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FICTION / Rivka and the Jew Strangler / Rax King

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Rivka turns murdered daughters and sisters into television by researching (in this case) the Jew Strangler’s victims and then finding their families on the private database that costs her boss Shelly $24.99/month. She then cold-calls these family members from her office phone, which smells like old popcorn, and tells them that they seem like the sort of people who would like to make a real difference. Some family members grant her interviews for her miniseries. Most don’t.

Sometimes the popcorn smell nauseates her with its odor of rejection and then Rivka has to take an early lunch. Her lunches are cups of nonfat Greek yogurt, sickly with strawberry or peach slurry, topped with anemic apple slices. Some days there’s chicken breast, pale as death, sawed from the carcass by her mother.

Rivka, and by extension a variety of serial killers but mostly Rivka, has made Shelly rich. This serial killer just happens to be the Jew Strangler, so what. Shelly wants to ask whether the project feels more personal to Rivka now that the victims are, well…but no, that’s not a lawsuit she needs on her hands.

#

The Jew Strangler is a strangler by name, but Ed Hannity was actually pretty unpredictable, an atypical serial killer—Rivka would know. Some women he split from throat to belly. Some he bludgeoned. Two weren’t Jewish. 

The nickname stuck when the cops found his manifesto scrawled in charcoal across his walls, fourteen words this, Atomwaffen that, exterminate the Rothschilds and blah blah blah. A detective, a regular at the local Presbyterian church, not that it should matter, named him the Jew Strangler. As a joke.

Mind you, Rivka hadn’t known any of this when she’d started work on this chapter of Shelly’s production, Criminal Minds. She only knows it now because of Zoe Lieberman, whose daughter was the first Jew strangled by the Jew Strangler. When Rivka had cold-called her, Ma Lieberman hadn’t cursed or sobbed or asked just what the hell was wrong with Rivka that she couldn’t leave a grieving mother alone. She’d heard Rivka’s spiel about the documentary she was working on, and then (unbeknownst to Rivka) she’d nodded.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “For my daughter.”

Rivka had been chewing a mouthful of trail mix in one side of her mouth and was forced to give her sludgy response out the other side.

“Ma’am, you can do your daughter no greater service.”

Then she’d swallowed. And smiled.

#

Rivka’s mother is okay with the Jew Strangler project now, but how she’d wailed when Rivka first explained it to her! Oh, they hadn’t spoken for days. Their only interaction had been in sticky notes, Rivka’s blue, her mother’s yellow, usually instructions for how best to heat up the evening’s dinner. Rivka still didn’t know where her mother had gone those first few nights, only that she’d come back late, after Rivka’s bedtime. She still didn’t know what the problem was, why her mother had screamed and sobbed and grabbed her hair by the roots over this project when she hadn’t done the same for any of Rivka’s other projects.

Ma Lieberman had been a turning point, not only for the Jew Strangler project, but for Rivka’s mother too. They’d never met, except through Rivka’s anecdotes about one mother to another. Now Rivka’s mother speaks to Rivka again. She serves Rivka’s dinners hot. They eat together. They discuss the Liebermans.

Ma Lieberman is glad for the closeness of Rivka’s relationship with her mother and tells Rivka so every time they meet. Rivka’s mother says only one thing about Ma Lieberman in return, which is, “That’ll never be me, baruch hashem. My little girl won’t go getting herself killed.”

#

Shelly approaches Rivka’s desk. “Knock-knock.”

She doesn’t knock. It’s an open plan office and there’s nothing to knock on. Both hands finger a sleeveless paper cup as if it’s too hot to hold comfortably, though it’s the same yerba mate she’s been slurping from all morning.

When Rivka doesn’t look up, Shelly clears her throat. “So how’s it coming, superstar?”

“Peachy,” Rivka says, mashing her faulty stapler into a sheaf of documents. She only has a few more calls to make about the Jew Strangler project. Only a couple pieces of post-interview follow-up.

“You’ve got Ma Lieberman again at four o’clock,” Shelly says. “No cameras, just a last one-on-one.”

“What? Again?” Rivka is bad-temperedly wrestling the jagged staple through its hole. “Did you take my staple remover?”

