Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 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.
“Excellent,” Ilana Auerbach, Shevi’s mother-in-law said, when she heard that Shevi’s father had found a reliable renovations contractor for them. “A friend of your father’s, Shevi? Then let’s hope that that will move things, and within two weeks, give or take, you’ll be able to move in already.”
“Yes,” Shevi said. “Let’s hope. Yes.”
Ilana smiled with satisfaction. “I’m really happy you bought this apartment. It’s a great apartment and the location is also good. It’s not too Chareidi there, right, Gabi?”
“Right,” Gavriel said with a slight smile, looking at the package of cookies in front of him without reaching for it. “But don’t worry, Ima, we’ll get there, too, eventually.”
“You and your jokes. And why aren’t you eating? Soon you’ll tell me the hechsher isn’t good. It’s made with flour from after Pesach, did you know that?” She held little Miri and tried to picture her ten years down the line with tights and long braids. She shuddered at the thought.
“The hechsher is perfect,” Gavriel said, and quickly reached for the package, knocking into Shevi’s coffee cup on the way and splattering light brown drops all around it. “Sorry, Shevi. I’m just not that hungry, Ima.”
“You don’t eat cookies because you’re hungry.” His mother sniffed. “When you’re hungry, you eat normal food, but when you come to Ima and don’t eat anything because you’re sure her kitchen is treif, then you have no choice and you eat cookies.”
Gavriel took a cookie quietly, and Shevi took a long sip of the coffee his mother had prepared for her. She looked around over the rim of her cup and wondered what she’d do when the coffee was finished and there’d be no more excuses to remain silent. She hated the arguments between her husband and his mother, and hated it even more when she was inevitably drawn into them. Why was life so complicated? And why were there people who just liked to make things more complicated?
She quietly placed her cup on the table, hoping that her mother-in-law would emerge from her confrontational mood, although she knew the chances of that happening were slim. That’s just the way things were. It had been very hard for Ilana Auerbach to witness her only son change direction so drastically. No yeshivah high school, where he had begun his studies, no army, no university. Nothing. Just a chareidi yeshivah, a black yarmulke that replaced the knitted one, and a suit and hat that had suddenly appeared without warning. So different from the dreams she had had for him. Or rather, for herself.
“The irony of fate,” Ilana would remark to Shevi from time to time. Shevi didn’t know if she’d forgotten that she’d said it at least three times in the year and a half they’d known each other, or if she remembered very well but said it anyway. “Literally, the irony of fate. For years and years my son grew up here in Bnei Brak, went to school in Segulah, walked on Shabbos and weekday to Ezra, saw so many Chareidim around him, but remained my normal Gabi. And then, when he got to Tel Aviv, to high school, that’s when all this started.”
Shevi would nod politely, unsure of how to respond. After all, she was also part of “all this.”
Another phone call from the Tel Aviv home to the yeshivah in Bnei Brak. Eliyahu had lost track of how many calls he’d made, yet he still hadn’t gotten the information he was seeking. “Yes, that’s who I’m asking about,” he said. “He’s a good student, right?”
“Very good,” came the reply, with a laugh. “Are you sure, sir, that we’re talking about the same person? He’s very young.”
“Young for what?” Eliyahu asked in his low voice.
“For what people usually call to ask questions about,” the boy responded.
“I’m asking for a different reason,” Eliyahu said, and raised his voice slightly. “Can you tell me a bit more about him?”
The bachur wondered if the younger boy from the first shiur was aware about these strange inquiries. Perhaps he should let him know, even if it would be very uncomfortable. Maybe he could find a roundabout way to do so. “Okay, so he learns well, and is pretty capable as far as I can see. A bit shy.” What else would someone be asking about if not for shidduchim?
“How does he look?”
The bachur who had answered the public phone murmured something to himself, and then said, “Dunno. Regular.”
