The Auction House

by Stefano Stradaioli

Follow Via Allende for seven-hundred and seventy-seven steps, turn right in the alley, walk to the white door and knock thrice: these were the instructions on the scrap of yellowed paper Giorgio was holding between his fingers. He’d had to give the dying man all his change to get that information, but if it turned out to be correct, he’d call himself satisfied with the price.

Seven-hundred and seventy-seven steps, the alley on the right, the white door. Everything matched. Giorgio stuck the scrap of paper back in his pants pocket, breathed in deep, and made a fist with his little left hand to knock once, twice, thrice.

The door swung open in front of him: holding the doorknob was a middle-aged man, about forty years old, his face unnaturally long and thin. He had raven-black hair neatly combed back, and wore a suit that made him look like an old-fashioned butler. Everything stood in contrast with Giorgio, who only dressed in the finest rags you could find in a street market.
«Welcome, honored Guest, welcome!» said the butler, with a reverent bow; Giorgio was taken aback by his gesture, but did not let it show.
«How long before it starts?».
The man turned to glance behind his shoulder, then back to the guest at the door, and answered: «The hands of my clock say not much».

 

He stepped aside, gesturing for him to enter. Once he went through the door, Giorgio could take in the whole room: the walls were the color of amber, while the floor was covered in white and black marble in a checkerboard pattern. At the center of the room was a long wooden desk bearing a small crimson notebook, a quill as long as the palm of his hand, and an old black rotary phone decorated in gold; behind the desk was a highchair, also wooden, whose richly ornamented back looked anything but comfortable. Above the chair, hung to the wall, was the clock the butler had glanced at: the short hand was pointing at the “not”, the long hand at the “much”.

The door closed behind Giorgio and completely vanished from his sight.

«Odd».
«May I ask what is, honored Guest?».
«The room is round, but the building looks normal from the outside».
«Normal? In what manner?».
Giorgio remained quiet, weighing the meaning of his words. The ceiling was domed, making the whole room look like an emisphere. The butler went to sit behind the desk, opened up the crimson book and picked up the quill. It was as long as his forearm.
«Your name, honored Guest?».
«Giorgio».
«Just Giorgio?».
«Just Giorgio».
The butler gave a curt nod, dipped the pen-nib in its inkpot and wrote “Giorgio Just” in black letters on the great crimson tome, then set it down and put the five-foot-long quill back in its place.
The boy studied the wall-clock: the long hand had moved to “yet”.
«Would you like to make yourself comfortable in the salon, honored Guest?»
«Yes», replied Giorgio, with a sigh of relief; the idea of being alone with the butler for a moment longer didn’t appeal to him at all. «Where…»
«Please, follow me».

The butler rose from the chair, approached the wall behind him and opened a door Giorgio couldn’t have missed, yet had missed anyways. The salon was already full of attendees: heavyset businessmen, dapper crime lords, scions of noble lineages, members of Congress. Forty-three of the richest, most influential people in the World, all sitting on simple wooden stools with a little numbered paddle in hand.

The hum of conversation stopped short when Giorgio entered the room, then resumed at the same intensity straight away, as if nothing had happened. Giorgio carefully considered the face of each guest: at twelve years old, he was definitely the youngest. “Good”, he thought, “one more arrow in my quiver”.

The walls of the salon were painted in creamy white, but barely visible behind the rich array of paintings and tapestries adorning them. There were three doors: two on the east side, one blue, one green, and a red door on the opposite wall.
«Where does the blue door lead?».
«Why, honored Guest, the blue door is the one you just came through. It is the entrance, while the red door is the exit».
«What about the green door?».
«That would be the toilet».
«Oh».

