The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling light through the venetian blinds of my rundown, rent-controlled house in Santa Monica. I was moving frenetically from bedroom to living room packing for a road trip with my best friend, Jack Cole. We were headed for the Santa Ynez Valley and a week of wine tasting before he was to be married the following Sunday. Though I couldn’t afford this impromptu excursion, I desperately needed to get out of L.A. The place was suffocating me, fueling paralyzing panic attacks that had been a chronic affliction of mine over the years.
The phone rang, but the number that materialized on my caller ID didn’t register so I stood frozen over the answering machine, waiting.
“Miles, is Roman,” my landlord began in his Transylvanian-sounding drawl. “It is the fifteenth of September and I still not receive rent. Every month we go through this. If I don’t get check by tomorrow I have no choice but to begin eviction. I don’t like this. You are my friend. I know you are starving writer …”
I levered the volume on the answering machine to 0, the hair on my forearms tingling. The rest of Roman’s exhortation I could recite from memory. He would warm up with how lenient he had been, then he would launch into a foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe about how my financial shortcomings were the cause of his elevated blood pressure and a host of other onuses that daily racked him on the property owner’s cross. His jeremiads were worthy of Job and their intent was to make me feel guilty and scrape together the $850 in question.
I resumed packing, the call pecking away at the edges of my already frayed psyche. Into my travel-scarred suitcase I threw a couple of bleak-themed novels I knew I would never crack. For good measure I added The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson’s brilliant and exhaustive tome on everything you ever wanted to know about the universe of wine. It was the perfect book to calm the nerves at three in the morning when you wake in an unfamiliar motel room in a cold sweat, trembling from excess. After all, Jack and I were journeying to wine country, and I wanted to have the one book that had supplied me with all the basics of my one undying passion—besides, of course, the unrepentant penning of two unpublished novels and scores of unproduced screenplays.
As I was about to shutter the house the phone rang a second time, jangling my nerves. I raced over to the caller ID, expecting it to be my disgruntled landlord again, amplifying on his first message with another warning salvo. But the number that came up on the display was a 212 area code so I lunged for the phone. “Hello,” I answered breathlessly.
“Miles,” sang a cheery woman’s voice. “It’s Evelyn, your favorite agent.” She was the sixth in a long line of backstabbing sharks, but so far she seemed to be the rare exception: an agent who believed in me.
“Evelyn, what’s up? You sound upbeat for a change.” In fact, she had that uncharacteristic lilt in her voice that promised argosies, ships of fortune that would diminish the pain of the thirty-five rejection letters from the who’s who of major publishing houses that I had arrayed on my living room walls: a festoon of failure, I proudly told everyone.
“Some potentially good news,” Evelyn said. “Richard Davis at Conundrum liked your book.”
My jaw dropped. The novel she was referring to had been shopped around New York for nearly a year now with no takers. There had been the first tier of submissions to the cream of the crop, when excitement was high and optimism exaggerated. Then there was the second tier: less prestigious houses, which meant less advance money, and considerably less budget for promotion once I got published, which I still assumed I would. The slow morphine drip continued as more rejection letters sluiced through Evelyn’s New York office and were shunted to me in L.A. Bringing up the rear was the third tier: boutique houses on the periphery seeking a home run and a move into the second tier. Short of vanity presses and the Internet selfpublishing venues, this was where Evelyn disembarked and moved on to the BBD—bigger and better deal. We were clinging to tattered ribbons and we both knew it.
“Great,” I replied, almost not wanting to hear the qualifications for fear they would put a damper on my excitement.
“He’s passing it to the other senior editors to read over the weekend. I’m expecting a decision toward the end of next week. Of course, he recommended some revisions.”
“Of course,” I replied. “A publishing deal would certainly have that galvanic effect on me.”
Evelyn laughed heartily, the gallows laugh of a hardworking agent who wasn’t getting any younger. “So, we’re in pretty good shape,” she said. “I’ve got my fingers crossed.”
“Terrific,” I replied, glancing at my watch. “I’m getting ready to take off for a little trip.”
“Santa Ynez Valley. An hour north of Santa Barbara. The poor man’s Napa/Sonoma. My friend Jack is getting married and we’re going to go out in style. It’s research for my next book,” I added.
“Sounds like a blast,” she said. “Are you writing anything new, Miles?”
“Well, um,” I began haltingly. I glanced around at the rejection letters thumbtacked to my walls, their stinging words glaring reminders of why I had been unproductive recently. Of course, there was also the divorce, the dwindling bank account, the renewed wave of panic attacks, the loss of my film agent to the St. Vitus’s dance, and the sudden departure of a short-lived girlfriend who couldn’t put up with my occupational moodiness. “I’ve got something brewing,” I said finally. “Something epic.”
“Well, keep writing,” she encouraged. “And I’ll call you when I hear something.”
We signed off and I stood still for a moment, a hundred thoughts crisscrossing in my head. I had almost given up the book for dead—two years down the toilet and all the bad debts that backed up with it—but I was thrilled Evelyn had not. I made a mental note not to give up all hope in humankind.
