Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 5 of a new online serial novel, Dance of the Puppet, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“One minute, girls, quiet!” Malka sighed, trying to forge a path between the hordes of girls that were crowding near the office.
“Next week it will be quiet here,” one curly-haired girl remarked. Such a comment could only be made to Morah Mann in the pre-Overnight atmosphere that prevailed. Malka smiled forgivingly and walked into the principal’s office.
“Didn’t we have that end-of-the-year teacher’s meeting last week?” she asked, dropping into a chair. “So why doesn’t it seem like the year is over?”
“You’re tired, Malky,” her mother said as she raised her eyes from the sheaf of papers she was working on. “Go take a drink. And check if the teachers’ room is available. That woman from the accountant’s office is supposed to be meeting you in about half an hour, right?”
“I hope so,” Malka began to say, when the door opened slightly behind her back.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kotzker,” Yael greeted the principal, sounding energetic and friendly as though she had slept many more hours the night before than the mere four she’d actually gotten.
“Good morning, Yael.” Adina Kotzker’s voice suddenly became crisp and alert. “Your program sounds excellent, but there are a few points I’d like to go over with you. Sit down; why are you still standing?”
But the only other chair in the room besides the principal’s chair was the one Malka was sitting on. A long moment passed before she stood up heavily. “Sit down, Yael. I have to leave anyway. I’ll go see how many girls and their oak tags are occupying the teachers’ room.” She shrugged and sighed as she picked at a pill on the sleeve of her summer sweater. “I need some quiet there now.”
“Good luck, Malky!” Yael followed her with her eyes and yawned widely, not even trying to hide her gaping mouth behind her hand. If her mother would see her now, she’d be horrified at the way her daughter was acting in front of her boss. But really, how could she compare this wonderful principal to her mother’s strict boss?
“Didn’t sleep much last night, did you?” Adina smiled and rose to open the door for the umpteenth time. “Shira,” she said to the girl standing on the other side of the door. She wanted to ask the girl to prepare a cup of coffee for Morah Braun, but suddenly, she remembered that it was illegal to send a young student to the hot water urn. She glanced toward the two secretaries, but could hardly even discern them in the whole hullaballoo.
Outside the office, Malka strode briskly toward the teachers’ room. As expected, it wasn’t empty. “Girls,” she said cheerfully, as they looked up. “I need this room empty in five minutes. Do you think you could oblige me, please?”
They giggled and gathered their things that were spread out all over the tables. Malka stood and observed the excited expressions of the girls, remembering the days when she was an upbeat high-schooler. The school’s Overnights hadn’t been as long or as heavily packed with programs in those days, and they certainly hadn’t kept the girls as busy preparing for them beforehand. And yet, all the girls had enjoyed the Overnights immensely each year. Who needed this whole mess, with the huge costs involved?
She escorted the departing girls. “Any chance of finding an empty classroom to work in?”
“B’ezras Hashem we will,” one of them said, dragging a ten-foot swath of cardboard behind her. “We’ll manage.”
Malka was left alone in the large, quiet room. She straightened the tablecloth and rubbed a small scribble from a marker with her finger. Chaya Schuck would be there any minute. Did she even have anything to serve her?
She quickly opened the top cupboard. There was half a package of cookies left over from the teachers’ meeting, and she found a bottle of soda in the refrigerator. As she closed the door to the fridge, someone walked in behind her.
“Morah Mann,” the girl said politely, “the principal asked if you can prepare a cup of coffee for Morah Braun.”
“Okay,” Malka replied expressionlessly, and turned to the little counter in the corner of the teachers’ room. She could make coffee; sure she could. She prepared two mugs and carried them to her mother’s room, smiling at the effusive words of thanks from both women. She set the cups down on the desk and went over to the bookshelf, from where she pulled out the accounting file that she’d need for her meeting. She stood for another second and looked at her mother and her colleague sitting there together, bent over the program sheet.
They were so focused that their heads were almost touching each other. Malka didn’t say a word. She turned and walked out of the room, quietly closing the door behind her.
“Oh, here she is,” she heard Faigy, the secretary, say. “Malka? Mrs. Schuck is here.”
They greeted each other, and Chaya Schuck fell into step beside Malka as they walked to the teachers’ room.
“Looks like stuff is happening around here today,” Chaya remarked with a smile. “When I arrived, I thought I saw you hurrying down the hall with two cups in your hands.”
