by Jack Donahue
From Fall 2018
We met in the psych ward about three years ago. That’s when she told me that she had information the police would find helpful, significant details about a major crime committed in the vineyard where she worked. I was admitted to the hospital because I had recently experienced a few psychotic episodes. I need to point out that I was not a regular. She was a regular. All the psychiatrists knew her. All the nurses knew her. All the occupational therapists, psychologists, and medical students knew her. She was a difficult patient. One of the nurses once made an offhanded remark to that effect, mumbling as she left her room. I was the only other patient O.G. talked to, aside from her self. Not that O.G. trusted me. I never asked her too many questions or offered any unsolicited advice. I just listened. O.G. respected that. She gave her psychiatrist a hard time and got switched around from one doctor to another because she was so difficult. Her main thing was that she would only reveal personal information if it was reciprocal. She would cooperate with them as long as it worked both ways. If the doctor was willing to open up and share all sorts of intimate information, she would do the same. Of course, that never happened.
Sometimes, she would tell me, a few of the male psychiatrists told her personal stuff. She surmised that they were just throwing the bull. She guessed that they made up some juicy details about themselves because they wanted to appear more interesting than they really were so she would be drawn to them and agree to have sex. Other female patients on the floor told me they did have sex with some of the doctors, despite the doctors knowing full well how unethical it was and that they risked forfeiting their medical licenses, so I figured they were full of crap, even though one of them produced a used condom as evidence. She told me to put it in a zip lock bag and pass it along to her sister who visited on Saturdays. She would then ask her sister to arrange for a DNA test once she was able to steal a pocket comb from the same doctor. It was a wild story and I did not believe her. How could you believe anyone who was delusional most of the time? Yet I believed O.G.’s story about the big crime committed in the winery. Anyhow, unlike the supposed predatory male doctor, I never had the desire to have sex with O.G. I thought she was dangerous. I know it sounds shallow, but I could tell that she was probably physically attractive at one time, equipped with a nice figure and soft, buttery skin. But the psychotropic drugs took their toll. The last time we were together, her once smooth skin was all pocked and her figure resembled a refrigerator box. By the way, O. and G. are not her real initials. Obviously, I would never reveal her name, but I felt the need to fake her initials as well. She is a real person, however. Very real. And very dangerous. My initials are W.T. F., no relation to any psychiatric patient you may know, dead or alive. Same goes for O.G.
Right now I’m sitting in a pizza parlor on the Main Road, just a few booths away from her. I have not seen her in a few years but I’m reluctant to make eye contact. I don’t know if she would even recognize me. I lost a lot of weight recently and I have a lot less hair. She looks quite different now. I can’t quite put my finger on it, as I am making every attempt to avoid her occasional glances.If she does spot me, she might be reminded of all the unpleasantness she was forced to go through at Easthaven Hospital. Also, I will represent to her the embodiment of her disease, a co-conspirator in the war against mental illness. She, like the rest of our particular population, simply wants to blend in, to be like everyone else crossing the street, waiting in line at the grocery store, doing everyday things, normal things, sane things in an ordinary, boring, day-to-day fashion. I could blend in. In fact, I could just disappear in a crowd. That would never be her case, however. She was too bright a star, as brilliant as she is sick. In an effort to save her mind, the psychotropic drugs prescribed for her took a heavy toll on her body. They did not so much as control her, or even dim her mind, but they did agitate her by revealing a disturbing knowledge of self. I was dying to talk to her but I kept my distance, obscuring my face with a napkin, a slice of pizza, and other people’s heads that blocked our direct line of vision. She is sitting there in the booth, alone, constantly looking over her shoulder as if expecting someone to join her for a slice.
My purpose in telling this story is to convey the tale O.G. told me about the crime she witnessed. I did not know whether or not to believe her story at first. After all, she is nuts. I do not use that term in an offhand, politically incorrect, insensitive or even disrespectful way. That’s the exact term Dr. A., Chief of Psychiatry at Easthaven, chose to use one Friday morning at rounds, with thirty people sitting around the big table witnesses to that unnerving indiscretion. A nurse friend told me that. I owe her one. That’s priceless. Who would of thunk it? The head shrink at a big hospital. The people around the table did not even blink when they heard that term even though it spilled out in such a professional setting. Even I know that term would never be found in the PDM. Dr. A probably used it before, about other difficult patients. On that particular morning, when the nurses were giving detailed summaries of what took place in the ward the night before, they shared details, in perfunctory clinical voices, about Patient A being administered so many mgs of Thorazine or Risperdal, how Patient B responded to his electric shock treatment, Patient C refusing to shower all week, etc. and all sorts of medical jargon was used to describe each person’s behavior and the circumstances surrounding that behavior. But when the conversation got around to O.G., and what she did or did not do, Dr. A. succumbed to street vernacular and summarized the whole instance by saying she was nuts. I never did find out what O.G.’s behavior was that prompted the head of psychiatry at a prominent psychiatric institution to use such an inappropriate layman’s term. My nurse friend was discreet and did not reveal any confidential details. I can only imagine it was something big, if not dangerous.
I listened to O.G.’s story over the course of several weeks, delivered in chapters during the course of our involuntary stay at Easthaven. We had plenty of time on certain days, after meetings with our shrinks, O.T. sessions, art classes, chess games, and so on. We had free time to do whatever we wanted, but always in the common room. We were never allowed to be together in each other’s room. I could choose to go to my room during free time and be alone and O.G. could do the same as long as it was her room she went to. But we sat close together in the common room when she decided to tell me her story. She did not bother to whisper because the other patients within hearing proximity did not care to hear what she had to say. They, like Dr. A., thought she was the lower case ‘n’ word most of the time. Also, they had their own weird fantasies and stories to tell or were satisfied to just sit and stare at ceiling tiles. O.G.’s reputation as a nut was no secret in the unit. Most of the other patients could not be bothered with her, mainly because they were bothered by her. They thought she was an intellectual phony, had airs about her, affected a superior attitude because she supposedly earned advanced degrees. That is probably another reason she confided in me. I did not think she was a phony. I was not exactly her friend but at least I did not scramble to the other side of the common room or dining hall every time she showed up. Yet, she provided such specific details that made me pay close attention. After awhile, I did believe her. I knew some of the characters in her story and most of what she told me was easy to check out.
I am now going to let her tell her story as she told it to me whenever she was lucid. Whenever she was incoherent. These are her words, not mine.
My first day in my new position as Vineyard Manager was spent in a small cottage provided for me on the grounds of the 80-acre B&J Winery. It sat at the southernmost edge of the property, just sixty some odd feet from the edge of the cove, with a clear view of the water. It was the beginning of March and a Nor’easter blew sheets of sleet and rain against the windows for hours before the heavy snow came. The only signs of life were three ducks frenetically diving in the water, in search of food. They seemed to enjoy the wild weather that also suited me. It matched my temperament.
