Authors: Cat Porter
“Just a woman in love, posing for her adoring husband.”
My heart flipped in my chest. I turned to him and held his soft gaze. “Exactly,” I whispered.
“You’re zinging, aren’t you?” Butler said, his warmth at my side, his hand touching my back, his breath hot against my face.
“I feel like I’m intruding on them or something,” Butler said.
“Me, too,” I murmured, skimming through the hundreds of photos. “These are vintage gelatin silver prints. Shit, they’re gorgeous.”
Astrid had posed for her husband, and he had made her his queen. These were their fantasies, their intimacy, their tender, private world. Their unconventional delight. Gerhard had known what the hell he was doing.
“There’s something almost naive about them but sophisticated at the same time, right?”
I blinked at Butler. “Totally.”
A thousand volts of yes coursed through me. An orgasmic-like surge. A mix of enchantment, enthrallment. I was transfixed, and I was experiencing it with Butler in a ramshackle, dirty old farmhouse in the hinterland of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was glad he was here with me; I was so grateful to share this with someone.
“You’re good at this,” I breathed.
A slight smile touched his lips, the blue of his eyes positively aquamarine in this light. “Going with my gut never steered me wrong. The trick is to listen to it though, right, Scarlett?”
“Pick what you want, and I’ll bring them out.”
I took all the photographs and handed them to Butler.
He stacked them and wiped the dust from his hands. “This is not your typical living room, is it?”
I followed his gaze.
A raised platform, slumped with age, stood against one wall. Wildly colored floral fabrics were piled in heaps on it along with a number of boxes and wood crates. Furniture filled the center of the space in front of the platform. A threadbare red chaise longue was draped in a tattered satiny chartreuse coverlet. A curvy cushioned armchair in a mustard-yellow fabric stood next to it along with a number of sofas and stools and chairs of all shapes and sizes. Small and large handmade pillows with gold and silver stitching and brightly colored scarves lay bunched on the floor. I spotted several military trumpets and ornately painted ceramic bowls. One was filled with a heap of faux jewelry, and another was filled with glass and metal Christmas ornaments.
That beloved tingle of tension curled up my throat. My brain flashed with the possibilities. I could see Gerhard and Astrid moving about the space. I could see—
“You okay?” Butler’s warm hand squeezed my arm, and the sensation brought me back to earth.
“This was their theater,” I replied.
“What do you mean?”
I pointed to the yellow armchair. “He had her posing on this chair in one of the prints. Recognize the curve of the arms? And the backdrops?”
“You’re right. Look, there’s that tapestry with the big pink flowers he used in one of the photographs. I’ll bet every single piece is in those photos. The bowls, the trumpets. Stage props.”
I took out my cell phone and snapped photos of every angle of the room and the stage with close-ups of the props. A glint of brass peeked out from under the fringed bedspread, lit by my camera flash, and I leaned under the chaise and drew it out. My breath caught. The crown Astrid wore in the photos. The piece of hand-cut brass was heavy in my hands. The metal was engraved with swirls, and the faux black stone in its center was still intact.
“Jesus, you found her crown?”
I only nodded. I couldn’t speak. The buzz inside me was overwhelming every sense, every flake of logic I possessed. Sheer clarity washed over me, vitalizing every cell in my body.
“Here, I’ll take it.”
I handed Butler the crown, and he took it and put it on my head.
He studied me, a grin spreading over his lips, and my face heated. “It suits you, Scarlett. Hmm. This is exciting, huh?”
Warmth spiked through my body. My veins sang with an indescribable sparkling sweetness I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Under the intensity of Butler’s rapt gaze, I savored it now.
“Yes.” I licked my lips as I carefully took off the crown and handed it back to him. “Very exciting.”
I piled all the gelatin prints together and went over to the hand-painted ceramic bowls and the jewelry—long faux pearl necklaces and dangling beaded earrings, some of which I recognized from the photos. I sorted through the fragile glass Christmas balls in a variety of colors.
