Without a Trace – Chapter 4

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 4 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.

Yehudah gave the receiver in his hands a strange look, as though it was responsible for the bizarre conversation he was in the midst of. “His legs?” he repeated incredulously.

“Yes, as in, his feet.”

Yehudah rubbed the creases in his forehead with two fingers. “Do you suspect that he has chicken feet, by any chance?”

“No,” the man replied shortly. “But have you seen his feet?”

“Let me think a minute…” Yehudah said slowly, but not because the additional minute would help jog his memory. He knew very well that he had never seen Zevi Bloch’s feet, and he strongly suspected that no other bachur in the yeshivah had either. Zevi Bloch never took his shoes off during the day, not even during the afternoon rest period. At night he slept curled up, and his feet never peeped out from beneath his blanket. But Yehudah had no intentions of telling anything of the sort to the curious person on the phone. He looked at the receiver in his hand again and remained silent.

Nu?” Eliyahu asked, fed up with waiting.

“I don’t remember anything special about his feet,” Yehudah said slowly.

Eliyahu got the clear impression that he was lying. “Nothing special?” he asked. So could he be calm? He would be very happy to learn that that was the case, but something didn’t smell right. This boy had thought for too long before answering.

“Nothing special,” Yehudah repeated, his voice stronger now. Really, what could be special about a pair of feet, clad in socks and shoes—from six in the morning until eleven at night? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If there was anything hiding beneath the shoes and socks, it was none of his business, even if it did sometimes make him curious, and it certainly wasn’t the business of the man on the other end of the line. What were all these inquiries about, anyway?

“I understand,” Eliyahu said courteously. “Thank you anyway.”

Chavi raised her head as her husband hung up. “Nu?”

“He knows nothing,” Eliyahu replied, looking at the phone in utter frustration. “Or he was evading me. Who knows?” His eyes stared blankly at the curtain waving in the slight breeze.

“Gadi,” Chavi said.

“What?”

“I just wanted to remind you that Gadi is waiting for you at the office.”

“Oh, right.” Eliyahu shook himself out of his thoughts. “Thanks for reminding me. I’ll be back after Maariv.”

***

Gavriel looked right, left, and then right again. He wanted Shevi to see the tiles that had arrived before the workers began laying them. The last thing he wanted was for her to come when the wall was already covered and then say that that wasn’t the design she had chosen. The move to Bnei Brak was hard enough for her without any extra aggravation, and he was desperate for her to at least like the apartment.

But where was she now?

Logic told him that she wasn’t likely to be on the street at this hour when it was so hot. It made more sense to assume that she’d sought out a shady corner somewhere nearby. He turned into the courtyard, deeply breathing in the scent of the raspberry bush whose leaves covered half of the side path. “Shevi?” he called in a low voice into the humid air.

“Oh, someone’s looking for me,” Shevi said to Chasida in the store, and jumped up from the chair. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Same here.” Chasida smiled. “I enjoyed it. You can pop in whenever you want, and if it’s closed here, you can always try us at home.”

“I’m here, Gavriel,” Shevi said, exiting the cool store into the steamy air outside. “Were you looking for me for long?” she asked anxiously.

“Just two or three minutes,” he soothed. He was happy to see a sparkle in her eye that hadn’t been there earlier. “Who did you meet there?”

“Our neighbors’ daughter,” she said quietly as she walked beside him toward the front of the building. “She’s nicer than I thought.”

“So, have you officially found your first friend here?” he asked cautiously as he placed a foot on the bottom step of the staircase.

“Looks like it,” Shevi said, following him with a spring in her step. “At least I hope so. Are they finished?”

“I want you to check the tiles. You told me that you’ve heard lots of stories of people getting things different than what they ordered.”

Nu, this tile, that tile, who really cares?” Shevi said offhandedly, and her husband looked at her curiously, but remained silent. He remembered her lectures on how important it was for the color of the kitchen counters to coordinate with the cabinets, and how the doorposts just had to be painted in wood tones, not boring white.

