How I Spent My Summer Vacation, by Bradley Schuster
My plans for the summer were simple and exciting. After the last exam had been taken and the last paper turned in, I intended to spend a couple of days totally absorbed in Layl’Annie before she headed back to Nacogdoches—which, fortunately, was only three hours away—for the summer. Then I would be free to log some serious time with The Grail, hearing new and fascinating historical insights: the doomed efforts of Alfred the Great to keep the Danes at bay, the religious and matrimonial machinations of Henry VIII, the carefully-concocted virginity of Lizzy I. But suddenly and unexpectedly, the story was over.
Sorry, she told me. If only I hadn’t been so reckless with that liturgical SWAT team. She sounded like she sincerely regretted it.
So the morning Anne drove away I trudged to Ms. Doubletree’s office to start on my new career.
“Spend the next month doing nothing but reading,” she instructed. “Normally, I would tell you to spend the next year reading, but we have some deadlines—imposed by people who never wrote a creative sentence, I might add—around the end of next semester. So we’ll try an abbreviated schedule. Read voraciously for one month without writing a word, then we’ll move to the next stage.”
She went to her bookshelves and started pulling down novels. Heavyweights like Anna Karenina and David Copperfield, serious contenders such as Huckleberry Finn and The Sun Also Rises, newcomers including The Magus, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, and A Clockwork Orange. She even threw in Between the Laughing Tombstones. I had read three of the dozen-and-a-half books she handed me, but she said rereading was great—with books of this caliber, what you got out of the reading varied with the state of mind of the reader. We set up a review session every Friday afternoon to talk about the books, to be held at her house because on Friday she didn’t normally bother putting on make-up.
The month that followed was the most relaxing and carefree break I’d had since high school. By the middle of the week I had established a regimen that Tours Unlimited could have packaged as a luxury vacation and charged big bucks for. Up at seven-thirty for a three-mile run, one turn around the campus, then back to the apartment for coffee and fruit and toast. Take one of the heavyweight books and bike to some quiet park bench, grassy knoll, or oak tree. Read continuously, with only short stretching-and-water breaks, until lunch. Home for a sandwich and fruit. Walk to a different spot—one with more activity going on—with a lighter novel and a cooler containing one beer, one soda, and one apple (sounds like a John Lee Hooker song gone bad)—this being before the days when they convinced normal, otherwise sane people to pay money for plastic bottles of tap water. Read until late afternoon before knocking off, with two breaks long enough for a brisk walk and a beverage. The evenings were mine to do whatever I wanted, and the village-and-museum district had plenty of low-cost entertainment. At least a couple of nights a week I spent with The Grail, refining the notes I’d taken. Occasionally I found myself prowling the library for something fun to read—fun being defined as something that Ms. Doubletree hadn’t given me. Although I discovered that I now read everything from a different perspective, whether it was Moby Dick in the park or Playboy Forum while sitting on the toilet.
In the beginning I was in such shit-for-shape that I finished the last half of my run at a dull jogger’s plod. But like young knights, young grad students recover quickly, even from the excesses of a year where the most strenuous activity encountered in the course of a normal week is holding the eyelids open. Before I had finished A Tale of Two Cities—which I had always assumed was a prostitute that worked the Dallas-Fort Worth area—I had exorcised that softness around the gut that beer and cheap food had promoted. A sure sign that I was making progress was that every day I met the cute blonde jogger with the saucy boobs on the back stretch along South Main Street a littler earlier in my run.
The simplicity of the routine was refreshing, although I am not normally a creature of quite so much habit. Not to mention the better diet. Monday and Tuesday, I tended to dine on leftovers from Layl’Annie’s fine cooking; toward the end of the week, when I went out with The Boomer, we often rose above pizza. I even looked forward to sparring with Ms. Unspoiled-by-cosmetics Doubletree on Friday afternoons to pin down what made good books enjoyable and how much of that I could emulate.
And then there were Layl’Annie’s weekend visits. She was working days as a lingerie clerk at Sears, if you can imagine—but remember, that was back in the days before Victoria had any secrets. Her job left her without obligations from five o’clock on Friday until nine on Monday morning. She didn’t drive down every weekend, but pretty close. Layl’Annie had a girlfriend with a two-bedroom apartment near campus whose roommate was in France for the summer, so she had a place to stay whenever she wanted it. I told her she had a place to stay whenever she wanted right there at my apartment, but she always declined, albeit with a wry smile. As far as I could tell, the sexual revolution had bypassed East Texas.
