Chapter 009

“I’m getting a fucking divorce after all, Ramses!” Vovka began to rub his hand roughly over his eye and angrily shook the open door of our “GAZelle”.

“Vova, damn it, you’re gonna rip the fucking door off! That’s enough!” I yelled out, my father wasn’t around.

“We’ll weld it back on, for fuck’s sake! It’ll be as good as new! We have our own welders here at ‘Pelican’, they spend all day here welding things: doors, racks, all kinds of shit!” Vovka stopped, but didn’t calm down, continuing to boil inside.

“Why the hell are you getting a divorce!?” I got out of the “GAZelle” to stretch, I was tired of sitting, the sun was burning through the glass. “Your wife is so hot. I like her!”

“It’s fucking complicated, Ramses!” Vovka rubbed his eye until it was red and ruffled the hair on his head until it stuck out in all directions. “Fuck if I know! My relationship with my father-in-law is fucking great, but my mother-in-law… Well, she pisses in that fool’s ears!”

I looked down at my feet in leather sandals. “So dirty, ankle deep in dust, should I wash them?” I thought, looking at the faucet in the wall five meters away. Our “GAZelle” was parked as usual in front of the household chemical warehouse. It was the end of the working day. The customers had left. Only the tired and sweaty loaders hung around the depot.

“Fuck it, I’m getting a divorce!” Vovka jabbed his hand through the air, his face frozen in confusion, his eyebrows furrowed and yet stubbornly raised in a curve.

“Well, is it really that unbearable, don’t you love each other?” I slurred back over my shoulder, walking to the faucet.

“Yeah, we seem to be doing all right! Fuck, my mother-in-law is making a big deal out of it! She’s always nagging me: ‘Blah blah, you live with us, you don’t have your own apartment, why did you leave the army, you could have a corporate apartment by now, and then they’d give you your own!’ She would fucking love it if my wife and I would continue to live in fucking Chita and only come on vacation – ‘Mommy, mommy, eensy weensy!” Vovka imitated his mother-in-law’s languid, fake family kisses. “So I live at her place, I eat her food, I eat out of house and home, for fuck’s sake! Let her go fuck herself!”

During his emotional speech, I washed my feet and staggered back to the car.

“It’s okay, Vova, it’s all to the good!” I tried to cheer him up. “Of course, it’s a pity, because your relationship with your father-in-law is good, and with your wife, too.”

“Well, not as such!” Vovka flared up again. “We’ve been lying and sleeping on the same couch for two years now, and we don’t shag!”

Vovka, fully stretched, depicted two people lying close together, as if on a single bed.

“What do you mean, you don’t shag!?” I even forgot where I was going. “All of two years?!”

“Well, yeah! Twooo fucking years!!! Twooo!” Vovka parted his fingers to make a V shape and shoved them under my nose.

“Holy shit! Gross!” I expressed my surprise and turned around at the sound of footsteps.

It was my father coming from the side of the office.

“Well, did you get the rest?” I said.

He waved his hand with a piece of paper. I nodded. My father walked over to the “GAZelle”, took his cigarettes from under the steering wheel and lit up. My stomach hurt. I hadn’t eaten anything since this morning, just two cups of tea from the kiosks and a bar of chocolate. I went back to my seat in the cabin, wincing. I noticed a long time ago that when I sat down, my stomach would squeeze and stop hurting. So I settled in, choosing a comfortable sitting position. I swung my legs out and turned around. My father stepped away from the cabin, smoking and studying the piece of paper.

“Well, what else is new with you?” I said quietly to Vovka.

He started yanking the door again, but not too hard. Then stopped.

“That jackass Petrovich pissed me the fuck off…” came the grim reply.

“Looks like everyone pissed you the fuck off, doesn’t it?” I laughed silently.

“Son of a bitch, he acts like an asshole…” Vovka stomped nervously on the spot. “Fuck!”

I was silent. I looked around again. My father was far away and couldn’t hear us.

“When I get what’s mine from suppliers or wherever, I always share it with Petrovich. And he always shares with me. He shared. He gets more, of course, he’s the director. But this time he kept it quiet! He got the money from a crook like you…” Vovka grinned at me, protruding his lower jaw and laughing mischievously. “He didn’t tell me, but I found out!”

Vovka sighed heavily, shook his head as if to shake off a delusion, and fell silent.

“Well, he didn’t do a very good job, after all, you’re working together,” I cobbled together a weak phrase in an attempt to support him.

Vovka was silent, standing with his hands at his sides and rolling his eyes angrily.

