On the last day of fall, there was a knock on the office door at noon.
“Yes!!!” the three of us shouted and laughed in unison. Vera and I were sitting at our desks. Sergey was stretched out in the chair by the door, his left hand behind his head and his fingers in his opposite ear.
My father came in.
Our relaxation disappeared. Sergey immediately pulled himself together, sat up straight and stared at the floor. Vera became neutral and serious. I became a little nervous.
“Hi there, young people!” My father said deliberately cheerful, closing the door, leaving his hand on the doorknob and looking around at everyone.
“Hello,” Sergey mumbled without raising his eyes and started to scratch his ankle.
“Hello,” Vera said quietly, staring even harder at the monitor.
“Hello,” I said and sighed, my heart beating faster.
“Ahem, I thought I’d come visit you,” my father began, interrupting the pause after the greetings that none of the three of us wanted to break. Sergey fidgeted in his chair, distracted by some small matter. Vera glanced at my father, smiled politely, and stared back at the monitor.
“That’s good,” I nodded, realizing that I was the only one who had to communicate with him.
My father smiled awkwardly, put his hands in his jacket pockets, shrugged, looked around the room for our eyes, and then looked at mine.
“How are you here?” His smile was friendly, but it came out strained.
Suddenly, a feeling of gloating stirred in my chest. I tried to hold it back, but to my horror I realized that I was losing. The feeling grew rapidly. The only thing I wanted was for my father to leave as soon as possible and get rid of this nasty feeling inside me.
“Fine,” I nodded. “Working…”
“Working, hehe…” my father shifted from one foot to the other. “That’s good…”
He looked at the ceiling and the walls, glanced furtively at Sergey. He remained nervously silent, half turning over the papers on the cabinet shelf.
“It’s nice here…” my father said to me, smiling awkwardly again. “It’s cozy.”
“Yeah, not bad…” I nodded, embarrassed by the degree to which my father was ignored by others, a related string played and I supported the dialog. “Why are you here all of a sudden?”
My father immediately came to life. His eyes were shining, he was moving, still standing in the corner by the entrance, smiling: “I just thought I’d stop by! I just thought I’d stop by and see how the young people were doing.”
“Everything’s fine, we’re working…” I said, realizing the reason for the heaviness in my chest – my father looked pathetic. On the outside, he looked ordinary – black boots, jeans, leather jacket, gray shirt underneath, winter fur hat. What gave my father away were his eyes. They were begging! And for that I felt ashamed, my ears flaring up and starting to burn hot. I didn’t want Sergey and Vera to see my father like that. I wished he would leave sooner and not disgrace himself.
“Well, I’m glad you’re doing fine!” My father exhaled, coughing and scratching the back of his head in obvious embarrassment. My gloating grew. I began to get angry with myself, realizing how easily the not-so-good in me could be revived. My anger spilled over to my father. I mentally chased him away. I chased my father away because he had made the decision to leave on his own. I chased him away because I didn’t want to gloat. I chased him away because my father looked pathetic. I chased him away because I didn’t want other people to see my father as ridiculous and embarrassing. Because I loved my father.
“So what’s going on at home, how’s mom?” I said, avoiding a direct look.
“How? Heh!” my father started to turn the doorknob. “Don’t you know yourself?”
“Well, yes…” I said, looking at Sergey. “We’ll be here until five today, right?”
“Yes!” he exhaled with relief, clearly grasping the question that had brought him out of his defiant coldness towards my father. “Somewhere like that! We’ll leave at five or so.”
“Oh, I see, well, in that case, I’ll be going home,” my father said, smiling and looking at me. “I thought you might be off early today so we could go home together!”
“No, Dad, I’ll finish later today, so I’ll see you at home,” I nodded.
“All right! Have a good day,” my father said, turning to the door, stomping on the spot, pushing the knob and opening the door a little. “Take care!”
“Thank you! Take care!” Vera replied immediately.
“Goodbye,” Sergey mumbled.
“Yes, Dad, bye,” I nodded, catching my father’s confused look. “See you tonight.”
My father turned, hunched over as if guilty, as if his shoulders were pressed to the floor, and walked out into the hallway. I coughed to break the lump in my chest.
