22 / CHRONICLESnA CHILD’S JOKE a story by Leon SteinmetznThe sea, warm and quiet, lay in front of me. Dusk wasnfalling, and there was a strong smell of brine and kelpnin the air.nI was sitting on a piece of a ruined ancient column on thenshore of the Black Sea and couldn’t quite believe that just anfew hours earlier I had been in cold and wet NovembernMoscow.nThat morning I was awakened in my Moscow apartmentnby the sound of branches beating against my window. Inopened my eyes and saw these wet, wind-tossed branches,nthe houses awash in torrents of rain, the passersby hunchednover beneath the penetrating wind, and, suddenly, I felt sonmiserable that I knew I would simply die if I didn’tnimmediately get away from there to somewhere in the sunnfor at least a week.nNot giving it another thought, I packed my suitcase,nhailed a cab, and went to the airport.nI had decided to fly South, to Akulinsk, a small town innthe Crimea, where I had never been and which, as I hadnLeon Steinmetz s short stories have appeared in WebsternReview and Commentary. He has taught creative writingnat Williams and Wellesley and is currently teaching atnHarvard.nnnoften heard, was a quiet and lovely spot.nThe season was over, and I had no trouble getting a roomnin an inexpensive hotel. Without unpacking, I threw mynsuitcase down in the room, rented a bicycle at the hotel,nand set out for the sea.nThe sun was setting. I left the town behind and rodenalong the shore. The road was deserted. I had been ridingnfor about half an hour when up ahead, to the side of thenroad, I saw the remains of an ancient amphitheater. Thenstone steps, overgrown with grass, climbed the slope of thenhill. Walking my bike, I went up. I laid the bike on the stepsnat the top and sat down on a piece of a ruined column.nPerhaps the Greeks had once celebrated their mysteriesnhere. Over there, down below, had probably been a pier. Annarrow street led from it to the temple. The broken offntriangle of its pediment soared up to the sky by the columns,ngleamed golden under the setting sun. . . .nI had grown so pensive that I didn’t see where he hadncome from. That character, who looked like a bum. Thin,nunshaven, incredibly tall, dressed in some kind of poncho,nhe stood not far from me and looked at the sea.nI moved closer to my bike.nHe stood for a while, then, along the steps of thenamphitheater, went down the hill. He walked across thenamphitheater, across the stage, and stopped beside thencolumns. And then I noticed a sack and a paint-boxnpropped against one of the columns. The bum took a smallnfolding chair out of the sack, opened the box, and began tonpaint.nThe weariness of a long and varied day, the regularnlapping of waves running onto the shore got the better ofnme. I closed my eyes and dozed off.nI woke up when I began to feel chilly. A thin scarlet bandnover the sea indicated the spot where the sun had gonendown. Shivering and regretting that I hadn’t taken answeater, I got up and began flapping my arms to warmnmyself “And that weirdo is still there. I wonder what he’snpainting?” Skipping down the steps, I went to him.nHe was sitting very close to the sea. His canvas depictednwater. He painted with short, quick strokes, not paying anynattention to me and muttering something under his breath.nThe scarlet band at the horizon had now vanished, and,nas it usually happens in the South, rapidly began to getndark. He leaned toward his sack, took out a kerosene lamp,nlit it, and continued to paint by its light.nI stood beside him a littie longer, then clambered up tonmy bicycle and headed for the hotel.nAt the turn of the road I glanced back. A faint yellownflame was flickering between the columns near the water.nWhen I reached the hotel it was completely dark.nIt is a habit of mine, whenever I travel, always to visit thenlocal museum. So, the next day I found it on the map (itnwas located across the town) and decided to take a walknthere.nAkulinsk was a typical Southern, provincial town: narrownstreets winding over the hills; low, whitewashed houses withn