The Back Kitchen


Photo: Efrat Eshel

The Back Kitchen

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Romit Samson

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Setbon


He never forgot the first time they met.
The municipal building stood in the heart of the old part of the city, not far from the sea. It was a three-story residential building that had been converted into offices, and for many years it had housed some of the municipal departments. Or as the young security guard at the entrance clarified with a weighty air, “The management is here, but the other departments are scattered around the city.” He went in and saw a sign showing that the legal department was on the second floor, next to the office of the mayor and the city manager, and that the first floor was reserved for the accounting department.
“And what’s on the third floor?” he asked the guard, who was standing on the sidewalk in front of the door, enjoying a cigarette.
“A conference room,” he replied, his expression open and friendly. “For meetings, get-togethers, all kinds of events. Where did you say you needed to go?”
“The legal department,” he said. “I’ve got a meeting there.”
By then, the security guard had finished his cigarette, and apparently he’d decided they were friends. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll let them know you’re coming so they’ll let you in. Otherwise, they’ll check you like you were trying to steal a nuclear device.”
“Why do they check so thoroughly?” he asked, pausing for a moment near the elevator.
“Haven’t you heard?” the security guard replied cheerfully. “They say there are lots of threats against the mayor. Everyone’s stressed out. All day long we’ve got security forces moving around here. You’d think they were guarding the head of the Israel Security Agency.”
Elad smiled. “So who’s threatening him? Do they know?”
The security guard spread his hands in a universal gesture of cluelessness. Elad said goodbye and entered the elevator.
He stepped out of the elevator and faced another guard station, but it happened to be deserted. So with no further checks, he entered the long hallway that led to the mayor’s office, passing the city manager’s office, and the legal department on either side.
The door of the legal department stood open, revealing a lively, bustling office. Several women were wandering around, holding cardboard folders and sipping coffee from cardboard cups. Some were young, others less so, and some were dressed in black and white courtroom attire.
When he entered, the room fell silent. Several pairs of eyes fixed on him, and then someone called out his name.
“I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “Yvonne’s son – how you’ve grown!”
Before he could fully comprehend what was happening, a heavy-set woman rose from her chair, smiling, and kissed him on both cheeks.
“I wasn’t sure if it was really you who scheduled the meeting,” she said, “but now I see that it is. How’s your mother? I haven’t passed by the bakery in ages.”
He quickly composed himself and smiled, apologizing for not recognizing her.
“That’s all right,” the woman said. Her eyes were bright and penetrating. “It’s been quite a long time since I last spoke to your mother. Please send her regards from Lucy, okay? You can go into the legal counsel’s office now,” she said, gesturing towards one of the rooms. “She’s got a crazy day, as usual,” she added.
Then she turned to the other women in the room, who were listening to their conversation. She clapped her hands as if gathering a flock of chickens, and declared, “Ladies! The break is over!” The other women dispersed to their respective rooms, while he followed her into the room she’d indicated.
The prosecutor’s room was small and packed. As a graduate of several well-designed lawyer’s offices, he was confident that no one had ever bothered to decorate this room. A standard office desk stood in the middle, with another desk set at right angles to it. Mountains of files were piled on the floor, while others slid from the set of drawers onto the windowsill behind, engulfing forms and scrap paper along the way. A small, dry plant bore a note: The Tree of Happiness.
The prosecutor was talking on the phone as she looked at her computer screen. She gripped the phone between her ear and shoulder, occasionally jotting down a few words on colorful sticky notes.
Much later, he would tell himself that it couldn’t be that it all happened in their first meeting. Things didn’t work like that. But the truth was that the moment he entered the crowded room, and she lifted her eyes from the computer screen to look at him, he knew that something had changed in the usual, orderly course of his world, a subtle shift in tectonic plates.
She wasn’t stunningly beautiful, nor very young. Her eyes were chocolate-colored, and when she looked at him, they sparkled with golden glimmers — at least that’s what it seemed like to him. Her long brown hair cascaded down her back, and her fingers were slender, with bitten nails. She was busy, and when she glanced at him, her gaze became confused, as if she also sensed the change that was unfolding between them and in the world around them.
He gazed into her sparkling eyes and smiled. Then he stretched out his hand across the cluttered desk.
“You have a question mark on your face,” he said, even though that wasn’t exactly what he’d meant to say. “I’m here about the project in Founders’ Neighborhood. We spoke on the phone, remember?”
“Oh, right,” she replied. “Sure, I remember. I’m so sorry...”
“What are you sorry about?” he asked, and an uncertain smile broke through from within, taking control of his voice.
