Without a Trace – Chapter 32

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 32 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.

Shevi’s fists were clenched. Small beads of sweat glistened on her skin and she quietly whispered chapters of Tehillim. What had happened to Eliad? Why had the hospital summoned them with such urgency? To…say goodbye, chalilah? From her perch on the back seat, she glanced at Reb Eliyahu’s hands on the wheel. She didn’t know what the speedometer said, but she had a feeling that the car was traveling fast, very fast.

Eliyahu was talking to Gavriel. “A sting?” he asked as he overtook a gas truck.

“That’s how it started,” Gavriel replied. “But it seems to have gotten much more complicated than a simple sting.”

“Yes, but what kind of sting was it?”

Gavriel turned his mouth down in response.

“The head, you said?”

“Near the eye. I think they’re afraid for his vision.”

Eliyahu murmured something, and then glanced in the rearview mirror. He wrinkled his forehead, and then dialed a number on his cellular keypad affixed near the wheel. Three long rings cut through the silence in the car before someone answered.

“Hello, Rabbi Eliyahu!” a voice boomed through the line.

“Hi, Arthur. What are you doing now?”

“Me? I just came up from the hotel dining room and I’m planning to take a nap. Why?”

“I have other plans for you.”

“Out with it.”

“I’m on the way to MeirHospital in Kfar Saba. An eighteen-year-old soldier was taken there this morning with a complication from a sting near the eye.”

A deep sigh emerged from the speaker and resonated through the car. “And you want me there?”

“That’s correct.” Eliyahu smiled and honked loudly at the car in front of him which, for some reason, was standing still although the light had already turned green. “Can you come down, Dr. Arthur? I’ll take care of the payment.”

“What’s your connection to the boy?”

“He’s a relative of one of my lovely acquaintances. You know all my acquaintances are lovely, don’t you?”

“Yes, of the type that play along with you with every plan you cook up, huh?” Arthur chuckled.  “Alright, I’ve put my shoes back on and I’m going down. Wait a second. What?” He fell silent for a minute and then came back to the conversation. “Okay, Tissa says I should not take any payment and that I’m doing it as a special favor for you. She says I don’t have enough mitzvos…which mitzvah is this, Tissa? Oh, chessed, yes, I don’t have enough chessed.”

“We’ll talk about the payment another time,” Eliyahu declared. “Arthur, make it as quick as possible, please, okay?”

“Okay, okay.”

The conversation came to an end. Eliyahu looked closely for a minute at the long row of cars in front of them and said, “He’s an eye doctor. From Germany. I haven’t been able to determine how professional he is, but if my guess is right, he’s very successful at it, like how he is with many other things. They invited him to lecture here in Israel.”

“Thank you so much,” Gavriel said. “Really, Reb Eliyahu…”

“Keep your thanks for the end of this ordeal,” Eliyahu replied. “Have you been able to contact anyone else from the family? What’s your brother’s condition?”

Shevi shook her head in frustration. Her father still wasn’t answering his phone, like he often didn’t, and Elinor and Elia had just left Haifa now. Everything had landed on her and Gavriel’s young shoulders.

***

Chasida felt like she was invading strange territory when she entered her house. She still hadn’t decided whether she was interested in joining the family lunch, but she’d make that decision shortly. She walked into the kitchen, smiling at the unfamiliar boy who ran out as she entered.

“Help!” he screamed. “Tell your son! He almost caught me!” A fraction of a second later, he gaped in confusion at Shoshi, who was following her. “Uh, no,” he said. “You tell your son!”

“Eliyahu’s not here, Chasi,” Shoshi said in a low voice as the two of them stood beside their mother, who was ladling soup into bowls.

“Why didn’t he come?” she asked her sister dryly.

“He did come.” Shoshi put down a stack of more soup bowls on the counter. “And then he took the Auerbachs to the hospital. I’ll explain later; let’s go out to the dining room. It isn’t fair to leave Chavi alone there for so long.”

“That’s right,” Minda said loudly and left the kitchen. “Children, come! Girls? Chavi, I think we’ll begin eating first, just us and the children. It will take a while until the men come home from shul and Eliyhu comes back. Okay?”

“Fine with me,” Chavi said from the sofa. She sat very straight, and Chasida felt the discomfort hanging thickly in the air.

“How are you, Chavi?” she asked, coming closer. “You look as young as you’ve always looked.”

Chavi thanked her with a broad smile and returned the compliment. Chasida sat down easily. Chavi was sweet, as far as she remembered.

“Are these your children?” Chasida asked, pointing abstractedly. It was impossible to point in any single direction because the kids were all over the place, almost like electric dolls on wheels.

“Yes, except for Elchanan, my oldest, who’s thirteen. And a half,” she hastened to add when she saw Libby’s mouth open a few feet away from her. “I hope he’ll be here soon. This is Libby.”

“Named after your mother-in-law.”

