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Short Story

In With The Masters

“No, not Phillips,” Terje said. “I need a flathead screwdriver. One with a short handle.”

The salesman nodded, then disappeared down a narrow aisle. While waiting, Terje’s glance slid down a wall of paint cans, rummaged through the display of belt and circular sanders, and lingered in the thick sheen from a stack of linoleum flooring. He caught himself reading the prices and turned away, opening the front of his coat in the warm shop. The glasses rested on his nose with a reminding weight and began to steam. He felt fortunate he had to wear the prop for only a few hours and that his eyes were, otherwise, as sharp as he could imagine eyes to be.

Terje had been back in Norway for a week. Out of nostalgia for his student days he had rented a furnished apartment on Neumann street. His usual tools were at the house in Spain, and he felt a little upset at himself for having waited until now to buy the screwdriver. When he wasn’t painting, he dealt predominantly with religious items, although like today, he would consent to do the occasional museum piece. Thieving was not difficult. Especially here. Several years ago, someone ran a ladder up the back wall of the National Gallery in Oslo, broke a window, and absconded with Edvard Munch’s Scream. That’s how easy it could be. He himself had stolen enough art over the years to fill a museum of respectable size, though rarely did he possess a piece for more than a month.

Today, as with each time, he felt wonderfully sick with nerves. In the shop, his entire torso throbbed with the adrenaline of the procrastinator, making him smile like a neophyte in the business. By the time the salesman returned with the correct screwdriver, Terje felt the first fringes of a happiness he hadn’t possessed in months. It was all about possession. He took the screwdriver from the salesman’s hand and gripped it in his own.


“Listen, is your name Terje?” The salesman’s hand was shaped like a gun.


“I thought it was you. How have you been?”

“Fine,” Terje said. “But do I know you?” He set the screwdriver down on the counter.

The salesman made a click in his mouth and pointed at Terje again. “Sure. I’m Einar. We were stationed together up north. Remember?”

Imagining the salesman in fatigues did not help Terje to place him, though the name began to have a familiar ring.

“Yeah. Sure,” Terje said, shaking Einar’s hand, hoping for a recollection of the soldier in the salesman. “I didn’t know you lived here,” he said.

“Me? Of course. Where else, right? Right?”

Terje felt like he’d forgotten some quip between them from years ago. He chuckled to cover himself, all the while looking the salesman in the eye, hoping a recognition there would spread a familiarity out to Einar’s other features. Nothing.

“How long have you been living in Bergen?” Einar asked.

“I’m just here on business. Then I’m leaving again.”

“Too bad,” Einar said, ringing up the sale.

Terje pulled a card from his wallet to wave through the machine, but thought better of it and handed Einar a bill instead.

“Listen,” Einar said. “I take my lunch in a few minutes. Do you have time for a coffee, or are you in a hurry?”

“Me? In a hurry?” Terje laughed, trying to ghost up a joke from the past he couldn’t recall.

“You know the pastry shop round the corner?” Einar asked.

“No,” Terje said. “Wait. Of course. The one right round the corner.”

“You can’t miss it.”

“Right.” Terje slid the screwdriver into his pocket and took the receipt and change. “See you there?”

“Ten minutes.”

Terje jogged down the steps from the hardware shop and wove himself back into the sidewalk crowd. His watch read a little after twelve. Then, in a synaptic flash, his mind slipped him a fifteen-year-old memory of Einar, causing him to halt in front of a lighting store. The sight before him in the shop window—a nested stack of crenelated lamp shades—wavered to his mind’s eye as he fit the sudden memory of Einar’s lean face atop the features he’d left behind in the shop: pale fat cheeks, hair thin and curling. Good God! He had a tooth missing, too. Terje couldn’t understand it. Then he recalled more than the face. Einar had been the one who caught the jeep on fire.

