Maury’s Holy Grail
by Max Talley
Maurice Schonberg shuddered awake to answer the phone after the first ring. At 2 a.m., the loud jangle of the landline would wake his wife Grace.
“Who is this?” he asked in a raspy, ghost voice.
“The mother lode,” a man said. “Your fucking holy grail, Maury.”
“Albert? Listen, I’ll call you back.”
Grace roiled and grumbled in her sleep but didn’t surface into consciousness.
Maury padded downstairs in their Astoria, Queens house while tying his bathrobe. A two bedroom row house similar to those in the opening of All in the Family. The kind familiar to travelers taxiing back and forth from JFK and LaGuardia airports to Manhattan, staring from moving car windows while pondering the people who lived inside those shingled, weathered structures replete with linoleum and Formica. The wonders of near past civilizations.
Maury sank into a butt-sprung easy chair then called Albert. The whoosh and hum of Grand Central Parkway, of Astoria Boulevard, added a constant white noise to his home life. “This better be good,” he said when Albert answered. “You interrupted my dream. I was back at the Carnegie Deli.”
“Yeah, yeah, I miss those Reubens too,” Albert said. “But seriously, what we talked about. It’s $500 now.”
“What am I, made of money? Last time it was $250.”
“For bogus merchandise. Anyway, that’s their price.”
“How do I know it’s for real?” Maury wanted to believe but he’d been burned before.
“Totally legit.” Albert’s voice trembled with excitement. “I’ve viewed ten minutes. A high-quality transfer on top-of-the-line Maxell VHS tapes.” He whispered, “And no guarantees, but it may have been copied from the film stock by Francis himself.”
Maury’s heartbeat accelerated. “Let’s talk tomorrow. Can’t disturb Grace. Need to get back to bed.” As if he would sleep a wink until dawn.
At age sixty, Maury had been a serious collector for over thirty years. Baseball cards, comic books, Life magazines, James Bond memorabilia, movie posters, albums and CDs by The Beatles and a dozen other bands, Grateful Dead bootlegs on handwritten cassettes, jazz groups, old blues 78s, model cars, tiny soldier sets, board games, jigsaw puzzles, and figurines—including the first black Barbie doll from 1968, known as Christie.
Grace had initially humored Maury’s pursuits, even encouraging him, until the purchases grew and grew, metastasizing to dominate both their physical space and his interior mental space. Then she shifted into sarcastic and sometimes caustic comments, before lapsing into glum silence.
Two months ago Grace put her foot down, again.
“Enough already, Maury.”
His collection not only filled their house—beyond the sacrosanct bedroom—but also packed a sizable storage unit out in the Bronx.
“You don’t enjoy what you already have,” she said one morning when his arguing skills were weakest before three cups of coffee.
No, his treasures didn’t make Maury happy. It was the hunt, tracking down a new rarity and bagging it before some other hunter did, that thrilled him.
“Either this stops or I go back to Paramus.”
“Jersey? But Grace, your parents are dead.”
“So I’ll live with my brother Herman. You’re going crazy with this hoarding, and it’s getting dangerous.” Grace referred to his recent failed attempt to purchase the holy grail.
“Collecting is not hoarding.”
“Would it kill you to buy me something for a change?” She pointed in various directions at figurines and toys, her face pinched as if cataloging varieties of vermin.
Grace’s schpiel hit Maury like a gut punch. Maybe the romance and glamour had faded from their marriage, but she was an essential part of his life, his health. Losing Grace would be like losing a gall bladder, worse, a kidney, or possibly his liver—which no one could survive without. Unthinkable.
“Okay, okay, I promise to stop…once I obtain this last piece.” He put his hands together as if in prayer. “A month. Three at most.”
“Still chasing your golden fleece?”
“That’s another movie.” Maury recalled with pleasure that he owned a copy of Jason and the Argonauts. “This one is my holy grail.”
“Yeah, whatever.” She prepared to depart for her accounting job. “But what I said. I’m serious this time.”
“Honey, sweetheart. Would I bullshit you?”
Grace frowned on her way out.
Maury had been a fan of Apocalypse Now ever since seeing the film on the Ziegfeld Theater’s big screen in 1979 at age nineteen while tripping his brains out on acid. His friend Jimmy made fun of him that night, telling Maury to take off his silly yarmulke, but he didn’t. With his mind expanding all over the universe, it comforted Maury to have the little skullcap atop the crown of his head. If things got crazy, out of control, he could shrink down and tuck his consciousness under that yarmulke to be safe, and to protect him. Like Linus’s blanket.
Maury had long since lost his faith and was an atheist like most of his Jewish friends. Except Grace. She still attended synagogue.
