Divided Attention – Chapter 26

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 26 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

“Morah?” Nava said as she passed Ayala near the door.

“Yes, Nava?”

“Morah, uh…could it be that the journals are in the trash dumpster outside the front gate?”

“In the dumpster?” Ayala was surprised at the very idea.

“They were green, weren’t they?”

“Yes,” the teacher replied, her eyes squinting in concentration. “Why? Did you see something?”

“I peeked in there when I came this morning and I think I saw something that looked like green covers. Could they be the journals?”

“Perhaps,” Ayala said. “Come, let’s take a look.”

Nava hesitated. All she needed was for the girls spending their recess outside to see her and Morah Ayala striding together through the schoolyard and out the gate to begin rummaging in the garbage dumpster. If she was right, then at least she would be vindicated and everyone would understand the reason for their little foray. But what if she wasn’t right? And besides, she didn’t really want to be the topic of discussion as they searched, irrespective of whether their search turned anything up or not.

Ayala smiled, correctly interpreting her student’s hesitation. “Alright, Nava. Thank you for your attention. I’ll deal with it myself.”

Ita asked the janitor to go over to the huge green dumpster and use the mop stick to see if the journals were in there. He did as instructed, and after several long moments of being observed by an audience of gaping high-schoolers glued to the chain-link fence, the mop stick turned up a familiar green binding, sans papers.

“That’s it!” Ita said excitedly. “Do you see any papers, Mr. Shimshon?” she called.

“Yes, and there are a few more green books here, as well.”

He pulled out a pair of latex gloves and put them on. Then he hoisted himself onto the edge of the dumpster and stuck his hands inside the heap.

“Ugh!” Batya said to Nava as they stood watching at the fence. “How can he do that?”

“The way you say it, you would think that there are diapers and chicken bones there!” Nava retorted without taking her eyes off the cover that peeked out of the clear plastic bag the principal was holding. “After all, we’re just about the only ones who use that dumpster. The worst thing that could be there are a few empty chocolate milk bottles!”

Batya sufficed with a sniff.

One by one, the green-covered notebooks and stained bundles of papers were pulled out. Ita opened the mouth of the bag widely and Mr. Shimshon tossed all his findings inside. “That’s it!” he announced after a few minutes and jumped back down onto the sidewalk. “That’s all that was there.”

“Are you sure?” Ita asked, looking at the bag with a concerned expression. “Just five?”

“I didn’t see anything else,” the janitor said, waving his hands over the dumpster and dropping the latex gloves inside. “That’s what I found, ma’am.”

“I understand,” Ita said, walking thoughtfully to the gate. Why only five? The bag over the cupboard had had six journals; of that she was sure! Which of the teachers’ journals was missing, and where was it?

Upon closer examination, Ita saw that the papers were not stained too badly. Few people besides the school used the dumpster, because it was so far from the residential buildings on the block. Carefully, she fitted the torn pages into their bindings, and it didn’t take long to figure out whose journal was missing.

Ita approached Ayala in the teachers’ room later that day. “I’m sorry, Ayala,” she said and sighed. “I’m really sorry, but only yours is still missing.”

“Don’t worry,” Ayala said, trying to be strong. “All in all, I’m in the same place I was yesterday. Without a journal. I’m happy that at least the others got theirs back.”

“Well, I can’t say that all of them share your sentiments,” Ita said, amused. “The not-so-attractive appearance of these journals has made them very unhappy. Two of the teachers even asked me to send their journals back right where they just came from.”

Ayala wrinkled her forehead. Why would anyone want her journal? She had formed an emotional bond with it, like a fourteen-year-old girl who is tied with all her heart to a secret diary that she keeps. What had attracted the vandals to her journal?

“At least Rikki already photocopied the passages you marked,” Ita said, trying to be encouraging. “So those are not lost.”

“Yes, I guess that is good.” Ayala tried to smile. “Okay, Ita, thanks very much for your concern. Will you update the police?”

