8

WHEN MR. MARTIN CALLED out of the blue, Alex could hardly believe the news. All six of his paintings had sold.

Holding the phone to an ear with a shoulder, Alex had swirled his brush in a jar of murky water and then wiped it on a paper towel as Mr. Martin asked him to come collect his money. Alex had been deeply absorbed in the work of painting an eerie evening mist along a shoreline of a mountain lake and didn’t want to stop, but Mr. Martin had seemed unusually anxious that Alex get there as soon as possible. He wouldn’t say anything about the person who had bought the paintings, only that they had paid cash and he wanted to give Alex his portion. He had made a weak excuse that he knew Alex needed the money.

Alex hadn’t talked to Bethany since she’d called him while he had been visiting his mother two days before. Things seemed to be looking up in more ways than one. His truck even started on the first try.

When he pulled into the parking lot at Regent Center it was early afternoon. The gray sky looked to be a harbinger of an approaching storm. The air had an unusual chill to it, a first breath of the coming change of season.

Alex parked next to a new Jeep, hoping that his would start again later without a lot of difficulty. With the sale of the six paintings he could certainly afford to get the starter fixed. He had thought to replace the starter himself but he reconsidered; he would need to finish up the painting he was working on when Mr. Martin had called. The gallery would need to have more of his paintings if the buyer should decide to return and collect more of Alex’s pieces, or if another buyer came along. It was far easier to sell paintings and get commissions if there was something on display.

Before he locked his truck, Alex picked the small painting wrapped in brown paper off the floor of the back seat. He didn’t want to give it back to Mr. Martin to sell or display, but he was afraid of it being stolen out of his truck. He’d brought the painting with him because he wanted to give it to the woman if he ever saw her again.

The halls of Regent Center were more crowded than they had been the last time he’d been there, the day he had seen the woman. With the painting tucked under his arm he quickly made his way toward the gallery, checking the faces of people along the way just in case she was there. He thought that it was a baseless hope, even a silly hope, but he couldn’t help himself from hoping to see her. When he caught sight of himself in a mirror displayed in the window of a boutique, he stepped a little quicker to get out of sight of it.

As he walked in front of the gallery window Alex spotted Mr. Martin pacing near the rear of the shop. He had on a dark suit with a bright orange tie, an odd choice that on Mr. Martin somehow worked. The bells on the door softly rang their familiar strain as Alex went inside. Mr. Martin, dry-washing his hands, stepped briskly among the pieces on easels.

“Ah, Alex, thank you for coming so quickly.”

“It’s been a while since my last payday,” Alex said with a smile as he tried to figure out why the man wasn’t smiling.

“Indeed,” Mr. Martin said without catching Alex’s attempt to lighten the mood.

Alex followed the gallery owner to the rear of the shop, where Mr. Martin sat on a rolling swivel chair and nervously worked a key to open a locked drawer. Once he had the drawer open he unlocked a metal box inside and pulled out a thick envelope. Inside was a stack of cash. He stood to count out the payment.

“Wait a minute,” Alex said, holding up a hand. “You usually give me the story, first. I’ve never sold six pieces at once before. It must have been an unusual sale. Who was the buyer? What happened? How did you convince them to buy six paintings? Did they just love the paintings and have to have them all?”

Mr. Martin gazed into Alex’s eyes for a moment as if overwhelmed by the barrage of questions. Alex realized that he was probably spooking the man. Alex frequently found that he made people nervous with his questions.

“Well,” Mr. Martin said at last, seemingly trying to recall it in exact detail, “a man came in. He glanced around but I soon realized that he wasn’t looking at the things that were on display — wasn’t looking at different pieces the way people usually do. He seemed to be searching for something specific. I asked if I could show him something special.

“He said yes, that he would like to see the work of Alexander Rahl. Naturally I was only too happy to show him your paintings.

Before I could begin to talk you up, he said that he would take them. I showed him that I had six of your paintings and asked which of them he would be interested in. He said he would take them all. I was momentarily stunned.

“The man asked how much he owed. He never even asked the price. Just asked what he owed.”

Mr. Martin licked his thin lips. “I was overjoyed for you. I knew how much you need the money, Alex, so as I regained my wits I took the opportunity, as the gallery owner and your representative, to get the best possible price for you. I quickly considered the dated, low price we were asking and then, in view of the man’s interest, added some to it.”

Alex was slightly amused at his good fortune, and Mr. Martin’s quick thinking. “So how much did you add?”

Mr. Martin swallowed. “I doubled the price. I told the man that they were four thousand apiece — and a good investment in an up-and-coming contemporary artist.”