The butler handed him a white paddle, identical to the others. It bore his number in blue: 44. Giorgio noticed then that the seats were numbered, just like the paddles: six rows with seven stools and a lonely row with two. Number forty-four was the only seat left vacant.
So the boy took the place that had been destined for him. To his left, at number forty-three, was a lady on the verge of obesity, probably in her fifties, wearing a ruby-red dress so slinky it barely left room for imagination (or anything else, really). On her left wrist she wore bangles, one gold, one silver and one bronze, while the bangles on her right wrist were one mercury, one palladium and one cadmium; each of her ten stubby fingers was topped by a ring so tight, it looked like her hands had fattened up after slipping it on; from her neck hung a necklace long enough to coil in her lap, and over a head of dark blond hair that simply had to be a wig perched a big wide-brimmed hat. The lady kept waving a fan in front of her face, causing the mercury, palladium and cadmium on her wrist to tingle.
Her expression was halfway between disgust and impatience, and she was sweating profusely. She reminded Giorgio of a pig: a big fat pig stuck in an oven. The lady bent down, picked up the handbag she had stored under her stool and took out a juicy red apple.

A bell chimed over the chatter of voices, followed by silence in the blink of an eye.
«Welcome all, honored guests!». The butler was performing an exquisite bow before the reunited bidders: his face, so long and thin, almost grazed the floor before he stood up straight and resumed speaking. «Welcome to our most humble Auction House. We hope that each of you may find what they long for, and that you may obtain it for a fair price. Let me give the floor to our director, the Auctioneer».

The butler went to the red door, and as soon as he disappeared from Giorgio’s line of sight, the green door opened and in came a middle-aged man, about forty years old, his face unnaturally long and thin. He had raven-black hair neatly combed back, and wore a suit of a rich chestnut color, with a cornflower-blue shirt underneath and a red patterned handkerchief sticking out of the breast pocket.
«Good day, ladies and gentlemen, good day. Let us begin with today’s auction: the first article, lot number zero-zero-one».

A young man, wearing a black suit and a porcelain mask over his face came in through the green door, holding a silver platter upon which rested four small items.
«The paws of the racing turtle, starting price: five smiles. Five smiles from number twenty-one, thank you, seven smiles from number ten, thank you, eight smiles from number thirty-three, thank you…».
«I bid twelve minutes of tummy tickles!» screamed number eleven, full of arrogance: Alessandra Lanfranchi, member of Congress and Minister in the Under-Secretariat of Public, Private, and Questionable Transport. Her lead-gray dress clashed with her voluminous red hair, styled to resemble a tower (and looking much like the jewel of Pisa). Her face was criss-crossed with wrinkles, and her fingers, aside from sprouting three-inch nails the same exact color as her hairdo, showed clear signs of excessive tobacco abuse.

«Sold to number eleven for twelve minutes of tummy tickles; thank you very much. Let u smove on to lot number zero-zero-two: the hard core of the Democratic Movement. Starting price: a half-kilogram of facts».
As the little white paddles with their blue numbers rose and fell to the rhythm of the Auctioneer’s voice, the man in front of Giorgio, number thirty-seven, jumped to his feet: he was in his forties, with short brown hair and hazel eyes, wearing an ocean-blue suit and a black tie with maroon stripes. His clean-shaved face seemed accustomed to wearing a smug grin, but right now it was quite tense, tinged with worry if not outright desperation. As he got up he spread his arms wide above his shoulders, calling everyone’s attention to himself.
«I bid all respect for my own person and all of my self-love!».
«Honored Guest, although your self-love is considerable indeed, we kindly remind you that you have already sold all respect for yourself to this very Auction House not a long while ago, in exchange for a certain ballot».
«But I lost that ballot!».
«No refunds: once an article leaves the Auction House, it becomes full responsibility of the buyer. In any case, sir, you have submitted a bid you cannot pay and starting today you will no longer be admitted to our auctions. We invite you to leave through the red door, please».
«This… This is inconceivable! An affront! A fraud!» yelled number thirty-seven, as four masked attendants escorted him to the red door. His livid face was the same exact shade as the stripes on his tie. «Who else than me could ever need the hard core of the Democratic Movement? Only I! I and no one else! If you don’t sell it to me, you won’t sell it to anyone!».
The red door opened, and mister thirty-seven was thrown into a bottomless pit of rhetoric and populism.
«Forgive us for the disruption. Any other bids on this lot?».
Paddle number seven shot up: the figure holding it was wrapped in a violet cloak that completely obscured its wearer. A whisper of a voice drifted into the air, barely audible above the constant chatter.
«I bid a pork barrel».
«Sold to number seven; thank you very much».
The man in a violet cloak stood up, bowed slightly, and left the room.
The auction resumed with no further disruptions. Among the auctioned lots were a storm cloud, a mother’s love, some quality time, gold, frankincense and myrrh, a sliver of optimism, the original and unabridged manuscript of the Bible, the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap of Watergate, Pride and Respect, the elixir of immortality and a page from Anne Frank’s diary written August 2, 1944.
«Honored Guests, we have reached the last article in today’s auction: behold lot number zero-seventy-three».

