“Where the fuck is my painting?”
I didn’t know Vermeer had such a grasp of the English language.
“Did you hear me, asswipe? Where the fuck is my painting?”
I put my Diet Dr. Pepper at the foot of my rickety front door. “Vermeer, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an asswipe.”
He continues to stare at me. A billowing pair of green pantaloons around his legs, his gut pumping in and out of an oily Corona beer tee-shirt. “Where’s the painting, asscunt?”
I did work for a time as a guard at the Isabella Gardner Museum. But I was not on shift when his painting The Concert was stolen on March 17, 1990, along with a few other prized possessions (five million to anyone with info leading to their recovery). I tell him to find those other bumblers. A few of them surely still live around Boston like me. “Why come to my door? I just got a divorce, Taco Bell might let me go. Do you know how much a store manager makes?” He assumes a pathetic look, but I know he doesn’t care. “We make shit. Translation—we are paupers.”
His mouth tilts and one of his dank teeth pop out. Is this Vermeer thinking? “I’m not going anywhere until I get that goddamn painting. You’ve been warned.”
“Do you have bulgur wheat?”
He rips the screen door open and sits on the off-white carpet, a saucy stench emanating from his armpits. He sees Dali’s melting clocks on the wall. “Is that a fucking joke?”
“Dude, that guy’s more famous than you’ll ever be. He has a MySpace profile, Facebook. He’s really dead, but some women would make love to his corpse in a heartbeat. Men too.”
Vermeer goes to the kitchen and shakes a half empty box of corn flakes. “Got milk?”
One thing is clear after living with Vermeer for a week—he doesn’t care about my feelings. It took him five days just to learn my name. “Jay Tartabull. Jay Tartabull, Jay Tartabull.” He turns it over in his mouth like a lump of peanut butter. “And you work where? Taco Hell?”
“Yes, Vermeer. But I want respect. I give you my food, my couch—the only reason is I feel sorry for you.”
“Fuck you, you think you’ll get a share of the reward money. Even two percent of five million is more than you’ll make in a lifetime.”
“Funny you talking about how money should be dispersed, since you’re basically living off of my welfare. Industrious Dutch, my ass.”
He sits in my computer chair and pulls up his Wikipedia entry.
“Don’t you know every time you add ‘he had a certifiably twelve-inch penis’ someone thinks it’s just a young punk having fun? Is that what you want to be known as, a young punk with no life?”
“The truth will set me free and make me quite desirable. Dali never had an inch on me.”
Vermeer went to the Mafia yesterday, the experts’ best guess as to who has the painting. They just laughed. “Did their place smell of garlic?” I ask.
He reveals a leg full of blood bruises.
“Jesus Christ.” I fly to the bathroom for the Neosporin.
“They may or may not have it,” he calls.
I return with cotton balls, Q-tips. “You’ve got to get some sun, pale boy. Knock off the pantaloons, I’ll buy you shorts.” I apply the Neosporin in droves.
“Why are you touching me so much and what is that shit? It smells like a sewer.”
His face clouds over. “And I’m not gay. Where the fuck’s my painting?”
“That’s what everyone wants to know.”
I bring him an ice pack and a cup of Strawberry Crystal Light. He knocks it to the ground. “I want Corona.”
“I’m not your maid. And you are cleaning up that Crystal Light. Hurry! It could stain.”
“Give me some money, I want to get a six-pack.”
“I don’t understand why the hell you want Corona all the time. Why don’t you like something with bite? And where did you get that tee-shirt, anyway? That’s been mystifying me to all hell. You could eBay that son of a bitch, then you would have some dough.”
Ever since Vermeer showed up I’ve been having migraines. Maybe they started two years ago during the separation from my wife. It feels like a man in a cell is using a sledge to try and break free. Vermeer only complicates things. I recognize his plight and of course I want reward money. I want all the money I can get my hands on. Then I can go away. I can quit having dreams about bean and cheese burritos sabotaging burrito supremes where all the lettuce, tomato and guac trickle out and I’m sued by a cheap, overweight lawyer who eats slop daily.
