Call It Sleep IX

WHEN he looked behind him again, the light was gone, the roaring stilled. Pedey and his mates had fled. At the crossing, several people had stopped and were staring toward the river. Eyes shifted to David as he neared Avenue D, but since no one tried to block his way, he twisted around the corner and fled toward Ninth Street. His father’s milk wagon was standing beside the curb. His father was home. He might guess that something had gone wrong. He’d better not go up. He slunk past his house, cut across the street and broke into a run. At the cheder entrance he turned, scurried through the sheltering doorway, and came out into the sunlit and empty yard. The cheder door was closed. He had come far too early. Trembling in every limb, weak with fright, he looked about for a place to rest. The wide wooden doors that covered a cellar sloped gently into the sun. A new, brass padlock gleamed at their seam—too many of the rabbi’s pupils had been banging them on their subterranean way into the cheder yard. He dragged himself over, dropped down on one of the wooden wings and shut his eyes. In the red sea of sun-lit eyelids his spirit sickeningly rolled and dipped. Though the planks were warm and the sun was warm, his teeth chattered and he shivered as if an icy gale were blowing. With a groan of anguish, he turned on his side hardly feeling the warm padlock under his cheek. Deep, shaking sobs caught on the snag of his throat. The hot tears crowded through his sealed eyelids, trickled unheeded across his cheek and nostril. He wept silently.

How long he lay there he did not know. But little by little the anguish lifted, his blood thawed, the sobbing calmed. Empty and nerveless, he opened his eyes; the rough-walled familiar houses, the leaning fences, the motley washing, wash-poles, sunlight, the cramped and cluttered patch of blue above him were good. A mottled, yellow cat crept carefully out upon a fire-escape, leapt down behind a fence. Realities warm and palpable. From open windows, the sound of voices, rattling of pots, rush of water in a sink, laughter shearing away loud snatches of familiar speech. It was good. In the veering of the light wind, the odors of cooking, strong and savory, hung and drifted. From somewhere up above a steady chop-chopping began. Meat or fish or perhaps the bitter herbs of the Passover. The limp, vacant body expanded, filled with certainties.

Chop. Chop. The sound was secure. His thoughts took the rhythm of the sound. Something within him chanted. Words flowed out of him of their own accord. Chop. Chop. Showed him, showed. In the river, showed him, showed. Chop. Chop. Showed him, showed. If He wants. Showed him, showed.

—In the dark, chop, chop. In the river, showed him, showed. In the dark, in the river was there. Came out if He wanted, was there. Stayed in if He wanted, was there. Came out if He wanted, stayed in if He wanted, came out if He wanted, was there …

—Could break it in his hands if He wanted. Could hold it in His hands if He wanted. Could break it, could hold it, could break it, could hold it, could break it, could hold it, was there.

—In the dark, in the hallways, was there. In the dark, in the cellars was there. Where cellars is locked, where cellars is coal, where cellars is coal, is



He sat bolt upright.

“Rabbi!” his startled cry rang out over the yard. “Rabbi! Is coal under! White in cellars!” He sprang to his feet in exaltation, stared about him wildly. On all the multicolored walls that hemmed him in, one single vision was written. “Is coal under! White!” Dazedly, he lurched toward the door. “Rabbi!” He rattled it; it held. “Rabbi!” He had to get in. He had to. He raced around the corner of the cheder. The window! He clawed at it. Loose, unbolted, it squealed up easily. There was no hesitation. There could be none. An enormous hand was shoving him forward. He leapt up, abdomen landing on the sill, teetered half in, half out, sprawled into the cheder, hands forward.

That closet! Where all of them were! He ran to it. It was just out of reach. He dragged the rabbi’s chair over, stood up, flung open the door. The blue one! The blue one! Feverishly he pried among them—found it. He leapt down, already turning the pages. Page sixty-eight it was—twenty-six—forty—seventy-two— sixty-nine—sixty-eight! On top! With all your might! He wriggled over the bench.

