Without a Trace – Chapter 5

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 5 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.

“Not that we are happy with this step, Eliad,” Shevi’s father said with a resigned smile, “but we are giving you our blessing, just like we gave Shevi.”

“Elisheva,” her mother corrected from the porch, where she was sitting and observing her granddaughter doing what she did for most of the day—dozing in her navy blue carriage.

“Not exactly,” Eliad said, wrinkling his nose. “You sent her to Bnei Brak more happily.”

“Well, of course. Do you expect me to be happy that you’re going to the army and not to Hesder?”

Eliad wrinkled his nose again. “I’m eighteen already, and I’m sick of studies. In the army I’ll have more opportunities.”

“Well, this argument really is superfluous right now,” Abba said placidly, but Shevi, sitting beside him, discerned the nervous twitch on the bottom of his cheek. Yes, Eliad was right. Abba and Ima had had an easier time coming to terms with the changes in her life.

“Elisheva?” Ima rose from her rocking chair. “Do you want to come and see my latest picture?”

“What a question!” A visit to her mother’s workroom was always a special treat, both because it happened so rarely, and because of the smells, the scenes, and the myriad colors that surrounded her when she entered. “Is this the original one?” she asked, hurrying to keep up with her mother’s rapid pace.

“Last chance!” Eliad announced, following her. “There are three takers for this picture. Ima’s planning to sell it this week for two and a half thousand dollars. Can I also come in, Ima?”

“Yes, but don’t block Elisheva’s view. I have a lot of things to show her.”

Shevi swallowed a small sigh. Elisheva, Elisheva. Why did her mother adamantly refuse to use the nickname that she loved and that everyone else used? It was a good thing that that was the only blot on her relationship with her mother, and aside for that, things were very smooth between them. Ima had accepted her switch from her old school to the Tiferes high school in Neve Shaanan with complete equanimity. She had also accepted the subsequent move to a Bais Yaakov seminary even more naturally, which was also the case with her marriage to Gavriel and her move to Bnei Brak. What a miracle that Ima was Ima and her mother-in-law was her mother-in-law!

Gavriel had it much harder. He had to battle every step of the way. Although his mother also called him by the name that he didn’t like, that was where the similarities between the way the two mothers had accepted their children’s changes in life ended.

Shevi looked around the large room, and the familiar smell assailed her nostrils. It was the odor of turpentine, clay, and oil paints all mixed together. She stood facing each one of her mother’s paintings, but her thoughts were still on the conversation that had just taken place. If Ima would have opposed her the way her mother-in-law did, things would have been so much harder. But baruch Hashem, everything was so easy and simple. They could come for Shabbos, because in any case, most of the cooked food was bought, and Abba only bought hechsherim that were acceptable to the young Bnei Brak couple. Gavriel could daven where he felt comfortable, in Chanichei Hayeshivos, instead of with everyone else at Yavneh, and come later to the seudah—and everyone would just wait calmly. Ima wouldn’t even notice that he was late! Even the ice cream that Ima had so happily just served her had been passed to Elinor’s plate without any issue being made about it. Again, Ima hadn’t even noticed.

Her mother was an artist in the full sense of the word.

***

Oh, to be at home again, in his comfortable, familiar bed!

Zevi looked down from the top of his bunk-bed at Yossi and Aryeh sleeping below, and remembered those long-ago nights when his brothers would wait quietly awake in bed for him, so that they could share the day’s events with their big brother. Despite the age difference between them—he was four years older than Yossi and five years older than Aryeh—the relationship between them had always been warm and close. Perhaps it was because of the fact that Abba was so far away from them for most of the year. True, he called from Chile at least twice a week and made sure speak to each child, but when little brothers were nudging you in the background to finish up so they could speak to Abba, you couldn’t exactly start telling him about a friend who had insulted you or a rebbi who had admonished you.

He could have always told Ima, but Zevi never liked to do that, because Ima worried too much. She would call the mother of the offending child to demand that she deal with her son firmly, or the rebbi to ask how he could possibly admonish a child as wonderful as her Zevi. And Zevi didn’t like that; which normal child would? On his way home from school each afternoon, he would sort through the day’s events in his mind and extract the stories that would worry her. Then he would bury those stories deep in his heart, for when Abba came home.

But when Abba would leave his kollel in Chile once every two or three months and come home to his family, all the old stories that had seemed so important at the time were suddenly dull and silly. It sounded foolish to tell Abba that he’d fought with Daniel Singer five weeks ago, when yesterday, Abba had seen him playing with Daniel for two hours in the living room.

At least Yossi and Aryeh had him, and he would listen closely to everything they told him and try—from his lofty position as the older brother—to give constructive advice. Sometimes his ideas were more effective and other times less so, but at least Yossi and Aryeh always knew they had someone to talk to, which he couldn’t say was true for himself.

Like now. Exactly like now.

Zevi sat up, carefully climbed over the head of the bed to the cold floor, and put on his slippers. They, like his bed, waited for him at home, like old friends.

