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Harry Buschman

Florence Hasselbone rarely paid attention to John’s compulsive behavior these days. She no longer felt embarrassed as she walked beside him on the sidewalk and watched him avoid the cracks in the concrete.

His stride was herky-jerky, he dodged around manhole covers, avoided subway gratings and never lingered under awnings ... even in the rain. He accomplished all these things to an accompaniment of barely audible grunts to passers-by who stood in his way.

His compulsive affliction started ever since he began working for the IRS. Florence suspected it was the frustration and the daily verbal abuse from taxpayers who wanted to change their returns after being notified of audit. Furthermore, the relentless ritual of elemental schoolhouse arithmetic and the convoluted syntax of the Internal Revenue system language seemed to have driven him over the edge. But, who knows, perhaps it wasn’t that at all – they lived in the East Village after all, and life in a big city like New York can be fidgety, more so for some people than others. Florence thrived on it because her work at the Cartridge Gallery on Madison Avenue stimulated her. She met beautiful people and there were beautiful things hanging on the walls. All that hung on the wall of John Hasselbone’s downtown office at IRS was a calendar marked with the names of the auditees he was scheduled to meet with.

John had developed a deep hatred for tax dodgers. They covered their tracks too elaborately for one thing, and looking at their returns through half closed eyes it often appeared as though they were riddled with shrapnel. Ellipses. Dashes. Underlinings. References to court decisions. Their returns were reminiscent of his own hesitant progress along the cracked and rotted downtown streets of Greenwich Village. Florence, on the other hand invariably came home with an angelic smile on her face – having been exposed to Vermeer, Constable and Whistler all day.

In many ways, John envied Florence. He often wished he had a job like that – to hover just outside the creative side of the painter’s world. On the dealer’s side, where hands didn’t get dirty, where you didn’t have to contend with anguish and sleepless nights. In the gallery the music was turned down low and the lighting was warm and subdued – a little bottle of rose` was always on a table nearby. Furthermore, they set the price on the pictures so high they didn’t even bother with sales tax. No wonder Florence came home every night with a smug expression on her face – looking like she just had sex, for God’s sake!

John was especially irritated the night she was late. He hated cooking and he swore their kitchen was booby trapped. He got as far as the rice in a pot of boiling water when she burst in ...

“Oh John, you’ll never guess.”

He made no attempt to guess, instead he untied his apron, hung it up neatly and walked into the living room. Florence followed him and sat in the very chair he planned to sit in. “Guess, John.”

“What’s the sense in it, you said I’d never guess?”


“Archie who?”

“Not Archie. Boris ... Boris Archipenko. The gallery’s giving him a retrospective. His work is worth millions. Oh, John,” she gushed. “It’s going to be wonderful. I met him today.”

“I hope you washed your hands.”

“Really, John ... he’s a beautiful man. So deep ... every time he says something you wonder what he means.”

“I meet people like that every day.”

Florence stood up – they were the same height and when she stood straight she could look down at him. “Furthermore,” she said.


“I’m in charge of the reception. It’s next Saturday. Everybody who is anybody will be there, all the critics, all the dealers – big names. I want you to be there too John. It’ll be good for you.”

“Florence, be reasonable. You know I hate crowds ... the thought of mingling with that artsy-fartsy flock of sheep over at your gallery makes my skin crawl ... I’ll embarrass you.”

“No you won’t.”

“I will. I’ll do something ... violent.”

It was three days until Saturday, and John did everything he could to avoid the reception. He even faked a behavioral attack of major proportions over a leaky faucet in the bathroom. He finally showed up without an appointment at his psychiatrist and would not budge from his waiting room until the doctor found room for him on his schedule. He wanted the doctor to call Florence, and as he lay on the doctor’s well worn leather couch he asked him to tell her that he would do something terrible at the reception.

“John, you won’t, you know you won’t. You may even have a good time. Have you ever seen an Archipenko?” the doctor asked.

“What is there to see? With a name like Archipenko! Boris yet! He’ll be like “Bigfoot.” You’re a doctor, you know the things that nest in a Russian’s hair – I don’t want any part of it. I’ll probably break something.”

“John,” the doctor reasoned. “You’re a compulsive. You’re looking at things the wrong way. How many time have I told you you’re a chicken-little compulsive. You think the sky is falling. It isn’t John ...” he looked at his chart a moment. “You’re forty-seven years of age and life has never laid a finger on you.”

John doubled his dosage Saturday morning just to be on the safe side. He ate constantly and compulsively, peering into the refrigerator and pulling things out that Florence had saved from previous meals – he had no idea what they were.

“You’ll be all right, John, won’t you? I have to skip over to the gallery to see how things are going.” She looked at him nervously ... “You’ll be all right here by yourself, won’t you?”

“Course I’ll be all right. Think I don’t know how to look out for myself?”

I’ll be back in an hour ...”

She came back flushed with excitement and laid out her new black cocktail dress.

“Wow! When did you get that?” John asked.

“I’ve always wanted one. Every girl ... er, woman should have at least one. John, the gallery looks splendid. Archipenko will be so pleased.”

