"A Summer’s Reading"
By Bernard Malamud
The New Yorker, September 22, 1956
George Stoyonovich was a neighborhood boy who had quit high school on an impulse when he was sixteen, run out of patience, and though he was ashamed every time he went looking for a job, when people asked him if he had finished and he had to say no, he never went back to school. This summer was a hard time for jobs and he had none. Having so much time on his hands, George thought of going to summer school, but the kids in his classes would be too young. He also considered registering in a night high school, only he didn’t like the idea of the teachers always telling him what to do. He felt they had not respected him. The result was he stayed off the streets and in his room most of the day. He was close to twenty and had needs with the neighborhood girls, but no money to spend, and he couldn’t get more than an occasional few cents because his father was poor, and his sister Sophie, who resembled George, a tall bony girl of twenty-three, earned very little and what she had she kept for herself. Their mother was dead, and Sophie had to take care of the house.
Very early in the morning George’s father got up to go to work in a fish market. Sophie left at about eight for her long ride in the subway to a cafeteria in the Bronx. George had his coffee by himself, then hung around in the house. When the house, a five-room railroad flat above a butcher store, got on his nerves he cleaned it up-mopped the floors with a wet mop and put things away. But most of the time he sat in his room. In the afternoons he listened to the ball game. Otherwise he had a couple of old copies of the World Almanac he had bought long ago, and he liked to read in them and also the magazines and newspapers that Sophie brought home, that had been left on the tables in the cafeteria. They were mostly picture magazines about movie stars and sports figures, also usually the News and Mirror. Sophie herself read whatever fell into her hands, although she sometimes read good books.
She once asked George what he did in his room all day and he said he read a lot too.
"Of what besides what I bring home? Do you ever read any worthwhile books?"
"Some," George answered, although he really didn’t. He had tried to read a book or two that Sophie had in the house but found he was in no mood for them. Lately he couldn’t stand made-up stories, they got on his nerves. He wished he had some hobby to work at – as a kid he was good in carpentry, but where could he work at it? Sometimes during the day he went for walks, but mostly he did his walking after the hot sun had gone down and it was cooler in the streets.
In the evening after supper George left the house and wandered in the neighborhood. During the sultry days some of the storekeepers and their wives sat in chairs on the thick, broken sidewalks in front of their shops, fanning themselves, and George walked past them and the guys hanging out on the candy store corner. A couple of them he had known his whole life, but nobody recognized each other. He had no place special to go, but generally, saving it till the last, he left the neighborhood and walked for blocks till he came to a darkly lit little park with benches and trees and an iron railing, giving it a feeling of privacy. He sat on a bench here, watching the leafy trees and the flowers blooming on the inside of the railing, thinking of a better life for himself. He thought of the jobs he had had since he had quit school – delivery boy, stock clerk, runner, lately working in a factory – and he was dissatisfied with all of them. He felt he would someday like to have a good job and live in a private house with a porch, on a street with trees. He wanted to have some dough in his pocket to buy things with, and a girl to go with, so as not to be so lonely, especially on Saturday nights. He wanted people to like and respect him. He thought about these things often but mostly when he was alone at night. Around midnight he got up and drifted back to his hot and stony neighborhood.
One time while on his walk George met Mr. Cattanzara coming home very late from work. He wondered if he was drunk but then could tell he wasn’t. Mr. Cattanzara, a stocky, bald-headed man who worked in a change booth on an IRT station, lived on the next block after George’s, above a shoe repair store. Nights, during the hot weather, he sat on his stoop in an undershirt, reading The New York Times in the light of the shoemaker’s window. He read it from the first page to the last, then went up to sleep. And all the time he was reading the paper, his wife, a fat woman with a white face, leaned out of the window, gazing into the street, her thick white arms folded under her loose breast, on the window ledge.
Once in a while Mr. Cattanzara came home drunk, but it was a quiet drunk. He never made any trouble, only walked stiffly up the street and slowly climbed the stairs into the hall. Though drunk, he looked the same as always, except for his tight walk, the quietness, and that his eyes were wet. George liked Mr. Cattanzara because he remembered him giving him nickels to buy lemon ice with when he was a squirt. Mr. Cattanzara was a different type than those in the neighborhood. He asked different questions than the others when he met you, and he seemed to know what went on in all the newspapers. He read them, as his fat sick wife watched from the window.
