Without a Trace – Chapter 37

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 37 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.

Don wasn’t answering the phone again, and Eliad slammed down the receiver after seven rings. If Don wanted to play games—he could go right ahead. But he’d have to find someone else to play with. Why was he taking personal offense for Sol? And how did he dare go and blame his roommate for it?

The lawsuit was being filed by the army, not the soldiers who had been harmed. Don had been questioned once, but was then let go. Sol, by contrast, was deep in hot water. Two hearings had already taken place, and the prosecutor had succeeded in locating three other people who had been harmed by Sol’s fake creams. Reb Eliyahu, his brother-in-law Gavriel’s rabbi, was dealing with one of the claims. His cousin had lost four toes because of one of Sol’s products.

Sol wasn’t being sued now for the forgery, because he already produced the creams under his own name, but rather for producing and distributing medical products in violation of pharmaceutical regulations. And since the minute the lawsuit had gotten rolling, Don had been stubbornly ignoring his and Eliad’s friendship. Aside from that first visit, when Dr. Lorenstein had given him a dressing down and taught him a thing or two about how to speak to other people, as Elia had put it, Don hadn’t visited again, nor had he picked up the phone and called like Eliad’s other friends had. He hadn’t even sent regards—nothing. Eliad was ready to shrug off the whole friendship; it wasn’t like he’d gotten all that much out of it anyway, and he would manage just fine without Don.

Actually, Reb Eliyahu had called him yesterday to ask how he was doing and had described the hearing from the day before. He related that Sol had been asked to describe how he prepared his “wonder-working” creams.

“Some people there were literally laughing out loud,” Reb Eliyahu had said. “Here’s this guy, on the stand, and he makes a rather normal impression, and then he starts describing the effects that the moon’s rays have on the world’s horizons and how necessary this is for the healing of the body and soul. And you hear this? He leaves each cream open on his porch for two months! Is it any wonder that you got something moldy and full of bacteria, from the top of the container to the bottom? And then you went and smeared it on yourself!”

***

Shoshi got ready to leave the house. She lowered the flame under the soup and gave final instructions to Yocheved about lunch. Yocheved listened calmly, without her usual nervousness—“But what will I do if…”

Then again, her father was home. Everything was much simpler.

Shoshi tried not to think about five days from then, when Chanoch would have to leave them again. It would be hard enough for her then; no need to start thinking about it already today. It had been more than five years already that Chanoch had been spending most of the year in Chile. She was supposed to get used to it with time, but to her, it seemed that the more time passed, the harder it became. Perhaps the weighty responsibility of the older children was becoming more difficult for her; perhaps it was because she was also getting older; or maybe it was the fact that Zevi wasn’t home with them anymore either. Or it could have been all of the above. With a sigh, she covered the soup pot. Chanoch would be leaving in five days, unless Chasida…

Would get engaged??

A small, wan smile turned up the edges of Shoshi’s mouth. Would Chasida get engaged in five days? Or would she be on the way to doing it? How Shoshi wished! She sighed again, quietly. She didn’t want Yocheved, deeply engrossed in a book beside her, to hear anything. Yocheved had sharp ears, and she could connect the phone call that her mother had received two hours ago to the damper in her mood.

Tissa, as the doctor had introduced herself on the phone, sounded like a very pleasant person. “I want to speak to you,” she said succinctly and clearly, yet the sympathy in her tone was still evident. “I don’t mean by phone; I’d like to meet you. I need to show you the x-rays and explain.” Her Hebrew was nearly perfect for someone who had had no exposure to the language until just a few years before.

“Where are you?” Shoshi asked, her heart beginning to pound faster and faster.

“In Tel Aviv, but I can come to Bnei Brak if you want,” Tissa Lorenstein had replied. “Where can we speak?”

Shoshi’s first instinct had been to suggest that they meet in her parents’ house. But on second thought, she preferred to hear whatever it was the doctor had to tell her by herself. Of course, her parents and Chasida would give her all the privacy she needed, but when the doctor left, she wouldn’t be able to conceal anything.

For some reason, she had a feeling that what the doctor was going to say would be something she’d want to conceal, at least for now. First of all, she didn’t want to depress anyone over there, and besides, the day before the meeting with Blum, they absolutely mustn’t find out that there was nothing to do for Zevi’s foot. The doctor hadn’t made it quite so clear on the phone, but Shoshi had the feeling that if she would have had good news, she would have shared it right away, at least in general terms.

Shoshi walked out of the kitchen and began to pack a bag with a bottle of water and some sucking candies. Chanoch had been learning with Zevi for the past two hours and would be back very shortly. He had wanted to hire a van and take the kids to Ein Bokek for the afternoon, but it was a good thing that they hadn’t told the kids anything about it. She really had no strength to deal with disappointed children right now.

