Beneath the Surface – Chapter 20

Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 20 of a new online serial novel, Beneath the Surface, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every Thursday or Friday. Click here for previous chapters.

Copyright © 2011 by Israel Bookshop Publication

The drawer was open, revealing the array of colors scattered inside. The eight-year-old child stood in front of the drawer, deliberating.

Nu, Nati, have you chosen something?” His mother glanced at her watch impatiently. Her son had been standing there for more than two minutes already.

“It’s fine; let him take his time,” Dr. Chani Ostfeld soothed as she picked up the phone. “I think he deserves it, right, Nati?” The child smiled bashfully, and his new amalgam filling gleamed in the fluorescent light.

He hesitantly fingered a small plastic helicopter, but pulled back. No, he didn’t want that.

“Menuchi?” Chani had hesitated and deliberated before dialing. “Menuchi, do you have any special plans for this morning?”

“No, why?” Menuchi’s voice sounded warm and smooth. Chani liked the tones she heard.

“I’m calling from work. My secretary didn’t come in today and didn’t send a substitute either. Do you think you could come in instead of her? It isn’t hard work and today is not a very busy day.” When she was met with silence, Chani added, “It’s only until one.”

In the small apartment, the onions crackled as they sautéed in the skillet. Menuchi stared in dismay at the small pieces of onion that began to stick to the side of the pan, browning quickly. She tried to scrape them down with a long wooden spoon, but they stuck stubbornly to the pan and she didn’t understand why. She would manage with lunch. She didn’t have all that much left to do. That wasn’t the problem.

“Hold on a second,” she said a bit breathlessly. “My onions are burning.”

“I’m waiting; that’s fine,” Chani said with a smile and turned back to Nati. In the end he had chosen the helicopter.

“Okay, I’ll come,” Menuchi said, switching off the fire. For some reason, she didn’t mind admitting to her mother-in-law that her onions had burned. It was harder to acquiesce to her request to come in to work, but she couldn’t possibly refuse.

“If it’s too hard for you, Menuchi, don’t worry. I’ll manage here.”

“It will be fine,” Menuchi said, untying her apron.

No, it’s not hard for me. I can actually enjoy such work, if I know myself. But since she made this request, an annoying shadow has settled itself on my ceiling, and from minute to minute it is taking a clear shape. Simi.

My mother-in-law would never ask her daughter to substitute for her secretary. Even if she was on vacation from school. How had Simi once put it? “Slow, boring work. How much time can someone spend sitting on a chair answering calls, filing papers, and making appointments? I need to do something!”

Apparently, secretarial work like that was not called “doing anything” in Simi’s book. So what was?

Menuchi added two tablespoons of tomato sauce, salt, garlic powder, and half a cup of water to the burnt onions (oh, how inept of her to have burnt them!). When the sauce boiled for a minute, she added the fish balls and then ran to her room. She peeked out the window at the bus stop downstairs and prayed that the 54 wouldn’t arrive before she got there.

She left a note for Shragi and dashed out the door, taking the stairs two at a time. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, breathless, she suddenly turned around and began to climb them again. She turned off the fire under the fish and repeated the mad dash for the bus.

Only once she was sitting on the bus did she remember that Shragi hadn’t even taken a key that day and would likely return to a locked house. Well, she’d have to leave five minutes before one and hopefully, she’d get there before him. He would surely be happy to hear that she’d found something to do. Her mother-in-law would be happy to have found a substitute secretary. And she? The truth was that she was also a bit happy. It could add a bit of spice to the boring routine she had settled into. True, the routine was welcome, but a bit of refreshing change wouldn’t hurt.

Let Simi think from today until tomorrow that being a secretary meant not doing anything. Menuchi just had to make sure that Shragi didn’t share her opinion.

***

At 1:15 Menuchi got off the bus, pleasant thoughts flitting through her mind. Today she would have a good reason to rest in the afternoon. She had gone out to work! She slowly climbed the steps, fingering the key. No one was waiting by the locked door; Shragi hadn’t arrived yet.

She hadn’t even managed to close the door behind her when someone knocked, but it was not her husband’s rapping. A short man stood in the doorway, and Menuchi immediately connected him to the open door across the hall.

“I’m Ehrentreau,” he confirmed her thoughts. “My wife asked if you could come over for a few minutes.”

What? Menuchi hoped that she had understood correctly. She hesitantly followed the man into her neighbor’s immaculate apartment.

“She’s sitting on the sofa, in the living room,” the neighbor said in a low voice. The living room fit Mrs. Ehrentreau’s image perfectly. The few times Menuchi had seen her, she was always walking briskly, dressed in a suit and wig. The only thing that varied her appearance was the occasional pair of sunglasses perched on her wig.