“Fuck this!” he jabbed his hand through the air again. “I think I should give him up to Daddy so he can kick him the fuck out! And put me in his place! I’ll be the director, Ramses!”

Vovka grabbed my wrist sharply with his rough claw, squeezed it, and shook it emotionally. Then he grabbed it with his other hand and shook it even harder.

“Ramseees!! I’ll be a direeector!!” he howled long, his small, tenacious eyes boring a hole through my pupils with glee.

“What’s that got to do with me!?” I smiled and started to pull Vovka’s fingers away from me. “Give me my hand back, you’ll tear it off!”

He unhooked himself, moved away, and sort of calmed down.

“Fucking awesome!” Vovka answered his thoughts, rubbing his hands greedily. “Sounds like a plan!”

I turned around. My father was no longer smoking, he was just standing there, obviously waiting for me.

“So, what’s up?” I nodded at him.

“Off we go?” my father suggested.

I nodded and looked at Vovka. He got the hint.

“All right, move it, you crooks!” Vovka waved good-naturedly, grinning and giggling. “I bet you’ve made some money for a week! Yes, you did, you did! I saw your sales this morning! Hm, I didn’t expect that, all this shit sells well.”

I held out my hand to Vovka, who shook it and then shook my father’s.

“All right, see ya,” I nodded, and Vovka turned and walked toward the office building, past the faucet that let out a thin stream of water onto the hot asphalt.

The “GAZelle” roared and overtook Vovka. As usual, I looked in the side mirror and Vovka waved at me. We left the depot and slowed down at a T-junction.

“Vovka keeps an eye on our sales,” I said.

“He watches everything there. He’s supposed to…” my father said, turning to the right.

“‘Clear Skies’ continued to draw me in. I didn’t realize at first that the changed work schedule had contributed to it – it had become monotonous: in the morning to the warehouse, loading, first in the back of the car for wholesale customers and for the kiosk, unloading the goods to the kiosk, the rest to the wholesalers and then home. In a whole day there were maybe two or three quick bites to eat. Often I would settle for a glass of tea and a chocolate bar. Later, my stomach would hurt. Whenever my father saw my distorted face, he would either turn away reluctantly or scold me for disregarding my health. I understood, but the lectures were enough for a few days, and then I would go back to eating chocolate bars. The pain would immediately return and get worse. I already had a lot of practical knowledge about stomach pain – a cigarette would dull it, a bottle of beer on a hot summer day would bring it back. I began to carry painkiller syrup with me and take it on the go. It dulled the pain, but there was a feeling of vomiting, a feeling of obstruction, and a heaviness in my stomach. After two or three days, the pain subsided, I stopped taking the disgusting medicine, and the pain returned. I knew I was being stupid, but I persisted in my idiocy. My mother persisted in hers – her fights with my father had become the norm and had increased to the point of exasperation. I also took a beating every other time.

“Mom, is there anything to eat?” I said from the threshold of the apartment in the evening, the work day was over, my stomach was empty and aching and all I could think about was food.

“Look in the fridge! You’re not a little boy anymore!” my mother barked as she walked out of the kitchen and down the hall past me and my father.

“In a bad mood,” I realized, took off my shoes and went to wash my hands. What was stressful about the job was the clothes. Because we had to do everything – communicate with managers and carry goods – it was difficult to dress appropriately. Dressing for work meant looking like a loader all day. Not much to look at. Dressing in anticipation of communicating with the “white collars” meant ruining my clothes the first time I loaded goods. Changing clothes in the middle of the day? In the car? Utopia. We tried to maneuver by separating work days and meeting days. It didn’t work out very well; the days were almost always mixed. We had to dress in an average way. The snow helped in the winter, but the rest of the time our clothes got dirty very quickly. My mother would grumble about “endless laundry”. If a fight came to a screeching halt and my mother refused to do the laundry, my father or I would tell her that we would do it ourselves. The statement always had the opposite effect – my mother would shut up and start throwing our clothes into the drum of the washing machine. Until the next fight.

I opened the fridge. Cutlets and spaghetti. Two pots. I took them out.

“Give me that!” my mother shoved me roughly, snatching the pots out of my hands.

I shrugged and went to the shower, taking off my dusty t-shirt. When I came back, my father was eating dinner. My mother wasn’t in the kitchen. My share was on the table. Everything was as usual – yesterday’s clustered spaghetti, hastily piled on a plate, and two cutlets on top. The sight of the food did not make my mouth water.

“What are you looking at!? Eat!” came my mother’s irritated voice from behind me.