“Everything here is so stressful and chaotic all the time. You wouldn’t believe it,” she said, quickly closing a file on the screen. Then she spoke into the receiver, “Lucy, give us some peace.”
“All right,” she said, leaning her chin on her hands. “I’m with you. I’m listening.”
He sat at the intersection of the two tables, at the point closest to her, yet still the width of a table away. Something danced inside him. She listened attentively to his story, not once interrupting or shifting her gaze away. Embarrassed, his speech faltered. He didn’t know what to emphasize or how much to elaborate. He found himself combining sad human stories with legal arguments, but he couldn’t find the right balance. Finally, he decided to end his monologue.
“So people have already started to pay their mortgage, but they’re still paying rent,” he said, “and the place looks like a construction site. People are collapsing financially. They’re losing hope.”
She looked at him, still silent, her strange eyes sparkling at him from between her palms. Finally, she said in a slightly dreamy voice:
“I understand. But you do realize that it’s not all our responsibility, right? Sometimes a contractor who goes bankrupt is just that — a contractor who goes bankrupt, with all the complications that involves. The municipality isn’t always to blame.”
A flicker of anger stirred within him, and he decided to raise his voice. Who did she think she was talking to? Someone completely clueless, apparently.
“With all due respect,” he said frostily, “how can you say something like that, when it was the municipality that announced the tender and took responsibility for the entire project? Really, there’s a limit to how much you can ignore the residents’ distress and rely on formal arguments. One minute you’re responsible, the next you’re not. Honestly...”
Her face remained calm, while her eyes continued to sparkle. She wasn’t rattled by him, he noted. That odd fluttering within him persisted, forcing him to fight off a smile. What’s going on with you? he thought.
“What you’re saying is very interesting,” she finally said calmly, “especially considering that this wasn’t a municipal project at all. That was explicitly noted everywhere. Plus each person signed a memo of understanding that the municipality bears no responsibility for anything regarding the project. Everyone’s over eighteen, aren’t they? They know what they’re signing, don’t they?”
Now he was grinning broadly. “You certainly do come prepared to meetings,” he declared, “despite all the chaos.”
She smiled back. “I have a rough idea of what’s going on, yes,” she said. “I’m not deaf. I hear what people are saying. I’ve already heard from some people about what’s happening, and I know it’s hard for them. But it’s not always the municipality’s responsibility.”
I hear what’s being said. He turned these words over inside his head, as if tasting them on the tip of his tongue.
Now it was time to let this lie and change the subject.
“So how long have you been here? How come we’ve never met?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.
“Seven years,” she answered. “Why should we have met? Do you have business with the municipality?”
“Not really,” he told her. “I pay my city taxes on time.”
She laughed. “We can check that, you know,” she said. “We can also make sure you don’t have any parking tickets. We keep an eye on things. What do you do for a living?”
Their meeting was set for an hour, but they ended up talking for almost two hours. He abandoned the official reason for his visit and opened up to her with an unexpected frankness about his journey: the years at the big firm in the big city that had turned him into a money-making machine; his social conscience that had gone to sleep for while but recently woke up and raised its head; the need to do something different. That great story, some of which was even true, about the time he arrived with the bailiffs to repossess a carpenter’s workshop on behalf of the bank. The carpenter had grabbed a giant handsaw and said, “This is my livelihood and my life. If you don’t leave, I’ll cut off my hand.” How, after that, he’d told himself that this wasn’t his calling and that he couldn’t continue doing this.
Naturally, he skipped over the unimportant details, condensing and expanding the timetable as needed. In the end, since he was a pretty good storyteller, he told a polished tale about a talented lawyer who’d made a name for himself and also a lot of money in the biggest firm in the big city, but whose social conscience and a few other things had led him back to his hometown to open his own office and also engage in some work on behalf of the public.
She didn’t buy it all. Her sparkling eyes were wise, and she knew he was selling, but she seemed willing to buy. In a pleasant, quiet voice, she mentioned that it wasn’t always easy to represent the municipality. She told him how sometimes she would walk into the courtroom and the judge would say, “Hello, ma’am, so what have you guys done this time?” The public was certain that they were all corrupt. She revealed that no matter what, people were always accusing the municipality, even when by some chance it had actually done its job correctly. When she smiled, her smile was slightly crooked.
Mainly, she was a good listener. She focused those hypnotizing eyes on him, held her chin in her hands, and drank in every word. She encouraged him to talk even more than usual, and he was quite the gabber. She said she hadn’t fully thought through the issue of the Founders’ Neighborhood yet, so what she was saying was just an initial impression, a gut feeling.

