Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 33 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.
Elchanan stood behind the office door, patting his pocket. The thick envelope was there, of course. He wanted to see Menashe or Mati count the money and enter the figures into the computer. He had to find a way to see them do it, and then he would be able to see if their mistakes were part of their modus operandi.
If he wanted to go out on his own one day, he had to learn how to run a business. He didn’t think there was anything deceptive about recording higher prices than what they had actually received, because it just meant they were paying higher income tax. Was there another source of profit here that he didn’t know about? He was definitely curious, but at this point, he did not want to ask directly. First he would see what he could find out in a more roundabout fashion.
“It’s not like that, I’m telling you.”
“And I’m telling you it is, Bar-On.”
“Are you nuts? Here are your very nice receipts, clear and smooth. I’m printing them now. Read them and tell me if a single comma there is out of place.”
Elchanan’s hand froze midway to the knob. A heated exchange was taking place inside, and the voices were loud enough to be heard through the closed door. Was someone accusing Mati Bar-On of being dishonest? That someone also sounded familiar to him from somewhere, but it wasn’t Menashe.
“And I also gave you excellent service when you sent me that clueless Ehud who didn’t know his left from his right in antiques. Couldn’t you come up with a better agent? People are going to make a laughingstock out of you.”
“He understands, he understands,” Mati’s voice soothed the man inside. Elchanan’s frown softened a bit when he heard his boss’s support. “He’s not a whiz like you, that’s true, but he usually works with people who don’t know too much either, and he’s really good with them. We are very pleased with him.”
Elchanan stealthily slipped away from the door—firstly, because what if they had a closed-circuit camera inside that was trained on the door? He didn’t think they did if they allowed themselves to talk so freely, but still, he couldn’t be sure. Also, he hadn’t heard Menashe’s voice, which meant that Menashe was probably not there. If he would suddenly show up and find Elchanan eavesdropping behind the door—it would not be a pretty sight.
He went back to his car, leaning on the door as he tried to process all the facts and information. One, Mati and the person inside were arguing about some type of problematic transaction between them. Two, it did not seem like he, Elchanan, had any connection to that transaction, because he was only mentioned very indirectly. Three, he presumed that the second man was Korman, the big antiques dealer that he had visited before Chanukah. Four, the fact that he had bought and sold then had been considered a “service” for Antiqua, and Mati hadn’t argued this point. Five, Mati and Menashe were pleased with “Ehud’s” work, which was the most pleasant part of what seemed to be a rather unpleasant exchange—at least for Elchanan.
Well, that’s how it is with businesspeople; sometimes there are arguments. What did you think? That everyone agrees on everything right away, with the shake of a hand and cup of strong Turkish coffee? Of course not. There are a lot of deliberations, accusations, and sometimes unpleasant disagreements. Now go inside already, do what you have to do, and go home. Your workday is over.
Elchanan went over to the door, tucked away on the side of the building. He knocked twice and pushed it open. As he had guessed, the antiques dealer sat opposite Mati, obviously tense as he perused a long receipt with a furrowed brow.
“Okay,” he said finally, sounding somewhat calmer. He didn’t even glance in Elchanan’s direction. “I made a mistake. I see you were right. Everything makes perfect sense now.”
“Is it because of the wrong price for the menorah?” Elchanan had no idea why he blurted that out, but Mati looked at him in surprise. “Oh, whatever,” Elchanan said hastily. “I thought perhaps an item that I bought or sold was the source of the problem.”
“You did everything just fine.” Mati smiled at him broadly, as he always did. “We had a disagreement here about something else entirely, relating to some of our other operations.”
“Yes,” Elchanan said, not understanding a word.
“You know we have other agents and other dealings. We don’t only focus on buying and selling to your community, you know.”
“Yes,” Elchanan repeated. Something about Mati’s tone did not sit well with him, but he didn’t say a word. He just handed over the envelope of cash he’d received that day and waited for Mati to count it.
The boss smiled, opened the envelope, and rifled through the bills. “Is this for Berlin’s silver items?” he asked. “I don’t believe it, Ehud. This is fantastic! Menashe’s arguing with me for two weeks already that we have to up your bonus. I don’t know if it will be permanent, but for this time, I’m giving you two percent extra.”
“Thanks.” Elchanan smiled, and remained standing.