Since his visit to the Mafia, Vermeer has gone downhill. He isn’t looking anymore. He’s watching General Hospital while I’m on my hands and knees trying to repair a deep fryer with Eminem music blaring, because if I don’t let the kids have it on they’ll all quit on me. “It’s been three weeks, Vermeer. You’re not even painting.”
“Leave me alone. Too much going on here. Nurse Divine might be pregnant. Troy might not get his oncology internship.”
“You’re getting a job tomorrow or I’ll call Immigration. Try explaining how you just happened to appear in the US without a passport.”
Vermeer wants the drive-thru but he was to work himself up first. The compromise is I’ll let him wear the pantaloons. I have to admit they do seem pretty comfortable. Keisha slaps her massive thigh while examining them. “Better not be no goddamn shot rag and shit.”
Kobe, our requisite high school dropout, is having a field day too. “Dude, why you like wear a sleeping bag to work? What up with that?”
I feel for Vermeer. At his first break he hasn’t said two words. I take him in my office and pat his shoulder. “The kids just like to have fun.”
“If you ever fucking touch me again I’ll rip your nose off.”
“Hey man, first days are always hard. Remember your first day as a painting apprentice?”
“Yeah. The guy got mad because I could paint better than him.”
“And then it got better, right?”
“And then I died young. Don’t pretend life wisdom with me, you turd. What the fuck’s a chimichanga?”
The second week I tell the kids Vermeer has a doctor’s note not to handle food. He likes money. Dreams of the five million constantly. We stuff a tan visor on his bouffant dishwater blond hair and I show him the intricacies of the drive-thru. Keisha preps food for him. The first half hour is shaky. With about eight inches on Vermeer, Keisha chews her gum and looks down at his crooked face. “Dude, why the fuck you so grouchy all the time?”
“Oh I don’t know. When I grew up we played with ants and flies. Then my wife left me.”
Keisha smiles and whips her arm out before settling it on her hip. “Just like bossman there. Wa, she two-time you?”
“You could say that.”
“I just did, yo. You white men with your white women and all your crazy paranoid shit and crazy bitches saying, ‘I wanta to go to Mexico with Ralph cause he know my deep feelings…'”
“Hey,” I interrupt. “Infidelity does not discriminate.”
Keisha stares at me. “Dude talking like Nancy Reagan and shit.” She throws up her arms. “I’m out.”
Towards the end of the first day I begin to hear Vermeer’s sotto voce inquiries of the drive-thru customers more and more. “Yeah, they’re standing by a piano in it. No, one guy and two women. One woman is singing. There’s a cello on the ground in front of them on a parquet floor. Parquet floor, that’s the key. Huh? It’s a white and black floor. What? A cello is a big violin. What? A violin is small wooden thing with strings.”
I subtract the volume on Eminem by one click and see Vermeer is speaking to a group of teenage girls in sweat suits.
“What’s the name again?” one says while texting on her phone.
“It’s called The Concert. It’s yea big, pretty small actually. But it’s beautiful. Whoever painted it was a genius.”
“You can’t do this,” I tell him. “You’ll scare the customers. And they wouldn’t know about your painting anyway.”
“The hell they wouldn’t.”
At closing I’m having trouble with his register. “This keeps coming up plus 200. What did you do?”
He twinkles and shakes his hands. “Magic, Jay. Magic.”
“I used to be a cardshark,” and he produces the first smile I’ve seen in three weeks.
“A ten and two fives for change. A ten and two ones for change. People don’t know. They just want to eat. They’re tired. They’re hungry. Times don’t change.”
The bar is my idea. I haven’t been out in months. My drinking buddies were mostly friends of my ex-wife and asking teenagers (even though I know they get wasted every night) to accompany me is suspicious and a little uncool.