“Beshnas mos hamelech Uziyahu vawere es adonoi yoshav al kesai rum venesaw, vshulav malaiim es hahahol. Serafim omdim memal lo shash kanowfayim, sash kanowfayim lawehhad, beshtayim yahase fanav uvishtayim yahase raglov uvishtayim yofaif.”

All his senses dissolved into the sound. The lines, unknown, dimly surmised, thundered in his heart with limitless meaning, rolled out and flooded the last shores of his being. Unmoored in space, he saw one walking on impalpable pavements that rose with the rising trees. Or were they trees or telegraph-poles, each crossed and leafy, none could say, but forms stood there with footholds in unmitigated light. And their faces shone because the light in their midst was luminous laughter. He read on.

The book returned. The table hardened … Behind him the sound of a key probing a keyhole screeked across infinite space. The lock snapped open—suddenly near at hand. Realization struck like an icy gust. With a start of dismay, he spun around over the bench, threw himself at the window. Too late! The rabbi, long black coat and derby, stepped into the light of the open door. He drew back with a groan of fright, but recognizing who it was, his eyes opened wrathfully and he came forward, head cocked sideways.

“How did you get in?” he demanded fiercely, “Ha?” The open window caught his eye. He stared at it, disbelief wrangling with ire. “You crawled in?”

“The book!” David stammered. “The book! I wanted it.”

“You broke into my cheder!” The rabbi seemed not to have heard a single syllable. “You opened the window? You climbed in? You dared do this?”

“No! No!”

“Hush!” He paid no heed to his outcry. “I understand.” And before David could budge, the rabbi’s heavy hands had fallen on his neck and he was being dragged toward the cat-o-nine on the floor. “Fearful bastard!” he roared. “You crawled in to steal my pointers!”

“I didn’t! I didn’t touch them!”

“You it was took them before!” the rabbi drowned him out. “Sly one! You! Different I thought you were! Hi! Will you scoop!” He reached down for the scourge.

“I didn’t! I came for the book! The blue book with the coal in it! The man and the coal!”

His iron grip still unrelenting, the rabbi lowered the cat-o-nine. “The man! The coal! You try to gull me!” But uncertainty had crept into his voice. “Stop your screeching!” And haling David after him, he yanked out the drawer of the reading table in which he kept his pointers. One glance was enough. Savagely, he thrust it back. “What man? And what coal?”

“Here in the book! The man the angel touched—Mendel read it! Isaiah!” The name suddenly returned to him. “Isaiah!”

The rabbi glared at the book as if he meant to burn it with his eyes, then his gaze rose slowly to David’s face. In the silence, his clogged, apoplectic breathing was as loud as snoring. “Tell me, did you climb in only to read this book.” His fingers uncurled from David’s shoulder.

“Y-es! About th-that Isaiah.”

“But what do you want of it?” His open palms barely sustained the weight of his question. “Can you read a word of chumish?”

“No, but I remembered, and I—I wanted to read it.”

“Why?” From under his derby, pushed back by aimless fingers, his black skull-cap peeped out. “Are you mad or what? Couldn’t you wait until I came? I would have let you read a belly-full.”

“I didn’t know when you—you were coming.”

“But why did you want to read it? And why with such black haste?”

“Because I went and I saw a coal like—like Isaiah.”

“What kind of a coal? Where?”

“Where the car-tracks run I saw it. On Tenth Street.”

“Car tracks? You saw a coal?” He shut his eyes like one completely befuddled.

“Yes. It gave a big light in the middle, between the crack!”

