Small Town

Page 4



Was it safe to let him in? He was black, and that automatically triggered a mental alarm, she couldn’t help it, she was white and that was how she reacted. She sized him up at a glance and noted his short hair, his regular features, his skin tone that suggested a Caucasian grandparent or great-grandparent. He was clean-shaven, his jeans had been ironed, his sneakers were tied.

None of this meant anything—you could be neatly dressed and nice-looking and white in the bargain, with your fucking arm in a cast yet, and turn out to be Ted Bundy—but he looked all right, he really did, and he was carrying an envelope, just an ordinary six-by-nine manila clasp envelope, and she didn’t see how he could tuck a knife or a gun into it.

Marilyn Fairchild, who’d found her the perfect co-op at London Towers, high ceilings and casement windows and an attended lobby and she could even walk to work, Marilyn Fairchild had let someone into her apartment, someone who hadn’t needed a knife or a gun, and now she was dead and—

He was probably a messenger, she thought, but he didn’t look like a messenger. He seemed too purposeful, somehow.

She buzzed him in, and when the attorney came on the line she said, “Hold on a sec, Maury. Someone at the door.” To the young man she said, “How may I help you?”

“Are you Miss Pomerance?” When she nodded he said, “I have these pictures, and Mr. Andriani said you might look at them.”

“David Andriani?”

“That has the gallery on Fifty-seventh Street?” He smiled, showing perfect teeth. “He said you might be interested.”

“You’re an artist?”

He shook his head. “My uncle.”

“Have a seat,” she said. “Or have a look around, if you like. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

She picked up the phone. “Sorry,” she said. “Maury, I got something in the mail the other day. They want me to report Monday morning for jury duty.”

“So?”

“So how do I get out of it?”

“You don’t,” he said. “You’ve already postponed it twice, if I remember correctly.”

“Can’t I postpone it again?”

“No.”

“Why the hell not? And why can’t I get out of it altogether? I have my own business to run, for God’s sake. What happens to this place if I get stuck in a courtroom?”

“You’re right,” he said. “Three days in the Criminal Courts Building and the Susan Pomerance Gallery would go right down the tubes, triggering a stock-market crash that would make Black Tuesday look like—”

“Very funny. I don’t see why I have to do this.”

“Everybody has to.”

“I thought if you were the sole proprietor of a business—”

“They changed the rules, sweetie. It used to be very different.

Loopholes all over the place. There was even a joke going around for years, like how would you like your fate to be in the hands of twelve people who weren’t bright enough to get out of jury duty?”

“That’s my point. I ought to be bright enough to—”

“But they changed the rules,” he went on, “and now everybody has to serve. Lawyers, ex-cops, everybody. Rudy got called a couple of years ago, if you’ll recall, and he was the mayor, and he served just like everybody else.”

“I bet he could have gotten out of it if he’d wanted to.”

“I think you’re probably right, and that’ll be an option for you when you’re elected mayor, but for the time being—”

“I’m supposed to go to the Hamptons next week.”

“Now that’s different,” he said.

She grinned in spite of herself. “I’m serious,” she said. “Can’t you do something? Tell him I’m blind or I’ve got agoraphobia?”

“I like that last,” he said. “You’ve got a fear of empty spaces, all right. On other people’s walls. Do you have the letter they sent you?”

“Well, I wouldn’t throw it out, would I?”

“You might, but I meant do you have it handy.”

“It’s somewhere,” she said. “Hold on a minute. Here it is. You want me to fax it to you?”

“That’s exactly what I want.”

“Coming at you,” she said, and rang off, then found his card in her Rolodex and carried it and the offending letter to the fax machine. She sent the fax, and while it made its magical way across town she looked over at the young man, who was standing in front of a painting by Aleesha MacReady, an elderly woman who lived in rural West Virginia and painted formal oil portraits of biblical figures, all of them somehow looking as though they were undergoing torture, but didn’t really mind.

“That’s Moses,” she said. “That’s the golden calf in the bul-rushes. She puts in a batch of props that don’t necessarily go together, but all relate to the person portrayed. She’s self-taught, of course. I suppose that’s true of your uncle?”

“My mom’s uncle,” he said. “My great-uncle. Emory Allgood, that’s his name. And he never had lessons.”

She nodded at the envelope. “You have slides?” He opened the envelope, handed her a color print that looked to have been run off a computer. It showed an assemblage, an abstract sculpture fashioned from bits of junk. You couldn’t tell the scale of the thing, and the printing was bad, and you were seeing it from only one angle, but she felt the power of the piece all the same, the raw kinetic energy of it.

