Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Fair Warning

by Robert Olen Butler

“[Fair Warning is] often brilliant, [a] meditation on love and possession . . . Butler wins us over in the opening pages with this companionable, warts-and-all narrator . . . . Fair Warning deserves our praise, but its author also deserves our gratitude, for his continued risk-taking and stubbornly singular sensibility.” —Todd Kilman, The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date January 25, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3956-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

With Fair Warning, Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler “has created one of the more fascinating female protagonists in recent history” (Kirkus Reviews). Amy Dickerson is the star employee of Nichols and Gray, an auction house catering to the shopping pheromones of the rich and powerful. She has turned the pitch into her creative art, using the abundant talents of a sophisticated woman: wit, charm, knowledge, and above all an outstanding ability to read people and intuit their deepest desires. Her customers are intoxicated by the objects that define them and thrilled by the act of making them their own. And sometimes, such as when a mysterious man locks eyes with her as she gives “fair warning” before sounding the auction gavel, that object is Amy herself. Following its unforgettable heroine from the posh restaurants of New York to the backyards of Houston to the glorious riverbanks of Paris, Fair Warning is a stirring mediation on the possibility of love and authenticity in a world where everyone must own or be owned.

Tags Literary


“[Fair Warning] is as frank and sassy as its heroine. It’s also twice as funny and twice as perceptive as much of the fiction that women write for other women to read.” —Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

“Once again, [Butler’s] language is right on the money in this alternately witty and moving meditation on value and values. . . . Butler plays with the usual stereotypes of romance but ultimately rejects them in favor of something much more satisfying and surprising.” —Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

“Engaging . . . fascinating . . . accompanied by the wealth of evocative detail one might expect from a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize . . . Rich and captivating.” —Les Standiford, The Miami Herald

“Witty . . . entertaining . . . [Amy’s] melancholy lucidity is arresting and at times illuminating.” —Richard Eder, The New York Times Book ReviewFair Warning is] often brilliant, [a] meditation on love and possession . . . Butler wins us over in the opening pages with this companionable, warts-and-all narrator . . . . Fair Warning deserves our praise, but its author also deserves our gratitude, for his continued risk-taking and stubbornly singular sensibility.” —Todd Kilman, The Washington Post

“Many of the book’s best moments come from Butler’s analysis of the urge to collect and his meditations on the link between possessions and personality.” —Michael Upchurch, Chicago Tribune

Fair Warning is a strange and finally beautiful tale about obsession and modern love.” —Beth Kephart, Baltimore Sun

“A quick but nonetheless deep read that poses more questions about relationships than it answers . . . . [Butler] scores again.” —Diane Egner, Tampa Tribune

“No writer in America today can be said to surpass Butler in the eating-his-cake-and-having-it-too category: He’s literary, entertaining; serious and funny. Within his clear and fluent narratives, there usually nestles complexity, if you care to look for it. No better example of Butler’s versatility can be found than his most recent novel, Fair Warning.” —Chauncey Mabe, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“[Butler] gives sharp, sensual definition to the antique Waterman fountain pen, the lute whose rose-shaped opening suggests so much more. . . . The power of his writing brings to a sharp point the passion of the collector for the collected.” —Robert Moyer, Winston-Salem Journal

“Butler’s main character is an auctioneer unlike any you’ve read about. Your fate will be sealed as soon as you read the first sentence of this novel. Fair warning!” —Mary Gay Shipley, That Bookstore in Blytheville, Blytheville, AR, Book Sense quote


New York Times Notable Book for 2002 New York Times Book Review Notable Fiction 2002


Perhaps my fate was sealed when I sold my three-year-old sister. My father had taken me to a couple of cattle auctions, not minding that I was a girl—this was before Missy was born, of course—and I’d loved the fast talk and the intensity of the whole thing. So the day of my seventh birthday party, where Missy did a song for everyone while I sat alone, my chin on my hand, and meditated behind my still uncut birthday cake, it seemed to me that here was a charming and beautiful little asset I had no further use for and that could be liquidated to good effect. The next day I gathered a passel of children from our gated community in Houston, kids with serious money, and I had Missy do a bit of her song once more, and I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, no greater or more complete perfection of animal beauty ever stood on two legs than the little girl who stands before you. She has prize-winning breeding and good teeth. She will neither hook, kick, strike nor bite you.

