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A One-Act Play in Two Scenes
By Richard Balthazar
(Adapted from Maxim Gorky’s short story “Chelkash”)
SETTING: Early 20th century Russia, at sea near a port city on the Black Sea
|CHARACTERS:||CHELKASH, an older man, a tramp/drunk in ragged fisherman’s clothing|
|GAVRILA, a peasant youth, a naïve bumpkin in coarse country clothing|
Dark night on the quiet sea. CHELKASH and GAVRILA are sitting in a rowboat, GAVRILA rowing and CHELKASH at the stern peering ahead into the darkness.
CHELKASH (quietly): How’s your head, kid? Still hurting?
GAVRILA (also quietly): Awful! Like a hammer pounding… Aagh! I need some water. (He pauses in rowing and splashes some seawater on his forehead.) You got me so drunk…
CHEKASH: Here, Gavrila, best wet down your insides again and you’ll feel better real quick. (Hands GAVRILA a bottle.)
GAVRILA: Great! Lord bless you, Mr. Chelkash. (Drinks.)
CHELKASH: Hey, you! That’s plenty! (He snatches the bottle back and takes a long drink.) This is sure some fine hooch, young fellow!
GAVRILA (starts rowing again): So where’s these nets we got to haul in before morning? And why we going in here mongst all these big boats?
CHELKASH (with a laugh): I just changed my mind. We got a little errand to do. Don’t worry none—you’ll get paid like I promised.
GAVRILA: What kind of errand you got this time of night?
CHELKASH: Don’t bother your head… (His voice drops to a whisper.) But from here on, kid, let’s keep the noise way down. We don’t want nobody knowing we’re anywhere around here.
GAVRILA (also whispering): Dear Lord! Chelkash, what are you up to?
CHELKASH: Real important business, Gavrila. So row quiet as you can!
(GAVRILA rows soundlessly for a few moments.)
CHELKASH (cont’d.): Do you like the sea, kid? What’s a donkey farm-boy like you think about all this water and fish and all?
GAVRILA: I don’t like this ocean—no way! It’s too scary! It’s so easy to get drownded!
CHELKASH: But see how peaceful the harbor is right now, lapping waves, those dark masts against the indigo sky, the salty smell of the wind… What’s so scary! (Laughs scornfully.)
GAVRILA (after rowing a while in silence): Where we going, Chelkash?
CHELKASH: Shut up! Keep your big nose out it! I’m paying you to row, so row! (his voice rising when GAVRILA stops rowing) Row! You son of a bitch!
(GAVRILA starts rowing wildly, rocking the boat.)
CHELKASH (loudly): Watch out, Gavrila! Damn you!
(CHELKASH lunges at GAVRILA, who retreats, backing into the bow. They both freeze at:)
OFF-STAGE VOICE #1 (from a distance): Who’s that? Who’s there?
CHELKASH (in a fierce whisper): Row, you devil! I’ll break your neck! Row!
(GAVRILA starts rowing again, muttering prayers under his breath.)
OFF-STAGE VOICE #2 (from a different direction): Who shouted out there?
CHELKASH (warily silent for a while, then whispering): You sure got lucky, kid! If them guys nabbed us, I’d of tossed you to the fishes! Yes, I would of!
GAVRILA (fearfully): Please let me go, Chelkash! For Christ’s sake! Set me off on the shore! Dear God—I’m done for! This is some risky business! For the love of God, let me go!
CHELKASH: Shut your trap! You’ll make some money—so keep quiet! There now, little boy—wipe your eyes!
(GAVRILA rows as CHELKASH directs them up to the side of a ship, black below the cargo line and red above. CHELKASH raps out a quiet code on the ship with his knuckle.)
CHELKASH (calling quietly up into the darkness): Eh, José, venga!
(An answering knock is heard from above, and on a rope, a fair-sized crate descends into the boat. When CHELKASH unties the rope, it withdraws upward.)
CHELKASH (cont’d., whispering): Outta here, fast! Row like hell, you bastard! But quiet!
GAVRILA (rowing hard): What’s in this box?
CHELKASH (still whispering): Keep your mouth shut, boy—if you want to keep on breathing!
(GAVRILA rows desperately. OFF-STAGE VOICES are heard, distant, indistinct.)
CHELKASH (cont’d., quietly): Stop! Right here! (Peers into the darkness.) Okay, pull to the right – now give it all you got! Good job! We’ll get there pretty quick, and you’ll get paid—you can go back home to your sweet gal. You got a pretty gal, eh, Gavrila?
GAVRILA: No. (Mumbles a prayer under his breath.)
CHELKASH: You was sure scared back there!
GAVRILA: I wasn’t neither…
CHELKASH: Well, you just keep pulling on them oars. Hey! Quiet! Pull to the left! These are some serious guys out here—put a hole in your head without even asking!
