CALL IT SLEEP

Henry Roth


BOOK IV    The Rail

X

SPIT someone?

He glanced up and backward overhead. To the north and south the cogged spindle of the sky was an even stone-grey.

--Dope! Ain't spit. Hurry up!

Umbrellas appeared. The black shopping bags of hurrying housewives took on a dew-sprent glaze. Inside their box-like newstands, obscure dealers tilted up shelves above the papers. As the drizzle thickened the dull façades of houses grew even drabber, the contents of misty shop-windows indeterminate. A dense, soggy dreariness absorbed all things, drained all colors to darkness, melted singleness, muddied division - only the tracks of the horse-cars still glinted in the black gutter as whitely as before. He felt disgusted with himself.

--Wet on my shirt, hair, gee! Two blocks yet. Giddap!

Rain had coated sidewalk and gutter with a slimy film. On flattened tread, he jogged cautiously homeward, ducking under awnings when he could, skirting the jutting stoops. Not too drenched, he reached his corner.

"Run! Run! Sugar baby! Run! Run! Sugar baby!" Sheltered from the downpour, children in the dry covert of hallways relayed the cry - a mocking gauntlet for those who hurried in the rain. There were several such bantams snugly crowing in his own doorway. One or two of the faces belonged to those who had sat on the curb while Kushy had told about the canary. Resentfully, he fixed his eyes before him and ran up the iron stairs of the stoop. He wasn't going to talk to them at all. But as he was about to enter the hallway one of them stepped in his path--

"Hey, you're Davy aintcha?"

"Yea." He looked up sullenly. "Waddayuh wan'?"

"Dey's a kid lookin' fuh yuh."

"Yea," another chimed in. "Wit' skates he had."

"Fuh me? A kid w'it' skates?" His heart bounded with incredulous joy. Sudden warmth, gushed through every vein. "Fuh me?"

"Yea."

"Leo? Did he say he wuz Leo?"

"Leo, yea; futt flaw, sebm futty fl'. He's a goy."

"So wad he wan'?" eagerly.

"He says comm op righd away."

"Me?"

"Yea, he wuz jost lookin'--"

But David had already leaped down the stairs and was sprinting through the rain toward Leo's house. Up the stoop he went, proudly, as though Leo's call had saturated the fabric of his spirit with a tingling, toughening glow, as though his being were pursed into a new shape of assurance. Here also children crowded the hallway, but he brushed by them without a word or a moment's hesitation. He was Leo's friend! And he climbed the obscure stairs without a wisp of fear. At the top floor, he stopped, looked about - all the shadowy doors were closed.

"Hey Leo!" he sang out, and the boldness of his own voice surprised him. "Hey Leo, w'ea d'yuh live?"

He heard an answering voice and almost immediately after, a door splayed out a fan of light.

"C'mon in." Leo stepped out.

"Leo!" David would have hugged him if he dared. "Yuh called me?"

"Yea, it begun to rain, so I come back. Didn' wanna get me skates all rusty."

"Gee, I'm glad I comm home!" David followed him into the kitchen.

"I wuz just wipin' 'em." Leo sat down on a chair, picked up an oily rag at his feet and began vigorously polishing the various parts.

"Yuh all alone." He found a seat against the wall.

"Sure."

"Hoddy yuh ged in yuh house?"

"Wit' a key, hodja t'ink?"

"Gee!" admiringly. "Yuh god a key of yuh own 'n' ev'y t'ing?"

"`Course. See dat shine?" He lifted the gleaming skate.

"Gee, you know how."

"Yuh do dis ev'y day, dey never get rusty on ye."

"No. But look w'ad I brung ye, Leo." Heart leaping with delight he held out the two candies.

"Gee!" Leo hopped up with alacrity. "Wot kind ?"

"A emmend an' pineapple."

"Oh, boy! Bot' of 'em fuh me?"

"Yea." He found himself regretting he had not accepted the other tid-bits his aunt had offered him.

"Yer a nice guy!" Leo set the chocolates on the table. "W'edja git 'em?"

"Aintcha gonna ead 'em?" He asked eagerly.

"Naw, I'm savin' 'em fuh later. I wanna eat supt'n else foist."

