Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 24 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.
Devorah Blum followed Ilana Auerbach into the room that served as her salon and sat down on the edge of the chair.
“Before we begin, Ilana,” she said heavily, “you remember that I have something very important to talk to you about. Nothing that relates to you, but you can help me with it.”
“With pleasure,” Ilana said and sat down on her swivel chair.
“You have a very sweet daughter-in-law,” Devorah said. “Is she…responsible like you?”
“Responsible? Certainly. Shevi’s very mature.”
Devorah didn’t look at her. “If so, I need you to speak to her, if it’s not too difficult for you. It’s still about her neighbor.” Ilana nodded with alacrity as she listened to her client’s singsong accent. “There’s a…certain point that I’m not sure the Dresnicks are aware of. Will your daughter-in-law be able to talk to her neighbor about this point?”
“I believe so.” Ilana felt a twinge of unease. The whole scenario seemed a bit odd—she on the round swivel stool and Devorah, her client, sitting ramrod-straight on the wide treatment chair, with new, deep creases on her forehead.
“I don’t know what they know and what they don’t, but people have spread some rumors about my son, and I thought it would be best if the Dresnicks knew the real story.”
Ilana nodded again, still silent.
“He donated a kidney to my Dini.”
“Dini? That’s your oldest daughter, right?”
Devorah smiled sadly. “Yes. Dini is baruch Hashem completely healthy today, but many years ago she desperately needed a kidney, and Yerachmiel was the best match.”
“I understand that Yerachmiel is your son who needs a shidduch.”
“Yes, the oldest.” She paused. “He really gave it with all his heart. That’s the type of guy he is…” She smiled that same sorrowful smile again, but a second later, it disappeared, replaced by the determined expression that Ilana recognized. “He was fine after the surgery, and he’s perfectly healthy. For a time he had an uncomfortable side effect of occasional extreme thirst. But that’s disappeared, too. In short, Yerachmiel is completely healthy, and it’s important to me that if Chasida Dresnick heard something else, she should know that it isn’t true.” She fell silent.
“So that’s my mission…” Ilana said. “No problem. I’ll tell Shevi. Can I offer you a cup of water, Devorah?”
“I look that awful, don’t I?” Devorah smiled. “Thanks, but I feel fine.” Tomorrow, or the next day, she’d call Kurzman. Ilana was a practical, “doer” kind of person, and it wouldn’t take her long to convey the information and for it to reach Chasida.
It was interesting; when Yerachmiel had come to her with Chasida’s name, she hadn’t really gotten too excited. She still remembered the deep pain, the searing insult. At one point, though, during the slow going over the past month, something inside her had opened up. She was taking care not to develop expectations, but aside from that, she’d already come to terms with the idea of this shidduch, even though the Dresnicks had been awful to them fourteen years ago. Perhaps they had really heard that Yerachmiel wasn’t healthy because of the surgery.
So she’d have to speak to Kurzman about setting up a date. Rochel Kurzman was another real “doer”; she could also be relied on to get things moving. Devorah would have to find out if Kurzman still had Yerachmiel’s cell phone number, in the event that she couldn’t reach them at home. And she had to tell Yerachmiel to leave his phone on all the time, even when he was in camp. And she had to…and had to….and had to… And the most important thing she had to do was daven.
“What are you schlepping, Yehuda?” His grandmother peeked into the basket.
“The two old blankets from your closet, four bottles of juice, a box of cookies, three packages of pitas, a few cans from the kitchen, some spray against bugs…” His fingers rummaged through the items, but Savta Levy stopped him.
“Hold it a minute, my dear. You’re taking all this to the hut? Now?”
He nodded. “Yes, my friend is coming this afternoon, and I want everything to be ready.”
She watched him leave the house and climb up the hill across from the window. “A child remains a child,” she murmured to herself as she went back to the kitchen, closing the cabinet doors that had—as usual—been left open.
