Lot 16. Seven framed paintings by Lazarus Tompkins, Washington, D.C., painted 1996. Donated by Lazarus Tompkins.
Lazarus Tompkins referred to the young woman depicted in these paintings simply as "The Lonely Girl", and each of the seven paintings he made of her were named sequentially in this way. He saw his subject almost every day in the spring and summer of 1986 as he rode home from his job as a museum guide in the city. She sat on the Metro train, always alone, invariably reading a book, a brunette of about twenty-four who never once raised her eyes to make contact with anyone else's. Tompkins estimated that he never saw the color of her eyes once in the perhaps seventy or eighty times he sat near her on the train, so engrossed was she in her book and avoiding the glances of strangers. For his own part, he too was quite shy and thought it beyond himself to ever speak to her.
One night near the end of his employment at the museum, when he knew he might not see the lonely girl again, he summoned up the nerve to approach her. He was sitting three seats behind her and as he got close, he looked downwards and was able to see what she had been reading for the past week or so. Using a large hardcover copy of Sometimes a Great Notion, the girl had concealed from the eyes of her fellow Metro riders a small paperback book she'd tucked inside Ken Kesey's classic. Trying hard to remain unnoticed to the girl, Tompkins strained to see the book's title printed on the top of the two opened pages. It was Living With Shyness and Making Friends Too.
Seeing this book in her hands, Tompkins somehow lost his nerve and never did speak to the girl. In the following years, he found himself inexplicably attracted to girls who looked a lot like how she appeared in his memory. He painted this series, in which the cover of the lonely girl's self-help book is plainly exposed as she rides home from work, a full decade after he saw her last. Looking closely, one can see that as the series progresses, she is coming closer and closer to finishing the book. At no point do the people sitting around her, who change from painting to painting, notice her.
The Lonely Girl paintings would most likely have been forgotten, as Tompkins has never been a self-sustaining artist, had they not been seen at a group showing by the film actor Christopher Kelvin. When Kelvin asked Tompkins for the story behind them, he was so moved that he bought the paintings for use in a scene for a film he was currently shooting, All That We See Or Seem, which was hastily rewritten to include a scene in which he relates the full story almost verbatim to the character he later proposes to. This led directly to the purchase of prints of the series by the very Washington Metro system on which the girl had once ridden. If one rode in certain train cars during the summer of 1998, he or she might have seen the series replicated in posted advertisements for upcoming fare decreases.
Lot 17. A John Deere lawnmower, purchased in 1959 by Herman Zeile, Creighton, South Dakota. Donated by Herman Zeile, Jr. (grandson).
When corn farmer Herman Zeile decided it was time to propose to his girlfriend of eight months, Darcy Mulhollen, he wanted to do it in grand style. So he walked two miles to his neighbor Sam Todd's house with a bold idea: to mow his marriage proposal into the side of one of the grassy hills which Todd owned and did almost nothing with. Todd gave him the go-ahead, and in June of 1960 Herman towed his reliable push mower to that hill in South Dakota and began to work. He thought it might take him as much as a month to mow the words properly. They had to be enormous, because it was his intention to show the proposal to Darcy during what would be her first airplane ride. The private airstrip nearby offered to take people up for hour-long excursions and he had been saving up for one. He had chosen a very specific hill in which to etch his words because he knew that the path of those flights never went over it, and so he would hopefully be able to keep his project under wraps. Still, any quirk of fate might take some other plane past that hill, and he just had to pray that its pilot would not tell the wrong person about what he had seen.
It was tough going for Herman from the very beginning. He worked ten hours a day at the farm, drove out to the hill, and then mowed for two more. His problem was that from his ground perspective, he couldn't quite tell if his letters, more than twenty feet wide, would be clear enough if seen from the sky, or if they were coming out as straight as he wanted them to.
One day during the first week of his labors, Herman was shocked to see a small plane landing bumpily in a level field just a few hundred yards away. Out of the plane climbed a young woman, who walked over to Herman and introduced herself. Her name was May, and she sometimes took people out on excursion flights at her father's airfield. She told Herman that she happened to be taking her father's plane out for a spin to check a repair to its left wing when she looked down and saw the letters WIL cut into the hill below. When Herman told her of his project, begging her to keep it a secret of course, she advised him that his letters were sloping hard to the right and he needed to straighten them out. Also, he was not leaving enough room for them all; by the end of his sentence the letters would be wrapping eastward around the hill and wouldn't all be visible at once. For a very small fee, she offered to buzz past the hill once a day, touch down briefly, and let him know how it was looking as the work progressed. He agreed and thanked her mightily.
Over the course of the next week, May did indeed fly past once a day, landing in the nearby field and giving Herman instruction on the alignment of his letters. With her help the work progressed apace, and May even offered to take Herman up in the plane so he could see things for himself. He had a terrific time and instantly knew that one day he wanted to fly a plane as well. May offered to take him up each day if he wanted, just for fifteen minutes or so, and give him some basic instruction during his short breaks from mowing.
Heavy rains slowed things a bit, and on days when May could not perform a fly-over, Herman rested. On one of those days he drove to the airfield, to which May had invited him for lunch and an hour or so of flight instruction. By the time Herman had mowed WILL YOU MARRY M into his hill, he had, unfortunately, fallen in love with May, and she with him. He suddenly realized that his infatuation with Darcy was most likely due to the fact that she was his very first love, and vice versa, and marriage would probably be a huge mistake.
But still he labored on, not quite knowing what to do, feeling tremendous guilt and a profound obligation to Darcy. Each day he hoped his love for May would fade somehow, but each day it did not. It took him a total of three and a half weeks to finish the sentence WILL YOU MARRY ME DARCY. The letters were perfect. To celebrate, May let him take the controls of her plane for a few seconds as they buzzed the hill. In his frazzled mental state, Herman almost crashed the plane, and when they got to the ground safely he broke down and professed his love for May. She could not have been more delighted, and they kissed.
A huge problem remained, of course, and Herman spent all the money he'd saved in the world on hiring, through May's father's friends, three men with new lawnmowers to work from dusk till dawn mowing the rest of the proposal hill so that the letters would not be at all noticeable. It was a hard task, for Herman had done a very fine job making the letters quite distinct, but after nine hours, the deed was complete. Darcy never saw the words Herman had fashioned, and luckily for him his surprise had never been revealed. He broke it off with Darcy a week later and eventually married May. His private pilot's license was secured eight weeks after their first daughter was born.
Lot 18. Two dog collars belonging to their original owners, and a framed photograph of a dogs' wedding, October 1981. Donated by Pat Ryvers.
For those who suffer intense agony when forced to hear stories of canine cuteness, the tale of Boomerang and Betsy might provide a laugh. For romantic cynics, it may offer several. Boomerang was a hearty seven year old German Shepherd belonging to Les and Pat Ryvers of Linthicum, Maryland. One day he met Betsy, a Labrador Retriever, in a nearby dog park. Their respective owners were delighted to see the dogs fall instantly in love. It turned out that their owners lived only a block from each other, and frequent visitation between the two dogs seemed a certainty.
Though Boomerang had been neutered, he seemed to savor every moment he spent with his new paramour, romping in either his yard or hers. As their owners became better friends, overnight stays became commonplace, and Betsy and Boomerang became inseparable.
One day, Betsy's owner, Sheila Grant, suggested that since the couple were obviously soul mates, they should officially marry. She arranged a "wedding" ceremony in the back yard on a Sunday afternoon in October. The owners of the dogs and their children were in attendance, and a friend conducted the nuptuals. Boomerang wore a bow tie affixed to his collar, and Betsy wore a new red ribbon in her hair. The dogs behaved beautifully, sitting in place beside each other throughout it all. Dozens of photographs were taken, rice was thrown, and the families applauded the new union. The dogs spent the next two full days in each other's company at a nearby canine boarding farm—their honeymoon.
Strangely, just weeks after the ceremony, Boomerang and Betsy seemed to cool to one another. Once in a while they got into a brief and harmless yipping match, something they'd never suffered before the wedding. Sometimes Boomerang seemed very anxious to come home after an overnight stay with Betsy. By December, the two didn't seem to have much interest in each other, and one night Betsy's owner was alarmed to hear the normally docile creature barking angrily at Boomerang. She came downstairs to see Betsy in full voice as Boomerang merely sat there a few feet away from her, looking off at a wall, bored, as if he had heard it all before, and had simply lost interest in Betsy's complaints.
By February it seemed to be over between Boomerang and Betsy. They seemed genuinely perturbed to be in the same room with one another, and things stayed that way for good. No one could figure out why the pair had fallen so deeply out of love, but perhaps Les Ryvers' casual comment summed it all up: "They had a perfectly good thing going until they got married. That's always what screws these things up." For this remark he received an elbow in the ribs from his wife, but to this day the owners of Betsy and Boomerang do not overtly deny that making it all legal was the big mistake.
Lot 19. Six oil paintings by Larue Ganoit of Pontoise, France, painted 1952-1979. Donated by the estate of Larue Ganoit.
Larue Ganoit fought for his homeland for sixteen months during World War II, and was wounded twice in the legs. After his service he was hospitalized for almost a decade with mental illness, much of which was ascribed to lingering battle fatigue. He took up painting in the hospital and completed only six works in his life, all of them the highly skilled, richly detailed paintings presented here.
After his death his 1980, the paintings were brought to the public's attention by Ganoit's nephew, Jean-Luc Seignel, and came to be known as the Ghost Works. Ganoit finished the first of them in 1947. Pictured is the aftermath of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, which Ganoit engaged in shortly after the Americans secured the French shoreline. The dozens of almost faceless, translucent women in white and gray, wandering with their heads down and stepping softly amongst the corpses of soldiers strewn across the beach, are meant to represent the wives and lovers of the dead men, women who never got the chance to comfort them as they died. Ganoit's eye for grisly detail is more evident here than in any other of his works. His doctors believed this early emphasis on gory imagery was due to the fact that his memories of the battle were still so vivid in his mind. In his five subsequent paintings of the aftermaths of great battles, it is instead the anonymous women who become more detailed. As they roam amongst their pitied husbands at Arnhem, Antietam, the Perfume River, Dien Bien Phu, and Afghanistan, their colors intensify while the dead become more and more absorbed into the brushstrokes with which Ganoit depicted the earth beneath. The shortest duration of time between his battlefield paintings was four years. As his traumatic memories of war became more manageable, it seemed he was able to more easily shift his disturbing focus away from the biological horrors shown all around the women. Still, even into his sixties, Ganoit seemed disinterested in painting anything other than the day-after mournings of the mysterious spirit-women who came to see what had become of the men they loved.
Lot 20. The dueling sword of Johnathan Venable of Amiens, France, crafted in 1866. Donated by the Museum of Arms and Weaponry, Soissons, France.
This finely made dueling sword still retains some bloody discoloration from its final battle, when Johnathan Venable, a prominent jeweler, delivered a strike to the left arm of Yves Trauve, the owner of a company that leased carriages for long distance travel. Trauve struck back just seconds later and killed Venable with a blow to the heart. It was Venable's fourth duel in seven years. The purpose of each of them was to defend the honor of his wife Marjorie. Venable ran afoul of the law and of several prominent men in Amiens on his way to becoming known as a soft-spoken gentleman who was transformed into a hot-tempered, unrepentant fighter when responding to rumors that his wife had been unfaithful.
The sad irony lay in the fact that Marjorie Venable's honor was, in fact, not entirely worthy of Johnathan's ferocious defenses. In support of the suspicions of the day, her diaries revealed that she was unfaithful to her husband with at least three different men, one of whom Johnathan killed in his first duel of the four. The others were simply guilty of besmirching her name in public, which could not be abided by Marjorie's husband. She never admitted to him that she had taken lovers.
Venable's last duel took place almost a year after Marjorie left him, telling him that she had simply fallen out of love with him and wished to live apart. She went to live with relatives far outside the town where she was considered a scandalous woman married to a good-hearted but delusional cuckold blind to certain obvious truths. She learned of her husband's death just after their divorce was official. Venable wrote in his own diary that while he could tolerate losing his wife, he could not tolerate loose talk about a woman he considered "the picture of virtue and allegiance despite her shortcomings".
Marjorie managed at some length to take possession of the sword with which her husband had defended her name for so long. Only thirty years old then, she never became involved with another man, citing the terrible heartbreak of losing Johnathan because of her cowardly silence. She liquidated his estate and shocked her family by donating every penny of the proceeds to the Catholic church where they were married. This left her poor in a society which offered no social or financial opportunities for unmarried, uneducated women. Rather than re-marry, she became a schoolteacher in the small town of Molliens-Dreuil and died at the age of sixty.
Lot 21. An unbound, two hundred and fourteen page typewritten letter from John Gray to Dora Karlsmann, written March 12-19, 1977. Donated by Dora Karlsmann.
John Gray was a twenty-six year old underground filmmaker and writer living in Tallahassee, Florida when he decided to break up with his girlfriend of eleven months, Dora. She knew he was a strikingly obsessive young man, often laboring over his ten-minute short films for months, going without food or sleep for days in pursuit of an idea, sometimes spending every penny he had on shooting hours and hours of footage he knew he would almost certainly never use. He wrote poems by scribbling everything that came into his head in pages and pages of disconnected phrases, slowly going back and crossing out enough of them to reduce the mammoth outpouring to just ten or eleven lines of text. In conversation he was the same way, expounding upon a single idea for hours, determined to exhaust every possible viewpoint about an idea before he let it drop.
Attracted to this intensity, Dora became involved with John but eventually found herself repelled by his obsessions. Shortly before she summoned the nerve to dump him, she received a pre-emptive breakup letter in the mail, secured in an envelope an inch thick. It was also a complete autobiography, a dry lecture on human relationships, a day-by-day account of the couple's relationship with commentary on seemingly every word and body gesture that had passed between them, and a mind-numbingly thorough semi-apology. It also touched upon subjects ranging from religion (twenty pages on why John felt Dora's beliefs were invalid) to English literature (John compared Dora in a nine-page tangent to various characters from books he had read). The typewritten letter came out to two hundred and fourteen single-spaced pages, a work longer even than John's favorite novel, Slaughterhouse Five. After skimming it, Dora sent a terse note back to John, and never saw or spoke to him again. She kept the breakup letter, though, paging through it occasionally, finding it more and more interesting as the years went by, coming to think of it as a fascinating document of a mind unhealthily unleashed. Only by getting all the way through the letter some four years after she saw John last did she come to realize that, taken as a whole, it was a not-so-subtle indictment of her personality and was based on wholly inaccurate perceptions of her actions and intentions during the relationship. She never waded through the letter again and eventually decided it was something whose ownership she could easily live without.