I didn’t want to argue with her. I just wanted to go somewhere. I knew where. Friday night was my salvation. I poured some tea. My mother poked around the kitchen and, getting no answer, went out. After shoving dinner in myself, I put on my jeans and was at the center in an hour. After hanging out there for a few hours, I went down to the club after sunset. There were already a lot of people inside. I pushed my way to the small bar. It was crowded and there was a line for alcohol. After getting a double “screwdriver,” I chatted with a couple of girls I knew for half an hour. People kept coming. The music was thundering. I was wiggling my knees to the beat. I wanted to drink properly. I smoked. The cigarettes helped the alcohol. The cocktail was dissolving in me, making me euphoric, and I headed for the bar.

“The same!?” the bartender looked at me questioningly.

I nodded and leaned against the counter. A couple of tipsy girls jostled behind me. A minute later, cocktail in hand, I was in the stream of bodies that carried me into the darkness of the dance floor. There I sat down in an empty chair and drank the cocktail. I had almost finished it when Anya entered the dance floor. I got excited and immediately lit up. Anya was gorgeous. My interest in her was pure in its pristine nature as a tear – a strong physical attraction. We knew each other visually and only crossed paths at the club. I remember when she came to the club wearing a thin navy blue sweater and black jeans. The sweater was killer to a man’s eye – it hugged the perfection of the girl’s figure. A bush of finely curled reddish-blond hair fell in long, bouncy, thick springs just below her shoulders. Anya was about one hundred and seventy centimeters tall, inclined to embonpoint, but her figure was in the shape that made the girl most attractive. The tight sweater showed her strongest trump card in all its glory: her breasts. Ripe, high, firm C-size breasts. They looked like an exuberant hymn to life and pleasure. It took me an incredible effort to look into her eyes every time I spoke to her. My gaze was stubbornly downward. I could stare at her breasts forever. And not just stare. I wanted this girl. It was as if she was made for pleasure. The sight of Anya paralyzed my brain, and the only unwavering thought of physical desire remained pulsing in it. Her full, sensual lips, her wide, open smile revealing even, flawless teeth, ended my pathetic attempts to resist the primal call of the flesh. Her face was beautiful. Fine wrinkles spread from the corners of her green eyes across her cheekbones as she smiled, the sweetest dimples appeared on her slightly plump cheeks, and the tip of her tongue showed playfully between her rows of teeth. I slowly died at such moments, hypnotized by it. Anya saw it, knew it and felt it. She glanced playfully at the guys around her and, just for fun, repeated the winning combination of dimples and tongue. When she spoke, she lisped so sweetly and subtly that I could no longer perceive a woman’s speech without such a flaw. Anya was a wonderful mixture of the innocent look of a child, the awkward coquetry of a young girl, and the sex appeal of a physically mature woman. Feeling the vibe of male interest, she reveled in her game. The guys next to Anya were either shivering or rooted to the ground. I began to shiver.

But as if obeying some powerful law of the Universe that tends to balance everything, Anya turned out to be half-witted. Not stupid, but half-witted. As long as Anya stayed silent and smiled, enraptured by the guys’ attention, everything was fine. But as soon as she opened her mouth, the charm of physical beauty faded. For me, that’s for sure. In those moments, I envied those who perceived girls only from the physical side. I wanted to see more in them than just the promise of physical pleasure. “What a silly girl!” I thought for the first time when I heard her incoherent, flirtatious chirping. I was so upset at that moment that for some reason I immediately stopped having any plans for Anya. Once and for all, she was relegated to the category of beautiful but useless fools. But I still wanted her. It was an unbearable split – physiologically Anya beckoned, intellectually she disgusted me. Alcohol! It saved me and suggested a way out. Vodka and juice liquefied my inner conflict, and every time I met Anya in “Clear Skies” and was seriously drunk, I forgot everything and continued to stare happily at her breasts. And this time everything went according to the usual scenario: I was drunk and Anya was beautiful. We greeted each other – she greeted me, I greeted her breasts. Anya smiled coquettishly, playfully running the tip of her tongue over the edges of her upper teeth, while I grinned bluntly and stared where I wanted to stare. I was nervous; I needed a drink immediately. Very quickly, a few more double “screwdrivers” found their way into me. Alcohol played its cruel trick and a miracle happened – a memory lapse. At about one o’clock in the morning my consciousness cleared from the alcoholic intoxication at the most interesting moment – I was standing in the street a few steps away from the entrance of the club and… kissing Anya! Deeply! Greedily! Anya returned the kiss. I sobered up almost immediately. I’d never felt such pleasure from a kiss before. The world around me ceased to exist, I closed my eyes and fell into the sensation.

