The first thing I did was tell Jade.

No, that’s not true. The first thing I did was count the money. I was sure it must be counterfeit, or maybe that I was on some sort of MTV-type reality show. The Surreal World. I went to the doorway of my tiny office in my tiny failing gallery on 79th Street and peered out into the cavernous rooms. How could something so small feel so empty? No one was there except for Jade. The General was gone.

As I closed the door, I heard Jade’s muffled voice ask, “Is everything okay?” I twisted and locked the bolt.

In opening the first bag, I was far beyond my skills and training. In all my personal cursing, all my internal yelling that I should have somehow foretold the future and not opened a new gallery in New York City two months before September 11, I could have never predicted this future: a paper bag filled up with a brick of cash resting on my messy desk, the contour and wrinkles reminding me of The General’s dingy trench coat.

In all the crazy that emerged in my life after I opened the bag, perhaps the silliest permutations were the calculations I did while counting the money that first time. I looked for sequential serial numbers. I held a few hundreds up to the light and felt at the paper to test its consistency. I tried to smudge the ink. I even bit down on a bill the way colorful prospectors did with lumps of rock in old movies to discern whether they had glittering wealth or fool’s gold. The insanity in all this, besides the biting, was I knew nothing about counterfeiting or even why the bad guys in movies asked for non-sequential bills. But every artist I ever handed a wad of money to did nearly the same thing eventually, if not more so. Maybe we thought our ability at copying paper bags and hands, pencils and paints in hand, made us experts at the fraudulent.

After Adolphe Gurkus watched me leave his studio, he went out with a girl and ate two separate dinners, one after the other, to test the validity of his brick of cash at a checker-table-clothed Italian joint in SoHo. Gurkus wanted to know if his stack of bills could actually be exchanged for sustenance.

“Another? What is that? A scotch, sir?” the waiter said.

“No,” Gurkus said. “I want you to start over. All over. Bring the menus.” He may have snapped at the guy. Gurkus was no sweetheart.

The waiter did, in fact, bring the menus. The story goes that before I appeared at Gurkus’ studio, dropped off the dough, and subsequently disappeared, the genius was starving. Literally.

I didn’t know I’d be an unsung art world legend yet, though. But in my office, my mind started to wander to these sorts of future possibilities as I sat behind my office desk and counted, counted, counted. There was an oniony smell in the air, reminding me how The General hadn’t said anything about amounts or directions. He just set a sack of dead presidents on my desk and walked out.

Pardon me: a sack of dead almost-presidents. There were 260 slips of black-and-green-stained paper with the face of Benjamin Franklin smiling back from them. I counted them again. And then I counted them again.

Like Gurkus, I was starving. The gallery was a flop. After the dust soared down the streets of New York and those two huge statues to hope smelt their way into the ground, no one was buying anything, especially art. Artists were on hunger strikes. Remember the 24-hour news cycle back then? You could flick on the TV and see Corliss Bergman chain herself to the front door of the Pelham Museum before its opening of an International Quilts retrospective four days after September 11. No crowd collected outside. No one believed in anything anymore; forget art.

My bill collectors did believe I owed them money. They were happy to send reminders out incessantly. They were also happy to call and make sure I’d received my mail, too. Then they were happy to believe in stacks and stacks of green and white and black bills, with the man I came to call Benny Franks grinning from their fronts.

There were 260 hundreds in the bag. There was $26,000 in the bag.

Up to those moments, I was certain Jade regretted her decision to become my gallery assistant. Back up. I was certain she regretted her decision to become my student in a course in Impressionism at the CUNY Upper East Side Campus and then her decision to meet me for a drink after a midterm. And then of her decision to give me a blowjob in my office, the two of us filled with Southern Comfort garnished with ice and lime. How she must have regretted her decision to follow me out to my Volvo angled in the faculty parking lot afterward, or the one to be my girlfriend, my live-in girlfriend, and then my gallery assistant eventually.

The one thing I was sure of was that Jade was unsure of everything.

So it was the second thing I did. Tell Jade, that is. With $26,000 stacked up in a paper bag, what was left to be unsure of?

