“Like crapping and eating. New York ’s for you to live in. That leaves the whole rest of the world to work in, and isn’t that enough?”
“Of course three-quarters of the earth’s surface is water,” he said.
“And how much work do you get up around the North Pole, or down in Antarctica? But you’re right, there’s a lot left.”
“I’ll call the man back and tell him we pass.”
“Hang on a minute.”
“I came all this way,” he said. “I might as well hear about it. Just tell me it’s a connected guy, has a couple of no-neck bodyguards with him night and day, and I can go home.”
“He’s an artist.”
“At what, mayhem? Extortion?”
“At art,” she said. “He paints pictures.”
“He’s got a show coming up. In Chelsea.”
“I heard there were galleries opening over there. Way west, by the river. Is that where he lives?”
“That’s in Brooklyn.”
“Practically another city.”
“What are you doing, Keller? Talking yourself into something?”
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “The thing is, Dot, it’s been a while.”
“Tell me about it.”
“And the last one, that business in Louisville…”
“Not a walk in the park, as I recall.”
“It actually went pretty smoothly,” he said, “when you look back on it, but it didn’t seem so smooth while it was going on. We got paid and everybody was happy, but even so it left a bad taste.”
“So you’d like to rinse your mouth out?”
“Is there a lot of fine print in the contract, Dot? Does it have to look like a heart attack or an accident?”
She shook her head. “Homicide’s fine, and as noisy as you want it.”
“So I’m told. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be, unless it’s an object lesson for a player to be named later, but if you can arrange for the guy to get decapitated at high noon in Macy’s window, nobody would be the least bit upset.”
“Except for the artist.”
“Keller,” she said, “you can’t please everybody. What do you think? You want to do this?”
“I could use the money.”
“Well, who couldn’t? The first payment’s on its way, because I said yes first and then looked for someone to do it. I don’t have to tell you how I hate to send money back once I have it in hand.”
“Not your favorite thing.”
“I get attached to it,” she said, “and I think of it as my money, so returning it feels like spending it, and without getting anything for it. Do you want a day or two to think about this?”
He shook his head. “I’m in.”
“Really? Brooklyn or no, it’s still New York. He’s in Williamsburg, you’re on First Avenue, you can just about see his house from your window.”
“All the same…”
“It won’t be the first time in New York, Dot. Never on a job, but personal business, and what’s the difference?” He straightened up in his chair. “I’m in,” he said. “Now tell me about the guy.”
“I used to paint,” Maggie Griscomb said. “Now I make jewelry.”
“I was noticing your earrings.”
“These? They’re my work. I only wear my own pieces, because that way I get to be a walking showcase. Unless I’m sitting down, in which case I’m a sitting showcase.”
They were sitting now, in a booth at a Cuban coffee shop on Eighth Avenue, drinking cafй con leche.
“It’s odd,” she said, “because I like jewelry, and not just my own. I buy other people’s jewelry and it just sits in the drawer.”
“How come you stopped painting?”
“I stopped being twenty-nine.”
“I didn’t know there was an age limit.”
“I spent my twenties painting moody abstract oils and sleeping with strangers,” she said. “I figure my twenties lasted until my thirty-fourth birthday, when I got out of some guy’s bed, threw up in his bathroom, and tried to get out of there without looking at him or the mirror. It struck me that I was older than Jesus Christ, and it was time to quit being twenty-nine and grow up. I looked at all my paintings and I thought, Jesus, what crap. Nobody ever bought any of them. Nobody even went so far as to admire them, unless it was some guy desperate to get laid. A horny man will pretend an enthusiasm for just about anything. But aside from that, about the best most people would do was say my work was interesting. Listen, I’ve got a tip for you. Don’t ever tell an artist his work is interesting.”
“Or different. ‘Did you like the movie?’ ‘It was different.’ What the hell does that mean? Different from what?” She stirred her coffee and left the spoon in the cup. “I don’t know if my paintings were different,” she said. “Whatever that means. But they weren’t interesting, to me or anybody else. They weren’t even pretty to look at. I was going to burn the canvases, but that seemed too dramatic. So I stacked them at the curb, and somebody hauled them away.”
“That sounds so sad.”
“Well, it felt liberating. I thought, What do I like? And I thought, Jewelry, and I went out and took a class. I had a flair right from the beginning. These are pretty, aren’t they?”
