The Young Man, A Short Story By James Oppenheim

This is the time of year that unfortunately brings out this suicidal sentiment in people:

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Well hold on. You’re not really in any hurry, are you? Have a read of this story and maybe you’ll change your mind.

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A young man was digging in a huge medical book in the tiny kitchen. He was in his undershirt, which clung to him, dripping wet, and showed a frail, narrow-chested and sunken body. In the blaze of the gas-jet his thin face looked fearfully white under rough and mussed brown hair. About his burning eyes were rings of sleeplessness and exhaustion.

He was hardly studying in that narrow inside room. A helpless rage made him tremble, and now and then, in a burst of despair, he put his hand to his mouth and bit deep at the fleshy part between thumb and first finger. For it seemed to him as if the millions of the city had risen in a roaring storm about him; a crazy whirlwind of cries and shrieks and calls and laughter; a fury that increased with the heat of the midsummer evening. The tenement, up and down, was a bedlam of disorder; and in the small adjoining room there were four of his relatives making shrill noise.

The toothless and skinny grandmother sat at the edge of one of the iron beds; the young man’s father, stocky, hard-headed, sat at a window; Eva, the cross-eyed, fat, good-natured little girl of twelve, stood leaning at the table; and striding up and down went a gaudy, painted woman—the disgrace of the family.

There were two beds in that back room, one for the grandmother and Eva; the other for the painted woman, who was the father’s sister. The father and his son slept on the floor of the kitchen.

Up and down went the painted woman— very pitiable, for she was wasted by disease, carefully hidden in cheap finery and rouge. Her wide nose, her bold black eyes, her thick lips, and the heavy coils of her false hair, gave her face a coarse stamp. Eva watched her carelessly; her Aunt Jennie was a familiar part of her life.

Jennie paused before the father and spoke in a voice plainly heard by the young man:

“Sam, you’re a fool! Why don’t you set Nahan to work? A fine mess here! Not enough to eat!”

Sam shrugged his heavy shoulders, and puffed on an ugly short pipe.

“You set him to work, if you can. Anybody can talk.”

The grandmother began to whine.

“Oi! oi! oi!” She rocked back and forth. “So sick! so sick! so sick!”

Jennie turned to her.

“Well,” she cried fiercely, “must I go out and earn some more money for you?”

The grandmother went on rocking herself.

“I don’t want to die. If I die, what happens to the children? So sick! so sick!”

Sam growled:

“She’s got stomach-cramps. She wants some of the red medicine. That’s what she wants.”

Eva spoke pleasantly:

“I could fix a hot bag for you, Grandma, and massage your legs.”

Jennie spoke in anger:

“It’s all Nahan’s fault — a big boy like that! Why ain’t he earning money? Studying to be a doctor — huh! He ought to be spanked and put in his place!”

Nahan rose from his book. He was trembling, and his head pained him. He felt that the end of all had come. He had no control over himself, but seemed to be a toy in the hands of something greater—a fury that used his muscles and spoke through his lips. White-faced, eyes blazing, frail body erect, he appeared in the doorway.

“You damn fools!” he burst out.

They all turned, suddenly interested, absorbed, their souls keyed tense. The fight had come.

Nahan rushed on:

“You — you blockheads!” He spoke to his father. “Not enough food, eh? Five of us live like animals in two rooms, eh? And you want to set me to work? You want to spoil my career after all these years of getting ready? After all my struggles? Now, now, when I’m just ready to begin?”

He shook his fist at Sam.

“Well, you won’t do it! Get to work yourself, you big husky fellow! Don’t you think I know? You loaf around, you bum around, you gossip, you don’t try to get any work. You could support a family of six. It’s you, you loafer!”

He paused a moment. Eva’s eyes were bulging; the grandmother shook her head; Jennie was frozen with amazement, and Sam grunted and snouted his nose. Then at last Jennie found her tongue:

“Do you know you’re talking to your father?”

“Father!” cried Nahan tragically. “Father! It’s not my fault he’s my father. I don’t thank him for letting me into this rotten world. Father! It takes more than blood to make a father!”

Sam grunted:

“He’s crazy.”

