Chapter 1

dragon

Lock ‘Em Up!

Holden stood peering down the laundry chute he called “the black hole of Calcutta.” He squinted into its darkness and then sniffed the air, hoping that his rugs and bags and tent bands were still down there, safe from moths and rodents and moisture. Sniffing told him that the last moth crystals he had thrown in had lost their pep. Anxiously, he pulled back from the laundry chute, straightened and snatched a can of “Moth Ice Crystals…no clinging odors” from a shelf beside him. He shook out a palm-full of moth balls and tossed them down the black hole of Calcutta.

Calmed by this ritual, Holden Carter closed the small door of the laundry chute and took a moment to look around before returning to work. He settled cross legged on a mattress that lay directly on the floor without box-springs. The bed was neatly made. From where he sat on it in the gloomy light, he surveyed most of his household possessions: the bed, a couple of colorful small baskets from Shiraz, a nice cherry-wood dresser and, in the kitchen across the hall, a microwave oven and a toaster. Dishes were neatly arranged in a drying-rack beside the sink. He lived in the rear third of an old stucco building on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, near Alcatraz Avenue, and, though his apartment was small, it was big enough for a young man who was trying to make his start in life.

Holden was 27, old enough to have all but completed work on a Master’s degree in Art History, then to have left the ivory tower, impatient for what he had considered real life: a hands-on life of buying and selling; the life of an art dealer.

He roused himself and left his bedroom. A few feet down the dark hallway, he pushed aside a curtain partition between the front and rear portions of the building and slipped from his living quarters into his showroom. Here the light was brighter and he blinked. A plate glass window passed soft winter sunlight from the street, and spotlights mounted overhead brightened the walls. A passerby on the sidewalk outside would have seen a sign painted above the door: Holden Carter, Oriental Rugs.

Restless, he began to prowl the familiar showroom, tracing a path he had stalked countless times before. He sniffed at his hand, the one he had filled with moth crystals a few minutes earlier, then stopped before a rug mounted on a wall, and it seemed to him that it told a story—not the kind of story rug dealers like to tell, not the story of a-maiden-weeping-for-her-lost-lover-and-every-knot-she-ties-in-the-carpet-is-a-tear-of-loneliness—not that kind of story, but a story of where Holden had discovered the rug he now peered at and how he had come to be a rug dealer, and, gradually, how his business had begun to fail.

It was a late 19th century piece that, as far as he knew, was virtually one-of-a-kind. Holden had settled into the belief that it had been woven in the far eastern part of Anatolia, probably by Kurdish weavers, and that it was what some called a “Turkish Kazak” or “Kurdish Kazak.” It was coarse and vigorous and boldly colored: geometric, tribal, shaggy, exciting.

Holden remembered how his hands shook when he spied it for sale at the Alameda County Flea Market, only a small corner of it visible. He had invited himself up into the bed of the seller’s pickup truck for a closer look. He stared at the small bit of it that was exposed, and something about its colors and the geometry of its design excited him. Then he looked around at the milling flea-market crowd. From his vantage point, standing in the bed of the truck, he could see at least three people converging on the rug, people with the purposeful look of collectors or rug dealers on a hot trail. “How much is it?” he asked the rug’s owner, making a preemptive strike.

“Well,” the gabby owner started, “I got that rug from a picker in…” One of the people who had been closing in on the rug had reached the pickup and was trying to climb in, his eye on the carpet.

“Just tell me how much!” Holden demanded, rude by necessity.

“Well, I…”

The newcomer asked, too. “How much?” Others were arriving.

“I asked first,” Holden said. The owner seemed unable to take the sudden pressure of market demand and was speechless. Holden took the bull by the horns. “I’ll give you $200,” he said quietly so his competitors could not hear and raise his bid.

“You will?”

“I will! I do! Sold!” Holden shouted, barely in control of himself. His hands shook even more as he opened his wallet and pulled out $200 in tens and fives and ones, aware of the others who were now milling around, staring resentfully at him and at what little they could see of the rug.

