Call It Sleep XI

DECEMBER sunlight, porous and cloudy, molten on upper window panes. Though it was still early in the afternoon, the tide of cold shade had risen high on wooden houses and brick. Grey clots of snow still clung under the lee of the battered curb. The air was cold yet windless. Winter. To the left of the doorway a sewer steamed.

Noises to the right. He peered out. Before the tailor shop near the corner, a cluster of boys had gathered. Did he dare go over? What if Yussie were among them? He tried to find him. No, he wasn’t there. Then he could go over for a little while. He’d come back before Yussie came. Yes.

He drew near, warily. That was Sidney, Yonk. He knew them. The others? They lived around the corner maybe.

Sidney was in front; the rest followed him. David stood watching them.

“Wanna play?” Sidney asked.


“So git back of de line. Foller de leader. Boom! Boom! Boom!” He set the pace.

David fell into step behind the last boy. They marched cross the street in single file and stopped before a tall hydrant.

“Jump on Johnny Pump!” commanded Sidney leaping up on the two stumpy arms of the fire-plug. “One two t’ree! Yee!” He jumped off.

In their turn, the rest leaped up, and then ran after him, shouting. Sidney zig-zagged back and forth across the street, lurching against ash-cans, leaping up and down stoops, stepping only on lines in the pavement, and obeying every stray whim that drifted through his head. David liked the game.

Arrived at the barber-pole, Sidney waited for his breathless cohorts to draw up.

“Follow de blue one,” he ordered, and beginning at the bottom of the blue spiral, wound around and round the pole until he stood tiptoe and the band he traced was beyond his reach. When the others had accomplished this feat, he crouched down, crept under the corbel of the barber-shop window, and when he reached the end, poked his head into the doorway and chanted in a croaking voice: “Chickee de cop, behin, de rock. De monkey’s in de ba’ba shop!” And he fled.

The rest squealed the words as he had done, but with increasing haste and diminishing lustiness and sped after him. By the time David’s turn had come, the barber was already at the threshold fuming with irritation. David mutely skirted the doorway and scurried on.

“He didn’ say it!” they jeered.

“Sca’cat w’yntcha say it?” Sidney rebuked him.

“I couldn’t,” he grinned apologetically. “He wuz stannin’ dere awreddy.”

“Foller de leader nex’ time!” Sidney warned him.

Chagrined, David resolved to do better, and thereafter followed faithfully all his leader’s antics, not even balking at running up and down the wooden stairs that led into the ice-man’s cellar.

The game had reached a high peak of excitement. The boy immediately preceding David had just rolled over the lower of two railings before the tailor’s shop, and now it was David’s turn. He grasped the bar, leaned against it, as the rest had done, and began a slow and cautious spin about it. In that strange moment of chaos when house-top and sky hung upside down and the others seemed standing on their heads in air, the inverted face of a man passed through and revolved with the revolving space. A glimpse of black pits, his nostrils, fat cheeks under the rim of his derby, all moving below legs. “Funny,” he thought as the soles of his feet landed on the pavement again. “Upside down like that. Funny.”

He glanced casually after the retreating figure.

Right side up now like everybody else. But—Wide shoulders, grey coat. That derby. That was—he struggled against the ineluctable recognition. No! No! Not him! But he walked like … His hands in his pockets. It was! It was!—

“Hey, c’mon!” Sidney called out impatiently.

But never budging, David stared straight forward. Now the man turned to cross the street, his face in profile.

It was! It was Luter! He was going to his house.

“Waddayuh lookin’ at?” Sidney was provoked. “Doncha wanna play?”

David wrenched himself from his trace. “Yea! Yea! Sure I wanna play.”

He ran into his place in the rank, but a moment later forgot where he was and gazed toward his house in terror. Luter had reached the doorway now, was going in, was gone.

That game now. Oh! That game now! No! No! Foller de leader! Play!

“Hurry up!” said Sidney, “It’s your chanst.”

David looked at him blankly. “W’a wuz yuh doin’, I didn’ see.”

“Aaa!” Disgustedly. “Jump down ’em two steps.”

David climbed up, jumped down, landed with a jarring thud, and followed after.

He knew it! He knew it! That’s why he had come. That game! He was going to make her play now. Like Annie. In the closet!…

“Hey, you ain’ gonna play, dat’s all!”

David started guiltily to see the rest waiting for him again.

“Don’ led ’im play, Sid.” They turned on him.

“He ain’ even follerin’.”

“Yuh big dope, yuh can’ even do nuttin’.”

“Gid odda hea.”

A sudden shout and then the patter of running feet distracted them. They looked to see who it was.

“Hey give us a game!”

It was Yussie, heading toward them. At the sight of him, David began edging away, but Yussie had already spied him.

