Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 8 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
Ayala’s pen suddenly dried up and refused to write. She walked over to the supply drawer, hoping she’d find a pen that wrote in a decent color. Near the cabinet in the hallway stood Sari with—what else—the receiver pressed to her ear.
“Excuse me a minute, Sari,” Ayala said.
Still talking to her friend on the phone, Sari moved over, allowing her mother to reach the drawer. “I don’t think the girls are going to like it, Gila. We need something more active, more challenging. We’re not little girls anymore. Listening to a good story while sitting in a circle on the grass is just not going to do it. We have to seriously think about this.”
Ayala found three pens, two blue and one black. She took them all to the table so she could see which, if any of them, actually wrote. Pens are like batteries, she mused. People don’t like throwing them out even when they start to fade, because, “Maybe we can still get some more use out of it, and we’ll check it when we have a chance.” But when you’re looking for a pen that really has something left, all the almost-finished pens become a real pain in the neck!
The black pen was the only one that wrote normally. One blue pen just scraped the page, and Ayala put it aside, making a mental note not to put it back in the drawer, but to throw it out—something that should have been done long ago. The second pen formed something resembling letters, but it was so faint that it was barely legible. It, too, joined the garbage pile.
“Ima?” Sari entered the kitchen. “Did you find a pen? You can borrow mine.”
“Thanks,” Ayala said with a smile. “I found one. I just hope it’s not almost finished also! Are you planning a program with Gila?”
“Uh-huh. Morah Levy asked us to prepare a program for the field trip we’re taking the day after tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Sari said, putting the pen she had brought onto the table, forgetting that her mother had already found one herself. “She called us over… I think it was two days ago, and told us that she thinks that we’re the right girls for the job.”
“Great,” Ayala said, forcing another smile. Once, a long time ago, Sari would have shared most of her experiences with her. Lately, Ayala felt that she was slowly being sidelined from her daughter’s life. Was “sidelined” too harsh of a word? Sari was her oldest daughter, her first teenager, and she had heard about this stage in the past. But when it hits home and affects you personally, it really is much more painful that when you read about it in letters that worried mothers write to advice columnists…
“Nice shoes, Rafi. Where’d ya get them?”
“I went to the Mashbir first,” he replied, scanning the large, dark yard. “But the lady told me to come back with my mother or some other adult. And anyway, those shoes cost too much, so I went to old Yishai’s bazaar an’ he said these are good.”
“Ah, from his box outside?”
Rafi confirmed Ronny’s words with a nod.
“Great!” Ronny laughed and led his young friend closer to the building. Getting into the courtyard was as easy as jumping over the fence. Ronny stopped at the foot of the tree. “See, Rafi? All you gotta do is climb about fifteen feet and you’re at the window.” His finger pointed upwards. “That window is at the end of the hallway.”
“How d’you know?” Rafi asked, fingering the little note in the pocket of his shirt. The seam on the side of the pocket had almost completely unraveled, and Rafi touched his pocket every few minutes to make sure the note hadn’t fallen out. “And how d’you know there’s no security door at the office?”
Ronny slapped him on the shoulder and Rafi almost collapsed from the blow. “Leave that to me, kid. You just climb, get in, go down to the first floor, and do what I told you. Take the paint and the brush and put on these gloves.”
“Ya don’t wanna leave fingerprints, do you?” Ronny grew serious. “Remember, kid, if you meet someone, pretend you’re just a dumb, bored kid looking for a little fun. I didn’t send you; got it?”
Rafi looked at the black eyebrows drawn together, connected by a threatening crease in Ronny’s forehead. “No, no,” he hurried to promise, “I won’t say nothin’.”
“Good. So get on with it.”
Rafi smiled weakly and lifted his right hand. For the next few minutes Ronny kept his eye on the figure as he rose higher into the branches. The tree was broad and leafy, and easy to climb. Ronny wondered why the school hadn’t thought to put bars on a window so close to a tree. They must have assumed that no one would even be interested in getting into the building.
