Divided Attention – Chapter 9

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 9 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

“Nothing’s missing.”

Rabbi Nechemia Paksher, principal of the Nachalas Yisrael school, stood with his arms folded and his expression uncharacteristically somber as he spoke to the police officer. He didn’t even have the option of slumping helplessly into a chair, because the chair—like most of the room—was covered with that horrid black paint. The drawers had been replaced, but a mound of crumpled, dirty papers littered the desk. Reb Nechemia sighed. “If I could catch that vandal, I’d really give it to him!”

“Citizens have no authority to punish,” the bespectacled officer responded blandly.

“Citizens also have no right to do this!” the principal snapped back, pointing at the wall. There was a message painted there, but the words were very unclear. “He can’t even write normally, this robber,” he added and stared again at the crooked letters. To him they seemed to say, “We don’t want you here,” but some of the letters were upside down or cut off, and he only figured out the whole sentence from the context.

“You said he didn’t take anything,” the officer said in a soothing tone.

“But he’s still a robber! Breaking in here isn’t called a robbery?”

“Where do you think he came in from?”

“I don’t know,” Reb Nechemia said, beginning to pace around the room.

“And where did he leave from?”

“Our front door is fashioned in a way that it can be opened from the inside, in the event that a child gets locked in. But now that you mention it, where did he get in from?”

“I looked around a little and found a window open upstairs,” the officer said.

“Well, why didn’t you say so before?! Which window?”

“At the end of the hallway, near the sinks.”

Reb Nechemia waved his hand dismissively. “That little window? The one that’s broken?”

“It also doesn’t have bars,” the policeman pointed out.

“But who could get into such a tiny hole?” Reb Nechemia wondered aloud.

“One of your younger students, perhaps?”

The principal stopped in mid pace and looked sharply at the officer. “No. It could not have been one of my students. Impossible!”

“Why are you so convinced?”

“Because none of my students would do such a thing!”

“Why are you so confident? Maybe it’s an angry brother of a student? Maybe it’s a prank by several students together? All in all, it’s not such a serious break-in, because they didn’t cause you any monetary damage!”

“No monetary damage? And what do you call the fifteen hundred shekels they took?”

The officer opened his pad again. “You said they didn’t take anything!”

“That’s right, but the new security door that I ordered as soon as I got here this morning cost me fifteen hundred shekels! And who’s directly responsible? The robber!”

“That is something you should have done long ago, sir,” the officer said and stuck his pen into the pocket of his starched shirt. “We’ll continue to look into it, but I’m telling you that this looks like an internal prank by some students. It’s a child, in my opinion. Don’t forget those crackers he ate!”

“Right, and from the look of things, manners aren’t his strong point,” the principal replied seriously. “He left some pieces in here, too.”

The officer nodded. “So we’ll let you know what our conclusions are. Meanwhile, I suggest you question some of your students. I’m sure you’ll find some interesting information.”

Reb Nechemia murmured something noncommittal and the two men shook hands before parting.

As the police officer was about to pull out, he heard someone calling him. He turned his eyes towards the left and saw the principal hurrying along the gravel path. “Wait a minute! Don’t go! You forgot this!”

“What?” the officer asked, puzzled, as he rolled down his car window. Rabbi Paksher stuck a glossy brochure through the open window. “Take this; it’s a Lev L’Achim brochure. When you have a few spare minutes, you should take a look at it. How did you put it? ‘I’m sure you’ll find some very interesting information.’”

The uniformed officer smiled politely, his first smile of the morning, said thank you, and for the second time, he shook the principal’s hand.

***

Who was that at the door? Or was it just the wind? Rafi ran to look.

“Oh, Ronny,” he said, instinctively stepping back and sliding the kitchen door closed. All he needed was for Ima to step out of there.

“You coming, Rafi?”

“Where to?”

“Where we went yesterday; where else? I want you to go in again before they start really looking for us. Looks like they took this pretty lightly; they didn’t even put bars on the window! They don’t expect us to come two nights in a row, so tonight’s the perfect time.”

Ronny’s eyes bore into the younger boy’s, and Rafi knew that refusing wasn’t an option. He also couldn’t say that the whole idea didn’t interest him and that he didn’t want to be involved. And he certainly couldn’t say he was afraid.

Afraid? Of what? The dark? A boy who is nearly nine isn’t afraid of the dark. What was he, a baby? And besides, it was sometimes nice to be with Ronny, better than being in this quiet house, virtually alone.

“Fine,” he said dully and pulled the string necklace with his key over his head. It had been Rina’s idea to hang the key around his neck, and it really was safer this way.