"Oh! My a'nt ga' me 'em - Gee! I fuhgod tuh tell yuh. She owns a kendy staw."

"No kiddin'! W'ea does she live?"

"Wey down in Kane Stritt. But you c'n go easy - yuh god skates."

"Sure let's go dere sometimes - maybe we c'n cop a whole box of jelly beans. D'ja get any gum drops?"

"No." self-reproachfully. "I coulda - Gee!"

"Dey're good." Leo had put down the skates and gone over to the bread box on a shelf beside the sink. "Me fuh sumpt'n t' eat." He drew out a loaf of bread. "Want some?"

"I ain' so hungry." He felt suddenly shy. "Id's oily yed."

"Wot of it?" He began undoing the printed waxed-paper about the bread. "I eats w'en I wants tuh."

"Awri'." Leo's independence was contagious.

"Got sumpt'n good too," he promised, going over to the ice-box. "Sumpt'n we don' have ev'y day."

While Leo ferreted among the dishes, David stole blissful glances about him. It gave him a snug, adventurous feeling to be alone in a whole house with someone so resourceful as Leo. There were no parents to interfere, no orders to obey - nothing. Only they two, living in a separate world of their own. Nor were goyish kitchens so different from Jewish ones. Like his own, this too was a cubical room with stove, sink and washtubs flush against the walls. And the walls were green, and the white curtains, hanging from taut strings across the windowframes, sere with too much washing, and the flowered linoleum, scuffed like his own. Both were equally scrubbed and tidy, but where David's kitchen had a warm tang to its cleanliness, Leo's had a chill, flat odor of soap. That was all the difference between them, except perhaps for a certain picture in the shadowy corner at the further end of the room - a picture that for all of David's staring would not take on a reasonable shape because the light was too dim.

"Is she got a reggiler big canny stave?" Kneeling before the ice-box, Leo had been buttering bread. And now he pushed several objects from a large platter onto a small one. "Ice-cream poller too?" He arose.

"My aunt? Naa. She god just a--" He broke off, gaped at what Leo had placed on the table. In one of the plates was a stack of buttered bread, but on the other, a heap of strange pink creatures, all legs, claws, bodies--" Wod's dat?"

"Dese?" Leo snickered at his suprise. "Don'tcha know wat dis is? Dem's crabs.

"Cre--? Oh, crebs! Dey wuz green-like, w'en I seen 'em in a box on Second Evenyeh--"

"Yea, but dey a'ways gits red w'en ye berl 'em. Dey're real good! Gonna eat some?"

"Naa!" His stomach shrank.

"Didntcha ever eat 'em?"

"Naa! Jews can't."

"Cheez! Jew's can't eat nutt'n." He picked up one of the monsters. "Lucky I ain' a Jew."

"No." David agreed vaguely. But for the first time since he had met Leo, he rejoiced in his own tenets. "Hoddayuh ead?"

"Easy!" Leo snapped off a scarlet claw. "Jist bite into 'em, see?" He did.

"Gee!" David marveled.

"Here's some bread an' budder," Leo offered him a slab. "Yuh c'n eat dat, cantchuh? It's on'y American bread."

"Yea." David eyed it curiously on accepting it. Unlike his own bread, this slice was neither drab-grey nor brown, but dough-pale and soft as paste under the finger tips. Where the crust on the bread his mother bought was stiff and thick as card-board, this had a pliant yielding skin, thin as the thriftiest potato paring or the strip one unwound from a paper lead-pencil. And the butter - he tasted it - salt! He had never eaten salt butter before. However, pulpy and briny though the first mouthful was, there was nothing actually repulsive about it--

"We c'n eat anyt'ing we wants," Leo informed him sucking at a crushed red pincer. "Anyt'ing wot's good."

"Yea?" While he rolled the soggy cud about in his cheek, his eyes had lighted on the picture again, and again were baffled with shadow.

--A man. What? Can't be.

"An' I et ev'y kind o' bread dey is," Leo continued proudly. "Aitalian bread-sticks, Dutch pummernickel, Jew rye-even watchuh call 'em, matziz- matches--" He snickered. "Dey're nuttin but big crackers - D'ja ever eat real spigeddi?"

