The Creation of the Head
"Mr. Vellini, if you don't stop twitching and sit still this is going to bear more resemblance to a throbbing cabbage than your head!"
"And why do you insist on calling me Michelangelo? My name is Cleps--CLEPS!"
"Now Michelangelo, there are two men in this room: would you put down your tools for a moment and tell me which of us is the model and who the sculptor?"
"You are the model and I am the sculptor, Mr. Vellini."
"And who has commissioned whom, Michelangelo?"
"I was commissioned by you, Lorenzo Vellini."
"And would you also tell me who is the old and dying codger, and who the healthy young lad with a promising future?"
"You are the senile old man, Lorenzo, and I am the aspiring young artist."
"One of us is quite rich, Michelangelo, and the other quite poor: would you please clarify that point in my disoriented mind by making the distinction?"
"You, Vellini, have caches of cash stashed all over this estate, while I, Cleps, have nought but a pocketful of pennies."
"Thank you, Michelangelo. Those facts were obscured by the fog on my brain, but you have successfully cleared away the mists. Now carry on with your work, allowing Lorenzo Vellini, into whom Death is sinking his filthy grips even as we speak, to live his last days as he pleases, pursuing the whimsies of senility as his immense wealth affords him. I wish to be immortalized in stone by my favorite artist, who is also the most famous in history, so pick up your tools and get back to work, Michelangelo! I apologize that this nervous tic makes my head twitch periodically, but if you can work with it you know you will be well-recompensed, not to mention what will certainly happen to your reputation in the art world."
"Excuse me for a moment; I need a drink...of water." Cleps stepped out of the studio and gulped a mouthful of scotch from his flask.
The scenario was this: Lorenzo Vellini, eccentric art dealer, was nearing the end of a terminal illness, and had commissioned Cleps to sculpt his likeness in marble. For this the sculptor was to be handsomely paid, and would also quite likely establish himself in the art world, as Lorenzo was somewhat of a celebrity in that realm, his fame deriving from the fact that all who cared about modern art knew him as the enigmatic man with the most unusual face who had refused countless requests to sit for a portrait. The piece could bring Cleps instantaneous success, while simultaneously increasing the values of all his other works exponentially.
So after his uncle, Lorenzo's butler of twenty years, secured him the commission, Cleps moved onto the estate and commenced work on the most beautiful block of stone he had ever fingered. But the relationship between artist and model was not easy and untroubled, for there were many differences between their ideas of what a sitting should entail, and it was these polarities which, although they left Lorenzo unaffected, simmered inside of Cleps, and his frustrations reached consummation on the afternoon of the day we join this story.
"Michelangelo," Lorenzo said, after having sat still and silent for an abnormally long stretch of seventeen minutes, "have I ever told you the story of the trombonist I taught in Wisconsin?"
"Yes you have Mr. Vellini; six times in two months."
"I once had a trombone student in Wisconsin...his name was Anthony...the last name rhymed with Castard...what was it?"
"Listen Mr. Vellini, I can get nothing accomplished if you're going to keep babbling and bobbing your head like a happy puppy lolls his tongue and wags his tail. The statue won't move when I've finished, so you should keep dead still while posing."
"Dead? What do you know about death, brash young pup!" Lorenzo shouted. He leaped from his seat and clapped hand on Cleps' shoulder. "Let me see what you've done today--boy, you feel tense! I think you need to stop for the afternoon because I'm tired of sitting. O! No! No! The nose has to be much smaller, and the eyes wider, filled with fire and intensity!"
"But you have a large nose and small eyes with cataracts--anything else would be a distortion," Cleps calmly observed.
"Michelangelo, are you forcing me yet again to remind you who is who in this room?" Lorenzo retorted. "I'm the one whose life is almost over, so it is I who should decide how I'm remembered by history. I've hired you--not you me--therefore you'll sculpt me as I wish to be sculpted. I'll see you in the morning at eight; be sure to get that nose smoothed down, and those eyes widened--think aquiline and fierce! And remember, the unveiling is not forty-eight hours away. Overall it's coming along well, Michelangelo," Lorenzo concluded, kissing each of Cleps' cheeks. "Gosh, I never realized how much I resemble David. It's eerie!"