But Mati didn’t make a move to touch the keyboard. He looked at the sum written on the envelope, scrawled a large circle around it, and shoved it into his drawer. “I have no words, Ehud, really,” Mati added. “Our business in the religious sector has really thrived since you started with us.”
Korman, on the other side of the desk, muttered something from behind the long receipt, but Elchanan ignored him. Let the dealer be as scornful as he wanted. Bar-On was his boss, and if he was pleased, everything was fine.
Either way, Elchanan decided when he left, the day he wanted to learn about this business in an organized fashion, he would not go to Korman. He would go to Mati. Perhaps Mati didn’t know all that much about production dates or origins of items, but he was excellent at management; that was a fact.
Two croissants and a cup of coffee were all Yaffa had eaten that day. In the morning, she’d gotten up late, sent Bentzy quickly to the babysitter, and raced off to school without putting a thing in her mouth or taking anything along for later. Then Attorney Weissman had come, edgier than usual, and had berated her for signing something incorrectly.
“I don’t understand how people still make mistakes after I explained this to them fifty times!” he fumed, and made a large X across the entire form. “Mrs. Levinsky, I want a completed form for tomorrow, is that clear? Without nonsense this time.”
She listened to him silently, writing down all his instructions, and knew that if this would have happened two months earlier, she would have pushed everything into her little briefcase and fled without thinking of anything but her injured feelings. But the Yaffa of today wouldn’t go anywhere, because even if Weissman was annoyed, and the first thing she wanted to do was leave and put his creased forehead out of her mind—she had too much work to do. And besides, Yael would wonder what had happened to her, and what would the students and teachers say? That the principal got offended?
She didn’t answer him; she just nodded quietly as her mood grew darker. She had no appetite afterward to eat anything, and when Yael offered her a cup of coffee, she refused, instead turning back to the form she was trying to fill out, correctly this time. She hoped her corrections would satisfy the lawyer.
When she was done with the form, Yaffa walked out of her office and slid the page across Chana’s desk. “Can you send this to Weissman?” she asked, and retreated into her room without waiting for an answer.
She heard two students in the main office whispering to each other that the principal was in a sour mood today. She felt like fixing them with a cold glare, but didn’t even have enough patience to muster one up.
One thing followed another, and eventually three o’clock rolled around. As Yaffa was getting ready to leave, Baila appeared at the door.
“My husband is in the area,” she said. “He can take us all to Beitar now. What do you think, Mrs. Levinsky? Is it good for you?”
Yaffa felt like saying they could go and meet to talk wherever they wanted and leave her out of it, but then she remembered what Yael had said to her. “Mrs. Kotzker asked that you be principal in the full sense of the word for this as well,” Yael had reported to Yaffa, after visiting the older woman in Petach Tikva.
“Okay,” Yaffa said to Baila. “I just have to make arrangements for my little one.” She smiled as she said it. For most of the teachers, a baby Bentzy’s age was the youngest, so she’d gotten used to calling him that even though he was the oldest. And he was getting bigger every day, already standing by himself and calling, “Abba!” whenever Elchanan entered the house.
Chaya’s daughter offered to pick up Bentzy from the babysitter and take him to her house. After hanging up with her niece, Yaffa then called Elchanan to let him know her plans. By the time she went out to the car, Baila and Yael were already sitting inside, waiting for her. Yaffa took a seat beside Yael.
“Malka’s not coming,” Yael said without being asked. “It’s okay; we can always bring her up to date later on.”
They got to a small café in Beitar, after sitting in traffic that frayed Yaffa’s already frayed and hungry nerves. They sat down at the table they had reserved, a side table in an inside room, and Baila pulled out the brown binder. She and Yael began going over the various class lists, stopping at each name. Yaffa gnawed on a croissant, and then on another one. She stopped after the second one. The other two hadn’t tasted a thing yet, and only she was sitting and doing nothing aside from eating. Maybe she should get up and go home.
“Okay, Neve Yissachar, class 8A,” Baila said. “Ruchama Aronson.”
“Her older sister is in our school. She’s fine.”
“Her sisters also went here. Excellent family.”
“I don’t recognize the name. We have to speak to her teacher. How are her grades, in general?”
“It says she’s a good student.”
