The end of October 2000. What should I do next? As usual, I began to leaf through all the commercial publications. “Grocery store invites business partners. The store has a processing shop.” I showed the ad to my father, who thought about it, scratched his nose and said: “Hmm, interesting.” I put the phone in my father’s hand, he called the number, made an appointment, and off we went.
The small, semi-basement store was conveniently located at the end of a nine-story brick building, past which the flow of people from the bus stop to the courtyards passed. The steps of the entrance led down to the canopy. Behind the front door was a thirty-meter square sales room with empty stalls. From there, two corridors led to the back room: the closer one led to the left to the storage room; the farther one led straight up a short staircase, which immediately turned right at a right angle, and after three more steps emerged on the first floor of the building to the back room and the second exit from the store, the technical one. Its iron door led to an inner courtyard, perfect for parking and delivering goods. The store gave a mixed impression; it wasn’t bad, but it looked sloppy. As if it had been run by someone slovenly. I turned over what I saw in my mind, and I understood that the store was supposed to make a good profit, but everything in it was neglected: shabby walls that hadn’t been repaired in a long time, bedraggled stalls, a noisy and straining old refrigerator, and cockroaches, which I saw several times on my first visit. The husband and wife who placed the ad turned out to be just like the surroundings: a man of medium height, of common build, with a machine haircut, whose unintelligent eyes made me understand immediately that he was not in charge of the business, but his perky wife, a woman of small stature, a full-bodied brunette with a short cut of curly hair. Unlike her husband, the woman made an impression as a person of active habits. Both looked about forty years old. The woman had a daughter, about six years old, who was almost a copy of her mother’s face. My intuition immediately told me that the husband was not the girl’s father. It turned out later that he was an ex-convict. The whole family came out to meet us, dressed as if they were at home: the woman in a blue and white robe and slippers; the man in black baggy tights tucked into his socks, slippers, and a light baize shirt. The girl ran out of the darkness of the far corridor in pantyhose, a sweater, and a frayed doll in her hand. Scrubby, untidy, in stale clothes… A typical working family. What on earth were they doing in this business, and how did they get into it?
“Where’s the shop here!?” I remembered, turned around and looked into the watery eyes of the woman. “You said in your ad that there was a meat-processing shop.”
She waved her arms, averted her slightly vacant gaze, and walked toward the storage room. In the next corridor was another door, innocuous-looking. The woman opened it. I let my father and the man go in front of me and entered last. I liked what I saw: a fully equipped shop, about fifty meters square. The equipment didn’t look new, but it worked. It seemed that the shop was located just below the back room of the store. I hung around, curious, while my father, as a former military man of the home front, was excited about it. I understood his attitude; if the shop was given a head start, it would be possible to set up semi-finished goods production with a minimum of money. Our own production! The shop turned out to be the factor that got us to agree. Personally, I was not happy about the prospect of having to deal with endless inspections. After the beer hassle, I intuitively began to lean toward products with a long shelf life or no shelf life at all. I began to develop a persistent aversion to foodstuffs.
