Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 1 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
The large bag contained just a few garments; too few.
“When it gets full, you’ll take it down to Mrs. Brown, the neighbor, alright?” Sarah would say every time she visited. Once, a long time ago, perhaps even a year ago, Ima would wash the clothes herself. But she didn’t do that anymore. Now she only washed clothes for herself and for Shira. She had completely forgotten about Rafi.
Mrs. Brown would take the full bag from him and after a day, sometimes two, he would find it waiting outside the door when he came home from school. She never asked for money, but he knew that Sarah gave her lots of money. Sometimes the woman from the social services would come and arrange the closet, checking whether he had enough clean clothes. But neither she nor Sarah understood why the bag filled so slowly, while the shelves in the closet looked almost the same every time.
Only Rafi knew, as did the children in his class.
“You’ve been wearing that shirt for a whole week already!” Avi Gelbart had sneered just yesterday, pinching his nose closed. “What a smell! Ugh! Like fish!”
Everyone standing around Avi had laughed, but Rafi knew that Avi was lying. Fish? Nonsense. There wasn’t any fish in their house, nor was there chicken. Rafi thought that Ima must have long forgotten how to cook. Sometimes Sarah or the other lady brought a bit of food, but that was it.
Rafi didn’t tell Avi that he was a liar, though; he didn’t tell him anything at all. All the kids could laugh all they wanted at Avi’s words—but they wouldn’t dare laugh at Rafi’s fists. And that’s what Rafi used now to answer Avi. He didn’t care that Avi limped around until lunchtime; Rafi knew it was just a show so that their teacher, Mrs. Davidi, would have pity on Avi and send him, Rafi, the “big, bad bully,” to the principal. This time, however, Mrs. Davidi didn’t send him to the principal. Instead, she just announced in that horrible voice of hers what a shame it was that they had such a boy in their class.
And, as usual, everyone laughed.
They had been laughing at him since first grade, when he would come to school with his clothes on backwards. He wondered if they knew how to dress themselves at that age, the spoiled brats! But that didn’t happen anymore. He knew exactly how to check if his clothes were on right, and if he could see the stitching on the outside, he knew he had to turn the garment inside-out.
Rafi had learned to do lots of things himself. Still, Sarah said that a boy of eight-and-a-half can’t do everything himself. She also said that he wasn’t eating properly, and that it was important for a growing boy to eat healthy food. She wanted to take him somewhere else, where he would have a different Abba and Ima, who would take care of him and prepare healthy meals for him to eat. But he didn’t want to go. Maybe Ima would suddenly decide that she loved him as much as she loved Shira? Perhaps she would suddenly have an urge to cook something especially for him? It would be such a shame if he wouldn’t be home just then.
But he didn’t explain all that to Sarah. She wouldn’t understand anyway.
The rusty metal shelves of the old bookcase creaked noisily as Ita Blumenstock accidentally banged into them on the way to the supply closet. She cast the old shelves a fleeting glance and added, “And now, if you don’t mind clearing away these metal shelves, I’d be most pleased. We’ve had more than enough of them.”
The man with the peaked cap raised a questioning set of eyes from the tools scattered around him on the floor. “Excuse me? I am a carpenter by profession and I assemble wooden closets; I don’t clear away junk metal.”
“I made it very clear with the proprietor of your carpentry shop,” Mrs. Blumenstock replied self-importantly, as she stroked the new wooden bookcases. The Formica gleamed. “We do not have extra money to pay separately for the old shelves to be hauled away. You can verify it with your boss.” She pointed in the direction of the office phone.
Nechama, the only teacher who had a free period just then, raised her eyes from the mountain of tests she was grading, and hastily lowered them again.
“I’ll call him from here,” the worker said, drawing a cellular phone out of his pocket.
“Bernard? It’s Alex. Tell me, what’s this lady talking about? You told her that I’m taking the…? What? Yes, I see…” He listened for a few more seconds. “Well, if you say so, it’s certainly fine with me.” He hung up the phone and turned to his taciturn assistant. “Come on, Benny. Let’s start getting this thing out of here.”
“Only take the shelves on the left, the empty ones,” Ita told them. “The ones on the right are still full; you’ll take those tomorrow.”
“Mazel tov on the new bookshelves, Mrs. Blumenstock,” Nechama said as the two workers left the rather small room.
Most of the teachers here knew each other and called Mrs. Blumenstock, “Ita”. Just plain Ita. But Nechama couldn’t. She was far too young for such familiar appellations. “Mrs. Blumenstock,” or, at most, “Morah Ita,” was what she’d say for now.
