10 min read

ART LOVER

Short Story by Dan Domench with a brief intro: do you want more of Adie and Leary?
ART LOVER
Photo by Alicia Steels

(Writer's Note: I wrote this after watching the classic film "One Two Three" written by I. A. L. Diamond and Billy Wilder and directed by Billy Wilder. It is a film that, as star Cagney said, "does 60 mph on the curves". I wanted to see if I could use dialogue alone to carry a short story. One of my editors suggested that I do a series of short novels featuring these two characters in the spirit of Donald Westlake's comedic caper novels. Still thinking about that.)

ART LOVER

“I like the new scarf, Adie. Those colors make your eyes look huge.”

“I'm a Keane now. I need a puppy in my arms to make my portrait complete. What’re you doing standing in my office, Leary? No deals here, we don't sell paintings out the back door.”

“No, you sell lighthouse posters and key chain souvenirs and painted bird houses out of your gift shop. Come on, Adie, it’s killing you working in a museum answering to the director and trustees. You’re better than this. You’re an artist.”

“I quit painting. I told you. Why aren’t you out flipping a questionable Monet or selling a forged Cole out of the back of your car? You have to go. I meet with the Director in five minutes.”

“I have a simple proposal.”

“You can’t stop hustling. That’s why you and I never should have …”

“This is bigger than us.”

“There is no ‘us.’ It was the wine and I was tired. Not that it wasn't distracting. There were moments, I'll give you that, but now we're back to being friends, or acquaintances, whatever we are."

“This is about business, a partnership. Listen carefully. You know Philip Mussy had a stroke?”

“Mussy’s been dead nine months. The Met has a retrospective scheduled for next year. Little late with the stroke news.”

“The stroke is the beginning of the story. Mussy couldn’t talk after the stroke so he hired a twenty-four-year-old girl to help him.”

“If this is a story about you and a twenty-four-year-old woman, I am going to smack you with this Remington replica. For the rest of your life you will have a tiny cowboy hat indentation in the middle of your forehead."

“Follow along here. Mussy’s cell rings and this girl ... "

"Woman. A twenty-four-year-old female is a woman."

"Of course. Sorry. This woman answers it and it's a man asking if Mussy is going to his 30-year high school reunion in New Jersey. She tells him Mussy won’t leave the house. The man asks if there is a bio for the newsletter they’re handing out to the classmates. The girl grabs the nearest thing she can find on the desk and reads it to him and it happens to be the “New York Times” article about the Sotheby auction where Mussy’s “Thinking” sold for 3.2 million.”

“3.7 million. Our Director offered 2.2 for it.”

“I could’ve helped with that.”

“The Director doesn’t need your help.”

“I know a young woman who works the phone at Sotheby’s.”

“Oh, gawd.”

“No one says, ‘oh god’ like you.”

“Does anyone say, ‘Get out,’ like me?”

“You said I had five minutes.”

“I said I had a meeting in five minutes, two minutes ago.”

“I have three minutes.”

“You have nothing.”

“You don’t know how wrong you are. Mussy’s classmates are doing shots at the oldies dance and looking at the alumni newsletter featuring Mussy’s painting of a cartoon head smoking a cigarette that sold for 3.7 million. Two of Mussy’s classmates get the idea that their old friend Mussy ought to paint them a small picture or two. It can’t take but a few minutes to draw one of those cartoon heads and that would relieve some financial problems for these two boys.”

“Let me guess, Mussy painted something and sent it to them and you have it for sale. You can’t prove it’s a Mussy, but you’re pretty sure it is.”

“If you think Mussy would do anything for anybody for free, you are not thinking about Mussy’s character.”

“I was thinking about your character.”

“Unlike me, all Mussy ever cared about was himself. I’m more balanced. Take for example, my interest in you.”

“Leary, stop.”

“You could blow the Met away. I am right now offering you the cover of Art In America. You do what I am suggesting here and you will have all the time you need to paint.”

