After seeing to it that her daughter and son-in-law were set for the day, old aunt Matriona gathered the jar for sour cream, the bottle for sunflower oil, bags, and nets. She dressed quickly, put wrapped herself with a gray shawl tightly and dashed out of her apartment like a youth.
This wasn’t the time to sit around at home in the warm kitchen and listen to the radio. This was the day when a lot of everything was on shop counters and people were running around gathering supplies.
She was already running late. It was nine A.M. and hoarding was in its peak. From all sides of Matriona’s neighborhood, from the gray and red brick residential buildings, citizens came out with empty bags and nets and rushed to the Bolotnikov Street, as they were mice following the call of the pied piper.
The store, closest to Matriona’s house, was called by the hood people “the gray store,” although the color of that pealing structure was anything but gray. This store long and narrow was packed as if it was weekend. Inside it was noisy and scandalous.
Thrusting through the crowd, Matriona saw at the left-wing of the store there stood a line for meat. All people in line were irritated because they knew that the new meat has already been delivered, but the store bosses set the new meat aside to get rid of the old meat, which had been laying on the counter for a long time…
Matriona couldn’t see the meat through the crowd, because of her lack of height, nor to inch her way to the counter. But she could hear people yelling and cursing because the old meat had the odor and was bonny. But the butcher held his ground firmly: “Who is going to take this meat? You don’t want it and I don’t want it either!”
Swirling around in the crowd, Matriona, finally found the end of the line and wrote down her place on her palm with the ink pencil. But the number was a remote one and hopes for meat were slim. However, now, having cemented her place in line, she could run around in as many as ten places. Matriona stood in line for a short while, to neutralize the possible squawking in the future, and began to shoulder her way to the milk department.
There, the line was waiting for sour cream. Matriona stood for about ten minutes and noticed one woman whose personality was familiar; they stood in many other lines before. Matriona corroborated with the woman to hold her place in line while she’d leave for half an hour and scout. The woman agreed to hold the place and Matriona, elbowing her way out of the Grey store, rushed through the street to the market.
Near the market gates, where people stomped with the homemade goods, already from far, Matriona noticed white crocheted shawls. However, at first, she priced homemade round mats, to decoy her interest. The mats asking price was three rubles, but Matriona was able to lower the price to two rubles. After that, she even chomped her lips but didn’t buy the mats. She was afraid that her daughter in law would scold her saying that she had village taste. But what nice mats they were, and the price was good too.
Her eye again fell to the white crocheted shawls that two fat women held in carefully spread hands. Light and soft, with only one paper thread. For a long time, Matriona dreamed of such beauty, only it never made sense to buy it. Such shawls were dime a dozen, on every market. Saturdays it was even offered near the Underground station. Why would you spend LIVE money on something that was not even a deficit item? Also, her years weren’t the “shawl years.” People would say: “Why do you, old hag, trying to dress fancy? Why do you need this white crocheted beauty? Who are you going to show off to – your own kind- old hags?”
But my, oh my, how good the shawls are…I would just buy it right now. Here’s the money…
As soon as Matriona tried to check the price of one shawl, a police officer appeared and began to disperse the private enterprise sector.
“It’s not allowed, mother. It’s not allowed to sell off hands. Let’s go, let’s go. Get out of here.”
The police officer was a young one, just like Matriona’s grandson. He was somewhat ashamed to look the old ladies in the eyes and babkas weren’t in a hurry to leave. “I am already leaving, son, I am leaving, I am leaving honey…”
Thus, Matriona bought neither the rug nor shawl and so what…As she entered the covered Market building all sorrows flew out of her head. Right at the entryway, the crown vised Matriona from both shoulders, then turned her to the side and propelled her to the right. She could barely yank her hand with the food bag. Then she was firmly pressed to the counter with brooms and wooden toys. She could only exhale “What people? What people…”
Having battled her way to the center of the market, where it was freer, Matriona noticed, on the corner counter, trays with pink meatballs. In the line for meatball, she found out that in the right side of the Market, in pavilions, there were pork liver and legs for meet jelly, in the fish department it was Silver herring and Sea Perch, in the Shoe department downstairs it was domestic slippers “Forget Youth” and rubber boots, and upstairs, in the Fabric department people choked for “Madopolam” for pillowcases.
In the center of the Market, by the meat department, lines were formed utilizing army order, each face to the nape, pressing each with their side to the stone counter, because the butcher in the black beret has already growled - as he chopped the red frozen meat on the massive wooden block. The other two bulky fellows, with difficulty dispersing the crown, were delivering the frozen carcasses on the low cart.
“What a day, what an exciting day!”
First, Matriona bought a dozen meatballs for dinner. Then she took place in three lines: for meat, pork legs and for fish and ran to the “Officer” shop by the hospital 29 where, according to rumors, there canned pork was “cast out.” She got there right in time to get the last three cans. This was so great because canned meat was the very item to send in the village to her sister, where during the entire year until someone would shouter a pig, people didn’t see no “live” meat.
From the “Officer” shop Matriona trotted back to the Grey store, to fill in the woman who held for her the place in the sour cream line. Sour cream hasn’t been delivered yet. Matriona rested a while and got filled in on the news; in the store “Simpheropol” the Yugoslavian boots were “offered.” The line stood from five o’clock in the morning. There were many out of city visitors and scalpers, and one woman as if was ran over. When the doors opened in the morning, the crown ran through the doors. This woman fell down and the entire crowd stumped her over.
