The Stars at Midday

Pierce pulled into the driveway of the big farmhouse, unsure it was the right one. The diner woman’s directions up from Schenevus were not exact, but this was the yellow house across the creek (the woman at the diner had pronounced it “crick”) on Brainerd Road, which you reached by means of County 82, off Route 23 just out of town, left across the railroad tracks and under the Interstate. There was no name on the mailbox, just an RD number. On the lawn a small tractor on flattened tires bore the stenciled legend Flattop Farm on its hood.

As he stood beside his car, there was the sound of a door slamming and a woman in her mid-thirties came around the corner. He put out his hand and said, “Hello. I’m Pierce Jernigan, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place. I’m looking for Mrs. Caldwell.” The young woman looked at him with cautious but not unfriendly eyes, saying, “You’re in the right place, all right, and technically I’m Mrs. Caldwell, but I think it’s probably Ruth Caldwell you’re looking for, not me.” “Yes, Ruth,” said Pierce, “the artist.” The young woman shook his hand and said, “Well, meet Amber Caldwell, the artist’s daughter-in-law and business manager, not necessarily in that order.” “Pleased to meet you,” Pierce said, “in both capacities.” Amber said, “Ruth is working right now and I won’t disturb her, but she knows you’re here.” She nodded toward the barn. “We can go up and sit, and have some coffee or something. You might have as much to say to me as to Ruth.”

She led him around the corner and through the milkhouse door. The whitewashed room was floored in chipped concrete as it had been when the barn held cows; two slabs raised off the floor bore the foot-marks of bulk tanks. The space had been made into an office with a large table covered with paper, a computer screen and keyboard, with filing cabinets underneath. The pedestals now held shapely deadwood made into displays for a number of Ruth Caldwells. Pierce took them in in passing. Along one wall was a couch of the doctor’s-waiting-room variety with a low coffee table before it, flanked by two comfortable armchairs. A little refrigerator stood in one corner, next to a sink and cabinet, on top of which stood a microwave and coffeemaker. “What will you have?” Amber Caldwell asked. “Our coffee is pretty good, and we have black tea or herbal, or I can get you a glass of wine or mix you a cocktail.” Pierce looked at his watch. “Four-thirty. Not too early for a genial glass of wine. Do you have anything white?”

She poured the wine and set it in front of him. He swirled and sipped it, saying, “Ahh. Thank you very much.” “You’re welcome,” Amber said. “Now. What can we do for you? I ask as Mrs. Caldwell’s business representative.” “Well, I was at the diner down in Schenevus, eating lunch, and saw one of Mrs. Caldwell’s works on the wall. I was very impressed by it.” “Oh, yes, they’ve got ‘Snowy Sunset’ down there. It does sort of stand out among the old-timey ads and sad-faced clowns, doesn’t it?” “Does it ever,” Pierce said. “But oddly enough, I was struck by how at home it seemed.” “Well, it should,” Amber said. “She painted it for them.” “Oh, does Mrs. Caldwell accept commissions?” “In a way,” Amber said, “but maybe we’ll talk more about that later. The upshot is that you got her name and directions to the house from Donna Crandall, and here you are?” “Yes,” said Pierce. “As I say, I was very impressed. Mrs. Caldwell has a unique talent.” “You must have quite an eye, to draw that conclusion from one painting. Not that I’m saying you’re wrong.” “Well, frankly, I spent a long time with it. I’m afraid Mrs. Crandall must think I’m a little strange. I asked her to get it down from the wall. I looked at it very closely, and I was, well, blown away.” “So which are you, a dealer or a collector?” Amber asked, looking at him. Slightly discomfited by her directness, Pierce said, “Dealer. From Downstate.” “Well, duh,” Amber said. “What gallery?” “My own,” Pierce said, “a little place on West 22nd Street.” He handed her his business card, which she examined briefly and laid on the table. “Any particular specialty?” “Worthwhile art.” Amber laughed.

