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Vol. 4, No. 2

Fair Warning
by Robert Olen Butler

~

We were set up in a four-pole tent on the grounds of an estate with the sound of the ocean crashing just outside. I stood on a platform behind a lectern loaned by the local Episcopal Church and I looked out at many of my regulars and some comparably affluent strangers and they were in their boaters and chinos and late spring silks and I looked at all their faces once, twice, and John Paul Gibbons was on the right side in the second row and he winked at me. This was becoming a discomforting motif. And suddenly I figured I knew whose request it was that I be auctioned off.
    I began. To an ancient little lady I did not know--I presumed she was a permanent Hamptons resident--I sold the services of Puff Daddy to hip-hop her answering-machine message. I had an order bid in my book for $150 but I squeezed $600 from the old lady, invoking the great, thinking beings-of-the-deep in their hour of need. I'd gotten a cello lesson with Yo-Yo Ma up to $1,600--having ferreted out two sets of parents, each with a child they'd browbeaten into learning the cello--when Trevor appeared at the back of the tent. He lifted his chin at me, as if he were tasting his coffee.
    We'd never spoken of this event during the week we'd just spent together. I didn't expect him. I felt something strong suddenly roil up within me, but I wasn't sure what. I focused on the next bid. "It's against the couple down in front. How about seventeen? Seventeen hundred? What if your child meets their child in a school music competition?"
    They hesitated.
    "Whose butt will get whipped?" I cried.
    They bid seventeen hundred. But I felt it was over. The other couple was hiding behind the heads in front of them. I scanned the audience a last time. Trevor was circling over to my left. "Fair warning," I called.
    There were no more bids and I sold Yo-Yo Ma for $1,700 as Trevor found a seat. Oddly, I still didn't know how I felt about his being here. I threw myself into the lots on Arthur's list and I was good, I was very good. The whales were no doubt somewhere off the coast leaping for joy. And then I reached Lot 19.
    "The next lot..." I began, and I felt my throat seizing up. I felt Trevor's dark eyes on me, without even looking in his direction. I was breathless against the wall of the elevator and all I could hear was the bell and the pop of Trevor's breath as he moved and my mind had begun to wander a little bit and he was right about how he smelled whenever he visited his mother's apartment, he smelled of lilacs--no, not of lilacs, of lilac sachet--and my head thumped against the wall and I said "Oops" but he did not hear and I thought about her pillows and though I was glad I was not in her bed, I figured I'd accept those dozen pillows on the floor of the elevator so I could lie down in a soft place for this.
    "The next lot..." I repeated, and I pushed on. "Number nineteen. Dinner for two at Fellini's in SoHo, with wine and your auctioneer."
    There was a smattering of delighted oohs and chuckles.
    I almost started the bidding at a measly $50. But this impulse did not come from my auctioneer self, I instantly realized. There was a shrinking inside me that I did not like and so I started the bid for what I thought to be an exorbitant amount. I'd simply go unclaimed. "Who'll open the bid for four hundred dollars?" I said.
    I saw John Paul's head snap a little, but before I could congratulate myself, in my peripheral vision I could see a paddle leap up without pause. I looked. It was Trevor.
    Suddenly there was something I had to know.
    I said, "I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, let me stop right here for a moment. Before we begin, I need some more information on this lot."
    There was a ripple of laughter through the tent and I stepped away from the lectern. Arthur was standing off to my right and I stepped down from the platform and I approached him.
    He must have read something in my face. He blanched and whispered, "What is it? You're doing a smashing job."
    "Who asked to put me up for bid?"
    "Sorry, my dear," he said. "That's a bit of a secret."
    "You always start sounding British when you know you're in trouble. And you are. Give it up."
    He tried to wink and shrug and say nothing.
    "Arthur," I said as calmly as I could. "I don't want to grab you by the throat and throw you to the ground in front of all these good clients. Tell me who."