Nahan turned sharply to the grandmother.

“And you — sick, are you? I’ve told you a hundred times what’s the matter with you. You need food. You don’t get enough to eat.”

“Shut up!” cried Jennie.

He turned to her, and lifted a hand:

“Don’t talk to me, you –” He paused, and whispered: “You know what you are! And you come in here where there’s an innocent young girl –”

Jennie cut him off; she stood straight, and something magnificent went into her voice and gesture:

“Nahan! Nahan! Who pays the rent here? Who brings the food?”

Nahan stared at her, horror on his white, dripping face.

“I know,” he whispered, “but”

She came nearer:

“Now, listen to me, my grand young man. It’s I that have seen you through college. It’s what I earn.” There was a sob in her voice. “I’ve given my body, my health, my good looks, my life –” she paused — “my life, for the bunch of you.’ And soon,” her voice sank, “I’ll be good for nothing but the river. What more could I do for you? Does it matter what names you call me?”

Nahan drew nearer. He spoke under his breath:

“I won’t live on you. No, nor on any of you. You’ve spoilt my life. I –” He laughed harshly. “I’m going to kill myself!”

He turned back into the kitchen. The rear room was strangely still, as he put on his shirt, drew on his jacket, and got down his old straw hat. He passed out into the hall just as Sam appeared in the kitchen, crying:

“Nahan! Nahan!”

He trudged down the stairs. Sam called from the top: “Nahan!”

But he went on, pushing beside youngsters sprawling on the dim steps. He went out into the street, and began jostling, wedging his way through the innumerable throng. It was as if the human race had been scooped up by mighty hands and dumped in this spot from the sky down, the fire-escapes and open windows hung with people, and the huge swarm crawled all over the pavements, the gutters, the cross-streets — like a bit of rotting fruit overrun with vermin, was Nahan’s vague thought. A sweaty people, a ragged people, a push and jerk of long white beards; of perspiring faces, of odorous bodies; a getting between the legs of numberless running and shrieking children. The shops jutting onto the pavement eddied with life; the popcorn stand with its torch and shaker, the ice-cream cart, the little soda-counters open to the night, were circled black with buyers. Daubing the faces and forms were shop-lights and street-lamps — gold, milky-white, blue — and the heavens, though a reddish-yellow moon hung in haze, were forgotten.

All that Nahan knew was that he wanted to die. Just how or where he did not know. But die — get out of this — leave this racked body and tortured mind — this world of verminous people — escape, that was the word! There are suicides every day among the four million herded people, and many of them are just such overwrought Nahans. It seemed to him that from the moment of his birth he had been going to pieces, and that now the final dissolution had inevitably come. At birth he had started equal with other babies; was it his fault that he had been underfed, and so become a weak and white little child, with spells of sickness and stupidity all his school days? And yet his brain had remained feverishly active. For that he had sacrificed his body, throwing all his strength into mental work, neglecting exercise and fresh air and rest and recreation. And so he had triumphed and gone to the city college and then to the medical school. He had pulled through and graduated. He was ready for hospital-work.

But what had availed the forced march on success? His outraged body, after the manner of Nature, had turned against him. He was all “nerves”; he was so weak that an hour’s study upset his stomach; and besides he had become morbid. There were nights when he lay awake in the fear of death; watching his own breathing, the beat of his own heart and pulse, the vivid reality of his brain, and dreading horribly the annihilation to come. There were days when he was so sensitive to color that the advertisements in a street car made him nauseated, days when he was so sensitive to sound that he could not put his mind on his work. Worst of all, he was sensitive about his appearance, his clothes, and his race. Up at the college they looked down on the young Jew who was pushing his way from the Ghetto to the places of power. He belonged to a despised race.

And then the miserable poverty! The two rooms at home, the indecent crowding, the roaches and bedbugs, the whining grandmother, the shame of his aunt, the noise, the days without food, the publicity of the place, so that he had nowhere to study, nowhere to go and consult his own heart, “invite his soul.” And that deepest need of a young man — an older man who understood — was not for him. He was fighting his way alone, despised, poor, frail, sick, misunderstood. What wonder that he came to look on life as a lie, on people as animal-enemies, on death as betrayal only less terrible than the betrayal of birth?

