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Two T's in Watteau


Harry Buschman

"You see how the rectangular form stands in juxtaposition to the arching rays coming in from the left, Mrs. Wilmington?" There is no sign of life from Mrs. Wilmington -- she's gone slack and her eyes are unfocussed.

"I'm afraid I don't get it, Jaime. Point out the arching rays to me again."

"There, Mrs. Wilmington -- converging on the rec .... "

"I'm sorry, Jaime -- it's too much for me. Non-representational art is so .... so .... cerebral, even aloof. I suppose you'll think me a ninny, won't you dear .... but I'm looking for something I can put next to my Fragonard -- you know, the little Fragonard in my bedroom."

I've seen the damn Fragonard often enough, and if I were half the man I claim to be, I would probably tell Mrs. Wilmington what she could hang next to it. But I'm like all the other phony art dealers along Third Avenue.

My little gallery seems to be a magnet for women like Mrs. Wilmington, they know nothing about art but they know exactly what they want -- and what they want is often a little more than something to hang on the wall.

Mrs. Wilmington drops in every week or so, she knows my gallery well. She is not here to buy a picture in the first place, she's going to kidnap me and bring me home with her while her husband is in Dallas, Texas. I really have no choice .... it's a business. I'll hold off a bit -- pretend to be coy, but in the end I'll tag along .... and, when it's over I'll come back here, pick out something to hang next to the phony Fragonard I sold her and charge her ten times what it's worth.

I sold her the Fragonard a year or so ago. $25,000! Not bad for a painting that claims to be a Fragonard, but most certainly isn't. I found it on the wall of a French restaurant in Limoges. It is a canvas 12 by 18 inches as I remember -- of a troubadour in pink pantaloons playing a lute. It is very close to the style of Fragonard, so close in fact that it would fool anyone. The waiter sold it to me for the equivalent of $35 -- "But, monsieur," he insisted, "the frame will be extra." It was coated with kitchen grease, and that, I think, lends it a charm and an authority it would not otherwise have. I have a little Watteau, (it looks for all the world like a Watteau) in my back room, similar in size, it will be perfect with Mrs. Wilmington's Fragonard.

"I know you're busy Jaime, but .... er, perhaps you could find the time to look at the Fragonard. I could have brought it with me I suppose, but it would be better if you saw it in its setting." Wouldn't you think she'd change her routine from time to time? "It's in my bedroom you see -- well, our bedroom, Miles and mine actually -- it hangs on honey colored wall paper between the cerise drapes and the gilded dressing table."

"Yes, Mrs. Wilmington, I remember the bedroom well." I could tell she was working herself into a lather. Her cheeks were flushed and she was breathing erratically. I knew it was my turn to play my part in this crazy game of subterfuge with her. "The thing is, Mrs. Wilmington -- I don't know if I can get away. There's no one here in the gallery with me ..."

"Oh, Jaime, if you only would! It won't take long I promise. Kevin is waiting in the car, we can be there in fifteen minutes. He can drive you back. You won't be gone more than an hour or two I promise."

I will always be impressed with the Wilmington's apartment. It overlooks the UN building complex -- looks down on it in fact. The panorama of the Queensboro Bridge, the broad expanse of the East River and Roosevelt Island, then the almost infinite stretch of Long Island disappearing to the east is a sight that only money can buy. The Wilmington's are so far up in the clouds there's no noise from the street -- above the smog too -- closer to the sky than the ground. They are ordinarily outnumbered by their servants. They have a cook, a chauffeur and a maid, but other than the chauffeur, apparently everybody's got the day off, even Mr. Wilmington.

A masseuse comes on Wednesday to loosen up Mrs. Wilmington and a lawyer comes on Friday to tend to Mr. Wilmington's stock portfolio. A long way from Williamsburg, Jaime Laurindo, a hell of a long way from Williamsburg.

How well I remember The Laurindo's apartment in Williamsburg! I was the third oldest in a family of 12 children. There were two uncles, an aunt and a grandmother. There was no father. I can't remember ever wearing anything new. I can't remember ever sleeping alone or taking a bath without a brother or two in the tub with me. I was fully grown before I realized that privileged people -- people with money -- died of natural causes. Nevertheless, like all Colombians, we are a resilient race -- certainly more resilient here in the States than we are back home. The Laurindo's prospered in this country because of our extended family back home. We still have ties, indivisible ties, with our blood relatives in the picturesque poppy fields of the old country; although the business is a little too risky for my taste. On my mother's side alone we have lost Rolando and Esperanza. One to the law and the other to a drive by shooting.