They’d been stationed together fifty miles from the Russian border in a deep sunless winter. It was the last time Terje had grown a beard; everyone had stopped shaving to protect their faces from the chapping slaps of cold. They were clearing out after camping for several days. To start the jeeps, Terje remembered patting down the snow beneath the engines with shovels, then pouring gasoline into the frozen basins. Einar threw a match into the pool of fuel, and Terje remembered them all standing back as the fire thawed the engine, the light reaching the tops of their boots. Einar climbed into the jeep and managed to turn over the engine, then pulled forward away from the fire, letting the light reach the scrawny birch trees at the periphery of darkness where, also, the sides of the tents emerged, like sheets on clotheslines strung between the trees. But another light erupted from under the jeep. A frozen oil leak had melted and began burning with a virulent intensity. Someone shouted to Einar and Einar stopped and began frantically shoveling snow up under the jeep. Terje remembered the awkward feel of pitching snow into the brightening flames which, despite their efforts, swept up into the engine and soon outlined the rim of the hood in yellow. Eventually, the entire jeep caught fire, the upholstery contracting and tearing open holes, throwing the sharp scent of foam rubber into the air where it froze before falling in wisps of ash. Terje remembered backing up toward the trees with the others, waiting for the jeep to explode.

Someone on the sidewalk bumped him, and Terje found himself staring at his reflection in the store window, a passing apology drifting in air that bore a faint trace of gasoline. Terje shivered. The thought of having forgotten the memory of the jeep worried him, but even more frightening was the possibility that he could be hit at any time with a forgotten moment, like the sudden flourish of a tropical disease after a decade’s incubation. Afraid of contagion, Terje moved on. Glancing into storefront windows, he felt his jaw and thought he looked a little handsome, still, even despite the distorted transparency that jumped from window to window to keep up with him. But what had happened to the young Einar from fifteen years ago? The one whose family, he remembered now, had been well-to-do? Young Einar of the Burning Jeep.

With these questions, the city’s atmosphere seemed to change; the angles of the buildings and streets felt oddly aligned, sending his mental compass into quick fidgets. As he continued down the street, he tried to return to the clear thoughts he’d possessed before buying the screwdriver: the trip to Spain which hung like bait at the end of the week. Sun, plush couches, conversation in that mouth-filling language. He did not want to be in this city where someone remembered him, where his own memory was caught slumbering and now, in the blood-rush to accommodate change, mad him dizzy. As he passed a cafeteria, he opened the door to take refuge from the gasoline sky.

The warm scent of bread and raisins replaced the queasiness in his lungs. He lay his overcoat and umbrella in a booth by the window and pushed up the sleeves of his sweater. To spite his weaker, queasy half, he bought an open-faced sandwich at the counter, along with a mug of coffee. He placed a package of twin sugar cubes on the saucer’s rim, dropped a few packets into his pocket, and sat by the window. The porcelain mug burned his lips; he licked his upper lip and lowered the coffee, scolding himself for being hasty. As he waited for the coffee to cool, he dipped the corner of a sugar cube into the mug and watched the square draw up the drink, then crumble out of his pinch.

He hated the way seeing Einar seemed to spoil not only his mood, but even the weather. Terje couldn’t imagine how Einar could capitulate to routine, to the absurd redundancy of working all day in the same place. He dropped in his second cube of sugar as the cafeteria’s door jingled. A man in a goatee entered, nodded at Terje, and took a table at the other end of the room. Terje tried to dredge the dissolved sugar cube up with a spoon, then looked up to catch the goateed man staring. Terje felt certain, though, that the man was not an acquaintance. Feeling a little ridiculous for the loose rein of his imagination, he looked outside. The December sunlight fell less heavily and the rain was returning, fresh from the sea. Water ricocheted from a retracted awning, shimmering down the window and blurring the cars and the high row of businesses on the other side of the street, turning everyone into passing smears of color. Terje drank some coffee to wash down a bite of his sandwich, thinking to himself how this rain in any other place would have turned to snow. But in this moment of calm, he again began to have the uneasy sensation of seeing everything oscillate between two perceptions; the things he saw seemed to undergo a transformation, like an object changing character in a mirror. He’d hoped the earlier feeling on the sidewalk had been an anomaly, like an extra flutter of the heart, and felt disturbed by how neither perception seemed solid, instead turning on themselves endlessly, like a Möbius strip.