And something else, something that gave her a little frisson, a pinging sensation, almost, in the center of her chest.

“Is this the only—”

He shook his head, drew out a disk. “A friend of mine has this digital camera. He only printed out the one picture, but he said if you has, if you have a computer . . .”

She did, at the desk in her office, and she popped in the disk and went through the images, almost two dozen of them, and before she was halfway through the pinging had become a bell pealing in her chest, resonating throughout her whole being.

She said, “Tell me his name again.”

“Emory Allgood.”

“And you are . . .”

“His great-nephew. My mom’s mom, my gran, was his sister.”

“I meant your name.”

“Oh, didn’t I say? I’m sorry. It’s Reginald Barron.”

“Do they call you Reginald or Reggie?”

“Mostly Reginald.”

If you has, if you have a computer. Just the slightest stress on have. He was careful to speak correctly, but care was required. She found it charming.

“Reginald,” she said, and looked at him. He was several inches taller than she was, say an inch or so over six feet. Slender but well muscled, with broad shoulders, and muscles in his arms that stretched the sleeves of his red polo shirt. She kept her eyes away from his crotch, but couldn’t stop her mind from going there.

She said, “Tell me about your uncle. When did he start making art?”

“About five years ago. No, that’s not exactly right. Five years ago he stopped paying much mind to people, and then a year or so after that he started making these things.”

“First he withdrew.”

“He stopped answering,” he said. “Took less and less notice of people. He’d be staring, and there wouldn’t be anything there for him to stare at.”

“I understand.”

“What I think, he was going inside.”

“Yes.”

“And he’d go in the street like a junk picker and come home with all this trash, and my mom was worried, like he’d have to, you know, go away or something, but it turned out he was bringing all this shit—”

He winced, and she was touched. Gently she said, “I’ve heard the word before, Reginald.”

“Well.”

“I may even have said it once or twice.”

“Well, what I was saying. He was bringing these things home for a reason, to use them in what he was making. But we didn’t know that until one day he showed my mom what he was working on, and that made it better. The junk-picking and all.”

“Because he had a reason.”

“Right, and so it wasn’t so crazy.”

“Did he talk about his work?”

“He, uh, pretty much stopped talking. I don’t know what you’d call him, if he’s crazy or what. He’s not scary, except the way any old man’s scary who keeps to himself and doesn’t say nothing, anything, and just stares off into space. But he never makes trouble or disturbs anybody, and there’s people who know what he does and bring him things, empty spools of thread and bottle caps and pieces of wire and, well, you seen, saw, the kind of things he uses.”

“Yes.”

“So this man on the next block said there’s people who pay attention to this type of art, and I got some pictures taken, and I went around different people until somebody sent me to Mr.

Andriani, and he said you were the person to come see.”

“And here you are.”

He nodded.

She said, “They call it outsider art, Reginald, because it’s produced by artists who are outside the mainstream, generally self-taught, and often entirely unaware of the art world. But it seems to me you could just as easily call it insider art. You were just looking at Aleesha MacReady’s painting of Moses. Could any work of art be more internal than hers? She’s communicating a wholly private vision. It’s outside as far as the New York art scene is concerned, but it comes from deep inside of Aleesha MacReady.”

“And my uncle’s work’s like that?”

“Very much so.” She walked around him, careful not to touch him, but passing close enough so that she fancied she could feel his body heat. “I don’t know much about Aleesha,” she went on.

“I’ve never met her, she’s never come to New York. I’d be surprised if she’s ever been out of West Virginia. But I gather she’s quite normal in her day-to-day life. When she picks up a paintbrush, though, she accesses whatever it is we see in her paintings.” She moved to stand in front of another work, painted in Day-Glo colors on a Masonite panel that had been primed in black.

Like all the artist’s work, it showed a monster—this one was rather dragonlike—devouring a child.

“Jeffcoate Walker,” she said. “Nice, huh? How’d you like this hanging on your living room wall?”

“Uh . . .”

“Of course you wouldn’t. His work’s impossible to live with, and my guess is that he creates it so he won’t have to live with it inside him. But it’s only a guess, because Mr. Walker’s been institutional-ized for the past thirty-some years. I believe the diagnosis is some form of schizophrenia, and it’s severe enough to keep him permanently locked up.”

“My uncle’s nowhere near that bad.”

“What he has in common with both of these artists, and with just about everyone whose work I show, is an internal vision, a very personal vision, along with the ability to communicate that vision. I find that very exciting.”