Freddie carried a mixed case of wine up
from the cellar to the tasting room, crossing
the cool, dimly lit tasting room and placing it
on the polished wooden bar his father had
carved years ago. Freddie was a child then,
and remembered watching curls of wood
peel away and fall to the floor. Fifty years
later, Freddie now owned and operated the winery his grandparents founded, and a day didn’t pass without thoughts of the hard days they’d endured for his family.
The case was for a steady, long-time customer, Mr. Rosen. Six pinots, three cabs, three blends that Freddie called Mi Corazon Red. Mr. Rosen had sent an email reminding Freddie he didn’t want any merlots in his wine pick up. Mr. Rosen had been in the wine club for five years, picking up a case four times a year. Freddie calculated while he wrote out a card to put with the wine: Twenty times, Mr. Rosen had reminded him that he hated merlot.
Happy Holidays Mr. and Mrs. Rosen!
He didn’t write Feliz Navidad like with some of his customers. He was pretty sure the Rosens were Jewish. Their daughter went to a Jewish college. He tried to remember what it was called as he cleaned off the bar. Details like that made the relationships stick, and in this economy he needed his regular customers, his wine club members, to stick. The tourists weren’t dropping hundreds at a tasting, the way they used to. Without his wife by his side, at the bar, the relationship building fell to Freddie. He missed her being down here, her laugh sparkling across the room with a soft echo.
His nephew Uriel dropped by in the late afternoon. His cheeks were reddened with cold and the collar of his jean jacket was flipped up; a cold snap had hit the valley 48 hours ago and hadn’t receded yet. Sometimes, like today, when Uriel strode into a room, Freddie was caught off guard. What he saw was Uri’s father, Freddie’s younger brother, coming through the door looking exactly like he did the year he died. Freddie’s heart leapt and slammed into his ribcage like a wild beast fed on shock, joy, and hope, and then fell again, defeated by reality. All this in the hair of a second, as Uriel in muddy cowboy boots, crossed the room. The smell of roasted corn and chilés seeped from the paper bag in his hands. Uriel had picked up tamales from the Mexican place he liked in Agua Caliente, Pepe’s. The lady there only made her tamales in December, but they were worth waiting for. Delicioso. Freddie’s stomach growled.
“Tienes hambre, Tio?” Uriel asked with his lopsided grin.
Of course I’m hungry. But I have customers. He glanced meaningfully at the batch of tourists at the bar, Texans. He was managing the tastings alone this afternoon, one of his nieces having left earlier.
Uri lifted up the bag of tamales. “I’ll leave one on your desk, then take the others up to the house.”
“Gracius, Uri. You’re staying for dinner?”
“I need a shower, then I’ll come back up for dinner.” Uriel lived in a cabin at the base of the farm, something that had passed from one relative to another for three generations.
“Your cousin Gemma put something on the stove before she left. Check on things for me.”
He didn’t need to say the obvious, “Check on my wife for me.” It was understood. Freddie tried to have someone with Maya seven days a week, whenever he wasn’t up at the house, a niece or in-law. But usually there was an hour or two at this time of day when the nieces went home, to tend to their own families, and he wasn’t back to the house yet. His wife took a rest on the back porch most days, watching the sun slip away over their vineyard. But he worried. If she really needed something, would she call him? What if she dropped the cell phone? Or had a stroke with no-one to witness it?
Uri headed out the door and Freddie went back to pouring. “Have you tried the Syrah?” He asked a woman who looked too drunk to really taste anything.
She stuck out her glass and offered a large lip-stick smile. “I’ll try anything you suggest Frederico!” Freddie thought of reaching over and wiping off all that make up, just to see who was underneath it. He needed a tourist break.
Mr. Rosen came around five, just before Freddie closed up, the wind pulling the door out his hand and seeming to throw Mr. Rosen through the door. He was wearing a coat that made Freddie think of horses, it looked so smooth and soft, a rich brown suede that complimented the man’s chestnut colored hair. He always dressed well, this guy. Not much grey hair either, and no pooch over his belt. Freddie sucked in his own belly as he pulled out a bottle of reserve cabernet he’d kept aside that day for wine club members and folks spending money.
“How are you Mr. Rosen?”
“Good, Freddie. But I always tell you, call me Jonah.”
