Chapter 15

She threw her arms wide and began singing. “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly…” She made flying motions with both hands.

Some of the excited guests sat in a half-circle on rented folding chairs while others stood in small groups, buzzing about Oriental rugs and tonight’s speaker. A slide projector faced the screen, and a laser pointer stood by in case the honored rug collector wanted to point out a detail of a rug for the instruction of his audience. And, yes, there was a lectern for him as well, quite a nice oak lectern that was certain to enhance his importance. Somehow Holden had found time and the money to rent it for Ulysses Pope’s address.

The audience was somewhat larger than the forty Holden had planned to invite. At the last moment he had invited Avery Deane. Though he was a loose canon, how could Holden not invite him? Avery had now sold nine rugs in Holden’s store in a period of about ten days—more than Holden had sold in his own store during the past half-year. Usually Deane sold them for more than Holden’s asking price, and always Deane handed over the money to Holden with a flourish. Thinking about him, Holden remembered to invite Tom, the collector who had bought the Bijar and had explored Little Kabul with him and Deane. And then there was the journalist, or perhaps she had said TV journalist, who phoned asking if she could attend Pope’s talk. Laura Scott was working on a story, she said, about Pope’s famous rug collection. “Yes, of course,” Holden said, “come on along. There’s plenty of room.” So that was forty-three..

The big surprise, though, was a call he had taken late that afternoon from Sarah Atwood, curator of the textile department of the San Francisco Museum. She had heard that Ulysses Pope was speaking that evening and she would like to attend.

“My God,” Holden thought, “what is happening to me? Ulysses Pope, Avery Deane and now Sarah Atwood after all my years of obscurity?”

“Well of course you can come, Ms. Atwood. I’d be honored. Actually, we met once before, at a party you put on in Washington, about three years ago, in connection with a show at the Carpet Museum?” She didn’t say anything. “It was in your house? I was in a circle that included Mr. Pope and Marley Highland and Charles Evans Green and you came by and introduced yourself?” She still didn’t say anything. “Anyway,” he went on, “I was there. So please do come tonight.”

“So kind of you,” she said. She was guest number forty-four.

And then, finally, also at the last moment, he had phoned Khalil Zadeh, the rug-weaver and chef from Fremont. Holden thought that Khalil might like to be included in a meeting like this. He was almost certain to be the only person there who was an actual rug weaver. Holden had been right. Khalil would love to come, he said, and could bring his wife? “Well, sure,” Holden said. Guests number forty-five and forty-six.

Pope and Sarah Atwood had paired off somewhere in the house, probably in the library. Holden knew there was a rumor—Deane had told him, actually—that the San Francisco Museum was trying to land the Pope collection. Maybe that’s what they were talking about off by themselves. Still, he felt uneasy. He wondered whether the same man who had pinched the waitress in the Berkeley Marina might try something with Sarah Atwood.

Holden could hear Deane’s voice soaring above the scraping of chair legs and the buzz of conversation and laughter. Deane blew over to a guest, intoned a few words and then spun away like a whirlwind to the next. He was heading toward Holden when he literally bumped into Khalil. He seemed surprised to see Khalil. He dropped his voice and said, “Mum’s the word, yes?”

“Mum’s the word?” Khalil asked. “I don’t understand.”

Avery put his finger to his lips. “No talking about our little project now. Our little secret, right.”

“Okay boss.” He winked. Holden joined them, wondering whether Khalil was weaving a rug for Deane. Was that their “little project?” Tom joined the little group. “Hi Holden,” Tom said. He nodded at the others. “You should never have sold that Bijar, Holden. I don’t think you know how good that rug is. It’s a true work of art.”

Honestly, Holden hadn’t sold very many rugs in his several years in business, but he had sold enough to know by now that, when a collector did buy a rug from him, the collector almost invariably would find some way to crow about it later, as if Holden had made a terrible blunder by selling it at all. So Holden wasn’t surprised to hear Tom gloat. What surprised him was Deane’s reaction.

“A work of art, Tom? I told you it was a Bentley, a Rolls. I told you it was a beauty. It’s those and more, Tom. But it’s not a work of art.” Deane sounded grumpy, as if Tom had been stupid, and Holden stepped up to defend him, and his Bijar.

“It seems like a work of art to me,” he said. “It’s a wonderful rug!”

“Oh, please, Holden. Is every pretty face a work of art? Is cute art? If it’s wonderful, pretty, gorgeous, or beautiful does that make it a work of art? You embarrass me, lad.”

“Okay, then,” Tom spluttered, “what is art? If that Bijar isn’t art, what is?”

“It isn’t art, Tom. I just told you.”

“He asked a good question, though,” Holden said. “So, what is art?”

