Was it the blinding light coming through gray clouds, or the shrieks of black squirrels crisscrossing the paths of Blackmoor Park? Felix Sokolovich suddenly felt anxiety, bitter like the heart of an apricot stone. Moreover, hard as he tried, he just couldn’t recall any names-people, streets, anything-from his prewar life; surprised and bewildered, his old aunt fingered her purple moire hat. It was a Sunday in the beginning of March, 1990, and Sokolovich and his aunt were taking their noontime walk. This walk was one of the few habits to have survived from Sokolovich’s Parisian childhood and adolescence, which had been interrupted by the war and their escape to America. The air was warm and springlike, and those out walking wore short coats. Dressed in overalls, children ran up and down the wet, muddy park alleys, chasing the squirrels who were mad with spring fever. Sokolovich and his aunt stood out against the background of the old parkscape like quaint objects, a cast-iron gate or a dilapidated bench where a president once proposed to his future wife.
Sokolovich wore an old-fashioned navy trench coat. The belt was missing; the large collar lay on his shoulders like a dead bird. Under the coat he had a jacket of a bluish-grey tweed, slightly baggy black trousers, and a white oxford with a striped bow tie. Walking heavily, Sokolovich steeped his black loafers in the mud. His right hand clasped the hand-carved handle of a cane. Sokolovich had very big hands the color of drying clay, a biblical face with a distinguished nose, a tall forehead, turtle lips, sarcastic nostrils, and a sharp, arrogant chin.
In Paris before the war, Sokolovich’s aunt, then a young, unmarried sister of his mother, used to take her nephew to the Luxembourg Gardens on Sundays. Alone in their apartment on Rue des Marroniers, his parents would enjoy themselves in a sunlit bedroom. Now they were long dead, and the aunt still single. After they had all sailed from France in 1939, her fiancé stayed behind, hoping to wrap up his publishing enterprise and follow them to New York. He died of inanition in a concentration camp. Now for many years, Sokolovich had brought his aunt from Manhattan to Blackmoor on Sundays. She had worked at the library of Columbia University for thirty years, and now spent the remainder of her days in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. The two of them would walk in the park together, usually reminiscing about Sokolovich’s late mother and father, the journey from Marseilles to the New World, about Parisian theaters and the quays of the Seine. The aunt’s senility, spreading like forest fire during a drought, had long been troubling Sokolovich. But he didn’t have the heart to discontinue their ritual Sunday walks.
He straightened his heavy, gold-rimmed glasses, looked at his wristwatch, and suggested that they turn in the direction of home. His wife was waiting with dinner. On Sundays they ate early, European style.
“Felix, dear, last week you were telling me that very few students signed up for your seminar on ancient prose,” the aunt inquired on their way back. “I can’t imagine that these young people have no interest in the history of our European civilization!”
The aunt had preserved her old-time St. Petersburg accent. She would address Sokolovich in Russian; he answered in French. French, not Russian, was for him a truly native tongue. Born in Paris to a family of an émigré eye doctor, as a child Sokolovich turned away from everything Russian, replete with fading memories and chameleon longing. Besides, all those melodic miles of Corneille and Racine that he had had to memorize at the Lycée Janson de Sailly had ousted the sonorous Russian poems his mother used to recite at the tea table. Recognizing the meaning of Russian words was a mere habit for Sokolovich, and following his parents’ deaths, he ceased speaking Russian completely. At Blackmoor College, where Sokolovich taught Latin and Greek, a newcomer would be treated to a joke, something to the effect that Professor Sokolovich had an accent in all languages, an echo of Russian in his French, flourishes of French consonants in his Russian, and both Russian and French cadences in his otherwise flawless English.
Sokolovich had settled down in a Colonial on Castle Street in the early 1950s, when as a young assistant professor he moved from New York City to Long Island to teach at Blackmoor. His first wife, an émigré also formerly of Paris, died in 1980, leaving two children. Sokolovich’s daughter, now in her thirties and married, was living in California. They didn’t see each other very often. A twenty-five-year-old son lived but a short distance from his father. For three years following his wife’s death, Sokolovich had lived a widower in his desolate and lonely house. Then he remarried. His new wife was a genuine American. They met in a clinic where Sally worked as a nurse and Sokolovich was seeing a neurologist: his wartime injury to the spine still caused a great deal of pain. Sally was plump and Irish, all laughs and merriment, Sokolovich’s junior by twelve years. Sally and Sokolovich were married three months after they had met. They renovated the Colonial and started a new life together, a life without rummaging through each other’s past. The aunt, Sokolovich’s only living relative, and therefore a virtual parent, never got over her nephew’s choice. “Sally, such a sallow name,” she thought to herself. Naturally, she never said anything.
