Call It Sleep XIV

DAZED with a kind of listless desolation, he watched them speed toward the opposite corner, saw Esther whirled round and grabbed, and then both spin screeching out of sight. He slumped as though his own gathering foreboding dragged him down, slouched aimlessly to the curb and sat down.

—I know … I know … I know … (Like a heavy stone pried half out of its clinging socket of earth, sluggish thought stirred and settled again) I know … I know … They’re going to. So … Don’t care. I know.

Incurious eyes glided over the shallow glare of the street, caught on slight snags of significance, dwelled, returned, dwelled, shuttle-like. There were several boys across the street, playing for steel marbles which they rolled beside the curb. They played with the large ones, the twentiers, and paid each other off with small ones, as big as steel beads. He watched them awhile, and then his mind returned to its own misery.

—Getting scared …

—Wonder where they are? Could have gone all around the block already. Twice. Two blocks, even. Went away, maybe? Naa staying there. I know. Hope they never come— Will though …

—Getting scared …

—Shut up! I ain’t! So if he gets her—down there—what? What’ll I do? I’ll ask. Just ask, that’s all. I’ll say, give it to me, them lucky beads, c’mon! You said you would before. And now he’ll give it to me. Has to. Then what? Go someplace else. So I’ll go. And I’ll take them, yea. And I’ll look in and I’ll let them down slow, slow, that’s right— Gee! And if I get it so it’ll be all right. I’l do it all the time, so it will be all right.

—A twentier I’ll try to get—a twentier-light. It was bigger the first time, a quarter-big-light. But even if it’s a twentier, I’ll be glad. Even if it’s only a tenner-light, I’ll be glad. Could get it light. He said like his. In and out. Wonder how big his is. Didn’t ask. But never have to be scared even if it’s only a tenner-light. And have to watch out too—don’t lose them. Where’ll I put? Lots of places. Could hide them on roof. Top of chimney where no one looks. Yea—but! Fall in, maybe. Gee! And hee! Lady finds them in the stove. Look! Ooh! What! A cross! Oy! Gevalt, like my aunt says. Naa. Better in the house. Under the bed—no. Mama cleans. Then where then … behind looking—yea! Big looking glass on the floor. Every time I looked, yea, could remember—

“Talk like I said!” The sharp undertone meshed with no cog in the humming street.

He started, turned around.

“Hullo, Davy!” Leo, boldly impassive, now carried the skates. Esther beside him lifted guilty eyes from the ground, squirmed, scratched painstakingly under a pigtail. “I tolju he wuz sleepin’. He’s a’ways sleepin’, aintcha Davy?”

She giggled.

David rose, watched them uneasily.

“We had some skate, didn’ we Esther?” Leo prompted her.

“Yea.” And as if by rote. “Yurra good ronner.”

“Sure I am.” Exuberantly. “But y’oughta see me w’en I’m goin’ real good! An’ c’n she skate, Davy! Wait’ll you see ’er do a spread eagle—way out, dat way!”

“Shottop!” She blushed, shuffled.

There was a pause.

“Uh—I gotta go, Esther.” Abruptly he took David’s arm.

“Aintcha—? Aintcha—?” David was startled. “Wea yuh goin’?” Automatically, he fell into step as though he had been braced against a body charging at him and been missed. “Home, yuh goin’?”

“Naw!” Leo led him two or three paces off, and with elaborate modesty whispered loudly in his ear. “I gotta take a piss.”


“See I tol’ ’er dat!” Leo hissed the last words, nudged him. “See!” And called back noncommittally. “Yuh goin’ in de staw, aintcha Esther.”

“I don’ know,” she shrugged in huffy indifference.

“C’mo-on,” he drawled at her and smirked when he saw her melting, winked. “Le’s go, Davy!” His urgent hand hurried David toward the store again. “Here she comes after us!”

Out of the corner of his eye when he turned, David glimpsed her leisurely trailing behind them. Reaching the cellar steps, they halted, Leo glancing around under the guise of fumbling with his skates. A few houses away Esther too had stopped and was watching them with a queer, mixed simper—as though she were flaunting her vacancy.

“Don’ watch ’er!” Leo snapped. “Hop down!”

