Call It Sleep II

HE WENT down the stairs, and reaching the street, looked eagerly toward Avenue D. He had meant to return to the pop-corn oven when he came down in order to forget his uneasiness and at the same time be near the wagon. But now they were gone. The pop-corn oven lay beside the curb, a shattered heap of iron. Evidently, they had repaid it for its recalcitrance. But where had they gone to? Eating perhaps. No, it wasn’t their lunch time yet. It was only ten o’clock.

Disconsolately he sat down, stretched out athwart the uppermost step of the stoop where the shady threshold of the hallway joined the burning stairs. Just outside the doorway, and under the fierce glare, the horse, black flanks rippling like water, lashed out viciously with hoof and tail at the glinting flies. His straw bonnet with much tossing was awry. Yellow oats, flung up from his feed-bag, lay strewn on the grey-bright gutter. Muted with heat, the city droned remotely. He wished he didn’t have to go.

He had been sitting there for only a few minutes, ferreting about in his mind for some subterfuge, some invulnerable excuse that would prevent his accompanying his father, when the sound of running feet reached him. He looked out on the street. With a shrill cry of “Here’s a wagon!” preceding them, Kushy and another boy ran past the doorway, came to a sudden halt before the milk-wagon.

“Hea’s a good w’eel, Maxey.” Kushy grasped the spokes and squatted down to examine the hub. David noticed that from his hand dangled something that looked like a flat piece of iron tied to a string.

“Yea, a lot!” Maxey, a short stick in his fist, hopped down eagerly beside him.

Prompted more by curiosity than possessiveness, David rose. “Hey, wodda yuh wan’? Dat’s my fodder’s wagon.”

“So wadda yuh hollerin’ about?” Kushy retorted, belligerent after a single glance over his shoulder.

“We ain’ takin’ nott’n.” Maxey explained. “Only grease from de axle.” Industriously he probed the black inside of the hub with the stick.

“Way in deep!” Kushy directed.

“Wotcha gonna do?” David came down the steps.

“We’re goin fishin’.” Maxey drew out a large black gob of grease. “On Tent’ Stritt. We’re potners. We seen id foist.”

“C’mon!” Kushy interrupted him. “Don’ led id flop!”

And with a “No akey! No akey!” flung over their shoulders, the two partners raced toward Avenue D and disappeared around the corner.

Mystified, longing desperately to follow, David stared after them. Half past ten, his father had said. That was a long ways off. He could watch them awhile and be back before his father came down. No one would know. Involuntarily, so it seemed to him, he gravitated toward the corner and went around it. They had said that they would be on Tenth Street, the next block. Should he go that far? At the last moment he decided that he had better not. It was too risky. He would only go as far as the new photography shop in the middle of the block and then return. He peered into the window. It was full of pictures, big and small, bridal pictures, the bride and groom standing stiffly apart despite their apparent closeness, their faces frozen in an impending smile; pictures of prize-fighters crouching in sash and tights; pictures of infants, the little girls seated, holding tiny muffs where the pudgy legs joined the small torso; the little boys always lay on their bellies. And horrible, enlarged pictures of old men and women, colored and acid-clear, the magnified expanse of their brown and sunken cheeks wrinkled the way the wind wrinkles sand. Pictures. Pictures. How did they stretch the big ones out of the little ones? And that bar of glass, that extended across the top of the show window, where did it get that strange green light that changed the color of everyone’s face when one passed it?

He’d better return now. But there was Tenth Street just a little ways off. He would only look once and then go back. Which way?

One glance toward Avenue C sufficed: As many as had been crouching about the pop-corn oven were now clustered before a building this side of the wood-turning shop. He broke into an eager trot, drew up. Most of them were the same boys he had seen a short time ago. Breathless, silent, absorbed, they kneeled on all fours on the iron grate over the cellar. All faces pointed downwards, all eyes riveted on something beneath. Not one looked up when David crawled in among them.

Kushy was doing the fishing. David peered down. Because of the depth of the cellar, it took some time for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. But squinting tightly, he at last discerned a something silver glimmering on the grimy cellar floor. Little by little, the gleam settled into the round, smudged surface of a coin. And above it, like a pendulum swinging slowly to and fro, the flat piece of iron hung from Kushy’s hand. His eyes at length completely accustomed to the shadows, David observed that the entire surface of the sinker was daubed with axle grease.

“Leggo now!” someone hissed between the grate. “Now! Id’s righd oveh!”

“Shod op!” Kushy shot back.

As the sinker swung it descended, its area of vibration slowly decreasing. For a moment it hovered directly over the glistening coin—then dropped as if on a prey!

