Commentary Magazine


Two Stories

The Winners

“Hurry up,” said Mrs. Mandel to her husband, “we’re already late.”

“I’ll be ready in a second,” said Mr. Mandel. “Jackie isn’t ready anyway.”

“He’s waiting for us outside,” she answered, which meant (as she knew) that he had got into a ball game in the street and would probably have to wash all over again. He was twelve.

It wasn’t usual for Mr. Mandel to be late this way, but he was not too anxious to visit the Josephs’ who had just moved uptown into a large apartment house, with an elevator, only two blocks away from the Drive. This fact, this location, constituted a challenge to Mr. Mandel’s earning power, a challenge which his wife did not fail to hurl at him on appropriate occasions.

Mr. Mandel was a furrier, highly skilled and (in the season) well paid. He and Mr. Josephs had worked together for a number of years till the latter had decided to go into business for himself, a move attended with many perils. After some difficult years, Mr. Josephs established himself in the trade, employing as many as thirty men in the busy season.

“Oh Jackie,” said Mrs. Mandel, “just look at you!”

The boy, who had just run into the apartment, was good and dirty. Particularly outstanding was his shirt, which was darkly smudged, or stained.

“I fell,” he explained.

By the time he was readied for the trip, Mr. Mandel had also whipped himself into readiness, and they left.

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When they reached the uptown apartment house, they had to ring downstairs and then they heard Mrs. Josephs’ voice asking who it was. Jackie was intrigued, but Mr. Mandel refused to be impressed, saying: “Next we will have to prove who we are before we can get into his house.”

Then they had to wait for the elevator, and inform the elevator man of their destination, and then walk down a long hall and ring the Josephs’ bell.

“Hello,” cried Mrs. Josephs, “come in.”

And she swept them into the foyer; while she was hanging their coats Mr. Josephs came in and shook hands with the calmness, close to urbanity, which had always characterized his most formal social behavior.

Mrs. Mandel handed Mrs. Josephs the tin of candy which they had purchased on the way uptown, saying, “Lots of luck in your new apartment.”

Mr. Mandel muttered something along the same lines and accepted in silence the thanks of Mr. and Mrs. Josephs.

They went into the living room. Carpeted from wall to wall, it had a set of furniture, including a china closet gleaming with cut glass.

“Davey,” called out Mrs. Josephs, “Jackie is here.”

The son, about Jackie’s age, came out of a bedroom. He was by no means nattily dressed, and Jackie threw an angry, resentful look at his parents. Davey invited the guest into his room, and the two boys disappeared, but first Mrs. Josephs offered Jackie a dish full of macaroons and slices of honey cake and sponge cake. He chose a macaroon, and turned down the offer of a glass of milk.

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“You have a very large living room,” said Mrs. Mandel.

“It is very comfortable,” said Mrs. Josephs. “Would you like to see the rest of the apartment?”

This is an invitation which few have the courage to turn down.

Back in the living room, they looked out the window and Mrs. Mandel admired the view of the river.

“Yes,” said Mr. Josephs, “it gives you a sense of distance, of repose.”

He spoke in a rather manorial manner, proud but a little bored with the formalities.

Mr. Mandel could not help thinking that Mrs. Mandel was thinking of their apartment, quite adequate when they moved in, but now grown old and dark, old and crowded with the years.

Then they sat down and Mrs. Josephs placed before them a bowl of fruit, overflowing with oranges, apples, grapes, and some figs.

They picked and chose from this dish, and conversed—Mr. Josephs with Mr. Mandel, Mrs. Josephs with Mrs. Mandel.

They got onto the subject of politics, and then into that wider realm where economics and politics meet.

Mr. Mandel maintained that the standard of living was steadily rising and, given normal expansion, would continue to rise within the framework of capitalist society.

“And what is normal expansion?” asked Mr. Josephs. “Normal expansion is imperialism, normal expansion is war.”

The dogged sectarianism of the socialist of 1926 was unflagging.

“You are too young,” said Mr. Josephs, “to remember the depression of 1907. Otherwise you would understand how things shrank—capital, production, jobs, everything.”

Mr. Mandel did not think that the seven-year seniority of the expanding manufacturer merited that rather supercilious tone.

“You do not have to lecture me about the depression of 1907,” he said. “One does not have to experience completely in order to understand. Take death, for example.”

At the mention of death, the two women looked up.

“The fact is,” said Mr. Mandel, “that we emerged from the depression of 1907 stronger than ever and have been climbing ever since.”

