It began with a fire, two cats and a painting.
I slept in that morning. It was the first day of daylight savings time and the clocks were ahead one hour.
“Honey, there’s a fire,” my partner Matt said.
“Huh?” I said groggily under a heavy haze of sleep and the warmth of my duvet.
“There are at least a dozen fire trucks out there by Walter’s place.”
Walter, my neighbour of five years, and his two cats lived across the street in an old rooming house. I leapt out of bed and opened the drapes darkening our bedroom.
“Omigawd. I hope he’s okay.”
“Looks like the fire’s out. There’s just a bit of smoke coming from the back of the building.”
“I’m going to check it out,” I said.
It was November: steam rising from chimneys indicated a frigid wind chill. I dressed quickly, pulling on my rubber boots, coat and mitts.
Dashing across the street, I saw firemen staying warm in their trucks. A handsome young man, the landlord’s son I learned, stood in front of the building, perhaps guarding the entrance. It didn’t look too bad, but the second floor windows were smashed in.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hullo,” he said with a London accent.
“My friend Walter lives here. Is he okay?”
“Walter. Yeah, he’s fine. Everyone got out okay. The Red Cross were here and got them temporary shelter.”
“Well, the fire marshal thinks it started when a candle got knocked over.”
“The firemen had to smash the windows?”
“No, the windows blew out from the heat.”
How on earth did I sleep through all that?
“Do you know if Walter’s cats are okay?”
“They’re fine. Around here somewhere.”
“If you see Walter, please ask him to pop by my place? I live right across the street.”
“Ya, of course.”
A short while later, I was sitting at my kitchen table drinking coffee when a knock at the door interrupted me. I opened the door to discover my neighbour.
“Walter!” I said with surprise.
A short figure stood in the doorway, rubbing his hands against the cold. His face was ashen, his thin, wrinkled skin had the texture of crepe paper, and his eyes were dull.
“Hey. I heard that you were asking about me,” he said.
“I wanted to make sure that you were alright. Would you like to come in? Have some coffee?”
“Sure,” he said.
He wasn’t alright; in fact, I think he was in shock. He sat at the kitchen table and removed his black skull cap, revealing a bald head that I’d never seen before as he always wore some sort of head covering.
“Where are you staying?” I asked, as I poured his coffee.
“A motel by Roncesvalles and Queen. The Red Cross took us there this afternoon and gave me a bunch of gift cards.”
He pulled them out of his wallet and spread them across the table.
“It’s good that they do that. Sorry, how do you take your coffee?”
I realised that in all the time that I’d known Walter, I had never once invited him for coffee. It gave me a small pang of guilt.
“Milk, two sugars.”
I set his coffee in front of him and reheated mine before taking a seat across from him. He warmed his hands on the mug, unable to relieve the chill he felt.
“I spoke to the landlord’s son. He says they think a candle caused the fire.”
“The landlord said she knocked a candle over, but she’s a crack head.”
“So you think it might have been the crack. What about the cats?”
“My other neighbour caught the mom cat and took her to a shelter, but the other one is outside.”
“And your stuff?”
“My bed is destroyed. The other stuff might be okay. I won’t know until they let me back in.”
“How long are you at the hotel?”
“Couple of weeks, I think, and then after that I have no idea.”
“We will try to help you find a place. I’ll make some phone calls. Do you want to come by later and have dinner?”
“Sure, I’d like that.”
“I’m making chicken.”
I got to know Walter a bit better over the next few weeks. I learned that he grew up in the US and had no family except a brother in Hamilton whom he seldom saw. He had only a grade nine education, no longer drank alcohol, and suffered from asthma and arthritis. He picked up odd jobs like working at a laundromat, putting out his neighbours’ garbage and maintaining their yards.
Despite his own desperate situation, he was mostly concerned about his cats.
“The one in the shelter — if I don’t collect her in ten days, they’ll put her down.”
“I’ll take her in for you until you get a place to live.”
We were trying to catch the younger cat now traumatized from living outdoors for a week. Walter was feeding her daily, and I tried to help where I could, but it was impossible to get her into a cage. She was just too scared.
On another afternoon, Walter showed up at my door. He had his arms wrapped around himself when I spotted the fluffy black fur of the young female cat inside of his coat.
“You caught her. Come in.”
As soon as he stepped into the house, the cat leapt out of his arms and onto the floor. She panicked, mewing every other second, desperately trying to escape out the front door.
“Ink’s really frightened,” Bill said of the cat.
“Maybe when her mom comes, she’ll settle in.”
The next day, Walter came to the house with the mom cat, a short haired tortoiseshell cat named Mudpie. When he opened the cat carrier, she ran out and under the couch.
