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The Library of America • Story of the Week
From Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1960s
(The Library of America, 2014), pages 727–35.
Originally published in Commentary (December 1961) and
collected in Idiots First (1963). Copyright © 1961 by Bernard Malamud;
renewed 1977 Bernard Malamud. Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Idiots First
Bernard M alamud
T
he thick ticking of the tin clock stopped. Mendel, dozing in the dark, awoke in fright. The pain returned as he
listened. He drew on his cold embittered clothing, and wasted
minutes sitting at the edge of the bed.
“Isaac,” he ultimately sighed.
In the kitchen, Isaac, his astonished mouth open, held six
peanuts in his palm. He placed each on the table. “One . . .
two . . . nine.”
He gathered each peanut and appeared in the doorway. Mendel, in loose hat and long overcoat, still sat on the bed. Isaac
watched with small eyes and ears, thick hair graying the sides
of his head.
“Schlaf,” he nasally said.
“No,” muttered Mendel. As if stifling he rose. “Come, Isaac.”
He wound his old watch though the sight of the stopped
mechanism nauseated him.
Isaac wanted to hold it to his ear.
“No, it’s late.” Mendel put the watch carefully away. In the
drawer he found the little paper bag of crumpled ones and
fives and slipped it into his overcoat pocket. He helped Isaac
on with his coat.
Isaac looked at one dark window, then at the other. Mendel
stared at both blank windows.
They went slowly down the darkly lit stairs, Mendel first,
Isaac watching the moving shadows on the wall. To one long
shadow he offered a peanut.
“Hungrig.”
In the vestibule the old man gazed through the thin glass.
The November night was cold and bleak. Opening the door,
he cautiously thrust his head out. Though he saw nothing he
quickly shut the door.
“Ginzburg, that he came to see me yesterday,” he whispered
in Isaac’s ear.
Isaac sucked air.
“You know who I mean?”
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728
t en stor ie s
Isaac combed his chin with his fingers.
“That’s the one, with the black whiskers. Don’t talk to him
or go with him if he asks you.”
Isaac moaned.
“Young people he don’t bother so much,” Mendel said in
afterthought.
It was suppertime and the street was empty, but the store
windows dimly lit their way to the corner. They crossed the
deserted street and went on. Isaac, with a happy cry, pointed
to the three golden balls. Mendel smiled but was exhausted
when they got to the pawnshop.
The pawnbroker, a red-bearded man with black hornrimmed glasses, was eating a whitefish at the rear of the store.
He craned his head, saw them, and settled back to sip his tea.
In five minutes he came forward, patting his shapeless lips
with a large white handkerchief.
Mendel, breathing heavily, handed him the worn gold watch.
The pawnbroker, raising his glasses, screwed in his eyepiece. He
turned the watch over once. “Eight dollars.”
The dying man wet his cracked lips. “I must have thirty-five.”
“So go to Rothschild.”
“Cost me myself sixty.”
“In 1905.” The pawnbroker handed back the watch. It had
stopped ticking. Mendel wound it slowly. It ticked hollowly.
“Isaac must go to my uncle that he lives in California.”
“It’s a free country,” said the pawnbroker.
Isaac, watching a banjo, snickered.
“What’s the matter with him?” the pawnbroker asked.
“So let be eight dollars,” muttered Mendel, “but where will
I get the rest till tonight?”
“How much for my hat and coat?” he asked.
“No sale.” The pawnbroker went behind the cage and wrote
out a ticket. He locked the watch in a small drawer but Mendel
still heard it ticking.
In the street he slipped the eight dollars into the paper bag,
then searched in his pockets for a scrap of writing. Finding it,
he strained to read the address by the light of the street lamp.
As they trudged to the subway, Mendel pointed to the
sprinkled sky.
idiots f irst
729
“Isaac, look how many stars are tonight.”
“Eggs,” said Isaac.
“First we will go to Mr. Fishbein, after we will eat.”
They got off the train in upper Manhattan and had to walk
several blocks before they located Fishbein’s house.
“A regular palace,” Mendel murmured, looking forward to a
moment’s warmth.
Isaac stared uneasily at the heavy door of the house.
Mendel rang. The servant, a man with long sideburns, came
to the door and said Mr. and Mrs. Fishbein were dining and
could see no one.
“He should eat in peace but we will wait till he finishes.”
“Come back tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning Mr.
Fishbein will talk to you. He don’t do business or charity at
this time of the night.”
“Charity I am not interested—”
“Come back tomorrow.”
“Tell him it’s life or death—”
“Whose life or death?”
“So if not his, then mine.”
“Don’t be such a big smart aleck.”
