Fall From Grace, by John Mueter
I met Gilbert di Marco at a gallery opening on Madison Avenue, at La Maison d’Asie. He worked there as assistant manager. I hadn’t planned on going anywhere that evening, but after a few drinks on the way home from work at The Pink Stag, my usual watering hole, this guy I vaguely knew from the gym talked me into going along with him to the opening. Invitation or not, he assured me, no one would mind; there would be so many people at the reception I would be all but invisible. Until that evening I hadn’t thought of even browsing in a gallery on the Upper East Side. La Maison d’Asie sounded expensive, totally out of my league.
Drinks in hand, well-heeled professional types and Park Avenue matrons schmoozed amiably. I did feel invisible because I was not one of them. I was an aspiring actor who had come to the Big City from the hinterlands, making ends meet by unloading trucks at UPS. I wasn’t so much living the dream as I was stuck in the cliché of every aspiring young artist attempting to make his mark in the world. I marketed myself as an actor/singer/dancer and had so far landed chorus parts in two shows. They were both flops. I was still waiting for that elusive big break as time slipped by. I didn’t even have a boyfriend – that’s how pathetic my life was.
After a few cocktails and meaningless conversations with people I didn’t know or really care to, and still feeling painfully conspicuous, I was introduced to Gilbert. He was the officiating host of the reception. Gil stood by the buffet table, for the moment alone, sampling the spinach avocado dip. The guy I had arrived with introduced us, then moved on. Gilbert looked sharp in an Armani coffee brown suit, paired with an ecru silk shirt. It was open at the neck, rakishly revealing a wisp of dark chest hair. His wire-rimmed glasses lent him an air of seriousness and intelligence. Our conversation was animated, scintillating even. We talked about art, life, cooking, our favorite films. Gilbert quickly impressed me as the most charming, attractive and interesting person I had ever met. He was genuinely interested in me and what I did. By the time I had downed a second glass of Merlot I was smitten.
When the crowd at the reception thinned out sufficiently he invited me over to his place. I accepted. The alternative was going back to my crummy apartment and tossing a frozen lasagna into the microwave. We walked the few blocks to his building, off of First Avenue, talking the whole time – about what I don’t remember. We were completely comfortable with each other, as if we had known each other forever.
He lived in a building with a view of the river. It was a modestly sized apartment, attractively decorated. The art work was, of course, mostly oriental. Track lighting illuminated colorful Tibetan tangkhas and Chinese landscapes; Imari porcelain graced various shelves and tables; the carpets were vintage kilims. He told me that he had been born into a relatively well-to-do family in the city, had gone to boarding schools and a top university. He landed his gallery job fresh out of graduate school. I marveled that anyone could lead such a charmed life. I certainly had not.
Gilbert didn’t really brag or anything like that, but I could tell from his impeccable dress and his complete ease with himself that he didn’t suffer from any lack of self-confidence. At that point in my life my self esteem was running on near empty. There is some truth to the adage that opposites attract. I was drawn to Gilbert like a moth to the proverbial flame. And I was soon to get singed. I look back at that evening now – framed as it was in the magic of our first meeting, enhanced by the milieu of success and youthful promise, with the soft autumnal evening light fading over the East River during our walk – and I wonder how I could have been so deceived.
As we toured the apartment I was surprised to find a woman seated at the dining room table. She was laying out tarot cards and seemed quite at home. As he hadn’t mentioned a roommate or a partner, I was a bit taken aback. Roberta was about Gil’s age, a few years older than I. She might have been moderately attractive had she bothered to pay any attention to her appearance. Running a comb through her scraggly dark hair would have been a good start. And she obviously was no fan of make-up. She dressed like a hippie from the 60s, in a shapeless shift that looked like a can of paint had been spilled on it, and over that a tasseled shawl that might have once been draped over her grandmother’s piano. A pair of dangling hoop earrings were the only adornment she wore. Roberta looked totally out of place in Gil’s elegant apartment and didn’t seem the type of person he would know. He was cosmopolitan and Roberta was, well, uncouth. After the preliminary introductions she barely acknowledged me again. The antipathy was mutual. There was something inscrutable and unpleasant about Roberta that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Later I would learn that she was volatile and devious. First impressions are often correct.