“At least they’re safe now,” Walter said with relief.
Walter had secured a furnished apartment. The city lawyer hired to protect the tenants’ rights got Walter’s rent money and compensation for damages. He’d salvaged most of his furniture and personal effects. My family brought him clothes, toiletries and bedding. His future looked bright.
He stored most of his belongings in his neighbour’s back yard under a tarp to protect them, and asked whether he could keep other more sensitive items at my place. It was getting a bit crowded with boxes of food and garbage bags of clothing, but I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
He brought in a VCR with boxes of VHS tapes, a record collection from the 70s and 80s and a box of cassette tapes. He also had a collection of prints and a painting that caught my eye.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“Ah, stuff I’ve collected over the years.”
“Where did you get this?”
It was a geometric oil painting in cool blues and greys, most likely a study after Picasso, I thought.
“I’ve had it for years.”
“Which way do you hang it?”
I turned the painting in various ways, but I wasn’t sure, despite my brother being a professional artist. Maybe his training hadn’t rubbed off on me.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s up to you to decide.”
“I think I like it this way,” I said finally, and nested it against the other prints.
Later that night according to my call display, Walter called me. I really didn’t feel like talking to him again after spending the better part of the afternoon with him, but I answered anyway.
“Hi. It’s Walter.”
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked, trying to sound happy to hear from him.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you?”
He must have detected my tone.
“No, it’s fine.”
“I won’t keep you. I had this thought when I got back to the hotel. I’d like you to have the painting, since you like it so much.”
“Walter, you don’t have to give it to me.”
“I want to. You have really helped me out. Please take it.”
“Okay then. I’ll take it. Thank you.”
My feelings were torn. I really had no fondness for the painting but I knew that for Walter that this was really a grand gesture. Now, where the hell was I going to put it?
A few weeks later, Walter moved into his new apartment and took all of his stuff with him. I was feeling relieved to have his years of accumulated stuff out of my house and the bitter burnt smell of his unwashed clothes out of my nose. Even the cats smelled burnt. Soon he came to fetch the cats too. All that remained in my house was some cat fur and that damned painting.
As the holidays approached, I was cleaning the house from top to bottom. My older brother dropped by one afternoon for coffee while I was mopping the kitchen floor. He went downstairs to use the bathroom, and called up to the kitchen,
“Hey, what’s this?”
“What?” I yelled down the stairs.
“This painting. Where’d you get it?”
Walter’s abstract still had no permanent home; I’d set it on an old bookshelf in the basement.
“Oh that. It was a gift from my neighbour.”
My brother was suddenly standing on my wet kitchen floor, holding it in his hands.
“Whatta ya doing with it up here? It was in the basement for a reason.”
“It’s too dark down there. I needed to get a good look at it.”
“Because I know it. Not this exact one, but the style.”
My brother gave me a dirty look.
“No, not Picasso, smarty pants. An American Artist.” He pulled down his glasses to the end of his nose and squinted at the bottom, right hand corner. “Ah, there it is.”
“His signature. It’s very unique.”
He showed me on the bottom, right hand corner signed in black paint were the initials “RM”. The letters were so tiny, I could barely see them without a magnifying glass.
“I think this may have been done by someone important.”
“I thought my neighbour found it in the garbage. He’s always collecting old junk on garbage day.”
“Maybe, whoever threw it out, didn’t know the value. Do you mind if I have someone look at it?”
“You’re not going to steal it on me, are you?”
My brother laughed.
“No, I know someone at Sotheby’s who could appraise it for you. I’ll write you a receipt, if that makes you feel any better.”
He winked at me and faked a right jab into my upper arm.
“Okay, I’ll find a bag for you.”
The following Saturday morning, the doorbell rang. I was still in my pyjamas – drinking a coffee and reading the paper. The last thing I wanted was a visitor.
I opened the door to find Walter.
“Hey Walter,” I said, hiding behind the door.
“I’m not really able to have company. I’m still in my pyjamas.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to ask you a favour.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“I’ve changed my mind about the painting. Do you think I can have it back?”
“I’ve been having second thoughts. I can give you another one instead?”
“But I’ve sent it out to have it framed,” I lied. “It won’t be ready for another week.”
“Oh, I see. Um, I guess I’ll just wait. I’ll let you get back to it.”
As soon as Walter was gone, I was on the phone to my brother with some urgency.
“Well, any news?” I asked.
“I have some, but it’s not confirmed yet. They have to bring in an expert.”
“An expert on what?”
“Abstract American expressionism.”
“So they think it’s someone famous?”
“Yes. This piece has never been seen before, which is why they need the expert.”