“Think about a novel,” Deane began. He sounded patient, even avuncular, Holden thought, though he detected a certain strain in Deane’s voice that reminded him of the very first flutters of a migraine headache. “A good novel creates an illusion. It leads you to believe in a story that never happened. Or think about a stage play or a film. For two hours you’re overjoyed or horrified or amused or scared witless. You believe that real life is taking place when all that’s actually happening is that actors are speaking lines. And a painting? If it’s good enough, you believe that you are looking at George Washington or a field of sunflowers, when, in reality, you are viewing nothing but pigmented oils on a one dimensional surface. A painting is a lie, a fib, a fabrication on canvas.” Deane’s voice had gradually risen in pitch and volume. People nearby were glancing at him and the others in his group. He looked angry. “A work of art fools you, it takes you out of your everyday reality. That’s what all art does. Art is artifice. Art is a lie! And that’s not what a rug is at all. A rug is a rug! Nothing more. It is exactly what it seems to be!” His face was scrunched up like an old crab apple, and he was panting.

“I agree,” Khalil chimed in. Holden was astonished. He had barely taken in what Deane was saying and he was a former candidate for an advanced degree in art history. And here was Khalil, an Afghan cook from Fremont, entering the discussion with confidence.

“Hey, art is just stuff that con men make for rich people to hang on their walls. I know an Afghan guy who went to art school here and majored in Corporate Art. That’s a good one, isn’t it? Corporate art? Is corporate art really art? Yes! That’s what art is! It’s bunk. It’s made to hang on corporate walls; it’s cranked out for rich people. That’s all it is. Craft is better. It’s what it seems to be: a beautiful rug for your floor; a great looking mug for your coffee; a wonderful carnelian ring for your finger. Give me craft any day.”

“Hah! Spoken like a true craftsman! Our friend Khalil, a weaver of rugs, understands far more about art and craft than our city-boy, educated rug collectors.” Avery Deane sneered at Holden, though Holden hadn’t said a word.

He was trying to sort it all out when a nice-looking blond woman and a little girl joined their group. Khalil introduced his wife and daughter to the others. Kammy, his wife, clearly was an American. She and Khalil had brought along their daughter, Star—guest forty-seven, Holden calculated. That surprised him, her name and the fact that they had brought her, but, “Why not?” he thought. “Star might enjoy Pope’s talk, too.” The little girl was cute. She was so cute that it caused Holden some consternation. “Seven going on 23,” he thought. Huge brown Afghan eyes, full dark brown hair in long, disturbing, Shirley Temple ringlets. Deane and Holden and Tom all said hello to the mother and daughter.

Ulysses Pope was still huddled with Sarah Atwood somewhere in the big house. Holden’s guests, who had gathered to hear the great Pope speak about rugs, were beginning to tire. Most had found seats by now and had gradually found less and less to talk about with their neighbors. Now they were beginning to look over their shoulders to see if Pope was on his way. It was nine o’clock and soon baby sitters would expect them home with $20 and a ride.

Khalil called out to Holden from where he and his family were seated, “Shall Star sing, Holden? She can sing for everyone while we wait.” Holden saw that Kammy, Star’s mother, was perfectly ready to give up her daughter for the entertainment of the guests. Several of the members of the audience said “Yes!” and the matter was decided on.

Holden said, “Sure. Come on up, Star, what will you sing?” Suddenly Star was up in front of everyone, wearing a professional smile and a layer of confidence. She did not wear makeup but her dark, sultry eyes suggested mascara. She threw her arms wide and began singing. “Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly…” She made flying motions with both hands. The seven-year-old belted out her number like a Las Vegas pro. Everyone must have been as confused as Holden by her performance. Surely this girl had one of those moms who coach and prod and venture their daughters into fame. Or was it an encouraging father, Holden wondered, a father who had landed in Venice Beach, California direct from Afghanistan and who had also done some time in Hollywood? By the end of Star’s performance, all the men were smiling strained smiles and looking away from the girl. The women in the audience were nodding toward her in approval, but Holden wondered what they really thought. All clapped and yelled things like “Yes!” and “Hooray!”

That’s when Ulysses made his entry. Maybe he had been waiting all this time for applause, but, anyway, he took advantage of it and walked up an aisle to the lectern, dignified, like a keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony. The guests were satisfied that they had not waited in vain.

Reading from notes, Pope began by talking about his own interest in rugs, how he had become interested in them as a young engineer in the oilfields around Abbadan in southern Iran. He told amusing stories about how he had learned to bargain like “an Arab,” and how he had often bested Middle Eastern rug traders at their own game. In a rug-buying trip through Turkey he had conspicuously carried prayer beads that would have identified him to the natives as a fellow Muslim, and which, he was convinced, earned him better treatment and far lower prices in the bazaars. And then he described his “last-day-in-town” strategy. He had noticed that no matter how hard he bargained during his stay in a town, during the last few hours of his stay, right before the taxi showed up at his hotel to take him to the airport, the price of rugs fell by another 30%. So eventually he trained himself to take on that last day in town attitude on the first day he was in any rug center.

