Translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
YOU WANT TO KNOW why a Jew like me, a father of children, handles contraband filth like French postcards? I’ve got Tolmatshov and Tolmatshov alone to thank for it, may he fry in hell! But since this all happened so long ago, and since Tolmatshov is gone and Odessa is back to normal, I think I can come out with the whole truth as to why Tolmatshov was such an antisemite. And the truth is that I’m to blame for most of it, I’m afraid, if not all of it.
Well, now you’re probably wondering how a street-hawker like me, who peddles Yiddish newspapers — and French postcards on the sly –– comes to General Tolmatshov! And what sort of friend am I with generals, anyway? If you can spare a few minutes, I’ll tell you an interesting story.
It happened right here in Odessa, many years ago, at this time, during the intermediary days of Sukkos. Generally speaking, Odessa was still the same old Odessa. No one had heard of Tolmatshov, and a Jew could roam around free as a bird and sell his Yiddish books. Then, there weren’t as many Yiddish papers as today. You weren’t afraid of anyone, and there was no need to mess around with banned Parisian postcards. In the old days, I used to sell sabbath and holiday prayer books and Jewish calendars around Lanjerovski, Katerinenski, and Fankonin streets. You could always run into a Jew there, for that was the area where speculators, agents, and various other Jews hung around waiting for a miracle.
Just like you see me now, I was strolling along on Fankonin Street, the spot where our speculators wear out their shoe leather looking for business, and I said to myself: Where do I get a customer for my few Jewish calendars? Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are gone and forgotten and before you know it, Sukkos will slip right by and I still haven’t gotten rid of my little bit of stock. God knows if I’ll ever sell those bound calendars — for if they aren’t sold before the holidays, you can’t even give them away. Later, they’re completely useless. And I had three of them left over from before the Jewish New Year!
I started off with a hundred and got rid of them on the street, mostly among the stock speculators. They weren’t such fiery Jews — I mean, they didn’t go for Yiddish books and all that. But when it came to a Jewish calendar for the entire year, well, even that sold. After all, you had to know when Passover or a yortsayt for a loved-one came. A Jew is a Jew, after all.
WELL, STROLLING ABOUT, I stopped near Fankonin and looked at the group of speculators running back and forth. I knew every single one of them blindfolded, and I thought: Who can I offer these few calendars to if each one’s got his supply? I don’t think I missed a one.
Then I saw a general with as many medals as I got hair, sitting at a front table at the outdoor cafe on Fankonin Street. He was stirring his coffee with a spoon and talking to a servant, repeating the same thing over and over again. And each time the servant answered: “I get you, Your Excellency.”
What’s he trying to tell him? I asked myself. I edged up closer to the general’s table — I’m only human, you know — and made believe I was looking somewhere else. I heard the general slowly telling that thick-headed peasant what to do. He literally put each word into his mouth.
“Remember what I’m saying,” the general said. “Go to my house, at Number 3 Hersonski Street, and tell my wife that Count Musin-Pushkin is having dinner with us. Don’t forget now. Number 3 Hersonski Street! Count Musin-Pushkin!”
The servant stood at attention. His only words were: “I get you.” When the peasant left, the general called to him again: “Remember, 3 Hersonski Street. Count Musin-Pushkin!” As the general was about to return to his coffee, he spotted me standing there almost on top of him, gaping into his glass. Not that I meant any harm by that, God forbid. I just stood there, just like that. Well, he raised his voice and stared right through me.
“What do you want?”
What I want, you won’t give me, I thought. But then again, maybe yes! So I got a bright idea. I’m only human, you know. Believe it or not, I told him: “Your Excellency, how would you like to buy a calendar?”
“What sort of a calendar?”
“A Jewish calendar,” I said.
He looked at me as if I was completely crazy and said, “What do I need a Jewish calendar for?”
“I don’t know what you need it for,” I said. “But I need money for the holiday. I have three left, you see. How about buying one, Your Excellency?” And I thought: it’ll be some neat trick if he’d buy a Jewish calendar.
Well, here’s what happened. No sooner did I say the word “Excellency,” than he boomed out, “Go away, please.”
Believe it or not, my blood froze. I’m only human, you know. I grabbed my bundle and was ready to about-face, when suddenly I heard him say, “Come back here.”
