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Read a short story from ‘The Lincoln Highway’ author Amor Towles’ new book, 'Table for Two'

The collection, out next year, explores turn of the millennium New York and also revisits the late 1930s world of his debut novel “The Rules of Civility.”
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Amor Towles has transported readers to a hotel in a changing Russia ("A Gentleman in Moscow") and the roads of the U.S. in the 1950's ("The Lincoln Highway," a Read With Jenna pick).

For his next book, he's returning to the world of his first novel, "The Rules of Civility," which was set in New York at the turn of the last century.

"Table for Two," out April 2, 2024, is comprised of six short stories and a novella, which centers on on Evelyn Ross, the character from "The Rules of Civility."

Speaking to, Towles says the title comes from the intimate nature of the collection.

"Most of the narratives deal with fateful interactions between strangers or family members. When I finished the collection, it occurred to me that in many of the stories, a critical moment in the tale involved two of the characters facing each other across a kitchen table to confront some new reality in their lives. I wasn’t conscious of this while writing the stories, but it must have sprung from a conviction in my subconscious that our lives can often change due to a conversation at a table for two," he says.

Towles' novels and stories all take place in history, but he doesn't think of himself as a historical novelist. "I'm just a storyteller," he says. He knew "within minutes" that "The Lincoln Highway" should be set in the Midwest in the 1950s, and had the same realization for "Table for Two" being set in the turn of the millennium in New York.  

The collection came about as a detour while writing his fourth onvel. Two of the characters in unpublished short stories appear in the book.

"It struck me that readers should have the opportunity to read those stories before reading the novel. So, I shifted gears," he says, spending the fall completing the short stories and expanding the novella. "While you will not need to read these stories to enjoy the upcoming novel, I think it will certainly add a welcome element of recognition."

Read an entire short story from Amor Towles' new book: 'The DiDomenico Fragment'

Lunch at La Maison

The only advantage to growing old is that one loses one’s appetites. After the age of sixty-five one wishes to travel less, eat less, own less. At that point, there is no better way to end one’s day than with a few sips of an old Scotch, a few pages of an old novel, and a king size bed without distractions.

Certainly, some of this decline stems from the inevitable degeneration of the physical form. As we age, our senses grow less acute. And since it is through the senses we satisfy our appetites, it is only natural that when our eyes, ears, and fingers falter that we should begin to desire with a diminished intensity. Then there is the matter of seasoned familiarity. By the time our hair goes gray, not only have we sampled most of life’s pleasures, we have sampled them in different locations at different times of day. But in the final accounting, I suspect the cessation of appetites is mostly a matter of maturity. Traipsing after a beautiful young thing late into the night, going from one trendy spot to the next and trying rather desperately to think of something witty to say while pouring a well-aged Bordeaux at our own expense... Really. At this stage, who can be bothered? 

But if a decline in the appetites brings some sense of relief to most who age, it is particularly welcome to those in their sixties who can no longer afford the lifestyle of their forties.

On the isle of Manhattan, this population is more sizable than you might expect. Well-meaning husbands, who have put off their financial planning for one decade too many, routinely strand their widows with insufficient funds. Others, who proved capable in commerce as younger men, become careless or even foolish in retirement, wasting badly needed resources on real estate speculations, mistresses, and charity. Then there are those sensible fellows—like me—who, having carefully calculated the necessary capital to support their retirement and prudently set aside savings from year to year, turn a blind eye to the frothiness of a bull market and smugly quit their job only to be brought up short six months later by the ensuing collapse. Whatever the excuses, many who reach their golden years on the Upper East Side find themselves suddenly forced to live below their prior means. So, it’s just as well they no longer want what they can’t afford.

“Are you finished, Mr. Skinner?”

“Yes. Thank you, Luis.”

“Will there be anything else?”

“Just the check.”

Clearing what is left of my salade niçoise, Luis winds his way to La Maison’s kitchen through a maze of mostly empty tables.

There was a time when you could track the evolution of power in Manhattan by dining at La Maison. Located at 63rd and Madison, offering a serviceable execution of Continental cuisine, the restaurant welcomed real estate developers, advertising executives, financiers, and the ladies who lunched. Over the years, the decor grew a little tired, the food a little outmoded, and those “in the know” moved on to brighter venues serving brighter fare. But if La Maison was no longer the most sought-after table in town, it was not entirely déclassé. There were still a few veterans of commerce and society who, out of habit or lack of imagination, returned for the prix fixe lunch.

There in the corner, for instance, is Lawrence Lightman. A stately six-foot-two, Lawrence hasn’t led a publishing house in over a decade, but he continues to wear a coat and tie; and he apparently made enough of a name for himself that aspirants in the field still make the occasional pilgrimage to his table.

Closer to the bar is Bobbie Daniels. A former partner at Morgan Stanley, Bobbie was once considered a prodigy in the field of acquisitions and divestments. In fact, this skill came so naturally to him, he had acquired and divested four different wives. He now has an office at some mahogany paneled trust company where his primary responsibility is the hanging of his hat in sight of the clients.

And over there at the table by the door sits Madeline Davis. Seventy, if a day, Madeline has been a widow for at least four presidential elections, and it shows. The dress she’s wearing has gone in and out of style twice since she bought it in 1962 and she applies her makeup with all the misplaced generosity of a Rockette. She also happens to be a particularly divine example of the Park Avenue pauper.

Though Madeline hasn’t given a dime to charity, purchased a work of art, or read a book in over twenty years, when her husband was still alive the Davis name was indelibly etched onto the mailing lists of the city’s museums, galleries, and publishers. This proved fortuitous since, as her income shrank, she could dine at least twice a week on cold canapes and warm white wine at the latest benefit or opening. In fact, at some point in the late 1990s as these quasi-affairs were getting more extravagant, she began carrying Ziploc bags in her purse so that when no one was looking she could pilfer enough food from the buffet to last her the week.

This delightful practice went on for some time. Then one night at the Museum of Natural History—at a reception for something or other—she came face to face with a pyramid of Swedish meatballs. The dish must have been her weak spot, for bypassing the crudité and cheese platters, Madeline opted to fill all three of her baggies with the delectable little spheres, spooning in some extra gravy for good measure.

At the end of the party, Madeline exited the museum with the rest of us, gripping her purse tightly to her chest. But at the very moment she was descending the steps, an enterprising Buckley boy who walked his neighbors’ dogs for a fee was passing by with a motley crew of canines on intertwined leashes. Well, perhaps Madeline had been gripping her purse a little too tightly and one of the baggies had burst because suddenly all eight dogs were tugging on their restraints. Four of them began to bark. The urgency of the pack proved too much for the lad and, breaking free, they bounded up the steps in her direction. Faced with certain death, Madeline did what any sensible woman would do: she reached into her purse and began flinging the meatballs at the oncoming dogs as her fellow Manhattanites looked on in horror. Which just goes to show that while thrift may be a virtue, every virtue has its limits.

“Here you are, Mr. Skinner.”

“Thank you, Luis.”

After reviewing the bill, I paid in cash leaving Luis the requisite fifteen percent, donned my coat, saluted Lawrence, waved to Bobbie, and was almost out the door.


“Ah. Madeline. I didn’t see you there.”

A wiser man would have approached with his hands in his pockets. Before I realized my error, she had grabbed my left with an arthritic claw.

“It’s been ages,” she said.

“I was just thinking something along those lines myself.”

“We should have dinner some time.”

“That would be lovely,” I replied and headed for the door. Though needless to say, I’d sooner hang.

An Inquiry

One reason I still dine at La Maison is that it is located just a few blocks from my apartment building, a twenty-story prewar on Park Avenue. At one time, I commanded six rooms on the eighteenth floor with a sizable balcony. In preparation for retirement, I sold the place to a hedge fund manager half my age and purchased a two bedroom on the fourth floor. I might have ended up with a little more space and a little more light had I been willing to move, but I’m too old to learn the names of a new slate of doormen.

“Hello, Max.”

“Welcome back, Mr. Skinner. How was lunch?”

“Same as usual.”

“And how is that?”

“At my age, a cause for celebration.”

Max smiled. But when I made a move to enter, he gave a tilt of the head and lowered his voice.

“There’s a gentleman waiting for you.”

“For me?”

“In the lobby. He showed up around 12:30. I told him you’d be a while, but he insisted on waiting.”

Sure enough, sitting on the bench under the framed etching of Roman ruins was a little man in a secondhand raincoat. Seeing me, he virtually leapt to his feet.

“Mr. Skinner?”


“Percival Skinner?”

“That’s right.”

The little man looked relieved.

“My name is Sarkis.”

“Like the tuna?”

“What’s that? Oh, I see.” He let out a little laugh. “No, not Starkist. Sarkis. It’s a Greek name.”

“Is it, now.”

“Yes. Well. I was wondering if you had a few minutes.”

“To what end?”

“It is on a matter that I think will be of interest to you; and may be of profit ...”

“I’m listening.”

Mr. Sarkis glanced around the lobby.

“Isn’t there somewhere we could speak in private?”