“Of course. Do you think it will make a difference in their investigation?”

“Maybe,” Ayala said and sat down in the corner of the teachers’ room. “Believe me, Ita, that the thing I need most right now is my journal. The last two days have given me lots to write about.”

No, the outrageous thought that had just entered her mind was impossible; it simply could not be!

True, the mysterious vandal had not taken anything of value, and that indicated something.

True, he had taken care not to harm the siddurim and other sifrei kodesh. In one classroom, where the front desks had been spray-painted, the sefarim that had been on them had first been stacked onto the teacher’s desk, which was left untouched.

True, it seemed that this vandal was particularly interested in her journal, with or without the pen that had been inside it.

And also…

Yes, it was also true that Nava was the one who had the sudden idea to look in the dumpster, and she was the only one in the class who knew a few more details of the journal. In one of their conversations, Ayala had told her about it, and it was potentially an object of significant interest to her.

But no, it simply could not be. Nava would never break into the school. She wouldn’t destroy property and wouldn’t spray paint the walls. She also wouldn’t ask someone (what someone?) to do it for her.

Absolutely not!

***

“Sorry for scaring you, Zimmer,” Puti said. “I see that I can’t catch you near the school anymore, huh? Straight onto the bus for you! You know how long we’ve spent trying to meet you?”

“Oh,” Rafi said, and paled, trying to stick his finger into one of the holes that riddled the metal wall of the bus stop.

“So I had to wait for you here,” Puti said. “And I missed a math class, but that’s okay.”

Rafi focused on his finger and on the hole.

Puti continued speaking. “I’ve got two messages from Ronny. First of all, tonight, as usual, and second, you have to set up a way or a place where we can send you messages. We’re sick of running after you.”

The boy remained silent.

“Got it?”

Rafi nodded.

“Good. So see you tonight.” Puti turned to go.

“Puti.”

The older boy turned back around.

“Where are we going tonight?”

“Dunno,” Puti replied. “Not to a shul.”

“Yes, but I’m also…” He passed a hand over his forehead. Puti noticed a large scar on his hand. “I don’t want to go to Nava’s school again.”

“Whose school?”

“Where we went last time.”

Puti laughed. “You’ve got too many demands, kid,” he said. “How many of them do you expect Ronny to agree to? Not your school, no shuls, and not that community center, either?”

“It’s not a community center,” Rafi said, gritting his teeth. “It’s a high school. It’s…her high school. Got it?”

“Wherever we go it’s trouble for you, in some way or another,” Puti said and slapped Rafi’s shoulder. “But you’ll have to work it out with Ronny. I hope, for your sake, that he has something else planned for tonight, but if he wants to go back there, and you refuse, you’ll be in trouble, my friend.”

“Tell him.”

“I’ll tell him,” Puti agreed. “And I think that when he hears that, he’ll want to go there, specifically. You’re showing too much self-confidence lately, and Ronny doesn’t like it when people around him feel sure of themselves. Remember that.”

***

Yaeli stood washing the dishes in her grandmother’s house. Tikva, who regularly joined her on her weekly visit, collected the dust that she had just swept into a large dustpan.

“You’re wonderful, girls,” Yaeli’s grandmother gushed as she trudged into the small kitchen. “Yael’chu, are you sleeping here tonight?”

B’ezras Hashem,” Yaeli replied. “I’ll just walk Tikva to the bus stop, okay?”

“Sure,” her grandmother replied, and settled gingerly into an armchair. “Just don’t come back too late. You know I don’t like to go to sleep after ten thirty.”

Yaeli raised a surprised pair of eyes to the clock. “Of course, Savta. It’s only eight o’clock now!”

The older woman coughed and a humorous glint shone in her eyes. “Yes, but I know that when there are burning issues to discuss, your conversations can easily last two and a half hours.”

