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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.

~

The auction business is built on the three Ds: debt, divorce, and death. The next morning Arthur Gray sat me down in his office with WQXR playing low in the background--some simpering generic baroque thing was going on--and he fluttered his eyebrows at me over the quarter of a million I'd gotten for the worst Renoir oil he'd ever seen and then he sent me off to an estate evaluation on Central Park West. The death of a reclusive woman who apparently had had an eye for Victoriana. Her only son would meet me.
    The doorman had my name and I went up in an elevator that smelled faintly of Obsession and I rang the bell at the woman's apartment. And when the door swung open I found myself standing before Dark-Eyes.
    I'm sure I let the creature beneath the auctioneer show her face in that moment: the little half smile that came over Dark-Eyes told me so. The smile was faintly patronizing, even. But I forgave him that. I was, after all, making myself a gawking fool at the moment. The smile also suggested, I realized, that he had requested me specifically for this evaluation. I focused on that thought, even as I put on my professional demeanor.
    "I'm Amy Dickerson," I said. "Of Nichols and Gray."
    He bowed faintly and he repeated my name. "Ms. Dickerson." He was a little older than I thought, from close up, and even handsomer. His cheekbones were high and his eyes were darker than I'd been able to see from the podium. "I'm Trevor Martin. Mrs. Edward Martin's son."
    "I'm glad," I said, and to myself I said, What the hell does that mean? "To meet you," I added, though I fooled neither of us. I was glad he was here and I was here. The only thing I wasn't glad about was that his name was Trevor. It was a name made for a rainy climate, and spats.
    "Come in," he said, and I did and I nearly staggered from the Victorian profusion of the place. The foyer was stuffed full: an umbrella stand and a grandfather clock and a stand-up coatrack and a dozen dark-framed hunting scenes and a gilt-wood-and-gesso mirror and a Gothic-style cupboard and a papier-mâché prie-dieu with shell-inlaid cherubs and a top rail of red velvet, and Trevor--I had to think of him as that now, at least till I could call him Dark-Eyes to his face--Trevor was moving ahead of me and I followed him into Mrs. Edward Martin's parlor--and my eyes could not hold still, there was such a welter of things, and I went from fainting bench to pump organ to the William Morris Strawberry Thief wallpaper--the walls were aswirl with vines and flowers and strawberries and speckled birds.
    "I don't know where the smell of lilacs is coming from," he said.
    I looked at him, not prepared for that cognitive leap. I looked back to a mantelpiece filled with parian porcelains of Shakespeare, General Gordon, Julius Caesar, Victoria herself threatening to fall from the edge where she'd been jostled by the crowd of other white busts.
    "It's always in my clothes after I visit here."
    "What's that?" I said, trying to gain control of my senses.
    "The lilac. I never asked her where it came from, but now when I'm free to look, I can't find it."
    "You must miss her," I said.
    "Is that what I'm conveying?" His voice had gone flat.
    I didn't even know myself why I'd jumped to that conclusion, much less expressed it. Maybe it was all her stuff around me. See me, love me, miss me, she was crying, I am so intricate and so ornamented that you can't help but do that. But Trevor clearly had seen her, and whether or not he'd loved her, I don't think he missed her much. Evidently he heard his own tone, because he smiled at me and he made his voice go so soft from what seemed like self-reflection that my hands grew itchy to touch him. "That must sound like an odd response," he said. "How could an only child not miss his mother?"
    "I can think of ways."
    He smiled again but this time at the room. He looked around. "Do you wonder if I grew up amidst all this?"
    "Yes."
    "I did."
    "And you want to get rid of it."
    His smile came back to me. He looked at me closely and he was no Trevor at all. "Every bit of it," he said.

 