“It’s cold outside,” Ronny said when he saw Rafi getting ready to go out. “Don’t you have a coat or something?”

“No.” Actually, he did have a coat, a red coat that the neighbor had brought over for him, but he’d never wear it. Red was a girl’s color.

“D’you have a hat, at least?”

Rafi went to his room to rummage around in the empty drawers. Where was there supposed to be a hat? Deep in his sock drawer he found an old hat that he’d worn in preschool. He pulled it on his head, ignoring the fact that it was too small.

Ronny laughed when he saw him. “But it doesn’t cover your ears!”

“So what.” Rafi locked the door silently.

“I brought you red paint today,” Ronny whispered as they sat on the bus. The roads were empty and they were making excellent timing. “I don’t want it to get too boring for them!” He laughed nastily.

“How are we gonna get back? Do we have to walk again?” Rafi asked.

“If you’re too tired, we’ll stop a cab,” Ronny promised, not meaning a word of what he said.

“Maybe you help me today. I’ll open the door from the inside and you come in, too.” Rafi tried not to think about the two long, dark corridors waiting for him until he’d reach the door.

“Nah, I don’t wanna get in trouble,” Ronny said with a shrug. “Nothin’ll happen t’you if ya get caught. I’ll be in hot water.”

“Oh.”

Rafi didn’t say another word until they were standing at the bottom of the tree. Then he turned to Ronny. “Wait for me near the door, ‘kay?”

“Fine,” Ronny said. “Now, get up there already, quietly!”

Rafi retraced his steps of the previous evening. He climbed, entered, walked down one long dark hallway, then down the stairs, then down another dark hallway, and there was the office.

But there was a different door.

“Ronny!” He ran to the front door and opened it. “Ronny, they put a new door there. What should I do?”

“Too bad. Oh, well. So take care of another place.”

“What… take care?”

“You know, like yesterday. Get it dirty, make a mess, write on the walls.”

“Write what?”

“You can write the same thing as yesterday.”

But the little slip of paper was torn to shreds and hidden deep in the garbage can in Rafi’s house. “I’m too tired to write,” he said feebly. “I’m gonna draw them a picture.”

“Draw?” Ronny wrinkled his nose. A car drove down the street. “Alright, fine. Just do it already.” He leaned on the wall and peered inside through the crack that the almost closed door had left.

Rafi turned towards the teachers’ room and unlocked the door, which hadn’t been replaced. The first thing he did was look at the table; it was empty.

***

Reb Nechemia did not have to raise his head to identify the man with the French accent. “Yes, Mr. Cooperman,” he said tiredly, continuing to write. “Come in. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

The scrape of a chair indicated that the man had accepted the invitation.

Oy, what have they done to you here! It’s terrible. I see they even scribbled on my Yuval…” He placed a hand on the photograph on the table.

Reb Nechemia stopped for a moment and lifted his head. “We’ll replace the glass, b’ezras Hashem, if the paint doesn’t come off. No black paint can cover up my wonderful alumni.” He opened the drawer and put the paper he had been working on inside of it. Then he proffered his right hand to the man sitting opposite him. “Good morning, Mr. Cooperman. I have excellent reports for you from Meir’s teachers. What did he say when he got home?”

“Meir? He talked about the topic that I’m sure all the children came home talking about yesterday. I think you should reassure them, and speak to the parents, as well. I think the latest developments are a bit troubling, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Reb Nechemia said. “I just finished writing the letter that we’ll be sending to all the homes, and today the teachers are going to discuss it in class with the children.” He laughed hollowly. “Yesterday, I told them to devote a few minutes to the topic. Today I think they’re going to need a whole lesson…”

“This vandal’s got lots of nerve, coming one night after another, don’t you think?”

“Maybe he realized that the window upstairs stayed open and decided to chap arein another time,” the principal said. He closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them. “How did you hear about the second break-in already?”

“I didn’t know until I got here. I came today to talk to you about the first break-in, but the second one is giving me some new ideas.”

Reb Nechemia did not know how many years it had been since Cooperman had come to Israel. His Hebrew was excellent, but the accent? Like he’d gotten off the boat yesterday.

Cooperman was looking intently at the principal. “You know that I am a private investigator by profession,” he said.

“Yes, I recall.” Rabbi Paksher looked around him. What was there to investigate? Should they look for clues like they did in classic detective stories? What kind of clues? Buttons? Cigarette butts? Bits of fabric? Or perhaps they should examine the ingredients from which the paint was made?

