The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (8 page)

BOOK: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
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Amedeo looked at the waffle iron for a long time. He examined the oil drippings that had congealed like amber down its sides. Without saying a word, he went to the sink and wet a wad of paper towel. With it he rubbed enough grime from the top to make a small convex reflecting mirror. He said, “Maybe they will just put it on a tabletop and display it like a piece of Art Deco sculpture.”

William laughed. “What do you know about Art Deco?”

Amedeo immediately answered, “The Chrysler Building in New York is Art Deco.”

William coiled the last foot of the electric cord and pulled the plug through one of the loops, plunked it onto the countertop, and demanded, “What else?”

“I know that Art Deco was the style between World War I and World War II.”

“How do you know all that?”

Amedeo said, “My dad is an artist. I know a lot about art. Jake—my dad—he mostly paints nudes, so I know that a nude is not the same thing as naked. Jake—my
dad—has a lot of friends who are artists, and my godfather, Peter Vanderwaal, is an art director. I've definitely been to more art exhibits than most kids my age have been to movies.”

William crossed his arms across his chest and said, “You have twenty-four seconds to list all the other talents you have.”

Amedeo said, “Well, to start: I am a city child and a child of divorce.”

“Seventeen seconds.”

“My mother is an executive.”

“Fourteen.”

“I know what ASAP and
per diem
mean, and I know how to eat an artichoke.”

William laughed out loud.

“Knowing how to eat an artichoke is definitely a skill not to be laughed at. When entertaining clients at a fine restaurant that may not be listed—even in small type in the Yellow Pages—you sometimes have to eat an artichoke, and if you are there with my executive mother, you better know how to get to the heart of an artichoke . . .”

“Or?”

“Or . . . you don't want to know.”

“I do. I do want to know. Or what?”

“Or you better order collard greens.”

“Nothing wrong with collard greens.”

“Wouldn't know. Never had them.”

“City child,” William said and reached into his pocket, took out two china markers, and offered one to Amedeo. Amedeo took it as he would a baton in a relay.

T
HE FLIGHT TO
S
HEBOYGAN WAS
short and bumpy. Peter hardly knew if the pilot ever turned off the seat belt sign. As soon as he was buckled in and his briefcase stashed beneath the seat in front of him and the gray box securely placed in the overhead bin, he fell into a short, noisy, disordered sleep. Peter either snorted or snored through the announcement that they had reached cruising altitude and passengers were free to move about the cabin. He didn't care. He was too tired to move. He had a dim sense that the flight attendant had come by, but he would not have lifted his head had she been bringing champagne, caviar, and toast points instead of juice and pretzels. Peter missed the airline peanuts. He hated that they had switched to pretzels—peanuts optional. He stirred when he heard the wheeze of the wheels unlock, but he did not fully awaken until he heard, “Please return your seats to their full upright and locked positions.”
Peter had nothing to return. His seat as well as his reading glasses had been
full upright and locked
for the whole ride.

He left the plane and was halfway down the concourse before he remembered that he had checked his bag because he had carried on the gray box. He retraced his steps and waited at baggage claim. Like every other part of this journey, the wait was endless.

Peter Vanderwaal did not own a car and did not drive. He found a pay phone and called a taxi. He waited on the curb by Ground Transportation, so tired his toenails ached.

When he got to his apartment, he dropped his briefcase by his desk, wheeled his suitcase to the foot of his bed, and put the gray box in the corner of the closet in his spare room. He would break a lifelong habit and wait until morning to unpack. He showered and got into bed. He set the alarm for early the next morning.

He was up before the alarm went off and immediately unpacked. And then as soon as he dropped the lid on the hamper holding his soiled clothes, he shaved, dressed, and left for his office.

He would say later that as he slit the first envelope in the waiting mail, the fatigue and the pain of the past week consolidated into a neutrino that bounced around inside
his head, firing up every circuit. The envelope contained the list of the thirty works of Modern art that had been selected for Sheboygan for the exhibition that he, Peter Vanderwaal, had been responsible for bringing to town. (Applause! Applause!)

Like most students of art history, Peter Vanderwaal knew some of the sad, twisted history of Modern art under Hitler's Third Reich, but he had never concentrated on it until he took a trip to San Francisco to see a collection called Degenerate “Art.”

Peter had been fascinated by the art he saw there. He saw paintings by van Gogh and Renoir, and sculpture by Picasso. He saw drawings by Matisse. Some of the works were famous enough to have a place in the history of Modern art, but all of the works—
every
one of them—was famous because it had a place in political history as well, for every piece of art in the San Francisco exhibit of Degenerate art had once been stolen by an official member of a government.

The government was Nazi, the country was Germany, and the year was 1937, the year when Adolf Hitler erased the line between politics and art.

That was the summer when Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, appointed a committee and gave it
the authority to confiscate (read:
steal
) all those works of Modern art that it (read:
Hitler
) did not find acceptable. The committee stole over sixteen thousand works.