Then, between the coursing rivulets on the window pane, he spotted Einar walking down the sidewalk in his direction. Quickly, Terje looked down. A Grecian motif on the china encircled his half-eaten sandwich. He imagined a mouthful of bread, a corner of Havarti cheese and a nip of red bell pepper boiling piranha-like in the darkness of his stomach, then reincarnating into cells of his body to stare down at his lunch with a new-found cannibalism. Feeling sick again, he shoved the food aside, looking up in time to see Einar cross the street toward the pastry shop.

Terje gathered his coat and umbrella and stepped back into the rhythm of plans and action. Pushing open a dry column with his umbrella, he headed the opposite direction from Einar. Terje crossed the street and came within view of the lake in the center of Bergen. Japanese cherry trees bordered the walkway around the dark rain-dappled water of Lille Lungegårdsvannet. Terje walked under the trees, where the rain gathered on the limbs and dropped, en masse, to pummel his umbrella. The rain clouds prevented him from seeing the downtown or the red cars of the funicular that cut a swath behind the old wooden homes to the top of the surrounding mountains. He felt very alone. In one week he’d be among friends in Spain, but here in the land of his native tongue he would be hard-pressed to make many friends materialize. In Spain, he would paint in the mornings, then go for a jog, then eat a large lunch and read the papers out on the terrace. The sun would not set until five o’clock.

He shook the feathery droplets from his umbrella and entered the white building on Rasmus Meyers Avenue like someone taking cover from the rain. It was the middle of the week and the Stenersen collection, as he’d anticipated, was nearly empty. After checking in his umbrella, he wrapped his coat about him, glad the day had turned out cold. He had planned to try the museum the day before, but the sun and warm wind would have made an overcoat as large as his appear conspicuous.

Terje skipped the first room of large pastorals, then slowed to a perusing shuffle behind the scattering of visitors. He examined the paintings from a distance, then close up, so close he could see the grooves left by passing brush hairs. In this manner he moved from room to room, seeing no reason he should let the aftertaste of meeting Einar destroy the afternoon’s remains. He was in with the masters, after all, and there were techniques here he knew nothing about and had yet to attempt.

It was then he saw the man with the goatee enter the exhibition. Terje felt himself being tailed into the next room, and the next, all the way to the open hall at the end of the building. The man lingered behind Terje at the length of a winter shadow and stared, sparking a thin fuse of panic down Terje’s spine. Police? Terje passed the door to the bathrooms and remained fixed in front of the first painting on the other side. The man approached, painting by painting, then pushed open the bathroom door and was gone. Terje let himself relax a little. Turning and heading to the other end of the hall, he saw the night-blue crack of windows where the wall met the ceiling. He checked his watch as he waited for the hall to empty, for that perfect opportunity to tick into this notch of time.

Terje paused in front of a 1953 Picasso. Sylvette. The young woman, clad askew in a button-down coat, sat in a wicker chair with her hands clasped together. A ponytail gathered her hair away from her face, revealing eyes that seemed to look over Terje’s shoulder in a disappointment that reminded him of Anastasia. Terje turned but saw only a guard strolling somnambulantly through the exhibit.

Two months prior, Anastasia had thrown out his stuff, called him a narcissist, and told him to leave—and he had. He had tried not to let it bother him. Yes, he painted self-portraits. They were the only works he could paint better than artists who had, or would, capture every scene and emotion better than he. What could he paint, without lying in the process, but himself? But this did not mean he was a narcissist. If that description were to fit him, he’d have hung his self-portraits on the walls, while instead they were stacked and unframed in the room he used for painting. The portraits did not all look like him, although Anastasia had the vision to see it, coupled with the unfortunate bent to call him a narcissist. The day he left, two months earlier, was one moment written into the past, nothing more, he told himself. He would return to Spain at the end of the week and smooth things over, there at the house under unbroken sun. Until then, he was here with a job, a buyer. He felt sick again.

