The Florentine Cardinal

"Excuse me, Mr. Bangert? Could you tell the class what you mean in your essay by the phrase, 'the manners of a Florentine Cardinal?' What does that mean, 'the manners of a Florentine Cardinal?'"

Ernest Bangert looked up from his contemplation of the fine reddish-blond strands that had stuck to his fingers when he ran his hands through his hair. It made him feel sick and helpless, the realization that he was going bald. Only a freshman in college. The best years of his life ahead of him.

Now there was a new cause for alarm. Doctor Kirk, the Composition teacher. He was dangerously close to discovering the plagiarism in his essay. Phrases and descriptions lifted wholesale from renowned writers. Ernest thought desperately. Where had he stolen the expression? Then it came to him. Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez. A description of a riverboat captain.

"He had elegant manners," Ernest answered. "Impeccable."

"Does this really apply to your hotel clerk in Wilmington, Delaware?" Kirk asked, his eyebrows knitting toward each other. The first week of class, Kirk had delivered a stern lecture on the evils of plagiarism, a crime that virtually doomed you to the lowest circle of Hell, down there with Judas. "He hardly seems 'elegant,' and certainly his behavior toward the circus impresario's daughter is less than gallant. It has the ring of... Nathanael West?" Kirk pirouetted on his heel to face Ernest. He held an unlit briar pipe in one hand, his trademark.

Inwardly, Ernest breathed a sigh of relief. Kirk may have his doubts, but he didn't have proof. Ernest smiled ingenuously. "Thanks."

"Is it? Am I right, then?" Kirk looked searchingly at his student. He put the briar pipe between his teeth and sucked air.


"West. Does this come from West?"

"It's...original," Ernest said, blushing. Kirk looked disappointed.

"I meant the influence," he muttered. "This character with the 'manners of a Florentine Cardinal' runs a shabby little third-rate motel in Wilmington typically occupied by prostitutes and petty criminals. You say the clerk is a friend's uncle?" Kirk shuffled through the pages of Ernest's essay. "Ah, yes. Here it is. You know, I think I like the allusion to the Catholic Church because of the themes of guilt and absolution that run throughout your essay. I was wondering if you'd care to discuss the imagery in greater detail, share your thoughts with the class." Kirk looked encouragingly at Bangert. Or was he simply mocking him, challenging him?

"But I see we haven't much time left." Kirk looked at his watch. "Perhaps we could pursue this on Wednesday."

"Sure," Ernest said, feeling faint. He passed his hand carefully through his hair and collected his books as the bell rang ending class.

- - -

Back in his dorm room, the door locked behind him, Ernest Bangert pulled out his brochures from hair replacement outfits that depicted a series of "before" and "after" shots showing chumps magically transformed into princes, a metamorphosis worthy of a fairy tale. Color photos of gorgeous women running their hands through the luxuriant new hair. If only he could afford to join! He'd gladly use his college tuition to do it. Hair Club for Men described a process called Polyfuse, superior, the brochures claimed, even to their "Strand-by-Strand System" ("already the envy of the industry"). Polyfuse! How exotic it sounded! How high tech! It had the reassuring ring of a vision of the twenty-first century!

Ernest had tried a variety of therapies and cures to stop the erosion of his hair. Twice daily, when he woke up and before he went to bed, he drank a foul-tasting powder that he mixed with water called Tiger's Milk. It was rich in B vitamins, and Barbara Gilbert, a girl in his dorm for whom he pined with adolescent angst, said it strengthened the hair. It had better start to work pretty soon, or he'd never get Barbara. He'd never get any girl at all, not if he were bald.

Ernest knew them all -- Upjohn's miraculous Minoxidil, its restorative Rogaine, over-the-counter potions, ointments, sprays and creams, herbs as folkloric as aphrodisiacs, guaranteed to make a virile man of you; hair transplants, scalp reductions, cosmetic sutures and tunnel grafts, scalp stretching, the Fleming/Mayer Flap procedure, hair weaves and even toupees and wigs. They were all either too expensive, too complicated, or they simply did not work.

Ernest had heard tales, murky and potent as ancient myths, of balding young men who had moved into health food stores and lived on nothing but carrot juice, granola and vitamins, and after a month, like the enormous radioactive ants that came out of the sewers in atomic age science fiction films, emerged with a full head of thick, vibrant curls. He'd heard the story of the guy who had moved to Alaska and found his hair growing in thick plaits in response to the demands of survival nature threw his way. (Ernest wondered skeptically if his name were "Big Foot.") And there was the guy who masturbated every night and rubbed the jism into his scalp, and pretty soon a new growth had begun on the sleek noggin (albeit corkscrewed like pubic hair). He was not sure he believed any of these stories, but he valued them for the hope they offered.

With a sense of doom, Ernest suspected his case was hopeless. He was nagged by the sneaking suspicion that genetic inheritance had sealed his fate. A gene from his mother's side. Her father had been sleek-headed since his mid-twenties. Ernest used to marvel at black and white pictures of his grandfather as a teenager with a thick, oily pompadour.