By then Yehuda was already standing at the doorway of the small hut on the top of the hill. He stood for a minute, inhaling the air, and then walked inside, putting the basket down on the ground. A swarm of flies tried to attack his cache, but Yehuda pulled out the spray he had brought along and sprayed generous amounts of the stuff that was supposed to—according to the bottle’s promises—banish all the insects.
He took out one blanket and sat down on it with his legs folded, allowing the faint damp odor to draw out the memories of the vacations of his childhood. Vacation was always synonymous with this place. Uncle Shimon, the family carpenter, deserved credit for taking the ramshackle pile of wooden slats, held together by some crooked, rusty nails and looking ready for the junk heap, and turning it into a serviceable hut that the cousins could revel in. Since the year Uncle Shimon had helped the group of excited cousins fix up the hut, it had become an inseparable part of vacations at Savta’s house. The kids would take their meals to the little crooked hut and howl with glee when an errant watermelon would escape them and roll down the hill. They would dig in the grainy sand, hoping to find a buried treasure that no one else had found, and at night, took turns sleeping there. Each evening, a different pair of children brought their pajamas out to the refuge, promising with fire in their eyes to stay awake all night and see the sunrise from the hilltop, a promise that, as far as Yehuda could remember, not a single one of them had ever fulfilled.
Now he was planning to bring Zevi here, and he hoped that everything would work out. The idea had been his mother’s. “Take him up north, to Savta,” she had said one evening when he had popped into the house and told her, with concern, about his young friend who refused to talk to him. “Something about the air up there will surely help him open up to you.”
“I don’t need him to open up to me,” Yehuda said. “I just need him to not be so angry at me.”
“My idea is good for that, too,” his mother insisted. “Take a few hikes, see the view, eat some of Savta’s delicious food, and see if he’s still angry at you.”
And despite his original refusal, Zevi had finally been convinced to come. “Fine,” he’d said. “It might be nice. But no hikes.”
“Why not?” Yehuda had regretted the question as soon as he’d uttered it, but it was too late. Would he always fall back into the same subject, no matter how smooth a track he tried to take?
But Zevi walked very well, and it didn’t seem to be a problem for him to hike!
The answer was actually unconnected to his roommate’s problem. “My mother won’t let me go on hikes,” he’d said. “She’ll be worried.”
“We can send her to the worried mothers’ course at my mother’s house,” Yehuda had responded with a chuckle. “But if you don’t want to, then we won’t. The moshav is big enough and nice enough to be there for two days. Will your parents let you go, or would they rather keep you for themselves?”
Zevi’s parents had agreed to send him, and he was supposed to arrive today.
Yehuda looked around with a critical eye. They had whatever they needed. Now and then, they’d have to go down to Savta’s house, but most of the time, they could stay there, just the two of them, without any disruptions.
Breakfast ended late. By the time all the kids had gotten up, gotten dressed, and davened, and finally rolled into the kitchen, it was almost eleven o’clock. Shoshi urged them to finish eating so Yocheved could take them to the park.
“I want to go to Aunt Chasi’s store!” Shloimy announced as he licked the white of his hard-boiled egg on all sides.
“It’s not mine.” The words escaped spontaneously from Chasida’s mouth. “It’s Saba and Savta’s store, but I’m sure Saba won’t mind if you join me today.”
“No, children,” Shoshi said. “You’re going with Yocheved to the park.”
“What do you care?” Chasida asked as she cleared herself a small space on the table and sat down to eat an apple. “Abba will be happy.”
“But they’ll be in and out every minute, and there’s no way we’ll be able to get this house looking normal again,” Shoshi insisted. “I promised Ima we wouldn’t turn everything completely upside-down, and if we would, we’d try to clean up as quickly as possible.”
The house really was topsy-turvy. Linens and various articles of clothing were strewn all over the place, not to mention the remnants of cake and nosh wrappers from Shabbos that were everywhere. Chasida didn’t say another word. She could have watched the children downstairs so they wouldn’t go up until Shoshi finished working there, but if Shoshi was so insistent, she wouldn’t argue with her.
