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Vol. 4, No. 2

Fair Warning
by Robert Olen Butler

Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year-old sister. My father had taken me to a couple of cattle auctions, not minding that I was a girl--this was before Missy was born, of course--and I'd loved the fast talk and the intensity of the whole thing. So the day after my seventh birthday party, where Missy did a song for everyone while I sat alone, my chin on my hand, and meditated behind my still uncut birthday cake, it seemed to me that here was a charming and beautiful little asset that I had no further use for and could be liquidated to good effect. So I gathered a passel of children from our gated community in Houston, kids with serious money, and I had Missy do a bit of her song once more, and I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, no greater or more complete perfection of animal beauty ever stood on two legs than the little girl who stands before you. She has prizewinning breeding and good teeth. She will neither hook, kick, strike, nor bite you. She is the pride and joy and greatest treasure of the Dickerson family and she is now available to you. Who will start the bidding for this future blue-ribbon winner? Who'll offer fifty cents? Fifty cents. Who'll give me fifty?" I saw nothing but blank stares before me. I'd gotten all these kids together but I still hadn't quite gotten them into the spirit of the thing. So I looked one of these kids in the eye and I said, "You, Tony Speck. Aren't your parents rich enough to give you an allowance of fifty cents?" He made a hard, scrunched-up face and he said, "A dollar." And I was off. I finally sold her for six dollars and twenty-five cents to a quiet girl up the street whose daddy was in oil. She was an only child, a thing I made her feel sorry about when the bidding slowed down at five bucks.
    Needless to say, the deal didn't go through. Missy tried to go get her dolls and clothes before she went off to what I persuaded her was a happy, extended sleep-over, and Mama found out. That night my parents and Missy ate dinner in the dining room and I was put in the den with a TV tray to eat my spaghetti alone. If I wanted to sell one of them then I wanted to sell them all, they claimed, and eating alone was supposed to show me how it would feel. I was supposed to be lonely. Of course, they were wrong. It was just my sister I wanted to dispose of. And all I was feeling was that somehow Missy had done it to me again. She was at my daddy's elbow in the other room, offering her cheek for pinching. I felt pissed about that but I also felt exhilarated at the thought of what I'd done at the sale. I figured she wasn't worth even half the final bid.
    And so I sit now, at another stage of my life, at another pasta dinner with much to think about, and I am forty years old--which is something to think about in and of itself. But instead I go back only a few weeks, to the Crippenhouse auction. Near the end of the morning, after I'd gaveled down dozens of lots of major artwork for big money from a big crowd that nearly filled our Blue Salon, a tiny, minor Renoir came up. Barely six inches square. One fat naked young woman with a little splash of vague foliage behind her. Generic Impressionism on a very small scale. Like a nearsighted man looking through the knothole in a fence without his glasses. And yet I stood before these wealthy people and I knew them well, most of them, knew them from playing them at this podium many times before and meeting them at parties and studying the social registers and reading their bios and following their ups and downs and comings and goings in the society columns and the Wall Street Journal and even the Times news pages. I stood before them and there was a crisp smell of ozone in the air and the soft clarity of our indirect lights and, muffled in our plush drapery and carpeting, the rich hush of money well and profusely spent. I looked around, giving them a moment to catch their breath. The estimate on the Renoir was $140,000 and sometimes we'd put a relatively low estimate on a thing we knew would be hot in order to draw in more sharks looking for an easy kill, and if you knew what you were doing, they wouldn't even realize that you'd actually gotten them into a feeding frenzy until they'd done something foolish. But this was one of those items where we'd jacked up the estimate on a minor piece that had one prestige selling point in order to improve its standing. Renoir. He's automatically a big deal, we were saying. In fact, though, we were going to be happy getting 80 percent of the estimate. I had just one bid in the book lying open before me--mine was bound in morocco with gilt pages--which is where an auctioneer notes the order bids, the bids placed by the big customers with accounts who are too busy sunning themselves somewhere in the Mediterranean or cutting deals down in Wall Street to attend an auction. And for the little Renoir, the one book bid wasn't even six figures, and I knew the guy had a thing for fat women.
    So I looked out at the bid-weary group and I said, "I know you people," though at the moment I said this, my eyes fell on a man on the far left side about eight rows back who, in fact, I did not know. There were, of course, others in the room I didn't know, but this man had his eyes on me and he was as small-scaled and indistinct to my sight as the fat girl in the painting. But he was fixed on me and I could see his eyes were dark and his hair was dark and slicked straight back and his jaw was quite square and I know those aren't enough things to warrant being caught stopping and looking at somebody and feeling some vague sense of possibility--no, hardly even that--feeling a surge of heat in your brow and a little catch and then quickening of your breath.
    I forced my attention back to the matter at hand. "I know you," I repeated, getting back into the flow that had already started in me. "You're wearing hundred-dollar underpants and carrying three-thousand-dollar fountain pens."
    They laughed. And they squirmed a little. Good.
    I said, "You will not relinquish even the smallest detail of your life to mediocrity."
    Now they stirred. I am known for talking to my bidders. Cajoling them. Browbeating them, even. At Christie's and Sotheby's they would grumble at what I do. But they value me at Nichols and Gray for these things. And my regulars here know what to expect.
    I said, "But there is a space in the rich and wonderful place where you live that is given over to just such a thing, mediocrity. A column in the foyer, a narrow slip of wall between two doors. You know the place. Think about it. Feel bad about it. And here is Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead for eighty years, the king of the most popular movement in the history of serious art, ready to turn that patch of mediocrity into a glorious vision of corporeal beauty. Lot One-fifty-six. Entitled 'Adorable Naked French Woman with Ample Enough Thighs to Keep Even John Paul Gibbons in One Place.'" And with this I looked directly at John Paul Gibbons, who was in his usual seat to the right side in the second row. He was as famous in the world of these people for his womanizing as for his money. I said, "Start the bidding at forty thousand, John Paul."
