Call It Sleep XXII

“THERE you are, sonny! There you are!” The interne’s reassuring drawl, reached him through a swirl of broken images. “You’re not hurt. There’s nothing to be scared about.”

“Sure!” the policeman was saying beside him.

David opened his eyes. Behind, between them and around them, like a solid wall, the ever-encroaching bodies, voices, faces at all heights, gestures at all heights, all converging upon him, craning, peering, haranguing, pointing him out, discussing him. A nightmare! Deliverance was in the thought. He shut his eyes trying to remember how to wake.

“How does that foot feel, sonny?” The routine, solicitous voice again inquired. “Not bad, eh?”

He was aware for the first time of the cool air on his naked leg, and below it a vague throbbing at the ankle. And once aware, he couldn’t shake off the reality of it. Then it wasn’t a dream. Where had he been? What done? The light. No light in the windows upstairs … His father. His mother. The quarrel. The whip. Aunt Bertha, Nathan, the rabbi, the cellar, Leo, the beads—all swooped upon him, warred for preeminence in his brain. No. It wasn’t a dream. He opened his eyes again, hoping reality would refute conviction. No it wasn’t a dream. The same two faces leaned over him, the same hedge of humanity focused eyes on his face.

“Looks like he’s still too weak,” said the interne.

“Yuh goin’ t’take him wid ye?”

“No!” Grimacing emphatically, the interne shut the black bag. “Why, he’ll be able to walk in less than five minutes. Just as soon as he gets his breath. Where does he live?”

“I don’ know. None o’ dese guys know— Say, w’ere d’yuh live? Huh? Yuh wanna go home, dontchuh?”

“N-nint’ street.” He quavered. “S-sebm fawdynine.”

“Nint’ Street.” The crowd reechoed. “Say ufficeh,” a coatless man came forward. “Det’s on de cunner Evenyuh D.”

“I know! I know!” The policeman waved him back with surly hand. “Say, Doc, will ye give us a lift.”

“Sure. Just pick him up.”

“Yea, ooops! Dere ye go!” Burly arms went under his knees and back, lifted him easily, carried him through the gaping crowd to the ambulance. His head swam again with the motion. He lay slack on a long leather cot between greenish walls, aware of faces whisking by the open doorway, peering in. The interne seated himself at the back, called to the driver. The bell clanged, and as the wagon jolted forward, the policeman mounted the low step in the rear. Behind the ambulance, rolling on rubber-tired wheels on the cobbles, he could hear the voices calling the way. “Nint’ Street! Nint’ Street!” The throb in his ankle was growing in depth, in dullness of pain, permeating upward like an aching tide within the marrow. What had he done? What had he done? What would they say when they brought him upstairs. His father, what—? He moaned.

“That doesn’t hurt you that much, does it?” asked the interne cheerily. “You’ll be running around to-morrow.”

“Yer better off den I tawt ye’d be, said the policeman behind him. “Cheezis, Doc, I sure figgered he wuz cooked.”

“No. The shock went through the lower part. That’s what saved him. I don’t see why he was out so long anyway. Weak, I guess.”

Behind beating hooves and jangling bell, he felt the ambulance round the corner at Avenue D. The policeman turned to look behind him and then squinted sideways at David’s foot.

“His shoes wuz boined in front. An’ he’s got it up on de ankle.”

“Narrowest part.”

“I see. Dat’ll loin yuh a lesson, kid.” He disengaged one hand from the ambulance wall to wave a severe finger at David. “Next time I’ll lock yiz up. Wot flaw d’yuh live on?”

“T-top flaw.”

“Would have t’be,” he growled disgustedly. “Next time I will lock yiz up—making me woik, an’ takin’ de Doc away from a nice pinocle game. Wot dese goddam kids can’t t’ink of. Geez!”

The ambulance had rounded the second corner and came to a stop. Grinning, the interne leaped down. Stooping over and grunting as he stooped, the policeman lifted him in his arms again and bore him quickly through the new throng that came streaming around the corner. On the stoop, several children recognized him and bawled excitedly, “It’s Davy! It’s Davy!” A woman in the gaslit corridor cradled cheek in palm in terror and backed away. They mounted the stairs, the interne behind them and behind him remnants of the crowd, children of the house, following eagerly at a wary distance, jabbering, calling to him, “Watsa maddeh? Watsa maddeh, Davy?” Doors opened on the landings. Familiar heads poked out. Familiar voices shrilled at others across the hallway. “It’s him! F’om opstehs. Veh de fighd voz!” As they neared the top the policeman had begun breathing heavily, shedding thick hot breath on David’s cheek, grunting, the lines on his scowling, tough, red face deep with exertion.

The top floor. David’s eyes flashed to the transom. It was lit. They were in. What would they say? He moaned again in terror.