“Yes, I prepared something hot for my mother to drink.” Malka smiled and placed the large file down on the table she’d cleared. “There’s so much going on these days that sometimes, she doesn’t eat a thing until lunchtime. Sit down, Chaya. I imagine that after coming in from outside, you’d probably prefer something cold to drink, is that right?”
“Definitely.” Chaya sat down, placing her own file on her lap and opening it. “So, you prepare coffee for the whole staff, or what?”
“When there’s no one else around to do it!” Malka chuckled and came back to the table with two cups, the bottle of soda, and the small plate of cookies she’d arranged. “So, what are we going to discuss today, Chaya? Good things, I hope. Believe me, I have enough going on this week.”
“Don’t worry, it’s good,” Chaya said. She was the representative of their accountants’ office. “The general balance sheet is very nice, but my boss wants to know why there are extra hours here that aren’t being reported and where the salaries for those hours are going. There’s a hole here that needs some explanation.”
“Oh, that?” Malka opened the soda bottle with a sigh. “I forgot to take care of that. It totally slipped my mind. How many secretary hours are we talking about? Eight in all, right?”
“Right, but you have to admit that eight hours a week is a significant sum each month, not to mention on an annual basis.”
Malka sighed again. “Our head secretary reduced her hours recently, and Faigy, her assistant, is taking her place. The problem is that we can’t report those additional hours for her, because as it was, Faigy had a full-time position, her tax rate is high, and there are a few other reasons why she doesn’t want these extra hours recorded on her name.”
“That’s illegal,” Chaya pointed out, opening and closing the rings on her binder. “And you know that.”
“Of course.” Malka was silent for a moment. “We’ll find a solution, b’ezras Hashem. I just forgot about it—don’t ask me how. My mother is the very organized type—you know her. The problem is that the one who is doing the work really needs the money, and my mother felt that she comes before all sorts of other young women who would be happy to get those eight hours. And to fictitiously record it under someone else’s name who doesn’t even work here—my mother won’t do that either.”
“Honesty is, of course, a very basic thing, but in the meantime, these hours are hanging in the air and it’s out of character for your school’s books, which are usually very much in order,” Chaya said in a tone that was dangerously close to rebuke. “Find a solution quickly, Malka, because it won’t pass like this. Please submit this report to me again within a week, and it should all add up. I don’t care whose name those hours are recorded in, but I don’t want any holes.”
“Mm-hm….” Malka replied. “This whole mess is very out of character for us, I agree with you. Okay, in another week, the school’s annual Overnight will be in session already and then it will be a bit quieter and more orderly around here, b’ezras Hashem.” She folded the document highlighted with yellow into the first plastic sleeve of her binder. “How I didn’t notice it really isn’t a question.”
“You people really are under pressure.” Chaya looked around her. “If the secretaries don’t even have time to prepare coffee for the staff…” She placed the next document that she wanted to discuss on the table, but suddenly put her hand down over it. “Listen,” Chaya said suddenly. “I’m sure you would be happy to have an extra pair of hands this coming week, wouldn’t you?”
“I think the problem is that there are too many helping hands around here,” Malka said, her gaze turning toward the door. The noise coming from the corridor was really out of hand.
“Yes, but I have someone who can resolve the issue of the problematic report, if you’re interested. What do you say? You can write the hours in her name and she’ll even work a bit. You know, preparing coffee, putting things in order, and even just organizing papers…” Chaya glanced down at the floor, which was full of paper cuttings. “It will be a perfect solution for you and her.”
“We don’t have spare money to pay for another office worker,” Malka said, much more interested in the paper that rested beneath Chaya’s hand. “You know how we have to struggle here for every extra hour of our employees?”
“You didn’t understand what I meant,” Chaya said. “Don’t pay her anything for now. She’ll work, the hours will be recorded in her name, but the money won’t come from you.”
“So who will pay her?”
“Leave that to me.”
Malka’s forehead creased. “Is she a special-needs person?”
Chaya recoiled. “Chalilah! What are you talking about?”
“That’s what it sounds like.”
Chaya was clearly flustered. She closed her binder, as though they were at the end of their meeting instead of right at the beginning. She opened it again and put it down on the table with a bang. Two pages floated to the floor, right next to Malka’s feet. Surprised, Malka picked them up and put them on the table.