Lot 22. Videotapes containing six episodes of What's She Like?, originally aired between March and June of 2001 in England and Ireland. Donated by the British Broadcasting Company.
One of the stranger chapters in the long and dubious history of reality television, What's She Like? paired up total strangers in an apparent attempt to make a love match. What the male daters did not know, however, was that they were being set up for a rather harsh sociological experiment. The producers of the show selected only the most sexually ravenous single men to represent the male half of the date. They were paired with young, beautiful, scantily dressed, open-minded women who had agreed to string these young men along mercilessly throughout the date. The idea was to get the men so hopeful for a sexual experience that they would do exactly what the audience expected them to: cheerfully overlook any behavioral transgression their date made during their couple of hours together. The producers paid the young women to commit one shocking moral lapse at a point during the date when the men were becoming very secure in the belief that they would be going home with the woman. In the very first episode, "Tina", who claimed to be a bisexual bartender looking for a one night stand, entertained her date Sam with tales of her escapades, of which he was made to feel he would soon be a part. Then, during dinner at a pricey restaurant, Tina turned viciously on the waiter, shelling him with racist insults. Sam, strangely enough, merely looked uncomfortably on as his sexy blonde date behaved so hideously. At the end of the date, Tina promised "a lot more fun" back at her apartment if he should ever call her for a second date. Sam did just that—costing himself ten thousand pounds by doing so. The unspoken rules of the show were simple: If the male who witnessed his date's revolting behavior never contacted her again because of it, he won money. If he was blinded by his physical desires and tried to set up a second date, he went penniless and was exposed as a heel.
The show was a minor hit when it aired in 2001, but it offended many with its cynical view of the psyche of young males, as well as the scripted behavior of the young women, who erotically teased their dates only to suddenly become racists, haters of the handicapped, car thieves, confessed heroin addicts, or—the most popular of the producers' choices—married. The show was taken off the air after generating just a little too much negative publicity. Statistically speaking, the men on the show failed miserably in the ethics category: fourteen of the eighteen daters tried to call the artificially despicable women for second dates.
Lot 23. A set of fifty-seven episodes of If You Came Along, aired on California Public Television between 1988 and 1994. Donated by California Public Television.
Stand-up comedian Walt Genovese imagined If You Came Along as a casual project to occupy himself during a slow time in his on-stage career. The first three episodes aired only on a community access channel, but the response was so positive that the show was picked up by public television, which asked Genovese to continue it with virtually no changes to its established format.
He came up with the show's concept during a long country drive three weeks after his girlfriend of twelve years and fiancée of one suddenly ended their engagement just seventy-two hours before their wedding. She then immediately moved away, and this stunning sequence of events gave Walt both bitter fodder for new comedy routines and a very deep emotional blow to the heart. He asked a friend to accompany him on the drive, which became a pleasant day of exploring small towns in California. They repeated the trip one week later, finding some different small towns to explore. The driving and walking and communication with the townsfolk he met gave Walt a great deal of simple comfort in his time of trial, and he thought his weekend ramblings would make for an interesting offbeat television show.
Each week's segment began with a brief text scroll telling the viewer that Walt Genovese's fiancée had left him, and in order to deal with the emotional pain he had taken to long weekend drives to little places he'd never been. Each week, he went off in search of low-key adventure with a different friend. During their random drives, Walt and the friend, chatting companionably and without any script or pre-planning, followed back country roads to flea markets, swap meets, church functions, street fairs, forgotten museums, and inevitably, grungy diners where they would eat lunch and then head home as dusk fell. Sometimes the topic of Walt's fiancée would come up in conversation, but mostly it wouldn't. In the end, the show was about nothing more than the peaceful feeling of idle weekend roaming with a trusted companion. No one on the show ever played to the camera or really even tried to entertain. If You Came Along nevertheless became a smash hit.
Genovese always insisted it was important that he remain true to the show's original concept, which meant an end to his drives when he finally got over the pain of losing his fiancée. Part of the show's attraction became its genuine poignancy, as Walt's usually unspoken pain never seemed to truly go away. Every few episodes, the topic of what had happened came up ever so briefly, and loyal audiences were fascinated to see that his anger and immense sense of loss were always there, just below his genial surface. He randomly visited dozens of small towns on his drives and met an endless array of interesting people, making for a long string of entertaining episodes, the best of which, many said, involved Walt and his agent finding absolutely nothing of interest to do for hours and hours, a situation which devolved into an unintentionally hilarious quest to find one acceptable public restroom in the county. But in this episode, as in others during the years, the mood became more subdued when he revealed to his friend on the air that he rarely dated and had yet to find someone to be close to since his first love had abandoned him.
Genovese continued to film the show sporadically over the course of six years, covering the entire state in his rusting Honda, gaining more and more viewers. Finally, If You Came Along came to a fitting conclusion, as Walt invited his ex-fiancée to go driving with him one Sunday afternoon. It was the first time he had spoken with her since the breakup. In an episode filled with awkward silences, they tracked down a kite festival, spent some time at a youth soccer game, stopped in at a tiny agricultural job fair, and had lunch at a farm stand. Finally, on the drive back home, the object of Walt's quiet despair apologized for what she had put him through, and they talked about the things that had led to the breakup, and both of them felt infinitely better. Walt dropped her off at the house she shared with her husband of two years, and the run of the show was unofficially over.
Walt Genovese still goes on long country drives on weekends now, but he says it's purely for fun, and he has other things to think about when he's at the wheel of the Honda. At some point during the long history of the show, he realized how lucky he was to have loyal friends who always seemed to be willing to take the passenger's seat when he asked them to, friends who would have come along whether a camera did or not. Walt is married with one child.
Lot 24. Two cloth dolls owned by Uta Boehring, Falkansee, Germany, and three hand-bound books of her handwritten stories, completed 1942-1944. Donated by Anita Boehring.
Fearing for their eight year old daughter's safety as World War II brought the threat of air raids and hunger upon them, Klaus and Clare Boehring arranged for relatives to take care of the girl in the small town of Premnitz until it seemed safe for the family to be together once more. All Uta could take with her on her journey seventy miles westward was her clothing and two plainly dressed cloth dolls which had been given to her by a German soldier who boarded briefly with the Boehrings near Christmas time. She named the dolls Dieter and Lusa—Dieter had been the German soldier's name. She pretended the dolls had gotten married in the middle of the war and that Dieter was often called away for weeks at a time to fight for his country. In Uta's imaginings, Lusa sometimes fought right beside him, and at the end of the day, they always returned to a small cabin in the woods to play piano music and tend to their farm.
Given some writing paper by the aunt and uncle who took her in, Uta immediately began to write stories of Dieter and Lusa's adventures in the war and outside of it. She spent many days writing these innocent tales, and even when she told her guardians she was writing other sorts of stories, she was really writing about the life of her two dolls. It was a saga she never got tired of. Whenever she said she was imagining stories about animals or monsters or faraway lands, it was simply not true; she lied to appease her guardians, who told her she was spending too much time with the ragged, poorly made dolls.
When the war finally ended, Uta, all of eleven years old, returned to her parents' home. Her move back to the house necessitated the transport of a very large sack she had found in the woods and used to store her Dieter and Lusa stories—all nine hundred of them, totaling more than two thousand pages. She had kept her secret parcel from everyone. Her parents were stunned, at first by the enormous amount of writing she had done, and then by the astounding flights of imagination Uta had made. Her dolls' adventures encircled what Uta had known of the globe. They'd had nine children, who had themselves grown up to fight in the war against America and Russia, had broken apart and re-united dozens of times, had faced death again and again, moved from Germany to Poland to Italy to Sweden and back to Germany, owned businesses, invented machines, written plays, saved the lives of entire battalions with their bravery during their excursions into the war. All this happened to two plainly dressed cloth dolls with faces of almost no detail, sewn together hastily with middling materials and bought for virtually nothing from some unknown junk shop.
Uta's parents had an idea to get in touch somehow with the German soldier who had given Uta those dolls, one of which had been named for him. They hoped to make him a gift of two or three of the stories, in the hopes they might warm his heart after all his sacrifices for their defeated country. They learned eventually that he had fled Poland after the surrender, and had been for one year a guard at Treblinka, one of the most nightmarish death camps of the Holocaust. Uta's parents did not tell her of this. Instead they allowed the Dieter of their daughter's stories to remain brave and true and eternally devoted to the doll named Lusa.
They did not read each and every one of the dolls' adventures, but if they had, they would have come across a two-page account of Dieter's refusal to turn in a Jewish family who appeared on his and Lusa's farm one day, asking to be hidden from their pursuers. Because of his kindness, Lusa made him a special dinner of sweet potatoes and corn, which were his favorite foods, and which were shared with the Jewish family before they thanked their hosts and sailed off to America, and to safety.
Lot 25. First edition, The Gigantic Book of Hatred, 1778 pages, five volumes, cloth bound, Season Runner Press, 1996. Donated by Season Runner Publishing.
Phoenix food critic Bryan Wyrick pitched the idea for The Gigantic Book of Hatred to an editor at Season Runner Publishing during a Super Bowl party in 1994. It was a humorous concept designed to provoke the half-serious, half-comic ire of everyday citizens. People were asked to submit a five hundred word essay on the person they despised the most, and why they wished them off the planet. The only stipulation was that real names could not be used and those who submitted their rants had to personally know the person they decried. Ads calling for submissions were placed in various magazines and more than three thousand people responded. The publishers promised to print every single essay they received, unedited, regardless of the writer's skill, in a humorous attempt to create "the longest and most definitive collection of spite the world has ever seen." Wyrick had of course expected a sizeable portion of the essays to consist of diatribes against ex-lovers. What he and his editor did not expect was that ninety percent of them were. Given the venue to vent their rage against the people who dumped them, cheated on them, refused to marry them, or were just cheap on their birthdays, spurned lovers went on a rampage.
The five-volume first edition of The Gigantic Book of Hatred on display here was never actually released to the public. Because the book had become so overwhelmingly a testament to love gone horribly wrong, Season Runner decided early on that the title needed to reflect more of this theme. Just a couple of weeks before the set was to go to print in a limited run of five hundred copies, Bryan Wyrick realized from some key details given in three essays that three different women had written in about the same man living in southern California, who had openly cheated on all of them and hoodwinked them financially. Wyrick was astounded to learn that all three women had sent in their stories of their hatred for this reprobate without knowing the others had offered more or less the same tale. Wyrick named the man P.J. Parcells for the book, and its official title upon its release to the public became I'd Hate to Be P.J. Parcells: The Gigantic Book of American Hatred. About three hundred sets were sold before demand died completely.
Lot 26. Photographs of the "intervention" of Leslie Ott and Bart Grovenor, October 5, 1983, taken by friends. Donated by Melissa Semple.
Leslie Ott and Bart Grovenor met at the University of Minnesota in 1975. They were both twenty-one, both English majors, and both aspired to write novels for young adults. They were both somewhat shy and uncomfortable socially, possessed the same dry but hesitant sense of humor, were both minor hypochondriacs. They were both agnostics who cared little for fashionable clothes, prudes who had been bullied in elementary school. When Leslie Ott described to her roommate the sort of man she was physically attracted to, she spoke of longish hair, soft features, a thin body, and brown eyes. Bart Grovenor was a brown-eyed, thin, soft-featured youth with longish hair. Leslie, a red-haired girl with glasses and perfect skin, seemed to fall within Bart's ideal image of his future wife, namely, "a redhead with nice skin and glasses."
Despite being an absurdly perfect match for one another, Leslie and Bart's relationship was nothing more than platonic. Their classmates at U of M found this odd and pressed the subject to them individually. Leslie, a victim of two or three bad dating experiences, had vowed to make only platonic friends for a while, while Bart, nursing a broken heart, was still mildly stuck on his last sweetheart. Thus they became confidantes, editors, and tutors to one another, but nothing more. Even their families had to laugh at the strange twist of fate that made two ideally suited mates into nothing more than the best of friends.
After graduation the friendship continued, with the two of them calling each other every other day, supporting each other through their early writing struggles, giving each other romantic pointers. Their dating lives were bumpy and filled with misunderstandings, crossed signals, accidental rejections, and downright losers. Every time Bart or Leslie would have a negative experience, someone was always there to suggest, only half-jokingly, that they merely fall into their best friend's arms. Upon hearing this advice, Bart and Leslie would merely roll their eyes and attest to their fondness for the other in platonic terms only.
If the world of romance ever put two people through a thankless grinder, it was Bart and Leslie. As their hopes of becoming young adult novelists chugged and stalled with each passing year, so did their hopes of finding a husband and a wife. They were just no good with the opposite sex. Since college, they had become only more shy, more socially awkward, more intimidated by dating. One day Leslie's roommate vacated their apartment suddenly and Bart moved in, so they spent night after night on their respective sofas, consoling each other while vowing to find that special someone by decade's end.
They were roommates, and still virginal innocents, for almost two years when their friends started to lose patience with their seemingly ridiculous unwillingness to just hook up with each other already. They visited Bart and Leslie to find them always leaving affectionate notes of encouragement to one another, giving each other long back massages after a hard day's work, splitting the apartment chores with the efficiency of a happily married couple, and generally doting on one another twenty-four hours a day. The two had even begun to adopt one another's mannerisms to a certain extent, using each other's catch phrases and actually speaking sometimes in a fifteen or twenty word pidgin language the two of them had invented and which only they knew. Finally, after enduring yet another awful blind date story in which Leslie described her love life as "officially dead", her friend Miriam had had enough. She called up everyone Bart and Leslie knew and arranged for an intervention. When the two of them got home from work (they always rode the subway together, of course), their friends had gathered in the kitchen to issue a good-natured threat: either become involved romantically with each other or no one would ever speak to them again. As Miriam put it, there was to be a passionate kiss before evening's end, or they would be utterly friendless.
The resistance, the reasoning, the debate, and the presentation of evidence went on until well past midnight. One of Bart's friends had gone so far as to make a chart depicting all of their compatibilities. They were all so certain the intervention was going to work that photographs of the event were even taken with a camera found in Leslie's closet. There seemed little logical room for Bart and Leslie to maneuver in the face of the overwhelming factual case laid out before them, but the fact was, they simply did not feel in love with each other. Their friends left them disappointed and exhausted, although at the very least they had gotten the pair to admit that images of a romantic life with each other had at least crossed their minds from time to time, though in a purely intellectual and hypothetical manner. They both valued their friendship far too much to jeopardize it.
