About the time the cup noted the end of Razuni’s quest for money and the beginning of his quest for love, I realized I was starving. I’d skipped breakfast—not an uncommon occurrence—but it was well past noon and my stomach was complaining. So I made myself a pair of store-brand peanut butter sandwiches (cheaper than Jiffy, but you had to stir in the oil floating on top before spreading it) on white bread. I was considering opening the last a beer hiding in the back of the fridge when I realized I didn’t have anything for her highness to drink.
“I don’t suppose you’d care for half a cheap beer,” I muttered. Not waiting for a formal reply, I tucked her in my backpack and headed for Cobweb Liquors.
Back in those days, I didn’t buy a lot of wine. Oh, like most young male undergrads in the 70s, I’d believed that you could make a significant deposit into the Investment Account Earning Bonus Points Toward Sexual Liberties by buying wine for your date. But deep down inside I was offended by the snobbery associated with wine drinking. It was one thing if you honestly liked wine. But to make a big production out of sniffing the cork and swirling a swallow around in your glass, when what you really cared about was whether you were going to get your money’s worth in the aforementioned sexual liberties if you bought the fifteen dollar bottle instead of the cheap stuff—I had a hard time with that. So when I bought wine, I did it strictly by price, never bothering to learn, much less appreciate, the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Pouilly-Fuissé.
Since I’d started grad school—with the accompanying pressure of living on my stipend—I’d bought exactly two bottles, and had taken the easy out by choosing Mateus both times (Mateus and Lancers were wildly popular rosés back then, when your options were more limited and the average American didn’t know shit about wine anyway). ‘Red for meat, white for fish’ was the sum total of my knowledge about wine. And the cup wasn’t going to be eating, so that tidbit didn’t help.
Well I wasn’t out to get laid here, so how much of an impression did I have to make? Bullshit; that wasn’t even a little bit true. I cared deeply what the cup thought of me. In the presence of an artifact thousands of years old, I couldn’t help but experience the same feelings of inferiority I always get while standing in a museum in the presence of objects from ancient Egypt or Rome, only about tenfold. On the other hand, she’d been rummaging around in my head enough to know that I was a complete doofus when it came to wine. Besides, it was hopefully going to be a long relationship; why start it out by being deceitful?
I took her out to solicit her opinion. White or Red? I asked, not bothering to hide the bare shelves in the section marked ‘Wine’ in my library of knowledge.
She looked around at the selection and went nuts.
For maybe fifteen seconds it was like the signal of the Emergency Broadcasting Network going off in my head. Scared me shitless. One side of my brain kept waiting for the dispassionate voice to say, “This is only a test,” while the other was looking up, expecting to catch a flash off the incoming missiles. (The Russians were still real in those days, although not like in grade school where we practiced getting under our desks.) Then she started babbling like we’d just discovered the lost treasures of the Incas. Brad, what a find! I’ve never seen anything like this before.
“What say we reduce their inventory by a bottle? Which do you want: red or white?”
Well, I don’t know. Those bubbles in white wine always make me a little giggly. Do I have to be coherent this afternoon?
That made me feel a little better about my ignorance. “Wine with bubbles in it is called sparkling, and most white wine isn’t,” I explained with perhaps a trace of condescension.
Be smug if you like, young man. Ignorance is curable; stupidity is not. For your information, I never even heard of wine that wasn’t red until the 20th Century.
“Sorry. By all means, let’s try white. Now help me select a bottle.”
How on earth can we possibly choose just one?
When I had asked my original question I had been careful not to speak aloud. But as our discussion went along, I began paying more attention to the conversation and less to the mechanics. And somewhere along the way I slipped back into normal mode and was carrying on what appeared to be quite a conversation with myself. Give me a break; I was new at this, and we humans as a species are not temperamentally designed to telepath. But as I started to answer, I glanced up and found a prim West University matron standing across the racks from me, watching me with a horrified expression marring her careful make-up job. She was probably ready to break and run at the first sign of real danger, although I doubt her smoothly-girdled posterior had experienced anything so crass as a trot since she outgrew grammar school kickball thirty-five or so years before.
I guess I could have ignored her. Well, actually, I couldn’t. No matter how anonymous she was, hers was the face of the enemy. That flawlessly-arrayed visage and artificially-contoured figure represented in one pampered package all the things that I had been rebelling against for the better part of a decade.
“Oh, lady,” I sang out. “‘Tis a miracle, and doubly miraculous because lowly you and I are here to bear witness to it. The arcane evanescent alignment of the Yin of Io, the great moon of Jupiter, and the Yang of Alpha Centauri have created here on this very spot a nexus that allows the spirit and essence of Bacchus to solidify and commune with us.”
“They did?” was the best she could answer.
“Hallelujah! Praise the name of Bacchus,” I intoned.
“Praise Bacchus,” she chanted.
“Praise Him with clashing symbols!” I exclaimed.
