Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 7 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.
“I think we were too tough on him.”
“Nonsense!” Minda Dresnick turned around angrily from the sink, switching to Hungarian, like she always did when she was upset. “Who was tough? Like butter you were, Zalman, too much so. You know what Chasida would say if she’d hear you now.”
“Chasida?” Zalman waved his hand. “Let her hear. She doesn’t know Hungarian well anyway. And besides, what does she understand about what was then? She was just a girl at the time.”
“At the time.” Minda wiped her hands on her apron. “And today? And fourteen years ago?” Her husband’s silence was significant, and it got on Minda’s nerves more than all the words that he could have said but didn’t. “You’re always sure that we made all the mistakes, but Eliyahu himself was very wrong and you know it.” She whipped off the yellow apron and hung it on the hook. “I won’t say anything about his mother, aleha hashalom, because I know that you don’t like it when I talk about her, but if I would send our Yitzchak to grow up in his uncle’s house, he would have behaved differently!”
“Yitzchak is Yitzchak and Eliyahu is Eliyahu,” Zalman said placidly, yet firmly.
“Of course Yitzchak is Yitzchak. I would be very sad if Yitzchak suddenly became Eliyahu.”
“Okay, okay, that’s enough,” Zalman said, taking off his glasses.
“Of course it’s enough. But I’m not the one who remarked out of nowhere that we were too tough on your nephew. Are you saying that you shouldn’t have given him those slaps when he hid a muddy frog in Chasida’s drawer? He ruined all her notebooks! Or when he bent Yitzchak’s arm? Or when he broke the ceramic tray that I had brought over from the house in Budapest?”
“He said then that he didn’t mean it.”
“He said.” She sniffed scornfully. “Sure.”
“Okay, enough,” Zalman repeated. “Yitzchak should be here shortly.”
Minda fell silent and took her apron back off the hook again. The counter was still dirty in one corner, and as much as it wasn’t always easy to keep up with her standards of cleanliness, she wasn’t going to give up on that. Chasida, she should live and be well, always wanted to help her, but whenever she tried tidying up the place, it didn’t come out as clean as the way her mother liked it to be.
What had happened today to Zalman that he suddenly remembered his nephew? What had he ever had from this nephew? Aggravation, that’s all. Who needed the whole story? Why had they ever taken Eliyahu in to begin with?
But Liebchu, Zalman’s sister, hadn’t really given them too much of a choice in the matter. “I’m just telling you exactly what the rav told us,” she’d said adamantly when she’d arrived for a surprise visit with her seven-year-old Eliyahu. “He told us that it’s not good for the child to be in the religious state school and that we have to switch him to a Talmud Torah. Pinchas also wants him to be in a cheder, but we don’t have one near our house, and the rav said that Bnei Brak is very good. You’ll take him in Zalman, won’t you? Pinchas just can’t leave his job and move to Bnei Brak.”
You’ll take him in Zalman, won’t you? Sure, what else? And Minda wasn’t even consulted. “We need to think about it,” she had said cautiously at the time. But when she had seen the look in Zalman’s eyes, she knew that the answer was already clear and that there wouldn’t be much to think about. Eliyahu, the only son of her sister-in-law Liebchu, would come to live with them, because Zalman never refused his younger sister. Only the two of them had survived from their entire family. Their mother, Hashem yinkom damah, had paid a neighbor a fortune to hide four-year-old Zalman’ke and three-year-old Liebchu. “Just until the Germans go away,” she had told them. Then she’d left. And never come back.
Minda rubbed the counter with all her sixty-eight years. Zalman had already left the kitchen, leaving her to her memories. That’s how Liebchu had come, not even giving them an option to refuse. Well, of course they had taken Eliyahu in. They were not allowed to upset Liebchu, with her weak heart, and in general, Zalman just did not know how to tell his sister “no.”
Shevi went down to escort her parents to the car, Miri in her arms. Gavriel had bid them farewell twenty minutes earlier, when he had left for kollel.
