I’d figured there was no way we could have gotten the vase out of the country. It was too large to hide, too obviously old to disguise. Officials in the Middle East have become pretty possessive of their antiquities after hundreds of years of so-called civilized Europeans, from Nero’s Romans to Victoria’s Britons, plundering their national treasures. Besides, while I could rationalize taking the scroll, I couldn’t justify stealing more than necessary.
On the other hand, I was optimistic we could hide the scroll. I bought a souvenir poster in a cardboard tube, stuck the scroll inside, and carefully resealed it, even to the point of moving the price tag across the seam as if it had been undisturbed since a midnight stocker had carelessly stuck it there. Not that I didn’t experience a drop or two of cold sweat when we passed through Israeli customs. Unlike the officials in the United States, those guys carried serious weapons. The kind that could carpet the inspection areas with dead bodies without having to pull the trigger more than once. But they didn’t even give us a second glance. While their duties theoretically included smuggling of any sort, their real concern was preventing the smuggling of things that went boom or rat-a-tat-tat into the country or onto Israeli aircraft. Not to mention that their constitution didn’t prohibit racial profiling, and even with a week’s worth of desert tan we were clearly not Arabs.
We toasted our success on the plane with a couple of those cute little bottles of booze each, plus a Chardonnay for The Grail.
US Customs was every bit as diligent as the Israelis had been in protecting their country from evil being smuggled in. But back in those days long before 9/11, explosives weren’t their main concern, but rather a far more dangerous substance: marijuana. And this time we weren’t exempt by virtue of our appearance. In fact, between our ‘long’ hair—i.e., none of us had a crew cut—and our dubious occupation—student—we were prime suspects. Still, I wasn’t worried. We weren’t carrying any drugs, and obviously we weren’t well heeled enough to be bringing back in a lot of expensive crap above our duty-free limits. So when I was pulled out of line, motioned into one of the examining rooms, and asked to open my luggage, I shrugged, put on my best nonchalant demeanor, and did as I was told.
The chubby customs inspector with the sweat stains under his arms—Pete Wilson, his badge said—appeared to be a little bored by the entire proceedings. Particularly when I surreptitiously touched The Grail and gave him a casual “nothing of interest in there, I’m sure” nudge. Not so apathetic was the young German shepherd sitting beside him, panting and eyeing me suspiciously. I’d heard that they were experimenting with dogs in airports to sniff for drugs, but had never actually seen one before.
So predictably—I’ve always loved dogs, but they are better known for their loyal friendship than their brains—the second I opened my suitcase, Fido-Narc-Narc started whining excitedly. Wilson forgot about the suggestion he was supposed to be going along with and punched a button that I hadn’t noticed. In seconds a supervisor was there in the room with us, wearing a revolver on his hip (here in the good ol’ You Ess of A, we didn’t consider it too much of a hardship if law enforcement officers had to pull the trigger once for each dead body, or more if they were lousy shots) and a grim expression on his face. One look at Fido carrying on so and he asked me to please move my hands away from my body and step back from my luggage, his delivery markedly less polite than his words.
The poster tube was lying on top, and when Wilson picked it up Fido went nuts, growling and whining and dancing around, trying to get around his human master who obviously didn’t understand the importance of what was in that tube.”Well, now lookee here,” Wilson said with an evil stage grin that could only belong on a horse opera villain. “What do you suppose we got here, Charley?”
“Please be careful,” I practically shouted as he carelessly tore the top off the tube. “That is very old and fragile, and extremely valuable.” I started to throw caution to the wind and grab for the grail, but Charlie’s Dirty Harry glare while lovingly caressing the butt of his pistol made me hesitate.
“Oh, I doubt that it’s very old, but it probably is pretty valuable. At least on the streets,” Charley wisecracked as he moved between me and my suitcase.
When Wilson shook the package to free what he imagined was a half-pound of high-grade hashish, Fido-Narc-Narc made his move. Just as the papers cleared the tube the dog lunged, ripped the scroll away from Wilson, shook it in his mouth as if it were a cat he’d just caught, and then began clawing at it frantically. Bits of ancient papyrus flew everywhere on the breeze generated by his paws moving at their frenetic pace as if he were trying to dig through the floor and bury his prey.
“Prince, no!” shouted Wilson, scrabbling to grab for the dog’s collar. In the confusion I snuck my finger into my pouch and screamed, “Stop that dog right now!”
Charley obeyed—and how. Wilson had just managed a good grip on the collar and was trying to drag the struggling animal away from his mangled prey when Charley pulled his pistol and emptied it into the dog.
It was a clear case of too much, too late. When the noise stopped echoing off the walls and the smoke left by the smokeless powder cleared, the ancient manuscript of Joseph of Arimathea was in about a kazillion pieces. The largest was about the size of your palm, and there weren’t even very many of those, at least compared with the number of shreds the size of dandruff flakes too numerous to count. Not only that, but everything was covered with dog blood and brain matter and hair and other assorted goo. Somewhere in the distance a siren went off, and the clatter of footsteps outside got louder before people in uniform started rushing into the room, grinding what was left of the manuscript into the floor.