Over the years, then decades, Maury had heard rumors of a five-hour workprint of Apocalypse Now, but he concentrated on other facets of his collection. It wasn’t until Apocalypse Now Redux premiered in theaters in 2001, with its three hour and seventeen minute cut, that Maury’s fire to find the ultimate version got reignited. Since then, the workprint might surface online briefly before being pulled down. Sellers advertised “The full original movie” but actually sold tapes of 1980s HBO broadcasts before Coppola changed the ending—removing the Kurtz compound destruction sequence. That edit had made FFC a divisive figure, exalted for daring to make such a visionary film, but damned for altering it. Some people even compared him to George Lucas and Ridley Scott: befuddled elders perpetually screwing with their youthful masterpieces. Third-rate bootlegs appeared from time to time, but Maury needed a quality copy he could savor in its entirety.
Albert understood Maury’s Apocalypse Now holy grail obsession, but their friendship relied and was sustained by them collecting different items, by one treasuring something the other scoffed at.
“Why the hell do you need this thing?” Albert asked Maury while visiting the day after calling. “The full workprint is online at the Cinephile website.”
“That got taken down.”
“I saw YouTube workprint videos.”
“Fifteen minute clips,” Maury said, swatting his hand. “The quality is terrible, fifth generation, almost inaudible sound.”
“The actual workprint is pretty messy. Go to YouTube already.”
“Clips, goddamnit.” Maury sighed. “You can’t hold clips in your hand, store them in a safe deposit box. The whole point is to have it, to see the entire film—so it casts a spell.”
“A spell?” Albert said. “That’s worth hundreds of dollars to you?”
“Jeez, do I have to explain? All this garbage we collect is worth whatever we say it’s worth, whatever value we allow it to have. There’s no logic involved. We could be buying expensive paintings from Chelsea galleries with no idea if they were worthless or not. At least the stuff we collect has a nostalgic, personal value for us.”
“You should listen to Grace,” Albert said. “I chose my passion then Rebecca left me. I really miss her during winter, her down in Boca Raton and me freezing my ass off up here.”
“Set up the deal,” Maury replied. “Make it soon, and somewhere nearby.”
“Okay, okay,” Albert said. “Did I tell you about the ’50s Sinatra acetates I got from a storage locker in Hoboken?”
“A dozen times already. Call me when it’s arranged.” Maury ushered Albert out the door and prepared for his afternoon shift in the Queens Library at Woodside.
Of course he should listen to Grace, but he was so close now. Maury had had other holy grails. Unobtainable. He might spend hundreds or even a thousand for a rarity, however, some items just cost too much. He resigned himself to never owning one of the four Batmobiles built for the 1960s TV show, or the fifty-foot model of the Discovery One spaceship used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Film buffs swore that Kubrick destroyed the original, but conspiracy theorists claimed it still existed in a Passaic warehouse and could be had for a cool million.
Maury’s attempt to purchase the Apocalypse Now workprint two months ago still rankled him.
He went to the prearranged meeting place in Long Island City under the raised subway tracks near the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge heading into Manhattan. A spitting rain wet the streets and the shine and light reflections gave a criminal enterprise patina to the proceedings, as well as a rush of adrenaline to Maury. For decades he’d dealt with Italians and other Jews, but nowadays such purchases usually involved Russians. Much tougher to haggle with.
A dark sedan pulled up near Queensboro Plaza Station and parked illegally. A man in a hooded sweatshirt rushed over in the downpour toward Maury—the only nervous sixty-year-old standing by a metal buttress.
“You are the man?” he asked in a thick Slavic voice.
“Yes.” Maury looked in every direction, as paranoid as if he was buying crack. “You have it?”
“You bring money?” The 7 and N trains thundered by overhead, ground vibrating.
Maury showed the roll of twenties clutched in his hand. Headlights momentarily illuminated the men before night reasserted itself, a chiaroscuro of light and dark.
The Russian tossed a satchel to Maury and took the cash.
Maury had given him $200, $50 short, in an attempt to bargain. He zippered open the nylon valise. Three DVDs. Odd. He’d expected VHS tapes. “Hey, wait…”
Without counting his money, the man bolted back toward the waiting car, splashing through puddles. The sedan lurched away with a skid of wet tires.
Maury felt a twinge of pain. Damn sciatica. A hammering rainstorm had descended out of nowhere. He flagged a yellow cab from the stream of traffic surging off the bridge ramp and examined his purchase inside.
Fuck, Maury said to himself, then aloud, “Shit!” The Russian had given him the three DVD Full Disclosure set, basically the 1979 movie cut, the Redux cut, and the Hearts of Darkness documentary. Worth $50 at most on Amazon, and of course, he already owned it. Some troglodytes believed that was the holy grail, but they were deluded fools. Maury’s only silver lining was losing just $200. He’d caught a 25% discount on ripoffs that night. He swore he wouldn’t get snookered again.