I locked up my house, threw my suitcase into the back of my Toyota 4Runner, and headed off to the weekly Friday afternoon wine tasting at Epicurus, where I was to rendezvous with the incorrigibly late Jack.
Epicurus was a long railcar-shaped wine emporium wedged in between a mattress store and a spa that specialized in high colonics. Wine bottles were racked halfway up both walls and down the middle of the long rectangular space, arranged according to varietal and country of origin.
The familiar crowd was packed into the small cordonedoff tasting area, affectionately dubbed The Bullpen, in the rear of the shop. In recent years The Bullpen had been witness to many wild Fridays after the owner had gone home, leaving the store entrusted to James, his English wine guru. Usually James would uncork bottle after bottle, recklessly cherry-picking the store’s inventory in retaliation for what he referred to as his insulting salary. It was the place to be on Friday for the Westside wine cognoscenti.
This afternoon they were pouring Gary Farrell, a high-end vintner whose winery is smack in the middle of the Russian River Valley. Pinot Noir country. My grape. The one varietal that truly enchants me, both stills and steals my heart with its elusive loveliness and false promises of transcendence. I loved her, and I would continue to follow her siren call until my wallet—or liver, whichever came first—gave out.
There was a buzz in The Bullpen when I arrived. A few people called out hellos and waved as I squeezed into the small space and found a clean glass. Most of the regulars were already holding court in their customary positions, arms crooked with wineglasses held below their noses. They included: Carl, an electrician at Warner Brothers, a small roly-poly man with a thirst for Bordeaux and a private cellar stocked with some of France’s finest (and the burst capillaries in his face to prove it); Jerry, a reptilianfaced, paunchy man in his forties, dentist by trade, oenophile by avocation, who used the Friday tastings as a way to meet prospective new paramours even though we all knew he was married; Eekoo, a wealthy Korean real estate entrepreneur who boasted a temperature-controlled bedroom stacked floor to ceiling with the finest California Cabernets, Chardonnays, and Pinots, the highly allocated ones, the mythical bottles you don’t find in wine stores. Eekoo’s trademark was the varietal-specific Riedel stemware he lugged around in a wooden case from tasting to tasting. Then there was Malibu Jim, a slender, sallowfaced man in his fifties who sampled the wines, then typed in tasting notes on a laptop, research for a book he probably would never get around to writing. Recent newcomers, I noticed, were a pair of pleasantly plump office assistants who had discovered the best $5 party in the city and were fast becoming regulars. They didn’t know much about wine, and they came reeking of perfume—a wine tasting no-no—but they were a load of laughs once they got a few tastes under their belts. And then there were the walk-ins, the one-timers, the curiosity seekers who heard the convivial banter in the back of the store, noticed wine being sampled, and thought it would be fun to join in. Sizing up the fresh dramatis personae, I became aware of three attractive women in their early thirties, huddled together, demarcating a proprietary space, conscious of the leering stares but determined to enjoy their afternoon outing.
“Miles,” Carl called out, raising his glass, already flush in the face. He tended to arrive early and get a head start on the festivities. “Didn’t think you were going to make it.”
“Gary Farrell, are you kidding?” I said as I elbowed my way over to the lineup. Manning the bottles was a matronly woman with a pie-shaped face and a friendly but strained smile. As disembodied arms snaked in between jostling bodies she tried to monitor the amounts that were being poured. It usually began politely, then slowly deteriorated into a help-yourself-to-all-you-can-drink line of attack. We were still in the polite phase of the afternoon when I held out my glass to her.
“Would you like to begin with the Chardonnay?” she asked over the din of voices.
“Absolutely,” I said.
She picked up an open bottle of the Farrell Sonoma and poured me a splash. I put my nose in the glass, inhaled deeply, and got a whiff of honeydew and underripe pears. On the palate the wine was indelicate, slightly oaky, very tropical-fruity, a little on the flabby side: a fairly typical California Chard for the Chard-swilling masses. I compared notes with Carl and he readily agreed.
As I waited for Jack, I edged my way nearer the three women who were making their first appearance. They were deep into the reds and I sensed they were getting ready to head for the hills.
“What do you think of the Farrells?” I asked the one in the middle, a pretty, dark-haired slip of a girl.
“Mm.” She wrinkled her forehead. “I guess I like the Merlot the best.” Her pals concurred with her assessment, nodding and mmm-ing.
I grimaced. Merlot, a quintessential blending grape, when left to its own devices almost always—Pétrus notwithstanding—results in a bland, characterless wine. “What about the Pinots?” I asked, smiling what I hoped was a charming and knowing smile.
“I didn’t like ’em.” She formed her mouth into a tight little O trying to describe her displeasure with my favorite grape.
Disenchanted, I backed my way toward the lineup of bottles, sensing I had struck out. As the crowd shifted and reshifted in the cramped space, I quickly sampled the second Chard, a single-vineyard wine with a better balance of fruit and acidity and subtler oak overtones that imparted a slightly smoky, almost nutty taste.
