Maybe there was a good reason for it. Maybe you wore black to an art gallery for the same reason you turned off your pager at a concert, so as to avoid distracting others from what had brought them there. That made a kind of sense, but Keller had the feeling there was more to it than that. He somehow knew that these people wore black all the time, even when they gathered in dimly lit coffeehouses with nothing on the walls but exposed brick. It was a statement, he knew, even if he wasn’t sure what was being stated.
You didn’t see nearly as much black at the museums. Keller went to museums now and then, and felt more at ease there than at private galleries. No one was lurking in the hope that you’d buy something, or waiting for you to express an opinion of the work. They just collected the admission fee and left you alone.
Declan Niswander’s paintings were representational. All things considered, Keller preferred it that way. There was plenty of abstract art he liked, and he tended to favor those artists he could recognize right off the bat. If you were going to make paintings that didn’t look like anything, at least you ought to shoot for an identifiable style. That way a person had something to grab hold of. One glance and you knew you were looking at a Mondrian or a Mirу or a Rothko or a Pollock. You might not have a clue what Mondrian or Mirу or Rothko or Pollock had in mind, but you wound up regarding them as old friends, familiar in their quirkiness.
Niswander’s work was realistic, but you didn’t feel like you were looking at color photographs. The paintings looked painted, and that seemed right to Keller. Niswander evidently liked trees, and that’s what he painted-slender young saplings, gnarled old survivors, and everything in between. There was a similarity-no question that you were looking at the work of a single artist, and not a group show in celebration of Arbor Day-but the paintings, united by their theme and by Niswander’s distinctive style, nevertheless varied considerably one from the next. It was as if each tree had its own essential nature, and that’s what came through and rendered the painting distinctive.
Keller stood in front of one of the larger canvases. It showed an old tree in winter, its leaves barely a memory, a few limbs broken, a portion of the trunk scarred by a lightning strike. You could sense the tree’s entire life history, he thought, and you could feel the power it drew from the earth, diminished over the years but still strongly present.
Of course you wouldn’t get any of that in Niswander’s little essay. The man had managed to fill two whole pages without once using the word tree. Keller was willing to believe the paintings weren’t just about trees-they were about light and form and color and arrangement, and they might even be about what Niswander claimed they were about-but the trees weren’t there by accident. You couldn’t paint them like that unless you honest-to-God knew what a tree was all about.
A woman said, “You can’t see the forest for them, can you?”
“You can imagine it,” Keller said.
“Now that’s very interesting,” she said, and he turned and looked at her. She was short and thin, and-surprise!-dressed all in black. Baggy black sweater and short black shirt, black panty hose and black suede slippers, a black beret concealing most of her short black hair. The beret was wrong for her, he decided. What she needed was a pointed hat. She looked like a witch, no question, but not an unattractive witch.
She cocked her head-now she looked like a witch trying to look like a bird-and looked frankly at Keller, then at the painting.
“There are a few artists who paint trees,” she said, “but it’s generally the same tree over and over again. But in Declan’s work they’re all different trees. So you really can imagine the forest. Is that what you meant?”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself.”
“Oh, sure you could,” she said, and a grin transformed her witch’s face. “Margaret Griscomb,” she said. “They call me Maggie.”
“And do they call you John?”
“Mostly they call me Keller.”
“Keller,” she said. “I kind of like that. Maybe that’s what I’ll call you. But don’t call me Griscomb.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Not until we know each other a great deal better than we do now. And probably not even then. But I wonder if we will.”
“Know each other better?”
“Because I’m good at this,” she said. “Chatting ever so engagingly with a fellow tree-lover. But I’m not very good at getting to know someone, or getting known in return. I seem to do better in superficial relationships.”
“Maybe that’s the kind we’ll have.”
“No depth. Everything on the surface.”
“Like a thin skin of ice on a pond in winter,” he said.
“Or the scum that forms on the top of a mug of hot chocolate,” she said. “Why do you suppose it does that? And don’t bother working out an answer, because Regis is about to introduce Declan, who will then Say Something Profound.”
Someone was tapping a spoon against a wineglass, trying to get the room’s attention. A few people caught on and in turn shushed the rest. Things quieted down, and the glass-tapper, a willowy young man in gray flannel slacks and a maroon velvet blazer, began telling everyone how pleased he was to see them all here.
