Call It Sleep V

IN THE street again, he fled across the gutter to the side shaded now by houses, and began walking west toward Avenue C. His eyes, peering in all directions to catch sight of his father before he himself was seen, spied Izzy dashing out of the cheder hallway. He didn’t want to talk to him. That taunt about the whip still rankled. He flattened against a store window as Izzy hurried east toward Avenue D, but their glances met; Izzy’s sharp eyes recognized him.

“Hey!” His voice had a novel, friendly note in it. “W’y’ntcha say sompt’n? W’ea’s de geng?”

“I didn’ see ’em.” He thawed cautiously.

“C’mon, let’s find ’em.” Izzy briskly took his arm. “Wonner w’ea Kushy is?”

“Dintcha fighd ’im?” He permitted himself to be led.

“Naa! He’s a lodda boloney! D’ja fodder gib yuh wid de w’ip?”

“No! Did he gid de nickel?”

“Naa! Id wuzn’a nickel—jus’ like I tol’ ’im— He wuz mad yaw fodder—oh boy!”

“No, he wuzn’t.” Why did Izzy persist in changing the subject? “W’a wuz id?”

“W’a’? De nickel? Iyin, like I said.”


“N’ de rebbeh god mad on yuh good.”

“Yea.” Irritably.

“Yuh bedder gib’m poinduhs,” he advised. “He ga’ me a smack onna puss, lousy bassid! An’ he bussid one on Srooly—Bang! He’s dumb. Betcha million dollehs dey’re all on Evenyeh D.”

They rounded the corner— There they all were, sitting on the curb.

“See? I tol’ ye.” Izzy shot ahead, shaking David completely. “Hey, Geng!”

“Hey, Izzy!” they chorused.

“Led a reggiluh guy sid donn, will yuh?”

“Led ’im sid donn!” they ordered, and shoving against each other made room for him beside Kushy.

Stranded, David hesitantly approached and stood up behind them.

“So w’ea wuz yuh?” Kushy asked.

“I went wid my modder.” Izzy basked in their gaze. “An’ we bought shoes—best kind onnuh Eas’ Side. Waid’ll yuh see ’em. Wid buttons ’n’ flat toes—for kickin’ a food-ball. He wanned t’ree dollehs, bod my modder tol’ me I shull say, Peeuh! Wod lousy shoes! So we god ’em fuh two. An’ nen I went tuh cheder.”

“I like bedder poinds,” contention broke out from some point on the line. “Give a bedder kick inna hole!”

“Yea! Ha! Ha!” they chortled, acknowledging the wisdom of the choice.

“Can’t gid yuh foot oud,” countered Izzy calmly. “So wod’s de good?”

“I like bedder rubbehs,” another differed—a nonentity this time near the end of the rank. “Kin run beddeh.”

“Rubbehs! Yuh greenhunn!” Izzy staggered him with sarcasm first and then finished him off with precision, “Sneakiss, dope! Gid nails righd t’rough ’em—righd t’rough de boddem—’Member, Kushy,” he suddenly guffawed, “w’en I tol yuh he said blitz—inna cheder? Rubbehs guzz on shoes, greenhunn!”

“Aaa! Wiseguy!”

“W’ea wuz yiz?” Izzy ignored the slur.

“We?” Kushy paused importantly. “We seen a kinerry.” A select few snickered as if at a veiled jest.

“W’a kinerry?”

“G’wan tell ’im,” someone urged.

“I wuz dere too!” another put in.

“Waid!” Kushy hastily cautioned them. “My brudder!” And leaning out so he could view both wings, “Hey youz kids, gid odda hea. G’wan!”

“Naa!” The six year olds at either wing protested.

“G’wan!” The older ones blustered. “Skidoo!”

“Street ain’ yours!” stubbornly.

“Wanna ged a lam onnuh eye?”

“I’ll tell mama,” one of the juniors threatened.

“I’ll give yuh now!” Kushy half-rose.