“Hello!” Her husband and three oldest sons walked in together. Chanoch looked at her in surprise. “I ordered the driver for four o’clock,” he said quietly. “You’re all ready?”

“Cancel the driver,” she replied just as quietly, walking toward their room as he followed her. “Tell him tomorrow, or the next day, or I don’t know when.”

“Is everything okay?” he asked worriedly.

B’ezras Hashem. The doctor called.”

“Lorenstein?”

Shoshi nodded.

Nu?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t really say anything, but she wants me to come and speak to her.”

“Where did you make up to meet?”

“The AlexanderHotel. Tel Aviv.”

He realized right away. “Not at your parents… So you’ll go to Beer Sheva and take a bus from there?”

“That’s what I thought. The bus leaves in fifteen minutes.” Her voice trembled a bit.

“Should I come with you?”

“I don’t think it’s necessary.” She felt her knees grow weak, and quickly sat down on her bed. “I’m just…” That was all she was able to say before that familiar pain seared her throat. She fell silent. The plug of tears that prevented her from talking was holding so much pain: Zevi, standing now in the kitchen; Chanoch, who was leaving in a few days; Chasida, who had been so curt with her on the phone… Almost a minute passed before Shoshi was able to swallow and say, “I was just being silly. Why did I even hope?”

“Maybe,” Chanoch said in his placid voice, “maybe there’s still room for hope.”

She didn’t reply. Another entire, precious minute passed until she stood up and said, “Well, it’s really getting late. You’ll manage here without me, right? I’ll try to be in touch as soon as I can.”

He nodded. “Zevi’s coming with you, right?”

“What?” She was shocked. The idea had never even entered her mind.

“You know,” Chanoch said in a low voice, “the idea to go to Ein Bokek was his. He’s the only one of the children who knew about the original plans and will know that I cancelled them.”

“And then?” she asked, as she rummaged around the top drawer of her dresser for her wallet.

He knew what she meant. “He’ll understand.” Her husband looked quickly at the door to their room. “And I don’t think it’s fair to keep him in suspense all this time.”

Shoshi sat back down on the bed, not looking at her watch whose hands were galloping forward mercilessly. “I can’t talk to him about it,” she said almost inaudibly.

“Do you want me to speak to him?”

She bit her lip, opened and closed her wallet, and then hurriedly stood up. “Yes,” she said. “I’m going now. Tell him where I’m going, and if he wants to come, he can meet me at the bus stop. But tell him to make it fast.”

***

The two sat right in front of the back door of the bus in silence. The bus had already pulled out of Beer Sheva, heading for Tel Aviv. Zevi fixed his gaze out the window, as though the black Bedouin tents fascinated him. He thought about the doctor who wanted to speak to his mother, and his stomach churned. He did not have a good feeling about what he was about to hear. His mother didn’t look particularly happy, and from the few terse words his father had said before sending him to the bus stop, he had gathered that the news wasn’t positive.

Well, what changed? At worst, you’ll stay in the same situation you’ve been in until today. It’s not like you’re not about to hear anything terrible, right? So they’ll tell you that even if you thought for a few days that maybe you’d have healthy feet one day, and imagined going to yeshivah and casually taking off your shoes in front of Yehuda, those dreams will have to remain just that—dreams, and nothing more.

Suddenly he felt the words coming. “It’s okay, Ima,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any worse tragedies.”

“Amen.” Her dry lips tried to form a smile; it was difficult, but she persevered. “And I still hope the doctor has some good news for us.”

“Do you really hope? Or are you trying to hope?”

She smiled wanly but didn’t reply. She needed to speak to him. She. Needed. To. Speak. To. Him.

Zevi turned his head back to the window. Perhaps he should be doing more to encourage his mother right now; she looked so dejected. But he couldn’t bring himself to say anything. The pressure in his stomach rose into his lungs and made it hard for him to breathe. It was strange to beat yourself up about something you did when you were three years old, but when that something destroyed your life, you can’t help but do it. How much pain he must be causing Abba and Ima, and that was besides for his own pain!

“Zevi?” It was so quiet, and she said it so slowly, as though his name had six syllables, not two. She needed to talk. She wouldn’t be able to postpone this moment forever.

“Yes?” He turned his head back to her.

“You…” A second of silence. “Do you want a drink?” You coward!!

“You have water here?”

“Yes.” Shoshi bent over to her bag, hiding her face from him.

“I’m just wondering,” he said slowly, “how I was like that already at age three. Well, Savta and Chasida say that you’re born with it, right?” He made a brachah, drank, and waited for her response. But she couldn’t answer.

