Call It Sleep VIII

HE HAD sat there a long time. Steadiness slowly returned to him. The planks of the dock stiffened and grew firm. He rose.

—Funny little lights all gone. Like when you squeeze too hard on a toilet. Better go home.

He approached the end of the dock. Voices, as he neared the cobble, made him look over to the left. Three boys, coming from Eighth Street, climbed nimbly over the snarled chaos of the open junk heap. At the sight of David, they hallooed, leapt down to level ground and raced toward him. All wore caps cocked sideways and sweater, red and green, smeared, torn at the breast and elbows. Two were taller than David, wiry, blue-eyed, upturned noses freckled. The other, dark-skinned and runty, looked older than the rest and carried in his hand a sword made of a thin strip of metal that looked like sheet zinc and a long bolt wired across it near one end. One glance at their tough, hostile faces, smirched by the grime and rust of the junk heap and screwed up into malicious watchfulness was enough. David’s eyes darted about for an opening. There was none—except back to the dock. Trapped, he stood still, his frightened gaze wavering from one menacing face to another.

“Wadda yiz doin’ on ’at dock?” growled the runty one side-mouthed. The sunlight glanced along the sheet zinc sword as he pointed.

“N—Nottin. I was’n’ doin’ nott’n. Dey was boats dere.”

“How old ’re youse?”

“I’m—I’m eight already.”

“Well, w’y aintchjis in school?”

“Cause id’d, cause—” But something warned him. “Cause I— cause my brudder’s god measles.”

“Dot’s a lodda bullshit, Pedey.” This from the freckled one. “He’s onna hook.”

“Yea. Tell ’at tuh Sweeney.”

“We oughta take yiz tuh a cop,” added the second freckled one.

“Betcha de cop’ll tell yuh,” urged David, hoping for no better fate.

“Nah! We know,” Pedey scornfully rejected the idea. “W’ere d’yiz live?”

“Dere.” He could see the very windows of his own floor. “Dat house on nint’ stritt. My mudders gonna look oud righd away.”

Pedey squinted in the direction David pointed.

“Dat’s a sheeney block, Pedey,” prompted the second freckled lieutenant with ominous eagerness.

“Yea. Yer a Jew aintchiz?”

“No I ain’!” he protested hotly. “I ain’ nod a Jew!”

“Only sheenies live in dat block!” countered Pedey narrowly.

“I’m a Hungarian. My mudder ’n’ fodder’s Hungarian. We’re de janitors.”

“W’y wuz yuh lookin upstairs?”

“Cause my mudder wuz washin’ de floors.”

“Talk Hungarian,” challenged the first lieutenant.

“Sure like dis. Abashishishabababyo tomama wawa. Like dot.”

“Aa, yuh full o’ shit!” sneered the second lieutenant angrily. “C’mom, Pedey, let’s give ’im ’is lumps.”

“Yea!” the other freckled one urged. “C’mon. He ain’ w’ite. Yi! Yi! Yi!” He wagged his palms under his chin.

“Naa!” Pedey nudged his neighbor sharply. “He’s awri’. Led ’im alone.” And to David. “Got any dough? We’ll match yiz pennies.”

“No, I ain’ god nodd’n. Id’s all in mine house.” He would have been glad to have the two pennies now if only they would let him go.

“Let’s see yer pockets.”

“Hea, I’ll show yuh,” he hastily turned them inside out. “Nod even in duh watch pocket.”

“C’mon, Pedey,” urged first lieutenant, advancing.

“Lemme go!” David whimpered, shrinking back.

“Naa! Let ’im alone,” ordered Pedey. “He’s awright. Let’s show ’im de magic. Waddayah say?”

“Yea! At’s right!” The other two seconded him. “C’mon! Yuh wanna see some magic?”

“No-no. I don’ wanna.”

“Yuh don’!” Pedey’s voice rose fiercely. The others strained at the leash.

“W—wa’ kind o’ magic?”

“C’mon, we’ll show yiz, won’ we, Weasel? Over dis way.” His sword pointed across the junk-heap toward Tenth Street. “Where de car tracks is.”

“So wod yuh gonna do?” he held back.

“C’mon we’ll show yiz.” They hemmed him in cutting off retreat. “Ah’ here’s my sword—G’wan take it, fore we—” He thrust it into David’s hands. He took it. They moved forward.