We made a simple agreement with our future partners: we provide the money for the goods and the turnover, they provide the store, and we share the profit. We started in the first days of November. We set up an office in the back room of the store. It was cramped: an old heavy safe in the corner, a shabby couch across from it, a scruffy coffee table and two armchairs in the middle. In the first week we ordered and received all the goods we needed from the wholesalers, cleaned the place, washed the windows and put everything in order. Almost immediately, the peculiarities of the newly minted partners began to emerge. The man turned out to be lazy and clumsy in the economic sense, unable and unwilling to do anything. He quickly assumed the role of a leader, began to walk around aimlessly, and gave orders to everyone. About five scars were visible on the man’s head, disturbing the growth of hair. It turned out that his wife had arranged them for him. With an ax. She actually had tried to kill her husband with an ax some time before. He told us the origin of the scars without embarrassment and even with a certain cockiness. The woman turned out to be a silent schizophrenic. Logical persuasion did not work for her, she immediately turned to screaming and emotion. By the end of the first week, we realized that our partners were shitty entrepreneurs. Their backstory revealed new facts every day. The family used to live somewhere in the region, a year ago the woman suddenly decided to go into business, encouraged her husband to sell the only thing they had – an apartment – and rent this store. So, with a child to maintain, they found themselves homeless and crammed into a small room in the store, the entrance to which I only noticed in a dark corner of the staircase when the woman showed it to me. Within a year, the proceeds from the apartment and the money invested in the goods had been successfully eaten up, and the ad appeared in the newspaper, to which my father and I responded. It became clear that if he and I were going to keep the store afloat, we would have to do all the business ourselves. There was no accounting department as such, before us the records were kept in different notebooks and in bits and pieces, it was impossible to get a handle on it. We started the new accounting, the business slowly but surely moved from a dead point – buyers began to come, revenues began to grow. And then all the strangeness of our partners began to show, because of which they were actually in such deep shit. As soon as we brought in the goods, the products began to disappear. The man and the woman denied it for a long time, the man even became demonstratively indignant, but under the pressure of the facts he shut up, and both were forced to admit the theft. But they did it cleverly – they blamed it all on their daughter. The sales room and the storage room were separated from the upper space – the living room and the back room – by a door, which we proposed to lock with a padlock on the side of the hall. The partners reluctantly agreed. The disappearances stopped for a week and then started again – a miserable excuse for a family had nothing to eat. By the end of the second week, it was clear that we had to leave the store, and the sooner the better. The bull-calf incident finally solved everything. One weekday morning we drove up to the back exit and knocked on the door. As usual, the woman opened. We went into the back room and began to sort out the morning’s bills, one of which was frozen in my father’s hands.
“What is this payment, for what meat?” he asked the woman.
“We bought a bull-calf,” she said, looking at us with her usual distracted look.
“What bull-calf!?” my father stared at the woman, sitting in a chair by the safe.
I listened while standing in the corner of the room, squeamishness preventing me from sitting in an armchair. I never got used to the dirt in the store, and only on rare occasions of extreme fatigue did I sit down on the scruffy furniture in the room.
“Suppliers came here, they slaughtered a bull calf in the morning. They brought it to us and we bought it,” the woman began to mutter, her eyes darting around anxiously.
“The whole bull calf!?” my father’s eyes popped out of their sockets.
“Well, yeah, what’s the big deal? We’re going to cut it up and sell it through the store,” the woman explained nonchalantly, but began to fidget with her robe.
“How are we supposed to sell it through the store!?” my father’s eyes glazed over and froze on the woman’s face. “How much meat do we sell a day!?”
The woman hesitated. My father’s face hardened, his teeth clenched – these signs of growing anger were familiar to me. My father repeated the question.
“Well, I don’t know, about twenty kilos, I guess…” the woman mumbled, smelling a rat.
“Twenty!?” my father raised his voice. “Ten at the most! Ten! We just started working, we don’t have many customers yet. How much does the bull calf weigh!?”
The woman remained silent. My father repeated the question.
“Three hundred and eighty kilograms,” the woman said reluctantly.
“Where are we supposed to put all this meat? Is it whole? Did you buy the live weight!?” my father pressed, his face blushing.
The man emerged from the closet below to hear the noise. He stopped on the steps in the doorway and listened intently, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Well, yeah, the whole thing is in the shop,” the woman cheered, rising to a falsetto voice. “It’s all right, we’ll cut it up and sell it! I have the right to buy goods, too!”
“Who’s going to cut it up!?” my father stepped forward, almost shouting, his gaze fixed on the woman’s face, and then he jabbed his finger at her husband, barking. “He!?”
“No, I don’t know how…” the man immediately put his hands out in front of him and disappeared back into the closet.
“So who’s going to cut up the bull calf!!?” my father snapped at the bewildered woman again.
“I have the right to buy goods, too!!” the woman protested. “I saw fit to buy it!!”
“Then go and cut it up!!!” my father flipped out.
“I don’t know how!!” the woman screamed and followed her husband. The store was quiet. My father looked at me, put his arms around his head, elbows on the table, and froze. Then he lifted his head, swore softly, and looked at me again.