I believed I had found a home as well as a place of employment. A vineyard run well will be its own reward. It will beat with a lively pulse and a gigantic heart. My background included several summers spent interning at a few of Napa Valley’s most prestigious commercial vineyards. I graduated with a degree from UC Davis, home of America’s foremost program in viticulture and oenology. Following that, I obtained an advanced degree at the University of Bordeaux, then I took back-to-back intensive tours at wineries LaFleur Pomerol and Chateau Haut-Brion in France.
After I completed these tours, word about my availability got around very quickly back in the States. There was a lot of interest in my services at the wineries on the east coast. And, why not? It was a bit arrogant on my part but I decided that I did not have to trouble myself putting a resume together. A few recycled Tweets, an email here and there, and a text message or two landed several serious offers. I accepted the offer at B&J because two wealthy brothers who between them knew both the business side and the winemaking side of the enterprise, each brother boasting a serious Napa Valley pedigree, owned the winery. They did not know it at the time, but the main reason I accepted their offer above the many others that came my way, is that they were even more cocksure than I was about the lasting impact that could still be made on the national, even international world of fine wines. The brothers had a long way to go before they could achieve some serious bragging rights but their brazen vainglory impressed me. They saw me as a shortcut to that illustrious goal. I took the long view and planned to show them how to get where they wanted to go.
In effect, all the wineries in this region were little more than a joke on the national level, with pretty accurate references to the region’s wines, for example, Deer Piss Chardonnay, Skunk Juice, Battery Acid Rosé and my favorite, Bat Blood Reserve. By the way, did anyone ever make note of the fact you never find a dead bat on the ground on any given morning. We see dead birds, dead rodents and dead deer but never dead bats. Does a special crew in golf carts scour the vineyards just before dawn to collect their carcasses? We know the bats are there. We hear them at night. Do the owls eat them entirely, fur, feet and bones all gone before sunrise? Owls eat small birds and rodents too. Just an idle thought about the prospect of a disgusting beverage.
The more cynical folk out this way say they know people who follow winery employees into the local IGA to watch them buy packaged grapes. I doubt that is true. Nonetheless, the brothers Barth and James knew, and I knew, and they knew I knew, it was going to take more than arrogance and lackadaisical daydreaming to make consistently good, much less great wines in this region. It would take consistent, arrant behavior on all our parts, the three of us working pertinaciously together to show it could be done, to diminish, defeat even the perception that this wine region should not even exist. Whenever one of the local vintners actually manages to produce a somewhat palatable wine, it is invariably outrageously overpriced. All one has to do is visit a local retail store to find a California wine of comparable quality selling for one third the price.
Most of the region’s wineries make their money or at least break even by succumbing to the tourist and wedding destination crowds that have built up over the last several years. Signs such as LIVE MUSIC TODAY, BUSES AND LIMOS WELCOME, and WEDDING OPEN HOUSE pollute the landscape. Hiring way past their prime hippie folk singers ceaselessly droning somewhat familiar tunes of yesteryear will simply not cut it. Consume enough wine, look at the pretty scenery and life is good.
One winery was daring enough to offer a BORDEAUX MASTER CLASS. Can you imagine? Who is the master? Give me a break. Forgive me; I admit I am a wine snob. The visitors, for the most part, gulp instead of sip, get drunk fast, and convince themselves the next morning that they had a great time in the vineyards. They might have even taken a tour. And, they brought home a case or two and committed to an unfortunate one-year’s subscription of a monthly delivery of six whites and six reds of unknown quality. They always fail to taste as good as when the music played while the leaves swayed in the lovely sea breeze.
Barth and James were aware of this universal negative perception about the region’s output and capabilities held by their west coast peers. There was little hope they could ever stand shoulder to shoulder with the California vintners, under the system that was then in place, but they wanted to give it a try. Something significant had to take place, a radical plan had to be put in motion to make something positive happen. It is not saying much but B&J was easily the class of the region––no skunk juice appellation here but they did manage to produce their share of mediocre wines.
What intrigued the brothers about my resume was my specialty, clonal regeneration, in particular French grapes.We could produce genetic variants of grape varieties that have been developed and propagated to emphasize particular characteristics such as aroma, flavor, or yield. I knew what to do and how to do it. It would take a lot of money, which they had, and a lot of time which was generally okay with Barth but not so much with his business-oriented brother James. Therein lies part of the reason why things did not go as planned, why they sabotaged themselves in the grandiose effort to enter under the golden arches, through the gateway to the world of fine wines.
At last I am in control! I know exactlywhat is going on at every moment. They could pour that poisonous gas through the floor vents in the cottage and I will not be fooled. I know for certain that it is the same gas they poured through the ceiling vents at Easthaven. I see the vapors. I do not have to smell them. Clever, aren’t they? I had to empty everything out of the refrigerator too. Did they think I would be fooled by a sealed bottle of water? Liquid poison! They were especially cruel this time around. After I cleared every single thing out of that refrigerator, the last remaining item on the bottom shelf that I had to get on my hands and knees to fetch, was a bottle of 7UP, lying on its side. Clever! But I did not fall for it. Not this time.
Maybe it was my parents who made me sick. They are long dead, thank God. When I was in high school, I studied so hard I rose to the top of the class. Whenever I came home with my report card, the only person in the household who appreciated that honor was me. Many of my friends wrote such genuine and warm messages and honorific reminiscences under their photos and more on the blank pages in the back of the yearbook. Every now and then, I had to check my parents’ entry in the yearbook to make sure it was actually their handwriting. It was and is. They signed it. It was a generic to and from message, ending with Mother and Father. Even the classmate who liked me the least, the one I beat out by a few percentage points for valedictorian honors, signed her message “warmly.” The other girls said LOVE all over the pages. I guess revisiting their cold, soulless generic yearbook entry was less harmful than being on the receiving end of their constant harping on me to lose weight when I was a teenager. Fatty they used to call me. Can you believe that? My own parents! Fatty! What was that scarlet tag supposed to do for my self-esteem? Hearing me speak to myself, in a wild screaming rant, raging about those lovely parental memories, which are as alive today as they were when they actually spewed out of their sphincter mouths so many years, ago, the nurse called in one of the shrinks. Sitting on the edge of my bed, pretty upset, staring at the ceiling vents, Dr. T came in and sat down beside me. She asked me some questions in a sweet, clinically trained tone, which I refused to answer. Who was she? What did I know about her? Suppose I was part of some study? Who gave her permission to include me in the results? I turned the tables on her and asked her a few personal questions of my own, which she refused to answer. So, we had a Mexican standoff. The quietness got boring after awhile so to make it interesting I told her I was changing my name to 7-UP. Why, she asked. Don’t you remember that commercial? It was a classic. She did not remember. She lived in a cocoon. I gave her a few hints. I told her how I am the uncared for, the unappreciated, the unhugged, the unminded, the unloved. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “the UNCOLA!” Bingo! That was work. She says to me, “Let’s talk about this.” We already did, I decided.