“Seryoga!” I began on the first of December, barely entering the office and extending my hand. “Well, congratulations on your birthday! I wish you health, happiness in your family and more money!”
“Thank you, Romych!” he shook my hand.
“And so that you have more money, I’ll give you… money!” I said after a theatrical pause, which pleased Sergey so much that he cackled and fidgeted in his chair.
After saying hello to Vera, I plopped down in the chair by the door and reached into my jacket pocket.
“Vera, write off our three thousand bonus, please!” I said and handed the money to Sergey.
“Thank you, Romych!” he repeated, pulling his half of the “common fund” out of his “suitcase” – a thick bundle of money tied up with a rubber band.
“Roma, how should I write it off, from each of you three thousand or from one person?” Vera clarified. Sergey froze and looked at me questioningly.
“From each of us, so that we have an equal amount in the common fund!”
Sergey counted out three thousand from his share of the money, added it to the money I had given him, put it in a separate pocket of his briefcase, and said:
“I need a purse, Verok, because it’s so uncomfortable to rummage through these pockets…”
Vera looked at Sergey and smiled slightly. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, jerked his left leg and, chewing his lip a few times, stared at Vera.
“Got it?” Sergey said.
“Got it!” She replied, without taking her eyes from the monitor and tapping on the keyboard.
“Oh, right! I have a surprise for you too!” Sergey suddenly turned to me, reached into his briefcase again and pulled out two cigars. “Do you want one? Help yourself!”
I hesitated. Quit smoking and tease myself with a cigar again? But it’s hard to refuse a man what he does for you. My tactfulness prevailed and I agreed:
“Well… okay. I can have one. I hope it doesn’t make me want to smoke again…”
“Come on, Romych!” Sergey exclaimed. “These are cigars! We won’t even inhale them!”
“Well, let’s go into the hallway, otherwise Vera will breathe smoke again!” I said, getting up from the chair.
We lit our cigars. I gently inhaled the smoke. The same sour taste enveloped my palate. Sergey, with a look of bliss on his face, blew the smoke upward.
“I love cigars!” He said, pacing the cramped hallway.
I nodded and listened to my body. Everything inside me clenched and rumbled all over my body, all my organs and especially my lungs in search of nicotine. I realized that agreeing to Sergey’s proposal wasn’t the best idea.
“So, how is it?” he blew another puff of smoke upward.
“Not bad,” I nodded, trying to take as few puffs as possible.
On Saturday evening I went to the cafe at Sergey’s invitation. It was semi-basement, two floors down. The upper floor consisted of two niches – rooms with banquet tables for twenty people. Sergey rented one of the niches. After greeting the guests, I wished him happy birthday again. Sergey, like a hospitable host, made a fuss, smiled, cracked jokes and was very eloquent. Roma – Sergey’s brother, Vera, Melyokha and Fedot with their wives – sat down on both sides of the table, leaving only two chairs empty at the far end. At the head of the table, as was customary, sat the birthday boy.
“Vitya Butenko and his wife will be here soon!” Sergey shouted over the music coming from the dance floor below, nodding to the empty seats at the table.
The evening was quite ordinary. Everyone joked, laughed, and drank vodka. I also had a few shots and listened to my stomach. It was shrinking, but it was holding up. I skipped the rest of the toasts and drank juice. I sat at the far end of the table, next to the empty chairs. My neighbor was Roma. It was the first time I saw him. He was a modest guy with glasses with strong diopters. He sat almost invisible, drinking with everyone, quietly contributing to the table conversation, but his remarks were lost in the general noise. We began to communicate involuntarily, and the conversation quickly turned to literature, movies, and art. Here Roma came to life and showed a knowledge that clearly went beyond the school level. We didn’t realize how we were getting deeper into the dialogue, leaving the drunken shouts of the celebration in the background. I secretly compared the brothers. Sergey was the master of the evening – joking, laughing, eating and drinking to his heart’s content. He looked like a firecracker and behaved with a touch of his own importance, evident in his movements and words. Roma was considered more profound and thoughtful. Nature had given him a more modest appearance. Roma, like a plant that had grown under less light and moisture, was a puny and unassuming, slightly stooped fellow. I liked Roma at once, and found that my father’s opinion of him was correct. The other guests seemed typical. I didn’t even remember Fedot’s appearance. I was bored almost immediately. I began to see something heavy in such feasts, empty and meaningless, stealing the time of human life. My boredom was broken by a new guest. He came to the table an hour late, dressed in a perfectly fitting light gray suit and with his wife under his arm. Vitya’s posture spoke of a “respectable man” coming in. A brunet of medium height with a glossy, overweight face. His gaze radiated importance, staidness and significance. Vitya looked lazily around the table and, haughtily and snobbishly, dropped a word of greeting to everyone. Sergey, seeing the guest, got excited – hurriedly approached him, held out his hand, waited for a handshake, and happily returned to his seat. The latecomers took their seats. The feast went on – Melyokha told some stories, Sergey, laughing out loud, supported him.
