| Family First Serial |

Lie of the Land: Chapter 2    

Right. Abba is dead. It’s still a strange, unformed thought, like a wispy bit of fluff that floats away when Gabe reaches for it

Gabe remembers the few trips that he and Rivi had taken with Abba as kids. Abba had always been leery of traveling to places that were too crowded, with too many strangers. They had never gone to the local amusement parks or arcades, not until Rivi had gotten her driver’s license and taken charge of Gabe’s vacations. Instead, they had gone hiking in upstate New York and wandering through distant parks, far from Gabe’s classmates at yeshivah.

But every now and then, there would be the familiar elbow at his side and Rivi’s low murmur of, “Yidden, look!” He’d glance up and spot another Jewish family, a man in a telltale baseball cap, a single tzitzis string trailing over khakis, and warmth and recognition would flood him. There would be a nod, a smile, eye contact — two Jews in the wild, the world a little smaller for it.

It’s been years since Gabe had last spotted another Jew. But it takes only five minutes after his plane lands at the airport on Wednesday morning before he sees a black hat, a woman in a tichel, a few teenagers with notably long skirts. In New Jersey, Jews are everywhere, and that sense of recognition feels more alien now, more unnerving.

Gabe is the intruder, the one who doesn’t belong. He’s the man in the baseball cap — a National Geographic one from a get-together last year — but his tzitzis are always firmly tucked in, hidden away from animals or curious coworkers or tribal members. There is nothing about him that screams one of you. Not anymore.

But Hillel — good old Hillel, who hasn’t seen him in six years — must still remember him well enough to recognize him, because he pulls up to the gate and calls out the open window, “Gabe! Over here!”

His hairline has gotten higher over time, his face rounder and his beard bushier, but it’s still the same Hillel. Two men standing near Gabe greet Hillel, and both look startled when Gabe is the one to pull the passenger door open. “Gabe Cohen!” Hillel says cheerfully, waving to the other men. “You must remember him. Ezra Greenberg’s brother-in-law. The scientist?”

The men look blank-faced. Gabe sticks his carry-on into the back and ducks into the car. “Thanks for the ride,” he says. “I really could have gotten a cab.”

Hillel scoffs, dismissive. “You’ve got enough going on right now. This is the least I can do. Have you gotten in touch with the funeral home?”

Right. Abba is dead. It’s still a strange, unformed thought, like a wispy bit of fluff that floats away when Gabe reaches for it. Abba has always been…difficult, distant, hardly part of Gabe’s life even before he’d left the house. Gabe’s world will not change because Abba is no longer in it. But still, he struggles to process the reality of it. “I think Rivi was going to take care of that. I’m just supposed to show up.”

“A miracle in itself. Gabe Cohen, back in the neighborhood!” Hillel marvels. “Last time I saw you in Lenape Falls, you were getting engaged to… uh….”

“Penina.” Gabe grimaces. He remembers those heady days, the sheer bliss of dating someone who had been so well-suited to him. Penina, who had been a whiz on a keyboard, wry but straightforward, who had listened to and understood his enthusiastic diatribes on the Maori in New Zealand, who had been absolutely perfect. She must hate him now, and he can’t blame her. “She used to be Rivi’s best friend. Are they still close?”

Hillel shoots him an incredulous look. “You think I could tell you that? Like I’m supposed to know what’s going on with everyone in Lenape Falls?” Gabe, who knows that Hillel definitely does, waits a moment before Hillel concedes, “Okay, yeah, I do know Penina Mandelbaum. She works in another division at my office. And I’ve seen your sister stop by.”

“Mandelbaum.” She hadn’t been Mandelbaum before. “She’s married?” He regrets the question as soon as he asks it. It was over and done with, and he shouldn’t dwell.


“Ah.” Gabe scrambles for something else, a change of topic that won’t be as loaded. But there isn’t really anything that isn’t loaded for him. Not Abba, not Rivi, not even Lenape Falls. He’s not great with people — even with Hillel, who’s so good with people that he compensates for Gabe — and he hasn’t done small talk like this in months, at least.

Hillel steers out of the airport traffic and onto the turnpike. “Rivi doesn’t keep you updated?”

“Rivi never really forgave me for breaking off the engagement. I think she’s still on Team Penina.” He figures that Rivi had just seen that as a convenient excuse. Gabe is a complication, and Rivi tries to steer clear of complications in her life. “We aren’t that close.”

“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to talk during shivah,” Hillel points out. Shivah. Gabe is taken aback. He hasn’t quite comprehended shivah as something that comes next. In his head, there had just been a funeral, and then a departure back to Brazil. “You’ll be staying with her?”

“Uh. I guess so.” Does Rivi know that? Is she prepared for him in her picture-perfect home? Ezra had always been pleasant to Gabe, had taken Gabe’s idiosyncrasies in stride back when he used to give Gabe rides to college, but it’s been a long time since then. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Yeah? That long a plane ride, what else do you think about?”

