Mr. Andrews used to let me sit in the brown leather armchair next to his desk in the back of his antique shop and pore over his provenances while he typed. About seventy, tall, thin, he always wore khaki pants, a pressed Oxford shirt, and a cardigan in a fatherly color like burgundy or olive. He’d opened his shop not long before my folks closed theirs, but I didn’t get to know him until after they’d died. Having been raised among old things, I found the sight and smell of antiques soothing, and the wet spring after my mother died, I was drawn to wander the shops on South Elm, talking to the dealers who’d known her and my father when they were healthy and funny and sexy and bright.
The antique dealers on South Elm were a motley guild—bickering couples, hoarders hemmed in by piles of mouse-infested junk, empty nesters who consoled themselves with arranging dried flowers and lovingly polishing the furniture with beeswax. Like family, they gossiped and fell out from time to time, but they also warned each other about shoplifters and check bouncers. When one of their number sickened, they helped out; when one died, they awaited the auction with gloomy anticipation. The auction is the antique dealer’s real funeral—your life’s choices are held up one by one and submitted to judgment, like deeds recited to Saint Peter.
Mr. Andrews, unfailingly polite, never asked me when I was going to get around to selling my parents’ belongings, and soon his was the only shop I visited on Saturday mornings. I found charming his wavy silver hair and long patrician fingers, spatulate at the tips from years at the piano. A retiree—he never said from what—and a widower—her name was Martha—he taught piano as a means of supplementing his income. Around eleven, our conversation would be interrupted by a child clutching sheet music, and though Mr. Andrews welcomed me to look around until the lesson was finished, I could never bear the strained, halting sound of a person learning to play (myself included, years ago), and I always left.
The furniture in his shop was the mish-mash you find so many places: Victorian chairs in chewed velvet or threadbare needlepoint, Edwardian chests of drawers with buckled veneer, loose-jointed pine tables, country washstands shedding paint. My mother had been an expert on furniture, but because we didn’t often like the same things, I’ve always doubted my own taste and felt safer admiring smalls. At Mr. Andrews’s place, every surface was covered with smalls: porcelain figurines, glassware, silver spoons, inlaid wooden boxes, cloisonné lamps, stoneware jars, and iron kitchen implements.
Nearby shops carried similar items in the same profusion. What distinguished Mr. Andrews’s stock was how he labeled it. While other dealers slapped on a price sticker (Imari plate, $150), Mr. Andrews typed up a detailed provenance for each item.
The paper was delicious, as buttery in the hands as good pastry in the mouth: ivory cotton linen, 24 lb., with a crown watermark. Elegantly printed at the top was the shop’s name; underneath, in smaller letters: Jeremiah Andrews, Proprietor. The typing was rotten—page-long, single-spaced paragraphs with errors xxed out and capitals P, B, and W staggering toward the line above or below—but you understood when you saw his ancient Royal. It was the sort of heavy, black, delightfully clackety typewriter you see in photos of modernist writers. I was amazed how fast he could get along on it. Once I asked to try, and it was murder getting the keys to go down.
For the most important objects, he filled manila file folders with photocopied pictures of similar items, along with articles from the Smithsonian or the New York Times, maps and census records, even genealogies. But the stories themselves were what appealed to me.
How, for example, he’d driven down a country lane one Sunday afternoon and spied three wild dogs drinking rainwater from a basin in the weedy grass. He’d stopped, pulled a pistol from under his seat (a detail hard to reconcile with his avuncular cardigans), gotten out, and fired a shot to scatter the dogs. The basin turned out to be the top section of a baptismal font, blackened with soot. The dogs paced at a distance; he fired again, and this time they ran off into the woods and didn’t return. After finding the font too heavy to lift, he’d wandered the country roads looking for the vandalized church from which it might have come, then stopped at a gas station to inquire among its grizzled habitués. He was interested in old churches, he said. Were there any nearby?
