When mild mannered museum guard Howard Fillimeer gets addicted to cocaine overnight, his life is turned upside down. He becomes ensnared in a smuggling operation, bringing the drug through the museum inside hollow statues. But when the statues must stand for thirty days as part of an art exhibit, and in that time become sensations in the art world, and coveted not only by the cocaine dealers and addicts but also by world renowned collectors, chaos unleashes. Scroll below the table of contents to read the first five chapters.
Table of Contents
1) The Creation of the Head
2) Another One Snorts the Dust
3) A Ride, A Crash, and A Proposal
4) A Connection in the Limbless Show
5) Many Meetings
6) Another One Smokes the Pipe
7) Howard's First Orgy
8) The Opening
9) Howard Seeks and Theodore Spies
10) T. Edward Flicker and Pepe
13) An Irate Artist
15) A Blowout in the Basement
16) An Eventful Morning
17) Another One Comes to the End of the Line
18) Divine Intervention
19) The Hopeless Man
20) The Remorseful Suitor
21) The Auction
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.
A Ride, a Crash, and a Proposal
Howard was as relieved to find Sandra waiting as she was to see him coming. They went straightway to his small, moderately furnished apartment, and emptied his mattress of cash, a tidy sum which filled two briefcases. Pulling his hand like a leash she hurried him to a house on the same block as the museum, where lived Maxx, her supplier. She announced herself by rapping a code; a slit in the door quickly opened, through which they were examined by a pair of veiny, bulging eyes. Once she was recognized they were allowed to enter, escorted into the house by Pepe, who was employed by Maxx to screen all visitors.
Sandra went straight to Maxx and whispered: "This milquetoast is hooked, and he has thousands of dollars in cash that he's ready to spend." Maxx introduced himself to Howard with many warm words and a congenial handshake.
"Give me charge of the briefcases," Sandra discreetly said to Howard, when they were alone on a ratty sofa in the corner.
"Why can't I hold them?" he snapped.
"Don't be silly. If I do the buying we'll get three times the blow out of Maxx's repulsive, fat, ugly, black-hairy pimpled, greedy, stinking, snorting, snot-filled nose, than if you do. Give them here." He handed her one and reluctantly held the other, to which she reacted by straightening up, looking away, and saying: "There will be no snow storms until I have both briefcases."
Howard waited a moment, saw two men snorting enormous lines across the room, and gently laid the other half of his fortune on her lap. "That felt very nice, hon," she whispered, while brushing her nose against his ear. She snatched up one of the briefcases and left the room with Maxx, her hand on his arm. They returned twenty minutes later to find Howard in one of the most anxious states of his life. He had been alternately craving cocaine and worrying about his money every moment, while his eyes were fixed in paranoia on the three men inhaling white rails, none of whom offered him the straw nor said a word.
"I'm back with the snow--untrampled as me--so let the blizzard blow, Howard Jones!"
"Jones? Who's Jones?" he asked nervously.
"Not who--what," Sandra demurely replied.
"Do you know that overpowering urge, that hunger and thirst, that uncontrollable urge and insatiable desire to snort cocaine?"
"Do you want some?"
"That means you're jonesing--now do you understand?"
"Yes, I'm Howard Jones and I'm jonesing--let's see what I got!"
He was very relieved when she lifted the top of the leather briefcase, for there inside was most of his money and a large bag of white powder. She rolled a bill into a straw, grabbed one of the mirrors lying on the floor, and poured it out.
"Well, aren't your eyes glistening like snowflakes," she said. "Move over and give me room to cut it up. Do you see that rock?"
"The one about the size of a marble? Yes."
"That is a very good thing," she pontificated. "Rocks of cocaine are very good things. They are like attractive friends we dream about, and love to fall in love with."
She smiled at him and cut four fat lines of poetry, which stanza they promptly put in place, shf! shf! shf! shf! Sandra then refilled the bullet, whence she periodically sniffed, only offering it to Howard every fourth or fifth time.
Howard entered Maxx's house on Friday afternoon, and did not leave until the following Thursday. He might as well have passed through a portal to another world. The stream of people, cigarettes, beer, wine, liquor, marijuana, psychadelic drugs and cocaine flowed endlessly at all hours. He met men and women named Luke, Gizzy, Tito, Elmar and Alma, the Zeker, the Biller and the Barter, Naama, the Wrecking Machine--Willy for short--and many others. And he saw exhibitions of human behavior more bizarre than he had ever imagined could be real.
