Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
The next morning, Yaffa went to the high school. Elchanan was happy to hear about the temporary job her sister had found for her, and left for Dvir’s store, as he had been doing each of the past few days. Bentzy went to the babysitter upstairs, clean, calm, and with his hair freshly combed.
Even after she left the house, waited at the bus stop, and boarded the bus, Yaffa didn’t allow herself to think too much into what lay ahead.. As it was, with every step she took toward the school, she felt an urge to turn around and go home, to Bentzy, to her familiar housework.
What was she thinking, accepting a job in a school office that was totally unfamiliar to her? Not that she was any more inclined to work in her alma mater’s office; she was hardly interested in meeting her old teachers and the sisters of her friends and neighbors who would begin asking questions. But there, at least, she wouldn’t have a problem with the actual walls. They wouldn’t be foreign to her. Nor would eyebrows be raised. Now, however she looked at it, she was going into a strange, unfamiliar building, and she didn’t even know where the office was! She would have to find it on her own and introduce herself to the principal, reminding her that she was Mrs. Schuck’s sister who was reporting to work today for the first time.
Ugh. Too bad it was the end of the month, and Chaya was too busy at work to be able to accompany her for even half an hour.
The gate was big and black and not at all welcoming. She pushed it hesitantly, and as soon as she crossed the threshold and entered the schoolyard, she found herself in a tumultuous sea of raucous girls. Mustering up the courage, she pushed her way through the crowd, and when she finally reached the building, she tried to figure out where the office could be. It took four minutes of wandering around until she came across a large room that was as bustling as the yard outside and the corridors she’d traversed. In her old school in Petach Tikva, the office was usually quiet. Was it always so noisy here?
“You must be Penina’s neighbor, right?” Someone pulled at her sleeve. Yaffa turned around and saw a pair of smiling girls. “She promised you’d come and help us with the hats. Penina’s waiting for you upstairs.”
“It’s not her!” another girl cried from the other side of the room. “And stop wasting time; just get to work. They need help there, upstairs. What do you think, that Penina’s neighbor doesn’t have a mouth and a pair of legs? She’ll find her own way upstairs, even if you don’t stand and wait for her!”
The girls abandoned Yaffa at once, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She took another step into the room she was assuming was the office, noticing the secretary’s messy desk and the people rushing around almost frantically. Everything was so busy and fast paced that Yaffa had to place her hand on the wall to steady herself, even though she was standing still. The room literally looked like it was spinning. Who was she supposed to speak to in this place? If the secretaries were so busy, how would the principal have a minute for her?
A bolt of pain suddenly shot through her right index finger, and it was only then that Yaffa realized that she was winding the handle of the bag she was holding around that finger over and over again. She quickly let go of the bag, noting the bright red ring that her finger now sported where the bag’s handle had been.
“A bit of quiet, everyone, please,” a voice suddenly said beside her, and all the loud chatter settled into a more sedate buzz. The woman who entered the office passed her with a brisk step, and then suddenly stopped and turned around to Yaffa. “You’re not Chaya Schuck’s sister, by any chance, are you?”
Salvation had arrived! “Yes, actually, I am.”
“Oh, nice to meet you. I don’t even think my mother remembers that you’re supposed to be coming today, but come, let’s go into her office.” And the woman turned to the other end of the large room.
For the first time, Yaffa noticed a large wooden door that was slightly ajar. A path opened up where the woman had walked through, but by the time Yaffa got herself together enough to pick up her bag and follow the young woman, she had to forge her own path again, murmuring “excuse me” repeatedly to girls who hardly heard her over the din they were creating.
“This is Chaya Schuck’s sister, Ima,” the young woman said, standing in the principal’s office next to the heavy wooden desk. “So please tell Yael that she should go over and arrange the deposit with the bus company. If she needs me, tell her to try my cell. I’ll be available.”
