The art show in the café above the bookstore needed a curator. There was not a lot of money, and the job was more an internship than a real job, but Otto thought that after a year or so, he could put it on his CV and get a job somewhere else doing something better. Taking on the gallery space above the bookstore would also allow him to stay in the Midwest for another year or so, which at the time was important to him because it was cheaper than the alternative—moving to Brooklyn with his boyfriend, a black short story writer who had recently turned his abusive rural childhood into a slim, elegant novel that white people were desperate to read. The boyfriend was flush in cash but anxious about the coming transformation of his life, and Otto wasn’t sure if he had the emotional bandwidth to handle that. His own career prospects were limited. There were no curator jobs in New York City, though there were many galleries and many shows. What you had to do in New York was be born into any of the art families that ruled it, or else do your grunt work, scrape on your belly up through all of the interlocking internships at MoMA or the Guggenheim or the Met, or any of those warehouse galleries down in Brooklyn, or participate in interactive shows in Tribeca. Or know someone who knew someone who knew someone. But Otto was from Seattle. He didn’t know anyone, except for the people from the MFA program in the Midwest, so he said yes to the bookstore job, and he didn’t move to Brooklyn, and three months in, his boyfriend said that it wasn’t working.
The café gallery job mostly entailed answering emails from local artists and clicking through digital slideshows of their work. The artists were dentists and farmers and high school physics teachers and poets out of work. They were sculptors and calligraphers and photographers and acrylicists and ceramicists. None of the work was very good, but that seemed beside the point somehow. After all, no one whose work was good asked to display it in a cafe where people sat hunched over their laptops and notebooks trying to pass organic chemistry or anatomy or whatever. Sometimes, Otto wondered why there was a gallery space in the cafe to begin with. It would have been easier to hang benign prints purchased from Pier 1 or some other home goods store. Something beige with black streaks, vaguely impressionistic. Thinking about the bad art that could have replaced the bad art he was hired to curate, Otto felt something stir, and his old self, the self who painted and thought about painting, lifted in him, and it was like blood returning to a limb that had fallen asleep. But anyway, Otto clicked and emailed and made arrangements to see samples, and he drove out to the suburbs, to the dim and creaky houses that people inhabited, to their damp and cold garages, and he clucked his tongue when he saw how bad people were about preserving their work.
It was a bad habit of his, assuming that other people could sense their own amateurism and feel shame for it. Not everyone wanted to be great. Some people were born with the capacity to want nothing, to be free of great ambition. These people were born with their capabilities matching their imagination for themselves, and so their lives were peaceful, not full of yawning gaps, great chasms of possibility. But still, he sometimes said to them as their neighbors came home in the falling dusk, “Your paintings won’t survive the winter. You need archival quality framing. And climate-controlled storage.”
One woman lived in a house on the edge of a big field next to the highway on the way to Cedar Rapids. He drove over the long, gravel driveway, his car shaking as the wheels struck divots and potholes that had been left by the snow and the rain. To his right, there was a wall of pale, shivering trees that scattered the slanting light of early evening. His car smelled like old cigarettes, left by his boyfriend who had recently appeared on a popular podcast to talk about his novel. Otto clenched the wheel, squinting down through the windshield in case a dog appeared suddenly. He had almost hit the pet of one of the artists in a much more trim and pretty suburb. But here he drove out to the house and its accompanying set of white sheds that faced the slope downward to the road.
The woman greeted him on the porch, shaking his hand and saying, “Thank you so much for coming.”
She smelled like fabric softener, like Downy, and he could hear the roar of some machine in the back of the house, which he now saw was a trailer that had been fitted with siding and made to look like a house. Underneath them, the floor felt thin and flexible, like it would give if he made any sharp or sudden changes to his weight distribution, and so he stayed very still while she talked to him about the art he had come to see.
“It’s really my mom’s, you know. She left it when she died.”
“And it’s a painting, you mentioned?”
“Yeah, by some homosexual from around here. I don’t know much about him.”
Otto nodded, but the way she said homosexual made him acutely aware of the cross hanging above the blue, floral sofa and the pictures of Jesus looking forlorn hanging above a chair near the door. There were other prints, too, but to call them prints was a bit insulting because they were the mass-produced portraits of Jesus and the Apostles that one found in Wal-Mart and Big Lots, the kinds of paintings his grandmother had put up in her own home and that Otto had grown up with. Here they were again, like encountering a relative far from home after many years.
The woman watched him look at her pictures of Jesus and Matthew and Luke. She watched him take inventory of the cross and the bible that lay open on the kitchen table. There was a light burning in the living room. Everything else was dim with coming dusk light, and Otto could only make out the vague shapes of her kitchen furniture.
