Without a Trace – Chapter 14

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 14 of a new online serial novel, Without a Trace, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.

Gavriel hadn’t even gotten to “Borei me’orei ha’eish”when the phone began to ring. One ring, followed by another and another. Shevi picked up the receiver, waited the few requisite seconds until the caller would realize that Havdalah was being recited, and then hung up.

Gavriel had hardly finished drinking and making the brachah acharonah when the phone began to ring again. This time, Shevi was at the sink with her hands deep in the suds, so he answered the call.

“Yes, Ima,” Shevi heard him say. “Oh, was it you before? We were just making Havdalah.” He listened for a minute with the familiar expression on his face, and Shevi’s heart sank. “A waste of a call? For who?” He was quiet again. “Oh, we really never thought about it like that. In a lot of places they do this; it’s so that the caller will know that we can’t speak right now.”

Elinor tactfully slipped out of the kitchen.

“Well, I’m very sorry, Ima. It’s good that you mentioned it; like I said, we’d never thought of it that way. It really isn’t fair to the caller—you’re right.” He was quiet again, with that long-suffering expression, telling of the countless arguments he’d endured, on his face. Then he gave over the phone to Shevi. “My mother wants to talk to you.”

His wife dried her soapy hands on a towel and took the receiver. How had Gavriel’s mother discovered that it was she who had committed the crime of picking up the phone and then hanging it up, thus wasting the money of the caller, who, in this case, happened to be her own mother-in-law? Gavriel had been so careful not to give any indication of who it had been!

Shavuah tov,” she said into the phone.

Shavuah tov, Shevi. How was Shabbos?”

Baruch Hashem, fine.” She breathed deeply.

“Shevi, do you remember that I asked you about your neighbor? Well, the person who asked me called me again and asked for your phone number, so I gave it to her. I hope that’s okay with you.”

“No problem,” Shevi replied.

“Okay, so just be nice to her and tell her the whole truth, got it? Because she’s one of my oldest clients. I wouldn’t want her to be dissatisfied.”

“I’m sure.” Shevi bit her lip. Her mother-in-law didn’t want her customer to be dissatisfied. Great. She certainly didn’t want to displease her mother-in-law—but what did she really know about Chasida? Surely she would be asked why Chasida had never married, and how old she was, and if she was healthy. How was Shevi supposed to know all this?

She wiped down the counter, supporting the phone between her neck and her right shoulder. Her mother-in-law said good-bye, not without reminding her that she shouldn’t pick up the phone and then hang up, because it got people annoyed. Just then, Miri began to scream, and Elia and Elinor wanted to leave, and she and Gavriel had to quickly get themselves ready to walk their Shabbos guests to the bus stop.

“Your mother-in-law was right,” Elinor said suddenly as they walked. “Sorry for saying so. It’s not polite to pick up the phone and then hang up in people’s faces.”

“Alright, alright, from now on we’ll be good.”

Elinor glanced at her. “Why do you sound like that?”

“Because.”

“So I’m telling you that I understand her, and you don’t have to get so mad at me. I once called someone on a Motza’ei Shabbos, and they did the same thing. It was really annoying.”

“Because you had to pay for the call?”

“No.”

“Then why?”

“I think it’s because of this thing of picking up the phone, letting the other person hear how nice it is for them all together as a family, and then leaving you alone with the dial tone. I don’t know. Maybe there are people who aren’t bothered by this kind of thing. I was bothered by it.”

“Interesting.” Shevi looked at the sidewalk. “You see how everyone sees thing from his own point of view? That’s what bothered you; my mother-in-law was annoyed to hear her son making a brachah with the havarah that he uses, and there are some people who—”

“What annoys her?”

“Hearing how Gavriel makes the brachah. You know, with an Ashkenazi havarah.”

“That’s what annoys her?”

“I think so.”

“Who told you?”

“My common sense.” Shevi was being uncharacteristically terse tonight.

“So I’m telling you, my intelligent sister, that your brilliant brains can sometimes be wrong. Think about what I told you and tell me if I’m not right. Your mother-in-law hasn’t been to you for Shabbos yet, right? Abba and Ima have been once, and now we’ve also been invited. But all she’s left to do is hear your Havdalah and have the phone hung up on her.”

