Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
Shuli didn’t like the new tiles. The old ones were much easier to wash; a rinse and she’d be done. But since the renovations, there’d been so many new rules in the house that Shuli didn’t even remember all of them. “First, wax…” she said, looking gloomily at the dirty floor. “No, first we pour the water! Ugh!”
“Stop it,” her mother said as she got ready to leave the house. “A girl your age has to help out at home in whatever way she can. When I was thirteen, I was already carrying cases in the market with my father. Be happy that you’re a Bais Yaakov girl who doesn’t have to work at a market stand after school, and all you’re being asked to do is clean a bit. What’s the big deal?”
To Shuli, selling in the market seemed to be much more exciting than cleaning the new marble floors. But no one was asking her. She bid her mother goodbye, and the door closed.
“And the kitchen cabinets!” Shuli said to Baruch, who turned away from her and made a face. “How did you get them so dirty? The old brown cabinet doors never showed such stains!” She entered the kitchen with her rag and attacked the gleaming doors angrily.
A bit more than an hour later, the doors were clean, the floor was washed, and the dishes were done. Shuli went to her room, thinking about the geography homework that she had zero interest in doing. She sat down at the new desk, opened her pencil case, and took down the huge atlas from the shelf. She smoothed out the notebook page and began answering questions. But this time, her answers were not written out perfectly, the way she liked to do it, because she could not focus on industrial factories in Britain. Instead, she was thinking about the generous gift she’d received yesterday from her father for her birthday. Two hundred shekel. That was a lot, wasn’t it?
For years, her father had owned a large grocery in Bayit Vegan. Less than a year ago, the store next door to him closed down, and Abba had bought it and turned the two stores together into a small supermarket. True, it wasn’t a huge place, but it was very respectable. And somehow, from that point on—Shuli didn’t remember how—things began spiraling out of control. Abba had become the owner of a small grocery chain in Yerushalayim. Her mother managed one of them, the branch in Pisgat Zev, and life had been different ever since. Ziva, from across the hall, said they were behaving like poor people who had fund a buried treasure and thought it would never get used up, but Ziva was always the type who liked to take the air out of people’s tires, so Shuli didn’t pay too much attention to her.
Finally, Shuli closed her geography notebook. Mrs. Miller wouldn’t be able to compliment her on her exemplary answers like she always did, but no one could say she hadn’t done the homework, or that the answers weren’t correct. She had done them, they were fine, and she’d spent enough time on geography. Now she began to ponder a much more important issue: what to do with her birthday money.
The phone rang. It was Ima. “Shuli?” she asked in a voice that belonged to someone who really wanted to be home already but still had so much to do. “Have you eaten yet?”
Shuli admitted that she hadn’t.
“So eat, please, and then iron your uniform shirts for tomorrow. Don’t push it off until later tonight, because then you’ll be too tired. Okay?”
“Okay,” Shuli replied tiredly. She didn’t understand. The new stores brought in enough money to renovate the house in such an irritating way; to buy her new clothes; and to give her two hundred shekel for her thirteenth birthday—something that had never happened before. Couldn’t her parents also pay for someone to help with the housework a little? She hated doing these things!
An idea suddenly flashed through her mind. She grabbed the phone, wiping away an annoying speck of dirt as she did so, and opened the drawer where the phone book was kept. She didn’t know how to go about finding cleaning ladies, but after two minutes, she had a lead. A cleaning lady agency had an ad for reliable, inexpensive cleaning women. Immediately, she called the number listed.
“What do you mean by ‘inexpensive’ in your ad?” she asked as soon as someone answered.
A surprised silence ensued, and then the answer came: “When we say our cleaning women’s rates are inexpensive, we mean that they are priced lower than the market rates out there.”
“Oh!” Shuli answered in what she hoped was her most mature voice. “How much are the rates, for example?”
The secretary cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, but I don’t give prices over the phone.”
“So I have to order a cleaning lady, just so she can tell me that I have to pay her thirty shekel an hour? I can’t pay such a price. So should I then tell her to leave?”
“No one will work for you for that price anyway, ma’am.” The secretary’s patience was commendable. “The minimal rate is thirty-five shekel an hour, and that’s considered cheap by today’s standards.”
Shuli was quiet. Her two hundred shekel would get used up very quickly. No, she wouldn’t waste it on a cleaning lady who would help for just…how many hours? “Two hundred divided by thirty-five…” she murmured aloud. “Six times thirty is 180, and another five times six…no, the money won’t even suffice for six hours!”
“Look,” the secretary said suddenly. “I can write you down, and if I have someone who’s willing to charge less, I’ll refer her to you. How much are you willing to pay?”
“At least ten hours. Um, I mean twenty shekel an hour.”
“And you’re taking the agency fee into account, yes?”
“You take money for this? I thought it’s included in the payment for the cleaning lady!” Shuli protested.
The secretary chuckled and wanted to say something, but Shuli wasn’t interested in hearing anything else. “Okay, write me down,” she said with a sigh. “Shuli Emanuel. And my phone number is…”
“I can see it on the caller ID,” the secretary noted, a slight smile in her voice.
