Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: Chapter 3

Fifteen minutes later we were heading back home in Judy Blue Eyes’ baby blue VW Superbeetle that she’d affectionately named Pookie. How she ever persuaded her Cadillac-totin’ daddy to buy her a ‘death trap made by goddamned furriners’ I’ll never know.

I still vividly remember the first and only time I met Daddy Blue Eyes. I spent a long hour one afternoon dining with Mr. Riggs—first name Mister, of course—and the esteemed Missus, who had ‘just dropped by’ from Mid­land or Odessa or one of those other dusty humor­less places that pass for civi­lization out in West Texas. A town where a hun­dred years ago there was nothing there but a gener­al store—probably owned by Mr. Riggs’ great grandfather—that sold hard goods at what­ever price they could get away with, and a saloon that took care of everything else: feeding your horse, cut­ting your hair, sloshing you down with cheap whis­key to make you for­get the end­less hours of eating the dust and smelling the farts of about a zillion head of cat­tle tak­ing their own sweet time getting from one saloon to an­oth­er, and sell­ing you brief, furtive sex because there was no other way to get laid out where you were.

Mr. Riggs was loud and red-faced as he drank martinis and ate a well-done Porterhouse and railed against everything that wasn’t ‘Merican. He called the Mexi­cans that cut his grass and washed his floors and loved his kids along with dressing them in the mornings ‘Geeks.’ I remember how proud he was of that one: “Gooks and geeks are tak­ing over the world,” he pro­claimed.” Goddamn gooks and geeks.” Mrs. Riggs would put her hand on his arm and say, “Now Henry, don’t swear in front of the kids” and smile charmingly. Finally I got a little fed up with it all and my fake smile began peeling around the edges of my mouth and I started baiting him. “Probably shouldn’t have even let those greasy Mexicans go to Viet-Nam, Sir. I’ll bet half our casualties over there were from them allying with those fucking slant-eyes—ex­cuse me, Mrs. Riggs, sometimes I lose my head when I get emo­tional about something—and at night when they were in­filtrat­ing our perime­ter from the outside, the eef’­ing Mexicans snuck up from the inside and cut the throats of all our boys except maybe some­times they let the nig­gers live. But if we didn’t let them in the army, then more of our ‘Merican boys would have gotten drafted and killed and then the geeks would have taken over here. Re­al­ly a conundrum, Sir, don’t you think?” And, “Do you know the real differ­ence between our country and the god­less commies, Sir? Com­munism is a system where man ex­ploits man, where under capitalism it’s the other way around,” and so on until he final­ly caught on that I was mocking him and got so mad that he called for the check and left half of a per­fectly-good ‘Merican martini (made from British gin, but I guess the Brits are almost as good as we ‘Mericans) sitting there and didn’t speak another word all the way back. I’m sure the only reason Judy Blue Eyes was still dat­ing me was that her father demanded she never go near me ever again and she told him to stuff it. What­ever faults Judy Blue Eyes may have had, lack of cour­age in the face of her father’s ultimatums certainly wasn’t one of them.

But back to that life-changing Saturday. A couple of minutes’ ride and we were back at my apartment. On a day with ol’ Spring doing her thing to Mother Earth we could have walked to Westheimer to start with, but we’d needed to be prepared to carry home those weighty treasures we weren’t going to buy but what if? Then a little light kissy face, interspersed with apologies and that’s-OKs. ‘Sorry we had to cut the day short . . . that’s OK, I’d pretty much had enough for to­day’ and ‘We did­n’t buy any presents and it’s less than two weeks until our birth­days. You want to go back tomorrow? . . . Gee, Judy Blue Eyes, I’m proba­bly gonna have to study. Maybe next week­end.” You can write the script as well as I can—you’ve all made such excuses in socially acceptable ways.

Finally her little VW was putting off down the street without me having com­mitted to entering a junk shop the next day. As soon as her car was safely out of sight, I unlocked my bike and headed for The Boomer’s apartment.

Not only was The Boomer my best friend, but he’s the best friend I’ve ever had. The Army definition of a good friend is some­one who, if he has a pass and you don’t, will go to town and get two blow jobs, then come home and give you one of them. But The Boomer one-ups that: he’s such a good friend that if you and he were at Al’s with a bunch of the guys, drink­ing and watching Monday Night Foot­ball and hang­ing shit on each other, and he knew that you had an anatomically-correct in­flat­able doll named Candy (or a sub­conscious named The Mar­quis), it would never cross his mind to men­tion it.