Luke was there three or four times daily; he was always shaking like a skeleton in a breeze, and pleading with Maxx about his credit, to which exhortations the dealer wallowed in his power by taunting him with the drug. Gizzy was a short, wiry man with a twitch and a nervous laugh who came by every day precisely at noon. Tito was Maxx's brother; he visited frequently, always accompanied by a different woman, and often two or three. Elmar and Alma were married; they were a disheveled, ragged, greasy pair of red-eyed, runny nose cokeheads. They arrived Monday evening, stayed until Wednesday, and spent nearly the entire time by themselves in a corner, either expressing deep affection for one another or bickering, depending on when they had snorted their last blast. Gad was another of Maxx's frequent guests, an addict whose second passion was to make people laugh. He usually did so by means of his wit, but when that failed him, he would do so by bursting out himself, for no reason, and continuing until every person in the room had joined in. He also took great pride in the tricks he could do with his nose. He could insert the tip of his tongue into his nostrils, and every time he snorted lines he would rub some of the powder on the end of his nose, and would lick it off with a flourish, by raising his arms and demanding that everyone pay attention. He could also pass a handkerchief into one nostril and out the other, as the wall of cartilage in between had long since been eaten away by the drug.
Zeke, Bill, and Bart were three friends who referred to each other as the Zeker, the Biller, and the Barter. They were well-dressed young men who came to see Maxx once or twice a week. They were distributing ounces of cocaine to their friends, and Maxx was their supplier. He appreciated their patronage, and showed it by laying out long gratis rails every time they visited. They appeared once while Howard and Sandra were there, and during the ensuing session of snorting the Zeker accidentally sneezed over the mirror, sending ten thousand grains of high-grade Bolivian off into the air. All ten people in the room watched the event in mortified horror, while the Biller and the Barter, who were furious, seized the Zeker by his shirt; but then they realized they were in possession of ten thousand times the amount lost, and reasonably laughed the tragedy off.
The Wrecking Machine, Willy, came every morning at two and stayed until dawn. He kept a shiny nickel plugged in each of his nostrils, for the purpose of stretching them. Whenever it was his turn to snort he did so like a bull; he rubbed his hands over the mirror, then his monstrously flared nostrils inhaled four enormous, pencil-thick lines of coke in one enormous snort. Anyone who ever saw him perform could do nothing but gaze in jealous awe; no one could even ingest half the amount Willy could send up his nose, hence his nickname, the Wrecking Machine.
There were many junkies, with similarly peculiar names, habits and traits, but they all faded into the cloudy blur as Howard, when he wasn't paranoid, focused on two things: packing his nose with blow, and Sandra's every word and gesture. He was madly in love with her! He had to touch her, to have her, to know her! But this was also the cause of much emotional agony, for whenever she bought more cocaine from Maxx they left the room together, and were gone for as little as two minutes and as long as two hours. Howard would stare, with pained heart, every moment an eternity of longing, at the hideous yellow door behind which they had disappeared, and would be overcome with relief every time the accursed thing swung open and she reappeared. During those days, Sandra bearing cocaine was the utmost beautiful sight, for it filled him with joy, as well as satisfying his every yearning.
Howard's departure on Thursday was precipitated by a series of events which inspired it. It was about noon, and the room was crowded with twelve users, when Maxx did something spontaneous. He picked up a mirror, emptied a large bag of coke--an eight-ball--upon it, and said: "Now watch the magic mirror, to which this purest of the pure eight-balls clings, in defiance of the very gravity it imitates!" He spun the mirror between his fingers, whereupon the cocaine scattered like dust on the floor. "Oops!"
"No!" cried six of the people, including Howard, all of whom got on their knees and started picking the granules out of the carpet.
"That was three hundred dollars worth of blow!"
"Waste not, want not, I always say!"
"This is a terrible waste!"
"You're the waste!" Maxx shouted. He was standing in their midst, and looking down on them with a sinister leer. "How dare you lose faith in me, you groveling dogs! When I say I have a magic mirror, that is what I have!" He poured out a second eight-ball bag. "See? Not even a single grain fell off the mirror. But unfortunately for you its purity warrants that it be given only to people, and not shared with dogs." He cut it up slowly, tauntingly, and gave two generous lines to each of the six that had remained seated.
Howard's humiliation as Maxx ignored him hit like a hard slap. He suddenly saw what he had become in seven days, and resolved to stop snorting cocaine and go home.
"How much money do I have left?" he asked Sandra.
"Why do you want to know?" she bitched.
"Because I need some of it."
"How much money is left?" Howard demanded.
"We have four hundred dollars."
"Give me a hundred."
"Give me a hundred, now!"
"Why? What do you need it for?"
"I have to buy a mattress and sleep. Give me a hundred and spend the last three on one more eight-ball; when that's gone I have to leave."