Well, you’re not a private investigator, so you don’t know what you’re looking for, Rabbi Paksher told himself. But it’s safe to assume that Cooperman does know a thing or two.

“I want to help you here,” Yuval and Meir’s father said, placing an attaché case that the principal had just noticed on the desk. “Free of charge, of course.”

“Help us? Thank you. We can use any help we can get!”

“I owe this school so much hakaras hatov.”

“I’m happy to hear that. And you can express that hakaras hatov by transferring Meir to a good cheder next year, like we’ve already discussed.”

“You mean it?”

The principal leaned back. “Our school suited Yuval until eighth grade. But Meir is different. He was born and raised once your home was very different already, right? It’s a shame for him to stay here.”

It was hard to read the expression on Mr. Cooperman’s face, especially since he was looking into his open case. “Well, we’ll talk about it another time,” he said and took a pad and pencil out of the case. “I hope that I’m not going to waste too much of your time, Rabbi Paksher.”

“My time? I’m worried about your time.”

“But I’ll need you with me, Rabbi Paksher. We’ll need to talk, to walk around, and perhaps even do some surveillance.”

Reb Nechemia sighed deeply, but suddenly, his familiar smile peeped through the seriousness. “Yes, sir,” he saluted. “At your service.”

They began by going through the office itself, and Mr. Cooperman’s short little pencil raced across the pages of his pad as he wrote things down. “Interesting, interesting,” he murmured. They moved to the hallway, examining the red figure that the nighttime intruder had scrawled on the wall. Mr. Cooperman stared at it for a long time, and then used his pencil again. After a few minutes of silence, Rabbi Paksher’s patience ran out.

“Excuse me, Reb Yaakov,” he said, touching the Frenchman’s shoulder. “You don’t think he drew a picture of himself here, do you?”

“Of course not,” Cooperman replied, not taking his eyes off the wall. “But I’m learning other important things from the picture.”

“For example, that it wouldn’t do him any harm to take some art lessons before he decides to decorate walls,” the principal concurred tiredly. He touched the huge head of the figure; two dabs of paint served as eyes. The paint was dry.

“This was done at a relatively early hour of the night,” Cooperman said when he noticed the principal checking to see if his hands were clean. “It’s winter now. If they would have done this four or five hours ago, the paint would still be wet.”

They finally left the corridor and entered the teachers’ room. The scene was truly horrifying. All the chairs were covered with paint, as were the table, the floor, and the walls.

“The most interesting thing was found here,” Reb Nechemia said with a wry smile, leading his guest to the trash can at the corner of the room. The garbage bag inside was almost empty, except for a dirty, empty red bottle. The paint bottle. “What do you say? Surprising, no? This shameless guy doesn’t have any qualms about breaking in here twice, destroying everything in sight, but then he wouldn’t throw his empty bottle on the floor. No, sir! The garbage goes into the can!”

“Has anyone touched this?”

“No. I asked the teachers and the janitor not to touch anything.”

“And the police?”

“They haven’t gotten here yet.”

Mr. Cooperman shrugged his shoulder. “Well, that might be what will lead to his capture, but I wouldn’t pin too many hopes on it, for two reasons. First of all, it’s possible that there are no fingerprints at all, because he used gloves, let’s say.”

“But did he wear gloves when he bought the paint?”

“Who said he bought it? Maybe he took it from somewhere or had some at home? And even if he did buy it, old fingerprints get smudged and erased over time. He may have even rinsed the bottle off.”

“Such efforts.” The principal sighed. “What’s the second reason?”

“Because even if he did leave his fingerprints on the bottle, I doubt that this is a professional whose fingerprints are on file with the police. Professionals are not really interested in your school. What will the police do with fingerprints that they find? Start scanning everyone in the city?”

Rabbi Paksher folded his arms and nodded somberly. “I see that you’re not giving much of a cha—”

“Excuse me, Rabbi Paskher. It is possible, though, that if we suspect someone, we can see if the prints match.”

“Ah!” Reb Nechemia nodded, encouraged.

“That’s of course, if there are prints on the bottle. Let’s leave the police to check that; they can do a better job than I can.”

They scanned the floors and walls as they headed for the second floor. There was no more obvious damage.

“That’s it,” Reb Nechemia said, almost ceremoniously, when they reached the little window. “That’s the window that’s to blame. I’ve ordered bars, and they should be here soon to install them. And I hope that that will be the end of the story.”

“Why didn’t they come yesterday to install the bars?”

“They did. The man took measurements and then left. I didn’t think that the vandal would be back to visit us so soon. I hope the bars will deter him.”