At dinner, they turned again to Sokolovich’s position at Blackmoor College. He had for several years been talking of retirement. His colleagues in the department whispered behind his back. Sokolovich was to them as ancient as the subjects he taught. It was also the case that since the death of his first wife, Sokolovich hadn’t written or published a single line. At first for about a year, he lay on the couch in a state of black melancholy. Later, having resumed teaching, he no longer had the drive to invite his students over for a Thursday social. He did try a few times, but his heart pounded like a netted trout when a female student brought in a copper tray with tea and cakes. He felt lonely at colleagues’ dinner parties, keeping quiet, digging his head in randomly opened pages. The second wife never became part of her husband’s university circle. An unspoken agreement between Sokolovich and Sally marked out the boundaries of what they would and wouldn’t do as a couple. Sally loved the outdoors, and they began to frequent the parks and beaches in the area, taking long walks along the coast, deserted and especially scenic from the fall until the end of the spring.
In the middle of the 1960s, Sokolovich published The Novel of Antiquity, a book that made him famous among the academics. Unexpectedly for many, he refuted the then-prominent ideas of Ian Trott, who linked the origins of the English novel (and the novel in general) to a particular set of economic conditions. Sokolovich’s book startled and dismayed many North American literary scholars then possessed by Marxism. At the crest of his success, Sokolovich was made full professor. He had since been teaching only senior seminars, once very successful with Blackmoor students. But times were different, and so were the popular teachers, and for several years now Sokolovich could barely gather three or four students into the seminar room with its oak table and old, choking coffee maker.
“Believe it or not, I’ve become a character in that little novel by our famous compatriot Nabokov.” Sokolovich smiled sadly to his wife and aunt before gulping his strong after-dinner coffee. “Imagine, my dears, I’ve got only one student in my seminar. They even considered canceling the class. I suppose they took pity on my old age.”
“Tell me, Felix.” Sally shook her double chin and the folds on her freckled neck. “What’s he like, that one student?”
“Actually it’s a she. And I don’t have much to say after two classes. She seems to listen and take notes. The other day I lectured to her about The Golden Arse.”
They sat in the living room for another half-hour, Sokolovich smoking, the women watching television. It was time to take the aunt back to Manhattan. They didn’t speak for most of the drive. A few blocks from her building, the aunt recalled a robbery in his parents’ Parisian apartment in the 1920s, when Felix was away at summer camp in Normandy.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Felixik, do you remember the Vernakoff family?” she asked as Sokolovich parked the car.
“Not really, ma tante,” he muttered back.
“Oh, you must remember them.” The old lady suddenly became animated. “They had a girl your age, Lise, Lisotchka. The two of you went to birthday parties and the Louvre together. They got stuck in Morocco and returned to Paris only in 1949.”
Sokolovich was beginning to get restless, looking at his aunt, who was moved by her own recollection. All he wanted now was to drive back home and to smoke a long pipe. The aunt didn’t notice his inattention.
“So I heard that Lise Vernakoff killed herself in Biarritz last August. She must have been at least a year younger than you. Such a young woman. Isn’t this just awful?”
“I’m sixty-seven, my dear auntie. Sixty-seven.”
“Remember to call me, Felixik.”
On Tuesday, the only student in Sokolovich’s seminar was late to class. Sokolovich kept looking at the wry face of a wall clock. Atop the pile on the table in front of him, the cover of an oversized book featured an erotic dance from a Greek amphora. The professor’s fingers knocked out a slow tango. Flinging the door open, his student, Liz, walked in, disheveled and out of breath.
“I’m so-o-o sorry, Professor Sokolovich. I know that’s no excuse—” Sokolovich interrupted her by pointing silently to a chair on his left.
