Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 43 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.
“Community and Culture Foundation. For the administration, please press one. For accounting, press two. For coordinators, press three. For the secretary, press zero or hold the line.”
Elka pressed three.
“For Yael, please press one. For Chanita, please press two.”
Hmmm… If there was any chance of extracting some information, it was only from Chanita. Elka pressed two and sat down on her rocking chair as she quickly reviewed in her mind what she planned to ask. She couldn’t reveal that Margalit had told her something regarding the expected grant, but on the other hand, she also couldn’t just start asking questions out of the blue.
“Good morning, Chanita speaking.”
“Hello, Chanita. This is Elka Cohen, from Yokne’am.”
“Oh, Elka, how are you? We received your most recent reports. Seems like you’re doing a very good job at your place.”
“You mean the reports from before Pesach?” Elka relaxed a bit. Chanita herself had opened up an avenue for her to ask questions.
“Yes. Your winter activities were quite impressive.”
Chanita, an older, traditional woman, admired and somewhat understood the Chareidi lifestyle, and had always been very friendly with Elka. Still, Elka had to be careful. “Yes, the winter was quite successful, baruch Hashem. Noa contributed a lot toward that.”
“Noa? Which Noa?”
Elka coughed. “The new employee that came to us.”
“Oh, very nice, very nice. And what about your manager, Struk? She was also quite instrumental in pushing the place forward, I believe.”
“She’s actually on maternity leave right now.”
“Oh, mazel tov!”
Elka did not respond to the good wishes. “So you know that everything is running very well, baruch Hashem.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And is that what you heard from us throughout the winter? Or were there any complaints?”
“Why would there be any complaints? Anyone who we asked praised you quite effusively.”
Elka suddenly stopped the gentle rocking of her chair. “Anyone who you asked?”
“Yes. We had a small survey over the winter,” Chanita replied with a chuckle. “We selected five names of members of each of the community centers and called them with a few questions.”
“Why?” Elka walked with teeny tiny steps along the dining room to the kitchen. A survey? Really, now, that was too much. She hoped they hadn’t called the Slomowitzes. Minna Slomowitz had a lot of complaints about the insufficient air conditioning in the exercise room, and about the unprofessional instructor, and about the inconvenient library hours. The Druckmans could also offer a mouthful, especially after their daughter had been injured in the home economics workshop.
“Why? Well, it’s not quite for public knowledge,” here Chanita cleared her throat, “but we had a grant that was to be distributed among several of the most excellent locations, and in order for us to know which those were, we had to conduct some kind of study.”
Now Elka for sure could ask: “But didn’t you say that there were no complaints about our center?”
“That’s true—we’re very satisfied with the way your center is being run. But compared to some of the other places, where the workshops and classes are on a higher level, you lag a bit behind.”
“But that’s not really fair, Chanita,” Elka said, with an effort to keep her voice even. “You know that because we cater to large families with meager financial means, we intentionally offer basic and cheap courses. So not only do we not have the higher income that the more upscale courses generate, but we also haven’t received grants for that same reason? You aren’t meant to be impressed by the courses we offer!”
“It’s not really the courses per se, Elka.” Chanita did not sound pleased with the overt criticism. “And like I said, we did receive reports of general satisfaction from members of your center. But…what can we do if in other places, people sounded more enthusiastic?”
Elka took a deep breath. “And how is it that I didn’t receive any regards from these phone calls?”
Chanita chuckled again. “Our callers presented it as a random survey, so it wasn’t so clear that the community center was actually the main focus of the conversation…”
Elka didn’t find it funny. “And that’s it? A few phone calls—and everything was decided?” And where was Noa and her reports, and where was everything that she got here, the attention and the warmth and the respectful treatment…where was all of that?
“Elka, I’m a bit surprised that you are undermining the discretion we exercised here. We checked things in our ways and made our decisions, and you should accept that with understanding and respect.”
“And what about Noa?” Elka couldn’t stand it. She took a few carrots out of the fridge drawer and slammed it shut forcefully. Now, where was that peeler? Where?
“Which Noa? Your worker?”
“Ours? We don’t have a worker named Noa.”
“You don’t?” Elka opened drawers and slammed them shut one after another. Maybe it was good that she couldn’t find the peeler. Who knew what she could have peeled in her frenzied state!
“No. Maybe there’s a Noa in the computer department. We hired someone by that name as a team leader to program for us… No, of course not—she left long ago. She was here for just a short time, and then she left.”
“Hey, don’t you know how to blow up balloons?” Dovi looked at Rachel in surprise as she reddened trying to inflate the yellow balloon, before dropping it with a sigh. “Me? I can blow it up in a few seconds! Look at this green one!”
“Dovi!” Naomi said sternly. “Stop saying things like that to her!”
“He’s right. I can’t blow up balloons,” Rachel said. “I have trouble tying them also. But there are other things that Hashem did make it possible for me to do, so it’s not so bad.”
“I can’t tie the balloons either…” Dovi moved the green balloon away from his lips and held it between his thumb and forefinger. “So who is going to tie them for us? Naomi, can you?”