“Vitya, take and eat all you want! Pour the vodka, the vodka is good, I ordered the best vodka here!” Sergey shouted to the other side of the table.
Vitya poured a shot and stood up. Sergey jumped up next, and the others rose as well. Vitya made a formal toast. Sergey broke off in gratitude and began to tell something from the past, which he said had brought him and Vitya so close. The word “friendship” and its synonyms flashed endlessly in his speech. Somehow I felt sorry for Sergey. Vitya’s attitude to the party was written on his face, he sat with a haughty look and was bored. Sergey entertained Vitya from a distance. After an hour, Vitya made a phone call, got up and left the party, excusing himself for urgent business. I even thought the call was fake. The guests continued to drink vodka, I switched to tea. Then there was dancing. Everyone went downstairs and began to shake their drunken bodies. Sergey was dancing across from me, lazily and languidly moving to the rhythm of the music. He smiled, looked around and twitched his flared nostrils as if he was inhaling the smell of success that only he knew.
At about ten in the evening, the four of us – myself, Sergey, his brother and Melyokha – went outside to get some air, as they say. The snow was lying thickly everywhere, the frost of ten degrees below zero was pleasantly invigorating. After a stuffy cellar, the winter air was intoxicating.
Sergey and I went out with our overcoats on, the other two without. Romka, shivering in his sweater, lit a cigarette. Melyokha looked at me dazedly and returned to the cafe, shivering with cold. Fedot came out to replace him, also in a sweater. Here I could see him more closely – a short-cropped guy in his early thirties, about my height. I could feel muscle tone and strength in his movements.
We were standing against the wall of the building, with our backs to it and facing the sidewalk, separated from the roadway by a row of poplar trees. That’s what saved us. A black “tenth” with tinted windows, having found a gap in the row of trees, flew at high speed from the road onto the sidewalk and stood like a stump at our feet. I looked down – the heels of my shoes were resting against the wall of the building, and there were two centimeters from the toes of my shoes to the left front wheel of the car.
“Fucking hell! What does he think he’s doing!?” I swore, anxious to see the driver.
“Hey!” Sergey expressed his displeasure, throwing the hood of his parka off his head.
“What a faggot, for fuck’s sake!?” his brother shouted, shivering from the frost.
“Hell of a cocky driver…” said Fedot, raising his eyebrows in bewilderment.
The driver’s door was ajar. From inside came the sounds of dance music and puffs of cigarette smoke.
“Hey, how do you think you’re driving!?” Sergey said, grabbing the top corner of the door and pulling it open. The door was held open from the inside. In the next very long minute, the driver came out and, swaying and breathing noisily, stood at full height in front of Sergey. Immediately I felt the need to punch him in the face. I restrained myself, realizing that I would spoil the whole evening.
“One hundred and ninety centimeters,” I estimated, still clenching my fists.
“Why are you driving like that, eh, buddy!?” Sergey said.
“Who drives like that, eh!!!? Who drives like that!!!?” squealed his brother Roma.
The other passenger door opened and a gangly, wiry guy got out.
There were two girls in the backseat. They were leaning forward. They started screaming drunken obscenities at us. I looked at the driver and suddenly realized that he was drunk as a skunk! The driver was hovering over Sergey with a shock of black hair, unable to see him, swaying and struggling to maintain an upright position.
