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"You know what I think it's worth?" Goldie said. "Fifteen bucks for the frame."
Here, as I know it, is the story of the Picasso.
Christmas 1966. Burt takes the family to Miami Beach. They stay at the Ocean View Hotel, where the three boys run about like “wild Indians” (to use Burt’s phrase), and he and Norma sit in lounge chairs by the pool, or drink coffee in one of the hotel restaurants and read the newspapers.
It’s a modern, first-class hotel, with a private stretch of beach. There’s one of those fake indoor streets on the ground floor, lined with high-end shops selling jewellery and expensive luggage, offering hairdressing and tailoring services. One afternoon while Norma is getting her hair washed and curled, Burt wanders into the Ocean View Art Gallery and Framing Shoppe, a nondescript place run by a woman from New York. On the walls are a few inferior lithographs by Chagall, some prints by Dali, watercolours by local artists. Burt is about to leave when he notices a drawing in a large gold frame leaning against a wall. He bends down and recognizes the signature of Pablo Picasso.
Burt doesn’t have a higher education, but he likes to read books of history and biography; what interests him are men of vision—Michelangelo, Darwin, the Rothschilds, Albert Einstein. He and Norma have taken a summer tour of Europe, have toured the museums of London, Paris, Florence. He has read about art in Time and Life, with their photo spreads of the courageous lone artist facing the blank canvas, the block of marble. At home he has a coffee-table book on Picasso, a present from his boys, no doubt picked out by their mother. Burt doesn’t approve of Picasso’s life—all those wives and mistresses—but he does admire his Herculean productivity, his seemingly unbounded creativity. The man started with nothing and grew rich through making art, something nobody actually needs. Also, Burt and Pablo look a little alike, short and stocky and slightly bowlegged.
The drawing is on a page about three feet high and two feet wide torn from a spiral-bound drawing pad. Done in what looks like thick brown crayon. There’s a price tag on the frame that reads $36,000.
Everything in the house back in North York has been chosen by Norma, not just the furniture and rugs but also what’s on the walls—family portraits, framed posters, a small oil bought from a street painter in Montmartre, an aerial photograph of Jerusalem. Burt has never bought a work of art in his life, has never before considered doing so. But he falls for the Picasso.
The New York gallery owner introduces herself and Burt starts to bargain. Why not buy a Picasso the same way he would buy anything else? She acts affronted but turns out to be an equally spirited negotiator. They shake hands on $29,500, including shipping to Toronto. In 1966 that’s about the cost of ten automobiles. He writes a cheque. Then, heart pounding, he goes to meet Norma, who is just getting out of the salon chair. “How do I look?” she asks. “You always look great,” he answers. He says nothing more.
A week or so after they return from Miami Beach, a truck pulls up to the curb and two men carry an enormous crate into the house. When Burt gets home from the office Norma and the boys are waiting for him at the door. He searches for a screwdriver, finds it in his sock drawer and begins to dismantle the crate. When the foam packaging is pushed aside, they all stand and look at it.
“Yuck,” says Benjy, the oldest boy. The kids run out to watch television.
Norma looks at it a while longer as Burt stands there sweating. Not long before, Norma’s sister’s husband had asked Burt for a loan to help buy a home seltzer machine franchise. It was the third such scheme and this time Burt had said no. Now Norma shakes her head. “For my sister’s family nothing,” she says. “But for this scribble you empty the bank?” After that she always called it the scribble. “She got used to it, but I can’t say she ever liked it,” Burt told me later. “The nudity put her off. I remember once she said, not trying to be funny, ‘Who would want to eat a piece of coffee cake under that?”
Burt laughed when he recounted this. Whenever he laughed, I laughed, too. I was twelve years old when he told me the story. He’d been my father for less than a year.
Burt Epstein was actually my stepfather. As soon as it was official I told everyone I was his daughter, not his stepdaughter. I know that surprised him, and made him happy.
My mother, Loretta, was his second wife. Burt’s upbringing was much closer to that of his first wife, Norma, whom he had met at McMurrich Junior Public School when they were kids. He didn’t talk that much about Norma, probably out of consideration for my mother, but he did call her a wonderful woman who knew what her children needed. I was good at reading between the lines and detected that she could be moody and perhaps sometimes depressed. But she was also sharp and he often consulted her on business decisions.
