“This is art?” I said. “For this you dragged me out of the house?”
Morty Adler shrugged. “What can I tell you? She’s famous. World-class famous.”
We were at an art opening in East Hampton in August. This was like saying there’s snow in the Arctic. Southampton, East Hampton, Water Mill, Wainscott, Montauk — all had professional artists who came for the summer or lived there year round. In addition to well over 60 galleries, they displayed their art in banks, bookstores, real estate agencies, in fact, almost any place that would have them.
On any given weekend in season there were dozens of openings. The crowds showed up for the more famous, of course. The one we were at was crowded, but not with the usual hangers-on. These folks were all well heeled and well dressed, because it was for charity.
The particular “art” I was referring to was an installation set up in the Valerie Venable gallery. It consisted of a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. The colors were uninteresting, the furnishings right out of a 1950 House Beautiful magazine, complete with a reproduction of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.
What made this a work of art, I didn’t know, but maybe that was the point. A brochure claimed that the artist, Sarajane Relda, had created dozens of these apartments. and furthermore, they could be found in museums and private collections all over the world. The brochure also explained that visitors were invited to use the apartment as if it were their own. You could cook something for yourself or your friends in the kitchen. You could party in the living room, or even take a nap in the bedroom.
The whole thing struck me as pure bullshit, but Morty had asked me to come as a favor and since he was my best friend I couldn’t say no. But I couldn’t help remembering that the last time he’d asked me to do him a favor I got mixed up with the Russian Mafia, the K.G.B., the F.B.I., and the N.Y.P.D. Not only mixed up but locked in a Lubyanka prison and almost killed. I could do without that happening again.
What I really wanted was to be alone. I was not in good shape, mentally or physically. The past year had been a rough one. The murder of a friend. A beating that put me in the hospital. These I’d dealt with. In the long run your brain accepts, your body accommodates. But the one thing I had not been able to accept was the sudden, unexpected death of Rosalind, my loving wife, just about one year ago. I was still a long way from dealing with its consequences.
“I could be home having an agreeable vodka on the rocks,” I said. “Instead I’m here with you, surrounded by blue blazers and diamond earrings.”
“What can I say?” Morty said. “You’re a pal. I really didn’t want to go by myself.”
“Why didn’t Sherri come with you?” Sherri was Morty’s spouse. I thought of her that way, a spouse, not a wife, because I’d never liked her.
“She went to visit her mother. Actually, I’m glad she did. It’s a little easier without her.”
“Why? You and she not getting along?”
“Nothing like that. It’s just better without her.”
I was about to question him further but I could tell he wanted to get off that subject. “I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities.” I was quoting Shakespeare, a habit I’d developed after teaching it for 30 years. Morty didn’t blink. He’d heard me do this a zillion times.
“At least you’ll get some good food. They brought in a famous chef. Tickets for this are five hundred bucks.”
“Well that’s a change from the usual suspects in search of free wine. But why are you here? And for this kind of money? I don’t recall you ever being interested in the fine arts. Your direction is more in the line of golf, tits, and ass.”
I can speak the King’s English as well as anyone, but when I’m with Morty my Brooklyn roots tend to take over.
Morty looked away from me. “I didn’t pay anything. The artist e-mailed me from London — that’s where she lives. She said she’s doing a show in East Hampton in July and would I like to come to the opening. She arranged for free tickets.”
Servers had begun circulating through the crowded room with trays of glasses filled with champagne, and others containing elaborate looking hors d’oeuvres.
“Who is this artist? And why would she comp you a thousand dollars’ worth of freebies?”
Morty reached for two glasses. “Just a minute. I need this.” He managed to get the first glass down in one gulp, and began drinking the second, but at a slower rate.
“What’s with you and the champagne? You never drink.”
“It looks like good stuff. Don’t worry. I can handle it.”
“Okay. Then I may as well join you,” I said. I took the champagne and reached for a canapé. “Tuna ceviche with edamame purée on a wonton chip,” said the girl holding the tray. She held out a sheaf of napkins and smiled at me, obviously proud that she’d said it correctly.
“Thanks.” I popped it into my mouth. It was good. I appreciated an unusual hors d’oeuvre but I was equally happy with pigs in a blanket, deli mustard, and potato knishes . . . soul food. Hot dogs always managed to bring back memories of being young and biting hungrily into one at Nathan’s in Coney Island.
Morty and I had done that on hot summer days, getting there by subway at first and then when we were old enough to drive, taking dates on cold winter nights. It was cheap and fun and usually led to parking in one of the rest areas on the Belt Parkway where we would spend a while necking and getting both hot and frustrated. Unlike now, when teenage sex is taken for granted, in those days the girls we knew insisted on virginity. “Another blue ball night,” we’d say afterward.
A server came by. “What’ve you got?” I couldn’t help asking. “Peppercorn-crusted filet mignon on daikon.” Morty and I each took one.
“This chef has talent,” I said. “Now how about answering my question.”
He grabbed my arm. “There she is.”