Some are good kissers, some are bad. Some would like to kiss well, but they can’t. The kiss of thin lips is not pleasant, not even a skillful one. Such lips are stiff, and there is no pleasure in them. Medium and full female lips promise a good kiss. But not everyone is skilled. Kissing skill comes from innate sensuality.

Anya was skilled. Her sensuality through the kiss penetrated me and made my head spin. Big, soft, plump, delicious lips, I felt like I was being sated from a bottomless well. And the more I drank, the more thirsty I became. I sank my lips into hers, all my senses merging into one: my lips. At that moment, my brain flashed and our minds merged – I understood her thoughts and felt her sensations. We became one. We weren’t kissing, we were living the kiss. I suddenly realized that we both had the perfect kiss, and it was only possible between us. It had never been better and it would never be better. Whatever movement I made with my lips and tongue, Anya immediately responded the way I wanted her to respond. With every movement of her lips and tongue I felt more pleasure. And it wasn’t an animal pleasure of the flesh. The pleasure exploded in my brain with every movement of her lips. I became one sensual consciousness. Every cell in my body was enjoying Anya. The girl smelled amazing. The soft scent of freshness enveloped my mind and put me in a state of trance. My arms wrapped around Anya’s waist, my fingers dipping lightly into the inviting softness of her body. After a while, my desire drove my hands higher. I put my palm over Anya’s breast and squeezed it a little. Her breast didn’t fit in my palm, it yielded softly and firmly to my caresses. I completely lost track of time.

It was only when my lips were already swollen and burning beyond belief that we broke away from each other. I was physically unable to kiss again. I was not thinking clearly, so I walked back to the club with Anya. As I walked down the steps of the club, staggering and smiling stupidly, I asked the first guy I saw what time it was. It was two in the morning. We kissed for an hour! I was completely sober, the adrenaline had taken over and killed the alcohol. I was so devastated physically and emotionally that I immediately walked out onto the street and staggered away. Nothing better could have happened to me that night. I waddled down the street at a deliberately slow pace, still conscious of the kiss. My lips were swollen and sore. The warm summer breeze had dried them out in an instant and they were slightly crusty. “It was worth it,” I thought, smiling. “Maybe she’s not such a fool after all.”

I came out of the corner and immediately saw the red circles of the tail lights of Edik’s car.

“Well, how was the ‘Skies’?” he asked as I plopped down in the seat next to him.

“Awesome!!” I yelled, not holding back in my emotions. “Beautiful girls out there with C-size breasts and gorgeous figures!”

“Oooh…!” Edik stared at me, and his eyes immediately got greasy.

“Got a cigarette?” I said, searching my pockets.

Edik handed me the pack, and I pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blowing the smoke dreamily upward past the open door. Edik began to pry the details of my trip to the club out of me. The only thing he was interested in was whether or not I had picked someone up there. My mood could not be spoiled by such boring vulgarity, and Edik’s lecherous behavior was amusing as well, so I decided to play along with his male ego. It turned out that Edik’s attitude towards “broads” was simple: there had to be a result, a broad had to be fucked, and he had a girlfriend for love. I could still taste Anya on my lips. I touched them with the back of my hand, my lips burning and stinging. Besides, women would flirt with him, ask him for a ride and then say they didn’t have the money to pay him back. And that happens three days out of five, that’s for sure. I kept the conversation going almost automatically and called Edik Casanova. He bragged that he had been with almost two hundred girls and started asking me about my number. My mind was still swimming in an unbearably magical and long kiss. I enjoyed the contrast between my feelings and Edik’s fussy perception of women. I said that I didn’t count women, and that I preferred to deal with girls in relationships, and if casual affairs came out, I just took it as a fact. The answer caused confusion and Edik was awkwardly silent with a surprised look in his eyes.

“Look, don’t you like Inna at all?” he changed the subject.

“Why not? I mean, I do…” I was a little confused, I almost forgot to think about that one, and then the question came. “I like her, a beautiful girl. It’s just that she has a boyfriend…”

I knew that if something strong had flared up between me and Inna, the guy would have disappeared on his own, but that wasn’t the case, and I found salvation in her unavailable status. Edik wasn’t confused, he said that the girl liked me and that she and the guy had recently split up, so Inna was single.

“Oh, so that’s it!” I said, but it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t really like Inna, even though she was a striking and showy girl. I was intuitively tensed by her inner rigidity, self-interest, and almost cold, masculine, analytical mind. I remember thinking, “You can’t relax with a girl like that,” and then added, “That’s more like it.”

“You want to see her!?” Edik rejoiced.