“Be hard to tell through all that hair.”

“I’m going to take a quick shower. Have you had your lunch? You’d better get ready by the way, you know how long it takes you.”

John was determined not to have a good time. He knew exactly what he thought of an Archipenko painting, even though he’d never seen one and while Florence was singing in the shower he rehearsed exactly what he was going to say about Archipenko – if anyone asked him.

But for the moment his suit, shirt and tie ensemble required his complete attention. If the phone rang or someone knocked at the door, John would not have heard it. The gray suit, blue shirt and red regimental tie were, in his opinion, the way to go, and he said to himself, “You’re going to look great, John, you’ll be the best dressed man at the reception. The others will all be wearing turtlenecks and brown loafers.” Florence, on the other hand was in such an expansive mood she would have looked good in anything.

They joined the late Saturday afternoon crowd of Madison Avenue walkers. Florence believed walking the streets of New York kept them in trim and built up their resistance to the germ laden city air. John always seemed lighter on his feet during these Saturday afternoon walks, and this evening was no exception. He skipped from crack to crack, avoiding the ever threatening restaurant awnings like a fancy Dan boxer avoiding the thrusts of a clumsy heavyweight. For Florence, however, it was more like walking an unruly dog.

“Did you remember to turn off the gas, Florence.”

“We don’t have gas.”

“Everybody has gas.” He looked at Florence pointedly. “How about the front door?”

“How about it?”

“Did we lock it?”

“John, you always lock the door. You know that. You lock it, then you unlock it just so you can lock it again. You wouldn’t trust anyone else to lock it.” She breathed deeply. “Why do you ask me if we locked it?”

“You know how New York is, if you don’t lock your door you don’t know who’ll be there when you get home.”

They approached the softly lit entrance to the Cartridge Gallery and Florence didn’t want to argue any more. She assured John that she had locked the door to the apartment and that seemed to satisfy him. The gallery looked splendid from the outside, but it had an awning stretching from the front of the building to the street ... John hesitated and shifted his feet nervously.

“Would you hold the door open, Florence? I’ll need a running start.”

“Yes dear I understand.” She opened the tall bronze doors and stood aside as John darted in.

He stood in the lobby looking left and right, although he’d been there before, it was always a little different. This evening there was a tittering of melodious conversation and a background of recorded music – he recognized Chopin. He wondered why they would choose to play Chopin. Chopin was Polish, and the Poles lived under the Soviet heel for nearly fifty years, besides Archipenko was Russian. Minor departures from logic and reason were always major threats to John Hasselbone’s well being, and he imagined the devil in every corner checking his watch.

“John, I’ll be busy at the reception table for a while. Why don’t you look around ... you know, the paintings? They’re really special. Mingle, John. Mingle.”

She looked at him nervously as he moved off guardedly, avoiding the scatter rugs. She hoped he would have a good time and meet some people with taste and vision. He was getting worse, no doubt about it. The IRS had taught him to mistrust everybody.

He crept up to each painting as though it were alive, an animal in a cage – untrustworthy and capable of sudden unpredictable behavior. He looked at each one carefully, noticing what seemed to him only minute differences between them. They were abstract, with bits and pieces that seemed recognizable. He saw a mustard jar in one of them, an xylophone in another – but on the whole he saw no reason why anyone would have bothered to paint them.

“Such a feeling for form,” a woman said to a man standing next to her.

John looked at the painting carefully, trying to find the feeling for form. Not finding any, he considered how much it cost and how the price was determined. He knew there was a vast unbridgeable gap between art and the IRS, yet both dealt in intangible things you really couldn’t put your finger on. Money seemed to be the thread that bound them together – a measurement for both. But they operated on different principles he thought. How can they establish a price for form? How can it be quantified? It’s there or it isn’t – like God. It doesn’t have any monetary value.

But, on the other hand, if someone wrote out a check for a six-figure amount and handed it to Florence, would she wrap the painting up, like a leg of lamb? Would Mr. Archipenko smile and say thank you, come again, then cash the check and record it on his 1040A? He would not! He would find a way to report it as a loss. He would say it was worth far more than that – he would say that he could have put it up for auction at Christie’s and gotten far more. He would say the buyer of this painting, some sad eyed someone, wanted the picture so badly, (said it had such a feeling for form) that he couldn’t refuse him.

He followed the man and the woman as they walked from picture to picture. The man had little to say, but the woman seemed to know everything. Finally, in the middle of one of her detailed explanations of approaching and receding planes, John raised his hand and she paused in mid sentence ...

“Pardon me, may I ask you a question?” Without waiting for her answer he asked, “How much does it cost to paint a picture like this?”

“I don’t understand your question ... how much does it cost ...” Her voice trailed off.

“That’s right. There’s the materials, the paint, the canvas and whatever. He has fixed costs, his rent and light and heat. I mean ... put it all together ... what did this painting set him back, twenty bucks maybe, twenty five?”

