Call It Sleep IV

TWO months had passed since David entered the cheder. Spring had come and with the milder weather, a sense of wary contentment, a curious pause in himself as though he were waiting for some sign, some seal that would forever relieve him of watchfulness and forever insure his wellbeing. Sometimes he thought he had already beheld the sign—he went to cheder; he often went to the synagogue on Saturdays; he could utter God’s syllables glibly. But he wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps the sign would be revealed when he finally learned to translate Hebrew. At any rate, ever since he had begun attending cheder, life had leveled out miraculously, and this he attributed to his increasing nearness to God. He never thought about his father’s job any longer. There was no more of that old dread of waiting for the cycle to fulfill itself. There no longer seemed to be any cycle. Nor did his mother ever appear to worry about his father’s job; she too seemed reassured and at peace. And those curious secrets he had gleaned long ago from his mother’s story seemed submerged within him and were met only at reminiscent street-corners among houses or in the brain. Everything unpleasant and past was like that, David decided, lost within one. All one had to do was to imagine that it wasn’t there, just as the cellar in one’s house could be conjured away if there were a bright yard between the hallway and the cellar-stairs. One needed only a bright yard. At times David almost believed he had found that brightness.

It was a few days before Passover. The morning had been so gay, warmer and brighter than any in the sheaf of Easter just past. Noon had been so full of promise—a leaf of Summer in the book of Spring. And all that afternoon he had waited, restless and inattentive, for the three o’clock gong to release him from school. Instead of blackboards, he had studied the sharp grids of sunlight that brindled the red wall under the fire-escapes; and behind his tall geography book, had built a sail of a blotter and pencil to catch the mild breeze that curled in through the open window. Miss Steigman had caught him, had tightly puckered her lips (the heavy fuzz about them always darkened when she did that) and screamed:

“Get out of that seat, you little loafer! This minute! This very minute! And take that seat near the door and stay there! The audacity!” She always used that word, and David always wondered what it meant. Then she had begun to belch, which was what she always did after she had been made angry.

And even in his new seat, David had been unable to sit still, had fidgeted and waited, fingered the grain of his desk, stealthily rolled the sole of his shoe over a round lead pencil, attempted to tie a hair that had fallen on his book into little knots. He had waited and waited, but now that he was free, what good was it? The air was darkening, the naked wind was spinning itself a grey conch of the dust and rubbish scooped from the gutter. The street-cleaner was pulling on his black rain-coat. The weather had cheated him, that’s all! He couldn’t go anywhere now. He’d get wet. He might as well be the first one in the cheder. Disconsolately, he crossed the street.

But how did his mother know this morning it was going to rain? She had gone to the window and looked out, and then she said, the sun is up too early. Well what if it—Whee!

Before his feet a flat sheet of newspaper, driven by a gust of damp wind, whipped into the air and dipped and fluttered languidly, melting into sky. He watched it a moment and then quickened his step. Above store windows, awnings were heaving and bellying upward, rattling. Yelling, a boy raced across the gutter, his cap flying before him.

“Wow! Look!” The shout made him turn around.

“Shame! Shame! Everybody knows your name.” A chorus of boys and girls chanted emphatically. “Shame! Shame! Everybody knows your name.”

Red and giggling a big girl was thrusting down the billow of her dress. Above plump, knock-kneed legs, a glimpse of scalloped, white drawers. The wind relenting, the dress finally sank. David turned round again, feeling a faint disgust, a wisp of the old horror. With what prompt spasms the mummified images in the brain started from their niches, aped former antics and lapsed. It recalled that time, way long ago. Knish and closet. Puh! And that time when two dogs were stuck together. Puh! Threw water that man. Shame! Shame!

“Sophe-e!” Above him the cry. “Sophe-e!”

“Ye-es mama-a!” from a girl across the street.

“Comm opstehs! Balt!”


“Balt or I’ll give you! Nooo!”

With a rebellious shudder, the girl began crossing the street. The window slammed down.

Pushing a milk-stained, rancid baby carriage before them, squat buttocks waddled past, one arm from somewhere dragging two reeling children, each hooked by its hand to the other, each bouncing against the other and against their mother like tops, flagging and whipped. A boy ran in front of the carriage. It rammed him.

