Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: Chapter 1

“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.”

holy grail 1

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3 thoughts on “Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: Chapter 1

  1. Enjoyable beginning… I have my own JBE to deal with (ok… her eyes are hazel but she’s still stunningly beautiful) and we go to the hill country antique shows twice a year. I can so see the people you are describing.

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