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BOOTS AND BATHROBES was written after I tripped on a pile of boots in the hallway and a bathrobe came off the hook and I shouted out, "boots and bathrobes" and in reply came a small voice, so write a story about it.

BOOTS AND BATHROBES

It was before dawn on a cold winter's morning. Aleksei Sergeievich Ulyanov slunk out of the apartment building where he had lived since he returned from the Gulag in Siberia. He headed for downtown Moscow, knowing that the walk was long, his clothing insufficient, and the wind very cold. But he had to go.

Aleksei Sergeievich didn't talk about his past. Nevertheless, the busybodies in his neighborhood knew some things about him. He had worked for MVD, a predecessor of the the KGB, during the war, and had had a good career until something went wrong. The head of the agency, Lavrentij Berija, had taken a dislike to the suave agent with his command of several foreign languages and his seemingly too easy access to American secrets.

Aleksei Sergeievich had found himself accused of being a double agent and, following a show trial meant strictly for internal MVD consumption to discourage other agents from showing too much self-confidence, he was shipped off to Siberia, there to remain for fifteen years. When Aleksei came back, he didn't have job, and got a room in a building near the Leningrad station only through old connections. How he made his living, not even the babushka at the building entrance knew.

Aleksei Sergeievich looked around, feeling a familiar reluctance to leave his neighborhood. He still nursed a sense of comfort that he freely admitted was false, in living so close to the station that could have provided an emergency escape to Finland, should he still have had the wherewithals to cross the border. Gritting his teeth, he shrugged and setout for downtown.

Aleksei Sergeievich walked along Ulitsa Kirova in a south-westerly direction, regularly and out of habit checking that he wasn't followed. When a procession of official cars with sirens blaring came speeding along the reserved center lane in the opposite direction, Aleksei instinctively vanished inside a doorway. He was good at avoiding attention, although he accepted that he was hardly important enough these days to attract much of it. When the coast was clear once more he continued on his way.

Arrived in the vicinity of the Moscow Hotel where he was well known, Aleksei gave it a wide berth. This morning, he didn't want his movements known. The hotel, albeit unwittingly, provided Aleksei with his meagre living, and he believed strongly in the old adage of not letting the left hand know what the right hand was doing. Later that day, Aleksei would again take up his post in the relative warmth of the side entrance of the hotel, where he provided the inevitable service of black-market currency exchange. Even in the uncertainty of Brezhnev's Moscow, the concierge and the bellhops of the hotel could be trusted to direct foreigners who wanted to buy roubles at a realistic rate to Aleksei, and keep quiet about it in return for the customary cut of his profits.

Until the previous fall, Aleksei, a newcomer to the trade, had had to settle for the dangerous openness of Red Square, where few foreigners had the nerve to deal with him, and the militia demanded a full half of his takings for the protection they provided. Yet, returned from Siberia, this had been his only option, and he had counted himself lucky to be able to start up the business on his stash of currency, safely buried over fifteen years earlier in his mother's garden in Novosibirsk. Then, around New Year, the dealer at the Moscow Hotel had inexplicably disappeared, and Aleksei had moved in. Whether this coup had succeeded just because of his phenomenal ability to keep his eyes and ears open, nobody was willing to question.

This particular morning, the same skill was going to serve Aleksei once more. He was an expert at picking up rumors, and rumor had it that that day, the five-year plan had managed to spit out a batch of boots and another of bathrobes all at the same time. The appearance of rubber boots in the cold of January was incongruous, but expected: the five-year plan rolled on unchanged in spite of every delay, and Soviet citizens were used to rushing to their few stores to snap up whatever was available, no matter if it was in season or not. Bathrobes, on the other hand, were hardly seasonal, but all the more rare; not too many years earlier owning one would have placed you under suspicion of belonging to the bourgeoisie.

So boots and bathrobes it was to be. Aleksei Sergeievich carried a backpack concealed under his overcoat, and meant to fill it up to add to the space provided by his two shopping bags, cleverly folded into his side pockets. Once out of the GUM department store, he was going to grab a taxi, something he rarely did, fraught as it was with risks of being reported. But Aleksei had come to trust the power of bribes, and, so far, he had been right on that account.

Stocking up on whatever was available in the stores and reselling it at a profit was one of Aleksei's lines of business. Another was selling the currency he bought off foreigners to Soviet citizens who were allowed to travel, again at a markup, of course. When that avenue didn't use up enough of his dollars and pounds, he would sneak into the Berioshka currency store at the hotel and buy western goods that were available only to foreign guests and the Soviet Nomenklatura, the privileged officials, sports heroes, and others who were issued coupons to use in these shops in return for their continued loyalty to the Communist system. These goods Aleksei would then sell through trusted channels, making sure that no one living anywhere near his own abode ever got word of what he was doing.

Aleksei Sergeievich turned left into Red Square and joined the line outside GUM. With an hour to go to opening, fifty people in front of him was pretty good. The militia officer inspecting the line gave Aleksei a look of recognition and held out a hand; Aleksei pressed a three rouble bill in it. That should see him into the building with no further trouble. When he had ascertained that there were no other familiar faces around, he felt relieved to the point of allowing himself to chat with his nearest neighbors in the line. Soon the hour had passed, and Aleksei could proceed to the stall where he knew the boots would be sold. There he had to stand in line three times: first, to ask for his five pairs of boots, then to pay for them, and, finally, to pick them up. In like manner, he obtained six bathrobes, all of the same color and size, the only ones available, and shouldered his load.

By the time Aleksei left GUM, there were no more boots and bathrobes for sale in central Moscow. Now he faced the most dangerous part of his journey: he had to get rid of his hoard as soon as possible. He had a familiar haunt for this process, as well, and he asked his taxi driver to head there. Soon, the morning shift would leave the Eksportkhleb building in Sivtsev Vrazhek Per. Aleksei had become a familiar sight at the building entrance, and he usually sold all he had in a few minutes.

Dodging the militia and passing out another bribe to building security, Aleksei took up his position, and was soon selling his wares. In the end, he counted his takings. Net profit for the day: forty-five roubles. According to the official exchange rate, this would have been worth almost forty dollars, a small fortune to a Soviet citizen. But Aleksei, working daily with the real, black-market value of the rouble, automatically did a conversion in his head, and risked his life by sighing aloud in English: Another day, another dollar.