~

That first day I sat at a bentwood table in the kitchen and he would bring me the things he could carry--a sterling silver biscuit box and a cut-glass decanter, a coach-lace coffee cozy and a silver-and-gold peacock pendant, and on and on--and I would make notes for the catalog description and I would give him an estimate and he never challenged a figure, never asked a question. At some point I realized it was past two and we ordered in Chinese and he had already rolled the sleeves on his pale green silk shirt and we ate together, me using chopsticks, him using a fork. In the center of the table sat a spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight painted lead horses with jockeys that circled a grooved wooden track. He had just put it before me when the doorbell rang with the food.
    We ate in silence for a couple of minutes, a nice silence, I thought--we were comfortable enough with each other already that we didn't have to make small talk. Finally, though, I pointed to the toy and asked, "Was this yours?"
    "Not really. It was around. I never played with it."
    "Weren't you allowed?"
    "How much will we get?" he said.
    "Toys aren't a specialty of mine. I can only get you into the ballpark."
    "Close enough."
    "I think the estimate would be around three hundred dollars."
    "And you'd work the bid up to six."
    I looked at the row of jockeys. "We've got a couple of regulars who play the horses. And more than a couple are still kids at heart."
    "You're scary sometimes, Amy Dickerson, what you can pick up in people." He was smiling the same smile I'd taken for self-reflection.
    "This might be true," I said. I was up to my elbows here in mothers and children and my own mother thought the same thing about me, expecting all the good men in the world to be frightened away. Looking into Trevor's dark eyes I felt a twist of something in my chest that the cool and collected part of me recognized as panic.
    "I mean that in an admiring way," he said.
    "How come I didn't pick up on that?"
    "I'm sorry. I scare people, too."
    "But you don't scare me. See the problem I'm suddenly faced with? We have an imbalance here."
    "In the courtroom," he said.
    "You're a lawyer?"
    "Yes."
    "That is scary," I said, and part of me meant it.
    "I only defend the poor and the downtrodden," he said.
    "Not if you can afford silk shirts."
    "That was two categories. I defend the poor and the downtrodden rich."
    "Is there such a thing?"
    "Ask any rich man. He'll tell you."
    "What about rich women?"
    The playfulness drained out of him, pulling the corners of his mouth down. I knew he was thinking about his mother again.
    "Trevor," I said, softly. He looked me in the eyes and I said, "Play the game."
    For a moment he didn't understand.
    I nodded to the spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight hollow-cast, painted lead horses with jockeys and grooved wooden track, estimate three hundred dollars. He followed my gesture and looked at the object for a moment. Then he stretched and pulled it to him and he put his hand on the key at the side. He hesitated and looked at me. Ever so slightly I nodded, yes.
    He turned the key and the kitchen filled with the metallic scrinch of the gears and he turned it again and again until it would turn no more. Then he tripped the release lever and the horses set out jerking around the track once, twice, a horse taking the lead and then losing it to another and that one losing it to another until the sound ceased and the horses stopped. Trevor's eyes had never left the game. Now he looked at me.
    "Which one was yours?" I asked.
    He reached out his hand and laid it over mine. Our first touch. "They all were," he said.

 

~

There was a time when I thought I would be a model. I was a model. I did the catwalk glide as well as any of them, selling the clothes, selling the attitude. And off the job--when I was in my own jeans and going, Who the hell was I today?--I had trouble figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other one without feeling like I was still on the runway. There was a time when I was an actress. I was Miss Firecracker and I was Marilyn Monroe and I was passionate about a shampoo and I was still going, Who the hell was I today? There were the two times when I lived with a man for a few years. It didn't help ease Mama's angst. People actually think to get married, in Texas, she'd observe. It didn't help ease my angst either. I was "Babe" to one and "A.D." to the other and one never made a sound when we had sex and the other yelled, "Oh Mama," over and over, and I found part of myself sitting somewhere on the other side of the room watching all this and turning over the same basic question.
    So what was I reading in Trevor Martin, the once and perhaps future Dark-Eyes, that would make me hopeful? After he put his hand on mine he said, "I've been divorced for six months. My mother has been dead for six weeks. It feels good to have a woman look inside me. That's not really happened before. But I'm trying to move slowly into the rest of my life."
    "I understand," I said, and I did. "For one thing, we have every object of your childhood to go through first."
    He squeezed my hand gently, which told me he'd known I'd understand and he was grateful.

 

