Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers

Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers

by Stanley Elkin

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“This imagination of Elkin’s sneaks up, tickles, surprises, shocks, and kills. It makes stories that are deadly funny.” —The New York Times

Each of the nine short stories collected here feature two types of people—the troubled and the troublemakers. In “The Guest,” a homeless man gleefully takes credit for a robbery he did not commit. “In the Alley” tells the story of a terminally ill man who begrudgingly outlives his initial prognosis. And the satiric “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe” features a charismatic salesman auctioning off his life’s possessions in order to determine his value in the world. Laced with wit, Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers is a keenly observed collection that puts Elkin’s comic artistry on full display. This ebook features rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate and from the Stanley Elkin archives at Washington University in St. Louis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453204146
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 10/26/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Stanley Elkin (1930–1995) was an award-winning author of novels, short stories, and essays. Born in the Bronx, Elkin received his BA and PhD from the University of Illinois and in 1960 became a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis where he taught until his death. His critically acclaimed works include the National Book Critics Circle Award–winners George Mills (1982) and Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), as well as the National Book Award finalists The Dick Gibson Show (1972), Searches and Seizures (1974), and The MacGuffin (1991). His book of novellas, Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Award.

Stanley Elkin (1930–1995) was an award-winning author of novels, short stories, and essays. Born in the Bronx, Elkin received his BA and PhD from the University of Illinois and in 1960 became a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis where he taught until his death. His critically acclaimed works include the National Book Critics Circle Award–winners George Mills (1982) and Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995), as well as the National Book Award finalists The Dick Gibson Show (1972), Searches and Seizures (1974), and The MacGuffin (1991). His book of novellas, Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Award.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Greenspahn cursed the steering wheel shoved like the hard edge of someone's hand against his stomach. Goddamn lousy cars, he thought. Forty-five hundred dollars and there's not room to breathe. He thought sourly of the smiling salesman who had sold it to him, calling him Jake all the time he had been in the showroom: Lousy podler. He slid across the seat, moving carefully as though he carried something fragile, and eased his big body out of the car. Seeing the parking meter, he experienced a dark rage. They don't let you live, he thought. I'll put your nickels in the meter for you, Mr. Greenspahn, he mimicked the Irish cop. Two dollars a week for the lousy grubber. Plus the nickels that were supposed to go into the meter. And they talked about the Jews. He saw the cop across the street writing out a ticket. He went around his car, carefully pulling at the handle of each door, and he started toward his store.

    "Hey there, Mr. Greenspahn," the cop called.

    He turned to look at him. "Yeah?"

    "Good morning."

    "Yeah. Yeah. Good morning."

    The grubber came toward him from across the street. Uniforms, Greenspahn thought, only a fool wears a uniform.

   "Fine day, Mr. Greenspahn," the cop said.

    Greenspahn nodded grudgingly.

    "I was sorry to hear about your trouble, Mr. Greenspahn. Did you get my card?"

    "Yeah, I got it.Thanks."He remembered something with flowers on it and rays going up to a pink Heaven. A picture of a cross yet.

    "I wanted to come out to the chapel but the brother-in-law was up from Cleveland. I couldn't make it."

    "Yeah," Greenspahn said. "Maybe next time."

    The cop looked stupidly at him, and Greenspahn reached into his pocket.

    "No. No. Don't worry about that, Mr. Greenspahn. I'll take care of it for now. Please, Mr. Greenspahn, forget it this time. It's okay."

    Greenspahn felt like giving him the money anyway. Don't mourn for me, podler, he thought. Keep your two dollars' worth of grief.

    The cop turned to go. "Well, Mr. Greenspahn, there's nothing anybody can say at times like this, but you know how I feel. You got to go on living, don't you know."

    "Sure," Greenspahn said. "That's right, Officer." The cop crossed the street and finished writing the ticket. Greenspahn looked after him angrily, watching the gun swinging in the holster at his hip, the sun flashing brightly on the shiny handcuffs. Podler, he thought, afraid for his lousy nickels. There'll be an extra parking space sooner than he thinks.

    He walked toward his store. He could have parked by his own place but out of habit he left his car in front of a rival grocer's. It was an old and senseless spite. Tomorrow he would change. What difference did it make, one less parking space? Why should he walk?