“She’s perfectly fine, perfectly normal, this person. I’m just worried about her, that’s all,” Chaya—Yaffa’s sister—finally said. Her smile concealed a lot of things that Malka could not define. “She needs pay slips and some regular work and…that’s it right now. Money isn’t so important at this point. First she can get a bit of experience in your office, and then she’ll have an easier time finding some secretarial work elsewhere.”
“Sounds interesting.” Malka refilled her cup. Chaya’s was still almost full. “I need to speak to my mother about it. If she thinks it’s a good idea—why not?”
Shuli was more irritable than usual that morning. Perhaps it was the long, boring summer vacation stretched out ahead of her, or maybe it was because eleven-year-old Baruch was home with a headache and driving her nuts.
“Stop-that-right-now, you hear me?” she screamed at him. “A headache. Yeah, sure. Go into your room and leave me alone!” The English summer homework was mandatory, and so were the math sheets, and Shuli had decided to finish them both today. Together, they equaled fifty-eight pages of work, and Shuli had no intention of letting them mar her summer vacation, as boring as it was.
She got up and locked the door to her room.
“I want a cup of tea,” Baruch whined from behind the closed door.
“Then go make it yourself.”
“But there are no clean cups…”
“So wash one, Your Majesty!”
“But Ima said you should watch me and take care of me!” Baruch said, leaning on the doorknob. “Nu, open the door already. Open up, open up, open—” He almost fell when the door to his sister’s room was furiously yanked open. He stepped back, murmuring, “How do you say ‘dear sister’ in English? And how do you write it in gematria? You girls learn such silly things.”
“Get away from here now, you hear?” Shuli said slowly, her eyes narrowed into slits. “You didn’t drink the tea I made for you two hours ago, right? Go finish it now, and then don’t bother me until at least twelve-thirty, got it?” She didn’t wait to hear his response, because, with the slam of the door and the turn of the lock, she was back at her desk, gripping a pencil in her hand and focusing on the English words before her with a creased forehead.
She was in the middle of page ten of her English homework when the ringing of the phone penetrated through the door of her room.
“It’s probably Ima!” Baruch howled. “And I’m going to tell her that you’re not doing a good job of taking care of me!”
“Little brothers…” Shuli muttered, and continued with her long English sentence.
Half a minute later, Baruch was banging at her door again. “It’s some funny lady,” he reported. “She asked for Mrs. Shuli. You hear, Mrs. Shuli? So what should I tell her?”
“Stop pulling my leg,” she said with a scowl. He went back to the telephone, and Shuli hesitated for a second before getting up and leaping toward the door. She opened it and listened to her brother, who was talking on the phone in the hall.
“She doesn’t believe me,” he reported to whoever was on the other end. “She thinks I’m making it up. Wait a minute; now I think she does believe me. Here she is.”
With one huge step, Shuli was at the phone and grabbing it from her brother’s hand. “Yes?” she said tersely into it.
The person on the line was talking so quietly that Shuli wasn’t sure that it wasn’t all part of Baruch’s trick. “What?” she asked impatiently. “Can you speak louder, please?”
“Is this Mrs. Shuli?”
Shuli looked at Baruch, who was giggling behind his hand. “Yes,” she said after a pause.
“I got your phone number from the agency,” the voice said.
“From the agency for…cleaning ladies.”
“Oh!” Shuli exclaimed, glancing at Baruch out of the corner of her eye. He was leaning against the wall and looking at her curiously. “I see.”
“They said that you’re paying twenty shekel an hour.” The person spoke very slowly, which annoyed Shuli on the one hand, but on the other hand, it gave her time to formulate her response without Baruch understanding what she was talking about.
“Right,” she said shortly. “Is that good for you?”
“Yes.” The voice on the other end was so quiet that Shuli was growing more and more impatient.
“If you want me to hear what you’re saying, please speak up,” she said with obvious irritation.
“Sorry.” The person raised her voice a tad. “You understand, I just want you to know that…I don’t have so much experience or references, and that’s why they suggested I call you, and they won’t take the agency fee either.”
Baruch retreated toward his room, and Shuli grabbed at the opportunity.
“Do you know how to wash dishes?” she asked into the phone.
“And to clean cabinet doors and things like that?”
A long breath from the other end of the phone and then the response: “Yes.”