Granted the wine business is open to ridicule for anyone not in the know. That is expected and understandable. I mean, who wants to drink something that tastes like an oak tree? I get it. However, I know what is legitimate, what is real. I cannot claim humility at the altar of my knowledge, because that would be false humility. I cannot say this is the honest truth since that is a sure sign that all the words I have spoken prior to that trite statement were neither the honest truth nor anything that even resembled basic truth. Therefore, I will just say it. I know what I am doing. I spent eight years of graduate study, and intensive on the ground “in the vineyard” study learning the vagaries of the business, the nuances of wine growth and production as well as the realistic possibilities for what makes for greatness in a glass of wine. Therefore, I know the full meaning of what is theoretical turned to reality when it comes to terroir, oenology, and bio-dynamism. I know how to precisely match the soil, grapes and viticulture. I know how to help yield merlots that are lush and round, nuanced and fine-grained. It is within my ability to discern which vintages are superb, elegant and tense, with aromas of violets and sweet tannins. In France, I worked with eleven different types of soils. I can distinguish why one particular merlot is far superior to any other because it was superbly adapted to a certain region’s rich clay and gravel soils. My knowledge is not of the mile wide and inch deep variety. I do not need to excel at vinous Trivial Pursuit although I would win every time. My knowledge, wrought with hammer and anvil, is broad and deep. I have worked with some soils that come from the foothills and have experience with the very stony, slightly rounded edges of limestone or marl, dolomite, quartzite and slate, the highly permeable soils that allow the water to seep into the deeper layers of clay. I can taste the wine and know it is perfumed with flowers, citrus, and has a smoky, sandalwood scent. All the fancy notes attributed to specific wines are not phony words, not idle words to me. They are real words that have real meaning. I know all there is to know about winemaking.
All the knowledge I acquired, and all the experience, do they die with me? Does my life mean anything? Is it not more than simply passing information on to another individual or a corporation? Am I not sending it out into the world; is it not more than what someone has written that can be checked out at the local library? Can it possibly be a spiritual thing? Do I not send my spirit into the world while I am still alive, when I am still in my body? What I did not know enough of, unfortunately, was man’s base nature, the greedy, crude, unbridled core venality, the self-aggrandizing side of the male species in this business, manifested no more prominently than in the souls or dark cavities that take the place of souls, within one of my new employers. Barth wanted to use what I know and what I can do, but James wanted to corrupt it, exploit it to the point that it was ugly and diseased like some of their mildewed, rotted vines. He wanted to exploit what I spent my adult life learning. He was less dignified than the rich soil encrusted beneath my fingernails. That is why I naturally gravitated to Barth, who is passionate about the art of winemaking.
I know a lot. Then, again, I know nothing. There are times that I do know I want to die. Like right now for instance. Men. I’ve had a few. Most of them disappointments. Except one. Claude. In France. A gentleman, courteous, kind, sweet, handsome, passionate, considerate lover, married, just not to me. He made me feel desired for the first time in my life. Although his wife was certainly a beautiful French model, he saw another side to beauty in me that transcended the physical realm. Yet there is the trust issue. I sorely resented that he never told me he had a wife.
Of all the negative experiences in my life, other than my parents’ willful neglect of my needs as a child and adolescent, the crushing deceit by Claude rose to the top of my list. After I debased myself in a paroxysm of tears one day in response to years of malignant parental cruelty, which gave my parents some kind of perverse vindictive satisfaction for their efforts, I thought I made an ironbound decision to never again show even the slightest emotional vulnerability before another human being. Of course it happened again upon receiving the devastating news from Claude. This time I swore I would never again visit that mythical land of love and romance, which I likened to returning to a charming cottage in the forest, only to find it replaced with a gas station.
After I somewhat recovered from that tragic and painful fiasco, I shut down completely, built a steel girder defense around my heart to prevent it from ever opening again, even in the slightest. I poured myself into my profession, but that only served to reveal the gaping hole in my heart, the tenuous fragility of my spirit. I got depressed. I got manic. I did something that spun me off the rails, that put me back on that 28-day cycle. No, not the menstrual cycle. The 28-day average tour in the psych ward cycle. I apparently need the Thorazine to blunt the psychosis. The splitting of the soul episodes occurred less frequently now, so I could avoid the longer continuing institutional care stays, yet the episodes still came unannounced at the worst possible times. For me. For B&J. Yet, because they are uncharacteristically patient with me, so they can extract so much of my soul, I decide to cooperate with everyone on this tour of the Easthaven vineyards. I will answer Dr. T’s innocuous questions, without being a smartass. I will behave. I will not be the head nut in the nuthouse as Dr. A so unprofessionally describes me. I want out of here. I will take my meds. I promise.
At first glance, the first impression so to speak, is not what I am particularly good at. You know, the whole discernment thing. On paper, the arrangement looked good. Barth was the brother with wine in his blood, and vines for his veins and ventricles. Even in this maritime climate, even in sandy, glacial soils he was able to cultivate and occasionally produce exceptional wines, courageously growing some exotic varieties, such as lagrein, teroldego, blaufrankisch, and goldmuskateller, all pure, delicious, energetic and alive. He achieved unprecedented success for the region in that elite restaurants up and down the east coast served their wines. When that phenomenon occurred there was much celebration and favorable press but as it turns out, it was an anomaly, an exceptional season not yet repeated, as B&J reverted back to mediocre status. Consistency accrues to greatness.
Besides the wine coursing through Barth’s blood, so was bloodlust running by capillary motion through parallel channels inside his mind and body. Yes, Barth had a thing for the ladies. Any lady. Sometimes, even his wife. But most especially, any lady who worked for B&J Vineyards. No one was safe. It was only a matter of time before he came after me. He preyed upon any individual who had a beating heart and a vagina. I do not deceive myself for a moment thinking he saw me as Claude once did. As I sat at my desk one sunny August afternoon, I felt his hot, exhaust pipe foul breath streaming down upon my neck. His heavy cologne did not obscure his musk smell, all his hormones worked up for a new conquest. When I let out with a scream, the pitch and shrill of which is rather commonplace in the psych ward, yet frightening outside of that domain, it scared the bejesus out of him. He turned tail and ran out of my office and never bothered me again.
Other than creating a rather bothersome afternoon for me, I did like Barth. His redeeming quality was his passion for winemaking, the noteworthy, admirable, envious search for a mid nineties Robert M. Parker, Jr. rating. Yet, he did not live long after that unpleasant encounter. I was only working at the vineyard a little over one year when he gave up his spirit. Now stuck with the business side of the equation, I was obligated solely to his big brother, James. Not ever one to mourn the loss of anyone who did not genuflect before the altar of his ego, James was somewhat less than elegant when he described the circumstances of his brother’s death. Yes, he would invariably say, Barth died of a massive coronary, doing what he loved the most, caught in flagrante delicto with his red-hot new secretary, Maria Consuela, who did not know the difference between a keyboard and a key and a board. But, boy oh boy, could she … you get the idea.