“Why are you driving like that, I ask you!” Sergey repeated, grabbing the driver’s half unbuttoned jacket from underneath.
“Get ready for a fight, Roma,” I decided, watching the other out of the corner of my eye.
“You’re a little cocky, I can tell!” Sergey’s brother shouted, standing between me and Fedot, his head barely reaching our shoulders, and probably feeling confident because of it.
“Don’t heat it up,” I muttered to him. Meanwhile, Sergey wrapped the big driver’s jacket around his fists, and he felt it and clung lazily to Sergey’s jacket himself.
“What’s up, buddy?! What do you want, huh!?” Sergey pushed the big guy. He didn’t fall down and pulled Sergey with him. And they walked awkwardly to the trunk of the car.
“He is a former boxer… almost sober. One good punch to the jaw and that’s it…” I thought, sensing the situation and freezing in anticipation. “He’s going to hit him.”
“Aaah!!!” The broads jumped out of the car and ran to the corner of the building, screaming with all their might. “Murder!!! Aaah!!! Help!!! Police!!! Aaah!!!”
I flinched. A woman’s scream cut through my brain almost to the point of physical pain.
“Fucking broads…” Sergey’s brother said quietly, looking at me and laughing nervously. “We should beat the shit out of them…”
“Why beat them?” I was surprised. “They’re broads. A couple of half-drunk hussies…”
The gangly one moved leisurely toward the clashing couple.
“No, don’t interfere!” I shouted at him, and the gangly guy froze in indecision. It was then that I realized there would be no fight. If there was, it would just be the usual hustle that happens a million times when both people in conflict want to stop. The gangly one looked at me and walked back to the clashing couple, going around the car on the far side. I stepped in on the near side and pushed him away from them.
“Stay out of it! They’ll sort it out themselves! Nothing will happen there, they’ll just stand there for a while and go away,” I said to the gangly guy. “Let’s get away from them. Just stand here, stay out of it…”
He finally realized we were outnumbered and backed off. The broads became quiet. Now they just watched and whimpered occasionally. Sergey, who was holding the big guy, jerked him back and forth. The big guy tried to do the same, but because of his intoxication he just swayed and mooed.
“Do you understand what you’re being told!?” one of Sergey’s rare phrases reached me.
The big guy jerked, swayed, and drifted toward the road. Sergey was dragged behind him. Soon they were both stomping in the middle of the road. Sergey kicked the big guy again, and he fell on his back, dragging Sergey with him. Both of them ended up on the slippery snowy asphalt. One of them mooed on the ground, the other one on top of him. Sergey tried to get up, but he couldn’t because he was held by the collar of his jacket. I lost interest in the action and began to freeze.
“Fuck, give him a good fucking slap in the face and that’s it!” Roma said belligerently.
Barely restraining myself from sassing him, I said:
“I see you’re a fighter! Will you give him a good fucking slap!? You’re one and a half meters tall and weigh sixty kilos, he’ll crush you without even noticing!”
Sergey’s brother immediately shut up. I realized that the reason for his belligerence was simple – alcohol and a feeling of numerical majority. “That’s how it always is, a whiffet like that will incite a fight and then run away,” I thought irritably.
“Well, I’m going inside, it’s cold,” Fedot said and left.
Meanwhile, Sergey lifted the big guy up, and the two of them, clinging to each other again, slowly began to move onto the sidewalk. Ten meters up the street, a five-step porch protruded from the building. The couple moved toward it. Sergey walked with his back to the porch, the sobered up big guy pushed him with his size. Sergey tripped with his heel on a step, stumbled with his other foot and fell on his back. The big guy fell on him.
“Fuck! My leg! Bitch!” Sergey yelled, struggling to throw the man off him. Waving his arms and cursing, he finally got out from under the big guy, tried to get up, but couldn’t. The big guy was lying there, holding Sergey’s neck chain with his hand.
“Let’s go take them apart,” I said to the gangly one, heading for the porch. Sergey was leaning over the big guy, almost standing, sniffing heavily and pulling the chain to himself. He started to unlock the big guy’s fingers one by one, and that’s how he got free.
