I am painted the color of sympathy. Or at least, that's the old lie. No one's bothered to give me a description, not even the man whose hunched shoulders and dexterous fingers are busy with another project, whose slow breathing reveals his intense concentration.
Since he's never bothered to give me a name, I refuse to call him by his.
So he's just the Artist.
The wood I am built of is pale brown -- soft, comfortable, malleable, wrong. I guess that says something about the way I see sympathy. Maybe I'm bitter.
Actually -- there's no 'maybe' about it.
I live on a shelf that had been white at one point, though the paint has chipped and peeled, revealing wood which is close to the shade of my own. This occupation used to be broken by brief respites on the Artist’s desk, but, not anymore. Now my neighbors are old glasses and cups converted to paint brush holders, containing long, chipped wooden brushes with thin bristles flecked by paint stains that the Artist has long since given up on.
His studio is small, with paint smeared canvases stacked against the cement wall that's supposed to represent modernity. The Artist never notices, though, he's too absorbed in his work or floating on his imaginary, LSD fueled clouds.
The Artist leans away from the easel at last, affording me a glimpse of his latest piece. It's nothing impressive -- a multitude of spots dotting the canvas -- Pollack-y, but lacking any sort of spark. The Artist seems to sense this and removes the canvas, dropping it with the others in a dissatisfied sort of way. Of late, his work has been disappointing, but maybe it's time to give me another try. . . pull me off the shelf and return to his roots.
Wishful thinking, as usual -- I'm a forgotten memento from the days of art school and eighteen year old dreams. Well, who's dreaming now? I haven't been taken down from the shelf in two years, not since the days when he still drew people. Not since that long ago day when, with fatherly care, he packed up his portfolio of sketches and finished canvases -- too excited for words, too excited for drugs. The week before, his artwork had been admitted to a new gallery downtown and the next night his pieces would be presented to those who bothered to come. I watched him go, feeling strangely proud of this man, of my Artist.
But like all fledgling artists, he was petrified of failure, of rejection. He bared his soul in the faces of those he painted, and it was about to be torn apart.
With the arrival of the paper the next morning came the review.
I would see him receive worse, but at the time it seemed as if his world had come crashing down around him, and I suppose mine had too, though I didn't know it at the time.
He read some phrases aloud, wincing with each thorny word. "Childish imitation."
"Thoughtless and inconsequential."
I've never seen him closer to tears. True, there had been people there that night complimenting his pieces, but they’d really just been telling him what he wanted to hear. And he’d known. It was, undoubtedly, worse than them being honest. Sympathy is no one’s friend, least of all, an Artist’s.
Time passed, and he did move on, but moving on meant packing up his sketchpads and pencils, turning to the world of the abstract.
It meant packing up me.
I like to think, though, there was some sentiment involved when he left me out on the shelf -- but layers of dust speak for themselves.
Tomorrow is another gallery opening, which I guess is the explanation for his silence and frustration. By now he's learned to handle the critics and shredding comments -- to toughen his skin against the insults and barbs aimed at his pride and joy. He runs those artistic fingers through his thick and wavy hair - I've always wanted hair - sighs discontentedly, and begins another piece.
But the Artist has been falling apart these last few months, tripping more, smashing canvases -- maybe he's not cut out for this business.
Or maybe his tortured and less stable mind is a requirement.
Either way, I think another bad review will be enough to push him off the edge. I can't feel sympathetic, or at least, I don't want to, and am less worried about his fate than what would happen to me.
You may call that self-centered, and maybe you're right, but the way I see it, I've been forgotten for years. He doesn't care about me.
Why should I extend the same courtesy to him?
Night has drawn its blanket around the city, but the Artist has learned to ignore his internal clock. I hear him in the kitchen, knowing he's reaching for that fifth cup and the pack of Marlboros next to the stove.
Something about the silence is disturbing, and oddly unsettling. Maybe it means he’s pulling himself together, but, I’m not sure that’s true.
Either way, his mind and his worries are none of my concern, so I close off my consciousness as smoke seeps in through the open studio door.
• • •
I heard it. Through the closed door and the sounds of late night city soundtrack. It cut through the sympathetic lies -- the ones that hurt worse than the truth -- right to the heart of the matter.
His neighbor heard the shot and called the cops, but he was already dead -- that brilliant mind strewn across the modern wall, seeming to imitate his last works. And I was there, in his memories, somewhere on the wall, lost on the cement.