“Easy Kushy!” their admonitions seethed. “Easy! Easy! ’At’s id! Id’ll stick, g’wan! Yuh god it! Betcha million! Slow! Slow!”

“No akey! No akey!” Maxey murmured exultantly.

Pop-eyed, taut with excitement, Kushy hauled in the slack with infinite deliberation. The grease-coated sinker stirred, rose—the coin, smeared now with grease, never budged, but lay where it had lain before. Barbed cackles of derision flew from all but the two partners’ lips.

“I’ll punch yuh innuh nose,” growled Kushy, crimson and bridling.

“Jost you waid!” Maxey spat out venomously. “Ask me fuh sompt’n youse guys. Bubbikiss you’ll ged! G’wan, Kush, you’ll ged it op yet! G’wan!”

The strain broken now, they jabbered turbulently. “See! I tol’ yuh de stuv-iron is hod luck! Yea, yuh shoulda taken somp’n else. Aaa! I coulda god id if yuh did’n holler.”

“You’ll never ged id.” Izzy announced smugly. “Betcha I could ged id.”

“Balls you’ll ged!”

“An I ain’ gonna tell yuh how,” he added spitefully.

“Balls you’ll ged,” repeated Kushy, “an’ a rusky-chooy!”


“Yea, an’ a bust onna beezer!”

Opposition silenced, Kushy once more lowered the iron shard; once more it dropped only to rise without the coin. He tried again. As often as the grease touched the coin, the latter became a shade darker, a shade more like its surroundings, and by degrees more difficult to distinguish. The minutes passed. While Kushy fished the rest hitched their tongues in tow of their imaginations.

“If it wuz a nickel,” said one broody voice between the gratings, “I could buy fuh two cends cockamamies an’ pud em on mine hull arm. An’ den fuh t’ree cends I’ll go to duh movies.”

“Yuh c’n buy fuh t’ree cends cockamamies.” Izzy crisply revised the dream.


“Cuz yuh c’n ged in duh movies lods o’ times fuh on’y two cends. Id’s two fuh a nickel ain’ id, fuh kids? Make de odder guy give t’ree cends.”

“Fot smeller,” sneered Kushy vainly lifting the sinker for the twentieth time. The rest brayed their approval.

“Yuh c’n ged in fuh nutt’n wise guy!” another voice affirmed. “Woddayuh tink o’ dat? Yuh jos’ make believe yuh lookin’ on duh pickchiss outside. An’ w’en dat ticket-chopper ain’ lookin’—zoo! Yuh go in—an’ id’s all dock inside.”

“Yea!” Izzy parried. “An’ zoo! If he catches yuh! Wadda roost innee ass he gives. Membuh w’en Hoish god caught? Wuz he cryin’?”

“Make believe w’at I had a nickel,” another rapt voice announced, “so I’ll go to Kaplan’s on Evenyuh C and I’ll buy a tousan’ rubbuh ben’s an’ make a bounceh—a real high bounceh—”

“A lod ain’ good.” Izzy interrupted with authority. “I know somebody, he made a bounceh—bigger’n dis.” His two palms slid through the gratings about a foot apart. “Mor’n’ a zillion rubbuh ben’s he had on id, and id wouldn’t even go high like dis cellah. So he made five liddle ones, an’ duh liddle ones bounced ten flaws w’en he ga’m a good shod.”

“Ten flaws?”


“Buzjwa!” they chorused.


A short space of silence followed while eyes again glued to the coin on the cellar floor. It was practically indistinguishable now, but still Kushy fished, declining all the offers of those who suggested spitting down at the coin to clean it. Oblivious of the passing time, David peered down with the rest.

“You’ll never ged id,” said Izzy at length. “An’ maybe id ain’ even a nickel,” he added waspishly.

“Maybe you ain’ gonna ged mobilized,” Kushy answered ominously. It was evident to all that long frustration had exhausted his patience.

“Aaa, don’ mobilize so fast!” muttered Izzy.

“Yuh wan’ me to show yuh?” The sinker jogged ominously across the cellar floor.

“Tough guy!”

“I’ll spid in yer eye in a minute!”

“You an’ who else?”

“Me an’ myself!” The sinker flew up. The next moment Kushy had sprung to his feet.

(From somewhere an obscure drum of hooves)

“Wan’ me to show yuh?” he blustered.

“Yea!” Izzy rose as well.

David shrank away. He hated fights. Why did they have to fight and spoil everything? But before the two pugilists had time to fly at each other, a loud, imperious rapping startled them all. They stared at the gutter. With a cry David recoiled. Poised on the side step of the milk wagon, sleeveless shirt dazzling in the light, his father was rapping the butt-end of the whip against the wagon—“Come here!” He bit off the Yiddish words.

