Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“Listen, Mister,” Moishe Berman growled. “I have no time for jokes. Go find someone else to play a trick on.”
“It’s not a joke. I am Ehud, the agent for Moreshet, and I would like very much to know why you are accusing me of theft, and what other deception you were referring to in your letter.”
Moishe hesitated. “I’m talking about the theft of Mrs. Wolkovsky’s esrog box,” he said finally. “For years, no one knew that the family had this valuable artifact in its possession. You were invited to give an estimate on its worth—and right after that, it was stolen. Just then, your ads disappeared from the paper and your phone is permanently switched off. You’ll agree with me, Mr. Ehud, or whatever your name is, that it’s very suspicious.”
“Very suspicious.” At home, Elchanan rubbed his fingers on the pages of the newspaper. “And what’s the second incident?”
“You bought a letter worth nearly six thousand dollars for pennies from a guy named Weiner. He discovered the letter for sale for an even higher sum at an antiques dealer. So, while it’s true that in this case, you didn’t really break a law, this kind of behavior exposes you as a swindler who extorts valuable items from innocent people.”
“Maybe we should hear a bit from you, now—what do you say?” Moishe made signs of doubt to Nosson, who was about to leave. He hadn’t ruled out the possibility that the caller was an imposter looking for a bit of fun. “Would you want to meet with us?”
“I have no reason to,” Elchanan replied. “The only claim that anyone could have against me is over the letter that I bought for cheap. But in any case, the prices are set by my employers, after I give them the relevant details on the item.”
“Oh, yes,” Moishe said, remembering something else. “Who are your employers, anyway? I’ve done some thorough investigating, and I have not been able to find a single antiques company called Moreshet. Who exactly are you trying to fool?”
“Excuse me, but I didn’t call to be showered with insults.” Actually, the cynicism of the person on the other end of the line suddenly made Elchanan’s blood start flowing again. “I’ve been an agent for Moreshet for a long time. I don’t know who you are and what your experience in investigations of this kind are, but that’s a fact.”
“I understand, and I apologize for my sharpness,” Moishe said in a soothing tone. He couldn’t let the only lead they had get away. “In any case, how do you explain the fact that they are not listed?”
“I have no idea and am not really interested in that right now. I want to hear details about the break-in. When did it happen, and how?”
“A few days after you were there, a thief came at night and broke the lock on the door. He didn’t touch a single cupboard, the way it looks, and went straight to the china closet. Of all the silver items there, he took just one thing—the esrog box—and then disappeared. He seemed to have specific information that there was a valuable item in that house, whose only occupant is an elderly widow, and that the door is a simple wooden door. He also knew exactly where the esrog box was located. Someone obviously gave all this information to the thief. Don’t you agree with me, Mr. Ehud?”
“Just maybe?” A new idea popped into Moishe’s mind. Ehud actually sounded innocent, and that was underscored by the fact that he had called to see what he was being accused of. If he was responsible for the theft, why would he run to call them? “Maybe you told someone untrustworthy about this artifact?”
“I don’t give information to anyone.” The answer was firm. “I am aware that these are sensitive subjects.”
“Except your bosses.”
“You said that you give over the relevant information to your bosses, and they tell you the estimate.”
“Yes,” Elchanan said very slowly, as slowly as it was possible to utter the monosyllabic word. He knew that the stranger on the other end of the line had just put the niggling sensation in his mind into words.
He had spoken to Menashe about the esrog box, from Mrs. Wolkovsky’s house. She had gone to the kitchen to get some cold water.
It’s an old lady who lives alone, he had related to his boss, not that I understand how her kids leave her here herself, and with this flimsy door and the esrog box sitting in plain sight in the china cabinet.
He was quiet for so long that Moishe was afraid the call had been disconnected. “Hello? Hello?” he shouted into the phone.
“Yes, I hear you,” Elchanan said quietly. “I’ll be in touch with you…in a few days. I would be interested in knowing if you hear other stories of this kind as a result of your letter. Kol tuv.”
This time, Moishe’s fears were realized as Ehud hung up. “The man blocked his number,” he said disappointedly to Nosson as he examined his list of incoming calls. “But you know what? He sounded honest. I don’t think your mother’s impression of him was wrong.”
“So what happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the problem is with his employers.”
Yaffa tensed when she saw Malka’s profile pass the office. Malka had been in Petach Tikva in the morning and had come in to teach now? She deserved a lot of credit. Thinking quickly, the young principal wrapped up what she was doing, so she’d be ready as soon as the bell would signal the end of the day for the later classes. She had a few things to do, but decided to put them off for now. She could not get Malka out of her mind.
Maybe it would be simpler to just inform the committee at the next meeting that she has reconsidered and decided that it was possible to accept Mimi Mann, but she wanted to speak to Malka anyway. It wouldn’t be pleasant, of that she could be sure, and she wasn’t very good at difficult conversations with people, but she knew that there were lots of things that were impossible to be good at…until one actually did them. This strange job had already put her in awkward situations, and she was a bit experienced. B’ezras Hashem, she’d get over with this uncomfortable discussion now. There was no reason to drag things out.