"What are you doing with yourself this summer, George?" Mr. Cattanzara asked. "I see you walkin’ around at nights."
George felt embarrassed. "I like to walk."
"What are you doin’ in the day now?"
"Nothing much just right now. I’m waiting for a job." Since it shamed him to admit he wasn’t working, George said, "I’m staying home – but I’m reading a lot to pick up my education."
Mr. Cattanzara looked interested. He mopped his hot face with a red handkerchief.
"What are you readin’?"
George hesitated, then said, "I got a list of books in the library once, and now I’m gonna read them this summer." He felt strange and a little unhappy saying this, but he wanted Mr. Cattanzara to respect him.
"How many books are there on it?"
"I never counted them. Maybe around a hundred."
Mr. Cattanzara whistled through his teeth.
"I figure if I did that," George went on earnestly, "it would help me in my education. I don’t mean the kind they give you in high school. I want to know different things than they learn there, if you know what I mean."
The change maker nodded. "Still and all, one hundred books is a pretty big load for one summer."
"It might take longer."
"After you’re finished with some, maybe you and I can shoot the breeze about them?" said Mr. Cattanzara.
"When I’m finished," George answered.
Mr. Cattanzara went home and George continued on his walk. After that, though he had the urge to, George did nothing different from usual. He still took his walks at night, ending up in the little park. But one evening the shoemaker on the next block stopped George to say that he was a good boy, and George figured that Mr. Cattanzara had told him all about the books he was reading. From the shoemaker it must have gone down the street, because George saw a couple of people smiling kindly at him, though nobody spoke to him personally. He felt a little better around the neighborhood and liked it more, though not so much he would want to live in it forever. He had never exactly disliked the people in it, yet he had never liked them very much either. It was the fault of the neighborhood. To his surprise, George found out that his father and Sophie knew about his reading too. His father was too shy to say anything about it-he was never much of a talker in his whole life-but Sophie was softer to George, and she showed him in other ways she was proud of him.
As the summer went on George felt in a good mood about things. He cleaned the house every day, as a favor to Sophie, and he enjoyed the ball games more. Sophie gave him a buck a week allowance, and though it still wasn’t enough and he had to use it carefully, it was a helluva lot better than just having two bits now and then. What he bought with the money – cigarettes mostly, an occasional beer or movie ticket-he got a big kick out of. Life wasn’t so bad if you knew how to appreciate it. Occasionally he bought a paperback book from the news-stand, but he never got around to reading it, though he was glad to have a couple of books in his room. But he read thoroughly Sophie’s magazines and newspapers. And at night was the most enjoyable time, because when he passed the storekeepers sittingoutside their stores, he could tell they regarded him highly. He walked erect, and though he did not say much to them, or they to him, he could feel approval on all sides. A couple of nights he felt so good that he skipped the park at the end of the evening. He just wandered in the neighborhood, where people had known him from the time he was a kid playing punchball whenever there was a game of it going; he wandered there, then came home and got undressed for bed, feeling fine.
For a few weeks he had talked only once with Mr. Cattanzara, and though the change maker had said nothing more about the books, asked no questions, his silence made George a little uneasy. For a while George didn’t pass in front of Mr. Cattanzara’s house anymore, until one night, forgetting himself, he approached it from a different direction than he usually did when he did. It was already past midnight. The street, except for one or two people, was deserted, and George was surprised when he saw Mr. Cattanzara still reading his newspaper by the light of the street lamp overhead. His impulse was to stop at the stoop and talk to him. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, though he felt the words would come when he began to talk; but the more he thought about it, the more the idea scared him, and he decided he’d better not. He even considered beating it home by another street, but he was too near Mr. Cattanzara and the change maker might see him as he ran, and get annoyed. So George unobtrusively crossed the street, trying to make it seem as if he had to look in a store window on the other side, which he did, and then went on, uncomfortable at what he was doing. He feared Mr. Cattanzara would glance up from his paper and call him a dirty rat for walking on the other side of the street, but all he did was sit there, sweating through his undershirt, his bald head shining in the dim light as he read his Times, and upstairs his fat wife leaned out of the window, seeming to read the paper along with him. George thought she would spy him and yell out to Mr. Cattanzara, but she never moved her eyes off her husband.
