Call It Sleep XX

DUSK. Storelight and lamplight condensed—too early for assertion. The casual, canceled stir and snarling of distance. And on the sidewalks, men and women striding with too certain a gait, and in the gutter, children crossing, calling, not yet conceding the dark’s dominion. The world dim-featured in mouldering light, floating, faceted and without dimension. For a moment the wild threshing of voices, bodies, the screams, the fury in the pent and shrunken kitchen split their bands in the brain, flew out to the darkened east, the flagging west beyond the elevated, the steep immensity of twilight that dyed the air above the housetops. For a moment, the rare coolness of a July evening dissolved all agony in a wind as light as with the passing of a wand. And suddenly there was space even between the hedges of stone and suddenly there was quiet even in the fret of cities. And there was time, inviolable even to terror, time to watch the smudged and cluttered russet in the west beckon to the night to cover it. A moment, but a moment only, then he whimpered and ran.

—Can’t! Ow! Can’t! Can’t run! Can’t! Hurts! Hurts! Ow! Mama! Legs! Mama!

He had no more than reached the corner when every racked fibre in his body screamed out in exhaustion. Each time his foot fell was like a plunger through his skull. On buckling legs, he crossed Avenue D, stopped, wobbling with faintness, rubbed his thighs.

—Can’t go! Can’t! Hurt! Ow! Mama! Mama!

Fearfully, he peered over his shoulder, eyes traveling upward. From the first to the third floor of his house, the lighted kitchens behind bedrooms cast their dull stain on the windows—one dusky brass, one fawn, one murky grey. A column of drab yet reassuring light—except his own on the fourth floor, still sullen, aloof and dark. He caught his breath in a new onslaught of terror. Waves of fear serried his breast and back—

—Ain’t not yet! Ow! Fighting yet! Him! What’s he doing! Mama! Mama! He’s hitting! Ow! Can’t run! Some place! Stay here! Find! Watch! Wait till— Wait! Wait! Scared! Hide! Some place … Where?

A short distance to his left, the closed dairy store between Ninth and Tenth was unlit. He stumbled toward it. Behind the barricade of milk cans chained to the cellar-railing, he crouched down on the store-step, fixed lifted, imploring eyes to his windows. Dark, still dark. Baleful, unrelenting, they hid yet betrayed the fury and disaster behind them. He moaned, bit his fingers in agony, stared about him with a wild, tortured gaze.

Across the street the bar of green light in the photography shop blazed out. People passed, leisurely, self-absorbed, and as they entered the radius of the light, it fixed them momentarily in caustic, carrion-green. None marked him there, but drifted by with too buoyant and too aimless a gait for his own misery, drifted by with bloated corroded faces, as if heaved in the swell of a weedy glare, as if lolling undersea. Too sick to endure it, he looked away, looked up.

—Dark yet up. Dark … First, second, third is light. Mine Dark. Dark mine only. Papa stop. Stop! Stop, papa. Light it now. Ain’t mad no more. Light it, mama. Now! One, two, three, now! One, two, three, now! Now! Aaa! Ain’t! Ain’t! Ow! Run away, mama! Don’t let him! Run away! Here! Here I am! Run! Mama! Mama! Mama!

He whimpered.

A man, paunched, slow-footed, his bulky body rolling on baggy unbending knees drew near. Opposite David, he turned a slow head toward the light, palmed a strange, corrupt-purple splotch on his jowls, pinched his under lip and lumbered on.

—With the whip. The busted one. Here he hit too. Him like from wagon. And I gave it. Won’t bust no more. If he—Don’t let him! Don’t let him! Run in! Bedroom! Hold door. Tight! Don’t let go! Aunt Bertha! Uncle! You too! Hold it! Fast! Don’t let him hit her! Hold it! Ow! Mama! Stop! Stop, papa! Please! Ow! Look! Is—dark—dark yet. Dark.

Beside him on the ground floor of the same house where he sat concealed, a window squawked, whirred open. And a man’s voice in sing-song harangue:

“Aaa, dawn be a wise-guy! Hooz tuckin’ f’om vinnin’! A dollar ’n’ sexty fife gestern! A thuler ’n’ sompt’n’ —ova hadee cends—Sonday! An’ Monday night in back f’om Hymen’s taileh-shop, rummy, tuh sevendy. Oy, yuh sh’d die. An’ I sez if yuh ken give a good dill, Abe, yuh sheoll dill in jail auraddy! An’ if I luz again, a fire sol dich bald urtreffen!” The voice retreated.