“You forget,” said Mr. Josephs, “the small matter of the world war.”

“Well,” said Mr. Mandel, who had been a soldier in that war, “we got out of that too. Life progresses by upheaval, by no easy stages.”

“By holocausts,” said Mr. Josephs, “by one rigged Armageddon after another, by exploitation and the making of surplus value which then must be shot away.”

“Exploitation,” said Mr. Mandel pointedly, “begins at home.”

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“Look, Mandel,” said Josephs, “in business it is dog eat dog. Do you think I should let myself be pushed into the gutter? Do you think I can act what I believe and survive?”

“Pure fakerei,” said Mr. Mandel. “You know what is the right thing and you can’t do it, what would you expect of those who do not know the truth?”

“I am trying to tell you,” said Mr. Josephs with an air of patience, “that life and theory do not belong together, it is an insoluble conflict; knowing the good, we must do the bad.”

“Knowing what good?” asked Mr. Mandel. “This cockeyed notion of a millennium where the capitalist and the proletarian will lie down together? And meanwhile you milk the cow dry. Is that the good?”

“How many times,” asked Mr. Josephs, “in how many ways must I tell you that we must personally operate against the greatest good? From this contradiction 20th-century man cannot escape.

“Tea,” he said rather sharply, “let us have tea”.

“Twentieth-century man bubkes,” said Mr. Mandel. “You are only hiding your selfishness and your acquisitiveness behind a lot of high-sounding words. You are ten times worse than the boss who is out to get what he can but manages to be decent to his workers.”

This comment referred to wage troubles which Mr. Josephs was having with his employees.

The tea being delivered, Mr. Josephs drank heavily from his glass.

“To maintain the production,” he said, “I must strike a certain balance between the profit and the expense.”

Mr. Mandel laughed uproariously.

“Surplus value,” he cried, “there’s surplus value for you!”

Mr. Josephs put his glass down vigorously, so vigorously that some of the tea spilled onto the new rug.

“What are you doing?” cried Mrs. Josephs. “On the new rug!”

“It is only water,” said Mr. Josephs.

“And tea,” said Mrs. Josephs, “and sugar, and lemon.”

Mr. Josephs was upset by the accidental, topical intrusion into the frame of historic necessity.

“All right,” he said, “all right.”

This little accident had the effect of slowing down the conversation; it was clear that the high point of sociability had been reached and passed. There remained the second glass of tea, the farewell, and the departure.

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Just at this time, when sociability had retreated, so to say, to a secondary level, a new diversion was created in the form of a series of cries, the sound of a struggle from the bedroom where the boys had been playing.

All looked up in surprise at this sudden outburst from a quarter which had been far too quiet all this time.

Then the door was pushed open and Jackie Mandel appeared, in the manner of a victor.

“I won the game,” he said, “and he tried to take the winnings away from me.”

“What game, what winnings?” cried Mrs. Josephs. “Where is Davey?”

Davey appeared in the doorway behind Jackie. He was bleeding lightly from the lip and whimpering. His mother rushed up to him and dabbed at the blood with a handkerchief.

“We were playing Monopoly,” groaned Davey, as if in explanation.

“How come you’re so, so—untouched?” Mrs. Josephs cried to the victorious youth.

“I learned that from Benny Leonard,” said Jackie.

He held a make-believe microphone in front of him and shouted: “Hya mom. He never even touched me.”

“That will be enough,” said Mrs. Mandel, in the special tone of the mother of the victorious child, proud and as-if-chastising.

Mr. Josephs and Mr. Mandel stared at each other while the women fussed with the children, Mrs. Josephs binding up the wounds of her child, and Mrs. Mandel managing to find some hurt in the victorious child.

Mr. Josephs was stonily preoccupied, while Mr. Mandel, in his mind, was trying to formulate the phrase about the generations and shirtsleeves, got caught up in the rhythm of from Moses to Moses there was only one Moses, then smiled openly at the thought of making some comment about the famous triumvirate of Tinker to Evers to Chance.

But to his credit he kept his counsel, though Mr. Josephs was not unaware of the smile which passed over the face of his guest, and Mr. Josephs put the worst possible interpretation on that smile.

“Thank you very much for everything,” said Mrs. Mandel. “Best luck and naches in your new apartment.”

There was a rather formal handshake between the men, and then the Mandels left. Mrs. Josephs accompanied them to the elevator.

“Boy,” said Jackie Mandel, “is he going to get it.”