“Oh, nooo!” Meir’s father said in a singsong lilt. “I want to ask your window bars guy to solder the bars from the inside of the window. I don’t want them to be visible from outside.”

“What? Why?”

“We want to catch the guy, don’t we? If we see him in the yard, we won’t have any proof that he actually entered the last two times,” Cooperman said, looking at the window and at the adjacent tree. “Let him think that the way up is clear. We’ll let him climb up, and when he comes back down as soon as he sees that he can’t get in, we’ll be waiting for him under the tree.”

Rabbi Paksher’s eyes opened wide. “Waiting for him? Who will be waiting for him?”

Mr. Cooperman seemed unfazed at his shock. “You and me; who else?”

***

It was Wednesday again.

“Hi, Nava!”

“Hello, Elazar,” Nava said, smiling at the six-year-old and his cousin who emerged from the children’s room. “I see you come here very regularly,” she said to Sari.

“I try,” Sari Dinner said laughingly. “It doesn’t always work out for me. If I had an organized shift, with a log that I had to keep like they do in your school, maybe I’d be better about coming.”

“I see you’re up to date on how it works by us.”

“Uh, yeah,” Sari said, blushing. “My mother is a teacher there.”

“Really? Who’s your mother?”

“Dinner,” Sari replied, and for some reason, the blush refused to fade from her cheeks. “Do you know her?”

“Of course!” Nava tightened her grip on her bag. “Morah Ayala is my mechaneches!” Did this Sari know about her adulation for her mother? Nava wondered. She wasn’t the only one; there were other girls in the class who felt the same way. But she didn’t think that any of the other girls took the pains to count how many times the teacher had called upon them by name. She didn’t think that there were other girls who felt a special warmth when the teacher walked in the door, and who were very disappointed to find a substitute in the teacher’s place, and who wrote all sorts of cute things that the teacher had said in the inside cover of their binders. And maybe, just like she concealed her feelings, for fear of being dubbed all sorts of uncomplimentary terms, there were other girls who did the same?

“Who, Aunt Ayala?” Ariella interjected. “You know our aunt, Nava? She’s your teacher?”

“Yes.” Nava realized that she was still standing near the door. “She’s a great teacher. She’s… really something special.” And she had a real connection with Morah Ayala. Did she tell her daughter about it? Apparently not. For sure not! “I… like talking to her very much. She’s really a terrific teacher.”

“I’m happy to hear it,” Sari said with a smile, hoping that her face had returned to its natural color. So what if her mother liked this Nava and Nava liked her mother? They were allowed!

“She has a lot of patience… for my little quirks, and she always knows what to say to encourage me.” Nava usually knew what to say to compliment people, but for some reason, she felt that this time, it just wasn’t working. The compliments were getting stuck somewhere in the midst of being conveyed.

***

“Avi, get Zimmer over here.”

“To our house?” Ronny’s brother wrinkled his nose. “He’s dirty.”

“You aren’t exactly that clean yourself right now, mister,” Ronny noted, pointing to his brother’s mud-stained clothes. “Ya played workerman or something today?”

“Not workerman. We had a mud fight.”

“And Rafi Zimmer was also involved?”

“No.” Avi rolled his eyes. “Since you told me not to touch him, I’m trying. But look, he coulda passed by our game and gotten hit by accident, y’know.”

“I see. Now go call him.” Ronny was edgy. He couldn’t care less about what happened to Rafi in school, but he figured that if Avi picked on him less, Rafi would be more dependent on him, Ronny.

Avi stood up. “Fine,” he muttered, “if ya really want…”

On the way he bumped into Rafi, standing near a bench and staring at a mother who was sitting and feeding her children.

“Rafi.”

Rafi clenched both fists and slowly took them out of his pockets. “Why’dya come?”

“My brother’s calling you.”

“Liar.”

“I promise! Really, he said you should come to us.” Avi turned around slowly. “Should I tell him ya don’t wanna come?”

“Don’t tell him anythin’,” Rafi said and followed Avi with his lips pressed tightly together. “I’ll talk to him myself.”

Once they arrived, Ronny escorted Rafi to his room. Avi preferred to disappear behind a different door. Rafi looked around, taking in the computer, the carefully designed walls that matched the bedspread on the large bed, and the model train set that took up most of the floor space. He knelt down next to the train set, looking at it carefully.

“Ya like trains?” Ronny asked, standing behind him. “I took it out for you. Look.” He pressed a small remote control and the train began moving, clacking quietly as it rode around a mountain and ascended a small hill. “You can control speed, too.” Ronny fiddled with the switch on the small black box in his hand. The train gained speed, going faster and faster until it suddenly stopped. “That’s it,” Ronny said and put the remote control on a high shelf. “Tell me, Rafi, d’ya wannit?”

