from the collection The Ukraine
By Artem Chapeye
Translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins
He even felt jealous of that old lady.
The crowd splashed out of the metro into the Akademmistechko Station. People flooded the stairs from wall to wall. And that old woman was walking in the opposite direction with a vengeful look and squabbling loudly. “This is a mob! People can’t even get through!”
She genuinely viewed herself as separate, as different. As if she wasn’t a part of the mob.
He felt jealous of that lady because it just didn’t work for him like that anymore.
Things had particularly deteriorated ever since he began working as a courier. He spent whole days on public transportation and saw how many people’s faces sported superficial expressions. Every other one of them was of the opinion that they weren’t like the rest. That he or she was separate, and the crowd separate.
That vengeful old woman wasn’t the half of it. She even evoked sympathy. Because at least she felt emotion with respect to others.
Significantly worse were those who walked and just shoved apart the people in front of them in the metro. With a look of indifference. They shoved aside with a hand, as if these weren’t people they were shoving, but branches in a thicket, and you just needed to push your way through them. Right through. He would get an urge to hit those types. Even if that type was a woman.
The advertisement was beaming from the station wall, right into his soul. The girl holding a smartphone in her hand was peering into his eyes personally. And was extending the smartphone to him personally.
He had once wanted an iPhone, true, but he had quickly come to realize that “thinking different” wasn’t in a courier’s budget. He was better suited by an alternate slogan: all the same stuff, just three times cheaper.
He hurried to the office for the new order. He’d have five minutes, and at the same time could read more about this smartphone online. If they let him near the computer.
In the No to Boredom office, everyone was always bored.
The company sold a variety of games. Chess, darts, Twister, poker, Go. Rubik’s Cubes, Mafia, The Farmer, Monopoly. Puzzles, model building kits, Legos.
The newbies, upon first arriving on the job, would try to play the games themselves, but would quickly return to online crosswords or to VKontakte, the local networking site.
“No to Boredom—all the fun stuff,” the pimple-faced girl with the nebulous-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail would say into the phone with a forced smile. She considered herself the boss around here because she had been with the company the longest. She believed a smile could be felt over the phone and insisted all the other sales managers stretch their lips. Among each other, on their cigarette breaks, the managers—all of which were under thirty—called the company No to Whoredom. All of them except the pimple-faced one with the pony tail. She considered this unacceptable. Her monthly pay was three hundred hryvnias higher than the others’.
There were five of them in total, counting the courier. Two sold in Kyiv, two outside Kyiv, and the courier delivered the games throughout the city or to the post office.
The office was located in the basement of a five-story Khrushchev-era building, where water supply and sewage pipes jutted out overhead. In certain spots they were forced to duck. The basement was lined with prefabricated metal shelving, boxes with games on the racks. It was always darkish in there and seemed damp.
“Where’ve you been so long? You still have five orders today,” ponytailed Pimple Face growled in Russian as soon as he entered the basement, ducking under the pipe in the entryway. Even with his small stature, he was forced to bend his head. Customers, who stopped by once in a blue moon for their orders themselves, would sometimes bonk their heads and curse. Good at least that it was a hot water pipe, so it was covered with soft insulation.
On the table lay individually labeled boxes and a list of addresses for the courier. He packed it all into his backpack.
“L-l-let me at l-l-least have a l-l-look at G-g-google maps,” he said, stammering a little from agitation.
“So the paper map isn’t good enough anymore?” grumbled Pimple Face, but then turned to the nearest subordinate. “Serhiy, let him have it for a minute.”
She never addressed the courier by name. No one did. It was “The courier will come by” when on the phone with customers. Or simply “Go,” “Here,” “Go on” when addressing him directly. Mentally, and with a rueful smile, he referred to himself as “the last person at No to Whoredom.”
Serhiy, one of the managers, who was supposed to give the courier a turn at the computer, began to hurriedly downsize and close things out on the monitor, then cursed quietly, and when he finally gave the courier a malicious glance and stood up from behind the desk, little beads of sweat covered his forehead.