For his part, he said he would send her something in writing explaining his arguments, and that they would speak again after she read it.
“Don’t form an opinion until you speak with me again,” he said with urgency. As the minutes passed and he realized that his time was running out, he pulled more tricks out of his hat: he used his quietest, lowest voice, an honest tone, pleading but with self-respect. He ran a hand through his curls, looked into her eyes.
Meanwhile, his eyes flickered around the room, scanning the shelf behind her head, her white shirt with the collar, the windowsill. Her desk was jam-packed, with not even a free square inch. Try finding any useful personal information in this room, he thought. It looked like a pot that was boiling over, soon to drown them both in an enormous waterfall of folders, papers, and colorful paper clips.
Eventually they had to end their conversation, as her phone rang with increasing urgency. She apologized profusely, and then the door opened behind him and Lucy poked her head in. With a pointed look, Lucy asked whether she realized that people were waiting for her in two different meetings, and said there was a limit to how many times she could tell people to wait. The prosecutor glanced at Lucy and said thank you, dear, that was fine, they were just finishing.
A moment later, she spread her hands out and said, “We’ve got to wind this up. I can argue with lots of people, but not with Lucy.”
He stood up, reluctant to leave. “We’ll be in touch, okay?” he said, aware of how desperate this simple statement sounded. He’d used it so many times without a second thought.
He went down to the carpark under the municipality building and got in his car. He regretted not leaving something in her office. His mobile phone, for instance, or his sunglasses. He could have gone up in the elevator again, apologized with a charming smile, and told her how forgetful he was, that he couldn’t even remember what he’d had for breakfast. He could have seen her eyes again.
He inserted the key into the ignition, and shook his head, surprised. What’s happening to you, you fool? he asked himself. She’s just a biddy from the municipality.

