Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 of a new online serial novel, Night Flower, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“What? The food in the freezer…was from you?” Chaiky was stunned.
“Yes. Shifra cooked, baked, prepared, and packaged it, and you didn’t even notice that I stowed it all in your freezer. Well, was it at least good?”
“Delicious…” Chaiky went over to the freezer and looked inside, somewhat tensely, at the boxes and what was left inside them. She was so sure that Goldie had sent the food that she hadn’t even thought of Shifra and Yoel.
And unpalatable as the idea was, right now, she would have preferred to discover that the food had indeed come from Goldie. True, Yoel was her brother, but there was no getting around the fact that she just couldn’t be sure about the hechsherim he used at home. Of course, everything was kosher—but kosher at what level? She wasn’t sure that it was the level they had been raised with at home.
“It was delicious? Good, I’ll tell Shifra. It was a big deal for her to prepare and package it all.”
A moment’s silence. “Don’t tell her. I’ll call her later myself.”
“Even better. I think she’s actually waiting for it, you know, because she worked really hard. She even sent me to buy the chicken from the shechitah that Shlomo once told me about, and I looked for the fish with the best hechsher for you…”
“Then you also deserve a big thank you!”
So the chicken and the fish were fine—at least for that. But what about the spices? The vegetables? The other things?
In other words, Chaiky, next time, don’t eat food if you’re not one hundred percent sure where it comes from, even if you think you know how it landed by you.
Too bad she hadn’t called Goldie right away to thank her. You can only gain from being a mentch. Had she done so, she would have clearly heard that the food hadn’t been from Goldie, and she would have started thinking a bit more broadly about who could have sent it.
On second thought, had she called, it would have been quite awkward. And that was all Chaiky needed now—for her to warmly thank Goldie for food put in her freezer, and then have to hear Goldie’s stammered apologies that it hadn’t been her, and maybe this coming week she would send something, because she’d actually planned to but hadn’t gotten around to it…
The kitchen was relatively clean, but the rest of the house was upside down after a whole Shabbos. The children hadn’t even wanted to go out to the yard to play at all, and Chaiky hadn’t pushed them. She had no idea what exactly other children asked them, and how comfortable her own children were in the neighbors’ company.
But she had no energy to straighten things up now. What was she in the mood of?
Somehow, Chaiky found herself on the way to work. She nodded in greeting at a woman who was walking out of the grocery, not sure that she knew her name but confident that the other woman knew hers. Their up-and-coming neighborhood here in Yokne’am was still small enough that everyone knew everyone else, even though it wasn’t quite as small and familial as it used to be. When Chaiky and Shlomo had come there nine years earlier, everything had been so small and new. Aside for the yeshivah and the families of the staff, there had been hardly anything. Then the rosh yeshivah had begun buying up the empty lots around the yeshivah, and now one of the largest Chareidi housing projects in the country was going up in Yokne’am, brick by brick. So while their community wasn’t quite the center of things in the country, or even anything close to that, it certainly was no longer small, and its members were high caliber, serious people. Housing prices were low, and the construction was of excellent quality. These days, anyone who came to the town without having experienced the initial growing pains benefitted from wide, paved streets, communal institutions of all kinds, shuls, two chadarim, and a girls’ school that had classes through fifth grade so far.
There was even a Chareidi community center with an expansive library. Chaiky, the daughter-in-law of the yeshivah administrator, had gotten the job of managing it. Her mother-in-law had spoken to Elka Cohen about the job while Chaiky and Shlomo had still been engaged, and the job was waiting for her as soon as sheva brachos were over.
True, without Elka, nothing would have happened: there wouldn’t have been a building or funding, no money for hiring additional workers, or anything else. But if Chaiky Struk hadn’t been there, lots of other things wouldn’t have happened either. She had worked to build this place up for nine years, step after step, and a significant part of its success was to her credit.
She stood in front of the low, well-kept structure. There was no denying that Elka’s fingerprints were everywhere, from the attractive sign announcing, “Bais Leah Community Center,” to the types of flowers the gardener had been asked to plant out in front.
She entered through the open door. What day was today? Sunday. It was pretty quiet. There was supposed to be a baby massage workshop in Room 2 with Clara Goldin, and she really had no patience to meet her now. Bella Braun should be giving her self-awareness and assertiveness course in Room 4. Chaiky wondered how she was doing.