Shevi continued staring at the floor, and didn’t say another word.

***

Not much was left of the cigarette, just a small, glowing stub. Zalman Dresnick rummaged in the drawer of the register counter and pulled out another cigarette from the box he kept there. He touched the end to the stub of the first cigarette and went outside with his small Mishnayos, leaning on the doorpost. Minda had never liked this position; she said that “that’s how all the salesmen from the pathetic stores on Rabi Akiva stand when they wait for someone to look at them.” He tried to take her wishes into consideration and didn’t often stand at the door, except when he smoked and didn’t want to fill the store with the odor.

A small, translucent cloud wafted through the summer sky, and Zalman lifted his eyes to it. There was more of a point in looking at that than looking backward into the small store, crowded with shelves but empty of customers. Yes, he wasn’t deluding himself. The store had become emptier and emptier in recent years. They weren’t operating at a loss, baruch Hashem, but there wasn’t much of a profit either. At one point—Zalman knew—they would close the store, but as long at it still served as a suitable occupation for those at home who needed it, the store would continue to exist.

It was one of the reasons that they didn’t want to sell, even though financially it would undoubtedly be worth it for them now. Frankel had shown up at the door one evening last week, and it was his good fortune that Chasida had been out at the time. Not that Minda had been particularly courteous to him, but at least she’d escorted the lawyer into the house and up to the kitchen door. From there, she’d stood listening closely to the conversation between her husband and Kobi Frankel.

Zalman had been tired and didn’t have the patience to listen, but he didn’t want to offend the man, so he listened to the logical theories that Kobi presented. It was all true, and the years that had passed had only resulted in an increased value for the property, but if they would leave it all, what would Chasida do? He sighed. His Chasida loved the house and the store that continued to preserve their lives as they knew it, without any earthshaking changes. It may not have been so clear to her, but it was to him.

Zalman pulled the cigarette from his mouth and exhaled a cloud of smoke that tried to rise toward its brother in the sky, but dissipated long before it got there. Zalman sighed. Chasida was one reason that took all the wind out of the sails of Frankel’s very finely honed arguments, and her estranged cousin was the second reason. If they would sell everything, after all, then why did they have to endure so many years of being cut off from Eliyahu, his only nephew? It was only because they hadn’t agreed to sell years before that Eliyahu had cut his ties with their family to begin with.

Zalman laughed to himself. That had always been the mistake of fools, went an age-old Hungarian adage. They never admit to the world that they erred and are sure that no one is aware of the fact. Silly old man that I am. Just because we’ve erred for thirteen years means that we shouldn’t rectify it now?

Suddenly, Eliyahu overtook his thoughts, young and solid as he remembered him before it all began. So many years had passed that Eliyahu’s face was very vague in his mind; that was painful. Have you completely forgotten your nephew? Have you erased him from your memory? He always tried to defend himself against the blame by saying that Eliyahu was the one who had initiated the estrangement. But it didn’t help, especially when the image of Liebchu a”h hovered constantly in the back of his mind.

Today, however, he needed no self defense. This time, Eliyahu stood clearly in his thoughts, staring at him with Zevi’s eyes. The eyes were exactly the same. Zalman wanted to go back to his Mishanyos and finish the perek he was in middle of learning, but he just couldn’t. He wanted to talk to the Eliyahu in his mind, to tell him that it was worth it for him to come back, but of course he couldn’t do that. He was too down-to-earth to begin talking to images in his head. He sighed and opened his small sefer, settling down on the wooden chair that held the store’s door open. His forehead creased with horizontal lines as his eyes scanned the page, moving back and forth without looking up.

Chasida stood there and waited; she didn’t want to disturb her father. But when the sun blinded her eyes, she decided to enter the store and wait inside, and her shadow darkened the words on the Mishnayos so that he finally raised his eyes. “Nu,” he said when he saw her, motioning with his finger for her to wait.

A minute later he entered the store.

“Abba,” Chasida began, “I just wanted to tell you again what I’ve said already.” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s your house, Abba. Yours and Ima’s. Even if I once wanted…something about it, you should know that it’s clear that the decision is yours and I’m not interfering.”