"Your grandfather used to have wavy hair," his grandmother used to joke, "and one day it waved bye-bye." Talk about plagiarism! Ernest would give anything not to have copied his family's DNA! But was there any escape? Nothing new under the sun. You only replicated what already was.

Ernest sighed tragically and put away his pamphlets. He stared at himself in the mirror, the wisps of red hair flying aside to reveal his receding hairline. He ran his hands through his hair and looked in horror at the strands. It was worse than if he'd found blood or dogshit on his fingers. He turned to the closet and got his jacket. Better get to the library and do some research on Florentine Cardinals so he wouldn't seem like a complete fraud on Wednesday.

This plagiarism business. How they treated you like a child! All his life people had treated him like a boy, holding adulthood in front of him like a lure. Now all he could see was his youth in shambles as his hair deserted him. Was that adulthood? He gathered up his notebook and pen and headed for the door....

...and straight into Barbara Gilbert coming down the corridor from the laundry room, braless breasts bouncing freely in her loose cotton t-shirt, a box of Arm & Hammer under her arm.

"Ernie! How are ya?" she bubbled, and Ernest swooned. She ran her free hand through his hair as she passed him, and he cringed, afraid she would recoil in horror when she discovered the red hairs sticking to her fingers like the feathers of a molting bird.

Miffed by the way Ernest shrank away from her, Barbara pouted out her lip and looked disdainfully at him. "I haven't got cooties, Ernie," she mocked. Then she laughed, forgiving him all at once for his insult, and she proceeded down the hall to her room. Ernest wanted to shout after her: No! No! It's not that, Barbara! I would give anything to curl up with you in a fetal ball right here on the dormitory floor! The misunderstanding pained him. How could he let her know he worshipped her, that he would give anything to lie beside her? He had just set his cause back a few light years. Shaking his head, Ernest proceeded glumly to the library across campus.

- - -

The library was a replica of Widener Library at Harvard University, though on a smaller scale. Searching the computer files for books on the Renaissance, Ernest wondered if Harvard could sue for plagiarism. Why was a copy in some cases an "homage" and in others a ripoff? It didn't seem fair.

Ernest perused a phrase and fable book in the reference room and learned that "cardinal" came from the Latin cardo, meaning "hinge," that is, something on which something else turns or depends; in other words, the principal or main element. It came to refer to the clergy early on. There were cardinal numbers, cardinal points on the compass, cardinal signs of the zodiac. cardinal virtues. Ernest spent half an hour reading about virtues, both natural and theological.

When he saw he was no closer to solving his riddle, he turned to "Florentine" and came up with nothing but the Florentine diamond, a 133-carat stone, the style of art in Florence during the Renaissance, and dishes prepared with spinach. Ernest read about the Florentine Academy, the Neoplatonic replica of Plato's Academy. He read summaries of the work of Ficino, Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola, long essays on Platonic Love, but after several hours he was still no closer to the mysteries of the manners of Florentine Cardinals than when he started. He read about the Medici; he read about Amerigo Vespucci; he read about Botticelli, Michelangelo, Bernini, the Duomo, the Uffizi. He read about Dante, but nowhere could he find anything to clarify Marquez' phrase, not in any tome on the Renaissance, Catholicism, or the papacy. The dinner hour was approaching, and he was almost in despair when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he was startled to see Dr. Kirk.

"Ernest, I meant to tell you how impressed I was with your essay. It's really first-rate writing. Keep up the good work."

"But, 'the manners of a Florentine Cardinal' -- "

Kirk waved him silent with his faithful unlit briar pipe. "Youthful exuberance. I was simply fascinated by the down-and-out circus impresario and his voluptuous dusky daughter. The scene in the elevator stuck between the second and third floors was simply marvelous. You draw the hotel clerk so vividly; I actually felt his dreariness after midnight, the way you described it."

"But 'the manners of a Florentine Cardinal' is plagiarism, Dr. Kirk! I stole it from Gabriel Garcia Marquez!" In confession Ernest sought absolution.

But Kirk dismissed it with a wave of the briar. "A borrowed phrase. Keep up the good work." He walked away toward the stacks, already on another mission, and Ernest relaxed into his hard wooden seat. Really first-rate writing. Keep up the good work. Kirk's voice echoed in his head. Maybe he could use this as a bargaining chip in his pursuit of Barbara Gilbert. Maybe he could get her into his bed yet. But then, unconsciously, Ernest ran his hand through his hair, and his elation evaporated. There they were again, the red strands sticking to his fingers, and Ernest sank back into the horror of the knowledge that he was losing his hair.

About the author:

Charles Rammelkamp has published four poetry chapbooks, two of them, "i don't think god's that cruel," and "Go to Hell," available from March Street Press; the third, "A Convert's Tale," is available from Pudding House, and the fourth, "Fire Drill!," was just published by Snark Publications. A short story collection, "A Better Tomorrow," is available as a print-on-demand publication from PublishAmerica. A collection of essays on American cultural issues, called "Fake-City Syndrome," which he edited for Red Hen Press, was published last fall.