Call It Sleep VI

“A HEART full of pity!” said Aunt Bertha derisively. “Yes! Yes, indeed! For plucking a tooth out, he asks only fifty cents. You understand what that means? What will hurt me most is only fifty cents. After my teeth are gone, and I look like my grandmother, God rest her where she lies, then his price stiffens. I can see through these bandits, never fear!”

Aunt Bertha had been indulging herself in enormous quantities of sugary, vanilla “bum bonnies” as she called them, “pinnit brettlich” and “turra frurra” ice-cream. Severe toothaches had followed. Aunt Bertha had claimed that during the last few nights she had felt her mouth expand to the size of half a watermelon. Whether it had actually grown that large, David didn’t know, but looking at her green teeth and red mouth he could see a certain resemblance. After much urging, her sister had finally succeeded in getting her to go to the dentist. Tomorrow night he would draw several of her teeth.

“In Veljish,” she continued, “they say that ‘kockin’ will clear the brow of pain. But here in America—didn’t he call it that? ‘Kockin’?—will clear the mouth of pain.”

His father’s newspaper rustled warningly.

“Cocaine?” said her sister hastily.

“Oh, is that how you say it?”

‘Kockin,’ as David had learned long ago, was a Yiddish word meaning to sit on the toilet.

“And another thing,” his aunt indulged in a sly laugh. “I am going to lose six teeth. And of the six teeth, three he called ‘mollehs’. Now isn’t this a miracle? He’s going to take away a ‘molleh’ and then he’s going to make me ‘molleh’.”

David didn’t know what ‘molleh’ might mean in English. He did know that ‘molleh’ in Yiddish had something to do with circumcision. Aunt Bertha was being reckless to-night …

But if his father had suffered because of Aunt Bertha’s puns, the next night it was Aunt Bertha who was suffering. His mother related what had happened. She had sat down very meekly and very quietly in the dentist’s chair, she had shut her eyes when the needle was put in her mouth, she had behaved very bravely. But when the first tooth was drawn and Doctor Goldberg had told her to spit, she had spat—not in the cuspidor beside the chair, but at Doctor Goldberg.

“Very worthy of praise!” his father snorted. “An example for sages!”

“So!” Aunt Bertha forgot her dolor. “May they pull all your teeth out soon. We’ll see how brave and how clever you are then! At least, it gives me satisfaction to think I spat at him, not at myself. And you!” she turned petulantly on her sister. “You’re very clever too! You saw I was stunned with fright! You saw my eyes were shut because my head was whirling so hard I didn’t know where I was. He said open your mouth, I opened it—wide as a sack! Shut it. I shut it. Spit—! Go look for a spittoon when you’re ready to faint! It serves him right for standing in the way.”

His mother’s lips trembled in laughter, but she pressed them soberly together. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, sister. I know how much you’ve suffered already. I’m sorry! But come! You’re three teeth nearer to those golden kernels you admire so much.”

“Nearer?” She touched the bare red gums gingerly. “Emptier you mean. You’re sure he won’t plant the new ones in the holes he’s made?”

“No! No!” His mother reassured her. “He told you, didn’t he? They hang like a gate.”

“Britches, he called them, no?” Aunt Bertha cheered up ruefully. “Pritchig, he ought to call them, a hearth in other words, there’s such a fire in my mouth. But I will look handsomer soon, won’t I?”

“What else!” Her brother-in-law’s cheek scrolled into a sour smile.…

* * *

After Aunt Bertha’s gums had healed, she began visiting the dentist’s twice a week, and at first complained bitterly and went there only with the greatest reluctance. In the space of a fortnight, however, her attitude underwent a remarkable change. She now began to go there eagerly, expectantly, and to stay sometimes twice as long. There were no longer any complaints, no longer any detailed descriptions of the various types of pain different dental instruments could inflict. All that seemed to have been forgotten. A new excitement had seized her, a guilty excitement that made her run to a mirror and regard herself closely and then look about to see if she was being watched. She began to fuss with her hair and blouse, arch her short neck, smile in a way that would reveal her temporary gold crown, dowse herself with densely redolent perfume. Something was wrong. At least twice a week David was excluded from the kitchen while she bathed in the washtubs. And here it was Autumn. And she bought face powder which caked and flaked on her cheeks and looked very queer and white flecking her reddish eyebrows. Something was very wrong. Presently her visits to the dentist’s increased from two to three times a week and shortly to four.