She concurred with his wishes begrudgingly, and they commenced on one final session. They whiffed and sniffed and snorted the drug until it was oozing back out of their nostrils mingled with mucus and dry snot. Then Howard saw a trickle of blood drip from his beloved's nose. The stain on her beauty was too much for him to bear, and he prepared to depart.
"I have to go now, Sandra, but will I be able to see you again? May I have your address, or telephone number?"
"Don't worry, Howard," she replied, wiping the red, white and green ooze off her lip. "I know where you live. I'll be by to visit soon."
"Trust me; I'll be there this weekend. I promise."
Maxx was visibly pleased when Howard said thank you and goodbye, and feigned a show of how glad he was to have made his acquaintance and had him as a guest.
Going home Howard felt like he was walking inside a transparent brick. His skin was numb, as though from electric shock, and his head felt like a thick void, and was very heavy on his shoulders. He purchased a second-hand bed from a shop for forty dollars, and spent the other sixty on immediate delivery.
When he finally laid down on it he could feel nothing beneath him; in fact he felt non-existent, as if his very flesh and soul had been transformed into nothingness. But for a few brief trips to the bathroom and kitchen, he remained in bed until early Monday morning. His sleep was only sporadic, and not really sleep, but more an incognizant, unconscious state; and while awake he was intensely depressed, bawling and sobbing uncontrollably for no reason. His brain was straining to escape the skull, and the aching bones in his nose felt as though they might burst and let it out. He knew he was in desperate need of nourishment, and would not improve without it, but he was too weak to get up and get it, and did not feel hunger nor thirst anyway. He grew feverish, and suffered severe chills that no amount of clothing and blankets could warm out of his naked, shaking body. He also saw deluded visions of Sandra, wherein he mistook his strange infatuation for love.
At sunrise on Sunday he began to pray, begging God to forgive him for having become a pathetic, sniveling drug addict. He prayed and prayed and prayed, harder and harder, hour upon hour, until at last he broke a chilling, clammy sweat. His sheet was drenched with the fluids of his body, but he felt better, as though he had been purged of all the poisons and bad spirits. He sat up weakly, smiled, and said thank you to the ceiling. Then he found the strength to bathe and prepare a light meal, but that much exhausted him, and he needed another nap.
He awoke again at dusk, feeling much improved. Strangely, he found that his desire to snort had diminished, along with his love for Sandra. He walked to the corner and back, gratefully breathing in the fresh air, then cooked a somewhat hearty supper of meat and vegetables. He was again fatigued, however, and so retired to his bed with a book. He comprehended nothing he read, but stared blankly at the pages in an attempt to reestablish his normal routine. His hope was to beguile his body into thinking he was reading, that it might receive the usual signal to fall asleep. It actually proved successful, and through the night he achieved a deep and restive slumber.
At three in the morning he was abruptly awakened by Sandra, who was pounding on his door. "Howard! Howard! Get up! It's Sandra! Howard! Howard! Get up! Get--" The moment the door was open she threw herself into his arms. "O Howard! I'm so glad you're here. How I've missed you. We have so much to talk about."
"Ahh, shf!" she sneezed. She took his hand and led him into the bedroom. "Is this all you got for a hundred bucks? If you had to squander money we could have spent on fun, you could at least have bought a bed big enough for us to have some fun on."
"What did you want to talk about?" He eyed the bullet, and wanted it badly.
"Shh, shf!" she sniffled. "Let me--shf!--enjoy you in silence."
She started kissing his neck and massaging his scalp. As he rolled his head in ecstasy, two thoughts came to his mind: he wanted her naked and a line of blow! Yes! I must have both--NOW!
His right hand fumbled with the zipper on her dress while his left reached for the bullet. But she pushed him away, saying, "Please wait, Howard: there will be plenty of time for everything, but first we must talk."
"Uhh! All right, about what?"
"Maxx has--O! You are just the cutest man," she said, giving him a passionate, though brief, kiss. "Maxx has a proposition for you."
"What is it?" Howard asked quickly, as puffy clouds of coke swelled in his imagination.
"Can you have artwork shipped to you at the museum?"
"Not personally, although we receive shipments fairly frequently. Why do you ask?"
"Damn! Damn, damn, damn!"
"What's the matter, Sandra?" he inquired apprehensively.
"O nothing. It's all right, I suppose."
"What? What is it?"
"We need to bring a rather large shipment of coke into town from Miami. We were thinking a good way might be to smuggle it inside hollow statues. But if you can't take personal deliveries--"
"Wait! Wait! It might not be out of the realm of possibility."
