Call It Sleep XII

HE GRITTED his teeth with the strain. Minutes had passed while he willed in a rigid pounding trance—willed that Luter would come down, willed that Luter would leave his mother. But on the stairs outside the cellar door all was still as before. Not a voice, not a footstep could he conjure out of the silence. Exhausted, he slumped back against the edge of the stair. But his ears had sharpened. He could hear sounds that he couldn’t hear before. But not above him now—below him. Against his will he sifted the nether dark. It was moving—moving everywhere on a thousand feet. The stealthy horrible dark was climbing the cellar stairs, climbing toward him. He could feel its ghastly emanation wreathing about him in ragged tentacles. Nearer. The foul warmth of its breath. Nearer. The bloated grisly faces. His jaws began to chatter. Icy horror swept up and down his spine like a finger scratching a comb. His flesh flowed with terror.

—Run! Run!

He clawed his way up the gritty stairs, fumbled screaming for the doorknob. He found it, burst out with a sob of deliverance and flung himself at the light of the doorway.

—Out! Out! Before any body comes.

Down the stoop and running.

—No! That way, school! That house! Other way!

At the corner, he swerved toward the right toward less familiar streets.

—Light! Light in the streets! Could see now. Could look … Man there … No policeman … No one chasing … Could walk now.

The keen, cold-scented air revived him, filtered through his coat, quickening the flesh beneath. The swift and brittle light on corners and upper stories comforted him. Things were again steadfast and plain. With each quick breath he took, a hoop of terror snapped from his chest. He stopped running, dropped into a panting walk.

—Could stay here now … No one chasing … Could stay, could go … Next block, what?

He turned a corner and entered a street much like his own—brick houses and wooden houses—but no stores.

—Want different one … Could go next.…

At the next corner he stopped with a cry of delight and gazed about him. Telegraph poles! Why hadn’t he come here before? On each side of the street, they stretched away, the wires on their crosses swinging into the sky. The street was wide, divided by a seamed and frozen mudgutter. At one end, the houses thinned out, faltering into open fields. The weathered poles crowded up the hill of distance into a sheen of frayed cloud. He laughed, filling his eyes with dappled reach, his lungs with heady openness.

—They go way and away … Way, way, way.… Could follow.

He patted the stout wooden pillar near his hand, examined the knots, darker than the grey, thrust at its patient bulk and laughed again.

—Next one.… Race him!… Hello Mr. High Wood.… Good-bye, Mr. High Wood. I can go faster.… Hello, Second Mr. High Wood.… Good-bye Second Mr. High Wood … Can beat you …

They dropped behind him. Three.… Four.… Five … Six.… drew near, floated by in silence like tall masts. Seven.… Eight.… Nine … Ten.… He stopped counting them. And with them, dwindling in the past, all he feared, all he loathed and fled from: Luter, Annie, the cellar, the boy on the ground. He remembered them still, yes, but they were tiny now, little pictures in his head that no longer writhed into his thoughts and stung him, but stood remote and harmless—something heard about someone else. He felt as if they would vanish from his mind altogether, could he only reach the top of that hill up which all the poles were striding. He hurried on, skipping sometimes out of sheer deliverance, sometimes waving at a laggard pole, gurgling to himself, giggling at himself, absurdly weary.

And now the houses straggled, giving way to long stretches of empty lots. On either side of the street, splotches of yeasty snow still plastered the matted fields. On ledges above the rocks, the black talons of crooked trees clawed at the slippery ground. At the doorway of a chicken coop, behind a weathered, ramshackle house, a rooster clucked and gawked and strutted in. The level sidewalks had ended long ago; the grey slabs underfoot were cracked and rugged, and even these were petering out. A sharp wind was rising across the open lots, catching up cloaks of dust, golden in the slanting sun. It was growing colder and lonelier, the wintry bleakness of the hour before sunset, the earth contracting, waiting for night—

—Time to look back.


—Time to look back.

—Only to the end of that hill. There where the clouds fell.

—Time to look back.

He glanced over his shoulder and suddenly halted in surprise. Behind him as well as before, the tall spars were climbing into the sky.

—Funny. Both ways.

He turned about, gazing now behind him, now before.

—Like it was a swing. Didn’t know.

His mood was buckling.

—Same. Didn’t know.

His legs were growing tired.

—It’s far away on the other side.

Between coat-pocket and sleeve one wrist was cold, the other was throbbing.

—And it’s far away on the other side.

The tubers of pain under the skin of his shoulders were groping into consciousness now.

—And it’s just the same.

Slowly, he began retracing his steps.

—Can go back.

Despite growing weariness, he quickened his pace.

They were all gone now, Luter was gone; they had finished that game. He and his mother. Could go back now. And the policeman was gone, couldn’t find him. Could go back. And his mother would be there, yes, waiting for him. Didn’t hate her now. Where were you? she would ask. No place. You frightened me; I couldn’t find you. Wouldn’t say. Why don’t you tell me where you were? Because. Why? Because—But must get back before his father came. Better hurry.

Houses were gathering together again.

