Call It Sleep IX

ON SUNDAY—a bright Sunday just before Election day—David’s father had gotten up from the table after lunch, and with some curt remark about going to listen to a campaign speech, had left. After he was gone however, Aunt Bertha scoffed at his sudden interest in political candidates and resentfully put her finger on what she declared was the real reason for his departure: Nathan (They all called Mr. Sternowitz by his first name now) was coming to call on her later this afternoon, and so David’s father had gone away merely to avoid him. Which act, Aunt Bertha added venomously, was a very gracious one, albeit unwitting, and one for which she was very thankful, since she saw no reason to inflict that man’s rude and surly presence on poor Nathan Sternowitz. Thus instead of insulting her, she concluded with spiteful triumph, David’s father had really done her a good turn—but now that he had done it, she devoutly hoped he would break a leg on the way to wherever he was going. And when David’s mother objected, Aunt Bertha charitably informed her that had her husband not been the sole support of his family, she would have prayed he had broken both legs. There! Wasn’t that solicitude? And then followed her usual, disgusted query of why her sister had married such a lunatic.

David’s mother had just folded the table cloth and now she waved it warningly at Aunt Bertha. “He’ll overhear you some day, sister, and you’ll pay for it dearly.”

“Even with my head!” she retorted defiantly. “Just so he knows what I think of him.”

His mother shook her head impatiently. “He does know! Don’t you think he’s had enough time to find out? And honestly I’m so weary of keeping you two from flying at each other. Albert must go his own way, but you—you might think of me sometimes and not make it so difficult. Let there be peace for a while. You’re going to get married. You won’t be here very much longer. Are you seeking to make your last months here end in a catastrophe?”

“Not for me!” her sister tossed her red head wilfully. “He won’t throw me against the wall again. I’ll gouge his eyes out.”

His mother shrugged. “Why tempt him?”

“Ach, you make me sick—you and your mildness! Put poison in his coffee, that’s what I’d do.”

And David who was staring at her partly in wonder at her rashness, partly in guilty elation, caught his mother’s apprehensive look directed at himself. And his aunt, detecting it also, added vociferously,

“I would! I would poison him! Let him hear me! I’m not afraid.”

“But Bertha! I am afraid! You mustn’t say those things before—ach!” she broke off. “That’s enough Bertha.” And turning to David. “Are you going downstairs, beloved?”

“Right away, Mama,” he answered. But inwardly, he was too fascinated by his aunt’s bold vituperations to want to leave just yet.

Rebuked by his mother, Aunt Bertha shrugged discontentedly, clucked her lips, wagged her head, but the next moment rebounded in her usual mad-cap fashion, and with head tilted upward bayed some Polish phrases at the ceiling. To David’s mystification, the unknown words seemed to sting his mother, for she stiffened and suddenly exclaimed with uncommon sharpness—

“That’s nonsense, Bertha!”

“Are you angry this time?” Her sister shook down several strands of coarse red hair before a provocatively wrinkled nose.

“Yes! I wish you’d stop!”

“Beloved and holy Name, give ear! She really can get angry! But listen to me! I have a right to be angry as well. I’ve been living with you for six months. For six months I’ve told you every thing, and what have you told me? Nothing! I’m no longer a child! I’m not the fourteen year old I was when you were a grown young lady. I’m about to be married. Can’t you trust me? Won’t I understand? Aaaah!” she sighed vehemently. “Would God, those twins had lived instead of died. They’d have been old enough to have seen, to have known. Then I’d have known too—Well?” She demanded challengingly.

“I don’t want to go into it.” His mother was curt. “I’ve told you before. It’s too long ago. It’s too painful. And further I haven’t time.”

“Bah!” she flopped suddenly into a chair. “Now you haven’t time. It’s just as I said. First—” She lapsed suddenly into Polish. “Very well. You might be forgiven. Then—” Again meaning disappeared. “Then—It’s just as I said! Keep it for yourself! I’ll get married without knowing.” And she was silent, staring morosely out of the window.

