The Romance of Hunch and Lexi - Part 2 - “Lexi’s Painting”
The Starfish Hotel. T-Rex Goofy Golf was on its left. Shark Head Souvenirs was on its right, featuring gigantic shark jaws swallowing the entrance. Back in the ‘70s, it all was along Highway 90 in Gulfport, Mississippi. One block west of The Starfish was the Waffle House, famous for its buttery grits and occasional toilet backups. Two blocks east was a Pack-a-Sack convenience store. One block east was an old McDonald’s with a vintage sign that in 1976 said “66 Billion Sold” but in 1978 said “75 Billion Sold.”
“Git a load a’ dat,” said Hunch to his brother JoJo as they passed McDonald’s on their way to The Starfish. “Dey’s sellin’ some hamburger. Dem Big Mac’s perty darn’d good. I finally got dat Big Mac jingle down. ‘Two ol’ beef patties, special souce, pickers, un-yuns on a Sesame Street bun.’” “We ain’t goin’ der t’night, Hunch,” said JoJo, “and you behave ya’sef for just one night and stay put at the family’s r’union. We’z cookin’ out.” “I bet ‘ya momma don’t order none a’ dat ho-tel ‘tater salad t’night,” said Hunch, “She ain’t touched ‘tater salad since the family r’union at the Starfish Ho-tel last year. Remember dat? Ev’rbody got the runs and momma blamed it on their ‘tater salad. Remember we got home and momma called da’ guy at da’ ho-tel and told ‘im, ‘We’all got da shits on your damn ‘tater salad. We should sue da bejesus outta’ya.’ The ho-tel guy told mamma, ‘We’z gonna send yew one great big bottle a’ Kaopectate.’ Momma’ said she’d take it ‘cause … ya’ ni-ver know. Ain’t that funny? They mailed us a gigantic Kaopectate. Remimber dat big green bottle?” “Came in handy,” said Jojo, “when Uncle Perl and Bud got off on dat armadilla an’ cook it up out back.” “Hey, Jojo,” said Hunch, “Let’s stop at dat Pack-a-Sack an’ git us some Funyons.”
The brothers pulled into the Pack-a-Sack and bought five Economy Size bags of Funyons, eight tins of Skoal, three six-packs of Billy Beer, a six-pack of orange Fanta and one pack of Belair cigarettes. Hunch bought a 25-cent pot of plastic Chinese Snowballs for Lexi. They’d been dating since their night at The Ace of Clubs in Pascagoula last month. “I sho’ hope the Reverence Peachtreee don’t show up a-gin like he did last year,” said Hunch, “He ain’t no fun when he comes ‘cause he always talks ‘bout Jesus. I believe in Jesus! Ya’ gotta believe in Jesus. But I don’t wanna talk ‘bout it all da time. I thought he scare the lights outta Lexi at Th’ Ace of Clubs when he ask ‘er if she believe in Jesus. But that Father Bourgeois set ’im straight sayin’ somethin’ ‘bout believing in Jesus and the universe at the same time and Lexi wanted to paint it. Dunno what that’s ‘bout. But she was cute after dat. Should ‘a invited Father Bourgois to the r’union and tell Lexi he’s coming. Maybe she’ll come.” “You crazy, Hunch,” said JoJo, “dat priest ain’t coming’ ‘ere just ‘cause you want’im to. He don’t give a rat’s ass ‘bout you and Lexi. I bet’ya Peachtree ain’t comin’ either. Last year he ate dat ‘tater salad too and he’aint preach da next Sunday. All dat Jesus talk didn’t didn’t do ‘im no good, and momma didn’t give ‘im no Kaopectate. He aint’ comin’agin. Bet y’ass he ain’t.”
When Hunch and JoJo arrived at the Starfish, the lobby was packed with New Orleanians, checking in for post-graduation vacations. The Starfish was more expensive than the nearby Alamo Plaza Courts and even the Howard Johnson’s, so it didn’t get too many partying teens filling the bathtubs with jungle juice. At the front desk, Hunch stared right at the receptionist, a skinny towheaded redneck sporting a light blue necktie and blazer, with a yellow STARFISH embroidered on each lapel. Hunch’s baritone twang plowed through the lobby’s chatter. “You’s da guy dat sent us dat Kaopectate last year ‘cause a y’all’s crap-ass ‘tater salad!” It was an obnoxious innocence, like a playful challenge, spoken while munching out of an Economy Size pack of Funyons. The crowd quieted to listen. The receptionist wasn’t the guy. He hadn’t a clue. He gave Hunch a five-second stare-down and coldly asked, “What’cha name, sir?”
