Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 10 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.
It was almost two days after Gavriel had found a small bag on the door when Shevi went down to the Dresnicks. The bag had held a tiny bottle and a note, which said, “Shevi, it was very nice to meet your mother in the garden, but it’s a shame she had to come under such circumstances. She told be about your ear. These are drops that I’ve heard are very effective. I don’t remember how many drops you need and how often, but just read the instructions. Refuah sheleimah, Chasida.”
Shevi didn’t know if it was the natural drops or the doctor’s antibiotics, but she was finally feeling well enough to go downstairs to say thank you. No one answered her knocks, and although it wasn’t during regular store hours, Shevi decided to try the Dresnicks’ store. She passed the large tree, touching it gently, and wondering if perhaps she should try to draw it, as her mother had suggested. Miri gave her enough free time, and the tree branches looked complex enough to keep her busy sketching for a long time. Maybe she could even open an art group… No, she had no professional training, and to just teach girls to draw a house and a path—their mothers could do that just fine without paying her their hard-earned money.
Just behind the tree, with her back to the trunk, stood Chasida. She was wearing an outfit that Shevi did not recognize, and something about her hair was strange. “I never understood why,” Chasida’s voice said, “and I’m always the worrywart among us!” She moved a bit and then Shevi saw the second person. It was also Chasida, but with her regular auburn hair and her ubiquitous navy ensemble.
“Shevi!” she exclaimed, and the other woman fell silent at once. “It’s so good to see you! Come, meet my sister Shoshi. Shoshi, this is our neighbor, Shevi Auerbach. Shevi, this is my sister, Shoshi Bloch.” The first “Chasida” turned and smiled at Shevi, who now realized that she was wearing a wig. The twins’ facial features were not especially similar.
“So, how’s the ear?” Chasida asked, although she seemed totally distracted. Her mind was still caught up in the conversation with her sister.
“Baruch Hashem, better. I came down to thank you for the drops.”
“I think they helped.”
“I’m happy to hear that.”
“I’d like to pay you for them,” Shevi said, a bit uncomfortably. These terse sentences were so out of character for Chasida!
“Nonsense—it was just a sample.”
Shevi stood there for another moment, looking at the two sisters, and then smiled. “I don’t want to bother you, so…”
“It’s fine,” they said in unison, and Chasida added politely, “Did you need anything else, Shevi?”
Shevi felt ill at ease again. She searched for something to say besides “bye.”
“Um…do you sell such drops in the store?” Maybe, if she would decide that that’s what had actually helped, she’d consider buying them.
“Yes, but not to you.” Shevi tried to detect if Chasida was serious or joking. “I don’t want you to think I gave it to you as some type of promotion.”
“I didn’t think that at all. If I really want it, will you sell it to me?”
“I’ll think about it,” Chasida promised, and diplomatically walked Shevi to the long flight of stairs.
“Is that how you treat that sweet neighbor of yours, Chasi?” Shoshi asked pointedly as Shevi’s footsteps faded into the second floor. “It’s not nice to get rid of people like that!”
“It’s fine. She’s too good of a friend to get offended,” Chasida said, waving off her sister’s concerns. “Aren’t you late for your bus, Shoshi?”
“Maybe,” her sister said shortly. “But you won’t be able to get rid of me as elegantly as you did Mrs. Auerbach. Please explain to me exactly what you meant.”
“Exactly what I said. Find out what’s happening with Zevi.”
“You’ve told me that four times. Explanations, please.”
“Kurzman is suggesting Blum, Frankel is sending offers, and something about your son looks…I don’t know. He seems disturbed lately. If it wouldn’t be so late now, I’d suggest you pop in to see him.”
“I understand, but what’s the connection between Zevi, Blum, and Frankel?”
Her sister fixed her with a hard stare. “Your memory is strong enough to flash back fourteen years, right? You know exactly how they are all connected.”
Shoshi fell silent. She didn’t know how it happened, but she suddenly discovered herself standing under the metal bus shelter. From afar she saw the bus slowly rumbling down the street. That made sense; the nine o’clock driver was always punctual. She turned to her sister. “Besides for the fact that everything happened at the same time all those years ago, is there something I don’t know?”
“No, except for the fact that it’s happening all at the same time again now.”
Shoshi glanced at her sister. The bus stopped and the doors opened with a smooth swish of the hinges. “Nevuah, my dear sister?”
“Not nevuah. I’m telling you that Zevi’s been edgy lately.”