“Look me in my face,” said Mendel, “and tell me if I got
time till tomorrow morning?”
The servant stared at him, then at Isaac, and reluctantly let
them in.
The foyer was a vast high-ceilinged room with many oil
paintings on the walls, voluminous silken draperies, a thick
flowered rug on the floor, and a marble staircase.
Mr. Fishbein, a paunchy bald-headed man with hairy nostrils and small patent-leather feet, ran lightly down the stairs,
a large napkin tucked under a tuxedo coat button. He
stopped on the fifth step from the bottom and examined his
visitors.
“Who comes on Friday night to a man that he has guests to
spoil him his supper?”
“Excuse me that I bother you, Mr. Fishbein,” Mendel said.
“If I didn’t come now I couldn’t come tomorrow.”
“Without more preliminaries, please state your business. I’m
a hungry man.”
730
t en stor ie s
“Hungrig,” wailed Isaac.
Fishbein adjusted his pince-nez. “What’s the matter with
him?”
“This is my son Isaac. He is like this all his life.”
Isaac mewled.
“I am sending him to California.”
“Mr. Fishbein don’t contribute to personal pleasure trips.”
“I am a sick man and he must go tonight on the train to my
Uncle Leo.”
“I never give to unorganized charity,” Fishbein said, “but if
you are hungry I will invite you downstairs in my kitchen. We
having tonight chicken with stuffed derma.”
“All I ask is thirty-five dollars for the train to my uncle in
California. I have already the rest.”
“Who is your uncle? How old a man?”
“Eighty-one years, a long life to him.”
Fishbein burst into laughter. “Eighty-one years and you are
sending him this halfwit.”
Mendel, flailing both arms, cried, “Please, without names.”
Fishbein politely conceded.
“Where is open the door there we go in the house,” the sick
man said. “If you will kindly give me thirty-five dollars, God
will bless you. What is thirty-five dollars to Mr. Fishbein?
Nothing. To me, for my boy, is everything.”
Fishbein drew himself up to his tallest height.
“Private contributions I don’t make—only to institutions.
This is my fixed policy.”
Mendel sank to his creaking knees on the rug.
“Please, Mr. Fishbein, if not thirty-five, give maybe twenty.”
“Levinson!” Fishbein angrily called.
The servant with the long sideburns appeared at the top of
the stairs.
“Show this party where is the door—unless he wishes to
partake food before leaving the premises.”
“For what I got chicken won’t cure it,” Mendel said.
“This way if you please,” said Levinson, descending.
Isaac assisted his father up.
“Take him to an institution,” Fishbein advised over the
marble balustrade. He ran quickly up the stairs and they were
at once outside, buffeted by winds.
idiots f irst
731
The walk to the subway was tedious. The wind blew mournfully. Mendel, breathless, glanced furtively at shadows. Isaac,
clutching his peanuts in his frozen fist, clung to his father’s
side. They entered a small park to rest for a minute on a stone
bench under a leafless two-branched tree. The thick right
branch was raised, the thin left one hung down. A very pale
moon rose slowly. So did a stranger as they approached the
bench.
“Gut yuntif,” he said hoarsely.
Mendel, drained of blood, waved his wasted arms. Isaac
yowled sickly. Then a bell chimed and it was only ten. Mendel
let out a piercing anguished cry as the bearded stranger disappeared into the bushes. A policeman came running and,
though he beat the bushes with his nightstick, could turn up
nothing. Mendel and Isaac hurried out of the little park. When
Mendel glanced back the dead tree had its thin arm raised, the
thick one down. He moaned.
They boarded a trolley, stopping at the home of a former
friend, but he had died years ago. On the same block they
went into a cafeteria and ordered two fried eggs for Isaac. The
tables were crowded except where a heavyset man sat eating
soup with kasha. After one look at him they left in haste, although Isaac wept.
Mendel had another address on a slip of paper but the house
was too far away, in Queens, so they stood in a doorway
shivering.
What can I do, he frantically thought, in one short hour?
He remembered the furniture in the house. It was junk but
might bring a few dollars. “Come, Isaac.” They went once
more to the pawnbroker’s to talk to him, but the shop was
dark and an iron gate—rings and gold watches glinting through
it—was drawn tight across his place of business.
They huddled behind a telephone pole, both freezing. Isaac
whimpered.
“See the big moon, Isaac. The whole sky is white.”
He pointed but Isaac wouldn’t look.
Mendel dreamed for a minute of the sky lit up, long sheets
of light in all directions. Under the sky, in California, sat Uncle
Leo drinking tea with lemon. Mendel felt warm but woke up
cold.
732
t en stor ie s
Across the street stood an ancient brick synagogue.
