One work had NFS for a price, which he supposed meant Not For Sale. And two had little red dots next to the price, and he remembered that some of the paintings had displayed similar red dots alongside their numbers. Of course-the red dots meant the paintings had been sold! They wouldn’t just wrap one up and send you home with it. The paintings had to hang for the duration of the show, so when you bought something, they tagged it with a red dot and left it right where it was.
He congratulated himself for figuring it all out, then was taken aback by the thought that everyone else no doubt already knew it. In all the galleries in New York, he was probably the only person who’d lacked this particular bit of knowledge. Well, at least he’d been able to work it out on his own. He hadn’t made a fool of himself, asking what the dots were for.
By the time he got home the mail was in. Keller had never cared much about the mail, collecting it and dealing with it as it came, tossing the junk mail and paying the bills. Then he took up stamp collecting, and now every day’s mail held treasures.
Dealers throughout the country, and a few overseas, sent him the stamps he’d ordered from their lists, or won in mail auctions. Others sent him selections on approval, to examine at leisure and keep what pleased him. And there were the monthly stamp magazines, and a weekly stamp newspaper, and no end of auction catalogs and price lists and special offers.
Today, along with the usual lists and catalogs, Keller received his monthly selection from a woman in Maine. “Dear John,” he read. “Here’s a nice lot of German Colonies, plus a few others for your inspection. Enclosed are 26 glassines totaling $194.43. Hope you find some to your liking. Sincerely, Beatrice.”
Keller had been dealing with Beatrice Rundstadt for almost two years now. She enclosed a similar note with each shipment, and he always wrote back along the same lines: “Dear Beatrice, Thanks for a nice selection, much of which has found a home here on First Avenue. I’m enclosing my check for $83.57 and look forward to next month’s assortment. Yours, John.” It had taken well over a year of Dear Mr. Keller and Dear Ms. Rundstadt, but now they were John and Beatrice, which gave the correspondence a nice illusion of intimacy.
Just an illusion, though. He didn’t know if Beatrice Rundstadt was married or single, old or young, tall or short, fat or thin, didn’t know if she collected stamps herself (as many dealers did) or thought collecting stamps was a fool’s errand (as many other dealers did). For her part, all she knew about him was what he collected.
And that was how he hoped it would remain. Oh, he couldn’t avoid the occasional fantasy, in which Bea Rundstadt (or some other lady philatelist) turned out to be a soul mate with the face of an angel and the build of a Barbie doll. Fantasies were harmless, as long as you kept them in their place. His notes remained as steadfastly perfunctory as hers. She sent him stamps, he sent her checks. Why mess with something that worked?
You could generally hold a selection of approvals for up to a month, but Keller rarely kept them around for more than a day or two. This time all he needed was an hour to pick out the stamps he wanted. He could mount them later on; for now he wrote out a check and a three-line note and went downstairs to the mailbox. Then he took a bus to Fourteenth Street and rode the L train under the East River to Bedford Avenue.
Keller knew Manhattan reasonably well, but his mental map of the outer boroughs was like a medieval mariner’s map of the world. There were little floating pockets of known land and vast stretches inscribed “Beyond this point there be monsters.” He had a glancing familiarity with parts of Brooklyn-Cobble Hill, because he’d had a girlfriend there once, and Marine Park, from the time years ago when he’d belonged to a bowling team that competed (if you could call it that) in a league out there. He didn’t really know Williamsburg at all, but recalled that the dominant ethnic groups were Puerto Ricans and Hasidic Jews in the southern portion and Poles and Italians farther north. In recent years, artists seeking low-cost loft space had been moving in. (“There goes the neighborhood” went the cry-in Spanish and Yiddish, Polish and Italian.)
Declan Niswander lived on Berry Street, on Williamsburg ’s north side, just a ten-minute walk from the subway stop. Keller found the address, one of a row of modest three-story brick houses on the east side of the street. There were three bells at the side of the front door, which suggested that there was one apartment to a floor. Whether that was a lot of space or a little depended on how deep the Niswander house was, and you couldn’t tell from the street.
The block, and indeed the whole neighborhood, was in the process of gentrification, but it had a ways to go yet, and hadn’t yet reached the tree-planting stage. Thus Declan Niswander, who painted trees so evocatively as to make a termite change his diet, lived on a block without a single tree. Keller wondered if it bothered him, or if he even noticed. Maybe trees were just something to paint, and Niswander put them out of his mind the minute he packed up his paints and brushes.
Keller walked around, got a sense of the area. A block away he found a little Polish restaurant where he had a bowl of borscht and a big plate of pierogis, drank the large glass of grape Kool-Aid they brought without his asking, and, after a generous tip, still had change left from a ten-dollar bill. Dinner out here was quite a bargain, even when you counted the subway fare.
