Call It Sleep IV

NOT another word had been spoken. The wagon rumbled over the cobbled car-tracks, wheeled around, drew up beside the curb.

“Get off, dunce!” His father’s voice had cleared, was sharp again; his color was beginning to return. “Now remember what I said—be silent!”

Mutely, David climbed down the wagon.

“And don’t get lost!” he flung down at him. “Straight to the cheder!”

“Yes, papa.” He could feel the stupidity of his own gaze.

“Unh!” he grunted disgustedly. “Hurry now!” Then he clucked to the horse and the wagon clattered north again.

With stunned, shuffling gait, David crossed the street, plodded toward the cheder.

—Mustn’t tell her! Mustn’t tell! Ow!

How could he contain it! He had but to prolong the wink of his eyes a moment longer and the horrible scenes of that hour flared across his eyelids as on a screen—The ghastly flickering of stolid gas-tanks, cobbles, trenches, distance, the malevolent streets, the black arc of the whip still lingering in air though the whip had landed, the vicious face contorted, and the hand, the hand uplifted. In the meaningless sounds of the street, he could still hear the scuffing of their feet, his father’s grunt, the thud of his fist, the howls of rage and pain. The fearful images would not be shaken, but clung to his mind as though soldered there. Something had happened! Something had happened! Even Ninth Street, his own familiar Ninth Street was warped, haunted by something he could feel; but perceive with no sense. Faces he had seen so many times he scarcely ever glanced at any more were twisted into secret shadows, smeared, flattened, whorled, grotesque grief and smirking never before revealed. The cheder corridor as he passed through it, scribble of chalk glimmering on the wall, linoleum battered into traps, seemed un-level, weird and endless. He caught himself fighting the old fear of hallways; his step suddenly quickened. Saw-toothed, bizarre with inlayed wedges of light and shadow, the cheder yard, grey wash-poles aslant in heavy light, fences leaning, chipped, red walls, walls sodden with sun, the hacked sky. Unreal. The cheder itself, whispers in sudden gloom, knotted figures, cracked benches, the long table, the inane, perpetual drone, fantastic forms, perspectives. Unreal.

Something, something had happened. He sat dumbly down, watched the others a moment, then turned away. Their bickering and their chatter had lost dimension; nothing was left but a grey and vacuous idiocy, a world bewitched and hollow. It was as though he heard all sounds through a yawn or with water in his ears, as though he saw all things through a tumbler. When would it burst, this globe about his senses?

If only he had run home first, if only he had told his mother.

Time dragged on. The cheder filled up. Fortunately for him he had come early—he would read soon, escape. Remotely he heard his name called as if through a wall. He rose, shuffled to the bench as though his will alone were dragging the whole clog of his body, sat down before the table.

“You look somewhat pale,” the rabbi said quizzically as he flattened out the book, “Do you feel squeamish today? Ha?”


“Well, why weren’t you waiting your turn on the bench?”

“I didn’t know.”

“That’s news!” He lifted his brows sarcastically, “Well, begin! Haazinu ha shawmayim veadabairaw.”

“Haazinu ha shawmayim veadabairaw, vtishma haawretz emri fi.” Whirling among the heavy characters on the page, two bodies grappled and strove—He stumbled.

“What ails you? You’re somewhat blind today.”

Without answering, he went on, “Yaarof kamawtawr l-l-likhiy tizol k-k-katal imrawsi.” The letters crowded, parted, deployed—lamp-posts, cobbles, graveled lanes, lanterns on mounds of earth. Whips in air. Time after time he stuttered, halted, corrected himself, went on. The rabbi had begun tapping his pointer slightly as he moved it along.

“Some little deed you’ve done, today, ha?” He lowered his tilted, bushy face to David’s level, and stared with a suspicious grin into his eyes—Tobacco reek. Sweat. Matted nostrils under red, speck-stippled nose. The moist drab gums of false teeth. Revolting. David drew back.

“One deed but a good one, no? No?” His voice rose. “Answer! Are you dumb?”

“No,” sullenly. “Didn’t do anything.”

“Then why do you read like a plaster golem? Ha? Look at me! Lift the hasps of your eyes.”

He glanced up at the angry face for a fleeting second, glanced down.

“Fire strike you!” His thumb shot the leaf over viciously. “Read further!”

David waited till the page settled and then with all his powers, fixed on the letters. The effort seemed to drain him of every ounce of strength, and even despite his efforts, he halted and floundered frequently. His head sank lower and lower over the book. At last the rabbi slapped him.

“Go now!” He said acridly, “Enough balking for a day! Enough for a year! And when you leave here,” his thumb and forefinger curled expoundingly, “take yourself home, sit long in the privy and you’ll have a clearer brow.”

Hardly attending, David slid off the bench.

“And hear me!” he warned. “Tomorrow and you pray thus, I’ll begin currying.”

