MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The early November street was dark though night had ended, but the wind, to the grocer's surprise, already clawed. It flung his apron into his face as he bent for the two milk cases at the curb. Morris Bober dragged the heavy boxes to the door, panting. A large brown bag of hard rolls stood in the doorway along with the sour-faced, gray-haired Poilisheh huddled there, who wanted one.
"What's the matter so late?"
"Ten after six," said the grocer.
"Is cold," she complained.
Turning the key in the lock he let her in. Usually he lugged in the milk and lit the gas radiators, but the Polish woman was impatient. Morris poured the bag of rolls into a wire basket on the counter and found an unseeded one for her. Slicing it in halves, he wrapped it in white store paper. She tucked the roll into her cord market bag and left three pennies on the counter. He rang up the sale on an old noisy cash register, smoothed and put away the bag the rolls had come in, finished pulling in the milk, and stored the bottles at the bottom of the refrigerator. He lit the gas radiator at the front of the store and went into the back to light the one there.
He boiled up coffee in a blackened enamel pot and sippedit, chewing on a roll, not tasting what he was eating. After he had cleaned up he waited; he waited for Nick Fuso, the upstairs tenant, a young mechanic who worked in a garage in the neighborhood. Nick came in every morning around seven for twenty cents' worth of ham and a loaf of bread.
But the front door opened and a girl of ten entered, her face pinched and eyes excited. His heart held no welcome for her.
"My mother says," she said quickly, "can you trust her till tomorrow for a pound of butter, loaf of rye bread and a small bottle of cider vinegar?"
He knew the mother. "No more trust."
The girl burst into tears.
Morris gave her a quarter-pound of butter, the bread and vinegar. He found a penciled spot on the worn counter, near the cash register, and wrote a sum under "Drunk Woman." The total now came to $2.03, which he never hoped to see. But Ida would nag if she noticed a new figure, so he reduced the amount to $1.61. His peace--the little he lived with--was worth forty-two cents.
He sat in a chair at the round wooden table in the rear of the store and scanned, with raised brows, yesterday's Jewish paper that he had already thoroughly read. From time to time he looked absently through the square windowless window cut through the wall, to see if anybody had by chance come into the store. Sometimes when he looked up from his newspaper, he was startled to see a customer standing silently at the counter.
Now the store looked like a long dark tunnel.
The grocer sighed and waited. Waiting he thought he did poorly. When times were bad time was bad. It died as he waited, stinking in his nose.
A workman came in for a fifteen-cent can of King Oscar Norwegian sardines.
Morris went back to waiting. In twenty-one years the store had changed little. Twice he had painted all over, once added new shelving. The old-fashioned double windows atthe front a carpenter had made into a large single one. Ten years ago the sign hanging outside fell to the ground but he had never replaced it. Once, when business hit a long good spell, he had had the wooden icebox ripped out and a new white refrigerated showcase put in. The showcase stood at the front in line with the old counter and he often leaned against it as he stared out of the window. Otherwise the store was the same. Years ago it was more a delicatessen; now, though he still sold a little delicatessen, it was more a poor grocery.
A half-hour passed. When Nick Fuso failed to appear, Morris got up and stationed himself at the front window, behind a large cardboard display sign the beer people had rigged up in an otherwise empty window. After a while the hall door opened, and Nick came out in a thick, hand-knitted green sweater. He trotted around the corner and soon returned carrying a bag of groceries. Morris was now visible at the window. Nick saw the look on his face but didn't look long. He ran into the house, trying to make it seem it was the wind that was chasing him. The door slammed behind him, a loud door.
The grocer gazed into the street. He wished fleetingly that he could once more be out in the open, as when he was a boy --never in the house, but the sound of the blustery wind frightened him. He thought again of selling the store but who would buy? Ida still hoped to sell. Every day she hoped. The thought caused him grimly to smile, although he did not feel like smiling. It was an impossible idea so he tried to put it out of his mind. Still, there were times when he went into the back, poured himself a spout of coffee and pleasantly thought of selling. Yet if he miraculously did, where would he go, where? He had a moment of uneasiness as he pictured himself without a roof over his head. There he stood in all kinds of weather, drenched in rain, and the snow froze on his head. No, not for an age had he lived a whole day in the open. As a boy, always running in the muddy, rutted streets of the village, or across the fields, or bathing withthe other boys in the river; but as a man, in America, he rarely saw the sky. In the early days when he drove a horse and wagon, yes, but not since his first store. In a store you were entombed.