“It doesn’t really matter anyhow, since this appears to be my last seminar. I’ve decided to retire. As of September. Actually, I didn’t just decide suddenly. I’d been carrying this idea for some time now. But today, now, I felt with such certainty that my teaching career has come to naught. Naught. Yes, yes, Liz, nothing to worry about. Well, I suppose it’s up to you whether or not to worry.”
“But Professor, but Felix—” Excited, she called him by his first name. “You’re so well known as a scholar, what about all your books and.and your former students?”
“All those things are in the past. They have all had the pleasure of becoming history.”
For a minute they stared at each other silently. Liz was still trying to catch her breath, and Sokolovich flared his nostrils to taste her flowery perfume. The odor took him back over fifty years, to a slight yet tangible memory of someone he once knew in Paris. Like a tomtit’s distant trill. Chasing away the recollection, Sokolovich slowly nodded, looking at the white lacy strap that showed from under his student’s blouse. An off-white blouse with an embroidered front, a lacy shoulder strap, a cheap turquoise ring and matching earrings, a faded Guatemalan “friendship” bracelet. Long ashen hair falling behind her back, blushing cheeks with dimples, an olive glare in her eyes. The old professor sank the book with the erotic amphora on the cover in his spacious briefcase the color of damp pine dust. He helped his heavy body out the deep chair.
“Class is canceled for today. The two of us are likely to benefit from a stroll around campus before having lunch at the French bakery-café. Luckily, there is one in our neck of woods.”
A quarter of an hour later the teacher and his student were sitting down at his favorite table at La Baguetterie, where Sokolovich was known simply as “Professor.” They both ordered baguette sandwiches with tuna and brie.
“So there isn’t much to tell, really. My dad owns a business in town, a small pickling factory. My brothers both work for him. The younger runs distribution and sales, the older drives the delivery truck.”
For a moment Sokolovich shuddered, envisioning this briny family and failing to picture Liz in their midst. But then she smiled—a smiling mixture of irony and guilt—and that interrupted his absence.
“What about your children, Professor—I mean Felix? I heard you have two?”
Sokolovich took a sip of coffee, flagged down the owner to ask for a refill, wiped his glasses with a checkered handkerchief, and began to talk. From his rambling account, Liz found out about his sick boy, the twenty-five-year-old Mark. For many years Mark had been secluded in a sanitarium twenty miles south of Blackmoor. Ever since he was a small boy, Sokolovich Junior had been suffering from a chronic form of a mental disorder that still defied scientific explanation. Only the boy’s late mother, Sokolovich’s first wife, could occasionally enter the corridors of her son’s world, all shadow and cobwebs.
The afternoon sun had already rolled under the counter of the French bakery-café when Sokolovich and Liz said good-bye. A blue backpack bobbing behind her, she walked in the direction of the campus. Briefcase under armpit and a bag of croissants for breakfast in hand, he headed down a wet alley toward his home.
They hadn’t seen each other for a week. Liz had arrived at class early this time and was already waiting in the seminar room when Sokolovich came in, shuffling his heavy feet. This time he lectured for over an hour, mainly about The Satyricon. He never paused and barely lifted his leaden eyes from his wide palms, spread in front of him on the table like pages of an old book. Having finished talking, Sokolovich proceeded to arrange a smile on his face, blinking and licking his dry lips. He had been waiting for this moment since the week before, both hoping and fearful to hope.
“We still have another hour to go, don’t we, Liz?”
“Well, I was thinking, no, you don’t suppose we could take a drive to the ocean for a couple of hours? The beach is so lovely and free of bodies this time of the year. Plus all sorts of odd objects gets washed ashore daily. So, perhaps, the two of us could take a walk. Actually, you must be.”
Liz approached his side of the long oak table.
“That sounds wonderful, Professor.”
“Really?” Sokolovich laughed to mask his embarrassment.
“Yes, really. Deserted beach, washed-up treasures. Yes, all this sounds wonderful! I’d love to go.”
Half an hour later they were furrowing the damp sand. Frost-bitten crab shells rustled under their feet. Liz stopped frequently to pick up a pink quartz or a piece of basalt with a sparkling streak of mica. When they had walked for almost a mile, Sokolovich and Liz turned and looked back. The dunes. Last year’s wilted grass. The cold shine of his Buick in the distant parking lot. And the rattle of the scenic freeway. Liz ran ahead, waving to him, jumping from one cryptic dune to the next. Dazzled by her grace, Sokolovich stood motionless. Did he think then, during their first walk on the beach, that in that sunlit haven of seagulls and sandpipers, on those rusty spring dunes, danced his last love, his Liz?