“What are we going to do?” he said, at a loss.
I didn’t realize the complexity of the situation, so I was completely calm. I understood everything simply – the case was a mess and it had to be dealt with!
“Let’s go to the shop,” I muttered, pushing off the wall with my shoulder.
“Right!” my father exclaimed in relief, as if my words had snapped him out of his stupor. My father, as if he had received an order and obeyed the instincts of years of military service, immediately jumped to his feet, ready to carry it out. It was probably at that moment that I first noticed this peculiarity of his. We went into the shop. There was not a sound coming from the closet.
For ten minutes we just stared at the carcass. It lay on a large cutting table, glistening with veterinary seals. I had no idea even where to poke the knife into the carcass, but all I knew was that it had to be cut as quickly as possible, we had to put the meat in the refrigerator, and then think about selling it. It was good that my father had the experience. I was only fit to be an apprentice.
“All right, tell me what to do…” I nodded at him. “You take charge and I’ll help…”
We fiddled with the carcass all day – cutting, chopping, putting the meat in boxes and taking them to the refrigerator. In the evening, the bull calf was completely cut up. We did the most important thing, which was to preserve the meat. I was very tired, we drove home mostly in silence.
New day, new task – to quickly sell the meat in small wholesale. A tenth of it was left for sale through the store. My father negotiated with traders at one of the markets, and we took most of the two hundred kilograms to them. When they realized that it was a stalemate, they lowered the prices to the limit. Having earned nothing, we only got our money back. We were left with the bones and the most expensive meat.
“The tenderloin should be taken straight to a cafe or restaurant,” I suggested, and the next day we sold it to one of the cafes. A day later, my father sold the bones to someone. All in all, we almost got back the money the woman had spent on the bull calf, and ended up with a small loss.
December came. The store’s sales were almost frozen at a minimum profit, and food from the store room kept disappearing. One day, my father, the woman, her husband and their daughter gathered in the back room. My father informed the partners that we were leaving the store and offered to advertise for a replacement. The reaction was predictable: the man fidgeted in his chair and, with an angry expression on his face, spoke in a desperate tone about how, by taking the money for the goods that would be sold, my father and I were leaving them, poor people, alone with the remnants of unsellable goods. To stop the blabbing, we offered to take all the goods, even the ones the woman had irrationally bought with our money, and then part ways for good. The man immediately howled that it wasn’t right, and what about the store without the goods, and what would they live on anyway. I smiled inwardly; the man was a common slacker, accustomed to living at the expense of others, and unwilling to accept that he would no longer be carried on the shoulders of others. The woman didn’t mind much, just mumbled something and then fell silent, her eyes downcast. When he was left alone, the man also gave up. So said, so done. My father and I put an ad in the paper and waited for a response. By the end of the first week, we had received five phone calls to no avail. The atmosphere in the store was tense, the woman was stiff, the man looked at us unkindly. My only thought was to find a “chump” who would buy the goods and free us from our inadequate business partners. The odds of success seemed long, but I believed in miracles, and another call came at the beginning of the second week. My father was on the phone and a deep male voice expressed a desire to come up to see the store. That evening two men entered the store. I looked at them and realized that they had money. We talked for ten minutes and it became clear that they were eager to start their own business. One was a tall, big guy in his thirties with the pink, smooth face of a well-fed office worker. The other, scrawny and of medium height, looked like a quiet office weasel. The young men actually worked in management positions at a large candy company. Their inner drive for self-fulfillment pushed them from a high-paying, stable but hired job to the shaky ground of entrepreneurship. Not abandoning the first, they chose to practice the second, a wise decision. The whole time we were talking to the guests and showing them around the store, our partners were expressing an annoyed indifference to what was going on. The woman was silent, and the man with the disdainful expression on his face made a few disparaging remarks about us, clearly intended for the ears of the guests. Anger grew within me, and a lingering feeling that if the deal fell through, the man would secretly feel joy and satisfaction. The tension grew. My father and I tried our best to ignore the man’s outbursts. In reality, I just wanted to punch him in the face. The guests left after saying they would think about it and call us. I was nervous for two days. On the morning of the third day, the bigger guy called and agreed to buy our share. My heart was beating with joy so fast it almost jumped out of my chest. That same evening, the duo came back and discussed the details of the deal with me, my father, and the woman. The woman’s husband didn’t show his face all day, and later, whenever we met, he defiantly ignored me and my father. The deal was simple: the new companions would buy all the goods, my father and I would get the money, and we would be free to go.
