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February 5, 2014 | Fiction

Appraisals

Robert Long Foreman

Appraisals photo

I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth. 

It was worth nothing, said the man in the green blazer with no tie but every shirt button fastened. He said it from the other side of a small table where we sat poised as if playing a strange game of chess in which the only piece in play was the marble frog. He had a beard but no bedside manner. I asked what he could tell me about the frog. “Nothing,” he said again, and beckoned to the man behind me, who had claimed, sometime in the three hours we had spent standing together in line, that the cobbler’s toolset in the canvas bag that hung from his arm was “just ancient!” 

The convention center’s bartender was also just ancient. I thought he was making some kind of joke when he asked, as he mixed my Old Fashioned, if the painting he had kept in his garage for the last twenty years was worth anything. He tried to describe the painting to me. It sounded like what he had in his garage might not be a painting. 

It was not a pleasant bar. It was too bright. You could walk from the convention hall and into the bar and not know you were in a bar. It was like an airport lounge, and the cocktail was about as good as it would have been at an airport. 

I was drinking at a small table when a man who had clearly spent the last half-decade letting himself go approached in a polo shirt and said he would like a “second opinion”—on what, he didn’t say. “Please,” he said. From a paper bag he withdrew a metal Crayola box and placed it at the center of the table. He gave me a grave, reticent look that made me feel for a moment like I hadn’t left the funeral. He asked what I could tell him about the box. 

I took a drink and lifted the box, expecting it to be heavier than it was. “I thought it would be heavier,” I said. “It must be tin?” He kept watching, kept silent. I opened the box. There was nothing inside. I closed the lid and rotated the box in my hands. I found a stamp on its base, with a date: 1920. I said, “It’s from 1920,” and the man nodded as if I had not just read it off the box. 

I began to understand what was happening. I sat back. I said, “How much did the other appraiser say this was worth?” 

“Five bucks,” the man said, curtly, and looked at me with his mouth closed. 

I said, “I estimate its value somewhere between twenty and twenty-five dollars.” 

The man didn’t look happy, exactly, but he looked less dejected than he had when he sat down. He thanked me, took his box and paper bag, and nodded to the man who replaced him. 

This next man was also wearing a polo shirt. He was a talker. He told a long story about a ceramic vase that he sat on the table between us. It was a blue and white vase, a few feet wide and rather tall, so that when he spoke I couldn’t see him. All I could see was the vase. He said the appraiser “in the other room” was a “nice enough guy,” but what he’d said about the vase didn’t square with what he’d read in the “guide books.” I didn’t ask him what guide books on vases were like, though it was all I thought about for the ten minutes he spent telling me how he came to own the vase. His story ended when he said, “But the guy out there told me, ‘Sir, I’m afraid this was made recently. Maybe not the last twenty years? Not long before then, though?’” 

I gathered from his impression that the appraiser was not good with people. He knew antiques, but he couldn’t let a man down easy when that man expected great things from his vase and had waited hours to be disappointed by it. 

I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I’d heard that morning. It was my dad. 

I took a long look at the vase. I said, “It’s ceramic.” I said, “It’s from the late twentieth century, no doubt about that.” That was more or less what the appraiser had said, but I made it sound a little better by using the word “century.” 

“I like what I see here,” I said, and pointed to the mouth of the vase with the stirrer from my cocktail. I swept the stirrer up and down one of the vase’s handles a couple of times and said, looking its owner in the eyes, “There’s been some serious craftsmanship that’s gone into this vase.”

I asked him what “my colleague” had said it was worth and he said, “He told me it’s worthless—and then he was like, ‘It’s worth nothing,’ like he didn’t just say that already.” The man then put a toothpick in his mouth—I don’t know where the toothpick came from. 

I said, “Well, I can see where my colleague would get that impression, because vases from the 1980s—and I have no doubt this is one of them—tend to look similar. But if you’d be willing to lift this one so I can see its base—thank you. Yes! If you look here, this stamp indicates it’s a product of the Sears group. Now, you might confuse the Sears group with the Sears department store, but no: this Sears group was a team of artisans in Colorado who called themselves the Sears group on purpose. For them, it was something like a subversive act, putting the name of such a big, soulless company on what was, in fact, very soulful work. 

