A Balmy August Wednesday
Copyright © 2011 by R.M. Usatinsky
The moral right of the author has been asserted
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles or reviews
For Aaron, Elizabeth & Bella
And for Wendy
“Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever.”
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
MORE THAN A CONSEQUENCE OF LIFELESSNESS, death is a condition of faith. And while it has nothing to do with belief, prayer or ritual, death is faith personified, transcending everything humanity has ever believed in, prayed to, ritualized, died for or ostracized others for believing in, praying to, ritualizing and, ultimately, dying for.
Like every workday, Martin Sylvester woke up, kissed his wife’s honey hair, dressed himself in his fraying summer-weight beige linen trousers (“these are older than you are,” he would often remind his sons), looked in on his two teenage boys as they slept in bunk beds (in a room which more closely resembled a college dorm/sports bar hybrid), drank a cup of black coffee with a speck of Hershey’s Syrup (something his father had concocted in the 30s as a way of sweetening his coffee without using sugar, as he had an apparent aversion to dirtying a teaspoon used only for stirring when the chocolate syrup so expediently dissolved) and quietly left his South Shore condo for the hospital where he had worked for more than thirty years as a pediatric neurosurgeon.
As a young man, Martin Sylvester was a late bloomer, known for being somewhat difficult—he hated school and constantly reproached authority. He was self-taught after having dropped out of high school at 15 when he started working at Korman’s garage, where in less than a year he was able to completely take apart and put together an entire automobile; more impressive was that he was able to diagnose any mechanical problem just from listening to the motor running or taking the car for a spin down Peterson Avenue. Later, he always related brain surgery to auto repair, “once you open the hood it’s all the same under there,” he used to say; “The same with the human brain, just a bunch of shafts and valves.”
At 25 he enrolled in night school at Wilbur Wright College on the north side where he studied life sciences. He finished the two-year associate’s degree program in nine months and his chemistry professor, Morton Berg, whose wife worked in the admissions office of the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, helped Martin get accepted on a trial basis for his first semester with the condition he maintained a B average (the A average he effortlessly upheld was also sufficient in gaining him full academic admission the following spring).
At 30, merely five years after entering college, he was already a surgical resident at the University of Chicago, at the recently opened Pediatric Neurosurgery Center, where he became a specialist in hydrocephalus, congenital malformations of the skull, brain and spine disorders (such as myelodysplasia); pediatric neuro-oncology; pediatric neurovascular surgery; intractable epilepsy and spasticity.
Following the tragic death of Joseph Evans in 1978, Martin, at 35, was the obvious choice to be appointed head of Pediatric Neurosurgery, the youngest person ever to hold that position and one that he has held to this very day. His day to day life is unvarying, a lifestyle he chose and one that suited both his professional and family life. While attending to the needs of his job—surgeries, meetings, congresses, consultations, follow-ups, paperwork, teaching and writing—he was also a caring and present husband, and father.
It was nearly six p.m. when Martin was on his way to visit a child in the fourth floor pediatric intensive care unit when he began feeling the telltale symptoms—the altered breathing and heart rate and the numbness and weakness in the sternocleidomastoid muscle leaving him with an inability to turn his head to either side. Martin was having a massive stroke, though luckily for Martin, he knew what was happening to him, and luckier still that he was seconds away from the finest neurological trauma center in the city. The not so lucky part was that he had found himself in the stairwell between the third and fourth floors of the Comer Children’s Hospital, strewn out on the landing and propped up against a metal railing after apparently falling down four or five stairs.
“Reach for your mobile phone,” he told himself, but he had no feeling in either of his arms and sharp pains were beginning to flash across the front and sides of his head. He felt himself beginning to go in and out of consciousness and he knew that he needed to get help immediately. Just then he heard a door opening to the rarely used stairwell, perhaps a floor or two below, and tried in vain to make a sound or to squirm about attempting to catch the attention of whoever was there.
The two nurses reached Martin just as he was losing consciousness though he had miraculously managed to whisper five words before completely passing out: “hemorrhagic stroke, call Jeff Frank.” The younger of the two nurses, a lanky, pimply-faced girl with greasy hair and tea-stained teeth, ran immediately to the fourth floor nurses’ station and sounded a code blue while the second nurse, a tomboy with feathered hair and a dozen onyx earring studs circumnavigating her entire right ear, checked Martin’s vital signs and tried talking him back into consciousness. The lanky nurse had already put in a call to Jeff Frank’s pager and two nurses and a doctor who were on the floor rushed to the stairway to attend to Martin.
Jeff Frank had already left the hospital campus and was sitting in his Lexus at a traffic light at Cottage Grove and 57th listening to his new CD, Seals and Crofts Greatest Hits, when his pager sounded.
Life, so they say, is but a game and we let it slip away.
As the light turned green he pulled his Lexus over and dialed the hospital on his mobile phone.
Like the twilight in the road up ahead, they don’t see just where we’re goin’.
“Thank you, I’ll be there in five minutes. Call and have an OR prepped and see if you track down Lenny Kranzler, Kranzler with a “k,” I saw him about fifteen minutes ago in the food court on level two in the Duchossois building, try him there or page him and tell him to meet me in OR 2 on level four. Tell him it’s Marty.”
And all the secrets in the Universe, whisper in our ears
And all the years will come and go, take us up, always up.
Jeff Frank turned the corner at 57th Street and doubled back to the hospital leaving his Lexus parked in the patient drop-off lane. Running at a sprinter’s pace he could only think about two things: his dear friend, colleague and mentor dying on an operating room table and the last time he saw him—just hours earlier at Au Bon Pain enjoying a vanilla latte and a hazelnut mocha brownie as he did every afternoon.
We may never pass this way again.
Jeff Frank burst into OR 2 and was met there by Lenny Kranzler who had already scrubbed in while two surgical residents were prepping to open Martin Sylvester’s head and perform an emergency transcatheter embolization, a technique where surgeons thread a thin tube through the artery leading to the ruptured aneurysm through which materials are passed to plug or obstruct the dilatation. From the scrub room Jeff Frank yelled to Kranzler’s residents that he wanted to use the method where a tiny platinum coil would be inserted through the tube and positioned into the aneurysm followed by an electric charge sent through the coil to form blood clots, in this case, benefiting the patient by using the coil as a scaffold and sealing off the aneurysm.
Jeff Frank, Kranzler and his residents operated on Martin’s brain for nearly six hours as the stroke had done quite a bit of damage and there was some bleeding that had been hard to control as well as some swelling around the temporal lobe, perhaps as a result from Martin’s fall in the stairwell.
By two a.m. Martin was moved to the surgical ICU and Jeff Frank showered, changed and went to talk to Martin’s wife and sons, who had decided to wait in Martin’s office rather than in the surgical waiting area. He explained that while the surgery went quite well, the next few hours would be critical in determining exactly how much damage was done from the initial stroke and that they were doing everything possible in preventing another one. Martin’s wife and sons remained unusually calm during Jeff Frank’s explanation and asked no questions as if everything Jeff Frank had just told them had been told to them by Martin himself. Knowing that practically everything Jeff Frank had ever learned was taught to him by their husband and father was perhaps the most calming element of all. After hugging Martin’s wife and shaking hands with Martin’s sons, Jeff Frank left the three as they had been when he entered the office, Martin’s wife reading a paperback with a tattered cover and his sons sat at their father’s computer watching a video of the new Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle motorcycle on YouTube.
