Seventh inning, score tied, and Shaw leans back in his favorite chair and begins another beer. I’ve already had my usual three and have turned down his offer of a fourth. Since I got here he hasn’t said a word about anything but the ballgame, one we’ve been looking forward to against our division rivals. He doesn’t look at me when he comments on the game and doesn’t seem to care if I reply.
If I say anything about Shaw’s distant attitude I’ll be in for a show of his presumed superiority, his eyebrows wearily rising, an annoying restraint coming into his tone. I stay quiet rather than express what I think is implied by his attitude: his disdain for the way I earn a living and for what I value, which is based on his self-admiring artistic pretensions. The subject matter of his paintings is maddeningly repetitious, a long series of people staring at lit candles. For years I’ve felt an urge to ask why he doesn’t move on from the candles. The world has progressed to electricity, Shaw, and candles are more relevant to, say, the seventeenth century than to modern times. He’s apparently been ahead of his time for so long he’s lost touch with reality. Shaw once told me that I see my contribution to the world around us as a business deal for a new office building. Buildings can be interesting, he said, but all you care about is how much money they produce. I answered that I thought buildings with electricity running through them had more to do with reality and development than candles do.
If I ask him about his work the memory of that years-ago conversation is brought back. He doesn’t bring up the subject himself, because he doesn’t think my level of awareness allows me to understand what his pictures are driving at. He does invite me to his shows, which I admit are well attended by customers peering at his candle flames, much like the figures in the paintings. I read in the publicity for one of his shows that he sees the candles as a metaphor for “seeking an inner light. Life is a struggle against the baseness of human nature,” he went on. “We struggle against our urge to get even with the world for the wounds we’ve suffered. We search for light.” Does all that mean something to most people? Are we really struggling against our own nature?
In a painting called “Suspicious” an armed man with a tormented look stares at a candle flame. He’s seated at a table in a dark room, shadows all around. The man carries a rifle supported by a strap across his shoulder and his finger is on the trigger. Is he on the verge of taking a shot at the candle? I could ask Shaw, but he’d say it’s up to me to decide.
I’ve heard him speak publicly and that’s the sort of answer he gives. Easy on him to deflect it that way, though he puts the question in people’s heads. Why is the painting called “Suspicious”? Does the man suspect the candle of something?
It gets to bother me when I don’t say anything to Shaw. By choking myself down, I’m letting him devalue what I have to say and that makes me mad.
“What are you working on?”
“Canvas,” he says and sips his beer.
“Is a lit candle in the picture?”
Shaw nods. “Are you watching the game? Keuchel just gave up a two-run double.”
I don’t answer and he doesn’t glance at me. So he’s working on canvas. What a surprise.
In his painting “Elbow” a group of men and women, apparently in a bar, crowd around a small table with a lit candle at its center, all of them wanting to edge nearer the flame. Many hands have drinks in them and elbows are used as leverage to hold others back, in a few cases with elbows to the face. People seem to be stacked on top of one another and those in the back are seated on other people’s shoulders. Why? What do they think they’re looking at? Is this in any way real or is it just something out of Shaw’s imagination?
I shouldn’t be subjected to a dismissive condescension if I ask these questions. I create and develop things. Why shouldn’t he respect me?
Shaw picks up the remote and mutes the ballgame. He looks at me, and I look back at him.
“The painting’s title is ‘Blow.’ A man is restraining another man who’s trying to blow out a candle. The candle is surrounded by near darkness and looks as if it’s floating, and the bodies of the two men are obscured below the neck by shadows. They look alike, except their expressions. The blower is angry, on a mission, his neck angled toward the candle, and the restrainer looks over his shoulder in fear that the candle has been blown out. Shapes and motion are suggested in the background, but nothing distinct is discernible.”
“Why does the restrainer care if the guy blows out the candle?”
“It’s the only source of light.”
Asking about electricity in the room seems too mundane. To Shaw, the question would imply something lacking in me rather than the painting. If he answered he’d say there’s no electricity in his painting, and he might say there’s no room either.
“Am I supposed to be the blower? Is that why you’re telling me?”
“It could be anyone who doesn’t value the candle. It could be me sometimes.”
I nod, but I’m thinking he avoided saying if he sees me as the blower. I could also be a figure in other paintings, maybe the man in “Suspicious.” I don’t want to be in his work, taking on a life he imagines for me. What gives him the rank to judge me and paint me as an adversary of his imaginary candles?
I don’t press the issue. He’d deny it anyway, leaving me no room to demand he stop using me in his work, though he can’t deny he intends to provoke a response.
Shaw turns on the sound for the ballgame and goes to his refrigerator for a beer. The game is almost over and I’m ready to leave, worn down by the mental effort of suppressing my anger. His studio is behind the house, and I imagine going there to find the two men who look alike, their eyes riveted on the floating candle, its flickering light doubtless reflected in them. I resent these imaginary figures. I see my fist bursting through the canvas, destroying them and their nonexistent world, extinguishing Shaw’s flame.