The events began to unfold in a predictable manner – the new competitor made a commercial offer to all our customers, and we had to make our own, even more favorable offer as a matter of urgency. The barter was a success – we fought back our customers. Now we had to think about what to do with the exchanged goods. All the companies sold them either wholesale from their warehouses or through their retail outlets. We did not trade from the warehouse and had no retail outlets of our own. There was only one way out: grocery stores with household chemical departments. There were three of them in the city: “Peresvet”, “Mercury” and “Pelican”. Vovka worked in the last one in the right position. At “Mercury”, the commercial director was in charge of household chemicals, and our relationship with him was purely business. It was unclear whether he would accept our barter goods or not. “Peresvet” stood out – a large, modern depot that was somehow overlooked by all the big wholesalers of household chemicals, and the goods were supplied there by entrepreneurs like us. Moreover, “Peresvet’s” sales were the largest of all the grocery stores. We couldn’t think of a better place to sell barter.
“Why not, let’s do it, of course! I’m all for it! I never refuse such offers!” Vovka smiled happily, his eyes shining with joy as soon as I gave him a hint about the money. After unloading, we left the “Pelican” area and stood in the square behind the gate. Vovka followed us out, away from prying eyes and ears. My friendship with him developed quickly. We immediately found a common language and felt mutual sympathy. Vovka turned out to be a straightforward guy, cheerful and energetic. It was easy and interesting to be with him.
“Well, what’s up there, crooks, tell me!” he said, waddling up to the “GAZelle” on his short legs. I was almost used to his way of talking.
It was hot. While we waited for Vovka, we opened both doors of the cabin wide to make it less stuffy inside. My father was smoking, standing near the driver’s side of the cab. I walked around on the crunchy gravel on my side. It was like time had stopped. The end of the working day. Occasionally, cars loaded with goods would crawl out of the gates of the depot, pass by, and disappear into the city streets.
“How come we are crooks?” I asked, pretending to be serious.
“Yeah, who else are you!?” Vovka laughed, his little eyes darting from me to my father. “You resell goods from one company to another, you pocket the dough, you don’t produce anything… Slackers! Crooks!”
We laughed, exchanged a few witty jokes, and got down to business.
“Well, let’s hear your story,” Vovka put his foot on the step of the “GAZelle”, put his hand in the window opening of the door and began to swing it back and forth.
I told him the gist of the matter and offered him three percent for his services. He rolled his eyes dramatically and glanced at me.
“Five!?” Vovka blurted out and froze, smiling with cunning eyes.
“It’s a deal. Five,” I beamed from ear to ear at his mops and mows.
Vovka continued playing: first he frowned for a few seconds, as if thinking, stopped swinging the car door, and then smiled greedily.
“What can I say!? The offer is interesting, my dear bigwigs! I’ll consider it!” he burst out laughing. I laughed too. My father, who had finished smoking, came closer and began to tell Vovka the whole story, including “the dirty trick that ‘Fluffy’ had played on us” and the fact that “the problem had to be solved somehow”.
“Yeah, I got it, Anatoly Vasilievich, I got it,” Vovka shook his disheveled head, as if to fight the slowness of my father’s speech.
“It all happened so unexpectedly,” he habitually scratched his head and grunted in embarrassment. “We had an agreement with the manufacturer and a contract, but you see what kind of people we work with. We have to get out of this.”
“I got it, I got it, Anatoly Vasilievich!” Vovka ruffled his hair even more with his hand. “We’ll figure it out! I’ll think about it! All right!”
“Vova, see what you can take from us, so as not to disadvantage the others, otherwise they will eye you askance,” I interrupted my father’s groaning, which otherwise would have continued for another hour, exhausting with its tedium.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Vovka perked up. “Petrovich is sitting there, that mole, burrowed in, fat fucking chance of getting him out of there! He controls everything, I have to share with him, there’s no getting around him.”
“Well, talk to him, I think he won’t mind…” I suggested.
“Who!? Petrovich!?” Vovka burst out laughing again. “As if! He’d sell his own mother if he had to, for fuck’s sake! He’s a helluva cunning bastard! I’ll get him out of his place, and then I’ll have everything in my hands, and I won’t have to share with him! Fucking A!”
Vovka clapped his hands together and rubbed them eagerly. I laughed; I liked his flighty temperament more and more. Vovka suddenly appeared in my life as a counterbalance to my father, shining in all colors and nourishing me with much-needed emotions in the midst of routine.
It turned out that he was on friendly terms with the commercial director of “Mercury”. I asked Vovka to check with him about buying barter from us, and he promised to help.
At the end of July we went back to Moscow with the goods. Everything was the same as last time – we left at five in the morning and arrived at noon. We unloaded quickly, but there was a delay in loading – we didn’t leave until four o’clock on the way back. At half past seven we stopped at a cafe and had dinner. We were way behind schedule, so we wouldn’t be home until midnight.