At the foot of the junk-heap, the lieutenant named Weasel stopped. “Waid a minute,” he announced, “I godda take a piss.”

“Me too,” said the others halting as well. They unbuttoned. David edged away.

“Lager beer,” chanted Pedey as he tapped forehead, mouth, chest and navel, “comes from here—”

“Ye see,” Weasel pointed triumphantly at the shrinking David. “I tol’ yuh he aín’ w’ite. W’y don’tchiz piss?”

“Don’ wanna. I peed befaw.”

“Aw, hosschit.” He lifted one leg.


With a howl of glee, the other two pounced on him.

“Eli, eli, a bundle of strawr,” they thumped his back. “Farting is against de lawr—”

“Leggo!” Weasel shook them off viciously.

“Well yiz farted—Hey!” Pedey swooped down on David. “Stay here, or yuh’ll get a bust on de bugle! C’mon! An’ don’t try to duck on us.”

With one on either side of him and one behind, David climbed up the junk heap and threaded his way cautiously over the savage iron morraine. Only one hope sustained him—that was to find a man on the other side to run to. Before him the soft, impartial April sunlight spilt over a hill of shattered stoves, splintered wheels, cracked drain pipes, potsherds, marine engines split along cruel and jagged edges. Eagerly, he looked beyond—only the suddenly alien, empty street and the glittering cartracks, branching off at the end.

“Peugh! Wadda stink!” Pedey spat. “Who opened his hole?”

From somewhere in the filth and ruin, the stench of mouldering flesh fouled the nostrils. A dead cat.

“C’mon, hurry up!”

As they neared the street, a rusty wire, tough root of a brutal soil, tripped David who had quickened his pace, and he fell against the sword bending it.

“He pissed in his w’iskers,” guffawed the second lieutenant.

Pedey grinned. Only Weasel kept his features immobile. He seemed to take pride in never laughing.

“Hol’ it, yuh dumb bassid,” he barked, “yuh bent it!”

“Waid a secon’,” Pedey warned them when they had reached the edge of the junk-heap. “Lemme lay putso.” He slid down, and after a furtive glance toward Avenue D, “Come on! Shake! Nobody’s aroun’.”

They followed him.

“Now we’re gonna show yiz de magic.”

“Waid’ll ye sees it,” Weasel chimed in significantly.

“Yea, better’n movin’ pitchiz!”

“Wadda yuh wan’ I shul do?” Their growing excitement added to his terror.

“Hurry up an’ take dat sword an’ go to dem tracks and t’row it in— See like dis. In de middle.”

“I don’t wanna go.” He began to weep.

“G’wan yuh blubber-mout’.” Weasel’s fist tightened.

“G’wan!” The other lieutenant’s face screwed up. “’Fore we kick de piss ouda yiz.”

“G’wan, an’ we’ll letchiz go,” promised Pedey. “G’wan! Shake!”

“If I jost pud id in?”

“Yea. Like I showed yuh.”

“An’ den yuh’ll led me go?”

“Sure. G’wan. Id ain’ gonna hoitcha. Ye’ll see all de movies in de woil! An’ vawderville too! G’wan before a car comes.”

“Sure, an’ all de angels.”

“G’wan!” Their fists were drawn back.

Imploringly, his eyes darted to the west. The people on Avenue D seemed miles away. The saloon-door in the middle of the block was closed. East. No none! Not a soul! Beyond the tarry rocks of the river-shore, the wind had scattered the silver plain into rippling scales. He was trapped.

“G’wan!” Their faces were cruel, their bodies stiff with expectancy.

He turned toward the tracks. The long dark grooves between each pair looked as harmless as they had always looked. He had stepped over them hundreds of times without a thought. What was there about them now that made the others watch him so? Just drop it, they said, and they would let him go. Just drop it. He edged closer, stood tip-toe on the cobbles. The point of the sheet-zinc sword wavered before him, clicked on the stone as he fumbled, then finding the slot at last, rasped part way down the wide grinning lips like a tongue in an iron mouth. He stepped back. From open fingers, the blade plunged into darkness.


Like a paw ripping through all the stable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance. Blinded, stunned by the brunt of brilliance, David staggered back. A moment later, he was spurting madly toward Avenue D.