“What did you talk about?” he asked as they entered the apartment and he opened the first box on the pile. “Here are the tiles.”

“They’re very nice. She told me about their store, how her parents started it, and about all sorts of interesting products that people believe or don’t believe in. She told me a bit about herself and her family. They’re only three children; this Chasida, her older brother in Yerushalayim, and her twin sister who lives in Yerucham with eight children.” She picked up one tile in shades of gray and beige, and that was the last time that day they mentioned the neighbor. But Gavriel wondered if this newly formed friendship was the reason that everything found favor in Shevi’s eyes that day. The tile was beautiful, she insisted, even though neither of them could vouch for sure that this was the style they had chosen in the store. The outlets were all in the right places, and the ugly stain on the top of the doorpost was, in Shevi’s words, “something that you can’t even see.”

Gavriel didn’t bother to mention that he planned to ask the painter to repaint that doorpost because it bothered him. Why risk ruining Shevi’s mood?

***

Tzvi elbowed Yehudah, tilting his head in the other boy’s direction with a pointed look. “Can we take a walk?”

“Now?” Yehudah glanced at his watch in surprise. The small hand was nearing the one.

“I know you’re one of those strange people who like to go to sleep early, but I want to talk to you.”

Yehudah turned and skipped down the three steps he had just climbed. “Early it won’t be tonight anymore. But I’ll be happy to talk. Where?”

“Here, near the gate. It won’t take long.” They stood on the sidewalk in front of the yeshivah. Yehuda looked expectantly at Tzvi.

“Tell me, what’s with Bloch’s feet?”

Yehudah glanced at the third-floor window of the dormitory. “Right now? I imagine they’ve finished climbing up to our room, and they might already be horizontal, deep in bed under the covers. Why?”

“You know what I mean, don’t you?”

Yehudah sighed. “Well, I imagine that Zevi knows full well what is or is not happening with his feet.”

“And you know full well that’s not what I mean. I mean that he has to know about these strange phone calls.” Tzvi folded his arms and looked at Yehudah in rebuke, much like a rebbi admonishing a wayward student.

“I understood you very well, Tzvi,” Yehudah said with another sigh. “I was just trying to avoid having to tell Zevi about it. Believe me, I haven’t got the least bit of an interest in talking to him about this subject. He apparently has a reason for hiding his feet, and I’m the last one who needs to find out why. How do you expect me to do it?”

“Start cautiously.”

“How do I do that?”

“First tell him about the calls in general, and see how he reacts. Then tell him about the ‘feet question.’ I’m sure you’ll do a good job.”

“You’re very smart, Tzvi, and you have lots of good ideas for other people. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Sure,” Tzvi said modestly. “I’m aware of the fact that I’m full of great ideas.”

“Especially for others,” Yehudah repeated and sighed for the third time.

***

Ilana Auerbach entered her bedroom, kicking off her high-heeled shoes. “Ugh,” she groaned. “These shoes are horrible. Hi, Malkiel. How’s your back?”

Nu.” Her husband sighed. “So-so.” He didn’t raise his eyes from his newspaper as he turned the page.

“Did Gabi call?”

“No.”

“So they aren’t coming for any of the Shabbos meals.”

He murmured something under his breath.

“We made up that if they don’t call by this evening, that’s a sign that they don’t want to come.”

Nu.” He raised his head for a moment and then immediately turned his gaze back to the large page in front of his face. “They’re probably still settling in.”

“How much time have they been in the new apartment?” Ilana groused.

“Do I know? A month? Five weeks, maybe?”

“So what do they need to ‘settle in’ for five weeks for?”

“I don’t know,” her husband said candidly.

“Neither do I!” Ilana retorted. She waited another beat for a question or comment that might perhaps be forthcoming, but when Malkel remained silent and continued reading the newspaper, she turned and went into the kitchen.

For a minute, she considered calling Gabi, and then decided not to. If he wanted to speak to her, he knew the number, didn’t he?