“Sir,” I said. “This vase is not worthless at all. I estimate its value somewhere between one and two hundred dollars.” 

Like the last guy, he was not overjoyed, but he was slightly happier than he’d been when he joined me. He carted his thing away silently, not thanking me or saying goodbye. 

When I finished with my next customer, a woman with a wooden toy dog that I said was from the eighteenth century and probably worth $400, I looked up and discovered a line of a dozen tired-looking people had formed, half in polo shirts, all holding objects. I also discovered that my glass was empty, so as I lied to a sagging woman with a soapstone recreation of the skull of Frederick Douglass, saying it was “possibly worth thousands” and neglecting to tell her what a racist object I thought it was, the man in line behind her was kindly fetching me a refill. 

It was my suit that had attracted these people, my black funeral suit and black tie. It wasn’t that I looked good in the suit, which I did. It was that by wearing it I had inadvertently set myself apart from the people who’d brought their things to be appraised. The only others there who had dressed up were the appraisers, and I looked sharper than most of them, so everyone assumed I was there to appraise for the Roadshow. 

I assured a small woman with a model rocking chair that it was “handcrafted” and “worth, at a conservative estimate, five thousand dollars.” She believed me. It had to be the suit that made her believe me. I would have to start wearing it more often, I thought. 

The more I drank, the higher my estimates of value climbed. I found that when I gave someone an unreasonably high appraisal, high enough to make his face turn red, he was likely to guffaw and offer to buy my “next round.” 

I did not turn these offers down. I didn’t pay for another drink all afternoon. 

I appraised a cuckoo clock and two normal clocks. I saw several objects made to hold poker chips. I saw an urn full of ashes, a sheep made of yarn, a Commodore 64, and a piece of metal that looked strangely familiar until I realized it was identical to the iron thing I’d been using to hold my toothbrush since I found it on the ground outside my apartment last year. I said it was from the 1930s, manufactured in Tulsa by “craftsmen” who have all died off, the secrets of their handiwork lost forever. 

A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals. I didn’t intend it that way; I merely found, at one point, that the last five appraisals I’d given had stories attached to them in which at least two people died, usually many more. One involved what I called “a bad gun massacre.” 

I had long since transferred the marble frog from the inside pocket of my suit jacket to an outside pocket. I kept reaching in and rubbing it as I appraised, as if it were a talisman I kept for strength or luck. 

The last artifact was brought to me by a woman about my mother’s age. She had my mother’s brown hair, tied like my mother’s in a bun. I don’t recall her face; the bun was more than enough for me. From a satchel she withdrew a drawing of the Eiffel Tower. She wore the most earnest expression I’d seen in hours as she asked me to tell her about it. 

I took a long look, flipped it over, flipped it over again and said it was “drawn after the 1930s, naturally, since before then there was no Eiffel Tower.” I smiled when I said this. She didn’t smile back. Her non-smile turned to a frown when I said, “the penwork is admirable.” She corrected me. It was a pencil drawing. 

Maybe it was the booze—it was mostly the booze—but it was also that she looked like my mother: at that moment when she caught me in my lie, it felt like Mom had caught me lying again, like she had so many times, when I ate the marshmallows that were not meant for me, when I would sneak out to get high with my girlfriend down the street, when she found that I had taken her cocaine and credit cards. 

I couldn’t look at the woman. I couldn’t speak. I looked away and saw a man in a tie and a jacket, standing beside another table, watching me and mumbling into a cell phone. He was wearing a lanyard. This wasn’t good. 

I coughed into my hand—a genuine cough. I said, “Uh.” 

I felt my stomach climb up my throat. 

I had one of those moments I sometimes have, in which I do something but as I’m doing it I also see myself from the outside. Sometimes when I have these moments I am in the middle of a conversation and it throws me off, I forget what I was saying. What I saw myself doing this time was vomiting a day’s worth of Old Fashioneds onto the drawing and the woman who was not my mom. I saw myself lunge, and try to get away, in an attempt to be anywhere other than at that table. 

I saw a close-up of the carpeted floor as I landed there with my face on my arms and continued throwing up on my sleeves. 

When I rolled over, face-up, the lanyarded man was standing over me. My hand was in my pocket, pawing the green marble frog. I was thinking, whatever happens next, I will not let them take this frog away.

image: Aaron Burch


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