Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 15 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.
Malka had once read a newspaper article that said that if a person displays signs of a stroke, he should be rushed to the hospital within three hours, during which time there is a chance to minimize the damage. She also read of a complaint by a patient who had indeed arrived at the hospital in time, but had to wait a very long time in the emergency room before receiving medical attention.
Her mother hadn’t had to wait even a minute. The paramedic in the ambulance had called ahead to the emergency room, giving notice about the patient’s serious stroke incident and loss of consciousness en route to the hospital, and everything was ready for them.
“When did it all begin?” asked the doctor who emerged from the Intensive Care Unit after an endless few minutes.
“At about four,” Malka replied meekly. Her father had been allowed in to see Ima for a minute, while she had been left standing in front of the heavy double doors with her brother, Shaul. As she stared at her whitened knuckles, a bizarre thought crossed her mind: She couldn’t be having a stroke right now also, could she?
“Right now, as we speak, the situation is stable,” the doctor said. “What will happen later? We don’t know. There was a serious hemorrhage here, of the kind we don’t often see. Usually, the deterioration is a bit slower and gives the person a longer stretch of time to recognize the signs and get to the hospital. I understand that was not the case with your mother.”
“No,” Malka said.
“Can we get a more detailed picture of the situation?” Malka’s husband interjected.
The doctor was hardly enthusiastic to provide one. “Very briefly,” he finally said, toying with his nametag. “You know what a stroke is, right? When there is an obstruction in the blood flow to the brain tissue. Sometimes, the obstruction is ischemic, which means that there’s a blockage of blood vessels; this can occur for all sorts of reasons. Other times, it’s a hemorrhagic obstruction, which is called a hemorrhagic stroke. This is caused by a leaking or burst blood vessel. Most stroke cases are ischemic, but about fifteen percent of cases are hemorrhagic—which is the case with your mother. It’s not always possible to find a clear cause for hemorrhagic strokes, but the main reason is usually high blood pressure, and sometimes tension.”
“She had blood pressure problems,” Malka whispered.
“I saw that in her file. And tension? Was there something pressuring her recently?”
Malka bit her lip in concentration. What had Ima been talking about just before it had all happened? She’d mentioned Yaffa, apparently referring to Yaffa Levisnky, but by then she had already been having difficulty speaking. Before that it was a question about Yael… Yael!
The doctor didn’t wait for her to reply. “In any case, there is no vacuum inside the skull. Every drop of blood that bleeds out begins to put pressure on the tissue and blood vessels, and sometimes, it creates other hemorrhages that prevent the flow of oxygen and create new sources of pressure. It’s like a road accident that turns into a pileup.”
“So, what happens now?” Shaul, Malka’s brother, asked.
“Now, the first thing we are doing is providing oxygen to preserve the tissue that is left. We are also adding medication to her IV drip that is supposed to reduce the swelling and intracranial pressure. But I have to be honest with you; we have to assume that large parts of the brain tissue have been irreversibly damaged.”
Malka couldn’t breathe.
“What does that mean?” her husband asked. “That we’re in for a long rehabilitation?” Abba joined them now, his expression dismal.
“That we’re not even talking about rehab yet,” the doctor replied. Was he an unfeeling person by nature, or was it just his message that came across so brutally?
“And I just want you to know,” the doctor added a final blow, “that even with the blood and oxygen flow restored to the parts that were damaged, those areas will never be able to fully function again.”
Adina Kotzker’s closest family members looked at each other in shocked silence. Just then, a figure ran frantically down the hall, weeping loudly.
“Malky, Malky…” she sobbed, hardly coherent. “Malky, what’s going on?” Yael Braun’s eyes were red. “I can’t sit at home even another second. I sent the kids out, and got myself over here as fast as I could.” She glanced for a second at her friend and colleague, and then grasped her hand. “Is she okay, Malky? Tell me, is she okay?”
“She’s not okay,” Malky said, and the flood of her own tears began. The men moved off to the side as the two women stood together, hands clasped, enveloped by a bond of friendship. They leaned against the wall, weeping. Facing the chairs in the waiting room, the ominous hospital signs, and the unmistakable hospital smell, the familiar things in their lives suddenly shrunk into triviality.
“Doctor, what’s the situation?” Yael asked breathlessly as the doctor tried to slip back through the doors. “Tell me. What are her chances?”