What did Yehudah Levy want from him? Why was he nosing around? He hadn’t heard Yehudah stammer often, but two days ago it had happened. What kind of phone calls was he talking about? A person asking about him? What kind of questions? Yehudah hadn’t given him clear answers, and the bit Zevi was able to glean wasn’t reassuring at all. And he couldn’t even tell all this to Ima—that would never do.

Zevi padded into the kitchen, passing Ima’s Shabbos candlesticks. Two of the candles were still flickering. Who prepared the wicks for Ima when he wasn’t there? He had no idea. Yossi made Kiddush and Havdalah; that much he knew. He bent over the glass cups. Whoever was doing the wicks was better at it than him, he had to admit. When he would do it, the candles never stayed burning for so long. Perhaps it was Ima herself?

“Zevi, are you up?” Ima stood in the doorway of the kitchen.

“Who prepared the wicks for you today, Ima?”

She smiled, but there was something sad about her smile. “Aryeh. He’s almost an expert, isn’t he?”

“He really is good at it.” He went into the kitchen, threads of bothersome thoughts coming together to create a clear sense of discomfort. The shelf that had been broken last time he had been home was firmly secured. Ima told her that Yossi had fixed it. The leaky faucet had also been fixed by Yossi, and Aryeh was in charge of the weekly supermarket shopping. He had also prepared the candles. Aryeh and Yossi. Yossi and Aryeh.

“They really help you a lot,” he said quietly.

“Well,” his mother laughed tiredly, “they understand the situation, don’t they? They’re big boys.”

“Big, yes.” He avoided her gaze. “I didn’t do so many things when I was their age.” He opened the faucet that Yossi had fixed. It worked fine. Not a single drop leaked out after he closed it. The shelf was attached to the wall. The candles in the hall were still burning, and all the groceries that were needed were probably safe and sound in the food cabinets. Aryeh was twelve. Yossi was thirteen and a half. Where had he been at that age, and where were they?

“What do you want?” his mother asked. “Some kids just have a knack for these things. How many thirteen-year-olds do you know who can fix faucets? Yossi likes it, I needed it, and so it worked out perfectly. At their age, you helped me with other things. Have you forgotten how you used to get this place shipshape?”

Zevi wanted to tell her that he hadn’t forgotten, but that there were other things that were hard for him to forget.

A memory that was more than three years old flicked through his mind; it involved a supermarket, a shopping cart outside, and a certain boy trying to lift a case of grape juice into the cart. The next frame of the memory was the red-purple-soaked rag that the maintenance worker was holding, a pair of dark stains on his knees, and a strong smell of grape juice.

“How old are you, kid?” the older man had asked him accusingly. “How were you able to break twelve bottles at once? You’re really talented!”

And the “really talented” kid wasn’t twelve at the time. He was already fourteen.

Aryeh had never broken a whole case of grape juice, of that Zevi was positive.

“Everyone is strong in different areas,” Ima said when she saw Zevi’s eyes cloud over and picked up on where his thoughts were. “How can you compare your Kiddush to Yossi’s? You know how much I love it when you come home for Shabbos. Our Shabbos table is so much nicer when you’re here!”

“So it’s a good thing I have a good voice,” Zevi said softly, finally letting go of the faucet. “Baruch Hashem I got that from Abba. What I would really like to know is where I got my two left hands from.”

***

Eliyahu was in Bnei Brak again. The director of the Tel Aviv kiruv program, Rabbi Bograd, had sent him to cover for another volunteer who couldn’t make it. The truth was, Eliyahu preferred working with youngsters who came to the program for the first time in their lives. He liked the arguments, the youthful energy that they infused into their battles, and the rush of adrenaline he felt when launching into his “counter-attack.” Traveling to yeshivos in Bnei Brak to speak to alumni who had switched to there, to give them a boost of chizuk, was less enjoyable for him, although it really wasn’t too bad. It was always nice to meet the guys from Tel Aviv when they were already deeply embedded in “the other side.”

But this time he had been sent to a yeshivah he had never been sent to before—that yeshivah. It would be interesting to know if Effie Baranes and Sasson Ratzon, alumni of “his” kiruv program, knew Zevi Bloch. He wouldn’t ask them, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t curious. He was very interested to know who the boy was who had played such a dominant role in his feud with his uncle.

He entered the study hall and asked someone to call Effie Baranes or Sasson Ratzon, and stood waiting beside the bookcase. His eyes scanned over the boys who passed him, seeking some familiar features. Who did Zevi look like? His father? His mother? Or perhaps his grandmother or grandfather?

He took a sefer from the nearest shelf and opened it without even seeing the title. He leaned on a pillar near the entrance. Something was niggling in his heart, and it annoyed him to think that the fact that he might identify a seventeen-year-old boy in the next few minutes had affected him so deeply. Boys passed him by on their way out. He had come at a bad time—the beginning of supper.

He stood waiting, hesitating if he should perhaps take a peek into the dining room. Perhaps Effie and Sasson were there. Maybe Zevi was there, too.

