The goldfinch, p.40
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       The Goldfinch, p.40
 

          

  counselor at school had taken great pains to explain that though the dormitories at my college were reserved for older students, something could be worked out in my case. But whenever the topic of living arrangements came up, I fell silent and stared at my shoes. The residence halls were crowded, fly-specked, with a graffiti-scrawled cage lift that clanked like a prison elevator: walls papered with band flyers, floors sticky with spilled beer, zombified mob of blanket-wrapped hulks drowsing on the sofas in the TV room and wasted-looking guys with facial hair—grown men in my view, big scary guys in their twenties—throwing empty forty-ounce cans at each other in the hall. “Well, you’re still a bit young,” said Mr. Bracegirdle, when—cornered—I expressed my reservations, although the true reason for my reservations was something I couldn’t discuss: how—given my circumstances—could I possibly live with a roommate? What about security? Sprinkler systems? Theft? The school is not responsible for the personal property of students, said the handbook I’d been given. We recommend that students take out a dorm insurance policy on any valuable objects that may be accompanying them to school.

  In a trance of anxiety, I threw myself into the task of being indispensable to Hobie: running errands, cleaning brushes, helping him inventory his restorations and sort through fittings and old pieces of cabinet wood. While he carved splats and turned new chair legs to match old, I melted beeswax and resin on the hot plate for furniture polish: 16 parts beeswax, 4 parts resin, 1 part Venice turpentine, a fragrant butterscotch gloss that was thick like candy and satisfying to stir in the pan. Soon he was teaching me how to lay down the red on white ground for gilding: always a little of the gold rubbed down at the point where the hand would naturally touch, then a little dark wash with lampblack rubbed in interstices and backing. (“Patination is always one of the biggest problems in a piece. With new wood, if you’re going for an effect of age, a gilded patina is always easiest to fudge.”) And if, post-lampblack, the gilt was still too bright and raw-looking, he taught me to scar it with a pinpoint—light, irregular scratches of different depth—and then to ding it lightly with a ring of old keys before reversing the vacuum cleaner over it to dull it down. “Heavily restored pieces—where there are no worn bits or honorable scars, you have to hand out a few ancients and honorables yourself. The trick of it,” he explained, wiping his forehead with the back of his wrist, “is never to be too nice about it.” By nice he meant ‘regular.’ Anything too evenly worn was a dead giveaway; real age, as I came to see from the genuine pieces that passed through my hands, was variable, crooked, capricious, singing here and sullen there, warm asymmetrical streaks on a rosewood cabinet from where a slant of sun had struck it while the other side was as dark as the day it was cut. “What ages wood? Anything you like. Heat and cold, fireplace soot, too many cats—or that,” he said, stepping back as I ran my finger along the rough, muddied top of a mahogany chest. “What do you suppose wrecked that surface?”

  “Gosh—” I squatted on my heels to where the finish—black and sticky, like the burnt-on crust of some Easy-Bake Oven item you didn’t want to eat—feathered out to a clear, rich shine.

  Hobie laughed. “Hair spray. Decades of. Can you believe it?” he said, scratching at an edge with his thumbnail so that a curl of black peeled away. “The old beauty was using it as a dressing table. Over the years it builds up like lacquer. I don’t know what they put in it but it’s a nightmare to get off, especially the stuff from the fifties and sixties. It’d be a really interesting piece if she hadn’t wrecked the finish. All we can do is clean it up, on top, so you can see the wood again, maybe give it a light wax. It’s a beautiful old thing, though, isn’t it?” he said, with warmth, trailing a finger down the side. “Look at the turn of the leg and this graining, the figure of it—see that bloom, here and here, how carefully it’s matched?”

  “Are you going to take it apart?” Though Hobie viewed it as an undesirable step I loved the surgical drama of dismembering a piece and re-assembling it from scratch—working fast before the glue set, like doctors rushing through a shipboard appendectomy.

  “No—” knocking it with his knuckles, ear to the wood—“seems pretty sound, but we’ve got some damage to the rail,” he said, pulling a drawer which screeched and stuck. “That’s what comes from keeping a drawer crammed too full with junk. We’ll refit these—” tugging the drawer out, wincing at the shriek of wood on wood—“plane down the spots where it binds. See, the rounding? Best way to fix this is square out the groove—that’ll make it wider, but I don’t think we’ll have to prize the old runners out of the dovetails—you remember what we did on the oak piece, right? But—” running a fingertip along the edge—“mahogany’s a little different. So’s walnut. Surprising how often wood is taken from spots that aren’t actually causing the trouble. With mahogany in particular, it’s so tightly grained, mahogany of this age especially, you really don’t want to plane except where you absolutely have to. A little paraffin on the rails and she’ll be as good as new.”

  iv.