An old seagull’s sinewy wing nearly hit the bridge of his nose.
“Felix, Felix! Look.”
Liz sent a flat pebble gliding along the surface of the water.
Sokolovich swallowed a gulp of salty air. It felt like a spasm in his chest: mm-umm-mm. Liz ran up to him.
“Are you okay?”
“Just something in my eye. Probably a sand particle. I’m fine.”
“Let me look. Lift up your eyelid.”
“It’s fine now. Perhaps just the wind.”
“Yes, must be the wind.”
“Perhaps it’s too early to open the beach season. Look, the seagulls are all going someplace. They scream like the wounded. You’re probably hungry, dear Liz. How about a sandwich? There’s a decent restaurant nearby.”
In the restaurant bathroom, after he had washed his face and hands, looking at himself in the faded mirror, Sokolovich realized that he wouldn’t have the strength to take her hand in the car or to kiss her. That he was an old man.
He wanted to confess this to Liz right there, in the half-empty restaurant. And to set a formal tone for their subsequent meetings. But Liz looked so happy, sipping lemonade from a tall, dark-blue glass. She smiled at her frazzled companion with such ease that he only sighed, sat down at the table, and emptied a packet of saccharine into his coffee mug.
On Fridays, every other week, Sokolovich visited his son at the sanitarium. “The home” was the preferred term in the family circle. Sally never came along with him. That was all part of their initial marital arrangement. On a visiting Friday, Sokolovich would have a bite to eat in a Greek place near the campus.
Curls of grilled lamb. A soft pita bread. Red pepper, tomatoes and sprigs of parsley. Yogurt sauce with cucumbers. Coffee out of a paper cup. Heracles running toward the Acropolis. Sokolovich addressed the owner, Mikis, in classical Greek. Shaving off lamb with a long, crooked knife, Mikis smiled at the words he vaguely remembered from high school, and responded in the language of Heracles’ modern heirs.
Sokolovich was in too much of a hurry this time. He couldn’t allow himself the pleasure of relishing his food, of slowly blending in his mouth the spicy warmth and the sour coolness, chewy lamb and tender tomato flesh. He devoured his lunch, placed five dollars and a handful of change on the counter, and walked out with a paper cup in hand, spilling coffee on the steps and his black shoes. Five minutes later, tossing the crumpled paper cup toward the garbage and missing, Sokolovich approached the old clock tower in the center of the college green. Liz was waiting: a shepherd’s canvas sack with a long strap, baggy jeans held on her hips by a thick leather belt, a velvet ribbon in her hair, a man’s white shirt, a black denim jacket. They walked fast to the parking lot, speaking in hushed tones.
In the car, having left Blackmoor behind, Sokolovich looked at Liz from under his photo-gray lenses swollen with darkness.
“Liz, it’s not too late to turn around. Think about it. Must you really see my boy? I think it might be better if I went alone. And then we could have dinner together. Okay?
“Felix, you know very well that it’s not okay. No, no, and once again no! I must see him. For myself. And for you. I want to be able to understand. Don’t you see that this is too big a part of your life not to share it? Please let me come with you. And also, didn’t you say that since—that no one treats him like a mother…?”
They drove along the coast, passing empty beaches—still a home to birds alone.
“Can we roll the windows down? I want to feel the breeze. Do you mind, Felix?”
The professor mechanically pressed his finger to the cold button on the door. The car was filled with smells of rotten fish, seaweed and spring rain. The road went down at a steep angle, then leaped up and started winding. To the right of the highway, on a hill amid elms and poplars, there stood a Victorian monster with windows of many sizes and shapes. They parked in front of the gates, climbed up to the entrance, and now stood there shuffling their feet, both of them anxious.
To Sokolovich’s great surprise, the visit started off quite well. Mark took to Liz as he once took to his own mother. His grimaces, awkward motions and asymmetrical smiles—normally painful to watch—now indicated sprouting thoughts, caricatures of emotions, shadows of recognition. This boy-man jumped around Liz, who fed him strawberries. He touched her hands and neck. He clapped his hands with long fingers and perfect nails. Sokolovich stayed with his son longer than usual. Then he went out to the corridor to smoke his pipe. Liz remained in the room with his son.
