Even though Mallory knew everyone had a bad seed buried somewhere within the depths of their psyche, she had never felt the compulsion to coax that seed into bloom. But now, nearly a year after marrying Caleb, something in Mallory’s life—call it a midlife crisis, an existential crisis, or a realization that mediocrity was all that her life had added up to so far—something had caused that dormant seed to germinate in the hidden chambers of her brain.
Since that day seven years earlier when Mallory had bought a painting for $40 at a junky, small town antique store and sold it auction for $10,500, she had tried to make a living by buying vintage paintings cheaply at flea markets, garage sales, and second-hand shops to flip for profit online. But a downturn in the economy and some poor purchases on Mallory’s part contributed to the precarious financial state that permeated every aspect of her life, not to mention Caleb’s life. And now Mallory needed lightning to strike one more time, just as it had seven years before, so she could pay off the credit cards she needed to keep her business alive. Credit cards that had driven a wedge even deeper between her and Caleb.
So when Mallory bought, without Caleb’s knowledge, the beautiful unsigned 19th century landscape oil painting offered in an online auction for $500, a painting she was sure she could sell for a significant profit, she told herself there was nothing left to lose and everything to gain.
Caleb, Mallory’s partner for nearly twenty years and her husband for less than a full year, indulged Mallory’s love affair with antiques and her on-going treasure hunt for another work of art to match the thrill of finding her first lost masterpiece that had entered her bloodstream like an addict’s first bump of cocaine. Brought up by a father who was more at home on the road than at home, a father who had little to say to him or his mother when he was sober, and too much to say the rest of the time, Caleb avoided confrontation at all costs. The fact that he and Mallory had been together so long was a testament to something, Caleb thought. But what was it a testament to? Was it love? Yes, in part, though Caleb knew it was mostly on his part. Was it stubbornness? Certainly they were both stubborn. Or was it co-dependency? Caleb wouldn’t let himself dwell on that reason for any length of time, especially considering that Mallory’s own financial difficulties legally became his financial difficulties once they married. Caleb often thought about the day when Mallory found her first treasure on one of their many antiquing forays, knowing that who they were today and what they may become tomorrow began at that moment.
Seven years earlier, on a day of antiquing that Caleb wasn’t quick enough with an excuse to get out of, Mallory saw the flash of a painting in the window of a second-hand store in a quirky small town that was divided in half by the Ohio/Indiana state line.
“Oh my! Did you see that?” Mallory said in the high-pitched voice she got when she was overly excited.
“What? See what?” Caleb mumbled sleepily as Mallory did a quick U-turn on the empty main street to park in front of a dilapidated clapboard building.
“Look, look!” Mallory stuttered as she threw her arm across Caleb’s face to point at a large oil painting of a pheasant hanging beneath a defective neon sign that read “T-EASUR- P-LACE.”
Caleb rubbed his eyes and glanced at the painting. “It’s a bird. And a kind of ugly one, at that.”
“It’s a pheasant. It looks magnificent! Come on. We’re going in,” Mallory said, already halfway out of the car.
A bell on the door jingled when Mallory entered the store. “Welcome to the Treasure Palace,” a smoker’s voiced grumbled from somewhere deep in the recesses of the cluttered room. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
Mallory held the door open for Caleb, who was moving at a sleepwalker’s pace. “Come on, come on. You’re letting the cold in,” Mallory said impatiently.
Once inside, Caleb sniffed repeatedly before shaking his head in disgust. “Do you smell that?” he whispered to Mallory. “What is that?”
“Hush,” Mallory shot back in a gravelly whisper. “It’s just a litter box. A cat, OK? It’s just a cat.”
“If it’s a cat, it’s a dead cat, I’ll bet. Come on, Mallory. No treasure is worth this.”
Mallory ignored Caleb and pretended to check out a variety of tchotchkes as she slowly sidewinded her way toward the painting. After feigning thoughtful examination of a variety of Hummel figurines that are a ubiquitous feature of any second-hand shop, Mallory arrived at the painting. She carefully lifted it from its hook and tilted it in the hazy sunlight that sifted through the dusty window.
“Oh, it’s even better than I thought. Look at the brushwork! Look at the way the artist captures the movement of the pheasant as it flies up from the field! And look at the corn shocks. How the light and shadows catch on the curled husks. It’s beautiful. Do you have your phone?”
