Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 7 of a new online serial novel, Divided Attention, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © 2010 by Israel Bookshop Publications
They stood together in the little yard behind the house; the others had gone already. The wall in front of them was cracked, scribbled, and covered with garish drawings.
“Try here,” Ronny said, proffering the metal can. “Remember, you gotta press and move the can at the same time to make letters.”
“What letters?” Rafi looked at the wall with a strange expression.
“Whatever you want to write.”
“But I don’t want to write anything.”
“Fine, you’re just practicing now anyway. Just write anything, and when you get there, you’ll write real stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Ronny laughed. “Who cares? You can write: ‘Chareidim, out!’ or ‘We don’t want you in our neighborhood!’”
“They’re not in our neighborhood.”
“They’re in that neighborhood and we want them out. Forget it; it doesn’t matter. Now stop beating around the bush. Let’s see if you can even use this spray can with those skinny fingers of yours.”
Rafi pressed the nozzle can and a wavy black line appeared on the dirty wall.
“Great. Now write your name or somethin’.”
A fuzzy, fragmented ‘R’ slowly appeared on the wall, followed by an equally shaky ‘a’.
“Nice. Good job,” Ronny complimented Rafi. “You gotta practice more. Try an ‘f’.”
But Rafi put the can down on the ground. “I wanna write with real paint,” he said with surprising confidence. “I’m no good at this. And gimme a note with what you want me to write.”
“A note? Why?”
“So I’ll remember.”
Ronny shrugged and decided to let it pass. The kid wanted a paintbrush and paint? Fine. What difference did it make? “Now, c’mere,” he said, pointing to the front yard. “Wait here a second.” If he wanted to keep Zimmer on his side, he couldn’t only resort to the stick part of the carrot and stick deal. He had to provide some carrots, too.
Rafi shivered in the cold evening.
“Here,” Ronny said, appearing again at the entrance to the storage room. He took the five steps in one leap and held something out to Rafi. “That’s your salary,” he said solemnly. “So you don’t think I’m workin’ ya for nothin’.”
Rafi’s eyes lit up. “I can do whatever I want with this?”
“Whatever you want. Clothes, toys, whatever.”
They both fell silent.
“I’m going,” Rafi said. “When should I come tomorrow?” Finally, the complete submission for which Ronny was so anxiously waiting.
“Ten at night,” he replied. “And remember, not a word to anyone, okay?”
Ronny watched his receding back, wondering what was going through the boy’s mind. Fear? Joy? Escape plans?
He had no way of knowing that Rafi was focused on just one thing. He stared trancelike at the purple bill in his hand, his mind dominated by a single question:
Was it possible to buy shoes with fifty shekels?
Sari Dinner parted from her friend Gila in the lobby of the Leibowitz family’s building. “I’ve been so bad,” she said guiltily. “Since the chessed girls started coming from my mother’s school, I’ve been coming here much less. It’s so not nice of me. I’m going up now. Bye, Gila! See you!”
Ariella answered Sari’s knock. “Sari’s here! Sari’s here!” she sang excitedly, dragging her older cousin into the kitchen. “Do you know Nava? She’s here now. Is she in your school? Are you in the same class?”
“Hold on a second,” Sari said; the name sounded remotely familiar. Her mother barely mentioned names of her students, but when she did, it was always in a positive context. Sari recalled that she had mentioned a Nava who had reassured her on the first day of school that the paint on the wall was already dry. Maybe this was the same girl.
“Hi,” she said to the girl washing the dishes while listening to little Moishy prattle about everything and nothing at the same time.
“Hello,” Nava replied with a smile. “Do you also volunteer here?”
“I’m their cousin. Are you from Rabbi Reich’s school?”
“Uh-huh.” Nava smiled again and picked up another plate.
“You girls are terrific, and so dedicated. Whenever I come, the kids are all so calm.”
“Thanks for the compliments,” Nava said, turning off the faucet. “But our school really gets all the credit. They came up with the idea and organized it, and they make sure it all runs smoothly.” She picked Moishy up and carried him off to the bathroom for a bath.
Sari remained in her place near the fleishig sink. “Who brought you lunch?” she asked Elazar, who was staring at her with round eyes. “What did you eat?”
“We ate fish,” he said, wrinkling his nose. “Fish with sauce that we got in white Styrofoam boxes. Abba made mashed potatoes.”
“You don’t like fish?”
“No. You do?”
“So-so. My mother makes it sometimes and I eat it. It’s kibbud av v’eim, you know.”
“But my mother doesn’t even know if I eat it,” the six-year-old said, clearly puzzled. “I only talk to her at night. Some days, when she’s too tired, I don’t talk to her at all.”
“Still, it’s important for you to eat what you’re served,” Sari said. “First of all, it’s also kibud av v’eim for your father, who really wants you to eat. And besides, even if a mother doesn’t know exactly what her children are doing, she wants the best for them. She wants them to be healthy and strong. When you talk to your mother, ask her if she wants you to eat whatever you’re served. I’m sure she’ll say yes. She wants the best for you.”
“And also that I should be a good boy?”
“And that you should be a good boy, too, yes.”
That evening at home, Rafi lay sprawled on the floor in the front hallway. Sundry items were scattered on the floor all around him, but he didn’t deign them a second glance. He just kicked them out of the way to clear some space for himself. Legs swinging behind him, chin on his palms, he perused a little note.
