Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 15 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
Sarah didn’t have anything special to say, except for the regular little speech she made whenever she brought a child to a new foster family. Rafi already knew the routine by heart.
“So I hope he’ll behave nicely and be a good boy,” Sarah said, as Rafi’s face tightened. “And that you’ll be pleased with him. Just don’t forget his antibiotics—he needs to take it three times a day for another ten days. Rafi, I’m going. Now you’ll have a few days of vacation from me.”
Rafi had never heard of the phrase “Baruch she’petarani,” but that was basically what the unexpressed thought that passed through his mind meant.
The next thought was that Sarah was talking about a few days. Hah! Didn’t she remember that he always ran away?
The third thought was that it wouldn’t be at all easy to return home with this cast of his, which had begun to annoy him already. How would he manage to do everything on his own?
The last thought that flashed through his mind before the woman with the kerchief began to speak to him was that he would stay here in the meantime. When they took his cast and bandages off, he would leave.
“Hello, Rafi,” the woman said with a smile. “We’re really happy that you’ve come to us, and we hope it will be good for you here.”
“Did you have a lot of traffic on the way?” the man asked, and Rafi was unsure if he was addressing him or Sarah. In any case, he had no intentions of responding.
“No, the drive was actually very quick, but his discharge took longer than I had expected,” Sarah said. The woman with the kerchief offered her something to eat or drink, but Sarah turned the offer down. “No, thanks, I’m going,” she said. “See you, Rafi; good luck.”
Rafi stood just a short distance away from the door and thought about how simple it would be if only he didn’t have this cast. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a table covered with a tablecloth, with a bottle of cola, a plate of cookies and cake, and two glasses arranged attractively on it. They had probably thought that Sarah would sit and have a drink. They didn’t realize that she was simply counting the seconds until she could get rid of him.
The woman took the plate from the table and came to stand near him. “Look and see which cake you like,” she said softly. Rafi hated soft voices, like Sarah’s. This lady’s voice was a different kind of soft, but it was still soft enough to irritate him. What did she think? That he was a five-year-old who had to be spoken to like that? He looked at the plate and didn’t say a word.
The woman returned the plate to the table and asked him if he wanted a drink. Rafi continued to keep his mouth clamped shut. Then the husband approached him (and Rafi stepped back a little) and asked Rafi if he wanted to see the room they had prepared for him. When Rafi still didn’t respond, the woman and her husband exchanged a look between themselves. Then the woman said she was going to the kitchen, and the man said he was going to somebody named Myriff, or something like that. And then he left the house. And locked the door behind him.
Half an hour later, Rafi was still standing in almost the same position in the room, his feet still glued to the same square tile. He had no problem standing silently in one place for a long time, and he also didn’t think they were going to force him to talk. But when the long hand on the clock stood straight up and the small hand rested on the seven, he realized he was very bored. The woman was still in the kitchen, but from the door nearest him, he heard all sorts of small noises. Papers rustling, a chair scraping, and a drawer closing. Rafi decided to investigate.
It was a square room with a bed and a desk and decorated shelves, similar to Ronny’s bedroom that he had admired so much. A girl sat at the desk, writing in a notebook. She raised her eyes and looked at him in surprise. “Hello,” she said with a smile. “You’re Rafi, right?”
He didn’t answer and approached the desk. There were all sorts of interesting things scattered there. “I want this,” he said with a scowl, and pointed to a fat purple pen that had a funny shape. What a shame he couldn’t draw a little now.
“Sure, take it,” the girl said, and Rafi tried to pick up the pen. But he couldn’t grasp it because of his annoying cast, which prevented him from folding his fingers. The fingers of his second hand were bandaged down to the fingernails. “You keep it for me,” he finally said to the girl. “When they take off my cast, then you’ll gimme it.” Before he ran away from here.
“No problem,” she said, and her eyes twinkled at him.
“Nava and Rafi,” the woman stood in the doorway and spoke in her soft voice. Suddenly he thought that maybe she really could be his mother. “I’m going to prepare dinner. Nava, an omelet as usual, right? Rafi, what would you like?”
