After my birthday I found a monetary gain in my pockets. On Tuesday, July 18, after work, the “Mazda” drove to Sergey’s dacha and carried me in the back seat.
“Seryoga, stop in front of the construction company!” I said.
“What, you’re taking the money for the apartment?” he looked at me in the mirror.
“Yes, I collected a little here…” I said. “You and Vovka gave me some money!”
“Did Vovan give you money too?” Sergey said.
“Yes, he gave me a nickel, just like you,” I nodded.
“What did Natasha give you?” Vera added, turning slightly.
“Natasha?” I was surprised by the question and said without thinking: “She didn’t give me anything! What does it matter? She’ll give me something later! She’s a girl – she came and that’s enough!”
But the question puzzled, confused and stumped me. I was embarrassed, either for myself or for Natasha, and my ears were burning with heat, so I shut up.
“So, how much are you going to take to the apartment now?” Sergey saved me from the pause.
“Not much, fifteen thousand! I’m only buying one meter!” I said.
“You’re going to take another nickel from your salary, aren’t you?” Sergey guessed.
“Well, yes, obviously!” I spread my hands.
“Well! You never know!” Sergey smiled and chewed on his lip. “Maybe you have another business, maybe you earn money somewhere at night without me!”
“Naaah…” I smiled too. “Go on with you… Nothing like that… I only take what we earn with you…”
The car pulled up to the curb, and after saying goodbye until tomorrow, I got out.
As soon as I entered the manager’s office, I heard the news – the prices had gone up.
“Twenty-one??? For one meter!???” I froze, took a step towards the chair and sat down.
“Yes! Don’t you know that!?” The woman rustled the papers on the table, looking for the right one. “A week ago, prices jumped all over the country! You see, we signed the contract with you just in time! Otherwise you wouldn’t have bought an apartment at those prices now!”
“Yeah…” I mumbled, still in a daze. “It’s just that I read a forecast in the newspaper about such a price hike, and we argued with my partner about whether there would be such a hike or not…”
“Why were you arguing?” the manager asked in surprise. “Here it is! It’s already happened!”
I shook my head in silence, stunned.
“And that’s not the end of it!” the woman added.
“Are apartments going to go up in price even more?” I stared.
“Of course! It will definitely be thirty by the end of the year!” the woman said confidently. “At the end of the summer there will most likely be another price hike…”
“Okay, you’re really freaking me out. I’d better go to accounting…” I said confusedly, stood up, grinned wryly, mumbled “goodbye” and walked thoughtfully down the corridor. Having received a check for 15120 rubles in the accounting department, I went out into the street and walked home just as thoughtfully. There was something to think about – luck or a miracle. I couldn’t make up my mind. Luck, definitely. How come the idea of buying an apartment hit me? And not just hit me, but persistently pounded my brain from the inside until I fulfilled its requirements. What was it? Intuition? At the new prices, the apartment was worth one million three hundred thousand. Even with two percent, it didn’t cost me more than nine hundred thousand. Four hundred out of nowhere! Almost fifty percent increase in price! Oh-ho-ho! It’s a miracle! I managed to jump onto the rear platform of the last car of the departing train! If I had waited six months, the prospect of my own apartment would have been a long time away. I’m twenty-nine. The apartment will be completed when I am… Thirty! I suddenly remembered my thought and stopped, stunned. The thought that came to me a long time ago, but came so confidently that I believed in it – I will buy my own apartment when I am thirty! It gave me the chills! How did I know that back then!? How!??? It’s an amazing coincidence… Coincidence??? Or is it intuition? Or a miracle? What was that!? Stunned by the puzzle that suddenly fell into place in my mind, I slowly walked forward. At home, I told my father the news and said, “Imagine, Dad, if we hadn’t brought the money then, we wouldn’t see the apartment now…”
My father smoked excitedly on the balcony, hesitated for a few seconds, and then said “yeah” meaningfully, adding a little later, “It turned out interesting”.
And he showed no more emotions, but I was torn up inside by them. I couldn’t contain my joy at being so incredibly lucky. All weekend long I was almost jumping for joy and reigniting the conversation with my dad about the timely purchase. He didn’t even seem pleased. My father was lukewarm in his support, more out of tact than anything else. Or maybe he was just tired after another run and wanted to rest before the next one.
“Seryoga, fuck!!! I’m going to tell you something, you’re going to be fucking shocked!” I burst into the office the next morning and sat down in the chair by the door. “Son of a bitch!”
“What happened there!???” He played along with me, a worried look on his face, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest.
“You won’t believe it!” I continued to pique interest, shifting my gaze from Sergey to Vera. “Apartment prices have skyrocketed! Just like the forecast said it would jump, it did! Do you know how much one meter of my apartment costs!? You’ll never guess!”
“So, how much?” Sergey muttered.
“Twenty-one thousand!!! Remember when you brought in the paper and there was this fucking chart that predicted that housing prices would go up fifty percent in 2006!???”