“What do you mean ‘like that’?” she asked after a long silence. Calm down; he’s not trying to insinuate anything. He doesn’t know anything.

“So clumsy. Such a shlemazel.”

Shlemazel?”

He looked at the creases in her forehead. “Of course,” he said. “A boiling cup of tea right on my foot. What’s that if not totally shlemazeldik?”

“I’d rather not talk about that now,” Shoshi whispered, making sure her words wouldn’t reach the ears of the passengers around them. “Abba told me about the man who followed you when you came home for bein hazemanim. We know that he wanted to apologize. But I want to talk to you…” She blinked rapidly. “About my part.” How had those words come so suddenly, without any warning? And where was the flood of tears she was sure was inevitable?

Where, indeed. More questions. Anyone who had questions about what she was or was not doing at this time, could submit them in writing; she was not available to answer them right now.

“Abba told you about that red-haired guy?” Zevi spun around as much as he could in his seat, eager for any shred of information. “Who is he really?”

“We just talked about him,” she said tiredly. “The children told you about my cousin who visited Saba and Savta in Bnei Brak when you were up north, no?”

“But why did he want to apologize to me?” Zevi rubbed his chin. Something didn’t make sense here at all. “Who is this cousin?”

She was quiet for a long time, trying to understand what was going on there. What did he know, and what didn’t he know? He had started saying something about the tea that had spilled, but a second later it seemed that he had no idea what she was talking about! Zevi was also quiet, pressing his lips together. Suddenly it all became clear.

“One second,” he said, his eyes growing large. At that moment, he looked so much like her. “The tea. I wasn’t the one who spilled it?”

***

“Oh my!” the doctor’s husband exclaimed. “You look so much like your uncle! Now I see it from close!”

“My mother’s cousin,” Zevi corrected. “Yes, that’s what I’m told.” It was funny to think that he’d heard today for the first time that the red-bearded man who’d followed him from Bnei Brak to Yerucham was a relative. But there was a resemblance between them, according to what everyone was telling him.

“Based on the grilling he gave me, you would think he’s your father,” Arthur Lorenstein commented. “He is so worried about you. By the way, do you want a drink? It’s kosher here, you know. Tissa only lets me go to kosher hotels.”

“Thanks,” the boy replied, “but I just had a drink on the way here.” At the last minute, he’d decided to let his mother see the doctor herself. Maybe it would be easier for her to hear what the doctor had to say when he wasn’t there. Poor Ima. He knew all too well how paralyzing those little twinges of guilt could be over the years, and he only hoped he’d persuaded her that he really wasn’t angry. She told him that she had insisted on using the cream despite the fact that Saba and Aunt Chasi had not been excited about it. Well, of course. Which mother, who heard about a cream that could help her suffering son, wouldn’t want to try it—especially when it really looked like it was helping?

Now he was left with a huge storm in his heart, which felt flooded by all the emotions that had been eating at him all these years. He wasn’t as bad as he’d always thought he was. He wasn’t the one who had brought this upon himself. And because of that, as funny as it was to think about it, if he would hear soon that there was no way to help his foot, he would not be nearly as bothered. The whole thing was already of much less significance to him. Strange, wasn’t it?

“You sure think a lot,” the doctor’s husband remarked. “Your uncle, or your mother’s cousin, or whatever he is to you—doesn’t think so much. You must not have gotten that from him, I guess.”

“I guess not.” Zevi smiled. It was funny to feel happy for this reason, especially knowing that the fate of his foot was being rendered right then in a room on the fifth floor of this hotel.

The two of them stood in a corner of the deserted lobby. Zevi had preferred to remain there when Ima had gone up, and after a minute, this gray-haired man, who, Zevi learned, had been the one who had followed him to Yerucham with his mother’s cousin, had shown up, explaining apologetically that his wife the doctor had sent him to keep Zevi company.

“Lots of mitzvos,” the man mused now to Zevi. “I’ve collected lots of mitzvos because of Tissa. I’ve even started putting on tefillin!”

“That’s great,” the seventeen-year-old boy enthused, for lack of anything better to say.

“You’re right. So what else are you thinking about? They look like happy thoughts.”

Zevi felt like asking the man if his wife had told him about the results and her conclusions from his x-rays, but was too embarrassed to do so. Truth be told, he preferred to hear it from his mother. “I really am happy now,” he said shyly. “I heard something very comforting before we got here.”

“And that is?” Arthur probed unabashedly.

“I always thought that I had caused these problems with my foot.” Zevi tried to find the right words to satisfy the man. It was obviously not easy to please him. “And now I realized, for the first time in my life, that…someone else caused it.”

“The guy with the moldy cream?”

“Moldy…?” Zeiv was confused. “No,” he replied. “It’s someone else.”