Sulkily, they slid along the curb a few feet away from the rest.

“So w’ad kinerry?” from Izzy.

They drew closer.

“Yuh know Schloimee Salmonowitz wot lives in sebnfawdee-fi’?”

“Wad he had de mockee wid de bendij on his head?”


“Yea, he wuz in my cheder. So wot?”

“So Sadie Salmonowitz came running downstairs ’n’ hollerin’, My modder’s kinerry, my modder’s kinerry flied away! I’ll give a rewuhd!”

“Yuh god de rewuhd?” Izzy asked eagerly. “How moch?”

“Waid a second. An’ den we seen ’im on sebn-fawdy-six, across de stritt an’ ziz! He gives a fly back an’ zip! op to duh roof—”

“My house!” another voice chimed in. “He flew—”

“Shod op!” Kushy snatched back the thread of his narrative. “Schmeelkee’s house he flew. So we all grabbed our hats an’ runned inna duh hall. Yuh catch ’em wid a hat—like dot!” Without warning he plucked his neighbor’s cap from his head and pitched it spinning into the gutter.

“Ha-a! Ha-a! He-e! He-e!” Clacking like nine-pins before a heavy bowl of mirth they tumbled about the sidewalk. “He-e! He-e! Ha-a! Ha-a! Ha-a!”

“Cud id oud, wise guy!” Grinning at the clever prank, the owner rose to retrieve it. Immediately all buttocks crammed together, squeezing him out of his seat. Returned, he flung himself between the packed usurpers and after much scuffing, cursing, butting and pushing, regained, if not his own place, at least one as desirable.

“So dot’s de joke?” inquired Izzy contemptuously when the new equilibrium was finally restored.

“Naa!” crowed Kushy and one or two more. “Dat ain’ de joke!”

“So w’od?”

“So we runned opstai’s to de roof. An’ Schmeelkee fell on his leg, duh dope—”

“Wanna see wea I cut?” Schmeelkee’s stocking went down, revealing a newly scabbed skin. “Righd on duh bone!”

“Den wod?”

“So wa-a-aid a minid,” drawled Kushy delighted at Izzy’s nettled tone. “So we wen’ op—quiet! We didn’ make no noise cause we didn’ wanna scare de kinerry. An’ we god on de roof, an’ we walked aroun’ an we looked—He musta flied away!”

“But we seen annudder kinerry!” Schmeelkee boiled over.

“Woddayuh mean?”

“Sh!” Kushy looked to see whether the juniors on either wing still kept their distance. “So we snuck ovuh by duh air-sheff—yuh know w’ea is between sebn-fifty-one an’ sebn-fawdy-nine?”


Absorption stilled their fidgeting. All eyes converged on Kushy. David too leaned closer.

“An’ we all gave a look—An’ yuh know wod we seen? Hee! Hee! We seen a lady washin’ huhself inna washtub! Hee! Hee!”

—Washtub! (David grew rigid)

“Wod lady?” Izzy asked.

“Don’ know. Couldn’t see good huh face.”

“So wadjuh see?”

“Ev’yting! Oh, boy! Big tids stickin’ oud in frund!” His descriptive hands, molding the air, dragged other hands along with them as though all were tethered to the same excitement. “She was sittin’ in duh wawduh!”

—She! Mine! Aaa, mine!

The rush of shame set his cheeks and ears blazing like flame before a bellows, drove blood like a plunger against the roof of his skull. He stood with feet mortised to the spot, knees sagging, quivering.

“So den?” Izzy spurred.

“So den, she jomps up an nen we seen ev’yting—!”

“Big bush under duh belly!” The others jumbled voice with gestures. “Fat ass, we seen! Big—Wuh! Wadda kinerry! Wee! An’ duh hull knish! All de hairs!”

“Yea? No kiddin’?”


“Didja watch?”

“No. She gave a look righd ad us.”

“She didn’ look, I tol’ yuh!”

“She did!”

“She didn’!”