“Where is it?” the red face before him puffed.

“Over—over dere!” he quavered weakly.

The door. The arm under his knees slid forward. Beefy knuckles rapped, sought the knob. Before an answer came, the door, nudged forward by his own thighs, swung open.

Before him stood his mother, looking tense and startled, her hand resting on his father’s shoulders, and below, seated, his father, cheek on fist, eyes lifted, sourly glowering, affronted, questioning with taut and whiplike stare. The others were gone. It seemed to David that whole ages passed in the instant they regarded each other frozen in their attitudes. And then just as the policeman began to speak, his mother’s hand flew to her breast, she gasped in horror, her face went agonizingly white, contorted, and she screamed. His father threw his chair back, sprang to his feet. His eyes bulged, his jaw dropped, he blanched.

For the briefest moment David felt a shrill, wild surge of triumph whip within him, triumph that his father stood slack-mouthed, finger-clawing, stooped, and then the room suddenly darkened and revolved. He crumpled inertly against the cradling arms.

“David! David!” His mother’s screams pierced the reeling blur. “David! David! Beloved! What is it? What’s happened?”

“Take it easy, missiz! Take it easy!” He could feel the policeman’s elbow thrust out warding her off. “Give us a chanst, will yuh! He ain’t hoit! He ain’t a bit hoit! Hey Doc!”

The interne had stepped between them and David, staring weakly through the sickening murk before his eyes, saw him pushing her resolutely away. “Now! Now! Don’t get him excited, lady! It’s bad! It’s bad for him! You’re frightening him! Understand? Nicht ver—Schlect! Verstehen sie?”

“David! My child!” Unhearing, she still moaned, frantically, hysterically, one hand reached out to him, the other clutching her hair. “Your foot! What is it, child! What is it darling?”

“Put him down on the bed!” The interne motioned impatiently to the bed-room. “And listen, Mister, will you ask her to stop screaming. There’s nothing to worry about! The child is in no danger! Just weak!”

“Genya!” his father started as if he were jarred. “Genya!” He exclaimed in Yiddish. “Stop it! Stop it! He says nothing’s wrong. Stop it!”

From outside the door, the bolder ones in the crowd of neighbors that jammed the hallway had overflowed into the kitchen and were stationing themselves silently or volubly along the walls. Some as they jabbered pointed accusingly at David’s father and wagged their heads significantly. And as David was borne into the bedroom, he heard one whisper in Yiddish, “A quarrel! They were quarreling to death!” In the utterly welcome half-darkness of the bed-room he was stretched out on the bed. His mother, still moaning, had followed, and behind her his restraining hand upon her shoulder came the interne. Behind them the upright, squirming bodies, pale, contorted faces of neighbors clogged the doorway. A gust of fury made him clench his hands convulsively. Why didn’t they go away? All of them! Why didn’t they stop pointing at him?

“I was just this minute going down!” his mother was wringing her hands and weeping, “Just this minute I was going down to find you! What is it darling? Does it hurt you? Tell me—”

“Aw, Missiz!” the policeman flapped his hands in disgust. “He’s all right. Be reasonable, will yiz! Just a liddle boined, dat’s all. Just a liddle boined. Cantchuh see dere’s nutt’n’ wrong wid ’im!”

She stared at him uncomprehendingly.

“Schreckts ach nisht! Schreckts ach nisht!” The chorus of women in the doorway translated raggedly. “Sis im goor nisht geshehen! S’ goor nisht geferlich!”

“Dat’s it, you tell her!” The policeman shouldered his way through the door.

The interne had undressed him, pulled the covers down and tucked him in. The smooth sheets felt cool on his throbbing foot.

“Now!” He straightened, turned decisively to David’s mother. “You can’t help him by crying, lady. If you want to help him go make him some tea. A lot of it.”

“Kein gefahr?” she asked dully, disbelievingly.

“Yes! Yes! That’s right!” he answered impatiently. “Kein gefahr! Now make him some tea.”

“Teh, Mrs. Schearl,” a woman in the doorway came forward. “Geh macht eem teh!”


“Yes! Teh!” the interne repeated. “Quick! Schnell! Yes?”

She turned numbly. The woman offered to help her. They went out.

“Well, how’s the kid?” the interne grinned down at him. “Feel good?”


“That’s the boy! You’ll be all right in a little while.”

He turned to leave. A fattish, bare-armed woman stood at his shoulder. David recognized her. She lived on the same floor.

