Call It Sleep XI

HIGH morning.

His nervous gaze wandered from frosted window to clock and returned to the window—

“Turn, turn, turn, little mill-wheel,” her voice barely more articulate than a hum, sounded curiously distant now. “Work is no play, the hours steal away little mill-wheel.” With only her legs hanging in the kitchen—the slack soles of worn house-slippers curving down from bare heels—his mother sat on the sill wiping the outside of the pane. Under the vigorous strokes of the rag the snowy shores of cleaning powder parted rapidly from a channel to a gulf. And in the widening clarity first her throat appeared, straight between lifted chin and old blue dress, and then her face, pale and multiplaned and last her brown hair catching the sun in a thin haze of gold. “Turn, turn, turn, little mill-wheel.…”

—Wish she came in! Get scared when she sits like that. Fourth floor too—way, way, down! If she—! Ooh! Don’t! And that window it was. Can see the roof from here. Yes, there where they—Son-of-a-bitch!—there where they looked.

Irritably, he shifted his gaze to the other window, which was open and looked out on the street. The sky above the housetops, rinsed and cloudless after rain, mocked him with its serenity. In the street, too far below the window to be seen, the flood of turmoil had risen with the morning and a babel of noises and voices poured over the sill as over a dike. The air was exceptionally cool. Between the drawn curtains of an open window across the street, a woman was combing a little girl’s hair with a square black comb. The latter winced every time the comb sank, her thin squeals skimming above the intricate crests of the surging din of the street.

—Louse-comb. Hurts. Sticks in your head … wonder if—wonder if—! Late now, but dassent look out. If he’s waitin’—But can’t be there any more. Must have went. Sure! Now is—? Nearly ha’ past eleven. Ten, he said. Must have went. Ha’ past eleven and ha’ past eleven and all is well … Where? Watchman then, in book. Three A, yea. Clock. Someplace had. Hickory dickory, dock. Clock. Never had. But—wheel—what? Once … Once I … Say again and remember. Hickory, dickory—crazy! Why do they say? Hickory, dickory, wickory, chickory. In the coffee. In a white box for eight cents with yellow sides. In a box. Box. Yesterday. God it said and holier than Jew-light with the coal. So who cares? But that fish, why was that fish? Couldn’t read all the little letters. Wish I could. Bet it tells. The beads made you lucky, he said. Don’t have to be scared of nothing. Gee if I had!—but don’t want it, that’s all. Ain’t going. And that funny dream I had when he gave me it. How? Forgetting it already. Roof we were with a ladder. And he climbs up on the sun—zip one two three. Round ball. Round ball shining—Where did I say, see? Round ball and he busted it off with a cobble and puts it in the pail. And I ate it then. Better than sponge cake. Better than I ever ate. Wonder what it’s made of—Nothing, dope! Dreams. Just was dreaming—

The squealing window stalled his fitful revery.

“There!” His mother sighed with relief as she ducked under the sash. “Now all it lacks is another good rain to ruin it.”

His gaze followed hers. Spotless now, the panes betrayed no more of their presence than a jeweled breath—except where tiny flaws spiraled inexplicable hues into warping rarities.

“They’re all clean,” he said with emphatic reassurance. “You don’t have to sit outside any more.”

“So they are,” she washed her hands under the tap. “I’ll hang my curtains up now.” And reaching for the towel. “You don’t intend to go down today, do you?” Her smile was perplexed.

“Yes, I do!” he protested warily. “But later, maybe.”

“Do you know,” she unfurled the curtain, “you’ve been acting of late almost the way you did in Brownsville when you clung to my side like pitch. And how you feared that short flight of stairs! That can’t be troubling you now?”

“No.” He suddenly felt cross with her for cornering him. “There’s nothing to do down stairs. I told you.”

“What’s happened to all your friends.” Her rapid hand wound the curtain string about a nail. “Have they all moved?”

“I don’t know—don’t like them anyway.”

“Ach!” Despairingly. “The skein the cat’s played with is easier to unravel than my son. Yesterday it rained from noon till nightfall—you flew up and down those stairs like a butter-churn. And after supper, between Albert’s bed-time and yours you sat there beside that window as fidgety as a bird—only more silent. I saw you!” She lifted a mildly admonishing finger. “Now what’s the trouble? What is it?”

“Nothing!” He pouted moodily. “Nothing’s the matter.” But his brain was already at work martialing the excuse.

