ART HISTORY

Monday, a little before ten. Uta is at the gallery already—you can’t get there earlier than she does. “Morning, Peter,” she calls from the back, in her exaggerated German accent. Mawning, Pedder. She’s been in the States more than fifteen years now, but her accent has gotten heavier. Uta is a member of what seems to be a growing body of defiantly unassimilated expatriates. She on one hand disdains her country of origin (Darling, the word “lugubrious” comes to mind) but on the other seems to grow more German (more not-American) with every passing year.

Peter walks through the gallery proper—goodbye, Vincents. The crew is on its way to pack them up. Even after fifteen years, show after show after show, there’s a small sense of disappointment, a hint of actual defeat, when it’s time to bring it all down. It’s not about sales (though the Vincents did not, in fact, move the way he’d hoped they might). It’s some idea (other dealers will confess to it, too, some of them, after a few drinks) that with this show or that you might have moved something a fraction of a centimeter forward. Aesthetics? Art history? Ugh. But still. What about… the unending effort to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor, and in so doing open a crack in the substance of the world through which mortal truth might shine?

Right. They’re objects, hanging on a wall. They’re for sale. They are also quite beautiful, in their way—canvases and sculptures wrapped in brown paper and bound with string and then coated in paraffin, vague reference to the shrouded Christ, made by a kind and rather feckless young man named Bock Vincent, three years out of Bard, who lives with his much older girlfriend in Rhinebeck and who is able, in a somewhat limited way, to talk about wrappings and bindings and their relationship to holiness; about how the art we anticipate is always superior to the art we can create. He insists there are images and objects under the wrappings, earnest attempts, though he won’t show or describe them, and the paper has been too thoroughly waxed to permit any kind of unveiling.

Anyhow, they’re coming down today. By Thursday, all new work.

Uta emerges from her office, coffee mug in hand. Hennaed nest of hair, heavy-framed Alain Mikli glasses. There had been an air of charged possibility between them for a while, a couple of years ago, when Rebecca was in the throes of her crush on the photographer from L.A. It was the time, if ever there were such a time, for Peter to have a little something going on—Rebecca seemed to want him to. Uta was clearly willing, and it seemed that she’d prefer it as a fling (terrible word), a final tipping-over after all the working together, traveling together, living Mondays through Saturdays in that semi-erotic almost-but-not-quite realm of physical proximity. She’d have been sexy and tough and affectionate, no question; she’d have been offended by the suggestion that she might expect more (Zo, you tink vimmen only fock you to zee vat dey can get for it?). And yet. Maybe Peter felt he could see it all too clearly: the wised-up, Weimar cynicism, a sweet and weary cynicism, but still; the cigarettes and coffee and banter; the whole bitterly humorous nihilistic German-ness of it. Because Uta is German, utterly German, which of course is probably why she left there, and insists that she’ll never go back.

Oh, all you immigrants and visionaries, what do you hope to find here, who do you hope to become?

Several months later Rebecca fell out of her infatuation with the photographer, and as far as Peter knew they never had more than that one kiss by the nocturnal pool in the Hollywood Hills. He and Uta still work together, as always, more or less as always, though there are times when he feels that they came so close to having sex, fatally close, and that because they didn’t go through with it a certain tension has gone slack, and some enlivening possibility between them is lost forever. They are beginning to grow companionably old together.

“Carole Potter called,” she says.

“Already?”

“Darling, Carole Potter gets up in the mornings and feeds her fucking chickens.

Right. Carole Potter, heiress to a kitchen appliance fortune, lives on a farm in Connecticut. A Marie Antoinette–style farm, granted: herb gardens, exotic chickens that cost as much as purebred dogs. Still, you have to acknowledge—she works it. She reams out the chickens’ shit, gathers their eggs. When Peter was there for dinner last year, she’d shown him a newly laid egg, which was an impossibly, heartbreakingly pale blue-green, specked with scraps of feather, smeared along its obverse end with a skidmark of red-brown blood. This is what they look like before we clean them up, Carole had said. And Peter had said (or, more likely, thought), I’d love to find an artist who could do something like this.

A list wants to form in his mind.

New eggs, all specked and bloody.

Bette standing at the mouth of the shark.

Mizzy sitting, every day, in a monastery in Japan.

It’s a triptych, isn’t it? Birth, death, and all the whatever in between.

“Carole wants you to call her back,” Uta says.

“Did she say what it’s about?”

“I think we know.”

“Yeah.”

Carole Potter isn’t happy with the Sasha Krim. It is, as they say, a challenging piece, but Peter had hoped…

“Any other vexations to report?” he asks.

“I love the word ‘vexations.’ ”

“It’s the ‘x.’ Nice to jump off a ‘v’ and bite into an ‘x’ like that.”

“Just the usual ones,” she says.

“How was the weekend?”

“Vexing. Not really, I just wanted to say it. You?”

