An eerie, almost ominous silence had descended on Harvard Square. The students had packed their traps and left. Graduation was done. The honorands, glorified at the graduation ceremonies, had said their say, eaten the canapés, pocketed their extra degrees and medals and left town as absolutely as the Class of ’Ninety two. Summer school hadn’t begun. It was like the vacancy before the hurricane strikes, when all the birds go quiet. The day wasn’t hot yet, but that was coming for sure.
Fred had walked all the way into Cambridge from Boston after waking early in a place that, for all Clay’s most earnest effort to let him feel at home, still made him nervous. These days he was bunking on the old leather sofa in the basement office of Clayton Reed’s house on Beacon Hill. Clay, heading for a wedding in Lugano, was grateful to leave Fred in charge of the building and his collection. “Use the guest bedroom,” he had offered. But that would be worse. That wouldn’t only make him itch, it would lead to a mortal case of hives. A dwelling was a trap. There was no way to get around it.
He’d not been long with Clay. Still hadn’t proved himself, not to his own satisfaction. He was almost dizzy from the obtuse self-confidence of the man’s willingness, making the leap of faith that left Fred, whom he barely knew, in residence and in charge of several million dollars worth of art—if one cared to translate Clayton’s objects into the metaphor of currency, as Fred did not. Though art was transitory, money was more so. And money, apart from the damage it can do, was uninteresting to Fred, whose own life had become bearable only as the result of being simplified almost to a monastic level. Aside from the car, which was already pretty much in the public domain, and the necessary minimum of clothes, Fred had come close to freeing himself of possessions. He liked it that way.
Fred sat in the Tasty Diner and ordered a breakfast that would also do for lunch—hash, eggs, toast, coffee and more coffee. From his vantage point at the counter, while he ate he could look out at the sidewalk and enjoy the period of reprieve, while this portion of Cambridge reverted to times long gone when Cambridge was a small town with a Woolworth’s. Much more briefly, it had been inhabited by an undergraduate student named Fred Taylor whose mind and heart were seduced and ravaged when he wandered one day into the Fogg museum and found wild beasts ranging freely on its walls.
The man back of the counter, between deft exercises with toast, eggs, sausages, and bacon, was doing his best to engage Fred in talk of baseball. Fred, being a fellow male and human, was supposed to know enough at least to grunt, or nod, or shake his head. Fred would be closer to maintaining his part of the conversation if he’d been back in Thailand.
“Death in the family,” Fred apologized. “I’m distracted,” and was left to a reverie that could now be accepted as mourning.
Mourning was close enough.
Family or not, there had been a good deal of death during the intervening years. And exotic suffering that, as suffering always does, gravitated implacably toward grim simplicity.
“Good coffee,” Fred raised his mug. Wake up, Fred. He’d disappointed the man without cause. That was a fellow human after all. Why offend when there was no reason to? The cook nodded forgiveness. He could talk with other people at the counter.
The rage and color of a single mind, fully engaged—in all its danger, its cruelty, and its beneficent anguish—that was what Fred had felt offered itself, unfettered, in many of the paintings on the museum’s walls. He’d stumbled in mistakenly, believing that it was here they were about to teach him expository writing. Wherever the class might be, he never found it. He’d been assaulted, as had Saul on the road to Damascus, but by Tintoretto, Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, and Cézanne.
When it came time, after an interlude, to start his life again, Fred, remembering the jolt that had transformed him once before, thought about this place and settled, if it could be called settling, across the river. He’d bought a house in Charlestown, along with some other guys with similar experiences and a similar need to adapt inappropriate skills, learned overseas, to the democratic peacetime economy of their native land.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the man back of the counter said, refilling his mug.
“Thanks.” Fred put his money down, took a last swig, and rose.
# # #
Fred timed it to get to the public library at around ten o’clock. He nodded to the shadowy straggle of homeless men who gathered in the shabby park in front of the library building. Dense trees cast a desirable shade as well as offering, when needed, protection from rain. The city, acknowledging, at a distance, that these residents were likely to be men who had served their country, afforded them a wary and aloof protection that became aggressive only when things got out of hand.
The library building was the sort of gingerbread fairy castle an eight-year-old child might have invented in 1880, and built out of brown and yellow blocks, adding extra turrets when it was done. The building was almost fustier outside than in. But all that stone made the inside cooler than the day was going to be. Fred found his way to the reference desk. It stood in a crowded main reading room that also served as copy room and the vestibule for the public toilets—one of the attractions for the homeless who sheltered in the park. A man in shirtsleeves was playing solitaire with index cards on the desk’s surface.
“I’d called with a question,” Fred said. “I talked to someone.
Ms. Riley, if I remember. Is she here?”
“Molly’s around. Likely in the stacks. I can help.”
“I started with Ms. Riley,” Fred said. “I’ll wait till she comes back.” He took a seat at one of the long tables and glanced through yesterday’s Globe. It might as well be last week’s Globe, or tomorrow’s. The names changed. The stories didn’t.