“Excellent,” I said to the wine rep, when she asked if I liked it. I rinsed my glass and held it back out. “Let’s get serious.”
She reached for the first Pinot and poured me a splash. It was Farrell’s Sonoma standard, blended from a selection of vineyards. It gave off that unmistakable Pinot nose of cassis and blackberry, but it wasn’t distinguished, drifting in the mouth like a rudderless boat. The second Pinot was a single-vineyard from the nearby storied Rochioli property. It had notes of cardamom and exotic berries, and it pinwheeled around on my palate, deliciously lingering. Mm, I thought to myself, rolling the wine around in my mouth, this is more like it.
I shuffled my way through the crush of bodies back to where the three neophytes were winding up with the Cabs, hoping for one last shot. I was beginning to feel a little high and it emboldened me to re-approach them.
“You don’t like this Rochioli Pinot?” I asked.
The dark-headed one shook her head again.
“Really?” I sipped and took another spin around the block. “I think it’s close to dazzling.”
Jerry the dentist, face florid from having already traipsed through the lineup several times, butted in. “I don’t think it’s that dazzling,” he contended, hoping to curry favor with women I didn’t think would give him the time of day. They all smiled at him and I drifted away for a second and final time. Ten minutes later he had the darkheaded one buttonholed against the wall and—more appallingly—she seemed fascinated by his ineloquent winespeak.
Dispirited, I kept returning to the Rochioli as if to a trusted friend. As the rep poured me more, Carl sidled over to solicit my opinion. I barraged him with hyperbolic hosannas, reaching deep for the metaphors and the polysyllabics, which always made him chuckle.
“You’re right,” he said, after I had finished reeling off my lyrical account, the wine liberating my tongue to new heights of glibness. “Absolutely first-rate Pinot.”
“How was Spain?” I asked.
“Excellent,” he said. “Had a great time.”
“Drink any good Riojas and Riberas?”
“Yeah, some really tasty ones.” He winked, then filled me in about a big feast at a winery where they roasted lambs over flaming vine cuttings.
While listening to Carl’s chronicle of his Spain trip, I bypassed the Merlot and reached for the Zin, not wanting the rep to think I was hogging the Pinot. I refilled Carl with a scandalously healthy splash that drew an admonitory stare from the rep. We clinked glasses and laughed, delighting in our naughtiness.
Then Carl bent close to my ear and whispered, “Woman in the black shirt and blond hair is checking you out.”
I shot a furtive glance in the direction Carl was indicating. One of the dark-headed one’s friends was not just looking at me, but smiling. I didn’t know if she was flirting or had simply discovered the slippery pleasures of Pinot at my urging.
“They don’t like the Rochioli,” I told Carl. “I can’t date a woman who doesn’t like Pinot. That’s like getting involved with someone who’s disgusted by oral sex.”
Carl laughed. “How long’s it been since you’ve had a girlfriend?”
“I can’t remember. A while.” I sipped the Zin. It was spicy and full-bodied, but it didn’t transport me. “But it’s been a welcome break. I can feel the creative juices starting to flow again.”
Carl screwed his face up in disbelief. Suffering months without sex was unimaginable to him. Indiscriminate in his own tastes, he often came to the Friday tastings accompanied by the lees of womankind. “Maybe it’s time to reevaluate the pleasures of Merlot,” Carl suggested, tipping his head toward our three novices.
“I’m not going to journey from the sublime to the pedestrian for a phone number,” I said, shaking my head. “What’s the deal with Jerry?” I noticed that the dentist was still locked in conversation with the dark-headed one.
“Flatters them, doesn’t put them down for not liking Pinot,” Carl affectionately criticized me.
“Imagine getting a root canal from that guy.” I affectedly staggered in place, imitating a drunk. “He’s probably one of those drill-and-fillers who anesthetizes his patients and then feels them up in the chair.”
Carl laughed, goading me on. We loved the mordant humor that the combination of wine and gossip evoked in both of us.
Eekoo edged into our cabal, his Riedel Sommeliers glass cradled in his hand like the Hope Diamond. “What do you think of the Farrells?” he said, his speech hobbled by the series of tasting events he had strung together beginning early in the day.
“Rochioli is nice,” I said.
He sipped the wine from his bulbous stemware and worked it professionally around in his mouth. “Not as good as the ’99 Kistler.”
Carl and I rolled our eyes at the same time. Of course, nobody but Eekoo could find—let alone, afford—the ’99 Kistler, so the reference was a no-win one-upmanship, but we humorously tolerated his elitism all the same.
“Heard you were taking a little trip,” Eekoo said to me, blinking like a gargoyle through the thick lenses of his glasses.
“My friend Jack’s getting married a week from Sunday. We’re going to do a little Santa Ynez wine tour.”
“Ah,” Eekoo said, smiling benignly as if recalling fond memories of just such a trip.
“Where is Jack?” Carl suddenly wondered.