  AND SO THE TIME slipped by. The days were so much alike I barely noticed the months pass. Spring turned to summer, humidity and garbage smells, the streets full of people and the ailanthus trees leafing out dark and full; and then summer to autumn, forlorn and chilled. Nights, I spent reading Eugene Onegin or else poring over one of Welty’s many furniture books (my favorite: an ancient two-volume work called Chippendale Furniture: Genuine and Spurious) or Janson’s fat and satisfying History of Art. Though sometimes I worked down in the basement with Hobie for six or seven hours at a time, barely a word spoken, I never felt lonely in the beam of his attention: that an adult not my mother could be so sympathetic and attuned, so fully there, astonished me. Our large age difference made us shy with each other; there was a formality, a generational reserve; and yet we’d also grown to have sort of a telepathy in the shop so that I would hand him the correct plane or chisel before he even asked for it. “Epoxy-glued” was his short-hand for shoddy work, and cheap things generally; he’d shown me a number of original pieces where the joints had held undisturbed for two hundred years or more, whereas the problem with a lot of modern work was that it held too tight, bonded too hard with the wood and cracked it and didn’t let it breathe. “Always remember, the person we’re really working for is the person who’s restoring the piece a hundred years from now. He’s the one we want to impress.” Whenever he was gluing up a piece of furniture it was my job to set out all the right cramps, each at the right opening, while he lay out the pieces in precise mortise-to-tenon order—painstaking preparation for the actual gluing-and-cramping when we had to work frantically in the few minutes open to us before the glue set, Hobie’s hands sure as a surgeon’s, snatching up the right piece when I fumbled, my job mostly to hold the pieces together when he got the cramps on (not just the usual G-cramps and F-cramps but also an eccentric array of items he kept to hand for the purpose, such as mattress springs, clothes pins, old embroidery hoops, bicycle inner tubes, and—for weights—colorful sandbags stitched out of calico and various snatched-up objects such as old leaden door stops and cast-iron piggy banks). When he didn’t require an extra pair of hands, I swept sawdust and replaced tools on the peg, and—when there was nothing else to do—was happy enough to sit and watch him sharpening chisels or steam-bending wood with a bowl of water on the hot plate. OMG it stinks down there texted Pippa. The fumes are awful how can u stand it? But I loved the smell—bracingly toxic—and the feel of old wood under my hands.

  v.

  DURING ALL THIS TIME, I had carefully followed the news about my fellow art thieves in the Bronx. They had all pleaded guilty—the mother-in-law too—and had received the most severe sentences allowed by law: fines in the hundreds of thousands, and prison sentences ranging from five to fifteen without parole. The general view seemed to be that they would all still be living happily out in Morris Heights and eating big Italian dinners at Mom’s house had they not made the dumb move of trying to sell the Wybra
nd Hendriks to a dealer who phoned the cops.

  But this did not assuage my anxiety. There had been the day when I’d returned from school to find the upstairs thick with smoke and firemen trooping around the hall outside my bedroom—“mice,” said Hobie, looking wild-eyed and pale, roaming the house in his workman’s smock and his safety goggles atop his head like a mad scientist, “I can’t abide glue traps, they’re cruel, and I’ve put off having an exterminator in but good Lord, this is outrageous, I can’t have them chewing through the electrical wires, if not for the alarm the place could have gone up like that, here”—(to the fireman) “is it all right if I bring him over here?” sidestepping equipment, “you have to see this.…” standing well back to point out a tangle of charred mouse skeletons smouldering in the baseboard. “Look at that! A whole nest of them!” Though Hobie’s house was alarmed to the nines—not just for fire, but burglary—and the fire had done no real damage apart from a section of floorboard in the hall, still the incident had shaken me badly (what if Hobie hadn’t been home? what if the fire had started in my room?) and deducing that so many mice in a two-foot section of baseboard only meant more mice (and more chewed wires) elsewhere, I wondered if despite Hobie’s aversion to mousetraps I should set out some myself. My suggestion that he get a cat—though welcomed enthusiastically by Hobie and cat-loving Mrs. DeFrees—was discussed with approval but not acted upon and soon sank from view. Then, only a few weeks later, just as I was wondering if I should broach the cat issue again, I’d almost fainted from the cardiac plunge of coming in my room to find him kneeling on the rug near my bed—reaching under the bed, as I thought, but in fact reaching for the putty knife on the floor; he was replacing a cracked pane in the bottom of the bedroom window.

