“It’s a Kandinsky,” I said. “Color print from an original gouache. It’s signed.”
That was the extent of my knowledge, quoted straight from the catalogue entry. If the potential customer wanted to know more, I’d have to go to Google. I was just helping at my aunt’s art gallery, making a few bucks for a few hours work. It wasn’t a bad way to spend spring break. We weren’t slammed with traffic. Today was busier because of the market taking place on the square.
I hadn’t bothered beyond a “Good afternoon, let me know if I can help you,” with the three couples that had wandered inside earlier. They were browsers. If a piece got their attention, they would signal me. People didn’t like it when salespeople hovered. The serious customers resented it because they wanted to enjoy the art in private, and the window shoppers got uncomfortable because the attention made them feel guilty for walking in with no intention to buy.
All this to say that I broke the rules with this guy.
I liked looking at him.
He was younger than the usual walk-ins, but he didn’t look artsy or hipsterish. My aunt told me that artists came in from time to time, with their portfolio, looking for a place that would hang them. I had instructions: take a few pictures of the portfolio, write down the contact info. You never knew when the next sensation might appear, even if I doubted that magical event would ever happen in Aunt Cora’s shop.
He was alone, another oddity. Young couples often wandered in, on a sunny week-end afternoon, after a nice lunch in one of the trendy nearby eateries. One of the women told me she had stopped visiting museums because that’s where everybody went and art galleries were free. Not to mention you take in your art in smaller, digestible portions. I completely understood what she meant.
The guy was good looking, in a shy, preppy way that was equal parts endearing and subtly grating. The kind of young man mothers tended to fawn over. A disadvantage that was hard to overcome. I decided to give him the Kandinsky plug because I wondered what his voice sounded like.
He turned to me, and I saw something in his eyes–a quickly subdued flash of amusement–that made me reevaluate my first impression. Reevaluate to what, I wasn’t sure. A degree of caution, definitely.
“I’ve heard of Kandinsky,” he said. “Shouldn’t this be in a museum?”
A low voice, borderline confidential. This wasn’t a church or a library. He could speak up and I almost told him that, but he grinned and the smile touched his eyes. I smiled in response, a reflex.
“Prints aren’t that rare,” I said. “You’re thinking of the paintings.”
He leaned closer to the frame. “It’s annoying,” he said. “There’s no price. I believe things should be priced, so you would know ahead of time if you can afford to fall in love with them or not.”
I felt myself blush. Stupid. He wasn’t suggesting I wore a tag and a bar code. Or did he?
“I think it’s the opposite,” I said. “We want people to appreciate the pieces without suggesting a transaction. Enjoy the art in complete freedom.”
“And when they’re suitably mollified, hit them with the bill.” He sighed. “How much is it?”
“I’ll look it up.” I pulled out my tablet. “One thousand.”
He smiled again. “Not nine ninety-nine ninety-nine? I always believed prices had to be like that, for some bizarre tax reason.” He tilted his head and squinted at the print. “I thought it would be worth more. How come you have it in here?”
I didn’t know. Was he concerned about provenance? “Cora must have bought it. She goes to auctions and estate sales. It will be in the documents. Give me a minute.”
I expected him to tell me not to bother, that he didn’t intend to buy the print anyway, but he nodded. I went to the desk and pulled out the file.
“It’s what I thought,” I said. “An estate sale in Orlando, last fall.” I saw that we would make a small profit on it. The work had been appraised at eight hundred. Our cut on the upcoming artists we exhibited was much higher, but Aunt Cora was strategic. She sprinkled the occasional famous name among the regular offering to elevate the gallery’s profile.
He pulled out his credit card. “Ring it up.”
That was by far my easiest sale, and it must have shown on my face because he laughed.
“It’s for my grandfather. His birthday is coming up and I had no idea what to get him.”
I took the print from the wall. “That’s a nice gift. You think he will like it?” You would think I was trying to discourage him from buying the thing.
“He’s a collector,” he said. “Not a big one, you know, but he has all kinds of art, very eclectic.”
“Do you need it wrapped for air travel?”
He didn’t. I ran his card–Joseph K. Lehrer. “Do you mind giving me an address, for reference? We like to know where the art goes.”
“I’ll give you my grandfather’s address. That is acceptable, yes? Considering that’s where it’ll be …”
I wrote down an address in Fort Myers, and handed him the package. Even with the frame, it wasn’t heavy. And that was it. I wouldn’t see the interesting Mr. Lehrer again.
“Uh, are you allowed to take a break? For a cup of coffee, maybe?” he said.
I hesitated. But I’m a good girl, dedicated. “On a regular Saturday it wouldn’t be a problem, but with the market, you know …”
He looked disappointed. “I understand.”
“We close at seven.”
“For dinner then. Yes, deal?” He held out his hand. “It’s Joey, by the way.”
Joey was a lot of fun. We went for dinner, talked a lot, laughed a lot. He was down from Chicago to see his parents who had recently joined the grandfather on the Gulf coast. He was thinking of doing the same, tired of the cold and the long winters. He wrote for travel publications and there was no reason why he couldn’t do that from some sunny place.
