Turgenev’s Lost Tale
Barry Rachin on Shakespir
Turgenev’s Lost Tale
Copyright © 2017 by Barry Rachin
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Turgenev’s Lost Tale
“Who was the main character in Turgenev’s novella, The Inn?” Professor Portman opened the discussion the third week of class. The lecture hall was half-filled, twenty-five students on a Monday morning. “
There was no immediate response. A minute passed. In his late fifties, the balding man, stoop-shouldered man wore wire-rimmed glasses and a habitually congenial expression. An inveterate bachelor, the professor favored that indolent, reflective manner common among scholastic types. “Did anyone bother to read the story?” His tone was more joking than accusatory.
“Akim Semyonitch, the Russian serf who belonged to the widow landowner, Lizaveta Prohorovna,” a female voice three seats down from Frankie Endicott rang out. Since the first day of class, the girl, who sat three seats away, wore a habitually surly expression like a badge of honor. She was cranky and taciturn. Perhaps churlish would be more apt. She possessed no social graces and yet, in Frankie’s eyes, in a perverse sort of way each fatal character flaw only heightened the woman’s physical appeal.
“And how would you describe the widow landowner?”
“A conniving shrew!” the same voice rang out. The sound of light laughter filtered through the room.
“Shrewd and greedy,” Professor Portman confirmed.
A hairy arm shot up in the air. “How come no Hispanic writers were included in the course outline?” The challenging jibe drifted to the rostrum from the far back of the lecture hall, where a dark-skinned Hispanic, Julio Rodriguez, slouched in an insolent, half-reclining position. Frankie recognized the speaker from a previous English class. In his early twenties, Julio usually sat with the minority students in the cafeteria and, on the several occasions when Frankie Endicott had greeted him in the school hallways, he never bothered to acknowledge the friendly gesture.
Over the last several years, Overland Community College welcomed large numbers of minorities – many on scholarships – from the low-income housing projects bordering the campus to the west. Diamonds in the rough, these students lacked basic skills. They couldn’t do simple math or punctuate a compound sentence. Worse yet, many were unprepared for the demands of academic life. They were increasingly confrontational and belligerent in class. Faculty couldn’t call them to task, because it was considered politically incorrect and anyone voicing concern was branded a bigot. Frankie tried to remain open-minded but felt the school’s generosity ill-conceived. Invasion of the Huns – it was an equal opportunity, public relations strategy gone haywire!
“Turgenev’s been dead a hundred years.” Julio made a vulgar gesture with his left hand. Without pivoting his neck, Frankie surreptitiously glanced to his right. The girl in the torn jeans three seats down perked up and was following the tête-à-tête with an amused expression.
Did she sympathize with the dissident Hispanic or were her allegiances with the instructor? He couldn’t be sure.
“We’re here to study literary classics,” the professor spoke softly, measuring his words. “Chekhov, de Maupassant, Turgenev, Flaubert… their works are anthologized over and over again for good reason.”
“Those names don’t mean crap to me.” Julio’s tone altered ever so slightly, taking on a more surly edge. “You never heard of Hector Santos?”
“A young Panamanian, who won the prestigious Booker Prize recently,” the professor replied. “Santos is an emerging writer with a certain amount of talent but not nearly the stature of any of the writers we will be discussing this semester.”
“That’s just your misguided opinion.” Julio glowered at the instructor.
Sensing that he was losing control, Professor Portman was becoming visibly flustered. Turning back to the class, he asked, “What other characters figure significantly in the story?”
“Kirillovna!” The girl’s booming voice echoed up into the rafters.
Even the professor was startled by the scruffy girl’s lightning-quick response. “Correct again… the despotic woman who manages Madame Pohorovna’s estate.”
Now the hand of a pudgy, freckle-faced girl with a receding chin near the front of the room shot up in the air. “Kirillovna… she took the five rubles that her mistress gave her for Akim, rushed off to her bedroom and locked the stolen money in a metal strong box.”
As though to bring closure to the earlier discussion, the Hispanic youth flung his pencil on the floor. “Still don’t see where any of this is relevant to my life!” With a theatrical flourish he stomped out of the lecture hall. A sinister tittered fluttered through the room. Clearly, among the younger black and Latino students, the Julio had his supporters.
“Stay a minute.” The class had ended. The whisper-soft injunction floated through the stagnant air from three seats away. Frankie gawked at the edgy girl, who was still facing the lectern. “Don’t leave… not yet.”
