"Wine Country" by Jane Snyder
There had been pain, a tightness in his chest, but the sense of urgency was what Bill remembered. They were at the tulip festival and he was bored, going from one flat field to another. Red, red, yellow, red. When the restlessness started he told himself it was in his head, but it persisted, turned to fear.
It took so much effort to tell everyone, his wife Linda, Linda’s younger sister, Connie, and Connie’s husband Stuart. In the car, and then in the ER waiting room, he felt the same urgency, was sure his body would play him false, he’d vomit, soil himself.
Linda was no use. “Bill never gets sick,” she’d said as if that was all that needed to be said. Afterward, he told himself she was frightened.
When he was jumped to the head of the line in the ER, she gripped his hand. Which would have been comforting except then she let go, as if she too wanted to jump up, get out of there.
Stuart was the one who helped him find his insurance card, talked to the nurse.
Connie didn’t understand things had changed, wanted to know if they were still going to the antique shop in LaConner.
“No, honey, maybe next time.”
Bill was relieved Stuart hadn’t snapped at her, told himself he couldn’t handle one of Connie’s sulks, though he knew he could, had done it many times.
When he couldn’t stand it any longer and sprang up, saying time to go, I’m not waiting for an EKG, Stuart put his arm around his shoulder and held it there. Awkward, because Stuart was shorter than he was, but he’d stayed, let the nurse shave his chest.
She told him she was only shaving the places where they’d attach the electrodes and Bill pictured the thin patches of wiry hair that would be left behind. Not that his chest hair had ever been very plenty, even when he was young.
Just a little bit of AFIB, the cardiologist said. Not a heart attack, no. There was this procedure they had, been doing it for years, where they’d take out the bit of dead tissue that was making his heart wonky and everything would be copacetic.
Katie, his daughter, called after the catheter ablation. Bill was groggy, not ready for the bright light in the recovery room, wished they’d let him go back to sleep. He was supposed to lie still, so Linda reached down, held her phone to his ear and he heard Katie ask him, in her important voice, if he wanted her to come home.
Oh, for what. Katie had gotten on his nerves at Christmas, out with her friends every night, waking him when she came in.
“I’m really worried about you, Dad.”
Maybe the boyfriend wasn’t paying enough attention to her. “Stay at school,” he said. “Don’t neglect your studies.”
“She’s scared,” Linda said. “She’s never dealt with anything like this before.”
Neither have I, Bill thought. When Katie was a little girl and got sick, they’d fuss over her, tolerate baby talk, let her eat popsicles on the couch.
After the ablation, he couldn’t sustain an erection. The doctor said sildenafil, Viagra, was contraindicated because of his heart and there was no medical reason for his impotence. Everything could go back to the way it was; he could resume his usual activities.
When, almost a year after he’d gotten sick, Connie and Stuart asked them to go to Walla Walla on a tour of vineyards and wineries with them, he thought they might as well. Why not?
In the morning the tour operator, dressed in knee-breeches and a cap with a stiff brim, had strolled into the hotel lobby, yelling, “who’s for the booze cruise?”
“I’m Ed,” he said. “The designated driver. Drink all you want. Get wasted in Walla Walla.”
Stuart expressed enthusiasm when he saw the purple van parked out front.
It might have been used for deliveries once, Bill thought. There were no windows on the sides. They’d sat in the murky light on slippery purple banquettes and looked out the back window at where they’d been.
Stuart sang what he could remember from the Sammy Johns’ song. She’s gonna love me in my Chevy van and that’s all right with me. Bill didn’t tell him it wasn’t a Chevy.
At the wineries, they were instructed to roll the wine around in their mouth, before spitting it out, into the sawdust filled spittoons.
Bill didn’t want to spit in public and stopped drinking after the second winery. Stuart embraced the ritual, spat with gusto, established himself everywhere, asking elaborate questions, monopolizing the owner’s attention. They’d bring him another glass, in addition to what was included in the entrance fee, say, “I’d be interested to know what you think of this vintage.”
Stuart wanted to know about the year. When did they harvest? Had it been an unusually hot year? How alkaline was the soil? The owner would act as if he were remarkably knowledgeable for a layman.
