Without a Trace – Chapter 2

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 2 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

The friendship that blossomed between Yehuda and Zevi after that night was unquestionably an interesting one. It began the morning after their nocturnal encounter.

“Zevi, I think your mother’s waiting for you outside.”

“My mother?” Zevi was surprised.

“She asked me to call you. Go check.”

He went and checked, and was pleased to discover his mother standing on the sidewalk outside, leaning on the gate. “Hello. Did you eat?” she asked when he was still several feet away from her. A light, end-of-winter breeze blew around them. Small yellow bursts of color, peeping between the scraggly grass in the unkempt yard behind them, heralded the imminent arrival of spring.

“Yes.” He smiled. “I just bentched. Hello, Ima, how are you?”

But she hadn’t come to talk about herself. “You’re pale,” she said with a worried smile. “How are you, Zevi? How’s yeshivah? What was for breakfast today?”

He glanced quickly behind him; baruch Hashem no one was within earshot. “Bread, eggs, cheese, and plenty of vegetables.”

“You and your vegetables!” his mother said. “I hope you’re eating something else also. Did you take an egg?”

“They were too gray.”

“Zevi, you’re not in kindergarten anymore! What about some dairy? Did you eat cheese?”

“I made some chocolate milk.”

“Wonderful.” Shoshi sighed with irritation. “What a balanced meal for a growing boy. A slice of bread, two or three pieces of pepper, a slice of cucumber, and a quarter cup chocolate milk. Don’t you think you over-ate a bit?”

He laughed shortly, for lack of any other response.

“Listen, Zevi’le,” his mother said soothingly, “you have to take this eating thing into hand. I didn’t send you to Bnei Brak to lose weight. You’re skinny enough as it is!”

“I’ll try to eat more, Ima,” the seventeen-year-old replied.

“An egg every day!”

He nodded.

“I don’t care what color it is or how impossible it is to peel!”

He nodded again.

“And cheese and leben. Do you know how important calcium is for your bones?”

He blinked. “I know, Ima.”

He met Yehuda on the way into the beis medrash, five minutes late. Yehuda was speaking to one of the older bochurim. On a normal day, Zevi would have flashed a quick smile and continued on inside, but now, he felt an urge to thank Yehuda, although he did not know exactly how.

But Yehuda did. “Hey, Bloch!” he said, grabbing him by the arm. “Was I right?”

“Yes, that was my mother.” Zevi’s smile widened. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure!” Yehuda said, giving his roommate a friendly slap on the back. Then he turned  back to his conversation. “What do you say, that eidus is not on the act, only on the actual obligation of malkos?”

At lunch, as Zevi sat staring with revulsion at the chunks of turkey on his plate, wondering if they had been cooked for longer than twenty minutes, Yehuda passed by him again. “Hearty appetite!” he exclaimed. “Looks like you could use some.”

“You’re right, I don’t have much of an appetite,” Zevi admitted with a weak laugh as he picked up his fork.

Yehuda continued for another step or two and then stopped suddenly, backtracked, and took a plate and cutlery from the middle of the table. “Does anyone usually sit here?” he asked, pointing to the chair on Zevi’s right.

“Not as far as I know,” Zevi replied, moving his plate a bit to the left. Yehuda sat down and picked up the large spoon from the serving platter. “You don’t like to eat much, do you?” he asked, scooping up a spoonful of tough turkey chunks.

“Depends what…” Zevi smiled.

Nu, so what do you like?”

Zevi hemmed and hawed. The short list of things he preferred to eat would not put him in an admirable light. “Vegetables,” he suddenly remembered, and when he saw Yehuda put down his fork and stretch his long, skinny arm toward the plate that contained a mixture of steamed vegetables—with no identifiable color or shape—he hurried to add, “But only fresh ones.”

“Okay,” Yehuda said resignedly, letting go of the plate. “What else?”

Zevi smiled but remained silent. Should he list the chocolate milk, his mother’s omelets—but only hers—and apples cut into quarters? How embarrassing. Should he tell Yehuda about the chicken steamed in a bit of paprika and salt, without a hint of an onion? Humiliating. The smooth mashed potatoes with no lumps? The white rice with mushroom sauce? Yehuda would think he was talking to a spoiled baby who couldn’t manage without his mother’s homemade food. Well, he wouldn’t be that far off the mark.

Ima had been very worried about how he would fare here in Bnei Brak and had wanted to send him to a yeshivah closer to home, but Abba had insisted that a boy needed to untie himself from his mother’s apron strings, or who knew what would become of him.

