It is the time of so-called Andropov's Cleaning*, in a prison in a small republic of Soviet Union. The former Minster of Light Industry has just returned from being cross-examined. The name of the minister is Buriak. He is waiting for trial in his one-man cell and now he is nervous. His former deputy is also an inmate in the same prison.
"That son of a bitch confessed to having passed bribes to me," the minister mutters to himself. "What an idiot! He sinks himself and pulls me down with him. - Son of a bitch has more than fifty charges of crime and I only have two... now, it will be even harder for me to get out of this..."
The minister nervously paces back and forth. One of the things about prison life that drives him insane is the radio. It is mounted high into the wall and he can not reach it to reduce the volume. He can only ask his guard to either turn it on or off; there is no other option. Sometimes he waits days for the guard to do something with the radio. When it is on, it booms too loud, but when it is off - like it is now - the looming silence is even worse. It makes such an ominous pressure on his ears that Buriak starts rattling his door, asking the guard to let him listen to the radio again.
For several days now, the radio has been tuned to some rural channel. Most of the time transmits only agricultural reports. The radio drones on and on, yelling about crops and weather, centners, hectares, wheat. It has much to say about beets, both red and white. Every time the radio mentions beets, the minister startles. His name 'Buriak' means 'beet' and it seems to him that now the radio is talking about him. Since he was arrested, the mention of his name on the news does not promise anything good and the future frightens him.
Reading is impossible, because one lamp is too dim and the other is too bright. Even if he had a good light, he wouldn't be able to read anyway, because of the radio and the lice. Body lice are the worst thing about his new life as a prisoner. He never saw those little parasites and normally Buriak would have associated lice only with past times of typhus and cholera.
Here in prison he made the terrible discovery that lice are his contemporaries and now live in his clothes. What a terrible fall for a man who used to wear white suits and never lifted anything heavier than the ministerial brief case! Most of the time Buriak occupys himself with catching those little bloodsuckers. Sometimes he can not find any for a day or two and he thinks that he is finally rid of them, but then he finds them anew. His body begins to itch and the thought of the ineradicability of these pests sinks him into a deep depression.
Guards sell repellent lotion, but it doesn't help. They also sell an itch-reducing ointment, but every time Buriak rubs it into his skin, it only transforms the itch into a stinging pain. This presents an infuriating devils choice when intimate body parts are bitten.
A week ago he caught a bad cold and had to spend a week in his cell. He had not seen any of the hateful little creatures for a week. The minister exulted, thinking he had finally succeeded in being rid of the lice. But it was too early for him to celebrate victory. When he got well enough to leave his cell for walks and for interrogations, he soon discovered that the damned animals had returned.
From the very beginning he was irritated that guards did nothing to reduce the lice population, but now it occurs to him that the guards might have releasing them into his cell. "Bastards must have some technology," he thought. "I must talk with the guard." Buriak came to the door and knocked loudly. In less than a minute he sees the mongoloid face of a guard through the narrow feeding slot.
"Dear Comrade. Do you have a couple of minutes to converse man-to-man?" asks the minister. The guard slightly nods his head. "This prison life is torture for me," says Buriak. "Bright lights, loud radio, and lice are frustrating. Just a few months ago, I was in Havana wearing white suit, smoking a cigar, and drinking rum. I was in the company of beautiful women... but life took a sudden turn, so now I am here, with the radio and lice. I now must buy soup, lotions and ointments from you..." The guard was looking at him now, with keen interest.
"You must make some money with selling those items," continues Buriak. "This is good, and I have nothing against these small ways of making a living, especially when you provide prisoners with some services and goods to make our life a bit easier here."
The guard smiles. The fact that the minister himself is speaking to him in such a polite manner pleases the guard. Such high ranking officials usually speak in a commanding tone, even in prison, but this one is different.
Buriak presses on: "I must confess I am a man of business myself and I understand that the road to a successful business is not without a few bends. "Perhaps to increase your sales of lotions, now and then you must destribute free lice as well..."
The smile dissapears from the guards face and he looks puzzled now, as if he does not understand what Buriak is talking about.
"In no way do I want to accuse you of doing this, but your inventory is valuable. It is a main principle of business that if you want to reap, then you have to sow. I mean, if you want to sell lotions and soap, then you got to keep the population of lice alive."
Expression of the guards face has changed to even more understanding, and he obviously feels that the minister sees him as an intelligent man, his equal, and the idea affects him warmly. "No road is without its curve," admits the guard, smiling.
Buriak has leaned to the door, as if he wants to be closer to the guard, who has now done the same from the other side.
"Let's talk straight, for we both are men of business and I believe we can eliminate curves as they not to our advantage," whispers Buriak "I want you to stop distributing lice in here and to make a complete disinfection of my cell. Here's the deal: I pay you a hundred rubbles and you save the little animals for someone else."
"This can be achieved," says the guard, pocketing the hundred rubbles bill that has appeared from the food slot.
"Maybe you can also reduce the volume of the radio?" asks Buriak.
"We can solve this too," says the guard.
"Dear comrade, you are pleasant to deal with," says the minister. "Let me shake your hand, it's been a pleasure to conduct business with you." The two men reach through the slot and shake hands, looking briefly into each other eyes.
Buriak thinks for a while and says, "I can give you another hundred if you can redistribute my share of the bloodsucking little critters to my former deputy. His cell is in the opposite wing."
* In 1982, Yuri Andropov was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As the first former head of the KGB to become General Secretary, he made a desperate attempt to reduce corruption. During the "Andropov Cleanings" prisons in the Soviet Union were full of officials, profiteers and all kinds of black market dealers. Thousands were executed.