Of Priceless Art Found at a Highway Rest Stop
by Frank Morris
Remember Huddling at Willington Gut and the River Tyne, the priceless J.M.W. Turner painting cut from its frame at London’s Tate Gallery in 1982 and missing ever since? Well, I found it. Or rather - I know where it is. It’s hanging on a wall in the dining room of a Sbarro’s at a rest stop off the New Jersey Turnpike.
Here’s how it happened – I was driving to a wedding in Western Pennsylvania last month, and pulled into a service area for a quick meal. I took a seat in the dining room with my tray of cheesed cannelloni and garlic knots, looked haphazardly to my left and there it was – the long-lost and thought-destroyed Turner painting, hanging just beside my head in a ten-dollar black plastic frame.
I pushed away my food and nearly fell over my chair as I stood to see it.
The scene of a barge-clogged Newcastle waterway was alive with a hallucinogenic explosion of contrasts, a smoke-drenched splay of coal tar black and seeping blues rounding over ruddy pinks and roasting yellows.
I leaned close, looking for brushstrokes and, in bottom left corner, found the painting’s most delicate touches—an elusive pair of 19th century lovers picnicking at the riverbank. There they sat, hidden buds of passion sharing cakes on the grass, untouched and oblivious to the industrial tumult of the congested waterway.
God! I thought. What a place for a Turner! Have others noticed it and not told the world? I considered whom I would alert first. My lover? My former lover? My former lover’s father? You? Thinking of telling someone else about it revealed a deeper existential aspect. Who am I to ruin the mystery of the stolen Turner painting?
I looked over my shoulder. A heavy man in a custodian’s blue and black and tawny eyeglasses sat sipping a cigarette at a table in the far corner. His back was to the wall and there was nothing on his table but a soft pack of Winstons and a lidless gunmetal lighter. His opaque gaze dampened my arousal, suggesting I best keep the secret to myself.
I returned to the painting and stood lost in it for another long moment before leaving. Without a word I abandoned my meal and walked out into the food court, wandering in an enlightened stupor as if I’d been hit in the head with a metal rake. Everything I saw was now fraught with possibility. It was then mine eyes met with those of Botticelli-faced Latina working the register of a T.J. Cinnamon’s. I walked directly to her, past a line of patrons and extended my hand, whereupon she climbed the counter and leapt ceremoniously into my arms. Patrons gasped and several clapped as I carried her out to my Impala and cleared the passengers seat of refuse.
We talked there in the car for a long while, about who we were and what we wanted. I thought of telling her the secret, until a small man in an embroidered shirt appeared at the front of the car.
“I’m sorry,” she said. We shared a gentle kiss and she went back to work.
From there I carried on south and then west, driving unhurriedly through the night with the Turner stark in my mind.
The wedding was an unfussy, acoustic affair during which I drank dark liquor alone at the perimeter. Former dear friends and their suspecting spouses observed me unbuoyant with some concern. I assured them all was fine, and that my life’s station met their expectations, but in truth the enormity of my rest stop happenchance was weighing on me.
Later, where well-wettened weddings allow for a moral crepuscularity in its waning hours, I was engaged by a much older woman, a formerly dazzling widow of wealth and stature dressed for a final, formal attempt at fleshly beauty. Past a sharply cut cobalt dress and sapphire jewelry, her crepe jowls were primed with a buttery maquillage of pink and orange not unlike a shade of Turner. We looked at each other’s faces like this, wordless until she told me to escort her to her suite. I went, shamefully, though capably.
I mention it now because I suppose I told her about the painting at some point during the evening. I can’t be certain what I said, or that she believed or even considered my story, but I sense that I did tell her the secret.
Well if I didn’t, I have now. I’m sorry, and I apologize. All I ask is that from here onwards, in good faith, you keep the secret of the stolen Turner painting to yourself.
About the Author
Frank Morris enjoys Melville and Van Halen.