The True Story of the Bad Luck Painting

Back in 1996, a friend of a friend of my mother’s said a painting was bringing her bad luck, so she was getting rid of it. “I’ll take it,” my mom offered. I noticed it in her garage, and she told me about how it came into her possession. I immediately asked if I could have it.

I took the Bad Luck Painting home and hung it up. Nothing especially bad happened to me, and I took it with me when I moved to New York, in 1999. It hung over my bed, where it remained until August 2000, a difficult time for me. I was on strike from a job I had just started (in the Museum of Modern Art’s marketing department), I was chasing after a woman who was sending me mixed signals at best, and I had just been told that a major freelance writing project was probably going to be awarded to somebody else.

One evening during that period, I was sitting on the boardwalk in Battery Park with my friend Catherine. The Magnetic Fields were playing in the little arena they have there, and we could hear them from the boardwalk. One of the songs they played was called “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits.” I found a strange object at my feet, a collage featuring a photograph of a woman and other ephemera glued to a piece of wood.

“Do you want it?” I asked Catherine.

“No, you should keep it,” she said. “Now you can get rid of the Bad Luck Painting.”

“I don’t have bad luck,” I protested.

“You don’t have good luck,” she answered.

Among all of my friends, Catherine might be the most reliable when it comes to extrasensory matters. She once gave me an uncannily accurate card-reading, using ordinary playing cards provided by a bartender in an unfamiliar bar. So I decided to listen to Catherine and get rid of the Bad Luck Painting.

The Bad Luck Painting shows a girl, between five and ten years old, in either a wheelchair or a stroller. She might have a beard, but it is probably just unskilled cross-hatching on her face. It is not what you would call an accomplished work of art, but it has a certain stillness and directness rarely achieved by artists who try for those qualities. The wooden frame it came in was not its first; you can tell because there are marks of a previous frame. I don’t know who the artist is, nor can I find out, because my mother says she doesn’t remember who gave it to her.

I took a photograph of the Bad Luck Painting. Then I took it down from the wall and attached a stamped, self-addressed postcard to the back, with a note that said, “Please tell me what kind of luck this picture brings you.” Then I took it down to the corner of Seventh ­Avenue and Flatbush and propped it against a wall. When I returned a few hours later, it was gone.

My bad luck did not disappear immediately, but within a few weeks, the strike resolved, my frustrated romance took a decidedly positive turn (in fact, Jennie and I are now married with two wonderful daughters), and I was given the freelance project.

Then the postcard arrived. I don’t know Alex Jones. It might not be his real name, and of course he might be pulling my leg, but I choose to take him at his word. He lost his girlfriend, his wallet (twice), and his cat was found dead. I only hope that sometime after he took the Bad Luck Painting back to Seventh and Flatbush, his luck turned around, too.  

—Mark Swartz


Megan Milks is the author of Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body (Feminist Press, 2021), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in transgender fiction, as well as Slug and Other Stories and Remember the Internet: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring.

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