If the gentleman’s raincoat was Salvation Army, the suit underneath was decidedly Saville Row; and the shrewdness of his countenance suggested that of a buyer, rather than seller.

“Come on up,” I said.

And up we went.


“Can I offer you something to drink?” I asked, as I hung my visitor’s coat in the closet by the door. “A glass of whiskey? A cup of tea?”

“I would love a cup of tea, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”

“No trouble at all.” I led Mr. Sarkis into the living room. “Why don’t you have a seat while I put on the kettle.”

He opted for the couch, sitting at the edge of the cushions with his elbows on his knees.

In the kitchen I turned on the kettle, took the teacups from the cabinet, and the tea from its tin. Then, as the water warmed, I peeked into the living room. Mr. Sarkis had left his place on the couch to study the porcelains on display in the corner cupboard. After a moment, he picked up the Cantonese bowl and turned it gently in his hands. Though small, it was the most valuable piece in the room. The little Greek obviously knew his business. I made some racket while putting the tea service on its tray, and when I returned to the living room I found him back on the edge of the cushions with his elbows on his knees.

Pouring the tea, I asked Mr. Sarkis what I could do for him.

“I happen to operate a small gallery in Paris dealing in antiquities,” he began, “but I also represent a certain collector who is a lover of Renaissance art.”

He pronounced it re-NAY-sance.

“Renaissance art was one of my specialties,” I said.

“Your reputation precedes you. In fact, that’s what has brought me to your door.”

“Is your client looking for an appraisal?”

“Not quite. The reason I’m here is that I gather you may be in possession of a work by Giuseppe DiDomenico. Or rather, a fragment ...”

I put my teacup down.

“I am afraid you are slightly misinformed, Mr. Sarkis. You see, I did own a DiDomenico fragment, but I sold it some years ago.”

“Ah,” he said with a look of disappointment. “Would you be willing to tell me whom you sold it to?”

“He was a Texan.”

Sarkis leaned a little forward.

“An oilman?”

“No. I believe he was a defense contractor.”

“From Houston?”


Mr. Sarkis nodded thoughtfully.

“That is helpful.”

I didn’t know if it was or wasn’t, but our meeting seemed to have suddenly run its course. I rose from my chair. “I’m sorry if you’ve wasted your time.”

Mr. Sarkis rose as well. “Every setback brings the collector one step closer to his goal,” he said, sagely.

Ushering him to the door, I retrieved his coat, called for the elevator, and stuck out my hand to wish him well. But rather than take my hand, he seemed to be pursuing a new line of thought.

“I gather you spent most of your tenure at Sotheby’s,” he said, after a moment.

“That’s right.”

“More than twenty years.”

“Almost thirty.”

“Then perhaps you know of someone else in possession of a DiDomenico.”

“Someone else ...”

Mr. Sarkis took the ensuing silence as an encouragement.

“My client is a man of fine sensibilities, Mr. Skinner, but he is also a pragmatist. As such, he would be more than happy to compensate a professional whose mediation led to the successful acquisition of a DiDomenico.”

“To what extent?”

“To what extent would the professional have to mediate?”

“To what extent would he be compensated.”

“Ah, yes. Well, naturally, that would depend upon the size and quality of the work. But I should think an introduction that led to a purchase might be worth a finder’s fee of say ... fifteen percent?”

The elevator arrived.

“Let me think on it,” I said.

“Take your time. I will be in town until the first of the year. You can reach me at the Carlyle in room 401.”

He boarded the waiting elevator. I closed the door to my apartment, carried the tea service back into the kitchen, and stood at the sink thinking: Well, well, well.

The First of Seven Joys

Family traits are passed down from generation to generation out of the impenetrable past with no discernible point of origin, but family wealth must begin somewhere. For my family, it began with Ezekiel Hollingsworth Skinner in Milton, Massachusetts in 1855. In that year, the thirty-five-year-old Ezekiel opened a small mill where he manufactured paper for local pamphleteers. During the Civil War, when wood pulp grew scarce, he refined the technique for turning rags into paper such that during the postwar years with his patented process in hand, Ezekiel turned one paper mill into ten and ten thousand dollars into a million.

In spite of Ezekiel’s industry, or perhaps because of it, he and his wife produced only one child over their thirty years together, a son named Valentine. Valentine, who was raised in a house not two hundred yards from his father’s first mill, joined the family business after attending Harvard and then took the helm when Ezekiel died of influenza in 1880. In the manner of his time, Valentine put a little distance between himself and the source of his wealth by moving his wife and four sons from the mill in Milton to a brownstone in New York. There, with almost as strong a work ethic as his father but with a much less flinty mindset, Valentine doubled the size of the company, sold it to a competitor, and turned his attention to poetry, opera, and art.

A New England Protestant by upbringing and conviction, Valentine showed a healthy disinterest for all that was in vogue. As such, he was the last man in his circle to wear a top hat and waxed moustaches, and he furnished his townhouse with Roman statuary, medieval furniture, and Renaissance paintings. But his most prized possession, without question, was an Annunciation by the Florentine, Giuseppe DiDomenico.

DiDomenico was something of a bridge between the early and late Renaissance in Tuscany. Having studied with Fra Angelico, DiDomenico opened an atelier in 1460 where, in the decades that followed, he influenced two generations of Florentine painters. (According to Vasari, Raphael’s mastery of contrapposto sprang from the hours he spent at DiDomenico’s knee.) But as DiDomenico dedicated more of his life to the education of artists than the completion of commissions, only a handful of his paintings survived; and the most important of these was the Annunciation that he painted for Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1475. While on a grand European tour in 1888, my great grandfather bought the painting from a dealer in Paris. He brought it home to New York and hung it in a place of honor—high on the wall behind his dining room chair—where he could not see it, but where for all others it became fused with the image of his person.

In the mold of the founding fathers, great grandpa was as suspicious of primogeniture as he was of Popes and kings. In his eyes, to leave all of one’s wealth in the hands of one’s eldest child was contrary to Christian teaching, common sense, and the American Way. Thus, having given major bequests to Harvard and the Metropolitan Opera, in his last will and testament he instructed that his house and everything in it be sold so that the proceeds could be combined with the remainder of his fortune and divided among his four sons. But the possession he could neither bear to sell nor give away was that one which had come to exemplify his devotion to Christianity, his love of art, and his place at the head of the table—The Annunciation. So, he had the painting cut into four equal parts, and at the reading of his will each of his sons was presented with his own quadrant framed and ready for hanging.

At this point, nothing would make me happier than to confirm for you, gentle reader, that a painting is just a painting—and thus, whenever the Annunciation is mentioned hereafter, you can simply insert whatever grandiose work of art you vaguely remember from your last visit to a museum or church. But I’m afraid the subject matter and format of the Annunciation have direct bearing on the events of this tale, and possibly its themes. So, with apologies to the more erudite and devout, at this juncture I offer a brief history of the Annunciation as a painting.

Bear with me. For once, I promise to be brief.

Now, as every schoolboy knows, European art from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance was dominated by Christian imagery. At the time, the art world was virtually a division of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Continent was littered with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, portraits of saints and apostles, and portrayals of Jesus Christ at every juncture of his life. Within this vast almost fetishistic catalogue of holy subject matter, one popular subset was the Seven Joys of the Virgin—that is, the seven most exultant moments in the life of Mary. Generally speaking, these referred to the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Pentecost, and the Assumption. You may not be familiar with the precise nomenclature of the Seven Joys, but rest assured you have seen them all—over altars, in textbooks, on notecards, and on those brightly colored candles before which Mexicans reportedly pray.

Of the Seven Joys, the scene that most interested the painters of the Italian Renaissance was the Annunciation: that moment in which the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she is, miraculously, with child. All of the era’s masters tackled this subject, and exquisitely so. Fra Angelico (ca. 1440), Filippo Lippi (ca. 1455), Piero della Francesca, (ca. 1455), Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1473), Botticelli (1489), Raphael (1503), etc.

But what is most interesting, and perhaps most revealing about the masters’ interest in the Annunciation, is that they all chose to paint it with the same composition. While, in theory, the scene could be imagined in a thousand different ways, for the Italian masters Mary was always on the right side of the painting and the Archangel always on the left; Mary was generally seated with a book at hand, and the winged Gabriel kneeling with a lily; Mary was always in a quasi-interior (such as under a portico or in a room that opened on a garden) while Gabriel was either outside the interior space or in front of a window—such that the countryside could be seen in the distance over his shoulder.

If we look at depictions of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, or the Wedding at Cana, or the Sermon on the Mount, there is far more variability in how Renaissance painters imagined the scenes. So why this strict adherence to form in the case of the Annunciation? I would argue (and have argued; see Renaissance Quarterly Volume XX, issue 3) that for the Renaissance masters the Annunciation was the equivalent of the sonnet for the Elizabethan poets: an artistic endeavor with strict rules that tested the ingenuity of the craftsman and allowed him to showcase his talents to his peers. The Annunciation was the perfect subject matter for such a game because it simultaneously required the rendition of a landscape in the distance and an architectural space up close, interior and exterior light, the human and divine forms, and the varied textures of fabric, feathers, and a flower. In other words, if one could paint an Annunciation, one could paint anything.

