Call It Sleep I

TOWARD the end of February, a few weeks after Aunt Bertha had married, David’s father came home from work a little later than usual. David was already at home. The morning had been snapping cold, surprising for that time of the year; the afternoon had turned dull and sleety. With his customary brusqueness, his father flung his dripping, blue milkman’s cap on the washtub and began peeling off his rain-soaked mackinaw; then the vest beneath and the grey sweater. That sense of drowsy desolation that David had felt a long time ago when his father’s arising had wakened him, he felt again, watching him, reminded of the bitter cold and the long darkness. Puffing, his father worked his heavy rubbers loose and kicked them under a chair. They left a slimy trail on the linoleum.

“You’re a little late this afternoon,” his wife ventured.

“Yes.” He dropped wearily into a chair. “That nag of mine fell on the way to the stables.”

“The poor beast! Was she hurt?”

“No. But I had to unharness her and fetch ashes and then harness her again. And all the while a crowd of numbskulls gawking. It took time. I shall curse tomorrow’s dawn if it freezes again.” He stretched, his jaw-muscles quivering. “It’s about time they gave me a sounder animal anyway.”

After a year of working as a milkman, that was the only thing his father consistently grumbled about—the horse he drove. And David, who saw the grey angular beast almost every day, had to admit that his father’s complaint was just. Tilly, she was called, and she had one eye the cloudy color of singed celluloid, or a drop of oil on a sunless puddle. She would stand patiently, even when children were pulling the hairs out of her tail to plait rings with. And yet she seemed no weaker and no worse than most of the horses who passed through Ninth Street. It was just one of his father’s fixations, David had concluded, to want tremendous power in the beast he handled just as he himself seemed possessed of tremendous power. Though he pitied poor Tilly immensely, David hoped that for his father’s sake, the milk company would soon replace her with a livelier beast.

“Will you get out that old blanket,” his father resumed, “so if it does freeze tomorrow, I’ll have something to wrap my knees in. This sudden cold seems to crack one’s bones open to the marrow.”

“Yes, of course,” solicitously. “Don’t you want to take your shoes off?”


It was curious to David what a subtle difference there was between his father’s brusqueness as a milkman and his brusqueness as a printer. The former seemed to be merely the result of weariness on a naturally high-strung temperament; the latter, the result of strain, of inner maladjustment. His brusqueness now was infinitely less dangerous to those about him.

“This corn-meal is ready,” said his mother. “And after that some tea?”

He grunted, threw his arms back over the shoulder of his chair and watched her ladle out the boiled cornmeal into a bowl.

“Some jam.”

“I’m bringing it.” She set a jar of home-made strawberry preserves on the table.

“This is what I ate,” he smeared the deep, red jam on the corn-meal, “when I was a boy.”

David was waiting to hear his father say just that. He always said it when he ate corn-meal mush, and that was one of the few facts that David had ever learnt of his father’s boyhood.

“I was thinking,” he continued between cooling gusts at the smoking spoon. “It came to me while I was crossing a roof.”

“I wish you didn’t have to cross them!”

“Don’t fret about what you know nothing of,” he waved his hand at her curtly. “I don’t pretend to be a mountain-goat. I merely climb over walls, I don’t leap alleyways. Besides, it isn’t the roofs that trouble me, it’s who may be on them. And now that I’ve told you this for the tenth time, where was I?” He put down his spoon and looked at her perplexed. “There’s nothing like good, womanly worry to beat the thought out of your head— Yes! I remember now.” He stared at David. “The prayer. I was thinking should anything happen to me—Now I don’t mean the roofs— Anything! It would be a comfort to me to know that whatever else he becomes—and God only knows what he may become—at least he shan’t be an utter pagan because I didn’t try.”

“You mean?”

“I mean I’m little enough a Jew myself. But I want to make sure he’ll become at least something of a Jew also. I want you to find a cheder for him and a rabbi who isn’t too exorbitant. I would have entered him long ago if that red-headed sister of yours hadn’t thought it her place to advise me.”

David remembered the incident. His father had told her to mind her own business.

His mother shook her head doubtfully. “A cheder? Couldn’t he start a little later. Children in America often do.”

“Do they? I’m not so sure. Anyway, it will keep him busy and out of the house. And it won’t hurt him to learn what it means to be a Jew.”

“He really isn’t home as often as he used to be.” She smiled at David. “He leaves me quite forlorn. And as for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.”

His father nodded curtly—in token that his decree had been passed. “You would do well to seek out a stern one—a rabbi I mean. He needs a little curbing since I don’t do it. It might redeem him. A lout of eight and all he’s ever known is pampering.”

David was still only seven. But that foible his father had of increasing his age to magnify his guilt had long ago become familiar to him. He had even stopped wondering about it.

“Where’s the tea?” he concluded.