Translated by Veronika Velcheva
The old professor, with his broad-brimmed hat on, was carrying an old-fashioned canvas bag, hanging onto its shabby handles, heavy with a bottle of wine as the outlines suggested. He stepped slowly, looking down at his feet, as if he were contemplating something very important. But in fact, he was looking at his old-fashioned mesh shoes: their tips were so worn out, his toes were about to show through. Long ago they were really nice and he wore them with pleasure. Now, he had no desire to throw them away even.
He had no desire for anything, not even to go back home. Since his wife had gotten sick, he had lost all joy in life. Her diagnosis was dire – she was dying. Even after his retirement, he hadn’t stop working: he was reading, writing, publishing, lecturing. He had lived to see himself basking in an attention he had never dreamed of years ago, when he and his colleagues were abandoned in their institute, spinning their wheels on their problems, stuck for good. You should be thankful you are left in peace and quiet, they said; nobody is interested in your subject of proper names anyway – just mention the term „onomastics” and without any further questions you will be removed from all registries and records. But once it became fashionable to celebrate your name day, swarms of journalists and editors had started chasing him to explain the origin and the meaning of the names.
He didn’t notice how the years passed, how the kids slowly disappeared from both their lives. The changes in the country created new opportunities – both for him and for their children. His son was able to wangle himself a career specialization in England. Then, instead of returning back home he took his wife and child there, too. It happened in that winter of ridiculous poverty. His wife cried for their grandchild every evening and he tried to comfort her, saying that out there the boy was was eating more bananas in a week than he could ever have here in a whole year.
His daughter had just one year of studies left at the university, and yet she never graduated: instead, she opted to go to America on the Summer Work and Travel program and once she got there, she also decided not to return. He wondered what jobs were hiring students in November, weren’t the students over there supposed to study at that time, too? But when he saw her all excited for the travel, he let her go. He knew how burdensome restraints can be.
Gradually, he got more and more occupied with work, the initial tumultuousness of the changes swept everyone up. There were new universities, new newspapers, new shops: everything was new, everything progressed at an accelerated pace, striving to catch up with everything that had been missed. He and his wife regularly received letters from the children and both of them lived with the constant expectation that something very important was just about to happen, something that would finally fix their lives and the lives of all the Bulgarian people once and for all.
For his wife, this meant that the children would finally return back home. Both of them visited every summer and since they arranged to come at the same time, the professor’s small flat became a bit too crowded for a while. When his daughter married some dull American and his son got promoted, they bought an apartment together, so they could stay there during visits. From time to time his wife meekly and desperately declared that they would never come back again, but he tried not to think about this. He got out of such discussions by reminding her:
“Didn’t we leave our native places, too?
“But we never rooted ourselves out of them completely.”
“Think about how happy they are out there: they have jobs, families, they are content with their lives…”
“Yes, yes…” she would agree with indifference, but he knew that she just didn’t want to continue the conversation.
When she got sick he was startled and interpreted it for himself quite irrationally: her illness was all of the collected and unspoken silence, just wrapped in a modern medical term. By the end of the winter she was getting weaker with each day, to the point where she couldn’t even walk around the house on her own. Life was barely flickering in her and she was bracing all her strength for the summer, waiting for the children to come.
“We’ll mark 50 years of marriage in two weeks,” said she apathetically one morning.
He had had this distinct feeling of the fleeting nature of time for quite a while now and yet this statement suddenly stunned him. Of course, he had completely forgotten, only women can remember anniversaries. He adopted a look that said: “Why did you remember that, I wanted to surprise you!”
“We’ll celebrate it appropriately; it’s our Golden Anniversary, after all!”
His wife laughed bitterly, with a smile of someone who’s going to die soon. “I’m in just the perfect shape for a jubilee…”
“What do you want as a present?”
“Present?!” Fading, aged, desperate, she pressed her lips together, as if she was offended by his flippancy. “Make the children come…”
He understood her perfectly, but pretended he didn’t, he wanted to spare both of them the fake assurances that she would get better. “They will come in the summer.”
“The summer is too far away. Tell them to come for the anniversary.”
He promised, then got mad at himself. How could he force them to come? They couldn’t leave their work just like that for some anniversary. It’s one thing to come in the summer, in the time of their annual vacations, but this would be the early spring, the height of the working season. If only they had known earlier, they would have waited till the summer. But back then they could not postpone things – she was pregnant. It was some wedding… modern, socialist. They signed the papers in the municipality in the presence of a dozen of their friends from their institute, and never even considered inviting their parents.
“Make them come for the anniversary” – she repeated over and over again every other day. Her perseverance was desperate; so desperate that it scared him even more than her terrible disease. He was so close to telling her that she had to die first so that the children would be able to come earlier than their summer vacation. And the children themselves could not get the message despite all his prevarications over the phone. And finally, as if by a miracle, this morning their son called and said that he was going to be on a business trip to Thessaloniki and was going to drop by Sofia on his way back home. It was exactly on the day of the anniversary. He didn’t tell his wife, so it would be a huge surprise for her. He went to the local shop to buy a bottle of her favorite rosé for the occasion. He felt some kind of vitality; not happiness – happiness was something he hasn’t felt for months – but vitality it was, a feeling of weightlessness in the chest and head, as if he had found an answer to a difficult science problem.