“Except we don’t buy the candy,” the big guy said. “We have our own, we sell candy, you know…”
“Okay, we’ll take the candy,” I nodded immediately. “You’re okay with the rest of the goods, right? Let’s count it and balance it out?”
“Yes, let’s count the rest,” the big guy nodded.
Later, outside, without the woman and the man, we agreed with our substitutes that they would buy the goods not at the purchase price, but at a ten percent markup. I explained the markup by saying that the goods were already in the store, so they wouldn’t have to spend time finding them, pricing them, and delivering them. They agreed and set up the deal for tomorrow. My father and I drove home elated – we were only twenty-four hours away from the freedom that was flickering before us.
The next day, from morning to night, we counted the goods in the store. Neither the man nor the woman were present, they resentfully left it to us. And then came the moment of handing over the money – I, my father and the two substitutes froze in the middle of the sales room.
“So, how much do we owe you with the markup?” the big guy said.
My father typed the total amount into a calculator, added the interest, and showed him the resulting figure. The guy nodded and reached into his pocket for the money.
“What markup exactly!?” a voice came from behind us. Everyone flinched and turned around. The man appeared at the most inappropriate moment, like a jack in the box. The big guy’s hand, which had been reaching for the money, froze halfway out of his pocket.
“What do you mean, what markup?” my father said with restraint, but clenched his jaw. “We agreed with the guys that we would sell them the goods at a ten percent markup.”
“I don’t get it, why on earth are you selling the goods at such a markup?” the man came closer with a challenging voice and a businesslike air. Now I was the one who wanted to hit him with an ax.
For the finale, the asshole had decided to do dirt on us, and I could see it in his eyes. My insides immediately boiled over. I turned my head to the side so I wouldn’t say anything rude.
“What do you mean, why at such a markup!?” my father glared at the man. “We negotiated this markup with the guys beforehand, and they agreed. The markup is for us bringing the goods here in our car from the wholesale depots to the store.”
“No, it won’t do!” the man said excitedly, his eyes glittering.
The substitutes immediately turned their attention to him. The big guy stuffed the money into his pocket. I began to pace nervously around the sales room, just to avoid seeing the man’s satisfied mug. My father’s face froze in incomprehension, his lower jaw dropping in confusion.
“What do you mean, it won’t do!?” my father got angry. “Did you transport the goods!? Did you carry it!? You didn’t lift a finger to do anything but walk around telling us what to do!”
My father went on a rampage. I understood him perfectly, but arguing in front of potential buyers was the worst thing that could happen to a deal, there was a chance to screw it up. And that was exactly what the man wanted. My father had to be stopped fast.
“I didn’t do anything!? This is my store! I am the boss here!” the man spread his arms in a wide gesture and walked along the counter, but just in case, on the other side of my father.
“Come on, Dad,” I said loudly, waving my hand. “Just little nothings of life!”
The man pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and twirled it nervously between his fingers. Everyone looked at me.
“If ten percent is a lot, what markup would suit you?” I said.
The man was a little confused by the point-blank question, but quickly regained his composure.
“None of it will suit me! The product must be sold without a markup! No markup, then I agree!” he immediately dropped the phrase at the height of his importance.
“All right, it’s a deal,” I nodded calmly, routinely turning the conversation to the big guy. “How much did we get without a markup? What was it?”
The shared tension dissipated and everyone froze at a loss. The man was astonished – the question was solved in an instant and his person fell out of the spotlight. My father and the big guy looked at the notebook. My father called out the amount, and the guy agreed and nodded.
“Well, that’s it, pay up then, and let’s go!” I said even more routinely. “We still have to pick up the unaccepted goods and go home, and it’s already dark. We’ve been here all day…”
The phrase worked – the big guy finally pulled out a wad of cash.
