Dean Jollay currently resides in St. Petersburg, Florida. His short fiction has appeared in Aethlon, New Plains Review, Helix, and The Write Room. Currently he is at work on a novel and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. He founded AHEAD, an Ohio nonprofit organization which provides educational and social services for at-risk youth and their families.
Phil phoned to give me the lowdown on his latest divorce, this one from a lovely French woman named Suzette. Two wives had preceded her. I'd been best man in Phil's first wedding, usher in the second, and a mere bystander in the third. (I hadn't taken my demotion personally, supposing my friend too embarrassed to press me into service for the third time in fourteen years.) The sad news came with an invitation for a weekend visit to check out the co-op he'd recently purchased on the Upper East Side, an apartment in a pre-WWII building that New Yorkers covet—950 square feet of heaven that cost him a cool $2.1 million—a bargain, he assured me. Suzette had claimed their house in Scarsdale, and since Phil detested the suburbs, he'd hotfooted it back to the City.
I flew from Detroit to LaGuardia and cabbed to Phil's new digs. Sizing me up as a helpless Midwesterner, a gruff doorman of undermined Slavic descent ushered me to the elevator and punched the button for the fifth floor. Phil greeted me in the hallway. We man-hugged, shoulder to shoulder, finishing with a couple of quick punches on the back. I barely recognized him. My friend had a post-divorce routine. To grease his return to the dating scene, he would whiten his teeth, buy some new clothes, and drop twenty or thirty pounds. This time he'd gone overboard. His face was vegetarian thin, his neck the size of a starved waterfowl. A skinny black vest and tight gray slacks bespoke his malnourishment. He'd cut his hair short too. Later he told me a new girlfriend had dragged him to her hairdresser with an ultimatum: "It's me or the comb-over."
After a thirty-second tour, Phil opened a nice bottle of Brunello and we sat in his living room yakking about his parents and sister. I knew them from their campus visits when we were in college and, of course, from our frequent reunions at Phil's weddings. Phil was an antitrust lawyer at a big Wall Street firm, so we commiserated about the billable hours grind that ruled his existence. "I record my life in ten-minute increments," he complained. "All making partner meant is that I have to drum up business and work my ass off." As usual he neglected to mention his high six-figure salary plus bonus. We had pretty much the same conversation whenever I visited. I wanted to say, "Boohoo. Quit if you're unhappy." But it was pointless to ruin the weekend.
As we chatted, I noticed a large painting over his fireplace. The work commanded the entire space between mantel and ceiling. The paint was thick, like stucco, applied with a spatula or scraper rather than a brush, a composition of terrified horses pulling a flaming, driverless chariot at breakneck speed. Random deep blue, crimson, and bright yellow blobs, eyes, birds, fish, and wavy lines were splattered on the perimeter. I parked my wineglass, gathered myself, and, hands clasped behind my back, inched over to study this masterpiece. Phil grabbed The Times and pretended to ignore me. As my examination proceeded, I occasionally turned to him to pose a question, but he kept his head buried in the newspaper.
"The hell is this?" I asked him finally.
"A consolation prize," he said, "after the divorce. A present from me to me. It's called Fire Chariot Number Twenty-two."
"You paid actual money?" My good friend, a very worldly guy who claimed he was knowledgeable about art and the art world, most definitely had been swindled. "We have one like this at home, hanging on the fridge."
"Asshole," he hissed. "You wouldn't know the difference between a Leonardo and a Delgado."
"My point," Phil said.
"Never underestimate my powers of observation." I turned, ambled back to the couch, sank down, and folded my hands behind my head. "Give, man. I want to hear the whole story."
Phil tossed the newspaper on the floor and sighed. He told me the painting was by an Italian artist named Rinaldi. One of a series. "You know—like Jasper Johns painted American flags and William Wegman photographed Weimaraners."
"I didn't mean that story. Who conned you and how—that's what I want to know."
He stared at me. Outside, from the direction of the high school across the street, several boys yelled, their shouts close by at first, then more distant, receding as if they were running away. He gave up the gallery—the Pander in SoHo. In a reedy voice, he said, "They represent the artist in New York."
"There's a woman in this story somewhere," I said.
