Smack in the middle of Arthur’s preparations for Beltane, The Grail decided it was time to quit for the day so I could get ready for my date. “C’mon. Just another half hour,” I begged. “It only takes me five minutes to get ready.” But she’d have no part of it. You have a lot to atone for tonight, she scolded me. No reason to make it worse by being late.
“Sometimes I think the years in Judea turned you into a Jewish mother,” I snipped, hoping for at least a few minutes more. But my insults had no impact. I don’t expect that this Saturday will be as exciting as last Saturday, but you never know. You might be willing to skip this date for the sake of history, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“I might leave you at home.”
Suit yourself. But I’ll find out all about it tomorrow anyway.
A coldly logical Jewish mother. What an oxymoron that was. But the decision had been made, and if in fact she had a mind, she showed no likelihood whatsoever of changing it. So I got ready to go.
Since Anne had a car and I didn’t, it didn’t seem reasonable for me to walk to her dorm, then back to Westheimer. On the other hand, I didn’t know her well enough to ask her to come by and get me. Oh, I knew how she held her lips when she kissed and how gracefully she removed her panties, but there are much deeper levels of intimacy, I’d discovered. So we arranged to meet at The Woodhead Café on Westheimer.
There was plenty of daylight left when Anne showed up, dressed pretty much as she had been the last time—sun dress, no stockings, simple hair style, minimal makeup. I immediately noticed one other thing: she wasn’t nearly as perfect of face and form as she had seemed the first time I saw her. Not that it made one ounce of difference. She was positively beautiful (and to all of you who believe that perfection of face and form is the most significant part of beauty, I can only say: you have no idea what you’re talking about).
I was sipping a coke when she walked in. Not that I had suddenly developed an aversion for beer of anything, but when you are attempting to reconstruct a first impression, you don’t want to take undue chances. Despite my threats I’d brought The Grail along, tucked in her little custom pack. But I wasn’t going to use her on Anne tonight, no matter what.
She floated into the chair opposite me, charmed a waiter into instant service, and ordered ginger ale.
“How was home?” I started the small talk.
“Home was perfectly horrible, as always. My mother is frozen in time back in my senior year in high school. She wants my clothes to be the same, my friends to be the same, my curfew to be the same. My room looks like some little shrine to my adolescence. When I was home last Thanksgiving I cleaned all of that stuff out—pitched posters and stuffed animals and dried carnations by the boxful. But lo and behold, come Christmas, they were all right back in their old places. ‘Oh, I was sure you’d change your mind and regret throwing all those things away,’ she said.”
“I think all moms go through that. I finally cured mine junior year by writing her that I wasn’t coming home for Christmas, that I was going to spend the holidays at a friend’s house because his mom treated me like an adult. Rather draconian, I guess, but it solved the problem. And curiously enough, once we interacted as two adults rather than a parent and a child, she turned out to be a really neat person.”
“There you go. Not draconian at all. Brutal pain over a short period is always better than nagging pain that drags on and on.”She looked me in the eyes. “If by some miracle our relationship should get so far, don’t forget I said that.”
So the lady had teeth. “That sounds awfully sensible.”
“Did you think that I was your typical math major, all theorems and constructed bullshit proofs while unable to estimate the volume of a coffee cup? How insulting.”
And she didn’t make a big deal out of saying ‘shit’ in public. More intriguing all the time. If I wasn’t careful, I could flip over this one. “A thousand pardons, young Newton,” I said with an exaggerated bow of my head.
“Your apology is accepted.”
After that delicious bit of repartee, our first mental joust (relieving my fears from our telephone conversations that she might be way too serious for me), she asked, “How about you, Brad. Did you find anything more exciting than classical French history to occupy your leisure hours last weekend?”
Had I told her about Louis XIV.V? I couldn’t remember. Surely she hadn’t bothered to check up on me. On the other hand, if she had recalled a casual comment about what I was researching made in the middle of that intense and confusing evening three weeks before, it was equally as disconcerting. That meant I’d better tell the truth, because she would remember my lies long after I had forgotten them.