Chavi nodded. Chasida looked at the dark-haired girl, who returned her sharp gaze with one of her own before she ran off after Shoshi’s Penina. Chasida felt a strange sensation, as though she knew that face already from before. “She looks a lot like Eliyahu,” Chasida said. “Is that right, Chavi?”

“Yes, we’ve always said that she took her facial features from Eliyahu’s family and her coloring from my family. But I think she looks a bit like you, too.” She laughed a short, embarrassed laugh. “At least that’s the way it looks to me.”

“Like me?” Chasida smiled. “Libby, come here a second!”

The child appeared, and Chasida took a serious look at her and said, “Nice to meet you, Libby. I’m Chasida.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” the girl puffed, out of breath, attempting to be polite while she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“I’m your father’s cousin—did you know that?”

“Yes…one second, Penina! I’m coming in a minute!”

“Okay, you can go now,” Chasida said, and Libby was off in a flash, before anyone could stop her again.

“What a sweetie,” Chasida and Shoshi said in unison.

“She reminds me very much of Eliyahu,” Shoshi added, making her first statement alone; until then, only Chasida and Chavi had spoken.

“Does she have a good heart like he does?” Minda asked, bringing the last of the soup bowls out to the table. “Children! Come and eat!”

Chavi looked at her for a minute and then said, “A good heart? I think so. Most of the children received their love to help others from Eliyahu.”

“Well, there aren’t too many people who would volunteer to drive a virtual stranger to Kfar Saba,” Shoshi said.

Chasida nodded, following Libby with her eyes as the girl chose a seat between Penina and Yocheved. Chasida moved over on the couch a little so she could keep her eye on Libby. Chavi was right; Eliyahu’s daughter did look very much like her, except that Libby had dark hair and fewer freckles than Chasida. She looked like Chasida’s own daughter could look now—if she would have had a daughter.

Chasida lowered her eyes and gazed at her fingernails, looking up only to see Libby smiling broadly at Shoshi, who had passed her a bowl of hot soup. Shoshi smiled back and then threw a concerned look at Chasida. Chasida was happy to hear the phone ring at that second, so she could escape to answer it.

“Hello?” she said quietly into the receiver.

“Oh, Chasida, I’m glad you answered. It’s Rochel Kurzman.”

“Uh-huh.” Chasida leaned back against the wall, watching the lively children at the table. Something pinched her heart. It was strange; she usually forbade these pinches from assailing her, but apparently they were not always so obedient. The rebellious twinges only grew stronger, taking on the form of clear words and feelings. She was older than Chavi, older than Shoshi, even if only by an hour, and all she was doing with her life was watching the world gallop forward around her as she lagged behind. Was it any wonder she sometimes felt sapped of all strength?

“Blum wants a date.” Rochel Kurzman had no patience for niceties. “What about you?”

“I don’t think I’m up to it right now,” Chasida responded tonelessly. She wasn’t trying to word things nicely either. Why make the effort for another thing that wouldn’t go anywhere?

“You don’t want to?” Kurzman asked, but her voice was not demanding or scolding. She sounded more like a fretful grandmother. Chasida had never heard her sound so meek.

“No,” Chasida whispered. She didn’t want anything now. Sometimes she also got sick of being strong.

Mrs. Kurzman hung up the phone slowly. Why had she suddenly decided, after so many years, to start redting shidduchim for Chasida Dresnick again? Sometimes Chasida seemed supercilious, sometimes she was apathetic, and today she was tired. But she obviously didn’t want to get married; that much was clear.

And now she had to tell all this to Blum.

Rochel Kurzman sighed deeply. Whom should she call, Devorah or Yerachmiel?

Perhaps Yerachmiel. She would not be able to handle Devorah’s heartbreak a second time. The bachur—well, even if he would break, at least he would not show it to her. The conversation with him would be much easier for her. She knew that the right thing to do would be to face Devorah, and that she was running away from what would surely be a painful conversation, but what could she do? She didn’t always have the strength to deal with the difficulties that working as a shadchante came along with, like a sack of stones being dragged along.

She opened her small, well-thumbed phone book and sighed again. Wouldn’t it be nice if some smart person would finally come up with the official idea of paying shadchanim burnout fees?

In the Dresnick hallway, Chasida remained standing beside the phone. “Ima, I’m going back to the store,” she said and checked to make sure there were no stains on her sleeve. “I told you in the morning that I’ve got lots of work to do. I’ll eat later.”

“To the store? I’m coming with you!” Penina cried.

“No, you’re not,” Shoshi replied. “You’re finishing your soup now.”

“So I’m going,” Libby interjected. “I already finished my soup. It was very good, but with tons of those leaves that I don’t eat anyway. I’m going down with Chasida, Ima, okay? I want to see their store!”

Chavi shook her head. No way. Libby shouldn’t have even mentioned the store; Chavi certainly was not going to let her go there. She could just imagine the mounds upon mounds of analyses that would be built on the fact that Eliyahu’s daughter was taking an interest in the store. “No,” she said firmly. “Aunt Minda prepared lots more food and you have to stay here. She’s a great cook; you don’t want to miss out…”

“I smell chicken.” Libby wrinkled her nose. “So I don’t want to eat anyway. If there’s any orzo, save some for me, okay?”