What could I do? I had to go back. He asked me to show him a calendar. I did. Then he wanted to know how much it cost. I told him. He paid me for it right away without bargaining, without saying a word, without anything. How’s that for a general? Isn’t he worth three speculators?
Well, that’s a start, I said to myself, taking my bundle and going. A start was well and good, but what next? Where do you find two other generals on whom you can palm off two leftover Jewish calendars. Then I got another brilliant idea! I’m only human, you know. Why not offer him a second one? No skin off his back, having two Jewish calendars. But what would he do with two? Come to think of it, what would he do with one? Thinking like this, a new idea hit me. I remembered how he tried to pound the address — Number 3 Hersonski Street — into that peasant’s thick skull. As I lived and breathed, that was where I could find a home for a second calendar.
NOW, DON’T be a bungler, Avram Markovitch, I said to myself (that’s my name, you see), and strike while the iron is hot. Nab yourself another buyer. So, without dilly-dallying, I crossed one street after another until I got to Hersonski Street, and looked for number 3. Sure enough, there it was! And what a number it was! A private, two-story brick building. Fine and dandy, but what now? Ring the bell and ask for the general’s wife. And that’s just what I did, thinking: I’ll be in a pretty fix if a soldier shows up, probably with a dog to boot. He’ll toss me out on my ear and set the dog on me. That’s all I needed!
Some minutes passed. But no one showed up. What luck. No one’s in. But perhaps the bell’s out of order. Must try again. And believe it or not, I rang again. Once, twice, three times. Finally, the door swung open and there stood a peasant girl, holding a broom.
“What do you want?” she said.
I wanted to run real quick, but I took my heart in my hands — I’m only human, after all — and said: “I have to see the general’s wife. It’s something personal.”
She looked at me as if to say: What a queer bird he is. Then, without so much as a by-your-leave, she slammed the door in my face. What a welcome! But maybe she’d come back. Then, again, maybe she’d send the soldier and the dog, I thought, and wanted to beat a quick retreat. But since I had already rung the bell, it was too late.
Half a minute later, the door opened and there stood a beautiful young woman — all peaches and cream. Was she the general’s wife? Couldn’t be! Too young. The general’s daughter? Nope. He was too young. But time was a-wasting.
“What is it you want?” she said.
What now? I thought. Should I address her as “Your Excellency”? If she really was the general’s wife, then it would be all right. But what if she wasn’t? Why should I give her an honor gratis? I’m only human, you know. So I decided to eliminate the title and start from scratch.
“The general bought a calendar from me and asked me, that is, told me to deliver it to Number 3 Hersonski Street and that’s where they’d pay me for it. And in case they didn’t believe me, the general gave me a sign that Count Pusin-Mushkin was eating supper here tonight.”
She broke into a laugh. “It’s not Pusin-Mushkin but Musin-Pushkin.”
Seeing that you’re laughing, lady, I said to myself, you’re all right. “Be that as it may,” I said, “Pusin-Mushkin, MushkinPushkin. What’s the difference? So long as the sign is right.”
I handed her the calendar. She took it, inspecting it from all angles. “How much is it?” she asked. I told her. Then she took the calendar, paid for it, and smiled a good-bye. How’s that for a lady? Pure gold! She was worth not only three speculators — she was worth three dozen! So I got rid of the bigger part of my stock. Only one was left. I could now go home and eat supper, right?
I had supper and rested, but that one remaining calendar was bothering me. True, I’d gotten rid of two out of three — was stuck with only one. But for that very reason, I wanted to get rid of that last one, too. What good was an old bound Jewish calendar? Therefore I had to get rid of it. But how do you go about it, if most of the speculators already had theirs? No choice but to roam through town once more. Without dawdling, I took my bundle and went out. Since I knew the two main streets, my feet took me there without being asked. Right to where the speculators ran around, wearing out their shoe leather. Where else was there to go? Perhaps God would soon provide a customer. After all, it was only one little old calendar.
And, believe it or not, I wandered back and forth, like a lion in a cage, looking at the speculators and watching them scurry about like chickens without heads, looking for business. Everyone looked to make a ruble. But in the meantime, while pacing around, I spotted another general. He, too, was full of medals. Here’s a neat one, I thought. It’s a God-send. Another general. A customer for my last calendar.
