“There’s a letter for you at the gatehouse!” the bespectacled janitor shouted at my back as I entered the factory gates and passed the gatehouse.
“Thanks, okay, I’ll pick it up,” I turned and went into the office. “No hello, no goodbye!” I thought angrily. The broad was standing there, smoking a cigarette, her arms crossed, either on her already noticeable belly or on her big breasts lying on her belly. I wanted to push the cigarette into her mouth. It was just after nine, and I was the first to arrive. I put the kettle on in the office and went back to get the letter. I pushed open the door to the gatehouse. “Oh God, what a stink!” went through my head. In the far corner of the cramped hallway was a bucket and basin filled to the brim with a disgusting gray slurry of guard dog food. It was a mixture of mush and something else, and it smelled disgusting. My stomach twitched with the urge. I held my breath, pushed open the door to the room, ducked inside, and closed the door behind me, instinctively wanting to keep the horrible smell out. The broad was sitting at the table with an open book. Without turning to me, she closed the book and slid the envelope across the table to me.
“Aha, thanks!” I said, saw the title of the book – Crime and Punishment – and, holding my breath, jumped outside. The fresh air was like a narcotic, I sucked it in as deeply as I could and went to the office. In ten minutes everyone had arrived – Senya and his son had come, Petya’s “GAZelle” had pulled up under the office window, followed by the “Mazda”.
“Hi!” said Vera, the first to enter the office. “What’s up, what’s new?”
“Same old, same old. I picked up a letter at the gatehouse,” I said, stretching out in the chair at the table, shaking Sergey’s hand and saying to him: “She doesn’t say hello, you know? What a bitch!”
“Who? That broad?” Sergey nodded toward the gatehouse. “Passionate about Dostoevsky?”
“Ha!!” I leaned back in my chair. “You’ve seen it too!!?”
“Well, I went in there to see her once, and here we go… Dostoevsky!” Sergey spread his hands and added with a hint of contempt: “That’s the kind of books our janitors read!”
“I just came in…” I began to answer the question in Vera’s eyes, “to get a letter, and this – I hummed – ‘Passionate about Dostoevsky’, has ‘Crime and Punishment’ on her desk! Well, Seryoga, it turns out, has seen this book, too!”
“Aha…” Vera said. “Well… what can I say! We are no match for her!”
“The book is good,” I smiled and added angrily, “but that broad is a fucking sheep!”
“Roman is still upset that some broad doesn’t say hello to him!” Sergey explained to his wife, turned to me and said with pressure: “Roman! To hell with her! You shouldn’t care about some idiot! She sits in her kennel with the dogs and will sit there until she is old! She’s just frustrated with her life, so she’s happy to stick a pin in you to make you twitch. Don’t mind her!”
“It stinks so much in there!” I nodded. “How they sit there all day is beyond me…”
“Oh, right, it does smell awful in there…” said Vera, sitting down in the chair and starting the computer, instinctively putting her hand to her nose as if to cover herself.
“Have you read this book?” Sergey looked at me cheerfully, finished rummaging through his briefcase, put it on the cupboard shelf and sat down in the chair by the door.
“Of course I have!” I said. “It’s a school program, Seryoga!”
“Aha…” my partner said grudgingly, and the smile faded from his face.
The office phone rang.
“Yes, hello,” I answered.
“Hello, may I speak to Verochka?” a slightly lisping female voice said. This is what happens when your dentures don’t fit properly. I immediately became serious and felt a wave of negativity come and go in the phone receiver. I realized who was calling.
“Here, it’s for you!” I said coldly and handed the phone to Vera.
“Yes, hello, yes mom, hi…” she said into the phone.
I looked at Vera and thought, how could an ugly single mother give birth to a wonderful daughter and a worthless alcoholic son? My imagination, using Sergey’s stories, immediately created an unflattering image in my head – a vicious old biddy, a shallow-minded loser who shits all over the place. I took Sergey’s side unconditionally and did not want to communicate with this broad, not even on the phone. Vera gave me the phone back and I got rid of it by throwing it on the cradle.
The work fuss began – Senya came to the office, got the waybills for the first run, and Petya went to the loading. We were on the phone and on e-mail. Calls, correspondence – everything as usual. By noon, Vera had done the reports for September. The month was as good as August in terms of sales. The summer campaign was over and it was time to prepare for the winter campaign. After lunch we began to solve the problem of the first import of salt. Salt is a heavy and cumbersome commodity, it was cheap and transportation was expensive. It was expensive to order a little. It was dangerous to bring a lot of it, we could not sell all of it during the season and be left with expired goods for the next season. The short shelf life of salt, one year, ruined everything. But even last winter our sales approached the volume of a truck. I thought about it and suggested to Sergey that we bring in a full truckload of salt in October.
