My given name is Adolph G. Zenith, though my friends always called me Zen. The “G” means nothing; my parents merely thought it gave my name more gravitas, and lacked the imagination and time, I suppose, to find a suitably, equally formidable middle name to compliment “Adolph”, and that also started with G, George, Gregory, Gerald notwithstanding. So Adolph G. Zenith it was.
You might have heard of the Zenith family. We were frequently in the news for a groundbreaking campaign for science- and bible-backed eugenics. My parents were large, powerful people who tried to live as they preached: god-fearing, white-proud, “true” Christians. Both were tall and muscular, infused with presence and charisma. Hopes for me, their son, were high.
I was not even remotely a formidable child. Instead I was plagued by allergies, was asthmatic, was very thin with delicate skin prone to dryness and sunburn, and had sparse, ash brown hair. Hardly the model Aryan boy my parents so vehemently wished for.
We travelled the country, and sometimes ventured overseas, attending rallies where my father spoke for hours at a time, sometimes replaced by my mother when he needed a drink or a bathroom break, and I was to stand proudly behind him with his “stage staff”, looking young and strong in a blue slacks and a white shirt and a blue blazer.
While preaching, my father would often take his jacket off, revealing a short-sleeved shirt, and loosen his tie, to demonstrate that he was a man of the people, sweating, passionate, and powerful; but I was not permitted to remove the blazer no matter what the temperature, because shoulder pads were sewn into the jacket, without which I would look like the underweight, bony, fragile child I was. More than once my mother had to hustle me off the stage before I fainted in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.
They tried to bulk me up with red meat, which I was fed at least twice a day; and some fruit juices which they heard were “cleansing”, but except for potatoes there was not much in the way of vegetables set before me because they personally did not find them appealing. Nothing in my diet seemed to change my core appearance. I was not a poster child for their movement and never would be.
I grew up under a cloud of palpable disappointment, a daily routine of sighs, eye rolls, impatient instruction, and whispered, disapproving comments. I could read at an early age, and was good at spelling, and had a knack for model building and climbing trees, but not at running, swimming, aerobic exercise, weight-lifting, growing tall and blonde, or understanding or explaining the philosophy of race purity and pride.
My father was not averse to a good whack across my temple with a meaty, open hand if I transgressed, sometimes knocking me to the floor. “It’s for your own good,” my mother would say, as if I didn’t know.
To be honest, I don’t remember much of the dogma or the philosophy of my father’s speeches. I developed an ability to completely tune out whatever came out of my parents’ mouths, possibly as a defence mechanism, since they often brutally smothered or slandered things that were important to me, like my love of rock and roll, my satanic curiosity about parapsychology, my devotion to fishing, and my friend René. To survive long evenings on the stage, to avoid a wallop across the head, to attempt to build a core that I recognized as me, I would zone out and travel in my mind, float across oceans, relive kind moments, play scenes from films in my head, try and communicate with René across the miles.
As a teenager, I was able to worm out of many of the stage performances, if not the sermons and some of the prominent, televised protest marches. I was still thin and unthreatening, but I was quick and newly certain that everything my parents did and said was wrong, as teenagers are, except that I felt righteous and outraged and on the side of the true god.
Zenith was not our real name. Father had it officially changed when he learned his heritage. “I’m not a Jew,” he said, “not even close, it’s passed down through the mother, my mother was not a Jew.”
“You have Jew blood,” I said, using the only phrase I knew, which now makes me cringe.
I was sixteen, and about to be kicked out of the house. He had confiscated my cellphone and laptop in order to confirm that I had not been communicating with undesirable people, and that I had no porn nor access to porn. I was angry; but more painful than the anger was the loneliness I felt without being able to text René or visit the forums that connected me to a greater world
“I have no Jew blood,” my father said, and his face flushed, and his eyes darkened. I tensed and flexed, ready to dodge a blow.
“Nothing wrong with Grampa’s blood,” I said defiantly. Grampa was a grumpy old thing, dead six years, but he was kind to me, and never hit me but once.
“You’re an ignorant fool, always have been,” said my father.
“Thanks,” I said, and instinctively ducked. For the first time, my father’s hand missed my face. He looked startled, and I felt a surge of power and confidence. This was new to me.
But I was not quick enough to avoid the next blow, which was a closed fist against my upper cheek. I fell to the floor.
“Respect,” my father said.
From the floor, I said the most hurtful thing I could think of: “Grampa’s blood is in you, you are a Jew.”
My father kicked my shoulder, hard, and I fell on my back.
He spoke to me then, in a dangerously low voice, about how the “Jew blood” had been flushed from his system, pint by pint, and he was pure, but somehow bad blood had infected me, his son. I’d heard this before, though hadn’t thought he meant it literally, which he had.
“I’m a Jew,” I said. “Thanks to you.”
He kicked my in the mouth, ostensibly to silence me, and that’s when my mother appeared from upstairs, and saw the beating had been taken too far, and banished me to my room without checking where the blood was coming from.
I didn’t ever get my phone or laptop back. And yes, I’d been communicating with undesirable people and looking at porn, so chances are I would have been booted out anyway.
Ten years later, in Portland, Oregon, I met a girl name Addy, and changed my name to Ted (short for Teddy, short for her nickname for me, “Teddy Bear”) Rickman (a family name on my Grandpa’s side), and was able to renew my friendship with René before he died.
As far as I know, my parents never tried to contact me or see what became of me. They continued touring for a while, then settled down with a congregation in a town called Green Falls, which they hoped (according to an obscure news article I found) to convert to an all-white, all Christian community. I heard nothing more, nor do I look anymore.
I supposed I was erased from their lives, and no longer inhabited their consciousness or their memories. They had the kind of minds that could exclude anything painful or conflicting or unpleasant.
I don’t have that kind of mind.
I think of them daily.
- Original Prompt: Inhabit, August 25, 2017