At the opposite side of the room, his mother was also silent, also before a window, head lifted, gazing meditatively up at the brown, glazed brim of the rooftop and the red brick chimneys overhead. To David, they looked very odd suddenly, each woman back to back, each gazing out of different windows, one down out of the curtained, noisy, street-window, the other up out of the curtainless, quiet one; one seated, fidgeting and ineffectually trying to cross thick knees, the other standing motionless and abstracted. Despite powder his aunt was ruddy in the sunlight, short-necked and squat beside the open sky; in the thin shadow where she stood, his mother was tall, brown-haired and pale against the cramping air-shaft wall.

And what was it about, he wondered. What did those Polish words mean that made his mother straighten out so? Intuition prompted him. He divined vaguely that what he had just heard must be linked to the sparse hints of meaning he had heard before, that had stirred him at first so strangely and afterwards scared him. Now perhaps he might learn what it was about, but if he did, something might change again, be the something else that had been lurking all the time beneath the thing that was. He didn’t want that to happen. Perhaps he had better avoid it, better go down. Now was the time, before anybody spoke. But what? His breath quickened before a danger that was also a fascination. What was it? Why wouldn’t she speak? He would stay here only until—until— No! Better go down—

“Look David!” Without getting up from her chair, Aunt Bertha was craning her neck to stare out into the street. “Come here. Look how they’re hauling that box.”

David drew near the window, looked down. In the dull street below, their shouts muffled by the window, a swarm of boys of various heights and ages now dragged, now tumbled a bulky packing-box along the gutter, and in their eagerness to lend a hand, impeded one another, shoved one another out of the way, shook fists and forgot about it promptly and grappled with the box again.

“What are they yelping about?” his aunt inquired. “Whose wood is it?”

“It’s nobody’s,” he enlightened her. “It’s ‘Lection’ wood.”

“What do you mean ‘Lection’ wood?”

“They’re going to burn it on ‘Lection’ day. They always make a big, big fire on ‘Lection’ day. That’s where Papa went. There’s pictures on the barrels and all the beer saloons.”

His mother turned from the air-shaft window. “I’ve seen it in Brownsville too, in the open lots. Such is the custom here. To make a fire on the day they vote—it falls on Tuesday. Is Nathan a citizen, Bertha?” she asked placatingly.

“Yes, of course!” Aunt Bertha’s tone was still sulky, the movement of her shoulders as she turned brusquely toward the window again, still offended. “What else!”

Seeing the queer hopeless lift of his mother’s brow, David again resolved to go down. Whatever it was that caused this tension, and it was the most determined he had ever seen between his aunt and his mother, it was not only baffling but disagreeable. Yes. He would go down.

“Well, why are they dragging it now?” Aunt Bertha turned to him peevishly. “Are they going to burn it for a taste of what’s to come?”

“No. They hide it,” he said self-defensively. “In a cellar. It’s in 732 cellar and 712 cellar near where the rabbi is. But yesterday, big men came and a street cleaning wagon, a brown one, and took it all away.”

“And now they’re getting more! Bah! American idiots! Pull their bowels out for a fire in the street they’ll never make. But when it comes to dragging wood for their mothers, they’re too lame, ha? And you!” she demanded accusingly. “Do you haul wood?”

“N-no,” he lied. It was true though that he hadn’t helped get election wood more than once or twice.

“Hum-m-m!” Aunt Bertha sighed with boredom and glanced at the clock. “An hour and a half before my nosey one comes. I feel lonely.”

“Listen to me, Bertha,” his mother said in a suddenly strained voice as though she had resolved upon a step but prayed it wasn’t necessary. “Do you really want to hear?”

David’s heart tripped with excitement. Better go down, his mind warned almost dizzily. Better go down. But instead, he dropped to his knees and crawled vacantly toward the stove.