~

I left him on the first evening and went to a Thai restaurant and ate alone, as had been my recent custom, though I felt the possibilities with Dark-Eyes unfurling before me. But that didn't stop me from eating too fast and I walked out with my brow sweating and my lips tingling from the peppers.
    And when I was done, I went to my apartment and I stepped in and when I switched on the lights I was stopped cold. My eyes leaped from overstuffed chair to overstuffed couch to silk Persian rug and all of it was in Bloomingdale's earth tones and it was me, it was what was left of me after I'd been dead for six weeks and somebody that wasn't me but was like me was here to catalog it all and there was a ficus in a corner and a Dali print of Don Quixote over the empty mantelpiece and a wall of bookshelves and I wanted to turn around and walk out, go to a bar or back to work, take my notes from the first day at Mrs. Edward Martin's and go put them in a computer, anything but step further into this apartment with its silence buzzing in my ears.
    Then I saw the red light flashing on my answering machine and I moved into my apartment as if nothing odd was going on. I approached the phone, which sat, I was suddenly acutely aware, on an Angelo Donghia maple side table with Deco-style tapering legs, estimated value four hundred dollars. But the flashing light finally cleared my head: I had one message and I pushed the button.
    It was Arthur Gray. "Hello, Amy," he said. "About the benefit auction. Woody Allen just came through with a walk-on part in his new film. Postmodern Millie, I think it is. And Giuliani's offered a dinner at Gracie Mansion. But I've had a special request, and since we're not being entirely altruistic here--rightly not--I really think we should do it. More later. You know how I appreciate you. Our best customers are your biggest admirers ... Almost forgot. Do you need a lift to the Hamptons Saturday? We should get out there early and I've got a limo. Let me know. Bye."
    All of which barely registered at the time. I realized it was the assumption that the red light was Trevor that had cleared the mortality from my head.

~

On that night I sat naked on the edge of my bed, my silk nightshirt laid out beside me, and I thought of Trevor, the silk of his shirt the color of a ripe honeydew, or the color--if green is the color of jealousy--of the pallid twinge I felt when I found Max, in the third year of our relationship, in a restaurant we'd been to together half a dozen times, only this time he had a woman hanging on his arm. He saw me. I saw him. It was lunchtime and I sat down at a table, my back to him, and I ate my lunch alone, which I'd planned to do, and very fast, faster than usual. I loved that Caesar salad and split-pea soup, in spite of the speed, perhaps because of it: I was furious. Only the tiniest bit jealous, surprisingly, but angry. I love to eat when I'm angry. He wouldn't talk about it that night. The one on his arm never argued with him, he said. She was just about as stupid and irrational as he was, he said, thinking, I suppose, that he was being ironic. But even at that moment I thought it was the first truthful thing he'd said in a long time.
    I laid my hand on the nightshirt. The silk was cool and slick and I clenched it with my fingers like a lover's back. And then I let it go. It was Fred's shirt. It had been too big for pasty slender Fred. I looked at it. Periwinkle blue. White oyster buttons. Soft tip collar. Versace. Two hundred and fifty dollars. Who'll start the bidding at nothing? I looked at the shirt and wondered why I hadn't given it away or thrown it away from the negative provenance. But I didn't give a damn about that. It felt good to sleep in. That was a healthy attitude, surely.
    I looked around the room. And my eyes moved to my dresser and found a silver tankard stuffed with an arrangement of dried flowers. I rose and crossed to it and picked it up. It was from Max. The tankard, not the flowers. It was Georgian with a baluster shape and a flared circular foot and a light engraved pattern of flowers and foliate scrolls. He'd been an ignorant gift-giver. Subscriptions and sweaters. I vaguely remembered challenging him about it and he'd bought me this for seven hundred dollars. On eBay, where every grandma and pack rat is her own auction house. And he'd gotten me a glorified beer mug. But I was grateful at the time. He wanted to use it himself, I realized. He said the silver was the only thing that would keep a beer cold in the Georgian era. Yum, he said. But I didn't let him use it even once. I put flowers in his beer mug and I kept it to this moment, standing naked and alone in my bedroom, my face twisted beyond recognition in the reflection in my hand. It was beautiful, this object, really. That's why I kept it. Both these men had vanished forever from this place. Exorcised. The objects they touched--a thing I would push like crazy in an auction if they'd been famous and dead--held not a trace of them. And I felt the chilly creep of panic in my limbs at this thought.
    I put the tankard down and turned away. I crossed to the bed and I lifted this Versace shirt with soft tip collar and I let it fall over my head and down, the silk shimmering against me, and suddenly I felt as if I'd climbed inside Trevor's skin. Can you trust to know a man from a pair of dark eyes? From Chinese food and a child's game played by an adult after a lifetime of quiet pain inflicted by a mother? From the touch of a hand? Inside this draping of silk my body had its own kind of logic. These details are the man, my body reasoned, as surely as the buttons and the stitching and the weave of cloth are this $250 shirt. I raised my paddle and I bid on this man.