“I think he’s considered average.” The boy on the phone had no idea that at that moment, Chavi had entered the room in Tel Aviv. He only heard the person on the other end mumble a hasty good bye, and he was suddenly left listening to a dial tone. With a sigh of relief, the bachur hung up the phone and turned around. Why had it been his luck to have had to answer this strange call? Calling a public phone in a yeshivah and asking questions to whoever answered sure was an odd way of obtaining information. What would the caller have done if Zevi Bloch himself would have answered the phone?
Chavi looked at her husband. She didn’t like these calls and hoped Eliyahu knew what he was doing. “Nu?” she asked.
“Nothing. I didn’t manage to speak about that subject, and they don’t like answering random questions.”
“I can understand why.”
Eliyahu sighed. “Maybe you can understand them, but you can also plotz. Can’t they be a bit more open with me?”
“With an anonymous person, who is asking questions about a seventeen-year-old boy and not providing sufficient reasons as to why he’s doing this? I wouldn’t answer you either in such a case! I’m telling you…”
“That this isn’t the way to do it. Yes, I know already.”
Chavi fell silent.
“I’ll try calling another one or two times, and if it doesn’t work, then I’ll have to think of something else.”
“Really strange,” Yehuda said, standing in the dormitory corridor and glancing at the telephone as though the answers would suddenly emerge from it. “About him? Are you sure?”
“One hundred percent. I think you should try and probe, you know, as a roommate, to see if he knows something about a guy asking questions about him.” Tzvi Jacobowitz paused for a minute. “I would speak to him myself, but I really have nothing to do with him and I’m sure it will really put him on the spot.”
“I just hope he’s not involved in something.” Yehuda Levy glanced down the empty hallway. It was dinnertime. “One minute, before I speak to Zevi himself, maybe we can try and get back to the caller?”
“Using star 69.”
Tzvi was doubtful. “I’m sure he blocked the number.”
“We can try,” Yehuda said, picking up the phone.
The delicate ringing made Chavi jump as she rocked the cradle. “Eliyahu?” she asked quietly. “Can you get it?”
Her husband came into the room, wearing his suit already. “I hope it won’t take long,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Gadi’s waiting for me. Yes?” he said into the phone.
“Hello, did you call before to find out about Zevi Bloch?”
Eliyahu’s muscles tensed. “That’s right,” he said guardedly. “Who are you?”
“I’m one of his roommates,” Yehuda said in measured tones. “You spoke to someone in my shiur before who doesn’t really know Bloch very well. I thought perhaps I could help you more.”
Eliyahu was nervous. The fact that Gadi was waiting flew out of his mind. What was the motivation behind this call? A true interest in helping him, or suspicions that had grown over the time he had been making calls? Perhaps Chavi was right. Anonymous phone calls were not the most efficient way to find out about Zevi.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Yehuda hesitated. “Perhaps I may ask first who I am speaking to,” he said courteously.
“I prefer not to identify myself right now,” Eliyahu said. “I’d rather remain anonymous for the time being. Perhaps later on…”
“The same goes for me,” Yehuda replied politely. “I also want to remain anonymous right now.”
Silence hummed along the phone lines. Yehuda didn’t know if he was doing the right thing. But his intuition told him that he should also maintain his anonymity as long as he did not know who he was speaking to. It was his right, wasn’t it? The man he was talking to was acting the same way.
Yes, but this guy has one clear advantage over me. He knows why he’s doing what he’s doing. I don’t.
“Well,” Eliyahu said, breaking the silence first. “So we’ll keep our names to ourselves, and before you get any deep suspicions, I can assure you that I’m not planning to kidnap Zevi or harm him in any way.” Yehuda remained silent. “So what do you have to say about him?”
“In which area?”
“How is he…socially?” Once again, these questions that didn’t lead him anywhere. He hadn’t yet found a single bachur with whom he felt comfortable enough to ask the only question that truly interested him. Truth to be told, he didn’t really dare. But maybe with a roommate it would work. If there was someone in the yeshivah who would know, he probably was the one. The question was if he would want to tell him, of course.
“He gets along very well with everyone,” Yehuda replied calmly. “His friends like him, and he has very good middos. What else do you want to know?”