When Lorenzo was gone, Cleps muttered: "Michelangelo? Ha! I'm sure it wasn't easy pleasing the pope, but I'll wager he never had to deal with any daft old butterbrains like Lorenzo Vellini.”
Then he turned and addressed the statue. "Hello Lorenzo, you eccentric crackpot! My, you look dashing today! Anyone who knew you were eighty when you posed for this statue would surely think you'd had access to the potion of everlasting youth. You are indeed a vision of godliness with that full head of curly hair, those high, wrinkle-free cheeks, and eyes ablaze with boundless passion. O Lorenzo, how did such perfect, heavenly features become infused in a second-rate art dealer?"
"Who are you talking to?" Lorenzo asked. He had heard Cleps' voice, and slipped back into the room unnoticed by the artist.
Cleps whirled around, and without any thought cried: "I am the great Michelangelo! What insignificant creature dares barge my studio unannounced to disturb me at my work?"
"I-I'm sorry!" a terrified Lorenzo hastened to apologize. "I thought you had stopped for the day."
Cleps grasped the old man by the throat and slammed him to the wall. "I am the most talented and prolific artist that ever lived! You insult every hair on my head when you accuse me of leaving off my work even for a second! I am creating even during the five minutes of each day I spend sleeping! Who are you?"
"I-I'm Lorenzo Vellini. Don't you remember? I'm the man who posed for the piece you're just now finishing. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Well it's too late to avoid that now, isn't it?" Cleps dropped him to the floor. "Go away and leave me to myself--and don't bother coming here in the morning; I'm going to take this into my room and give it the final touches there."
"But how will you be able to finish without me modeling?"
"Idiot Vellini! How dare you imply that my memory is anything less than photographic! I AM THE GREAT MICHELANGELO! With my genius I could glance at you but once then form an exact moving and cognizant likeness out of air, you doting old dolt The sole reason I endured your senseless prattle these past two months was because your wife paid me quite a lot of money to keep you occupied, that she might enjoy a respite of peace from the incessant flow of nonsense that pours so freely from your mouth! Now get out! The unveiling is on Thursday at one, and I shall be ready; but before I give a thought to lifting the cover I'm going to have every cent of my commission in my hands: are we understood?"
"Y-yes, of course. I wouldn't think of withholding the money you've earned. Please accept my apology, M-m-michelangelo."
In the hallway Lorenzo spoke aloud to himself in a gleeful tone. "I'm so glad you finally snapped at me, Michelangelo, because I was beginning to wonder if you were an imposter!"
Simultaneously, Cleps was speaking to himself. "Blasted old fool! Michelangelo should have told David to shut his bloody hole the first time he opened it! Ach! Stupid simpering simpleton! Hm...how could I make this orifice more flattering?" He poised his hammer and chisel on the Lorenzo-David's marble lips. "Maybe I'll widen them to resemble a fat-mouth fish, since the essence of your babble is bubbles of air. Hm...perhaps the best alteration would be to cut a gaping ditch down into your throat. Hmm...I've got it, Lorenzo! I'll install a crack in the side of your skull--that would be the most appropriate way to immortalize a pea-brained imbecile!" He set the chisel on the left temple, and was about to let fly with the hammer when his better sense made him stop. "I can't do this here; I'd better take it to my room."
He manouvered the statue onto the trolley, covered it with a cloth, and rolled it to his chamber. There he snatched away the drape, crumpled and hurled it to the corner, picked up his tools, and was poised to begin reshaping the lips when his better sense again made him stop. "No, this is going to require an inhuman quantity of scotch." He pilfered a decanter, a snifter, and a bucket of ice from one of the many bars in the mansion, and returned to his room. He poured a double, gulped it down, refilled his glass, and said: "Now we are ready to begin, Lorenzo-David! David? Ach! Ha! You are as far from David as I am from Michel--ah, what's the difference! If you can be David, I can be Michelangelo! And now, the transformation of Cleps completed, the great Michelangelo will put the final touch on yet another masterpicce--his David! Mmmm...there may be a continual flow of prattle proceeding from the cracks in your pot--DAVID--but your taste in scotch is excellent. Now, let's begin with the hairy moles on your cheek."
