The Value of Watercolor
by J.R. Salling
I entered through a kitchen dominated by an immense cast iron stove that hissed at me when we passed with breath of boiled okra and burnt biscuits. A short staircase led us to the original level of the seventy-year-old house, emptying into a gloomy hallway with three doors. The theme song of *The Price Is Right* radiated from beneath one of them. My escort, an elderly black woman shaped like a bowling pin, knocked on it, then wobbled away.
"Go on in," she suggested, before disappearing from view.
I eased the door open and peeked inside.
A cotton-headed, predatory figure crouched in a plaid easy chair. She did not look up. "Who was it, Milly?"
"Pardon me ... Mrs. Rensselaer?"
"Eighty-nine cents," she answered, still focused on the television.
I cleared my throat. "Humphrey Jenkins sent me?"
She squeezed the remote in her hand and the broadcast died. "I know who you are," she snapped, unhooking her arm from an IV, then taking a moment to look me over. "Suppose you want to see the books?"
"Yes. I hear it's quite a collection," I shared, attempting to be pleasant and conversational.
"That's what Humphrey keeps telling me. Your name's Ramey, that right?"
"Yes, Jim Ramey."
"Related to the Rameys of Calhoun County?"
"Don't think so."
"Good," she grumbled. "You don't want to be."
I waited until she smoothed out her quilted oriental robe, then shooed me forward.
"No, no. Not that way," she chided, when I reached for the wider of the two remaining doors. Given her evident hostility, I began to wonder if the drive down from Atlanta would be worth it. She had only agreed to a free, informal evaluation, not the itemized list that could well occupy me for days of billable hours.
The third door opened into a series of large formal rooms, a remarkable contrast with the cluttered, countrified spaces encountered thus far. Although cast in a light sapped of strength by heavy drapes, I could have stepped into the cover of a Korean War era *Better Homes and Gardens,* a tasteful blend of traditional antiques, rugs, and fine art, albeit all thick with dust. I coughed.
"Yes sir, needs a good scrubbing," she stated. "I don't like anyone in the old part of the house. The maids steal."
"Beautiful things," I observed, trying to imagine Milly running off with a sideboard tucked beneath her apron. The one in mind appeared to be Regency period, the exterior wood walnut. If an original piece, I imagined, it was worth a small fortune. Humphrey would know."This way," she commanded, already several paces ahead. I followed the trail of mistrust and sour perfume into the library. Three walls were lined floor to ceiling with numerous sets of books, bound in morocco, calf, and vellum, almost all but concealed behind a collection of framed watercolor landscapes, as if the skins belonged to Muslim women. Every painting, I noticed, tried to capture the same image, a mill on a stream, but with little grasp of pictorial geometry or linear perspective.
She pulled one off its hanger and jabbed it into my stomach. "How much can I get for these?"
Knowing that even hideous art can be pricey, I dared not share my first impression. Instead, I retrieved a magnifying glass from my briefcase. "Let's see who the artist might be."
I checked the back first and learned that it had been framed in Savanna, then scrutinized the coarse paper under the glass for no more than minute, the signature bold enough. "Looks like Van Rhys, painted in forty-nine. Can you tell me something about it?"
"You're the expert."
I hesitated only a second, anxious to start pulling volumes off the shelve. "Well, I admit, I don't know the name. My best guess, without further research, unfortunately, is that these have little market value."
When she failed to reply, I added without thinking, "They are rather poor efforts."
She took the frame back and sat down on a sofa with it balanced on her lap. Fatigue settled in along the lines of her face, opening up crackelure fissures, as she scrutinized it herself. "Van Rhys was my first husband," she sighed. "I painted these."
"Oh, I see," I murmured, embarrassed, maybe a little frightened, immediately thinking of the poor report back to Humphrey she might be planning. I sank my hands into my pockets and must have appeared comical in my awkward and futile puzzling for a way to apologize.
The hint of a smile on her parted lavender lips produced the chuckle of an invalid, which faded fast. "Mr. Van Rhys stuck a gun in his mouth in the spring of nineteen and fifty-one, and ended our marriage," she explained with a bland indifference. "I'm guess you didn't know that. He was much older than me and buried in legal problems."
I nodded to confirm my prior ignorance, the tightness of my dress shoes a sudden matter of concern.
"Left me with quite a mess, in more ways than one," she continued. Her eyes flickered as if talking about it was bringing the scene back to life. "We hated one another toward the end."
"That was a long time ago," I replied, hoping she would move on to another topic.
"I've always known the watercolors are awful. I painted them and hung them here just to annoy him, since he loved these books so much. Do you think they could have drove him to it?"
I just stood there, looking out of place again, beginning to think Mrs. Rensselaer would enjoy watching people step into bear traps. She began to chuckle again, her gaze fastened onto me as if measuring every subtle nervous twitch. "I like you, young man. You seem like someone who tells the truth."
I forced a grin, bewildered. "Thank you. I try."
"So, why don't you tell me if these are worth anything."
Embracing the invitation, I went right to work, first removing the watercolors. I spent the remainder of the afternoon, then the rest of the week, among the most marvelous collection of books I have ever handled, assisted in my appraisal, I think, by the torpid spirits of the Rensselaer house, who welcomed the rare attention.
About the author:
J. R. Salling, an itinerate writer, teacher and apartment mover, has a large marble collection, worth tens of dollars, if you happen to have lost yours. His writings have been published in several places, which he doesn't always notice, much less record.