I was fourteen years old. I belonged to the fearless battalion of the theater ticket scalpers. My boss was a shark with an eye that always squinted and a large, silky mustache. his name was Kolya Shvarts. I fell in with him that dark year when the Italian Opera went bust. The impresario, swayed by the theater critics, had not sined up Anselmi and Tito Ruffo as guest stars, concentrating instead on a strong ensemble. He was punished for this, went broke, and so did we. To set things right, e were promsied Chaliapin, but Chalpiapin wanted three thousand a performance. So Di Grasso, the Sicilian tragic actor, came with his troupe instead. They were taen to their hotel in carts loaded with children, cats, and cages in which Italian birds fluttered.
"We can't push this merchandise!" Kolya Shvarts said when he saw the motley procession rolling in.
The moment the actor arrived, he went down to the bazaar with his bag. In the evening, carrying a different bag, he turned up at the theater. Barely fifty people came to the premiere. We hawked tickets at half price but could find no buyers.
That evening Di Grasso's troupe performed a Sicilian folk drama, with a plot as humdrum as night and day. The daughter of a rich peasant became engaged to a shepherd. She was true to him, until one day the squire's son came visiting from town in a velvet vest. The girl chatted with the visitor, tongue-tied and giggling at all the wrong moments. Listening to them the shepherd darted his head about like a startled bird. Throughout the whole first act he crept along walls, went off somewhere in his fluttering trousers, and then came back again, looking around shiftily.
"We have a turkey on our hands!" Kolya Shvarts said during the intermission. "This is merchandise for Kremenchug, not Odessa!"
The intermission gave the girl time to prime herself for the betrayal. In the second act she was unrecognizable. She became intolerant and dreamy, and eagerly gave back theengagement ring to the shepherd. The shepherd led her to a tawdry painted statue of the Holy Virgin
"Signorina! It is the Holy Virgin's will that you hear me out!" he said in a bass voice in Sicilian dialect, turing away from her. "The Holy Virgin will give Giovanni, the visitor from town, as many woman as he wills. But I, Signorina, need nobody but you! The Virgin Mary, our Immaculate Protectress, will tell you the same thing if you ask her."
The girl stood with her back to the painted wooden statue. As the shepherd talked, she tapped her foot impatiently. On this earth--oh, woe to us!--there isn't a woman who is not gripped by folly at the very moment when her fate is being decided. A woman is alone at such moments, with no Holy Virgin she can appeal to.
In the third act, Giovani, the visitor from town, met his fate. The village barber was shaving Giovanni as he sat with his powerful masculine legs sprawled out over the proscenium. The pleats of his vest shone beneath the Sicilian sun. The stage set portrayed a village fair. The shepherd stood in the far corner. He stood in the far corner. He stood there silently, among the carefree crowd. He hung his head, then raised it, and under the weight of his burning, fixed gaze, Giovanni began to fidget and squirm in his chair. He jumped up and pushed the barber away. In a cracking voice Giovanni demanded that the policeman remove all shady and suspicious-looking people from the village square. The shepherd--played by Di Grasso--hesitated for a moment, then smiled, soared into the air, flew over the stage of the Odessa City Theater, alighted on Giovanni's shoulders, and sunk his teeth into his neck. Muttering and squinting at the audience, he sucked the blood from the wound. Giovanni fell to the ground and the curtain came down in menacing silence, hiding the murderer and the murdered man. Not wasting a single moment, we rushed off to Theater Alley. Kolya Shvarts leading the pack. The box office was already selling tickets for the following day. Next morning the Odessa News informed the few people who had been at the performance that they had seen the most incredible actor of the century.
During the Odessa performances, Di Grasso was to play King Lear, Othello, Civil Death, and Turgenev's Parasite, convincing us with every word and movement that there was more justice and hope in the frenzy of noblee passion than in the joyless rules of the world.
The tickets for these perfrmances sold at five times their price. The public in its frantic quest for tickets ran to the taverns, where they found howling, red-faced scalpers spouting innocent blasphemies.
A stream of dusty pink heat pointed into Theater Alley Storekeepers in felt slippers, brought green bottles of wine and casks of olives out onto the street. Macaroni was boiling in foaming water in cauldrons in front of stores, the steam melting into the distant skies. Old women in men's boots sold cockleshells and souvenirs, chasing wavering customers with their loud yells. Rich Jews, their beards combed and parted, rode in carriages to the Hotel Severnaya, and knocked discreetly at the doors of fat, black-hired women with mustaches-the actresses of Di Grasso's troupe. Everyone in Theater Alley hovering over me. It was only a matter of time before my father would realize that I had taken his watch and pawned it with Kolya Shvarts. Kolya had had enough time now to get used to the idea that the gold watch was his, and as he was a man who drank Bessarabian wine instead of tea at breakfast, he could not bring himself to return the watch, even though I had paid him back his money. That was the kind of person he was. His personality was exactly like my father's. Caught between these two men, I watched the hoops of other people's happiness roll past me. I had no choice but to escape to Constantinople. Everything had laready been arranged with the second engineer of a Di Grasso farewell. He was to appear one last time in the role of the shepherd whisked into the air by an otherworldly force. Odessa's whole Italian colony had come to the theater, led by the trim, bald-hdeaded consul, followed by fidgety Greeks and bearded externs staring fanatically at a point invisible to all. Long-armed Utochkin (Local celebrity) was also there. Kolya Shvarts even brought his wife in her fringed, violet shawl, a woman as robust as a grenadier and as drawn-out as a steppe, with a crinkled, sleepy face peeking out at its borderland. Her face was drenched with tears as the curtain fell.
"You no-good wretch!" she shouted at Kolya as they left the theater. "Now you know what real love is!"
With mannish steps Madame Shvarts plotted heavily down Langeron Street, tears trickling from her fishlike eyes, her fringed shawl shuddering on her fat shoulders. Her head shaking, she yelled out for the whole street to hear a list of women who lived happily . with their husbands. "Sugar puff--that's what those husbands call their wives! Sweetie pie! Baby cakes!"
Kolya walked meekly next to his wife, quietly blowing into his silky mustache. Out of habit, I walked behind them. I was sobbing. Catching her breath for a second, Madame Shvarts heard me crying and turnd around.
"You no-good wretch!" she shouted at her husband, her fishlike eyes widening. "May I not live to see another happy hour if you don't give that boy back his watch!"
Kolya froze, his mouth falling open, but then he came to his senses, and, pinching me hard, shoved the watch into my hands.
"What does he give me?" Madame Shvarts's rough, tearful voice lamented, as it receded into the distance. "Low-down tricks today, low-down tricks tomorrow! I ask you, you no-good wretch, how long can a woman wait?"
They walked to the corner and turned onto Pushkin Street. I stayed back, clutching my watch, and suddenly, with a clarity I had never before experienced, I saw the soaring columns of the Town Council, the illuminated leaves on the boulevard, and Pushkin's bronze head with the moon's pale reflection on it. For the first time I saw everything around me as it really was--hushed and beautiful beyond description.
Di Grasso - Isaac Babel