After a rendezvous with aromatic tobacco, Sokolovich knocked the ashes out of the pipe into a marble ashtray and lifted himself from a deep leather sofa. He was now ready to leave.
“Well, son, it’s time for us to be going.” Sokolovich reached out his right hand to pet his son on the cheek. “Liz has to go back to work. Don’t you, Liz?”
“Yes, but just look at him,” Liz whispered. “Look, he’s smiling. He’s happy.”
“Liz, we must be going. This has been a long visit.” Sokolovich sounded unexpectedly firm.
At this point Mark started squealing and whining. First he sat down on the carpet, pounding the floor with his clenched fists. Then he tried to get up, but stepped on his long pants and fell. He hit an elbow, and was now shaking with anger and turning white. His glassy eyes went back and forth between his father and Liz.
Sokolovich towered in the middle of the room, hands buried in the stretched pockets of his navy pants, eyes chained to his son’s convulsing body. For a minute his son grew quiet; his face assumed a serene expression. Gray-green intelligent eyes. Aquiline nose. Thick, raven-black hair. High forehead. Sarcastic nostrils. Then Sokolovich Junior started beating his head against the floor. It was a particularly bad fit.
When the orderlies, summoned by Liz, ran into the room, the faces of both father and son showed terror. The son’s terror came from an instinctual fear of punishment, the father’s from having just realized that in that brief moment of quiet his insane son looked exactly like him, Felix Sokolovich, in a wartime photograph from the Pacific. Sokolovich had had the photograph taken in the Philippines and sent to his parents in New York. He remembered, as though it was only yesterday, being issued his sergeant’s stripes. He’d just come out of the hospital after a spine injury. Poor girl, Sokolovich thought. What is she thinking after all this? Especially when the resemblance between us must be so apparent. It’s like seeing myself forty years back. And standing next to that younger me is some old wreck, the present me. This must be like a separation of body and soul. My present-day soul, the soul of Felix Sokolovich, a professor of classics, one foot in the grave, and this young body, my young body, that is my son’s.
On the sanitarium porch, Sokolovich turned back after the dusty door squeaked shut behind the attendant.
The professor and student didn’t speak until they reached the outskirts of Blackmoor.
It had usually been the case that after a stroll on the beach or a cup of coffee at the French bakery-café, Sokolovich would take Liz back to the college parking lot, where they would part. This time, lost in his thoughts about their imminent, now inevitable—what? breakup? separation? good-bye?, Sokolovich turned the wrong way at the light, heading toward the area of Blackmoor where shopkeepers and small-time businessmen had traditionally owned homes.
“Could you stop the car? That’s my house over there.”
Sokolovich hit the brakes.
“I wish you’d listened to me and never come along.”
His silver Buick pulled over, and Liz stood on the sidewalk in front of her house, listening to the rustle of weeping willows. A big, greasy dog ran out to greet her. Liz dropped her backpack on the screened porch and went inside.
Liz’s mother had died young; she had grown up in a house with three men. For a few years her father’s unmarried sister looked after the kids. When Liz was in high school, a witch of an old woman, a refugee from someplace in Eastern Europe, took over the cooking and cleaning. The old woman slept in the basement amid three old bicycles, a washer and dryer, and all sorts of junk. The father and brothers, all three having barely earned their high-school diplomas, regarded Liz’s studies at a prestigious college with a working man’s distrust of abstract knowledge. They did, however, let her have her way with everything.
Liz was the baby in the family. She never had any household chores. During her first year in college, she had lived in a dormitory, although the campus was no more than a fifteen-minute walk away. After her sophomore year, she moved back home. But she was never there during the day. She stayed on campus until late, reading at the library, and came home when the men were already asleep. Their day started at five in the morning with a breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts. Liz would learn about family news from the old housekeeper, who made her breakfast and waited to heat up her dinner at night.