Bart and Leslie saw their friends out the door and went to their rooms at one-thirty in the morning, laughing awkwardly at the experience, having no idea what to say to each other, exhausted and ready for bed. They commenced their customary goodnight tapping at the thin wall that separated their bedrooms. This time, though, Bart kept meeting Leslie's tapping with more of his own, and vice versa. It went on for a few minutes, and they could hear each other's laughter through the wall as they both refused to tap last.
Bart got up from his bed and went out into the hallway to kick playfully at Leslie's door and yell at her to knock it off, for God's sake, there were people trying to sleep in here. Leslie had more or less the same idea at the exact same time. They met each other in the hallway. They stopped laughing. They embraced tenderly. Then they kissed, then kissed some more.
They lived happily ever after.
Lot 27. Videotapes containing two hundred and twenty-three movie love scenes as performed by Garrett Smith and Elizabeth Tuten, Newark, Delaware. Donated by Garrett Smith and Elizabeth Tuten.
The man and woman featured in these inexpensively taped love scenes met each other during open auditions for a community theater production of Noises Off in Newark when they were twenty-seven years old. After they became involved, they began performing great movie love scenes for videotape to sharpen their acting skills and create a kind of scrapbook in the process. The first scene they did together was from The Way We Were, with Smith playing the Robert Redford part and Tuten doing the Barbara Streisand. They shot the four-minute scene in Smith's basement with a borrowed video camera. They soon became hooked on the hobby, and after they married began to complete about one scene per week, rehearsing and blocking for an evening or two before shooting. Smith's job as a financial advisor brought in enough money to upgrade their equipment and even buy some set dressings. Scenes from such disparate films as Jules and Jim, Harold and Maude, The Tall Guy, Henry V, Notting Hill, Wings of Desire, David and Lisa, Havana, Sense and Sensibility, even Joe Versus the Volcano and Nosferatu the Vampyre followed, and the couple's work improved as they got more and more sophisticated in terms of their acting, camerawork, editing, and even the addition of musical scores. Before their amicable divorce in 1999 after six years of marriage and constant community theater work, they had privately assembled two hundred and twenty three love scenes in an astounding collection with no other purpose than to entertain themselves and themselves alone. The scenes have played on a continuous sixteen-hour loop here in the Rose Room of the museum since its opening in 1997.
Lot 28. Spiral notebook containing the dream notes of George Condon, Boulder, Colorado. Donated by George Condon.
In his early twenties, George Condon was a coffeehouse hawk, spending his evenings jotting story ideas in various cafes and drinking gallons of espresso. His favorite haunt was a hipster dive called The Orange Cat. It was here that he outlined what he believed would be the novel that would make him famous.
He never got around to writing it, becoming a software designer instead when he realized his talent for fiction was, in reality, non-existent. After he got married and hit his mid-thirties, George would often talk fondly about his days at The Orange Cat and the friends he made there.
One night, at the age of thirty-seven, George had a strange dream. In it, he was sitting in The Orange Cat across from a waitress who had worked there briefly fifteen years before. He had long since forgotten her name, but he had never quite forgotten how pretty he'd thought she was. In fact, back then he had kept trying to work up the nerve to ask her out, but at some point he realized it just wasn't going to happen, and their few conversations had consisted of small talk squeezed in while she waited patiently for him to order his coffee.
But in the dream, George was not only completely in love with her, he was quite forthright about it. He reached across the table, resting one arm on the old spiral notebook in which he used to write his story ideas, and told her how he felt. She was flattered and humbled, and he could tell she wanted to return his affection, but just couldn't admit it to herself. They sat for several minutes, he pleading with her to give in to her heart, and she resisting it.
When he woke up from the dream, George was astounded by its incredible detail, and by the fact that his subconscious had reached back fifteen years to stir memories of a girl he'd long since forgotten. He thought little more of it until a month later, when he had the dream once again. This time, the waitress started to cry when he confessed his love for her. He squeezed her hand gently. They sat in silence for a while, and in the dream he was never so convinced another human being was so perfect for him.
He had six such dreams over the course of the next four months. Each of them was basically the same. When he awoke, he was never able to recall the waitress's name. He began writing down the subtle details of the dreams: the music playing in the cafe when he told the waitress how much he longed for her, what he was drinking when he complimented her sweater, what color that sweater was. These things always changed in small ways. He became fascinated and vexed by what he was experiencing, seemingly at random, and for no discernible reason.
Six months after he had the first dream, George's wife asked him for a divorce. To him it was the deepest of shocks; he had thought they were happy together, but she told him she had become a different person during the four years of their marriage, and she wanted to return to Arizona and go back to school and live a new life. Eight weeks after she made this devastating announcement, George found himself living alone in the house, stunned and barely functional. His dreams of the waitress had stopped after his wife's confession of unhappiness, but the day after she moved out, he had one more. In this one, the waitress finally spoke at length, and told him she loved him too, and that they were soul mates, destined to be together forever.
Soon enough, George stopped resisting the idea of finding the waitress and set about doing it. He called The Orange Cat from six hundred miles away and asked to speak to the owner, whom he had spoken to occasionally in the old days. He asked the owner if he had any memories of the waitress he labored to describe. Not only did the owner remember her, but she had never stopped working at the cafe. The job she had liked so much as a girl of twenty had turned into a career as she had taken on more and more responsibility for The Orange Cat's operation. Her name was Susan.
George slapped his head when he heard the name and could not understand how that had slipped his mind. He got off the phone with the owner of the coffeehouse before he had to explain in too much detail why he wanted his information. The next day, he drove to Boulder, stayed the night in a hotel, and walked to The Orange Cat the next morning.
He had no idea what he was going to say when he got there, and he did not know what he was after. He knew he was not truly in love with Susan; it was impossible, despite how he felt in the dreams, and in the moments upon waking, when he mused about how much he had really been attracted to her back then. He was hoping, he supposed, for some sort of miraculous confession of long-hidden love on her part, something so extraordinary, so cinematic, that his entire world, which had fallen apart after his wife left him, would suddenly be changed in a way he thought mere mortals had no right to ever expect.
He was just a few feet from the front door of The Orange Cat when he saw Susan walking to work, coming at him down the sidewalk. When she saw his face, she stopped, laughed, and ran forward to him. She looked barely older than twenty, he saw. His heart leapt when she touched his arm and for a moment he thought it was all falling into place, the entire insane destiny he had somehow created in his dreams.
But she was not even completely certain who he was. The reason she was so excited to see him was that she had recognized his face from a dream she'd had just five nights before. As they stood on the sidewalk, she asked him if they knew each other somehow. He told her he used to come to The Orange Cat more a decade and a half before.
She marveled over this coincidence, and after asking his name, went on to describe her recent crazy dream to him. In it, George lay terminally ill in a sterile hospital room, delirious with pain. Susan held his hand to try to comfort him, but nothing seemed to help. George was calling out for his absent wife's forgiveness, begging her to absolve him for carrying on an affair with Susan for the past several months. Standing above his hospital bed, Susan stroked his brow and assured him that they had never really done anything together; they had stopped themselves despite their powerful feelings for each other. George regained a brief moment of clarity and accepted this as truth, and asked Susan if she thought it was possible that his wife might forgive him, might return someday. She said, "Yes, George. Now be still. If you love me, you'll just go to sleep. Go to sleep and dream of us being together. We don't have to have an affair. We never even have to kiss. It's enough that you told me how you felt. Be still, and go to sleep, and your wife will come for you." And as he drifted off to sleep, Susan turned and left the hospital room without looking back.
When she was finished describing the dream, George merely stood there, stunned, as Susan laughed and asked him if that wasn't the craziest thing he'd ever heard: she had dreamed about some customer she barely knew from fifteen years before. George agreed that it was, in fact, truly bizarre. And he did not relate his own dreams to Susan, not then, and not ever. She left to begin her shift, and after wandering around Boulder for the rest of the day, George began the long drive home.
He came to believe much later that his dreams of the waitress had mostly been a way for his subconscious to tell him that his marriage was failing, and that he needed to see the situation more clearly. He chose not to believe that there was some sort of spiritual link between himself and his waitress, because it seemed so cruel somehow that the astounding coincidences they'd shared should amount to so little in the end. They were not in love, could not be together, were never meant to become close; so why, then, would the universe conspire to put such thoughts into their dreams at the same time? In the end, George put his faith in chance, randomness, and rudimentary psychology. Anything more just gave rise to the kind of unanswerable questions which his tired heart did not have the strength to consider.
Lot 29. A collection of nineteen short videos made by Allan Kindersley for Gena O'Neil, 1998 to 2002. Donated by Allan Kindersley.
When William Colby suggested to Gena O'Neil that she should go out on a date with his friend Allan, she was hesitant at first, knowing nothing about him. Three days later, she received an unmarked videotape in the mail. When she played it, she found it to be an elaborate introduction from Allan, a twenty-six year old bookstore clerk who seemed to be trying way too hard. It was, in fact, an eight-minute faux documentary about his life and times. But the carefully written, edited, and scored video, featuring some less-than-flattering testimonials from Allan's friends, was silly and self-deprecating enough to convince her to give him a try.
As they began to date, Gena discovered that Allan was fused to his video camera physically and mentally. To him, everything that happened in life was ideal as the subject of a humorous ten-minute documentary, invariably starring himself. He brought the camera along when he and Gena did anything out of the ordinary, and he also made intricate movies simply as a means of explaining to her what he had done during his three or four day stretches away from her. In the videos it was difficult to tell what was fact and what was fiction, but in any case, it was all meant to be nothing more than funny. A case in point was Allan's planned five day "hunger strike", the purpose of which was to protest Gena's going away for Thanksgiving, and ended on the tape with him lying comatose in a field after just three hours with no food, disheveled and unshaven, crying out for bacon bits and club soda. Then there was his video documenting the sudden and permanent death of his withered twenty year old car, which was presented a mere forty-eight hours after the fact in a black and white short movie done in the style of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light—a film reference lost on Gena and most everyone else in the actual cast of five. Allan's cleverness was exceeded only by his willingness to send most of his jokes well over the head of anyone watching.
It went on like that for more than a year, during which Allan made no less than forty videos, mostly for Gena's benefit. His most memorable work was most likely a trifle entitled "Requiem for an Idiot", in which he apologized for hurting Gena's feelings over some small issue by documenting himself spending the night deep in the cold woods with neither tent, sleeping bag, blanket, nor pillow. The adventure ended with several shots of him screaming in terror over the slightest falling of a leaf or snapping of a twig, and Gena accepted his apology and made him swear he would never freeze to death for her benefit again.
Gena loved him despite his over-reliance on video technology to express his feelings. One thing she could not abide, oddly, was being videotaped herself. Her chronic aversion to being photographed by any sort of camera, still or motion, was legendary among her friends. She simply despised the way she looked on a screen or reduced to palm size.
Her relationship with Allan, sometimes wonderful, sometimes strained, suffered a mortal blow when she lost an old school friend in the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. She was depressed for days. Two weeks after the tragedy, Allan gave her a video he had made in an attempt to cheer her up. This time, despite being careful to tone his humor way down out of respect for what had happened, his relatively light-hearted take on the subject of death merely offended Gena. She didn't get all the way through the video, and she broke up with Allan the next day, unable to believe he had thought humor was appropriate in this situation.
Allan was devastated, both by the loss of Gena and the realization that humor could not help in all times, all crises. He wasn't certain how to live if he had to be serious when people expected it of him.
He tried to contact Gena a few times in the coming months, but her replies were terse. Figuring she could not stay angry with him forever, he made her another video, the comedic nine-minute story of his lonely months without her, but again he tried mostly just to make her laugh, and again it didn't work. She told him matter-of-factly that he needed to find a way in life to be more than the sum of his videotaped jokes, or he would be of little use to anyone who wished to be close to him.
They both went their separate ways, and two years passed. Allan toiled away at the bookstore by day and shot and edited video by night. Through the same friend who had brought the couple together in the beginning, Allan learned one day that Gena had contracted a serious blood disorder and had been in the hospital for a month. When he went to see her for the first time since the breakup, he learned that the disease was more serious than anyone had been prepared for, and that it was possible she only had several more months to live. Gena was happy to see him, but not quite able to hide her terror at the ordeal that lay ahead of her.
After days of thought, Allan, who had never stopped making his videos, made one more for Gena. Its tone was not much different from the ones he had always made for her: jokey, light-hearted. The theme of this one was the impossibility of the existence of the universe without her presence. Again, he tried to be funny when being funny seemed inappropriate.
But things were somehow different now, and Gena watched the video and thanked him for it. She had become proud of him, because he told her he had thought for two years about what she had said concerning his need to grow up, but he believed in his heart that humor had a place everywhere, and he refused to bury it against any enemy: tragedy, illness, or even death. It was not just a gimmick to him in the end. It was an intractable principle he clung to: the rebellious strength of bitter humor. Gena did not agree with him, but she had never known he felt so strongly about his work, that it had a meaning beyond the moment.
After a long and painful fight with her disorder, Gena died in November of 2002. Allan grieved for months, at one point destroying his loyal video camera, running over it with his car in the hopes of gaining some kind of closure, and as a kind of belated apology to Gena that he had ever caused her any harm. It made him feel much better.
By the summer of 2003, Allan finally felt ready to be himself again. He had made an effort to become interested in other things, other pursuits, and had become a more well-rounded person because of it. Yet his interest in making movies could not be fully doused, and so one day he answered a classified ad in the local newspaper which offered a very good video camera for a very low price. He went to the advertiser's house, and found there a woman of about his age, a woman who had dabbled in documentary filmmaking for a time but had long since given it up. Strangely, Allan thought he recognized her from someplace, but he could not figure out where. Allan agreed to buy the camera for $150 if he could just take a quick look at a sample tape she had taken, so he could make sure the camera's picture was as sharp as he needed. The woman popped in the first tape she came across on her bookshelf.
When the picture materialized on the screen, Allan quickly remembered where he had seen this woman before. The videotape showed some random footage she had shot at a local street festival a few years before. Allan remembered being in attendance that day, and he recalled in particular a young woman who came up to him and asked him a few random questions about his impressions of the festival. It was part of a film project for school. Allan, always the showman, had of course agreed. Now, years later, he was coincidentally standing in this woman's living room, watching the tape. She laughed, sharing his memory, if only vaguely.