Shuli hung up and went to plug in the iron. The fact that her collar got singed five minutes later was really not her fault. What was she supposed to do if nothing was going her way today?
“That neighbor is very funny, Ima,” Tzivi Brunner announced in a whisper as the gray carriage drew closer to them on the sidewalk.
“Shhh….” Mrs. Brunner hushed her youngest daughter. “Why do you think she’s funny?” They were waiting downstairs in the courtyard of their building for a taxi.
“Because. She never talks to you. All the other neighbors answer nicely when you say hello and stop to chat for a few minutes. She just smiles, mutters something, and moves on.”
Now the carriage and the person pushing it were almost upon them, and Mrs. Brunner quieted Tzivi again. Tzivi stared unabashedly at the woman who had been living in their building for almost two years, but who had exchanged nary a word with them besides “hello” and “have a good day.” Mrs. Brunner wondered if perhaps the time had come to be a bit more assertive.
“Hello,” she said warmly when the young Mrs. Levinsky entered the courtyard.
“Hi,” the woman replied, smiling bashfully and clearly intending to continue up the path.
Mrs. Brunner, perhaps influenced by Tzivi, decided not to let her go so fast. “Are you from Yerushalayim?” she asked in a friendly tone.
“Where from, then?”
“Oh, very nice. Is the woman who comes here often your mother? She comes from Petach Tikva?”
Mrs. Levinsky stared with her light eyes for a long moment and then replied, “No, it’s my oldest sister.”
“You can see you two look alike. How many years apart are you?”
“Twelve.” The woman lowered her eyes to the baby in the carriage.
“He’s very cute,” Tzivi said. “Can I come play with him sometimes?”
“He doesn’t know how to play yet.”
“So I’ll teach him!” Tzivi blurted. She wanted to say something else, but her mother stopped her.
“Anyway,” Mrs. Brunner said warmly, “if you need anything, you can always knock on my door. Brunner on the third floor, okay?”
“Thank you.” The woman smiled that same quiet smile, and just then, the taxi pulled up. Mrs. Brunner and her eight-year-old daughter hurried to climb in, and the neighbor nodded at them and continued her way up the path.
“At first I thought they were missionaries, like that family from the book that Duvi brought home from cheder. But when I told Meir that, he laughed and said that the father there does speak to Abba a lot…” Tzivi mused aloud in the taxi. “And she looks so cute when you talk to her. She has a nice smile.”
Mrs. Brunner laughed. There are introverted types of people in the world, and her neighbor was apparently one of them. The main thing was that there was something to distract Tzivi from the dentist appointment they were heading to in the taxi right now.
Yaffa Levinsky walked into the stairwell, peeking at her Bentzy’s sweet face as he slept in the carriage. He’d apparently forgotten the nurse’s loud voice that had scared him just a short while ago. It was the first time she’d gone to the well-baby clinic on her own, without Chaya.
“Why does he cry so much, Yaffa?” the nurse had asked cheerfully. “From the minute you walked in here, he’s been screaming nonstop. Has he eaten today?”
What had the nurse thought, that he hadn’t?
While still in the stairwell, Yaffa heard the phone ringing from the first-floor apartment—their home. She didn’t hurry. If it was a friend, it would perhaps be a reason for her to hurry and get the call. But she knew it would be Chaya, and Chaya wouldn’t stop calling until she’d pick up anyway. She walked into her apartment, left Bentzy’s carriage in the front hallway, and picked up the phone.
“How was it?”
“Fine,” Yaffa said.
“Did you manage? They don’t let you take the carriage into the room, right? So you picked him up?”
“Yes.” Yaffa sat down on a chair.
“What did the nurse say? How much does he weigh?”
“I don’t remember exactly,” Yaffa replied. “I have to check the card. But she said he gained nicely.”
“So she thinks he’s eating enough?” Chaya asked, her nasal tone reflecting her cold.
“Okay, I’m calmer now. Give him a ton of kisses from me… Yaffa?”
“Yes?” Yaffa’s voice was toneless. She’d endured enough interrogations today.
“Why don’t you ask how I am?”
“How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem, a bit better, thank you.”
“Good. Continue to feel better.”
“Thanks. You, too, feel good, and don’t turn on the air conditioner right on top of the baby, okay?”
But Yaffa had already put the phone down. The chicken on the kitchen counter was completely defrosted and ready for her to tackle. She toyed for a minute with the thought of calling Chaya to ask if she could use some chicken for lunch, but then remembered that with all her good intentions, her one chicken would not be enough for Elchanan and herself, plus Chaya’s family of eight. Besides, she had no energy for another conversation.
She was struggling to cut the thighbone with a knife when the phone began to ring again. Yaffa didn’t want to answer it, but she knew that Chaya wouldn’t stop, and the only thing she would gain would be to have Bentzy wake up and begin to howl. She patted her hands dry on the apron thrown over the nearest chair and ran to pick up the phone. Ugh, now it would smell of raw chicken.
