MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I STAND BEFORE THE PAINTING, which is small and, frankly, ugly. I can admit that at last, can finally see it, since it no longer represents serendipitous millions or retrieved history or much of anything more than a garish trio of midnight revelers on the Andrássy út. It’s about two feet square and is full of sound. Receding echoes of the last war mingle with the next war’s approaching thunder, ahead of which the jittery brushstrokes struggle to remain. The work is hobbled by interwar deprivation: brittle cardboard in lieu of canvas, the cheap paints cracked with age. The world reducing itself to ash around him, and still he painted. Making do. Now, in its nocturnal solitude, clinging to the baize wall of the empty auction house, the painting looks smaller and uglier still. These doomed Hungarian partiers, faces strangely like crows—or is it ravens? Why do I always think of ravens?—bounded by thick black lines, impasto sludge gurgling within. How could I have failed to notice its shabbiness until now?
I’m here, alone at night, at the indulgence of the venerable auction house of Hathaway and Sons. To say goodbye, I told them. To spend one last evening communing with these shades, my request tinged with the unspoken threat of taking my ill-gotten gain to one of their rivals. I am aware of my presence in this room, of the figure I must appear to cut, my fealty always to my unseen audience. My ostentatious gravity. This weakness for the grand gesture must come from my father, a cardplayer. Lately, I find myself wondering if he was any good at it. Cards, that is. My mother left him about five years ago, so perhaps by the old adage, he was. I only have his word on that, though I’ve come to see how little that means.
The street outside is quiet now, punctuated by the occasional late-night bus whishing along the damp blacktop. In a dozen hours or so, this gilded room will begin to fill with murmuring buyers straining for this elusive masterpiece. The doors will open promptly at ten, and Monsieur Leclos, my glistening French auctioneer, assures me it will be standing room only. Kálmáns are few and far between, and the appearance of a new one on the market, especially one as celebrated as the sixth and final Budapest Street Scene, will turn out the deep pockets. The painting, he assures me, will sell well beyond its estimate, renowned as he is for wringing every last bid from the room.
And so, tomorrow Budapest Street Scene will no longer be mine. Though I suppose, technically, it stopped being mine as of seven o’clock this evening, when I advised Rachel, my very capable attorney and erstwhile traveling companion, to call Rabbi Wolfe and convey to her my final instructions. Actually, it was, I see now, never really mine at all, though that scarcely seems to matter now. At least these final hours will be mine. Ours.
What a strange journey this has been. Do you ever think back to our afternoon in Budapest, Rachel, that sweltering day among the statues, so close to the end of all this? Were you thinking about it as you hung up the phone, secretly proud of my decision, as I’m sure you were, as I wanted you to be? With so much to think about, I am surprised how often my memory returns to that mad moment, the sun blazing on our perspiring bodies, your sweat-soaked thighs sliding feverishly against my—
I’m sorry. I’ve been inaccurate. I am not alone tonight. A solitary security guard shambles about the place, fiddling with keys on a retractable chain. Thin hair, thick middle, ill-fitting black polyester trousers and shirt, the latter with the name of his security firm—VIGIL, if you can believe it—stenciled across his heart. Though at first glance, I read it as Virgil. He regards me suspiciously, not, I think, because he recognizes me, although that’s certainly possible, but because my behavior is probably beyond his imagining. What can there be to look at for so long in a single painting, he must wonder. Surely, he can only conceive some sinister purpose, that I’m casing the joint, trying to figure out how to make my getaway with the painting. The thought had occurred to me. But what I’d rather do, what I still might do before this long night is over, is tell him that it’s possible to spend an entire lifetime looking at something, and even then, to fail to behold it in any meaningful way.
For example, if he were to come and stand beside me, absently yanking on his keys, I might point out that one of the revelers appears to bear a slight resemblance to himself. I would ask him to try to imagine himself on a street like that one, so different from the ones he knows, this city with its wide, palm-lined boulevards. I would ask him to try to feel the jostling pressure of the crowd, to hear the guttural music of the language, to inhale the smells of sizzling lard, garlic, and paprika. I would ask him to try to imagine being oblivious to approaching doom.
