by Bernard Malamud (1963)
THE WINDOW WAS open so the skinny bird flew in. Flappity-flap with its frazzled black wings. That’s how it goes. It’s open, you’re in. Closed, you’re out and that’s your fate. The bird wearily flapped through the open kitchen window of Harry Cohen’s top-floor apartment on First Avenue near the lower East River. On a rod on the wall hung an escaped canary cage, its door wide open, but this black-type longbeaked bird—its ruffled head and small dull eyes, crossed a little, making it look like a dissipated crow—landed if not smack on Cohen’s thick lamb chop, at least on the table, close by. The frozen foods salesman was sitting at supper with his wife and young son on a hot August evening a year ago. Cohen, a heavy man with hairy chest and beefy shorts; Edie, in skinny yellow shorts and red halter; and their ten-year-old Morris (after her father)—Maurie, they called him, a nice kid though not overly bright—were all in the city after two weeks out, because Cohen’s mother was dying. They had been enjoying Kingston, New York, but drove back when Mama got sick in her flat in the Bronx.
“Right on the table,” said Cohen, putting down his beer glass and swatting at the bird. “Son of a bitch.”
“Harry, take care with your language,” Edie said, looking at Maurie, who watched every move.
The bird cawed hoarsely and with a flap of its bedraggled wings—feathers tufted this way and that—rose heavily to the top of the open kitchen door, where it perched staring down.
“Gevalt, a pogrom!”
“It’s a talking bird,” said Edie in astonishment.
“In Jewish,” said Maurie.
“Wise guy,” muttered Cohen. He gnawed on his chop, then put down the bone. “So if you can talk, say what’s your business. What do you want here?”
“If you can’t spare a lamb chop,” said the bird, “I’ll settle for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. You can’t live on your nerve forever.”
“This ain’t a restaurant,” Cohen replied. “All I’m asking is what brings you to this address?”
“The window was open,” the bird sighed; adding after a moment, “I’m running. I’m flying but I’m also running.”
“From whom?” asked Edie with interest.
“Anti-Semites?” they all said.
“That’s from who.”
“What kind of anti-Semites bother a bird?” Edie asked.
“Any kind,” said the bird, “also including eagles, vultures, and hawks. And once in a while some crows will take your eyes out.”
“But aren’t you a crow?”
“Me? I’m a Jewbird.”
Cohen laughed heartily. “What do you mean by that?”
The bird began dovening. He prayed without Book or tallith, but with passion. Edie bowed her head though not Cohen. And Maurie rocked back and forth with the prayer, looking up with one wide-open eye.
When the prayer was done Cohen remarked, “No hat, no phylacteries?”
“I’m an old radical.”
“You’re sure you’re not some kind of a ghost or dybbuk?”
“Not a dybbuk,” answered the bird, “though one of my relatives had such an experience once. It’s all over now, thanks God. They freed her from a former lover, a crazy jealous man. She’s now the mother of two wonderful children.”
“Birds?” Cohen asked slyly.
“What kind of birds?”
“Like me. Jewbirds.”
Cohen tipped back in his chair and guffawed. “That’s a big laugh. I’ve heard of a Jewfish but not a Jewbird.”
“We’re once removed.” The bird rested on one skinny leg, then on the other. “Please, could you spare maybe a piece of herring with a small crust of bread?”
Edie got up from the table.
“What are you doing?” Cohen asked her.
“I’ll clear the dishes.”
Cohen turned to the bird. “So what’s your name, if you don’t mind saying?”
“Call me Schwartz.”
“He might be an old Jew changed into a bird by somebody,” said Edie, removing a plate.
“Are you?” asked Harry, lighting a cigar.
“Who knows?” answered Schwartz. “Does God tell us everything?”
Maurie got up on his chair. “What kind of herring?” he asked the bird in excitement.
“Get down, Maurie, or you’ll fall,” ordered Cohen.
“If you haven’t got matjes, I’ll take schmaltz,” said Schwartz.
“All we have is marinated, with slices of onion—in a jar,” said Edie.
“If you’ll open for me the jar I’ll eat marinated. Do you have also, if you don’t mind, a piece of rye bread—the spitz?”
Edie thought she had.
“Feed him out on the balcony,” Cohen said. He spoke to the bird. ”After that take off.”
Schwartz closed both bird eyes. “I’m tired and it’s a long way.”
“Which direction are you headed, north or south?”