“And it’s okay for them to be pretty,” she said. “I had to work to keep my paintings from being pretty, because pretty art is facile and decorative and doesn’t wind up in museums. So I did everything I could to turn out pictures that no one would ever get any pleasure out of, and I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Now I make rings and bracelets and necklaces and earrings, and I purposely make them attractive, and people buy my work and wear it and enjoy it. And it’s really a pleasure not being twenty-nine anymore.”
“You changed your whole life.”
“Well, I still live downtown,” she said, “and I still wear black. But I don’t drink myself stupid, and I don’t hurt my ears listening to loud music…”
“Or go to bed with strangers?”
“It depends,” she said. “How strange are you?”
She was still sleeping when he left around daybreak. It was a crisp clear morning, and he set out to walk a few blocks and wound up walking all the way home. She lived in a loft on the top floor of a converted warehouse on Crosby Street, and he’d been living for years now in a prewar apartment building on First Avenue, just a few blocks up from the United Nations. He stopped for breakfast along the way, and he lingered in Union Square to look at the trees. Closer to home he ducked into a bookstore and flipped through a pocket guide to the trees of North America. The book was designed to enable you to identify a tree, and then told you everything you might want to know about it. More, he decided, than he needed to know, and he left without buying the book.
But he went on noticing the trees the rest of the way home. Midtown Manhattan wasn’t exactly the Bois de Boulogne, but most of the side streets in Kips Bay and Murray Hill had some trees planted at curbside, and he found himself looking at them like somebody who’d never seen a tree before.
He’d always been aware of the city’s trees, and never more so than during the months when he’d owned a dog. But a dog owner tends to see a tree as an essentially utilitarian object. Keller, dogless now, was able to see the trees as-what? Art objects, possessed of special properties of form and color and density? Evidence of God’s handiwork on earth? Powerful beings in their own right? Keller wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t take his eyes off them.
At home in his tidy one-bedroom apartment, Keller found himself struck by the emptiness of his walls. He had a pair of Japanese prints in his bedroom, neatly framed in bamboo, the Christmas gift of a girlfriend who’d long since married and moved away. The only artwork in the living room was a poster Keller had bought on his own, after he’d viewed a Hopper retrospective a few years ago at the Whitney.
The poster showed one of the artist’s most recognizable works, solitary diners at a cafй counter, and its mood was unutterably lonely. Keller found it cheering. Its message for him was that he was not alone in his solitude, that the city (and by extension the world) was full of lonely guys, sitting on stools in some sad cafй, drinking their cups of coffee and getting through the days and nights.
The Japanese prints were unobjectionable, but he hadn’t paid any attention to them in years. The poster was different, he enjoyed looking at it, but it was just a poster. What it did, really, was refresh his memory of the original oil painting it depicted. If he’d never seen the painting itself, well, he’d probably still respond to the poster, but it wouldn’t have anywhere near the same impact on him.
As far as owning an original Hopper, well, that was out of the question. Keller’s work was profitable, he could afford to live comfortably and still sink a good deal of money into his stamp collection, but he was light-years away from being able to hang Edward Hopper on his wall. The painting shown on his poster-well, it wasn’t for sale, but if it ever did come up at auction it would bring a seven-figure price. Keller figured he might be able to pay seven figures for a piece of art, but only if two of those figures came after the decimal point.
Keller had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on Third Avenue, then stopped at a florist. From there he walked up to Fifty-seventh Street, where he found a building he’d noticed in passing, with one or more art galleries on each of its ten floors. All but a couple were open, and he walked through them in turn, having a look at the works on display. At first he was wary that the gallery attendants would give him a sales pitch, or that he’d feel like an interloper, looking at work he had no intention of buying. But nobody even nodded at him, or gave any sign of caring what he looked at or how long he looked at it, and by the time he’d walked in and out of three galleries he was entirely at ease.
It was like going to a museum, he realized. It was exactly like going to a museum, except for two things. You didn’t have to pay to get in, and there were no groups of restless children, with their teachers desperate to explain things to them.
How were you supposed to know how much the stuff cost? There was a number stuck to the wall beside each painting, but there were no dollar signs, and the numbers ran in sequence, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, and couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the price. Evidently it was considered loutish to post the price publicly, but didn’t they want sales? What were you supposed to do, ask the price of anything that caught your eye?
Then at one gallery he noticed another patron carrying a plastic-laminated sheet of paper, referring to it occasionally, dropping it at the front table on her way out. Keller retrieved it, and damned if it didn’t contain a numbered list of all the works on display, along with the title, the dimensions, the medium (oil, watercolor, acrylic, and gouache, whatever that was), and the year it was completed.