I suspect he would nod politely and place his chair where he could keep a constant eye on me. You’re onto me, aren’t you, Virgil? Perhaps I’ve sold you short—your eyes, though tired behind thin, wire-rimmed glasses, show flashes of empathy. There are no such flashes in the dead, shark eyes of your canvas doppelgänger. The face is largely featureless, but the eyes stand out from the inverted triangle, repositories of an eternal nothingness, and I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything that I imagined I knew.
* * *
MY NAME, THE NAME I USE, IS MATT SANTOS. The name I was born with is Mathias Santos. The name I might well have been born with is Mátyás Szantos. I am none of these people and I am all of them. I was born the year America elected president a B-movie actor who promised them a “shining city on a hill”; born to a refugee fleeing an old country in ruins who believed in such visions.
I am an actor, and although you probably don’t know my name, chances are you would recognize my face. My IMDb listing is littered with roles like “Second Engineer” and “Reporter #3,” and though the work might seem trivial to you, I’ve established a reputation among the people who fill these thousands of roles as a reliable, drama-free journeyman who can be counted upon to arrive on time, find a reasonably original way to deliver my lines (though not so original that I risk eclipsing the star), and to behave with moderation at the craft services table and with the female production assistants. When the part calls for a brainy expositor with just a dash of edge, I have been on the casting directors’ short lists for several years. I’ve been in a dozen films you are sure to know, have stood in the glow of the women whose exploits you follow in gossip magazines (careful never to get in their sight lines), have donned costumes from three of the last four centuries and one yet to come, and even enjoyed a brief moment of attention for playing a character with a proper name on a television series that was a low-rated critical darling for the only season of its existence. I’ve dabbled in Shakespeare, Beckett, all the stations of the cross you visit to assert your thespian bona fides, but in truth, I am not much of an actor and never have been. What I have is the convincing appearance of a certain ragged intelligence. Whether I actually possess it or not, I look the part: dark-eyed intensity, slight of stature but firm in the conviction of my wits, the man who gets the last word in the heated argument about which deadly tunnel the hero must crawl through or what the nuclear terrorist’s next move is likely to be. That intensity has kept me working for more than a decade.
It is an absurd way for an adult to make a living, and I am often embarrassed by it, my embarrassment compounded by the fact that my name never quite comes to the lips of those who squint and cock their heads my way with that look of almost-recognition. I remember watching my first televised role, a one-line walk-on in a popular New York police drama, with my parents in our Queens living room. My assignment was to let the star know that his next interview had arrived. My character was required to stick his head around a corner and say, “We’ve got Hughes in interview three.” The star looked my way with appropriate gravity, contemplating the difficult exchange awaiting him, and murmured “Thanks” with a heat that validated his weekly millions. He rose to face poor, bereft Hughes and faded to a commercial.
I turned to my parents expectantly. My mother was effusive, hugged me proudly, but my father cleared his throat, unsure what to say. “Vhere vas the rest of you?” It was the best he could manage. I stared at him, deflated. “Your face, they only showed us your face. Vhere vas the rest of you?” Despite forty years in America, his w’s and v’s remained stubbornly interchangeable.
I tried to explain the mechanics of the shot, the director’s intention (which had less to do with art and more with wanting to shoot as few setups as possible), but finally gave up.
“It’s a line,” I said. “My first speaking part. On network TV.”
“How much did they pay you?” His favorite question; I would hear it often.
I cited a figure that was more than he made in a week. My mother gasped. I was nineteen, and by the end of that year, I would be living on my own in Los Angeles.
* * *
THE LONG TRAIL to my private audience with Budapest Street Scene began, as such journeys often do, with a phone call. It came while Tracy and I were decorating our Christmas tree. My family always kept Christmas trees, and I’ve maintained the tradition, something not uncommon among Jews of my parents’ generation and nationality, as Rabbi Wolfe later explained to me in a friendly moment before our battle was joined. The trees of my childhood were my mother’s doing. She said she preferred the riot of color to the quiet monochrome of the menorah, but my mother is prone to mischief, and perhaps the tree was another of her quiet provocations. After all, this is the same woman who chose to name her Jewish son after the author of one of the Gospels, although, as she would have it, she simply liked the way it sounded. So it is possible that, in my mother’s case, a tree is, in fact, merely a cigar.
