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 a terrible swearer, too. It’s useless to fight both habits. When I left the army, I almost overcame that 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 gonna go to ‘Heaven’ tonight, or what?!”

Vovka deliberately mangles words and drawls vowels, saying “yooo” and “whassuuup.” It comes out funny, he always clowns around amusingly.

“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, and we hung out in clubs five days a week. It just happened that, 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 ones for two reasons: work and bachelor life. I wasn’t married, and Vovka was recently divorced. I had only seen his ex-wife, a very attractive girl, once – more than three years ago I accidentally met them together on a country beach. I drove my car, so I gave the couple a ride downtown. Afterward, clearly fighting a bout of jealousy, Vovka confessed that his wife had called me handsome. The situation was only amusing; I wasn’t in the habit of eyeing up taken women. Squat, about five-foot-seven, stocky, covered with hair everywhere, even all over his back, pot-bellied, with a bulldog jaw, cold gray tenacious and deeply set predatory eyes – Vovka, like all men who are insecure with women, acted in reverse – constantly braved it out and played macho. What kind of macho is he, though?! Besides, he spoke very loudly. My father once said it was a country habit. Any emotional story Vovka told in a minute would turn into an obscene yelling. As a consequence, the 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 took its course, and everything repeated itself with endless regularity. Actually, there are very few people who don’t use foul language. We should build a monument to them. My father in the first place – he never swore. He spent more than a quarter-century in the army after all! So there you go.

I met Vovka again about three years ago after the army. We served in different units of the same division and didn’t know each other personally. But then one day I went with my father to one of the wholesale depots. I entered the director’s office, and I saw a familiar face there. Vovka recognized me right away, too. We were glad to see each other, and we got to talking on the street. As luck would have it, Vovka turned out to be the deputy commercial director of the “Pelikan” wholesaler for 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 want to sell our goods in “Pelikan.” It was a no-alternative offer – my father and I agreed right away. It all happened quickly, and the next day we brought the first batch to the base.

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 work and indulged in the pleasures of bachelor life. He was a terrible womanizer, and a dirty one. Well, you know, that’s when the perception of women is all vulgar talk and greasy jokes. Vovka held a grudge. His life’s meaning was simplified into four things: money, women, hunting, and camouflage. In that order exactly. All the days at work, Vovka was tossing around with his hair disheveled and thinking about how he could make a lot of money. And to snatch also meant to “make 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 drive to his parents in Pskov, wandering around the fields and woods with a rifle, and telling everyone about it with great spirit for months on end. His pathological passion for camouflage stemmed from his love of hunting. Vovka found anything with a camouflage pattern on it beautiful. If he saw such clothes, he purred with delight and bought them. Vovka’s closet was always full of camouflage rags, but he almost never wore them in everyday life. Vovka dressed in poor taste, a little slovenly and simple; he walked widely, shifting from one foot to the other in a bearish way and wearing down his shoes on the inner side.

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

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

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

“You see, all day 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 flocking actively to the nightclubs.

“Oh! Edik is here,” I waved my hand in the direction of the ‘cabbies’ standing across the street.

“Well, just awesome! We’ll ride home drunk on Edik!” Vovka laughed out loud, pretended to be drunk, staggered, and hiccupped a couple of times for good measure.

Edik was a young guy of about twenty-two, a short, lean brunette, a final-year university student. He had an attractive face, but he would have looked better if he hadn’t smoked, hadn’t sat curled up behind the wheel all the time, and had exercised. Edik drove a white VAZ-2107. Cars were his passion. Trying to improve his own, he was always fiddling around with it. The backlights of the “Seven”, two red circles, glowed through the rectangular plastic like rocket jets. Anything that could glow in the cabin exuded the same muted red color. The acoustics got with the program: if Edik turned on “Rammstein,” the sound blasted 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 the hell of a smooth operator. Edik’s eyes gave him away – he immediately became 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 couple of 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, for this reason, 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 toward the hotel, where the “cabbies” were always parked. I boozed away the last of the wages at the club, which I honestly told the first driver. I said that I would pay him back when I got the money at home. The “cabbies” were often cheated out of money this way, and Edik was the only one who would give me a ride. Since then, I’ve had no problems with taxis after the club. I called Edik, and Edik would pick me up from any place and in any condition. Sometimes he drove me on the cuff, but I didn’t abuse his credit. With Vovka’s appearance, Edik had more work to do: instead of one drunken partygoer, he started driving home two of them.