Cementing our friendship was that neither of us was driven by an ambition to succeed (but mama, look at us now!). I’d never been able to respect any­one from our generation who valued success, particularly as measured by dollars. I mean, I’m a tol­erant person for the most part. I recognize that there are dif­ferences in up­bringing that could explain someone thirsting to succeed—like maybe he had to walk five miles to school through driv­ing snowstorms every day and eat pinto beans six nights a week and all that stuff. I don’t even hold it against my parents’ gen­era­tion (like many of my peers did, I’m a little ashamed to admit), living through wars and depressions and famine and pesti­lence or whatever those four horsemen are, for measuring the meaning of life by the size of their estates when they died. But I couldn’t help but feel, deep down inside (in the same place that Mr. Riggs be­lieved people with dark skin just couldn’t be as impor­tant as white peo­ple), that anyone who lived through the ‘60s and still can’t see through that crap—and somehow manage to rise above it—was men­tally and moral­ly defi­cient.

Fortunately, no one ever accused The Boomer of the car­dinal sin of ambition. He tended toward sloth for the same rea­son I did: he knew, deep down in his Mr. Riggs’ place, that the American Myth of life rewarding hard work was horse hockey. That added to his give-a-shit, take-it-as-it-comes ap­proach to life that made him such a joy to be around.

In addition, while we were both eccen­tric aplenty, albeit in com­pletely dif­ferent ways, we each lived those eccentricities for our­selves and never tried to push them on others. I am eccentric by choice to de­fine myself, and not be­cause I believe the world would be a better place if somehow I could just make everyone else see what happi­er lives they could live if they drank two cups of Gin­seng tea a day, never wore jewelry made from ivory, and always fastened their seat belts. I just don’t see the value in ev­erybody being me. Holy shit, what a zoo within an asylum that would be.

But having said all that, it’s hard to imag­ine best friends less alike than The Boomer and I. He was an electrical-mechan­ical double engineer­ing major, with a brilliant mind for mathematics, while my un­der­standing of the universe around us was pretty much qualitative and certainly not described by formulae requiring math higher than geometry. On the other hand, the last poem he’d read was when they printed the words to Gotta Sink the Bismarck in Life. In­stead, the Boomer was a television junkie. In the absence of an obsession to create/solve/design/eng­ineer, he would probably have spent sixteen hours a day spaced out in front of the tube. He loved best those old movies where the actress picks up the phone, dials three digits, and is con­nected on the first ring with a man wear­ing a hat and talking out the corner of his mouth while smoking a cigarette.

And man was he a CONSUMER. I’ve seen him eat a ten-piece bucket of The Colo­nel’s finest fried chicken, wash it down with a six-pack of Bud, let out a mighty belch, open another beer, and take every­body out for ice cream. Already large at eigh­teen, the years of collegiate abuse added a noble girth to his frame and gave him a hearti­ness that he didn’t have when he played a reluctant offensive tackle in high school.

Another big difference between us is that The Boomer desper­ately wanted—or needed—to believe in a cosmic intel­li­gence, or at least a sense of unity and purpose. Trouble was, the death grip that the scientific method had on his brain gave him fits every time he allowed himself such a luxu­ry. So he read his horo­scope every day and constructed com­puter models to demonstrate how the stars and planets could actually influence human affairs. I’ve seen the look of disbelief bordering on terror in the eyes of the computer freaks who thought they had a monopoly on the campus mainframe in the middle the night when he dropped in to submit a run. (If you can imagine, back in those days computer programs were entered via punch cards, and his took up three boxes). But he had a priority ac­cess code, along with a letter of authorization ex­plaining that he was running top secret atomic modeling for the AEC, so all they could do was warn the other drudges working on projects at 3 am that turnaround time was about to go to shit (today you could do all those calculations on your laptop in seconds).

Nor was astrology his only venture into the realm of the meta­physi­cal. The Boomer owned—and had actually read—every book ever written on ghosts. He’d collected a dozen binders full of notes and cross references, cor­respondence with eyewitnesses, and photographs of everything from tombstones to fuzzy sheet-looking blurs. His investigations into the existence of spirits made my thesis, “Louis XIV’s Son: A Criti­cal Evalua­tion of His Lost Po­tential as King of France,” look like a high school term paper, and it wasn’t even for credit. I’d tried to talk him into giving up whatever he was re­searching in electrical-me­chani­cal engi­neering and publish a dissertation on ghosts, but he adamantly insisted that once you started selling your hobbies you were official­ly a prosti­tute, regardless of your pro­fession.

If The Boomer hadn’t been so weird in all of those non-sci­entific ways, I probably wouldn’t have gone running to him to tell my tale of why easy-come, easy-go Bradley Schuster, be­liever in noth­ing more ethereal than the lingering odor of beer in an empty can, des­perately needed fifty bucks to buy a goblet from a junk shop because I some­how knew it was ‘dif­ferent.’ Now that a little time had passed, I had to admit that the story sounded like the lunatic ravings of a man who’s been in a full body cast unable to scratch his balls for a month. And no amount of ra­tio­nal explanation was going to give it credence. But The Boomer would want to believe. He’d hand me the money, then go over there with me to see for himself.