“Do you think we’ll sell it?” He looked at me uncertainly.
“We have to do the math, Seryoga,” I shrugged. “Figure out roughly, based on last year – how much the pharmacies take from us, the networks and other customers…”
The work was in full swing. Vera printed out the data, Sergey sat down to calculate. After a couple of hours of discussion and forecasting, we came to the conclusion that everything could work out.
“We just have to make it so…” I summarized. “We’re going to load the truck completely with the cheapest salt, to reduce the transport load. And on top of that, we’ll throw in a couple of tons of the expensive one. We’ll use the cheap salt for the whole season. Until spring. And the expensive one until New Year’s Eve. And we will deliver them as needed by the transport company according to the orders, so as not to keep too much in the warehouse. That’s all.
Sergey listened, leaned over the sheet with the order calculation, chewed his lips, exhaled loudly and said: “All right, that’s fine! Let’s do it!”
In the second week of the month we had an unexpected visit from “Luxchem”. There were three guests: the owners Aslanbek and Edik and the son of the former. We had not been warned about the visit, so we were surprised, and it happened that six people crowded together in our room and began to discuss business. Vera sat in her place, Sergey in a chair at the table. Out of respect and etiquette, I gave the only remaining chair by the door to Aslanbek, and his son stood against the wall next to his father. Edik and I leaned against the last available wall by the door.
In the first half of the negotiations, I was more of an observer. Aslanbek started the conversation with me out of habit. His eyes showed surprise and even confusion about my new business partner. Aslanbek was clearly getting the length of Sergey’s foot. After a while he got used to it, added a few sentences to our dialog and took over the communication. I didn’t mind – everything that was said, I had heard from these people more than once. After the incident with “Homeland”, when “Luxchem” shipped the goods behind my father’s and my back, I had written off all agreements with Aslanbek and Edik. I realized that the price of their promises and assurances was penniless, and that from now on I should solve my current tasks without making any promises to these characters. Aslanbek began to probe Sergey and me about our moods and plans. He was surprised to learn that we had grown significantly as a company over the past year. Our position had become stronger, and it was immediately evident in our communications. I took a hard stance, remembering all the injustices these two had done to me and my father. The conversation was like a copy of the previous ones – the guests were saying the same thing: we need to increase sales, increase the number of customers, and so on. I had no desire to listen to such things. I was silent, leaving the yackety yak to Sergey. He liked it. Sergey literally blossomed and even grew physically – he straightened his already broad shoulders, leaned back in his chair, pursed his lips more than before, and turned into a monolith of self-importance and significance. Even the weather-beaten Aslanbek suddenly began a dialogue with him, with notes of ingratiation and pleading. His words made Sergey blossom. It was the first time I’d seen my partner like that – sitting like a rudiment of an official whose only sense of life was to alternate his vocabulary between permissions and refusals. “Yeah, it’s not like talking to me or my father, guys,” I grinned and continued to watch everyone. Edik was the same as I’d always known him – cunning, shady, unscrupulous. He always promised and said whatever was necessary to get what he wanted. I used to think that Aslanbek was his mirror image – a decent man who kept his word. I began to doubt it and thought that this couple was more likely playing the role of “good and bad cops”. Appealing to one about the other’s dishonesty was an empty endeavor that I had naively engaged in earlier years. Negativity began to build up within me. I knew I was getting all worked up, but I couldn’t do anything about it – old hurts were coming up and demanding satisfaction.
“Come on, make suggestions!” Edik smiled mischievously. “Aslanbek and I are all for it! We are for increasing your profits! Please, order as many goods as you want! We will always support you! Offer solutions! When you have found a new customer, call us, let us know! And Aslanbek and I will know – that’s it, Roma supplies goods to this customer, we don’t interfere!”
“What do you mean, you don’t interfere!??” I couldn’t help it. “You got into ‘Homeland’! I was working with my father at the time. We told you that we had to get there with your goods, and we would go to the director for appointments for a year, sitting there in the hallway… And when he gave his approval, you just dropped the goods directly. A whole truckload of it!”
Edik wouldn’t be himself if he’d pulled in his horns – he smiled mischievously, looked me in the eye and said without hesitation: “Roma! You should have told us right away! You should have called us immediately if one of our agents shipped goods to your client! We would have solved everything right away!”
“Edik!!!” I almost shouted in his face, boiling over in a flash. “What agents!!? What the hell are you drivelling about?!? You were there in ‘Homeland’ yourself!! I saw you at the reception! You came to us in the morning and went there in the afternoon. Why are you lying???”