“How is his learning?” Eliyahu’s fingers tightened on the receiver.
“He comes on time to all the sedarim and takes his learning seriously. He’s always from the first ones up in the morning.” Or more accurately, he hurries to get out of the room before we wake up. For some reason, he likes to get ready quickly and quietly, while we’re still grasping onto those last shreds of sleepiness.
“Is he talented?” The man didn’t react to the answers, and just jumped from question to question, which Yehuda found strange.
“Seems to be.”
Eliyahu’s knuckles were almost white from the pressure he was exerting on the black receiver, and he knew that he would ask the question right now. And the bachur on the other end of the line? Perhaps he would be surprised; he might even hang up the phone, or opt not to answer.
Or he might answer. He took a deep breath.
“Tell me, have you ever seen his legs?”
Shevi Auerbach didn’t even take one step forward. “The dust,” she said. “I can’t stand it. Maybe I’ll wait here, Gavriel, until they finish with that drill or whatever it is. Okay? I just hope it will go quickly today. Do you think your mother is managing with Miri?”
“Whatever you want,” Gavriel said, without answering her question. He looked around worriedly. “Is there a normal place for you to wait here?”
“I’ll find something,” she said, and when she saw his back turn toward the staircase and he began climbing the stairs himself, she said in an appeasing tone, “When they finish, call me, okay? I want to see how far they’ve gotten in the kitchen.”
“No problem.” Gavriel continued climbing at a faster pace, leaving Shevi in the small yard surrounded by dark green shrubbery. She quickly examined the bushes, and knew that she had to find herself a shadier spot. She slowly circled the house, heading for the back yard. If they were finally going to come live here, she should become more familiar with it, shouldn’t she?
The other half of the yard was much bigger than the front part and didn’t give the impression of being particularly well-kept. Shevi grimaced at the old, doorless cupboard standing near the wall, and carefully skirted two broken chairs that reminded her strongly of the lone chair that had graced Miriam’s kitchen table.
She was surprised to find a narrow, gray, asphalt path in the yard, which led to a wide glass door. The door was open, and Shevi assumed this was the neighbors’ store. She approached curiously and saw someone standing inside, arranging bottles on a shelf near the door. When the person straightened up, Shevi recognized her. It was the neighbors’ daughter, the one who had come over with a pot for Miriam the day they’d signed the contract. Shevi could not recall her name.
“Hello,” the woman said when she saw Shevi standing outside. “You’re our new neighbor, right? Nice to see you. I’m Chasida.”
“Nice to see you, too,” Shevi said tersely and smiled.
“Auerbach, if I remember correctly, right?”
The younger woman nodded.
“What’s your first name?”
“Shevi,” Shevi replied, and then wondered if perhaps she should have introduced herself as Elisheva. After all, the woman facing her was at least fifteen or twenty years her senior, if not more!
“You can come in if you want,” Chasida invited, and picked up the empty carton from the floor. “And if you’re interested, you can get to know our store a little.”
Shevi hesitated for a moment. Something about the girl-woman was very friendly, much more than she’d expected after their first chilly encounter. “I don’t think I have what to look for in a natural products store,” she remarked. “I don’t really believe in all this stuff.”
“Neither do I,” Chasida smiled, “at least not in everything, in any case. But what can I do if people look for certain products that they claim help them?”
“Imagination?” Shevi suggested, taking another step inside. The store was air conditioned. “Don’t you think it’s like placebo drugs that they give to people who don’t know they’re not real, and then they claim that they work?”
“It’s possible,” Chasida agreed and turned toward the register desk. “But that’s also a way to help people, isn’t it?” She sat down on the upholstered chair behind the register. “I would offer you the chair next to me, but you look like you’re in a hurry.”
“The truth is that I’m not in a particular hurry,” Shevi said, shifting uncomfortably. “I’m just worried that…” She meant to say, “that my husband won’t know where I went.” But she had no idea if she could say the word “husband” to a single girl who was about forty. She had to get to know her first.
“So come on in,” Chasida said simply, and Shevi complied.