Phil was up pacing, averting his eyes, cracking his knuckles, and licking his lips. I could always tell when he was holding back, trying to convince himself of something while attempting to persuade me at the same time. "The Pander is almost as famous as Zwirner or Lehmann Maupin," he pleaded. "They have quite a reputation for bringing the work of upcoming European artists to collectors in the United States."
There was only one question I really wanted him to answer: "How much?"
Phil stopped and pointed at the painting. "Rinaldi is from northern Italy. Studied in Paris. Started his career as a realist, like Picasso. Began to experiment and was heavily influenced by the Postmodernist School."
"Who the hell cares?" No straight answer would be forthcoming, so I'd have to dig. This was New York after all—everything marked up, then marked up some more. I did the math. Phil's apartment cost about ten times what it would have sold for in Detroit. If the Rinaldi was as overpriced as his co-op, the painting probably cost him two to three grand. I decided to give him a high number. He'd feel better, a whole lot better, when he told me it was less. "More than five thousand?"
His face reddened. I knew my guess was way too low.
"More than ten?" That kind of money could buy a late-model, pre-owned Honda Civic for my wife, braces for all three of our kids, four years worth of contributions to my IRA, a down payment on a fishing camp in the UP.
He shrugged. "Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself because of the divorce."
"How sorry is sorry?"
"Great art," he said, gesturing at the painting again, "nourishes the soul. It's priceless."
I jumped up and raised my fist. "Right on, brother!" We were getting nowhere. Not that Phil's mistake was my business, but I was curious. My friend could be impulsive, but he wasn't stupid. Who had manipulated him into such a colossal lapse of judgment? If I wanted answers, I'd have to convince him to take me to the scene of the crime, find the salesclerk, and ask a few questions. It was a lovely autumn weekend in Manhattan. A storm two days earlier had scrubbed the sky to a deep blue and left the air brisk and pure. What could be more pleasant than a field trip to SoHo? "So take me to this gallery tomorrow. I'd like to see what all the fuss is about. They have more of this guy's work, right?"
Phil cast a suspicious look my way. "There's a reception Saturday evening around seven. Wine and hors d'oeuvres. The invitation is on the coffee table, but I didn't think you'd be interested."
"Nonsense. If you're into this guy Rinaldi, then so am I. I apologize for busting your chops, man."
Saturday evening, around six forty-five, we took off for SoHo. Our taxi driver picked a circuitous route that was supposed to save time but ensnared us in early theater traffic. Almost an hour later we tumbled out of the cab at our destination, a building clad in crumbling orangish bricks held together with copious applications of mortar. Faded signage beneath the cornice revealed that the structure once had housed a wholesale plumbing supply company. Pander Gallery shared the bottom floor with a jewelry store.
We elbowed our way inside through twelve-foot oak double doors. The gallery was ablaze, packed with guests dressed in black Prada and Armani. Stick-thin as mannequins, they mingled and sipped their wine. In a navy blazer and khaki pants, my usual attire at the accounting firm back in Detroit, I felt out of place, a hick among the glitterati. Here and there through voids in the crowd, I spotted Fire Chariots hanging on the white walls. There must have been twenty or more in all sizes. "Remember, I want to meet the bandido who sold you the painting," I told Phil. "Get the lowdown on this hotshot Italian artist."
"I knew this was a mistake," Phil said.
A waiter passed with a half-filled tray of wineglasses. I grabbed one and surveyed the room, trying to mimic the patrons' bored looks.
A smiling woman in a black cocktail dress approached us. With a large mouth, a mole beneath her right cheekbone, she appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Not exactly a beauty, but attractive enough to be a TV spokesperson selling Toyotas or washers and dryers. She had an aura of confidence as she greeted this one and that one on her way to where we were standing. When she leaned in to hug Phil, I saw that her dress had no back.
"Hey, Phil." She accepted a quick peck on the cheek but braced her arms so he couldn't muss her brown hair, teased and sprayed with frosted highlights. "You must be Ralph. I'm Ellen." She extended her hand. It was cold and dry. "Phil's told me all about you. You're from Detroit, yes?"
So Phil and Ellen had been chatting about me. When had that conversation taken place? I had an uncomfortable feeling that something untoward was going on here. But what?
Ellen tilted her head and closed her eyes for a moment. "As I recall, there's a nice little art museum in your town. Some of Diego Rivera's most important work is there."