We go to Graystone where the bartender owes me a drink for helping her move a couch. She’s not there and I’m glad—Vermeer is on the warpath.
A woman in a pink dress exposing three-quarters of her bosom and who has been known to carry brass knuckles comes up to me. “Who the hell’s your friend? If he is a friend. He just a big, bad liar. Five million for a painting my ass.”
Tony, the owl-eyed bartender wipes some glasses. “Somebody painted your ass?”
The woman knocks over my drink. I knock over hers. “You ever hear of Vermeer, Tony? A painter?”
“Ask the professor.”
The professor is, not surprisingly, someone who isn’t a professor at all. He is a large, bald, unfriendly man who didn’t pass high school, but has read far and beyond and can recite lists of rivers, mountains and Hondas. He sucks spit away from his lips before talking. “1632-1675. Dutch. Lived in Delft. Paintings are worth millions.”
“Well, he’s over there if you want to talk to him.”
Vermeer has his hands in the hair of a Latino nurse called Mariella. She is a very cute woman who wears six bracelets on each wrist. I’ve heard she bakes incredible pies. The guy’s been dead three-hundred and fifty years and the first woman he tries falls for him? I am furious. I wined and dined my ex-wife for seven months before we even spent the night together. Now she lives in Michigan with an electrician.
Mariella’s teaching him to count in Spanish. “…ocho, nueve, diez,” she says, and Vermeer repeats with gusto. Then he sways and thrusts his crotch, causing his pantaloons to balloon. Mariella howls. Vermeer pinches my ear. “Hey good buddy,” and he hoists his Corona. “Corona es muya guapo.” Vermeer buries his reddened nose in Mariella’s hair and inhales deep. “You know Jay, for all the shit the Spanish put us through…I can forgive all that now.”
“Isn’t Mariella from Cuba?”
Mariella tries to get her friends interested in me, telling them that I own Taco Bell. All of the Taco Bells, everywhere. They know it’s not true. No owner smells like green onions and lard.
The night rolls on. When Vermeer starts singing Gloria Estefan songs, bunching his pantaloons like a stripper, I know the bow has broken.
Vermeer turns distracted. Marielle blows him kisses. She points to the bar and he nods. I watch her sashay away. “You don’t care about getting your painting back. You just want to get laid.”
Vermeer lips farts. “Have you been to Holland, or even Europe? You’ve lived your whole life in this shithole, and you think you know what drives me?”
My knees start to shake. “I should hit you high and hard. All I’ve done for you. You could be on the street picking up cigarette butts.”
Vermeer reaches over me to receive his Corona from Mariella. His hand clenches it. A symbolic gesture. The gripping hand representing all that’s wrong with my life. Despite the fucked-upness, this guy has held on and pushed through. I’ve sputtered and wheezed like a despondent wind-up toy. Immediately I leave the bar.
My dreams are non-dreams. They are the same self-interrogations I carry on daily. Why aren’t I attracted to Cuban women? Was it because I vomited the only Cubano sandwich I ever ate? Maybe I am attracted to them and Vermeer is just getting in the way of me making solid Latino connections. I pour a glass of orange juice and check the Internet to order pantaloons.
Vermeer hasn’t been at my home for a week. He shows for work a few days but I ban him from the register. He sits and dices tomatoes with Keisha, telling her bawdy tales of Delft. “Delft sound like the shit,” she says.
“Oh, you bet your black ass. Everybody thinks we didn’t have fun. We jacked it up. Every night. All night. All-night-long.”
I fume. “We need ten containers of tomatoes by noon, people.”
“Dude, chill with your tomatoes. You’ll get ’em.”
Vermeer winks at me. “That Milkmaid had nothing on Keisha.”