James was very presentable, very smart and very cunning. He needed a new partner, now that his brother was gone to the great vineyard in the sky. Does he conduct a search? No. Vet potential investors? No. Solicit the services of headhunters who specialize in our industry? No. Does he make a Faustian pact with the most corrupt zoning appeals board supervisor on the east coast? Yes! A man disaffectionately known as the Ghost. He was called the Ghost by nature of his physical appearance and by his evil-spirit inspired work habits. The Ghost was a tall man, extremely thin, with strands of wispy white hair blowing in various directions on top of a narrow, egg shaped head. His lips were pencil drawn on a pale face, tiny, pin-backed ears, a proboscis worthy of its own museum, sitting below a set of steely gray, beady eyes. He just appeared at times, out of nowhere, slithering into a room on the quietest feet, as if wearing only socks rather than shoes, appearing suddenly and stealthily behind his latest vineyard owner victim, with ominous clipboard in hand. He was a man who did not believe in making appointments. The Ghost simply showed up. And written on that fearsome clipboard was a laundry list of violations that only he could make disappear.
Over the years, B&J had paid the Ghost off handsomely, along with every other vintner in the region. The Ghost drove a Range Rover. The Ghost lived with his cats in a hacienda style house high on the bluff overlooking the sea. Everyone knew he was on the take. Yet, he covered his tracks very well. He was not alone on the Zoning Board of Appeals, but, as chairman, he had significant sway over all the other ZBA members. He was reviled, despised and the recipient of numerous death threats. Was it his power that attracted James?
That was part of it. What James found most appealing about the Ghost was not what havoc he created for anyone wishing to do business within his vile and corrupt realm. It was the secret of the Ghost’s heart, what he coveted more than anything else in the world, that put him at the top of a very short list. The Ghost greatly desired to be in the wine business himself, a wannabe who yearned to be a player. Even with all the graft he accumulated during the course of the year, it would never be enough to go into partnership with B&J. Money was not what James needed, however. It was the services only the Ghost could provide to further James’ master plan that were his free ticket to a limited partnership. It was that same master plan that turned my stomach inside out and should have sent me running for the nearest peach orchard. It was that same master plan that left a few dead bodies entangled in the vines one late winter day at B&J vineyards.
As it turns out, I signed up for something quite the opposite of what I expected. I was not the power broker I naively imagined myself to be. Not in this situation. My education and experience in the wine business meant something when Barth was still alive. Pervert that he was, notwithstanding, he supported my career and shared my vision for the importation of the finest French clones that would make the difference between a winery that had LIVE MUSIC TODAY with hordes of get-a-buzz-at-little-cost partygoers spilling out of the limos and buses to guzzle bad wine and listen to old folk singers dispassionately droning tried and true recognizable tunes, to a winery that consistently produces great wines. To his credit, Barth never succumbed to making money from the mob. He and I opted for class, not only in wine cultivation and production, but to its presentation as well.
Barth put me in charge of the installation of a high-grade camouflaged speaker system that would stream classical music up and down the vineyard rows as customers strolled along on tours, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine while learning all about viticulture. He insisted that I make the music selections as well. Soft chamber music for the light whites, perhaps some Sturm und Drang Wagnerian pieces for the deeper reds. In theory, and by design, the vines would speak to each individual passing by, placing her in an ethereal trance-like state, more apt to sip than gulp by the time she reached the tasting room. We wanted a vineyard that would not only be the envy of the region, standing in sharp contrast to all the run-of-the-mill competitors. We would gain a reputation for supreme excellence on the national, if not international stage. But it would take time and Barth knew that and was willing to invest the time it would take to accomplish it, of course not knowing what little time he had left on this side of heaven or hell.
James had no plans to wait for Father Time to make an old man of him before he reached his primary goal. He must have been planning his grand scheme even before his brother passed. He left little time for mourning the loss of his younger sibling and business partner before he set the wheels in motion, barely waiting ten days after the funeral before he broached the subject with the bureaucratic hack known as the Ghost. He did not even consult with me about the intended collusion with the master denier of variances and supreme collector of bribes for quick turnaround decisions. James’ sleaziness on a business level was higher than his dearly departed brother’s ability to keep his zipper zippered. I could have moved on, even to an established Napa winery. Several of my contacts at UC Davis and the West Coast wineries kept in touch with me, sometimes hinting not too subtly how I downgraded my resume by taking the assignment at B&J. Anything on the east coast was laughable. The California snobs unashamedly professed their judgment confidently and rightly so at the time. I still had dreams of vinous grandeur on the east coast. That was my chimera although it had the potential to turn into a slippery slope glissade. Something stopped me from being outraged. Hubris? Arrogance? More likely, it was a combination of my guilt and gratitude because the brothers kept me on with no loss of pay despite my various untimely visits to the hospital. Also factored in was my desire to see the plan through, the original plan of exquisite vine cloning of French plants that was the basis for my hiring in the first place.
I knew I had to make my move before I would be left to shrivel up and die on the side of the road like a diseased black rot cutting. I needed in on the deal between James and the Ghost. With Barth gone, these two schemers would be lost without me. Who else but me had the contacts in France to make the right selection of cuttings? Who else knew the rules of the U.S. and State Departments of Agriculture regarding the necessity of quarantine and disease prevention as well as the challenges on the other end, presented by the Establissement National Technique pour l’Amelioration de la Viticulture (ENTAV). We had to be patient. The rewards would be manifold. There were no shortcuts and Barth previously bought into that principle.
The original plan that I put together with Barth and James, with mostly Barth’s enthusiastic endorsement, was far removed from the new plan that James and the Ghost were hatching behind my back. Again, I had my spies out there who told me enough to prepare me for the inevitable confrontation. I reassured the workers that if anything ever happened to these two clowns, I would take care of them. The greed exhibited by James and the Ghost was only exceeded by their stupidity. What I proposed to do and both owners had agreed to, granted one was more enthusiastic than the other, was to find and select the vine cuttings and produce vine clones, genetic variants of grape varieties that have been developed and propagated to emphasize specific characteristics. My tour of Chateau Haut-Brion introduced me to the program of clonal research already in play at UC Davis. Yes we could import clones from France but the plants would have to go through quarantine and testing to ensure they were not diseased. That would take up to two years, with no guarantee of how many plants would survive, and we might end up with just a few vines that would need to be planted as source material for buds to graft on to rootstock. Plant the vines in spring, and by the third year, you might have something. Theoretically, this would produce more buds and the whole process could take up to ten years. Foundation Plant Materials Service at UC Davis advised me how to import French rootstocks licensed by ENTAV. I was geared up to put the ten-year plan into action but I needed to first safeguard my future in light of what the two tricksters were doing behind the scenes.
A good friend put me in touch with a local attorney, a first generation Irish charmer who could throw the shite further than anyone I ever met, and had a pit bull tenacity when it came to negotiation. The Irish esquire convinced me to chip in a sizeable portion of my dear old Mom and Dad inheritance to qualify as a limited partner so that my contribution was more concrete than abstract expertise and academic credentials. By the way, I believed that I got the inheritance by default. I entertained the thought that maybe my parents felt guilty after all those years of malignant indifference and the imposition of psychological abuse, namely played out by the ruthless name-calling of their only child. The truth of the matter was probably more mundane. They were never ones to give to charity. They guarded their money selfishly. Their stinginess gave them satisfaction. I was merely the only one in line to benefit from the fruits of their pernicious miserly lifestyle.