But what could he do if the aprons worn by the yeshivah cooks seemed to prefer sticky, bland rice, potato cubes full of spicy paprika, and strong-smelling baked fish? On a day when there was fish for lunch, he didn’t even come to the dining room. He knew it was terrible for a seventeen-year-old boy to be so spoiled, but he just couldn’t! Savta and Aunt Chasi tried to supplement his menu when he visited them once a week, but even their aprons didn’t even come close to his mother’s worn, stained apron, which knew exactly how much effort went into the food she prepared for her Zevi.

***

A bright spring morning dawned in Bnei Brak; the faint scent of blooming flowers rose from the earth, still damp from the rainy days of the past week. In this yard, the scent was especially strong.

Gavriel and Shevi Auerbach climbed the stairs that began in the open yard and concluded on a small tiled landing with a single door.

“Nice place,” Gavriel said, looking around him. Shevi nodded slightly and knocked on the door, which was opened right away, as though someone had been standing and looking into the peephole, waiting for them to knock. She was happy not to have to respond to Gavriel’s remark, because her comeback would have hardly been complimentary. Nice? Gavriel liked pastoral settings; that much she had learned already. Not that she opposed a small building with just two apartments, but when it was so old that it reminded her of her grandparents’ house inHaifa, it was definitely less attractive. She glanced at the garishly fake plant standing near the door, and followed the woman who had greeted them inside.

“So this is the hall, and this is the dining room,” the elderly woman said. “And this is the kitchen and the porch. Here, down the hall are two more rooms. You can look around.”

Having delivered her little spiel, she disappeared into the kitchen. Gavriel turned down the hall and Shevi followed him. “Large rooms,” he said with admiration. “Like they used to build!” Shevi looked at the faded floor tiles. “And these big windows! There’s probably great sunlight here in the morning.”

“Sunlight?” Shevi replied quietly. “I don’t particularly love the Bnei Brak sun. I mean Bnei Brak itself is okay, but…”

“Well, I meant during the winter,” her husband clarified, pulling up the shutters. “In the summer you don’t have to open them. There’s air conditioning here, I see.” She murmured something. Gavrial closely perused a peeled patch on the wall. “This doesn’t look like dampness,” he said to himself, going out to the adjacent porch. “Look how cute this is—this niche is perfect for a washing machine! It doesn’t block the passage and it’s so close to the clothesline.”

Shevi looked sideways at a low opening in the interior wall that separated the bathroom and the porch. It was partially open, and she saw sheets and towels hanging out of it. “Is this supposed to be a laundry hamper?”

“Looks like it,” Gavriel said. “It’s not a bad idea to have it built into the wall. It saves lots of space!”

“I’m not planning to use it,” Shevi said in small voice. “It’s probably all moldy down there.”

“You can check it,” Gavriel soothed. “I’m going to ask her if she can empty it out for a few minutes so I can take a peek inside.”

“Are you serious, Gavriel?” Shevi’s eyes opened wide. “Don’t you dare ask her such a thing!”

“Why not?”

Shevi sighed. “Because I wouldn’t want to show a stranger all the laundry that I haven’t gotten around to washing yet. The lady will be so embarrassed.” She turned away from the overflowing hamper and added, “This hamper really doesn’t make much of a different to me, either way.”

Gavriel didn’t argue. “I think that someone who has their house on the market is emotionally ready to show all types of things,” he said as he walked back in toward the room. “But if you don’t want me to ask her, I won’t. I don’t think it would be a major deal to change the inside piece anyway. You just replace the panels, and that’s it.”

Shevi didn’t respond as she followed him silently into the hall, and from the hall to the large dining room, and from there into the kitchen. The owner sat placidly eating her breakfast, ignoring Shevi, who wrinkled her nose at the green painted wood cabinets, and Gavriel, who bent over to take a closer look at the scratched-up sinks.

“You can put some more chairs here,” the lady suddenly spoke up and said, spearing a tomato with her fork. “I left only one. I have no energy to lift four chairs every time I wash the floor. I haven’t had strength for lots of things for a long time already, and that’s why I want to move to be near my daughter.”

Shevi looked at the low, wide refrigerator angrily. It wasn’t to blame, the fridge, that she was about to move to Bnei Brak permanently. No one was really to blame. The idea had even seemed attractive at first, when Rebbetzin Feldman had told her that Gavriel would want to live in Bnei Brak. It was a city that made a pleasant impression, and that was the type of atmosphere they wanted to generate in their home. But as the time for implementation drew nearer, it began to seem harder and harder. There were lots of frum people in Haifa, too; why did they have to come all the way here?