Either way, decorating a Christmas tree did not, for me, contain the slightest religious reverberation. Nor for Tracy, the daughter of Catholic hippies, whose sole remnant of her upbringing was an obsessive opposition to the death penalty; although she delighted in the yuletide ritual. For me, hanging ornaments was what one did around the middle of December, and I was nothing if not dutiful in doing what was expected, with all the flourishes that such moments are supposed to include. Cocoa in mismatched mugs, a Bach cello suite issuing from hidden speakers, a fire popping and hissing in the grate. It was cold, or what passes for cold in this city, and we were wearing comfortably oversized sweaters. I know how things are supposed to look, and I’ve always been good at mimicry. And so my fiancée, with her face that launched a thousand direct-mail catalogs, and I tended to our simulacrum of holiday cheer. Gusts of wind occasionally thudded at the picture window.
I confess an embarrassing weakness for tinsels and ribbons and lights and glittering balls and garlands, my mother’s riot still churning within me. Whereas Tracy favors simple color schemes, no more than tricolore, like her salads: tasteful, small ornaments, a single string of tiny lights and nothing more. Every year, I relinquish control of the operation, and every year I concede that her vision is more elegant than my own, even as I lament the loss of a certain brio.
The ringing of the phone surprised us both. Our lives are conducted via cell phone, the landline reduced to an ironic, retro accessory. Answering it is my assignment—I’m the one who insists on keeping it, Tracy is content to let voice mail intervene—but since I was occupied twisting our solo strand of lights at a key juncture, she picked up. She listened with a frown, and then handed the phone to me.
“For you. A woman. Some kind of accent.” Tracy once had a hint of a jealous streak, though it had all but disappeared of late. It’s a shame, it was one of the many things I found charming about her. Along with, of course, her stunning, Nordic good looks, so high a contrast to my own brutish Eastern European features. Tall, lithe, icily blonde, Tracy is every Jewish boy’s shiksa fantasy writ large. Given the distribution of physical beauty in our relationship, the thought that she would ever have reason to be jealous has always struck me as risible. I took the phone from her hand.
“Good evening. Is this Matt Santos?” Yes, an accent. Australian.
“My name is Joanne Mockley, and I am calling from the Australian consulate.”
I paused. “Yes?”
“Mr. Santos, I wonder if you might be able to come down and meet with us tomorrow. We have come across some information regarding your family that you might find of interest.”
“My family? My family is Hungarian. I think there’s some kind of mistake.”
“Your grandfather was Bela Szantos? And your father is Gabor?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There’s no mistake.”
The look on my face must have betrayed my confusion because Tracy paused in her labors to look at me with curiosity. I shrugged.
“Look, I need to know what this is about. Am I in some kind of trouble?”
The woman spoke uneasily. “No, Mr. Santos. But it’s rather complicated and to try to explain now would lead to many more questions. It’s regarding some property that belonged to your family in Hungary during the war.”
“The war? Which war?”
She cleared her throat.
“The Second World War. I realize this is all very unexpected, but if you’d come down tomorrow at ten a.m., I should be able to explain.”
I scribbled an address downtown and hung up the phone.
“What was that about?” Was there impatience in her tone? A hint, maybe. I can’t remember.
“I honestly have no idea.” I relayed the entire conversation to her, and we spent twenty fruitless minutes guessing. Perhaps some real estate? That seemed unlikely; my grandfather’s apartment had been sold by my father after the Soviet Union collapsed. An unclaimed bank account? Also unlikely. My mother had done a thorough job with her father-in-law’s estate when he died, while my father had been busy doing what? Playing cards? Recovering from one of his heart attacks? I could only remember he was nowhere in evidence. No, surely it was just some kind of bureaucratic formality, a last echo of the Cold War. We soon realized we were getting nowhere, and so we finished decorating the tree.
Tracy kissed me on the cheek and absented herself to prepare for bed, a royal procession of creams and ablutions, and I dropped into an armchair and fiddled with the cold, coagulating remains of my cocoa. The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. Why had they contacted me, and not my father? What property could they possibly have been talking about? I knew that my father was seven when the Germans invaded Hungary. I knew his mother, one of Europe’s six million, had been killed before his father managed to spirit them away to London, by means never revealed or discussed. They certainly never spoke of riches left behind.
