We closed the department in the mall on Friday, October 29. It was still selling at a profitable level, but the saleswomen informed us that they were leaving, and we decided not to look for new ones. On Saturday we moved the goods to the warehouse, and on Sunday we moved the sales equipment. Angry and nervous, we were exhausted. Sunday evening I spent at the computer, returning the goods in the inventory to the warehouse. A terribly boring job. “Stove Cleaner,” I came to another line and sighed heavily. The strange thing was that this product, which Sergey had sold me in “Sasha”, did not come out of my head. My introverted mind was looking for a logical explanation for such an action and could not find it. None of the partners had ever done this in all the time of bartering. The act puzzled me. “Why did he foist it on me so openly? I could always return it.” In fact, the product was barely selling – out of 48 pieces in our inventory, there were 40 left. “I’ll have to return this ‘Stove Cleaner’.”
There was very little space left in the warehouse. The sales equipment occupied the left corner closest to the entrance. My father squinted grumblingly at the cabinets and showcases, but remained silent. I could read everything he was thinking in his eyes. By November, we were back where we started – a wholesale business with no development and two unsightly but profitable kiosks in the market. I barely had time to catch my breath when, at the beginning of the month, Nadezhda Petrovna’s shift worker told me, as I was collecting the proceeds, that she would work until the end of the month and then leave.
“Where is she going?” my father stared at me in surprise when he heard the news lying on the couch.
“I have no idea,” I shrugged and put the money on the table. “Who cares? What are we supposed to do? Should we find someone else, or will Nadezhda Petrovna work alone?”
“We have to find someone,” my father sat up on the couch, massaging his face with his hands and blinking frequently, shaking off his slumber. “She can’t do it alone. Working without days off?”
“With days off, of course,” I specified. “And that’s if she wants to.”
After agreeing with my father, I suggested that we ask the old lady’s opinion. She agreed almost without hesitation, saying that she would make more money on her own. The problem seemed to be solved, my father, obviously relieved by the saleswoman’s words, slapped his hand on the window of the kiosk, wished Nadezhda Petrovna good earnings, and went to the car. But as soon as we were in the “GAZelle”, I attacked him:
“So what should we do with Nadezhda Petrovna? Should we let her work alone, or should we find someone else?”
“Haven’t we already decided?” my father asked in surprise. “Nadezhda Petrovna said she would work on her own. What else do you want!?”
“It was not our decision, it was her decision!” I began to get angry. “In my opinion, the kiosk is ours, and it is better to have it working every day, not like the other one – Saturday till afternoon and Sunday closed!”
“Well, what do you suggest!?”
“I suggest that we think about it, maybe we should try to find a second saleswoman so that the kiosk can work to its full potential. It’s the best outlet of the two. I’m not talking about Polina, she sells God knows how, there’s no way to fix it. But this kiosk sells very well. Four full days and four half days, that’s six days of downtime. Why lose the profits? I mean, we could try harder and find a saleswoman.”
“Then do it, who’s stopping you?” my father stared at me indifferently.
“Now that’s just typical,” I said sourly, inwardly indignant and seething.
“What’s typical!?” my father threw up his hands and slammed on the steering wheel.
“Never mind,” I brushed him off and turned to the window.
“If you don’t like it, go and do something! Go ahead! Nobody’s stopping you!” my father got angry too.
“All right, all right, I get it,” I muttered conciliatorily without turning around.
“Oh, you wanted me to start looking for a saleswoman, didn’t you? I would run and make a fuss and you would just sit there and tell me where to run and at what speed!?”
“Here we fucking go,” the thought crept into my head with a nasty taste.
“I didn’t want anything,” I said absently.
We both fell silent. There was tension in the air.
“Shall we go?” my father said.
“Yes,” I replied as I looked away from the window and sat up straight.
“Where to now?” my father asked his overused question.
“It’s all in the waybills,” I said nonchalantly, knowing the effect my sentence would have.
“Where are we going, I ask you!?” my father became indignant, gritting his teeth. “All in the waybills! Look at him, what a guy!”
“What’s the big deal!?” I looked at him defiantly, barely able to contain the anger that was rising inside of me. “It’s all in the waybills! We loaded together! You know what we loaded for and in what order! So let’s go!”