“Who are the downstairs neighbors?” Gavriel asked, checking the wall behind the refrigerator.

“Dresnick,” the woman replied, pushing her empty plate to the other end of the table. “Younger than me. The store behind, which faces Wolfson, is theirs. A real health food store, you know…”

“They manage it?” Shevi asked.

“Minda, the wife, doesn’t. But Mr. Dresnick does, together with his daughter, Chasida, who lives with them. A darling girl, really. It’s a shame she hasn’t married yet. Where are you from?”

“Haifa.”

“So what do you say about my house?”

“It’s very nice,” Gavriel said. “How soon do you need an answer?”

“Take as much time as you want,” the woman said, taking a bentcher from a caddy hanging on a nail on the wall. “But I’m not promising not to sell it to someone else in the meantime.” And without another word, she donned her glasses that had been resting next to the plastic saltshaker, and began to bentch.

“I guess that means we’re supposed to leave now,” Shevi said, trying not to sound cynical. “Or do you have something else to ask her?”

“I need to ask her about the final price,” Gavriel said, walking toward the doorway. Shevi examined the peeling doorposts. “Such a large apartment in such a great location won’t be cheap. The question is how much we can haggle on the price.”

“I still don’t understand the point of buying an apartment that looks like a hovel.” Shevi tried valiantly to keep her voice low and her tears in check. “And then to invest money in renovations? For this price, we could have bought a nice, new, three-room apartment, or a huge penthouse in Elad or in Kiryat Sefer, or…”

“I thought that Kiryat Sefer is very far fromHaifa,” her husband remarked casually.

“Yes, but if I have to live so far from my parents, then at least…” She stopped. She knew there was no point in pushing the issue, because it had all been agreed upon beforehand. Gavriel was an only child, period. And his parents lived in Bnei Brak and wanted to have their darling son living near them. And they were willing to pay a lot of money to have that happen. And that was the upshot of it all, which Shevi didn’t like to dwell on. But dwell on it or not, she knew she had no choice. She would have to get used to living in this city, which she had nothing against, but in which she knew not a soul.

Except for Gavriel’s parents, of course.

It was actually Shevi’s father who was enthusiastic at the prospect and who had urged his daughter and son-in-law to buy the house. “It’s worth a lot more than they’re asking!” he asserted. “Half a lot for such a price?”

“Not half. Almost two thirds belongs to the neighbor on the first floor,” Gavriel clarified.

“But I don’t need the lot, Abba,” Shevi said, rocking Miri’s carriage. “I’m looking for an apartment. Why do we have to buy such a pathetic place and pay so much money?”

“You might know more about Judaism than I do, but you know nothing about real estate!” her father chided with a smile, but his eyes remained serious. “Pathetic? You don’t know what you’re talking about. I would buy this even just as an investment. At one point, someone will want to build a building there, like in all of Bnei Brak. I don’t know the city that well, but I know that they’re always building over there. Do you know how much money you’ll get then? You’ll be able to buy two new five-room apartments, Shevi. Gavriel, I’m telling you, grab the opportunity!”

“I’m all for it,” Gavriel said carefully. “But Shevi doesn’t want to.”

“Shevi? Nonsense, what does she know?” her father scoffed and banged on the table. “Wants, doesn’t want. She just wants to stay here inHaifa, near us. You know nothing about such properties, right, Elisheva?”

His daughter nodded, trying to imagine what her reaction would have been had her father-in-law spoken to her in such a fashion. No, she couldn’t picture it, because Gavriel’s father wasn’t as energetic and intense as her father. It was easier for her to imagine her mother-in-law speaking this way, and Shevi preferred not to think about what her reaction would be to that. Well, her father had the right to speak to his daughter like that. Her shvigger did not.

“There you go,” Abba said to Gavriel. “She also admits it. Buy it, we’ll help you renovate it for a good price, and Shevi will have a beautiful apartment. When the time comes, you’ll make a huge profit on it!”

“But I don’t know anyone there,” Shevi murmured, feeling like a little kid repeating the same arguments over and over without waiting to hear the answers. To her relief, no one heard her. But she knew herself well enough to know that until she’d find at least one good friend in Bnei Brak, she wouldn’t be able to like the place. Was she being babyish? Perhaps. But that was the way she felt. What could she do?