As if jabbed with a pin, Aunt Bertha had wheeled around half-leaping from her chair. “Do I want to hear?” she exploded. “A question! After these months of asking? Do I want to hear!” She stopped suddenly. Her look of avid interest gave place to one of apology and self-reproach. “No, no, sister! If it’s difficult for you, then say nothing. Don’t even begin! Really I’m ashamed of myself for plaguing you.”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” his mother’s smile was at once bitter and forgiving. “One has to speak of these things sometimes. I don’t know what possesses me to want to keep them sealed up so tight.”

“And as I’ve said to you a thousand times,” Aunt Bertha urged reasonably, persuasively, bridling her eagerness. “It was all so long ago, it should be a jest to you by now. And whatever it is, can it frighten me? I know you, sister, how good of heart you are. Too great a wrong you couldn’t have done.”

“It was great enough. Enough for one life-time.”

“Yes?” Aunt Bertha scratched her back against the back of her chair. “Yes?” She settled down receptively.

“There are only three people who know,” she began with an effort. “Mother, father, myself of course, and—and another—in part. I shouldn’t want—”

“Oh! No! No! No! Trust me, Genya.”

David squirmed, shivered with anticipation, fear.

“You remember,” she began and then stopped, her eyes meeting his from where he gazed up at her. “Let it be so.”

The oblique nod of her head seemed to beckon her sister to join her in the realm of another speech. For when she spoke again her words had fused into that alien, aggravating tongue that David could never fathom. Chagrined, he looked at Aunt Bertha. She was leaning forward eagerly the better to devour all that was said, her mobile features sometimes aping his mother’s, sometimes contradicting. Her eagerness tantalized him, goaded him into sharper listening. It was no use. He scrutinized his mother. The color had risen in her throat. Now her eyes stared and were dark and she spoke rapidly. Now they narrowed and the wide brows knit crookedly. Pain. What hurt her? Now she sighed and dropped her hand and her face grew slack and mournful and her slow lids heavy. What? But though he pried here, there, everywhere among the gutturals and surds striving with all his power to split the stubborn scales of speech, he could not. The mind could get no purchase.

Sullen, resentful almost to tears, he rolled over on his back, stared at the ceiling. He didn’t care, that’s all. He wouldn’t tell her anything either. There! He was going down, that’s what he would do. Never tell her anything —But—Listen! That was a yiddish word! A whole phrase! “After the old organist, dead” … Another! “Alone in the store” … A word! “Handsome” … Like mica-glints in the sidewalk, another phrase! “A box of matches” … He turned stealthily to watch her.

“And he seized my hand.” A whole sentence emerged.

Aunt Bertha, who with hand on cheek had been shaking her head in a shocked manner, now beat the air angrily with her fists. “Even if he was educated,” she exclaimed heatedly, “and even if he was an organist, he was a goy! And right then and there you should have sent him looking for his teeth!”

“Hush!” she said warningly and again blotted out import under a screen of Polish.

A little ashamed of himself, but secretly gratified nevertheless, David looked vacantly away. Here at last was something to brood on, perhaps even to worry a meaning out of, certainly to remember. A goy, Aunt Bertha had said, an ‘orghaneest’. What was an ‘orghaneest’? He was educated, that was clear. And what else, what did he do? He might find out later if he listened. So he was a goy. A Christian. They didn’t sound the same. Christian. Downstairs, the janitor was a Hungarian. Christian too. Chrize. Jesus Chrize they said down stairs. Chrize. Christmas. School-parties. Then long ago, remember? Yussie. See him on the stairs, white-iron arrows white-iron, Annie, leg. Christmas. Then no school. Gee! Yea! And new calendars, remember? Lots of pages. Christmas. Jesus Crotzmich, the grocery man said and he always laughed. Crotzmich means scratch me. Jesus scratch me. Funny. And why did Aunt Bertha say hit him? Because he was a goy? She didn’t like goyim. But mama? She did. Wonder? Who was he?

