By Thomas Philbrick
Edgar folded into the armchair and tried to remember the first time he had looked in the gallery window. He had been young, barely old enough to know what he was looking at, and his mother had held him up so that he could look at one of the seascapes behind the polished glass. Something about it had fascinated him, he remembered, something about the painted waves rolling toward the beach and the gilded frame and the pristine off-white walls. Inside, a couple had been standing next to a painting. They had pointed at it and gestured to another man, and they had seemed to Edgar like lovely people.
A rippling shudder passed across his clavicles as he pictured himself in the gallery doorway, stumbling over his words and looking at his shoes. The curator had repeated his name as though it was a mouthful of undercooked pancakes. That was your first mistake, he thought, using your full name. “Edgar” would have been fine. You should have left it at “Edgar.” But he had introduced himself as “Edgar J. Robertson III,” and the curator had looked at him like he was an escaped zoo animal.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t pitched to galleries before. The Pirate’s Cove had taken a few of his pieces, and the gallery in Connecticut had sold a few of them over the years. They were run by friends, though, and the pitches had not required much planning. Most of the time, when Don wanted a piece for The Pirate’s Cove, he would stop by the drug store and see if Edgar had finished anything. He would barge through the smudged-glass door, select a KitKat bar from the snack aisle, then heave his arms over the counter and ask Edgar how the fort was holding down.
“Yeah, the fort. The—you know, here. The store.”
“Oh, the store. Yeah, it’s good.”
“Yeah, it’s good.”
It was only once Edgar had handed him the receipt that Don would look up with an inspired expression and say, “Any chance you’re still painting?”
Don sold the pieces at The Pirate’s Cove for $100 each, and he gave Edgar $70 of it. Once, when a piece had sold on Edgar’s fiftieth birthday, Don had given him the whole $100. But it had been a while since he had sold anything at The Pirate’s Cove. It had been a while since he had sold anything at all.
It had been quiet in the gallery. Painfully quiet, as if the air was frozen in place. The sound of the door closing behind him had seemed like a sudden crash of timpani. There had been a strange sort of recognition in the curator’s face, as if Edgar was a friend from childhood he was glad to have forgotten. True, Edgar had seen the curator before, but only through the gallery window, and he was certain the curator had never noticed him. There had been one occasion—it had only been once, he was sure—when the curator’s eyes had wandered toward the window, causing Edgar to avert his eyes, but they had not made eye contact.
“Can I help you?” said the curator.
“Um, yes, I—my name is Edgar J. Robertson III, and I”—one of the curator’s eyebrows pinched upward—“I’m a big fan of your gallery.”
“Oh, well, thank you,” said the curator. “Are you interested in any particular piece?”
“No, I, um—I’m actually a painter myself, and”—
The phone rang and the curator held up a finger. “Just one moment, please.” The curator began speaking on the phone in a hushed voice. Edgar looked around the gallery and tried to breath. It was smaller than he had imagined. The walls were a darker cream, and there were artworks on the wall he had not noticed from the window.
“It should be arriving from London next week,” the curator said. “Okay, thank you.” He turned back to Edgar with a weary expression. “I’m sorry about that. What was it you were saying?”
“I, um—I was just—you have some really great paintings in here.”
The curator gave Edgar an impatient smile. “We are proud to represent some excellent artists. Would you like to take a closer look at any of them?”
“No, no, I—I, um—actually, I’m a painter myself, and I—I was wondering if you would want to—if you’d be interested in, in showing my work.”
The curator smiled like a teacher amused by a student’s answer. “Oh, well, I see,” he said. “May I ask what genre you work in?”
Edgar said, “I—I’m a painter, mostly seascapes.” A couple came through the door. The curator nodded at them and said, “I’ll be right with you.” Edgar wondered how the couple had been able to close the door so quietly.
“Perhaps you could have your agent reach out to us,” the curator said with a glance toward the couple. “Thanks for stopping by.” His shoes clicked on the wooden floor as he walked away.
Edgar let his head fall back against the chair. The sound of the doorbell clanging downstairs drifted up the stairwell. Edgar got up and went to the table and looked at the underpainting he had finished the night before. The drab browns and greys melted together like the aging strands of kelp that waved their slimy arms next to the dock pylons in the harbor. Where the paint was thinner, pencil marks showed through the brush strokes. He sat down and watched the canvas for a moment, then swung his arm across the surface of the table and swept the canvas onto the floor and let his head fall onto his arms. It was time. It’s been time for a while. Time to move on. He pictured the seascape again, the one his mother had held him up to look at, and a sweet rushing sadness flowed through his chest and was gone.
