Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 6 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.
The person who opened the door was taller than her and her light hair was gathered into a high bun on the top of her head. Once she invited Yaffa inside, Yaffa was able to take a closer look at her employer, only to discover that she was really just a big girl.
“Welcome,” the girl said briskly. “You’re the cleaning lady, right? You can put your bag here, in the bathroom, and get yourself ready. When you come out, I’ll tell you exactly what I want today.”
Yaffa found herself in the middle of a marble bathroom. She wasn’t sure she understood exactly what was going on in the place, but she decided to do first what the girl had told her to do: to get ready. The wall tiles were a pinky brown, and there wasn’t a single fingerprint to be found anywhere. A pleasant scent hung in the little room, and two folded pink towels were stacked on the edge of the bathtub.
Yaffa took a deep breath. Everything was so clean-clean-clean, much cleaner than she ever dared dream she could achieve. She stuck her clothes into her bag, creased into a messy pile, and looked around for a spot to put her sheitel. Hesitantly, she hung it on a gleaming nickel hook that protruded from one of the walls. Then she opened the door and stepped out.
The girl was waiting for her, leaning against the wall. “Very good,” she said. “We have an hour and a half until my brothers come home, and I want you to start in the kitchen.” She straightened up and walked rapidly toward the kitchen, with Yaffa close on her heels.
Yaffa felt a strange sensation, as though she’d been plopped into the pages of a fantasy book, and if she wouldn’t follow the girl, she would never be able to get back to the real world. They passed a large dining room, and Yaffa was able to catch a glimpse of two low, leather armchairs next to a small, glass, square table, and a large window whose shutter was totally drawn, blocking out even the slightest crack of light.
The kitchen was a different story. The two sinks were piled high with dirty dishes. On the right side of the counter was a pile of crumpled papers that had overflowed onto the gas range. The large floor tiles featured a huge red stain, and the same red substance was splattered on the bottom cabinets of the kitchen, too.
“Those are my brothers for you,” the girl said. “They threw a bottle of ketchup on the floor, and no one volunteered to clean up the mess. If you have any questions, I’m in my room.”
Yaffa didn’t ask how she would know which room was the girl’s, because there was no one left to ask anymore. She stood in the middle of the kitchen and closed her eyes for a minute, trying to think what Elchanan would say if he knew where his wife was right then. Then she opened her eyes and approached the nearest sink, which appeared to be fleishig.
“Here we go,” she whispered to the faucet and reached for it.
The next few minutes were spent scrubbing away. She tried to pretend that the plates and pots with burned food remnants were her own, but she wasn’t able to think about anything. It was strange to stand and watch your hands become covered in greenish foam, and be aware that they were your hands washing dishes in a strange home. Yaffa tried to wash each dish well, all the while wondering where the real woman of the house was and what was going on in this strange place.
Just then she heard rustling behind her.
“Bucket,” the girl said. “Rag for the floor. Floor cleaner.” Then she lifted her eyes from the pile of things she’d dumped on the floor. “What’s your name? I didn’t have a chance to ask you.”
“Yaffa,” the figure at the sink responded, without turning her head.
“Very nice. I’m Shuli.” And as suddenly as she’d appeared, she was gone again.
Several long moments passed before Yaffa decided that the sink could be considered clean. The level of cleanliness in the house seemed to be very demanding, and she didn’t want Shuli to be displeased. It was a bit strange, to feel threatened by a girl who was…how old was Shuli, anyway? She had to be younger than Yaffa. Maybe it was her height, or her demeanor, that made her seem so intimidating.
Brish, brash. Yaffa’s hands scrubbed the dairy mugs that were sticky with coffee dregs at the bottom. So it had been Shuli she’d spoken to on the phone. For all practical purposes, she was her employer. The thought was so ludicrous that Yaffa chuckled to herself, but she stopped short when Shuli returned to the kitchen and strode right over the empty fleishig sink, examining it from all sides without a word.
Yaffa continued to wash the dairy dishes silently, trying hard not to look in the other direction, even when she heard the rustling of a sponge scratching a surface. After two minutes passed, she couldn’t resist and snuck a peek out of the corner of her left eye. Shuli was scrubbing the top lip of the sink that Yaffa had apparently not devoted enough attention to. Then she rinsed the sponge in water, squeezed it out well, and returned it to its place.
“Do you think you’ll finish the milchig dishes and counters soon?” Shuli asked. “There’s also the stove, cabinets, and floor to do, and then the floor in the dining room, and dusting the furniture.”