The milkman drove up to the door in his truck and hurried in, a bull, for his empties. He lugged out a caseful and returned with two half-pints of light cream. Then Otto Vogel, the meat provisions man, entered, a bushy-mustached German carrying a smoked liverwurst and string of wieners in his oily meat basket. Morris paid cash for the liverwurst; from a German he wanted no favors. Otto left with the wieners. The bread driver, new on the route, exchanged three fresh loaves for three stale and walked out without a word. Leo, the cake man, glanced hastily at the package cake on top of the refrigerator and called, "See you Monday, Morris."
Morris didn't answer.
Leo hesitated. "Bad all over, Morris."
"Here is the worst."
"See you Monday."
A young housewife from close by bought sixty-three cents' worth; another came in for forty-one cents'. He had earned his first cash dollar for the day.
Breitbart, the bulb peddler, laid down his two enormous cartons of light bulbs and diffidently entered the back.
"Go in," Morris urged. He boiled up some tea and served it in a thick glass, with a slice of lemon. The peddler eased himself into a chair, derby hat and coat on, and gulped the hot tea, his Adam's apple bobbing.
"So how goes now?" asked the grocer.
"Slow," shrugged Breitbart.
Morris sighed. "How is your boy?"
Breitbart nodded absently, then picked up the Jewish paper and read. After ten minutes he got up, scratched all over, lifted across his thin shoulders the two large cartons tied together with clothesline and left.
Morris watched him go.
The world suffers. He felt every schmerz.
At lunchtime Ida came down. She had cleaned the whole house.
Morris was standing before the faded couch, looking out of the rear window at the back yards. He had been thinking of Ephraim.
His wife saw his wet eyes.
"So stop sometime, please." Her own grew wet.
He went to the sink, caught cold water in his cupped palms and dipped his face into it.
"The Italyener," he said, drying himself, "bought this morning across the street."
She was irritated. "Give him for twenty-nine dollars five rooms so he should spit in your face."
"A cold water flat," he reminded her.
"You put in gas radiators."
"Who says he spits? This I didn't say."
"You said something to him not nice?"
"Then why he went across the street?"
"Why? Go ask him," he said angrily.
"How much you took in till now?"
She turned away.
He absent-mindedly scratched a match and lit a cigarette.
"Stop with the smoking," she nagged.
He took a quick drag, clipped the butt with his thumb nail and quickly thrust it under his apron into his pants pocket. The smoke made him cough. He coughed harshly, his face lit like a tomato. Ida held her hands over her ears. Finally he brought up a gob of phlegm and wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, then his eyes.
"Cigarettes," she said bitterly. "Why don't you listen what the doctor tells you?"
"Doctors," he remarked.
Afterward he noticed the dress she was wearing. "What is the picnic?"
Ida said, embarrassed, "I thought to myself maybe will come today the buyer."
She was fifty-one, nine years younger than he, her thick hair still almost all black. But her face was lined, and her legs hurt when she stood too long on them, although she now wore shoes with arch supports. She had waked that morning resenting the grocer for having dragged her, so many years ago, out of a Jewish neighborhood into this. She missed to this day their old friends and landsleit--lost for parnusseh unrealized. That was bad enough, but on top of their isolation, the endless worry about money embittered her. She shared unwillingly the grocer's fate though she did not show it and her dissatisfaction went no farther than nagging--her guilt that she had talked him into a grocery store when he was in the first year of evening high school, preparing, he had said, for pharmacy. He was, through the years, a hard man to move. In the past she could sometimes resist him, but the weight of his endurance was too much for her now.
"A buyer," Morris grunted, "will come next Purim."
"Don't be so smart. Karp telephoned him."
"Karp," he said in disgust. "Where he telephoned--the cheapskate?"
"Yesterday. You were sleeping."
"What did he told him?"
"For sale a store--yours, cheap."
"What do you mean cheap?"
"The key is worth now nothing. For the stock and the fixtures that they are worth also nothing, maybe three thousand, maybe less."
"I paid four."
"Twenty-one years ago," she said irritably. "So don't sell, go in auction."
"He wants the house too?"
"Karp don't know. Maybe."
"Big mouth. Imagine a man that they held him up four times in the last three years and he still don't take in a telephone. What he says ain't worth a cent. He promised me he wouldn't put in a grocery around the corner, but what did he put?--a grocery. Why does he bring me buyers? Why didn't he keep out the German around the corner?"
She sighed. "He tries to help you now because he feels sorry for you."
"Who needs his sorrow?" Morris said. "Who needs him?"