Then I remembered my last call to my father, that odd exchange. It had probably been about a month prior, which was generally the longest I could go without calling before some half-hearted sense of filial obligation sparked a brief and strained phone call. I would inquire after his health. He would inquire after my career and love life, but only politely, never betraying much interest in either. In the early calls after his divorce, he would ask if I had spoken to my mother, but my response—a terse What do you care—was enough to eliminate that from our limited repertoire. Then the inevitable closing: Not “Goodbye,” certainly not “I love you,” but rather his admonition to “pushpushpush,” a rapid-fire exhortation, thick with implication that I must surely be slacking. I would set down the receiver, the nerve at the base of my neck just above my collarbone twitching.
I don’t know why his recalcitrance bothered me as much as it did, as we never had a great deal to say to each other, even when I was a child. Serious conversations were my mother’s domain. My father was devoted to task management—arranging for, providing for, handling things—and our interactions were limited to expressions of need (mine) followed by a best attempt (his) to fulfill those needs. I have no doubt that he took his responsibilities as a provider seriously, indeed, but I have come to see that list of necessities as damningly practical. What would he have done, what neural gasket would he have blown if, when he asked whether I needed anything—pocket money for school or a new pair of sneakers—my ten-year-old self had replied that I needed him to tell me something about himself that I didn’t know? He would have suspected some malign angle because he himself was a pursuer of angles.
The few times he did tell me stories, they centered, bizarrely, on his sexual exploits as a young man. He loved to recount, in inexplicable detail and with particular emphasis on blow jobs, losing his virginity at thirteen to his father’s young bookkeeper. My grandfather ran a barely solvent commercial painting business in postwar Hungary. He’d wanted, of course, to be an artist before the war and legend has it he was a gifted copyist. He’d sit for hours in the National Museum, making painstaking studies of old masters. A small canvas of his hung for years in my bedroom as a child, an Arcadian landscape après Poussin as I recall, gamboling sheep and thin reeds upon the surface of a still pond. I don’t know what became of it.
But in classic Santos fashion, when he ventured beyond the safe limits of imitation, he failed. After all, second-raters run in the family. His banal landscapes were out of fashion before the paint dried, as kitschy as the gypsy music he favored, and so upon returning to Hungary from England, he opened the shop. Those few lean years of bohemian struggle had instilled in both father and son a terror of want and a subsequent practicality that my father would never forget. I’m sure that’s why my grandfather chose to return to Budapest a few years after the war ended. The idea of commencing a second, English-speaking life must have felt beyond him. My father would have to wait for the 1956 revolution for his own chance to quit Hungary.
But in those youthful days, he worked hard learning the family business, mastering the trade that he would bring to America. Years later, he would pause when we passed drying paint and sniff for a long moment or two, then shake his head and walk on. At first I assumed he was reflecting on the declining quality of paint, but I later wondered if he was trying to reach back through the years and smell her again, this unnamed bookkeeper. The coupling was frantic and rushed, unromantic, in a supply closet, the pair of them high on paint fumes. My grandfather was reliably absent in those days, pursuing his own paramours—another family trait, I am dismayed to discover—so my father had the run of the shop. He learned, it seems, a good deal more than the family business.
This and other stories, told many times before, had entered the family lore, so when we did speak on the phone, there was almost nothing left to say. Which was why that last phone call surprised me. When we came to the juncture to bid each other an eager farewell, my father inquired whether I had documented my key financial information in case something should happen to me, so that Tracy would be taken care of. He was concerned, given we were not yet married, and Tracy would have no legal rights, though what fate he expected to befall me he did not elaborate. Still, I was strangely moved. He’d always liked Tracy, approved of my choice of her in a way that he seldom approved of anything I did. She, in return, was fond of him, laughing at his dreadful puns and generally appearing to agree with his low estimation of my gifts, this done for his benefit, she assured me. I lied to him, as I had many times before, and told him that Tracy was my designated beneficiary in all financial matters. Now I wondered about the timing of his request, wondered if something the Australians were going to tell me had already come across his radar. I thought of calling him to ask, but it was midnight in New York. Such a breach of unstated protocol might well set off the poor bastard’s notoriously unstable ticker. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know that badly.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sarvas