Frightened now to the very core, sure of the approaching crisis, David stumbled down the steps. Before he reached the bottom, Leo’s feet came pattering after, and Leo with a “Hurry up!” threw back the door. Together, they entered. The door swung to. In the rank gloom nothing had changed but the notch of light bitten from the further dark, which was wider.

“Cheezis!” Leo’s clashing skates heightened the exultation of his voice. “Tol’ yuh I’d git ’er goin’! Didn’ I? Didn’ I? Oh, boy! Wut we didn’ do aroun’ at corner’! Did I feel ’er! Oh, boy! Looka—” hastily. “You don’ know nutt’n about it, see? Don’ fergit now—I’m jis’ takin’ a piss!”


“Oh, boy! oh, boy!” His restless feet patted the earthen floor. “Wait’ll she gits down here.”

(Ask him now!) “Yuh—are yuh—?”

But as though the dark were a medium for his thought—“Yea! Yea!” Leo interrupted him irritably. “Cantcha wait’ll she gits down! Cheez, I fergot!” He hurried past the toilet. “Lemme try some of dese daws faw she comes—see if dey—” And yanked at one after another of the grey doors of the storage-bins. “Oh, boy!” As one swung open. “Lot’s o’ room in hea. See dat?” He motioned for David to draw closer. “Lot’s o’ room ain’ it?” There was a small, clear space between the doorway and the shapeless black masses of furniture piled high in the rear.

“Now one fer you!” He clawed the doors across the murky alley, found another that opened. “Now if some-buddy comes, see, you gits in hea—her ol’ lady er sumpt’n. Soon as ye hear ’em you go psst! an’ duck! See? But stay near dat daw so’s yuh c’n see ’em faw dey sees you—den duck an’ psst! Catch on? An’ nen we’re safe—all of us!” He glanced at the open doorway. “W’ea de hell is she? An’ looka, w’en she comes down wotever I says, jis say yea, see? An’ look dumb, dat’s all, jis’ look dumb! An’ I’ll give it t’ye like I said—jus w’en she comes. Now don’ fergit.” He motioned to the cellar bin, “Dat’s w’ea you runs, if—Sh!”

Both had heard it—the scrape of feet outside.

“Lay low!” Leo shoved him before him into the bin, shut the door, “Sh!” He peeped out through a crack in the doorway. “Who de hell is it?”

Strumming silence. Only the sound of their breath in the blackness. Behind him the hard edges, knobs, of piled furniture, and higher something yielding, sack or mattress. Confused and formless memories. Again the scrape of feet, cautious and approaching.

“Wonner if—cheezis, must be her! Hol’ me skates!” He pushed the door open a few inches wider, knifed through and ran on tip-toe toward the yard-light.

Watching him through the bin-door, David froze in terror.

“Hey, c’mon!” Leo had flattened himself into the shadow behind the door-jamb. “C’mon down, will ye. We’re hea.” A pause. “C’mon kid.” Again the persuasive drawl. “You know me-e.”

Feet scuffed outside, descended slowly into the oblong of light. A short dress. Esther.

“No, I ain’ gonna!” She balked on the last step.

“Awri’ listen den! I wanna tell yuh sumpt’n.”

“So tell me hea!” She peered into the dark.

“Look, yuh-don’ wan’ me t’yell or nutt’n, do ye? Or go outside w’ea ev’ybuddy c’n see us?”

“Hea den. I’ll stay righd hea.” She stepped down, toed the plank of the sill. “Now tell me.”

“Aw, I can’t tell ye hea!” Leo sounded both hurt and despairing. “Give us a chanst, will ye? Listen!” He took her arm. “We don’ want dat sap back dere t’ hea’ wut I say—Hey, Davy!” Peremptorily. “Come out o’ dere, will ye!”

David sneaked from the bin, edged closer.

“W’ea wuz he?” Esther eyed him furtively.

“Jis’ inna back. Jis’ inna back!” Leo pulled her toward him. “Now you stay hea.” He turned to David severely. “I wanna talk t’ Esther—Jis’, a secon’ Esther, dat’s all!”

She followed Leo in. They brushed past David on the way, and floating by him, their faces in the murky air were staring and pale. Where the deeper gloom near the toilet half-dissolved them—

“No maw!” sharply from Esther.

