Call It Sleep VII

ABOUT a week had passed. On coming around the corner of Avenue D that afternoon, David spied his mother walking on the other side of the street. She was hurrying toward the house and carried several parcels in her hand. Catching sight of her accidentally this way always gave him an intense thrill of pleasure. It was as though the street’s shifting intricacy had flowered into the simple steadiness of her presence, as though days not hours had passed since he had seen her before, because days not hours had passed since he had last seen her in the street. He bounded across the gutter and after her.


She stopped, smiled down at him. “Is it you?”

“Yes.” He fell into step beside her. “Where are you going?”

“Home, naturally,” she answered. “Are you coming up stairs with me?”


“Carry this then,” she handed him a parcel.

Laundry. He knew it by the clean smell and the yellow paper it was wrapped in. “Did the Chinaman give you those sweet candy-nuts?”

“I didn’t think of asking,” she answered apologetically. “A pity!”

“Mmm.” He said mournfully.

“Next time, I will though.”

“What are you carrying there?” he pointed to a small, square newspaper-wrapped object she held in her hand.

“A surprise.”

“For me?” he asked hopefully.

“Well,” she hesitated, “for everyone.”

“Oh!” he looked at it dubiously. It seemed far too small a package to surprise everyone.

They had reached the house and went in.

“Can I see?”

“Yes, as soon as we’ve gotten upstairs.”

At their door at last, he waited impatiently for her to find the right key. They tiptoed in. They never spoke above a whisper in the afternoon when his father was asleep in the bedroom.

His mother opened the newspaper—a picture.

“Oh!” He felt mildly disappointed.

“It doesn’t pass muster?” she laughed.

David examined it more closely. It was a picture of a small patch of ground full of tall green stalks, at the foot of which, tiny blue flowers grew.

“Yes, I like it,” he said uncertainly.

“I bought it on a pushcart,” she informed him with one of her curious, unaccountable sighs. “It reminded me of Austria and my home. Do you know what that is you’re looking at?”

“Flowers?” he guessed, shaking his head at the same time.

“That’s corn. That’s how it grows. It grows out of the earth, you know, the sweet corn in the summer—it isn’t made by pushcart pedlars.”

“What are those blue flowers under it?”

“In July those little flowers come out. They’re pretty, aren’t they? You’ve seen them, yes, you have, fields and fields of them, only you’ve forgotten, you were so young.” She looked up at the walls. “And where shall I hang it? I saw a nail, a nail. When I was a little girl,” she said irrelevantly, “a fire broke out in a neighboring house, and my cousin grew so excited that all he could do was cry—A ladder, a ladder, a ladder! An ax, an ax, an ax! Foolish things people say—There! There’s one.” She carried a chair carefully to the wall, stood up on it.

David had hardly ever seen his mother so animated, so gay before. He felt like laughing at her.

She stepped down and gazed up at the picture she had just hung. “It’s a bit lofty even for corn but it will do. It’s better than a calendar, anyway.”

“What did you get it for?”

She shook her finger at him in playful warning. “We’re having company, don’t you know? Bertha’s ‘kippin-companyih-man’ is coming. Do I say it well? She taught me.” And after a pause. “Are you eager to see him?”

“Aaa!” He shrugged indifferently.

“Ach! What a bad nephew you are! Not even eager to behold you aunt’s new suitor! He’ll be your uncle if she marries him. You’ll have an American uncle then. A yellow one. Did you ever think of that? Of course not! Ach, you!”

David regarded her silently, wondering why that should excite anyone.

“I really believe,” she continued in a scolding, bantering whisper, “that you think of nothing. Now honest, isn’t that so? Aren’t you just a pair of eyes and ears! You see, you hear, you remember, but when will you know? If you didn’t bring home those handsome report cards, I’d say you were a dunce, my only son.”

“I’m going down,” he answered steadfastly.

“Oh, you are a dunce!” she laughed ruefully. “Bertha is right! But wait! You’ll have to be back a little earlier, darling. I must wash you and comb your hair and change your shirt for our visitor’s sake.”

“Naaa!” He was at the door.

“And no kiss?” She caught him by the shoulders, kissed him. “There! Savory, thrifty lips! Don’t be late!”

He went down—wonderingly and just a little disturbed. He didn’t mind being called a dunce. After all, she was only joking. Hadn’t she laughed and kissed him? And beside, if he hadn’t shown any interest in his future uncle, she hadn’t shown any in himself. Forgetting Chinee nuts that way! When they were free too, and she knew how fond of them he was. He wondered if the Chinaman would give him any if he went in now and told him that his mother had just gotten some laundry out—what kind? Shirts. Yes. His father was going to dress up too. Maybe stiff collars, though the parcel didn’t feel that way. Will you give me some nuts, Mr.—Mr. What? She forgot to ask, my mother forgot! Mr.—Mr. Chinee-Chink! Funny. Walk past anyway and look in. Funny. But—what? What? He had been wondering about something he told himself. Yes. Something. But now he couldn’t remember. Not chinee-nuts. No. Company was coming? Maybe, no.