Needless to say, in tackling his Annunciation DiDomenico followed form. Thus, when great grandpa had his painting quartered, one son ended up—more or less—with an Italian landscape, one with a detailed interior, one with the Archangel on his knee, and one with the Virgin in repose.

None of Valentine’s sons proved as prudent with money or as devoted to art as their father, but they loved the old man dearly. So when they died, they each followed his example and divvied up their DiDomenico into as many pieces as they had progeny. This tradition was repeated by the next generation, such that when my father died in 1982, I received a fragment measuring three inches square. And what had once held pride of place at the head of a patriarch’s dining room was now a curiosity sitting on a living room table between a jade tortoise and a snuffbox.

Over the years, all of my siblings and most of my cousins had dispensed with their fragment. Schuyler sold his to a member of the House of Saud who fancied building a museum of European art in the desert. Joel donated his to the basement of the Wadsworth Atheneum. My fragment ended up in the hands of the aforementioned Texan in 2001. But I was fairly certain that one cousin who had never parted with his painting was Billy because just a few years prior, I had seen it myself in the guest suite of his weekend home in Litchfield, Connecticut—hanging over the toilet.

At four o’clock the next day, I set out from my apartment. I walked down Park Avenue, cut through the MetLife Building, passed under the great painted ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, and exited onto Vanderbilt where lies the Yale Club.

For a man in his sixties who is no longer a man of means, the university clubs of Manhattan provide an oasis. The finer clubs in the city like the Union and the Knickerbocker are rather sticklers when it comes to matters of membership; and their doormen—like the doormen in the best apartment buildings—generally hold their positions for decades and pride themselves on knowing the names of everyone who passes through their door. “Good evening, Mr. Stuart. When’s the wife returning from Palm Beach?”, and so forth. But the doormen at the university clubs are in no position to know their constituents by name. The membership rolls at these clubs are relatively large and include alumni from across the country. So, if you are wearing a jacket and the old school tie, and are prepared to make the usual excuses, you can expect to be admitted without incident to a university club to which you do not pay the dues. Once inside, you can read the newspapers in the library, nibble the complementary crackers in the bar, or even take a sauna, should you be so inclined; and, if your timing is good, you might run into an old acquaintance who offers to buy you a drink as a matter of course. Admittedly, I have spent more than my share of pleasant afternoons in the Yale Club; and that’s how I knew that on most days after four, my cousin could be found at the backgammon table near the bar. 

Cousin Billy

No one is born pompous. To attain that state requires a certain amount of planning and effort. Presumably you could achieve it by a variety of means, but one sure way is to attend an old prep school that’s a little past its prime; while there, exhibit some facility in a field sport that you will never have cause to play again; room with a fellow whose name is over the library door; and along the way, gain familiarity with a pastime that requires travel and specialized apparel—such as duck hunting or downhill skiing. Follow these simple steps and you are sure to gain the necessary self-assurance to expound authoritatively on wine, politics, and the lives of the less fortunate—and to generally go on and on about anything else. Case in point: Billy Skinner.

After attending both of his father’s alma maters, Billy had one of those Manhattan careers that was proper and well paid, if a little hard to pin down. Over the years, he shifted from one financial behemoth to the next without ever quite being fired or poached, and though the term vice president was consistently bandied about, he never seemed to have authority over anyone other than a secretary. I don’t know if his grandfather was more successful than my grandfather or simply more tightfisted, but the members of Billy’s branch were generally better off than the members of mine. He also married well, which doesn’t hurt. So, having bounced around Wall Street for a socially sufficient stretch, he retired at the age of fifty-five and quickly settled into unhurried mornings and idle afternoons.

“Hello, Billy.”


(Having already gone on at some length about the traits of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, I shall leave an exposition on their horrendous use of nicknames to another day.)

“Are you stopping in for a drink?” he asked.

“No. I was just headed out.”

“Ah. Too bad. I was hoping you might join me for a bit of backgammon.”

I glanced at my watch.

“Well, I might have time for a game or two ...”

“Bully,” he said, God help us.

As we set up the board, he suggested we play for stakes—to make the game more interesting.

“Why not.”

With a touch of bravado, he proposed five dollars a point, as if putting a few twenties at risk might elevate the game to a matter of valor. I accepted.

One benefit of speaking to the pompous is that their presumption of superiority is so strong, they are rarely guarded in what they have to say. If you set the mood and give them a little shove, they will pontificate accordingly. So, I let Billy win the first game and offered to set up the board while he ordered a round of drinks. Early in the second game, I left a man open so he could put me on the post. When I rolled and couldn’t get in, I mentioned I was writing a little piece on DiDomenico.

“Is that so,” he said without interest, rolling his dice.

“Do you still have yours?” I asked in an offhand manner.

“What’s that?”

He looked up from the board.

“Your fragment from old Valentine. Do you still have it out in the country?”

“Oh. No. I donated that to St. George’s years ago. I think it’s hanging in the headmaster’s house.”

He made his move then leaned a little forward to speak in confidence. “I give them all of the art I don’t like. It’s one of the great gambits. There’s a lot of leeway in setting the value of an item like that. So, you can get a sizable tax write-off for cleaning out your attic while fending off the development boys for another year or two!”

As he concluded, I think he actually gave me a wink.

To make matters worse, when I rolled again I couldn’t get in—despite the fact that he’d only made three points. He doubled me, rolled a five and three, formed a fourth point, and I spent another turn on the post. When all was said and done, I was backgammoned and down $40. I had no choice but to keep on playing. It took me an hour, but I won back my $40 and took an additional $60 from his estate. As he counted out the money, I couldn’t help feeling that he somehow deserved it.

I guess it was a matter of valor, after all.

When we exited the building at six o’clock, the temperature had dropped into the low fifties, so we paused on the curb to button our coats.

“It’s funny you should ask about the old DiDomenico,” he said.

“Oh? Why is that?”

“It’s the second time it’s come up this week.”

“That is funny. What was the context?”

“A little Mediterranean fellow paid me a visit hoping to buy it, God knows why. Well, cheerio, Skinny.” Then he walked off in the direction of Grand Central.

So, the canny Mr. Sarkis was one step ahead of me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had already paid ill-fated visits to Schuyler and Joel. But there was one member of the family that he might not have been able to track down. Because Peter Skinner, Jr. had changed his name ... 

Né Skinner

Peter’s father and his grandfather married relatively late in life. As a result, while he and I were both great grandsons of Valentine, he was only half my age.

Certainly, we are all shaped by that first decade of our youth, but the first decade of our youth is shaped by the decade which preceded our arrival. Thus, while I was born in 1940, my upbringing was heavily influenced by the Depression; and while Peter was born in 1971, his upbringing was heavily influenced by the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the landing on the moon—which is to say, the era of fairy tales. The end result was that Peter was a warm hearted young man who generally saw the best in people and hoped, by his own efforts as an elementary school teacher, to make the world a better place.

At the age of twenty-five, Peter married Sharon Mendelson, a classmate he’d met in a women’s studies seminar at Middlebury. Naturally, it was a secular ceremony taking place in a meadow in Vermont. The young couple not only wrote their own vows, they walked down the aisle arm-in-arm and gave each other away under a pergola as a bearded friend played the wedding march on a mandolin. Since Sharon was an only child, when she became pregnant a year later, Peter took her name to ensure the Mendelson line would carry on. (Such was the state of chivalry exemplified by the fine young men who attended liberal arts colleges in the early 1990s.)

Some years later, Peter’s father died of a heart attack leaving Peter enough money to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn, but not enough to expel the ground floor tenant. In the interests of time, I was tempted to simply call Peter and tell him I had a buyer for his painting. But all things of importance, particularly those grounded in family tradition, should be approached with a sense of delicacy. So, having consulted my address book, I dialed the 718 area code for the first time in my life.

“Peter. It’s Uncle Percy. Yes, yes, it’s been far too long. That’s just what I had been thinking. Why don’t you and the family come for tea ...”

A date was set for the following Saturday. As it turned out, Sharon needed to take Lucas to a music lesson, so Peter came with his second born, the three-year-old Emma who was named, I kid you not, for Emma Goldman. With uncombed hair, a runny nose, and no respect for other people’s property, Emma would have made her namesake proud.

Given our difference in age, I had always had a somewhat avuncular relationship to Peter. So despite having to follow Emma around the living room with a box of Kleenex, Peter and I had a delightful time catching up in the grand old family manner, and they were out of my hair by five o’clock.

As I had not had the foresight to cover the furniture in plastic, I had to spend half an hour cleaning the sofa cushions, but the sacrifice proved worth it. For sure enough, Peter called the following afternoon to express his gratitude and to suggest I come to Brooklyn for Sunday supper. 

Somewhere in Brooklyn

When I rang the bell on Sunday, I thought I was at the wrong address—for answering the door was a ten-year-old boy dressed like T.S. Eliot.

“Lucas? Is that you?”

“Hello, Uncle Percival.”