At 7:45 a.m. Jeff Frank returned to Martin’s office to find Martin’s wife asleep on the brown leather sofa covered by one of her husband’s lab coats. Martin’s older son was sitting at the computer as if he had been fixed to the screen since Jeff Frank’s visit over five hours ago. Martin’s younger son, his brother commented without as much as looking up from the keyboard where he was busy typing in his credit card number for a purchase he was making on iTunes, had gone downstairs for some breakfast. Hearing her son’s voice, Martin’s wife awoke.
“How is he, Jeff?”
“He had a good night but he’s still in a drug-induced coma. I thought that would be the best plan of action until some of the swelling went down, but all in all I think he’s out of danger and we’ll begin bringing him to in a couple of hours. If you’d like you can see him for a few minutes and then why don’t you and the boys go home and get some rest and have something to eat. I’ve brought you some muffins and coffee from downstairs if you’re hungry.”
“Thank you Jeff,” Martin’s wife said sitting up on the sofa reaching for a blueberry and white chocolate chunk muffin and a cup of coffee that Jeff had sat on the side table.
As he was walking out of Martin’s office his pager sounded.
“It’s from Martin’s room; why don’t we all go up together.”
As they arrived in Martin’s room in the surgical recovery ward, they saw an attending and two nurses trying to restrain Martin who had somehow awakened from his drug-induced coma and was trying to remove his central line and the bandages that were wrapped securely around his head.
“Martin, it’s me,” Jeff said grabbing a firm hold of his patient, “just relax, everything’s fine.”
The attending, a boyish looking Sikh with dark skin and a creamy white turban, administered 500 milligrams of fospropofol and within minutes Martin was heavily sedated and his breathing and vital signs were back to normal.
“I don’t how he could have come out of the coma,” Jeff said. “The brain’s a mysterious thing, even with all we know about it today, there’s still so much that we don’t,” Jeff added as he sat on the bed wiping Martin’s forehead with a damp washcloth and making sure that his central line was replaced properly and unobstructed.
“I think we should let him rest now and I’ll sign off on another MRI to see what might have caused this event.”
With that, Jeff took Martin’s chart and left Martin’s wife and sons in the room where they said nothing while staring at their helpless husband and father.
Over the next few days Martin began to show signs of improvement. He was sitting up, eating pureed fruits and vegetables and even drank a vanilla latte that Lenny Kranzler snuck up into his room. Unable to speak, he smiled a lot, though one could see the frustration and despair in his eyes. He knew what had happened and could do nothing about it. He had very limited mobility but was able to move his left hand a bit, enough to gesture to his wife or wave, though ever so slightly, to his sons.
By the end of the second week Martin was talking, though with slurred speech that at times was inaudible though he was able to use his stronger left hand to write some basic things like, “how are the White Sox doing?” and “when can I go home?” Week three had its share of setbacks as Martin refused to see the physical therapist. He insisted on going home to recover but Jeff Frank advised strongly against it and wanted to keep Martin in the hospital for another week, perhaps longer as he wasn’t completely satisfied with the pace of Martin’s overall recovery.
It was then, on that particularly balmy August Wednesday, when Martin Sylvester decided that he had had all that he could take with being bedridden, unproductive and helpless, so with the complete and irrefutable authority of the head of pediatric neurosurgery (and he did indeed at that moment qualify as a pediatric patient in his own right with a full-blown tantrum of childish antics) discharged himself from the hospital, disconnecting himself from the variety of wires and cables which had been monitoring his condition and, with the utmost care, managed to climb down from his bed (“Alas, I can stand!”), dress himself (“My left arm is almost good enough to swing my nine-iron!”) and wheel-chair himself out of his room, past the vacant nurses’ station, into the elevator and out the main entrance of the hospital without as much as even being noticed by a single colleague, nurse or staff member.
The taxi dropped him off in front of his building and Lloyd, the doorman, ran out to greet him, opened the taxi door and helped him inside the lobby where he sat on a grey sofa while Lloyd called for the elevator. Lloyd, seeing that Martin was incapable of walking unassisted, helped him walk slowly to the elevator and accompanied him up to his 11th floor condo. Martin’s wife opened the door unsurprised to see her husband and thanked Lloyd by handing him a crisp twenty-dollar bill for which Lloyd tipped his cap in a gesture of appreciation.
Martin’s wife helped her husband walk over to his favorite orange leather Wittmann armchair where she assisted him in sitting comfortably down, then sitting herself on the chair’s orange leather ottoman. Their sons were seated reservedly on the long, white four-seater sofa in front of the picture window that looked out over the south shore of Lake Michigan. Not a word was spoken. Martin’s eyes welled up with tears though he remained silent and motionless. Other than the day of his father’s funeral in 1976, his wife had never seen Martin shed a tear. Upon seeing their father cry for the first time in their lives, Martin’s sons looked at each other, bewildered and misty-eyed.
“All I wanted was to come home and be with my family,” Martin mumbled though he was clearly understood by all present. His sons quickly rose from the sofa and gathered around their father, each boy taking firm hold of one Martin’s shoulders. His wife reached out and took hold of his hand which still had tape attached to it where an I.V. had been inserted.
And with all the strength he could muster up, Martin spoke again. “All I wanted was to be with the three of you. You are the loves of my life and a constant reminder every second of every minute of every hour of every single day that my life would be meaningless without you.”
THEY MET IN A SEASIDE TOWN along the Mediterranean coast near Murcia. She had come to spend the summer selling her handmade jewelry at the arts and crafts fairs that dotted the small coastal villages during the summer months. At 24 she was a lovely, tiny, frail young woman with melancholy eyes and a tender smile. She wore her long sandy colored hair in an English braid that accentuated her girlish face and long tapered neck. She dressed in the colorful clothes worn by hippies and new age travelers, coming off as Bohemian though she seemed to be much better suited for khaki Bermudas, deck shoes and polos.
He had come from Mexico to sell precious stones and leather goods in Spain, as the euro was strong and he could easily make more than enough money in July and August to live on for practically the entire year back in Pátzcuaro.
Setting up his table alongside the old 1969 Talbot 1100 he bought for 300 euros from an elderly widow in Madrid, he was placing the last leather and onyx bracelet on a cleverly laid swirl of white rice when a fine mist of rain began falling from the sunny Mediterranean sky. Quickly covering the table with a black plastic tarp, he sat inside the open passenger side door of the Talbot and made himself a sandwich from a fresh loaf of bread, carving it open lengthwise with the long knife he kept in a sheath on his belt. He filled the loaf with cured Iberian ham and some slices of cheese that had begun melting together in the blistering sun. As the drizzle turned into a steady shower, she appeared at his table asking if by chance he had another plastic she could borrow to cover her stand.
“It hasn’t rained here all summer and today of all days I haven’t a thing to cover my table,” she said moving from side to side as if trying to dodge each drop of falling rain.
A seasoned traveler, he was well prepared and offered the girl a plastic garbage bag that he sliced open so it was large enough to cover her small table. She thanked him and ran back to her stand to cover her wares.
Later that evening while the artisans were beginning to collect their things and close their stalls for the night, the girl appeared once again at his table.
“Here,” she said, handing over the trash bag that she had meticulously folded to the size of banknote. “It probably won’t rain again here until February and if you’re traveling up north you’ll need this more than I will.”
“I was planning on going up to the Costa Brava, thank you.”
He took the folded bag from her hand and paused.
“You have the smallest hands I’ve ever seen,” he said taking her right hand into his.
“They say small hands, big heart,” she replied.