But now he would escape. He would leap in the river, or buy a revolver, or lock himself in and turn on the gas. He feared death no longer. Life was too terrible. Could he go on living on the earnings of a prostitute? Used as he was to the shame of his aunt, familiar with it from his unquestioning child-days, to-night he realized how terrible his lot was. And why go on? Would a neurotic, sick, morbid man make a good doctor? Was he fit to be a healer? Could he bring others health, he who had none himself? And the sultry night which was setting a whole city on edge seemed the final argument in his self-arraignment.

Die — he would die! He would end the sordid tale! Jennie should cease to earn money for him; he would get out of the way; there would be one mouth less to feed, one body less to house and clothe.

Driven by these wild thoughts, he turned out of the side-street and into tiny Seward Park, that breathing space in the crowded Ghetto, that square open to the sky and the air. But the lines of benches and the walks were thick with people — mothers, babies, children, men — so packed together under the white lights and between the high iron fences that they were as badly off as in the streets. Endless crowded city! Where was there in all the hundred thousand acres a nook of quiet and peace and cool seclusion?

Nahan went on wildly, a strange sight — his hat tilted back on the overflowing hair, his face more haggard than he could know, his shirt collarless and open at the neck, his whole face and bearing distorted and abnormal.

Suddenly his mind was made up:

“I’ll fling myself in the river!”

He abruptly left the park and walked east along the narrow crowded side street. This was his last walk. To-morrow they would fish up his body, and then they would know what ruin they had wrought. He hurried feverishly, and was a little angry when he found his way impeded by a compact crowd on the pavement that seemed to encircle some object of unusual interest. He tried to force his way through, when, startlingly, a deep bass voice boomed through the air above the noise and chatter:

“Is there a doctor in this crowd?”

He stopped. By a swift flash he realized that he was a doctor, and that here was a dire need of his services. Almost involuntarily he cried out shrilly:

“I’m a doctor. Let me see.”

At once the crowd parted for him, though many turning about and seeing that strange disheveled young man, were rather dubious. A woman, in ragged clothes, was lying against the stoop, and over her stood a large, heavy-set man. This man looked at Nahan suspiciously.

“You a doctor?”

The doubt in the man’s voice touched some hidden spring of pride. Nahan straightened up.

“I’m Dr. Mahler,” he said sharply. “Let me see the woman.” He wheeled on the crowd and raised his voice. “Get back, will you? Give her some air. Get back!”

There was authority in the voice. All these years Nahan had been training for just this. He knelt swiftly beside the moaning, ragged woman.

“Shall I ring for an ambulance?” asked the big man.

“No hospital!” shrieked the woman. “No hospital!”

Nahan was not an experienced doctor. He leaned close.

“Hush! It’s all right!” He looked up and spoke hard. “There’s a child coming. We need a room — a bed!” Then he stood up, desperate.

“Any place here we can take this woman?” A fat, slovenly woman answered him:

“Ya — take her in my place — right in dis house, Doktor — right on the right, ground floor — right in dere!”

“Catch hold of her, you!”

The big man, and another, seized the woman, and Nahan caught her under one arm and they carried her into that vile, dark house, and into a cramped, smothering bedroom and laid her on the bed. The fat woman lit the gas, revealing the squalor and confusion of the crowded room. The woman on the bed whined pitifully. Nahan turned fiercely on the men:

“Hurry out!”

And then to the fat woman: “Hot water — quick! And keep people out!”

He flung off his coat and hat; he rolled up his sleeves. And then he plunged into the fight.

For four mortal hours that battle lasted — four mysterious hours while the woman shrieked, and Nahan, forgetful of self, absorbed in his work, concentrating all his forces on the life of mother and child, toiled terribly over a woman he had never seen before — a woman picked up in the streets. And the fat woman, mother of five children, was there at his side, silent, watchful, helpful, with quick practical suggestions, with deft assistance. Nahan, who for four years had been facing theories, now faced a reality. He suddenly found a huge responsibility resting on his shoulders; it was he who was in charge, he who had to win, he who had to bring the mother and child through alive. At one moment he was panic-stricken. What if, after all, his theories didn’t work? But work they had to, he told himself fiercely. He could not lose. He had to swing through to success. And then he was so busy that he had no time to think. He had to act, act; do: grapple with Nature: bend every energy to his task.

