By Esther Rapaport
The house had once been nice, but it was now dusty and dirty, and there was no trace of the cleaning lady’s visit on Monday. Chaiky glanced at the front hallway-at least that looked decent. If a neighbor would knock now, she wouldn’t be mortally embarrassed.
She sat on the sofa, observing as Naomi and Dovi played in heavy silence, and mused lazily that it really was time for supper. There were a few shekels in the pocket of her robe.
“Naomi,” she said. “Go to the grocery and buy two rolls and two yogurts that you like, for you and Dovi.”
“Should I buy some for you, too, Ima?”
“No.” The last thing she needed right now was a roll and yogurt. If she wanted, she’d warm herself up some corn schnitzel that she had in the freezer and eat it with a slice of bread. But the children had eaten corn schnitzel for lunch the past two days, and she couldn’t give them bread without anything on it. They’d need at least a spread, some vegetables, and maybe an egg. And she really had no energy for that. Rolls were better.
Naomi went to the grocery while Dovi remained playing with the Clics. Chaiky lowered her gaze to her son and watched him picking out all the black pieces. He fashioned a box about the size of two shoe boxes, closing it in on all sides. It was black. Very black.
No, she had no energy to ask him what he was building, because she was sure that she knew. He sat working busily, in silence, and only every so often did he glance at her surreptitiously before going back to his work, adding the last few Clics to finish it off.
The phone rang just as he stood up and wiped his hands on his pants. He looked at his mother, who seemed to not notice the ringing phone, and then went to answer it.
“Ima, it’s Uncle Menachem,” he said. “What should I tell him?” His uncle apparently said something into the phone, because Dovi said quickly, “He said that he doesn’t want me to tell him anything, Ima; he wants you to come to the phone.”
Chaiky didn’t move. While a month and a half or two months ago, she would have still leaped from her seat, today, she already knew that there was no reason to. Things didn’t move quite so fast. “Ask him if there’s news,” she said tonelessly, her finger tracing the embroidery on the sofa pillow. Shoshi Goldenker had given her this pillow as a wedding gift. When had that been? Seven years ago? Eight?
“He says that right now, no, Ima,” her son replied, and went back to speak to his uncle.
“Yes, we’re playing now. Supper? I don’t know, we’ll eat soon. We’re not so hungry. What? Oh. Ima!” Dovi turned back to his mother. “He’s asking where we are for Shabbos, and if we want to come to them. Oh, and if you want them to do shopping for us.”
“Tell him that we don’t need anything,” Chaiky said, pushing aside the pillow. “And Shabbos…I don’t know yet where we’ll be. We’ll see.”
Dovi left the receiver dangling toward the floor. “Ima,” he whispered in the quietest voice he could, glancing at the phone as though it were the enemy, “we finished the tuna last night, and Naomi won’t take anything else in her bread! I…” He groped for the right words. “I can eat cheese, if you really want, and I’ll even take techinah. But Naomi won’t! And you didn’t tell her now to buy tuna for tomorrow!”
“Naomi will find what to eat,” Chaiky replied, also in a whisper. “Now tell Uncle Menachem goodbye nicely and hang up the phone.”
Dovi sat down next to her on the couch, swinging his legs. “We want to go to Saba and Savta in Beer Sheva for Shabbos,” he said quietly. “We haven’t been there in such a long time.”
“You must have forgotten how you feel when you travel.” Chaiky didn’t move from her place. “It’s more than three hours, Dovi. Last time you threw up four times!”
He nodded with a grimace. She had the feeling that he remembered who was the one who always held the bag for him and hadn’t been there to do so on their most recent trip, but he was trying to hold in the words. Dovi had always been the more mature of her two children, even though Naomi was one and a quarter years older.
Chaiky also wanted to go to Beer Sheva for Shabbos, but the traumatic bus rides just made it unfeasible. It was at least three hours there on Friday, at least three hours back on motzaei Shabbos, and by the time they got back, it was one in the morning, and she was alone with the kids . . . It was too much of a price to pay for a Shabbos of relief that only her mother and father could provide.
A bit more than three months ago, she’d gone to them for a whole week. As soon as it had happened, her parents had made the trip to her, and had spent a few days in her house. When they saw that nothing was going to be resolved in the immediate future and that it would take much longer than they’d thought, they’d taken her and the children home to them. It was right at the beginning, and the week that she’d spent in Beer Sheva had been hard and confusing and not relaxing at all. Since then, her mother had offered her a few times to come back again, to relax a bit, but she hadn’t been able to move out of her comfort zone. Dovi and Naomi couldn’t miss too much school. As it was, they were under a lot of stress. As it was, the mess outside and inside was too much for them . . .