Her gaze fell on the wall in the hallway, opposite the door to the kitchen. Gabi smiled at her from the large picture, waving at her with his seven-year-old arm on the first day of elementary school. To this day she remembered the new kippah she had purchased for him in honor of the auspicious day. It was blue, hand-crocheted, with a white border. It was the most expensive kippah in the store, but to her and Malkiel, that didn’t matter at all. If they wouldn’t spend the money they earned on Gabi, then on whom would they spend it?

The best briefcase, the latest in school supplies—all he had ever wanted was his; all he had to do was ask for it. They had bought him a computer when very few people had PCs at home; they let him go with his friends on trips, and he had plenty of pocket money. What didn’t he have?

What did the child lack? Nothing.

She sighed, lowering he eyes from the photo and turning to the counter. Almost automatically, she took out an onion, two carrots, a potato, and a zucchini. Well, if she was cooking only for herself and Malkiel, they really didn’t need more than that. A small soup, some fish from a jar, some schnitzel that she’d fry tomorrow, and a few salads.

True, she had gotten used to reducing the quantities of her ingredients since the day Gabi had gone off to the dorm in Tel Aviv, but as long as she knew it was temporary, she was okay with it. She had anxiously awaited the day he would be near her again. “You’ll find a wife who agrees to live in Bnei Brak, or at least on the border of Ramat Gan,” she would tell him repeatedly. “Walking distance, you hear? I want you within walking distance. She won’t have to cook much; you know I’ll be happy to do it for the two of you. It’ll be worth it for you, Gabi.”

So he’d found someone who was ready to live in Bnei Brak, within walking distance, but it didn’t help her. Gabi didn’t come over to eat, not by walking, not by car. He didn’t want to eat in her house. He didn’t trust her. Her, his mother! His mother who had told him stories of Tanach, had recited Shema with him each evening even when he was already older, and had always guided him to excel in his Kodesh studies as much as his secular studies.

Suddenly, none of it was enough for him. He told her he wanted to be “more.” More what, for goodness’s sake? Blacker? More extreme? What was wrong with his kippah and some colorful clothes, as long as he was a good Jew?

He didn’t even dream of enlisting in the army, and she had given in after a short battle—a very short battle. It was a lost cause in any case, like all the other things. The tzitzis that hung down the sides of his trousers, his new kippah, the black hat and suit and the beard—the long arguments hadn’t had any effect on him, no matter which approach she tried. He behaved according to his new rules, and—although he said it with utmost respect and politeness—she had no say in those rules.

At least about one thing she was calm. Until now she had always been worried about Gabi finding a normal girl who would be comfortable living in Bnei Brak, which would have been quite a task. But since Gabi had become Chareidi, she’d imagined that that would be much easier. After all, which city could be more Chareidi than Bnei Brak?

But Shevi, ironically enough, was from Haifa, and didn’t like Bnei Brak in particular. She had no friends there to help cushion the difficult beginning of settling into the new city. The young couple had come to live in Bnei Brak because she and Malkiel had insisted and refused to back down about it, and Gabi did want to come toward them in any way he could.

Which one of her friends had gone and purchased almost an entire apartment for her son, and for such a price to boot? No one. It wasn’t accepted in their circles, but it was important to her, so she had done it.

The question was: what did it give her, aside for a hefty mortgage? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They hardly came to her, they didn’t want to eat in her house, and she didn’t see little Miri more than she used to see her when they lived in a rental inHaifa.

So why had she invested so much for them?

***

“You can come in,” Chasida repeated her invitation. “My mother’s resting and you won’t be disturbing anyone.”

Shevi shrugged and took another two steps into the cozy house, Miri in her arms. A strong aroma of chicken soup enveloped her, reminding her at once of her mother’s soup. She didn’t make chicken soup; neither she nor Gavriel could stand chicken from the soup, and the one time she’d tried to make chicken patties on Sunday from the leftover soup chicken, it had been a dismal failure. The patties had fallen apart in the pan, and both Shevi and Gavriel had ended up having to eat pieces of cooked chicken mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs that hadn’t been fried all the way through.

