In April, Baltimore author Justin Sirois (So Say the Waiters) provided the opening text for Contours of a Thief – story two in our Renoir Returns story challenge. Now we return to the start of that story, to see how it unfolded. Below, read the story as it played out from the beginning, with thanks to the multiple authors who contributed to it. Now, we are seeking a final chapter, to pull the story together.
By Justin Sirois
For thirty-eight years of its secret life, the painting hung in her study, above the hearth that was never lit—sitting there waiting for her cat’s tail dust the frame’s intricate cursive. The study door was always locked. No guests allowed. No husband around. There was a desk and hundreds of books on bookshelves and an austere, but hand-me-down leather chair for reading in. Curtains blocked nearly all daylight.
She, the bandit, would sip tea and stare beyond the painting’s warm foliage. How the gesture of breeze transported her. Prisms of pastel smeared beyond Eden. Men and women walked along the shoreline. Basking and kissing. The bandit sipped and reached into her pocket with her free hand, fingering the study door’s key. She slid the key out and brought her fingers to her lips, kissing the back of her hand.
The cat curled around her ankle—dusting her off too. The painting hummed colorful. Sang inside the study. It was, in a way, a prison. A secret that could only be enjoyed when she fantasied about telling it. The people in the painting walked away.
By Jan Ryan
Honestly, you didn’t protect me well. You let me go out with anyone, the sick woman, anyone, acting like it would be a wonderful experience for me. The patriarch said I was the best thing that ever happened to them. And then I was with them. They were my people. How were you to know that the prettiest one would end up alone and impoverished, discarded in a box of knickknacks at a flea market? Well let me assure you I witnessed plenty of secret adventures before I became too much of a liability.
By Gabriella Russo
I remember the night that bandit came into the apartment, stealthily creeping among the Saints first and then making her way to me. She overlooked the beauty in the intricacy of their portraits and focused in on the vivid, beautiful brushstrokes in my foreground. She looked at me with envy, as if she wished she could be engrossed in my very canvas and that is when she stripped me from my home, carefully tip toeing out of Miss May’s apartment.
By Julia Fountain
The thieves will get their money, just as they always do. The police want to protect the people, but not the artist, nor their art.
135 years later pieces will hang on the cluttered walls of museums, boasting names of the histories renowned artists. Millions of eyes will trace the various strokes and contours, but little do they know that beneath the varnish and oil may simply be a rendition, a mere copy of an original.
The art is still being appreciated, the legacy sustained; no one got hurt.
By Jan Ryan
Yeah, Saidie May would fondly remember her time drinking in Mallorca and her family’s blind eye to it, making and collecting art. No one knew anything she didn’t tell him or her. If she told them how would she remember? How would they remember? Juan Gris’s Bottle and Glass painting could have reminded her of men’s smoky Spanish chats in that independent period in her life but were the spillage tremors an earthquake or a reaction to really good wine? At home wine tasted like a chemical brew.
By Jan Ryan
There is only an appearance of too little. Everything fits together simply. Some of the paintings are needlessly complicated. Black, white and primary colors. They fit. They do it all the time but no one has to create disorder. Timing matters.
The idiot had me restored. That means dirty original paint was removed and repainted. Won’t future generations love that. Makes my reds boil but that is individualism.
By Jan Ryan
Maybe you can paint. Maybe you can’t paint but Saidie May could paint. This is one of her landscapes.
For decades the May family repeated that the theft goes back to 1930s Mallorca. Family members visited the Mediterranean many times with one eye watching for the painting. Rooms were unlocked and cellars searched on a hunch. As soon as a guest named May checked into a hotel word went out, “Hide the painting!” not that anyone had any idea who had it.
By Jan Ryan
The children knew that their father had done something terrible and that their mother had also done something terrible to keep the family together. With teenage friends they pieced together that their father had probably had an affair, a serious affair, with an expensive prostitute who gave him that small painting as a celebration of their love and that he had had the nerve to hang it behind a secret panel in his man cave library and that their mother had gotten away with killing the woman.
The maid was living with a grown child in Virginia. She found a cleaning job to put some cash in her pocket. She had a feeling the Renoir belonged in the master bedroom so bracing for a lecture on how lowbrow her taste in art was she hung it there. The woman she cleaned for dropped her towel when she saw it. Never one to pause and think she said, “Holy sh*t. WTF. How? I suppose you want money.” It was not the response the maid expected but she nodded. Wahoo! The grandkids were going to college.
I don’t know where the he-maniac went or why the she-maniac bought me back. A grown daughter eventually pretended she was returning Nazi looted art. Couldn’t anyone leave me in a bathroom or closet at the museum? Video cameras. Bag searches. They help and they hurt. I will now probably be hanging for centuries at the museum like a vampire bat. All we have are our adventures. If there is ever an opportunity to loan me out, descendants of those barflies in Majorca have been expecting to see me.