Like many other important matters, Lucy heard this information in the second-floor kitchenette. Even those who didn’t chop their own vegetables for lunch in the kitchenette at the end of the hallway were aware that in that tiny room, important information was passed around by word of mouth. Fateful decisions were made there, on the ancient cutting board next to the cucumbers and tomatoes for the lunchtime salad.
Miraculously, that little cubicle managed to accommodate a table and three chairs. An ancient microwave stood on a minuscule countertop, heating food only for those who knew how to handle it delicately, so as not to get on its nerves. It also had a small refrigerator in which vegetables were deposited each morning, and two plastic bowls along with the chopping board. On it, fresh salads were chopped every day at noon, seasoned with lemon and olive oil. They were accompanied by a variety of interesting additions, such as mushrooms, avocado in season, a can of tuna, or tiny ears of corn.
The social order in the kitchenette was clear and it determined the meal preparation times. The hallway’s three senior secretaries were at the top. At noon, when their stomachs started to rumble and they took a break from their duties, the other hallway dwellers knew that the kitchenette would be occupied for the next half hour. Those who passed by before the door was closed could see the broad back of Lucy from the legal department as she chopped vegetables, the sturdy figure of Deloria from the mayor’s office slicing thin pieces of dark bread, and beautiful Sivan from the CEO’s office, the youngest of the three, making tea.
“G3 meeting,” Gabi Oved would say, if he happened to pass by the closed kitchen at lunchtime. “I’d be willing to give up two salaries to be a poor mosquito on the wall for a minute, before Lucy killed me with a swipe of the dishcloth.”
“Right there – that’s where the truly important matters are decided,” Saul often said. “They let us feel like we run things here. We give orders, drive our fancy cars. But then lunchtime arrives, and Deloria, Sivan, and Lucy are chopping their vegetables and having the truly interesting meetings.”
A solid sisterhood was formed there, during those lunch hours of salad and bread with mint tea, to which Sivan sometimes added sage, or verbena, or lemon balm from her mother’s planter. The unwritten rule was that each of them would tell the other two everything she knew, and none would speak about these tripartite conversations with anyone else.
“The instructions are inscribed in blood,” said Gabi, chuckling. “Let’s see you extract secret information from a Mossad agent who underwent years of training to withstand torture. It’ll be easier than asking my gentle Deloria an innocent question: How was lunch and what did you hear that might interest me? Dammit, I’m the mayor and you’re my eyes and ears in the hallway, aren’t you? She tells me everything she knows, except for what’s truly important: what the girls talked about today in the kitchen at lunch.”
“Nothing comes out of her,” he would say to Shaul the city manager, wringing his hands in frustration. “I can throw things against the wall, I can be so charming that the Hamat Gader crocodiles are begging me to make a wallet out of them, and yet Deloria won’t tell me anything she’s heard at lunch. Even when I can see on her face that the salad was very, very interesting today.”
Shaul shrugged. “I’m not so sure they talk about work in there,” he muttered. “Sivan probably consults with them about the random guys she goes out with.”
Gabi snorted in disbelief. “Shaul,” he said, “your sweet Sivan talks about the losers she goes out with to anyone who’s waiting to see you and sits in front of her for five minutes. Those are definitely not the secrets I’m talking about.”
Shaul lifted one eyebrow and looked at the mayor. “I’m starting to think that maybe you’ve actually arranged a hidden microphone in the kitchen, like you’ve said many times that you’d like to do,” he said, in a joking tone that was tinged with suspicion.
But Gabi shook his head in denial. “I haven’t gone nuts,” he said. “And there’s no need to listen to the G3 gossip to know what Sivan’s talking about. With all due respect, Shaul, Sivan is the one who least interests me in there. I think that Lucy and my Deloria manage everything, and all Sivan ever hears from them is that she’d better try and find a nice guy for a change, someone to have kids with before her expiration date’s up.”
Indeed, the information that was passed around in the kitchen was extremely important. Shaul would have blushed up to his earlobes if he’d heard how they analyzed his secret rendezvous with women, including Lucy’s decisive opinion about these. Despite her usual attitude towards such matters, in Shaul’s case she was willing to forgive his occasional betrayals of his wife. In her view, no human being – man or woman – should have to live their entire life in a desert where they never received a smile, a hug, or any other human gesture.
“I’m not talking about anything else, not at all,” Lucy said, nimble fingers swiftly slicing cucumbers into precise circles, tilted at a slight angle.
“We know for sure it happened at least twice,” Deloria said, her expression serious, carefully slicing the dark bread on a plate, as the small cutting board was already full of salad vegetables.
The other two smiled. Sivan mumbled that although she herself was inexperienced, from what she’d heard from her friends, you can’t get pregnant on the first try, so...