    He felt bloated, heavy. The bowels, he thought. I got to move them soon or I'll bust. He looked at the street vacantly, feeling none of the old excitement. What did he come back for, he wondered suddenly, sadly. He missed Harold. Oh my God. Poor Harold, he thought. I'll never see him again. I'll never see my son again. He was choking, a big pale man beating his fist against his chest in grief. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. That was the way it was, he thought. He would go along flat and empty and dull, and all of a sudden he would dissolve in a heavy, choking grief. The street was no place for him. His wife was crazy, he thought, swiftly angry. "Be busy. Be busy," she said. What was he, a kid, that because he was making up somebody's lousy order everything would fly out of his mind? The bottom dropped out of his life and he was supposed to go along as though nothing had happened. His wife and the cop, they had the same psychology. Like in the movies after the horse kicks your head in you're supposed to get up and ride him so he can throw you off and finish the job. If he could get a buyer he would sell, and that was the truth.

    Mechanically he looked into the windows he passed. The displays seemed foolish to him now, petty. He resented the wooden wedding cakes, the hollow watches. The manikins were grotesque, giant dolls. Toys, he thought bitterly. Toys. That he used to enjoy the displays himself, had even taken a peculiar pleasure in the complicated tiers of cans, in the amazing pyramids of apples and oranges in his own window, seemed incredible to him. He remembered he had liked to look at the little living rooms in the window of the furniture store, the wax models sitting on the couches offering each other tea. He used to look at the expensive furniture and think, Merchandise. The word had sounded rich to him, and mysterious. He used to think of camels on a desert, their bellies slung with heavy ropes. On their backs they carried merchandise. What did it mean, any of it? Nothing. It meant nothing.

    He was conscious of someone watching him.

    "Hello, Jake."

    It was Margolis from the television shop.

    "Hello, Margolis. How are you?"

"Business is terrible. You picked a hell of a time to come back."

    A man's son dies and Margolis says business is terrible. Margolis, he thought, jerk, son of a bitch.

"You can't close up a minute. You don't know when somebody might come in. I didn't take coffee since you left," Margolis said.

    "You had it rough, Margolis. You should have said something, I would have sent some over."

    Margolis smiled helplessly, remembering the death of Greenspahn's son.

    "It's okay, Margolis." He felt his anger tug at him again. It was something he would have to watch, a new thing with him but already familiar, easily released, like something on springs.

    "Jake," Margolis whined.

    "Not now, Margolis," he said angrily. He had to get away from him. He was like a little kid, Greenspahn thought. His face was puffy, swollen, like a kid about to cry. He looked so meek. He should be holding a hat in his hand. He couldn't stand to look at him. He was afraid Margolis was going to make a speech. He didn't want to hear it. What did he need a speech? His son was in the ground. Under all that earth. Under all that dirt. In a metal box. Airtight, the funeral director told him. Oh my God, air-tight. Vacuum-sealed. Like a can of coffee. His son was in the ground and on the street the models in the windows had on next season's dresses. He would hit Margolis in his face if he said one word.

    Margolis looked at him and nodded sadly, turning his palms out as if to say, "I know. I know." Margolis continued to look at him and Greenspahn thought, He's taking into account, that's what he's doing. He's taking into account the fact that my son has died. He's figuring it in and making apologies for me, making an allowance, like he was doing an estimate in his head what to charge a customer.

    "I got to go, Margolis."

    "Sure, me too," Margolis said, relieved. "I'll see you, Jake. The man from R.C.A. is around back with a shipment. What do I need it?"

    Greenspahn walked to the end of the block and crossed the street. He looked down the side street and saw the shul where that evening he would say prayers for his son.

    He came to his store, seeing it with distaste. He looked at the signs, like the balloons in comic strips where they put the words, stuck inside against the glass, the letters big and red like it was the end of the world, the big whitewash numbers on the glass thickly. A billboard, he thought.

    He stepped up to the glass door and looked in. Frank, his produce man, stood by the fruit and vegetable bins taking the tissue paper off the oranges. His butcher, Arnold, was at the register talking to Shirley, the cashier. Arnold saw him through the glass and waved extravagantly. Shirley came to the door and opened it. "Good morning there, Mr. Greenspahn," she said.

    "Hey, Jake, how are you?" Frank said.

    "How's it going, Jake?" Arnold said.

    "Was Siggie in yet? Did you tell him about the cheese?"