Bill wasn’t sure. They sold Walla Walla wines at the Grocery Outlet near their house in Ballard, for six, seven dollars a bottle. He’d heard wineries relabel bottles sometimes when a particular year wasn’t selling. Perfectly legal, as he understood it, and he’d like to know more about how that worked, but, by the way they talked about wine in the tasting rooms, bright, soft, silky, jammy, buttery, creamy, velvety, opulent, Bill figured you shouldn’t mention money.
Stuart bought a case, sometimes two, everywhere they went. The owner would carry it to the van for him when they left, Stuart talking his face off the whole time. Ed would jump down to open the door for them, say when he saw the case, “I’m going to have to charge you freight, Big Guy.”
Bill followed, carrying his lone bottle in a bag, Ed would tell them to buckle up, and then he’d drive them past farms with metal outbuildings big as schools and fields of young wheat in uniform rows stretching to the horizon to the next winery.
They drove past the prison too, Ed joking, calling it the Charm School for Wayward Boys.
An expanse of green lawn reminding Bill of a college campus. From a distance the long red brick wall and the guard posts looked romantic, reminding Bill of the knight stories he’d read as a boy, and he imagined men on night watch standing on the walls, exchanging greetings as they warmed their hands over a brazier. The new buildings at the back of the prison were concrete, built low to the ground.
Bill was glad when they went back to town for lunch. Not the part they’d been in before with the big houses and old trees. A different part, on the edge of town, outside the city limits maybe, but still on the bus line. Small houses on big lots next to the road. Half a dozen chickens pecking at the dirt under a swing set, rows of corn plants next to a garage. Bill hadn’t cared about the details of growing grapes, varietals and terroir, but he’d have liked to know more about the people living here.
When they parked in front of the restaurant, he walked across the road to look at a place with goats. Weird looking animals with their huge flat eyes and long fuzzy ears hanging down like ponytails on a little girl.
Too rundown to be a petting zoo, he thought, remembering the place outside Issaquah where they used to take Katie. Pony rides through the forest, tubing in the creek, the country store with the gummi bears she liked.
Sweet and green was the way he remembered it, not like this place across from the restaurant. This looked like somewhere your kids would get ringworm.
Linda joined him and he thought she’d come to get him, tell him to get with the program, but she slid her arm in his, seemed in no rush.
A young buck ran behind the other goats on the packed down dirt, nipping at them, then dancing to the other side before they could bite back.
“Look at the nut sack on him.”
“I can’t take you anywhere, can I, Bill?”
He smiled at her. “Why are you still looking?”
Stuart came, stood beside them in front of the barbed wire fence, speculated as to why only one of the goats still had his junk.
“He’s probably not fully grown. Because if they raise them for food they castrate them. If they’re going to use him for breeding they’ll have to separate him from the others soon. You see how aggressive he is.” He knew Stuart wasn’t interested in information he didn’t introduce himself. “You call the castrated ones wethers.”
“Fascinating.” The way Stuart said it, made it sound stupid. Nothing you could call him on.
Connie was waiting outside the restaurant in front of a mural of a fisherman dragging a deep breasted mermaid in a net. This is going to be great, she said, telling them again it was just a bait shop, here since the 1950s, until the new owner put in a lunch counter serving authentic Mexican food. “It’s getting a lot of buzz.”
Jerry-built, Bill thought, the new addition clapped on to the original building like a lean-to on a farmhouse. When you went in you stood between the counter on the right where you ordered your meal and the cash register on the left where you paid on the way out, the entrance a chute into the low ceilinged rooms.
The aisles on the store side were narrow. The shelves were piled high with fishing rods, kegs of beer, a case of guns, toilet paper.
There was a haphazard feel to the restaurant as well. Clumsy plywood tables and plastic stackable chairs, pictures of dark-eyed children in serapes attached to the cinderblock wall. Two-barred windows, high up.
Stuart rolled his eyes. “Why don’t we go back to that place we went to last night?”