Abutting one wall of the exhibition space rose a staircase leading to an open level. In partial concealment under the stairs hung works by Paul Klee. They looked like children’s drawings, or sketches of giant pictographs, like the ones Terje had seen on a TV show about the American desert. He stopped several body lengths from the painting which had shaped his purpose all week. Black lines, like a demolition of words, rested on a fiery background. A collection of signs hardly bigger than a piece of writing paper. He turned and saw the guard drifting away.

Instinctively, Terje lifted the painting from the wall and tucked it within his coat. The corners of the frame were sharp, and it was with only the greatest awkwardness that he walked to the bathroom with a semblance of inconspicuousness. Once inside a stall, he extracted the screwdriver from his pocket and began prying the glass face off the frame. Someone coughed in the stall next to him and Terje stiffened and sat on the rim of the toilet. But not having the time to wait, he continued removing the frame, inserting the screwdriver and splitting the wood at the seams as quietly as possible. His legs felt weak and needled from the intensity of the theft and he smiled, thinking of the image that came to his mind, of Einar selling him the screwdriver. Terje began to feel the need to use the toilet, so he stood again, keeping his head tucked below the top of the stall door until the man in the other stall flushed and left. Terje took the canvas—it seemed made of a paper sack—and inserted it between his T-shirt and his sweater. Then he removed the tank lid from the toilet and slid the glass plate invisibly into the water, tossing in the floating splinters of wood before he replaced the lid. With the dry scrape of porcelain on porcelain, he felt something like giddiness shiver through him. Leaving the bathroom, he headed straight for the exit where he picked up his umbrella, bought a postcard in a rich and flagrant risk of time, and smiled to the woman attendant as he headed outside.

All the way back to the row houses on Neumann street, the screwdriver in his coat pocket slapped his knee. The rain leaned and a cold dark blow tried to work into the warmth of his coat. He walked quickly, but in a gust, his umbrella slowed him like a dragster’s chute, then turned inside out. He collapsed the umbrella as best he could and hurried forward through the rain. Strange flashes of suspicion taunted him with the idea that he was carrying nothing beneath his coat, but he purposely denied the temptation to insert a hand and check, fighting the other perspective that had followed him all day. Once inside his building, he took the stairs two at a time, inserted his key to his rented apartment, and entered, flipping on the lights. The days of confinement in the cramped and spare apartment, with little to do but ruminate about who he was, and where, now seemed the smallest sacrifice. He had only to wait for payment for the painting. The city had an airport and a harbor and he could be in Spain in less than four hours.

Terje shed his overcoat and wet shoes and let the crippled umbrella drip in front of the radiator. He pulled out the Paul Klee and propped it on the kitchen table so that he could see it as he put a pot of water on the stove. After pulling a package of ground coffee from the shelf, he moved to the couch by the window and relaxed. From a pocket he pulled a package of twin sugar cubes, stuck one in his mouth, and sucked on it as he peered down at the parked cars: roofs of Fords, Opels, others he couldn’t identify, some waxed, some with pools of water, others racked up with skis. He had nothing to do but wait. He closed his eyes and tried to tack through a mental course of all the acquisitions he had made, but he felt too tired now. His excited nerves were gone, replaced with a kind of post furtum tristitia, the melancholy after thieving that crept in even with the Klee in his possession.

The phone rang.

“Hello?” he answered, carrying the phone back with him to the window.

“Is it raining, or can we expect snow?” The caller’s breaths were deep and even.

Terje looked down at a gray BMW, smoking exhaust. Everything came down to simple words.

“Is it raining, or can we expect snow?” the voice insisted.