He pounded on the huge door but no one appeared. He
waited till he had breath and desperately knocked again. At last
there were footsteps within, and the synagogue door creaked
open on its massive brass hinges.
A darkly dressed sexton, holding a dripping candle, glared at
them.
“Who knocks this time of night with so much noise on the
synagogue door?”
Mendel told the sexton his troubles. “Please, I would like to
speak to the rabbi.”
“The rabbi is an old man. He sleeps now. His wife won’t let
you see him. Go home and come back tomorrow.”
“To tomorrow I said goodbye already. I am a dying man.”
Though the sexton seemed doubtful he pointed to an old
wooden house next door. “In there he lives.” He disappeared
into the synagogue with his lit candle casting shadows around
him.
Mendel, with Isaac clutching his sleeve, went up the wooden
steps and rang the bell. After five minutes a big-faced, grayhaired, bulky woman came out on the porch with a torn robe
thrown over her nightdress. She emphatically said the rabbi
was sleeping and could not be waked.
But as she was insisting, the rabbi himself tottered to the
door. He listened a minute and said, “Who wants to see me let
them come in.”
They entered a cluttered room. The rabbi was an old skinny
man with bent shoulders and a wisp of white beard. He wore a
flannel nightgown and black skullcap; his feet were bare.
“Vey is mir,” his wife muttered. “Put on shoes or tomorrow
comes sure pneumonia.” She was a woman with a big belly,
years younger than her husband. Staring at Isaac, she turned
away.
Mendel apologetically related his errand. “All I need is thirtyfive dollars.”
“Thirty-five?” said the rabbi’s wife. “Why not thirty-five
thousand? Who has so much money? My husband is a poor
rabbi. The doctors take away every penny.”
“Dear friend,” said the rabbi, “if I had I would give you.”
idiots f irst
733
“I got already seventy,” Mendel said, heavy-hearted. “All I
need more is thirty-five.”
“God will give you,” said the rabbi.
“In the grave,” said Mendel. “I need tonight. Come, Isaac.”
“Wait,” called the rabbi.
He hurried inside, came out with a fur-lined caftan, and
handed it to Mendel.
“Yascha,” shrieked his wife, “not your new coat!”
“I got my old one. Who needs two coats for one old body?”
“Yascha, I am screaming—”
“Who can go among poor people, tell me, in a new coat?”
“Yascha,” she cried, “what can this man do with your coat?
He needs tonight the money. The pawnbrokers are asleep.”
“So let him wake them up.”
“No.” She grabbed the coat from Mendel.
He held onto a sleeve, wrestling her for the coat. Her I know,
Mendel thought. “Shylock,” he muttered. Her eyes glittered.
The rabbi groaned and tottered dizzily. His wife cried out as
Mendel yanked the coat from her hands.
“Run,” cried the rabbi.
“Run, Isaac.”
They ran out of the house and down the steps.
“Stop, you thief,” called the rabbi’s wife.
The rabbi pressed both hands to his temples and fell to the
floor. “Help!” his wife wept. “Heart attack! Help!”
But Mendel and Isaac ran through the streets with the rabbi’s
new fur-lined caftan. After them noiselessly ran Ginzburg.
It was very late when Mendel bought the train ticket in the
only booth open.
There was no time to stop for a sandwich so Isaac ate his
peanuts and they hurried to the train in the vast deserted
station.
“So in the morning,” Mendel gasped as they ran, “there
comes a man that he sells sandwiches and coffee. Eat but get
change. When reaches California the train, will be waiting for
you on the station Uncle Leo. If you don’t recognize him he
will recognize you. Tell him I send best regards.”
But when they arrived at the gate to the platform it was
shut, the light out.
734
t en stor ie s
“Too late,” said the uniformed ticket collector, a bulky,
bearded man with hairy nostrils and a fishy smell.
He pointed to the station clock. “Already past twelve.”
“But I see standing there still the train,” Mendel said, hopping in his grief.
“It just left—in one more minute.”
“A minute is enough. Just open the gate.”
“Too late I told you.”
Mendel socked his bony chest with both hands. “With my
whole heart I beg you this little favor.”
“Favors you had enough already. For you the train is gone.
You shoulda been dead already at midnight. I told you that
yesterday. This is the best I can do.”
“Ginzburg!” Mendel shrank from him.
“Who else?” The voice was metallic, eyes glittered, the expression amused.
“For myself,” the old man begged, “I don’t ask a thing. But
what will happen to my boy?”
Ginzburg shrugged slightly. “What will happen happens.
This isn’t my responsibility. I got enough to think about without worrying about somebody on one cylinder.”
“What then is your responsibility?”