“Well, actually, I had a very interesting experience last Saturday night. I made an impromptu appearance with a rock and roll band, receiving such critical acclaim for my singing that it even made the Sunday Chronicle.”
“How in the world did that happen?”
“It’s a rather involved story. I’d prefer to tell you over dinner.”
“Another mystery. Are you also going to tell me what happened the last time I saw you over dinner?”
Damn, this woman was right up front. Where was that infamous feminine guile? “Actually, it’s the same story.”
“If those two incidents are somehow connected, it must be mysterious indeed.”
“It’s more than mysterious. It’s literally magic.”
“You mean, figuratively magic.”
“No, I mean what I say: it’s literally magic.”
“There’s no such thing as magic.”
“You may have those words for dessert tonight.”
She smiled that knee-weakening smile of hers. “Then we’d best get started.”
I paid for the sodas and, leaving her car where it was, we started strolling up Westheimer toward Ari’s Grenouille, my restaurant of choice. It was a fine early evening in Houston’s ersatz spring, and the vendors were taking advantage of the lingering crowds by staying open late. After half a block I offered her my hand.
She stopped and looked down at it as if it might be an adder, then back at me. She had the most disconcerting mannerism of looking right into my eyes when she was saying anything of substance.
Was it really possible to be honest with a woman? Despite dipping my toe in the water with Judy Blues Eyes, the concept was so radical it triggered an ambush of shivers down my spine, as if enemy troops were patrolling across my grave.
“Is it safe?” she asked, not accusingly, but more than a little dubiously.
Bradley, it’s shit-or-get-off-the-pot time; otherwise it’s just your version of Anne’s theorems and constructed bullshit proofs. Well, if honesty is to be your new plan of attack, then attack. I took her by both forearms—not intimately, not violently, not dominatingly; just intensely—and looked her squarely in the eyes (which in itself was far from unpleasant). “Anne, the tale that I’m going to tell you over dinner is fantastic to the point of unbelievability. But at the risk of stealing my own thunder, I took advantage of you though an arcane power that despite your skepticism can best be described as magic. Judge for yourself when you’ve heard the facts. But I solemnly swear that I will never do it again.”
She looked back at me just as intently for a long moment, and then laughed. “You could be using it on me right now, and I’d never know. But OK, I’ll believe you.”
And she took my hand with a light intimacy that made my head swim.
We strolled a long block in silence (that is, if you don’t count the non-verbal conversation our hands were having). Then, with Erma’s just ahead, I started my tour-guide impersonation.
“Ladies and gentleman, your attention please. Meeting at the Woodhead Cafe was no mere accident nor choice of convenience. We are now passing a location that will play an important role in our story. Let’s stick our heads in just long enough to see what it looks like so you’ll have a mental image later.”
But Erma hadn’t made enough money to immigrate from Thailand or Korea or wherever she was born and buy a shop of her own by letting customers just stick their heads in. She recognized me instantly. Bowing low, she began her pitch in her rapid sing-song style.
“Ah, sir, you have returned to give poor stupid Erma another chance. So kind of you. I ha’ wonnerful selection of fift’ dollar goblets now. Come see, come see.”
Come see, my ass. Not today. Halfway down the aisle I whispered to Anne, “When I say ‘now,’ follow me. Don’t ask questions, and don’t hesitate. “Before she could ask why, which I figured she was going to do despite my warning, I shouted “Now!” and went racing for the door as fast as I could scramble around the mess while holding on to Anne’s hand, which I didn’t dare release lest some sense of polite behavior cause her to stay.
“Wait, mista’. Have ver’ fine goblet. Ver’ expensive. Please come see,” Erma wailed as she puffed after us. Despite her age, this was her habitat and she was much better than we were at skipping over rusted iron cowbells and weathervanes and implements dug up from ages past. But my unexpected move had given us just enough of a head start, and Anne was surprisingly fleet, even in sandals. And once we made the door, there was no catching us.