She is the pride and joy and greatest treasure of the Dickerson family and she is now available to you. Who will start the bidding for this future blue ribbon winner? Who’ll offer fifty cents? Fifty cents. Who’ll give me fifty?” I saw nothing but blank stares before me. I’d gotten all these kids together but I still hadn’t quite gotten them into the spirit of the thing. So I looked one of these kids in the eye and I said, “You, Tony Speck. Aren’t your parents rich enough to give you an allowance of fifty cents?” He made a hard, scrunched-up face and he said, “A dollar.” And I was off. I finally sold her for six dollars and twenty-five cents to a quiet girl up the street whose daddy was in oil. She was an only child, a thing I made her feel sorry about when the bidding slowed down at five bucks.

Needless to say, the deal didn’t go through. Missy tried to go get her dolls and clothes before she went off to what I persuaded her was a happy, extended sleep over, and Mama found out. That night my parents and Missy ate dinner in the dining room and I was put in my own room upstairs with a TV tray to eat my spaghetti alone. If I wanted to sell any one of them, then I wanted to sell them all, they claimed, and eating alone was supposed to show me how it would feel. I was supposed to be lonely. Of course, they were wrong. It was just my sister I wanted to dispose of. And all I was feeling was that somehow Missy had done it to me again. She was at my daddy’s elbow downstairs, offering her cheek for pinching. I felt pissed about that but I also felt exhilarated at the thought of what I’d done at the sale. I figured she wasn’t worth even half the final bid.

I am forty years old. Recently turned, and it’s true I don’t look it. But splendid condition—and enchanting provenance—notwithstanding, an object also is what it is by its objective standards. I’m forty now. Missy is thirty-six. My daddy is dead. For more than a year. Mama sits in the same rambling faux Queen Anne on the same gated street in Houston.

And I’m sure she continues to wonder why her two daughters have chosen to live seventeen hundred miles away. She’s long wondered that, though she’s always been forgiving of Missy because there was a husband involved. As for me, I still feel exhilarated when I can sell something to somebody, especially when they end up valuing the thing more than anyone else possibly could. Perhaps in some way all our fates were sealed.

Still, these past weeks following my fortieth birthday have been, at the very least, unexpected. It started with the Crippenhouse auction. Near the end of the morning, after I’d gaveled down dozens of lots of major artwork for big money from a big crowd that nearly filled our Blue Salon, a tiny, minor Renoir came up. Barely six inches square. One fat naked young woman with a little splash of vague foliage behind her. Generic Impressionism on a very small scale. Like a nearsighted man looking through the knothole in a fence without his glasses. And yet I stood before these wealthy people and I knew them well, most of them, knew them from playing them at this podium many times before and meeting them at parties and studying the social registers and reading their bios and following their ups and downs and comings and goings in the society columns and the Wall Street Journal and even the Times news pages. I stood before them and there was a crisp smell of ozone in the air and the soft clarity of our indirect lights and, muffled in our plush drapery and carpeting, the rich hush of money well and profusely spent. I looked around, giving them a moment to catch their breath. The estimate on the Renoir was one hundred and forty thousand dollars. Often we’d put a relatively low estimate on a thing we knew would be hot in order to draw in more sharks looking for an easy kill, and if you knew what you were doing, they wouldn’t even realize that you’d actually gotten them into a feeding frenzy until they’d done something foolish. But this was one of those items where we’d jacked up the estimate on a minor piece that had one prestige selling point in order to improve its standing. Renoir. He’s automatically a big deal, we were saying. In fact, though, we were going to be happy getting eighty percent of the estimate. I had just one bid in the book lying open before me—mine was bound in Morocco with gilt pages—which is where an auctioneer notes the order bids, the bids placed by the big customers with accounts who are too busy sunning themselves somewhere in the Mediterranean or cutting deals down in Wall Street to attend an auction. For the little Renoir, the one book bid wasn’t even six figures, and I knew the guy had a thing for fat women.

So I looked out at the bid-weary group and I said, “I know you people,” though at the moment I said this, my eyes fell on a man on the far left side about eight rows back who, in fact, I did not know. There were, of course, others in the room I didn’t know, but this man had his eyes on me and he was as small-scaled and indistinct to my sight as the fat girl in the painting. But he was fixed on me and I could see his eyes were dark and his hair was dark and slicked straight back and his jaw was quite square and I know those aren’t enough things to warrant being caught stopping and looking at somebody and feeling some vague sense of possibility—no, hardly even that—feeling a surge of heat in your brow and a little catch and then quickening of your breath.