Plus I knew he’d have the cash, per­haps the greatest major difference between The Boomer and me. Not just that he had money and I didn’t—even Judy Blue Eyes had money and I didn’t—but he had this weird affliction known in the business world as a ‘mar­ket­able skill.’ Which as near as I could tell meant that real people will­ingly paid him money to do things for them (as opposed to people in universities, who deal in grant money and there­fore have nothing to do with the real world).

The Boomer fixed things that other people couldn’t fix. He also fix­ed things that other people could fix, but only for himself; he didn’t do brake jobs or unclog toi­lets for money. Too boring. But if your car had this aggravating hab­it of stalling out just as you stomped on the gas to enter the freeway and the team of factory-trained mechanics at Vandershoots Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac just scratched their heads be­cause they’d al­ready soaked you for about three hundred bucks without so much as scaring the problem and you were tired of the sickening sound of brakes screeching because someone was bearing down at seventy miles per hour on your car which wouldn’t move because it had stalled for the mil­lionth time, why you just brought it to The Boomer, along with a hun­dred dollars in cash mon­ey, a six pack of beer better than Old Milwaukee, and any unusual tools that Detroit has made neces­sary to remove the what­zit. And in about twenty min­utes your car would be as good as new and you’d be wonder­ing why you ever wast­ed your time with Vandershoots. Except The Boomer wouldn’t work something unless what he called ‘The Factory Trained Idiots’ hadn’t tried and failed. I remarked one time that I thought it was arro­gant to insist on someone else being unsuccessful at fixing some­thing be­fore he would deign dirtying his hands on it (which in his case is strictly a meta­phor; I’ve seen him rebuild a carbu­retor and then go out to dinner without washing his hands in be­tween). He was not only highly insulted but also shocked at the dimness of my under­standing. The truth was, he expounded indig­nantly, if some dimmer lights has already tried and failed, he could rule out all of things that they would have tried. He informed me that when he worked on his own car­buretor it would likely take him four times as long to fix because he didn’t have the luxury of the idiot rule-out.

Like I said, the man is brilliant.

Occasionally, The Boomer even made house calls. Those were strictly limited to two specific instances: the device to be re­paired was too large to be transported to his apartment using rea­sonable means (such as the telephone system at Exxon, which took him nineteen minutes and for­ty-three seconds to diag­nose and fix), or it belonged to an attractive and reason­ably available fe­male (note that I did­n’t say single; The Boomer would never have set such restrictive requirements on availability). He’d printed business cards that referred to him as “The Fix-It Wizard,” and when he made house calls he wore a wizard hat. The damned thing was about two feet tall and pointy and blue with shiny silver stars and cres­cent moons pasted to it. It had to be awkward as hell to work in, but he managed. House calls to broken gadgets that were too large to be transported normally cost a thousand dol­lars, parts not included, al­though he gave a discount if the problem had the poten­tial for challenging or amusing him. House calls for available females he did on a base-fee-plus basis, with the plus ne­gotiable. He did alright.

As if all this wasn’t enough, however, The Boomer had an­other source of income: a monthly check for patent royalties that stemmed from a house call to Foleys. Their es­calator had broken so often that bus­iness in the sec­ond and third floors was off by seventeen per­cent for the year, a sum hundreds of times his fee (needless to say). The Boomer had never seen the business end of an esca­lator, and in the course of fix­ing it he found what he con­sidered a critical safety flaw. He had just read an article in Popular Mechanics called Patents and the Garage Inven­tor and so he took the time to ‘follow these seven simple steps’ be­fore he let the escala­tor manufacturers of the world know what kind of damages they would be liable for should the sequence of events occur that his ‘Patented Escalator Foot-Muncher Preventer’ was de­signed to preclude, particu­larly when some slick lawyer told an impressionable jury that an inex­pen­sive device would have pre­vented the tragedy. As a re­sult, he gets a cut every time an escalator is up­graded or a new one installed.

