Commentary Magazine

Idiots First A Story

The thick ticking of the tin clock stopped. Mendel, dozing in the dark, awoke in fright. The pain returned as he listened for it. He drew on his cold, embittered clothing, and wasted minutes sitting on 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 . . . eight.”

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 clock 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 and saw nothing.

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.


In the vestibule the old man gazed through the 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.

“Ginzberg, that he came to see me yesterday,” he whispered in Isaac’s ear.

Isaac sucked air.

“You know who I mean?”

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 worn out when they got to the pawnshop.

The pawnbroker, a red-bearded man with black horn-rimmed glasses, was eating a whitefish at the rear of the store. He craned his head, saw them, then settled back to drink his tea.

In five minutes he came forward, patting his shapeless lips with a 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 see 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 could still hear 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.

“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 for 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, if I may ask you?”

“So if not his, then mine.”

“Don’t be such a big smart aleck.”

“Look 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 pictures on the walls, voluminous silken draperies, a thick flowered rug at foot, 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 fourth 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.”

“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 the kitchen. We having tonight chicken with stuffed derma.”

“All I ask is thirty-five dollars for the train ticket to my uncle in California. I have already the rest.”

“Who is your uncle? How old a man?”

“Eighty years, a long life to him.”

Fishbein burst into laughter. “Eighty years and you are sending him this—this halfwit.”

Mendel, flailing both arms, cried, “Please, no 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. Enjoy yourself to give me 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, then 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.

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 in 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 house 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 heavy-set man sat eating soup with kasha. After one look at him they left in haste, though 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, 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.

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 brass hinges. A darkly dressed sexton, holding a dripping candle, glared at them.

“Who knocks this time of the night with so much noise on the synagogue door?”

Mendel told the sexton his troubles. “Please, I wish 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 bulky, big-faced, gray-haired old 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 a 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 more is thirty-five 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 cent.”

“Dear friend,” said the rabbi, “if I had I would give you.”

“I got already seventy,” Mendel said, heavy-hearted. “All I need is thirty-five more.”

“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 furlined 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 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 on to one 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 temple 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 Ginzberg.

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 will come 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.

Mendel, groaning, beat on the gate with his fists.

“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.”

“Ginzberg!” 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?”

Ginzberg 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.”

“Whatever 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, goddamit, the one I got to follow myself.”

“What kind of 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 doesn’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 feeling,” Ginzberg said, with a wink toward Isaac.

“All my life,” Mendel cried, his body trembling, “what did I 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. Ginzberg.”

The ticket collector was picking his teeth with a match stick.

“You ain’t the only one, my friend, some got it worse. That’s how it goes.”

“You dog, you.” Mendel lunged at Ginzberg’s throat and began to choke. “You bastard, don’t you understand what it means human?”

They struggled nose to nose. Ginzberg, though his astonished eyes popped, began to laugh. “You pipsqueak nothing. I’ll freeze you to pieces.”

His eyes lit in fury 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 Ginzberg in his last agony, Mendel saw reflected in the ticket collector’s eyes the depth of his terror. But he saw that Ginzberg, 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.

Ginzberg looked astounded. “Who me?”

Slowly his grip on the squirming old man loosened, and Mendel, his heart barely beating, slumped to the ground.

“Go,” Ginzberg muttered, “take him to the train.”

“Let pass,” he commanded the gatekeeper.

The crowd parted. Isaac helped his father get 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, Isaakil. 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 Ginzberg.



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