Call It Sleep V

THE air had freshened, the dark became lighter. The wind, cooler now, wrinkled the dark puddles between the flagstones, lifted the wash-lines. From somewhere, large drops of water still spattered down, though walls and fences showed broad dry patches. His fingers still closed around the penny in his pocket, David climbed up the brown, water-stained stairs, passed through the warm corridor and out into the street. Sidewalks and gutter were drying to grey again, dark rills thinning under curbs. In the west clearing toward sunset, clouds were a silver havoc, their light in the rugged stone frame of the street, sombre and silver.

—Show her the penny when I get upstairs. And she’ll tell Papa. What would he say? Bet he wouldn’t believe. He’d say I found it. But I could say it for him—all over again. One kid, one only kid, and then he’d have to—That candy store.

He stopped, stared thoughtfully at the clutter of toys and tin horns, masks, soda bottles and cigarette posters.

—No. Have to show her first. See what I got. Then could buy. What? Candy? No. Like to get those little balls in the hoople-cage. You blow and catch. Only can’t catch so good. When will I catch good? Maybe better wait till tomorrow when I get another penny. And then—Gee! Go to Aunt Bertha’s candy store. When was I? Long time ago, that time with mama! Too far. And girls, Esther and Polly. Hate them. How they fight, gee! How they eat soup! Poppa’d murder me if I did. But Uncle Nathan only hollers, and Aunt Bertha hollers on him. Remember Uncle Nathan and his mama? Vinegar and light when he told. Light! Gee! And Isaiah and that angel-coal. On his mouth. But remember. Blue book—so big. On page sixty-eight. Maybe ask next time. Maybe mama knows. Penny? Where? Oh! Here! Nearly didn’t get it. When that funny jumped into the middle of the chad godyuh. Wonder what! I was saying. Yes. I was saying—

“Little boy.” The words were in Yiddish.

He started and looked up. He had almost run into her—a shriveled old woman with a face so lined with short, thin wrinkles, they slanted down the sere skin like a rain. She was stooped. A striped blue and white apron covered the front of her rusty black satin dress. The whites of her eyes were cloudy as an old tusk and caught in a net of red veins. Her nostrils were wet. Between her brow and the white kerchief on her head a stiff brown wig protruded like a ledge.

“Little boy.” She repeated in a quavering treble, head rocking infirmly from side to side. “Are you a Jew?”

For a fleeting instant, David wondered how he could have understood her if he hadn’t been a Jew.


“Well, it won’t harm you anyway,” she mumbled. “You’re not old enough to sin. Come with me and I’ll give you a penny.”

He stared at her. There was something terrifying and dreamlike about it all. The gingerbread boys the old witch baked. In two A one.

“You’ll light the gas stove for me, yes?”

That’s what they did too—only it wasn’t gas. Gee! He felt half-impelled to take to his heels.

“I lit the candles”, she explained, “and it’s too late now.”

“Oh!” He understood now. It was Friday. Still why had she lit them so early? It wasn’t night yet.

“Are you coming?” she asked and turned to go. “I’ll give you a penny.”

After all, this was his street. There was his house only two houses away. And he would have another penny. He followed her. She shuffled toward a nearby house and labored slowly up the stoop. Her panting breath on the second step turned to groaning on the fifth. Above him the slow, wrinkled, cracked shoes stopped at the threshold. He drew up beside her.

“We haven’t any more steps to climb,” she muttered, waiting for her loud breathing to quiet. “A curse on the black sleep that took me. When I awoke it was dark, and I, sodden with sleep, lit the candles. Too fuddled to look at the clock first, too dull to light the gas-stove. Woe me.” She wavered into motion again. A few steps through the hallway and she stopped before a door, opened it and went in. The kitchen, swept and drear, glaze worn from the linoleum; four candles glimmering above the heavy, red-and-white table-cloth. Odor of fish. Stagnancy.

“First pull over a chair,” she said, “and light the gas up there. Can you reach the matches?”

David pulled open the drawer she pointed to and found the box of matches; then he dragged a chair under the gas lamp and climbed up.

“Do you know how?” she asked.

“Yea.” He struck a match, turned on the gas and lit it.

“Good! And now under the pots.”

He lit those too.

“Smaller,” she said. “Smaller. As small as small is.”

When he had done this, she pointed to her purse on the table. “Take it,” she said and began nodding and nodded as if she couldn’t stop, “and take out a penny.”

“I don’t want it—” he hung back.

“Go! Go!”

While she watched him, he fished out a penny.

“Now close it.” And when he did. “You’re a good child,” she said. “May God bless you,” and she opened the door.