She glanced at her watch. 11:05 a.m. Everything was orderly and calm, as always. She couldn’t take the sickly pastel pink that Elka had chosen to paint the walls with, but aside for that, things seemed to be doing well. The plants were flowering beautifully even though she hadn’t been there. The air conditioning and the soft classical music that she couldn’t identify offered a gentle background noise, interrupted only by the wails of an irritated baby from Room 2. One of the babies in that workshop was obviously less excited about the massage than his mother was.
The electronic bulletin board showed her that she hadn’t been wrong: Sunday morning was the quietest day of the week at the community center, except Friday of course.
She turned to the secretary’s desk. “Good morning, Miri. What’s doing?”
“Oh, good morning!” The secretary raised her eyes in surprise. “I mean, it’s almost good afternoon. Good to see you!”
“Nice to see you, too. What’s going on?”
“Boring as usual on a Sunday.” Miri chuckled. “Actually, it’s a little less boring than usual.”
“Oh? Why is that?” Chaiky inquired.
“You know, because of that new girl Elka brought.”
“It’s less boring because of her? Why?” Chaiky forced herself not to look around for Noa.
“She’s interesting, you know? Now she’s in the library, with the computer.” She glanced at her keyboard for a minute. “I tried four times already, and I keep saying that the program that Elka bought is problematic—it has a bug or something. But if Elka wants someone who understands computers better than me to try again—by all means.”
Chaiky detected the hurt in her voice. You had to be deaf not to hear it.
“Don’t take it like that, Miri. Elka likes to know that everything is perfect, and you know that the library here is literally her baby. She would have wanted to go over the electronic card catalogue herself if it were possible, just like she went to choose the flowers for the garden outside, but she doesn’t know the first thing about computers. This program cost her a lot of money, so before she accepts the fact that she was sold a lemon, she wants Noa to have a look at it.”
Miri typed at least ten more words before she replied. “I see you know her name.” She seemed even more offended than before. “When did you get to know her?”
“Elka brought her to my house on Thursday evening. We spoke for a few minutes. I can’t really say I got to know her much.”
“Oh.” Miri sounded relieved. “I know her a while already. She’s been coming to the library for more than a month, and she’s become good friends with Elka.”
“Yes, it looked to me like they were very friendly. Anyway, I’m going into my office now, Miri. When you see this Noa, tell her to drop in to me, okay?”
Only when Chaiky turned away from the desk did she realize that she’d come without her pocketbook. And that meant she didn’t have her key. It wasn’t pleasant to admit her scatterbrained state to Miri, but it didn’t look like she had much of a choice, unless she wanted to stay out here in the lobby, or go into the self-awareness or baby massage workshop rooms.
Or worst of all—go to the library to visit Noa.
No. She was not going to choose any of those three options.
“Miri, where’s the spare key to my office? I left mine at home.”
“It’s here,” Miri said, opening a drawer and fishing around inside. “Here you go.”
So if she didn’t have her pocketbook, why had she come here? Forget about her pocketbook—why had she come? Registration for summer activities hadn’t begun yet. Miri had taken over the coordination of the lecturers and activity counselors, and it wasn’t like Chaiky had an ounce of energy to inquire as to how things were going with that. Noa whatever-her-last-name-was was handling the library, and the courses seemed to be going smoothly; those certainly had nothing to do with her. She hadn’t even brought along something to eat. What would she do? Just sit and stare at the four walls?
Her office was tiny, an 8 by 5-foot cubicle, but Chaiky still loved it. It was her private corner, where she could always find enough quiet and enough space to think. Quiet and space: those were the ingredients of her recipe for success and productivity. She could never work like Miri, in the tumult of the lobby.
On the wall were a few cute memo notes that Naomi and Dovi had written to her when they had both learned to write. There was also a photo of verdant scenery that she’d taken on a high school trip to Masada.
She switched on the light and closed the door, locking it behind her. She needed a few minutes to breathe in her own private territory, the one place where there was still order, and where the turmoil that her life had become hadn’t penetrated. She went over to the window to get some fresh air, and then turned to sit down near the clean, organized desk.
But the desk wasn’t organized. And her chair wasn’t in front of the computer, but rather on the left side of it. And near the keyboard, just opposite the chair, were a few crumbs. As though someone had sat there to eat and hadn’t bothered to clean up after herself.
Miri raised her eyes, acknowledging Chaiky’s appearance again.
“Tell me, Miri, has someone else asked for the key to my office lately?”