Burt’s childhood companions became the first generation of Toronto Jews to attend university and to go on to become pharmacists, accountants, lawyers. In high school Burt did odd jobs for the Irish and Italian brickworkers, the carpenters and plumbers. He got hold of a broken-down truck and began to take construction materials around to building sites. He opened a depot on Dundas West and when he needed to expand he moved up to Keele Street. Later he opened yards in Etobicoke and Scarborough. He and Norma married and had three sons in four years—that must have kept her on her feet. They prospered, took vacations, sent the kids to summer camp, got a new car every four years. In 1956 they bought a decent-sized split level near Bathurst and Sheppard. Friends and acquaintances moved farther into the suburbs, or built near-mansions in Forest Hill, but Burt and Norma stayed put. There was no need, Burt said, to show off.
By the time I met him, his boys were married and had kids of their own, two of them on the west coast and the third in a Boston suburb, so I never got to know them well. Burt had been a widower for six years. People had tried to fix him up, and a couple of widows who needed somebody to take care of had an eye for him, but he wasn’t interested. Much easier to hire a housekeeper. It looked, so various relatives told me later, as if Burt was one of those men who had one great irreplaceable love.
And then, of course, he met my mother.
Loretta was seventeen years younger, a physiotherapist working in the same clinic as Burt’s doctor. “Maybe,” he said, “you’d like to go out for a bowl of soup?”
Be careful, Burt’s cronies at the Y warned him. Offer a woman a bowl of soup and she’ll want the whole meal. But my mother wasn’t looking. She’d had more than enough bad experiences, not including my biological father who had been a sweet fling during a summer planting trees. No, it was Burt who wanted to buy the whole meal for her. Again he surprised his friends, dismissing their concern that she wasn’t Jewish. Nor did he object to the eleven-year-old daughter.
Loretta and I had lived in a succession of perfectly nice flats, most recently the top floor of a house on Clinton Street. My mother was forty-three but we lived like students, with piles of books on the floor, furniture from Goodwill, funky clothes from the vintage shops. The windowsill in the bathroom was coated with the hardened wax of candles lit whenever one of us took a bath. Loretta was attractive, if a bit unkempt; I was always fixing her collar or untangling her hair or helping to find one of her hoop earrings. She hadn’t always been so careful but now when she dated she kept the men away, which suited me fine. Because she worked and didn’t believe in spoiling, I learned to be independent and knew how to use the subway and buses. I had dinner started before she got home. Our relationship could be stormy but that didn’t mean I thought we needed anyone else. At least, that’s what I told myself, but I wonder now if in fact I had some fantasy image of a father, a kindly male figure who would keep us safe.
From the start Burt pressed to meet me. “How do I know you if I don’t know her?” she reported him saying. It took four months for her to ask me, and when I agreed he came for dinner bearing not one but three gifts: a box of fancy chocolates, a copy of Matilda (which I had read years before) and a Slinky. I’d never seen a Slinky and he showed me how to make it “walk” down the staircase so that it would spring with thrilling violence from step to step.
Most adults told me they liked my red hair and freckles, or asked me what my favourite subject in school was, boring crap like that. Burt told me lurid tales about the construction yards. How a worker lost his false teeth in a bucket of carpenter’s glue. The time a dozen policemen came swarming in, looking for an escaped bank robber who turned out to be hiding in a pile of sawdust and gave himself away by sneezing. He asked me questions like “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen a teacher do?” and “If you were really, really hungry would you eat a cooked dog?” Afterwards, I told Loretta it was okay for Burt to come around. He usually arrived at dinner time, sometimes bringing take-out—Chinese food or pastrami sandwiches—or lamb chops to throw on the grill. When I was mad at a teacher he always took my side, and in arguments he sometimes agreed with me and not Loretta, which ticked her off. He didn’t bring me expensive presents but small things: a box of Cracker Jack, an Archie comic. When my mother said he shouldn’t, Burt replied that he never had a daughter, only three “gorillas,” and he didn’t see anything wrong with it.