Schwartz, barely lifting his wings, shrugged.
“You don’t know where you’re going?”
“Where there’s charity I’ll go.”
“Let him stay, papa,” said Maurie. “He’s only a bird.”
“So stay the night,” Cohen said, “but no longer.”
In the morning Cohen ordered the bird out of the house but Maurie cried, so Schwartz stayed for a while. Maurie was still on vacation from school and his friends were away. He was lonely and Edie enjoyed the fun he had, playing with the bird.
“He’s no trouble at all,” she told Cohen, “and besides his appetite is very small.”
“What’ll you do when he makes dirty?”
“He flies across the street in a tree when he makes dirty, and if nobody passes below, who notices?”
“So all right,” said Cohen, “but I’m dead set against it. I warn you he ain’t gonna stay here long.”
“What have you got against the poor bird?”
“Poor bird, my ass. He’s a foxy bastard. He thinks he’s a Jew.”
“What difference does it make what he thinks?”
“A Jewbird, what a chuzpah. One false move and he’s out on his drumsticks.”
At Cohen’s insistence Schwartz lived out on the balcony in a new wooden birdhouse Edie had bought him.
“With many thanks,” said Schwartz, “though I would rather have a human roof over my head. You know how it is at my age. I like the warm, the windows, the smell of cooking. I would also be glad to see once in a while the Jewish Morning Journal and have now and then a schnapps because it helps my breathing, thanks God. But whatever you give me, you won’t hear complaints.”
However, when Cohen brought home a bird feeder full of dried corn, Schwartz said, “Impossible.”
Cohen was annoyed. “What’s the matter, crosseyes, is your life getting too good for you? Are you forgetting what it means to be migratory? I’ll bet a helluva lot of crows you happen to be acquainted with, Jews or otherwise, would give their eyeteeth to eat this corn.”
Schwartz did not answer. What can you say to a grubber yung?
“Not for my digestion,” he later explained to Edie. “Cramps. Herring is better even if it makes you thirsty. At least rainwater don’t cost anything.” He laughed sadly in breathy caws.
And herring, thanks to Edie, who knew where to shop, was what Schwartz got, with an occasional piece of potato pancake, and even a bit of soupmeat when Cohen wasn’t looking.
When school began in September, before Cohen would once again suggest giving the bird the boot, Edie prevailed on him to wait a little while until Maurie adjusted.
“To deprive him right now might hurt his school work, and you know what trouble we had last year.”
“So okay, but sooner or later the bird goes. That I promise you.”
Schwartz, though nobody had asked him, took on full responsibility for Maurie’s performance in school. In return for favors granted, when he was let in for an hour or two at night, he spent most of his time overseeing the boy’s lessons. He sat on top of the dresser near Maurie’s desk as he laboriously wrote out his homework. Maurie was a restless type and Schwartz gently kept him to his studies. He also listened to him practice his screechy violin, taking a few minutes off now and then to rest his ears in the bathroom. And they afterwards played dominoes. The boy was an indifferent checker player and it was impossible to teach him chess. When he was sick, Schwartz read him comic books though he personally disliked them. But Maurie’s work improved in school and even his violin teacher admitted his playing was better. Edie gave Schwartz credit for these improvements though the bird pooh-poohed them.
Yet he was proud there was nothing lower than C minuses on Maurie’s report card, and on Edie’s insistence celebrated with a little schnapps.
“If he keeps up like this,” Cohen said, “I’ll get him in an Ivy League college for sure.”
“Oh I hope so,” sighed Edie.
But Schwartz shook his head. “He’s a good boy—you don’t have to worry. He won’t be a shicker or a wifebeater, God forbid, but a scholar he’ll never be, if you know what I mean, although maybe a good mechanic. It’s no disgrace in these times.”
“If I were you,” Cohen said, angered, “I’d keep my big snoot out of other people’s private business.”
“Harry, please,” said Edie.
“My goddamn patience is wearing out. That crosseyes butts into everything.”
Though he wasn’t exactly a welcome guest in the house, Schwartz gained a few ounces although he did not improve in appearance. He looked bedraggled as ever, his feathers unkempt, as though he had just flown out of a snowstorm. He spent, he admitted, little time taking care of himself. Too much to think about. “Also outside plumbing,” he told Edie. Still there was more glow to his eyes so that though Cohen went on calling him crosseyes he said it less emphatically.
