Judge Corley is a man with a height of five feet six but an ego twice as tall. My father is a lawyer and spends a lot of time in the courthouse downtown, where Judge Corley’s office is. I know this because my father isn’t a fan of Judge Corley’s, and despite Judge Corley’s show of interest, I’m pretty sure he’s not a fan of my father’s.
“Surface friends” is what I call it. When your friendship is merely a façade and you’re enemies on the inside. My father has a lot of surface friends. I think it’s a side effect of being a lawyer.
I don’t have any. I don’t want any.
“You have exceptional talent, although I’m not sure it’s quite my taste,” Judge Corley says, moving around me to view another painting.
An hour quickly passes. She’s been busy most of the time, and even when she isn’t, she finds something to do. She doesn’t just sit behind the counter and look bored like Palindrome Hannah did. Hannah perfected the art of boredom, filing her nails so much during the two showings she worked for me, I’m surprised she even had nails left by the end of it.
Auburn doesn’t look bored. She looks like she’s having fun. Whenever there isn’t someone at the counter, she’s up and mingling and smiling and laughing at the jokes that I know she thinks are lame.
She sees Judge Corley approach the table with a number. She smiles at him and says something, but he just grunts. When she looks down at the number, I see a frown form on her lips, but she quickly shoves it away with a fake smile. Her eyes briefly meet the painting titled You Don’t Exist, God . . ., and I immediately understand the look on her face. Judge Corley is buying the painting and she knows as well as I do that he doesn’t deserve it. I quickly make my way to the counter.
“There’s been a misunderstanding.”
Judge Corley looks at me, annoyed, and Auburn glances up at me in surprise. I take the number out of her hand. “This painting isn’t for sale.”
Judge Corley huffs and points to the number in my hand. “Well, the number was still on the wall. I thought that meant it was for sale.”
I put the number in my pocket. “It sold before we opened,” I say. “I guess I forgot to take down the number.” I wave toward the painting behind him. One of the few left. “Would something like this work for you?”
Judge Corley rolls his eyes and puts his wallet back in his pocket. “No, it won’t,” he says. “I liked the orange in the other painting. It matches the leather in my office sofa.”
He likes it for the orange. Thank God I saved it from him.
He motions for a woman standing several feet away and he begins walking toward her. “Ruth,” he says, “let’s just stop by the Pottery Barn tomorrow. There’s nothing here I like.”
I watch as they leave, then turn and face Auburn again. She’s grinning. “Couldn’t let him take your baby, could you?”
I let out a breath of relief. “I would have never forgiven myself.”
She glances behind me at someone approaching so I step aside and let her work her magic. Another half hour passes and most of the paintings have been purchased when the last person leaves for the night. I lock the door behind them.
I turn around and she’s still standing behind the counter, organizing the sales. Her smile is huge and she isn’t trying to hide it at all. Whatever stress she walked into this studio with, it’s not plaguing her right now. Right now, she’s happy and it’s intoxicating.
“You sold nineteen!” she says, almost in a squeal. “OMG, Owen. Do you realize how much money you just made? And do you realize I just used your initials in my sentence?”
I laugh because yes, I realize how much money I just made, and yes, I realize she just used my initials in a sentence. But it’s okay, because she was adorable doing it. She also must have a natural ability to conduct business, because I can honestly say I’ve never sold nineteen paintings in one night.
“So?” I ask, hopeful that this won’t be the last time she helps me. “You busy next month?”
She’s already smiling, but my job offer makes her smile even bigger. She shakes her head and looks up at me. “I’m never busy when it comes to a hundred dollars an hour.”
She’s counting the money, separating the bills into piles. She takes two of the one-hundred-dollar bills and holds them up, smiling. “These are mine.” She folds them and tucks them into the front pocket of her (or Palindrome Hannah’s) shirt.
My high from the night begins to fade the moment I realize she’s finished, and I don’t know how to prolong the time between us. I’m not ready for her to leave yet, but she’s tucking the cash away in a drawer and stacking the orders into a pile on the counter.
“It’s after nine,” I say. “You’re probably starving.”
I use this as an opening to see if she wants something to eat, but her eyes immediately grow wide and her smile disappears. “It’s already after nine?” Her voice is full of panic and she quickly turns and sprints for the stairs. She takes them two at a time; I had no idea she was capable of displaying so much urgency.
I expect her to come rushing back down the stairs with the same haste, but she doesn’t, so I make my way toward the stairs. When I reach the top step, I can hear her voice.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I know, I know.”
She’s quiet for several seconds, and then she sighs. “Okay. That’s okay, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
When the call comes to an end, I walk up the stairs, curious what kind of phone call could cause someone to feel so much panic. I see her, sitting quietly at the bar, staring at the phone in her hands. I watch her wipe away the second tear tonight, and I immediately dislike whoever was on the other end of that call. I don’t like the person who made her feel this way, when just a few minutes ago she couldn’t stop smiling.
She lays her phone facedown on the bar when she notices me standing at the top of the stairs. She isn’t sure if I saw that tear just now—I did—so she forces a smile. “Sorry about that,” she says.
She’s really good at hiding her true emotions. So good, it’s scary.
“It’s okay,” I say.
She stands up and glances toward the bathroom. She’s about to suggest that it’s time to change her clothes and go home. I’m scared if she does that, I’ll never see her again.