Call It Sleep IX

WITHOUT telling his mother where he was going he had started out early that morning for Aunt Bertha’s candy store. It had been a long walk, but high hopes had buoyed him up. And now he saw a few blocks away the gilded mortar and pestle above a certain drugstore window. That was Kane Street. His breast began pounding feverishly as he drew near.

What if she didn’t have any skates. No! She must have! He turned the corner, walked east. A few houses and there was the candy store. He’d look into the window first. Jumping up eagerly on the iron scrolls of the cellar railing beside the store window, he pressed his nose against the glass, scrutinized the display. A wild, garish clutter of Indian bonnets, notebooks, pencil boxes, pasteboard females, American flags, uncut strips of battleships and ball players—but no skates for his flitting eyes to light upon. Hope wavered. No, they must be inside. Aunt Bertha would be foolish to keep anything so valuable in the window.

He peered in through a crevice in the chaos. Seated behind the counter, one hand poising a dripping roll above a coffee cup, Aunt Bertha had turned her head toward the rear of the store and was bawling at someone inside. David could hear her voice coming through the doorway. He got down from the rail, sidled around the edge of the window and went in—

“Sluggards! Bedbugs foul!” she shrilled unaware of his entrance. “Esther! Polly! Will you get up! Or shall I spit my lungs out at you! Quick, stinking heifers, you hear me! No?”

Aunt Bertha had changed since David had seen her last. Uncorseted, she looked fatter now, frowsier. The last remnant of tidiness in her appearance had vanished. Her heavy breasts, sagging visibly against her blouse, stained by fruit juice and chocolate, flopped slovenly from side to side. Fibres of her raffia-coarse red hair twined her moist throat. But her face was strangely thin and taut as though a weight where her apron bulged were dragging the skin down. “Wait!” she continued. “Wait till your father comes. Hi! He’ll rend you with his teeth! Stinking sluts, it’s almost nine!” She turned. “Vell?” and recognizing him. “David!” The hectic light in her eyes melted into pleasure. “David! My little bon-bon! You?”


“Come here!” she spread fat arms like branches. “Let me give you a kiss, my honey-comb! I haven’t seen you in—how long? And Mama, why doesn’t she come? And how is your father?” Her eyes opened fiercely. “Still mad?” She submerged him in a fat embrace that reeked of perspiration flavored with coffee.

“Mama is all right.” He squirmed free. “Papa too.”

“What are you doing here? Did you come alone? All this long way?”

“Yes, I—”

“Want some candy? Ha! Ha! I know you, sly one!” She reached into a case. “Hea, I giff you an pineepple vit’ emmend. Do I speak English better?”

“Yea.” He pocketed them.

“End a liddle suddeh vuddeh?”

“No, I don’t want it.” He answered in Yiddish. For some reason he found himself preferring his aunt’s native speech to English.

“And so early!” She rattled on admiringly. “Not like my two wenches, sluggish turds! And you’re younger than they. If only you were mine instead of— Cattle!” She broke off furiously. “Selfish, mouldering hussies! All they know is to snore and guzzle! I’ll husk them out of bed now, God help me!” But just as she started heavily for the doorway, a man stepped into the store.

“Hello! Hello!” He called loudly. “What are you scurrying off for? Because I came in?”

“No-o! God forbid!” she exclaimed with mock vehemence. “How fares a Jew?”

“How fares it with all Jews? A bare living. Can you spare me a thousand guilders?”

“Ha! Ha! What a jester! The only green-rinds I ever see are what I peel from cucumbers.” And turning to David. “Go in, sweet one! Tell them I’ll sacrifice them for the sake of heathens if they don’t get up! That’s my sister’s only one,” she explained.

“Comely,” admitted the other.

David hesitated, “You want me to go in?”

“Yes! Yes! Perhaps you’ll shame the sows into rising.”

“Your fledgelings are still in the nest?”

“And what else?” disgustedly. “Lazy as cats. Go right in, my bright.”