"So why you didn't have the sense to make out of your grocery a wine and liquor store when came out the licenses?"
"Who had cash for stock?"
"So if you don't have, don't talk."
"A business for drunken bums."
"A business is a business. What Julius Karp takes in next door in a day we don't take in in two weeks."
But Ida saw he was annoyed and changed the subject.
"I told you to oil the floor."
"I asked you special. By now would be dry."
"I will do later."
"Later the customers will walk in the oil and make everything dirty."
"What customers?" he shouted. "Who customers? Who comes in here?"
"Go," she said quietly. "Go upstairs and sleep. I will oil myself."
But he got out the oil can and mop and oiled the floor until the wood shone darkly. No one had come in.
She had prepared his soup. "Helen left this morning without breakfast."
"She wasn't hungry."
"Something worries her."
He said with sarcasm, "What worries her?" Meaning: the store, his health, that most of her meager wages went to keep up payments on the house; that she had wanted a collegeeducation but had got instead a job she disliked. Her father's daughter, no wonder she didn't feel like eating.
"If she will only get married," Ida murmured.
"She will get."
"Soon." She was on the verge of tears.
"I don't understand why she don't see Nat Pearl anymore. All summer they went together like lovers."
"He'll be someday a rich lawyer."
"I don't like him."
"Louis Karp also likes her. I wish she will give him a chance."
"A stupe," Morris said, "like the father."
"Everybody is a stupe but not Morris Bober."
He was staring out at the back yards.
"Eat already and go to sleep," she said impatiently.
He finished the soup and went upstairs. The going up was easier than coming down. In the bedroom, sighing, he drew down the black window shades. He was half asleep, so pleasant was the anticipation. Sleep was his one true refreshment; it excited him to go to sleep. Morris took off his apron, tie and trousers, and laid them on a chair. Sitting at the edge of the sagging wide bed, he unlaced his misshapen shoes and slid under the cold covers in shirt, long underwear and white socks. He nudged his eye into the pillow and waited to grow warm. He crawled toward sleep. But upstairs Tessie Fuso was running the vacuum cleaner, and though the grocer tried to blot the incident out of his mind, he remembered Nick's visit to the German and on the verge of sleep felt bad.
He recalled the bad times he had lived through, but now times were worse than in the past; now they were impossible. His store was always a marginal one, up today, down tomorrow--as the wind blew. Overnight business could go down enough to hurt; yet as a rule it slowly recovered--sometimes it seemed to take forever--went up, not high enough to be really up, only not down. When he had firstbought the grocery it was all right for the neighborhood; it had got worse as the neighborhood had. Yet even a year ago, staying open seven days a week, sixteen hours a day, he could still eke out a living. What kind of living?--a living; you lived. Now, though he toiled the same hard hours, he was close to bankruptcy, his patience torn. In the past when bad times came he had somehow lived through them, and when good times returned, they more or less returned to him. But now, since the appearance of H. Schmitz across the street ten months ago, all times were bad.
Last year a broken tailor, a poor man with a sick wife, had locked up his shop and gone away, and from the minute of the store's emptiness Morris had felt a gnawing anxiety. He went with hesitation to Karp, who owned the building, and asked him to please keep out another grocery. In this kind of neighborhood one was more than enough. If another squeezed in they would both starve. Karp answered that the neighborhood was better than Morris gave it credit (for schnapps, thought the grocer), but he promised he would look for another tailor or maybe a shoemaker, to rent to. He said so but the grocer didn't believe him. Yet weeks went by and the store stayed empty. Though Ida pooh-poohed his worries, Morris could not overcome his underlying dread. Then one day, as he daily expected, there appeared a sign in the empty store window, announcing the coming of a new fancy delicatessen and grocery.
Morris ran to Karp. "What did you do to me?"
The liquor dealer said with a one-shouldered shrug, "You saw how long stayed empty the store. Who will pay my taxes? But don't worry," he added, "he'll sell more delicatessen but you'll sell more groceries. Wait, you'll see he'll bring you in customers."
Morris groaned; he knew his fate.
Yet as the days went by, the store still sitting empty--emptier, he found himself thinking maybe the new business would never materialize. Maybe the man had changed his mind. It was possible he had seen how poor the neighborhoodwas and would not attempt to open the new place. Morris wanted to ask Karp if he had guessed right but could not bear to humiliate himself further.
