“Listen, why are you here?”
Startled, I looked up from my notepad.
“The lifetime achievement award, Mr. Horton. My magazine wanted an interview.”
“No! Why did they send you?”
I had no immediate response.
“You’re awfully young, you know that? How the hell do you even know who I am? What work of mine have you seen? I haven’t had any exhibitions in years.”
“I know your work, sir,” I muttered so softly even I couldn’t hear myself.
“They usually send some old biddy who waxes poetic about my old paintings and how much joy they’ve brought and how I broke racial barriers and blah, blah, blah, blah. The same old bullshit, each and every time. When they said a ‘Gail Walsh’ was coming, I figured it you would be just another one.”
Happens all the time. I’m G-A-L-E Walsh. But sometimes I feel like an old biddy.
“I’m forgotten about for years,” he continued, “until something like this fool award comes up, and then the art magazines start coming around to play ‘be nice to the old Negro.’ Well, I’m sick of playing.”
We had reached the inevitable culmination. When he opened the door his face crinkled into sharp angles and the shade began. He greeted me with shade, offered me a seat with shade, and asked if I wanted tea with shade. Undaunted, I launched into the script my editor imposed, too scared to do otherwise, and got nowhere.
Now he was glaring at me, and I felt 400 years of angry history bearing down on my lily-white ass. Ultimate shade.
“Listen, young man.” He sat up in his chair as if to lunge forth. “This is the situation of my life. I paint flowers because that is what’s expected of me. I despise it. I go on painting them to afford the medicines I have to take to keep on painting. The ‘genius’ money vanished long ago and this new thing isn’t giving me a penny. To hell with honor, who needs it? My arm is weak. My sight bothers me. I’ve smoked my lungs into poor health. I don’t have the guts to die. I exist for others, Mr. Walsh, not for myself. And that’s all there is to be said.”
His words shoved me into the hall and his stone look slammed the door in my face. He had no use for me or my questions or the magazine I represented. Compliantly, I stood up, took my coat, and went to the door. But I couldn’t turn the doorknob.
Dammit, don’t be a chicken-shit you’re whole damned life!
I paused and turned around.
“What?” he said.
“I saw your Passion Flowers exhibit when it first opened at the Met. I was in high school and we were on a field trip.”
He gave me a blank stare. My heart raced.
“They trashed it, you know,” he finally said. “Lost his touch, that’s how they put it. Trying to be modern, relevant. That’s what they said about me. Do you remember that?”
“So, Mr. Walsh what did you think?”
“I thought it was incredible.”
“It was a rebellion against everything I had been taught.”
His eyes softened, but only just. I moved back to the sofa and sat down, holding my coat on my lap.
“I paint,” I said. “I just do this gig to pay the bills.”
“My paintings are boring, alright? People tell me I’ve got good technique. But they don’t move! They just sit there two dimensional on the canvas. Your paintings from Passion Flowers, it’s like they’re from another world. They scream at you! They throttle you! They’re relentless! They still haunt me after all these years. That’s what art is supposed to be!”
He stopped throwing shade, but maintained a shroud of caution, and I didn’t blame him. He didn’t know me from shit. But I had gotten that far and I wasn’t about to give up.
“Mr. Horton, I didn’t come here to talk about your lifetime achievement award. That’s why my magazine sent me, but that’s not why I wanted to meet you. I begged my editor for this assignment. She asked me what work of yours I knew and I told her ‘Passion Flowers.’ She got this look on her face and said, ‘Oh, no, no. Don’t ask talk to him about that.’ Then she basically told me what to ask and how and in what order. And being the good soldier I am, I followed her orders to the letter. Dumb, huh?” A chuckle snorted through my nose. I held his attention but his face betrayed nothing. “Mr. Horton, you took a risk with Passion Flowers. After a whole career of flower portraits and then you did this series of out of this world abstractions based on flowers. That just slays me. So what I really wanted to ask you was where did the inspiration for Passion Flowers come from?”
For a long time he just looked at me. I tried to read the expression, but his face was neutral.
“You get nowhere in this life playing it safe, Mr. Walsh.”
“You drink whiskey?”
“There’s a bottle in that cabinet over there. Go get it, alright?”
It looked like one of those cabinets from India you get at Cost Plus, only this looked like the real thing straight from the Raj. I turned the key in the lock and opened it. The whiskey bottle sat in front.
“Just bring it over,” he said. “We can use the teacups.”
He poured the little bit from his back into the pot. After sitting down, I did the same. Then I set us both up, to the rim.
“Aaaaaah!” he exclaimed. “That’s better.”
His stare glanced by me and looked into space.
“Come on,” he said. He stood up. “What you want to know is in here. Bring the bottle.”
He walked to a closet door on the other side of the room. He stood there for a moment.
“I want to show you the consequences of playing it safe.”
He opened the closet door and we entered a darken space. Like a tomb it smelled, musty and untouched for countless years.
To be continued. . .
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.