“Okay, see you, Malky,” the woman on the other side of the desk said. Her face was slightly wrinkled, and there was a pleasant air about her. She looked at Yaffa, who was huddled near the door, and rose. “Welcome. So you are Yaffa?”
“Yes.” Yaffa clutched her bag tighter. The reddened finger kept aching.
“Very nice. I’m Adina Kotzker, and we’re very happy to have another pair of hands to pitch in around the office this week. I imagine that you’ll learn very quickly what needs to be done here. In any case, the secretaries will be able to tell you much more about the work than I can.” She chuckled, and the lines in her face deepened. She reminded Yaffa a bit of Elchanan’s mother, but when she walked toward the main office, her brisk gait was very different than Yaffa’s mother-in-law, and more similar to that of Mrs. Kotzker’s daughter, who had introduced Yaffa to the principal.
The principal introduced Yaffa to the secretaries, though Yaffa was doubtful if the secretaries even heard her. They both said “yes” and “certainly” and “nice to meet you,” but as soon as the principal went back into her office, one secretary went back to typing on her computer, with a telephone glued to each ear, and the second one stood surrounded by girls at the copy machine; it was only because she was tall that she was even discernible in the crowd.
Yaffa hesitantly approached the tall secretary’s now-vacant desk and gazed at it. Was there even a chance that someone here would find a free minute to show her what to do? Chaya had said she should just come and they would tell her what was expected of her, but so far, that didn’t seem to be happening. She wasn’t sure that any of the other people in the room knew what she should do, either.
She picked up a wet plastic cup that sat on the desk and placed it in the garbage can next to the chair. Two wet, wrinkled sheets of paper followed. She pulled a tissue from the package on the desk and wiped the droplets of water from the surface. There. Now this part of the desk was clean and dry, and Yaffa had nothing left to do. Was she supposed to play the role of cleaning lady here, as she had done at the Emmanuels’? At least here she’d be paid a bit more than twenty shekel an hour, and she wouldn’t have to wash pots that someone else had scorched. Definitely a better deal.
“Excuse me?” A short girl stopped next to her. “Sorry to bother you, but we heard the principal tell the secretaries that you work in the office now. Could you photocopy this song forty times for us?”
“That secretary is photocopying.” Yaffa pointed with her chin to the tall figure dealing with the huge, scary-looking machine.
“Yes, but they’re doing like 1700 pages or something. We need this urgently, and just forty copies of it, so our class can learn this song. That’s what this little machine is here for.” And the girl, too, used her chin to point out what she was indicating to Yaffa. Yaffa followed the girl’s gaze to a corner of the room that she hadn’t noticed until then. Yes, there was another copy machine over there.
“We can really do it ourselves,” another girl, standing next to the first, offered. “But the principal doesn’t let students use the machines.”
“I’m not sure…” Yaffa swallowed. Without knowing why, she sidled over to the corner of the room where the small copy machine stood.
“You’re not familiar with this machine, right?” the first girl asked. “So I’ll tell you how to do it. Here, you press this blue button to turn it on. Nu…”
Yaffa hesitantly pressed the blue button, and the machine began to purr.
“Okay, now put in this paper.” The second girl opened the copy machine’s cover and pushed the paper into Yaffa’s hand. “Put it here, between the arrows. No, not like that—like this!”
“Now press ‘forty,’” another girl chimed in from behind Yaffa, who didn’t turn around. She closely perused the buttons on the side and saw that some of them were numbered. Four. She pressed cautiously and then looked at the screen. Good. Now, zero.
“Excellent,” the girl behind her said, sounding as though she was on the verge of erupting into laughter. “And now press this round green button, and it will start copying.”
Her right finger was still throbbing, but for some reason, Yaffa chose to use it to press the green button. The machine began rumbling rhythmically.
“Great!” the first girl exclaimed. “It’s copying!”
The monotonous rumbling that was so strange to Yaffa was apparently familiar to the regular denizens of the office. The tall secretary who was standing at the other machine turned around at once. “Who touched that machine?!” she asked in a voice that matched her appearance exactly—high, strong, and grating.
