| Family First Serial |

Lie of the Land: Chapter 3     

Penina makes a split-second decision. “I’m coming over. Are you at the cemetery?”



her second week of college, Penina had walked into the wrong classroom and sat down next to the only frum girl in the room. There had been no shortage of frum people in the school, but frum girls had been a little harder to find. The other girl had looked wary, but Penina had plunged forward anyway, and they’d spoken for long enough for Penina to extract three facts from her.

First and second, the girl was named Rivi Cohen, and she already had her entire undergraduate and law school career planned out. And third, this was a World History class, not the Ethics in Technology class that Penina was going to be late for.

She’d bumped into Rivi a few more times over the next months: in the kosher area of the cafeteria, in busy hallways, on the train they both took to their respective towns. Penina prides herself in being personable, and slowly, she had worn down Rivi until Rivi had begun to smile back. By the end of the semester, they had coordinated required intro courses and become inseparable.

It’s part of why Penina had moved with Daniel to Lenape Falls after everything had fallen apart — Rivi might be busy, but she’s still the closest thing Penina has to a local sister. (Her actual sisters live in a cluster in distant Ramat Eshkol and are bemused at her cybersecurity career.) They’ve shared all of themselves and know each other better than anyone else.

Penina is fully aware of Rivi’s troubled childhood, the complicated emotions that still rise up when Rivi thinks about it, and it’s why Penina is unsurprised when her phone rings in the middle of the workday on the morning after Rivi’s father has died.

Penina shoots Martin an apologetic look from over her computer. He waves it off. He’s an easygoing boss, pleasant to work with, and tolerant when Daniel needs her. “Go ahead. Take it.”

Penina picks up the phone and hurries to a quiet conference room, shutting the door behind her. “Rivi, do you need me to drop by before the levayah?”

Rivi’s voice is pitched high, a loud whisper that rapidly becomes a screech. “No. No. I don’t even know if there’s going to be a levayah!” She takes a breath, then another, and says, her voice strained, “There was someone in my father’s burial plot. Someone dead. The police think it’s been there for decades.”

Penina makes a split-second decision. “I’m coming over. Are you at the cemetery?”

“Yes, but you don’t need to—”

“I’m coming,” Penina says firmly. Theirs is a relaxed office, the stark opposite of Rivi’s law offices. Martin doesn’t enforce work hours as long as their jobs are done, and Penina runs out for long lunches and works late from home when she has to. And Rivi needs support right now.

Someone in the burial plot. The Cohens were once a wealthy family, a big name in Lenape Falls. They have a fancy mausoleum at the edge of the cemetery that Penina remembers from a visit on Rivi’s grandmother’s yahrtzeit, and there has been a plot inside the building long designated for Avigdor Cohen. “Have you called Rabbi Margulis?”

“He’s here, too.” Rivi hesitates on the phone. “Penina, I can’t ask you to come. It’s not just—”

Penina doesn’t let Rivi finish. “Is Ezra there?” She already knows the answer to that. Rivi is stricken with terror when it comes to her family’s dysfunction, certain that her husband can only know the tip of the iceberg, and never all that lies beneath it. There’s no way that Rivi would ask him to speak to the police or even the rav.

Rivi chokes out a laugh, near-manic. “Are you kidding? I can’t tell Ezra about this.” She sounds as though she’s laughing and crying at once. “Why can’t my father do anything properly? He can’t even be buried normally!”

“I think this one might be on the other guy,” Penina says wryly. Still, Rivi’s family does have an unfortunate tendency toward oddities, no matter the situation. This feels like another chapter in a miserable tale. “Hang in there. I’ll be over soon.”

She drives out toward the cemetery, pulling onto the thruway that stretches across Lenape Falls. It’s not a small town anymore, not like it had once been, and the area where Penina lives and works is busy with traffic and commuters throughout the day. Rivi’s side of town is quieter, small streets that wind into each other and large, old houses. At the edge of town, beyond a country club and golf course, is the well-kept Jewish cemetery.

Penina pulls into its parking lot and heads inside, only to come face-to-face with a specter of the past. “Oh,” she says, startled.

She should have expected it. But it’s been six long years since she’d last seen Gabe Cohen, and she’d long ago separated him from Rivi in her mind. Gabe is just Rivi’s oddball brother now, rarely mentioned by his sister, and when he does come up, his name is accompanied  with a sigh of exasperation. Rivi has always seen herself as solely responsible for Gabe’s actions, but Penina has been careful not to do the same. The old resentment is about Gabe, not Rivi.

And here he is, standing in front of her with his face paling rapidly. He’s aged a bit from Penina’s last memories of him. He’s still clean-shaven, but his hair is longer, curling out from beneath a yarmulke that sits unevenly on his head. His face is tanned, coarser, and he’s grown out of that baby-round face that he’d had when they’d dated. He’d been two years younger than her. He’s too immature for you, her mother had warned her, though he’d been in his mid-twenties at the time. Her mother had been right.