I forced my attention to the matter at hand. “I know you,” I repeated, getting back into the flow that had already started in me. “You’re wearing hundred-dollar underpants and carrying thousand-dollar fountain pens.”

They laughed. And they squirmed a little. Good.

I said, “You will not relinquish even the smallest detail of your life to mediocrity.”

Now they stirred. I am known for talking to my bidders. Cajoling them. Browbeating them, even. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s they would grumble at what I do. But they value me at Nichols & Gray for these things. And my regulars here know what to expect.

I said, “But there is a space in the rich and wonderful place where you live that is given over to just such a thing, mediocrity. A square column in the foyer, a narrow slip of wall between two doors. You know the place. Think about it. Feel bad about it. And here is Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dead for eighty years, the king of the most popular movement in the history of serious art, ready to turn that patch of mediocrity into a glorious vision of corporeal beauty. Lot 156. Entitled “Adorable Naked French Woman with Ample Enough Thighs to Keep Even John Paul Gibbons in One Place.”” And with this I looked directly at John Paul Gibbons, who was in his usual seat to the right side in the second row. He was as famous in the world of these people for his womanizing as for his money. I said, ‘start the bidding at forty thousand, John Paul.”

He winked at me and waved his bidder’s paddle and we were off.

“Forty thousand,” I said. “Who’ll make it fifty?”

Since John Paul was on my right, I suppose it was only natural for me to scan back to the left to draw out a competing bid. I found myself looking toward the man with the dark eyes. How had I missed this face all morning? And he raised his paddle.

“Fifty thousand ” ” I cried and I almost identified him in the way I’d been thinking of him, as ‘dark Eyes.” But I caught myself. “” to the gentleman on the left side.” I was instantly regretful for having started this the way I had. Was Renoir’s pudgy beauty his type?

My auctioneer self swung back to John Paul Gibbons to pull out a further bid, even as the thoughts of another, covert self in me raced on.

‘sixty from Mr. Gibbons,” I said, thinking, If she is his type, then I’m shit out of luck. All my life I’ve been in desperate pursuit of exactly the wrong kind of butt.

And sure enough, Dark Eyes bid seventy. I was happy for womanhood in general, I guess, if this were true, that men were coming back around to desiring the likes of this plumped-up pillow of a young woman, but I was sad for me, and I looked over my shoulder at her and my auctioneer self said, “Isn’t she beautiful?” and my voice betrayed no malice.

John Paul took it to eighty and Dark Eyes took it to ninety while I paused inside and grew sharp with myself. You’ve become a desperate and pathetic figure, Amy Dickerson, growing jealous over a stranger’s interest in the image of a naked butter-ball. “Ninety-five to the book,” I said.

And there was a brief pause.

I swung back to John Paul. A man like this—how many times had he merely seen a woman across a room and he knew he had to get closer to her, had to woo and bed her if he could? Was I suddenly like him? “A hundred? Can you give me a hundred? No way you people are going to let a Renoir go for five figures. You’d be embarrassed to let that happen.”

John Paul raised his paddle. “A hundred thousand to John Paul Gibbons.”

The bid had run past the order bid in my book and a basic rule for an auctioneer is to play only two bidders at a time. But I didn’t want to look at Dark Eyes again. I should have gone back to him, but if he had a thing for this woman who looked so unlike me, then to hell with him, he didn’t deserve it. If he was bidding for it—and this thought made me grow warm again—if he was bidding for it merely out of his responsiveness to me, then I didn’t want him to waste his money on a second-rate piece. “One ten?” I said and I raised my eyes here on the right side and another paddle went up, about halfway back, a woman who lived on Park Avenue with a house full of Impressionists and a husband twice her age. “One ten to Mrs. Fielding on the right.”