“Okay, kids, let’s go,” Shoshi urged them. “Bentching and caps for everyone!”
“But where are Yossi and Aryeh and Zevi?” Yitzi asked. “We want them to come, too!”
“Yossi and Aryeh are learning with Abba in shul,” Shoshi replied tiredly and glanced at her watch. “Zevi went up north this morning, with his friend from yeshivah.” The complaints continued, but they flew over her head; she didn’t even notice them. She hurried from room to room, tucking in a shirt here, closing a button there.
Fifteen minutes later, the house was finally quiet, but Shoshi still wasn’t calm. She swept the floor with lightening speed, missing more than one crumb on the way, and folded the children’s linen without noticing the sock that got left in the corner of a pillowcase.
“Really, Shoshi,” Chasida said, pulling out the sock. “Even if you’re in a huge hurry to get somewhere, it’s a shame that Shloimy won’t have a pair later. Should I put it in the laundry?”
Shoshi looked at Chasida for a long minute and then relaxed into a smile. “Yes,” she said, defeated. “I forgot we’re identical twins. I made up to meet Chanoch at a quarter to twelve on the corner of Chazon Ish. We have to go out.” She passed her sister, heading toward the kitchen, where their mother stood stirring the contents of a pot on the stove. “Ima, I hope the kids don’t get home too long before us,” she said, looking at her mother’s hunched back. “If they do—”
“Then I can also watch them,” Chasida said shortly. She opened the cabinet and took out two rice cakes. “Want some for the way?” she offered her sister.
Shoshi declined politely. She quickly got herself ready to go, and after exchanging a few more words with her mother and sister, she left the house.
Chasida walked through the empty rooms, suddenly feeling depressed. She didn’t like Shoshi’s mysterious disappearance. Yes, she knew that her twin sister did not have to report to her about each detail of her vacation plans, but still, Shoshi had finally come to visit them—and then to be so mysterious about where she was heading off to?
“I’m going to see if Abba needs my help now,” Chasida told her mother tiredly.
Out on the street, Shoshi hurried. She was more than a minute late for her meeting with Chanoch. He would be waiting for her, as usual. He always showed up, calm and collected, exactly at the time they’d make up to meet. He was so punctual. If she remembered correctly, there was only one time since their marriage that he’d been late for something and she’d had to wait for him: when they’d made up to go buy him a new hat for Yom Tov. But even then, it hadn’t been his fault. She smiled to herself and hurried even more, making sure to skirt the little park where her children probably were. If Shloimy would see her, he wouldn’t let her continue alone, and would use his familiar tactics to get his way.
And then she and Chanoch would get to the Vizhnitz Hotel with Shloimy. It actually wouldn’t be a bad icebreaker, but it could also ruin everything; she didn’t know and preferred not to try it out. It would be interesting to see if Chavi would accompany Eliyahu. Shoshi hoped that she wouldn’t. It was enough that she had to face Eliyahu unexpectedly like this; she had no energy left to exert herself trying to be nice to his wife.
“Exert yourself?” Chanoch had asked in surprise, when he’d arranged the meeting with Eliyahu and she had remarked that she hoped it didn’t include Chavi. “What kind of exertion would be involved?” Well, he had a golden heart; they all knew that. People like Chanoch really didn’t understand situations where one had to exert him- or herself to be nice. Not that she had anything against Chavi; not at all. To the best of her recollection, Chavi was a pleasant, easygoing person. But when she, Shoshi, was focused on an argument or serious discussion, she had no room left in her heart or mind to smile.
Chanoch stood at their meeting point. “You’re huffing and puffing,” he said worriedly when she arrived. “Did you have to rush?”
“A little,” she admitted. “I didn’t want you to have to wait long.”
“No big deal,” he said with a smile, walking calmly beside her. “I didn’t wait long.”
“When did you make up with him?”
“Twelve-twenty!” She stopped. “That’s in half an hour!”
“What will we do until then?”
“About what’s going to happen now, and about what happened fourteen years ago.”
