Baron twirled a hammer in his hand and stood in front of the plywood crate, studying first the word FRAGILE stamped in red all over the top and sides, then the sender’s name.
Tan Guy, he said. Tan Guy? Do I know a Tan Guy? he asked his secretary. Are y’all pulling my leg? The secretary held back a nervous chuckle and instead shrugged, for she had no idea what the crate was or what could possibly be buried in it, which isn’t to say she hadn’t wondered, just that, when confronted with such a shape, not much else comes to mind.
The screech of the hammer pulling the nails out of the top cover of the crate made the secretary’s eyebrows curl. Baron said, Well I’ll be. He thought he’d gotten them all, only to find the top wouldn’t come off and that there were yet more. This happened two more times.
The panels or boards or whatever he would come to call them were stacked one on top of another with thick layers of burlap between them, and they were so tightly packed that the crate must have been built around them and to the exact dimensions of the eight boards, he thought. No wiggle room. He carefully removed the nails from the two sides and top and bottom until all four were splayed around the stack of black and grey boards. A tongue-looking shape with wing-looking things seemed to lick at his one good eyeball from the board at the top of the pile, and he finally understood the joke was on him.
He left the coffin of boards where they lay, exhausted from the trip, and told his secretary he was leaving. It hadn’t been an hour since he’d arrived, but his rear end was still numb, he said, from the long journey home by train. She told her to find what’s his name, the janitor, and with her help the two of them should take extra care to unpack the boards, be gentle now, and have the janitor put the hinges on. He’d deal with where the thing should go in the morning.
Three weeks earlier, Baron had been standing in the middle of a New York City ballroom looking around with his one good eye while his lungs were acting up again. He smelled like tar, like he was long extinct, but the chatters all around him didn’t seem to notice or care. He had an arm crossed over his chest and his hand rested between two buttons inside his vest, flush against the bottom of his rib cage. Warmth and comfort to the cavernous rasp that’d been hurting him these last few days. City air. Yankee air. One of those pocket watches with a gold chain may have been involved. Its own little slit in the vest. He coughed with his mouth closed and took a sip of whiskey, neat, to wash the cough all the way back down.
He nodded in agreement with the bespectacled man who was talking at him, but he had no idea what the man was carrying on about. His good eye batted this way, that way, all around the room, while his body remained turned to his interlocutor, who kept droning on without noticing. He heard numbers spill out of the man’s mouth and saw that the man’s hand was fidgeting with something in his right pants pocket. Through the clouds of smoke that hovered between and above all the cliquey prattle around the room, Baron could make out a screen, or some sort of painting, or what the hell was it, which zig-zagged on its hinges in the middle of the stage where nothing or no one else stood.
The chandelier they stood under reflected in the man’s glasses like the slick of stars. Baron cut him off in the middle of a string of numbers, dates, names, and asked him, pointing with his nose and glass in hand, now just what is that over there.
The man made eye contact with him, his lips slit apart mid-sentence like they’d been slashed, and looked at both his good eye and his bad, the former green, the latter almost gray, and the look on his face suggested he just now noticed something wasn’t quite right with this fellow before him. He pivoted and the two men stood at a right angle looking across the room at the eight boards hinged together across the room. It was hard to make out the shapes, little blobs of color, on the black and gray boards from across the room and in the haze. One thought of the desert at night and the creaking inside his lungs, the other thought of names, dates, numbers. The man turned, looking for Baron’s good eye, to tell him he wasn’t sure, but he could introduce him to the man who could, and now Baron saw the golden shine of the chandelier streaking through the man’s slicked, black hair.