“Punishment for spoiled people,” her husband had said when he’d finished his portion with commendable fortitude. She hadn’t been able to finish her own. “From now on, we’ll eat our chicken from the soup like it is, without excuses.”

But since then, she hadn’t made chicken soup even once. Was she too spoiled? Could be. They sufficed with the vegetable soup that she prepared, even though Gavriel’s mother wrinkled her nose when she heard about their menu choice and constantly offered them to take from her delicious chicken soup, which of course, they could not do.

Shevi turned to peruse the books that Chasida had given her. She didn’t recognize any of the three. “Is it okay if I take them all?” she asked hesitantly.

“Sure! No one here will miss them. You can even keep them for a month.”

“Oh, I’ll finish them long before that,” Shevi said with a smile, and, hardly noticing what she was doing, followed Chasida into the dining room.

“Your robe is very nice,” Chasida said, pointing to the sofa. “You can sit down, Shevi. Feel at home.”

Shevi sat down and looked at her neighbor. Chasida wasn’t wearing a robe. Why, were robes only for married women? Shevi didn’t know how things went in Bnei Brak. She herself hadn’t had a Shabbos robe until she had gotten married, but she didn’t know enough about the customs here. Next time she’d come down on Friday night, she’d have to remember to wear a suit. “Thanks,” she said uncomfortably. Miri squirmed in her lap.

“It’s so nice that you came.” Chasida sat down on a chair near the sofa. “I was actually getting a bit bored. I don’t have much to do on Friday nights until my father comes home from shul.”

Shevi didn’t know if she was just being polite. There was something pitiful about Chasida’s remark, but Chasida didn’t look like someone seeking pity. Not at all.

“I’m happy to be doing something constructive by being here,” she replied candidly. “I would actually want to be in Haifa now, at my parents’ house.”

“But you stayed in Bnei Brak.”

“Yes, well, my mother in law—she lives here in Bnei Brak—invited us for the seudos. She likes to do that from time to tome.” Chasida raised an eyebrow. “And then we have no choice, and my husband tells her what she knows already—that it’s not really feasible, unless she makes some changes to her kitchen. And then the regular ritual begins—she gets offended and upset, and we try to appease her and compensate in other areas. But if we could avoid the whole mess and find a reason not to go at all—that would be the best.” She fell silent for a moment, stroking little Miri’s back.

“Miri had a bit of fever on Wednesday night, which went down after I gave her some Tylenol and didn’t go back up, but it was enough for my husband to say that ‘Miri has fever and we prefer not to take her out too much.’ I think she took it well, but when my mother called half an hour later to invite us to Haifa for Shabbos, we couldn’t go, because my mother-in-law would have been insulted.”

“A mess, like you said,” Chasida agreed, her dark eyes looking at Shevi. “So you have an excuse for your mother-in-law for next week.”

“What?”

“That you’re invited toHaifa.”

“Oh, yeah.” Shevi sighed. “Maybe we’ll go next week, but it won’t be as important to me as this week.” She opened and closed the top book on the pile beside her a few times. “Eliad, my brother, is being drafted to the army this week, and I wanted to say goodbye to him, that’s all. Next week it will be too late.”

Shevi laughed. “Elisheva, Eliad, Elia, and Elinor—those are the names my parents gave us. My mother once read in an American book about a family whose kids all had names that started with the same letter, and she liked the idea. At least I got the most normal name. I’m named for my grandmother.” She smiled and rose, the three books clutched in one hand.

“I’d love to meet your mother, whenever it will work out,” Chasida said warmly. “She sounds as nice as her daughter is.”

“She really is great,” Shevi affirmed and began walking toward the door. She turned around suddenly. “My mother-in-law is also very nice, don’t think she isn’t, but it’s much easier to get along with my family. They’re more religious and also more…” She searched for the right word. “Liberal. Do you know what I mean? They agree to give in to all our ‘meshugassin’ as long as we can come to them and maintain a normal relationship.”