“Yes, Jonah.” Freddie thought this sounded like a woman’s name. But he should have remembered. Another detail slipped. His father never forgot the details about his customers. But when his father ran the winery, there were a lot less customers. The business was tiny, mostly making it's money from selling the grapes wholesale to bigger places. But his father always made a few cases of his own, and applied their label, Esperanza. Little by little, their name grew. Then in 1997 they won a prize for their Cabernet. And in 1998, their Pinot. Their world exploded; the wines listed in all kinds of magazines with headlines like “Mexican wine maker takes the gold!” His father was invited to dinners of strangers who now called him friend, interns from Davis were now interested in working for them. It was exponential.
Freddie was glad his father lived to see that. By the time the old man died, the family had eleven employees, 60 acres of their own, and a tasting room. Today, under Freddie’s helm, all of that was doubled.
But the numbers at the end of the year still never added up to as much as Freddy would expect, or hope. No retirement fund for him, and once his wife’s medical bills were paid, not much vacation money either. But they did go to Vegas last winter; he’d wheeled Maya right up to the slot machines. And they went to see that comedian – Louis? Man did they laugh a lot, like they were kids. He smiled now, just thinking about it.
“Have a good week?”
Freddie came back from his Vegas reverie to Mr. Rosen – no, Jonah. “Yes. How about you?”
“Good, good.” He didn’t sound like he meant it. He mentioned his busy week, traffic coming up from the city. He hadn’t gone to his weekend house yet, but stopped at the winery before he went up the road to Kenwood. “I wanted to come by before you closed. Pick up the wine.”
“Was it this cold in the city?” Freddie asked, putting the last clean glasses on the shelf, ready for the pourers in the morning. Making conversation. He lined up the bottles he wanted opened first on the bar. Chito, his nephew’s friend, would open up tomorrow. He was always willing to work weekends for a little cash and some wine, but Freddie didn’t trust him to do everything right, how he wanted it.
“The city’s always cold. Some days I can’t see a foot outside my office window, the fog is so thick.” Jonah stretched and then finished off his wine. His eyes were set deep in the sockets, like his brain was so large it had pushed his forehead out creating a shelf over his brow. His shoulders drooped a little bit, tired of the world. Freddie added a little wine to his glass, and then impulsively pulled out another glass and poured a little wine for himself. He picked up a stool and moved it to his spot at the bar. He’d been on his feet since six this morning, when he’d gone to the warehouse to check the tanks. His toes tingled when he stood too long, some circulation problem the doctor said was normal. By now they were numb.
“Happy holidays,” he said to Jonah, raising his glass.
Jonah seemed confused for a minute, as if he didn’t know the holidays had come, but after a minute he nodded and raised his glass as well, a small smile.
“Happy holidays, Freddie.”
“How’s your daughter?”
Jonah winced a little bit, and Freddie had a sinking feeling he’d asked the wrong thing, that the man had a son not a daughter, or that she’d died years ago and Freddie had forgotten that. But then the man shrugged, his expensive suit shrugging with him. “She’s alright. Distant. I don’t hear from her much right now.”
Freddie tried to brush the awkward moment away. “Yeah, yeah, I know how they are.” Although he didn’t know. He had no children, only his nephew Uri, who lived right here on the property, not distant at all.
“It’s the age,” Jonah said. But he didn’t sound sure, looked to Freddie for reassurance.
“Yeah. It’s probably a phase.” He’d heard that phrase used before and it seemed to fit.
Jonah asked about the crush and how the grapes had done this year, and then about the horse Freddie kept on the property.
“Jasper, right? Wasn’t that the horse’s name?”
“Yes, that’s it.” Amazing. The man remembered the name of his horse. Freddie had no idea of Jonah’s daughter’s name, or his wife, or even what business he was in.
“I like that horse. When Jen came up here with me, when she was still in high school, she used to bring apples for Jasper.”
Jen. That was the daughter’s name.
“She’s a good horse. She’s getting old, you know. But still, a good horse.” Freddie sat back on his stool, felt the tight muscles from his neck down to his ass, pulling.
“Oh well, we’re all getting old,” Jonah said. This struck Freddie as funny and he laughed quietly. Jonah joined him.
“It happens. Right? If we’re lucky,” Freddie said, kneading one of the knuckles on his right hand.
“Right.” They clinked glasses, and then finished them off. Jonah stood up and started to gather his coat.
