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The Agent

Original Fiction

Steve Slavin

            Michael had three things going for him. He hosted great parties. He loved introducing people. And his parents, who had been killed in an automobile accident, left him a four-story townhouse on Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum. But Michael also had three things going against him. Although an Ivy League graduate in his late twenties, he had never held a full-time job. He slept most of the day and was up most of the night. He made friends very easily, but he had trouble hanging on to them.

            As his inheritance was rapidly being depleting, it looked as if he would soon have to sell his townhouse for a few million dollars and try to live off the proceeds for as long as he could. Meanwhile, the economy was sinking into a deep recession, and President Richard Nixon, who had taken office a few months before, didn’t seem to have a clue about how to restore our prosperity.

            The one thing that Michael could still look forward to, at least in the immediate future, were his parties. If only he could figure out a way of turning them into money-makers, he could at least put off having to actually find a nine-to-five job.

            There was a woman who occasionally attended his parties who always brought a sketchpad and surreptitiously drew portraits of unsuspecting attendees. Michael sometimes sneaked peeks and was always impressed. One evening, he engaged the woman, whose name was Yvonne, in conversation. He told he greatly admired her work.

            “Do you ever sell your sketches?” he asked.

            “Very rarely. They’re just a hobby. I’ve got a day job and would probably starve if I ever tried to do this full-time.”

            At that very moment, the wheels began turning in Michael’s brain. Soon he was beaming at her.

            “What?” Yvonne asked. Now she was smiling too.

            “This might sound very crazy, but I have an idea that could make us rich.”

            “Does it involve robbing a bank?”

            “Not at all! It involves selling your sketches to my friends. Most of them are very rich.”

            “You want me to sketch your friends and sell them the sketches?”

            “Actually, I’ve noticed that you’ve already done some of their sketches. If you let me be your agent, I think we will soon find out that we have a very lucrative market.”

            “Where do I sign up?”

            “I can have a contract for you on Monday.”

            When they next got together, Michael handed Yvonne a single sheet of paper. He would get one-third of the selling price of each drawing and one-half for their reproductions. Yvonne studied the document. “How come your cut is larger for the reproductions?”

            “It’s simple. I’ll be arranging and paying for making the reproductions.”

            “Okay, that’s fine with me.”

            “I’ll be your exclusive agent. Our agreement can be abrogated by either party with three months’ notice.”

            “May I take on commissions on my own sales?”

            “Yes, but not with any clients you met through me. And you can even make reproductions on your own. So, if I’m not involved, then I don’t get a commission.”

            “I can live with that,” said Yvonne.

            “So can I! Now, let me tell you what I’ll be doing to earn my commission.”

            “You’ll be introducing me to potential customers.”
            “Exactly. By the way, do you happen to have five or six charcoals that I can hang in my ballroom?” Michael thought of the big room that his parents had always used for hosting their formal parties. His guests tended to congregate in the den and living room, but now he’d make sure the right ones wandered into the ballroom.

            “Of course!”

            “I’ll have them framed and reproduced. Then we’ll be in business.” He went on to explain that they would have two types of customers. Those who wanted to commission their own portraits—or those of relatives—and those who wanted to buy reproductions of portraits they just happened to like. When he asked if she had any more questions, Yvonne shook her head.

            “Okay, then! Let’s get this notarized, and then maybe we can grab some dinner.”

            Yvonne gave him another wide grin. “Great! A starving artist never turns down a meal.”

            The guests at his parties were worth at least a few million dollars, and many of them were very rich. Given who his parents had been and his current address, they assumed that Michael was quite wealthy as well. Michael knew that meant he had to restrain himself from doing a hard sell—or to say anything at all.

            After the charcoals had been hung, Michael patiently waited to see if anyone would approach him about having a portrait done. Sure enough, a woman he had known for years asked him if he knew the artist.

            Michael feigned surprise. “Would you believe she’s actually here tonight? I’d be happy to introduce you.”

            Minutes later Yvonne had her first commission. The customer didn’t even blink when she was told that the price was $2,000.

            Michael arranged to hold parties once a month. While ostensibly by invitation only, his parties adopted the velvet rope to keep out the riffraff. He counted on the doorman’s discretion about whom to let in. And Michael didn’t mind when the doorman let in a few well-heeled people without invitations who were willing to slip him a twenty—or even a fifty.

            Some of the people he introduced to Yvonne commissioned originals, while others purchased reproductions that usually sold for about $500. A few generous buyers would commission a drawing of themselves, and then order several reproductions for their friends and family.

            Within a few months, Michael had begun to see the light at the end of his own financial tunnel. And best of all, he’d managed this trick without even holding a real job.

            He soon realized that they were making considerably more on the reproductions than they were on the originals. So, he upped the number of reproductions for each charcoal to one hundred.

            It eventually occurred to Michael that he barely knew anything about Yvonne beyond that she had studied art at Parsons and had been teaching drawing at Music and Art High School for the last fifteen years. She had never married but did have a six-year-old son who lived with her.

            One evening he invited her to have dinner at a French restaurant just a few blocks from his townhouse. He smiled when Yvonne conversed with the waitress in French. The wine made her more talkative, and by the time they left, he had learned much more about her than he had during the five months they had collaborated. From the stories she told, Michael could see she had once lived a pretty wild life, especially during the last decade.

            While Michael had lived quietly on the periphery of the Sixties, it seemed Yvonne had dove into the center of them.

            “Weren’t you afraid of catching anything or of getting pregnant?” he asked.

            “As a woman who had come of age in the early 1950s, I had been thoroughly unprepared for the sexual revolution that overtook the next decade. But it was amazingly liberating. After a few years, I began to think I was invincible. So, I stopped using protection—at least on a regular basis.”

            “And then you got pregnant.”