Voices jeered at him as he crossed the cheder. “Smod guy! Cholly ox! Goot fuh yuh, stingy! Strap onnee ass, yuh’ll ged! His fodder’ll give ’im wit’ de w’ip. I seen—”

He turned. Izzy’s voice sank to a whisper. He hurried through the door. New quoins of light in the cheder yard still patterned the old unreality. At the top of the wooden stairs, the long hallway was empty and full of murky shadows. (—Get on your mark! Get se-e-et! Go!—) He raced through it, reached the streetlight with prickling scalp. —(Shittin’ fraid-cat, me! Scared now. Never was. And him—Hate him! Stinky mouth! Hate ’em all! Mama, now! Mama—)

Already in the shelter of her arms, he began running along the pavement towards his house. (—Hope he ain’t home! Hope, hope he ain’t!)

He had jogged to within a few yards of his doorway, when a loud confused cry overhead brought him to a halt. He glanced up. With a fat bosom flopping against the ledge of the second floor window a woman was screaming excitedly down at the street. “Beetrice! Beetrice! Horry op!” She craned dangerously out of the window as though she were trying to look into her own doorway. And presently a half-grown girl, pigtails and ribbons flying behind her, came running out. David stared at them in wonder.

“Where is ’e, Mama?” The girl reached the sidewalk and was screaming up.

“Dere! Zeh! Look!” The woman shrilled down. “Sebm fawdy six in de red house!”

“Where? I can’ see!”

“Dort! Oy! Look! De toiteh fluh!”

In open mouthed fixity, the girl stared at the house across the street. “Yea!” She squealed. “I see ’im! I see ’im, Mama!”

“Noo! Catch ’im. Ron! Ron op!”

A small crowd had gathered, children and grownups. Kushy’s face was among them. “Hey, watsuh maddeh? Zug, vuss is?”

“He’s dere! He’s dere on dat house!” the girl babbled and pointed.


“The kinerry! My modder’s!” And urged by the shrill voice of her mother upstairs, she began running across the street. “He got out from the cage! I’ll give a rewuhd!”

She had no sooner gone inside when suddenly from a niche on the wall of the same house, a bright yellow bird dove down, fluttered uncertainly, then skimmed across the street and landed on the scroll-work of the house next to David’s. It perched there a moment while the street gaped up at it, and then it flew up to the roof.

“Whee! Yuh see ’im!” The crowd grew excited. “Oy a fegel! Kent fly so good! Ketch ’im! She’ll give a rewuhd!”

“My roof!” One of the boys plucked his cap off and dashed for the doorway. “I’ll gid ’im wid my hat!”

“A-key!” Kushy tore after him. “A rewuhd!”

“A-key!” A third followed.

“A-key!” A fourth disappeared inside.

A few seconds later, the girl with the pig-tails stuck her head out of the window.

“He flew away!” voices in the crowd bawled up at her. “On de roof across the street!”

“He flew away, Mama!” she screamed.

“I saw already,” the answer shot back. “He shull drop dead!”

Mother and daughter drew their heads in. On the sidewalk necks craned awhile searching the sky. No bird appeared.

“Dey’ll never get ’im. Naaa!”

“A nechtige tug!” The small crowd drifted slowly apart.


He woke from his revery.

—Dumb ox, me! Hurry up!

He ran up the stoop, but at the doorway hesitated, peered in. Again the roots of his hair prickled. He could not bring himself to enter the darkness. All the old fears lurked there again. Why had they returned? Angered to the point of tears at his own cowardice, he paced restlessly back and forth across the stoop, now listening for a sound in the hallway, now peering up and down the street for some familiar face. At last he heard a door slam dully inside as though from an upper floor. He leapt into the hallway, scrambled frantically up the stairs. Between the first and second floors he neared the bulky figure of a woman, squeezed past her and up—still listening to the other’s dwindling footsteps. On the fourth floor, he threw himself breathlessly at the door— It was locked!

“Mama!” he screamed.

“You, David?” Her startled voice.

The enormous relief! “Yes, mama, open it!” The foot he had drawn back to kick at the door in his fury and terror sank again to the floor.

“Wait!” Her voice had a hurried sound. “I’ll open it in a moment.”

What was she doing? And as if in answer, he heard a loud splash of water followed by a flurry of tinkling drops. She had been taking a bath in the washtub. She was getting out now. A chair creaked as though she had stepped on it, then the pad of her bare feet on the floor. “Just one little second more,” she implored.

“Awrigh’” he called to her.

Silence. Feet moving off, returning. The door opened. And as if the light that widened with it were a wedge, the foggy, tormenting globe about his senses split open and dissolved—hue and contour, sound and scent focused.


“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.” She was still barefooted. Her faded yellow bathrobe, darkened by water-stains clung to breast and thigh. “But I hurried as fast as I could.” From glistening brown hair, water still streamed down on the towel across her shoulder. The wonted pallor of smooth throat and face was flushed and beaded with water. “What are you staring at?” She smiled, pulled the bathrobe tighter and shut the door behind him.

