Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: The Grail’s Story, Part XXXI

THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XXXI: Escape to East Texas

“Happy New Year, y’all.”

Ding. Somebody thumped me in the head with a wine glass. Then again. More sentiments about new years being happy.

“Lawd, Sarah Beth. I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun at a party.”

Nothing was anything like it had been when I’d gone to sleep. The room was lit up with lights without flames, some stuck to the ceilings, others standing on poles. Mu­sic and voices were coming out of a box in the corner with a bunch of little tiny black and white musicians inside. Strangest of all, the men were all clean shaven and the women were clean.

“Pass me a handful of them itty bitty sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Aunt Edna’s damned hard enough to take without having to do it on an empty stomach.”

“Now you watch yore language, Joseph Robert. There’s women­folk present, in case you’ve forgotten. And I don’t care if you’ve been to a bunch of fancy places with names no one can’t pronounce and whupped the whole Ger­man army to boot, you got no call to come home and use strong lan­guage around womenfolk.”

Before Joseph Robert could reply, Pa McCray launched into a stirring rendition of Ol’ Lanzyne—stirring, that is, if you’d made a number of trips outside to sam­ple the latest batch of corn licker as almost all of the men had done, rather than stick to the strange wine with the bubbles in it, as Reverend Oh-well-maybe-just-one-more-small-glass Shackley and the wom­en had. The others joined in the singing with more lust than talent, while I looked around and wondered just what I had gotten myself into this time.

So, fully alert now, I laid low and went with the flow, try­ing to pick up clues about where and when I was. Aunt Edna, who was drinking out of me, wasn’t a bit of help. She touched me but sparingly, and al­though she was full of ‘Lawd a’mer­cys’ and ‘Bat shuckins,’ gath­ering real in­formation from her was “like trying to pick wa­termelons on a basketball court,” as Pa McCray might say.

The conversation wasn’t a lot more useful. Oh, I understood the words okay, but the meaning was pretty cryptic. Some­body named Prather had run off with a girl half his age, and her daddy was out a’looking with a shotgun, whatever that was. Winter had been mild so far, but unless Uncle Biff missed his guess, that thick coat of fat on the squirrels was proof enough that it’d be cold enough to freeze a fire before the groundhog stuck his head out. Widow Tar­bull had been out dancing with that Jones boy last Sadidy with her mouth all made up as red as a fox’s butt dur­ing pokeberry sea­son and looking every bit the harlot, and her man just a little more than a year dead in Bel­gium. Jessie Mae was as proud as a lizard with two tails of that new young’un of hers, but if you asked Miz Liza, it was so ugly that you’d have to tie old meat around his neck so the flies would light on him. And so on.

Finally the party was over and I was left there, still three-quarters full thanks to Aunt Edna drinking so sparingly and a little giddy from the strange bub­bles, to ponder my fate. So I pondered, but I hadn’t made any more sense out of it by the time morning came. At least New Year’s morning brought one pleasant sur­prise: when I got washed and dried and put away, my new home turned out to be up on a shelf beside a couple of dis­tant cous­ins with their hands on their hips that weren’t even good for drinking out of because they had big blocks of wood stuck to their butts. Well, even if the com­pany left something to be desired, at least I was­n’t locked away in a box.

I got to see a lot of the McCray doings from my lookout during the next year or so. Two or three times I was taken down and poured full of champagne, as I found out the bub­bly wine was called, whenever Ma McCray ran short of glasses. What a bar­baric concept, using drinking ves­sels made of glass while I sat use­less on a shelf.

Unfortunately, Ma McCray never ran short of glasses unless it was a large party like New Years or Memorial Day. And then somehow the tradition got established that I was Aunt Edna’s own special gob­let, and my informa­tion had to come by way of those insipid con­versations about banal people using those all-but-indecipherable metaphors. But gradual­ly I began to piece my surroundings togeth­er. I was no longer in England, or even in Europe; I had been transported to a town named Doucette in a nation called East Tex­as. What’s more, East Texas hadn’t even been discovered yet, at least by Euro­peans, when I had played my last joke on the long dead Father Jameson.           