“I see I’m not the first of my kind to be taken with Mrs. Caldwell’s work,” Pierce said. “Why do men always want to be the first?” she asked. “Discovery. Conquest. Possession,” Pierce said, “it’s all shamefully true. It doesn’t matter how gay and arty we are, we want the same thing.” “No,” Amber said, “you’re not the first, nor the second, to come by on this mission.” “And yet I haven’t seen her work in the City, nor heard any mention of her name.” “No.” “So there’s hope.”

Amber’s phone rang. “Excuse me,” she said, digging it out of her pocket. “Yes?” She listened for a moment, then said, “All right, I’ll bring him up.” Returning the phone to her pocket, she said, “That was Ruth. She says she’s finished enough for the day to see you now.” She seized the bottle out of the fridge and said, “Take your glass.”

Amber led the way out of the barn and around to the side. “We’ll have to go around this way,” she said. “The gutter-cleaner came out that side, and it’s still not fit to cross.” “How long since this was a working farm?” Pierce asked. “About seven years since Reg died, that was old Mr. Caldwell, Ruth’s husband, and five since Ronnie died – that was my Mr. Caldwell.” “Oh, my condolences,” Pierce said, slightly embarrassed. “None needed,” Amber said, with a touch of fierceness. “He was a bad man and a bad husband, and killed himself driving drunk, coming home from a girlfriend’s. The only good thing he brought me was Ruth. But when he died we decided to shut the farm down.” “Why didn’t Mrs. Caldwell sell it?” “Well, she loves it. It belonged to her people, not Reg’s, and she grew up here and took it over when her Daddy died. She rents out the pasturage and the cornfields, so it doesn’t go to waste, and by the time Ronnie killed himself, she was doing all right with her paintings. So we sold off the cows and the equipment and used the money to fix up the studio.”

They arrived at the far side of the barn, which faced north. Two storefront windows had been installed; through them Pierce looked into the familiar jumble of brushes, tools, paints, pencils, oil crayons, rags, rolled canvases in racks, sketches tacked at quirky angles to the wall, art books stacked on chairs, with a clear space around a tall wooden easel on which rested a muslin-covered canvas. Standing with her back to them, Ruth Caldwell was cleaning brushes at a deep sink. Her mousy brown hair was caught up in a perm; above her paint-spattered jeans – the baggy sort with a wide elastic waistband – she wore a blue sweater with a red appliquéd cat on the back.

Amber knocked on the door and she turned, waving the still-dirty brushes for them to come in. Amber said, “Ruth, this is Pierce Jernigan. Pierce, Ruth Caldwell.” Pierce took her hand, saying, “I’m very honored to meet you, Ruth. I’ve been very impressed with your work – the tiny fraction I’ve seen of it.” “Thank you,” Ruth said. “Out of curiosity, what have you seen?” “Just the thing down at the diner in Schenevus – ‘Snowy Sunset’ Amber tells me it’s called.” “Oh, yes. That’s a good one. A good first look. Sometimes people enthuse over pieces and I think, oh, no – you won’t like the rest of my stuff at all.” Pierce said, “Good,” looking around. The canvases were all covered or rolled up; none were displayed on the walls, and the work in progress was swathed in cloth. He asked, “Is there more that I can see?” “In good time,” Ruth said. “I keep everything covered except what I’m working on right then. I find it too distracting otherwise.

“But you must remember, Pierce, for all your excitement – which is flattering, mind – this is the end of my workday, and you must let me unwind from it. Did you bring up the bottle, Amber?” The younger woman waggled the Pouilly-Fuisse; Pierce twirled his glass between his fingers. “Good. Let’s go sit down outside and talk a bit.” She led the way to a slate-flagged terrace in the knoll on which there were iron chairs and a table looking out across the valley.