“Okay, but who says it has anything to do with his foot?”
“Not me. I’m just telling you to find out how he’s doing.”
If it wasn’t for the driver who was getting annoyed at Shoshi for holding them all up, the interrogation would have continued. But having no choice, Shoshi hurriedly boarded the bus, not forgetting to wave to her sister from the window. She knew that the minute she’d arrive home, even before the robe-snood-slippers-cup-of-water routine, she would be on the phone, calling Bnei Brak—first Chasi, and then Zevi. What was her sister talking about?
The two men shook hands, talking animatedly. Gavriel wondered where this conversation would go. Yesterday, Reb Eliyahu Katz, whom he remembered well from the kiruv program in Tel Aviv, had called him out of the blue. He had asked to meet him so that they could discuss a certain matter. It had been ages since they had last met. If Gavriel remembered correctly, it was at the sheva brachos that the program had made for them.
To this day, his mother made sure to note how much she couldn’t stand the guy, although she had never met him. Gavriel owed his spiritual life to Reb Eliyahu. They had spent hours in riveting debates when Gavriel had come to the program with a few other guys from the religious high school in Tel Aviv. At first, he would come with a friend or two, but by the fourth day, he was coming alone. His friends quickly lost interest.
“Well, you were right yesterday,” Gavriel had huffed to Eliyahu at the time, “but what you told me two days ago was utter nonsense!”
“Just remind me what I told you two days ago,” Reb Eliyahu had said with a laugh. “Do you think I remember?”
“You brought me a quote from the Gemara,” Gavriel said, and turned to the large bookcase. “Do you think that I don’t know how to learn? I learned that masechta last year!”
That night, he had returned to his dormitory after two in the morning, and had arisen from bed after four sleepless hours. He went back to the kiruv center and was shocked to discover that it was closed.
“I’m so sorry,” Reb Eliyahu said that evening, when he heard what Gavriel had been through the night before, how he had wandered through the streets, coming back every half hour to see if the door was still locked. “We only open up here in the afternoon. Have you eaten anything? Yes? Good, so do you want to start learning something now?”
And then came the days of stormy thoughts and sensations he had never felt before; he was on a high, punctuated by frequent comedowns, especially after every argument with his parents. There were many chareidi young men who worked at the center, but undoubtedly, Eliyahu was the most outstanding of them all. The help he had offered Gavriel in those uncertain days was immeasurable.
“I was happy to see your name in the alumni phone directory,” Eliyahu said now, after they made some light conversation for a few minutes. “And I actually have a connection to the street where you’re living. I own a small property there, and I was given an offer to sell it.”
Gavriel Auerbach raised his eyebrows for a second and then said, “Oh, the letter from the lawyer…”
“So you also got such a letter this week,” Eliyahu said. “And are you thinking seriously about it?”
Gavriel hesitated. “It’s hard to say. We just moved in there and we’re not really interested in going anywhere in the near future.”
Eliyahu nodded. “I can imagine. But is it an offer that would pay for you?”
“Do you have any idea what it is all about?”
“A bit. The lawyer who is trying to organize the residents to sell is a childhood friend of mine. I understood from him that it’s an excellent offer.” He paused for a moment. “Personally, I won’t get much out of it, because my share is minimal, but you should find out whether the deal would be worth it for you.”
“We have elderly neighbors on the first floor,” Gavriel said thoughtfully, trying to imagine what Shevi’s reaction would be. “Their opinion will also have a say, won’t it?”
“So then let’s see what they say.”
“I really would advise you to pick up the phone and call Frankel, the lawyer, and hear how much he’s talking about. If his offer is attractive for you, you can then ask your neighbors what they think about it.”
Auerbach wanted to ask what this whole matter had to do with Eliyahu if his share was so minimal, but however he tried to formulate the question, it sounded too impudent. “I understand that your share is also up for sale,” he said finally.
Eliyahu confirmed that it was. “That’s why I called you,” he said with his trademark, winning smile. “Although my few percent doesn’t give me much of a say, I would be happy if the deal went through. It means a lot for me.”
As Gavriel walked home, he tried to put his finger on the issue that was bothering him about the conversation. Eliyahu had presented the matter logically, and it really did make sense to see what was being offered, unless Shevi absolutely wouldn’t hear of it. But something was niggling at the back of his mind. Perhaps it was the initial shock at seeing Eliyahu dealing with such mundane things after he had seen a totally different side of his.
