Whom the Good Lord a hand lends, no one in the way stands

(If God does not give, the pig will not eat

Russian proverb)

Nothing matures like betrayal.

Boris Strugatsky

Part 1

Chapter 001

“Ramseeees!!!” my cell screamed. “Ramseees!!! Fuck!! Whassuuup, maaan!!”

That was Vova. He always cries bloody murder. And he’s also a terrible swearer. It’s useless to fight both habits. By the time I left the army, I had almost overcome this bad habit.

“Fuck, Vova! Your yelling is making my ear fall off!” Knowing the reason for the call, I smiled and pulled the phone away from my ear. “Hiya, you blockhead!”

“Fuck, sorry, Ramses!” he lowered his voice, chuckling with embarrassment. “Yooo, Ramses… I mean, are we going to the ‘Skies’ tonight, or what?!”

Vovka deliberately mangles words, drawing vowels, saying “yooo” and “whassuuup”. It comes out funny, he is always clowning around.

“But of course, what kind of question is that, Vladimir?” I played along in a serious tone. “Ten o’clock at the hotel, as usual.”

“Deeal! Greeat! All riiight! Seee yaa!” he drawled his vowels even harder, and we said goodbye until the evening.

It was Friday, April 29, 2005. But it didn’t matter. Vovka and I were upbeat party animals, hanging out in clubs five days a week. It just happened, and that’s how it always happens – at some point in life, Fate brings the right people together. Vovka and I turned out to be the right people for two reasons: work and bachelor life. I wasn’t married, and Vovka was recently divorced. I had seen his ex-wife, a very attractive girl, only once, more than three years ago, when I ran into them together on a country beach. I was driving my car, so I took the couple downtown. Afterwards, Vovka, obviously fighting a bout of jealousy, confessed that his wife had called me handsome. The situation was only amusing; I wasn’t in the habit of ogling taken women. Squat, about one hundred and seventy centimeters tall, stocky, with hair everywhere, even all over his back, pot-bellied, with a bulldog’s jaw, cold, gray, tenacious, and deep-set, predatory eyes – Vovka, like all men who are insecure around women, acted the other way around, constantly bragging and playing macho. But what kind of macho is he!? He also spoke very loudly. My father once said that it was a rural habit. Any emotional story Vovka would tell in a minute would turn into an obscene yelling. As a result, people around us would stare at us, I would feel uncomfortable, and I would blush and scold my friend. Vovka would calm down for a few minutes, but nature would take its course and everything would repeat itself with endless regularity. Actually, there are very few people who don’t use foul language. We should build a monument to them. First of all, my father – he never swore. After all, he spent more than a quarter of a century in the army! So there you have it.

I met Vovka again after the army about three years ago. We served in different units of the same division and didn’t know each other personally. But one day I went with my father to one of the wholesale depots. I entered the director’s office and saw a familiar face. Vovka recognized me at once. We were glad to see each other, and we got to talking outside. As luck would have it, Vovka turned out to be the deputy commercial director of the “Pelican” wholesale company of household chemicals. His boss, Andrey Petrovich, a big, tall man with a face red from drinking alcohol and watery eyes, indifferent to everything, hinted through Vovka about five percent extra if we wanted to sell our goods in the “Pelican”. It was a single-option offer, and my father and I immediately agreed. Everything happened quickly, and the next day we took the first batch of goods to the depot.

And then Vovka divorced his wife. Honestly, they never looked like a couple. Vovka met his future wife in the army at a disco, they got married like everyone else and divorced like everyone else, but without children. Vovka rented a one-room apartment near his work and indulged in the pleasures of bachelor life. He was a terrible womanizer, and a dirty one at that. Well, you know, that’s when the perception of women is all vulgar talk and greasy jokes. Vovka held a grudge. The meaning of his life was simplified to four things: money, women, hunting and camouflage. In that order exactly. All the days at work, Vovka rushed around with his hair disheveled, thinking about how to make a lot of money. And snatching also meant “making money”. That was basically where Vovka put all his mighty energy. At the same time, he kept an eye on all the women he liked and gave them a vibe of desire. Hunting was Vovka’s third passion; he could talk about it for hours. Every vacation, Vovka would go to his parents’ house in Pskov, wander around the fields and woods with a rifle, and tell everyone about it with great spirit for months on end. His pathological passion for camouflage stemmed from his love of hunting. Anything with a camouflage pattern on it was beautiful to Vovka. When he saw such clothes, he purred with joy and bought them. Vovka’s closet was always full of camouflage rags, but he almost never wore them in everyday life. Vovka dressed in bad taste, a little sloppy and simple; he walked with his legs wide apart, shifting from one foot to the other in a bearish way, and wore worn-out shoes.