Of course, there was a moral dilemma. Later, I looked over my desk at the mishmash of exhibition catalogues and watched Jade count the money. When she asked, “Did that man in the jacket?” I waved her off.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to help President Bush Part Two or his onion-breathed general do anything. Especially anything connected to a war I was sure we shouldn’t be fighting against people who just coincidentally had beds and pillows, kitchens, and water jugs, all situated above a massive sea of oil. Like many of my friends in the art world, I still called menu items by their God-given names—things like French fries or French toast. Unlike the rest of the United States, which held some sort of idiotic boycott of proper terminology to show solidarity with a lunatic. Like my friends in the art world, I cast a set of skeptical eyes at the stupidest U.S. president in history while he dropped bombs on innocent victims and invented strange words and phrases.

Jade and I were on constant watch back then. When something sailed through the World Wide Web or got caught on CNN, she would duck her head inside my office.

“He said, ‘They misunderestimated me.’”

Or me, at the breakfast table: “Get this, ‘It’s no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go either way.’ Either way!” I shook my head.

After he performed the menorah lighting ceremony at the White House, she rushed in as I was on the phone ordering packing crates. I covered the mouthpiece.

“I just heard,” I whispered, “I couldn’t imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah!”

As I try to pen this memoir, or this half-hearted defense of my actions, and reflect on George W.’s irreverence for the English language, I feel something similar to my thoughts on The General: now there was an artist.


Portrait after portrait of Benjamin Franklin slid past Jade’s hands. There was a level of concentration on her face I hadn’t seen since the parking lot on our first date, with the pine tree air freshener bobbing and weaving above her jet-black hair. To call that initial inter-office Volvo interlude a date is a bit of a stretch, I agree. But Jade was as consumed with counting money as she had been as a front-row student during the first half of my course in Impressionism. She was as focused as she’d been when I shared my desire to open my very own gallery over dinner one night.

One of the many things I knew The General was right about was the importance of secrecy in the mission at hand. Even though artists and museums, galleries, and the like were funded by government grants continually, if even a whiff of the notion got out about artists being seeded and grown, sowed and reaped through $100 bills delivered in wrinkled paper bags thanks to Uncle Sam, George W. Bush, The General, and God-knows-who, the whole experiment would fail.

If anything, the artists picked probably had to hate Bush and what America was doing in order to be artists. At least successful ones.

Jade stuck the tip of her little pink tongue out of the side of her mouth. She reminded me of a baccarat dealer in a James Bond movie. I was 007. I was both shaken and stirred, riveted by her focused beauty.

The third thing I did was Google the General.

Guess what happened? Absolutely nothing. The search came back blank.

“$26,000,” Jade said. I looked up from my computer and the blank Google search. The cursor blinked expectantly.

Do you know how rare it was to produce a blank Google search? Even back then, before they owned the world?

She said, “$26,000,” again. The emphasis was different. Every syllable had meaning.

Then she said, “I guess we can put on another show.”

It was a gorgeous understatement.


We made love on a field of Benjamin Franklins that night. The money was sticky while we sweated, and the dirty bills clung to my back, to my chest and thighs, and wrinkled along with the bedsheets. Jade’s mouth tasted like hope, and I groaned. We were a mess of fingers and hands, whispers, promises, and urgings, all performed for a bunch of black and green voyeurs. Benjamin Franklin’s face enjoyed us. He agreed with us. He licked and touched and smelled the sweat and lust we bathed in. I could feel Jade’s legs shaking, wrapped around me. I licked her neck and looked into her eyes. Her fingers drew lines down my back with the sharp tips of acrylic nails. I’m coming, someone said. I’m coming.

Later, with the half-light of the city filtering through the upper windows, we weren’t just two fleshy bags, emptied of our usefulness, being stared at by an appreciative and perverted crowd of Benjamin Franklins. It felt like The General was there in bed with us, too. A rendering of his trench coat and paper bag lay beneath our flesh. Jade snored faintly against my shoulder.

She slept, and I stared up at the ceiling with the twin discomforts of her head digging into my shoulder and the oily promissory notes touching me in places they didn’t belong. I didn’t think about paying my lease on the gallery we lived above, the electric bill, my Internet access, the printing costs for the last set of postcards, or even my overdue insurance on the artwork and the space. As Jade snored more and more ferociously, I thought only of fairytales and wishes. I wondered which artist I might touch ever-so-gently with my wand of top-secret government currency and invite to the magic ball.


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