| Family First Serial |

Lie of the Land: Chapter 5

Gabe has spent a lifetime dodging conflict, and he isn’t about to change that now



think he’s Rivi Greenberg’s brother.”

“I heard he lives in the Amazon rainforest.

“I remember him from school. Weird kid. Looks like he turned out okay. Coming to shul and everything.” At that last whisper, Gabe looks up surreptitiously and spots a man who doesn’t look familiar. Maybe it’s the beard.

The murmurs follow him through the shul on Shabbos morning. No one is quiet enough, and the whispers are curious, though not hostile. He can’t be the only stranger in shul this Shabbos, but he must be the most interesting one.

Truthfully, he hadn’t even wanted to go. Shul has never been a great place for him. Abba had only gone on good weeks, and he’d stood to the side and avoided conversation. Gabe would stand next to him, feeling oddly protective of him and uncomfortable at the same time.

By his teenage years, Gabe had opted to avoid shul altogether. Rivi would go by herself some weeks, meeting friends and davening intensely in between, and Gabe would sleep in and stagger out to daven just before the meal. Now, he makes it before zeman Krias Shema most days, a little bit of order to cling to in a world devoid of frumkeit.

But Ezra was so eager to bring him along that Gabe hadn’t the heart to say no. Ezra is the kind of person who is genuinely kind, and Gabe is glad to make him happy. He might not talk to Rivi much anymore, but she deserves someone as good and giving as Ezra in her life. She’d suffered Abba and Gabe through childhood, and Gabe had once worried that she’d marry someone just like them. But Ezra is everything that Rivi had always wanted, and Gabe is relieved for her.

“Don’t mind them,” Ezra murmurs to Gabe after davening. The boys have already run ahead to the kiddush, but Ezra moves slowly, greeting a few friends as they depart. “They’re just excited to have someone new here. And you’re a lot more interesting than most brothers-in-law.” He ruffles a boy’s hair as they walk past him. “Gut Shabbos, Yerachmiel. Did you get some cholent?”

“Rebbi!” The boy bounces up, then shakes Ezra’s hand with enthusiasm. “Not yet! I’m going now!”

Ezra laughs as he departs. “Great kid. They all are.”

“My fourth-grade rebbi used to kick me out of class whenever I started humming.” There’s a chill in the hallway leading to the kiddush room, a cold unlike the humid warmth that Gabe is accustomed to. “I didn’t even realize I was doing it. Whenever I stopped listening, I started humming. It didn’t go over well.”

Ezra listens, a frown settling on his face. Gabe shrugs. “I wonder if he’s still there, working with you.”

“I don’t think so. We’re a pretty young group in the fourth grade. Some of the older rebbeim move up or down to find the age they’re best suited to.” Ezra leads him to the main table at the kiddush, laden with cholent and kugel and some dry-looking kokosh cake. “It’s not usually a question of ability as much as it is finding a good fit.”

Gabe blinks at him. “You’ll find something positive to say about anyone, won’t you?”

Ezra flashes him a grin. “Yep, both the hummer and the rebbi. Kugel?”

Gabe hasn’t eaten potato kugel in years. It’s blander than his usual fare, but there’s something about the hot mush that warms his throat and chest, that awakens some primal sense of home within him. He savors each bite, and he’s so absorbed in the kugel that a hand clapping against his back nearly topples him over.

“My man, Gabe Cohen!” It’s Hillel, greeting him cheerfully. “How are you holding up? Ready to get back to the monkeys and the tigers after shivah?”

“No tigers in Amazonia,” Gabe says automatically. Hillel had first found him at this very shul, after Rivi had gotten married and Gabe had begun to spend Shabbos with her whenever he could. Hillel has been a good friend since, easygoing and far more tolerant than most would be of Gabe. “You know Ezra?”

“Ezra? My son’s rebbi last year.” Hillel shakes Ezra’s hand. “Great guy. Fantastic with the boys. Makes ’em love Mishnayos like no one else could. You two hit the jackpot with each other as brothers-in-law. Do you keep in touch when Gabe’s away?”

“Not as much as I should,” Ezra admits, sheepish. “We get so caught up in our lives. Though I’m sure that Gabe’s jungle animals are far more interesting than the ones in my classroom.”

“We get our excitement here! How about that body, eh?” Hillel says. Gabe’s eyes widen and he shakes his head almost imperceptibly at Hillel. Hillel misses the hint entirely. “Heard there have been some strange results, but I’m sure you’ll get all the info soon. It’s like something out of a book, don’t you think?”

Ezra tilts his head, clearly bewildered. “Body?” he repeats.

Hillel’s brow wrinkles. Gabe opens his mouth to change the subject — Rivi is going to be so unhappy if Ezra hears about this new dysfunction in their family — but it’s an exercise in futility to outtalk Hillel.