“Once you wanted something about it…” he repeated softly, in a singsong tone. “And today?”

She evaded answering. “It makes no difference what my opinion is regarding selling this place, and what I think about Frankel and Eliyahu. I just want you to know…” Again, she paused for a fraction of a second. “I just want you to know that I will wholeheartedly accept whatever you decide to do.”

“Chasi,” Zalman said, using the nickname that made her shed thirty years. Once again she was the little girl and he was her protector. When Chasi and Shoshi were little, Minda used to grumble about how protective he was of them. “See, there they go again, fleeing into your arms. You’re too protective, Zalman, too protective.” Now, Zalman stood in front of one of his little girls and saw all the tears that refused to fall. “Chasi’le, what’s important to me is that you should be happy, no matter what Kobi Frankel might say about it.”

***

Devorah Blum put the telephone down. Ilana Auerbach’s daughter-in-law was sweet; she’d tried very hard to help, and it seemed as though she was quite friendly with Chasida Dresnick.

She put the note back into her night-table drawer, wondering what she would tell Yerachmiel next time he called. As far as inquiries, it all looked fine, more or less. The question was where they went from there. He would certainly consult her. Should they go out? Yes? No? What should she tell him?

Her common sense told her, yes, of course they should go out. If everything sounded good, like it had then, then why not?

But her distorted emotions were demanding other things. The insult still pinched at her heart, no less acute than it was that day when Yerachmiel came home after his date with Chasida Dresnick. Chasida had said no to the shidduch—and they hadn’t even explained why!

Before that, Devorah had been a steady customer at the Dresnicks’ store for years, though she’d never had the opportunity to meet Chasida, who had hardly worked there at the time. Devorah had always been helped by either Minda or Mr. Dresnick. But since that dreadful evening, she hadn’t stepped foot in the store.

A shidduch that falls apart after just one date is not such a big deal with other people, Devorah knew. But with them, it was a different situation entirely. A date with Yerachmiel was rare indeed; an occurrence that almost never took place. They had heard the word “no” too many times in those years. The secret that she’d tried to keep quiet with all her might had leaked out into the ears of other people, who probed and inquired further, until ultimately they gave a no.

But then finally they had gotten through the inquiry stage… It seemed as though the Dresnicks were from the few people who didn’t know about Yerachmiel’s surgery. After four years of constant inquiries with no progress, Yerachmiel left for the Dresnick home, and even came home rather pleased.

Rachel Kurzman had called the next morning to say that the Dresnicks seemed positive, but the girl wanted to think about it. The Blums had accepted that; the girl was allowed to deliberate, wasn’t she? In her mind’s eye, Devorah was already dressed in her English silk suit, bustling around the small simchah hall in their shul, presenting Chasida to her mother and sisters-in-law; based on what she had heard, this Chasida was a special girl.

Wait a second; who said it would be that hall? Didn’t the kallah’s side make the vort?

Wait another second; the girl wasn’t even a kallah yet! She was thinking things over now.

Devorah must have forgotten that deliberations can have two possible outcomes, and therefore she had been stunned when that evening, Mrs. Kurzman called to say that the Dresnick shidduch did not seem nog’ea anymore.

“They must have found out,” her husband said in a low voice, taking care to ensure that his words didn’t reach Yerachmiel’s ears. This attempt to protect her son after almost twenty-six years was so pathetic, and perhaps that was why the first tear slid down her cheek.

“You don’t have to whisper,” she said, turning to the counter. They didn’t have to whisper around Yerachmiel, but there was also no reason to cry around him. “Because even though he thinks it himself, it’s not true.”

“Why is it not true?” That question was from Yerachmiel, her bechor. The one who had almost gone on a second date, and they had gotten all excited about it.

“It’s not true that they found out, because Kurzman doesn’t know.”

“Okay, so Kurzman is not their only source of information, I imagine,” her husband said. “There are other people in the world.”

“But Kurzman told me that the Dresnicks hardly make inquiries; they rely on their daughter’s opinion.”

Her son and husband had tried to argue. “You would think that I was about to break the plate,” Yerachmiel said, trying to sound encouraging. “It went off after only one date. Most people go through this without getting too excited about it, no?”

