Call It Sleep III

UNREAL quiet … Against the drowsy, dwindled hum of the city only the sound of the horse champing softly on his bit, pawing or rattling his traces could be heard. The arid cobbles, distinct close at hand and hemmed in by peeling bill boards, blackened hovels, vacant storage houses, contracted to scales in middle distance, slurred further on and slid up a narrow groove of houses into dusty blue sky. Rarely and even then too far for a sound to travel, a horse and wagon crossed the street. From the trench in the pavement, the rank, persistent damp mingled with the odor of rancid milk in the wagon. Time dragged.

Two men slanted past the corner. After the strange silence of the street and the strange disquiet in himself, David found the scrape of soles on sidewalk suddenly welcome. One of the men seemed about to cross the street, but his companion gave his arm a short tug, said something and both swerved from their course and shambled leisurely toward the wagon. Their coats were slung over their shoulders and as they walked they wiped their faces in the lining. A grey rope held up the pants of one, the other had safety pins in his suspenders. Both wore dirty, blurry, striped shirts, torn under the neck-bands and collarless. Their features, as they grew more distinct, were blunt and coarse, pocked and purplish as peach-stones. The leaner was the shaggier of the two, his hair, the blonde of a gunny sack, matted under his brown felt hat. The stockier, under his tilted cap, had a moon-shaped brow, good-humored, piggish eyes, and between puffy jowls a short mustache like oiled hemp, smoke-singed at the fat lips. There had been something significant about the way they had nudged each other and then changed their course, and now as they sauntered within a few feet of the wagon, David began to hope that they would pass without stopping.

“I told yuh it wuz a kid,” he heard the stocky one say. And then loudly. “Hullo dere, big boy!” Opposite the doorway of the wagon, he smiled affably, widely, yellow butts of his teeth circled on top like bitten grains of corn. “Waddaye say?”

“Hot ain’ id?” the other grinned beside him. “Whew!” Saliva on his protruding upper teeth glistened, gathered; leisurely he sucked it in as it fell.

Without answering, David stared at them irresolutely.

“Ol’ man’s wagon?” asked the first, his pudgy finger sliding from his mustache to worry a pimple on his chin. “Go in wid a big load, didn’t ’e?” His bright, amiable eyes fixed on the graveled lane, “Didn’t ’e?”


“Long ago?”


“Nice kid, ain’ ’e?”

The other winked, curled his tongue out for the sliding drop. “Maybe he wantzuh see de gas house? Woik fast!”

“Say! I’ll betcha shirt he does! Ever been in a gas house?’

“No!” apprehensively. He wished they would go away.

“No? Say, we’ll show yuh de whole woiks!”


“Layin’ out?” He leaned inside the doorway.

“Yep,” the other grunted. He had shifted his position so that he partly faced the graveled lane.

“C’mon!” the stocky one urged pleasantly. “We c’n show yuh all de fires—biggest fires, biggest foinisses in Noo Yawk. Show yuh yer ol’ man.” Suddenly he leaned forward. Blacknailed, outstretched fingers gripped David’s buttocks. He wrenched free, sprang away.

“No!” Sudden fear made him cling to the opposite side of the wagon. “No! I don’t wanna go—no place! Lemme alone!”

“Gettin’ hot, Augie?”

The other cackled. “No go, Wally. We gotta get it an’ skin out o’ hea.”

“Yea,” drawled the other still smiling, and then briskly. “All right, kid, won’t show ’em to yuh dis time— I see yer ol’ man’s got a liddle milk left, ain’ he? Nice and cool, I bet. Well, we’ll buy a couple o’ bottles. He knows us, see—? Clear, Augie?”


“Jest a couple.” He swept away the ice, calmly uprooted two bottles of milk. “We gid it every day. Tell ’im Hennesy took it. Tree Star Hennesy—he’ll remember.” He passed a bottle to the other. “We pays him reggileh,” he added, slouching off in the direction he, had come. “So long, big boy! Show yuh de gas house sometime.”

His lips quivering in terror and too dazed even to breathe, David watched them wrap their coats about the bottles, quicken their pace as they neared the corner, wheel round it and vanish.