The Ghost was smart enough to do the same at the advice of his own attorney who convinced him that his unique, localized brand of corrupt influence would not hold up in court, if it ever came to that juncture. In fact, it might even get him into trouble he was told. His stake was equal to mine as he was able to make withdrawals from his graft account, subsequently adding to it by ratcheting up his efforts to extort more and steeper under-the-table payoffs from the vineyard owners who have already been squeezed drier than the last glob out of a Colgate tube. As a result, he added exponentially to his already considerable list of mortal enemies.
I should have known that there was trouble ahead during my first meeting with Barth and James, which took place virtually the moment I stepped off the plane at JFK. Having the same conversation several times since, I remember laying out the whole process of clonal importation before them, including how much time it might take to yield positive results. James never winced when he learned of that substantial time frame but any amateur student of body language could read James’ unmistakable posture as one of pure agony. He tried to keep a professional poker face, but his right eye twitched every time I added the word year to the previous sentence. During the entire meeting, he kept clenching his fists, unaware I was watching his every move.
Despite the trauma of Barth’s death coupled with the appearance of the Ghost, I held it all together mentally. Sometimes it is the little things that derail me psychologically, albeit that there is no such thing as a “little” thing for a mostly incurable mental patient such as myself. I do not even recall what set me off, forcing the last few stays at the hospital, but they were probably little compared to the unfortunate circumstance that was unfolding before me at the present. This was a big thing, worse than I ever imagined. Maybe I can handle the big things. I made sure I took my meds and kept my weekly appointment with the psychiatrist. Yet, when I met the Ghost for the first time, I thought I was ready to voluntarily commit myself to Easthaven for an extended stay.
When James introduced him to me, the Ghost said nothing, staring at me with his beady eyes, immediately extending his hand, not giving me enough time to say oh I just put lotion on or any old excuse to avoid grasping what turned out to be an unpleasant dangling of a limp, dirty, damp dishcloth. As I stared back at those soulless eyes, I felt the need to wash my hands with bleach. I believe he and I communicated to each other a wordless and mutual disdain. James asked me to tutor him on some of the finer, more nuanced aspects of the wine business, so I was obligated to spend more time with him than I thought my stomach would allow. He did not know the wine business. He only knew how to ruin the business for naïve and uninitiated vineyard owners. He showed up, always without prior warning, with documentation that the tasting room was on land solely zoned for agricultural output, and neither the newly built fermentation cellar nor the salesroom met the specific setback requirements and so on. He always waited until the structures were built before he laid down the hammer in order to extract the maximum liters of blood for each infraction. Woe to the owner who did not bother to hire one of the Ghost’s expert cronies to guide them through the tortuous permits process, authored by none other than himself. The Ghost just waited in the wings, the unseen evil spirit lurking behind a gauze scrim. He always arrived with a clipboard full of violations. He was truly ignorant about the wine business despite deriving a substantial second income from the region’s owners. He did not know the difference between a fine Bordeaux and a jug of Five Star Twister. His beverage of choice was a cup of hot water flavored with a wedge of lemon. Despite all this, James knew the Ghost lusted to be part owner of a vibrant, up-and-coming winery. The Ghost’s life was drab, lonely and grim. Life as a bona fide vintner would add color and verve. Just the glamour of it all thrilled him.
What made the situation worse, after those few meetings I was forced to have with the Ghost, I came to know more than James about the Ghost’s ulterior motives and they did not favor James. The Ghost had a grand plan all on his own which would be the undoing of them both. After a short period of time, listening in on their scheme, I was often confused about which man was the devil himself and who was the devil’s apprentice. I soon found out how unequivocally they deserved each other. Rather than feed off each other, as was their original scheme, they ate each other. And, the egregious mistake made by one of them manifested itself as the ultimate undoing of both of them.
If I had the option of being an independent observer I might have enjoyed the spectacle. They kept me out of their devious, private discussions, yet I knew a lot of what was going on. Little busy bee vineyard workers who had an allegiance to me would gossip about overheard conversations on a regular basis. I had to be careful, however, to avoid staying around too long if they were going to engage in any criminal activity. I made sure not to leave a paper or email trail. Aside from signing a legal contract outlining my rights, duties and obligations as a limited partner, which was all legally binding and court approved, I stayed out of harm’s way in terms of getting involved in any of their shady activities. I never offered my opinion in response to any of the vineyard workers’ gossip. I literally kept my nose clean, instead saving its sensory power for the pleasure of sniffing the fine bouquet wafting from the bottle of burgundy I brought back from France.
I kept my own counsel but actually started to think that I could benefit from their crookedness and ill-fated plans to conquer the world of fine wines. It would be a stretch but I began to convince myself that all crooks are stupid to the extent that they have a tendency to lose sight of the distinct possibility of the imposition of unknown plans made by other entities that would become barriers thrown in the way of even the most meticulous plans. We have all read the book or seen the movie about the bank robbers who, for months plan the theft of an armored truck that always arrives at a certain point in the city at a very specific time every Thursday morning. The crooks launch numerous trial runs, time everything down to the last second, only to see their unsinkable plan thwarted when, on the fateful day, the armored truck takes an unexpected detour around a utility vehicle blocking a vital street because of a gas leak. Who could have predicted this occurrence on the very day?
It was close to the end of the winter dormancy. On the first warm day after an especially harsh storm pelted the entire region with rain, sleet and snow, the workers started to drag the mowers, pruners, compost spreaders, and other seasonal tools and equipment out of the sheds to get them tuned up and ready to spruce up the grounds in advance of another ho-hum season at B&J Vineyards. Another group of workers tested the sound system for the Classical Walk through the Vineyard. The melting snow dripped off the eaves throughout the day sounding as if the rainstorm never ended. One of the workers, nicknamed the Giant did most of the heavy lifting. A huge, six foot five inch specimen with a mass of natural muscles not artificially manufactured in a gym, liked to show off his brute strength during the season and on occasion would entertain the patrons by lifting huge wine casks off the ground onto his shoulders. The Giant was also on the alert whenever an unruly male customer consumed too much vino for his own good and needed to be escorted off the premises. Once an especially belligerent misbehaving macho man resented the Giant’s initial polite entreaties and took a swing at the big man. Amused, the Giant did not flinch and let the man’s blow land on his massive chest. The force of the man’s swing did not move the big man one inch but the resulting recoil sent the drunken customer hurtling to the ground. It was quite an amusing spectacle.
