Dance of the Puppet – Chapter 22

purple bookIsrael Book Shop presents Chapter 22 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. 

“Mimi, I’m…” Malka sniffed the air. Three pots stood on the stove, which was gleaming like it never had, even before her mother’s stroke. The counters, sinks, floor and tiles looked like they had just been cleaned for Pesach.

“Mimi, I…have no words. No words!” She took off her jacket and walked over to the refrigerator, where her daughter stood smiling shyly. The house was quiet. Well, that was to be expected: it was after eleven p.m. “Did you cook for Yom Tov? Yourself? How did you leave the kitchen like this? You know how my kitchen normally looks on an Erev Yom Tov. I don’t have to tell you.”

“I knew you’d come home tired and wouldn’t have too much time tomorrow,” Mimi said as she untied the apron she was wearing over a faded robe. “Do you want to taste something?”

“No, I’m just enjoying the smells,” Malka chuckled, and Mimi proudly uncovered each pot. Two roasts were simmering in the large pot, potato and sweet potato strips were sautéing in the skillet, and a large pot of soup bubbled on the back flame.

“This is wonderful, Mimi,” Malka gushed.

“Well, Abba did the soup. I did the rest.”

“And the kitchen just looks fantastic.”

“My friend helped me with that,” Mimi said. “She just left a short while ago. She’s great at this stuff.”

“Cooking and cleaning?”

“Both. She’s the one who cooks supper for her brothers three days a week and scrubs her house almost every day. She’s a real balabusta, Ima; I wish could get done half as much as she does. She’s really quick.”

“Who is it, Devorah?”

“No, Shuli Emmanuel.”

Malka raised a tired eyebrow. “I never heard that name.”

“She’s in the parallel class, but we’ve become really good friends lately. She’s in my English class.”

“She’s really sweet, and a great friend,” Tzippy, appearing from nowhere, piped up, cheerful and perky as ever. “She once convinced me to stay with the kids in the afternoon and she and Mimi went out. That’s when they bought Mimi’s briefcase.”

“Very nice. Good for her,” Malka said from her chair, rubbing her right eye and then her left. “Good friends are measured in tough times.”

“You’re tired Ima,” her devoted oldest daughter said. “How’s Savta?”

Baruch Hashem. She was able to keep her eyes open for a few minutes today.”

“Looks like that’s something you aren’t able to do right now,” Mimi remarked. “Your bed is ready, Ima. The house is clean. You can really go to sleep. Shuli promised me that if I see in the morning that we’re not managing, she’ll come over for an hour to help.”

***

Yaffa’s engagement album didn’t feature too many floral arrangements. The impressive arrangement from Elchanan’s mother dominated the photos, and by comparison, the one from her sisters looked small and pitiful, although it had been very pretty. Then there was another arrangement from her class.

Now, her little dining room looked like it was trying to compensate for all the flowers she hadn’t received then. The first arrangement had come two hours before Yom Tov, signed in the name of all the members of the board. Confused, she’d hurried to call Yael.

“It’s always like that. Every Yom Tov, the principal gets flowers from the board,” she’d soothed. “You just have to call them all and say thank you if you want to continue the tradition, because I think Mrs. Kotzker always called.”

Just call and say thank you. Just. Yaffa hunted through the mess of sukkah decorations for a sheet of paper and wrote down the numbers Yael dictated to her. Then she went into her room, hoping that Bentzy wouldn’t suddenly wake up, and called them one by one. Everyone answered right away, surprisingly enough, and politely said that she really deserved it and wished her a good Yom Tov. All, that is, aside for Attorney Weissman, who was surprised by her call.

“Are they still doing that silly flowers before every chag thing? Isn’t it a waste of money, Mrs. Levinsky? You tell me,” he griped.

The next arrangement was from Yael. Now completely befuddled, Yaffa dialed her again. Yael laughed and said that she also sent flowers to the principal every year, but she couldn’t have told that to Yaffa when she’d called last time, and that Yaffa really didn’t have to call, but if they were already speaking she should have a good Yom Tov and they would talk on Motza’ei Yom Tov about the school’s simchas beis hasho’evah.

The next arrangement came from Chaya, who was happy to hear that Yaffa liked orchids even if she had no idea what they were called.

The next bouquet came from her parents, who wrote, “To our dear principal, may you always continue to lead your life on the right path with siyata d’Shmaya and wisdom.”

Then came an arrangement from Elchanan’s parents and sisters, who warmly wished her hatzlachah.

The last bouquet had nothing written on it.