“Ye ain’ scared, are ye?” Himself wavering in the dark, Leo’s husky voice was distinct. “Wit’ me witchuh?”

“Aw!” irresolutely.

“Well, listen … now I wuz gonna … Whee! Oh, boy!”

“Stop!” Her loud hiss. “Tell me, or I’m goin’ out!”

“Listen den. See dat bin? Waid’ll I show ye.” The door creaked faintly.

“Yea,” suspiciously.

“Well, I sez t’ him, yuh know who dat bin b’longs tuh? It b’longs t’ Esther’s ol’ lady. She tol’ me, I sez, see?


“Den he sez, wot’s inside? So I sez, wodjuh t’ink—candy!”

She tittered.

“Ain’ he a sap!” Leo’s amused snort joined her eagerly. “An’ den I sez yuh know wut me an’ Esther’s gonna do? We’re gonna sneak in an’ find some—yuh know, chawklits, gum drops. He sez, yuh gonna gimme some? Sure I sez if we finds some— Weew! Esther!”

“Don’!” half-heartedly. “Yuh didn’!”

“Yes, I did! I did so! An’ I sez lay chickee fer us—Mm! will ye— Eww!”

A silence.

“No!” protestingly. “So w’at?”

“So I sez … lay chickee fer us … an!… an!… so he sez…”


“He’ll lay chick … Weew … Kid! Waddayuh say?”

A mumbling, A rustling …

“He’ll watch. It’s better in dere den hea’. Can’t see us!”


“Wait a secon’! I wanna git me skates. Hey Davy!” Quick-footed, breathless he loomed from dark to half-light. “Gonna git de candy like I tol’ yuh. Hea!” As he grabbed the skates from David’s fist, his other hand flew to his side. “Take it! Now lay putso!”

The slight rattle of a small heap suddenly grown in his palm. Them! A shudder ran through him.

“Don’ fergit!” Leo’s voice sped off. “Till we comes!”

Stealthy gurgles, hissings, mutterings.


The bin-door creaked. Feet shuffled. Faint whines. And the door creaked again, clicked. Only the barest of whispers now, stirrings blending with the dark’s hum.

—Mine! It’s mine! (The jerky throbbing of his blood reiterated) Mine! I got it. Big-little-big-little-little-little-big-busted. Gee! Him hanging— What!

A thin squeal seeped through door and dark. Esther’s.

—Aaa! (Disgust filled him. He stumbled toward the yard-light) By light go, can’t hear! Right ones? (A sudden qualm of doubt. He scrutinized them) Yes, right ones! Same! Didn’t fool me. Out of the box with God. Mine! (Convulsive fingers crushed them) Don’t care! Ain’t scared! If I can make it! Ooh, if I can make it! Never be scared! Never! Go on! No, wait! No, now! Where?

Darting eyes fastened on the snug niche behind the open door. He squeezed in, pulled the door back as far as it would go, and enclosed as in a cell, he squatted first, then stretched his legs out altogether and leaned his cheek against the slim airy bar of light cut twice by the hinges.

—Hurry up! Look where it’s dark, real dark … Look.… No … No good. See too much yet, stops it. Then shut then. Same thing. Like he said. It’s inside and it’s out. Like him with the light-guts. Now keep. How big did I—? Twentier I said. But not now. First you have to get it. After it’s a twentier. Like the light in the hall, when I seen it. Gee, how I peed— Hurry up! So now you’re standing on them—only alone. Nobody else is akey now. It’s going to be all mine. Quarter I thought then—bigger it was. But it’s round, so better twentier. So shut up! You’re standing on them—you said that already. On your knees. Feel how they were? How—burn—like. Began to hurt just before Kushy wanted to fight and papa came. Hurry up! Down, look down! Can you see? Maybe. Nearly can’t. But—Look! G’wan now! G’wan! ’Fore it goes! Let it down! One is—is a little bead. Real easy! Two is little bead. Faster! This—little. This—little This—faster. And that—him now—right over it. Long enough? Gee. Hope so! Right over!

Past drifting bubbles of grey and icy needles of grey, below a mousetrap, a cogwheel, below a step and a dwarf with a sack upon his back, past trampled snow and glass doors shutting, below the gleam on a turning knob and bird upon a lawn, sank the beads, gold figure on the cross swinging slowly, revolving, sank into massive gloom. At the floor of the vast pit of silence glimmered the round light, pulsed and glimmered like a coin.

