The Fake
Uptown Girl
Sydney’s house looked like something from movies.
First off, she had an actual house, not an apartment or condo like everyone else in New York. It didn’t look terribly impressive from the front—it was old and the paint was distressed and it seemed to be squished between the houses on either side, but one step inside confirmed her parents had serious money.
The floors were marble and the ceilings boasted beautiful mahogany beams decorated with carved leaves and flowers. Real art covered the walls, including a gorgeous Matisse over the entry hall table.
“Um,” I choked. “Should I take off my shoes?”
Sydney laughed, “Only if you want your feet to freeze.”
My newly pedicured toes shivered a bit, even burrowed in my tennis shoes and wool socks. It was cold in here.
She opened a little closet and pulled out two gray sweaters and handed me one. “Mom read somewhere that if you keep your house at sixty five degrees year-round you’ll burn an extra two hundred calories a day.” She rolled her eyes.
I laughed and followed Sydney down a hallway and up some stairs to the second floor. She led me down another hallway until we stopped in front of bright little room with an easel and a bunch of white canvases stacked up against the wall.
“I know it’s not very impressive.” Sydney said scowling. “Mom said I could use it for my art until we could renovate the old nursery on the third floor. Of course that was before I realized I suck at art.”
I smiled. “I’m sure you’re great. And this room is perfect. I’d love to have a studio of my own.”
Sydney pulled out a couple of her canvases, and grimaced apologetically. The first was an oil still life featuring a bowl of apples, and the other was an acrylic landscape.
“These are good,” I said, trying to put Sydney at ease.
“Really?” she said, hesitantly.
I nodded. They weren’t exactly good, but they had some nice things about them, and we could focus on those. Criticism was the quickest way to devastate a budding artist.
Besides, Sydney had introduced me to her friends and we’d all spent an hour getting our feet rubbed and toenails painted—my first real hour of fun since we got to New York. Helping her with art was really the least I could do to repay her kindness.
I pointed to sections of the canvas and complimented her use of color on the apples and the pretty brushstroke she’d used in some of the grass in the landscape.
Over the next two hours I worked with her on her next assignment, a still life of colored glass bottles. I taught her a little about composition and showed her how to balance the composition with light and dark and how to use angles to draw in the viewer.
I was careful to let her do her own work and avoided even touching a brush, afraid I might feel compelled to fix and finish for her, just like I had for Dad. Even when she asked if I could show her how to add shadow at the base of some trees, I declined and talked her through doing it herself instead. Her teacher would see her work, and her work only.
By the end of our two-hour session the painting was nearly done. Sydney dabbed a bit of cerulean blue into the skyline. It was too bright, but I didn’t tell her that.
She talked about her mom’s art collection and explained that she was a huge fan of Dad and had always loved his landscapes best.
“They’re my favorite too,” I said, grinning.
“Whatever happened to that one—you know—the famous one that he won’t sell? The Garden or something like that?”
“Garden Valley,” I whispered.
“Why doesn’t he want to sell it?” she asked, as she mixed burnt sienna with cadmium green on her palette making a gross looking brown. “It’s worth an absolute fortune right?”
It was.
“He’s probably just a smart business man. The longer it stays unreleased the more it will be worth, right?”
I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable.
Sydney must have noticed it wasn’t a topic I liked because she changed the subject to some TV show I’d never seen.
Just after Mom left, Dad took me on a painting adventure to a tiny town south of us. He set up his easel and I set up mine and we painted for hours. I knew the divorce had hurt him as much as it had hurt me, but we didn’t talk about it. We just painted, getting lost in color and movement and mountain air.
I finished my painting first. I’d done it in Van Gogh style impressionism, with thick blobs of paint swirling around each other in bright circles. Dad said it was the best thing I’d ever done and asked if he could keep it forever.
He painted past dark that night, with only the moon to light his canvas. I spent hours watching his brush flick tiny shadows and highlights on each leaf and every twig until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I fell asleep rolled up in a blanket on the meadow grass.
I woke the next morning when the sun peeked over the mountains. When my eyes opened and adjusted to the light I was surprised to see Dad still at the canvas, putting on the finishing touches.
I knew instantly that this was the best thing he’d ever done and possibly the best thing he’d ever do. The composition was brilliant—light and shadow were arranged in perfect harmony to pull the viewer into the scene. The detail was incredibly crisp and full, but somehow it didn’t feel like the photorealism of Dad’s other work. It felt almost otherworldly. The mood was somber, with a gray green sky suggesting a storm rolling in, but just beyond the mountains was a haze of light.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whispered.
Dad turned and blinked, finally coming out of whatever reverie he’d been caught up in for the last eighteen hours. He smiled a small, tired smile and sat next to me on the blanket.
“Do you really like it?” he asked, leaning back on his hands.
“It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” I said earnestly.
“Then it’s yours.”
My eyes got wide. I’d once asked Mom why we didn’t have any of Dad’s paintings in the house. She said it was because they were worth too much and it wouldn’t be safe to keep them in a country home without a fancy security system. That seemed true because every time he sent a shipment the gallery sent an insurance appraiser to value the collection so it would be covered should something happen between our house and New York.
“You can’t give me a painting,” I said. “They’re too valuable to have at the house and this one must be more valuable than most.”
“Do you like it?” he asked.
I nodded. “I love it. So much.”
“Then you need to keep it.”
Overall the afternoon with Sydney had been a great success. We’d talked and laughed and she finished a reasonably decent painting. When I said good-bye I was sorry to leave.
I decided to walk the eight blocks home since it was still light outside and I hadn’t seen much of the city yet. I passed boutiques and tiny grocery stores, restaurants and apartment buildings until I finally arrived back at our building.
I asked the man at the door if my dad had been out yet today. He said he hadn’t, but he’d had Chinese food brought in for lunch.
“So he probably hasn’t picked up the mail yet, right? I asked, glad to hear the telltale signs that Dad was “in the zone.” Take out always meant he was so focused he couldn’t even be bothered to make a sandwich.
I walked over to the mailbox and pulled out a small pile of letters. Most were fan mail and requests for interviews, but there was also a letter from a friend back home.
“Your father also had a package delivered just an hour ago. I can help you up with it if you’d like me to.”
He pulled a large flat box from behind the desk and I grinned. No dents, no tears. It weathered the trip well, even if it had taken a little longer than I’d hoped.
“I can handle it myself. Thanks. ” I tucked it under my arm and carried it to the elevator.
I’d asked Dad if it might be better not to bring it with us. No one knew that it was at our house in Idaho and it might have been safer just to leave it that way. But he wouldn’t hear of it. It was my painting and it needed to be with me in our new place.
We’d packed up the one I’d done for him with the stuff we moved in the truck. I’d noticed it when we came back from pizza our first night here, hung right over the couch like a centerpiece for our new home.
His was a different story. He’d never insured it, like the rest of his paintings because he reasoned that money wouldn’t make up for it’s loss anyway, so the safest way to have it was just to keep its location secret. He knew movers might talk, even if he didn’t let them unpack it. He didn’t want a cover story about how George Foster brought “Garden Valley” to New York creating speculation about when it might go up for auction.
So instead we came up with a plan for me ship it to our new apartment, so that no one would realize it was here.
As soon as I got inside I cut the tape that kept the box secure, pulled out the a massive rectangle of bubble wrap, and unwound it all until at last the painting was visible. I breathed a huge sigh of relief to see that it was just as it was before, undamaged and perfect. The slice of home I missed most.
I lifted it from the box and carried it to my room, slipping it onto a nail above my headboard.
“It looks right there, doesn’t it?” Dad said, leaning into my door. “Makes this place feel like home.”
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