"Maxx will bury us in a snow drift if we can set this up. But how would you arrange it?"
"I don't know, I don't know; but if I think enough I'll figure something out."
"All right Howard," she said, rising from the bed. "I'll come back in a few days to see if you can make it happen. Goodbye."
"Wait! Do you...do you..."
"Do I what?"
"Do you have any cocaine with you?" he blurted.
She plugged the bullet into his nostril. "It's full, Howard. Maxx packed it in exchange for my coming to see you. Take a few healthy blasts, for as much as I'd love to stay here and party with you, I can't."
He hesitated, then inhaled. "Shf, shf! Shf, shf! Shf, shf!
"That's enough, Howard, leave a morsel for me. Think hard while I'm gone; there are huge white hills waiting for us, if only you can cut a path to them. Think hard, for me, and lead me into those hills. I want to make love in those hills, and I want you for my paramour. Think hard, for me."
"I am! I am har--thinking hard!"
"How hard, Howard? How hard can you think? Bye."
He ran to the door and called after: "Come by this evening! I'll work on the idea today, and give you a progress report. Please come tonight!"
A Connection in the Limbless Show
Howard returned immediately to his bed, but could not lie still. His mind raced wildly as he tried to conceive a plan. For five minutes he felt invincible, as if he could run to Miami and bring back two hundred kilos on his shoulders. Then paranoia set in, and his body tightened with anxiety. He began to consider the ramifications of getting busted: the authorities already know what I'm plotting! he thought suddenly. They must be onto Maxx by now, and they're just watching where everyone who leaves his house goes before moving in on us all! They followed Sandra here, and might be outside my window at this moment! He peered through the curtain, saw nothing, then chastised himself for behaving so foolishly.
He began pacing his bedroom. There was no way he could sleep, and he was jonesing for more lines! He contemplated taking another walk. Maybe I shouldn't; if there is someone outside they'll sense how nervous I am, and start paying that much more attention to me! But I can't stay in this apartment; I'll go crazy here--I'm already crazy! Wait a minute! Relax! O what I would give for a blast! Maybe I should go to Maxx's house. We could discuss his proposition, and perhaps he might give me an advance on my services. That's what I'll do!
He dressed in haste and left. The cool night air was a calming breath of relief, but then he remembered that there were--might be--those watching who knew what he was thinking and where he was going. There were very few people in the streets at that hour, but every one he saw was a drug agent or narc squad officer clandestinely trailing him. He picked up his pace, to hasten his arrival, then slowed it back down, to avoid raising attention. At last Maxx's house came into view like a beacon of salvation. He started toward it, then hesitated. They might laugh at me, and probably won't even let me in. I haven't been taught the secret knocking code yet. Maybe if I--I'd better not. I should just return home and try to get some sleep before work. Then he stood staring at the house for almost half an hour before committing himself to the latter course of action.
The first light of morning appeared as he began to walk. Moments later he turned the corner, and was passing by the museum when someone said: "Howard Fillimeer! What are you doing on the streets at this hour?"
"Huh? What?" Howard tensed, as though all his bones were connected by a master string, which some external force had just yanked. Then he recognized the man that had addressed him. "O, Theodore, it's you. I'm so relieved."
"Why are you relieved? Who did you expect to find out this early in the day?"
"No one. I'm just suffering from insomnia. Why are you here at this hour?"
"I take a long walk every morning," Theodore replied. "You seem anxious. Did you have a restful vacation?"
"Yes, it was very quiet and relaxing, thank you."
"Good. You must be fresh and ready to resume you duties. Uh, Howard," he added, lowering his voice. "I've been wanting to ask you: did you see that woman again?"
"Woman? What woman?"
"What woman? Ha, ha! That gorgeous creature you lectured just before you left. How could you forget Sandra? It's all right, you can share it with me; I wouldn't think to reprimand you for getting involved with a patron."
"No, no, I haven't seen her since."
"Well, I have to say I'm a little disappointed, Howard."
"Theodore, I have to go; I want to try and get a little sleep before work," he said, going off.
"There's an exciting new sculpture show coming. I'll tell you more about it later," Theodore said.
Howard spent the three hours before work tossing restlessly in his bed. Sometimes he would lay perfectly still, as the desire to snort cocaine was his only thought; then he would embrace his quilt and roll over, to alleviate his yearning for Sandra.
Those three hours passed by like years; but at length the eighth hour of the day arrived, when he dressed and left for work.
He slipped to his post unnoticed, and started thinking up ways he might smuggle cocaine through the museum. He imagined that all the sculptures around him were filled with the drug, then began wondering if any really were. Wouldn't that put Sandra and me in bliss! he thought, and began examining some of the pieces. He had been there about an hour, and was peering into the arse of the general's horse when Theodore came in.