  “Oh, hi,” said Hobie, standing to brush off his trouser leg. “Sorry! Didn’t mean to give you a jump! Been intending to get this new pane in ever since you arrived. Of course, I like to use wavy glass in these old windows, the Bendheim, but if you throw in a few clear pieces it really doesn’t matter—say, careful there,” he said, “are you all right?” as I dropped my school bag and sank in an armchair like some shellshocked first lieutenant stumbling in from the field.

  It was crackers, as my mother would have said. I didn’t know what to do. Though I was only too aware how strangely Hobie looked at me at times, how crazy I must seem to him, still I existed in a low-grade fog of internal clangor: starting up every time someone came to the door; jumping as if scalded when the phone rang; jolted by electric-shock “premonitions” that—mid class—would compel me to rise from my desk and rush straight home to make sure that the painting was still in the pillowcase, that no one had disturbed the wrapping or tried to scratch up the tape. On my computer, I scoured the Internet for laws dealing with art theft but the fragments I turned up were all over the map, and did not provide any kind of relevant or cohesive view. Then, after I’d been at Hobie’s for an otherwise uneventful eight months, an unexpected solution presented itself.

  I was on good terms with all Hobie’s moving-and-storage guys. Most of them were New York City Irish, lumbering, good-natured guys who hadn’t quite made it into the police force or the fire department—Mike, Sean, Patrick, Little Frank (who was not little at all, the size of a refrigerator)—but there were also a couple of Israeli guys named Raviv and Avi, and—my favorite—a Russian Jew named Grisha. (“ ‘Russian Jew’ contradiction in terms,” he explained, in a lavish plume of menthol smoke. “To Russian mind anyway. Since ‘Jew’ to antisemite mind is not the same as true Russian—Russia is notorious of this fact.”) Grisha had been born in Sevastopol, which he claimed to remember (“black water, salt”) though his parents had emigrated when he was two. Fair-haired, brick red in the face with startling robin’s-egg eyes, he was paunchy from drinking and so careless about his clothes that sometimes the lower buttons of his shirt gaped open, yet from the easy, arrogant way he carried himself, he clearly believed himself to be good-looking (as who knew, maybe he had been, once). Unlike stone-faced Mr. Pavlikovsky he was quite talkative, full of jokes or anekdoty as he called them, which he told in a droll, rapid-fire monotone. “You think you can curse, mazhor?” he’d said goodnaturedly, from the chessboard set up in a corner of the workshop where he and Hobie sometimes played in the afternoon. “Go then. Burn my ears off.” And I had let rip such an eyewatering torrent of filth that even Hobie—not understanding a word—had leaned back laughing with his hands over his ears.

  One gloomy afternoon, not long after my first fall term in school had begun, I happened to be alone in the house when Grisha stopped by to drop off some furniture. “Here, mazhor,” he said, flicking the butt of his cigarette away between scarred thumb and forefinger. Mazhor—one of his several derisive nicknames for me—meant “Major” in Russian. “Make yourself useful. Come help with this garbage in the truck.” All furniture, for Grisha, was “garbage.”

  I looked past him, to the truck. “What have you got? Is it heavy?”

  “If it was heavy, poprygountchik, would I ask you?”

  We brought in the furniture—gilt-edged mirror, wrapped in padding; a candle stand; a set of dining room chairs—and as soon as it was unwrapped, Grisha leaned against a sideboard Hobie was working on (after first touching it with a fingertip, to make sure it wasn’t sticky) and lit himself a Kool. “Want one?”

  “No thanks.” In fact, I did, but I was afraid Hobie would smell it on me.

  Grisha fanned away the cigarette smoke with one dirty-nailed hand. “So what are you doing?” he said. “Want to help me out this afternoon?”

  “Help you how?”

  “Put down your naked-lady book” (Janson’s History of Art) “and ride out to Brooklyn with me.”

  “What for?”

  “I have to take some of this garbage out to storage, could use an extra hand. Mike was supposed to help but sick today. Ha! Giants played last night, they lost, he had a lot of rocks on the game. Bet he is home in bed up in Inwood with a hangover and a black eye.”

  vi.