Okay, so she'd done a little research. She was prepared. To what end was still a mystery. "I've heard of Rivera. He painted murals, right? He was married to that other artist . . ."
Enough small talk. Might as well get straight to the point. "So you sold that Fire Chariot painting to Phil?" I glanced at my friend. He was ignoring us, rubbernecking the crowd as if looking for someone.
"No selling was required. I showed the piece to him," she said. "Phil has quite the discerning eye. But what about you? Are you interested in art?"
"I have to admit—I'm a little out of my element."
"I see someone I know over there." Phil pointed at a half-dozen people huddled in conversation. "You don't mind talking to Ellen for a couple of minutes, do you?"
I didn't—not at all.
He blended into the crowd before I could answer. Ellen snatched my hand and led me toward the back of the gallery. "What sort of art appeals to you? Tell me about your aesthetic."
I'd taken an art appreciation course in college, but its content had disappeared from my memory tapes like almost everything else I'd learned there. "Where I'm from originally, up north in Michigan, artists paint cottages nestled among birch trees, seagulls flying over lakes, and sailboats racing on open water—stuff for tourists." I felt like a tourist myself. If my hunting buddies could see me now, they'd have some choice words.
"There's something I want to show you." We stopped next to a painting that looked like a pint-sized version of Phil's. "I'll bet you know more than you think. So what do you see here?"
A child's finger-painting came to mind. I paused, searching for a more diplomatic answer. "It seems like a smaller version of a much larger work."
Ellen clapped her hands. "Exactly. It's what we call a study. Rinaldi painted it as the basis for his Fire Chariot Number Seventeen, commissioned by an important Canadian patron. The full-sized painting sold for one hundred twenty thousand dollars."
"Holy shit!" The words were out of my mouth before I could censor them. Had Phil paid anything close to that for his version?
Ellen nodded and smiled. She circled behind me and cupped her hands over my eyes. "Visualize the painting. What images do you remember? Picture them in your mind."
Her hands were soothing. While you're at it, massage my temples, won't you? I drew a blank. I could have sneaked a peek through her long, slender fingers, but didn't. "Sorry."
"Ralph, you have to concentrate."
"The fire chariot, I suppose. That's about the only thing I can remember."
She withdrew her hands and gave me a look of disappointment.
"I'll do better next time. Promise."
She gestured at the study. "The artist depicts the ancient myth of the flaming, rider-less chariot plunging into the River Styx. The river doesn't extinguish the fire. Instead, the entire underworld becomes a raging inferno. The symbols and abstract forms at the margin represent the animals and other creatures attempting to flee the eternal conflagration."
We hadn't studied this particular myth at my upstate Michigan high school, but I felt this unexplainable need to please the teacher. "Now that you've told me what's going on, I can see it—yes."
"The imagery in this painting, while distinctly the artist's, is certainly reminiscent of Miro's work, wouldn't you agree?"
"No question," I said, tugging on the collar of my shirt. Perspiration trickled from my armpits. I had read that galleries and museums were kept at a constant humidity and temperature to preserve the work, but this place was the exception. I needed air and a glass of cold water. Spotting Phil across the room, I took a step in his direction.
Ellen's hand clamped onto my bicep. Her fingers kneaded the muscles in my arm. With her free hand she traced the border of the painting. "You can see this intricate network of lines connecting the abstract figures. Symbolically they link these beings forever in the raging fires of the underworld."
"You mean hell, don't you?" I grabbed a cheese puff as a server strolled by.
She shook her head. "Different concept altogether. Part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Stay here and I'll get you a brochure about the artist." She let go of my arm and vanished through a doorway. Seconds later she returned and held out an expensive-looking folio. The cover felt like handmade paper stock. The edges were ragged. I flipped through it—a two-page bio of Rinaldi, flattering blurbs from art critics attesting to his singular vision, brilliant technique and execution, and full-color reproductions of his paintings interspersed with weighty quotations from the artist himself: "My work is inspired by the myths of Greece and Rome, particularly their preoccupation with life after death." And, "My work depicts the destruction of mankind and all earthly creatures, yet it is a hopeful post-apocalyptic view of the future."
Righto. I looked up. Ellen was studying me. Her arms were folded, her lips wet as if she'd just licked them. "So what do you think?"