"Howard! What are you doing?"
"O! Good morning Theodore," he said, straightening up in a flush of embarrassment.
"What is wrong with you, Howard? Why are you behaving so strangely?"
"Nothing. I was just taking a closer look at the figure of this horse."
"Just don't get hit by any marble feces--they'll give you a powerful headache. He, he, he!"
Suddenly I have one, a migraine, Howard thought. I wish I could get even one accursed line of blow up my nose! "I don't think any connected with their mark, Theodore, ha, ha." I never noticed how ugly this old bastard really is. I can't handle his idiocy right now. Even the slightest sniff would make the unbearable buffoon a little more tolerable.
Theodore went over to Howard, felt his hands, and said: "What is the matter with you? You're trembling, and your palms are clammy."
He knows! He knows! He must have figured it out! Howard took a deep breath--through his nose--stepped back, and replied: "I'm fine, really. When I can't sleep I'm usually anxious the next day, and when I'm nervous I sweat."
"Well, if you're well, I'm well. I came to tell you about the show we have coming in two weeks," Theodore explained.
"We have a show coming in on two weeks notice?"
"Yes we do--the Limbless Sculpture show."
"THE Limbless Sculpture show is coming to the Metzendigger in two weeks?" Howard exclaimed.
"You know the one: Davern, Rivera, Greco, Grant, Castiglione, and Smathers are all exhibited, among many other greats."
"I know the show, but how were you able to get it here?"
"I didn't do anything; that's the beauty! They called last week and offered it to us. It was scheduled to go to a museum in Cleveland, but they cancelled in lieu of a Picasso collection. In their refuse do we find our fortune!"
There's a design to be woven in this! Howard thought. "That sounds like the most important event we've ever had."
"O it is! It is!"
"I'm excited, and looking forward to it. I'll see you at lunch," Howard mumbled. Please go away and leave me alone.
"Yes, yes. Ummm...so come clean with me Howard."
He bolted upright and blurted: "What? What do you mean?"
"Come now, Howard; don't feign ignorance with me. I know you know what I'm referring to, and you know I know what you're hiding."
"No, really, I don't! I'm hiding nothing."
"You need not lie to me, for I wouldn't hold it against you; in fact, if anything I'm jealous. I'll be up front: I know you're lying to me about Sandra, because I saw you walking with her on Philips street not an hour after you left here for your vacation. You were carrying two briefcases. Now tell me--did you get a taste?"
"Theodore," he said boldly, taking a deep breath wherein he pretended to inhale two fat rails, "I don't think my private life is any of your business, do you?"
"No, I suppose not...but, you can tell me--"
"Very well, but I do hope you enjoyed yourselves." Howard remained silent, hoping the old lecher would take the signal to leave; but Theodore was feeling talkative, and hesitated while thinking of something to say. "lt was terrible, the news about Lorenzo Vellini, wasn't it?"
"What happened to Lorenzo Vellini?"
"He died last Thursday."
"Lorenzo Vellini, the Caliban-looking, Iago-conniving, Shylock of an art dealer? What killed him?"
"It was all over the papers and the news: where were you? Apparently he died of a heart attack, but it's a rather morbidly amusing story. Several months ago he commissioned an unknown sculptor, a young man named Cleps, to carve his likeness in stone. No one knows specifically the circumstances that precipitated it, but the artist and model must not have had a very good relationship, for this young man Cleps, without telling a soul, removed the original head and replaced it with a grotesque caricature, which he unveiled in front of Lorenzo and his guests. The old man was mortified by the sight, and dropped down dead. It caused a sensation that has rippled throughout the whole art world."
"I'm sure it has. I'll have to find a newspaper and read the details myself."
"Yes, you should. Well, I suppose I'll be going now. Tell me you at least kissed her!"
"Theodore, my relationship with Sandra is between her and me."
"O, so you're admitting you've established a relationship with her. I'm sorry, Howard; I won't pry anymore."
Howard said nothing, and watched in relief as he left, but then his lust for blow went into his memory and retrieved a forgotten bit of information. "Theodore," he called after. "Didn't Vellini live in Miami?"
"That's right; the ordeal of his death took place on his estate there. Why do you ask?"
"Just my curiosity. I'll see you at noon."
Cleps! Cleps! Cleps...Miami...sculpture? There must be a way to arrange this! There must! I'll be a hero! Then I'll spread lines along Sandra's legs and sniff my way home! O Cleps! My Savior! My guardian angel and guiding star in heaven! Cleps! I must figure this out!