“Listen, you!” my father gritted his teeth. “Don’t get smart with me! I asked you nicely, where are we going? You’d better answer! And don’t show off!”
“I’m not,” I replied, suddenly calm and almost smiling. “We work together, don’t we? Together. So get involved in the work. Or do you want me to call everyone, collect orders, make waybills, plan the day’s work, and you just drive and ask every time – where are we going? Is that it?”
My father glared at me for a few seconds.
“Here! Sit! Drive!” my father slammed his hands on the wheel, bursting a vein. “I told you a hundred times! You don’t like it!? Get in and drive yourself!”
“And I told you a hundred times,” I continued in a calm voice. “You don’t like it? Go ahead, call and work on the computer yourself. We can swap places. I’m in! I will plainly turn the wheel and ask each time where we are going and carry the boxes as you say.”
My father continued to stare at me. I knew he had no answer for this statement. It wasn’t the first time we’d had this kind of argument. We both provoked each other into more and more scandals and negativity.
“Where are we going!?” my father repeated angrily.
“Arbalest,” I said nonchalantly, staring at him with clear eyes.
My father’s hand, white from clenching, clicked into gear with a crunch, the car moved, and I turned back to the window. How dreary November is in our part of the world. Winter is approaching and it’s grinning bloodthirstily, and everything in nature is freezing and dying with its grin. The mood of nature is transferred to people and gives rise to gloomy thoughts. This year, everything came to a depressing point: some business failures, the separation of my parents, tensions between my father and me, stomach aches. And the kind of damp weather that makes you want to give it all up and hibernate. But there was worry, nothing but worry. Alcohol was the only thing that relaxed me and chased away my anxious thoughts. I drank more and more. It was in November that I first felt a slight addiction. On Friday evening, while I was processing waybills on the computer, I suddenly felt a strong desire to drink. Not to dance and have fun, but just to drink. I called Vovka, who was down with a fever. I wished him a quick recovery and went to “Clear Skies” alone. After ordering a double “screwdriver” and drinking it in about five minutes, I took the next one. I drank it more slowly and also enjoyed a cigarette. It was getting good. After the third double, I was in alcoholic nirvana. “It’s half past eleven and I’m already feeling good,” I thought. After going to the bathroom, I clung to the bar again. Midnight. A fourth double and a cigarette. I pulled my face into a drunken smile, aware of how stupid I looked, but I didn’t care and felt very good from the alcohol. After taking the only quiet place in the crowded club in the archway of the grotto, I drank two more doubles by 1:00 a.m. More than half a liter of vodka was splashing inside me. I was intoxicated and began to wander around the club, swaying in senseless directions. The euphoria turned into numbness and indifference. The seventh double finished me off. “Too many,” I realized, staring into the half-empty glass. It’s twenty to two. “It’s almost closing time, I have to go now, or in half an hour the people in the checkroom will be choking to death,” I thought, got up, crumpled and gagged, took two swigs from the glass, pushed it aside, and, holding on to the wall, went to the exit. Someone said goodbye to me just before the checkroom, and I mumbled something in response. Did someone say goodbye to me at the checkroom, too? My consciousness was in a thick fog. I probably said goodbye too. “I’m polite, I always answer, yes, yes,” my drunken brain moved my thoughts. I didn’t immediately find the sleeves of my jacket, but I put it on and, holding on to the railing, I walked up the stairs, my jelly legs barely moving. The guards inside at the exit. Did they say goodbye to me? I pushed the door open, the cold, damp air hitting my face. I stepped over the threshold and took a deep breath. The air seemed unusually clean and fresh. I inhaled it again and again and could not get enough of it. Nearby, the drunken crowd was yelling as usual. I stepped aside. The aggressive shouting suffocated me and I wanted silence. The oxygen made me even more dizzy. Finally I felt the cold of the street. It crept under my jacket through the open collar and sobered me. I lit a cigarette, zipped up my jacket, shivered, and walked at a wobbly pace to the hotel. Edik’s car was parked in its usual spot. The warmth of the car heater on the way home made me woozy. After Edik left, I stood in front of my entrance for a few minutes, deliberately unzipping my jacket and feeling the ravenous November cold underneath bring me back to my senses. At home, as soon as I had undressed, climbed into bed under the blanket and warmed up, I felt the first attack of vomiting. I started tossing and turning in bed. I crawled to the floor and staggered to the bathroom. After a while, almost falling asleep by the toilet, I returned to the room. I was dizzy and shaking. A terrible condition. My parents were asleep in their rooms, the apartment was silent and dark, and I was sitting on the floor. The thought of the bed made me sick again. The toilet. The floor of the room again. The cold hit me with renewed force. “I’m sobering up,” I rejoiced languidly. After dozing for a while on the floor next to the bed, I climbed up on it in a dopey state and fell asleep before I could feel the dizziness.