Freddie didn’t want him to leave though, not yet. He didn’t know why. “Do you want to try the new cab before you go? It’s a little young, but good. I think it’s good.”
“Absolutely.” Jonah sat back down, throwing his coat on the counter, in a moment of recklessness. The coat seemed alive, an animal resting on the wooden bar, the fine leather rippled as if poised to spring up. Freddie went down to the end of the bar to the case of cab he’d carried up earlier and pulled out a bottle. He glanced at the label, happy with it even now, years after its creation, a vine growing up the sides of the label, a single plump grape resting on the E in Esperanza. His wife, an artist, had painted it when they were first married. Now her hands were too crippled to draw, but her work was pasted to every bottle they sold.
“Salud,” he said to Jonah as he poured.
“La Chiam,” Jonah answered.
Freddie smiled, knew what that meant, more or less. “Do you celebrate – what’s it called? The Jewish Christmas?”
“Yes. You’ll celebrate that soon?”
Hesitation in his eyes. “No, not really. I mean yes -it’s now. I called my sister the first night. And I sent Jen a check. But that’s all.”
“No candles. I should get some, maybe. Light them up at the house. My mother would have liked that. Traditions.”
What was the name of his wife? Freddie couldn’t remember. He could see her, a small woman with reddish hair and a narrow face; she’d been to the tasting room once or twice. Sharon? “Mrs. Rosen doesn’t light the candles?” He asked.
Jonah shook his head, avoided the wine maker’s eyes. After a minute he said, to the space in front of them, “It’s just me these days. Shelly and I finalized the divorce over the summer.”
Damn, he shouldn’t have brought up the wife. Freddie tipped his glass, admiring the color, the legs of red holding on to the sides of the glass when the wine rushed down. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Sorry to hear that. I haven’t seen you much this year.”
“No. I haven’t been up here enough. Just worked my way through it. It’s alright. We stuck it out while Jen was growing up, that’s what really matters.”
Freddie nodded in agreement, although he was thinking it was sad to give up just when they needed each other for company. He couldn’t imagine wanting a life without his wife. Although he was forced to consider it, daily.
After a minute, Freddie offered impulsively, “Do you want to come see the horse? I need to feed her.”
Jonah seemed genuinely pleased, or maybe it was relief for the change of topic. “Sure.”
Freddie topped off both their glasses, feeling the buzz of the wine. On his way out he took the silver foil-wrapped tamale off his desk. He stopped at the counter and cut it neatly in two, offering a half to Jonah, who devoured it in three bites. Freddie ate his as he closed up, the spicy pork wrapped in corn meal melting in his mouth. He locked the front door and then they walked through the back warehouse, moist barrels oozing with the heady smell of ripening grapes - earth, wood and vinegar. Jonah stopped, taking in a deep breath.
“God that smells divine. I love that smell.”
Freddie smiled. He did too. He’d grown up playing hide and seek between the barrels, skipping school to pick grapes, winning the family stomping competition every year, ladling tastes off the barrel to carry to his father and uncles, who smiled, or groaned, depending. His life was rooted in the vineyards.
They walked through the gathering dusk towards the barn, a bat swooping down not far from their heads. Freddie could see the horse’s profile in the field, standing patiently near the door to the stable. Ready to go inside and eat, like the rest of them. Jonah went to the fence and after a moment’s hesitation, petted the horse’s long white nose. She stomped her foot and nuzzled his coat, as if looking for something better than a pat on the nose. Apples? Freddie filled her feed and water buckets, then slid the door open so she could come in from the chilly night. His cell phone rang as he was putting her blanket on; his wife calling.
“Si, yo vengo. Coming. Si. Ten minutes.”
He turned to say something to Jonah but the man was already walking away, making his way down the hill to the parking lot.
“Thanks Freddie,” Jonah called out to him, turning with a wave. “Great tasting. Thanks for everything.”
“Okay. Bye Mr. Ros- Jonah. See you soon.”
Was Jonah weaving a little as he walked? Shit, he shouldn’t have poured him that last glass. Freddie lifted the phone back to his mouth and talked to his wife for another minute. When she agreed to his request, he hustled down to the parking lot, his left knee giving him hell when he moved this fast. Ahead of him, the light came on in a small sleek car. Jonah was outlined in the bright light against the dark, his face chiseled with sharper angles than when inside, his coat pulled tightly against him.