“Ducktuh!” she whispered hurriedly. “Yuh shoulda seen vod a fighd dere vus heyuh!” She contracted, rocked. “Oyyoy! Yoy-u-yoy! Him, dat man, his faddeh, he vus hittin’ eem! Terrible! A terrhible men! En’ dere vus heyuh his cozzins—oder huh cozzins—I don’ know! En’ dey vus fighdingk. Oy-yoy-yoy! Vid scrimms! Vid holleringk! Pwwweeyoy! En’ den dey chessed de boy all oud f’om de house. En den dey chessed de odder two pipples! En’ vee vus listeningk, en’ dis man vos crying. Ah’m khrezzy! Ah’m khrezzy! I dun know vod I do! I dun’ know vod I said! He ses. Ah’m khrezzy! En’ he vus cryingk! Oy!”

“Is that so?” the interne said indifferently.

“Id vus terrhible! Terrhible! En’ Ducktuh,” she patted his arm. “Maybe you could tell me fah vy my liddle Elix dun eat? I give him eggks vid milk vid kulleh gedillehs. En he don’t vonna eat nottingk. Vod sh’d I do?”

“I don’t know.” He brushed by her. “You’d better see a doctor.”

“Oy bist du a chuchim!” she spat after him in Yiddish. “Does the breath of your mouth cost you something?”

His mother returned. Her hair was disheveled. Tears still stained her cheek though she had stopped crying. “You’ll have some tea in a minute, darling.” A tremulous gasp of after-weeping shook her. “Does your foot hurt very much?”

“N-no,” he lied.

“They told me you were at the car-tracks,” she shuddered. “How did you come there? You might have been— Oh! God forbid! What made you go? What made you do it?”

“I don’t—I don’t know,” he answered. And the answer was true. He couldn’t tell now why he had gone, except that something had forced him, something that was clear then and inevitable, but that every passing minute made more inarticulate. “I don’t know, mama.”

She groaned softly, sat down on the bed. The fat woman with the bare arms touched her shoulders and leaned over her.

“Poor Mrs. Schearl!” she said with grating, provocative pity. “Poor Mrs. Schearl! Why ask him? Don’t you know? Our bleeding, faithful mother’s heart they think nothing of wringing. Nothing! Woe you! Woe me! Before we see them grown, how many tears we shed! Oy-yoy-yoy! Measureless. So our children bring us suffering. So our men. Alas, our bitter lot! No?” Her see-saw sigh heaved gustily, pitched audibly. She folded her hands on her loose flabby belly and rocked sorrowfully.

His mother made no answer, but gazed fixedly into his eyes.

In the kitchen, he could hear the policeman interrogating his father, and his father answering in a dazed, unsteady voice. That sense of triumph that David had felt on first being brought in, welled up within him again as he listened to him falter and knew him shaken.

“Yes. Yes,” he was saying. “My sawn. Mine. Yes. Awld eight. Eight en’—en’ vun mawnt’. He vas bawn in—”

“Wait a minute!” The policeman’s voice interrupted him. “Say, Doc, befaw yuh go, tell us, did I do it good. You know—dat foist-aid business. Waddayer say? In case dere’s a commendation er sompt’n.”

“Sure! Fine! Couldn’t have done it better myself.”

“Tanks, Doc. An’ say, gimme de medical repawt, will yuh? Shock? Foolin’ aroun’ wit’ de car-tracks wit—Heh! Heh!—merlicious intent.”

“Oh—er—just say, shock … caused by … short circuiting … trolley power—what d’you call it—rail.”


“Then—electrical burn … on ankle … right foot … second degree. Got it?”

“Secon’ degree, yea.”

“Applied artificial respir—”

“Aw Doc, have a heart, will yuh!”

“You want a commendation, don’t you?” the interne laughed. “Well anything—first aid. Child revived— I’ve left a slip for you, Mister. On the table. Carron oil. Smear it around the ankle tonight and tomorrow. The blib ought to be gone in a day or two.”


“And if he doesn’t feel well tomorrow, take him to the Holy Name Hospital—it’s on the slip. But he’ll be all right. Well, Lieutenant, I’ll see you again.”

“Yea. So long, Doc.”

The woman who had gone out with David’s mother came in balancing a cup of tea. Silently his mother propped him up on the pillows and began feeding him out of the spoon. The hot, sugared tea quickened his blood. He sighed, feeling vitality return, but only enough to know his body’s weariness. There were no more cool places between the sheets for his throbbing foot. The women in the doorway had turned their backs to him and were listening to the policeman who was holding forth in the kitchen.