“I didn’t care if I waited.” He smiled with her. He could almost feel his jarred spirit settle softly in its grooves again.

“But you did storm the door with all the old fury,” she laughed. And pressing her dripping hair against her bosom, she stooped down and kissed him. The warm, faintly soap-scented humidity of her body, ineffably sweet. “I’m so relieved to see you again.”

Where was his father? Behind her the bedroom door was open. No one lay on the bed. Not in. Beatitude flawless.

“You’re still wet!” he giggled suddenly. “Even the floor!”

“Yes. I must mop that dry.” She caught up the wet, dripping twist of her hair in the towel. “Half the tub is on the floor. I vaulted out in such haste. I don’t know why I get so frightened about you—especially if I think you are.” As she spoke, she bent sideways, dipped an arm in the tub to pull the stoppers out. The soapy water sucked and gurgled. Against the window-light, her body showed shadowy outlines, hip and knee lending pink to the yellow. “Did you see many sights on the wagon?”

He shook his head violently.

“No?” Her smile faded. “Why such drooping lips?”

“I hate it! I hate it!” It was all he could do to keep from bursting into tears.

“Why?” She looked at him in surprise. “What happened?”

“Nothing. (—Mustn’t tell. Mustn’t!) Didn’t like it, that’s all.”

“Timid little heart! I know. But tomorrow you won’t have to go—even if that other man doesn’t return, someone else will take that route.”


“Never, what? Go?”


“No, never.” She sat down, towel a comical turban about her head. “Come here.”

He smiled diffidently and went to her. “You look funny.”

“Do I?” she chuckled and helped him to her knee. The comfort of being against her breast outstripped the farthest-flung pain. “You don’t like being a milkman?”


“Nor a milkman’s helper?”


“What would you like to be?”

“I don’t know.”

She laughed. How the ear teased for that rippling, sinuous sound. “This morning in the butcher-shop I heard a woman say that her son was going to be a great doctor. Hmm! I thought, how blessed your life is! And how old is your son, the butcher asked. Seven, she answered. The butcher nearly missed the bone he was chopping. And here you’re eight and still you haven’t told me. But you won’t have to go along with the wagon any more— Want some milk? The new yeast cookies you like?” She rubbed her moist brow against his lips. “With the raisins inside?”

“Awrigh’!” he yielded. “But not now.” The closeness of her body was too rare to be relinquished so soon.

“Awhrri’,” she repeated after him, and so drolly he laughed. “But let me get up.”


“But I’ve got to get dressed,” she begged. “This shift is clammier than a well-stone. Yes?” She rose; reluctantly he slid from her knee. “I’ll get you the milk and cookies first.”

He watched her go to the bread-box, open it, draw out several honey-colored cookies, place them on a plate and then take a half-filled quart of milk from the ice-box—

—Wagon! They! Ow!

A shudder ran through him.


She filled a glass, set the cookies and milk on the table.

“You eat them while I dress,” she coaxed. “There are more of both if you want them.” And uncoiling the towel about her head went into the bedroom.

He sat down, munched the raisined crispness slowly, stared eagerly at the bedroom door waiting for her to come out.

“What time is it now, David?” Her voice rose above the rustling of the garments.

He stared up at the clock on the shelf. “It’s ten—eleven minutes after two.”

“After two?”


“He’ll get no sleep this afternoon either.”


“That double collection keeps him—as if he didn’t work hard enough as it is. But he ought to be home soon.”

—Soon! Home!

The mashed lump of food lay inertly in his mouth.

“Do you remember the time you couldn’t tell time?” Her voice went on after a pause. “You told it by whistles. And once you saved calendar leaves—where are they now?”

—He! See him! No! No! Go down! Quick, before he comes!

He gulped down the half-chewed cud, shoved the remainder of the cooky in his pocket and drank the milk down in noisy haste.

—Take another. She’ll ask.

He dropped another cooky into his pocket. “I’m going down stairs, mama.”

“What!” Her voice was surprised.

“Can I?”

“Have you finished so soon?” She came out of the bedroom. Her dress, hovering between round upstretched arms, “How did you—” settled like a cloud about her head, “manage so soon?” sank below throat, armpits, square scalloped, petticoat. His face was radiant. Her eyes searched the table.

“I was hungry.”

“Well,” she lifted the long nape of hair from her neck. “That’s the quickest you’ve ever eaten. Were they good?”

“Yes.” He was already edging toward the door.

“You rush in and rush out as though the coachman wouldn’t wait. But don’t stay too long.”


She smoothed down her dress, crouched, kissed him. “What a fitful one you are! Be up before supper?”


“Take care of yourself in the street, won’t you?”

“Yes.” He opened the door, shut himself into the gloom of the hallway.

—Ain’t so afraid. Funny, forgot. But hurry …