Edik was only slightly embarrassed, and only because his actions had become known, not because he had been accused of lying. Shame was unknown to him. I looked at Edik with a burning gaze, and he grinned and turned away. I immediately felt an emotional collapse, all my energy spent fighting the lie. And he just looked away. Talking to Edik about decency was like chopping water with an axe. I fell silent, the negotiations were over for me. No matter what anyone said next, I decided for myself – I’m not interested! “I’m going to do it my own way, just make money with their goods, while they deliver them for free… not develop anything on purpose, not look for customers for their goods… as it’s sold, so it’s sold… let them shit themselves… I’m not going to bust my ass for these assholes anymore,” I decided, and I felt better. After I calmed down, I stared apathetically out the window. There was silence in the room, which was overcome by the experienced Aslanbek. He dialogued with Sergey. Sergey continued to sit on the throne chair, feeling like a general director. My give and take with Edik had a certain effect on Sergey – he completely relaxed and slipped from the etiquette of business communication to the bully-style talk.
“Sergey, I think you and your partner Roman should be more active in promoting our goods in your region,” Aslanbek babbled in a cliched text. “Here, pay attention, Eduard has already said that we are actively expanding our assortment, introducing novelties…”
“Nah, these shitty novelties don’t do us any good at all!” Sergey leaned back in his chair and said the sentence with killing arrogance and contempt.
Everything inside me squeezed. “Shit, Seryoga! What are you doing!?” my brain screamed, but outwardly I just wrinkled my nose. My partner screwed up, he literally spat in the faces of the owners of the supplying company. I didn’t give a shit about Edik’s reaction – I didn’t care about unscrupulous people myself. But Aslanbek… I looked at him. Aslanbek’s face was flushed, but with a noticeable effort he held himself together and answered calmly:
“Sergey, I don’t think you should say such a thing about products! It’s people’s work. Whether it’s good or bad is up to the customer. We try to make competitive products…”
“Nah, what the hell!” Sergey interrupted him, turning around in his chair. “That’s the way it is! We have some big distributions that we use! Your goods are not at the top of our list! Yes, we sell them for old times’ sake. When we teamed up with Roma and Anatoly Vasilievich, we included your goods in the general price, but they don’t do us any good, so…”
Sergey slapped our guests in a harsh and cynical manner. I stared at the floor, aware of the danger of his behavior. There could be consequences. “He won’t suffer this humiliation. Aslanbek won’t show it, but there will be an answer,” I thought, glancing furtively at everyone, “something will happen…”
The conversation after Sergey’s maneuver died down rather quickly. The guests said goodbye and left the office with unhappy faces. The three of us were left alone. I sat down in the chair by the door.
“Seryoga, you son of a bitch!” I burst out laughing, the stress had taken its toll. “Fuck, talking to Aslanbek like that! It’s completely fucked up! Shitty novelties… Did you see his fucking face!? He was fucking stunned! I thought his eyes would pop out and roll across the floor…”
“Gah-gah-gah!” He threw his head back, enjoying my emotional speech. “Why, Romych!? Did I say something wrong? This “Luxchem” gives us less than a third of the profit, it hardly matters! The markup on everything is ordinary, we only mark up more than 40 percent on these… gah-gah-gah… shitty novelties…!”
“Here we go!” I laughed again. “Fuck, Seryoga, you just shit on them!”
“But why are they acting like we owe them something?” said Sergey, looking at me and barely holding back his laughter. “Now we put a pin in them, let them pull it out!”
We all laughed at once. A tragedy had turned into a comedy. Nothing could be changed. I felt that we wouldn’t get away with such a maneuver. And I realized that Sergey had once again shit on our company and a lot of it. I did not want to clean it up after him, and I even forgave him, and all for one reason – Sergey’s bully behavior avenged once and for all everything that my father and I had unjustly tolerated earlier. I satisfied my thirst for revenge.
By the end of the week we had some cash.
“Roman, what are we going to do with all this money?” Sergey looked at me, sitting at the table with an open briefcase and wads of cash in his hands. “We have no debts, no one to pay…”
“Seryoga, I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“So are we just going to put money on the account?” Sergey wrinkled his nose.
“What else can we do? We can put it on the account, we can keep it just like that… There are not many options…”
“Right! The amount is not that big. We have thirty thousand in the common fund, and I have another sixty… That’s one hundred and twenty…”
Sergey looked at me expectantly, and I looked at him apathetically.
“I mean, why don’t we just take it for ourselves? A summer bonus? You take it to the apartment and I’ll start fixing the bathroom and the toilet…” Sergey said. “How much more do you have to pay?”
“Eleven meters, a little less…”
“You see, you need money too!” Sergey added, freezing his hands over the money on the table like a hawk over its prey.
