2019 Second Place Winner, “Words on Paper” Contest

Number 12
By Lawrence Hippler

Patrice Clair smiled and shook his head in sympathy with Bruce, the octogenarian handyman for the auditorium. Bruce was on maintenance duty for the annual auction, and it seemed, for all of Shelbyville as well.

“See that?” Bruce pointed a calloused thumb at the poster-sized painting positioned prominently on the stage next to the podium. “They call it Number 12.  I’d call it number two. That’s not a picture; it looks like a drop cloth.”

“Well, that’s Pollack,” Patrice replied with a shrug. “It’s what he does.”

Mr. Bullock the art dealer, just in from Chicago, was suddenly on the edge of the stage peering down at the two of them. In his meticulously tailored black suit and starched white, open-collar shirt, the six-foot-two Mr. Bullock looked to Patrice like an Esquire model that had bounded out of a limousine to illustrate the power of youth and sophistication. That he’d bounded into a small, central Illinois town, though, made him an anomaly.

Bruce pulled a pair of pliers from a pocket of his overalls and headed toward the rear of the hall.

Patrice’s stomach did a roller-coaster-like drop when he noticed that Victoria was then on the stage alongside of the art dealer. He’d not seen her for a year, and she looked good. She seemed to be almost as tall as Bullock and just as sophisticated, in a gray-tweed business suit and black heels. She looked especially good, uptown good. We still have some things in common, Patrice thought. Both of us graduated from high school in 66. Both of us have to go through life with two first names. But the stunning inheritance Victoria Cassandra had received on the death of her CEO husband had rocketed her to a different plateau of life in Shelbyville.

Victoria’s smile dissipated, to be replaced by a scowl when she realized Patrice was now on the stage as well. Wearing a wrinkled blue sport coat and khakis, he was close to the Pollack, too close, staring at it between sips of Doctor Pepper. He got close enough to smell it, even walked around it.

“Who is he? Why is he up here?” Bullock fired the questions at Victoria, in a menacing whisper.

“That guy?” The widow sneered under her breath. “He’ll try anything to get close to me.”

“Get him away from there,” Bullock shouted to the two security guards behind him. “With an open container in his hand, he shouldn’t even be in the building.”

The older, burlier security guard hurried forward and put a hand under Patrice’s arm, gently leading him down the stairs in a relatively gentle perp walk.

Unhanded, Patrice eventually took possession of an unoccupied chair and sipped solemn, sullen sips on his straw as open bidding commenced. The short, fat and balding auctioneer sang out the stereotypical auctioneer’s cadence. Poster-board paddles rose and fell.

As the auction continued, a surprising variety of articles appeared and disappeared: an antique rocking horse, a pedal-powered sewing machine, a rapier that supposedly was on the Spanish Armada in 1588. Patrice had a view of Victoria on the far side of the auditorium. She had not bid or even changed her position throughout the parade of items.
At five in the afternoon, the auctioneer reverently cleared his throat and took a sip of bottled water. Beside the featured painting, Mr. Bullock had also adopted a pose that may have been construed as reverent, standing hands folded in front of him, his eyes focused out on the crowd with an expression that said, Though this is my baby, I now offer it up to you.

Patrice was amazed, first by the quiet sense of awe that had fallen at once over eight hundred Shelbyville natives, but more by the cacophony of hushed comments around him.

“…Such a meaningful piece . . .”

“Do you really anticipate it will fetch that much?”

“Oh, two million for a Jackson Pollack of any size . . .”

He listened but kept his eyes focused across the room on Victoria Cassandra. Bidding on Number 12 began at seven hundred and fifty-thousand dollars. Victoria’s paddle was one of the first to shoot into the air. The muted comments were drowned out by the voice of the fat, and now sweating, auctioneer, which had taken on a new sense of power and urgency.

“Eight-fifty!” the auctioneer proclaimed.

“Nine hundred thousand,” he went on.

“One million two.”

“One point five million.”

Bidding passed the two million mark and Victoria’s hand rose with the same ferocity that it had the beginning.