There. That must be Ms. Riley. A graceful young woman of medium height, green dress with buttons up the front, brown hair short, with curls. Fred had only spoken to her on the telephone, but what he saw went with the voice. He put the paper down. The reference colleague in shirtsleeves was gesturing in his direction.
“Molly,” she said. “On the phone it’s Ms. Riley.”
“I should have come a month ago. I left a request. If I ran up a charge, I’m overdue.”
“If it’s only a month I’ll have it,” she said. “Provided I found what you wanted. What was the…”
“Fred,” Fred said. “I might not have gone beyond Fred, being of a retiring nature.”
Molly Riley looked at the craggy heft of him and grinned.
Those eyes were green.
“Fred. Yes. The value of a scudo in Milan in 1525,” she said. “In today’s money. That was the question, wasn’t it?”
Fred nodded. The shirt-sleeved colleague went away with his handful of index cards. Behind the reference desk, at a slight remove, someone chinked quarters into the Xerox machine and then jostled it.
“People think they can beat the odds,” Molly Riley said.
Fred said, “I read around and I find that scholars, or what passes for scholars, are downright ignorant or at least completely lacking in curiosity. Wouldn’t you think, say an art historian tells you that the Mona Lisa was appraised at one hundred scudi in 1525, that same art historian might also be interested to know, and tell you, what else you could buy with the same hundred scudi? A horse? A house? A Xerox copy?”
“I wrote some notes. I can probably find them,” Molly said. “It’s been…”
“I said I’d come in and I didn’t,” Fred admitted again. “I started running in another direction, lost track. Is there a bill for your time?”
Molly shrugged, flipping through papers and folders on a shelf under the counter. She looked up suddenly. “Is it true? Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was appraised in 1525 at a hundred scudi? That’s…”
Fred said, “And what the scholars like to go on about…”
Molly interrupted, “Wait a minute. 1525? Leonardo died in 1519.”
“Granted,” Fred said. “His estate had gone to an intimate assistant and hack painter named Salai. It’s Salai’s estate where it was appraised, because Salai popped off in about 1523. What scholars like to go on about is gee, the shame of it, the Mona Lisa, which everyone knows is the greatest painting in the history of the universe—hangs in the Louvre, the Japanese tourists love it—was appraised at a hundred scudi, despised and rejected, and right next to it, another Leonardo that nobody has even seen since fifteen something, Leda and the Swan, was appraised at two hundred scudi. Twice as much! As if the appraisals had anything to do with artistic merit. No, the accountant came in, it was like measuring dried beans or corduroy. Leda was worth more because it was a bigger picture. In Leda you got the whole figure, not one chopped off above the waist, plus a big bird who was expressing a proprietary interest in the lady.”
“You are an art historian?” Molly was dubious. Fred said, “I get to wondering about things.”
“I never heard of Salai.” Molly pulled out a handful of papers clipped together. “There. That’s my notes.”
“The way people read the story, Salai started out as Leonardo’s page boy and evolved into what we’d call a personal assistant. He’s a footnote. If you track the history of the Mona Lisa, that’s where you have to start.”
“It would be fun,” Molly said. “Especially if the search requires a side trip to Milan. And Paris. And where else? But here’s the best I could do. Take it with a grain of salt, OK? Twenty five K.” “One scudo was worth twenty five thousand dollars?” Fred said. “You mean the Mona Lisa was appraised at two and a half million?”
“Sorry. No. I jumped ahead, did the math, being swept into your story. The best I can figure, the scudo was worth two hundred fifty dollars in today’s money. If I’m right, that brings the Mona Lisa when it was appraised for the estate, in 1525, to twenty-five thousand. That’s what I think. Don’t quote me.”
She was looking at notes scribbled in pencil on white lined paper.
“I could be way off. I know that an unskilled worker could collect one scudo for four days of work. I’m putting that arbitrarily at two hundred fifty bucks. In Rome in 1610, though. Milan, almost a hundred years earlier, I couldn’t find out.”
Fred held his hand out for the notes. Molly, shaking her head, said, “They won’t help you. It’s pretty seat-of-the-pants stuff. But fun now, since I know what it was about. There’s no charge. I spent time on it but it’s still a guess. Back then they were as likely to value things in terms of dozens of eggs, or, what have you: bread or arrows. Not everyone used money. Not everyone had money.”
Fred told her, “The twenty-five K will do me fine. Even if you’re wrong, you can’t be all that wrong.”
Molly said, “I was going to keep on looking. Maybe I will. The question becomes more interesting now you explain it. I lost track when you didn’t…”
“Right,” Fred said. “What I’ll do, in case you bump into something else, I’m in Cambridge now and then, is put my nose in, and if you’re at the desk, you’ll keep me up to date. Glad I had a question that’s not easy.”
“I’ll call, if you want,” Molly offered. “If I get something real.” “I move around so much,” Fred said.
He stepped out of the building into the dusty shade of the worn-out park, cast a glance at his disheveled brothers and suffered the revelation, “I’ve been letting myself go.”