The doorbell clanged again. He went to the kitchen and pulled a wine glass from the cupboard and poured wine from the open bottle on the table. You aren’t supposed to leave red wine out like that, he thought. You know better. He watched the wine tossing and rippling in the glass, a tiny blood-red ocean astir, bubbles forming and disappearing like raindrops on a sidewalk. It’s time, he thought. Time to accept it. But as he tipped the glass toward his lips, the canvas on the floor seemed to brighten the corner of his vision. He put the glass on the counter and picked the canvas off the floor and looked at it. There was still work to be done, he thought. Some of the lines needed to be detailed, and the sky could be darker at the top. A bit of red in the shoreline could be nice, too. He looked at it for a moment longer, then crammed his brushes and paints into his backpack, grabbed the easel from behind the door, and squeezed out the door of his apartment.
“Hey Eddie,” said a voice when he reached the bottom of the stairs.
“You on tonight?”
“Nope. Heading out.”
Edgar raised an eyebrow. “Um, no, just going to paint.”
Jorge laughed. “I’m just kidding, bro. I’m just messing with you. I see you got all your painting shit n’ all. Hey, did you see those new lottery tickets we got?”
“I sold five already and I’ve only been on for an hour.”
“Yeah. Hey, you think boss would mind if I had one of the Monsters? I can pay for it.”
“Sure, go ahead. Just remember to mark it on inventory.”
Edgar went out under the clanging doorbell and walked down to the wharf. He followed the docks until he came to the beach and the long rock wall that jutted out into the ocean like an antenna. The rocks were dry at low tide and he moved quickly to the end of the wall and set up his easel on the flat rock next to the lighthouse. A harbor bell rang its dull baritone over the water.
He painted as the sun set. Colors emerged on the canvas as they disappeared on the horizon, orange and yellow and purple and blue-tinted. He forgot about the gallery and the curator and the drug store and thought only of his brush and the setting sun.
The sun was gone when he turned on his headlamp to inspect his progress. Above him, the lighthouse beam clicked on and began circling the harbor. He was about to fold the easel when a voice behind him said, “Can I see your painting?”
Edgar turned and saw a little girl perched on one of the rocks.
“Hi,” said a woman behind the girl. “Sorry, she likes painting. Would that be okay?”
Edgar looked at the girl again. “Um, sure,” he said. He moved to the side and shone the headlamp at the canvas. “Careful, it’s wet.”
The girl moved in front of the canvas. “Wow,” she said. “That’s really good.”
The girl’s mother leaned toward the canvas. “It’s really wonderful,” she said, glancing at Edgar. “Really good.”
“Thanks,” said Edgar.
“Do you sell your art anywhere?” said the girl’s mother. “I’m sure lots of people would buy paintings like this.”
“Um, I—not really.”
“You should. I bet there are galleries around here that would love this kind of thing.”
“Do you always paint the ocean?” said the girl.
“Pretty much,” said Edgar. “I like the ocean.”
“Me too,” said the girl. “I want to be a painter.”
“Nice,” said Edgar.
“It’s my fault, probably,” said the girl’s mother with a short laugh. “I got her an easel and paints for her birthday and now she doesn’t talk about anything else.”
“I’m going to be a painter like you,” said the girl.
Edgar smiled at the rocks.
“Honey, we should let the man pack his things up,” said the girl’s mother. Then, to Edgar, she said, “Thanks. You made her day.”
“Sure,” said Edgar.
“Can I see some more paintings?” said the girl.
“No, honey, we have to let the man go home,” said her mother. “It’s getting late. Can you say thank you?”
Edgar watched them disappear into the dusk before folding the easel. He put his paints and brushes in his backpack, picked up the easel and canvas, and began moving back over the rocks toward the shore. At the beach, he set the easel down, untied his shoes from the outside of his backpack, and slid them on. He took a few steps, feeling the grains of sand rolling between his feet and the soles of the shoes, then stopped and looked back toward the horizon. Only a faint glow remained, blended orange and silver and purple, where the sun had disappeared into the ocean. Edgar slid the backpack off his shoulders. Leaving his shoes on the beach, he went down to the shoreline and stood in the wet sand and waited for the cold water to baptize his feet. The lighthouse spun over the water, dropping a fleeting glint on the tops of the waves, and the sound of the incoming tide was soft on the sand.