Yaffa tried to calculate how much time it would take her, in her own house, to finish doing all the things on Shuli’s list, without taking into account the fact that everything here was so much bigger. For a minute, she felt an urge to flee into the bathroom, grab her bag and sheitel, and run. But she just continued scrubbing the knives and forks and didn’t say a word. At home, with Bentzy, such a list of tasks would steal an entire afternoon. And here?
“You know what?” With two strides, Shuli was standing at the stove and gathering the cascading pile of papers. “I’ll clean up here and wipe down the cabinets; otherwise we’ll never finish. My brothers will be home in an hour, and by then I want everything finished and you to be gone already.” She put the stack of papers on top of the refrigerator and then said, “The truth is, it might be quicker if I clean and you do my English summer homework for me, don’t you think?” There was something contagious about her laugh, but Yaffa didn’t think it was funny.
“I don’t think so,” Yaffa said. “I’m not very good in English.”
“No?” Shuli turned around to her from the door of the first cabinet in the long row. “Interesting. You look a bit like my English teacher, Mrs. Chana Lev. Do you know her? No? You have the face of a teacher. I think you look like you could be an English teacher.”
Now Yaffa laughed haltingly, and without saying another word, she finished putting the dishes on the drying rack and began scrubbing the sink, paying special attention to the top lip.
“Math.” Shuli didn’t give up. “It would be worth it for me to pay twenty shekel an hour for you to finish that silly booklet for me. Did you also have to do that terrible summer homework when you were in school?”
“I don’t remember,” Yaffa replied, struggling to hold on to the slippery sponge that kept falling out of her grip. “Even if so, I don’t think I ever did them. I’m not…not…good at that, either.”
“Hmmm…” Shuli said as she scrubbed the third door. “Not that I know that many cleaning ladies, but you don’t look like the most standard kind in the world, right?”
Yaffa laughed again, but didn’t say anything. Shuli was standing very close to her, as she neared the corner cabinet. Now that it was clean of ketchup, Yaffa could see the delicate wood carvings on it.
“And you also say that you’re not the teacher type?”
Yaffa didn’t recall saying such a thing. In any case, it was the truth.
“Did you go to high school?”
Yaffa nodded, and a twinge of pain flashed in her head. Something about this cross-examination was beginning to bother her, but it was still preferable to the commanding tone the girl had used before.
“And what track did you take? Teaching?”
“I want to be a tour guide, or an accountant.”
Shuli fell silent for the first time in many long minutes. Yaffa could almost see the gears in her head spinning, but the big ketchup stain on the floor didn’t leave her much space to focus on anything else. The hands of the clock galloped forward at a frightening speed, and that meant that Shuli’s brothers would be home soon, and the strangest hour and a half she’d ever experienced in her life would be over and she’d be able to go home to Bentzy.
Shuli left the kitchen, and Yaffa heard muted noises from the living room. With a quick motion, she poured the bucket of water onto the floor and got to work, forgetting completely that there was an implement called a broom. Only when she reached the table with the squeegee mop did she remember to pick up the chairs. And only when Shuli stood in the kitchen doorway and set down the broom and dustpan with a clatter did Yaffa stop what she was doing.
“Oh!” she cried, blushing. But now there really was nothing to do. The stain had come off after vigorous scrubbing, and seven minutes later, the kitchen floor was gleaming and dry. It was funny to feel the satisfaction spread through her as she saw the clean floor, but Yaffa had no time to dwell on her feelings or on whether or not it was funny that she had such feelings. Shuli had already gone back to the living room, and Yaffa quickly followed her.
Shuli was standing on a ladder, dusting the shutters in the living room with rapid movements. “There’s not much dirt here,” she remarked. “These are closed most of the day. I can’t take it when neighbors peek inside the house. Do you want to take me over while I sweep, or the other way around?”
“I’ll sweep,” Yaffa said, looking around at the chairs piled on the table and the wall inlaid with small, twinkling bulbs.
“Clean those shelves, please, but careful with those flower pots,” Shuli muttered from her perch near the ceiling as she peered at the shutters. “I dusted the rest already.”
They worked in silence, Shuli glancing nervously at her watch every few seconds. Yaffa began washing the living room floor, clueless as to what she was going to do when she got to the armchairs. Was she supposed to move them? She hadn’t done so before, when sweeping, but Shul hadn’t said a word about it.
As she neared the glass coffee table with the squeegee mop enveloped in a dripping rag, Shuli jumped off the ladder, splashing water every which way. “Okay, thanks,” she said, and grabbed the mop from Yaffa. Yaffa let go, confused. “You can get dressed. In five minutes my brothers will be here.”