They knew of a Baptist church that practiced full submersion—”down by the Riverside,” a dunking and a hearty picnic, no font in sight—and a small Episcopal church that had burned in the last year. He’d followed their colorful directions to a rectangle of bare earth surrounded by high grass. The brick piers still stood at intervals, the wood frame they’d supported gone. Behind the scorched footprint, neglected graves were drowning by generations in the soft, heaving dirt. He recalled how he’d gone back to the gas station and hired two dubious-looking characters to come lift the font into the trunk of his car.
“You couldn’t have written to the diocese?” I asked. “Offered to return it?”
Hunting and pecking with his forefingers, he peered studiously over the black ribbon at his work. “I’m not a religious man, Miss Jones.” Always Miss Jones, not Adelia, and certainly never Delia, which nobody has called me since Daddy died. He used to sing to me, Delia girl how I loved you and I wish I could take your place, and Mama would look affronted and say, “I never would’ve named that child that if I’d known you were going to sing her that song all the time. You do know the Delia in that song is a prostitute? And the singer shot her?” Then Daddy would say, “You’re not a snob, honey, but you do a fine imitation of one.” And she’d bump him with her hip and say, “I just don’t think that’s a nice song to sing to a little girl, that’s all.”
Mr. Andrews cleaned the font, set it on a concrete pillar by the door, and filled it with candies. Whenever I reached for a butterscotch or peppermint, I recalled the dogs, the pistol, the country roads, the sinking graves. Like many things in the shop, his glorified candy dish was not for sale. I never asked whether his attachment was to the objects themselves or to the tales he’d written about them. I understood they couldn’t be separated.
One Saturday in early summer, I went to the farmers’ market and bought sweet potato jacks, these terribly fattening but terribly delicious fritters. With my poor appetite, if I felt like eating a thing, I ate it. I bought coffees, too, and went to see Mr. Andrews. When he finished his fritter, he licked his fingers, watching me with those lovely blue eyes, and lit a cigarette. Had we been closer in age, I’d have wanted to date him. My best friend Eleanor, who’d never met Mr. Andrews, referred to him as “your boyfriend.” I said huffily that I was aware that in befriending this older man, I was seeking solace for the loss of my parents, and Eleanor said there was nothing wrong with that.
When he’d finished his cigarette, he opened a desk drawer and pulled out a small, thick jar. The top was sealed on with old wax, and inside was a murky, brownish liquid. Settled at the bottom was a waxy oblong thing, yellowish, whorled in the middle and weirdly familiar.
Right then, a little girl came in with her music. As Mr. Andrews hurried to put the jar away, I wondered if it contained something obscene he didn’t want her to see. He handed me a blue three-ring binder.
“For you, Miss Jones. Be sure to bring this back next week,” he said, taking my elbow and almost pushing me to the door. I was excited. Never before had he shown me a provenance important enough to have its own notebook. As soon as I got outside, I opened it.
The first page read: the amputatexd ear ofx vincent van xgogh
That evening I had my friend Irene over to dinner. Usually, we met in a coffee shop or a bar, but I was trying not to be so cocooned in grief, and inviting anybody other than Eleanor to my house felt, in those sad reclusive days, like a great act of daring. I cleaned all day, and by the time Irene arrived, a little after seven, the house looked better than it had in years. Irene didn’t apologize for being late. She hugged me, then walked around the living room with a glass of the Chardonnay she’d brought, plucking at her gauzy purple scarf and examining my pictures and books.
“All these old things, Adelia. I don’t know anything about antiques except I’m supposed to like them.”
I asked how her work was going. A literature professor, she was always eager to talk about her research, and I welcomed the distraction, asking her enough questions over the trout and salad to ensure we never got around to discussing me. Irene’s undergraduate degree had been in psychology, and she was interested in science as well as religion, art, and politics, so that our conversations were delightfully wide ranging. One of the courses she taught was on the Bible as literature. She’d begun to make an interdisciplinary specialty of diagnosing literary characters with various disorders and hypothesizing how their conditions influenced their actions. Just then she was working on a paper in which she claimed that certain biblical personages suffered developmental delays from being born to older mothers.
