Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“That woman is going to send me out of my mind!” Malka grumbled angrily. The teachers’ room was empty, aside for her and the shelves of account books. “She approved forty sheets of labels for them from Efroni’s store. Each sheet cost six shekel. So she just threw two hundred forty shekel in the garbage!”
She recoiled somewhat when someone entered the room. While her irate murmurings were quiet enough that she could be sure the person hadn’t heard anything, she still felt uneasy.
“Oh, hi, Yaffa,” she said amiably. “How’s the work going?”
“Fine,” Chaya Schuck’s sister replied. “No problem.” She paused for a minute, as though waiting for the green light to enter the room, but when none was forthcoming, she continued her way into the teachers’ room anyway.
Malka observed her from behind. Yaffa looked so similar to Chaya in coloring and features—but the two sisters couldn’t be more different in temperament.
“Are you looking for something there?” Malka called when she saw Yaffa opening and closing the kitchenette cabinets one after another.
“No….not really…I mean…yes. I’m looking for cups, for coffee.”
“In the right cabinet, at the top,” Malka said, and went back to her papers. She concentrated for a few minutes until she heard a slight clearing of the throat to her right. “Yes, Yaffa?” she asked in the same cordial tone that she used when speaking to ninth graders.
Yaffa placed a steaming cup beside her.
“For me?” Malka was surprised. “Thank you. How did you know how much coffee and how much Sweet & Low I like?”
“I asked the secretary.”
The shy smile that crossed the young woman’s lips made Malka feel compelled to ask, “When did you finish high school, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“About two and a half years ago.”
“So that means that you’re…?”
“Almost twenty. I…I got married right after eleventh grade,” Yaffa quickly explained before the obvious question had a chance to arise. She looked down at the tray in her hands and the two cups of coffee waiting on it.
“So young!” Malka said in surprise, politely suppressing the urge to ask why it had been so urgent for Chaya’s sister to leave school at such a young age. When Chaya Schuck had stammered and stuttered as she’d tried to get her sister this job, Malka hadn’t known what to expect. She’d been rather surprised to discover that Yaffa was a pleasant young woman who gave a normal impression, even if she was a bit dreamy. Of course, it was possible that she’d had difficulty with her studies, and either that or some other reason was preventing her from finding regular work, but all in all she was pleasant and very efficient. Oh, that reminded Malka, she had to decide what was going to be with Yaffa’s salary, because regardless of who paid it, Yaffa Levinsky needed an official wage slip.
“The new one? Sweet, isn’t she?” Adina Kotzker responded tiredly. “Is something the matter, Malky?”
“She really is sweet,” her daughter whispered, despite the closed door. “Although we don’t usually hire secretaries based on their sweet nature. But Chaya Schuck really begged…”
“She’ll be excellent, based on my assessment of her,” Adina said seriously. “She knows how to carry out orders, quietly, without a lot of fuss. Once she gets a bit more into it, we’ll thank Chaya Schuck for the extra pair of hands she landed us with.”
“So that’s it. I need to speak to you about her payment, Ima. Chaya arranged it with you, didn’t she?”
“Do me a favor, Malky; talk about Levinsky’s wage slip later, okay?” Yael Braun, who was sitting there as though the principal’s office belonged to her, looked like someone who had been interrupted by trivialities during an important discussion. “But I’m also seeing how great her help is, now that there’s so much pressure around here. Except for a little glitch yesterday, she really is terrific.” Yael lowered her eyes to the pair of half-empty coffee cups that still sat on the broad desk, and seemed ready to continue the sentence she’d begun before Malka had come into the room.
“Sure, small glitch,” Malka retorted, turning to the door. “That cost us a mere two hundred forty shekel.” She went into the main office without giving Yael a chance to respond.