  ON THE WAY OUT to Brooklyn with a van full of furniture, Grisha kept up a steady monologue about on the one hand Hobie’s fine qualities and on the other how he was running Welty’s business into the ground. “Honest man, in dishonest world? Living in reclusion? It hurts me right here, in my heart, to see him throwing his moneys out the window every day. No no,” he said, holding up a grimy palm as I tried to speak, “takes time what he does, the restorations, working by hand like the Old Masters—I understand. He is artist—not businessman. But explain for me, please, why he is paying for storage out at Brooklyn Navy Yard instead of moving inventorys and getting bills paid? I mean—just look, the junk in basement! Things Welty bought at auction—more coming in every week. Upstairs, store is packed tight! He is sitting on a fortune—would take hundred years to sell it all! People looking in the window—cash in hand—wanting to buy—sorry, lady! Fuck off! Store is closed! And there he is downstairs with his carpenter tools spending ten hours to carve this-small” (thumb and forefinger) “—piece of wood for some piece-of-shit old lady chair.”

  “Yeah, but he has clients in too. He sold a whole bunch of stuff just last week.”

  “What?” said Grisha angrily, whipping his head from the road to glare at me. “Sold? To who?”

  “The Vogels. He opened the store for them—they bought a bookcase, a games table—”

  Grisha scowled. “Those people. His friends, so called. You know why they buy from him? Because they know they can get low price from him—‘open by appointment,’ ha! Better for him if he keeps the place shut from those vultures. I mean—” fist on breastbone—“you know my heart. Hobie is family to me. But—” he rubbed three fingers together, an old gesture of Boris’s, money! money!—“unwise in business dealing. He gives away his last matchstick, scrap of food, whatever, to any phony and con man. You watch and see—soon, in four-five years, he will be broke on the street unless he finds someone to run the shop for him.”

&nbs
p; “Such as who?”

  “Well—” he shrugged—“some person like maybe my cousin Lidiya. That woman can sell water to drowning man.”

  “You should tell him. I know he wants to find somebody.”

  Grisha laughed cynically. “Lidiya? Work in that dump? Listen—Lidiya sells gold, Rolex, diamonds from Sierra Leone. Gets picked up from home in Lincoln Town Car. White leather pants… floor length sable.… nails out to here. No way is woman like that going to sit in junk shop with a bunch of dust and old garbage all day.”

  He stopped the van and shut off the engine. We were in front of a blocky, ash-gray building in a desolate waterfront area, empty lots and auto-body shops, the sort of neighborhood where gangsters in the movies always drive the guy they’re going to kill.

  “Lidiya—Lidiya is sexy woman,” he said contemplatively. “Long legs—bazooms—good looking. Big zest for life. But this business—you don’t want big flash, like her.”

  “Then what?”

  “Someone like Welty. There was innocent about him, you know? Like scholar. Or priest. He was grandfather to everyone. But very smart businessman all the same. Fine to be nice, kind, good friends with everyone, but once you have your customer trusting and believing lowest price is from you, you’ve got to take your profit, ha! That’s retail, mazhor. Way of the fucking world.”

  Inside, after we were buzzed in, there was a desk with a lone Italian guy reading a newspaper. As Grisha was signed in, I examined a brochure on a rack beside the display of bubble wrap and packing tape:

  ARISTON FINE ARTS STORAGE

  STATE-OF-THE-ART FACILITY

  FIRE SUPPRESSION, CLIMATE CONTROL, 24 HOUR SECURITY

  INTEGRITY—QUALITY—SAFETY

  FOR ALL YOUR FINE ARTS NEEDS

  KEEPING YOUR VALUABLES SAFE SINCE 1968

  Apart from the desk clerk, the place was deserted. We loaded the service elevator and—with the aid of a key card and a punched-in code—took the elevator up to the sixth floor. Down corridor after long, faceless corridor we walked, ceiling-mounted cameras and anonymous numbered doors, Aisle D, Aisle E, windowless Death Star walls that seemed to stretch into infinity, a feel of underground military archives or maybe columbarium walls in some futuristic cemetery.

  Hobie had one of the larger spaces—double doors, wide enough to drive a truck through. “Here we go,” said Grisha, rattling the key in the padlock and throwing the door open with a crash of metal. “Just look at all this shit he has in here.” It was jammed so full of furniture and other items (lamps, books, china, little bronzes; old B. Altman bags full of papers and moldy shoes) that at first confused glance I wanted to back off and shut the door, as if we’d stumbled into the apartment of some old hoarder who had just died.

  “Two thousand a month he pays for this,” he said gloomily as we took the padding off the chairs and stacked them, precariously, atop a cherrywood desk. “Twenty-four thousand dollars a year! He should rather be using those moneys to light his cigarettes than pay rents for this shithole.”

  “What about these smaller units?” Some of the doors were quite tiny—suitcase-sized.

