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The Assistant

Bernard Malamud

Chapter One

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter One, page 2

page 1 of 2
Summary

Morris Bober opens his store on a cold November morning at 6 a.m., after dragging in crates of milk and bag of rolls left by delivery men. An old Polish woman is at the door and he sells her a roll for three cents. After she is gone, he heats up the store. A young girl whose mother is a drunk comes in and asks for food on credit and although Morris initially wants to say no, he gives the girl the food. He notes the drunk woman's debt on a piece of paper, reducing it slightly so that Morris's wife, Ida, will not be too upset. Morris thinks to himself that business is rough, as he awaits the arrival of his upstairs tenant, Nick Fuso, who usually buys ham and bread each morning.

Morris has owned the grocery for twenty-one years and it has basically remained the same during those years. As the morning passes, Nick does not arrive and Morris sees him returning home with a bag from a different grocery store. Morris feels depressed. A few customers enter, but buy little. Breitbart, a light bulb peddler, comes in for a cup of tea. After Breitbart leaves, Morris's wife Ida comes downstairs. At age fifty-one, she is nine years younger than Morris. Despite her younger age, her aching feet keep her from working frequently. Morris tells her that business has been slow. Together, they discuss their desire that someone will buy the store. Ida reminds Morris that Julius Karp, a man who owns a liquor store on the street, telephoned a man who might be interested. She hopes the buyer will come today. Ida chastises her husband for smoking and tells him to go upstairs to eat and rest.

Upstairs, Morris eats and reflects that business is so bad lately because a new grocery store owned by a German, Schmitz, opened across the street. A tailor used to work there, but after he left, Karp, who owns the property, leased it to Schmitz. Morris asked Karp why he could be so unkind to him, but Karp told him not to worry. Morris had worried for about a month and then after Schmitz's store opened, he found that it was as bad as he thought.

The narrative cuts to Helen Bober, Ida and Morris's daughter. She is on the subway coming home from work when Nat Pearl approaches and asks if she is mad at him. Helen tells him no. She reflects that during the summer she had felt in love with Nat, so she agreed to sleep with him, thus losing her virginity. Later she realized that Nat only wanted to have sex and not to form a meaningful relationship. Since then, she had shunned him. Nat and Helen grew upon the same block since Nat's parents, Sam and Goldie Pearl, owned a nearby candy store, but Nat had managed to graduate from Columbia University and now attends law school. Helen gets off the subway and heads home. She passes the Pearls' candy store and also Karp's liquor store, the two stores owned by Jews on an otherwise gentile block. Karp used to have a poor shoe store, but his liquor business made him very successful.

Morris wakes and heads downstairs just before Helen walks in. The buyer has not come. Ida sends Helen upstairs to eat. Helen hates their small dark apartment and reflects that her father has never really left their block since her brother, Ephraim, died. Morris comes up and offers to let Helen keep more of her paycheck, but she refuses. Morris feels shame that he cannot send her to college, which is her dream.

In the evening, business picks up. Karp comes in and asks if the buyer came. Morris has felt mildly annoyed with Karp since Karp rented his space to another grocer. Karp tells Morris that he has seen a car pass by several times and thinks that they want to rob him. Karp, although richer, is too cheap to have a phone and asks Morris to call the cops in a few minutes, after Karp hollers to him. Morris agrees and Karp leaves. Nick Fuso's wife, Tessie, enters and buys some food to make amends for her husband shopping elsewhere in the morning. Morris hears Karp call to him and he starts moving toward the phone. As he does so, he sees two men with handkerchiefs on their faces enter the store. One has a pistol. They take the money from the register and ask where the rest is. Morris insists that he is poor and has no more money. The man with the gun calls Morris a lying Jew and strikes him across the face. The other perpetrator protests his partner's movements and immediately offers Morris some water in a cup. The men search the store, but find no more money. The man with the gun again questions Morris for money, but when Morris offers none he strikes him again. As Morris passes out, he thinks that it is a fitting end to his unlucky day.

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