No doubt being an only child made me comfortable with adults, but it was Burt I liked having around. Besides, Loretta was in a better mood when he was over. The two of them did leave me with a friend or, more often, on my own to go on Saturday night dates. I told Loretta that when they came back he could stay the night, and eventually she thought it would be all right, but Burt wouldn’t do it. He’d return on Sunday morning to take us for a drive in his Caddy. Usually we went for breakfast to United Bakers, a dairy restaurant in a strip plaza not far from his house. “Kiddo,” he said, “you never had a blintz? Or eggs and onions? Then you don’t know what heaven is.”
One day I asked, “So when do I get to see your house?”
Burt looked at Loretta, who looked at me. “You don’t think he’s asked me to bring you over?” she said. “I guess now.”
The suburbs were something that I had seen only in movies. There were always these overhead shots of curving streets, neat, identical houses, manicured lawns. Burt’s street was perfectly straight and the houses didn’t match. His was the only one with two birch trees in front; the grass needed cutting. The house looked sad and I felt sorry for it.
It was obvious even to me that nothing had changed since Norma died. The rooms were generous spaces to someone who’d always lived in flats or apartments, with big windows in the dining room and a sunken living room with worn broadloom and a cozy den. “How old is that TV?” I asked. The eat-in kitchen had a Formica table that I knew didn’t come from a vintage shop. I thought: maybe the house is waiting for me to cheer it up. Then I went back to the living room and saw the Picasso over the sofa. I didn’t know then it was a Picasso.
I noticed because Loretta was staring at it like she couldn’t believe what she was looking at. So I went over to take a look. Three figures were drawn on the paper—father, mother, child. They looked quickly done. The adults were sort of crouching (the legs weren’t exactly proportioned right), with their hands stretched out as if to catch the child. Maybe the child was just learning to walk. The mother and father were naked but there was nothing disturbing about that; their private parts, a loop and a V, were how I might have drawn them a few years earlier. The child’s forward leg hid whether it was male or female. I decided female. Her curly hair matched the mother’s and also the father’s beard. It seemed kind of sweet and I wondered if one of the boys had done it when he was young.
By the time of this visit, in spring 1990, the Picasso had been hanging in the same spot for almost twenty-five years and had appreciated in value by two or three hundred percent. Loretta was trying to decide whether we should move in with Burt as he was urging her. She loved him but had misgivings, partly because of the age difference, partly because he wasn’t anything like the man she had imagined for herself, and mostly because of me. She had been agonizing over whether to even broach the subject with me, but the truth was that I already knew that I wanted to live in this house and become Burt Epstein’s daughter. Maybe, I thought, he would frame one of my pictures and hang it up, too.
Burt was old-fashioned; he wanted to get married. Loretta didn’t want to convert so he found a reform rabbi—“very reformed,” Burt chuckled—to conduct the ceremony. The three of us lived together in that house for seven years—good years for all of us. And then I left to attend McGill on a scholarship and never looked back. It was Burt who always said he missed me, while Loretta just wanted to know that I was okay. He sold the business, and Loretta worked another couple of years before his nagging got to her and she gave it up. They travelled a good deal, and even went on one of those African safari tours. It turned out to be a good thing she retired because they only had six years together after I left. Burt lost his second wife to the same illness as his first.
I was living out of the country, as I had been since graduation. In Australia and Thailand mostly, but also France, Spain, Denmark, Hong Kong. Mostly I worked for NGOs on contract, occasionally for a private charity. I didn’t fully accept that I was gay until my early twenties. I had relationships with women, some lasting a year or more, but either my rootless life or my emotional wariness prevented anything longer. I liked to brag that everything I owned could fit into a duffel bag and a hard drive. When Loretta—when my mother got sick, I came home. In the first months I bunked with a friend downtown but as Loretta got worse I moved back into my room in the house. At night when the drugs finally helped her to fall asleep, Burt and I would sit at the kitchen table and argue about whether she should die at home or in the hospital. I think we argued because we didn’t want her to die at all, and as soon as one of us gave in, the other would change their mind. In the end, she ended our stalemate by going quietly in the night. It was Burt, sleeping in the guest room, who found her. I never saw a man cry like that and I had to hold back my own feelings just so I could help him get through to the morning. My own tears had to wait for the funeral, and even then I controlled myself.