While all this activity was taking place, other workers were giving me daily reports on the nature of the escalating arguments between James and the Ghost. Each day for the last several months the screams and the curses got louder and more personal. They would get so focused on their dislike for each other, they no longer cared whether or not they argued behind closed doors or in full view of the entire staff. Without bringing their other limited partner, that would be me, into the heart of their vitriolic disagreements, they discussed their differing views of B&J Vineyards’ future. It was never that they wanted to spare me the unpleasantness of it all in any sense of compassion or consideration for my sensitivities, because I represented to them the exact opposite of what is the only issue the two of them agreed upon, taking an unsavory and ethically challenged, if not illegal, expedient shortcut to stardom in the world of winemaking. They had scuttled my long-range plan for clonal regeneration many weeks earlier. They dismissed it immediately upon hearing it. They were solely interested in the enterprise of clonal smuggling. Without involving me, they conspired. Without being given the chance to express my dire warnings of the potential risks they were about to expose themselves to, they planned to go full steam forward with the implementation of their risky scheme.
At first, their disagreements centered on who was concocting the most implausible and least viable plan. One wanted to smuggle clones out of France by ship, bypassing both the French and the American authorities. Another plan involved purchasing already vetted cuttings from a Canadian supplier and smuggling them across the border by truck. Over the course of the winter months, they each developed a starry-eyed, unstoppable lust for power. They were drug dealers, but instead of cocaine, they lusted for the world’s finest wood for planting the next crop of Merlots, Cabernets and Rieslings. On the reducto absurdum scale, it tipped favorably toward James’ suggestion. He intended to forswear stopping at the cuttings, and transport soil as well by ship container loads through the portals of a porous Mexico, paying all the necessary bribes along the way. They never for a moment, in their search for power and prestige in the wine business, stopped to consider the depths to which their inane plans had sunk. Who would float the next impossible idea? The canning of transplanted Bordeaux air?
The prospect of long-term prison sentences never occurred to either one of them. Until one seminal day in their short history as partners in crime, James threatened to expose all the untoward deeds actuated by the Ghost that could be documented with the corroboration of every other vineyard owner in the region. To which the Ghost matched James’ threat with a promise to subjugate the principle owner to an endless parade of violations that would push B&J Vineyards into bankruptcy, leaving the eighty-four acres fallow, and subject it to inattention for years so it would again become the hard scrabble property it once was before all this wine madness started. Then the Ghost would buy the abandoned property at the sure-to-come bankruptcy auction. That was just his midterm plan. Needless to say, they each reached the point of no return in their acrimony. Their hatred for one another reached epic proportions. The vituperative insults and threats were too personal and cutting for there to be any return to civility. They surely reached the point of extreme hatred for one another. Deceit met greed. Fury met rage.
For a fleeting moment, James mourned the loss of his brother, Barth. Despite his shortcomings, he would have brought some sanity to the current situation. On the other hand, if he were still alive, there never would have been the devil’s pact made with the Ghost. The lawyers would soon be called in to begin the process of litigation. The end was near. At first, I watched this unfolding in horror, then in amusement. There were a few days of peace when neither James nor the Ghost made their appearance at the vineyard. The workers, relieved from the never-ending volatile and tense atmosphere, were finally able to go about their duties peacefully. On the third day of this welcome yet unexpected calm, I sent the workers home an hour early and decided to finish my work, such as it was with an uncertain future ahead of me, in the comfort of my cottage. I did not see the Giant anywhere but I am sure he was somewhere on the vineyard pulling dead trees out of the ground with his bare hands.
I sat at my desk before the window overlooking the cove and enjoyed the carefree, wild plunges the buffleheads made to find food in the shallow water. The swan couple joined them in their graceful necking and preening as they too dipped into the water in order to find sustenance on the murky bottom. Then, the peace was suddenly interrupted with the sound of a distant gunshot. I paid it no mind, as the vintners had free license to shoot any hungry deer desperately searching for food after such a harsh winter. Every winery had a shotgun or two on the premises. I am sure we have one ourselves in one of the sheds. I hated to see anything that had a beating heart felled into a lump of flesh on the ground. Sometimes uninvited thoughts flooded my brain, swelling up in me actually with the disturbingly provocative notion that I would rather see the shooter of those beating hearts felled to the ground instead. See how that feels, dying in your new LL Bean outdoorsman outfit. But that does not make any sense, does it? Even those shooting bastards have a heart and a brain, I think.
The shot did set me off I have to admit. I felt the unmistakable wave of another episode coming at me, a Niagara Falls rush with only one unstoppable goal in mind, a destiny-driven push for the edge. Sometimes I deliberately keep a pebble in my shoe, and walk around all day with that annoyance so that I feel alive at every moment. Now I am feeling somewhat dead. I have to protect myself. I cannot spend another menstrual cycle in the psych ward. I have too much at stake and too much to do while these two idiots try to destroy everything around them. The rush to the edge is powerful but I decide to encase myself inside a block of marble.
Since I am entombed irretrievably inside, I cannot chip myself out. I would prefer that Michelangelo come along and chisel away everything that is not me, or Rodin if the Italian is not available. While I am safe inside I can make preparations for what I will tell Dr. T just in case someone drags me out of here. I will make sense this time. I will not manufacture imaginary cruelties perpetrated by my innocent parents. I will tell her what I truly know, deep inside. This way she can write on her report that I do have a grasp of reality, that I do know the difference between delusional incoherent fantasies and the concrete reality of what is before me, around me, and in me. I will tell her what I know. And what do I know better than the wine business?