Bill hoped not. The food was all right but the waiter talked up everything, told them more about their food than he wanted to know; about the farm with the creek and the apple orchard where “your pig was raised.”
It would have been fun if it was just Linda: “I’m worried about the hogs, Abner. I think they’ve been eating too much ice cream.”
“I know, Ma, but what can you do? They’re such pigs.”
Connie told Stuart no, they couldn’t; they didn’t have reservations. And maybe the place was a dump because all the effort went into the food. “Kyle McLachlan eats here,” Connie said. “When he’s in town. I think it’s Kyle McLachlan.”
Kyle McLachlan owned one of the wineries they’d visited. The one with the flamenco dancer, or the camel maybe.
Stuart shut Connie down, asked Ed what he thought of this place.
“It’s all right if you like Mexicans.”
Stuart didn’t care for that. “We’re staying here then, get some authentic Mexican food. Not that Azteca shit.”
Ed shrugged, wandered off.
Bill couldn’t remember the last time they’d eaten at Azteca but they’d liked going there when Katie could still order from the Little Amigos menu. Loud, bright, everybody having a good time. On family nights the balloon man would stop in front of their table, blow up a green balloon for the stem and twist a pink balloon around it for the flower, present it to Katie with a flourish. Katie had been a sturdy little girl, no interest in princesses and dressing up, got in trouble at daycare for disrupting nap time, would soon be using her flower as a sword, but she loved it when the balloon man bowed, said “Encantada!”
Stuart, when he saw the two men in blue uniforms in line ahead of them, called out, “No doughnuts here!”
This is what I get for being bored, Bill told himself. If something happens it won’t be funny.
The men turned, looked at Stuart. Young guys, big, carried themselves well. He imagined them walking over, standing close. Have you been drinking, one of them would ask. Sir?
“Oh, we’re not cops,” the thin one said. “We’re guards.” He saw Bill’s look of relief and grinned at him.
“Don’t mind Jake,” the other one said. “We’re correctional officers. At the Penitentiary.”
Bill was warm with embarrassment. I might have figured it out, he thought, if I hadn’t panicked. Neither of the officers wore a gun.
“Guards,” Jake said. “Turnkeys. Goons. Apes. Just real stupid.”
“Shut up,” the other officer said, without heat.
Stuart smiled tolerantly. “I’ll bet you’re a character.”
Jake’s eyes widened with feigned delight. Finally, his look said, finally someone understands me. “Yep, that’s me. A character.”
After he’d ordered Stuart talked to the officers, seemed to be trying to persuade himself they liked him. “You boys must get a long break if you can come all the way down here for lunch.”
“No, we’re on our way to work now. The food’s for later,” Jake’s friend said, and turned away, began an animated conversation, in Spanish, with a woman working behind the counter.
Jake leaned forward, confidingly. “We give it to the convicts so they’ll have sex with us.”
There was a practiced feel to this, Bill thought. Perhaps a joke Jake told his friends at work.
Stuart laughed so hard other customers turned to look.
Jake walked to the front of the store looked out the glass door, at Ed’s grape colored van, turned to Bill. “Sweet ride. Is it purple on the inside too?”
Jake wouldn’t think much of a grown man riding in a novelty vehicle, Bill guessed, and he was glad when the 918 Porsche Spyder, liquid silver, turned into the parking lot. He gasped, couldn’t help himself. “I’ve never seen one up close before,” he told Jake.
“Dude who’s got it drives it like it’s a Subaru,” Jake said, friendlier now. “Like it ain’t no thing.”
Bill watched the man go around the car to open the door for the woman, admired the elegant way she held her legs together when she swung them out of the car. A handsome couple, he thought. Perhaps a little older than he and Linda but tall and fit.
They nodded pleasantly at Jake when he opened the door for them, and the man smiled, amused, at Bill, who was trying not to gawk.
Jake walked to the back of the store where Ed, his back towards them, was standing in front of a display of fishing lures. He wanted to avoid the prison officers, Bill realized, and Jake, when he’d seen the van, had gone looking for him.
Bill walked a little way into the store, examined a stack of Chipotle Chicken Flavor Maruchan Instant Lunch Twelve-Packs.
