I was the only diner in this tiny restaurant on the eastside of town, and the only thing that irritated me was the mirror facing me, a mirror in a gilt frame. Every time I looked up, I saw myself looking like a portrait of one of my own ancestors: Lazarus Trubman, deep in thought. I had dark circles under my eyes, but that was all. Apart from that I looked all right for a man who survived four years in the labor camp in Northern Russia.
“What would you like?” asked the barman.
“A cognac,” I said. “How’s your fish today?”
“Was caught this morning,”
“I’d like it deep-fried with some new potatoes, please.”
“I have a bottle of Yubileyny for a good occasion.”
“Can’t say no to that,” I said.
Yubileyny was arguably the best Moldavian cognac created in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of the October revolution. The barman conveyed my order to the cook in the back, uncorked the bottle and said filling up my glass, “I haven’t seen you in a very long time, teacher.”
“Almost five years,” I said. “And I really shouldn’t be here.”
As he rinsed the glasses, he said, “We went through some horrors here too, my son in particular, but it wasn’t as bad as being in the Soviet camp though…”
I nodded, sipped my cognac in silence, and listened to his story.
When he finally fell silent I said, “Sorry to hear what happened to your son.”
“He’s alive, thank god, but will probably use a cane for the rest of his life.”
“Alive is what counts.”
“Here’s to those who are not,” said the barman, pouring some cognac for himself.
He was a man of forty, tall, round-shouldered, with a pair of deep, sad eyes. A tattoo of an anchor on his left arm told me that he was in the Navy. My recollection of him as a younger man was somewhat blurry, but I had no doubt that he was the same one who served me drinks five years earlier. His son tried to set military barracks on fire, was caught, tortured, but let go.
“Yes,” he said again, “that’s how it was when you were away.”
My glass was empty.
“Another one, teacher?”
“I’ll wait for my fish.”
“Then a cigarette,” he offered, and pulled one out of the packet and clicked his lighter.
While I smoked, he dried the glasses. I was about to leave my country. Behind me were dozens of blood transfusions, restorative dental tortures, and scary talks with a cardiologist. Finally, I had been given a so-so bill of health and now waited for the slow-moving Immigration Office to approve my visa. This restaurant had been chosen as a meeting place by an old friend of mine, who agreed to keep my personal library, a collection of Russian and European classics—300 tomes in number—until I could settle in America and save enough money to pay for the shipment. That friend was late.
My fish arrived. The barman raised his glass and proposed, “Here’s to you, teacher, and all the others who paid for our freedom.”
We touched glasses, and he left me alone to eat in silence.
The fish was excellent, but I didn’t enjoy it. My mind was elsewhere.
The barman noticed.
“This is the best deep-fried fish in town.”
“It’s not the fish, Kostake,” I interrupted, “It’s me.” His name appeared in my memory suddenly, and I was really glad it did.
“You remember!” he exclaimed, and a wide smile lit up his face.
“Sooner or later everything comes back.”
“Would you like some coffee? I’m about to start a fresh pot.”
“I’ll have it outside,” I said. “I’m waiting for someone.”
I pulled my wallet out of the chest pocket, but Kostake forestalled my attempt to pay.
“It’s on me, teacher, and the drinks too. It seemed that we both needed some hard liquor this afternoon.”
We shook hands and I went outside and occupied a small table next to the lilac bushes. The rain had stopped, leaving behind small puddles everywhere and a light breeze from the south. I checked the time: three o’clock on the dot. I smiled. Three in the afternoon always seemed like a terrible hour, an hour without slope, flat and with no outlook. A time in my childhood came to me, when I was ill in bed and it was three o’clock in the afternoon, picture books, stewed apple, eternity.
“Your coffee, professor!”
“Thank you, Kostake.” I inhaled the smell of freshly brewed coffee. “Why don’t you join me? It’s beautiful after the rain.”
“I’d love to, but I must go.” He pointed at an approaching couple.
I watched him holding the front door open for his customers and was about to try my coffee, when someone’s light hand touched my shoulder.
“What are you up to these days, Lazarus, what are you up to?”
The voice and short laugh sounded unfamiliar and I turned around to see the man.
At first, I didn’t recognize Professor Oliescu as he stood there in front of me. His face was not merely pale—it was utterly different! And yet I felt that I knew him. He noticed my confusion.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked with a short laugh. “Yes, yes, they can do this to you—they and their newly invented mill-stones! But your camp wasn’t a vacation either, I’ve heard.”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. It was hardly a face, rather two cheek-bones with thin skin over them, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of the Professor Oliescu I had known, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, which was why it was short and much too large. His face was distorted, his eyes sunken.
“Professor!” I exclaimed and had to stop short not to add I was told that you were dead! Instead I said, “How the hell are you?”
“I’m great, Lazarus!” he put up another short laugh. “It’s spring in Chisinau!”
I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor of Electromagnetics at Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing.
“I’m better now,” he said. “Those mill-stones roughed me up quite a bit, but I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with thin skin over them was laughing; it just looked like it, and I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, Lazarus, I’ve gotten used to that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said feeling embarrassed. I wanted to leave, but he began coughing and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, two bloody spots percolated through his handkerchief. “Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a few more things I’m hiding under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to show,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”
“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and his belly was like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes hadn’t changed since I last saw him, lovely, but yes, sunken.
I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked with his short, deceiving laugh. “How about a drink for the occasion?”
He had been a colleague I looked up to back in the old days at the university, someone I respected more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink. I was concerned that my friend had not arrived at the restaurant.
“My dear professor,” I said, because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go; a few important things must be arranged urgently.” I decided to take a taxi to my friend’s apartment.
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I’d like that,” I said, finishing my coffee.
Maybe it was his laugh, I thought while checking the street for a taxi to take me to my friend’s apartment. Maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and died in the camp.
As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple paid and got out. I took the back seat, lowered the window and told him, “It was really nice to see you alive and laughing.”
“We shall meet again, Lazarus,” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said. “Always up for a good story.”
“You can find me at my old apartment. They gave it back to me, so I can die under a boring ceiling—instead of a starry sky.”
I couldn’t determine the color of his eyes.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
Lazar Trubman is a college professor from the ancient land of Bessarabia and a survivor of the labor camp in Northern Russia, who immigrated to the United States in 1990 as a political refugee. He taught the theory of literature and Roman languages in Arizona for twenty-two years. In 2017, he retired to devote his time to writing. His fiction and nonfiction appeared in dozens of literary venues across the United States, Canada, and Eastern Europe. A collection of his short stories and essays, Deadly, Quiet, Lonely Wilderness, is forthcoming in June 2019 from Adelaide Books.