Call It Sleep VII

ANOTHER week had passed. The two men had just gone off together. With something of an annoyed laugh, his mother went to the door and stood fingering the catch of the lock. Finally she lifted it. The hidden tongue sprang into its groove.

“Oh, what nonsense!” She unlocked it again, looked up at the light and then at the windows.

David felt himself growing uneasy. Why did Thursdays have to roll around so soon? He was beginning to hate them as much as he did Sundays.

“Why must they make proof of everything before they’re satisfied?” Her lips formed and unformed a frown. “Well, there’s nothing to do but go. I’ll wash those dishes later.” She opened the door and turned out the light.

Bewildered, David followed her into the cold, gas-lit hallway.

“We’re going upstairs to Mrs. Mink.” She cast a hurried look over the bannister. “You can play with your friend Yussie.”

David wondered why she needed to bring that up. He hadn’t said anything about wanting to play with Yussie. In fact, he didn’t even feel like it. Why didn’t she just say she was running away, instead of making him feel guilty. He knew whom she was looking for when she looked over the bannister.

His mother knocked at the door. It was opened. Mrs. Mink stood on the threshold. At the sight of his mother, she beamed with pleasure.

“Hollo, Mrs. Schearl! Hollo! Hollo! Comm een!” She scratched her lustreless, black hair excitedly.

“I hope you don’t find my coming here untimely,” his mother smiled apologetically.

“No, as I live!” Mrs. Mink lapsed into Yiddish. “You’re wholly welcome! A guest—the rarest I have!” She dragged a chair forward. “Do sit down.”

Mrs. Mink was a flat-breasted woman with a sallow skin and small features. She had narrow shoulders and meager arms, and David always wondered when he saw her how the thin skin on her throat managed to hold back the heavy, bulging veins.

“I thought I would never have the pleasure of seeing you in my house,” she continued. “It was only the other day that I was telling our landlady—Look, Mrs. Schearl and I are neighbors, but we know nothing of each other. I dare not ask her up into my house. I’m afraid to. She looks so proud.”

“I, proud?”

“Yes, not proud, noble! You always walk with your head in the air—so! And even when you go to market, you dress like a lady. I’ve watched you often from the window, and I’ve said to my man— Come here! Look, that’s her! Do you see how tall she is! He is not home now, my picture of a spouse, he works late in the jewelry store. I know he will regret missing you.”

David found himself quickly tiring of Mrs. Mink’s rapid stream of words, and looking about saw that Annie was observing him. Yussie was nowhere to be seen. He tugged his mother’s hand, and when she bent over, asked for him.

“Yussie?” Mrs. Mink interrupted herself long enough to say. “He’s asleep.”

“Don’t wake him,” said his mother.

“That’s all right. I’ve got to send him to the delicatessen for some bread soon. Yussele!” she called.

His only answer was a resentful yawn.

“He’s coming soon,” she said reassuringly.

In a few minutes, Yussie came out. One of his stockings had fallen, and he trod on it, shuffling sleepily. He blinked, eyed David’s mother suspiciously a moment, and then sidled over to David, “W’y’s yuh mudder hea?”

“She jost came.”

“W’y’d she comm?”

“I donno.”

At this point Annie hobbled over. “Pull yuh stockin’ op, yuh slob!”

Obediently Yussie hoisted up his stocking. David could not help noticing how stiff and bare the white stocking hung behind the brace on Annie’s own leg.

“So yuh gonna stay by us?” asked Yussie eagerly.


“H’ray! C’mon inna fron’room.” He grabbed David’s arm. “I godda—”

But David had stopped. “I’m goin’ inna fron’ room, mama.”

Turning from the chattering Mrs. Mink, David’s mother smiled at him in slight distress and nodded.

“Waid’ll I show yuh wod we god,” Yussie dragged him into the frontroom.

While Yussie babbled on excitedly, David stared about him. He had never been in Yussie’s front room before; Annie had barred the way as if it were inviolable ground. Now he saw a room which was illuminated by a gas lamp overhead and crowded with dark and portly furniture. In the middle of the floor stood a round glass-topped table and about it chairs of the same dark stain. A china closet hugged one wall, a bureau another, a dressing table a third, cabinets clogged the corners. All were bulky, all rested on the same kind of scrolled and finical paw. On the wall space above the furniture hung two pairs of yellowed portraits, two busts of wrinkled women with unnatural masses of black hair, and two busts of old men who wore ringlets under their skull caps and beards on their chins. With an expression of bleak hostility in their flat faces, they looked down at David. Barring the way to the window squatted a swollen purple plush chair, embroidered with agitated parrots of various hues. A large vapid doll with gold curls and a violet dress sat on the glass top of a cabinet. After his own roomy frontroom with its few sticks of furniture, David not only felt bewildered, he felt oddly warm.