Pierce marveled at how far up he had come without noticing, intent on reaching his goal. The valley with the railroad and Interstate was left behind, invisible. The dirt road wound up between the shoulders of the hills, with here and there a white farmhouse, silos white or blue beside a red barn, a clump of black and white Holsteins winding slowly toward evening milking. Shells of buildings lurked beneath trees or behind overgrown bushes. Pierce, an experienced Upstate visitor, had always regarded these as picturesque ruins, like Highland castles or Roman temples, but now their melancholy walls, paint peeled away, weather-gray boards exposed, spoke of failed lives, failed attempts at work and love, of abandonment and giving up or dying out, the starved shoots of human endeavor, and he admired Ruth Caldwell’s tenacity. Her place was well-kept but visibly used, lived in and well-loved.

“Are you from the City, Pierce?” Ruth asked. “Yes,” Pierce replied, repressing the urge to call her “ma’am” – he was probably ten years older, but she had an air of ancient matronly power, and seemed anchored directly to the center of the earth. “I live in Chelsea, near my gallery. Do you know the City?” “Oh, yes, I’ve been down many times. I love the energy of it. I’ve likely been in or past your gallery.” Amber was nodding. “I remember the name,” she said, “but I don’t remember if Klaus went in or not.” “Klaus?” “Yes, he’s my art teacher, or was. We often went down to the galleries and museums to study brushwork and techniques and the history of painting, and of course I did a lot of sketching and copying.” “How unfortunate that we never met,” Pierce said, but Ruth laughed. “What would you have thought of me?” she said. “Middle-aged farm wife taking up art for the first time. You would’ve thought I painted puppy-dogs and children with big eyes, or clowns on black velvet – or, if I did paint seriously, that I did it badly. And you would probably have been right. Painters are usually made long before middle age, if they’re really painters.”

“So you only began to paint recently?” Pierce asked. “Yes, about six years ago. You see, my husband died right about the same time I was going through menopause, and the two together really brought me down. My doctor suggested I try art therapy for both of them when she saw the doodles I made in the examination room while waiting for her. I started to sketch, just with Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils on the pads I got at Jamesway, and I had to admit it did me a lot of good. Ronnie and Amber had taken over most of the farmwork, and I had a lot of time, so I sat in the kitchen and sketched for hours on end. I made hundreds of drawings and put the best of them up around the room – looking at them helped me feel better, too. Then I met Klaus.”

“Did you go out looking for an art teacher?” “No, that was just luck. The whole career of Ruth Caldwell, painter, has been conditioned by strokes of luck. When I met Klaus I was so far from looking for an art teacher that it had never occurred to me that I could be taught art. I mean, of course I knew that drawing and painting were things people studied, but somehow that didn’t apply to what I was doing. Those first months I thought of it as therapy and medicine and concentrated on what drawing things made me feel, not on the way I drew them. Then by chance Klaus moved in down the hill. He taught art at SUNY-Binghamton for a long time, and bought this place when he retired. When they first moved in, I invited them up for coffee, just to say welcome, and he saw all the things hanging on the wall. He said to me, ‘Do you know you’re a really good artist?’ and of course I said I’m not an artist at all, I’m just doing it for therapy.” Pierce laughed.

Amber said, “Yeah, Klaus laughed too. Now what Ruth won’t tell you is what he said afterwards.” “For gosh sakes, don’t tell him that,” Ruth said, shifting in her chair and laughing in embarrassment. “Klaus said, ‘I’m only a mediocre artist, but I have serious ambitions as a teacher, and I have always dreamed I would have a student as good as you.’” Pierce laughed. “Good for Klaus,” he said. “So he offered to teach you?” “Yes, there and then. He was tremendously excited. I told him that the pencil sketches were all I had done and he said that they looked to him like studies for canvases, and that my first exercise was to think about the colors I would render them in, and whether I would use acrylics, oils, or even watercolor.” “What did you say?” “I said he wasn’t my teacher yet, that I hadn’t said yes and wasn’t going to until I thought about it.” Amber laughed. “He watched Ruth like a dog who knows you’ve got its bone, like at any moment she might announce that she’d thought about it and would say yes. In the door on the way out he asked again.” “I told him there was nothing to be gained by rushing me,” Ruth said, “and, really, it took me a lot of thinking about it. I had to radically re-form my idea of what I was doing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I felt so damn bad between the hot flashes and the mood swings and missing Reg – he wasn’t the greatest husband, but we put in lot of time together, raised four children and ran a farm – and drawing purely for the medicine was doing me so much good that I was really afraid of messing up that balance.” “But you did in the end.” “Yes, Klaus had the brains or restraint to back off and let me decide. I promised him on the way out I’d let him know one way or the other, and then I thought about it.” “And did going pro change it?” “Well, of course, but I didn’t think of it as going pro, I was just painting for the painting’s sake instead of my own. But that changed things a lot.” “Of course.”