I extended my hand and he shook it with a fine little grip.

“Mummy’s upstairs with Emma, and Daddy’s in the kitchen. Can I hang up your coat?”

“Why yes, thank you.”

As he took my coat in hand, he said, “I like your vest.”

“I like yours!”

“It’s a Harris tweed.”

“So, I see.”

“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable in the sitting room. I’ll let Daddy know you’re here.”

Lucas carried away my coat with both arms held high over his head so that it wouldn’t drag on the floor. I showed myself into the sitting room.

Typical of the 19th century brownstone in the Italianate style, the front room had high ceilings with elaborate plaster moldings and an intricately carved marble fireplace. The furniture was rather run of the mill—a mix of hand-me-downs and Pottery Barn—and there were brightly colored plastic toys scattered here and there, but hanging over the fireplace was Peter’s DiDomenico. Having not seen it in years, I believe I let out an audible gasp.

As I’ve mentioned, Peter and I were of the same generation: great grandsons of Valentine. But where I was one of four children descended from four children, he was one of two descended from two. As a result, his fragment was four times the size of mine. More importantly, the luck of the sequential bisections was such that his fragment showed the face of the Virgin Mary inviolate, as if from the very beginning the painting had been intended as a portrait.

So many aspects of the Annunciation were prescribed by tradition, but DiDomenico and his peers were presented with one decision that could profoundly alter the tenor of their rendition. That is, were they depicting the moment just before the Archangel informs Mary of her condition, or just after? Most opted for the latter. In these depictions, Mary has good reason to express a sense of serenity for she has just been told she will bear a boy who will be called the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever.

But DiDomenico chose the moment just before the angel delivered his happy news. So, rather than the self-assured beatitude of the elect, his Mary expresses a childlike awe combined with that courage before the wondrous that is reserved for the pure of heart. It is an exquisitely humane depiction; a portrayal of a woman who seems as deserving of God’s grace as of our adulation.

“It’s really something, isn’t it?”

Lucas was at my side.

“Yes, it is,” I agreed in open admiration—having forgotten for the moment the purpose of my visit.

“There used to be more of it.”

“Much more of it.”

“Did you ever see the whole painting?”

“No,” I said with a laugh. “That was long before my time, Lucas. But there are several excellent examples of Annunciations hanging at the Met.”

Lucas blushed a little in embarrassment.

“I have never been to the Metropolitan Museum.”

“Never been to the Metropolitan Museum!”

“I’ve been to the Brooklyn Museum on school trips,” he clarified, “and to MoMA with my mom. But not yet to the Met.”

“Well, my boy. We shall have to remedy that.”

“Uncle Percy!”   

Lucas and I both turned to discover Peter marching in from the kitchen, his arms extended with oven mitts on both hands.

“Dad ... ,” said Lucas.

“What? Oh!” Peter let out a laugh and removed the mitts so that he could give me a hug. “I just took the roast from the oven.”

“Roast beef is Emma’s favorite,” explained Lucas.

“While it rests, I was going to have a beer. Do you want one, Uncle Percy?”

“Or perhaps a glass of sherry ...?” suggested Lucas.

“A glass of sherry would be nice. Thank you.”

“I’ll get your beer too, Dad.”

“Thanks, Lukie!”

As Lucas exited, the slight thumping of a rock and roll song sounded from beneath our feet.

“You still have your tenant, I gather.”

Peter nodded a little apologetically, though what he was apologizing for was not exactly clear. “With just the four of us, we don’t really need the extra floor.” Then, perhaps to change the subject, he gestured at the painting. “I take it you two were admiring the old DiDomenico.”

“We were.”

Peter looked at it and smiled. “To be honest, it’s a little Old World for Sharon and my tastes, but Lucas has really taken to it. In fact, he wrote a terrific little essay about it for his English class. You know: A ‘Describe a favorite object in your home’ sort of thing.”

Lucas returned with my sherry, Peter’s beer, and a glass of cider for himself.

“I was just telling your uncle about your essay,” said Peter.

Lucas blushed again, this time out of humility. One got the sense that his father had brought up the essay in company before.

“What was your essay about, Lucas?” I asked. “The imagery? The artistry?”

“No,” said Lucas. “I wrote about how an object that has been handed down can connect you to the past.”

“Did you, now,” I said with an outward smile and an inward frown.

In anticipating this visit, I hadn’t imagined that my ten-year-old nephew would prove the sticking point to my plans. But he clearly felt a sentimental attachment to the painting and, to make matters worse, Peter and Sharon were of that generation which had set itself apart from thousands of years of human behavior by showing an interest in the opinions of their children. I began to wonder if my trip to Brooklyn was going to prove a waste. Then Sharon stepped into the room ...

“Paying homage?” she observed, drily.

Peter laughed, a little uncomfortably, then half-confided: “It’s not her favorite.”

Sharon didn’t bother to elaborate. It was plain from the expression on her face that she would be happy to be rid of the painting.

But then, of course, she would!

Never mind that she was Jewish. As a women’s studies major with a soft spot for Marxism, Sharon must have been annoyed by the painting on multiple levels. Among other things, it represented the hegemony of western culture, the privileges of patrimony, and the objectification of women. Why, her husband’s DiDomenico stood for just about everything she had ever stood against.

“But she is beautiful, isn’t she Mom?” asked Lucas.

“Yes, my dear, she’s beautiful,” Sharon conceded while affectionately placing a hand on her son’s head. Then she added, “But weren’t they all,” as if somehow that was the whole problem.

Peter and Sharon had maintained the formal dining room between the front room and kitchen, albeit with a bicycle in the corner.

At a fine colonial table that Peter had presumably inherited from his father, we dined on a grass fed roast, heirloom carrots, and organic Brussels sprouts—which is to say, the beef was tough, the carrots purple, and the Brussels sprouts exactly the same as Brussels sprouts in every respect other than price. In my day, Brussels sprouts were the bane of every child’s existence, but Lucas not only ate all of his, he then ate all of his sister’s. (Although, to be fair, he may have eaten hers to stop her from rolling them across the table.)

After we reviewed Lucas’s upcoming project on the Atlantic Ocean for his environmental science class, the conversation turned, naturally enough, to Windward, the rambling house on the coast of Maine where the Skinners had gathered every summer for generations—until the place was sold off in 1995, for all the normal reasons. Lucas, who had spent his summers visiting his maternal grandparents in Wellfleet, wanted to know what it was like.

“The first thing you have to understand about Windward,” explained Peter to his son, “is that the water in Maine is much colder than the water on the Cape.”

“Because the Gulf Stream passes it by,” explained Lucas to his father.

“That’s right! Anyway, every morning a cannon would go off at 7:30 to signal the raising of the flag. But then a second cannon would go off at 8:00, and it was generally understood that before that second cannon went off, you were supposed to be in the water.”

“A delightful tradition,” I recalled.

Peter laughed.

Lucas thought about it for a moment. “So, everyone had to go swimming before the second cannon?”

“Even the guests,” replied his father.

“What if a guest didn’t want to swim and stayed in bed?”

“Then they weren’t invited back,” chimed in Sharon.

Lucas’s eyes opened wide. Then he looked to me for confirmation.

“All true,” I said. “In the Skinner opinion, if you weren’t willing to get in the water by 8:00, then you didn’t have the stuff.”

“Did you ever go to Windward, Mom?”

“Many times.”

“And did you go swimming?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

Lucas was impressed.

Peter leaned a little toward Lucas.

“It was at Windward—when I was just a few years older than you—that your Uncle Percival here taught me how to put a garbage can on top of the flag pole.”

I believe I gasped for the second time that day. The garbage can on the flagpole! I hadn’t thought of it in twenty years.

“We were at Scilla’s rehearsal dinner—at the yacht club. Do you remember, Uncle Percy?”

“I do now.”

Lucas may not have had the makings of a rogue, but he had the exacting curiosity of an engineer.

“A garbage can on top of a flag pole ... But how?”

Smiling, Peter deferred to me with a gesture of the hand.

“With a broom handle,” I said.

Lucas looked appropriately bewildered.

“Bring me a piece of paper, my boy.”

With a notepad and a Crayola crayon in hand, I illustrated. “Here’s the flagpole, and here’s the halyard that you use to raise and lower the flag. What you do is tie the halyard twice around the broomstick, once at the bottom and once at the midpoint, like so.” To the side, I drew the broomstick and where the two knots would be tied. “Now when you raise the broomstick, it will extend a few feet over the top of the flagpole. So, all you need do is plop the garbage can on top of the broomstick, hoist it up the pole, shift it into position, and then bring the broomstick back down, leaving the garbage can behind.”

I slid the drawing toward Lucas for his files.

“Your uncle made that exact same drawing for me and my cousin Nate on the back of a cocktail napkin,” said Peter. “It was just as the rehearsal dinner was breaking up. So, instead of heading home, we grabbed a broom handle and a garbage can and headed for the flagpole. It took us until two in the morning, but we did it.”

“How did they get the garbage can back down?”

I pointed at Lucas. “Good question.”

