Call It Sleep I

TRANQUILLY the months had passed. Summer had come and the advanced grade and the glowing, incalculable and unlimned vista of the school vacation—that had remained unlimned. But David felt little disappointment on that score. Let other boys boast of prolonged visits to the seashore or to the mountains or to camps. For him the mere passing of time was a joy. The body was aware of a lyric indolence, a golden lolling within itself. He felt secure at home and in the street—that was all the activity he asked.

It was a day in that season when the sun bolsters a fallen wing with a show of soaring, a day of heat and light. Light so massive stout brick walls could scarcely breast it when it leaned upon them; light that seemed to shiver windows with a single beam; that crashed against the careless eye like rivets. A day when clouds played advocates for pavements, stemming the glare on tenuous bucklers, growing stainless with what they staunched. A day so bright that streets would slacken when shaded momentarily, fa├žade and wall would slump as if relaxing, gather new strength against new kindling. It was late July.

Walking home from the free baths on 6th Street, David, already flushed and perspiring, wished he were back again. It had been cool under the showers. One could slide on one’s belly down the chill, slippery marble aisle for almost a block—at least it looked that long. But the moment one came out into the hot streets, the coolness vanished. Only one’s hair remained damp—and that was the worst part of it—the man at the door always ran his fingers through one’s hair and chased the repeaters from the line.

He trudged on, breathing through his mouth from time to time because the air had grown so hot it seemed to sear the nostrils. Although he had not yet crossed Avenue C, the street was so deserted and the sun so bright, he could see the glint on the brass bannisters before his house. He glanced at the clock in the corner drug store—it pointed to a quarter past nine. Past nine? Where was his father’s milk wagon? Good! He was gone. Despite his feeling of greater security these days, that same sense of relief still cropped up. Good! He didn’t have to think about him now. He could go upstairs now and have his second breakfast—his first before going to the baths had been a glass of milk. After that the day was his. He quickened his step—

What were they doing?

Near the curb, diagonally across Avenue D, squatted a circle of four or five boys, their sharp, eager cries prodding the drugged quiet of the street. One or two he recognized—they lived somewhere on 9th Street. And there was Izzy who went to his cheder. What was it they were all stooping over so intently? As he drew near his house, he saw rise from their midst a languid spiral of smoke, and a moment after, heard exultant cries. He tip-toed to catch a glimpse over their heads. A black box? Red? No. What? Their heads were packed too close. It deserved a minute’s consideration. He crossed the Avenue, drew near.

“I told yuh!” their shrill voices clashed. “Look how id boins! Now pud id in! Gimme!”

Between bobbing heads, he saw a rusty toy stove and pale yellow flames creeping out of it. Smoke spouted from all the cracks. The small oven door, also full of smoke, was open. Between the feet of the boy tending the stove, lay a brown paper bag, once large, now rolled into a tight scroll. Their faces were red. They jabbered, rubbing smoke-filled eyes. One blew intently at the flame.

“Watcha doin?” David tugged Izzy’s shirt.

“We all gonna ead good righd away!” the reply rushed at him.

“W’a’? Watcha gonna ead?”

“Pop-cunn! See?” He pointed to the rolled-up bag. “Nickel a bag. Id’s chicken cunn, bod the wagon wuz busted, so it spilled oud on de dock.”

“Oh!”

“Yuh gid somm if you waid.”

“Yea?”

“Yea! See de nice stuv we god? Kushy fond id on de junk yod.”

Kushy had unfurled the bag and was pouring the yellow grains into the oven.

“Shake it up!” they advised. “Give id a spread oud wid a stick. Now cluz id. Mum! Yom! Yom! I’ll ead a hull beg.”

“Led’s gid somm sult.” Kushy suggested. “Hey Toik, you live on de foist fluh! G’wan!”

“Naa! We’ll ead like dis!”

“Yuh see?” Izzy concluded. “Yuh’ll gid somm if yuh waid.”

Fascinated by the prospect, David wedged in among the rest and squatted down. The stove smoked lustily, growing redder and redder as now one and now another stoked it. All faces sweated profusely.

“Id’s hod!” they finally decided. “Betcha id’s cooked. G’wan open id Kush! Gid a stick. Wooy! Pop-cunn!”

With the end of a stick, Kushy pried the oven door open. Heads drew closer. Inside, on the red-hot bottom of the oven, what had once been yellow grains were now charred and shriveled beads.

“Aaa, shit!” A groan of disgust burst from lifted throats. “Dey ain’ w’ite!”

“But mebbe we can ead anyway,” one of the invincibles comforted himself. “Ain’ id pop-cunn?”

“Sure, betcha dey taste good! I’ll try foist. Push id in my hand. Ooy! Id’s hod!”

“Da-a-a-vid! Da-a-avid!”

“Me?” He gazed about, startled.

“Da-a-avid!”

Up! Oh! It was his mother, leaning from a window.

“Wa-a-at?”

“Come u-up!”

“Ye-e-es!”

Her head disappeared inside.