Something in the directness of Yael’s questions irritated Malka. She blew her nose and wanted to say something to Yael to the effect that they’d already spoken to the doctor and it was better not to badger him excessivly, but the doctor preempted her.
“Are you a relative?”
“So ask those who are.”
It wasn’t an easy conversation. When it was over, Dovi’s father hung up the phone, raised his eyes to his wife and son, sighed, and shook his head from side to side. No. There was nothing to talk about.
“He doesn’t want to get involved,” he said. “He claims that Rabbi Weinstock is very adamant about his decision.”
“So what’s going to be?” Dovi asked plaintively. “Am I going to stay here in America to learn?”
“No, because in a few months, Mom and I are also leaving America, and we won’t leave you behind. We’ll find you another good yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael.”
“There aren’t many good yeshivos that will accept me after Rabbi Weinstock threw me out,” Dovi said slowly.
“True,” his father conceded.
“So what will be?” Dovi asked again. His mother was silent.
“Either we’ll try and keep up the pressure for them to take you back, or…” His father folded his arms. “Or you’ll settle for a yeshivah that’s not as good. What do you choose?”
“Keep trying.” Dovi raised his eyes from the napkin he was toying with.
“Fine. So go pack a suitcase.”
“Yekusiel told me that the most important thing we can do is prove how serious our intentions are. We won’t be able to move anything from here.”
“So he’ll go to Israel and then do what?” Dovi’s mother asked.
“We’ll see. Someone suggested I speak to Kotzker again, you know, from the high school in Yerushalayim. But he also said that he’s not sure she is going to want to help now. She shares educational views with Rabbi Weinstock. When Naama recommended you before for Shiur Aleph, Mrs. Kotzker spoke to him and he accepted you. The way things are now, though, I don’t know what her opinion will be.”
“I see.” The fifteen-year-old boy licked his dry lips.
She was first this morning.
The office, surprisingly enough, remained exactly the same. Yaffa put her bag on a hook and sat down on the chair behind the desk on the left, the chair that had become hers in recent weeks. She looked at the half-closed door to the principal’s office and at the darkness beyond. She felt a tremor tingle down her spine. She wanted to take out her Tehillim, because as of now, she had nothing else specific to do, but just then, Yael Braun appeared at the entrance to the office.
“Good morning,” she said. “Oh, Yaffa, how are you?”
“Worried.” Yaffa raised her eyes, looking for Yael’s trademark smile. It was there, but it was far less sunny than usual.
“So am I,” Yael said. “Did you get the chain call about splitting up Tehillim?”
“Good. We didn’t have your phone number, but I told Chana you must be listed in the phone book. Now, listen.” She glanced for a minute at the door to the corridor. “Tomorrow, b’ezras Hashem, the board members are going to be meeting here. There are…” She sighed. “Because of the developments, there are things that have to be dealt with. Will you be able to take care of the refreshments, like last time?”
“You were here at their last meeting, right? I remember Mrs. Kotzker telling me that you were the only one here with her. My father told me afterward that they didn’t end up eating anything because of the burst pipes and the smell in the building.”
“Your father?” Yaffa had never spoken more than a few words to Yael. Now that she was actually having a conversation with her, Yaffa noted that despite the tension that never left Yael’s face, she was still a pleasant person to speak with.
“My father, Rabbi Sindler. One of the board members.”
The image of a bearded, pleasant-faced man rose in Yaffa’s mind. “Oh, I remember…” she said slowly. “Anyway, what has to be done here now?”
“If you don’t mind, can you find me the phone number of Mrs. Gewirtz, the ninth grade coordinator? I want her to finish dividing the classes, so that Malka or I can go over the lists. Then we’ll be able to call the other ninth grade mechanchos. We have to arrange a mothers’ orientation evening for the incoming ninth grade, and have time to advertise it in the paper as well.”
“Advertise what in the paper?” Malka Mann asked, hurrying into the room. Yaffa recoiled at the sight of her. Her cheekbones looked paler and more prominent than ever, and her eyes were unfocused. She placed a large bag on the floor and slumped into the second secretary’s chair, where Chana usually sat.
“The regular announcement about the orientation for ninth grade mothers,” Yael replied. “We always do it now, don’t we?”
“Always,” Malka replied. “Now is always?”