Allan suddenly offered the woman $150 for her camera—and another $100 for the tape currently playing in the VCR. For he realized had not been alone at the festival that day. Gena had been with him. He fast-forwarded the tape in rapt silence, believing that just maybe, he and Gena would appear.
Suddenly there he was, his 1999 self, answering a few questions for the woman behind the camera, trying to be silly, trying to entertain. But Gena had quickly disappeared from view when she had been asked to participate, stepping well out of frame before the tape began to roll. Always hating the way she looked on video, and not wanting any part of the artificial world which so entranced her boyfriend, she had retreated into the crowd and was nowhere to be seen. And yet, when Allan's part was over and he had been thanked for his time, the video rolled on, the shaky camera capturing the briefest view of Gena possible a moment later. She and Allan were headed toward a crafts table hand in hand, in the frame one moment and out of it the next, lost in the crowd, but not before the camera had caught a quick glimpse of Gena's profile from fifty feet away, showing a smile on her face as she looked for a moment off in the distance at something that would forever be unknown.
Lot 30 was announced for sale at 2:39 p.m., the smallest item on the Museum of Romance's docket. By that time, more than half of the crowd in attendance when the auction began had departed after paying for their prizes by cash or check in the museum's front room, or simply having lost interest in the goings-on. Most minor items were given to the winning bidders immediately, courteously bubble-wrapped and boxed, but the higher-end artifacts would have to be picked up from another location later in the week. Two museum assistants had set up a table in the living room to process all transactions while Rance Munchick ran the show in the banquet room. Archer Rand was no longer to be seen, either by me or by anyone else.
Munchick read the story of Lot 30 just as it had been printed on a durable gold-plated card for display in the museum for the past four years and eleven months. The entire tale ran but six paragraphs. I tried not to listen, tried to shift as much of my focus as was possible to the rainfall. It only partially worked. My name had thankfully been omitted from the gold key's history and so I was spared the ghastly sound of it being spoken by Munchick as if I were a fictional character in a dark fairy tale. I kept my eyes on the floor throughout his reading. When he completed it, inaccurate as it was, he added a couple of sentences about the intrinsic value of the key itself, and Ellen Roth then stood up and essentially re-stated his statistics, making certain everyone in the room knew just what sort of bids were expected. Any tinge of sentimental fascination in the crowd (or what was left of the crowd, anyway) more than likely vanished into thin air when it was said that the elements of the six inch, seven ounce key were valued at forty-three hundred dollars. A man somewhere off to my left whistled amateurishly.
I finally looked up, as chance would have it, directly into the eyes of a woman sitting five rows in front of me. For some reason she was not looking at Munchick or Roth or the key but back at me, her neck craned around halfway. She was perhaps forty years old but her long hair was prematurely graying, almost halfway to a total image of a woman grown old way too soon. She looked away almost as soon as I noticed her, turning to the windows abashedly. Instantly I knew somehow that during the reading of the story, she had seen the way my eyes had clung to the floor for shelter from the seven-minute descent into a time twenty years past, and had intuitively singled me out as one of the characters in the sordid, impossible tale. She had sensed it. She had placed no bids that day, had traveled here alone, had merely sat toward the front and listened. It might be that she was there just to glimpse anyone, anyone at all, who might have been part of the history of all those artifacts. It might have been for her like a movie in which one character would at some point step off the screen to make her believe in impossible things. She must have been gravely disappointed. The only prize she would get that day was a two second glance into my eyes, and then I stood up and moved to the back of the room as the bidding began. But she had known; of this I was certain. She had somehow made the connection, even though I looked as different from the so-called hero the story claimed I used to be than seemed humanly possible, even to me. I possessed no photographs of myself from that time. I had destroyed them all with great deliberation.
The bidding began at four thousand dollars, and I took my place behind the rows of chairs, just steps from the foyer, away from everyone else. I would make no move until I needed to. Someone instantly accepted that opening bid, a skinny man in a bow tie and a dark blue suit who looked like a humorless caricature of a bookworm, his hair and dress absurdly unfashionable, right down to his black-rimmed glasses. He stared blankly at Munchick and raised his finger immediately. He, too, had bid on nothing else that day. I doubt he had even exchanged the smallest of glances with the people sitting around him.
When I saw him raise his finger, my body began to be emptied out of all feeling, as it had to a lesser extent that second time back at the Tropicana. All visual and audible input that was not necessary to my task seemed to be blocked out by a heavy gate deep inside my mind. This release, followed by the rapid silent rising of a warm firewall around my brain, was utterly involuntary but not the least bit frightening. In 1987, when at the final extremity of my first depression, I had tried to learn how to meditate spontaneously from an African man who claimed to have been a professional exorcist, and who sold this technique to foreigners when he was not applying it to possessed innocents who needed to suspend their stresses in order for him to penetrate their souls. It hadn't worked for me, not at all. Today, though, I was accomplishing a strange kind of localized astral projection with no effort at all. I knew this was only postponing the effects of the trauma that wanted to claim my body at this moment, and that it would come for me later through trembling hands, shortness of breath, insomnia, and a feeling like hot arrows lodged in the pit of my stomach. For now, though, during the auction of Lot 30, my mind was allowing me to feel exactly what I needed to feel: a painless hollowness through which I could observe and react to the bidding with the detached manner of a stick figure drawn on paper. Pain, either physical or emotional, would be unable to enter me for the next five minutes. It would have to spend that time redoubling itself, gathering weight.
I was not forced to raise my hand slightly at my side to place a bid on the key until its price had reached four thousand, seven hundred dollars. The bidding had bounced between the scholarly man in the front and a slender, similarly frowning, corporate-looking woman who leaned forward in her chair and bid with a numbered paddle. Despite her physical attractiveness and pricey clothing, she was more alone than anyone. She sat far off to one side with at least two chairs separating her from the nearest other spectators, who happened to be an older married couple who seemed to be having the time of their lives, watching all this meaningless history become a lazy Saturday commodity. The pretty woman struck me as a proxy for some unseen third party—or rather, this is what I thought just a few minutes later, when logical thought returned to me after it was all over.
At four thousand seven hundred there was a gap of silence perhaps five seconds in duration, after which Munchick said, "Going once....", and then I raised my hand to shoulder height, and then it seemed like I had won. There were no follow-up bids until Munchick was almost ready to tap his gavel lightly on the podium, an act which gave him no small amount of pleasure every time he did it. The nerdy, dour scholar and the businesswoman remained motionless, having reached the end of their limited interest in the key. Nothing but gold collectors, perhaps, keenly knowledgeable about the key's market value. Then, off to my left, someone raised a paddle and said "Four thousand eight hundred" in a strong, educated voice, and I looked in that direction to see a man and woman in their early thirties smiling and nodding. They were dressed in typical yuppie weekend attire, the man in tan slacks and a blue buttoned shirt, the woman, whose screamingly blonde pony-tailed hair clashed awkwardly with her overly tanned skin, wearing a prim gray blouse and new blue jeans. She gripped her husband's right arm companionably and had her left hooked possessively around his shoulders, and when he announced his first bid on Lot 30 she rubbed his arm excitedly and affectionately. He beamed. Anniversary gift. Just back from vacation in the Poconos. No children yet, no time. Married three years. Maybe one more than that.
No one spoke up after the married software designer or copyright lawyer or aerospace engineer announced his bid, so I went one hundred dollars higher, and then it was just he and I, with his wife supporting him every step of the way with her possessive touches. She smiled more and more. The bidding eclipsed five thousand dollars quite quickly. Within seconds it became clear that the man was going to raise his red paddle automatically every time I raised my hand, and he did so proudly but with an affected modesty, careful not to be too automatic for fear of appearing predatory. They did not look back at me, ever, no matter how strongly I slowly began to will them to. No one was looking at me, just at them, at how anxious they seemed to win the bid, because it could not have been more obvious that this was a present for his smiling wife, and this was not some diary or collection of videotapes; this was gold, this was something that cost real money. Even Ellen Roth could not take her eyes off the happy young couple, the systems analyst and the director of some waterfowl-based art gallery, what a nice semi-conclusion this would be to the day if they should get it, how romantic, how fitting.
Five thousand two hundred, five thousand three. Rance Munchick pointed back and forth, really enjoying himself, feeling a little less like he was overseeing a backwoods flea market, a little more than a television face, an authority figure. At five thousand four hundred the patent attorney or yacht broker clumsily dropped his paddle in raising it and he quickly scooped it up with a grin, causing the crowd to laugh at his anxiousness to get it into the air, to keep his hands on Lot 30 no matter what. And oh my God how I hated him at that moment, him and his blonde wife, the young marrieds who had seen the notice of the auction in the newspaper while perusing it for Saturday plans; or maybe, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they had visited the museum once six months before and had promised to go back again one day, maybe when the curators put out more things and more stories, eight dollars was a bit high for admission, and they would take the neighbors when it got bigger, perhaps. And maybe the wife had carried on a bit about the loveliness of the gold key which had no corresponding lock, and he had filed it away, giving himself all the credit in the world for remembering it, jotting a note on a Post-It at his office to the effect that he would get her something similarly unique for her birthday. Attentive husband. Grateful wife. He had worked long, long hours recently, so many projects to complete but so very profitable, and she always with dinner waiting for him even though working on real estate settlements in her office in the den was really quite exhausting sometimes. He would treat her, get her something really special, the boat had been nice, they both loved the boat, but this would be just for her, and in fact he had, on the spur of the moment, his mood lightened by the red wine served at dinner in the museum the night before, told her to pick something out from the catalog and it would be hers, they could afford it, why shouldn't they be young and silly once and a while? I hated them for the easiest reasons of all: for their perfection and their good nature, but mostly because their romance, the sweep of their love story, had probably reached its forgettable apex with an evening trip to some county fair eight years before when they were just out of college, when he had won a stuffed giraffe for her at the ring toss, causing her to promise him that no matter what he could ever provide for her from that point on, the giraffe would mean more to her than anything, and they had kissed and planned for the future, these County Fair Lovers, and had never looked back. The County Fair Lovers left suffering and regret and knife-polluted flesh to people in best-selling books and museum placards, and would never understand why anyone would want anything more than a stuffed giraffe to put in the closet to take out from time to time for innocent, uncluttered reminiscence. Why indeed; they were right, no one should have wanted more than that, it was true, but oh how I needed them to lose, how easily my anger for them broke my composure and my mind's fragile firewall, until my hands were shaking long before my final bid, and my brain was lost in images of their ruination and mortal embarrassment. The County Fair Lovers would not look at me. I did not exist.
At some point in that slow motion train wreck, the amount bid on Lot 30 exceeded the amount of money I had stored away inside my coat, everything I had in the world, and yet still I kept bidding, fully knowing I had lost, because I believed it punished them just a little, made them go several hundred dollars higher, and this had at least some value to me. Perhaps some heretofore silent bidder would become excited by the duel and jump into the fray himself, suddenly believing that the key must be far more valuable than the museum had let on. Then the County Fair Lovers would lose, have their petty dream shattered. But this didn't happen, and all the sentiment in the room remained on their side. I certainly looked like the heartless shark who was trying to steal the key from them so it could be sold for twice the auction amount to some shadowy other, some private collector in New York or Los Angeles only I knew about. I was a schemer trying to take advantage of the locals' inexperience, a carpetbagger who had chosen to come to Tristia dressed shabbily and in the cheapest rental car possible just to disguise myself and my vast secret wealth.
Finally I had to stop, not because the County Fair Lovers seemed about to break—they never would have, I don't think, even at nine or ten thousand—but because I began to feel physically disconnected from myself, as if my body were trying both to faint and to lift me upward, out of the house altogether. My hands continued to shake and sweat continued to form at my hairline, and suddenly the mere raising of my right hand to signify a bid caused me to lose my balance entirely. Although outwardly I was rigid and composed, inwardly it felt like I was swooning to the left in one tidal motion. I was convinced that if I tried to move a single inch more I would fall to the floor, and the descent would be horrifyingly steep, would take minutes rather than a fleeting second. Munchick's announcement that Lot 30 was "sold to the man with the renegade paddle" snapped me out of this fugue just enough to send my legs out of the banquet room with a suddenness the crowd must have taken as childish petulance. The rich gaunt man had lost, thank heavens, and a swirl of applause rose up from the crowd, the last one of the day. The wife hugged her man exuberantly and he kissed her perfunctorily on the lips and hugged her back. Then I was gone.
No one saw me enter the foyer and step over the impotent piece of string which purported to rope off the upper floor of the museum. The assistants sitting in the main room were too busy finalizing the transaction for the sale of other lots to notice. The man who had bought the French dueling sword for two thousand dollars was asking question after question about how he would go about having it shipped to him in Maryland.
The stairs creaked but I was not followed. There were just the two rooms at the top of the stairs, one to the left, one to the right. Both were empty, stripped even of their wallpaper in preparation for a modest remodeling, maybe, hinting that the house itself would be sold next, by spring at the latest. For some reason I truly expected Archer Rand to be waiting for me in one of the rooms, but of course he was not anywhere to be seen. I was alone.
A photograph on page two of the auction catalog had showed this room at the height of its popularity. I remembered the frozen image of two couples reading the stories of artifacts placed on simple half-lecterns, absorbing those stories by the light of two standing lamps. Lot 30 had lived right here, beside the window. I had just barely been able to make it out in the photograph. When I'd picked up my catalog the night before and turned to that page, it was the first time I had seen the key in twenty years. I supposed then that I would never see it again.
There were ways. Theft. Burglary. Outright robbery. I did not have to return to Brooklyn empty-handed. It would not have been any more insane or irrational than my stunts at the casino. The brazen, treasonous act which had drawn the key into the possession of a disturbed woman who had ordered me held captive in Gatcina did not have to be the last radical episode in its mute history. But if my mind were to begin conceiving of a plan, it would have to happen right then, before another moment was lost.