“So you were the victim of negligence by two people?” Lorenstein asked—or rather demanded. The question was worded and thrown out so aggressively, that Zevi, in his youthful innocence, did not know what to answer. Cowed, he just stared back silently.

“Or perhaps you’ve forgotten, boy,” Arthur said, “what your cousin has been trying to enlighten me about for so long—that a person doesn’t move a single limb in this world if G-d doesn’t decide that that’s the way it’s meant to be.”

“Um…of course.”

“So it makes no difference who spilled and who smeared, who did it and who’s to blame, right?” His tone was very serious, and his eyes, which until now had smiled and danced merrily, were focused on Zevi’s eyes.

“Right,” Zevi whispered, staring at the wall tiles he was leaning on.

“Good, so if you remember that, then everything’s fine. It just seemed to me that you’d forgotten for a minute.” He smiled. “So now there’s no special reason to be happy, and beforehand, you had no real reason to be sad.” He didn’t wait for a response. “Anyone who believes in G-d can always be happy. He’s never sad because of things that happen, because he remembers that G-d does only the best for him, right? Even when it doesn’t quite look that way.”

He raised his hand in greeting at someone who passed and then turned back to the boy, who seemed to be cowering in the corner, as though he wanted the wall to swallow him up. “So we’re never worked up or worried about things that will happen, because we know that whatever G-d has chosen for us is just right for us, am I right?”

“Very,” Zevi replied, looking at the profile of the man with the ponytail who had just given him an entire lesson in emunah and bitachon.

“Good, boy. I think your mother’s back. Don’t forget to tell Reb Eliyahu that I’m his best student, huh?” His smile lit up his face again. With one hand he shook a perplexed Zevi’s hand and with the second, he slapped him heartily on the back. A second later, he was waving from the elevator.

***

Two, two and a half centimeters, Tissa had said. Shoshi was deliberating whether or not to tell Zevi. Ultimately, he would be the one who would have to decide. The monetary issue was no longer a consideration, because of Eliyahu’s request to pay for it himself. But the question was whether or not to fly to Germany, undergo a difficult surgery and rehabilitation—all for two centimeters. And that question would have to be decided by Zevi himself. She glanced at him. He looked a bit stunned. Had the doctor’s husband told him what his wife thought? That couldn’t be.

“There is some hope,” Shoshi began. “She didn’t say it was impossible.”

“But?”

“But she said that sometimes, doctors are not in a position to decide if it is worth operating in such a case, and the decision is left to the patient and his or her family.”

“Which means?” They walked toward the bus that would take them to Bnei Brak.

“That means that your foot can be treated, and improved, but it won’t be a huge difference. About two and a half centimeters.”

He lowered his gaze to his foot, walking in step with the other one. “That’s not such a small amount!” he said after a minute.

“I didn’t say it’s a small amount,” Shoshi agreed. “I said it’s not that big.” She sighed. “And they won’t be able to attach new toes.”

“So I’ll stay the same way, you’re saying,” he said slowly. “Just I’ll have a bit more of my foot…”

“Yes.”

“And what do you say?” Zevi wanted to know. “Do you think it’s worth doing it?”

“We have to think.” She replayed the conversation in her mind with the diminutive, friendly doctor. “It’s not something that can be decided al regel achas.” It took her a second to realize what she had said, and she looked regretfully at Zevi. He actually laughed.

“No,” he said, “because it would be ungrateful for me to call myself one-legged when I’m here, walking on two healthy—and almost whole—feet.”

Something was very different in his tone when he talked about the subject; it was a sharp turnaround. “So what do you say?” Shoshi asked cautiously.

“That my very smart mother says we have to think about it,” he said resignedly. “And I personally am not sure I want to fly abroad for all this. Is success guaranteed?”

“Ninety-something percent, yes.”

“And there’s no chance for new toes,” he said.

She bit her lips. “She’s going to consult one more person, but it doesn’t look like it to her.”

“So in reality, anyone who knows my foot won’t even notice that it’s any better, but anyone who will see it for the first time”—here he couldn’t help but think of his roommates—“won’t be any less shocked.” After they’d settled themselves onto the number 54 bus, he added lightly, “So, I think Abba should go ask a sheilah and then we’ll decide. After all, there’s Someone Who’s more worried about me than I’ll ever be able to grasp.”

At first Shoshi thought he was referring to her, but on second thought, she realized the truth. They both remained silent until they reached Bnei Brak. And for some reason, despite the fact that there was so much more beneath the surface than what the eye could see, there was a calmer, more relaxed atmosphere between them than there had been on the way from Yerucham. And it wasn’t only because their hopes had not been shattered to smithereens the way Shoshi had feared earlier.

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