But you’re not most people! Devorah had thought, not voicing her thoughts. Not that she meant that her son was a special genius compared to other boys his age; she knew that as far as capabilities, he was very standard. And besides, no one promised the top boys an easier life when it came to shidduchim. Devorah simply meant that Yerachmiel was different from everyone else regarding just one thing.

How many people in the world had donated a kidney—and lots of love—to their sister?

 

***

“Hello, Shevi.”

“Hi, Chasida. I came to help,” Shevi said, blushing slightly as she walked into the store and parked Miri’s carriage near the door. Chasida had been very pleasant on Shabbos, when she’d been with Elinor. She hadn’t sufficed with that cold, disappointing smile that she’d been giving Shevi since the incident with her nephew. Perhaps she had finally understood the bizarre scenario, where her nephew had been hanging on the window bars, and she was realizing how terrified her young neighbor had been by it. In any case, an apology was in place. “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

“You? Never.” Chasida’s eyes smiled at her warmly. “Have I ever made you feel like you’re bothering me?”

Shevi didn’t reply. She bent over to stroke Miri’s cheek, as though she hadn’t heard anything.

Chasida pulled out some small plastic jars and placed them on the counter. “Can you put these on that shelf over there? You’ll see where; there are two of the same kind still left.”

“Of course—that’s what I came for.” Shevi took the jars. Omega 3, said the label. “What’s this good for?” she asked.

“They say it reduces inflammation in the body,” Chasida said. “And not only that. It also prevents lots of diseases.” She opened another small plastic box which was full of small jars.

“And this?” Shevi asked when she saw the small glass bottles. The glass was almost black, and only when she held it up to the light could she see a thick liquid inside.
“Organic sesame oil,” Chasida replied with a chuckle. “Really, Shevi, since when have you taken an interest in natural products? You told me you don’t believe in them.”

“When did I say that?”

“The first day you came down here.”

Shevi didn’t reply. She arranged the little bottles on a shelf quietly, straining to reach the height. Miri watched her mother’s hands with wide eyes. “Tell me,” Shevi said suddenly. “Do you have something to help someone make friends easily?”

Chasida’s eyes grew wide, almost as wide as little Miri’s. “Make friends?” she repeated slowly, and then burst into laughter. “That’s a nice idea. Maybe you can be the one to discover this magic potion!”

“I’m the last person to be able to do that,” Shevi said heavily. “I don’t know how to make friends with anyone. I’ve been living here in Bnei Brak for more than three months and I haven’t found a single friend, except for one neighbor, who also started acting unfriendly to me recently.”

Now it was Chasida’s turn to be silent. She played with the last bottle standing on the counter. The rays of sun that came through the door cast strange shadows on the worn Formica.

“Give me that sesame oil,” Shevi said.

Chasida’s fingers released the bottle. With a veiled look, she followed her neighbor’s movements as Shevi stretched her arm up as far as she could to the high shelf and placed the bottle next to the other ones there.

“I’m not angry at you anymore,” Chasida said.

“Thank you.”

“And it was stupid of me to be angry at you at all. You’re not to blame for my old aggravations.”

“I’m not sure that it was stupid,” Shevi said, hating the moment she had begun this conversation. “Because he really was pitiable. But I wasn’t to be blamed; I was very afraid of him.”

“I wouldn’t call Kobi Frankel pitiable, even with all his kvetching about his hard life. He has much more money than it looks like.”

Shevi gaped at her.

“But I didn’t think until this minute that he was particularly scary.”

“He really isn’t.” Shevi smiled wanly. “When you see him from up close. But when he got up onto my window bars in the middle of the night…”

“Climbed onto your window bars in the middle of the night???”

“Well, it wasn’t really the middle of the night, only twelve o’clock,” Shevi said and sat down on the chair next to Chasida. Suddenly she was happy she’d started the conversation. “But it’s still an hour when you can be afraid when someone’s breaking into the apartment underneath you.”

“Breaking in?”

“Will you stop repeating every word I say?” Shevi smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “I know he didn’t really break in; he just got stuck there because he didn’t have a key. But I didn’t know that at the time!”

“Neither did I,” Chasida said slowly. “And now I also don’t know, Shevi. Who on earth are you talking about?”


 

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