(GAVRILA rows soundlessly. Suddenly a SEARCHLIGHT sweeps the sky, narrowly missing them, and GAVRILA throws himself down into the bottom of the boat.)
CHELKASH (cont’d.): Fool! It’s just them customs guys’ light! Get up, you stupid log, and get us out of here before it comes back. You’ll get us killed!
(GAVRILA scrambles up to start rowing.)
CHELKASH (cont’d., after taking a drink): What are you scared of? That stupid old light? They won’t get us—aren’t you lucky, you blockhead! Hey, little fellow, let’s perk up! (Hands the bottle to GAVRILA, who pauses to drink.) Tell you what, son—I’ll row a bit. It’s tricky right in between all these ships. (They change places, clambering around the crate.) Now, don’t be scared, little Gavrila. I’ll pay you good, kid. How’d you like a twenty?
GAVRILA: I don’t want nothing—just put me ashore…
CHELKASH (rowing smoothly): So, okay you go back to your village, get yourself married up, plow some land, plant some crop, wife gives you kids, but then there’s not enough to eat… So you spend your life working your ass off. Tell me, boy, what’s to savor in a life like that?
GAVRILA: What’s savor mean?
CHELKASH (muttering in concentration): Just a little bit now—ah, now we’re clear! (to GAVRILA) Just think! In one night I’ll knock down five hundred!
GAVRILA: Wow! Five hundred! (Taps the crate with his toe.) What’s in this thing anyway?
CHELKASH: Real expensive stuff, Gavrila! Sells for a few thousand, but I’m not greedy.
GAVRILA: That’s some pile of dough!
CHELKASH (stops rowing): We’re in the clear now—you row! (As they change places, with chuckle) Just keep cool, and we’ll get rid of this…
GAVRILA (rowing again): Five hundred! Boy, with that I could really sing me a song!
CHELKASH (taking a drink): Some peasant song, I bet. (Hands the bottle to GAVRILA, who drinks and resumes rowing.) This is it!
(The boat glides up to the side of a ship, rusty red below the cargo line, dark gray above. A rope ladder dangles down from the darkness above.)
CHELKASH (cont’d., calling quietly up): Hey, guys! Nikos!
OFF-STAGE VOICE #3 (from above): Kalispera, Selkash!
(A rope drops and CHELKASH ties it to the crate, which rises up into the darkness. He takes the oars from GAVRILA and starts climbing the ladder with them.)
GAVRILA: Hey, where you going with the oars, Chelkash?
CHELKASH: Just in case you get any ideas…
(CHELKASH disappears up the ladder.)
END OF SCENE 1
Twenty minutes later. GAVRILA sits in the boat beside the ship. CHELKASH descends the ladder carrying the oars and once in the boat hands them to GAVRILA.
CHELKASH: Well, that’s that, Gavrila. (Drinks from bottle.) So, little scaredy-cat, how many times have you almost died of fright tonight?
GAVRILA (fixing the oars in the locks): Hey, I never done nothing shady like this before… one screw-up and you could lose your soul!
CHELKASH: Bet you’d do it again, eh?
GAVRILA (pushing off from the ship): Again? What kind of greed would make somebody…?
CHELKASH: How’s about two hundred?
GAVRILA (rowing away): Two hundred! That’s a lot! Maybe I might could…
CHELKASH: Wait! Head on over thataway. (Points another way.) We’ll go to shore around the bay—outside of town. (While GAVRILA rows with one oar, seriously) So what’s all this about losing your soul?
GAVRILA: Well, maybe not really lose it, you know.
CHELKASH: If it don’t ruin you, you’ll turn out okay. (Laughs and drinks.) Okay, enough jokes! Let’s head for shore! (Peers up at the sky while GAVRILA rows.) Look ‘o things, could be some real weather by tomorrow evening.
GAVRILA: A storm, you think?
CHELKASH: See them light clouds up high blurring some stars? A good-sized one’s rolling in.
(CHELKASH drinks and hands the bottle to GAVRILA, who drinks and resumes rowing.)
GAVRILA: So… How much did you get? (Stares at the roll of bills CHELKASH flashes.) Wow! I thought you was lying! How much?
CHELKASH: Five hundred and forty.
GAVRILA: Boy, oh boy, that’s a hunk of cash! (as CHELKASH, muttering to himself): Whew! With that kind of cash…
CHELKASH (putting the money back in his pocket): We’ll take good care of you, kid. How’s about the forty? Enough? You want, I’ll give it to you right now. (Holds out two bills.)
GAVRILA: Why, sure, I’ll take it. (Takes the money quickly.)
CHELKASH: My, you’re greedy, Gavrila! That’s not good—but you’re a peasant!
GAVRILA: A guy can do so much with money! If I was rich, I’d buy me some land. Wow!
CHELKASH: Yep! Bet you’d hop a fancy train home—back to that girl you like—or just pick out another prettier one, eh, you young bull? But a house takes plenty of money…
GAVRILA: Oh, Lord, I just want to get out of this in one piece!