“Look at how placidly Isaac goes to the sacrifice! ‘Where’s the lamb, daddy?’ and Abraham says, ‘Don’t worry, son, God will provide the lamb.’ Wink, wink. Yeah, God’s providing a nice juicy lamb, all right. And the boy lets himself be tied up. He must know by then that he’s going to have his throat cut, he’s going to be burnt up—and he doesn’t ever struggle? That’s not normal.”
“He’s a child.” I shrugged. “Children follow their parents.”
“Your father ties you up, puts you on a rock, brandishes a knife over you? I think you’re going to scream, or try to get up and make a run for it.”
“He’s a child in a completely patriarchal society,” I pointed out. “Conditioned to be obedient.” (Obedience is the point of the story, I was thinking, but I didn’t want to accuse her of missing the obvious.) “And how old is he?”
“It never says.”
“See. He could be three years old. He’s totally trusting.”
“I’m thinking maybe autism? Lack of affect. I mean, he sees his father getting ready to do this horrible thing, and he never protests? It’s a foundational trauma. I’ll address that in my paper, of course, and explain how it informs the struggle toward nation building between Jacob and Esau. Their mother—Rebecca—was old, too, of course, and we know that women over thirty-five tend to have higher incidences of multiple births. Mmm. This is good cheese.”
“Smoked Gouda,” I said. I found her powerful appetite encouraging and had more myself.
“I read somewhere that children of older fathers tend to be more depressive, bipolar, that kind of thing,” I offered. “Maybe you could use that? Maybe Isaac was suicidal from a young age?”
Shaking a piece of cheese at me, she said my idea wasn’t bad. I felt pleased and slightly ashamed. I enjoyed speculating with Irene, but her work struck me as an intellectual fool’s errand, worse than Quixotic. By worse, I mean it had none of Quixote’s tragic dignity. Her ideas, on paper, were limited, and her way of expressing them convoluted and lifeless. She had obtained her doctorate, however, and I hadn’t, so maybe there was something profound in her scholarship that I just wasn’t theoretical minded enough to grasp.
After dinner, we ate chocolate and drank wine on the sofa. It was May, and the windows were open, admitting happy neighborhood sounds and a warm breeze. We moved on to comparing ex-boyfriends. Then she saw the blue binder on the coffee table. Was that something I was working on? An editing project? A novel?
In my worry over getting everything ready for my guest, I’d forgotten all about the binder. I told her about Mr. Andrews’s shop, about his fascinating provenances and how far-fetched they could be. She opened the binder and read the front page.
“He has the thing in a jar,” I said.
“Maybe he cut it off somebody,” she said, shaking her head as she turned the pages.
I thought about how easily he pushed down the sticky keys on that Royal.
“Does he seriously think he’s got Vincent Van Gogh’s actual frickin’ ear?”
“Don’t do that,” I pleaded, regretting having exposed him to her scorn. “He’s very kind to me.”
I pushed the binder under the sofa, and though she changed the subject, the incident had broken the easy mood of the evening. When Irene left, earlier than I’d expected, I poured more wine and settled down to read Mr. Andrews’s story.
Years ago, he had met a Mr. Turner, whose father had been raised in Polynesia in the 1890s. When Turner père died, his elderly brother came to the funeral in Washington, and for the first time, Turner fils heard the tale of how the two brothers, as boys in fin-de-siècle Polynesia, had fetched drinks, groceries, and supplies for a French painter who lived nearby. One day, the painter—drunk and finding no ready coin in the house—had tipped them with the jar and the accompanying tale that the ear within had belonged to another artist, who’d cut it off himself in a frenzy and sent it to a woman he desired.