The kitchen door suddenly opened and a scratchy voice called out, “Rafi! Where are you? Where?”
“I’m here.” He stood up, his elbows aching from being pressed against the floor, and quickly pushed the note onto one of the nearby shelves that were covered in dust. Once, a row of small potted plants had decorated this shelf; Ima would water them every day. But the plants had long withered and died, and all that was left were the ceramic pots, full of dry, cracked, rock-hard earth. He knew there wasn’t a chance in the world that Ima would notice the note even if he was holding it in plain sight. But still, just in case, it was better to have the note hidden away.
“Did you go visit Shira today?”
“Shira? Huh? I don’t even know where they took her!”
His mother swayed as she staggered over to the lone chair near him. “I thought maybe you went to bring her back,” she sighed. One of the bulbs in the ancient fixture above them flickered a few times and then went out, casting the already dim room into even more shadows.
“Bring her back?” He smiled woefully—too woefully for a child who was not yet nine years old. “But there’s no food for her here!”
“There’s a banana… and maybe an apple…”
“There’s a banana? Where?” He stood up straighter.
His mother chuckled quietly. “There’s a banana… but only for Shira. You don’t need it. You’ll get anyway.”
“I don’t get anything!” He stamped his foot with characteristic childish anger. “You’re my mother and you have to give me!”
Her quiet chuckles continued. “The banana is for Shira. She’s cute,” his mother whispered, supporting her head with her hands. “Tell Sarah to bring Shira back to me and I’ll give you to eat.”
Rafi rattled the kitchen doorknob furiously. “I won’t tell Sarah anything!” he howled. “I don’t care about Sarah, or about Shira! And no one cares about me, either!”
He stormed into the kitchen and pulled the refrigerator door open. As usual, the shelves were crammed with packages of smoked meat, pastrami, salami, and the like, as well as bottles of drinks. That was the only food his mother ever bought.
“I hate this meat!” he screamed, and couldn’t care less that no one was listening to him. “Why don’t you buy normal food? Why don’t you buy me bananas, and macaroni and crackers and whatever else normal people eat?!”
He began flinging open the cabinet doors one after another, slamming them closed as he discovered that they were bare except for empty wrappers and packages. The garbage can was full of disposable plates, the type that the woman who delivered food brought along with her. Some of these plates were thrown under the dirty kitchen table. Two half-started bags of bread sat on the table. Rafi grabbed a slice of bread from one of them and bit into it forcefully.
“I’m eating wood!” he grumbled as he went back out to the dining room, where his mother was sitting with her eyes closed. “I’m eating wood, and you couldn’t care less! I hate it when that welfare woman comes, but at least she brings normal food! Why did you tell her to stop coming? Why?” He took another bite out of the stale bread.
It wasn’t his mother’s voice; nor was it Sarah, the social worker’s, voice. It was Rina, the guidance counselor from school. She was standing near the open door to the house, looking at him unsmilingly.
He dashed over to the door. “Why did you open the door without knocking?” he asked angrily.
“The door wasn’t closed all the way,” she replied, looking over his shoulder. “And you didn’t hear me knocking, I guess.”
“Why did you come?”
“I wanted to see your house. I work together with the Welfare Ministry and the Children’s Services. I came today instead of Sarah.”
“You don’t have to see my house; it’s not interesting anyway,” he said aggressively, placing his foot on the inside of the door.
“Don’t worry, Rafi. If you don’t let me in, I’ll stay outside. I just wanted to check that you’ve come home already.”
“From where you went.”
“Why are you following me? It’s none of your business!” He punched the wall with a reddened fist.
“You’re really right,” Rina agreed. “It’s not my business, and I also see that you are in the middle of eating dinner. So I really don’t want to bother you.”
The boy stared at the half-eaten, stale slice of bread in his hand, and then at her. For a moment, she thought he wanted to say something, but he seemed to change his mind. “And I have to say,” she continued placidly, “that I’m so impressed with you.” His eyes emitted small green sparks, but she continued. “I mean it. And you don’t have to look at me like you want to swallow me. I think that you’re very mature, and you manage so well by yourself with the food and laundry and everything else.”
“The neighbor does the laundry,” he murmured, the sparks dimming somewhat.
“Yes, but it’s your responsibility. You remember yourself when you have to change a shirt, and you put everything in the bag, and you take showers. And I know that it’s very hard.”
“Tell me what you want already.”
“To ask you why,” Rina said simply.
“Why you do it.”
He laughed, and Rina felt like she was talking to an adult. “Because otherwise, I’d die. You’re a funny lady. If I don’t take food myself, no one’s gonna give me.”
“Of course, if you’re here, you have to be very responsible,” Rina said cautiously. “But I don’t understand why you want to be here. You could go to a nice family who will give you whatever you need and do everything to make life good for you.”
“I don’t want to go to any nice families,” Rafi said, starting to shove the door closed. “I’m not interested, y’hear?”
“Okay, that’s your choice,” Rina said, shifting her pocketbook to the other shoulder. Standing so long in front of the door like this was beginning to hurt her shoulder blades. “Goodb—”
“And no family wants me, either.”
Rina’s hand froze in mid-wave. “Nonsense.”
Rafi fixed her with a withering glare. “Don’t tell me, ‘Nonsense’! Sarah herself said that I’m so wild and that families don’t want me to live with them!”
Surprisingly, there was a trace of pride in his voice.