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Today's Story by Jon Chan

“I am not playing. This is not a game. This is a gambit of the highest order."

To Confess Less is More

James looked both ways before he crossed the street, then looked up to see Clayton on the steps of town hall. For a moment, with the sun in his eyes, he mistook his old friend for a young man:  it was amazing how youthful Clayton had remained.  While his own hair had turned gray years ago, Clayton still had blond locks.

A moment later, James saw that leaning against his friend’s leg was a golden frame holding a painting of a waterfall.

Even at a hundred paces James could tell that the frame contained a Walter’s.  He twinged.  Between ordinary air pollution and mid-day traffic the masterpiece was being covered in invisible pollutants.  100 years from now, someone would have to spend months removing them to restore the picture to yesterday’s condition.  Whatever Clayton was doing, this was so like him.

Clayton waves.  “Good morning James!”

James waved and started walking up the steps.  When he got next to Clayton he pointed at the painting. “What’s all this now? Holding a town hall auction?”

“Something even better,” said Clayton.  A smile creased his face.  He waved to a camera man and reporter across the street.  They started to walk over.

“What are you up too, Blondie?” asked James, his eyes narrowed.

Clayton stepped back and let the painting fall flat on the ground.  Jame gasped.  Instinctively he reached down to get the masterpiece upright. Clayton grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back.

“Watch yourself,” said Clayton.  With his free hand he pulled a small water balloon out of his coat pocket.  There was a match tied to the end.  He pitched him arm back and threw it on the painting. The rubbed contraption popped, spewing gasoline everywhere.  The painting erupted in flames.

James shrieked.  “Have you lost your shit?”

Clayton snapped his fingers and pointed at James.  “That is precisely what I haven’t lost.  Due to a recent bout of constipation.  Let’s go back to my place and stupify ourselves with brandy.”  Clayton slapped James’ shoulder and made his way down the stairs.

A policeman came out of the town hall and moved towards the pair carrying an extinguisher.  Clayton walked past, but James intercepted.

“It’s alright officer,” said James.  He fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out his business card.  “James Fair, esquire.  My client is… is expressing himself, as was upheld in Spence v. Washington.”

“Look, the town council is forcing my hand,” said the cop.  “I know what Mr. Billings has down for this community.”

The fire burnt itself out.  The policeman took out his pad and started writing a citation.  James heard a car pull out behind him.  He looked over his shoulder and saw Clayton pull up in his red convertible.

“Thank you officer.”  James took the paper.

Clayton beeped the horn.  “Come on, we have  drinking to do!”


Clayton wouldn’t explain until they reached his library, where the painting had once hung on the wall, and each man held a glass of brandy in their hands.  James took a seat in a plush leather chair while Clayton paced the room.

Clayton slapped his hand against a book case. “So what do you think about today’s performance?”

“I think old age has caught up to you Clay.  What happened out there wasn’t the doings of a sane man.”

“I’m not old.  My mind is still a steel trap.  Just like my loins.”

“A steel trap?”

“Did you not see that flotation devices on that blond I brought back last night?” Clayton held out his hands over his chest as if his own chest had expanded.

“I’m trying to come up with a scenario for you to be more crude, but it could get us both sued,” replied James.

“Oh poppycock,” said Clayton.  “You’ve always played it safe.”

“My safe plays have helped you stay out of trouble,” said James.

“And my risky business has made me wealthy, and you didn’t complain when I brought you along for the ride.”

“It’s also turned you into a pauper more than once.  I can still recall the last time you slept on my couch,” said James.

Clayton sipped his brandy, and his face softened.  “You’ve always been kind to me.  You’ve always been there for me.  You’re a true friend.   And I don’t forget my friends.  Which is why I burned the painting.”

“I don’t see how burning a priceless painting on the steps of town hall nets you anything.”

“Guess,” said Clayton.

James placed his glass on a near by stand.  “I’m not playing your games.”

Clayton furrowed his brow and clenched his jaw.  “I am not playing.  This is not a game.  This is a gambit of the highest order.  A ploy to net me profit.”

James shook his head.  He pointed out the window at the garden.  It was spring time.  The flowers were in full bloom, displaying a dizzying array of colors and textures.

“Can’t you just enjoy the simple things?  Smell the flowers and all that jazz.”

Clayton continued talking as if James had not spoken.  “This all thanks to you.  I could not have made this move if you hadn’t played it safe and saved your pennies.  That, even when times were tough on you, when you were down and out, you still managed to pool enough money to get me a great twentieth birthday gift.  That’s the measure of a true friend”

James coughed.  “I’m surprised you still have that old canvas.”

“Yes, I do.  And a few years later I bought my own.  And a few years after that Walter died upon completing his tenth painting.  You see where I’m going with this?” asked Clayton.

“I haven’t the slightest.”

“Less is more,” said Clayton.  “It’s so simple.”

James hesitated, and then shrugged.  “I don’t understand.”

“By burning one publicly I let the world know that the total number of Walter paintings has decreased.  Thus increasing the value of my remaining one, the one you gave me.”

James took his glass and emptied it. He held out his glass, and Clayton, surprised, refilled it.  James drank half of that, too.

“I have a confession to make,” he said.  “All those years ago when I was about to be bankrupt.  But I still wanted to get you something nice for your birthday.  I knew you liked Walter paintings but I couldn’t afford one, so I got a replica.  I suppose since you see me as so honest you never bothered to get it appraised.”

Clayton hesitated, taking this in.  “Really?”

James nodded.

“So I just burned a million dollar painting?”

James got up and placed a hand on Clayton’s shoulder.  “Sometimes you lose the game.”

Clayton put his hand on James’.  “Well, I’m still rich.  I can stand losing a million dollars.”  Clayton swallowed hard and chewed at his upped lip.

“Actually, it would be a one million one hundred dollar loss.  The town just send me a citation for burning in public without a permit.”  James gave Clayton a pat on the back and started to leave.

“The town council annoys the shit out of me,” said Clayton.

“Good, a cure for your constipation.”


Jon Chan is currently finishing up his degree in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Connecticut.  In the past he has tried his hand at being a store clerk, a mathematics tutor and an environmental lobbyist.  He demands that you have a nice day.


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