To my relief, she left soon after our arrival, with barely a goodbye to me. Gilbert filled me in. Roberta was part owner of a New Age bookstore in the Village and did palm reading on the side. She and Gilbert had known each other since childhood and had been in a relationship for the past several years, one that involved occasional intimacy. Roberta was unshakably convinced that she could convert Gilbert, coax him into abandoning his dissolute ways and become the man she imagined. She was a very determined woman. Gilbert laughed it off, but he seemed to enjoy her slavering attentions. Whether he realized it or not, he was guilty of encouraging her.
The two of them would talk on the phone for hours. He told her things that he never shared with me, mostly about his work in the gallery. As I was the new boy on the block, so to speak, it didn’t bother me all that much.
I met Gilbert in October. We began to spend more and more time with each other as the fall turned to winter, going out or spending time in Gil’s apartment. I wasn’t quite sure where I fit into the scheme of things, this curious ménage à trois, but whenever Roberta was around I could feel that she resented me. Mostly, she just ignored me.
Gilbert and I agreed to spent Christmas Eve together, at his place, of course. (I would have been embarrassed to invite him to my low-rent hovel.) I provided the tree, a modest but lovely Norwegian spruce, and Gilbert did the decorating. We had just settled on the sofa, chardonnays in hand, admiring our sparkling handiwork, when we heard the sound of a key opening the front door. Roberta had her own key to the place and had decided to drop by for an unannounced visit. A cheery ‘hello!’ echoed from the entry hall. She had brought her own tree along, evidently assuming that she and Gil were going to have an intimate evening together — without me, of course. When she saw us sitting together and our decorated tree as a fait accompli she froze in her tracks, looking at me, then the tree, then me again. It quickly dawned on her that the evening was not going to turn out as she had planned. She flung her tree onto the floor and erupted into a ball of fury. She spluttered and seethed, ranting about how ungrateful Gilbert was, how little he appreciated her, enumerating all she had done for him. Gilbert could hardly get a word in. He soon gave up and retreated to the kitchen to get away from the raving banshee and to pour himself a stiff drink. The finale to this tirade was that Roberta, in a surge of rage and frustration, flung open the French doors leading out onto the balcony and hurled our tree, replete with lights and decorations, onto the street below. We were on the third floor. One can hardly imagine the surprise of passersby as they saw a decorated Christmas tree come sailing through the crisp winter air and landing at their feet like a cruise missile. I cowered in a corner, hoping that she wouldn’t toss me off the balcony next. She was capable of it.
Gilbert reappeared, now well fortified with drink. He manned up and declared his allegiance to me. I was so proud of him for showing some mettle. Before she stormed out of the apartment Roberta pointed an accusatory finger at Gilbert, like a witch casting a hex, shrieking, “I’m not done with you yet – you wait and see!”
She then made a door-slamming exit worthy of a Tony. The whole scene had been so absurd I burst out laughing. But my merriment didn’t last long. I saw that Gil had slumped onto the sofa, his head in his hands. “What’s up?” I asked, puzzled by this inexplicable change of mood.
“She’s not kidding, Scott. I know her. She has powers and she’ll use them. You have no idea what she’s capable of.”
“You’ve got to be kidding! What powers does she have? Roberta’s an unhappy, homely girl. And I’ll bet you’re the only friend she has.”
Gil looked up at me. He didn’t smile or say anything. I had no idea he was so superstitious.
But that was not the last we saw of Roberta. She showed up a few months later and managed to wheedle herself into Gilbert’s life again. She behaved as if nothing untoward had ever happened. Gilbert never mentioned the Yuletide incident either. I found that a bit odd. Roberta also became somewhat friendlier to me. I was wary.