He turned to regard his mother. When would another phrase break from that alien thicket? He waited impatiently, mind beating the coverts … Nothing … Like a fabric the unknown speech flowed on riftless, opaque, until—

“Bah!” Aunt Bertha sheared it with contempt. “All these rogues have tongues on castors!”

“My fault as well!” protested his mother, reverting to Yiddish in forgetful haste. “Toward May I grew so, I spent the whole day waiting for a half hour at twilight. How many times a day did I wish it were winter, mid-winter when the moon is yellow before five. Long before sunset, I was already at the store, and it was all I could do to keep from reminding father to hurry off to the synagogue.”

“Ach! You were mad.”

“But that was only a taste. You don’t know how mad I was—” Her voice took on a throbbing richness now that David had never heard in it before. The very sound seemed to reverberate in his flesh sending pulse after pulse of a nameless, tingling excitement through his body. “Day grew worse than darkness. I welcomed the light only when some Polish townsman died—You recall the priest and the banners and the funeral procession that went through the town? Ludwig was always in the train, chanting the services. I could watch him then as he went by, follow with the others a little ways, stare at him unafraid, Love—”

With the same suddenness as before, meaning scaled the horizon to another idiom, leaving David stranded on a sounding but empty shore. Words here and there, phrases shimmering like distant sails tantalized him, but never drew near.

He writhed inwardly at his own impotence.

It seemed to him, lying there almost paralyzed with the strain, that his mind would fly apart if he brought no order into this confusion. Each phrase he heard, each exclamation, each word only made the tension within him worse. Not knowing became almost unbearable. He felt as if nothing he had ever known were as important as knowing this. Who was Ludwig? Was that he, the goy! Why was he at funerals? What did she mean when she let a word drop about wicker baskets? Attics? Letters? Mere curiosity had petrified into obsession. But still the phrases flickered on as ephemeral and capricious as before, as thwarting—the abrupt and fragmentary glimpses of a figure passing behind the brief notches of parapets.

“And the welcome over … And mother also downcast … But too deep in joy to notice … These things,” she tapped her brow, “they wait their time inside one’s head … Stone under water till the eddies rest … And I sought him … Nowhere … And I remembered it … one glance would comfort me … The attic stairs … And on my nails across the loose boards … The wicker basket lay … Safe I thought … Carefully!” Her clenched hands went up as though she were lifting a heavy lid. “You know how wicker creaks—”

Her sudden, involuntary gasp was like a steep, sheer drop in the level-flowing matrix of her speech. Her hand went to her lips. The horror that came into her face was such that it seemed to David not something thought or remembered, but something she beheld this moment, something present in this very room. A shudder ran through him, watching her, “The light before my eyes grew black! Dear God! There on the very top of the pile of coats lay the portrait. Gazing up at me, there on top!”

“They knew,” Aunt Bertha exclaimed.

“They knew,” his mother repeated.

“But how?”

“I found out later. I had forgotten that mother went through the trunk every summer with camphor.”

“While you were away?”

“No. Before. They sent me away because they knew.”


“My despair then! My shame! You wouldn’t know unless you had felt it. There are no words. I thought I should faint. I picked up the portrait—They had read the back no doubt. They knew all. Had I—”

And again his mother’s eyes met his and again her speech changed abruptly. David rose to his feet. He couldn’t bear it any longer, this suspense, this waiting for significance to cut the surface like momentary fins of sunken shapes. He was going down, that’s what he was going to do. He wouldn’t listen a moment longer. And if the time came when he knew something they didn’t know, he’d pay them back in the same coin. He’d learn to talk the way the girls talked in the street—alligay walligay. Look at them! They weren’t even noticing him they were so engrossed. Even when he stood up and stared at them, no one paid any attention to him. They wouldn’t even know he had gone into the front room to get his coat. They wouldn’t even know he had gone. No! Then he wouldn’t say goodbye. That’s what. He’d just go down without a word.