Eliyahu jeered at himself. How exactly are you planning to discover Zevi among the hundreds of bachurim? Will you stand at the door and grill each person who goes in and out if they happen to be Mr. Zev Bloch? Or perhaps you should walk to the front of the dining room, take the microphone (where exactly would you get one from, anyway?), and announce that anyone who answers to the name Zevi Bloch, son of Chanoch and Shoshana Bloch from Yerucham and grandson of Zalman and Minda Dresnick, should please come to the front?

It’s just a shame you can’t specify your familial relationship with Zevi. That would certainly confuse the boy. How will he remember someone whom he last saw before he turned three? Someone who used to watch him devotedly to save his mother the babysitting fees. Someone who paced up and down the house with him so his parents, exhausted from his wailing, would be able to rest a little. The one who bought him his first tricycle, and gave him piggyback rides, reveling in the childish giggles…

How could Zevi remember him? Today they were complete strangers.

 

***

 

Kobi Frankel set the pile of pages down on his desk with a slap. These long meetings again, and they didn’t even lead anywhere. His eyes fell on the small note he had taped to his desk yesterday. Call Eliyahu. Maybe today he’d finally have an answer for him?

Goldstein had gotten all the approvals, so that lot, together with his lot, were already a nice amount. But there was no way to compare the profits they would make if Dresnick and Auerbach would agree to sell their lot. Three adjacent lots! Holtzman would pay good money for that.

He dialed Eliyahu again, wondering when he would become big enough to hire a private secretary. Now he was just a mediocre lawyer who was finding even basic overhead and rent a bit too much, relatively speaking. In the shopping center that Holtzman planned to build, he would surely have a decent office.

Nu, Eliyahu!” he exclaimed impatiently. “What’s with you? Is anything moving with your uncle?”

“I’m looking into it.”

“Have you noticed how long you’ve been saying that for?”

“It takes time,” Eliyahu snapped.  “And if you want something to come out of it, Kobi, then please stop pressuring me.”

“But you have to understand that the contractor has several proposals. I can offer him mine and Goldstein’s lot, but if you also join, it will be a much more attractive deal.”

“You are choosing once again to forget, Kobi, that I am not part of this story.”

“There is a certain part that is registered in your name. Your mother bought it, didn’t she?”

“It doesn’t matter what the register says,” Eliyahu replied, pressing his lips together tightly.

“If you insist, I don’t really care about the semantics, because the official terms don’t make a difference here. In any case, your signature isn’t worth anything without theirs. Where’s your famous power of persuasion, Eliyahu? You disappointed me enough last time. Can’t you do something useful for a change?”

“Thanks for the compliments,” Eliyahu replied dryly. “And ‘last time’ was quite some time ago. Where have you been the past few years?”

“You know exactly where I’ve been. The contractor who wanted to buy at the time changed his mind, and I rented the house out long term. My tenants are leaving in another month, and I want to take advantage of the opportunity. Ultimately, we only gained from the delays, because now the properties are worth much more.”

“We should send Chasida flowers for that.” Eliyahu didn’t intend for the lawyer to hear his words, but Kobi Frankel’s ears were sharp and peeled for every sound.

“What flowers? Like the ones we sent her when we were in second grade?” They had been two rambunctious kids living on the same block. Not much was left of that friendship these days—only childhood memories that were more or less cheerful, marred by the occasional unpleasant one. Among the latter was the memory of a small frog, sitting in a large puddle on the outskirts of the neighborhood, that they had taken to hide in Chasida’s drawer. Kobi thought that was a fitting punishment for someone who had hit Eliyahu for destroying her colored pencils the night before.

Eliyahu had gotten another spanking after the frog prank, from his uncle this time. Kobi himself was spared that fate, but Mrs. Dresnick, Chasida’s mother, did not let him get away without an apology. “Both you and Eliyahu are going to say you’re sorry nicely to Chasida,” she’d said in her strong Hungarian accent. “If not, Eliyahu will go back to his house in Beer Sheva, and you’re never coming back here.”

Shoshi, Chasida’s twin, had suggested that they prepare her a bouquet of paper flowers, and under her guidance, the boys had colored white papers in different shades and folded them into a variety of shapes.

“Totally irrelevant to our discussion,” Eliyahu said peevishly, and then stopped himself from thinking about Chasida’s reaction when they presented her with the bouquet with self-righteous expressions on their faces. “But tell me, what’s with the upstairs neighbor?”

“She hasn’t lived there since Pesach. She moved and sold the apartment to a young couple,” Frankel said. “And there is absolutely no reason to even approach them before your uncle agrees.”

“I don’t think you’re right,” Eliyahu argued. “Watch—in the end, the Dresnicks will say yes, and the new people will object. You’d better speak to them at the same time.”

“I’m not doing anything right now,” Frankel said disdainfully. “I’m waiting for a green light from you. When to speak and with whom to speak—leave that to me. You’re just being asked to prepare the groundwork.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Eliyahu said tersely.

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