She and John Paul moved it up in a few moments to the estimate, one forty. There was another little lull. I said, “It’s against you, Mrs. Fielding.” Still she hesitated. I should turn to my left, I knew. Dark Eyes could be waiting to give a bid. But instead I went for all the other Mrs. Fieldings. I raised my hand toward the painting, which sat on an easel behind me and to my left. My auctioneer self said, ‘doesn’t she look like that brief glimpse you had of your dearest aunt at her bath when you were a girl? Or even your dear mama? Her essence is here before you, a great work of art.” But the other me, with this left arm lifted, thought—for the first time ever from this podium, because I was always a cool character in this place, always fresh and cool—this other me that had gone quite inexplicably mad thought, My god what if I’m sweating and he’s looking at a great dark moon beneath my arm?

I know about desire. It’s my job to instill it—blind, irrational desire—in whole crowds of people. But doctors get sick. Lawyers go to jail. Evangelists get caught with prostitutes. There are impulsive attractions that make you feel like you’re in control of your life somehow—here’s something I want, even superficially, and I’m free to grab it. Then there are the impulsive attractions that only remind you how freedom is a fake. You might be free to pursue your desires, but you’re never free to choose them.

And I had no choice that morning. I lowered my arm abruptly in spite of the fact I hadn’t sweat from nerves since I was sixteen. But I’d already made my selling point. I’d stoked the desire of others and Mrs. Fielding took up the pursuit, as did another wealthy woman for a few bids and then another—I played them two at a time—and then it was one of the moneyed women against a little man who dealt in art in the Village and should have known better about this piece, which made me wonder if he’d had a life-changing glimpse of his corpulent mama at her bath, but that was the kind of thing my auctioneer self rightly ruminated on during the rush of the bidding and I had more or less put Dark Eyes out of my mind and we climbed over a quarter of a million and my boss was beaming in the back of the room and then it stopped, with the little man holding a bid of two hundred and sixty thousand dollars. “It’s against you,” I said to the woman still in the bidding. She shook her head faintly to say she was out of it.

There is a moment that comes, if you’ve done your work well, when the whole room finally and abruptly goes, What the hell are we doing? I knew we had reached that moment. But I would have to look back to my left before I could push on to a conclusion.

“Two sixty,” I said. ‘do I hear two seventy? Two seventy for your sweet Aunt Isabelle? Two sixty then. Fair warning.”

Now I looked to him.

His eyes were fixed on me as before and then he smiled, and the unflappable Amy Dickerson, master auctioneer, suddenly flapped. I lost the flow of my words and I stopped. It seemed that he was about to raise his paddle. Don’t do it, I thought, trying to send a warning to him across this space. I wrenched my attention away and cried, “Sold! For two hundred and sixty thousand dollars.”

I normally use the lull after the gavel, while the lot just sold is taken away and the next one set up, to assess certain buyers that I’ve learned to read. One woman who sits perfectly still through the bidding for items she has no interest in will suddenly start shuffling her feet when something she wants is about to come up. Another refreshes her lipstick unnecessarily. One distinguished retired surgeon, who always wears a vest, will lift up slightly from where he’s sitting, first one cheek and then the other, as if he’s passing a perfect pair of farts. But on that morning I was still struggling with an unreasonable obsession. I thought of nothing but this complete stranger and I finally realized that the only way to exorcise this feeling was to confront it, but when at last I worked up the courage to look once more to my left, Dark Eyes had gone.

Though I’d more or less always competed with her and resented her and criticized her and argued with her and ignored her and heeded her every foolish thought—which is to say I loved her like a sister—Missy and I had lunch once a week in the Village. Sometimes, when we’d grow vaguely irritable with each other for reasons neither of us could put a finger on, one of us would smile a brittle smile at the other and say it just that way. “I love you like a sister,” she’d say or I’d say, and then the other would reply, “Just so” or “me too” or even “Go to hell.” And still, we’d tell each other everything, as if there was an actual bond of trust between us, which there was.

So the day after the Crippenhouse auction, over sushi on Thompson Street, I talked about Dark Eyes. “I was relieved,” I said, about his vanishing at the end. “But damn if I wasn’t wildly disappointed as well.”


“So? There sat a man like John Paul Gibbons and I’m suddenly acting like his dark twin sister.”

“Is John Paul still after you?”

“You’re missing the point,” I said.

She shrugged. “I don’t think so. You’re forty now, Amy. You’re single. It’s hormones and lifestyle.”

“Yow,” I cried.

‘did you get some wasabi up your nose?”