 

~

How do you assess the value of a thing? There are five major objective standards. The condition: the more nearly perfect, the better. The rarity: the rarer, the better. The size: usually neither too big nor too small. The provenance: the more intense--either good or bad--the better. The authenticity: though a fake may be, to any but an informed eye, indistinguishable from the true object, the world of the auction will cast out the pretender.
    And so I turn my mind now to the fifth night, the Friday night, of my week of assessments in the apartment of the deceased Mrs. Edward Martin, mother of Trevor Martin. On this night he opened the door to the bell and this fifth silk shirt was bloused in the sleeves and open to the third button and his chest was covered with dark down and his smile was so deeply appreciative of my standing there waiting to be let in that I thought for a moment he was about to take me in his arms and kiss me, which I would have readily accepted.
    But he did not. We spent the morning and the first hours of the afternoon working our way around the larger pieces in the foyer, the parlor, the library, the dining room. Then, after I'd assessed a beautiful mahogany three-pedestal dining table with brass paw feet, he said, "You're hungry." He was right. And for the second day in a row he did not even ask what I wanted but went to the phone and ordered my favorite Chinese dishes--though, in all honesty, I would have varied my fare if he'd asked--but I found myself liking his presumption, liking that he should know this domestic detail about me.
    And after we ate, he took me to a small room lined completely with armoires in rosewood and mahogany and walnut, and filling the armoires was everything that could be embroidered--quilts and drapes and cushions and bellows and doilies and on and on, big things and small--and there were Persian rugs stacked knee high in the center of the floor and on top of them sat two open steamer trunks, overflowing with indistinguishable cloth objects all frilled and flowered.
    "I'm surprised at her," I said without thinking. "She's out of control in here."
    "This was my room," Trevor said.
    I turned to him, wanting to take the words back.
    "It didn't look like this," he said, smiling.
    I had a strong impulse now to lean forward and lay my forehead against the triangle of his exposed chest. But I held still. I would not push him into the rest of his life. Then he said, "Let's leave this room for later," and he was moving away. I followed him down the hallway and he paused at a closed door, the only room I hadn't seen. He hesitated, not looking at me, but staring at the door itself as if trying to listen for something on the other side. I quickly sorted out the apartment in my head and I realized that this must have been her bedroom.
    How long had it been since I'd made love? Some months. Too many months. One of the great, largely unacknowledged jokes Nature plays on women--at least this woman--is to increase one's desire for sex while decreasing one's tolerance for boring men. Horny and discriminating is a bad combination, it seems to me. And the situation before me--exceedingly strange though it was shaping up to be--was anything but boring. Still he hesitated.
    I said, "This is hard for you."
    He nodded.
    He opened the door and I had no choice but to step to his side and look in.
    There were probably some pots and pans, a telephone and a commode, some kitchen utensils, that were not Victorian in Mrs. Edward Martin's apartment. But almost nothing else. Except now I was looking at her bed and it was eighteenth-century Italian with a great arched headboard painted pale blue and parcel-gilt, carved with lunettes, and rising at each side was a pale pink pilaster topped not by a finial but by a golden cupid, his bow and arrow aimed at the bed. The smell of lilacs rolled palpably from the room, Trevor put his arm around my shoulders, and some little voice in my head was going, How desperate have you become?
    Then he gave me a quick friendly squeeze and his arm disappeared from around me and he said, "Maybe I'll let you do this room on your own."
    "Right," I said, and I sounded as if I was choking.

 

