Isaac Babel’s “My First Royalty”1 (ca. 1930) begins as a supposed response to a request. Though he doesn’t state expressly what was requested of him, we might infer from the story that it was something like, “Tell us about the first story you wrote” or “Tell us why you became a writer” or perhaps “Tell us when you knew you were a writer.” Just as the request is stated obliquely, so is Babel’s answer, and it can only be discerned by reading all the way to the end. My “modern” updates to the story were few; moving it to a comparable climatic and cultural region of the States; and moving some of the activities of the characters into a world with the Internet, without moving their relationship out of the physical world. The update to Babel’s story shows that the most current writerly debates—about unpaid gigs, say?—are the most recent versions of questions about writing, art, and commerce.
In response to your request, I would like to inform you that I set out on my literary career early in life, when I was about twenty. I was drawn to writing by a natural affinity, and also by my love for a woman named Vera. She was a prostitute in New Orleans, and among her friends and followers had a reputation of being a woman with a good head for business. People followed her on Twitter, and she helped young women launch their own web sites, and on occasion she gave tips about social marketing to the Vietnamese and African Americans at small shops. She went out in the French Quarter every evening, hovering before the crowds—tall, her face radiant white—as the Mother of God hovers on the prow of fishing boats. I saved up some money, snuck up behind her silently, and finally mustered the courage to approach her. Vera said it would be one hundred dollars, and leaned against me with her soft, large shoulders, and forgot all about me.
In a tavern, where we ate kebabs she became flush with excitement, trying to talk the tavern-keeper into expanding his trade by starting a blog. From the tavern, we went walking along the shops, then, leaving me alone, Vera went off to a girlfriend’s for a drink. At midnight, we met at the boardinghouse, but there too Vera had things to do. An old woman was getting ready to visit her son in Alabama. Vera knelt on her suitcase to force it shut, and wrapped po boys in newspaper. Clutching her rust-brown handbag, the little old woman hurried from room to room in her gauze hat to say goodbye. She shuffled down the hall in rubber boots, sobbing and smiling through all the wrinkles.
I waited for the Vera in her room, cluttered with three-legged armchairs and Mardi Gras beads. The corners of the room were covered with damp splotches. Flies were dying in a jar filled with milky liquid, each fly dying in its own way. Other people’s life bustled in the hallway, with peals of sudden laughter. It was an eternity before Vera came back into the room.
“We’ll do it now,” she said, closing the door. Her preparations resembled those of a doctor preparing for surgery. She lit a hot plate, put on a pot of water on it, and poured the boiling water into a mug. She threw a red tea bag into the mug, and began pulling off her dress.
“We’ve just sent Felicia off,” said Vera. “I swear she was just like a mother to all of us. The poor old lady has to travel all alone, with no one to help her!”
A large woman, she got into bed. She lay there, with sloping shoulders, her flaccid nipples blindly pointing at me.
“Why are you sitting there so glum?” Vera said and pulled me to her. “Are you sorry you agreed to give me the money?”
“I don’t mind about the money.”
“What do you mean, you don’t mind? Isn’t it yours? Did you steal it? Are you a thief or something?”
“I’m a young man.”
“Well, I can see that you are not a cow,” Vera said, yawning. Her eyes were closing.
“I’m a young man,” I repeated, and went cold at the suddenness of my imagination. “And I sold a story to an online site.”
There was no going back, so I told my companion this random story:
“We lived in Austin,”—is what I told her was the beginning of my story. “My father worked as a draftsman, and tried to give us children an education. But we took after our mother, who was only interested in playing cards and eating good food. When I was ten, I began stealing money from my father, and a few years later, ran away to Houston to live with some relatives on my mother’s side. They introduced me to an old man. His name was Stepan. I became friends with him, and we lived together for four years.”
“How old were you then?”
Vera was clearly expecting to hear about the evil deeds of the man who had corrupted me.
“I lived with him for four years,” I continued, “and Stepan turned out to be an extremely trusting man—he trusted everyone. I should have studied a trade over those years, but there was only one thing on my mind: billiards. Soon my friends ruined him. Stepan gave them post-dated checks against my losses, and they cashed them right away.”
I have no idea how I came up with the post-dated checks, but it was a very good idea. The woman believed everything once I mentioned these checks. She wrapped herself in her red shawl, and it trembled on her shoulders.
“Stepan’s house went into foreclosure,” I went on. “He was kicked out of his house and his furniture was auctioned off. He became a traveling salesman. When he lost all his money, I left him and went to live with a rich old man, a church warden.”
Church warden! I had stolen the idea from some novel, but it was the invention of a lazy mind. To regain ground, I squeezed asthma into the old man’s yellow chest—asthma attacks and hoarse whistling as he gasped for breath. The old man would jump up at night and with a moan breathe in the kerosene-colored night of Houston. He died soon after. My relatives would have nothing to do with me, so here I was, in New Orleans, with one hundred dollars to my name. The clerk at the boardinghouse where I was staying promised to tip me off to rich clients to write for, but up to now, he had only tipped me to up-and-coming musicians who wanted to be profiled.
And I began to grind on about low-down up-and-coming musicians and their coarse, mercenary ways, bits of information I had picked up somewhere. Self-pity tore my heart to pieces; I had been completely ruined. I fell silent. The story I had sold, I told her, had come to an end.
The incense had died out. The water had cooled. Vera walked silently through the room, her back fleshy showing, and she was sad.
“The things men do,” Vera whispered, opening the shutters. “My God, the things men do!”
The window framed a crooked building. The cooling street hissed. The smell of water and dust came up from the pavement.
“So, have you ever been with a woman?” Vera asked, turning to me.
“How could I have? Who would want me?”
“The things men do,” Vera said. “God, the things men do!”
I shall interrupt the story here to ask you, my followers, if you have ever watched a village carpenter helping a fellow carpenter build a home for himself and seen how vigorous, strong, and cheerful the shavings fly as they plane the wooden planks.
That night, a thirty-year-old woman taught me her trade. That night I experienced a love full of patience and heard women’s words that only other women hear.
It was morning when we fell asleep. We were awakened by the heat of our bodies. We drank tea in a restaurant of the old quarter. A placid African American carried a teapot wrapped in a towel and poured tea, crimson as a brick, steaming like blood freshly spilled on the earth. A caravan of dust flew toward New Orleans, the town of magnolia and beignets. The dust carried off the crimson fire of the sun. The drawn-out braying of donkeys mingled with the hammering of jazz drummers. The man poured us tea and kept count of the rolls we ate.
Covered in beads of sweat, I turned my glass upside down and pushed two fifties over to Vera. Her chunky leg was lying over mine. She pushed the money away and pulled in her leg.
“Do you want us to fight?” I said. “Why are you giving me the money back?”
“No, I don’t want to want to fight,” she said. “I want to meet again in the evening, and have you write for my blog.”
I slipped back into my wallet the two fifties—my first royalty.
1 This story has been published in Russian and translated into English in various forms with a variety of titles, including “Information,” “My First Fee,” and “A Reply to an Inquiry.” This rendering of the story—and translation of the title—is my own, based on three different versions of the text, in English and Russian.