After Liz and Sokolovich started spending time together, she had grown even more indifferent toward her family. She would never have expected, in a thousand years, that they knew about her off-campus dates with Sokolovich and in fact had been following her around for several weeks. It all began with a foreign, and therefore suspicious, name. A couple of times—during a family breakfast or dinner—Liz mentioned her “most wonderful and kind” professor of classics. She was absolutely convinced that her father and brothers couldn’t care less about her fondness for Latin prose or the old émigré professor. Blackmoor was, however, a small town, and the owner of La Baguetterie happened to be her father’s drinking companion. Over a bourbon, he told her father about a pretty student who had been frequenting his place in the company of the “Professor.”
“We think that their kind rot in libraries. We figure these guys don’t have no life, just books and papers. And what do you know: our Professor brings a female student for a cup of coffee. Real cute. And let me tell you, pal, the way she looks at him! I don’t know what he tells her during them lectures, but the old son of a bitch has the girl totally in love.”
“Come on, that’s a crock of shit.”
“Look, I’m telling you, those young girls have the hots for professor types. By the way, has your daughter graduated?”
“No, still at school. She says she’s going to graduate this year.”
“Well, that’s good. At least you’ll have someone with a college degree working in the family business.”
Something screeched inside the father’s head like a rusty gear. No, she’s too pretty to go with an old man. No way!
After a drunken conversation with the baker, Liz’s father tossed in bed, unable to sleep. He recalled in turn his dead wife and Liz as a little girl in a purple gauze tutu at a ballet recital. He got up to smoke on the porch. His pickled hands removed several books and notebooks from Liz’s backpack. Breathing raggedly, he flipped through the pages of a book whose title he couldn’t understand. Then he turned to the back cover with its picture of a melancholy, bearded face, a foreign name, and the accompanying words Professor and Blackmoor College.
He didn’t sleep the rest of the night. He got up in the morning determined to track the professor down and avenge his daughter. At breakfast—several large cups of muddy coffee with oily doughnuts—the father told his sons of his discovery. They decided to wait a while with a punishment, and follow Liz around in search of undeniable evidence of the affair. They ruled out any official channels, convinced that all foreigners and university rats in glasses and tweeds were part of a conspiracy against the common man. They were most in favor of a quiet revenge. A brutal beating or something like that. A metal pipe or a bicycle chain.
“Wait, what if we try to talk to her first? What if we get in trouble?” The younger brother tried to caution his father and sibling.
“Feeling sorry for the old bastard? Look at him, he feels sorry! And do you think he ever felt sorry for Lizzie or us, her family? That’s a fucking disgrace!” The older brother was overflowing with rage.
They began to follow Sokolovich and Liz around. The brothers took turns reading the local paper in a pizza parlor across the street from the French bakery-café. Several days were wasted in vain. Finally, on a Friday, they saw the teacher and the student together. Toward the end of the third week, the brothers knew about the secret dates. No longer able to hide their disgust, the brothers stopped talking to Liz. They ate silently or sat at the table grinding their teeth. Consumed by her friendship with Sokolovich, and rather accustomed to the natural rift between her and her family, Liz paid no attention.
Now, having returned from the sanitarium and still feeling the fingers of Sokolovich’s insane son on her arms and neck, Liz sat at the table, poured herself some milk in a thick glass, and stared at blooming geraniums on the windowsill. The old refugee heated up her dinner: spaghetti with thick meat sauce. Liz was home earlier than usual. Her father leaned back in a chair, examining his blackish nails. Her brothers both gave her strange looks. A sports commentator yelled something from the TV screen.
“Liz, I must tell you something very serious and urgent.”
Sokolovich squinted in the diffused sunlight. Both of his hands rested upon the cane’s massive handle. The sand was wet; it had rained a lot during the first week of May. A spindle consisting of wood chips, plastic wreckage, straw, claws, and shells stretched in both directions, separating the dunes and the greenish line of the surf.
“Felix, didn’t you promise not to be anxious and not to make me anxious? Oh, please, please don’t be so grim. Look at these full-bodied clouds. Light comes out of them heavy and damp. And warm, like blue milk. Did I ever tell you about my mom and the blue people?”
“Liz, I must’ve forgotten. Could you tell me again?”
“Sure. Mom came from the Appalachian Mountains. A small mining town. Everyone in her community was related. Folks in neighboring towns were wary of them. And all because of the unusual shade of their skin.”