Terje hung up. He pictured the man in the car below and warmed at the idea of having bargaining power over the buyer. But then that duplicity of perspective crept back into him and the idea of himself, alone at the top of the row house, was depressing. He had an edge over another’s desire, and yet it didn’t seem to matter.

Down below, a woman skipped out of his building. At the same time, a young man stepped from the BMW, opened the car door for the woman, and gave her a quick hug before closing it behind her and hurrying to the other side, his body hunched under the rain. The phone rang again, and Terje picked it up as he watched the BMW drive off.

“Listen. Is it fucking raining, or . . .”

With a yank, he unclipped the phone plug, but was not alone. Broken images flashed through him: he envisioned Einar sitting alone in a pastry shop that afternoon waiting for him to show, he imagined the goateed man in the museum reading a nameplate and staring at the empty square of wall, he saw the caller bloating with anger as he redialed again and again.

Terje squinted at the room in the hope of a steadfast cyclopean vision. Couldn’t he stop by at the shop where Einar worked, and buy some sandpaper and paint, some new lighting fixtures, too. Couldn’t he become a tenant in a new life? No, it was in his blood to hate this kind of life here, one like Einar’s, wasted and spent in petty routines. Having gone out of his way to avoid monotony becoming the story of his life, he was not going to succumb now. He was an art thief and nothing could change that. It was like a tattoo he kept hidden just below the cuff or collar, but which, when his being was stripped down, was as indelible as a mark from birth. But the price at that moment felt high: to be in constant movement, never to feel attached enough for anyone to understand him, or even to understand himself. He told himself he acted; he was taken by things and took them. But the inability to see his past and future in one discerning glance made him feel as though he, too, despite his best efforts, was living a life as redundant as Einar’s, with too many days fitting snug and forgetfully over the ones before.

It was the same old thing, and he knew that neither Spain nor Anastasia could provide an escape. He wanted something large. To be more than the middleman between the desiring hands and the body of art. He yearned to be the lover, or the thing loved; to make others feel, the way the evocation of a gaze, like the gaze of the woman by Picasso, could make him uneasy. It was not about his desire to have Anastasia. It was not about his fear of the man in the museum or the caller or of change. These things, fear and desire, were mere ruses by which his life sought motivation for his actions, his being. It was the same old thing. It was about immortality. He had the quivering instinct to flee from this realization, to have Anastasia fall in love with him, to drink wine with her as the stars rose. It hurt him to realize that, not long ago, he had believed an endless universe could exist in Anastasia, in Spain, in art, and it hurt even more that he wished for nothing but a return to this kind of impossible faith.

Terje looked at the painting and in a transubstantiating flash, he saw the work not as a piece by Klee, but a piece of Klee himself; an artist who would never return, never release more of himself to Terje, or the world. Terje’s mind then struck upon the idea of keeping the Klee. He could take Klee to Spain and give him the tour, make one of the rooms in Anastasia’s house over into an artist’s studio and let Klee look out over the houses across the street. Terje picked up the painting and imagined he was in Spain, the ugly apartment walls fading into the cool whitewashed enclosures not of his memory, but of his future. As he wondered what wall to let Paul Klee occupy, Terje heard footsteps on the stairs. Suddenly, he was in Bergen, Norway and the water in the coffeepot was beginning to rattle, the first bubbles seeping from the glass bottom, and he knew he could never go back to Spain because the woman who loved him no longer did, and because she was now an abstraction to him, a ruse. Then he heard the sharper rattle of keys. He knew no one had keys but himself and the landlord.

Terje snapped off the lights and shoved the Klee in the thin crack between the floor and the bottom of the couch. He moved to the door as the perimeter of hall light widened. The goateed man from the museum stepped inside, grunting a tone of disgust as he felt for the light switch. His coat dripped rain as he undid a few buttons and unwound the scarf from around his neck. The man cracked a smile when he saw Terje.

“Who are you?” Terje said.

“Franz.” The man reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope. He tossed it onto the kitchen table where it landed without sliding. “But there’s what you really want to know.”