“A what—! A—! Between a crack? You saw a light between a crack? A black year befall you!” Suddenly he stopped. His brow darkened. His beard rose. His head rolled back. “Chah! Chah! Chah! Chah!” Splitting salvoes of laughter suddenly burst from the cavern behind the whiskers. “Chah! Chah! Chah! Oy! Chah! Chah! Chah! This must be told.” A hasty hand plugged back his slipping derby. “He saw a light! Oy! Chah! Chah! In the crack! Oy! Chah! Chah! Chah! I’ll split like a herring! Yesterday, he heard a bed in the thunder! Today he sees a vision in a crack. Oy! Chah! Chah! Chah!” Minutes seemed to pass before he sobered. “Fool!” he gasped at length. “Go beat your head on a wall! God’s light is not between car-tracks.”

Ashamed, yet immensely relieved, David stood mute, eyes staring at the floor. The rabbi didn’t know as he knew what the light was, what it meant, what it had done to him. But he would reveal no more. It was enough that the light had saved him from being whipped.

Uttering a short, hopeless snort, the rabbi moved off and hung his coat and derby on a nail. Returned, he pinched David’s ear. “Come and read, simpleton,” he ordered with amused contempt. “And if you ever crawl into my cheder again when I’m gone, nothing will help you. Not even a light.”

David slid over the bench. The rabbi dragged out the tattered book, picked up his pointer.

“Begin!” he said. “Ma tovu”.

“Ma tovu oholeha yaakov meshkanoseha Yisroel.” He poured the sounds out in a breathless, chaotic stream. “Va ani berov hasdeha awvo baseha eshtahave el hahol kodshehe beyeerosehaw.” They were growing funny! “Adonoi awhavti maon baseha umkom mishcan knovdhaw.” It was hard for him now to keep his face straight. “Shalom alachem malachi homlac him malchai elyon, me melech malchai homlachim hakadosh boruch hu.” Ripples of laughter were trembling in his belly. He read faster to escape them. “Boachem lesholom malachai ha sholom malachai elyon me melech molachai haomlachim ha kodash boruch hu.” The ripples had swelled to breakers. Immense hilarity battered against his throat and sides. Faster!

“Noo!” The rabbi grabbed his arm. “Is the devil after you, or what? You fly like a felon.”

By an enormous effort, David braked his speed. A short, high giggle pried its way through his lips.

“Fool! What are you laughing at, ha?” But strangely enough, behind his black beard, a faint smile stretched his lips as well. “Read,” he growled, “before I give you a cuff.”

David bent his head down, bit his lips till he thought the teeth would meet and read on.

The surges of laughter, plunging within him, were so overwhelming he could feel himself grow faint restraining them. Cold sweat was on his brow. He felt he would burst soon if he couldn’t give outlet to his swollen mirth. Almost sickened by restraint, he finished the page, looked up imploringly.

“Go!” The rabbi pinched his ear.

The relief was so vast it was sobering.

“Play with those tracks again,” he shook his spread palm significantly. “And you’ll lack only death among your woes. Your mother ought to—”

But David was already racing laughter to the door. Across the yard he sprinted, up the stairs, and barely had he reached the hallway when the fit overtook him. There, leaning against the wall, he screamed till his eyes and his drawers were wet, screamed till he could no longer stand, but screaming slumped to the floor and rolled from side to side.

—Gee! It’s funny! Gee! Ow! It’s funny! Ow! Ooh! Ow! I’m peeing! It’s funny! Ow! Funny!

Slowly, by gasps, giggles, chuckles, giggles again, the paroxysm relented. On buckling knees he pushed himself erect, stood swaying. Sudden tears, as void of bitterness as of cause, deep as they were random, runneled his cheeks. Frightened now, he wiped them off hurriedly on his sleeve, stumbled sniffling out of the corridor, ribs aching at every step.

—Gee, what’d I laugh at? Crying now. Crazy! Wet all down. Ooh! move it away! Gee, bath too I have to take! She’ll see. Pissy-pants. Gee, it was funny! Ooh! No more! No! No! Forget! Gee! Crazy! Don’t know what! Walk and get dry. G’wan!