“Yes. I know it’s hard to imagine. Mom died when I was little. I don’t remember much of her. But I do remember her hands and neck—they were a milky-blue color. It almost seems to me now that a warm radiance came from her. At home we never speak of Mom’s origins. My dad probably still thinks that her family had some kind of a curse. You know, it was by pure chance, how they met. He’d just finished a service and had no idea where to go. He ended up staying for a few days in Mom’s hometown. My elder brother came of it. My brothers both took after their father. And I—”
Brakes squeaked somewhere nearby. Sokolovich turned his head to look at the parking lot. Alone in the lot, his Buick sparkled through a fence of beach plum bushes.
“Felix, is that a seagull or an cormorant? Over there, at the top of the dune. Farther to your right.”
“I can’t see it.”
Tiptoeing, Liz put her left arm around his neck. Her right arm gently turned his head in the direction of the dunes.
“Perhaps we should be going, my dear.”
Sokolovich stepped back and separated himself from his student’s arms. He looked at her silently. Then he spoke.
“If I could only see you every day. That’s all I need. Just for a few minutes.” Liz pressed her finger to his pale melting lips. “Just to walk on the beach with you every now and then. But Liz, you know yourself that’s im—”
The brakes squealed right behind the dunes. Runaway sun tore through the barrier of clouds. Straight at them, alongside the spindle of ocean-cured garbage, a truck was speeding. A scratched sign. “Linore and Sons. World’s Crunchiest Pickles. Retail and Wholesale.” The truck stopped a few yards ahead of them. Liz’s father and two brothers jumped out of the cab.
“Liz, they’re hoodlums. Run. Don’t let them get you. Scream.”
Short and muscular, all three of them looked alike. They ran up to Sokolovich and Liz and split up. The father ran after Liz, grabbed her across the waist and hips, and carried her to the truck. The brothers both jumped on the old professor and pushed him to the ground.
“Scum,” Sokolovich wheezed out. “Scream, Liz, scream!”
“Son of a bitch, this’ll teach you not to chase young girls.”
They kicked him in the stomach and the flanks where the kidneys are. Taking turns, they beat him on the head with their fists. Liz screamed from the truck, pressed to the vinyl seat by her father’s hands. Sokolovich fainted.
When he came to, he moved his fingers, trying to determine whether his hands were free. Overcoming a fiery pain in his back, Sokolovich shook the brothers off himself and stood up on his knees. He had lost his heavy, gold-rimmed glasses in the fighting. He turned his myopic head to the dunes, where the truck had stopped before the attack, but it was no longer there—only a russet maze of reeds met the professor’s eyes. With but one syllable, LIZ-LIZ-LIZ, pulsating through his brain, measuring with a shrug just how much strength was still left in his big arms and shoulders, Sokolovich grabbed each brother by the neck and knocked their temples together. Their skulls cracked like falling bricks. Sokolovich pressed the brothers’ heads into the sand, his whole great body vibrating with whatever powers and desires it had remaining, and kept the pressure until blood started flowing from their ears and nostrils, until both brothers began to quiver under his hands like two small frogs pinned to the dissecting board.
Sokolovich then got up and walked in the direction of the blurry boundary between sky and sea. He felt dizzy and weak in his legs, and collapsed in the water. Liz fluttered before his eyes, her tender solicitous smile, a close-up of her turquoise earrings, then their table at La Baguetterie, her disappearing steps on a wet campus alley, finally a sweet fog of enveloping memories. He was dressing hastily: starched shirt, silver cufflinks, suspenders, handkerchief. He was definitely going to be late to class. He cut himself twice while shaving in their Parisian apartment on Rue des Marroniers. Looking out the window and dabbing his father’s stiff cologne his on cheeks and chin, Felix Sokolovich worried that his voice would tremble again when he said “hello” to Lise Vernakoff on the way to the Lycée.
Born in Moscow in 1967, Maxim D. Shrayer immigrated to the U.S. in 1987. He is professor of Russian and English at Boston College. A bilingual writer and translator, Shrayer is the author and editor of ten books, including The World of Nabokov’s Stories and Russian Poet/Soviet Jew. He recently edited and co-translated the two-volume Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature. Shrayer adapted “Sarda Resarta” from his forthcoming memoir, Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration. (updated 10/2007)