Call It Sleep XIV

THE doorway out! Freedom! The cold air of the street. The sky tightening with dusk. And she, carrying him, her face close to his! Things he never hoped to see again, bliss he never hoped to feel! Deliverance too enormous even to grasp!

“How did you—?” She stopped. “Do you want me to carry you, darling?”

“No, I can walk, Mama! I can walk, Mama! Mama! Mama!” The magic in the word seemed inexhaustible, gave him new strength. He laughed at the sheer joy of the sound.

She set him down. And hand in hand they walked as rapidly as his pace permitted.

“We’re not very far,” she informed him, “though far enough for a weary child. Now tell me, how did you ever stray into that place? How did you get there?”

“Somebody was chasing me, Mama, and I ran and I ran and I ran.” Claws of sudden fear grazed him. “Is he still?”

“Still? Who? Who was chasing you?”

“Yussie. And—and the other boys. They called me crybaby—crybaby because—Papa—hit—hit me. Yussie—he told.”

“He didn’t tell me that.”

“Is he—is he still, Mama?”

“What do you mean?”

“I only—only pushed because he was running after me. Mama, I didn’t want to make him still.”

“Oh! That boy? There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“No?” He bounded before her electrified with relief. “No? I didn’t? Mama-a-a!”

“Did you think you hurt him, you silly one?”

“I didn’t! I didn’t! I didn’t!” he cheered, “Oooh, I didn’t do anything!”

“No. Except to frighten me to death! But why didn’t you run upstairs if they were chasing you? Hymie said you ran inside. Where did you go?”

“Is this where we live?” They had turned a corner and he scanned the darkening street. “Doesn’t look like—?”

“No. Several blocks yet. Are you tired?”

“No mama!”

“We must hurry then or Albert will be there before us. He won’t know what’s happened to us when he comes into an empty house.”

“Who told you?”


“Where I was.”

“A policeman.”

“Were you scared?”

“I was frantic!”

“Because the policeman?”

“No, because of you, silly child! I had just rushed weeping into the street when I met him.”

“A real policeman? For me? Did he tell you how— how to come?”

“He wrote it down for me. And people on the way directed me. He has it, that master in there.”


“Yes! Now you tell me! First where did you go? Did you hide somewhere and run out again? What kept you from coming up?”

“I—I went—down—I went down in the cellar.” Buoyancy seeped out of him. His voice ended dully.

“The cellar?” She stopped in mid-stride to look down at him. “Of all the strange places! Why did you go there?”

“I don’t know—I don’t know. I wanted to—to hide from the—the policeman. Mama!” He suddenly whimpered in terror. “Mama!”

“What? What is it, sweet.” She gripped his hand. “Do you feel ill?”

“N-no.” He was wrestling feebly with himself. “N-no.”

“Frightened again? That cellar? I can’t understand why you’d want to go down—Oh, but let’s wait! Later, darling? You’ll tell me?” They walked rapidly awhile in silence. “Are you warm?”


“What did you do there? In that—in that—Ach! I can’t say it! With the police?”

“They made me sit down. And first—first they took me to the toilet. And then the big policeman gave me the apple. And then the cake.”

“That’s a handsome cake!” She smiled down at him. “An American one. I couldn’t bake it myself. Do you know where you are now?”

He looked around at the twilit street. “We went a lot of blocks,” he said tentatively.

“Yes. But that street, that next one?”

He shook his head. In the thickening gloom, the street ahead looked as alien as any he had passed.

“That’s Boddeh Street,” she informed him. “Your school is that way, further off. But it’s too dark to see. Now two—three blocks that way—” She pointed to the left—“is where we live.”

“That way, Mama?” He stared incredulously. “This way!” He pointed to the right. “This way is my school.”

“That’s why you were lost! It’s the other way.”

“O-o-h!” A new wonder dragged him to a halt. “It—it’s turning, Mama! It’s turning round—back.”

“What?” Her tone was amused. “The street?”

“Yes! They stopped! Just now! The school—The school is over there now!”

“So it is. The streets turn, but you—not you! Little God!” Chuckling, she stooped, kissed him. “We must hurry, though! I left no word and it’s dark. If he gets there before we do, he’ll—” She broke off nervously. “Come!”