"No, wod's dat?"

"De wops eat it just like pitaters. An' boy ain' it good!'" He rubbed his belly. "Could eat a whole pailful by meself. We usetuh live nex' door to de Aglorini's - dey was Aitalian--"

--Like my picture too - in my house - with the flowers. Is something else if you know. Have to know or you can't see.--

"An Lily Aglorini usetuh bring in a big dishful fuh me and de ol' lady. Dat wuz w'en me ol' lady give 'em cakes when she woiked in a ressarran'. On'y wot cheese dey put in - Holy Chee! No wonner guineas c'n faht wit' gollic bombs!"

--A man, for sure now. Has to be. Only his guts are stickin' out. Burning. Gee what a crazy picture. Even mine ain't so. But get mad if I ask-

"Wisht me of lady could make real Aitalian spigeddi - Hey!" He demanded abruptly. "Wotcha lookin' at?"

"N-nott'n!" David dropped guilty eyes. "W'ad's--" (--Don't, don't ask him!) "Gee!" He felt the shooting warmth of his own flush and stopped confusedly. (--Dope! Next time listen!)

"Wot's wot?" he demanded staring at him with a wide-mouthed, suspended grin.

"A - yea!" Again, as on the roof, he found a convenient switch. "But I don' know hodda say. My modder, she says it - on'y id's Jewish." He grinned deprecatingly.

"Well, say it!" impatiently.

"W'ad's a orr - a orrghaneest? Dat's how she says id."

"A awginis', yuh mean! Awginis' - Sure! We got one in our choich. He plays a awgin."

"Yea?"

"Dey looks like pianers, on'y dey w'istles-up on top, see? Got long pipes an't'ings. Didtcha know dat?"

"I didn't know fuh sure - on'y in Jewish."

"Yea, dat's wot it is. Anyhow, who wuz talkin' about choich?"

"Nobody!" With apologetic haste, "Spigeddeh yuh said."

"Yea!" offendedly.

"D'yuh go skatin' in de windertirne, too?"

"Naw, wadda gink!" Leo struck at the lure. "How c'n yuh go skatin' in de winter time wit' snow on' de groun'? Yuh skate on slyin' ponds den. Dja ever make one a whole block long?" He expanded again. "We did - me any Patsy McCardy an' Buster Tuttle - it went all de way from Elevent' to Stevens Street."

"Gee!" David relaxed again.

"An' Lily Aglorini tries to slide on it an' bang" The crab shell cut a red arc. "Right on her can! Wow! She went a whole block wit' her legs stickin' up innee air."

--Guts like a chicken, open. And he's holding them. Whiskers he's got, or no?

"An' den de hawse falls on it and de cop troves ashes on it. But didn' me and Patsy kid de shoit off her 'cause she wuz wearin' red drawers."

-Don't look any more, that's all!

But Leo had flicked his gaze over his shoulder. "Oh!" He asked in resentful surprise. "Is zat all yuh tryin' to look at?"

"No I wuzn' tryin'! Hones'!--"

"Yes, yuh wuz, don' tell me," disgustedly. "At's twicet now yuh wuzn' even listenin'!"

"I didn't mean--" He hung his head.

"Well, go on!" The crab crunched under exasperated teeth. "Take a good look at it, will yuh!"

"Kin I?"

"Days w'at its fuh! Course yuh c'n!"

He slid apologetically, from the chair, walked over. "Oh, now I see." He gazed up at it intently. "It ain' w'at I t'ought." The man was bearded, but instead of holding his bowels in his hand, he was pointing at his breast in which the red heart was exposed and luminous.

"Wadjuh t'ink it wuz?"

"Couldn' see good," evasively.

"Dintcha ever see dat befaw?"

"No."

"'At's Jesus an' de Sacred Heart."

"Oh! What makes it?"

"Makes wot?"

"He's all light inside."

"Well 'at's 'cause he's so holy."

"Oh," David suddenly understood. "Like him, too!" He stared in fascination at the picture. "De man my rabbi told me about - he had it!"

"Had w'a'?" Leo drew abreast of him to look up.

"Dot light over dere!"