“Jonah,” Freddy called, suddenly feeling foolish for having followed him. He’d meant to invite him to eat with his family. There would be too much food for the three of them, with the tamales. But shyness now swallowed his momentary generosity.
Jonah looked at him, expectantly, a small smile.
“You forgot your wine,” Freddie said.
“I did, you’re right.”
They walked together back to the tasting room where the boxes were still stacked outside the door. Each man lifted a carton with six bottles with a mutual humph sound, as they shifted their weight around, walked slowly to the car, their backs swaying with the weighty boxes. Freddie waited while Jonah got the car unlocked, the trunk rising on its own, smoothly, magically.
“My wife called and says you should come up to the house, have some dinner with us.” Freddie spit it out, grateful for a wife to blame for this kindness.
Jonah only hesitated briefly. ”Well, that’s very nice of her. If you’re sure. I’m in no rush to get to the house. But I don’t mean to-”
Freddie waved his words away and they walked up the gravel road towards the house, rocks crunching under their shoes. He could see Uriel through the picture window of his own cottage at the base of the vineyard, looking out into the night. Again he thought of his Uriel’s father. Memories, this time of year, coming forth like the harvest had pulled them up from the soil. He called Uriel on his cell as they walked, told him they were eating soon.
It was always awkward at first, with a new guest. What would Jonah notice first? The ramp outside the door? The way the bannister was low on the front porch? Or would he not realize until Freddie’s wife wheeled around the corner, telling the dogs to stop barking. Freddie didn’t tell Jonah ahead of time, wanted to see how he reacted. His disabled wife, a litmus test of decency.
Maya’s devastating smile now fell down on the left. If she was a painting, it would look as if the artist got distracted, turned away at the last minute and let the brush pull her lip down, a quarter inch, and then pulled the corner of her eye down as well, for symmetry. She lifted her smooth hand in greeting and Jonah stepped over the oldest of their mutts, to take it and hold it while he spoke to her, praising the farm, the wine, her husband and her horse. Freddie’s wife wore the red sweater he liked, with embroidery around the edges, and her salt and pepper hair, still thick and smooth, was down on her shoulders.
Freddie’s spirits lifted; pleased with his decision to bring the stranger home. Pork stew simmered on the stove, a deep red sauce with poblano chiles, onions and string beans. Freddie got out plates and spooned the pork over the rice from another pan. The smell of the chiles made his eyes water. A flash of his family’s house outside Oaxaca came through his mind as inhaled the scents.
“Mi sobrina made her stew?” He called out to his wife in the next room.
“Si, she roasted the chiles first like you taught her.”
He opened the bag of tamales, removing four from the foil and placing them in the microwave to heat them up. He listened as Jonah and his wife chatted. Uriel came through the back door, raising his eyebrows when he heard the voices in the next room.
“It’s a customer,” Freddie explained, “Mr. Rosen. Jonah.”
Uriel nodded and took over setting the table, bringing out the blue ceramic water pitcher and hand blown glasses, the salt and pepper, napkins, and utensils, in the skilled movements of a man who lived here much of the time as a boy.
At the table, Uriel and Mr. Rosen talked about the stable where Uriel worked. It turned out Mr. Rosen had a horse at the stable, one he rarely saw.
“She was my wife’s horse. But she’s moved away, so Belle ended up as mine to care for. Too bad I don’t ride. I’ve been meaning to come down to the stable. To see about selling her, I guess. I feel terrible. We’ve made poor horse owners, with the divorce.
“She’s fine. We take good care of her,” Uriel said, a little too strongly.
“Yes, that’s what my wife always said. I’m sure you do.”
After a minute Uriel added. “Are you interested in riding? She’s a fabulous horse.”
“Maybe. My work keeps me so busy, I’m not here as much as I’d like. I can never get enough of Sonoma.” They raised their glasses to that. They were sharing a bottle of Cabernet, slowly. It was excellent, a Rombauer. Freddie liked trying everyone’s wines, needed to know his competition. And his friends.
“What kind of work do you do?” Freddie’s wife asked. She was slightly lower to the table. Her wine glass was barely touched; she didn’t like the way alcohol interacted with her medications. Freddie missed the days, early on, when they’d hike up to the top of his farm, a view for miles, and share a bottle of wine on a Saturday night. Or when they’d get a little drunk down at the Dance Palace as kids and cut it up. He missed so many things. But here she was, alive, still leading the dinner conversation; he should be grateful
“I’m a doctor. I work at UCSF,” Jonah answered, with no show of arrogance.