Two young women had come into the room accompanied by an older woman in a long-sleeved red dress down to her ankles. Shining on her neck was a trio of necklaces studded with red stones. Her high spiked heels were red, as were her nails, of course, as well as her lipstick. For all I knew her bra and panties may have been red, too. Happily her eyes were not, but their dark pupils glittered as they took note of who was in the room. This woman had to be Valerie Venable, owner of the gallery. Red was known to be her signature color. A good choice if you wanted to make sure you were noticed.
Morty took a deep breath. “Time to bite the bullet. Come with me, okay? I need you.”
The two younger women were complete opposites in looks, build, and just about everything else. The one that drew my attention as we got closer was, of course, the better looking one. She was about 5-foot-8 and wore her low-cut black dress with an air of elegance. Silver rings adorned all the fingers of her right hand while the other was bare. One ear had four tiny diamonds stitched into it. I looked at her mouth. When I meet a woman what I most want to examine is her mouth, then her eyes. Rosalind’s mouth was incredible. I could never take my eyes off it.
I never really understood why some women’s mouths are attractive to me and some not. This young woman’s mouth was lovely, with a narrow upper lip, and a full lower one. Kissable, you might say. Her eyes were dark and appeared to be almost black, probably because of her thick black eyebrows.
The other girl had a body like my friend Morty, bulky and round, wore her hair in a pageboy that reminded me of an old Barbara Stanwyck movie, and was dressed in a blue polo shirt and jeans. Her mouth was thin and she had a jaw like a bulldog.
The three of them looked at us and for a moment, no one spoke. Then the one in the black dress held out her hand, a serious expression on her face. Morty shook her hand. I could see that he was trembling. Obviously something powerful was going on here. I was getting curiouser and curiouser.
“I’m so glad you could be here,” she said.
“Thanks for inviting me.” He turned toward me. “This is my friend, Jake Wanderman. I asked him to come along. My wife’s out of town. I hope you don’t mind.”
She held out her hand to me. “I’m Sarajane Relda, and I’m very pleased to meet you.” Her accent was definitely American but there was also a touch of upper-crust English in it. “This is my friend, Margo Staller, and this is Valerie Venable. It’s her doing that I’m here.”
The gallery owner was a small woman with auburn hair, eyes encircled with black eyeliner and mascara’d lashes. She managed a nod at me then began searching the room for more important people.
Margo shook both our hands. “I’m very pleased to meet you.” Her accent was all English, but not the plummy kind, you know, where the sounds seem to come from the bowels.
There was an awkward silence. I attempted to break it. “Is this your first visit to New York?”
“No,” Sarajane said. “But it’s the first time I’ve been in the Hamptons.”
“It’s my first visit,” Margo said.
“How long are you going to be in East Hampton?” Morty said.
“We haven’t made definite plans. Several days certainly.”
“I hope we can get together at some point.”
“I’d like that,” Sarajane said. “Valerie has arranged for the gallery to be open 24 hours a day. The idea, of course, is the allusion to real life. But I’m quite sure I can get away for an hour or two sometime.”
“That would be great,” Morty said.
“Speaking of food,” Valerie Venable said. “We are in for a treat tonight.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “We’ve already had some of the hors d’oeuvres. And they were excellent.”
Valerie continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “I was supremely lucky to get this fabulous chef to participate. He’s just opened the trendiest new restaurant in New York. Sylvia, it’s called. He’s had one in London for some years and one in Paris. It’s said they’re named after his mistresses. Isn’t that amusing?”
I noticed that upon hearing this Sarajane’s face showed a brief moment of something I couldn’t quite identify. Shock? Dismay? I wasn’t sure, but it was gone almost instantly. She said, derisively, “I don’t find it at all amusing,”
“I think you should circulate,” Valerie said, ignoring her remark just as she’d ignored mine. “Give people a chance to meet you.”
Sarajane looked at us and shrugged. “I suppose I should. Hopefully, we can talk later. All right?”
Once we were alone, I said, “Okay. Now give.”
“Fine,” Morty said. “But first, another glass of champagne is required.”
“You’re gonna fall on your face.”
We tried to find a quiet place to talk but there was none. “Why don’t we step outside?” I said, “It’ll be less noisy.”
We showed our tickets to a security guard at the entrance so that we’d have no hassle getting back in. Outside, some smokers were gathered, puffing away. We went a few yards farther and I waited for Morty to explain what was going on.
“You remember after I graduated N.Y.U. I went to college in Philadelphia?”
“I remember, you said it was the best osteopathic college in the country.”
“And I didn’t come home?”
“You wrote that you liked it there and wanted to set up a practice. I thought you were nuts. Who would want to be in Philadelphia?”
“I didn’t want to be there. They made me stay.”
“Who made you stay?” I said. “Your family?”
“Not my family. The girl’s family. The girl I knocked up.”
The light clicked on. Relda? The name had sounded odd to me originally. Suddenly it became clear. The artist’s name, Relda — Adler spelled backward.
“Holy shit,” I said. “Sarajane is your daughter?”
He nodded. “And this is the first time I’ve seen her since she was 11 months old.”
Robert Boris Riskin is the author of two mystery thrillers featuring Jake Wanderman, “Scrambled Eggs” and “Deadly Bones.” This story is the first chapter of a third book in the series. Mr. Riskin has been a member of Maryjane Meaker’s Ashawagh Hall Writer’s Workshop for more than 20 years.