“Who’s the artist?”
“Don’t know him.”
“He’s big. You might want to sit down for this part.”
“If the painting is authenticated, it’s worth upward of 3 million dollars.”
I dropped onto the couch.
“I’m sitting now,” I said.
The next week flew by so quickly, that I barely remembered it. I had to take some time off work just to deal with all of the paperwork that ensued. The painting, now verified by an authorized appraiser, was set for auction and already had a line-up of buyers. Sotheby’s arranged it all, and set the opening bid much lower that I hoped we would garner, but they assured me that the painting would fetch a much higher price.
I was able to keep Walter at bay, when Matt and I decided that we would have to tell him something. We invented a story of the picture framing company losing the painting. He seemed disappointed, but not overly concerned. I tried to justify the fib, in that he had no knowledge of the value and had wanted me to have it.
Matt and I decided to give up our rental house and buy something instead. Before this, we could never afford a house in Toronto, despite us both making a decent living. We squandered much of our cash on toys and entertainment, and didn’t think to actually save for our future. This was the first time in our lives that we had a large sum of money.
We bought a home in the Mount Pleasant and Davisville area with a quick closing date. We took very little from our rental home, instead purchasing all new furniture. Within a month of selling the painting at Sotheby’s for a glorious 4 million dollars, we moved into our new home.
Six months had passed when I was working in the garden of our new home. It was beautifully landscaped, with very little to do, but I wanted to get the garden ready for our open house. I was lost in thought when I heard a noise behind me. I turned around to see a man standing there.
“Walter,” I said, suddenly bolting upright. I looked around to see if any of my neighbours were nearby.
“Hey, I saw you’d moved. I tried to call, but your number was disconnected.”
“Yeah, it all happened very quickly. Sorry, I should have called you. Would you like to come in and have a cup of coffee?”
“That would be nice,” he said, as I directed him into the kitchen.
“Your home is beautiful.”
“Must have cost you a small fortune.”
“Well, not really,” I said.
What was he doing here?
“Listen, I’ve got something for you. Can I bring it in?”
“Sure,” I said, but worried all the same. “Let me get Matt”.
Without giving Walter time to respond, I ran upstairs to Matt’s new study, where he was sitting typing on his laptop. He looked up at me.
“What?” he asked, reading my face.
“It’s Walter. He’s here.”
“Just come downstairs, would you?
“Sure, I’ll be right there.”
I whizzed back down the staircase and was back in the kitchen.
“Let me get you that coffee. Have a seat,” I said, offering him a place at the island. “One milk, two sugars, right?”
I placed the coffee on a bamboo placemat in front of him. Walter took in the kitchen surroundings, when Matt finally came into the room to rescue me.
“Hey, Walter. I heard you popped in. How y’bin?”
Matt offered his hand to Walter. Walter happily accepted it.
“I’ve got a surprise for you. I tried to deliver it to you before I found out you had moved. So suddenly.”
Oh gawd, oh gawd. He’s found us out!
“This house came up, and it wasn’t as though we were looking to move, it all happened very quickly,” Matt calmly explained.
Of course, the bullshit metre was registering rather high.
“No matter,” Walter said. “Better late than never.”
Walter took a sip of his coffee and then went back out the front door and returned within moments. He was holding what looked like another print, wrapped up in old newspaper. He set it on the countertop between my single serve coffee maker and my juicer, leaning it against the kitchen cupboards.
“How’d you get it all the way here?” I asked him.
“On the transit. It wasn’t too difficult, actually. I wanted to give you this, after what happened to the other painting.”
“After what happened?”
“That the framers lost it. I felt really bad about that.”
“Oh, yes, the framers,” I said, forgetting that damn story.
“Anyway, I hope this will make up for it.”
Walter tore off the newspaper. It wasn’t one of his cheap prints but another painting.
Seeing that I was dumbfounded, Matt said, “That was very kind of you.”
“Just don’t take it to the same framing place again,” Walter said, with a little grin.
Finding my words, I finally blurted out, “Where did you get this?”
“Public storage. I have about a dozen of them all together. I had an uncle that gave them to me when I was a boy. He always had wanted a son, but never did. The first one I gave you was my favourite, but this one is a close second. Please accept it.”
I moved closer to the painting. It was an unframed abstract oil painting, with geometric images in blues and greys. Part of a series. I picked it up, and gave it a good look.
“Which way do you hang it?” I asked Walter.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s up to you to decide,” he said.
“I think I like it this way,” I said finally, setting it back down on the counter.
I looked very closely and on the bottom right hand corner of the painting, signed in black paint and near impossible to read without a magnifying glass, were the initials “RM”.