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Hiding in Plain Sight

by Kathryn Carson about a year ago in art
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"Sorry to be cryptic, Dennis. But trust me."

“Wait,” I said, looking around at my siblings and the checks they held.

Behind his desk, the attorney winced and adjusted his tie. I got the impression he’d seen this kind of thing at will readings before, and was expecting me to blow up at him. Luckily for him, I’ve never been given to blowing up at anybody. However, even I felt the weight of all the zeroes my siblings’ checks had, and mine didn’t. I mean, $20,000 is a lot of money—most of a year’s pay for me—and I was grateful to Uncle Leonard for thinking of me in his will. He didn’t have to. But every. Single. Check. That my siblings now held had two more zeroes than mine did.

The overt disparity didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that, of all of us siblings, I was the only one who’d kept in touch with Uncle Leonard throughout his life. I was the one he’d invite into the house for a strong cup of tea and the reveal of something new he’d brought back from his travels. I was the one who appreciated the beautiful mishmash of art and books and woodwork that he’d made of the old Victorian’s living room. Over the fifty years he’d lived there, Leonard hadn’t just made it a room with custom bookshelves: he’d made it a library.

Tiffany-style lamps provided the light, free-standing by comfy chairs as well as in chandelier form over a massive central study table. The fireplace at one end—original to the house—provided the warmth. And the bookcases...custom-built, floor to fifteen-foot-ceiling in a rich ruddy walnut, were filled with thousands of books, alpha by author and subdivided by fiction or non-fiction, and further by genre or subject. They weren’t all hardbacks, of course. Just the result of a long, interesting lifetime spent traveling the world.

The top shelf of each case served as display space for art. Though small, they were amazing pieces—like something you’d find on a mantelpiece at Versailles, or in the personal collection of some modern-art-mad technocrat. One of my great joys as a kid was watching from the doorway as Uncle Leonard walked along the cases as the sun went down, flicking each tiny switch that lit the display at the top. I loved seeing the art’s colors pop.

Leonard knew I loved that house and everything in it, and had since I was a kid. I studied art history in college because of that house and its library. To be fair, both the house and Leonard had suffered in the intervening decades. No one had set foot inside the house for years at this point—a lifelong introvert, Leonard had refused all offers of outside help, even mine. There was no telling what kind of shape it was in.

The attorney picked up an old, trifolded wad of yellowed legal paperwork—paperwork old enough to have an actual embossed seal at the bottom of the outside page. He added a small black notebook to it, and held the sheaf of paper out to me.

“Oh,” I said.

“The check will cover the visible repairs needed, and perhaps the first month’s utilities. But property taxes are out of the question. It’s an expensive part of town,” the attorney said. He smiled wanly. “Congratulations. It’s yours.”

My sister Evie leaned toward me. She smelled heavily of the cosmetics she fronted for on her YouTube channel. “Jeez, you’ve gotta deal with a broken-down house of junk, but all we’ve gotta do is go to the bank. Sorry, buddy.”

My brother Darren squinted at the lawyer. “Is the house even worth the difference?”

“Regrettably,” the attorney said, “Mr. Ambry seemed to think so. Its market value is actually far less. And he seemed to think that the notebook—” He gestured at the pocket-sized, elastic-bound notebook I held. “—was worth more than anything else. He was quite protective of it. But there’s literally nothing in it but a note written on the first page.”

All my siblings leaned in. “What’s it say?” Evie said, eyes wide.

I opened the notebook. It smelled like Uncle Leonard: old man, decaying books, and strong orange pekoe tea. I flipped through it, hoping the lawyer was wrong. The pages were as soft as if they’d been written in for a hundred years, but they were persistently blank. The note was in Leonard’s cramped, crooked handwriting...but it made no sense. I read it out loud. “‘Spend it all on whatever this notebook tells you to. Sorry to be cryptic, Dennis. But trust me.’”

My sister Josie made a scoffing noise. “Typical.” Just then, her phone dinged. She checked the screen, and glanced at the attorney. “I’ve got a flight to catch.”

I suffered a wave of grief then, for the mad old man who’d spent my lifetime telling crazy stories. Like the watch he claimed he’d won off a Soviet officer in a game of poker, in Berlin, the night the Wall fell. I sincerely doubted it—such a piece of memorabilia would be worth a small fortune. But every other piece of art in the library had a story just as wild, and I wished bitterly that I’d written them down while Leonard was alive.

As we shrugged back into our coats and scarves, each of my siblings took a moment to come hug me, but not each other, as if I’d been sentenced to prison.

Evie said, “Need a ride to the bank?”

It was pissing sleet outside. We sprinted for Evie’s car, and as we got in, the icy clods began skirling into fat snowflakes.

I put on my seatbelt and got out the notebook, intending to start a to-do list. But I heard my sister going through the motions of driving as if she was on another planet: I was frozen to the seat in more ways than one.