Before the sculptor chips me out of my protective block of marble, before they see how desperate I am as I bloody my hands climbing out of my stone cage by myself, I will tell her what I know. I will start by telling her whether she is a collector and traditionalist or a more adventurous drinker about the discovery-driven reports from the ground and tasting room which wines boast pedigree and style and details about the region’s unique terroir she might not fully understand all the terms but it will come across as real and reveal to her important things about every style and pricepoint how to order wine in an elegant restaurant that pairs gourmet meals with classic French pours she might ask me as I teach her about the difference between a vineyard and a winery so she would be forced to rethink her traditional notions and even be jealous about my vinous future and how significant it is for our region such as it is to return to indigenous grapes and not to worry about quantity but focus on quality in this potentially great wine-producing region she and I live in will no longer be marred by bulk grape-juice production formerly used to bolster blends everywhere instead focus on cutting yields and local varieties and steer away from the international grape craze when vast amounts of Chardonnay Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were planted for centuries and get with the shift to indigenous grape varieties that produce incredibly drinkable fruit-forward wines and whatever grape will take root in the clay and limestone soil and wait patiently for the well-mannered reds that offer a wealth of dark berry flavors and earthy gamy notes and delight when they take on a fresher profile and display a vibrant red-cherry color wild strawberry and herb-crushed flavors and softly structured tannic profile similar to a flashy California transplant Zinfandel named for its ability to ripen early a juicy rich wine with spicy dark berry and violet tones giving it more lift and levity while tannic when young it will soften with age eventually becoming supple and finessed and concentrated in dark fruit tones complex leather and sweet spice characters creating the opportunity to boast varietal bottlings that show off its crisp clean fruit tones laser-like acidity and stony minerality all made possible from a vineyard developed from its cuttings nurtured by a vineyard manager’s (that would be moi) best friend steady winds and sunny days are here again as we have a history of becoming the state’s first AVA proudly to be an American Viticultural Area humbly starting out with twenty some odd varietals and clones now there are approximately 1,350 wine grapes in the whole entire world yet almost 75% of wine is made from just eighteen grapes many of which are adjudicated by wine’s single biggest influential gatekeeper Robert M. Parker Jr. I am surprised no one has unloaded a shotgun on him as yet but he will die out even before he dies because the whole industry is undergoing a massive sea change and the influence of a certain type of serious wine critic is on the downward spiral attention wine drinkers everywhere be on the lookout for the next hotbed of indigenous grapes harvested by hand withstanding strong winds and a hot sun and little rainfall which contributes to their intense character a vigneron did this not a moron capable of leaving a grape on the vine until it is shriveled by the sun creating an intense red fruit to nutty (there’s that word again) and oxidized that’s me nutty and oxidized bottled in a demijohn then covered with wicker a little different than my current encasement in a massive block of Carrera marble sitting in a strange corner of a Burgundy terroir Oh the Horror Oh the Terroir trying to capture a unique sense of place you know it when you taste it as it is alive, mutable and singular (I am singular but still single unfortunately) any winery worth its licking salt will produce at least one single-site wine again worth repeating that you can make a difference by resisting the big bucks temptation to become a cheap bulk wine producer and trade that in by establishing a reputation as a well-respected producer of quality wine replete with lemon curds apple and delicate florals wreathed by a prickly palate in its mineral expression or if you prefer a silky savory earthly expression of a complex muscular and tightly wound (like me) grape begging to be cellared (lock me up!) a truly gluggable and lubberble red that appeals to our younger wine enthusiasts I am not a fan of anyone who corrupts these youngins like they corrupt the land we are talking about New World sustainability focused on the environment but not entirely ignoring the social and economic realities of grape growing think about it for a minute how many millions of wine drinkers would gratefully without hesitation abandon any number of utterly delicious irresistible wines panting for the stem glass in their private cellars and switch to wines that taste like piss because they originate from vineyards that have adopted sustainable practices an intentional effort at producing wines based on organics and biodynamics just think about the czars of sustainability are here to stay in the cooler damper oceanic climate where wines have a style both more mineral and more crisp than whatever you are familiar with such as the right terroir for Pinot Noir (that’s a poem by the way) mixed with clay and chalk in warmer parcels again ripe with red cherries and dark plums laced with red-cherry acidity not considered a grand cru variety where only a fraction of the plantings are responsible for unique white wines planted in great sites deliberately lowered yields giving voice to their full potential with a closed nose with hints of cherry purity treating the palate to a follow-up of an equal balance of the finest pure cherry firm tannin bright freshness graced with just a little dark peony scent understated and full-bodied but wunnerful wunnerful elegant growing on you slowly like a subtle rash now full-blown disease scented with hints of cinnamon and oak meant only for the luminous palate with insistent freshness and the purity of ripe dark cherry with ample magnetic and seductive depth (like when Claude and I made magic together in bed) the same pure fruit of a relationship that tingles you know where with romantic and aromatic echoes of cherry pepper and licorice all shimmering together on the lightness of our bodies we want to be approachable mind you priced somewhere in the $10-$15 range expressing overt, ripe red and black fruit aromas and flavors thanks to you Dr. T working together on this hot sunny day which will contribute to the ripeness and lush flavor of my mental health the only flavor I need on cooler nights which enable the grapes of my wrath to retain their acidity and freshness. There, I said it all in one breath. She will know, professional that she is, that I am making progress.
Then, I heard a second shot and a third shot, surely on our premises now, coupled with our speakers vigorously sending out the intense sound waves of Camille Saint Saens Samson and Delilah “Bacchanale.” I love that music but I did not choose it for our Classic Walk through the Vines. It was too fast-paced for the intended leisurely, educational stroll. This selection by Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra is more chase than walk music. A lull in the music. Time to reload.
As best I could figure out, the Ghost had scheduled an appointment to meet James at the office so they could settle their differences. James thought for sure the Ghost would bring along his shyster lawyer, an unsavory sort, yet one who was a perfect sleaze match for this particular client. Rather than being accompanied by his attorney, however, the Ghost came instead with his best friend, his beloved Purdey twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun. He knew the town police were accustomed to gunfire at all different times of the day and night which left him unconcerned about their possible intrusion upon his hunting expedition. The Ghost snuck up on James without warning and pointed his shotgun at the startled owner, standing near his desk. James turned tail and ran out the back door, fearing for his life. So he should.
For the moment St. Saens’ “Baccanale”faded in the background and, was strangely, jarringly, replaced in my brain with the Johnny Horton hit, “The Battle of New Orleans,” which my father incessantly sang just to rankle my nerves when I was a sensitive teenager. For spite of the old bastard’s memory I adapted the lyrics of the only song he knew to what I visualized in my head:
He fired his gun and the owner kept a-runnin’
There wasn’t nigh as much time as there was a while ago
The Ghost fired once more and James continued runnin’
On down the Chardonnay through the vines of Teroldego
Yeah James ran through the briars and ran through the brambles
And he ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go
He ran so fast The Ghost couldn’t catch him
On down the burgundy to the row of sweet Merlot
Just then, the Ghost, as he was wont to do, slipped quietly around the row of James’s favorite Riesling wood, and spotted the principle owner of B&J Vineyards, panting, out of breath, vomiting profusely onto an unpruned vine. The Ghost pulled the lever and pumped an ample multitude of buckshot into the back of his hunted adversary. James fell forward into his own vomit, an ignominious end to a once promising future as the owner of at least a minimum Robert M. Parker Jr. 92 rating.
The Ghost did not bother to reload, his mind for the moment relieved of any wrongdoing in what he considered to be a justifiable homicide, uncovering the extent to which he was delusional. As he bent over to retrieve the spent shell casings, just a few feet from the body of his former partner, blood still leaking into the spring softened firmament, a two hundred pound lump of dead flesh now ready for the compost heap, he felt the sudden and painful pressure of a punch to the middle of his back, as if hit by a large rock shot out of a cannon. The Ghost fell to the earth with his head landing between two plants. His unseen attacker placed one huge hand around his neck and with the other gave him a few smart, forceful whacks to the back of his head, knocking him nearly unconscious. As he lay there, the music selection suddenly shifted to Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation (Die Schopfung),” not only one of my favorites but one that brought back such pleasant memories of my graduate days at the university. It was an exquisite recording, one I treasured with all my heart as it was a gift given to me by a close friend at graduation, a double CD set with libretto of the memorable performance at my alma mater, which I attended and swooned over for many weeks afterwards. What I distinctly heard was the angelic singing of the University Chorus in concert with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra: Jeffrey Thomas, conductor; Suzanne Karpov, soprano (the angel Gabriel, and Eve); Nils Brown, tenor (the angel Uriel); Thomas Meglioranza, baritone (the angel Raphael).
