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The Work of a Master

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I'm sitting in my office one afternoon when a young man I've never seen there pokes his head in the doorway. He's wearing Bermuda shorts, a black-and-white T-shirt promoting somebody's band, has long brown hair tied behind his neck in a single tightly wound braid. The look is at once clean-cut and 90s-hip. He's carrying a large, flat cardboard box, big enough to hold six extra-large pizzas.

"Excuse me," he begins, soft-spoken and polite. "Can you tell me where ------ sits?"

Of course I can. She's in the office next to mine. (Her name's on the door, but I don't think of this fact until later.)

In two minutes he's back at my gate.

"She said I should see you." He enters my sanctum, unbidden. He's not delivering pizzas.

He has pictures. By famous artists. He says they were destined for a tenant on the building's first floor, but that when he arrived with the goods the buyer canceled the order.

"I can let you have any one you want for 80 percent off."

It's too late. I'm listening. I just repainted my apartment and the walls have been looking mighty bare. I'm always interested in bargains.

"They were $119. You can have them for $35 each. It's tax-deductible too, because it's for your office." He's smooth, as well as polite, a breathless talker. And OK, math's not my strong suit. I can't figure 80 percent off of 119 in my head and come up with 24. But I do know something about art.

"$119?" I almost laugh. "For that?" He is holding up a large weepy print of water and a tree that he says is a Monet. It's in a pale blond frame and wrapped in clear plastic.

"My boss charges $119 to hang it," he confides, his voice swimming with sincerity and something else: awe. Awe for this boss of his who's classy enough to get $119 for hanging pictures.

By now I know something is screwy, but there's a renegade inside that squelches the skeptic. Nothing too exciting usually happens in this office. I shuffle a lot of paper, then reshuffle it for the bosses. Here is excitement to trigger the adrenaline. He's turning my modular fishbowl into an open-air market. In full view of whoever might walk by--maybe even the president--he takes all the pictures out of the box and props them up against things: a chair, file cabinet, the plate-glass wall. The guy's chutzpah fascinates me.

There are a couple more Monets, dreary in their thrift-store incarnation, and a flowery O'Keeffe, also wilted. The one that catches my eye is a van Gogh. This was such an artist that even a cheap reproduction does him justice. I recognize the clipped, sure brush strokes in the watery, asymmetric lines of a gray gothic church set against a blue blue sky, and in the strong figure of a peasant woman ambling toward it.

"You know Monet's Water Lilies?" the guy asks.

"Yeah," I say. "I know it."

"I could have offered it to you, but I just sold my last one. Two women on another floor were fighting over it. One of them reached for it and broke a fingernail. It started to bleed on the picture. They both agreed then"--he smiles at me conspiratorially--"that the bleeder should get the picture."

"How could her fingernail bleed?" I ask with halfhearted doubt.

"Well, something was bleeding," he assures me, and I take another look at the van Gogh.

"Can you come down a little on the price?" I ask.

He doesn't miss a beat. "I can give you seven dollars off," he says. "You can have it for $32."

Even my math isn't that bad. "That's not seven dollars off of $35," I inform him.

"It's seven dollars off of $39," he informs me right back. "We used to charge $39."

This is all very confusing and happening too fast. But I write a check and he writes a receipt in less time than it takes building security to appear and escort him away.

"You mean you bought it?" comes the double entendre of the year from a coworker who arrives at my desk in security's wake. (Usually I'm as lonely in my office as the Maytag repairman. Suddenly it's like an el platform at rush hour.) "It's a scam," says my friend. "When I saw him with that box I called security. They drop those guys off and they work the building."

I knew that. Didn't I?

On some level I know mild-mannered guys with creative math skills don't just wander into office buildings with closeout specials on art. Then why do I suddenly feel exploited, violated almost, now that his visit is settling in around me? If the guy lied about some things, maybe everything's a crock. What if it isn't even a "real" fake van Gogh?

"It's not like he robbed you," my friend says consolingly after he's finished laughing. "It's just another way to make a buck. At least you got the picture."

But I don't like the picture anymore.

I stash it in a corner for two weeks before I work up an urge to hang it. It's definitely office art, I decide. I wouldn't want something purchased under those circumstances in my home.

It begins to grow on me again. I'm not crazy about the frame, which is gold and kind of spray-painted tacky. But I like looking up from my computer at the picture. I like its bold colors, its comforting depth, its hint of a great artist's soul. When I look at the picture now I can almost understand why I didn't hear the salesman's lies.

Not long after it goes up, my boss stops by my office.

"Oh," he says, impressed, "a van Gogh."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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