“They had to call the fire department,” said Peter. “The ladder truck rolled up right in the middle of church. Nate and I got grounded for a week.”

“What about Uncle Percival? Did he get in trouble too?”

“No, Lucas,” I said. “Your father never ratted me out.”


After we loaded the dishwasher and set it running, Peter and Lucas took Emma upstairs to read her a book, and Sharon put Emma’s bedtime bottle in the microwave. But after counting down from 1:00 to 0:55, the microwave went black, the dishwasher went silent, and the lights in the kitchen went out. Sharon released an exasperated sigh.

“It’s the fuse,” she said, taking a flashlight from a drawer. “Will you give me a hand? It’s easier if someone holds the light.”

“Of course.”

Across the hall from the kitchen was a narrow pantry. On the shelves were boxes of cereal, cans of soup, and rolls of toilet paper while on the floor were a stack of newspapers and a bag of empty bottles—a room where the survivalist and ecologist met. Navigating the clutter, we made our way to the back wall where there was a fuse box that must have dated from before the Second World War.

“Is that to code?” I asked, as I steadied the beam.

“If we all die in a fire, you’ll know why.”

Sharon unscrewed the blown fuse and replaced it with a new one. The lights came on. From across the hall, I could hear the dishwasher whirring again.

“Perhaps it’s time for a little renovation ... ,” I suggested.

“That’ll be the day.”

Feeling a heightened sense of confidence, I followed Sharon back into the kitchen. For while Sharon’s distaste for the painting might be classified as ideological, her appreciation for any proceeds from its sale would be entirely pragmatic.

Yes, Sharon and I were set apart by our age, gender, religion, and general worldview. But history has shown that the best alliances are often forged by the most unlikely of allies.


When I got home that night, I poured myself an extra finger of Scotch and settled in my reading chair with a book in my lap. But it was Uncle Neddie who commandeered my thoughts. What a dashing figure he had cut. A bachelor until he was forty, a capable fisherman and scratch golfer, Uncle Neddie smoked heavily, drank heavily, and swore in front of the children. When I was ten, it seemed like every weekend he would show up at Windward in the company of a different woman with a different European accent. He eventually got around to marrying the finest of the lot, fathered two delightful children, then died of lung cancer at the age of fifty-two. He’s the one who taught me how to put a garbage can on top of a flagpole—by means of a drawing on the back of another napkin at another rehearsal dinner on another summer night even further in the past. And just as I had communicated the trick to Peter and his cousin Nathan, Uncle Neddie had communicated it to me and my cousin, my sidekick, my partner in crime, one Billy Skinner.

These sudden thoughts of my cousin and our shared shenanigans all those summers ago almost made me regret having taken the $60 off of him.


The next morning, I dialed the Carlyle Hotel and asked for room 401.

“This is Sarkis.”

“This is Skinner. I think I may be able to help you, after all.”

“That’s splendid news, Mr. Skinner! Can you tell me something about the work?”

“It’s a fragment. But I think you will be pleasantly surprised by its size, its condition, and its subject matter.”

“You certainly have me intrigued. If you don’t mind my asking, what is the subject matter?

“The Mother of God.”

I heard Mr. Sarkis let out a breath of satisfaction.

“Well done, Mr. Skinner.”

“But there is one small complication.”

Now I heard his breathing stop—as the gears in his savvy little head began to spin.

“What complication is that ... ?”

“While the owner has decided to part with the fragment, he is inclined to bring it to auction.”

“I see.”

“I think I can convince him to pursue a direct sale instead, but it might take a little effort.”

“Yes, of course.”

“And then there’s the matter of authentication. As a professional with a reputation to consider, I would never facilitate the purchase of a painting without personally confirming its provenance and authenticity. That too will take some effort.”

“Which is to say ... ?”

“Which is to say, given the quality of the work and the demands on my time, I should think a higher finder’s fee would be appropriate.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Something along the lines of twenty-five percent.”

“Twenty-five percent? Naturally, I will have to raise your proposal with my client.”


“But tell me, Mr. Skinner. Should my client agree to this higher fee, how can he be sure that a week from now you won’t reassess the value of your involvement once again?”

“He can’t, Mr. Sarkis. I’m afraid that he can’t.”

Within the hour, Mr. Sarkis confirmed that his client was willing to proceed under the revised terms, provided I could broker a sale before the end of the year.

Hanging up, I immediately placed a call to Peter in order to set phase one of my two-part plan in motion.

“Peter? It’s Percy. I’m calling to see if Lucas might like to join me on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum.”

“What a wonderful offer, Uncle Percy. When would you like to go?”

“When would it be convenient for him?”

“Hold on a second.” In the background I could hear Peter conferring with his son, then he returned to the phone. “He says the sooner the better.”

“My thoughts exactly.”


Phase One

There is some measure of anxiety to be expected when one is on the verge of attaining a long-held dream. One cannot help but worry that the physical reality will fail to live up to the splendors of the imagination. To wit, as Lucas and I walked from the subway toward the Met, I noticed he was becoming less and less talkative. His footsteps were almost tentative as we crossed Park Avenue, and at Madison he actually took my hand. But when we emerged onto Fifth and the museum loomed before us, my nephew uttered a little sigh. The scale of the building, the neo-classical architecture, the wide welcoming steps, even the brightly colored banners announcing an exhibition on Monet suggested to the boy that the museum might live up to his expectations.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“I am.”

Together, we mounted the steps, passed through the door, and entered that lobby with its vaulted ceilings and towering flower arrangements. After giving Lucas a moment to take in the room’s majesty, we proceeded to the ticket desk.

One of the indisputable charms of the Metropolitan Museum is that the admission of $20 is “recommended”. The very notion of a recommended fee is so perfectly aristocratic. For to set a definitive price on access to the riches of the world’s cultures after the robber barons had gone to such trouble to pillage them on our behalf would simply have been tacky.

“Two, please,” I said to the middle-aged volunteer wearing a Chanel jacket and a string of pearls. But as I was about to put a one dollar bill on the counter, I recalled the ever-attentive idealist at my side and grudgingly paid the suggested fare, taking some comfort that it had been financed by cousin Billy’s losses.

Once I had collected our admission badges, I found that Lucas already had his nose in the museum’s elaborate map.

“Shall we start with the mummies?” he suggested, while pointing with impressive accuracy to the north wing.

“No, my boy. I have a different plan in store for us today.”

Lucas could not hide a sense of disappointment.

The young man who had been standing in line behind us—a wrangler visiting from Montana, I assumed, given his predilection for denim—looked up from his own map in apparent sympathy with the boy. Who wouldn’t want to start with the mummies? his expression seemed to ask.

One who knows better, my expression seemed to reply.

“The first thing you must understand about the Metropolitan Museum,” I explained to my nephew, “is that it is not, in fact, a museum. It is twenty museums. Here are some of the world’s greatest collections of Egyptian artifacts—as you have noted—but also of Greek and Roman sculptures, early American furniture, 18th and 19th century period rooms, musical instruments, Asian art, Islamic art. So, one must not arrive at the Met with the hope of travelling it from corner to corner. Rather, one should choose a particular area of excellence and render unto it its due.”

Lucas listened to my argument attentively then with an expression of committed enthusiasm asked, “Which of the twenty museums are we going to visit today, Uncle Percival?”

The plucky lad.

“Today,” I replied, “we are going to pay a long overdue visit to the Renaissance ... ”

Now, the Met’s collection of European paintings from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance is one of the finest in the world—a dizzying array of masterpieces spanning over forty rooms. To lead a young boy, even a game enthusiast like Lucas, into that labyrinth on his very first visit, was almost sure to overwhelm. So, instead, I took him to the Robert Lehman Collection at the back of the first floor.

Born at the end of the 19th century, Robert Lehman made a fortune on Wall Street at the helm of his eponymous investment bank. In the grand old tradition, as Lehman aged he applied his wealth to wives, thoroughbreds, and art—but especially the latter, building a collection of nearly three thousand works with a focus on the Italian Renaissance. So extraordinary was the scale and quality of his collection that when he donated it to the Met, the museum built a little wing of six galleries to exclusively showcase the bounty.

There were several advantages to bringing Lucas to the Lehman Collection. First, given that it was tucked away at the back of the first floor, it was not as heavily trafficked as the museum’s other areas. Second, given the focus of the collection, one can trace the evolution of art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance in the course of an hour. In fact, in one room a divine little Annunciation by Botticelli (ca. 1490) hangs directly above a Nativity by Lorenzo Monaco (ca. 1410). Though the two works were painted just eighty years apart, to look from one to the other with care is to witness the invention of perspective, the effect of chiaroscuro, and that celebration of the human form that launched the rebirth of civilization in the west. But a third advantage was that the Lehman collection provided the perfect context in which to reveal to Lucas the essential role of the serious collector in the preservation of cultural heritage.

“Isn’t it extraordinary,” I said (as we concluded our tour in front of the Botticelli), “that the little painting we are admiring is five hundred years old. Consider for a moment the life it has led. Over the centuries, it has hung on the walls of castles, churches, and private residences where it has routinely been exposed to too much light or too much moisture, to the ashes of fireplaces and the greasy smoke of candles. Occasionally, it even bided its time in a cellar or an attic in the company of vermin, mildew, and dust.”