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 rushing past, would begin furiously winding circles around the corral, wishing with all its might to be on the other side. For the past two years our business had been growing slowly but steadily in front of Vovka’s eyes. My father and I were in the category of “free” people, working for ourselves. Vovka, on the other hand, was a wage earner. This depressed him and often caused envy of the “bigwigs.”

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

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

“I’d like to see you, carrying these stupid boxes all day long with my father… Last year it was a nightmare, we didn’t get home until 8 p.m. every day! And as 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’ve got to call it a day, or we’ll end up liking it,” I laughed. “So we’re no bigwigs, but common laborers! Bigwigs sit in their offices, and my father and I work like shit!”

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

We came to a traffic light, there were no cars, without stopping, we went on. After a couple of minutes, the movie theater grew on the left, and the traffic light on the right again. We stopped waiting for the green sign.

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

“What’s new there could be, you were at ‘Pelikan’ only yesterday, for fuck’s sake!” Vovka started rubbing 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 walking across the street.

“Ah! No!” Vovka stopped in the middle of the road. “Daddy bought himself a new jeep!”

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

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

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 in contentment. Vovka’s “yea” instead of “yes,” meant the point of highest approval of anything. “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 dales and fields and shooting all kinds of beasts.

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

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

“Two mils!”

“Wow! Darn well!”

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

“Well, you bet!” I laughed and slapped my friend on the back.

“Oh-ho-ho!” Vovka exclaimed when he saw a cluster of people ahead of him.

“Clear Skies” was a popular club, and since Friday evening crowding in front of the entrance has been a common thing. Outside, two security guards in black suits stood with their backs to the front door. A swarm of twenty men roared and buzzed in their drunken voices in front of them, the backs pushing against the fronts, who in turn were shoved back by the guards. It could go on like this until midnight. We approached, and I looked inside the club through the side window. The guard I knew was standing on the stairs. Just as our gazes met, I pointed to the entrance. The guard nodded and stepped toward the door.

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

Clubs are a separate topic. By the time I was twenty-eight, after a couple of long-lasting 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 dissipation. I had to admit that the “dissipation” was quite pleasant. If someone were to ask me if I would live these years again, sure thing, the answer would be “yes.” After I’d gone through most of the city’s entertainment establishments, I found myself stuck at the “Clear Skies.” The club strangely attracted the likes of me, aimlessly hanging out with young people who were fed up with the nightlife. “Clear Skies” wasn’t really any different. But year-round it had twice as many visitors as the rest of the city’s clubs. Even in the “dead season” of midsummer, when the whole city went to the southern resorts, and there were a few people miserably spending time in other places, “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 the “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 in a gold scattering of stars, stood a bright inscription: “Clear Skies.” The alley led in darkness to a rectangular pavement 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 place. To the right of the place was the door of the checkroom, a small, narrow cell, in the window of which the sour face of a check girl always protruded, propped by her fist. A cashier was seated solemnly here behind the counter. After paying their entrance fee, the customers went to the left through an archway into the club itself. It consisted of three rooms: the first was the main room with tables on the left, about forty meters square, it was 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 middle. A line of barstools continued along the right wall of the grotto with two one-meter niches – a waitress’s bar and a small bar at the end. The left wall of the grotto was solid, ending 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 central 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 of the same half-meter height protruded from the walls in a half-meter-long 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 check girl’s. The door led to a cramped, five-square-meter D.J. den of no more than five meters. The far right and center walls of the dance floor were mirrored from ceiling to floor.

The restroom at the “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 to the right and sharply upward, the stairs led in a semi-roll, and they were a challenge for drunk customers, as quite a few people twisted their legs there and went tumbling down the stairs. The steps ended in a tiny square place, from which two doors led to the right and to the left: one to the women’s room and one to the men’s room.

Visitors were divided into two categories: those who were seated at tables in the halls and those who came light, just to drink, dance, and idle around the bars and along the walls of the grotto. When the music on the dance floor came on loudly two hours before midnight, the crowd at the bar, in the grotto, and on the dance floor was filled with those who had enough of sitting at their tables. The big counter was getting crowded at once. The narrow passageway to the grotto and the grotto itself were packed with people. To get to the dance floor, you had to crawl through the tight 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 spread throughout the club. In the midst of all this, waitresses with full trays nervously scurried about. They met with each other at their counter, only to dump their dirty dishes on it and take their next order on a tray. The alcohol conveyor belt started at the big counter, continued at the small one and on the dance floor as the music turned on – 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 café; turning on the music made it 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 still to come.

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

“Oooh!!!” Vovka roared and then with a swing put his “crab” in 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!” there was an approving growl from Vovka behind me.