“Something like that,” I nodded, and Edik suggested that the four of us go to the river – me, Inna, him, and his girlfriend. And for some reason I agreed.

I found it! Incredibly, I found a small two-line ad in a wholesale magazine – a manufacturer of cheap laundry detergent from Lipetsk was inviting regional distributors to cooperate. The ad had the lowest price I had ever seen in such offers. And Lipetsk was just over a hundred kilometers away. Perfect!

I immediately got the commercial itch, so I shoved the ad under my father’s nose.

“Oh!” he said after a minute and started scratching under his nose. “That’s interesting!”

“Call them!” I said.

The next day, July 3, we drove to Lipetsk, bought a ton and a half of the laundry detergent, unloaded it at the warehouse, and returned home. I hurriedly ate dinner and ran off to “Clear Skies” for the whole weekend. On Monday, we started offering the new product to customers. Among the big companies, only “WholeSale” was willing to barter the detergent. This company worked with semi-impoverished district and village cooperative stores, which, due to the eternal lack of money, agreed to take the product at almost any price. We charged the maximum amount for the detergent, and business was brisk: we went to Lipetsk once every two weeks, and by the end of the summer it was once a week. We got into the habit of unloading the whole car at once at “WholeSale”, and managed to be back by five o’clock in the evening. The depot warehouses were open until eight, and they took the goods until six. Once we were late and pulled up to the “WholeSale” warehouse at six o’clock sharp. The storekeeper, a stout, big woman in her fifties with a hard but fair temper, scolded us for the look of the thing and barked into the back of the huge warehouse hangar, “Where are the movers!?” The weather was calm and warm, and I was hanging around the car waiting. My father was smoking nearby.

“So, how much of that detergent do you have there?” the storekeeper came out of the warehouse.

Realizing that this was the best moment to break the ice, I said:

“It’s all yours!”

And I laughed. The woman warmed immediately.

“Oh, clever fellow, as I can see!” she smiled. “What’s your name?”

“Roma!” I kept smiling.

“And your father?” the storekeeper pointed her pen behind my back.

I turned around. My father realized we were talking about him, looked at our faces and smiled.

“Anatoly Vasilievich is his name,” I said, looking over my shoulder at my father, and turning to him, added, “Right, Anatoly Vasilievich!?”

He threw down his cigarette and waddled over to the woman and me.

“What?” my father said, pleased that the conversation was about him.

“Never mind,” I said.

“Tolya, is this your son!?” the storekeeper said.

“Doesn’t he look like me?” my father asked his favorite question.

The woman looked closely, thought for a while, hesitated, and said frankly, “No, he doesn’t.”

“This is how we live!” I sighed theatrically and pretended to be sad.

“Oh, you artist!” the storekeeper shook her head, turned and shouted again into the warehouse:

“All right, come on, move it, the supplier’s waiting here! What are you sitting there for!?”

Two grubby loaders crawled out at the sound, took a box each from the back of the “GAZelle” and carried them into the warehouse. Soon the boxes on the edge were over, and I jumped into the back of the truck and started handing over the goods from the back.

“Hookers!!!” A voice came from outside the cabin and I heard the sound of familiar footsteps approaching. Knowing what this was all about, I laughed softly. First an extinguished cigarette butt hovered over the edge of the canvas cover, then a wisp of hair, curled upward punningly, with a cloth cap at the very back of a head, and then a hand dived into the back of the cover. I shook it.

“Howdy!” Alexey Semyonovich muttered, deliberately serious, winking at me mischievously, blurring into a wrinkled, rubbery smile, and poking his head into the warehouse: “Hookers, eh!”

“Oh! What did you drag your butt here for!?” the storekeeper attacked him right away.

“I’m here on business!” Alexey Semyonovich didn’t flinch.

“What business can you possibly have here, huh?” the woman laughed. “We know your business!”

Alexey Semyonovich, satisfied with what he had heard, turned to me and winked.

“Ey know, you see!” he said, spoiling the word “they” by the cigarette butt in his mouth.

“Get out of here, move it!” the woman said with playful seriousness, pushing her guest out of the warehouse and going out herself. Alexey Semyonovich picked up his cap by the visor, took it off, put it on, took it off again, and so on, until he put it back on the very top of his head. He winked at me.

“What’s up?” he stared at the goods in the back of the truck. “You brought something new.”

“Not much. Yeah, see for yourself,” I nodded at the nearest box.

“Some kind of detergent,” Alexey Semyonovich looked closely. “Oh, holy shit!”

“Let them sell!” I jokingly supported his complaint.