She never looked at him as she mouthed the stingy handful of words in a flat monotone. Only when the room had emptied out completely did she approach. By conventional standards, she wasn’t terrible pretty. The olive-colored face was plain and utterly non-descript. But if you looked long and hard enough, at odd moments an unadorned loveliness emerged from the aesthetic wreckage only to fade away like a fleeting afterthought.
“Something lousy is going to happen.”
“That skinny Puerto Rican has been organizing minority students. They’re pressuring the administration to revamp the curriculum.”
Frankie scowled and blew out his cheeks. “The jerk can’t bully faculty.”
“It’s worse than you think” she cautioned. “He’s organizing a coalition from Latino coalition to meet with the president.”
A sense dread pervaded Frankie’s brain. “For what purpose?”
Reaching up with both hands, she rearranged her black hair. It was only then that Frankie noticed the gold band on the fourth finger of her left hand. Any romantic notions he might have entertained instantaneously went up in smoke. “Don’t know. I just wanted to give you a heads up.” Pushing past him, she headed for the door.
Don’t suppose you ever read Hector Santos?”
Frankie was sitting in the school cafeteria nursing a tepid cup of coffee and grilled cheese sandwich. Julio Rodriguez pulled up a chair next to him.
“Actually, I have.”
“And where do you stand on the issue?”
Frankie had no intention of humoring the man. “Hector Santos … he’s a one-trick pony, who writes about the same sappy themes over and over and over again.”
If he was offended by the sarcastic rebuttal, Julio kept his composure. “Which are?”
“Hispanic men who cheat on their dishrag wives… delinquent children who bunk school, deal drugs and shoplift at the local mall.” Frankie sipped at his coffee.
“Julio seemed genuinely surprised to discover a ‘gringo’ who was actually familiar with the Panamanian writer.
“In Santo’s writings there’s never a happy ending. The men are all misogynists… the women subsist on welfare and AFDC. It’s worse than a Greek tragedy.”
“He won the freakin’ Booker prize!”
“Yes, he won the prize,” Frankie countered, “but, in academic, literary circles politics influences decision-making more than innate talent. Everyone remembers a decade ago when writers from the Indian subcontinent were all the rage. Later we went absolutely gaga over Haitian short fiction. Then Cuban chick lit was center stage. Flavor-of-the-month – a week from Tuesday, transgender hermaphrodites may be flooding the marketplace. Who knows?” Frankie pushed his tray aside. “To say that Hector Santos won the Booker Prize means nothing.”
Julio rubbed his bristly chin. He rose and, much as he had in the lecture hall, skulked theatrically away.
Toward the end of the semester, the nasty impasse reached the tipping point, metastasizing like a terminal disease and spilling over beyond the classroom. One summer day in late May, a hundred students milled about the quadrangle that abutted the student union. “What do we want?” A student with a wispy goatee and blue-checked bandana knotted around his forehead barked into a bullhorn. Climbing up on a stone terrace, he converted the landscaped structure into an impromptu speaker’s platform. “What do we want and when do we need it?”
“In response to each question the crowd shouted, “Free Choice! Now!”
A series of speakers was demanding the creation of a minority studies program, women’s center and hodgepodge of esoteric demands that Frankie could make little sense of. At odd intervals, Professor Portman’s name resurfaced, eliciting derisive catcalls and jeers.
“The devil incarnate… Professor Portman’s the Antichrist,” the young girl who sat three seats down from Frankie in the lecture hall was standing next to him. He still didn’t know her name but, in recent weeks, had begun to think of her as the ‘wedding band girl’.
Julio Rodriguez, who was standing at the front of the crowd, leaped onto the terraced wall. Totally in his element, he brandished the bullhorn like a lethal weapon. “I gotta study some nineteenth century, Bolshevik bullshit,” he shrilled, “while native-born Latino and Afro-American authors go neglected… unread. Is that fair?” An irate rumble percolated through the crowd.
“Organizers met yesterday in the student union building.” The wedding band girl lowered her voice several decibels so the others couldn’t hear. “Our friend, the Puerto Rican, suggested mobilizing the ACLU so they can transform the protest into a civil rights issue. The Afro-American Coalition, wants to contact the NAACP.”
“All this because Professor Portman won’t give in to their moronic demands?”
“See that coppery-skinned girl over by the brick walkway?”