Then Joe Bob up and married the Widow Tarbull, who it turns out he’d dat­ed back in high school when she was sweet young Alice Moore, al­though from his mother’s caustic de­scription I’d pic­tured her as around forty. Somehow, just by wearing her scarlet lipstick, Alice had served no­tice to the eligible bachelors as well as the town gossips that at twen­ty-two she was too young and full of juices to spend the rest of her life pining af­ter poor old Butch Tarbull. She was real sorry about Butch, whom she had truly loved, but he’d had the mis­fortune to stop a piece of German shrap­nel at someplace called Bastogne and didn’t have no more use for her. And she was ready to find someone who did.

That was good enough for Joe Bob, who despite his internation­al travels wasn’t much of a lady’s man, and be­sides which, it was­n’t as if she’d gotten divorced or anything. Ma McCray said her piece about how no good was going to come of it and then went on about the business of packing up her son’s things and getting him moved out.

In the bustle she overlooked me, and since I didn’t know who I belonged to I couldn’t very well remind her. But Joe Bob did­.

“Ma, you forgot to pack my war souvenir goblet!” he exclaimed.

“Lawd, I got so used to thinking about that old thing as Aunt Edna’s special holiday cup, I plumb forgot it was yours. Where’d you get it from, anyway?”

And so I finally got to hear the story, first hand. And later, when Joe Bob packed me up, I probed a lit­tle and learned some more, enough to fill in the gaps and tone down the exaggerations.

Joe Bob had gotten drafted straight out of high school in late 1943, trained as a truck driver, then was sent over to England as part of the big build-up for the invasion of Normandy. He had gone on to serve with distinc­tion, or at least as much distinc­tion as a truck driver can, as part of the Red Ball Express; if he had­n’t actually whupped the whole German army, he had hauled a lot of ammunition and ra­tions and toilet paper and prophylactics to those who were doing the shoot­ing and the getting-shot-at.

Our paths crossed in July 1944, barely a month after the big show and while Joe Bob was waiting to be shipped over to the continent. He’d been in town on pass, doing his best to drink warm beer and act manly, when a buzz bomb had slipped through the RAF fighter screen and leveled the church down the street from the pub where he was drinking and acting. Everyone rushed out to help or to gape—you didn’t have to hunker down in bomb shelters like in the early air raids because those big, noisy, flying bombs were too inaccurate to ever hit the same place twice. Joe Bob was digging out the church basement to see if anyone was trapped when he found me lying in a smashed chest among the blasted beams and masonry rubble. So he stopped his labors long enough to stuff me into his coat pocket—after all, he was entitled to a little some­thing for all the free labor he was doing on what had started out to be a pass.

Before he shipped across the Channel he crammed me down in his sea bags, which in best military tradition went off in a com­plete­ly different direc­tion than Joe Bob had gone. After chas­ing him around the conti­nent for a year, his changes of underwear and spare socks and I were finally re­united with him, just in time to come back home to Doucette, Texas.

I was never able to get much of a fix on where the church had been located. Joe Bob’s know­ledge of British geography con­sisted most­ly of the names of the pubs he had visited. But he re­membered that the name of the little town was Farnham, and that it wasn’t too far from Lon­don, because he’d hitchhiked there once on a three-day pass.

To be honest, however, knowing the exact name or the precise location wouldn’t do me much good since I don’t have the slight­est idea where Arthur’s last battle took place, or even where Caerleon was. It’s certainly possible that the church in Farnham was actually the old Cathedral of the Grail, and that I had been bur­ied in the basement there untouched and forgot­ten for centuries. Or per­haps the old cathedral had fallen down, and I had been moved to a new home just down the street. On the other hand, I could have been exhibited all over Europe, carefully shielded by guards and reputation from actually touch­ing wine, and only a century earlier been lov­ingly placed in the basement in Farnham for safe­keeping. There’s no way to ever know.

Anyway, my life with Joe Bob and Alice Tarbull McCray was pretty much like it had been at his folks’ house. I sat up on a shelf and watched banal people do banal things. I didn’t even have the bowling trophies for company, since they were his father’s. No big loss there; I hadn’t gotten a single intelligent sentence out of the lot of them in the whole time I had been there.

