You there. Iâ€™ll give you five thousand rubles for your chalk.â€
The boy on the sidewalk looked up. It took him a few seconds to focus; he had the dull, slack face of a heroin addict. Tourists walked by without looking at his half-finished drawing of the Kremlin or the cap heâ€™d placed next to it for donations. I saw coins, a few stray bills, far less than the sum Iâ€™d offered him. It was obvious I was foreign, but I didnâ€™t look like a tourist, and why would I be offering him so much money? That is the legacy of the Soviet Union; in Russia, even the junkies are so paranoid that they wonâ€™t snatch money from your hand until they know your angle.
I waved the bills at him. He reached for them but stopped when I held out my other hand. â€œChalk first. Then you can have it.â€
I could see him trying to figure out how I was planning to cheat him, since I wasnâ€™t going to let him cheat me and it would be foolish for him to try and take it away from me in front of so many witnesses. The addiction won out. He pushed the chalk into a loose mound between us. I opened my hand. He snatched at the bills as the wind caught them, catching all but the last before they could fall to the pavement. He hesitated, then grabbed the last ruble note and backed away from me like a wary animal. When he was well out of striking distance, he stood up, shoved the money into a hip pocket and broke into a stride that was just short of running. Heâ€™d forgotten his cap.
I sighed and sat down cross-legged next to the chalk. For all that they were broken and some sticks were little more than pebbles, it was a good selection of colors. I wondered if heâ€™d bought these from an art supply shop, and how long after that heâ€™d starting shooting up. A junkie wouldnâ€™t have wasted money on anything but his next fix.
I picked up a piece of chalk the color of moss and rolled it between my fingers. I tried to remember the last time Iâ€™d drawn or painted for its own sake, and not to mock up a Tarot card or prepare a map or circumscribe a doorway, just to create something that was pretty to look at. I couldnâ€™t remember when that had been, or where. Somewhere warm, filled with the aroma of flat bread cooking on a stove, and that was all that I could dredge up from my memories. There had been someone else present, someone I liked, and I couldnâ€™t even remember now if it was a man or a woman or what they meant to me.
By the time I came fully back to the present I had almost finished a drawing of Saint Basilâ€™s Cathedral, wearing out the last of the chalk on the bright colors and patterns of the onion domes. I had managed to work in the fine detail of the spires. A tourist walking by dropped something; I turned my head to see that the boyâ€™s inverted cap was full of ruble and euro notes.
â€œGiving it all up to become a street artist?â€ said a voice behind me. I jumped to my feet, slapping my hands together to dislodge the chalk dust from my fingers. It was the man who I had come here to meet. I wondered how long he had watched me draw.
â€œKoldun Valentin,â€ I said.
He seemed surprised, but pleased, at the honorific. â€œCome, walk with me, weâ€™ll talk,â€ he said. â€œBring your cap if you like.â€
I left it for the next street artist to come along. Or the next junkie.