He went petulantly into the front room and found his coat. But as he put it on, frustration forced a cunning thought into his brain. He would sit here and wait. He’d give them their last chance. If they didn’t know where he was, perhaps they’d speak in Yiddish again. With the door open between them, he could hear in the front room as well as he could in the kitchen. He sat down stealthily beside the doorway and listened. But even though he was out of her sight, his mother seemed not to realize it. The significance of what she said still continued to be fragmentary.

“Must see him…” The words and phrases pulsed out as before. “Comfort … On the church step … She held both … Fluttered her parasol … Ogled him like a lamp … Lace, elegant ribbons … But old, as I say … Gave her no thought … Finally … And parted … Crossed his path … He followed … Waited among the trees…”

Trembling with silent fury and despair he was about to give up. She would never speak. There was no use waiting, no use hiding. He would hear nothing. But as he pushed himself to his feet, Aunt Bertha’s impatient voice interrupted his mother’s—

“Who was this woman? Speak. Do you know? I’m curious.”

“She? I was coming to that.” This time his mother’s words were entirely in Yiddish and completely intelligible. “When I told him what had happened, that they knew, that I was willing to follow him to the corners of the world, he answered—What folly! Don’t you ever think beyond the morrow? How can I marry you? Where will we go? With what? And he was right. Of course he was right!”

“He may have been right,” Aunt Bertha spat out vehemently. “But cholera choke him anyway!”

He had sat down and now was secretly hugging himself in guilty elation. They had forgotten about him. They had! He pressed closer to the wall and prayed his mother would go on speaking in Yiddish. She did.

“Anywhere, I said. I’m ashamed to tell you, Bertha, but it’s true. I said I’d go with him just as he saw me.”

“What a fool you were!”

“Yes. That’s what he said also. A love affair is one thing, marriage another. Didn’t I understand? I didn’t. I’m already engaged, he said.”

“She!” Aunt Bertha exclaimed. “That older woman you spoke of?”


“Did you spit in his face?”

“No. I stood like one frozen. You love her, I asked? Bah! he said. Could I? You saw her! I may as well tell you. She’s rich; she has a dowry. Her brother is a road-engineer, the best-known in Austria. He’ll provide the rest. As for me, I’m poor as the dark. All I could ever hope to be is a threadbare organist in a village church. And I refuse. Do you understand? Surely you yourself wouldn’t wish that fate on me! But listen, he said and tried to seize me in his arms. We can go on again. In a little while, after this cursed marriage is over, we can go on again, just as we are. Be just what we’ve always been to each other. No one need know! I pushed him away. Does this make so much difference to you? he asked. Because I must marry? Will you now tear out all the love you held for me?

“I don’t know why? I can’t tell. But suddenly I began to feel like laughing. It was as though everything inside of me were lifting up with laughter. By the mad smile on my face, he must have thought I was yielding, for he seized my arm and said: Look at me Genya! Forgive me! See how poor I am! I haven’t even the clothes decent enough to marry in. Genya, I’ll repay you. Get me the cloth as you love me! Your father’s store! A little while and we’ll be together always!

“How shall I put it into words—the fullest cup of death! It seemed to me that heaven and air were filled with laughter, but strange, black laughter. God forgive me! And words I heard, gnashing in it like teeth. Strange words about roses! I came running, I came running with flowers! Like a child! Good-bye and good-bye! Madness, I tell you Bertha, sheer madness!

“Well, he left me standing there. I came home at last. Mother was already in the doorway, waiting for me. Father wants to see you in the store, she said.

“I knew why and turned without a word and walked toward the store. She was behind me; we both went in together; she shut the door. None of you were there. It was kept secret from you. Father was standing before the counter. Well, my gentle Genya, he said—you know how bitingly he could sneer—Is gall a spicy drink? How does it taste? Does one smack the lips after it? I didn’t answer. All I could do was weep. Weep! So! He was like a mother gone insane. Weep! Ah! He rubbed his paunch as though he were eating a delicacy. Ah! It does my heart great good! Don’t torment me, father, I said. I’ve suffered enough! Ha! he said as if he were shocked. Are you suffering? Miserable, pitiful little child! I kept quiet then and let him have his way. You call that suffering, he cried, Why? Because he held you under him like dung in the privy and drops you now? That was father’s way!” A deep sigh interrupted her.