They spent their first night together in her mother’s summer home where she had been staying since late June. Her mother would be arriving in August and they passed those first weeks getting to know each other, drinking mate, smoking hashish and making love as only the newly acquainted do: passionately, frenetically, tirelessly. She learned that he had been born and raised by his single mother, a native of the Aymara ethnic group, in the port city of Arica in northern Chile, where his estranged father had been a fisherman who left the family when he was five. He had three children with three different women he had met on his travels through Mexico, maintaining contact with all of them, paying occasional visits and sending money whenever he could. That his three children all lived in different parts of Mexico made it easy to see them frequently and despite his often unpredictable and turbulent nature, he remained close with his children and on fairly good terms with their mothers.
The second week of August her mother arrived and she introduced him to her as her boyfriend—and the father of the child she had just the day before learned she was carrying. They spent the rest of the summer sharing a stand on the beach, selling their goods and sharing their earnings so that she could go back to Mexico with him at the end of the season. She fell deeply in love with him, attracted to his charisma and his natural ability to convince others that he was a shaman, mystic and healer. The fact that he was an amazing lover, and that she was carrying his child, also helped to cement her decision.
They arrived in Pátzcuaro, where he lived a tiny one-room cottage, in the middle of a wooded area about a mile from town. The two lovers lived off the land, spending most of the day in bed and most of their waking hours unclothed and attending a variety of spiritual rituals such as the Temescal, a ritual Native Americans follows where the mind, body and spirit become purified by entering a sacred sweat lodge on nights of a full moon. It is considered the womb of the earth, and one enters the lodge to reemerge into the world reborn. They also experimented with a number of sacred ceremonies using hallucinogenic substances that are either taken as tonics or smoked through dried cornhusks. Their carnal activities as well were enhanced by a number of eastern techniques such as tantric sex and several other esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. Some nights they would make love continually for five or six hours, she reaching the most intensely delightful orgasms she had ever experienced while he refrained, in the tantric way, from releasing his own sacred energy by suppressing his own climax.
She gave birth to their daughter in the small one-room cottage they had been living in since their arrival to Pátzcuaro some seven months earlier. The delivery, a natural childbirth in every sense, was attended by a midwife and a younger recently married couple the two had befriended who themselves were expecting their first child.
They lived a simple family life though he was seldom present, traveling constantly throughout Central and South America, buying precious stones to tool and sell. He would also make several trips to Veracruz, Durango and to Mexico City visiting his other children and spending several days arguing and making love to their respective mothers who were incapable of breaking his spell of inexplicable charm and psychological manipulation.
The following spring, a number of violent outbursts—one in particular where he struck her in the face with his hand—forced her to flee temporarily to the home of a friend who lived in the nearby village of Erongarícuaro. Soon after, she fell ill suffering from fevers, weight loss and myocarditis—disorders that neither the village healers nor the doctors in the small town were able to properly diagnose or remedy. During her period of illness, despite having been informed of his partner’s afflictions, he stayed away, showing up only briefly to see his daughter, leave a few pesos and insist that she was ill because she had failed to care for herself properly and that she was merely looking for attention.
After nearly two months of spending most of her days in bed, a neighbor came to her house one evening and, while she slept, removed her address book from a colorfully decorated shoulder bag that she kept hanging by the door. The next morning the neighbor went to the public phone dispatch phoning the girl’s mother in Spain, who had no knowledge of her daughter’s dire predicament. The following week, her parents—who had been divorced for more than a dozen years—arrived together in Pátzcuaro to take their daughter and granddaughter back to Spain. She resisted at first but was too weak to do anything more than let her parents take charge of the situation.
When they arrived in Spain they immediately admitted their daughter to hospital where she was started on a rigorous treatment of antibiotics and steroids to reduce the inflammation and infection that had been eroding her health for months. On the day she was admitted she weighed just 87 pounds and was badly malnourished. Her daughter was left in the care of her father’s girlfriend while her parents stood vigil day and night until she was out of danger and well enough to come home. She was eventually diagnosed with Chagas’ Disease, a tropical parasitic illness also known as American Tripanosomiasis, which is transmitted to humans by other mammals but has also been known to be contracted by food contaminated with parasites. It was a long and difficult recuperation but she pulled through, spending the rest of that year living with her daughter in her mother’s home.
The estranged couple exchanged phone calls and emails and despite all that had happened she still loved him and suggested giving their relationship another try. Against the advice of her family and friends, she bought a one-way ticket to Mexico, returning with the hope of starting a new life with him and their daughter.
She became pregnant shortly after returning to Pátzcuaro and their relationship, though good for the first few months, quickly began deteriorating as he was becoming more and more possessive, demanding and jealous. She had confessed to a brief affair in the months prior to her illness, and another, with a much older man—an American who she met at her mother’s pet grooming salon—during the time she was back in Spain recuperating. As always, he was distant, unavailable and traveling more and more, often staying away for weeks on end leaving her to fend for herself and care for their daughter.
During the time she’d been in Spain, he had become increasingly involved with faith healers, witch doctors and spiritual gurus. During his visits home he would spend hours ranting and preaching his esoteric self-appeasing sermons to her and it wasn’t long before she fell into his spell once again. But for however otherworldly he had been becoming, his obsessing over her and his jealous tirades were turning him into a violent man. Every visit—some which began with the most tender lovemaking—ended in brutal aggression and, on more than one occasion, beatings that left her bloodied and bruised for weeks.
She left him again, and Pátzcuaro, moving this time to Baja California, where she rented the small room where she eventually gave birth to her son. She stayed there during the winter months where she was able to earn a decent living selling jewelry to the wealthy American and Canadian tourists who filled the luxury hotels during the winter season paying generously for her handcrafted silver earrings, bracelets and necklaces. By the time spring had arrived, she had saved enough money to return to Spain with her children to try and get her life back together, perhaps even go back to school or study alternative medicine.
Her first months back in Spain were more challenging than she had imagined they would be. After spending so much time in Mexico, she had little ability adapting to the fast-paced life and socio-cultural differences she was facing daily back home. She hesitated enrolling her daughter in school, fearing that she would be ridiculed for having chosen not to vaccinate her and for dressing her in a way that was quite different than most children. It was a difficult adjustment and she suffered bouts of severe depression leaving her debilitated for days often rendering her unable to get out of bed or care for her two children.
As time passed she eventually began feeling stronger and started designing some new silver and ceramic collections taking them around to local shops offering to leave them on consignment. She was also able to make some extra money answering phones three mornings a week for a one of her mother’s friends who ran a small advertising agency. She also started seeing some of her old friends and, one evening, deciding to call Juan, the boy she had been dating the summer she met the father of her children.
The year passed quickly and the couple had very little contact until one day in early June when he phoned saying that he wanted to see his children and that he was planning a trip to Europe to sell his stones in France and Switzerland. Seeing how coming to Spain wasn’t an option (her mother had already told her that he would not be welcome in her home), he suggested that she and the children join him for the season where he could spend time with his son and daughter and she could bring her crafts, selling them and surely make a killing as the northern Europeans loved buying from the artisans and paid well for their goods.
He arrived in Paris in early July, and though he found the economic crisis in Europe an obstacle to selling his precious stones, he was able to rake in nearly a hundred euros a day at street fairs twisting people’s names out of sterling silver wire and attaching them to leather necklaces. By the third week of July, he had sent her enough money to purchase three one-way plane tickets to Milan, which was a short drive from the camp ground where he’d been living in the south of Switzerland.
Their reunion was awkward, hardly a word exchanged during the drive from the airport. They arrived in Lugano just after sundown; the streets lit up and decorated as people from all over the world had been arriving for the town’s famed annual festival. That night he slept at another campsite where he had befriended the manager while she slept with her children in the used Peugeot 106 he had bought upon arriving in Paris earlier that month.