“Great,” Shuli said. “Could you come today for an hour or two?” The house was exceptionally messy today and her mother would only be back in the evening. Shuli did not intend to allow Baruch’s head to hurt in the afternoon as well. Feeling well or not, he was going back to cheder. “Do you have my address? We’re in Maale Adumim.”
In a small apartment in Yerushalayim, Yaffa hung up the phone heavily, looking at the address on her scrap of paper. The Emanuel family. Which bus would get her there? She sat down on the edge of the messy bed, looking tiredly at the sleeping Bentzy. Mrs. Emanuel sounded very young on the phone, but rather strict and firm. She prayed that in person she’d be a bit more sympathetic.
The neighbor’s daughter wanted ten shekel an hour to watch Bentzy, and Yaffa thought it was laughable. Earn twenty shekel to part with half of it? And after transportation, what would she be left with? She hadn’t thought babysitting was such an expensive proposition. Her sister Chaya would happily watch Bentzy if Yaffa would only ask, but Yaffa would have to pay for that by telling Chaya where she was going and what her plans for that afternoon were. That was too steep of a price for Yaffa to pay, even more than the ten-shekel-an-hour the neighbor wanted.
She didn’t even say a word to Elchanan about any of this. He left at three thirty to the bookstore, and Yaffa knew that if she wanted to be at the Emmanuels at four thirty, she had to leave right away. But she still didn’t have someone to watch Bentzy.
She packed a snood, an old robe, and a pair of slippers into a bag. Bentzy was sleeping so deeply in the carriage; he had no idea that his mother was gazing at him, at a loss. “Should I take you along?” Yaffa asked aloud desperately. And then came a knock at the door.
It was the cute little girl who lived on the third floor. Brunner, or something like that. “My mother said you were looking for a babysitter? She heard you asking Goldy Kleiman.”
“Right,” Yaffa said, sizing up the four-foot-tall child standing in front of her.
“I can also watch him. I mean, my mother will help me, in our house,” the girl said, and Yaffa tried to decide if she was in second grade or third. “We once met you downstairs, right? I have nephews that I watch all the time, and my mother said that if you want, then you can pay me five shekel an hour.”
Yaffa wrinkled her forehead. “Five,” she repeated. “And your mother will help you?”
“Yes. Now she’s resting, but she said that we can take the carriage up together and then she’ll help me when she gets up.”
They carried the carriage up. Or rather, Yaffa lifted it from the front and little Tzivi got in the way from the back, but in the end, the carriage was on the third floor. “You have everything you need right here in this bag,” the young mother said hurriedly. It was already ten to four, and she was obviously going to be late. Mrs. Emmanuel would not be pleased.
She quickly went back down the stairs. Little Tzivi had appeared straight from Above, that was clear. The bus also came within two minutes—sent from the same Source. Baruch Hashem! Yaffa just hoped she wouldn’t be too late to the job.
At 4:42, she found herself in front of the building, sizing it up apprehensively. It was old, faded, and had a low ceiling at the entrance. She put her hand on the railing that was spotted with rust, glancing at the stairs. They were clean, and the doorl seemed nicely painted. She began to ascend, suddenly realizing that she’d forgotten to find out what kind of family she was going to. The area was supposed to be a traditionally frum one, but no one had promised anything.
Yaffa paused for a minute, pondering her next step. A distant bark of a dog sounded from behind one of the doors, and Yaffa cringed. She glanced at the two doors. One of them didn’t say anything on a nameplate or on the bell, and the second said “Levy Family” on it. She continued up the next flight slowly, and at the top of that bank of stairs, she found the Emmanuels’ door.
It was a dark, clearly new door that looked very different from the others in the building. Yaffa felt no desire to knock. She leaned against the wall, peeking into the bag she was clutching. Everything was there, ready and waiting for her. A robe, snood, and slippers. All that was missing was the nametag: cleaning lady. She swallowed and glanced at her watch. 4:47.
At that very minute, Chaya was trying to call Yaffa’s house, but there was no answer. Where could Yaffa be at this hour? Well, that wasn’t really a question. Her sister could be out shopping or doing errands or a million other things that would send a woman out of the house on a regular afternoon. But as far as she knew, many stores were not yet open for the afternoon shift, and in any case, Elchanan did most of the couple’s shopping. Yaffa was a homebody who didn’t like to leave her four walls more than she had to.
Where could she have gone? To take three-month-old Bentzy to the park?