I arrived at the meeting place in an old, rattling bus. I saw Vovka through the window, walking clumsily along the sidewalk, scratching the back of his head.

“Whassup!” he barked, and with all his might he put his fives in my palm, squeezing it tight. His hands are of the worker type, his fingers are short and inflexible. That’s why Vovka always spreads them before shaking hands, making his hand look like a crab.

“Hey, you blockhead! How’s it going!?” I replied, a little rudely in our way of speaking.

“You know, all day long at fucking work thinking about how to coin some money!” Vovka ruffled his hair. “Fucked my head off! No fucking clue!”

I laughed, and we wandered across the street at the green light. It was a beautiful, warm evening, already dark, and young people were actively flocking to the nightclubs.

“Oh! Edik is here,” I waved my hand in the direction of the “picker-uppers” standing across the street.

“Well, just awesome! We’ll ride home drunk on Edik!” Vovka laughed out loud, pretending to be drunk, staggering and hiccupping a few times for good measure.

Edik was a young man of about twenty-two, a short, slender brunette, in his final year at university. He had an attractive face, but he would have looked better if he hadn’t smoked, if he hadn’t spent all his time curled up behind the wheel, and if he had exercised. Edik drove a white VAZ-2107. Cars were his passion. Trying to improve his own, he was always tinkering with it. The backlights of the “seventh” model Zhiguli car, two red circles, shone through the rectangular plastic like rocket jets. Everything in the cabin that could glow emitted the same muted red color. The acoustics got with the program: when Edik turned on “Rammstein,” the sound reverberated a hundred meters away, and a red sonic hell broke out in the car.

Edik’s second passion was women. This puny little guy was one hell of a smooth operator. Edik’s eyes gave him away – he would get greasy at the sight of any girl or woman. Edik had a hard time with his girlfriend. They fought as much as they made up. I saw her a few times: skinny as a rail, crooked figure, the girl was hopelessly stupid and ugly. What did he see in her? It’s a mystery. Apparently that was the reason why Edik insistently compensated for his relationship with her by getting screwed with other women. I met him about a year ago. As usual, I left the club at night, hammered, and walked in a loop to the hotel, where the “picker-uppers” were always parked. I boozed away the last of my wages at the club, which I honestly told the first driver. I said I would pay him back when I got the money at home. The “picker-uppers” were often cheated out of money this way, and Edik was the only one who gave me a ride. Since then, I haven’t had any problems with taxis after the club. I would call Edik and he would pick me up from any place and in any condition. Sometimes he dropped me on the cuff, but I didn’t abuse his credit. With Vovka’s appearance, Edik had more work: instead of one drunken partygoer, he started driving two of them home.

The club was two blocks away.

“So, how’s work? The fucking sales are going through the roof, ain’t they?” Vovka shouted excitedly.

“Yeah, it’s fucking great right now – the selling season, doing well,” I nodded.

“Oooh, bigwigs!!!” Vovka bellowed with a touch of envy, grasped my right elbow with his strong fingers and looked greedily into my face from below.

I could feel Vovka’s envy with my skin. He sort of laughed it off. But Vovka was a lousy actor. I wasn’t offended by my friend’s feeling; it wasn’t the envy of a talentless lazybones, but of a man of action. It was as if the stallion in the corral, seeing the wild horses running by, began to circle furiously around the corral, wishing with all his might to be on the other side. For the past two years, our business had been growing slowly but steadily before Vovka’s eyes. My father and I belonged to the category of “free” people, working for ourselves. Vovka, on the other hand, was a wage-earner. This depressed him and often made him envious of the “bigwigs”.

“What bigwigs? Come on!” I yanked my elbow out of my friend’s clutching claw.

“Bigwigs you are, for fuck’s sake!!! I know!” he grinned and laughed. “Hee-hee-hee!”

“I would love to see you carrying those stupid boxes with my dad all day long… Last year it was a nightmare, we didn’t get home until 8 p.m. every day! And when spring started, it was horrible, loading and unloading these boxes from morning till night! There are a lot of orders, we’re working at our limit… Good thing we got rid of retail! Otherwise we’d still be working our butts off on weekends… Although lately we’ve been delivering on Saturdays… It’s a shitty trend… We have to end it, or we’ll end up liking it,” I laughed. “So we’re not bigwigs, but ordinary workers! Bigwigs sit in their offices and my father and I work like shit!”

“Oooh!!! All right, all right, I’m kidding, Ramses!” Vovka turned and whistled, making eyes at the passing girl.

