Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: Chapter 2

The half hour that followed is pretty much of a blur. Not that losing blocks of time back in those days was all that unusual, waking up the morning af­ter a night of hard drinking and not remembering what had gone on. But this blur was different because I can remember so many other things about that morning with such crystalline clar­ity. If I could paint, I could even now produce a still life of the cof­fee pot and the candle­stick I left guarding the gob­let and submit it as cover art if this book ever comes out in paperback. I even remem­ber what Judy Blue Eyes was wearing, right down to the silver-and-turquoise hoop ear­rings, although I can’t recall another piece of jewelry that she owned.

Since our routine seldom varied, I can deduce what I missed during my mental absence: window-shopping as we passed two shops that JBE didn’t like enough to actually go in, pawing through a table of junk jewelry in search of an underpriced antique treasure that was never there, looking to see if there was anything new at a ki­osk of rea­son­ably good pot­tery (my girlfriend preferred drinking her coffee from hand­made mugs instead of the mass-manu­factured variety), and scanning the titles of used books that spent their weekends on a door across two saw ­horses. The next thing I remember clearly after walking out of Erma’s was standing in Ha­vana Joe’s stall with Judy Blue Eyes touch­ing my shoulder ten­derly and ask­ing me a lit­tle too loudly, “Brad, what in the world are you star­ing at?”

Havana Joe may not have been the worst artist on Westheimer, but man was he ever in the run­ning. In fact, if you took The Picture out of his portfolio I would have to say that he wins out even over Ma­chine Jane, who only painted animated washing machines in corsets and garter belts and ovens in skimpy swimwear sunning themselves.

But Havana Joe had The Picture to his credit, giving him at least one great achieve­ment to offset a lifetime of defin­itive medioc­ri­ty. His fifteen minutes of fame, guaranteed by St. Warhol. The Picture is a portrait of a young woman sitting on a bed, apparently having just awakened, wear­ing Havana Joe’s un­but­toned fa­tigue shirt and one of those utility caps that Fidel Castro and Havana Joe sported every day of their lives. This girl captured the schizophrenic nature of that glorious, schizophrenic age now long pas­t bet­ter than any work of art, song, speech, documentary, or coffee table book that I’ve ever seen. The pristine beau­ty and youth of her un­made face and the centaur magnifi­cence of her seminude body less­ened not one iota by that off­beat costume in­stead of the de­signer gown it de­served, while her face expressed the underlying be­wil­der­ment of our generation. “Why am I sit­ting on this bed on this planet in this uni­verse in this cen­tury or wherever and whenever I am?” her eyes ask.

I covet The Picture. But Havana Joe was art­ist enough to know what he had created and had no in­ten­tion of selling it. It had always hung in the same spot, all by itself on a temporary pegboard wall, sporting a plain white price tag unpretentious­ly marked five thousand dollars. The next most ex­pensive piece in the booth was outrageously overpriced at sixty-five.

I had no idea why Judy Blue Eyes insisted on going there every time. She regarded The Picture as “nice,” but had no clue what a mas­ter­piece it really was (one of the damning pieces of evidence why we weren’t going to end up together). Every­thing else in the place was strictly for laughs, and after we left we always spent the next ten min­utes trashing Havana Joe’s latest creation. But she would no more have skipped his stall on a Satur­day morn­ing junk­ing expedition than she would have come with­out her Levis. Our excursions involved the same ritualistic precision as the rites of a Micronesian Cargo Cultist: if you don’t do everything ex­actly right, the great white gods won’t bless you with ‘stuff.’ I cer­tain­ly did­n’t dis­courage her, much preferring to spend time star­ing at the wise-inno­cent face of Havana Joe’s nameless model than looking at bent fire irons.

When Judy Blue Eyes startled me out of my trance I was stand­ing in my ac­cus­tomed spot in front of the tem­po­rary pegboard wall. With my brain elsewhere, my feet had found their way here all by themselves. But what I discov­ered staring back at me instead of those boundless eyes was a mon­strous fac­simile of art. There on a huge canvas were three bright acrylic fuchsia cranes devouring the guts of a squirming lime green snake. Each of the cranes had a flag motif less-than-clev­erly worked into its feath­ers: a Nazi swasti­ka, an Israe­li Star of Da­vid, and (you guessed it) the old Stars and Stripes. The belly of the snake spilled colored gem­stones less-than-subtly labeled ‘truth,’ ‘freedom,’ and the like from its wounds.

That crisis jarred me out of my preoccupation. “Joe,” I screamed. “Joe, Joe, what the fuck is this? Where’s The Pic­ture?”

Joe shambled up and he was a mess. His hair just hung there, long and greasy, not at all like the proud ponytail that he usual­ly sported. The stink of dried sweat and stale wine was the per­fect fashion accessory to the huge bags under his bleary eyes. For the first time in my life I saw him stripped of Castro hat, fatigue shirt, and pride.

“Joe, what have you done? Where is it?”