Later, while the children sat eating their rolls, Chaiky went to their room and tried to make some order so that they could go to sleep. She kicked a few toys aside with her foot and put all the clothes that had been strewn on the floor onto a chair. Tomorrow, if she’d have the energy, she would sort what needed to be washed and what could go back in the closet.
She pulled her vibrating cell phone out of her pocket. If her brother-in-law Menachem was trying his luck there, he would discover that it was futile. She already knew all three of his numbers by heart.
No, it wasn’t a familiar number.
Oy, it was much worse.
“Yes, Elka. How are you?”
“I’m perfectly fine, baruch Hashem. But how are you? What’s doing?”
“Is there news? Did you hear anything recently?”
“Hashem will help . . . Chaiky, you’re not going to sleep soon, are you?”
Chaiky bit her lip. The very question gave her an urge to say, ‘yes’ and then to dive into bed, but she remained silent. Elka didn’t wait her for response anyway.
“Can I pop in? I think I’ve found someone to hire for the library, and I want you to meet her before I give the final OK.”
Chaiky was sure that even if she wasn’t enamored by Elka’s choice, if Elka thought the person would be good for the job, that person would be hired. So why the whole bother with obtaining Chaiky’s opinion?
“Listen, Elka,” she said hastily, realizing that her children were standing at the door to the room. “You’re the boss and I trust you, believe me. And believe me also when I tell you that I’m not really in a condition for visits right now.”
Elka had never been blessed with an abundance of tact. “It’s not a visit, just a quick pop-in,” she said heartily. “And don’t tell me that fazes you! I remember how I popped in on you one day, and instead of surprising you, you surprised me! Your house was so clean, so orderly . . . It was hard to believe that anyone lived there–that’s how it looked!”
“Now it’s also hard to believe that it’s lived in.” Chaiky went back out to the dining room, trying to estimate with her eyes how much work it would need in order to be considered clean. “Just remind me, when was your last visit?”
“Some time last year.” Elka had an excellent memory. “It was on rosh chodesh, and you had a short day at work, so I decided it was a good time to visit. To this day I won’t forget that visit. What an apartment your in-laws bought you … not normal, huh?”
“Last year?” Chaiky pounced on the beginning of the sentence, too tired to add any significant tone to her voice. Even if she would have done so, it was doubtful Elka would have understood it.
“Yes, Rosh Chodesh Iyar or something like that.”
“On Rosh Chodesh Iyar last year . . . You know that I’ve been through a thing or two since then, Elka?”
“Chaiky, Chaiky, I know you well. Do you really think I’m going to be looking for a tiny fingerprint on the doorpost, or a speck of dust in some remote corner that you may have missed? I remember how your house looked that day, and that was when you were working. Now, when you’re home all day and hardly go out, everything is probably even more spic-and-span. We’ll be there in an hour, OK? Besides for cold water, don’t prepare anything.”
The children got ready for bed quietly, and Chaiky went to see if she could put the dining room in some kind of shape. There was a rebellious urge inside her that wanted to leave the house the way it was; maybe Elka would get the message then.
But she couldn’t. Elka was one thing; she’d manage with her. But what about the person who was supposed to work under her? An introduction in such a setting would be horrible. As it was, she wasn’t too excited about the idea of hiring someone new now, but on this point her boss was right. She, Chaiky, wasn’t functioning properly; she hadn’t been at the library for nearly a month. So this change had to be made; there was no choice.
“How many times have I told you not to get out of bed without slippers?” she felt like snapping irritably, but the expression in Dovi’s eyes stopped her.
“My rebbe asked for a signature from Abba,” he said, handing her a yellow sheet of paper.
“Is that what he said? A signature from your father?”
“Yes, he said it to everyone, but afterward, he suddenly looked at me and then said really fast, ‘And anyone who can’t should bring a signature from their mother. But whoever can should have it signed by their father.’ You think I should ask Uncle Menachem to sign for me?”
“Maybe,” Chaiky said tiredly. “What is this paper about?”
“It’s about the Chumash contest.”
“Go hang it on the fridge.” She didn’t take the paper, and quickly swept the mess from the floor into a small mound. “I’ll look at it later and I’ll see if it needs Uncle Menachem or if I’m enough.”
The yellow paper continued to hang before her for a few seconds. “I think it will be enough for you to sign,” the six-year-old said finally, heavily. “But I don’t think you’ll be able to learn the Chumash with me.”
“If you bring home the booklet with the teitch, we can learn together. Now, go hang it on the fridge and run quickly to bed.”