"Couldnda had dat," Leo asserted dogmatically. "Dat's Christchin light - it's way bigger. Bigger den Jew light.

David had turned around to face Leo, but now he stopped, stared at the opposite wall. Directly above his chair all this time the same bearded figure had been hanging. Only this time David recognized him. He was made of flesh-tinted porcelain, and with what looked like baby's diaper around his loins, hung from a glazed black cross. "Dat's him?"

"Sure! Yuh seen him befaw, dintcha?"

"Some place, yea. But I didn' know he wuz righd over me." With a feeling of dread he eyed the crucifix. "Oncet I seen him in a 'Talian funeral store. He's a'ways wit' nails, ain' he?"

"Yea." Leo took another slice of bread.

"But I didn' know dat wuz a - You ain' gonna git mad, will yuh if I ast you?"

"Naw!" And a second crab. "Ast me!"

"W'y is dat dish on his head busted over dere?" He pointed to the crucifix. "An it ain' busted over - hea." He pointed now to the picture.

"Ha! Ha!" he guffawed through a mouthful of food. "Aintcha de sap, dough! Dat ain' a dish; dat's a halo! Dintcha ever see a halo? It's made ouda light! An dat ain' a dish, neider," pointing to the figure on the cross, "dat's his crown o' t'orns - sharper'n pins wot de Jews stuck on him."

"Jews?" David repeated, horrified and incredulous.

"Sure. Jews is de Chris'-killers. Dey put 'im up dere."

"No?"

"Sure, youse!"

"Gee! W'en?"

"Long ago. T'ousan's o' years."

"Oh!" There was a little comfort in remoteness. "I didn' know." A hundred other questions clamored at his tongue, but fearful of further revelations, he stifled them. "Gee! He's light inside and out, ain' he?" was all he dared offer.

Without bothering to answer, Leo licked his fingers and reached for the candy. "Ummm! Ammonds! Oh boy, bet I could put about ten o' dese in me mout' at oncet. D' yuh ged 'em ev'ytime yuh go dere ?"

"I don' go dere."

"Yuh don'? Cheez, I'd go dere ev'y day if me a'nt owned a canny staw!"

"It's too far." He was answering because he knew Leo expected an answer, but within him, something strange was happening, something that swelled against his sides and bosom, that made his palms damp and clinging, his speech muffled and reluctant as in drowsiness.

"Wot of it?" Leo sucked the fragments from his teeth. "Grab a hitch on a wagon w'y dontcha?"

"Didn't see none." He wondered how Leo had failed to hear the pounding of his heart.

"Didn't see none!" he snorted incredulously. "On Avenee D - dat's w'ea yuh went - dintcha?

"Yea." The strangeness was grown almost as palpable as phlegm to his breathing. Terrific desire seemed to sicken him. He must ask! He must ask!

"Well, wudja go dis time fuh?"

"Skates. I taught maybe--" his voice trailed off.

"Didn' she have 'em?"

"No." He found himself resenting the thorny brightness of Leo's voice - a brightness that kept pricking him always out of a passionate yet monstrous lethargy.

"Make 'er buy 'em faw ye den. Dat's wud. I'd do. She'd gid 'em cheaper 'n' you--"

"Leo!"

"W'a?"

"C-can you gibme--" A slow finger rose and pointed "G-gib me - one o' - one o'--" He couldn't finish.

"One o' wa-a-a?" Leo clapped hand to chest in sharp surprise.

"Yea." He felt giddy.

"Me scappiler? Cheesis, yuh mus' be nuts! W'at de hell d'ye wan' 'at for?"

"I jos' wan' id."

"Are you tryin' to git funny er sumpt'n." Suspiciously.

"No!" He shook his head vehemently. "No!"

"Well, yer a Jew, aintcha?"

"Yea, bud I--"

"Well, youse can't wear 'em - dontcha know dat? Dey're fer Cat'licks."

"Oh!"

"Ain't got one anyhow - nutt'n 'cep' a busted rosary, me ol' lady foun' in a ressarint."

"Wot's dot - rosary--" eagerly. "Can I have?"

"G'wan, will yuh! Are yuh bugs or sumpt'n?"

"I c'n giv yuh a lodda cakes an' canny - even my penny - See ?" He displayed it.