Often after he had locked his grocery at night, he would go secretly around the corner and cross the quiet street. The empty store, dark and deserted, was one door to the left of the corner drugstore; and if no one was looking the grocer would peer through its dusty window, trying to see through shadows whether the emptiness had changed. For two months it stayed the same, and every night he went away reprieved. Then one time--after he saw that Karp was, for once, avoiding him--he spied a web of shelves sprouting from the rear wall, and that shattered the hope he had climbed into.
In a few days the shelves stretched many arms along the other walls, and soon the whole tiered and layered place glowed with new paint. Morris told himself to stay away but he could not help coming nightly to inspect, appraise, then guess the damage, in dollars, to himself. Each night as he looked, in his mind he destroyed what had been built, tried to make of it nothing, but the growth was too quick. Every day the place flowered with new fixtures--streamlined counters, the latest refrigerator, fluorescent lights, a fruit stall, a chromium cash register; then from the wholesalers arrived a mountain of cartons and wooden boxes of all sizes, and one night there appeared in the white light a stranger, a gaunt German with a German pompadour, who spent the silent night hours, a dead cigar stuck in his teeth, packing out symmetrical rows of brightly labeled cans, jars, gleaming bottles. Though Morris hated the new store, in a curious way he loved it too, so that sometimes as he entered his own old-fashioned place of business, he could not stand the sight of it; and now he understood why Nick Fuso had that morning run around the corner and crossed the street--to taste the newness of the place and be waited on by Heinrich Schmitz, an energetic German dressed like a doctor, in a white duck jacket. And that was where many of his othercustomers had gone, and stayed, so that his own poor living was cut in impossible half.
Morris tried hard to sleep but couldn't and grew restless in bed. After another quarter of an hour he decided to dress and go downstairs, but there drifted into his mind, with ease and no sorrow, the form and image of his boy Ephraim, gone so long from him, and he fell deeply and calmly asleep.
Helen Bober squeezed into a subway seat between two women and was on the last page of a chapter when a man dissolved in front of her and another appeared; she knew without looking that Nat Pearl was standing there. She thought she would go on reading, but couldn't, and shut her book.
"Hello, Helen." Nat touched a gloved hand to a new hat. He was cordial but as usual held back something--his future. He carried a fat law book, so she was glad to be protected with a book of her own. But not enough protected, for her hat and coat felt suddenly shabby, a trick of the mind, because on her they would still do.
He seemed respectful, then said in an undertone, "I haven't seen you a long time. Where've you been keeping yourself?"
She blushed under her clothes.
"Did I offend you in some way or other?"
Both of the women beside her seemed stolidly deaf. One held a rosary in her heavy hand.
"No." The offense was hers against herself.
"So what's the score?" Nat's voice was low, his gray eyes annoyed.
"No score," she murmured.
"You're you, I'm me."
This he considered a minute, then remarked, "I haven't much of a head for oracles."
But she felt she had said enough.
He tried another way. "Betty asks for you."
"Give her my best." She had not meant it but this sounded funny because they all lived on the same block, separated by one house.
Tight-jawed, he opened his book. She returned to hers, hiding her thoughts behind the antics of a madman until memory overthrew him and she found herself ensnared in scenes of summer that she would gladly undo, although she loved the season; but how could you undo what you had done again in the fall, unwillingly willing? Virginity she thought she had parted with without sorrow, yet was surprised by torments of conscience, or was it disappointment at being valued under her expectations? Nat Pearl, handsome, cleft-chinned, gifted, ambitious, had wanted without too much trouble a lay and she, half in love, had obliged and regretted. Not the loving, but that it had taken her so long to realize how little he wanted. Not her, Helen Bober.
Why should he?--magna cum laude, Columbia, now in his second year at law school, she only a high school graduate with a year's evening college credit mostly in lit; he with first-rate prospects, also rich friends he had never bothered to introduce her to; she as poor as her name sounded, with little promise of a better future. She had more than once asked herself if she had meant by her favors to work up a claim on him. Always she denied it. She had wanted, admittedly, satisfaction, but more than that--respect for the giver of what she had to give, had hoped desire would become more than just that. She wanted, simply, a future in love. Enjoyment she had somehow had, felt very moving the freedom of fundamental intimacy with a man. Though she wished for more of the same, she wanted it without aftermath of conscience, or pride, or sense of waste. So she promised herself next time it would go the other way; first mutual love, then loving, harder maybe on the nerves, but easier in memory. Thus she had reasoned, until one night in September, when coming up to see his sister Betty, she had foundherself alone in the house with Nat and had done again what she had promised herself she wouldn't. Afterward she fought self-hatred. Since then, to this day, without telling him why, she had avoided Nat Pearl.