I glanced at my watch. “Should be here pretty soon. You know Jack, he’s always late.”
“I miss that guy. Haven’t seen him here in quite a while.”
“His fiancée is holding him to the straight and narrow. That’s what happens when you get into a real relationship.”
Carl tilted his head back and laughed. Eekoo shot his arm between us in pursuit of one of the bottles, but his aim was off and he sent the Sonoma Pinot crashing to the cement floor. The explosion of glass produced a collective hush for a moment, but the silence was quickly swamped by a chorus of amiable catcalls. The party was in full swing now and the wine rep looked anxious, her eyes darting warily about the swelling, unmanageable crowd.
At the sound of shattering glass, Graham, the balding, barrel-chested proprietor, broke away from the cash register and strode toward us. “You animals,” he boomed, squatting down to help the rep clean up the mess. It wasn’t the first time and he was armed and ready with dustpan and brush.
“We’ve almost killed the Rochioli Pinot,” I said. “Open another bottle.”
Graham rose on the other side of the partition. He had a large, bowling-ball-shaped face created exclusively to intimidate. “This is a tasting, Miles, not a public service.”
“Without us, you’d be in Chapter 11.”
“If you didn’t get so sideways on Fridays you might be on the last chapter of that novel of yours.”
I smiled and pointed my finger at him. Touché. He returned the gesture.
“Come on. Open another bottle,” I urged.
“Yeah,” Carl said. “More people are coming.”
Graham shook his head in mock disgust. He didn’t like the Friday tastings, but he tolerated them because they were good for business. At their conclusion, the oenophiles, their wallets liberated in direct proportion to the amount of wine they had consumed, were usually in the mood to carry on elsewhere and would ring up extravagant purchases, sometimes solely to impress one another.
As Graham finished sweeping up the broken glass, arms reached indiscriminately for the remaining bottles. The Farrell rep, realizing that she had lost control, quickly filled a glass of the Rochioli for herself and hoarded it in her corner. Graham, aspiring to be the wine mensch of Santa Monica, waved the dustpan theatrically and said in defeat, “Open another Rochioli, Carol.”
The rep looked stricken for a moment, but she reluctantly reached down and unzipped her wine satchel and emerged with a second bottle. Raucous, but genial, cheers welcomed the sound of its uncorking. Glasses were refreshed all around and the ooh-ing and aah-ing started all over again.
Soon, I felt a warm glow spread through me. Voices overlapped and muddled into one another. As evening crept up on us, the light grew soft and the faces shadowed. Then, as if entering through the backdoor of a dream, Dani, a statuesque Aussie with a runner’s physique—graphic designer by profession—came bounding down the back stairs, her braless breasts rising and falling inside a tight, midriff-revealing T-shirt. She circled into The Bullpen, a smile on her ruddy, sunburned face, eager to sample.
“Dani,” I called out, happy to see my favorite regular.
“Miles!” She shoehorned her way through the throng and greeted me with a tight hug. With so much woman pressed against me, I nearly fainted. When she finally released me I had the presence of mind to right a clean glass and fill it half full of the second Chardonnay from a new, cold bottle the rep had also uncorked.
“I’m taking you right to the Allen Vineyard. None of this mediocre wine for you,” I said.
“Oh, you are, are you?” she said, cocking her head coquettishly. She accepted the glass, took a sip, closed her eyes gently for a moment, and savored the wine. “Thanks, Miles. I needed that.”
Carl, inebriated enough now to test the waters, had drifted over and was making small talk with the blond friend of the dark-headed one who was, judging by her expression, apparently in the process of getting the pants charmed off her by Jerry. Occasionally she even laughed at what the dentist was saying. I turned away. A wobbly Eekoo was staring bleary-eyed over Malibu Jim’s shoulder at his laptop, critiquing his wine-tasting notes, stabbing a finger—which Jim kept shooing away—at his screen. The Farrell rep, having long since worn out her function as a pourer and explicator of Gary’s winemaking methodologies, retreated deeper into her corner with a second—full (!)—glass of the Rochioli, resigned now to the pleasurable fact that she might as well get looped with the rest of us. The Bullpen had, in its inimitable way, collectively reduced our zeitgeist to a tribal low common denominator.
I leaned into Dani’s apple red face. “Do you think it’s unreasonable not to want to date anyone who doesn’t like Pinot? It’s the burning question for me this afternoon.”
“Who’s that?” Dani asked, her antennae tuned now to the horde in The Bullpen. She grabbed a fistful of my shirt and maneuvered me over to the bottles so we wouldn’t have to keep reaching through the crowd to refresh our glasses.
“Dark-haired one over there talking to Jerry,” I said, nodding in their direction.
Dani squinted and glanced over my shoulder. She shrugged. “You’re too critical, Miles.”
“Someone’s got to have standards around here.”
She laughed and we touched glasses. “Where’s Jack?”
“Should be here any minute.” I reflexively checked my watch. An hour had disappeared like the flare of a match. Have to slow down, I cautioned myself.