She said a few prakim of Tehillim from her siddur, and then, just as she finished perek chaf-beis, the bell rang. Yaffa leaped out of her seat, grabbed her briefcase in one hand, stuck the siddur inside with the other, and switched off the light.
“Have a good day,” she called to Chana and Sari and then ran outside, looking in all directions. Oh, good, there was Malka, walking down the stairs and talking to a student. What did Malka teach? Physics? Chemistry? Literature? Yaffa didn’t remember at that moment.
She took a step closer. “Hello there, Malka,” she said, addressing the student as well, although the latter quickly parted from the teacher and joined her friends up ahead.
“I wanted to speak to you.”
“Are you going to the bus stop, or taking a taxi?”
“Um…I’m walking to the bus stop.” For some reason, Malka suddenly recalled the conversation she’d had with Mimi’s mechaneches at the end of PTA night, at the beginning of the year. Then, too, the teacher had accompanied her to the bus stop, and the conversation had not been a pleasant one.
What did people have against her daughter? Mimi was such a wonderful girl. Okay, so perhaps there were some things she had to work on a bit—or a lot—but still, she was a gem. What did Yaffa Levinsky—who once seemed incapable of opening her mouth—want now? To describe Mimi as a failure who would humiliate the school for generations to come? That simply wasn’t true. Mimi could thrive, with the right guidance.
Yaffa fell into step beside Malka, and for a moment there was silence. Then Yaffa spoke up.
“You know that I thought Mimi wasn’t a good fit for our school,” she began candidly. “I don’t know what you actually think about it. Personally, I think that a place where she won’t have the family pressure might be better for her, but I see now that it was naïve on my part not to understand that refusing your daughter is a very strange, out-of-the-ordinary step that may not be the right thing to do.”
“Yes,” Malka said. Very nice; common sense finally prevailed. Yaffa Levinsky had a lot of nerve to talk to her like this, but obviously, as principal, Yaffa gave herself this allowance. It was amazing how people turned out to be so different from the way you originally thought them to be. Well, it was only a matter of time until Ima would get well, b’ezras Hashem.
And Mimi would go to their school.
Wonderful. Now she was calm.
“Anyway, I’m sorry for the discomfort I caused you,” Yaffa said. “I should have understood that there are situations that are more complicated than they seem and that need to be approached with that in mind.”
“And I understand that you think that Mimi should be going to a different school than the one run by her mother and grandmother.” Malka spoke with suppressed fury. She felt herself getting carried away, although she didn’t know why and against whom. It was because of her anger at Levinsky, she decided. Because of the pressure the substitute principal had put her under these past few days. Because of this conversation.
“Now I understand that it appears strange,” Yaffa repeated. “But I told you, Malka, in my opinion, it would be better if she went somewhere else.”
“I see you’re trying to understand the other side also.” Malka knew how to be sarcastic, but resorted to that tactic only on rare occasions. Like when she was hurt, for example.
“Sort of.” Yaffa was serious. “You lent me two CDs a few weeks ago, but you must have made a mistake. They weren’t lectures about shalom and unity, but something about parenting. I don’t even know who the speaker was.” She opened her briefcase, but then blushed. “Oh, I see they’re not here,” she said. “I’m sorry. I really have to get them back to you. One of the lectures was about pressure that parents put on their children without them being aware of it, and how it only makes certain things worse.”
“I see,” Malka said, stopping at the bus stop. “Thank you.” So you want me to listen to some lectures that I gave you by mistake. I see. Very nice of you. Very, very nice. Where did I even get those CDs? I think I bought them on sale somewhere, sometime, and I just never found a minute to listen to them. So Levinsky did it for me and has now decided to teach me what she learned. So very, very nice of her.
“Do you understand?” Yaffa continued, ignoring Malka’s cynical tone. “None of the examples the speaker mentioned could be used for my son, because he’s not even a year old. But when the rav talked about a child whose father was the principal of his cheder, and the fact that this child always did exactly the opposite of what was expected of him—I thought of you.”
“I see,” Malka repeated, gazing longingly at the empty street. Let Yaffa keep her lessons to herself and her baby, for when he’d grow up. He certainly wouldn’t come to the high school and make problems for his mother.
Unlike Mimi, who most likely would do just that next year.
He was sitting in the kitchen, fast asleep, with his head on the table.
“Elchanan, is everything okay?”
He opened his eyes, squinting in the sudden light, and sat up. “I hope so,” he said, and then added, “Hi, by the way.”
“What happened? Why are you home?”
“My head was hurting, so I came home to rest.”
“And you didn’t have the energy to get to your bed?” She tensed.
“No, I was just sitting here and thinking, and then fell asleep. Now my headache is gone, baruch Hashem.” And instead, there are a thousand new problems.
She put her briefcase on the table and gently moved Bentzy’s carriage so as not to wake him. “I tried to reach you,” she said as she sat down on a chair beside him. “First on your old work number and then on the new one. I was a bit worried.”
He picked up his phone, looking at it. “I see now, five unanswered calls from you.”