They had a good streak of luck in Lugano, raking in over two thousand Swiss Francs selling her silver and ceramic jewelry and henna tattoos, while he sold a ten carat aquamarine emerald for five thousand euros to a man who claimed to be an American film producer from Los Angeles. On the second to last night at the campground in Lugano, after the children were fast asleep in the back seat of the Peugeot, they made love on the soft grass under the starry August sky. They spent the entire night physically pleasing each other eventually falling asleep in each other’s embrace on makeshift bedding on the ground.
They now both had enough money to return home. While he had a return ticket from Paris to Mexico City, she needed to find a cheap way of getting back to Spain. The discount flights she booked coming over were now two and three times higher than the month before and the trains were even costlier and overbooked. He suggested driving them back to Spain, at least to Barcelona, where she would take a five-hour bus ride back to Valencia. Agreeing with his plan she thought it would be a good way for him to have a couple extra days with his children not knowing when they’d be able to see their father again.
They crossed the Pyrenees overnight arriving in Barcelona just after midday on a balmy August Wednesday, tired and hungry from the night’s journey. They drove directly to the bus depot where he went to an upstairs bathroom to wash while she took her children to a bakery across the street buying them some spinach-filled pastries and juice boxes. They had about an hour before their bus was to depart so they sat in the car talking as the children played card games in the back seat. They agreed that she would remain in Spain, sending the children to school while she took a few courses to try and gain some practical work experience, perhaps considering returning to Baja California where she could get a job as a masseuse in an upscale hotel or resort where she heard rich tourists sometimes tipped ten or twenty dollars. The life there was good and she could send her children to the Montessori school where she knew they would fit in and get a good education.
Their goodbye was restrained with no outward expression of emotion. He gave her 400 euros and a small suede bag that contained a 10-carat aquamarine emerald that he said she could sell if she ever needed the money. Picking up his children in both arms he hugged and kissed them until they squirmed from out of his embrace. He stayed near the car with the children while she loaded her suitcase and backpack into the luggage hold of the bus, returning to the car for her children offering but a short, empty glance, saying only “goodbye.”
THERE ARE PROBABLY AS MANY MEN IN THE WORLD as there are ways of defining a man’s worth. Lou Danziger was indeed a worthy man. And to show their love, affection and how much they truly valued their father, his children, Marina and Ben, showed up at his Lincoln Park townhouse on the morning of his 75th birthday with a brunch basket complete with bagels, lox, smoked kippers, ripe tomatoes, cream cheese, cherry strudel, an oversized grapefruit, a bottle of chilled Dom Perignon and a single 1961 Montecristo Number 2 that set Ben back 425 dollars at the Hubbard and State Cigar Shop.
Lou Danziger had spent his entire life being a devoted man in every way: He served his country as a medic during the Korean War, saving dozens if not hundreds of lives; he led Friday night Sabbath services for the Jewish soldiers in his company and made sure they had matzo on Passover and yahrtzeit candles to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a parent, sibling or spouse, as was the case for Booby Birnbaum, whose young wife was killed in the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta in December 1946 just three weeks after they were married.
Returning to Chicago from Korea, Lou was offered a job as an usher at the Uptown Theater on Lawrence and Broadway by Sam Katz, one of the owners of the Balaban and Katz theater chain and a lifelong friend of Lou’s father, who worked as a highly respected graphic artist, political cartoonist and sign maker. Al Danziger was famous for coming up with the idea of the “Happiness Book,” a five dollar booklet of vouchers that could be redeemed for admission to any of the Balaban and Katz theaters. “Happiness Books” were on every gentile kid’s Christmas wish list during the 40s and 50s, and probably on as many Jewish kids’ Chanukah lists.
When Lou’s fathered suffered a debilitating stroke on the eve of the Jewish New Year in 1958, Lou, at 25, not only became the man of the house responsible for the well-being of his mother, his mother’s mother and his two teenaged sisters, he also became general manager of Danziger & Danziger, the printing business that his father had set up with his late brother Morris upon their arrival from Kremenets in 1901.
Lou spent the next ten years working 15-hour days tirelessly providing for his growing family, which came to include his wife Barbara—who was his sister’s best friend in high school—and their two children, born 20 months apart.
The printing business exploded during the 1960s and Lou was running three plants, two for black and white and one plant exclusively for color. In 1967, Crain Communications (known as Advertising Publications, Inc. until July of 1969), launched “Business Insurance” magazine, edited by Rance Crain who contracted Danziger & Danziger to carry out printing and distribution operations of the publication for the entire Midwest, a deal that made Lou Danziger a millionaire by his fortieth birthday.
In 1981, Danziger & Danziger was bought out by the giant regional printing giant RR Donnelley and Sons for nearly 20 million dollars, and Lou was made a member of the Board of Directors and chairman of the audit committee, a position he held until he retired in 1998. From the time of his retirement, Lou Danziger spent his time—and his money—wisely, giving generously to a number of charitable organizations while sitting on the boards of the Children’s Memorial Hospital, The Civic Opera, The Steppenwolf Theater and the RR Donnelley Foundation.
Every Wednesday he met his daughter Marina, an advertising executive at Ogilvy & Mather, and his son Ben, an attorney and close personal friend and advisor to U.S. Congressman Rahm Emanuel, at R.J. Grunt’s on Lincoln Park West, where they would lunch on French onion soup, patty melts and, during the summer months, chocolate hand-dipped malts ordered to go and enjoyed on long walks through the Lincoln Park Zoo.
After his wife passed away suddenly in 1998, he took up ballroom dancing after being coaxed into attending a wedding in the company of June Fishbein, who insisted on his learning “at least a few moves” beforehand so as not to embarrass her—or himself—on the dance floor at the posh Gold Coast affair. He enjoyed going to the dance classes saying they helped him shed the extra pounds his doctor had been trying to get him to lose for years. He met some nice women as well: divorcees, widows, spinsters—even a lesbian—who, as it turned out, attended the same high school as Lou, graduating two years behind him. Of all the women he met, and even dated from his dance class, it was this particular lesbian, Margot Blum, that he became fondest of and they struck up a friendship that lasted until her death from ovarian cancer in March of 2007.
Lou and Margot were inseparable. They golfed, traveled, went to the cinema, opera, ballet, Cubs and Bulls games, wrestling matches and enjoyed each other’s company enormously. And it was Margot, who gave Marina and Ben the idea of the cruise in the first place; it was a cruise that Lou and Margot had been planning to take just before Margot became ill—an eight-day transatlantic crossing aboard Cunard’s legendary Queen Mary 2 from New York to Hamburg, where they planned to buy a new Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet, driving it across Europe and shipping it back to the States after their adventure.
When Lou opened the Sunday Chicago Tribune that was tucked into his birthday brunch basket to check the box scores, an envelope with the Cunard logo fell onto the table.
“What, they’re advertising luxury cruises now in the sports page?” Lou asked ironically.
But after closer inspection of the envelope he quickly realized that it wasn’t a brochure at all.
“I’m gonna get you for this you rotten, good for nothing kids. I always said you was no good. What’s this all about?”
“Come on daddy, open it,” said Marina.
“No, I’m too excited. Here you open it kiddo,” he said handing the envelope to Ben.
Ben opened the envelope and removed the first class ticket for the Queen Mary 2’s New York to Hamburg sailing.
“So where are the keys to the Mercedes?” he joked with tears beginning to stream from his eyes.
“You want a Mercedes, you’ll have to pop for that one yourself, pop,” said Ben.