“I know there is,” she insisted gravely. “This morning you woke when I did—seven—and yesterday too. But yesterday you would have spurned your breakfast if I had let you in your eagerness to go down. To-day—Now what is it?” A faint impatience colored her tone.

“Nothing.” He shook her off.

“Won’t you tell your mother?”

“It’s just a boy.” He had to answer now. “He—he wants to hit me. He said he would if he caught me. That’s all.”

“A boy? Who?”

“A big boy—Kushy—his name is. Yesterday, they said there was a nickel in the cellar on Tenth Street. And they all ran over and tried to get it up. And Kushy said he didn’t get it up because I pushed him.”


“So he and his partner want to hit me.”

“Oh, is that all? Well, that’s easily remedied.”

“Why?” The momentary satisfaction with himself changed into uneasiness. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll go downstairs with you.”


“Why, of course I will. I’m not going to let anyone coop you up here all day. You just point them out to me and I’ll—”

“No, you can’t do that,” he interrupted her desperately. “If you come down and you talk to them, they’ll call me ‘fraid-cat’!”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s a cat that’s afraid.”

“Well, aren’t you?” she laughed. “Aren’t you just a little afraid?”

“I wouldn’t be if they weren’t so big.” He tried to deepen the channel of digression. “You ought to see how big they are. And there’s two of them.”

“That’s all the more reason I ought to go down with you.”

“But I don’t want to go down!” Emphatically. “I want to stay here.”

“You’re just pretending.”

“No, I’m not! I’m hungry.”

“I offered you cake and an apple,” she reminded him—“Only a little while ago when I began cleaning.”

“I wasn’t hungry then.”

“Ach!” she scoffed, glancing at the clock. “You’re like those large bright flies in Austria that can fly backwards and forwards or hover in the air as though pinned there. And what will you do after you’re fed—stay here till the Messiah comes?”

“No. I’ll run to the cheder then, and play in the yard and wait for the rabbi.”

“I wonder if you’re telling the truth?”

“I am too.” His injured gaze held steady.

“Well.” She sighed. “What would you like—a jelly omelette?”

“Yum! Yum!”

“Very well then.” She smiled fondly. “As long as I can get you to eat, I feel safe—That’s our only sign.” Her breasts heaved, nostrils dilating suddenly. “But why do I sigh?” And going to the china closet drew out several dishes. “I think washing windows makes me do that. It always reminds me of Brownsville and that window with the scrawls and faces on it. I wonder if they’ve cleaned it yet?” She went to the ice-box. “Is it only a year and a half now since we moved out? It seems further away than five cents will take one.” And she fell silent, cracking the eggs against the edge of the bowl.

—Gee lucky for me I thought. Can fool her any time. She don’t know. So I won’t get that black thing in the box. So who cares!

The gas-stove popped softly under the match. Lifting a frying pan from its hook on the wall, she set it on the grate—but a moment later pushed it to one side as though she had changed her mind, and walked to the street-window.

—Hope he ain’t! Hope he ain’t yet. (His startled thought overtook hers)

“Good!” she exclaimed triumphantly and pulled her head in. “I struck it just right. Sometimes I do believe in premonitions.”

—Aaa! Wish his horse fell or something!

“Now I can feed all both my men,” she laughed. “This is a rare pleasure!” And she hurried back to the ice-box.

He stiffened, ears straining above the rapid beating of eggs. Presently, he heard it, deliberate, hollow, near at hand. The knob turned—The harsh, weather-darkened face.

“I’m prepared for you!” she said cheerfully. “To the second.”

Cheeks distended in a short customary puff, he dropped his cap on the wash-tub, leaned his new whip against it. David glanced toward the stove. His mother had dropped the old broken one between the stove and the wall. His father went to the sink and began washing his hands.

“Tired?” She asked as she poured the golden foam into the hissing skillet.


“Jelly omelette and dried peas, will that please you?”

He nodded.

“Is he still out?”

“That’s why I’m late again.” He wiped his hands. “Till tomorrow.”

“Ach! I’ll be so glad when he returns.”

He met her gaze with dark impassive eyes, slumped down into a chair. “How is it the heir is home?” His thin lips twitched, warping the flat cheek.

—Don’t! Don’t tell him! Ow! (But he dared not even look at her imploringly)

“Oh!” she said lightly. “There’s someone after him. One of the bigger boys in the street.”

—Aaa! She went and told him. Hate her!

His father’s incurious gaze turned from her face to David’s like a slow spoke. “Why?”