“Bette Rice has breast cancer. She told me on Sunday.”

“How bad?”

“I don’t know. Well. Bad, I think. She’s closing, she wants to steer Rupert Groff our way.”

“Fantastic.”

“Is it?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?”

“What do you think about his work?”

“I like it.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Then don’t take him on.”

“His stuff is starting to sell. Rumor has it, Newton has his eye on him.”

“Then do take him on.”

“Come on.”

“Peter, darling, you know what I have to say.”

“Tell me anyway.”

She sighs voluptuously. She could so easily be a Klimt portrait, with her wide-set eyes and bony little apostrophe of a nose.

She says, “Taking on an artist you don’t love who sells a lot of work helps pay for the artists you do love who don’t sell a lot of work. Did you really need me to tell you that?”

“It seems I did.”

“It’s probably not going to happen anyway. One of the big ones will grab him.”

“But I’m either going to talk to him, or I’m not.”

“It’s a business, Peter.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Don’t look at me like I’m the devil. Don’t you dare.”

“Sorry. I know you’re not the devil.”

“The trouble, little friend, is you like to think you’re right and the rest of the world is wrong.”

“Is there something even slightly heroic about that?”

“No,” she says. “There’s not.”

Knowing an exit line when she hears one, she returns to her office.

He goes into his office, picks up a file he left on his desk on Saturday, and puts it on top of the file cabinet. There’s no real reason for him to do that, it’s just the Monday morning settling-in, the reannouncing of his presence to whatever low hum of inanimate soul-surge has resided here during the thirty-two hours he’s been elsewhere.

He gets himself a cup of coffee, walks back out into the gallery. He seems, lately, to be wandering alone rather often through familiar rooms, with some beverage or other. Is that how Bacon would have painted him? Horrible thought. He should have bought that Bacon drawing at the auction in ’95, it had seemed too expensive, but it’s worth five times the price now. Another disquieting thought. Stocks rise and fall and rise again.

Here they are. The Vincents. There they go.

And then, briefly, there will be the empty gallery, its white walls and concrete floor. You create a pristine emptiness for the work to inhabit. Peter always loves the short periods during which the gallery is unoccupied by art. There’s something about the austere, perfect room that promises art superior to what any human being could produce, no matter how brilliant; it’s the hush before the orchestra starts up, the dimming of the lights before the curtain rises. That’s what Vincent is all about. The art we produce lives in queasy balance with the art we can imagine, the art the room expects. That’s what Mizzy was doing, that month in Japan, isn’t it? Sitting in an emptiness, trying to imagine something greater than the hand of man can create. Poor kid wasn’t up to it. Who is?

And hey. The Vincents didn’t really sell, did they?

So. There will be a period of nothing, and then the next show. Victoria Hwang, mid-career, underappreciated but starting to attract serious attention for reasons Peter can’t quite decipher—these things can be mysterious, some gut consensus among a small but influential body of people that it’s time, that these objects suddenly matter more than they initially appeared to (in Victoria’s case, a series of enigmatic videos, all of which are shot on the streets of Philadelphia and from which she produces ancillary merchandise—action figures, lunch boxes, T-shirts—based on random pedestrians, all of them obscure and ordinary, who’ve walked briefly and unknowingly past the camera). They’re crazy-making, these sea changes. They’re not calculated, not in the sense of a conspiracy of international art dealers (sometimes he wishes they were), but they’re not exactly about the art, either. They’re impossibly intricate responses to a billion tiny shifts in the culture, in politics, in the ions of the goddamned atmosphere; you can’t anticipate them or understand them but you can feel them coming, as animals are supposed to be able to feel an earthquake hours before it occurs. He’s been showing Victoria for five years now, talking her up, he’s had a feeling, and suddenly, sure enough, for obscure reasons, people are starting to give a shit. Ruth at the Whitney wants to see them. So does Eve at the Guggenheim. Artforum is doing a piece on her next month.

He’s got Victoria’s show pretty much hung in his mind already, but Vic will of course have ideas of her own. Although she still hasn’t delivered the work, and there’s some question about the reliability of her vows to have it here by tomorrow morning, she is not by any means one of the more difficult ones, and he thanks God for that. It’s the last show of the season, he’s tired—he’d have to say he’s been flirting, every now and then, with actual despair—and is suitably grateful for the precise if strangely languid intelligence of Vic Hwang. She’s slow, but she won’t get the show up and then insist on taking it down and starting over. If the work doesn’t sell, she’ll blame herself as much as she blames Peter.

Plus she is, it seems, about to have a Career.

Bock Vincent, sad to say, is probably not. Things aren’t going his way—lovely, gentle enigma is not looking like a growth field, and Bock doesn’t have much range. What did Uta just say? You sink you’re right und die rest of zee vorld iss wrung. If that’s not Peter Harris, it’s surely Bock Vincent. He was an oddball (even by Bard standards) when Peter met him—faunlike, fragile in a vaguely inbred, Edwardian way, capable of a touching if exasperating earnestness. Bard took a gamble on him. As did Peter.