Liking his situation, Schwartz tried tactfully to stay out of Cohen’s way, but one night when Edie was at the movies and Maurie was taking a hot shower, the frozen foods salesman began a quarrel with the bird.
“For Christ sake, why don’t you wash yourself sometimes? Why must you always stink like a dead fish?”
“Mr. Cohen, if you’ll pardon me, if somebody eats garlic he will smell from garlic. I eat herring three times a day. Feed me flowers and I will smell like flowers.”
“Who’s obligated to feed you anything at all? You’re lucky to get herring.
“Excuse me, I’m not complaining,” said the bird. “You’re complaining.”
“What’s more,” said Cohen, “even from out on the balcony I can hear you snoring away like a pig. It keeps me awake at night.”
“Snoring,” said Schwartz, “isn’t a crime, thanks God.”
“All in all you are a goddamn pest and free loader. Next thing you’ll want to sleep in bed next to my wife.”
“Mr. Cohen,” said Schwartz, “on this rest assured. A bird is a bird.”
“So you say, but how do I know you’re a bird and not some kind of a goddamn devil?”
“If I was a devil you would know already. And I don’t mean because your son’s good marks.”
“Shut up, you bastard bird,” shouted Cohen.
“Grubber yung,” cawed Schwartz, rising to the tips of his talons, his long wings outstretched.
Cohen was about to lunge for the bird’s scrawny neck but Maurie came out of the bathroom, and for the rest of the evening until Schwartz’s bedtime on the balcony, there was pretended peace.
But the quarrel had deeply disturbed Schwartz and he slept badly. His snoring woke him, and awake, he was fearful of what would become of him. Wanting to stay out of Cohen’s way, he kept to the birdhouse as much as possible. Cramped by it, he paced back and forth on the balcony ledge, or sat on the birdhouse roof, staring into space. In the evenings, while overseeing Maurie’s lessons, he often fell asleep. Awakening, he nervously hopped around exploring the four corners of the room. He spent much time in Maurie’s closet, and carefully examined his bureau drawers when they were left open. And once when he found a large paper bag on the floor, Schwartz poked his way into it to investigate what possibilities were. The boy was amused to see the bird in the paper bag.
“He wants to build a nest,” he said to his mother.
Edie, sensing Schwartz’s unhappiness, spoke to him quietly.
“Maybe if you did some of the things my husband wants you, you would get along better with him.”
“Give me a for instance,” Schwartz said.
“Like take a bath, for instance.”
“I’m too old for baths,” said the bird. “My feathers fall out without baths.”
“He says you have a bad smell.”
“Everybody smells. Some people smell because of their thoughts or because who they are. My bad smell comes from the food I eat. What does his come from?”
“I better not ask him or it might make him mad,” said Edie.
In late November Schwartz froze on the balcony in the fog and cold, and especially on rainy days he woke with stiff joints and could barely move his wings. Already he felt twinges of rheumatism. He would have liked to spend more time in the warm house, particularly when Maurie was in school and Cohen at work. But though Edie was good-hearted and might have sneaked him in in the morning, just to thaw out, he was afraid to ask her. In the meantime Cohen, who had been reading articles about the migration of birds, came out on the balcony one night after work when Edie was in the kitchen preparing pot roast, and peeking into the birdhouse, warned Schwartz to be on his way soon if he knew what was good for him. “Time to hit the flyways.”
“Mr. Cohen, why do you hate me so much?” asked the bird. “What did I do to you?”
“Because you’re an A-number-one trouble maker, that’s why. What’s more, whoever heard of a Jewbird? Now scat or it’s open war.”
But Schwartz stubbornly refused to depart so Cohen embarked on a campaign of harassing him, meanwhile hiding it from Edie and Maurie. Maurie hated violence and Cohen didn’t want to leave a bad impression. He thought maybe if he played dirty tricks on the bird he would fly off without being physically kicked out. The vacation was over, let him make his easy living off the fat of somebody else’s land. Cohen worried about the effect of the bird’s departure on Maurie’s schooling but decided to take the chance, first, because the boy now seemed to have the knack of studying—give the black bird-bastard credit—and second, because Schwartz was driving him bats by being there always, even in his dreams.