Pointing across the room with his glass, which had a faint peel of lemon sticking out the rim like an ear lobe, the man directed Baron’s gaze to where the bar stood and impeccable black suits soaked up the light from cocktail dresses of various colors, as well as diamonds, pearls, hair clips, heels, all the chandeliers. The colors blended together in his good eye and he saw a desert sunset, which made him think of home, which reminded him of his lung-ache. He grabbed at his side but covered it up by making it appear to be a stretch to see what the man was pointing to. The artist, the man said, you see him belly up to the bar. You’ll find him there all night, or until he can no longer stand up on his own two legs. Baron scrunched his eye to try to make out the figure in question. I heard he eats spiders as a party trick, the man added. Legs and all, right down the hatch. Baron looked down at his glass and saw that it was empty, and he walked toward the bar without another word to the man.
I can see the money in your eyes, the artist said, and all the z sounds in such a short sentence told Baron that he was talking to a Frenchman, no two ways about it.
He smiled at the artist and thought all he could see in his was the vast network of bloodshot veins, the myriad paths one takes to end up a tortured soul, he thought. Well, I can only see you through one, he said, extending a hand and pointing to the glaring dead eye with the other. Roy Baron, pleasure to know you.
In return the artist jutted out a hand and let out a string of sounds that Baron couldn’t register as amounting to any particular name or word he knew.
The artist said it again and this time Baron just nodded, half-smiled, and said, Can I get you a drink?
The Frenchman looked down at Baron’s empty glass and nodded, both men turning toward the bar.
Baron ordered another whiskey and the artist told the barkeep he’d also like a whiskey, and the way whiskey came from the artist’s lips made Baron look down at his glass only to find that he didn’t quite want it in the same way anymore. The artist raised his glass to Baron and said some word that sounded like saint, but Baron wasn’t an idiot and could tell it meant to clink their glasses.
What brings you here? the artist asked him, and this he understood.
A smile cut across his face and he said, I could ask you the same thing.
The artist ran a hand through his already-frazzled hair and looked too hard at Baron, who’d confirmed by now there was no way this man wasn’t the deranged soul capable of creating that—that, that— on the stage.
Business, I assume, the artist added, and Baron nodded, taking another sip.
Indeed. And you?
I told you I saw the money in your eyes, the artist said, flashing a smile that ate his whole face. I know the host, or hostess, he said, and his eyebrows remained arched way up with the lingering of the last syllable’s inflection. She helped me to get my first show here in America. A small show in a small gallery.
How he said gallery.
The artist gulleted the rest of his glass and smiled at Baron to fill the gap in their conversation. His teeth were yellowed and tobacco-tarred, jagged shapes you’d find in a cave. Stalagmites hold tight to ceiling, stalactites might . . . Baron didn’t like the way he looked at him. He knew the artist already knew he had a buyer before him, which took most of the fun out of the deal for Baron.
And where are you from, Monsieur Baron?
Your thing over there, Baron started to say, lost in thought and looking over the crowd and up at the stage at it before coming back to the question. New Mexico, little town called Carlsbad forever away from here, he said.
Carlsbad, the artist repeated, seeming to test out the sound.
Carlsbad, Baron said, looking back at the artist. Look, Mister . . . I’m intrigued by your picture, your painting, the thing you have on the stage there.
Baron felt stupid for not knowing how to present himself in front of the artist, but then felt even more stupid for allowing a Frenchman to make him feel such a way.
It’s a screen, the artist said, tapping the heavy glass on the bar as a sign.
Baron felt a cough flaring up and tipped his glass back to wash the cough back down again, then raised his arm with the empty glass in it so the barkeep could see. Held up two fingers. The soreness of his lungs pulled his arm back down. A screen, Baron said, somewhere between a declaration and a question.
A screen, the artist said, you know, a folding screen, and he first put his hands up to his face, opened them and closed them in front of his nose. Some sort of peek-a-boo. And then he lowered his hands, put them together, pulled them apart, playing some invisible accordion, Baron thought, and he danced a few steps of the polka until the barkeep slid their drinks toward them.
Cheers, Baron said.
Saint, Baron heard the artist exclaim again, and Baron thought he saw everyone around the bar looking at the two of them, a line of light—smiles and teeth, the whites of eyes and the twinkling jewelry, the frazzled light from the chandelier charging it all with orange and yellow turned mustard-gassy tobacco haze— spreading all around him like the sunrise after the end of the world, or was it more like the sun setting on the end of the world, he wondered.
