Call It Sleep VI

IN THE bedroom where she had gone to tuck away the tablecloth, David heard the closet drawer chuckle softly close. And then,

“Alas!” came his mother’s voice. “He has forgotten it.” She reappeared, in her extended hand a parcel. “The present he was going to give them. He goes empty-handed now.” She set it down on a chair. “I must remember to give it to him to-morrow, or perhaps he’ll remember and return.”

That Luter might come back disturbed David, he pushed the thought away. He had been looking forward to this evening when he would have her to himself until bedtime. It was the second theatre night. His father had gone alone.

She lifted the kettle of water from the stove, bore it to the sink and poured the steaming water into the basin.

She turned to look at him. “The way you watch me,” she said with a laugh, “makes me feel as if I were performing black magic. It is only dishes I’m washing.” And after a pause. “Would you like another little brother?” she asked slyly, “or a little sister.”

“No,” he answered soberly.

“It would be better for you, if you had,” she teased. “It would give you something else to look at beside your mother.”

“I don’t want to look at anything else.”

“Your mother had eight brothers and sisters,” she reminded him. “One of them may come here some day, one of my sisters, your Aunt Bertha—would you like that?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’d like her,” she assured him. “She’s very funny. She has red hair and a sharp tongue. And there’s no one she can’t mimic. She’s not so very fat, yet in the summertime, the sweat pours down her in torrents. I don’t know why that is. I have seen men sweat like that, but never a woman.”

“I get all wet under here in the summer.” He pointed to his arm pits.

“Yes,” said his mother with peculiar emphasis, “she did too. They told her once—but you never saw a bear?”

“In a book. There were three bears.”

“Yes, you told me about them. Well, in Europe the gypsies—gypsies are men and women, dark people. They roam all over the world.”


“It pleases them.”

“You asked me about a bear.”

“Yes. Sometimes these gypsies take a bear along with them wherever they go.”

“Do they eat porridge?” He had said the last word in English.

“What’s porridge?”

“My teacher said it was oatmeal and farina, you give it to me in the morning.”

“Yes, yes. You told me. But I’m not sure. I know they like apples. Still if your teacher—”

“And what did the bear do?”

“The bear danced. The gypsies sang and shook the tambourine and the bear danced.”

David hugged himself with delight. “Who made him?”

“The gypsies. They earned their money that way. When the bear was tired, people threw pennies in their tambourine— Now! I was telling you about your aunt. Someone told her that if she crept up behind the bear and rubbed her hands on his fur, she would stop sweating under her palms. And so one day while the bear was dancing—”

She stopped speaking. David had heard it too: a step outside the door. A moment later someone knocked. A voice.

“It is only I—Luter.”

With an exclamation of surprise, she opened the door. Luter came in.

“I went away without my head,” he said apologetically. “I’ve forgotten my gift.”

“It’s a pity you had to take all that trouble again,” she said sympathetically. “You left it in the bedroom.” She picked up the parcel from the chair.

“Yes, I know,” he answered, resting it on the table. He looked at his watch. “I’m afraid it’s too late for me to go now. I couldn’t get there before nine and then how long can one stay, an hour.”

David was secretly annoyed to see him sit down.

Luter opened his coat and with an expression of anxious indecision on his face regarded David’s mother. His eyes had a brilliance and restlessness greater than usual. David was again aware of the difficult curves of the man’s face.

“Take your coat off,” she suggested. “It’s warm here.”

“If you don’t mind,” he slipped it from his shoulders, “Now that I have nowhere to go.”

“Won’t they be disappointed when they see you’re not coming?”

“No, they’ll know that the black hour hasn’t seized me.” He laughed. “Please go on with your work, don’t let me interfere.”

“I was merely washing some dishes,” she said. “I’ve finished now, except for these pots.” She picked up the red and white can of powder in the corner of the small shelf above the sink, shook some of it into a pot, and rubbed the inside vigorously with a dish rag, stooping over with the effort.

David, who was leaning from the side of his chair could see Luter and his mother at the same time. Absorbed in watching his mother, he would have paid little attention to Luter, but the sudden oblique shifting of Luter’s eyes toward himself drew his own gaze toward them. Luter, his eyes narrowed by a fixed yawn, was staring at his mother, at her hips. For the first time, David was aware of how her flesh, confined by the skirt, formed separate molds against it. He felt suddenly bewildered, struggling with something in his mind that would not become a thought.

“You women,” said Luter sympathetically, “especially when you marry must work like slaves.”

“It isn’t quite so bad as all that. Despite the ancient proverb.”