Silence fell in the office, and Yaffa discovered that the three girls who had been standing near her until now had suddenly melted into the crowd.
“I specifically asked that no one touch that machine! I loaded the paper tray with sheets of labels that the madrichos ordered specially from Haifa!” The angry secretary covered the length of the office with a few large steps and grabbed the pages that the machine was emitting at a dizzying speed.
Yaffa gaped at the fluorescent-colored pages. She stood next to the machine, which, despite the desperate button-pressing of the secretary, continued to spit out forty pages of colorful, expensive stickers—each one featuring a handwritten draft of a song, replete with crossouts and underlines. Whose handwriting was that on the paper? The short girl she’d spoken to first, or the one who’d stood behind her and had wanted to laugh at the wannabe secretary who didn’t know how to use a simple copy machine?
Apparently, there were a few other things that Yaffa didn’t know.
Yaffa munched on her falafel and remarked indifferently, “So that’s it. I have nothing more to do there.”
“Why?” Elchanan didn’t understand. “You learned how to use the machine in seconds; you see it’s no big deal. And the stickers that got ruined? What could you do? It sounds like it was such chaos over there; there was no way you could have known about those stickers without someone telling you about it first.”
Yaffa shrugged but didn’t answer. She gazed at the little lace curtain waving near the window that wasn’t closed all the way and then said, “But both Chaya and I decided that’s it’s not worth it for me to continue there. Chaya says that maybe it really is too complicated to learn how to be a secretary when they’re under such atomic pressure. She apologized that she hadn’t thought beforehand that it wouldn’t be for me.”
Elchanan knitted his eyebrows, a motion that Yaffa disliked. “So you’re planning to tell them that you’re not coming tomorrow?” he asked in a casual tone, but it was obvious there was something more to his question.
“No,” Yaffa whispered weakly. “I asked Chaya to do it. She’s the one who arranged everything till now anyway.”
Elchanan was quiet. He took his plate to the sink, rinsed his hands, and sat down to bentch.
Bentzy gurgled from his infant seat on the floor, and his mother smiled dismally at him. It had really been foolish of her to believe that working in a high school office would be as simple as Chaya had claimed it would be. Not that she’d done all that well at the Emmanuels’, and Shuli was far better than her in all of her cleaning capabilities, but at least Yaffa hadn’t caused any damage there. It was a good thing she hadn’t called Shuli yet to say that she couldn’t come tomorrow.
Yaffa gnawed at her pita; she had no appetite whatsoever. Then the phone rang. It was Chaya.
“I spoke to the principal at the school,” she said slowly. “But she does want you to come back tomorrow. From what she told me, it sounds that, aside from that mishap with the stickers in the copy machine, you were quite helpful. What did you do there?”
“Dunno,” Yaffa whispered. What had she done after the mess with the sticker sheets? She’d apologized, of course. The tall secretary hadn’t responded, but the principal had come out of her office just then and heard the story. She’d announced that it wouldn’t be so terrible if some girls got stickers in a different, not-quite-as-unique color.
“Making a big deal out of significant things—that’s okay,” she’d said. “But out of nonsense? Please. Do me a favor.”
Then Yaffi had straightened up the teachers’ room, filed a few receipts into binders as per the principal’s request, and prepared a list of supplies that the girls needed, as per their requests. She was told to give the list to the tall secretary, but she had opted to give it to the shorter one, the one who was perpetually on the phone. She had grounds to believe that she’d made a few spelling mistakes, with all those fancy names of interesting supplies that the girls had dictated to her, and she didn’t want to see the tall secretary reading it over word for word.
After that, she’d left and gone home. It was late, and she wanted to at least cut up some vegetables and prepare a cheese dip for her and Elchanan’s lunch. She hadn’t managed to get to the latter, but the disappointment had killed most of her and her husband’s appetites anyway.
