I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
At the river port there were six freight cars carrying sacks of salt, at a hundred rubles per car for unloading them. If you worked by yourself, the hundred rubles were all yours; if you split the work, you got fifty. The fact was, two workers couldn’t handle an entire car loaded with sacks of salt weighing 70 kilos each. Right there, next to the train, we tried to lift one, which was twice as heavy because of the humidity. It was like lifting a corpse: it dropped out of our hands. Downhearted, I climbed into the train and studied the slow movement of the derrick in the shipyard and the seagulls whirling over the water. I must have been there, absorbed, for less than a minute, when someone said, “Hey, boys! Are you here to help me?”
Frank remained standing next to the car and leaned inside to see who was calling us. I turned around. At the back, in the shadows, I saw a man with several days’ growth of beard lying on the sacks. It looked as if he’d spent the night. I don’t know what Frank thought, but I realized that the man hadn’t been able to take another step after an exhausting shift yesterday afternoon, and had gone to sleep right there. He seemed almost chained to the car and the sacks of salt because of a debt or because of alcohol, and he was “working it off” by himself. A hundred rubles to enjoy while lying in bed with pulverized bones. Fifty rubles for each of us. We changed our minds and didn’t wait to be assigned by the forewoman, a young woman in rubber boots who, when she saw us leave, said sarcastically, “What happened, boys, you’re scared?”
We answered, “We’re going to wait for some friends who said they were coming but don’t know their way around. We’ll be right back.”
“Okay, but hurry up, because the soldiers might not leave any work for you.”
“It’s a hundred rubles a car?”
“A hundred a car. Don’t be late.”
With those hundred rubles we went for an entire week to the beach and drank lots of champagne with the women down the hall. In other words, the money never touched our hands. When you’re stretched out in bed, philosophizing, it’s a pleasure to spend money.
While we collected empty bottles and recovered from the shock of the salt bags, we thought about other kinds of work to do that summer. It would be the first summer we spent working, but we had no choice because all our vacation money was gone. July had just begun and we had to make it to September on something besides black bread with margarine and tea.
So we decided to go to a bread factory, which would not only be easy work, but we would also have food, at least all the bread we wanted. In time we began to bring home eggs, butter, jam and sweets.
The first thing we did was take the bread to the delivery trucks. It was an exhausting and badly paid job. I don’t remember exactly, but each ton paid 24 kopeks, more or less. At the end of the day we had moved so many tons that if someone had told me how many before-hand, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was bread, but a ton of bread weighs just as much as a ton of anything else.
We were supposed to move wheelbarrows that were filled, absolutely packed, with hot bread, and we had to be careful when we tipped them over not to catch our fingers since the wheelbarrows were made of iron and were heavy on their own. Once they were empty, we pushed them inside the factory and got more.
The wooden trays were falling apart from use, and their nails scratched our work gloves. And then to top it off, they didn’t slide easily onto the racks in the trucks. There were four doors with six racks, one on top of the other, and on each rack, four trays of bread with twelve long loaves weighing a kilo each.
At the end of the first day I couldn’t stand on my feet. It had been eight hours and not a moment had gone by when there wasn’t a truck waiting at the loading dock. They came into the loading area of the factory one after the other, made a short stop to be weighed and then, a moment later, were next to us.
When the drivers saw us at first, they stared at us, amazed, saying, “These boys aren’t Russian.” The next time they approached us and told us the same thing, “Boys, you’re not Russian, eh? Right?” They didn’t ask if we were foreigners. We simply weren’t Russian: they took us for Uzbeks, Turkomans, or something like that. We weren’t Russian.
When I got home after the first day, I decided never to go back. As it turned out, we would work there for a month, but that first night I was so tired that I decided to keep selling empty bottles or borrow some money. The following morning Frank convinced me to go back and two days later my body had gotten used to it. We loaded the trucks quickly and had time to smoke and take little breaks.
A week later, some Russians our age who were also students told us about a job in another section of the same bread factory, an easier and better-paid job: slicing up old bread and sweet rolls that had been returned and then putting them into the oven to dry. This dry bread was packaged as biscuits or bread rations, or was ground into flour for kvass.
We had already heard about this job, but didn’t have any hopes because so many others wanted to work there as well. The boss, a woman, had been asking the students about it for a month, but they were leaving and recommended us for the position. The students suited the boss, but the boss didn’t suit them. They didn’t tell us anything, didn’t enter into any details. They just said, “You’ll have it easier there. Maybe you’ll like it. We’re leaving.”