    This was convincing. "Trevor Martin," he said.
    I felt a flash of anger. Why? I demanded explanations from myself as I stepped back up onto the platform: Surely this was something I wanted. I wanted Trevor to pay big bucks for me and take me to dinner like he should. But what's this "should" stuff about? Why should he do that? And why should I expect--as part of me did--a sweet and gentle invitation to dinner in an elevator instead of a hot five minutes of sex? I'd been thinking about the sex, myself. I'd been wanting it. I couldn't let myself be a hypocrite.
    I cried, "We have four hundred from Mr. Martin. Who'll make it five hundred?" and all the explanations vanished in my head and I was left with an abrupt realization: there was something being put before this crowd that had a value in need of being articulated. I pointed to one of the paddles in the back, some elderly gentleman who I'd been pitting against Mrs. Fielding, who would want to talk about who knows what over dinner, maybe the time she'd seen her dear and pudgy aunt in the nude, after her bath. "Five hundred," I called, and that suddenly seemed way too low.
    "I am not a Renoir," I said. "But I am... not six inches square, either."
    It was a start.
    "I am in excellent condition," I cried. "For an object my age. Who'll make it a thousand."
    It was a big leap. But I found myself feeling ready for a big leap.
    There was only a moment of hesitation and I saw a paddle go up to my right and I looked and it was John Paul Gibbons. All right. "A thousand dollars to John Paul Gibbons. Who'll make it eleven hundred?"
    And now I looked to Trevor. He raised his paddle instantly. "Eleven hundred to Mr. Martin. And this is still an unconscionable bargain. I am rare. I am. Who else knows so many of you so well? Who else has filled your homes and emptied your wallets? Who'll make it fifteen hundred?"
    I turned back to John Paul and he winked again and lifted his paddle and he glanced over his shoulder toward Trevor.
    I said, "I am a perfect size, thanks to my ongoing efforts. Neither too big nor too small. Who'll make it two thousand?"
    I, too, looked at Trevor and he smiled that faintly patronizing smile of his and he lifted his paddle and I was caught by his smile, the smile that he gave me the first time I saw him, the smile he'd given me as we walked past the doorman last night and into the warm evening air and he said, "I think I've begun to move into the rest of my life."
    His life. But what did I want in the rest of my life? I'd like to have seen the inside of his apartment by this point. I'd like to have been asked to dinner, just the two of us, without a price put on anything. He takes his first step in the elevator, when it's least expected, and he arranges to buy his next step. This was his mother's way. I lowered my face. My book lay open before me. I lifted my face. "I am authentic," I said. "You must look into me now, as I've looked into you." And I took my own challenge. And I looked. And I said, "Three thousand to the book."
    There was a little gasp. A private tour of Dollywood, Tennessee, with Dolly Parton herself as guide, had gone for $2,800, the biggest bid of the auction.
    I looked at John Paul. He blew me a little kiss and kept his paddle on his lap. I turned to Trevor. "It's against you, Mr. Martin," I said. "Thirty-five?"
    The smile was gone. But he lifted his paddle.
    "Three thousand five hundred to Mr. Martin," I cried, and I instantly added, "Four thousand to the book."
    Now there was a great hum that lifted in the crowd, resonating, perhaps, with the one from the sea. "It's against you, Mr. Martin," I said. His face slowly eclipsed itself behind the face in front of him, a jowly man in a shirt and tie, a Wall Street lawyer who collected Stieff teddy bears.
    "Fair warning," I cried, scanning the faces before me. I let the warning sit with them all for a long moment, and then I said, "Sold to the book for four thousand dollars."

 

~

And now I sit at this newest chic SoHo restaurant with the faces of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina and Signor Fellini himself all about me on the walls, and two places are set at the table. But I am alone and waiting for no one. And yet, I am lingering now over the linguini, eating it strand by strand, sipping my wine in tiny, dry sips. And I am feeling good. The book, of course, had been empty. I bid for myself, and I won.

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