“Congratulations,” I sneered when I finally recovered enough to speak at all. “Your stupid mutt, who is obviously so deranged by reefer madness that he doesn’t remember that rolling papers don’t normally come poster-sized, has just destroyed a priceless, two thousand year old historical document of the crucifixion.” Charley paled and rushed out to get his boss before I had a chance to command it.
Two hours later we were in a taxi heading home, holding a box containing a selection of the largest pieces of the scroll that could be blotted free of gore. Or at least Anne was; she’d insisted on keeping them, although I was so disgusted that I wanted to just scatter them out the window—give them and my dreams a decent funeral, at least. Folded in my pocket was a copy of our claim form (which we had, of course, filled out in triplicate) signed by a middle manager from the U. S. Customs Service to acknowledge a settlement for damages in the amount of ten thousand dollars, a check for which would be mailed in four to six weeks. That was the highest sum anyone west of Washington, D. C. could approve; The Cup’s best efforts hadn’t even come close to convincing the bureaucrat to exceed his approval authority without checking with his superiors. I’d taken the money and run before somebody with a drop or two of Old Gabe’s blood in their veins started asking a lot of questions about how we obtained such a treasure, and could I prove that it was legally mine (I imagined Washington, D. C. to be crammed full of just such people). In my funk I spent the trip visualizing using the money to launch a new career unrelated to either history or literature—or smuggling.
Layl’Annie spent the night at my apartment for the first time, cheering me up considerably. It is exceedingly difficult for the young male to stay depressed when he’s getting laid. Puts everything else into perspective. There may be ideals or even possessions that others rank higher in their value systems—that is to say, things that are more important than sex—but I didn’t know anything about those. When I asked her what had caused her change in attitude she’d casually replied, “Well, darling, it’s OK now that we’re engaged. “Fortunately we were enjoying the ‘warm afterglow of sex’ at the time, since no man on earth could maintain an erection through such a shocking pronouncement. Yet how could I deny what she had discovered while rummaging around in my very own traitorous head?
Anne left Sunday afternoon to go back to her job (we’d gone so far and done so much, it was hard to reconcile that it had all taken place in a two-week vacation). Before Monday was over, The Boomer completed the destruction of my hopes and dreams by bringing over a stack of eight-by-ten color glossy prints (in the noble tradition of Arlo Guthrie) of the pictures that he’d taken of the manuscript, his estimation that they were illegible, and a huge magnifying glass so that I could verify that opinion for myself.
I dealt with the situation with the very pragmatic solution of buying two bottles of tequila from Cobwebs and throwing a three-day drunk. The Boomer spent the first day with me, but after that I was all on my own, drinking my own damned booze in the privacy of my own damned apartment, listening to my own damned Janice Joplin tapes and thinking my own damned thoughts and feeling sorry for my own damned self. I might have stayed drunk forever (or at least until Layl’Annie got back) if I hadn’t run out of something to drink and been too trashed to go get more.
After the liquor ran out I slept for twelve hours straight, woke up long enough to piss and take three aspirin, and then had a two hour nap. When I woke up the second time, thanks to the miracle of analgesic drugs and the resilience of my own metabolism, the pounding in my head had subsided to the point where I was capable of rational thought. Not only that, but during the nap I had come up with a truly dazzling if hare-brained solution to the whole mess.
I spent four long days turning The Grail’s version of the life of Jesus into the rather dull and factual account I imagined Joseph of Arimathea might have penned under the hot desert sun. Without the pressure of having to write well, the project was a snap. In fact, the only problem was keeping the narrative prosaic enough (I confess to allowing a little dry humor to slip in here and there to give the scholars a new twist to write about when all of the obvious implications had been exhausted). Along the way I took a sample of the scroll—hopefully free of dog-blood so as not to skew the results—to the museum of Natural Science, where The Grail and I convinced the curators to have it Carbon14-dated for free and on the QT for the advancement of scholarship. Annie came back for the weekend—she had been more than a little worried with my intoxicated ramblings when she called on Tuesday—and I enlisted her help in researching and making travel arrangements.
Bright and early Monday morning, The Boomer drove me back to the scene of the crime—Houston Intercontinental, that is—where I caught a flight to Chicago. Even though Texas and Illinois both consider the other to be a foreign country, officially they’re not and I didn’t encounter any manuscript-mangling-under-the-auspices-of-dope-sniffing customs dogs this time. The lady behind the Avis counter was friendly enough, even if she spoke in a strange, flat, unaccented voice. She outfitted me with a map of the area—that’s what we used before GPS was invented, highlighted the route to the booming metropolis of Skokie, and sent me on my way with that ancient and infallible curse, “You can’t miss it.”
Skokie was only a few minutes away as the buzzard flies, but the vulture didn’t have to deal with city traffic, so it took me considerably longer. Not only that, but courtesy of Miss Avis’ hex I got completely lost and spent an hour wandering through one-way alleys trying to find a street name that was on my map. By the time I got back on the road to Skokie, grabbed a plastic burger and an order of perfect fries from under the arches, and followed the road signs to Hebrew Theological College, it was mid-afternoon.