"Naw! It ain't mine an' it costs way more'n dat. Cheez! If I'd aknown you wuz such a pain inna can I wouldna let yuh come up hea."

"I didn' know." He could feel his lips quivering.

"Aw yuh never know!" There was a harsh silence.

"Yuh wan' me tuh go donn?" His voice was desolate.

"Aw yuh c'n stay hea." Leo growled. "But stop bein' a pain inna prat, willyuh?"

"Awrigh'," humbly, "I won' ask no more."

"Is yer a'nt stingy too?" Leo irritably ignored the apology.

"No." He thrust desire and disappointment from him and gave all his attention to Leo. "She gi's me anyt'ing."

"Well why don'tchuh do like I said - ast her to buy a pair of skates and den sell 'em to ye on trust, or sumpt'n."

"Maybe I'll ask her nex' time."

"Sure. Go dere every day till she gizem tuh yuh, dat's de trick."

"I don' like id."

"Wot, astin' her?"

"No. Her kids. Dey ain' her real kids."

"Step-kids yuh mean."

"Yea."

"Wotsa matter wid 'em? Snotty or sumpt'n? W'yncha gib'm a poke innie eye?"

"Dere bigger'n me. An' dey holler on yuh an' ev'yt'ing."

"Yuh ain' scared of 'em are yuh? Don' let 'em bulldoze yuh!"

"I ain' so scared, but dere doity an' wants yuh tuh go donn in de cella' wit' 'em an' ev'yt'ing."

"Cellar?" Leo grew interested. "W'yntcha say dey wuz goils."

"Yea, I don' like 'em."

"D'ja go down?" Grinning avidly he bent forward.

"Yea."

"Yuh did? Wadja do - no shittin' now!"

"Do?" David was becoming troubled. "Nutt'n."

"Nutt'n!" Leo gasped incredulously.

"No. She ast me to stay inna terlit an' she peed."

"Yuh didn' do nutt'n an' dey ast yer to come down de cella' wid 'em?"

"On'y one of 'em ast me." Confusedly he fought off Leo's insistence.

"Oh!" he crowed, "Wot a sap!"

"'Cause, she said she'd gib me anyt'ing."

"Wee, an' yuh didn' ast 'er?"

"I wanned skates - a old pair," he beat a lame retreat. "I t'ought maybe she had."

"Oh, boy, wot a goof! Yuh said yuh wuz ten yea's old. Oh, boy! She letcha see it?"

"W'a?" He refused even to himself that he guessed.

"Aw! don' make believe yuh didn' know--" his legs spread. "De crack!"

"Dey wuz fight'n in bed," he confessed reluctantly, and then stopped, wishing he had never begun.

"Well, wot about it?" Leo exacted the last scruple.

"Nutt'n. Dey wuz just kickin' wit - wit deir legs, and so - so I seen it."

"Chee!" Leo sighed, "No drawz?"

"No."

"How big 're dey?"

"Bigger'n me - about so moch."

"Bigger'n me?"

"No."

"Jist me size - oh boy! Wa' wuz ye scared of, yuh sap! Dey ain' yuh real cousins. Oh boy, if me an' Patsy was dere - oh boy! Wish he wuzn' in de camp. Oncet we took Lily Agorini up me house on elevent', an' we makes believe we wus takin' de exercise up de playgroun' in St. Joseph's - bendin', yuh know? An' we bends 'er over a chair an' takes 'er drawz down - oh boy! Hey! Le's go dere, you'n' me - waddaye say? I like Jew-goils!"

"Yuh mean yuh wanna do - yuh wanna play--" David shrank back.

"Sure, c'mon, le's bot' go now!"

"Naa!" His cry was startled, "I don' wanna!"

"Watsa madder - ain't dey dere now?"

"N-no. But I - I have to go home righd away." He had slid off his chair. "Id's dinner time."

"Well, after den - after yuh eat!"

"I have tuh go t' cheder after."

"Wot's dat ?"

"W'ea yuh loin Hebrew - from a rabbi."

"Cantcha duck it?"

"He'll comm to my house."

"C'mon anyways, 'fore yuh go t'dat place."