This unwonted frequency, unwonted eagerness and strange behavior in general had aroused not only the curiosity of David and his mother, but his father’s silent, impassive questioning as well. To his mother’s circumspect inquiries, Aunt Bertha had at first explained that there was much work being done on her teeth, work of a subtle and occult nature, a delicate prying and adjusting that could only be felt but hardly demonstrated. Of course, she confessed with a cryptic giggle, were she to insist, she could probably get the same amount of work done in two visits as easily as in four, but she really preferred going there as many times as possible. It was so pleasant being there now, she explained. There was hardly any pain, or at least so little it wasn’t worth mentioning. One grows accustomed to sorrows, she elucidated. And beside, the waiting room where all the patients gathered was so homelike, and the people so fluent in English that it was both pleasant and instructive to be among them. Also, it was disclosed, Doctor Goldberg’s wife frequently came into the waiting room to chat with them in really “fency Engalish.” And what especially put everyone at their ease was that while Mrs. Goldberg conversed in this very superior English, she also carried on some homely domestic duty such as chipping noodles or mixing the batter of a sponge-cake. Aunt Bertha would show his mother some day how to make a sponge-cake. And so it was all homely and refined. And of course, one had to look decent! And she, Mrs. Goldberg, had introduced Aunt Bertha to a very fine man, albeit a Russian, who was a children’s leggings’ cutter and who was having the identical type of work done to his mouth that was being done to Aunt Bertha’s. His name, by the way, was Nathan Sternowitz, and was he jolly! And so, all over again, it was all very homelike, very jolly and very refined.

Nothing more was said about the matter for a short time—at least nothing while David was within earshot. But on Friday night, a few days later, Aunt Bertha decided to take her sister completely into her confidence. On that night, the dentist’s office was regularly closed and Aunt Bertha remained at home. She had been silent until David’s father had gone to bed, which was at about eight-thirty, and only began speaking when the regular hiss of his breathing could be heard behind the bedroom door. Fortunately for David, it had become his privilege to defer his bed-time till nine o’clock and even later on Fridays and Saturdays, there being no school the following mornings. He heard it all. As it chanced, his mother was at that moment tracing for him the crooked boundary of a pink Austria on the map of a geography book not yet begun in school. And she had just informed him laughingly that Veljish was too much of a dot in reality to be seen even by the combined lights of candle and gas, when Aunt Bertha cleared her throat suddenly and spoke:

“Well, Genya, your man is asleep.”

The cautious, subdued nervousness of her tone made both David and his mother look up. Aunt Bertha was frowning warily and fingering her gold crown. His mother glanced first at her and then at the bedroom door.

“So he is. What is it?”

“I’m not going to the dentist’s tomorrow,” she said bluntly. “I haven’t been going there for weeks—at least not every time I left here. I’m going ‘kippin’ companyih’!”

“Going what?” His mother knit her brow. “What are you doing?”

“Kippin’ companyih! It’s time you learned a little more of this tongue. It means I have a suitor.”

“Then blessed is God!” his mother laughed. “Who is he— But I know! This Sternowitz!”

“Yes. I’ve hinted his name to you. But I don’t want him to know.” She nodded warningly toward the bedroom. “He’d gloat if it went all to smash. That’s why I’ve said nothing.”

“You’re too harsh with him, Bertha,” her sister smiled placatingly. “He doesn’t wish you any harm. Really he doesn’t. It’s his nature. It will be that way always.”

“A bitter nature.” Aunt Bertha rejoined spitefully. “And always is the time one spends under earth. That’s where he ought—”

“Ach, Bertha! Hush!”

“Yes, let’s not talk too much. He may hear me. And after all he is your husband. But you won’t tell him, will you? Not till all is certain. You promise? Remember,” she pointed her remark. “I’ve kept your secrets well.”

