“When Spring kissed the earth,” old Mrs. Harrigan used to read to us from her well-worn Funk and Weatherford’s Best Loved Poetry. Best loved by Victorian spinsters too inhibited to drink or masturbate; certainly no one else could love those nursery-rhymes-posing-as-literature. Those of us young and innocents who bothered to pay attention imagined a chaste sisterly peck on the cheek. Completely false. When Spring kisses the Earth it’s one of those deep, wet, tongue-down-the-throat jobbies that leaves both of those lascivious ladies panting with lust.
Despite the intervening years, I vividly remember that magnificent day. March 22, 1975. Birds proclaimed their lust from every branch while Spring and Earth swapped spit. Now if you’ve ever lived in Houston, you know that nice days are as rare as good taste in that cesspool of urbanite rednecks. There are only two seasons—hot and humid most of the year, giving way sometime around December to cold and wet. So when a real spring day comes by, you for sure wanted to get out in it, go down by the Bayou and toss a Frisbee or something. Not only that, this not-to-be-missed spring day fell on a Saturday—I didn’t even have to cut class to go out cavorting.
But I’m here to tell you, I was missing this one.
Not that I wasn’t out in it. Judy Blue Eyes was dragging me down Westheimer under the guise of looking for birthday presents for each other. We were born on opposite ends of the first week of April, and it had become a tradition to shop for each other in the artsy/junky section of Westheimer. In our case, the tradition was now firmly chiseled in granite, or at least clay tablets, since we had done it last year and were doing it again this year (and you know how women love their romantic traditions).
But The Boomer had showed up at my apartment the night before with a case of Bud, so I was mildly hung over. Not praying to Ralph the ceramic god hung over or anything like that, just hung over enough that I would much rather have been in bed sleeping than wandering around Westheimer pretending that we might find something worthwhile among the old jelly glasses in a junk shop.
Complicating this little shopping expedition was the fact that I was virtually broke as well. Judy Blue Eyes doesn’t understand broke. Her daddy owned a Cadillac dealership in a town out west full of cattle-and-oil people who believed that there is no use in having money if you can’t drive it (still do, I suppose). She carried one of his credit cards in case her bank account was temporarily low on funds. Me, I was permanently low on funds. The stipend I earned teaching United States history tutorials to wide-eyed freshmen left so little to spare after rent and groceries that I had closed my bank account years before and used the old checkbook as a wallet to hold the odd bill that occasionally found its way there. Even after digging coins out from under sofa cushions, I had the grand total of twenty-one dollars and some change to buy a suitable present for Judy Blue Eyes, as well as live on for a week. As if anything costing twenty-bucks less the price of a package of hot dogs and a six pack of chicken noodle soup could dignify the adjective suitable.
So on this glorious day, I had crammed about two minutes of appreciating the weather and savoring life into an hour and a half of misery. Meanwhile, Judy Blue Eyes had admired the work of three starving artists, browsed a used book store, and scoured two junk shops (one of which spelled it “junque” to snare the unwary) without so much as a hint of a gift.
We were halfway through Erma’s Treasure Trove, where under the guise of appraising a table of someday-to-be-antique vases I was relentlessly whipping what few brain cells were still living to figure out how much longer I had to pretend that I was enjoying what I was doing before I could plead a headache and go home without pissing off my girlfriend. That was when I first saw it.
I have no idea why it caught my eye, sitting on that head-high shelf holding court with an old enamel coffee pot, a black iron skillet at least a hundred years old, and a battered brass candlestick. Certainly there was nothing imposing about its appearance, a slightly dented goblet that from a distance appeared to be made of either tarnished silver or badly stained pewter. In retrospect, I think it was the composition of the still life tableau—the way that the other objects were clustered around it like some modern sculpture interpretation of The Last Supper—that caught my eye, rather than the cup itself.
I started to reach for it, but stopped. When you’ve been dragged to as many junk shops as I have, you develop a natural sense of caution for these things. Displaying any interest whatsoever in any of the items therein could have a number of side effects, all bad. To wit,
- Erma, a toothy late middle-aged Asian lady, might see me touch it, mistake me for someone who gave a shit about a piece of her junk, and relentlessly follow me through the store, extolling its beauty in broken English and offering to knock off a buck or two;
- Judy Blue Eyes could catch me touching it, mistake me for someone who gave a shit about junk in general, and file it away as further proof that we should do this more often.
- Erma’s Vulture might spot me and mistake me for someone who gave a shit about this particular goblet. A Junk Shop Vulture is a rare breed who lives by a simple creed with only two precepts. First, there are items of true value hidden among the flotsam of life. Second, the key to separating the diamonds from the rough is the interest that other patrons show in a particular object. Almost always female—and never more than one per store—a Vulture prowls her hunting grounds waiting to pounce on any item that another customer picks up and then sets back down. If she saw me touch the cup, it was as good as gone.
