By Thomas Hill
Even as I led my friend Anne into the large extra room in the back of my house, I could hear the voice in the back of my head. “This is ridiculous. You’re playing into every stereotype of the nouveau riche, the newly rich—they’re crass, showy, desperate to seem refined. Stop this now.”
I ignored the voice and turned to Anne, making a sweeping gesture with my hand to take in the sight she’d come in here to see. She grinned at me. “You did it,” she said.
Growing up in modest circumstances, I’d dreamed, as many of us had, of hitting it big someday. But unlike my friends, I hadn’t fantasized about expensive cars or big swimming pools. Instead, I’d had a weird dream about owning 100 pieces of art. I’d choose them carefully, have each one framed perfectly, pick just the right place to display them in my home.
That’s what Anne was now admiring: 100 paintings, lined up on the floor in two rows, reaching from wall to wall. Other than the house, this was my only real indulgence so far.
Anne started working her way through them, making appreciative little noises—until she got to Number 91. She paused, then smiled over her shoulder at me. “Oh, dear,” she said.
She was right. The painting was not good.
It stood out from the rest of the collection in another way—the circumstances under which I’d acquired. The other 99 had become mine as a result of me making the rounds of the local art galleries, all of which had perfect lighting, proprietors who spoke in hushed tones, and (it seemed) the exact same tasteful gray-and-maroon color scheme.
Number 91 came to me courtesy of a garage sale on a summer day. It took place at a small white house with a profusion of bushes, vines, and trellises in front of it; you had to look carefully to see that a lot of the paint on the facade of the house was peeling.
A cheerful blond woman with lively blue eyes was manning the table out front. At first I’d pegged her at about forty-five; after talking to her for a few minutes, I realized I’d overestimated her age by a decade, but had possibly underestimated how much hard road she’d traveled.
Along with the usual collection of used household items, she was selling some of her own paintings. Her son, about five, was cavorting behind her. After she’d gently asked him a couple of times to settle down, she finally lost her patience and snapped at him. He ran into the house, bawling. She excused herself and followed him inside.
I waited patiently. The voices of the mother and son drifted out to me; they apparently were standing just inside the front door. I could make out the odd phrase:
“…know you miss your dad.”
The voices stopped. I couldn’t actually see the woman, but there was a full-length mirror just inside the front door, on the wall perpendicular to the door. In the mirror, I saw the woman pause. She had two fingers on each temple, rubbing in a circular motion. She took a deep breath, looked at herself in the mirror, straightened up, and smiled. It didn’t look like the kind of smile you paste on your face when you know you need to go out and make a good impression on someone. It was a complicated smile, full of pain, determination, self-deprecation, gallows humor. It was for herself, not anyone else.
After she came back out, I bought her most expensive painting.
Now, as Anne looked at me expectantly, I took the painting from her.
“Finally came to your senses?” she asked, with a smirk I wasn’t crazy about.
I smiled back at her, as politely as I could manage.
“This one gets pride of place, right over the mantel in the living room,” I told her. “It’s actually my favorite.”