We came to a traffic light, there were no cars, without stopping we continued on our way. After a few minutes there was a movie theater on the left and another traffic light on the right. We stopped and waited for the green light.

“What’s new with you at work, anyway?” I asked.

“What new could there be, you were at ‘Pelican’ yesterday, for fuck’s sake!” Vovka began to rub his face with his hand as if he had been asleep. “What the hell can there be? All the same.”

The green light came on and we started to cross the street.

“Ah! Wait!” Vovka stopped in the middle of the street. “Daddy bought a new jeep!”

“Daddy” was the owner of the “Pelican”, a moneyed man in his fifties, tucked-up, looking like a retired military.

“Let’s go, what are you standing here for?” I shoved Vovka under his elbow, laughing softly and snorting.

Vovka became sad and staggered on, rubbing his face again. He always gets sad when someone makes his little dream come true. Vovka likes jeeps.

“Nice outfit?”

“Yea!” he nodded and smiled contentedly. Vovka’s “yea” instead of “yes,” meant the point of highest approval of something. “Yea!” Vovka made his point; it was unwavering and absolute. I didn’t mind, because in his dreams Vovka had already seen himself behind the wheel of such an “armored vehicle”, galloping through the valleys and fields and shooting all kinds of beasts.

After crossing the street, we turned left, the club was about thirty meters away.

“How much did he shell out for it?” I asked.

“Two mil!”

“Wow! Darn well!”

“Fuckin’ A!” Vovka ruffled his hair. “I want one for me now!”

“Sure you do!” I laughed and patted my friend on the back.

“Oh-ho-ho!” Vovka exclaimed as he saw a group of people in front of him.

“Clear Skies” was a popular club, and since Friday night there had been a steady stream of people at the entrance. Outside, two security guards in black suits stood with their backs to the door. In front of them, a swarm of twenty men roared and buzzed in their drunken voices, their backs pushing against the fronts, which in turn were pushed back by the guards. This could go on until midnight. We approached and I looked through the side window into the club. The guard I knew was standing on the stairs. When our eyes met, I pointed to the entrance. The guard nodded and headed for the door.

“Let these two through!” he said in the gap to the outside, barely able to open the door a few centimeters with his shoulder. The guards responded by pushing the crowd away from the door a bit, and Vovka and I quickly slipped in behind their backs. The sounds of fun and music emanated from the club, and the crowd behind us immediately let out a disgruntled roar. Too late, the door slammed violently behind our backs, once again taking on the onslaught of the crowd.

Clubs are another story. When I was twenty-eight, after a couple of long but unsuccessful relationships, I had been partying for two years. The negative experience of relationships had dulled my desire for new ones for a while, so I plunged into debauchery. I had to admit that the “debauchery” was quite pleasant. If someone were to ask me if I would live those years again, the answer would certainly be “yes”. After going through most of the entertainment venues in the city, I found myself at the “Clear Skies”. The club strangely attracted people like me, aimlessly hanging out with young people who were tired of nightlife. “Clear Skies” wasn’t really any different. But throughout the year, it had twice the attendance of the other clubs in town. Even in the “dead season” of midsummer, when the whole city went to the southern resorts and a few people were miserably spending time elsewhere, “Clear Skies” was half full. In September, as soon as the city population returned, the place was under siege. And all because it was located in a small basement. The streets of the historic center of the city consisted entirely of rows of two-, three-, and four-story houses. The corner of one of these houses was the entrance to “Clear Skies”. A heavy wooden door hung from the front of the corner; the side, like a storefront, looked out into the alley with a row of tall windows; above the window display, on an illuminated dark blue background with a golden scattering of stars, was a bright inscription: “Clear Skies”. The alley led in the dark to a rectangular paved platform surrounded on all sides by houses. There was a gap between the houses in the far corner, where many hammered ones went to piss. There was a constant, faint stench of urine coming from the alley.