“It’s inna closet in my modder’s bedroom.” Yussie continued. “Jost wait, I’ll show yuh.”

He disappeared into the darkness of the adjoining bedroom. David heard him open a door, rummage about for a minute. When he returned, he bore in his hand a curious steel cage.

“Yuh know wat dis’s fuh?” he held it up to David’s eyes.

David examined it more closely, “No. Wot d’yuh do wit’ it?”

“It c’n catch rats, dot’s wot yuh do wit’ it. See dis little door? De rat gizz in like dot.” He opened a thin metal door at the front of the cage. “Foist yuh put sompin ove’ hea, and on ’iz liddle hook. An’ nen nuh rat gizzin. Dey uz zuh big rat inna house, yuh could hear him at night, so my fodder bought dis, an’ my mudder put in schmaltz f’om de meat, and nuh rat comes in, an’ inna mawningk, I look unner by de woshtob, an’ooh—he wuz dere, runnin’ dis way like dot.” Yussie waved the cage about excitedly, “An I calls my fodder an’ he gets op f’om de bed an’ he fills op de woshtob and eeh! duh rat giz all aroun’ in it, in nuh watuh giz all aroun’. An’ nen he stops. An nen my fodder takes it out and he put it in nuh bag and trew it out f’om de winner. Boof! he fell inna guttah. Ooh wotta rat he wuz. My mudder wuz runnin’ aroun’, an aroun’ an after, my fodder kept on spittin’ in nuh sink. Kcha!”

David backed away in disgust.

“See, I tol’ yuh I had sumtin tuh show yuh. See, like dot it closes.” He snapped the little, metal door. “We didn’t hea’ it, cause ev’ybody wuz sleepin’. Rats on’y come out innuh da’k, w’en yuh can’t see ’em, and yuh know w’ea dey comin’ f’om, dey comin’ f’om de cellah. Dot’s w’ea dey live innuh cellah—all rats.”

The cellar! That explained it. That moment of fear when he turned the bottom landing before he went out into the street. He would be doubly terrified now.

“Wotta yuh doin?” They started at the intruding voice. It was Annie coming in. Her face was writhed back in disgust.

“Eee! Yuh stoopid lummox! Put it away. I’ll call mama!”

“Aaa, lemme alone.”

“Yuh gonna put it away?” she squealed.

“Aa, shit on you,” muttered Yussie sullenly. “Can’t do nuttin’.” Nevertheless, he carried the cage back to the bedroom.

“W’y d’yuh let ’im show it tuh yuh fuh?” she demanded angrily of David. “Such a dope!”

“I didn’ know wot it wuz,” he stammered.

“Yuh didn’ know wot it wuz? Yurra lummox too!”

“Now g’wan.” Yussie returned from the bedroom. “Leave us alone.”

“I will not,” she snapped. “Dis is my frontroom.”

“He don’ wanna play witchoo. He’s my frien!”

“So who wants him!”

“So don’ butt in.”

“Pooh!” She plumped herself in a chair. The steel brace clicked disagreeably against the wood.

David wished she could wear long pants like a man.

“Comm on ove’ by de winder,” Yussie guided him through a defile in the furniture. “We mus’ be a fireman. We c’n put out de fire inna house.” He indicated the bureau. “Yuh wanna?”


“An’ we c’n slide down duh pipe an’ we c’n have a fiuh-ingine, an’ nen I’ll be duh drivuh. Yuh wanna?”


“Den let’s make fiuh hats. Waid, I’ll get some paper inna kitchen.” He ran off.

Annie slid off the chair and came over. “Wot class yuh in?”


“I’m in 4A,” she said loftily. “I skipped a’reddy. An’ now I’m duh sma’test one in my class.”

David was impressed.

“My teacher’s name is Miss McCardy. She’s duh bes’ teacher inna whole school. She gave me A. A. A.”

By this time Yussie had returned bearing several sheets of newspaper.