Caleb wasn’t paying attention to Mallory. Instead, he inspected and sniffed a battered bowler hat before he laid it gently on top of his head. “What do you think?” he asked Mallory as he struck a Stan Laurel pose.
“Your phone, your phone! Do you have your phone?”
Caleb sighed and set the hat back down on the Styrofoam head where he found it. “Yes. I have it.”
“OK, do a search for Richard E. Bishop. But do it subtly.”
Caleb typed in the name. “I’ve only got two bars,” he said, “so I’m not sure if this . . . Hold on. OK. Got something: ‘Richard Evett Bishop was an etcher and painter of wildlife subjects, particularly gamebirds. He also etched a number of Christmas cards which are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., along with four other wildlife paintings.’ Wow. This guy seems pretty big.”
“Can you find any auction records?” Mallory asked, her voice stretching almost to the point of snapping.
“Let me look. Just hold on, OK?” Caleb chided as he scrolled through more search results. Let’s see. OK, here we . . . Oh wow!” he blurted out.
“Shhh!” Mallory hissed, even more loudly than Caleb’s exclamation.
“Can I help you up there?” the thick voice yelled from somewhere beyond the darkness.
“Thank you. No. We’re OK. My friend here thought he saw a mouse,” Mallory yelled back.
“Sorry about that,” the voice replied. “My cat’s not good for much except fillin’ his litter box. Guess it’s time to set more traps.”
“No worries,” Mallory yelled. “We’ll let you know if we need anything.”
“Yup,” the voice croaked.
“Mal, Mal,” Caleb said urgently. “Look at these prices: $4,500, $5,300, $6,000, $7,200! This can’t be by him.”
“Look at the signature. It matches all of the ones on the paintings you’re showing me. Exactly! And look at the style of the painting. It’s identical! And it’s a gamebird!” Mallory squeaked as her voice finally cracked from excitement.
“Is there anything on the back?” Caleb asked
“Can’t see. It’s got a paper backing.”
“Well rip it off!” Caleb said as he reached for the painting.
“Wait!” Mallory said, yanking the painting away from Caleb’s clumsy hands. “Just wait, OK? Let me do it. Without ripping. You go and talk to the shop owner while I deal with this.”
“Wait, what?” Caleb asked.
“Go talk to the shop owner. Just keep him occupied while I work on getting the paper off.”
“What will I say to him?” Caleb whined, uncomfortable with the idea of being reduced to nothing more than a diversionary tactic.
“Talk to him about antiques. I’m sure he’s got a lot of stories to tell,” Mallory said as she examined the paper covering the back of the painting.
“I don’t know anything about antiques,” Caleb declared.
“Sure you do. We go antiquing together all the time. Just tell him . . .”
“Can’t you just buy it and look when we get home? See? It’s only $40. I’ll buy it for you.”
“I just want to check first. I don’t want him to see what I’m doing. I don’t want him to know what he has. Just go talk to him. Go on. Just go!” Mallory nearly spat with agitation.
“I don’t even like antiques,” Caleb blurted out. “I can’t talk to him about antiques. I can’t even talk to you about antiques! I’m just along for the ride. This is your thing, not mine. I don’t get this world at all. Don’t you ever realize that when you’re talking about antiques or paintings you’re the only one talking?” Caleb confessed, a little too brutally honest for Mallory.
Mallory stared at Caleb, seeing in his eyes for the first time exactly how different their interests were, seeing the despair that he was feeling for having given up his secret that he was just placating Mallory for . . . what? A steady relationship? A reliable lay? A fear of being alone? Had their relationship been a lie all along? Mallory closed her eyes as if to reset the scene in her mind. But when she opened them again, Caleb still stood in front of her with the same look of despair on his face. While Mallory knew exactly what Caleb was feeling, she wasn’t sure at all what she was feeling, though she knew that whatever it was, she wanted it to go away and never return. She gave a little shake of her head and said, “Just take that bowler hat up to the counter and ask him how much it is, where he found it, and if he knows anything about the maker of the hat. Just talk to him about the hat. It won’t take long for me get to the back of the painting. And then we’ll know, and then we can leave.”