Yaffa went toward the bathroom, wondering who would wipe up the footprints she’d left on the hallway floor. But by the time she’d gotten dressed and came out with her bag, Shuli was standing with the mop and bucket, leaning against the wall, the same way she’d been waiting for her earlier. An orange 200-shekel bill fluttered between her fingers.
But Yaffa shook her head. “I don’t have change,” she said, looking at the gleaming hallway floor.
“So should I pay you next time?” the girl asked. “When can you come?”
“You want me to come again?” Yaffa replied, and suddenly, as if they’d coordinated it in advance, they both burst out laughing. Yaffa didn’t remember the last time she’d gasped so hard in laughter. But standing next to a strange girl from Maaleh Adumim—her boss, no less, if she could be called that—it seemed only fitting to laugh herself silly without being able to stop.
“I think that yes, for now,” Shuli said finally, wiping tears from her lashes. “After all, without you, I’d still be in the middle of all that work. It’s thanks to you that I finished early, and I had a nice time.”
When Yaffa reached the bottom of the stairs, a child leaped into the entrance of the building. Yaffa didn’t see him because he passed by her so fast, skipping up the stairs like a missile that had been fired from its launcher. Yaffa heard a door slam and a muted shout that sounded like Shuli. She trudged tiredly toward the bus stop, hoping it was nearby. Normally, she had no problem walking, but the last hour and a half had been draining for her. Dishes, counters, a bit of floors and dusting—it might not be such heavy work, but it had all gone by in such a whirlwind that Yaffa felt like she couldn’t take even a single extra step right now.
“Where were you Yaffa?”
“I went out.”
“Shifra called you, and so did I.”
“You went to Ima?”
“Some errands in town.”
“Errands at four o’clock?”
“Did you take Bentzy with you?”
“Where did you leave him?”
“At a neighbor.”
Chaya’s fingers tapped the gray receiver. “Someone responsible?”
“Yes.” Bentzy looked calm and well-cared-for when she’d returned. The friendly neighbor and her daughter Tzivi had said he was wonderful and hadn’t cried at all. The problem was: what would be with him the day after tomorrow, when Tzivi would be going to day camp and wouldn’t be able to watch him?
Yaffa gazed at the only picture hanging on the hallway wall. Elchanan had bought it for their first anniversary. He hadn’t known that she preferred smooth walls, especially when the house was small, and to this day he still didn’t know that. At least it was a nice picture, an oil painting of an artist depicting with his paintbrush a path stretching from a thicket of trees to a point in the yawning distance.
“Are you with me, Yaffa?” Chaya told her about her visit at the high school earlier that day. “I spoke to the principal before. She wants you to come tomorrow to try it out.”
“Tomorrow?” Yaffa’s voice was tinny and distant, like a small rowboat flailing on the powerful ocean waves. “At what time?”
“She asked that it be before ten. There’s lots of work there.”
“What kind of work?”
Chaya sighed. She couldn’t take Yaffa’s habit of asking about little details and evading the subject at hand. “Something like secretarial work,” she said. “It could be wonderful for you, Yaffa. Making coffee, photocopying pages, sweeping a bit, and helping with whatever they ask. And it would be a steady job, every morning.”
“I don’t know.” Yaffa was distracted. Every morning? But what about Shuli Emmanuel? Yaffa was supposed to go to her house again the day after tomorrow!
“What don’t you know? How to sweep?”
“No, how to photocopy,” Yaffa replied, although for a minute, the image of herself working the broom around the armchairs in the Emmanuel home flashed in her eyes. She wondered what Chaya would have to say about that. Maybe if they’d pay her well at the school, she wouldn’t have to go to the Emmanuels’ anymore?
“Right, but if there’ll be a nice, patient secretary there, she’ll explain it to you gladly, I’m sure. Photocopy machines are very simple and easy to use when they don’t jam. So, you’ll go?”
“How much are they paying an hour?” More than twenty shekel or less?
Chaya fell silent. This was the only point that she hadn’t completely ironed out. Aunt Nitza, whom she’d spoken to earlier, hadn’t given her an answer yet. Chaya felt bad, but there was no way she could pay for Yaffa’s salary out of her own pocket. Nitza, though, could do it—if she only wanted to. Not that the phone call had been the best one ever, but that wasn’t anything new; conversations with Aunt Nitza didn’t usually go very well for Chaya.
Yaffa had actually gotten along much better with her. Aunt Nitza had always liked Yaffa, and had even once tried to teach her math when she’d seen one of her niece’s failed math tests. But aside from that one private lesson, she’d never given a thing. Maybe now, she would.