He left the stoop, turned west. The Chinese laundry was near the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue C. He walked slowly, idly, aware but no longer overcome or even troubled by the movement of vehicles and people. He knew his world now. With a kind of meditative assurance, he singled out the elements of the ever-present din—the far voices, the near, the bells of a junk wagon, the sing-song cry of the I-Cash-clothes-man, waving his truncheon-newspaper, the sloshing jangle of the keys on the huge ring on the back of the tinker. There was more blue in the air of afternoons now; the air was brisker fixing houses in a cold, sunless, brittle light. He looked up. They were both gone—the two cages on the first floor fire-escape. A parrot and a canary. Awk! awk! the first cried. Eee—tee—tee—tweet! the other. A smooth and a rusty pulley. He wondered if they understood each other. Maybe it was like Yiddish and English, or Yiddish and Polish, the way his mother and aunt sometimes spoke. Secrets. What? Was wondering. What? Too cold now. Birds go south, teacher said. But pigeons don’t. Sparrows don’t. So how? Funny, birds were. In the park on Avenue C. Eat brown. Shit green. On the benches is green. On the railings. So how? Don’t you? Apples is red and white. Chicken is white. Bread, watermelon, gum-drops, all different colors. But—Don’t say. Is bad. But everybody says. Is bad though.… And he drifted on toward the corner drug-store, glanced at the red and green mysterious fluid in the glass vases and turned right.

But was wondering. He sifted the mind’s trinkets, searching for one elusive. Was wondering. Birds? Not birds. Bad words? No. Before that. When? Aunt Bertha, the new man? No. Can’t find. Funny. Maybe his name? Mr—Mr. What. Yes. Maybe. No—But—Approaching the laundry, he gazed up at the low sign, the dull black letters against the dull red. C-h-Chuh-Ch-ar-ley. Charley, American name. Just like Charley in school. But something else maybe, like Yussie is Joey. Gee, forgot. Yussie! L-i-ng. Ling. Ling-a-ling. Is Jewish. Can’t be. Ling. Don’t like. How it hangs in the butcher shop. Mister Ling.

He stopped, looked at the window and as he was about to step closer, shrill familiar voices hailed him from behind.

“Hey, Davy!”

He turned. They were Izzy and Maxie; both lived in his block and both were in his class in school.

“W’ea yuh goin’?” Izzy asked.

“No place.”

“So w’y wuz yuh lookin’ in de Chinkee-chinaman’s windeh?”

“’Cause my modder god hea de lundry, bot she didn’ ged no nots.”

“So yuh wanna esk?” Izzy caught hold of the idea quickly. “Comm on, we’ll all go in.”

“Naa, I jos’ wannid t’look.” David thought rapidly. “Maybe my modder’ll comm hea after, so I’ll go in.”

With one accord, they drew near the window, peered in under the shade of cupped hands. Within, behind the high-counter, painted green, the queued and slant-eyed laundry-man blew a spray of water on a piece of laundry out of a tin atomizer. He seemed too absorbed in his work to notice them.

“Betcha yuh could ged now!” Izzy urged. “Hey, Maxie, you go in an’ say yuh Davy, like dat. So he’ll t’ink yuh Davy, so he’ll give. So we’ll ged. Yeh? Den Danvy’s mama’ll comm so we’ll ged again.”

“Yaa!” Maxie declined. “Go in yuhself! Dey god long knifes!”

“Like a lady, he looks,” said Izzy reflectively. “Wod a big tail he’s god on his head. Led’s knock on de windeh. Maybe he’ll look op.”

“Maybe he’ll run afteh yuh too.” Maxie objected.

Izzy pressed his nose against the glass. “I knew a Chinky,” he declared. “Wot he didn’ hev no hen’s. So he wrote wit’ de mout’ wit’ dot stick all de funny like dat”—he squirmed and contracted into ideographs—“on de tickets.”

“So how did he irun, wise guy?” Maxie sneered almost wearily. “How did he hol’ de bigl-irun?”

“He didn’ hol’ id. Sommbody else holded id.”

“Yuh see w’ea de Chinee nots is?” Maxie peered obliquely into the window. “In dot box? Yee! yum! yum! Dey break foist easy. Den dere’s inside soft an’ good. Yum! Den dere’s inside black wood. So id’s hod an’ slippery. So yuh hol’ id in yuh mout’, so it gives wawdeh.”

“I know sommbody,” Izzy contributed, “wod he bruck de hod pod wid a hemmeh. An’ inside wuz annuder liddle suft an’ good. An’ inside wuz annuder liddle black one. So he bruck dat. An’ inside wuz anudder liddle suft an’ good one an’ inside wuz unudder liddle hod one. So—”

“So wot?” Maxie demanded belligerently.

“So he lost id.”


They were silent a moment, and then Izzy wistfully. “Bet I could eat a million!”

“Me too!” Maxie concurred eagerly. “W’en’s yuh modder commin’?”

David was startled. He hadn’t thought they would take him seriously. “I don’ know,” he answered evasively and began backing away from the window.

“But yuh said she wuz commin’,” they insisted, following him.

“Maybe she ain’. I don’ know.”

“So w’ea yuh goin’?” They turned south toward Ninth, he north toward Tenth.

“No place.” He looked blank.

“Wadda boob!” said Izzy vehemently. “He neveh hengs oud wid nobody.”

And so they parted.