Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 39 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.
Yehuda called to apologize. He said he hadn’t spoken nicely that day on the moshav and perhaps had pressed Zevi a bit too hard.
“Exactly,” Zevi replied. It was quiet in the house. The little ones were sleeping after a tiring trip, the older ones were reading or playing quietly, and his parents had gone out for a walk.
“So…do you forgive me?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I want the truth.”
Zevi smiled. “It’s okay, Yehuda. I know it’s because you care.”
“You sure?” Yehuda pressed.
“And you forgive me?”
“On one condition.”
“That you finish the story you started when we were up north.”
Yehuda chuckled. “There’s a different condition for that, if you recall, and I got first dibs on making conditions.”
Zevi didn’t say that if that was the case, he wasn’t forgiving, and that it made no difference who had gotten first dibs. He remained quiet for a few long seconds and then said, “I might actually listen to you, Yehdua. But for that, I’ll need help.”
“You’ll get it. Lots of help.”
“There might also be a chance to save something on my foot, but only very little. And even if my foot will look a tiny drop better, I will still need a lot of courage to not hide it.”
“I’ll lend you some,” Yehuda quipped.
As much as Eliyahu enjoyed the visit, it was slightly bittersweet: the Lorensteins had come to say goodbye. They’d be returning home soon, and as funny as it was to think about it, he sensed that he’d miss his conversations with Arthur. Chavi and Tissa were in the kitchen, as they usually were, and he and Arthur were leaning on the windowsill in the dining room. Arthur blew thick rings of smoke toward the sky and they chatted about lots of things, trying to ignore the children romping around behind them. A sudden crash informed them that something had broken, and Arthur turned his head languidly.
“The gift we brought you,” he said. “Oh, boy, Tissa’s going to be really upset.”
Eliyahu leaped toward the table and picked up the wrapped box that was lying on the floor beneath it. He hurriedly stuck it into one of the closets.
“Good, quickly!” the doctor urged him. Eliyahu managed to get back to his place near the window a second before Chavi and Tissa entered the room carrying two trays. He hadn’t even had a chance to glare at his two daughters, because they had fled the dining room, and he hoped that neither woman would realize that it’s accepted to open a gift in the presence of those who had brought it. He left the window and sat down on one of the chairs. Arthur extinguished his cigar and joined him.
“I was speaking with someone from our hospital in Germany,” Tissa said. “I’m taking the Bloch boy’s x-rays with me. A prestigious doctor from the department said that I might have made a mistake and it might be possible to do more than I thought. I’ll speak to them there.”
She looked over at the table where the rather large, flattish box had lain just a few minutes earlier. Except for the refreshments, the table was now empty. But she didn’t ask anything. Neither did Chavi. Eliyahu didn’t even see their gazes, because the topic Tissa had just mentioned grabbed all of his attention and left no room in his mind for the shattered gift.
“It’s possible that they’ll be able to restore the foot to what it was?” he asked excitedly. Would three-year-old Zevi’s howls of pain pursue him until his final day, or would a solution be found that would quiet those anguished wails a bit?
“Perhaps,” she said doubtfully, and suddenly asked, “Do you know if he has problems with his…”—she groped for the right term in Hebrew— “with his balance?”
Eliyahu shrugged; he had no idea.
“Because even if they can’t help him any more than what I thought, it might be worthwhile for them to treat him anyway, just so that he shouldn’t have issues with his balance.”
“Half a missing foot could cause such problems?” Chavi asked. Eliyahu remained silent. What else was Zevi suffering from because of him? How many more things was he going to discover?
“Not big problems like falling constantly, but there can be all sorts of minor issues that can be the result of this.”
“And so you’re saying that if so, it’s worth the treatment,” Eliyahu said. “Irrespective of the chances of success aesthetically.” He didn’t know if Zevi tripped or fell more often than was normal. They hardly knew each other. He rubbed his aching head, and the conversation at the table continued without him.
“…Arthur did it,” Tissa explained proudly. “But I told him what to write. My writing in Hebrew is not quite up to par yet.”
“Oh, a handmade gift? I’m sure it’s something special. We have to see it,” Chavi said and turned to her husband with a questioning glance.
Arthur groaned loudly, as if to awaken Eliyahu from his stupor.
“What?” Eliyahu asked.
“I have to peek at the gift.” Chavi smiled. “It’s something they made themselves!”