And I looked out of the window, and I called, David, David, and I couldn’t find you. Wouldn’t tell her. Maybe she even went down stairs into the street. But if the policeman told her. She wouldn’t tell his father. No. When he got into his street, he’d call her. She’d look out of the window. What? Wait in the hall, I’m coming upstairs. She’d wait and he’d run past the cellar. Hate it! Wish there were houses without cellars.

The sky was narrowing; houses had closed their ranks. Overhead, a small flock of sparrows, beading the wires between two telegraph poles, tweaked the single dry string of their voices. On the railing of a porch, a grey cat stopped licking a paw and studied them gravely, then eyed David as he passed.

Milk-supper, maybe, when he came upstairs. Sour cream, yum! Break pieces of bread into it. Sour cream with farmer-cheese. Mmm! Sour cream with eggs. Sour cream with what else? Borscht … Strawberries.… Radishes … Bananas … Borscht, strawberries, radishes, bananas. Borscht, strawberries, apples and strudel. No. They didn’t eat with sour cream. Sour. Cream. Sour. Cream. Like it, like it, like it. I—like—it. I like cake but I don’t like herring. I like cake, but I don’t like what? I like cake, but I don’t like, like, like, herring. I don’t don’t—How far was it still?

The sidewalks were level again.

Luter liked herring, don’t like Luter. Luter likes herring, don’t like Luter. Luter likes—would he be there to-night? He said maybe. Maybe he wasn’t coming. Wish he never comes. Never comes, never comes. Wishee, wishee, never comes, all on a Monday morning—How far was it still?

Eagerly, he scanned the streets ahead of him. Which one was it. Which? Which one was—Long street. Long street, lot of wooden houses. On this side. Yes. Go through the other side. Then other corner … Right away, right away. Be home right away … This one?… Didn’t look like … Next one bet … Giddyap, giddyap, giddyap.… One little house … two little house … three little house … Corner coming, corner coming, corner—Here?

—Here? This one? Yes. Looked different. No. Same one. Wooden houses. Yes.

He turned the corner, hastened toward the opposite one.

—Same one. But looked a little teenchy weenchy bit different. Same one though.

But at the end of the block, uncertainty would not be dispelled. Though he conned every house on either side of the crossing, no single landmark stirred his memory. They were all alike—wooden houses and narrow sidewalks to his right and left. A shiver of dismay ran through him.

—Thought this—? No. Maybe went two. Then, when he ran. Wasn’t looking and went two. Next one. That would be it. Find it now. Mama is waiting. Next one. Quick. And then turn. That was. He’d see. Has to be.

He broke into a tired jog.

—Yes, the next one. That big yellow house on the corner. He’d see it. He’d see it. Yea! How he’d holler when he saw it. There it is! There’s my street! But if—if it wasn’t there. Must be! Must be!

He ran faster, sensing beside him the soft pad of easy-loping fear. That next corner would be haven or bay, and as he neared it, he burst into the anguished spring of a flagging quarry—

—Where? Where was it?

His eyes, veering in every direction, implored the stubborn street for an answer it would not yield. And suddenly terror pounced.

“Mama!” The desolate wail split from his lips. “Mama!” The aloof houses rebuffed his woe. “Mama!” his voice trailed off in anguished abandonment. And as if they had been waiting for a signal, the streets through his tear-blurred sight began stealthily to wheel. He could feel them turning under his feet, though never a house changed place—backward to forward, side to side—a sly, inexorable carousel.

“Mama! Mama!” he whimpered, running blindly through a street now bleak and vast as nightmare.

A man turned the corner ahead of him and walked briskly away on clicking heels. For a tense, delirious instant, he seemed no other than his own father; he was as tall. But then the film snapped open. It was someone else. His coat was greyer, he swung his arms and he walked erect. His father always hunched forward, arms bound to his side.

But with the last of his waning strength, he spurted after him. Maybe he would know. Maybe he could tell him.

“Mister!” he gasped for breath, “Mister!”

The man slackened his pace and glanced over his shoulder. At the sight of the pursuing David, he stopped and turned about in quizzical surprise. Under a long, heavy nose, he had a pointed mustache, the waxed blonde of horn.

“What’s the matter, sonny,” he asked in loud good humor. “What’re you up to?”

“I’m losted.” David sobbed.

“Oh!” He chuckled sympathetically. “Losted, eh? And where do you live?”

“On a hunnder ’n’ twenny six Boddeh Stritt,” he answered tremulously.

“Where?” he bent his ear down, puzzled. “What Street?”

“On Boddeh Stritt.”

“Bodder Street?” He screwed a tip of his mustache to a tighter pitch and regarded David with an oblique, critical eye. “Bodder Street. Can’t say that I’ve ever—Oh! Heh! Heh!” He exploded good-natured again. “You mean Potter Street. Heh! Heh! Bodder Street!”

“Boddeh Stritt,” David reiterated weakly.

“Yea!” he said decisively. “Now listen to me.” He took David’s shoulder. “See that street there?” He pointed to the way David had come. “That one. Now see the street after it—a little further away? That’s two. Now you go one street, two streets, but—” and his finger threatened—“don’t stop there. Go another one. See? Another one.”