“How you doing, Ed?” Jake’s voice was soft; no longer tight.
Ed didn’t look up. “Fine.” Bill wished he knew how Jake knew Ed.
“Good.” A child, waking up sick or frightened in the night, would be glad to hear Jake’s voice. “I was hoping you were okay. I wanted to tell you I noticed the other day your taillight is out. You want to get that fixed before the police see it.”
Ed didn’t answer.
“Good seeing you.”
When the officers left with their food Bill stood in the doorway, watching them. He wished he could go along, find out what they’d say and do next. Jake was driving so it must be his car, a Kia Sephia with a rust spot on the driver’s door. Three car seats jammed into the back, one of them facing backward.
“Assholes,” Stuart said when Bill went back to the counter. “Typical of the breed.”
“You started it. But that’s pretty good, young guys like that, already making sergeant. Did you see their stripes?”
“I was blinded by the glare from their red necks. But I always forget you were in the Army. Hooa!”
“I was in the Coast Guard. They don’t have sergeants in the Coast Guard.”
“Oh, right,” Stuart said before Bill had a chance to explain about petty officers. “The Coast Guard. Got you out of Vietnam.”
That wasn’t why, but he didn’t want to explain a decision made when he was seventeen to Stuart.
He felt a sense of anticipation when he saw the glass bottles of brightly colored sodas, Jarritos and Fantas, lined up in a refrigerator case on the restaurant side, chose an Orange Fanta, a treat when he was a kid.
Stuart stood on the other side of the counter, watching the workers.
The woman who’d talked to the officer was making tortillas. Took a piece of dough, rolled it into a ball as if she were making cookies, put it into a wooden press, pulled the handle down, flattened the dough. She’d already made a great pile, all the same size. She didn’t look at the dough; must gauge the amount by the feel in her hand.
Stuart was talking to her, wanted to know what was in the dough, the masa, he called it.
“Flour. Water. Salt. Lard.”
“Was it cornflour, though?”
You couldn’t say she wasn’t friendly. She’d smiled throughout the exchange. It was the sense she gave of her thoughts being elsewhere.
Stuart gave up, asked Ed, who’d come back, what he could get for him.
Ed, still sullen, requested cheese enchiladas and a Dr. Pep. Bill hadn’t heard it called that since he’d been at CG TRACEN Yorktown, and wondered if Ed was from Virginia; he didn’t come down as hard on his Rs as people from the Northwest do. He wanted to ask him about this but, before he could, Stuart asked Ed if he knew why Dr. Pepper came in a bottle.
Ed replied, warily, that he didn’t.
“Because his wife died,” Stuart announced loudly.
The back of Connie’s neck turned red.
The Fanta was good, got rid of the stale wine taste in his mouth. Bill took another, watched the Hispanic family at the next table with interest. The little boy was putting on a show with Chip and Dale puppets. Chip socked Dale and Dale socked Chip. The boy’s baby sister was enthralled, laughed big. The parents watched too, made appreciative comments.
“Crumb snatchers,” Stuart said. “God, you forget how much noise kids make.”
The woman who’d come with the man who owned the Spyder was standing in front of the refrigerator case, examining the selection. Stuart turned to look at her.
Her shirt, a short-sleeved blue Oxford, drew Stuart’s attention. Like something he or Stuart might wear to work, except for the logo on the breast pocket. Hot Poop, it said.
Stuart leaned back in his chair and beckoned her with his right index finger. Did he take the shirt for a uniform, Bill wondered, think she was an employee? But the women behind the counter wore cobblers’ aprons printed with chile peppers and tied their hair back with bandanas. This woman’s dark gray hair was loose, down to her shoulders.
She didn’t seem to notice the finger, opened the case, took two Arnold Palmers. He hoped Stuart would let it go but Stuart said, “Hey,” and she paused in front of their table, glanced down, looking puzzled.
She expects us to stand, Bill realized, thinking of manners once important but no longer observed. He couldn’t, not without showing up Stuart, who said “hey” again, louder. “Your shirt! What’s that mean? Hot Poop.”