Cleps worked on the alterations late into the night. He chiseled out a dozen jagged warts and moles over Lorenzo's face. He tried to cut pierce holes into the ears, from which he intended to hang gaudy jewelry, but both lobes snapped off in the attempt. He sanded a huge bald circle into the curly locks, removed the lower lip entirely, doubled the width of the upper, and cut a thick moustache along the left side of the nose. He was about to make the two eyes one, with the notion of retitling the piece, 'David as the Cyclops,' when his drunkenness and frustration inspired him to the end. He flung his tools at the wall and seized his brass lamp, the base of which was a fascimile of a Greek column. He lined it up against the stone neck wherein he had carved a network of grotesque, bulging veins.
"Should I? Could l? Yes! Whatever Michelangelo does to his work results in perfect art!" He swung the lamp three times; the head broke free and fell to the floor. lt did not crack into pieces, as Cleps had expected to see, but landed with a metallic thud, intact. He burst out laughing. (Lorenzo heard the maniacal giggling through the walls, and although to that moment he had been tossing restlessly in his blankets, he found comfort in the thought that Michelangelo was laboring diligently in his idiosyncratic, ingenious way, and drifted quickly into a heavy, restful sleep.) Cleps, having already formulated a plan, retrieved the head and held it arm's length. "This isn't such an awful bust, really; it's rather amusing, the more I look. Perhaps I should start doing all my work in haste. I think I'll save it for my portfolio." He opened the closet, crossed the room, and rolled the head in. After a nightcap he went to bed and slept as soundly as his patron.
In the morning he arose as early as his throbbing skull would allow, locked the door, climbed out the window, and paid a visit to one of his lovers, Priscilla, who worked in a nearby pottery shop. He explained to her what had happened, and what he intended to do as a result. She, betwixt laughing fits, set him up in a studio with a huge lump of clay, the necessary tools, and a kiln.
Cleps worked through the day like a madman on a mission, forming a head that bore a remarkable likeness to Lorenzo, although it was overtly caricature. It spanned three feet from temple to temple; the lobes were joined in a knot below the chin, and the tops of the ears were shaped like lips, which stretched up over the skull and kissed amidst the long, wiry tresses that jutted out in every direction from the scalp. The nose was aquiline and the eyes fierce, to be certain, but there was no forehead, for Cleps had expanded the eyebrows into bushy moustaches that blended with the bangs. There were also numerous humorous layers of flab folded into the cheeks and neck.
At dusk Priscilla came in, saw what he had created, and fell to the floor belly-laughing. "He, he, he! I don't understand you, but I love it! What a man, to slam a door in opportunity's face for--aha! ha! Look at opportunity's face!" She was unable to speak for another full minute. "And you know you might well continue living in poverty for another fifteen years. I remember you told me he has to pay before he sees it, but if he's as loopy as you described, he might change his mind. I don't understand it, although I do admire you. But Cleps, clever Cleps, I also cannot comprehend why you've been struggling all day with this monstrous head knowing that it would be infinitely easier to work with if you didn't insist that it be hollow. Why?"
"Why? Why, my dear Priscilla? Because on the day my ancient patron greased the inside of his skull with senility, his brain slid out. If his cranial cavity is hollow, so must be that of his eternal remembrance in stone."
"No butts, Priscilla, our concern here is solely upward of the neck--although in Lorenzo's case the same stuff proceeds from both ends."
"You're the artiste...I'm merely a potter. I'm not going to argue with your genius, I'm just going to enjoy it."
They worked together through the night, and at last had a presentable head shortly after sunrise. They transported it to the Vellini estate, where they carefully hoisted it up into Cleps' bedroom with ropes. There they set the new pate upon the headless statue, using wet clay to secure it in place. That done they gave in to their exhaustion by lying down on the bed, and would have overslept the unveiling had not Lorenzo come knocking on the door at noon, saying: "The guests are all here, Michelangelo: are you finished? We are all awaiting thee with great anticipation."