“Are you leaving from here?” Dani asked. Her voice sounded a little like it was trying to reach me from underwater.
“Yeah. I’m getting an early start.” I raised my glass to the impending trip, the promising news from my agent, and the feeling of warmth that had by now blanketed me. “I’m taking a week off and doing nothing but tasting wines and breathing fresh air.”
“Sounds like fun. Wish I could come.”
“When are you and Roger getting married?” I asked, referring to her handsome investment banker fiancé.
“Really? That’s great.” I tried to offer my congratulations with conviction, but even I could faintly make out a tinge of disappointment in my voice. Maybe I was infatuated with Dani because the only times I ever interacted with her were when I had a wine buzz going, but even on paper she was something special: wine lover, athlete, gourmet cook; what more could a guy want?
“Yeah,” she was saying, her words coming back into my consciousness, “we’re going to take the plunge.” Without looking, she reached around for more of the Rochioli and topped both of us off, eliciting a snort of disdain from the beleaguered rep. We ignored her and carried on.
“Like this Pinot, Dani?”
“Mm hm.” Dani made a face that underscored her pleasure. Her attention was drawn over my shoulder again. “Some woman keeps looking over here.”
“Really?” I didn’t bother to look. “Probably because she thinks I’m with you, her interest has rekindled.” I stole a quick glance at the blonde Carl was chatting up. “Carl’ll try to seduce her with his ’97 Caymus Special Selection. If that doesn’t get her excited, he’ll go deep and offer to pop one of his premiers crus Bordeaux.”
Dani threw back her head of short auburn hair and laughed hard. “So, what’s happening with your novel?”
“Thirty-five rejections and counting. They just keep pouring in.”
“No,” Dani empathized.
“But thirty-six might be the charm. Just spoke to my agent. Editor at some small publishing house expressed serious interest. He’s passing it upstairs to the buttonpushers as we drink.”
“I want to read it,” Dani insisted, a weekly refrain she never followed up on.
“She’s got a good feeling this time,” I said.
Dani bent closer to me until our faces were almost touching. Her breath smelled piquantly of wine and stinky French cheeses. I misinterpreted her gesture and turned my mouth toward hers for the kiss that I delusively thought she was offering.
“He’s going for the kill,” she whispered instead, thwarting me mid-kiss.
I threw a backward glance and glimpsed Jerry the dentist brushing the dark-headed woman’s hair back off her forehead and gazing into her eyes in a way that could only be described as adoringly. Next to them, roly-poly Carl appeared to be making headway with her blond cohort. I flashed to a vision of a frolicking foursome, whisked off to Carl’s nearby condo to partake of his small, but wellstocked, cellar. As if it hadn’t been clear already, now it was a fait accompli that I was out of the picture. No doubt Jerry had already informed his mark that I was a chronically unemployed writer, which was usually about all it took to get desirable women to steer clear of me at all costs. That was one of the liabilities of getting hammered every Friday and unburdening yourself on people you thought were your friends. The personal revelations always came back to haunt you.
I turned back to Dani, shaking my head scornfully. “Amount of wine those guys have been drinking, I doubt either of them could get an erection.”
Dani poured off more of the Rochioli, filling our small tasting glasses to the rim, before the others could get their mitts on it. As the tastings drew to a close, and the bottles grew depleted, selfishness became the common mantra of the afternoon.
“I’m happy for you and Roger,” I heard myself say. “But if it doesn’t work out, I want you to call me, okay?”
Dani dipped her head to one side and smiled.
“I’m serious,” I blundered on, aware that I was spewing drunken nonsense, feeling that cavernous loneliness welling up in me again but oblivious of the consequences and determined to hurtle forward with abandon.
Dani placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. Then, unexpectedly, she planted her lips on mine and held them there for what seemed like an eternity. I felt her tongue hot and moist inside my mouth. It wasn’t an affectionate kiss, but rather a showy display to flout propriety and draw attention.
From behind me, a chorus of rowdy, counterfeit hoorays erupted. On cue, Dani unstuck herself and chased the kiss with the last of her Rochioli. In one movement, she reached indiscriminately into the field of dead bottles to grab one that had anything sloshing around on the bottom. She fished out the Allen Chard, veering recklessly backward in the order—my girl! I held out my glass and she topped me off. I was light-headed from the wine, the unexpected kiss, and the clamor of laughter and indistinct voices. Our eyes sank into each other for a brief moment. I had a fantasy of Dani dragging me across the street to her apartment and granting me a sympathy pop while her fiancé, leaving her unattended on yet another lonely weekend, jetted around the globe. But looking into each other’s bloodshot eyes, I knew it was a rotten idea, and I could tell she knew it, too, and we quickly dispelled it with a pair of awkward laughs.
I was eager for Jack to arrive and call it a tasting when, out of nowhere, Jerry the cavity filler directed something at me he probably intended as a harmless joke. I didn’t exactly catch all of it, what with the riot of competing voices and my diminishing auditory faculties, but I was in a mood just askew enough, inspired by the swell of laughter that followed his remark, to whirl around and retort: “Where’s your wife this week, Jerry? We miss her.”