“It’s actually for you, to hang in the kitchen,” Tissa said. “I thought it was just the sort of thing that you would like.” Chavi didn’t have time to guess about it for long, because just then, she noticed the two men exchanging very vigorous glances with each other. They looked tense.
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to open it now?” Arthur asked. “Maybe they won’t like it, Tissa. They’re better off looking at it without us breathing down their necks.”
“Why on earth?” Tissa protested. “Of course they’ll like it. You did a beautiful job on it, Arthur!”
“I’m sure it’s very nice,” Chavi added, looking in surprise at her husband, who was suddenly taking an avid interest in the light bulb over his head.
“We moved it from here, Rabbi Eliyahu, didn’t we?” Arthur asked casually. “It was a bit…um…bothersome. It was too big.”
“Yes, I remember. Just…”
“That’s it, just where exactly did we put it, huh?”
“In some closet,” Eliyahu said slowly.
“Yeah, but which one exactly?”
“I have to figure that one out.” Eliyahu stood up in resignation and walked over to the closet. The first door that he chose to open clearly displayed the big box. He carried it carefully to the table and placed it down. Chavi took the knife from the fruit platter and gently cut the gold ribbon that encircled the wide box. Then she began peeling the scotch tape off the sides until she finally reached the actual carton.
“Actually, don’t open it now,” Tissa said suddenly. “Arthur’s right. Open it when we’re not here. You’ll definitely be more comfortable.”
“Whatever you prefer, Tissa.” Chavi smiled as she left the box alone. Eliyahu didn’t say anything, but just smiled at Arthur, who pushed the gift box to the middle of the table.
“It’s safer here,” he said casually. “Your girls don’t climb on tables, Rabbi Eliyahu, do they?”
“Mostly not, except for when they do.”
Chavi wanted to say something, but stopped. Tissa looked at the box for a long time and then said, “Yes, open it after we go. And you should know that there’s a special glue for ceramics. You might find it useful.”
Eliyahu went down first to escort Arthur to the car. Chavi and Tissa were still in the stairwell, exchanging their final goodbyes. “What’s in there, for goodness’ sake?” Eliyahu asked when they reached the street.
Arthur waved his hand. “A ceramic plate that I wrote on with a special substance.”
“Are you also an artist, Arthur?”
Arthur waved his hand again. He approached the rented car parked near the house. “It’s nothing, just nothing, and what’s written there is something about…nu, what did Tissa tell me to write…something about your little cousin…what was it?” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t remember; you’ll see for yourselves.” As he opened the car door, he added, “If you can still read anything there anymore.”
“I’m so sorry, Arthur. I’m sure you worked really hard on it,” Eliyahu apologized. In his mind, he berated Michal and Libby. Really, why did this have to happen?
“Nonsense. Will you miss me?” Arthur asked as he looked at the doorway to the building. Tissa hadn’t appeared yet.
“Good, so look at me long and hard now, because I’m afraid next time you see me you’ll have a hard time recognizing me.” Eliyahu raised an eyebrow. Arthur climbed into the car, settled into his seat, and slammed the door. Then he opened the window and stuck his hand out for a shake. “I think that at the rate Tissa’s going,” he said with a broad smile, “I’ll be back for our next visit in a shtreimel. Can I make one from a ponytail?”
On the morning of the third date, Minda’s head ached, and Chasida hurriedly called Rachel Kurzman. “Cancel the original plan,” she said, and Mrs. Kurzman’s heart skipped a beat. But then she learned that Chasida didn’t want to cancel the date; she just wanted to change the location.
“I have to be near my mother,” she explained. “Let him know.” She felt bad that her mother didn’t feel well, but it was probably from stress, as usual, and this would be a good opportunity to put Mr. Blum up for another test. Until now he’d passed all her tests nicely. If such a statement would frighten him off, then for all she cared, he could drop the shidduch entirely.
“Is that so?” Mrs. Kurzman asked.
“Yes. If my mother will feel better later, we can always go back to the original plan. Lots of people start the date at home and then go out to walk.”
As she’d expected, less than three hours later, her mother’s headache passed. Minda observed her daughter pacing up and down the dining room floor, gazing at the tiles.
“You can tell Mrs. Kurzman that you can go out this evening,” she said gently. “I’ll be fine.”
“Nah,” Chasida said offhandedly. “Let him come here first. It’s better.”