David nodded dubiously.

“Yea!” he said reassuringly. “And as soon as you’re there, ask anybody where one twenty six is. They’ll tell you. All right?” he asked heartily, giving David a slight nudge in the desired direction.

Not too reassured but braced with a little more hope than before, David set out, urging rebellious legs into a plodding trot. He was a big man, that man, he must know. Maybe it was Poddeh Street, like he said. Didn’t sound the same, but maybe it was. Everybody said it different anyhow. His mother said Boddeh Stritt, like that. But she couldn’t talk English. So his father told her Boddeh Street, like that. And now the man said Poddeh Street. Puh. Puh. Poddeh. Buh. Buh. Boddeh. Corner is coming … One corner. Gutter is coming … One gutter.

Next and next, he said. Ooh, if he could only see that yellow house on the corner! Ooh, how he’d run! There was a dog in it with long white hair and he ran after a rubber ball. Here, Jack! Here, Jack! Grrrrrh! In his mouth. Everybody knew him. Everybody knew Boddeh Stritt. There was a grocery store in it and a candy store in it and a barber shop. The barber had a big mustache like that man’s, only black. And a big awning on the store. He wasn’t Jewish. In the window, he had another barber, only he wasn’t real and he had a bottle in his hand and his other fingers were like that—round. And he looked at you with the bottle in his hand wherever you went. Walk this way, that way, and he watched—Corner already. Gutter already.

Next and ask. Next and ask. Ooh, if he saw it. Ooh!

“Ooh, mama!” he prayed aloud. “I’m ascared to look, ooh mama, make it on de nex’ one!”

But look he did. The moment he had reached it—up and down, as far as the eye could see: Again a street as alien as any he had ever passed, and like the others, with squat, monotonous flanks receding into vacancy, slack with risen shadow. He didn’t cry out; he didn’t sob. A moment longer he stared. All hope collapsed within him, fell, jarring in his heart. With stiff, tranced body, he groped blindly toward the vague outline of a railing before a basement, and leaning his brow against the cold iron wept in anguish too great to bear. Only the sharp rush of his breath sheared the silence.

Minutes passed. He felt he would soon lose his grip of the iron uprights. At length, he heard behind him slow footsteps that drawing near, scuffed shortly to a halt. What good was looking up? What good was doing anything? He was locked in nightmare, and no one would ever wake him again.

“Here! Here!” A woman’s crisp, almost piqued voice sounded above him, followed the next moment by prim tap on the shoulder. “Young man!”

David paid no heed.

“Do you hear me?” the voice gathered severity. “What is it?” And now the hand began forcing him away from the railing.

He turned about, head rolling in misery.

“Gracious me!” She raised a fending hand. “Whatever in the world has happened?”

Quivering, he looked at her, unable to answer. She was old, dwarfish, yet curiously compact. She wore green. A dark green hat skimmed high over a crest of white hair. From her hand hung a small black shopping bag, only vaguely bulging.

“Gracious!” she repeated, startled into scolding, “Won’t you answer?”

“I—I’m losted,” he sobbed, finding his breath at last. “Aaa! I’m losted.”

“There! There! There! You poor thing!” and with a quick bird-like tug at a pince-nez hanging from a little reel under her coat, she fixed him in magnified grey eyes. “Tt! Tt! Tt! Don’t you know where you live?”

“Yea, I know,” he wept.

“Well, tell me.”

“A hunner ’n’ twenny six Boddeh Stritt.”

“Potter Street? Why you silly child, this is Potter Street. Now, stop your crying!” A little grey finger went up.

“Id ain’d!” he moaned.

“What isn’t?” The eyes behind the lenses contracted authoritatively.

“Id ain’d Boddeh Stritt!” He wept doggedly.

“Please don’t rub your eyes that way! Do you mean this isn’t Potter Street?”

“Id ain’d Boddeh Stritt!”

“Bodder! Bodder! Are you sure?”

“Yeah!” his voice trailed off.

“Bodder, Bother, Botter, try and think!”

“It’s Boddeh Stritt!”

“And this isn’t it?” she asked hopefully.


“Oh, dear! Oh, dear! What shall we do?”

“Waa!” he wailed, “W’eas mine mama! I wan’ mine mama!”

“Now you must stop crying,” she scolded again. “You simply must! Where’s your handkerchief?”


“Oh, dear! How trying you are!” she exclaimed and then as if struck with a new thought, “Wait!” She brightened and began hastily rummaging in her little black bag. “I have something for you!” She brought out a large, yellow banana. “Here!” And when he refused. “Now take it!” She thrust it into his fingers. “You like bananas, don’t you?”

“Aaa! I wan’ my mama!”

“I’ll have to take you to—” she broke off. “I’m going to take you to your mother.”

“You ain’d,” he wailed. “You ain’d!”

“Yes, I am,” she said with a positive nod. “This very moment.”

He stared at her incredulously.

“We’re going now. Hold your banana tightly!”