She stood up. Refilling her wineglass, she said, “Let’s go look at some stuff. The day’s going in a bit, and the gallery shows best in natural light.” She led the way up the ramp to the big haymow doors, tall enough for a laden wagon, and opened them. The old mow had been cleared of all things agricultural and several interior walls (though a distinct barn-smell lingered) and painted a flat, even white. Translucent skylights liberally installed in the roof filled the space with indirect light. Pierce savored the well-made gallery space, a work of art designed to disappear behind the pieces it offered. “Brian did all this. He’s Klaus’s partner and does gallery design in the City.” “Brian? Brian Kelleher?” Ruth nodded. “Do you know him?” “Yes. Not well, though his reputation is good. I haven’t seen him around for awhile, it seems.” “No, you wouldn’t have. He’s been up here most of the time, taking care of Klaus, who hasn’t been well.” The space was enormous. Ruth’s finished paintings clustered together in one corner while in the rest the unwitnessed sun studied the fall of gray on white.

They crossed the barn, Ruth leading. Pierce stood before the paintings, one after another, the women behind, watching him. He looked obliquely from beneath or one side, sometimes coming close enough to breathe on them (Amber twitched; Ruth put up a discreet hand), asking nothing, saying nothing. About halfway through he began to dab discreetly at the corners of his eyes; Amber wondered if he had an allergy. After the last one, he returned to several seemingly at random, then turned back to Ruth and Amber. His eyes were bright, his mouth ironic. He said, “It’s very eighteenth-century of me, I know, but great art often makes me cry. I constantly embarrass my friends at museums and galleries.

“Ruth, I want to thank you for this. I believe it’s the finest collection by a single living artist that I’ve ever seen. When I saw ‘Snowy Sunset’ I thought, this painting is very good, made by a skillful compositor, technically accomplished, executed in unexpected colors – the work of an artist who has a philosophy behind her images and a mythology in the smallest details of her work. But I’ve seen many artists make one or three striking pieces and six or sixty duds, and so I had a certain amount of trepidation coming here.

“I see that I need not have feared. This is beautiful work, both accessible and mysterious, like Dostoyevsky – very traditional in some respects (your display of excellent draftsmanship, for instance) but right out there on the edge in the most important way – the work of a fresh eye, with the power to make you think you’ve never seen a painting before. It’s very humbling. But I can’t be telling you anything you didn’t already know.”

Ruth accepted this paean calmly; Amber glowed. Ruth said, “Yes, it is very humbling, and no matter what I know or don’t, it’s good to hear you say so. You notice very well and the good opinion of people like you is worth a lot to me.” Pierce turned back to the paintings, looking at them more leisurely, and began asking specific questions about individual paintings and general questions about the collection. Amber answered (it seemed to be part of her job) while Ruth stepped back. Pierce had begun to edge his way around to a proposal, directed at both women, when Ruth said, “Come with me, Pierce. I want to show you what I’m working on now.”