(Here, an artful pause followed by a sweeping gesture.)

“If we have the opportunity to admire this Botticelli—or any of the other masterpieces in the museum, for that matter—we inevitably have a Robert Lehman to thank. The serious collector dedicates his life to the hunt for works of beauty, especially those that have been forgotten or forsaken. Having discovered one, at no little expense the serious collector engages a seasoned conservator to painstakingly reverse the impacts of time. And having gone to this trouble, does he carry the painting to his grave? Hardly. More often than not, he gives it away. He donates the painting to a museum where it will hang in a carefully controlled environment so that it can be appreciated by lovers of art for generations to come!”

When I concluded my little speech, I was not particularly surprised that the middle-aged Japanese couple standing nearby applauded. And I was pleased to see that the skeptical wrangler in denim from the ticket line, who had followed my lead and come to this hidden corner, now smiled in deferential appreciation of the collector’s beneficence. But my nephew, he looked uncharacteristically glassy-eyed.

“Uncle Percival ...”

“Yes, Lucas?”

“Can we have lunch now?”

We dined in the sunlit café that is just beyond the European sculpture court. With its wall of windows looking out onto Central Park, the café provides a perfect view of Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient Egyptian obelisk that was placed in the Park in the 1880s. Fearing the sight of it might revive thoughts of mummies unseen, I steered Lucas to the seat with its back to the window.

When our waitress finally arrived, I ordered the chicken paillard, knowing it to be a dish that is difficult to ruin. Lucas, beginning to look a little revived, ordered the same. When the waitress asked if we needed anything else, I was about to answer in the negative when I noticed Lucas shifting in his chair.

“Do we need something else, Lucas?”

“Wouldn’t you like some wine with your lunch?” he asked.

Given that the morning had not gone exactly as planned, I replied, “Why not.” I ordered a glass of the Chablis and, contrary to my natural sense of propriety, drank it to the bottom before the food arrived.

I wasn’t sure where in the museum the Monet exhibit was being held, but it must have been nearby—because at the side of every table was one of the Metropolitan’s trademarked paper bags from which poked a Monet reimagined as a calendar, an apron, or an umbrella. So, as we began to eat (and I enjoyed a second glass of the Chablis), I couldn’t help but regale my nephew with a charming tale from my days at the auction house that had suddenly come to mind.

Back in the 1980s, I explained, there was an explosion of interest in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art bordering on popular mania. This resulted in skyrocketing prices for all the leading members of the schools, but especially for the one-eared wonder known as Van Gogh. At one auction after another, it seemed a new record was being set for what one of his paintings could fetch. This phenomenon culminated in 1987 when a rather dubious Australian magnate by the name of Alan Bond purchased the Dutchman’s Irises for an eye-popping $54 million.

On the following day, images of the painting, the purchaser, and the price tag appeared in every major newspaper and broadcast around the globe. But what was not generally reported amidst all the fanfare was the small matter of self-collateralization. In the years preceding the sale, you see, as prices began to rise, the venerable old firms of Sotheby’s and Christie’s had instituted a new policy. In essence, they would help a bidder borrow the funds necessary to make a purchase—using the painting he was about to buy as collateral for the loan. Since a painting is basically worth what the last person paid for it, a bidder could bid almost anything, because the bid itself would raise the intrinsic value of the collateral and thus his borrowing capacity. In scientific terms, this was an innovation akin to the inflating of zeppelins with flammable gasses.

Suffice it to say, Bond’s record-breaking purchase of the Van Gogh was financed under such an arrangement. Though he didn’t have enough money on hand to service the loan, his plan was to raise funds by producing for his fellow countrymen a travelling exhibition of the masterpieces in his collection at the center of which would be the now world-famous Irises.

The only problem was that the barristers who were advising the American lenders doubted that Australian law would allow them to reclaim the painting should Mr. Bond ever tumble into bankruptcy. But if Bond couldn’t bring the painting to Australia, his attorneys argued, then bankruptcy would be the sure result. The two parties were at an impasse. That is, until the masterminds at Sotheby’s stepped forward with another innovation. At their own expense, they would have the Irises forged. Thus, the original could be kept in a vault in New York within the grasp of the creditors while the fake was ringing cash registers from Perth to the Great Barrier Reef.

“Will that be all?” asked our waitress, in a manner that suggested she hoped so.

“Yes, thank you. Just the check.”

When she plopped down the bill, I discovered that my misguided ploy of bringing Lucas to the museum had cost me $85. To make matters worse, under his watchful eye I had no choice but to tip the requisite fifteen percent despite the lackluster service.

The bill paid, we donned our jackets and passed through the tables with Lucas leading the way. But just as we were reentering the sculpture court, a rather commanding voice sounded from behind.

“Excuse me. Excuse me!”

Assuming I had forgotten something at the table, I turned to find an elderly woman barreling toward me with a righteous posture, a stern expression, and an outfit that Jackie Kennedy might have worn, had she been a hundred pounds heavier and hopelessly out of date.

“Are you addressing me?” I asked with some surprise.

Without answering, the woman pointed a finger at Lucas, who was now standing before Carpeaux’s statue of Ugolino.

“Is that your grandson?” she asked, as if it were her business to do so.

“He is my nephew.”

She now pointed a finger at the table where we had been sitting. Clearly, she was very good at pointing.

“As a grandmother, I feel it my obligation to tell you that the story you related during your lunch was utterly inappropriate for a boy your nephew’s age.”


“The portrait of human nature you painted could not have been more ugly or cynical.”

I couldn’t help but look around in wonder. The statue of Ugolino that Lucas was studying depicted the moment described in Dante’s Inferno when the Pisan traitor, starving in a jail cell in the company of his own children, wrestles with whether or not to eat them. Beside Ugolino stood Rodin’s Burghers of Calais in which six statesmen in chains are being led to their execution so that their besieged city might be spared. While fifty feet beyond, Perseus was proudly holding the severed head of Medusa. And this woman was worried that the boy’s sensibilities might be damaged by the tale of a forged flower?

What is one to say when confronted with such madness?

“Madam,” I replied, “I regret to inform you that you are not in Kansas anymore.”


The central hallway leading to the museum’s exit was crowded wall to wall, as if tourists who had been laying siege to the museum had finally stormed the gates. Both to circumvent them and to provide Lucas with some consolation for missing the mummies, I suggested we take a detour through the collection of medieval armor.

Lucas indicated this diversion would be welcome and, like any boy of ten, he enjoyed seeing the artful means by which men of courage once lumbered into battle. But it was when we were on our way to the exit that something unexpected happened. As we were passing through the galleries of European Decorative Arts, Lucas pointed to a sign on the wall.

“What is a studiolo?”

“A studiolo?” I said coming to a stop just opposite the entrance to the little room. “It’s funny you should ask, Lucas. Why don’t you see for yourself.”

As you may know, the studiolo designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in the late 15th century is a rather unusual installation, even for the Met. During the Italian Renaissance, it became quite popular for gentlemen of standing to have a private room in their home into which they could retreat. In order to inspire creative meditation, these rooms were often decorated in a manner that celebrated the arts and sciences. Originally built for the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, the Met’s studiolo is not much bigger than Sharon’s pantry; but rather than being lined with cans of soup and boxes of cereal, its walls had been finished with an intricate design of inlaid woods that gave the appearance of cabinets filled with scientific devices, musical instruments, and books. In the creation of this delightful illusion, the artist had used over twenty species of trees and all the same tricks of perspective that were employed by the Renaissance painters.

As Lucas looked around the room, he didn’t utter a word. But he didn’t need to. I knew exactly what he was feeling—that this tiny room assembled five hundred years ago over four thousand miles away was somehow his place in the world.

Having turned around twice, Lucas exited the room in order to read the curatorial description posted outside. Then he came back and looked from wall to wall with even more care, so he wouldn’t miss a detail.

“This was a room in Renaissance Italy,” he said at last.

“That’s right, Lucas.”

“From five hundred years ago.”


“And someone took all these little pieces of wood and reassembled them here so that we can see it.”

“Yes, Lucas. That’s exactly what someone did.”

And just like that, the preservationist is born.


Phase Two

The timing of our return to Brooklyn could not have been better. Lucas and I arrived at the very moment that Sharon was getting back from a birthday party with a drowsy Emma strapped in her stroller. Although the party had taken place at a gymnastics center oriented to toddlers, Sharon looked like the one who’d been doing the gymnastics.

“Here,” I said. “Allow me.”

Taking hold of the bottom of the contraption, I helped her carry Emma up the stoop.

“Do you have to lug this up and down every time you go out?”

“Rain or shine.”

Once inside, Sharon let out a long breath. She asked Lucas if he would bring Emma upstairs to get her ready for her bath. She asked me if I’d like a cup of tea.

“That would be delightful,” I said.