The branch Rafi was on led right to the wall, and the little window, without the glass pane, appeared in front of him. He panted with exertion and looked down at the older boy, but the cloud of leaves concealed Ronny from his view. Rafi grabbed the window frame, and in a few seconds, he was sitting on the sill, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his sweater. His eyes wandered over the row of faucets in the wall, with large plastic cups tied to them with thin chains. He bit his lips and jumped onto the stone floor below.
He was standing at the beginning of a long, dark corridor, and the thought that he was about to walk into that darkness made him clench his teeth as he tried to control his fear. He took a deep breath, thought of Ronny waiting below, and began to walk slowly, passing by open doors through which he could see silent desks in straight rows facing dark boards. It was so eerily quiet. His imagination ran wild as he pictured creatures jumping out from under the desks, and he tried to swallow the fear that welled up in his throat, as his arms trembled uncontrollably.
He finally reached the end of the corridor, and the bank of stairs that led to the lower floor. He descended slowly, holding the banister tightly, and hoped that the office was right at the bottom of the steps and not at the other end of the corridor. “It’s just opposite the entrance to the building,” Ronny had explained, “and there’s a sign on the door, so you’ll be able to see it.”
The stairs finished at the head of an equally long corridor, although this one was slightly less dark. Rafi didn’t know if the moonbeams had managed to penetrate through some opening, or if his eyes had just adjusted to the darkness; whatever it was, it still didn’t make him any keener on taking a hike down this hallway.
But he had no choice. Ronny was waiting outside for results, and there was no sign on any of the doors near him. They were all open, and he could see the rectangular desks lined up in each classroom.
Rafi began walking down this second corridor, trying to look ahead instead of to either side of him. The bottle of paint in his pocket thumped to the rhythm of his steps. He squinted his eyes and noticed a wide, brown door that was really divided into two. Oh, so this was the entrance.
But facing it were two doors with signs on them, not one. Rafi took out the key Ronny had given him and tried the lock on the door closest to him. The door opened easily with the key, and Rafi pushed it open and entered.
This was not the office. In the center of the room was a very long table surrounded by narrow chairs. It must be the teachers’ room, Rafi decided. He wanted to walk out, but a long, tube-shaped package wrapped in shiny green paper caught his eye. As he looked at the package, he remembered that, except for some stale bread and five puddings, he hadn’t eaten a thing that day. He walked towards the table and tugged at the packaging until it tore open. A few crackers tumbled onto the table. Rafi chose three, put two in his pocket, and nibbled on the third as he left the room.
Then he turned to the next door. This time, the key did not work as easily; first it didn’t go into the lock all the way, and then it refused to turn. But after some pushing and pulling, the door finally opened.
Rafi entered the room slowly. A window facing the backyard of the school allowed the circle of yellow from the streetlamp outside to illuminate the room. A small orange light glowed from the computer on the desk. Rafi pulled the keyboard toward him and pressed the keys. Nothing happened.
“What should I do here?” Rafi asked the walls, enjoying the sound of his voice. It was certainly more pleasant than the deafening, oppressive silence in which he had been enveloped. What had Ronny wanted? A mess?
He turned the keyboard over; that was a start. It was a bit restrained by the cable, but with a bit of tugging, that also gave. Perhaps he should disconnect the computer? He clambered up onto the desk and wildly grabbed the cables from behind the console. The orange light flickered for a minute and then went out.
Rafi looked around him and saw a large closet. But it was locked, and Ronny’s key was useless. However, the desk had several drawers, and they were not locked. He pulled them out one after the other and scattered their contents all over the floor. A calculator and hole puncher clattered to the floor, followed by so many paper clips that Rafi couldn’t even count them. Suddenly he felt fired up. What a shame that his classmates weren’t here now to see him.
The small canister of paint shifted in his pocket, reminding Rafi that it was there. He took it out, along with the paintbrush and Ronny’s note, and stared at the wall in front of him. There was a large, brown picture frame filled with many small, smiling faces. Rafi tugged at the frame, but it refused to budge from the wall. He dragged over a chair, and unhooked it from the wall, staring at it. So many children looking out at him!