“No; if it was, I wouldn’t be the one doing this.” Yael sighed. “Malky, you’ll speak to the cleaning company to send someone good to clean up the auditorium the night before the orientation, right? How does this coming Wednesday sound to you?”
Malka sat, the bag at her feet, her eyes gazing at some random spot in the distance. She didn’t respond.
“How’s your mother condition?” Yaffa dared violate the silence in a small voice.
“Very serious, but stable,” Yael replied. “Has there been any change since you called me ten minutes ago, Malky?”
Adina Kotzker’s daughter just shook her head from side to side, but her eyes did not leave whatever she was staring at. Yaffa looked in the same direction. Aside from six class pictures hanging at eye level on the wall, there was nothing that could be captivating Malka’s gaze so completely.
“Do you want to drink something?” she asked the two women shyly. Nothing seemed to be able to distract Malka right now from thinking about her mother’s condition. Perhaps she needed to drink or eat something. Who knew how many hours she was spending in the hospital these days?
“No thanks.” Malka smiled, her face pale.
“Actually, yes, thank you,” Yael said in an insistent tone. “Three cups, please, Yaffa. For you, for Malka, and for me. You know what we each like. Did you buy milk?”
“Yes.” Yaffa rose hurriedly. The other two teachers gazed at her until she disappeared into the teachers’ room.
“Just tell me everything is okay,” Yael pleaded, bending toward her seated friend. “You wouldn’t have come here if not, right?”
“Where should everything be okay?” Malka’s lips were dry and cracked.
“With your mother.”
“Okay? It’s hard to call this okay. The situation now is the same as the past few days. Terrible, but stable.”
“I can’t believe less than three days have passed.”
“Right, it’s unbelievable,” Malka said, a hint of cynicism creeping into her voice.
It did not go unnoticed. “What do you mean?” Yael asked.
“Nothing. I was just repeating what you said.” Malka finally rose from her seat and walked over to her mother’s office.
“Really, Malky,” Yael insisted, following her. “I know you, and you did mean something by that, didn’t you?”
Malka stopped. Her hand, about to pull open the window shade, stopped in midair. “You really want to know what I meant? Fine. Yes, it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that just three days have passed since my mother had a serious stroke, and you’re already busy divvying up the work and organizing orientation nights. That’s all. Nothing else.”
“One minute; isn’t that what we came here for today? To wrap up all the details? Why did you leave the hospital to come here to school, instead of going home to your kids? Not in order to divide up the work and organize assemblies and things?”
Malka’s hand went back to dealing with the shade. Then she swiped a finger across her mother’s desk, flicking off some invisible dust, and suddenly, without warning, she burst into quiet weeping. “Fine, so you’re right; I’m sorry,” she said tearfully. “What can I do? It’s just so hard for me to see my mother lying there, and we’re here already, continuing on with running the school—without her. It’s hard for me, Yael, murderously hard.”
Yael was quiet. “I was a bit tactless,” she said finally. “I’m sorry, Malky.”
Malka continued smoothing her thumb over the Formica surface that her mother had left spotless before leaving for her vacation. There wasn’t a single memo, class list, cup with dregs of coffee, or even pen on the desk. “Well,” she said finally, with a deep breath, averting her eyes. “There’s no choice. We have to go on. The new ninth grade is going to start school whether we like it or not, and we have to organize the mothers’ orientation.” She pulled a tissue out of one of the desk drawers.
Back in the main office, they met Yaffa, who had returned from the teachers’ room bearing a small tray that held two mugs and a few cookies, and Chana, who had just arrived, dropping her pocketbook down on the desk with a thud.
“So, Faigy isn’t coming today?” Chana asked Yaffa.
Yaffa nodded in reply and went back to the teachers’ phone list.
“Good morning, Chana. Besuros tovos,” Yael said. “Thanks for the coffee, Yaffa.”
She looked at her friend emerging from her mother’s empty office and closing the door behind her. “Shall we sit, Malky?” she asked, not daring to suggest that they sit in the principal’s office, even though she was sure they would both feel much more comfortable far from the ears of Chana and Yaffa. They were about to decide on several matters that had never been finalized without the principal’s approval before—but there was no choice now. And if when Mrs. Kotzker was around, there was always friction between her and Malka, chances were that without the principal around, things would be even touchier.
Despite the few moments of closeness and the baring of emotions that she and Malka had shared, Yael had the distinct feeling that the friction between the two of them, especially today, was unavoidable.