“I mean, I don’t have nothing against them kind of people, you know. It’s nothing like that. They just as friendly as anybody far as I can say.”
Otto hummed and wondered if he had given himself away, but then, she probably thought that everyone who dealt in art was gay. He shrugged and said, “I’d like to see the painting, if you don’t mind.”
“Sure, sure,” she said. “You want something to drink?”
“No thank you,” he said.
She took him back onto the porch and then around the long front of the house. They went to one of the nearby sheds whose broad, white doors were secured with a chain and lock. She walked with a slight limp, and when they reached the shed, she was breathing harder, in shallow, gasping breaths. Otto almost said that she didn’t need to put herself out for him, that if it was an inconvenience he could come back another time. It felt rude somehow, watching her exert herself for something that was ultimately unimportant. Because Otto didn’t expect that he would take what was behind the shed doors. He didn’t anticipate that there would be anything of use to him or the café gallery. Anything that had been left in someone’s old shed through the cold and the damp, through summer and winter, for who knew how many years, was certainly degraded.
But she persisted and undid the lock with a key from her house coat. It was cool, trending toward cold in the later part of the fall, and the grass was scabbed with ice and snow from a sudden and swift snow shower earlier in the week. On the highway at the base of the hill, the lights were beautiful as they swam against the current of dark. On the other side of the road, in a field of amber grass, were a bank and a dialysis center, and further still, a crescent of dark trees sickling along the river. Otto thought of homesteaders, pioneers. He thought of farms. He thought of the Native Americans who had lived here long before white people had come. He thought of the way the land turned over through the generations handed off and sometimes violently snapped away—the long, perniciously violent game of tag and capture the castle that was settlement. She got the shed door open, and she pulled on a light once or twice, hard, and it came on.
The light was soft, and it seemed to struggle against the dusty dark. Hardly anything was illuminated. Just the shadowy shapes of old furniture, some tools, what looked like a bunch of wooden rectangles stacked together against a far wall. The shed smelled like grease and dirt. Like filth. She stepped into the narrow band of light cast by the bulb, breathing hard, and she made her way in a series of shuffling steps to the wall where the rectangles lay together. He saw that they were headboards and folded chairs and picture frames. She shuffled them like flicking through posters at a mall, and Otto repressed a hum of displeasure.
They were standing in all of the stuff of her life for which she had no immediate use, he thought. She kept muttering things to herself. Not this one. No. No. Not that. Refusals, and the wood clacked and scraped across the floor as she moved the pieces back and forth. She landed at last on a thin, mid-sized frame and extracted it.
“Here it is,” she said, and rotated the frame around so that he could see it. The light was a little fuller by then, but still dim, still inadequate, so he took out his phone and turned on the light and pointed the beam at the painting. It was a landscape, a depiction of what might have been the fields across the highway, except hills rose and fell in the painting, designated by different shades of paint. Varying degrees of green and yellow. Set front to back like waves. And on top of each of the hills, a little house. It seemed to move, the churn of the land. It was flat, a little surreal in its intensity. Something like Grant Wood or Andrew Wyeth in sensibility and style—pastoral and Gothic, in a way that made it feel a little cliché to see it now.
“Do you know who the artist is?” Otto asked.
“No. Like I said. Some homosexual. My mom left this when she died. If you give me fifty dollars, you can have it.”
Otto squinted and said, “It doesn’t really work that way. I mean, we would display it in our gallery. And some people could buy it that way. You know. But we don’t usually buy it ourselves, it’s not like that.”
“You don’t buy art? People pay good money for it. What do you mean?”
“No, yes. Art is bought, handed off, you know. Stuff like that. But this is a small gallery in a café—”
“You live in the city, don’t you? In the university. They have money there. Why can’t you buy it?”
Otto put his phone away and squared his shoulders. The woman clutched at the top of the frame. But her expression was not malicious. It was not angry. She looked perplexed but firm. It was a fair enough question, he thought. But he had already told her the answer. It was merely that he was too far inside of one world, and she too far inside of another, to make themselves understood by each other.
“If you want, I can maybe arrange to have it looked at by someone in the art department. Someone who knows more than I do. And then, maybe I can try to help you find someone to get it off your hands,” he said. “But without documentation, without provenance, it’s hard in these cases. This could just be a knock off, a print.”
The woman’s face hardened, and she drew up tall among all of her trash. She said, “I am not a liar.”
“That wasn’t my intention, ma’am.”
“A knockoff. This is real. It’s right here, ain’t it?”