“No.” The secretary’s eyebrows arched sharply. “Oh, wait. Actually, Elka came here with Noa on Friday, and a few minutes after being in the library, Elka came out to say that Noa needed to check the program through the main computer. But they were just in your office for a few minutes.”
“The main computer? My computer is not the main one. There is no such thing here. The computers here are not connected to one network; you know that.”
“Right,” Miri said, apparently sensing the mounting tension. “But the one who asked for the key was Elka, not Noa. And she didn’t understand a word I said about networks and computers being connected.”
“How much time was Noa in my room?”
“I told you, just a few minutes.” Miri smiled with a trace of relief. “She came out and said that there is no connection between the computers so she couldn’t work out the computer issue in the library from your room. In short—exactly what I had told Elka.”
And Elka had probably stood and nodded solemnly at all of Noa’s explanations. “And that’s it? They came out?”
Suddenly, her room was not inviting at all. There was no more privacy or tranquility between its walls. What had Elka done there? Shown Dovi and Naomi’s notes to Noa? Had they rummaged around in her drawers? At least there, everything looked shipshape, perhaps because she had been in the room so little lately…
In a flash, Chaiky turned toward the library at the far end of the floor. A couple women who stood between the shelves raised their eyes when she entered, and nodded in greeting. But aside for them, the room was empty. Most of the center’s activity took place in the afternoon, not now. During the afternoon, Miri moved from her desk in the front lobby to the library counter, and served as the librarian. Now Noa would take over that job, and Miri could dedicate all her time to the office work. It wasn’t a bad setup, in theory.
There was Noa—sitting at the desk and perusing a thick volume; from afar, it looked like Sefer Hatoda’ah. Chaiky approached her. “Good morning, Noa,” she said, glancing at the darkened computer screen on the desk.
“Oh, good morning. How are you?”
“Baruch Hashem, great. What’s doing here? Is everything going well?”
“Yes, things are quiet now. But I understand that in the afternoon, it gets quite busy…”
“Yes. Has Miri already told you your work hours?”
“Uh-huh.” Noa closed the book but left her finger stuck between the pages, as though waiting for this conversation to end so she could go back to her reading.
Chaiky ignored the hint. “And how is the computer program?” she asked.
“I sent a few questions to the manufacturer. Let’s see when they reply. There is more than one strange thing that doesn’t quite make sense.”
“Yes, Miri and I were also having trouble with it.”
Noa smiled in reply, but something about her smile was not clear. As a computer expert, did she view the comparison between herself and the more simple-minded Chaiky and Miri as a putdown?
One of the women came over with two books. Noa wrote down what she was taking on a memo note and affixed it to the bulletin board in front of her.
“This is why we have a card catalog now,” Chaiky said with a pleasant smile when the woman left. “One woman taking out two books is still okay, but when there will be dozens of children here this afternoon, those notes will hardly be able to keep up.”
“I think I will manage,” Noa said with a smile that was no less sweet. She rubbed the spine of the book she was holding. Yes, it was Sefer Hatoda’ah.
Chaiky glanced at her for one second longer than necessary and then said, “Well, then, have a good day.”
“You, too,” Noa said.
The minute Chaiky turned her back, she heard the rustle of pages as Noa was finally able to get back to her book again.
“Chaiky, how are you?”
“Yael!” Chaiky was very happy. She didn’t have the head or time right now to call friends, but if her good friend from high school was calling her, that was great. The house was sparkling after Sebelia had done her magic, and the children were sleeping peacefully. Things were calm, and she could almost imagine that Shlomo was at night seder and would be back in an hour.
“Yes, it’s me. Chaiky, tell me, how are you?”
“I’m…” Chaiky sighed. There weren’t too many people with whom she could speak openly like she could with Yael. “Baruch Hashem. Trying to survive.”
“Is there any news?”
“No. Right now he has two lawyers, and each one is suggesting a different line of defense. We don’t know which is better. Believe me, I don’t understand anything about these things.”
“I believe you. You’re such a straight, uncomplicated person, so not…” Yael groped for the right word. “So not someone who I could imagine getting tangled in such a thing… But it will work out, b’ezras Hashem. Maybe you’d like to come to us for Shabbos?”
“You’re sweet, Yael, thanks.” Chaiky sighed again. “But if I already have to travel out of Yokne’am, I would go to my parents. Maybe they’ll come to me this Shabbos; we’ll see.”
They chatted for a few more minutes, and Yael, in her trademark way, began reminiscing about high school.