            Yvonne seemed to study the thread count of the tablecloth, then she spoke. “Maybe it was inevitable that I would. Maybe I really wanted to. But I’ll tell you this, Michael. It was still a big shock.”

            They sat quietly for a full minute.

            “I met Peter at a loft party in SoHo. One of my friends was having an opening. Peter was just twenty-one. I was thirty-four. He had crashed the party with a couple of his army buddies. They would be shipping out to Vietnam in just ten days.”

            “So, let me guess. You decided to give him the time of his life.”


            “Did he ever learn that you had gotten pregnant?”

            “I don’t know. A few days after he left for Vietnam, when I was late, I went to my gynecologist and soon got the news. The next day I got a letter from Peter telling me how much he missed me.”

            “So, you wrote back and gave him the news.”

            “Yes.” Yvonne stared into the distance. Michael waited. “I never heard back from him,” she added finally. “Then, a month later, I heard about Peter’s death.”

            Michael waited again.

            “I’ll tell you something funny: I barely knew Peter. He was really just a kid. Who knows what he could have been and what he could have done? What could I tell my son about his father?”

            She stopped again, perhaps thinking about what she had just said. “Had Peter survived the war and returned home, would we have had a life together? Probably not. But I still think about him more than any other man I’ve ever been with.”

            Yvonne and Michael would never again have a conversation nearly as intimate as they had had that evening. But he soon began to realize that Yvonne had never once regretted having a baby with Peter. Although thirty-five when she gave birth, she had instantly realized how lucky she was to have this miraculous child—her son, Jimmy—in her life.

            But Michael could also see that being a single mother on a schoolteacher’s salary was no bed of roses. He was especially pleased that he had helped lift that financial burden while raising the quality of their lives. And, of course, he was very grateful to Yvonne for alleviating his own dismal financial prospects.

            Michael rarely talked about himself or his life. He felt acutely ashamed of never having held a real job, or even having had an intimate relationship—whether romantic, sexual, or even platonic. Although appearing quite sociable, he was a true loner. While he enjoyed hearing about other people’s lives, their relationships, and even their hopes and dreams, he only listened. As for himself, he really didn’t have much to talk about.

            Over the next few months, Michael found that he wasn’t really enjoying himself. He knew people whose happiness was directly related to how much money they were making. But he found that even his rising income did little to cheer him.

            Still, running his business, if not completely enjoyable, at least took his mind off how empty his life really was.

            The person at the center of his otherwise solitary life was Yvonne. He really needed her—more than anyone else who had ever been in his life, with the possible exception of his parents.

            It eventually dawned on Michael that he needed a full-time assistant to do the framing and shipping, and to monitor the flow of reproductions. Then he realized that he needed another assistant, basically a bookkeeper, to do the billing and to pay the bills. Although both assistants were quite competent, Michael could not resist micromanaging, thereby making their jobs a lot harder.

            He knew that Yvonne would always be his bread-and-butter, so he did make an effort to keep her happy. His conversations with Yvonne, however, made it clear that she was increasingly aware that everything depended on her. She was the talent. She was the creator. She was the money-maker. She never failed to express her gratitude to Michael for not only discovering her talent, but also enabling her to monetize it and becoming richer than she ever dreamed possible.

            Over the next two years, both assistants quit, and Michael hired two others. But when the replacements were hired, it took time for them to get up to speed. Sales began to decline as costs rose. And when both of them quit, it finally began to dawn on Michael that just maybe there might be a problem.

            And then, the recession of 1973 soon made bad things even worse. Michael finally realized that while Yvonne still earned a decent income, he was barely breaking even. He suggested to Yvonne that they renegotiate their contract. She asked for a couple of days to think things over.

            Two days later, Yvonne invited Michael to dinner. Glad to have this one-on-one time with her, he explained how business had been getting worse and worse, how the recession was hurting sales, and how they needed to make adjustments. He explained how he had had to fire so many assistants, how he knew he wasn’t perfect, but now his back was against the wall. Michael drew in a deep breath. “I need a bigger commission to keep this going.”

            Yvonne told him she had not realized that things had gotten so bad, but she did know who was largely to blame. Michael had one valuable sales gift, which was to let her drawings sell themselves. “Otherwise, Michael, you’re no businessman. In fact, you’re a disaster at it.”

Her blunt words hurt, but he had to agree with her assessment.

            “Michael, I will always be grateful to you for giving me my first opportunity,” Yvonne said. “But face it. You have mismanaged the business over the last couple of years. Giving you a bigger cut would just be throwing good money after bad.”

            He was stunned; he never would have expected this kind of reaction. But if he had been her in shoes, Michael realized, he would have said the same thing.

            “For both our sakes, we need to dissolve our agreement. I’m really sorry, but that’s what I’ve decided.”

            Michael didn’t say anything as Yvonne summoned the waiter, paid the check, and left.

            A year later, Michael was still living in the townhouse. He was still giving monthly parties. But now they had spread out to the lower three floors below his own living quarters. He was representing four hot young artists.

            Michael had very painfully become aware of his most glaring limitations, but he felt powerless to do anything about them. Still, he also knew his greatest strength: never try to sell anything. Just sit back and let the buyer approach you.

            Although he was once again an agent, he had the four artists arrange for reproductions, billing, and all the other arcana of the business world. He just sat back and earned his commissions.

            Despite what had happened between them, he and Yvonne stayed in touch. He even got to know her son, who was now almost eight years old. In fact, he had some of Jimmy’s drawings hanging in his townhouse. At his next party, as he stood admiring them, a couple approached him discreetly. “Is that one for sale?” the man asked.

            Michael turned slowly to see where the man pointed and smiled.

A recovering economist, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. Over the last five years, four books of his short stories have been published. He suspects that the pace may slow somewhat over the next five years.

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