Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Lost Painting at the End of the Earth

It was midnight, and we were watching Greg and Ana’s band play. Earlier that day we had been in New York City where we were living at the time*, packing bags, rushing to the subway, catching overcrowded trains. Now, two plane rides and many hours later we were standing in the Hi-Ho Lounge, a funky little dive bar crammed with old sofas and knick knacks on funky little stretch of St. Claude Avenue in downtown New Orleans. Inside were a handful of patrons. Outside was nothing. After our day of travel, with New York still humming in our nerves, it felt like the end of the Earth.

The show ended. We spilled out onto the sidewalk, standing around under the streetlamp, goofy and giddy, laughing, and catching up, chatting about nothing in particular into the little hours of the morning. Eventually I went inside to get something from the back room where the band had stashed their stuff. It was even funkier and more crowded than the rest of the bar, filled with particularly raggedy sofas and overflow bric-a-brac . That’s when I saw it.

There, perched on a broken air conditioner in the corner, falling out of its cracked frame was a painting I had done when I was eleven. It was my very first watercolor, and it depicted a (slightly embellished) view of the back of our farm in Virginia. In the foreground were a deer and a rabbit. Nestled just over the hill was a red-roofed cabin (this was the principal embellishment – no such cabin exists). Beyond that was Appleberry Mountain and the blue sky.

For a moment my brain simply rejected the evidence of my senses. "Whuh? Huh?" My head spun. It made no sense, so it could not be true. But it was. After an indeterminate period of dumb staring, trying to construct some plausible chain of events that led to it being there,** I stumbled out to the street to rejoin my friends.

“There’s a painting back there that’s mine. I did it when I was a kid.”

“What? No, you must be confused. Maybe it looks like something you painted.”

“No, no! There’s the rabbit and the deer and the tree and the fence and the little cabin with the red roof that isn’t actually there, and I remember having a hard time with the perspective of the fence line and…”

I dragged them back to the room and showed them. My friends were still unconvinced, but Sarah immediately recognized the farm and delivered the final verdict. The painting was mine.

Now that the veracity of my assertion had been confirmed, it was time to do something. We came up with a plan. Steal it.

The logistics of the theft was remarkably simple. We slid it through the locked iron gate at the back of the bar. Ana walked around and stashed it in her truck – fait accompli! The ethics were arguably more complicated, but in my humble opinion, defensible. Clearly the fates had intended this reunion. Certainly the neglected piece would never be missed by the pill-popping, trash-hoarding, drunks who ran the place. And really, such ethical niceties just seemed grossly irrelevant in the middle of the night at the end of the Earth.

So the painting came home with us. In the morning we fixed the frame and hung it on Ana’s wall. It looked good. We left it permanently in her care, where it eventually traveled to Mississippi, and now, after Katrina, has migrated to Austin. It still looks pretty good.

* In the mid-nineties Sarah and I, being college educated smarty-pants with vague aspirations of "doing something", moved to NYC. It was all well and good but not our cup of long-term-tea. After a year and a half we returned to New Orleans, making it our permanent home (weather permitting). The events of this story occurred during a brief visit from the Great Northern Megalopolis back to our Sleazy Southern Homeland.


** Later, in the sober light of day, a reasonable sequence was deduced. Though originally painted in Virginia, it had hung for many years on the wall of my grandparents’ living room in New Orleans. After the death of my grandfather, the house had been emptied, and one way or another, via garage sale or trash heap it had found its way out into the world where it was adopted by one of the Hi Ho hoarders. They had taken it to the bar and stashed it in the back room where it had sat ever since. Still, it was pretty weird.

Ask and ye shall receive.

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:01 PM

    This is truly bizarre! Weird how some things make it back where they belong. From the one who just enjoys reading your blog.

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  2. The Hi-Ho Lounge, hmmm? How did they fare in the aftermath?

    Glad you got the painting back, when you did. It's hard to imgine why they'd have a spare stash of bric-a-bric or for how long, regardless.

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  3. I don't know how they did. St. Claude was mostly right on the edge of the flooding so I imagine it would have been close.

    As for the overflow bric-a-brac, I think trash hoarding functions beyond the conventional bounds of logic.

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  4. What a great story!

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  5. hhowell3:52 PM

    In a week that's been uphill both ways, it is hard to describe how beautiful I find this story. It's bizarre. It's got a painting in it. It describes one of those nights where rubbing elbows with a group of friends in a crappy little bar in New Orleans, including friends playing music (very important element), just makes you as perfectly happy as a person can get. Simple, in-the-moment stuff.

    100% worth the wait (merci).

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  6. Well worth the wait, indeed. Like something out of a dream.

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  7. milkleg4:34 PM

    That's one of my favorite happenstance moments. It's kind of funny that you decided to write about it when you did bc I've been thinking about that painting and wondering if its journey might not be more comeplete if it were in your home. Especially now that you have less things from your past and two young children who might enjoy looking at some of their papa's early work. The the prodigal painting will have really completed it's circle.

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