Maury waited patiently on Thursday evening. He sat in his favorite chair watching MSNBC news on the flat screen in their downstairs living room like a liberal Jewish Archie Bunker. Grace perched nearby reading a book on West Bank settlements in Israel.
Maury wanted to hold her hand, so she’d understand he was choosing her, despite his hawk-like focus on the silent landline atop the desk. However, they had just finished their take-out order of orange chicken and Chinese fried rice. Afterwards, they gave each other a little space in case either got gassy, with Judah their aged Labrador retriever lying on the couch between to take the blame. Sometimes it was Judah’s fault and his forlorn gaze showed an almost existential acceptance.
The phone rang; Maury froze. Grace looked over. He let it ring twice before grabbing it.
“They want to do the deal tonight,” Albert said.
“Yeah, what do you think I mean tonight?”
“You know the Wastewater Treatment Plant?”
“Bowery Bay?” Maury said.
“At midnight.” Albert breathed heavily. “Maybe you shouldn’t, after last time. I don’t trust the Russians. What if you get hurt?”
“I’ll be there. Nobody’s going to hurt me,” Maury said, then regretted it.
“Who’s going to get hurt?” Grace dropped her book without saving the page.
“No one,” he replied while hanging up. “Albert’s crazy. Paranoid, a hypochondriac. Collects garbage. Not even sure why we’re friends.”
“No, you two are nothing alike.” Grace smirked then moved into the kitchen where she had a laptop set up to research recipes and Mediterranean cruises. “I don’t like you going out so late to do business,” she shouted. “God forbid that you should include me in your adventures.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Only when you behave like a child.”
Maury stared at his Homer Simpson doll on a bookshelf and didn’t reply.
At 11:40 Maury drove east toward Bowery Bay in the minivan usually reserved for larger item buys. He had five crisp hundred dollar bills in his pocket. No haggling this time.
Near the Con Ed buildings before the plant, he pulled over and taped wrapping paper over both license plates. Maury didn’t want the Russians tracing his address through plate numbers.
This was the old New York where progress never showed. Nothing could gentrify the gray industrial area on Bowery Bay. It still looked like gritty 1970s movies, derelict and messy, toxic and uninhabitable. The air smelled of lung diseases and tumors. Yet people you might never encounter lived in caretaker shacks, in funky apartments fashioned from sections of warehouses and utility buildings. You had to know a different language of logic, read the secret codes, lead strange hours to exist here.
Maury parked at the rear of the fencing around the plant, out of sight from the watchman’s booth. They did hourly rounds, but the exchange should be transacted in ten minutes. He lowered his window to see better and breathed the polluted miasma wafting off Bowery Bay.
A car approached slowly—at old man speed—along the causeway between the fencing and shoreline. At twenty yards, the headlights doused, at ten yards, it came to a halt. A youngish man stepped from the Lincoln Continental and waved, then walked over smiling. “Good evening, I’m Dmitri. Shall we proceed?”
“Yes.” Maury felt better and half-relaxed. Dmitri acted happy, eager to do the deal. Maury exited the minivan and glanced over his shoulder toward the booth. No activity. “Did you bring them?”
“Of course.” The Russian handed him a cloth bag. “Take your time.”
They didn’t have much time, but Maury examined the three VHS tapes with a pocket flashlight. Written across each in black marker was: 5 Hour Rough Workprint, 1978, copy #7. The scratchy penmanship looked similar to handwriting samples he’d witnessed by Coppola. Could this be one of the fabled ten copies FFC had made for film editors and close friends like George Lucas and Spielberg? If so, it was totally worth the cost.
“Looks right,” he said, keeping cool. Maury checked the tape and spools under the light. No visible tears or tangles. He inhaled one VHS cassette deep into his nostrils. It definitely smelled of the late seventies: cardboard, plastic, ethnic food, maybe incense, and some dirt weed too. “Okay.” He tucked the bag under his left arm and passed the cash-filled envelope over.
Dmitri nodded and counted the bills. He smiled with apparent satisfaction.
Another man emerged from the Lincoln. Showing donkey teeth and an unshaven face, he looked maniacal. “Please be handing back the merchandise.” He brandished a long knife.
“What?” Maury’s chest seized up like a vice. He didn’t collect weapons but guessed a Russian Navy issue.
“Those tapes are real thing,” the bulky man said. “Priceless. We give you one for $500. Rest when you pay more.”
“That wasn’t the deal.” For once, Maury hoped the watchman would discover them.
“New deal.” The ugly Russian advanced, thrusting his knife in the air. Maury retreated, and while distracted, Dmitri grabbed the cloth bag away.