“What kind of medicine do you practice?” she asked.
“I’m a neurologist.”
There was a minute of silence while they each seemed to think about this. Freddie thought of all the neurologists they had met with over the years. Neurologists, surgeons, acupuncturists, psychologists, urologists, even dermatologists. But neurologists were the most frequent, the holders of the most important information, the dispensers of hope in tiny parcels, offered sparingly.
“That’s wonderful,” Maya offered. “It’s a fascinating field.”
Jonah nodded slowly, but hesitation seemed to brim in his eyes. “I enjoy it, even though the days are long.”
“You do important work,” Freddie said, putting it forth as a statement of solid truth. Without neurologists his wife might not be here, leaning back in her chair, winking at him with her right eye. The good side.
“I do my best,” Jonah answered.
“Well, if you can get away from it, why don’t you come down to the barn some time,” Uriel said, steering the conversation away from medicine, “Visit your horse. Maybe try to ride her a bit.”
“Uriel gives lessons,” Maya said. “He’s quite good. He’s taught a lot of our customers over the years.”
“Small community,” Uriel said with a shrug.
“I’d like that.”
Uriel looked up, his eyes flickering in the candlelight. “I’m always there.”
“I haven’t ridden in years.”
“We’ll start slow.”
Jonah lifted his glass and drained it. “I’ll come down tomorrow then.”
Freddie walked Jonah back to his car, flashlight in hand. He barely needed it, the winter moon so full it looked like it might burst open and shower down pitchers of white gold. Jonah thanked him profusely for the meal, which he said was the best he’d had in a year. He reached for something out of his wallet, then gently placed his coat lengthwise across the back seat.
He handed Freddie a white business card, crisp, with sharp edges.
“You should call my assistant. Her number is in the corner. And bring Maya to see me at my office, if you like.”
Freddie looked at the words with the flashlight. Department of Neurology. “She has-”
“I know what she has,” Jonah said, quietly.
Of course he did. “Do you think there’s something that would help?”
Jonah leaned back against his car, his hands in the pockets of his beautifully tailored pants. Freddie saw him as the doctor now, saw his face changing to neutral, cautious.
“There’s not a cure.”
“But what I say to patients is this: there is no cure for any of us. We are all dying, we just don’t acknowledge it. The important thing to focus on is the quality of life we have while we’re here.”
“Hers is pretty good,” Freddie said, quickly, defensively. “I do everything I can.”
“Of course you do. It’s wonderful, the way things are arranged at the house, and she’s living in paradise. I don’t mean that at all. Simply that medicine is changing so quickly, so rapidly, and with such enormous strides, that unless you’re part of an academic medicine center, it’s hard to stay abreast on all the options. I’m sure her doctors here are very good; I don’t want to replace them. I manage cases all over the world using the local doctors. But if you want another opinion, or some new ideas, I’d be happy to look over her chart, and give it some thought. That’s all. I didn’t mean to offend in anyway.”
Freddie took a deep breath, feeling it calm his stumbling heart-beat. “No. Of course not. I just try so hard. I want- I just want her-” He didn’t finish. A burning rose from his chest up his throat, a sob that he forced back down to his diaphragm. He wouldn’t break down in front of this man, practically a stranger, after years of holding himself together. He was laced up tight, like a football. He couldn’t afford cracks in the seams. He took another deep breath of cold air and held it in.
“Let me know.” Jonah said, “No rush.”
“I’ll bring her. I’ll call this girl tomorrow. Or Monday. I’ll call her Monday.”
“Great.” They patted each other’s shoulder, lightly, and Jonah climbed down into his little car that looked speedy and did not match the owner at all. He rolled down his window. “The car’s another thing my ex left behind and now calls one of my assets.”
Freddie smiled. That made sense.
“Have a good weekend, Jonah.”
“I think I will.” He started to role the window up. “Tomorrow,” he added, “I’m going to see a man about a horse.” With that he backed up, smiling, seeming happy with his pun.
Freddie walked the gravel path to the house slowly, feeling warmed from all the wine and the company. He hoped Uri was still at the house with Maya. They could have a Mexican hot chocolate before bed. The flashlight made a bouncing orb of light as he walked, offering him flashes, but only flashes, of what lie ahead.