“Okay, so we’ll see later. Mark her down. Who’s next?” Yael also sounded hoarse and tired. It was no wonder. In earlier years, she’d shared this burden with Mrs. Kotzker and Malka, and now it was up to her and Baila to process all the information.
Baila glanced at the paper. “A sister of the triplets we have in eleventh grade.”
Yael wrinkled her nose. “I’m not excited,” she commented. “How’s the girl?”
Baila didn’t even have to consult the list again. “Academically, excellent. Behavior, reasonable.”
“I’m not inclined to accept her. What do you say, Yaffa?”
Yaffa shook her head to clear the cobwebs. “What?”
“A sister of girls who we really are not that pleased with, for a few reasons, and who is also liable to make problems.”
Yaffa pressed her palm to her forehead. “It’s hard,” she said thoughtfully. “We have to really think about it.”
“She has a school right near her house.” Baila showed Yael the address. “Let her go there.”
“They won’t accept her, especially if we don’t.”
“Well, I’m marking her down for some thorough inquiries.”
“Maybe she can improve,” Yaffa said slowly. “Maybe it’s worth giving her a chance.”
“A lot of times girls don’t know how to take advantage of the chance they are given, especially if they don’t know what kind of efforts were made to give them that chance.”
“Efforts?” Yaffa queried. “It’s hard to say yes?”
Baila moved the papers over and reached for her first pastry, leaving the subject for Yael to explain. This Yaffa was interesting, very interesting.
“Of course it’s hard,” Yaffa said. “Don’t we want the school to succeed? In order for that to happen, a few factors have to be present. One of the things that it’s impossible to succeed without, is a lot of good, solid girls. Of course, we don’t only accept the top tier, and there’s a large percentage that doesn’t fall into that category, but we need to maintain as high a percentage as possible of good girls.”
“When you say ‘good,’ you mean good grades?”
“I mean all-around good,” Yael said, also reaching for a cookie.
“And for some reason, the applicants this year are not all so simple,” Baila said. “We have some difficult vetting work ahead of us. Shall we move on?” They finished with the first eighth grade and moved on to the next one, and then to the next school. And suddenly, Yaffa heard a familiar name.
“From Maaleh Adumim. Not such a Torahdike family, but a very good girl, so her teacher says.”
“Of course the teacher is going to say that,” Yael said tiredly. “Doesn’t sound so suited to us, if you ask me.”
“She actually is a very good girl.” Yaffa learned forward. “‘I know her. She has the potential to become a top girl.”
Baila and Yael both gaped at her.
“You know Shulamis Emmanuel?” Yael asked, puzzled. “From where?”
“We got to know each other,” Yaffa said vaguely, folding her napkin. “She’s very receptive, in my opinion. She can really do well here.”
“Okay, so mark it down to check her out,” Yael said to Baila, who was scrawling long black lines across the bottom of the page. “Onward.”
They finished that class and moved on to the next one. Again, Yaffa heard a familiar name.
“Well, next,” Baila said and made a check. “Let’s not waste time.”
“Next?” Yaffa asked. “But we didn’t talk about her at all.”
“No need to,” Baila said. “Even her teacher didn’t bother writing a single word. Obviously, we are going to accept Malka’s daughter.”
“Why is that so obvious?” Yaffa asked quietly, studying the other two women. “The principal herself said that like this, she wouldn’t be a good match for our school.”
“Like this?” Baila didn’t know what to say. “Like what?”
Yael looked at Yaffa with a troubled expression. “The principal said…Yaffa, what are you talking about?”
“About Mimi Mann.” Yaffa chose her words carefully. “I’ve seen her more than once. She doesn’t look like she would fit into our school, and her grandmother is the one who said so.” She thought about the telephone conversation between Mrs. Kotzker and her daughter that she had inadvertently overhead, when Malka had been at the Overnight and she, Yaffa, had been working as the secretary in the main office of the school, right outside Mrs. Kotzker’s office. It had been extremely quiet in the building that day, as all the girls were away on the Overnight, and the words Mrs. Kotzker had said to Malka on the phone had wafted straight into Yaffa’s ears.