They crossed the street, turned their backs against the twilight and hurried into darkness. Lamps were already lit, street lamps, windows. They had met almost no one during their entire journey, and now against the wintry vacancy and the dark, David listened with immense gratitude to the click of his mother’s heels that measured the quicker shuffle-tripping of his own. Suppose he were alone? Heard only his own slight footsteps wrenched from the grip of quiet? Suppose his father—? No! He shivered, added the middle finger of his mother’s hand to the two he already held.

They neared the open lot. He knew where he was now, certain of every step. There was a wind that prowled over that area of rock and dead grass, that would spring at them when they passed it. And the wind did. He squinted into it. Beyond the patch of rock and dead grass, a bright rind of moon barely cleared the roof tops. He watched it till the next house overtook it and then looked away. A vague apprehension came over him. An hour ago, had he been by some miracle transplanted to this spot, he would have rushed home screaming for joy. But now, each familiar house that he passed—here was the one with the leaning palings; this was yellow long-boards in daylight and had a railed-in porch, this was brick and had an odd veined transom over the door—each was nearer home. And home—His fears reared up again. And suddenly he wished himself—but with his mother beside him—twice as far away as when they had left the police station.

“After next block, Mama?” He knew perfectly well how far his own house lay.

“Yes.” She was staring ahead eagerly.

“You know where the next street is, Mama?” He motioned to the side. “Over this way?”


“I saw the—that box and those carriages.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. Are they going to—to move out now—You think?”

“I don’t know, darling. Perhaps they own the house. Why do you ask?”

He was silent a moment and then, “Is Papa home?”

“I hope not.”

“You—you—are you going to say—tell him?”

“What? Where you’ve been? Why of course!”

“Aaaaa!” His head dropped resentfully.

“What’s the matter?” She tugged his arm gently. “Don’t you want me to?”

“I— I thought you wouldn’t tell if—if we came home first—just before.”

“Why no, I was worried about Albert, that’s all. Are you afraid about having him know?”

“I— I was in a- a p’lice station—that’s why.”

“Well, what if you were? You’ve done nothing. Oh, you silly child! Being lost is no crime. Though I could blame others if I chose!”

There was a tight sound of restrained anger in her voice though David knew it was not directed against him.

“You won’t let him h-hit me?”

“Tt! Darling, I’ll never let him strike you again—neither he nor anyone if I can help it. There, are you satisfied? Now don’t be afraid any longer!”

David walked in silence awhile, mind reassured, heart not yet free from doubt.

“Mr. Luter— Mr. Luter isn’t going to come?”

“To-night? No.” Her pace slackened slightly. “What makes you think of that?”

“Will he come here, Mama? Come here anymore?”

“Why —Well— I don’t—” From confusion her voice condensed into suddenness. “Why do you ask?”

“I—I don’t like him. That’s why.”

“Oh, is that it?” She was silent a moment. And though they had entered their own block, her pace instead of quickening, slackened even more. When she spoke again, her voice was strangely cautious. “Did—did anyone else frighten you, beloved? Anyone else beside those bad boys?”

“N-no.” He felt his mind sharpen now, watchful. “No. Nobody else.”

“You’re sure? You—you saw nobody? Nothing that would frighten you?”

“I—I only saw the boys. And Yussie told them, and then they all began to—to chase me.”

“Of course. I’m glad there was nothing else. God knows that was enough!”

Her pace quickened again. Without eagerness, David singled out his own house among the dark ones. It struck him as odd that he should only have noticed now and at night that his house had a flat and not a gabled roof. They lived under the roof then, Yussie and Annie. Suppose Annie had looked out of the window when he made his mother look out in the police station. Suppose she was there now watching him! He shuddered, looked away.

“In our block, the first stores, Mama—the first stores begin.”

“Yes … And tell me, will I still have to stand in the hallway when you go down? Or have you seen how little there is to fear in cellars?”

“No!” Fear lunged within him. “No, Mama! You’ll have to wait—always!”

“How desperate you sound!”

“And I’m not going to play with—with anybody! Any more!”

“You’re not?”

“No! Never!”