“Wotta ya gonna do?” she demanded.

“Wotta you care!” he defied her. “We’ gonna be fiuhmen.”

“Yuh can’t!”

“No?” Yussie inquired angrily, “Why can’ we?”

“Cause yuh can’t, dat’s w’y! Cause yu’ll scratch op all de foinichuh.”

“We won’ scratch nuttin’!” stormed Yussie whirling the newspaper about in frustration. “We gonna play.”

“Yuh can’t!”

“We will!”

“I’ll give yuh in a minute,” she advanced threateningly.

“Aa! Wodda yuh wan’ us tuh play?”

“Yuh c’n play lottos.”

“I don’ wanna play lottos,” he whined.

“Den play school den.”

“I don’ wanna play school.”

“Den don’ play nuttin!” she said with finality.

A large bubble of saliva swelled from Yussie’s lips as he squeezed his face down to blubber. “I’ll tell mama on you!”

“Tell! She’ll give yuh a smack!” She whirled threateningly on David. “Wadda you wanna play?”

“I don’ know,” he drew back.

“Doncha know no games?” she fumed.

“I—I know tag an’ I know, I know hide an’ gussee’.”

Yussie revived. “Let’s play hide an’ gussee’.”


“You too!” he coaxed desperately. “C’mon, you too.”

Annie thought it over.

“C’mon I’ll be it!” And immediately, he leaned his face against the edge of a bureau and began counting. “G’wan hide!” he broke off.

“Wait!” shrilled Annie, hopping off. “Count twenny!”

David scurried behind the arm chair.

He was found last and accordingly was “it” next. In a little while the game grew very exciting. Since David was somewhat unfamiliar with the arrangement of the house, it chanced that several times he hid with Yussie when Annie was it and with Annie when Yussie was it. They had crouched together in barricaded corners and behind the bedroom door.

However, just as the game was reaching its greatest pitch, Mrs. Mink’s voice suddenly called out from the kitchen.

“Yussele! Yussele, my treasure, come here!”

“Aa!” from somewhere came Yussie’s exasperated bleat.

David, who was “it” at the time, stopped counting and turned around.

“Yussie!” Mrs. Mink cried again, but this time shriller.

“Can’t do nuttin’,” complained Yussie, crawling out from under the bureau. “Waddayuh want?” he bellowed.

“Come here. I want you to go down stairs for a minute.”

Annie, evidently aware that the game was over for the time being, came out of the adjoining bedroom. “He has to go down?”

“Yea,” diffidently. “Fuh bread.”

“Den we can’t play.”

“No. I’m gonna go back tuh my modder.”

“Stay hea,” she commanded, “We gonna play. Waid’ll Yussie comes back.”

The voices from the kitchen indicated that Yussie had been persuaded. He reappeared, dressed in coat and hat. “I’m goin’ down,” he announced, and went out again. An uncomfortable pause ensued.

“We can’t play till he comes back,” David reminded her.

“Yes, we can.”


“Wotcha want.”

“I don’t know wot.”

“Yuh know wot.”


“Yuh know,” she said mysteriously.

That was the game then. David congratulated himself on having discovered its rules so quickly.

“Yea, I know,” he answered in the same tone of mystery.

“Yea?” she peered at him eagerly.

“Yea!” he peered at her in the same way.

“Yuh wanna?”


“Yuh wanna den?”

“Yea, I wanna.” It was the easiest game he had ever played. Annie was not so frightening after all.


“W’ea?” he repeated.

“In the bedroom,” she whispered.

But she was really going!

“C’mon,” she motioned, tittering.

He followed. This was puzzling.

She shut the door: he stood bewildered in the gloom.

“C’mon,” she took his hand. “I’ll show yuh.”

He could hear her groping in the dark. The sound of an unseen door opening. The closet door.

“In hea,” she whispered.

What was she going to do? His heart began to race.

She drew him in, shut the door. Darkness, immense and stale, the reek of moth balls threading it.

Her breathing in the narrow space was loud as a gust, swooping down and down again. His heart throbbed in his ears. She moved toward him, nudged him gently with the iron slat of her brace. He was frightened. Before the pressure of her body, he retreated slightly. Something rolled beneath his feet. What? He knew instantly, and recoiled in disgust—the trap!

“Sh!” she warned. “Take me aroun’.” She groped for his hands.