CHELKASH: Yeh, life’s not worth nothing out here on the “blue sea!” Now, when I was young as you, I had my own little place. My father was a rich man in our village…
GAVRILA: How’d you wind up—I mean—like this?
CHELKASH: Like what? Oh, you mean a fisherman. Another story. But tell you one thing. The main thing for a peasant, son, is freedom! Being your own boss, in your own house. And your land’s yours—even the weeds are yours! You can demand respect. Ain’t that so?
GAVRILA: That’s right, Chelkash! What’s a guy without land?
(The boat scrapes bottom as a rocky beach appears.)
CHELKASH: We made it! Haul us up a ways from the tide.
(GAVRILA climbs out and pulls the boat up on the beach. CHELKASH climbs out.)
CHELKASH (cont’d.): Well, boy, I guess that’s it. They’ll pick up the boat in the morning. Care for a farewell drink? (They both take long drinks.) So, time to split up. It’s only a few miles thataway to town. Going there? Or maybe home to… (Rustles the money in his pocket.)
GAVRILA (sighing): Naw… I’m not going…
CHELKASH: What’s the matter now?
GAVRILA (laughs uncomfortably): Well, I was wanting… I mean…
CHELKASH: Hell with you! You in love with me or something? What’s your problem? Screw it! I’m leaving!
GAVRILA: Leaving!? No! (Drops to his knees and embraces CHELKASH’s legs.) Please, friend… Give me the money! What’s it to you? I mean in one night… Just one night… But for me, it’d take me years! Give it to me! I’ll pray for you—in three churches!
(CHELKASH struggles free and steps back.)
GAVRILA (cont’d.): You’ll just throw it into the wind… For me it means land… One night’s work! Do a good deed! Be a good person for once! I could’ve… Oh, please give it to me!
CHELKASH (taking the money from his pocket and throwing it at GAVRILA): There! Eat it up! (Watches GAVRILA hastily gather up the bills.) I thought about giving you more—eh, let’s help the lad. I figured you’d ask. But ugh! Whining and begging! How can you shame yourself like that for money? Fool! Greedy devil! You’d sell yourself for a nickel!
GAVRILA: God bless you, Mr. Chelkash! It’s mine—I’m rich! (Stuffs the money in his pocket.) Bless you! I’ll never forget you—never! My wife and kids will pray for you! You’ve made me so happy! (Clasps CHELKASH’s hand.) And here I was thinking—while I was rowing here—I’ll just smack him with the oar—bang! Take the dough and dump you in the ocean—who’d care? Nobody to make any noise about…
CHELKASH (seizing GAVRILA by the throat): Give me back my money, you asshole! (Forces GAVRILA to the ground, strangling him, takes the money from his pocket, and then releases him.) So—happy now? What a dolt!
(As CHELKASH turns to leave, GAVRILA leaps up, seizes a stone, and hits him on the head. CHELKASH crumples limply to the ground. Horrified, GAVRILA kneels beside CHELKASH.)
GAVRILA (shaking CHELKASH): Get up, old man! Wake up! For Christ’s sake!
CHELKASH (coming to with difficulty): You! Get the hell out of here before I kill you!
GAVRILA: Forgive me! Good Lord! Some devil got into me!
CHELKASH: Beat it! You piece of shit!
GAVRILA: Forgive my sin! For the love of Christ, forgive me!
CHELKASH: Go to the devil! (Tries to stand, but GAVRILA helps him up.) What more do you want? You’ve done it—so get out of here! (Spits in GAVRILA’s face.) You rotten…
GAVRILA: Whatever you want, Chelkash. I won’t say nothing. Forgive me, forgive—
CHELKASH: Peasant pig! Can’t even pull this off like a man! What a louse! You took all the money—so scram!
GAVRILA: No, I didn’t! I don’t want it! It’s nothing but bad luck!
(CHELKASH pulls the money from his pocket, peels off a bill, and thrusts the rest at GAVRILA.)
CHELKASH: Take it and shove off!
GAVRILA: Only if you’ll forgive me!
CHELKASH (shouting): You’ll take it alright, you swine! (Shoves the money in GAVRILA’S face.) Take it! You didn’t work for free! Don’t be ashamed about almost killing a man! People like me don’t matter! They’d even thank you… Here, take it! (Laughs.)
GAVRILA (seizing the money): So you forgive me? You mean you really don’t want it?
CHELKASH: What good’s it to me? You need it for that village gal of yours. So—today you take me, tomorrow—
GAVRILA: Bless you! Oh, thank God!
CHELKASH (turning shakily away): So long, kid.
GAVRILA: Forgive me…
CHELKASH: For nothing!
(Exit CHELKASH, holding his head. GAVRILA crosses himself, looks at the wad of money, stuffs it in his pocket, and exits in opposite direction.)