“Dad,” said Marina taking the ticket from her brother and handing it to her father, “the ship sails on the 18th and that’s in less than three weeks, I hope that’s not too soon.”
“Well, I`ll have to cancel my golf date with Cheeky Rubin and re-schedule my root canal, but I’ll manage. You kids are just too much. What can I say? You’ve been making me the happiest, proudest father all your lives and now this. I love you both so very much, thank you for such a wonderful and thoughtful gift.”
The three spent the rest of the morning drinking champagne and planning Lou’s driving itinerary through Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. His cousins Erwin and Eunice usually spent summers in Paris, where he thought to spend a few days there with them taking in the museums and the summer jazz festival in the Tuileries Garden. In Spain, his dentist’s son ran a diving school and bed and breakfast near Alicante, where he could spend a week fishing and enjoying the regional food and quiet beaches of the Costa Blanca. From there he would travel to northern Spain, to Galicia, and then through Portugal where he would leave the Mercedes at the port of Lisbon and fly back to the States at the end of September.
Lou spent the next three weeks upgrading his wardrobe in preparation for the cruise. He went to Four Cohn Shoes in Skokie to buy a pair of Top-Siders, to Ralph Lauren on Michigan Avenue for sport shirts and couple pairs of seersucker pants; he even drove down to Buy-a-Tux on Roosevelt Road to look for a new dinner jacket and a some patent leather shoes. On his way home he passed by Rosehill Cemetery, leaving a dozen red roses on Margot’s grave and telling her about the cruise, thanking her for giving Marina and Ben the idea and telling her how much he missed her.
Lou flew to New York a few days before the cruise to see “Jersey Boys” at the August Wilson Theatre on West 52nd Street and to catch up with a few army buddies, Chewy Epstein, Mo Lerner and Alan Dell, the latter having bought Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street on the Lower East Side back in the 1980s. On the Tuesday his ship was to set sail, he woke up early and took a brisk walk through Central Park and had breakfast at Nice Matin on West 79th, where he ate the smoked salmon and soft scrambled eggs recommended to him by his portly gay waiter, Valentine, who went through exhausting efforts teaching Lou how to pronounce his name correctly.
Lou went back to the Hilton for a rest and later had lunch downstairs in the Lobby Lounge where he enjoyed a turkey club, a glass of chilled Talus white Zinfandel and a piece of yoghurt frosted carrot cake for dessert. After lunch he returned to his room for a shower and changed into the clothes he had laid out to board the ship: a pair of navy blue chinos, a powder blue oxford cloth shirt, a pair of cordovan Sebago penny loafers and a tan linen blazer with a powder blue pocket square.
He arrived at the Port of New York at 3 p.m., two hours ahead of the ship’s scheduled launch, boarded the massive 13-deck ship and was taken by a steward to his premium Britannia Stateroom complete with a king-size bed and private balcony. The delightful young steward suggested that if he were hungry he would find some light fare and charming atmosphere in Sir Samuel’s on Deck 3.
The next eight days of the transatlantic crossing were some of the best days Lou Danziger had ever lived. Throughout his life he had traveled frequently, taking many cruises—the Mediterranean, Alaska, Canada and New England and three different voyages to the Caribbean—none of which had even closely rivaled this one. He ate the finest foods, was invited to dine twice at the captain’s table, once in the company of Kate Mailer, daughter of the late writer Norman Mailer and his third wife, British heiress and journalist Lady Jeanne Campbell, who had died just five months prior to Mailer in 2007. He met Kate one morning on the Winter Garden Deck during a passenger emergency drill when Lou, accidentally bumping into her, caused her to tear the right sleeve of her windbreaker as it caught against the edge of a fire extinguisher casing. Later that same day they met for the second time, Lou clumsily bumping into her (again!) during a waltz class in the Queen’s Room.
“Why don’t we dance together?” Kate Mailer suggested to Lou. “That way I can keep an eye on you!”
Lou and Kate spent the following days in each other’s company. There was something about Lou that reminded Kate of her late father and something about Kate that reminded Lou of his daughter Marina, who was only 10 years younger. They started spending all their time together, both on board and on day trips at the various ports of call. One night at dinner, Lou asked Kate if she would care to join him on his driving trip around Europe, which she politely declined as she would be leaving the ship in Southampton on Monday travelling back to London where she would be taking over the part of Myrtle in an adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter,” in the West End.
The ship arrived in Hamburg on schedule on a balmy August Wednesday, and as happy as Lou was to be arriving in Germany to continue his adventure, he was sad to be leaving the ship and even sadder to be saying goodbye to Kate and the other friends he had made during the cruise— people from all walks of life—retired businessmen, military officers, university professors, millionaires, widows, widowers, divorcees—but the highlight of his cruise was surely having had dinner at the captain’s table, (twice!) and dancing a dozen waltzes with the daughter of a famous writer.
A nicely dressed young black man wearing a smart tailored suit was waiting for Lou as he exited the passenger baggage claim and customs area. He was holding a large white sign with black printed letters:
Mr. Louis Danziger
Lou approached the man who offered to wheel Lou’s suitcase to a waiting car.
“Is that mine?” asked Lou admiring the creamy white Mercedes convertible from the distance.
“Yes, sir, it is, would you like to drive it back to the office?” replied the young man in perfect English with a slight New York accent.
“You’re not German, are you?” asked Lou.
“Because I’m black?” answered the young man.
“No, forgive me for insinuating, it’s just the New York accent and all.”
“No worries, I get that all the time, sir. I’m an army brat but I was born and raised here though I studied economics for two years at NYU—and I watch a lot of American movies; my friends tell me I sound a little like Bruce Willis,” which in fact he did.
Lou drove his new Mercedes back to the sales office and signed all the necessary documents and bid the young black man farewell with a fifty-euro note that he pressed into a strong and sincere handshake. He spent the night at the Radisson on the Marseiller Strasse and early the next morning began his long drive across the old continent.
While driving through the picturesque countryside near the border of Luxembourg, on his way to Paris, Lou reflected back on his life. He had lived it to the fullest. He had been a good son, brother, husband, father and friend. And a hard working man. Looking out over the lush green landscape he thought of his wife, who he had missed dearly for more than a decade. And he thought about his children, and how his love for them—and their love for him—had filled his life with the greatest joy a man could ever know.
WHAT COULD A YOUNG SPANISH WOMAN from a fine and respected military family expect to do when she finishes high school and must decide between a course of further studies or enter the working world? Easy. She joins the army.
Cristina grew up as the oldest of three daughters of Coronel Antonio Miguel Alonso Arce de Soria and Ana María Broseta, a homemaker. Her childhood home more resembled a military museum than a humble family dwelling, filled with the memorabilia of three generations of military officers. There were dozens of trinkets, medals and models—especially motorized vehicles—tanks, jeeps, and, most prominent of all, motorcycles, as her father, an officer in charge of an engineering and logistics regiment, had a great passion for classic motorcycles. Cristina’s father owned a dozen or more vintage motorcycles, keeping them stored in a small warehouse near the maritime quarter of Cabanyal, spending weekends and holidays there with his daughters. They would spend hours tinkering and taking apart and putting together old Spanish motorbikes such as two 1963 Derbi 125 Supers, a 1953 Montesa “Brío 90,” 1962 Ducson S9, a 49cc Aleu and a 1960 Bultaco Tralla 101.
His daughters loved spending time with their father at his garage because it meant they were free from the monotony of weekends at their grandmother’s country house in Ribarroja, where they were obliged to play girly games and have tea parties with their obnoxiously wealthy cousins who would fly in from Madrid in her uncle’s private Beechcraft Bonanza.
