"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read"

- Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

...No Graven Image

“…No Graven Image”

Miniscule shards of marble flew as Ike Solomon delicately chiseled the pillar of grayish-white marble standing in his living room. He worked skillfully, and moved as if the hammer and chisel with which he worked were living extensions of his own flanges. These tools and his expertise had transformed what had been nothing more that a rudimentary obelisk a few weeks ago, into the jagged human shape which he now went about refining.

The crude statue rested on a low, dusty block of wood looking out the window over Central Park near 72nd street. The figure stood five feet ten inches, Ike’s height exactly. A featureless head rested atop a thick, shapeless body, with two arms at the shoulders. But for every hour Ike dedicated to the statue, the more human in looked.

Ike’s apartment was on the 35th and final floor of the Wallachian Arms, an antiquated high rise with a distinct smell and “hard” water. The place, his place I should say, was rather plain…one would most certainly conclude it was nearly a bore. The walls were a smoky grey color and the floors were made of unvarnished hardwood—the kind he remember playing on in abandoned gymnasiums while growing up in the desolate steel towns of western Pennsylvania. Ike’s furniture, which was minimal at best, was either unfinished pine or of lead-colored fabric; the pine unfinished because he simply had no guests who may fear the occasional ass splinter. In every corner stood a statue, expertly fashioned by my dear friend Isaac Solomon. Each was done is ashen marble and portrayed some figure from greater times. His was the kind of apartment where some “B” rated horror flick of the 60’s might stage a suicide. The only escape from the apartment’s drab d├ęcor were the shelves, floor to ceiling, of multi-hued volumes that more or less possessed one similar subject—the middle ages.

In his mid-twenties at this point, Ike had been fascinated by medieval times his entire life. Perhaps the only enjoyment he took more than sculpting kings was reading about them. A fortune mom and dad left him some 9 years prior obliged his obsession. He was worth roughly 47 million when I befriended him, and aside from his $1700 a month rent, subsequent utilities, and tons of marble that were easily hoisted to his penthouse by the industrial elevator that was ironically fashioned by the company his great grandfather had started in the early 20th century, he had no other financial responsibilities. Sure, he sent $2000 a month to his sister Millie who lived on a funny farm outside of Cincinnati, but that was just to keep up appearances with the board of administrators, men that had grown up taking his father’s visions and grinding them into millions of dollars and a spot near the top of the Fortune 500 List. Ike was cordial with all of them at best, but had a deep rooted relationship with one gentleman in particular. It was because of this kinship with the respected chairman that the rest unquestionably accepted Ike’s lifestyle for what it was.

Solomon’s folks were a quirky pair from what he told me, and he told me much. Linking the few pictures he had in and old Adidas shoebox with his tales of terror, I was easily able to distinguish what kind of a household in which young Isaac was raised. His father was a morbid looking man. Gangly and bald, Ike used to say his night time silhouette looked like that of Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. He married twice before meeting Ike’s mother, but never bore children (as far as we know) before Isaac and his twin sister Millie. He’s probably a gentleman who I would have enjoyed dining with; Ike told me many stories of his family and their closest “friends” who would keep some of New York City’s finest restaurants open into the mauve hours of a Big Apple sunrise. All of his wives were beautiful, and his girlfriends young. I think he thought he was probably some kind of Renaissance Man, as most New York execs probably similarly do. With his net worth exceeding 100 million at its peak moments, one could understand why. Ike’s mother was definitely the more interesting of the two. She came from old money, but acted very nouve riche. Ike said that she constantly gossiped about women who were exactly like her, hence Ike’s hatred. He used to tell stories about her drunken stupors and late night naked sleep walks through the halls and rooms of their castle in the Hamptons. “She was 42 when she shat Millie and I from her womb,” Isaac once said to me after a Jack Daniels induced “death anniversary party” (he loosely quipped), at the 5 year mark of his parents’ death. That was also the same February night in north Manhattan when Ike divulged much of the black truth that encompassed his family. But I never judged him. I liked him too much. My parents were good people so I respected him for still being sane (if that’s what you’d call it). Aside from talking to me two or three times a week, his life consisted of studying and of sculpting this fixation while living confusingly meager from his inheritance. The only time he would spend money for something other than amenities were the few instances when he could hawk a piece to some young rich interested collector. The pieces would go for about 10 grand. He once said that some day, when he dies, someone will discover his work and he will be talked about in art history books with the likes of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Monet, Manet, and some others I’d never heard of before, for thousands of years to come. I was sworn to secrecy about his work and I never had a problem not telling anyone.