“Did you hear me, Yaffa?” Chaya drew her back into the conversation. “So you’re going tomorrow also.” She was quiet for a minute and then added, “And I suggest that you don’t involve yourself with any of their electric stuff, okay? And don’t do anything yourself without first asking if it’s okay.”
Yaffa sucked on her bottom lip. “Mmm…” was all she said.
Only in the afternoon, two hours after Elchanan had left for Dvir’s store, did she call the Emmanuel home and ask for Shuli.
“Oh!” Shuli’s animated voice exclaimed.
Yaffa had heard that voice in her dreams last night. To the best of her recollection, it wasn’t quite a nightmare, but it was a dream where everyone was hurrying and doing things without a moment’s peace, and this voice commanded over them from a hidden hole in the ceiling. The ceiling, strangely enough—or not—was the same one as the dining room in the Emmanuel home. It had a large fixture in the middle, surrounded by little, twinkling bulbs.
“I really thought that I should be calling you,” Shuli said, “but I didn’t have your number. I wanted to tell you that it was really rude of me not to offer you anything to eat or drink when you were here. You must have been very thirsty after all that cleaning, right?”
Right? Yaffa didn’t remember if she’d been thirsty or not. She’d been too busy having a thousand other feelings, so there hadn’t been any room for thirst.
“I wanted to say that I won’t be able to come in the morning tomorrow,” she told Shuli now, ignoring the girl’s apology. “Is it okay with you if I come in the afternoon instead?”
Yael Braun raised her head in alarm. Something about this last dream didn’t quite make sense to her. What was her Ruti doing on the grassy lawn at the Overnight?
The four-year-old padded over to her barefoot. “Ima!” she whined. “Since you came home, you didn’t play with us at all, and then you finally sat down without your phone, but you fell asleep!” She sat down beside her mother on the sofa. “Abba gave us macaroni, but he put on so little cheese and sauce that you could hardly even taste it. Ima, if you have to make an Overnight for the girls in your school, you have to teach Abba how to make macaroni taste yummy, okay?”
“Where’s Michi?” Yael asked, the webs of sleep still clouding her mind.
“Michi…dunno. Maybe at the neighbors’ house.” Ruti’s dark eyes sparkled as she continued grilling her mother: “Right you told Abba that you’ll make a party when the Overnight is over? Can we come?”
“If I make a party, I’ll invite you, Ruti,” Yael said slowly, and carefully rose from the sofa. Black circles danced before her eyes. Had she eaten anything today, aside from two slices of bread with cheese? Not as far as she could remember.
“And you’ll make a chocolate cake for the party, okay?” Ruti’s eyes were still dancing with excitement. “Will you?”
The telephone, which amazingly enough had been quiet for the past forty-five minutes, began to ring loudly. Yael glanced at it. No, she had no energy right now to listen to how her friend Malky had been able to deal with all the things she had to do today, and had come home at a normal hour, and had taken care of her brood of nine without even closing her eyes.
“Ruti, sweetie,” she said a bit breathlessly, “can you bring me a cup of water, please?”
Ruti wanted to, but on the way to the kitchen, she made a detour to the front door. Someone was knocking.
“Ima?” she called out. “Two of your students are here!”
Students? Now? What was going on?
Yael smoothed her snood to make sure it was on straight, and glanced down at her robe. Robe? She was still wearing her green outfit from that morning. “Tell them they can come in,” she said and sat down on a chair. This was the life of the extracurricular activities coordinator.
Mira Coplin and Blumi Berger, two twelfth grade madrichos, walked into the room.
“We’re sorry to bother you, Morah,” Mira Coplin, the madrichah of 9B, began. “We wanted to get permission to buy forty sheets of labels here, instead of those that were ordered from that store in Haifa.”
All at once, Yael was sucked back into the office and into the story of the sheets of labels that had gotten ruined. She felt bad for Mira; the girl had worked so hard to get them!
“And you can’t get such a thing around here?” Yael asked.