Now, Mrs. Ehrentreau was sitting on the edge of the sofa, smiling apologetically at Menuchi. The suit and wig were all present and accounted for.

“I’ve been sitting here for the last two hours,” she said. “I came back from the supermarket, because my son and his family are coming back next week and I wanted to fill their house up a bit. And then suddenly, I pulled something in my back. It’s simply awful.”

Menuchi nodded sympathetically, unsure of what her role was here. What had she been summoned for? To massage her neighbor’s back?

“It’s improving already, baruch Hashem,” Mrs. Ehrentreau said with a sigh. “But I’m stuck here at home, at least for today, and I wanted to ask you a favor.” Menuchi continued nodding slowly.

“What’s your first name again?” the neighbor suddenly asked. “I’m sorry; I’m sure you’ve told it to me already…”

Menuchi provided the information.

“My name is Chasya,” Mrs. Ehrentreau offered with another sigh. “I work in the afternoon in a dormitory for girls from abroad,America and England. They’ve come to learn and grow here in Eretz Yisrael. It’s not really a dorm. It’s more like two apartments that were joined into one in a regular building on Hayarden Street. That’s where they live. Do you think you could go there instead of me? You sometimes look to me a bit…um…”—Chasya chuckled—“bored.”

“Where do they learn?” Menuchi preferred to ask some of her own questions before giving an answer.

“Their seminary is called Netiv Rivka. It’s a small school, not too well known, and that’s one of our serious problems. Our classrooms are also housed in an apartment.”

“So they’re older girls,” Menuchi said, staring at the black leather couch. The huge mirror that covered the wall opposite her reflected the poor girl standing in front of the couch. Her. “What do you do there?”

“I prepare their supper, talk to them, listen to their day’s experiences, that kind of thing. Most of them work in the afternoon to pay for their stay here.”

“It’s a bit funny for me to go, don’t you think?” Menuchi said quietly. “I just finished seminary three months ago myself.”

“And you don’t know how to prepare supper?” Chasya asked, shifting in an effort to find a more comfortable position.

“That’s not the point…” Menuchi’s tentative smile was laced with horror. Really! What an assumption! “I’ll gladly prepare supper for them. I meant that I can’t talk to them instead of you.”

“Why?” Mrs. Ehrentreau queried. “You know English, don’t you? Your mother told me when she came to see the apartment that you took the English track.” She groaned slightly. “Listen, Menuchah, what’s important is the supper, and to hear if they have any problems. If something isn’t right, you’ll let me know. So please go into my kitchen, there, on the left. There’s a covered pan in the refrigerator. I prepared lasagna for them this morning; all you have to do is cut up a salad. There is bread and milk in their apartment.”

“How many girls live there?” Menuchi blinked rapidly.

“There are seventeen girls, and—”

“How many vegetables should I cut?”

“Five tomatoes, six cucumbers, four peppers, I don’t remember what’s there. Take notice of how much bread and cheese is left. After supper, make a list of what needs to be bought. You need to go over at about six. That’s when they start to come home, and I serve them supper at seven.” She thought for a moment, and Menuchi felt an urge to scream and shout that she hadn’t even agreed yet, but she didn’t. She just took the key that the neighbor handed her, took the pan out of the refrigerator, wished Mrs. Ehrentreau a refuah sheleimah, and left.

“Tell them I’m waiting for compliments on the lasagna!” Chasya called after her.

Menuchi opened the door to her own house and discovered Shragi sitting at the kitchen table.

“Hello, Menuchi. I was very pleased about your note.”

“So was I,” she said in a dismal tone as she opened the refrigerator.

“What happened? You didn’t enjoy it in the end?” he asked sympathetically, as he observed what she was doing with interest.

“I enjoyed it a lot. It was very pleasant in your mother’s company.”

“So what’s the matter?”

“Seventeen, Shragi! Do you understand? And I have to ask them—in English—if everything is okay and if they have enough yogurt!”

“But you know English,” he said soothingly, although he had no idea what she was talking about.

“Yes, but I really have no interest in going there, finding the kitchen, and cutting things up for them!” She sat down.

“Going where?”

“To that dormitory, Chasya’s, the neighbor’s, place.” And she told him what had happened over the past few minutes. “Do you understand? And she thinks that I’m going to get into casual conversations with them about how their day went. Doesn’t she realize that I can’t serve as their surrogate bubby like she can?”