On our first night (we always worked at night) there were three of us: me, Frank, and the woman, who worked like a man. We cut up bread the entire shift and arranged the slices at a steadily increasing speed. We wanted to please the woman who, when she saw us working so hard, told us in a friendly way, “Good work, boys, that’s good.” She headed off with a cart toward the oven, which was a kind of large room with two doors. The loaded carts went in the front door and, as the work progressed, were taken out the back. They were inside only long enough for us to fill another cart, but because of the intense heat released from the oven walls, the slices became as hard as rocks. As we began moving the carts in the oven, we were drenched in sweat after struggling to push the hot carts out.
At midnight we went to eat in the factory cafeteria. We bought a liter of milk for the two of us and ate a whole loaf of hot bread that we took from a wheelbarrow while passing through the truck loading area.
After two days of working on the new job, the grace period had expired, and we wanted to find out what the boss was writing into the work reports. How many tons of bread had we sliced and put in the oven?
At six in the morning, as we were getting dressed to leave, we discovered, sprawled on top of a few bags behind the lockers, the boss’s husband. The boss had led us to believe that he was sick at home, or something like that. Later in her office, our suspicions raised, we looked closely at her report and saw the name of the muzhik’s husband, her name, and—underneath—our innocent names.
She was listing the names of four workers when, in fact, only three had been working! The woman didn’t even raise her head as we glanced down at her report, and we left without saying anything. Her husband was an alcoholic and she was solving her problem. We minded our own business and earned more money there than anywhere else. Why should we care?
After we saw him that first day, the man emerged from the shadows, and on subsequent days we discovered him on different parts of the floor, asleep on empty bags, at the foot of a machine, or next to the ceiling on top of a pile of bags, his rounded belly sticking up like one more bag.
Once he woke up at midnight and put his Samson-like strength on display. The carts flew and we almost ran out of bread because we doubled our rate compared to the days he was sleeping. It was a game, a way of amusing himself; he couldn’t come out of hiding because it would immediately be noticed that we never did what four could have done.
The day we found him behind the lockers, his wife hadn’t looked at us when we left out of fear. She didn’t know what to expect from foreigners. But since we didn’t say anything and let her play her little game, she took a liking to us. She began to bring us eggs from the pastry section which, together with some potatoes, we cooked in a corner of the oven, and we were able to save the money that we had been spending on food. She also brought us fresh milk in a bowl, and marmalade and sweets. Sometimes as we ate, her husband woke up and watched us. He patted our backs and said, “Go on and eat, boys. Have some milk. You’re lucky you can drink it. As for me, it makes me sick. You’re lucky, you can drink it.”
We worked there until the beginning of August, then left because we got tired and had heard about another place where the pay was better. It took us a week to spend our money. We went to the river to swim, just a couple more workers lying on the hot sand after a month of work.
Soviet industrial productivity went into a serious decline while we were relaxing in the sun. Students work hard all year long, so in order not to fall behind, we decided to bear down for the twenty days left until September, but we changed locations. From the heat of the bakery ovens we went to a freezer complex on the outskirts of the city where we moved frozen beef carcasses.
To enter the big freezers, we had to wear—in the middle of August—quilted pants and jackets, caps with ears, gloves, and felt boots with rubber galoshes to keep the damp out.
From the changing room we crossed a patio and walked up a ramp to the freezer building. It had four floors and on each floor there were six freezers measuring 10 by 30 meters, as wide as a basketball court, and filled to the rafters. Butter, fish, bacon, and New Zealand lamb were also stored there, as well as live rats that must have been from Siberia because the thermometer was always at -20°C.
The first thing we had to do was clean off the ice that covered the walls and floor of one of the freezers. (In order to open the freezer, we had to use a pickax to break through a thick layer of ice through which we could see a door lock and a latch.)
Once inside, the foreman told us, “I’m leaving, and I’m locking you in here so you don’t steal anything. When you leave I’m not going to check you, but don’t hide anything under your coats. I trust you. What time should I come back and open the door for your break? It’s nine o’clock. At noon? Agreed.”
Two students would be working with us, young Russians who made an agreement with the foreman for 120 rubles for cleaning out the freezers, in addition to the work we would later do unloading some refrigerated trucks.
We started hacking away at the slabs of ice. My pickax was heavy, and its blade was soldered at the tip. I used it to pry up the ice from beneath. It took a lot of hard work to break up the thick layers; because of that, Frank and I took turns. The blade on his pickax was sharp and he could break the ice easily. First he worked on a square meter and I scraped it. After we had broken up a good-sized piece, we shoveled it into small piles. Our brothers-in-arms were removing the frost from the ceiling with a broom, and as they worked, their heads and shoulders were covered with a fine snow.
We worked a long time without becoming tired. The cold produced a kind of euphoria and we kept going, happy, strong, and young; chips of ice flew and snow fell from the ceiling.