He pondered over the situation all morning, but his thoughts were obscured by white vision. At lunch he resolved to unmuddle his mind by setting his priorities; he had to concentrate on Cleps, and all else would follow after. He found and read the newspaper article and the obituary. When he saw the description of the statue his eyes bulged, and the bulb inside his head flickered on. The original head had been smashed off and replaced with an enormous, hollow caricature in clay. He's got a headless statue, and a hollow one! I must get Cleps in the limbless show!
On his way home Howard walked past Maxx's house, where he paused. I don't know why I'm afraid to go up and knock. If I could only have one snort here, I know, I know it would give me the courage. It worked with Sandra; I did shut the door. Go, Howard, go! Think of all the white rails that are being cut up this moment behind that door! And you do have a legitimate business concern to discuss with him. Hm. Perhaps someone will come along, who I can follow in. He waited several minutes, but no one entered or left, so he sighed and continued onward. Hopefully Sandra will come early this evening, as I asked her to.
He anxiously paced the apartment for hours with his mind whirling furiously. When is she going to knock? How will I arrange this with Cleps? God I want some cocaine! I need it. Where is Sandra? And Cleps...I need nosecandy--NOW!
Suddenly the door knocker sounded. He sprinted to it. "Sandra! I can't believe you're finally here! We have to go to Maxx's immediately! I know how we can do it!"
"Slow down Howard; you haven't even given me a chance to say hello."
"O, I'm sorry," he said, placing his hands on her hips. He tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away and squeezed by into the apartment.
"No kisses now," she complained, "you've ruined the moment. Tell me what happened today."
"I've got it all figured out! Let's go see Maxx and discuss it with him."
"That won't be possible. The house has been temporarily shut down."
"What? Shut down? What do you mean?"
"Maxx thinks he's being investigated, so he's locked it up and gone into hiding. I'm still in contact with him, but I'm one of only three people who know where he is."
The bottom fell out of Howard's heart. "So, where...what..."
"Don't fret, Howard, there'll be plenty of blow soon, and he's still interested in you if you can help us import; that's why I'm here. Now tell me your idea."
"O, of course. Do you have anything I could snort first? It would really help to clear my head."
"I might, Howard; but not before you tell me your idea."
"Do you have any I could snort in a couple minutes, after I finish?"
"I told you I might; if you wish to find out, tell me what you've come up with." She fondled the bullet on her neck and stared seductively into his eyes.
He hastily explained the story of Cleps and Lorenzo, and of the Limbless Sculpture show that was coming to the Metzendigger. "So we call Cleps, arrange to have his headless Lorenzo included in the show; then we commission him to do a couple more hollow pieces, and have them shipped along with his entry. From there we take them to Maxx's, smash them open like piñatas filled with nosecandy, and have a party! I get a rush just thinking about it!"
"Are you sure we could pull off something like that?"
"I'm certain of it! I've examined every angle, and I've got it drawn flawlessly in my mind. First we call Lorenzo Vellini's estate; I found the number in the director's office."
"Well let's get on the blower, and get this operation rolling!" Sandra cried. "Make it happen Howard!"
"Could I get on your blower first? I'm jonesing!"
"I already told you, after. Besides, I might not even have any; but you know how to find out."
Howard dialed the telephone; it was answered by Gina Vellini, Lorenzo's widow. What was peculiar about this, almost fated, was that she rarely answered the telephone, usually leaving that task for one of her servants or secretaries.
"Have I reached the Vellini estate?" he asked.
"Yes you have; who are you?"
"Excuse me, ma'am; my name is Howard, and I'm trying to track down a man named Cleps."
"How dare you mention that horrible man's name in this house, after all the insult and injury he's caused! He killed my husband! I should just hang up--"
"Please don't, I hate Cleps. Give me a moment to explain."
Howard thought for a furious moment, then invented a story. "Cleps is my brother; I haven't seen him in five years, but when I do I'm going to squeeze his head off at the shoulders. He cheated me of my father's inheritance, and I haven't seen him since. The only reason I called you is because I read an article in the newspaper this weekend. I'm deeply sorry about your husband's death, but if you can tell me where to find Cleps, I can assure you we'll both enjoy the sweet taste of veangence."
"Well, I myself don't know where he went, but that strumpet Priscilla he cavorts with might. She's a potter at the Sunny Day Ceramics Center."
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Vellini; and again, my condolences." He hung the phone, turned to Sandra, and said: "She doesn't know where he is--miserable old hag!--but a woman named Priscilla, who works at the Sunny Day Ceramics Center might. It's too bad the shock killed the bag of wrinkles that was your husband, poor Mrs. Vellini, but I'm glad Cleps decapitated his memorial; otherwise it wouldn't qualify for the show, and this whole operation wouldn't be feasible."