Her words sent a sudden wave of curiosity through David. Secrets! His mother’s! Looking up, he saw a deep rose in his mother’s throat and fainter petals dappling the waxen sheen of her flat cheek. Their eyes met. She was silent, touched the water in the candlestick cups that would ultimately quench the flame.

“Forgive me!” Aunt Bertha said hastily. “Really I didn’t mean—I didn’t mean to be so—so thick! May my tongue fall out if I meant to offend you!”

His mother glanced at the bedroom door and then smiled suddenly. “Don’t be embarrassed! I’m not offended.”

“Are you sure?” Aunt Bertha asked hesitantly.

“Why, of course!”

“But you grew so red, I thought I had angered you. Or—” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Is it Albert?”

“No.” She answered calmly. “None of those things. The son was staring in my eyes.”

“Oh!” Aunt Bertha was relieved. “I thought that—” and she fixed on David accusingly. “Are you listening, you rogue?”

“What?” His eyes wandered vacantly from the open book on the table to Aunt Bertha, and dropped to the book again.

“Ach!” Aunt Bertha brushed away her sister’s objections. “He’s dreaming of Veljish, the little oaf.”

“I’m not so sure.” His mother laughed. “But what were you saying? The man is what? A leggings’ cutter?”

“Yes. A children’s leggings’ cutter. He has a very good job and he makes good money. But—” She scratched her head vehemently and left her sentence hanging in air.

“Well, what’s troubling you? Is he so homely? What?”

“Ach! Pt! Do you believe in love?”

“I?” His mother smiled. “No.”

“No! Tell that to your grandmother there in her grave. You’ve read every German Romance in Austria. Do you know?” She looked at her sister as if a new thought had struck her. “I’ve never seen you read a book since I’ve been here.”

“Who has time even to read a paper?”

“They were bad for you.” Aunt Bertha continued after a moment of reflection. “They made you odd and made your thoughts odd. They gave you strange notions you shouldn’t have had.”

“So you’ve told me. And so did father—scores of times.”

“Well, it would have been better if you had listened to him. They spoiled you—understand? You weren’t—not what shall I say?—good. You were good enough, the gentlest of us all. But you weren’t truly Jewish. You were strange. You didn’t have a Jew’s nature.”

“And what kind of a nature is that?”

“Ach!” Aunt Bertha said impatiently. “You see? You smile! You’re too calm, too generous. That’s wrong! That’s bad! Don’t be offended with me, but perhaps you’ve forgotten what a mopish, calf-eyed creature you were. You looked so—” Aunt Bertha’s jaw dropped. Her red tongue hung out. “And so—” Her eyes climbed up into some cranny under the lids. “Always a cloudy look! Not a suitor they brought you would you accept. And there were some among them at whose feet I would have fallen!” She perched her head back further on her shoulders to stress her own worth and the consequent immensity of that gesture. “German Romances! They did that! And then you married Albert—of all the choices to make.”

His mother regarded her with a mixture of perplexity and despair. “What are you talking about? Is it me, yourself or German Romances?”

“Nothing!” Aunt Bertha shrugged her shoulders huffily. “I was talking about love. Lupka—”

There was that Polish again. David felt a twinge of resentment.

“Oh now, I know,” said his mother lightly in Yiddish. “Go on.”

“How can I, when you mock everything I say.”

“I? How?”

“I know you’ve been in love, but when I ask you whether you believe in it, you answer, no.”

“Very well, I do. Listening to you convinces me. But what has that to do with it?”

“You see? Now you do! You’re exactly what father said you were! You were gentle of heart, but only the devil understood you. I’m your sister. You’ve never told me about yourself. You don’t even care to hear what vexes me.”

“Sh!” his mother raised a warning finger. “Now just what is vexing you? Tell me.”

“First tell me why you married Albert.” Her voice suddenly dropped. “After you knew what he had—what kind of a man he—”

“Ach! Hush!” his mother shook her head impatiently. “Bertha, sister, you’re the silliest woman I’ve ever known. What is there to tell? I was the oldest. There were three daughters younger than I—you, Yetta, Sadie—pushing me toward the canopy. What else could I do?”