He could feel his lips pouting despite himself, stretching out as if to loosen the tears. Another moment and he would have wept, but the hallway door was before him now, and now his mother pressed it open. Imperious terror dispersed his tears. He entered—thrust of warmth of the gaslit hallway, stagnant air suffused with the dusty, torpid odor of carpets. The cellar door was brown—closed again. For an instant he wondered whether he or another had shut it, but could not recall. Fear printed on his back and breast the cold, metallic squares of a wiry net. He shrank against his mother, clung to her till they mounted the carpeted stairs. She seemed not to have noticed.

“If he’s in,” she murmured aloud, “he’ll be distraught! After what I said to him last night! Hurry! He’ll think I’ve— But why not?” She appeared suddenly to remember. “Why won’t you play?”

“I don’t—” He faltered dully, evasively. “I don’t want to.” It no longer mattered.

She hurried up the stairs, tarried a moment at the landing till he reached her and then tried the door. Unlocked, it yielded—gave upon darkness. Alarm tightened her features. She entered.


There was no answer … Only the soft shifting of embers in the stove. For a weird, spinning instant, David, lingering on the threshold, visualized his father gone, miraculously, forever gone.

“Albert!” She was groping toward the wall where the match-safe hung. “Albert!”

“Unh!” His startled groan came from the bedroom. “You? Genya!” For once his voice was stripped of harshness, stripped of pride, power, was nothing but a cry such as David might have uttered, alone in the dark, despairing. “Genya!”

“Oh! Thank God, you’re here!”

“Yes…” And the harshness returned and the inflexible pride, and the voice was again his father’s, awakened, surly. “Hmph! Where else would I be?”

She had struck a match and now she lit the mantle-light.

“I tried so hard to get back before you arrived! Were you worried?”

“I?” Deliberate, again, sardonic. “No … And so you decided to return did you? Even the fixed word wavers, eh? In the cold? In the empty streets at ni—”

“Return? Albert, what are you saying! I never went!” She hurried up the front room stairs. “Shut the door, David, darling! Take off your coat! Sit down!” She went inside. “I feared you’d think—!” And her voice was suddenly lowered.

David shed his coat, found a chair and listened morosely to the sounds in the bed-room. From the drift of the occasional words, snatches of phrases, exclamations that rose like crests above their low tones, he knew their conversation was not only about him, but about the night before. His mother was explaining, he guessed, where she had been, why she had gone. Of Luter, he could hear no mention made. He divined that no mention would be made. Finally, his father exclaimed in an impatient voice:

“Well, you’ve said enough! I take your word for it! That son of yours has to be watched day and night!”

“But it wasn’t his fault, Albert!”

“Mine then? Is that what you mean. Are you hinting that I’m to blame?”

“No! No! No! It’s the fault of no one! You’re right, there’s no more to say! Are you hungry?”


“I’ve made that veal the way you like it. And those shredded carrots. Do you want them to-night?”


David could hear her moving toward the frontroom, open the window. A few seconds later, she appeared, carrying two covered pots.

“To bed early to-night.” She came down, smiling solicitously. “To forget early.”

Silently, on stockinged feet, his father loomed into the threshold. His vest was unbuttoned, the neck-band of his shirt open on the pit of the strong, corded neck. Gripping the doorpost with lank, ink-spotted fingers, he blinked at the light, and then regarded David gloomily.

“And so you’re acquainted with the police now?”

David dropped his gaze. He hadn’t seen his father since last night when he was beaten. The face was still the face of a foe.

“Yes!” His mother laughed, looking round from the stove. “But in friendship only! Wait till I show you the cake they gave him. It’s in my pocket-book.”

“They gave him cake, eh?”

To David there was something peculiarly significant in the way his father uttered the words.

“Yes,” she continued cheerfully. “And how they must have laughed at my English!”

“How did you ever let him get so far? You’re always watching after him.”

“I don’t know. He was gone before I thought to look.”

“Hmm!” He glanced at David, reached for the newspaper on the table, became engrossed.

His mother lifted a bunch of carrots from a bag, dropped them into a dishpan and while she pared them, eyed David, fondly.

He was silent, met her gaze a moment and then vacantly tightened the table cloth against the table’s edge.

—Don’t believe Don’t believe. Don’t believe. Never!