"Must have cost a bundle to print this brochure."
"About the painting I showed you. You're an investor, aren't you? Planning for your son's college and your retirement. In the last ten years, and especially since the Crash, art has been a better investment than stocks, bonds, or real estate. Did you know that?"
"Frankly, it's very hard to believe." The day before I flew to New York, my wife and I had argued about her plan to remodel our kitchen, a thirty thousand dollar project she'd dreamed up. I told her that spending money on our house was like putting lipstick on a pig. "Even if we could afford it," I'd said, "and we can't, we'd never get our money back. We have as much chance of selling our home for a profit as we have of finding Jimmy Hoffa's grave."
"But it's absolutely true," Ellen said. "If you buy the right piece by the right artist for the right price, you can't beat art as an investment."
"A lot of ifs." I could imagine the conversation with my wife, telling her I spent thousands of dollars to buy a painting when she couldn't have her kitchen. "If it were that easy, everyone would be buying art. I'm sure the market goes down as well as up."
She shook her head. "Art is fundamentally recession-proof. The last five years have proved that."
I doubted what she was saying was true, but didn't have the facts to argue.
She grabbed my shoulders and drew me closer. "Look, this study is the perfect opportunity for you. The artist phoned me this afternoon. He will part with it for a mere nine thousand dollars, even though he's sold similar studies for ten to fifteen thousand in the past. Why? you ask. He has a lot of expenses—his villa, the Ferrari, child support—it all adds up. He needs a sale. You need a safe investment. It's destiny."
"Sounds too good to be true."
"Don't be indecisive. Seize the opportunity."
Perhaps she was right. Maybe the painting was a good buy. Certainly compared with a hundred twenty thousand for the full-sized work, nine grand was a screaming bargain. My fingers tingled as I mentally reviewed our Visa card balance and calculated that the purchase price would barely fit within our credit limit. Still, I wavered. How would I explain this to my wife? And Phil would have a field day.
"Tonight the painting seems like an extravagance. Trust me—in a half-dozen years you'll pat yourself on the back. Rinaldi's paintings will hang in every major museum and gallery in Europe and North America. Your friends will admire your prescience. This piece will be worth ten times what you paid for it—guaranteed. I'll stake my reputation on it. I've seen this sort of appreciation happen with other artists, painters with a lot less talent than Rinaldi."
I shrugged my shoulders and made my neck crack. "My wife and I have other priorities right now. This isn't in our budget."
"I'm glad you mentioned your wife. You're probably asking yourself what she will think when you come home with this painting tucked underneath your arm. Maybe you suppose she'll be upset that you've spent hard-earned money on a frivolous purchase. But I can assure you that will not be the case. Once you explain how this investment will earn a thousand percent return, how it will help secure your future, she'll thank you."
Ellen seemed to be talking about some other wife, not mine. Not that mine didn't have good business sense, a practical side, because she did.
"You can't plan for good fortune," Ellen said. "The chance to buy a work of this caliber at a bargain price comes only once. You must act boldly. If you do, you will thank yourself for the rest of your life. If you don't, you will regret it just as long. Which will it be?"
By ten o'clock, all but a few stragglers had left the Pander Gallery. I had completely lost track of time and Phil. Ellen and I found him off in a corner, circling a nude female sculpture. "Don't get your tongue caught," I said. "You'll have to buy it."
"Where have the two of you been hiding all this time?"
This was the moment I'd been dreading, the moment when Phil would find out that I was as weak and reckless as he. I tried to think of something, some smartass remark to deflect his inevitable attack, but couldn't. First willpower, then wit, had forsaken me.
Ellen's arm was tucked in mine. She and Phil exchanged a knowing look. He smirked and pointed. "What's in the brown wrapping paper?" He knew—of course he did.
"Ralph bought the Fire Chariot Number Seventeen study," she volunteered.
"Honestly, Ellen," Phil said, "I have to hand it to you. Didn't think you could pull it off." He gave her a mock bow.
In that instant, I knew that the two of them had set me up. Suddenly dizzy, I swayed back and forth. Spittle dribbled from my mouth. Anger and humiliation roiled within. How could my best buddy scheme against me with a woman he barely knew?