We expected another delivery from Krasnodar on December 10. But the decrepit “MAZ” broke down, another truck was sent to us a day later, and everything went out of whack.
It snowed during the night. For a few minutes before I went to sleep in the darkness of the room, I stared at the snowflakes falling with a mixed feeling of joy and frustration.
“I’ll have to shovel it away,” I realized in despair, and went to bed.
Overnight, the city was completely covered in snow. Road crews were out clearing the streets in the morning, rumbling. Five degrees below zero and not a breath of wind. A perfect winter day. A weekend ahead, a break. If only! Within half an hour of digging out the “GAZelle” in the parking lot, we drove to the warehouse and bought two snow shovels on the way. All the roads on our way had already been cleared, and even the dirt road from the intersection to the factory gates had had time to be graded. The factory itself lay untouched under a thick blanket of white. We did not even dare to drive the “GAZelle” to the warehouse. We took our shovels and began to dig our way down, drowning in knee-deep snow.
“Oh dear,” I said when I got to the warehouse and saw the amount of work that needed to be done.
The work was in full swing. There is no point in describing it. Tedious, hard work, seemingly impossible at first. First we cleared the area in front of the gate. The piles of snow near the warehouse walls were growing dangerously fast. I was getting warm and even a little bit out of breath. My father lit a cigarette. For the next half hour, we cleared about the same amount of snow. “What a hole, how did we wind up here?” I was angry in my mind, realizing that it was in vain. No one but us cared about clearing the factory grounds. A forgotten and abandoned place. “It’s about thirty meters to the turnoff and a hundred and fifty to the gatehouse,” I shuddered as I looked at the road that needed to be cleared of half a meter of snow. We decided to just clear the track. An hour later we were at the turn. It was after two in the afternoon. I marveled at our enthusiasm. Two people, on the outskirts of town, in an almost deserted factory, clearing the road of snow, doing work they shouldn’t be doing under any contract. But they do. Others, if they were us, would be ringing all the landlords’ phones off the hook to remind them that the factory is their property and that they, the owners, are obligated under the lease to provide snow removal from the property. And that’s true. But we didn’t call. We knew it was pointless. If you want something done, do it yourself. A lot of people would have put off the delivery until the snow removal issue was resolved somehow, by somebody. We didn’t put it off. Responsibility, commitment, diligence are our family traits. If it has to be done, it has to be done. Sometimes, in similar moments, I have seemed like a fool to myself. Too dutiful and efficient. It made me want to be different, more loosened up and carefree. To think and do less for others. I couldn’t. Angry at my upbringing, I realized that excess was bad even for good character traits. “Moderation, everything is good in moderation,” I thought as I cleared another meter and looked dejectedly at the even layer of snow at the beginning of the road. After an hour, fatigue gave way to indifference. As I shoveled monotonously, I could no longer remember why, but I knew I had to.
“All right! Enough!” I said when we had cleared the path between the buildings, leaving about twenty meters of snowfield in front of the gatehouse.
“How’s it going to get here?” my father hesitated.
“It will! Loaded, it will accelerate from the gatehouse, the car will go down the slope to the track by itself.”
“Wow! How am I going to get through here!?” the truck driver asked at noon the next day, staring at the untouched snow cover.
I explained to him.