“That must be the one from me,” Elchanan said, his words garbled by the three nails stuck in his mouth. “When I saw this flood of flowers I remembered that I didn’t buy you anything for Sukkos. I’m sorry, Yaffa. I called the store to order flowers, but I didn’t know what to tell them to write because I’m really not good at composing this type of thing.”

***

“Actually,” Yael said on the phone on Motza’ei Yom Tov, “we announced before the vacation that this year, because of Mrs. Kotzker’s condition, the simchas beis hasho’evah would be held in the school auditorium. It’s a bit small, but I felt uncomfortable with the idea that we’d be dancing and singing like everything was normal, when it’s not.”

If everything was so clear and organized, Yaffa wondered, why are you calling me?

“But I just had a difficult conversation with Malka,” Yael lowered her voice. “It was very difficult, really. I didn’t believe that she would be the one to object so vehemently. Tell me, wasn’t she there when we spoke about it on the last day of school?”

Yaffa tried to remember. “I don’t think so,” she said. “She came to school and ran straight to her class. She had no time to sit with us.”

“Well, now she’s all angry and I have no idea why. You would think that she would want us to celebrate on a more subdued level, especially if it saves the school money. And suddenly, she was going on and on as though I had suggested we hold the simchas beis hasho’evah on the moon. Maybe if I would have suggested that, she would have been less angry.”

“I see,” Yaffa said.

“So I imagine that soon enough, she’ll call you. Explain our position to her, and tell her that I have no energy for any new tension now and I’m sure that she doesn’t either.” Yael didn’t remember if there was anyone she had ever spoken to so openly about the tension between her and Malka. Perhaps her husband, but even that wasn’t certain.

“Did all the classes get the message before Yom Tov?” Yaffa asked. That last day had been so busy she hardly remembered what they’d finalized about the simchas beis hasho’evah.

“Yes. She wanted us to make a chain call now. Tell her that’s crazy, and if we change these things, it has to be done before Yom Tov, and ads have to be placed in the newspapers. You don’t make chain calls like a madrichah does for her class about such big things.”

Yaffa had never heard Yael so angry. And upset. “I understand,” she said, knowing that she understood absolutely nothing. What was she supposed to say to Malka when she called?

Elchanan had already learned that part of the salary his wife was earning was for the long minutes that he spent babysitting for his son. She had already returned to the sukkah when the phone rang inside. “It must be Malka Mann,” she assumed, her face ominous. “And I have no idea what to tell her.”

“Do you want me to pick up?” Elchanan offered. “I can tell her you’re not available right now.”

“No, I’ve heard from her more than once that her mother was always able to do everything no matter how busy she was and how many things she had on her mind.” The phone rang insistently and Yaffa went back into the house to get the cordless. “Gut Moed,” she said.

“Hello, Yaffa, it’s Malka. How are you?”

“Good, baruch Hashem.”

“Did Yael speak to you?”

“Yes.”

“And you heard her plans?” Malka asked. With Yaffa, her fury was more restrained. Well, she hadn’t really become friendly with Malka the same way she had with Yael. Perhaps it was because they met much less frequently; it could also be for a thousand other reasons.

“I heard,” Yaffa replied quietly.

“So you should know that it really makes no sense. My mother was always particular to make sure the girls had a good time, and that it should be festive and happy. You can’t take this evening away from them and cram them into the school’s auditorium. I don’t think you’ve been in there yet, right? So you might want to know that the word ‘auditorium’ is a very complimentary way to describe it.” She paused for a moment. “Please understand that this makes no difference to me personally. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to come if it’s my shift at the hospital, but explain to Yael that there’s nothing to talk about. Tell her that I handle the money in the school and that there’s enough money for a simchas beis hasho’evah. It’s not only for Overnight that there’s extra money.”

Yaffa was quiet for a long moment before saying anything. “I don’t know if we can change things now,” she said hesitantly, not remembering most of what Yael had said, but knowing that later, she would not remember Malka’s tirade either. They both talked a lot, and quickly. Perhaps it was because she herself remained quiet.

“Why not?” Malka asked, and her voice was so schoolmarmish that Yaffa began to bite her nail nervously.

“We’ve told the girls already,” she replied cautiously.

“Yes, Yael’s very quick, as usual. So please tell her that as the extracurricular coordinator, it’s her job to pass a chain call with a change to the original plans.”

“You think it’s…doable?”

“Let her eat the stew she created.” Malka never thought she’d involve the young substitute secretary in the tensions between her and Yael, but Yael had really gone too far this time. The coordinator makes these types of decisions, Yael had reminded her earlier. But she’d apparently forgotten that aside for the official title of extracurricular coordinator, they were both serving as assistant principals right now, and as such, their authority was equal. The one who had to decide here was Yaffa, and they had to make sure she made the right decisions.