“Your wife must not have mentioned it. Personally, I’d have told everyone I know if the wrong body was in my father’s grave! Sheesh.” He shakes his head vigorously as though it might throw off the idea. “Last I heard, they were dating it as thirty years dead. Imagine that. Thirty years in the plot, and no one ever knew.”

Ezra is still staring at Hillel. Gabe clears his throat. “Maybe we should head back home,” he says. “Meir and Shimmy look like they’re done.” He’s spotted Rivi’s boys on the far side of the room, Shimmy with a chocolatey face and Meir’s shirt bearing a large cholent stain.

“Right,” Ezra says, a shadow falling across his face, and he leads the way to the exit, waving the boys along. Shimmy runs ahead, full of boundless seven-year-old energy, but Meir hangs close enough to them that Gabe doesn’t dare bring up the body.

Ezra is perturbed, it’s clear, and Gabe has no idea how to talk about it without ruining things even more. Rivi just wants to protect you won’t go over well. Rivi is trying to protect herself might be even worse. But Gabe can’t let Ezra go into the house like this, upset with Rivi about a secret she’d intentionally kept from him.

It isn’t until Meir has hurried inside, out of the cold, that Gabe ventures, “I think Rivi just… I think she’s embarrassed. About the confusion, I mean. She wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”

“It’s not a bother. I’m her husband.” Ezra’s voice is curt, and Gabe draws back.

Ezra winces. “Sorry. I’m just—” He twists his hands helplessly and heads up the steps and inside.

Gabe lingers outdoors, shivering in the bitter January cold. It’s unpleasant, but the chill that emanates from inside is even worse. Gabe has spent a lifetime dodging conflict, and he isn’t about to change that now.

By the time he gathers up the courage to head inside, the boys are reading on the couch and there are harsh whispers coming from the kitchen. “You could have told me,” Ezra is saying, his voice sharply audible. “Instead of me hearing it at shul from someone we barely know.”

“It wasn’t a big deal!” Rivi hisses back. “It doesn’t matter. So there was some mistake with an old burial. It has nothing to do with my father.”

“You don’t know that! You don’t know who that person is!” Ezra’s voice rises.

Rivi turns and catches sight of Gabe in the doorway. She gestures to him before Gabe can duck away. “Gabe, tell him. It’s not our business what the body was doing there.”

Gabe is very fond of Ezra — he’s always been very good to him, even when Gabe had been Rivi’s wayward little brother, closed off from the community and resistant to anyone breaking through his walls. But Rivi is his sister, their bonds forged in the crucible of a complicated childhood, and even years of distance can’t change that. “The police are taking care of the body,” Gabe says. “Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. The body is their problem now.”

Ezra stares at them both. His eyes are dark but his jaw moves slowly beneath his bearded chin as though he might be grinding his teeth. This isn’t Abba’s fault, but Gabe finds himself wishing that their father hadn’t left them with yet another mess to clean up. “You keep talking about the body like it’s… some thing that you found,” Ezra says slowly. He isn’t whispering anymore, and the boys on the couch have stopped turning the pages of their books a while before. “It’s not the body. It’s the person. This man was a real person with a whole life and identity before he was a body in your father’s grave.”

It takes Ezra to say what Gabe should have seen, and he feels a stab of shame. He studies people, their fears and hopes and everything that makes them human, but he has lost sight of that with this body. This… person. Who knows why he’d been buried in the wrong spot, without a stone to mark it? Who knows what life he led, and what pain might have brought him to this point?

It’s Rivi who speaks, her voice a little rough and strained. “Maybe,” she says. “But right then, that’s all he was to me. I didn’t want more complications. I didn’t want to talk about those complications. I just wanted to bury my father in peace.” She turns around, swift in flat-heeled shoes, and stalks from the kitchen.

The thing about Gabe and Rivi is that they handle stress very differently. Gabe is great at retreating, at leaving when he’s hurt and shutting the pain away for good. He’s been doing it since he was little, had done it when he’d been in college and when he’d been engaged and when he’d fled to distant countries rather than dealing with his issues.

Gabe can think about Abba dying in abstract. The world turns. People die. Rivi, though… Rivi hurts, raw and throbbing, and she makes sure that no one will see it until the wound is too deep to hide.

Ezra rubs his palms against the sides of his pants and drops his head. Before he can speak, Rivi is back, flushed and breathing hard. “I have to make the salad,” she says, her voice choked. “Can I just… can I —?” She turns to the counter, her hand gripping a knife, and Ezra moves to stand beside her, washing the lettuce in silence.

Gabe chooses to do what he does best. He flees.


To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 901)

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