The next four hours passed without a break. The time passed midnight, when it was about forty kilometers to our city, and I was pulled to sleep. I resisted, but my eyelids got heavier, I blinked slower and slower each time, my head pulled down. I rubbed my face with my hands and lowered the side window a little. There was an immediate draught in the cabin, as my father’s window was also open. The cool air quickly penetrated my shirt, my back went cold and I shivered. “I had to close the window, otherwise I’ll get a draft, my neck will be stiff and I won’t be able to turn my head tomorrow,” I thought to myself and closed the window. My head cleared and the sleep receded. I looked at my father, who was smoking. We had both been without sleep for almost twenty-four hours. “If I’m so sleepy, how is my dad holding on? He’s driving all the way, too,” I thought, and immediately felt a pang of guilt for sitting idle. It was an idiotic situation. My driving skills were not good enough to drive the “GAZelle” on the highway, especially at a time when I was literally dozing off. I understood that, but my conscience twisted my soul. I took a closer look at my father. He was also drowsy. His eyelids moved more and more slowly.
“Are you okay, Dad?” I said, interrupting the drowsy hum of the engine. “Are you tired?”
My father flinched and I could tell he was as tired as I was, more so, but he held on and didn’t show it.
“So so,” he slurred, as if he was learning to speak again. “I feel sleepy. But it won’t be long now. What’s the rest of the way, thirty kilometers?”
My father finished his cigarette and blinked his sleep away.
A blue road sign floated out of the darkness of the curb.
“There’s a sign!” I exclaimed, pointing my finger. “Thirty-one kilometers to go. Here comes the police checkpoint!”
“Let’s probably stop there,” my father said uncertainly. “Get some fresh air, get out, stretch, ’cause my leg is falling off, it’s stiff.”
“Of course, let’s do it!” I gave him my unquestioning agreement. And there was a reason for that, one of my father’s main character traits was diligence. It was a good quality, but he had hypertrophied it. My father’s diligence could also be to his own detriment. And on this trip, if I hadn’t agreed to stop, if I had resisted, my father would have turned himself inside out, pressing the pedal with his stiff leg, struggling with sleep, but driving the car on.
Checkpoint! A stationary police checkpoint twenty kilometers from the city. Rows of trucks were parked on the side of the road, some stopped for the night, others just for a short rest. Just past the checkpoint we pulled over to the side of the road. I got out of the car and the bliss of the walk spread over my tired body. We stopped just in time; sleep had crept up on us so close that it would have definitely won the rest of the way. I walked along the side of the road, breathing in the night air – sleep receded, my head cleared. My father lit a cigarette. So did I. In ten minutes, the cool breeze had finally cheered me up.
“Well, shall we go?” he threw away his cigarette butt and looked at me.
“How are you, Dad? Do you feel sleepy?” I looked at his face, his eyes tired, red with a net of blood vessels, but they didn’t seem sleepy.
“I’m okay, there’s not much left, we’ll make it!” he said cheerfully.
We moved on. The electric glow of the city was already visible ahead. The highway went straight, two lines in each direction, with dashed markings indicating the lines and solid markings around the edges indicating the limits of the asphalt. The opposite directions were separated by a ditch about a meter and a half deep and about five wide. We were in the left lane of the two, closer to the ditch. It was eighty on the speedometer. We passed some cars in the next lane. They were trailing along at sixty. The lane markings to my right were jumping backwards monotonously. I stared at them and it had a hypnotic effect. The first few minutes after the stop were brisk. Then I warmed up and it sent me to sleep. I closed my eyelids a little, held them for a few seconds, then opened them. The flicker of the marking lines weighed them down more and more. I looked at my father. He wasn’t smoking. He was sitting up straight, holding the wheel with both hands, watching the road. Sleep, along with the warmth of the cabin, crept up my back and into my head, and I thought worse and worse. The city was getting closer. “Just a little more, we’re almost there, I want to sleep, I’ll lie down right away, I’ll sleep until I’m sick of it, Dad’s tired too, why am I so clumsy and don’t drive, I have to watch the road, I have to open the window, it’s cold, I can do it,” my thoughts crawled into my head like mush. Shih, shih, shih – the white lines to the right whizzed by. I stared at them, my eyelids flushed with sleep. I closed my eyes. “I’ll just sit like this for a while, and then I’ll open them, a little more, now, now,” the sleepy thought barely stirred. With difficulty, only halfway, I opened my eyes, not thinking clearly, and looked at my father. He was still sitting upright, looking ahead and driving. I felt terribly embarrassed and ashamed. I’m a young guy sitting next to my fifty-year-old father, who’s been driving for a thousand kilometers and hasn’t fallen asleep, and I’m dozing off! I turned my eyes back to the road. Shih, shih, shih – the right lines flashed on the dark, unlit road. No passing cars, no oncoming traffic. No one. Just us and the lines. Shih, shih, shih. “Just a minute, I can’t take it anymore, I’ll be like this, a minute with my eyes closed, a minute with them open, that’s