Anne was an avid reader, and when she was in Houston she loved to go to ‘my spots’ and read together. Which meant that, since at the moment reading was my work, I was working on weekends. But what the hell, who can truly consider reading—even reading War and Peace—work? She would pick up and read anything I had finished, Moby Dick included, and then grill me to find out what Miss Doubletree and I had decided was good about it. And I never caught her without make-up.
Amidst all that delicious indolence, one noteworthy item deserves chronicling. We’d been strolling around the duck pond at Hermann Park in a barely-there mist when it began to rain hard enough to drive us inside. So we dashed across South Main and ducked into The Museum of Fine Arts. The first gallery we explored contained Greek vases and Egyptian alabasters. Look, here are some antiquities as old as you are, I kidded The Grail. I wonder if any of them are magical, sleeping there with no privacy whatsoever, just waiting for a quaff of wine or blood or frankincense to bring them to life.
But it ended up making her moody. I wonder if this is how I spent the Industrial Revolution, on display for everyone who came by to gape and gawk over without knowing a thing about it, she sulked.
In a gallery of Renaissance portraits we got caught up in a game of making up the thoughts behind the stern visages of the rich and noble. I thought I was holding my own until Layl’Annie ended the contest as acclaimed winner with, “I’d sure like to blow my nose, but my only clean hankie is filling out my codpiece.”
And then we turned a corner into a contemporary art gallery and found ourselves staring at The Picture, Havana Joe’s masterpiece, far from its roots in the antique section of Westheimer.
I forgot what I was doing, forgot to wonder how it might have gotten there. I just stood and stared for a minute or an hour—who knows how long? Finally The Marquis caught my attention long enough to reminded me that I was being rude to my girlfriend. I turned to apologize, but Annie was so lost in the puzzled expression of the young woman in the fatigue shirt that she’d forgotten I was there.
Her reaction blew me away. I couldn’t restrain myself—discovering a woman who felt as deeply about this painting as I did was too poignant. I grabbed her by the shoulders and blurted out, “Anne, I love you” before I could stop myself and consider the consequences.
She smiled her subdued little smile and leaned her head against my shoulder, so I thought maybe my breach wouldn’t be too serious. But then she said those maddening words that only a woman would use: “I know.”
“Woman in Olive Drab, by Joseph Cromarty. Donated by Harold and Gracie Stevens,” a small card beside The Picture informed us. The curator on duty couldn’t give us any more details.
The Boomer spent that month trying to get his machine to transmit. Once or twice a week we would end up back at the graveyard, standing under the oak tree, talking into a microphone to try to get a response out of the ghost of the hanged man. He added a little speaker so all three of us could listen when Anne was there. But no woven silver-wire antenna, no ten-fold increase in power, no twenty-four dollar cadmium-plated capacitors, no pleading into the mike, no anything ever induced a reaction. We even prowled the city until we found two other ghosts, one at an old house and another beside a nasty curve on Jackrabbit Road, just to make sure that the first ghost wasn’t just being malicious and uncooperative. Still nothing.
Finally The Boomer hypothesized that backward transmission was limited by the same mechanism that made time flow in one direction. With the parting tidbit, “Success would make time travel theoretically possible, you know,” he disappeared in his laboratory to play around with a little multivariable calculus and see if there was a loophole somewhere. I wished him the best of luck. I wasn’t exactly buying into all that, of course, but I found myself dreaming about taking Layl’Annie and The Grail and going back to a romantic time when life was simpler, even if penicillin and flush toilets hadn’t been invented yet. Having brunch with Arthur, or even Jesus.
And then suddenly my month of reading pleasure was up and I had to adjust my regimen to include two one-hour writing sessions a day. Suddenly I switched from a rabid-if-laid-back reader to a struggling artist. Not that I had writer’s block or anything. With my newly polished typing skills I averaged two-and-a-quarter double-spaced pages an hour. And I had a wealth of material to work from. My first short story, entitled The White Stag, attempted to capture the thrill of the harvest dance. Then I had Sir Bedivere describe the drama of Arthur drawing the sword from the stone and slaying Uriens. Next I crafted (using the term loosely) a longer work, retelling the romance of Nimue and Merlin in four sections, narrated in first person by Nimue, Morgause, Drysi, and Merlin in turn. But despite my month’s sabbatical studying the masters, my prose more closely resembled The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire—a book which any historian worthy of the name can curl up and read for hours but which will put the average Joe to sleep in minutes—than any of the great novels I’d read.