Does it belong to somebody? Baron asked. The artist’s face scrunched up like he didn’t understand English.
Belong to? No one, it’s simply there, art cannot be-long to any man, he said, laughing into the upturned glass as he beaked it and took a swill. Baron looked at him and hoped he wouldn’t pull out a spider for a snack.
Well, what would you say if I said I want it to belong to me, Baron said, standing up straight now and looking at those crazed eyes, whose gaze bounced between his eye, the bar, something or someone over his shoulder, and back at him.
Ah, your eye, the color is so green, the artist said.
By the time he’d returned to Carlsbad three weeks later, having secured twenty-year contracts for all potash mining production at both sites he set out for, one in North Carolina, the other in New Brunswick, having stopped in New York City between the two for yet another meeting and, of course, for the ball held by the daughter of the North Carolina company’s owner, Baron had completely forgotten about the reasonable, to his estimation, sum he’d forked over for the painting, and indeed he’d forgotten all about the painting, having basked instead in the visions of his future earnings and coming to control more than a third of all potash production on the continent. He’d stepped into his office and found a large plywood crate, longer than it was wide or deep, resting like a stood-up coffin at an angle against the wall. His secretary took his hat, his brief case, his overcoat and charcoal blazer, until she resembled a walking coat rack and shuffled carefully toward the closet. Unclipping his cuff links and rolling up his sleeves, he asked her to bring a hammer, which she did promptly and without a word as to why. He carefully leaned the top of the crate off the wall, surprised by its weight, and pivoted it so he could set it down on the floor. The secretary leaned against the doorframe to watch the action.
Knock-knock, the secretary said the next morning while also knocking with a ringed finger on the half- opened door, and she entered before he could say come in. Scanned the room. Baron had moved the couch, bar cabinet, and two chairs all to one wall, the clutter of which made the secretary flinch and grimace a bit but unnoticed by him. Along the long wall and blocking the large window, facing his desk like a view who’d ever want to look out on, stretched the folding screen. The secretary looked at it and had the reflex, at first, to look at her watch. It turned the room dark. The two of them looked at it, their eyes focused on different parts and different panels, but both of them kept sweeping across it, from one end to another, until their eyes met. The secretary opened her mouth as if to say something, but Baron cut her off and asked if she liked it. She pursed her lips, looked at it again, and her head tilted toward her shoulder.
Well, I don’t know if like would be the first word I’d use, she said. She gripped the clipboard held against her chest.
Me neither, Baron said, but here it is.
He’d gotten hardly any sleep the night before. When he’d left the office, he stopped by the liquor store. The bell above the door jangled and Ole Bill craned his neck around the cigarette carousel on the counter.
Evening, Baron said into the empty store on entering. Is it already? he asked.
Might as well be, Baron added.
Well I’ll be.
Ole Bill looked out the window slit, from which the light, still bright yellow, stared in. What can I do you for, said Ole Bill.
I might’ve been a gone a while, but nothing’s changed.
Some things never do, Ole Bill said and slid a pint of Four Roses across the counter.
And how’re you? Baron asked.
Oh, fair to Midland, I guess. Same ole. Same and old.
I hear you.
Baron slid exact change back toward him and nodded, then picked up the bottle and tilted it toward him in goodbye.