After we passed the archway, we began to make 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 nimbly skipped 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 barman. Vovka, standing on tiptoe, repeated the ritual.

“Anybody there?” I glanced toward the small counter.

The barman 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 the club’s regulars, we squeezed through the grotto to the second barman. I waved to him in greeting and took a place at the end of the already long line and 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, glaring at all the girls who passed by. I pulled out a pack of “Lucky Strike.” Vovka immediately put his fingers in 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 clubs, I always smoked more, up to a pack a night. The next morning, my head obviously ached, and I had a persistent aversion to cigarettes all day long. 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 out 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 base!”

“What do you mean, scooping for himself? Doesn’t share it with you? I thought you’re swindling the whole thing together…”

“Nah, he’s got his own customers there! And he’s also in the toilet water 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 uncomfortable direct question.

“A couple of 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, satisfied with what he said, laughed harder.

“When will we get a chance to have our ‘screwdriver’!!!??” he suddenly yelled impatiently toward the barman, 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 barman looked at us.

“Yeah, the usual! And more fucking vodka!!” Vovka shouted, pushing his way to the bar and shaking the barman’s hand. He turned away and began working on the order. In a minute there were half-liter plastic glasses with the cocktail in front of us.

“Two double screwdrivers…” the barman pointed at them, nonchalantly put his hands in his pants pockets, and stared at us questioningly. After paying, we took our booze and squeezed our way back into the archway. The queue behind us immediately broke down around the counter.

We always ordered a “screwdriver.” The drink was an easy way to judge how much money was in the visitor’s pockets, unless, of course, he was sipping something expensive out of the same glass all evening. Those penniless gorged themselves on beer, while those with money showed off their glasses of whiskey or, at worst, cognac. Others, who tried to prove that they had money, even though they clearly had the opposite written on their faces, threw dust in the eyes of others with a proven trick: they ordered vodka by the bottle at once. I didn’t try to prove anything, money was scarce at the time – I drank “screwdriver” inexpensively and with a guarantee of unhurried intoxication. We used to drink cognac or whiskey at Vovka’s house; he always had something like that 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 had enough. It was perfect to drink four or five double “screwdrivers” in an evening, so as not to get too drunk and to catch 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 appears 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 puking. Smoking only exacerbated the effect of the booze. And I smoked cigarettes in clubs almost one after the other.

I sipped the “screwdriver” on the red grape juice through the straw – so bitter! The barman really didn’t spare 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! So 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. “Then why the fuck should I break him? So some jackass can sit in his place?”

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

“I’ll give the dumbass the fuck up!” he went on, hurt. “Have you seen that chick who comes to Daddy in that 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 forms and the ability to package and present them beautifully. A well-groomed and stylish lady with “turtle” sunglasses. I often saw her at “Pelican.” At the wholesale store, she looked like a thoroughbred pea-hen in a chicken coop.

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

“No idea!” Vovka shrugged his shoulders. “She goes to Daddy on the second floor all the time for some reason… She has some kind of business… Daddy’s been drooling all over!”

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 squeezed through the crowd stared at him. Vovka immediately blushed, got confused, and turned back against the wall, hovering embarrassedly.

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 handle 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 clothing, sweat, cheap perfume, and deodorant came in waves. With each passing minute the general intoxication grew, and the boys danced more and more toward the girls, who resisted less and less. 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 place of the rejected one was immediately taken by the next one. An endless merry-go-round of sweaty, drunken faces in a roar of music and strobe light flashed before my inebriated mind. The dancing of the couples formed looked more and more like an imitation of sexual intercourse. Couples were kissing hotly in the corners. I participated in the drunken roundabout of lust with everybody: someone’s breasts, someone’s thighs, 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 somewhere around here. A couple of times during 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 strain voice. The one I liked looked at me. The drink was starting to put pressure on my bladder. Leaving Vova in the archway, I went to the restroom. But at the first steps of the steep staircase I ran into a line. Twenty minutes of agonizing, and I finally got to the restroom: one urinal was locked and full of urine, the sitting 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, started to scrub the floor angrily and to swear. Her impetuosity confounded everyone, even the drunkest and most aggressive guys. They, mumbling unintelligibly and hurriedly buttoning their pants, began to slip out of the restroom. I could not pee in front of a woman, so I hastily interrupted halfway through, pretending to be done, and made my way to the sink full of water and crumbled toilet paper. After washing my hands, I went out to the stairs. Not wanting to fall, I concentrated on grabbing the railing and climbing down it, found Vovka, nodded at him, and we once again rushed outside for some fresh air.