“Yeah,” Sergey muttered again.
“Yeah, yeah, they did! You said at the time – no, twenty percent will be the usual growth and that’s it! And I thought – fuck knows what it’s going to be like!”
I jumped up and down in my chair and stopped talking for a second to catch my breath.
“Did your construction company tell you that?” Sergey knitted his brows and fidgeted restlessly in his chair.
“Yeah, the manager said that!” I nodded. “And she said that this is not all and that by the end of the year a meter will cost thirty for sure! Fucking thirty, Seryoga!
“If my apartment cost eight hundred and fifty thousand in old money, then now,” I looked at Vera, who ran her fingers lightning fast over the calculator and said:
“A million… well… about a million three hundred…”
“There you go! And at thirty percent,” I looked at Sergey, “one million eight hundred! Twice as much!!!”
He chewed his bottom lip nervously and jerked his knee from behind the table.
“Yeah… That’s tough,” he said after a long pause, during which he looked at me with a detached, almost glassy stare.
“Oh dear,” said Vera, bringing her husband out of his stupor. Sergey perked up, turned his head toward her, and still thoughtfully said:
“Didn’t Vitya Butenko manage to buy two apartments there?”
“Well, yes, they said that they had signed a contract and, like Romka, they also brought money, paid, and I think they had paid everything or not yet, well, I don’t remember!” Vera waved away the details that did not interest her, but that Sergey was meticulously absorbed in.
“I think he’s paid for some of it,” he said. “Or he’s paid one and partially paid the other… I don’t remember either! I’ll have to ask Vitya!”
“Why, did he buy two apartments?” I wondered, looking between the tables.
“He bought the neighboring apartments on the top floor,” Sergey said. “You know… there are three apartments on the floor, and he merged two of them… and now he has a penthouse under the roof…”
“Whoa! It’s awesome! I like it!” I nodded. “I’d do it too, if I had the money! Nice! Two bathrooms, two toilets, two kitchens! He bought two two-room apartments?”
“No, I think there’s one three-room and the other two-room… or two three-room.”
“Holy shit, he’s got himself a real penthouse!” I kept wondering.
“Yeah! I’m telling you! He’s got it under control!” Sergey nodded. “He has his own car dealership…”
“Well, you see, people buy Chinese cars after all, since he can buy two apartments at once!”
“Yeah, they do. They’re cheap…” Sergey muttered thoughtfully. “Why not, he has a jeep worth five hundred thousand! A nice one, I’ve seen it… I’d get one of those for myself!”
“So Vitya’s doing fine! Nice job!” I said.
Sergey listened to the sentence with a sour face, sighed and, unclasping his hands, said:
“Yeah, Vitya’s doing fine…”
In the middle of the week, Vovka called and asked if I could help him move – in the pre-wedding rush, he was leaving his rented apartment and moving his stuff to Lera’s. There was a flicker of shyness in Vovka’s voice and I realized that he was uncomfortable asking me for help.
“Ramses, I got a deal with some dudes at ‘Pelican’! Three more will come up, maybe four! Anyway, there will be guys there, would you come and help if you can?”
“Vova, of course I will!” I said, realizing that my friend needed help.
The morning of the appointed day, I went to his house and there was a truck parked in the driveway with an elevator platform in the back. As I walked up the crooked stairs, I felt a little pang in my chest – it was a pity that Vovka’s bachelor life was coming to an end, and with it our parties. “The wild times are over,” I thought as I saw the apartment door open and immediately heard a familiar voice. Vovka paced up and down, cursing.
“Ramses, fuck, hello!” Vovka shook my hand in response to my greeting. “The guys will be here soon and we’ll start carrying everything down to the fucking car! I’m moving out, Ramses, I’ll be damned, Lera will ring me in a week and that’s it, you’ll be the only one left here unmarried!”
I looked around the apartment, almost everything was already packed into bags and boxes. In half an hour, the two of us had the rest of the stuff packed – we could start moving.
“Where the fuck are they!?” Vovka shouted. “Maybe down there at the entrance!?”
“Yeah, maybe…” I shrugged and Vovka rushed out into the street, I followed him.
There was no one at the entrance.
“Well, Ramses, let’s wait another ten minutes and start carrying them, and they’ll help us when they come,” Vovka said nervously, shifting his eyes and not looking into mine.
“Vova, no one will come…” I said the obvious. “We’ll have to carry everything ourselves… So, why don’t we get started? They will help if they come.”
“Yeah, Ramses, fuck ’em all! Let’s do it!” Vovka said, twirling the phone in his hand for several minutes, hesitating to call.
We started with the light stuff – bags. We moved things around pretty quickly, walking up and down, stretching. Towards the end, the heavy stuff remained – the refrigerator and the washing machine. Four floors down crooked stairs, it was cramped too. We rested a little on each floor. Hot, sweaty, but we made it. Everything was to be unloaded in the same apartment in the same building, only downtown and on the fifth floor. When I heard the news from Vovka, I groaned, but climbed into the cabin. Twenty minutes later, we were there.
