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Excerpt

from the chapter

ISA


in Walk-Ons & Bit-Parts


By Sara Lee Stadelman


Walk-Ons & Bit-Parts

... Isa at her dressing table with a lighted match, warming a tiny pan of black mascara, globules of which tipped each eyelash and highlighted the shining green shadow on her lids; Isa whose wide mouth became a vibrant gash of red; Isa whose Tatar cheekbones were painted high to ensure a mask so striking, so individual that no one could mistake her for any other woman. To me she was unique, she was theatre, a magnet, a world of secret promise. Isa Kremer was an empire in which I wanted citizenship.

Her hair, jet black, parted in the centre, drawn back fiercely in a chignon, proclaimed Pavlova; her earrings, her jewelled fingers tapping secret codes, flashing emeralds, diamonds, sapphires stolen cunningly in flight to exile. When Isa had a last secured her makeup, patting the greased colours with a feathery pink puff, I could tell she—I—was ready to face the world.

As I grew into adolescence, I became aware of her body, and then only because I saw the identical pattern fitted onto her daughter: short-necked, high-breasted, hipless, long-legged for such squat women. But Isa's shawls, trailing skirts, and voluminous sleeves craftily covered multitudes of roundnesses. No sagging was to be observed, nothing but energy, as she prepared herself to receive Russian friends for lengthy dinners that began while it was still light and went on long after I had to go home.

Teek and I were welcomed to that round table of celebrities, where expansive Chaliapin's basso profundo laughter mocked ambitious Sol Hurok, already grasping for world-wide recognition as the impresario.

It was in Isa's dining room that everything Russian came alive. The tiny grandparents would scuttle from the kitchen bearing fruit soup or succulent Chicken Kiev. Confined to backstage, they would disappear, muttering to themselves.

Who made all that? Not Isa. It must have been hired help in the kitchen supervised by the unacknowledged grandparents.

Who were the other men surrounding Isa? For there were no other women at that groaning board. Actors? Singers? Agents? They were refugees from the Russian Revolution, unpolitical, fleeing both Whites and Reds. They were artists grasping for a foothold in "the land of opportunity" to continue their professions.

What I saw, what I heard, was laughter, a joy I'd never before known. What difference did it make to me that Russian, French, and broken English bounced around the noisy table like ricocheting projectiles—jokes, arguments, opinions? Did they hear each other? Who cared? This was life! In my home there was no time for me to be heard, but for some reason these strange people liked me! Yes. These adults asked me questions, listened to my answers. One giant of a man, with a voice deeper than any I'd ever heard, was delighted to put me on his knee.

"Shtota koi, little Sara, shtohochesh?"

What did I want to be? I'd known that since I was three. And here in this place, with these thrilling performers, what else could I want but to be as glamorous as Isa, as talented and famous and adored?

"Oh, please," I declared breathlessly, "pujalasta—ACTRISA!"

"Bravo, little one!" He rose majestically, lifted me to the floor, and called for a toast. Everyone stood with glasses raised. Bravo! Cheers! They drank deeply, vodka to my ginger ale, and one by one smashed their glasses against the unused fireplace in my honour! And this gentle giant, whom Isa told me to call Chaliapin, beamed at me, "Zemechachina!

And where was Teek? Smiling, mumbling sotto voce in any of the four languages at her command, with an adult toss of her beautiful auburn hair, what was she really saying? I think now that I cared little about Teek, her feelings, her situation. She was so grown-up, always studying, reading books by writers I didn't know but made sure to read and then didn't understand. Within a couple years she'd introduced me to bookshelves of Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayam, Anatole France, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and to a panoply of characters that my now adolescent heart fell in love with: Heloise and Abelard, Salome (with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley—quite naughty!).

At Isa's table there was one quiet man, only occasionally, gently, offering a phrase, a word, a comment. He was Isa's manager. And he lived in the same house. He was Greek. He was frequently out of town booking tours, so far out of town that he died in South America while booking Isa's Farewell Grand Tour. I knew there was a mystery there, a mystery of love between Isa and this man, but I was a child and could not penetrate it. Finally a ninth-grader, another new friend, a very sophisticated German girl, told me that George—ah! that was his name!—was more than Isa's manager. Isa was George's mistress. His what?

"Isa and George are not married but they do things to each other."

It took me time to absorb that. Time to refocus on my picture, my fantasy of Isa bountifully distributing her largesse to me.

Isa was the one who reserved an opera box for Teek and me whenever we went to the theatre, and it was there that I first saw "live" dancers. An opera box! Teek and I were twelve or thirteen by now and sufficiently conscious of our appearance to preen for special occasions. An opera box was such an occasion! But would people stare up at us? At me? On buses and subways, in movie theatres and restaurants, terrible moans and kicking at everything would signal the start of my sister's epileptic fit, and I felt everyone staring at me. I hated it. Now, at the theatre, I'd wait for the house lights to go down before I took my place; then the stage, bright with the real world, protected me....


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