“Except for when you really don’t want to get pregnant, because you have a very young baby girl at home,” Lucy said, “but someone told you that when you’re breastfeeding, you can’t get pregnant, and you were foolish enough to believe them.”
The three of them laughed, their voices hushed.
“Gabi’s got nothing going on whatsoever,” Deloria interjected. “He’ll make eyes at the whole world, but he’ll never actually do anything.”
Lucy studied her. “Anat is a bit of a strange bird, isn’t she?” she murmured. “So quiet and closed off.”
Deloria shrugged. “Yes,” she said, “but imagine if she were louder. How could she survive next to that hurricane? There’s balance in the Oved family. She lets him have the spotlight, and he...”
Sivan dunked her tea bags in the boiling water and said quietly, “He needs her. Once I heard Shaul say that he needs her.”
Lucy remained silent.
“Lucy,” Deloria said, cupping her hot tea to warm her hands, “I think you need to have a conversation with your new lawyer. The one from the parking lot.”
“Ortal?” Lucy chewed the remains of her salad. “What’s the problem with her?”
Sivan and Deloria lowered their eyes, and Lucy shot them a quick glance.
“She talks too much,” Deloria said. “You need to explain to her how it works with gossip in the municipality. It might not be intentional on her part, but
“What’s she talking about?” Lucy asked, her voice sharpening. “What’s she talking about, the stupid girl?”
Sivan raised her eyes towards Lucy. “Your boss,” she said. “She’s talking about your boss. She’s thrilled because she finally has an interesting story to tell, so she’s talking about your boss and that new lawyer who’s been coming here lately to see her.”
When Lucy’s blush spread to the back of her neck, those in the know realized they’d better keep a distance. Deloria placed a hand on hers.
“Don’t make a big deal out of it, Luce,” she warned her, “because then she’ll think she’s struck gold.”
Lucy shook her head from side to side. “That little fool,” she murmured quietly, “that little fool. She plucked her out of the garbage, believe me. Took pity on her. Taught her everything she knows, always protecting her from the entire world, and she
“She doesn’t really get what she’s saying,” Sivan said. “Don’t get me wrong I’m not here to defend her or anything.”
Deloria continued to warm her long fingers around her teacup. “Does she even know about the situation with your boss at home?” she asked, her voice measured. “Or does she just think she’s watching some romantic drama on TV?”
Lucy took a deep breath. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure what she knows and what she doesn’t. We don’t talk about the details every day, but most people are aware.”
Sivan nibbled on a slice of lemon that she’d fished out of the bottom of her teacup. She said quietly, “Because of Ortal’s gossip, I’ve already heard talk. This guy is the type who gets around, you know, he’s a known quantity.”
“I’ll kill her,” Lucy murmured into the remnants of the dressing. “I’ll simply kill her, the imbecile.”
Deloria took a long sip and raised two sculpted eyebrows at Lucy, arched in warning. “Not like that, Lucy. Don’t do it when you’re angry. You need to approach her calmly while you’re doing something completely unrelated, so it’s clear you think that nothing’s going on and you don’t understand why she’s even talking about it.”
Lucy glared at her. “Dalia,” she said, using Deloria’s original name, which no one else in the municipality ever used. “Dalia. There’s nothing there. It’s not like I would care if there was, God knows that if I give Shaul permission, I’d give it to her too... But really, there’s nothing there. A lot of talk, that’s all. He does come here every once in a while. Maybe she likes it, maybe she talks a bit too much. But I’ve got no desire to say anything about it to her at all.”
“Don’t say anything to her,” Deloria interrupted, standing up and rinsing her teacup in the sink. “It will sort itself out. Ortal just needs to keep her mouth shut, and it’ll be fine.”
“I’ve got a friend who went out with him once,” Sivan said. “She said he wasn’t so nice. He was nice only at the beginning. He lost his patience pretty quickly.”
“He’s an intelligent guy,” Lucy said. “Maybe that’s why he lost his patience. No offense, Sivan, I don’t know your friend, but he doesn’t have patience for stupid people, so
“Yeah, but it’s not nice,” Sivan emphasized. “If you’re going out with someone, shouldn’t you talk to them a bit, as well?”
Deloria and Lucy burst into laughter, and Deloria embraced Sivan’s shoulders affectionately.
“Gotta get back to the department,” Lucy said, rushing to wash the dishes and leave the kitchen. “I left my post empty.”
“Not now, Lucy!” Deloria called out to her retreating back. “Wait a minute.”
Sivan trembled. “I wouldn’t want to be Ortal right now,” she said to Deloria, leaning the cutting board against the wall.
“Don’t worry,” Deloria said cheerfully. “Lucy will be gentle with her.” 
They both smiled.


Copyright © by Romit Samson and Am Oved Publishers Ltd.
Published by arrangement with The Israeli Institute for Hebrew Literature.

Romit Samson was born in 1962 in Israel and grew up in Nazareth Illit. She has a bachelor's degree in law and a master's degree in public administration. Samson has been working as a legal advisor in the legal service of the municipality of Netanya since 1994, and in recent years has served as deputy legal advisor to the municipality. She lives in Karkur, is married, and is the mother of four and grandmother of two. Samson published her first novel The Back Kitchen at the age of 60, in 2021. The book was a bestseller and won the Sapir Prize for a debut book.

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