Admittedly—that is to say, even Holden would have admitted it—this part of Pope’s address went on way too long. It is true that some of his audience took notes as he talked: “Prayer beads,” they wrote; “Last-day-in-town.” But others seemed puzzled. Wasn’t he going to talk about Oriental rugs? But he got to that. He told how he had found a Saryk engsi (“Pende katchli” he called it) at the bottom of a cobwebby stack of rugs in the London Free Port and had paid 165 pounds for it and it was worth $8500. He enumerated many other such triumphs. Of course Holden was happy for him and so must others have been. But he knew that the rug collectors and dealers sitting in their folding chairs around the great man were used to a pretty high caliber of rug scholarship in their San Francisco and Berkeley rug circles and that they would be expecting something better from Ulysses Pope. And they would expect it pretty soon because it was 10 o’clock and they were tired.

But he moved right to his pitch. “The Ali Babbas,” he said, “are everywhere. I’ve founded branches in every major European rug center and, of course, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Charleston, and Los Angeles. Finally I have time to establish a branch in San Francisco and I am asking you to become charter members of our fraternity. You will be able to visit meetings of the Ali Babbas anywhere you travel. You will be connected with the rug world wherever you are, and you will receive copies of The Ali Babba, our newsletter which I personally write. Dues are a nominal $200 per year. I ask you to pick up applications at the end of my talk, fill them out if you would like to join, and give them to me along with a check for $200 before you leave. And now goodnight.” To applause, Pope ceased talking and stood aside from the lectern, waiting to be approached by those wanting his attention. He had takers, people who always wanted to engage the famous. Others, who were sensitive to people’s needs, believed that the old man was failing and crying out for support of some kind and they waited in a little line to shake his hand and assure him that he had really stirred them and that they would like to join his club.

Holden was surprised that was all there was to it. “Hmmm,” he thought. “Well, he’s quite old. On the other hand, he wasn’t too old to pinch a waitress.” But, before he could sort it all out, Holden had to shake hands with the many weary-looking people he had invited to tonight’s festivities as they thanked him for a “wonderful night.” Khalil, Kammy and Star left first. Star had fallen asleep and Khalil carried her out. Deane looked sour and didn’t say much. Others, like Tom, were very polite. The media person—journalist?—was not so polite. Laura Scott.

“Well, he’s a bore,” she said, tilting her head toward Pope, but she didn’t seem to hold Holden responsible. She looked weary too, but she was friendly to Holden. “I thought he would be a jerk and I wasn’t disappointed. Are you all right?”

Holden laughed. Was he all right? Why wouldn’t he be? Still, he felt relieved by her question. “I’m all right,” he said, “but it sure has been a long day.” She laughed, too, as if he and she understood something together.

Eventually they all left except Pope. Sarah Atwood had been the last. She had lingered, talking earnestly with the old rug collector till the last moment, and then finally it was just a tired-to-the-bones Holden and a Ulysses Pope who seemed neither more nor less lively than ever. Holden broke down the projector screen and removed the slides from the rented projector and folded the metal chairs and cleaned up while Pope put filled-in membership applications and checks in his briefcase. While he was still working, Holden said politely, “Well, I’m sure convinced, Mr. Pope. I’d like to join the Ali Babbas. I already filled out my application. Should I write a check right now or what?” Pope continued to sort his notes and he placed them carefully in his briefcase, but he said nothing. “Mr. Pope?” He still didn’t answer. Holden felt so tired. This had been a strange time for him. He had been visited by the angels, the rug angels. They had descended on him, evidently meaning him well. They had brought him sales, the life’s blood and validation of anyone who had chosen to make his living with Oriental rugs. They had brought him status among his colleagues and customers, the essential component of respect and even self-respect. The presence of the angles seemed to suggest that suddenly he had connections, in the Museum, for instance, and maybe even in the media! Perhaps he had turned the corner. He had emerged! But, on the other hand, since the angels had descended upon him, he had been putting signs on his shop’s door saying things like, “Closed due to illness,” or, sometimes, just “Open Tomorrow, 9 to 5:30.” Closing during business hours went against every instinct that keeping a shop had instilled in him. And racing around trying to keep these prima donnas like Deane and Pope happy was a strain. So it was a time for Holden that promised much but that left him on infirm ground. Besides which he had paid for every goddamned lunch and dinner and rental lectern and whatever for the past three weeks!

Was he grouchy from all of this? “Mr. Pope? Did you hear me? I’d like to join the Ali Babbas.” Finally Pope looked up at him.

“The Ali Babbas don’t admit rug dealers,” he said. He put another thing or two in his leather briefcase and then again looked up at Holden. “I thought you knew that.”

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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