Alright, guys, let’s wrap this up! I said as I walked closer. “Let’s go, Seryoga. We’ll freeze if we stay here. No sense in lounging around. You might catch a cold…”
Still swearing and sniffling, Sergey went to the cafe. His brother and I followed.
“What happened there, Seryozha?” Vera came up to us immediately.
“Never mind! Some asshole has completely lost his mind! He drove his car onto the sidewalk and almost crushed us all!” Sergey replied emotionally.
I went to the table and looked around – the cafe was still partying, the music was playing loud. Our party was winding down. Everyone had scattered. Romka appeared at the table.
“Want some vodka?” he said, and after receiving a negative answer, he poured himself a shot glass, drank it, looked around, stuffed a sausage sandwich into his mouth, and sat down in his seat.
Sergey came to the table and drank vodka, too. He was unharmed – no torn clothes, no abrasions, no damaged fists. Only his massive chain was twisted backwards around his neck, and the icon hung down behind his back. Sergey adjusted the chain and sat down in the chair. The evening was drawing to a close. In half an hour the crowd dispersed and I found myself alone on the avenue. I looked around and… went in a familiar direction.
“Ramseees!!!” Vovka shouted into the phone. “Ramseees!!! For fuck’s sake, are you asleep or what?!”
Of course I was asleep. Sunday morning, eleven o’clock.
“Vova, why are you yelling again?” I grumbled sleepily. “Were you born in a field?”
“Ramses, I’m sorry!” Vovka grunted with laughter. “I missed you! It’s been a long time!”
“You have Lera to relieve your boredom,” I grumbled, grinning.
Vovka invited me to another threesome and I agreed.
At six in the evening we met in front of the movie theater. A beautiful soft snow was falling. There were surprisingly many people on the avenue and the New Year’s Eve mood was already in the air. We joined the stream of strollers and walked down the street.
“So what’s up with you?” Lera said. “How is your Lilya?”
“Well…” I brushed it off. “I don’t know! I kicked her the fuck out, that Lilya!”
“Fuck, Ramses, I like you – a tough guy!” Vovka shook his head.
“But what happened?” Lera persisted.
I told them.
“Somehow I think she’s going to show up again,” Lera said.
“You’re not the only one who thinks so!” I grinned.
We entered a cafe. We chose a table with cozy chairs and started to order. As soon as I chose a fruit tea and a cake, I saw the surprise on Lera’s face.
“I’m in the mood for something sweet!” I explained. “Maybe because I quit smoking…”
“You quit smoking!??” she was even more surprised.
“Well done!” Vovka said when he heard the news and shook my hand.
“It’s so unexpected…” Lera said thoughtfully.
“I should stop drinking too,” I added.
“What’s wrong with you? You’re not sick by any chance?” she laughed.
“I’m thinking about going back to the gym!” I said the last thing, which raised Lera’s eyebrows to the limit. “I just need to get my stomach in shape first…”
The waiter brought the order – tea and a cake for everyone.
“What’s wrong with your stomach?” Lera got serious.
“It was just an ulcer, I almost fucking died!” I brushed it off. “What’s going on with you?”
“Lera is working with me at ‘Pelican’ now! I got her a job in the accounting department, she’s sitting there counting money!” said Vovka, shoving a cake into his mouth with a teaspoon, chewing, looking at Lera and adding, “So that’s it? You’ve seen your Roman!? Happy now!?”
She turned red.
“I’m fed up, Ramses, you know! Where’s Romka? Why don’t we see him? Why don’t you call him? Go call him!” Vovka stared at me with an expression of puppy joy, turned to Lera with the same expression, “Happy? You see him now!”
“I am,” she blushed and swept her eyes around.
“Come on, Vova…” I stood up for the girl. “The girl just missed me, happens to the best of us. I’m also glad to see you both… Hey, how’s ‘Pelican’, what’s new?”
“What’s new?” Vovka waved, shoving a large piece of cake into his mouth and sipping tea from his cup. “Daddy’s up to something. He takes the money out, then brings it back.”
After about an hour in the cafe, we went back outside to a pleasant, almost imperceptible light frost, windless silence, and snow falling in large, sleepy flakes.