“Mrs. Kotzker said that? To you?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” Yaffa looked at the large check Baila had made. “But I once heard a conversation between Mrs. Kotzker and Malka, and I also heard Mrs. Kotzker say this to Mimi herself.” That had been on the day she had visited Mrs. Kotzker in Petach Tikvah. Yaffa had entered the rehab center and approached the principal’s room, only to hear Mrs. Kotzker speaking with her granddaughter Mimi. Yaffa had hastened to leave, deciding that she would do a quick errand and then return when the principal’s visitor left, which was exactly what she had done. But the comment she had overheard Mrs. Kotzker say to Mimi, about the fact that not all girls who have the “pull” to get into the school would be a good fit for it, had stayed with her.
“So,” Yaffa continued, her voice still low, “if the school needs girls who are good in everything, then…”
She fell silent. Was this really her, Yaffa Levinsky? Had she just dared open her mouth to say exactly the opposite of what the other two thought, or what they thought they had to think?
“No, you won’t pay anything,” Fania Volkovsky told her daughter on the phone. “Do you think I don’t know how much debt you have? I need to have the operation, not you. I’m paying for it.”
“But how?” her daughter asked worriedly. Her mother hardly had enough to live off of from her senior citizen allowance.
“At first I thought of using the reparation money from the Germans, yemach shemam, but then I decided that I want to leave that for you after I reach one hundred and twenty.”
“Oh, Ima, don’t talk that way.”
“Nu, shoin, but that’s the truth; I want to leave it for you. Because what else will you get from me? This little house? Once you divide it five ways, you’ll each be left with a few pennies. At least my bank account should have something more substantial for you. So, do you hear me, Zahava’le? I decided to sell Abba’s esrog box. Two people were here to offer me a price for it.”
“What? You invited strangers to the house?”
“Yes. I didn’t like the guy from yesterday. He talked too much. But the one who was here last week was actually quite nice. He’s an agent for a big company, and he seems very honest. He looked at the esrog box and was very impressed, but when I told him how much I want for it, he said he isn’t sure they would buy it because the price is too high.”
“How did you find these dealers?”
“One from the newspaper, and the other from the Yellow Pages.”
“But Ima, it’s dangerous! Why did you just call strangers like that? And what if they would have been thieves? What would you have done?”
“I put the meat knife on the counter in the kitchen, just in case,” Fania said placidly. “And it was fine. The first guy—the one from last week—is really frum, with a white shirt and black pants and tzitzis; he looks just like any of your children. And he was so polite! He told me I shouldn’t keep such an old, valuable box in the china cabinet, but I told him that’s nonsense, because no one would come to a poor old lady’s house anyway.”
Zahava collected her wits. “Ima, if they want to come again, please, ask one of us to be there,” she almost pleaded. Bli ayin hara, at age eighty-eight, her mother was still almost completely independent, and refused to let others make decisions for her. That was wonderful, baruch Hashem, but sometimes, it could be risky.
“Alright, alright,” her mother said soothingly. “In any case, I wouldn’t sell it to anyone without you telling me that the price he quoted is okay, and I think it’s not okay.”
“How much did they want to give you?”
“I don’t remember. It was a lot of money, but I think our esrog box is worth more.”
“Ima, please, it’s a real antique. Don’t do anything with it without speaking to me or Nosson first.”
Zahava went to sleep with a feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach, and dreamed about china cabinet doors being opened by a dark, gloved hand that pulled the treasure out and then fled through the window. But, she reminded herself, her mother had bars on her windows. She, Zahava, should really be able to sleep calmly.
Fania actually slept very well almost the whole night. At four o’clock in the morning, she awoke. Was someone in the kitchen, or was it her imagination?
Suddenly, she shuddered in fear. What if it was an intruder, and he went into the dining room and saw the china closet? The old esrog box looked black and simple because Shalom, alav hashalom, had never wanted her to polish it. But still, a thief could spot it and take it. And what about the candlesticks that were there, the ones she’d rescued from the pit in the yard of her old house in the Ukraine? And Shalom’s bechers? They needed to go to their sons, not to some thief.
She got up. Lately, her hearing hadn’t been the greatest, and it was possible that there was nothing going on and she was just hearing things.
“Who’s there?” she called hoarsely. Wait a minute. Maybe her son had come in. But now? “Nosson, is that you?”
Then she heard the sound of shattering glass and hasty footsteps. The front door slammed, and then quiet returned to the small, dark house.