Peter is still amazed at the degree to which a certain widening gyre of accolades can change an artist’s work, literally change it, not just the new stuff but the old as well, the pieces that have been around for a while, that have seemed “interesting” or “promising” but minor, until (not often, just once in a while) an artist is by some obscure consensus declared to have been neglected, misrepresented, ahead of his time. What’s astonishing to Peter is the way the work itself seems to change, more or less in the way of a reasonably pretty girl who is suddenly treated as a beauty. Peculiar, clever Victoria Hwang is going to be in Artforum next month, and probably in the collections of the Whitney and the Guggenheim; Ren?e Zellweger—moonfaced, squinty-eyed, a character actress if ever there was one—was just on the cover of Vogue, looking ravishing in a silver gown. It is, of course, a trick of perception—the understanding that that funny little artist or that quirky-looking girl must be taken with new seriousness—but Peter suspects there’s a deeper change at work. Being the focus of that much attention (and, yes, of that much money) seems to differently excite the molecules of the art or the actress or the politician. It’s not just a phenomenon of altered expectations, it’s a genuine transubstantiation, brought about by altered expectations. Ren?e Zellweger becomes a beauty, and would look like a beauty to someone who had never heard of her. Victoria Hwang’s videos and sculptures are about, it seems, to become not just intriguing and amusing but significant.

Sorry, Bock Vincent.

What happens to these new young stars who don’t deliver? Where do they go when they’re pass? at twenty-six?

Okay. Where will Bock go if Peter drops him? Peter can’t afford to show work that isn’t moving. And he likes the work, he likes it a great deal, but he doesn’t adore it, he wouldn’t reach into the fire for it.

Nor would he for Victoria Hwang, though he’d never admit that, to anyone.

Please, God, send me something to adore.

So, the workday begins.

Carole Potter? Not right away. Start off with Tyler and his crew.

Yeah, they’ll be there by noon, 12:30 at the latest, to crate the Vincents, Don’t worry man, we’ll be there. Tyler is sounding peevish lately; Peter hires him as a favor to Rex Goldman but he’s suspected from the beginning that it’s a mistake, always a mistake, to hire young artists for grunt work, they get resentful as their own stuff continues to go unheralded, they can’t fucking believe the crap that’s actually in galleries, and before you know it they’ve “accidentally” destroyed something. You want to help young artists, plus of course Tyler is a prot?g? (and more?) of Rex’s, but Peter has a feeling—this should be Tyler’s last job for him, so really it’s goodbye to Tyler and Bock, I’m genuinely sorry, young men, though that of course won’t play, I’m your father all over again, callous and competitive and standing in your way.

Carole Potter? Not yet.

Call Victoria’s voice mail, she’s one of those people who never ever answers her phone. Vic, it’s Peter, just checking in, let me know if I can help with anything, can’t wait to see the new work. Please, Victoria, be telling the truth when you say all the work is actually finished. Please, Victoria, now that you’re breaking through, don’t dump me for another dealer, though of course that’s exactly what we both know you’re going to do.

Call Ruth at the Whitney, Eve at the Guggenheim, leave messages with their assistants confirming Ruth at eleven on Thursday and Eve at two. Messages also with the assistants of Newton at MoMA and Marla at the Met, on the off chance.

Then on down the list of collectors. Ackerlick through Zelman. No one picks up, for which Peter is grateful. Messages are so much easier: Hey, it’s Peter Harris, just a reminder about Victoria Hwang’s private opening on Thursday, it’s pretty remarkable stuff, if you’d like to see it but can’t make the opening do give me a call, bye.

Okay. Carole Potter.

“Potter residence.”

“Hello, Svenka. It’s Peter Harris.”

“Hellooo, just a minute, please. I’ll see if Carole’s free.”

A full minute passes.

“Peter, hello.”

“Hi, Carole.”

“Sorry, I was digging in the garden. Are you glad the season is ending?”

“Oh, you know. Bittersweet. How are the chickens?”

“Three of them have some awful fungus. It’s harder to love chickens than I’d thought.”

“I’ve never known a chicken all that well.”

“Frankly, they’re pretty stupid and more than a little mean.”

“Like about half the people we know.”

Ha ha ha.

“Peter, I suspect you know why I’m calling.”

“Mm.”

“I’m a coward, I suppose. I don’t think I can live with it.”

“It’s not an easy piece.”

“I hope you tell people the same thing about me.”

Ha ha ha.

“How would you feel about giving it a little more time?”

“I don’t think so. I’m truly sorry. I actually find that I don’t want to go into that part of the garden anymore. I don’t want to see it.”

“Well. That’s serious.”

“You know the Furstons? Bill and Augusta?”

“Mm-hm.”

“They were over the other night, and it sent their miniature schnauzer into paroxysms.”