Cleps sat up and bellowed: "I am the great Michelangelo! How dare you disturb and insult me with the same breath, loathsome, vile, sub-human aberrant!"
"O dear! I knew I shouldn't have come here! Please forgive me," Lorenzo begged, and skipped away rubbing his hands with delight.
They took another fifteen minutes of sleep, then roused themselves for the unveiling. It was with bleary eyes, mussy hair, and disheveled clothing that Michelangelo and his beautiful assistant wheeled the draped statue to the ballroom for the ceremony. The room was filled with important members of the art community, all attired in tuxedoes and gowns, most of whom were there more for the complimentary food and liquor than the premiere of an important work, and there were many pretentious whispers and gasps of shock and disdain at the entrance of the sculptor and his companion.
"Who is this unkempt doxy?" cried Gina, Lorenzo's wife. "She was not invited!"
"She is my guest," Cleps retorted loudly, "and if she must leave, I and my work will accompany her."
"Let her stay, my darling sunset," Lorenzo whispered into his wife's ear. "These sensitive artists must be allowed to have their way."
Gina consented to let Priscilla remain, though grudgingly. Suddenly, the huge sixteenth-century French clock struck the hour of one, whereupon Lorenzo excitedly summoned his guests to congregate around him in silence, that he could deliver an appropriate speech (unbeknownst to him his last).
"Beloved friends and peers, we are assembled here in this festive atmosphere that an old man near the end of his days may at last indulge the ego he has long kept suppressed by his greater modesty. For the past two months this man, Cleps--who moments from now will be regarded without challenge as the greatest living artist, and rated with the likes of Michelangelo--has been sculpting a likeness of me in marble. It has been a rare privilege to watch this master work, and he has achieved what I'm certain all will agree is a magnificent piece of art, whereby history will undoubtedly recognize our mutual greatness--"
"David," Cleps interrupted haughtily, "my other works await, and although I'd love to stay here all day with you and your guests, I do have my priorities. So I'd appreciate it greatly if you could pay me the balance of my commission and remove the wraps."
"O, don't you all simply love these unpredictable, obsessed creatures called artists?" Lorenzo cried, clapping his hands with glee. "I do! My friends, it is with great delight, and with an indescribable guilt of unpaid debt no sum of money could ever recompense, that I tender the commission to this man." He placed a velvet pouch in Cleps' hand. "We initially agreed on a fee of forty thousand dollars, but I was so pleased with the outcome that I have rounded it up to one hundred thousand. And now, I give you--me!"
Lorenzo lifted away the silk cover with a great flourish, but then dismay spread across his face, and the silence of the aghast onlookers was broken only by scattered shuffling sounds. At length a few people could not resist chuckling, which proved contagious, for Lorenzo uttered his last words--"Michel--what have you...how could you...my...me!"--amidst a reverberating chorus of laughter, while his white face turned blue, and he fell down dead of cardiac arrest.
Gina's immediate reaction was not to assist her stricken husband, but to snatch the moneybag from Cleps, saying: "You beast! You hideous monster! The audacity, to mock the hand that feeds! Look at him, he's probably already dead! My husband, my Lorenzo! Get out, get out now! And take this tramp and your marble prank with you! Is he dead? Is he? He is, he is! O! You're a...murderer! A murderer, and you stand there sniggering! Get off of my property immediately!" She began buffeting him with her cane, but Priscilla intervened and pushed her down, enabling them to escape the room unharmed.
The spectators again fell silent, but this time from confusion, for the scene they had just witnessed was like a surreal dream. Shortly, however, when the proverbial dust had settled, they all came to understand what had transpired: their gracious host had been the brunt of an insidious prank, the trauma of which had caused his heart to fail.
But the guests were sensible people, and justifying themselves with the adage--waste not, want not--changed the theme of the affair from unveiling ceremony to memorial service, and--after Lorenzo's corpse had been carried out--joyfully consumed the copious food and drink that had been set out for them.