They went down to the studio, Amber curiously. In her experience, Ruth had never shown a visitor her current work. Even she didn’t see it until Ruth felt it substantially finished and ready for a second opinion. At the door, Ruth said, “Amber, honey, I’m afraid this is just for Pierce. You know how I am.” Pierce looked up, surprised. He had been shown much work on the easel and taken Ruth for the kind of artist who regarded a tour of her current work as part of the introduction. The younger woman fell back, an expression of almost comic disappointment on her face. Pierce went in thoughtfully.

Ruth went to her worktable and paged through a tome that lay there. It was enormous, two feet tall and three wide, with heavy pages lined top to bottom. “This is my studio journal,” Ruth said. “Klaus calls it my Tagebuch.” “Ambitious much?” Pierce said, thumbing the volume’s two hundred pages. “This could hold the whole output of Rembrandt’s workshop, and leave room for a good start on Rubens’s.” Ruth laughed. “My shameful secret. No, actually it was a present from Klaus, with his tongue, I think, only partly in his cheek.”

She pointed to an entry a third of the way up the page, dated two weeks before. “Here. Look at that day and time. Do they mean anything to you?” Pierce looked and thought – looked startled and said, “Yes. Yes indeed. That’s pretty much exactly when we decided to make this trip. It was all impromptu. I suddenly needed a break from the City, and so Gervase put this gallery tour together on the fly, and we got up here last Friday. What’s the piece you started then? ‘The Stars at Midday.’” Ruth said, “Something made me start that painting then. I was deep in something else at the time. I just put it away – it’s over there – ” she nodded toward the rack of rolled paintings “ – and started this. I didn’t know why then, but now I do. It’s yours. I’m making it for you, and now I know it, so I can go ahead and finish it, now that I’ve met you. I figure it’ll take another ten days or so.” “You’re a quick worker,” Pierce said. “Farm work,” Ruth said simply. “I learned to do what was at hand, because the seasons go on whether you go with them or not. Painting is the same way. I can take a break sometimes to mull things in general, but if something wants to come through me, it’s painful to try and stop it. So this one is yours. You can hang it in your bedroom.”

She lifted the muslin covering the canvas and threw it back. The canvas was not large, seventeen by twenty-four Pierce judged. Looking at it, he found it impossible to tell how much Ruth lacked in finishing it. She said, “I usually make a number of preliminary sketches over a period of days or weeks, but this time I sketched directly on the canvas, and began painting from the first attempt. Paintings have come quickly and in a fairly complete state before, but none like this.” Pierce smiled, feeling that the omens were good – indeed, that they could hardly be better. He said, “Ruth, this is very beautiful, and extremely flattering. I know just where I’ll put it, too.” He went on gazing at the picture. The composition drew you mandala-like to its center where there were, yes, stars, tiny and far-off, showing clearly in the light of the noon sun.

Later, Pierce tried to describe to Gervase how the illusion of broad daylight and deep night sensible together was blended on the canvas, but could not, though the image remained sharp in his mind. After a rambling, halting attempt, he gave it up. “You’ll just have to see it.” “Yes, I will,” Gervase said. His partner’s confusion started in him an itching curiosity: Pierce excelled at describing paintings.

Ruth said, “The light is going.” Pierce blinked. Amber, tiring of her vigil, had gone to sit on the terrace. The world was filling with purple from the ground up. Ruth pulled the muslin down over the canvas and Pierce moved slowly, like someone waking. He turned to Ruth. “That was an experience,” he said, his gray eyes wide. “You are a master.” Ruth smiled, saying, “Yes, I can honestly say I have come to realize that over the last six years – it’s a great honor and a great responsibility, very humbling. But I can only admit it to people like you. That’s why I painted you this painting.”

Pierce drove back to his bed and breakfast under twilight in a state of exalted expectancy. Over the next few days he talked incessantly about Caldwell’s work, how he would hang it in the gallery –“I’ll give it the whole space for three months,” he said, “as many pieces as she’ll let me have, we’ll cram ‘em in and rotate ‘em out – ” “She hasn’t said yes yet,” Gervase reminded him, which always brought Pierce up. Native caution combined with long experience in the art world had taught him never to count his paintings before they were hung, and count carefully even after that. “But she gave me a painting,” he said, “painted just for me, moved by some mysterious impulse – surely that means something.” “Yes, but what?”