“Something about money in a cellar. They were all trying to get it up—how I don’t know. But the other—what did you call him?”

“Kushy,” sullenly.

“Yes. This Kushy claimed he pushed him just when he lifted it—the money. Isn’t that the way it goes? Wouldn’t you know the usual childish quarrel?” She bent over the stove. “Only if it’s over money, it’s not so childish, I guess.”

“A cellar?” The hardening of his voice was barely perceptible. “When?”

—Ow! He thinks I told!

“Yesterday, you said, didn’t you, David?” Her back was turned. “You don’t mind if we have the coffee I brewed this morning?”

“Yes,” David’s scared eyes rose to the gloomy pressure of his father’s. “I—I just said yesterday.”

His lean jaw had tightened. Drooping eye-lashes banked his smouldering anger. “What else?”

And though David knew the question was directed at himself—

“Why that’s all!” His mother laughed, as though surprised at her husband’s interest. “Except that I offered to go down into the street with him, since the other had threatened to strike him.” She brought the omelette and coffee pot to the table. “But he refused—said they’d call him—what?—frait-katz.” And surveying the spread. “Have I got everything here I want? Water, yes. Dear God!” She exclaimed as she went to the sink. “Isn’t it time I learned to speak English?”

—Knows it wasn’t! (David steeled himself) Knows it wasn’t yesterday! Knows I lied!

But, “Hmph!” his father grunted, relaxing. “He’s big enough to take care of himself.” There was a strange, veiled look of satisfaction on his face.

“What if they’re bigger than he is, Albert?” Protesting mildly, she set the dewy, glass pitcher on the table. “You know, they—”

“Still,” his father interrupted her, “if they’re too much for you, tell them I’ll take the horsewhip to them if they touch you.” And glancing up at her, began slicing the bread. “Just to scare them.” He added.

“Yes.” She sat down uncertainly. “But there’s no use kindling a feud out of a threat—especially an urchin’s threat.”

He made no reply. And during the interval while food was being passed—

—Took my part. Gee! (Mechanically, David lifted his fork) She told him and he knows I lied and he took my part. What did I—fooled him maybe? Naaa! How he looked at me—

“You know,” his mother tilted her smile meditatively, “it’s almost seven years since I came off that ship, and I’ve never quarreled with anyone yet. I wouldn’t like to start now.”

“It would be miraculous if you did.” His voice was level. “Your life has been as sealed as a nun’s.”

“Not quite so sheltered, Albert.” She looked faintly piqued. “Compared to yours, yes. But pushcart peddlers when I do my marketing—ach!—they deal out words as sharp as mustard-plasters—more than they do onions or carrots.… There’s nothing like a pushcart peddler.”

—Sure he knows. Bet a million. In the wagon he was then. Just when Kushy got up. And she told him it was yesterday. And he wouldn’t say—

“But what I mean is how shall I answer one of these native shrews if she shakes the clapper of her tongue at me in English? Cheh! Cheh! Cheh! They chatter and hiss like a sieve full of ashes.”

Thin as a shadow or a breath on water, a rare smile slackened his father’s face. “Merely cheh, cheh back at her in Yiddish.”

“But I’d feel so humiliated,” she laughed.

“Then don’t answer her at all. Grow red and march off with your head in the air.”

“Ach!” She looked at him curiously. “That’s too easy. But if I had worked in a shop the way Bertha had, I could have known by now—What a smoke comes out of her mouth.”

“Smoke indeed! It blinds you.” His lips barely curled.

“Does it? To me, especially since she has the candy store, she sounds like running water—”

“A muddy spatter.”

“Or sand. I was going to—”

“In one’s teeth.”

“You’re witty to-day.” Her curiosity seemed permanently fixed in her face.

His jaw tightened again and he reached for his coffee.

—Is he my friend? No. Can’t be. ’Course he ain’t. But why if— Oh! He knows I lied. That’s— Dope! Eat! They’ll see!

“And you speak so well, because you learned among goyim?”

“In part. But when I ate in beer-saloons to save money for your passage, I used to listen to the others—In beer saloons they speak loudly. And one day I grew bold enough to answer one who was drunk. And he thought I was too. Then I knew I had made a beginning.”

“Good kosher food they gave you.” Her look had changed to quiet sympathy.

“When you spend fifteen cents a day to keep the breath in your body, you get over asking if the rabbi’s blessed your meat.”

“I’m glad you had a stronger stomach than him who ate the duck-dinner so cheaply. And wrote home about it—and died of it.”