She gave a quick smile and a shrug, as if to say, Really, it was nothing. Nothing at all. "I must tell you, Phil, your friend is a difficult case." She patted my shoulder. "Much more difficult than others—you, for example."
I supposed she was tossing me a doggie treat.
"Loser pays. I owe you dinner," Phil said. "Any restaurant you choose."
"I'll take the painting back now," Ellen said, reaching for the package. She told me I hadn't actually bought the study. She hadn't run my credit card. "So you'll have nothing to explain to your wife when you get home."
"I can't believe you did this."
"No harm," Phil said. "Be a good sport, eh?"
Just then I didn't want to be a good sport. I was pissed. Off the hook for the painting, perhaps I should have felt relieved. Instead, I felt duped twice over—by their bet and Ellen's successful sales pitch. "Happy to have been the evening's entertainment. Hope you enjoyed yourselves." My pride hadn't been this wounded since I'd missed a seven point buck at near point-blank range.
"Sackcloth and ashes don't suit you," Ellen said.
I imagined them concocting their plan on the telephone, Phil coaching Ellen on the best approach: Tell him it's a great investment. He'll fall for that. Undoubtedly they'd shared a good laugh. Perhaps I did deserve a payback, but what he'd done went way beyond tit for tat. How could I recover my self-respect? It came to me: "I'm buying the damn painting anyway! I want it! I really do." Their ruse had played out so quickly that buyer's remorse hadn't yet set in.
"As you wish," Ellen said calmly, as if she anticipated my outburst. "But the real price is twenty thousand, not nine. I lowered the ask to get you to bite."
No way could I come up with twenty grand. Besides, in my heart of hearts, I didn't really want the damn painting—not now.
There was no way I could spend another night in Phil's apartment. I'd eaten enough crow to last a long while. "I'm taking off," I said. "I'll find a hotel for tonight. Tomorrow, I'll stop by your place on my way to the airport and pick up my things."
"You're overreacting," Phil said.
As I backed out the door, I gave them one last look. Phil shook his head and muttered. Ellen gave me a fingertip wave good-bye, a gesture she'd apparently stolen from the British royal family.
Outside, SoHo bustled. People scurried in and out of cabs and restaurants. Sidewalks were crowded with New Yorkers in a hurry. Car horns blared impatiently. Distant sirens screamed. Normally the sights and sounds of the big city engaged my senses. Tonight I wanted a quick exit. The sooner, the better. I flagged down a cab. The video screen on the back of the taxi's front seat was running an ad for a midtown hotel. I told the driver to take me there.
The next day I ran by Phil's to pick up my stuff. I intended to go up to his apartment to tell him good-bye and give him a chance to square things between us. But he'd left my bag with the doorman. He didn't want to see me. The dour fellow in the gray uniform looked away as he passed my carry-on bag across the front desk. The suitcase felt heavy. I set it on the floor and unzipped it. There, on top of my clothes, lay the Waterford vase I'd brought Phil as a housewarming gift. I let myself out of the building.
At LaGuardia, I took out my cell phone a half-dozen times, thinking I should call Phil. And what? Forgive him? Tell him that we were still friends? Apologize? Hell no. He owed me an apology, not vice versa. I called my wife to tell her that the plane was on time. I'd be home for supper, back in Detroit where I belonged. Then came the obligatory question: "Did you and Phil have a good time?"
"He did," I said. "Doubt that I'll be coming back to visit him any time soon. I'll tell you about it when I get home."
But I knew I wouldn't explain what had happened. I couldn't. I was too embarrassed. Instead, I would lie and say we'd had an argument. Over? I'd told Phil he was incapable of having a long-term relationship with a woman. (True enough, though I'd never said it.) He'd taken offense. "I'll call him later in the week to patch things up," I'd tell my wife. "I promise." Of course, I had no intention of phoning him.
Will she notice when Phil doesn't send us a Christmas card? Maybe. Perhaps she'll ask if I've heard from him lately. "No," I'll say, "but I'll bet he's getting married again. So soon after the last divorce. This will be number four. Can you believe it? He's too ashamed to tell us, but not ashamed enough to give up on marriage. He loves being in love. You know Phil."
An innocent falsehood, one that will endure, one aimed at avoiding unnecessary harm to you or someone you care about, should always have some basis in fact.