Only years later did the brothers realize to whom the ear must have belonged, but by then they’d misplaced the jar. The uncle had recently found it in his attic and, having no children himself, had brought it to his nephew. It was up to Turner fils to decide what to do with it, the uncle considering himself too old for the public commotion that such a revelation inevitably would bring.
Mr. Turner didn’t believe his uncle’s tale, but he was willing to sell the jar as an oddity. For Mr. Andrews, though, the story had the ring of truth. (I chuckled at the idea of him weighing the plausibility of another man’s outlandish story.) Artists were indeed wild, unpredictable creatures. Only one point troubled him. By all known accounts, shortly before Van Gogh cut off his ear, he’d brandished a razor at Gauguin, who’d fled, never to see his mad friend again. Why then, Mr. Andrews wondered, hadn’t the severed ear rotted out back of the French bordello where it had frightened a tormented woman into a faint?
He pondered the question for years until he read a review (a copy was in the binder) of a book in which German historians proposed that it was Gauguin himself who sliced off his friend’s ear with a fencing sword in self-defense that nasty night in Arles, two days before Christmas. According to the historians, the painters had concocted the story of self-mutilation; Gauguin had stuck with it out of remorse, Van Gogh out of shame. Gauguin must have retrieved the ear from the prostitute Rachel, Mr. Andrews wrote, and kept it as a talisman of his guilt, even as he was living it up in his island paradise.
On the Internet, I found that the German historians’ theory had been immediately debunked by the Van Gogh museum. Another scholar posited that Vincent had cut off his own ear in despair because he’d found out that his brother Theo, who was supporting him, planned to marry. The next morning, I checked out a stack of books from the university library, and for several days, I read Vincent’s letters to Theo. Falling into a fugue state of fascination, I learned about his life among and away from other artists, about his religious obsession and his black despair. I gazed at reproductions of paintings I’d never bothered to look at before. It wasn’t their subjects that moved me but the colors. Jeweled, muddy, however they came, I steeped myself in his colors, so captivated that I forgot to go to bed at night and fell asleep on the sofa.
It didn’t worry me that the thing in the jar resembled a whole ear, à la Blue Velvet, when everybody said that Van Gogh had cut off only part of a lobe. Insistence on provable fact didn’t come into my thinking anymore. On Saturday, Mr. Andrews and I spread open the books, pointed out our favorite paintings, and discussed passages from the brothers’ letters. It was raining, and nobody came into the cozy, dimly lit shop to bother us. I grew so comfortable that I kicked off my shoes, something I’d never done there before. He didn’t mind. Maybe he was a charlatan or a madman or the dumbest innocent. Perhaps, in a way, he was all three. It didn’t matter. There was something about that shop I believed in, something about that dear old man I loved.
In the days that followed, he showed me wonderful things, including a dried, brittle skin shed by the asp that dealt Cleopatra her fatal bite. Going too far? Still, I listened. Before long, I could see the fang glinting at her bosom.
Irene kept asking me to take her antiquing, and I kept putting her off. Since my parents had died, I’d only gone down to South Elm alone. One midsummer day, though, we were walking together in the park near my house. She was encouraging me, not for the first time, to go back to school.
“You’ve got to do something, Adelia. It’s not good for a woman to have no work, even if you can afford it.”
My mother’s estate wasn’t yet settled, but my older sister, who was the executor, had let me take an advance on my inheritance because I was having trouble finding a job. Her disapproval was nothing new, so I pretended it didn’t bother me.
“I can’t afford it,” I said. “Not much longer.”
“It’s not good to isolate yourself when you’re depressed,” Irene said. “Believe me, I’ve been there.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes, watching the runners and strollers going by, the dogs on leashes. She had not “been there.” Her parents were still putting up a Christmas tree every year and annoying her with the frequency of their phone calls. She had a career, and a boyfriend with a career, and she didn’t cut her own hair with a plastic razor or hide in the kitchen when her neighbor rang the doorbell.