“Tell that to your grandmother also.” Aunt Bertha continued peevishly. “Father wouldn’t say anything. Mother wouldn’t speak. And yet there was a rumor among us—a saying. But who? Why won’t you—”

“Come! No more!” His mother’s voice was curt, strangely severe for her. “Not here!”

David had just enough time to duck his head toward his geography book before her glance flashed his way. In the pause that followed, he kept his eyes there, intently, rigidly, turning the book now this way, now that, feigning the greatest abstraction. Much that he had heard, he hadn’t quite understood, it was all so vague, flurried, mysterious. Aunt Bertha had a suitor. His name was Nathan something or other. He made leggings. What was love? But he didn’t care about that. He didn’t care if Aunt Bertha had a dozen suitors. What fascinated him, stirred him to the depths, were the two threads he had unearthed, the two threads he clung to. His father had done something. What? No one would say. His mother? Even Aunt Bertha didn’t know. What? What? He was so excited, he didn’t dare look up, didn’t dare move his eyes on his tracing finger. He prayed his mother would go on, would answer, would reveal what Aunt Bertha had been hinting at. But she didn’t. To his great disappointment, she veered suddenly. When she spoke again, her voice had regained its calm.

“Tell me, sister, why are you so irritable?”

Aunt Bertha twisted stubby fingers together, scratched her head frantically, sending the hair pins shooting up out of her red hair. “Because I’m frightened.”

“But why? What have you done in God’s name?”

“Nothing. Do you think I’m a fool! Let that man dare—! But why is it that since you married, everyone in our family has married as I would wish my enemies?”

“I don’t know.” His mother sat back hopelessly. “Are you going to begin that all over again?”

“Haven’t I right to be frightened?” She rubbed her palms against her thighs, thumbed them to see if they were dry and then dried them on her disheveled hair. “Who wouldn’t be if he felt like a calf being led to the shambles?”

“Don’t be foolish, Bertha.”

“There’s a curse on this tribe, I tell you. It’s a bruised seed.”

“Ach!” Impatiently. “Who is he? Tell me about him.”

“I’m ashamed to.”

“Shall we stop talking about it then?” His mother’s look had an air of finality about it.

“No.” Aunt Bertha frowned sullenly. “Even though you wouldn’t tell me about yourself I’ll tell you. Nathan Sternowitz is a—a widower. There you have it! Now you’re satisfied, aren’t you?”

“Well, in God’s name!” his mother relaxed, relieved. “Is that all? Is that why you’ve been plaguing yourself and me? A widower. I thought he was—I don’t know what—without legs or arms!”

“God forbid!” And then eagerly, “So you don’t think it’s a shame, a scandal that I should marry a widower—I’m not really an old maid.”


“But he’s thirteen years older than I am. Thirty-eight, mind you. And ai! he has two children already. It is a scandal!” she moaned dismally. “It is a scandal!”

“It’s scandalous how silly you are!” her sister laughed shortly. “Do you love him?”

“Woe is me, no! And he doesn’t love me either, so don’t ask me.”


“Oh, we’re fond of each other. We laugh a great deal when we’re together. We talk a great deal. But anybody can be fond of anybody who’s fond of—Ai!” she exclaimed desperately. “I’m fond of him! But he doesn’t believe in love! He says that love is a pinch here,” she indicated her ample busts and then her thighs, “and a pinch there and nothing more. And if that’s all it is, then I don’t believe in it myself. But I’m not sure.”

“It really isn’t much more,” his mother’s upper lips creased into a smile. “If you want to look at it that way.”

“But will they laugh at me? The girls in the shop? Or the folks in Veljish? When they hear I’ve married a widower with two daughters? They’re half-grown, you know, ten and eleven.”

“Veljish is too far away to worry about, sister. And even if it were only as far away as that Brownsville we lived in, why should you care? And you of all people worrying about what others think! For shame! I thought you were bold!”

“But to be a stepmother at twenty-five! Or even at twenty-six! What will it be like? To take the place of a woman in her grave? Ai!” She gnawed her thumb. “And they say they always forget and call you sometimes by their wife’s name. Rachel! And she lies in her shroud! It makes me shudder!”

“So that’s what you’re really afraid of? You’re superstitious! Well, if that’s not the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!”