By 8:30 the only light on in the house was the lamp on the end table next to his chair. He had the La- Z-Boy up lest the darkness lick his toes. The house was silent as a cave but for the radio sneaking down the hall from the kitchen counter. He didn’t know what the program was tonight or why he’d turned it on. The bottle was nearly empty and his glass didn’t have a drop. He thought of his wife, and this being a Monday evening, he looked over at her recliner, which matched his except barely broken in and still a pristine white, not the tan or beige or whatever his had become, and he remembered how on Monday evenings when they’d get up and head to bed at about this time, his eyes would follow her robed body as it bobbed across the carpet and toward the bedroom, and he’d take comfort in seeing how the back of her head was flat, her bulbous perm pressed by the chair’s headrest and nearly a week’s passing since she’d last been to the salon the Tuesday prior. Those flattened curls scrunched against her scalp, strange to say and he’d never admit, were his favorite part of the week. Something comforting in its plainness that never changed, never bargained, never bought, never sold. The ad that had sealed the deal for them had shown a mother and daughter trying to get the father out of his chair, above which hung, to the left, a framed sign that read HOME SWEET HOME and, to the right, a cat licking his whiskers inside a bird cage. Everyone was laughing, including the wife and daughter that Baron wouldn’t be able to keep alive, and in his recollection of the image, the ad copy seemed to come out of the girl’s mouth: “Just can’t PRY him out of his La-Z-Boy!” He kept drinking.
He got up and followed his ears’ cringing toward the bouncy sounds of a banjo coming from the radio. The aural manifestation of his coming hangover, he thought, though perhaps not in these words. He left the glass and empty bottle on the counter and in the same movement of his arm flicked the radio off. The clock on the wall struck 9:30 as he shut off the light. His feet led him through the dark hall and to his bed, where the sheet’s cold stung through his pajamas.
He lay there, seeing in his one good eye not the back of his eyelid but the painting, the folding screen, as though projected on the wall across his bedroom. Or maybe he saw it in his bad one. The light from the streetlight cut through the curtains and made a line of light across the wall, under which it was so dark he couldn’t even make out the chest in the middle of the floor when he squinted hard. He saw what he could recall seeing in the painting: the flames curling out of the refineries’ pipes at night, way out there, and the horse-heads of the rigs bobbing for apples underground, and the nocturnal critters’ eyes, their world’s-end yellow and red, ghosting across the expanse of dirt and brush. He saw no stars and no sleep, just the shapes of sleep, mineral shapes of rock-hard sleep and jello-like dreams wriggling from one corner to the other. He saw the artist’s electric eyes reflecting the green of his own eye, and he dug deep into the night to try to see something else, to see his plans for the potash mines, to see anything else at all.
The next few weeks shook with union-backed strikes, which would continue, it must be said, to rattle the town over the next decade like a string of minor earthquakes relieving mounting pressure, a hiss punctuating the air amid the stomps and protests, until the potash mining industry would begin to collapse (the rise of the global market, coinciding with cheaper labor abroad and lower import taxes, coupled with the local unions driving wages higher with each contract, meant foreign competitors could compete with Baron’s grip on the potash that would provide Americans with household goods from lawn fertilizer to Borax). Baron, of course, didn’t know that, could only see with his one good eye what was in front of him, which was more than enough to deal with. The strikes started small, a few whispers between bites of Wonderbread sandwiches, men huddled together on break or hunched-over on their rickety chairs and upturned buckets at lunch. The first demonstrations took place outside the gates of the mines with picket signs made out of fence posts and cardboard, which, of course, didn’t cause Baron or the other higher-ups to lose any sleep. They’ll get hungry. They then moved into town and lined up along the Main Street corridor in front of the county courthouse and facing Canal Street’s morning-rush traffic, which wasn’t so much a stampede as it was a grazing herd (and still is, for that matter, although locals continue to complain about how it used to only take fifteen minutes to get from one end of town to the next, but now, now that everything’s different, it takes more like thirty or more). Then they exchanged the makeshift picket signs for tire-irons, bats, or anything else heavy enough to to intimidate the higher-ups, law enforcement, scabs, and cowardly workers who’d given in or backed out. The newspaper reported on cars set ablaze in the streets, hospitalized scabs, how the sound of shattered windows and glass crunching underfoot had become regular as the cricketing of crickets. Clearly an exaggeration, Baron thought.