okay, I’ll have time to sleep for a minute, and I’ll endure a minute.” I closed my eyes. It felt so good. The pleasure flowed from my closed eyes down my body, and I greedily caught every moment of my microsleep. “A minute must have passed, hasn’t passed yet, another ten seconds and just about, ten seconds must have passed, they haven’t, only half, four seconds left, three, no not three yet, four, a little more, now three, now, three, three, so far three, three, two, yes two… two… I’m about to open my eyes… not about to… two more seconds… one… no, two more… just a little longer… Okay, one… I’m about to open my eyes, I have to relax for one last second… it’s time… it’s not time yet… I’ll sleep quickly this second… the last one… but it’s a deal… I have to wake up… Open your eyes, open them,” my mind pulled itself out of the clammy fog of sleep and started to work after opening my eyes. I could barely open my eyelids. Shih, shih, shih. Lines. Still the same uniformity. “It’s so comfortable to look at them, I don’t even have to turn my head, it’s right in front of me… Why in front of me? Already a little to the left,” my thoughts almost froze. “I wonder why the lines are already a little to the left, they were in front of me,” another thought struggled to form in the sticky mush of consciousness. And suddenly, a spark! I was startled, jerked! I stared at the lines!
Shih, shih, shih. Still the same measurement, but the lines were under my father and slowly moving to the left under the hood! I figured it out! I didn’t realize it yet, but I already understood it, my brain was awake! For a split second, I pulled myself together and looked at my father. He was still sitting upright, with both hands on the steering wheel, driving and… sleeping! My father’s eyes were closed!
“Dad!” I touched my father’s hand.
He opened his eyes. He opened them calmly, not twitching or anything, just opened them and looked ahead where he was supposed to look, not even turning to me.
“Dad, we’re about to fall into a ditch! We’re going right!” I looked at the road.
The line of the lane markings slowly came back under the “GAZelle”. Here it was under my father’s seat, here it was under mine, and here it was where it should be, on the right side of the car. We left the right lane and went back to the left one.
The sleep disappeared as if it had never happened. My body was pumped with adrenaline in a split second. I glanced at my father. He was sitting in the same position, driving the car. Just us and the road. There was no other car, passing or oncoming. Shih, shih, shih – the unfortunate lines on the right were going a little slower. The speedometer read fifty.
“Rrrrrr!!!” an old passenger car with a burned out muffler flew by on the right.
We perked up.
“Yeah,” my father said to himself, gripping the steering wheel with his hands and reaching for a cigarette.
I began to shiver softly. To distract myself, I stared at the multiplying lights of the city. They were coming closer. There was a thoughtful silence in the cabin.
After half an hour, we left the “GAZelle” in the parking lot and went home. We walked in silence. Halfway through, I couldn’t take it anymore and said: “You were asleep at the wheel, you know…”
My father gave me a quick look, but didn’t answer. Back at home, when we had both showered and were sitting at the table in the kitchen, my father stood up, poured himself some tea, and said: “Yeah…”
I knew what he meant.
“Well, I never, I didn’t notice how I fell asleep,” my father continued, turning around, putting the kettle on the stove, and adding with a kind of genuine surprise, “And I dreamt that I was driving a car. Can you imagine that?”
I nodded, mechanically chewed my hastily made sandwich, drank my tea, wished my father good night, and waddled off to bed. I collapsed on it and fell into a dream in which the separating line moved inexorably to the left before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do about it.
The blue mess continued in August. Some customers pragmatically “sat on two chairs” and ordered this product from us and from “Fluffy”. After switching to barter, we slowed the competitor’s expansion, but the situation was precariously balanced. We needed an outside-the-box solution. I thought about it and an idea came to me.
“We need to find another supplier of the blue,” I said at breakfast.
“What do you mean, another?” my father froze as he chewed, and then he continued eating.
“Just another one! Surely someone else in Krasnodar is producing either this or the same blue. Too freebee item… A tidbit!”
“How can anyone produce this blue if its name is registered?”
“It doesn’t have to be exactly that one!” I began to get worked up, as I often did, surprised at my father’s inability to get the gist of the idea instead of getting hung up on the details. “The name can be anything! As long as the bottle and the label are the same, that’s all!”
“What are we going to do with it?” my father chewed apathetically.
“What do you mean, what!? We’ll replace it with a new one. That’s all! We just have to make sure that the new one isn’t more expensive than the old one. But if someone there has started producing a similar blue, then the price won’t be more expensive, it will probably be cheaper! Otherwise there is no point, we have to squeeze it out of the market. The price will be lower for sure! But how do we find these producers? Okay, finish your meal, we have to go, we’ll think of something, as usual. We’ll look in magazines, maybe something else, but we’ll find them!” I finished my breakfast and got up from the table. The thought firmly stuck in my head.