“You look happy here, after all is said and done,” her mother said, looking around. “You have a nice house and a beautiful garden. Are you upset that you didn’t stay inHaifa?”
“I sometimes miss it, but it’s a matter of getting used to things.” Shevi smiled. “And the garden really is nice, even if it isn’t all that useful.”
“Once upon a time, you used to draw in our garden.” Her mother’s eyes didn’t move from the leaves she was gazing at. “Maybe you should start drawing again. Your drawings were wonderful!”
Shevi blinked. “I don’t think that’s so… It’s not really done here,” she said after a second of silence. “I haven’t seen any other women in Bnei Brak sitting in their yards with drawing pads and watercolors. There are some things that are…not accepted everywhere.”
“I think that such things aren’t accepted in Bnei Brak simply because there are hardly any gardens here,” her father—ever practical—remarked. “I’m wondering how they even left a two-story house such as yours, and with a yard, too! I thought that this city is so overcrowded. It’s a bit odd that no one has even contacted you about selling the lot.”
“Don’t give it to them!” her mother said, stroking one of the leaves of a tree near her. “This gorgeous garden is priceless, Elisheva; don’t give it up!”
“I’m not so sure about that,” her father laughed and said, as he kissed his granddaughter and walked toward the car. “It’s worth a lot of money. And a hefty chunk of money is not something you say no to so fast. Are you coming, Chaya?”
Shevi chuckled. “I don’t think anyone has any plans like that right now,” she said. “And I like the renovations we made, so you don’t have to worry, Ima.”
She followed the car down the block with her eyes as it grew smaller. It was a shame that her parents’ visits were so rare. The loneliness wasn’t easy for her. Chasida said she had to find a job, but she had no idea where to even start looking. She hadn’t even finished her matriculation exams. Chasida said that in Bnei Brak one didn’t need matriculations to find work; one needed “pull.” The problem was that she had no “pull” either.
Whenever she was very bored, she went down to the store to Chasida. At peak hours she tried to help, while during the quieter times they sat and chatted. The twenty-year age gap didn’t seem to bother either of them very much.
“Shevi?” Chasida stood behind her. “Are you on the way over to me?”
“Not exactly. I was just walking my parents out and now I’m going upstairs to straighten up the house.”
“Wonderful,” Chasida said, turning the key in the lock of the store. “I see that the building is hosting guests today. My older brother came from Yerushalayim with his wife, and my mother said to tell you to come in for a visit. She wants to introduce you to my sister-in-law.”
Shevi felt uncomfortable. She liked Mrs. Dresnick and got the impression that the feeling was mutual. But to come in the middle of a family visit? What for? “Do I have to?” she asked.
“If you’re uncomfortable about it, no, but…” Chasida didn’t finish the sentence, as just then, two curly heads appeared right behind them.
“Aunt Chasi, where are the steps? Savta said we should go call the neighbor!”
“You don’t have to go up,” Chasida said with a smile. “She’s right here. Will you manage, Shevi?”
“I guess so,” her young neighbor said, looking at the two curly heads standing beside her. “Are you Chasida’s nieces?” she asked the little girls.
“Yes, and Savta and Ima want to talk to you.”
“Okay, I’m coming,” she said.
But the two girls stood their ground. “No,” the one who looked to be about five said firmly. “Savta didn’t say you would be here. She said we should go up to call you!”
“She also said that you always have yummy cake,” her sister said, and something mischievous in her eyes reminded Shevi a lot of Chasida. “So let’s go upstairs first and then come down, okay?”
“Okay,” Shevi said, turning back to the stairs. The girls skipped up behind her and burst into her house uninhibited. Shevi went to put Miri down in the crib, and they followed her. She went into the kitchen, and they followed her. She collected the serving dishes from the table, and they followed her. She arranged the cake that had been left on a small plate as they watched in fascination, and rummaged around in the cabinet for a bar of chocolate that she had perhaps forgotten was there. Compensation for the efforts of Chasida’s nieces.