Shelly shrugs. “Her segment’s already in post, but be nice. We need the moms on board.”

“What does she want now?”

But Shelly is already walking away, knock-knocking at another colleague’s desk. Rivka cranes her neck and sees her blue staple remover sitting in Shelly’s organizer.

#

At four o’clock, Rivka eats an ibuprofen and heads to the break room, which she tells her interviewees is a conference room. Facing away from the door in a folding chair is the broad back of Zoe Lieberman.

“Mrs. Lieberman,” Rivka says, her voice in its most respectful octave. “Always a pleasure.”

“I remembered something I didn’t think to tell you before,” Ma Lieberman says.

Rivka sinks into the seat facing Zoe and considers the dinner that her mother has promised her when she comes home tonight. Chicken Kiev and mashed potatoes, Rivka’s favorite. Both Shelly and Zoe Lieberman have imagined Rivka’s stooped old mommy fixing her adult daughter a plate and forced themselves to stop imagining, too aggrieved by what their minds predicted Rivka’s life was like. It’s the only thing they have in common.

“Tell me everything,” Rivka says. She turns on her recorder, not bothering to confirm with Ma Lieberman that she’s being recorded while recording her. The recorder is a gesture today. She hasn’t brought a pen to note the minute and second marks when Ma Lieberman says something segment-worthy.

“I remembered,” Ma Lieberman says. Her voice cracks, and Rivka looks up. Zoe Lieberman hasn’t shed one tear throughout the production. “I remembered how my little girl had a bruise the size of your hand on her, you know, tuchus. Rope marks all up and down her arms like she got tied up but tried to wiggle away.”

Rivka nods, waiting for the revelation. But Ma Lieberman is finished.

“You were saying?” Rivka says. She steals a glance at the autopsy report, which confirms everything that Ma Lieberman has just said.

“I thought that would be good to know,” Ma Lieberman says, scooting around in her chair until her back is straight. “You look so much like her that it made me remember, when I was looking at your picture on your website. Both of you with such dark hair.”

Rivka takes Zoe’s hand. “You’re a beautiful soul, Mrs. Lieberman.”

“I miss my girl.”

“Your segment will be first in the miniseries,” Rivka says. “The whole miniseries. You’ll be able to look at your daughter’s face again.”

Zoe nods, her hand prosthetically stiff in Rivka’s.

Rivka thinks about popcorn. Some days the smell of her phone is not dirty or greasy but tempting. “I’m sorry to do this to you, Mrs. Lieberman, but I’m afraid I have to get back to the studio.”

“Of course.” Zoe stands and proffers her hand for a shake, which is as stiff as their hand-holding was. “I wouldn’t want to be in your way.”

Rivka can feel the butter from her mother’s chicken Kiev weeping onto her tongue. “I’ll walk you out.”

#

The Jew Strangler fumbles his cross-examination at his trial and every reporter notes how dignified every witness is—every witness for the prosecution. Ed Hannity catches thirty-two consecutive life sentences from a Jewless jury and a dainty-nosed judge. Rivka’s mother calls this a good sign as the two of them take in the trial, Rivka at the TV, her mother listening from the kitchen.

“I don’t see her,” Rivka says. “I don’t see Ma Lieberman in the crowd.”

“So what?” her mother calls over the sound of the running water at the sink, where she’s washing dishes. “And you should show some respect, my God! All this ‘ma’!”

“I thought I’d get to see her face when they put him away,” she says. “That’s all.”

The sink stops and Rivka’s mother emerges, shaking the dishwater from her hands. She sits next to her daughter. “Believe me, honey, she’s the happiest woman you ever saw right now.”

Rivka looks at her askance but says nothing.


Rax King is a dog-loving, hedgehog-mothering, beer-swilling, gay and disabled sumbitch who occasionally writes poetry and works as assistant editor for Sundress Publications. She is the author of the collection 'The People's Elbow: Thirty Recitatives on Rape and Wrestling' (Ursus Americanus, 2018). Her work can also be found in Barrelhouse, Glass Poetry, and Dream Pop.