He turned west, wandered uncertainly toward Avenue C, straddling the air in mid-strides from time to time to ease the chafing of his wet drawers against his thighs. As he walked he gazed about him—avidly—as though familiar sights would more quickly still the gales within him. The stores he peered into were closing or preparing to close—even candy stores and they almost never closed. In the bakery store no bread was to be seen. Instead of a heap of rolls on the oilcloth covered base behind the window, lay a white baker’s apron, crumpled and discarded. They were scraping the chopping blocks in the butcher shop, hanging large paper bags from the gleaming meat hooks in the window. Before the stand of the greengrocer’s an old woman in a blue kerchief picked off the tiers of a pyramid of apples. Leaning into the mirror, the white-coated barber was shaving himself. The tinsmith, standing in the doorway was washing his grimy hands with kerosene. Hurrying faces passed, all curved into the same smiling absorption, all sharpened toward the same goal. And now by housewives shrilled, and now by peddlars bellowed, and now muttered by aged Jews with blunt or cloven beards, out of windows, out of doorways, from sidewalks, from gutters, up, down and across, the greeting flew—

“A guten yuntif!”

Deliverance was in the air—The Passover—deliverance from Egypt and from winter, from bondage and death!

—Still wet! Gee! Better go another block.

He crossed Avenue C and continued westward. Here and there children, already dressed in their best, were coming out of hallways and stoops. Gleaming in neat braid, broad ribbon, washed face, pressed Sabbath suits, they gathered in little groups apart from their ungroomed fellows—or approached with the new diffidence of cleanliness. At Avenue B, the open stretch of the park lay before him and beyond in the distance, the city’s towers pried chiseled edges between spume and clarity. He entered, sat down on a bench; and while he watched the children romp noisily over the brown and barren ground, mechanically aired his crotch with hand in pocket. Dry at last, rested somewhat, he rose, retraced his steps.

While seated in the park he had felt nothing but a lethargy, a dull vacancy, hollow as it was leaden. But now as he walked homeward his spirit uncurled again, expanded. All laughter had gone from him and all tears with it, and now only a deep untroubled gentleness was left, a wordless faith, a fixity, mellow and benign. With every step he took his body seemed to grow less his own, his limbs so light and rare, his legs drifted over the pavement with a tranquil, feathery ease. Even the swing of his arm by his side set up ichorous eddies along his bosom as though a hand were caressing him. The cool, limber April air was suddenly winy to his nostrils, teasing the breast into swelling. The sunlight on his face laved his cheeks with so soft a touch, it lifted the throat into its bounty, lifted it, and—

E-e-e! Twee-twee-twee. Tweet! Tweet! Cheep! Cheep! Eet! R-rawk!

Gee! Whistle. Thought it was that man. In the tugboat. In the shirt. Whistling. Only birds. Canary. That lady’s. Polly too—Polly want a cracker—is out already. On the fire-escape. Whistle.

Reluctantly, he neared his doorway, climbed the iron stoop, reluctantly, entered the hallway, sighed.

—Gee! Used to be darker. Funny. Gee! Look! Look! Is a light! In the corner where baby-carriages—No. Looks like though. On the stairs too. Ain’t really there. Inside my head. Better is inside. Can carry it. Funny! Ain’t so dark anyway. Ain’t even scared. Remember how I was? Way long ago? Scared. Used to run up bing-bang-biff. Hee! Hee! Funny I was. I’m big now. Can go up alone. Can go up slow, slow, slow as I like. Can even stand here and don’t even care. Even between the windows, even if nobody’s in the toilet, even if nobody’s in the whole house. Don’t even care. I’m big now, that’s why. Wonder if—Yea, all dry now. Can go in now. New underwear she’ll give me like the other kids already. For Passover …

—Funny. Still can see it. There. And over there. And over in the corner where it’s real dark. It sticks inside all the time, gee, can’t never be scared. Never. Never. Never …

—Fo-o-urth floor. All off! Gee, happy I’m!

He sighed.