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Chapter 28, Part 3
The years after Ruth’s death, I sometimes think, can be divided into four phases. The depression and recovery after Ruth’s passing was the first of those phases; the period in which I tried to move on as best I could was the second. The third phase covered the years following the reporter’s visit in 2005, when the bars went up on the windows. It wasn’t until three years ago, however, that I finally decided what to do with the collection, which led to the fourth and final phase.
Estate planning is a complicated affair, but essentially, the question boiled down to this: I had to decide what to do with our possessions, or the state would end up deciding for me. Howie Sanders had been pressing Ruth and me for years to make a decision. He asked us whether there were any charities of which I was particularly fond or whether I wanted the paintings to go to a particular museum. Perhaps I wanted to auction them off, with the proceeds earmarked for specific organizations or universities? After the article appeared — and the potential value of the collection became a topic of heated speculation in the art world — he became even more persistent, though by then I was the only one who was there to listen.
It wasn’t until 2008, however, that I finally consented to come to his office.
He had arranged meetings of a confidential nature with curators from various museums: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Whitney, as well as representatives from Duke University, Wake Forest, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There were individuals from the AntiDefamation League and United Jewish Appeal — a couple of my father’s favorite organizations — as well as someone from Sotheby’s. I was ushered into a conference room and introductions were made, and on each of their faces, I could read an avid curiosity as they wondered how Ruth and I — a haberdasher and a schoolteacher — had managed to accumulate such an extensive private modern art collection.
I sat through a series of individual presentations, and in each instance, I was assured that any portion of the collection that I cared to put in their hands would be valued fairly — or, in the case of the auctioneer, maximized. The charities promised to put the money toward any causes that were special to Ruth and me.
I was tired by the time the day ended, and upon my return home, I fell asleep almost immediately in the easy chair in the living room. When I woke, I found myself staring at the painting of Ruth, wondering what she would have wanted me to do.
“But I did not tell you,” Ruth says quietly. It has been a while since she has spoken, and I suspect that she’s trying to conserve my strength. She, too, can feel the end coming.
I force my eyes open, but she is nothing but a blurry image now. “No,” I answer. My voice is ragged and slurry, almost unintelligible. “You never wanted to discuss it.”
She tilts her head to look at me. “I trusted you to make the decision.”
I can remember the moment when I finally made up my mind. It was early evening, a few days after the meetings at Howie’s office. Howie had called an hour earlier, asking if I had any questions or wanted him to follow up with anyone in particular. After I hung up, and with the help of my walker, I made my way to the back porch.
There were two rocking chairs flanking a small table, dusty from disuse. When we were younger, Ruth and I used to sit out here and talk, watching the stars emerge from hiding in the slowly darkening sky. Later, when we were older, these evenings on the back porch became less frequent, because both of us had grown more sensitive to the temperature. The cold of winter and the heat of summer rendered the porch unusable for more than half the year; it was only during the spring and fall that Ruth and I continued to venture out.
But on that night, despite the heat and the thick layer of dust on the chairs, I sat just as we used to. I pondered the meeting and everything that had been said. And it became clear that Ruth had been right: No one really understood.
For a while, I toyed with the idea of bequeathing the entire collection to Andrea Lockerby, if only because she, too, had loved Daniel. But I didn’t really know her, nor had Ruth. Besides, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that despite the obvious influence that Ruth had had on Daniel’s life, he had never once tried to contact her. This I just could not understand, or entirely forgive, because I knew Ruth’s heart had been irreparably broken.
There was no easy answer, because for us, the art had never been about the money. Like the reporter, these curators and collectors, these experts and salespeople, didn’t understand. With the echo of Ruth’s words in my head, I finally felt the answer begin to take shape.
An hour later, I called Howie at his home. I told him that my intention was to auction the entire collection, and like a good soldier, he did not debate my decision. Nor did he question me when I explained that I wanted the auction held in Greensboro. However, when I told him how I wanted the auction to be handled, he was stunned into silence to the point where I wondered whether he was still connected. Finally, after clearing his throat, he talked with me about the specifics of all that it would entail. I told him that secrecy was the foremost priority.
Over the next few months, the details were arranged. I went to Howie’s office two more times and met with the representatives from Sotheby’s. I met again with the executive directors of various Jewish charities; the sums they would receive obviously depended on the auction itself and how much money the collection would fetch. To that end, appraisers spent weeks cataloging and photographing the entire collection, estimating value, and establishing provenance. Eventually, a catalog was sent for my approval. The estimated value of the collection was mind-boggling even to me, but again it did not matter.
When all the arrangements for the initial and subsequent auctions were completed — it was impossible to sell all the art in a single day — I talked to both Howie and the appropriate representative from Sotheby’s, outlining their responsibilities, and had them sign numerous legal documents, ensuring there could be no alteration to the plan I envisioned. I wanted to prepare for any contingency, and when everything was finally ready, I signed my will in front of four witnesses. I further specified that my will was final and not to be altered or modified under any circumstances.
Back at home, in the aftermath, I sat in the living room and gazed at the painting of Ruth, tired and satisfied. I missed her, maybe more in that instant than I ever had before, but even so, I smiled and said the words that I knew she would have wanted to hear.
“They will understand, Ruth,” I said. “They will finally understand.”
It is afternoon now, and I feel myself shrinking, like a sand castle slowly being washed away with every wave. Beside me, Ruth looks at me with concern.
“You should take a nap again,” she says, her voice tender.
“I’m not tired,” I lie.