Caleb closed his eyes and took a long, slow, deep breath. “OK, Mal,” Caleb said, his voice catching on the words. “I’ll do that for you. I can do that for you. Whatever you need.”
The night before their one-year anniversary, Caleb fell asleep only ten minutes after he and Mallory climbed into bed and she began rubbing his back. Stealthily, Mallory slipped from beneath the sheets, gently pulled a sketch pad from under the mattress, and tiptoed out of the room. She silently opened the door to the walk-in closet at the end of the hall where she stored her hoard of paintings and plucked down the unsigned landscape, a box of oil paints, and a brush that she had tucked away in the far corner of the top shelf.
Mallory hadn’t necessarily bought the painting with the idea of forgery in mind; however, the fact that the painting lacked a signature and so strongly resembled the work of an artist whose paintings sell for 100-times the top estimate, stirred something deep within her. Even without a signature, the painting could probably yield a small profit. But with the signature, the painting could sell for enough to pay off three of Mallory’s maxed-out credit cards and at least half of another. Just five letters, each worth at least $10,000, was all it would take to turn the painting from just another landscape into a work worthy of the cover of a high-end auction house’s catalogue. Imagination and the possibility of a cash windfall together had created a powerful fertilizer in Mallory’s mind, and the bad seed that had laid dormant for most of her life began to take root and grow.
As Mallory looked at the painting, she told herself it was a sign when, the day after winning the auction, she had found a box of antique oil paints nearly as old as the painting itself at a flea market for $2, paints that would not fluoresce with modern ingredients under an appraiser’s black light. That discovery alone encouraged her to buy an expensive Winsor & Newton brush, the only brand of brush, Mallory had learned, that the artist of the painting had ever used. She immediately began practicing signing the artist’s name day-after-day on a sketch pad she kept hidden under her side of the mattress. At first, she painted each letter separately, working to capture the narrow loops of the artist’s cursive “l,” the bishop’s hat of his “a,” the dagger of his “v,” and the twin lassos of “e”s that ended his name. After one week, she could do it at nearly the natural speed of a painted signature, though she still had to look at a photograph for guidance. By the fourth week, she could paint it with her eyes closed as naturally as she supposed the artist did more than 150-years before. The time had come to do it for real.
When Mallory was twelve, she was awakened one night by the slash of red and blue lights tearing through the shear curtains her mother had embroidered with daisies. She could hear shouting—from her mother and father, and from a pair of deep voices she had never heard before. The anger in all of the voices scared her, so she slid out of bed, crawled across the floor to the window, and peeked her head just above the sill. In the strobe effect of the flashing police car lights, Mallory saw her father being pushed down the driveway by two cops, his hands cuffed behind his back.
Above the shouts of the cops and the cursing of her father, Mallory could hear her mother crying, “We’ll get the money! We’ll get the money! You don’t need to do this! We have a child, for Christ’s sake!”
“He can’t bounce checks all over town like he’s playing basketball,” one cop said, making the other cop laugh loudly.
“Go back inside, Claudia,” Mallory’s father yelled as the cops pushed him into the backseat of the cruiser. “Call your father. He’ll know what to do.”
The next morning, Mallory heard her mother rattling dishes in the kitchen and quietly padded down the hall to look into her parents’ bedroom. Mallory hoped to see her father spread-eagle across the bed beneath his favourite comforter, sleeping in as he did every Saturday morning. When she saw that the bed was empty, she walked into the room and over to her father’s bedside table. There she found his wallet, watch, and the small pocketknife he used to clean his fingernails. She could hear the Timex ticking as she opened his wallet and found it empty of cash. She picked up the pocketknife, which was no bigger than her biggest finger, held it in her palm for a moment, and then slipped it deep into the pocket of her flannel pyjama bottoms.
Mallory walked down the hall to the kitchen, took her seat at the table where her mother sat smoking her favourite Salem menthols that sweetened the air with mint, and asked where her father was. After a long drag, all Mallory’s mother said was, “He’s on a business trip. He’ll be back in a few days.”
Mallory carried the painting and the tools of her deception downstairs to the kitchen, the room with the best lighting in the house. She laid the painting and her sketchpad on the marble-topped island next to the Winsor & Newton brush and a vintage tube of burnt umber paint, the same colour the artist used to sign his work. Overhead, the trio of lights that normally illuminated the fastidious preparations of the gourmet meals Caleb cooked for her every night now illuminated what she hoped would be her greatest discovery, something that would reset all the wrongs of past mistakes and mark the beginning of a new, more prosperous chapter of her life.