Six hundred and fifty of those stolen works were exhibited in an old warehouse in Munich in a show called
Entartete “Kunst.”
Entartete means “degenerate,” and Kunst means “art”; the quotation marks around the word “art” were deliberate. The purpose of the Degenerate “Art” exhibit in Munich was to educate the German people about the evils of Modern art.

The Degenerate art in San Francisco that Peter saw was a collection of one hundred and fifty of the original six hundred and fifty works that had been displayed in Germany in 1937, and it was that exhibit that opened Peter's eyes to how a dictator can condemn something that is new and different simply by labeling it evil.

The exhibit of Degenerate art traveled from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington, D.C. Record numbers attended, and everywhere it went, it raised the same questions: What gives a government the right to steal art? Who gives a government the right to dictate what people are permitted to like? How did it happen? Could it happen again? Should taste be a matter for a government to decide?

The original sponsors of the Degenerate “Art” exhibit wanted the dialogue to continue, so they made arrangements to divide up the hundred and fifty works into five sets of thirty and to send one set to each of five regional art centers throughout the country. People who did not have ready access to a major museum would then have an opportunity to see works of Modern art that changed the course of art and politics.

The regional art centers were to be chosen competitively.

Peter would later say that he had little hope of success when he wrote the application for Sheboygan.

When he got word that his art center had been chosen, Peter felt as if he had won the the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the Powerball lottery. He was hailed as a town hero. (Thank you. Thank you very much.)

And now, on the very day he was back at work, he opened the envelope that told him that works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, and other major, major artists would be coming to town. (Applause! Applause!)

W
HEN SHE HAD TO LIQUIDATE
a large estate such as Mrs. Zender's, Mrs. Wilcox took pictures of every room—in whole and in parts—before she disassembled it. She did this to account for everything in her sale and to help make her lists. Most often Mrs. Wilcox's clients were heirs to the place she was liquidating and other than the profit to be made from the objects sold, the heirs had no interest in the pictures she took.

But Mrs. Zender was different. Except for her frequent visits to the refrigerator and her occasional joining in the conversation between William and Amedeo, Mrs. Zender had no interest in the kitchen. But she insisted on being in every one of the
before
pictures in each of the other rooms.

Amedeo and William were often called upon to help with the
mise-en-scènes.

Preparations for the dining room photos were elaborate.

Mrs. Zender selected an ostentatious array of china, crystal, and silver, all of which Amedeo and William were required to wash and polish. She carefully arranged them at one end of the long dining room table. Dressed in a haze of mauve chiffon and ropes of pearls and wearing—despite the heat—a plumed satin toque, she lifted a champagne flute in a toast to the empty Chippendale chair to her right. She then lip-synched the words of the drinking song from
La Traviata,
which was coming over her sound system. While Mrs. Wilcox patiently focused her camera, Mrs. Zender engaged in a long, hilarious conversation with the empty chair to her right and requested that Mrs. Wilcox keep her camera focused on her, not the empty chair.

Amedeo watched, fascinated. When they returned to their work, he said, “Mrs. Zender definitely loves having her picture taken.”

“Maybe,” William said. “Or maybe she just likes being center stage.”

“I thought Mrs. Zender's whole career was center stage.”

“The newspaper always referred to her as
our local diva,
but she mostly sang boys and bitches.”

“Pardon me,” Amedeo said, “but did you say
boys
and
bitches?

Amedeo had never before heard William Wilcox swear. His grammar sometimes slipped, and he sometimes used the
A
word,
ain't,
but his grammar, his shrugs, his silences were the personality equivalent of Mrs. Zender's unkempt grounds: There was no need to prove anything to anyone. He never used the
S
word or the
F
word. Not even a
damn
or
hell.

“Yeah. Boys and bitches. That's what mezzo-sopranos sing. Aida Lily Tull was a mezzo-soprano. She sang boys and bitches.”

“Excuse me, but did you just say
bitches
again?”

“I did,” William replied. “Mezzo-sopranos have voices that are lower than regular sopranos, so they are given parts like Carmen in the opera
Carmen.
She's a bitch. Or sometimes mezzo-sopranos sing the parts of boys. When girls sing those boys' parts, they call them
breeches roles.
Like in one Mozart opera called
The Marriage of Figaro,
there is a part for a boy called Cherubino, which is always sung by a mezzo-soprano woman dressed up as a boy in Italian, even though Mozart was a Austrian.”

“Why did Mrs. Zender stop singing?”

William shrugged. Not a one-shoulder shrug to his angel, but a two-shoulder I-don't-know kind.

“Come on. You must know. Or should I ask your mother?”

“Ma won't tell you. If she's got a client, she won't gossip about that client.”

“It can't be that terrible.”

“It ain't, but Ma thinks telling is.” William lowered his head and rubbed his forehead. When he looked up, he said, “Ma thinks gossiping about a person gives a part of that person away.”

Amedeo said, “I think you always give a piece of yourself away when you make a friend.”

“But it's yours to give. Mrs. Zender is a client.”

“But I think she wants to be a friend, too.”

BOOK: The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World
8.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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