The frozen foods salesman began his campaign against the bird by mixing watery cat food with the herring slices in Schwartz’s dish. He also blew up and popped numerous paper bags outside the birdhouse as the bird slept, and when he had got Schwartz good and nervous, though not enough to leave, he brought a full-grown cat into the house, supposedly a gift for little Maurie, who had always wanted a pussy. The cat never stopped springing up at Schwartz whenever he saw him, one day managing to claw out several of his tailfeathers. And even at lesson time, when the cat was usually excluded from Maurie’s room, though somehow or other he quickly found his way in at the end of the lesson, Schwartz was desperately fearful of his life and flew from pinnacle to pinnacle—light fixture to clothes-tree to door-top—in order to elude the beast’s wet jaws.
Once when the bird complained to Edie how hazardous his existence was, she said, “Be patient, Mr. Schwartz. When the cat gets to know you better he won’t try to catch you any more.”
“When he stops trying we will both be in Paradise,” Schwartz answered. “Do me a favor and get rid of him. He makes my whole life worry. I’m losing feathers like a tree loses leaves.”
“I’m awfully sorry but Maurie likes the pussy and sleeps with it.”
What could Schwartz do? He worried but came to no decision, being afraid to leave. So he ate the herring garnished with cat food, tried hard not to hear the paper bags bursting like fire crackers outside the birdhouse at night, and lived terror-stricken closer to the ceiling than the floor, as the cat, his tail flicking, endlessly watched him.
Weeks went by. Then on the day after Cohen’s mother had died in her flat in the Bronx, when Maurie came home with a zero on an arithmetic test, Cohen, enraged, waited until Edie had taken the boy to his violin lesson, then openly attacked the bird. He chased him with a broom on the balcony and Schwartz frantically flew back and forth, finally escaping into his birdhouse. Cohen triumphantly reached in, and grabbing both skinny legs, dragged the bird out, cawing loudly, his wings wildly beating. He whirled the bird around and around his head. But Schwartz, as he moved in circles, managed to swoop down and catch Cohen’s nose in his beak, and hung on for dear life. Cohen cried out in great pain, punched the bird with his fist, and tugging at its legs with all his might, pulled his nose free. Again he swung the yawking Schwartz around until the bird grew dizzy, then with a furious heave, flung him into the night. Schwartz sank like stone into the street. Cohen then tossed the birdhouse and feeder after him, listening at the ledge until they crashed on the sidewalk below. For a full hour, broom in hand, his heart palpitating and nose throbbing with pain, Cohen waited for Schwartz to return but the broken-hearted bird didn’t.
That’s the end of that dirty bastard, the salesman thought and went in. Edie and Maurie had come home.
“Look,” said Cohen, pointing to his bloody nose swollen three times its normal size, “what that sonofabitchy bird did. It’s a permanent scar.”
“Where is he now?” Edie asked, frightened.
“I threw him out and he flew away. Good riddance.”
Nobody said no, though Edie touched a handkerchief to her eyes and Maurie rapidly tried the nine times table and found he knew approximately half.
In the spring when the winter’s snow had melted, the boy, moved by a memory, wandered in the neighborhood, looking for Schwartz. He found a dead black bird in a small lot near the river, his two wings broken, neck twisted, and both bird-eyes plucked clean.
“Who did it to you, Mr. Schwartz?” Maurie wept.
“Anti-Semeets,” Edie said later.
Born in Brooklyn, that seedbed of gifted American Jews, Bernard Malamud has made his living as a teacher and writer. The Magic Barrel (1958), his first collection of short stories, won a National Book Award; his novel The Fixer (1966) gained him another, and a Pulitzer Prize to boot.
We think of Thomas Mann as a broadly representative German writer, Gide and Balzac as French. In that exact sense perhaps there are no typically American writers. Hawthorne is a New Englander, Faulkner is Deep Southern, and Hemingway a Midwesterner overlaid by cosmopolitanism. Malamud is Brooklyn-Jewish. But, like Hawthorne and Faulkner and Hemingway, he uses regionalism as a kind of idiom with which to convey the ultraparochial. For the most part his is a limited world of poor city Jews. They suffer, they aspire, they are skeptical—and all are seen with an unsentimental tenderness that arcs the gap separating an enclave from the mainstream culture. Whatever our origins, we resonate without difficulty to the vibrations set up by Malamud’s funny-sad, often magical sense of the life he knows. “All men are Jews,” he once wrote.
“The Jewbird” is a shaggy dog story made to yield rich emotional dividends. In a way it’s about anti-Semitism, in another way about Jewish anti-Semitism. But perhaps it is really about one of Malamud’s pervading themes: how the experience of suffering changes its face as humor is brought to bear upon it.