“It’s just that I have dollars, is that okay?” he said, as if apologizing. “I didn’t have time to change them into rubles…”
“Whatever! Dad, just count it at the exchange rate, is all! I’ll go get the candy in the car,” I said at once, not giving the man time to think, and began to pick up the goods vigorously. The big guy counted out the money and handed it to my father. I put on my jacket and walked out the back door to my car with a few boxes in my hands. It was dark everywhere, daylight had long since gone out. After loading the goods, we drove home.
“I’m starting to freak out,” I said as the “second” pulled out of the yard, my whole body shaking. My fingers were twitching like crazy and I clenched them into fists, but it didn’t help.
“I’m freaking out myself!” my father replied immediately.
We drove down the snowy county road in near total darkness, only catching large snowflakes in our headlights. They rushed toward us and swirled mesmerizingly over the hood. Shivering was quickly replaced by euphoria and my heart pounded with joy. Freedom! My whole being rejoiced at the word, as if we had jumped out of a bad dream that had happened to us through a ridiculous mistake. We just wanted to get rid of the remnants of it and move forward without looking back. A great weight was lifted from our shoulders. We didn’t say another word until we got home. Like an enchanted man, I stared at the snow flying toward me, trying to make out every single snowflake. I liked them all, they were beautiful. The snow was beautiful. The winter road in the headlights was beautiful. I was in the best, most comfortable car in the world. Everything in me was filled with a sense of beauty, and it was as if time had stopped. It was only two weeks until New Year’s Eve. I was perfectly happy.
For the next week, my father and I slept off the fatigue of the previous days. There was no hurry. We counted the money, and the loss from the store was twenty thousand rubles. It was a lot. In two months we had lost almost half of what we had earned in two years of selling beer.
“Yeah, it sucks…” I sighed, sitting in the kitchen with my father. “If I had known it was going to be like this… Who knew… Well, it’s no big deal, we’ll make money…”
My father, after counting the rest of the money, gave me a long accusatory speech, saying that I was thick-headed and that once something got into my head, it was impossible to change my mind. I was indignant, I objected, I said that we made the same decision together and that neither of us was to blame, it just happened that way. But we remained unconvinced after the brief argument, and I left the kitchen with a bitter taste in my mouth, feeling my father’s heavy, displeased gaze on the back of my head. My reflex was to do something immediately, to start a new business, to distract myself from the failure that had occurred. I searched my mind for at least one idea, but to no avail – my brain was in a state of emptiness and indifference. The approach of New Year’s Eve somehow lifted my spirits. We indulged in the hustle and bustle of the holiday, spending a little money on presents for ourselves and my mother. I spent New Year’s Eve at home, eating tangerines in front of the TV.
“What should we do next?” was the question that came to mind after the holidays. There was no answer. I looked through all the magazines and newspapers I could find, with no result. My father, to my surprise, did the same. On the second day of the search, he came to me with a newspaper in his hands and showed me an advertisement about someone selling used car tires in the Baltic States and offered to buy them there and sell them in our city. I was not impressed by the idea, I saw many disadvantages in it: little money of our own; regular car trips over long distances; transportation of cash; a completely new and unfamiliar business. I rejected the offer, realizing that it was more reasonable to use the experience we already had with the city’s wholesale depots. A day later, my father put another ad under my nose, inviting loggers to the logging sites in the north. My father liked the idea, but I didn’t. One of us was to stay in the city, and the other was to go north, take over the logging site, hire and manage the logging crews. The one who stayed here was to get the logs, store them, and sell them. My father was so serious about the idea that he immediately bought a complete set of warm clothes and a nice, expensive down jacket. The work seemed complicated to me, and I didn’t like the idea of us splitting up, since we worked so well together. I also realized that I would not be able to handle my part of the work, and I told my father. That was the end of our excitement.