Two stations before their stop, Helen shut her book, got up in silence and left the train. On the platform, as the train moved away, she caught a glimpse of Nat standing before her empty seat, calmly reading. She walked on, lacking, wanting, not wanting, not happy.
Coming up the subway steps, she went into the park by a side entrance, and despite the sharp wind and her threadbare coat, took the long way home. The leafless trees left her with unearned sadness. She mourned the long age before spring and feared loneliness in winter. Wishing she hadn't come, she left the park, searching the faces of strangers although she couldn't stand their stares. She went quickly along the Parkway, glancing with envy into the lighted depths of private houses that were, for no reason she could give, except experience, not for her. She promised herself she would save every cent possible and register next fall for a full program at NYU, night.
When she reached her block, a row of faded yellow brick houses, two stories squatting on ancient stores, Sam Pearl, stifling a yawn, was reaching into his corner candy store window to put on the lamp. He snapped the string and the dull glow from the fly-specked globe fell upon her. Helen quickened her step. Sam, always sociable, a former cabbie, bulky, wearing bifocals and chewing gum, beamed at her but she pretended no see. Most of the day he sat hunched over dope sheets spread out on the soda fountain counter, smoking as he chewed gum, making smeary marks with a pencil stub under horses' names. He neglected the store; his wife Goldie was the broad-backed one, yet she did not much complain, because Sam's luck with the nags was exceptional and he had nicely supported Nat in college until the scholarships started rolling in.
Around the corner, through the many-bottled windowthat blinked in neon "KARP wines and liquors," she glimpsed paunchy Julius Karp, with bushy eyebrows and an ambitious mouth, blowing imaginary dust off a bottle as he slipped a deft fifth of something into a paper bag, while Louis, slightly popeyed son and heir, looking up from clipping to the quick his poor fingernails, smiled amiably upon a sale. The Karps, Pearls and Bobers, representing attached houses and stores, but otherwise detachment, made up the small Jewish segment of this gentile community. They had somehow, her father first, then Karp, later Pearl, drifted together here where no other Jews dwelt, except on the far fringes of the neighborhood. None of them did well and were too poor to move elsewhere until Karp, who with a shoe store that barely made him a living, got the brilliant idea after Prohibition gurgled down the drain and liquor licenses were offered to the public, to borrow cash from a white-bearded rich uncle and put in for one. To everybody's surprise he got the license, though Karp, when asked how, winked a heavy-lidded eye and answered nothing. Within a short time after cheap shoes had become expensive bottles, in spite of the poor neighborhood--or maybe because of it, Helen supposed--he became astonishingly successful and retired his overweight wife from the meager railroad flat above the store to a big house on the Parkway--from which she hardly ever stepped forth--the house complete with two-car garage and Mercury; and at the same time as Karp changed his luck--to hear her father tell it--he became wise without brains.
The grocer, on the other hand, had never altered his fortune, unless degrees of poverty meant alteration, for luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty--he could not escape his honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters--coveted nobody's nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked--his toil was a form of time devouring time--the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate.With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess, or if by some miracle to own something, to do so on the verge of loss. At the end you were sixty and had less than at thirty. It was, she thought, surely a talent.
Helen removed her hat as she entered the grocery. "Me," she called, as she had from childhood. It meant that whoever was sitting in the back should sit and not suddenly think he was going to get rich.
Morris awoke, soured by the long afternoon sleep. He dressed, combed his hair with a broken comb and trudged downstairs, a heavy-bodied man with sloping shoulders and bushy gray hair in need of a haircut. He came down with his apron on. Although he felt chilly he poured out a cup of cold coffee, and backed against the radiator, slowly sipped it. Ida sat at the table, reading.
"Why you let me sleep so long?" the grocer complained.
She didn't answer.
"Yesterday or today's paper?"
He rinsed the cup and set it on the top of the gas range. In the store he rang up "no sale" and took a nickel out of the drawer. Morris lifted the lid of the cash register, struck a match on the underside of the counter, and holding the flame cupped in his palm, peered at the figure of his earnings. Ida had taken in three dollars. Who could afford a paper?
Nevertheless he went for one, doubting the small pleasure he would get from it. What was so worth reading about the world? Through Karp's window, as he passed, he saw Louis waiting on a customer while four others crowded the counter. Der oilem iz a goilem. Morris took the Forward from the newsstand and dropped a nickel into the cigar box. Sam Pearl, working over a green racing sheet, gave him a wave of his hammy hand. They never bothered to talk. Whatdid he know about race horses? What did the other know of the tragic quality of life? Wisdom flew over his hard head.
