What is love? Poets, philosophers, painters and pundits have tried for countless generations to help us understand the human condition, the crux of which in most people’s lives is centered on the concept of love. We are born to love our mother. We learn to love our father, and our siblings. In a perfect world, we grow up surrounded by love. From this base, we learn that the word “love” is used more broadly and generously than just to make references to familial relationships. We love our dogs. We love coffee. We love the sunset. And so it goes. As we broaden our concepts, our original understanding of the word becomes shallower.
And thus it is that we lose our original, pure understanding of love. Even when we talk of relationships with people, we are too quick to apply that label—love—to a relationship that might actually only be infatuation. And the difference between infatuation and love is the difference between a flash flood and the continual flow of the mighty Mississippi River.
My twenty years as a journalist have left me jaded. I have seen too many things that reveal the tragic, desperate side of life. But once in a while, a story—or an encounter—gives me hope.
Such was the situation on the morning of July 20, 1888 in Virginia City, Nevada. I had just finished printing out that week’s edition of the Herald. News was slow. The silver mines were tapped out, and I knew that within two years, Virginia City would be lucky to boast of one tenth the number of residents that it did today. What that would do to the Herald’s circulation was like the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast: Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. The days of the Herald and this editor were numbered.
I was mulling over my plight and that of the newspaper while sitting behind my heavy oaken desk. I watched the traffic go by as I considered walking across the street for another cup of coffee at Josie’s when suddenly a very large cowboy came to the door. I saw his figure pass by the glass window and push on the door. He was very large, a muscular, tanned specimen of what the West produces best—weathered, magnificent men. As he stepped quickly through my front door, the little bell rang above the door. He turned to look at it, then turned back to me.
I raised myself from my wooden chair and held out my hand.
“Horatio Asperger, at your service,” I said. He took my hand and shook it. I could feel years of range work in the calluses on his mighty hands. His faded red shirt sleeve was rolled up, showing a slight scar running up his arm, and I fantasized that he had received it while fighting Comanches, although it was more likely he had gotten it from barbed wire or something else a little more mundane, and therefore practicable.
“Gilroy Jones, sir.” I motioned for him to take a seat and he quickly took off his weathered 10-gallon Stetson, holding it in his lap. The act of taking it off caused a fine sheen of dust to rise from the hat and I watched a cloud of particles rise in the sunlight that shone through the glass of the window behind him.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Jones?” I asked. “Are you interested in taking out an advertisement, or perhaps an obituary? Maybe you have a story you would like my fine newspaper to recount for you?”
I looked at his worn face with the light brown mustache that swelled and dipped above his upper lip like some hairy Venetian gondola. His mouth was a slight horizontal cut into his chiseled face, and I watched as he took a breath to answer my question.
He opened his mouth and then closed it, and I quickly surmised that he was at a loss for words. He looked at some indeterminate place behind me, his mind more on the words he wanted to say, than on what he was looking at.
“I find on occasion that when words escape me, it is better to begin with an anecdote. Perhaps the story of how you came to be where you are,” I said. I smiled at him courteously. He nodded nervously in reply.
“My name is Gilroy Jones,” he said again.
“I believe that we have already established that fact, Mr. Jones. Please proceed.”
“I’m a hard man, and I’ve lived a hard life,” he said. “I grew up on the Rio Grande in south Texas. When I was sixteen, I done come out West seeking my fortune. Hell, I learn’t soon enough that that there ain’t no fortune to be made.
“But I fell in love with the West. Learned to make a living in Colorado on a cattle ranch, and spent plenty of hours in the saddle punching doggies. Got in trouble with a man about a paycheck and shot my first man at the age of 19. Since then, I figure I put my share of men in the ground. More than I can count, I reckon.”
I looked at the man and realized that he was very likely telling the truth. I have heard the truth told and I have heard countless lies. And one of the things you learn early on as a journalist is the difference between the two. This rang true, and it chilled me.
“Go…go on,” I stammered.
“Bout three years ago, I found her. And she changed my life. I put away the gun and became an honest, decent man once again.”
“You found her?” I echoed.
“The girl of my dreams.” His grey eyes bore into mine for a moment before he smiled slightly. I relaxed with the slight motion.
“Ahh, true love. So now you are ready to announce your nuptials?” I said.
“You’re ready to be wed? Married?”
The smile faded from his lips. “I’d like that. Hell’s bells, I would like that.”
“But I sense there is some complication.”
“Complication? I’d say so.” He reached quickly for the top pocket for his shirt and unbuttoned it. Then he fished out a piece of paper and a small chunk of gold. He threw the chunk of metal in front of me.
“That’s a $20 gold piece there. It’s yours. All you have to do is help me find her.”
I looked at the coin and then back at the man. The smile had disappeared from his lips and I could see this man was serious and not someone to trifle with.
“OK, all right. I am, after all, a newspaper man. We can try putting an advertisement in the paper, or maybe an article.”
He shook his head. “Tried that. In Saint Louis, Abilene and in Tombstone. No luck. I want you to find her.”
“Well, do you at least have a name? Somewhere to start?”
“I don’t have a name,” he said. “All I have is this picture from a newspaper.” The picture that he referred to was a calotype, a new technology that I had heard of but not seen before. It was far superior to the heliograph and the daguerreotype that I had seen, and I was surprised that it was already being used by publications. This one, I assumed, was from either New York City or from Europe.
I took a look at the picture and paused. I looked up at him, who waited expectantly on the other side of the desk. I realized that what I said in the next few minutes would not only be important to him, but might spell life or death to me.
“This is her?” I asked, and he nodded.
“I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. That’s not a very good likeness, I would imagine, but it’s all I got.”
“Have you ever seen her in person?”
He shook his head. “I figure that she probably lives far off somewhere, like Philadelphia or thereabouts. But money’s no object to me. I need to find her.”
I looked at the tall, strong man, and tried to determine whether it would be more prudent to be honest or somewhat discreet. I sighed and determined that honesty was my best, if not safest, course.
“Well, Mr. Jones, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that I know who this woman is—or was.”
“Was?” he repeated. “Is she dead? Who killed her?”
“Actually, Mr. Jones, this calotype was taken recently, but the image is of a painting. The painting is quite old, perhaps more than two centuries old.”
He shook his head. “That’s not possible. She came to me in a dream. I know she is waiting for me. I just don’t know her name yet.”
“I can tell you her name, Mr. Jones. Her name is Mona Lisa.”
“Mona…Lisa,” he repeated. “So you know this woman?”
“Well, yes,” I said, surprised. “She is, after all, one of the most famous women ever to be painted by the famed Leonardo DaVinci. I have had the privilege of traveling to Paris, France and seeing her painting hanging in the Louvre Museum.”
“You’ve seen her?” he asked, threatening to rise from his seat.
“I’ve seen all there is to see of her,” I clarified.
“Then I have to see her too,” he said.
“Sir, we are talking about Paris, France, you do realize,” I said to him.
“Don’t matter,” he said. “If that’s all there is, then I want to see it too. Will you take me there?”
I looked at the dusty relic of a dying West, and realized that I had an opportunity. East meets West, so to speak. I would teach him the ways of Europe, and he would teach me, well, he would teach me what cowboys teach.
And thus it is that the two of us are now standing in a very large gallery, surrounded by people who don’t speak English, looking at the most famous painting in the world. The man I have the privilege of accompanying on this year-long expedition has come here, not for the admiration of art, not for respect for the great painter DaVinci, but for one simple thing.