Elchanan popped into his parents’ house to pick up a few things that they had left from the Shabbos they’d just spent there.
“Hi, Ruth,” he greeted his sister, who was reading a book alone in the kitchen. “Where’s Mother?”
“On her way home. Want some coffee?”
“Yes, thanks. Is she supposed to get here soon?”
“As far as I know, yes.” She abandoned her book and walked over to the counter. “How’s Yaffa?”
“Great. And how are you?”
“Okay. I’m starting to work tomorrow.”
“At the Block Global public relations firm. Have you heard of them?”
“No, is it a new company?”
She leaned against the counter. “So-so. Not very.”
“That’s really great.” He was happy for her. “How did you find the job? I know how hard it is to find work these days.”
Something in Ruth’s intuition lit up. “Are you talking about Yaffa or yourself?”
“Both. Yaffa is a complicated story, because she didn’t train for any specific profession.”
“Neither did you,” she pointed out.
“True.” His eyes rested on the flowerbox on the windowsill. It was full of blooms. When they were children, his mother had let them tend to the flowers. The plant grew and climbed, its leaves getting tangled in the slats of the shutters, but no one was allowed to touch those leaves, even though they sometimes dipped onto the countertops. Did Yaffa like window flowerboxes? Perhaps he should bring her one, as a surprise. Elchanan made himself a mental note to look into the matter and then turned to Ruth. “So, what were you saying? How did you find the job?”
“I didn’t say yet. My friend told me that she started working there and wasn’t happy, so she was leaving. I called and suggested myself for the position.” She picked up a leather briefcase that was sitting on the chair. “Papa bought this for me in honor of the new start.”
“Nice,” Elchanan said, pleased to discover that even if he had no idea if his wife liked window flowerboxes or not, he was at least familiar with her taste in briefcases. And this one would not pass her muster. “But weren’t you nervous after your friend was unhappy enough to leave the place?”
“No, because I know what her problem was.”
“Nu, what was it?”
Ruth didn’t reply. “You know?” she said suddenly, looking thoughtful. “When I was at the interview, I saw a sign that they are looking for a dynamic management person. I thought about you then. Maybe the conditions and benefits are better than those at your sefarim store. Would you be interested in such a position?”
“First of all, the sefarim store isn’t mine. Oh—thanks for the coffee. Besides, I don’t know if I’m looking for a change right now. What’s wrong with my working at Dvir’s?”
Ruth wrinkled her nose. “Mother always says it’s not fitting for you. You can get much further than just being a simple worker.”
Elchanan was almost insulted. “A simple worker? Thanks for the compliment, but I’m really not that.”
“Call it what you want. Don’t you think you’re wasting your talents? Isn’t it a shame?”
“And why didn’t your friend like it at this company?” he asked again, going back to the subject she’d tried to avert before. “Before you offer me a job there, I want to know what’s going on in that place.”
His sister shrugged. “The atmosphere there wasn’t for her, she said.”
“Let Mrs. Gewirtz speak.”
“What’s with you? We barely got her to agree to speak last year at the mothers’ evening. She’ll never do it again this year.”
They both fell silent.
“Maybe Rabbi Weinstock from the board would do it. As the rosh yeshivah of a mesivta, he’s very familiar with this age.”
“I don’t know. Girls are a different story.”
“So maybe we should bring in someone from outside. Have you heard about someone Klein, Menucha Klein or something? They say she’s a famous parenting counselor.”
“No, I never heard of her.” Malka wrinkled her nose. “I’ve never been excited about these parenting courses and things in the first place, especially when I don’t know who the person is.”
“So who should speak?”
They fell silent once again, Malka’s eyes flitting from her quiet phone (baruch Hashem!) to the large, round clock hanging above the door to her mother’s office.
“Well, I have to go now,” Malka finally said, rising from her seat. “But you can decide yourself, Yael. It doesn’t really make such a big difference to me right now who’s going to speak at the mothers’ orientation. I have to go to my own mother now. I was here more than an hour.”
“So we’ve finalized on things, more or less?”
“Yes. Just don’t forget to settle on a speaker.” Malka deliberated whether to say something else, but instead, she grasped her bag and hastened to the door. “Bye…” she called out. “Besuros tovos!”
“Refuah sheleimah,” Yaffa offered from her seat.
“Amen,” Malka replied warmly, and then she was gone.
