Light, airy, and meticulously clean, attributes that well describe Mr. Horton’s apartment. His closet embodied the exact opposite.
As we entered, he reached up and pulled a cord. A single bulb, brown with dust, hung on a thick wooly wire. The light revealed a cavern, cramped, long, and narrow with a pale wall grimed by dusty strings of cobwebs. Opposite from the wall were dark-wood cabinets with bookcases on top that stretched to the ceiling. Each shelf brimmed with dusty black-bound sketchbooks, a hundred at least, maybe two. Brittle yellow masking tape bearing faded numbers clung to various shelves.
“Take one of those books down,” he said, pointing to a shelf marked ‘38.
I took the first book down and sat it on the counter. In the dim light I could see sketches of buildings, people, busy intersections, and boys playing touch football in a glade I recognized in Central Park. These early sketches possessed all of the elegant detail work he became known for.
“Wow,” I said, mesmerized as I flipped through it with ginger fingers. “I’ve never seen any of these.”
“No. You haven’t,” he said, before a hacking cough interrupted him. “Only my professors back at art college saw them. None of these made it on to canvas.”
He didn’t say anything. I kept flipping pages. Eventually, after I got midway through the book, flowers started showing up.
“Here’s the story on the flowers.” He coughed a bit. I stopped turning pages. “I didn’t get a lot of respect in art school. One professor literally walked over a canvas of mine. But you know all that shit.” I nodded. “The point is, the only thing that got me respect was this one flower I painted.” He flipped back through book and pointed it out. “There, that one. That’s the one that was outside the classroom window, you know, the assignment I always talked to the old white biddies about, the one that launched my ‘great career.’” His emphasis on “great career” did not miss my sarcasm meter. I chuckled. “They loved it, the whole school. This one damn flower suddenly put me on the map. The great Negro art student who can paint a flower better than anyone, that’s how it began. Shit.”
He stared at the drawing with spitting eyes.
“You know that this flower was adapted by the 60s flower children, don’t you?” I shook my head. “They used it on their posters. ‘The Peace Carnation,’ they called it. That’s when the black power kids called me an Uncle Tom.”
“Why would they call you an Uncle Tom?”
“Oh, it was quite a scene, the source of my second or third 15 minutes of fame. I went on the talk shows, like Dick Cavett, and gently chuckled at their accusations. ‘Well, I’ve been called worse, heh, heh, heh.’ Bullshit. It tore me up. They called me an Uncle Tom, Mr. Gale, because they thought I didn’t take their movement to heart, that all I did was paint nice, pretty flowers for white people. They thought I was a sell out.”
“I cried alone in my apartment, after every interview, because I knew that I was a sell out, only the black power kids didn’t know the half of it.”
He took out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and put a stick in his mouth.
“You can crack open the door if the smoke bothers you,” he said.
I didn’t say or do anything. I was on another one of my quitting attempts, so I longed the smell of it.
“When I graduated,” he continued, “this one professor I had, who liked me, recommended I take the trip with Dr. Bane, the botanist, to paint the flowers he was looking for in Western Africa. That’s how I ended up on the ship. All that’s in the old interviews. But what I never told the biddies is that I didn’t want to paint no damn flowers, at least that’s not what I set out to do. I told my professor, ‘I don’t want to paint flowers.’ I said to him, ‘I want to paint people.’ He convinced me to take the gig anyway and paint the flowers. ‘It’s what you’re good at,’ he told me. So you see, Mr. Gale, the black power kids were right, at least partly. I was painting flowers for white folks. I certainly wasn’t painting them for myself. I was good at it, but I had no passion for it. But then, you see Negroes weren’t supposed to have passion. It scared people.”
“You know, Mr. Horton,” I said, savoring the taste of nicotine in the air, “I always wondered if you experienced any problems with doing model sketching in art school, because usually the models are . . .”
“It was a problem. That’s something else that I’ve never talked about.”
“So doing flowers was an out for you?”
“That’s exactly what it was. An out, a trap, and a prison. Here, put this one back and bring down one of the ones from the 40s.”
I obeyed. Reaching up to the top shelf, my shirt tugging under my belt, I felt his eyes set upon me. I managed to get a sketchbook down and opened it. I didn’t see a single flower. I saw people. People in a marketplace. People walking on dusty roads. People guiding animals. People talking and laughing with each other. People eating. Sometimes their whole bodies appeared, sometimes only their faces, close, intimate studies, down to the pores, as if he were a camera.
“I’ve never seen these before,” I said.
“No, you haven’t.” He sipped more whiskey.
“You never painted these?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Here, let me see this.” He took the sketchbook and started flipping impatiently. “It’s not here. Grab the next one.”
I reached up again, this time my shirt freeing itself from under my belt. My bare skin scratched against the rough wood in the cabinet. Again his eyes brushed against me. I took down the next couple of sketchbooks, to keep from having to reach up a third time. I began flipping through one of them.
“Am I looking for something in particular?” I asked.
“You’re getting close,” he said.
This time flowers appeared, interspersed with the street scenes.
“This is the African Series, isn’t it?”
I began skipping the flower sketches and sought out the faces. I stopped again when one sketch caught my attention. Two men stood engaged in what looked like a heated discussion, arms in the air, mouths opened. One faced Mr. Horton, the other had his back to him. I stared silently. Every contour of their muscles showed through their clothing, from their thighs to their bulging arms.
“That’s Jacques,” he said.
“He’s beautiful,” I blurted out.
“Yes. A striking man. He could hold you captive for hours with just his eyes. They bewitched me.”
“Were his eyes really set apart like that?”
“Yes, Mr. Gale. And they were really that big.”
His finger began lightly stroking Jacques’ arms. It felt as if he were stroking my arm. The sensation took me aback.
“How did you know him?” I said quickly.
“He was on the ship, second officer. Look at those muscles.”
“He looks ripped.”
“Yes he was, Mr. Gale. Shoulders out to here. Huge chest. Fit and trim mid-section. If he wanted to, one strike from his fist could knock you out cold for days. But really, he was a pussycat. He was always protective of me, the little Negro kid from New York that painted. He never let anyone pick on me. A beautiful man, he was truly beautiful.
“So I was walking back to the ship and I saw him and his friend having a great debate. They weren’t fighting, just talking with a lot of passion, arm-waving and carrying on. And they spoke so fast I couldn’t understand a word. I spoke French, but not at that speed. Without thinking, I squatted on the dock and started to sketch the two of them.”
“Did you show it to him?”
“I showed it to him later onboard. He begged me to give it to him. I told him I wanted to base a painting on it, and that he could have that instead. I never made the painting. Never did. At our next port, Jacques left us, and I never saw him again.”
His voice cracked a bit and I looked up at him. He gave me a weak smile, then his face went soft. Now I began to understand. I poured myself some more whisky and gulped it down.
He closed the sketchbook.
“Put it away,” he said.
I put them all back on the shelf again, the counter scratching my exposed stomach again, feeling this time as a caress.
“Bring the bottle,” he said, walking deeper in the closet.
I poured out a bit more for both of us.
To be continued…
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.