“There’s no other way!” he agreed cheerfully, climbing into the cabin, slamming the door and starting the engine. A cloud of black smoke rose from under the truck. The tractor roared and pulled the semi-trailer behind it. The truck passed the gate and began to crush the snow with its wheels. Speed began to drop. Seven meters. The tractor roared, maintained its speed, and kept going. The snow in front of the wheels grew thicker. The car roared again and continued to move, losing speed. Three meters, two, one. The tractor got into a rut, slowed down and stopped roaring, went downhill more easily, pulling the semi-trailer behind it out of the snow. In the curve the truck slowed down, dragged the wheels of the trailer through the snow and stopped only in front of the warehouse.
After unloading six tons in a couple of hours, we drove home, tired but satisfied. I ate dinner, spent an hour in a hot bath, dozed off, got out of the water with an effort of will, fell into bed stupefied, and fell asleep immediately. A phone call woke me up. Vovka shouted in my ear, reminding me that Saturday was on the calendar and we had to be at the “Skies” tonight. I opened my eyes, the clock flashed eight. Two hours later Vovka and I entered the club.
The spring and fall campaign of opening and closing two retail departments was already forgotten. The hustle and bustle was so much less. I forgot what measured and unhurried work was like, so I took it as a vacation. The business became monotonous. There was no sign of development, no sign of stagnation. We were frozen in a pleasant equilibrium, work was being done, money was being earned and accumulated. There was a decent amount of extra money in circulation, and we took it out of the business and put it in my father’s savings book. Once a month a car from “Luxchem” came and once a month we went to get detergent. The new year was coming. Along with the pre-holiday mood came the desire for a miracle. Wanting the business to grow, I considered even the most unthinkable options for development, but my intuition was silent.
“We have to find something by spring and work well in the summer! Dichlorvos would come in handy, but where do we get it?” I turned the problem over in my mind as we drove around town in a cozy, heated cabin. To solve it, we either had to find a new aerosol production facility unknown to the city’s wholesalers, or… well, the second option was obviously out of the question for us – “Arbalest” and “Sasha” were well “seated” in reputable aerosol factories. We were no competition for them.
The manager of “Arbalest”, Ilya, began to avoid me after the events with his shop, I felt it. I still went upstairs and called him regularly, but our communication became drier, our dialogues shorter, and Ilya’s gaze began to avoid meeting mine.
December turned out to be ominously snowy. It snowed regularly, every other day or two. It wasn’t that heavy, but the snowdrifts near the warehouse walls reached up to the roof. In the middle of the month, the saleswoman who had left us returned. I came to the kiosks that day to collect the proceeds and found her hovering guiltily around Nadezhda Petrovna. After I got the money, I went home. The snow-covered city lay in the darkness of the winter evening, colored by the lights of street lamps, advertisements, shop windows, and apartment buildings. The weather was beautiful. “If I were an office worker, I would be happy about this weather and the soft snow falling all the time, but I’m not so happy about all the snow I have to keep shoveling,” I thought, squinting at the white flakes floating in front of my face. I clearly understood that hard and monotonous work kills any perception of beauty in a person. You walk mechanically and don’t notice the beauty around you. New Year’s Eve came in the same mundane way. It happened in a family of three half-strangers. My father and I still did not get along with my mother; she did not try to get closer to us, but only distanced herself, spending more and more time in her room. Her reclusiveness was aided by the television, which my mother watched almost 24 hours a day, never leaving her bed. The TV had been bought in the fall at my father’s request, who complained that she would sit in his room for days on end watching “his” TV. My relationship with my father became so strained that we didn’t even get each other anything. We exchanged dry congratulations, drank a glass of champagne, picked at the salads my mother had made for old times’ sake, and went to our rooms.
In the second half of January, the “Epiphany frost” hit. The temperature dropped to twenty-five degrees below zero, and I realized that I hated winter. It was freezing for ten days and we had a lot of trouble with the “GAZelle” again. It just would not start. Every time after work we took the battery out and carried it home. This was the only way to have a chance to start the car in the morning. The engine would freeze up overnight. Only the warm battery we brought from the apartment would turn the shaft in the cold crankcase oil. We started to go out less often. Our poor saleswomen! I couldn’t imagine how they worked in the cold! We told them right away that we could close down and not sell at all. But the hardship forced the saleswomen to work.
Just in time for the frost, our stock melted. We placed another order for early February. But already on Tuesday, January 25, the phone rang.
“Why did you send it so early!?” my father was surprised, listened to the answer and added irritated, “Yes, I understand that you need it to go! But we don’t!”