A new wave of quiet swept the auditorium. It was not a wave of awe this time, but a silence born of disbelief, of take in a breath and hold it until reality returns kind of disbelief. A full two-seconds passed as eight hundred people struggled to comprehend the sight of a seventy-one-year-old man in khakis and a blue sport coat struggling to hike himself up onto a five-foot-high stage while hanging onto a red plastic cup. The seconds of disbelief ended when Patrice achieved his goal. A new round of group comments showered forth.

“Crazy old coot!”

“What the hell . . .”

“Look out. He may have a gun!”

To Patrice’s right, Bullock was rounding the wooden podium, black coat tails flying behind him. On his left, the larger of the two security guards was four feet away from him but stumbled on a lighting cord. It slowed the big man down just long enough for Patrice to scramble to his feet and slosh the entire contents of his plastic cup onto the painting. Brown liquid cascaded down the white canvas and diverted itself like a river overflowing its banks around the thick black and red brush strokes and dots. Simultaneously a cry, a sound somewhere between “Oh” and “Ow” emanated from the crowd and rattled the walls of the auditorium.

Patrice faced the painting and dropped the red cup as if it were a mic. Bullock reached him first and grabbed the back of his sport coat. An instant later, the security guard slammed a hand under his left arm. For an awkward moment, the two of them tugged at Patrice like toddlers with the same toy.

“I’ve got this, Mr. Bullock,” the guard got out between breaths. “I’ve got it.” He did have it; it being a frazzled Patrice totally under control. But neither he nor the angry art dealer expected the sudden crowd to exit their seats and leap onto the stage with them. Most stopped to frown and stare at the desecrated Jackson Pollack. Among them, Victoria Cassandra focused her frozen stare instead on Patrice.

“You’re going to press charges, I hope.” She spoke to Bullock, but her outraged stare never left the older man in front of her.

“Oh yes,” the dealer said, maintaining a token hold on the back of Patrice’s jacket. “We can restore the painting, but this maniac is going away for a long time.”

Victoria was focused on Patrice. “Why?” she managed to get out between clenched teeth. “I want to know why.”

Patrice raised his eyes then and returned her stare. “The painting is a fake,” he said. “Look at the upper left — staple holes. Staples were never used to fasten a canvas in Pollack’s time.”

“The old man’s crazy,” Bullock cried. “I’ve got to make some calls.” He jumped down from the stage and faded into the milling crowd below.

The security guard handed off the captive to his younger counterpart and followed the art dealer. Five interminable, silent minutes passed while the younger security guard held tight to the old man’s jacket and Victoria squinted and poked at the damaged canvas. Now and then, she would fold her arms across her chest and turn her upper body toward her high school sweetheart. Her eyes continued to direct outrage at him until the big guard returned to the stage.

“But when he jumped off the stage, he was furious,” the security guard stammered. “He was so angry he was shaking.” The guard shook his head and put out his hands in an I don’t know stance. “I searched the back rooms, the basement, and in the parking lot where his car should be,” he said. “It’s the strangest thing. He’s gone.”

“What do you mean, he’s gone?” Victoria said.

“I mean Mr. Bullock is gone. Apparently, he just left the building.”

Victoria’s eyes didn’t change direction, but her expression had transformed from one of outrage and scorn into one of profound confusion and disbelief.

Patrice gave her a sheepish smile, and a shrug.

About the Author

LJ Hippler writes literary fiction, memoir, and a little poetry. Though he now lives in Lancaster, South Carolina, he is originally from Baltimore and both of his novels, Cathedral Street and The New Road are set there.

Hippler is proud of having won various short story competitions since 2005, including Pacific Northwest Writers, Writer Advice, and Central Indiana Writers’ Association. Hippler’s short stories and poems have been included in four different anthologies, including two stories in the moonShine review.

His primary goal in 2020 is to publish his memoir, Men Like Us, about working as a military contractor in Qatar and Afghanistan.

With a bachelor’s degree in economics and master’s in finance, Hippler has been known to claim that his twenty-one years of classes at the U of Maryland and the U of Baltimore constitute the longest college career in history.