“Ima said,” the older girl began, “that she wants you to come because Savta told her you’re Aunt Chasi’s friend.”
The second one nodded vigorously. “Yeah, and she wants you to tell her why Aunt Chasi isn’t married yet, because she said that no one knows and maybe you do.”
Shevi stopped in her tracks and put the plate of cake down.
“Nu, so let’s go already!” the second one exclaimed. “Does this have nuts? My mother doesn’t let me have nuts.”
“No, there are no nuts,” Shevi said, sinking into a chair. “You can take it, girls, and tell Savta that I…don’t feel so well right now.”
The girls didn’t object that she had refused to come down with them, as long as they had gotten their cake. Shevi remained seated on the kitchen chair. She didn’t even get up to close the front door, which the girls had left open. Let them not ask her strange questions, please. She had no answers and was the last one who would try to find them.
Got that, Chasida’s dear sister-in-law?
Downstairs in the store, Chasida sat on her chair and tried to imagine the conversation between Shevi and her sister-in-law, Faigy.
Faigy had lots of good intentions, and it was amazing that she still believed that Chasida was oblivious to them. Chasida doodled absently on the back cover of the receipt book and thought about her brother and his wife. Their Shmuely would be twenty-one in another month or two, and they weren’t even thinking of marrying him off yet, according to Faigy. They said he was too young, and that nothing was urgent when Naftali, the sibling under him, was only eighteen. Perhaps they were right, but she couldn’t help but suspect that all this was because of their discomfort with her situation. It was probably hard for them to imagine a situation where they would call to tell Abba and Ima, who still had a single daughter at home, that their oldest son was about to get engaged.
She hoped her suspicions were false; that this wasn’t the case. As much as it would be difficult for her when her nephews would start to get married, it was even harder to think that they were being held up because of her. It was a good thing Faigy really was a nice person and that her concerns were sincere, so it was possible to overcome the anger that arose when she crossed the line of tact. Like now, for example. Mrs. Kurzman, the shadchanta who had recently started calling again, had openly admitted that the one who had asked her to think about Chasida again had been Faigy.
“She’s wonderful, your sister-in-law,” Mrs. Kurzman had said—and that was one of the few statements she made that Chasida had agreed with wholeheartedly. And after a moment of silence on the two ends of the phone line, Mrs. Kurzman had added, “It’s not like she was the only one; for a long time I’ve been thinking about you, and I remember how it was always interesting to work with you.” That was, apparently, also a true statement. It wasn’t pleasant to work with Chasida; it was interesting. Chasida only wondered how the woman had managed to get through the last fourteen boring years without long (“interesting”) conversations with her.
The moments passed, and the store remained empty. That’s the way it was. There were busier hours and quieter times, but Chasida had to concede that the store was far less bustling than it used to be. People didn’t want to go to “the other end of the world” when there were new health food stores in the middle of town that carried everything they needed and then some. This small store was limited in the quantity of merchandise she could pack into it, despite all the shelves that Abba and Eliyahu had built over the years during vacation time.
Chasida rose to pick up a few packages that had slipped off a nearby shelf. True, there was no real reason for Eliyahu to be with them during vacation time, but for some reason, he always was. Instead of Eliyahu going home to Beer Sheva, Tante Liebchu would come for a week or two to see how he was doing and make sure he was happy in her brother’s house, and that he ate well and was treated well. It was obviously easier for her to come and spend time with her son in Bnei Brak than have him home for several long weeks.
Chasida went back to the desk and opened the envelope she had put there the day before. This letter had been lying there for an entire day—perhaps the time had come to pay it some attention. Not because she particularly enjoyed reading letters that came on stationery bearing the letterhead Y.M. Frankel Attorney at Law and Notary, but rather, because her father had asked to know what the letter said.