Another One Snorts the Dust
Howard Fillimeer, monsieur mundane, doctor dullard, an interminably banal and boring being, was a curator at the very fine Metzendigger Museum of Modern Art in Chicago. Five days a week for twenty years he had donned a blue suit and stood at his post in the sculpture room, as still and lifeless as the statues he guarded. The most exciting event in all those years was the day a drunk bumped into the most famous of Edgar Brissell's abstracts, six feet of curvaceous soapstone. The piece toppled, but did not hit the floor and break, for Howard happened to be standing beside it at that very moment, and whether it was self-preservation or snap reflexes will never be known, but he arrested its downward progress and set it aright on its pedestal, for which he received a note of gratitude from the artist, and a small, original watercolor of two ducklings. That, as stated, was the most scintillating incident of his entire adulthood--until the day Sandra sauntered into his life.
He first noticed her short black skirt, and her long, slender legs encased in dark, alluring nylon. She wore many glittering chains and rings, had thick cakes of make-up on her face, and her wavy hair was teased and draped longingly about her shoulders. When she entered the sculpture room he was there alone. She strolled slowly by, looking into his eyes; and the linger of her perfume aroused him. He scrutinized every movement of her nonchalant tour, while in his imagination thoughts long dormant were awakening! He wanted to--and to--ohh! Look at this woman! The body of her!
When he approached again in her circle of the room, she paused to place her lips lightly on his neck before continuing on again amongst the sculptures, as slowly as before. He wanted--he needed--he had to--ohh! Make it happen Howard! But what if--someone might see. This cannot--no, absolutely not--happen.
She was standing before him, a single inch between the tips of their noses. He could feel her soft, rhythmic breathing, and burned to be with her. She began to caress his chest, taking special care of his breasts, then clasped their hands together and kissed his cheeks, brushing his lips in going from the left to the right. She led him behind Brissel's most famous, and whispered into his ear: "Let me hear you breathe."
"Huh? Uh, no--y-you--hu--hm--have to--you must stop!" He pushed her away. "We can't--not in here."
"Why don't you close the door?" she suggested, just before passionately joining their tongues.
In the space of a moment several thoughts flashed in Howard's mind. This room is on the fourth floor; people rarely come up here; she's so, so very beautiful; I could lock us in, but I might lose my job; no, we mustn't; it wouldn't be right--not in here.
"Breathe for me--now!" she demanded, and he obeyed the command. "Breathe harder, heavier, through your nose!" She grasped the bullet-shaped charm on one of her necklaces and plugged it into his nostril.
He didn't even notice it there until the breath he intended to take sensually became a snort. His head jerked up with the sensation. "Wh-what was that?"
"Cocaine, toy boy; you needed it to relax, and to give you the courage to close that door."
"How strangely wonderful I feel!" Howard declared like someone newly enlightened. "O my! I suddenly have the urge to say so many things, and I finally feel free to say them! Look at your legs! O did the Lord take care when he crafted them. There's something else I think I'll be able to do." He went over and closed the door. "What is your name?"
"Sandra. Lovely! I'm Howard Fillimeer. Fillimeer! What a ridiculous name! He, he, he, he, he! This is cocaine? Fantastic! I'm in love--twice in love! May I take another snort, dear Sandra?"
"Yes you may, dear Howard, after me. Shf!"
"You took two!"
"I'm sorry; you can take another to make us even, or I could do it for you, if you like."
"No, I'll do it myself. Shf!"
"O Sandra, you've unlocked my soul! You've opened Howard Fillimeer like a can of beans! I feel so much passion flooding through me! You know the saying: where one door closes, another one opens. You've certainly opened me up; now why did we close the door?"
She rejected his advance, saying: "No, wait a couple minutes; I like to enjoy this part of the high by myself. Go ahead--keep talking."
"I feel like doing everything at once!" he shouted. "I want to sing, dance, and make love; I will write a novel while taking breaks from solving the world's problems, and compose symphonies in my sleep, which I'll dictate to some gorgeous secretary over breakfast. Hoooeee! I'm going to do it all! I--I'll carve a statue! Now look, look at this soldier--general actually. Look at the passion in his eyes! I've been staring at General Eyers for years, and have always felt like him--passion trapped in a shell! You, Sandra, have ground my shell into powder! Look at these nostrils on the general's horse. Look at them, Sandra--look!"