“Lera’s uncle and his son will help us!” Vovka said encouragingly.
He was still uncomfortable, I could understand that. It was a sizzler. The two of us started lifting things. The same kind of entrance, the same crooked steps and narrow passages. Soon two men came up, it became easier and things went faster. We were done in an hour. After saying goodbye to my friend, I staggered home, tired but in a great mood.
My relationship with Natasha has somehow revived and taken on a new quality. We started seeing each other and waking up together in her room more often. I was so used to the lack of home comforts that I didn’t pay any attention to the emptiness of the rented apartment. I was drawn to the inward peace. It was absent in my family, and since my father was regularly on the run, the apartment became a physically dead place. My mother’s face and body had faded from the long absence of daylight. She had become a decrepit old woman with a crazy, empty, watery stare and a hateful expression. She would occasionally come out of her room like a shadow, make her way to the refrigerator, fumble around in it, take something back to her room and eat it there. Whenever I saw my mother, I felt creepy and tried to stay out of her sight.
On the 26th, around 9 p.m., I was walking downtown with Natasha when my father called. The sun had almost set, and the evening was quiet and serene. In a tired voice, my father said that he had returned from another trip and would leave the “GAZelle” with the goods at the market overnight, and he would stay there and start selling in the morning. The image of Vasya sneaking out at night to leave my father in an unknown place immediately came to my mind. After this incident, I was more worried about my father than ever. I wanted to run straight through the streets of the city and down to the market. But I just mumbled to myself in embarrassment that I would go to the market later today. My father was glad. After a few hours of meandering through the streets down to the reservoir, I found myself at the “water market” at twenty to midnight. There was a tired silence on the territory of the market – a large asphalt area with a lot of warehouses, containers and cabins, filled with trucks of different tonnage along the perimeter. Even the local dogs didn’t run or bark. It’s been a long day for everyone. I walked along the rows of cars, looking for our “GAZelle”. I found it quickly. The car was parked in the shared lane. I approached. Looked inside. My father was asleep. He was lying half-sideways, his head on the driver’s seat, his arms folded across his chest so as not to rest on the gear knob, and his legs bent, one knee resting on the dashboard and the other perpendicular to the back of the seat. “Why didn’t he go home to sleep? It’s so uncomfortable,” I thought, looking into my father’s face. He slept the deep sleep of an exhausted man, his face drawn, his muscles stiff in a tense, anxious state. I stepped away from the car and walked back. After midnight, the city had fallen into a nighttime silence. I walked half an hour up a long hill and out of the poorly lit streets of the private sector into the bright lights of the center. I didn’t bother to hail a cab, too many thoughts were swirling around in my head. My legs settled into a comfortable rhythm and carried my reverie home, stopping only occasionally at the 24-hour fast-food stands for a glass of coffee.
The next day, after I had barely done the current things at work, I called my father. The cheerful and energetic voice on the phone said he had been selling since eight in the morning, but sales were so-so. I said I would come up in the evening at the close of sales, and I was at the market at seven o’clock. The trade was over, all the goods were already stowed away in cars and warehouses. People walked tiredly through the market or sat in the cafes at the entrance, having dinner. Near my father’s “GAZelle” there was a faucet sticking out of the wall at waist height, from which a jet of water whizzed a few meters away, and several men were washing themselves. They took turns putting their waist-bare backs under the stream, grunting and groaning from the coolness of the water, rubbing themselves with their hands, snorting, and jumping away. Seeing me, my father stepped back from the water and smiled. I staggered toward him. Vasily appeared between us, five steps from my father. Wiping his torso with a towel and smiling relaxedly through his mustache, he sauntered toward me. I continued to walk toward my father, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Vasily’s hand began to rise, reaching out to shake mine. He was close now. Without changing my direction, I walked around him and held out my hand to my father.
“Hi, Dad!” I said and felt a firm handshake.
My father did it with passion. A handshake was almost the only expression of emotion my father allowed himself. He is never lavish of it. Dry as a desert to the senses. That’s how his mother raised him, having once said that children shouldn’t feel how much their parents love them. I hardly did. Any accomplishments I made were accompanied only by a handshake. I do something well – a handshake or silent approval. Or simply no disapproval. Not even the words “well done” were uttered. And I grew up with that – no disapproval as approval. That’s the ultimate fatherly affection. And so I immediately understood the message of that handshake – my father was thanking me for my support. And I was happy that our relationship had warmed up.
“So, Dad, how was the sale, did you sell a lot of tomatoes?” I said, deliberately standing with my back to Vasily, who, after a certain incident, ceased to exist for me as a person.
“Not really…” my father exhaled, wiping his face with a towel after washing. “Phew… sold the fourth part… sales are not very good…”
“It’s okay, you’ll sell the rest tomorrow,” I said, and we went to the “GAZelle”.