Her eyes scanned the short text. Mazel tov. Kobi Frankel had woken up after fourteen years! Once again he was making that same silly offer “regarding the jointly owned property by you and other entities, lot 187.” Jointly owned by you and other entities. Oh, Eliyahu. Already back then, her wise mother had said that if Liebchu really wanted to express her gratitude, she should have done so in a different manner. They would have worked hard and taken loans to buy the small lot behind the house and turn it into a store, but Liebchu had insisted on buying it for them, and had broken an old savings account to do so. She had promised that the land that was purchased with her money would be owned by the Dresnick family until the end of her parents’ lives, but this fact, apparently, had slipped Eliyahu’s mind.
“What is that, Eliyahu?”
“An official letter from Frankel.” He tossed it onto the table.
“I meant the second envelope, the thick one.”
“Oh, that’s from the kiruv center. Rabbi Bograd told me they were planning to send around a telephone directory with the numbers of all our alumni, so we can keep in touch. I imagine that’s what’s inside.”
Chavi walked around the table and picked up the torn envelope that had landed on the edge of the table in shame. “And what does Frankel want?” she asked quietly.
“You can look. He’s offering me to sell my part in the lot in Bnei Brak.”
“It just makes me so mad! Doesn’t the guy understand that even that small part doesn’t belong to me? My mother told me that as long as Uncle Zalman and Aunt Minda are alive, I have no claim to it. When will Frankel finally get the point?”
“But if they sell the house, you will have to sign also, won’t you? If it’s registered in your name, then it’s legally yours.”
Eliyahu sat down on the couch and flipped through the thin booklet. “What difference does it make? My little signature will make no difference if the Dresnicks refuse to sell their share. So why did he send me this letter? As though he needs my official permission to sell. What did he think he would gain?”
Chavi looked at her husband’s angry face and read the short sentences written on Kobi Frankel’s letterhead, without knowing what kind of expression Chasida had worn the day before when she’d read them. “Maybe it’s to remind you to continue inquiring for him. He asked you something like that, no?”
He turned to her. “Why? I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no way of finding out what my uncle’s opinion is today without speaking to them directly. I thought first of focusing on Zevi, because if anything remained, then I have no chance with Aunt Minda.”
“He’s probably fine today. It happened before our Elchanan was born, Eliyahu! It’s been more than thirteen years!”
“That’s what I want to find out, but I’m realizing that it’s not so simple to verify how a boy’s foot is in a dormitory.” He gazed at the cupboard opposite him and stood up suddenly. “But maybe I’ll try one more time before I inform Kobi that I have no way of finding anything out. I’m going now.”
“To Bnei Brak. To the yeshivah.”
“Zevi’s? What will you do there?”
“I have no idea. A last-ditch effort. Maybe I’ll talk to someone. I can call over one of his roommates. I spoke to one of them by phone, but nothing came out of that. We’ll see what happens today.”
A strong smell suddenly permeated the narrow dining room, and Chavi hurried to the kitchen, smiling absently at Elchanan, her oldest, who was eating a late supper there. The water in the fish pot was bubbling wildly, and Chavi had a distinct feeling that the fish balls inside were probably falling apart. It always happened when she forgot to turn down the fire in time.
Who needed this whole headache? It was possessing Eliyhua and marring their tranquil lives. Just like then, fourteen years ago. They were still living in Bnei Brak at the time, in a rented apartment, not too far from the Dresnicks. Then, too, it was Thursday evening when Eliyahu had come home with red splotches on his neck.
“Kobi’s pulling out of the whole deal!” he said, without even saying hello first. “He’s sick of waiting. He’s going to find tenants for his apartment. Yitzchak Dresnick will probably be thrilled, and so will Chasida.”
She didn’t like the way he put it. “What does their being thrilled have to do with anything?” she had asked, struggling with the chicken that refused to cut nicely. “Their parents lost. You wanted their good!”
He hadn’t answered directly. His eyes had flitted from one thing to another. The chicken had been cut crooked and the fish balls had totally fallen apart in the boiling water. And the next day was the first Friday since their marriage that Eliyahu didn’t call his uncle to say good Shabbos. The first Friday of many more similar Fridays to come.