“Let’s hope that these bookshelves make it easier for all of us,” the assistant principal said, gazing around the room. “This place was painted four days before school started. Now, against the new Formica, I see how bad the doors look. We’ll have to deal with that as well.”
Alex, who had entered the room at that moment, exchanged a quick look with his assistant. “Let’s get out of here quick, Benny,” he whispered none too quietly. “Or else she’ll find some obscure line in that contract with Bernard that says we have to paint, too!”
Morah Ayala Dinner stopped short at the entrance to the room. “How nice!” she exclaimed. “Oh, hi, Nechama! When did these new bookcases get here?”
Nechama smiled. She had liked Ayala and her natural exuberance from the moment she had met her. Ayala’s warm smile had welcomed her to the school and it had been very instrumental in cushioning those first days as a rookie teacher. “They arrived about twenty minutes ago. Have you cleared out your cubby in the old shelf yet?”
“Then you probably would want to do it quickly. If I understood correctly, they’re throwing out the old shelves that are left tomorrow.”
Ayala looked at her watch. “I have fifteen minutes till class starts. I came early today because I need the secretary to photocopy a sheet for me. From my experience with our copy machine, it could take more than quarter of an hour, too. I’m going; we’ll see if I have a few minutes to spare for the cubby.”
She returned rather quickly. “Baruch Hashem, the machine was in a good mood today. Just a minute; which one of these new cubbies is mine, anyway? Do you have any idea?”
Nechama looked up from the test she was working on. “Do you think it makes a difference?”
“I don’t, but you never know. They may have worked out some type of system. Well, I’ll just put my things down here on the table and I’ll ask Ita during recess. I haven’t seen her yet today.”
“She was here just a few minutes ago.”
“So maybe she’s upstairs. Now, which of these piles belongs to me? I don’t think I’ve touched anything here in at least a month.” She rifled through some of the papers. “Oh, now I see what’s mine—there’s that sheet on the Karai’m and the war against them. I was actually wondering during my last historiah lesson why I was missing a few sheets.” She plunked the pile down on the table with an exaggerated sigh. “I’m going to see how much of this pile can go straight into the trash can. It’s a shame to ruin such beautiful new shelves with my endless piles of papers.”
“I see you’re really excited about the shelves,” Nechama said with a chuckle, pausing again from her grading. This time, at least, she welcomed the distraction. The effort it took to decipher the illegible handwriting was exhausting.
“Excited? Not really. I’ve just decided to take advantage of every iota of this new beginning and enjoy it. In principle, I like new things. So why shouldn’t I look at my transfer here in a positive light, as a door opening to fresh, new opportunities?” she explained as she emptied her overflowing briefcase onto the table. “And there are a lot of those here right now.”
“I see. Um, what are you doing?”
“I’ve decided to organize my briefcase once I’m in the organizational mode anyway. Oy!” From under the piles of paper and numerous bags, she extracted a green, vinyl-covered notebook. “Look what I found! How could I have forgotten about it?”
Nechama glanced at the object of Ayala’s dismay. “What did you find? Oh, your log book? I lost mine, too, about a month ago, and I still can’t find it.”
“What month? Which month? I haven’t written a single word in it yet!”
“Isn’t there a teachers’ meeting in the near future? Aren’t the log books going to be used for something?”
“Do I know?” Ayala put the notebook back into her briefcase. “You know, come to think of it, I think I heard Ita planning something for a week or two from now. Well, I’ll have to see what to do with this log book when I get home.”
Nechama threw her a look of encouragement. “You’ll reconstruct things from memory. You’re good at writing, aren’t you?”
“Thanks for the compliment.” Alaya smiled. “But how am I supposed to remember what happened two-and-a-half or three months ago? You’re so efficient. You probably started writing that same evening after the first teachers’ meeting, when we got our log books, and haven’t missed a week since.”
“I’m telling you that I haven’t written a thing for over a month!” Nechama protested. She gave a sigh. “Oy, I hope I find it soon.”
“You’ll find it, b’ezras Hashem,” Ayala said, sticking the pens that had rolled around the table into her briefcase as well.
The old bell clanged loudly, causing both teachers to startle.
“I guess I’ll have to put my pile back in the cubby and deal with it on my next break!” Ayala said. “Now it’s time for class.”
Ayala and Nechama walked out of the teachers’ room together.
“Which class do you have now, Ayala?” Ita Blumenstock, the assistant principal, stopped them as they walked down the hall.
“Me? The class I’m the mechaneches for—9A.”
“Good. So the girls from 9C will be joining you today. Miriam couldn’t come in to teach today.”