Joe started crying, not sobbing, just tears streaming down his face all of their own accord. “I sold it, man. Some dude came by and handed me the cash and before I real­ized what was hap­pening she was gone and I don’t even know where. Man, that pic­ture was­n’t for sale. The price tag was just for show, you know? To make it look like I’m a real artist. Nobody pays five thousand bucks for a picture on Westhei­mer, man.”

So we stood there, him weeping soundlessly and me shar­ing his anguish as best I could, for another minute or two. Then I clasped his shoulder and left. I mean, what else could I do? I couldn’t give him mon­ey to make it better, he al­ready had money and I didn’t. He’d been am­bushed and his life was on the skids and nei­ther of us could imag­ine what he was going to do about it. The model was prob­ably some rich guy’s wife by then, already fifteen pounds heavier, wear­ing furs and jew­elry and shit, somebody important who wouldn’t dream of being seen in a Che Guevara cap.

Judy Blue Eyes was figuratively tapping her foot by the time we left Havana Joe’s and started on down the street. But she must have sensed that I was seriously touched by Havana Joe’s plight, because our slamming the pur­ple-flagged cranes was desultory at best; soon we were touching fin­gers and walking without speaking.

The lag in the conversation gave me time to think about the mysterious cup again. I discovered that The Mar­quis had made a cou­ple of de­cisions in my absence:

  1. I was going back to Erma’s and buy the goblet.
  2. Since I absolutely could not justify spending fif­ty dol­lars on a used cup for myself, I was going to use Judy Blue Eyes’ birthday as an excuse and buy it for her.
  3. Since I could not conceive of parting with the goblet, this would probably mean that I was going to end up mar­ry­ing . . .

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted The Marquis’ monologue. “There’s no way I’m gonna marry Judy Blue Eyes, we sure as hell don’t love each other, actually when you get down to it we’re not really compatible even if we’ve been dating more or less exclusiv­ely for thirteen months, and I’m not going to be rushed into making a bad deci­sion that I’ll regret for the rest of my life over a hangover-induced hallucination in a junk shop.”

. . . her unless we can think of a clever way to make sure that she knows that it’s really yours so when you break up you can get it out of her place along with your toothbrush and clean t-shirts (he continued as if I had not bothered to speak at all); I’m conniving and despi­cable enough to manage that if you stop inter­rupting and don’t go getting all moral on me.

4. You’re going to have to hit The Boomer up for the money.

The Boomer. The idea hit me like a peppermint drop when you have buffalo-dung morning breath. My best buddy The Boomer. Not only would he have the money and be happy to loan it to me, I could actu­ally tell him why I had to buy the damned thing. The Boomer would know if I’d lost my mind or, worse, if I was dooming myself to mar­ry Judy Blue Eyes over some overdressed jelly glass. He would even get drunk with me and help me forget if, after seeing it for himself, we agreed that this was as dumb a fixation as it was begin­ning to sound like.

Another lapse of memory while the Marquis and I discussed the subtleties of marriage and high finance. Normally while my mind is off daydreaming, it’s the Marquis’ job to keep up the conver­sa­tion with Judy Blue Eyes, but since he was engaged, nobody was taking care of business. A dangerous situation.

My next memory is of Judy Blue Eyes say­ing “. . . re­ally touched that you care so much about Joe and his nice paint­ing.” This time I was standing in the middle of The Perennial Ga­rage Sale located on the vacant slab of an old Amoco station. You couldn’t sell gasoline on Westheimer anymore; you could only sell gaso­line along the freeway. Any gas station that was built in Houston be­fore freeways was doomed to spend the rest of its life as a Real Japanese Ban­zai Tree stall or an Au­then­tic Con­federate Flag emporium. In front of me was a fold­ing table mounded like a prairie dog colony with shirts too garish to be worn except by the color blind, skinny madras ties with hot fudge stains, and belts with the top edge folded over in back from spending their for­mative years sitting on top of some oversized pair of buttocks. In my hand was a battered Che Guevara cap.

I turned to meet my doom in the guise of Judy Blue Eyes’ wrath at being ignored. The Boomer and the goblet were tempo­rarily for­got­ten as I struggled to come up with a be­lievable ex­plana­tion, only to dis­cover that no explanation was needed. Two tiny tears were leak­ing from JBE’s blue eyes, threatening to smear her mini­malist mascara.

The Marquis took over. Natural caution was instantly replaced by animal cunning. I was dying to get out of this place and go see The Boomer and get on with the business of owning the cup. A hun­gry tiger pacing the boundaries of his cage, searching relentlessly for some tiny tear in the fence overlooked during the ten million preceding laps, when suddenly he dis­covers that a plump, tender zoo­keeper has left the gate unlocked and laid down for a nap in front of his cage. I pounced.

I tossed the cap back onto the mounds of low fashion effluvia, took Judy Blue Eyes in my arms, and said with a slight waiver in my voice, “I’ve had enough for today, Judy Blue Eyes, my understanding girlfriend for whom I am eternally grateful. Let’s get out of here.”

holy grail 1

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