—Touch it! Touch it! Drop!

And was gone!

—Aaa! Where? Where? Look harder! Bend closer! Get it again! Again!

And would not reappear.

“I’m gonna get it,” almost audibly. “I am!”

His teeth gritted, head quivering in such desperate rage, the blood whirred in his ears. Like a tightened knot, his body hardened, hands clenched, breath dammed and stifled within him. He fished.

“I am!”

Now saliva drooled unheeded from his lips. Pent breath pressed veins in anguished bulges against his throat. His nostrils flickered scooping vainly at the air. And still he sought the depths, strangling. Then darkness, swirling and savage, caught him up like a wind of stone, pitched him spinning among palpable drum-beats, engulfed him in a brawling welter of ruined shapes—that parted—and he plunged down a wailing fathomless shaft. A streak of flame—and screaming nothingness.

The tortured breast rebelled, sucked up air in a squealing gasp. He collapsed against the bin behind him, leaned there with whirling senses … Slowly the roaring shadows quieted. Cloudy air displaced the giddy dark like a fixed despair.

—Lost it … (Leaden-slow his thought) Lost it … Covered up all.… Cellar-floor dirty … Like the nickel then … Gone. Gone.…

A sound in the yard outside. Inertia’s thick buffer about the mind muffled it. Again. He listened. The hiss of shoes, stealthily on the stone outside the door approaching. He sat bolt upright, staring at the crack between door and jamb.

—Who? Can’t call!

Pricked ears sifted the depths of the shadowy corridor where Esther and Leo were— All was hushed.

—Hope they hear! Hope! Hope! Gee! Ow! Be still!

The steps drew nearer—Unblinking eyes glued against the bar of light, he stuffed the beads in his pocket, crowded back against the corner, dropped his jaw to breathe in silence. The careful steps drew nearer. For the briefest instant like a figure in a cramped panel, Polly, lips thrust out in scared curiosity, paused in the crack of light and vanished. Soft footfalls behind the door, she appeared again in the murky frame between him and the door-edge. He saw her advance into the cellar, lift herself on tip-toe and cock her head from side to side, listening—

Murmurs beyond. A muffled giggle.

—Aaa (He clenched his teeth against the inner fury) Why didn’t they keep still! Polly had heard them!

“No! No maw!” Louder, “Leggo!” The unseen door banged open.

“Aw, hey!”

“No! Lemme oud!” A scuffling. “Lemmeee—Unh!” As though someone had butted her, Esther’s cry ended in a terrified grunt. “Polly!”

“Eee!” her sister squealed. “You!”

For a moment all three seemed to have lost their tongues.

“Aw, it’s only yer sister, ain’ it?” Leo bolstered up a shaky voice with a clash of skates.

“Yuh wuz wit’ him in dere!” Polly’s voice was a mixture of gloating and disbelief.

“I wuzn’!” Esther’s shrill cry rose furiously. “I’ll give yuh in a minute!”

“I seen yuh! I seen yuh! I knew yuh wouldn’ comm donn by yuhself. Waid’ll I tell!”

“Hey, wait a secon’,” Leo hastily took control. “Wea’s Davy? He’ll tell yuh wot we wuz doin’? Hey Davy! We wuz playin’ a trick on him, see? He’s in dere! Betcha million!” A bin-door creaked. “Hey Davy!” A pause. “W’ea de hell—”

“Aaa, Davy!” Polly sneered venomously. “Yuh cowid! Don’t blame it on sommbody else, ’cause yuh can’t fool me!”

“Who’s tryin’ t’ blame it on somebody else!” Leo was nettled. “He’s hea I tell yuh—someplace. Hey Davy!”

“He is!” Esther maintained stormily. “He wuz wit’ us!”

“Hey, Davy! C’m out wea’ver y’are! C’mon.” His voice rang through the cellar. “I’ll bust ye one! Come on out!”

Shrunken with guilt and terror, David crammed himself deeper into the corner.

“He musta run away, de liddle bastid— Hey Davy!” He bellowed. “Ooo, waid’ll I gitchoo!”

“Aaa, shod op!” Contemptuously from Polly. “Stop makin’ believe!”

