flat roofs; tiny squares with monuments to the heroes of thencivil war in green-tarnished bronze trousers.nProvincial towns like these can easily depress you, if younhappen to wind up in one when you are not in the rightnmood. But to me, after cold and wet Moscow, these whitenstucco houses, the small dusty squares, even the 30-yearoldnbuses straining to crawl up the humpbacked streetsnseemed very nice and cheerful.nThe museum was housed in an imposing squat building,nthe former summer residence—as the plaque at the entranceninformed—of the famous philanthropist Arkhideev,nwhose collection furnished its basis.nI bought a ticket and went inside.nA room of ancient art—Roman portraits on pedestalsnstared at me, the statue of Trajan in the corner, thenenormous foot of Constantine against the wall.nRight after the ancient art came the room of SocialistnRealism—Lenin at the Second Congress, Lenin at thenThird Congress, Karl Marx with his four daughters. I passednthrough it without stopping and found myself in a small,nround hall of old European paintings.nAnd here I saw him again. That bum who had beennpainting yesterday among the ruins. In the same ridiculousnponcho and clumsy boots, towering a head above everyone,nhe walked around the hall. Sometimes, setting his spindlenlegs apart, he would stoop very close to a painting, then,ntaking a few steps back and cupping his hand like antelescope, he would look at the painting through it.nTo my surprise, there were several very decent “LittlenDutch Masters” in the hall, a nice portrait from thenPerugino School, and a beautiful landscape of Canaleto,nMorning on the Grand Canal. I leaned closer to it, to get anbetter look at the tiny gondolier reflected in the light-greennwater, when a cleated heel crashed down on my opennsandal and an elbow punched me hard in the stomach.n”I’m sorry!” The yesterday’s bum was looming over me.n”I was just backing up . . . you okay?”n”I guess …”nIt was a kind of awkward scene. We stood there staring atneach other, I rubbing my solar plexus.n”You sure?”n”Yes, I’m all right.” Actually, my foot was in pain and mynstomach hurt. I should probably go back to the hotel, Inthought. “Which bus goes to the ‘Mermaids’?” I asked him.n”The fourth. You have to go there?”n”Yes.”n”I’ll drive you.”n”It’s not really necessary.”n”Well, it is, your foot is all red.” He was right. My footnwas red and swollen. I moved my toes. None seemed to benbroken, though. “I’ll feel better if I drive you there,” hensaid, scratching his unshaven cheek.nI don’t know whether it was the apologetic expression onnhis face or simply the fact that my foot hurt. “Thanks,” Insaid.nWe walked out onto the street.nA shabby motorcycle with a paint-box in its sidecar wasntied to a tree near the museum. “Have a seat.” He pushednthe paint-box deeper inside.nI climbed into the sidecar, he mounted the seat, and wentook off.n”Staying at the ‘Mermaids’?” he asked after we had drivennfor a while.n”Yes.”n”Where from?”n”Moscow.”n”Ha, the Harlot on Seven Hills!”n”What?” I didn’t understand.nBut he didn’t explain.nFor the rest of the trip he didn’t utter a word more. I alsonwas silent.n”All right,” he stopped in front of the hotel. And then Insaid, “Listen,” I said, “would you like to have a cup ofncoffee with me?” I don’t know why I said that, really.nHe thought for a moment. “Well, why not?”nThe coffee we decided to wash down with beer. Gradually,nhe got talkative. I learned that his name wasnMatvey and that he had an eight-year-old son. I also learnednthat his wife and mother-in-law were mixers at the localnsoap plant. He had graduated from art school as a painter,nbut now too worked for this plant (“part-time, though,” hensaid), drawing soap-bar wrappers.nI told him that about a month ago I gave up writing annovel and was now writing a play. And that this play wasn’tngoing well.n”What’s it about?” he asked.n”Hard to describe. There are two art collectors there.”n”Well, that’s a very important theme, for only art cannredeem people,” he declared solemnly. “You know, I cannmake a mint painting political stuff. But what for? What’snthe purpose? Money is just …” he tore a scrap of foil offnthe beer bottie and crushed it with his fingers “… dustnand ashes!”nHis head was small, his hair light and fluffy. Watery blueneyes sat very close to the sides of his long beaky nose.nWhom does he resemble so much? I thought. And thennsuddenly realized. Ostrich! Yes, of course, a sad, rufflednostrich.n”Are we born into this world just to pile up things andnthese bits of paper named ‘money’? Or are we born tonunderstand something while we are alive? You tell me!” heninsisted, looking at me intently.nHe was slightly crazy, obviously, but there was somethingnquite appealing about him. By the time our table at thendiner got crammed with empty beer botties, he said to me:n”You mentioned you had painted a bit before, would younlike to drive around and paint with me?”n”I was just an amateur. Besides, I haven’t held a brush fornfive years.”n”Doesn’t matter. You’ll pick it up again.”nWell, maybe it’s not a bad idea. After all, I came here tonrelax, I thought. And I bought a paint-box, some paints,nand began traveling around with him.nIn the morning he would pick me up at the “Mermaids,”nand we would go. He knew the Akulinsk environs like thenback of his hand and, like a real cicerone, showed them tonme. It was November, there were no vacationers, and thencountryside was deserted.n”The Cove of Sards,” he would say pulling his motorcyclenup on a cliff above the tiny round inlet. “The bestnplace to look for chicken gods.”nnnMAY 1987/23n