As the Ghost lay dying, the right side of his face smothered flush upon the earth, his one syrupy eye left open to see close-up the coming of spring and to experience with each one of his senses this long-awaited season of growth when the vineyard truly comes alive and beats with a resuscitated heart. That was all he had to depend upon at this stage, his senses, for the force of the blow immobilized him to the point where not even his fingers could twitch. His left nostril took in all the flavors of the good plantings. He was one with the strands of good purslane, clover and plantain weeds, his mouth drooling a mix of blood and spittle, his left ear ligated with an errant vine, so soon creeping out of the dead winter earth. Death can be so beautiful and forgiving at times. In his last moments, for his listening pleasure, the angel Gabriel whispered softly the Recitative Genesis: Chapter 1, verse 11: “And God said: Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb-yielding seed, and the tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth; and it was so.” Though handicapped with only the left side of his face functional, because of the drama and intensity of these final moments, he received the fullness of touch, taste, smell, and sight of the usually ignored elements of lifeat the doorstep of eternity. He could not recall ever knowing the sensory earth so intimately as he was presently forced to smell it. He never knew there existed such an infinite variety of tiny insects that now crawled from the syrup of his eye to the drool of his mouth. Not to be minimized was the fact he was fully cognizant that each one of those biting insects would outlive him, some even drawing sustenance from his flesh and blood. His vision, now blurry, saw close up the early bugs of spring, a few of them crawling over his cheek and half closed eyelid. Here in this trench he, like so many before him facing the liminal moment between life and death, with great effort, spiritually climbed out of the atheistic foxhole of his beliefs to embrace the early Christian teachings instilled in him so many years ago in Sunday School, just as he heard the sweet angelic voice implore him, “Let the earth open her womb.” Who would dare judge him now? Certainly, there were gradations of his sins over the years and he realized in these final desperate moments he was on a steep grade now. For so many years he thrived, within the confines of his livelihood, on ruining lives, but now he’d taken a life. His life hung in the balance, or rather lay flat on the ground.
The whole experience of being entangled in the vines he never before appreciated, much less understood, brought him back to a Bible passage he had learned in Sunday School so many years ago. Yes, it was the last chapter in the Book of Jonah. With his spirit as damaged as his broken back, he recalled, “The Lord God appointed a bush and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.” Then, in the last moment as he prepared to give up his spirit, stepping further along the unavoidable approach to the altar of his long-abandoned childhood faith, he strived to remember the comforting words of a beautiful John Henry Newman prayer about the shade being drawn at the end of the day, the shadows lengthening, the troublous life, the hush of a busy world, and then something about the fever of life being over and our work being finished. Also, something about peace, peace at the last came to his mind as the mighty fist of his attacker hammered home the death blow against the back of his egg shaped skull.
It is clear to me that in these troublesome moments I live inside my head. But now my only wish is to decapitate myself as I am being boiled in a clear plastic bag for the entire world to see. I am totally disembodied. My body no longer exists in its original form. It has no form at all. It is not intact, inhabiting a closed environment, within a thin shell, an egg where a slimy (with afterbirth fluids being licked off by the mother) little duckling would soon emerge and seek warmth beneath her mother’s breast. My eyes, ears, bits of brain, heart, kidney, and other tiny parts of me float in a creamy, mucous mix, like so many bits of corn, potatoes, baby shrimp, and onions. Then, the disconnected parts of me are put on the burner, still sealed in the bag, over ultra-high heat, confined and close, yet some parts that should be in close proximity to one another are being drawn further apart, making it infinitely more difficult for me to retrieve them and put them back in place, to become the fullness of who I am.
The earth did not open her womb for me. There is no relief from the knowledge I do not wish to know, not that I am falling apart, but that I have indeed fallen apart, then been cut open, not born, but poured out into the fire, filth and dust. I am sick. Very sick.
That was O.G.’s story, as best I remember her telling me. With the TV screen showing a soccer match, of interest to the six, young Italian guys working the oven, spinning the dough, shoving slices of pizza on paper plates across the counter, the boss making change at the register and another kid folding boxes, I keep my eye on her, at a safe distance. She keeps her eyes focused on the front door, as if waiting for a friend who is late. It is almost noon. In just a few minutes the parlor will fill up with local workers looking to have a slice or two and a Coke. O.G. has been here for at least twenty minutes, waiting. The boss won’t be too happy with her taking up a whole booth, preventing paying customers from finding a seat.
I then see what was so remarkable about her appearance. In between passing bodies I notice that she does look quite different than when I last saw her. No more pockmarked skin, although I find it hard to believe that she is med-free. An identifiable figure, adorned with a dress hugging a slim waist in between full breasts and hips. Wearing jewelry, not the costume variety as far as I could see, but well appointed and a tad out of place in a local pizza joint. She has the unmistakable look of prosperity, nails spa-refined, skin restored to a soft, feminine glow, a beautiful face with cosmetics delicately applied revealing a rosy blush, quite a dramatic change from psychotropic body-altering medicine, to a woman who has power, not merely dominion over self, but a certain confidence that rises to the level of self-assurance, well-earned and, by the way, purified through a furnace as hot as the parlor’s brick oven, a soul that is tossed and flipped many times over until it was sizzling hot.
As the customers file in, I see one of them head towards O.G.’s booth. She does not get up to greet him but motions that he should take a seat. He is such a big, broad man, that he has no choice but to sit on the end of the bench, opposite O.G., and extend his left foot into the aisle, as his girth does not allow him to squeeze between the edge of the seat and the table. Although I did not get a good look at his face, I see that he is dressed in a suit and jacket that does not hide any part of his muscular physique, no tie but a form-fitting expensive purple silk shirt, with the top three buttons undone, descending from his thick neck, showcasing a forest of his chest hair, nesting a masculine chatelaine of serious Italian bling. Just a quick observation causes me to think he is a mobster, with a name like Fat Tony, for example, except there is not an ounce of fat on his body. He says a few words to O.G., then stands up, snaps his fingers and motions to the fellows at the counter to change the channel on the TV, which broadcasts soccer 24/7. The counterman says, “What kind of paisano are you? You don’t like football?” The big man gives him a long look and the worker quickly grabs the remote and turns off the TV. It feels like O.G. is in danger sitting opposite this imposing, sinister giant of a man. Part of me wants to slip out of here, ignoring her. But then, I would never be happy with myself for being such a coward. I walk over to the booth where O.G. and the big guy sit. I think for sure he’ll have something to say to me, and that O.G. will be glad I showed up. But when I get closer, virtually right in front of her eyes, she looks right past me as if we’ve never met. Perhaps she doesn’t want to be reminded of our times together at Easthaven. It has been awhile since we last saw each other. I’m sure I look different to her, much thinner now and almost totally bald. She starts talking to the man, not the least bit afraid of him, it seems to me. I try to catch his attention, putting my face close to his, but he pays me no mind, totally engaged with O.G.
I walk through the crowd of new customers and disappear into the world of wine, music, and a soft breeze that carries barely visible particles of pollen and dust from one nose to the next. Ah, Spring!