He gasped. They had stolen the bottles! He knew it! He knew the moment that man reached over he was going to steal them. What would his father say? You left the wagon! You left the wagon! And after I told you not to. Papa, no! I never left it! I thought you knew them! They said you did. You left the wagon! I didn’t! They came—! His mind seemed to have burst into myriads of razor-edged shards hurtling through his skull. Ow! When he comes! When he looks in! And two missing. Why didn’t you stop them? Why didn’t you tell them to wait till I came? Why didn’t you cry out? I did, papa! I did! I mean—! they said—! The whip—there. He’d take it. Ow!

His frantic nails dug under his cap, harrowed the scalp beneath, which stung and prickled as though a rash had broken out upon it. A cold sweat sprang out over his face and throat, and his writhing body grew suddenly hollow and agonized. Without desire or strength to still them, he listened to the sick chattering of his teeth. Already feeling the lash on his back, he cowered down and lifted his hands to his face.

—Ow! Ow! Papa! Papa! Ow! Don’t! I didn’t mean it. They tried to grab me. Push me out … (He tried to flee from himself as he had once done in the darkness behind his palms. Where could he flee to? Where?) Like that time then. In cellar was and ran. In up-and-out pictures ran. In street now, where—? Mama! Make her look. Make how she looks. Her face. Make! MAKE! I want her face. Mama! MAMA! Make her look. (He concentrated, culling dispersion with every force of his will—failed. Tried again, failed. The face would not fuse. His own mother’s face eluded him.) Can’t! I can’t! Oh, mama! Mama! Can’t … (He rocked back and forth). I’ll make believe I’ll go home first. Yes. Like that I’ll get it. All the streets. Rrrrp! Ninth Street. Now up stoop go. Hot is brass bannister. No touch, janitor says. Cold in winter. Hall inside—No! No! Not this one! Not this! Funny! Old hall from way then, Brownsville pushed right in. Old cellar hall. Got it, Ninth Street back. Now keep. Don’t let go. Baby carriages under the stair here. Milk-stink on ’em. Now go. First floor, see the steps, see the toilets. Bloop! Slipped, slipped down. Gee! Baby carriages. She’s waiting. Upstairs. Fourth floor, waiting. Now go! Bing! One, two, three, four— Aaa, shit—slipped! Baby carriages. Milk stink pulls, pulls me back. This time, jump! All the way up! One jump all the way! One, two, go—! Wrong! It’s wrong! Wrong hallway! No! No! No cellar door. Not in my house. Not open! Not open! Like—Like I just smelled. Street open. Street—open-stink, where they’re digging. Aaa! (He ground his teeth in sudden fury) I’m going up! I’m going up anyway! You won’t stop me! YOU WON’T! I’ll hold it! Now! (His fingers pinched his nose till it hurt) Now I’ll go! What—!

The crunch of heels upon the gravel. Terror! His eyes snapped open. Dwarfed between the huge gas tanks, his father rounded the path. Eyes downcast as always, he hurried, jangling the empty grey bottles in their trays. Louder, louder, nearer, they seemed to clank in David’s heart as well. With every step his father took, the breath in his own body became more labored, more suffocating. At the wagon he paused, lifted sombre eyes to heave the trays on board. Their gaze met. The first tray hung poised a split second before it came to rest.

“What’s the matter?”

David began to weep.

“What’s the matter?” His voice sharpened to a sudden edge. “Speak!”

“The—the bottles there—” he stammered—“They took them.”

“What?” He leaned in, swiftly swept the ice aside, looked up again in stormy surprise. “Who took them?”

He quailed. “T-Two men.”

“Who? Stop your slobbering!”

“Two men. A big one and a short one. And they—Hennesy they said. Hennesy.”

“Hennesy?” He cocked his head, his frown darkening. “Where did they say they worked?”

“They didn’t say!”

“Were you on the wagon?” His lips thinned, voice changed pitch in mid-word, the signs of gathering wrath.

“Yes! I was here! Papa, I was here!” The words gushed, being prepared. “They came and they said you knew them, and I thought you knew them. And they took—”

“And you let them? Cursed fool!” He slammed the last tray in the wagon, sprang after it. “Which way did they go?”

“That w-way! Around the corner!”

“Paid yourself again!” he snarled. “Giddap! Giddap, Billy!” He snatched the whip out of the socket, lashed the horse. Stung, the beast plunged forward. The wheels ground against the curb. “Giddap!” Again the whip. Hooves rang out in a pounding, powerful gallop. The wagon lurched, careened around the corner on creaking axle, empty bottles banging in their boxes. His father, jaws working in fury, eyes blazing, swept the street with one glance. It was empty, sunlit and empty. “Where are they?” he muttered through writhing lips. “Ah, to lay my hands on them!”