Reluctantly, David squeezed past her, and casting a last vain glance at the jumbled shelves, pushed the spring door forward and went in. Beyond the narrow passageway, cramped even closer by the stumpy mottled columns on pasteboard boxes carelessly piled, the kitchen opened up with a stale reek of unwashed frying pans. The wooden table in the center was bare except for a half-filled bottle of ketchup with a rakish cap. Pots, one in another, still squatted on the gas-stove. From a corner of the stove-tray under the burners, coffee dripped to a puddle on the floor. The sink was stacked with dishes, and beside it on the washtub a bagful of rolls lay spilled all over. Splayed newspapers, crumpled garments, shoes, stockings, hung from the chairs or littered the floor. There were three doors, all closed, one on either side and one with a broom against it opening on the yard.

—Gee! Dirty.… Which one?

A giggle at his left. He approached cautiously.

“Is she commin’?” A guarded voice inside.


“Hey,” he called out in a non-committal voice, “Yuh momma wants you sh’d ged op!”

“Who’re you?” Challengingly from the other side.

“It’s me, Davy.”

“Davy who?”

“Davy Schearl, Tanta Boita’s nephew.”

“Oh! So open de daw.”

He pushed it back—The clinging stench of dried urine. Lit by a small window that gave upon the squalid grey bricks of an airshaft, the room was gloomy. Only after a few seconds had passed did the features of the two heads that pronged the grey, mussed coverlets separate from the murk.

“It’s him!” A voice from the pillow.

“So wodda yuh wan’?” He finally distinguished the voice as Esther’s.

“I tol’ yuh,” he repeated. “Yuh momma wants yuh sh’d get op. She tol’ me I shul tell yuh.” The message delivered, he began to retreat.

“Comm beck!” Imperiously. “Dope! Wodda yuh wan’ in duh staw I asked.”


“So waddaye comm hea fuh?” Polly demanded suspiciously. “Kendy?”

“No, I didn’. I jost comm to see Tanta Boita.”

“Aaa, he’s full of hoss-cops—C’mon, Polly!” Esther was the one nearest the wall. “Ged out!” She sat up.

Polly clung to the covers. “Ged oud yuhself foist.”

“Yuh bedder! Yuh hoid w’ad mama said.”

“So led ’er say.” Peevishly.

“I ain’ gonna clean de kitchen by myself,” Esther stood up on the bed. “You’ll ged!”

“Don’ cross over me. Id’s hard luck.”

“I will if yuh don’ ged out!”

“You jus’ try—go over by my feet—”

But even as she spoke, Esther jumped over her.

“Lousy bestia!” Polly screeched. And as her sister jounced with unsure footing on the bed, she clutched at the hem of her nightgown and yanked her back. Esther tumbled heavily against the wall.

“Ow! Rotten louse!” Esther screamed in return. “Yuh hoit my head.” And swooping down on the coverlets, flung them back. “Yeee!” she squawled as Polly, taken by surprise lay for an instant with nightgown above naked navel, “Yeee! Free show! Free show!”

“Free show, yuhself!” Furiously, Polly clawed at the other’s nightgown. “Yuh stinkin’ fraid cat! Shame! Shame! Free show!” Immediately four bare thighs kicked, squirmed and locked, and the two sisters rolled about in bed, slapping each other and shrieking. After a minute of this, the disheveled Esther, with a last vicious slap, at the other, broke loose, leapt from the bed and squealing rushed past David into the kitchen.

“I’ll moider you—yuh rotten stinker!” Polly screamed after her. “I’ll break yuh head!” she rolled out of bed as well.

“Yea, I double dare you!” Quivering with spite, Esther bent fingers into claws.

“I’ll tell mama on you! I’ll tell ’er watchuh done!”

“I ain’ gonna go down witchoo.” Her sister spat. “Just fer dat, you go yuhself.”

“So don’t. I’ll tell him too!”

“I’ll kill yuh!”

“Yea! Yuh know w’ot Polly does?” Esther wheeled on him. “She pees in bed every night! Dat’s w’at she does! My fodder has to give her a pee-pot twelve a’clock every night—”

“I don’t!”

“Yuh do! Dere!”

“Now I’ll never take yuh down, yuh lousy fraid-cat. Never! Never!”