—If it lights, so what? What’ll I do? He’ll ask me. What’ll I do? What? What? Papa, nothing. I wanted … I wanted. What? The—The—on the floor. Beads. Fell out—pocket. What for you—? Ow! Papa, I don’t know What? Why? He’ll look. He’ll say. Ball. Ball I wanted Ball? He’ll say—ball? Yes. Ball. In my head. Ow! I can’t tell. Must! In my head seen. Was. In the corner. By milk-stink baby carriages. White. Wasn’t scared. What? What? What? Yes. Wasn’t scared. How I seen one once, when—When? Sword in the fire. Tenth Street. Ask the rabbi. Sword. In the crack light and he laughed. When I read that he—Fire. Light. When I read. Always scared till then—and they made me. Goyim by river. And They—So had. So lost. Wanted back, Papa! Papa! Wanted back. And he said yes. Leo. Like inside-outside guts burning. And he said would. Come out of box. Said God on—Wait, Papa! Papa! Don’t hit! Don’t! Ow! Didn’t want a big one, only twentier. Littler even. Only nickel-big. Down under fished—like when—Ow! That’s why, Papa! That’s why! Didn’t—Ow! Ain’t! Ain’t! Ain’t lit yet! What’ll I do? Ain’t lit yet!

They had gathered across the street before the house beside the barber shop on the corner, boys, nimble, nervous and shrill. And one stood threateningly on the stoop while the rest crouched tensely on the curb—

“Wolf, are yuh ready?”

“I’m geddin’ ouda bed!”

“Wolf, are yuh ready?”

“I’m goin’ t’ de sink!”

“Wolf, are yuh ready?”

“I’m washin’ op mine face—”

With precious, mincing gait, two women approached, scanning with dead caressing flutter the dead faces of the men who passed them. Their cheeks in the vitriolic glare of the photography-shop window were flinty yet sagging; green light glazed the velvet powder, scummed the hectic rouge, livid over lurid. One, the nearest, swelling her bosom to the figment strand she lifted from it, sent a glancing beam at David from casual polished, putrescent eyes. They sauntered on trailing a languid wake of flesh and perfume, redolent for all the ten foot gap between them, emphasizing by denying their corruption.

—Milk—stink here too. Where? Cans, because. Milk —stink big cans. What’s that—there by—cellar? What? Sword it—No! Don’t care! Don’t care! Mama! Mama!

“Wolf are yuh ready?”

“I’m putt’n’ on my shoes—”

—If she runs, runs away. Don’t look for me. Can’t see. If she—like she said. Never see her again. Take me, mama! Don’t run away! Mama! Here I am, Mama! By cans I’m hiding! By store! Dark yet—is dark. Dark always! She went already. Didn’t look! Don’t want to find me! Never! Never! She went! She went! Ow! Look someplace else! Look! Look someplace! Sword by cans! No, ain’t. Forgot! He forgot. Store-spoon, milk-spoon. Why! Ow! Mama! Mama! Ain’t light! Never! Never!

“Wolf, are yuh ready?”

“I’m pudd’n on my drawz—”

“No fair! Hey, yuh pud on de drawz a’reddy!”

“Awri’! So I’m pudd’n’ on my shoit!”

“Wolf, are—”

The clatter of a horse-car drowned them out. And from the window beside him loud and sudden laughter—

“A bluff, ha? Nisht by Mudjkih! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ven ’Erry says a full-house is a full—”

—If it was—! If it was a sword. So what? You’re scared. Ain’t not! You’re scared! I ain’t! I ain’t! I ain’t! Yes, you know because it ain’t. Double dare me? Double dare me? You know it ain’t? Could! Even if it ain’t a sword, could go in the crack. Where it splashes, hold cup like where you held sword. You’re scared. Triple dare me? Somebody’ll see. Let ’em! Don’t care! Can’t get it out. Anyway. Cans too heavy—Can too. Empty. I triple dare you? Wait! Aaaa, knew you was scared. Wait! Three waits! No more! No more! Only three waits. No more! (He was muttering aloud now) “Yuh gonna lighd winder? Winder! Winder! Yuh gonna lighd winder?”

“Wolf, are yuh ready?”

“I’m tieingk op mine shoe-laces!”

—Winder, secon’ chance! Yuh gonna lighd winder? I’ll go! I’ll go! Winder! Mama! Mama! I’ll go!

