A Tile Tale

Just for fun, here’s a short story with a moral I wrote. Enjoy!

A Tile Tale

Once upon a time there was a young man named Alexei. He had a problem. He couldn’t find a job.

The year was 1994, and this was hardly surprising in the post-Soviet Union Russia. It was very difficult for any young person to find a job, let alone a young man who’d dropped out of the university.

Fortunately for Alexei, many Americans were moving to town for various reasons. But they all needed help learning to fix up their flats and learn where to buy bread. Since Alexei spoke reasonably good English, he was able to hire himself to these Americans. The best part was they paid in dollars.

One find day, three American women hired Alexei to tile their bathroom. Actually, it was both bathrooms. The better flats had two bathrooms: a tiny room that just held the toilet, and a larger room with a sink and bathtub. This was a rather efficient arrangement for flats designed to house four or more people.

In any case, Alexei was thrilled to get the job and went home to tell his wife Elena all about it. She looked at him and said, “Have you ever done tile before? Do you know how to mix cement?”

“ No problem,” he said. “Surely one of my friends knows how to do it.”

“I can help you.”

Alexei looked at his fine-boned petit wife and laughed. He thought of the first time he saw her, the day he fell in love with her. She was competing in a gymnastics competition. Not the kind where muscular girls run and vault, flipping their bodies in the air. No, his Elena competed performing graceful routines with a ribbon and a ball. There was no way she knew anything about construction.

“No, Elena. I’ll find someone else.”

“OK,” she said with a shrug. “If you need me, you know where to find me.”

Alexei thought for a while, then went to see his buddy Dima. After he’d explained the situation, Dima said, “See, look, my dad just did tile in our kitchen. I helped him. I know all about it.”

“Great,” says Alexei. “What do I do first?”

“First you have to scrub all the whitewash off the walls. The tile won’t stick to whitewash.”

Alexei nodded. He hadn’t thought of that. So he spent the next two days scrubbing whitewash off the walls.

Then Alexei helped him find a place to buy tile and cement. The sticking point was sand. It seemed you could only buy sand by the truckload, and Alexei certainly didn’t need that much sand.

So he did what every resourceful Russian would do. He picked up a bucket and handed another to one of the American women. Then they went wandering around the neighborhood, hoping to see a pile of sand in someone’s yard, leftovers they could have.

They hit pay dirt a few blocks away. A large apartment building was going up, and in front of the construction site was a huge mound of high quality sand. Alexei asked the man standing there if he could take some sand.

The man looked at them, and at their buckets, and shrugged. “Sure, take all you want.” It was unclear if the man owned the sand, or if he worked there, or if he was simply standing around smoking a cigarette, but Alexei took his word as good enough permission. They quickly filled their buckets and returned to the flat.

On the way, they discussed the sand situation and decided they would need more, and would probably have to make another trip. When they returned to the flat, Jennifer, one of the women who lived there had come home, and Dima had dropped by to see if Alexei needed any help.

“As a matter of fact,” said Alexei, “we need more sand.” He explained how to find the building site and the huge mound of sand. Dima was willing to go, as was Jennifer. The two of them each took two buckets, and set out.

Thirty minutes later, they returned. “We couldn’t find the building site you guys were talking about, and we didn’t see any big mound of sand. But we didn’t want to disappoint you, so we brought you something else.”

“What?” asked Alexei.

They proudly pointed to four buckets of dirt.

“Oy!” said Alexei. He was counting on Dima to be his tile and cement expert. If Dima thought you could substitute dirt for sand, he clearly didn’t have a clue.

Alexei went home and told his wife all about it.

“I can help you,” she said.

“Lena, when we got married, you couldn’t even make tea. What makes you think you can mix cement?”

“Fine. But if need help, you know where to find me.”

Alexei thought some more and went to see his buddy Igor.

“It’s very easy,” said Igor. “Take a stakan, and measure four stakans of sand.” Everyone in the Soviet Union had the same 250-milliliter drinking glass, so it was the standard measure for everything. “Then add a stakan of cement. Mix it with enough water to make the consistency of kasha.” Everyone ate kasha, or porridge, nearly every day.

“Great,” says Alexei. “I’ve been eating kasha all my life.”

The next day he got to work. Four stakans of sand, one of cement, mixed with water. “Looks like how I like my kasha,” he said. He put some cement on a tile and stuck it on the wall. It fell off.

He tried putting more cement on it. Still fell off. Maybe the kasha is too thing. He tinkered with the cement a few times, but it just didn’t seem right. Then the phone rang.

“Hi, Alexei,” said Elena. “How’s it going?”

“Not too well. The tile won’t stick to the wall.”

“I’m coming over.” Before Alexei could tell her not to, she’d already hung up the phone.

A few minutes later, Elena arrived. She stuck her finger in the cement to get a feel for the consistency. Shaking her head, she waved her arms at Alexei. “Just stand back,” she said.

She spent a few minutes adding more cement and mixing it thoroughly. Then she picked up a trowel and with one motion, covered the back of a tile with cement. Handing it to Alexei, she motioned for him to put it on the wall.

He put it into place. It stuck. Elena smiled, then applied cement to another tile. That one also stuck. Quickly they got into a rhythm, Elena putting cement on the tile, Alexei placing them on the wall.

Finally Alexei could stand it no longer. “Elena, where did you learn about cement?”

“Alexei,” she responded, “I am a dentist. I know all about cement.”

After a moment of stunned silence, everyone had to agree she had a point. Dentists, after all, do use cement to apply crowns to teeth. But whether that is the same cement used for tile is another question. Maybe it is in Russia, who knows.

Be that as it may, Alexei learned an important lesson that day. Don’t be too quick to turn your nose up at help when it is offered. Your best help may come from the least likely person.

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