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.