“Ow! Kencha see wea yuh goin?” He rubbed his ankle.

“Snott nuzz! Oll—balt a frosk, Oll—give!”

“Aaa! Buzjwa!”

A drop of rain spattered on his chin.

—It’s gonna—

He flung his strap of books over his shoulder and broke into a quick trot.

—Before I get all wet.

Ahead of him, flying toward the shore beyond the East River, shaggy clouds trooped after their van. And across the river the white smoke of nearer stacks was flattened out and stormy as though the stacks were the funnels of a flying ship. In the gutter, wagon wheels trailed black ribbons. Curtains overhead paddled out of open windows. The air had shivered into a thousand shrill, splintered cries, wedged here and there by the sudden whoop of a boy or the impatient squawk of a mother. At the doorway to the cheder corridor, he stopped and cast one lingering glance up and down the street. The black sidewalks had cleared. Rain shook out wan tresses in the gathering dark. Against the piebald press of cloud in the craggy furrow of the west, a lone flag on top of a school-steeple blew out stiff as a key. In the shelter of a doorway, across the gutter, a cluster of children shouted in monotone up at the sky:

“Rain, rain, go away, come again some oddeh day. Rain, rain, go away, come again some oddeh day. Rain, rain—”

He’d better go in before the rest of the rabbi’s pupils came. They’d get ahead of him otherwise. He turned and trudged through the dim battered corridor. The yard was gloomy. Wash-poles creaked and swayed, pulleys jangled. In a window overhead, a bulky, bare-armed woman shrilled curses at someone behind her and hastily hauled in the bedding that straddled the sills like bulging sacks.

“And your guts be plucked!” her words rang out over the yard. “Couldn’t you tell me it was raining?”

He dove through the rain, skidded over the broken flagstones and fell against the cheder door. As he stumbled in, the rabbi, who was lighting the gas-jet, looked around.

“A black year befall you!” he growled. “Why don’t you come in like a man?”

Without answering, he sidled meekly over to the bench beside the wall and sat down. What did he yell at him for? He hadn’t meant to burst in that way. Gee! The growing gas-light revealed another pupil in the room whom he hadn’t noticed before. It was Mendel. His neck swathed in white bandages, sickly white under the bleary yellow flicker of gas, he sat before the reading table, head propped by elbows. Mendel was nearing his bar-mitzvah but had never learned to read chumish because he had entered the cheder at a rather late age. He was lucky, so every one said, because he had a carbuncle on the back of his neck which prevented him from attending school. And so all week long, he had arrived first at the cheder. David wondered if he dared sit down beside him. The rabbi looked angry. However, he decided to venture it and crawled quietly over the bench beside Mendel. The pungent reek of medicine pried his nostrils.

—Peeuh! It stinks!

He edged away. Dull-eyed, droopy-lipped, Mendel glanced down at him and then turned to watch the rabbi. The latter drew a large blue book from a heap on the shelf and then settled himself on his pillowed chair.

“Strange darkness,” he said, squinting at the rain-chipped window. “A stormy Friday.”

David shivered. Beguiled by the mildness of noon, he had left the house wearing only his thin blue jersey. Now, without a fire in the round-bellied stove and without other bodies to lend their warmth to the damp room, he felt cold.

“Now,” said the rabbi stroking his beard, “this is the ‘Haftorah’ to Jethro—something you will read at your bar mitzvah, if you live that long.” He wet his thumb and forefinger and began pinching the top of each page in such a way that the whole leaf seemed to wince from his hand and flip over as if fleeing of its own accord. David noted with surprise that unlike the rabbi’s other books this one had as yet none of its corners lopped off. “It’s the ‘Sedrah’ for that week,” he continued, “and since you don’t know any chumish, I’ll tell you what it means after you’ve read it.” He picked up the pointer, but instead of pointing to the page suddenly lifted his hand.

In spite of himself, Mendel contracted.