Did I think for a second that Ima’s pet would blush, stammer, or apologize? I’m sure she doesn’t even understand the barb. In her eyes, whatever the Overnight entails is holy and unquestionably necessary, and without it, there’s no Overnight. Expensive labels are gone? There’ll be new ones, no matter how much they cost. The campus demanded a stay of at least three nights? So the Overnight gets extended, and it makes no difference that all the other schools in the city suffice with two nights for their Overnights. The heads are disappointed that the theme song playback didn’t come out as nice as they had planned? She’ll persuade Ima to pay for two more studio hours and record it all over again.
More than fifteen years had passed since Yael, the daughter of one of the prominent board members, had taken the school by a storm. The closeness in her and Malka’s ages made it only natural that they would become friends, and indeed, they had. But sometimes, Yael could be so maddening that Malka felt like giving up all her responsibilities and everything else she had at the school—including her own mother—and leaving it all to Yael.
Malka stopped and turned around. Yaffa Levinsky was standing behind her, wearing that same bashful smile that they’d become familiar with over the past day and a half.
“The custodian left to do errands, but they forgot to give him the mail to take to the post office. The secretary wants to know if I should go instead.”
“Do you know where the post office is?” Malka glanced at the secretary’s desk. The four envelopes she’d pleaded that they send out urgently that day were still sitting there. It was almost twelve; if they missed the time when the mailboxes were emptied, it would all have to wait for tomorrow.
“The secretary explained to me where it is.”
“Go into the post office itself so they use their stamper for the envelopes instead of just sticking on stamps, okay? And tell them that you’re from the school. We have an arrangement with them.”
“Do you have a bag or something?” Malka scooped up the letters and handed them to Yaffa, who suddenly blushed a deep red.
“Yes,” Yaffa replied. “I have one.”
“Great. So please hurry, because it’s very important mail, and I want to be sure it gets out today. Thanks a lot, really.”
Malka was drowning in things to do, and basically put Yaffa and the errand out of her mind, until a familiar hand stroked her on the shoulder. “You look very preoccupied, Malky,” a soft voice said from behind her.
“Yes,” Malka replied, and the uneasy feeling that had been prickling her for the past half hour suddenly became clear. “I haven’t seen Levinsky for a while. Did she get back, Ima?”
“From the post office. I wanted to know if she was able to send everything in time.”
“I have no idea. I just finished going over the opening trip with Yael.” The principal sighed. “So many details to deal with…”
“So, Yael does a great job, as usual,” Malka said lightly. “Should I make you something to drink, Ima?”
“No, Yaffa already did. What did you say? She went to the post office?”
“Who went to the post office?” Yael asked, appearing out of nowhere. “Mrs. Kotzker, the security officer is asking for a full signature on these forms. Can you do it now, please?”
“One minute. Did you see Yaffa Levinsky, Yael?”
“Yes, I sent her upstairs before, to ask the girls to bring all the keyboards and tape recorders back to the music room. Oh, Malky, I completely forgot. She wanted to come and tell you that everything went fine, and I said I’d give over the important message.” She scanned Malka’s face, which had suddenly soured. “Don’t tell me it was urgent for you to hear that she successfully stuck a few silly envelopes into a mailbox.”
“I won’t tell you if you don’t want, but those happened to have been very important envelopes. When did you send her upstairs?”
“More than ten minutes ago. But it will take her time until she gets back downstairs, because she has to make a list of everything that was returned and then lock the music room.”
“Very good,” the principal said, and went back into her office, followed by Yael with the pages that needed to be signed. A moment before they sat down, Adina Kotzker turned to her daughter, who was still standing outside, near the door. “So is everything alright now, Malky?”
“Yes, baruch Hshem.” Malka smiled. But beneath the smile, where no one could see, things were not alright at all.
Even before the door opened, Yaffa could hear the music blaring from inside the house. After Shuli opened the door, the noise was so loud that Yaffa wondered if the neighbors would come banging on the door in protest. The Levinskys also had a stereo at home, which Elchanan had bought right after their sheva brachos, using some of the gift money they’d received. But it was quiet most of the day, and when Elchanan got home, he sometimes turned it on—at a low volume. He had long learned that his wife couldn’t stand loud noise.