“Quiet,” said Mrs. Mandel, and Mr. Mandel looked agreeably at the child, on account of his victory, and because of the temporary respite from the complaining, the nudjing, which would follow as a result of this victory.

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The Pharmacist

Monroe Hyman grew up in the secure knowledge that his means of livelihood had been laid out for him; like an ancestrally chosen bride, his occupation was waiting.

This occupation, or profession, was that of a pharmacist, and Monroe accepted it with a sense of inevitability which was the next best thing to choice, though actually the furthest removed from it.

The knowledge was double-edged, for though it brought closer, within limits, the distant and mysterious future (so that Monroe was never at a loss when asked about his plans, but would solemnly say, “I am going to be a pharmacist”), it had the effect also of destroying the elements of doubt, openness, and thus it helped make of Monroe a rather solemn, not altogether pleasing boy. He was not very open to adventure, the impulse of the moment.

Still, as he grew older, this purposeful sobriety kept him on his destined road while his boyhood friends were tossed in all directions, ending up as millionaires, struggling merchants (independent), gangsters, and professional men.

He became a pharmacist, and found a job, through a relative’s friend, in a drugstore on the upper West Side.

Here he found that the security in which he had grown up was shattered, and that he was at the mercy of his employer, an impatient old man who by no means controlled his temper because of his friendship for the friend of Monroe’s relative.

Monroe labored in his cubbyhole in the back of the store, compounding his prescriptions with the conscientiousness which had always characterized him.

The old man, Krakauer, shuttled between the front and the back of the store; as the years went by, his heart was more and more in the over-the-counter sales.

One day, after Monroe had been in this place a little less than a year, there was a dramatic occurrence which shook him profoundly, creating an unusual disturbance, a terror.

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Monroe was working on a prescription; Krakauer was at his side, sorting out some drugs. The front was empty. A customer entered.

“Go ahead,” said Krakauer peevishly, “take care of the front.”

Monroe obeyed his employer and went forth to meet the customer. This gentleman was looking to buy a vaporizer, or at least he was looking to investigate the possibilities of buying a vaporizer. His questioning and close observation of the various models, his comments and comparisons, all without the slightest indications of purchase, unnerved the old man, who rushed to the front of the store, waving Monroe to the rear.

This pleased Monroe, who disliked selling and was happiest in his cubby compounding the prescriptions. He worked slowly and finished the prescription just as Krakauer stormed back, no more successful than Monroe in completing the sale, and blaming his assistant for starting the transaction on the wrong foot.

“You spoiled the sale,” he said. “You confused him by showing him everything he asked for.”

Monroe did not understand this remark.

“Here,” called Krakauer to one of the kids who hung around waiting to run prescriptions, “deliver this.”

He wrapped the prescription which Monroe had just finished and gave it to Zeck, one of the speediest of the messenger boys. Zeck took off as though he had been given the stick as the anchor man in a close relay race.

The store got a little busy, and Krakauer stayed up front. When things slowed down, he came back and continued his work. At this point Zeck came back and delivered the money.

“My God,” cried Krakauer, “where is the mercury?” Monroe looked up, astonished.

The old man, in his rushing back and forth, had somehow got his hand into Monroe’s prescription—at any rate, the mercury was missing, there was a good chance that this lethal dose had landed in the prescription made up for Mrs. Gordon.

The old man bolted, with Monroe in close pursuit.

“Watch the store,” shouted Krakauer to Zeck. The redoubtable child found himself in charge of the establishment.

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In spite of the marked difference in age, the proprietor of the drugstore ran well ahead of his assistant, for the reason that he knew the Gordon address, so that the younger and presumably faster man had to lay behind. The pair made a rather unusual picture as they ran through the streets. The old man had probably not run so fast in forty years. He could not regain the gait of his youth, and the awkwardness of his stride doubled the amount of exertion; his anxiety prevented him from calling out the address to Monroe, whose own anxiety prevented him from asking. The Gordons lived only a block away, on the fourth floor of an apartment house. The old man rushed up the stairs and burst into the apartment, followed by Monroe. They ran past the amazed Mr. Gordon and into the open bedroom where Mrs. Gordon was lying.

Mrs. Gordon was about seventy; she had run a grocery store with her husband for forty years and was not ignorant of the ways of the world.