“Ach!” came the rabbi’s impatient grunt. “Why do you spring like a goat? Can I hit you?” And with the blunt end of the pointer, he probed his ear, his swarthy face painfully rippling about his bulbous nose into the margins of his beard and skull-cap. He scraped the brown clot of wax against the table leg and pointed to the page. “Begin, Beshnos mos.”

“Beshnos mos hamelech Uziyahu vaereh es adonoi,” Mendel swung into the drone.

For want of anything better to do, David looked on, vying silently with Mendel. But the pace soon proved too fast for him—Mendel’s swift sputter of gibberish tripped his own laggard lipping. He gave up the chase and gazed vacantly at the rain-chipped window. In a house across the darkened yard, lights had been lit and blurry figures moved before them. Rain strummed on the roof, and once or twice through the steady patter, a muffled rumble filtered down, as if a heavy object were being dragged across the floor above.

—Bed on wheels. Upstairs. (His thoughts rambled absently between the confines of the drone of the voice and the drone of the rain.) Gee how it’s raining. It won’t stop. Even if he finishes, I can’t go. If he read chumish, could race him, could beat him I bet. But that’s because he has to stop … Why do you have to read chumish? No fun … First you read, Adonoi elahenoo abababa, and then you say, And Moses said you mustn’t, and then you read some more abababa and then you say, mustn’t eat in the traife butcher store. Don’t like it any way. Big brown bags hang down from the hooks. Ham. And all kinds of grey wurst with like marbles in ’em. Peeuh! And chickens without feathers in boxes, and little bunnies in that store on First Avenue by the elevated. In a wooden cage with lettuce, and rocks, they eat too, on those stands. Rocks all colors. They bust ’em open with a knife and shake out ketchup on the snot inside. Yich! and long, black, skinny snakes. Peeuh! Goyim eat everything …

“Veeshma es kol adonoi omair es mi eshlach.” Mendel was reading swiftly this afternoon. The rabbi turned the page. Overhead that distant rumbling sound.

—Bed on wheels again … But how did Moses know? Who told him? God told him. Only eat kosher meat, that’s how. Mustn’t eat meat and then drink milk. Mama don’t care except when Bertha was looking! How she used to holler on her because she mixed up the meat-knives with the milk-knives. It’s a sin.… So God told him eat in your own meat markets … That time with mama in the chicken market when we went. Where all the chickens ran around—cuckacucka—when did I say? Cucka. Gee! Funny. Some place I said. And then the man with a knife went zing! Eee! Blood and wings. And threw him down. Even kosher meat when you see, you don’t want to eat—

“Enough!” The rabbi tapped his pointer on the table.

Mendel stopped reading and slumped back with a puff of relief.

“Now I’ll tell you a little of what you read, then what it means. Listen to me well that you may remember it. Beshnas mos hamelech.” The two nails of his thumb and forefinger met. “In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw God. And God was sitting on his throne, high in heaven and in his temple—Understand?” He pointed upward.

Mendel nodded, grimacing as he eased the bandage round his neck.

—Gee! And he saw Him. Wonder where? (David, his interest aroused, was listening intently. This was something new.)

“Now!” resumed the rabbi. “Around Him stood the angels, God’s blessed angels. How beautiful they were you yourself may imagine. And they cried: Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh—Holy! Holy! Holy! And the temple rang and quivered with the sound of their voices. So!” He paused, peering into Mendel’s face. “Understand?”

“Yeh,” said Mendel understandingly.

—And angels there were and he saw ’em. Wonder if—

“But when Isaiah saw the Almighty in His majesty and His terrible light—Woe me! he cried, What shall I do! I am lost!” The rabbi seized his skull-cap and crumpled it. “I, common man, have seen the Almighty, I, unclean one have seen him! Behold, my lips are unclean and I live in a land unclean—for the Jews at that time were sinful—”

—Clean? Light? Wonder if—? Wish I could ask him why the Jews were dirty. What did they do? Better not! Get mad. Where? (Furtively, while the rabbi still spoke David leaned over and stole a glance at the number of the page.) On sixty-eight. After, maybe, can ask. On page sixty-eight. That blue book—Gee! it’s God.