“I know,” said Aunt Bertha vindictively. “May his tongue also fall out.”

“He kept on. Like screws into my breast his words. Torment more than I could bear. I tried to run past him to the door. He seized me and slapped me across both cheeks.”

Her voice had become strangely throaty now, dull, labored.

“Then nothing mattered. Suddenly nothing mattered. I can’t tell you how, but all pain seemed to end. I shrank. I felt smaller suddenly than the meanest creature crawling on earth. Oh, humble, empty! His words fell on me now as on the empty air. And where will you go? he screamed. Esau’s filth. He has a new one! He has a new one! A rich one! Kicked you out, has he not? You false slut! And meanwhile mother kept crying out, They’ll hear you outdoors Benjamin, they’ll hear you! And he would answer, let them hear me, shall I not howl with a heart on fire. I’m bursting I tell you! I’m strangling! And then he plucked off his black skull-cap and threw it in my face and stamped with his feet like a child in convulsions. Ach! It was frightful!

“Finally mother began weeping. I beg you, Benjamin, she cried, You will overtax your strength. You’ll have a stroke, Stop! Stop in the name of God!

“And father did stop. Suddenly, he fell into a chair and covered his face with his hands and began rocking back and forth. Alas! Alas! he moaned. Somewhere, in some way I have sinned. Somehow, somewhere, Him I have offended. Him! Else why does He visit me with anguish great as this?—You know him!”

“I know him!” said Aunt Bertha significantly.

“Now you may see what you have wrought my daughter, said mother, Was your heart of iron? Had you no pity on a Yiddish heart? No pity on your father? I wept—What else was there to do. Not only is she herself ruined, said father, Let her be! Let her die! But me! Me! And my poor, young daughters and the daughters to come. How shall I marry them? Who will marry them if this is known? And he was right. You would all of you have been on his hands forever. Well, he wished himself dead. Hush, said mother, none will speak; none will ever know. They will! They will, I say! Foulness like hers can never be hidden! And who knows, who knows, tomorrow another goy will find favor in her eyes. She’s begun with goyim. Why should she stop? And he began shouting again. I tell you she’ll bring me a ‘Benkart’ yet, shame me to the dust. How do you know there isn’t one in that lewd belly already—That’s a father for you!” Her words were bitter as she paused.

—Benkart! (Beside the doorway David fastened on the word) What? Know it. No, don’t. Heard it. In her belly. Listen!

“And you defended him before!” Aunt Bertha reproached her.

“Well, I wasn’t entirely innocent.”

“Go on!”

“If you drive her away, mother said, all will know it. You’ve cursed your other daughters as well. I? I cursed them? She! That shameless one! And he spat at me. But you must forgive her, mother begged. Never! Never! She is foul! And so it went on until mother took me by the arm, and said, she will kneel before you Benjamin, she will weep at your feet, only forgive her—Shrunk, I say, less than nothing.” His mother’s voice became curiously flat and monotonous as though she were enumerating a list of items all of equal unimportance. “Mother led me over to him. From her apron pocket, she drew out Ludwig’s picture. I must have left it on the bed when I took it out of the wicker basket. She thrust it between my fingers and she said, lift your eyes, Benjamin. See, she tears it to bits. She will never sin again. Only look at her. He lifted his eyes, and I tore it—once and again and threw myself at his feet and wept on his hand.

“You can’t imagine how awful I felt. I can hardly talk about it even yet, it afflicts me so. But fortunately no shadow ever broke a rock, and one can ask himself why he lives a thousand times and yet never die.”

“Did he finally forgive you?” Aunt Bertha asked.