“Come on in!” Shuli said, her foot tapping to the music on the marble floor. “My brothers will be home later than usual today. I sent them to friends’ houses, so we’ll have more time to work without pressure.” She disappeared again, with the same suddenness as she’d disappeared the previous time, but at least now, Yaffa knew where to go, and five minutes later, she emerged from the bathroom, ready to receive instructions.
“Now, I already started in the dining room,” Shuli informed her. “So come help me there.” Yaffa hurried behind her and was horrified to discover that “there” was the source of the deafening music.
“Do you mind turning it down a bit?” she asked after deliberating for a few seconds, broom in hand.
“Oh, you’re like those adults?” the girl asked, clearly disappointed. “I thought if you’re young, it wouldn’t bother you. Usually I don’t turn it so loud, but my father had a migraine for a few days and we couldn’t turn on any music at home, even at the lowest volume. So now I’m using this free time to the maximum.”
“Oh,” Yaffa said, for want of a better response.
Shuli didn’t touch the stereo. She went over to the shelves she’d been working on until now and continued wiping them down to the beat of the music. After a minute, she threw down her rag and sighed. “Okaaayyy….” And she went to lower the volume a bit.
“Thanks,” Yaffa said.
“You’re welcome. Tell me, when you were a girl, didn’t you like music? Or did one of your parents also have migraines?”
“No, not migraines.” Yaffa hoisted the last chair onto the table. “But when I was ten, my mother had open-heart surgery, and from then on, our house became very quiet.”
“Why? She died?” Shuli examined her handiwork with her head tilted.
“No, chalilah,” Yaffa hurried to clarify. “She’s okay, baruch Hashem. But she’s very weak, and loud noise bothers her.”
“So you just shut off the stereo and that was it?”
“Well, the tape recorder, yes. My poor mother has enough to deal with without the noise of the music.”
“And after you got married?”
Yaffa shrugged. “I don’t especially like music.”
“Oh,” Shuli said. “Hey, do you want to come to the beach with me tomorrow?”
For some reason, the doorbell always rang just as she’d managed to get a bit of quiet and order in the house. Chaya Schuck had already kicked off her slippers and planned to lie down on her bed to take a rest until at least a quarter to ten. With a sigh, she stuck her feet back into her blue slippers and went to look through the peephole on the front door. From the children’s room, she heard a sleepy voice asking who it was, but she chose to ignore it.
“Hello, it’s Panther Couriers,” the young man outside said in a Russian accent as he pounded at the door again. “Can you open up already?”
Can you not come at such a strange hour? Chaya wanted to respond. But she opened the door.
“Sign here, please, that you got this.”
Good thing he had a pen, so Chaya could scribble her tired signature on the dotted line. She didn’t ask who the envelope was from; Aunt Nitza had already said that she’d be sending something with a courier service.
She closed and locked the door, and even before going into the kitchen, she tore open the envelope. True, she had a letter opener in one of her kitchen drawers, and true, she usually got annoyed when someone opened envelopes in such a brash manner, but her curiosity was overpowering, and all she could do was be thankful that none of her children were around to observe her. How much had Nitza sent?
On the phone, her aunt had sounded somewhat reserved. “That’s not the way, for us to pay her,” she’d said. “Not that I have a problem giving a bit. I like Yaffa’le, but if she works in a good high school, why shouldn’t they pay her?”
Go and explain to her that the school didn’t even need Yaffa, and how she herself wished that she wouldn’t have had to finagle a job there for her sister. It was hard to explain things to Aunt Nitza, especially as Aunt Nitza had no patience for explanations.
“Okay, fine,” Nitza had said, yawning loudly. “I’ll send you something, we’ll see how much. Next time, Chaya, please don’t call before five thirty. My shluffshtunde gets longer as I get older. How is a two-hour nap supposed to be enough for someone my age?”
Chaya wondered if she was joking and if she should titter politely, or if the order was a serious one. Her aunt saved her the effort by hanging up the phone, leaving Chaya slightly breathless, as she always was after a conversation with Nitza.