Unlike her sisters, Cristina was more interested in riding her father’s motorbikes than fiddling about with them, and she was her father’s official test rider, barely ever removing her white helmet and goggles waiting for her father’s thumbs up to take the ’52 Colomet—her favorite—for a spin around the port, where the Civil Guards on duty knew her father and always let her into the restricted area where she could really open the bikes up without worrying about traffic or other obstacles.
Cristina spent four years in the army, stationed at a base outside of Valencia in the nearby town of Bétera, where she worked as an automobile mechanic specializing in vehicle electrical systems. After completing her military service, she spent a year traveling around the United States with her cousin Alejandro—also a motorcycle enthusiast—on two Heritage Softail Classics they rented from Liberty Harley Davidson in Rahway, New Jersey.
Before setting out on their three-month cross-country journey, they spent the night in Rahway at the Best Western. They ate Whoppers at Burger King and had breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts, drinking coffee and eating French Crullers, Boston Kremes, and, for the first time, bagels, which Cristina ordered as a sandwich served with egg, cheese and bacon.
Tom McTamney, the owner of Liberty Harley Davidson, recommended the two have dinner at his favorite restaurant, Luciano’s on Main Street, and suggested the jumbo lump crab cake bruschetta followed by a main course of Fra Diavolo seafood fettuccini and pan seared sea scallops which they washed down with a bottle of 2006 Castello di Monastero Tuscan Chianti. They even somehow managed to make room to share dessert, the house specialty, spiced fig strudel, prepared with a Port wine reduction, apricot compote and fig and honey gelato.
About halfway through their trip, Cristina called home one Saturday afternoon from Groom, Texas, a small, nondescript town on Highway 40 east of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Her mother answered the phone, delighted to hear her daughter’s voice but even more excited to pass the phone to her husband who was eagerly waiting to tell his daughter the great news, that she had been accepted to the National Police Force’s motorcycle patrol detail and was requested to begin their training program on the first of October.
Cristina was delighted with news and when she and Alejandro arrived in Las Vegas two days later, they booked a room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino spending three nights there celebrating her good fortune, drinking Margaritas, chowing down Panuchos at the Pink Taco and dancing until dawn at the hotel’s Body English nightclub. Their celebratory fiesta set them back a thousand dollars but Alejandro won two grand at the three-card poker table his very first night out after only having had one, free, half hour lesson with a gorgeous dealer named Misty.
Cristina and Alejandro made their return trip back to New Jersey in three days, dropping their Harleys off in Rahway and taking a taxi to JFK nearly missing their flight to Madrid. Back home, Cristina’s parents and sisters welcomed her with congratulatory hugs and kisses, her mother preparing her favorite Sunday meal, arroz a banda (saffron rice with squid and allioli) that brought tears to Cristina’s eyes after having eaten rough for most of the past five weeks (except, of course, for the meals at Luciano’s, the Hard Rock in Vegas and the amazing Porterhouse steak at Marcello’s Chop House in Albuquerque.).
Cristina breezed through the police academy though she did suffer a minor accident during a road crash simulation that left her on crutches for six weeks with a broken ankle. During her time off she managed to do her written tests and even worked on translating some English texts that had been sent to the motorcycle unit containing new regulations and policies from the European Union and Interpol.
Cristina graduated from Spain’s National Police Academy in Avila in February and was assigned to a motorcycle detail in Valencia (thanks to her father’s string pulling). She spent the first three months riding with another female officer, Cristina Paniagua, a dark-skinned brunette from Madrid who her colleagues called “Dirty Harry,” as she had “make my day” tattooed on her right upper arm (so rumor had it). The two were soon known by their fellow motorcycle officers by a variety of clever nicknames such as the “Dynamic Duo,” “Starsky & Hutch” and “Charlie’s Angels.” She had found the perfect job and luckily for Cristina, the perfect job had found her. She made routine traffic stops, answered calls for domestic disturbances, purse snatchings, minor drug offences and was included in the escort detail whenever important dignitaries, politicians, rock stars and visiting soccer clubs came to town. She even got to occasionally ride one of the ten Harley-Davidson Electra Glide-FLHTPs that the National Police Force acquired exclusively for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Valencia in July 2006, which she did happily and with very little convincing.
After her three-month probationary period was over, Cristina was assigned to the central command and paired with her new partner, Carlos Puchades, a ten-year veteran of the motorcycle detail whose partner had transferred to Malaga two months earlier. Cristina knew Carlos as they grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same schools and for a time she was best friends with his sister Paula, with whom Cristina first tried smoking cigarettes in high school. Carlos showed Cristina the ropes and the two got on well from the start. During their first week together, they were involved in two drug busts and took part in an operation that dismantled a ring of illegitimate weddings where Spanish women were charging men, mostly African immigrants, up to 5,000 euros for arranged marriages providing the immigrants with work and residency papers.
During the summer Cristina and Carlos were assigned to the retail shopping district in the city center, which covered the Calle Colón and the surrounding streets which were dotted with pricey boutiques, jewelry shops and posh cafés. The work in city center consisted mainly of ridding the shopping district of unlicensed street vendors, mainly Sub-Saharan Africans selling sun glasses and bootlegged CDs, and South American women selling knitted cardigans, beaded handicrafts and CDs of pan flute music. There were the bands of young Romanian Gypsies as well, cunning girls who, at eleven or twelve, knew every trick in the book and could rob even the most vigilant tourist—or local—of his or her wallet, coin purse or mobile phone. The Gypsy girls’ best ruse was employed frequently at sidewalk cafés, patronized principally by foreigners and well-to-do teenagers, where typically two girls would walk over to a table upon where an unsuspecting victim had laid their mobile phone. One of the girls would set the newspaper on top of the phone while the other panhandled for some change. In the melee that followed, the other girl would pick up the newspaper—with the mobile phone—and the two would walk away hurriedly amidst the hooting and hollering of the annoyed patrons. Other bands of up to six young Gypsy children—all minors, making them exempt from any legal action—would literally swarm automatic teller machine users waving newspapers in their faces as a distraction, yelling taunting gibberish while taking the recently withdrawn cash right from victims’ hands in broad daylight on crowded city streets.
Generally, Valencia is known as a quiet city, and as far as crime goes there is little to talk about of much significance. It was on that particular balmy August Wednesday, however, that the typically tranquil city on Spain’s Mediterranean coast was to be rocked by one of the most horrific crimes ever committed on the Iberian Peninsula.
Valencia is a city of nearly one million inhabitants, fast becoming a world-class city boasting the America’s Cup regattas, Formula 1 racing, a recently opened 100,000 square meter zoo and the City of Arts of Arts and Sciences, home to a spectacular planetarium and Imax cinema, science museum, aquarium and performing arts center. But on the morning of August 27th, just as Cristina and Carlos were beginning their shift, a call came over the loudspeakers of their Honda Deauville 700s. There had been a massive explosion at the Westin Hotel, which was just up the street from Cristina’s parents’ house. Even more alarming was that the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, and his wife, Queen Sofia, had been spending the night at the hotel after inaugurating the Presidential Suite the previous afternoon. The royal couple’s stay at the hotel that evening was not officially announced so very few people other than the Royal family’s personal staff and the head of the official police delegation knew about the impromptu sleepover. But there had been a severe breach of security that nearly cost Spain’s king and queen, and dozens of innocent bystanders, their lives.
