van Gogh’s Toe
I love yard sales. I really do. In today’s age of ebay and Craig’s List, the classic yard sale appears to be going the way of the Dodo. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find a diamond, but a lot of times you have to dig through a lot of coal first.
I remember my mother taking me to some neighborhood garage sales as a child where I found some nuggets like old BB guns, baseball/hockey cards or if I was really lucky, a Marvel comics action figure in good shape. I always liked Aquaman, although I’m not really sure why. I mean, all the guy did was talk to fish. I’m sure there is also not a big demand for aquatic villains, but I digress.
Now I am a marketing manager for the Holiday Inn chain of hotels. Nice job, good pay, lots of travel, but I won’t bore you with the particulars. I had to visit the location in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and make sure everything was up to snuff and that the hotel kept bringing in the dough we knew, expected and loved.
On my way back from the routine check, I decided to take a scenic drive through some neighboring small towns. So 17 minutes later, I entered the moderately populated city (3,400 persons) of Bayshore, North Carolina.
The homes were pleasant enough, most bungalows or semidetached houses on sleepy streets that seemed as though they hadn’t seen a stitch of change since the 1950’s.
The yard sale was set up outside a nice-looking white bungalow with a yellow fence surrounding the neatly manicured property grounds. A few tables were arranged with some additional goods on the grass or on the driveway. The owner of the house was a large man, I would guess approaching 300 pounds, sitting in a green folding deck chair which appeared to be on the verge of collapse due to his immense girth.
The man wore a turquoise blue tank top which read, “Clinton Gave Me Head” on it. He wore a complementary navy blue baseball cap to protect his cranium from the sweltering 90 degree temperatures.
I pulled my Nissan Altima up to the side of the road and approached the sale. I was wearing my business attire; pink dress shirt with tan khakis, not the optimum garb for the North Carolina summertime.
I surveyed the wares of the sale before me. Most of it appeared to be junk - ceramic mugs reading “God Bless Our Troops”, a few old issues of the Saturday Evening Post, an assortment of glassware and candleholders and a few hideous dresses hanging from bent hangers on cursory scan.
On the ground were some old Stephen King novels, a rusted yellow bicycle on its side and what appeared to be the remnants of a dot matrix printer. Then I noticed the paintings.
There were about 10 in all, stacked one in front of the other, all enclosed in glass frames. I was never an art enthusiast, however I had taken an art history course as an elective in college and had more than a passing interest in some of the finer works of the masters.
The first few I skimmed over were as junky as the remainder of the other garage sale fodder – landscape paintings that were completely unremarkable, a portrait of a Labrador Retriever and the old classic of Bogart, Dean and Monroe ordering cocktails at a 50’s style diner that read “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in neon lights. Then I found the most interesting one of all. I leaned back slightly to fully grasp the image before me.
The owner lumbered up from his lawn chair, causing the joints of the deck chair to squeak with relief of their burden.
“Just a minute there, fella. That there one is special.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Special how?”
The painting was of a big toe, not the entire foot, just the toe on a nondescript green background. The nail was intact and the perspective of the digit appeared slightly rotated.
The gentleman pointed a sausage-like digit at the frame. “That there’s van Gogh’s Toe.”
I stared at him for a moment. “His…his toe?”
“But it’s a print right?”
The man shook his head causing his jowls to flap back and fourth. “Nope, she’s an original.”
I looked for any sign on his face that this was a hustle or scam, but I could not detect any. Extending my hand I said, “Name’s Fine. Martin.”
He gave my hand a firm shake and said, “Abe Jessup. Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Gesturing back to the picture I said, “So you’re telling me this an original van Gogh and you are selling it at a garage sale? How did you come by it?”
He slowly made his way back to the sagging lawn chair. “Well sir, it’s a bit of story. Y’see after the service, I got a job working as a night security guard at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Had all kinds of great stuff there. Tons of van Gogh’s. van Dough’s they pronounced it, cruel bastards. Anywho, one day we get word that the paintings were being shipped to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and yours truly is on the shipping detail.”
He wiped a chubby hand along his sweaty brow. “So, we’re loadin’ all the pictures and sculptures into the moving truck and this one took a little detour into my station wagon if ya catch my drift.”
I nodded and rubbed the back of my neck. The heat seemed to be getting worse. "Right. And no one discovered it gone.”
“You kiddin’? An obscure piece like that? Probably figured I did ‘em a favor taking that there.”
I looked back at the picture. It did appear to have some of van Gogh’s post-impressionistic style with brush stroke texture and bold vibrant colors not characteristic of his traditional oils, but what did I know? The toe itself also appeared slightly off-kilter in position, akin to the van Gogh 1888 masterpiece, The Bedroom.