“Take these, too. I’ll just bet he made those bowls himself.”
“I think you’re right. Check this out.” Butler took my flashlight and pointed it to the far wall where he illuminated rows of brightly painted ceramic masks of gargoyles and clown-like faces trimmed with botanical motifs.
I chose four, and Butler reached up and took them down for me. I stacked them on the worn cushion of the armchair.
The strum of guitar strings in the thick silence made me look up. Butler had a guitar in his hands. His head was bent at an angle. He was listening as he plucked the strings, and they popped, snapped, and bent to his gentle will. The strains of his melody resonated in the lifeless dank space, hanging in the air.
His eyes flickered up at me. He’d been in a trance, listening on all kinds of levels. “Huh? Yeah.” His teeth dragged along his bottom lip, his gaze returning to the guitar.
“That was beautiful. You play really well.”
“I haven’t touched a guitar in years. A lot of years.” The lines of his face were taut as he studied the guitar, holding it up to catch the dusty shafts of light, inspecting it from top to bottom with the flashlight. “Needs cleaning, of course. New strings, but the body is in good shape. I can’t say I know what it’s worth or what kind of wood it is, but it feels…right. There’s a label here, but it’s worn off.”
“I think we’ve seen that before in one of Astrid’s fairy-tale portraits.”
“Yeah, the serenading mermaid shot,” he said. “Do you want it?”
“I do, yes.”
“Here’s the case.”
He lifted up its case and packed the guitar inside. I put the guitar against the chair.
“What the hell is this?” His voice rose from the furthest corner of the room.
I could barely make out his outline in the shadows.
“Over here.” His hand stretched out toward me, and I took it. He pulled me in close, and that scent of man infiltrated my senses, distracting me.
“What the fuck?” He moved the light of the flashlight.
Lining an oddly decoupaged bookcase along the wall was a row of miniature creepy homemade furniture that could have been used in a Viking dollhouse. Ghoulish, grotesque, primitive medieval thrones made of—
“Chicken bones?” said Butler.
I leaned forward, picking one up. “Yes!”
A few were painted in deep hues of blue, red, and orange. On others, the paint had faded considerably. But they were all majestic, crazy gems made of common, ugly components.
“I have to have these,” I whispered.
His hand pressed into my shoulder. “I saw some milk crates by the door. We can stash ’em in there.”
Butler returned with two large dairy crates.
“Oh my gosh.”
“What is it?”
Behind the thrones were a number of tiny skulls.
“Look at these,” I said.
“Bird skulls.” He leaned in close to me and took one in his hand, shining the light from the small flashlight. “This one’s a hummingbird.”
I touched it with my fingertip. “So strange, isn’t it? A hummingbird is such a sweet, joyful creature, yet there’s something harsh and scary about this skull.”
“Always is when you’re looking at skulls and bones, Tania.”
A shiver raced up my neck at his remark. A shiver that reminded me of the life he led.
“Still beautiful though,” he said.
Butler carefully placed the small skulls in his large palm. “This is a hawk skull. This one’s a falcon, and this is a crow.”
“They’re incredible. So delicate. How do you know this stuff?”
“My dad was a hunter and a hiker. I used to tag along.”
We lined the crates with the colorful shawls and coverlets, and we carefully placed the furniture pieces in there along with miniature towers that I found on another shelf. I didn’t have to tell Butler what to do. He handled all the material with care.
I added the photographs to another crate as well as small paintings Gerhard had made by swirling fat brushes, his own fingers, and objects through paint on pieces of Masonite. Each image was a bright detonation of color in deep space or a glowing underwater abyss.
“Every piece is a variation on the same image of an explosion, huh?” Butler remarked. “I bet he was obsessed with the H-bomb testing going on back then. I know my granddad was. Shit, those are wild colors. Like some sort of glow-in-the-dark octopus. This guy…baker by day and bizarre artist behind closed doors.”