There was a new note on that very first page. Written in blue. In my handwriting. It said only, “$265 at Griffiths.” I knew Griffiths. It was an antique store that had pretensions of becoming an auction house. Over the years, a couple of Leonard’s favorite pieces had come from there.

But I hadn’t written that note.

For a few seconds I had some seriously destabilizing thoughts, like how the hell did somebody get a sample of my handwriting and is the lawyer in on it and am I losing my mind? But then a much simpler, though crazier, idea occurred to me. Perhaps there was a reason Uncle Leonard had been “quite protective” of this notebook.

I broke out in goosebumps so hard they hurt.

I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, but they came out anyway. “Hey Evie, after the bank, do you mind swinging by someplace else?”

***

Griffiths smelled like dust, mothballs, and some terribly-scented body wash. The source of the scent was the teenager behind the counter. He looked blank-faced when I asked if he knew Leonard Ambry.

Just as I gave up the idea as stupid and turned toward the door, I saw a cloisonné vase sitting to one side—about a foot high, Chinese, obviously vintage though in good condition, with a striking pattern of flowers and geometric shapes in a thousand shades of blue, black, and gold. It looked mostly forgotten, stationed as it was on a low table beneath a wall-mounted fire extinguisher. Though it was interesting to look at, I tried to pass it by...but those hard goosebumps happened again. I stopped and read its tag: “Vintage reproduction, China, 1960-1980. $265.” Just then it occurred to me how amazing this would look on the side table next to Leonard’s favorite old tan wingback chair...assuming it was still where I remembered it.

When I showed the vase to Evie, she looked at me like I was nuts. “You had to go antiquing right this red-hot second?”

I sat there feeling my face heating from embarrassment, even as the rest of me shivered in the cold. The edges of the notebook poked me through my pants pocket. “I guess...I just wanted to add something to Leonard’s collection. As a thank-you.”

“He could’ve thanked you with more money and less junk,” Evie replied.

***

When we pulled up to the house we could barely see its steep outline through the falling snow. Evie kissed me on the cheek. “Go get warm,” she said, smiling.

“Call me when you’re in, okay?”

“Will do. Love you.”

“Love you, too. And thanks.”

She spun tires for just a second in the fallen snow, but then they caught and she eased away into the wall of white. She double-beeped as a goodbye.

I fumbled with the keys, the takeout, and the Chinese vase until I felt like I could safely climb up to the front door. The stairs were slick as hell from the sleet earlier, covered in snow, and my feet were frozen.

I fell on the very last step.

I had some choice words for the takeout that got mushed out of its container and down my right shoulder. But I really got mad when the vase unrolled in its wrappings and clunked down two more stairs before I could stop it. It left a chip of blue and dingy white in the bright white snow.

I froze again, pad thai on my shoulder, my body spread face-down across three concrete steps in the slush. Dingy white. With layers in it. The chip had revealed what its intact cloisonné had hidden: the vase wasn’t a reproduction, with pristine white modern china in its materials. It was an original. And even though it was now chipped, it was worth easily twenty times what I’d paid for it.

I repacked everything carefully and took it the rest of the way to the front door. I paused there, the key in my hand, bags at my feet, Uncle Leonard’s beautifully wrought, though grimy, walnut door waiting in front of me. My thoughts raced.

That Soviet watch… Leonard had displayed it on an amazing piece of brutalist sculpture in the library like an afterthought.

That chip of dingy white porcelain that I’d pulled out of the snow… The vase was a masterpiece, now sitting anonymously in a paper bag at my feet.

The house… It was an intact Victorian in an area of downtown known for extremely high property taxes. Many other properties in the area had been knocked down for McMansions or skyscrapers. The house was a gem, really, yet no one paid it any attention.

I dug the notebook out of my pocket. The Griffiths note had been struck through, and there was a new note I hadn’t written: “$750 at Paul Blackstone Rare Books, Mark Twain.” A quick search on my phone told me that the only Paul Blackstone Rare Books was in London. It specialized in buying and selling signed first editions, elephant folios, and Gutenberg Bibles.

Leonard had been poor as a kid. But in his twenties he’d suddenly become rich, and no one really knew how. I’d had this notebook for less than four hours, and I’d already stumbled into thousands of dollars of art. Leonard might’ve had fifty years with it—fifty years of unerring advice, hidden in his own handwriting. Hiding in plain sight.

The $20,000 my Uncle Leonard had given me looked like the beginning of his largesse, not its end. My siblings thought I’d been given a house full of junk. Instead, I had a library filled with unknown treasures, $20,000 to acquire more, and a notebook telling me how. It felt like a very personal invitation to adventure, all the more meaningful because it had been given to me by my favorite, mad old uncle.

I unlocked the door and stepped into my adventure.

art

About the author

Kathryn Carson

I have MS, Hashimoto's, and a black belt in taekwondo. I'm also an ocular melanoma survivor. This explains why my writing might be kind of obsessed with apocalypse--societal, religious, and personal.

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