I needed no convincing. I took my share, stuffed the money into my jacket pockets, and after the weekend, on Monday evening, October 16, an entry was added to the planner – “16.10.06 62.084 3.89m2 53.89m2“. “Seven meters left,” I froze over the diary, which marked the small and large steps toward gaining housing freedom.
“Roman, listen, we have a change of general director in December, right?” Sergey looked at me after lunch, when the three of us had just returned from the canteen in the car.
“Yeah, I don’t remember exactly, but I think so…” I spread my hands, sitting in the chair by the door.
“Vera, when is the change of director?” Sergey perked up, raised himself on his elbows over the table and stared at his wife over the monitor.
“Seryozha, you can look in the founding documents, I don’t remember,” she said.
“In December, in December!” Sergey shook the forefinger of his right hand. “I remember, we founded the company in December 2003, just three years before the next change!”
Sergey leaned back in his chair, bit his lower lip, crossed his arms over his chest, turned the chair toward me, and stared at me.
“Why did you even mention it?” I asked.
“I just thought we’d have to deal with the paperwork, the re-registration, the bank…” He crinkled his eyes. “Maybe we shouldn’t do that, eh, Romych? Let’s leave it the way it is?”
I was silent, thinking about the subject.
“There’s no difference… After all, we make decisions together… And who’s the general and who’s the deputy… it’s just a formality. The bank still needs both signatures…”
Sergey waved his hands and pretended not to understand the meaning of the impending procedure of changing positions in the company. In fact, he was right – our castling didn’t change anything. Any legally significant step required both founders, and one of us could not do anything. It was the same with the finances in the bank account – any transaction required the signatures of both of us. And from a human point of view Sergey was right – the forthcoming exchange of places did not solve anything, it just took time for bureaucratic fiddling. Yes, there was an agreement about compulsory castling every three years. But it could be neglected.
“All right. We don’t have to change, Seryoga. I don’t really care. I’m not vain,” I chuckled, “I feel lukewarm about the sign ‘General Director’! Keep your position…”
“Ah, well, then it’s a deal!” Sergey perked up, leaned back in his chair with a happy smile, and added, “You’re like a gray cardinal, Romych! You don’t hold the principal position, but you have the last word in the company!”
Sergey cackled. I smirked at the compliment, realizing that my partner had flattered me on purpose. It was clumsy. What for? Not a single strand of my soul reacted to what he said – flattery didn’t work on me, vanity was really alien to me. I was even surprised; Sergey seemed to have studied me enough not to waste his time with flattery. I smirked again and saw how his mood instantly lifted. And I realized that being the general director, even of a meager company, even on paper only, was important and meaningful to Sergey. I didn’t mind.
My relationship with Natasha was getting more and more frustrating. Whenever our eyes met, she would hastily look away. Without asking, and not wanting to guess, I attributed this behavior to the autumn blues that had taken hold of me. I looked at the fading nature and listened to my inner state. It was as if something in me was fading as well, and I could barely feel the stirring of a new beginning. I tried to understand such a change, but I could not. Only at night, when I fell asleep, did the images that had flashed through my mind that night come back to me more and more often. They would disturb my equilibrium and drive me to action. What kind of action? I didn’t know. Being in such a thoughtful state, I automatically agreed to Sergey’s entreaties to go to the country park with his family on Saturday. I did not want to go, but I was in such a moping mood that I wanted to get rid of it at least for a while. Sergey picked me up in the “Mazda” at the agreed place. The whole family was in the car – Vera in the front, the two children in the back. I sat down with the children. Lyonya, dressed in a green jumpsuit, gawked at me silently. Lilka, having received an unexpected spectator, immediately began to wriggle and deliberately make a lot of noise.
“Lilya, sit down!” Sergey barked, looking at his daughter in the mirror. The girl blushed, calmed down, came to herself in a moment, giggled, looked at me furtively, saw my smile, giggled again and started to fuss all over again.
“Lilya!!” Vera said in a threatening tone.
We arrived. Lilya jumped out of the car herself, Vera took Lyonya out and put him on the ground. The boy stood motionless, staring blankly. Vera took out a bag of food and led Lyonya by the hand into the park. Lilya ran ahead, wiggling and dancing. Sergey, as the head of the family, followed solemnly a few steps behind. I lifted the collar of my denim jacket, adjusted my baseball cap, and followed with my hands in my jeans pockets. The moping didn’t go away. The next two hours passed in thought. My thoughts floated around in a shapeless mass in my head, letting me back into reality, then pulling me back into myself. The kids were having fun – Lilka was running, squealing and jumping like a machine, and Lyonya in his jumpsuit couldn’t keep up with her, stomping his feet awkwardly. Sergey, Vera and I talked about something. My sentences were automatic, I was lost in my thoughts.