“Okay, I guess,” the fellow said and took Holden’s money. “But is this thing valuable or something?”

“How do I know? I haven’t seen it!” And the truth of what he said came crashing down on him. Just a small corner of the rug had he seen. What the hell had he just bought?

He had bought a wonderful rug, powerful and magical. Two years later, it lay mounted before him on the wall of his store, still powerful, magical and still unsold.

Yes, the rug told a story of how he had found it and how he had somehow managed to pay for it and how it had become part of his opening inventory and, finally, of how he had failed to sell it. He hadn’t sold it or any of his rugs because no one was buying. End of story.

He had heard of an African tribe that was said to urinate in rituals on objects to make them powerful. In the West, rather than urine, it was age that imbued objects with power and value. Nothing made a piece of furniture more desirable than to uncover it in an attic where it had been stashed away for 200 years. Oriental rugs, he believed, owned their mystique—their fabled reputations as magic carpets and flying carpets—to the fact that often they survived long enough to become quite old. The older a rug, the more valued it was. Nevertheless, as Holden’s antique rugs grew six months older and then a year and finally two years older while going unsold in his store, rather than gaining in power and value, they began to lose their magic for him. It was hard to stay in love with rugs that had been passed over by so many shoppers.

Finally Holden quit his pacing and, now, sitting at his old roll top desk, gazing at its many little cubbies and shelves and drawers as he had so often before, Holden thought about the rugs and carpets at the bottom of the black hole of Calcutta. Two years ago, a customer had given him an old animal strap—a belt-sized piece woven in Afghanistan, probably made to tie a load to a donkey. It had little commercial value. What should he do with it? He threw it down the old laundry shoot in his bedroom and resolved to do the same in the future with any rug or carpet he got for nothing or next-to-nothing. “Drop it down the hatch and then forget it,” he counseled himself. Then, someday, he told himself, he would break into the chute, and there would be his 401K, the only retirement plan he would ever have. After further reflection he refined the plan: He would follow every deposit with a hand-full of moth crystals. And from that time he had made irregular though substantial contributions to the black hole. If a rug was free or cheap, it went down the laundry chute.

Soon he would need to break into it to keep his business alive for one more month.

A customer banged in, bringing a winter chill through the door with him. He stalked the store without glancing at the shop’s young proprietor. Customer sightings were generally unfruitful occasions in Holden’s experience, and he was slow to awaken from his worries. But the man in his shop was a whirlwind. He spun from one rug to the next, and then on to the next, checking price tags, turning corners of the rugs to see their backs and then spinning on to the next rug. This was a startling departure from the ways of most customers. Most of them hoped to be invisible so as not to be pounced on by a clerk. They tiptoed; they hid behind partitions; they avoided making eye contact. Or they were the other kind, the ones who immediately sought him out and began describing the rugs they had just bought from other dealers.

Here are the impressions that crowded Holden’s edgy mind as he eyed the super-charged stranger: “The man is going to spin around and kill me with some sharp instrument. He loves my rugs and is going to buy the lot. He is crazy. He is on drugs and is dangerous. He is a competitor come to check out what I have so he can put me out of business.” The aggregate of these impressions sent a powerful dose of adrenaline through his system and soon the customer had Holden’s complete attention.

“God damn, man!” the fellow cracked the silence, still without looking at him. “Lock ‘em up!”

Holden would not have been more astonished if a racing car had blown through his showroom window. The man’s voice vrooomed like an eight cylinder hotrod, even though its owner stood no higher than five feet and four inches. “Lock ‘em up!” the man howled again. Later, Holden believed that in that moment, while his hair stood on end, he had foreseen it all—trouble, joy, more trouble, fun, salvation, trouble.