“Uh-huh.” She continued pacing, her head down, and the tiles echoed every footstep. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish. Inconsiderate of others. Puts his own needs ahead of everything. Selfish. Selfish. How could she find such a thing out? True, he didn’t make a selfish impression at all, but it was very easy to put on an act. She had just eight hours left, and still she hadn’t come up with a good test for him yet.
The day passed as monotonously as the days always did for her. At lunchtime, Zevi arrived, and he colored those one or two hours with a slightly brighter hue, but after he ate and bentched and got everyone’s brachos for the new zman, he went out to yeshivah and left the house empty.
Chasida went down to the store, trying not to think too much about what awaited her that evening. It was better to think about…Zevi, for example. Yes, about Zevi, who had changed recently. Something new was had sprouted in her little nephew. Just a month ago he was another seventeen-year-old boy, and suddenly, he was almost a man.
One of the regular sales agents was waiting impatiently downstairs when she arrived to open the store. All he wanted to do was deliver the merchandise her father had ordered the week before. He went toward the refrigerator while Chasida remained at the counter and looked at the order form he had given her to sign. She expected to hear the soft thud of boxes hitting the floor; instead she heard the sound of a small explosion and then some angry words. She hurried behind the shelves to the refrigerator, where she found the red-faced agent, his boxes on the floor and his hand truck lying at a strange angle. The glass door of the old refrigerator was shattered.
“It’s terribly crowded here, ma’am,” the man began defensively. “I got stuck on a shelf, and without realizing it, I knocked into your refrigerator door. It’s made of very thin glass, isn’t it? It’s probably not the first time it’s happened, huh?”
“Actually, it is.”
“So why is it empty? Is it broken?”
“Yes, but we hoped to fix it. I see that now it won’t be worth fixing anymore.”
Chasida looked at the man who had bent over to collect his boxes. She didn’t remember when her father had purchased this refrigerator. But it was at least seventeen or eighteen years ago. Nice. After all those years, the door had to shatter today. After looking again, Chasida saw that it wasn’t only the door to the fridge that was broken; the whole frame appeared to be bent out of shape. What would Ima say?
Abba would say again that perhaps it was a hint to some other glass that he hoped would be broken in the near future. Blum, if she would tell him, would surely find an additional soothing answer, and perhaps would also mention the pasuk, Tamim tihiyeh. He would explain again, in that way of his, that this is a time of hester panim, and that we have to try to cleave to the truth as much as possible and to daven for the day that the truth will be clearer to us and we will not have any more quandaries.
And she? What did she think?
She wasn’t thinking. Sometimes it was better not to think too much, and that’s what she was doing now.
“Ahem, ma’am?” The agent’s voice floated back to her from the front of the store, near the counter. Very nice of him to leave everything there and run away. Who would take away the broken door? It was very dangerous to leave it where it was, right in the aisle. Abba wasn’t allowed to schlep, but he wouldn’t hear of her doing it either.
So she would do it quickly, before he even heard about the damage, she decided.
Chasida went back to the counter to sign the shipment form. The agent murmured a few words about finding out if he even had to pay them any money under the circumstances, and left. She went back to the corner where the damage was. Taking the door off the hinges was very easy. She did it every year when cleaning for Pesach. She carefully wedged her foot under the door and lifted it a bit. The aluminum frame lifted right out of the hinges and then landed with a crash on the floor. Chasida leaned the door across a row of shelves and began to drag it. With each step, the misshapen door grew heavier, and her self-pity mounted. Really, how much more suffering would she have to endure in her life?
On the path, a few feet from the door of the store, Chasida stood straight and surveyed the area: a slightly neglected yard, full of brush, a few old pieces of furniture, and some construction detritus left over from the Auerbachs’ renovations. She couldn’t drag the door much further, but she didn’t want to leave it right there, near the entrance to the store. Her father was very particular to make sure the entrance was clean and respectable, and if she’d leave the refrigerator door there, he might move it away himself.
Exhausted from the effort, Chasida looked at the door at her feet, and then again at the yard. And then she had an idea. Brilliant. Perfect and smooth. This was it.
Yerachmiel reacted just the way Chasida wanted him to when she apologized for the change in plans soon after he arrived that evening. “What’s there to apologize for?” he asked, and ran his hands through his beard, which was getting rather light in certain areas. “Obviously, if your mother doesn’t feel well, you should be near her. Perhaps we should stay here, then? Are you sure everything is okay now?”