The massive 800-kilogram bomb, which had been placed in a vacant store opposite the hotel, was detonated at 8:34 a.m., the exact same time of the Madrid Barajas International Airport bombing on December 30, 2006, which claimed the lives of two Ecuadorian citizens. The bomb left the hotel in ruins though luckily the Presidential Suite was constructed to withstand such a blast, which in this case left Juan Carlos and Sofia soot covered, shaken up and virtually unharmed as they were whisked away from the hotel—in separate vehicles—by their security detail.
Meanwhile, the building which housed the store where the bomb had been placed was engulfed in flames and smoke, though as good fortune would have it most of the building’s residents had already left for work—all except for Cristina’s parents who were having breakfast when the blast occurred.
Amidst the chaos, Cristina, who left her motorcycle on the street opposite side the hotel, raced towards her parents’ building while trying to reach them on her mobile phone. There was no answer. Cristina turned the corner to find the building ablaze and pushing past some firefighters and a television crew that had just arrived she could see her mother in the third story window, her mouth and nose covered with a kitchen towel. Running past about a dozen police officers who tried in vain to stop her from entering the burning building, Cristina, still wearing her motorcycle helmet, pulled down the visor, entered the lobby and ran up the stairs which by now had filled with thick grey smoke. Having grown up in the building she knew the layout of the stairwell even in the smoky darkness and made her way to her parents’ door, which had been blown open from the shock wave of the initial explosion.
Entering the apartment she found her mother paralyzed with fear still standing in front of the window, still covering her face with the green kitchen towel. Cristina saw her father lying unconscious on the floor beside the table where her parents had been having breakfast. Grabbing her mother by the arm she walked her swiftly to the front door telling her to wait and not to move. Running back into the house, Cristina dragged her father by the feet through the living room and out the front door. There, she instructed her mother to take hold of her utility belt as she turned around and began descending the stairway backwards, now supporting her father below his armpits pulling him quickly down the three flights of stairs to the safety of the street below and to an awaiting doctor and ambulance. Cristina’s father, who had been knocked unconscious by the impact of the explosion was also suffering from smoke inhalation, though once oxygen was administered he immediately began coming to. Cristina rode along in the ambulance with her father on the short ride to the nearby university hospital where he turned to her and smiled insisting that she remove his oxygen mask.
“Did you pull me out of there?” he asked..
“Was anyone hurt?
“There are few serious injuries at the hotel and they’re still looking to see if anyone else is inside. You know the King and Queen were there.”
“And they got out safely?”
“Thank God,” replied Cristina’s father as the doctor gently replaced the oxygen mask over his face as the ambulance pulled up to the emergency room doors.
Responsibility for the bombing was never claimed by anyone or any group, unusual in Spain, and though everyone blamed the Basque nationalist separatist organization ETA, responsible for killing more than 800 people since the late 1960s, they insisted from the start that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the Westin Hotel bombing and the attempt on the lives of Spain’s king and queen.
At the hospital, Cristina’s parents were both admitted and treated for shock and smoke inhalation. After making sure her parents were comfortable, Cristina was driven back to the hotel in a squad car to collect her motorcycle. She was met there by Carlos, who informed her that their sergeant had left word that she was to take the rest of the week off to attend to her family’s needs.
That evening, Cristina went to visit her parents at the hospital, stopping first to buy a bouquet of daisies from a flower stall outside of the hospital’s maternity wing which she arranged in a plastic water pitcher on a side table beside the window. Sitting at the edge of her mother’s bed and looking at her father who had fallen asleep, she gently removed the remote control from his hand, muting the volume on the television which had been showing continuous highlights of the day’s tragic events. Her father soon awoke to the sight of his wife’s reassuring expression and his daughter’s comforting presence, then, glancing up at the horrible images on the news program and taking the remote control from his daughter’s hand, he switched off the television, glanced over at the flowers on the side table, looked at his daughter and, nodding a nod that only a proud father could, smiled as tears began flowing down his face.
SOME DREAMS NEVER DIE. Natalie Barton’s never even faded. She was an adorable little girl with long brown hair, which from an early age she used as a prop, flinging it about as she danced, wrapping it in a turban-like bun or covering her lip with a flowing moustache while entertaining her family after Sunday dinner. Natalie was born for the stage, a natural actress, singer and dancer who debuted at the age of five in a musical revue at Sally’s Stage on Western Avenue, where she sang “Tomorrow,” from the musical Annie.
She became an extroverted, bright and caring young woman. In her teens, she volunteered at a senior citizen’s home and while at university she would spend her free afternoons and Saturday mornings rolling a cart filled with games, toys and books to patient rooms at Children’s Memorial Hospital.
As a student, Natalie was an overachiever, excelling in everything she did—receiving the best grades, winning all the starring roles and capturing the fancies of the most desired young men on campus. In her final year at college she dated actor David Schwimmer, who had been attending Northwestern University in Evanston, until she turned down a role in a play his new Lookingglass Theatre company was putting on in 1989, saying she felt he didn’t take her acting seriously and had only offered her a bit part so as not to offend her and to keep the relationship going.
After graduation, Natalie was invited personally by the Dean of DePaul’s Theatre School to stay on and enroll in the school’s Master of Fine Arts in Acting program, but Natalie had other plans, mainly traveling to L.A. with one of her roommates, Tony Salazar, whose uncle was a casting agent and who had promised Tony a part in new sitcom being developed for Roseanne Barr for HBO. Tony convinced Natalie to come along and try out for the show and invited her to stay at his uncle’s for as long as she liked.
Natalie and Tony left Chicago for L.A. after the Fourth of July holidays, driving Natalie’s red 1984 Saab 900 through Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Though the two had been roommates for the past three years, they hardly knew each other—with conflicting school and work schedules, different lifestyles and friends—and during the trip they discovered that they had a lot in common: they were both vegetarians and non-smokers (oddities amongst actors), loved reading John Irving and playing the guitar and, their most agreeable topic of interest was their mutual attraction to gorgeous men.
Natalie and Tony arrived in L.A. on July 8th. Tony’s uncle, Bernie Lazar (his real name was Bernardo Salazar but he thought the Jewish sounding Bernie Lazar was more Hollywood) lived in Studio City, south of the hills above Ventura Boulevard in a shade-covered bungalow with a beautiful bright red Jaguar XK-E parked beneath the carport alongside a perfectly restored, two-tone black and beige 1946 Indian Chief 1000cc motorcycle.
Bernie was your typical Hollywood type—he knew everyone and everyone knew him. At least that’s what he led people to believe. The truth was that he made more of a name for himself selling cocaine to young unknowns and a handful of big stars and has-beens. He frequently boasted of having been in Bungalow 3 at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip with John Belushi, Robert De Niro and Robin Williams hours before Belushi died after injecting a speedball of heroin and cocaine on that tragic evening back in March of 1982.
Bernie, as was par for the course, took an immediate liking to Natalie. He was more or less what one might call a sleazy character, but he was quite handsome and was always in the company of beautiful women (even if they were just using him—and he them—to satisfy their mutual fancies).
Natalie and Bernie became lovers almost from the start, Natalie growing fonder of him and more and more dependent on the blow he would supply her enough of to keep her on heel. She was probably more addicted to Bernie than to the coke and soon found herself falling deeply in love with him. Three months after arriving in L.A., she seemed on her way to having it all. Thanks to Bernie—and a returned personal favor from a studio executive—she landed her first movie role (a small part in a Tom Cruise film), television commercial (for a national coffee brand), modeling job (the Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue), as well as acquiring a thousand dollar a day cocaine habit. But perhaps the biggest role of all—one that would pan itself out in about nine months’ time—was becoming the mother of Bernie’s child, which she found out she was carrying the very day the Tom Cruise film opened.