The grocer returned to the rear of his store and sat on the couch, letting the diminishing light in the yard fall upon the paper. He read nearsightedly, with eyes stretched wide, but his thoughts would not let him read long. He put down the newspaper.
"So where is your buyer?" he asked Ida.
Looking absently into the store she did not reply.
"You should sell long ago the store," she remarked after a minute.
"When the store was good, who wanted to sell? After came bad times, who wanted to buy?"
"Everything we did too late. The store we didn't sell in time. I said, 'Morris, sell now the store.' You said, 'Wait.' What for? The house we bought too late, so we have still a big mortgage that it's hard to pay every month. 'Don't buy,' I said, 'times are bad.' 'Buy,' you said, 'will get better. We will save rent.'"
He answered nothing. If you had failed to do the right thing, talk was useless.
When Helen entered, she asked if the buyer had come. She had forgotten about him but remembered when she saw her mother's dress.
Opening her purse, she took out her pay check and handed it to her father. The grocer, without a word, slipped it under his apron into his pants pocket.
"Not yet," Ida answered, also embarrassed. "Maybe later."
"Nobody goes in the night to buy a store," Morris said. "The time to go is in the day to see how many customers. If this man comes here he will see with one eye the store is dead, then he will run home."
"Did you eat lunch?" Ida asked Helen.
"What did you eat?"
"I don't save menus, Mama."
"Your supper is ready." Ida lit the flame under the pot on the gas range.
"What makes you think he'll come today?" Helen asked her.
"Karp told me yesterday. He knows a refugee that he looks to buy a grocery. He works in the Bronx, so he will be here late."
Morris shook his head.
"He's a young man," Ida went on, "maybe thirty--thirty--two. Karp says he saved a little cash. He can make alterations, buy new goods, fix up modern, advertise a little and make here a nice business."
"Karp should live so long," the grocer said.
"Let's eat." Helen sat at the table.
Ida said she would eat later.
"What about you, Papa?"
"I am not hungry." He picked up his paper.
She ate alone. It would be wonderful to sell out and move but the possibility struck her as remote. If you had lived so long in one place, all but two years of your life, you didn't move out overnight.
Afterward she got up to help with the dishes but Ida wouldn't let her. "Go rest," she said.
Helen took her things and went upstairs.
She hated the drab five-room flat; a gray kitchen she used for breakfast so she could quickly get out to work in the morning. The living room was colorless and cramped; for all its overstuffed furniture of twenty years ago it seemed bar ren because it was lived in so little, her parents being seven days out of seven in the store; even their rare visitors, when invited upstairs, preferred to remain in the back. Sometimes Helen asked a friend up, but she went to other people's houses if she had a choice. Her bedroom was another impossibility, tiny, dark, despite the two by three foot opening in the wall, through which she could see the living room windows; and at night Morris and Ida had to passthrough her room to get to theirs, and from their bedroom back to the bathroom. They had several times talked of giving her the big room, the only comfortable one in the house, but there was no place else that would hold their double bed. The fifth room was a small icebox off the second floor stairs, in which Ida stored a few odds and ends of clothes and furniture. Such was home. Helen had once in anger remarked that the place was awful to live in, and it had made her feel bad that her father had felt so bad.
She heard Morris's slow footsteps on the stairs. He came aimlessly into the living room and tried to relax in a stiff armchair. He sat with sad eyes, saying nothing, which was how he began when he wanted to say something.
When she and her brother were kids, at least on Jewish holidays Morris would close the store and venture forth to Second Avenue to see a Yiddish play, or take the family visiting; but after Ephraim died he rarely went beyond the corner. Thinking about his life always left her with a sense of the waste of her own.
She looks like a little bird, Morris thought. Why should she be lonely? Look how pretty she looks. Whoever saw such blue eyes?
He reached into his pants pocket and took out a five-dollar bill.
"Take," he said, rising and embarrassedly handing her the money. "You will need for shoes."
"You just gave me five dollars downstairs."
"Here is five more."
"Wednesday was the first of the month, Pa."
"I can't take away from you all your pay."
"You're not taking, I'm giving."
She made him put the five away. He did, with renewed shame. "What did I ever give you? Even your college education I took away."
"It was my own decision not to go, yet maybe I will yet You can never tell."
"How can you go? You are twenty-three years old."
"Aren't you always saying a person's never too old to go to school?"