“I don’t mind if she comes with me,” Chasida said, her back to them. “If it interests her, be my guest.”

“I’m sending a portion down to Chasida later anyway; I always do that when she comes late,” Minda added. “So we’ll send some for Libby also.”

“Great, thank you, thank you!” Libby skipped over to the door. “But no chicken, Aunt Minda. I don’t eat chicken, so you don’t have to bother sending it for nothing.”

***

The number on the screen was familiar to Yerachmiel, but he could not remember whose number it was. His bunk was sitting in the room in pairs, reviewing what they had learned with him that morning in preparation for the big quiz that would take place that evening. He glanced around to double check that everything was under control so he could leave the boys for a few minutes, and then went out into the hallway.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hello,” he heard the familiar voice of the shadchante say. His hand tightened around the phone.

“Well, it’s like this…” Mrs. Kurzman said, and then fell silent. He knitted his eyebrows together so that they almost looked like one long brow. “So I just spoke to the Dresnick girl, and I understood from her,” she paused, “that right now, she doesn’t think so.”

“I understand,” he said, staring at the toes of his shoes. Mommy. What would be with Mommy? She wouldn’t be able to take this right now. How could he tell her that the Dresnicks were saying no again?

He coughed. “I understand,” he repeated, pacing back and forth in the hallway. At least he had already mentally prepared himself for this for quite some time. But Mommy…how would she take it? “Did my mother ask you to speak to me?” he asked carefully.

“No, I didn’t catch her,” Mrs. Kurzman replied. “Truth be told, I didn’t try. I preferred to call you.”

Yerachmiel played nervously with his short beard. The shadchante would not be able to carry out this conversation with his mother and preferred that he do the job for her. What was she thinking? That he would be able to do it any better?

If only he could change things a bit, to make it seem like he was the one who didn’t want to proceed. His mother would be very disappointed, but it would be easier for her to deal with the disappointment than with the insult she absorbed for him time and time again. If only it would be possible to make her believe that it wasn’t the Dresnicks who had said no. He paced up and down, thinking hard—and a strange idea suddenly formed in his mind.

It was actually pathetic, to be quite honest, but it could be a solution of sorts, if he would only be able to ask for such a thing. Kurzman, to her credit, was being quiet and patient on her end of the line.

He sighed unintentionally. And a fraction of a second later, he had already made the decision. There was no choice; he would come down on his knees and look away from his own dignity—which wasn’t all that elevated to begin with—and try. He had to try, for his mother’s sake.

“I just wanted to ask,” he stammered with difficulty, “if it’s possible to ask her to agree to one meeting, a very short one, that will not obligate her to anything.” He hesitated. “Half an hour, not more. I just want to tell her something short and very important to me.” He didn’t know if the information his mother had conveyed had been given over as it should have been. Perhaps the Dresnicks still believed he was sickly. During a short date, he could show the girl the signed affirmation he had from Dr. Gur about his health status, and if she still didn’t want to go further with him, he would make sure that his mother wouldn’t know who had said no. This was the least and only thing he could do for his mother.

True, it would mean taking the risk of having Mommy get overly excited about the fact that a date was actually taking place, and her drop from this peak of Mount Everest to the ground would be brutal and difficult. But he would make sure ahead of time to temper her enthusiasm. She would hear from him a lot about how the chances of this shidduch going through were next to nil. At least then, the drop would be slow, gradual, and less painful for her.

“Ask her for a date?” Kurzman’s voice was laced with surprise. “Well, that’s exactly what she doesn’t want.”

“I understood that,” he said with effort. “But I’m asking if possible, if you could ask her for this as a favor, for just half an hour…” Beads of sweat broke out on his neck—and it had nothing to do with the fact that there was no air-conditioning out here in the corridor. This was so humiliating!

You arrogant lowlife! What’s the matter? You don’t feel comfortable about this request? Is something here not respectable enough for you, you ba’al ga’avah?

He stopped his thoughts at once. Mrs. Kurzman was speaking. “I can try, Rabbi Blum, but I don’t know what will come of it.”

“I thank you in advance for the effort,” he said with a smile that held no mirth. “And if possible, I’d like to ask if from now on, you could be in contact only with me, not with my mother.”

“I hope that you won’t cause her to get overly hopeful, Rabbi Blum.”

“I don’t think it’s possible for her to hope more than she’s hoping already,” Yerachmiel replied, noticing a curious head that was peeking at him from afar, from the doorway of the room where his bunk was. “And that’s exactly why I’m asking for this—so that she shouldn’t hope too much.” He wondered how he had the energy to wave to Avrumi, who was winking at him from the classroom, and motion to him that he’d be there in a minute.

After saying goodbye to Mrs. Kurzman, Yerachmiel turned his back to the doorway, giving himself a final minute to recover from the draining conversation. Then he pasted his friendly smile back on his face and turned around. His campers were not to blame for their counselor’s problems.

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