“Let’s go downtown, and you can show me around the junk shops,” she said, linking my arm with hers in a chummy manner I resented. “I want to get my mother a cool birthday gift, and since you know so much about all that stuff, you can keep me from making a mistake.”
She had no real intention of buying a gift, but I didn’t care. The opportunity to feel intellectually superior to her, even for a moment, was irresistible.
At shop after shop, I pointed out true antique versus reproduction—gold v. dross, my mother used to say, as though it were a lawsuit. I didn’t care if I sounded pedantic or pretentious. Irene listened but seemed as uninterested after the lesson as before, and once, after urging her to pick up a piece of lead glass to feel its heft, I noticed her cleaning her fingers with hand sanitizer and tissues.
As we approached Mr. Andrews’s place, we heard the piano playing. You had to lift the handle and push the door hard—otherwise, it wouldn’t budge—and when I opened it, the bells at the top jangled violently. A spotty teenaged boy stared at me from the piano bench, his hands suspended above the keys, the broken music hanging between us.
Mr. Andrews nodded, and the boy resumed. He played beautifully, with real feeling. I can’t say what the piece was, but I’d guess Romantic period. Brooding stuff, like the roilsome bruised sky of a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, it added very much to the impression I hoped the shop would make on Irene, who was at that moment picking up one of the typed provenances. As she read, I found myself watching her face for signs of skepticism or pleasure, and wondered why I was so anxious for her to approve of the shop and Mr. Andrews and, by extension, me.
The boy finished playing and shambled out. Mr. Andrews approached, smiling, his long hand outstretched. I introduced Irene.
“Ah, Madame Junior Professor,” he said. “Enchanté.”
“I’ve been wanting to come see your shop. Adelia tells me your things often have rather surprising stories behind them.”
Her tone had a smirk in it. I saw at once that the visit could only sour. First, she challenged a detail he’d written about a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and they had a strained but civil argument about that. He kept calling her “Madame Junior Professor.” She used phrases like “in layman’s terms” or “for a person not in academia, it might be difficult to . . .” I watched, speechless and queasy, until they reached a stalemate. Then Madame Junior Professor (it was hard to call her anything else in my head after he’d said it so often) dropped a snide remark about Van Gogh’s ear. Mr. Andrews looked at me, plainly hurt. He held up his elegant forefinger.
“Wait one moment.”
While he went in the back, Irene and I stood at opposite ends of the shop, pretending to be engrossed, she with her phone, me with a book I’d picked up. I didn’t know what to say to her. This was one reason I hadn’t wanted to bring her here: she hadn’t been raised, as I had, not to argue with people. As far as she was concerned, the whole world was her arena. She was bound to provoke him further when he came back, and though part of me admired how intrepid she could be, I was already trying to think how to apologize for her.
He reappeared from behind the curtain and handed her a dagger with a jeweled hilt. As she examined it, he rifled in his desk, then offered her a file. Embarrassed for him now, I wanted to snatch the file out of her hands, but she’d already opened it. She read for only a minute before tossing it down.
“That’s bullshit,” she said, holding her purse to her chest. I thought it a strange defensive gesture, and I didn’t like her cussing at him. But instead of looking cowed or confused, his expression verged on smug.
“My provenance is no more specious than your supposition that Abraham’s little Isaac was—a what? A mongoloid?”
She clucked at his offensive, outdated terminology and gaped at me. “Is that what you told him?”
“Not in those words—not that word. I thought your research would interest him. I mean, I think it’s fascinating.”
I moved to pick up the folder, but slowly, for there was barely enough room to squeeze between the furniture crowded with china and glass. Growing up in my parents’ shop, it was always, Watch out! Be careful! All my life had been spent trying not to knock over things that might break and couldn’t be replaced.
Inside the folder was the familiar ivory letter paper.
the dagger with wxich abraham nearly dixspatched isaac
“You’re just making things up!” Irene said. “My work is a way of understanding our diseased Western culture from its very beginnings. There are a lot of theoretical underpinnings that might not make sense to you—”
He played a careless arpeggio on the upright. “I’m sure your theories will be a great success in the ivory tower. What could appeal more to your academic friends than for you to discover that the authority of the Bible—the basis, after all, for so much of our diseased Western culture—rests on the actions of mentally unsound people?”