His goofy, mirthful face instantly imploded into a bilious scowl. The dark-haired woman, whose head he’d been filling with more than porcelain, broke into an aghast hand-to-the-mouth-oh-my-God! expression. She mouthed something to the dentist while simultaneously starting to back away. Out of earshot one could reasonably assume it was a follow-up to my derogatory comment. Gesticulating a little wildly and visibly flustered, Jerry was clearly trying to explain away my remark. He held up his left hand to show her he didn’t wear a wedding ring, but that was hardly convincing to a smart woman at a wine tasting where lies flowed freer than Chardonnay.
A few moments later, the three newcomers regrouped and fled The Bullpen, vowing no doubt never to return. Carl held up two empty arms to me as if he had fumbled a pass in the end zone, an innocent victim of collateral damage. Next to me, Dani, who maintained a proprietary death grip on the Chard—one of the only bottles with any wine remaining—was bent double, poleaxed with laughter.
Jerry the dentist, ditched and publicly humiliated, stormed out of The Bullpen into the main part of the store where he paced the Italian section and glowered at the Brunellos. Our eyes locked for a quick, spiteful moment. He straightened his middle finger and shook it in and out in front of his scowling face. That ignited me.
“Hey, Jerry,” I called out, cupping my free hand around the corner of my mouth. “Get a bottle of the Muscadet, it’ll pair perfectly with your wife’s pussy!”
The Bullpen exploded into laughter. The mood was once again giddy and arms crisscrossed the ledge to check for dregs in the few remaining bottles. The Farrell rep quailed in her corner and sipped her wine, resigned to the carnage. The two tittering office assistants, totally liquored up, bumped hips to a tune only they heard.
I turned away to refresh myself with more wine when the dentist charged into The Bullpen and shoved me backward. I lost my balance and a half glass (damn!) of the Chard went flying.
“Hey, hey,” I heard Dani soothe as though she were calling from another room. I was semiafraid for the dentist that Dani was going to physically come to my assistance. She owned a brown belt in martial arts and would have kicked his ass, only adding to Jerry’s humiliation.
“That wasn’t funny,” Jerry screamed, his face malignantly red with bile and tannin.
“It’s because of lecherous jerks like you that more single women don’t come to these tastings,” I shot back.
Jerry was the type in whom alcohol raises the level of violence. He rushed at me and wrapped his arms around my waist like some junior varsity wrestler and attempted to take me to the floor. The office assistants scrambled for their purses. Malibu Jim swiftly folded up his laptop and skulked off like a garter snake. Eekoo, in full panic mode, retrieved his wooden case of handblown Riedels and clutched it protectively to his chest. Carl darted over to save the precious few bottles, now teetering on the narrow ledge where they had once stood pristinely unopened. Graham angrily disengaged himself from a customer and rumbled into view.
As I grappled with the hysterical dentist, Dani, in an inspired move I don’t think Gary Farrell had in mind when he vinified his ’99 bottling, hoisted the silver spit bucket aloft—full from a long afternoon of tasting—and upended it on Jerry’s head.
A fetid mixture of wine and cheese-infused saliva splattered everywhere. Jerking erect, Jerry flailed at his face, his arms scissoring back and forth like windshield wipers gone berserk.
“Try the Meritage, Jerry,” I said, getting to my feet. “Fruit forward and drinkable now!”
Graham elbowed his way into The Bullpen. “All right, everybody, the tasting’s over.”
A scowling Jerry, his polo shirt stained with wine, started to advance on me again, but the heftier Graham stepped in between us. “Come on, Jerry,” Graham warned. “I don’t want to have to ban you from coming here.”
Jerry brandished his middle finger at me again as Graham coaxed him out of the tasting area.
The buzz in The Bullpen gradually quieted. Dani, Carl, and I made small talk as the Farrell rep started to gather up her brochures and tote bags. A moment later, as if on cue, Jack materialized at the top of the back stairs, haloed by the late-afternoon sun. He was a tall, ursine man with movie-star good looks, fashionably unshaven, with a mop of sandy brown hair that shot in all directions on his large head. He was attired in his trademark black bowler’s shirt with JACK embroidered in white lettering over the pocket, a pair of colorful Hawaiian shorts, and matching flip-flops.
“Miles,” he declared.
“Jack! You made it!”
Jack was outsized in every way. When he broke into laughter, it rattled the shackles of your unconscious and demanded that you join in. When he walked into a movie theater he swallowed the entire aisle. He was the guy who got hired on the spot because of his infectious charisma, the guy who didn’t have to work to get the girl. Unlike me, any weaknesses he had were secreted and any negativity painted over with broad strokes of optimism. Truth for Jack was what he could touch and smell and taste at any given moment. Self-reflection was generally too deep for him. He was a meat eater, a problem solver, a spirit lifter after a tough day, the guy everyone would want to rub shoulders with in a foxhole while mortars rained down. He seemed an unlikely candidate for marriage. Given his personality and looks, opportunities for long nights with the opposite sex were limitless, and another man not so endowed would wonder why Jack wouldn’t want to live the Casanova life until his privates gave out. But Jack had a sentimental side, too, and I could—if I tried hard enough—envision him with a brood of children, sprawled in a La-Z-Boy with a six-pack on ice, spinning anecdotes about his colorful past.