“The car is on the way, isn’t it?” I asked him when the conversation was over. We both had breakfast in the kitchen, I had tea and my father had coffee. He crossed his legs and began to twitch one foot, trying to calm his irritation. The prospect of unloading the goods in the freezing cold didn’t make me happy either.
Two days had passed, but the driver still hadn’t called.
“Broke down somewhere,” I said on the morning of January 28, looking at the thermometer outside the window. The weather was changing. The temperature was rising. The thermometer read twenty below zero. “It’ll be fifteen by noon,” I thought cheerfully, looking up at the crystal clear sky pulling on a blanket of thick snow clouds.
We went to work and forgot about the lost car for a day. The evening news reminded us. A heavy snowfall began in the Rostov region, paralyzing traffic on the M4 highway.
“Their car should be there somewhere now, shouldn’t it?” I suggested, glancing at my father, who was intently watching the news on TV. “Maybe that’s why the driver hasn’t called, because he’s stuck there.”
“Maybe,” my father shrugged.
Throughout the next day, there were news reports about the worsening situation on the highway. “Traffic jam… a blockade many kilometers long… more than one hundred and thirty trucks piled up and their number is growing… the heaviest snowfall.”
And the next. “The traffic jam has reached thirteen kilometers… trucks are parked on the side of roadside cafes… several have overturned… traffic is completely paralyzed… EMERCOM is bringing in road vehicles and setting up fast food stations.”
On the third day, January 31, Edik called: “The car overturned… Yes, our goods were in it, and then the car had to go to another city for raw materials… We’ll probably have to send another car to tow the overturned one back to Krasnodar.”
On February 1, the news told the same story. “Difficult weather conditions, heavy snowfall, rain at sub-zero temperatures… traffic has resumed… large congestion of trucks… more than seven thousand people have gone to the EMERCOM fast food stations… overturned trucks are being lifted… no casualties.”
On February 2, the tension on the television went down. “The crisis is over… it’s snowing all the time… the machines are working around the clock… the capacity of the highways has been restored.”
A day later, Aslanbek called himself.
“Here, for you,” I brought the phone to my father, who was eating breakfast.
“Good morning, Aslanbek Akhmedovich!” my father enunciated, after hurriedly chewing a piece of food.
The conversation was short. “Luxchem” decided not to take the overturned truck back to Krasnodar, but to bring it to us. But our consent was needed. Technically, we could have refused. The cargo had probably already lost its marketability. And according to the contract we had the right not to accept it. But humanly, we didn’t want to refuse. I stood next to my father, listened to the dialog and decided that we had to accept the truck and check the goods. That’s what Aslanbek had persuaded my father to do on the phone.
“Well, let them bring the goods to us?” my father said, covering the cell phone with his hand.
“Yes,” I sighed. “It can’t be helped. Let’s see what’s inside.”
The car arrived on Sunday, February 6. It had warmed up a lot that day, ten degrees below zero after a twenty-five degree frost felt almost like a thaw. When we arrived at the warehouse, we saw a “Volvo” tractor with a semi-trailer container. Edik fell out of the cabin in his sheepskin coat and cap and waved hello. The driver also appeared.
“You took another car for the trailer, didn’t you?” I said after a friendly greeting and handshake and a quick look at the truck.
“Yes, we towed the overturned ‘MAZ’ truck home and brought the trailer to you!” Edik waved his hands again and gave off the smell of beer.
I began to remove the lock from the warehouse gate, and my father questioned Edik about what had happened. The hinges creaked and I opened the gate. My father’s penchant for idle chatter was becoming increasingly tiresome, so I shielded myself from it without listening. My mother would sometimes say, “You’re working with your father and you’re becoming as boring as him!” I began to understand her. According to Edik’s story, the driver drove the truck to the side of the road, couldn’t handle it, the wheels of the trailer slid down the embankment, and the truck flipped over. Edik babbled, tipsy.
“Now, Anatoly Vasilievich, we’ll see, of course, we’ll try to leave more goods, so that you have something to sell, and we have less to bring back,” he fussed, looking now at my father, now at me with shifty eyes.