“No,” said Luter meditatively, “anything may be lived. But to labor without thanks that’s bitter.”

“True. And to labor even with thanks, what comes of it?”

“Well,” he uncrossed his legs, “nothing comes of anything, not even millionaires, but esteem gives the trumpeter breath—esteem and gifts naturally.”

“Then I have my esteem,” she laughed, straightening up and turning around as Luter arranged his mouth more firmly. “I have esteem that grows.” She regarded David with an amused smile.

“Yes,” said Luter with a sigh, “but everyone can have that kind of esteem. Still, it’s good to have children.” And then earnestly, “Do you know I have never seen a child cling so to his mother.”

David found himself resenting Luter’s comment.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” she agreed.

“I think so,” he said warmly. “Why, my cousin’s children—the very relative I was going to visit to-night—they are home only when they sleep and eat. At night after dinner, they are up in some neighbor’s house,” he lifted his hand to emphasize the point, “playing with other children the whole evening.”

“There are other children in the house,” answered his mother. “But he seems to make friends with none. It has only been once or twice,” she turned to David, “that you have been in Yussie’s house or he here, has it not?”

David nodded uneasily.

“He’s a strange child!” said Luter with conviction.

His mother laughed condoningly.

“Though very intelligent,” he assured her.

There was a pause while she emptied the dishpan into the sink; the grey water muttered down the drain.

“He looks very much like you,” said Luter with the hesitance of careful appraisal. “He has the same brown eyes you have, very fine eyes, and the same white skin. Where did you get that white German skin?” he asked David playfully.

“I don’t know.” The man’s intimacy embarrassed him. He wished Luter would go away.

“And both of you have very small hands. Has he not small hands for a child his size? Like those of a prince’s. Perhaps he will be a doctor some day.”

“If he has more than hands.”

“Yes,” Luter agreed, “still I don’t think he’ll need labor for his bread like his father, or even like myself.”

“I hope not, but only God knows.”

“Isn’t it strange,” he said suddenly, “how Albert has seized hold of the theatre? Like a drunkard his dram. Who would have believed it?”

“It means a great deal to him. I could hear him beside me gnashing his teeth at a certain character.”

Luter laughed. “Albert is a good man, even though the other workers think him odd. It is I who keep the peace, you know.” He laughed again.

“Yes, I do know, and I’m grateful to you for it.”

“Oh it’s nothing. A word here, a word there smooths everything. Truth is, I might not have been so ready to protect him, if I hadn’t known you, that is, if I hadn’t come here and been one of you. But now I take up his interest as though he were my own brother. It is not always easy with so strange a man.”

“You’re very kind.”

“Not at all,” said Luter. “You have repaid me. Both of you.”

Picking up several dry utensils she crossed the kitchen to the pantry. There she pulled open the door, bent over and hung them on the nails inside. Luter’s head tilted, his gaze flitting to her bosom. He cleared his throat with a pecking sound.

“But say what you will, Albert is—what shall I say, a nervous man—till you know him, of course. But I can see why you’ve never gone out with him anywhere,” he ended sympathetically. “You’re a proud woman with a great deal of feeling, no?”

“No more than anyone else. What has that to do with it?”

“I’ll tell you. You see, Albert, well—” he smiled and scratched his neck, puzzled. “Even in the street, he behaves so strangely. You know better than I do. He seems to look for jeers in the faces of passersby. And when you go with him—I go with him every night—it’s as though he finds some kind of pleasure walking behind a cripple or a drunkard or any kind of freakish person—I don’t know what! One would think it made him feel safer. He wants people on the street to look at someone else. Anyone else, instead of himself. Even a water wagon or street gamblers give him this odd satisfaction. But why do I talk this way when I like him so much.” He paused and laughed quietly.

David’s mother looked at the dish towel, but made no answer.

“Yes,” he chuckled, hurriedly. “I like especially the way he never speaks of Tysmenicz without leading in the cattle he once tended.”

“Well, there weren’t many things he loved more in the old land.”

“But to love cattle so,” Luter smiled. “All I thought of when I saw a cow was that it gave milk. Now when I think of Europe, and of my hamlet, the first thought that comes to me, just as his first thought is a cow or a prize bull, my first thought is of the peasant women. You understand?”

“Naturally, each has his memories.” Having placed the last dishes in the closet, she drew a chair beside David’s and sat down. On one side of the table sat Luter, on the other David and his mother.