The woman turned to the man next to her ... “Do you know what he’s talking about, Alfred?” Alfred shrugged and seemed anxious to get away. “Do you know Mr. Archipenko, sir ... my name is Margaret White, by the way ... art critic for Times Arts and Leisure.”

“I’m John Hasselbone, ma’am. No I never met Mr. Archipenko.”

“Oh, she interrupted. You must be Florence’s husband ... she’s done a marvelous job with the exhibit hasn’t she?” She desperately looked toward the reception table hoping to catch Florence’s eye. “I really don’t know how to answer your question, Mr. Hasselbone – the price of art is difficult to put a figure on, it’s very intangibility makes it impossible to establish a price.”

“Well, that’s interesting Ms. White, but I noticed there is a price on every one of them and I just wondered how Mr. Archipenko came up with the figure. Big ones seem to cost more than the little ones – makes sense I guess.” Florence, seeing the expression on Margaret White’s face hurried over to join the conversation.

“Is John annoying you, Margaret. He loves to tease, don’t you John?” John knew the tone of her voice meant to ‘knock it off’ it was a tone he had beard before.

Florence held the arm of a tall man in a black suit who walked with a slow flamingo stride. He carried his other arm extended, as though offering it to any one who wanted to examine it. He was not hairy as John expected, but clean shaven to the extent that his face glowed. His teeth were bad so his smile was crooked and disappeared almost as soon as it started. He extended his hand to John in a groping manner as though he were reaching out to feel him.

John backed away, and Florence spoke up quickly ... “John is highly allergic to just about everything, Boris – even to people. I’m sure nothing would give him greater pleasure than shaking your hand.” She tried to think of a subject that might interest both men equally – “John, did you know Mr. Archipenko brought these paintings into the country rolled up in his brother’s rugs – his brother is a rug importer – isn’t that exciting, John?”

“Illegal too,” John replied quickly. “The Russian government would love to know that.”

“Oh, they didn’t care. His pictures had no value in Russia.” As if to corroborate her remark, Archipenko shrugged and rolled his eyes.

John scratched his head and looked from his wife to Archipenko and back again. “You’ll have to excuse me, Mr. Archipenko – you too, Florence – I’m a simple man. I cannot understand how a painting worth nothing in Russia can be worth thousands of dollars in the United States.” Mr. Archipenko removed his handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow. “I mean ... is the feeling for form different here than it is in Russia ... and the intersecting planes, what about them? Do they intersect here, but not there ... and then, last of all, if this,” he waved his arm to include the entire exhibit, “was worth nothing in mother Russia, why did you go to the trouble of smuggling it out of the country in your brother’s rugs, Mr. Archipenko?”

Archipenko shifted nervously from one foot to the other, then he looked Heavenward, hoping perhaps to find the answer written there. Then he looked down again at the stuffed mushrooms on his plastic plate. “I think maybe I should be ill if you don’t mind.”

Florence sprung into action. She cast a withering glance at John and took Boris Archipenko by the arm. “We’ll find a quiet spot, Boris – I’ll get someone to take you to the men’s room ... not you, John!” They found a chair just under one of Mr. Archipenko’s paintings, (John noticed the price was $176,000 and probably very close to the size of one of his brother’s rugs).

Things went from bad to worse. Boris Archipenko did indeed throw up and spent the rest of the evening in the men’s room. He spoke very little, but when he did he complained in broken English of the tyranny of governments and the perilous pursuit of an artist in a hostile world.

Florence made apologies to everyone who would listen. To those who wouldn’t, she simply smiled apologetically. The curator was very upset with her for bringing John ... “You know he’s a menace, you should have chained him up in the apartment.” Florence was inclined to agree. John, however, continued his quest ... “how on earth can a painting be worth a fortune in America and nothing in Russia?” He reached the conclusion that it was a sham – a con game, no different than the magic elixir of a traveling medicine man.

John looked about him – as the afternoon wore on the room vibrations had changed. He sensed it. There was a feeling of imminent danger – like a Hitchcock movie when the heroine walks through the old house and the eyes of the people in the portraits on the wall follow her as she moves. The pictures on the wall. Yes, that was it. Something about the pictures on the wall. They hadn’t changed, yet there was something different about them.

For one thing, Florence and the curator had taken all the prices off the paintings. Now, that was strange – he had just about settled in his own mind why some were more costly than others. It had nothing to do with the feeling for form or the intersecting planes where three-dimensional forms passed through each other – no! It was size. Big ones cost more than little ones. It took a little figuring, but in the end the more paint an artist used – the bigger the canvas – the bigger the frame – the more the painting cost.

To complicate matters even further a representative from the Russian Embassy appeared late in the afternoon and had a long talk with Boris, making notes as he did so. Not to be outdone, a uniformed agent from the United States Customs Office, slightly out of breath, was hot on his heels. The two men were in complete agreement, and in a rare display of international cooperation, they shared their notes.

John looked at his watch and was surprised to see it was almost 9:00 pm. He had to admit to himself that he had a stimulating afternoon but he was getting hungry. He noticed he was standing on a scatter rug, and furthermore, he didn’t even care.

© Harry Buschman 2006

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