My Uncle Horace

THERE were so many things my Uncle Horace could do well that hardly anyone else was able to stay in business in Junction Center.

Uncle Horace could make tables, fix radios, repair shoes, climb flagpoles, sing with an orchestra, press suits, clean wallpaper, build houses, and compose music. He was just about the most important man in his city, but the job he worked at to earn a living was painting signs. He could paint high signs, small signs, green signs, pink signs, and yellow signs. He had a little shop of his own on Woodland Street, out of the high-rent district, and whenever he had a sign to paint which would net him even two cents over the price of the streetcar fare he would take the streetcar.

All day long you could see him riding or walking, depending upon the price of the sign he was delivering. He whistled and sang along the way, his trousers smeared with all the colors of the rainbow, his hair coming down over his dreamy blue eyes, and his slight stature showing years of patience and toil. But my uncle was not a happy man, and his sadness was often reflected in the songs he sang and in the signs he painted.

One day my mother asked him why he was unhappy. ‘You have a fine little shop, you have a good trade, you are making a decent living, so why aren’t you happy?’ she asked.

‘Well,’ said my Uncle Horace, his long, artistic hands folded in front of him, ‘I want to be an artist, not a sign painter, not a radio fixer not a flagpole sitter or anything. I want to be an artist and paint beautiful things, such as grapes and peaches and cows. I — I want to be hung in the galleries.’

‘That,’ my mother said to him, ‘is another kind of talent. You must be content to paint letters for a living, to have your own shop, to go and come as you please.’

But my Uncle Horace would have nothing more to say, and would go back to his little shop and begin making all kinds of letters, slinging paint right and left, showing his unhappiness.

Now the trouble was that whenever my Uncle Horace began a painting with grapes and peaches and cows in it he had to lay it aside in favor of the commercial work which came in. It spoiled the whole business, because every time he started out on one of his fine paintings he would be interrupted and then his whole day was ruined. So in reality you couldn’t blame him for being unhappy.

One morning just as the beautiful sun was rising over the County Workhouse, which was also out of the high-rent district, my Uncle Horace came running down the street toward his little shop. It was evident that the creative spark was burning within him. There was a sort of frantic light in his dreamy blue eyes, and the way his hair blew in the stiff morning breeze was just the way it should have blown to be the kind of hair great artists have. It was evident that in the back of his fertile mind there was beginning to grow a fine painting, a thing of magnificence.

When he arrived at his little shop he took all of the sign orders from the spindle on his desk and put them in a drawer so he wouldn’t be disturbed by their presence. Then he locked his door and set to work on the canvas. As was customary, the painting began to be peaches, grapes, apples, sweet corn, radishes, peas, beans, carrots, cabbages, and turnips, and in the background, which was a delicate shade of red, was a beautiful black cow with golden horns. It was indeed a masterpiece, and my Uncle Horace danced with joy and pride. In a few brief hours he had changed from the unhappiest to the happiest man in Junction Center.

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ he screamed as he pranced around the little shop. ‘Now I shall be hung in the Municipal Art Gallery! Now I am an artist. Gracious day!’

By this time it was midafternoon and my uncle became very hungry. He did not want to go out and eat a meal because such a thing would not be representative of what he had heard about great artists. He wanted to go hungry for a little while. But by 3.46 he was so hungry he unlocked the door and wavs going to run across the street to Chauper’s Restaurant when one of his sign customers came in.

The first thing the customer did was to go over to the beautiful painting on the easel. ‘Ah!’ said the customer, who was a fruit and vegetable man, ‘I see you have completed my order. Such a fine job I never saw before. It is exquisite!’ He went up to the painting, rubbing his fat hands together and talking so fast and excitedly that my uncle was unable to follow him. ‘And completed in such quick time, too. My, oh my!’

He snatched the painting from the easel while my uncle was trying to tell him that it was for the Municipal Art Gallery and not for the market. The man paid no attention, and was out of the shop and down the street before my uncle realized what had happened.

Of course Uncle Horace tried to run after the man, who was heading for the fruit and vegetable market, but he was too hungry to run and soon was lost in a cloud of dust. Dejectedly he turned around and went back to the little restaurant on the other side of the street, where he ordered a cheese sandwich, a pickle, some mustard, and coffee. He was again the unhappiest man in Junction Center, and the possibility of his being hung in the Municipal Art Gallery seemed less and less likely.

He hurried with his meal, told the proprietor to write it on the cuff because he was in a big hurry, and then started up the street toward the fruit and vegetable market. He had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his small mouth turned downward, and his hair looked more like an artist’s than ever before. He was in a furious frame of mind, and he took long, important steps.

By the time my Uncle Horace got to Mr. Eisenstein’s fruit and vegetable market, the place was closed. He pounded on the back door, then went around to the front, where he saw a large crowd of people looking in one of the market windows. A policeman on horseback was attempting to maintain order.

‘What is the matter?’ my Uncle Horace asked the policeman.

‘All I know is that I was sent here to maintain order. I don’t know what’s the matter.’

‘Thank you,’ said my Uncle Horace, who was very polite.

Finally curiosity got the better of him, and he elbowed his way through the large crowd, getting his feet stepped on but pushing through in a way that was typical of his artistic temperament. When he got within seeing distance of the window he was surprised to find his painting. He stepped back and for a moment covered his eyes with his hands. He was indignant to think of such a fine painting on display in a fruit and vegetable window. There was no doubt that the painting of all those vegetables and that cow was a magnificent thing, but to see it where it was jarred his artistic sense. He wanted to find a brick and throw it through the window. ‘This is a terrific insult!’ he cried.

Just then he heard an onlooker make a casual remark. Others standing in the crowd agreed. They were saying how lifelike the painting was, how true to form, how modern. ‘Who is the artist?’ he heard another ask.

With heart swelling with pride he left the crowd and walked across the street and looked at them in a solid body. A smile came across his narrow face, for he was an artist. He watched a while longer, then turned and began walking slowly toward his little shop on Woodland Street, but before he was halfway there he began to run. He remembered the other sign orders left in the drawer of his desk. And as he ran, his hair blowing in the evening breeze, my Uncle Horace told himself that perhaps more people would see his painting there in the fruit and vegetable market than would see it in a whole year if he were hung in the Municipal Art Gallery.