Burt was seventy-six. He had only minor health complaints—bad digestion, arthritis, occasional high blood pressure—but he didn’t look as strong as he used to. His two sons in Vancouver wanted him to move out there, but he had his routine, walking to synagogue on Saturday morning, lunch at United Bakers, an afternoon steam at the Y. He didn’t want more change.
An old contact asked me to join an aid project in the Philippines. I kept in touch with Burt, making Skype calls every week or so. The years went by.
The day I turned thirty-five, Burt called to say happy birthday. “While we’re on the phone I have a favour to ask,” he said and then turned away from the screen and coughed wetly into his handkerchief. “A big favour, I know. I’m going to move into Baycrest. It’s too hard to live on my own. And who knows how much help I’ll need before long. But I have to pack up, sell the house—it’s a little much for me. Not that the boys haven’t offered, but Jerry’s getting divorced—”
“When are you supposed to move in?”
“There’s a spot coming up. Some other poor schmo is being transferred so he can get more care. I’ll be lucky if they change the sheets.”
“You know it’s a good place. Let me just fix things here.”
“I’ll buy you the plane ticket. But you have to remind me where the hell you are.”
I took a cab from the airport to Burt’s house and stepped out to the following scene: the front lawn crowded with chairs, lamps, boxes of books and record albums. A dozen people milling about. And Burt, eighty-three-year-old Burt, struggling to manoeuvre an end table through the front door while growling, “That’s four dollars and I don’t bargain.”
I rushed over to help. “What are you trying to do, go straight to the funeral home?”
Burt laughed wheezily. “Fine. You take their money. But don’t let them nickel and dime you.”
So I worked the lawn, stuffing small bills into my pockets, making change. For the bigger furniture, people had to go inside and haul it out themselves. Burt sat on a dining room chair as if waiting for a meal. During a lull I collapsed beside him.
“It’s all going just like that, sweetheart. Pfft.”
“They’re just things,” I said. “You’re the life, Burt. And your memories.”
“Yeah, well my memory’s not so good anymore.”
A man came out of the house. “How much for the Picasso print?” he asked.
Burt squinted up; the man wore a jogging suit and had earbuds dangling around his neck. “That’s no print. It’s the genuine article, mister, by the master’s own hand. I’ll sell it for two hundred thousand and take a certified cheque.”
“Funny guy,” said the man. He put in his earbuds and jogged off.
“Jesus, Burt, is it really worth that much?”
“Who knows? Anyway, it’s not for sale. I’m taking it with me. Now go over to those people holding the Mixmaster. Tell them it has three speeds.”
Burt also kept his bed, a dresser, a small antique desk, a leather armchair, a Persian rug, some framed photographs and several citations for donating to Jewish charities. He asked me to pull out the nails holding the mezuzah to the door frame. I found out that he had a heart condition and was taking pills. His weight was too low. Also, he showed some early signs of Alzheimer’s, but given his age and its slow development, the doctors weren’t particularly concerned. “In other words, I’ll probably be dead before I forget my name.”
The Baycrest was a building for seniors in need of regular medical attention and some assistance. There was a pool, a fitness room, organized clubs (bridge, music appreciation, Torah study), evening movies, talks. Burt was assigned a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette, although lunch and dinner were served in the dining room. He quipped that he’d be eating strictly kosher for the first time since sitting at his mother’s table.
On moving day, the jokes dried up. He became agitated, shuffling in and out of the house, giving the movers contradictory instructions, losing his temper, becoming teary-eyed. He stopped caring about the furniture, only insisting that we hang the Picasso on the long wall in the living room, above a two-seater sofa that came with the apartment. The drawing would be the first thing people saw when they came in.
Everyone crowded in only made him more anxious so I sent the others out for a bite to eat. Burt sat in his armchair looking exhausted, as if the air had been let out of him. I put on the kettle and made tea, and when I turned around again he was asleep, his head lolling.
