David Alan Jones
Simon Labree entered the High Museum of Art Atlanta by walking through the southeastern wall. In his hand he carried a small device of his own invention called the Quantum Coherence Disrupter. By essentially causing a man-sized group of atoms to doubt their true phase, Simon was able to pass through them while they tried to decide if they should exist here or somewhere else along a fourth dimensional continuum.
That was the easy part. Choosing which pieces to steal was far more difficult.
The National Gallery of Art’s exhibit, which some wag had decided to call, Vagabond Masters since it was a traveling show, had arrived a week before. Since then Simon had devoted at least three hours a day, every day, to touring the great works. He spent that time in near rapture, devouring the breathtaking collection, choosing out the two he would take, and pacing off the route to his prizes.
The silent alarm tripped the moment he stepped inside, and cameras were surely following his progress. Time was short.
Simon chose a Bellini and a Titan – the master and the pupil who would surpass him – showcased together in one display. His hands shook when he took them down, for he was touching greatness.
Escape was easier than the crime itself. Simon passed through several closed businesses to enter his ground floor room in a bed and breakfast three blocks away. No one saw him leave. No one saw him return.
# # #
The next day Simon went home to his low-rent apartment in Macon. He refused to even look at the paintings for a month while he watched for reactions to his high profile theft.
The art world was agog. Theories abounded, but none of them involved a part-time inventor and full-time small engine mechanic living in Macon, Georgia.
When the time was right, Simon pulled the Bellini from a dark corner far back in his bedroom closet, unwrapped the linen he had bound it in, and stood it on an easel in his tiny living room. He locked the doors, shut off the phone, and blocked up the windows with cardboard – a shame really, the Bellini deserved natural light, but he couldn’t risk discovery. Using floodlights he lit the beautiful scene of The Madonna with Child, and then stood before his own blank canvas, brush in hand.
He worked seven hours straight, running to the toilet only when his need was too great to ignore. He did not eat. He did not drink. He painted.
By hour five Simon had begun to despair. His colors were more than a match for the great Italian – modern paints were better in almost every way – but color was not what he lacked, and he knew it.
Simon lacked skill. Not just skill – innate skill. In nearly thirty years of practice ha had learned everything a man might glean from applying paint to canvas. But what he could never teach himself, nor even garner from a great master, was true talent. His every brushstroke seemed misplaced. His very approach to the canvas ran at right angles to the masterpiece he sought so hard to reproduce.
Simon’s painting was good. It might even have fooled a lay observer. But it was no Bellini.
“Bastard!” he cried at last, throwing his colors across the room. He began pacing, and switched on the television to block out his self-loathing, his talentless rambling thoughts, and his jealous rage.
A woman was speaking on CNN. The caption below her name read: Special Collections Curator, National Gallery of Art.
“…theft has left the owners at a financial loss, but worse it has deprived the world of the chance to appreciate masterworks that are truly one of a kind.”
A red fugue as akin to anger as a firecracker is to a nuclear bomb descended over Simon Labree. It blotted out all sight, all sound, all conscious thought. It caught him up like a toothpick in a whirlwind.
Simon found himself standing before the Bellini with no memory of arriving there, and even less of squeezing a tube of rouge red across the top of the painting, smearing it, blotting out the Madonna and the Child with his large, callused hands – the hands of a mechanic, a common laborer, not the fine, delicate tools of an artist.
When he realized the import of what he had done, Simon backed away in horror. He had meant to return them – paint them and return them. Not this. He had never intended this.
Simon stood that way, staring for long minutes at the ruin he had created, willing it to be undone.
But it could not be undone.
Had he actually thought to copy Bellini? The shear audacity of turning his hand to that iconoclast’s work now soured Simon’s stomach.
By dint of will he forced his gaze back to the masterpiece his jealousy had destroyed. Exquisite fragments of the original work shone through between the irregular swirls and splotches of red, as if the Italian master’s genius could, marred as it was, still outmatch even Simon’s egregious attack.
Where Bellini had touched the canvas: rapture.
Where Simon had touched it: ruin.
Simon wept, not for the prison sentence which surely lay ahead of him, nor even for the loss of this great piece of art – it was tragic, what he had done, but there were many other masterworks in the world. Simon wept instead for the realization that he would never, in his miserable life, produce anything so vivid, so inspiring, or so beautiful as that which he had destroyed.