“The Loan,” by Bernard Malamud, is one heck of a sobering short story about human need (and more). An unhappy friend, Kobotsky, asks Leib, a Jewish baker, for a loan of two hundred dollars to purchase a headstone for his wife’s grave. Leib’s wife strongly opposes this, mostly due to all the bills imposed on the couple. Kobotsky, to be sure, has had a hard time of it, but Leib’s wife can one-up the man as the subject of the known suffering of the Jews emerges in the story. There has been severe deprivation for the wife (“the Bolsheviki came when she was a little girl and dragged her beloved father into the snowy fields without his shoes”).

This is one of Malamud’s breezy, strikingly luminous stories, like “The Magic Barrel.” More luminous than “In Retirement.” Its breeziness, however, quickly takes us back to the dire matters at hand, to brass tacks.