“And we should be done with this…” I continued on my way to the parking lot, remembering the meeting with the owner of the household chemical manufacturing company, and grimaced.
“Then what are we going to sell!?” my father stared at me. “We’ll think about it when we find a replacement!”
“Well, obviously we’ll do it when we find a replacement, not before! Do you think I’m an idiot or what?!” I was getting more and more irritated by the straightforwardness of my father’s thinking, which I stumbled over more and more. “That’s what I’m saying, we have to find it, and then be done with this one. Look at him, dragging his butt in a new ‘Passat’, throwing his weight around, all showing off ‘we work with you, only with you, you are our representatives, we are interested in you’, he pissed in our ears just for the hell of it, asshole! And he shipped it to the first one who called… dumbass!”
“Well, yes,” my father agreed delicately. He didn’t like it when I used strong language. I tried not to, of course, and I didn’t swear in front of my father, but sometimes, when I felt overwhelmed, I allowed myself a few strong words.
“Okay, we’ll look,” I concluded.
With the transition to barter came the downside: the workload doubled. Now, to make the same profit, we had to do more work, transport more goods, and work more hours. I immediately tried to minimize all unnecessary activities, and I succeeded. When I received goods back from customers, I tried to take only what was needed to sell at other wholesale depots. In this way, we avoided transshipment of barter through our warehouse. The issue with “Mercury” had not been solved yet, Vovka had not called. In order to get the maximum profit from barter goods, I developed a pricing system. It took into account all the nuances: who, where, and what discounts they gave on similar goods, and how much they could be sold to which depots. I memorized all the numbers and kept them in my head. We kept writing bills by hand, and it was tiring and annoying. After all, the invoices were big now, with many items. We had to write a lot, not at our table at home, but in the cab of the “GAZelle”. And I was the one who had to do it. My father, who was only a driver, quickly became unfamiliar with commercial matters. When he began to write a bill, he would ask me for prices on almost every line, making the writing process long and painful for both of us. I would write the invoices quickly, pulling information from my memory. Meanwhile, my father rested and smoked another cigarette.
The matter of selling barter to “Mercury” was solved – Vovka told us about it, he said: “I called Senya, he will take all this tripper from you, three percent to him and you can bring your shit there up the wazoo.”
I rejoiced, and Vovka put his hands at his sides and froze near the “GAZelle” with an air of importance. After unloading, we stood in front of the warehouse. Vovka was bored in the office during the summer, and we saw him almost every time we came to “Pelican”. We talked about all sorts of nonsense and scoffed like two cronies, which we eventually became, quickly and inconspicuously.
“All right, go on, you crooks!” Vovka sighed, he didn’t want to leave. “I have to go, there’s a lot to do, some shitty wine has been delivered, the car over there, the loaders can’t get together for an hour, half of them are working, half of them are drunk.”
“Okay, bye, see ya!” I waved, slammed the door, and my father started the engine.
Vovka waddled to the front. We overtook him. I looked in the side mirror – Vovka stuck his tongue out at me. I stuck my hand out of the window and gave him the middle finger.
The business situation looked stable. I felt secure about “Pelican”. We were very lucky with “Peresvet”: the big suppliers of household chemicals continued to ignore this depot. The goods there were sold as if they were falling into a bottomless barrel. The prices at “Peresvet” were so high that we were able to make good money even with barter goods. I smelled a chance to make money – while our competitors were fiddling around, we should load “Peresvet” to the limit. So we did, we started to put almost all the barter in one depot, and it started to get scarce. In addition to the blue, we needed good products again for direct sales and to increase the volume of barter – one thing was pulling the other. I remembered the idea of replacing the blue manufacturer, but I had no idea where to find one.
As in any other sphere, a fairly stable circle of players has formed in our city’s wholesale trade. While it was large in food wholesale, then it was an order of magnitude smaller and very closed in household chemicals. There were hardly more than a dozen new players. On the contrary, in 2002 the market for household chemicals began to consolidate almost imperceptibly. The process was so smooth that when someone left the game, his business declined for a long time and in front of everyone. No one suddenly went bankrupt or closed down. On the contrary, if a company was growing, the progress was noticeable and had a normal pace. The others understood that the company had a good profit, invested it in development, sales, retail space, and growth continued. There was no rapid growth without outside funding. But there was a vicious circle. Banks were happy to lend to large companies. But these profits allowed them to grow quickly without loans. Small businesses were not given significant loans and were doomed to lag behind the big ones.