The snowfall intensified during the night, and by morning the city was almost knee-deep in snow.
I was the first to arrive at work on Monday and even managed to drink half a cup of tea before Sergey and Vera arrived. Sergey was limping. He looked at me with a swollen face, shoved his briefcase into the cupboard, said hello sluggishly and froze in the middle of the room, stepping on his sore foot and writhing.
“What, a battle wound?” I smiled.
“Fucking hell! It’s been hurting for two days!” Sergey said grudgingly, grimaced, reached for his briefcase again, shrieked, and put the briefcase on the table.
“Seryozha!?” Vera looked at her husband judiciously.
“I know, Vera, I know! Yes, I said it, it happens! My leg, do you know how much it hurts?” he angrily defended himself, waited for his wife to look away, started digging in his briefcase, took out a purse the color of coffee and cream, and began to shift bills in it.
“Wow! What a cool purse! Let me see it!” I exclaimed, pulling my hand toward the wallet like a child seeing a new toy.
Sergey held it out to me with joy on his face.
“Do you like it?” he said.
“Uh-huh!” I turned the leather-scented wallet in my hands, gliding my fingers over the soft, velvety surface, enjoying the tactile sensations.
“My beloved wife gave it to me!” Sergey said, standing patiently, clearly enjoying my genuine admiration. The wallet reeked of importance and authority. Even empty, it looked full, and its owner was certainly a wealthy man.
“Here!” I handed the wallet back and looked at Vera. “It’s a great gift! I should buy a wallet for myself, too, because I carry money in my pockets like a slumdog! How much does it cost?”
“Three thousand,” she said.
“Cool!” I took one last look at the wallet before Sergey, taking his time and taking obvious pleasure in prolonging the moment, tucked the gift into his briefcase.
“Yeah, cool, and the birthday party cost me money! You spent a nickel on yours this summer, didn’t you? Mine cost me a tenner…” sighing, he said, took a step back, hissed, wrinkled his nose, took a step back and groaned.
“The leg?” I sympathized. “Did you hurt it when you fell on the ground?”
“On the ground? No!” Sergey said nervously. “When we fell on the stairs! That asshole put all his weight on me, and my leg got squeezed between him and the rib of the step! It hurt so fucking bad! I tried to throw him off, but he held on to the chain while I got free…”
Sergey took some papers out of his briefcase, threw them on the table, wrinkled his nose again, hissed softly and rubbed his right hand.
“He’s covered in wounds,” Vera smiled, glancing at her husband in between.
“Vera!” he glared at his wife, indignant. “You should have seen him! He’s so big, about as big as Romka! You fight with such a man, and then you tell me! All my hands are damaged!”
“Why should I?” Vera smiled. “It’s you boys, always at odds over something…”
“Come on, damaged!” I brushed it off. “You just pushed each other a little!”
“What do you mean, pushed a little???” Sergey stared at me with a look on his face as if he’d heard an unbelievable lie. “I kicked the fucking shit out of him there and almost tore my hands off!”
He froze in front of the table, standing as if in righteous anger. I froze for another reason, wondering if I was imagining embellishments of past events.
“Seryoga…” I said calmly, “Where did you kick the shit out of him? I was standing ten meters away from you all the time. Me, Romka, Melyokha and Fedot. And that second dude from the car…”
“Fuck, am I lying to you now!? Is that it!?” He spread his hands.
“Seryoga, I don’t know, I’m just telling you what happened,” I shrugged, smiled and looked at Vera. “I stood there sober and saw you holding each other’s lapels for half an hour. That’s it.”
“What do you think you’re saying!?” Sergey angrily slammed the briefcase and shoved it into the cupboard. “What, I don’t remember what I did, do I!? You were standing somewhere and I was fighting this bull…”
“Fighting???” My eyebrows went up in surprise. “He was drunk as a skunk! He could barely stand up and moo. Who was there to fight? If you’d hit him once in the face, he’d be down. You didn’t fight at all! You came back to the cafe, you had no bruises, no abrasions, your clothes weren’t torn, your hands were fine…”
“Your hands are all intact, look!” I looked at Sergey’s hands. “No marks on your face either. Where did you fight? He didn’t hit you once, he just held on to you.”