  “People are crazy,” said Grisha resignedly. “For space the size of car trunk? Hundreds of dollars a month?”

  “I mean—” I didn’t know how to ask it—“what keeps people from putting illegal stuff here?”

  “Illegal?” Grisha blotted the sweat from his brow with a dirty handkerchief and then reached around and mopped the inside of his collar. “You mean like, what, guns?”

  “Right. Or, you know, stolen stuff.”

  “What keeps them? I will tell you. Nothing is what keeps them. Bury something here and no one will find it, unless you get bumped off or sent to the can and don’t pay the fee. Ninety per cent of this stuff—old baby pictures, junk from Bubbe’s attic. But—if walls could talk, you know? Probably millions of dollars hidden away if you knew where to look. All kind of secrets. Guns, jewels, murder victim bodies—crazy things. Here—” he’d slammed the door with a crash, was fumbling with the slide bolt—“help me with this fucker. I hate this place, my God. Is like death, you know?” He gestured down the sterile, endless-looking corridor. “Everything shut up, sealed away from life! Whenever I’m coming here, I get a feeling like hard to breathe. Worse than a fucking library.”

  vii.

  THAT NIGHT, I GOT the Yellow Pages from Hobie’s kitchen and carried it back to my room and looked under Storage: Fine Arts. There were dozens of places in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, many with stately print ads detailing their services: white gloves, from our door to yours! A cartoon butler proffered a business card on a silver tray: BLINGEN AND TARKWELL, SINCE 1928. We provide discreet and confidential State-of-the-Art storage solutions for a wide range of businesses and private clients. ArtTech. Heritage Works. Archival Solutions. Facilities monitored by hygrothermograph recording equipment. We maintain custom temperature control to AAM (American Association of Museums) requirements of 70 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity.

  But all this was much too elaborate. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to the fact that I was storing a piece of art. What I needed was something safe and inconspicuous. One of the biggest and most popular chains had twenty locations in Manhattan—including one in the East Sixties by the river, my old neighborhood, only a few streets away from where my mother and I had lived. Our premises are secured by our custom 24-hour manned security command center and feature the latest technology in smoke and fire detection.

  Hobie was asking me something from the hallway. “What?” I said hoarsely, my voice loud and false, shutting the phone book on my finger.

  “Moira’s here. Want to run down to the local with us for a hamburger?” The Local was what he called the White Horse.

  “Sounds great, be there in a minute.” I went back to the ad in the Yellow Pages. Make Space for Summer Funtime! Easy solutions for your sports and hobby equipment! How simple they made it sound: no credit card required, cash deposit and off you went.

  The next day, instead of going to class, I retrieved the pillowcase from under my bed, taped it shut with duct tape, put it in a brown bag from Bloomingdale’s, and took a cab to the sporting goods store in Union Square, where after a bit of dithering I purchased a cheap pup tent and then caught a cab back up to Sixtieth Street.

  At the space-age, glassed-in office of the storage facility, I was the only customer; and though I’d prepared a cover story (ardent camper; neatfreak mom) the men at the desk seemed completely uninterested in my large, well-labeled sporting goods bag with the tag of the pup tent dangling artfully outside. Nor did anyone seem to find it at all noteworthy or unusual that I wanted to pay for the locker a year in advance, in cash—or two years maybe? Was that all right? “ATM right out there,” said the Puerto Rican at the cash register, pointing without looking away from his bacon and egg sandwich.

  That easy? I thought, in the elevator on the way down. “Write your locker number down,” the guy at the register said, “and your combination too, and keep it in a safe place,” but I’d already memorized both—I’d seen enough James Bond movies that I knew the drill—and the minute I was outside tossed the paper in the trash.

  Walking out of the building, its vaultlike hush and the stale breezelet humming evenly from the air vents, I felt giddy, unblinkered, and the blue sky and trumpeting sunlight, familiar morning exhaust haze and the call and cry of car horns all seemed to stretch down the avenue into a larger, better scheme of things: a sunny realm of crowds and luck. It was the first time I’d been anywhere near Sutton Place since returning to New York and it was like falling back in a friendly old dream, crossfade between past and present, pocked texture of the sidewalks and even the same old cracks I’d always jumped over when I was running home, leaning in, imagining myself in an airplane, tilt of an airplane’s wings, I’m coming in, that final stretch, strafing in fast towards home—lots of the same places still in business, the deli, the Greek diner, the wine shop, all th
e forgotten neighborhood faces muddling through my mind, Sal the florist and Mrs. Battaglina from the Italian restaurant and Vinnie from the dry cleaner’s with his
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