“I hope so… After noon, a truck arrived with tomatoes, but yesterday no one was here, I could sell for a good price… You never know…”
“And this one… Has your Vasya sold anything?” I asked, looking around.
“Yes, Vasya sold almost everything!” My father was excited. “He’s been spinning like a top since this morning! While I was sorting it, setting up the scales, taking out the boxes, some buyers came up to him and bought half a ton at a time. And then at eleven o’clock someone bought another half-ton, and so on, he sold some more… Tomorrow, he said, he’d finish selling the rest and go for another batch.”
“What about you?” I wondered.
“What about me?” My father waved his hand at the car, “I’m going to sell it! There’s more than a ton here… and I have to sell it in two days or it will be spoiled by the heat…”
I stayed with my father for about an hour. We had a bottle of beer at a sidewalk cafe and my father stayed in the car again. I wished him good luck and walked back up the hill. Once again my mind was spinning with all kinds of things. Why did my father choose the most difficult and risky business option? You drive, roll for thousands of kilometers, you load and unload, you sleep in the car, the goods are perishable, the prices jump – all the risks and inconveniences. Why? It’s easier to organize a business similar to the existing one, or something more reliable. No, he decided to break his back… with this asshole who left him alone right away… I didn’t understand how my father could work with that asshole after that, I wouldn’t have shaken his hand, which I didn’t… Maybe he had no pride or dignity… After all we could sit down together, come up with some new business – and knock yourself out! “No… “He’s carrying these tomatoes. I hope he’s making good money with them… Otherwise, if the income is the usual, why make such a fuss? It’s not worth it.”
My father sold the rest in two days, slept at home on Saturday and left again on Sunday evening. Vasily came back on Sunday with a new batch. On Wednesday my father arrived with two tons of tomatoes. He sold them for a long time, like five days. And when he was done, he said he wasn’t going anywhere anymore. My father was nervous, so I didn’t bother him, but a few days later he told me everything. It turned out that he had called Vasya from the south to find out the price of tomatoes in our market. Vasya said that the price was high and that my father could buy it at the price the farmers were offering and bring it in. But Vasya was lying – my father had arrived, the price had been kept low for a few days. All because of two trucks – they brought in forty tons of tomatoes and drove the prices down. All those who brought smaller quantities of tomatoes, like my father, lost money. My father also sold the goods at a loss. He made good money only on the first batch, subsequent batches yielded smaller profits, and the last batch was a loss. My father was depressed, I sympathized with him, but in my heart I was glad it was over. I could see my father curled up in his sleep in the car. I did not wish him such a fate.
Vovka got married. The wedding took place on the last weekend of July. Vovka asked me to photograph the event, and I ran around with my camera all Saturday, capturing meaningful moments. Carrying the bride over the bridge is one of them. In our town center there is an old stone bridge, a short one, literally fifteen meters. And grooms carry brides over it in their arms. On either side of the bridge are lanterns, dressed waist-deep in a square brick “shirt”. No sooner had I photographed Lera’s transfer across the bridge than the newlyweds moved on to the next tradition. The wedding guests occupied the bridge. Lera took a bottle of champagne in her hand, Vovka put his hand over hers. I got ready. Both of them brought the bottle to the corner of the lantern “shirt” to perform the ritual of breaking a bottle of champagne for good luck. The people on the bridge froze. Lera swung languidly, obviously cautious, and slammed the bottle against the corner. It didn’t break. Vovka snorted, supported by a few chuckles on the bridge.
“Let’s do it again,” Vovka ordered.
Lera slammed the bottle against the corner again. Clink! The bottle bounced right back up. A dozen voices laughed on the bridge.
“Lera!” Vovka said nervously and laughed apologetically.
Clink! The stone corner parried a blow. The bride laughed, the bridge rumbled.
“Give me the fucking bottle!!!” shouted Vovka, flying off the handle, snatching the champagne out of his wife’s hands and smashing the bottle against the corner. “Here you fucking go!!! That’s how you do it!”
Lera looked at me and smiled. Bridge exhaled in relief and headed for the cars.
They rented a semi-basement cafe in the center for the wedding. The toastmaster started torturing the guests with stupid contests and other entertaining bullshit, and they responded by gorging themselves on food and vodka. After an hour, when the toastmaster was exhausted and the dancing began, I sneaked out and went home. I even managed to take a nap there and returned to the cafe four hours later at eight o’clock. The wedding had already descended into a drunken frenzy, and no one noticed my absence. It was over by ten. I said goodbye to the newlyweds, walked towards the club and called Natasha.
“01.08.06 90.720 6m2 48m2” – I wrote down in my day planner that evening and closed the book with satisfaction. The day before, Sergey and I took ninety thousand each as a bonus.
“Romych, shall we take some money from the common fund for ourselves?” Sergey said, taking two hundred thousand out of his briefcase and putting it on the table.