“It’s called outsider art.”
“He wasn’t classically trained and worked outside the mainstream art world. He was obsessed with creating and worked with whatever material was available to him, often dabbling in unusual, unconventional subjects and elaborate fantasy worlds.”
“He was good.”
“Very, very good. I wonder if he ever sold anything in his lifetime. So imaginative. Really unique.”
“Maybe he wasn’t interested in selling. Maybe this was his and his wife’s personal thing. Their world.”
My eyes slid to his.
“How’s it going in there?” shouted out Dave from the open doorway.
“I think we’re done!” I said.
“Let me take this stuff outside, and we can have a better look at what you’ve got,” muttered Butler.
“Dave? Could I take a peek into the barn, you think?” I asked.
“Sure, sure,” he replied.
Another hour went by with Butler and I sifting through the barn, which was filled with old farm machinery and tools, tattered magazines, and bakery equipment. Butler looked for any motorcycle parts but came up empty-handed. He pulled out an old iron bubble gum dispenser, and my eyes widened at the sight.
“Thought as much.” He brushed past me, holding the heavy piece. “You need to see something.” He pointed to a mass of rusty bicycles stacked against a wall.
He pulled the second one out from the pile. “This one here is a Victory. Victory was one of the first bicycle companies in America. Has the original nameplate, clamp brake system, and pedals. Even the saddle looks original. You’ve got to take it, Tan.”
His eyes beamed at me, his look intent. Butler was buzzing.
I bit down on a smile. “Okay.”
“Hold it while I bring the gum machine outside.”
“Don’t be a hard-ass with the prices, and let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I rolled my eyes. “What are you talking about? I might like a bargain, but I know a good opportunity when I see it.”
“Okay, but don’t be too hardcore about it.”
“Stand back and learn, my friend.”
Butler let out a laugh as he set the gumball machine on the ground by the crates. He came back and got the bike, and I followed him outside.
Dave and I bartered on prices, and I managed to quickly bundle several pieces, offering him a special price on those items, putting on my geez-you’re-making-this-hard-on-me-have-some-pity face. I dazzled him with my willingness to compromise and my respect for the pieces, pointing out wear and tear to my benefit and knocking down his prices when I could. Butler agreed with my assessments and didn’t interrupt, only making the appropriate faces as Dave kept glancing at him. Fortunately, Dave was eager to sell, and we quickly reached a mutually happy medium.
Butler packed my Yukon with our spoils.
Dave and I shook hands.
“Thank you for the opportunity, Dave. I really appreciate it.”
“Sure thing. Glad it worked out.” He tipped his hat at Butler. “You enjoy all that junk now.”
“Oh, I will.” He waved Dave off as the man headed for his truck.
Butler turned to me, shaking his head.
“What? Why do you look so damn smug? Did I miss something?” I asked.
“I’m not being smug, Scarlett. I’m admiring.”
A rush of heat flared inside me, and I shifted my weight.
“You doing the math in your head now?” he asked.
I smoothed my hair back. “Actually, no. I’m thinking this sort of find might be art gallery-worthy.”
“And you got here first.”
“Let’s get the fuck out of here then before Davey changes his mind.”
I touched his arm. “I’m so glad we got to see it the way we did. Untouched, virginal.”
“Yeah, me, too. We pretty much got to see what they had seen, give or take a few decades of dust and decay.”
“Thank you for coming with me, for—” I threw my arms around him and hugged him. I savored the fragrance of ash and soap and sweaty man. I held on to him and inhaled.
Shit, what’s come over me?
“I’m glad I came,” he murmured. His hand bunched in my hair, tugging, and my pulse quickened. He let me go, and I stumbled back.
Butler opened my car door for me, and I settled into the driver’s seat.
“Thanks,” I said. I started the engine and lowered my window.
Butler leaned in. “We’re going back to Meager together, okay?”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
“You can’t wait to get home and open your goodies, huh?”
“Something like that.”