The envelope was already torn down the length, and Chaya stuck her hand inside of it. There were two thin papers. One was a page with two lines of shaky, spidery writing, and the second was a check. Chaya turned the check over, wondering if it would be enough to pay Yaffa for two days or four, and if her aunt had internalized why it was important not to write the check out to someone specific, even though she never issued checks without a payee’s name.
No, Aunt Nitza hadn’t written the check out to anyone; aside for her signature, she’d filled in only the line with the check’s amount, in that same unclear, spidery writing. Chaya pulled the check closer to her eyes. Two thousand shekel.
Baruch Hashem! Two thousand shekel! That translated into about three weeks of work for Yaffa, or a bit longer if she cut back the hours. She would ask Mrs. Kotzker what she preferred.
With a sigh of relief, Chaya put the check into her wallet, wondering how she would get it over to Malka in order for the school to pay Yaffa. Then she turned to the letter in the envelope.
“I’m not sure this is a good way to help Yaffa’le,” Nitza had written, “but if you need more, call me.”
A few hours earlier, without knowing a thing, of course, the one who was to receive the money from that check had walked up the street to her house. Elchanan had said he might return home early from the store because his head was aching, and just today, she’d taken her time at the Emmanuels’. For all Yaffa knew, Elchanan might have even been home already, wondering where his wife had disappeared to. She sure hoped not.
At first, the topic of the beach had had Shuli up in arms. She simply did not understand that there existed someone in the world who didn’t like waves, and she’d tried with all her might to persuade Yaffa to join her on a trip to Tel Aviv the next day. “You can leave the baby wherever he is now,” she’d declared. “Come with me. Why not?”
“I don’t like the beach.” Yaffa had shrugged. “I don’t know how many years it’s been since I was there.”
“Oh…that’s really too bad,” Shuli had said, her face falling. Yaffa had continued to sweep the floor quietly, trying not to exert her mind by analyzing this strange concept called Shuli Emmanuel. What kind of kid was she? How many hours of her summer vacation did she spend alone at home?
“Go with friends,” she’d heard herself saying, and the pity that suddenly filled her did not leave her any room in her mind to remember that cleaning ladies don’t usually give advice to their bosses.
Well, bosses were not supposed to invite their cleaning ladies on outings, so as far as maintaining boundaries, she and Shuli were tied at one up. In any case, she was going to school tomorrow, not to the beach.
“I don’t want to,” Shuli had said petulantly, sounding like a six-year-old. “I want you to come.” For half an hour after that, she’d walked around with a pout. The heavy silence was oppressive, and Yaffa had tried to find topics of conversation to lift Shuli out of her dour slump. It was no simple feat. Finding topics of conversation had never been Yaffa’s forte.
Toward the end of Yaffa’s stay, Shuli had thawed somewhat. She’d offered Yaffa all kinds of snacks from her father’s supermarket, and some cake she’d baked the day before. Yaffa had felt uncomfortable; how would she get out of there without insulting Shuli? She’d tried to explain to Shuli gently that she didn’t care for such snack foods, and yes, she saw that they had a good hechsher, and she fully trusted Shuli, but she simply didn’t like these foods. Lying and saying she didn’t like cake was simply out of the question, but miraculously, Shuli had suddenly remembered that the cake was dairy.
“I’m fleishigs,” Yaffa had said, hardly suppressing her sigh of relief. “But thanks so much anyway, Shuli.”
It was really late by then, but Shuli had still kept her from going, this time insisting that she take a bag of Bamba home for her baby. All of Yaffa’s explanations about three-month-old babies’ diets had fallen on deaf ears. Shuli had pushed the Bamba into Yaffa’s bag. “You’ll find someone to give it to,” she’d said. “And I’m sure your baby will enjoy licking a piece, too.”