Mallory took a moment to admire the beauty of the landscape painting. In the foreground, two rows of bright white aspen trees rose up to frame the scene, the sheen of their bark glimmering as if lit from within, their brilliance dimming as they diminished along the vanishing point. In stark contrast, a rutted muddy country road curled from the lower centre of the canvas into a distant horizon composed of shadowy hills. Mottled grey clouds tinged with pink floated overhead, suggesting both serenity and stormy weather.
“Beautiful,” Mallory whispered, as if into the ear of a lover. “Now for the finishing touch.” She squeezed an almond-sized dollop of paint onto a blank page of a sketch pad. Lifting the brush to the light, she inspected the bristles, making sure they were clean and flexible. Satisfied, she lowered the brush and dabbed it gently into the paint. As she moved the brush toward the canvas, Mallory hesitated to calm her trembling hand. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, the acrid odour of oil paint filling her nostrils, and then released it precisely as a sharpshooter does to steady the shot. Without hesitation, she painted the name “Lavee” beneath the shadow of one of the aspen trees. Like a magician, she moved her hand away to reveal a now complete masterpiece.
The next morning, Caleb woke to the sound of someone rummaging through the kitchen. He reached over for Mallory, but the sheets were cold and empty. He rolled out of bed, stretched for a moment to work out the stiffness of sleep, then made his way downstairs.
“What are you doing?” Caleb asked when he entered the kitchen and saw Mallory hunched over the island.
“Oh,” Mallory said, startled. “Oh, I was just trying to make you buttermilk biscuits.” As Mallory unbent from her work, Caleb saw a mess of flour and biscuit dough rolled out on the marble island. “It’s been so long,” Mallory continued. “I know I’ve made a mess. I’ll clean it up. Happy Anniversary!”
“I can’t believe you are making me biscuits!” Caleb said, placing his hands over his heart. “That is so sweet. Really. It’s been so long. And you know how much I love your biscuits!”
“It’s the least I could do. I know this past year’s been rough. But I think things are about to turn around. Really. Look,” Mallory said, and when she pointed her dough-covered hand toward the kitchen table, a little cloud of flour puffed in the air between them.
“What is that?” Caleb asked, in the same tone he had used seven years ago when he asked what that smell was in the second-hand shop.
“What do you think? It’s your anniversary present. Go on. Open it.”
As was his way, Caleb meticulously peeled the wrapping paper from the painting. “Oh, Mallory, it’s beautiful. It’s lovely. Really. Thank you. Now . . . let’s see . . . um . . . where should we hang it?”
“It’s OK, Caleb,” Mallory said knowingly. “Antiques aren’t your thing. I get it. The painting is for us, really, but not as something that you have to hang up and pretend to admire. Look at the print out on the back. Read off the prices.”
Caleb turned the painting over to reveal a print out of auction results for a 19th century French Impressionist painter named Jules Lavee.
“Go on. Read it.”
Caleb stared at the list, his eyes darting from one unbelievable price to the next, his mouth opening wider and wider.
“Out loud, please,” Mallory said in a sing-song command.
“March 7, 2018: $54,000. November 28, 2018: $57,000. February 22, 2019: $62,000. March 10, 2019: $71,000. . .” Caleb’s voice grew softer in disbelief as the numbers grew larger. “And this is him? I mean, this is one of his?”
“Signed, sealed, and delivered,” Mallory said triumphantly, wiping her hands on the apron Caleb normally wore when he did the cooking. “It’s yours to sell. Think of the bills we can get rid of!”
“Where . . . ? How . . .? When . . . ?” Caleb stammered.
“It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that lightning struck again.”
Caleb walked over to Mallory and kissed her. “Thank you, Love. What a beautiful gesture.” He held the painting at arm’s length in front of them both. “It is really beautiful, though,” he said. “Maybe we could keep it up over the fireplace for just a bit, just to say it was ours for a time?”
Mallory stared deep into the landscape before her and then even more deeply into the shadowy letters of the signature. A smile slowly parted her lips. Mallory knew exactly what she was feeling, and she never wanted this feeling to go away.