“Yeah, whatever! What do I care!” He raised both hands, shook my father’s hand, said the usual “Howdy!” and immediately switched to the storekeeper:

“I need the waybill, I mean, we have to redo it!”

Alexey Semyonovich angrily pointed a finger behind his back in the direction of the depot office.

“What’s there to redo!?” the storekeeper stared at him.

“Oh, give me a break, bring it here!” Alexey Semyonovich spat his cigarette butt into the trash can as a sign of the weight of his words. He winked at me again.

“Who are you so angry with, Alexey Semyonovich?” I nodded in the direction of the office building.

“Never mind!” he waved angrily in the same direction. “Hookers! First they write waybills they know nothing about, and then they rewrite them!”

“Here!” the storekeeper floated out of the warehouse door, and shoved the bill into Alexey Semyonovich’s hand wrapped in a cloth. “Go, get out of my sight!”

“Oh! That’s more like it!” he lifted his cap. “Much obliged!”

“Just go,” she muttered, putting her glasses on her nose and looking at our waybill.

Alexey Semyonovich waved goodbye to me, and I to him; he said goodbye to my father, and with the waybill in his left hand, wrapped in a cloth, he fled in the direction from which he had come. “Hookers,” came a muffled whisper from the other side a little later. I, sitting on a box of detergent, burst out laughing again.

Alexey Semyonovich was a particularly interesting character. I met him for the first time about a year ago. He was an oddish man, defiantly jaunty, full of jokes, often close to the wind, especially with the female employees of “WholeSale”, and sometimes beyond the limits. Alexey Semyonovich was a short man, about one hundred and sixty-five centimeters tall, thin and wiry, with a shriveled face and strong, hard hands. He always wore a cloth cap, as if it were the same one, under which his curly hair, as wild as his actions and character, stuck out in all directions. It was as if Alexey Semyonovich had only one pair of pants. Only his jackets changed according to the seasons. He wore a dirty old sheepskin coat full of holes in winter, a light windbreaker in fall and spring, and shirts in summer. Alexey Semyonovich had two shirts. The thick, dark checkered one was worn on cool summer days and under jackets in the other seasons. The light colored one was worn on the hottest summer days, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and the collar wide open on the chest. Alexey Semyonovich would probably take a cigarette butt out of his mouth only when he slept, ate or talked. In the latter case, not always. Alexey Semyonovich cursed loudly and vividly, and strangely enough, it did not cause disgust. Even those he cursed. Alexey Semyonovich would curse storekeepers in public, girls in the office behind their backs. But he never got personal, he made impersonal generalizations. The storekeepers would blush and be speechless, which made Alexey Semyonovich even freer. He liked kicking up a row, and he always got away with his monkey business. No one ever complained about Alexey Semyonovich. He was never fined or reprimanded. Firing him from his job was out of the question. Alexey Semyonovich was untouchable and gave the impression of being a holy fool in the company. Why was he allowed to do everything? Perhaps because he did his work very well and honestly? Alexey Semyonovich was a hard worker. He did not slack off, did not look for easy ways. Everything he was asked to do, he did precisely and without delay. And this work was the most tedious and hardest of all, so there was no one willing to take his place. Alexey Semyonovich was an expediter driver. The car in which he drove the goods to the customers was just like him – an old, stinking and rattling “GAZ-53” with a home-made box, painted with a company advertisement with a large diagonal inscription “WholeSale”. The car was in its death throes. It seemed to me that in order to navigate in space with it, one had to know a certain magical secret – Alexey Semyonovich knew it. The “Gazon” had a hard time starting, convulsing in its revolutions, snorting, spitting black clouds of gasoline from the leaky exhaust pipe, and only after a wild grinding in the box would it shift gears. “Jalopy,” I immediately called this self-propelled piece of iron.

As we drove around the city in the “GAZelle,” we saw this car almost every day. When the “Jalopy” saw us, it would start honking, and the driver’s hand would stick out of the window and greet us fiercely. We responded in kind. Alexey Semyonovich worked alone and managed everything. He loaded the goods himself. The loaders at the “WholeSale” warehouses would only bring the boxes to the edge of the car, and then Alexey Semyonovich would stack them himself. He also unloaded the goods himself. Every day. Four tons, back and forth. I wondered where this dry man got his strength. He could do everything – work, joke, swear.