“Yee!” he squealed delightedly, “Wadda lickin’ you god!”

“Who god?” Sidney asked.

“He god!” He pointed to David. “Hey, Sidney, you shoulda see! Bing! his fodder wend. Bang! An’ he laid down, an’ he wen’ Yow!”

The others began to laugh.

“Ow!” Yussie capered about for their further benefit. “Please, papa, lemme go! Ooh lemme go! Bang! Annudder smack he gabe ’im. Right inne ass!”

“Wad ’e hitcha fuh?” They circled about him.

“He hid ’im becuz he kicked me righd inna nose,” crowed Yussie. “Right over hea, an’ made blood.”

“Yuh led ’im gid away wid it?”

“I ain’ gonna,” growled Yussie waiting for further encouragement.

“Gib’m a fighd, Yussie!” They raised an eager cry.

“G’wan Yussie, bust’m one!”

“Righd inna puss!”

At the sight of David backing away, Yussie doubled his fists and screwed up his face pugnaciously. “C’mon, I’ll fightcha.”

“G’wan, yuh big cowid!” they taunted.

“I don’ wanna fighd,” he whimpered, looking about for a way of retreat. There was none. They had completely encircled him.

“Don’ led ’im ged away, Yussie! Give ’im two, four, six, nine!”

Egged on, Yussie began hammering his shoulders. “Two, four, six, nine, I c’n beatchoo any old time!”

His fists struck the separate cores of yesterday’s bruises. The places where the clothes-hanger had landed rayed out in pain. Tears sprang to his eyes. He cowered.

“He’s cryin’!” they jeered.

“Look ad ’im cryin’.”


“Cry baby, cry baby suck yer mudder’s tiddy!” one of them began. “Cry baby, cry baby, suck yer mudder’s tiddy.” The rest took up the burden.

The tears streaming down his face, David groped his way blindly through them. They opened a gap to let him pass and then followed him still chanting.

“Cry baby, cry baby, suck yer mudder’s tiddy!”

He began running. With a loud whoop of glee, they pursued. In a moment, someone had clutched his coat-belt and was yanking him to a halt. The pack closed in. “Ho, hussy!” they hooted, prancing about him. “Ho op!”

And suddenly a blind, shattering fury convulsed him. Why were they chasing him? Why? When he couldn’t turn anywhere—not even upstairs to his mother. He wouldn’t let them! He hated them! He bared his teeth and screamed, tore lose from the boy who was dragging at his belt and lunged at him. Every quivering cell was martialed in that thrust. Before his savage impact, the other reeled back, tripped over his own feet and fell, arching to the ground. His head struck first, a muffled distant jar like a blast deep underground. His arms flopped down beside him, his eyes snapped shut, he lay motionless. With a grunt of terror, the rest stared down at him, their faces blank, their eyes bulging. David gasped with horror and fled toward his house.

At his doorway, he threw a last agonized glance over his shoulders. Attracted by the cries of the children, the tailor had come running out of his shop and was now bending over the boy. The rest were dancing up and down and yelling:

“Dere he is! In dat house! He done it!”

The tailor waved his fist threatening. “Bestit!” he shouted. “I’ll give you! Vait! A polizman I’ll get!”

David flew into the hallway. A policeman! He grew faint with terror. What had he done! What had he done! A policeman was coming. Hide! Hide! Upstairs. No! No! He was there. That game. He would tell. Where? Any place. He dove behind the bannister and under the stairs. No! They would look for him there. He darted out. Where? Up. No! Trapped, frenzied, he stared wildly about him … The door.… No! No! Not there! No!… Must … No! No!… Policeman … Run out … No, they’d catch … Thought, fear and flight, rebellion and submission, alternated through his head in sharp, feverish pulses. Must! Must! Must! His mind screamed down opposition, and he sprang to the cellar door and pulled it open—Darkness like a cataract, inexhaustible, monstrous.

“Mama!” he moaned, peering down, “Mama!”

He dipped his foot into night, feeling for the stair, found it, pulled the door shut behind him. Another step. He clung to the wall. A third. The unseen strands of a spider’s web yielded against his lip. He recoiled in loathing, spat out the withered taste. No further. No! No further. He was trembling so, he could barely stand. Another step and he would fall. Weakly, he sat down.

Darkness all about him now, entire and fathomless night. No single ray threaded it, no flake of light drifted through. From the impenetrable depths below, the dull marshy stench of surreptitious decay uncurled against his nostrils. There was no silence here, but if he dared to listen, he could hear tappings and creakings, patterings and whispers, all furtive, all malign. It was horrible, the dark. The rats lived there, the hordes of nightmare, the wobbly faces, the crawling and misshapen things.