I worried that moving out of his house would be the first step in a slow decline of Burt’s physical and mental health. But it became clear to me what a burden running the house had been, and how isolated he had become these last years. Burt needed people, needed to pronounce on the sorry state of the world, to crack wise. In just a couple of weeks he looked rejuvenated. True, he didn’t like the communal dining much—“Do you want to watch a bunch of old people eat?”—but his weight went up. Despite having his own television, he often watched CNN in the lounge to have an audience for his complaints. He agreed to take a gentle stretch class. When I visited, he greeted me like the monarch of a small country. “Welcome to my world, kiddo.”
A month or so after his arrival a male housekeeper, a devout Baptist from the Dominican Republic, complained of the inappropriate drawing in Mr. Epstein’s room. Burt’s vocal contempt for his views was not helpful but management handled the problem by switching the man to another floor. In the meantime I got a contract teaching stint at Ryerson University in their non-profit management certificate program.
This was the first time I had actually lived and worked in Toronto, and the city took on a different feeling. My few friends introduced me to their friend circles. A woman originally from Morocco, a lecturer in public health, asked me out for dinner. Her name was Rita Harrak and she was warm, quick to laugh, generous. In other words, too good for me, but she didn’t seem to notice.
I had sublet an apartment on Major Street, and Baycrest was an easy bus ride up Bathurst. On one visit Burt asked me if I was seeing someone. I told him about Rita. He took off his glasses to polish them on his shirt.
“Is she Jewish?” he asked.
“Half is better than none,” he said. “Bring her around and I’ll tell you what I think.”
So I did, and before long they were kibitzing like old friends. She was an easier talker than me and I was a little jealous of how much they enjoyed each other. As we were leaving, Burt leaned forward to whisper loudly in my ear. “She’s a keeper, sweetheart.” He pushed something into my palm; a hundred-dollar bill. “Go to a nice restaurant. A relationship should never be taken for granted.”
Burt Epstein, love counsellor.
One morning a Ms. Greene from Baycrest telephoned me at work. She explained that another complaint had been made against Mr. Epstein, this time by a resident, who had spied the Picasso through Burt’s open door and called it depraved. To us this might seem a rather excessive response, Ms. Greene said, but we should remember that “our guests” were raised in a different time. Would it be possible—here Ms. Greene coughed uncomfortably—for Mr. Epstein to consider removing the work from his apartment?
I wasn’t thrilled by the call—as if Burt was a child and I his mother. He was perfectly competent to make his own decisions. And while I had sympathy for the woman, and understood management’s desire to keep the peace, I did think it an excessive response, especially since the drawing was inside Burt’s private space. On the other hand, I was glad that she had phoned me, for I knew how stubborn Burt could be and I didn’t think he needed this trouble.
Burt dug in his heels. “She saw it from the hallway? That old biddy must have better eyesight than me. These people are, what do you call it, philistines. What’s wrong with a mother, a father, a child? Or the human body? We’re made in the image of God, aren’t we? This is a work of art by a titan. They ought to be grateful it’s here. I should sell tickets.”
“You can’t just dismiss other people’s feelings, Burt. I’m sure there’s a way to fix this. You could put it in the bedroom. Or you could put a curtain over it.”
“Would the Louvre put a curtain over a painting?”
“Ms. Greene is being very reasonable. She just wants this to go away. But according to the contract you signed—”
“Don’t wave contracts at me. I was in business for fifty years. I know what a contract is worth: exactly how much you want to pay in lawyers’ fees. To hell with them.”
Rita suggested that the two of us try to persuade Burt to back down. We brought homemade cookies and brewed tea in his kitchenette, then sat in the living room. We twisted round to see the Picasso above us. I marvelled at how something could appear so primitive and sophisticated at the same time.
“It really is great,” Rita sighed.
“That picture,” Burt said without missing a beat, “is the best investment I ever made.”
Two weeks went by and I hoped that the matter might have been forgotten. But Ms. Greene phoned again. Now the elderly woman’s family complained. Ms. Greene said that she’d never had to deal with anything like this before. Wasn’t there something “we” could do?