It was in early Spring that Roberta reappeared. Another side of her was revealed and another piece of the puzzle fell into place during the events of that time. She claimed to be a medium, someone who (presumably) had the gift of contacting, and being the voice for spirits on the other side. Gil had never mentioned this talent of Roberta’s to me before. I wasn’t at all surprised that she would be involved in something so kooky, nor was I surprised that he would give credence to such claptrap. Gil’s idealism, a quality which I found endearing in him, sometimes manifested itself as stubborn and baffling naïveté. I already knew just how superstitious he was.
Roberta’s séances were conducted whenever the spirit moved her and involved only a select cadre of participants. For some reason, unclear to me at first, I was invited to join this elite group. I assumed it was Gilbert’s doing, but more likely it was because Roberta wanted to get into Gil’s good graces again. I went along more out of curiosity than anything else.
For the first séance we met in Roberta’s tiny Greenwich Village apartment. It was furnished in the manner of an oriental seraglio decorated by K-Mart. Gauzy fabrics draped the lamps, giving the place a dim and shabby look. Incense smoldered in every corner, wafting around various idols: Shiva Nataraja, Isis, Athena, Ganesha, Norse warriors, frightening Tibetan deities with flames and skulls. Besides the three of us, there was one other person at the assembly, a tiny and amiable older woman with curly gray hair and thick glasses. She was as excited as a schoolgirl to be a part of the group. We sat around a pedestal table and were required to spread our hands on the surface, fingers touching those of our neighbors. We were admonished to maintain strict silence until Roberta announced the arrival of a spirit. Several came to visit, the appearance of each eliciting giggles of delight from granny. Some of these spirits were benign, others disturbed. Some had clear messages for us, others gave out indecipherable gibberish. The table never actually levitated, but it did tilt. Whether this happened due to our own involuntary actions or due to supernatural forces, it was hard to say. I remained skeptical, but found the weirdness of the experience entertaining.
As the novelty of the evening was wearing off, one last spectral visitor appeared specifically for Gilbert. Master Hubertus (such was the name he announced through Roberta) urged him to action, advised him that now was the time to take chances, that the stars were aligned, that if he did he would experience success and acquire great wealth. He was forceful in his counsel: carpe diem! Gilbert visibly perked up, stimulated by Master Hubertus’ attentions. I thought I saw Roberta gauging the effect this performance was having on Gil. She looked pleased with herself.
Gilbert and Roberta resumed their telephone conversations, lengthy confabulations conducted in conspiratorial tones. A few nights later we went down to the Village again as Roberta claimed that Master Hubertus had been hovering around her all day. The ‘Master’ had another message for Gil and was insistent that he hear it. This time it was just the three of us. We took our places around the table. Roberta looked more disheveled than usual and even groaned a bit. I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing. It was a thoroughly ridiculous spectacle. Master Hubertus arrived soon enough. He had nothing to say that he hadn’t said before, and he didn’t stint with the flattery either. Gilbert was enthralled. The voice that came through Roberta sounded like a bad imitation of Charlton Heston coming down from the mount with the tablets. He went on for a while. Before he departed he said:
“To the future you look, the future is here….you will find your true nature – become a man of action, forceful, vigorous, charging ahead with assurance! This is your destiny! Embrace it while you can! Ommmmmmmmm………” The voice trailed off and he was gone.
Roberta snapped out of her trance and we were done. She gave me a knowing look. I understood then that she thought I would be her ally. I wasn’t sure what she was up to, but I soon found out.
I could tell in the taxi on the way home that a change had come over Gilbert. He was in a buoyant mood, his mind churning with plans. I knew better than to ask about them until we got home. When we arrived at the apartment I inquired, as casually as I could, what he thought of the whole business.
“What a revelation this has been,” he said, glowing like an incandescent bulb. “I’ve been wasting my time, spending too much energy on playing by the book. I’m meant for better things.”
“Better things?” I asked. “But you’ve been very successful, you live well, you’re on the top of your game.”
“No!” he countered ardently, turning toward me. There was a fierce look in his eye. “There is more to be had than all this.” Here he paused to make a sweeping gesture of the apartment. “Just wait; you’ll see – and very soon!”
“I hope you know what you’re doing’” I said. What more could I have done? Gil was possessed with some new vision of himself. There were no more séances after that.