“I don’t know,” I thought, calculating our debts to suppliers.
“Vera, look, to whom and how much do we owe?” Sergey guessed my thoughts.
She went through her notes, saying numbers and deadlines.
“It’s all right!” Sergey summarized. “There are no urgent payments, our warehouse is full…”
“Well…” I thought. “If that’s the case, then… I guess we could!”
“Here we go!” Sergey smiled and started to divide the money into two parts. “Vera, write off one hundred and eighty from me, and a bonus for me and Romka… Or maybe we’ll take a hundred each!?”
My partner froze with wads of cash in his hands.
“No, ninety is fine!” I said, mentally calculating the amount I needed.
“You’ll probably take yours for the apartment, won’t you?” Sergey looked at me carefully.
“What else, Seryoga?” I hummed, smiling. “Not for boozing…”
“How should I know!” he said complacently. “Maybe you and Vovan will rent a VIP bathhouse with a pool full of champagne and chicks with boobs like that!”
Without letting go of the money, Sergey drew two huge circles from his chest into the air, as far as his arms could reach, and laughed.
“No, Seryoga, what chicks?” I laughed, casting a cautious glance at Vera, who was squinting at her husband. “I have Natasha, Vovka got married…”
“Really!?!?” Sergey seethed with exaggerated interest. “Vovan got married!?”
“Yeah…” I nodded. “This weekend… Lera is already seven months pregnant…”
“Roman! Your friend is going to be a father soon, and when are you!?” Vera said.
“Vera, I’m not even married yet, let me get married first! Then we can talk about children,” I smiled.
“Marry your Natasha!” said Vera. “She’s a good girl!”
“Right,” Sergey said, digging his hands almost elbow deep into his briefcase and sticking his nose in. “Natasha’s a nice girl…”
He lifted his head above the “suitcase,” looked at his wife, and said:
“Now, Verok, we have something to celebrate your and Lilka’s birthday with!”
“Shit, Seryoga!” I snorted, “You have regular birthdays! You just had one recently…”
“Romka was the one who had it…” said Vera.
“Ah-ha…” I said.
“By the way, I gave him the book you told me about!” Sergey said, shaking his index finger in my direction. “This, whaddayacalit…? This comedy…?”
And he fell silent, embarrassed.
“The Divine Comedy,” I helped.
“Right, that’s the one!” Sergey nodded. “Let him read it, my bro likes to read.”
“Have you read it yourself? What do you think?” I was suddenly interested.
“Roman, when am I supposed to read it!?” Sergey exclaimed. “I have a family, two kids… I’m always exhausted…”
“Man, that’s too bad!” I cooled down. “You should read it, it’s awesome!”
“Well…” Sergey smiled and shook his head. “One day… maybe… I will.”
I realized with disappointment that this would never happen.
“Seryoga, listen!” I picked up the topic of conversation, having found out that I was interested in a temporary lapse in my partner’s biography, we were once again driving around the city in the “Mazda”. “So you worked on the ‘ZiL’, ran over this fucking ‘Zaporozhets’… You got kicked out… Where did you work then? What did you do?”
He looked at me, smiled at the mention of the accident, and took a deep breath:
“Romych, I’ve done all sorts of things! I went to Bulgaria to get goods, I sold cassettes, I even sold Pepsi-Cola… you know, in cans!”
“We used to bring it in wholesale by the carload and sell it here, distribute it to the kiosks!”
“Oh! Wow!” I was surprised. “What, really by the carload!???”
“Yes!” my partner waved his hand confidently. “What did you think… I made a good deal back then!”
I was somewhat surprised by the new facts of Sergey’s biography. My imagination vividly drew a picture from his words – carload deliveries, large volumes of sales… But somehow it didn’t fit. I had an idea of the principles of trade, knew the people and the level of income in the “nineties”. The Pepsi-Cola rail car and the image of Sergey, as I had seen him when I first met him and as I knew him now, appeared in my mind. One didn’t fit the other. That was what puzzled me.
“You brought Pepsi here by the carload with someone else?” I clarified.
“Yes! I remember unloading the rail car at night! Those, you know, big packages… Pepsi, Seven Up, Mirinda… And then we’d take them to the kiosks and sell them.”
“Fuck, Seryoga, with such volumes you must have made some fucking money!” I frowned in disbelief. “Even if you only sold one rail car, it was fucking great money! But where did you get the money to buy a rail car in the first place!?”
“Roman, you see! We should have made money, but we didn’t. Yes, we made some money, but then we started buying fucking walkie-talkies to talk to each other so we wouldn’t be discovered, some incomprehensible waste of money… here and there… and all that… never mind!” Sergey waved me away annoyed.
I was silent for a minute, processing a bunch of fragmentary information in my head, trying to glue something good out of it and build a coherent picture – it didn’t work.
“How many of you were there?” I said.
