Volgograd

You there. I’ll give you five thou­sand rubles for your chalk.”

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 he’d placed next to it for dona­tions. I saw coins, a few stray bills, far less than the sum I’d offered him. It was obvi­ous I was for­eign, but I didn’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 won’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. “Chalk first. Then you can have it.”

I could see him try­ing to fig­ure out how I was plan­ning to cheat him, since I wasn’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. He’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 he’d bought these from an art sup­ply shop, and how long after that he’d start­ing shoot­ing up. A junkie wouldn’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 I’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 couldn’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 couldn’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 Basil’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 boy’s invert­ed cap was full of ruble and euro notes.

“Giving it all up to become a street artist?” 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.

“Koldun Valentin,” I said.

He seemed sur­prised, but pleased, at the hon­orif­ic. “Come, walk with me, we’ll talk,” he said. “Bring your cap if you like.”

I left it for the next street artist to come along. Or the next junkie.

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