Yaffa was quiet, listening to Elchanan singing to Bentzy in the sukkah; Bentzy hardly seemed impressed. For a minute, the movement of the chairs drowned out his crying; Elchanan must be trying to dance for his son.

“The principal always decides these things,” Malka said after a minute of no response. “It’s much more logical to arrange that the dancing take place where it’s possible to dance and not in a room where there’s hardly room for everyone to stand in one place.”

Elchanan listened to his wife with a bemused expression on his face. “Look, just two weeks ago you wondered why Hashem sent you to this school, didn’t you?” he asked as he danced around the table in the small sukkah. Bentzy gaped at the decorations that were suddenly spinning around him rapidly. “Look, Hashem knew how much you hate fighting and He wants you to make peace between them.”

“But I have no idea how to do that,” she said, frustrated. “Each one wants me to tell the other one things, and more things, and then just a bit more—and that I should decide what she wants and not what the other wants, of course.”

“Politics are always complicated,” Elchanan mused.

“Especially when I imagine that in the end I’ll be to blame for what happens, because I decided. Ugh!”

“I would tell you to find a third solution,” he advised, slowing his pace a bit. “You’re the principal, aren’t you? Decide that there’s no simchas beis hasho’evah and that’s it.”

“That’s out of the question.”

“So let’s do it here.”

“Come on, really.”

“By your sister Chaya.”

“Elchanan!”

“Okay, sorry. It’s not nice that you’re all tense and I’m joking around…” He picked up his pace again because Bentzy began to protest the slowdown.

“So what should I do? What do I tell Yael?”

Shev v’al ta’aseh. Do nothing.”

Yaffa was quiet for a few seconds. Bentzy held his arms out to her.

“And you can also go into the dining room for a bit; maybe the flowers there will remind you that there’s also a nice side to being principal. Do you remember that at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to decide?”

Yaffa chuckled, but there was no mirth. “At first I thought I was ‘king for a day.’ Remember? Now it looks to me like this makes me into their puppet much more than a king.”

That evening, no one called anyone anymore, and the next morning Elchanan and Yaffa went to Petach Tikva to visit her parents. Yaffa turned off her cell phone and decided that she would not switch it back on until they boarded the bus back to Yerushalayim. Her parents were thrilled that they had come and Yaffa had an opportunity to see her sisters, Shifra and Ruchi, who had remained living in Elad, near their parents.

“What’s doing, Yaffa? It’s hard to reach you lately!” Shifra exclaimed.

“Do your friends know?” Ruchi asked.

“I haven’t kept up with anyone.”

“Not even Leah’le? So call her and tell her. She’ll be so shocked!”

That’s exactly what Yaffa didn’t want, to hear how her new job shocked everyone. She was young, true, and she hadn’t studied pedagogy, also true, and she hadn’t even finished high school. It was all true. But she was not at all interested in hearing the exclamations of surprise.

If until now, it hadn’t been completely clear if she was happy Elchanan had chosen to move to Yerushalayim, now she was sure she was. The new page in her life found favor in her eyes, and it was strange that she hadn’t thought about it until now.

On the bus back, Yaffa checked her cell phone and breathed a sigh of relief. Just two missed calls, both from Yael. She was less afraid of Yael, perhaps because this time, she’d probably be more satisfied with the outcome, and perhaps because there was something abut Mrs. Kotzker’s daughter that made her feel much more under pressure.

She was about to put the phone back in her bag (on vacation she did not have to drag around her official new pocketbook) when it began emitting the ringtone Elchanan had loaded for her. “Lamah, lamah mah…”

It was Malka Mann.

“What’s going on?” she asked briskly. “What did you decide?”

“That I’m not getting involved now,” Yaffa said so quietly that Malka had to ask her to speak a bit clearer because she couldn’t hear.

“I decided that I’m not getting involved,” Yaffa repeated a bit louder, changing her words slightly. She didn’t intend to keep out of it only now. If it would be at all possible, she wanted to continue steering clear of their tiff.

“So it will take place in school?”

“That’s what it looks like.”

Malka took a deep breath. She should have realized that with Yaffa Levinsky, the one who shoots the first bullet is the winner. Yael had realized first that she had to present finished facts. Well, she’d remember for next time.

“I hope it won’t be too crowded for you,” she said coolly. “You’ll come, Mrs. Levinsky, won’t you?”

“Probably,” Yaffa said, dejected. Without even wanting to, she’d aroused Malka’s anger. Ugh, why couldn’t things flow a bit more smoothly?

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