A Conflict of Interest
The first time I set eyes on Michael Ohlig I was beside my father's casket and he was standing toward the back of a group of mourners comprised almost entirely of my father's extended family. Ohlig was a good half foot taller than everyone else, and unlike my paternal relatives, his head was covered with his own hair, a shade of silver usually reserved for much younger men anchoring the evening news. He wore it a little long, almost to the base of his collar, just enough to say that he fancied himself a nonconformist. I likely wouldn't have noticed him at all if he hadn't seemed so out of place. To be blunt about it, he looked too good to be associated with that crowd.
Ohlig was twice my father's closest friendat the beginning and the end of his adult life. As far as I know, he was my father's only friend, the thirty-some year gap in their contact seemingly occupied only by my mother and his hardware store.
The story I heard growing up was that Ohlig and my father were playing tennis at the courts in Central Park on the same day my mother was on a good Samaritan mission to keep a girlfriend company on the train from Queens to Manhattan, so her friend could watch her boyfriend play. My parents disagreed about which one of them approached the other, but the one part that never varied in either of their renditions was that it was love at first sight. They were married less than six months later, and I arrived in November the following year.
I don't know why it never seemed odd to me that, in all the subsequent retellings, my parents provided little detail about Ohlig. I never knew what he did for a living or whether he was married or had children. If I had ever been told how he and my father came to be friends, or why they lost touch, it went in one ear and out the other. For me, he just seemed like a historical figure, no different from Caesar or John F. Kennedy; someone who I took on faith had actually existed, but who had no relevance to my life. Even when my father shared with me the coincidence of running into Ohlig at a bookstore shortly after my parents moved to their retirement community in Florida, and that he was now living in a neighboring town, I had little curiosity about Ohlig's life.
Three times Ohlig poured a shovel full of dirt on my father's casket, fulfilling the ritualistic last act of a Jewish burial. Each motion was deliberate, as if his movements were intentionally drawn out to prolong his time to say good-bye. But it was the powerful way he approached the shovel, and the force with which he yanked it from the dirt, that most caught my eye, stating unequivocally that he was not someone to challenge.
Watching this I had no inkling that Michael Ohlig would become the central thread in all that followed. Even now I can hardly fathom how it came to be that a man who had never been anything more than a minor character in the story of my life would come to dominate its plot.
Perhaps stranger still, Michael Ohlig would undoubtedly say the same thing about me.
© 2011 Adam Mitzner