In fact, I was merely thinking, If you hadn’t gone back for your dolls and your clothes I wouldn’t be sitting here with you once a week out of familial devotion listening to your complacent hardness of heart. Though I realized, trying to be honest with myself, that my alternative today—and most days—was eating lunch on my own, bolting my food, avoiding the company of men who bored me, a list that got longer every day, it seemed. I resented her stumbling onto a half truth about me and so I leaned toward her and said, “You’re thirty-six yourself. You haven’t got much longer to be smug.”

“That reminds me,” Missy said. “Jeff mentioned he saw a poster about that charity auction you’re doing in East Hampton.”

“How does what I said remind you of that?” I put as much muscle in my voice as I could, but she looked at me as if I’d simply belched. She wasn’t going to answer. She had no answer. I knew the answer: her loving husband Jeff the broker was her shield against turning forty. Right. Maybe.

‘mama said she hoped you’d call sometime,” Missy said.

I was still following the track under Missy’s surface. Mama thought that a beautiful woman like me, as she put it, was either stupid or a lesbian not to have been married by the time I hit forty. And she knew, as God was her witness, that I wasn’t a lesbian.

‘she hated Daddy by the time she was forty,” I said.

“Calm down,” Missy said. ‘drink some green tea. It’s like a sedative.”

“And he hated her.”

Missy looked away, her mouth tightened into a thin red line.

Okay. I felt guilty for rubbing this in. Both times I’d actually allowed a man to move in with me—all his stuff, no way out, one toilet one life—I eventually arrived at something like hatred for him. In another era, I would have already gone ahead and married each of them and it would have been no different for me than for Mama, except she’d never get a divorce.

I followed Missy’s eyes across the room. She was looking at no one, she was just getting pissed with me, but there was a man leaning across a table for two touching the wrist of the woman he was with. He was talking quickly, ardently. I looked away, conscious of my own wrist. Whose gesture was that from my own life? One of the live-ins. Either Max or Fred. I twisted my mind away. Who cares which one? I thought. Whoever it was would say, Amy, Amy, Amy, you get so logical when you’re angry. And yet the touch on my wrist meant he still thought I was a quaking bundle of nerves beneath the irrefutable points I’d been making against him. All he had to do was touch me there and he’d wipe the logic away and prevail. But no way, Mister. I never lost my logic in an argument, even though sometimes there were tears, as meaningless as getting wet for somebody you’re just having sex with. I’m crying, I’d say to him, but don’t you dare take it wrong, you son of a bitch. It was Max.

“I’ve got to go,” my sister said, and I looked at her a little dazedly, I realized, and we both rose and leaned forward stiffly from the waist and kissed on the cheek. We split the bill and my half of the tip was six dollars and twenty-five cents. I watched her gliding away out the door and then I stared at the money in my hand.

The Nichols & Gray building is a dreary Fifties thing of concrete and glass on the Upper East Side, as insipid as the old Sotheby’s building on Madison, but Arthur Gray won’t hear a word against it. “We’re not the ones who are meant to shine,” he says whenever I gripe about the place, always quickly adding, “Except for you, dear. You shine on.” Still, it was full of good associations for me, which I found myself very much aware of as I went up in the elevator after my lunch with Missy. So I got off on the second floor just to remind myself what I was all about. I stood in the back doors of the Blue Salon and watched the young men in short-sleeved white shirts and black bow ties, the Lifters and Movers, at the front, setting up the American Art Pottery auction. I looked around at the empty chairs. I could still smell the ardor hovering in the air. Shopping pheromones. They are spoken of in no book, but I know they exist. Those who exude them draw not only other shoppers to them but objects, as well. The young men were laughing. One was wobbling on a ladder setting a spotlight over the stage-left turntable. Even these hormone-besotted boys couldn’t get as hot for a piece of ass as some of the pottery-head Central-Park-Westers were going to get when they saw the Shirayamadanis coming to that turntable later in the week.

I slipped out and took the steps up one floor and passed into my outer office without catching anybody’s eye. I’d had a quiet morning proofing a big Veteran and Vintage Cars and Motorcycles catalog and even Lydia had been gone for dental work, though she was here now. I could see the shadow of her black tee-shirt beneath her white blouse. She was a Goth leading a double life. Though she’d been with me for nearly three months now, we’d still not spoken a word about any of that. I didn’t want to chance putting her off: in her first few days, on her own initiative, she’d brilliantly reorganized my files. In the face of my grateful amazement she simply shrugged and said, ‘someday you’ll need something real bad and I won’t find it and it’ll get us both fired.” She was a true believer in darkness.