Following her into the kitchen, I sat down at the little Formica-topped table as she filled the pot. From a glance at the microwave, I could see it was only five o’clock, but as it was November, the sun had nearly set.

“I’ll be right back,” Sharon said, after setting the pot over the flame, then she headed down the hall. When I heard the door to the bathroom close, I was out of my chair like a shot. I turned on the microwave and the dishwasher and returned to my seat. The dishwasher began swooshing as the microwave began counting down:









“Come on,” I actually said to the appliance. “Come on.”

Then poof. The microwave went black, the dishwasher went silent, and the room went dark.

From behind the door down the hall, I heard Sharon swear. There was a rustling, the flushing of the toilet, then her irritated approach. She paused in the doorway, illuminated only by the thin blue flame that flickered under the kettle.

“The fuse?” I asked sympathetically.

Without answering, Sharon took the flashlight from its drawer and headed toward the pantry. I stood up to follow her out of the kitchen, remembering at the last moment to switch off the dishwasher.

“Here,” I said in the pantry. “Let me hold it for you.”

I took the flashlight and directed the beam on the box so that she could replace the fuse. The lights came back on. Sharon turned, but rather than stepping toward the door she surveyed the pantry, taking in the cans of beans, the bags of bottles, and the mop that was leaning against the wall. Other than the profanity, she hadn’t said a word since the lights went out.

I switched off the flashlight and handed it to Sharon, taking the opportunity to look at her closely. What I saw was an earnest young woman doing her best under unnecessarily difficult circumstances—which made everything so much easier.

“Listen, Sharon, I don’t want interfere ...”

This preamble is usually met with an expression of impatience, and rightfully so. But worn down by her day, exasperated by the fuse, and hearing the note of sympathy in my voice, she looked up without protest.

“You clearly need to update the electrical system in your house,” I said. “And you need access to your ground floor entrance.”

Sharon shook her head with a weary expression, but I pressed on.

“I gather that from Peter’s point-of-view, you don’t really need the extra space since you’re just a family of four. And I understand that ousting your tenant could prove expensive, but so could a nervous breakdown.”

She laughed grimly. “Do they charge for those, now?”

“Top dollar. But here’s the thing: Recently, I ran into an old client who is an ardent collector of Italian art; and as we were catching up, he happened to mention that the one painting he was looking for—to complete his collection—was a DiDomenico. If you and Peter were open to parting with yours, I could certainly reach out to him ...”

Sharon looked me in the eye then looked away. For a moment, I thought I had struck the wrong note. But then I realized she was looking over my shoulder to make sure there was no one behind me.

She met my gaze again. “What do you think it would be worth?”

“I’m not sure. $100,000? $120,000? Maybe as much as $150,000.”

She nodded, as if she had already made a similar calculus, then said almost to herself, “We’d have to pay taxes ...”

“True. Although, my client might be willing to pay in cash, in which case ... ”

I gestured toward the vagaries of the universe.

Sharon began switching the flashlight on and off, weighing her options, those various paths to deliverance or damnation.

“I know you’re in a tough spot,” I continued. “After all, the painting has come down to Peter through the family. You may not feel it’s your place to even raise the topic of selling it. So, let me do it. Get Peter to invite me for another family meal. And when the moment’s right, I’ll mention my old client’s interest. I think if he receives some encouragement from me and you’re there to express your support, he might begin to see the time has come to place the priorities of the present ahead of those of the past.”

In the kitchen the tea kettle began to whistle.

“Excuse me,” she said, slipping past me. I followed and sat at the table. For a moment, she stood at the stove then she turned and took the seat across from me.

“All right, Percy. Why don’t you feel out your client on what he’d be willing to pay for the painting. I’ll get Peter to invite you for dinner.”

I didn’t bother staying for the tea.

As I descended the stoop, I couldn’t help but break into a smile—because it was November twelfth, just two and a half weeks until Thanksgiving, the perfect occasion for a family gathering.

And when I happened to see an unoccupied taxi, I hailed it. Giving the driver my address, I made myself comfortable and passed the time allowing myself to anticipate a long-awaited return to Les Baux-de-Provence, that rocky outcrop where Van Gogh once painted olive trees and where the contemporary traveler can discover quaint antiquities, breathtaking views, and one of the finest restaurants in France.



That Thanksgiving has evolved over hundreds of years into a national holiday of eating is rather ironic given the quality of Thanksgiving food. Stuffing and roasting a twenty-pound turkey is, without a doubt, the worst possible way to enjoy a game bird. The whole notion of eating a game bird is to savor those subtleties of flavor that elude the domesticated hen. Partridge, pheasant, quail are all birds that can be prepared in various ways to delight the senses; but a corn-fed turkey that’s big enough to serve a gathering of ten or more is virtually impossible to cook with finesse. The breasts will inevitably become as dry as sawdust by the time the rest of the bird has finished cooking. Stuffing only exacerbates this problem by insulating the inner meat from the effects of heat thus prolonging the damage. The intrinsic challenge of roasting a turkey has led to all manner of culinary abominations. Cooking the bird upside down, a preparation in which the skin becomes a pale, soggy mess. Spatchcocking, in which the bird is drawn and quartered like a heretic. Deep frying! (Heaven help us). Give me an unstuffed four-pound chicken any day. Toss a slice of lemon, a sprig of rosemary, and a clove of garlic into the empty cavity, roast it at 425˚ for sixty minutes or until golden brown, and you will have a perfect dinner time and again.

The limitations of choosing a twenty-pound turkey as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal have only been compounded by the inexplicable tradition of having every member of the family contribute a dish. Relatives who should never be allowed to set foot in a kitchen are suddenly walking through your door with some sort of vegetable casserole in which the “secret ingredient” is mayonnaise. And when cousin Betty arrives with such a mishap in hand, one can take no comfort from thoughts of the future for as soon as a single person politely compliments the dish, its presence at Thanksgiving will be deemed sacrosanct. Then not even the death of cousin Betty can save you from it because as soon as she’s in the grave, her daughter will proudly pick up the baton.

Served at an inconvenient hour, prepared by such an army of chefs that half the dishes are overcooked, half are undercooked, and all are served cold, Thanksgiving is not a meal for a man who eats with discernment. So, I had quite happily excused myself from the tradition back in 1988, thereafter celebrating the Pilgrims’ first winter at a Chinese restaurant on Lexington Avenue.

But in the field of fine art, one must be prepared to make sacrifices. And if helping Peter see the benefits of divestment meant eating a serving of sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, then so be it. I awaited his call in a sanguine mood.


But after a week, the call hadn’t come. In another four days, Thanksgiving would be less than a week away—a point at which the well-bred man would generally be reluctant to offer an invitation for fear it would seem like an afterthought.

Perhaps Sharon had lost her nerve.

One morning, I called the house at eleven a.m. hoping to catch her while Peter was out, but I got the machine. The next day, I called at dinner time, and got Peter.

“Peter! How is everything? Good, good. Listen, I assume that Lucas has some time off around Thanksgiving, and I’d promised him a return visit to the Met ...”

Lucas would have loved that, a chipper Peter assured me. But they were going to celebrate Thanksgiving with some old college friends in Toms River. They would be leaving on Wednesday as soon as school let out and wouldn’t be back until Sunday afternoon.

“Why don’t we call you when we get back?” he suggested.

“Perfect,” I said.

Though when I hung up, I couldn’t help noting that celebrating with some old college friends on the Jersey shore was hardly in the Thanksgiving spirit.

The Denouement

It was the fourteenth of December, more than a month since Sharon and I had come to our understanding over the Formica. I had called the house twice during the school day, hoping that Sharon would answer. On the third attempt, I left a message on the machine suggesting we set a date for my visit with Lucas to the Met. No reply.

I had been concerned that Sharon had lost her nerve, but perhaps things were worse than that. Perhaps she had found her nerve. In the aftermath of another blown fuse, maybe she had confronted Peter and insisted they sell the painting only to have him declare high-mindedly that the notion was out of the question. Whatever had happened, there was no longer time to let things take their natural course. In accepting my revised terms, Sarkis had stipulated the sale had to be brokered before the end of the year. I would need to pay them a visit on my own initiative. But on what basis?

I couldn’t just drop in on the pretense that I happened to be in the neighborhood; no one in their right mind would believe that! I thought of bringing Peter an old photograph of his father that I had “unearthed” while going through some of my things, but having torn apart my apartment I couldn’t unearth a single one—the price the universe exacts, no doubt, for failings of family sentiment. At my wits’ end, I turned to the scoundrel’s last resort: holiday cheer. I would take advantage of the newly fallen snow to call on them unannounced, bringing glad tidings of the season. On a Tuesday at five, I went to the corner of 63rd and Third to buy a Christmas wreath from the Korean deli. I was half a block away when I turned back to get a bigger one. Though the woman behind the counter had sold me the smaller wreath but minutes before, she viewed my request to upgrade from one to the other with open suspicion. Unable to discern the nature of my scheme, she begrudgingly accepted my additional money for a wreath the size of an automotive tire, and with a red bow, no less.