That was it!
At the last second, Gavriel caught his hat that had been knocked off by a branch hanging into the street from one of the yards. That’s what was bothering him. The Reb Eliyahu who had spoken with him just now wasn’t the regular Reb Eliyahu that he knew. It was a totally different person.
Devorah Blum, Yerachmiel’s mother, looked at the scrap of paper unhappily. Rachel Kurzman just didn’t give up, apparently. She sighed deeply. “Again?” she asked. The crystal chandelier cast sparkling rays over the table.
“Again,” Yerachmiel said, placing his navy suit jacket over his shoulders. His mother noticed a few gray hairs streaking his black beard. “She called me. I brought you the note so you could decide for me, Mommy.”
“I’m not deciding for you,” she said firmly. “You decide, please. You’re a big boy already, Yerachmiel.”
“I’ve noticed that some time ago,” he noted tiredly and turned, looking at the sefarim that filled the shelves. The right bookcase had been loyally holding his sefarim for more than twenty summers already. “Maybe you could find out about her…?”
“We found out already…how many years ago was it?” His mother sat down on the chair without a back. Her back hurt. “And you certainly remember what happened.”
“It was thirteen or fourteen years ago. We heard good things, didn’t we?”
“Yerachmiel,” she said, irritated. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Do you have any idea what wasn’t good enough for them? Do they think that their super-picky daughter is such a great catch?”
He remained quiet. His mother gazed after him as he walked to the door and opened it. Then he closed it, turned, and returned to the big room. “It’s hard for people to observe the pain of others, especially when they can’t help,” he said. “One of the solutions that their conscience offers them is to blame the person who is suffering. That’s the only way they can sit at home peacefully, drink a steaming cup of coffee, and say apathetically, ‘If at his age he isn’t dreaming of compromising, it’s no wonder he’s not married yet.’ You can be sure, Mommy, that there are people who say that about me.”
“Only those who don’t know the truth, and it’s better that they don’t.”
“It’s very possible that that’s why the Dresnicks didn’t want me, then,” he said resignedly. “People are afraid.”
“But you know that no one has anything to be worried about!” She got up and waved her hand as though trying to banish a pesky mosquito that had settled in their house and refused to leave. “And when the right time comes, we’ll tell everything that has to be told, and for whomever it won’t be enough, we will send him to Dr, Gur to hear it even more clearly!”
“And when will that time come?”
“Not now, that’s for sure,” she said, just as resignedly. “You see that even without knowing anything, they don’t want; all we need is that they should know that there’s something more.”
“No one said that they don’t want me now,” he said, and leaned on the door. “And what I do know is that the shadchante suggested it to them and to us. That’s all.”
She wanted to reply, but instead, she just sat back down on her chair. Suddenly, she looked so small, so pitiful, to Yerachmiel, and the image made him feel horrible all over again, as it did every time. How much did his parents have to suffer on his account?
“Okay.” Her tone was so low, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined that she’d said it. “I’ll make some inquiries, Yerachmiel, and I hope, for her sake, that she isn’t planning to drive me nuts for nothing.” She glanced at the piece of paper that had been left on the telephone shelf. “Neighbor, Shevi Auerbach. Wait, maybe she’s related to my cosmetician?”
Zevi focused on the mirror in front of him, as though there was nothing in the world except for his toothbrush and the toothpaste. The problem was that the mirror also picked up Yehuda’s smile as he walked into the room.
“Hey! Brushing your teeth? Already? But I bought some nosh for our trip!” Yehuda said with forced cheer. Zevi sufficed with a wan smile, happy that manners precluded people from talking with foam in their mouths. He had no desire to respond to Yehuda. Just like he had no desire to come on the “short walk,” as Yehuda had put it.
He wasn’t interested in answering his older friend’s questions. Yehuda had hinted at something very openly. No, he hadn’t actually said he wanted to ask him anything, but just noted that there was an important issue that he wanted to speak to Zevi about, and that it would be best to talk in a quiet place.
Zevi knew that he had every right to refuse, just like he could also try to get out of Yehuda exactly what he wanted to talk about. But he didn’t opt for either response, and instead just asked in a flat tone when and where Yehuda wanted to go, and promised, as per Yehuda’s request, not to go to sleep early. Usually, by the time his roommates came into the room, he was already in bed. Covered, of course.