“Waddayuh lookin’ at me faw?” Esther stormily.

“You know w’at!” Her sister answered significantly. “You know w’at.”


“Snot! Yuh wuz playin’ bad in dat place wit’ him! Dat’s watchoo wuz doin’! Wit’ dat bum! Yuh t’ink I don’ know?”

“I wuz not!” Esther screamed.

“Yuh wuz!”

“Who’s a bum?” Leo’s voice bullying.

“Who else? You! You took her in dere, yuh rotten bum!”

“Don’ call me a bum!”

“I will so—yuh rotten bum!”

“I’ll slap yuh one, yuh stinkin’ sheeny!”

“Me! Wotta you? Ooo!” Her voice trailed off into horrified comprehension. “Oooh, w’en I tell—He’s a goy too! Yuh doity Crischin, ged oud f’om my cella’—faw I call my modder. Ged oud!”

“Yuh mudder’s ass! Call ’er, I dare ye! I’ll rap de two o’ yiz!”

“You leave her alone!” Esther turned on him fiercely. “Ged odda you! Go on! Ged oud!”

“Aw, shet up!” He was stung. “Ye wuz in dere yeself—w’ut’re ye takin’ her side fer?”

“Ooo! Hooo!” Esther burst into a loud betrayed wail. “Ged oud! Waaa!”

“Ged oud, yuh doity Crischin!” Polly’s screech swelled above her sister’s bawling. “Doity bum, ged oud!”

“Aw righ’—” mockingly. “Keep yer drawz on! G’wan fight it out yerself.” His voice retreated.

“Doity bum!”

“Sswt!” He whistled jeeringly from a distance. “Tell ’er wut I wuz doin’, kid. Yuh jew hewhs! We wuz hidin’ de balonee! Yaaa! Sheenies! Brrt!” He trumpeted. “Sheenies!” Skates clashed. The door slammed.

“Oooh! Hooo!” Esther’s sobbing filled the cellar.

“Yuh oughta cry, yuh doity t’ing!” Polly lashed at her. “Good fuh yuh! Comm down wit’ dat goyish bum in de cella’!”

“Y-y’ ain’ gonna t-tell.” Esther whined brokenly. “He made me! I didn’ wanna go!”

“Made yuh!” scornfully. “Mama said yuh wuz in de back o’ de staw. Yuh didn’t have t’ comm down—if yuh didn’ wanna! I’m gonna tell!”

“No!” Her sister lifted a frantic wail. “Didn’ I stop him f’om hittin’ yuh? Didn’ I? Poppa’ll kill me if yuh tell ’im! You know!”

“So led ’im!” Stonily. “Den yuh won’ go wit’ goys no maw. Yuh always callin’ me piss-in-bed, anyway! So dere!”

“I’ll never call yuh again, Polly! Never! Never in all my life!”

“Yea, pooh! I b’lieve yuh!”

“I won’t! I won’t!”

“Lemme go!”

“Don’t tell! Ow!”

“Lemme go!”

David, petrified in his niche of darkness saw her drag the screaming Esther after her toward the cellar door.

“Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

“Lemme go! Yuh hea?” Polly seized the door-knob for support, wrenched her other hand free. “I am gonna—”

“Eee!” Esther screamed. “Look! Look!”

“Wa?” In spite of herself.

“It’s him! Him! Davy!”

He had scrambled to his feet, cowering—

“He made me! He brung him!”

Cornered, he tensed for an opening.

“You!” Esther screamed. “Now I’m gonna give yuh—rotten liddle bestitt! It’s your fault!” And suddenly she struck out with both hands, caught him flush on the cheeks, clawed.

With a gasp of pain, he ducked under her arms, butted past her. She pursued, squalling with rage, collared him again, pounded his back and head. As if in a nightmare, he struggled, silently in the dark to tear himself free.

“Mama!” Polly’s scream at the other end. “Mama!”

“Polly!” Esther’s hold loosened. “Polly! Wait, Polly!” She flew after her sister. “Wait! Don’t tell! Don’t tell! Polly! Polly!”

Her frenzied cry ringing in his ears, he flung himself at the street door, raced up the cellar stairs. Without caring whether any one marked him or not, he leaped out into the street and fled in horror toward Avenue D.