“It’s a record store.” She continued to look puzzled, glancing at Connie, then Linda.
“We walked past it last night,” Connie said. “Remember. When it was too soon to go to the restaurant.”
The woman continued to smile.
The food came then. Ed took his and left, perhaps intending to eat outside. He could have said something, Bill thought, but it wasn’t as if they’d miss him.
Stuart took no notice of Ed’s rudeness, exclaimed about the posole, seemed surprised when he looked up from his bowl and saw the woman in the blue shirt was still there. “I was curious about your shirt because, where we live, there are ladies who do that. Clean the poop in your yard.”
She continued to look perplexed.
“Dog poop,” Stuart said. “That’s what I thought your shirt was about.”
Bill looked more closely at the woman’s shirt. Under the big black Hot Poop logo he saw the smaller red script: “‘Only Tokyo has more Sony than Hot Poop.’” Why couldn’t Stuart have seen that?
“That’s all I wanted to know.” Then, to no one particular, Stuart said, “They must have just snipped this cilantro. It’s so fresh.”
She inclined her head. “Thank you.” She said it nicely, without mockery.
Bill rose and continued to stand until she went to a table at the back of the room and the man came around the table to pull out a chair for her.
“It’s sad when cousins marry,” Stuart said. His pet way to call someone stupid.
The food was good and Stuart praised it till that got old; praised it some more.
For sisters, Bill often thought, Connie and Linda weren’t much alike, the way Connie always looked as if she’d just gotten word the sky was falling, but, for a moment, seeing the same sad, defeated look on their faces, he saw the resemblance.
He should have done something, he thought, not let it go so far. But what, he asked himself, was he actually responsible for? For letting Stuart drink? It was a wine tour. And the young men, the officers, had gotten their own back.
The women and her husband were in line at the cash register ahead of them. He wished Stuart would apologize, wanted to apologize himself.
But you can’t apologize for someone else.
Stuart smacked his lips appreciatively saying muy bueno when he paid. The woman waiting on them, the one who’d made the tortillas, pushed his change across the counter without looking up.
She was short and thick and Bill didn’t understand what attraction she’d have for a well-set-up young man like the officer, guessed he wanted to practice his Spanish, maybe it would help him advance at work. When it was his turn Bill put three twenties into the tip jar.
Outside the man opened the car door for the woman, reached in to fasten her seatbelt. Like the Virginian settling a lap robe around his lady love before he took her for a ride in his buckboard. Where would you take a woman like that, Bill wondered. What kind of adventure would you offer her?
“You might have known,” Connie told Stuart, who was staring at the Spyder, “that was a Hermes bag she had.”
Stuart looked hurt. “You set me up.”
So maybe he was to blame, in not telling Stuart about the car. But you’re not supposed to be rude to people, he thought. Even if they aren’t rich.
Connie shrugged. “You just had to say something.” It had the makings of an interesting afternoon, Bill thought, if Connie was growing a spine, only, he decided, he wasn’t going to be a part of it.
Ed was outside, leaning against the mural but he sprang up when they came out, touched his cap to them when he opened the van door. A forelock-tugging gesture, Bill thought, nothing you could call him on. He told Ed to drop him off at the hotel.
“Yes, sir.” Clicked his heels.
When they settled into the purple gloom, Stuart said he was sorry.
“I just need a break. The sun is getting to me.”
Stuart fetched a bottle of water from the van’s cooler and insisted Bill drink it, saying he could be dehydrated. That was Stuart for you, Bill thought, so contrite after he’d gone too far. You’d end up comforting him, telling him it wasn’t so bad.
“I’m fine.” And quietly, hoping Connie and Ed couldn’t hear, “Let’s talk about this when we’re home.”
“I hope so. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
“It isn’t like that, Stuart. I’m not your dad and you’re not in trouble. I shouldn’t have let you do that. I haven’t been as good a friend to you as I could have been.”
Connie must not have seen Stuart’s stricken look because she reminded them they’d planned to go to the French restaurant at the little town thirty miles outside of Walla Walla, the one with four stars in Northwest Best Places.