Just outside the door was a steep, straight staircase, about twenty steps down. It ended in a cramped two-by-two-meter space. To the right of the place was the door to the checkroom, a small, narrow cell with the sour face of a check girl always sticking out of the window, propped up by her fist. A cashier sat solemnly here behind the counter. After paying the entrance fee, the customers went through an archway to the left into the club itself. It consisted of three rooms: the first was the main room with tables on the left, about forty meters square, half a meter below the level of the rest of the club; the second was a square room on the right, about thirty meters, also packed with tables; the third and farthest was the dance floor, straight ahead. The central path between the first rooms led to a large bar and then, parallel to it, to a grotto, literally a cave, as if hollowed out in a solid mass of red brick. The grotto was a small square room, about fifteen meters square, with a column in the center. A row of bar stools continued along the right wall of the grotto with two one-meter niches – a waitress bar and a small bar at the end. The left wall of the grotto was solid and ended in the far corner with an arch, behind which was the dance floor, a rectangular two-tiered room of sixty meters. The near half consisted of a two-meter counter on the left wall and a dozen tables in the corners, leaving the middle part free. The far half, like the first room, was a half-meter low and connected to the near half by a three-step wooden staircase with handrails and thick columns on either side of the stairs. This half was reserved for dancing. Two mini-scenes, also half a meter high, protruded from the walls in a half-meter circle. The first was from the right wall in the middle, and the second was from the far left corner. Behind it, in that corner, there was a door with a window, just like the one the check girl had. The door led to a cramped five square meter D.J.’s den. The far right and center walls of the dance floor were mirrored from ceiling to floor.

The restroom at “Clear Skies” was unusually higher than the basement club, on the first floor of the building. From the central walkway in front of the big bar, a flight of stairs led to the right and sharply up, in a semi-roll, and they were a challenge for drunk customers, as more than a few people twisted their legs there and tumbled down the stairs. The steps ended in a tiny square space with two doors leading to the right and left: one to the women’s room and one to the men’s room.

Visitors were divided into two categories: those who sat at tables in the halls, and those who came light, just to drink, dance, and loiter around the bars and along the walls of the grotto. Two hours before midnight, when the music on the dance floor started playing loudly, the crowd at the bar, in the grotto, and on the dance floor was filled with those who were tired of sitting at their tables. The big bar was immediately crowded. The narrow passage to the grotto and the grotto itself were packed with people. To get to the dance floor, one had to crawl through the dense jumble of living bodies and move stubbornly in the right direction. The density of the living mass was complemented by a pall of tobacco smoke and the loud hum of conversation. The smoke filled the grotto thickly, turning the air into a translucent, acrid fog and gradually spreading throughout the club. In the midst of it all, waitresses with full trays scurried nervously about. They met at their counter to dump their dirty dishes on it and take their next order on a tray. The alcohol conveyor belt started at the big bar, continued at the small bar and on the dance floor when the music started – vodka, less often tequila, even less often whiskey, very often beer, often “screwdriver” and other popular cocktails.

During the day, the place functioned as a cafe; when the music was turned on, it became a club. By midnight, the flow of customers was at its peak, and the place looked like a barrel full of fish, flavored with a sauce of alcohol and tobacco smoke. The perfect time to enter “Clear Skies” was an hour before midnight, when the line for alcohol was not too long, the tipsy customers were not yet drunk, and the peak of the fun was yet to come.

“Howdie!” I slapped the guard’s outstretched five.

“Oooh!!!” Vovka roared, then swung his “crab” into the same hand.

“Any girls?” I nodded down.

“To the brim!” the guard ran his finger across his throat.

“Well, in that case, see ya later!” I smiled and stepped down.

“Wooow!” came an approving growl from Vovka behind me.

After passing through the archway, we made our way through the air, heated by bodies and music, toward the big bar. A short waitress with a tray over her head and dirty dishes on it skipped nimbly toward us. I glanced at her: “No, not the one I like.”

The big bar was already covered with drinkers. I put my hand over their heads and said hello to the bartender. Vovka, standing on tiptoe, repeated the ritual.

“Anyone there?” I glanced at the small counter.

The bartender nodded.

“Well, then we’ll go and order something… alcoholic…”

“Yeah, let’s knock down a ‘screwdriver’!!!” Vovka shouted behind me.

Here his habit of shouting came in handy – the music shook the walls of the place, joined by the hum of conversation, the clatter of dishes, and the almost incessant ringing of the phone on the big counter.

After saying hello to half of the club’s regulars, we squeezed through the grotto to the second bartender. I waved to him and took a place at the end of the already long line, in the most comfortable place in the grotto – the archway between the central pillar and the right wall. Vovka began to turn his head excitedly, looking at all the girls passing by. I took out a pack of “Lucky Strike”. Vovka immediately stuck his fingers into it and with a familiar movement pulled out a cigarette for himself. We smoked.

I started smoking late, at the age of 24. I could have avoided it, but I was foolish. I wasn’t much of a smoker, five or six cigarettes a day. In the clubs I would smoke more, up to a pack a night. The next morning my head would obviously hurt, and I would have a persistent aversion to cigarettes all day. But in the evening it would go away and everything would start all over again.

“What else is new at your job, anyway!?” I asked Vovka loudly, leaning close to his ear and straining my cords, trying to shout over the rumble of the club.