Shevi recalled this conversation on Monday, as she carefully pushed the carriage down the stairs on her parents’ block inHaifa. She hoped that her mother wasn’t hanging laundry right then; it would be much more fun if she’d just knock on the door with Miri and enjoy everyone’s surprise. The only one who wouldn’t be surprised was Abba, but a quick glance at her watch showed her that he wouldn’t be home in any case.

The idea had been his. He had called her in the morning and asked what her plans for the day were. “I have to be in Bnei Brak in the evening,” he said. “I want to get a brachah from a rav there for Eliad. If you want, come to us with Miri, and I’ll be able to give you a ride home.”

Gavriel thought it was a great opportunity, and she’d simply gotten up and boarded the 970 bus toHaifa.

***

The broad, grassy lawns became clearer as the sun rose higher over the small hotel where the seminar was taking place. Eliyahu walked out of the hall where the symposium had been held, looking at the small screen on his phone. Eight missed calls! He looked at the list; Frankel had called six times, and Chavi twice. He should live and be well, that Kobi, but how much could a person drive someone crazy? Eliyahu didn’t have any interest in finding out what was so important. Instead, he looked at his watch and then called home.

Chavi was happy to hear his voice. “What’s going on, Eliyahu? How’s it going there?”

Baruch Hashem. It was a long night, but really nice. I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.” He wasn’t in the mood for lengthy descriptions now. “Did Kobi Frankel call yesterday?”

“Yes, maybe four times.”

“Yes, he called here, too. Nu?”

“He’s trying to reach you urgently. He claims that if Goldstein manages to get permission to build on the left side, they won’t need your uncle’s lot anymore, and it will be a big loss.”

“For him.”

“For you, for them.”

“That’s what he said. But I’m not the one who looked for him ten times in the last eight hours. He’s the one who’s chasing me to persuade them to sell.”

Chavi deliberated whether or not to say that the exact details made no difference so long as there wasn’t the slightest chance that the plan would work out anyway. Even without whatever was or wasn’t going on with Zevi Bloch these days.

“Look, I have to stop thinking all day only about Zevi,” Eliyahu said thoughtfully, his voice completely different from the voice he’d been using for the past day with the youths attending the seminar. “I always thought that if Uncle Zalman would be against it, it would be because of Chasida, and if Aunt Minda would oppose it, it would be because of Zevi. But it doesn’t really look to me like Zevi has anything serious.”

“But how would you approach them in the first place?” Chavi asked. “Kobi is not aware that the relationship with your aunt and uncle is not exactly what it used to be. He doesn’t realize that the whole plan can’t possibly go anywhere.” She didn’t like Eliyahu’s obsessive involvement in anything that had to do with his uncle’s family. Why was it so urgent for Kobi Frankel to suddenly wake up and place her husband right back into the middle of it all? Eliyahu had no intentions of going on his own and touching the small plot that his mother had registered in his name. She knew that, despite the fact that the Dresnick family was not so sure about it.

For that reason, she was happy to move back to Tel Aviv, where her parents still lived. They had nothing left in Bnei Brak, except for heartache.

“He doesn’t expect me to approach them,” Eliyahu replied. “I’m just sniffing things out for him to see if there’s anything to talk about.”

“But what do you need it for, Eliyahu?” She didn’t realize the pleading tone in which her words were uttered. “What will you get out of reviving the whole thing?”

He was quiet for a minute. “I like my uncle and aunt, Chavi,” he said in a voice she did not recognize. “And I owe them a lot. An enormous amount. Even if they have stubborn children who have no luck or business acumen—it’s not their fault. And this can be good for them.” He suddenly changed the subject, asking how she and the children were doing, and she knew that all her efforts to convince him had been for naught. Eliyahu wasn’t the least bit interested in hearing another opinion.

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