Ha ha ha ha ha.

“Hey, if the neighborhood dogs are suffering…”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Not a problem. We knew it might not work out.”

“You know what I’d really really like?”

“What’s that?”

“For you to come up here and help me think about what to put in its place.”

“I could do that.”

“I hate to impose.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I just. It’s so different, when something’s in a gallery.”

“It absolutely is.”

“And I have a feeling that if you and I stand in that part of the garden together, you’ll think of an artist who’d never occur to me.”

“Only one way to find out.”

“You’re an angel.”

“When would be good?”

“Well. That’s the thing.”

“What?”

“It’s horribly boring and awful, but we have people coming over. Middle of next week. The Chens, from Beijing, do you know them?”

Fuck yes. Zhi and Hong Chen, real estate trillionaires, who buy art the way kids buy comics, which is not true anymore even of the richest Americans. They’re Chinese, for God’s sake, they’re the hope (and, well, maybe the destruction) of the future.

“I know of them.”

“She’s lovely. He can be a bit of a bore, frankly. I’m going to invite the Rinxes, to help me with Hong. Anne Rinx actually speaks Mandarin, did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Anyway. At the very least, I think the Krim needs to be gone by then.”

“Do you think the Chens are bringing schnauzers?”

Ha.

Okay, not that funny. Remember, Peter: you are some hybrid of friend and hired help. You have latitude, but you can’t get uppity.

“I’d love to have something new in its place by then. If that’s even remotely possible.”

“Many things are possible. The trouble is, I’m hanging a new show this week.”

“Are you?”

“Victoria Hwang. Did you get the invitation?”

“Oh, I’m sure I did. This week is out, then?”

“Let’s think a minute. I could probably run up there late-ish on Wednesday afternoon.”

“If it’s too late in the day, the light will be gone. That part of the garden only gets light until around five.”

“I can get there before five.”

“Really and truly?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re a complete angel.”

“More than glad. I’ll have Uta check the trains, that’ll be faster than a car.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re entirely welcome.”

“You’ll call and let me know about the train? Gus’ll pick you up at the station.”

“Great.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Peter clicks off, gives himself a moment. Kings and queens, popes and merchant princes, were surely far more demanding than Carole Potter. Funny thing is, he likes Carole, and part of what he likes about her, perversely enough, is her aristocratic sense of entitlement. Without rich people who want it done now, who would animate the free world? In theory, you want everyone to live peacefully according to their needs, along the banks of a river. In fact, you worry that you’d die of boredom there. In fact, you get a buzz from someone like Carole Potter, who keeps prize chickens and could teach a graduate course in landscaping; who maintains a staff of four (more in the summers, during High Guest Season); a handsome, slightly ridiculous husband; a beautiful daughter at Harvard and an incorrigible son doing something or other on Bondi Beach; Carole who is charming and self-deprecating and capable, if pushed, of a hostile indifference crueler than any form of rage; who reads novels and goes to movies and theater and yes, yes, bless her, buys art, serious art, about which she actually fucking knows a thing or two.

The energy these people possess. The degree to which they care.

So, okay. One more job for Tyler. Get up there pronto, and make the Krim disappear.

And what can be magically summoned to take its place?

Hm. A Rupert Groff might be perfect, mightn’t it?

Of course it might. He can see it clearly, instantly: a Groff urn, shimmering in the shade at the far end of Carole’s southern lawn, the least cultivated and most English of her outdoor realm, all lavender and hollyhock and mossy pond. It’s the ideal spot for a Groff, one of the asymmetrical but heroic bronze urns that looks like some sort of pomo classic from a distance but proves, on closer inspection, to be inscribed all over with profanities, political screeds, instructions for building pipe bombs, recipes for eating the rich. This is, of course, what’s troubling about Groff—his satires of wildly expensive, beautiful things that actually are, as it happens, wildly expensive, beautiful things. Which is meant to be part of the joke. Which Carole Potter will appreciate.

She’ll also appreciate the idea that Peter is representing Groff. Admit it: Carole is cooling on you, and the failure of the Krim doesn’t help. Peter has been at this for almost two decades, and has never graduated to the majors. He’s been loyal to a body of artists who’ve done well enough, but not spectacularly. If he doesn’t step up soon, he can probably expect to grow old as a solid, minor dealer, respected but not feared.

It’d be good, it’d be very good, for the Chens to see one of those urns glowing in Carole’s garden. He can probably count on Carole to mention his name.

Would it be ghoulish to call Bette so soon?

“Hey, Bette.”

“Hello, Peter. Nice to see you yesterday.”

“So, the day after, what do we think about the shark?”

“Personally, I think it’s a dead shark in a big iron box and I can’t wait to get to Spain and start worrying about tomatoes.”

“Carole Potter just called me. She’s been trying out a Krim at her place in Greenwich.”

“Carole is great. You’re lucky to have her.”