One big difference was that Joe Bob and Alice didn’t imbibe wine; they drank corn lick­er. Both of them. Alice wasn’t exactly Rosie the Riveter, but neither was she the good little woman of her mother’s generation. She wasn’t much of a housekeeper, either, but she had a wonderfully unrestrained laugh and a lust for life and was as devoted to Joe Bob as she prob­ably had been to Butch before him. Many a night they sat at their red Formica ta­ble, drinking out of jelly glasses and laughing until sud­den­ly the laughing would get husky and then they would be kissing pas­sionate­ly and making funny noises and pawing at each other and tearing at clothes and finally lighting on some conven­ient hori­zon­tal sur­face not too far away.

Joe Bob held a variety of manual jobs. He worked in the lumber mill for a while, then drove a pulpwood truck for a few years. They never had much, but there was always enough money for the moonshiner. After Alice found out that she couldn’t have kids she waited tables a while at the Woodville Big Burger, but be­fore long she was back being a house­wife. Alice was a survivor—nothing got her down much, and being infertile was no big deal. She still picked fresh wild­flowers for the table and sang along with Buddy Holly and Elvis while she pid­dled around her kitchen. All in all, I’d have to say they were the happiest cou­ple that I’d ever known. Compared to David and Rachael, for ex­ample, they were a regular Romeo and Juliet.

Somewhere during those years something momentous took place. Not so much to anybody else—it wasn’t even worth a mention on page seventeen of the Tyler County Booster. But to me it was life changing.

One of Joe Bob’s old army trucker bud­dies was driving through Tex­as and stopped to look him up. He got there just in time for supper, hauling three bottles of that French red wine that everyone who’d been in France remembered so fondly. In a rare in­dulgence of sen­timentality Joe Bob swept me down from the shelf, filled me with the heady nectar, and toasted the good old days. Hell, he’d never done that during his army times or I could tell you about it from personal experience. It sure perked me up, however, since it had been a while since I had had anything to drink and I was getting a bit dreamy.

The four of us sat drinking and tell­ing lies long into the night. I felt so good I even helped Joe Bob sell a tall tale or two that would have nor­mally brought incredulous scoffs. He never sus­pected a thing—passed it off as his own natural clever­ness.

The next morning Alice cleaned up the debris by dropping the empty wine bottles in the trash and sticking me back up on the shelf, not seeing or not caring that I still had a couple of inches of the Beaujolais, or whatever it was, left in me. Rachael’s mom would’ve had a cow, but maybe that was the secret of Alice’s happi­ness. About a week later, one of those big old East Texas cock­roaches—water bugs, they call them—came along to investigate whether that pretty maroon stuff was edible. During the course of her inquiry she managed to poison her­self or drown herself or die from sheer ecstasy; she didn’t have a mind to read, so I don’t know which. Whatever it was, she ended up floating in the dregs of wine that I still held.

Now I know you think I’m making a big to-do over dirty dishes, but bear with me because it’s impor­tant. That bug pickled and the wine got more con­centrated as it evaporated and af­ter a few months I had my own scuba gear, a regular little life support sys­tem. Not enough to do any impressive stunts, but sufficient to see me through the rest of Joe Bob’s life and keep me from drift­ing back to sleep.

Years later, when Joe Bob finally turned beet red and keeled over dead, Alice mourned him for just about as long as she had his pre­deces­sor. She wore black for a while after the funeral, moping and sniffing around the house for a couple of months with the radio off and dead flower stems still in the vase on the table. Then she went on about the busi­ness of living.

First she washed and ironed and carefully put away her black dress so it would be ready the next time she bur­ied a husband. She had a trunk just for those things that she didn’t use very often but wanted them right at hand when she need­ed them. No doubt her scarlet lipstick tube was in there, stashed away for such an occasion as well. Next she went to the A&P and came back with a pick-up truck full of cardboard box­es. Into these she packed up Joe Bob’s clothes and shaving things and old year­books and his famous Dallas State Fair kewpie doll and a football from some big game before he tore his knee up and all of the other ar­tifacts and trappings that a per­son col­lects dur­ing their lifetime, and hauled them away. Some went to Goodwill, some went to the dump. A few personal things went to Ma McCray, who was too ornery to die and who had decided over the years that Al­ice had become a really nice per­son, not at all like the hussy she had been when Joe Bob had married her.