We didn’t take any breaks. It wouldn’t have made any sense, because you could freeze in an instant. When we felt exhausted, thought that maybe the three hours were up and the guy had forgotten about us. We would freeze here if we had to stop because of fatigue. I asked our partners if they were tired, and we were about to pound on the door with the pickaxes so that someone would hear us, when the door opened and the foreman appeared. Only an hour and forty minutes had gone by, but he came to let us out because he knew that three hours would be too much for us the first time.
Still dressed for a polar expedition, we went outside and were surprised that it was still summer. We had made an hour-and-a-half long trip into winter, and now we could warm our bones in the sun to our heart’s content.
The Russian students, who had worked there a long time and knew the place, went to get some ice cream at a plant in the same complex. In the afternoon we finished chipping away the ice and left the freezer clean and ready to fill with meat the next day.
When we got there the next morning, the students said that the foreman wasn’t satisfied with our work and that he would pay us 70 or 80 rubles for everything. We went to scream at him in his office but, since he was used to screaming at his stevedores, he “outscreamed” us, as they say in Russian. At the top of his lungs he told us that our work wasn’t any good and he wouldn’t pay for a lousy job. Then I tried once more to get the better of him and said, “Don’t scream at us because I can scream, too,” and with so much screaming, the other stevedores came over and screamed at him, saying “You want to screw these boys!” and to us “Don’t let yourselves be screwed, boys! No one else will do that job and the price is 150 rubles.”
Our eyes were opened because in order to close a work report you had to be smart, and know where things could be added, and where they could be subtracted. That same day we carried pork sections from a refrigerated truck to a freezer. Everything was accounted for: how much the meat cost, how much the wheelbarrows cost, how many meters it was from the truck to the wheelbarrows we used to carry the meat, how far we had to roll the fully loaded wheelbarrows to weigh them on the scale, then how many meters it was to the elevator, then how many from the elevator to the freezer and, while piling the meat into a ten-by-ten-meter square on the floor, how much we had to walk.
Also, we knew that since pork cost less than beef, they wouldn’t pay us as much for this job.There were days when we made 40 or 50 rubles, even though we didn’t leave the freezer until night. (On Fridays we were left numb by the amounts that the Vasias and Vanias on the payroll happily received.)
They were the happiest and strongest people in the world, and good drinkers, too: right in the middle of unloading, they would take a bottle out from their breast pocket and, sitting with their legs open and head back, take a deep swig “to warm up .” When we covered the night shift, we lit a fire beneath a lean-to or at the back of the work floor, put three chickens and the hind leg of a pig in a bucket of water with salt, and prepared a midnight feast. By this time we were all friends; we had been assigned to carry half carcasses of beef which any one of the Russians could sling over his shoulder, but which Frank and I had to carry between the two of us. We earned plenty of money and savored the meat with nothing but salt and pepper, next to a fire that lit up our faces.
I began to use a little ax that I carried on me, stitched to the inside of my coat like a Raskolnikov-butcher. I killed the moneylender and Lizaveta every day, and we continued the feast at home with our friends. My suitcase, which we slipped secretly through the fence, was packed with everything: big mounds of butter, cheese, bacon, everything.
One day at the end of August, when the rains began and the evenings were turning cold, Frank was handing me the suitcase, which was full of meat, and I saw the outline of a man at the end of the sidewalk. “That’s it,” I said. “Back to Cuba.” We wouldn’t be able to deny the charge of robbery because I had the suitcase in my hand and the man must have seen everything.
There wasn’t a soul on the entire street and I wasn’t going to let myself be caught by only one witness. I thought about throwing the suitcase to the grass and running off, but then I noticed that the man wasn’t walking any faster and kept a steady pace. When he reached me he spoke to me in a cheerful voice while clapping my shoulder:
“Stealing, boys? Everybody takes his little bit. That’s okay … Our country is big. To each his little bit. Why not? Just be careful. Your little bit. Not any more.”
That’s how I was at work all summer. I can’t remember now what I spent the money on. I can only say I had the chance to earn it through hard work, and that I was at the height of my strength and in the best of spirits while doing it.
—Nunca antes habías visto el rojo, 1996.
Translated by Margaret Carson.
Margaret Carson is a translator living in New York City. Her translation of The Magic Lanternby the 19th-century Mexican novelist Jose Tomas de Cuellar has just been published by Oxford University Press.
—Manuel Prieto was born in Havana, Cuba in 1962. In 1986 he received an engineering degree in Novosibirsk, the largest city in western Siberia. He remained in the Soviet Union for 12 years, where, among other things, he translated the work of Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova into Spanish, was an engineer in a Siberian telephone plant and worked in the import-export field. He is also the author of the novel Encyclopedia of Living in Russia and a short story collection. Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (Grove Press, 2000) is his first book to be published in English. He lives in Mexico City with his wife, Yelena and daughter Alicia, where he is a professor of Russian history at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económic.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee