Without a Trace – Chapter 21

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 21 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.

“My sister’s husband left town right after Pesach and just returned this week. So you can understand why she didn’t want to leave the house for no special reason. If she would be able to visit my parents, that would have been a good reason. But if they’re not here, and it’s only me…”

Shevi and Elinor didn’t respond. One candle went out with a little pop, leaving behind a scented, yellow waxy residue. Chasida asked if either of them wanted some chocolate milk, and tried to get them to eat the last two calzones, but both Shevi and Elinor declined.

“If you think I can eat another thing after all this,” Elinor declared, “then you are majorly mistaken. Shevi, no dinner tonight, okay?”

Shevi smiled thinly in response. Chasida puttered around them like a big, generous bird who couldn’t sit still for a single moment—but only Shevi seemed to pick up on the loneliness in the aging nest. Miri gurgled on the rug that their good neighbor had spread on the floor for her; there was no expecting her to understand anything. And Elinor was also too young to understand. Not quite like Miri, but young nevertheless.

Chasida had prepared a fancy meal for her sister. Alone at home, she had cooked, fried, and baked industriously. She’d decorated the room with a youthful flair and had anxiously awaited the moment when her twin would arrive and they’d be able to spend some time together. But then her sister had informed her that she wasn’t coming. Their parents weren’t home; it was only Chasida there, and for only Chasida, it didn’t pay for Shoshi to leave her house and her husband who had just come home. And Chasida was left to eat everything she had prepared, along with her two guests, the oldest of which was about half her age.

“Shevi?” It was Chasida. “You look kind of sad, for some reason.” Her brown eyes scanned Shevi’s expression. She collected the bowls of dip onto a tray.

“I’m…” Shevi couldn’t continue.

“Shevi likes to think a lot,” Elinor reassured Chasida. “She’s a deep type. Now, can you give me the mushroom filling recipe?”

“Sure. Do you do a lot of cooking at home?”

“I try,” her young guest replied, flicking her hand sharply at a fly that had tried to rest on her yellow napkin. She raised her eyes suddenly as a loud knocking broke the stillness. The fly flew toward the napkin from a different direction. “Hey, could that be your sister?”

Chasida shook her head. “She doesn’t knock like that,” she said.

Since Chasida’s hands were full, Elinor went to answer the door. Strange. She wasn’t quick to like people, especially if they had ever offended someone in her family. But it seemed as though the whole story between Shevi and Chasida was behind them. Chasida was so pleasant and really quite funny, and Shevi seemed to be good friends with her…

Elinor opened the door to find a woman smiling broadly, sizing her up from the roots of her hair to the soles of her shoes. “Hello, good afternoon,” she said slowly. “Is Chasida home?”

Chasida emerged at that minute from the kitchen. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Kurzman,” she said, her expression blank and unreadable.

“Hello to you, too, Chasida. Can I come in?”

“What’s the question?” Chasida took a step backward. Mrs. Kurzman stepped confidently into the dining room, looking around her in surprise.

“How pretty!” she exclaimed. “Chasida, did you prepare all this?” Chasida smiled politely and motioned Mrs. Kurzman over to the sofa, but her guest remained standing by the messy table. “What a nice party, really, so pretty. What’s the occasion?”

Chasida, Shevi, and Elinor were silent. Only Miri banged on the carpet and gurgled to herself.

Finally, Chasida spoke up. “Will you have something to drink, Mrs. Kurzman?” she offered courteously.

“Thank you, yes, some cold water, if it’s no trouble.”

Chasida fled to the kitchen, and Shevi heard the door to the refrigerator opening. With a swift motion, she swept all the disposable dishes into a huge garbage bag. She tied the handles together and looked pointedly at Elinor, who was collecting the napkins that had fallen to the floor. “We’re going now, Elinor.”

For some reason, Chasida still hadn’t returned to the dining room. How much time did it take to grab a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and put it together with two plastic cups?

Just then Mrs. Kurzman, who had finally taken a seat, turned to Shevi. “You’re the neighbor from upstairs, right? I remember I met you in the store.” Then she looked at Elinor. “And who are you?”

“Her sister,” Elinor said, pointing with her chin at Shevi, who had bent down to pick up Miri’s red pacifier. “Have a good day,” she said to the woman on the sofa, and then called out, “Chasida, we’re going!”

“Thanks for coming!” Chasida called back as she came out of the kitchen to walk them to the door. She stood at the entrance for a moment, and then closed the door and went back to the dining room to face Mrs. Kurzman. She had left the pitcher of water in the kitchen.