So I diverted my hand in mid reach and casually scratched my head instead, looking around cautiously to see if anyone was watching. Fortunately Erma was busy praising a chipped shaving mug (complete with genuine antique hair on the soap) that JBE had imprudently picked up, while Erma’s Vulture furtively skulked behind the two of them, hoping she would set the mug down for just an instant.
Seeing that the coast was clear, I reached for the cup. With a low cry of surprise I jerked my hand back.
The cup was warm.
Judy Blue Eyes and Erma stopped in mid-haggle; The Vulture stopped in mid-skulk. All eyes turned toward me.
The Marquis took over. The Marquis is my loyal friend, demented foil, and perpetual antagonist, otherwise known as my subconscious. His personality at times seems so dissimilar from mine that I finally gave him his own name so he wouldn’t be mistaken for me. At his frenzied urging I grabbed my knee and hopped around a little, saying “Shit fuck piss” loud enough so the women would have to either ignore me or be embarrassed in front of each other. I don’t really understand why profanity embarrasses women so. The left-over hippie in Judy Blue Eyes let fly with a “fuck” occasionally for shock effect, the Vulture could shame a sailor (as I was to find out), and I’m sure Erma had a fine collection of Korean or Laotian curses that she showered on GI’s who wouldn’t purchase her cheap souvenirs to help her buy her way over to the States. But women are strange creatures. Put them together in a social situation and they will ignore boorish behavior every time rather than acknowledge it. The Marquis thought it would work, and it did.
Freed from immediate observation and the associated danger of being mistaken for someone who gave a shit by one of the three women in the store, I went back to the problem at hand.
Everything I know about science I’d either learned by the time I completed high school physics or in the one college class that Rice University had required, Science for Non-Science Majors and Other Dummies. Needless to say, I’m no rocket scientist. But running through my repertoire of useful rules of science for the layman—First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Grandpa Stanley’s “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” time-honored wisdom— I concluded that there was absolutely no rational explanation for that chunk of battered metal to be hot. So I gathered up my courage and touched it again.
And I was right; it wasn’t actually hot. But it was something besides just another misshapen lump of old metal.
Furtively I snatched it up, turning my back to the group at the other end of Erma’s. Close up it didn’t look all that much different than it had from a distance. Too tarnished to guess if it was real silver, but at least it wasn’t just painted tin. About a third of the way down the stem there were two plain inlaid bands, about an eighth of an inch apart, of a different metal that looked like gold but probably wasn’t. Along the top edge was an inlay of the same metal in a pattern that if you removed it, the cup would look like the parapet of a twelfth century castle. There were four carved symbols—”runes” was the word that came to mind—running down the stem, one above and three below the inlaid bands. The inside of the cup was filthy.
OK, so it was a little unusual but not really remarkable. It would take a half hour to buff up the outside, assuming that I could borrow some polish (no chance of there being any in my apartment). It might take a week to clean it to the point where you’d risk drinking out of it. Be quicker to grow radishes in it.
I knew beyond any doubt that I had to own it.
Gingerly I turned it over to peek at the price. I wasn’t too worried—I still thought that a new jar of silver polish would cost more than the goblet.
The price tag peeked back. I found myself staring at the incomprehensible figure lurking on the underside.
Fifty dollars, the sticker pronounced.
Briefly I considered stealing it. But although I’d abandoned most of the outmoded conventions of my childhood, honesty is one that I hadn’t managed to discard yet (still haven’t, truth be told). I couldn’t even talk myself into slipping out with it and send Erma the money anonymously until it was paid for (probably take ‘til Thanksgiving).
I checked again to see if maybe I’d misread the sticker and it really was a smudged five bucks, putting on airs and posing as fifty. But no, just like a jury summons or an exam question over a book you never bothered to read, it refused to go away. Fifty bucks.
Behind me I heard a change in the noise level. That probably meant Judy Blue Eyes had either set the shaving mug down and gotten into a fist fight with The Vulture or she’d finished shopping and was coming to collect me. Quickly I started to return the cup to the shelf.
But I had to wrestle The Marquis to do it. He didn’t want to let go of it either. Besides that, I could have sworn that the enamel coffee pot and the brass candlestick were leaning toward where I was holding the goblet.
That did it for me. As surreptitiously as possible I tucked the cup back on the shelf, hidden behind the coffee pot and a beer stein with a broken lid. And feeling terminally foolish I whispered to them, “You guys keep him safe. I’ll be back.”