As I whisked past, grabbing the pink called-while-you-were-gone slips, she looked up from her keyboard and furrowed her brow at me. I figured I knew why. She hated filling out these slips, thinking everything should go into my computer. So I waved the slips at her now and said, “Computers crash.”

“That’s not the issue,” she said.

“What, then?”

“Am I free to speak?”

“I won’t fire you for speaking your mind. You know that.”

“Okay. What’s with the Frenchmen?”

“What Frenchmen?”

“Christie’s got bought. Phillips got bought. By two different French guys. Now Mr. Gray’s burning up the lines to Paris like it’s phone-sex.”

“You’re afraid the French are going to buy Nichols & Gray and they’ll fire us both?”

Lydia shrugged.

Arthur’s Paris calls were indeed news to me. There were other explanations, of course. But it was also like Arthur Gray to keep me out of the business loop until the last minute. “Lydia, they need me here. I need you. We’re safe.”

Lydia sighed and she stared hard at me, I think to stop herself from rolling her eyes in contempt.

I said, “You think I’m blind to the dark forces of the universe.”

This surprised her. But she reflected no more than a nanosecond on my insight before she leaped ahead a few steps in a presumed conversation that kept me comfortably ignorant of her. “Okay, Ms. Dickerson. I’ll chill.”

It’s not where I was going, but I didn’t bother to dispute her. “Good,” I said, and I went into my office and sat down and I waited long enough so it wouldn’t seem as if I was going off to check on what Lydia had said and then I went off to check on what Lydia had said.

Arthur’s secretary had her back to me—a long dark drape of hair. I could see her and Lydia done up in black PVC in some club on the Lower East Side comparing notes on their bosses uptown. But I kept my mouth shut. For one thing, I wanted to keep my pipeline open to Arthur’s office.

“Hi, Winona,” I said to her and before she could turn I barged on into Arthur’s office, as was my custom.

WQXR was playing low in the background—some simpering generic baroque thing—and Arthur was on the phone. He blew me a kiss with his fingertips and motioned me to a chair.

“Of course,” he said into the phone. “Mais oui.” At the French phrase—which he pronounced beautifully, though I knew it to be one of only perhaps a dozen that he knew—he winked at me. Arthur could be vain over odd little things, like his perfect pronunciation of a language he didn’t speak, but this time I took the wink as a reflection of his guilty conscience. I arrived at just the right moment. “I’ll see you next week,” he said to Paris. “Au revoir. And bon voyage.”

Heady with three killer phrases in a row, Arthur hung up and squared around to me. “Amy, my hero. You were magnificent last night.”

I said, “Elle a eu son heure de gloire.”

Arthur frowned. “Now, my dear, you know I can’t speak a word of that language.”

“He’d never guess,” I said, nodding to the phone.

“Ah. Well. I think he knows.”

Suddenly it occurred to me that the Gothnet had leaped to the wrong conclusion. Arthur simply had a new boyfriend.

This seemed even more likely as he veered back to the auction. “That might well be the worst Renoir I’ve ever seen. To sell that for what you did, my dear, was pure genius.” He slicked a hand back over his hair, which he’d abruptly died chestnut—the color of his youth, he said—the day after he turned sixty. I grew suspicious again.

“Arthur, is it time to tell me something?”

“Of course, my dear. I was just waiting for Alain to arrive in town so we three could sit down together.”


Arthur nodded solemnly at the phone. “Alain Bouchard.”

“So we do have a French suitor?”

“We do. Ours is the best of the lot, too.”

“Arthur, the secretaries all know already.”

“He’s racehorses and wine and Mirage jets, or at least some crucial part of them.”

“Arthur,” I said sharply. “Pay attention.”

He blinked and focused on me.

I said, “You’ve called me ‘my dear” twice in a minute and a half. You know you’ve done something wrong.”

“And ‘my hero,” too,” he admitted, hanging his head.

“There. You see?”

“The secretaries know?”

“Yes they do. I don’t.”

“I’m sorry, Amy. You understand it’s not from lack of respect for you. I didn’t think anybody on this side of the Atlantic knew but me and Pookie’s ghost.” Arthur crossed himself, which was rather like his speaking French. He wasn’t Catholic, or even religious. Pookie had been Philip Nichols, the Nichols of Nichols & Gray.