“It’s good that we can go out together like this, isn’t it, Romych?” Sergey said. “When you and Natasha get married, you’ll have your own rugrats, and our crowd will grow!”
“Riiight!” laughed Vera. “Then we’ll have to take more than one bag of food with us!”
I nodded and smirked, burying my chin in the collar of my jacket and deeper into my thoughts. “When you and Natasha get married… maybe… maybe… everything is unclear with this Natasha. There is no love, the main thing, neither she has for me, nor I for her. It didn’t happen… We just like each other and that’s it… I have to be honest with myself. There’s no love… Marry a pretty girl just for the hell of it? What’s the point? We’ll have kids and get divorced anyway. It’s stupid. Okay, let’s just leave things as they are. Our relationship is a bit of a mess. But that’s okay. If we get along, we get along, and if we don’t, we don’t…”
“Mom, did you get the sausages!?” Lilka jumped up to the bench and stuck her nose in the bag.
“I did! Lilya, close the bag! Don’t!” Vera said sternly.
The girl stepped back a few meters. Lyonya, hearing the word “sausages”, perked up and scampered to the bench, raising his hand in the direction of the package on the way.
“Lyonya, what… do you want some?” Vera said.
“He’s hungry, feed him,” Sergey ordered.
Vera made a fuss – she took a plastic container out of the bag and opened it. Boiled sausages and black bread were inside. Lilka jumped up and reached for the food.
“Lilya, stop jumping! If you want to eat, sit down and eat properly!” Vera shouted at her daughter.
The girl jerked her hand away in confusion, looked around for support, met my gaze, smiled guiltily, looked down, put her hands behind her back, and froze in indecision. Lyonya came to the bench, picked up a sausage, and clumsily put it in his mouth.
“Vera, put him on the bench!” Sergey added.
She immediately obeyed the order and gave Lyonya a piece of bread. Standing on the other side of the container, Lilya used her fingers to peel the paint off the bench.
“Lilya, don’t, you’ll get your hands dirty!” Vera ordered. “Take a sausage and eat it!”
The girl happily grabbed the sausage, instantly cheered up, smiled at me, ran a few steps away and began to dance on the concrete tiles of the path.
Time passed slowly and I continued to flounder in a viscous swamp of thoughts. After demolishing the first one, Lyonya immediately started on the second one. Lilya kept jumping with a sausage in her hand. Puffing his cheeks and sniffling, Lyonya reached for the third. His sister had half eaten the first one. Ignoring the bread, Lyonya pulled the fourth out of the container. Lilya jumped up to the bench and grabbed a piece of bread from the container with her free hand. Lyonya ate the fifth. Lilya jumped, galloped – as much as she could, trying to impress the others and me. Lyonya took the sixth sausage. There was one left in the container. Lilka had almost finished the first one. Lyonya had just finished the sixth when she jumped up to the bench and grabbed the last one. Lyonya, shoving the rest into his mouth, hastily grabbed the last sausage from his side with his hand. Lilya was stunned, but immediately came to her senses and pulled the sausage harder. The age difference took its toll, Lyonya almost let go of his sausage, immediately became dejected and began to wail.
“Lilya!!!” Sergey barked.
The girl jerked her hand away, took a few steps back and looked at me questioningly. I watched the scene, still shivering from the cool autumn breeze. It began to darken, the gray clouds becoming the colors of twilight. Taking advantage of his sister’s confusion, Lyonya grabbed the sausage and pulled it into his mouth.
“Lilya! Let Lyonya eat!” Vera shrieked in a falsetto.
The girl squirmed guiltily and fell silent, her eyes looking at me in incomprehension. I felt sorry for her. The beginnings of Lilya’s character didn’t bode well for her. Suddenly I felt a wild urge to leave. “What am I doing here?” I heard it clearly in my head. “Other people’s children, other people’s family, other people’s joys. Why am I here? Participating in their lives? Why? Where is my life? Why am I not living my life? I’m standing here now and I don’t want to be here… So why did I come? Is it embarrassing to say no? I’m so fucked up with this fucking trait! I’m acting like a weakling! Why is it so hard to say no? Just say no! I don’t care what anybody thinks! I don’t have to give in to other people’s wishes!”
I woke up. I looked around. I was in a certain place at a certain time, and I didn’t want to be there. I got scared. It was as if I had been forcibly thrust into someone else’s life. And this force was done with my consent. I wasn’t weak-willed, I knew that, but the damn politeness was killing my own life in the bud.
