Call It Sleep IV

“HERE is a man,” Aunt Bertha said vehemently to her sister, “who drives a milk wagon and mingles with pedlars and truckmen, who sits at a horse’s tail all morning long, and yet when I say—what! When I say nothing! Nothing at all!—he begins to tap his feet or rustle his newspaper as though an ague were upon him! Did anyone ever hear of the like? He’s as squeamish as a newly-minted nun. One is not even permitted to fart when he’s around!”

“You’re making the most of Albert’s absence, aren’t you?” his mother asked.

“And why not? I don’t have much opportunity to speak my mind when he’s around. And what’s more, it won’t hurt your son to know what I think of all fathers. His father he knows. A sour spirit. Gloomy. The world slapped him on both chins and so everyone he meets must suffer. But my father, the good Reb Benjamin Krollman, was this way.” And she began to shake and mumble rapidly and look furtively around and draw closer to herself a figment praying shawl. “His praying was an excuse for his laziness. As long as he prayed he didn’t have to do anything else. Let Genya or his wife take care of the store, he had to take care of God. A pious Jew with a beard—who dared ask more of him? Work? God spare him! He played the lotteries!”

“Why do you say that?” his mother objected. “No one can blame father because he was pious. Well, he lacked business sense, but he tried to do his best.”

“Tried? Don’t defend him. I’ve just left him and I know. If I remember grandfather he worked till the cancer stretched him out—after grandmother died. And he was seventy then. But father—God keep him from cancer—he was old at forty—Ai! Ai!” She switched with characteristic suddenness into mimicry. “Ai! Unhappy! Ai! My back, my bones! Slivers of death have lodged in me! Ai! There are dots before my eyes! Is that you, Bertha? I can’t see. Ai! Groaning about the house as though he already stank for earth—God forbid! And not a grey hair in his head. But let one of us get in his road—Ho! Ho! He was suddenly spry as a colt! And could he shower blows? Tireless! Like a bandmaster’s his stick would wave.”

His mother sighed and then laughed acknowledging defeat.

“It was mother’s fault too,” Aunt Bertha added warningly as if giving her an object lesson. “A wife should have driven a man like that, not coddled him, not pampered him to ruin. Soft and meek, she was.” Aunt Bertha became soft and meek. “She let herself be trampled on. Nine children she bore him beside the twins that died between your birth and mine. She’s grey now. You’d weep to see her. Bloodless as a rag in the weather. You wouldn’t know her. Still trailing after him. Still saving him the dainties—the breast and giblets of the hen, the middle of herrings, the crispest rolls! Do you remember how he would stretch out over the table, pawing each roll, pumping it in his glutton’s haste to feel how soft it was? And then hide away the new-baked cake from the rest of us? His nose was in every pot. But whenever you saw him—” she broke off, stretched out her hands in a gesture of injured innocence—“What have I eaten today? What? An age-old crust, a glass of coffee. I tremble with hunger. Bah!”

“I sometimes don’t think he could help it. There were so many mouths to feed. It must have frightened him.”

“Well, whose fault was it? Not mother’s certainly. Why even when she was ailing he—” And at this point she did what she often did in her speech—finish her sentence in Polish, a language David had come to hate because he couldn’t understand it.

“Tell me, would you go back to Austria if you had the money?”



“Money I’d send them,” Aunt Bertha asserted flatly. “But go home—never! I’m too glad I escaped. And why should I go home? To quarrel?”

“Not even to see mother?”

“God pity her more than any. But what good would my seeing her do her? Or me? It would only give me grief. No! Neither her, nor father, nor Yetta, nor Adolf, nor Herman, nor even Saul, the baby, though God knows I was fond of him. You see I’m one who doesn’t yearn for the home land.”

“You haven’t been here long enough,” said his mother. “One grapples this land at first closer to one’s self than it’s worth.”

“Closer than it’s worth? Why? True I work like a horse and I stink like one with my own sweat. But there’s life here, isn’t there? There’s a stir here always. Listen! The street! The cars! High laughter! Ha, good! Veljish was still as a fart in company. Who could endure it? Trees! Fields! Again trees! Who can talk to trees? Here at least I can find other pastimes than sliding down the gable on a roof!”

“I suppose you’re right,” his mother laughed at her vehemence. “It appears to me that you’ll grow from green to yellow in this land years before I do. Yes, there are other pastimes here than—” She broke off, flinched even though she laughed. “That sliver of wood in your flesh! Dear God you were rash!”

“It was nothing! Nothing!” Aunt Bertha chuckled lightly. “My rump has forgotten it long ago! But that should prove to you that I’m better off here than I was there. Anyone is! That quiet was enough to spring the brain!”

His mother shook her head non-committally.

“What? No?” Aunt Bertha mistook her gesture. “Can you say no?” She began counting on her fingers. “Ha-a-d A-Adolf come here as a boy, would he have to run away to the lumber camps and gotten a rupture that big? Ha? A-And Yetta-a. She could have found a better husband than that idiot tailor she’s married to. He finds diamonds in the road, I tell you, and loses them before he gets home. He sees children falling into the frozen river and not a child in the village is missing. Awful! Awful! And Herman and that peasant wench. And the peasant looking for him with an ax. You don’t see that in this land! Fortunate for him anyway that he fled to Strij in time, and fortunate too that it wasn’t Russia. There might have been a pogrom! There was nothing to do and so they went mad, and because they were mad they did whatever came into their heads. That’s how I was, and if you want to know, my dear, close-mouthed sister, as quiet and gentle as you were,” her tone became sly—“there was still, well a rumor of some sort. Someone, something-er-done. But only a rumor!” she added hastily. “A lie of course!”

His mother turned abruptly toward the window, and her own irrelevant words crossed her sister’s before the other and finished—“Look, Bertha! That new automobile. What a pretty blue! Wouldn’t you like to be rich enough to own one?”

Aunt Bertha made a face, but came over and looked down. “Yes. What a grinder it has in front of it. Like a hand-organ, no? Do you remember when we saw our first one on the new road in Veljish—the black one?” The least bit of resentment crept into her voice. “You eternal, close-mouth, when will that secret be weaned?”

Something about their tones and expressions, so curiously guarded in both stirred David’s curiosity. But since their conversation on that score went no further, he could only wonder in a vague and transient way what his mother had done, and hope that another time would reveal the meaning.