The courier, for the sake of being appropriate, opened up Google Maps and entered one of the addresses off the list, then glanced around and opened another tab. He had remembered the model of the smartphone. There it was. It was a good deal—a super-low price. Twenty-seven different colors to choose from. Well, that he’d decide on the spot already. Four gigabytes of built-in memory, a slot for a memory card of up to thirty-two gigabytes, an eight-megapixel camera with an LED flash. And oh, those rounded corners and the ergonomic design!
When later in the metro he was walking past the girl on the poster, who was extending the smartphone out to him, he gave her a smile.
Now he needed to work and save up. And he once more seeped into the crowd.
At the beginning of the day he typically felt amicable toward people. Since he wasn’t an angry type himself. True, he had few friends. Probably because he was small and skinny. To make things worse, when he got agitated, he stammered a little. Just a teeny bit, but back in the day this had made him feel like an outsider among the teenagers. Back in school still. He had been prone to smiling graciously, but the other boys had ingrained in him with their response that this was a sign of weakness. He quickly realized that a man, particularly a man of small stature, needed to pretend he was Rambo.
And he learned to put on a tough act, even though he was made fun of because of the stammering all the same. He never did befriend anyone at the third-rate college he attended. And it was for that reason that it was hard for him to find a girlfriend after the move. The stammering would start just as soon as he tried to get to know someone and began to grow agitated.
And so he moved on, alone. He delivered orders to fight off boredom, all the while bored.
He tried all sorts of ways of combating boredom while on public transit. He took crosswords from the office and finished solving them. This grew old quickly. He tried reading the free newspapers that were given out on the metro. That was instantly boring.
Someone had left a book entitled The Four Million in their basement. He started it, thinking it’d be something along the lines of Think and Grow Rich, about achieving success. It turned out to be a short story collection. The forward explained that the title had to do with the number of people in New York at the time of the book’s writing. Interesting, he thought. There are about four million people in Kyiv right now too. With the ones that are here temporarily, maybe even more. He read the first story. He recognized the plot of the second one, familiar from who knows where, which was entitled “The Gifts of the Magi.” Cry me a river, he thought with a sneer and didn’t read on.
He tried to listen to music, but the end result was just him becoming sick and tired of his favorite songs. Even the best stuff is impossible to listen to for whole days at full blast in an attempt to drown out the din in the metro tunnels. Right after New Year’s he had grown particularly fond of the then popular “In the New Year, off a pine, tear a needle of a pine…” The “pine” went on to rhyme with “whine,” the “needle” with “wheedle.” He would put the song on and listen to it in the metro over and over, until he grew disgusted at that sad joke for the sake of which the whole song had in fact been written: when the never-ending repeat would begin, “My needle’s pining, my needle’s pining, my needle’s pining for you.”
He would just smirk and imagine Pimple Face going down on him as his needle pined. Payback.
The urge for payback would particularly swell at the transfer stations. No matter how many times he had to go there, each time was a shock. Just like no matter how many times you jump into an ice hole, you won’t get used to it.
People were taking the pedestrian walkway from the Golden Gate Station to the Theater Station, clumped tightly into a crowd, trundling from foot to foot like penguins. Elbowing didn’t even make sense, but some elbowed all the same.
In the long passageway from Khreshchatyk Street to Independence Square, everyone moved in a compact torrent, and the rustling of feet called to mind cockroaches.
From the Sports Palace to Lev Tolstoy Station, those who considered themselves the wisest used the curve to bypass the crowd splashing out of the train.
When at one of the stations two trains would pull in simultaneously, it seemed right then like the crowd wouldn’t fit on the platform and would squirt in both directions—under the wheels of the trains.
He even wanted to see it. He fantasized about a train chomping on a porridge of bodies.
And most importantly of all, the metro overflowed not only at peak times. No, it was the entire stupid workday. Who are all these people? Why are they riding around on the metro? Why aren’t they at their jobs? They can’t all be working as couriers.
Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, four million, seven billion. He hears Vasyl Symonenko’s poem in his head: “You know that you’re human. Do you know this, or not? Your smile is unique, your torment is unique, your eyes are yours alone.” My ass.
By the end of the day everyone would strike him as detestable and stupid. Even the conversations overheard in the train car would irritate him.
“The guys and I decided that there’s a serious and urgent need for a ‘dislike’ button on Facebook,” says some dude to a girl in Russian. He announces his conclusion just like this—with GRAVITAS. The verdict is final and isn’t subject to appeal. Dumb ram.
“You need to write to Zuckerberg,” the girl replies with a smile. Blind sheep.
“Overall, I think Facebook should be for close relatives. And VKontakte for the rest.”
In moments like this he didn’t think about the fact that he too said similarly stupid things. He loathed in silence.
When he would be exiting and someone was dawdling in the aisle, he would purposely walk past in such a way so as to bump them with his shoulder, to jostle them a bit. The tension and aggression grew with each ride.
When a person from within the torrent would stop in the underground passageway to buy apples from someone’s grandma or socks from someone’s aunt, or when it proved impossible to melt into the current, he would get the urge to punch a face.
At the Golden Gate Station, he encountered yet another one of those who walked through people like through a portiere. It was a bearded, tall guy of about fifty. The man silently pushed aside the courier with a wide palm and entered the car.
The little courier turned around, braced both his feet against the granite of the platform, and pushed Scruff Face in the shoulder with all his might. The bearded man, despite being twice as heavy, staggered.
“Aren’t you c-clever!” the courier exclaimed, barely having enough time to start stammering.
He prepared himself for the fact that Scruff Face would come back out of the car in a second, and he’d have to continue what he had started. He wouldn’t be able to talk more because of the stammering. But he actually wanted Scruff Face to come out. Whatever. He’d slug him. Get beaten up. Cops. Fuck it all.
But Scruff Face just shook his head and slunk deep into the car, into the dense crowd. Trembling a little, the courier headed off to the passageway between stations.
To calm himself down, he tried imagining people as cells of one organism, of one body. As cells of one City. Or—ha!—of a unified Humankind! Every cell is thrashing and wrestling with others. He imagined this happening in a human body. It felt creepy.
Wherever he was able to, he delivered packages on foot, not via public transit. Especially right now, when he needed to save up for a smartphone as quickly as possible. Because he needed to buy it now. It was early spring already, and in May he was getting kicked out of the dorm. In past years it was possible to even stay through the summer in exchange for a small bribe to the dorm mother—under the guise of helping with renovations. But this time the college dorm was being repurposed as a hotel for soccer fans who were supposed to come from all over Europe. In the face of the EuroCup elements, even the dorm mother was helpless. Higher forces were at play here, so everyone was being kicked out.
He didn’t know what he was going to do then. He’d probably end up having to go to his parents’ place to hoe the gardens, hunt down Colorado beetles, and rake away manure. He didn’t want to think about it right now. It was better to raise some funds as quickly as possible, buy the phone, and then he’d see.
After mapping out the route, it was turning out that he’d need to take a minibus for a few minutes and then get out again. From the cold of the early spring outside to the dizzying heat inside. To cram himself, dressed in warm clothing, along with his backpack into an already jam-packed can, then climb out sweaty and run onward just the same. Because he never makes it in time. No, it was better to spend twenty minutes walking at a fast pace, with his jacket unbuttoned to not sweat.
On top of it, it’s a few hryvnias each time.
When he was taking the job, the announcement had promised he would be reimbursed transportation costs. Really. At the beginning of the month, Pimple Face, as a sign of exceptional trust, issued him ninety-five hryvnias with a receipt.
“That’s for a metro card.”
“And the m-m-marshrutkas, the t-t-trolleybuses?”
“Sorry, friend! We can’t foresee all your travel needs, can we? You decide for yourself when to catch a ride and when to walk.”
He was obliged to agree. Or what? Stay jobless because of it? On the first day, when he returned to his dorm, his legs were droning so much that he could hear it with his ears. Then he got used to it. And stuck to his job: For a few months before that he had lived off only handouts and handovers from his parents, and he didn’t want that anymore.