“Not as a bubby, but as a counselor of sorts you can.” As he finished saying that, he sensed that he had said something wrong, but wasn’t sure what it was.

“I’m not good for that either,” Menuchi said in a neutral tone and went over to the pots she had left on the stove. “Don’t you think there’s a reason I was never chosen to be a Bnos leader?”

“Nonsense. They didn’t choose you because they can’t choose everyone. I don’t see why, practically, my sister Simi can be a leader and you can’t.”

Did he really not see? Menuchi lit the gas quietly. “Well, it makes no difference,” she said tiredly, leaning against the counter. “I’m only going today, to cut up four cucumbers, four tomatoes, and four peppers, or something like that, and to serve the lasagna Mrs. Ehrentreau prepared for them.”

“Are they frum girls?”

“I think so. They’re all from frum homes, and they came to Eretz Yisrael to learn more, to strengthen their observance. That’s all I know.”

Shragi wondered for a moment if he should offer to convince Simi to go along with her, just so it would be more pleasant. But a small bird fluttering in the corner of his brain warned him that he should skip the offer. And he obeyed the warning.

***

Simi walked up Rabi Akiva Street, Yehudis clutching her hand tightly.

“Simi, you hear me?” It was almost a scream.

“Of course, Yehudis. I hear you and I’m listening.”

“Tom-mor-row Ayelet’s having a b-b-irthd-day! She’s b-b-ring-ging c-candies!”

Simi smiled. “Great. I’m happy for you.”

“She s-said: only r-red, the c-c-andies she’s b-bringing.”

“Why only red?”

“Sh-she asked all the girls wh-what c-c-olor they l-l-like.”

“And you wanted red?”

Yehudis suddenly grimaced. “N-n-no! I didn’t want r-r-ed.”

“What color did you want?”

“Y-y-ell-llow! Ye-ll-llow! Y-yellow!” Yehudis stamped her foot forcefully. She stopped in front of a display window full of silver articles and beat the glass with her fist. “Not r-r-ed! Yellow!”

“Yehudis, that’s enough. The man from the store will come and get angry at you!” Simi said gently.

The nine-year-old obeyed this time, tucking her hand back into Simi’s obediently and continuing to walk. “Y-yellow! Only ye-ll-llow!”

“And if Ayelet brings only red candies, what will you do?” Yehudis didn’t respond. She continued walking quietly next to her big sister. “Red candies are also yummy, aren’t they?” Simi tried to cajole her.

“B-but why is sh-she b-b-ringing red if I w-want yell-ll-ow?”

“Who’s bringing red?” A voice behind them took both Simi and Yehudis by surprise. Yehudis turned around and glared at Rachel, Simi’s good friend, with a hostile look.

“What happened, Yehudis? Don’t you like me?” Rachel asked, wanting to pinch her on the cheek.

But Yehudis pushed her hand away. “D-don’t d-d-do that! It’s for b-b-abies! And it hurts! Now you’ll t-talk to S-simi and she’ll hear you, not what I s-say!”

“No, I’m not listening to Rachel, only to you,” Simi promised seriously. “Yehudis is telling me about some of her problems with her friends. We’re trying to solve the problem. Maybe you can help?”

Thrilled, Yehudis repeated the story.

“Wonderful!” Rachel stopped and rummaged around in her backpack. “I have a package of candies. Take a yellow candy now. Tomorrow, you’ll get a red one from Ayelet, and you’ll have two candies!”

Yehudis beamed and jumped impatiently on the sidewalk as she watched Rachel’s hand remove the crinkly package of candies. Rachel proffered it to her, and Yehudis stuck her hand in and grabbed a handful.

“Just one, Yehudis. Remember, your teeth!” Simi cautioned.

“Another one tomorrow!” Rachel announced.

Simi nodded. “For the last two weeks, Ayelet has been promising that tomorrow is her birthday,” she said in a low tone, and watched her little sister as she pulled an orange candy out of the package and looked at it closely.

“C-can I have it, R-rach-chel? Yes?”

Rachel wanted to ask something, but Simi’s hand motion stopped her. “Of course!” she answered with a smile.

“Maybe we’ll save it for when we get home, for dessert after supper?” Simi suggested cautiously.

The foot stamping began almost instantly. So did the fist pounding on the nearest shop window.

“Okay, make a brachah nicely and eat,” Simi said hurriedly. Turning to Rachel, she murmured quietly, “She doesn’t pull these kinds of things on my parents, only with me. Maybe she knows she can pressure me.”

“And your parents?”