In 2002 a curious thing happened – the vicious circle was broken. The trading company “Homeland” suddenly began to grow rapidly. I knew the background of the company from various people. The director of “Homeland”, like all small businessmen, at first lived on his hard-earned money. Suddenly, his business began to grow dramatically. Everyone figured it out – there was an infusion of money. Where was it coming from? There were rumors of loans. The company was located on the territory of a small depot, just across the fence from the “Mongoose”. It was said that the director of “Homeland” did not rent the depot, but bought it. On its territory, which was not asphalted, barely covered with gravel in the most necessary places, and surrounded by a concrete fence, there was only a gray four-storey building. The lack of windows on three sides of the building only added to its gloomy appearance. It was against this background of information that my interest in “Homeland” arose, and I suggested to my father that we drop by.
Crunching the wheels on the gravel, we parked and got out of the car. Gee. I looked around. “Prison block.” The building looked unfinished. There were two openings on the left side to accommodate the size of the truck. There was no gate in the openings. In the middle of the building was another opening, but with a gate and even a patch of asphalt in front of it: the company’s warehouse. A truck was parked in front of the open gate, and workers were bustling about. The office of “Homeland” was on the second floor, and the entrance porch was on the right side of the building. I pulled the iron door toward me, and my father and I stepped inside and found ourselves in the stairwell. Concrete stairs with welded iron railings led up. The floor was lined with pieces of concrete, sand-lime bricks, and hardened cement. It was like being on a construction site. The second floor greeted us with an empty doorway and a long corridor behind it. To the right of the doorway was an unpainted iron door. There was a piece of paper with tape on it that said “Salesroom”.
“This way!” I said, pulling the door open.
It was heavy and didn’t move immediately; a spring held it from the inside. We entered. The door rattled behind us, announcing our arrival. The interior of the room, one hundred and fifty square meters, did not violate the spirit of the building: cheap, worn linoleum on the floor, unattractive wallpaper. On the left side of the room were four desks with computers, two of which were occupied by girls. Along the walls were white wooden shelves, taller than a man, with samples of goods and paper price tags on each. Nothing superfluous, a typical salesroom. I said hello to the girls and wandered along the shelves. I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I studied all the shelves, gathering information. I immediately noticed the low wholesale prices. I quickly estimated the difference; the prices were seven to ten percent below the average price in the city. “Amazing. Where did this luxury come from? Strange!” I wondered, the mystery of the low prices stirring my brain.
I glanced at my father, who was following me, but rather formally, with indifference frozen on his face. It was probably at that moment that my feelings became an immutable fact, and I realized that my father was indifferent to our work together. I was burning with work inside, but my father wasn’t. He did his work mechanically, without interest. I felt like a fool. “Like an idiot, I’m poking around these windows, looking for something I don’t know myself, but I’m looking, I’m searching, I’m interested, I want to find something here, I don’t know what exactly, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing, and he…” the bitter thoughts began to swirl in my head. I didn’t want to admit it. But the longer I watched my father in the salesroom of “Homeland” and remembered similar situations in the past, the more convinced I became of the unpleasant fact that my father was indifferent. Not good thoughts. I pushed them to the back of my mind, turned away, exhaled heavily and continued my search.
The mental monologue about my father disappeared from my mind in an instant!
I stopped dead at the penultimate shelf and could not believe my eyes: on the shelf, among the tubes and vials, was a familiar blue bottle. Yes, exactly the same as the blue we sold, with a similar label, but a different name. I had found what I was looking for! Bingo! I took a quick look at the price – it was very low. “Perfect, just what we need!” my intuition screamed, and a shiver of anticipation ran through my body. I called my father, barely able to contain my excitement and joy.
“Oh,” he said when he saw the bottle.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I said quietly, went to the girls, took the price list as a distraction, went back to the shelf and wrote down the manufacturer’s contacts. My father leaned against the shelf and put on his glasses, still looking at the bottle. The glasses slid down the tip of his nose, making my father look like a college professor.
“Come, there’s nothing more to do here, it’s time to go,” I added just as quietly.
We went outside.
“I’ll be damned! Did you see that!?” I burst out, babbling nonstop. “Just what we need! Some ‘Luxchem’ in Krasnodar makes exactly the same blue, and cheaper! As if on cue! The ball comes to the player!”
We got into the car, and as my father started it, within seconds my head was filled with an unimaginable flood of thoughts. I began to feverishly calculate the prospect of a chance find. We drove off.
“What time is it!?” I said impatiently, then looked at the cell myself. “Three twenty-three. Still half past three.”
“Half past three,” said my father.
“I wonder how late they work? Until six, like everyone else, I guess. We still have time to call them today, we delivered the goods, let’s go home!” I babbled.
“Well,” my father hesitated with an annoyed look. “Okay, let’s go and call. You’re always in a hurry. Where’s the fire? We can call tomorrow. Why the rush?”
“Why not today!?” I stared at him. “What is there to wait for?”