"My child," he sighed, "for myself I don't care, for you I want the best but what did I give you?"
"I'll give myself," she smiled. "There's hope."
With this he had to be satisfied. He still conceded her a future.
But before he went down, he said gently, "What's the matter you stay home so much lately? You had a fight with Nat?"
"No." Blushing, she answered, "I don't think we see things in the same way."
He hadn't the heart to ask more.
Going down, he met Ida on the stairs and knew she would cover the same ground.
In the evening there was a flurry of business. Morris's mood quickened and he exchanged pleasantries with the customers. Carl Johnsen, the Swedish painter, whom he hadn't seen in weeks, came in with a wet smile and bought two dollars' worth of beer, cold cuts and sliced Swiss cheese. The grocer was at first worried he would ask to charge--he had never paid what he owed on the books before Morris had stopped giving trust--but the painter had the cash. Mrs. Anderson, an old loyal customer, bought for a dollar. A stranger then came in and left eighty-eight cents. After him two more customers appeared. Morris felt a little surge of hope. Maybe things were picking up. But after half-past eight his hands grew heavy with nothing to do. For years he had been the only one for miles around who stayed open at night and had just about made a living from it, but now Schmitz matched him hour for hour. Morris sneaked a little smoke, then began to cough. Ida pounded on the floor upstairs, so he clipped the butt and put it away. He felt restless and stood at the front window, watching the street. He watched a trolley go by. Mr. Lawler, formerly a customer, good for at least a fiver on Friday nights, passed the store.Morris hadn't seen him for months but knew where he was going. Mr. Lawler averted his gaze and hurried along. Morris watched him disappear around the corner. He lit a match and again checked the register--nine and a half dollars, not even expenses.
Julius Karp opened the front door and poked his foolish head in.
Morris said in annoyance, "What refugee?"
With a grunt Karp shut the door behind him. He was short, pompous, a natty dresser in his advanced age. In the past, like Morris, he had toiled long hours in his shoe store, now he stayed all day in silk pajamas until it came time to relieve Louis before supper. Though the little man was insensitive and a blunderer, Morris had got along fairly well with him, but since Karp had rented the tailor shop to another grocer, sometimes they did not speak. Years ago Karp had spent much time in the back of the grocery, complaining of his poverty as if it were a new invention and he its first victim. Since his success with wines and liquors he came in less often, but he still visited Morris more than his welcome entitled him to, usually to run down the grocery and spout unwanted advice. His ticket of admission was his luck, which he gathered wherever he reached, at a loss, Morris thought, to somebody else. Once a drunk had heaved a rock at Karp's window, but it had shattered his. Another time, Sam Pearl gave the liquor dealer a tip on a horse, then forgot to place a bet himself. Karp collected five hundred for his ten-dollar bill. For years the grocer had escaped resenting the man's good luck, but lately he had caught himself wishing on him some small misfortune.
"Podolsky is the one I called up to take a look at your gesheft," Karp answered.
"Who is this refugee, tell me, an enemy yours?"
Karp stared at him unpleasantly.
"Does a man," Morris insisted, "send a friend he shouldbuy such a store that you yourself took away from it the best business?"
"Podolsky ain't you," the liquor dealer replied. "I told him about this place. I said, 'The neighborhood is improving. You can buy cheap and build up this store. It's run down for years, nobody changed anything there for twenty years.'"
"You should live so long how much I changed--" Morris began but he didn't finish, for Karp was at the window, peering nervously into the dark street.
"You saw that gray car that just passed," the liquor dealer said. "This is the third time I saw it in the last twenty minutes." His eyes were restless.
Morris knew what worried him. "Put in a telephone in your store," he advised, "so you will feel better."
Karp watched the street for another minute and worriedly replied, "Not for a liquor store in this neighborhood. If I had a telephone, every drunken bum would call me to make deliveries, and when you go there they don't have a cent."
He opened the door but shut it in afterthought. "Listen, Morris," he said, lowering his voice, "if they come back again, I will lock my front door and put out my lights. Then I will call you from the back window so you can telephone the police."
"This will cost you five cents," Morris said grimly.
"My credit is class A."
Karp left the grocery, disturbed.
God bless Julius Karp, the grocer thought. Without him I would have my life too easy. God made Karp so a poor grocery man will not forget his life is hard. For Karp, he thought, it was miraculously not so hard, but what was there to envy? He would allow the liquor dealer his bottles and gelt just not to be him. Life was bad enough.