I decided to get a job. Not finding any really interesting positions, I got a job with a shady company. The company rented two shabby rooms in a large administrative building of a defunct factory. Two of the owners of the company sat in one room, and ten other employees occupied the other room. When I asked what the organization did, the answer was that it did everything. “Everything means nothing,” I suspected, but I needed the money, so I decided not to jump to conclusions. All the employees were sitting at personal desks. They pointed me to an empty desk and chair and explained the job: I had to call everyone and their sister and offer what we had. But did we have anything? I never saw a warehouse of products. The staff called other organizations and offered the goods on the price list. The list of offers was very surprising – from nuts and bolts to elevators. After a few days I had the impression that the whole world was trading through this room. An incomprehensible job, no one sold anything, the activity was like a self-sufficient process. Making calls for the sake of making calls, going to work for the sake of going to work. The question of payment seemed even more obscure, I was told that I would be paid by the piece and when I sold something. How do you sell something that is not there? After hanging on the phone for the first three days, I could already draw conclusions: the company’s employee turnover was high, no one stayed longer than three months, none of the employees had seen their salaries yet. I gave up calling and, like everyone else, started imitating activity. By the end of the first week, I realized I was wasting my time. And then I was called into the next room. It was an event after all. The two owners told me that the company was participating in a tender to supply medical equipment to the city’s hospitals, and that I needed to go on a business trip to Moscow to gather information. Technically, I could have refused. I understood that I would not see any money anyway, but my desire to relax, to go to Moscow and at least get some impressions prevailed. I was given the address of a company apartment and a travel allowance for three days.
Another Monday morning I arrived in the capital. I found the apartment at the address, an ordinary one-room apartment on the first floor of a “Khrushchevka” building. The door was opened by a relative of one of the company executives. I greeted the guy, left my things by the bed, and went straight out to run errands. After a day of running around, I returned in the evening, ate dinner, and lay down on the bed. Although I was tired, but my idleness had lasted only half an hour, I looked around the room: two beds, a closet, a table and two chairs. On the floor by the table was a pile of thick commercial magazines. I picked up a few and began to leaf through them. I became interested and didn’t even realize that I was seriously looking for ads. My inner voice kept pushing me back to the path of my own business. I was increasingly drawn back to real work. After reflecting on my experience with beer, I came to a simple understanding: we needed a first party supplier, a manufacturer or an importer; delivery of the goods by the supplier himself; the goods should have a long shelf life; delivery on deferred or partial prepayment terms or, even better, on sale. Only the regions could give us such conditions. Moscow, as the city with the toughest contract terms, was immediately rejected. Since our city was on a federal highway, I had to look for a supplier on the other side of Moscow. In the course of the evening I went through the whole pile. Three ads looked interesting, and one of them was the right one – a small household chemical company was looking for regional distributors for their products. I went to the phone on the table and called home, told my father about the ad, gave my reasons for starting the job, and he agreed.
“Okay, call Krasnodar! Get the price from them, make the arrangements, I’ll come in a couple of days, you tell me everything,” I summarized.
The next day I ran around Moscow again, and when I got back I immediately called home.
“Well, good news,” my father’s voice sounded happy. “I talked to the owner of the company… Anyway, we made a deal…”
My chest rumbled, and I was not mistaken – intuition was guiding me once again. I spent the next few minutes meticulously questioning my father about the nuances of the negotiations.
“We agreed that we would order the goods, they would bring them to us, we would pay half immediately and the other half upon realization, and before ordering the next batch, we would pay the previous one in full,” my father explained.
“Great!” I blurted out. “Just what we need! I’ll come back and we’ll get started!”
Early the next morning I found myself at home, took a shower, had breakfast, discussed a pending case with my father, then raked up all the documents I had collected in Moscow and drove to the company to work. I reported on my work and asked to go home to rest after the business trip. On the way, I bought some fresh newspapers and when I got home for lunch, I started reading them. Ten minutes and I found the right one – a one-line ad saying that a manufacturer from Krasnodar was looking for regional distributors. The phone number was different. The company turned out to be almost a copy of the first one, and with better prices. We reached an agreement with the owner even faster. So overnight, the prospect of a new business came out of nowhere. The rush of energy and the feeling of a new chapter in my life completely took over. I called the office where I had been hanging around for the past two weeks and told them I was quitting.
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