Jack came down the stairs and wheeled into The Bullpen with his familiar swagger, which always lightened the mood instantly. He greeted Dani with a devouring hug, slapped Carl heartily on the shoulder, then slung an arm around me and poured himself what was left of the Zin, indiscriminate as always about his choice of quaff as long as it was red as blood and potently alcoholic.
A few minutes later everyone was laughing again. Graham returned, having successfully shooed Jerry out of his store.
Jack was getting up to speed on the melee. “The guy’s married,” I was explaining, “and he knew I was hitting on her.”
Jack looked at me dismissively. “You overreacted, Miles.”
“I made a little joke and the fucker got physical,” I said.
“So what’s the problem between you and Jerry?” Graham asked.
“I’ll tell you my problem. A couple of weeks ago I brought a date here. He chats her up. That’s cool—I know she’s not going to go for him. Middle of the week he tracks her down on the set of a film she’s working on, flatters her with a load of poppycock, then asks her out.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Graham said.
“What’s wrong with that?” I echoed. “The guy tried to do an end run around. The woman thinks I hang out with creeps. You ought to ban him from these tastings.”
Graham just screwed up his face in response.
Jack, bored with the argument, picked up one of the remaining bottles, but only managed a few dribbles of wine when he upended it. “Hey, Graham. How about opening another bottle? I need a glass for the road. Miles and I are officially on vacation.”
“Where’re you going?”
“Santa Ynez Valley,” I answered. “Do the winery tour, then stuff Jack in the monkey suit and get him hitched a week from Sunday.”
“It’s a little bachelor week blowout,” Jack elaborated. “Miles is going to educate me on wines and I’m going to educate him on life.”
“Someone should call the cops,” Graham said. Everyone laughed. “All right,” he said. “What’re you guys in the mood for?”
“Let’s sample some champagne,” I said. “Get in the matrimonial mode.”
Graham beetled his brow and thought for a moment. Then he slapped his thigh. “I’ve got an idea.” He strode upstairs, where he kept his private stash, and reappeared a minute later with a cold bottle of ’92 Byron sparkling wine.
I set four clean glasses on the terrazzo ledge. Graham expertly uncorked the bottle and poured them foaming half full. We all toasted and sampled. It had the beautiful gold color of an aged champagne, appropriately yeasty and rich on the palate.
“What do you think?” Graham asked.
“Luscious,” I remarked, taking another sip. “I didn’t know Byron made a sparkling wine.”
“Hundred percent Pinot Noir,” Graham said. “I figured since you guys are doing Santa Ynez and Miles is a Pinot freak, this would be right up your alley.”
“Why do you call it a sparkling wine and not champagne?” Jack asked.
“The term ‘champagne’ is trademarked by the French, and if it’s not from the Champagne region of France, then it can’t be called champagne—at least not on the label,” I explained. “But because I’m sick of the French and their proprietary ways, Spumanti, Cava, California sparkling, they’re all champagne to me. Right, Graham?”
“Whatever you say, Miles.”
Jack nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll remember that.”
“I’ve only got one case left,” Graham said. “They don’t make it anymore. Two forty a case.”
I looked at Jack with widened eyes and nodded vigorous approval.
“All right, we’ll take it,” Jack said.
Dani drained her glass. “I’ve got to be going. Roger’s supposed to call.”
“No, come with us,” I said. “Roger won’t mind. Take a week off.”
Dani wagged a finger at us. “You two guys in the wine country for a week. Sounds like a hen’s night out. Bye.” She waved as she made her way out of The Bullpen. “Thanks for the champers.” And then she was gone, leaving a rectangle of harsh orange sunlight in her wake.
Jack shook his head in an exaggerated manner. “Man, that chick’s got it going on. Would I ever love to strap her on.”
“Hey, don’t talk about Dani like that. She’s a good girl,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” Jack said, laughing. “Good to the bone.”
“Hey, I saw your ex in here the other day,” Graham said, referring to Victoria, the woman I had been married to for eight years. I hadn’t seen or talked to her in some months.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, my mood changing abruptly. “What was she doing on the West Side?”
“Came over to fuck me,” Graham replied, deadpan.
“Yeah, right. She’d remarry me before she’d mount you. Fucking goat.”
Graham and Jack both laughed.
“Was she with anyone?” I probed.
“Yeah, some guy I’ve never seen before. Tall, good-looking, well dressed. Pretty much your opposite.”
“Hah, hah. What was she buying?”
“Case of Krug.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said, eyes widening. “What was the occasion?”
Graham started to respond, but abruptly halted midsentence, his eyes darting furtively over my shoulder in the vicinity of Jack.
