Good artists imitate; great artists steal. In our series Stolen, writers share stories of theft.
Long, long ago, in the faraway kingdom of Virginia, a tall, somewhat-handsome man came to town. He had a rather well-known art gallery for a time in New York City, though in those days the word gallerist had not yet been invented, so he was just thought of by name. This man had come with his daughter, an equestrian, to visit several artists who showed at his gallery. This was a time so distant that Banksy, while certainly more than a gleam in his father’s eye, was not yet a star.
One afternoon, the gallerist, accompanied by his little daughter, went to a stable and climbed on a horse, and off they clomped, merrily. But what should happen then but that the horse—named Terror, if I remember correctly, and Terrible, if I do not—somehow shook the man from its back, causing him to break his leg in two places. One of the painters—who had toiled all day, concentrating and considering, though this was before political correctness, so no left-brain/right-brain introspective frenzy added to the painter’s exhaustion … anyway, this painter got in his car and drove to the stables at the appointed hour, asked for the man and the little daughter, only to be told that no such man had ridden that day. Confused, the painter gave an excellent visual description of the man, after which the stable man did, indeed, remember: the tall fellow who’d been taken to the hospital.
To the hospital! Somehow the man had been X-rayed, put in a cast, and sent limping off on crutches, the little daughter at his side, so that by the time the painter arrived, the man was already at the home of his cousin (let’s call her L) in the county. L lived in a house sequestered even from other houses where—it had been decreed earlier—all the busy, talented painters were to spend the evening discussing important art matters, telling bleak jokes, and needling their gallerist (his seriousness in all matters did, indeed, make him a figure of fun). All the poor man could do was sit with one leg in a cast stretched in front of him, atop a footstool with an added pillow, looking grim, because being thrown from a horse and injured will almost always ruin one’s mood. In any case, the phrase no problem had not yet been invented then. Now, this may seem as unbelievable as having no olive oil in the house, no Merrells on one’s feet, no microbrew to swill with the tacos. Yes, it was a very long time ago. It might even have been that there was no moon.
On this long-ago evening, at L’s remote house—poor, long-suffering L, who surely did not look forward to artists guzzling her wine—who happened to come along but one of the painter’s wives. Yes, me! The other wives must have been too clever. As I think back, perhaps this one was not yet a wife, though that would hardly matter, except that it might have gotten her out of being there, in the dark, with the suffering L, the pained gallerist, and his little daughter, who thought it was so ridiculous her father had fallen off a horse.
Here’s the end of the story. This is true: I went to L’s bathroom, perhaps to pee, perhaps to escape the conversation, and I saw a Post-it note above the toilet-paper dispenser. Now, this might have been in the distant past, but still, it was not so long ago that there were no Post-it notes. But above the toilet-paper dispenser? It had two words on the top line. It said, I AM, and then below that, allocated one line each, the words:
I took it immediately. I tucked it in my sports bra. It hung, forever after, on the circular mirror above my sink (tape had to be added when it lost its stickiness). For all I know, it hangs there still, to tell someone else she’s the fairest of them all. This all happened in the lovely renovated house in which I lived after my New York City landlord raised my rent one time too many. And for years and years—even then, years were years—my two friends P and T came weekly (right: feel your privilege, Beattie, you jerk) to clean my house. They made no comment about the note stuck in the middle of the mirror. It was only when I said something offhandedly that I realized they had much discussed it between themselves. They were relieved to hear my story because it was so unlike me that, well, a mystery had been solved—for these were times when some mysteries were still solved; not many, but some—even sans Sherlock Holmes. Oh, that day we three laughed so merrily! We could not have been more amused if the dish had run away with the spoon, or if a cow had jumped over the pale full moon. Back in that long-ago day, even the moon might have been only a misperception about the bathroom mirror.
Ann Beattie’s short story “Ruckersville” appeared in issue no. 222 (Fall 2017) of The Paris Review. She is the author, most recently, of The Accomplished Guest. Read her Art of Fiction interview.
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