George made up his mind to stay away from the change maker until he had got some of his softback books read, but when he started them and saw they were mostly story books, he lost his interest and didn’t bother to finish them. He lost his interest in reading other things too. Sophie’s magazines and newspapers went unread. She saw them piling up on a chair in his room and asked why he was no longer looking at them, and George told her it was because of all the other reading he had to do. Sophie said she had guessed that was it. So for most of the day, George had the radio on, turning to music when he was sick of the human voice. He kept the house fairly neat, and Sophie said nothing on the days when he neglected it. She was still kind and gave him his extra buck, though things weren’t so good for him asthey had been before.
But they were good enough, considering. Also his night walks invariably picked him up, no matter how bad the day was. Then one night George saw Mr. Cattanzara coming down the street toward him. George was about to turn and run but he recognized from Mr. Cattanzara’s walk that he was drunk, and if so, probably he would not even bother to notice him. So George kept on walking straight ahead until he came abreast of Mr. Caftanzara and though he felt wound up enough to pop into the sky, he was not surprised when Mr. Cattanzara passed him without a word, walking slowly, his face and body stiff. George drew a breath in relief at his narrow escape, when he heard his name called, and there stood Mr. Cattanzara at his elbow, smelling like the inside of a beer barrel. His eyes were sad as he gazed at George, and George felt so intensely uncomfortable he was tempted to shove the drunk aside and continue on his walk.
But he couldn’t act that way to him, and, besides, Mr. Cattanzara took a nickel out of his pants pocket and handed it to him.
"Go buy yourself a lemon ice, Georgie."
"It’s not that time anymore, Mr. Cattanzara," George said, "I am a big guy now."
"No, you ain’t," said Mr. Cattanzara, to which George made no reply he could think of.
"How are all your books comin’ along now?" Mr. Cattanzara asked. Though he tried to stand steady, he swayed a little.
"Fine, I guess," said George, feeling the red crawling up his face.
"You ain’t sure?" The change maker smiled slyly, a way George had never seen him smile.
"Sure I’m sure. They’re fine."
Though his head swayed in little arcs, Mr. Cattanzara’s eyes were steady. He had small blue eyes which could hurt if you looked at them too long.
"George," he said, "name me one book on that list that you read this summer, and I will drink to your health."
"I don’t want anybody drinking to me."
"Name me one so I can ask you a question on it. Who can tell, if it’s a good book maybe I might wanna read it myself."
George knew he looked passable on the outside, but inside he was crumbling apart.
Unable to reply, he shut his eyes, but when-years later-he opened them, he saw that Mr. Cattanzara had, out of pity, gone away, but in his ears he still heard the words he had said when he had left: "George, don’t do what I did."
The next night he was afraid to leave his room, and though Sophie argued with him he wouldn’t open the door.
"What are you doing in there?" she asked.
"Aren’t you reading?"
She was silent a minute, then asked, "Where do you keep the books you read? I never see any in your room outside of a few cheap trashy ones."
He wouldn’t tell her.
"In that case you’re not worth a buck of my hard-earned money. Why should I break my back for you? Go on out, you bum, and get a job."
He stayed in his room for almost a week, except to sneak into the kitchen when nobody was home. Sophie railed at him, then begged him to come out, and his old father wept, but George wouldn’t budge, though the weather was terrible and his small room stifling. He found it very hard to breathe, each breath was like drawing a flame into his lungs.
One night, unable to stand the heat anymore, he burst into the street at one a.m., a shadow of himself. He hoped to sneak to the park without being seen, but there were people all over the block, wilted and listless, waiting for a breeze. George lowered his eyes and walked, in disgrace, away from them, but before long he discovered they were still friendly to him. He figured Mr. Cattanzara hadn’t told on him. Maybe when he woke up out of his drunk the next morning, he had forgotten all about meeting George. George felt his confidence slowly come back to him.
That same night a man on a street corner asked him if it was true that he had finished reading so many books, and George admitted he had. The man said it was a wonderful thing for a boy his age to read so much.
"Yeah," George said, but he felt relieved. He hoped nobody would mention the books anymore, and when, after a couple of days, he accidentally met Mr. Cattanzara again, he didn’t, though George had the idea he was the one who had started the rumor that he had finished all the books.
One evening in the fall, George ran out of his house to the library, where he hadn’t been in years. There were books all over the place, wherever he looked, and though he was struggling to control an inward trembling, he easily counted off a hundred, then sat down at a table to read.