Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: Chapter 8

If the week before our aborted visit to The Vul­ture’s Lair was filled with time lost forever due to low productivity, the week after was just lost. I was caught on the horns of the pro­verbial dilemma, and no matter how long or how hard I pon­dered—whichever side of my brain I used, sober or not—there I remained, one horn stabbing each cheek.

Bad Choice Number One was abandoning the cup to The Vulture. If I were Odysseus, then she was Scylla. The fierce monster on my right, gnashing her teeth and flexing her claws. I just knew that The Vulture spent ev­ery night rubbing her grubby hands over my gob­let. Cackling with glee, knowing that I’d have to meet her on her terms, bring­ing the money like coals to Newcastle, letting her breathe on me at will. Perhaps even refusing to sell it to me for less than five hundred dollars, one thousand dollars, a million. To me the sums were all the same. Or maybe she would stick to the origi­nal two hundred with the provision that I kiss her right on her sardines-and-garlic mouth to consummate the bargain.

Bad Choice Number Two was to get a part-time job and earn the money.

“Now Brad,” I can hear you thinking, “sure­ly you’re exaggerating. How can earning as paltry a sum as two hundred bucks be that bad?” And a couple of times I despaired enough to make the same mistake. Once I went so far as to buy a newspaper and read through the help wanted ads, look­ing for some se­cret sign. Here was a job that would earn me an extra two hun­dred dollars in a week, some­thing honest or at least mostly legal that I was capable of doing that didn’t in­volve sell­ing people things that they didn’t want, lick­ing enve­lopes, or compromising in some other manner what few moral principles I had remain­ing.

But I believed (and maybe still do) that honest work is insidious. Charybdis, the whirl­pool of middle class, lurking just beneath the surface. Waiting to catch me in her relentless grip and suck me to the bottom, turning me loose some thirty hours lat­er a changed person, ready to go out and earn a decent living, get married, buy a house, own a car, make mortgage pay­ments, take bad home movies of my two point four kids in their plastic backyard pool. Invest in mutual funds, buy life in­sur­ance, and get on with the business of dying peace­fully with­out mak­ing any more waves for a society al­ready seasick on a de­cade of break­ers constantly rolling in, rock­ing every boat and mak­ing footing extraordinarily treacherous for those who can only keep their equilibrium by anchor­ing their feet firmly in tradition.

I thought I was prepared to do any­thing to own it. I’d demonstrated the willing­ness to enter into a contractual arrange­ment approximating marriage with Judy Blue Eyes, associate for extended periods of time with Jimbo Bond, forego any disposable income for two months, and even commit a felony, all for a beat-up hunk of metal that I’d only seen once. But getting a real job to earn enough money to buy it was just going too far. Af­ter all, every man must have his limits—some action that is just too heinous to commit even for God and The Ameri­can Flag, much less for personal gain. And I had found mine.

Maybe feeding her Jimbo Bond would satisfy her ravenous ap­petite while I rowed by. I should have left the damned pistol on the floor. I still had it, illegal silencer and all. Surely it was traceable. Maybe I could buy my way into The Vulture’s favor by ‘discovering’ the burglar who broke into her house and destroyed her treasures. The only problem was, I’d already decided that Jimbo Bond would give me up to keep his own butt out of jail. His will of steel had shown its true colors—re­solve of tis­sue paper—when faced with commu­nist aggression in the form of a frightened alley cat.

On top of all that, in the back of my mind lurked the fear that late one night there would come a pounding on my door and the cops would shout out, “We know you’re in there, Schuster. Come out with your hands up so no one gets hurt.” Ra­tionally, I knew there was no way that they could ever trace the damage at The Vulture’s to me unless Jimbo Bond got a case of over-acute conscience and turned state’s evidence. And that wasn’t going to happen because he still believed I was working for the law. But irrational fears have never respond­ed well to reasoning—that’s why they’re called irratio­nal. I didn’t have any reason to be jumpy, but I was plenty jumpy.

And so the week passed slowly and jumpily. Monday was payday. While I was standing in line to cash the check, The Marquis made a brief if elo­quent pitch to go back and buy the goblet, blow off the rent, and trust that the landlord would have mercy on me. But I didn’t suc­cumb to the tempta­tion. I called The Boomer and told him I would bring some money over that night, but he told me not to bother before the weekend, maybe something would break. I thought I de­tected a trace of guilt in his voice, so perhaps he was regretting his decision to let Jimbo Bond and me out unchaper­oned, particularly considering the trouble we’d gotten ourselves into.