“Roman!” Sergey stared at me in indignation. “I hit him four times on the road. What do you think, he fell of his own accord!?”
“Of course he did!” I chuckled. “I saw it! He slipped and fell and pulled you down with him! I’m telling you, he was drunk! I wondered how he could even stand on his feet!”
Sergey looked at me displeased for a few seconds.
“Well, I don’t know then…” He waved his hands, turned around, limped toward the chair by the door, and plopped down in it, making a resentful face.
There was a knock at the door.
“Yes!” I barked, still smiling.
Senya’s head peeked into the room and looked at us through his glasses.
“Hello,” he said ingratiatingly.
“Senya, come in!” Sergey said sharply. “Why are you letting the cold into the room!?”
“Oh, pardon me!” He jerked, stepped into the room and carefully closed the door.
“Hi, Senya,” I said, seeing how nervous Sergey’s tone made him. “What do you want?”
The warehouse was covered with snow and we needed shovels to clear it.
“Senya, go!” Sergey said when the storekeeper had finished. “We’ll buy shovels.”
He looked at me questioningly. I said that the matter would be settled, and the storekeeper left.
“Well, Seryoga?” I exhaled. “Let’s go and buy shovels…”
“Where are we going to buy them?” He waved his hands irritably.
“Here in the village, near the market, there is a store called ‘Household Goods’,” I said. “Let’s go!”
I put on my jacket and hat, walked out of the office, kicked open the front door of the building, and ducked under a heating pipe to find myself on the street. I walked around the car, turned around and stood at the passenger door. Sergey waddled mournfully after me. He grunted, climbed into the driver’s seat with difficulty, and started the engine. I got in beside him.
“Roman! If you don’t know something, don’t talk about it!” Sergey said as soon as we left the factory.
“What don’t I know!?” I was surprised.
“I mean about the fight at my birthday party…”
“What did I say wrong? That there was no fight? There was no fight…”
“Damn, I don’t know how to talk to you!” Sergey waved his hand and became silent.
“Why talk to me when I saw everything with my own eyes!?” I said.
“Well, that’s exactly what I mean…” Sergey exhaled heavily.
We drove to the household store in silence. We talked a little while we bought shovels, put them in the back of the car and drove back.
“Nice fucking shovels!” I said. “Now Senya and Kholod will show their class! Senya is still okay – strong, but Kholod will probably work for five minutes and die there, in front of the fucking warehouse!”
We both laughed, which defused the situation. We passed the church.
“Roman, what is your father, Anatoly Vasilievich, doing now?” Sergey said.
“Well…” I shrugged and dug into my memory. “Fuck knows! Nothing in particular, like… I guess he does a little trucking sometimes… and that’s about it. Why?”
“No, no reason! I just don’t hear from him, you don’t say anything. Well, do you communicate with him at all?” Sergey continued.
“Nah,” I grimaced. “We communicate, but not much. We had a fight when he left us, so our relationship has been strained ever since. Well, we communicate, of course! But just in a casual way, not quite formal, but without much warmth…”
“Did Anatoly Vasilievich really do that – didn’t want to work with us and left?” Sergey gave me a quick look and started chewing his lip.
“Well, yes! What else?” I didn’t understand the question and shrugged. “I was surprised myself! He must have had a glitch… I didn’t really understand why.”
“Yes, strange behavior. Your father has puzzled us,” Sergey chuckled.
“You don’t say, it was fucking baffling!” I nodded, thought about it and turned away to the window.
“I even thought at first that you and your father did it on purpose!” Sergey said, cackling again.
“What do you mean, on purpose???” I looked at him, confused.
“Well… you and Anatoly Vasilievich, like, deliberately quarreled, invented this scolding, so that Anatoly Vasilievich could leave the company! Got it?” Sergey looked at me, and his eyes immediately darted around.
I began to think about what he had said, but it was no good. It seemed absurd.
“Why???” I said and stared at Sergey.
“Well, I don’t know why, maybe so that Anatoly Vasilievich could take care of some other business and you, for example, could stay with us, that you could be here to take care of this company… what do I know? I’m just saying it as an option!”
