Call It Sleep V

HOSTILITIES between Aunt Bertha and David’s father were rapidly reaching the breaking point. David was sure that something would happen soon if Aunt Bertha did not curb her over-ready tongue. He marveled at her rashness.

On that Saturday night Aunt Bertha had arrived home bearing a large cardboard box. She was later tonight than usual and had delayed the supper almost an hour. The fast had not helped to put David’s father in an amiable frame of mind. He had been grumbling before she came, and now, though she was washing her face and hands with as great dispatch as possible, he could not restrain a testy—

“Hurry up. You’ll never wash that stench off!”

To which Aunt Bertha made no other reply than to bob her ample buttocks in his general direction. Glaring furiously at her back, he said nothing, but savagely toyed with the table knife in his hands.

Aunt Bertha at length straightened up, and apparently unconscious of the rage she had put him in, began drying herself.

“I suppose you’ve been shopping,” said her sister amiably, setting the food on the table.

“Indeed I have,” she seated herself. “I’m coming up in the world.”

“What did you buy?”

“Bargains of course!” his father broke in contemptuously. He seemed to have been waiting for just this opportunity. “The storekeeper who couldn’t lift the head from her shoulders without her knowing it might as well close up shop!”

“Is that so?” she retorted sarcastically. “Speak for yourself! I don’t spend my life hunting for rusty horseshoes. That gramophone you bought in the summer—Ha! Ha! Mute and motionless as the day before creation.”

“Hold your tongue!”

“Your noodles and cheese are growing cold,” said David’s mother. “Both of you!”

There was a pause while everyone ate. From time to time, Aunt Bertha cast her eyes happily at the cardboard box resting on the chair.

“Apparel?” asked his mother discreetly.

“What else? Half the country’s goods!”

His mother smiled at his aunt’s fervor.

“Blessed is this golden land,” she let herself be carried away by enthusiasm. “Such beautiful things to wear!”

“Much good that does you,” said his father over a forkful of noodles.

“Albert!” his wife protested.

Aunt Bertha abruptly stopped eating. “Who was speaking to you? Go snarl up your own wits! You’re one person I don’t have to please.”

“To please me, the Lord need grant you a new soul.”

“To spite you, I’d stay just as I am!” She tossed her head scornfully, “I’d sooner have a pig admire me.”

“No doubt he would.”

“Tell me, dear Bertha,” said her sister desperately. “What did you buy?”

“Oh, a parcel of rags! With what I earn what else can I buy?” Then brightening a little. “I’ll show them to you.”

Casting a hasty glance at her husband, David’s mother put up a restraining hand, but too late. Aunt Bertha had seized a table knife and was already cutting the strings off the box.

“Are we having dinner or going to a fair?” he asked.

“Perhaps a little later—” suggested his mother.

“Not at all,” Aunt Bertha said with vindictive cheerfulness. “Let him gorge himself if he wants to. My appetite can wait.” And she whipped open the box.

Lifting out first one article of woman’s wear and then another—a corset cover, a petticoat, stockings—she commented blithely on each and quoted its price. Finally, she brought into view a pair of large white drawers and turned them over admiringly in her hands. David’s father abruptly shoved his chair around to cut them from his field of vision.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” she chattered on. “See the lace at the bottom. And so cheap. Only twenty cents. I saw such small ones in the store. Some poor women have no buttocks at all!” Then she giggled, “when I hold them at a distance upside down this way they look like peaks in Austria.”

“Yes, yes,” said his mother apprehensively.

“Ha! Ha!” She went on entirely enchanted by the charm of her purchase. “But what can I do? I am fat below. But isn’t it a miracle? Twenty cents, and I can wear what only a baroness in Austria could wear. And so convenient and so neatly cut—these buttons here. See how this drops down! The newest style, he told me. Do you remember the drawers we wore in Austria—into the stockings? Winter and summer my legs looked like a gypsy’s accordion.”

But David’s father could restrain himself no longer. “Put those things away!” he rapped out.

Aunt Bertha drew back startled. Then narrowed her eyes and thrust out stubborn lips. “Don’t shout at me!”