“But just when Isaiah let out this cry—I am unclean—one of the angels flew to the altar and with tongs drew out a fiery coal. Understand? With tongs. And with that coal, down he flew to Isaiah and with that coal touched his lips—Here!” The rabbi’s fingers stabbed the air. “You are clean! And the instant that coal touched Isaiah’s lips, then he heard God’s own voice say, Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? And Isaiah spoke and—”

But a sudden blast of voices out doors interrupted him. Running feet stamped across the yard. The door burst open. A squabbling tussling band stormed the doorway, jamming it. Scuffling, laughing boisterously, they shoved each other in, yanked each other out—


“Leggo me!”

“Yuh pushed me in id, yuh lousy stinkuh!”

“Next after Davy,” one flew toward the reading table.

“Moishe flopped inna puddle!”

“Hey! Don’ led ’im in!”

“Next after Sammy!” Another bolted after the first.

“I come—!”

“Shah!” grated the rabbi. “Be butchered, all of you! You hear me! Not one be spared!”

The babel sank to an undertone.

“And you there be maimed forever, shut that door.”

The milling about the doorway dissolved.

“Quick! May your life be closed with it.”

Someone pulled the door after him.

“And now, sweet Sammy,” his voice took on a venomous wheedling tone. “Nex are you? I’ll give you nex. In your belly it will nex. Out of there! Wriggle!”

Sammy hastily scrambled back over the bench.

“And you too,” he waved David away. “Go sit down over there.” And when David hung back, “Quick! Or—!”

David sprang from the bench.

“And quiet!” he rasped. “As if your tongues had rotted.” And when complete silence had been established. “Now,” he said, rising. “I’ll give you something to do— Yitzchuck!”

“Waauh! I didn’ do nottin’!” Yitzchuck raised a terrified whine.

“Who asked you to speak? Come here!”

“Wadda yuh wan’ f’om me?” Yitzchuck prepared to blubber.

“Sit here.” He beckoned to the end of the bench which was nearest the reading table. “And don’t speak to me in goyish. Out of there, you! And you, David, sit where you are— Simke!”


“Beside him. Srool! Moishe! Avrum! Yankel! Schulim!” He was gathering all the younger students into a group. “Schmiel! And you Meyer, sit here.” With a warning glance he went over to the closet behind his chair and drew out a number of small books.

“Aaa! Phuh!” Yitzchuck spat out in a whisper. “De lousy Hagaddah again!”

They sat silent until the rabbi returned and distributed the books. Moishe, seated a short distance away from David dropped his, but then pounced upon it hastily, and for the rabbi’s benefit, kissed it and looked about with an expression of idiotic piety.

“First, louse-heads,” began the rabbi when he had done distributing the books, “the Four Questions of the Passover. Read them again and again. But this time let them flow from your lips like a torrent. And woe to that plaster dunce who still cannot say them in Yiddish! Blows will he scoop like sand! And when you have done that, turn the leaves to the ‘Chad Godya’. Read it over. But remember, quiet as death— Well?” Shmaike had raised his hand as though he were in school. “What do you want?”

“Can’t we hear each other?”

“Mouldered brains! Do you still need to hear each other? Do then. But take care I don’t hear a goyish word out of you.” He went back to his chair and sat down. For a few seconds longer his fierce gaze raked the long bench, then his eyes dropped momentarily to the book before him. “I was telling you,” he addressed Mendel, “how Isaiah came to see God and what happened after—”

But as if his own words had unleashed theirs, a seething of whispers began to chafe the room.

“You hea’ me say it. You hea’ me! Shid on you. C’mon Solly, you hea’ me. Yuh did push! Mendy’s god a bendige yet on—”

“Said whom shall I send?” The rabbi’s words were baffling on thickening briers of sound. “Who will go for us?”

“Izzy Pissy! Cock-eye Mulligan! Mah nishtanah halilaw hazeh— Wanna play me Yonk?”