“To create conditions. To make happen what happens. I
ain’t in the anthropomorphic business.”
“Whichever business you in, where is your pity?”
“This ain’t my commodity. The law is the law.”
“Which law is this?”
“The cosmic, universal law, goddamn it, the one I got to
follow myself.”
“What kind of a law is it?” cried Mendel. “For God’s sake,
don’t you understand what I went through in my life with this
poor boy? Look at him. For thirty-nine years, since the day he
was born, I wait for him to grow up, but he don’t. Do you
understand what this means in a father’s heart? Why don’t you
let him go to his uncle?” His voice had risen and he was
shouting.
Isaac mewled loudly.
“Better calm down or you’ll hurt somebody’s feelings,”
Ginzburg said, with a wink toward Isaac.
“All my life,” Mendel cried, his body trembling, “what did I
idiots f irst
735
have? I was poor. I suffered from my health. When I worked I
worked too hard. When I didn’t work was worse. My wife died
a young woman. But I didn’t ask from anybody nothing. Now
I ask a small favor. Be so kind, Mr. Ginzburg.”
The ticket collector was picking his teeth with a matchstick.
“You ain’t the only one, my friend, some got it worse than
you. That’s how it goes.”
“You dog you.” Mendel lunged at Ginzburg’s throat and
began to choke. “You bastard, don’t you understand what it
means human?”
They struggled nose to nose. Ginzburg, though his astonished eyes bulged, began to laugh. “You pipsqueak nothing.
I’ll freeze you to pieces.”
His eyes lit in rage, and Mendel felt an unbearable cold like
an icy dagger invading his body, all of his parts shriveling.
Now I die without helping Isaac.
A crowd gathered. Isaac yelped in fright.
Clinging to Ginzburg in his last agony, Mendel saw reflected
in the ticket collector’s eyes the depth of his terror. Ginzburg,
staring at himself in Mendel’s eyes, saw mirrored in them the
extent of his own awful wrath. He beheld a shimmering, starry,
blinding light that produced darkness.
Ginzburg looked astounded. “Who, me?”
His grip on the squirming old man loosened, and Mendel,
his heart barely beating, slumped to the ground.
“Go,” Ginzburg muttered, “take him to the train.”
“Let pass,” he commanded a guard.
The crowd parted. Isaac helped his father up and they tottered down the steps to the platform where the train waited, lit
and ready to go.
Mendel found Isaac a coach seat and hastily embraced him.
“Help Uncle Leo, Isaakl. Also remember your father and
mother.”
“Be nice to him,” he said to the conductor. “Show him
where everything is.”
He waited on the platform until the train began slowly to
move. Isaac sat at the edge of his seat, his face strained in the
direction of his journey. When the train was gone, Mendel ascended the stairs to see what had become of Ginzburg.
In the short story, “Idiots First”, by Bernard Malamud, the old man, Mendel,
rushes to find enough money to send his son, Issac, to California before time runs out.
Mendel received a visit from Ginzburg, a character following the cosmic, universal law
to bring about death, the day before and Mendel is now in his last few hours of life.
Though Mendel is an old man with not much to offer, he spends his last fleeting hours to
sell whatever little possessions he has and beg for money to make enough for his son’s
trip. Throughout the story, Mendel faces many obstacles that stands in his way:
selfishness, mercenary, and coldheartedness. But as they say, children are the
meaning of their parent’s lives, and through this father’s love for his son, Mendel
overcomes all such despair with unfaltering hope, to successfully get Isaac on the train.
The first obstacle Mendel met is the mercenary pawnbroker, who bargained a
much too-low offer on Mendel’s watch. The greedy pawnbroker took advantage of the
poor old man’s desperate need for money. Mendel sold the watch to him for a measly
eight dollars, when he was hoping to get thirty-five, which was less than one-quarter of
his asking price. But eight dollars is better than nothing, and with this Mendel retains his
faith. Although he is a little disappointed and exhausted, the ambitious father still carried
on to the next person on his list.
Next, Mendel met the unsympathetic Mr. Fishbein, a wealthy philanthropist,
whom he begged for the remaining thirty-five dollars. “Mr. Fishbein drew himself up to
his tallest height” (4) as though he is proud, and stated that he would only give money to
organized charity. Mendel, desperately begged again for twenty dollars, a price that
should be insignificant to someone like Mr. Fishbein and yet, still Mr. Fishbein declined.
He offered them food instead. Another big hit of disappointment, but still Mendel did not
lose hope as he started onto the next address of his tedious trip.
The next person Mendel tried to see is the Rabbi and his wife. The Rabbi is a
skinny old man who is very poor himself. Though he …
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