“Exactly,” said Luter, “Each one remembers what appealed to him, and I remember the peasant wenches. Weren’t they a striking lot, in their tight checked vests and their dozen petticoats?” He shook his head regretfully. “One never sees the like here. It’s a scanty soil from what one sees of it in Brooklyn and its women are spare. But in Sorvik they grew like oaks. They had blonde hair, their eyes blazed. And when they smiled with their white teeth and blue eyes, who could resist them? It was enough to set your blood on fire. The men never dazzled you that way?” he asked after a pause.

“No, I never paid much attention to them.”

“Well, you wouldn’t—you were a good Jewish daughter. Besides, the men were a worthless lot, vacant lumps with great shoulders and a nose on them like a split pea. Their women were wasted on them. You know,” his voice was very earnest, “the only woman I know who reminds me of those girls, is you.”

She reddened, threw back her head and laughed, “Me? I’m only a good Jewish daughter.”

“I am not accusing you of anything else, but never since I have been in America have I seen a woman that so reminded me of them. Their lips were so full, so ripe, as if to be kissed.”

She smiled curiously with one cheek. “God knows, there must be enough Austrian peasants even in this land. If Jews were let in, surely no one would bar the Slovaks.”

Luter looked down at the ring he was twisting around his finger. “Yes, I suppose so. I have seen a few of them, but none I cared much about.”

“You better look about a little more then.”

Luter’s face grew strangely sober, the lines about his nostrils deepened. Without lifting his head, his eyes slanted up at David’s mother. “Perhaps I can stop looking.”

She laughed outright. “Don’t be foolish, Mr. Luter!”

“Mr. Luter!” He looked annoyed for a moment, then shrugged and smiled. “Now that you know me so well, why use the formal still?”

“Apparently I don’t know you so well.”

“It takes a little time,” he admitted. His gaze roved about the room and came to rest on David. “Perhaps you would like some refreshments?”

“No, but if you do, I can make some tea.”

“No, thanks,” he said solicitously, “don’t take the trouble. But I know what you would like—a little ice cream.”

“Please don’t bother.”

“Why, it’s no trouble. The young one there will go down for us.” He drew out a coin. “Here, you know where the candy store is. Go get some tutti frutti and chocolate. You like it don’t you?”

With troubled eyes David looked first at Luter, then at the coin. Beneath the table a hand gently pressed his thigh. His mother! What did she want?

“I don’t like it,” he faltered. “I don’t like ice cream.”

The fingers of the same hand tapped his knees ever so lightly. He had said the right thing.

“No? Tutti frutti ice cream? Candy then, you like that?”


“I think it’s a little too late for him to have either,” said his mother.

“Well, I guess we won’t buy any then, since he’s going to bed soon.” Luter looked at his watch. “This is just the time I put him to bed last time, wasn’t it, my David?”

“Yes,” he hesitated fearful of blundering.

“I suppose he’s sleepy now,” Luter suggested encouragingly.

“He doesn’t look sleepy,” his mother, smoothed the hair back from his brow. “His eyes are still wide and bright.”

“I’m not sleepy.” That, at least, was true. He had never been so strangely stirred, never had he felt so near an abyss.

“We’ll let you stay up awhile then.”

There was a short space of silence. Luter frowned, emitted a faint smacking sound from the side of his mouth. “You don’t seem to have any of the usual womanly instincts.”

“Don’t I? It seems to me that I keep pretty closely to the well-trodden path.”

“Curiosity, for instance.”

“I had already lost that even before my marriage.”

“You only imagine it. But don’t misunderstand me, I merely meant curiosity about the package I left behind. It must be clear to you that I didn’t get what’s in it for my relatives’ sake.”

“Well, you’d better give it to them now.”

“Not so soon.” And when she didn’t answer, he shrugged, arose from the chair and got into his coat. “Hate me for it if I say it again, but you’re a comely woman. This time though I won’t forget my package.” He reached for the door-knob, turned. “But I may still come for dinner tomorrow?”

She laughed. “If you still haven’t tired of my cooking.”

“Not yet.” And chuckling. “Good-night. Good-night, little one. It must be a joy to have such a son.” He went out.

With a wry smile on her lips, she listened to the sound of his retreating steps. Then her brow puckered in disdain. “All are called men!” She sat for a moment gazing before her with troubled eyes. Presently her brow cleared; she tilted her head and peered into David’s eyes. “Are you worried about anything? Your look is so intent.”

“I don’t like him,” he confessed.

“Well, he’s gone now,” she said reassuringly. Let’s forget about him. We won’t even tell father he came, will we?”


“Let’s go to bed then, it grows late.”