I’d never seen her look so unsure of herself, and that was when I made a terrible mistake: I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
Irene stalked to the door. When it wouldn’t open for her, Mr. Andrews, usually so courtly, made no move to help. I hurried to let her out. She walked so fast along the sidewalk that I almost had to run to keep up.
“Irene, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
The people we passed quickly averted their eyes, as though we were quarreling lovers who ought to keep our troubles private.
“He’s just playing,” I said, reaching to touch her arm.
She jerked away, pressing her lips together in her effort not to cry.
“And what about you, Adelia? Are you playing? I don’t even know what you mean by that. I can’t even talk to you right now.”
I’ve never known how to answer people when they act cold. She drove away, leaving me without a ride. Back inside the shop, Mr. Andrews had switched on the radio to a jazz station and was making tea with his electric kettle.
“You wrote that after I told you about her paper,” I said.
He put his hand to his chest, feigning hurt. “Et tu, Miss Jones?”
He turned his back and fussed with his tea things. The kettle burbled, steam fuming from its spout. On the radio, the high hat hissed and jigged. Then the saxophone broke in.
“I don’t know why you want to hang around such people, Miss Jones. Philistines in freethinkers’ clothing. Literalists. Everything cause and effect. It’s absurd. As if the world can be reduced to that.”
I didn’t reply to an accusatory email from Irene, and I avoided South Elm the next weekend, and the next, and the next. I couldn’t make the choice I felt they were pressing me to make, and in failing to decide, I began, to my surprise, to feel the relief, the lightness, I’d so long been wanting. I took to going to the movies on Saturdays. Sometimes I went with Eleanor, who was always glad to get away from her husband and kids for a few hours. One day over lunch she remarked that perhaps I’d brought the junior professor to meet Mr. Andrews because I missed hearing my parents fight with each other. Later, thinking about her theory, I decided it was wrong. I didn’t miss hearing their fighting at all.
Once he’d let me purchase, cheaply, a box of cut-up magazines “from the estate of Joseph Cornell.” After I stopped visiting him, I used to leaf through books, looking at images of Cornell’s collages, trying to find something in them that matched the empty windows in my magazines.
At the drugstore, I ran into a friend of Mama’s who touched my hand with hers, now wrinkled and liver-spotted. Who else remembers her in those strapless yellow sundresses and white tennis skirts that made all our fathers stop to watch her coming and going?
“You know what I really miss about your mom? Long after all our other friends were jaded by their divorces, and their jobs, and their children—whatever had disappointed them—your mom would read a book or hear about something on television or go to an art exhibit and come back enchanted. Just enchanted that the world had such wonders in it.”
I finally returned to South Elm this fall, hunting an out-of-print book I wanted to give Eleanor. I was working again, and I liked being able to tell people I was busy. I was seeing a new guy, too, and I could imagine what Mr. Andrews would have said about him—surely you’ve had enough of the professoriate, Miss Jones?
Mr. Andrews’s shop was locked up and a sign in the window pictured a bunch of superheroes: “Comic Relief—Coming Soon!” Dealers up and down the street told me Mr. Andrews had cancer, Parkinson’s; opinions differed. His daughter had moved him to wherever she lived, and the shop’s contents were to be auctioned off, if I was interested.
On a drizzly, chill November morning, the auction house smelled of dust and wet clothes. No mention of the provenances was made. I bid on a washstand with a sweetly scalloped apron but dropped out when the price topped my measly budget. Later, I saw the new owner open the drawer, pull out a piece of paper, ball it up, and toss it on the floor. I started to go tell him what he was throwing away, but then I saw how he grabbed the stand under the apron, without love, and carried it one-handed toward the exit.