The green door moved just a crack at first, before swinging open; from there it poured inside the room, crawling along the walls, towering over paintings and tapestries, embracing the bidders with its vastness.
«One starry night. Starting price: one million things».
At once, the little white paddles started rising at a frantic pace; a madness seemed to take over every single bidder. Nobody stopped, nobody dared yield, everyone screamed their offers as the Auctioneer did all that was inhumanly possible to keep up with their back-and-forths. It wasn’t long before words gave way to actions and more than one fist was swung in the Auction House that night.
Giorgio, who had been quiet until then, raised his little white paddle with 44 stamped in blue and screamed with all the might a twelve-year-old boy can summon: «I bid a secret dream!».
Silence. Heavyset businessmen, dapper crime lords, scions of noble lineages, members of Congress; everyone stood still, paralyzed, staring at him.
«A secret dream, then?».
The Auctioneer gave a sharp sniff, once, twice, thrice.
«I smell… Hope, and Possibility, and Future… Which Dream do you offer, honored Guest?».
«Whichever you like: the Auctioneer may look at all the ones I have in store and choose the Dream that most pleases him».
The Auctioneer grinned in amusement at first, then brought a thoughtful hand to his chin.
«What if I wanted more than one?».
«No, I offer one and only one».
«And what if no Dream is to my satisfaction?».
«Then I’ve submitted a bid I cannot pay, and I’ll leave through the red door».
The Auctioneer mulled it over, covering his mouth with one hand as the other drummed nervously on his chest. At last, he exclaimed: «Sold to number forty-four! We thank all our honored Guests for joining tonight’s auction, and we hope to see you at the next».

Everyone except Giorgio and the Auctioneer left through the blue door. Then the man approached the boy.
«Honored Guest, it is time to pay. Do you have your bid on you?».
«See for yourself».
«Are you sure? If you cannot keep your word, the red door will be waiting for you».
«If it comes to that, I’ll fall into the pit and you’ll be left with an unsold starry night».
«Which I will have no trouble selling off at the next auction».
«Yeah, sure. I’d really like to see you pitch a night after it’s over. Time marches on, Auctioneer, and after night comes day; either you accept my Dream as payment or you’re left empty-handed».
«Your Dream? You only have one Dream in store?».
«One and only one».
«You said I would be free to choose».
«I said you could choose the one that most pleased you, not how many you could choose from».
The Auctioneer’s face contorted into a half-smile, then he laid one hand on Giorgio’s temple and looked at what he had in store.
«One Dream, intense, overpowering, heart-wrenching; Hope, Possibility, Future. But what is it about? Mmmm… My, honored Guest, you are a swindler!».
«You offend me».
«No, I describe you! Your Dream is to see a starry night!».
«What’s the harm in that?».
«Are you trying to sell me a Dream come true?».
«Not at all, Auctioneer. On the contrary: I’m selling you a Dream just before it comes true. Isn’t that the most precious kind? Coming so close to fulfilling it, only to abandon it».
«But… Why?».
«To fulfil it without killing it. So it can live forever. Because I’m willing to do anything to get what I want, even if it means I don’t want it anymore».
«And in so doing, you get your starry night and someone else can have your Dream, and try to get that night for themselves».
«And like me, they’ll be willing to give up their very Dream in order to fulfil it, and someone else will come and buy it, and so on, and so on».
«So there will always be starry nights, for the people who dream about them».
The two shared an intense look, their eyes glued to each other. The Auctioneer took Giorgio’s Dream, then Giorgio took the starry night and stuck it in his pocket.
«It was a pleasure to do business with you, honored Guest. I hope you will join us again».
«Thanks, but I doubt it. I don’t want anything anymore».
The two bid each other farewell and Giorgio left through the blue door. That night, the stars shone brightly in the Vault of Heaven.

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