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:
- I was going back to Erma’s and buy the goblet.
- 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.
- 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.”