“Yes?” she said with a sigh. “I’m in the middle of cutting the chicken.”
“I’m happy to hear it,” the voice said—and it wasn’t Chaya’s. “This is Sophie, the nurse from the well-baby clinic. You left your son Ben Tzion’s immunization card here. Did you notice?”
“No,” Yaffa replied, and her heart sank to her toes. How could she have put it back in its place when being stared down by Sophie?
“I’ll save you the hassle of coming back, and I’ll drop it off in a few minutes myself. You live right across the street, right? I want to see how Ben Tzion is doing after his shots.”
“He’s sleeping.” Yaffa wrinkled her forehead.
“Don’t worry—I won’t wake him up,” the nurse replied. “I’ll be over in a few minutes, alright?” Today, alone, Mrs. Levinsky had made a better impression. The previous times, when she’d come with her sister, she’d hardly spoken, and her sister had hurriedly responded every time the nurse had asked something. In the past, Sophie had encountered cases where families had tried hiding a disability of sorts that a relative had, in order to ensure that the relative be able to keep and raise her children, even if she was not fit to do so. Something here didn’t smell right to Sophie.
So it was true that today was fine. Mrs. Levinsky knew how to speak, even if she wasn’t talkative, and she seemed to manage to take care of her baby. But when Sophie saw the card left on the desk and realized from the address that the Levinskys lived right across the street, she decided to employ the old-fashioned home visit to find out a bit more. Thirty years ago, when she’d started out as a nurse, there was no such thing as opening a file without doing a home visit. No conversation with the mother, no weighing of the baby, no checking on his development, could give a picture of how the child was being raised, the way a visit to the house could.
Yaffa went back to the chicken. The bones, as usual, ended up getting cut into all sorts of asymmetric shapes, and she threw the shapeless pieces of chicken into a pot. The sautéing onion sizzled angrily when the chicken hit them, but half a cup of water mixed with paprika quieted them, and Yaffa covered the pot and dried her hands again.
She looked around. Their tiny apartment consisted of just a kitchen, bedroom, and large, closed-in porch that their landlord called a “dining room.” Would Sophie the nurse want to come in for a drink of water? That would be impossible on the porch, because the mess there was horrendous. The bedroom was tidy, but it was tiny, and anyway, who entertained guests in a bedroom? So that left just the kitchen.
Yaffa surveyed her surroundings. The table was clean; so was the milchig counter. She just had to straighten up the fleishig counter a bit and put the apron she’d used as a towel into the laundry hamper.
She was on the way to the bathroom when the doorbell rang. She opened the bathroom door, tossed in the apron, and ran back to the front door.
“Hello,” Sophie said with a broad smile, and, without another word, entered the house. “Where can I sit?”
Yaffa pointed to the right and watched as the nurse with the closely cropped hair disappeared into her kitchen. Yaffa closed the front door, locked it slowly, and finally joined Sophie, who was standing in the middle of the kitchen, sniffing the air.
“What are you cooking?” Sophie asked in a friendly tone. “Chicken, huh?”
“Excellent. Very healthy. But don’t overdo it, okay? It’s important to vary the menu with fish, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Do you eat well?”
“I try,” Yaffa replied.
“How old are you?” Sophie asked, removing a towel from a chair and sitting down.
“Nearly twenty,” Yaffa almost whispered, leaning on the counter and watching Sophie as she took out the familiar light blue card.
The nurse’s hand stopped midway to the table. “You’re not even twenty?” she asked. “When did you get married?”
“When I was seventeen and a half or so.”
“Is that the accepted custom in your circles?” Sophie probed. “Are you what they call chassidic?”
“No,” Yaffa said, pressing herself further into the counter. Why, oh, why, couldn’t Chaya have come with her to the appointment today? If Chaya would have come, she never would have forgotten the card on this horrible nurse’s desk.
“So then why did you get married so young?” Sophie demanded. She looked penetratingly at Yaffa, waiting for an answer that did not seem to be forthcoming. Finally she asked, “Did you go to high school?”
“And in which grade did you get married?”
“Did you finish your studies?”
Sophie fell silent—but just for a minute. “Can you show me where Ben Tzion is sleeping?”
She followed Yaffa to the carriage that was blocking the doorway to the bedroom. Sophie peeked into the room, noticing the cradle and the velour blanket that Yaffa hadn’t had time to fold that morning.
“And where do you wash him?” she pressed.
Without a word, Yaffa turned to the tiny hallway and opened the bathroom door. A second too late, she remembered the dirty apron she’d tossed inside. But Sophie’s eyes took it all in: the apron, the green robe thrown over the side of the tub, the laundry basket that was overflowing for two days already because Yaffa had forgotten to tell Elchanan to buy detergent, and the leak in the small sink that Elchanan hadn’t been able to fix. The water was supposed to be absorbed in the rag that was on the floor, but the big puddle had long exceeded the boundaries of the rag and spread almost to Sophie’s feet as she stood silently and stared.
To be continued…