Miss Doubletree of course read everything and responded with encouraging words, telling me that I was making good progress and reminding me that every author has to pay his dues while learning his craft. But by the end the second month I could sense that, despite her calm exterior, she was getting a little frustrated in the manner of someone who owns a topic completely but can’t get you to understand it even a little. I knew her pain, having experienced the same thing once back in high school when I tried to get in a girl’s pants by helping her with her algebra (she never did get it, and neither did I).
Things got so desperate that, holding the cup, I recited the story of Sir Galahad coming to win his place among The Companions by fighting his father, recording it on a cassette and then transcribing it word-for-word. The Grail was quite pleased with the result, which is probably why the experiment didn’t work. Oh, it was noble, high-falutin’ prose, alright, and would have been as inspirational as a lecture to eager young history students at 8 am. But it wasn’t literary by an inch.
While walking by the History building one afternoon, feeling discouraged and hopeless (Hey! Maybe I was finally making progress as an artist. Historians never feel discouraged and hopeless), I got the urge to discuss my frustrations with somebody who wasn’t a published author. So without bothering to call or make an appointment I went up to talk to Dr. Giles.
His door was open a couple of inches, and when I tapped it swung open a few more. And I found myself staring at the Good Doctor locked in a passionate embrace with an attractive, partially-dressed brunette.
Actually, “dishabille” is a better description than “partially-dressed.”She had all of her clothes on, they just weren’t all exactly in the right place. Her blouse was unbuttoned and untucked and her bra was pushed up out of the way, and despite Dr. Giles’ head and hands partially blocking the view, there was plenty of bare skin left for me to appreciate.
They obviously hadn’t heard me—the passionately-preoccupied are inordinately immune to intrusion from the world outside—but I stood there with my mouth agape long enough for her to open her eyes and see me. She patted him on the shoulder and whispered something that caused him to straighten up and whirl around in obvious embarrassment—a perfectly understandable reaction, as far as I was concerned.
Her reaction was less logical. She didn’t snatch her blouse together to cover up or turn around or any of those other classic feminine reactions to suddenly being semi-nude in front of a stranger. Rather, she slipped her blouse down her shoulders, very carefully and deliberately easing her bra back into place while allowing me ample opportunity to savor her delightful figure. And not only that, she was smiling all the while.
About the time she’d put everything in order to the point that staring was no longer mandatory, Dr. Giles had recovered enough to speak. “Brad! I’d like for you to meet my fiancée, Marcia Hamilton.”
“Brad and I already know each other,” she rejoined, but about that time the testosterone level in my blood stream had dropped to the point where my brain started working again and I’d finally figured that out all by myself.
“Marcie!” I exclaimed. “Franca, look at you! You look great!”
“Gerry, Brad is the person who inspired me to lose all that excess weight I carried around all of those years. So you have him to thank for the figure I have now.” She winked at me as if to add, “that you love so well.”
He obviously didn’t know what to say to that, so he just shook his head.
“Brad, I’m glad you came by,” he finally came out with (both of us knew that was at least a partial untruth, but neither of us acknowledged the fact). “I had to call you this week anyway. Marcie and I are getting married on Saturday and leaving that same night for the Aegean and an extended honeymoon, uh, I mean for a sabbatical and study abroad. In any case, we won’t be back until just before the semester starts. So you’ll be entirely in the capable hands of Miss Doubletree until then.”
I didn’t see any sense in voicing my own doubts at this point. Plus it would have been hard to give much credence to any advice that came from him in his present state of mind. “No problem, sir. We’re getting along quite well so far.”
“Good. That’s settled then. Well, see you in a month or two. “He shook my hand, obviously eager for me to leave so they could go back to their interrupted conference.
So I was back on my own with the problem of my artistic inadequacy.
But I wasn’t really. I had two dear friends whose opinions I valued. The only problem was, being a man, it was easier to express inadequacy to professors or published authors or even total strangers than to the two people I knew best. I know: if you’re a woman, you’re having difficulty understanding that concept. But that’s how we men are.
Nonetheless, I firmly resolved to rise above my male heritage (at least this once). Anne was coming up for the weekend, so I invited The Boomer for dinner Friday, laid in a supply of hamburger meat and buns, chips, and beer, and prepared to hold a council of war.