David flung himself toward the curb. “I didn’ know, papa! I didn’ know! I thought you—you weren’t ready.”

“Get in!”

He could hear the amazed whispers of the other boys on the side-walk. With numb, aimless haste, he grasped the first thing that seemed to offer a way up, the spokes of the wagon wheel. His feet, cramped with kneeling, slipped toward the hub. His father’s jarring hand hooked under his armpit, yanked him roughly aboard.

“Witless block!” he ground out, “Lucky for you I found you. If I hadn’t I would have flayed you—!” He flicked the reins. “Giddap Billy!” The wagon rolled forward. “Why I don’t give a blow to crack your head I don’t know!”

Whimpering David cowered against the loose milk-boxes rattling behind him.

“If I had the time—!” he broke off significantly. “But disobey me again!” And with a furious sidelong glare, leaned out through the window-like opening in the front of the wagon and nipped the horse with the end of the whip. “C’mon Billy!”

The horse broke into a heavy gallop. At Avenue C, they turned and headed north. Letting the reins rest on the front bar a few seconds, his father reached behind him, pried loose an empty box and set it down beside David. “Sit down! But hold on to the side there, so you won’t fall off as only you are able.”

They drove on rapidly; Ninth Street dropped far behind—it seemed to him forever. Relieved by slight flurries in traffic from his father’s smouldering eye, David stared unhappily at the houses gliding past the doorway. He felt strange—feverish almost. Whether it was that he had been staring down into the cellar too long, or whether because his fear of his father clouded and distorted all the things he saw, he could not tell. But he felt as though his mind had slackened its grip on realities. The houses, pavements, teams, people on the street no longer had that singleness and certainty about them that they had had before. Solidities baffled him now, eluded him with a veiled shifting of contour. He could not wholly identify even the rhythm and the clap of hooves; something alien and malign had fused with all the familiar sounds and sights of the world. The sunlight that had been so dazzling before was mysteriously dulled now as though filtered by an invisible film. Something of its assertion had been drained from stone, something of inflexible precision from iron. Surfaces had hollowed a little, sagged, edges had blurred. The stable lineaments of the mask of the world had overlapped, shifted configuration as secretly and minutely as clock-hands, as sudden as the wink of an eye. It was strange. It had happened before. A vague, diffuse aching filled his breast. Again and again, he sighed, uncontrollable, shivery, stealthy sighs. Suddenly, he realized that he had not known how happy he had been—only a little while ago, unaccountably free and happy—July, June, May. It was gone now. He was haunted again.

He looked from the street to his father. Too tall for the wagon, he stooped forward, black reins loose in weathered hand. Nothing about him ever changed. Let worlds heave and freeze, he remained the same—always the thin inscrutable mouth, always the harsh pride of taut nostrils, heavy lidded eyes. Under the sheer, unswerving steep of his aloofness, there was shelter sometimes, but never foothold.

They turned east, left the pavements behind. On the cobbled streets, the horse’s hooves rang out now sharp now hollow. The wagon bounced and clattered. As the streets grew empty, the houses grew smaller and shoddier. There were no children to be seen, only cats sunning themselves before battered doorways. They turned a corner. Between the looming of enormous gas tanks, the river looked as if the shore beyond were only a blunt wedge sideways through the sky, so alike in azure were water and heaven. Here were no habitations. Beside the curb, a long, deep ditch through the pavement had been left uncovered. From the bottom of the trench as they neared it, rose the sweetish, festering stench of the city’s iron entrails. His father swung out wide, passed the embankment of rusty soil set with red lanterns, and drawing up to the curb, reined in his horse.

“Move!” he said.

David scrambled to one side. His father reached into the back of the wagon, dragged out two steel trays and set them on the ribbed wagon floor. From three boxes, all of which were filled with bottled milk and covered with ice, he loaded both trays, and when every square in the trays had been planted, shored bottles against leaning bottles in glistening white pyramids. In the last box only four bottles sprouted from between the cracked ice. These he left behind, and shoving both trays near the door-way, he climbed out into the sunlight. One after another he swung them down, grunting as he did so, the sinews of his throat leaping like bow-strings.

“This time don’t forget,” he said, glancing about. “Stay where you’re told, hear me?” His brief nod was full of meaning, and then he turned away and lunged forward and with stiff, jerky gait, hurried down a narrow lane between squat and dingy shacks. As he drew away, deeper and deeper shadows pitted the stretched thews of his long bare arms. Under his flat springless tread, the crushed stones on the ground slid and crunched. The path turned, curving round a gas tank. With a last clink of bottles he disappeared.