***

“I need to buy a few things from you, and also to speak to you about something very important to me,” Devorah Blum told Ilana Auerbach on the phone. “It’s something that I want you to tell your daughter-in-law, if you don’t mind. Yes, it’s still about that shidduch.” Behind her, on the couch, Yerachmiel sat listening with his arms folded. She wasn’t comfortable with the fact that he heard her very word, but she didn’t want to stand up and leave the room with the phone. “Not today? I understand. Oh, to Park Leumi? What a wonderful mother you are! So how soon do you think I can make an appointment with you?”

The truth was that Ilana didn’t really know. She had made up with her son and daughter-in-law to take a trip together to Park Leumi today, and had invited Elinor to come along, too. As unenthusiastic as Gavriel was about the trip, he really didn’t have much of a choice.

“A barbeque?” He had wrinkled his nose. “Maybe…”

“Not maybe!” his mother had declared. “Why not—your kollel friends wouldn’t approve?”

“It’s not that.” He didn’t know what to say. And so, the decision had been made: today they’d all be going together to the park.

But tomorrow, Ilana knew, she had a few urgent errands to do, and she had no morning appointments available, either…

“Is it something that will take long?” she asked. Had Devorah’s son not gotten engaged yet? Poor souls. Well, she’d be happy to help with what she could, but not with what she couldn’t.

“Long? I don’t think so, but it’s not for the phone,” Devorah replied. Yerachmiel walked out of the room toward the kitchen. She heard the water running, the bread drawer open, and then the refrigerator. Then she heard the door to the house open and, a few seconds later, click shut. Yerachmiel had left.

Her Yerachmiel. Where else in the world was there such a considerate and devoted son? He saw that she wasn’t comfortable speaking with him around and had simply left, without a fuss, without complaining indignantly that, “You’re talking about my shidduchim!” and without being curious about how his mother would encapsulate his history in a few short sentences. But she wasn’t going to talk about it now, anyway. She just wanted to make an appointment with Ilana so she could talk to her then.

They made up for Sunday, and until then, Devorah knew, she’d just have to wait, pressure and all.

For a long time after hanging up the phone, Devorah sat at the table, doing nothing at all. She didn’t speak; she didn’t move; she hardly even thought. She just sat numbly in her chair and gazed at the photos of her grandchildren affixed with magnets to the refrigerator. Yerachmiel’s friends would soon start marrying off children, and he was still leaving the house so that his mother could speak about him undisturbed.

The front door opened, and he came in again. From her seat she could see him. He wasn’t wearing a jacket and hat. His eyes met her piercing gaze. “Hello, Mommy. You weren’t worried, were you? I just went out for a minute,” he said, a bit abashed, and she knew that he had been standing on the mat outside the door waiting for her to finish speaking on the phone.

“I finished the phone call a few minutes ago,” she said, watching his eyes. “Now I’m just sitting here.”

He smiled. “It’s fine, Mommy.” His voice was as deep and warm as usual. “I want you to feel comfortable speaking about me whenever you think it’s necessary, with whomever you choose. You know that I trust your discretion.”

The long sentence, spoken in one of the most beloved voices to her in the world, was what broke through the dam holding back her tears, immediately launching a flood. She tried to say something, but couldn’t get out even a single word. With wet cheeks, she fled to her room, where her package of tissues waited loyally for her near her bed.

She sat on the bed for a long time, sniffling and burying her tortured thoughts in the mounds of tissues. Once she had been the type who cried easily, but the desperation of the passing years had succeeded in drying up even her reservoir. She still cried when she davened, but for the rest of the day, she usually couldn’t. In the past few weeks, however, something had burst inside her, and it was possible that the Dresnicks, who had once again become household names, were to blame for that. As though she lacked what to blame them for.

She took a few more tissues, knowing that Yerachmiel was walking around the house very worried about her. He didn’t like it when she cried because of him, she knew. But what could she do?

“Mommy?” He stood near the door. A quick glance showed her that he was holding a full cup of orange juice. He had prepared orange juice for her.

“Yes, sweetie.” Her voice was hoarse.

Her thirty-nine-year-and-eleven-month-old “sweetie” entered the room. “Drink,” he said, proffering the glass. A tiny drop dripped onto the floral bedspread and left a small wet circle there. “You shouldn’t cry so much. I don’t think it’s good for you.” He offered her a huge package of tissues and she saw the small smile dancing in the corners of his eyes.

“Be careful,” she said, taking the glass from him.

“Of what?”

Devorah drank slowly from the sweet juice. “Of the moment that I will begin to fear what will be when there won’t be anyone home to prepare me cups of juice and bring me tissues anymore.” She dried her cheeks with a tissue.

“On that day, you won’t need so many tissues,” he told her. “So you can calm down.”