“What could be new there!” Vovka shrugged off, fidgeting in the archway. “Petrovich pissed me the fuck off, scooping dough for himself! I think I should give him up to Daddy, so he can kick him the fuck out of the depot!”

“What do you mean, scooping for himself? Not sharing it with you? I thought you were swindling the whole thing together…”

“Nah, he’s got his own customers there! And he’s also in the perfume business, shoving it all over the place through his buddies. He sells it to us here, too, and then he takes the cash and puts it in his pocket…”

“Anything for you at all?” I asked an uncomfortably direct question.

“A few crooks like you… heh-heh-heh…” Vovka began to bore me with a sly, greedy squint of his eyes, “Pay me tribute!”

I gave him a jab on the shoulder, and Vovka, pleased with his words, laughed even harder.

“When will we get our ‘screwdriver’!!!??” he suddenly yelled impatiently at the bartender, standing on his tiptoes.

“Soon…” he smiled, twirling the burning glass of sambuca and extinguishing the flame sharply.

The guy, a customer, drank half a glass of sambuca in one gulp, and the girl drank the rest. Leaning against the counter, the guy sucked in the alcoholic fumes from under the glass through a straw. The line watched the action with interest. The guy straightened up, put his arms around the girl, and with a red face and bulging eyes, pulled her into the darkness of the dance floor.

“The usual?” the bartender looked at us.

“Yeah, the usual! And more fucking vodka!!” Vovka shouted, pushing his way to the bar and shaking the bartender’s hand. The bartender turned away and started to prepare the drinks. In a minute, half-liter plastic glasses with the cocktail were in front of us.

“Two double screwdrivers…” the bartender pointed to them, nonchalantly putting his hands in his pockets and staring at us questioningly. After paying, we took our booze and squeezed back into the archway. The line behind us immediately closed around the counter.

We always ordered a “screwdriver”. The drink was an easy way to judge the amount of money in a visitor’s pocket, unless, of course, they sipped something expensive from the same glass all evening. The penniless guzzled beer, while those with money showed off their glasses of whiskey or, at least, cognac. Others, trying to prove that they had money, although their faces clearly showed the opposite, threw dust in the eyes of others with a tried and true trick: they ordered a bottle of vodka. I didn’t try to prove anything, money was scarce at that time – I drank “screwdriver”, it was cheap and gave the guarantee of a slow intoxication. We drank cognac or whiskey at Vovka’s house; he always had some in the fridge. Eventually the “screwdriver” became insufficient, so I switched to a double dose and lured Vovka in as well. The double “screwdriver” contains a hundred grams of vodka and four hundred grains of juice, and these half liters take much longer to drink. I managed to know exactly when I was going to get drunk and when I had enough. It was perfect to drink four or five double “screwdrivers” in one evening, so as not to get too drunk, and to capture the very state of euphoria: when you relax after a day’s work; you see and perceive everything perfectly; communication works out just fine; a smile never leaves your face; everyone seems like “brothers,” “sisters,” “friends,” and “girlfriends”; and the whole world seems exclusively rose-tinged. If I had a few too many, my behavior would regress: I would become withdrawn, gloomy, aggressive, my tongue and legs would become slurred, I would become depressed, and I would have silly thoughts in my head. Besides, I could not boast of a strong vestibular apparatus. If there were more than five double “screwdrivers” in an evening, I almost always ended up throwing up. Smoking only exacerbated the effects of the booze. And I smoked cigarettes one by one in the clubs.

I sipped the “screwdriver” on the red grape juice through the straw – so bitter! The bartender really didn’t spare the vodka. Vovka and I stood in the archway, smoking and getting high on alcohol. There’s nothing to do in clubs when you’re sober.

“Listen! If Petrovich gets kicked out by Daddy, then you’ll be in his place!?”

“Sure as shit!!!” Vovka stared at me like I was an idiot. “Otherwise why the fuck would I kick him out? So some jackass can sit in his place?”

Vovka sucked in his cocktail and took a drag on a cigarette.

“I’ll give the dumbass the fuck up!” he continued, hurt. “Have you seen the chick that comes to Daddy in the big blue Peugeot?”

I thought about it. I remembered. A Sophia Loren-type figure, Gina Lollobrigida-type looks. Even a blind man would notice such a woman – a striking brunette, very middle-aged with outstanding curves and the ability to package and present them beautifully. A well-groomed and stylish lady with “turtle” sunglasses. I often saw her at “Pelican”. In the wholesale depot, she looked like a thoroughbred pea-hen in a chicken coop.

“Oh, yeah! I saw her! What was she doing there?!” I asked.