“Oh, yes! In his fashion. He said, may God forgive you. If you ever marry a Jew I’ll take it as a sign. You see I married one. It was about six months later I met Albert.”

“I see,” Aunt Bertha said. “That’s how it played itself out?” And then eagerly. “And him Esau, swine, did he ever come near you again?”

“No. Of course, I saw him often from afar. And once near—a few days before they left for Vienna. To get married.”

“All the way to Vienna? Hmph! And the town church, may it burn to the ground, didn’t that suit the new aristocrat?”

“No, I don’t think that was the reason. Her brother had some business there, at least so his servants told me who came into the store.”

“Did he speak to you?”


“You say you saw him near at hand.”

“Oh. No, we didn’t speak. He didn’t see me. I was standing in the road one afternoon when I saw a yellow cart coming toward me. It had two yellow wheels—The kind the rich drove in those days. And I knew even before I could see who was driving, that it was the brother of his betrothed. He drove in it often to where the men were working on the new road. I hid in the corn field nearby. It wasn’t the brother-in-law this time, but Ludwig himself and the grand lady beside him. They passed. I felt empty as a bell till I looked at the blue cornflowers at my feet. They cheered me. That was the last I saw of him I think.”

—Blue corn flowers? Likes them! Corn! That was—! Inside on the wall! Gee! Look at it later! Listen! Listen now!

“And such was the ugly plague the new road brought with it.” Aunt Bertha mused sourly. “But taking it all in all, you were fortunate, sister, fortunate that someone came to take that enemy of Israel away. If not, if, God forbid, you had married him—Pheh! How frightful! Where would you have hidden your head when the day came and he called you scabby Jew! Oy! You were better dead! So you see,” she suggested cheerfully, “the road didn’t bring evil after all. But just the same,” she concluded with meticulous piety, “may it be God’s will that the maker of the road and his sister and his brother-in-law meet with years as black and as long as that road! No?”

—Road. Black! Black! Where did I hear it before? Black? Not now.

His mother had paused. Now she clucked her lips in a slight sound of distaste. “Well, I’ve told you. And now that I have I don’t know whether I’m glad I did or not.”

“Pooh!” Aunt Bertha scoffed, belligerently. “Why? I promised you I wouldn’t say anything about it. Besides, whom is there to tell? The shop-girls in the flower factory? Well, Nathan perhaps. But he wouldn’t—What are you so afraid of?” she interrupted herself. “Would Albert be jealous if he knew?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never tested him. Besides, he doesn’t seem to want to know these things, and so I’m just a little afraid of your—well—rashness! But come!” she said abruptly. “Let’s talk of the living.”

“Yes!” There was alacrity in Aunt Bertha’s voice. “My Nathan will be here soon. Has any of the powder come off my nose?”

His mother laughed. “No. It will take longer than that.”

“I can always smear it down from my nose to my cheeks. That’s the advantage of having plenty there. You know, Nathan is very fond of your baking?”

“I’m happy to hear it. We’ll get some kupfel out.”

“Too bad we haven’t any schnapps.”

“Schnapps? Why schnapps? A Russian wants tea.”

“Yes,” Aunt Bertha laughed. “And thank God he’s a good pliant man and a Jew. I’ll never have a heartbreak such as yours. But one never knows. And tell me,” she switched in her sudden giddy fashion. “Your husband says I do everything with my left hand now that I have an engagement ring. Is that true?”

“Oh, no! Not at all!”

David started. They had begun stirring about the kitchen, and here he was still squatting beside the doorway. They would see him. They would know he knew. They mustn’t. He got softly to his feet, sneaked to the furthest window and peered out intently. Pretend he had just been looking out all this time, that he hadn’t heard. Yes. But now he knew. What? Had anything changed? No. Everything was the same. Sure. Didn’t have to get scared. What had happened? She liked somebody. Who? Lud—Ludwig, she said. A goy. An organeest. Father didn’t like him, her father. And his too, maybe. Didn’t want him to know. Gee! He knew more than his father. So she married a Jew. What did she say before? Benkart, yes, benkart in belly, her father said. What did that mean? He almost knew. Somebody said—who? Where? Gee! Stop asking! Look outside before they come in.