I looked out the east window of the top floor of the Museum of Romance. A few hundred yards away, through the tree line, a stretch of the elevated highway could be seen. There had been a terrible crash. The cars involved were not themselves visible to me. All that could be deciphered through the trees and the wash of rain was the soundless flash of red, orange, and yellow lights, a dozen or more of them huddled tightly together in a mournful mass, and a grouping of inert white surfaces which suggested the emergency vehicles that hosted them. My inability to hear any of it, or detect even the vaguest human form amidst the gathering of surfaces and reflections, made that faraway scene seem like a living canvas hung on the horizon, an impressionist collage of a dream disaster, strangely peaceful. It held my attention for a long time. Down below in the museum, Lot 31, the last one listed in the catalog, was being sold. I would not stay in the building to witness it. In the distance, some of the winking emergency lights merged and balletically crossed paths, the vehicles maneuvering just enough to reveal a new pattern of those pretty primary colors. Eventually, some of them began to move away, and it was all over. That one moment out there on the highway, when things had collided and histories had been wildly altered, was silently photographed and then allowed to disperse, and somewhere a hummingbird continued to robotically flap its wings, seventy times per second, all around the wounded and the dead.
His name was Edgar, and one winter's night he found himself on the Metro again, his hair unwashed, his overcoat stained, his face unshaven, staring, staring at a girl a few seats away who wouldn't look at him no matter how much he willed it. For seven stops her eyes remained on her paperback novel, remained there until the very last station chime which finally brought her back to the world and out of her seat.
He followed the girl in the red sweater out of the station and down the street, which grew quieter and quieter. She walked with her head low, not meeting the eyes of anyone coming the other way. People avoided Edgar in subtle ways, fearing he was on the sidewalk solely for the purpose of panhandling, but he never spoke to anyone. He kept himself focused on the girl, the slightly plump, plain-haired girl whom he knew lived in the apartment building just ahead, and worked in a debt consolidation office during the day.
For the second time in three nights he stopped in front of her building as she entered unit 7, walked up two flights, went left down the hallway, and entered her apartment. For the next hour, as she microwaved herself a turkey dinner, watched three sitcoms, and prepared her ham sandwich for the next day's lunch, he stood far below her bedroom window, on the sidewalk for anyone to sidestep, to avoid for fear of being panhandled by this young vagrant. Edgar watched to see when her light went out. Her name was Elaine.
It went out at 11:15. There was a dim blue glow in the room as she turned on her smaller TV and watched a talk show as she lay in bed, drifting off to sleep.
When she was unconscious, Edgar left the sidewalk and walked three blocks north to the Unitarian Church. He went behind it and curled himself into a ball between two bushes, arms wrapped tightly around his chest. It was thirty-five degrees outside. He had slept here four nights out of the past seven, and no one had bothered him yet. Once running footsteps had roused him in anticipation of a threat, but the footsteps had passed, and he had avoided becoming some thrill-seeker's punching bag once again.
He began to feel a tingling in his left leg at 12:35. He opened his eyes and whispered, "Please, no," to no one at all. Three blocks south, Elaine had risen out of bed, he knew. She was headed toward the kitchen.
There, she figured she would have just three more Oreo cookies and a small glass of milk, just three more because that was all that was left in the pack from when she'd had dessert two hours before, and she wanted a little something to watch the end of her show with, and the very second Elaine took those cookies out of that wrinkled plastic packet Edgar felt a familiar jolt of muddy electricity snap within his left leg and he yelped and he grabbed it. Those three cookies were Elaine's beginning, Elaine who weighed a perfectly average one hundred and eighteen pounds was going to weigh just a little bit more come morning and she would put on about three quarters of a pound per week from that point forward as the sitcoms and the People magazines and the weekends seeing movies alone added up; she had stopped looking for a boyfriend ever since the torch she carried for the guy who lived down the hall had been extinguished in March, when he moved away without a word of goodbye, without ever having had a conversation with her that lasted more than three minutes at the trash chute or in the lobby, or on one memorable evening when she had followed him to the onsite fitness center and walked on the treadmill for twenty-five minutes while he talked about football and terrorism, things she had absolutely no interest in. The pain in Edgar's leg was the beginning of Elaine's weight gain, which in turn was the end of her borderline prettiness. She had never utilized any of the tips she read about in Self and her hair was always three years behind, and she didn't really understand how to put makeup on so it wasn't too much because she had never asked the women at work about it, and she had no sisters or brothers, and her two college friends lived six states away. Those three cookies ended her run at happiness and made Edgar's leg into a breathing oil fire for forty-five seconds. He shoved his fist into his mouth and concentrated on the sounds of the traffic rolling by on Arlington Boulevard. By one-thirty he had left the side of the Unitarian Church and made his way a half mile further down the road to the Rosslyn Hilton, and he gave the man behind the front desk two hundred and twelve dollars and the man gave Edgar the key to a suite on the seventeenth floor, where he ordered a club sandwich and fries from room service and drank vodka until the pain in his leg had fully subsided and he fell asleep in a flawless warm bed sometime after four.
Her name was Stephanie; Edgar could tell because the clerk at the porn shop said so.
He saw her on Saturday afternoon at the annual outdoor book fair on the quad at Howard University. Among the hundreds of people who wandered among the rickety cafeteria tables that Saturday, it was her face and her face alone Edgar saw. She spent about a half hour at the fair, buying a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides, a collection of Bloom County cartoons, a book of low-fat stir fry recipes, and the collected stories of Jack London for her father. Behind Stephanie in line, Edgar produced two quarters and walked away with the 1980 Street and Smith's baseball preview. Then he followed Stephanie into the city. Today was her twenty-third birthday.
She got off the Metro at 9th and K Streets and proceeded to walk four blocks toward Value Video and News, her gray scarf wrapped around the bottom half of her face. Edgar kept a full block behind so she wouldn't see him. She walked past the store once, glancing slightly to the right to read the sign which listed its days and hours of operation. She stood at the Metrobus stop fifty feet away so as not to attract undue attention, five minutes passing, then ten minutes, then a bus actually came and she had to bail out, so she walked past the store in the other direction, having made up her mind that she was not going in, now was not the time, anyone could see her here, this was absurd. She was outside in the cold for thirty-one minutes before she disappeared into the warmth of the porn shop.
It was her first time, and the tacky dazzle of the milli-colored boxes that greeted her was both terrifying and sadly liberating for her. She heard a faint buzzing in her head, a protective static that blotted out all rational thought. Her body felt feverish, filled with a warm viscous substance that coated her interior and helped to numb her panic. Edgar watched her from the Amateur section, figuring she was headed all the way across the store to an area called Different Strokes. It was there that she isolated a small half-shelf adorned by a piece of masking tape with the word HUMILIATION written on it by a disinterested hand. Stephanie picked out two titles without reading the descriptions. Then the worst part of the experience came for her, the approach to the counter and the asking for the membership form, which might have pushed her right out the door had the clerk not been a female herself, a forty-year old Asian woman whose four foot ten inch body had unwillingly married the store's owner two years before.
Stephanie shared a rickety townhouse with four other girls, and she had the place to herself until seven. She went up the stairs to her room and put her videos into the VCR her mother had given her the night before. She watched both of them with a slack expression on her face, watched as older men made younger ones do things far worse than she thought were legal to capture on videotape, and she rewound some of these moments and watched them twice and even three times, and when, thirteen minutes into the second tape, she witnessed an act of genuine violence toward an eighteen year old German boy who had acquiesced to appearing in the production only after his thirty-nine year old lover had begged and pleaded and finally threatened him with abandonment. She gasped audibly when she saw the German being slapped again and again and then forced down onto his knees, but she did not look away, and this was the part she found again when she got back from the late shift at the restaurant that night, and watched six more times before taking the earliest morning bus she could back to the video store before it opened, and when she thought no one would be around to see her she placed the tapes into the drop slot. She had only gotten two hours of sleep but no one saw her, so it was worth it. She spent the rest of that day in and out of unfulfilling naps, thinking about the German boy and all the others and how if she only had a computer she wouldn't have to go back to Value Video again, ever, she could just order the tapes online and she would be protected, and she could read the descriptions first and no one would know.
The pain came for Edgar as Stephanie turned away from the drop box and went on her way. When she turned around a man was looking at her, a man her age just jogging by, and he was in full awareness of what sort of tapes she was returning and she registered that awareness, but where that simple moment of shameful recognition might once have stopped her from ever coming back to 13th Street, this time it simply did not matter, nothing could stop her from coming back now, and just around the corner in the alley behind a Rite Aid pharmacy, Edgar's left leg exploded with stars and spiders and nails. It woke him up from a deep sleep and his right hand pistoned out involuntarily to strike the side of an overflowing dumpster. He broke his third and fourth knuckles and shrieked. Somehow he got to his feet and hobbled toward the end of the alley, a thousand burning sparklers blazing above and below his left knee, and the moment he emerged onto Vermont Avenue, his consciousness was ripped from him as another jogger rammed into him from the right and forced his body into a No Parking sign. He fell to the cement cushioning himself with his broken right hand and his forehead connected hard, right on the spinning edge of a Massachusetts quarter that had been jostled from the jogger's pockets.
He woke up in an ambulance for the second time in his life. He lay unattended on a stretcher, and he was content to simply stare at the ceiling for a while as a disembodied voice floated over him. It was not God, it was the ambulance driver, a black man with a linebacker's build who sat in the front seat, speaking into a cell phone. He was pleading with someone, someone named Micah, to help cover a gambling debt. He didn't know where else to turn, he said. Edgar knew that the ambulance driver was trying to avoid calling his mother at all costs. He would almost rather die than have to call her again, to beg her for money one more time. So he tried to work with Micah, who was something far less than a friend, to somehow get out of this awful jam. Edgar listened to that for a while, and then, when he thought the driver would not notice, he rose off the stretcher, his hand covered in a thick layer of gauze, and simply stepped through the open door at the rear, hopping down to the pavement. He was beside a hospital. His hand felt all right. It throbbed somewhat. He was not certain if he had already been fully treated for his injuries or was about to be. He walked off down the street. No one noticed the homeless man, no one wanted to. Edgar went into a pharmacy and pulled four hundred dollars from his pocket to buy a lot of painkillers just in case the pain in his hand got too bad in the cold and the wet outside. He didn't think it was going to be much of a problem.
Walking around all day got tiring so he decided to get a job for a time. He woke up in the woods on a Tuesday, took a shower in the locker room of the nearby community college, shaved, and washed his dirty clothes at a laundromat, first buying a T-shirt and some sweatpants so he'd have something to wear while the other clothes were drying. His immobile right hand made the entire process rather difficult, but he managed okay. At noon he applied for a job taking orders at a warehouse containing eight hundred thousand books. He started the next day, working in a small bare cubicle with six other order takers around him. They were above the warehouse floor and he could look down upon it through a wide window, could watch the pickers scoot around with hand trucks and in small forklifts, the sound of their activity little more than a low buzz, as if an insect had gotten trapped somewhere within the tagboard innards of Edgar's cubicle.
He did the job for three days, almost enjoying playing the part of an office worker, listening to himself banter with difficult customers, before he became aware of Evelyn in the cubicle behind him. Evelyn was twenty-seven and deeply upset by her fourth rejection letter from a company that published romance novels. This one was unnecessarily cruel, she thought. Edgar knew that Evelyn sometimes clicked out of the order-taking software and worked on her romance novels between calls. No matter what she did, they were never good enough. Edgar could have told her, if he wanted to, that the problem was that her novels were terrible, that she could not write worth a damn, that she could not figure out plots that took her more than sixty pages in, and so her books were half as long as the romance novels she read voraciously at home. Her grammar was weak and she was endlessly repetitive. She imitated everyone and never had an original thought. She would never be a writer of any merit, she would always have to fantasize about having the pickers pick her books off the shelves far below them. And she did not realize that the hero of every one of her romance novels was the same man, the teacher she'd had a crush on in her second year of high school. She would go her whole life without knowing this unless Edgar told her somehow. But he could not bear to do it. And so he quit the job after one week. He simply did not return, and never bothered with going back for his paycheck. Evelyn and her limitless desperation to sell just one romance novel, just one, so her friends and parents would think she'd accomplished something, so men would think her soul had merit, made his leg hurt too badly.
The same day he quit his job, he felt Elaine go off her diet in grand fashion. First she went to a Chinese buffet at lunchtime and ate way too much, then had a pizza for dinner, and ice cream for dessert. The diet had lasted two days. Edgar resisted the urge to check into another hotel and instead slept on the front porch of a condemned house behind a strip mall. No medicine could help his leg now. When Elaine finished her ice cream, tears of pain were flowing from his eyes, and his hand throbbed mercilessly, and his neck became very stiff. He began to think that having so much money was beginning to hurt him too. So he threw his credit cards into the woods, but that still left over forty thousand dollars in the checking account.
At the same moment that Stephanie's doorbell rang and she came downstairs to meet her blind date, Edgar entered a strip club on Florida Avenue. He had never been to one before, and he thought the loud music and the sensory assault might enable him to get through Stephanie's date. She had spent most of the day shopping for a computer in the classifieds. In the back of a dirty magazine she had found out about many web sites which featured videos of male humiliation, and some of outright torture, and she had budgeted three hundred dollars for a computer, and ten dollars a month to partake of her roommates' internet access. The blind date was a co-worker's doing. She felt so sorry for Stephanie sometimes. Stephanie was so pretty, but so shy and awkward, and a little strange.
Edgar sat in front very close to the strippers as Stephanie was driven from her home to a nearby Outback Steakhouse by her date. She did not say much on the ride over, but she found him very handsome, very nice. Edgar tipped the women taking their clothes off in front of him, and when his left leg began to hurt, at least an hour before he thought it would, he paid them to give him lap dances, which had no effect on him. He bought them drinks and tipped them heavily to sit and talk with him, but Stephanie's date was going badly and he knew he was in for some trouble on this night, the worst trouble yet, and the smart thing to do would be to get close to a hospital, but he kept giving money to the strippers, and kept his eyes closed more and more.
Stephanie thought her blind date was so nice, such a gentleman. They talked about a lot of things, though it was an effort for him to bring her out. An extreme effort sometimes. There was a lot of silence between the appetizers and the small steak she tried to eat but was too nervous to. Her date couldn't believe she'd ordered it and yet couldn't eat but a third of it. And no dessert, she kept saying she couldn't possibly eat dessert, and he told the waitress to bring them two spoons, and hounded Stephanie into trying just one bite. She did so reluctantly. Their conversation dried up long before the check came, and her date looked around the restaurant a lot at other people.
Edgar got himself into a private room with one of the girls, and he gave her five hundred dollars. Nothing she did worked. When he realized he might not even survive this night at all, he gave her another two hundred dollars and walked out of the room, just about the moment that Stephanie's date was dropping her off in front of her house, and not walking her up to the curb, and not really even saying goodnight, and not really even thanking her for coming out.