“What people, what people!”
…There was the rumor that sour cream has arrived. However, a salesperson didn’t show up. People in line heard that behind the door, in the storage area, someone moves around heavy canisters. People in line became restless – started to knock with the coins on the glass counter – “They pour themselves from the top! What a shame!”
The plump bright-eyed, saleswoman unhurriedly came out, carrying gaudy of jewelry on her fat finger.
“Did you already distributed all the sour cream, or there’s still something for us?” someone offered venomously.
“Oh, as if…” the blue-eyed responded melodiously, putting the things on the counter in order, “do you think I am not a person myself? Or maybe I will pour to myself from the bottom?”
The line got quiet, getting ready money and sourcream cans. They had nothing to retort. Indeed, would she pour for herself from the bottom of the barrel, where the sour cream was more liquidish?
Having gotten the source cream, Matriona again, at full speed trotted to the covered Market. Near the Market gates, the self-made-goods crown already assembled again. But now, Matriona dashed passed it. She had to reinstate herself in three lines: for fish, pork legs and, more importantly, for meat – for what holiday is without meat? Because in respect to meat she had more hopes for the Market than for the Grey store.
She also wanted to get “Madepolam” for pillowcases, but the line to the fabric department that started already from the bottom floor, filled in all the stairs and continued on the second floor through the doors and inside, was composed of the visitors from other cities and villages in plush jackets. Sweaty and stupefied, they pressed with their shoulder bags onto people, totally oblivious to everything as though they weren’t Russian.
“What do you know? They come from who knows where and, there they are, also want Moscow Madapolam!” Matriona sped with disappointment and retreated. She also needed to visit the “Milk” Store where, as it was rumored, the dietetic eggs were unloaded.
Indeed, when Matriona torpedoed herself through the Market crown and kneaded enough the yellow autumn mud to reach the vicinity of the “Milk” store, she saw the huge tail of the line for eggs that went around the building and mixed with the line to the bookstore. She also knew that in this store, in the meat department, there were pork sausages, but she hesitated to reserve the place in this line as well. Her memory wasn’t as good nowadays. She was getting easily confused behind whom and after whom she reserved the line. To remember five-six people, was ok, but more… was difficult. It had happened to her before that she’d lose her place in line and go home all deprived and sworn at.
“Ok, then” she counted in her mind, “Four lines: three at the Market and one in the “Milk” store. The line she reserved in the Gray store she didn’t count, there was, she figured, not enough meat. So out of four lines, she had to remember two people, the one in front and the one behind; seven women and one man.
It was easier to remember men. There’re fewer of them in lines - they don’t like to stand. It’s a well-known thing – he’ll send either wife or mother in law. However, there are still several men in each line and you better make sure, which man is from which line. As far as women and babkas are concerned…its’ a real problem. Certainly, if you put them right next to each other you can notice the difference. One has soft cheeks, lips like wallet, the coat are navy blue; the other one has a shawl of machine weaving, duck nose and black coat with the artificial fur caller. But as soon as they stand in line, they as if all have the same face. Well even, say, take yourself. If, for instance, you place a large mirror on the other side of the market, and then you see yourself in a crowd, you won’t be able to recognize yourself. Babkas just like myself are dime a dozen.
In the line for pork legs, for instance, at first, Matriona wasn’t recognized and people didn’t want to let her back in line. But she was able to remember the conversation transpired antecedent to her departure and reinstate the status quo.
“Well, woman, it was you who said that yesterday, in the underground, a young man was mugged and his American jeans and Chinchilla hat was taken away, and his head was banged against the wall. Remember? Well, I stood two people behind you. I only forgot whether he died or not.”
In the meat line, the situation was better, because one woman was from Yaroslavl, and come to Moscow for meat. She had the pink hat from rabbit fur. No one in Moscow knitted hats in quite the same way.
The line for fish, Matriona almost left on her own and all because of what she heard. One woman whose son-in-law served in the Marines said that all fish: tuna, herring, sea perch, etc… was now radioactive and because of this men are sexually weak.
“Oh, drop it, woman…Those are stupid gossips. They drink too much. That’s why they are weak.”
“I beg you a pardon. In our village, they also drank and how…It used to be that then, in the drunken stupor, they chased their wife with an ax, but there was no weakness in man’s business!”
“Well, whatever you say, woman, but there is this radiation thing. It’s now everywhere. Yesterday in the temple, a young guy from the Atomic institute was eulogized. The wife – no face on her all-white, I swear. The shawl all black lace at fifty-three rubles, not even a spot of blood on her face, not a spot… ”
“To take fish or not to take?” Matriona even sweats at once and unwind the shawl. Maybe she should leave, lose the place in line? However, people are still standing, no one is leaving…Now what, no one can eat fish? What to eat then? … I’ll wash it really well. Nothing will happen, cuz people drink too much indeed, way too much.”
By two o’clock Matriona was barely dragging herself. She carried on three bags heavy like cast iron. From hassle and pressing she felt nauseous, red flakes were dancing in her eyes and the sky itself looked as if it was checkered like the Market roof.
However, she got bough everything she wanted and found out all the new, better than newspapers. Good deal Matriona Ivanovna!