Tikva laughed. She liked Yaeli’s grandmother. “I’ll chase her away from the bus stop quickly,” she promised seriously. “I’ll let her stay an hour, tops—not more than that.”

The two girls walked up the street, discussing the break-in, which still—naturally—was the main topic of discussion among the girls. They also talked about the test on half of Chumash Bereishis that they’d had last week, and the history competition.

“Morah Dinner said that tomorrow or the next day she’ll announce the winners,” Yaeli tried to reassure Tikva, who did not understand why it took so long to decide.

“At this rate, we might even still get that booklet with the winning entries out before Pesach!” Tikva grumbled sarcastically. “I hope it will still interest us by then. It will only interest me if we win. And don’t say you don’t feel the same way, Yaeli!”

“Well, sure, I’ll be very happy to see our entry there, but it will be interesting even if it’s not there.”

“Maybe,” Tikva said, the peevish expression still on her face. “But I don’t understand how we could possibly not win. It’s not like Morah Dinner to ignore your talents, Yaeli, and the fact that you are her chief listener during class!”

“I would actually expect her to be objective,” Yaeli said. “And I imagine that she really tried to be. She even told us that she would ask someone who doesn’t know us to help her decide on a winner.”

“In any case, we have to call Mrs. Cohen to tell her ‘thank you,’ right? Besides, I still hope we’ll win,” Tikva said.

“Finally! You’re starting to hope a little!” Yaeli said, giving Tivka a friendly slap on the shoulder. “I don’t think it makes sense for someone with a name like Tikva to whine a whole day.”

“Ouch!” Tikva whined jokingly. “You know you’re very strong, Yaeli? Next time, try slapping me a little more gently!”

***

The lights shone through the windows into the dark evening. All of the teachers at the meeting were clutching their neatly typed booklets. They’d had to guess who had written each passage, and a series of animated, productive discussions had ensued over what each teacher had written.

“I just wanted to reassure all of you,” Ita said, suddenly remembering. “The police decided that it’s a group of teenagers who are just interested in destroying and vandalizing. It doesn’t seem to be anything more serious than that. You saw, they didn’t even take the machines on my desk.”

“Are they the same ones who broke into Nachalas Yisrael and burned the tree in their yard?” Miriam Gamliel asked.

“Either they are or they aren’t. Until they catch them, I guess we won’t know.”

“And Ayala’s journal?” someone asked.

“It must have been thrown into a different dumpster,” Ita replied. “Between us, Ayala, you didn’t write your bank account number or any family secrets there, did you?”

“Nope,” Ayala replied and grasped her booklet, the final memento, it seemed, of her journal.

***

Nava flipped through the flashcards she was preparing. Rafi was progressing rapidly in his reading, and it was gratifying to watch. Eliezer Leibowitz was also doing well, and that was also wonderful to see. Abba had just come back from Rafi’s PTA meeting and said that the teacher was very satisfied with his overall progress, in reading, general knowledge, and his integration into the class’s social framework.

“At first, he would sit on the side and not say a word,” Abba had told Ima and Nava earlier, after Rafi had gone to sleep. There were days when he asked to go to sleep early. “And slowly, he began to participate a bit in the games, to talk to the other kids in the class.”

“How is he during the lessons?” Ima asked.

“He listens quietly and doesn’t participate of his own accord, usually,” Abba said. Then a sudden smile spread across his face. “But when the teacher asks him a question, he usually answers correctly.”

“Maybe we should encourage him to answer on his own,” Ima said thoughtfully. “He’s obviously not sure of himself enough yet.”

“Yes, Reb Baruch said that he only asks him about the material they learn in class, so as not to embarrass him with things he doesn’t really know, and he tries very hard to compliment him. Let’s hope things will improve with time.”

“And with his friends?” Nava asked.

Manny put down the saltshaker he’d been playing with. “He’s still pretty quiet, but he participates nicely in their games. Rabbi Perlmutter says he gets the impression that Rafi is well-liked.” His eyes narrowed for a moment. “There were a few fights here and there, but nothing serious, considering it’s a class full of rambunctious boys.”