“We can get something similar, though not exactly the same. The problem is that it will cost us three times as much, because it’s not such a big order and because the store is pretty expensive to begin with.”
Yael closed her eyes for a minute. This Overnight was costing such a fortune as it was. What difference would this additional expense make? “Okay, you can buy them.” She pulled over the page full of chicken scratch that was sitting on the other side of the table. “Labels,” she wrote on top, in an empty corner. “Forty sheets.” She raised her eyes with a smile. “Anything else?”
Ruti, standing on the side until now, approached her mother timidly. “Forty is tons of stickers,” she whispered loudly. “If there are any left over, give them to me, ‘kay?”
The two twelfth graders burst out laughing. Yael smiled along, although her cheek muscles ached.
“We also have to check if anyone bought colored permanent markers,” Mira said. Yael wondered why Mira was the one who always did the talking, even when she approached her together with other madrichos. And why did Blumi stand quietly on the sidelines almost all the time?
“How many do you need?” Yael asked, shaking off her thoughts. She had to pay attention to the question at hand. Maybe Mira had slightly dominating qualities. But now was not the time to dwell on that. At least not for her.
Then who would? Who would pay attention to this negative trait in the girl, if not the teacher who noticed it?
“How many? At least fifty boxes,” Mira said confidently. Mira again.
“Okay.” Yael bent over to write again, this time on the second side of the page; she really had to rewrite this page and make some sense out of it. Suddenly, mid-word, she raised her head. “Are you going there now, Mira? To the store, I mean.”
“That’s the plan.”
“Do you think you can manage by yourself? I really can use Blumi here now, to help me organize these lists.”
“I actually wanted her to come with me…” Mira chuckled, and Yael smiled patiently, concealing her true desire to grit her teeth. If Malka Mann would have asked for Blumi’s help, Mira would have certainly responded with a prompt, “No problem.” And no student would ever pop into Malky’s house unannounced and see the floor that was still dirty from Shabbos. In the most extreme case Yael could imagine, the students would call before and ask if they could speak to her urgently.
Mira was still deliberating. “Okay,” she said finally, sighing deeply. “If Morah wants Blumi to stay here, I’ll find someone else to go with.”
Yael nodded with a warm smile and walked Mira to the door. Only after it closed did she allow herself to wipe the remnants of her smile from her face and massage her facial muscles for a minute. Then she went back to the dining room, wearing a newly refreshed smile. She took out two clean sheets of paper and asked Blumi, still standing and waiting, to sit down and copy all of her scribbles over in an organized fashion.
Blumi sat down without a word, and Yael went into the kitchen to try and scrub away the tomato sauce remnants that her children’s lunch had left behind. Then she scraped the last bit of macaroni from the bottom of the pot on the stove and dumped it onto a plate. She grabbed a fork, sat down, and began to eat.
“Right it’s not yummy?” Ruti asked, appearing in the doorway. “The girl told me to tell you she finished, Ima.”
Yael glanced for a second at the remains of her lunch, and then said, “Tell her to come in here.” Thankfully, she’d cleaned the table already, and if the tomato sauce-stained stovetop and dirty counter bothered the girl, she could just close her eyes.
She slowly chewed on her food until Blumi hesitantly came to the kitchen door.
“Come in, Blumi. Sit down,” Yael instructed with a smile. She rummaged in her pocketbook hanging on the back of a chair and then turned to her little daughter. “Ruti, here are some stickers for you. Take a paper from the drawer and make me a project, like your morah does with you. Then come and show me, okay?”
She paused until her daughter flitted out of the kitchen and then gave Blumi her attention again. “Have you eaten lunch yet, Blumi? I hope so, because as we speak, the last bit of macaroni and sauce is being consumed.”
Blumi laughed quietly and fixed an awkward gaze on the scribble that had graced the kitchen wall for the past two years already.
“I wanted to speak to you,” Yael said. “But please, Blumi, sit down. I want you to feel comfortable.” If she would never be Malky anyway, then there was certainly no reason to even try.