“I don’t need time to paint. I need to care enough about something to paint it.”

“Adie, I own Mussy’s last paintings.”

“But you can’t prove they’re his, am I right? No provenance. ”

“I have a video of him painting them.”

“But you don’t own them yet? Something like that.”

“They’re safe, waiting for me to take possession. That’s right, move slowly back down to a sitting position. Sit.”

“You going to ask me to fetch? Catch a Frisbee in my teeth? Where are these Mussy paintings?”

“It’s not just paintings. The two classmates from Jersey, they drive up to Mussy’s house in Maine. One of them owns a pizza parlor across the street from a new Pizza Hut. The other guy owns a nightclub in Newark called the “Blue Moon,” but club kids who used to go there when it was cool now call it the “Blue Moo.” He’s one of those white guys talks like a rapper, has a little patch of hair under his bottom lip.”

“Which is not as cool as your sideburns.”

“My burns are European. It’s a Berlin look.”

“When it’s not Nashville. You met these Jersey guys?”

“They’re part of the video installation.”

“The video install? Make this make sense, Leary, quickly.”

“These two classmates roll up in an old Lexus, walk Mussy off of his front porch in his bare feet, and take him to a cabin they rented on Loon Lake. They have a video camera going, shooting everything, because they want to show their friends how close they are to their buddy the famous Philip Mussy. They’re tourists doing a kidnapping. In the cabin, they bring out pints of different colored house paint and a pad of newsprint paper and ask Mussy to paint something, but he refuses. They talk about old times and girls they knew and try to wear him down, but does not go along.”

“But he paints something.”

“Oh yeah, he does.”

“Can we get to the part where he paints something?”

“These two guys drink, have a permanent buzz on. Pizza Guy leaves to get more booze and Soul Man passes out. Mussy takes the video camera and does a close-up on his own mouth and pretends to speak, but there are no words coming out of his mouth. It’s like he is being interviewed but no words, you know. It’s looks crazy and serious at the same time. Those lips and the stubble beard and the cigarette.”

“Like one of his paintings.”

“Yeah and he does it for a while, making sure it’s long enough for a showing. Then he shakes up the pints of paint and starts in on the windows. The doors. The walls. The refrigerator. The table lamps. The mirror over the fireplace. He paints big cartoon heads smoking, drinking, blindfolded, and gagged, and one with a noose around his neck. He films it as he goes and he’s covered in paint and he’s grinning. Pizza Guy comes back with more booze and Mussy hugs him and gets paint all over his clothes. Soul Man wakes up and it’s bizarre. The Jersey guys are looking around the rental cabin and cursing Mussy and talking about losing their rent deposit and Mussy is filming them. They’re arguing and drinking and Mussy goes outside and paints the rusty Lexus. He’s painting the hood, the trunk, the rims, and filming it and they try to stop him, but he won’t stop. Soul Man punches him and Mussy keeps filming and punching back. It’s like kids fighting. Then it’s morning on the video. Mussy is painting the guy’s portraits on the newsprint, done in an illustrative way, something you’d see in American Art Collector. They grab the portraits and drive away happy.”

“Wait. They think they’re rich, but the portraits are not in Mussy’s late style.”

“Unsigned and not in any style except Houston suburb worthless. The guys drive away leaving Mussy in the cabin with the video camera and head back to Jersey thinking they’re millionaires.”

“Which they are.”

“Right, until they scrub the paint off the Lexus.”

“Which they will do.”

“Of course. It’s not cool to cruise Newark with cartoon heads all over your car. Mussy hitchhikes home wearing garbage bags wrapped around his bare feet. The twenty-four-year-old housekeeper didn’t call the police because she thinks Mussy ran away for a weekend with two friends which could be normal behavior for Mussy as far as she knows. Mussy dies a few weeks later.”

“And you have this stuff?”

“I’m almost done, okay.”

“You don’t have the stuff?”