“I spend so much time in airports and planes, it would make sense to live in a place that doesn’t get snowed in,” he said.
He gave me his number, I gave him mine. He dropped me at my aunt’s, kissed me goodnight, and said he would call.
I wasn’t holding my breath. I had spent a pleasant evening with a cool guy who hadn’t tried to get me flat on my back. In my book, that’s a win.
But he called back, and we met again. I was back in school, focusing on finishing that last year, and he traveled a lot. We made do and we made plans.
Aunt Cora opened another gallery in Fort Myers that I managed, profitably I may add, and, three years later, I married Joey. Our respective families got along swimmingly. It was so perfect, so cookie-cutter, so properly respectable that I cringed a little. We have hurricanes and sinkholes in Florida, and what was left of my far-off Sicilian ancestry perked up at random, with a wagging finger and a frown. Beware, the ground might not be as solid under your feet as you think.
There’s a common belief that only stupid people get scammed. That when it’s too good to be true …
I’m not stupid and I didn’t get scammed.
When I told my dad I met Joseph K. Lehrer and thought of moving in with him, he said, like any parent would: “Who is he?”
Because Dad was a cop, sergeant, Miami-Dade, he wasn’t satisfied with my answers. He didn’t hook Joey to a lie detector like in that funny movie with the burning gazebo, but he did a search, far and wide. Joey came up clean, with all the boxes checked.
When I told Joey, a week before the wedding, that he had been vetted more seriously than a potential cabinet member, he didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, he just nodded.
“Of course,” he said, “if we have a daughter and she brings a complete stranger home, I’ll stick him in a chair with a spotlight in his face. He better not blink.”
So now, there we were, married, with a six-year-old daughter–we had a few years respite before subjecting suitors to the third degree–and a toddler boy. Joey still traveled frequently, with the entire family in tow when the trips weren’t too strenuous, and I managed four galleries, with plans for two more.
I also worked on a degree in art history to boost my credentials.
That vague disquiet about the solidity of the ground I walked on was dulled, like a tooth sensitivity that the dentist deemed normal. Nothing you could see in the x-rays.
Until I saw the Kandinsky.
We were at a farewell retirement party for one of my art professors. His wife had rented a yacht for the evening, one of these enormous floating palaces that millionaires, or aspiring millionaires, charter for a cruise with friends and the appropriate bimbo assortment. It was one of the professor’s fantasies, an innocent make-believe game.
The Kandinsky was in one of the lavishly decorated gangways, surrounded by other prints and lithographs. I spotted a Dufy and a Miró, all pieces chosen for matching size and color compatibility. Whoever curated this mini sea gallery had good taste.
Joey was chatting up a gaggle of academics, mostly women, and I motioned at him to leave his fawning circle of groupies. My husband was in his mid-thirties now, less preppy and more devastating.
“Thanks,” he said, giving me a light kiss, “I didn’t know how to extricate myself.”
Sure. “I have something to show you.” I took him by the hand and led him to the Kandinsky.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” he said. “How many of these are they?”
“Uh-huh. That’s the print, honey. When did your grandpa sell it?”
“I have no idea.” He looked puzzled. “Well, it’s his. He can do with it whatever he wants. If he decides to sell it, that’s his choice. You saw his collection. His walls are getting crowded.”
They sure were. With Dufy and Miró, and a couple more Kandinsky.
I grabbed Joey by a shoulder and led him through one of the sliding doors. There wasn’t anybody on this deck. The food and drinks were one level up.
“I happen to have an eye for that stuff, Joey, and an excellent memory for details and numbers. If we leave this decadent pool party and drive to Fort Myers, will we find gaping holes in the art array?”
“How would I know?”
I don’t care how talented the grifter, you don’t live with somebody for a decade without sensing when they’re shitting you. My beloved husband was shitting me. He looked at me for a couple of long seconds. He knew me as well as I knew him.
He sighed. “What will you do?”
“You mean, will I tell whoever owns this Las Vegas on a keel that the art in the gangway leading to the restroom …”
“I think it’s called the head,” Joey said, amused.
“Whatever. They bought crap.”
“Appropriate.” He laughed. He had a highly communicative laughter.
When we’d both recovered from the giggles, I said, “Grandpa Lehrer is a talented forger.”
Joey cleared his throat. He went down on one knee and took my hand, the left one, with the plain wedding band. “I love you Ellen,” he said, “and I have a confession to make.”
To tell the truth, the ground didn’t crumble beneath my feet–I was on a boat–but my balance shifted. It found a new point of equilibrium. A more honest one. In our relationship, if not exactly in the world at large.
I was married to a talented artist. Or talented artists, plural. Joey could do anybody.
“Except Rubens,” he said. “I can’t stand Rubens.”
We renewed our vows that night.
— M.E. Proctor is currently writing a series of contemporary detective novels. The first book STREET SONG comes out from TouchPoint Press in 2023. Her short stories have been published in Vautrin, Bristol Noir, Pulp Modern, Mystery Tribune, Reckon Review, Shotgun Honey and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. Twitter: @MEProctor3 – website: www.shawmystery.com