He had risen to his feet. Once more his anguished eyes beseeched the window, and then a fit of horrible rage convulsed him and he writhed and beat the wall beside him. Seconds passed. The fit left him and he tasted the salt blood on his bitten lip and peered with a new, strange feeling of craftiness up and down the greenish street.

Humanity. On feet, on crutches, in carts and cars. The ice-vendor. The waffle-wagon. Human voices, motion, seething, throbbing, bawling, honking horns and whistling. Troubling the far clusters of street lamps, setting store-lights guttering with their passing bodies like a wind. He shuddered, looked near at hand. Across the street, the wolf was crouching, ready to spring; the boys that baited him, twitched warily, giggled nervously at each cry. In the photography-shop, the enlarged pictures of age gazed out at him, mummified and horrible. From wall and sidewalk, lamplight and mercury vapor had crowded the gloaming into night; above the streets the hollow cobalt air dissolved heaven’s difference with the roof tops. No one was watching him.

In hatred this time, in challenge, his eyes stabbed the window. Dark. He defied it.

Stealthily, he sidled to the nearest milk-can, took hold of the cover and handle. Under his palms, the metal was cold, the heavy can unwieldy, a shifting steely glimmer under his eyes. He leaned against it—harder. It budged, sounded hollow. Again he braced himself, thrust—


Wedged between the shoulder of the can and the cellar grill, the long, grey, milk-dipper clattered to the ground. He stooped to pick it up—

“Tadam, padam, pam! Thew! Thew! He had to get under, get out and get under—” With a jaunty, swaggering stride and nasal hum and toothy whistle, a tall, square-shouldered man drew abreast. “To fix up his little machine!” Between cap and black shirt, frosty green-blue eyes winked down at David, turned away, and passing, left their chill fire lingering in the air. “Pam! Pam! Prra! To fix up his little machine!”

The coast was clear now. Across the street, the children were shrieking with excitement. David picked up the dipper, crept out of the store entrance, and with the scoop of the dipper under his armpit, long, flat handle in his hand, he slunk quickly toward Tenth Street—

“Wolf are yuh ready!” their voices pursued him.

“I’m co-o-o--o-omin’—down—duh—st-o-o-op!”

—Goin’! I’m goin’, winder! Winder! Winder! I’m goin’!

Uphill, the faint slope, steep to aching legs, he ran, avoiding the careless glance of the few who noticed. Tenth Street. A street car crossed the Avenue, going west. The river wind blew straight and salt between a flume of houses. He swung sharply into it, entered the river-block, dimlit, vacant. Ahead of him, like a barrier, the one beer-saloon, swinging door clamped in a vise of light, the mottled stained-glass window bulging with a shoddy glow.

—Somebody’ll see.

He skulked in the shadows against the rough wall of the iron-works, crept forward. In the ebb of river-wind, the faint bitter flat beer spread round him. Gone in the quick neaping of wind—A man knuckles to mustache, flung back the swing-door—whirred reiteration of bar and mirror, bottles, figures, aprons—David slunk past him into deeper shadow.

And now the old wagon-yard, the lifted thicket of tongues; the empty stables, splintered runways, chalked doors, the broken windows holding still their glass like fangs in the sash, exhaling manure-damp, rank. The last street lamp droning in a cyst of light. The gloomy, massive warehouse, and beyond it, the strewn chaos of the dump heap stretching to the river. He stopped. And where a shadowy cove sank between warehouse wall and dump heap, retreated.

—Yuh dared me … Yuh double-dared me … Now I gotta.

The tracks lay before him—not in double rows now but in a single yoke. For where he stood was just beyond the fork of the switch, and the last glitter on the tines lapsed into rust and rust into cobbles and cobbles merged with the shadowy dock and the river.

—Scared! Scared! Scared! Don’t look!

He plucked his gaze away, tossed frenzied eyes about him. To the left, the chipped brick wall of the warehouse shut off the west and humanity, to the right and behind him, the ledge of the dump heap rose; before him land’s end and the glitter on the rails.

—Yuh dared me … Yuh double-dared me … Now I gotta. I gotta make it come out.

The small sputter of words in his brain seemed no longer his own, no longer cramped by skull, but detached from him, the core of his surroundings. And he heard them again as though all space had compelled them and were shattered in the framing, and they boomed in his ears, vast, delayed and alien.

—Double-dared me! Now I gotta! Double-dared me! Now I gotta make it come out.