“It’s thumbs down on the Krim, though.”

“Can you blame her? I mean, for one thing, they smell.”

“She has it outside.”

“Still.”

“So, listen.”

“You want to show her some Groffs.”

“Were you serious yesterday?”

“Of course I was. I was going to call him today.”

“Here’s the thing.”

“What?”

“Momma wants the Krim gone now and something else in its place, like, tomorrow. She has the Chens coming over.”

“The Chens are murderers.”

“Do you know anyone they’ve actually killed?”

“You know what I mean. It’s robber barons, all over again.”

“Does this mean that I’m foul and corrupt?”

“No. I don’t know. You have to sell it all to somebody. And hey, it’d be good for Rupert.”

“So you’ll call him.”

“Mm-hm. Right now.”

“You’re the best.”

“I’m thinking about my Spanish tomatoes.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Ugh.

Just do it. Just push on through. Remember: it’s in the service of something. Remember that all this is quite possibly (please, God) leading you to connect with some genius, unknown, unknowable, some Prometheus who is now a child in Dayton, Ohio, or an adolescent in Bombay or a mystic in the jungles of Ecuador.

* * *

The day progresses.

Thirty-seven new e-mails. Answer fifteen of them, leave the rest for later.

Make more calls.

Tyler and his crew arrive, start crating the Vincents. Uta handles that. Peter says a quick hello, hides out in his office.

“Victoria, it’s Peter again, just letting you know that the Vincents are on their way out, you could bring your stuff over any time.”

New e-mail, from Glen Howard. He’s had a studio visit from the Biennial people, clearly his star is ascending, maybe Peter wants to rethink the idea of giving him only the back gallery in September.

Glen, the Biennial people visit hundreds of artists, and even if they choose you, you’d be surprised at how little difference it makes. Look at the Biennial list from ten years ago. You won’t recognize a single name.

Think about how to phrase that. It can wait until after lunch.

“Peter, it’s Bette. I called Rupert, he’s expecting to hear from you.”

She gives him the number.

“You’re the greatest,” he says.

“Don’t mention it.”

There’s a wry weariness in her voice—has she decided that Peter is, in the final analysis, just another one of the assholes?

Fuck that. He can in all likelihood sell a Groff right away, and that’s what artists need from their dealers, right? They need them to sell the work. Groff’s at a tricky juncture—he’s not yet celebrated enough to command huge prices, but his work costs a fortune to make.

Call Rupert Groff. Get his voice mail. “Hey, it’s Groff, you know what to do.”

“Rupert, this is Peter Harris. Friend of Bette Rice. Love to talk to you when you’ve got a minute.”

Leave the number.

Call out for lunch, for himself and Uta and Tyler and his crew. Uta’s busy—Peter Harris, a Very Good Boss, doesn’t mind making the call. For him, Caesar salad with grilled chicken, or smoked turkey wrap? Salad. Summer’s coming, time to cut out the carbs. (At what age do you stop worrying about things like that?) Then again, there’s his funny stomach (cancer?). Turkey wrap.

Seventeen new e-mails since the last time he checked. One from Victoria—she’ll do anything to avoid a conversation. PETER, IM DOING A FEW FINISHING TOUCHES WILL HAVE THE WORK THERE TMROW 11 AM LATEST, XXX V

VIC, THAT’S GREAT, SEE YOU TOMORROW AT 11, YOU WILL OF COURSE LET ME KNOW IF I CAN HELP IN ANY WAY.

Bobby arrives at noon to cut his hair. “Hello, handsome.” Bobby’s as flirtatious with Peter as Peter is with his middle-aged women clients, and probably for the same reasons. Still, Bobby is good, and he’s willing to make house calls on Mondays, when all the salons are as shuttered as the art galleries.

They go into the bathroom together, and Bobby gets to work. Bobby is a monologist, Peter drifts in and out.

He’s met an Argentinian, a little older than he but drop-dead gorgeous (Bobby has never, it seems, met any man who wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous), he wants to take Bobby to Buenos Aires for a week but Bobby’s not sure, I mean, I’ve been there before, right, Peter? I mean they seem nice enough but then you get to some faraway place with them and they’re paying all the bills and they expect, well, never mind what they expect (it’s a tradition between them that Bobby implies dark sexual acts but never goes into detail), and frankly, well, you know me…

There’s more. There’s always more (how does Bobby do it, how does he never run out of things to say?), and Peter gets drifty (will Groff call him back, has he lost Bette’s respect?). Then:

“Peter, darling, have you thought about getting rid of some of this gray?”

Huh?

“Just a thought. What’re you, forty-five?”

“Forty-four.”

“We’d do it gradually. Week by week. I mean, you wouldn’t show up one day with the gray all gone. People wouldn’t even notice.”

Something like a trapdoor opens in Peter’s belly.

“I guess I’d thought it was sort of… distinguished.”