“Stop looking at me!” he said angrily, but the children in the picture refused to listen to him. Some of them looked angry. “I didn’t want to come; Ronny made me!” Rafi said, but it didn’t look like they were convinced.
“I’m gonna show you!” He stamped his foot angrily, opened the paint bottle, and poured it onto the picture. A thick, black puddle slowly spread, covering the smiling children one by one. Rafi dipped the paintbrush into the pool and smeared paint over the entire picture. Then he picked up the note, perused it carefully, and began to copy it, shape by shape, onto the wall.
“Hello! Come in; what a surprise!” Manny Cohen exclaimed, obviously caught off-guard .
His son and daughter-in-law entered the house, followed by three-year-old Danny, who looked at his grandfather with a small smile.
“Danny, ask Saba: ‘How are you?'” Shimon instructed his son.
“How are you, Saba?” the boy repeated obediently.
“Baruch Hashem, very good. And how are you?”
“Good. Where’s Nava and Savta?”
“They went shopping. We didn’t know you were coming.”
“I hope you don’t have to go anywhere now,” Shimon said in a somewhat injured tone.
“No, I just got back from kollel, and even if I had other plans, my job now is to host you!” Manny said cheerfully.
“Don’t burn bridges at any cost,” Rav Fisher had told him regarding his relationship with Shimon. It was a shame Manny hadn’t thought to ask for the Rav’s guidance earlier; if he had done so, perhaps they would have been walking along the same bridge today…
Rina sat down on the edge of the sofa. “The truth is that I wanted to talk to Ima,” she said with a smile, “but what I have to say is directed at you, as well, so I’m glad that at least you are here, and you can convey to Ima what I said.”
“I hope she’ll be back soon,” her father-in-law replied, smiling as he watched his grandson frolic around the room. Anyone looking a bit deeper into the smiling eyes, though, would have seen the sadness that emanated from within. Oy, my grandson… So much not the way I would have wanted to see you!
But neither Shimon nor Rina tried to look deep into his eyes at that moment.
Manny shifted his gaze away from the open window, trying to avoid looking out at the street, where he’d inevitably catch a glimpse of other three-year-old boys. Little boys with peyos, straight or curled, in front of or behind their ears. And with yarmulkes and tzitzis. Little three-year-old boys, just like Danny.
And then the overwhelming pain, combined with guilt, would rise inside him, threatening to drive him out of his mind. Like his wife Yael said frequently, there was no way to know if the results wouldn’t have been the same had they acted differently. Shimon had been too old by the time they became religious. Still, Manny Cohen knew that until his dying day, he would carry the terrible feeling that it was his fault that half of his children were following the wrong path. He couldn’t argue with his heart. Was there a chance that the solution he had recently come up with could somewhat quiet the disturbing thoughts?
“I don’t know if you know this, but I now also work part-time at the municipality,” Rina said. “And, as part of my work, I have access to the welfare files.” She fell silent.
Manny wasn’t sure how he was supposed to respond. Was this an opening to the subject he had been thinking about so much lately? That was the impression he was getting…
Rina took a deep breath, then continued. “I saw your name there on the list of families willing to take a foster child.”
Manny nodded quietly, still unsure of what other response to give. What was he supposed to do—apologize?
Shimon rose and walked into the kitchen. Manny heard the cabinet door open and close and then Shimon returned with a bottle of juice and some cups. “Drink, drink,” he said, laughing. “Feel at home.”
Rina took a cup and held it in two hands. “I thought…” she said cautiously, “that I might be able to make some suggestions. I know more than one child who is lacking and badly needs just what you might be offering.”
Shimon poured himself a drink and then spoke up. “But what do you need this for, Abba? Where did you get this strange idea from?” He downed the contents of his cup and looked at his father.
Manny was quiet. They had discussed this idea extensively before reaching their decision. He had been the one to push it, but even Yael agreed that it was a good idea. Nava was happy on the one hand, and a bit apprehensive on the other. But when Rav Fisher declared that it was a chessed and a big mitzvah, the last doubts fell away.
And now his oldest son had shown up and started to ask questions.