No sign of them anywhere, though he scoured every building and hallway. They were gone. The horse galloped on. But at the very next intersection, two men on the left strolled out of an alley—A glimpse of empty milk bottles in their hands!

“They?” he snapped eagerly.


“Aah!” His suppressed cry rattled exultantly in his throat. “Giddap, Billy! Giddap!” He dragged savagely at the left rein. The horse mounted the sidewalk. The wagon heeled over, shifting its cargo with a roar.

“Cheesit, Augie!” the stocky one yelled out suddenly. “He’s after us!”

They broke into a clumsy run, the shorter one lagging. The wagon gained. With a hoarse cry of “Let ’im have it, Wally!” the lean one slowed down momentarily, drew back his arm. The heavy bottle arched toward them hung in the sun, shattered like a bomb before the horse. He reared, flung his head sideways, nostrils crimson, wild eyes rolling. A second later, another bottle flew in the air, fell short, smashed on the ground. Again the whip flashed down.

“Now I’ll get you!” His father gnashed his teeth. “Now I’ll get you!” And David knew they were doomed.

The charging horse bore down on them. At the corner, with only a few yards between them and the wagon, both men as if by a common impulse, shoved each other in opposite directions. His father turned after the stockier running on the sidewalk. A moment more, the horse was abreast. One yank at the reins and the reins were flung at David. “Hold, you!” Whip in hand, his father leaped from the rolling wagon into the street. The fugitive, trapped before a stable door that wouldn’t open, spun about, crouched savagely at bay.

“Waddayuh chasin’ me fuh?” His yellow teeth were bared, the round eyes now slits of fear and fury.

“Hanh!” His father’s snarl was almost like laughter, but the grinding of his teeth creaked like a strong cable stretching. “Yuhv’ll take my milk!”

“Me? Waddaye shittin’ about? I never seen it.”

“An’ de bottles you t’rew?” He seemed merely to be toying with the man. David knew the answers didn’t matter. He grew faint, waiting for the end.

“Yea! I t’rew ’em!” The other was blustering savagely. “An de nex’ time watch out who de fuck yer chas—”

Swish! The hiss of the whip cut off his words; the long, stiff thong curled over his shoulder, whacked!

“Owoo!” he howled with pain and fury. “Yuh Jew bastard! You hit me?” He flung himself at David’s father, arms thrashing.

“Hanh!” Again that mad cry of mirth. One long, rigid arm shot out, thrust his kicking, flailing adversary back like a ram—while the whip lashed out in the other. Again! Again it fell! It sickened David watching it. He screamed. Suddenly with a sharp crack the whip snapped. His father flung it aside. And as the other, howling with rage, charged in to tackle, he drew up his fist, clenched it like a sledge, and grunting with the effort, crashed it down on his neck.

“Uh!” A small, almost infantile groan broke from the man’s open mouth. Then he crumpled, slid down David’s father’s legs and fell sideways to the ground. Once more he stirred, the cap slipping from his head. The vague, sparse strands of his hair sank leisurely to one side as if on a hinge, revealing the splotched yellow scalp. He lay still.

For a moment longer, David’s father towered above him, rage billowing from him, shimmering in sunlight almost, like an aura; then with a last, fierce glance about the empty streets, scooped up the broken whip, stalked to the wagon, leaped in, and leaning out flogged the horse with the end of the rein. The beast bounded forward. Swiftly they left the street, turned south, mingled with the gathering traffic.

The minutes passed in horrible silence. Little by little, his father’s dark face grew grey, the fierce blaze in his eyes clouding. In his trembling hands, the reins began to shake out in tiny ripples. His hoarse breath grew louder, rushing through his burred throat in short violent gasps that set his jaw quivering each time as if on springs. In Brownsville was the last time David had seen him look that way. It recalled all the old horror.

“You!” He said at last, and his words were so harsh and guttural, they barely took form. “False son! You, the cause!”

His hand moved. Like the fangs of a snake the brass-buckled ends of the reins bit twice into David’s shoulder. He never winced. He hardly even felt them, so frozen with terror he was.

“Say anything to your mother,” the strangled voice went on, “and I’ll beat you to death! Hear me?”

“Yes, papa.”

Amid a crowd of trams and autos, they moved slowly toward Ninth Street.