The boy turned his back on them both and left the room. Yael followed him and found him standing in the middle of the kitchen with his lips pursed. “Do you want see what I’m doing?” she asked in a friendly tone. He moved closer to see what was on the counter. There were peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers and five eggs. What? She would prepare all this for dinner? All this?
He spotted a funny, round, high stool a few feet away, and clambered up with minimal use of his hands. Settling down onto the chair, he leaned back and watched, wide-eyed, what Nava’s mother was doing. She sliced the tomatoes, cut the cucumbers into strips, and then cut the peppers into pretty flowers. Then she took the eggs and broke the shells right in the middle. She played with them in a funny way—she poured the yellow into one side of the shell, and then into the other side, peering at it closely the whole time. Meanwhile, the clear white part of the egg fell into a small bowl. She looked into that, too. What was she looking for? Pieces of the shell?
Then she mixed all the eggs with a fork in a bowl, and Rafi watched her pour some oil into a frying pan. She lifted the frying pan into the air and swirled the oil around in it so that the oil became evenly distributed. When she brought the frying pan to the gas range, Rafi slipped off the chair and ran to stand near her, to see how the eggs became omelets.
Just then, the father came home, and Rafi felt all his muscles tense. The father’s beard frightened him; the principal of that religious school also had such a beard. Rafi receded a bit further into the kitchen.
The father asked him how he was doing and how he felt there, but Rafi just smiled a small smile and stole another peek at his beard. It was gray, not brown like the principal’s. So maybe they were different in other areas, too, and this man was a good person, despite the beard.
Nava came out of her room, as well, and suddenly the kitchen was full of noise—people talking, knives, forks, and plates clinking together, and water running from the kitchen sink. Rafi found that he liked the noise—the noise of supper. The lady, whom Rafi heard the father calling Yael, came to put the plates on the table and Rafi ran to sit next to the first plate she set down. Nava began bringing the food to the table, and he immediately checked everything out. There was a tray of vegetables, the plate with the omelet that smelled heavenly, another plate with some type of red salad on it, and all sorts of white cheeses and spreads and the puddings with which he was so familiar.
“What should I put on your plate?” the man asked, taking the seat near Rafi. The boy didn’t respond. He was afraid.
Tikva, a tenth grader, snapped the old book closed in annoyance. “We’re not going to get anything out of here,” she grumbled. “Nothing original, I mean. Two girls are already writing about the French Revolution, and about five or six are writing about one of the two World Wars. The discovery of America is being covered, and so is slavery and Abraham Lincoln…”
“And…and…and…” Yaeli continued for her and took the book out of Tikva’s hand. “C’mon, there must be something still left for us. Something original that we can write an interesting story about, and that no one, at least as far as we know, has chosen yet.”
“And it can’t be too long or have too many dates,” Tikva added and pulled the book back to her. “How can we put in dates in an interesting way? I don’t get it!”
“Maybe stop grabbing everything out of my hands,” Yaeli griped. “Now it’s my turn to look!”
“No,” her friend said firmly, “you got as stuck as I did before. We’re better off trying a different tactic,” she said, flipping through the pages of her history book.
“What?” Yaeli asked.
“Here!” Tikva announced ceremoniously and stuck a tiny scrap of paper into her friend’s hand. “Let’s call this number. You talk.”
“No problem,” Yaeli agreed. “But what do I say? That I have a friend who sticks phone numbers into my hand and demands that I call them?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll explain in a minute,” Tikva said and went out into the hall. Her brother was there, talking on the phone. “Come on, Dudi,” she called to him. “Stop talking so much already. If you don’t mind, we need the phone.” She turned back to Yaeli, who had followed her out of her room. “Do you hear me, Miss Yaeli? The lady’s name is Yael Cohen. She’s a baalas teshuvah and a former history professor. My aunt, who used to be her neighbor, suggested that I call her. She could have some super ideas for us.”
