Professor Chester Clowes, Ph.D., MA, BS, two-time recipient of the Morgan County Arts Association Modern Painting and Chili Soup cook-off competition and the university’s most promising candidate for tenure in 1962 leaned against his desk and, clicking away at his compact camera, caught the reactions of his students to his latest work.
Such meager minds as they possessed would never grasp the scope of his art game.
Without glancing at the modest five by five canvas only just unveiled on the easel behind him, he put the camera down and answered the question leveled at him by the pert blonde in the front row.
“Why yes, dear. My painting does indeed depict a murder.”
“It’s a typewriter,” said a plump specimen in blue cardigan who sat in the back, her eyes like saucers of milk.
“And it’s bashing somebody’s brains in,” finished Clowes. “Does that disturb you? Does it make you feel squeamish? Anybody?” He reached for the camera, scanning the tribe of doughy boys and leggy girls and wondered which of the female litter he’d go home with tonight. “Anybody?”
Typical, bourgeoisie silence.
As must’ve met Manzoni’s 90 tin cans of excrement or Duchamp’s Fountain.
He scratched at his pompadour and, wiping his fingers on his corduroy slacks, sighed.
“Qwerty Murdyis your essay topic for the weekend,” he said. “Just as Brush Stroke and Plaster Pairs were last time.”
The most asinine of your writing to be publicly ridiculed on Monday.
He didn’t say that last out loud.
As the class filed out past his desk, Clowes noticed an older man in a rumpled suit limp forward from the rear of the classroom. When they were alone, the crumbling relic introduced himself.
“Detective Grant,” he said. “Like to ask you about your work.”
“If you mean my paintings—”
Grant nodded. “The paintings.”
“It’s a game,” said Clowes. “An art game I play with the students. Presenting them with horrific depictions of violence, I collect their simplistic reactions on film. These candid photos,” he said, patting his trusty camera, “are the true works of art.”
“I’ve got some pictures too,” said Grant, reaching into his suitcoat, tossing three glossy prints to the desk.
Clowes took in the stark images.
The redhead he’d bedded in February at the bottom of a bathtub, her naked arms and legs encased in heavy plaster. The blonde from two weeks ago, a paintbrush protruding from her bosom. The skinny brunette from last Tuesday, her skull mashed beneath a heavy old Smith-Corona.
Living representations of his three art game paintings in black and white.
Though not living at all.
“You’re not accusing me?” said Clowes, giving way to what Kierkegaard surely would’ve labeled the heat of an existential moment.
“We’ve got greasy fingerprints from all three scenes,” said Grant. “Hair gel.” He picked up the camera and examined the loops and whorls there. “Yeah. I’m accusing you.”
“My God, man. I would never….” Clowes’ words trailed off as his mind tumbled through a series of free-verse that didn’t make sense even to him.
Still holding the camera, Grant waved an age speckled hand at Qwerty-Murdyon its wooden pedestal.
“You’re no Vermeer, that’s for sure.” Grant smiled. “’Course he worked from life. Not, er, death.”
“Vermeer?” Clowes felt the perspiration drill up through his pores, his internal thermostat dropping into an icy abyss. He wasn’t able to work his jaw, couldn’t seem to close his gaping mouth.
Grant tilted back his hat. “Used to be a painter myself,” he said. “Before I got into theater.”
“Yup.” Holding the camera in both hands, he pointed it at Clowes and snapped off four quick shots. “Theater.”
Speechless, Clowes turned to the door as the redhead, the brunette, and the blonde from the glossy photos came toward him.
But they weren’t ghosts.
“Thanks, Uncle Ray,” said the blonde, kissing the old man on the cheek.
“You’re alive?” Clowes stumbled backwards.
The redhead picked up the photo of herself in the bathtub.
“Surely this didn’t disturb you, Professor?” She looked at the others. “Anybody?”
Grant gave his niece a squeeze before handing her the camera. “Get that film developed,” he said. “And get me some copies of those last three. They ought to get a lot of laughs down at the playhouse.”
“I don’t understand,” said Clowes.
“You wouldn’t,” said Grant. “It’s probably a little too sophisticated for you. But don’t fret, Chet. It’s just a game.”