“Not tonight, honey,” Stuart said gently. Bill remembered Stuart’s arm around him in the waiting room at the ER. “Bill doesn’t want to. We’ll have dinner. Just us.”
The sliding doors on the van had to be opened from the outside. Ed stood in front of them when they stepped out.
Bill hadn’t cared for Ed but he wasn’t going to stiff him, guessed, by the way Ed looked at him, others had.
He gave four hundred dollars, more than Ed had reason to expect. “Here you go. Something for nothing.”
Ed held onto the bills, didn’t look at Bill when he told him to use the money to get the taillight fixed. “It’s more than enough for that.”
Ed didn’t answer, got back in the van to take Connie and Stuart more places.
Bill thought of the concern in Jake’s voice, told himself he’d been clumsy, made a mess of it.
What, Linda asked, taking his arm, was that about. She didn’t sound mad.
“Well, we have so much more than he does.” I did something, anyway, he told himself, took action.
She laughed. “You’re not making sense. But, God, this is great. I feel like I just got a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free Card.’”
Bill thought of the couple in the restaurant and wondered what they were doing now. He’d be driving her in their beautiful car. To a waterfall maybe. A little one in a birch wood only the two of them knew.
Linda put her arm through his on the walk through the hotel lobby and he thought how glad he was she wasn’t Connie.
“I always like seeing you from this side,” he told Linda. “Your chin has kind of a sweet curve.”
“Does it? What a nice thing to say.”
“I wish I could think of something special to do this afternoon, just the two of us.”
“Do you know what I want? What I really, really want?”
“I’d like to very much,” he said, as he guessed she intended. He was anxious about what was coming and hoped it didn’t show.
“I want to lie with you between those cool, crisp, clean sheets.”
“Exactly what I hoped you’d say.” Bill tried to sound enthusiastic. “I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
Linda said, no, she didn’t mean that. The sun had worn her out and she wanted a nap. “With you.”
He started to tell her how sorry he was, he appreciated her understanding, and she leaned over and stuck her tongue in his ear. They jumped apart when the elevator stopped as if they’d actually been doing something.
He hoped she didn’t have a plan to arouse him. Love in the afternoon. Eat her out, the doctor had said when Bill told him he couldn’t sustain an erection, and, for a moment, Bill thought he meant take her out to eat. That’s all I can do, he’d thought indignantly, before remembering the actual meaning of the term, which he hadn’t heard since he was in the Coast Guard. “Say cunnilingus,” he’d said. “I’ll know what you mean.”
It might have been enough, Bill thought, if he could just do it like a back rub, without thought of return, but he’d get aroused too when she’d start squirming.
“Got my hopes up,” he’d say, wanting Linda to believe he didn’t care. “They just wouldn’t stay up.”
When they laid down, Linda put her arm over his chest and didn’t move it down. She nuzzled the back of his neck and then he heard the little, startled noises she made when she first fell asleep. He stayed awake a little longer, savoring her warm smell.
When he woke he was twanging like a thirteen-year-old. He wanted to take it easy, get Linda aroused too, not just climb on top of her while she was still waking but there was no slowing down. He came at once, with a whooshing sound that made them laugh. Reminded Bill of their baby-making days when he’d tell her afterward, “I think that one did it.”
He apologized. “Geez, without a minute to spare. Not much finesse.” But Linda, lying limp and happy across his chest, laughed.
They lay a long time, watching the afternoon light slide from the room. Spoke of seeing a little less of Stuart and Connie, though they wouldn’t make a big break, Linda said. No need for hurt feelings. Perhaps, when they went to pick up Katie in June, they’d leave a day or two early, take a little trip to Yellowstone, maybe, just the two of them.
Oh, it was nice, the silken weight of her head on his chest, he couldn’t say it wasn’t, and perhaps a spell had been broken and what had happened today could happen again, but Bill did not share Linda’s triumph. Because he thought, what she didn’t understand, what none of them understood, was it wasn’t the way it had been, never would be.
Jane Snyder's work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Summerset Review, and Five On The Fifth. She lives in Spokane.