“We’re going to meet someone who wants to talk to us about what happened. I think it would be a good idea for us to clarify to ourselves what really happened there.”
“You remember very well.” Shoshi’s voice was bitter. “Why do you have to bring it all up again?”
“Because for some reason, Eliyahu wants to bring it all up again,” Chanoch said gently. “And if we want to be fair to him, then we have to first sum up to ourselves how much of a role he had to play in everything that happened.”
All at once, like a bolt of string that fell to the floor and began unraveling, those days came rushing back to her. How they started; how they ended.
She had been sitting there, in Abba and Ima’s kitchen, and Chanoch was sitting beside her. Zevi was skipping around, barefoot. “That’s me in the pictures!” he said proudly to Eliyahu, who sat opposite them, flipping distractedly through the small, brown leather album. “It’s before they cut my hair!”
“You’re adorable,” Eliyahu said absently, and turned over another page in the album before closing it. Chasi had also been there, standing on the other side of the kitchen. Her back was to those seated; perhaps she had been washing something. She didn’t talk much. She must have been preoccupied with the shidduch suggestion that had been proposed, one that sounded good. Two minutes before Eliyahu and Chavi had unexpectedly appeared, she had finished telling Shoshi about Yerachmiel Blum and their first date that might happen that week. Only Abba wasn’t home; it was still early, and he was in the store downstairs. It would be almost an hour until he would be able to go home and join his family.
Chavi was still standing in the doorway of the kitchen; her voice could be heard by those sitting inside, cutting through the tense silence. “…just like you told me to, Aunt Minda. My mother says she has never tasted such a scrumptious cake!” Her voice was friendly, as always. As though there weren’t three months of hostile arguments behind them.
“I don’t understand,” Eliyahu suddenly said hoarsely. “Do you really think I don’t want what’s best for your parents? Are you trying to insinuate that I have other motivations?”
“Insinuate??” Chasida asked from the counter, without turning around, although her intention was clear.
“Chalilah.” Chanoch moved his chair closer to the table. “No one suspects that your intentions are negative. The girls just want to know whether you’ve thought about all the different angles of the sale.”
“And if you’ve paid any attention to the all the problems that are involved,” she, Shoshi, had added.
Eliyahu’s face was red; the flush crept up from his neck to his cheeks. “I know a bit more than you about this, with all due respect. But if there are people who are acting narrow-minded and thinking only about what’s good for them—then that’s what happens.” He glowered at Chanoch.
Minda and Chavi entered at that second. No one knew whether they had heard the exchange that had just taken place, but in any case it didn’t change much. The days when Chasida tried to be nice because of Chavi were over. Chavi continued to be remarkably friendly, and she received the same treatment in return. Eliyahu was rude to them, even in front of his wife, and therefore, neither Shoshi nor Chasida made any extra effort to speak to Eliyahu politely in front of her. Sometimes Shoshi wondered what Chavi said about them after the long arguments, when she had to go home with an angry, churlish husband.
“A bit of tea?” Ima asked the group. “Or coffee?”
She asked for coffee; Chasida said she wasn’t in the mood of anything. Eliyahu and Chavi said they would take tea, and Chanoch offered to prepare the drinks for everyone else and asked Ima what she wanted. The next few minutes passed in near silence. Only little Zevi continued to romp around the house, dragging things into the kitchen and inquiring of each one, “Does Savta let me take this home?”
“Yes, yes,” Ima had replied distractedly to him each time, gratefully taking the hot cup of tea that Chanoch had prepared for her.
“Ima,” Shoshi, had said, laughing lightly. “Look what he’s talking about.”
Ima had looked at her three-year-old grandson standing in the kitchen doorway, his face shining and a ring of keys in his hand. “Oh, no, Zevi’le.” She put her glass down on the counter. “How did you get that? It’s Saba’s! Wait a minute; how is this here if he’s in the store?”