“Put those away!” He banged his fist on the table so that the dishes danced and the yellow noodles cast their long necks over the rim of the platters.

“Please, Bertha!” her sister implored, “You know how—”

“Do you side with him too?” She interrupted her. “I’ll put them away when I please! I’m not his slave!”

“Are you going to do what I say?”

Aunt Bertha clapped one hand to her hip, “When I please! It’s time you knew what women wore on their bottoms.”

“I’ll ask you once more, you vile slut,” he shoved his chair back and rose in slow wrath.

David began to cry.

“Let me go!” Aunt Bertha pushed back her sister who had interposed herself. “Is he so pious, he can’t bear to look at a pair of drawers? Does he piss water as mortals do, or only the purest of vegetable oil?”

His father advanced on her. “I’m pleading with you as with Death!” He always said that at moments of intense anger. His voice had taken on that thin terrific hardness that meant he was about to strike. “Will you put them away?”

“Make me!” she screamed and waved the drawers like a goad in his very eyes.

Before she could recoil, his long arm had swept out, and with a bark of rage, he plucked the drawers from her. A moment later, he had ripped them in two. “Here, you slut!” he roared. “Here are your peaks!” And he flung them in her face.

Raging with fury, Aunt Bertha leapt at him with clawing fingers. The flat thrust of his palm against her bosom sent her reeling to the wall. He turned on his heel, and his eyeballs glaring in demonic rage, he tore his hat and coat from a peg near the door and stalked out.

Aunt Bertha dropped into a chair and began weeping loudly and hysterically. Her sister, her own eyes filling with tears, tried to comfort her.

“Madman! Mad!” came his aunt’s stifled words. “Savage beast!” She picked up the drawers at her feet and wrung them in the frenzy of her anguish. “My new drawers! What did he have against them? May his head be cloven as they are! Oh!” The tears streamed down her cheeks. Stray strands of her red hair parted on her clammy brow and nose.

David’s mother stroked her shoulders soothingly. “Hush, dear sister! Don’t weep so, child! You’ll break your heart!”

Aunt Bertha only lamented the more, “Why did I ever set foot on this stinking land? Why did I ever come here? Ten hours a day in a smothering shop—paper flowers! Rag flowers! Ten long hours, afraid to pee too often because the foreman might think I was shirking. And now when I’ve bought with the sweat of my brow a little of what my heart desires, that butcher rends it. Ai!”

“I tried to save you, sister. You must know what he’s like by now. Listen to me, I have some money. I’ll buy you a new pair.”

“Oh! Woe is me!”

“And even the ones you have there may be mended.”

“May his heart be broken as mine is, they’ll never be mended.”

“Look, they’re torn exactly at the seam.”

“What?” Aunt Bertha opened grief stricken eyes. She stared at the drawers a moment and then jumped frenziedly from her chair. “He threw them at me too, dashed them in my face. He flung me to the wall! I’m not going to stay here another minute! I’ll not endure it another minute. I’m going to pack my things! I’m going!” She made for the door.

David’s mother hastened after her. “Wait,” she pleaded, “where will you run at this time of night? Please, I beg you!”

“I’ll go anywhere! What did I leave Europe for if not to escape that tyrant of a father. And this is what I came to—a madman! May a trolley-car crack his bones! Slaughter him, Almighty God!” And she ran weeping loudly into her bedroom.

David’s mother followed her sadly.…

* * *

Although Aunt Bertha did not move out of their house as she had threatened to do, the next day and the next, there was no exchange of communication between her and David’s father. Dinners at night were eaten in silence, and if either of them required anything of the other, David or his mother were impressed as intermediaries. However after several nights of this embarrassing constraint, Aunt Bertha’s self-imposed shackles grew too much for her. Quite suddenly one evening, she broke them.

“Pass me the herring jar,” she muttered—this time directly at her brother-in-law.

His face darkened when she spoke, but sullenly though he did it, he nevertheless did push the herring jar toward her.

Thus an armistice was signed and relations, if not cordial, were at least established. And thereafter, as much as it was possible for her, Aunt Bertha kept her peace.

“He’s a mad dog,” she told her sister. “He has to run. There’s nothing to do but keep out of his way.”

And she did for many months.