On Saturday morning, July 19, I found myself in Edik’s car, the four of us driving out of town to go swimming at the lake. After leaving the car in the nearest village, we followed the path to the beach. Inna was beaming, smiling incessantly and looking in my direction. Edik’s girlfriend was even uglier in the daylight. And her brain was also a problem, the girl would not shut her mouth and laughed inappropriately. Me and Inna kept quiet while Edik blushed guiltily. It was as if Inna was trying to size me up, holding my hand and trying to catch my gaze in the clinging nets of her black eyes. Her inner strength frightened me. I looked at Inna and she smiled and squeezed my elbow with her fingers. I responded with a forced smile.

We found a quiet spot on the shore of the lake, spread out our blankets, and began to lollygag in the sunlight. Edik’s girlfriend was still broadcasting in “radio” mode. I pretended to listen to her, Edik too, Inna didn’t even care. After lounging to our hearts’ content, Inna and I went for a swim. I entered the water up to my chest and turned around. Inna was standing in the water up to her thighs, the top of her bikini absolutely unable to contain her form, from which I carefully averted my eyes. The squinting black eyes watched me carefully, and as soon as my gaze fell on her breasts, Inna smiled. I was confused. A few minutes later we were swimming together – Inna’s arms around my neck and I could hear her breathing from behind. Then we were facing each other again, waist-deep in water, and I asked a simple question.

“We broke up,” Inna answered, not the least bit embarrassed.

“How long ago?”

“About a month ago.”

“On whose initiative?”

“Mine,” Inna said, looking at me defiantly. I was indifferent, so I was not embarrassed, I just smiled. Inna said that Sashka drank a lot, and in general the guy was not reliable, and she wanted a normal relationship, a family, children… The dialog came to a logical end and I suggested that we go back to the shore.

The rest of the day was spent barbecuing and eating skewered meat. Inna’s attention to me was implicit but total. It caused mixed feelings: my male ego was satisfied and licked sensually at the sight of the girl’s forms; my brain signaled that I had no feelings for Inna and reminded me of her firm and resolute character. I was stuck at this crossroads, tired of thinking and decided to let things slide.

August reminded me of one thing: since we started our own business, neither my father nor I have had a vacation in the usual format. At first we had days off, but that’s different. Individual days off do not provide psychological relief, they are like sleep in pieces, the sum of which does not replace the whole. Mentally, we were always at work, around the clock. It didn’t bother me, I was burning with work, and whatever I did, I did it with eagerness and joy. Intense work quietly stole another August, and with it the whole summer. Trade turnover increased. There was a new employee in the “Arbalest” office. Ilya, the same inconspicuous, balding, light brown-haired guy in his late twenties, joined the phlegmatic manager as a partner. He was modest, but the newcomer’s constantly shifting eyes confused me.

Inna continued her offensive: the next week Edik called me and suggested that we go to a cafe in the center with the same group. Out of curiosity I agreed, and on Saturday night we met in front of the movie theater. Inna looked gorgeous. She used the most spectacular combination of herself and clothes – dark skin and an all-white short tight dress. Sleeveless, with as low as possible and still a decent neckline on her chest, the dress hugged Inna’s waist and flat stomach, went down the arc of her wide and full thighs, converging and ending in the middle of them. The bottom of the dress was trimmed with a wavy ribbon, which gave the dress a certain airiness. The resemblance of Inna’s figure to that of Sophia Loren in her better years was striking. Inna looked at me with the same attentive squint and smiled broadly. She was raven-haired, with a blunt bob and bangs framing her face. We walked along an avenue full of strolling people, and Inna confidently hooked her arm through mine. Edik’s girlfriend continued to talk shit that only he listened to. I nodded occasionally, while Inna walked prudently on the opposite side. Half an hour later we were sitting in a cozy outdoor cafe and I ordered a beer like everyone else. The heat. It came out automatically. I knew beer would make my stomach hurt almost immediately. Why did I order it? Herd behavior. I had it coming. Edik and I lit up a cigarette. The conversation turned to alcohol. In the first sentence Inna said that no alcohol affected her at all. I was surprised, but Edik, who had hastily chewed a handful of salted peanuts, eagerly confirmed Inna’s words.

“I can drink champagne, but I just don’t like it. Vodka is no problem. Wine has no effect on me at all. I once drank seven bottles of wine with a friend on a dare, and I had to carry him. He was totally zonked, and I was sober,” she explained, as she continued to dart glances at me and smile more and more.

“Cool!” I said. “You can drink on a bet with whoever you want!”

“That’s what I do,” Inna playfully kicked me under the table with her foot and smiled.

“You do that for a living?” I laughed. “Just kidding.”

“No one believes me, sometimes they insist on drinking on a dare. I don’t refuse. In the end, someone always carries them off and I stay sober. How about another beer?” Inna twirled the empty glass in her hand.

