Call It Sleep XVIII

“FAH a penny, ices, Mrs! Fah a penny, ices! Fah a penny, ices, Mrs!”

The grimy six-year-old who had just come in, rapped on the marble counter with his copper.

“Fah a penny, ices, Mrs!”

But neither the slight, long-nosed owner of the store, gnawing bitterly at his sallow mustache, nor his slovenly, red-haired wife glaring at him, nor their pimpled, frightened daughter in the rear moved to do his bidding.

“Fah a penny, ices, Mrs! Hey!”

Another six-year-old came into the store.

“Yuh gonna gimme a suck, Mutkeh?”

“Dey dowanna gib me even!” Mutkeh turned to his friend with an injured look.

“Let’s go t’ Solly’s. Yea?”

“Noo!” muttered the owner in Yiddish. “Are you going to give it to him or will you let him clamor there all evening?”

“Boils and pepper, that’s what I’ll give him!” she crossed her arms defiantly. (The six-year-olds looked hurt.) “Can’t you do it? Are you dead?”

“I won’t!” His small peevish jaw shot as far forward as its teeth would allow. “Let the whole store be burnt to the ground! I won’t!”

“Then be burned with it!” She spat at him. “I need you and your penny business! A candy-store he saddled me with—good husband! Polly, go give it to him.”

Sullenly, red underlip curled out like a scarlet snail-shell, Polly left off pinching the sides of her dress and came out into the front. There she lifted the rusty lid of the can floating in the half-melted ice of the tub, ladled out the pale-yellow, smoking, crystalline mush into a paper cup and handed it to the boy. The two children went out. And as the girl retreated to the rear of the store, her mother nodded at her vindictively—

“And you had to tell him, ha? Foul-piss-in-bed! After I warned you not to!”

“You ain’ my moddeh,” Polly mumbled in English.

“I’ll give you something in a minute,” her stepmother unlocked her arms, “You think you’re safe because your father’s here?”

“Leave her alone!” her husband interfered resentfully, “Do you think she’s wrong maybe? Had it been your own flesh and blood, you would have been there in a wink, no? You’d have watched. You wouldn’t have sat in front on your fat hole, while that Esau scum handled my poor daughter—”

“Be a scape-goat for dogs!” her voice rose in a browbeating stormy scream. “And for rats! And for snakes! Can I watch everything? The store! The customers! The salesmen! The kitchen! And your stinking daughters as well! Isn’t it enough you’ve given me a candy-store to age me, and with a candy-store loaded my belly with one of yours—Here!” She lifted the chocolate-stained, mounded apron as though she meant to throw it at him. “And besides all this, you ask me to watch those filthy hussies! If they don’t even listen to me, how can I watch them? Aren’t they old enough? Don’t they know enough? And that one in the kitchen where she pretends to weep—a wench of twelve! Let her choke there! And you—you don’t deserve to have the earth cover you! Telling me to watch them! And if you want to know something else, you’ll make no more fuss about it, but you’ll go into the kitchen and eat your supper!” Gasping breathlessly, she stopped.

“Yes?” Though he groped for words, it wasn’t fury that halted his speech, but a kind of invincible stubbornness that kept laboriously intrenching itself deeper and deeper. “Supper—me—you ask—me—to eat? Your zest—and may your zest—for life—be as little all your life—as I—as mine is for food! Supper—after what’s happened! Woe to you! But this once—I—You won’t straddle me like a—a good horse! No! This—you—this once you won’t ride—”

“Kiss my arse!” She broke in on him again. “Riding you! I’m not ridden, ha? Oh what a fool you are—choking over it! As if it’s never happened before that two brats should be playing like animals. Is she maimed! Has he snatched it from her—the prize? Won’t it heal before she’s married?”

“How do you know? Do you know how big he was? What has he wrought? Did you even look to see?”

“Look? Yes!” she suddenly snorted mockingly. “I looked! Her drawers were dirty—as they always are! Why don’t you go inside and look at her yourself!”

“Go break a blood vessel!” he muttered.

“Brats at play and he’s worrying! About what, God knows—the future, marriage, suitors. They’ll explore her before they’ll marry her, is that it? Oh, idiot! Do you want a suitor for her? Blow your nose—she’ll have a tall one!”

His small frame stiffened. Blood flared in his sallow face.

“That’s how your mother answered your father, ha? Over your sister, Genya, ha? And exactly the same way—a goy! It’s a family trait by now! To you it’s nothing!” The spurt of anger that had driven his words failed him suddenly. He retreated.

“Burn like a candle!” She advanced upon him furiously. “Will you vomit up past shame! A secret I told you, you dare mock me with? I’ll give you something to make your world keel over!”