"Yes my dear."
"Stop babbling and phone the Sunny Day Ceramics Center."
He secured the number from the information operator, then dialed; not only was he fortunate to find her still there, but it was she who answered the telephone. "Good evening, Sunny Day Ceramics. Priscilla speaking, how may I help you?"
"Are you the Priscilla familiar with Cleps the artist?"
"I might be; who are you, and why do you ask?"
"My name is Howard Fillimeer; I'm a curator at the Metzendigger Museum of Modern Art, in Chicago. We have a show featuring limbless figures coming in two weeks, and after reading the Vellini story in the newspaper, I was wondering if Cleps would be interested in entering his headless Lorenzo in the show. Do you know where he can be reached?"
"There are many people angry with Cleps right now; how do I know you're legitimate?"
"Please believe me," Howard begged. "I always hated Vellini. In fact, I rejoiced when I heard the arthritic crab's fate was to die such a humiliating death. I relished every word in that article, and I would take great delight in advancing Cleps' career. I would also someday like to pay my respects to him in person with a handshake and a thank you."
"O, you should have been there!" Priscilla exclaimed.
"I wish I was."
"It was beautiful! It was living poetry! A ballroom full of people were laughing as pimple-nose turned blue and dropped, while his newly widowed wife looked on in fake shock, the insincere witch! And Cleps! O, if you could have seen his face! I've never seen such high-esteem and self-assurance in a man as I saw in Cleps at that moment. I fell in love with him right there, Mr. Fillimeer, but I haven't seen him since, though my heart is yearning for a man like it has never yearned before."
"Do you know where he might be?"
"I haven't the slightest clue, but I've been expecting him to come see me any time now. I do know where the statue is, however."
"You do? Where? Where is it?"
"It's standing right next to me."
"How did you come by it?"
"Not only did the Vellini's have the audacity to chase us off their estate after Cleps bared his very soul to them, but then the ingrateful bastards put the statue and the head out in the trash. Two masterpieces, and they thought nothing of putting them out with stale bread crusts and cat box litter. Fortunately I happened to pass by right then, and was able to make the rescue."
"Do you know if Cleps has any experience doing hollow sculpture?"
"Lorenzo's fat head here is hollow," Priscilla said.
"It is? Are you certain?"
"Am I certain? I helped him make it! He insisted it be hollow to reflect the true state of affairs inside Lorenzo's head. Why do you ask?"
"I'm considering commissioning him to do three hollow pieces."
"Why, are you planning to smuggle drugs?" Priscilla casually remarked.
"N-no! No! Of course not! I-I have a fascination with hollowness, and I want two women and a man who are sculpted to reflect not only lack of brains, but hearts and souls as well. Do you think he--"
"Cleps!" Bap, bap, bap! Cleps came into the shop, and Priscilla dropped the receiver. Howard waited until she returned to the line. "I'm sorry, Mr. Fillimeer, he just walked in! Can you call back, or hold the line for a few moments while we say hello?"
"I'll hold the line. Cleps just walked into the store," he said to Sandra.
"Well, what are we going to do?"
"Get him to build you three hollow statues, what do you think?"
"What about dimensions? How big should they be?"
"As big as he can build, what do you think? The bigger the hold, the more blow we can stow."
"But what about money? We're going to have to pay him; how much can Maxx afford to spend?"
"Don't worry about the money. Just get him into the show, and to agree to do the sculptures. Have him give you an address where he can be reached, and tell him your agent will visit him tomorrow."
"Who's my agent?"
"His name is Morris; he's one of our men in Miami."
"Are you sure he'll be able to make the arrangements? How well do you know this man Morris? Is he trustworthy?"
"I should think I know him pretty well...he's my ex-husband!"
"You've been married?" Howard asked incredulously, as emotion flooded his insides. "I didn't know that."
"Of course you didn't, because I never told you. If you'd like to know, however, I've had four husbands, and there were three more men I almost married."
Howard was shocked, and suddenly reconsidered his carnal desires for Sandra; his hesitation was brief, however, for he looked into her ragged, bloodshot eyes, and was again consumed by amorous passions.
"Stop staring at me with that nowhere, bovine gaze and pick up the phone, before you ruin everything," Sandra said, shoving him.
"O! Uh, hello?" Howard said hastily.
"Who am I speaking with?"
"Are you Cleps?"
"Yes I am."
"O good! My name is Howard Fillimeer; I'm a curator at the Met--"
"Priscilla explained everything to me."