“Three…” Sergey said annoyed. “We started doing some bullshit…”
“Seryoga, so you only supplied goods to kiosks and didn’t work with wholesalers?” I tried to find out what volume of goods appeared in the story.
“We only got into these wholesalers at the very end! When we were already being overrun by other companies! I said at the beginning that we should take over the wholesalers, but my dumbasses were like ‘No way! We have to lay low! Or they’ll come after us!’ So we ran around the kiosks until we broke up…”
“Why did you broke up? You could have started some other business…besides, you made money…”
“No, there were some suspicions, ratting…” Sergey grimaced and waved me away. “Roman, you can’t trust people! They all betray you! I don’t know about you, but everyone screwed me over…”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “My father and I haven’t ditched anyone, and no one has ditched us…”
“Roman! That’s just the way you are! And so am I! And people, they’re just…”
My partner spread his hands and brought them back, the left one on the steering wheel, the right one on the gear stick. “That’s why you and I get along… Let’s go buy some bananas!”
The car, without waiting for my answer, turned right and ducked into a parking lot in front of the fast-food kiosk in the center of the village where we regularly bought food.
“How did you end up in ‘Sasha’?” I continued my questioning.
“You know, Davidych was one of the ‘Arbalest’ owners before…”
“Really??? Wow! I didn’t know that!” I was surprised. “So that’s it!”
“Yes. Davidych also took Vera with him. And when he left ‘Arbalest’, he took her and another girl with him… Verok, she proved herself in ‘Arbalest’ and Davidych took her… And he and the owner of ‘Fluffy’ started ‘Sasha’ together… They worked together before!”
“Whoa! I didn’t know that…” I was silent, thinking about the new information, after a few seconds I continued. “So… Davidych took Vera from ‘Arbalest’, but how did you get to ‘Sasha’?”
“Verok recommended me to him!”
“Ah, I see!” I nodded.
“Davidych was looking for a manager to take care of wholesale sales, and Vera put in a good word for me… And I started working at ‘Sasha’…”
“What year was that?” I was puzzled, trying to piece together a timeline of events.
“I don’t really remember… Maybe ’95…”
“So Davidych and the owner of ‘Fluffy’ started together? Why did they split up? How long did they work together?”
“I came, and after two years they separated… And the year before that… Maybe we could take some food to the office too?” Sergey suggested and I nodded.
After picking up a bag of food, we continued on to the factory.
“Oh, the food has arrived!” Vera clapped her hands. “I’m so hungry, boys!”
“Here, eat something!” Sergey put the bag on the table in front of his wife.
“I was thinking…” I said, jabbing my finger at the kettle button. “We still need to find a canteen… We’re eating fast food all the time, and that’s not good…”
“Roman, where will you find a canteen around here?” Sergey stared at me.
“Seryoga, there are businesses everywhere, like the brick factory at the last bus stop. One stop from here… There must be a canteen there! We’ll have to go and find out.”
I was right, and the next day we had lunch in the factory canteen.
In the second half of August, at the end of the work week, I found myself at Sergey’s house for the first time. As soon as the “Mazda” parked in front of his driveway, I got out and looked around – a paneled L-shaped house in pale blue paint stood between the park and the one-story houses of the private sector. Remembering that Sergey’s apartment was on the top ninth floor, I looked up.
“We have windows on the other side,” Vera said.
The three of us got into the elevator and went up. The bell rang. Roma opened the door.
“Hey, bro!” Sergey said, going in first.
“Daddy! Daddy’s here! Mommy!” Lilka shouted, looking out the door of the apartment. Behind her back, little Lyonya was staring at me in his underwear.
The apartment turned out to be spacious: a square hall of about fifteen square meters; in its left wall, two doors – a bathroom and a toilet; to the right – a large living room; directly in the middle – the door to the nursery; diagonally to the left – the kitchen and behind it a cramped balcony of three square meters. I took off my shoes, stepped onto the tiled floor, and Sergey began a tour of his domain.
“Your kitchen is awesome!” I said sincerely, running my hand over the heavy countertop.
“Yes!” Sergey beamed with pride. “Forty thousand back then, imagine!”
“Wow!” I was amazed, as I had calculated that a normal set would have cost half as much.
“Well…” Sergey went on, turning the handle of the balcony door. “We have a balcony here!”
We went inside. Romka came in next, took out a cigarette, went to the window, lit it, and spat on the street.
“How cramped it is here,” I said, looking around and turning carefully on the spot.
“I don’t even understand why we need this balcony!” Sergey perked up. “It would be better to make the kitchen bigger! I can also spit out of the window!”
“Seryoga, Vera is actually drying the laundry here,” I looked up at the clotheslines and smiled, realizing that my partner had a vague idea about household chores.
He changed his face when he realized he had made a mistake and looked at me in displeasure.
The next stop on the tour was the bathroom and toilet.