I waited. Arthur meditated. I presumed on his dear departed Pookie. Then he said, “Two hundred and sixty thousand dollars for that bloody awful painting. You outdid yourself.”

“Arthur, now you’re starting to sound British. That’s the next stage when you’re feeling guilty. I suppose I know what that’s about.”

“No you don’t. I’m doing everything I can.”

“You promised me a chance to buy in some day.”

“Alain knows what an asset you are in all this. I told him he had to give you a piece of it. Stock or something. He’s got plenty of stock.”


“He’s anxious to meet you.”

“That has the whiff of euphemism,” I said.

“The whiff’s not coming from me,” Arthur said. I waited for a hand to fly up to smooth his hair, but both of them stayed on the desktop. Furthermore, he was looking at me unwaveringly in the eyes. In short, I believed him.

But it was also clear I’d gotten as much as I was going to get out of Arthur for now and I rose from the chair. “I’d tell you to watch out for what your secretary’s hearing,” I said, “but that may be the only way I’ll ever find out what’s going on.”

Now one of Arthur’s hands rose from the desk, hovered for a moment, and then did a one-eighty flip, a presto-changeo gesture. “Here now, my dear,” he said. “A fun thing. An apartment on Central Park West chockablock full of Victoriana, all for us. Monday you get to go play.”

The thing he wanted to changeo was my mood. Arthur hated seeing me unhappy. The sad thing was, this worked.

The auction business is built on the three ‘d’s’: debt, divorce, and death. Monday morning I entered a russet brick and terra-cotta apartment building where a reclusive woman who loved her Victoriana had died in her sleep six weeks ago. I was not unaware that the quickening in me—yes, the happiness—over the prospect of eight rooms of stuff to handle and ponder and classify and value was directly a result of a woman’s death. Her only son would meet me, so I squelched my pleasure and chose from one of three Nichols-and-Gray first-meeting demeanors—the debt counselor or the divorce attorney or the mortician. I was least comfortable with the latter, but that was the obvious choice.

The doorman had my name and I went up in an elevator that smelled faintly of Obsession and I rang the bell at the woman’s apartment. And when the door swung open I found myself standing before Dark Eyes.

I’m sure I let the creature beneath the mortician—indeed, even beneath the gleefully object-obsessed auctioneer—show her face in that moment: the little half smile that came over Dark Eyes told me so. The smile was faintly patronizing, as well. But I forgave him that. I was, after all, making myself a gawking fool at the moment. The smile also suggested, I realized, that he had requested me specifically for this evaluation. I focused on that thought, even as I reasserted my professionalism.

“I’m Amy Dickerson,” I said. “Of Nichols & Gray.”

He bowed faintly and he repeated my name. ‘ms. Dickerson.” He was a little older than I thought, from close up, and even handsomer. His cheekbones were high and his eyes were darker than I’d been able to see from the podium. “I’m Trevor Martin. Mrs. Edward Martin’s son.”

“I’m glad,” I said, and to myself I said, What the hell does that mean? “To meet you,” I added, though I fooled neither of us. I was glad he was here and I was here. The only thing I wasn’t glad about was that his name was Trevor. It was a name made for a rainy climate and bowler hats.

“Come in,” he said and I did and I nearly staggered from the Victorian profusion of the place. The foyer was stuffed full: an umbrella stand and a grandfather clock and a stand-up coat-rack and a dozen dark-framed hunting scenes and a giltwood and gesso mirror and a Gothic-style cupboard and a papier-mâché prie-dieu with shell-inlaid cherubs and a top-rail of red velvet, and Trevor—I had to think of him as that now, at least till I could call him Dark Eyes to his face—Trevor was moving ahead of me and I followed him into Mrs. Edward Martin’s parlor—and my eyes could not hold still, there was such a welter of things, and I went from fainting bench to pump organ to the William Morris Strawberry Thief wallpaper—the walls were aswirl with vines and flowers and strawberries and speckled birds.

“I don’t know where the smell of lilacs is coming from,” he said.

I looked at him, not prepared for that cognitive leap. I looked back to a mantelpiece filled with parian porcelains of Shakespeare, General Gordon, Julius Caesar, Victoria herself threatening to fall from the edge where she’d been jostled by the crowd of other white busts.