Payday meant that the next day was Judy Blue Eyes’ birth­day. I pulled myself out of the mire of my self-obsession just in time to phone her up and wish her a hap­py one a couple of hours before it was over. I’ve always won­dered how much of Judy Blue Eyes’ personality was the direct influ­ence of being born on April Fool’s Day. I can just see the doc­tor com­ing out of the delivery room and up to a nervous-al­though-he-would-rather­-die-than-show-it Mr. Riggs and saying, “I’m sor­ry, sir, your baby and your wife both died in delivery. Ha, Ha, April Fool. No, seri­ously sir, you have a beautiful baby boy. Ha, Ha, April Fool again.” Just imagine how many gag gifts, in­sincere birthday wish­es, and other brutal cruelties she must have endured over the years. Funny how in our advanced soci­ety a person can go to court and change her name, but can’t do a damn thing about her birthday. Think of all those kids born on Christmas Day who are never going to get their share of birthday presents, helpless in the face of societal mores. When I’d found out my girlfriend’s birthday was April Fool’s Day, I had sworn to do my best to make the day special for her. Unfortunate­ly, my finan­cial wherewithal wasn’t equal to my resolve, but at least I remembered to call and didn’t make any jokes. Of course you and I both know that my blessings could hard­ly af­fect how happy her day was, particu­larly when it was al­ready past 10:00 pm by the time I got around to phoning—should have been obvious to any first semester junior high logic student. But remember that Judy Blue Eyes is female and so normal rules of log­ic don’t apply. She was bubbly in her appreciation of my call. We also con­firmed our date for Friday night to cele­brate our birthdays to­gether.

The week didn’t get any better as it got older. I met with my History Tutorial, gave them an off-the-cuff pop quiz and let them go forty-five minutes early. I think I attended all of my classes, but my notebooks show only doodles and not a single note for the entire week. And on Fri­day, when I looked at my re­search to see how much I’d man­aged to ac­complish in spite of my­self, for the first time since I’d been in grad school I hadn’t filled out one new index card the whole week.

The next thing I knew it was getting dark and Judy Blue Eyes was due to pick me up in an hour or so. She was taking us out for dinner and from there to hear the Indigo Poets at Santo’s. Actually, if we ever went out for more than a burger, Judy Blue Eyes—or rather, Mr. Riggs—treated. As a young and innocent undergrad I had been filled with ideals from my up­bringing, among which was a much cherished piece of baggage that said if you went out with a female person, you paid the bill. Perhaps central to lugging that suitcase around was a deeper belief, hard-wired in males since the Pleistocene epoch, that buying a woman dinner was a deposit into an account that earned the investor points toward sexual liberties. Just open an ac­count, sir, and there’s a chance the lady will kiss you goodnight. Reach the silver level—you don’t know what it is, but it’s there—you get to touch a breast, albeit through the armor of her brassiere. Gold level is bare breast, and so forth. It sounds so sexist, no won­der they called us Male Chau­vinist Pigs and burned their bras. But remember, we were brought up in the fifties, before the sexu­al revolution; things were different then (now junior high school girls give head to show how grown up they are).

Then an agent of change showed up in the guise of tight finances. The college fund that my parents had carefully built up since my birth, through loving sacrifices such as driv­ing Chev­ro­lets and recovering worn fur­ni­ture and having steak no more than once a month, was gone. Plus since I started grad school, I couldn’t even work good-paying jobs over the summer. So I actu­ally lived off my stipend. That did­n’t allow me the lux­ury of tak­ing a date to dinner anywhere you sat down and your meal was brought to you by a waiter, not even once. Particu­larly now that I owed The Boomer what little was left after rent and food for the next three or more months.

So I had come to terms in the conflict between the demands of neces­sity and those of my up­bringing by pitching that particular suit­case in the dumpster. Judy Blue Eyes enjoyed taking me out to dinner, she could afford it while I couldn’t, and we were go­ing.

An hour would normally have been plenty of time to get ready. But I had dithered and dicked around and still hadn’t bought Judy Blue Eyes a birthday present. Making a decision to actually buy some­thing is one of the toughest things I have to do during the course of a nor­mal year; doing it twice for the same occasion, particularly when I had actually gone out of my way and done it—in advance—was almost more than I could stand. But Plan B, waiting for the Blessed Virgin Our Lady of Guad­al­canal to reach down from heaven and bestow upon Saint Bradley the goblet mi­raculously whisked from The Vul­ture’s Lair, hadn’t worked either. So I was going to have to buy Judy Blue Eyes a different birthday pres­ent. She could accept a lot of my short­comings, but not buying her a pres­ent wasn’t one of them. She would have interpreted that—probably correctly—as an utter lack of minimally socially acceptable com­mit­ment on my part. Even if she didn’t dump me immediately, our rela­tionship would suffer irreparable damage. Including me getting cut off. So I had to have a present.

Fortunately, The Marquis took over. “Get on your bike, dumb shit, we don’t have a lot of time. You pedal, I’ll drive.” So when Judy Blue Eyes got there to pick me up, I had a bouquet of flowers—not roses, but some carnations and daisies and some other things that I’m not sure what they were, I was never too big on names for growing things that you couldn’t eat or build a tree house in. Of course she just loved them, put them in wa­ter except for one pepper­mint carnation that she pinned in her hair, and I was off the hook with a nice balance in the account that I didn’t keep any more because I had abandoned my sexist ways, even if The Mar­quis hadn’t. Thanks, old pal.