“This is not my life! I shouldn’t be standing here! I’m living someone else’s life, and I should be living my own. Sergey lives his own life and draws me into it. By agreeing, by accepting his invitations again and again, I am killing my life. Every moment of agreement is a denial of my own life. I am killing myself!” Fear struck again. I almost started to walk home.
“So it’s time to go back?” Sergey looked at me as Lyonya finished eating.
I nodded and breathed a sigh of relief, having made a firm decision never to be under anyone’s thumb again. No one ever.
On the last day of October, Sergey and I were in the car again on a business matter.
“Roman, is Anatoly Vasilievich still working with tomatoes?” he said.
“No, Seryoga, what tomatoes? It’s already November,” I said.
“What do I know? What is he carrying now? He’s carrying something, right?”
“No, he’s not carrying anything now,” I muttered, not wanting to discuss the subject.
“Then what is he doing?”
“Seryoga, I’m not really asking him,” I exhaled, feeling my dissatisfaction with Sergey’s insistence on questions. “He’s doing something… It seems he’s taken up transportation now, he’s got some regular customers, he delivers goods to them…”
“From city to city?”
“No, here… in the region and in the city…”
“Why doesn’t Anatoly Vasilievich start his own business?”
“Seryoga, I don’t know, ask him!” I was a little irritated. “To start a business you need money! And we invested all the money in the apartment!”
“So Anatoly Vasilievich has no money at all?”
“Well, he has some… I have no idea… We haven’t talked to him about it. If he wants to, he’ll start a business, if he doesn’t, he won’t. I don’t know what’s in his head, Seryoga!” I said, annoyed at my father for making me endure uncomfortable questions, for making me bend over backwards to answer something.
“So I take it you don’t know what he’s doing!” Sergey slammed the palm of his hand on the steering wheel, as if summarizing the dialog and drawing a conclusion.
“Nope, I’m not interested at all…” I turned to the window.
“I see…” Sergey exhaled.
The mood suddenly turned ugly. In a few minutes of dialogue, I became nervous and was now silent in this state of mind. I tried to understand the reason for the irritation. Sergey’s questions? Definitely annoying and very intrusive. And so annoying that at one point I felt like rudely cutting him off. Having found the obvious reason, I came across another, less obvious but more weighty one – my father’s inaction. And I realized that it was the main one. That’s why Sergey’s questions felt annoying, because they hit the mark and made me justify my father’s inaction and defend him in every possible way. It wasn’t nice to realize the reality – my father didn’t even want to do anything serious on his own. He followed the path of people who were not burdened with intelligence, like his friend Vasily, who was only capable of primitive “profiteering”. I, however, feeling my father’s intelligence and analytical mind, expected more from him. I expected my father to undertake a serious task. I’ve been waiting for this step since he left the company. I waited one month, two months… six months. I couldn’t stand it, realized that nothing was going to happen and took all the money to the apartment. I didn’t fail and almost doubled my father’s and my savings. But still I kept waiting for something “special” from my father. I believed in his abilities, which my father often proclaimed and demonstrated to others. I believed, I waited… and nothing happened. Sergey asked questions as if he could smell how uncomfortable they were for me, and he poked more and more at that spot in my mind. I was defending my father’s failure. This definition loomed in the back of my mind, but I pushed it away as soon as I turned to the window.
After a few minutes, Sergey started asking me questions about the apartment: how much was left to pay, when would it be ready, and what kind of repairs would I do – expensive or not so expensive? He, for example, did everything expensive, Sergey said, and recommended that I not save money and do everything well. I nodded, supporting the dialog with one-word sentences. My mood only worsened, and I began to resent Sergey’s impudence. It seemed he hadn’t acted like this before. “Or had he? Maybe I just didn’t notice? Or maybe the fall had that effect on me.” My stomach hurt. Sergey turned on a broken record about the “penthouse” – what a good man he was to have bought an apartment on the top floor, what a magnificent view from there, and even the attic was his now, he hung a lock there and even dragged the old bathtub up there, let it be, it would come in handy. And it was all so clever that I couldn’t resist telling the truth as it was, just to stop this stream of boasting.
“Seryoga, what is it with you and the penthouse!?” I turned sharply to my partner and stared angrily into his eyes. “Everyone knows that the outermost apartments are sold to all kinds of suckers! Ask any realtor, go to any agency, they will tell you the same thing – the first and second floor and the top two are the most lame! The builders sell them through agencies because these apartments are hard to sell! Nobody fucking wants them! All the best apartments are sold by the developers themselves, and all the shitty ones are given to realtors, and they sell them to those who have too little money! You said yourself that you bought the apartment because time was running out and you had a certain amount of money, right!?”
I pierced Sergey with an angry stare.
“Right…” he muttered.