I chuckled. “And all along I thought he cut off his ear.”
Jessup didn’t share my jest. “That’s what most folk think. Actually, it was just a small piece of his lobe, not the whole damn thing.”
“Is that a fact?” I said.
He ignored me as he craned his neck and shouted to the open window, “Mildred! Bring us out some peach lemonade will ya? Gentleman’s hot out here.”
I held up my hands, “Abe, I don’t want to put you through any trouble..”
“Nah, no trouble t’all. You ain’t had lemonade till you had Mildred’s peach one.”
A pleasant woman emerged from the bungalow, one hip prying open the screen door as she did. She carried a pitcher full of bright orange liquid reminiscent of Tang. In her right hand, she carried a plate of Oreo’s.
“Here y’all go,” she proudly proclaimed. “Hope it not too much sugar for y’all on this hot day.” She plunked a stack of plastic drinking cups on one of the tables.
“Not at all ma’am,” I said snatching one of the cups and pouring myself a glass. “I appreciate the effort. The peach lemonade was good.
Her husband grinned at me which lit up the whole half square mile of his face, “Now that there’s lemonade, wouldn’t you agree Mart?”
Mart. I hadn’t been called that since third grade.
Nonetheless, I swallowed the savory liquid and smiled as best I could. “Abe, you got that right.” I raised my glass in mock toast. “Anyways…whaddya want for this thing?”
He idly scratched at the forming of his gray beard under his protruding chin. I could almost visualize the slow cogs of the wheel turning in his brain.
“500’d be good, I figure.”
I looked back at the frame. 500 bucks? For a real van Gogh? Not that anyone in their right mind would recognize it as an original, mind you.
“Listen fella,” he said, “You mind if I tend ta another customer?”
“No, please do,” I said, gulping down the remains of the peach lemonade. Shielding my back to Abe, I quickly took out my iphone and snapped a quick photo of the toe. Mildred had already slithered her way back into the house and no one else saw me take the shot.
Adeptly I created an e-mail to my girlfriend Liz back in Newark. She knew way more about art than I did, her being a high school visual arts teacher and all.
My text read, “At garage sale. Original van Gogh. $ 500. What should I do?” I sent the message with the picture as an attachment.
I then studied the picture more.
The toe was correct to the very detail. The nail was not broken, no signs of fungus or disease, the skin not quite white per se, but similar to the peachy tone of the lemonade I had just downed. As I had already mentioned, it appeared slightly rotated to the right, giving the viewer a glimpse of the undersurface of the skin revealing it’s slightly calloused contour. No signs of physical damage were apparent on the canvas. The condition was impeccable.
Within seconds, my phone vibrated, indicating a response back from Liz. It simply read “OMG take it and run! Luv U, Me.”
I opened my wallet and was able to fish out 5 one hundred dollar bills from my statch I had acquired prior to my little journey here. I always had a steady flow of cash money in my car when opportunity presented itself and trust me, people always had their hand out.
Abe was busy dealing with a blue haired old lady that appeared to be interested in purchasing an unopened jigsaw puzzle of Ricky Martin and a couple of baseball star bobble head dolls. God knows what for.
I pulled out the cash and motioned for him to come forth.
After finishing with the old lady, he pocketed her money into his orange shorts that seemed disturbingly tight for his rotund frame and lumbered his way over to me, hand extended.
At the last minute, I drew the cash back.
“How do I know it’s authentic? No offense, Abe.”
He coughed long and deep, characteristic of chronic smoker.
“Well fella, the way they check these paintings is by X-ray. It’s not like he signed V.V. G. on the damn thing.”
I nodded, “Yeah, I heard that they do something like that.”
Abe said, “Yessir, it’s true. This one went through the radiation beam like all the others. Including that famous one, Starry Starry Night? You know that one?”
“Yes,” I replied, thinking of the famous Don McLean song Vincent about the same painting.
I handed him the $ 500.
He counted off each of the bills saying to me, “Yeah, it’s a shame I gotta sell this beauty, but the pension ain’t what it used ta be, ya know.”
I felt the sweat accumulating under my armpits. “Yeah, I hear you.”
I lifted the painting carefully and made my way over to the car. I popped open the trunk and carefully placed it on its back. After closing the door, I quickly texted Liz saying “Got it. See U at 9:00.”
I shook Abe’s hand then promptly wiped my palm on the side of my pants.
He waved as I pulled my car off his street and made my way to Highway US -17.
As I drove home, I noticed the oddest thing..my right big toe started to itch. Weird, huh?
© Copyright 2016 Steve Balsky. All rights reserved.