One night two weeks after Vermeer met Mariella and moved his dimpled chin in with her, I hear someone jimmying at my lock. They succeed and fall in. This person is also singing ‘La Bamba’ in the worst depitched, impastoed voice I’ve ever heard. Shirtless, Vermeer lies on the carpet and swings his legs in the air like he’s on an exercise bike. Periodically, he farts.
“Did you get kicked out?”
He can’t hear me. He’s too busy inflating his stomach to fourth trimester proportions. He cries and wipes his gross schnoz. “My father could make his gut even bigger.”
I curl up yesterday’s newspaper and smack it on my thigh. “I’m not taking you back.”
“Do you have any bubbles?”
“I really feel like blowing bubbles. Like blowing big bubbles that grow thorns and explode in your ass.”
“What did I ever do to you?”
He laughs and slams the floor. Then his wobbly blue eyes go straight as an arrow and he huffs, “I can’t imagine you ever having sex.”
“Yeah? Neither can I, because I don’t ever have it.”
He examines his fingernails. “You aren’t missing much. A pitcher of margaritas takes longer, but it’s in the same ballpark.”
“Look I don’t need sex ed from you. I was married, I’ve been around. I grew up in the age of multiple male orgasm.”
He goes into the kitchen. “There’s no Corona,” I yell.
“I know, I know. I’m seeing if my bulgur wheat is still here.”
“Boy, you don’t waste time.”
“Correction—I don’t have others waste my time.”
Vermeer stands in front of me, which is unsettling because I’m a foot taller. It’s like facing a midget with a beard. I could sob for him. The prickly hairs, the hooked nose. But he is leagues ahead of me. Any sobbing would be for myself. I look down at him in a panic. “Who are you?”
“Give me your hands.” I hold them out like they are claws. He grabs them and brings them to his face. “Where have these puppies been?”
“What?” I cough, though I suppose it’s rhetorical.
The freeway had been made to twist over our town’s river and the overhead flood Iamps cast a diffuse light on the columns of vegetation growing up the beige stanchions below.
We are on the bike path and someone almost hits us. “Asshole,” Vermeer yells.
“Why are we here?” I plead.
“Because rivers heal.”
We come to a sandy bank and take off our shoes and roll up our pants. “Get in,” he orders. The stream is cold with riverstones the size of medicine balls. Vermeer gets in but just up to his ankles. The water is up to my waist and he is loving it. “Further, further,” he yells.
The water laps against my nipples. Because I’m turned on, I blush. “Did I ever tell you I couldn’t swim?”
“Go on, you’re almost there.”
I shout and flap my arms, flipping double birds at the passing semis on the freeway. Carefree. That is what I’ve been trying to become for years, maybe all my life.
My foot slips on the grim of a stone and the current takes me. Vermeer cries but I can’t turn, I can’t do anything but slap the water. In a flash I think of all the things I won’t miss—changing the price for a Nacho Grande in the system, Eminem, happening upon a couple taking wedding photos, brussell sprouts and whenever corporate visits and the chubby guy with the goatee spreads his lips and tells me the truth hurts. Why isn’t Vermeer on the list? And why isn’t he rescuing me? I must be underwater because I can’t hear anything, and the pain has fallen away.
Yesterday, Mariella stopped by. She heard about me leaving and brought a homemade apple pie. We sat in my bare kitchen full of boxes and she told me she was pregnant. I didn’t know what to say. I finally decided upon, “Are you happy?”
She spun a fork and then grew a smile. “He was a prick, but he gave me what I wanted. I know he’d never last here. He’s a big city guy.
“Men are weird. Children, I think, easy.”
“If there’s anything I can do…”
“What?” she snaps. “You’re traveling around the country. You can’t offer anything.”
“I can bring you mementoes.”
Casey, the kid who found me on the shore, received a special citizen’s medal of honor. Seeing as he was rail thin I gave him a year long pass for free burrito supremes. The next day I quit Taco Hell and bought a coast to coast Greyhound ticket.
Vermeer’s painting is still missing. Let me know if you find it.