“What do you want?” Terje asked.

The man glanced toward the windows. “Look. I think it’s snowing.”

Terje saw only rain passing through the auras of the street lamps. “It’s raining.”

“No,” the man said. “You’re mistaken. I happen to know it’s snowing.”

“No,” Terje said.

Franz smiled again. “What do you mean, no?”

“It’s not for sale.”

“Don’t play around,” Franz said. “It’s all there in bills. Spanish.”

“The price hasn’t changed,” Terje said. “It’s not for sale.” He didn’t have time to think of the repercussions, but he knew this: he would not let the painting change hands.

“It is for sale, Terje. No one else is buying.” Franz picked up the package of ground coffee.

“I want you out of my apartment,” Terje said.

Franz ripped open the bag and began shaking the grounds into the steaming coffeepot. Terje grabbed the bag from him, spraying coffee grounds into the air and onto Franz’s wet coat, where the specks stuck and bled. Terje pointed his hand at the door. “Out.”

“What’s wrong with you Terje?”

“I said out.”

But rather than walk toward the door, Franz headed toward the couch. Terje bolted across the room as Franz crouched and swept the floor beneath the couch with his hand, pulling out the Paul Klee.

“You need to clean more often,” he said. “I could probably find a Gauguin in this mess. Maybe you have nude Tahitians behind your refrigerator?”

Terje grabbed the Klee from Franz’s hands and held it closely. For the first time in his career he felt a little guilty, but the Klee was the only thing he could show for his entire life of theft, and he felt adamant that he had to keep it. He saw himself as Klee’s protectorate. A line of flesh would run between time then, not the antiseptic disconnection of a museum, of paintings on bare walls.

“You’re being an idiot,” Franz said. “You stole it to sell it. Think.” He picked up the envelope of money from the table and handed it to Terje.

“No,” Terje said, stepping back toward the window. He could feel the cold air spilling down his arm.

Then, Franz pulled out a pistol. Terje’s eyes bolted to the dark barrel. He thought of his military training and tried to recall the moves for close combat fighting, hoping a reflex would snap out of him.

“I don’t think you’re in a position to negotiate. Take it,” Franz said, throwing the envelope on the couch, and holding out an empty, covetous hand. “No?” Franz asked, his eyes flashing with betrayal.

Terje knew he needed leverage. He held the Klee tightly between his thumbs and forefingers, as though to rip the canvas.

Franz straightened his arm and raised the pistol. “Don’t.”

Terje glanced at the windows and saw Franz and himself hovering in the darkness above the street. Even in the reflection, the painted lines on the Klee looked like collapsed words and the background wash still glowed like fire, although dimmer. Between his fingers, Terje made the slightest rip in the canvas.

A car droned down the street and Terje found himself sitting backward aboard a crowded military jeep. The jeep drove slowly through thick snow, the tires spinning up a spray that disappeared into the darkness. Terje’s thoughts felt jumbled with the equipment crowded around him, lost under the hum of gears. He held tightly to the jeep to steady his feeling of unease. They were leaving the darkness near the Russian border and he was cold and fatigued, but not tired. Then, the woods flashed and he heard a ricocheting explosion that boomed in several waves before plunging back into silence. In the quick light from the distant exploding jeep, he saw Einar sitting beside him, grinning. Terje waited for more thoughts, but nothing came.

The Klee fluttered to the ground. Franz rolled it up and slid it into his coat along with the pistol. Air whistled as it moved out from a dark hole in the window where Terje had been standing. Terje lay fallen on the couch, and Franz tucked the envelope of money beneath Terje’s arm. Then, Franz moved to the stove and poured himself some coffee, carefully filling a mug so that no grounds would slip through the spout. He took a sip, but the coffee burned his lips. Glancing about the apartment, he shut off the light and stepped into the hallway, looking once more at Terje as he closed the door and locked it, thinking to himself how much he hated dealing with traitors.

“In With the Masters” first appeared in Chiron Review.