Moonlight and Melancholy
In a short time, Bemis grew to hate the painting. He had bought it at one of those art auctions on a cruise ship, and only later did he learn that the auction house was under indictment for peddling forgeries. Carol had told him he was crazy to spend that kind of money on shipboard, where it was impossible to verify anything. They were sitting ducks, didn’t he see that? Now it turned out she had been right, and the painting hadn’t even arrived yet.
When it did, he unwrapped it and took a good, hard look. It was a painting of a clown sitting on a bull’s back, right up behind the horns. The clown had a sad face and was looking off to his right, as if listening for something. The bull had lowered its head slightly and was staring straight ahead at the viewer, looking like it was about to charge. Its horns flared out and up, one of them traversing a large, round moon the painter had hung in the corner of the painting. The whole thing was washed in blue, to suggest moonlight.
Bemis remembered reading the identifying label on the ship a fraction of a second before looking at the painting itself, and being charmed by its name, “Moonlight and Melancholy.” Even then, he thought it predisposed him to like the painting. But what did that matter? What mattered was whether you could live with it on your wall, and as he stared at the bull with its sad voyager in the bright moonlight that seemed beyond question. The label had a red dot on it, which meant that a bid had already come in. It was for forty-seven hundred dollars, the auction agent told him when he asked. He would have to do better than that. Carol was not there. She had left after lunch with the snorkeling party in a zodiac that zoomed off into the distance and then disappeared. She wasn’t interested in second-rate art, as she called it. She wanted to see the coral and tropical fish the area was so famous for. Bemis felt exactly the opposite way. He didn’t care if he never saw what was under the sea.
At the auction, the agent told him all about the artist, whose work was beginning to turn up in museums in the States and Europe. It usually sold for a lot more than forty-seven hundred dollars. The agent had papers to show that. Bemis put a bid in for forty-seven fifty, figuring that someone else would better that and he’d be off the hook. But no one bid any higher, and when Carol came back she told him he was a sap, and when he showed her the painting she just stared at him. He could tell she was trying not to say anything hurtful.
Bemis had been so excited about the painting, but now it seemed a dead thing, now that he had it home. It had no light, it was blue, and mottled, like fish skin. He wondered if it was even the same painting he had seen aboard the ship. He propped it on the hall table, turned toward the wall, and only then did he see the sticker on the back that said “Studio 23,” and the phone number. He dialed it, and a woman who identified herself as Brenda answered on the other end.
“How can I help you?” she asked, in a beguiling voice.
“I have a painting,” Bemis began. “I think it’s yours. It has a sticker on the back that says Studio 23.”
“Could you describe the painting to me?” the woman asked, and when Bemis did she said, “Oh yes. Moonlight and Melancholy. A fine work by”—and here she mentioned the artist whose name Bemis already knew. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m not sure,” Bemis said. “I bought it on a cruise ship. I think it may be a forgery.” He could hear a crackling sound on the line when he said the word “forgery.” It sounded like the signal might be fading. “Oh no, sir,” the woman said when she came back. “Studio 23 stands behind all of its paintings one hundred percent.”
“What is Studio 23, anyway?” Bemis asked.
“We are a clearing house for fine reproduction oil paintings,” she answered, reeling off the words with practiced fluency. “Our artists copy only the best of what is licensed for copying. If you like, I can put a brochure in the mail to you.”
“What about”—and here Bemis mentioned the artist’s name. “Did he paint this or not?”
“Oh yes, of course. The original,” the woman answered.
Bemis felt like an idiot as he asked, “The original? This is not the original?”
“Oh no,” the woman said, her voice deepening with what sounded like genuine compassion. “I hope no one misrepresented Studio 23 to you. We handle fine reproduction oil paintings.”
No one had said a damn thing about Studio 23, Bemis wanted to tell her. He never heard of it until he turned the painting over at home and saw the sticker. And even the sticker didn’t say anything about reproduction oil paintings or licensed copies. Just “Studio 23” and the phone number.
“Sir,” Brenda was saying. “Sir?”
“Yes,” Bemis managed to say. He felt groggy and half-drowned.
“Sir, I want to assure you that you are in possession of a first-rate work of art. Hardly anyone owns an original, you know. Almost everything you see is a copy. If you’d just let me send you our brochure.”
“No, thank you,” Bemis said, because he didn’t want to be rude, and then he hung up. He had a lot to think about. In the meantime, he was not going to look at the painting. There were so many things he didn’t care if he never saw again, things riding out into oblivion away from his caring. Here was another. Only, he thought perhaps if he left the painting on the hall table, where no one would disturb it, turned toward the wall, he might see the Studio 23 sticker with the phone number whenever he passed, and hear Brenda’s beautiful voice saying, “No one owns an original, sir. Everything is a copy.”
Michele Stepto lives in Connecticut, where she has taught literature and writing at Yale University for many years. In the summers, she teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. Her stories have appeared in NatureWriting, Mirror Dance Fantasy and Lacuna Journal. She is the translator, along with her son Gabriel, of Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.
Editor's Note: This image was chosen by the editor to illustrate the story. The inspiration for the writer's story was an imaginary painting, not this one.
The Ekphrastic Review
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