REVEILLE SOUNDS at 5:00 a.m. The ringing noise comes faintly into the bunkhouse through the windows caked with rime an inch thick. I’ve been outside since 3:30 breaking the ice on Shukhov’s mop bucket. I’ve asked him why he doesn’t keep it inside where it won’t freeze. “Listen to Mister Ideas,” he said. “Only here four years and already you’re improving everything.”
When the orderlies quarrel over who’ll get the morning hot water, the electric welder from Gang 20 throws a boot at them. “I’ll make you shut up,” he shouts. I pick up his boot and carry it back. “Thanks uhmm,” he says. I’ve only spoken to him, like, two dozen times.
The old camp hand Kuzyomin mutters, “It’s the law of the jungle. The first to go is the guy who licks out the others’ bowls, puts his faith in the infirmary or squeals to the screws.” I write this down because you never know if Kuzyomin will ask later in the day, “Hey, what was my exact wording of that jungle thing?” — and if you don’t remember he tells you what Sea World animal you most look like.
The Captain returns from the latrine and says, “Brace yourselves men, it’s at least 20 below!” I translate this into nutcase for Glyuba the Idiot. I can read Homer in the original Greek and this is what I’m doing.
Before the new bunkhouse can be built, holes must be dug for poles and barbed wire to enclose the work crew. I carry a cloth sack of warm ashes for the men to take turns putting their hands in. They have a) hot coals and b) metal buckets, but I’m carrying a bag of ashes that c) blow everywhere and d) get on everything. “That’s how it’s done here, College Boy. You got a problem?” No, MacGyver, no problem.
The Baptist Alyosha lies in his bunk, reading his Bible written on scraps of potato peel. Last year during rationing he ate Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians then asked me if I’d made a copy. “No,” I said, “you never told me I was supposed to make a copy.” “Do you need to be told everything?” he asked. It’s just like that summer after high school with Grandpa drunk on the couch, but with cholera and beatings.
The assistant boss calls out he’s been given three bread loaves instead of four so someone will have to get the short end. If I volunteer to eat less, he says, it will look good when I fill out my application for other Siberian work camps. I just look at him.
Two hundred men sleep on 50 bug-ridden bunks. The Captain asked me yesterday to figure out how many men that is per bug-ridden bunk. Four, I told him. “Don’t hurry it,” he said. “Take your time, get it right.” Four, I said. He scratched his good eye a long time then went and asked Trubov. Now I don’t know if I’m supposed to do it again or what. I mean, 200 divided by 50, right? Am I missing something?
The Second Tartar sneaks up on me. “I-853! Three days in the can.” The whole gulag watches me being taken off. As I step into the cold the engineer Pryolov asks if I’ve seen the sock that he lost a year before I even got here. I tell him when I return from doing three days in the can on half rations I’ll get right on that. Don’t sass me, he says. How is that sass?
Four men gather around the pole in the yard with the thermometer. Everyone knows if it falls to 42 below the work crews won’t be sent out. “Don’t breathe on it,” one man urgently calls up. “Shit,” says Bobrov from atop the ladder, “Seventeen below. It’s got to drop another goddamn 15 degrees.” This is the guy who when I applied for part-time said I lacked critical thinking skills.
We pass Shukhov trudging through the snow. He smiles grimly through the missing teeth he lost to scurvy at Ust-Izhma. He was so sick he threw up his own underwear. Shukhov rolling on the frozen ground spitting blood was the first thing I saw inside the gulag. I turned around but my mom had already driven away.
The Second Tartar walks me past a length of frost-covered rail into the HQ. Only now does he say he’s letting me off with mopping the floor. “Don’t anger them by going slow,” he hisses, “or you’ll never get ahead.” Ahead where? He’s 70 and he’s still only Second Tartar.
Before I spill the soapy water across the cracked wood I remove my shoes and socks and hide my spoon up my sleeve. If you lose your spoon in the camp you can starve to death. Your salad fork, however, you can go without almost indefinitely.
I look down at my cracked and peeling Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory shoes made from tire strips and lined with my MFA. Last week, Visneski the Pole died and they gave his shoes to Glyuba the Idiot. Glyuba ate one and turned the other into an etui. I know, I know, he’s staff and I’m just some asshole.
A rumor is going around the gulag that the court has ruled unpaid interns are not employees and so are not protected from sexual harassment. So, great, now there’s that to look forward to.
At night in my bunk I learn from a letter smuggled in with the corpse lye that my friend Dmitri will soon marry the farrier’s daughter. They will probably start a family in the spring and starve to death in their unheated loft next winter while I am still in here, going nowhere.
I know the soul-corrosion of hopelessness, but I also know I must not fall prey to foolish ambition and suffer the fate of Melyanov, who dreamed of parlaying his gulag internship into a chain of foodless restaurants. I steal the second letter to the Corinthians from Alyosha and on the back begin a resume. Recent Experience, I write. Cowering.
Under Awards or Citations I cite my high score in Guess How Hard They’ll Kick The Jew. I feel a surge of confidence. I will send a copy to my former music teacher, who may have something for me. As my father says, it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know who’s been sentenced to the salt mines for owning a bootleg copy of Show Boat.
Lights-out is at seven. A minute after I crawl under the horsehide blanket I feel warm Idiot breath on my back. I close my eyes and think of the obscene tattoo around Shukhov’s appendix scar. Except for that online literary startup, this is the worst unpaid job ever.
Andrew Nicholls has over 250 TV episode credits. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is currently writing fiction.