“That’s twenty-four thousand dollars,” Alex said in astonishment. “You certainly earned your commission, Mr. Martin.”

Mr. Martin nodded. “That makes your portion, after commission, fourteen thousand four hundred dollars.”

Without delay he started counting off hundred-dollar bills. Alex was a bit dumbfounded and just stood there as the man counted out the money. When finished, the gallery owner took a deep breath. He seemed to be glad to be rid of the money. Alex straightened the thick stack of hundred-dollar bills before returning them to the envelope. He folded it in half and stuffed it all in the front pocket of his jeans.

Alex couldn’t understand why the man seemed so nervous. Mr. Martin often sold paintings for a great deal more than Alex’s work. One of R. C. Dillion’s paintings would have gone for well over what Alex had just earned for six. Maybe it was just that it had all been in cash.

“What then?” Alex asked, his suspicion growing. “Did the man say anything else?”

“There’s a little more to the story.” Mr. Martin straightened the orange knot at his throat. “After he had paid — in cash, the same cash I just gave you — he said, ‘These are mine, now, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’

“He then picked up one of his paintings, pulled a fat black marker out of his pocket — you know, the indelible kind — and started writing all over the painting. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. When he had finished, he did the same to each in turn. Wrote all over them.”

Mr. Martin clenched his hands together. “I’ve never had such an experience. I asked the man what he thought he was doing. He said that they were his paintings and he could do any damn thing he wanted to with them.”

Mr. Martin leaned closer. “Alex, I would have stopped him, I swear I would have, but, well, they were his, and he was very. . insistent about what he was doing. By his change in attitude I was beginning to fear what would happen if I were to interfere. So I didn’t. I had the money, after all — cash at that.”

Alex stood with his jaw hanging. He was overjoyed to have the money from the sale but at the same time he was incensed to hear that his work had been defaced.

“So he finished marking all over my work and then just took his ruined paintings and left?”

Mr. Martin scratched his jaw, his gaze turning aside. “No. He set them down and said that he wanted me to give them back to you. He said, ‘Give them back to Alexander Rahl. My treat.’ ”

Alex heaved a sigh. “Let me see them.”

Mr. Martin gestured to the paintings sitting against the wall in the corner of the office area. They were placed face-to-face, and no longer in frames.

When Alex lifted the first one and held it out in both hands he was struck speechless. In fat black letters sprawled diagonally across the painting it said FUCK YOU ASSHOLE.

The painting was covered with every other hateful, vile, vulgar name there was.

“Alex, I want them out of here.”

Alex stood, hands trembling, staring at his beautiful painting covered with ugly words.

“Do you hear me, Alex? I can’t have these in here. What if a customer should happen to see them? You have to take them with you. Right now. Get them out. I want them out of here. I want to forget all about this.”

Through his fury Alex could only nod. He knew that Mr. Martin didn’t fear a customer seeing them. Many of Mr. Martin’s artists routinely spoke like this in front of customers. The customers took the artist’s “colorful” speech as an indication of social sensitivity and artistic introspection. The more times an artist could drop the F bomb in a sentence the more visionary he became to them.

No, Mr. Martin was not offended by the words — he was used to hearing them in the gallery — he was frightened by the man who had written them, and by the context of those words: raw hatred.

Mr. Martin cleared his throat. “I’ve been giving the matter a great deal of thought, and I think it best if for now we don’t display any of your work.”

Alex looked up. “What?”

Mr. Martin gestured to the painting. “Well, look at it. This kind of man could get violent. He looked like he was ready to break my neck if I dared lift a finger to stop him.”

Alex’s first thought was that it was Bethany’s doing, but he dismissed the idea. He was pretty sure she didn’t have that kind of money to spend on a grudge.

“What did this guy look like? Describe him.”

“Well,” Mr. Martin said, taken aback a little by the heat in Alex’s tone, “he was tall, and good size — about like you. He was dressed casually but not expensively. Tan slacks, some kind of bland shirt, not tucked in. It was beige with a vertical blue stripe of some sort down the left side.”

Alex didn’t recognize the description.

He felt sick with anger. He ripped the canvas off the stretcher, then did the same with the other five. He only briefly saw the insults and obscene words desecrating the scenes of beauty. The range of profanity turned his stomach, not so much because of the words themselves, but because of the naked hate they conveyed.

They were just paintings of beauty. That’s all they were. Something to uplift people who looked at them, something to make people feel good about life and the world they lived in. To harbor hatred for beauty was one thing, but to go to great expense just to express that hate was quite another.

Alex realized that Mr. Martin was right. Such a man could easily become violent.

Alex hoped to meet him.

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