“Aah!” I realized and laughed. “No fucking way, Seryoga, this is bullshit! No, that never happened! He really freaked out then! I was just as fucking surprised as you were!”
“So Anatoly Vasilievich doesn’t do anything now, he sits at home?”
“Well, for now, yes,” I nodded.
“It’s just that Anatoly Vasilievich is very active. I remember when you first came to us, he was very businesslike, he gave the impression of a competent man…” Sergey said, wanting to continue, to add something, but stopped talking.
“Well… What can I say… it’s just the way it is!” I summarized, and we drove to the office.
The next day I told Vera about this conversation. Sergey left on business at noon, and we were alone in the office. Vera was typing obsessively on the computer.
“Listen, what are you typing endlessly all week?” I wondered.
“Oh, Roma!” Vera sighed. “I’m doing our studies, term projects…”
It turned out that Sergey and Vera were part-time students at a branch of some economic institute in Moscow. There were a lot of them. The time of the session was approaching, and Vera was preparing term papers for her husband and herself in several subjects. They had studied for three years, but they needed six.
“Well, there’s not much left…” I laughed. “Start and finish, eh, Vera?”
“Exactly!” She smiled and put the printed sheets into a folder.
“Whose term paper is this? Seryoga’s?” I said.
“Yes,” Vera exhaled doomedly. “Now I have to start my own…”
“Whose idea was it to go to school?” I squinted one eye, either out of idle curiosity or not knowing why.
“Mine. I told Seryozha that I wanted to get a higher education and would go to a correspondence school. And he said that either we study together or no one, so we went together.”
“You did well in school, didn’t you? An ‘A’?”
“I got an ‘A’ in both high school and college!”
“And how did Seryoga study?” I smiled. “A flunker and a fool, I guess!”
“No,” Vera smiled with a smile that speaks better than any facts. “Not like that, of course… well, so-so…”
“Well, I see!” I nodded and stood up, walking over to the cupboard. “Do you want some tea?”
“Yes, let’s have some!” Vera leaned back in her chair, happy to have a chance to rest.
“Well, that’s it!” I said when we each had a cup of tea in our hands and sat down in the opposite chair. “Seryoga said yesterday, “I thought that you and Anatoly Vasilievich had invented this quarrel on purpose, so that Anatoly Vasilievich could leave the company and go into business for himself!”
Vera stopped typing and turned her attentive gaze to me.
“Imagine that! It’s as if my father and I came up with this to confuse Seryoga…”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Vera said in surprise.
“Yeah, that’s obviously nonsense! Seryoga surprised me with that statement yesterday! I said to him, “Seryoga, why the hell do I have to put on a show? “He also said that he was impressed by Anatoly Vasilievich… That he was a serious, reasonable man, very businesslike, and all that…”
“Well, yes, I remember that!” Vera nodded and took a modest sip from her cup. “When you started taking the goods to ‘Sasha’, you were driving a red passenger car, I think…”
“Yeah, we had a red ‘second’ model back then,” I nodded and took a sip.
“Yeah, I don’t know much about it! Seryozha and I, I remember thinking…” Vera paused and wrinkled her nose, as if uncomfortable with her memories, “Anatoly Vasilievich is such a respectable man, so businesslike, thorough… and Roma next to him – some chump! Running around…”
It hit me! I froze, forgetting my tea and the sugar melting in my mouth. This revelation, the significance of which I intuitively understood at once, I had yet to comprehend and draw a conclusion from.
“Yeah,” I grinned wryly. “Did I really give you that impression?”
“Well, yes!” Vera added in a simple way, not realizing the importance of what she had said. “We looked at you that way then, we didn’t take you seriously at all…”
The dialog continued, changing topics, but I remained in the fog of my thoughts for the rest of the workday. And even on the bus home I thought about that one sentence. When I got home, I went through the whole dialog and the phrase again and again. I wanted to get to the source of it, tried to understand why I made such an impression, tried to see myself from the outside at that moment – the answer was not found. “Roma – some champ, Roma – some champ, Roma…” went around in my head in the silence of the night until I fell asleep.
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