And so he fought until that strange final moment when it seems as if the earth were going up in the smoke of a miracle; when the unbelievable comes true; when forth from one human body emerges another — weird, real, miraculous — and a new cry is lifted in the world.

Silent now were the streets outside; hushed was the wide city with its spread of life; and in the little room a young man stood, bowed over the back of a chair, wilted, white, and stunned. He looked down on the bed, where lay a quiet woman and a quiet baby, side by side. The victory had been won. The child, the mother lived.

And the young man, gazing on that sight, had his first great experience of life — felt the mystery, the wonder, the power brooding over all, the great creativeness of the world, the reality of which he was a part.

“Ya,” he heard the fat woman sob, “a little girl! A little girl!”

He put on his coat and hat; he stumbled into the front room. Children, two men, and a young woman crowded about him. They were laughing and crying. And the fat woman spoke in his ear:

“You a good doktor! a very fine doktor! Where do you live?”

He turned dazedly:

“I’ll be in to-morrow!”

He looked around at those human faces. And suddenly a sweet and sharp pang visited his heart. What, were these people vermin? These people gave up their bed for a woman picked up in the street? These people who wept over the stranger and the new child? Were these “vermin”?

He went out into the empty sidewalk: he passed beneath the lonely lamps. The sinking moon hung reddish-yellow down the street. His footsteps echoed among the silent walls, and gazing up he saw dark, sleeping forms on the fire-escapes.

And then he knew. He knew that he was not alone in trouble; not alone in poverty and tragedy. He knew that he was one of a mighty people. He had a new sense of the miracle of life: the mystery and joy and depth of human nature. And more, he knew now that he had been a failure; he had fled from life, until that moment when responsibility had been thrust upon him. He rose to the occasion: he forged realities out of theories: he was graduating in the school of hard facts. And he found that he was thrilling with the joy of it — thrilling with the light of life. This it was to be a man — to swing into the fight, to overcome, to achieve, to pull victory out of defeat.

And he looked back on his thought of suicide as a thought of a demented boy. Suicide? While life held so much? such possibilities? such battles? such heroism? such love and miracles? Though he trembled now with sheer physical exhaustion, he knew that those four hours of forgetting self, of self-expression, of hard fight had made him over.

And then, as he tramped down the dark, familiar street, he thought of his father, his grandmother, and Eva and Jennie. Something choked his throat. He saw their narrow lives, their struggles, their efforts to help him through school. Did they squabble and make noise? Yes, but at the same time, quietly and effectively, they cleared his way for him. And suddenly it seemed to him that Jennie had something of grandeur in her make-up. Vulgar she was, lost, a woman of the streets; but he knew something of her story, of how she had been betrayed and kept down by poverty; and in the light of this, her efforts to help the family and to help him seemed to reveal a secret beauty, something unlost, unspoiled, in her very human nature.

Full of these thoughts he hurried up the steps. To-morrow he would speak to them. Then, in amazement, he stopped. The door was open, the lights still burning. He rushed in. The four were still up, haggard, visibly frightened, the father walking up and down. They leaped up as he entered. ^

“Nahan!” cried the father. “Nahan!^

“Father!” he cried.

The grandmother sobbed:

“I knew Nahan come back!”

Little Eva clung to him, weeping.

And Jennie whispered in his ear:

“I know, Nahan, I hadn’t ought to be here, on account of Eva. I’ll live somewhere else. And Sam — Sam’ll work.”

Nahan spoke with breaking voice:

“Father, give me a few years more, and I’ll help you all!”

And through his voice leaked a great fact. He was a boy no longer. He was a man.

*   *   *

— originally published in a 1911 issue of The American Magazine (from which I took the illustrations), this story is also available as part of a collection called Pay Envelopes: Tales of the Mill, the Mine and the City Street. Hit this Internet Archive link to get a free copy.

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