Again that warping globe of unreality sphered his senses. Again the world sagged, shifted, Leo with it - a stranger. Why did he trust anything, anyone? "I don' wanna," he finally muttered.

"Waa! I t'ought yuh wuz me pal!" Leo sneered in ugly disgust. "Is zat de kind of a guy y'are?"

David stared sullenly at the floor.

"I'll tell yuh wot," the voice was eager again. "Yuh wanna loin t' skate, dontcha! Dontcha?"

"Y-Yea."

"Well, I'll loin yuh - right away too. I'll lenja mine w'en we goes over dere - one skate apiece."

"Naa! I'm goin' down."

"Aw, yuh sheen - C'mon I'll give yuh some o' me checkers - got a whole bunch o' crownies. Look, you don' have t' do nutt'n if yuh don' wanna. Us'll go togedder, but you kin stay outside. I ain' gonna do nutt'n - jes' give 'em a feel."

"I don' wanna." David was at the door.

"Yuh stingy kike! Yuh wan' it all yerself, dontchuh? Well, don't hang aroun' me no maw, 'er I'll bust ye one! Hey!" As David opened the door. "Wait a secon'!" He grabbed his arm. "C'mon back!" He dragged David in. "C'mon! I'll tell yuh wot I'll give yuh-"

"I don' wan' nutt'n!"

"Jis' wait! Jis wait!" Still calling to David, he dragged a chair across the kitchen to a dish-closet above the pantry, climbed up on the pantry ledge, and reaching over his head, drew down a dusty wooden box, which he dropped on the table as he climbed down. In shape it resembled the chalk boxes in school and even had the same kind of sliding cover. But it couldn't be a chalk box, for David had just enough time to glimpse the word God printed in bold, black letters - though curiously enough the letters were printed right above a large, black fish. But before he could bend closer to spell out the smaller letters under the fish, Leo, with a "Hews wotchuh wanted," had whipped the cover off. Inside lay a jumble of trinkets, rings, lockets, cameos. Leo fumbled among them. "Yea, yuh see dis?" He pulled out a broken string of two-sized black beads near one end of which a tiny cross dangled with a gold figure raised upon it like the one on the wall. "Dat's de busted rosary me ol' lady foun', dere's on'y a coupla beads missin'. I'll give it tuh yuh. Come on it's real holy."

David stared at it fascinated, "C'n I touch id?"

"Sure yuh c'n, go on."

"Does id do like de one around' yer neck?"

"Course it does! An' it's way, way holier."

"An' yuh'll gib me id?"

"Sure I will - fer keeps! If you take me over witchuh t'morrer it's all yourn. Waddaye say, is it a go?"

Head swimming, he stared at the definite, unwinking beads. "It's a-a go." He wavered.

"Atta baby!" Leo whirled the beads enthusiastically. "Look! you don' have t'do nutt'n' - jis' lay putso, like I tol' yuh. Dey ain' yer real cousins - wadda you care - oh boy! W'eadja say yuh took 'er?"

"I didn' take her - she took me." Now that he had consented dread gripped him in earnest.

"S'all de same - w'ea ?"

"In de cella' - huh cella' - unner de staw, w'ea dere's a terlit."

"We'll take 'er dere too, huh?"

"Butchuh have t'go troo de staw."

"W'a? Cantchuh sneak in troo de outside?"

"De staw?"

"No de cella'."

"I don' know."

"Sure, ye c'n! Door's open I bet - Wot time we goin?"

"W'ad time yuh wan'?"

"In de mawnin - oily - ten o'clock. How's zat? I'll meetcha front o' yer stoop wit' me skates. Awright?"

"Awri'," he consented dully. "I'm goin' donn now."

"Wot's yer hurry?"

"I have tuh. I have tuh go home."

"Well, so long den! An' don' fergit - ten o'clock."

"No - ten o'clock."

He went out, the door closing on Leo's final chuckle. And he groped toward the dim stairs and descended. Hope and fear and confusion had drained him of thought. His mind was numb and suspended now, as though he were drowsy with cold. Without word, without image, he sensed again the past and the future converging on the morrow. And either he found a solvent for his fears or he was lost. He walked into the dreary rain as into an omen . . . .

1934


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