“All right, we’ll call them today,” my father agreed irritably.
I looked at him and my euphoria evaporated, shattered with a bang by my father’s indifference, his stinginess of emotion, his irritation at my joy. I felt like a child who had been rudely reprimanded by a parent for expressing my joy too strongly and being too happy. I faded away. I turned away and stared foolishly out the window. The warm, pleasant summer air blew into my face and back. I put my right hand out, elbow on the window, and began to catch the oncoming airflow. I squeezed my fingers together, forming a wing-like shape with my palm. The air hit its flatness and threw my hand up in a flash. I placed my palm horizontally and my hand fell lower. I made an angle and the hand soared. Silly, but I played like an undeservedly offended child. I wanted the resentment to go away, and I chased it away with simple, childlike joy. I would change the inclination of my palm, and my hand would rise and fall again. It was my way of keeping the joy of my senses from my father’s harsh and dry perception of reality. “We’ll get home and call them,” I thought, squinting my eyes with joy.
By four o’clock we were home.
“Dad, call!” I said, almost running into my mother in the hallway before I had time to take my shoes off. She was a dance instructor at the children’s art center, and she hadn’t had much work in the last few years. The pay was low, of course. And it affected the mother’s condition. Every year she became more and more irritable, rude and scandalous at the slightest opportunity. My father always got it in the neck more than I did. I didn’t understand the reason for their mutual intolerance, but I felt that its origins were very deep. Watching us, my mother froze in the hallway and went into the kitchen. “The mood is bad,” I noticed and followed my father into his room. He sat down by the phone and began to dial the number I had written down. The August heat poured into the room from the open balcony, and I went there, sat down on the sun-warmed couch, lit a cigarette, and looked out at the street – beautiful, summer, warm!
“There’s no one there. No answer,” my father said as he walked out onto the balcony, sat down next to me, and lit a cigarette, too. “They’re all gone by now, I guess.”
I got a little frustrated. I wanted to get the price list as soon as possible. I took a drag on my cigarette.
My mother came to the balcony.
“Well, bismissmen!?” she said cheerfully, picked up my father’s pack of cigarettes that was lying there, took out one for herself, and threw the pack back. “Not going well!?”
Again she wanted to hurt us; I already knew these peculiarities by heart. My mother’s attacks came in waves. When we hustled with the “second”, she listed us as “bismissmen” who could not do anything, unlike others “who had built a house, and their cars are cool, and their wives do not work”. My mother’s painful rebukes hit us with hard facts, there was nothing to argue with – we listened stoically. At first I did not notice her attacks. Later, they began to hurt me. The purchase of the “GAZelle” caused my mother’s confusion, and for a while the provocations stopped. But after a few months everything went back to normal.
“Why not!?” I muttered, turning to the window. “It’s going.”
“It’s going!?” my mother stood in the middle of the balcony with her eyes fixed on my father, crumpling her cigarette with her fingers. “And you, old chap, why don’t you say something!?”
“Everything’s fine,” my father’s voice sounded cautious, and I could feel his jaw muscles tense. “Go already.”
“You shouldn’t have said that,” I realized my father’s blunder. My mother was waiting for it, provoking it, waiting for the right word.
“Don’t even think about sending me off!” she flashed a match. “Got it!? You!!”
My mother hovered over my seated father, gritting her teeth.
“Look at him, bismissman, my ass! Go on dreaming and sitting around, never getting rich! You’ll never have anything, you’ll see! Because all people live normally: earning money, supporting children and wives, buying cars, and you sit there, miser, counting every penny, putting it all away somewhere! You’ll probably take it with you in your coffin!” she wouldn’t let up. When my mother exploded, she was relentless. She would calm down quickly if you did not respond to her outbursts. But it was hard not to react. I understood my father well, and I knew that if I spoke up, the same words would be said to me, but with a little less hatred.
“Mom, come on!” I got up and walked past my mother to my room.
“Don’t you shut me up, daddy’s darling!!” she lost it in a jiffy. “Freeloading off him, making yourself comfortable! I told you a long time ago, you should work somewhere! No, you just hang around here with your daddy! And your mother is just a washwoman! Do the laundry, cook something to stuff your face with! That’s all! That’s all you need a mother for!”
I turned around, wanting so badly to say something nasty back. My mother was standing there, waiting for me. It was as if she was feeding on the bad energy. The fights were regular, after which my mother would contentedly retreat to her room.
“I’m already working and making money!” I didn’t want to make things worse. “And if you don’t want to do the laundry or cook, just say so, we’ll do it ourselves! I don’t want to hear those words, like ‘stuff your face’ and all that. If you don’t want to cook, don’t cook! Just don’t yell around here!”