Lexi was hiding in a lounge chair in the lobby’s corner, behind the crowds, planning to surprise Hunch. But his loud words embarrassed her. She bowed her head, hiding her face, hoping he wouldn’t see her. But no sooner had Hunch gotten his room key and turned around, he saw her. He smiled like a Viking eyeing a pot of gold. “Hey!...Lexi!” he yelled over the crowd. About a dozen nosey New Orleanians stared at her. Passing through the onlookers, Hunch went to Lexi and gave her a big wet Funyons kiss, leaving a broth of onion powder and Monosodium Glutamate on her left cheek. “I gotcha these a here Chinese Snowballs from the Pack-a-Sack,” pulling them out of a fast-ripping grocery bag, spilling the Funyons, Billy Beer, Fanta and Skoal tins on the lobby floor. Her blue eyes widened like icicles in a deep freeze, as her Icelandic blond hair took on the aura of snow on the roof of a pretty little red schoolhouse.
Father Bourgeois was also blended in the lobby’s crowd, but not because of either Hunch or Lexi. He was visiting relatives vacationing from New Orleans. Neither Hunch nor Lexi noticed him as he was dressed in lay clothes. But he heard Hunch. He walked over to the couple and said, “I remember you two from The Ace of Clubs last month.” The crowds, by then, were going about their business. A few talked about not ordering potato salad. Lexi warmed up, like an ice cube on the beach. “Father,” she said, “I’m so sorry about Hunch. He shouldn’t have said that to that poor man over there. Hunch, tell the Father you’re sorry.” “What’d I do!? I ain’t done nothin’. I just tol’da guy he’s da one who sent us da Kaopectate. Want some Funyons, Father?” Hunch the held the bag under Father’s chin.
That evening, Hunch’s family, aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins and cousins one and twice removed were grilling out in the courtyard near the pool. But Lexi’s mind was elsewhere, in deep thought. She looked over to the pool area and saw Father Bourgeois sitting at one of the round tables under an umbrella, talking with relatives. She walked over, pulled him aside and said, “Father, can I show you something?” She continued, “I have to get it from my room. Can you meet me in the lobby in a few minutes?” Father left the pool area to wait in the lobby. Lexi arrived with a rectangular canvas wrapped in tarpaulin. Unveiling the canvas, she revealed an unfinished oil painting. Father Bourgeois was entranced, as if an ecstatic spell had been cast upon him – in a wholesome way. His eyes widened, and he smiled broadly. Lexi said it was a “study.”
Lexi did her “study” on Deer Island, she told Father. It featured a perspective from the base a loblolly pine tree, up the trunk, through the branches and pine needles and into the sun. But the sun didn’t just illuminate the tree. The tree seemed to illuminate the sun, as if to reach out to it with light emanating from its branches and pine needles. The fine details of the trunk’s bark, at the base, were crafted in hues of dark and light brown, variants of purple and gray, and hints of dark blue and pink. As Father’s eye was drawn up the tree from the trunk’s base, the bark lost some detail, merging into less definition and more light, though in different configurations of the same colors. The browns were heavier at the base but gave way, somewhat, to purples, dark blues and subtle pinks, reaching upward and into its branches. Deep blue-green pine needles reached into the sun’s brilliant yellow. The pine seemed to bless the sun with its deep blue-green translucence disappearing into brightness. Lexi managed to mix hues of bright yellow – almost silver-white in places – into the sun that were so radiant they seemed to blind the viewer’s eyes. Lexi’s “study” was as tactile as it was visual. Her sun made the viewer feel its heat, though the blue-to-green sensation of pine needles passing from tree-to-sun had the counter-effect of cooling the viewer. Father Bourgeois experienced it. The painting was felt as much as it was seen. It was a magical work. “So we are capable of such beauty,” thought Father Bourgeois to himself, “This is what St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine were talking about. And Plato.”
The priest marveled the mystic splendor of Lexi’s “study.” He said to her, “Tell me about it.” She said, “It’s called AND.” Father looked perplexed, but she explained. “Remember last month when Hunch and I were at The Ace of Clubs, and I asked you if you believe in God or Jesus or in universal humanity? You asked me why I used the word ‘OR’ twice, and you told me to replace the word ‘OR’ with the word ‘AND.’ I thought about it that night. I told Hunch that, when I paint my most beautiful painting, I’ll call it AND. But I’m not sure I want to call it AND. I was thinking of calling it JESUS. I’m not religious, Father. I don’t know a thing about Jesus other than he’s all about AND because you told me. I saw his picture in an old family Bible from Iceland and his eyes looked into my soul, like he saw what I wanted to paint before I saw it myself.” Father Bourgeois listened on. “I’m not religious, Father. I wasn’t raised that way. But when I saw the picture of Jesus, I just knew he saw the AND because he is the AND that I wanted to paint before I saw it. Jesus saw this painting before I painted it. When Hunch took me on the picnic to Deer Island, I took my oil paints and all. On that island, I saw what Jesus saw in me. I saw a pine tree talking to God. It blessing God with the beauty God gave it. The tree was giving back what it had been given. See Father,” said Lexi, pointing to the pines, “they bless the sun and the sky. That’s the meaning of AND. It’s JESUS. I just wanted to show it you. I’ll show it to Hunch too, but he’s having fun right now.” Lexi gently wrapped her painting in the tarpaulin, like Mary wrapping Jesus in swaddling clothes, and walked away.