“Yes, yes,” Chasida hurried to reassure him. “My mother actually prefers to have some quiet now.”
When he smiled, a few creases that were not concealed by his beard appeared. “Then it’s certainly fine with me.”
They made up to meet on a street corner on the Bnei Brak-Ramat Gan border, about an eight-minute walk away. “The shortest way to go is through our back garden,” Chasida informed him. “There’s an exit out to the street on the other end. From there, make a left.”
He nodded and left the house.
“When are you going to leave?” her father asked quietly after the door closed.
“Two more minutes,” she said, almost running toward her bedroom, which was dark. The shutters were halfway down and through the small slits she was able to see almost the entire backyard. There, he should be turning just about now, walking and…then she’d see.
Yerachmiel first walked down the stairs he had just come up from a short while earlier, and headed toward the gate. His mind was wandering, and it took him a minute to remember the instructions he had received. To go through the backyard until the end and from there out to the street. He went back into the courtyard and turned toward the side of the house. The thicket of trees surprised him. He had never realized how many things grew there, in the middle of a city street.
The backyard turned out to be more like a mini junkyard. At first, he didn’t like the way it looked, but then he berated himself. What do you want her to do, clean the shared yard? The inside of their home does look clean and organized, and that’s much more important. He walked down the path that was lined with thorn bushes, and scorned himself for being worried about a neglected yard. If he was looking for things that put him off, he could list a few incidents during their dates that were much more serious than this. Then, too, he had decided, after thinking it over, that Chasida’s actions didn’t indicate much more than a lack of self-esteem and deliberations that had been born of twenty years of despair.
Oops! He stopped at the last second. Right near him, against the wall of the house, was a tall pile of rubble—empty cement sacks, wires, a broken chair, and some wooden beams. But it wasn’t the pile that stopped him, but something on the bottom of it, something that jutted out into the path. It was the sharp edge of a glass refrigerator door with a white metal frame.
Once again, Yerachmiel felt a twinge of irritation at the owners of the yard. Even if they didn’t care about the rats that could come and take advantage of the plethora of living space the yard offered, people could really hurt themselves with the mess that was there. But then he reminded himself again that, besides for the neighbors—and he had no idea who they were, the residents there were an elderly couple and a not-so young daughter. Really, which one of them do you want to clear away this broken door?
He deliberated whether or not to leave it and go. If he got stuck there now, Chasida could come out any minute and then he would delay them both. But to leave the broken door there, without doing anything about it? That was literally a bor b’reshus harabbim. Especially since it would soon get dark, and then people could really stumble over it…
He didn’t have a lot of time. First, with his foot, he tried to nudge the door off the path and into the rest of the junk pile. But the heavy refrigerator door refused to cooperate. It was much heavier than it looked to Yerachmiel, who had seen only one corner of it. It had no intention of moving because of one kick of the foot; all that happened was that Yerachmiel almost lost his balance.
In an attempt to break his fall, he flung his hand toward the backless chair that stood there, just to grab onto something, anything.
“Chasida?” Zalman entered the room to remind her that it wasn’t nice to make Yerachmiel wait too long. “Is everything okay? What are you looking at out there?”
“His hand his bleeding.” She spoke rapidly, her eyes glued to the window. “He needs help. Abba, can you go out to him, please?” She didn’t turn to face him, and something in her voice was strange.
“Bleeding? How can you see from so far? Where is he standing?”
“He grabbed the edge of the chair, and there’s no way I can miss all that blood!” Now Chasida’s father detected a twinge of hysteria. “It’s because of me, Abba. You should just know it’s because of me!”
“What kind of nonsense is this? You’re acting like a little girl!” It wasn’t her father talking; he’d already hurried outside. It was her mother. “You? What did you do? What does his fall have to do with you?”
Chasida didn’t reply. She opened the window wide, staring at Yerachmiel, who sat down on the rickety chair and tried to do something. Then, after a few moments, she saw her father hurry over to him with a large kitchen towel. “You look, Ima,” she said and sat down on her bed. “I have no more energy. Tell me what’s happening.”
“Abba’s blocking me,” her mother said firmly and closed the window with a snap. “What’s going on, Chasida’le? Why are you getting all worked up about a bit of a cut that the schlemaz—that he gave to himself?”