    He winked at me and waved his bidder's paddle and we were off.
    "Forty thousand," I said. "Who'll make it fifty?"
    Since John Paul was on my right, I suppose it was only natural for me to scan back to the left to draw out a competing bid. I found myself looking toward the man with the dark eyes. How had I missed this face all morning? And he raised his paddle.
    "Fifty thousand..." I cried, and I almost identified him in the way I'd been thinking of him. But I caught myself. "... to the gentleman on the left side." I was instantly regretful for having started this the way I had. Was Renoir's pudgy beauty his type?
    My auctioneer self swung back to John Paul Gibbons to pull out a further bid, even as thoughts of another, covert self in me raced on.
    "Sixty from Mr. Gibbons," I said, thinking, If she is his type, then I'm shit out of luck. All my life I've been in desperate pursuit of exactly the wrong kind of butt.
    And sure enough, Dark-Eyes bid seventy. I was happy for womanhood in general, I guess, if this were true, that men were coming back around to desiring the likes of this plumped-up pillow of a young woman but I was sad for me and I looked over my shoulder at her and my auctioneer self said, "Isn't she beautiful?" and my voice betrayed no malice.
    John Paul took it to eighty and Dark-Eyes took it to ninety while I paused inside and grew sharp with myself. You've become a desperate and pathetic figure, Amy Dickerson, growing jealous over a stranger's interest in the image of a naked butterball. "Ninety-five to the book," I said.
    And there was a brief pause.
    I swung back to John Paul. A man like this--how many times had he merely seen a woman across a room and he knew he had to get closer to her, had to woo and bed her if he could? Was I suddenly like him? "A hundred? Can you give me a hundred? No way you people are going to let a Renoir go for five figures. You'd be embarrassed to let that happen."
    John Paul raised his paddle. "A hundred thousand to John Paul Gibbons."
    The bid had run past the order bid in my book and a basic rule for an auctioneer is to play only two bidders at a time. But I didn't want to look at Dark-Eyes again. I should have gone back to him, but if he had a thing for this woman who looked so unlike me, then to hell with him, he didn't deserve it. If he was bidding for it--and this thought made me grow warm again--if he was bidding for it merely out of his responsiveness to me, then I didn't want him to waste his money on a second-rate piece. "One ten?" I said, and I raised my eyes here on the right side and another paddle went up, about halfway back, a woman who lived on Park Avenue with a house full of Impressionists and a husband twice her age. "One ten to Mrs. Fielding on the right."
    She and John Paul moved it up in a few moments to the estimate, one forty. There was another little lull. I said, "It's against you, Mrs. Fielding." Still she hesitated. I should turn to my left, I knew. Dark-Eyes could be waiting to give a bid. But instead I went for all the other Mrs. Fieldings. I raised my hand toward the painting, which sat on an easel behind me and to my left. My auctioneer self said, "Doesn't she look like that brief glimpse you had of your dearest aunt at her bath when you were a girl? Or even your dear mama? Her essence is here before you, a great work of art." But the other me, with this left arm lifted, thought--for the first time ever from this podium, because I was always a cool character in this place, always fresh and cool--this other me that had gone quite inexplicably mad thought, My God what if I'm sweating and he's looking at a great dark moon beneath my arm?
    This man had gotten to me from the start, unquestionably, and this thought snaps me back to the trendiest Italian restaurant in Manhattan, where I sit now waiting for my pasta. There are impulsive attractions that make you feel like you're in control of your life somehow--here's something I want, even superficially, and I'm free to grab it. Then there are the impulsive attractions that only remind you how freedom is a fake. You might be free to pursue your desires, but you're never free to choose them.
    And I had no choice that morning. I lowered my arm abruptly in spite of the fact I hadn't sweat from nerves since I was sixteen. But I'd already made my selling point. I'd stoked the desire of others and Mrs. Fielding took up the pursuit, as did another wealthy woman for a few bids and then another--I played them two at a time--and then it was one of the monied women against a little man who dealt in art in the Village and should have known better about this piece, which made me wonder if he'd had a life-changing glimpse of his corpulent mama at her bath, but that was the kind of thing my auctioneer self rightly ruminated on during the rush of the bidding and I had more or less put Dark-Eyes out of my mind and we climbed over a quarter of a million and my boss was beaming in the back of the room and then it stopped, with the little man holding a bid of $260,000. "It's against you," I said to the woman still in the bidding. She shook her head faintly to say she was out of it.
    There is a moment that comes when you've done your work well when the whole room finally and abruptly goes, What the hell are we doing? I knew we had reached that moment. But I would have to look back to my left before I could I push on to a conclusion.
    "Two sixty," I said. "Do I hear two seventy? Two seventy for your sweet Aunt Isabelle? Two sixty then. Fair warning."
    Now I looked to him.
    His eyes were fixed on me as before and then he smiled, and the unflappable Amy Dickerson, master auctioneer, suddenly flapped. I lost the flow of my words and I stopped. It seemed that he was about to raise his paddle. Don't do it, I thought, trying to send a warning to him across this space. I wrenched my attention away and cried, "Sold! For two hundred and sixty thousand dollars."
    I normally use the lull after the gavel, while the lot just sold is taken away and the next one set up, to assess certain buyers that I've learned to read. One woman who sits perfectly still through the bidding for items she has no interest in will suddenly start shuffling her feet when something she wants is about to come up. Another starts smoothing her hair. One distinguished retired surgeon, who always wears a vest, will lift up slightly from where he's sitting, first one cheek and then the other, as if he's passing a perfect pair of farts. But on that morning I was still struggling with an unreasonable obsession. I thought of nothing but this complete stranger and I finally realized that the only way to exorcise this feeling was to confront it, but when at last I worked up the courage to look once more to my left, Dark-Eyes had gone.