Rafi stood up, brushing off his pants at the knees, which was very comical given the fact that the rest of the garment was not exactly overly clean.

“No,” he replied, taking a step backwards.

“No? Why not?”

“I have nowhere to put it.”

“Too bad. I wanted to give it to you,” Ronny said. “My grandpa gave it to me when I was seven. Avi really wants it, but I wanna give it to ya.”

Rafi looked at the train again and tried to imagine himself dragging it home. Where would he set up the tracks? And what would Sarah say? She would become suspicious and would start asking questions. Nah, he was better off without it.

Ronny was still waiting for an answer, and, when none was forthcoming, he said, “Listen, Rafi. You’re coming with me today again.”

“I’m too tired.” It’s too dark.

“Too tired?” Ronny’s eyebrows drew together. “Your memory’s real short, kid. Do you want me to remind you about some ‘unpleasant matters,’ shall we say?”

“No.” Rafi swallowed.

“You don’t really have a choice in the matter. You’re coming with me because their window is still open. They didn’t put in bars.”

“They changed the door in one day,” Rafi whispered.

“Maybe they couldn’t get bars so fast, or they didn’t figure out yet where you got in from, which is strange. But the fact is that we can still get in today, and you’re coming with me, right?”

Rafi bit his lips. He found himself doing that a lot when he was with Ronny. “Will you give me money again?”

Ronny laughed. “I’m putting this train set back in the box and writing your name on it.” He pointed to a carton in the corner of the room. “It’s yours.”

“I want money like last time.”

Ronny laughed again. “Ya think I got a private bank or that I robbed one? No, kiddo, not this time. You can get the train, and if you don’t want it now, it’ll wait here for you until you find some room for it. Got it?”

Rafi looked out the window. He didn’t need Ronny’s silly train, but it was better than nothing. He would wait until he could find somewhere to put it and then come back and get it.

***

“Ayala, are you just coming home now?” Her neighbor Pessy put the empty garbage can down on the landing and rubbed her hands. Ayala nodded, hoping that the fact that Pessy had put the can down didn’t mean that she was planning on getting into a long conversation. Her bag felt heavy on her shoulder.

“Yes, I am, as you can see,” she replied with a smile. “I finished at a quarter to three today. Then I had to wait for the bus, and there was some traffic, so here I am at twenty-five to four.”

“That’s exactly why I prefer to stay home,” Pessy said, not realizing that her garbage can was dripping. “I can’t just neglect everything for so many hours.” Perhaps there was an accusatory note to her tone; perhaps not. In any case, Ayala felt the need to defend herself.
“Well, you’re right, of course,” she said warmly. “It’s much better to be home than to go out to work; you don’t have to convince me about that! But what can I do? Most people go out to work not because they enjoy it, but because of the salary, which they need.”

“Money isn’t always an excuse for everything.” Apparently, Pessy had no problem arguing about ideological issues in the middle of the stairwell, and with a leaky garbage can, too, but Ayala’s legs were aching.

“You’re right, but if there’s no money, well, you have to do what you have to do.”

Chalilah!” Pessy exclaimed. “Why are you saying there’s no money? Is your situation so bad? I thought that your husband’s kollel pays more than two hundred dollars a month, just three months late. It’s a well-established place, isn’t it?”

Ayala confirmed this with a nod of her head, and then, hoping that she didn’t appear too rude, she turned to go up the steps.
But Pessy wasn’t yet finished. “I mean, I’m not about to ask you exactly to the dollar how much the kollel gives. First of all, because I’m not so nosy, and secondly, because I happen to already know—and it’s not so little. So why do you look at the half-empty cup? Why do you say that you don’t have anything?”

Ayala didn’t remember saying anything of the sort, but Pessy wasn’t waiting for an answer anyway. “Well, in any case, I just wanted to ask you something, Ayala.”

But Ayala knew that the feet she had stood on for seven hours today couldn’t wait even another minute. She had to get to her apartment, take off her shoes, and put on a snood right now.

“Listen, Pessy, maybe come up to my apartment this evening? I’ll be happy to talk to you then. I’m just so exhausted now. My legs won’t carry me anymore.”

“They won’t? Well, it’s no wonder, if you don’t mind my saying so. Do you want to go walking this evening with me? I have to lose weight, too.”

“We’ll be in touch this evening, Pessy,” Ayala said with a smile and moved up to the next step. “Let’s see what the weather is like, okay?”

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