He doesn’t tell Bobby he’d thought it was sort of… sexy.

“Distinguished is, like, sixty. You’d look ten years younger.”

Peter is taken by a surprising tumble of feeling. Does he really look that old? Is it pathetic to want to look younger? He couldn’t, really, could he, even if he wanted to? People would notice, no matter how gradually it occurred; he would be a man who colored his hair and he would lose his seriousness forever, though maybe Bobby could just get rid of some of the gray, like half, and people really wouldn’t notice, they’d just think he looked more vital and, okay, a little less old.

Fuck you, Bobby. Why did you bring it up?

“I don’t think so,” he says.

“Think about it, okay?”

“Sure.”

Bobby finishes, pockets his cash. Peter walks him to the front door, past Tyler and his crew, who are not, it seems, in any particular hurry to get the Vincents down. Shaved-headed Carl, one of Tyler’s assistants, gives Peter a look—is it possible he thinks Peter is fucking Bobby? Fine, let him think so.

On the sidewalk Bobby kisses the vicinity of Peter’s face, hops onto his pale blue Vespa, and putt-putts off. Bobby is like the girls in forties comedies, pretty and avid and calculating, still young enough to be confident that the big surprises are yet to come, worried only about whether or not to go to Argentina with some lothario. There he goes, pert and unapologetically trivial, off to the next adventure.

Peter walks back in. Back to business.

Another dozen e-mails. Read them later. Right now, reply to Glen Howard.

HEY, GLEN, HOW GREAT ABOUT THE BIENNIAL PEOPLE! HERE’S HOPING THEY HAVE THE GOOD SENSE TO TAKE YOU. SORRY TO SAY THE FRONT GALLERY IS COMPLETELY BOOKED FOR THE FALL, BUT I PROMISE WE’LL GIVE YOU A BEAUTIFUL SHOW AND WILL GET A ZILLION PEOPLE TO COME SEE IT. YR OWN, P.

Rupert Groff calls back.

“Hey there, Peter Harris. What’s up?” He sounds shockingly young.

“You know Bette’s retiring, right?”

“Yeah. Big drag.”

“I’m a fan of your work.”

“Thanks.”

“Could I take you to dinner some night soon?”

“Sure.”

“What’s your schedule like?”

“Kind of fucked this week. Maybe, like, week from Wednesday.”

“That’d be fine. But listen. I have a very good client who might buy a piece right now, and she’s having a party for some other people who buy a lot of art. If you’re interested, I could handle it as an adviser. It wouldn’t mean I was your new dealer, there wouldn’t be any obligations, no hard feelings if you go with somebody else. But I’m pretty sure I could get this sale for you, and it might very well lead to others.”

“That sounds good.”

“So here’s what I think. Let’s plan on dinner a week from Wednesday, but why don’t I come out to your studio sooner than that, and we can talk about what might be right for my client.”

“I don’t have a lot of work to show you right now.”

“What have you got?”

“I’ve got a couple of new bronzes. And some terra-cotta stuff I’m messing around with, but it’s not really ready yet.”

“I’d be happy to see a couple of new bronzes.”

“Okay. Want to come by tomorrow afternoon?”

“Sure. What time is good?”

“Like, maybe, four?”

“Four is good.”

“I’m in Bushwick.”

He provides the address. Peter writes it down.

“See you tomorrow at four, then.”

“Right.”

Three new e-mails. One from Glen.

PETER, M’LOVE, NO SECRETS BETWEEN MEN OF HONOR, I’VE GOT AN OFFER FROM ANOTHER PLACE WHICH I’D RATHER NOT TAKE CUZ YR MY GUY BUT THESE PEOPLE ARE VERY HOT ABOUT MY STUFF AND NOW THE BIENNIAL AND, YOU KNOW, I FEEL LIKE THINGS ARE STARTING TO HAPPEN FOR ME WHICH I CAN’T QUITE BELIEVE CUZ YOU KNOW, SELF-ESTEEM ISSUES AND ALL 6 ANYWAY I LOVE YOU AND I WONDER IF YOU AND I COULD GRAB LUNCH SOMETIME SOON AND TALK, WHAT DO YOU SAY, MANFRIEND? XXX

Hm. So, Peter is someone to whom a young, semi-obscure artist thinks he can apply pressure.

Don’t panic, not even a little. Glen is a good painter who’s probably attracted the interest (assuming he’s not bluffing) of some storefront in Williamsburg, and really, he’s an unlikely candidate for the Biennial—rumor has it the curators are doing almost nothing but sculpture, installation, and video this time.

HEY, GLEN, I AM IN FACT YOUR MANFRIEND, LET’S ABSOLUTELY HAVE LUNCH AND DISCUSS YOUR BRILLIANT FUTURE. I’M HANGING THE NEW SHOW THIS WEEK, WHAT ABOUT SOMETIME NEXT? YRS., P.