“It’s complicated. One of my pickers was talking to the old man who owns the rental cabins, asking him about some antiquities the old man is suspected to have in his attic. The old man mentions to my picker that one of his cabins got vandalized, but he found a video camera and knows who did it, was that Mussy assbite lives on Lincoln Hill. My picker calls me immediately. I tell him to buy the video camera. I talk to the old man on the phone and promise to make copies of the tapes, the 'evidence' he calls it. When I get up there and see the cabin, I tell the old man, being cool about it, that I want to buy the cabin for my wife because we met there and I want to fix it up. I make him promise to leave it exactly as it is. He says he will sell only if I buy all five cabins and he carries the mortgage. He says I have to have a job.”

“Uh oh.”

“I’m self-employed Adie, I can’t prove my income and you have a real job, which is why I came to you, among other reasons. We could own this together. We get married so it looks good for the old man and you’ll own half of Mussy’s last major work. We’ll dismantle the cabin and sell it as one piece. Sotheby’s will kill to handle it.”

“Did you just now assume I would marry you? You're ill.”

“I know I’m below your station, all that, but we can do prenuptial agreements if it’ll make you feel better. You don’t want me to own half of your ten-year-old Honda and your cat. Once we get the cabins, we can make the business part of it work. You quit here and run the rentals, own five hundred feet of shorefront, put on summer art camps. You’ll have time to paint. The cabin business will make a strong tax write-off if everything works out with the Mussy stuff.”

“There’s a problem with the Mussy stuff, isn’t there?”

“Well, he’s dead, he can’t tell us exactly what happened.”

“That might be convenient for you.”

“The video is kind of grainy. You can’t see the other guy’s faces.”

“You described them to me.”

“I imagined what they looked like from how they sounded.”

“Of course. And the twenty-four-year-old woman who witnessed Mussy’s kidnapping?”

“She takes prescribed THC with CBD and some other initials that mess with her memory. She's not for sure on some stuff. We’re gonna have to position this carefully. You know how the art establishment is. The authenticity will be challenged. We have to expect an attack. It will be our job to help people believe it’s Mussy in the video.”

“I see. And help them believe it's not one of your pickers who might look like Mussy in a shaky video, someone who can paint cartoon heads. I respect you, Leary, really I do. You make money in the world on your own terms and you have deep resources in the balls area, and you make me laugh most of the time. But it did occur to me early on that you might have made this video, trashed that cabin, and set up this real estate thing to get me back in your apartment, drinking your wine, and listening to your music.”

“You don’t honestly believe that.”

“Doesn’t matter what I believe. You went to a lot of trouble to put this together and you knew it would interest me and it does. It's compelling, Leary. You can play it real, or as a tribute, or a derivation, or a hoax, whatever. There would be some critics and buyers who might support this as a valid comment on Mussy’s legacy. He wasn't above cashing in on his own hoaxes. Right now it feels strange looking at you and realizing that no other guy in the world would be capable of coming up with something like this. I’m jealous. You're sui generis. You really are."

"Thank you, Adie. I get that you're complimenting me."

"You know sui generis means, don't act stupid, you can't pull it off. If you insist you need to marry me to make this work, which I doubt immensely, I am wondering how far you will take this. I'm wondering if you would get down on your knees and ask me. I've never had an actual marriage proposal.”

“Down on one knee?”

“Both knees. I've never understood the one knee thing. A guy on one knee looks like he's going to scoot away and run off.”

“You going to say, yes?”

“I’m not sure, but you would have to be on your knees.”

“This good enough? You think the security cameras are getting this?”

“In black and white, but I’m seeing a series of large paintings. 10 feet by 15, at least. I’ll use bright acrylics this time. Thick. Figure studies of a man on his knees.”

“If you marry me, I’ll model for you.”

“I can paint from memory.”

“Adie?”

“Yes?”

"You said, yes."

"You didn't ask me anything."

"You knew what I was going to ask and you said, yes."

"Get back on your knees."

---

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