“Much less. She knows very well where the limits lie with them,” Simi said, glancing impatiently at the traffic light. “They also know, of course, where to set those limits. Perhaps my mother wouldn’t suggest that she wait to eat the candy; it’s not really something so critical. But when my mother decides that there is a demand she can make of Yehudis, no amount of kicking or punching will help.”

“And why did she choose an orange candy after all that?” Rachel asked.

Simi sighed. “You think she cares about the color? All that matters to her is that despite the fact that she said one thing, everyone else chose another color. I told you, I’m hearing this story for at least the twelfth time. It repeats itself constantly. Ayelet will always bring red candies, but the color Yehudis chooses changes with each time she says the story.”

Rachel nodded. “And how does she get along with your new sister-in-law?”

Simi’s facial muscles tightened for a moment. “Yehudis has accepted her very warmly, like we all have.” It looked to me like Menuchi was also accepting Yehudis with warmth and openness, but lately it seems like something’s changed. Last Shabbos, for example, she recoiled from Yehudis’s hug. I saw it clearly. What is it about my little sister’s sweet face that made her pull back like that? Especially since people tell us that anyone who doesn’t know her or her story wouldn’t know that anything is wrong with her. Well, that’s just until she takes two steps, which gives away the fact that she has definite disabilities.

Perhaps Menuchi really didn’t know about Yehudis’s disabilities and that’s why she accepted her so naturally at first? Maybe she thought that her problem was only a physical one that affects her walking? How didn’t she realize it the minute Yehudis opened her mouth? That’s a pretty obvious sign that something’s wrong.

Does my sister’s mental capacity disappoint you, Madame Menuchi? I’m sorry to hear it. Really, very sorry to hear it.

Menuchi’s perspective:

True, I had a key, but I preferred to knock. Perhaps someone was there? But apparently no one was home, and I hesitantly opened the door with my key. I called out a tentative “hello” just to be sure, but it bounced back off the empty walls.

One pale light bulb lit up the hallway, and showed me a steep flight of stairs on the right. Bright placards with English letters covered the walls, and three doors were open wide. I didn’t want to peek into the rooms, but I had to find the kitchen.
The first room was full of beds, as was the second, and then the third. The rooms were more or less neat and organized, but I didn’t spare them much attention. I hadn’t come here to check on the girls’ clean-up skills. I came to find the kitchen. Where was it?

The hallway continued and widened at the end into a huge room, at the end of which there were some cabinets covered with a countertop and one sink. On the other side of the room was a long table surrounded by gray plastic chairs. I didn’t count how many were there; I already knew.

I hesitantly approached the refrigerator and took out the vegetables from the drawer: two cucumbers, three tomatoes, and one green pepper. That was it. I frantically searched the other shelves; there was nothing else. What should I do now? Run out the store to buy more vegetables? But I had no idea where there was a fruit and vegetable store. Suddenly I also remembered that aside for a bus card and a few coins, I had nothing in my wallet. There would be no choice; I’d have to manage with what was there. Hashem would help.

Now, I had to find a cutting board. Where are you, cutting board? No answer, obviously, and I had to rummage through the small kitchen. I eventually found it at the bottom of the corner cabinet. Who said this was the right one? I quickly searched again, but there was no other one. Actually, Chasya had said that everything in the kitchen was dairy, so it made no difference which cutting board would be used to transform these vegetables into salad.

I began to chop. Where was the garbage can? Nowhere to be found. There just wasn’t one. Not on the small porch, nor in any of the cabinets or under the table. I collected the remnants and peels into the empty bag where the vegetables had been and pushed them to the corner of the counter. I poured the salad into a green bowl standing on the counter, added oil and salt, and placed my handiwork in the center of the table. Finding the paper goods in the upper cabinet, I counted out seventeen plates, seventeen forks, and seventeen knives. I placed the lasagna in the oven (Chasya had said it was milchig) and opened the refrigerator again. I took out the yogurts (only fifteen; if they would need more, they could get more from the refrigerator), a few other packaged salads, and four containers of cheese. To be on the safe side, I took out a can of tuna and a can opener. Then I sat down on one of the chairs.

Had I prepared what was needed? Perhaps they were used to more? How could I know?

The problem was that I would first have to meet the girls to know; only then could I go.

I sat and sat until I felt like I could sit no longer. I stood up, strolled around the kitchen, and found a broom and dustpan between the refrigerator and the wall. I swept the floor slowly and deliberately. It was gleaming. Of course, if Chasya had swept here yesterday and the day before, my sweeping was superfluous. I went out to sweep the hallway, and as I turned my back to the door, it opened. At that second, I remembered that I had left the key stuck in the keyhole on the outside.


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