    "He ain't yet been in this morning, Jake," Frank said.

    "How about the meat? Did you place the order?"

    "Sure, Jake," Arnold said. "I called the guy Thursday."

    "Where are the receipts?" he asked Shirley.

    "I'll get them for you, Mr. Greenspahn. You already seen them for the first two weeks you were gone. I'll get last week's."

    She handed him a slip of paper. It was four hundred and seventy dollars off the last week's low figure. They must have had a picnic, Greenspahn thought. No more though. He looked at them, and they watched him with interest. "So," he said. "So."

    "Nice to have you back, Mr. Greenspahn," Shirley told him, smiling.

    "Yeah," he said, "yeah."

    "We got a shipment yesterday, Jake, but the schvartze showed up drunk. We couldn't get it all put up," Frank said.

    Greenspahn nodded. "The figures are low," he said.

    "It's business. Business has been terrible. I figure it's the strike," Frank said.

    "In West Virginia the miners are out and you figure that's why my business is bad in this neighborhood?"

    "There are repercussions," Frank said. "All industries are affected."

    "Yeah," Greenspahn said, "yeah. The pretzel industry. The canned chicken noodle soup industry."

    "Well, business has been lousy, Jake," Arnold said testily.

    "I guess maybe it's so bad, now might be a good time to sell. What do you think?" Greenspahn said.

    "Are you really thinking of selling, Jake?" Frank asked.

    "You want to buy my place, Frank?"

    "You know I don't have that kind of money, Jake," Frank said uneasily.

    "Yeah," Greenspahn said, "yeah."

    Frank looked at him, and Greenspahn waited for him to say something else, but in a moment he turned and went back to the oranges. Some thief, Greenspahn thought. Big shot. I insulted him.

    "I got to change," he said to Shirley. "Call me if Siggie comes in."

    He went into the toilet off the small room at the rear of the store. He reached for the clothes he kept there on a hook on the back of the door and saw, hanging over his own clothes, a woman's undergarments. A brassiere hung by one cup over his trousers. What is it here, a locker room? Does she take baths in the sink? he thought. Fastidiously he tried to remove his own clothes without touching the other garments, but he was clumsy, and the underwear, together with his trousers, tumbled in a heap to the floor. They looked, lying there, strangely obscene to him, as though two people, desperately in a hurry, had dropped them quickly and were somewhere near him even now, perhaps behind the very door, making love. He picked up his trousers and changed his clothes. Taking a hanger from a pipe under the sink, he hung the clothes he had worn to work and put the hanger on the hook. He stooped to pick up Shirley's underwear. Placing it on the hook, his hand rested for a moment on the brassiere. He was immediately ashamed. He was terribly tired. He put his head through the loop of his apron and tied the apron behind the back of the old blue sweater he wore even in summer. He turned the sink's single tap and rubbed his eyes with water. Bums, he thought. Bums. You put up mirrors to watch the customers so they shouldn't get away with a stick of gum, and in the meanwhile Frank and Arnold walk off with the whole store. He sat down to try to move his bowels and the apron hung down from his chest like a barber's sheet. He spread it across his knees. I must look like I'm getting a haircut, he thought irrelevantly. He looked suspiciously at Shirley's underwear. My movie star. He wondered if it was true what Arnold told him, that she used to be a 26-girl. Something was going on between her and that Arnold. Two bums, he thought. He knew they drank together after work. That was one thing, bad enough, but were they screwing around in the back of the store? Arnold had a family. You couldn't trust a young butcher. It was too much for him. Why didn't he just sell and get the hell out? Did he have to look for grief? Was he making a fortune that he had to put up with it? It was crazy. All right, he thought, a man in business, there were things a man in business put up with. But this? It was crazy. Everywhere he was beset by thieves and cheats. They kept pushing him, pushing him. What did it mean? Why did they do it? All right, he thought, when Harold was alive was it any different? No, of course not, he knew plenty then too. But it didn't make as much difference. Death is an education, he thought. Now there wasn't any reason to put up with it. What did he need it? On the street, in the store, he saw everything. Everything. It was as if everybody else were made out of glass. Why all of a sudden was he like that?

    Why? he thought. Jerk, because they're hurting you, that's why.

    He stood up and looked absently into the toilet. "Maybe I need a laxative," he said aloud. Troubled, he left the toilet.