“No idea!” Vovka shrugged his shoulders. “For some reason, she always goes to Daddy’s place on the second floor… She has some kind of business… Daddy’s drooling all over her!”

Then he stuck his tongue out of his mouth like a dog and started to “lap up water”. I laughed at Vovka’s silly look, and the girls who had squeezed through the crowd stared at him. Vovka immediately blushed, got confused, and turned back to the wall, hovering in embarrassment.

The evening went on as usual – we made our way to the dance floor, pumped full of alcohol. The crowd there was already hot, the exhaust was not able to cope with it, and it was getting stuffy. The two mirrored walls fogged up to halfway down the floor like a sauna. The dancers practically merged into one bouncing and squirming mass, from which the sour smell of stale clothes, sweat, cheap perfume, and deodorant wafted in waves. With each passing minute, the general intoxication grew, and the boys danced closer and closer to the girls, who put up less and less resistance. The girls wiggled their bodies invitingly, catching the men’s flaming eyes in satisfaction. The guys tried to get closer to the girl they liked, to merge with her in a common rhythm. If there was no reciprocity, rejected by one, the guys would catch the next girl in their lust focus and move toward her. The rejected one’s place was immediately taken by the next. An endless merry-go-round of sweaty, drunken faces in a roar of music and strobe lights flashed before my inebriated mind. The dancing of the couples formed looked more and more like an imitation of sexual intercourse. Couples were kissing each other hotly in the corners. I participated in the drunken roundabout of lust with everyone: someone’s breasts, someone’s thighs, someone’s cool ass, horrible perfume, beautiful lips, rough hands, sticky waist skin, smoky voice, drunken eyes, beautiful hair, angular movements. I tried in vain to remember names. Vovka was here somewhere. A few times in the evening he and I went outside for some air and a smoke. It was a whirl, crowding, endless motion, the grotto full of people, waitresses swearing at everyone in a row in a strained voice. The one I liked looked at me. The drink began to put pressure on my bladder. I left Vova in the archway and went to the restroom. But at the first steps of the steep staircase I ran into a line. Twenty minutes of agony, and I finally reached the toilet: one urinal was locked and full of urine, the cubicle was occupied. I relieved myself into the second and only working urinal. I was a little shaky, but I seemed to hit the urinal, trying not to breathe because of the horrible smell in the toilet. The cleaning lady, an elderly, creaky, stooped woman with hair dyed with cheap henna, came into the toilet with a rag on a mop and began angrily scrubbing and cursing. Her impetuousness confused everyone, even the most drunk and aggressive guys. Mumbling unintelligibly and hastily buttoning their pants, they began to slip out of the restroom. I could not pee in front of a woman, so I hastily stopped halfway through, pretended to be done, and made my way to the sink full of water and crumpled toilet paper. After washing my hands, I headed for the stairs. Not wanting to fall, I concentrated on grabbing the railing and climbing down, found Vovka, nodded to him, and we rushed outside again for some fresh air.

Five double “screwdrivers” and half a pack of cigarettes – I was drunk. Vovka seemed to be as well. Time flew by quickly, and people began to disperse. We sat in front of the glass of the entrance, resting our asses on the metal canopy. At the end of the alley, insecure, half-drunk shadows flashed by one or two, either easing themselves or kissing. The heavy front door banged periodically, letting the noisy crowd out of the club. Some left cheerfully, some wandered aimlessly away, disappearing unnoticed into the night, while others, like us, went outside for some air and a smoke. There was a drunken buzz all around, and the air was saturated with adrenaline. We returned to the club.

It was three in the morning. The music died down, the silence immediately hit my ears and became oppressive. Vovka and I said goodbye to everyone we could see, and finally left the club. I love the city at night. Especially when it’s warm. You can take a leisurely walk and chat. Especially when you’re drunk you have a lot to talk about. I looked at Vovka, he was rocking. I took out my cell phone, called Edik, and told him we were coming.

“That waitress was staring at you!” Vovka said unexpectedly.

“Well, yeah, I guess so… She’s all right,” I nodded, pretending to be indifferent.

“Yeah, all eyes and lips!” Vovka’s face was full of satisfaction.

“Come on, she’s a nice girl!” I defended her reflexively.

“Did I say she wasn’t nice or what!? Not ugly, a nice, pretty girl!”

“That’s what I’m saying, she’s nice! I like her…” I confessed on purpose, hoping to satisfy my friend’s interest a little and to extinguish it at the same time, but it turned out to be the opposite.

“Why don’t you get to know her then? Come over, blah blah, allow me to introduce myself, madam! I’m a bigwig, dough comes out of my ears, I want you!” Vovka exclaimed, showing his ability to vulgarize everything.