And a job, he knew, could be even worse. One time while job hunting he fell for an ad:
Director’s Assistant needed!
Education level HS, BA/BS, MA/MS.
No experience necessary.
The flyer was of an acid green color. He called the listed cell number. They scheduled him an appointment for three days later—and not just anywhere, but at 2 Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kyiv’s central square. That caught his eye: It was obviously a serious establishment if the office was in that kind of location.
The address turned out to be for the Trade Unions Building. And the man he had called turned out to be a squat forty-year-old in black slacks, a leather jacket, and a baseball cap. The guy led him into a rent-by-the-hour assembly hall, and there were about a hundred of them gathered there: the men hiring—or, more often than not, the women hiring—and, around each of them, from one to a handful of applicants for the position of director’s assistant.
First a middle-aged woman in a pink pantsuit walked out on the stage and began talking about the International Company that was growing quickly and about how, working at this International Company for yourself, you could earn more in a few hours a day than working full-time as an office slave. But, of course, not all right away. And while climbing the ladder of Success, you could in the meantime, by buying the Company’s cosmetic products yourself, even become prettier and healthier.
“And now…” the woman in the pink suit said, then paused and clapped her hands, “our EMPLOYEES!”
Energetic music blared from the speakers. The people hiring, who were sitting scattered around the hall, began to clap in time. A rosary of coworkers snaked onto the stage.
His skin began to crawl. They reminded him of sectarians.
While on stage a big man was describing how he had resigned from the police force and was now earning more by simply making calls from home to his former colleagues, he slipped out of the hall. He took advantage of the fact that the squat little man who had escorted him there had gotten distracted by a conversation with a coworker.
And so now, as he walked with a full backpack from one point on his route to another, the courier thought, It’s better like this.
Out of the cold wind of the early spring he was walking into heated apartments. Sometimes he would have to wait fully dressed rather long, while the customer inspected the order. Sweat dripped down the length of his spine under his sweater and jacket, and it made his back itch. His armpits were sticky. He would shrug his shoulders if the customer noticed the scuffs on the packaging or some other defect. He would smile and apologize gently and explain when the customer criticized him for the delay. He needed tips. No to Whoredom counted on the fact that the courier would partly support himself off tips, and that’s why they set such a low wage. And so he stood fully dressed, patient, and then would go out wet from sweat into the biting wind and trek on.
None of the customers ever asked his name. Naturally.
And now he had finally saved up the money. In the middle of the workday, in between stops on his route, he walked into a store and bought his smartphone. From the twenty-seven available colors, he picked an olive-green case. He took the phone out of the box immediately and inserted the SIM card. Right then and there he ordered a unique ringtone via text for ten hryvnias, and it was none other than “In the New Year, my needle’s pining, my needle’s pining for you.” Any way you sliced it, it was a beautiful song.
He walked all day with his hand in his pocket, clutching the phone’s ergonomic design. A few times, while walking on foot from point A to point B, he pulled out the phone and played on the go, until almost ending up one time under a silver Jeep that was driving fast on the sidewalk.
And then he plunged into the metro once more. It was 6 p.m., and he was about to head back to the dorm. He had just passed from Independence Square onto Khreshchatyk Street. But his new smartphone rang.
It was Pimple Face.
“Come to the office for a new batch. There’s a lot of orders today.”
And she hung up.
He ended up having to cross back onto the square from Khreshchatyk via the long passageway. He walked through the crowd-packed concrete pipe. The rustling of thousands of steps called to mind cockroaches. He couldn’t expel this association from his mind. At the end of the tunnel, a blind man played the accordion to his left, while to his right women sold clothes off hangers that they held in their hands. Other women created a traffic jam by stopping and examining their goods.
He didn’t even try to bypass anyone, just walked with the current. He didn’t put his new smartphone in his pocket: He went on squeezing it in his hand, seeking support from it, straining with all his might to feel unique.
Photo cover by Michaela Kostkova