“9A and 9C together? Oh, no. Ita, do you expect me to actually teach them?”
“Of course. I don’t think you’ll have any problem. One thing’s for sure; it’ll probably give you a few anecdotes for your green notebook,” Ita pointed out with a smile.
“You know, Ayala,” Ita continued, “your notebook is of special interest to me. Your abilities to express yourself and see things from an interesting angle have probably made your entries fascinating.”
Ayala shifted her heavy briefcase to her other shoulder. The green book resting deep inside—completely empty—was suddenly weighing her bag down terribly. “Well, I-I really hope you’re right,” she said, noticing out of the corner of her eye that Nechama had tactfully slipped away to her own class. “By the way, when do you want it for?”
“Depends when we’ll have the teachers’ meeting. A few days before that.” The noise coming from the end of the corridor hastened the assistant principal to conclude the conversation. “Bye, Ayala. Good luck in class!”
Ayala hurried towards the classroom, her mind still on her empty log book. There’d be no choice, apparently. She’d have to sit down at home with a calendar and try to reconstruct the events that had happened since school had begun. Hadn’t she just said that she liked beginnings? Well, then, here was her opportunity to go back in time a bit. To the beginning.
A mountain of suitcases dominated the corner of the room, but Ayala hastily turned her eyes away from it to focus on her primary task at hand: putting the children to sleep.
“Moishy, where are your pajamas?” she asked wearily. “I put them next to your pillow. Why are you still dressed in your clothes?”
“Ima, should I start unpacking?” Sari, her oldest, offered. “Or should I help you put the kids into bed?”
“The most important thing is to get the kids into bed,” Ayala replied as she grabbed the first little arm that passed her by. “Moishy, you’re still here? Quickly, into the shower! Where’s Shlomo? Dina, what’s with you?”
“Abba’s bathing Shlomo and I’ll take care of Dina,” Sari said. “You sit down and relax a bit, Ima.”
“I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to relax until this pile disappears,” Ayala said, patting the top suitcase. “And I’m even more afraid that it’s only going to happen tomorrow. We all need some sleep desperately, and I’d love to be in bed in an hour at the latest—if I don’t fall asleep right here, that is!”
“What an idea—” Sari stopped in mid-sentence to pick up the ringing phone. “Ima, it’s for you. Should I say you’re too tired?”
“No, I can still talk,” Ayala said. “Can you pass me the cordless, please?” For some reason, her legs felt like they were glued to the chair. She thanked the ever-efficient Sari and took the phone from her.
“Hello?” she said, yawning quietly.
“Hi, Ayala. It’s Miriam. Welcome home. How was Tzfas?”
“Baruch Hashem, really nice.”
“As nice as it could be with sagging beds, lots of ants, mattresses with the stuffing coming out, and disposable dishes, huh?” Miriam said.
The two of them laughed.
“The main thing is that the children enjoyed it, “Ayala said. “As for us, believe me, I didn’t even have the strength to think. But overall, it wasn’t bad at all.”
“And now you’re finally home.”
“Baruch Hashem!” Ayala said fervently.
Miriam coughed. “The truth is that I didn’t want to spoil your pleasant homecoming, Ayala…”
“Pleasant?” Ayala murmured, quickly glancing around her. The first impression that she got was one of socks. There was a sock thrown near the door and its mate was somewhere behind the chair. Another pair was tossed near Moishy’s shoes (it was nice of him to put them in their place, more or less), and another few unidentifiable ones were thrown around randomly. Leah was sleeping sitting up on the couch. Again, Ayala willed herself to look away from the messy scene. She leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. “Just tell me, Miriam. Does anyone know for sure what’s happening with our school?”
She already knew, of course, that something was happening with the school where she taught. Another high school was opening this year, to try and ease the pressure of the huge registration in the other high schools, or rather to try and solve the Problem of problems, the topic most discussed in the eighth grade classes throughout the year and right through the summer: the girls who hadn’t been accepted anywhere. A Rabbi Reich was to be the principal of this new high school, and it was common knowledge among Ayala and the other teachers that Rabbi Reich was good friends with the principal from their school. That fact was supposed to have significant effects on internal changes in their veteran, established high school, although no one knew quite what those effects would be. What had Miriam found out? What, if anything, had been clarified in this thoroughly murky situation?
“I don’t know if you can call it ‘knowing for sure,’ but there are some things that are definite,” Miriam began.
“Like what, for example?”
“Well, none of the homeroom teachers are being moved from our school to Rabbi Reich’s school.”
“What does that mean? Aren’t they transferring students from our school to Rabbi Reich’s school, in order to ease the pressure from our school of having so many students? So doesn’t that translate into us having fewer ninth grade classes than last year?”
“Right,” said Miriam. “Instead of six ninth grade classes, we’re only going to have four, and Baila Feig and Dina Rosen, who would have been the homeroom teachers of those other two classes, are going to become teachers for specific subjects instead. But we shouldn’t use the word ‘our’ so much, Ayala. And we should stop calling it ‘our school’.”
Ayala didn’t know if the socks were really jumping up threateningly at her or if she was imagining things. But it couldn’t have been a real dream, because not a trace remained anymore of her desire to sleep. She was completely alert now. “That means that…?” she asked tremulously. She was wary of changes and absolutely did not want to move to the new school, although, she knew, some teachers would consider such a placement change to be a compliment or a new opportunity.
Miriam felt the same way she did. “Yes, Ayala, it’s exactly what you’re thinking. The new school is going to have three ninth grade classes, and two of those classes are being moved in their entirety from our school,” she said in an ominous tone.
Ayala coughed, trying to speak about any other subject in the world in an effort to block out the news that she didn’t want to hear. “They’re transferring? Why? Is this like a new yeshivah that needs chizuk?”
“Could be that that’s the reason, but Ayala, don’t get off the main subject here just because you’re afraid to hear the news.”
Ayala sighed. “You know me too well, Miriam. Out with it.”
“The homeroom teachers for the new ninth grades will be someone new from Petach Tivkah, a woman named Kurtzberg or something like that, and the other two are none other than Ayala Dinner and her friend Miriam Gamliel. Do you know them? Until a month ago they still taught math and a few other subjects in the old, big high school.”
“I don’t believe it! How can you sound so calm, Miriam?”
“I’m already over the shock stage,” Miriam said tiredly. “That’s it. I’ve chewed it over, swallowed it, and digested it. You know I’m not the type to fight.”
“Neither am I. What do we do, Miriam?”
“Is there anything we can do? They knew exactly who to transfer without getting themselves into problems. But you know who else is moving, who’s sure to keep life interesting for us in this new school?”
Miriam paused for dramatic effect. “Ita.”
“Do you know another Ita? You have to admit, Ayala, that that is a bright spot for us.”
“Yes…” Ayala said, unable to fight the rising glumness within her, which was so uncharacteristic of her usual optimistic self. The mountain of suitcases in the corner of the room seemed to suddenly double in size.
No. She could not allow herself to wallow in this feeing for too long.
What happened, Ayala? They killed your rooster? Your donkey? Did the wind extinguish your candle? Is it only your children who have to internalize that everything is for the good? And what about you?
On with it, then. You’ve got quite a job ahead of you.
Two days later, a letter appeared in the mailbox from the administration of the new high school. The envelope bore a logo that was reminiscent of a street sign, with the words “Shisi L’mesilah” on it.
“What? What does that say?” Mordechai asked, gaping at the logo.
“It says ‘Shisi L’mesilah’. Can’t you read?” Moishy teased.
“But what is ‘Shisi L’mesilah’?”
“That’s Ima’s new school,” Sari updated them with a dour expression on her face. She took the envelope from her brothers and handed it to her mother, who had just stepped into the kitchen. “Really, what a name!”
“What’s so bad about it?” Ayala asked, calmly taking the letter.
“It’s the perfect name for a high school for girls who weren’t accepted anywhere else. Tell them to ‘strive for the path’. It’s so fake! And you know what the biggest problem is, Ima?”
“What?” Ayala hadn’t opened the envelope yet. She sat down on one of the gray kitchen chairs and listened to her daughter’s tirade.
“You know how every school gets a nickname. So what’s your school going to be called? They can’t call it ‘Mesilah,’ because that’s the nickname for Mesilah Maalah that opened four years ago. So what do you think this place is going to end up being called?”
“Shisi! Just plain Shisi. Don’t you think that’s awful?”
“Shisi?!” Mordechai and Moishy were nearly doubled over in laughter.
Ayala smiled. “Sari, dear, it doesn’t really make a difference to me if it’s an awful name or not. My question is: why does it matter so much to you?”
“I just don’t like the idea of you switching.” Sari opened the refrigerator and rummaged around in it restlessly.
“I didn’t know it meant so much to you that I teach in the same school as where you learn. In any case, I never taught your class.”
Sari’s expression did not change. “Yes, but that’s not the problem.”
“So what is?”
Her daughter sighed like she was at least seventy years old. “I was always happy that my mother was a high school teacher, because baruch Hashem, I didn’t have to worry about getting accepted to high school, and neither would Leah.” She stopped suddenly. “Do you think that your new principal, Rabbi Reich, is going to demand that his teachers send their daughters who graduate eighth grade to his school?”
Ayala was still calm. “I have no idea, but it’s definitely possible.”
“So Leah’s also going to have to go there next year?” Sari was close to tears. “And she’s going to have to be in a class with girls who were accepted only there?”
“Some of the girls in this new school were accepted to our school as well, er, I mean to your school,” Ayala tried to protest. “They were transferred to the new school.”
“Poor girls…” Sari said with arched eyebrows. “And poor Leah! She and you are both going to be in a school that’s so….so…”
“I don’t know. So pathetic. So miserable.”
“Who told you that that’s the way it’s going to be?”
“That’s how all new schools are at the beginning.”
“So give it a chance,” Ayala said pleasantly and opened the envelope. “And give me a chance, too.”
“Now this new school is Ima’s also!” Mordechai told his sister defensively. “Don’t say bad things about it! In the end, Ima will be so happy there, she’s going to want to stay there forever.”
“It’s not Ima’s school!” Sari shot back hotly, knowing that she sounded like a four-year–old but not caring enough to hold herself back. “It’s not hers at all, you hear?”
It was a typical afternoon in the lot opposite the large supermarket. A group of teens stood in a circle around one youth, who was apparently their leader. He wasn’t especially tall, nor was he overly thin or fat; nevertheless, his chiseled facial features indicated that he was fully aware of his status. He listened with a conceited expression to a story being related by one of the others in the group.
“But I don’t understand, Shai; why didn’t you leave? Were you that interested in the lesson?”
Chubby Shai reddened. “Well, no… But,” he began snickering, “but I didn’t want him to think he’d won. I mean, he should have been the one to leave!” The group roared with raucous laughter, but not before the boy in the middle laughed, giving the others the go-ahead to follow.
None of them noticed a short figure huddled behind the tall fence, creeping along slowly. Most of the boys had their backs to the fence, and even those facing it were too intent on their conversation to take note of the cat-like movements behind the wooden slats. The fence was the perfect cover.
The boys continued talking.
“You know that by us—” Ronny, the group leader, began. Suddenly, he jumped back in surprise. He whirled around with his trademark speed and grabbed the two little impudent fists that had dared to beat him on the back. But the attacker shook the older boy off quickly; compounded with the element of surprise, the boy was at an advantage. Ronny was left empty-handed, gaping at the younger boy’s retreating back as he fled.
Two of Ronny’s loyal lackeys wanted to jump over the fence and chase after the little imp, but their boss restrained them. “You won’t catch him,” he said brusquely. “He had too much of a head start. Anyone know what that was all about? Does anyone know the kid?”
“I think he’s Zimmer, from third grade,” someone said, squinting at the retreating figure. “He’s in my brother’s class; your brother’s also, Ronny. Your brother never talks about the weird kid? My brother’s told me crazy stories about him.”
“Dunno.” Ronny was still terse. His eight-year-old brother Avi was one of the things that interested him least in the world.
“There’s a paper there, behind the fence!” Boaz suddenly exclaimed, pointing to something between the slats. “Ya wannit, Ronny?”
That short utterance galvanized three boys from the group to grab the fence and clamber to the top. Two of them shimmied back down as Boaz reached the top first and jumped over. He stooped, picked up the white note, and then swung himself back to the other side of the fence in three quick moves. “Here you go,” he said, handing the note to Ronny.
No one dared read over Ronny’s shoulder. They all remained standing in place, curiously observing their friend, whose forehead was wrinkled in concentration.
“I don’t get it,” Ronny finally said. He passed around the paper, which had just one short line of square-ish, crooked letters written on it. “What does this say? Does anyone understand? T-Y-R-B-R…Tyr brudder?”
They put their minds to work.
“Maybe it has nothing to do with him,” someone guessed.
“And maybe…” Shai offered hesitantly. “Ya think it could say, ‘To your brother,’ Ronny?”
“You said the kid’s a friend of my brother Avi?” Ronny asked, fingering the note and staring off into the distance where the boy had disappeared. “I’ll talk to Avi tonight and hear what he has to say. I want to get to know this kid.”
“To know him?” Boaz snorted. “Don’t you have something to say to him about the way he attacked you just now? What nerve!”
“I might…” the leader said haughtily. “But right now that’s not so important. Whaddya think—that that kid’s scrawny fists hurt me? But his chutzpah interests me. Maybe I can make some use of him.”
This is great, I can’t wait for the next one!
I just received an email letting met know about this Online Serial and I am really excited! Thanks for notifying me!
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Love this idea – can’t wait for next week….