Chasida quietly shook her head from side to side. Only after a few more moments of silence did she speak up in alarm. “I hope I didn’t damage his artery. Could you look, Ima, please?” She swallowed something in her throat. “What’s happening?”
“A thirty-nine-year-old woman behaving like a sixteen-year-old!” Minda decided that the best way to get her daughter to snap out of whatever had taken hold of her was to give her a good dressing down. But she acquiesced to Chasida’s plea and peeked out through the cracks again.
“Calm down, Chasida’le, okay? He’s getting up and has the towel wrapped around his hand,” she reported. “Now he’s saying something to Abba and laughing. Now they’re both coming here.”
Twelve and a half hours later, at five minutes to nine in the morning, Rachel Kurzman found herself wandering around the house, unable to find the milk she had bought just that morning. If it wasn’t in the clothes closet and not in the bathroom, then where else could it be?
In the end, she prepared herself tea without milk, and didn’t even notice that she put in three teaspoons of sugar instead of one. Things a thousand times more important were occupying her mind right now; her sense of taste took little notice. Who cared if it was tea with or without milk, a bit more or a bit less sweet, when she’d just received the most satisfying phone call she’d received in the last decade?
Yerachmiel Blum had called to say that the way things looked right now, there was no more need for her services as an intermediary. He thanked her very respectfully—well, he was a product of the British upbringing his mother had given him—and promised to update her in the next few days.
She had a tremendous urge to call Chasida Dresnick, and it was only because Blum had said he was speaking for both sides that she restrained herself and decided to forgo the pleasure. She doubted that Chasida needed her on her head right now.
But perhaps Rachel Kurzman would have been just the person Chasida needed at that minute. She was looking desperately for someone who would hear her out and help her unravel her thoughts, one by one. But no one was available. Shoshi wasn’t home, Abba was in the store, and Ima—who hadn’t rested enough yesterday—had a headache again. Too bad. She usually liked to think things through herself, but later, she needed to speak through her conclusions with someone, and there was no such someone around right then.
Wasn’t it foolish to get engaged six months before your fortieth birthday when you could have done it at twenty-five?
Yes, perhaps it was foolish, but it would be even more foolish to let the thought overwhelm her to the point where she’d decide to back out and remain at home with Abba and Ima because of it.
No, she wouldn’t do that. But wasn’t it painful to think about all that lost time?
Chasida gazed at the edge of the tablecloth that a little Bloch had torn on her sister’s family’s last visit to the house. But she saw nothing. Not the tear, not the tablecloth.
Just then the phone rang.
“Zevi!” she said when she heard her nephew’s voice. “How’s everything? How’s yeshivah this year?” And then, on the spur of the moment, she added, “By the way, I heard people have been standing on line recently to apologize to you, so I’m going to have a turn as well. I…I also want to apologize to you for something, and to ask your forgiveness for it, too…”
“Well,” she said, as she pulled the telephone cord to the sofa and sat down again, “I was the one who told your mother about the cream.”
“Oh, I forgave everyone involved right when I heard the whole story.” He waved it off and laughed. “You know, it was a surprise to me. For years, I’d thought that I had done it to myself, and at first, it made me so happy just to discover that it wasn’t like that. Can you imagine what a horrible feeling it is to live with knowing all the time that you ruined your own life?”
“I could imagine. But why do you say ‘at first’? You were only happy right when you first discovered the truth about what had happened? Now you’re not happy anymore?”
“I am, but for a different reason.” Zevi smiled. “Someone came and reminded me that whatever happened, Hashem is the One who made it all happen,” he said simply, thinking of the doctor’s friendly husband. “And it’s all from Him. It makes no difference who actually caused it. It sounds very basic, I know, but sometimes, it’s the most basic things that we have to remind ourselves of.”
“Remind ourselves,” Chasida said, and her eyes focused on the torn tablecloth again. “I see.”
The conversation was over a few minutes later, leaving Chasida in a pensive mood. Finally growing sick and tired of the silence in her house, Chasida went up to Shevi. Not to tell her anything, at this point, but it was nice to just chat with her and play with Miri and think about the Ribbono Shel Olam Who hadn’t allowed her, in her foolishness, to say “yes” fourteen years ago. Not that it was clear to her why, and she would likely never know why, but it’s much more comfortable and pleasant to give our Father the heavy packages to carry, instead of insisting on carrying everything ourselves.