Frankie glanced to his right where a skinny girl was inching through the crowd to secure a better vantage point. She wore a skimpy halter top and cut-off jeans.
“That’s Trish. She’s in my creative writing class,” she continued. “The sweetest creature imaginable!” None of the crowd’s hostility or belligerence had rubbed off on the lithe girl, who was alternately giggling and chattering away with another student. For her, the demonstration resembled a street festival. ”
“Trish… she’s a barrel of laughs but a moron… an utterly benign creature, who hardly ever shows up for class.” The wedding band girl paused to clear her throat. “Trish will flunk three-quarters of her courses and be gone from school by the end of the semester, but no matter – students like her… they’re a cash cow for the college, because their education is federally funded.”
“And Overland College understands perfectly well,” Frankie conceded, “who butters their bread.”
The wedding band girl waved an index finger at the mob. “Administration will be only too happy to throw Professor Portman under the bus, when the pencil-pushing geeks cave to their demands.”
“Something’s happening!” The throng unexpectedly lurched off, en masse, toward the building entrance.
“They’re gonna occupy the dean’s office,” she speculated. “Stage a sit-in.”
The crowd quickly disappeared into the forum, snaking its way haphazardly up the stairwell to the second floor landing where administrative offices were located. With her halter top that left little to the imagination, Trish, was giggling like an adolescent and pumping a closed fist up and down even though it was unclear whether she understood what was happening. It was all great fun.
“For sure,” Frankie muttered, “the school will capitulate to all their demands.”
Ten years later while vacationing in central Maine, Frankie Endicott visited the hotel bar for a nightcap before going to bed. When he returned, his wife asked, “Are you okay or do I need to call an ambulance?”
Frankie did not immediately reply. Rather he rested on the edge of the bed with his head slumped at an odd angle. In his mid-thirties, the plush, auburn hair had begun to thin, but a lean, athletic build and easygoing temperament made him appear younger than his years. His hands which rested in his lap were trembling noticeably. “At the bar I recognized someone I hadn’t seen in a decade.”
“And who might that someone be?” His wife, Alice, sat down on the bed and draped an arm over his shoulder. A petite woman, she wore her dark hair close cropped over a pert nose and pallid skin tones.
“Harry Portman, a chairman of the English Department at Overland Community College.” He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “The fall semester of my senior year, Professor Portman went AWOL… literally dropped off the face of the earth. The disappearance caused quite a commotion.”
Alice stared at him curiously. “And how is it you never mentioned any of this until now?”
“I told Harry we were touring Booth Bay Harbor for the next few days,” Frankie ignored the question altogether, “and he invited us to visit. He’s got a place not five miles from here.”
“Tomorrow after breakfast we’ll take a drive down.”
Alice’s features congealed in a perverse grin. “What was that peculiar business about dropping off the face of the earth?”
Frankie glanced at the radio clock on the night table. It was quarter to eleven. “What happened to Professor Portman… it’s a rather lengthy, convoluted story.”
His wife kissed his cheek and rose from the bed. “Go take your bath and brush your teeth. While we’re snuggling under the covers in lieu of lewd and salacious sex, you can tell me the saga of Professor Portman’s vanishing act.
In the morning the Endicotts enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the picture window in the main dining room overlooking the scarred, granite coast. “Frankie, you never quite explained why Professor Portman ran off.” As she spoke, Alice stabbed at a wedge of scrambled egg laced with cheddar cheese, chopped scallions and ham.
“I was in the process of explaining,” Frankie countered, “but you fell asleep and began snoring rather loudly.”
The waitress approached and freshened their coffees. “President McElroy, who ran Overland Community College, was intimidated by the hard-core agitators. When Professor Portman still refused to include any third world writers in his selected readings, more demonstrations erupted.”
“Inside the classroom?”
“Both inside and elsewhere on campus. The troublemakers raised an awful stink.” Frankie sipped at his coffee then added a spoonful of sugar and stirred briskly. “In Professor Portman’s course, we were trudging through some really tough stuff. In addition to Turgenev there was a novella by Flaubert and an obscure gem by the nineteenth century Swiss writer, Ernst Zahn.”
“Never heard of him,” Alice noted.
Out in the bay a trawler with lobster pots stacked six feet high was lumbering into port. A braided rope was tossed to shore and secured around a pair of metal mooring posts. “Few of his writings have been translated into English.”