Okay, Glen. Let’s see if a nice lunch and some reassurance about my lifelong devotion will carry the day. If not: go with my blessings.

Or…

If you really do land Groff…

Face it, opening the season with Groff in the front gallery would be big. There’s the piece on him scheduled for the September Art in America, and it’s at least half likely that Newton at MoMA will buy one, Groff is MoMA’s kind of thing—substantial, and dead serious.

Peter can feel it happening—he’s getting psyched about Groff. Yes, right, there are reasons to question the monumentality, the preciousness (in the literal sense); the whole idea of a return to art as treasure, to that which is hammered and encrusted, beautifully made, meant to stand in palaces and cathedrals. The work is, however, genuinely perverse—your aunt Mildred might say, from a certain distance, now that’s a lovely thing, but when she looks closely she’ll see the incised names of every African worker who’s died in a diamond mine (Groff must invent at least some of them, surely accurate records aren’t kept); she’ll see excerpts from the Unabomber’s diary and autopsy reports of prison suicides and perfectly rendered fetish porn, both gay and straight; all neatly ordered as hieroglyphs. Meant by implication to be dug up in ten thousand years.

And besides, aren’t we getting a little tired of all that art made of string and tinfoil, which, by the way, sells for insane sums? Haven’t we drifted into a realm in which trash is treated de facto as treasure?

If he lands Groff…

How shitty would it be to reschedule the Lahkti show? Or ask him to take the back gallery? Peter could free up the back gallery by encouraging Glen to grab the offer from this start-up in Williamsburg, I mean, Glen, you’re on the fucking cusp, you should be with someone edgier than me…

It would be shitty. Word would get around, too.

And the word would be…

That Peter Harris turns out to be a man who can make things happen. Peter Harris can pluck a young star from Bette Rice’s defunct operation and give him what would in all likelihood be one of the fall’s more spectacular shows. Yes, it would hurt Peter’s reputation among some artists. Some artists. Others, some of the more ambitious ones (Groff, surely, among them), would be impressed. If you’re hot, if you’ve got potential, Peter can do what it takes to get you out there now.

This funky stomach just won’t quit. What are the symptoms of stomach cancer? Does stomach cancer exist at all? Okay, take it a step at a time. All you’ve got from Groff at the moment is a studio visit and a dinner date.

More e-mails. More voice mails.

And then, the long-dreaded: the sound of an accident out in the gallery. A clatter, a thump, Tyler shouting, “Fuck.”

Peter runs. There in the middle of the gallery stand Tyler, Uta, and Tyler’s assistants, Branch and Carl. There on the floor is the victim: one of the wrapped paintings, slashed on a diagonal, a cut six or seven inches long.

“What the fuck?” Peter says.

“I can’t believe it” is all Tyler has to offer.

Uta, Branch, and Carl have arranged themselves like mourners around the canvas. Peter gets up close, squats to survey the damage. It is neither more nor less than a slit, about seven inches, running from a corner of the canvas toward the center. It is surgically precise.

“How did this happen?” Peter asks.

“Lost my grip,” Tyler answers. He is not particularly contrite. If anything, he’s peevish—why would the goddamn thing want to get ripped like this?

“He had a box cutter in his pocket,” Uta says. She’s hanging back. Although she’s perfectly capable of righteous fury when the occasion demands it, this kind of thing is Peter’s job. She’s already thinking about the terms of the insurance coverage.

“You were taking down the show with a box cutter in your pocket?”

“I wasn’t thinking. I just stuck it in my pocket for a second, and I sort of forgot about it.”

“Right,” Peter says, and is surprised by the calm in his own voice. It seems briefly that this can be made to unhappen, because it was so obviously going to happen. Bette Rice does in fact have cancer, terminal cancer, and Tyler has in fact been walking around with a box cutter in his pocket because Peter refuses to appreciate his assemblages and collages. It’s Peter’s fault, he saw this coming. No, it’s Rex’s fault. Rex and his goddamned endless parade of young geniuses who are invariably slender, tattooed young men, and are never actual geniuses, though Rex continues to insist, continues to “mentor” them, and it’s ruining his career, it’s turning him into a joke.

Uta says, “It’s one of the ones that didn’t sell.”

Peter nods. That’s better, of course. But there’s nothing good about word going out that art gets destroyed on Peter’s premises.

Tyler says, “Man, I’m really sorry.”

Peter nods again. Yelling won’t help. And really, he can’t fire Tyler on the spot. The show has to come down today.

“Get back to work,” Peter says quietly. “Try to remember not to put anything sharp in your pockets.”

He’s going to fucking kill Rex. Lecherous old queen.

Uta says, “Let’s take this one to the back.”

Peter, however, is not quite ready to abandon the corpse. Cautiously, very very gently, he slips his finger under the waxy paper, and lifts it.

All Peter can see is a triangle of clotted color. A swirl of ochre dotted with black.

Carefully, he fingers the paper another fraction of an inch away from the canvas.