Most nights we would smoke pot on his overlook, a huge marble structure that had been put together in Venice and shipped to NYC when he moved in. It was ten million for the whole project, but he claimed it was his gift to himself for enduring the 16 years with his mother and father. Anyway, most nights we would smoke dope and drink Jamaican beer on the three ton marble deck that jutted over the corner of 72nd and 12th. We would watch people in the park with binoculars and he would rant and rave about popular music, how communism works on paper, who he thought the second gunman on the grassy knoll was, and other curious subjects of American culture.

It was the beginning of August in ’98 when he came across a Jewish owned bookstore on a daytrip to SoHo. The “Jew lady” (as he referred to her) who worked behind the counter was blind in one eye and had a misshapen left ear; like someone had ripped a loop from it years ago. She had a Schnauzer at her side that was blinder than she. It growled at him as soon as he walked in then turned around, bumped into a wall, and fell into a heap in the middle of the “Action/Adventure” aisle. Ike was the kind of guy who would provoke an awkward mutt just to let it know whose boss. By accident, he found an interesting looking hard back with some southeastern European inscription on the inside jacket that he loosely interpreted, with “Jew lady’s” help, to be a message from a history professor to a graduating student. The book was old, but in fairly good shape. At first thought he wanted to sculpt the substantial looking figure that adorned the cover. It was a book about Vlad Tepe, otherwise known as “Vlad the Impaler.”
When we returned to his fortress in the sky that evening I went home earlier than usual because I could tell he wanted to finish the book in one sitting. It seems that Tepe had been the cruel ruler of a province in Transylvania. The “Impaler” had been coined such a nickname because of his infatuation with having those who displeased him impaled on a wooden pike and left for nature. Isaac had been intrigued by individuals from medieval times before, but never like this. Vlad inspired a new and mysterious, though perverse awe in Ike, the likes of which were previously foreign to him.

In three days time the book was read and the bust for his sculpture began the following weekend after the new “mother rock” was delivered. His lawyer, who came to talk about the estate, showed up one Saturday morning with donuts and watched in awe as Ike drank espresso and chiseled the blackened marble chunk with the passion of a zealot. In two weeks time the rock was morphed from a seven foot half ton piece of stone into the rough-edged human figure that would eventually be the pride of his collection.

In August, in New York, the afternoon sunshine wanes and is gradually replaced by twilight, and then becomes reborn by the night lights of its inhabitants. Ike felt that summer gave him extra energy, but that it was also the only time of the year that he was able to sleep through the night. When he finished the basics of the sculpture one particular Friday evening, the last of August, he reviewed his workmanship, swept up the marble fragments from the floor, and leaned the shop broom on the coat rack. He spoke to himself, as Jack Daniels poured from his breath, that he would begin carving the face of Vlad Tepe the next day.

After a deep alcohol induced slumber Ike awoke at noon the next day to find that he had pissed himself in his sleep. It somehow became apparent that he must gather his thoughts and delve himself into his masterpiece. The fervor with which he had worked since beginning the effigy had cut him off from anything else that was going on 35 floors below him (even more than usual). Over the days that followed he strained feverishly to perfect his work. The 72 inch television that always blared out CNN was never on. The incessant voice of Howard Stern could no longer be heard, and there wasn’t even a sign that he had perhaps read the newspaper in an attempt to strike up a conversation with me while we shared a joint on his balcony. He, in fact, left only to buy food. It was this singleness of purpose that allowed him to get so far along in his project in such a short period of time. This drive motivated him to complete the countenance of the “Impaler” by just a few weeks into October.

