For such a small city, it was a large museum. And in a small room of the large museum, a small painting hung on a wall, a portrait that caught the eye, and owned the large heart, of a small boy, age 10.
The boy, Waldo, reached up and plucked the painting, tucked it inside his wool overcoat, and exited the room. His cap pulled low, Waldo walked down a long hallway, footsteps rubber sole quiet, cool as a cue ball rolling on green felt to sink the eight ball, out the front door, down the marble steps. Waldo took a moment to turn and face the doorway, nestled between Corinthian columns, waved his thanks to the large museum and trundled home through the snow, through the gray January Saturday afternoon, the painting hugged to his heart.
Arriving home, he scooted upstairs, to his room, took a framed photo of a baseball player from the wall, and replaced it with the small painting. He hung his coat in the closet, kicked off his shoes, lay atop his bed, fingers laced behind his head, crossed his ankles and beheld his prize possession hanging on the facing wall, a Vermeer. Even in the sullen daylight, it seemed to glow, seemed to have a fire behind it. Waldo licked his lips and savored the moment.
Waldo owned other prize possessions. A baseball glove autographed by a World Series champion. A silver dollar struck in 1892, near-mint condition. A fossilized shark tooth, probably, Waldo estimated, a million years old, possibly a billion. He basked in the glow of this new prize possession, the prize that placed all the other prizes, grand as they were in their own right, far away, barely on the horizon line. Except for one pee break, this is how he devoted the rest of the afternoon, until he was called for dinner (as it would happen, his favorite: roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, Jell-O salad, and a slice of apple pie a la mode). Then back upstairs, on the bed, a lamp turned on, to luxuriate in his trophy until bedtime.
That night he slept soundly, dreamt vividly.
The Sunday paper's lead headline screamed the theft. The museum's director placed the blame on what he speculated must be a skilled team of international art hijackers. A fire crackling away, keeping January at bay, Mr. Martins snapped the paper and harrumphed regarding the heist, fuming that Peters was a bloody fool, it was most likely the work of an amateur, one who loved the painting, and simply must possess it. He further opined that the blithering blockheads would never see it again. Waldo read the funnies, both marveling at and repelled by the tawdry images and vulgar colors vomited onto pulp paper as he patiently awaited a breakfast of pancakes and sausage before church. After church, home, he renewed his friendship with the Vermeer.
The painting transported Waldo, to another time, another place, where women were damsels fair. The small square of oil paint had light, had depth, had solidity, had atmosphere. A baseball glove, even one signed by a champ, paled, shriveled, turned to dust. A breeze blew the dust away.
Monday, after school, Waldo beelined to the library and withdrew a volume on Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). The librarian tsked what a shame the robbery was as she stamped his card. "Seems as if nothing is safe any longer, nothing is sacred." Waldo mumbled, "Yes, ma'am." As he left, she thought, "What an exemplary young fellow."
Once home, Waldo proceeded to study his hero. Within a few months he became a little professor on the topic of Vermeer, and of the Northern Renaissance, getting some good mileage out the subjects for a history paper. "A+! Now we see what you are capable of when you buckle down and put on your thinking cap! I expect more work of this high caliber."
The walls of Waldo's room were so cluttered that the Vermeer could hang there, on full display, with impunity, brazen in its disregard of discovery. Mum and Pup rarely entered, and only briefly at that: a summons to a meal, an outing. The maid, fresh off the boat Olga, wouldn't know a Vermeer from a paint by number.
Years later, at university, in philosophy class, Waldo informed the class that, in his view, theft could be justified if the object stolen were profoundly beloved by the thief, and said thief had no other alternative to own it. This sparked an animated debate, a lot of "define your terms," as tweedy Professor Kimball sat on the corner of his oak desk, puffed his pipe, bemused.
Waldo went on to a successful law career, so much so that he took an early retirement as he approached 40.
Pup had died, heart attack, years ago; then Mum, who merely faded away. Waldo maintained the town house, but now owned a lakefront property where he spent most of his time. The chalet was approachable by boat or by a rugged strip of dirt road. It was by Jeep that he first brought Placid to his lake aerie.
She was much younger than he, just 19 to his 38, the cashier at her parents' market in town. She wasn't any sort of Ivy Leaguer, no more than a high school degree followed by a year of junior college. But he was struck breathless upon seeing her.
He attempted a little chit-chat, as best he could, while fumbling with his wallet. He drove home starry-eyed.
A few days later, Sunday, while wandering about the hamlet's back streets, hoping to cross her path, he spied Placid on the screened-in porch, knitting. Waldo gathered his courage and hollered, "Say, don't I know you?"
Placid glanced up, smiled. Her smile, even from a distance, even from behind the cold metal screen on an autumn afternoon, kindled a flame, shooed a cloud from the face of the sun. He felt so young, so weak, so strong, so crazy. His skull held a swarm of butterflies and bumblebees. He felt as if he were 10, in a museum, gaping at a painting.
She invited him onto the porch, and they spent the rest of the afternoon talking, awkwardly on his part at first. She was smooth as silk. He asked her to dinner, the local steakhouse.
Over dinner, he studied the honey hair, the jade eyes, the slim wrist, the mystical aura of calm. He couldn't believe it.
A week later, in the Jeep, they bounced along the dirt road to the chalet. Once inside, in the living room, she saw the painting, and went to it. A hand above her heart, she gasped, "My gosh! That woman! She looks... just like... me!"