“I don’t like asking people for favors.” Yaeli leaned against the wall and watched her friend’s brother continue to talk on the phone, purposely ignoring his sister who was waiting anxiously beside him. “Do we have to call a historian for this? We can look into dusty, moldy history books all by ourselves!”
“You saw for yourself what happens when we look into old moldy books, like you say. We just get stuck with all that dust.”
“So what can this history lady do to get us out of the mess, Miss Tikva?”
“She can give us ideas of things that look so simple and boring in the books, but are really very significant. She can add interesting details that will spice up the piece we’re writing.”
“That we will write, you mean,” Yaeli corrected her with a smile.
“That you are going to write, to put it accurately,” Tikva tweaked the statement a little more. “Nu, Dudi, hurry up already!”
“And why do I have to talk?” Yaeli asked.
“Because you’re the one who’s going to be doing the writing, I told you!”
“So let’s at least split the work fairly!” Yaeli grumbled. Tikva didn’t even bother to answer. She just handed Yaeli the receiver that Dudi had finally put down. “I’m dialing,” she said shortly. “Now pray.”
The phone rang just as Rafi was finishing the last bite of his omelet.
“What can I give you now?” Manny asked him, looking at the table. “This?” He picked up a cup of chocolate pudding; it was a bit different than the ones Rafi was used to. Meanwhile, Nava went to answer the phone.
Rafi shrugged in refusal.
“Maybe you prefer the vanilla flavor?” Manny asked, and scanned the table to find one.
“No,” Rafi said. He had already eaten three slices of bread with butter, tomato salad, and omelet with lots of vegetables and cottage cheese and some other cheese, and he wasn’t hungry anymore. He stood up and walked around the table, stopping suddenly near Nava’s empty seat. “I want her omelet,” he said and sat down in her place.
“I’ll prepare another one for you,” Yael said. “That’s Nava’s, but we have plenty more eggs in the fridge.” She stood up, ready to take another egg out and begin frying it, but at that minute Nava returned.
“Ima, phone call for you,” Nava said. She stared at Rafi sitting in her seat. “I asked the person if it’s urgent and she said, ‘So-so.’”
“Tell her to wait a minute,” her mother said, taking an egg out of the refrigerator door.
“You go to the phone, Yael,” Nava’s father said and stood up. “I’ll fry the egg.” Then he added in a whisper, “Aren’t you afraid he’ll get a stomachache?”
“I hope he won’t,” his wife said, turning on the flame under the frying pan.
This time Rafi did not hover nearby to watch the egg become an omelet, even though he thought it was fascinating. He stayed in his seat and tried to bend his fingers that were peeking out from the hard white cast on his right hand. Then he tried to do the same thing to the fingers of his left hand, when he suddenly realized that Nava was standing near the chair on which he was seated. Her chair. “Here, sit,” he said and went back to his own chair, waiting quietly as the man finished preparing his omelet.
Rafi finished the second omelet in less than two minutes. He didn’t want the chocolate milk that Nava’s father prepared.
“I want chicken with red spices,” he said, looking at the covered pot on the stove. “Do you have chicken?”
In the bedroom, Yael was speaking on the phone. The girl on the other line didn’t offer too much information. (“Don’t tell her everything now,” Tikva whispered to Yaeli. “If she doesn’t agree, it’s a waste of time just to talk.”) She just said that she and her friend were in tenth grade in one of the city’s high schools and they had a history contest. They had heard that she had a lot of knowledge on the subject and wanted to know if and when they could meet with her.
“Sure, with pleasure,” Yael said. She made no use of her history doctorate these days. Why shouldn’t she use it to help others?
“Please, if possible, could you keep our meeting a secret?” Yaeli added hesitantly, prompted by Tikva’s vigorous hand motions. The world was very small. You never could know which of the other contestants could get to this same excellent source of information. Worse even was the possibility that one of those copycat ninth graders would copy this part, too. As if they had a chance at this contest in the first place.