“She did! Wod she jump oud for!”


“So we run down-stairs—Wee! Wod a kinerry we seen!”

—Aaa! Lousy son of a bitch! Murder ’em! K-Kick ’em! Kill ’em! G-go ’way’—Yuh gonna cry!

“W’a fluh—Yee, wish I wuz dere. W’ea! Tell us—Led’s go—”

Like flying hail against his nakedness their sharp cries stunned and flayed him. Blind with loathing, he reeled away—unnoticed.

(—Ow! Ow! Don’t let ’em see! Don’t let ’em know. Ow!) The hot tears sprang to his eyes, the more scalding for resistance. He twisted about, yanked his head down, and began running to the corner.

—Aaa! Mama! Mine it was! Should have kicked ’em, kicked ’em and run. Go back! Kick em! Kick ’em in the belly. G’wan, you coward! Coward! Coward! Coward! Hate ’em! All! All! Everybody! Shouldn’t have gone over. Never go over again! Never talk to them even! Hate ’em! And she—Why did she let them look. Shades, why didn’t she pull them? Ain’t none! Ain’t none! And she let me look at her! Mad at her! Ow! Don’t let ’em see me crying! Cry baby! Cry baby!

He stumbled blindly across the street, flung himself into the hallway. The obscure stairs. At last he reached his own floor.

—Scared. Don’t care. Scared before. Scared all the time.

—Got to stop crying. She’ll ask why. What’ll I say? From the roof they saw you. No, no, don’t say anything—roof they. Roof … Roof? Never was … up there … I wonder?…

He stared in breathless irresolution from his own doorway to the roof-door overhead. The clean, untrodden flight of stairs that led up, beckoned even as they forbade; temptingly the light swarmed down through the glass of the roof-housing, silent, untenanted light; evoking in his mind and superimposing an image of the snow he had once vaulted into and an image of the light he had once climbed. Here was a better haven than either, a more durable purity. Why had he never thought of it before? He had only to conquer his cowardice, and that solitude and that radiance were his. But quickly, he must go quickly, before someone came out. He mounted the stairs that even underfoot felt differently, as though the unworn mica in them sparkled through the soles—and stopped at the door. Only a catch held it back; it could be lifted. He tugged it with crooked finger. It flew up suddenly—Panic stricken, he watched the heavy door swing away from his hand, squeak leisurely and on reluctant hinges into the sky. (—Down! Run down!) He threw a frightened glance over his shoulder. (—No! Coward! Stay right here! G’wan! G’wan out! It’s light! What’re you scared of?) He lifted a tentative unsteady foot over the high threshold. (—Ow!) The red-painted sheet-iron crackled under his soles with a terrifying report. (—Go back! Run! No! Won’t! G’wan, make a noise! Who cares? G’wan coward!) Breath bound in his lungs, he swung the snickering door back into place. It stayed closed.


He sighed tremulously, lifted his head, and with body pivoting on fixed feet, gazed about him.

The immense heavens of July, the burnished, the shining fathom upon fathom. Too pure the zenith was, too pure for the flawed and flinching eye; the eye sowed it with linty darkness, sowed it with spores and ripples of shadow drifting. (—Even up here dark follows, but only a little bit) And to the west, the blinding whorl of the sun, the disk and trumpet, triple-trumpet blaring light. He blinked, dropped his eyes and looked about him. Quiet. Odor of ashes, the cold subterranean breath of chimneys. (—Even up here cellar follows, but only a little bit) And about were roof-tops, tarred and red and sunlit and red, roof-tops to the scarred horizon. Flocks of pigeons wheeled. Where they flew in lower air, they hung like a poised and never-raveling smoke; nearer at hand and higher, they glittered like rippling water in the sun. Quiet. Sunlight on brow and far off plating the sides of spires and water-towers and chimney pots and the golden cliffs of the streets. To the east the bridges, fragile in powdery light.

—Gee! Alone … Ain’t so scared.