~

An hour later I found him sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee. I sat down across from him.
    We were quiet together for a time, and then he said, "Do you want some coffee?"
    "No," I said. "Thanks."
    He stared into his own cup for a long moment and then he said, "She loved objects."
    "That's clear."
    "My childhood, her adulthood. It was all one," he said softly. "She had a good eye. She knew what she wanted and she knew what it would cost and she was ready to pay it."
    He was saying these things with a tone that sounded like tenderness. On our first evening he'd taken pleasure in my being able to look inside him, but at this moment he seemed opaque. He felt tender about her shopping? But then it made a kind of sense. I, of all people, should understand his mother. I played people like her every day.
    I made my voice go gentle, matching his tone. "What she saw and loved and bought, this was how she said who she was."
    Trevor looked at me and nodded faintly. "Like style. We are what we wear. We are what we hang on our walls. Perhaps you're right. She was talking to me."
    He looked away.
    And I thought: the buying isn't the point; it's that we understand the objects. We love what we understand. And then I averted my eyes from the next logical step. But I can see it now, replaying it all: we love what we understand, and there I sat, understanding Trevor Martin.
    I waited for him to say more but he seemed content with the silence. I was not. I was doing entirely too much thinking. I said, "I've solved your mystery."
    He smiled at me and cocked his head. The smile was reassuring. It was okay to move on.
    I said, "Her pillows--and there are a dozen of them--they all have lilac sachets stuffed inside the cases."
    "Of course. I should have realized. She slept in it."
    I found I was relieved that even in his freedom to search for the source of the scent he had avoided her bedclothes. And he had not made love to me on her bed. These were good and reassuring things. I was free now to relax with my pleasure in the way he lifted his eyebrows each time he sipped his coffee, the way he lifted his chin to enjoy the taste, the way his eyes moved to the right and his mouth bunched up slightly when he grew thoughtful, the way--for the second time--he reached out and laid his hand on mine. I was filled with the details of him. I could sell him for a million bucks. Not that I would. Clearly, part of me was beginning to think he was a keeper.
    When his hand settled on my hand, he said, "I will sleep better tonight because of you."
    I looked at him with a little stutter in my chest. I'd suddenly become what my daddy used to call "cow-simple." It was from his touch. It was from merely the word sleeping. It was stupid but I was having trouble figuring out what he was really trying to say.
    And he let me gape on, as if I was out alone in a field, paused in the middle of chewing my cud, wondering where I was. Then he said, "The mystery. Solved."
    "Of course," I said.

 

~

When this fifth work day was done, for the fifth time he walked me to the door and thanked me, rather formally, for all that I was doing. Tonight I stopped and looked into his eyes when he said this. "I've enjoyed your company," I said.
    "And I've enjoyed yours," he said.
    That's all I wanted to say. I turned to go.
    "Amy," he said.
    I turned back and my instinct said this was the time he would take me into his arms. My instinct was wrong. Was this another trend for the forty-year-old woman? Horny, discriminating, and utterly without sexual intuition? He simply said, "I'll see you down."
    We went out the door together and along the hall and I pushed the down button on the elevator and a spark of static electricity bit at my fingertip. That was it, I thought. I've now discharged into the electrical system of the building elevators whatever that was I was feeling a few moments ago.
    The doors opened. We stepped in. The doors closed. We were alone, and maybe the elevators did suck up the charge that was between us, because we descended one floor of the ten we had to go and Trevor reached out and flipped the red switch on the panel and the elevator bounced to a stop and a bell began ringing and he took me in his arms and I leaped up and hooked my legs around him as we kissed. He pressed me against the wall and he did not make a sound.

 

~

The next day I leaned into the tinted window of Arthur Gray's limo and faced the rush of trees and light standards and, eventually, industrial parks, along the Long Island Expressway. I never had understood what men saw in lovemaking in a standing position. Though Trevor had been strong enough, certainly, to hold me up without my constantly feeling like I would slip off him. He was silent, but he did not cry out, "Oh Mama," which would have been much worse, under the circumstances. We'd not had a proper date. We'd never even gone out for a meal. But that sounded like my mama talking. I was well fucked and unusually meditative.
    When we were on Highway 27, out among the potato fields and vegetable stands and runs of quaint shops and approaching East Hampton, Arthur finally roused me from going nowhere in my head. He said, "Amy, there's one more item that I want you to put on your list. Okay?"
    "Okay."
    "It's the special request I mentioned on your machine." Arthur was shuffling his feet and talking all around something and he'd finally gotten me interested, even suspicious.
    "What are you talking about, Arthur?"
    "A dinner with you."
    "With me?"
    "At Fellini's. In SoHo. They've already donated the meal, with wine. Dinner for two with the most beautiful auctioneer in New York."
    I was silent. This was really troubling for a reason I couldn't quite define.
    "Come on," he said. "Think of the whales."
    "This is for whales? I thought it was for a disease."
    "Whales get diseases, too. The point is that your mystique, which is considerable, is Nichols and Gray's mystique, as well. Give somebody a dandy candlelit dinner. For us. Okay?"
    There was no good reason to say no. I liked whales. I liked Arthur. I liked Nichols and Gray. But there was suddenly a great whale of a fear breaching inside me and falling back with a big splash: I was going to have to sell myself.
    I looked out the window and across a field I saw a cow, standing alone, wondering where the hell she was.

~

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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