—Couldn’t ask him though (David’s eyes merely rested on the page). Get mad. Maybe later when I have to read. Where was it? Yea. Page sixty-eight. I’ll say, on page sixty-eight in that blue book that’s new, where Mendel read, you were saying that man saw God. And a light—

“How many? I god more den you. Shebchol haleylos onu ochlim-. I had a mockee on mine head too. Wuz you unner de awningh? Us all wuz. In de rain.”

“And tell this people, this fallen people—”

“Yea, and I’ll kickyuh innee ass! Odds! Halaylaw hazeh kulo mazo— So from t’rowin’ sand on my head I god a big mockee. I seen a blitz just w’en I commed in.”

—Where did he go to see Him? God? Didn’t say. Wonder if the rabbi knows? Wish I could ask. Page sixty-eight. Way, way, way, maybe. Where? Gee! Some place, me too … When I— When I—in the street far away … Hello, Mr. Highwood, goodbye Mr. Highwood. Heee! Funny!

“C’mere Joey, here’s room. De rebbeh wants—Fences is all slippery. Now wadda yuh cry?”

“Nor ever be healed, nor even clean.”

“A blitz, yuh dope! Hey Solly, he says— Shebchol haleylos onu ochlim— Yea, my fadder’ll beat chaw big brudder. Evens!”

—Some place Isaiah saw Him, just like that. I bet! He was sitting on a chair. So he’s got chairs, so he can sit. Gee! Sit Shit! Sh! Please God, I didn’t mean it! Please God, somebody else said it! Please—

“So hoddy you say blitz wise guy? Moishee loozed his bean shooduh! And den after de sand I pud wawduh on duh head, so— Lousy bestia! Miss Ryan tooked it!”

“How long? I asked. Lord, how long—”

—And why did the angel do it? Why did he want to burn Isaiah’s mouth with coal? He said, You’re clean. But coal makes smoke and ashes. So how clean? Couldn’t he just say, Your mouth is clean? Couldn’t he? Why wasn’t it clean, anyway? He didn’t wash it, I bet. So that …

“A lighten’, yuh dope. A blitz! Kent’cha tuck Englitch? Ha! Ha! Sheor yerokos halaylo hazeh—Dat’s two on dot! I wuz shootin chalk wid it. Somm bean shooduh! My fodder’ll give your fodder soch a kick—”

—With a zwank, he said it was. Zwank. Where did I see? Zwank some place. Mama? No. Like in blacksmith shop by the river. Pincers and horseshoe. Yes must be. With pincers, zwank means pincers. So why with pincers? Coal was hot. That’s why. But he was a angel. Is angels afraid? Afraid to get burned? Gee! Must have been hot, real hot. How I jumped when the rabbi pushed out with his fingers when he said coal. Nearly thought it was me. Wonder if Isaiah hollered when the coal touched him. Maybe angel-coal don’t burn live people. Wonder—

“Dere! Chinky shows! Id’s mine! How many fences didja go? I tore it f’om a tree in duh pock, mine bean-shooduh! T’ree fences. So a lighten den, wise guy!”

“And the whole land waste and empty.”

“T’ree is a lie, mine fodder says. Yea? Matbilim afilu pa’am echos halaylo hazeh—Always wear yuh hat when a lighten’ gives—”

—He said dirty words, I bet. Shit, pee, fuckenbestit—Stop! You’re sayin’ it yourself. It’s a sin again! That’s why he—Gee! I didn’t mean it. But your mouth don’t get dirty. I don’t feel no dirt. (He rolled his tongue about) Maybe inside. Way, way in, where you can’t taste it. What did Isaiah say that made his mouth dirty? Real dirty, so he’d know it was? Maybe—

“Shebchol haleylos onu ochlim—. De rain wedded my cockamamy! Ow! Leggo! Yuh can’t cover books wit’ newspaper. My teacher don’ let. An aftuh she took mine bean-shooduh, she pinched me by duh teet! Lousey bestia! Bein yoshvim uvein mesubim. So wad’s de nex’ woid? Mine hen’ball wend down duh sewuh! Now, I god six poinduhs!