Her obedient son complied, and a few seconds later was back in his warm bed. Chaiky looked around. Although it had been a not-very-thorough sweeping, at least she could now see the sheen on the floor that the cleaning lady had left on Monday. But she had no time to sort through the large pile that had been pushed into the corner of the room: pieces of toys, two of Naomi’s notebooks, a few socks, one of her scarves, three plastic plates, one plastic cup, Dovi’s sandal, Naomi’s Shabbos shoes, and plenty of bits of paper that the children had cut up in the afternoon in an effort to do an art project with them.
She quickly swept the whole pile along the short hallway to her bedroom, and closed the door on the evidence to her crime. So the children now saw through the door of their room how their mother was moving the mess from one place to another instead of actually cleaning it up. They’d seen so much recently that this little action wouldn’t make any difference. Next time, they should clean up the mess themselves, thank you very much.
The tablecloth was scribbled with markers. Too bad–there was no time to change it, and she had no patience. Elka wanted cold water? Chaiky had no water in the refrigerator; these days she drank only tap water, and the children punch. Perhaps there was a closed bottle of mango juice in the cabinet; the guests would have to suffice with that. She didn’t have an ounce of energy to go out of her way and do more.
A knock at the door. A big smile. A tired smile. Any more play-acting on her part would be foolish.
“Chaiky, how are you?” Elka stood in the door with a strange girl who didn’t look particularly young–25? 26? Something about her didn’t seem entirely chareidi; perhaps her ponytail was a bit loose. Did she know that their community center was a frum one?
“I’m fine, baruch Hashem,” Chaiky replied politely. “Please come in.” She moved aside, making way for her guests. The young woman smiled rather confidently and entered, looking with interest at the closed kitchen door and at the table in the dining room. Elka followed her.
“Noa, this is Chaiky, the manager of our center. Chaiky, this is Noa. Have you ever seen her while at work?”
“No,” Chaiky replied.
“She’s come to the library quite often in recent months, seeking material for a project on Yiddishkeit.”
“I’m becoming more observant,” Noa said pleasantly, “learning new concepts, reading about things I’ve never heard of . . . That’s how I got to know Elka.”
“Very nice,” Chaiky said, looking Noa over again. “You can sit down. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Just cold water, thanks.”
Chaiky hurried to the kitchen, and as she searched for the bottle of juice, she heard the low voice of conversation from the dining room. Did she really hear Elka saying the words “husband” and “alone”? Perhaps it was her imagination. Or perhaps Elka was explaining to Noa why they needed to judge this mess favorably. After all was said and done, Elka was a kind soul, not just a gossiper. If she was telling Noa anything about Chaiky’s situation, it had to be with some type of good intention.
Well, let her tell Noa everything. As if Noa wouldn’t hear about it from other sources over the next few days. As if there was anyone in the neighborhood who hadn’t yet heard.
It took quite a few minutes for Chaiky to find the mango juice. “Sorry, Elka, this is what I have,” she said as she returned with the bottle and a few plastic cups. Noa looked at her with admiration that hadn’t been there before. Or was it pity? Could be. Well, let her pity her all she wanted. Chaiky didn’t even have energy to be embarrassed anymore.
“So I won’t drink; the sugar isn’t good for me. Noa, here, have some.”
“Thanks,” the girl replied without a smile, looking intently at the cup that was slowly being filled.
Chaiky sat down and moved the bottle aside. Why was Elka being quiet now? She was the one who had initiated this incredibly urgent introduction, so please, let her conduct it.
But Elka, most uncharacteristically, was being very quiet.
“So tell me a bit about yourself, Noa,” Chaiky suggested when the silence grew even longer.
Noa gave her a look that Chaiky could not decipher. “I don’t have much to tell. I come from a family that is rather … um … weak in Jewish observance, and in recent years, I’ve become much closer to a Torah way of life.”
“Good for you. I’m sure it’s not so simple.”
“That’s right.” Noa nodded and averted her gaze.
Chaiky sensed that it would be a good idea to change the subject. It looked like she’d touched a sore point. “And do you know computers? Our entire lending system is computerized; I’m sure you noticed that if you’re there a lot.”
“You could say that I understand computers.”
Here, Elka interjected, “Our Noa far more than ‘understands computers,’ Chaiky. She’s just being modest. She’s a computer whiz, and that’s one of the reasons I thought of her for the job. This last week she’s helped Miri a few times when the computer at the front desk got stuck, and I’m sure she will be able to help us with our new program as well, the one you and Miri say is so annoying because it keeps making problems.”