He was nursing a glass of dark beer in a bar called The Broken Clock when Niswander walked in. He hadn’t been expecting the man, but he wasn’t greatly surprised at the sight of him. The Broken Clock (and why did they call it that? There wasn’t a clock to be seen, broken or not) was the only bar in the vicinity that looked to be a likely watering hole for artists. The others were straightforward working-class saloons, better suited to a painter of houses than one of elms and maples. Niswander might visit them now and then for a shot and a beer, but if he was going to hang out anywhere in the neighborhood it would be at The Broken Clock.
Niswander strode in, accompanied by a woman who was plainly his, and who bore papoose-style a baby that was plainly theirs. He passed out greetings to people left and right. Keller heard someone congratulate him on a review, heard another ask how the opening had gone. They knew Declan Niswander here, and they evidently liked him well enough.
For his part, Niswander looked right at home, but Keller figured he’d look okay in any of the local bars. He had the form and features to fit in anywhere, and, in his red and black plaid shirt and button-fly Levi’s, he looked more likely to chop down a tree than paint its picture. He wasn’t wearing a drop of black today, but then neither were the bar’s other patrons. Black, Keller guessed, was for Lower Manhattan, where regular people dressed like artists. On this side of the river, artists dressed like regular people.
Keller finished his beer and went home.
There were no phone messages when he got home that night, and nobody called the next morning while he was around the corner having breakfast. He looked up a number and picked up the phone.
When she answered he said, “Hi, it’s Keller.”
“There you are.”
“Here I am,” he agreed.
“And no wonder people tend to call you Keller. It’s what you call yourself.”
“ ‘Hi, it’s Keller.’ Your very words. Your roses are beautiful. Completely unexpected and wholly welcome.”
“I was wondering if they got there.”
“What you’re too polite to say is you were wondering if I was ever going to call.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I know you’re busy, and-“
“And maybe the florist lost the card, and I didn’t know who sent them.”
“That occurred to me.”
“I’ll just bet it did. You think I didn’t call? Believe me, I called. Do you happen to know how many Kellers there are in the Manhattan book?”
“There’s something like two columns of them, if I remember correctly.”
“Two columns is right. And there are two John Kellers and two Jonathans, not to mention seven or eight J Kellers. And not one of them is you.”
“No, I’m not in the book.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Oh,” he said. “I guess you didn’t have my number.”
“I guess not, but I do now, Mr. Smarty, because I’ve got Caller ID on this phone, so your secret’s not a secret anymore. I can call you anytime I want to, big boy. What do you think about that?”
“I haven’t thought about it yet,” he said, “so it’s hard to say. But here’s what I was thinking. Suppose I come by for you around seven tonight and we have dinner.”
“But I’ve got a better idea. Suppose you come over around nine-thirty and we have sex.”
“That would work,” he allowed. “But don’t you want to have dinner?”
“I’m a lousy cook.”
“At a restaurant,” he said. “I meant for us to go out.”
“I have revolting table manners,” she said. “I also have a shrink appointment at five.”
“Aren’t they usually done in an hour?”
“Fifty minutes, generally.”
“We could have dinner after.”
“What I always do,” she said, “is pick up a banana smoothie on the way to the shrink’s, with added wheat germ and protein powder and spirulina, whatever that is, and I sip it while we talk. It’s the perfect time to be nourished, you know? And then I’ll go right home and work, because I’ve got an order I have to get out, and I’ll knock off at nine and bathe and wash my hair and make myself irresistible, and at nine-thirty you’ll show up and we’ll have an inventive and highly satisfying sexual encounter. To which, I might add, I’ll be looking forward all day. Nine-thirty, Keller. See ya.”
Early that afternoon, Keller took a bus across Twenty-third and found his way to the Regis Buell gallery. There were other art galleries on the same block, and he stopped in a couple of them for a brief look. Prices were lower on average than in the Fifty-seventh Street galleries, but not by much. Art could get expensive in a hurry, once you got past museum show posters and mass-produced prints of kabuki dancers.
On opening night the Buell gallery had been jammed with people. Now it was empty, except for Keller and the young woman at the desk, a self-assured blonde who’d recently graduated from a good college and would soon be some commuter’s wife. She gave Keller a low-wattage smile and went back to her book. Keller picked up one of the price lists. They must have had them at the opening, but at the time he hadn’t known to look for one.
He spent two full hours at the gallery, going from canvas to canvas.
Back at his apartment, he gave Dot a call. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“You want to bail. Pull the plug. Cut and run. Well, I can’t say I blame you.”
He shook his head, then remembered he was on the phone. “No,” he said, “that’s not it. I was wondering about the client.”