Annie had selected השת (that’s HTC for you goyim) from what little information she could dig up (back in the days before the internet; now you can find out anything about everything, some of which is actually true, in minutes) as the best candidate for what we were looking for: an institute out of the main stream of academia—and how much more out of the main stream can you be than in Skokie, Illinois?—far away from Houston, and with a language department that included Aramaic. She hadn’t been able to find a copy of their course catalog, but a telephone call netted her the info that yes, Mrs. Goldberg, there are courses in ancient Aramaic in the curricula (plus they answered the phone on Sunday).
To even the most casual observer I looked painfully out of place on the HTC campus; for starters, I was the only man on campus without a skull cap. But I put on my best Ah, Shucks grin, kept my finger on The Grail and plowed on. Don’t worry about a thing, she reassured me. If anybody tries that “funny, you don’t look Jewish” line on us, I’ll convince ‘em you’re the Messiah. Done it before.
Whether in response to my grin or the influence of The Cup, the young clerk in the registrar’s office readily gave me a copy of the course guide and a visitor’s badge—I’d never heard of a college campus requiring a visitor’s badge before—and welcomed me to the college, please feel free to look around, Mr. Schuster. I spent an hour reading up on the Language Department staff, followed by another couple hanging out in the student center, talking to students. There were quite a few around, even though it was summer; several had taken Aramaic and were willing to discuss what the various professors were like. All the time I kept waiting for somebody in authority to come by and ask just what in Gehenna I was up to, but no one ever did.
By evening I had a list of names of three professors I thought would be able and might be willing, with a little friendly persuasion, to help me. At the top of the list was Dr. Karl Shapiro, an internationally known scholar and expert despite the twin obstacles of only being in his thirties and having the reputation as something of a firebrand.
It was late the next afternoon before I finally got in to see Dr. Shapiro; he was only teaching one class during the summer term and didn’t normally come in before noon. He greeted me with a friendly smile that went exactly as deep as the first layer of skin cells of his lips. I couldn’t tell if his enmity was habitual—and if so, was it because I was a student or a Gentile—or mere irritation at my disturbing the peaceful patterns of his summer.
The most gaping flaw in my scheme was that I hadn’t been able to come up with a plausible explanation of what I was doing. The best I could come up with was to present the truth, or at least as much of the whole truth as I was willing to divulge, and hope that The Grail could make it appealing. So after introducing myself and wasting a moment or two of our time on pleasantries—the flight was fine, thanks; the weather in Texas was way too hot for human beings, I didn’t know how people stood it either, even if we never had to shovel show off their driveway; that sort of standard dialog—I launched right in.
“Dr. Shapiro, I need some assistance for a confidential project I’m working on. I have come across an alternate version of the story of Jesus Christ from an absolutely reliable source that cannot be divulged. I intend to go ahead and attempt to present this version in a history doctoral thesis anyway. In order to give my work credibility and protect my source, I need it translated into 1st century Aramaic. As you will see, this version of the myth will be a little embarrassing for Christians. I was hoping you would help.”
Dr. Shapiro’s eye gleamed just a touch as he held out his hand for my manuscript. So I handed it over and waited quietly as he read it with what seemed like lightning speed, considering the time it had taken me to write it.
As he turned the last page and looked up, I sweetened the pot just a little. “I would also like to offer an honorarium of one thousand dollars for handling this project promptly and confidentially.”
He looked hard at me with narrowed eyes for a long minute before he nodded once. “I must confess that as a devout Jew, I can discover no tears or regrets about causing a bit of embarrassment to Christians, nor to chiseling a little at their smug self-righteousness. It may turn out to be a greater contribution to Judaism than your honorarium.” His lips formed a thin, hard smile that didn’t make it as far as his eyes. “I see no reason why I cannot have this done the day after tomorrow. Is that acceptable to your timetable?”
Spending two days in Chicago without further obligations was no hardship as far as I was concerned. Heck, I could’ve indulged a childhood fantasy by spending two days never venturing further than the walls of the paleontology section of the Museum of Natural History. Particularly with the cool wind blowing off Lake Michigan—in another few months it would be a curse, but for a Houstonite it was sheer pleasure. And on top of everything else, the Big Red Machine was in town to take on the Cubbies. I was tempted to see if The Grail could pump old Turk Zabini’s tired fastball up to where he could throw it past Johnny Bench, but I judged that to be a miracle even beyond the skills of Franca herself. Anyway, the Reds won and the museum was everything I’d dreamed it would be. Before I knew it I was back on the airplane, translation in hand, once again celebrating with a drink—something I hadn’t done on the way up, still suffering as I was from the after-effects of my binge. It was substantially before noon, and my grandpappy had always said you knew a man was a drunk if he consumed liquor before noon, but I could always rationalize around such sage guidance if I had something to celebrate.