Dinner was pleasant if uneventful. When Judy Blue Eyes picked up the tab she picked the place, and you could safely wager your next stipend check you weren’t going to see steak or ham­burg­ers or fried chicken on the menu unless it was way over in a cor­ner marked ‘American Food’ for people like Mr. Riggs who might get dragged to one of those foreign places but wouldn’t get caught dead actu­ally eating that foreign shit, Hazel, do you know what they make this stuff out of? That night it was The House of Zahle’s chef’s special which turned out to be smoked goat served with weird-shaped bread and something that both looked and tasted like grainy Malt-o-Meal with green flavoring and chopped up tomatoes in it, but it really wasn’t bad. Particularly considering that had I been eating at home, dinner would have been a peanut butter sandwiches and a can of chicken noo­dle soup.

After that we headed to Santo’s to drink and listen to the tortured strains of the Indigo Poets. The Poets were a local band that played most weekends at some club within fifty miles, and we frequently dropped by if we didn’t have anything else going. I knew the bass player, Animal, from my undergrad days—we were in the same residential college our first two years, played a little bridge together, that sort of thing—before he succumbed midway through sophomore year to the dynamic duo of too much freedom and too many academic require­ments. I felt for him, since I had come about as close as you possibly could without ac­tually flunk­ing out around the same time, although our taste in vices were dis­tinctly different: he liked hard drinking and loud live music, while I had gone slightly nuts over the number and quality of un­attached women on campus. A couple of years later I ran into Animal at the drugstore and he invited me to drop by to hear their gig at the Old Railroad Tavern that night. They weren’t anything special—they were never going to be ‘discovered’ and make it big time—but they played solid rock covers with passion and intensity, with only a light smattering of original numbers that all sounded the same to me. Plus it was kind of neat knowing the musicians. Their front man, Max McGinty, flirted with Judy Blue Eyes shamelessly and sang a song especially for her anytime we were there.

Walking into Santo’s, I saw a display of cassettes for sale and vaguely remembered Animal telling me the last time we’d seen him that the band had been spending a lot of time in the stu­dio lately. Judy Blue Eyes hadn’t noticed, so when she went to the bathroom I slipped out and bought one. The Marquis and Judy Blue Eyes had both been more than satisfied with the flowers, but I was feeling a little guilty at the lack of effort I’d put into getting her pres­ent, since I couldn’t really count the hours I had wasted desperately trying to secure the goblet. The cassette made it all OK.

The Poets seemed better than normal, probably because we were drinking booze instead of beer. “After all, this is our birthday party. We deserve something besides beer,” Judy Blue Eyes rationalized and what the hell, she was buying, I was just drinking the stuff, so it was all right with me. McGinty crooned the Cocker hit You Are So Beautiful to Judy Blue Eyes for her birthday. In fact, with the possible exception of the funny Malt-O-Meal, it had been a near-perfect evening.

Then during the last band break she pulled out two birthday pres­ents as well as one The Boomer had given her to pass along to me. I gave her the cassette, which I had clev­erly wrapped in the bag it came it, and she ooh’ed and aah’ed over it while I checked out The Boomer’s gift. It was wrapped, with about as much effort as mine had been, in a plain white en­velope artistically decorated with the word “Brad” scrawled across the front. Inside was a note just as elegantly scribbled on notebook paper. I couldn’t have minded less about the trappings, though. “This grants the bearer complete am­nesty from all monetary debts owned the undersigned. Happy Birthday, The Boomer. PS: you must eat this after reading. I would hate for anyone to suspect I’m anything less than a hard ass.”

I slipped the note in my pocket for later consumption with no more explanation than, “Oh, just a private joke,” to Judy Blue Eyes.

One of her gifts, obviously a bottle although prettily wrapped, turned out to be Mumm’s cham­pagne. The thought briefly and uncharitably crossed my mind that she had caught last-minute-itis from me although I knew there was no way, not Judy Blue Eyes.

Inside the other package was the goblet.

I sat there stunned, bug-eyed and gasping for breath like a fish thrown up on the beach. While she was looking at me strangely and saying things like “I saw how much you seemed to like it in Erma’s” and “I hope you really like it, you can take it back if you don’t” and I was nodding my head, unable to make a sound for the longest time and then assuring her when I finally recovered enough to speak, “No darling, I love it,” and “You were right, I fell in love with it the moment I saw it.” I finally admitted that I’d gone back to buy it for her but it was gone and I was so up­set, that was why I’d been acting so strange for the last couple of weeks. And all the time I was holding it and it was mine.

holy grail 1

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