“I’m coming! I’m coming!” the short, thin bald man yelled as he waddled slowly across the dimly lit room to answer the door. He was out of breath when he opened it to find a tall, thin old man bundled in a worn pea coat and matching pea hat in the slowly fading light of dusk.
“Mikey from downstairs,” the bald man said, panting. “Mikhail himself. Why all the banging on, my friend?”
“It’s six o’clock,” Mikhail said stiffly, gesturing at the small table lamp with the dingy shade in the far corner putting out just enough dim yellow light to barely illuminate the small entry parlor where they stood. “It is our turn with the light bulb, Vlad, my friend.”
Vlad looked at his watch, a little panicked. “No, it isn’t,” he said with relief. “It’s, it’s only five. The ‘fall back’, remember they do that here? That was last night.”
“Dammit to hell but you’re right,” Mikhail replied with a soft chuckle as he turned to go. “I have been incorrect, and hasty as well! I am just returning from the public nurse and haven’t yet seen my Katerina. I shall go home and return in one hour.”
“Wait, old friend. No need to go back out in the cold,” said Vlad. “I found salt and pepper packets today. I have made a soup!”
Mikhail smiled. “Yes, I could smell it the moment you opened the door,” he said. “I would enjoy some very much, but I haven’t anything to share in return, I’m afraid.”
“Oh no matter, one day you will I’m sure,” said Vlad.
“What do you mean by that?” Mikhail asked.
“Nothing at all, friend,” Vlad assured him. “Only that our fortunes are always changing.”
“Ah, yes, fortunes,” remarked Mikhail. “We should all be…fortunate.”
The men shared a laugh as the sun continued setting and the room grew darker. A scuffling or rumbling sound, faint but seemingly close, could be heard in an adjacent room.
Mikhail cocked his head. “Have you heard that, Vladimar? That rumbling?” he asked.
“Only the rumbling of my empty stomach,” Vlad said good-naturedly. “But come. Sit down, there, by the lamp. Enjoy its light and warmth while I get our soup.”
“These light bulbs,” Mikhail said, shaking his head. “We come all this way to this land of abundance, become citizens, work all of those years, my God!” he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “And now this.”
“Yes,” Vlad agreed, holding up a finger. “But the government knows what it’s doing.”
“Of course it knows what it’s doing,” Mikhail said in an agitated, scolding tone. “You watch. First it’s the electricity. Sharing bulbs like this…shit. Next it will be the grocery stores and the petrol stations.”
“They are only acting in our best interests ,” said Vlad. “These men, Mikhail. These are smart men!”
“Ptooey,” Mikhail made the noise and gesture of a mock spit. “This is politics!” he said. Then he squinted at Vlad. “That sweater. Doesn’t that belong to Nicholaus, from the third floor, the one his daughter made for him?”
“Ah you have a good eye, my friend, even in this dim light,” answered Vlad. “If only I possessed your youth and vitality. But Nicholaus and I made a trade.”
“What sort of trade?” Mikhail asked suspiciously. “It’s torn. Practically junk.”
“For you perhaps, with your fine pea coat. But for me with nothing but old business shirts? I let him have the lightbulb six hours early,” he said. “Just the other day, in exchange for this sweater. And believe me, he got the better deal.”
Mikhail laughed heartily. “Well you have another thing coming, Vladimar my old friend, if you think I would trade my well-worn coat for a few extra hours of barely enough light to tell an ant from a rat dropping,” he said, watching as Vlad walked off and disappeared through an arched doorway.
The sound of a pan rattling against metal and some light scuffling like stiff brushes on a smooth floor could be heard along with what sounded like snorting and wheezing.
“Is everything alright?” Mikhail shouted. “Is someone in there with you? I hear some kind of a struggle. Are you well, Vladimir?”
“Calm down, Mikhail, please. Everything is fine. This damned sun is setting and pulling all of the wonderful light out of the kitchen. It’s bad enough I should have a pitch black dining room, but the kitchen! And with my lousy eyesight! So here I caught my foot on the edge of the stove and tripped, but was fortunate to have saved the pan as well as myself from falling. It will be just a few minutes now.”
The sound of struggling and sliding grew louder as Vlad stepped back into the soft yellow light carrying a mug. He set it down with a shaking hand and handed Mikhail a small, stained hand towel.
“Vladimar,” said Mikhail, accepting the towel. “I know I’ve heard something there. Are you in some kind of trouble? You appear nervous?”
“Listen to you, Mikhail. You, you are quite the philosopher!” Vlad exclaimed. “Let me get back to the kitchen before you get at that bulb so that I might first fetch my soup without falling down.”
He watched Vlad waddle back to the arched entryway and disappear around the corner. The commotion in the unseen, darkened room turned into faint snarling and growling as though it originated on the far side of a field, or pasture, rather than in the next room. Vlad shouted back, “Okay, I have made it. You should turn off the light and let your bulb cool. I will feel my way back along the wall.”
Mikhail reached under the frayed lampshade and found the switch. He clicked it and reached for the mug with his other hand only to discover that it was empty.
Confused, he turned back to call to Vlad when a light suddenly came on in the kitchen and spilled over into the small dining area where several pairs of yellow eyes burned brightly as they charged into the pitch-black parlor.
The pounding on the door grew louder. “I’m coming!” Vlad shouted as he made his way across the dimly lit room and opened the door. An old woman perhaps ten years younger stood shivering on the dark walkway, the moon rising slowly behind her.
“Hello, Vlad,” the woman said. “Mikhail has not returned from the public nurse and it is our time for the light bulb. Have you seen him?”
“No, Katerina,” Vlad said. “I have not. But I agree that it is your turn indeed. The bulb is in that table lamp in the far corner. Come, sit, and enjoy its warmth and light.”