Krakauer seized the little hinged box which stood on the bureau next to Mrs. Gordon’s bed. He swiftly counted the pills. This accomplished, he closed his eyes in blissful weariness, his body relaxed to the point of limpness, and he opened his eyes, facing the company as an absolutely reborn person, with a new and unexpected outlook.

“What’s the matter, Mrs. Gordon, you don’t take your medicine, you don’t trust the Doctor?”

Monroe too had counted the eight pills and he retreated to the corner of the room, experiencing active relief. The old man, Mr. Gordon, was somewhat dazed by the swiftness of the storm which had risen and then of the calm which had followed.

The old lady was very suspicious of this unaccountable behavior, and could not be mollified.

“What do you want?” she asked. “Why did you break into my house this way, without even ringing the bell? What is happening here?”

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Krakauer laughed hysterically, with the laugh of the saved, with the laugh of one who knows that the worst has passed, that what follows can be snarled, a little unpleasant, but the dread outcome has been avoided. “You are right,” he said. “Of course I owe you an explanation. You see, these pills are not for you.”

“Not for me?” repeated Mrs. Gordon. “What do you mean they’re not for me? What are they doing here?”

“They are for you,” said Mr. Krakauer. In the middle of saying that two prescriptions had been switched, he realized that this was the last possible thing to admit (next to the truth itself) and switched his story, on the wings of a brilliant idea.

“You see,” he said, “Dr. Kornbluth called and said to add a little something, a sedative, to the prescription. But it was already made, so we came to get it back.”

“Why a little sedative?” she asked.

“To make you sleep better,” said the druggist, who was becoming more and more exhilarated by this tissue of lies which he was making up as he went along.

“I have no trouble sleeping,” said the old lady, and she reached for the pills.

“No, no,” cried Krakauer, as he and Monroe leaped desperately for the box, which was captured by the proprietor.

Mrs. Gordon settled back in her bed.

“What is it, poison in that box?” asked the old lady.

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Krakauer laughed and looked meaningfully at the sober Monroe, who somehow joined in the laughter.

“You both had to come?” she asked. “To get the pills, to add the sedative?”

“It was such a nice day,” said Krakauer, “I asked Monroe to take a walk with me.”

“And who’s taking care of the store?” she asked.

“Zeck,” answered Krakauer, and a cloud crossed his face as he thought of what was going on down there.

“And if you were taking a walk on such a nice day,” she continued, “why did you rush in like a pair of wild men?”

Krakauer was nonplussed, but Monroe said, quite idiotically: “We weren’t sure it was the right apartment.”

Mr. and Mrs. Gordon looked at each other helplessly.

“A por mishugena,” said Mr. Gordon.

“Well, thank you,” said Mr. Krakauer. “I will take this prescription and send over the new one in a few minutes.”

“Maybe this time,” said Mrs. Gordon, “you will close up the store altogether.”

“Ah, Mrs. Gordon,” said Krakauer, “such a tongue, like a sweet and sour pickle.”

On this note Krakauer and Monroe left, the old druggist clutching the prescription box.

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After this experience, which, in spite of its happy ending, its deliriously happy ending, had a most sobering effect on Monroe, if it were at all possible for anything to have a sobering effect on a young man already steeped in sobriety to the point of stupefaction—after this experience Monroe was forced to consider again the basis of his security, and found it sadly wanting. On top of the perpetual menace of Krakauer, there was the ever present possibility of accidental poisoning of the customers. His conscientiousness, always extreme, now passed well beyond the bounds of normal caution. He insisted on a fixed space, a cordon sanitaire, where no one could penetrate, and especially not Krakauer. He dreamtidly of going into business for himself, but found it difficult even to leave the corner where he labored, carefully compounding, for good or for bad, the medicine prescribed.

So there he sat, there he sits, a man more willed against than willing, quite incapable of movement. Of course he recognizes dimly that Krakauer will die some day, and then he will be faced with the problem of taking over the business, of leaving his narrow professional cubicle and moving onto the rough, the unpredictable economic seas. Or, of course, he can hire himself out again.

But meanwhile Krakauer is alive, he rushes from front to back, but the shuttle has slowed down, he spends most of his time in the beloved front of the store, where he can both sell and shmoos, leaving the rear, for the most part, to his associate, whose youth is gracelessly fading.

All that predestination, all that early serenity gone to waste!

“Here Monroe,” says Krakauer, sliding a prescription slip through the cage where the younger man now works, “this must be ready in half an hour.”

Monroe barely nods, moves the slip to the side, and continues, as meticulously as ever, on the tasks so early chosen for him.

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