That was strange. She almost never called him from the window. What did she—Gee! He stared. There, beside his house stood his father’s milk wagon. That was even stranger. What was he doing home at this hour? He never came back so late in the morning. Something must be wrong. Disquieted, he crossed the street, scrutinized the black horse resting his feed-bag on the curb. Perhaps it was some other milk man. No, it was Billy sure enough, the black, powerful animal they had recently given his father. Reluctantly he went into the hall-way, climbed the stairs and hung back a moment before he opened his door—familiar blue cap and black whip on the washtub. His father, already seated before the table, glanced at him as he entered and then turned to his mother who was standing before the ice-box:

“Have you any sour cream left?”

“Without end,” she answered, smiling at David as he entered. “And a few more scallions?”

“Let it be—” And to David. “Wash your hands and sit down.”

Completely at a loss now, David went over to the sink. When he returned to the table, his mother had set his combination lunch and breakfast before him—things he liked: Golden-skinned, smoked white-fish, cucumbers and tomatoes, pumpernickel, milk, purple plums. His mouth watered; in the twinges of awakening hunger apprehensions were momentarily forgotten. He had just opened the white-fish—a middle-piece, it opened like a golden volume—when his father, nodding curtly, said:

“After you’ve finished, I want you to stay near the wagon where I can find you.”

David sought his mother’s eyes.

“You’re going with father,” she explained.

“Me?”

“Yes!” his father interposed. “Don’t jump as though you saw the gloomy angel.”

“It will only be for a short time,” his mother reassured him. “An hour—no, Albert?”

“Perhaps longer,” was his curt reply.

“He has the cheder,” she reminded him. “It’s early during the summer.”

“I told you he’d be there in good time. Do you know, if you go on keeping him from seeing how I earn his bread, he’ll begin to believe I’m one of God’s playfellows.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she answered. “I—”

“Yes! Yes! Yes! Another child would have been with me long ago—would have begged to go. But enough of this—You stay near the wagon.” He scooped a dripping radish from the cream, slumped back, still chewing. There was silence for a few seconds.

“When is he coming,” ventured his mother, “the other I mean.”

“Tomorrow maybe. I can’t tell.”

“Poor man!”

“It happens … Lucky for me I brought an extra cake of ice along. I wouldn’t have had enough with this heat—But better the summer than the winter.”

“At least the ways aren’t so icy.”

“Yes. And you can see the stairs at four in the morning. And the handle of the tray isn’t so frozen it burns through your gloves like fire.”

“It’s all bitter, Albert.”

“Mm!” he grunted. “You hardly know. I sell my days for a little silver—a little paper—sixteen smirched leaves a week—I’ll never buy them back with gold. It’s enough sometimes to make one savage with man and beast.”

“But other men work as well.”

“You needn’t tell me that!”

There was silence again, while his father ate, staring with heavy eyes at the table.

“And you’d really want your days back?” She sat down, hands in her lap.

He snorted. “What a question!”

“I wouldn’t.”

“You mean days such as you’ve had? Like these?”

“Any kind.”

“Hmph!” he grunted. “Won’t you be a grandmother soon enough without posting?”

“No,” she smiled, her wide brown eyes lifted to the ceiling. “I want to be one tomorrow.”

“You’re a fool!”

“When I can say as mine did. It’s over. I stepped into the sun, I took one breath and suddenly I was a grandmother—Throw clocks away!”

“She grew wise as she grew old?” he asked with dry sarcasm.

“They measure nothing, she would say. Only the swing of cranes in the tides of their flight is worth reckoning. The rest is a rattle on Purim—deliverance from Haman long hanged.”

He chuckled once, sneered. “You and your grandmother!”

She laughed with him.

He pushed his plate away, breathing heavily, ran weathered powerful fingers through his thinning black hair, pressed down the ridge in the back of his head where the cap had bitten in.

“No more?” she asked.

“No.” He rose, tilted his head back, stretched. Drowsiness slowly cobwebbed the taut, impassive face. “No later than half-past ten.”

“I’ll wake you, Albert.”

He plodded into the bedroom, shut the door behind him. The bed creaked …

“Mama!” David whispered.

“Yes, child?”

“What does he want?”

“Oh—! There’s a milkman out. He cut his hand on a bottle—fearful thing!” she shuddered. “And they’ve divided his route among the rest.”

“Why does he want me?”

“He’s delivering to the gas houses there—the other man’s route. And he wants you to sit in the wagon while he’s gone.”

“Aaa! I don’t want to go.”

“I know. I’m worried too,” she confessed. “The other man always had a dog in his wagon—you’ll be the dog this time.” She smiled. “Just this once, won’t you? You’ll like it, riding on the wagon, seeing new streets. It will be cool when the horse is running.”

He shook his head resentfully. Her words aroused a foreboding in him.

“Come!” she coaxed, “just this once.”

Moodily, he pecked at his food. “How far are the gas houses?”

“Not at all far. Twentieth Street—I think that’s what your father said.”

“That is far!”

“Sh!” She looked uneasily at the bedroom door. “Do finish your lunch.”

“Only one side of the white fish,” he said sullenly.

“Don’t you like it any more?”

“No.”

“Why are you so frightened, child! You’re not leaving me! Drink the rest of your milk.”

But his appetite had vanished. It was only after a great deal of urging that she prevailed upon him to finish his lunch.

“Can I go now?” he asked, rising.

“Don’t you want to wait here? It’s cooler than the street.”

He hesitated a moment. “No, I’ll go down.”

“Very well,” she sighed. “I beg you stay near the wagon.” She bent down, let him kiss her brow. “Come straight home after cheder.”