We slowed to a fast walk just as we approached Havana Joe’s. I was pleased that Anne was breathing no more heavily than I was—no wilting lily here. But it was disconcerting to realize that every time I turned around, she gave me one more reason to like her. This was getting more dangerous by the minute.
“Are you going to explain what that was all about over dinner as well? This may be a seventy-seven course meal,” Anne was saying, but suddenly I wasn’t giving her my full attention.
Once again I was standing in front of the spot where The Picture had hung for years before that unknown patron had bought it and started Havana Joe down the skids. The monstrosity with the purple cranes was gone, stored in Havana Joe’s basement or perhaps painted over—surely no one would be so totally bereft of taste that they would actually spend money to hang that obscenity in their home. In its place was an eight by ten photo of The Picture, probably a blow-up of a snapshot taken by an antique Brownie Starmite. Fuzzy and grainy though it was, you could just make out enough of the young woman’s unbuttoned fatigue shirt, striking beauty, and puzzled expression to make out what it was and grieve for its loss all over again.
Use The Grail, The Marquis pled in an unusual fit of altruism. Well, not really all that unusual. He is my subconscious, after all, and although I usually attribute our crass animal behavior to him while claiming our noble conduct for myself, he is just as responsible for our good side as I am. But normally not if it has any chance of getting in the way of getting laid, which it possibly could in this case. Do something.
Do what? What could I do that had any real chance of success, at least enough of a possibility to justify giving this lady additional evidence that I was a maniac? Well, actually I was sure I could count on her curiosity to keep her around until we got to the restaurant, and after that, little things like fleeing like madmen from an old Asian lady in a junk shop wouldn’t matter much. Besides, so far I’d mostly used The Cup for selfish purposes; a little good here and there would help balance the ledger. OK, I’d give it a try.
“Hold up a minute; there’s something I need to do here,” I told Anne. Then, not waiting to see her response—but noting out of the corner of my eye that her expression seemed to be say, “Wow, more adventure,” instead of, “Soggy Matzos! What now?”—I unpinned the photo from the board, slipping a finger in to touch The Grail.
Now I see, she pouted. Leave me in the dark until you need me, and then just use me shamelessly. But I ignored her and pressed on.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I began, not shouting but definitely speaking loud enough to draw the attention of any bystanders up and down the block who weren’t distracted by love or junk bargains. “Friends and art lovers, I need your help. Please give me a few moments of your attention.”
I held the photo up. “This is a photograph of a local art masterpiece. Recently sold through an unfortunate sequence of events, it is now languishing far from the eyes of the admiring public, on the wall in some private residence.
“Friends, this painting belongs in the Museum of Fine Arts, where it can be seen and loved by all of us. There it will become a Houston legend, a legacy for our children and our children’s children.
“If you own it and do the right thing, you will be lauded as a benefactor of our entire city. If you know who owns it, please become an ambassador for the arts. Go to the owner and present our case. And if the owner selfishly insists on keeping this masterpiece for himself, at least come tell Joe who owns the painting. Perhaps I can convince him where you cannot, or maybe he would be willing to sell the painting back.
“Rectifying this grave injustice depends on you. I thank you for your attention and for your diligent efforts on behalf of the arts.”
I pinned the photo back to the pegboard, where the crowds were already pressing forward to get a closer look. Then I turned to collect Anne and get out of there before my admirers started to proclaim me King of the Jews. She wasn’t hard to find; she was standing packed in with the rest of the crowd, wearing a look of amazement only slightly tempered by the barest hint of amusement.
I smiled at her and shrugged. She smiled back as she reached out her hand to take mine without speaking further. If I hadn’t been falling in love before, I almost certainly was now.
It was after ten by the time I finished my story. We had eaten well, declined desert (Anne claimed that she was saving room for eating her words), had at least an urnful of good French coffee, changed our mind about desert, and polished off some custardy stuff with gooey caramel sauce before I finished the story of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.