“By the way, there is no forwarding or recording of your new number on the old number. It just says you’re not available. Anyway, do you want to eat now?”
“No thanks.” He moved the newspaper, still open to the letters to the editor page, and exposed one letter adorned with nervous triangles and lines, his own work of art. The frame made the letter and its headline stand out, and he didn’t even try to do anything when he saw his wife reading it with interest.
She raised her eyes to him. “This is…you!” she whispered in alarm. “That’s the name they gave you! What is going on, Elchanan?”
“I called them to find out.” He pointed with his pen at the number. “And they told me a whole story about a robbery that happened right after I was there to give an estimate on an item.”
She gaped at him silently.
“You don’t think it’s me, do you?” he tried to joke.
“No, I think it’s them.”
“I called Menashe right away to try to feel him out. I didn’t tell him outright, but he understood that there was some type of unpleasant incident in one of the homes I’d visited. He promised to find out what was going on and told me that it had nothing to do with my visit there.”
“Elchanan,” Yaffa said, standing up without even noticing it. “Elchanan, are you…are you listening to me?”
“I think you have to call that office right now and tell them you’re quitting. Everything there sounds so awful, and unclear, and full of strange secrets. I think you have to…run away. I have no other way to put it.”
He smiled miserably; perhaps it had to do with the headache that had or hadn’t left. “You’re being very graphic today, Yaffa,” he said honestly. “Run away? Just like that I should give up such a lucrative job? All the bonuses and extras that I get? You think such a job is a dime a dozen?”
“‘Better a dry piece of bread that comes with tranquility,’” Yaffa quoted, although she didn’t remember from where. “Elchanan, I’m sure you’ll find another place where things are much…smoother. They scare me, those people from your office.”
He clasped his hands together. “I’ll nose around carefully and see what can be done,” he said finally. Yaffa had apparently managed to get him scared by her own fears. He was already sitting here for more than three hours with the letter, and the idea of leaving his job had never entered his mind. Who had broken into the Wolkovskys’ house? Mati, in his tailored suit and tie, who seemed glued to his office chair, tie and all? Or maybe Menashe, with his two-hundred-fifty-pound girth?
But Yaffa was right, to an extent. In retrospect, the questions about the way things operated there were mounting. Maybe it would be better to leave and find a calmer job. His fingers seemed to dial the number of their own accord.
“Hi, Ehud, what’s up?”
“Listen, Mati, for…reasons out of my control,” yes, sure, if it wasn’t for Yaffa, this phone call would never be happening, “I’m considering leaving you for now.”
“What?” Mati laughed heartily. “Are you nuts, Ehud? Just don’t tell me you got a job somewhere else with better terms than what we give you!” He raised his eyes ominously to Menashe, nodding. The tense conversation between them that had been cut off by the phone call had not been theoretical ruminations, after all.
“Not exactly, but I need…a break right now.”
“What happened? You came down with mono or something?”
It was hard to talk when someone was trying to milk you on the one hand, while on the other hand, your wife was standing beside you, mouthing, “Don’t say! Don’t say why!”
“Look, these long trips don’t work for me. It’s also taking up a lot of hours of the day. In short, I’m quitting, Mati.”
“Uh-huh. So, that’s effective at the end of the month, right, another week?”
“No.” Elchanan rubbed his earlobe. “Today.”
“Today?” Mati, in the office, scrawled on the back of a receipt book: He suspects something, big time. “So you won’t be getting anything for this month, even though you worked three weeks of it.”
“I know,” Elchanan said dejectedly. Yes, he suspected Yaffa was right, but that didn’t make this any easier.
“And from now on, you’ll manage the maintenance of the car yourself, yes? And please give back the cell phone by tomorrow.” Mati had suddenly become frighteningly practical, and after a few more details, he coldly hung up the phone.
Elchanan, in the kitchen, got up and opened the fridge. “I hope I did the right thing,” he said languidly.
“Sit down, I’ll make something for you. Do you want me to heat up the fleishig leftovers, or would you rather something light?”
He slumped back in his chair. “Something light. A sandwich with chocolate spread, I think, is what I’m in the mood of.”
Yaffa didn’t say that it was so unhealthy and woe unto them if Nurse Sophie would know that she was giving this to her husband for lunch. In silence, she took out the chocolate spread, smeared two slices of bread, added a peeled cucumber, and set it all out on a plate in front of him.
He washed and began to eat quietly.
“Are you angry?” she dared to ask.
“No, because I think you’re right.”
“So what are you feeling now?”
“By whom? You?”
“Not at all. I told you already, you’re probably right. I think I’m confused. And I feel bad for losing such a good job. You need the cucumbers in life, and chocolate spread is plain unhealthy, but what can I do if sometimes a person wants something that’s not good for him?”
“There are people to consult with on this,” Yaffa remarked.
“I consulted with my wife already, thank you.”
“I meant,” she smiled and filled herself a cup of water, “to speak to someone who understands these things. Maybe you’ll discover that all this nice chocolate is just smeared on mud after all.”