's best trial exhibit. The jury will go crazy when they see it.”

My God
, I thought, trying to imagine how to present this case to a jury.

Another booming roar.

“Come on,” Maggie said. “We can get a little closer.”

As we approached, one of the ostriches—presumably Regis—seemed to kick his mating dance into high gear. Standing in front of Kathie Lee, he began shimmying his shoulders like some massive go-go dancer on speed. He dropped to his hocks and fanned his wings rapidly. Another bellow, and then he scrambled back to his feet and started rocking forward as if he were
in synagogue.

“This is foreplay?” Benny mumbled.

Apparently so. Kathie Lee had been watching Regis impassively—almost disdainfully—through the early phase of his fan dance, but now she was fluttering her own wings and batting her eyelashes. Apparently, she was getting in the mood. Suddenly she spun away from Regis and dropped to the ground, her head extended, her rump slightly raised. Regis moved in quickly.

I felt uncomfortable watching, but Regis was oblivious to his audience, totally caught up in his act. Fifteen seconds, a grunt, and curtains. Regis stood, stretched his neck, and sauntered off without a glance back.

Fifteen seconds, a grunt, and curtains
, I thought, feeling a stab of solidarity as I watched Kathie Lee stagger to her feet in the dust.


You see that thing on Regis?”

“Yes, Benny, I saw it.”

“Peculiar-looking, wasn't it?”

We were heading east on Highway 70, the sun setting behind us.

I looked over and shrugged. “No offense, Benny, but they're all kind of peculiar-looking.”

“Maybe, but did you see the grooves on that Johnson? What the hell's that all about? It looked like a goddamn NASA docking device.”

“Probably the same design principle is at work.”

“Damn, I'm starving.” Benny was peering out the window at the restaurant billboards. “What say we go put on the feedbag, eh?”

I checked my watch and shook my head. “I can't. I have to be at the rabbi's house in a half hour. I've barely got enough time to drop you off.”

“The rabbi again? Give me a break.”

I looked over at him and sighed. “I made a promise.”

“Promise,” he snorted. “Jonathan owes you big time.”

“It's not about owing, Benny. He's Orthodox. It's a big part of his life.”

“So? You're Reform. What's that? Chopped liver?”

“He was angry with me, Benny. I can understand.”

“Understand what? Jonathan's a good guy and all, but he's got some chutzpah giving you grief over being Reform. Give me a break. My grandfather was Orthodox. It's a wacko throwback cult from the Dark Ages.”

“No it's not. Look, I promised him I'd give this a try.”

“Yeah, yeah. What's tonight's topic?”

“I'm not sure,” I lied.

“Speaking of which, I got a topic for the rebbe.”

“Oh?” I gave him a look. “Not another query about the status of your job application for lifeguard at the

“Very funny. I'm talking a topic for the ages.”


“I'm talking one of the haunting mysteries of Jewish law.”

I rolled my eyes. “Let's hear it.”

“Ask that learned scholar tonight to explain the origins of the eleventh commandment.”

“The eleventh?”

“The one that applies only to Jewish women.”

“Which one is that?”

“Come on, Rachel, don't act coy with me. This is the one they hide from the guys.”

“How's it go?”

“Like you don't know.”

“Tell me.”

“Thou shalt not giveth head.”

I laughed.

“I'm serious. You ever read the laws of kashruth? You wouldn't believe the things you can put in your mouth. Pickled herring, fried chicken fat, that grotesque mucus that comes with gefilte fish, chopped liver, boiled tongue, bone marrow, schmaltz—even certain insects, for chrissake! Bugs! You're telling me this isn't a wacko cult? What kind of religion says yes to cockroaches and no to cocks?”

“It also says no to lobsters.”

“The hell with lobsters. I can live without lobsters.”

I gave him a look.


He paused. “Well, maybe not. Add them to the list. Ask him tonight. Ask him what kind of religion bans lobsters and blow jobs.”

“Maybe I'll save it for another night.”

“Wait.” He jabbed his finger at me. “Bacon, too. Lobsters, bacon, and blow jobs. Listen, I'm not asking for the answer to the riddle of human existence or for the secret to the afterlife, Rachel. All I'm asking for is why the only thing that ever gets blown in a Jewish home is a shofar.”

Chapter Four

It's my fault,” I said glumly.

“Your fault?” my mother said. “Don't talk ridiculous. What is it with these men? Your father, alev asholem, tried that same number on me before we got married. You know what I told him?”

“What?” I asked, amused.