I told it all. I’m not sure I really intended to be quite so open and honest, but the combination of her interest in the story, my interest in her, this whole new idea of being totally honest with a woman, and some sense of relief in sharing it with her drove me down that dark path. There were parts that made me look terminally foolish—breaking and entering at The Vulture’s house and my hero act with Jimbo Bond’s pistol when I thought The Grail was a psychopathic killer, for example—but I didn’t soft-pedal them at all (unless The Marquis did it without telling me. Sometimes he does things like that, but I was monitoring his activities pretty closely, and mostly he just lusted quietly while I talked).
When I got to the part where I had taken advantage of her via the cup, I told the story as if it were another person involved, referring to her as ‘The Beautiful Woman in Alfred’s’ rather than ‘you.’ Actually, it turned out not to be particularly embarrassing, compared with some of the other escapades. Talking a complete stranger into sexual intimacies was pretty heinous, but to counter that was the fact that I had stopped short of actually bedding her, coupled with the explanations that she had become Layla to my overloaded brain but that over the course of the evening I had grown to like and respect her too much to continue to take such unfair advantage of her.
The only parts that I left out were the two other sexual experiences that involved The Grail. But I had the easy rationalization available that being honest didn’t involve kissing and telling, something I found particularly odious (I hate to think that it might have been residual prudishness on my part, so I hereby repudiate that explanation). So I kept those my business.
After telling my personal experiences right up through my performance at Bilo’s, I presented a summary of the history that The Grail had related; obviously I had to skip a lot of the details to get it in during one meal, even a leisurely seventy-seven course dinner. This to me was the most precarious part of the evening. By then I believed that, stalwart that she had turned out to be, she would find it in her heart to forgive me the indiscretion of the seduction gone awry (and if she couldn’t then I shouldn’t get too serious about her; I did stunts requiring forgiveness with alarming regularity). But not knowing anything about her religious beliefs, I thought it likely that if she were deeply Christian, her subconscious would turn against me. However, having committed myself to this experiment of telling the truth, I stubbornly (and I’m ashamed to say, uncharacteristically) kept to my charted path.
At first Anne was intensely involved in the narrative. She asked questions, sought clarification, and was otherwise a very interested and interesting listener. When I was telling the part about her, she even kept up her part of the charade by keeping it in the third person. “And the panties that you collected from this beautiful mystery lady, you keep them in a treasured place?” But when I got into the story of Barnaby, she became a silent audience. The difference was so dramatic that I stopped to ask, “Would you like to skip this part?” But she shook her head, and so despite my misgivings I plowed ahead.
After I was done, the silence continued, hanging around the table like one of Houston’s patented heavy morning fogs. I got the check and paid it without injecting unwanted words into the moment.
“Let’s walk a bit,” she finally spoke after the financial chores were done.
So we headed back toward her car. Three steps out the door she reached for my hand again, and I indulged in a teaspoonful of optimism but didn’t let it go too far.
About the time we passed Erma’s dark and padlocked shop, she began to loosen up and engage in a little light conversation. “I wonder how long she stood there, clutching her fifty-dollar goblet collection and hoping we’d come back,” she asked with a giggle, making it permissible to speak again. But I still didn’t have a good feel for how things were by the time we got to her car and she offered me a ride home.
“May I come in?” she asked when we got there.
“Sure,” I shrugged. There were still breakfast dishes in the sink and probably pubic hair on the toilet—it was a bachelor’s apartment, after all—but such foibles seemed small in light of all that we had shared.
She accepted my offer of “Would you like something to drink,” with “Do you have a beer?” raising her stock even further if that was still possible. Then she sighed and jumped headlong into the fray without further hesitation (although by this time, I was no longer surprised).
“As you have undoubtedly guessed, I’m a little shaken by your unexpected revelations about Jesus. But that’s my problem, and I’ll get it worked out without inflicting it any further on you.
“I want you to know how much I appreciate your generosity and honesty in sharing your tale with me. And curiously, despite whatever uneasiness I have about magic and other metaphysical disconnects with my obviously simplistic world view, I find that I believe everything you’ve told me, no matter how unbelievable it seems.