At nine-thirty a stranger came in for a box of matches. Fifteen minutes later Morris put out the lights in his window. The street was deserted except for an automobile parked in front of the laundry across the car tracks. Morrispeered at it sharply but could see nobody in it. He considered locking up and going to bed, then decided to stay open the last few minutes. Sometimes a person came in at a minute to ten. A dime was a dime.
A noise at the side door which led into the hall frightened him.
The door opened slowly. Tessie Fuso came in in her housecoat, a homely Italian girl with a big face.
"Are you closed, Mr. Bober?" she asked embarrassedly.
"Come in," said Morris.
"I'm sorry I came through the back way but I was undressed and didn't want to go out in the street."
"Please give me twenty cents' ham for Nick's lunch tomorrow."
He understood. She was making amends for Nick's trip around the corner that morning. He cut her an extra slice of ham.
Tessie bought also a quart of milk, package of paper napkins and loaf of bread. When she had gone he lifted the register lid. Ten dollars. He thought he had long ago touched bottom but now knew there was none.
I slaved my whole life for nothing, he thought.
Then he heard Karp calling him from the rear. The grocer went inside, worn out.
Raising the window he called harshly, "What's the matter there?"
"Telephone the police," cried Karp. "The car is parked across the street."
"There is nobody in this car, I saw myself."
"For God's sake, I tell you call the police. I will pay for the telephone."
Morris shut the window. He looked up the phone numberand was about to dial the police when the store door opened and he hurried inside.
Two men were standing at the other side of the counter, with handkerchiefs over their faces. One wore a dirty yellow clotted one, the other's was white. The one with the white one began pulling out the store lights. It took the grocer a half-minute to comprehend that he, not Karp, was their victim.
Morris sat at the table, the dark light of the dusty bulb falling on his head, gazing dully at the few crumpled bills before him, including Helen's check, and the small pile of silver. The gunman with the dirty handkerchief, fleshy, wearing a fuzzy black hat, waved a pistol at the grocer's head. His pimply brow was thick with sweat; from time to time with furtive eyes he glanced into the darkened store. The other, a taller man in an old cap and torn sneakers, to control his trembling leaned against the sink, cleaning his fingernails with a matchstick. A cracked mirror hung behind him on the wall above the sink and every so often he turned to stare into it.
"I know damn well this ain't everything you took in," said the heavy one to Morris, in a hoarse, unnatural voice. "Where've you got the rest hid?"
Morris, sick to his stomach, couldn't speak.
"Tell the goddam truth." He aimed the gun at the grocer's mouth.
"Times are bad," Morris muttered.
"You're a Jew liar."
The man at the sink fluttered his hand, catching the other's attention. They met in the center of the room, the other with the cap hunched awkwardly over the one in the fuzzy hat, whispering into his ear.
"No," snapped the heavy one sullenly.
His partner bent lower, whispering earnestly through his handkerchief.
"I say he hid it," the heavy one snarled, "and I'm gonna get it if I have to crack his goddam head."
At the table he whacked the grocer across the face.
The one at the sink hastily rinsed a cup and filled it with water. He brought it to the grocer, spilling some on his apron as he raised the cup to his lips.
Morris tried to swallow but managed only a dry sip. His frightened eyes sought the man's but he was looking elsewhere.
"Please," murmured the grocer.
"Hurry up," warned the one with the gun.
The tall one straightened up and gulped down the water. He rinsed the cup and placed it on a cupboard shelf.
He then began to hunt among the cups and dishes there and pulled out the pots on the bottom. Next, he went hurriedly through the drawers of an old bureau in the room, and on hands and knees searched under the couch. He ducked into the store, removed the empty cash drawer from the register and thrust his hand into the slot, but came up with nothing.
Returning to the kitchen he took the other by the arm and whispered to him urgently.
The heavy one elbowed him aside.
"We better scram out of here."
"Are you gonna go chicken on me?"
"That's all the dough he has, let's beat it."
"Business is bad," Morris muttered.
"Your Jew ass is bad, you understand?"
"Don't hurt me."
"I will give you your last chance. Where have you got it hid?"
"I am a poor man." He spoke through cracked lips.
The one in the dirty handkerchief raised his gun. The other, staring into the mirror, waved frantically, his black eyes bulging, but Morris saw the blow descend and felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, theyears gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in America and got little. And because of him Helen and Ida had less. He had defrauded them, he and the bloodsucking store.
He fell without a cry. The end fitted the day. It was his luck, others had better.
Copyright © 1957, renewed 1985 by Bernard Malamud