***

Chasida, Shoshi’s twin, pressed the button, and the washing machine began to hum. She picked up the basket and walked out of the laundry room.

“How does it smell, Chasida’le?” her mother asked as she stood in the kitchen stirring a large pot.

“Delicious. Is Zevi supposed to come today?”

“Maybe, but this isn’t for him. I don’t think he likes vegetable soup.” Her mother replaced the lid, and rinsed the long spoon under a stream of water. “I want to send it to Miriam before she leaves. Something warm to send her off with, you know. We’ve been neighbors for so many years.”

“Do you want me to take it up to her?”

“Soon, before you go out to the store. First, sit down and let me give you a bowl.”

“Oh, it’s for me, too?” Chasida laughed.

“Well, of course; what did you think? Miriam doesn’t need the whole pot. It’s just so she should have something hot before her trip. Her daughter’s probably preparing delicious food for her at home.”

Chasida ate her bowl of soup quickly, cringing slightly at the sharp parsley flavor. She couldn’t stand parsley since she was a child, but in their house, there was no being finicky about such things. “It’s good, healthy food,” Ima would say at the slightest wrinkle of a nose at a plate. “You don’t make faces at food. Just eat whatever Ima gives you nicely and say thank you to Hashem for sending us so much.”

What was interesting about it all was that Shoshi was the least picky of them all; she was the quintessential good girl who ate whatever her mother served. Chasida tried to remember if there was any food that Shoshi absolutely didn’t like, but couldn’t come up with anything. Eggplant, maybe. But Ima, who had brought her culinary prowess over from Hungary, hardly used eggplant anyway.

So it was interesting that Zevi, who had inherited many of his mother’s traits and qualities, was such a finicky eater. And Shoshi danced around his preferences, nurturing this trait of his. Her other children weren’t as fussy. But then again, this was Zevi. They couldn’t forget that.

Ima poured some of the soup into a small saucepan and Chasida went up to their neighbor. Miriam’s daughter opened the door and led her into the dining room. “Ima,” she said, “Chasida’s come to say goodbye.”

“That’s very nice of her,” Miriam said, her back to the door. She sat beside a table; a young couple whom Chasida had never seen before sat on one side. On the other side was a man who was more familiar—and Chasida was hardly pleased to see him. “Come, Chasida, meet your new neighbors. I just hope that very soon, they won’t be your neighbors anymore, only your parents’.”

Chasida glanced at the young woman, whose face was expressionless. “Nice to meet you,” she said with a smile. She couldn’t shake hands because of the pot in her hand. The young woman smiled in response, but didn’t say a word.

“Can you imagine?” Miriam asked. “They couldn’t find a better day to come and sign the contract than the day I’m moving! They were probably afraid that someone else would snap this wonderful apartment up before them. Nu, Frankel, are we finishing?”

Attorney Frankel took off his glasses and let them dangle from the chain around his neck. “Just two more signatures on this page, and you’re done. I have to sit with the Auerbachs for a few more minutes, but I’m sure that won’t disturb your preparations.” He laughed, and Chasida turned around. She had never been able to stand his laugh, even when he was a little boy, and that was one of the least bothersome things about him.

“Just a minute. Dresnick, isn’t it?” He turned to her, and Chasida felt so foolish standing there with the pot, and wondered how long Miriam’s daughter thought she was supposed to stand there holding it. She nodded at the lawyer.

“Is Mr. Dresnick at home now?” he asked.

“No,” Chasida responded tersely, happy that her father really wasn’t at home. What would she have done if he was?

“Tell him that I would have liked to speak to him.”

“I hope that it’s not about that same old matter,” she said politely, yet firmly. “The subject has been closed, Mr. Frankel, and there’s no point in trying to re-open it.” She wondered how she sounded to the new neighbors, and imagined that the impression she made was not a very friendly one. Well, this young lady, who looked like she was barely out of seminary, hadn’t been all that warm and pleasant herself. It appeared as though they were both very distracted with their own issues, which was a shame. Being close to neighbors was important. She’d have to rectify this in the near future.

The attorney went back to the contract and his clients, and Miriam finished her part of the paperwork.

“What a woman your mother is,” she marveled to Chasida. “Did you smell that soup Minda sent us, Yehudis?”

But Yehudis, her daughter, hadn’t followed them into the kitchen. She had remained in the dining room to make sure everything was in order with the contract.

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