I hummed and shoved him on the shoulder. Vovka played along, wiggled as if he were wobbly, made a loop on the pavement with his jelly legs, and grinned contentedly as he walked next to me again.

“Why the hurry, she’s not going anywhere, we see her there every day…” I shrugged it off, but the thought stuck in my head and I started to think about it.

“They work by the week, watch it, it’s Friday, so she’ll work for two more days. Otherwise you’ll screw up your happiness!” Vovka urged me.

“Well, I’ll get to know her in a week then…” I continued imitating indifference.

“Do you even know her name?” Vovka wouldn’t let up.

“I don’t. I’ll find out later.”

“What a fellow! Watch out, or the lipped one will be taken!” my friend taunted me again.

“She looked at me… she won’t be taken…” I retorted, smiling.

“She’s got a nice ass, too!”

“You’ve examined it all, haven’t you?”

“Well, what’s wrong with that? I like a girl to have stuff.”

“Who doesn’t? So, am I staying with you?” I changed the subject.

“Fuck, Ramses, sure thing!” Vovka shrugged, took his hands out of his pockets and spread them apart. “I don’t mind, the red couch is waiting for you!”

We turned the corner, and there was a line of cars along the curb. Edik’s “seventh” was in the middle, with the glowing tail “boosters”. Vovka and I promptly opened the doors of the car and stumbled noisily inside. Edik was sitting behind the wheel, fiddling with the dashboard. He gave us a melancholy look and immediately returned to his work.

“Well, boogied to your heart’s content?” Edik smiled.

“Yeeaah!!!” Vovka roared from the back seat, panting loudly and fidgeting.

“We’re fucking crashed!” I confessed as I settled into the front seat.

“Well, that goes without saying…” Edik summarized philosophically, stopped rummaging under the steering wheel, stared at me with unblinking eyes, and smiled. “Let’s go?”

I nodded, stretching my face into a stupid, drunken, satisfied smile.

“And turn up the fucking music!!!” drunk Vovka yelled directly into my ear from behind.

Edik pressed his fingers on the radio buttons, turned the key in the ignition, the first melodic motifs of the song filled the interior, the engine revolutions jumped up with a roar, the percussive sound hit my ears like a sledgehammer from the speakers:

Getadelt wird wer Schmerzen kennt

Vom Feuer das die Haut verbrennt

Ich werf ein Licht

In mein Gesicht

Ein heisser Schrei

Feuer frei!

The car sped off and raced through the empty streets.

Bang! Bang!

“Just don’t throw up…” I thought, gripping the door handle tighter. We were racing, making sharp turns. I wasn’t thinking about safety – Edik was an excellent driver, I was worried about my stomach – I felt a little queasy.

Vovka lived in a semi-criminal working-class neighborhood, which was full of shabby brick four-, three-, and two-story “Khrushchevka” buildings. He rented a cramped corner apartment on the top fourth floor of one of these buildings.

Edik pulled up at the bus stop – we arrived. I was glad that it was Saturday and that I could sleep off the last week at Vovka’s house until noon. I still felt dizzy, so I opened the door and got some fresh air. Vovka climbed out of the back seat, grunting and cursing. After getting the money, Edik drove away, leaving us alone in the silence of the night. We walked deeper into the sleeping yards, two hundred meters straight to Vovka’s house.

It was almost pitch black in the courtyard, and not a single streetlight was on. There was no canopy over the metal door, and a hollow pin in the wall above it was all that was left of the light bulb. We went inside. A bulb was flickering on the first-floor landing, and there was a smell of dampness. The old entrances always stank. Everything in these “Khrushchevka” buildings is bad: small floor areas, narrow staircases with different inclinations, stairs of different heights and depths, and cramped apartments.

We walked up. We were both out of breath almost immediately. My heart was pounding in my ears. I gasped heavily and held on to the railing. The alcohol in my blood prevented me from walking smoothly. Vovka sniffed noisily behind me. We both stomped loudly.

We finally made it. I wanted to sleep so badly. I quickly stripped down to my underwear, visited the bathroom, and staggered into the kitchen, thirsty for tea. I took a cigarette, sat down on a creaky old wooden chair with a back, and lit up. Vovka came in next, in camouflage underwear, looking around the kitchen, drunkenly scratching his hairy belly, and lit up, too. We sat facing each other and waited for the kettle to boil.

“Wanna some cheese?” Vovka laughed soundlessly.

“Will you shut up about your fucking cheese?” I laughed, too.

“Why? There’s plenty of cheese!” Vovka continued and opened the fridge. It was full of cheese. Several large round wheels took up almost the entire space. I laughed again.

