Carl caught up with them in the Berkshires. Lila wanted to see some art and JJ, not crazy about art, just wanted a change of scenery. They went from the mountains of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to the old people and snobby New Yorkers in Williamstown. JJ watched them with growing ire.
“Yeah, we’ve been staying at JJ’s,” Carl said.
JJ tuned in to the catch-up-on-the-news chatter. “Both of you?”
“Yeah. She’s house sitting for you right now.”
“So, you’re back together?” Lila, JJ noticed, seemed less than thrilled by the news of Anne’s return into Carl’s life. Or, she was less than thrilled by Carl’s apparent happiness over this development.
“The change of scenery helps. Who knows when the novelty wears off? But the sex…” Here Carl pounded his fist into his other hand, repeatedly. “Let’s just say that my cup runneth over.”
“We can do without the visuals,” Lila said.
“Are you guys in my bed,” JJ asked.
“Speaking of visuals,” Carl said. “This Whistler’s Mother is completely overrated. It’s just a painting of his old mother. Why all the hubbub?”
Lila said, “The image has been co-opted throughout the years as an example of the good old American values of hearth and home.”
“And stern old ladies,” Carl said.
“They used it to sell war bonds! It’s a good example of, once you put it out there, it’s not yours anymore.”
“Meaning, it doesn’t matter what the artist meant, or didn’t mean. Shit, it could just be a very good painting of his mother. But, once it’s out there, it’s open season for interpretation.”
“And he insisted it meant nothing,” Lila said. “It was just a painting of his mother and should be appreciated as such.”
“Poor naïve Whistler,” Carl said.
JJ had slipped back into the antechamber with the painting. He wanted another look for himself and couldn’t stand art talk. Lila took one art history class years ago and she was a goddamn expert. And Carl. Carl would hold forth on any topic like he wasn’t a bagel baker with a shitty marriage. JJ stood behind some people seated on a bench and beheld Whistler’s Mother. There was a certain…dignity? Austerity? He didn’t know the word but there was a power there. What made a painting into art? Why do some paintings make the leap and some remain flat and lifeless? JJ didn’t know. But, this Whistler’s Mother felt like art. He took his phone out and got a couple pictures before a guard appeared at his elbow.
“Sir, no pictures,” she said and touched his camera arm. Simultaneously, an older guard standing near the painting added to the whole room, “No pictures allowed, folks.”
Several people glanced at JJ and looked away as if not wanting to stare at a facial deformity. They were too polite to cluck their tongues but they didn’t need to. The room was thick with the disapproval of this uncouth nincompoop. Whistler’s Mother just sat there, placidly disappointed, like a sour parent whose kid has taken up facial piercings. JJ slunk away to the hall.
“I got a picture of her,” he said to Lila and Carl.
“You can’t do that,” Lila said. “That’s like stealing.”
“I think it’s bad for the painting,” Carl said.
JJ walked past and kept going down the hall. He felt like a heel, sick with exposure to the world of nature and people. His closest friends, his girlfriend(!), were conspiring with museum guards to make him raw and frustrated. Inviting Carl had been a bad idea. The trip itself had been a bad idea. They couldn’t even get out of New England! Not even two months into his grand road trip across the USA and he felt like guzzling a quart of Jack Daniels. His mouth watered and he froze. A new determination came to life in his gut and head. He stared into the distance as people moved around him like they moved around a pillar. Then he turned back, poker-faced, to subtly speed their departure. Cooperation, for the time being, was crucial to his new plan.
“Let’s get a suite at the nicest place in town. With the lottery money,” he said, to stop the polite protests.
“I thought you were mad,” Lila said.
“Nope,” JJ said. “I just want to get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Carl said.
They all smiled and linked arms, the best of friends, and headed to the parking lot.
Whistler’s Mother? She couldn’t care less.