Yaffa had missed the bus and had waited almost twenty minutes for the next one, which, of course, had traveled maddeningly slowly. Only now was she climbing the stairs to her apartment building, a bit out of breath. She’d been at the Emmanuels’ twice already; wasn’t it time to tell Elchanan about it?
She just had to find a way to do it.
The carriage was heavier than usual as Yaffa carried it down the stairs to her apartment. She knocked lightly and stuck her key in the keyhole. No, she couldn’t open the door—there was a key in the other side. She knocked again, louder, and Elchanan came to the door, smiling, with a sparkle in his eyes.
“Hello,” he said in a nasal, congested voice. “I came home early, like I was afraid I’d have to.”
You mean, like I was afraid you’d have to, Yaffa wanted to respond, but didn’t.
“Did you go to Chaya? Did we get salad again?” He chuckled, but didn’t wait for an answer. He just put his cell phone back to his ear, and continued his conversation as he walked toward the bedroom.
Yaffa took a deep breath. It was okay. He hadn’t asked too many questions, and she had plenty of time to decide how to break the matter to him. She parked the carriage, with Bentzy sleeping inside it, near the kitchen door, and went into the bedroom. Elchanan was off the phone.
“Should I make you some tea—maybe with honey in it?”
Her husband raised his eyes from the screen of the phone. “Tea with honey would be great, thanks.”
Yaffa got busy with the tea, hoping that as Elchanan drank it, she’d be able to go into the bathroom to hide the bag of clothes that could give her away.
Everything went just as she’d planned. She stuck the bag into the bathroom cabinet without anyone seeing. But still she wasn’t calm. The Bamba! She’d brought it into the bathroom by mistake.
She ran back to the bathroom cabinet and quickly pulled out her bag, rummaging around inside. There was the Bamba Shuli had stuffed in. She could put it in the kitchen pantry. Elchanan liked Bamba; he’d be happy to find it there.
But when she got to the kitchen, she found Elchanan standing and holding his empty teacup in front of the open pantry.
“You can see I haven’t been shopping in two days,” he murmured, half to himself, half to her. “I’m looking for something light to eat. The tea gave me back some of my appetite.” He turned around and found his wife holding a familiar bag. “Bamba! Now that would be great,” he said naturally. “Thanks. Did Chaya give you that?”
Until now, her secret required only that she conceal what she was doing, and nothing more, and still, it plagued at her conscience. Now she needed to lie, too. Elchanan sat at the table and opened the bag of Bamba, but he was still waiting for an answer.
“Not from Chaya,” she said in a near whisper.
“Oh, you bought it?”
Elchanan didn’t continue asking, but Yaffa felt that it would be foolish to remain silent now. “It’s from Shuli,” she whispered, sitting down across from him. Dozens of tan-colored Bamba pieces that had spilled out of the bag lay on the table between them.
“Who’s Shuli?” Elchanan asked, scooping up a piece of Bamba. He made a brachah and popped it into his mouth.
“It’s…she’s…” If she herself had been Shuli, she surely would have found a plausible answer by now, but she was Yaffa, not Shuli. “She’s…the daughter of the family that I work for.”
Elchanan raised his eyes. “Work?” he asked. “You? Doing what?”
“We’ve actually become good friends.” The smell of the peanut snack was stifling in the small kitchen. “I help her wipe cabinets, wash dishes, things like that.”
Elchanan looked at her incredulously. With a quick motion, he swept all the Bamba pieces from the table and into the bag, and folded the bag’s edges down sharply. “Wipe…wash…they call that housekeeping, right?”
“Something like that…” She didn’t look at him.
“And you’ve been doing this for a long time?”
“No, today was just the second time.”
He drummed his fingers on the table and didn’t say a word.
“I wanted to tell you,” she continued quietly, feeling an almost desperate need to say something. “But I wanted to see first if…if the job suits me.”
“It doesn’t,” Elchanan said. “What…made you even think about it?”
“There was a sign on the street about an agency…”
“And you called?”
“But why, Yaffa?” Elchanan’s voice cracked unintentionally. “Is it…is it a punishment for me?”