This morning I looked out the window to the house that’s catty-corner from mine, and thought about Yuri and the Chagall.
Yuri, a balding, bouncy man in his late 50s, used to own that house. He greeted me enthusiastically when I moved in, told me his family was from the Ukraine, that he was a painter and that the gorgeous stained glass windows in the clerestories were done for his father. They let his father “see cheerful things every morning instead of rain.”
Yuri’s wife Lela disliked the house. Apparently used to finer things–they drove a sporty Mercedes sedan and a Lexus SUV, not exactly standard vehicles on our block–she wanted something a bit grander. She also longed for her own driveway. Theirs served as the entrances to two other houses, a peculiar northwest arrangement known as “shotgunning.”
So the following spring, Yuri put the house up for sale and bought another place, a ritzy penthouse in the Pearl.
Their realtor held an open house one weekend and, like the rest of my nosy neighbors, I popped in for a peek. My eyes goggled at the price, which explained why the house wasn’t selling. The furniture was gone; all that was left was a samovar in the kitchen, an interesting contrast against the wildly patterned red and black-tiled counter, and a painting on the wall above the stairs.
I wandered through the house a bit smugly, thinking “Orange shag carpet? Pink and brown bathroom tiles? Cobalt blue and orange bedrooms? No wonder the house isn’t selling!”
My inner renovator was happily engaged in ripping out tile and replacing flooring when I saw the painting on the stairs.
It was maybe 30×30 inches, depicting a carnival horse with a dancing lady on its back. The colors were dreamy sherbet twilight, glowing and rich. It was an almost perfect embodiment of a child’s circus dream. The carved gold frame was too rich for its innocent simplicity; I would have hung the canvas bare.
I absorbed the painting on the stairs for maybe 15-20 minutes. It was obviously meant to look like one of Chagall’s circus paintings, but not one I was familiar with. I headed downstairs and asked the realtor about it. “Oh, the owner painted it. He’s an artist, you know.”
My first thought was, “Thank heavens I didn’t ask Yuri to paint my house!” My second, “what a pity Yuri has this much talent but imitates someone else.” I felt sorry for him…but I also wondered what he’d charge to paint a second Chagall. I couldn’t get that wonderful painting out of my mind.
A couple nights later a neighbor stopped in for a chat and I mentioned that all this time I’d thought Yuri was a housepainter but instead was a talented–albeit derivative–artist. She looked puzzled. “But Yuri is a housepainter. He painted my house, and pretty badly, too. I’m still getting paint out of the carpet.”
Two months later, Yuri and Lela moved back in. Lela had gotten tired of Pearl District traffic and lack of parking in the new house, so they’d decided to put both houses on the market and move into whichever one didn’t sell first. “Now we will fix up this house and live here always,” Yuri beamed.
We chatted for awhile, and I asked Yuri about the painting. “You mean the Chagall?” he said casually, “Oh, that’s my wife’s painting. President Sukarno gave it to her family.” Mr. Chagall had painted it. In a roundabout way, Sukarno had acquired it, then given it to Lela’s family as a thank you gift.
After that, business trips overseas, a heavy workload; I didn’t see Yuri except to wave from my car as I headed back to the office. In the spring they once again put the house on the market, and this time it sold.
I’m sure Yuri was pulling my leg. Positive. It couldn’t be a Chagall. One of that size and quality would buy and sell the neighborhood, not just the house that Yuri couldn’t sell for so long. And nobody would take every stick of furniture in the house and leave a Chagall. Right?
I’m sure Yuri was pulling my leg. Positive. But this morning, I thought of Mercedes and the KGB and penthouses and Sukarno and treasures greasing diplomatic wheels and the fall of the Soviet Union. The entrancing incandescence of that painting. And a bad housepainter named Yuri.
And I wondered.