The atmosphere in the classroom had been poisoned, but Professor Portman survived to the end of term without any overt anarchy. Grades were posted and classes emptied out for the summer recess. “In the fall when classes resumed, Professor Portman was gone.”
College administrators soon discovered that the truant professor placed his townhouse on the market in late July and absconded to parts unknown. Even extended family hadn’t a clue regarding his whereabouts. In early October, a senior faculty member was promoted to department head and his courses reassigned.
Many faculty at the college viewed Professor Portman’s behavior as vindictive. He was lashing out at an administration unwilling to censure agitators questioning his authority. At an impromptu faculty meeting, the dean of students, Professor Blackman, shouted, “Despicable, despicable… only a petty, little man runs away from healthy dissent.” Like some ritualistic incantation, Professor Blackman repeated that tiresome refrain over and over. “Despicable, despicable… the actions of a petty, little man!”
“Dropping off the face of the earth like that… most saw it as a cowardly act.” Frankie watched as the ship’s crew, dressed in knee-length, waterproof boots, came ashore. “Other detractors went even further, arguing that Professor Portman had a moral obligation to acknowledge minority students’ demands,… that the former chairman of the English Department had always been an intellectual Luddite out of touch with contemporary trends.”
“And where did you stand?” Finishing her breakfast, Alice dabbed her lips with a napkin and pushed the empty plate away.
Frankie placed a generous tip on the table next to a water glass. “Let’s go find the professor,” he replied, sidestepping his wife’s question.
Five miles due west heading away from the ocean they turned off the highway onto a scraggily, dirt road. A hundred feet from a tidy farmhouse, a battered mailbox with PORTMAN scrawled in red acrylic paint on both sides tilted at a cockeyed angle. Harry Portman was in the front yard scattering feed to a half dozen chickens. A dumpy, white-haired woman with braided pigtails on either side of her plump face was bending over near a pair of rickety beehives.
“How do you like the new chicken coop?” Professor Portman waved an arm at a broad enclosure where a dozen hens were pecking at the gritty dirt. “I built it with hand tools from do-it-yourself plans I found on the internet.”
The professor had cut lap joints into the eight-foot vertical lumber that framed the outer enclosure, securing the wood, not with nails, but sturdy nuts and bolts. The frame was then covered with chicken wire held in place by rust-proof staples. The henhouse, where the birds spent their nights, was fashioned from particle board overlaid with cedar shingles.
“They don’t teach such basic skills,” he chuckled, “at colleges these days.”
“Unfortunately not,” Frankie agreed. He gestured with his eyes at the plump, middle-aged woman showing Alice the beehives.
“My wife, Chepi. We married five years ago. She’s Micmac… originally from Newfoundland.” “Last night,” Professor Portman shifted gears, “you mentioned that you were teaching high school English.”
“Six years now.”
“And how’s that working out?”
Frankie paused long enough to allow his thoughts to congeal. “Between cell phones and cyberspace I’m fighting a losing battle.”
“I don’t suppose they read much Turgenev.”
Frankie rolled his eyes, a disparaging gesture. “No, not in this lifetime.”
“That’s a shame,” he replied with genuine regret. “And whatever came of that upheaval at the college?”
“The minority students prevailed… got everything they wanted. Now there’s even a separate degree program focusing on emerging, third-world authors.”
Professor Portman listened with a vaguely disinterested smile. Clearly, he harbored no bitterness or remorse. The turmoil and subterfuge remained buried in the far distant, prehistoric past. “And that Puerto Rican dissident, the one who stirred up all the commotion… Whatever happened to him?”
“Julio Rodriguez,” Frankie confirmed. “A few years back he brought out a slim collection of short stories through an indie publisher. The book was all the rage with the academics. Now he teaches creative writing at a university in Upstate New York.”
“Did you read the book?”
Frankie cracked a sick smile. “Neither Turgenev nor Flaubert would have been terribly impressed.”
“And why not?”
“There was little plotting, just an endless stream of four-letter words, gratuitous violence and explicit sex bordering on hard-core pornography.” In the distance he could see his wife carrying on an animated conversation with Chepi. “The main characters were nothing more than one-dimensional, talking heads.”
Frankie kicked at the dirt sending a piece of gravel skittering across the path. “Julio Rodriguez managed to parlay his lack of talent into a lucrative career.”
“In today’s literary circles,” the professor confirmed, “that would appear to be the new normal.” He paused to collect his thoughts.