“Nope,” his older sister said with her arms folded. “My fingers are too small for it.”
“So what will we do?”
“We’ll do without balloons.” Rachel swept the little elastic balloons into a bag. “We have to think of a different way to decorate the house for your mother.”
“Ima loves sponge cake!”
“You’re so funny. She likes to bake cake, not eat it.”
“So she’ll make it for herself? You’re so funny yourself.”
“Not for herself, for us!”
“Let’s think what we can make for her,” Rachel cut in. She looked around the clean house. Dovi and Naomi’s mother was due back in the evening, and she wanted to have everything ready, to make the homecoming as pleasant as possible. “Signs! Those are good, right? You both know how to draw and write. I brought some colorful paper with me and some markers and nice pens. So let’s get to work!”
“To work on what?” Bubby Struk asked as she walked into the room, carrying shopping bags full of groceries.
“Making ‘welcome back’ signs for their mother,” Rachel replied. “That’s a good idea, no?”
“Certainly, of course,” Dina Struk replied warmly.
“Yes, I wish I could prepare signs for my mother. But first of all, I don’t draw so nicely, and my handwriting isn’t great either. And besides, I can’t prepare signs and drawings for my mother even if I really wanted to.”
“Because you don’t know who your mother is!” Dovi said knowingly.
“Hmmm…” Dina said. “Rachel, would you like to come to the kitchen to help me?”
“Sure. Are you baking a cake? The children said their mother likes sponge cake.” She followed Bubby Struk. “The truth is that when I think about it, that first day that I came to live here, Chaiky served me cake. I’m trying to remember if it was a chocolate cake or a white cake, but I don’t remember. But I’m sure that you know what she likes, right? That’s not what you needed my help for.”
“No, no. Tell me, Rachel, has Chaiky ever told you that it might not be a good idea to discuss your parents around the children?”
“My parents? I don’t speak about my parents, because I don’t know who they are.”
“I mean, did she say not to talk about the subject with the children?”
“She told me that I should share my thoughts about this subject only with her and not with the children, because they are young and won’t understand me. That makes sense, and only she knows how many hopes I pinned on my idea that you are my mother.” She sighed. “But no. Don’t you at least want to adopt me or something?”
“Adopt you?” Dina felt that the smile she managed to conjure was stuck on her face in a most unnatural manner and looked very foolish.
But Rachel did not seem to think so. “Yes, yes,” she said excitedly. “Why not? You’re still young enough to be my mother.” She opened one of the bags that Dina had placed on the table. “And after I saw you the first time, I was so captivated that I dreamed about you for a few nights in a row. In my dream I was standing at the door to the house here, and you were standing on the other side of the road. You were wearing the outfit you wore to Yisrael Meir’s bris, and you were shouting that you had a secret to tell me. But each time I wanted you to reveal the secret, I had already left your house and street, and I woke up feeling so disappointed that it was only a dream. But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to feel obligated just because I’m asking,” she added into the bag. “After all, you have enough of your own children. And lots of cute grandchildren. So you don’t really need me also. But if you ever consider such a step, you should know that I’d be really thrilled. What’s this? Swiss chocolate? Chaiky will be so happy!”
“It’s actually for you.” Dina nodded with her head. ‘There’s another one there for Chaiky. I decided you deserve it, too.” I actually decided that this minute.
“That’s so nice of you!” A smile lit up Rachel’s face. “You don’t mind if I give the children a bit, do you? I’ll keep it for my trips to the park with them.”
“You are very devoted to them, aren’t you?”
“I like children.” Rachel continued unpacking the bags. “After all, I don’t have siblings. And if I do, I have no way of knowing that, you understand?”
“Yes, I understand,” Dina said as she stacked cans into the cabinet. “And I actually think that you do have.” She was about to add a can of corn to the pile but her hand suddenly froze, and she quickly but imperceptibly glanced behind her. “I mean,” she coughed, “that Dovi and Naomi are literally like your siblings. You treat them like a sister and brother in every way, don’t you?”
“Uh-huh,” was the response.
“So I think you can certainly call them your siblings.” Her fingers trembling, she closed the cupboard, and then went to unpack another bag. “After all, you’re really like their sister. You take care of them, and you’re so devoted and gentle with them…it’s wonderful. I’ve seen lots of girls taking care of their younger siblings, and believe me that they have what to learn from you. Good for you, really!”
What did she want to do now? To put the milk in the fridge? Where was it? “And the children both love you. I was very impressed that evening when you were able to calm Naomi down over the phone with your stories. Wait, it was Dovi, not Naomi, right? No, it was Naomi. Anyway, I’m telling you, it’s very unusual. Can you give me that bag of dairy stuff, please?”
“Mrs. Struk.” Rachel’s fingers were still busy with the bag of cookies and chocolates. “It’s one thing when I talk a lot, because I do it all the time, so it’s normal. But when you start talking like that without stopping, it seems like something is really not right. Do you know what I mean?”