She went inside and up to her room. She put in a movie she had bought at Value Video. It showed a young Asian cutting himself with razor blades, then having sex with another man. When the Asian cut himself with the first razor blade, Edgar collapsed in the midst of crossing 19th Street, going down in the center of the crosswalk as Stephanie watched the screen with rapt fascination. Four teenaged girls were right behind Edgar and they stopped to help. He was screaming and holding his bandaged hand to his head. He tried to get to his feet but his left leg would hold not a single ounce of his weight.
He had met his future bride in his second summer out of high school. They'd gone to school together but he'd never really noticed her, and hadn't realized she was pretty until they both got jobs at a sailing magazine. She was a secretary, hired as a favor by a friend of her aunt's. Edgar had simply shown up at the office out of the blue and offered to help out in any way he could, because he wanted to run a magazine one day, and the editor agreed to teach him how to proofread and how to do simple layout. For this he was paid minimum wage. His future bride was not making much more.
The courtship lasted more than a year. It took her that long to feel comfortable in kissing him. Neither of them had ever even been on a date before. She was terrified of boys. Her friends had told her that boys were awful, that they behaved just terribly. After six months with Edgar, Eve began to believe that perhaps they were not all necessarily that way.
He chose the restaurants they went to, the parks they walked in, the movies they saw, the day trips they took. She nodded and said yes to every suggestion he had. They gave him a little more money and a little more responsibility at the magazine, and he bought her contact lenses, hoping she wouldn't be offended; he just wanted to be able to see her eyes more. She was not offended. She accepted the contacts gracefully, as she accepted his suggestion that she get her hair cut in a slightly different way. She lay awake thinking about him every night.
He got a job at a magazine in the city but he didn't spend any less time with Eve, not at all. He enjoyed doting on her, and accepted his responsibility as her only true friend. After high school she hadn't really kept in touch with anyone, nor they with her. She was too quiet, they thought. There was nothing she could do about that. She supposed she would work for the sailing magazine as long as it lasted, and this was all right with her too, since she had Edgar.
Once she spent a long week writing a picture book for children. Maybe she could do that for a living, she thought, since it seemed so easy, and she really did love children. She showed it to Edgar, and he said it was wonderful, and maybe sometime they'd pay someone to do the illustrations for it, and it would be published. She wasn't so sure. She put it into a drawer and forgot about it, and there it stayed, and she spent her days working as a secretary, and her evenings waiting for Edgar to call.
Finally he had saved enough money to get his own room in an apartment with two other people, and he invited Eve over a lot, though she would never spend the night; her parents would have been too horrified. They were not even sure who Edgar was. He did not much feel like meeting her parents, and having them ask him what he wanted to do with his life, and where he lived, and so forth, so he only spoke to them on the phone to ask them if Eve was home, and if he could speak to her. They were a little strange, Eve told him, so maybe it was best if they didn't meet for a while. It couldn't hurt to wait, couldn't make much difference.
Edgar was twenty years old and Eve was nineteen. Edgar was almost certain he loved her, since he figured he wouldn't spend so much time with her if he didn't. He thought about marrying her and supposed that was what they would wind up doing. He began to do very well at the new magazine he worked for. He was a natural. Eve was amazed by his ability to pick up any new skill they needed from him. He could even write. She was very happy.
At the age of thirty-two, Edgar spent three days in the hospital after his fall onto the 19th Street crosswalk. His left leg had been sprained, his hand had been re-injured, there was a nasty gash in his neck, and he had sustained a moderate concussion.
The nurse who attended him was named Lisa, and she was kind and sympathetic and considerate. He chose not to speak to her, needing to get well. If he did not get well now, he was not sure if he ever would, and he did not want to die. The thought of dying frightened him still.
Lisa changed his dressing and helped him out of bed a couple of times, to see if his leg was getting any better. He did not tell her of the pain deep inside of it which the x-rays could not ever see, and he did his best to get around. For a while, Lisa thought Edgar may have even been a mute, since he never spoke a word. She never asked him any questions that required a real answer. When she said good morning or good night to her, he offered her a pained half-smile, and that was fine. One night she came in with a deck of cards and asked him if he'd like to play for a while. He nodded, and they played Go Fish for an hour, and then she went back to her station.
He tried to sleep as much as he possibly could. He never had any pain if he could just manage to physically get to sleep. After three days of this he was weak as a kitten, but his hand was almost entirely well, his leg was functional, and the concussion which had rendered him speechless and made him nauseous for forty-eight straight hours finally left him alone.
Lisa told him he could leave the hospital the next day. She told him it had been nice to meet him, and he smiled.
He woke up in the middle of the night and saw Lisa through the darkness sitting in a gray plastic chair in the corner of the room. She held one hand to her head, looking down at the floor, her legs crossed, completely motionless. She sat there that way for ten minutes before another nurse came into the room, saw her, and whispered something. Lisa collected herself, embarrassed, and exited.
Edgar drifted in and out of consciousness. He remembered the coming of cold colorless daylight, and Lisa sitting in the gray chair again, which she had moved near the window. She was looking out at the parking lot far below. Her eczema was particularly bad this day, Edgar saw. It covered half her neck. He knew that it had also flared up on various parts of her body which could not be seen beneath her nurse's uniform. He knew that she had been diagnosed seven days before with glaucoma, that they might not be able to defeat it. She was thirty. She walked with a limp because her ex-husband had pushed her down a flight of steps two years before.
He did not understand why there was no pain associated with Lisa, why his leg was not shrieking. He believed it might be because of a certain tightness he had been feeling in his chest since he had awoken in the hospital. A heart attack was gathering, he thought. Yes. He would suffer it today, or even tomorrow. It might be weeks before it hit him, but it would come. He was powerless.
The tightness in his chest subsided when Lisa came over to his bed, and sat on the edge of it for just a minute. He smiled at her one more time, and she tried to smile back, though she was crying, crying a great deal, it just would not stop. He reached out and squeezed her hand, said nothing, happy to be mute. She rose and left him, and he never saw her again.
Yes, it would be a heart attack which would kill him, and he waited for it but did his best to take steps against it. When, five miles away, Stephanie skipped renting videos one day and instead purchased a bucket of red paint from a nearby Sherwin Williams store, causing Edgar's leg to flare up because of it, he went to the bank and withdrew all the money he had left in cash. The teller had him sign something as she looked him up and down, looked at his soiled clothes and his unwashed hair, and asked him for more identification than seemed necessary. When Stephanie bought a gallon jug from K-Mart and filled it with unleaded gasoline at the Mobil station around the corner from her house, Edgar walked back to the hospital which had discharged him, limping pretty badly, and stood across the street from the emergency room entrance, watching the ambulance drivers come and go. He stood there for four hours before he finally saw the man who had been trying not to call his mother to help him out of his jam. He had failed, Edgar knew. In fact, he had broken down and called her just the night before.
Time was getting short now; Edgar could feel it. He waited until the ambulance driver, the six foot, six inch black man with the build of a football player, and who had once indeed played for the University of Texas on a full scholarship, pulled up, got out, and entered the building. Edgar followed him. He followed him until the driver went into an employee lounge and bought a pack of potato chips and a Dr. Pepper and sat down alone on a green sofa underneath fluorescent lights. Edgar watched him through the mesh window for a while. Then a fortunate thing happened and the driver stopped in the middle of his meal, and rose to go to the bathroom down the hall. He passed Edgar without a word, not recognizing him. Edgar went into the lounge, removed an envelope from his pocket containing thirty-one thousand dollars, and propped it against the driver's can of Dr. Pepper. Then he left the hospital. When dusk came, Stephanie was on her way to the house where her blind date from the other night lived with his father. She carried the bucket of red paint and the gallon of gasoline, and a carving knife and a black felt-tipped marker.
The ambulance driver came back and found the envelope, and opened it and read the slip of paper inside, which said simply: Take this, please. He took the money into his ambulance and counted it there, and then he began to weep. He gave his mother two thousand dollars, which he had borrowed from her the day before, and five thousand more. Then he moved away from the city.
Edgar asked Eve to marry him two years after they had begun to date, and she accepted immediately. To be more accurate, he hadn't really asked her to marry him. He had brought up the subject in relation to his career at the magazine and she had looked so innocent, so perfect, so hopeful, that plans were made, and he left it all to her for once, since he knew she had always dreamed of her wedding day ever since she was a little girl, which was the way of most of the women he had known, and which had always charmed him.
And he went to meet Eve's parents for the first time. They were cold to him, harsh. Eve's mother had always suspected his intentions were poor, because he had not shown himself until now, and he did not defend himself very well. Eve's father went further, and pointed out that he knew very well that Edgar's father had been put in jail for ten years for embezzlement, and that if his daughter wanted to marry the son of such a human being as that, there was nothing he could do but he certainly wouldn't be attending the wedding. Eve cried and ran to her room. Without a word in his own defense, Edgar walked to the door and left the house.
Eve called him and apologized and apologized again, and he said that it was all right, that they would find a way to make things work. She pleaded with him to try. And so he had to help her with the wedding plans, because her mother would not. She would attend the wedding without Eve's father, just to be gracious, she said, but she really did not wish to speak to Edgar, if that was quite all right with him.
Eve did do most of the work with the wedding plans while Edgar helped out when he could, though he was very busy at the political magazine where he worked, where he did very well. They would make him layout editor in another couple of years, he thought, so he worked on that. And at the magazine there was Lucinda, who thought Edgar was wonderful and brave to go through with the wedding to Eve despite her awful family. She thought he was a great sacrificer, to marry Eve and give her the kind of future she might not otherwise ever be able to have if left to herself, to give up his youth for her, really, because he was going to be very successful and could have any kind of life he wanted. Eve wasn't so lucky, wasn't educated, wasn't driven, would have to take what the days brought her. What he had with Eve was so nice and peaceful, Lucinda said.
One day Eve's older brother, who lived two states away, called Edgar at the office and told him that if he married Eve, he would not be welcome in the family. Eve cried when Edgar told her this, and explained that her brother had been in and out of the hospital for years with various mental illnesses, and her parents rarely even spoke to him anymore. That night, she and Edgar made love for only the third time. She did not like sex, though she tried to, and wanted to please him. Things would be better when they were married, she thought, and she asked him to be patient. She cut a heart out of construction paper and left it on his refrigerator when he wasn't looking, and wrote on it that she loved him. She would lose a little weight, too, before the wedding, before their honeymoon.
Edgar drank a lot after work, and thought a great deal, and did not go out with the friends he had made at the magazine when they asked him to, and attended no social functions of any kind. He was glad the wedding was coming up so fast. It was time, he supposed, to figure out once and for all where he and Eve would live, since she wanted a little house so badly, though she would never admit this to him.
The day of the wedding came. Edgar's father was in jail and his mother had died six years before. His brother was in Oregon and could not make it to the wedding. So he had invited his friends from the magazine. Eve had invited many more people, friends from childhood, some of whom came and some of whom did not. There had been no rehearsal dinner or bridal shower; she did not know many people, even at work.
Edgar was twenty-three years old then. When he saw Eve's parents arrive and get out of their car, so visibly unhappy, he went around the back of the church and smoked a cigarette, alone. "I can't, I can't, I can't," he said over and over again, and walked across the church cemetery and onto the road beyond it. He called Eve from a pay phone. She came on the line, not understanding what was happening. Edgar apologized to her and said it wasn't going to work, he couldn't get married, he was sorry, he was the worst person in the world, he just couldn't bring himself to go back into the church. He would call her, or send her a letter, in just a little while. He apologized three times more and walked from the pay phone across an empty field. He spent that day at the playground beside his old elementary school, the entire day. He did not go back to his apartment for three days, staying in a hotel instead. He drank a great deal and slept almost around the clock.
He wrote Eve a very long letter, re-wrote it twice, and mailed it to her. Then he cleared out his things from his apartment, moved into a new one, and went back to work. He became layout editor, did that for six months, and then moved to New York to work for Siren, where he was assistant editor. The magazine was a big success. He spoke to no one from his home town, and no one tried to find him.
Stephanie watched her blind date's house from a lot under construction across the street, keeping well out of sight, standing mostly inside the bare frame of a two-story home. She stayed there until well past midnight, until she was colder than she had ever been in her life. She could not be entirely sure that her blind date had gone to sleep, but he had told her at their dinner at Outback Steakhouse that he always had to get up early for work.
She left the lot and walked across the street toward his compact car, lugging with great effort a satchel containing the can of red paint, the carving knife, the black marker, and a large garbage bag. In her other hand she carried the green plastic container holding the gallon of gasoline. There was another car beside the one she went toward, most likely belonging to her blind date's father, and she ignored it.
The passenger's side of her date's car had been left unlocked, so she got in and closed the door very quietly. She left everything but the thick black marker outside. She took off the cap, and sitting there on the vinyl seat she began to write profane words on the glove compartment, the driver's seat, and the interior of the windshield, the same words, over and over again, in upper case lettering sometimes, lower case sometimes. She wrote the words in circles and snake patterns and big and small.
She got out, being very careful to shut the door with almost no sound. She removed the lid from the bucket of red paint, and very slowly she poured it across the windshield of the car, then across the hood, then the back. In the cold it spread almost not at all, which was disappointing to her. She then removed the sixteen ounce garbage bag from the satchel. It bulged wetly. Breathing heavily, she emptied its unspeakable contents on the hood of the car.
She knew that in burning the car, there would be almost no trace left of the paint and the revolting substance that she had dropped upon it. But this did not matter to her. Working less cautiously, she poured the gasoline all over the car. She dropped the empty can onto the crushed stones the car sat on and dug around in the satchel for the matches she had brought. It took her so long to find them that for a moment she thought she must have dropped them somewhere, or somehow forgotten them entirely. She began to sweat. Then she realized she had put the packet of matches in one of the satchel's zipper pockets, and fetched them out. She struck one and dropped it onto the hood of the car, flinching back instantly as flame leapt up with a small clean sound like two corduroy pillows brushing quickly against one another. Then the flame was everywhere, brilliant and roaring. The night became very bright and she stood for two seconds in a circle of orange illumination. And then she walked away.