It was about this time that a new work of art showed up in Gilbert’s apartment, a small stone statue of a warrior. The figure was missing its hands and feet, but it was clear from the stance that it was an archer. He seemed to be aiming an arrow into an eternal nothingness, an enigmatic hint of a smile on his lips. Was he mocking us? It was exquisite, taking pride of place on the mantel. I found the piece captivating and asked Gil about its provenance. When he confirmed that the Warrior was Khmer, dating from circa 1,000 CE, I gasped.
“That must be worth a fortune,” I said. “How do you know it wasn’t pilfered? There is a lot of that going on with this kind of art, you know. Unscrupulous characters are looting all of Cambodia and sending the stuff off to the West.”
“Of course, I’m aware of that. My gallery would never deal in stolen art,” he boasted. “Besides,” he added, “I only have it on loan, so it isn’t my problem anyway.” He looked away when he said it, so I knew he wasn’t being quite truthful.
One day the Warrior disappeared. Gilbert was a bit cagey when I asked him what had happened to it. There was something fishy going on. He quickly changed the subject and mused about us taking a month-long cruise in the Pacific or renting a villa on the Côte d’Azur. These were extravagant proposals. It was about this time that Gil purchased a brand-new Lexus. What he had to pay in parking fees alone was more than the rent I paid for my apartment.
I soon forgot all about the statue. That is, until a pair of detectives showed up at the door. They questioned Gil about a few items that had gone missing from the gallery, some of them quite valuable. I overheard the interrogation and broke out into a sweat. He didn’t have to tell me – I knew what he had done. Gilbert was arrested a few days later.
Thanks to the efforts of a competent lawyer, Gilbert was soon released on bail. He confessed to me ashamedly that he had attempted to sell the Warrior on eBay. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. And the statue hadn’t been on loan to him in the first place; he had made off with it. Did he really think no one would notice? He didn’t have to say it, but I could tell from his deflated manner that he realized the foolishness of his behavior. He had come to believe that he was invincible, buying into the delusions constructed for him by Roberta in the guise of Master Hubertus.
Roberta disappeared completely and never returned repeated calls. Gil had to sell his condo, and the Lexus too, of course. We found a cramped one-bedroom in Astoria, quite a comedown from the luxury of the Upper East Side. He was all but unemployable in the antiques trade and had to accept whatever jobs he could land. His family all but disowned him. Somehow we muddled through, awaiting the court date.
Gilbert di Marco was charged with grand larceny and conspiracy to defraud. When the dreaded first day of the trial arrived he sat at the defendant’s table with downcast eyes, looking thoroughly dejected. I was grateful that I didn’t have to take the stand to testify, thus avoiding being put in the awkward position of incriminating Gil or myself. I had already given a sworn deposition concerning what little I knew about the Warrior.
The gallery, La Maison d’Asie, was especially eager to make an example of its former employee and pursued the case vigorously. Roberta was called to the stand – by the prosecution. She looked her usual unkempt self and claimed that Gil had boasted to her of new business opportunities and of his newfound wealth. She recounted facts that must have been told to her in confidence during their lengthy phone conversations. It was damning testimony. She studiously avoided eye contact with him and with me in the court room and hurried out the door as soon as she was done with her testimony. Roberta, aka Master Hubertus, must have felt some sense of twisted satisfaction in testifying against Gilbert, but her treachery was deplorable behavior towards a friend.
Gilbert was convicted and sentenced to thirty-six months in prison, which he served at a minimum-security facility upstate. The judge was inclined to leniency as Gil exhibited genuine contrition for his crime. His hangdog demeanor and the occasional bouts of weeping that overcame him during the trial must have worked in his favor.
On my first visit to the Goshen State Prison I brought Gilbert one of his favorite Chinese landscapes, hoping it would cheer him up. If there was one thing I learned from him, it is that wherever one is, whatever the circumstances, one must live in style.
John Mueter is an educator, pianist, composer and writer. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. When he is not writing short stories he is busy dusting off his collection of Imari porcelain.
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