Call It Sleep VI

NO, HE thought as he went out, she wasn’t a witch—just a 9th street old woman, that’s all. But even so, an unaccountable sadness thickened the joy he should have felt at getting another penny. Even if he hadn’t been turned into gingerbread, something had turned the heart heavy. Why? A sin, maybe? Yes, bet that’s why. But too young, she said. No. Bet nobody was too young. So which is the sin penny? He looked at them. Indian this. Lincoln this. Lincoln just got. But the cool air of the outdoors as he entered the street whipped away remorse as it whipped the nostrils clear of kitchen odors. He turned toward his house and quickened his step. Dusk was resuming the alley of the east. Smokestacks across the dark river had begun their pilgrimage into night. On the corner of Avenue D, the shadowy lamplighter with the pale, uplifted face was thrusting his long, glow-tipped lance into the hazy globe of the street lamp. David stopped a moment to see whether the gas inside and the mantle would catch. A faint puff and the globe filled with a yellow bloom. He climbed up the stairs of the stoop, wondering whether lamp-lighters were ever disturbed by their own sacrilege or whether they were all goyim. As he mounted the hallway stairs, the voices of boys drifted down.

“So yuh have tuh.”

“Yuh don’!” another answered.

“Id ain’ Shabis yet.”

“Id is so. Id’s dock.”

‘Id’s dock in hea, but id ain’ Shabis.”

Before the halt-open doorway of a water closet, inside of which a boy was squatting, stood two of his companions.

“I am gonna tear it,” came the rebellious voice inside. “Dere ain’ nutt’n else.”

And as David walked by the doorway, he saw the boy who was squatting on the seat inside tear a long swath out of one of the newspapers that littered the floor.

“Now yuh god it!” said one of the onlookers vindictively.

“An’ ids a double sin too,” added the other.

“So w’y is id a double sin?” the squatter’s provoked voice demanded.

“Cause it’s Shabis.” The righteous voice below meted out. “An’ dat’s one sin. Yuh can’t tear on Shabis. An’ because id’s a Jewish noospaper wid Jewish on id, dat’s two sins. Dere!”

“Yea!” the other chimed in. “You’d a only god one sin if you tord a Englitch noospaper.”

“Well, w’yntcha gimme a Englitch noospaper?” demanded the first voice disgustedly. “I ain’ goin’ haffee witchoo no more.”

“So don’.”

Their bickering voices faded below.

—Looks every place, He. Knew I shouldn’t have lit the gas. One penny is bad. Real bad. But one penny is good. So that makes it even, don’t it? Maybe He won’t get mad. Gee, didn’t know He was so every place. How can he look in every dark, if He’s light—the rabbi said—and it’s real dark. How can He see in the real dark and we can’t see Him. What’s real dark? Real dark. Gee! That time—Annie—closet. Cellar—Luter. Sh! Don’t! Gee! Sin it was. Hurry up! Sin it was! Every place, sin it is. Didn’t know. Hurry up! Coal He touched him. Hurry up!

Eagerly he glanced up at the transom above his door. It was unlit—stained only by indigo twilight. His heart sank. Then she was out—his mother was out—and only his father was there, asleep probably. He stopped irresolutely, hedged in by two fears, the dark and his father. He would have to wake him if the door was locked, and that—there was peril in that. The rungs of the shutters of memory snapped open and closed—a fragmentary fleeting image, but clear. Better run then, wait in the street until she came home. No. He would try the knob first—just once. He turned it; the door opened. That was strange. He tiptoed into a blue room, aware of a blue washboard on a blue washtub, aware of his father’s throaty breathing in the further bedroom. He sheered away from it—where was she?—and entered the front-room. She was sitting beside the window, her dark face in outline against the frosty blue of the pane. His heart leapt.

“Mama!” he tried to keep his voice down to a whisper, but failed.

“Oh!” she started. “You frightened me!” and then stretched out her arms.

“I didn’t know you were here.” He entered the delicious circle of her embrace.

“My head is like an old bell,” she sighed pressing him to her. “Idle and without hearing, but murmuring sometimes, a little insecure.” Then she laughed and kissed his brow. “Did you get your shoes wet in the rain?”

“No I ran into the cheder just before.”

“That sweater is too thin.”

He had been holding the Indian penny in one hand to keep it from jingling against the other. And now he held it up. “Look what I’ve got.”

“My!” she marveled. “How did you come by that?”

“The rabbi gave it to me.”

“The rabbi?”

“Yes. I was the only one who knew the chad godyuh from last time.”

She laughed and hugged him. “Solomon, Sage!”

He took a deep breath. He had asked her before, but somehow the thought was too elusive. He needed to be told again.

“Who is God, mama?”

“You keep asking exactly the right person,” she smiled. “Doesn’t the rabbi ever tell you?”

“You can’t ask him anything.”

“Well, why are you so interested?”

“I don’t know. I mean you didn’t tell me what he looked like.”

“That was because I didn’t know.” She chuckled at his chagrin. “Still I’ll tell you what—”

But breaking her speech, his father’s painful, awakening groan reached them from the bedroom.


“I’m in here, Albert.”

“Hmm!” Always he seemed to need reassurance, always he seemed reassured. And was silent. David hoped she would hurry on before he came in.

“Yes,” she continued. “I’ll tell you what a pious old woman in Veljish told me when I was a little girl. And that’s all I know. She said that He was brighter than the day is brighter than the night. You understand? But she always used to add if darkest midnight were bright enough to see whether a black hair were straight or curly. Brighter than day.”

Brighter than day. That much seemed definite, seemed to conform with his own belief, that much he could grasp. It reminded him of the steps of the chad godyuh. “And He lives in the sky?”

“And in the earth and in the water and in the world.”

“But what does He do?”

“He holds us in His hand, they say—us and the world.”

His father had come in, hacking, clearing his sleep-clogged breath. He stood darkly in the doorway. There was room for one more question and that was all.

“Could He break it? Us? The streets? Everything?”

“Of course. He has all power. He can break and rebuild, but He holds.”

His father made an impatient sound with his lips. “Why do you sit in darkness?”

“My washing,” she laughed apologetically. “The little curtains for the Passover. It grew dark as I was about to hang them up. And I thought, well, Friday, best the neighbors didn’t see me or they’ll cluck. Do you know your son won a penny in the cheder?”

“What for? Because he asks such bright questions? Makes and breaks. A fool in a sand heap.” He yawned. His stretching arms pressed against both sides of the door-frame till it creaked. “We need some light.”