Minus four Celsius on the digital thermometer flashing dimly above Maria Ra grocery, crystalline snow forming in an otherwise blue-grey sky overhead; just another mid-October morning at the foot of the Altai Mountains in western Siberia. A young man of about twenty-five years was on his way to catch trolleybus Number One and make the brief commute down Lenin Prospect to River Station, close to his office near the Old Bazaar. Already seven o’clock and still not light out, the prescient late autumn air was bracing – a hazy sun smoldering just beneath the chilled titanium horizon. He moved unhurriedly through the narrow haphazard alleys of New Market before opening. These tread-worn byways, not yet dressed in their near permafrost midwinter covering, were strewn with remnants of last night’s carousing, a few empty vodka bottles and discarded plastic cups.
Much like the Old Bazaar, at the hub of New Market stood an impressive but aging domed edifice where fresh produce and other edibles were offered by a flock of anxious hovering vendors. Butchers were also there on the selling floor, carving up fresh cuts of meat – the sight and smell of hoof, claw, and carcass hanging heavy in the stagnant air of the market – like a small abattoir.
This vaulted building sat nestled in the midst of an empty lot the size of several soccer fields. The area swarmed with hundreds of rusted kiosks assembled and torn-down daily for scores of additional sellers. Old babushki as well sat huddled together on the broken and pot-holed pavements wherever they could find a spot, peddling whatever they had to passers-by. This morning was no different; sellers were quietly going about their business hanging-up goods and laying out their treasures – rows of garments, shoes, novelties, toys, and other goods, as they did each day of the year.
Despite his imposing height, nobody acknowledged the young man’s otherwise unassuming presence as he passed-by in his beige shoes and his short-cuffed chocolate-brown pinstriped suit. He went unnoticed even by the hard working nosilshiki, muscular “runners” still in shirt sleeves delivering goods and setting up kiosks for merchants.
Arriving in the city six years ago, he too had worked as a runner in this very market, never regretting those years hauling hardware and other piece goods back and forth from nearby storage lockers. The job didn’t require much thought, and little if any social interaction – just basic manual labor. Granted, it wasn’t simple like the pastoral life he had left behind at his grandparents’ cottage in the country. But it was uncomplicated, even if physically demanding. He never forgot how his body ached at day’s end after setting up and breaking down kiosks and dragging the heavy loads.
When you came right down to it, runners were at rock bottom of a new economic pecking order, a place he could not long afford to occupy. But the job was not something he planned on doing more than a few years; it was just meant to help make ends meet while attending university. If it made him stronger, those five years also impressed upon him some common street sense – preparation for survival in this new urban environment. When class schedule permitted, he even helped-out at one of the kiosks to supplement his cash flow and provide some additional instruction – learning what he could about the ways of the seller. Perhaps this was his real entrée to the business of market economics, the art of persuasion – the art of the deal.
“Get out the way Seroga,” a familiar voice cried out from behind.
Glancing back, Sergei recognized one of the guys with whom he had worked in the market until just over a year ago. Mikhail – to his friends, Misha – was lumbering towards him rolling a large flatbed of goods piled high and bulging from their threadbare red and black plaid plastic cases.
“Hey Misha, don’t run me over; I’m moving,” he yelped.
Mikhail had a larger-than-life boyish smile, betraying a couple of missing front teeth lost in a drunken brawl one night several years back. Not that he was given to violence; it was just one of those things that can happen when boys get to drinking too much vodka. With massive shoulders and leathery tattooed arms, Mikhail could run carts morning and night, butcher pigs during the day, sell watermelons at a kiosk on weekends, and serve beer from the keg for passers-by in the afternoons. Sergei had a fondness for this boy, not because he had been there the longest of all the runners, but because Misha had cared enough to show Sergei the ropes when he first started at New Market.
Mikhail, toothlessly, “So Seroga, ya got a cigarette?”
“Yeah sure,” a smile betraying Sergei’s fond recollections.
Removing his hand from his suit jacket pocket, he pulled out two Marlboro Super Lights and handed one to the boy. Still grinning, Sergei recalled, maybe it’s good running into Misha again; we had such great times working together in the market. He remembered how the pace of life was slower back then. But it had been more than a year since they saw one another; and although he passed through the market each week, during the past year it had been Sergei the aspiring businessman, not the market runner.
For such a muscular boy, Mikhail had an infectious disposition, gentle to the core. It had a calming effect on Sergei. Although his life had not been easy, Misha always seemed relaxed and happy, even in the midst of the daily grind of work. Sergei could not help but admire the boy for his ability to take whatever came his way, do what he was good at, and enjoy each day.
His wrist corkscrewed around, eyes loitering to inspect the cigarette poking out from between his bruised and wind-burned knuckles, Mikhail chided, “So, ya rich businessman now Seroga, right? No more a’ them cheap Luche cigarettes, huh?”
Amused at the thought and chuckling, “Not really Misha, I just can’t smoke those shitty lung-burners anymore,” he confessed.
Enjoying a long slow drag on the Marlboro, smoke billowing out his nostrils, Misha agreed, “Yeah, I know what ya mean man. Runnin’ these carts for ten years, I finally had to quit smokin’ ‘em myself.” Then, hesitating for a moment, “Hey Seroga, some of the guys are goin’ for shashlik in the forest by Noah’s Ark Café on Sunday and then takin’ a banya later. Ya oughta join us; the guys haven’t seen ya since ya finished at university and quit workin’ here.”
