PORTLAND – I drove to the town of X, and found the coffee shop right away. Inside, I didn’t notice him at first.

That was because of the dark sunglasses and the hat. But when I slid into the booth, he took the glasses off, and I recognized him instantly.

“Thanks for coming,” whispered Big Mural. “Did anybody follow you?”

I could understand his nervousness. Everybody in the state was out looking for him, ever since the heist last weekend. There were rumors about warehouses outside of town, even being on the lam in Canada. Then we got the call in the office.

He was clear. No cops. No pictures. Just me. It would be an exclusive, but I couldn’t reveal the location.

“You know,” I began, “you’ve got a lot of people worried.”

He looked away, and I thought I could see his frame begin to tremble. “It was never supposed to be like this,” he whispered. “Somehow, everything got all … You gotta believe me: I’ve never been political, never!” His voice trailed off into sadness.

“Look, big guy,” I answered (and he was — I’m amazed at how he squeezed himself into that coffee shop booth), “let’s put our cards on the table, OK? Nobody’s buyin’ your story of innocence. You were there. For years, you were there. You gonna say you had no idea what was going on?”

“But I’m innocent, I tell you, innocent! I was never like those Diego Rivera or Thomas Hart Benton murals, that just wasn’t me. Sure, they wanted me to play with the big boys, wanted me to show how tough I was. But I couldn’t do it.”

He was playing all softy-wofty, giving me the Grandma Moses line. But I wasn’t buyin’ it.

“C’mon, Mural, face the facts,” I barked. “You mean to tell me the wise guys over in Pyongyang aren’t behind all this? Wouldn’t be the first time an alien power attempted to corrupt American culture by insinuating propagandistic messages into an 11-panel, 36-foot-long painting!”

Mural stared back at me wildly. Then, can you believe it, the big lug actually started to cry, with big, blubbering tears rolling down.

I was embarrassed. For him, for me, for everybody. I held out my handkerchief.

“Careful, you’ll smear.”

‘It’s all right,” he choked, “I’m oil.” But he took my handkerchief and dabbed away the drops, up on Panel 9, near the riveters.

I waited. I had time. This was the scoop of the century, and time was a little bird I carried in my breast pocket.

“You know,” and Mural glanced out the window as he spoke, “all this mess, the cops, the allegations — it hasn’t been all bad.”

I drew back in surprise. “Whaddya mean? You got everybody fightin’ over ya, you got The New York Times opinin’, for cryin’ out loud. You mean you like this, being a fugitive?”

Mural smiled grimly. “No, not the fugitive part. Bein’ on the run, not knowin’ where my next meal is comin’ from, that’s a one-way ticket to Skowhegan. But I’m gonna tell you somethin’ I ain’t told no one yet. This is the first time in my life anyone’s noticed me!”

“In your life, Mural? But you’re only three years old, what did you expect?”

“Yeah, but even so … listen,” and he curled his 36 feet forward in confidence, “I been up there, I been doin’ my thing, struttin’ my stuff — but it’s like she painted me with invisible ink. Folks just walked past, didn’t even pick up on the parallels to Jose Orozco, to Mantegna, to Raphael. You hear me: Raphael!”

I leaned back, giving him the gimlet eye. “You mean to say this whole thing is about art? Not politics? You tryin’ to pull a Bernard Berenson on me?”

“Dontcha see?” Mural jabbered, “that’s the whole deal. Art and politics don’t mix. Never have!”

“Oh yeah,” I shot back, “what about Goya? And Picasso — you gonna tell me Guernica wasn’t your great-granddaddy?”

Mural was gettin’ upset, I could tell. Burstin’ his frame. “You guys never get it, never have, never will,” he muttered. “Makes me want to find myself a can of turpentine and just end it all. Hey, waitress!” he shouted, “can you get this guy some coffee?”

I turned around to follow the direction he was pointing in, toward the waitress. Couldn’t see her.

And when I turned back, he was gone! Don’t ask me how a big guy like that can vamoose so fast, but he did.

Then from the parking lot I heard a squeal of tires, and through the window I saw a late-model sedan peeling away.

That was Mural. On the run again. Trying to find some peace in this cockeyed world.

I smiled to myself and thought of that line they used to put over Leo the Lion in the old MGM flicks.

Ars gratia artis. Art for art’s sake.

Yeah, right.