"O...are you interested?"
"Of course I'm interested. How much?"
"I can't say yet; I won't be able to speak with the director until the morning. But I would also like to commission you to do a set of three pieces for my personal collection."
"I'm interested, but how much?"
"I haven't really thought--"
"Mr. Fillimeer, figure out your finances and call me back," Cleps replied shortly.
"That's fine, but first can you tell me if you're capable of doing what I have in mind?"
"I am the great--oh, nevermind. It's been a long weekend. I can do anything," Cleps said. "What do you want?"
"I want three lifesize figures--two men and a woman. I want them enormously fat and miserable, and I want them hollow to reflect the lack of soul I see in so many people. You have free license with your imagination, and the only stipulation I would make is that you have them ready for delivery in two weeks: that's when the limbless show opens, and I want them shipped along with your Lorenzo."
Sure I can do it, but two weeks certainly isn't a wealth of time. I will have to work day and night, and will require appropriate compensation," Cleps leveraged.
"Money is not an issue, and I would prefer to have you work in haste. I've always felt that the greatest artworks were created when the artist flowed with the inspiration of his muse without fussing over details," Howard profoundly explained.
"Uh...right. I'll do it, but I have a stipulation of my own. I'm going to make them without arms, and I want them displayed in the limbless show before they are delivered into your collection."
"Well...I suppose that's possible...if there's room...but I'd really rather have them come straight to me."
"Mr. Fillimeer, I have gained quite a bit of notoriety in the last week. This is the best opportunity I've ever had to advance my career, and if you can't accept my terms, I'm sure there are others interested in my Lorenzo, and promoting me."
"Very well, Cleps, I accept your terms: I'll enter them in the show before bringing them home."
"Good. Call me again when you've figured out your finances."
"My agent happens to be in Miami tonight; can I have him come see you tomorrow?"
"I'll be here all day--The Sunny Day Ceramics Center. Good night."
"Everything is set, Sandra!" Howard cried. "Have Morris meet him tomorrow at the Sunny Day Ceramics Center. I'll need to know how much the museum is willing to pay, so I'll find out and tell you in the morning."
"Excellent! I'll drop by early to see you. Good night Howard."
"What is it?"
"You promised to tell me if you had any blow after I made the arrangements."
"I don't Howard--sorry. But even if I did I wouldn't be able to give you any."
"Why? Why not?"
"Because if I were to let you toot the horn a few times tonight, you'd be a jittering, paranoid wreck in the morning, and would undoubtedly find some way to screw this operation up before it's begun."
"Sandra, wait...don't leave yet."
"What now?" she snapped.
"Please don't come into the museum; I'll just call you with the information."
"Why Howard? Are you ashamed of me?"
"No, no, of course not; it's just that--"
"The Metzendigger Museum of Modern Art is open to the general public six days a week, and if I want to go in and walk around, it's my prerogative. I think I'll be browsing the sculpture room in the morning. Sleep well, sugar." She shut the door, then stuck her head back in and said: "I want to apologize for being rude. I really don't have any coke, and I'm irritable and sarcastic because of it. I'm sorry."
Howard paced his apartment several times before getting into bed, where a powerful fit of paranoia seized him, from which moment he was never again fully at ease. He gave serious consideration, for the first time, to the magnitude of the smuggling operation he was involving himself in, and the repercussions--humiliation, incarceration, life without Sandra, life where the only lines are bars and uniform stripes!--were he to be caught. But then his imagination started buzzing with fantasies of how wonderful life would be when they succeeded. These visions were sufficient cement for his resolve, although they didn't prevent him from periodically peering through the curtains to see if anyone was waiting on the lawn.
In the morning Howard broached Theodore with his proposal, whereupon he was authorized to forward Cleps a showing fee of five hundred dollars, and was declared a hero by the director (inasmuch as what he had done could be regarded heroics). Then Howard explained that he had used part of his savings to commission Cleps for a set of three pieces, and that the artist insisted they be included in the show; and although Theodore was excited by the addition to Cleps' entry, he looked at Howard curiously, as though suspicious of some deeper motives. Sandra came in shortly thereafter, under the leering eyes of Theodore. She quickly and discreetly obtained the information from Howard and left, but for the rest of the day the sculpture room curator was the brunt of an incessant flow of lewd remarks and insinuations.
That same afternoon Cleps and Priscilla received a visit from Morris. The negotiations were brief, for Cleps stood firm on a fee of three thousand dollars to show both pieces of Lorenzo, and five thousand dollars each for the three hollow statues, to which terms Morris agreed without objection, and a contract was drawn naming Howard the owner of the as yet unsculpted artworks.