Art is a far safer con game. I am not afraid to open my front door at night, and the only predators I know are women like Mrs. Wilmington. Wealthy women, I have discovered, are only interested in art and sex. Indivisible arts, and one seems to lead inevitably to the other. Both can be as addictive as cocaine. At least it seems to be this way with Mrs. Wilmington. To be able to point with pride to an old master on her bedroom wall gives her a visceral boost. The 'boost' is even more potent when she has seduced the man who sold it to her.

"I will never get enough of this view, Mrs. Wilmington, you're so fortunate to live up here in the clouds."

"It is lovely, isn't it Jaime. There -- I've said your name. Now please say mine -- you remember it don't you."


"There, that wasn't hard, was it? Would you like a brandy, Jaime?" She had already taken off her coat and now she was peeling off her gloves and taking the pins out of her hat.

"Yes, I'd love a brandy .... Lucille." Of course I would .... better done drunk than sober.

Down there, I reminded myself, thirty three floors below the terrace, Kevin the chauffeur was probably sitting in the Caddy with one eye on the door, waiting for me to finish -- acutely aware of what was going on upstairs, I suppose. He had been like an automaton on the short drive from the gallery to the Wilmington apartment -- just the back of his rather small head sitting on his bull neck, which in turn seemed to grow like a tree out of his enormous shoulders. As I accepted the brandy I wondered how often Mrs. Wilmington -- Lucille -- used Kevin when I wasn't available. A very ungentlemanly thought, no doubt, but then I have not been a gentleman for long. How can a Colombian from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn be a gentleman in the first place? Back in Colombia it is assumed that a woman who cheats on her husband with one man will cheat with all the men in town -- for this she is beaten black and blue. Such a Colombian woman would not have a Fragonard on her bedroom wall or a chauffeur waiting downstairs either -- in fact she would not have a downstairs.

"Come into the bedroom with me, Jaime. The Fragonard is rather close to my bed, you may have to stand between them to see it properly .... by all means bring your brandy." Like a hostage threatened with a beating, I obeyed -- bracing myself for the onslaught once she had trapped me between the beds.

Then the phone rang. "Oh, wouldn't you know it! The servants are out, Jaime, stay there -- don't move, I won't be a minute."

"Hello." She looked at me and rolled her eyes. "What is it Kevin? -- He is! -- Just now? -- Yes, I know, he hates to be kept waiting .... Mr. Laurindo? Oh, he can take a cab. -- Good bye, Kevin." She slammed the phone down and tossed off her brandy. Then she looked at me nervously. "Damn!" she said, -- "Miles is back -- Damn!! -- he's at Kennedy, he just called Kevin on the car phone -- that's that!"

She walked into the living room and picked up her coat, her hat and her gloves. Her hands were shaking. "This is very inconvenient, Jaime, you'll have to go. I'm sorry. Perhaps some other time. I'm afraid you'll have to find a cab back to the gallery. Kevin's gone to get Miles."

It was satisfying to see her so shaken. Her composure was gone, her rich bitch poise had melted away. She was actually afraid of being caught! I found it hard to keep from smiling as I got my coat. "Well," I said, "I think the little Watteau will fit in nicely, Mrs. Wilmington -- I had it appraised last November. 100k if I remember correctly. Will that be satisfactory? I'll let you know when it's ready .... "

"Yes, yes," She handed me my hat. "I'll call you, Jaime -- don't call me here."

There was a lightness in my step as I got off the elevator. Mrs. Wilmington had gotten her come-uppance! Caught in the act like a little girl with her hand in the cookie jar -- in the end she was no better than old Rosie Romero over on Bushwick Avenue, whose husband caught her with the butcher. They're all alike, I thought -- Don Juan was right after all.

I inhaled deeply of the cool afternoon air as I stepped into the street and almost straight into the arms of Kevin! He took my left arm and bent it behind me until the fingers of my hand were touching the back of my neck.

"This way Mr. Laurindo." I was blinded by the suddenness and the pain. Without losing his grip on my arm, he stepped around in front of me and opened the door of Mrs. Wilmington's Cadillac. "We have to talk, Mr. Laurindo." With that he shoved me inside, walked around to the driver's side and got in. He turned around to face me and his face broke into a smile, it was the first time I noticed his two lower front teeth were stainless steel and he wore a diamond in his left ear.