“Will you have time for a nap to-day?” Reaching over she patted his hand—as rare a gesture as his smile.

His face darkened. He cleared his throat. “I still have an hour.”

David slid from his chair. “Can I go down now, mama?”

“Wait, I still have a pear to give you.”

“Can’t I eat it when I go down?”

“And you feel safe now?” She went to the ice-box.

“Yes.” He glanced hurriedly at his father.

“And you’re sure you don’t want me to watch awhile at the window?” She slipped the chilled, glossy fruit into his hand. “Until you’ve found out whether this Kushy is there or not?”

“No. I’ll just run to the cheder.” And as his mother bent down to kiss him—

“Keep out of mischief,” the barest overtone hardened his father’s voice. “Hear me?”

“Yes, papa.” Once more their glances grazed. He reached out for the knob.

“And don’t forget to eat your pear,” she reminded him. “It’s as sweet as—” her voice blurred with the closing door.

He hurried down the stairs, and reaching the street glanced about hastily. No sign of Leo anywhere. Good, that was a relief! He would go to the cheder now and stay in the cheder yard till the rabbi came. He swerved around his father’s milk wagon, crossed the gutter obliquely and turned west—

The sudden whirr of wheels behind him—now louder on the side-walk now roaring momentarily over the hollow buckle of a coal chute—

“Hey you!”

There was no need to turn.

Leo, cap in hand, angry mouth open in flushed face, hooked about him, braked his course with a grinding skate, eagle-spread to a stop. Standing on his skates, he looked almost full grown, his bright blonde head towering above David’s.

“Yuh runnin’ away aintcha?” His snub nose crinkled into an angry sneer. “W’yntcha tell me yuh didn’ wanna go—’stid o’ makin’ me hang aroun’ here all day!”

“I didn’t say I didn’ wanna go.” David looked up, smiling placatingly.

“Well, w’yntcha come down? Wotcha waitin’ fuh? Yuh noo we said ten o’clock.”

“I had to stay upstehs till my fodder came—Yuh see? Dot’s his wagon.” He pointed to it, hoping Leo would supply the connection he knew didn’t exist.

“Well, wot of it?” After a glance.

“Nott’n. But my modder wuz sick, so I had to stay—”

“Aw, bullshit! Yuh know yuh lyin’!”

“No, I ain’!”

“Awri’! c’mon if yuh comin’. Be’faw yuh have to go to dat udder joint—w’utever yuh calls it.”

“I can’t. I have to go dere now. Wonna pear?”

“Wot!” Leo ignored the proffered fruit. “After ye sez yuh wuz goin’? Don’ try t’ back out on me or I’ll take me skates off and beltchuh one. Listen! I ain’ gonna do nutt’n! I tol’ yuh I wuzn’—wotcha scared of?”

“My a’nt’s dere too,” he countered feebly. “In de kendy staw. She’ll know.”

“How’z she gonna git wise, yuh sap? We’ll duck ’er, dontcha see? Git ’er down de cella’ w’en nobuddy’s lookin’. We won’t try it if she’s watchin’! C’mon! I’m gonna give yuh one o’ me skates.” And drawing out his skate-key, he slipped down to the curb. “Sit down, will ye? Yuh know wot I got fer ye, dontcha? Sit down!” And as David crouched down beside him. “Iz zat fer me?” He reached for the pear.


“Looks like a good one.” He licked his lips.

“Yuh god id witchuh?”

“W’a’?” Between mouthfuls. “Yuh mean de ros’ry? Sure, w’eadja tink it was, up de house?” Leaning sidewise he drew a few beads from his pocket. “See ’em? Dere yours, don’t fergit.” And thrusting them back, busied himself with the left skate—kicked it free. “G’wan, now, put dis on. I’ll loin yuh how to go—don’t git scared. Give us yer hoof. Like dat, see?” The strap tightened below David’s ankles, next the clamps gripped his sole. “Shove with yer udder foot—watch me. Now slide! ’At’s it! Atta baby. Let’s go! ’At’s it!” He flung the fruit-core into the gutter, headed toward Avenue D. “We’ll git dere in a minute wit’ a good hitch—wait’ll yuh see.”

“Gee!” The new freedom of motion was exhilarating. “Gee, id’s fun!”

“W’at’d I tell ye!” he urged jubilantly, “Go on, I tell ye, it’s easy as pie—Hey, you’ll loin real fast!”

They rounded the corner, Leo still barking encouragement.