The small street of the neighborhood was empty. In this afternoon hour, under the spring sun, the ugly apartment buildings didn’t look grey and lifeless but even sparkled with their hundreds of glass windows and balconies. Right around the corner, near the entrance, under the lusciously grown green bushes, stood a group of four or five teenagers. This place had caught the fancy of the students from the nearby school. They came here to smoke in secret, it was always littered with cigarette butts and empty beer bottles. The professor often watched them from the kitchen window. Sometimes he wondered if their parents knew their children were smokers, but then remembered that he himself didn’t know anything about his grandchildren.
He was passing by the group when a sharp and heavy smell hit him. He glanced at the teenagers. They couldn’t have been more than 16 years old, children still, still growing, still immature, with something impermanent in their frames. They were four boys and one girl. They spoke loudly and rudely, rushing to insult each other as a sign of a friendly intimacy. Some kind of nervous exhilaration kept them in a constant motion: they swung their arms, shifted from one foot to the other, spit through their teeth, nudged each other.
He was just passing by when the girl turned to him. She had small and delicate features, her brows were very pale, which emphasized her beautiful, prominent forehead. But the eyes that met his were turbid, lacking spark.
“Hey, bastards, look at this cowboy!” She shouted loudly with a brash and provocative voice and made a giggle-like sound. The others turned their heads. The girl, happy that she had won the boys’ attention, swore crudely.
“Holy shit, look at that hat!” The smallest kid in the group added.
A tall boy, with a bunch of chains around his neck, looking like the leader of the group, looked at the professor idly from head to toe and said nothing. He was his youngest grandson’s, the one living in America. The professor suddenly missed him – he hadn’t seen him for a whole year. Then he felt a pity for those kids squeezed under the bushes near the entrance. They were so young and yet they had already pierced their noses and lips and put rings and buttons in them. They were together but they had nothing to tell each other aside from insults.
“That’s a real cowboy hat!” One of the boys exclaimed and blocked the professor’s path. He was big, had expensive clothes, worn deliberately scruffy. With a sharp gesture he snatched the hat and put it on his head. It went down right to his brows. He shook his head, puffed out his chest and started showing off to make his friends laugh. They indeed giggled, yet a bit exaggerated.
The old man looked at them in silence. “Poor kids,” he thought, “they want to look big, strong, frightening. But in reality they are pathetic, lost in a way, pale from the cigarettes and weed they’ve smoked. With no idea what to do with themselves.”
“Kids, let me go,” he said softly,
“Kids?! Did you hear that! Kids, he calls us! Do you think that because you are an old man we are toddlers?”
“Keep the hat if you like it so much.”
The boy took the hat of his head and looked at it with a feigned interest.
“Aren’t you grossed out by him?” said the other boy. “Just look at him, he stinks like a graveyard.”
They wanted to provoke him. But something in the last phrase stung him. The kid was just stupid, but he managed to hit him where it hurt the most: death was near indeed, he had even gotten used to the thought. It was already there for his wife. For a moment he wanted to talk with these kids. But they were so impudent and cruel. He wanted to ask them about school, to tell them about his childhood, to understand what bothered them, to hear of something different from illnesses and medications, to tell them that he was alive. He could not talk with his own grandchildren, they didn’t speak Bulgarian well. In his mind, he smiled: the grandchildren of a professor of Bulgarian language can’t speak Bulgarian!
The wrist of the boy who stood in his way was wrapped up in a leather bracelet, which had his name scorched on it.
“Viktor,” read the professor out loud.
The boy stopped fooling around and looked at him.
“Your name means ‘winner, conqueror.’”
“Sure as hell it does! Everybody knows that!” snapped the tallest one.
“In the olden days it meant conquering evil,” the professor continued.
“What a know-it-all! Should be a professor or something…”
“Yes, I am, actually.” It was funny how they guessed everything about him.
“Did you hear that, a professor!” grinned the shortest of the boys.
“Boys, this deadwood has a bottle in his bag,” intervened the girl with a hoarse voice
“It’s a bottle of oil.”
“It’s not oil, I tell ya! I know what oil looks like,” she shouted back in falsetto.
The ringleader of the group pulled the bag from his hands. The professor had twined the handles around his wrist and staggered toward the boy. The young man was startled, thinking that he was being attacked. He stepped back and a knife glinted in his hand. Suddenly the old man was standing between the five of them, helplessly surrounded by the annoying laughter of their pubescent voices and their cocky remarks. They took the bottle out and started to open it.
“You will need a corkscrew,” the professor said. He reached in his pocket – he had a corkscrew on his keychain. The tall boy looked at him with disdain.
“Shut up!” he yelled and with one elbow knocked the old man back. The professor swung out his free arm trying not to fall. He failed to pull out his other hand from his pocket and fell on his side in front of his attacker. He felt a stabbing pain piercing his loins almost to the abdomen. He felt weak, dizzy and the air got stuck in his lungs. Lying on the ground, his body bent in half, he felt a warm humidity in his trousers. His pocket was full of blood. He didn’t know what to do with the corkscrew in his abdomen. The teenagers were startled, they looked at each other and started to back away. He got scared, looked up at them. They were sneaking out to the corner, looking back from time to time.
He tried to stand up, to get out of the bushes, to get to the street. Somebody had to help him. The blood continued to dampen the lower part of his body, warm and sticky. He leaned on his elbow, stood like that for a moment or two and collapsed. He had to gather his strength… His wife was waiting for him at home to bring the wine for the anniversary. The wine, yes, the wine, they must’ve thrown it somewhere near here… And he must not forget to tell her their son was coming.
He was faint, fading, starting to lose consciousness. A thought crossed in his mind: “Now both of them will come. It will be a terrific Golden Anniversary.”