“It’s always in my clothes after I visit here.”

“What’s that?” I said, trying to gain control of my senses.

“The lilac. I never asked her where it came from, but now when I’m free to look, I can’t find it.”

“You must miss her,” I said.

“Is that what I’m conveying?” His voice had gone flat.

I didn’t even know myself why I’d jumped to that conclusion, much less expressed it. Maybe it was all her stuff around me. See me, love me, miss me, she was crying, I am so intricate and so ornamented that you can’t help but do that. But Trevor clearly had seen her, and whether or not he’d loved her, I don’t think he missed her much. Evidently he heard his own tone, because he smiled at me and he made his voice go so soft from what seemed like self-reflection that my hands grew itchy to touch him. “That must sound like an odd response,” he said. “How could an only child not miss his mother?”

“I can think of ways.”

He smiled again but this time at the room. He looked around. ‘do you wonder if I grew up amidst all this?”


“I did.”

“And you want to get rid of it.”

His smile came back to me. He looked at me closely and he was no Trevor at all. “Every bit,” he said.

That first day, I sat at a bentwood table in the kitchen and he would bring me the things he could carry—a sterling silver biscuit box and a cut glass decanter, a coach-lace coffee cozy and a silver and gold peacock pendant, and on and on—and I would make notes for the catalog description and I would give him an estimate and he never challenged a figure, never asked a question. At some point I realized it was past two and we ordered in Chinese and he had already rolled the sleeves on his pale green silk shirt and we ate together, me using chopsticks, him using a fork. In the center of the table sat a spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight painted lead horses with jockeys that circled a grooved wooden track. He had just put it before me when the doorbell rang with the food.

We ate in silence for a couple of minutes, a nice silence, I thought—we were comfortable enough with each other already that we didn’t have to make small talk. Finally, though, I pointed to the toy and asked, “Was this yours?”

“Not really. It was around. I never played with it.”

“Weren’t you allowed?”

“How much will we get?” he said.

“Toys aren’t a specialty of mine. I can only get you into the ballpark.”

“Close enough.”

“I think the estimate would be around three hundred dollars.”

“And you’d work the bid up to six.”

I looked at the row of jockeys. “Probably a little more. Understand that estimates usually run low. To whet appetites. And we do have a couple of regulars who play the horses. And more than a couple are still kids at heart.”

“You’re scary sometimes, Amy Dickerson, what you can pick up in people.” He was smiling the same smile I’d taken for self-reflection.

“This might be true,” I said. I was up to my elbows here in mothers and children and my own mother thought the same thing about me, expecting all the good men in the world to be frightened away. Looking into Trevor’s dark eyes I felt a twist of something in my chest that the cool and collected part of me recognized as panic.

“I mean that in an admiring way,” he said.

“How come I didn’t pick up on that?”

“I’m sorry. I scare people, too.”

“But you don’t scare me. See the problem I’m suddenly faced with? We have an imbalance here.”

“In the courtroom,” he said.

“You’re a lawyer?”


“That is scary,” I said, and part of me meant it.

“I only defend the poor and the downtrodden,” he said.

“Not if you can afford silk shirts.”

“That was two categories. I defend the poor and the downtrodden rich.”

“Is there such a thing?”

“Ask any rich man. He’ll tell you.”

“What about rich women?”

The playfulness drained out of him, pulling the corners of his mouth down. I knew he was thinking about his mother again.

“Trevor,” I said, softly. He looked me in the eyes and I said, “Play the game.”

For a moment he didn’t understand.

I nodded to the spring-driven tabletop horse-racing toy with eight hollowcast, painted lead horses with jockeys and grooved wooden track, estimate three hundred dollars. He followed my gesture and looked at the object for a moment. Then he stretched and pulled it to him and he put his hand on the key at the side. He hesitated and looked at me. Ever so slightly I nodded, yes.

He turned the key and the kitchen filled with the metallic scrinch of the gears and he turned it again and again until it would turn no more. Then he tripped the release lever and the horses set out jerking around the track once, twice, a horse taking the lead and then losing it to another and that one losing it to another until the sound ceased and the horses stopped. Trevor’s eyes had never left the game. Now he looked at me.

“Which one was yours?” I asked.

He reached out his hand and laid it over mine. Our first touch. “They all were,” he said.

Copyright ” 2002 by Robert Olen Butler. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.