Over the next few years Natalie worked steadily and gained a reputation for being a reliable and well-liked actress in Hollywood. She and Bernie married in a civil ceremony in Malibu two months before their second child was born, a boy they named Max. Their life was a far cry from the coke, booze and pill-popping of a few short years before. Bernie was a good husband, not always faithful, but his occasional philandering was mostly tolerated by Natalie who (despite loving Bernie dearly), managed to have a few affairs of her own, one, in fact, with a make-up artist she met on a photo shoot which left her pregnant, a pregnancy that she terminated the very day she discovered it without as much as ever mentioning it to her lover.
At thirty, Natalie was at the height of her career. She was a regular on a hit Fox action drama, she had just signed on to do a feature film directed by Chazz Palminteri, and she spent as much time as she could raising her young son and daughter. She was living her dream, a fantasy-life of lights, cameras and plenty of action; and as mother and wife she felt as though she had it all. So many accomplishments in so little time, and with Bernie to thank. Not that her talent wasn’t proportionate to the level of success she had achieved—it was, more so, perhaps—but Bernie was the catalyst, Bernie was the one who kept it all going, making the right decisions, choosing the best projects and guiding Natalie’s career in a way that would secure her future success in the industry for years—if not decades—to come.
On their fifth wedding anniversary Bernie surprised Natalie with a new, creamy white Mercedes-Benz CLK cabriolet. In return, she booked a flight to Milan and a chauffeur-driven car to Lugano. There, they travelled by boat to Morcote on Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland for a romantic week of walking through the countryside, enjoying the local cuisine and summer festivals in nearby towns and, if the timing was right, trying to conceive their third child.
In Lugano, Bernie and Natalie ran into Steve and Jessica, show biz friends from L.A. who had been spending the summer in Tuscany, where Jessica was redecorating a kitchen, two bathrooms and a formal dining room at a home owned by Sting and his film producer wife Trudie Styler. Natalie and Steve had gone to college together and one evening after dinner at a quiet, candle-lit bistro while the two were reminiscing, their spouses decided to go for a walk on the lakefront and admire the spectacular full August moon.
“I’ve been trying to find something special for Natalie,” Bernie said lighting a Monte Cristo, “You seem to be a woman who enjoys the finer things, what do you suggest?”
“There’s an artisans’ market in town and I’ve seen some beautiful pieces,” commented Jessica. “Yesterday Steve got to talking to this guy, I think he said he was from Chile or Mexico, you can’t miss him, he looks like a Indian straight out of a B western, wears a long black ponytail and has a blue half- moon tattooed right between his eyebrows. He’s an odd character but I will say he’s got some of the most beautiful emeralds I’ve ever seen.”
“Emeralds? Nat loves emeralds. I’ll ask Steve about the guy and maybe tomorrow I can sneak into town and have a look.”
The next day Bernie arranged for Natalie to spend the morning at a spa in town where she would indulge herself with a Turkish bath and full body massage by a handsome Spaniard called Julio. Bernie roamed the market until he came across the Indian-looking fellow with the long black ponytail and blue half-moon tattoo.
The man, with his weathered face and thin hands, was in his mid forties and sat at a small table polishing stones while his wife was trying to get their two unruly children to sit quietly and doodle on some blank sheets of paper.
“I hear you have some beautiful emeralds,” said Bernie as the man’s daughter came up to him offering an unsolicited hug which Bernie awkwardly accepted.
“Si, señor, I have some nice stones from Colombia,” replied the man in a thick accent. “Tell me what you are looking for.”
“It’s a present for my wife. She loves emeralds. A friend of mine told me she saw something in aquamarine.”
“Yes, muy raro, very rare. You don’t see many like this. It’s one of a kind,” continued the man as he reached into his satchel removing a small suede bag. “Mira, see for yourself. Beautiful, no?
Bernie took the stone in his hand and was mesmerized by its beauty. He had never seen an aquamarine emerald and knew at once that he had come upon something special and wanted Natalie to have it.
“What does a stone like this go for? asked Bernie as he continued rubbing the gem between his fingers.
“The stone is ten carats. I can get ten thousand for it in Geneva. I’ll sell it to you today for five,” said the man without as much as breaking his concentration from the stone he was polishing.
“You’ve got a deal,” said Bernie. “I’ll go the bank first thing tomorrow morning. Here’s a thousand on deposit. I’ll stop by around this time tomorrow with the rest.”
“Better to come after the fair closes, say just after midnight. I’ll have it polished by then and it would be my pleasure to invite you for a drink,” said the man.
“Then that’s settled. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Bernie went to the bank the next morning taking a cash advance on his American Express card for the remaining 4,000 euros he owed the artisan. Later that evening he took the boat from Lugano, arriving just before midnight when the artisan and his wife were taking down their stall and loading their wares into a well-used and thoroughly dented Peugeot 106.
“Leaving Lugano? Bernie asked the artisan as he approached the man who was placing a green backpack into the Peugeot.
“Buona sera,” said the man without even as much as looking Bernie’s way. “We are traveling to Grenoble, to more fairs in France,” he added walking over to shake Bernie’s hand. Bernie waited while the artisan helped his wife load the rest of their gear into the Peugeot, observing the couple’s children fast asleep in the back seat. The artisan kissed his wife and she got into the car driving off down the dark road leading out of town.
The two men walked to a nearby bar and went inside taking a table near the back, away from a group of noisy tourists who seemed to speaking in tongues; Germans or Dutch, Bernie thought to himself. Bernie ordered a glass of red wine, the artisan a beer. Bernie was curious to know more about the man, his travels, his craft and how he came upon the emerald, but the artisan seemed uninterested in conversation wanting instead to get down to the matters at hand.
“Normally I don’t do business this way,” said the artisan with his cutting accent, “but I would feel more comfortable if we go outside. I prefer to be a bit discreet with such a big quantity of money.”
The two men finished their drinks and the artisan paid the man behind the bar. He and Bernie walked outside and around to the back of the pub. The artisan removed the stone from the small suede bag in his shoulder satchel holding it up to the sky as it reflected the moonlight against the backdrop of the dark summer night.
“It’s simply beautiful,” Bernie said, carefully taking the stone from the artisan’s thin fingers.
Bernie then removed the envelope from the inside pocket of his sports coat, handing it to the artisan. As the envelope left his grasp, Bernie felt a sudden burst of pain ripping through his stomach and looking up he saw the artisan holding a knife dripping with fresh blood. As he was losing consciousness, Bernie saw the man wiping the blade clean on the grass and returning the knife to a sheath hanging from the artisan’s belt. Bernie fell slowly to the ground without making as much as a sound. The artisan knelt down beside Bernie picking up the blood-covered emerald, wiping it clean and returning it to its small suede bag.
At the hotel, just after midnight on the cusp of a balmy August Wednesday, Natalie had adorned the hotel room with a dozen candles, fresh flowers, incense and a bottle of Dom Pérignon which was chilling in a bucket of ice. She was wearing the new black negligee that she had bought that afternoon at a boutique in town. According to her calculations, Natalie was ovulating and tonight would be her best chance of getting pregnant. Everything was perfect. She had it all: the career that she had always dreamed of, a loving husband and two wonderful children. As she waited for Bernie to return, she stood looking out of her hotel room window watching the moon reflecting on the lake; it reminded her of a large aquamarine emerald. She felt serene and satisfied, blessed and buoyant, for tonight, she thought, would be the beginning of something new, something truly, truly amazing.