“That’s it! Don’t need the mother! Right!? You did when you were little, and now that’s it, go fuck yourself, mother, huh!?” she came up to me, looking up from below with her myopic, colorless eyes, and flipped me the bird. “Oh, you’ve got it right about your smart-ass daddy! Here’s one for the both of you! Bite it! I’ll do what I want, this is my apartment and you don’t tell me what to do!”
The fight took its usual grotesque form. I had nothing to say in return. I didn’t want to be rude to my mother, but I couldn’t listen to the nastiness. I looked at my father, who was sitting on the balcony with his legs crossed, smoking and grinning. After tragedy comes comedy – classic. My mother glared at my father and moved slowly, predatory, back to the balcony.
“What are you laughing at, you old crock!?” she hissed in spittle. My father’s smirk worked on her like a red rag to a bull. My father understood that, but that was his answer in this mutual harassment that had begun no one knew when.
“Life is good, isn’t it!? Your wife is a fool, isn’t she!? A psychopath!? And if she’s an idiot, why do you live with her?! Why don’t you get out of here, buy an apartment and live as you please! Why don’t you buy one!? You’re a bismissman after all! You’re tough! Fuckton of money! Why are you sitting here with me? Because there’s no money! You don’t make any money! All wind and piss, ‘I’m the smartest, I’m the smartest!’ So where’s the money?! Jack shit, cause you ain’t smart, you’re just talking!” my mother tapped her knuckles on her forehead.
I stood in the middle of the room and heard this for the umpteenth time. “When did it all start? I can’t remember. Everything was fine, there was a family, things were going well, and then suddenly it started. I’d better go out,” I thought, closing the door behind me and going into the kitchen. I ate dinner, went out, got into a share taxi and went downtown. The weather was beautiful. I felt like spending the evening in the club. But it was only sevenish, and I spent about four hours just hanging around the city. I was in a bad mood. On top of that, my stomach hurt. A nasty, nagging pain. When my stomach hurts, there is nothing else I want to think about. I bought a bottle of alcoholic cocktail, sat down on a park bench, smoked a cigarette, and poured the pale green drink into my aching stomach. The pain subsided. It didn’t happen often, and I didn’t pay much attention to it. I understood that it was caused by irregular meals and snacks on the road. My father had beaten me over the head with his lectures about it. After all, my weak stomach was a legacy from his side of the family. I accepted my father’s moralizing, but I did nothing about it. I didn’t care.
As expected, there weren’t many people at “Clear Skies” on a weekday. I knew all of the club’s staff by sight and greeted half of them with a handshake. I didn’t have much money with me. I ordered a “screwdriver”, walked around the place and hung out at the bar. I left “Clear Skies” after two in the morning, sloshed with alcohol. I climbed the stairs, pushed the heavy wooden door away from me, and found myself in the fresh air of the night-time street. I slowly walked away. I felt like taking a walk, getting some air and sobering up from the alcohol. I crossed the street on the crosswalk and took the usual route to the hotel, where the picker-uppers kept watch. Twenty minutes later, I was home. My parents were asleep, so I quietly undressed and got into bed. As soon as my head touched the pillow, a pleasant wave of relaxation and light fatigue passed through my body. I fell asleep immediately.
In the morning, still in a light slumber, I heard my father’s footsteps in the room.
“Are you asleep?” his voice said.
“No,” I answered without opening my eyes.
“I called Krasnodar,” the voice said, clearing his throat. ‘Luxchem’,” he cleared his throat again and smacked his lips. “They sent me a price list…”
The remnants of slumber vanished in an instant, I jumped up, opened my eyes, sat down on the bed, and reached for the facsimile papers: “Let me see!”
I quickly ran through two sheets with sleepy eyes.
“Great! Blue! The price is three rubles, super!” I devoured the letters and numbers with my eyes.
“They have cleaning paste, too,” my father added.
“Cool! Pasta!” I kept studying the names and prices. “The price isn’t great, it should be a little cheaper. Okay, we’ll talk about that later. Laundry detergent is cheap, great! Cleaning products are cheap, great.”
We hit the bull’s-eye! We had found exactly what we were looking for. “Is this the way out!?” my heart was pounding and I was excited, feeling an instant burst of energy.
“So, did you talk to them about the terms!?” I couldn’t wait.
“The terms are excellent,” my father continued, sitting down in the chair opposite me, his legs crossed, and with no concealed satisfaction. “They give a grace period until the next shipment, but not more than two months. They have their own delivery. The price includes delivery.”
“Cool!” I leaned back on the bed, my back against the cool wall, and immediately recoiled. “If they have their own delivery, then the prices are great! Blue for three rubles! We’ll finish that ‘Fluffy’! The price of paste is also good! There’s washing powder and everything else will do. You saw how big the assortment is, and it looks like everything will sell! It’s not like that one, nothing for sale but blue! It’s a great manufacturer! Don’t they work with anybody here?”