“So don’t!”

“An’ I hope de biggest moider boogey man tears yuh ass out.”

“Piss-in-bed!” Esther taunted stubbornly. “Piss in bed!”

“An he’ll comm, Booh!” Polly pawed the air, eyes bulging in mimic fright. “Booh! Like de Mask-man in de serial! Wooh!”

“Aaa, shoddop!” Esther flinched. “Mama’ll take me down.”

“Yea!” her sister gloated. “Stinkin’ fraid-cat! Who’ll stay in de staw?”


“Yuh should live so!”

“So I’ll pee in de sink.” Esther threatened.

“Wid de dishes in id! G’wan, I dare yuh! An’ yuh know w’ot Mama’ll give yuh w’en I tell ’er.”

“So I’ll waid! Aaa! He’ll go down!” she shrilled in sudden triumph. “Mbaa!” her tongue flicked out. “Mbaa! Davy’ll go down wit’ me!”

“Yea? Waid’ll I tell Sophie Seigel an’ Yeddie Katz you took a boy down in de toilet and let ’im look. Waid’ll I tell!”

“Sticks and stones c’n break my bones, but woids can nevuh hoit me-e!” Esther sang malevolently. “I ain’gonna led ’im look. C’mon, Davy! Waid’ll I ged my shoes on.”

“Don’ go!” Polly turned on him fiercely. “Or I’ll give yuh!”

“An’ I’ll give you!” Esther viciously hooked feet into shoes. “Such a bust, yuh’ll go flyin’! C’mon, Davey!”

“Waddayuh wan’?” He looked from one to the other with a stunned, incredulous stare.

“I’ll give yuh kendy,” Esther wheedled.

“Yuh will not!” Polly interposed.

“Who’s askin’ you, Piss-in-bed?” She seized David’s arm. “C’mon, I’ll show yuh w’ea tuh take me.”

“W’ea yuh goin’?” He held back.

“Downstairs inna terlit, dope! Only number one. Srooo!” She sucked in her breath sharply. “Hurry op! I’ll give yuh anyt’ing inna store.”

“Don’tcha do it!” Polly exhorted him. “She won’t give yuh nott’n! I’ll give yuh!”

“I will so!” Esther was already dragging him after her.

“Leggo!” He resisted her tug. “I don’t want—” But she had said anything! A vision of bright-wheeled skates rose before his eyes. “Awri’.” He followed her.

“Shame! Shame!” Polly yapped at their heels. “Ev’ybody knows yuh name. He’s goin’ in yuh terlit!”

Cringing with embarrassment, he hurried across the threshold to Esther’s side.

“Shoddop! Piss-in-bed! Mind yuh own beeswax!” She slammed the door in her sister’s face. “Over dis way.”

A short flight of wooden steps led down into the muggy yard, and a little to the side of them, another flight of stone dropped into the cellar. At the sight of the nether gloom, his heart began a dull, labored pounding.

“Didntcha know our terlit was inna cella’?” she preceded him down.

“Yea, but I fuhgod.” He shrank back a moment at the cellar door.

“Stay close!” she warned.

He followed warily. The corrupt damp of sunless earth. Her loose shoes scuffed before him into dissolving dark. On either side of him glimmered the dull-grey, once-white-washed cellar bins, smelling of wet coal, rotting wood, varnish, burlap. Only her footsteps guided him now; her body had vanished. The spiny comb of fear serried his cheek and neck and shoulders.

—It’s all right! All right! Somebody’s with you. But when is she—Ow!

His groping hands ran into her.

“Wait a secon’, will yuh?” she whispered irritably.

They had come mid-way.

“Stay hea.” A door-knob rattled. He saw a door swing open—A tiny, sickly-grey window, matted with cobwebs, themselves befouled with stringy grime, cast a wan gleam on a filth-streaked flush bowl. In the darkness overhead, the gurgle and suck of a water-box. The dull, flat dank of excrement, stagnant water, decay. “You stay righd hea in de daw!” she said. “An’ don’ go ’way or I’ll moider you—Srooo!” Her sharp breath whistled. She fumbled with the broken seat.