“Fights?” Yael cocked her head in surprise. “Did you hear anything about them from him, Nava?”

“No,” she replied, but she was hardly surprised. “Ima, I can imagine him fighting with other boys. He’s a normal kid, not especially quiet.”

That was not an accurate description. He doesn’t look like a normal kid to me; he’s not like other boys his age who get into arguments here and there over silly things. He’s too serious for that. Maybe that’s still my jealousy talking, seeing Rafi as a kid who is more serious and less childish than an average kid his age? No, I don’t think it’s envy; I like him too much to be jealous of him, Nava reflected.

And that’s also why I’m not telling Abba and Ima this. I know my opinion will not find favor in their eyes.

At that point, she had stood up and gone to her room to prepare her reading lesson with Rafi for the next day. Her parents’ voices followed her there, rising and falling, somewhat unclear to her ears.

“…the cut on his hand?” She heard Abba’s voice.

“…the fence at school,” Ima replied.

“He bumps into too many fences, no?”

She heard Ima’s laugh. “He’s a kid, Manny, and sometimes he’s a bit dreamy. Especially lately.”

Abba said something in a low voice that Nava could not hear.

“Tired?” Ima asked.

“Lately.”

“There’s something to what you’re saying,” Ima replied slowly. “The truth is, that there have been several mornings recently that he’s had trouble getting up. I think one day he also complained in the afternoon of being tired. He also asks to go to sleep early sometimes, like today.” She fell silent, as though trying to process all the thoughts she had just expressed.

“And he hardly gets up in the middle of the night anymore,” Abba added after some thought. “Maybe he’s just growing and needs more sleep. Try to send him to sleep early every night, not only when he asks.”

“You know that’s not so easy. I don’t want to force him.”

“Maybe we can promise him a prize or something,” Abba said. “What do you think? You understand these things better than I do.”

“For some reason I don’t see these things working with him,” Ima replied and Nava could picture her forehead crease. “He’s not a regular child, Manny. You understand what I mean?”

So Ima also noticed something! The question was what she had noticed, and to what extent.

“Of course he’s not a regular child. He’s a boy who’s been through a very hard life, but I think that because of that, it’s important to give him as normal a childhood as possible, to the best of our ability, with Hashem’s help.”

“Yes,” Yael agreed. Her voice became low, and Nava couldn’t hear the rest of her reply.

Nava bent over her pink flashcards, carefully vowelizing the words. Kamatz, kamatz, pasach, kamatz. Wait! Who said this was supposed to be a kamatz? What binyan was this word, anyway?

She put the small pile down and went to find the phone. Maybe Batya could help her.

Batya wasn’t home. Nava replaced the phone disappointedly, planning to return to her room. She had no patience to call anyone else in the class, even though she was friendly with all of her classmates.

She stopped near Rafi’s half-closed door and slipped inside, careful not to move the door. Any little noise would wake the boy, and if he was really lacking sleep, she didn’t want to take any more of it away from him.

But his eyes were open, staring at her from the pillow.

“You’re not sleeping, Rafi? Did you hear me move the door?”

“No, I didn’t fall asleep yet,” he said, shaking his head. “Right your father is happy with what my teacher told him?”

“Very happy,” Nava replied. When Abba had returned, Rafi was already in bed. Abba had come in to his room to share the good report. “Sleep, Rafi. I thought you were already sleeping.”

“So why did you come in if you thought I was sleeping?”

“I like watching you sleep,” Nava replied. “As cute as you are by day, you are also very sweet at night.”

He didn’t react to the compliment. “I don’t like it when you watch me when I’m sleeping,” he said, turning his back to her and facing the wall. “Do you come in late at night also?”

“At night I’m also sleeping,” she replied, looking at his flannel pajamas with a troubled gaze.

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