For the first time since arriving, Frankie gazed at the land surrounding the professor’s property. In the far distance the meadow was peppered with wildflowers and blueberry bushes – beyond that a placid lake dappled with a border of ivory water lilies hugging the shore. It was a Pantheistic, self-contained universe, sublimely at peace with itself – an Edenesque safe haven for damaged souls.
“Your wife is a Micmac?”
“The region has a population of about forty thousand.” Professor Portman shook his head sadly. “Most of the young people are losing touch with the ancestral ways, although, to her credit, Chepi can still speak her native, Algonquian. Unfortunately, few of her people in this region of Maine understand the tongue.”
“What about written language?”
“Professor Portman wagged his head a second time. “In the old days they used a fairly sophisticated hieroglyphic script, but that’s gone now… lost to progress and innovation.”
“Your wife speaks English?”
“Yes, of course. Chepi went through the Indian school to the sixth grade. She can read and write well enough for practical purposes.”
For practical purposes… Professor Portman, the former Chairman of the Overland College English Department and scholar of nineteenth century European literature, had set up housekeeping with a woman who was only semi-literate. Frankie wondered what the esteemed professor’s former colleagues might think of that outlandish bit of incidental trivia.
At the rear of the henhouse, he unlatched a rectangular, shuttered window and slid the wood out of the way to gain access to the inside of the coop. Reaching into a straw-strewn box, he deftly removed a pair of golden brown eggs. “Tomorrow’s breakfast,” he announced with a droll smirk. “Think I’ll put on a pot of coffee.”
“Coffee… yes that would be nice.” Frankie watched as his former college professor lumbered off in the direction of the front porch.
Close by an outcropping of silver birch trees the two women were standing next to a top bar beehive propped up on four, split-ribbed cinder blocks. “Since the spring thaw, the bees have built eighteen bars of honey to the rear of the hive,” Chepi explained. “Brood comb is up front closer to the entrance, which is where the bees store most of their pollen to feed newborn. Winter honey reserves are further back.” She gestured with a pudgy palm toward the rear of the box.
“Where did you learn all this?” Alice pressed.
“That’s the way honeybees organize the hive.” She thought a moment. “It’s just common knowledge.” “Everything you need to know about the colony can be learned by watching the entrance.” She pointed to the half-inch opening in front of a short landing strip where half a hundred insects were helicoptering, swirling in a dizzying, choreographed ballet in broad circles. “These are newborns making their maiden flight.” “The worker that just returned with the golden saddlebags on her hind legs is an older bee who has been out foraging for nectar.”
“Is that pollen?” Alice asked.
“Yes… probably goldenrod or pepperbush. It’s hard to say exactly what’s blooming now.” Chepi angled her head closer to the entrance. “Hear that deep humming?”
“Actually, it’s quite loud,” Frankie interjected. Like jet engine heard at a considerable distance, the muffled sound was quite constant. The electric thrumming energized the air, whipping the insects into a giddy frenzy.
Chepi pushed her thick lips outward in an appreciative attitude. “Happy bees… very happy bees,” She shared this certitude, with unwavering conviction.
“And why are they so happy?” Frankie pressed.
“Plenty of nectar… much clean water. Sun and warmth and a fertile queen, who lays two thousand eggs a day.”
“Two thousand!” Frankie did the math in his head. “That would grow the colony by ten to fifteen thousand bees a week. Upwards of fifty thousand a month!”
“Like I said,” Chepi picked up her original theme, “very happy bees!”
“Coffee is read.” Professor Portman was standing on the porch waving an empty coffee mug over his head. “If you would like to come in for a while.”
Such a charming couple!” They were back at the motel later that night. Alice flossed her teeth, while Frankie sat on the edge of the bathtub. “Did you see her moccasins?”
“Very intricate needlework,” Frankie noted. During their visit, Chepi wore farmer jeans and a plaid blouse. The only nod to her Native American heritage was the moccasins.
“All that intricate beadwork was done with porcupine quills. Her grandmother taught her the traditional skill.”
As Chepi explained it, in the olden days, tribes moved constantly following seasonal cycles. In March the Indians converged on the smelt spawning grounds. Following that they hunted geese and collected waterfowl eggs. In the early spring Micmacs returned to the coast in search of fresh cod and shellfish. “By Autumn most of the biting insects – the mosquitoes, black flies and midges – were killed off in the first frost so the Indians could send hunting parties into the forest in search of caribou and moose.”