I phoned Burt.
“Let’s talk about it,” he said. “When can you visit?”
“I’ve got time today. Is four o’clock all right?”
“For you I’ll clear my schedule.”
I arrived a few minutes late and knocked on the apartment door. “Come in,” Burt said. I was surprised to see him on the sofa beside a woman. She was in her eighties, with a white cloud of hair, and extraordinarily wrinkled skin, like an apple doll, only with red lipstick. An aluminum walker stood next to her.
“This is Goldie,” Burt said.
“Goldie Rosenzweig from Montreal,” she said. “You’re the lesbian stepdaughter. Very nice to meet you.”
Goldie began telling me, in a startlingly energetic voice, that she’d been an upholsterer in a furniture factory, an active union rep and “troublemaker.” A widow for seventeen years, she had just turned eighty-eight. She and Burt had met at dinner and were now “spending time together.” She had the New York Times delivered every day and subscribed to The Nation. She called Obama a “big dud” and Stephen Harper a “fascist.” Burt didn’t say anything.
Goldie had just two sips of tea. “I know you two have things to talk about,” she said, grabbing hold of the walker. “So much fuss over a drawing. It doesn’t do anything for me but it doesn’t offend me, either. Not that little pitsl on him. You know what I think it’s worth? Fifteen bucks for the frame. Probably management is on a power trip, things never change. Next time, dear, bring your girlfriend.”
When Goldie left I said “So how long has this been going on?”
“I didn’t want to offend you,” he said. “Your mother’s memory is very dear to me.”
“I’m not upset, Burt. I’m just surprised. I think—well, I think it’s lovely.”
“It’s not that big a deal. A person needs company. A reason to get up in the morning. I’ve had my two big romances, but Goldie is good company. Listen, sweetheart, that picture is becoming a headache. I don’t need the aggravation. And Goldie told me not to be such a hardass about it, to use her word. I don’t need it here, anyway. It’s in my mind, I can see it whenever I want. So I’m giving it to you.”
“I hope you’re joking.”
“The boys have taken enough already. And when I go you’ll all get a nice nest egg. They wouldn’t even appreciate it.”
“I live in a rented flat.”
“It doesn’t have a wall?”
“I’m not settled. I might leave for another job.”
“When you have Rita here? Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Listen, you’re doing me a favour. You can take it home today.”
“I came on my bike.”
“Fine, it needs to be crated anyway. I’ll have it delivered. Do me a favour. Go see if Goldie is playing bridge. I like to watch. She has quite the mouth on her.”
The day the crate arrived, Rita came for dinner and afterwards we pried it open. We fussed with the tape measure and level and took turns hammering. It was hard to hold up the drawing—the frame was solid—and to lower it until both eye-hooks caught.
I was sure that it would look ridiculous in my small place next to the used furniture and piles of books. But somehow it seemed right. When Rita smiled at me I knew she was thinking the same. She had brought a bottle of Prosecco and we popped it open and made a toast. To the picture, to Pablo Picasso, to Burt.
A year later, Rita and I bought a small row house in Parkdale. I was scared shitless, to be honest.
The moving truck went from her place to mine to the house. We were in it a week, rearranging furniture, unpacking boxes, before we finally opened the crate. We went through the same song and dance to hang it up. Then we ordered a cab to bring Burt and Goldie over to see the new house.
“Nice, nice,” Burt kept saying, while Goldie sniffed at the drafty windows, the hot-water radiators, the tiny kitchen. “Good luck making Passover Seder in here,” she said. Then we sat in the living room and had our ritual tea and coffee cake. Burt’s hearing was getting worse but so far he refused aids, and had to lean forward to pick up what anyone was saying.
“It’s nice of you to have us over,” he said, his plate balanced on his knees.
Goldie made a face. “Why shouldn’t they have us over? You gave them a Picasso, didn’t you?”
“I said, you gave them a Picasso.”
“Yes, I did.” He raised his eyes and gazed up at it. Gazed up as if he was seeing not the drawing itself, but something far past it.
“Fifteen bucks,” Goldie said. “For the frame.”