It was not her fault she was like this; she believed it with all her heart. It was something in her chemicals, maybe, something that doctors could maybe someday understand, but she had no intention of ever seeing one, because when the car burned she felt absolutely wonderful and had to force herself to leave the scene, just as she had to force herself away from the TV set when it showed her images of men being punished and whipped and scorned. Her breath came quickly and in stitches. It was not her fault. Nor was it Edgar's fault, perhaps, that he made so much money working for Siren magazine and was so good at what he did. Something impenetrable in the brain, causing him to be good. It wasn't Eve's fault she was so ashamed at being left at the altar, so spiritually crushed, that she married the first man who came along after that, which in this case happened to be Jimmy Bray, a quiet loser from high school who had been known only for the whopping lies he told about his life in an attempt to make himself seem at all interesting. By marrying him Eve had at least made people in town stop talking about her for a while, and that was good enough. There had even been an article in the newspaper about what had happened, about the groomless ceremony. Jimmy Bray was assistant manager at the Best Buy down the road from her house, and would be assistant manager for quite some time. After a honeymoon in Niagara Falls, he treated Eve more than fair, but he was moody a lot, and distant and childish and still as much of a goddamned pathological liar as he ever was; the other employees at Best Buy couldn't stand him, he was such a pathetic balding nothing. It was not Jimmy's fault that when he and Eve were driving to get groceries three lifeless years after they were so lifelessly married, a minivan ran a stop sign and crashed into the passenger's side door and broke all of Eve's ribs, and worse, caused her to lose her left leg, which had been smashed against the gear box. When Edgar came back to town seven years after he had so ruthlessly dumped her, he heard this from someone almost immediately, and he was all right back at work for about two months when he suffered a bizarre fugue state and slept through an entire weekend. Again, not his fault. But he could not bring himself to see Eve, ever. He thought more and more about suicide but every time his thoughts got truly creative, his left leg would begin to hurt very badly, the bone, the muscles, even the blood roiling and shouting. Instead of going into therapy, he simply stopped working and began wandering the country, driving from place to place until the stupid car threw a rod or something, at which point he got on a train and came back to Washington, becoming a vagrant fifteen miles from Eve's house in Falls Church, Virginia, accepting utterly the fact that his conception thirty-two years before had been nothing more than a horrific mistake, which had led to a series of events which led to the worst mistake of all, which was abandoning Eve. Looking back on that day he did not understand how the hollowness of his ugly soul had not shown itself previous to that day. It was a mistake of such mind-numbing cruelty that he had long since left aside all considerations of redemption. In Falls Church, Eve did not want a prosthetic limb, they said. She just wanted a baby now.
Edgar gave in to his heart attack as he lay penniless and cold in a field a mile east of town, imagining every second of Stephanie's revenge against the man who had rejected her. Elaine, too, was somewhere ruining herself out of loneliness, sitting with some Chinese take-out in her apartment and absurdly drinking Diet Coke with it, in the vain hope it would make some sort of difference, cutting herself off utterly from love by adding pound after pound to her body. It was way, way too late for all of them, and so Edgar felt his heart attack strike and fought it not at all. His arms went numb, then his legs, and then the pain really struck, like a burning fist twisting in his chest, then the fist opening so that each burning finger had room to wiggle. He didn't shout, didn't make any sound at all as much as he writhed on the moist ground.
He made it through the night somehow. The pain got so bad so quickly that he lost consciousness yet again, and did not wake up until thirteen hours later. No one was around. Lying there in the leaves, homeless and broke, he finally had an idea.
He would take a bus to the cemetery beside the church where he had left Eve to her own obvious fate, and go to the grave of Glory Walters, the gawky girl from his senior science class whom no one had asked to the prom, whom no one had ever loved. She had died of leukemia at age nineteen, suffering with it all through high school, attending classes only part-time and home-tutored the rest. He would go to her grave and then contact her parents and ask that a new headstone be cut for her, one which proclaimed his undying love for her, which he would say he'd always harbored from the first time he saw her at freshman orientation. No one would have any reason to doubt it. And people could at least believe that Glory Walters had been loved passionately from afar, and they would speak to each other in restaurants and dentist's offices about how few people in this life had admirers so devoted that years could pass with no dimming of that love. People would read the inscription on the new headstone and Edgar would be redeemed even as she was immortalized, made new in the town's collective memory. They had forgotten her quickly but he would give her a kind of life, forever and for all time.
He held to this idea all the way to the cemetery, but by the time he got there it had become less lustrous in his mind, more flawed, its dark irony too obvious, its deception unforgivable. And how could he afford a new headstone; he had nothing left. And so as he stood beside Glory's grave in the end, he was left with just himself and the guilt which had led him to follow Elaine and Stephanie and Lisa and Evelyn and more than a dozen other desperately lonely girls before these ones even entered his life.
From his coat pocket he removed an envelope, which he had carried with him for over a year. Inside it was a letter from Eve, sent to his address in New York. Her ribs had been broken and her leg destroyed three years ago. He had never read the letter, had not been able to bring himself to, and it was his curse, he knew, that he should not be allowed to read it until his suffering had reached its very last end, for it held the smallest sliver of hope for him, and hope was something he did not deserve at all. The wind blew and the leaves tumbled across the ground, and he opened the letter and read it.
The two of them jointly donated that four hundred and eight word letter to a newly opened museum in southern New Jersey two years later. Its opening bid was for sixty dollars, and it eventually sold for seventy-five. It was bought by Jimmy Bray, who bid under an assumed name, paid cash for the letter, and drove home, content that things had happened in his life just as they had to in order for him and everyone within the sphere of his knowledge to attain something they would one day think of as happiness.
When the entire auction was over, when the prize winners, the pretenders, and the defeated had left for good, a small man in dark blue coveralls made several trips from the museum's back entrance to a green van parked in the yard, carrying with him the seven items which had received no bids whatsoever. He was not assisted by Ellen Roth or anyone else. I had watched Ms. Roth get into her dirty Saturn and drive away twenty minutes before Rand made his first trip from the house to the van with the volumes comprising The Gigantic Book of Hatred draped under a gray blanket. From my own car parked across the road I had watched them all, every single person who had been at the auction, get into their cars and drive away, leaving only Rand to take out the trash, so to speak. He put some of the unsold items into large cardboard boxes that had originally been used to transport TV sets and a Macintosh computer. As he went about the business of completing the final transformation of the museum into nothing more than a tasteful and soon-to-be overpriced three bedroom rural home, the expression on his face remained unchanged. There was as much drama there as would be found in the face of a gardener pulling weeds, or a surveyor marking his eighth set of property boundaries of the day. He took each item through the light drizzle that had finally replaced the domineering rain and set the box or bulging shopping bag gently in the back of the van, and when he had completed his runs back and forth, he got in and drove away like all the others. Besides the unsold auction items, he had no cargo that I knew of. He left a single light on inside the house, in the front display room. The banquet room was dark. Sometime during the day, long before I got into the front seat of my car and positioned it on the shoulder of Leo Road so as to have an unobstructed view of the entrance, Rand—it must have been Rand—had actually removed the museum's intricately carved wooden welcome sign from its stout post in the front yard. For whatever reason, he hadn't been able to wait just a few more hours, until everyone had departed. And so upon exiting the house, each guest was confronted with a bleak visual reminder that there was no more museum of romance. It seemed a tactless and defeatist gesture, to unhinge that sign and take it away. The rain would have been coming down quite hard when he did it. Perhaps the sign now lay propped against a wall in that one-bulb basement now, between two gutted computers. It was three forty-five p.m. Night would fall in an hour and a half.
I started my car and followed Rand's van as he headed north on 74, keeping six or seven car lengths behind him. He got onto a two-lane country road, Corbett Avenue, which led even deeper into the countryside but kept within just a few miles of the shore, becoming Deer Tail Road. He drove past the town of Woodbine and then in Steelmantown took a left onto something called Firesmith Lane, which was dotted with farmhouses every quarter mile or so and little else but rolling hills and road signs warning of ever more bends and curves. He was on Firesmith for ten minutes when he cued his left turn signal once more and turned onto an unmarked path of packed gravel. I slowed down to about twenty to give him plenty of room to disappear over the horizon before I turned onto that path as well. Out here in the middle of nowhere, the drizzle had tapered to almost nothing and I did not even need to use my windshield wipers anymore. We were surrounded by a thin gray mist which swallowed Rand's van in seconds.
The path was much longer than I would have guessed. I breasted two more grassy hills in a perfectly straight line, just barely seeing Rand's brake lights well up ahead. The path ended, I saw, at a mostly featureless barn surrounded on all sides by a scruffy patch of packed dirt that had become mud, and beyond that, several acres of unused land. Rand stopped his van beside the barn and cut the engine. I did the same from about two hundred yards away, so that Rand was little more than a dot in my vision, and would have been unable to make out my vehicle through the mist.
I watched him begin the process of transporting each of the unsold auction items into that lonely barn, a sequence he completed at the same rate of speed as he had loaded them back at the museum, moving efficiently and without pause. The place was unlocked and he entered and exited through a creaking door no bigger than the one which fronted the museum. When he had taken the last parcel in, and did not immediately emerge again, I started my rental car once more, pulled it well off the gravel road and into the drenched grass, and left it there. I got out and started to walk down the gravel path toward the barn. It was cold, shockingly cold, with the onset of dusk.
I did not know what my purpose was, but I kept walking, the mist settling in my bones. The damp was a fitting atmosphere to put to rest the modest, self-inflicted crucible my body had endured over the past twenty-four hours. Nothing about my physical person felt healthy or even solidly constructed. I gave Rand's van a wide berth and ambled off to the right, around the side of the completely windowless, unpainted barn, the kind that so often seemed from the roadways of America to be eternally asleep, utterly forgotten. It felt right just to move along its side through the grass, my hands in the pockets of my coat, listening for the sound of footsteps or the engine of Rand's van. The fact that I did not even know the name of the town I was in gave me some comfort. Two feet off the ground, near the barn's westernmost edge, there was a tiny glimmer of dull artificial light peeking through a fist-sized hole in the planking. Some bored kid with a shotgun had created that hole, maybe, and it had never been fixed. Perhaps it was the same bored kid who had scratched the initials L.C.L. a little bit further down, at eye level for someone in his or her early teens.
I turned the corner and saw that on the far end, the barn was wide open, a pair of double doors having been propped wide, one held firm by a bag of mulch, the other by a very old lawnmower. I walked to this rear entrance, and, keeping my body mostly out of sight, peered inside.
The barn's interior was lit by a professionally constructed line of overhead beams which ran from the front entrance to the back. The light bulbs were the only truly modern conveniences to be found inside the barn. In front of me were four enormous sets of industrial metal racks which also extended some thirty yards to the rear and were lined up in formal rows, dividing the barn into four distinct adjacent sections. Each rack was three shelves high, the shelves allowing for about five vertical feet of storage space, so I had to crane my neck upwards a bit to see to the top. A good-sized ladder would have been needed to reach the topmost rack. I saw two such ladders leaning against the thin wooden wall to my right.
The storage racks were cluttered with re-taped and re-configured cardboard boxes scavenged from previous purchases of computer printers, sporting equipment, lamps, wine, oranges, CD players, board games. Each box stored an unseen object, and between the boxes still more random things lay on the shelves, yet to be crated or perhaps never to be. I saw a rocking chair, a bag of golf clubs, a clay sculpture the size of a small refrigerator depicting a weary, eternally trudging soldier, a huge hunk of raw rock in which was embedded a glass-protected photograph of a German shepherd, three or four paintings, a few notebooks, a short, long-dead bonsai tree, a wire basket full of model train cars, something that appeared to be a wedding dress that had been half scarred by flame, a tennis racket that had been snapped neatly in two. More things, everywhere I looked. There must have been three or four hundred objects exposed for the perusal of an intruder like myself, and a like amount of boxes hiding half of them away.
At the far entrance, Archer Rand was holding one of the auction lots, a large wooden crate hiding the two dolls and sundry notebooks once possessed by a little German girl, in his cradled arms as he spoke to a woman whose back was turned to me. She nodded once, then a few more times, as he explained something to her quietly, far beyond the reach of my hearing. He then turned and placed the crate on the open rack closest to him, where the other unsold auction items now rested. The woman turned to watch him, then looked out at the gathering gloom. Rand walked past her, uttering one more word, causing her to nod again. He touched her right arm briefly and then left the barn. From the angle at which I stood, I could see the grille of his van through the open door, and watched as Rand got back inside, cued the headlights, and pulled away with a small wave for the anonymous woman. She waved back. Then the van's tires were chewing through the thin layer of mud outside the barn and Rand departed. I never saw him again.
She saw me almost immediately, that woman. After watching Rand go off, perhaps back to the museum, perhaps somewhere very far away from it, she turned and there I was, forty yards away, on the other side of the barn, having stepped fully inside upon hearing the sound of Rand's van start to dwindle into the mist. I had no excuse prepared, no alibi, nothing, and no intention of fabricating one. I watched her walk across the barn toward me, glad only to be slightly warmer now that I stood under the unhealthy glare of the overhead lights.
She moved languidly, unalarmed by my presence, never accelerating nor slowing her gait. From far away she looked to me to be about thirty years old, but as she drew closer, the subtle—in her case, extremely subtle—signs of age became visible on her face, though the way she walked belied that age. She must have been a dancer, even an athlete, in her earlier years. She wore a brown sweater and darker brown skirt on a very slender frame. Her black hair was tied back in a ponytail which lay attractively over her right shoulder. She wore very little makeup, did not need any at all. Her eyes were bright, her skin almost without flaw, and so in the end it was quite difficult to guess just how old she was. A striking fifty-five, maybe even a flawless sixty. She smiled at me kindly. Intimidated, unnerved, she was not.
—Hello, she said. —Can I help you?
I shook my head. —I don't think so. I....just wanted to look inside.
—I saw you at the auction, she told me. —Lot 30. I'm very sorry you didn't get it.
Again, I was dumbfounded, just as I had been when Archer Rand had revealed his identity to me at one o'clock. It must have been some sort of sad game, I thought, that they should walk so invisibly during the bidding. I had a brief mental image of this woman assisting Rand in the removal of the museum's welcome sign, running her hands over the wooden blue hummingbird as the rain crawled over it.
—I don't remember you, I said to her.
—My name is Patrice, she said, and offered her right hand to me. I shook it lamely, falsely certain that I had never touched Rand's hand upon greeting him, or even the hand of the woman Sandra. —I'm the curator of the museum.
—What about Rand? I asked her, regretting the fact that my hand was so cold and damp compared to hers, so warm and pliable.