“Medical treatment for an Aweti boy who stumbled into our compound,” Gabe admits. “I was writing an appeal.”

Hillel laughs, delighted by him instead of disturbed. “Gabe, you’ve got to come to me for a Shabbos meal. My kids are going to love you.” He puts up a finger. “Hang on. I’m getting a call.”

He chatters with a friend on the car’s speaker, heedless of the guest listening in — it sounds like a sensitive issue, some complication with local Shomrim organizers and the cops — and then hangs up and begins to tell Gabe all about it.

“We have to frame it as a neighborhood watch because otherwise, the non-Jewish locals get nervous about us having a personal police force. So now the sergeant wants us to pay a few of them to join the watch. That we volunteer for! It’s not right.”

Gabe has studied enough cultures to understand this, at least. “It’s all tribal,” he says. “Their tribe, your tribe.”

“Our tribe,” Hillel corrects him easily, roping him into the frum community without a second thought.

Gabe shrugs it away. “So if your tribe has more authority, then the other tribe will get antsy. It doesn’t mean they want to join yours. At least, that’s what—”

He’s cut off by a horn blaring nearby, and jumps as Hillel veers. “What’s this guy doing?” Hillel demands, jerking to the side to avoid a wayward car bent on switching lanes. A second car refuses to move, and the first honks again, loud and insistent. And Gabe is suddenly transported back….

There had been a birthday, when Gabe had turned eight, and Rivi had talked Abba into taking them and one of Gabe’s friends out to Lenape Lanes. Abba had bowled, too, had gotten strikes and spares and impressed even Gabe’s friend, Chaim. Your father has mad skills, Gavriel, Chaim had said admiringly, and Gabe had glowed with pride. Abba had even told them, on the way home, that he used to bowl at Lenape Lanes all the time with his best friend when they were growing up.

It had been the perfect day, but then someone had cut Abba off at a light, and Abba had just snapped. Gabe couldn’t explain it, the way that Abba had started to drive, speeding up past the car in front of them and then making a madcap getaway. He’d jerked down a side street, made a swift U-turn, and then went the wrong way down a one-way. All the time, he’d been shooting questions. Is he still behind us? Do you see him? Is he coming this way?

Abba used to get like that. Something innocuous but unexpected could set him off, and he would go from quiet and cautious to wild, drunk on paranoia. Gabe and Rivi had learned to wait it out. Chaim didn’t know any of this, had garbled out terrified noises and cried, and Gabe had cried, too, until Rivi’s hand had landed in his.

It’s okay, she had said fiercely, herself all of 11 years old. Gabe had watched her stony face for the rest of the drive, the way that she kept it perfectly calm and never let his gaze go. It’s fine. Abba just gets… nervous sometimes. She had grasped on to him, had felt so solid at that moment that Gabe could almost believe that it would all be perfectly fine.

It took ten minutes before Abba calmed down enough to drive, very calmly, to drop Chaim off at his house. Then there had been no more mention of the moment, and Gabe could almost believe that it had never happened. Except that Chaim had never again been allowed to go to Gabe’s house, and eventually, he’d stopped talking to Gabe at school. That moment embedded in Gabe’s memory, Rivi’s hand firm in his and her words tight and strong. Abba just gets nervous sometimes.

“Gabe?” Hillel asks, concerned, and Gabe realizes he’s trembling.

“I didn’t sleep much on the planes,” he says, his voice just a croak, and he forces himself back to the present. The wild car is long gone, and Hillel is cruising peacefully down the turnpike.

And Abba is gone forever, strange impulses and paranoia and all, and maybe Gabe should be relieved. His childhood had never been conventional, and it is long over. He’s been out in the world, has kept his distance from Abba for years, and there had been no great moment of closure, no apologies or explanations in the end. There had only been a sympathetic call from the only person in Lenape Falls he still speaks to.

But still, he shakes for no reason at all.

Hillel gets another phone call, and he’s distracted from Gabe for a moment. “Dov,” he says brightly. “How’s it going?”

The voice on the other line is tinny, another stranger. “It’s… it’s a mess, Hillel. We’re not sure what to do.” Dov sounds anxious, and Gabe eavesdrops absently, flexing his fingers until they stop trembling. “We called the cops and the rav, but I think it’s going to be up to the kids. Yanky’s getting in touch with the daughter, but you said you were going to get the son from the airport, right?”

“Yeah,” Hillel says. Gabe blinks. What is this?

Chevra kaddisha, Hillel mouths to him, and Gabe nods, still bewildered.

“Avigdor Cohen, yeah? The mausoleum? We’ve checked, like, five times.” Dov coughs. Gabe listens, fingers tightening on his knees. “It’s the right plot. The right name. It’s supposed to be his. And there’s no other stone or marker there.”

Hillel is businesslike now, and there is authority to how he speaks, a man used to making things work as they should. “What’s going on?”

Dov huffs out a breath. “We dug out Avigdor Cohen’s burial plot this morning, as planned. But Hillel… there was already a body inside.”

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 898)

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