Ten days later, exactly, Pierce received an email from Amber saying that “The Stars at Midday” was ready for him. The following Saturday, a lowering day with gray clouds and intermittent rain, they rented a car and drove up. By the time they pulled into the Caldwell’s driveway, it was raining steadily. Amber appeared under an umbrella and waved them into the barn. She led them into the milkhouse, where the painting was displayed. Pierce and Gervase stared at it silently, hands clasped. Finally Pierce said, “Thank you so much, Amber. It’s far more beautiful even than I remembered.” “And he’s talked of nothing else all week,” Gervase said.

Amber wrapped the canvas for travel. Pierce asked, “Is Ruth here? Can I thank her in person?” Not looking at him, she replied, “Ruth’s in Oneonta, doing some shopping. She’ll be back around five.” Pierce said, “Oh.” “I’ve made us some lunch, though, and set up a table in the gallery. Gervase can see her other stuff.”

After lunch, Gervase viewed the paintings while Pierce, initially inclined to sulk, grew animated and enthusiastic all over again. Amber smiled agreeably, answering questions, albeit a little anxiously. Around two o’clock, she went down to the office and brought up a second bottle of wine. They sat at the table and drank, Gervase sparingly, discussing the work. At last Pierce sat forward in his chair, putting down his glass with emphasis.

“Now, Mrs. Amber Caldwell,” he said, “business manager of the artistic genius Ruth Caldwell, I am an obvious fan. I am also an art dealer, solvent in these difficult times, dedicated to bringing talent such as Ruth’s to the attention of people, some of them quite wealthy and influential, who also appreciate a fine, new painter whose work is likely only to grow more intriguing over time.” Amber hunched over her wineglass, staring into its depths, her brow lowering and mulish. Gervase watched with concern and foresaw a return drive of soothing the fevered brow of thwarted desire. “Therefore,” Pierce went on, determined to drive on despite the heavy weather, “I am prepared to offer Ruth – yourselves – representation in the Manhattan art market, exclusive gallery space for three months, generous space thereafter, and, particularly, my unrelenting promotion.” Amber looked up at the end of this speech and asked, “But can you keep Ruth in the manner to which she is accustomed?” then immediately apologized. “I know how serious this is to you, Pierce, so I shouldn’t joke. But I was hoping – we were both hoping – that you’d take the hint.” Pierce deflated.

“Ruth likes you, Pierce, you see. That’s why she painted ‘The Stars at Midday’ for you. (By the way, I just got to see it for the first time the other day. It’s one of the best so far.) She likes you, and says your appreciation means a lot to her personally, but – we have no interest in getting into the Manhattan art market now.” Pierce slumped still further, and Gervase put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Pierce,” Amber went on. “If it’s any consolation, no other dealer that’s visited us has gone away with a single painting. Ruth wouldn’t even sell to them, let alone give them a canvas. She told them all – well, I told them all – she had nothing for them.

“You see, you have to understand how Ruth sees art. It’s very frustrating to me as her business manager, because I have a living to make for both of us, but she’s very selective about who gets her work. That first thing of hers you ever saw, ‘Snowy Sunset’, down at Donna Crandall’s – what do you think she got for that?” “Five hundred?” Pierce hazarded, going as far south as his imagination would let him. He would have asked, and been confident of getting, $6500 in Manhattan. “Sixty dollars,” Amber said. Gervase sat up. “That doesn’t even cover materials,” he said. “Nope. But, you see, Donna didn’t ask for it, Ruth just painted it and gave it to her. Said here, this is yours. You pay what it’s worth to you.” “And that’s what it’s worth to her?” Pierce demanded, outraged. “Who is this woman?” “A small-business owner in hard-up rural New York,” Amber said a little sharply. “I’m sure that sixty dollars is at least five times what she paid for any other piece on the walls. I’m sure she felt like she was being generous. She doesn’t know what art is worth. She just needed the painting, or so Ruth felt.