“An’ say,” his reassuring voice boomed out. “I woiked over ’im, Mister, an’ no foolin’! Yuh hoid wot de Doc sez, didntcha? If it wuzn’ fer me, dat kid wouldn’ be hea. Yessir! People don’t appreciate a cop aroun dis neighborhood. But w’en dere in dutch— Say, I seen ’em boined, Mister! I’m tellin’ yuh. I seen a switchman was so boined—say! He musta fell on de rail. An’ nobody knew a t’ing about it. Out dere in de car-barns on a hunner’n fifty-fift’ an’ Eight’ Avenoo. Must a been on dere fer hours. An’ de foist t’ing yuh know, his bones was troo de elevated—right down t’ de ground—black as zat stove, Mister! Y’had-da gadder ’im up in a sheet. Yessir! So he wuz gettin’ off easy, dat kid o’ yours. But even so if it hadn’ta been fer me— Say, d’yuh wan’ all o’ dese people in hea?”

“I—I don’—” His father sounded stunned. “I—I—you—”

“Sure. C’mon goils. De kid’s gotta get some quiet now. Waddayuh say? All right, gents.”

“Vee know dem,” voices objected. “Vee liff heyuh.”

“Not hea’,” indulgently. “Not all o’ yiz. C’mon. Come in later—one at a time—”

There was a general shuffling of feet, murmured protests.

“Er fumfit shoin far a bissel geld,” sneered the woman with the bare arms as she went out. “Gitzeem a krenk!”

“I god Davy’s shoes and stockin’, Mister,” a boy’s voice piped. “He goes to my cheder.”

“Atta boy. Just leave ’em hea. C’mon de rest o’ yiz. Dat goes fer you too, Solomon.”

Feet went through the doorway, voices dwindled. The door was shut.

“Well, I got de place quiet for yuh,” said the policeman. “Funny all de trouble dese kids o’ ours gives us, huh? You said it. Geeziz I’m a cop an’ I can’t keep mine in line, bringin’ home repawt co’ds dat’d make yer hair toin grey. Well, my beat’s aroun’ hea’ in case yuh wanna see me sometime. Walsh is de name.” He loomed up in the doorway. “How’re yuh feelin’ now, kid? He’ll be all right. Sure. He’s full o’ de devil a’reddy. I’ll fan yuh wit’ me stick if I catch yuh foolin’ aroun’ dem tracks again. See? ’Night.” He flicked an open palm, turned and went out.

He had finished his tea. The sudden, flushing surge of heat that filled the hollows of his tired body drove stipple of perspiration to his brow and lips. His underwear clung to him cutting at the crotch. The trough of the bedding where he lay had become humidly warm and uncomfortable. He wriggled closer to the cooler edge of the bed where his mother was seated and lay back limply.

“More?” She asked putting the cup down on the window sill.

“No, mama.”

“You’ve had nothing to eat since the morning, beloved. You’re hungry, aren’t you?”

He shook his head. And to ease the throbbing in his right foot, slid it furtively from under the covers at her back to cool it.

His father stood in the doorway, features dissolved in the dark. Only the glitter in his eyes was sharply visible, fixed on the puffy grey ankle. His mother turned at his tread, spied the swollen foot also. Her sucked breath hissed between pain-puckered lips.

“Poor darling! Poor child!”

His father’s hand fell heavily against the door-frame. “He’s written down the name of some medicine for us to get,” he said abruptly. “To smear on his foot.”

“Yes?” She half rose. “I’ll go get it.”

“Sit there!” His peremptory tone lacked force as though he spoke out of custom, not conviction. “It will be quicker for me to get it. Your neighbors outside won’t delay me with their tongues.” But instead of going he stood where he was. “He said he’d be better in a day or two.”

She was silent.

“I said he’d be better in a day or two,” he repeated.

“Yes. Of course.”



There was a pause. His father cleared his throat. When he spoke his voice had a peculiar harshness as though he were at the same time provoking and steeling himself against a blow.

“It— it’s my fault you’d say. Is that it?”

She shook her head wearily. “What use is there to talk about faults, Albert? None foresaw this. No one alone brought it on. And if it’s faults we must talk about it’s mine as well. I never told you. I let him listen to me months and months ago. I even drove him downstairs to—to—”

“To protect him—from me?”


His teeth clicked. His chest rose. The expulsion of his breath seemed to rock him slightly. “I’ll go get it.” He turned heavily out of the doorway.

David listened to his father’s dull, unresilient footfall cross the kitchen floor. The door was opened, closed. A vague, remote pity stirred within his breast like a wreathing, raveling smoke, tenuously dispersed within his being, a kind of torpid heart-break he had felt sometimes in winter awakened deep in the night and hearing that dull tread descend the stairs.

“Perhaps you’ll be hungry in a little while,” his mother said persuasively. “After you’ve rested a bit and we’ve put the medicine on your foot. And then some milk and a boiled egg. You’d like that?” Her question was sufficiently shored by statement to require no answer. “And then you’ll go to sleep and forget it all.” She paused. Her dark, unswerving eyes sought his. “Sleepy, beloved?”

“Yes, Mama.”

He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images—of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past. It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.