“I mean, we have to eat it, it will go bad!” Vovka added, as if to apologize.

“Why did you bring so much? You could have taken some…”

“It’s a freeload, man! How could I not take it?” Vovka scratched the back of his head in surprise. “They would have thrown it away anyway, they wrote it off, I had to take it. And the cheese is good: ‘Dorblu’, ‘Parmesan’, it’s not our cheap shit. Sure thing, I had to take it.”

I kept giggling. The kettle boiled, the switch flicked.

“Now you have to chew cheese all day, every day!”

“Fuck, Ramses, I munch it all the time! Fucking sick of it!” Vovka laughed, poured the tea into cups, tossed a tea bag into each and handed one to me. We started to drink the tea, took a sip and then a drag on our cigarettes.

“Finish it and then turn in for the night…” I muttered. “I can barely keep my eyes open…”

“Well… the red couch is fucking waiting for you! Hee-hee-hee-hee!” Vovka laughed again.

“No fucking hospitality… You can’t just lie down on this couch and give me your airfield as a guest…” I laughed, in a friendly way. “It’s a fleabag, not a couch.”

“Well, there is no other. You’re welcome to all we have.”

We finished our drinks and cigarettes and went to bed. I lay down on the old couch, which creaked under me. My ribs pressed through the fabric into the crooked spring, and I began to think of her, but Vovka’s snoring from the bed knocked me down, too.

“Do you have any Citramon?” I said in the morning, without opening my eyes.

Vovka was already fumbling around in the kitchen, rattling the dishes.

I opened my eyes with difficulty and looked around.

“Headache or what!?” there was a rumble from the kitchen in reply.

“Yeah, terribly splintering… What time is it?”

“Half past ten already!” Vovka barked in a military manner. “Get up now!”

The sun flooded the room with light and enveloping warmth through the windows. I got up and the sun-kissed carpet warmed my feet. I took a pill and went to the bathroom, and from there to the kitchen, where Vovka was drinking tea and eating sandwiches, as usual.

“Cheese?” I asked sleepily, trying to make a joke.

Vovka nodded affirmatively, muttered unintelligibly, and smiled with a full mouth.

“We’ll eat it for a year. Should I take some home?” I said.

Vovka nodded excitedly and immediately went to the fridge.

“No, no, no! I was just kidding!” I started waving it off.

Vovka instantly became sad, stopped chewing, and rolled the wheel of cheese back up.

A day off. It’s spring outside. There was no hurry. Both of us in our underwear, we sat and drank tea. My headache had eased noticeably, and I didn’t feel like going home at all.

“How is your old man?” Vovka asked suddenly. “Still scolding you?”

“Yeah, fucking fighting on a regular basis,” I said sluggishly. “He pissed me off. Always picking on all kinds of shit, this and that. I can’t work with him anymore. I wish I could go somewhere else, but I can’t give it all up. It’s a good thing we quit retail. Did I tell you we quit retail?”

“Yeah, you said something like that,” Vovka interjected between chewing sounds. “You mean, quit for good? Where will you put the goods then?”

“I don’t know, we just sold the kiosk yesterday,” I shrugged and told the whole story of the sale, which caused Vovka to burst out laughing with satisfaction.

Tea is a good thing! I used to cure myself with it all the time after drinking too much alcohol and smoking cigarettes. And this time, while sipping sweet tea, I gradually came to my senses.

“Fuuuck!!! What time is it!!???” I almost screamed all of a sudden.

Vovka stared at me in surprise, then turned and looked over his shoulder at the clock built into the gas boiler: “Half past eleven, why?”

“Damn it, I forgot!” I jumped up and immediately sat down. “We have to be at ‘Sasha’ at three today! ‘Sasha’ is closing up! We have to pick up the goods and pay them off!”

“‘Sasha’ is closing up!?” Vovka was even more surprised. “And why is that!?”

I began to chew my sandwich anxiously and drink my tea greedily, answering Vovka’s questions at the same time. When I finished my sandwich, I rushed into the room. I put on my jeans, T-shirt and hoodie, grabbed my cell phone and dialed the number from memory.

“Strange, why would ‘Sasha’ close up?” came from the kitchen as the call ended.

“Yeah, I was surprised too, so unexpected, nice business, worked for so long, and then suddenly blam!” I said, returned to the kitchen, finished my tea in a few sips and added, “Okay, I’m out! Going out tonight!?”

“Damn it, Ramses, you bet!”

“Okay, I’ll call you when I’m done, bye!”

I shoved my feet into my shoes and ran out the door.

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