 

~

"I was relieved," I told my sister the next day at a sushi lunch. "But damn if I wasn't wildly disappointed as well."
    "So?"
    "So? There sat a man like John Paul Gibbons and I'm suddenly acting like his dark twin sister."
    "Is John Paul still after you?"
    "You're missing the point," I said.
    She shrugged. "I don't think so. You're forty, Amy. You're single. It's hormones and lifestyle."
    "Yow," I cried.
    "Did you get some wasabi up your nose?"
    In fact I was merely thinking, If you hadn't gone back for your dolls and your clothes I wouldn't be sitting here with you once a week out of familial devotion listening to your complacent hardness of heart. Though I realized, trying to be honest with myself, that my alternative today--and most days--was eating lunch on my own, bolting my food, avoiding the company of men who bored me, a list that got longer every day, it seemed. I resented her stumbling onto a half-truth about me and so I leaned toward her and said, "You're thirty-six yourself. You haven't got much longer to be smug."
    "That reminds me," Missy said. "Jeff mentioned he saw a poster up in Southampton for the charity auction you're doing."
    "How does what I said remind you of that?" I put as much muscle in my voice as I could, but she looked at me as if I'd simply belched. She wasn't going to answer. She had no answer. I knew the answer: her loving husband was her shield against turning forty. Right. Maybe.
    "Mama said she hoped you'd call sometime," Missy said.
    I was still following the track under Missy's surface. Mama--still living on a street with a gate in Houston--thought that a beautiful woman like me, as she put it, was either stupid or a lesbian not to have been married when I hit forty. And she knew, as God was her witness, that I wasn't a lesbian.
    "She hated Daddy by the time she was forty," I said.
    "Calm down," Missy said. "Drink some green tea. It's like a sedative."
    "And he hated her."
    Missy looked away, her mouth tightened into a thin red line.
    Okay. I felt guilty for rubbing this in. I'd arrived a couple of times myself at something like hatred for the man I was living with. In another era, I might have already gone ahead and married each of them--Max and Fred--and it would have been no different for me than for Mama.
    I followed Missy's eyes across the room. She was looking at no one, she was just getting pissed with me, but there was a man leaning across a table for two touching the wrist of the woman he was with. He was talking quickly, ardently. I looked away, conscious of my own wrist. Whose gesture was that from my own life? Either Max or Fred. I twisted my mind away. Who cares which one? I thought. Whoever it was would say, Amy, Amy, Amy, you get so logical when you're angry. And yet the touch on my wrist meant he still thought I was a quaking bundle of nerves beneath the irrefutable points I'd been making against him. All he had to do was touch me there and he'd wipe the logic away and prevail. But no way, Mister. I never lost my logic in an argument, even though sometimes there were tears, as meaningless as getting wet for somebody you're just having sex with. I'm crying, I'd say to him, but don't you dare take it wrong, you son of a bitch. It was Max.
    "I've got to go," my sister said, and I looked at her a little dazedly, I realized, and we both rose and we hugged and kissed on the cheek. We split the bill and my half of the tip was six dollars and twenty-five cents. I watched her gliding away out the door and then I stared at the money in my hand.

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