The tyrant’s face was finished; Ike stepped back to admire his work. But as he gazed at the eyes, they beckoned to him, drawing him nearer. He approached the effigy slowly, thoughtlessly, allowing himself to be controlled by the marble stare he received back. As he moved, the scene in our vision grew steadily darker, until at last, there was complete blackness. The world faded away before us that night and then disappeared completely. And that’s when there was nothing for him anymore. Nothing. He talks about it now like I remember, but I don’t. I only remember the cool breeze that stroked our skin. And the sounds of traffic that began drawing nearer. There was a hazy light that materialized into a lamp post. And then the world returned to us, but we surveyed the surroundings in confusion. We were at a path on the edge of Central Park, looking past a towering oak tree, back at his apartment building. We convinced ourselves that someone had laced the weed with opium or mixed it with ‘shroom crumbs, but on the outset it was an entirely sobering experience for me and I would never spend another day with Ike again. I suppose to take his mind off the mystery he decided to clean up the mess on the floor around the statue. The broom was no longer leaning against the coat rack anymore. It was, in fact, no where to be found. He gave up on the disappearing broom, making a joke that his mother’s spirit had visited us, thus our mindboggling evening, and had flown off on it over the busy streets of Manhattan. He made us sandwiches, but complained he couldn’t find a knife to cut them in half. Again, he searched to no avail. We ate; I left; he slept.

Over the next few weeks, Ike continued his vehement sculpting of Vlad the ”Impaler.” Each day, the statue progressed further toward completion, becoming more and more life-like. But as Ike’s work persisted, so did his black outs. The mysterious lapses occurred every few days from there on. Each time, it was the same thing. The world would fade out while he sculpted, only to find himself hours later somewhere in the park. His shoes and clothes never showed any sign of a struggle and he would usually awaken mid stride; sometimes even amidst a light jog.

He began buying brooms and then claimed to lose them in his huge studio penthouse. They would disappear after black outs and he would tell himself that they were more than likely at the bottom of the elevator shaft. He stopped buying brooms, but window fixture poles began disappearing and he would come to find the curtains neatly folded on his work bench. He stopped caring. When we spoke, one brief time some two weeks later, he was only interested in telling me new things that he had learned about Vlad from the internet or some other book that Amazon delivered. During his waking hours he sculpted endlessly. And when he slept he had dreams of being Vlad, or fighting Vlad, or living with him. He would wake up in cold sweats after his subconscious took him to medieval Romania, where corpses of peasants and soldiers lay scattered across the countryside, impaled in the ground with crude wooden pikes. Each dream seemed more real than the last for Ike, but the nightmares also grew less chilling with each passing night, and more familiar.

On a cool October evening the statue was finished. Vlad Tepe stood there, looking out over Central Park in splendor. He was clothed in stately robes of milky grey shaved black marble; his hands resting before him on the hilt of a sword, its tip stretching to the floor. It adorned the face of a mad man—wide, bulging eyes staring over a long pointed nose on a thin, sullen face. Ike stood and stared into the face of the effigy; observing it and reminiscing about the bond he had formed with it over the past month and half. He eventually got up and walked about his apartment. The place was in shambles, having been ignored for so long. He took his industrial elevator to the mail room in the old building a sifted through newspaper bags to find a date on one that wasn’t anymore than a week prior. The October 6th edition caught his eye. People were dying—being murdered—being impaled on wooden broom sticks throughout Central Park. The killings occurred every few days, and each involved a derelict, or group of derelicts, that had been impaled on the ground with the sharpened end of broken broom sticks. A light went off…he began to remember.

He had hidden the knives at various locations in the park and sharpened brooms and mops and other wooden staves at random. He would search the most remote reaches of the park for his victims, usually some poor unsuspecting bum, or a young lady out for an after-dark run. After his memory had been jogged, and Ike relived the atrocities he had committed, he took the elevator back up to consult his old friend Vladdy. His demented sociopathic laugh echoed through the barren room and when the laughter passed, Ike went out once more; this time though he would be conscious.

Ike awoke the following morning with the events of the night before fresh in his head. He had killed again and it felt so natural, so simple, so right. He opened his eyes to find that he wasn’t in bed though. Before him was a pane of glass and beyond that were the trees of Central Park, painted bronze in the early morning sunshine. His body was numb and when he tried to move he found that he could not. He would spend the next few hundred years confined to that statue with only his view of the park to keep him company. The murders would never be solved and his wishes to be immortalized in the books of history would never fulfill themselves. He would become a forgotten legacy. Some would say he disappeared—ran off to some island, but I still managed to let myself up to that penthouse for a few short years after. Dust settled like dark clouds before a Midwestern twister on everything in that place…except for the statue of Vlad Tepe.