A weak container

by Mikhail Zoshchenko, 1932
from Scenes from the Bathhouse: And Other Stories of Communist Russia

( Photo by Gantenbein )

Nowadays, bribes aren’t taken. Formerly, it was impossible to move a step without either giving or taking.
But nowadays human nature has changed very much for the better.
Bribes really are not taken.
Lately, we’ve been dispatching goods from the freight station.
There we are, standing at the station, and this is the kind of picture we see, in the spirit of Raphael:
The office for receiving freight. A line, naturally. Decimal metric scales. The weigher behind them. The weigher, an employee of the highest and most noble type, spouts numbers rapidly, takes notes, applies the weights, pastes labels, and issues explanations.
Only his friendly, likeable voice is audible.
“Forty. A hundred and twenty. Fifty. Take it away. Take this. Step aside… Don’t stand there, idiot, stand on this side.”
Such a pleasant picture of labor and rapid tempos.
Only suddenly we notice that, for all the beauty of his work, the weigher is still very demanding about the rules. He watches the interests of hhis fellow citizens and the state very closely. Not to everyone, but to every third or fourth person, he refuses to accept their freight. The container is a bit loose – he won’t take it. One has only to look and one sympathizes.
Those with the loose container, of course, they hem and haw and feel badly.
The weigher says: “Instead of feeling badly, reinforce your container. There’s a man loafing somewhere aroundhere with some nails. Let him reinforce it for you. Let him knock a couple of nails through somewhere or other and let him tie some wire around it. And then come on up here at the head of the line – I’ll take it.”
Really, truly, a man is standing behind the office. In his hands he holds nails and a hammer. He works by the sweat of his brow and reinforces weak containers for whoever wishes. And those who are refused, they look at him with a prayer and offer their friendship and money for doing this.
But then comes the turn of a certain citizen. He’s a certain blond type, in glasses. He’s not an intellectual, just nearsighted. It seems he has trachoma in his eyes. Then he puts on his glasses, so it was even worse to look at him. May be, though, he works at the optics plant and they issue glasses there for free.
Then he puts his six boxes on the decimal metric scales.
“Weak container. Won’t go. Take it back.”
The one with the glasses, as soon as he hears these words, his heart drops. But before his heart drops, he pounces on the weigher, so he was almost close enough to brush his teeth.
The one in the glasses yells: “What are you doing to me anyway! I,” he says, “won’t take my boxes away. I,” he says, “take state boxes from the optics plant. Where am I to poke around with my boxes? Where will I find transportation? And from where will I get a hundred rubles to take them back? Answer, or I’ll make a cutlet out of you!”
The weigher says: “How should I know?” And at the same time, makes a gesture with his hand at his side.
The other one, because of his nearsightedness and because his lenses had gotten a bit misty, takes this gesture for something else. He flushes, remembers something long forgotten, fishes in his pocket, and digs out five rubles’ worth of money in dingle ruble notes. And he wants to give them to the weigher.
Then the weigher turns purple at the sight of this money.
He yells: “Is this how you get it? A bribe you want to give me, you four-eyed horse?”
Of course, the one in glasses grasps right away to complete shamefulness of his position.
“No,” he says, “I just pulled out the money for this reason: I wanted you to hold it while I took the boxes off the scales.”
He gets really mixed up, tries some out-and-out nonsense, is about to excuse himself, and it seems even consents that they should abuse him verbally.
The weigher says: “For shame! Bribes are not taken here. Take your six boxes off the scales – they literally chill my soul. But seeing as they’re state boxes, take them to that there worker and he’ll reinforce your weak containers. And as far as the money is concerned, you can thank your lucky stars I don’t have time to tangle with you.”
Nevertheless, he calls over still another employee and says to him in the tone of a man who has just undergone a grave insult: “Do you know, just now somebody wanted to give me a bribe. Remember such nonsense? I’m sorry I was in a hurry and didn’t take the money to show. Now, it’s hard to prove.”
The other employee answers: “Yes, it’s too bad. You should have done it to advance history. Let them not think our blossoms are out for pollinating as they were in the old days.”
The one in the glasses, who had quite crumbled away, drags off with his boxes. They are reinforced for him, brought back in a Christian manner, and once again are being weighed on the scales.
Just then it begins to dawn on me that I also have a weak container.
And since it isn’t yet my turn in line, I approach the worker and ask him in any case to reinforce my dubious container. He asks me for eight rubles.
I say: “You’re kidding. Eight rubles,” I say, “for three nails!”
He says to me in an intimate tone: “It’s true, I’d do it for you for three, but,” he says, “put yourself in my delicate position – I have to share up with this crocodile.”
Now I’m beginning to grasp the whole mechanism.
“In other words,” I say, “you share up with the weigher?”
Now he gets a little embarrassed that he let the cat out of the bag, babbles a lot of nonsense and non sequiturs, mutters about his small salary and the high cost of living, gives me a big discount, and sets to work.
Then comes my turn in line.
Admiring the sturdy container, I put my box on the scales.
The weigher says: “Container a bit weak. Won’t go.”
I say: ‘What do you mean? I just now had it reinforced. That guy over there with the tongs reinforced it.”
The weigher answered: “Ah, pardon me, pardon me! I’m sorry. Now your container is sturdy, but it was weak. That’s eternally clear. Pardon me means pardon me.”
He takes my box and writes the invoice.
I read the invoice, and there it says: “Weak container.”
“What the hell,” I say, “are you gizmoes up to? With an invoice like that,” I say, “they’ll undoubtedly tear the whole package apart along the way and pick it clean. And with that invoice, I can’t collect the insurance. Now,” I say, “I’m wise to this whole gizmo combination.”
The weigher says: “Pardon me means pardon me, I’m sorry.”
He crosses out the invoice – and I go home, meditating along the way on the complex psychic organization of my fellow citizens, on the reconstruction of character, on slyness, and on that reluctance with which my fellow citizens fulfill their appointed tasks.
Pardon me means pardon me.

( Photo by VAZel )


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