“I hate Americans.”

This was the first thing The General ever said to me. He delivered the line as he walked into the back office of my already failing gallery on 79th Street in New York. As he walked through the space, before he even made it to my office, he certainly saw all the green stickers next to art that hadn’t sold. Two shows—the first two shows I’d put on—and not a single sale. We were closed for the afternoon to take one artist’s work down and put up the next, so I wasn’t sure how this source of onion breath and rumpled tan trench coat had appeared in my gallery, much less the cramped quarters of my back office space. I looked up from my computer screen.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“That’s what the rest of the world is saying about us. ‘I hate Americans,’” he said.

He didn’t ask but plunked right down in the seat across my desk. Originally planned as a private viewing area for high-end patrons, the back room had quickly become unnecessary storage space for me and my computer. I assumed Jade had let this guy in the door, though I wasn’t exactly sure why.

“I’m Sergeant-Major Nelson, and you’re going to help me,” he said.

I knew right away the fellow was odd. In fact, he looked vaguely homeless. This Sergeant-Major was something akin to a joyous, energetic derelict with his growth of stubble and eager eyes.

Class, flip your books to Chuck Close’s enormous photorealistic painting titled Mark from 1978-9.

“Here,” he said. That spitting image of a Chuck Close masterpiece offered a badge across the desk. In the see-through window of the pleather case was a high and tight image of The General in a photo ID. Beneath his name, the identification gave his title as “Cultural Ambassador” and held the appropriate leaves and insignias. An eagle with arrows in its talons and some stars swirled around the photograph.

Appropriate. Who was I to know what was appropriate? I do remember thinking it was hard to believe the source of halitosis and noise in my office ever had a haircut and tie like those in the picture. Years had not been kind to this government workhorse. Sitting there across my messy desk, below his jacket, The General still wore a suit. He just didn’t look like he owned one.

“Are you looking for some art?” I asked. My voice cracked, hopefully. In the two shows, after the remortgages and all the borrowing, then the selling of my old downtown loft, I was in deep trouble. I’d needed to at least sell a single painting from the first shows I’d held. Nothing doing. My stomach constantly tried to digest itself. I trembled around the clock. If this Sergeant-Major didn’t want to buy a painting, I had one more show, tops, before the bank took everything back. Failed experiment number one hundred would be in the books for Arthur Oswald Fischel and my ridiculous career.

“Now we’re getting to it,” The General said.

I opened my eyes a little wider and nodded. I’d long suspected art salesmanship was something like counseling or psychotherapy. You listened a lot, and at the end of the session, the person wrote a check. Of course, I was on the verge of learning a thousand more reasons why people wrote those checks. Or twenty-six thousand.

“A born salesman,” he said. “First off, soldier, I don’t want to buy some art. I want you to sell some art.”

“We have that in common.”

I decided to give this military guy some down-home aw-shucks America and apple pie bullshit to see how it would play.

“We’ve been watching you,” he vaguely waved out toward the gallery. This wacko motioned toward the door, toward New York and the Upper East Side, toward the Duane Reade and Chase Bank I shared the city block with. We’ve been watching you, he said.

Just then, my girlfriend and gallery assistant, Jade, walked by. She craned her neck, I caught her eyes, and I rolled both of mine up toward the ceiling in the standard sign language for, Why in the world did you let this lunatic in my office? The General flicked his wrist, slammed the door shut, and looked back at me.

“CalArts, NYU, Art History, art practice. In fact, you didn’t do so bad yourself in the art game before giving it up to open this place.”

With the door closed, his breath was even worse. Or maybe the intensifying claustrophobic sinking feeling I had was the fact that he knew so many things about me.

“But you chose,” he continued, “to open a gallery two months before some jumbo jets flattened out the world.”

I remember thinking at the time that this man was insane. No one I knew was talking about the World Trade Center tragedy like that. Flattened the world.

“Soldier,” he said. “I’m your meal ticket.”

I think the second “soldier” had me calling him The General in my mind. Or maybe Jade said it later that day after he left, when we both stood there in the gallery, celebrating what was to be the beginning of our end. Then again, we were over the moment we met.

The General then did something he would do twelve more times in the span I knew him, thirteen if you count the Statue of Liberty incident. The General pulled a package out of his jacket about the size of a brick, all wrapped up in a crumpled paper bag, and set it on the desk.

Today’s Art Lesson: In art school, we used paper bags, or the intricate folds in clothing, for advanced still-life drawing assignments. The exercise is a tell-all as to whether or not you can render light and dark, shadow and texture. What’s more difficult to draw than a paper bag? Can you make cloth and paper different in their wrinkles, in their depth?

In real life, the color and consistency of The General’s jacket and the paper bag brick he laid on my desk were just about the same. That would never do in art, though. You’d have a drawing where a man and a book look the exact same as they sit across your desk, threatening to change your life.

“This is your seed money to put on a successful art show. Go ahead,” he said.

I lifted the bag. I hefted the weight. Who knew a bag of money would actually be heavy?

“You pick the artist and introduce him to the man. Use the money to help whoever you choose. Coach him a little and then disappear. We handle the rest.”

“You want me to host a show?”

“No, soldier, that’s too close for right now. We need you to find an unknown New York artist with some talent. This is a tip-top secret mission. The rest of the world out there is flying planes into skyscrapers, and now we have fire in the Middle East, and people hate us even more for retaliating. Good old George Junior and the powers that be need you and me to fight the War on Terror starting right here on 79th Street.”

The General had passion. When I taught at the CUNY campus on the Upper East Side, I used to teach techniques and then pray each of the students had passion. Well, maybe not pray, as I certainly had no spiritual leanings back then. But this guy was an artist, all right.

“Forget ‘why me,’” he said. “Think ‘why not me.’ We like your writing, like your space. Hell, we even like your politics for this thing. You know New York art, and we need some people no one has ever heard of—no one suspects—to make into stars. You pick some good unknown artists who need a break. We take care of the rest.”

Even though he spoke so passionately, the onion-breathed General, I really had no idea the extent of what he was asking. I opened the bag and peeked inside. It was a brick of $100 bills.

“I’m a simple man and give simple directions. Go find an artist. Coach him in his portfolio and presentation and bring him to Sal Pasqual. Then you disappear and pay your rent.

“What we have here is something between you and me. You don’t tell her.” He jerked his head toward the gallery. “You don’t tell the artist. You don’t say anything to nobody. Not even Sal. He’ll understand.”

“I don’t say anything to anybody,”

“Nothing,” he said.

One of my fellow inmates here in Guantanamo Bay says I must have always had larceny in my heart. I offer, for example, my next question to The General. I said, “How do you know I won’t take the money and run?”

He laughed and stood up. “If you were stupid, we wouldn’t be talking. Nice job on the SAT, by the way.”

“Sal Pasqual?”

“You even have a real firecracker for a memory,” he said. “Give the artist some dough, help him with canvases. All that crap. We want it to look like Pasqual would be crazy not to give the guy a breakout show. Even though no one’s ever heard of him.”

The General didn’t need to tell me who Sal Pasqual was. Or how to find his 8th Street gallery. Unlike the artists I was asked to go recruit, everyone had heard of Sal. He was the hit-maker in New York. And had been for a generation.

As The General turned the door handle, I asked, “Anything else?”

“You have six weeks. Those towelheads are convincing the whole world that we’re the blue-eyed Satan.”

“How’s this going to help?”

“God Bless America,” he said and walked out the door.


This is an excerpt from Kurt Cole Eidsvig’s new novel, Art Official, coming this Friday from Terror House Press.