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

It was three in the morning. The music died down, the silence immediately fell on 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 if you’re drunk you have a lot to talk about. I looked at Vovka, he was rocking. I took out my phone, called Edik, and told him that we would be right there.

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

“Well, yeah, I guess so… She’s all right,” I nodded, playing being indifferent.

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

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

“Did I say she ain’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 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 coming out of my ears, I want you!” Vovka exclaimed, showing his ability to vulgarize anything.

I hummed and shoved him on the shoulder. Vovka played along, wiggled like being wobbly, made a loop on the pavement with his slurred legs, and grinning contentedly, walked beside 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 began 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 insistently heated me up.

“Well, I’ll become acquainted with her in a week then…” I continued to imitate indifference.

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

“I don’t. I’ll find out later.”

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

“She was looking 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 is wrong with it? 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 row of cars along the curb. Edik’s “Seven” was in the middle of it, with the glowing tail “boosters.” Vovka and I promptly opened the doors of the car and noisily stumbled into the interior. Edik was sitting behind the wheel, fiddling with the dashboard. He gave us a melancholy look and immediately returned to his occupation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edik jabbed his fingers at the radio buttons, twisted the key in the ignition, the first melodic motifs of the song filled the interior, the engine rpm 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, and gripped the handle over the door tighter. We raced, taking the corners sharply. I wasn’t thinking about safety – Edik was an excellent driver, I was worried about my stomach – I was feeling 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 last fourth floor of one of these houses.

Edik pulled up at the bus stop – we arrived. I was glad that Saturday was ahead and that I could sleep it off for the past week at Vovka’s place, even until lunchtime. I was still feeling dizzy, so I opened the door and took a breath of fresh air. Vovka climbed out of the back seat, grunting and swearing. After getting the money, Edik drove away, leaving us, at last, 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 streetlamp shone. There was no canopy above 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 light bulb dimmed 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 upward. We were both short of breath, and almost immediately. My heart pounded and thundered in my ears. I gasped heavily, gripping the railing. The alcohol in my blood kept me from walking smoothly. Vovka sniffed noisily behind me. Both of us stomped loudly.

We finally made it. I wanted to sleep so badly. I quickly stripped down to my underpants, visited the bathroom, and staggered to the kitchen, feeling 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 underpants, looking around the kitchen, drunkenly scratching his hairy belly, and lit up, too. Sitting opposite each other, we 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 a lot of cheese!” Vovka continued, opening the fridge. It was full of cheese. Several big round wheels occupied almost all of it. I laughed again.

“I mean, we have to eat it, it’ll go bad!” Vovka added, as if even apologizing.

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

“It’s a freeload, man! How couldn’t I take it?” Vovka scratched the back of his head in surprise. “They would have thrown it away anyway, they were writing 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 chuckling. The kettle boiled, flicking the switch.

“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 mugs, threw a bag of tea into both of them and handed one to me. We started drinking the tea, taking a sip and then a drag on our cigarettes.

“Finish it and then turn in for the night…” I muttered. “I can hardly 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 kindly 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 beneath me. My ribs pressed through the fabric into the crooked spring, and I started to think about 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, splintering terribly… 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 nicely. I took a pill and went to the bathroom, and from there to the kitchen, where, as usual, Vovka was already drinking tea and ate sandwiches.

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

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

“We’ll be eating 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 springtime outside. There was no hurry. Both of us in our underwear, we sat drinking tea. My headache had noticeably subsided, and I didn’t feel like going home at all.

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

“Yeah, fucking arguing on a regular basis,” I said sluggishly. “He pissed me the fuck off. Keeps picking on all kinds of shit, this and that. I can’t work with him anymore, flat on my ass. I wish I could get somewhere else, but I can’t give it all up. It’s a good thing we stopped retail. Did I tell you we stopped retail?”

“Yeah, you said something like that,” Vovka interjected between chuckles. “You mean, stopped for good? Where are you going to put the goods then?”

“I don’t know, we just sold the stall yesterday,” I shrugged and told the whole story of the sale, which caused Vovka to have a fit of satisfied laughter.

Tea is a good thing! I used to cure myself with it all the time after drinking too much alcohol and cigarettes. And that 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, turned back 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 get to ‘Sasha’ by 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 was done with my sandwich, I rushed to the room. I pulled on my jeans, T-shirt, and hoody, grabbed my cell phone, and dialed the number from memory.

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

“Yeah, I was surprised, too, so unexpectedly, 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, “All right, 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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