    In the back room, his "office," he stood by the door to the toilet and looked around. Stacked against one wall he saw four or five cases of soups and canned vegetables. Against the meat locker he had pushed a small table, his desk. He went to it to pick up a pencil. Underneath the telephone was a pad of note paper. Something about it caught his eye and he picked up the pad. On the top sheet was writing, his son's. He used to come down on Saturdays sometimes when they were busy; evidently this was an order he had taken down over the phone. He looked at the familiar writing and thought his heart would break. Harold, Harold, he thought. My God, Harold, you're dead. He touched the sprawling, hastily written letters, the carelessly spelled words, and thought absently, He must have been busy. I can hardly read it. He looked at it more closely. "He was in a hurry," he said, starting to sob. "My God, he was in a hurry." He tore the sheet from the pad, and folding it, put it into his pocket. In a minute he was able to walk back out into the store.

    In the front Shirley was talking to Siggie, the cheese man. Seeing him up there leaning casually on the counter, Greenspahn felt a quick anger. He walked up the aisle toward him.

    Siggie saw him coming. "Shalom, Jake," he called.

    "I want to talk to you."

    "Is it important, Jake, because I'm in some terrific hurry. I still got deliveries."

    "What did you leave me?"

    "The same, Jake. The same. A couple pounds blue. Some Swiss. Delicious," he said, smacking his lips.

    "I been getting complaints, Siggie."

    "From the Americans, right? Your average American don't know from cheese. It don't mean nothing." He turned to go.

    "Siggie, where you running?"

    "Jake, I'll be back tomorrow. You can talk to me about it."


    He turned reluctantly. "What's the matter?"

    "You're leaving old stuff. Who's your wholesaler?"

    "Jake, Jake," he said. "We already been over this. I pick up the returns, don't I?"

    "That's not the point."

    "Have you ever lost a penny on account of me?"

    "Siggie, who's your wholesaler? Where do you get the stuff?"

    "I'm cheaper than the dairy, right? Ain't I cheaper than the dairy? Come on, Jake. What do you want?"

    "Siggie, don't be a jerk. Who are you talking to? Don't be a jerk. You leave me cheap, crummy cheese, the dairies are ready to throw it away. I get everybody else's returns. It's old when I get it. Do you think a customer wants a cheese it goes off like a bomb two days after she gets it home? And what about the customers who don't return it? They think I'm gypping them and they don't come back. I don't want the schlak stuff. Give me fresh or I'll take from somebody else."

    "I couldn't give you fresh for the same price, Jake. You know that."

    "The same price."

    "Jake," he said, amazed.

    "The same price. Come on, Siggie, don't screw around with me."

    "Talk to me tomorrow. We'll work something out." He turned to go.

    "Siggie," Greenspahn called after him. "Siggie." He was already out of the store. Greenspahn clenched his fists. "The bum," he said.

    "He's always in a hurry, that guy," Shirley said.

    "Yeah, yeah," Greenspahn said. He started to cross to the cheese locker to see what Siggie had left him.

    "Say, Mr. Greenspahn," Shirley said, "I don't think I have enough change."

    "Where's the schvartze? Send him to the bank."

    "He ain't come in yet. Shall I run over?"

    Greenspahn poked his fingers in the cash drawer. "You got till he comes," he said.

    "Well," she said, "if you think so."

    "What do we do, a big business in change? I don't see customers stumbling over each other in the aisles."

    "I told you, Jake," Arnold said, coming up behind him. "It's business. Business is lousy. People ain't eating."

    "Here," Greenspahn said, "give me ten dollars. I'll go myself." He turned to Arnold. "I seen some stock in the back. Put it up, Arnold."

    "I should put up the stock?" Arnold said.

    "You told me yourself, business is lousy. Are you here to keep off the streets or something? What is it?"

    "What do you pay the schvartze for?"

    "He ain't here," Greenspahn said. "When he comes in I'll have him cut up some meat, you'll be even."

    He took the money and went out into the street. It was lousy, he thought. You had to be able to trust them or you could go crazy. Every retailer had the same problem; he winked his eye and figured, All right, so I'll allow a certain percentage for shrinkage. You made it up on the register. But in his place it was ridiculous. They were professionals. Like the Mafia or something. What did it pay to aggravate himself, his wife would say. Now he was back he could watch them. Watch them. He couldn't stand even to be in the place. They thought they were getting away with something, the podlers.