“Fair is fair.” He handed Maury the last of the three tapes.
Maury constricted with anger and fear. He should have stayed in the minivan. Never get off the boat. Maury wanted to see the entire movie, not watch the ending first. These dishonest hooligans had no sense of continuity, the proper order of things.
The minivan’s side door slid open and a woman with her head wrapped in black jumped out holding a Glock semi-automatic pistol.
“Gonif! Give him his tapes back—now.”
“No,” the surly man said. “What are you going to do about it?”
The woman held a canister in her left hand. She sprayed directly into the big Russian’s eyes. He screamed in pain and bent over, clawing his face. The knife dropped. She pointed the gun at Dmitri’s head.
“Don’t shoot.” He slid the bag to Maury’s feet. “It was just joke, ha-ha.”
“Get back in your car.” She walked both men to their Lincoln.
Maury tossed the bag of tapes inside the minivan and joined her. In a dazzle of courage, he yanked their car keys from the ignition and flung them into Bowery Bay. “Charlie don’t surf.”
Bright security lights switched on around the fencing and Maury detected motion by the watchman’s booth. He and the woman dashed to the minivan and motored past the Lincoln on the causeway, taking a circuitous route back toward Astoria.
Inside, Grace tore off the black headwrap and gazed behind. “Someone’s coming.”
The pursuing vehicle stopped at their transaction point and bright headlights illuminated the parked Lincoln.
“I think we’re good.” Maury stepped on the accelerator, letting the accumulated fear drain from his body. He began laughing and soon Grace was laughing too. “I didn’t know you had that gun.”
“It’s a replica, from Albert. Don’t you know what he collects?”
“I forgot. He bought those models years ago.”
“The pepper spray was real though.”
“I know, I know.” Maury felt intoxicated. “And your disguise. Don’t tell anyone at your temple, but you looked…” he lowered his voice, “like Hezbollah.” He kept driving until their neighborhood loomed ahead.
Grace went up to bed while Maury examined his holy grail. After starting the first tape and recognizing the rough film as authentic, he remembered the late hour. Not now. He needed to be rested and alert. Yes, he’d call in sick tomorrow, watch the whole damn thing in one sitting. For the time being, Maury tucked the tapes back in the cloth sack, which he tied inside a black garbage bag for added protection, and placed it on his favorite chair.
Upstairs, he and Grace made love for the first time in months.
Afterwards, Maury whispered to her, “I was so proud of you tonight, helping me. We were a team.” He stroked her shoulder. “In the future we’ll go do deals together, like Bonnie and Clyde, or Butch Cassidy and Sundance, or…” His voice trailed off.
Grace gave him a strange look before getting out of his bed to tuck into her own a few yards away. They both slept better that way. She was soon fast asleep.
Maury couldn’t relax, his mind racing with ideas. Maybe I can sell the house and we can rent something in a cheaper neighborhood. Then I could afford the Batmobile. Imagine the look on Grace’s friends’ faces when I drive her to work. The Batman and Robin of Queens. His brain ballooned upward and expanded, controlled solely by his ego. The city stretched out below him. We’ll be royalty. I’ll be the Emperor of Astoria, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside Gardens. Maury eventually drifted off near four a.m.
Grace woke before dawn. Maury snuffled and wheezed, oblivious. Downstairs she packed two large suitcases. Over the last year she had been in touch with her high school sweetheart Ira Rosenbaum. He was a widow at fifty-eight and they chatted online every day. Maury would never change. This being the third time he’d promised to stop collecting. She sighed. Once the thrill of a new acquisition faded he would become antsy, then start imagining something else. And perhaps he needed it. If Maury ever finished his collection, maybe he’d die on that day, or worse, slowly decline, nothing left to inspire him or get him out of bed in the morning.
Grace wouldn’t be that far away, just at Ira’s house in Red Bank, New Jersey. Maury could adapt—eventually. She pictured having indoor space for her things, land she could walk on, air she could breathe. Once she finished packing, Grace sat waiting for the cab. Scanning the living room that seemed to shrink in her last minutes, she noticed a black plastic trash bag on Maury’s chair. The churning of the garbage truck making its weekly rounds sounded outside. What the hell, one last favor for old Maury.
Moving down their stoop, she saw her taxi pull up. The driver loaded the luggage within his trunk. Grace took a final look at the house she’d known for decades, then tossed the garbage bag into a trash bin and ducked inside the cab. From the scuffed window, she watched the sunrise illuminate one small pocket of Queens. Soon, the five boroughs of New York City, and even Long Island and New Jersey, were all bathed in a soft gold.
Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Hofstra University – Windmill, Entropy, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Litro. Talley’s novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he is an associate editor for Santa Barbara Literary Journal www.maxdevoetalley.com