“Uh-huh,” Chaiky said indifferently. She gave a sidelong glance at Noa, who didn’t move a muscle upon hearing the compliments. Something about this conversation was not sitting right with her, and she couldn’t put her finger on it. Elka was captivated by people easily, so there was nothing strange about the fact that she was calling the girl “our Noa,” even if she hardly knew anything about her. Then what was it that was so strange? That a computer whiz should be content with a job that entailed simple office work? There was something a bit odd about that, but Chaiky wasn’t sure that was the issue, especially if Noa’s aim right now was to have access to the books in the library, and not necessarily the work and the salary.
So what was bothering her? The sudden way her guests had landed on her? The clear admiration Elka had for Noa, in contrast to the aloofness that Noa was clearly radiating?
The girl just looked at both women silently. She also didn’t touch her cup of juice. Her fingers rubbed the black box that had remained on the table after Dovi had placed it there. She turned it over, and only then did Chaiky notice that in one of the corners there was a single yellow Clic. Either it was a window for the box, or the situation wasn’t quite so dire. Or the bright yellow represented the yellow handout about the contest that had probably been bothering Dovi then already. Or perhaps there was another option, no less reasonable: he’d run out of black Clics.
Noa also looked closely at the yellow piece now, and Chaiky felt like pulling Dovi’s creation out of her hands. But that would not be polite at all.
“So what do you say, Chaiky?” Elka asked. “We’re going to hire her, right?”
“Would you like me to step out?” Noa suddenly asked. It was actually a cute question, and Chaiky couldn’t help but smile.
“No, no, it’s alright,” she said. “You can stay.” If Elka had already decided to hire Noa, there was nothing for Chaiky to say about anything anyway.
“So what do we say, Chaiky? That Noa should come to work tomorrow at ten, yes? Will you be there?”
“I’m not sure, especially because it’s Friday.”
“Why can’t you be there?” Elka asked, as if she’d forgotten the fact that in the last month, Chaiky had been at the community center she directed exactly three times. “At least tomorrow, when Noa starts, I think it’s very important for you to come.”
“I think I can manage myself,” Noa spoke up. “Chaiky doesn’t have to make the effort to come on erev Shabbos. I’ll be with Miri. We know each other already.”
“Well. If it’s no problem with you, Noa, it’s certainly fine with me,” Elka said. “So tomorrow at ten, Noa? Got it?”
Like Chaiky had told herself, it was game over. It was a game going on between Elka and Noa, and she, Chaiky, was trying to understand–rather unsuccessfully–what her role was here. This Noa made a pretty decent impression, as far as she could see. Elka was always nice, even if sometimes a bit too nice. So why did Chaiky feel so uneasy right now?
Maybe she was just tired. That must be it.
A few more polite, flat words, and then they left, leaving an open bottle of mango juice and one full cup that no one had touched. Chaiky bent down to pick up the cap from under the table. Something about this strange visit was not sitting well with her, but she didn’t have enough energy to think it through clearly. If they wanted to visit, let them visit. If they wanted something, let them want it. She couldn’t think.
She’d always had heightened senses and a gut feeling that did not usually let her down. “A discerning eye,” her father had called it lovingly, when she was small and not a single detail that changed in the house evaded her scrutiny. Her father would enjoy quizzing her on “What’s the same and what’s different?” And he enjoyed it even more when she always got the answers right.
Her mother hadn’t been as enthusiastic about this trait of Chaiky’s, but over the years, she’d come to terms with it. It was actually a blessed trait that had been very beneficial at times. Chaiky wasn’t arrogant; she knew there were plenty of virtues that she didn’t have, but it was true that small details, often missed by most people, did manage to catch her eye. And a person was allowed to recognize his own attributes, wasn’t he?
And yes, she was allowed to think this, as well: If she would have been in Shlomo’s place, she wouldn’t be where he was now. What that meant was that she would never have let herself fall like he had. Not that Shlomo was naive. He wasn’t at all. But he would wave off small things that bothered her, and just keep going.
And that was how he had gotten to where he was now.
With a sigh, Chaiky screwed the juice bottle closed. Too bad. Now it wasn’t sealed like it had been before. Why had Elka opened it? Shlomo had bought it after Pesach. He must have forgotten that his wife and children didn’t really like mango flavor. And now that the bottle of juice was open, there was no one to drink it. By the time Shlomo came back, it would certainly be spoiled.
Night Flower, the newest novel by Esther Rapaport, author of Dance Of The Puppet and The Kenya Conspiracy is published by Israel Book Shop. Stay tuned for the next installment in next week’s Five Towns Jewish Times.