The First Seven Years

by Bernard Malamud

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Feld the shoemaker and his assistant Sobel are working at their benches on a snowy February day. Feld thinks about Max, a young man he admires for his dedication to pursuing his education. He contrasts Max’s determination with the lack of interest his daughter Miriam shows in education.

At that moment Max brings in a pair of shoes for repair. Feld takes him aside, out of Sobel’s hearing, and asks whether Max would like to meet Miriam. After Max sees a picture of Miriam and asks a few questions about her, he agrees to get in touch with her. Feld gives him Miriam’s telephone number. Feld decides to repair the shoes at a reduced price although he does not tell Max of his generosity. Later that day, Sobel pounds so hard on the last (the wooden mold of the human foot on which shoes are built or repaired) that he breaks it. He then grabs his coat and rushes outside, quitting his job.

Sobel’s departure leaves Feld in an unfortunate situation. He cannot run the business entirely by himself. He remembers how, five years earlier, he had had a heart attack and would have had to sell the business had it not been for Sobel, a Polish refugee, who appeared and begged him for work. Feld took him on and Sobel soon learned how to run the business. Feld trusted him. Sobel, although uneducated, spent his spare time reading, and was in the habit of lending his books to Miriam. Although he earned little, he showed no desire to secure a betterpaying job.

One week later, Feld seeks out Sobel in his rooming house, but the landlady tells him Sobel is not at home. Feld does not believe her. He decides to hire a new assistant, and although the new man is not as proficient as Sobel, Feld is satisfied. He also learns that, on Friday, Max is to have his first date with Miriam.

When Miriam returns from her date, Feld meets her in the kitchen. Miriam reports that she and Max went for a walk, but she is noncommittal about whether she likes him. Feld, though disappointed, is consoled by the fact that Miriam has accepted a second date with Max, eight days later. On that occasion, Feld waits up for Miriam to return. But Miriam confesses she was bored by Max’s company, and does not plan to see him again.

Max does not call again, and he starts to take a different route to school, avoiding Feld’s house. Then one afternoon he returns for his shoes and the transaction is completed without Miriam’s name being mentioned.

That night, Feld discovers that his new assistant has been stealing from him, and the shock gives him a mild heart attack. He stays in bed for three weeks, and on his first day back at work he realizes he has no option but to seek out Sobel again. He visits Sobel in his one small room, which has several stacks of books in it. Feld asks him when he will return to work and Sobel says never. Feld offers him higher wages, but Sobel does not care about money. Then Feld says he had always treated Sobel as if he were his own son, but Sobel seizes on the remark and asks Feld why, then, did he seek out boys for Miriam to go out with instead of him?

In the ensuing discussion, it transpires that the only reason Sobel worked for Feld for five years was because he was in love with Miriam. Feld had half-guessed this was the...

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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case but had not acknowledged it to himself. Sobel says that Miriam knows how he feels about her although he has never told her directly. Feld is angry and tells Sobel that he will never marry his daughter. Sobel also becomes angry but then breaks down in tears. Feld feels pity for him. He does not want Miriam to have the life of a shoemaker’s wife; he had dreamed of a better life for her. But then Feld has a change of heart. He says that if Sobel waits two more years he can then talk to Miriam about marriage.

When Feld returns to work the next morning, he finds Sobel already at his bench, working hard.