"What about them?"
"What about them? What about--look how huge they are! I'll wager they could inhale vast hills of cocaine! I wish I had Jade's nostrils and a snow drift to snort my way through! Is there any more?"
"Shf. I just did the last Howard."
"O. Shall we do more kissing?" he nervously suggested.
"In a moment; I want to enjoy this. Are you certain no one will come in here?"
"Sure! Of course they won't! They won't because we're in here and don't want them in with us, so they'll respect our wishes and stay out! There! That's how you do that! I'm so glad you were attracted to me. Uh, Sandra...may I ask a question?"
"Yes my cute, of course you may," she enticingly replied.
"Why me? What made you do this?"
"You know the saying, about the intoxicating effect men in uniforms have on some women," she answered, licking and kissing the tips of his fingers. "I saw excitement in your suit the moment I entered the room. I knew it was locked up, and that I had the key. Was I right?"
"Yes you were, and I'd like another whiff of the key before I unlock you."
"I told you Howard, we just snorted the last of my stash."
"Well, could I at least try--what do you call that thing?"
"May I at least try the bullet again? There may be a little more left."
"I assure you it's empty."
"Is there any way to get more?"
"Do you have money?" she asked.
"Hm...I might. Would it be much?"
"The more you pay, the longer we play."
"I may have twenty dollars I could spare."
"Twenty! Howard, that won't get us to the exit of this museum. We just snorted twenty in a matter of seconds. Come now, break with some bread. You seem like the type who sleeps on a mattress stuffed with twenties, like a big bag of green blow."
"How--how did you know?"
"Let's go, Howie-hon. Leave your stinginess here with the statues and let's go have some fun." She tickled his fingers while putting her warm lips near his neck.
Howard pondered the idea. My vacation begins in three hours; I should spend that money sometime before I die; she is quite attractive, and I might do what I haven't done in years--I must go for it!
That moment there was a knock on the door.
"Sandra, fix your clothes and play with me--alone with me! Alone with me? Along with me! Play along with me! He, he, he, he, he!" He straightened his tie and opened the door with a flourish of confidence.
Two old men were standing there: Theodore, the museum director, and Roald, his assistant. "Howard," Theodore demanded, "why was this door shut? A patron complained that he couldn't get in."
"My apologies, Theodore. I was explaining Vladimir Nowit's work to Miss Sandra, and that old dastard the draft blew it closed. We were so engrossed with Nowit that we didn't hear the sound."
"Who drew the bolt? our resident poltergeist? And why is the second button of your jacket unfixed?"
Sandra stepped forward and whispered into Howard's ear. "I'll wait on the corner for five minutes; after that I'll be gone." She blew warm breath into his hair, smiled at Theodore and Roald, then left.
Howard was dizzy with the drug, and decided to feign a blackout by collapsing.
"Howard! Howard, are you all right?" Theodore and Roald said, hastening to his side.
He sat up slowly, and replied: "I don't know why I fell, I just felt faint."
"I'd feel faint too, if I'd lectured that woman," Theodore said, grinning lecherously, with Roald concurring. "Why don't you go home now, and start your vacation early."
"Could--would that be all right?" Howard asked, showing a marked resurgence.
"If you can stand and leave, certainly. Why don't you come lie down in the office for a while?"
"No! No, I can do it." He abruptly stood, wondered how many minutes had passed, how the cocaine had impaired his perception of time, and how it might have affected Sandra's, and realizing that she might have misjudged thirty seconds for five minutes, he panicked; he smiled weakly at his superior, and bolted without another word.
"I wonder if he's going to try and find that woman?" Roald mused.
"He'd better; that's why I let him leave! I hope he finds her, and I'll be disappointed if he doesn't return from his vacation wearing a grin that could swallow his whole head," Theodore proclaimed, lost in his filthy fantasies. "If I could have been the one to lecture her I'd have given--well, I couldn't give that: what would be the point of the lecture? Hem. Why don't you stay here in Howard's stead for the rest of the afternoon, Roald," Theodore concluded, then left in a reverie of erotic fantasy more intense than he had experienced in years.