“I don’t know,” she answered spiritlessly. “I hate quiet and I hate death.”

“Then don’t fear! You probably won’t meet either for a long time. I see you’re just a child after all. But listen to me. Women in their shrouds aren’t a bit jealous. It’s the dead within yourself who won’t sleep. That would be the least of my troubles. Still, if you can’t get over it, if the very thought makes you so frightened, why do you want to marry him at all?”

Aunt Bertha’s customary verve and impudence had vanished, and with it her boisterous manner that was part of her even when she spoke quietly. But though her lips drooped and she seemed to address her words to the floor, dully, falteringly, there was still a remnant of stubborn, blunt defiance in her tone and the way she jerked her head. “I’m not handsome—that you know—not even with that new powder on my face—or this bit of gold.” She lifted her lip. “Don’t cheer me! At me no one ever looks—not even on Sunday and you know I’ve stopped sleeping in my new dresses. Money for marriage brokers—may they choke—I haven’t. So what else? He’s the first one to ask me—well really the first—and he may be all. I don’t want to wear my buttocks to the bone sitting in a shop,” her calloused thumb and forefinger began rubbing together, “and weave paper flowers and rag flowers all my life.”

“That’s foolish, Bertha,” her sister remonstrated gently. “You speak as though you had not one good quality, as though you were hopeless. Come, if one has asked, others will.”

“The longer I wait, the more money I’ll have to save. And out of my three dollars a week, if I save anything, it will be a long wait.”

“No, it won’t! Don’t worry so much about saving. Just give the men a chance! You haven’t been in the country long enough. Why, Bertha, New York is full of all kinds of men who would want you!”

“Yes!” was her gloomy answer. “It’s also full of all kinds of glib, limber Jewesses who can play the piano. Go! Go!” she tossed her head petulantly. “By the time I learn to speak this tongue I’ll be what? Thirty! Old and dry! Others have money, others can dance, can sing with their hands so—Tuh-Tuh-ruh! All I can do is laugh and eat—my only talents! If I don’t get a man now—” She waved her hand as if throwing something away. “Maybe I won’t even be able to do that.”

“Ach! You won’t lose your gusto so quickly.” And after a short pause. “What is he like?”

She thrust her lips out deprecatingly. “A Jew, like others.”

“Yes. Well?”

“In appearance, nothing, short as I am and as homely. He’s slender though, and here and here,” she pointed to the peaks of her brows, “his hair is creeping out. What he has is brown, curly. Two small eyes,” she sighed gustily, “a long nose like a hinge. He’s neat. He doesn’t smoke—he’s like Albert!” She snickered significantly. “But he has one habit I’m going to break him of—he cuts his bread into little boxes when he eats. He takes his own knife out and cuts it up. Pheh! But he’s very pliant and he never grows angry. He’s jolly. He tells long yarns. You see I could rule.”

“I see.”

“And I’ll tell you more!” A swell of eagerness washed away her gloom. “He’s not dull! He has schemes for making money. We could get ahead! This week he asked me whether I would like to run a candy store if we were married. He would buy it and I would run it. You know what that means? He could earn money cutting leggings. I would earn money in the store—”

“And the house?”

“To the devil with it! I hate housekeeping! Anyway, his two wenches are big enough to take care of that! A candy store! Life would be lusty that way! Heh! It would be like living at a fair all the time.”

“And you could have your candy that way!” his mother laughed slyly. “You’ll like that.”

“So I would!” Aunt Bertha continued unaware. “Isn’t it queer how it turns out—from candy to teeth to candy?”

“Yes. And may it all be with good fortune!”

“God willing! Then I can bring him here sometimes to have supper?”

“Why, of course!”

“And you won’t say anything to Albert—at least till I tell you, till I’m sure? An engagement ring soon with God’s blessing!”


“Ai!” Aunt Bertha put her palms together and prayed, “May he forget Rachel soon, that’s my only wish! And if he doesn’t,” she suddenly screwed her mouth together shrewishly. “I’ll take two stones and pound it out of his head!”

“With you for a wife, I think he’ll forget her soon enough.” His mother smiled …