—You couldn’t do it with a regular coal. You’d burn all up. Even hot tea if you drink—ooh! But where could you get angel-coal? Mr. Ice-man, give me a pail of angel-coal. Hee! Hee! In a cellar is coal. But other kind, black coal, not angel coal. Only God had angel-coal. Where is God’s cellar I wonder? How light it must be there. Wouldn’t be scared like I once was in Brownsville. Remember?

“C’mon chick! Hey Louie! Yuh last! Wed mine feed! Look! Me! Yea! Hea! Two!”

—Angel-coal. In God’s cellar is—

All the belated ones had straggled in. A hail of jabbering now rocked the cheder.

“And-not-a-tree—” As the rabbi stooped lower and lower, his voice shot up a steep ladder of menace. “Shall-be-upright in the land!” He straightened, scaling crescendo with a roar. “Noo!” His final shattering bellow mowed down the last shrill reeds of voices. “Now it’s my turn!” Smiling fiercely he rose, cat-o-nine in hand, and advanced toward the silent, cowering row. “Here!” the scourge whistled down, whacked against a thigh. “Here’s for you!”


“And you!”

“Ouch! Waddid I—do?”

“And you for your squirming tongue!”

“Leggo! Ooh!”

“And you that your rump is on fire! Now sit still!”

“Umph! Ow!”

“And you for your grin! And you for your nickering, and you for your bickering. Catch! Catch! Hold! Dance!”

The straps flew, legs plunged. Shrill squibs of pain popped up and down the bench. No one escaped, not even David. Wearied at length, and snorting for breath, the rabbi stopped and glared at them. Suppressed curses, whimpers, sniffles soughed from one end of the bench to the other.


Even these died out.

“Now! To your books! Dig your eyes into them. The four Questions. Noo! Begin! Ma nishtanaw.”

“Mah nishtanaw halilaw hazeh,” they bellowed, “mikawl halaylos. Sheb chol halaylos onu ochlim chametz umazoh.”

“Schulim!” The rabbi’s chin went down, his voice diving past it to an ominous bass. “Dumb are you?”

“Haliylaw hazeh.” A new voice vigorously swelled the already lusty chorus, “kulo mazoh!”

When they had finished the four questions, repeated them and rendered them thrice into Yiddish—

“Now the chad gadyaw,” commanded the rabbi. “And with one voice. Hurry!”

Hastily, they turned the pages.

“Chad godyaw, chad godyaw,” they bayed raggedly, “disabin abaw bis rai zuzaw, chad godyaw, chad godyaw—”

“Your teeth fall out, Simkeh.” snarled the rabbi, grinning venomously, “what are you laughing at?”

“Nuttin!” protested Simkeh in an abused voice. “I wasn’t laughing!” He was though—some one had been chanting “fot God Yaw” instead of Chad-Godyaw.

“So!” said the rabbi sourly when they had finished. “And now where is the blessed understanding that remembers yesterday? Who can render this into Yiddish? Ha? Where?”

A few faltering ones raised their hands.

“But all of it!” he warned. “Not piece-meal, all of it without stuttering. Or—” He snapped the cat-o-nine. “The noodles!”

Scared, the volunteers lowered their hands.

“What? None? Not a single one.” His eyes swept back and forth. “Oh, you!” With a sarcastic wave of the hand, he flung back the offers of the older, chumish students. “It’s time you mastered this feat! No one!” He wagged his head at them bitterly. “May you never know where your teeth are! Hi! Hi! none strives to be a Jew any more. Woe unto you! Even a goy knows more about his filth than you know of holiness. Woe! Woe!” He glared at David accusingly. “You too? Is your head full of turds like the rest of them? Speak!”

“I know it,” he confessed, but the same time feigned sullenness lest he stir the hatred of the others.

“Well! Have you ribs in your tongue? Begin! I’m waiting!”