I already regretted that we had gotten into all of this. I mentally chastised myself for being too compliant and too kind, knowing that once again we would get nothing but fuss and trouble.
“Edik, let’s first see what you’ve brought us, and then we’ll think about it,” my father retorted, lighting a cigarette. “We can only take intact, undamaged goods.”
“Come on, open it already!” I added, waving at the container.
The driver removed the lock and opened the doors.
“Wow!” I blurted out.
“Yeah…” my father said as he took the cigarette out of his mouth.
“What a hotch-potch,” I added.
“The only thing that fell here was what was on top! Roma, what are you talking about?” Edik waved his hands. “Here, underneath, everything is in line, it hasn’t moved anywhere! Everything is intact!”
“Edik!” my father interrupted him. “We’re going to see for ourselves! What’s fallen and what’s intact! We have to go through everything, look what a mess it is!”
“All right, Anatoly Vasilievich,” he melted, putting his hands in the pockets of his sheepskin coat and shivering with cold. “We’ll do as you say.”
I looked into the container. The boxes, originally stacked a couple of meters high, were now a mishmash.
“Who’s going to take them out of the container?” I smiled and looked at Edik. He climbed in, pressing his knees to the cold frame of the semi-trailer and grunting. The driver followed.
We spent more than four hours going through the jumble of goods, it was long and tedious. A quarter of it had completely lost its appearance: torn packages, crumpled half-empty bottles, cleaning products strewn all over the floor. The container reeked of acetone and lye.
“Roma, it’s a good package!” came a shriek as soon as I put one aside.
“Edik, how exactly is it good?” I was surprised, picked up the package where some of the bottles had leaked, sloshing all over. He shouted again that I should check it and find the whole ones. I refused to go through them. Edik fussed, got down on the ground, went over to the pile of crumpled packages and began picking at the one that started the argument. Even my father got indignant. It didn’t work – the commercial director kept picking at the bottles and piling them up in the snow.
“Edik!” my father barked just above my ear. “Stop it, for God’s sake!”
I was disgusted by the pettiness of the co-owner of “Luxchem”.
“Why are you trying to sell me something so blatantly inferior!? Do you take me for a fool or what!?” my father became angry, his jaw clenched, his face sharpened.
“Anatoly Vasilievich, why, why the inferior!?” he made an innocent expression of astonishment. “I’m standing here choosing normal goods for you!”
“Either he’s really that stupid or he’s that cynical,” I was stunned, trying to figure it out.
Edik went to the warehouse, found an empty box, and started putting the bottles he had picked up into it. My father gritted his teeth and almost forcibly snatched the box from his hands.
“Get out of here! Stop screwing around!” my father shouted.
The situation heated up. And then Edik’s nature kicked in, his face dissolved into a cunning smile, and there was relief. I smiled, my father hummed and reached for a cigarette.
“I’ll have one too,” I said.
“And I’ll smoke with you,” the driver’s voice came from the container.
“Anatoly Vasilievich, could you give me a cigarette, too?” Edik grinned.
We all smoked.
My father stared at Edik for a long time, and as if he could not bear it any longer, he hummed: “Well, Edik! You are a one!”
I looked at the driver, he snorted, smiled and turned away. Edik felt uncomfortable, shrugged his shoulders as if something was bothering him between his shoulder blades.
“Anatoly Vasilievich, I’m doing my best for you!”
“Oh, Edik, shut up!” I interrupted and waved him off.
The driver hummed again.
It had been a hard day. We were frozen to the bone. I burned my fingertips with lye. I didn’t immediately understand why they suddenly began to sting so sharply, as if many needles were digging into my fingertips and penetrating deeper. I immediately pushed my hands into the snow.
“It stung!” I screamed, wiping the yellow, frothy liquid from my hands with the snow.
We returned home after dark, hungry, cold, and tired. Not more than a third of the goods returned to Krasnodar. I remember thinking at the time that our deed would be noted and would strengthen our relations with “Luxchem”. A stupid thought, I know.
Throughout February, we sold goods from the affected batch. We had to make some fuss. Everything was solved thanks to good personal relations with the employees of the wholesale depots. I understood that we were making uncomfortable requests. We created our problem with our own kindness and we had to deal with it ourselves. Surprisingly, everything was sold out.
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