“Peter, Uta cries.

It’s impossible to know for sure, but what Peter thinks he sees is a standard-issue abstract, clumsily painted. Student work.

That’s what’s under the sealed, pristine wrapping? That’s the shrouded relic?

Peter’s stomach lurches. What the fuck? Is he… yeah, he’s going to…

He retches. By the time he’s standing his mouth has already filled with vomit, but he makes it to the bathroom, where he expels it into the toilet and then stands, heaving, as it comes up again, and again.

Uta stands behind him. “Darling,” she says.

“I’m okay. You don’t have to see this.”

“Fuck off, I’ll be changing your diapers one day. It’s not the worst thing in the world. You know we’re covered.”

Peter still leans over the toilet bowl. Is it over? Hard to tell.

“It’s not the fucking painting. I don’t know, I’ve been queasy for a while. Maybe the turkey was a little off.”

“Go home.”

“No way.”

“Come back later if you want to. Go home now, for an hour, even. I’ll keep an eye on the idiots out there.”

“Maybe for an hour.”

“Absolutely for an hour.”

All right, then. He’s strangely embarrassed by having to walk past Tyler and his assistants—some vague sense of defeat. The young and destructive have won this one; the old guy, grown delicate, saw the carnage and fell on his sword.

He gets a cab on Tenth Avenue and Twenty-fourth Street. He’s light-headed but is done (please, God) being sick. How awful it’d be to throw up in the backseat of Zoltan Kravchenko’s cab. Zoltan would of course be furious, he’d eject Peter and speed off to clean up the mess. You can’t be sick in public, not in New York. It renders you impoverished, no matter how well you’re dressed.

Peter makes it home, gives Zoltan a big tip because Peter didn’t throw up in his cab but might have. He lets himself into the building, gets into the elevator. There is, in all this, a certain nausea-tinged unreality. He’s hardly ever sick, and he’s never home at two o’clock on a Monday. Now that he’s ascending in the elevator, though—now that he’s entered that short interlude of floaty nowhere—he’s filled with a sense of childish release, the old feeling that because you are sick, all your trials and obligations have been suspended.

When he enters the loft, he’s aware of… what? A presence? Some small perturbation of the ordinary air…

It’s Mizzy, asleep on the sofa. He’s shirtless again, wearing only his cargo shorts and a bronze amulet hung from a leather thong around his neck. His face, in repose, is settled into a youthfulness that isn’t as apparent when his troubled, inquisitive eyes are open. Asleep, he looks remarkably like a bas-relief on the sarcophagus of a medieval soldier—he’s even got his hands crossed over his chest. Like a medieval bas-relief, he possesses a certain aspect of what Peter can only think of as youth personified, the sense of a young hero who in life was probably not so beautiful and quite possibly not all that heroic and was certainly mauled into bloody bits in the battle in which he died, but afterward—after life—some anonymous artisan has granted him impeccable features and put him to perfect sleep, under the painted eyes of saints and martyrs, as generation after generation of the temporarily living light candles for their dead.

Peter kneels beside the sofa, to look more closely at Mizzy’s face. It’s only after he’s knelt down that he realizes it’s a funny gesture—penitential, reverent. And how will he explain it if Mizzy wakes up? Mizzy’s breath whistles softly, steadily, though—the imperturbable sleep of youth. Peter remains another moment. It’s clear now. Mizzy is Rebecca, incarnated: the young Rebecca, the bright and clean-faced girl who’d walked into Peter’s seminar at Columbia all those years ago and seemed… familiar, in some ineffable way. It hadn’t been love at first sight, it’d been recognition at first sight. Mizzy’s resemblance to her hasn’t been clear until now because Rebecca has changed—Peter sees how much. She’s given up (as, of course, she would) a pristine nascency, that not-quite-formed quality that’s gone by our midtwenties at the latest.

Peter has a terrible urge to touch the boy’s face. Just to touch it.

Whoa. What’s that about?

Okay, there’s gay DNA in the family, and he whacked off with his friend Rick throughout junior high, and sure, he can see the beauty of men, there’ve been moments (a teenage boy in a pool in South Beach, a young Italian waiter at Babbo), but nothing’s happened and he hasn’t, as far as he can tell, been suppressing it. Men are great (well, some of them) but they’re not sexy.

Still, he wants to touch Mizzy’s face. It isn’t erotic; not exactly erotic. He wants to touch this slumbering perfection that won’t last, can’t last, but is here, right now, on his couch. Just to make contact with it, the way the faithful want to touch the robe of a saint.

Of course, he doesn’t do it. As he stands, his knees crack. Mizzy, mercifully, sleeps on. Peter goes into the bedroom, closes the curtains, doesn’t turn on the light. He takes his clothes off and lies down on the bed. To his surprise he falls almost immediately into a deep, dark slumber, during which he dreams of armored men, standing at attention in the snow.

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