Treasures beyond the shelves

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Exciting, to be invited to the famous antiquarian. Cousin Henry wants to touch the Stradivarius rumored to be in his flat. My motive is more practical. And, I'm curious.

An old master himself, the Antiquarian knows the old masters, and owns some: masters of canvas, metal, porcelain, glass. Chippendale cabinets gleam with gold cups, intricate silver, Faberge eggs encrusted with sapphires. Brocade walls boast Rembrandt etchings, a small Whistler drawing, a modest Modigliani. We sit on spindly Hitchcock chairs, sip tea from Sevres, nibble biscuits from an onyx box.

It's the splendors of Venice, Vienna, Paris, Peking and St. Petersburg, plus a few subway stops in between, assembled as if in an art dealer's dream of a Mardi Gras ball.

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Amid his highly prized and priced clutter, the Antiquarian, in port velvet jacket (stained), looks as an authentic antiquarian ought: face like unironed ivory silk, pate an ivory bowl, milkweed hair. His lapis lazuli eyes are bright , despite a lifetime of squinting at chairs overturned to examine their genetic make-up, plates flipped to decipher Imari's calligraphs, silver rubbed for its heiroglyphs. His sharp nose sniffs out bargains, and fakes. Soft fingers read the braille of Chinese vases. Hands and mind lack callouses.

Cousin Henry, to my surprise, knows his art. Growing up amid Great Aunt Emma's clutter, I never asked: IS that old rug Kazakhistan or Beluchistan or Whatsistan? Is that salt dish Cellini or Woolworth? I stuck daisies in Tiffany vases.

Cousin Henry acts as if trained to play the game. Whenever the Antiquarian drops a name, Cousin Henry, like the birds following Hansel's and Gretel's trail of crumbs, picks it up. The two men zigzag through room after room, lifting, flipping, sniffing, dripping names and labels and tales. Onion and cabbage waft stronger from the back of the flat.

In my fake fur and plastic boots, I trail behind, pecking crumbs of their crumbs. My eyes caress treasures. My hands caress the cloisonne bowl I may sell to finance my unleisurely "leisure" to write a while more.

"Time to go big," Cousin Henry has kept insisting. "No more tiny poems. No more little stories. No more little jobs."

Cousin Henry writes big books, and finishes them, and sells them.

"Time is short," warned Great Aunt Emma, forcing the bowl in my hands. "Do it now. Whatever itm is, for you, go for it. We don't need cloisonne."

The pattern in the cloisonne bowl forms a dark horse. I think of Helen Webster's poem "Merry-Go-Round": "Race for the best: you don't / want a bird who can't / get off the ground. / Choose a stallion, take / the risk. You win / the black one . . ./ Grab the scarlet reins."m

I see the cloisonnes, Faberges, Tiffanys. These craftsmen had occasional patrons, encouragement to risk, to go big.

Cousin Henry and the Antiquarian continue to trade trade secrets. They delight each other and themselves with tales of this Ming sold to a prince, that statue carried in a shopping bag by an old bag lady, that canvas passed through his hands 10 times in 30 years, each year increasing value. . .

How many times must my manuscripts, as Cousin Henry insists, pass through my typewriter? Will they increase in anything? Time to go big, but is it worth the risk? snippets, written in available shards of time, are safer. . .

The cloisonne bowl grows heavier.

The Steinway is rosewood and grand. Great Aunt Emma once played it.

Cousin Henry yearns to see the Stradivarius, if it exists. Too polite, or cagey, to ask. The antiquarian disappears into the kitchen to stir the cabbage soup. We hear unculinary clinks and clanks. He returns with a violin case. "I keep it in my safest safe." His fingers tremble as he opens it. "Try it."

Cousin Henry stands as if paralyzed. All his life he has played the violin his mother bought him aged 12. All his life he has yearned to play a Stradivarius. Now he can't move.

"Go big," I whisper.

The Antiquarian sits down at the rosewood piano. "Here's a Telemann minuet for piano and violin. Let's try it."

Cousin Henry has been practicing just that all month. finally he picks up the violin. It almost plays itself. Two hours later, after Telemann, Handel, Corelli and Vivaldi, we stop for cabbage soup.I have been listening but my mind has spun on its own stereo track, writing.

After supper I unload the cloisonne bowl. Perhaps he can sell it. My wars are over, paper is cheap, time is dear. Time to risk.

Making plans to play Schubert's Quintet here soon, Cousin Henry goes home to finish his book. I go to start mine.

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