“They don’t, I found out,” my father leaned back in his chair, shaking his leg with an air of importance. “I mentioned the dealership agreement and they agreed to an exclusive dealer.”
I almost jumped up on the bed.
“Just what we need!” I blurted out. “Okay, I’ll go wash up and we’ll talk about it.”
I jumped out of the room and hid in the bathroom.
The rest of the day, as we drove around town with the goods, my father and I discussed new prospects. My father agreed that we should stop using the current manufacturer and switch to “Luxchem” products. In addition to the blue, the problem of the Rostov paste of poor quality was solved; now we could also replace it. The two-month deferral in payment was like manna from heaven – we could bring in and sell more goods.
August was living its last days. Once again, I called Moscow to barter and found out the unpleasant news: the “Fluffy” manager had gotten there as well, offered the same blue, but at a lower price, and had even managed to bring in the first batch. I should have been upset, but I wasn’t. After what had happened, I didn’t care about the Moscow company, the “Fluffy” manager, or the lies of the production owner with his new “Passat”. “Let them work,” I thought then, and simply broke the news to my father. He reacted the same way.
September continued with the warmth of summer and at the beginning of the month we received our first shipment from “Luxchem” – a very old “MAZ” crawled to our warehouse gate and almost collapsed there. The cabin, long since unpainted on the outside, looked like a living construction kit inside – bundles of wires stretched from the dangling dashboard to the steering column. A multicolored mass of them was bound and tied together with shabby ropes, cords, and pieces of duct tape. A makeshift hull towered behind the cabin. It looked like a barn on wheels, lined with iron sheets on the outside and planks on the inside. “Hell of a truck,” I thought. The driver opened the back doors of the “barn” to reveal four tons of cargo.
“How much can you load in it?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Ten,” he said calmly, wiping his hands of the dirty oil with a rag.
“Ten tons!?” I froze in surprise.
“Yes,” the driver didn’t change his expression. “There’s a trailer, too. Ten tons as well.”
“I’ll be damned!” I whistled. “How far can you drive that monster?”
“I go to Moscow.”
“Wow! You’re a hotshot! It’s a thousand and a half kilometers one way! And it never breaks down!?”
“It always does,” the driver took the papers out of the cab and handed them to me.
“Okay, let’s get started,” I said, handing the papers to my father and walking into the warehouse. The car pulled up outside, the doors slammed, and I heard cheers.
“Good afternoon!” I returned from the warehouse and shook hands with a short man with blond and gray hair, a high sloping forehead, and a watery, cunning gaze.
“Eduard Dmitrievich,” he replied, shaking my hand.
“This is my son Roman!” my father introduced me to the two guests, breaking into a restrained smile. “We work together, you could say it’s a family business!”
I extended my hand to the second guest and said, “Roman.”
“Aslanbek Akhmedovich,” he replied in a cheerful, energetic voice, shaking my hand firmly. “Director of ‘Luxchem’, Eduard Dmitrievich’s partner! He’s more of a commercial director, and I’m in charge of production!”
There was a physical resemblance between the partners: they were both about one hundred and seventy centimeters tall, closer to fifty years of age. The only difference was that Eduard Dmitrievich looked like a man far from sports, with his belly visible even through his shirt and his entire physique, while his companion, on the contrary, had the appearance of physical strength and endurance.
The unloading began, the driver got into the “barn” and began handing boxes to my father and me.
“Let me and Eduard Dmitrievich help you, Anatoly Vasilievich,” came the director’s thick voice from behind me.
“Right, Anatoly Vasilievich, let us help you and Roma,” said the other.
The director surprised me! I realized that a man who owned a company and was no stranger to physical labor would rise high. He ignored my objections and those of my father and got to work. Eduard Dmitrievich’s face showed a faint flicker of annoyance.
We got it done quickly, in an hour. After unloading, we assured the new suppliers of our sincere desire to promote their products. They, in turn, assured us that we would be the only representatives of their company in the region. All four of us spoke in favor of a long and fruitful collaboration, shook hands again, and then parted ways.
On the drive home, my imagination ran wild, painting the rosiest of prospects – I was so excited, I babbled almost nonstop. My father was mostly silent, barely managing to get a word in between my pauses. I was a fountain of energy and thirst for activity. The way out of the dead end had been found; all we had to do was follow it.
We got to work immediately and energetically, distributing the new products to customers within two weeks. Replacing one blue with another raised no questions; the move worked perfectly. We fixed our situation, made ourselves safe from “Fluffy,” and ended our relationship with them. Everything started to sell: cheap laundry detergent, nail polish remover, cleaning powders. We liberally drove up the price of the new products, and it was still the cheapest in the city. We took a chance and won at everything. Sales were so brisk that by the end of the month there was a demand for the next batch.
At the same time, we suddenly found a subtenant in our warehouse. An acquaintance of one of the depot managers was looking for a small space and promised to come over.
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