His back against the glass doors of the toy closet, he had lifted his arms defensively. “Go away! Let me alone! If you’ll swill refreshments at my funeral, I’ll swill them at yours!”

“Be slaughtered by a chinaman!” She turned her back on him contemptuously. “Manikin! I don’t hear you any more! Go talk to my buttocks!”

“All right! All right!” He swayed impotently. “Let it be as you say. My just one! My righteous! Let it be as you say. But him, that little rogue with the big eyes, he goes scot-free, ha? That’s dealing justly, ha? A nephew is dearer to you than the daughters I brought you. But remember there’s a God in heaven—He’ll judge you for this!”

“Did I say he ought to go unpunished?” She wheeled around again. “Did I? I told you I’d tell Genya in the morning. With the first light of day I’ll tell her. What more do you want? Would you like Albert to know? Would nothing else suit you but that? How many times have I told you what a maniac he is? Haven’t you even seen it for yourself? He’d tear that child limb from limb! Is that what you want? Well you won’t get it! And now go inside and eat! Go inside as I tell you and stop hammering the samovar—daughter! daughter! Or God help me you’ll have pangs and hemorrhoids for an appetizer!”

Completely cowed and yet too stubborn to move, he stood there muttering while she glared at him. “Genya.… Good! Good! She with her light hand and soft voice. Yeh! Yeh!” He nodded bitterly. “She’ll never lift either against him. She’ll talk to him, that’s what she’ll do—fondle him. And with that he’ll be punished—words. With words after what he’s done to my Esther. All right! All right! If that’s the kind of treatment I get—good … Good! Good! But I’m not satisfied—know that! I’m not satisfied.”

“Will you go in?”

He turned to go. But as he turned, a woman entered the store.

“Hello, Mrs. Sternowitz!”


“And Mr. Sternowitz! I didn’t see you. How fares it?”


“Only fair? Tt! Tt! Well, give me for two cents hairpins. You sell three packages for two cents, no?”


Mrs. Sternowitz turned and waddled heavily toward the rear of the store; Polly, her mouth still hanging, stepped sullenly to one side. As she fumbled among the boxes stacked on the shelves, fumbled and sighed laboriously, and muttered about the dark, her husband watched her, flexing and unflexing nervous hands. Suddenly he clenched his fist, and while his wife’s back was still turned to him, sidled toward the front of the store, brushed by the puzzled woman at the counter and slunk out. Polly gaped after him. Her step-mother, all unaware, lifted haphazardly now one lid of a box, now another. The customer laughed.

“What’s the matter with your husband?” she asked.

“Ach!” Mrs. Sternowitz threw casually over her shoulder. “God alone knows what’s ailing him. His nose has fallen to the ground and he won’t pick it up.”

“That’s the way with men,” the woman chuckled. “You’ll be lying in soon, no?”

“Too soon. Oh! Here it is! A new box?” She dragged it out. “These have something between their legs, these hairpins, cha! cha! Another new variety.” She broke off abruptly, her questioning glance flicking from daughter to customer. “Where is he? Nathan!”

“That’s why I asked you.” The woman still smiled. “It looked to me as though he fled.”

“Fled?” She stood stock-still. “Where?”

“There. Toward Alden Avenue I think. What is it?”

But Mrs. Sternowitz had already flung back the counter lid, and with a frightened yet furious expression was hurrying toward the door. She ran out on the sidewalk, stared eastward frantically, ran a few steps, came rushing back.

“I don’t see him! I don’t see him!” she spluttered, pinching frantically at her neck and dragging at the flesh. “He’s tricked me! He’s off—to Genya’s!” She turned furiously on her daughter. “Why didn’t you tell me he was sneaking off, you little snake!” She lifted her hand to strike, but thought better of it. “Ai!” She threw the box of hairpins down on the counter, and began fumbling desperately with her apron strings. And while the other woman stared at her in alarm, shouted garbled, flurried injunctions at Polly.

“Go call Esther!” She threw the apron from her at last and stooped down to button her shoes. “Hurry! Hurry! Call her out! Quick! Oh, if I get my hands on him! Oh, God help him. Quick! Oh, if I get him! Quick! Call her! You two mind the store. Call Mrs. Zimmerman if I don’t get back soon! Watch the cash drawers! Hurry, do you hear? He can’t have gone far! I’ll get him! I’ll make a scene in the middle of the street. I’ll drag him back by the hair! Hurry! Watch! The two-faced—” She rushed out of the store.

The other woman looked after her in amazement and then turned to Polly. “What’s the matter with your mother?”

“I don’t know,” was the morose answer. And then she went to the back of the store, threw open the kitchen door and screamed at someone inside.

“C’mon out, Esther! Poppa wen’ away! Momma wen’ away! Comm out! Comm on! Yuh hev t’ watch!”