Edik perked up and supported the proposal. As soon as I agreed, my stomach began to hurt.

We left the cafe at eleven. The avenue was crowded with people. Inna took my arm and calculatedly accelerated, leaving a gap between us and the second couple. Edik’s dirty remark came from behind me, but Inna cleverly laughed it off. She held my hand so confidently and expertly that I felt like a rabbit next to a boa constrictor. A conversation started between us. I kept looking down the neckline of Inna’s dress, and she noticed and smiled approvingly. A swarthy, tall brunette in a tight white dress on a hot summer Saturday night on a downtown street – she swayed her hips as she walked, her stilettos clinking on the sidewalk, and she happily held the arm of a guy with a dull pain in his lower sternum. I mentally cursed myself for the beer and salted peanuts, but all the while I looked carefree and at ease. It was getting harder and harder with every step I took. I smoked a cigarette. Something stuck in my stomach, rumbling, and wouldn’t go down. The aching pain made me sweat. I looked at Inna. She was radiant with charm. I smiled as naturally as I could, almost laughed. And then time slowed down. It seemed to me that we were not walking, but barely moving. The evening seemed endless. The rest was as in a fog. We reached the hotel, said goodbye to Edik and his chicken, and got into a taxi together. “Good thing we live in the same neighborhood,” I thought as soon as Inna gave me the address. “I’ll take her home, let the taxi go, and walk away.” I felt nauseated. Holding my hand, Inna snuggled her thigh against me and said something. The pain in my stomach clouded my consciousness more and more. I answered abruptly with a painful smile. Here we are at last. I got out of the taxi, the nausea rolling back from my throat and the pain in my stomach becoming unbearable. It was as if someone had stabbed my stomach with an awl and was twisting it in a murderous, monotonous way.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?” Inna’s voice sounded.

 “I’ll try to pour some tea in, maybe it will feel better,” I thought and agreed.

While the elevator counted the six floors with measured taps, Inna looked at me like a cat at sour cream. We entered the apartment. Inna deftly escorted me into the living room, which had a large double bed in the middle. The heartburn unbearably ate away at my stomach.

“Inna, do you have any soda?” I said.

She didn’t immediately understand what I was talking about and jumped into the kitchen. Trying to relax a bit, I automatically lay down on the bed. The nausea came back with a vengeance, my breath was choked and my mouth was full of saliva. I broke out in a sweat again, felt a slight panic, closed my eyes and tried to regain my breath. Heartburn was rampant. Saliva filled my mouth and I swallowed it, but it reappeared immediately. I had to leave as soon as possible.

“No, no soda,” Inna returned.

I opened my eyes. She was standing over me – a swarthy, tall brunette in a tight white dress with a low neckline and breathable, full breasts. “I shouldn’t have gotten on that bed,” I realized, but it was too late. Inna crouched down beside me, leaned forward, hovered over me and took my hand. I felt terribly queasy, the pressure building from inside. “Oh, please, no!” Inna leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. I didn’t pull away, but I didn’t lean forward either. Sweat broke through me again. My stomach twitched, my throat constricted. I swallowed. I swallowed again. The nausea receded a few millimeters from my throat. I was on edge.

“Inna, look, I don’t feel well, my stomach hurts, I feel terrible,” I said as I sat up on the bed, trying not to look into her eyes. “I should probably go home…”

“Well, okay, if it hurts, then go, of course. You don’t have to suffer here…”

The goodbye came out confused. I muttered an apology. Inna nodded tactfully. I struggled to get my shoes on, mumbled goodbye, and went to the stairwell to call the elevator. It rattled at the bottom and crawled up. I turned around. Inna was standing in the doorway, looking at me with a look I’d rather not describe. I smiled awkwardly. “Move faster, you piece of shit!” The doors finally opened, I smiled hastily, nodded at Inna, and hid from her piercing gaze in the elevator. My throat twitched again. I could barely resist retching and breathed harder. Finally, the first floor. I went outside, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and looked at my watch – it was past one in the morning. It was dark, no one was around. I relaxed, the pain subsided, the heaviness went away. I walked home. One courtyard, another. A bus stop. Kiosks. As I crossed the street, I walked down the dirt path, saw a lone bush, realized I couldn’t hold back any longer, took two steps to reach it, and bent over. I was turned inside out, as if from the very groin. My legs immediately felt like jelly, sweat broke through me, and I became weak. It was over at once – the unbearable fire of heartburn and the exhausting pain of my stomach. I got up slowly, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and walked at a leisurely, blissful pace. I slept like a log.

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