“Oh! What, you didn’t do anything in here!?” I froze in surprise at the open bathroom door, opened the next door, and it was the same. Both rooms were as they had been bought – painted walls, whitewashed ceilings, and cheap plumbing. I looked at Sergey. He was embarrassed and started making excuses:
“Roman, you can’t do everything at once! I have done the most important thing. You think it’s easy to do everything? I had a hard time with the parquet in the hall, I had to lay it twice! Renovating an apartment is not that easy! When you get your apartment and start renovating, you’ll see what I’m talking about. I’ll do it! You and I each took ninety thousand, so I’ll use it! You took yours for the apartment, but I’ll have to spend it on the bathroom and toilet so that Lyonya and Lilya can poop comfortably! Good thing you’re not a family man!”
The speech surprised me. It was as if Sergey had revealed something that had been sitting restlessly in his head.
“Seryoga, I’m just saying,” I shrugged. “Well, you’ll do this… You’ve already done almost everything but this… So why are you so worked up? It’s your expenses in the apartment, you’re not throwing money away, are you?”
There was a pause. We continued in awkward silence.
The nursery was modest, just the bare necessities – two cribs and a toy corner. As I left the room, I pulled on the door, but it banged against the jamb.
“Shit, Roman, it won’t close!” Sergey swung the door back open and chuckled awkwardly. “I’ve had a lot of trouble with it, I’ll have to call a repair specialist to fix it!”
Driven by my meticulousness, I went back into the room, let Sergey in, and tried to close the door again. The door frame was bent inward from the sides.
“Wow, why is it so bent, Seryoga!???” I wondered.
My partner waved his hands, burst out laughing, covered his face with his hands, uncovered it, and said:
“Damn, Roman, you have no idea how much trouble I had with this door! I installed it, everything was fine, I put the foam in, the foam dried up and I couldn’t close the door! I put in too much foam and the frame swelled up! Got it? I started digging out the foam! It took me half a day! There were pieces of foam all over the floor! I laughed, Vera laughed! I managed to close the door with pain and misery! But then it did not close again! I’ll have to install it again! Got it?”
After telling the story in a joking manner, Sergey stared at me questioningly.
“I got it, but why were you foaming with the door open? It’s clear that the frame will be torn apart, the door can’t be closed afterwards… You should have closed it and then foamed it…”
“Shit, Roman! Looks like you know everything!” Sergey parried irritably, and his cheerfulness was washed away from his face, and he looked at me harshly and unhappily.
“It’s not that, Seryoga…” I shrugged, feeling my partner’s sting, and added conciliatorily, “Anyway, you’ll do it… It’s just a door… Let’s go there.”
I smiled and nodded in the direction of the living room. It was unusually long, with a large aquarium dividing it roughly into two halves. The closer part was occupied by a classic pair of a TV and a couch with a coffee table in front of it and an armchair on the side. The part behind the aquarium was occupied by a double bed. Behind it was a rectangular alcove, empty, as if it had no use and had been left as it was.
“Wow! Awesome!” came out of my mouth. “What a big aquarium!”
“Four hundred liters,” said Sergey.
Behind his back, the children appeared silently, stood hesitantly by the couch and stared at me. Vera came in with plates of food and started to set the table.
“Was there a balcony here too?” I looked at the contours of the alcove and noticed that its shape was exactly the size of a balcony in typical panel houses.
“Yes, there was a balcony,” Sergey put his hands at his sides and immediately began to wave them. “I smashed everything here… these partitions, cut them out with a perforator, and made some space.”
“The room got bigger!” I nodded and walked over to the large window. “How many square meters did you say your apartment was? Sixty-eight or seventy-one?”
“No, not sixty-eight!” Sergey said. “I remember! Seventy-one!”
I easily understood the meaning of his haste – Sergey wanted to measure apartments with me. I smiled and turned back to the window, the view was beautiful – there were no high-rise buildings right up to the water, and the reservoir stretched out before my eyes. Only one-story houses spoiled it with their squalor. Suddenly the instigator in me came to life and I said:
“Seventy-one is it with or without balconies, Seryoga? Because the balcony area doesn’t count as living space, and you’ve added a balcony here…”
“Roman, I don’t remember!” He began to wriggle. “I’ll have to look for documents.”
When I guessed Sergey’s reaction, I smiled and realized one of his peculiarities – to measure his achievements with others. At the same time, I remembered a conversation I had long ago about lifting weights. The conversation flashed in my memory and only confirmed the assumption – then I mentioned my maximum weight in the weightlifting press, Sergey followed with his – a little more. I found this observation interesting.
“It’s just that if you count with balconies, it’s less square meters without balconies…”
“No, no! It’s without the balconies! Exactly without balconies!” Sergey added with the expected heat. I smiled inwardly, finding this behavior funny and even childish – like a boy in the sandbox proving that his soldiers are better.
“Boys, you can sit down to eat! Everything is ready!” Vera’s voice sang from behind us.