“No, no, it’s ours,” Chavi said casually. “And I let you play with it, Zevi, sweetie, but make sure it doesn’t get lost, okay? If it does, we won’t be able to get into our house.” But Zevi had already given the key ring to his mother, who looked at it closely. Chasida, who had approached the table by now, was able to see that among the keys was the large, familiar-looking one.
“Yours?” she asked, her lips curled into a grimace. “So how do you have the store key?”
“Yes, Uncle Zalman gave it to Eliyahu,” Chavi said into the sudden quiet that had enveloped the kitchen, and then took a long sip of her tea. “He asked him to install two new shelves and didn’t want to limit Eliyahu to the hours of when the store is open.”
Shoshi had put the keys down on the table; Eliyahu looked at them, but made no move to take them back.
“I don’t believe that Abba offered to duplicate the key of his own initiative,” Chasida had said, clearly trying to restrain herself. Only Shoshi, sitting at the right angle, was able to see that her twin’s face was white with fury. “My father always objected to having another copy of the key somewhere. He was afraid for his store.”
“But if there’s only one key, what do you do if it gets lost?” Chavi asked.
“My father never loses keys.” Shoshi herself spoke up now, feeling an urgent need to help Chasi. “He has only one spare key for emergencies, in his drawer, and he doesn’t give it to anyone.”
“To anyone, except me,” their cousin said with a cold smile. He looked again at the keys lying beside his cup of tea. “Why? Does someone have a problem with it?”
“Whether I do or don’t, I still say it’s very strange,” Chasida said icily. “Even when I go down to the store, Abba gives me only his personal key ring, and then I give it right back to him when I come home.”
“Okay, so maybe he trusts me more,” Eliyahu said, a slight, maddening, smile on his lips as he pushed his boiling cup of tea aside. He hadn’t sipped even a drop from it in the minute since Chanoch had set it down beside him. “Your father always said, even when we were children, that I’m the responsible type.”
At that, Shoshi and Chasida had both turned on him. Even Ima shifted angrily in her chair.
“Eliyahu!” she snapped. “I don’t think Zalman would be pleased to hear you speaking this way.”
“You’re right, Aunt Minda.” Eliyahu quickly retreated. He had always been afraid of Ima. “I didn’t mean anything. I just wanted to say that I don’t understand what is so strange about Uncle Zalman giving me this key, that’s all!”
“But why?” Shoshi wondered aloud as Chanoch cleared his throat beside her. “Why is it so hard to come when the store is open? Like now, for example. The store is open, it’s light outside, and you can go hang up a hundred shelves if you want!”
“No, Shoshi,” Chasida said, still in that same icy tone. “But if you want to bring Mr. Kobi Frankel to tour the store and measure exactly how much he can get for it, you can’t do that when the store is open. How did you not understand that, my smart sister?”
“What a silly idea, Chasida.” Chavi’s voice was cheerful, as usual, but her discomfort was apparent in the tone. She looked at her cousins, who refused to meet her eyes, and at her husband, whose face was redder than she had ever seen it.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to try and persuade anyone,” he said loudly to his wife in a voice that shook with rage. “If they are all trying to imagine to themselves how I climbed into this house in the middle of the night with a gun and dragged the spare key out of the drawer, they can continue imagining all they want. I just don’t understand why I have to, in their opinion, endanger myself with an armed robbery in order to get something that my uncle gave me anyway.”
She didn’t answer. Neither did anyone else.
“Uncle Eliyahu, why are you screaming?” Zevi suddenly chirped—and only then did they all realize that he had been standing and listening to the words flying over his orange-tinged head. “And you didn’t look at my pictures! They’re so nice, and Ima says I’m so, so cute!”
Eliyahu didn’t reply. He didn’t even see the album that now rested six inches from his nose. With a sharp move, he pushed against the table to stand up, grabbing the ring of keys. He looked for one second at Chanoch, who had opened his mouth, but didn’t manage to get a word out. The full glass of tea standing on the edge of the table flew toward the ground and found nowhere else to land and shatter but onto three-year-old Zevi’s left foot.