Yael was quiet for a few long seconds, and then took a deep breath. “Well,” she said finally. “We have to order an ad for the paper, and speak to the cleaning company. And find a speaker.”
“Maybe your father…?” Yaffa suggested suddenly. Chana had left the room just before. “He seems like an educational figure.”
Yael chuckled, and Yaffa almost blushed. “You’re so nice, Yaffa,” she said. “But I can’t invite him to speak. It just wouldn’t make sense now.” She sat silently for a few more seconds, doodling on a paper that was empty save for two short scribbled lines. The problem was that Malka wouldn’t be pleased with anyone who wasn’t her mother, even though she might not have been aware of it.
“So what do I do…?” she murmured. The pen had already bored a hole into the paper.
“Maybe…” Yaffa began again, casting a quick glance at Chana, who had returned but was now busy talking animatedly into the phone. “Maybe we can hold the assembly at a later date, when the principal will be in a better state?” What was happening to her today, that she’d become so daring?
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen so soon, Yaffa.” Yael’s voice was somber. “And the school year has to begin. It’s important to us that the mothers of the new grade are clear about our school’s guidelines and outlook on chinuch.”
“So let school start, and then there will be an assembly for the mothers. Can’t the chinuch outlook wait two weeks?” Yaffa sensed that her question sounded cynical. She wasn’t the cynical type at all, but she could not think of any other way to word it. “Is it…is it so urgent?”
Yael leaned her forehead on her fingers. “You know what?” she said suddenly into the near-empty office. “That was brilliant. Do I have nothing else to do now but break my head about an assembly whose timing is not critical? It’s enough that I have to deal with the teachers’ schedules, which Malka is for sure not going to have time for now. I’ll also have to think of the opening day of school, but for that I have about another week and a half or so.” She rose, gathering the torn, wrinkled papers that were sitting in front of her. “You didn’t have all that much to do today…” she said, smiling at Yaffa, “but tomorrow Mrs. Gewirtz will send in the division of classes for the ninth grades, I’ll begin filling the schedule slots, and the board is going to be holding their meeting. You’ll have plenty of work then!”
And she did.
Erica Shai, the head secretary at the public relations firm, glanced at the paper. “Boaz?” She turned to the executive director who was hurrying past her. “Are we still looking for a contact person for the chareidi media?”
“In theory, yes. I just haven’t had time to deal with it yet. Why?”
“Ruth Levinsky, the new worker, is suggesting someone for the job.”
He raised an eyebrow. “She just started working here yesterday, didn’t she?”
“I am very selective about my liaisons. I need people of the highest caliber. Serious folks. You know that.”
“That’s right, and that’s why I suggest that you speak to this man yourself and form your own impressions of him, if you have time.”
“Let me see the resumé and we’ll see,” Boaz said, and continued on toward his office.
Half an hour later, he dialed the number listed on the page. He was answered by a baby’s wails, with a tired woman’s voice trying to be heard above them. “Hello?”
“Hello? I’d like to speak with Elchanan, please.”
“Boaz, from Block Global.”
“Hello?” Boaz repeated impatiently. The new graphic artist Levinsky was excellent. She had presented a magnificent portfolio, and her recommendations were all effusive. That was the only reason he’d tried—without even thinking—to call her brother about the position he had open. But the noise on the line didn’t sound very impressive to him at all.
“Elchanan—what you told me—I want? What? I just—it’s not like a sefarim store—clear—”
Boaz breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally. This is Boaz, from Block Global. I received a warm recommendation from your sister for the job of consumer relations.”
“Oh,” the young man on the line replied.
Boaz began to get irritated. “Would you be interested in coming in for an interview?” Really, he was beyond the point of reducing himself to making these kinds of calls. From now on, he would leave them all to his secretary.
“I don’t think so,” Levinsky said, sounding slightly more confident. “Thank you for thinking of me, but right now I don’t think I’m interested…”
Boaz tossed his cigarette into the ashtray and snorted. Enough. This friend-brings-a-friend business would no longer be acceptable in his office, period. He wouldn’t say anything to Levinsky. Let her hear from her brother how he’d had a job presented to him on a silver platter, and how he’d refused it.
“Okay?” Elchanan said at home to Yaffa, and his face looked like that of a kid whose mother had summoned him home in the middle of playing a game. “Are you calmer now?”