The man before him stared disagreeably at Holden through narrowed, smoldering eyes, then shouted. “You’re giving them away, man!” Holden jumped back. “Don’t sell them!” the man shouted. “Lock them up!” He was perhaps 50 years old and wore a beret, a silk scarf and tasteful, tweedy pants and a white shirt, all of which looked slept in. Altogether, he had an air of shabby nobility, like a dispossessed Russian prince from a time when nobles were no taller than sprites. He was handsome but his looks were troubling. The deep wrinkles in his face suggested a lifetime of judging people harshly. His voice was Homeric, heroic, huge, epic. “Look at this Kazak, man. Look at it! Turkish Kazak you call it? Call it majesty, call it Mohammad, call it wisdom, but don’t, for God’s sake, sell it for a piddling little five hundred dollars! Get it out of here, man, hide it before someone buys it.” All of this was spoken and shouted and sung in a gorgeously sounded British accent. British? Was that right? Upper-crust Australian? Something vaguely British-Empire.

Holden turned again to his Turkish Kazak, the rug he had been staring at just minutes before. It was special. There was strength in it, colors that made him feel like diving in. Had he ever noticed the polish of its wool? It was good to find someone who appreciated it, but who was this man?

“Publish, publish, publish!” The wizened little fellow seemed more and more wound up.

“What?” Holden dared.

“Write about it, man! An article, a book, a course, a philosophy! Pho-to-graph-it-and-pub-lish…” and here he turned to look directly at Holden and his voice dropped low, “…or parish.”

Holden wondered whether he had just received a death threat. Strangely, though, he was thrilled, because suddenly he could imagine himself writing beautifully about his Kurd Kazak. He would take note of its structure, gaze at its fibers under a powerful microscope, count its natural dyes and take an expert’s guess as to its age and origins, and he would report his conclusions to avid readers. But finally he would have to admit that the rug’s power and magic were unexplainable. He would write a caption for the page-sized color plate: “To understand the mystery of this rug is to understand the nature of beauty.” Or something like that; he would have to work it out.

But now the man spun to face an Afshar bag face with a saturated madder red field, a small piece about 3 feet square and probably Holden’s oldest rug, from maybe 1860. The fellow glanced at its price tag and his look became savage. “And for this Afshar—than which I have seen none better—you are asking the price of a rusted and broken twen-ty-five-year-old Volkswagon! You’re mad! $850!” Holden would have agreed that his price was too low if he had been able to get a word in. God, maybe he should lock them up. Or at least publish.

“Uh, my name is Holden Carter.” Holden stuck out his hand.

“Deane here,” the man said and gave him a perfunctory shake, and then he seemed to lose heart and he sagged. The change was so sudden and dramatic that Holden looked around for a chair and wheeled his own to where the deflated sprite now leaned against a wall. The fellow collapsed into it and shook his head as if bewildered.

“Uh, would that be your first name or your last name? Deane, I mean.”

“Avery Deane. You’ve heard of me.” Holden thought maybe he had, but he wasn’t sure. “I’ve just come from London and New York. I bought a silk Kirman at Sotheby’s in London. Can I ask them to send it here?”

“No, that’s fine,” Holden said ambiguously. He had never heard of a silk Kirman—as opposed to a wool one—but he didn’t want to admit it. “Kirman” is a Persian name, the name of a city in Eastern Iran in which carpets are woven in a fine city-style. In the West it is most often pronounced Ker m’n, as if it were a town somewhere near Fresno. But the Persians pronounce it something like Khyr mahn. Deane pronounced it the Persian way. Holden noticed that his voice still rang beautifully though he now seemed sapped of strength or perhaps was discouraged or possibly was ill and feverish or withdrawing from some illegal drug. Anyway, Holden was relieved that the man had stopped shouting. He didn’t know what might have happened if the fellow had kept whirling around.

“You don’t know what you have here, do you?” Deane sounded to Holden as if he were trying to keep calm. “They don’t have rugs like these in London. They don’t have rugs like these in New York or Salzburg or Paris. That’s because you have them all here in this…” Avery looked around at the 600-foot showroom.

“Surely he must have guessed that I live in the back,” Holden thought, embarrassed.

“…here in this piddling little hole and you’re doing your best to give them away.” Uh oh. Deane was getting wound up again.

“So you think my prices are too low?”

At this, the little man with a big voice sprang out of his chair and roared, “Lock ‘em up, man, you’re giving them away!”

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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