Wreath number two may have been sized to impress, but it was plenty awkward to carry—especially if one was trying to keep the pine sap off of one’s cashmere coat. As a result, I was cursing all the way down the subway steps and through the turnstile. So, when I sat down on the train with the damnable thing in my lap, I was a little taken back to discover that everyone on board began to smile in my direction. One large African American fellow even began whistling a Christmas song: “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” that carol dedicated to itinerant bearers of gifts. I took it as a good omen.

I should have known better.

As I was walking down Peter’s street, I saw one of those luxury SUVs parked in front of his house. Instinctively, I slowed my pace, wondering what it was doing there among all the ten-year-old Hondas and Subarus. But I was utterly confused when, as I was about to turn up Peter’s stoop, I realized that the young man leaning against the passenger-side door was the wrangler from the Met—still clad from bottom to top in denim. Having climbed the stoop, I took another look back and the fellow waved. Then the door opened and there was Sharon.

“Uncle Percy!” she exclaimed with genuine affection and a complexion that could only be described as glowing.

By way of response, I held up my gift, and in that very instant, I realized, aghast, that I was offering a giant Christmas wreath to a Jewish woman!

But she smiled at the sight of it.

“What a lovely gesture. Lucas will be so pleased. He never feels we fulfill the promise of Christmas pageantry in our house.” Taking my offering, she turned and called down the hall, “It’s Uncle Percy with a wreath!”

The sense that I had entered some alternative universe was heightened by the fact that Emma suddenly appeared wearing a pretty little dress and barrettes in her hair.

“Come on in,” Sharon said. “We’re all in the kitchen.” When she began walking down the hall, I hesitated but little Emma took my hand and led me the rest of the way.

In the kitchen, I found Peter seated at the table across from a stranger who was about his age and height, and who looked vaguely familiar. They were both wearing flannel shirts and both had half-filled flutes of champagne in front of them.

“Uncle Percy!” said Peter.

“Can I take your coat?” asked Lucas.

“Thank you, Lucas.”

As Lucas disappeared down the hall with my coat held high over his head, Peter introduced me to his guest who, in a well-mannered fashion, rose from his chair. His name was Michael Reese.

Of course, I thought, as we shook hands. I remembered him now from the pages of The New York Times. He was the founder of some technology company based in San Francisco—one of the new breed of billionaires in baseball caps.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said.

“The pleasure is mine.”

Peter, Reese, and I all sat at the table as Sharon leaned against her husband’s side.

Feeling a draft of cold air at my back, I wondered for a moment if Sharon had forgotten to close the front door; but I didn’t bother asking. For as I looked at the beaming faces before me, I already understood that the cold air I was feeling originated not from the streets of Brooklyn, but from the rocky peaks of Les Baux where the winter wind had whistled over the ruins and rattled the empty branches of the olive trees before coming in search of me.

“So,” I said, “what are we celebrating?”

“Two things!” said Peter. “But you’re not going to believe the first one, Uncle Percy.”

“I can’t wait.”

In a nutshell, here’s what had unfolded: A few weeks before, while Peter and Sharon were having their usual “date night” at their favorite local haunt, Reese, who had been visiting the Brooklyn Museum, wandered into the same restaurant and happened to sit at the neighboring table. After ordering, the three got to talking, and it turned out that Reese had been at Yale at the same time Peter and Sharon were at Middlebury such that they had an acquaintance or two in common. Well, with one topic leading to another, it eventually came up that while at Yale, Reese had majored in art history and written his senior thesis on a rather obscure Renaissance painter by the name of DiDomenico.

“Can you believe it, Uncle Percy?”

“I’m astounded.”

Peter turned to Reese.

“Uncle Percy is also a specialist in Renaissance art!”

“Is that so!” said Reese.

I imagine you can guess where Peter’s story was headed from here ..."

At the restaurant, Peter exclaims that he and Sharon own a fragment of a DiDomenico!

“Not from his Annunciation?” says Reese in shock.

Yes, in fact, from his Annunciation.

Here, Reese shakes his head in amazement. Then he explains that some years before, he began collecting fragments of DiDomenico’s Annunciation, finding them in places as far flung as Texas and Saudi Arabia. After a little luck and some hard work, as of this summer he had acquired every fragment from the original painting but one—the nine-by-nine-inch square that depicted the Mother of God.

“It’s a miracle,” I said.

“Right?” said Peter.

Now, obviously, the most fundamental law of deal making would dictate that if Reese wanted Peter’s fragment, the very worst thing he could do would be to reveal that he has all the fragments but one. To do so, would put Peter in the position of those little old ladies who, unwilling to leave their brownstones, end up owning the last lot on a block that is slotted for the building of a skyscraper. Nonetheless, Reese bared all, adding that he had already identified a crack team of conservationists who could reassemble the fragments and restore the painting to its original glory. So, if Peter was willing to part with his fragment, he could basically name his price.

This particular part of the conversation had taken place not in the restaurant, but in Peter and Sharon’s sitting room after they had invited their new friend back to their house to see the fragment for himself. Once Reese had laid out his case and made his offer over a few bottles of beer, what did Peter and Sharon do? They called in Lucas to ask his opinion. (How that must have caught the wily Mr. Reese off guard!)

Lucas listened to an abbreviated version of the story with great interest and then said he had only one question.

“You know what the question was?” asked Peter.

“I can’t imagine.”

“Lucas wanted to know what Mike was going to do with the painting once he had reassembled it. Was he going to keep it? Or share it?”

Here Reese chipped in with a smile on his face.

“I laughed and laughed when that came out of Lucas’s mouth. But it was the perfect question. What was I going to do with the painting? Well, in the back of mind I had always imagined that I would leave it to the Yale Art Gallery where I had spent so many hours as a student. But what is ‘the back of one’s mind,’ if not the place where we keep the good intentions we haven’t the gumption to act upon now? So, we made it a condition of the sale. Once the DiDomenico is restored, it goes straight to the museum.”

Reese suddenly looked over my shoulder and said: “Here he is!”

Lucas was coming back into the kitchen with a crystal wine glass in hand.

“I couldn’t find another flute, Uncle Percy. Will this be okay?”


Lucas set the glass in front of me and poured the champagne.

“You can leave the bottle, my boy.”

I raised my glass to Peter, Sharon, Reese, and the good people at Yale to congratulate them all on their mutual good fortune. “But what was the second cause for celebration?” I asked, after we set our glasses down.

Putting an arm around Sharon’s waist, Peter announced: “We’re pregnant.”

I doubt that I will ever come to accept the use of the first person plural in that particular sentence, but under the circumstances, it was somehow so perfect. You see, as the whole story unfolded, I had been a little surprised that Peter had been so ready to part with the painting. But before Reese had made his fateful appearance, Sharon had already convinced Peter that the time had come to sell, and I had practically shown her the means when I had remarked that from Peter’s point-of-view, they didn’t need the extra space since they were just a family of four ...."

“What an extraordinary turn of events,” I said.

“But here’s the best part,” said Peter.

The best part? Better than we’re pregnant and name your price?

“Lucas’s provision!”

Reese smiled and then explained for my benefit. “Lucas suggested that once I restored the Annunciation I should have painters make two duplicates of it, one that could hang in my house and one that could hang here, while the original is hanging at Yale.”

Peter and Sharon smiled at their son with well-placed pride. But with the blush of the genuinely modest Lucas set the record straight: “It was actually Uncle Percy who gave me the idea.”

At which point, everyone in the room raised their glass in my direction.

C’est la Guerre

In short order, the transaction for the DiDomenico fragment (complete with the two codicils) was completed, the painting was shipped to a lab in San Francisco, and the restoration began.

In April, notice was given to the tenant downstairs, and in the summer, while the family was in Wellfleet, the electrical system was upgraded, a playroom and office were added to the ground floor, and a baby’s room was painted upstairs. The latter was put to use in September when the family returned to Brooklyn bearing a seven-pound baby boy named Ezekiel.

Obviously, the charming and entrepreneurial Mr. Reese had had me followed by Mr. Blue Jeans in order to discover the owner of the last fragment. Then he had circumvented me by “wandering” into Peter and Sharon’s favorite restaurant on their weekly night out. In so doing, Reese had cheated me out of my finder’s fee; but I couldn’t really hold it against him. After all, I had not been particularly forthright with Peter and Sharon, and I had also tried to rework the terms of my arrangement with the little Greek. C’est la guerre, as they say. So, when Reese and I parted that night on the sidewalk in front of Peter and Sharon’s house, we shook hands like gentlemen, making the unspoken commitment to protect the family’s idealism and each other’s reputations through mutual discretion.

For my part, the year unfolded much as any other—spent on the isle of Manhattan with midday meals at La Maison and a finger of Scotch before bed. Although, I did stop in at the Yale Club a little more often than I used to in order to play a round of backgammon with my cousin Billy; and when Thanksgiving rolled around, I swapped my seat at the Chinese restaurant on Lexington for the chair at the head of Peter and Sharon’s table where I sat with Emma on my left, Lucas on my right, and Valentine Skinner’s Annunciation hanging in all its glory on the wall behind my back.