Sergei thought, gee a barbeque and steam bath with the guys sure would be great medicine right about now. Then, without hesitation his next thought found a voice, “Sure! Why not?” He blurted out.
Usually more cautious with his time and associations of late, Sergei surprised himself with such an abrupt reaction. What am I saying, he thought. Isn’t this a step backwards? Am I really agreeing to hangout with the old gang now, with so much going on, and my future still undecided? After all, mom just moved to Barnaul last month and is still settling in. Besides, my new job is taking every bit of my energy. Do I really have time to socialize and drink with these guys, even on a Sunday? He didn’t reason it through any further, but just agreed.
“Well,” said Misha, “we’re meetin’ in front of the Ark at two o’clock. So we’ll see ya there?”
“Yeah, sure.” He felt as soon as he uttered the words that he would not be going. But he also knew that Mikhail asked in friendship, and he did not want to let the boy down.
“Oh, and Seroga, bring your guitar.”
At these words, Sergei froze. “Okay Misha,” he replied robotically, as a palpable chill shot down his spine. He hadn’t picked up his guitar in years, not since Veronika had left, or more accurately, since she had vanished. How could he play anymore? It raised too many specters of better days long gone. He could no sooner make sense of her silent departure, as he could accept the hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach when Misha uttered those words. Besides, he hadn’t even thought about music lately; he was too busy staying focused on his job, remaining employed, and making his way up the ladder.
All else seemed quiet before the market opening this morning except for the old man hobbling behind his rusted coffee cart, offering hot drinks in plastic cups for his customers, the sellers, along with some small talk. As usual, Sergei stopped to buy a coffee from the old guy, not because he couldn’t afford better at the café or make it at home in his apartment; but as bad as this thick black liquid tasted, it still connected him with that less complicated time when he had first arrived in the city. Besides, Sergei felt sorry for the old guy. He wore a patch over one eye and walked with a slight limp. As well, he probably got up at five-thirty every morning just to be here by six forty-five for the sellers. This is why Sergei always made sure he had twenty rubles in his pocket on his way to work; ten for the coffee man and another ten for the trolleybus.
“How’s everything today, Stepanich?” he asked.
In a weak, gravely voice, barely audible above the low drone of pre-market preparations, “Everything’s good, Sergei; you want it black with sugar as usual, right?”
He nodded in agreement. Although he had known this old guy for six years, he knew almost nothing about him, not even his real name. He called him Stepanich because it was a familiar patronymic that he had heard others use to address the old man. Every day, this same ritual was played out against hundreds of thousands of goods for sale in the New Market.
Coffee in hand, he passed by a frail-looking old lady that set up always in the same spot at the intersection of Lenin Prospect and Pioneer. He hesitated. She was squatting behind a little make-shift table composed of wooden crates and cardboard, displaying some personal mementos, no doubt things she dragged out from her apartment - scarves, old toys, a few different pairs of shoes, cigarette lighters. With deep-set emerald green eyes and cavernous wrinkles carved hard into her toughened jowls, it was obvious that she had seen much of what took place here over the best part of the last century. As he lingered, Sergei was trying to reconcile the warmth of her smile with the embittered attitude he had witnessed in so many babushki here in the city.
Back in the village, the older women were more like his grandma – warm and caring. But here in Barnaul, well that was another story. They were cold and dismissive, rude even. Whether on the bus, at the bank, or in the grocery, the old ladies pushed themselves past him or anyone else who was in their way. He thought that maybe it was something about life in the city; maybe it eventually hardened everyone here.
But this old lady seated before him seemed different. She reminded him of his own grandma, with whom he had spent entire summers as a youth in the nearby village of Kizlukha. He thought, I should purchase some small thing from this old lady; just to show her someone cares. Maybe tomorrow. And I should go see baba soon.
The sound of a Scorpion song blasted out from inside his jacket pocket, cutting through his thoughts and awkwardly breaking the silence of this morning pilgrimage. Pulling his hand from the pocket, “Hello. I’m listening,” he whispered into the cell phone he had purchased used from one of the street vendors here earlier this year.
He recognized the voice of his boss on the other end of the connection, but its uncharacteristic urgency troubled him. “Listen, Sergei, I need you to come by my office this morning as soon as possible. When do you expect to be here?”
Confused and quite alarmed by such an early morning request, Sergei gathered himself. “Andrei Petrovich, I should arrive within thirty minutes. I’m just now approaching the bus. I’ll come right to your office. Is there something wrong?” He regretted this question as soon as it was uttered. Had he crossed a line?
“Just come to me as soon as you can.”
“Agreed, Andrei Petrovich. I’ll be there soon.”
No longer aware of the cold beginning to saturate the air, and oblivious to the now falling snow, Sergei could not imagine what was the matter. Why is Andrei Petrovich in such a rush to see me this morning? And why would he call on my mobile phone to check on my arrival time? Did I make a wrong decision with a client? Did I undercharge for materials sold last week? Didn’t I get the last order from SiberStroi delivered to the Children’s Park on time? He silently went down a litany of possible problems in his head.
He didn’t need to worry about it right now. There was nothing to do about it until he got to the office and talked to Andrei Petrovich. Taking out another cigarette, he lit up, inhaled deeply, and tried to relax as he awaited the trolley’s arrival in this, the first snowfall of the season.