Realizing intuitively the necessity of having to explain his presence in the front room, his eyes swept the outdoors hastily, seeking some object prodigious enough immediately to distract curiosity from himself the moment he called his mother’s attention to it. Beyond the straggly roof-tops was the thin band of grey-green river and the smoke stacks on the further shore. Against the dusty-blue sky above the horizon, the cold, white smoke of an unseen tugboat frayed out and drifted. No. That wouldn’t do. Couldn’t ask anything about those. What then? He pressed his brow against the cold window pane and peered down into the avenue. Passersby walked more briskly now that November was here; they leaned a little in the wind, head sunken in coat-collars, hands in pockets. The breath of horse-car teams and hurrying pushcart peddlars had become visible. Getting colder … Sewers did that too … Saw them when? Could ask why. No. A Negro passed. Was his? Yes. White too. He could ask that. Why does he breathe white if he’s black? No! Dumb-ox! They’ll laugh! But something, something he had to ask, to pretend to be fascinated by or they’d guess—

Two small boys crossed the car tracks on Avenue D and squatted down on the curb. One of them had been carrying a round, tawny-colored object that not until it was set in the gutter against the curb did David recognize it. It was a headless, stove-in celluloid doll with an egg-shaped bottom, the kind that when they were pushed, bounced upright again. He had seen them before in the candy-stores. But what were they going to do? They looked so engrossed, so expectant. He squinted to see better. Exultantly he told himself that here was his excuse, here was the fascinating thing that had kept him there all this time. If only they would hurry up. One of them, apparently the owner, took something out of his pocket, struck it against the sidewalk—a match. Cupping it carefully, he touched it to a cracked edge of the doll—It flared up with a burst of yellow flame. They recoiled. He could hear their muffled shouts. And then one pointed to the spot where the doll had been and where now nothing remained except the char against the curbstone. The other bent down and picked up something. It glittered like a bit of metal. Both stared at it—and David did too from his height.

Behind him he heard his mother mention his name. He turned to listen.

“I lost him somewhere,” she said casually. “Did he go down, Bertha?”

“That’s queer,” was the reply. “I thought I saw him go into—Why I think he must have gone down.”

“Without a good-bye?” His mother’s voice preceded her through the doorway. “Oh!” She looked at him keenly. “Are you still here? I thought—What makes you stay in this cold room?”

“In the street,” he answered, pointing gravely to the window. “Come here, mama, I’ll show you a trick.”

“Oh, then he is here.” Aunt Bertha came in also. “He’s been something too quiet even for him.”

“He’s going to show me a ‘drick’,” his mother laughed. She understood ‘drick’ to mean kick, which in Yiddish had the same sound.

“A ‘drick’,” Aunt Bertha asked grinning. “Where? In the pants?”

“You see downstairs?” he continued soberly. “That boy? He has a green stocking-hat. He burned a doll and he made ‘mejick’. And now he’s got a piece of iron. You see it? In his hands? Look!”

“Do you know what the simpleton’s jabbering about?” Aunt Bertha inquired.

“Not yet.” Smiling, his mother peered down at the two boys below. “Yes. I do see a bit of iron. What do you mean ‘mejick’?”

“There’s a little piece of iron,” he explained. “In that kind of doll. That’s what makes it stand up when you push it over. And the doll burned. And only the iron is left.”

“Aha!” Still smiling, she shrugged. “Well, come into the kitchen anyway. You’ll get a chill here. Do you know it’s growing cold, Bertha?”

David followed them out of the front-room. Easy, he thought in hazy satisfaction. Easy fool them. But they didn’t fool him. Didn’t scare him either. Didn’t change … Gee! The picture! Not now, though. Look at it later, when nobody’s here … Green and blue it’s—Sh!