“Regis Buell,” Maggie murmured. “It’s his gallery. No wonder he’s pleased.”
Buell kept his own remarks brief and introduced Declan Niswander. Keller had known what the artist looked like-there was a photo in the brochure, Niswander with his arms folded, glaring-but the man had a presence beyond what the camera revealed. Perhaps the paintings might have suggested it, because there was a passive strength to him that was almost arboreal in nature. Keller thought of the old hymn. Like a tree standing by the water, Niswander would not be moved.
Keller looked at him and took in the wiry black hair graying at the temples, the blunt-featured square-jawed face, the thick body, the square shoulders. Niswander was wearing a suit, and it was a black suit, and his shirt was black, and so was his necktie. And was that a black hanky in his pocket? It was hard to tell from this distance, but Keller was fairly sure it was.
He looked like his paintings, Keller decided, but his appearance was also somehow of a piece with the two pages of artsy twaddle in the brochure. The twaddle and the paintings hadn’t seemed to go together, but Niswander managed to bridge the gap between the two. Like a tree, Keller thought, tying together the earth and the sky.
And wasn’t that an artsy-fartsy way of looking at it? That’s what happened when you put him in a place like this, he thought. Next thing you knew he’d be wearing black.
Mourning, if all went well.
“I don’t know about this,” Dot had said the other day. “I probably shouldn’t even run this by you, Keller. I should stop right now and send you home.”
“I just got here,” he said.
“You called me, said you had something.”
“I do, but I had no business calling you.”
“It’s not the kind of work I do? What is it, addressing envelopes at home? Telemarketing?”
“Now there’s something you’d be great at,” she said. “’Hello, Mrs. Clutterpan? How are you today?’”
“They always say that, don’t they? ‘How are you today?’ Right away you know it’s somebody trying to sell you something you don’t want.”
“I guess they figure it’s an icebreaker,” she said. “They ask you a question and you answer it, they’re halfway home.”
“It doesn’t work with me.”
“Or me either, but would you ever buy anything from some mope who called you on the phone?”
“The last time I got a phone call,” he said, “I hopped on a train to White Plains, and now I’m supposed to turn around and go home.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we back up and start over? A job came in, and it’s what you do, and there’s no problem with the fee.”
“And I’ll bet the next sentence starts with but.”
“But it’s here in New York.”
“It happens, Keller. People in New York are like people everywhere else, and sometimes they want somebody taken out. It’s hard to believe there are New Yorkers with the same callous disregard for the sanctity of human life that you get in Roseburg, Oregon, and Martingale, Wyoming. But there it is, Keller. What can I tell you?”
“I don’t know. What can you tell me?”
“Obviously,” she said, “this has happened before. When a New York job comes in, I don’t call you. I call somebody else and he comes in from somewhere else and does it.”
“But this time you called me.”
“There are two people I’d ordinarily call. One of them does what I do, he makes arrangements, and when I’ve got something I can’t handle I call him and sub it out to him. But I couldn’t call him this time, because he was the one who called me.”
“And who did that leave?”
“A fellow out on the West Coast, who does the same sort of work you do. I wouldn’t say he’s got your flair, Keller, but he’s solid and professional. I’ve used him before in New York, and once or twice when you were busy on another assignment. He’s my backup man, you might say.”
“So you called him.”
“He wasn’t home?”
“Phone’s been disconnected.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means he’s not going to hear me unless I shout at the top of my lungs. I don’t know what else it means, Keller. Plain and simple, his phone’s been disconnected. Did he change his number for security reasons? Did he move? You’d think he’d give me his new number, but I don’t send him much work and I’m probably not one of the low numbers on his Speed Dial. In fact…”
“Well, I’m not even positive he has this number. He must have had it once, but if he lost it he wouldn’t know how to reach me.”
“Either way he hasn’t called and I can’t call him, and here’s this job, and I thought of you. Except it’s in New York, and you know what they say about crapping where you eat.”
“They don’t recommend it.”
“They don’t,” she said, “and I have to say I agree with the conventional wisdom this time around. The whole idea is you go in where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, and when you’re done you go home. You’re out of there before the body is cold.”
“Not always. Sometimes you can’t get a flight out right away.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m a big believer in keeping things separate.”
“Like crapping and eating.”