I didn’t know Bloch was an artist. I mean, he looked like a regular guy. Well, not regular; a little weird, you know? For thirty years he’d lived in the same rooms, and nobody except him ever saw the inside. So I thought.
My uncle bought the building back in fifty-two, when the area went to shit, and started renting out rooms. He never had any kids and I got the place three years ago when he died. Everywhere is controlled now, so I’m not making much out of the rents, but it’s a good investment. Since Bloch died, a hell of a good investment.
I got the call one Saturday morning: Bloch’s neighbor in number thirty-four said he could smell something rotten and he hadn’t seen Bloch for weeks. Oh, and by the way, Bloch’s mailbox was full of uncollected envelopes.
So I thought, great, one decomposing corpse, thank you so much. I took my keys down there and opened Bloch’s apartment up and sure enough there’s a hell of a stink. Sickly sweet, like a garbage truck hit a dog full of candy.
But the smell wasn’t coming from Bloch; it was coming from a big saucepan of stew left on the stove. Good thing we had a cold winter or the whole place would’ve been crawling.
I found Bloch lying on the bedroom floor, blue and maybe a little bloated. Four or five days, tops, I guessed. There was blood crusted around his mouth and a dark stain on the floor under his body, and I just know that piss is a bitch to get out of carpet.
I took a quick look around but there’s no sign of break-in or robbery. So I called nine-one-one and waited. That’s when I really looked at the stuff in his rooms. There were stacks of books all around me, some almost touching the ceiling.
Most of the books were maybe eighteen inches by ten, something like that. I opened one up and the first thing that hit me was the color, like an acid rainbow across the paper. I mean, there were shades in there I didn’t even have a name for.
And the scenes just blew me away: screaming devils and foxy naked angels, imps and demons, the flames of hell and purgatory, just like the priests said. The devils and imps were feeding people into these big shiny metal machines that chewed them up and spat them out. You could see a pile of hands here, legs there, you name it.
I found the title of the book scrawled across the inside cover: Scenes of Hell and Beatific Order.
Then the cops came in and I shut the book; I didn’t want them thinking I’m a freak or something. I told them who I was and what happened and they started looking around, but you could tell their heart wasn’t in it. The bored ambulance guys took Bloch away and pretty soon I’m all alone with the books.
Later, I asked the neighbors and they told me that Bloch had no visitors, no friends, nothing as far as they knew. Not that they’d hear much anyway, with the TVs turned so high you could hear them out on the street.
My uncle told me once that Bloch worked for one of the museums as a porter or caretaker. I figured he must have come home every night and worked on the books, under that single bare bulb in the living room. Some life, right?
Then I wondered if maybe it was someone else who painted them, so I took down another one to check. A few scenes of hell, this time, after these peaceful country landscapes showing farms and hills and children. And every sheet signed by Bloch. I should have gone home and looked through my uncle’s stuff, seen if Bloch had any relatives to contact, but I had to take another look at the pictures.
He had been good at faces and bodies: the skin looked real, though some of the arms and legs looked weird, stretched, even in the country scenes. He hadn’t been much good at trees and mountains and rivers, but he could paint flames and torture like nothing else I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the museums since that day.
I wrapped one of the books in newspaper and took it home. I checked my uncle’s papers, and the phone directory, but I couldn’t trace any of Bloch’s relatives. Not that I tried that hard.
So, after a week I say to myself, this is a big city and someone out there will pay good money for the books. Hell, you can sell anything here.
I tried a few of the big art galleries but they just shook their heads; some places didn’t even let me through the door. Then I tried some of the smaller shops and galleries down near the new developments, you know, by the old factories they’ve turned into lofts? Now it’s all restaurants and coffee shops, and slick looking stores.
“A thousand dollars,” the gallery guy said. He looked like he’d dressed in the seventies, with the lights out, and never got changed; I threw out better clothes than he was wearing. But he’s offering me a thousand dollars after looking at the first few pages in the book.
“A thousand?” I looked around. The gallery was an old warehouse painted white, with sculptures and black and white photos on the walls. Leather couches. I guessed the guy was doing okay. “I’ll think about it.”
“Two thousand,” he called out as I’m at the door. “That’s the best I can do.”