“And juice?”

“I’ll prepare you a few pitchers every time I come for a visit.”

His mother wanted to say something, but bit it back at the last minute. With a lump in her throat, she finished the cup of juice and handed the glass back to her son, empty. “Thank you, Yerachmiel.”

“Do you want anything else, Mommy?”

“One more thing,” she whispered without looking at him, knowing she was out of line now. He had enough on his plate without adding his mother’s suffering to it, too. “Just one thing.”

“That,” he replied, looking up at the ceiling, “you should ask from the One Who can give it to you. I can give you only cups of juice.”

“And tissues,” she said, trying to smile through her tears.

“That, too,” Yerachmiel agreed.

***

Nu, Chasida?” Mrs. Kurzman pressed in a low, piercing voice. Whenever in her presence, Chasida felt like a little third, maybe fourth grader whose teacher was preaching to her. She didn’t answer the unasked question and just picked up a napkin that had remained on the floor despite Shevi and Elinor’s hasty efforts to restore the room to its normal appearance.

“I’m waiting for your answer, remember? I think that a month and a half—if not even more time than that—has passed since I suggested Blum for you. You surely have a better memory than me.”

“Are they under pressure to hear my answer?”

Mrs. Kurzman smiled. “And if they are not pressuring, but just asking casually, then you don’t want to proceed? Oh, kavod, kavod…”

Chasida ignored the rebuke. “Has Blum given a clear answer?”

“Not exactly.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“That at least you should answer.” Rochel Kurzman had never had a problem expressing herself clearly.

“Isn’t it accepted that the boy’s side has to decide first?” Chasida sat down on the couch and then remembered the pitcher of water waiting in the kitchen. She excused herself for a minute and went to get it. In those few seconds, Mrs. Kurzman managed to stroll over to the dining room window and peer out to the yard.

“You have a nice view here,” she said when she heard Chasida’s footsteps returning. “A good area. The money isn’t the issue, right?”

Chasida filled one of the glasses and offered it to Mrs. Kurzman. “No,” she said tersely and passed a hand over her forehead.

“Then what is?”

Chasida just smiled politely, forcing the flame of fury to stay inside and not to burst out without her permission.

Mrs. Kurzman drank the contents of the cup and placed it on the table, refilling it casually. “It’s hot today,” she said with a smile at Chasida as she sipped. “Nu?”

Nu what?”

“What’s not good about Blum?”

“Who said he’s even interested?”

“Why shouldn’t he be?”

Chasida was getting sick of this conversation, but could not find an elegant way to end it. “I’m waiting to hear what they say,” she said tersely. “But if you really want to know, I don’t give the shidduch much of a chance of working out.” And not only because of the infuriating person trying to redt it, although it would be rather amazing if she would ultimately be the right emissary to carry it through. Who said that only pleasant people succeed at the professions that they choose for themselves? Rochel Kurzman had lots of successful shidduchim to her credit. Chasida wondered if everyone Mrs. Kurzman had worked with managed to have run-ins with her five times before getting engaged, or if it was just her bad luck.

“You don’t? Even if they say yes?” Mrs. Kurzman leaned her shoulders forward, awaiting the slightest bit of information from Chasida.

“Perhaps.”

The shadchante inhaled sharply. “So can I give them a no from you right now? I hope that you don’t plan to wait until he decides and then tell me no.”

“No.” Chasida was cautious. “I haven’t decided anything yet.” She really didn’t know why, but even with all her and her mother’s doubts, she didn’t want to allow this second chance she had been given to crumble into something she would never be able to recover.

***

None of Eliyahu’s children looked very much like him—not even Elchanan, the only redhead in the family. The only one who reminded Eliyahu of himself a bit was nine-year-old Libby. Something about her facial structure resembled his own, though her hair was black, like her younger brothers’ hair color, and just a few freckles dotted her forehead. But the fire with which she spoke…now that certainly reminded Eliyahu of the way he used to speak when he was her age.

“So we won’t be going away for Shabbos at all?” Libby groused, the freckles on her forehead getting lost in the creases that lined it. “And Saba and Savta from Tel Aviv are going to Aunt Bluma and not taking us along?”

Saba and Savta from Tel Aviv were Chavi’s parents, and Bluma was her sister. Chavi had five brothers and sisters, while he—except for his elderly father living in an old-age home in Yerushalayim—didn’t have a single relative to contribute to his children.

“Saba and Savta don’t have to take us along every time they go away,” he said with a smile to his daughter. “Even if they live just a block away from us.”

“So we have to stay ourselves in Tel Aviv?!” protested Bentzy.

