The People

And Other Uncollected Fiction

Bernard Malumud, Introduction by Robert Giroux

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The People
THE PEOPLE
ONE
Yozip
HERE'S YOZIP rattling around in his rusty wagon.
After escaping military service in the Old Country, he worked a year and bought the vehicle in St. Louis, Missouri. Yozip wore a Polish cap and trimmed his reddish beard every second week. Yet people looked at him as if he had just stepped out of steerage. An officious Jew he met in Wyoming told him he spoke with a Yiddish accent. Yozip was astonished because he now considered himself to be, in effect, a native. He had put in for citizenship the day after he had arrived in the New World, five years ago, and figured he was an American by now. He would know for sure after he had looked through the two or three official documents his cousin was keeping for him for when he got back from wherever he was going. He was going where his horse led him. They were drifting westward, a decent direction. Yozip thought of himself as a traveler who earned his little living on the road.
In Nebraska, he peddled for a peddler who had rented him a wagon full of dry goods. This man had struck it rich in California and now lived on his interest, though he kept his small business going. In Wyoming, they parted for ideological reasons: one hated pacifists, the other considered himself to be one. Yozip bought his fifth wagon and third nag, a beast called Ishmael. He sold a variety of small goods and knickknacks to farmers' wives who lived not too far off the main road. He sold them thread, needles, thimbles, ribbons, pieces of lace, and eventually dresses his cousin Plotnick shipped him from Chicago; he imagined the women who boughtthem liked to remember the figures they had once had. Some were ecstatic when Yozip appeared with his load of dry goods. He added new stock to his old stores. Now he moved farther west than he and his horse had gone before. Yet he often cursed himself for his restlessness because it added nothing to his life but restlessness.
He tried to recall the names of the states he had passed through. Some were words he could not remember, so when he came to a place with an Indian name he slowly spelled it out, more or less phonetically, and wrote it on a card he kept in his pants pocket. He moved into Idaho, stopping off for a while at Moscow. Nothing in Moscow reminded him of Moscow. Yozip trundled down into the Willamette Valley in Oregon and then tracked up into Washington. It amazed him to discover that he had come at last to the Pacific Ocean. He gave a short hooray and stopped to weep at the water's edge. Yozip removed both boots and tramped on the blue water in the Pacific. It was barely spring; the ocean was freezing but Yozip thoroughly washed and dried both feet before drawing on his leather boots. He soaped Ishmael and washed him down from head to hooves. Yozip cooked vegetables in a tin pot and treated his horse with respect. He spoke to him often, whispering into his good ear.
"You may be a horse to your mother," he said in Yiddish, "but to me nothing less than a friend."
The horse whinnied emotionally.
Now that he had traversed the land, or what was ultimately to be the United States of America--for the time of this story was 1870 and the country was astonishingly young and fertile--Yozip felt the moment had come to invent his fortune. He turned the wagon due north and headed up the Pacific Coast. He felt a hunger to be in a new place but had no idea where the hunger or the place had originated. Night after night he tracked it to the stars. They shone like piercing brilliant pearls. He felt more and more a broad love for nature but wasn't sure why. However it happened, nature made him feel serious and concerned, a sensible way to be. Nature was also in the sky, where many things came together; it was, he felt, something he had guessed out as the oneness of the universe. This thought astounded him because he had never had it before.He felt in himself a destiny he could not explain, except that when he approached it to claim it as his own it seemed to tear itself out of his hands and spin skyward. Yozip believed he could be somebody if he tried, but he did not know what or how to try. If a man did not know what to do next, could you call that a destiny?
Sometimes clusters of soldiers appeared in a field and quickly disappeared.
One of them fired a shot from a rifle at Yozip, but he fell on his belly and then quickly went his way. Ishmael had jumped two feet into the air. Yozip never saw the soldiers again; and besides he had heard the war was over, for which he cheered the Lord.
In Seattle, in a burst of imagination, he sold his wagon for an unheard song. Only one man would bid a cartwheel for it. So he kissed Ishmael goodbye forever. The horse whinnied briskly, pure morale. Yozip got rid of his dry goods, giving away an oversize housedress for a thin woman to a fat lady who laughed engagingly and plucked a white hair out of his beard. He went assaying in a swift stream for a day and a half and discovered a discolored stone that turned out--when he had licked it with his fuzzy tongue--to be a nugget of pure gold that someone might have lost out of a hole in his pants pocket. Yozip sold the nugget for a horse he mounted, and galloped around to see what there was to see. You can't tell until you get there and look twice. It then occurred to him he still had two mouths to feed; so Yozip headed eastward, looking for an honest day's hard work.
Copyright © 1989 by Ann Malamud