“I looked him right in the eye,” she said, wagging the serving spoon as she reenacted the event, “and I warned him, ‘Seymour, if you're looking for a girl who'll do that crazy stuff with you, then you better keep looking because I'm not that kind of girl.'”

I couldn't help but smile as I imagined that scene. My poor father. He never knew what hit him. My mother is the most determined and exasperating woman I know. Life trained her well. She came to America from Lithuania at the age of three, having escaped with her mother and baby sister after the Nazis killed her father, the rest of his family, and whatever semblance of religious faith my mother might ever have had. Fate remained cruel. My mother—a woman who reveres books and learning—was forced to drop out of high school and go to work when her mother (after whom I'm named) was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. My grandmother Rachel died six months later, leaving her two daughters, Sarah and Becky, orphans at the ages of seventeen and fifteen. Two years later, my mother married a gentle, shy, devoutly Jewish bookkeeper ten years her senior named Seymour Gold. My sweet father was totally smitten by his beautiful, spirited wife and remained so until his death from a heart attack two years ago on the morning after Thanksgiving.

“And you know what?” she continued. “Your father never brought it up again. Never.” She nodded with satisfaction, but then noticed an empty centimeter of space on my plate. “How about some more brisket, doll baby?”

“Oh, Mom, I'm stuffed.”


“Really, Mom, I'm
. It's delicious, but I couldn't eat another bite of anything.”

“Wait, I've got strudel.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Then let's take a break first. I'll help you clean up the dinner dishes.”

I washed, my mom dried.

As I soaped one of the dinner plates, I said, “I still think it's my fault.”

“How could it possibly be your fault?”

“I might be able to connect with these traditions if I were a more spiritual person.”

“You're plenty spiritual. A saint should have the soul you do. But this Orthodox nonsense isn't spiritual. It's superstition.”

“You sound like Benny.”

“Benny's no dummy. Orthodox Judaism.” She shook her head. “Ridiculous rules and rituals. Worse than ridiculous, and you know why? Because the point of those rules and rituals is to remind us that men are special and we aren't. That's why I told Seymour to forget it.”

“Mom, it's not that simple. For every Orthodox Jewish man there's an Orthodox Jewish woman, and those women don't feel oppressed.”

“How do you know?”

“I know, Mom. Take the rabbi's wife. Sylvia is brilliant and successful, and she loves every ritual connected with the religion.”

“Including this
she told you about tonight? What's it called?


Niddah, nadah
—whatever. It's just Jewish men passing rules to make women feel unclean and inferior.”

For the past five weeks, I'd been spending an hour one night a week in Rabbi Isaac Kalman's study trying to learn the laws, customs, and traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Although my father had been Orthodox, my sister, Ann, and I were raised as Reform Jews. When my mother told my father that she wasn't going to do that “crazy stuff” with him, she made sure the ban included her children, too. But now, like my mother before me, I'd fallen in love with a devout Jewish man. Unlike my father, however, Jonathan was a widower with two small girls. And unlike my mother, I was willing to at least give Orthodox Judaism a try.

Dating an Orthodox Jew was a new experience. In addition to the strict observance of the Sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday—no cars, no telephones, no electric appliances, no work—there were exacting rules about food, prayer, and sex. Although few organized religions celebrate the joys of marital sex more than Orthodox Judaism, the counterweight is a stern prohibition against premarital sex. I suppose it added a touch of nostalgic charm to our relationship, as if we were a pair of high school sweethearts from a 1950s sitcom. It added plenty of frustration, too.

Tonight, though, had been a real test of faith, because tonight the topic had been the laws of
. Due to the subject matter, my teacher tonight had been the rabbi's wife, Sylvia Kalman. She'd explained that a woman becomes a
at the onset of menstruation. The
phase lasts almost two weeks, since the woman must have seven consecutive “clean” days after her period ends. She ends the
by going to the
, or ritual bath, and immersing herself in the waters. She emerges physically and spiritually cleansed.

From the onset of menstruation until the ritual bath twelve to fourteen days later, Jewish law strictly forbids not only all sexual activity but all physical contact between husband and wife. Indeed, sexual intercourse with a
is punishable by the severest penalty,
, the Jewish version of excommunication in which the sinner is spiritually cut off from the destiny of the Jewish people.

The rabbi's wife had sensed my resistance. As she no doubt had done for scores of women before me, she explained the various rationales the rabbis offer. The laws of
give the woman a special time to herself. They protect a couple from the dangers of overindulgence and over-familiarity, which could lead to monotony and restlessness. The laws of
, some say, are designed to increase the love between the man and woman by creating a monthly honeymoon. As the Torah promises, when the wife returns to the marital bed after the end of
, “she will be as beloved to her husband as she was when she entered the

“It's a beautiful mitzvah,” Sylvia told me. “A monthly blessing.”