“Are you afraid?”

Bentzy laughed but didn’t reply.

“Really, kids,” Chavi said tiredly. “What’s the big deal? So we won’t go one Shabbos afternoon to Saba and Savta. What’s going to happen?”

“We’ll be so bored!” Libby wailed. “Hey, I have a different idea!” Her eyes suddenly lit up. “Let’s invite guests!”

“Yes, Abba, let’s invite guests!” Bentzy echoed excitedly.

“Guests are Ima’s department,” Eliyahu said decisively. “And that’s enough kvetching, thank you. You’re not such big nebbachs like you make yourselves out to be.”

After the high-strung cluster left the kitchen, elbowing each other as they went, Chavi looked at Eliyahu. “Maybe we should?”

“Should what?”

“Invite guests. It could be nice.”

“Who do you want to invite?” Eliyahu looked at the full sink on his left, plucked the white apron off a nearby hook, and tied it onto himself. “I’m always ready to help. Just tell me who to invite. Maybe one of your siblings?”

She thought for a moment and then shook her head in the negative. “I don’t think any of them are free this Shabbos.”

“And I certainly can’t invite the brothers or sisters I don’t have.” He grimaced and opened the faucet. “Someone from the kiruv center?”

“That’s a good idea. Hey!” she suddenly exclaimed. “How about the doctor couple?”

“Um, them? I have to check.” A pile of soaped-up plates stood on the counter beside him. With the touch of a finger, Eliyahu burst a soap bubble that winked at him from the top of the pile. “I don’t know if Arthur will be able to keep a full Shabbos,” he said slowly.

“They’re staying here in Tel Aviv, aren’t they? So let them just walk over for the meals,” Chavi said. “I think he can manage that.” A quick glance at her husband’s face told her that even if Arthur would manage, he wasn’t sure that he would be able to.

“Is everything okay, Eliyahu?” she asked, looking at his eyes, which were silently following the bubbles dancing around the sink. “Are you feeling okay?”

Baruch Hashem, fine. I’m just trying to think what I’m going to say to Arthur.”

“About what?”

“He’ll want to know what ended up happening on the trip to Yerucham and if they want to go take the x-rays.” He sighed. “Believe me that I myself don’t know why I’m dragging this out. I’m just waiting for the right minute to do it, and I haven’t found it yet.”

“Found what?” The somber look on her husband’s face worried Chavi.

“The right minute.” Eliyahu picked up a plate, held it under the stream of water for a minute, and then said decisively, “I think I’ll do it now.” He put down the half-rinsed plate, wiped his hands quickly, and turned toward the kitchen door, still ensconced in the white apron. “Leave me these dishes, Chavi, and don’t forget to daven for me.”

He disappeared toward the bedroom, stopping for a second to stroke Libby’s fire-red cheek as she streaked past him. “One, two three!” she shrieked. “Bentzy! I saw you! And you, Yisrael!”

“Libby, a bit quieter, please,” Chavi said as she walked into the dining room. Her kids crowded around her right away. “Abba has an important phone call to make. Don’t bother him now.”

***

One of the notebook entries:

Yesterday, Kobi’s mother got very angry at me and said I have no manners because I don’t now when you don’t go to frends, and she came to Aunt Minda to complane that I come to Kobi too late and he has to be sleeping alredy and I bother him. Aunt Minda asked me when I went to Kobi, and I told her that me and Kobi had a fite yesterday in the afternoon and we went home angry at each other, and becuz there was intresting stuff happening at home I forgot about Kobi. Before I went to sleep I remembered and desided to go and apologiz. Aunt Minda, Uncle Zalman and Yitzchak were eating in the kitchen and didn’t hear me leev quietly, and I came to Kobi’s house and nocked on the door and his mother got angry.

But Kobi told me today that he would explane to his mother everything and she won’t be angry at me enymore. And I will tell him that his mother shoud please tell Aunt Minda that she shoudn’t be angry at me enymore either.

 

The next page:

Yitzchak told me that it’s cute that I’m sorry about the bad things that I do and that it’s always good to say I’m sorry, so I told him that he shoud tell that to Aunt Minda, and maybe also Kobi’s mother shoud tell her that, and maybe then Aunt Minda won’t be so angry at me.

Yitzchak is good, and he’s much nicer than Chasi, who likes to fite with me all day. He alredy had a bar mitzvah last year and he’s in athe grade, and Uncle Zalman said he’s a very good student, and Aunt Minda said that he never broke her porselin trays when he was seven. I told Yitzchak that maybe when I’ll be in athe grade I’ll also not be breaking porselin trays enymore, and Aunt Minda heard me and said she’s not so sure.

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