“And your apartment was cheaper than the others in the building!?”
“Yes…” Sergey forced himself to say.
“That’s it!” I spread my hands. “So much for the penthouse… It’s just an apartment on the top floor of a building under the roof… I was offered the same thing! This woman immediately began to offer me an apartment on the ninth and tenth floors… I told her I don’t want that! And she immediately offered me the third and fourth floor! That’s the whole story…”
Sergey was silent.
I was emotionally drained, but I immediately felt better. I turned back to the window and began to stare nervously at the passing landscape. I knew I’d said something offensive and Sergey didn’t like it. But I couldn’t listen to the self-praising lies any longer, even my enormous patience had run out. I hit him with the truth and thought I had done the right thing.
A truckload of salt arrived from St. Petersburg at the beginning of November. Eight people unloaded the goods – four hired loaders, Senya and his son, me and Sergey. We carried the boxes on our hands, having previously laid out a solid field of pallets in the right part of the warehouse – we unloaded the truck on them. The loaders carried the goods, and Senya and his son stacked them. We started at ten o’clock, when the night chill was invigorating, making everyone shiver and chase away the remnants of sleep. The warehouse was comfortable – the heat of summer had not yet weathered out of the brick walls and boards. The warehouse gave off the remnants of it inside, and I didn’t want to go outside at all. Sergey and I, dressed in work jackets, were standing near a pile of boxes, helping Senya to stack the goods, and we were in a joyful excitement, feeling that we were doing something significant.
Sometimes I would take a break from the hustle and bustle of work, look at our business from the outside, and realize that Sergey and I were doing something bold, something with passion and courage. Before my eyes were images of managers and other executives of other companies – they were not our equals. They went to work, fulfilled their duties, and only occasionally strayed from the beaten path, and then only by accident. These companies could be compared to medium or large armies with heavy wagons, which could only move and exist on well-trodden tracks, moving along them thoroughly, but slowly and sluggishly. Our company, on the other hand, was like a small squad that could only benefit by cutting roads through untraveled areas, forests, and swamps, popping up unexpectedly here and there, and taking advantage of the dazed state of our competitors’ superior forces to grab the loot. I liked our adventurism, it got the blood pumping and kept the adrenaline high. We were on a roll. I could feel that drop of blood. We were moving fast towards it, and the drop was growing in my eyes, looking like a heavy bag of money just a few swift raids away.
While the goods were being unloaded, the industrious Vera took inventory, calculated the selling prices, calculated the markup and profit, and called us at the warehouse.
“Seryoga, this is fucking crazy!” I reacted to the call in disbelief. “The average percentage is sixty-three! If others find out that we sell them goods with such a percentage, we will be beaten like Ostap and Kisa! The waybill is what, eight hundred, right?”
“Eight hundred and fifty,” he said, listening to my emotions with burning eyes.
“Fuck, if we sell the whole bunch, we’ll make half a million in salt alone!”
Sergey piled up the boxes and listened attentively.
“And the perfume will come in a month!” I added excitedly. “Cool!”
We worked until five in the evening. We were all tired. The peak of fatigue was at three o’clock in the afternoon and the last fifteen minutes of rest. After that, work resumed, and with it came a feeling of dullness – the movements became mechanical. The last box was placed on the outermost pile under the silent indifference of eight tired men. Just as silently, with only the occasional necessary phrase, all of us collected the garbage and put things in order. Sergey paid the loaders and they left. Tiredness finally pushed me into the car as soon as my back touched the seat in the “Mazda”. I wanted to go home, get into a hot bath and lie motionless for an hour. So I did.
The next day I could hardly get out of bed – everything hurt. It was good to have a weekend ahead of me. After two days of rest, I came to work on Monday feeling refreshed. Sergey and Vera were already there. Vera was doing the mail and the bank. Sergey, crunching his scissors, was cutting pages out of his old black planner.
“What the hell are you doing that for?” I was surprised, put the kettle on, unzipped my jacket but didn’t take it off, and plumped down in the chair by the door – the first November frosts had thrown cold air under my jacket, which I wanted to get rid of as soon as possible and get warm.
“Roman, why do I need them?” Sergey broke from his preoccupation and pointed to some of the already cut sheets. “These are my old notes from ‘Sasha’. Do you need them?”
“No,” I shrugged and watched with interest.
“I don’t need them either!” Sergey said and started to “shear” a new bundle of sheets.
In a few minutes it was done – the planner, which had lost a third of its weight, was on the table.
“Here, you want to tear it?” Sergey smiled.
“All right!” I hummed and took the cut sheets from my partner’s hands, rolled up in my chair to the trash can and began to tear the sheets and throw them into the trash.