His eyes, wide and trapped, are the same. “Penina,” he says, his voice strained. It’s inappropriately forward, but that’s always been Gabe. “Rivi called you?”

Penina inclines her head. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she says formally, and she is relieved to move past Gabe into the office just outside the cemetery itself, where Rivi is talking in a low voice to Hillel Pretter, the head of another department at Diamond Securities. Why he’s here, Penina has no idea, but Hillel has the tendency to be everywhere in Lenape Falls.


“Penina!” Rivi exhales, accepts her hug and squeezes tightly for a second before she pulls away. “We’re still trying to figure out what to do.” She twists to gesture to everyone in the room.

Gabe lurks near the doorway, leery as always of other people. Rabbi Margulis rocks in place, hands clasped together. Two police officers stand with a man who must be the cemetery caretaker, and two men from the chevra kaddisha stand with Hillel, uncertainty stamped across their faces.

“We’ll want to do some testing,” one officer says. “Figure out who this person is and if he was buried in the wrong place accidentally.” He looks dubious.

“It’s likely that he’s Jewish,” Rabbi Margulis objects. “There are specific restrictions in place regarding how you can test him.” They negotiate, back and forth, and Penina is a little nauseous at the details. She turns to Rivi, her eyes flickering across the room as she does. Gabe is staring at her. Penina looks away swiftly and wraps a hand around Rivi’s wrist.

“How are you holding up?” she asks in a murmur.

“Bold of you to assume that I’m holding up at all,” Rivi mumbles back. There is a telltale quiver from her, a shakiness that Penina knows no one else will see. Rivi is on the verge of a breakdown, but she’s going to stand unwavering until the moment she collapses. “This is insane. This is insane. I don’t know how I’m supposed to deal with Abba being…and now this.”

Gabe moves from his position, and Penina tenses until she realizes that it’s not her whom he’s been watching. It’s his big sister, and he shifts to stand in front of her, clearing his throat. “Excuse me,” he says. None of the people arguing in the room seem to notice. “Excuse me!” he says, a little louder. He’s ignored.

“Hello!” Penina barks out in the sharpest voice that she reserves for Daniel. The officer turns, as do Hillel and the chevra kaddisha men. They look annoyed, and Penina jerks her head to Gabe, who appears overwhelmed at the attention.

“Look,” he says. “We’re supposed to have a funeral today. I can’t go check out this situation with the rest of you — I’m a Kohein — but I would like to know that my father is still going to be buried where he is supposed to be.”

Rabbi Margulis nods. “That’s a reasonable request,” he says, and he smiles at them encouragingly. Rivi’s wrist is vibrating under Penina’s grip. “The body in the plot isn’t your issue. We’ll figure it out on our own and let you mourn in peace. The funeral can proceed as planned?” He looks to the officers inquiringly.

The taller one spreads his hands. “We’ll have to remove the body before then and bring it in for testing. Should take an hour or two to coordinate. What time is the funeral?”

Penina checks her watch. Rivi had scheduled it for two in the afternoon, and it’s just past noon. “Might be a little tight, depending on the number of hespedim,” she volunteers when Rivi doesn’t answer. She turns to Gabe instead, puts aside her emotions, and meets his gaze. “Do you know how many people are going to speak?”

Gabe swallows. “I guess… I should, right?” He looks to her for guidance, but she gives him nothing. “Ezra? The rav?”

“Yes,” Rivi finally manages to say, her voice hoarse. “That’s…that’s what I planned.”

“Not a lot,” Penina concludes. “Why don’t we move the levayah forward an hour to give you the time you’ll need for the extraction?” She looks to Gabe, keeps her voice steady, and does her best not to show discomfort. It’s been six years. She isn’t a heartbroken girl reeling from a broken engagement anymore.

To his credit, Gabe nods quickly. “That works. Rivi will send out the correction. I doubt Abba was going to get much of a crowd, anyway.” For an instant, grief makes his voice small, but he clears his throat and seems to find his bearings quickly. Gabe has always been good at bouncing back. “Rivi, why don’t we go back to your house? I just need to grab my bag from Hillel’s car.”

“It’s unlocked,” Hillel says easily, waving them off. He’s leaning forward, interested in the new debate between the rav and the officers, and Penina keeps her hand on Rivi, steering her out of the cemetery office.

Rivi stumbles and blinks in the sunlight, taking a shaky breath. “I’m going to throw up,” she says. Penina sits her down on a bench outside the office while they wait for Gabe, and she breathes again, blinking hard against the wind. “Thank you, Penina. I’m sorry I just… I shut down like that. I’m supposed to be good under pressure.”

“It’s a vulnerable time for you,” Penina assures her. “I’m amazed you managed to stay upright.”

Rivi laughs, rough and doubtful. “I’m not vulnerable,” she says swiftly, as strong as always. But she shivers in the cold, arms wrapped around herself and face pale and wan, and Penina thinks that she looks very much like a lost little girl.

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 899)

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