I tried to believe—I really did—but my heart wasn't in it. To me, the various explanations sounded more like rationalizations for a set of rules concocted by a neurotically squeamish guy—the same guy who'd come up with those obsessive washing-of-the-hands rituals at Passover and other holidays. But the rabbi's wife believed in the wisdom and the beauty of the laws of
—truly believed—and she was no fool. Sylvia Kalman held a Ph.D. from Columbia University and taught modern European history at St. Louis University. She seemed the embodiment of the joy that Orthodox Jewish women shared with their men. I wanted to believe the way she did. Despite my mother's assurances, I knew the failure was my fault.

“Niddah, smiddah
,” my mother said as she poured us tea. “When you get to be an old lady like me, you don't have to worry about that monthly stuff anymore.”

“Old lady? Come on, Mom, you look gorgeous.”

With her high cheekbones, trim figure, and curly red hair (colored these days to cover the gray), Sarah Gold was still a good-looking woman at the age of fifty-four. I called her my “Red Hot Mama.”

“Ah,” she said with a dismissive wave, “enough with this Orthodox craziness. Have another piece of strudel and tell me more about Angela.”

I'd already filled her in on my prison meeting. I went through some of my unease about the original conviction.

“Benny's right,” she said when I finished. “What's done is done. That's why we have juries. There was just too much evidence against her. Everywhere you looked there was something that said guilty. Even that piece of glass that she used to cut off that poor man's penis.”

“That's another gap in the evidence,” I said.

“Rachel, it was her blood on the glass. The DNA test confirmed it. Even I remember that.”

“Mom, I know it was her blood. That's the point, in fact. Yesterday, I got a copy of the results of the blood tests. There were traces of two drugs in them: a steroid and a muscle relaxer with a long name. Fluni—uh…” I paused, trying to remember. “Flunitrazepam.”

“Sounds like something from a Groucho Marx movie.”

I said, “The cops interviewed her internist as part of the investigation—mainly for his insights into her mental state. He said he prescribed the steroid for some sort of sinus infection. Over the years he'd prescribed sleeping pills and Valium for her, but never that drug.”

“So maybe another doctor did.”

“I doubt it. According to a note in the file, the drug is legal elsewhere but not in the U.S.”

“Rachel, honey, maybe she had muscle cramps the last time she was on a cruise or overseas on vacation.”

“They didn't find any more of those pills in her medicine cabinet.”

“So maybe that was the last pill and she pitched the bottle.”

“She hadn't been out of the country for a while.”

“So it was an old bottle. No big deal. Your father had pill bottles dating back to the Korean War. So does your aunt Becky. There must be plenty of people with expired prescriptions in their medicine cabinet.”

She leaned across the table and placed her hand over mine. “Rachel, honey, listen to your mother. What do you have? A blood test showing on the night of the murder she took a muscle relaxer that she must have bought on a trip overseas? And that's going to prove she's innocent? Even our criminal justice system isn't that crazy, and you know what I think of our criminal justice system.”

After we finished our tea and my mother had forced me to take four slices of strudel she'd wrapped in aluminum foil, she walked with me to the front door.

“So is Jonathan going to be out of town the whole summer?” she asked.

“Possibly. He told me the government has thirty-eight names on its witness list. Jonathan thinks it may take three days just to pick the jury.”

Jonathan Wolf was representing one of the defendants in a huge securities fraud prosecution in the federal district court in Manhattan. The trial was scheduled to last two months. At least the timing worked well for his daughters, whose school year ended a week ago. His parents still lived in Brooklyn. Although Jonathan would be living in a mid-town hotel during the week, his daughters would get to spend the summer in New York with their grandparents.

Jonathan and I met as litigation adversaries a year ago. I'd detested him from the start. My mother, of course, decided that he was the perfect man for me. I told her no way—he was far too arrogant. She told me it was pride, not arrogance. I told her if that was pride, he had too much of it. She told me he sounded like someone else she knew. I told her forget it. She told me mothers know best. I told her not with this guy you don't. She told me to give it a few months. I did.

It's amazing how much smarter mothers grow over time.

“When did you talk to him?”

“Last night. Sounds like the pretrial stuff is going okay.” I paused. “I really miss him.”

“He's a good man. A little crazy with this Orthodox stuff, but still a good man.” She gave me a fierce hug. “I love you, doll baby.”

“I love you, Mom.”

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