—We both are, I suppose, she said modestly, and looked back at the rows of shelves. —Yes, I take far too much credit.
—What is this place?
She studied my face very briefly, very unobtrusively. —You're not a reporter, I take it. Is that right?
—No, I said, wondering dimly how I would be able to prove it, given my stalking of Rand into this empty rural outback.
—I didn't think so when I first saw you, the woman Patrice said, and turned to the storage racks again, her eyes falling in one corner on a stringless cello laid on its back on a bottom shelf. —This barn belonged to a blind farmer who used to deliver strawberries to my family. He built it after he lost his sight completely, almost entirely by himself. We've always found much more for the museum than we could ever put on display, so most of it came here over the years. We need a new heater in here, I think. Some of the things aren't doing so well.
—What will happen to them now? I asked her.
She looked at me again with that honest, guileless expression, a face that told me she would answer whatever question was put to her with no trace of reservation. It was as if she had been waiting here all day for me, and was delighted I had finally made it, despite the fact that I hadn't left us much time to talk. Her voice had no highs, lows, or sharp edges, was like a piece of cloth kept buoyant by the gentle blowing of a fan.
—They'll stay here, she said simply. —Would you like to take a walk through?
We walked together the way movies have made me imagine that people in Victorian times used to walk along riverbanks and strands during formal courtships, slowly and with no destination at all, with occasional short tangents that led nowhere and meant nothing beyond what their subtle changes of body language told the companion beside them. We had no starting point and no ending point, and there was nothing she in particular wished to show me, no grand finale, nothing she found particularly extraordinary enough to point out. Her hands never left her side.
—Did Rand really set it all up as a business proposition? I asked her straight away, rather than asking her anything about the items we passed on our left and right, though I wanted to, almost needed to.
—No, she said with a small smile, apparently amused that I had guessed the real truth so quickly. —We were man and woman a long time ago, you know, the way it truly means. Together. Lovers. It was our idea, the two of us. I had the money, and he had the need to work on something, something bigger than he was. So we started to research, and collect things. That was an interesting time.
She looked at the packed dirt floor then, unable and unwilling to hide the first hint of regret that had crept into her voice. —We stopped a couple of years ago, she said. —We're getting a bit old, and we knew the museum would have to end.
—So the whole biography Munchick gave, I asked, —none of it was true?
—Some of it was....partly true, Patrice said. —We didn't totally misrepresent. It was a bit of fun, harmless I'm sure you'd agree.
—The two of you were never married?
—No, no, she said gently. —That never happened. But we were together for nine years.
She trailed off there, for just a moment. I spent that moment absorbing the procession of objects. Above eye level, a cardboard silverware box labeled E-MAILS AND NOTES, a large crucifix attached to a string bearing a profusion of multi-colored beads, a child's sled, clumsily painted yellow by tiny hands, a tall box from which a large collection of umbrellas protruded, all of them either green or red for some reason, an actual gray slate tombstone, two feet tall, unused, lying flat, face down.
—We almost destroyed each other, Patrice told me, staring blankly ahead. —That really can happen. People can get too close, and they can be ruined, wiped out. It's like being caught in a fire, only no one wants to escape it. They pretend they can't see the way out. Do you know what I'm talking about?
I thought about it hard for a moment. —Yes, I said finally.
—We're colleagues now, she said. —It seemed impossible that we would ever be friends, but that's exactly what happened. It's been a miracle. We vowed to kill each other one night, in the middle of it all, just so we would go on being lovers eternally. We actually bought pistols. Twenty-five years ago now.
I had a mad impulse to take her arm, link it through mine, felt that she would have accepted the gesture for what it was. But she did not need my camaraderie, my support, or anyone else's for that matter. She was able to tell me these things as though she were relating someone else's story entirely. She spoke like a tour guide who was genuinely interested in her subject matter but not personally involved. She remained handsome, strikingly defiant of her age, even under the unflattering light.
As we approached the end of an aisle, one of the objects on a high shelf, almost by some meaningless destiny, fell off its mooring, finally tipped over by the faint current of air that wandered imperceptibly through the barn from its open doors. It was an open detergent box filled with torn movie tickets. They were packed in so tightly that when the box thumped onto the dirt floor, only a couple of dozen spilled out. I bent quickly to retrieve them and place them back inside. I saw immediately that some of the tickets were from relatively recent film showings, while others seemed of a vintage several decades past. Patrice thanked me and I set the box on the shelf beside me, in an open space at the end. We walked on.
—Where are the histories of these things? I asked. —Where are they written?
—They're not, she said. —Here, the details don't matter, and we don't keep track of them. Everything means as much as everything else. I prefer it that way. It's not like the museum. This is more of a....refuge.
I mused on that for a moment. Hundreds of objects, and the history of each known only to her, and maybe to Rand. I believed Patrice could recite the stories at will if asked, endlessly.
—You'll keep this place, though, I said. —Even though the museum is gone.
She looked at the things she had collected, walking mutely past. A leather jacket, an empty antique birdcage, a clumsy portrait in watercolors of a teenaged girl. —Oh, I imagine Archer will want to come back and look at all this sometimes, and so will I, as I get more and more sentimental in my old age, she said. —And I have a niece, she's seven now. When she decides to get married, I'd like to show her all this, her and her husband, before the actual ceremony. Just have a walk through, like we're doing. Not as any sort of lesson, just....that it would be a nice walk.
She folded her arms in front of her as the cold from outside reached into the barn and clawed us a bit. She did nothing so ungraceful as shivering or peering distastefully into the gloom or quickening her step to get warmer. That would not have been like her.
—Maybe, she said, thinking further on my question, —we'll be able to think of a better ending to all this. Maybe that's why I keep the barn going. It's like we started some vast story, and no resolution seems right, or fair. We just don't know how to finish. We don't know how to close the book.
I nodded. —No one else has ever wanted to have a museum of romance? No one has ever approached you with the idea of keeping it going somewhere else?
—No, she said flatly. —We've never found anyone.
—Hard to believe, I said.
—It is, she replied. —But then, lots of things are.
We came to the end of the shelves, the end of the racks; I had seen all there was to see. I regretted the last leg of our walk, which led to the front entrance and the ever-thickening mist, because though she had told me everything she could, I felt as if what I had come looking for had simply never been here at all. It wasn't with Rand, either; that was obvious. It was with Lot 30, and when I had lost it, everything that could possibly come after was moot. I knew somehow that when this night ended and I awoke the next day in my gutted apartment, my history of romances was utterly, irrevocably over, that I had been meant to discover the museum and the auction and make my final bid and then never again be with a woman, never dream of one, fight for one, lose one, or even desire one. I was meant to become like Patrice, though I did not feel I could ever acquire her poise or gratitude, nor would I ever come to cherish my past. I would simply find some way to erase it. And the rest of my life, I knew, would either be tolerable or intolerable, but it would belong to no one but myself; hands that might reach out would be firmly turned away. I had been making my way slowly and dutifully toward this end for years, and leaving the barn would merely be the last step in that progression toward a comforting, resolute loneliness that I would make into a lasting friend. It would be predictable and easy. That is all I ever wanted of anything. I had never asked for prison, for a woman named Marta, for her twisted betrayal, for a beautiful savior called Ahnkah, for something I had been labeled with that some blindly called heroism but which I knew had simply been desperation. None of that story would be tinged now by its reflection through someone new. My perspective on it was finally as rigid as stone. With the museum's dissolution, it would never have to be spoken of again.
Patrice and I fell silent for a time; then, just before we got to the door, I asked: —Why didn't you two run the place together? I never even saw your name anywhere.
—It's not good for Archer and I to work together, she told me. —He had a horrible problem with drinking, after we broke apart. First I was the enemy, then drinking. So I gave him the money to run the museum, and that was his job and his support. It's been enough for me just to keep the barn tended here, and come see it once in a while. There were some financial mistakes, some very bad ones recently, but after all, it couldn't go on forever. We just weren't popular enough, the crowds never came.
—What will he do now?
We stopped at the door. She leaned against the threshold, looked out past the gravel road to the hills that swallowed it.
—I don't know, she said sadly. —I guess we should have figured out things a little better. I could have done more about the money. Archer will be able to retire next year, so it should be all right. And he wants to write a book.
—About this place? I asked.
—No, Patrice said to me. —It's like I told you. We can't think of an ending.
In the far distance, lights came on around the only farmhouse visible to us, calibrated to sense the darkness and respond to it. The porch was illuminated, and so was a little doghouse near the driveway. We saw no people.
—You never got married, then, I said to Patrice. —To anyone.
She shook her head. —I had my adventure. It lasted nine years. That was more than enough for anyone. You only had eleven months, I think. Was that enough for you?
—Yes, I said, without hesitation, though it might have been a lie that just didn't matter anymore.
—Stay here, she told me. —I want to give you something.
She walked back toward the shelves. I waited for her. I looked at the farmhouse in the distance, and saw a tiny figure emerge onto the front porch. From what I could make out of it, it was a boy, and he clapped his hands toward the doghouse. A shaggy mass appeared out of its depths, trotted up the porch steps, and disappeared into all that warmth. The child remained for a moment, then seemed to turn in my direction. I saw one hand raise, and then the boy began to wave at me, with great enthusiasm, eyes drawn to me by the lights inside the barn, a rarity to him that demanded a response. Who knew how little the boy had seen of the lonely barn's owners. It was an event, that someone should be in there. He waved and waved, and finally, I raised my own hand weakly in return. Satisfied, the boy went back inside the house and closed the door. It had been so easy, to make him happy. It cost me nothing.
Patrice returned and stood close to me, holding out a black shoebox marked with the logo of a popular chain store. A piece of white string held the cover taut.
—To make up for you not winning your bid, she said.
I took the box from her. It was very light. —What is it? I asked.
—Oh, it's just something from the shelves here, she said. —Some of these things are so old, both Archer and I have forgotten what they meant, what the story was, sometimes even where the things came from. Just a few things, but it's true. This is one of them. We've simply lost the details of it. We tried and tried, but we couldn't remember. It's been fifteen years, at least fifteen, since it was given to us. So it's gone back to being a mystery again.
She did not suggest that I open the box there and then. It went unspoken that I should take it elsewhere. So I thanked her, as honestly as I could, and held it firmly in both hands, and did not lower it to my side, did not dismiss it.
—It meant something incredible to someone at some point, and that's all we know for sure, she told me. —I guess Archer and I never really understood why anything else matters. Maybe that's what we did wrong.
I closed my eyes. —You did nothing wrong, I said firmly, and when I opened my eyes again, I saw that she had put her hand out again, asking me silently to take it. I did, in something less demonstrative than a handshake. I said goodbye. She did as well. My hand closed around the car keys in my pocket and I stepped outside into the cold, wanting to take Patrice with me, though where we could go, and what I could possibly become to her, was dismally unknowable.
It was a long walk up the gravel path, but I did not look back. I tried to imagine what she might be doing in the barn with no one there. Just waiting, I supposed, just waiting to be entirely alone, to stand in the center of it all and wonder when she would next come out here, to the middle of nowhere, to tend to the fist-sized hole in the side wall or the malfunctioning heater, or to do a final count of all those relics now that there would be absolutely no more of them coming in. Maybe it would be weeks, maybe even months before she came back. Maybe I would return before her. But no. I could not begin to fathom how cruel a trespass that would be, to somehow go in there without her company.
I put the black shoebox on the passenger's seat of my rental car and, referring just once more to that confused, irritating tangle of directions the museum had given me, tried to find my way out of the county.
But I didn't have to go that far to find a suitable beach on which to open the box that Patrice had bequeathed to me. I came upon a neglected public stretch of waterfront just five miles from the barn, on the road to Cape May, and I parked my car in a paved lot, crossed an empty playground, and walked out onto the wet sand just a few minutes before the night sky overtook the sickly afternoon. The far reaches of the ocean blended visually with the horizon into one vaporous, colorless mass, broken only by one impossibly dim blinking red beacon miles away from shore. The wind was nonexistent and the waves mournfully quiet. The water skated up, printed a giant palm on the earth, retreated, came forward again. I sat down on a bench overlooking the tide line and rested the shoebox beside me. I was alone.
Now, I thought, now I will be finally rewarded, for when I open the box, I will be certain to find the key that had been so cruelly taken away from me; it will be a gift made out of my respect for the remains of the museum, a token for not revealing the secret of Rand and his old lover's melancholy barn. And the key would be well-deserved, for had I not, since Friday night, endured in a perfect sequence the many metaphors of a painful romance? I had fallen under the spell of a new discovery, wandered unfamiliar roads which did not lead where they seemed to promise, been made a fool of by someone who claimed to mean me no harm. I had gambled everything I owned and lost, only to learn nothing from the experience and gamble it all again in the name of some unquenchable passion. And after all was said and done, being left with no one, I had reached out for closure to my suffering, only to walk away from a fascinating woman in possession of something quite different from what I believed I deserved. It was a story line every man had known through a thousand generations, what we begged for in our most secret dreams, and now I had known it once again, all in the space of twenty hours. But this time, Rand and his partner would certainly bring me a just ending, a swift and fitting response to the theft perpetrated against me by the County Fair Lovers, who had undoubtedly gotten back to their newly redecorated kitchen only to find their parcel had been deviously switched.
I undid the string that held my prize and lifted the lid, relishing my hatred of that charmed couple and their officious love story, and took from the shoebox a withered, time-battered doll, seventy years or more in age, a giraffe to be exact, a stuffed carnival prize with one eye missing, a friendly giraffe wearing a red shirt with a blue heart on it, the colors faded away to only a hint of what they had once been, gray stuffing protruding from a tear in one foot and a gash suffered on one shoulder. It could not have weighed more than four ounces, this relic, and I cradled it both hands as I lifted it out into the cold winter air. Seventy years old, or even older, the giraffe's lone button eye looked to the sky with perfect innocence, brushed by the icy wind, barely able to withstand its punishment, weakened further by more than a decade locked in a tiny barn in the middle of nowhere, lost to light, sound, and the touch of some woman who had once cared for it more than she could ever say. The memories of her night at the carnival, the arc lights, the smell of apples, and the young man who became her laughing hero with one mighty throw of a baseball, had for melancholy and forgotten reasons been left to caretakers she would never know, and now belonged forever to a stranger shedding unnoticed tears beside the New Jersey shoreline, sitting motionless as the dark progressed around him, the last man to remember, endure, and tell of the end of the museum of romance.
Westminster, MarylandSeptember 28, 2003