Like everything else in the world, the longest tooth-brushing session Zevi had ever had eventually came to an end. He joined his roommate, and they began walking together through the darkened yet busy streets. Zevi had no idea that Yehuda—even more so than him—would have preferred to disappear into the crowds and slip back to the yeshivah without speaking about anything. But there was something that held him back from doing so.
“Shall we sit here?” the older boy asked amiably as they passed a bench on a relatively quiet street. “Looks like a comfortable spot.”
Yehuda sat first and opened the bag he had been carrying. “A cookie, Bloch?” Why had he suddenly become so official?
“Some coffee candies?”
“Well, that’s the end of the menu,” Yehuda said in a merry tone, folding the bag again. And then he was quiet.
So was Zevi.
They were silent together.
“Do you remember,” Yehuda began after deciding that they had been silent long enough. His calm voice revealed nothing as he continued, “the man who asked about you on the phone a few times?”
Zevi nodded, his lips parched. This was it; he had guessed right. It was coming.
“He came one evening to yeshivah.”
“The night I couldn’t fall asleep?” A yellow, dry leaf fell onto the bench beside him.
“What? No. Last week.”
“So it wasn’t a mistake?” Zevi wondered where the voice had come from. It was his voice, but it was so squeaky it almost made him laugh.
“I asked him that, too, and he said that it wasn’t. He was asking about Zevi Bloch, and he knows that you are seventeen.”
Zevi didn’t ask what the man had asked about him; he didn’t want to know.
But Yehuda continued in that confident, placid tone, and only the volume at which he spoke revealed that he also understood that his words were loaded. “He wanted to know what exactly you have on your foot, and I thought you should know that you’re being asked about.[mg2] He didn’t tell me who he is, but maybe your family would know.”
There. He had said it.
Zevi sat in gaping silence, letting Yehuda’s words swirl around his head without penetrating too deeply. Something shut down inside him, and it didn’t let him think about anything. Only the image of himself in the pediatric department at Tel Hashomer hospital hammered at him from all sides. He hardly remembered how it had begun, and his mother also preferred not to talk about it a lot, but the long, torturous days that followed remained clearly ingrained in his memory.
The honking horns from the next block wafted over to the quiet street where they sat. The image of his aunt Chasida rose in his mind, banishing the one of three-year-old Zevi. “Your mother is right!” the imaginary Chasida berated him. “You don’t play with such secrets!”
What did you think, dear aunt? That you can hide secrets in a dormitory without everyone knowing where they are? You see, there are no secrets.
But maybe there are people who can keep secrets. My brother, Aryeh, for example. He surely would have been able to keep such a thing quiet without anyone else noticing. But why think about Aryeh? Chalilah. Even at the age of three he probably knew to be careful and keep away from boiling cups of tea. But he…
Zevi rose. As by three, so by seventeen. A schlemazel remained a schlemazel.
“Zevi?” His pale face alarmed Yehuda. “I’m not waiting for you to answer me—I just want you to know what’s going on.”
But Zevi didn’t want to know. He wanted to get away from there. As fast as possible. To escape. To run. Let Yehuda stay on the bench and look very carefully, so he could tell anyone who was interested that Zevi Bloch could run fast. Despite everything.
The eighth page read:
Today I wanted to wash dishes for Aunt Minda and I waited till she went to rest, but the nice cups broke. Too bad. She got angry and was very sad and told Uncle Zalman that you can see that my burthday was at a bad time, and that’s why nothing is ever good for me and I always ruin things and so many things go rong for me. She said that becuz I was born in the month of the lamb, I know how to speek nicely, but then I do lots of silly things. I don’t even know what the month of the lamb is. A month when we go to the zoo? But what does a lamb in the month when I was born have to do with what I’m doing now? I wonce asked her and she said that it’s about stars in the sky. I don’t understand what stars have to do with when I was born becuz I was so small and so far from them, but a lot of times I don’t understand what Aunt Minda says, so it’s okay. I need to ask Kobi when he was born.
The ninth page read:
Chasida and Shoshi were born in Adar, which is a very good month, Aunt Minda says. Of coors it’s good becuz that’s when Purim is, and I want to dress up like an Indyun, but Uncle Zalman says it’s not a nice costoom, but maybe Ima will say she lets and I can be an Indyun. Yesterday, my aunt said I was born when it was a sine of a lamb and also of scales, and together it’s all mixed up. Then she said that I turned out all mixed up. She didn’t say it to me, only to Uncle Zalman, but I was on the kitchin porch eating all the cake from Shabbos, so I heard.