“I can’t believe it wasn’t a thousand years ago…” Chaiky closed her eyes tiredly. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and I can’t believe I’m the same person that I was back then, and that this is my house. In the last two months, I’ve aged I-don’t-know-how-many years. I’m not even who I was half a year ago.”
“But you did very well for yourself in Yokne’am, didn’t you?”
“Yes, baruch Hashem…” Chaiky stood up. Something about this conversation was beginning to feel heavy, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “Until recently.”
“I’m sure, b’ezras Hashem, that you’ll go back to being the same strong, successful person you were,” Yael said, almost forcefully. “I actually wanted to suggest something to you now. The question is if you have the head for it. Remember you told me that you sometimes speak for community center and library directors?”
“I used to,” Chaiky corrected her. Yes, she had spoken to other community center directors in the past, providing them with suggestions and advice for how to build up their programs. It was to her credit that their own community center had received the municipal award for its well-stocked library, its smooth functioning, and its flawless management. There was nothing wrong with remembering that, especially if it made her feel good now.
“Would you want to come speak for us in Petach Tikvah? We have a daycare center for senior citizens that opened here, and we’re looking for a Rosh Chodesh program, next Tuesday.”
“But I used to lecture for directors and employees, not for the visitors who make use of these centers,” Chaiky said. “Besides, since when do you work in this field, Yael? I thought you teach.”
“I am a teacher, but the director of this daycare center is my neighbor, and she asked me to help her prepare a nice program. And what difference does it make who you used to speak for? I’m sure you will be able to entertain these women as well as you entertained those other people. Explain what the center is exactly, what you can do there, what a center’s goals are, and how it’s possible to maximize efficiency. I have to teach you what to say, Chaiky? Really now, with all your rhetorical skills?”
“But you realize that it will be foolish for me to tell them what exactly they can do in your daycare center when I have no idea what you offer. By us, there are all kinds of courses; you want me to speak about them? What if your place offers different things?”
“Come on,” Yael cajoled. “We’ll give you a list of what this daycare center offers. And you can just speak about the social experience of a community center in general—you know, the warmth that’s there, how it’s a home-away-from-home kind of place…you’ll find enough to speak about, I trust you!.”
Chaiky took a deep breath. “Yael, did someone send you to offer this to me?” she asked. The sound of bare feet pattering down the hall told her that someone had woken up. “You know, to get me out for some air, or something like that?”
“What are you talking about?”
Yael didn’t deny it, she noted. “All of a sudden, out of the blue, you’re calling me about this? I don’t know…lately, some very good people have become very worried about me, and I don’t always catch it in time.”
“What, you don’t like it that they’re worried about you?”
“It’s fine, wonderful, fantastic, but I don’t like it that they worry about me behind my back.”
“You see I didn’t do anything behind your back. I just picked up the phone and called you.”
“The question is, who sent you behind my back. Maybe that same person who arranged to have food put in my freezer without telling me, or who sent me Noa.”
“Noa? Who is that?”
“Someone who came to work in our library. I don’t know what kind of instructions they gave her, but one thing is clear: she’s somehow succeeded in getting me out of the house morning after morning to go to work.”
Yael laughed. “Sounds dreadful. She does it with songs or with a whip?”
“No, she doesn’t say a word to me. It’s just that I’m so pressured from her that I have to come every day just to see what she’s up to over there.”
“And? What is she doing?”
“Sitting like a good girl in the library and working, but in reality, she’s doing what she wants. She takes instructions only from the head boss, and as much as she’s sweet to me, she doesn’t let me give her any instructions about what to do.”
“Are you supposed to be her boss?” Yael tried to understand.
“Apparently not exactly. The truth is, while the library is in the community center, it’s not an official part of its activities, so you can say that she’s actually separate. But because until now I managed the library together with everything else, it’s a bit hard for me to get used to this new situation…” Chaiky drew nearer to the children’s room and lowered her voice. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s just a feeling that will probably pass, after I realize that the whole world doesn’t have to take instructions from Chaiky Struk, the high and mighty community-center director. And you haven’t answered my question yet, Yael.”
“If someone sent you to suggest that I give this speech.”
“No, Chaiky, no.”
“My brother lives in Haifa. It’s not my sister-in-law, his wife, who called you? Her name is Shifra Brodsky…”
“Chaiky, how many times do I have to tell you no? The idea was mine, and mine alone. So, come and give the lecture, and you’ll earn a few dollars, and then you’ll come over to me for some cake and coffee. It could be very nice, don’t you think?”