“The hands are resting from this, aren’t they?” Sergey’s voice sounded behind me.
“Yes, interesting sensations…” I nodded. “The fingers are relaxing. Especially after these salt boxes, they don’t even bend. My hands and elbows hurt!” I turned around. “Vera, did you do the waybills for the pharmacies?”
“Yes, I did on Friday!” said Vera. “There they are, Roma, on the fax!”
I finished with the sheets and rolled up to the table. Sergey took the waybills and leafed through them.
“Seryozha, sign them while you’re at it!” Vera added, remembering.
My partner took the pen, leaned to the right, settled into the chair, placed his elbow on the table, tilted his head to the left, and began signing the waybills. The pen moved smoothly and expansively. The signature began with a long diagonal stroke from bottom to top, then down again, up again, and from there down to the right with two semicircular monograms, which changed from the bottom to a horizontal oblong curl. And the signature ended with a similar diagonal stroke, shooting up from below in a sharp, wide, sweeping motion, leaving a pompous squiggle, as if a spring had popped out of the elastic mechanism of the signature. I found myself thinking that I was watching Sergey’s calligraphy practice. There was no doubt about it – he was practicing, perfecting his signature. I looked at my partner’s face – it was focused on the process and shining.
“That’s it, Verok, I’m done!” Sergey said, throwing the pen carelessly aside, raking up the waybills, tapping their ends against the table, adjusting them, and with similar carelessness of his hands, returning them to the metal holder of the fax, leaning back in his chair, exhaling, and looking at me. “Two hundred and twenty thousand!”
“Nice…” I said, thinking about the prospects. “It’s only the beginning of the season… Five months… There wouldn’t be just one order a month, would there?”
“Well, they usually do an order once every three weeks!” Vera explained.
“That’s three or four hundred a month,” I looked at Sergey. “The whole car will be sold…”
“We have expensive salt for a month. We’ll have to reorder a few times for sure…” Vera said, smiling conspiratorially and adding, “And the markup…”
“How much is there?” I smiled in anticipation.
Vera fiddled with her fingers on the keyboard and said, blushing:
“Well… on the cheap one – fifty-eight… And on the expensive one – one hundred and thirty-four…”
“Seryoga!” I looked at my partner, smiled, and shook my head. “I officially declare to you – we are crooks!” I couldn’t help laughing and for some reason lowered my voice and continued: “Imagine, if you tell anyone that we make such percentages on salt, everyone will just go fucking nuts! All the others, like fools, use the goods by the standard twenty percent… Well, some not very popular can make thirty… That’s it! But we have a good product and wild markups… Fuck, Seryoga! The main thing is that nobody finds out… at least for a couple of years… At least we’ll have time to make big bucks…”
“Why do you think it’s a couple of years?” Sergey was surprised and cautious.
Remembering the previous conversation on this topic, I just repeated my thoughts:
“This can’t go on for long… This is not a normal state of the market, complete freebies, and we have to use it while we can… Fuck, a hundred percent markup! Think about it! What markup did you use on that salt at ‘Sasha’?”
“Well…” Sergey paused, as if he didn’t want to tell the truth, but he had to. “Thirty-five we had before the showcase and a discount on wholesale – that’s fifteen percent…”
“Standard twenty percent!” I waved my hands. “Everybody sells like that… And they have even less on the marketable goods – ten to twelve percent. And everyone thinks we make a similar percentage. Herd thinking. It’s good that we managed to set prices according to the market… and you were stubborn back then, now you see – it worked!”
“When was I ever stubborn?” Sergey was indignant.
“Well, I remember what you said when we were pricing dichlorvos and then salt. You were fussing over money, like, why such markups?”
“I wasn’t fussing!” Sergey jerked immediately. “Just don’t use those wordies of yours and Anatoly Vasilievich’s! I know you…”
“Seryoga, all right – no fussing,” I said conciliatingly. “What would you call it? I remember you were very hesitant, and I almost had to talk you into it.”
“When have you ever talked me into anything!?” Sergey was indignant and stared at me angrily. “We sat down, calculated the prices, and I said right away – let’s do it! And you don’t have to make up that someone talked me into it!”
Suddenly I didn’t feel like arguing. I remembered Sergey’s insecure look and frightened voice very well. I was disgusted by all this contrived courage of my partner, who denied the moment of his own insecurity in the past. I replayed the episode in my mind. I smirked inwardly. And I realized that my father had the same trait. He and Sergey were similar in that – the unwillingness to admit their mistakes, insecurities, or weaknesses. Perhaps they both thought that admitting such a thing would make them weaker, less significant? Such foolishness. I smirked again and answered Sergey with a shrug of my shoulders: “Maybe so… No argument there…”
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