Ruth knows that I am lying, but she pretends to believe me, chattering on with a forced insouciance. “I do not think I would have been a good wife to someone else. I think I am sometimes too stubborn.”
“That’s true,” I concede with a smile. “You’re lucky I put up with you.”
She rolls her eyes. “I am trying to be serious, Ira.”
I stare at her, wishing that I could hold her. Soon, I think to myself. Soon, I will join her. It is hard to keep talking, but I force myself to respond.
“If we’d never met, I think I would have known that my life wasn’t complete. And I would have wandered the world in search of you, even if I didn’t know who I was looking for.”
Her eyes brighten at this, and she reaches over to run her hand through my hair, her touch soothing and warm. “You have said this to me before. I have always liked this answer.”
I close my eyes and they nearly stay closed. When I force them open again, Ruth has dimmed, becoming almost translucent.
“I’m tired, Ruth.”
“It is not time yet. I have not read your letter yet. The new one, the one you wanted to deliver. Can you remember what you wrote?”
I concentrate, recalling a tiny snippet, but only that and nothing more.
“Not enough,” I mumble.
“Tell me what you can remember. Anything.”
It takes a while to gather my strength. I breathe deliberately, hear the faint whistle of my labored exchange. I can no longer feel the dryness in my throat. All of it has been replaced by bone-deep exhaustion.
“If there is a heaven, we will find each other again, for there is no heaven without you.” I stop, realizing that saying even this much leaves me breathless.
I think she is touched, but I can no longer tell. Though I am looking at her, she is almost gone now. But I can feel the radius of her sadness, her regret, and I know that she is leaving. Here and now, she can’t exist without me.
She seems to know this, and though she continues to fade, she scoots closer in the seat. She runs her hand through my hair and kisses me on my cheek. She is sixteen and twenty and thirty and forty, every age, all at once. She is so beautiful that my eyes begin to well with tears.
“I love what you have written to me,” she whispers. “I want to hear the rest of it.”
“I don’t think so,” I mumble, and I think I feel one of her tears splash onto my cheek.
“I love you, Ira,” she whispers. Her breath is soft in my ear, like the murmurings of an angel. “Remember how much you always meant to me.”
“I remember…,” I begin, and when she kisses me again, my eyes close for what I think will be the very last time.
Chapter 29, Part 1
On Saturday night, while the rest of the campus was celebrating yet another weekend, Sophia was writing a paper in the library when her cell phone buzzed. Though the use of phones was allowed only in designated areas, Sophia saw there was no one else around and reached over, frowning when she saw the text and the sender.
Call me, Marcia had written. It’s urgent.
Minimal as it was, it was more communication than they’d had since the argument, and Sophia wondered what to do. Text back? Ask what was going on? Or do as Marcia had asked and call her?
Sophia wasn’t sure. Frankly, she didn’t want to talk to Marcia at all. Like the rest of her sorority, she was surely at a party or at a bar. She was most likely drinking, which opened the door to the possibility that she and Brian might be fighting, and the last thing Sophia wanted was to get involved in something like that. She didn’t want to listen to Marcia cry about what a jerk he was, nor did she feel ready to rush over and support her, especially after the painstaking way in which Marcia had continued to avoid her.
Now, though, she wanted Sophia to call her. Because whatever was going on, it was urgent.
Now that was a word that was open to all sorts of interpretation, she thought to herself. She debated for another few seconds, making her decision, before finally saving her work and shutting down the computer. She slid it into her backpack, put on her jacket, and headed to the exit. As she pushed open the door, she was met unexpectedly by an arctic blast of air and a thickening layer of snow on the ground. The temperature must have dropped twenty degrees in the last few hours. She was going to freeze on the walk back…
But not yet. Brushing aside her better judgment, she reached for her phone and tucked back into the lobby. Marcia picked up on the first ring. In the background, she could hear music blaring and the cacophony of a hundred conversations.
“Sophia? Thank God you called!”
Sophia drew a tense breath. “What’s so urgent?”
She could hear the background noise fading, Marcia no doubt in search of someplace more quiet. A door slammed, and she heard Marcia’s voice more clearly.
“You need to get back to the house right now,” Marcia said, a note of panic in her tone.
“Luke is there. He’s parked on the street out front. He’s been waiting there for the last twenty minutes. You need to get there right away.”
Sophia swallowed. “We broke up, Marcia. I don’t want to see him.”
“Oh,” Marcia said, not bothering to hide her confusion.
“That’s terrible. I know how much you liked him…”
“Is that it?” Sophia asked. “I’ve got to go…”
“No, wait!” Marcia called out. “I know you’re mad at me and I know I deserve it, but that’s not why I’m calling. Brian knows that Luke is there — Mary-Kate told him a few minutes ago. Brian’s been drinking for hours and he’s getting riled up. He’s already getting some of the guys together to go after him. I’ve been trying to talk him out of it, but you know how he is. And Luke has no idea what’s coming. You might be broken up, but I don’t think you want him to get hurt…”
By then, Sophia was barely listening, the icy winds drowning out the sound of Marcia’s voice as she hurried back toward the house.
The campus appeared deserted as she took every shortcut she could, trying to reach the house in time. As she ran, she called Luke repeatedly on his cell phone, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t answering. She managed to send him a brief text as well but didn’t get a response.
It wasn’t far, but the cold February wind was bitter, stinging her ears and cheeks, and her feet kept sliding in the new-fallen snow. She hadn’t worn boots, and melting snow seeped through her shoes, soaking her toes. Wet snow continued to fall, feathery and thick, the kind of snow that would turn instantly to ice, making the roads dangerous.