Only once that I know of did The Boomer almost get stumped on a problem. A female of the attractive persuasion had a reel-to-reel tape deck that kept mal­functioning, seem­ingly at random. She would take it in for re­pairs and when it got back it would work fine, but a few days or a month lat­er the fast forward went back­wards or the tape speed did­n’t match the setting. Or sometimes the problem would go away before she even got it in for repairs. The Boom­er had sunk about twenty hours into the problem (and remember, this was a fee-plus job which meant his hundred bucks was going to av­erage less than five bucks per hour and he hadn’t gotten so much as a sniff of plus yet) and still only stumbled onto the solution by acci­dent. The woman’s six-year-old daughter was home from school sick one day while The Boom­er was there and sat quietly watching him work for about twenty min­utes before she got enough courage to ask, “Watcha doin’?” When The Boomer, who couldn’t believe that any kid could sit qui­etly for twenty minutes and was already half in love with her huge brown eyes and lip-biting intensity, told her that he was trying to figure out why the tape deck didn’t al­ways work right, the lit­tle girl confessed that she couldn’t al­ways see too well when she took the motor out by flashlight at night to use in her ’speri­ments and sometimes wasn’t sure that she got it back together ex­actly right. She showed The Boomer a miniature moon crawler she’d built, powered by the tape deck’s motor, that both walked and picked up sam­ples. The Boomer was so enchanted that he brought her a dozen mo­tors and a huge box of miscellaneous parts and made her pro­mise that she would mar­ry him when she grew up. He bought her an expensive present every Christmas and birth­day so that she wouldn’t forget him. He told me that he’d seen the screw­driver scratch marks but assumed The Factory-Trained Idiots had left them. But he knew he was lucky to escape with his reputa­tion in­tact.

The wizard business was good enough that The Boomer never had to worry about where his next six-pack is coming from. Consequently he drank what he chose, which was usually Bud, while I bought what was on sale, generally Pearl or Buckhorn (which were strictly for cheapskates in those days). On the other hand, his inexpen­sive lifestyle helped his cash flow stay pos­itive and kept him from having to work harder than he wanted to—which is to say, not hard at all. He never drank Heineken when Bud­weiser was available. His 1968 Ford Fairlane wasn’t new when he bought it, and al­though it purred like a tom cat in a feline harem, he nev­er spent a buck on paint or body work; it wore its dings proudly like so many bronze stars and purple hearts. Most of all, he didn’t spend money on women; the plus in his fee-plus package provided him all of the physical stimulation that he seemed to need or care about. His total annual expendi­tures on women more than doubled when he began buying presents for his six-year-old genius girl­friend-in-train­ing.

I got to The Boomer’s house in less time than it took for you to read about The Boomer and his fetishes (un­less you’re a speed reader, in which case you’ve been outside his door for a few min­utes, waiting for me to get there). Knocking once, I went on in without waiting. It being early Saturday afternoon, I was sure The Boomer was in his workshop—the other bed­room of his two-bedroom apartment—with his headphones on and Wagner loud enough so that anyone standing beside him could enjoy it too (if you can some­how figure out a way to enjoy Wagner, that is). I was heading back to find him when the object on his dining room table stopped me cold.

A Barbie doll. I looked around for clues but didn’t spot a thing. Just a bare kitchen table with old Barbie lying there, wear­ing a pink nightie and looking plastic as ever.

I knew better, but I picked her up anyway.

“God, you woke me up,” Barbie Doll slurred in a nasal voice.”What time is it?”

Now I may have been well above average academically, but in unexpected situations I’ve always been a little slow. Besides, there was still this residual hangover. Some­body asks you what time it is, you look at your watch, right? Which I was doing when she added in her husky voice, “You know how horny it makes me when somebody wakes me up from a nap.”

By now I’d it figured out: The Boomer had been in­venting again. A better mousetrap posing as a talking doll, triggered by body heat or motion or whatever.

“Do me a favor, Brad honey. Rip me out of these ol’ plastic panties and see how wet I am for you,” Barbie Doll pleaded.

I might have done it just to see what happened next ex­cept Barbie started laughing with The Boomer’s you’ve-heard-it-once, you’ll-know-it-forever laugh and spoiled the mood. Out from the back came The Boomer carrying a briefcase with a microphone plugged into it. “Bradley Schuster, what an engineer your friend is,” The Boomer and Barbie Doll spoke in unison.”Can you imagine how much fun we’re going to have with this thing?”

So we laughed and spent a cold brew trying to top each other thinking up outra­geous things for Barbie to say and another cold one thinking up other perfect places we could hide the device currently residing in her guts, which turned out to be speaker, microphone, and power supply, along with all of the am­plifiers and receiv­ers and whatev­er else you needed, with a range of fifty to a hun­dred feet from the briefcase, all no bigger than Barbie’s narrow waist (all this in the days when the brains in your cell phone would have occupied an entire three-story building).

It was good to laugh. But then I remembered why I had come.

“Boomer, I need to borrow fifty bucks. I found a fuck­ing beat-up gob­let that wants me to buy it and it costs fifty bucks and have you got time to come and see it?”

So to make a long story short, The Boomer handed me the money, just like I’d known he would. We had one more cold Bud while I told him what little of the story there was, then piled into his Fairlane and headed for Erma’s.

holy grail 1


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