“One kid, one only kid,” cautiously he picked up the thread, “one kid that my father bought for two zuzim. One kids, one only kid. And a cat came and ate the kid that my father had bought for two zuzim. One kid, one only kid. And a dog came and bit the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim. One kid, one only kid.” He felt more and more as he went on as if the others were crouching to pounce upon him should he miss one rung in the long ladder of guilt and requital. Carefully, he climbed past the cow and the butcher and the angel of death. “And then the Almighty, blessed be He—(Gee! Last. Nobody after. Didn’t know before. But sometime, mama, Gee!) Unbidden, the alien thoughts crowded into the gap. For an instant he faltered. (No! No! Don’t stop!) “Blessed be He,” he repeated hurriedly, “killed the angel of death, who killed the butcher, who killed the ox, who drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid, that my father bought for two zuzim. One kid, one only kid!” Breathlessly he came to an end, wondering if the rabbi were angry with him for having halted in the middle.

But the rabbi was smiling. “So!” he patted his big palms together. “This one I call my child. This is memory. This is intellect. You may be a great rabbi yet—who knows!” He stroked his black beard with a satisfied air and regarded David a moment, then suddenly he reached his hand into his pocket and drew out a battered black purse.

A murmur of incredulous astonishment rose from the bench.

Snapping open the pronged, metal catch, the rabbi jingled the coins inside and pinched out a copper. “Here! Because you have a true Yiddish head. Take it!”

Automatically, David lifted his hand and closed it round the penny. The rest gaped silently.

“Now come and read,” he was peremptory again. “And the rest of you dullards, take care! Let me hear you wink and I’ll tear you not into shreds, but into shreds of shreds!”

A little dazed by the windfall, David followed him to the reading bench and sat down. While the rabbi carefully rolled himself a cigarette, David gazed out of the window. The rain had stopped, though the yard was still dark. He could sense a strange quietness holding the outdoors in its grip. Behind him, the first whisper flickered up somewhere along the bench. The rabbi lit his cigarette, shut the book from which Mendel had been reading and pushed it to one side.

—Could ask him now, I bet. He gave me a penny. About Isaiah and the coal. Where? Yes. Page sixty-eight. I could ask—

Chaa! Wuuh! Thin smoke glanced off the table. The rabbi reached over for the battered book and picked up the pointer.


“Noo?” He pinched over the leaves.

“When Mendel was reading about that—that man who you said, who—” He never finished. Twice through the yard, as though a lantern had been swung back and forth above the roof-tops, violet light rocked the opposite walls—and darkness for a moment and a clap of thunder and a rumbling like a barrel rolling down cellar stairs.

“Shma yisroel!” the rabbi ducked his head and clutched David’s arm. “Woe is me!”

“Ow!” David squealed. And the pressure on his arm relaxing, giggled.

Behind him the sharp, excited voices. “Yuh see it! Bang! Bang wot a bust it gave! I tol’ yuh I see a blitz before!”

“Shah!” The rabbi regained his composure. “Lightning before the Passover! A warm summer.” And to David as if remembering, “Why did you cry out and why did you laugh?”

“You pinched me,” he explained cautiously, “and then—”


“And then you bent down—like us when you drop the pointer, and then I thought—”

“Before God,” the rabbi interrupted, “none may stand upright.”

—Before God.

“But what did you think?”

“I thought it was a bed before. Upstairs. But it wasn’t.”

“A bed! It wasn’t!” He stared at David. “Don’t play the fool with me because I gave you a penny.” He thrust the book before him. “Come then!” he said brusquely. “It grows late.”

—Can’t ask now.

“Begin! Shohain ad mawrom—”

“Shohain ad mawrom vekawdosh shmo vakawsuv ronnu zadekim ladonoi.” Thought lapsed into monotone.

After a short reading, the rabbi excused him, and David slid off the bench and went over to where the rest were sitting to get his strap of books. Schloime, who held them in his lap, had risen with alacrity as he approached and proffered them to him.

“Dey wanted t’ take dem, but I was holdin’ ’em,” he informed him. “Watcha gonna buy?”


“Aa!” And eagerly. “I know w’ea dere’s orange-balls—eight fuh a cent.”

“I ain’ gonna ged nuttin.”

“Yuh stingy louse!”

The others had swarmed about. “I told yuh, yuh wouldn’ get nuttin for holdin’ his books. Yaah, yuh see! Aaa, let’s see duh penny. We’ll go witchah. Who couldn’a said dat!”


They scattered back to the bench. David eased his way through the door.