I turned around – the table was completely full of plates. My eyes widened in amazement. It was as if the table had been covered with a magic tablecloth. Whoosh, and there it was – salads, jellied meat, smoked pelmeni, sweets for tea. There was a bottle of vodka in the middle of the table. I suddenly realized that I was embarrassed by all this attention and pampering. When had a woman ever treated me like this? I couldn’t remember.
Romka came into the living room, turned on the TV and sat down in the armchair.
“Roman, take a seat!” he said, blinking through his thick glasses.
I walked around the table, sat down on the couch, and noticed Lyonya under the table. His mouth was open and he was studying me with interest. I winked and waved my hand at the child. Lyonya retreated a little. Lilya, who was standing by the TV, shrieked and, like all children who want to attract attention, climbed under the table to her brother and immediately created a crowd there. Lyonya puffed, rattled, shrugged, and waved at his sister. Lilya, squealing and showing her big baby teeth, went her own way. Lyonya whimpered, gave his sister a weak kick, and backed away.
“Lilya!” Sergey shouted. “Why are you bothering Lyonya?”
“Dad, I’m not…” she calmed down frightened.
Lyonya looked at me again, studied me, crawled out from under the table, stood up and walked over to Sergey’s brother, who was fiddling with the remote, changing the TV channels. He stopped. Rhythmic music came from the TV. Lyonya turned to the sound, came to the screen and, enchanted by the flickering images, twitched to the rhythm on his crooked baby legs. Lilya immediately forgot her fear, grinned happily, ran to her brother and began to jump squealing, trying to outdance him.
“Pumpkin-headed,” I thought, feeling aversion to the girl. I could smell food coming from the kitchen. Vera walked back and forth, transforming the coffee table into a festive board. Sergey sat down on the couch, opened a bottle of vodka and raked three glasses from the table with his fingers.
“No, Seryoga, I won’t!” I protested.
“Athlete!?” his brother said, fixing his glasses on the bridge of his nose with his finger.
“Yes, Roman is working out! Hee-hee!” Sergey cackled. “Bro, will you have one?”
“Sure, bro!” Romka waved decisively, and the vodka flowed into two glasses.
Lilya, after glancing at me a few times and seeing my lack of interest, stopped twitching and went into the kitchen. Lyonya danced and stared thoughtfully at the flickering clip on the screen. I looked at him. After turning around a few times, the boy noticed my interest, and as soon as the music ended, he was back under the table.
“Lyonya, why are you sitting there?” Sergey said. “Get out of there!”
“Come here… to us…” I waved to the child, patting the couch with my hand. He crawled and stood on the couch up to his full height. I took the child and sat him down between me and Sergey. Lyonya got an apple from his father and started chewing it. After half an hour the feast was over – Roma went to the balcony to smoke, and Sergey to the kitchen with his wife. I went to the window, opened it and looked out. The sun was already setting, the city was frozen in the evening heat. “A week or two and that’s it, the evenings will get cooler,” I thought and turned around. Lyonya was standing at my feet, looking at me with blue eyes. Silently I took him and lifted him up. There was no objection. Lyonya settled into my arms as if by habit.
“Look how beautiful it is, huh?” I told him, turning to look out the window.
The little boy was staring out the window with all his eyes, his cheeks and lips pouting. He was a carbon copy of his father. I started talking to him, telling him about the scenery. Lyonya took a deep breath and, keeping his eyes on the window, wrapped his arms around my neck. “Friends now,” I realized.
The next minute my head was spinning with thoughts of family, children and Natasha. I was trying on the role of husband and father. “I think it’s time. I’ll be thirty soon… Everyone’s already married… even Vovka, for the second time… I’m the only fool here. And I’ve got a decent girl… and I want to hold such a little baby in my arms… my own.” I sighed and put the child on the floor. He looked at me and we walked over to the table. I wanted to leave immediately, call Natasha and start building my own happiness, not wiping the corners of someone else’s. I turned the image of Vera and Sergey’s family and could not get rid of the thought that people could do it, that life could be like that – good children, a decent husband and wife – everything is fine! I felt wistful and tight in my chest. I tried my best to get rid of these thoughts, but to no avail. For the next half hour Vera, Sergey and Roma said something to me. I answered something with a strained smile. I had to leave, to be alone, to regain my composure.
I stayed for another hour or so, but the uneasiness didn’t go away. Vera continued to fuss around the house, seeming to have time for everything and paying attention to everyone. Sergey and his brother had a few more drinks, ate and stared at the TV. Sergey asked me something. I answered sluggishly. The evening was not going well. I picked a moment, said goodbye and left. I walked a long way to the bridge. I thought about what was important. My intuition never failed me. I thought about the night I lay in bed with a worsening ulcer and passed out from stomach pains. That moment was significant. I knew it. I saw something important, but I only vaguely understood what it was. This knowledge slowly revealed itself to me like a riddle. The only thing I knew for sure, nine months after that night, was that I was not born to do what I was doing.
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