“Now, as for your flagrant mistreatment of me, your treating me as a sex object, and your actions that are decidedly immoral and probably criminal: I forgive you. On the condition that you accept this penance: while we continue to explore this relationship, you will persist in demonstrating that your behavior was a one-time aberration, not a deep-seated character flaw.”
After the “continue to explore this relationship” part, I had to struggle hard to pay attention to the rest. Not only was I off the hook, she also wanted more. I took out The Grail while getting down on one knee (a little magically-enhanced elegance didn’t seem to break my promise of not using magic to take advantage of her). “Lady, your generosity surpasses even the brilliance of your intellect and the beauty of your countenance.”
“Rise, Sir Idiot,” she laughed as she took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Followed in the next instant by, “My middle name is Layla.”
That haymaker stunned me so that I stumbled back into the couch and sat down hard with my mouth open, looking more like a goldfish than my usual clever self. Anne followed up with the right cross half of a world-class left-right combination. “May I see The Grail now?”
Could she see The Grail now. It had taken me a month to get to this point with The Boomer, my best friend in the whole world who I knew and trusted with my life, and Anne Layla Fletcher wanted to see it on our first date (second, if you counted the walk home from Alfred’s as a date).
Sirens began blaring as the sound of bombers overhead rattled the glass in the windows. The Marquis scrambled for the fallout shelter screaming, Run for your life! Use the Grail to say no. But I couldn’t exactly run, and I’d promised not to use magic on her. So I did what any man would do in my position; I handed over The Cup, hoping I wasn’t making the mistake of a lifetime.
She took it no less reverently than The Boomer had done, staring at it intently as if it held the secrets of the universe, which maybe it did. I didn’t really know her well enough to presume what she was thinking, but I would have been willing to bet the farm that it wasn’t anything like what The Boomer had been thinking. I wondered if The Grail was already talking with her, or worse, if she had already adopted Anne as her daughter as she had with Rachael.
After a moment or two—a decade less than The Boomer had taken when he’d first met The Grail, making me suspect that they might not be on speaking terms yet—Anne started to hand her back to me. Then she stopped and drew back a little. The wide-eyed innocence in her eyes must have been developed over hours of practice in front of her mirror, preparing for high stakes poker games, because in a thousand guesses I couldn’t have predicted the deviousness of what was coming.
“Oh, one other thing,” she said without a glimmer of a smile spoiling her guileless expression. “Do you suppose I could have your underwear as a souvenir of this splendid and memorable evening?”
Why, golly shucks, Anne. That certainly sounds fair to me. Yessiree, I wouldn’t dream of denying such a reasonable request. Why look how important it is to you, and how little it costs me. Odds are they have holes in ‘em or the elastic is stretched out anyway. The Marquis peaked out through his periscope, saw that there were no mushroom clouds on the horizon, wagged his tail, and nodded his wholehearted agreement, coming out into the sunshine and rolling over on his back to get his tummy rubbed.
Clearly, I was no Old Gabe—I did exactly as she asked. In retrospect, I hope that I exhibited a fraction of the grace and style that she had.
While I pulled my jeans back on, she tucked my jockeys into her purse. Then she deliberately set The Grail down on the end table.
“Bradley Schuster, without coercion and entirely of your own volition, would you like to kiss me?”
Without coercion and entirely of my own volition, that sounded every bit as attractive as giving up my undies had been under The Grail’s powerful volition. We already knew where our noses went, having done this a few dozen times before, but somehow that didn’t prevent us from re-experiencing every morsel of that delicious excitement that comes from a first kiss.
When we had finished I suggested that perhaps we might try it again, and without coercion and entirely of her own volition she agreed without speaking. And I didn’t experience a trace of those negative feelings that had clouded our kissing on our walk back from Alfred’s.
After a pleasant while she told me that it was time for her to go. Well, I understood. Free love and the sexual revolution notwithstanding, there were still nice girls who simply didn’t jump into bed on the first date, even if they wanted to and society said it was OK. Her reluctance to leave seemed real, but after being blindsided once by her control of her facial expressions, I wasn’t going to be taken in again.