by Richard A. Herman.
The two middle aged men sat in a nameless tavern, in an unknown place, somewhere in the southeastern corner of Siberia, a half empty bottle of cheap vodka on the scarred wooden table between them. Danya the deportee and Boris the guard drank talked.
“So, Danya Gagarin, is today the day you tell me what it is you are stealing?”
“I will, Boris, but in my time. First we must drink to the fifty-first anniversary of my birth. Is okay with you?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Then yes, is okay with me.”
“As a child and a young man I lived where it is warm.”
“I know. I have heard many times about your life on the shores of the Caspian. What I do not understand is why the hell you ever left there to go to Moscow.”
“My father was friend of a high government official. He placed my father as senior clerk in the Kremlin and offered me a job as junior clerk. Much more money than I could ever make if I stayed at home.
“But then my father’s friend fell out of favor. You know how that happens.”
“Yes, yes, yes. And…?”
“And, when your sponsor falls from favor, those which he brought with him fall too. So my Father and I ended up here in this miserable icebox. That is the whole story. Is nothing more.”
“So you are stuck here, maybe forever?”
“I think not. Soviet Union is falling apart. Wall in Berlin is down. Poland is independent, and so is Hungry. Only Albania still hangs on. When the Soviet Union fails I will get out of here. I think yes. I hear you too are leaving this frozen wonderland?”
“Yes, is true. They are reducing the number of soldiers and guards to save money. Next week I am gone. I am giving up my terrible job in this horrible place to be happy, but without a job in Moscow. Life in Soviet Union is wonderful. Yes?”
“You are not happy, my friend, but I would still trade with you, if I could.”
“But you cannot. So tell me what is going on at the factory.”
“If I tell you, you will tell no one?”
“Why would I tell anyone? I have no love for those bastards. I am leaving, and your dark, deep secret leaves with me. You believe?”
“Yes. I believe. So here. You know the factory you guard and I work in makes farm machinery and equipment. Most of what they make is sold out of the country to bring in dollars. We make good stuff, but local farmers have garbage to work with.”
“I know all that. I also know at least once every week you leave at the end of the day with a wheelbarrow filled with straw. You tell the guards you are taking home straw to start the fire in your stove. The guards know you are lying so they poke and probe the straw trying to find what you are really taking. Each time they find nothing. Is crazy.”
“So, if I leave this place without you should tell me what it is you are stealing and how you are hiding it, I will go out of my mind, Danya.”
“Tell me again what I do.”
“At least once a week, sometime more, you hide something, and we can never find it.”
“Yes, you are right”
“Okay, I am right, but that does not tell me what is happening, why we cannot find what you are taking.”
“You cannot find it because you look too hard.”
“What do you mean, we look too hard?”
“When I leave, what do I have with me, Boris?”
“Just your lunch pail and the goddamn wheelbarrow filled with the goddamn straw. That is all.”
“And you find nothing in my lunch pail. Nothing in my pockets or hat and nothing in the wheelbarrow. So think for a minute, Boris, and think hard. Then you will know what I am stealing.
The guard took a deep sip from his tumbler of vodka, leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. After several seconds he snapped forward and looked Danya in the eye.
“Wheelbarrows, you crafty son of a bitch, you are stealing wheelbarrows.”
“Yes my dear friend, I am stealing wheelbarrows. I sell them to the local farmers and builders for half of what they would pay in the cooperative store, and they are delighted. In the last five years I have sold over three hundred of them.”
“My God, you are genius.”
“Far from a genius, Boris. I just know how the Russian mind works. I also know that no one wants to be here. No one really gives a shit what happens. We let our minds grow lazy. That is why a simple peasant like me can steal thousands of rubles worth of new equipment right from under your nose.”
“What will you do with all the money? You cannot spend it here.”
“When Soviet collapses in next year or two, I will leave here. I will go back to Caspian, where I spent my childhood and where I was happy. There I will open a small inn. And there I will live. And there I will make my living.”
“You are a smart man my friend.”
“And you, Boris, are a good and trusted friend, even if you are a guard. When Soviet Union collapses, you come and look for me by the Caspian and you can be my partner.”
“But I have no money.”
“No, but you have a strong back and are a hard worker. Most important, you are my dear friend and I trust you. The load is always lighter when it is shared. You will come?”
“With God’s grace, Danya. Yes, I will come.”
Richard A. Herman is somewhat new to short stories, but is currently working on a collection. His novel, Laslo’s Fire, is available in print and digital form and was published by Fiction Works.