“Do you know how we sell paintings?” “I thought it indelicate to ask.” “We have a roadside stand.” “You’re joking.” “Not a bit of it. Like a produce stand, only with art. People stop off the highway and buy. My sister-in-law Sandy runs it, takes the stuff to craft fairs, where people stop and buy, too. We’re also in two galleries, one in Cooperstown, the other in East Meredith. Plus we’re very known – the Caldwells have lived around here for a long time. People buy Ruth’s stuff by word of mouth. Every time a school wants painting done, any time someone’s decorating a library or town hall, we get asked to submit. Like as not, we get selected.”

“But is anyone who stops and offers to buy accommodated?” Gervase asked. “Oh, no – by no means,” Amber said. “Sandy has a good nose for people Ruth wouldn’t sell to. If she has any doubts, she’ll ask Ruth to come down and meet them. If Ruth isn’t available, the work has already been promised – any work they would ask for would be promised.” “How often does that happen?” “I don’t work the stand much, so I don’t know, really,” Amber said, “but not very often, I don’t think. Our customers are pretty self-selecting – Ruth believes they’re drawn, and it’s true that a lot of people agree, or come to – they mention it to Sandy, and we get emails. And sometimes Ruth feels drawn, and then somebody gets a picture at a great price, or even as a gift.” “Touché,” Pierce said.

“But we’re doing fine, Pierce. Most people pay well enough. We price things pretty competitively. We even get rich tourists passing by from the City, or Boston. Sandy dickers well, but she has Ruth’s feel for the deservingness, like, of the person.”

“I could get you top dollar on everything I sell,” Pierce said, but Amber shook her head. “Not the point. Ruth wants her work to be sold here, only – it’s just how she is.” “Doesn’t she know she’s creating a long-lasting legacy here, that it needs curating?” “Of course she does. We do, we all do. Klaus taught us all about the practice of art, and he still sees to it that we’re taking care of business. Though how having a New York dealer is curating her legacy I don’t exactly see.” Pierce threw up his hands in comic resignation. “Oh, I’m desperate, and I do fall into the habit of thinking that you self-made artists need looking after. I apologize for my condescension. I am genuinely concerned that her work be broadly appreciated, and I know from experience how much work that is.” Amber said, “Don’t worry, we’re doing it. We’re not so self-made as all that. And no one doubts your sincerity. Ruth likes you, I say, and appreciates your enthusiasm. You’re welcome to come back whenever you want to – she’ll make sure to be here. She’s just, well, sensitive, and lets me say no to people she doesn’t want to hurt. I’m good at firmly not hurting people.” Pierce said, “Thank you. It was gently done, and I do appreciate it. But I had looked forward to getting Ruth known in the City. I know people who would like her.” “Well, send them along. The produce stand is another half-mile down Twenty-three, by the Interstate exit, or if they drop your name they might get to tour the gallery and meet Ruth, if she has time. But they’ll pay top dollar.” Pierce laughed.

On the way out, the tightly-wrapped picture under his arm, he hugged Amber. “Thank Ruth again for me. This is the most special work of art I have. I’ll come back, too, definitely, soon, and bring some people, if it’s okay. They’ll be prepped to be turned down for lack of moral character, which most of them will cop to.”

As they neared the City some hours later, the overcast drew back. The sky above the Tappan Zee was thick with stars. Above Manhattan a quarter-moon rose. Gervase dropped off the car; Pierce ordered in and opened their best bottle. He stood the painting on the table; they ate with it there as honored guest.

Contributor

Peter Button

PETER BUTTON sells wine to finance his habit of writing fiction. He is currently working to finish a novel, Goodness of Water.

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