It’s a shame I didn’t have any more calendars, I thought. For if generals start to buy Jewish calendars, all the speculators can go to hell and take the entire stock market with them.
While thinking, I looked and realized that it was my general. Believe it or not, I recognized him right away. Evidently he recognized me too, for he stood and beckoned me to him. Bad situation. What now? All I needed now was to get mixed up with generals. I kicked up my heels and started running, good and proper. I knew that with such leg-work I’d put three streets between me and him in two minutes flat. That’s exactly what happened. Half a minute later, I heard someone tailing after me, hollering for me to stop.
Who was it? Could it be the general himself, in all his glory? What an eager-beaver of a general! Just look what was happening! A Jew had sold an extra calendar — and what a commotion. Generals chasing me. Bad! Bad business! What next? Run faster? But suppose he whistled for the cops? That’s all I needed — an arrest! But if I stopped, he’d nab me with that second calendar fraud. Better to make believe that I didn’t know what was happening and go my own sweet way — not running, but not crawling either, just sort of stepping smartly, like a man busy with his own affairs. But what if he caught me and asked why I was running? Then I’d tell him that that was my way of walking.
But here’s what happened. He caught up to me. Bad, huh? But listen to the upshot. Well, if you were caught, there was nothing to be done. So, I stopped and looked. But where was the general? General! What general? Baloney! It was just one of the waiters from the Fankonin cafe. He’d run with a napkin tucked under his arm, and was wiping the perspiration from his face.
“Damn you,” he said to me, when we both had stopped. “Why’d you take off like a wild billy-goat? The general wants to see you?”
“What general? And how do you know it’s me he wants?”
“What do you mean, how do I know? Think I’m deaf? Think I didn’t hear the general say: There he goes, the Jew with the books. Catch him and bring him over.”
If that’s the case, I thought, then all hell hasn’t broken loose yet. Doom isn’t at hand. I could always think of something at the last minute. I’m only human, you know. Like a flash, a brand new idea hit me. Maybe a miracle would happen and I’d get rid of my last calendar. Without batting an eyelash, I slapped my forehead in mock surprise, spat, and said:
“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? You should have told me it’s the bookish general. He’s a queer one. All day long he’s been bargaining with me for this book. He’s run me to death. It costs a ruble and he keeps offering me a half. I’ve already told him 75, 70, 60 kopecks. Let’s call it quits. But he’s as stubborn as a mule and won’t budge from that half ruble. May I drop dead right here and now that if this wasn’t my last book, I wouldn’t let him have it for a kopeck under the regular price. But since it is the last one, as you can see, hand over half a ruble and here — run back and give him this book.”
TO THIS DAY, I don’t know who the general was! But my guess is that it was none other than Tolmatshov himself. If not, why did he suddenly let loose such a murderous reign of terror against Jews in general and, more so, against Yiddish book-peddlers in particular? We peddlers of Yiddish books and newspapers felt his wrath more than anyone else. To this very day, we don’t dare show our faces on the streets selling a Yiddish book or paper. We have to hide it inside our coats like contraband or stolen goods.
May my enemies, your enemies, and all enemies of the Jews have as many good years as we have profit out of dealing with hot Yiddish papers. So I have to have a sideline — French postcards — some loose, some sealed in envelopes. And they’re my main item. I handle the newspapers just for fun. There’s a bigger turnover with the Parisian picture postcards. The speculators go for them with more enthusiasm than for the Yiddish papers. Oh me, I know it’s a vile business and I’ll have to answer for it someday. But what can you do? You’re only human. A Jew has to make a living — the kids want to eat. . . . God’ll probably forgive me. He’ll have to forgive me. Has he got a choice? What do you think?
Here it is Hoshana Rabba already — and final judgments are being sealed. May it fall on his head — the judgment, I mean. On Tolmatshov’s head! For if it weren’t for him, may he rot in hell, I’d still be selling prayer books and Jewish calendars instead of this filth. By the way, can I interest you in something? I just got a new shipment in fresh from Paris.
Curt Leviant’s most recent books are the two critically acclaimed novels, King of Yiddish and Kafka’s Son.