    He went into the bank. He saw the ferns. The marble tables where the depositors made out their slips. The calendars, carefully changed each day. The guard, a gun on his hip and a white carnation in his uniform. The big safe, thicker than a wall, shiny and open, in the back behind the sturdy iron gate. The tellers behind their cages, small and quiet, as though they went about barefooted. The bank officers, gray-haired and well dressed, comfortable at their big desks, solidly official behind their engraved name-plates. That was something, he thought. A bank. A bank was something. And no shrinkage.

    He gave his ten-dollar bill to a teller to be changed.

    "Hello there, Mr. Greenspahn. How are you this morning? We haven't seen you lately," the teller said.

    "I haven't been in my place for three weeks," Greenspahn said.

    "Say," the teller said, "that's quite a vacation."

    "My son passed away."

    "I didn't know," the teller said. "I'm very sorry, sir."

    He took the rolls the teller handed him and stuffed them into his pocket. "Thank you," he said.

    The street was quiet. It looks like a Sunday, he thought. There would be no one in the store. He saw his reflection in a window he passed and realized he had forgotten to take his apron off. It occurred to him that the apron somehow gave him the appearance of being very busy. An apron did that, he thought. Not a business suit so much. Unless there was a briefcase. A briefcase and an apron, they made you look busy. A uniform wouldn't. Soldiers didn't look busy, policemen didn't. A fireman did, but he had to have that big hat on. Schmo, he thought, a man your age walking in the street in an apron. He wondered if the vice-presidents at the bank had noticed his apron. He felt the heaviness again.

    He was restless, nervous, disappointed in things.

    He passed the big plate window of "The Cookery," the restaurant where he ate his lunch, and the cashier waved at him, gesturing that he should come in. He shook his head. For a moment when he saw her hand go up he thought he might go in. The men would be there, the other business people, drinking cups of coffee, cigarettes smearing the saucers, their sweet rolls cut into small, precise sections. Even without going inside he knew what it would be like. The criers and the kibitzers. The criers, earnest, complaining with a peculiar vigor about their businesses, their gas mileage, their health; their despair articulate, dependably lamenting their lives, vaguely mourning conditions, their sorrow something they could expect no one to understand. The kibitzers, deaf to grief, winking confidentially at the others, their voices high-pitched in kidding or lowered in conspiracy to tell of triumphs, of men they knew downtown, of tickets fixed, or languishing goods moved suddenly and unexpectedly, of the windfall that was life; their fingers sticky, smeared with the sugar from their rolls.

    What did he need them, he thought. Big shots. What did they know about anything? Did they lose sons?

    He went back to his place and gave Shirley the silver.

    "Is the schvartze in yet?" he asked.

    "No, Mr. Greenspahn."

    I'll dock him, he thought. I'll dock him.

    He looked around and saw that there were several people in the store. It wasn't busy, but there was more activity than he had expected. Young housewives from the university. Good shoppers, he thought. Good customers. They knew what they could spend and that was it. There was no monkey business about prices. He wished his older customers would take lessons from them. The ones who came in wearing their fur coats and who thought because they knew him from his old place that entitled them to special privileges. In a supermarket. Privileges. Did A&P give discounts? The National? What did they want from him?

    He walked around straightening the shelves. Well, he thought, at least it wasn't totally dead. If they came in like this all day he might make a few pennies. A few pennies, he thought. A few dollars. What difference does it make?

    A salesman was talking to him when he saw her. The man was trying to tell him something about a new product, some detergent, ten cents off on the box, something, but Greenspahn couldn't take his eyes off her.

    "Can I put you down for a few trial cases, Mr. Greenspahn? In Detroit when the stores put it on the shelves ..."

    "No," Greenspahn interrupted him. "Not now. It don't sell. I don't want it."

    "But, Mr. Greenspahn, I'm trying to tell you. This is something new. It hasn't been on the market more than three weeks."

    "Later, later," Greenspahn said. "Talk to Frank, don't bother me."

    He left the salesman and followed the woman up the aisle, stopping when she stopped, turning to the shelves, pretending to adjust them. One egg, he thought. She touches one egg, I'll throw her out.

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  • PREFACE by Stanley Elkin

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