That’s when I knew I had something. “I’ll be in touch,” I said. Yeah, right.
Ten thousand. I got ten thousand dollars for that first book. Looking back, I know I got ripped off because the gallery owner put it in a sale a few months later and got thirty, but what the hell. I know the value now, and I can bargain, haggle.
After that first one, I trickled a few books through each month. I found a couple of other places that were into the paintings and they welcomed me with open arms. You should’ve heard some of the crap they came out with: “A vivid allegory of post-modern society,” and, “A working-through of the classic myth systems.”
I just smiled and took the money.
About four months into it, I realize I’m not the only one in the apartment; some of the books had been moved, and a couple were missing. One of Bloch’s first ones, dated from fifty-five, had gone. I knew because I’d left it open on the table. So I brought my uncle’s Colt and waited in the kitchen. The rooms didn’t smell so bad by then, after I got the cleaners in.
Then I heard a key in the lock and I picked up the gun. I looked around the door and there was this young guy picking through the books. He wore a black leather jacket, black jeans and new boots. He looked like he didn’t belong around this neighborhood. He had white cotton gloves on, and he turned each page like it was worth a million dollars.
I stepped forward and he jumped maybe two feet in the air. I thought he’d have a heart attack.
“Who are you?” he asked me, once he got his breath back.
I told him I’m Bloch’s family, but the kid’s face froze up.
“He didn’t have any family,” he said.
Well, he was right there, but he wasn’t the one with the gun. I got him to sit down and tell me the story.
“He was a genius,” the kid said. “He’d use a brush with only two or three hairs to paint these scenes. They were his life’s work.”
“How did you know?”
“I was in the museum,” he said. “I’d been copying out some of the paintings; Bloch saw my sketches and, after a few months, we started talking. Eventually, after a long wait, he invited me around here and I saw all these paintings. I couldn’t believe it.”
I looked around at the books. “You think these are good?”
He nodded. “He was one of the best Outsider artists. Totally focussed; he painted every minute he could. He said that sometimes he forgot to eat.”
“But what about hell? And all the torture stuff, and purgatory? You can’t tell me that’s normal.”
The kid shrugged. “Painters have been producing visions like these for centuries. But they were classically trained, whereas Bloch was a natural, an idiot savant. He really believed he was a conduit of messages from God.”
I laughed. “There’s plenty of people in this city think they got a direct line to God.”
“Maybe so, but how many painted like Bloch?”
I let that one go. To me, Bloch painted like a nut, but what do I know?
“Have you seen the twins?” the kid asks. “That’s Bloch and his sister. She died when they were young.”
“That explains a lot,” I said. “So, what are we gonna do about you?”
We started talking, and I told the kid that Bloch left me all the books, and the kid said Bloch never mentioned me, but I offered to bring the last will and testament over, in the expensive presence of my lawyers, and would the kid like to talk to them?
Now the only lawyers I know are the ones who handled my divorces, and the stuff on the building regs, but I guess the kid never played poker. I could see him thinking, chewing his options over. I figured he had at least three or four books that he’d taken, and he wanted to hold on to them.
So he gave me the key to Bloch’s apartment and I said we’d let it go. The kid took a last look around, at the books, before he left. Then I called my cousin and he brought his truck around. We moved all the books in one load, and stashed them in my garage.
I’m letting them go at one a month. I had to throw a couple of books out after they got soaked when the rain came through the garage door (that was some storm we had last July, right?) That makes sixty-three books left.
At thirty thousand, minimum, for each book, I figure I’m in for around one and a half mill. Maybe a lot more. If I dump them all now the price will go down, laws of supply and demand.
So, yeah, things are looking pretty good. I rented the apartment out to an old couple, and I’m looking at investing my money after I visit Vegas for a few days. What do you think? Day trading or Nasdaq?
I stopped looking through the books. It’s like the old horror films, you know? Where the eyes in the picture follow you around the room? That’s the feeling I get.
Guilty conscience? No way. It’s just that Bloch could really paint realistic faces.
I thought about keeping one of the books, but what’s the point? The only ‘art’ in the house are the prints my ex-wife left, and a few centerfolds in the den. I don’t even know if Bloch’s paintings are art. I don’t much care. So long as there’s someone out there to buy the books.
Like I said, you can sell anything in this city.