“Praise Bacchus,” she shouted again, although much louder this time so that she could be heard over the sound of the imaginary cymbals that her hands crashed together, and incidentally missing my pun entirely. “Glory be unto him.”
The sales clerk at the checkout counter was staring our way with a “What now?” look on his face. But he didn’t have the expression of someone who was about to call the cops, so I ignored him.
“Mary—I am going to give you the spiritual name of Mary, even if you were misnamed at the moment of your birth—blessed are you among women. Quickly now, fall on your knees and pray for guidance, so that great and wise Bacchus will guide your selection.”
A tear trickled down her face, and I didn’t think it was from the ruined knees in her hose. She closed her eyes and lifted up her hands for a minute or two, muttering low under her breath what I assumed was a prayer to Bacchus. Then she reverently rose and without speaking began walking up and down the wine racks, trailing a manicured nail along the bottles like a kid, his stick, and a fence.
Suddenly she jerked her hand back as if she had been burned (I knew the feeling). “This is it! This is it! Oh, generous Bacchus, I have heard your voice.” She clutched a bottle of cheap domestic Gamay Beaujolais that was gamey enough to bring tears to the eyes of old Goat-foot himself, clutching it to her armored breasts like a baby she was trying to love and smother at the same time (don’t look so shocked; lots of mothers do that). Then with a clatter of heels she fled to the front to purchase her prize before someone could come in and take it from her.
In the quiet that followed, the cup asked, Did you enjoy that?
As a matter of fact, I did, I thought back at her, telepathing once again although I no longer cared who overheard.
I guess it would be a waste of effort to remind you that she’s probably somebody’s mother, and how would you like it if someone treated your mother that way?
A total waste, I admitted.
Oh well. I can see that this is going to be one of the more interesting chapters in my biography, dear.
Upon examination, it was a pretty flattering remark from something who had lived for thousands of years. To cover my embarrassment a little, I responded gruffly, Now help me pick out that bottle.
Are we going to pay for it?
Now that’s exactly what I needed: an ethical dilemma. It wasn’t enough to be standing in a liquor store abusing some poor socialite (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) for my own selfish satisfaction to make up for having had a huge chunk of my philosophical underpinnings ripped out. I had to deal with an ethical dilemma as well.
Actually, I hadn’t even begun to think of what use I might make of the cup. I had, in fact, been just a little bit busy. But all of a sudden the reality of the overwhelming power I held in my hand came crashing down on me like some rogue tsunami that had been born in the Tahiti shallows, grown to adulthood while traveling across the South Pacific, tiptoed through the locks of the Panama Canal without paying a centesimo in toll, left a wake of destruction through Galveston, annihilated the Texas City Dike (not to be confused with the Texas City dyke, whom I actually met in a bar down in South Houston one night), roared up the Ship Channel, and knocked on my door with a bulging cargo of reality debris. “Special Delivery, one load of reality for a Mr. Bradley Schuster. Sign here, please. Sploosh.”
Mine, all mine. Would I settle for a stucco condo on the cliffs of Acapulco, along with a paltry million or two for pocket money to wow the local señoritas into crawling between the silk sheets of my massive circular bed? Or did I want to go for the big bucks, say, as a senator? Hell, I could even be The Sultan of Nepal, if not the Sultan of Swat. Or how about Pope? Now that would be a real scream.
There’s a splendid idea. I haven’t said mass in, oh, a millennium and a half, give or take a few hundred years. But we could bluff our way through it, I’m sure. And think of how entertaining you would find issuing Papal encyclicals if you had that much fun with one gullible middle-aged woman.
I’d forgotten that this was a conversation, not just a daydream. But at least The Cup’s intrusion brought me back to reality. Was I going to pay for the wine?
We’re going to pay wholesale, which should be about half of what’s on the price tag, I decided, compromising between principle and economics. I have exactly $3.89. So pick out something for less than eight bucks. Of course, once we find out how much you actually drink, we might have to downgrade to Mad Dog Twenty-Twenty.
Such moral pragmatism. Rarely have I seen both in the same person, Bradley. Rarer still in a man, not to mention one so young. I must say, I commend you.
Wow. Two serious compliments in fifteen minutes. I could get used to this.
Don’t spoil it by being immodest.
She ended up choosing a bottle of Blue Nun Leibfraumilch, delighted all out of proportion over a wine named after mother’s milk, particularly when motherhood and nunhood are so incompatible. I made an extemporaneous pitch to the man behind the counter about how he should sell it to us at cost because although I was a poor chemistry graduate student, the self-funded research that I was doing into the ability of various Rhine wines to leach primitive living protoplasm from anthropomorphical cellulite would make us all rich and famous. So we got it cheap—had to refuse, stoically and nobly, to accept it for nothing. I even waited while he wrote his name and address down on the bag so that I could mention him in the acknowledgement section of my thesis.