Meanwhile, the folding screen rested where Baron had first displayed it, right up along the wall in his office. He saw it all day long, he saw it as he lay unable to sleep, and on the rare nights when sleep did come, he saw it in his dreams. If it was, in fact, a landscape painting, he thought, this Tan Guy must be some sort of prophet, as the boards lined up with what was soon to be, he feared, the view from his window. It was barely 1954 and it had all already started to end.
The mayor went from calling, first thing in the morning at the office or late at night from home, to coming by. When his own house and family were finally at risk, he burst into Baron’s office one afternoon, which didn’t surprise Baron, as he heard him enter the front lobby of the headquarters and ask his secretary, without waiting for her answer, He in there?
His skin had taken on the color of a worn-out DuPont dish sponge, his eyes were bloodshot, and his voice creaked as he pleaded with the industry to do something, whatever needed to be done, to save the town from being burnt to smithereens. They’re hungry, the mayor said, standing over Baron with his hands resting fist-down on Baron’s desk. Lord knows what a desperate man will do, the mayor said. His white knuckles were glaring at him.
Baron clinched his jaws and the corners of his face flexed a few times under his ears. You mean you or them, Baron said, and before the mayor could respond, he added, Take a load off now, Jay. He leaned back and his chair squeaked. The mayor remained standing.
All due respect, Baron, but have you lost sight in your one good eye, too? Have you seen what the hell is going on out there? He was pointing toward the window but then realized he was, of course, pointing to the screen that blocked it. He did a double-take and stumbled on his next syllables. Or do you, or do you just choose what to see, shut and open your good eye when it suits you?
I hear—and see—your concern, Jay, but let’s just simmer down, now.
The mayor took his hands off the edge of the desk and fell into the chair behind him. I apologize, he said, it’s just, they’re outside of my house, I fear for my family, I hear their boots crunching the gravel in my driveway when I sleep.
Two weeks later, the strikes were resolved, which is to say, they were, as always happens, dealt with via short- term thinking, nearsightedness that allows workers to eat for another day, another month, maybe a year or two, but which keeps them betting against their own best interests in the long run. The workers went back to work. Besides, this story is hardly about money and far more about the ability to discern between different shades of black in the world and in one’s own memory of the world. Certain starless nights, the cup of coffee in your hands when your past burns into your throat and down into your chest and just sits there, the color behind your eyelids when you lay awake in the middle of the night, ashamed of what you’ve done or haven’t done, said or never did.
In the fall of the following year, on a day no more or less significant than any other for Baron, his office phone rang and the secretary answered. It was a certain Mr. Tangy, as his secretary pronounced it, on hold to speak with him.
Oeil Vert, how are you?
Oliver? I’m afraid you have the wrong number, mister.
No, no. Mr. Oeil Vert, Mr. Green Eye, it’s me, Yves Tanguy, the artist from New York. Have you burned my painting yet?
Oh. Your painting, the screen. I see. Yes. I mean, no, I didn’t burn the damned thing, I’m sitting here looking at it. How the hell are ya, Mr. Tangy?
Very well, very well. You see, I am calling because, well, I have another one, very similar.
Similar. A replica, you mean?
No, no, replica, no. They are part of the same, how do you say, circle. Cycle. Cycle of works. They be-long together.
Well I can’t even figure out if I like the one I got, Tangy.
Like, who mentioned like?
Look, can you quit beating around the bush? I’m up to my ears in work here.
Monsieur Green Eye, the point is that two is, as they say, better than one.
You mean value.
Value, yes. Money. Value. Mm-hmm.
I am telling you now because I am coming, very soon, to the Southwest, to visit a friend, an artist in Sedona, and I would be very happy to bring the piece with me, and stop to see you in Carlsbad along the way. My wife and I have purchased a brand-new pick-up for the voyage.
Why do you have to say pick-up like it’s some kind of flower, Baron thought.
Well, what are we talking here?
Numbers, Tangy, numbers. Uhn, dew, twah, a cat sank.
Oh, you didn’t tell me you speak le frances, Oiel Vert.
I don’t, and can you stop calling me Oliver? That’s not my name.
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