The box I was crammed into, buried under a stale field jacket along with a handful of old army insignia, a dented German can­teen, and about twenty dollars in script, pence, francs, and pfennigs, nev­er even got unpack­ed. It was toted around in a couple of car trunks, en route from one attic to another more than likely, but no one ever opened it except to peek in whenever they forgot what it contained. I was almost fully conscious inside, with no oth­er company worth mentioning except for my own thoughts.

The next thing I know for certain is that the box was being opened by a sixty-year-old Asian woman with buck teeth and an accent as bad as Pa McCray’s, only different. When she discovered me lying there she started, but recovered without managing to give her­self away too badly. She then continued paw­ing around, a broken sneer on her face, until she looked up and spoke at whoever had brought me there.

“Not much good. I give two dollar.”

“Hell, the coins alone are worth fifteen.”

“Keep the muckin’ coins, I give you two fift’ for the rest.”

So they argued for a while and finally a five changed hands, and after the door closed Erma was greedily rubbing me with her horny thumb and biting me to see if I might be white gold, or at least sterling silver.

Then she stuck a price tag on me and stood me in the window, where I stood and pos­tured proudly for a year or so, watching the crowds stroll along the street and guessing who was going to come in and buy me. There are some really weird peo­ple out there, you know. I have to tell you, it got to be pretty damaging to the ego to just sit there, with no more than a casual inquiry or two the whole time. If Erma had just held me in her hand while she bar­gained with the customers, with no more power than one mari­nated cockroach, I could have made her a fortune.

Finally Erma put a pair of garishly-painted porcelain Chinese dogs in my place of honor and shuffled me along to the slums in back, dump­ing me unceremoniously in among the used kitchen imple­ments. Boy, there was a comedown. Not to mention that my bug-and-wine supply was getting weaker all the time. The only bright spot during the next few years was that enamel coffeepot. She had the keenest sense of humor that you can imagine, and was quite a look­er as well, would­n’t you agree? Nothing like those dour bowling trophies.

Then one day you came in and rescued me, and you know the rest.

 

THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XXXI: OUTTAKES

Years later, when Joe Bob finally turned beet red and keeled over dead, Alice mourned him for just about as long as she had his pre­deces­sor. She wore black for a while after the funeral, moping and sniffing around the house for a couple of months with the radio off and dead flower stems still in the vase on the table. Then she went on about the busi­ness of living.

“He must have been less than fifty at the time. Her first husband—Butch, is that right?—would have died in his early twenties. Seems like Alice didn’t have much luck with husbands.”

Joe Bob actually lived to about the same age as Arthur. Spent a lot less time fighting and a lot more time with his wife. So who would you say was luckier with husbands, Alice or Guinevere?

I discovered that I didn’t have an answer to that.

 

* * *

But gradual­ly I began to piece my surroundings togeth­er. I was no longer in England, or even in Europe; I had been transported to a town named Doucette in a nation called East Tex­as. What’s more, East Texas hadn’t even been discovered yet, at least by Euro­peans, when I had played my last joke on the long dead Father Jameson.

I used to say that East Texas is the land of the rednecks. But theoretically, Anne comes from East Texas.

Lawd a’mer­cy, Brad. Just goes to show y’all that there are ‘ceptions to every rule.

old book2

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2 thoughts on “Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail: The Grail’s Story, Part XXXI

  1. Reminds me of home . . . love the tiny black and white musicians. Great wisdom in:
    “I sat up on a shelf and watched banal people do banal things.”
    Haven’t we all?

    Most of all, I love Joe Bob and Alice’s story. But the ending still makes me sad.

    And if for some inexplicable reason, I need to be reminded of the brilliance of RR, there is this:
    “I didn’t even have the bowling trophies for company, since they were his father’s. No big loss there; I hadn’t gotten a single intelligent sentence out of the lot of them in the whole time I had been there.”

    Really good stuff.

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