“A very resourceful race!” Frankie confirmed from his vantage point on the bathtub, ““The professor was telling me that Micmacs used the moose for clothing and meat much as the plains Indians did with the buffalo.”
Alice rinsed her mouth and put the plastic cup aside. “Well, this vacation has turned into quite an adventure.”
Frankie came up behind his wife, wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed the nape of her neck. It was never the over-the-top, ostentatious happenings but the unanticipated and inconsequential that ultimately brought them closer, deepening the marriage.
Eight years earlier, the day that Frankie proposed to his future wife, he drove Alice into Boston. They cruised down Massachusetts Avenue, taking a hard right onto Huntington. Two blocks up, he pulled the Toyota into a concrete parking garage. They had front row seats to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seiji Ozawa was conducting Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, the entr’acte to an opera by Verdi and Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia.
Through his teenage years, Frankie played trumpet in the high school concert band. He owned a cheap student model horn, a Holton Collegiate model. The bell was riddled with dents and dings. Half the lacquer had fallen away. He played third trumpet – the low notes mostly – and seldom practiced.
During the spring concert of his senior year the orchestra played a stripped-down version of Borodin’s, In the Steppes of Central Asia. Midway through the symphony, while the rest of the brass section soared in the upper register, Frankie was blasting away triple forte – a series of low c’s, bass tones that rang out like a sonic boom! The recurring eastern melody in Borodin’s symphony – it was the highlight of his abortive musical career. That haunting, repetitive refrain – it repeated over and over in the flute section like some musical elixir or soothing balm for the damaged spirit.
When the final notes died away and Seiji Ozawa rested the baton on the conductor’s stand, Frankie glanced at his future bride. Alice blinked several times to clear the residual moistness. She had felt the music every bit as deeply. Afterward in the lobby, she chattered away effusively. The Beethoven and Verdi were wonderful, but the minor-keyed Russian symphony stole her heart. Later that night when they reach home, Frankie produced a small velvet box and stole that ephemeral organ a second time.
“Chepi… did you ever learn what the name means?”
“Fairy spirit,” Alice replied. “Just before we left the Portmans I remembered to ask.”
She rinsed her mouth and returned to the bedroom. “With all the excitement of the meeting your long-lost teacher, you never told what happened in the motel lounge.”
The previous night when Professor Portman recognized his former student, the older man hustled him into a booth away from the noisy bar. “You might find this hard to believe,” Frankie confided after the initial small talk ran its course, “but I kept the anthology… the paperback we used in your final course. Every year or so, I read a few stories.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“Well, of course, Turgenev’s The Inn, is wonderful but the de Maupassant piece is still my favorite.”
The older man pursed his lips. “The Frenchman wrote so many excellent stories that I can’t remember which one we covered in the coursework.”
“Boule de Suif… the Ball of Fat.”
The professor’s eyes lit up instantaneously. “Such a wonderful tale!” He thumped Frankie energetically on the forearm and leaned across the table. “You know, scholars consider The Necklace the author’s most famous work, which, of course is true, but Boule de Suif is far and away a superior piece of prose.”
“It takes place during the war.”
“The Franco-Prussian War.” Professor Portman was back in his element taking literary fiction. “A Prussian officer won’t allow the fleeing residents of Rouen to travel to safe haven. Only when the prostitute is pressured by the group to sleep with the enemy are they finally allowed to continue on their journey.”
“Such a sad story.”
“Yes,” the professor agreed, “especially that poignant scene near the end where Boule de Suif is crying in the coach as the other travelers ignore the broken woman, refusing to even offer her anything to eat.”
The older man fell silent. He sipped his beer. The animation sloughed away and was overlaid with a deadened grimness. “They boxed the kind-hearted woman into an untenable position.” Frankie sensed that his friend’s thoughts had suddenly drifted elsewhere and they were no longer discussing the de Maupassant story.
Professor Portman swirled what little was left of the warm beer in a circular motion before tossing the liquid down his throat. “I asked myself, ‘What would Turgenev have done with such an unwieldy plot? How would the master construct a suitable denouement?” The waitress approached, but Professor Portman waved her off. “In the end, when all is lost, the fictional Akim Semyonitch realizes a blessing in disguise. He has lost everything… his wife, his fortune, his property, but only in the conventional sense.”
The professor winked at his former student. “Rather, it becomes a new beginning… an opportunity to reinvent oneself.”