“Can I stay outside?”

“No!” Her cry was almost desperate as she plumped down. “Stay in de daw. You c’n look—” The hiss and splash. “Ooh!” Prolonged, relieved. “You ain’ god a sister?”

“No.” He straddled the threshold.

“You scared in de cella’?”


“Toin aroun’!”

“Don’ wanna!”

“You’re crazy. Boys ain’t supposed t’ be scared.”

“You tol’ me y’d give anyt’ing?”

“So waddayuh wan’?” In the vault-like silence the water roared as she flushed the bowl.

“Yuh god skates?”

“Skates?” She brushed hastily past him toward the yard-light, “C’mon. We ain’t god no skates.”

“Yuh ain’? Old ones?”

“We ain’ god no kind.” They climbed into the new clarity of the yard. “Wadduh t’ink dis is?” her voice grew bolder. “A two-winder kendy staw? An’ if I had ’em I wouldn’ give yuh. Skates cost money.”

“So yuh ain’ god?” Like a last tug at the clogged pulley of hope. “Even busted ones?”

“Naaa!” Derisively.

Despair sapped the spring of his eager tread. Her smudged ankles flickered past him up the stairs.

“Hey, Polly!” He heard her squeal as she burst into the kitchen, “Hey, Polly—!”

“Giddaddihea, stinker!” The other’s voice snapped.

“Yuh know wot he wants?” Esther pointed a mocking finger at him as he entered.


“Skates! Eee! Hee! Hee! Skates he wants!”

“Skates!” Mirth infected Polly. “Waddaa boob! We ain’ god skates.”

“An’ now I don’ have to give ’im nott’n!” Esther exulted. “If he wants wot we ain’ got, so—”

“Aha!” Aunt Bertha’s red head pried into the doorway. “God be praised! Blessed is His holy name!” She cast her eyes up with exaggerated fervor. “You’re both up! And at the same time? Ai, yi, yi! How comes it?”

The other two grimaced sullenly.

“And now the kitchen, the filthy botch you left last night! Coarse rumps! Do I have to do everything? When will I get my shopping done?”

“Aaa! Don’ holler!” Esther’s tart reply.

“Cholera in your belly!” Aunt Bertha punned promptly. “Hurry up, I say! Coffee’s on the stove.” She glanced behind her. “Come out, David, honey! Come out of that mire.” She pulled her head back hurriedly.

“Aaa, kiss my axle,” Polly glowered. “You ain’ my modduh!” And snappishly to David. “G’wan, yuh lummox! Gid odda hea!”

Chagrined, routed, he hurried through the corridor, finding a little relief in escaping from the kitchen.

“Skates!” Their jeers followed him. “Dopey Benny!”

He came out into the store. Aunt Bertha, her bulky rear blocking the aisle, her breasts flattened against the counter was stooping over, handing a stick of licorice to a child on the other side.

“Oy!” She groaned, straightening up as she collected the penny. “Oy!” And to David. “Come here, my light. You don’t know what a help you’ve been to me by getting them out of bed. Have you ever laid eyes on such bedraggled, shameless dawdlers? They’re too lazy to stick a hand in cold water, they are. And I must sweat and smile.” She took him in her arms. “Would you like what I gave that little boy just now—ligvitch? Ha? It’s as black as a harness.”

“No.” He freed himself. “You haven’t got any skates, have you Aunt Bertha?”

“Skates? What would I do with skates, child? And in this little dungheap? I can’t sell five-cent pistols or even horns with the red, white and blue, so how could I sell skates? Wouldn’t you rather have ice-cream? It is very good and cold.”


“A little halvah? Crackers? Come, sit down awhile.”

“No, I’m going home.”

“But you just came.”

“I have to go.”

“Ach!” she cried impatiently. “Let me look at you awhile—No? Take this penny then,” she reached into her apron. “Buy what I haven’t got.”

“Thanks, Aunt Bertha.”

“Come see me again and you’ll have another. Sweet child!” She kissed him. “Greet your mother for me!”


“Keep hale!”