"Wouldn't be a good idea to run for it, Mr. Laurindo .... not in the shape you're in. We got stuff to talk about anyways. Best to get it over with here rather than havin' me come to see you later."

I leaned back still holding my arm. God! The strength of the man. He turned around again and started the car. I had noticed his bulk before, but now I could see the tightness of his jacket across his shoulders and the way his ham-like hands gripped the steering wheel.

"Okay back there, Mr. Laurindo? I'll drive you back to your shop -- give us a chance to talk."

My voice came out weak and whimpering, "Why aren't you going to the airport? Aren't you supposed to pick up Mr. Wilmington?"

"He's in Dallas. Won't be back 'til the end of the week - I thought'cha knew."

"But you told ...."

"I do what I'm s'posed to do, Mr. Laurindo. I take my orders from the man, not the woman -- kapeesh?"

"Mrs. Wilmington will be furious."

"Now ain't that a cryin' shame." He ventured a look back at me. "She'll thank me for it later, y'know? Nice lady and all that, but .... " We stopped for the light at 63rd Street and he turned to look at me again. "She's got a lot to lose -- and from the look of you, not much to gain. Do y'get my drift?"

"Well, we'll just see about that." My arm was feeling a little better -- good enough for me to feel mad all over again.

"You don't know me, do you Mr. Laurindo. Follow the fights much do'ya? No I s'pose not. Never heard of Kevin Sweeney, I s'pose?" He doubled up his fist and held it up so I could see it. "See that, Mr. Laurindo -- big around as a bowlin' ball. Just as hard too. Fought under the name of 'Sweeney The Sandman.' 37 victories 3 losses .... 35 ko's. Mr. Wilmington's a great fight fan."

We pulled up to the door of the gallery. It was dusk and the timer had turned the lights on inside. In the picture window facing the street there was a large non-representational work by Katzman. It's a very impressive piece -- never fails to stop people in the street. Kevin got out of the car, ignored me completely and walked up to the window with his eyes glued to the painting. He seemed to have forgotten me completely, so I got out and reached in my pocket for my key.

I was wrong, he wasn't finished. He turned to me and said, "Hey Laurindo!" (the 'Mr.' was gone) "This how you make your livin'? .... sellin' this shit?"

I ignored him and unlocked the door, then I disabled the security system. Kevin walked over and held the door open.

"Before we say good night, Laurindo, let me refresh your memory, okay?"

This business was getting every bit as risky as the family cocaine connection. "Look, Kevin, I've had enough for one day, okay? Go back and tell Mrs. Wilmington what a hunk you are. You and her crummy husband are welcome to her .... and tell her for me my Watteau is not for sale."

It was a kind of whistling in the dark outburst on my part. It gave me a lot of satisfaction to have the last word, even if it was given just as I slammed and locked the door with the 'Sandman' outside. The last words I heard him say was, "Y'know you gotta a dirty mouth, Laurindo." He cupped his face in his hands and peered in the window. Seeing me standing there, he doubled up his right fist once again and shook it slowly, threateningly, and with a glittering, gleeful malevolence in his pig like eyes. Then he turned slowly and walked back to the Cadillac.

My palms were sweaty, I felt feverish and there was a needling twitchiness in me that I couldn't put my finger on. I walked into the framing room, lit the lights and looked for the Watteau. I found it leaning against the wall hidden by a half dozen other paintings of questionable parenthood. Under the light it looked phony, I could see details that would give it away to a practiced eye, but on the whole it would fool people like the Wilmingtons. I was quite proud of the signature, it was done in the same floral style as the rest of the painting, W-A-T-E-A-U. .... "Wait a minute, weren't there two t's in Watteau?" Somebody would have noticed that, and it didn't take much imagination to predict what Mr. Wilmington might do if somebody did. A law suit and ten years in the pen would be the least he might do! More likely he would unleash 'the Sandman.' Ten years in the pen would be a piece of cake compared to the bowling ball fists of Kevin Sweeney.

I had scarcely exhaled a sigh of relief when I inhaled a gasp of terror thinking of the Fragonard she already owned -- the $25,000 fake Fragonard. I remembered signing it, did I use two "g"s or one -- I couldn't remember.

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