He put his arms about her.

“Now let’s kiss.”

His lips touched hers, a muddy spot in vast darkness.

“How d’you play bad?” she asked.

“Bad? I don’ know,” he quavered.

“Yuh wan’ me to show how I?”

He was silent, terrified.

“Yuh must ask me,” she said. “G’wan ask me.”


“Yuh must say, Yuh wanna play bad? Say it!”

He trembled. “Yuh wanna play bad?

“Now, you said it,” she whispered. “Don’ forget, you said it.”

By the emphasis of her words, David knew he had crossed some awful threshold.

“Will yuh tell?”

“No,” he answered weakly. The guilt was his.

“Yuh swear?”

“I swear.”

“Yuh know w’ea babies comm from?”


“From de knish.”


“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.

“Yuh must!” she insisted, tugging his hand. “Yuh ast me!”


“Put yuh han’ in my knish,” she coaxed. “Jus’ once.”


“I’ll hol’ yuh petzel.” She reached down.

“No!” His flesh was crawling.

“Den take me ’round again.”

“No! No! Lemme oud!” he pushed her away.

“Waid. Yussie’ll t’ink we’re hidin’.”

“No! I don’ wanna!” He had raised his voice to a shout.

“So go!” she gave him an angry push.

But David had already opened the door and was out.

She grabbed him as he crossed the bedroom. “If you tell!” she whispered venomously. “W’ea yuh goin’?”

“I’m goin tuh my mamma!”

“Stay hea! I’ll kill yuh, yuh go inside!” She shook him.

He wanted to cry.

“An’ don’ cry,” she warned fiercely, and then strove desperately to engage him, “Stay hea an’ I’ll tell yuh a story. I’ll let yuh play fiuhman. Yuh c’n have a hat. Yuh c’n climb on de foinichuh. Stay hea!”

He stood still, watching her rigidly, half hypnotized by her fierce, frightened eyes. The outer door was opened. Yussie’s voice in the kitchen.

A moment later, he came in, breathlessly stripping off his coat.

“I god a penny,” he crowed.

“Yuh c’n play fiuhman, if yuh wan’,” she said severely.

“No foolin’? Yeh? H’ray! C’mon, Davy!”

But David held back. “I don’ wanna play.”

“C’mon,” Yussie grabbed a sheet of newspaper and thrust it into his hands. “We mus’ make a hat.”

“G’wan make a hat,” commanded Annie.

Cowed and almost sniffling, David began folding the paper into a hat.

He played listlessly, one eye always on Annie who watched his every move. Yussie was disgusted with him.

“David!” his mother’s voice calling him.

Deliverance at last! With a cry of relief, he tore off the fireman’s hat, ran down the frontroom stairs into the kitchen. His mother was standing; she seemed about to leave. He pressed close to her side.

“We must go now,” she said smiling down at him. “Say good night to your friends.”

“Good night,” he mumbled.

“Please don’t hurry off,” said Mrs. Mink. “It’s been such a pleasure to have you here.”

“I really must go. It’s past his bed time.”

David was in the van stealthily tugging his mother toward the door.

“This hour I have been in heaven,” said Mrs. Mink. “You must come often! I am never busy.”

“Many thanks.”

They hurried down the drafty stairs.

“I heard you playing in the frontroom,” she said. “You must have enjoyed your visit.”

She unlocked the door, lit the gas lamp.

“Dear God! The room has grown cold.” And picking up the poker, she crouched before the stove, shook down the dull embers behind the grate. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. At least one of us has skimmed a little pleasure out of this evening! What folly! And that Mrs. Mink. If I had known she talked so much, drays could not have dragged me up there!” She lifted the coal scuttle, shook some coal vehemently into the stove. “Her tongue spun like a bobbin on a sewing machine—and she sewed nothing. It’s unbelievable! I began to see motes before my eyes.” She shook her head impatiently and put down the coal scuttle. “My son, do you know your mother’s a fool? But you’re tired, aren’t you? Let me put you to bed.”

Kneeling down before him, she began unbuttoning his shoes. When she had pulled his stockings off, she lifted his legs, examined them a moment, then kissed each one. “Praise God, your body is sound! How I pity that poor child upstairs!”

But she didn’t know as he knew how the whole world could break into a thousand little pieces, all buzzing, all whining, and no one hearing them and no one seeing them except himself.