I turned quickly and snatched a brief glimpse of Jack raking his hand through his mop of hair as if he had just short-circuited a gesture to Graham behind my back.
Getting the message, I said, “Okay, okay, I’m over it, all right? I’m a very happily single man. A glass of wine, a crusty piece of baguette, a good book, and I’m fine.”
Jack and Graham exchanged smirks, and refrained from digging the needle in any deeper. It had been over a year since the divorce, and I had to admit I missed the little things that marriage provided, the routines that kept my life in check and prevented me from going off the deep end.
“All right,” Jack said, sensing the seismic pitch in my mood. “This place is dead. Let’s get on the road.”
We dispatched Graham upstairs to fetch the case of Byron. For good measure, we augmented the purchase with a case of Veuve Clicquot. We said our good-byes to Graham and Carl and then headed out to the parking lot, each with a case weighing down our arms. We piled them into the back of my 4Runner, the vehicle we had designated for the trip. I started automatically for the driver’s side, but Jack grabbed hold of my shirt collar and yanked me around.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, where’re you going? I’m driving, Homes.”
“I don’t want to spend the first night bailing you out of the tank.”
“Give me a break. I’ve hardly wet my whistle.”
Jack exploded into laughter. “You’re sideways, brother. Scuffling with Jerry, asking Dani to come with us. Goodness gracious.”
“What’s wrong with asking Dani to come with us?”
“Give me the keys, Miles.” Jack extended his hand and cocked his head to the side. Chastened, I surrendered the keys, then circled around to the passenger side and climbed in.
Jack fired up my 4Runner, turned onto Seventh Street and headed north. I rolled down my window, poked out my head, and let it loll on my arm. It was an unseasonably warm evening. The sky was an uncursed expanse of deepening blue and the air was pungent with the smell of the ocean. We cruised through ritzy Brentwood, whose sprawling, tree-shaded homes depressingly reminded me of my station in life, then turned on to San Vicente Boulevard. My gaze followed the wide grass median, where entertainment people jogged back and forth to maintain their ageless physiques and vent their frustrations with the movie business. It fled past me in a blissful wine-hazy blur.
On Sunset Boulevard, we forded the overpass and looped onto the 405 North. The freeway was thick with weekenders heading off to B&B’s in Santa Barbara and other exclusive sybaritic hideaways north. We stayed in the slow-moving river of vehicles until we splintered off onto the 101 cloverleaf and made our way west. The sun was lowering in the sky, obscured by mist and smog. Its waning rays cast a harsh reflection on the mirrored and tinted fenestration of the city without end and beat mercilessly through our windshield with an angry, crimson ferocity. The mention of Victoria at Epicurus had dampened my usual post-tasting loquaciousness.
“You’ve got to wash this windshield,” Jack said.
“I haven’t had time. I’ve got other things on my mind.”
Jack turned on the wipers and squirted cleaner fluid on the windshield. For a moment we were blinded by the water-smeared dirt and the blazing low-horizon sun. In those few blinding seconds, the traffic in front of us had slowed and Jack, recovering his field of vision, slammed on the brakes and angled sharply into the emergency lane to avoid a pileup.
“Jesus, Jack,” I said, rattled. “Jesus.”
“Relax,” he said, starting up again. “I got it under control. Think if you’d been driving.”
I shot him a reproving look, still upset about the scuffle with the dentist, the dark-headed woman’s apparent lack of interest in me, the mention of Victoria being sighted at Epicurus by foul-mouthed Graham, my landlord’s threatening words, and the beautiful buzz that was now diminishing.
“So, did you talk to your agent?” Jack asked, trying to kindle a conversation.
“Yeah. Evidently, there’s a flicker of interest from a publisher I’ve never heard of. Well, maybe more than a flicker. In fact, you’d be shocked to learn that I’m vaguely hopeful for once.”
Jack’s face relaxed and he broke into a smile. “Good. When will you know?”
“End of next week. You get married, I get a publishing deal. Life is sweet,” I said sarcastically.
“Well, you deserve something good to happen.”
I smiled and squinted through the sun at the road ahead. Jack and I had collaborated on an independent film more than five years ago. I had written it and he had starred in it and directed it. It played the festival circuit but didn’t get a distribution deal. We lost our own and our backers’ investment. Jack, a successful character actor, had parlayed the effort into a succession of acting and directing jobs for various TV shows—artistically unfulfilling, but comfortingly income-producing. He had met Barbara—or Babs, as he called her—a costumer, on one of those gigs and fallen for her. Their relationship evolved in fits and starts, marred by infidelities and recriminations and reconciliations on both of their parts. But, eventually, they arrived at the conclusion that living apart was more painful than the prospect of being married, so they decided to give it a shot. Given their contentious history, I didn’t exactly understand their wanting to tie the knot. But they were, and now we were on the road to the wedding, the soon-to-be tamed groom and I, his dissolute, novelist manqué, best man.
The traffic thinned as we continued up the 101 bound for Santa Barbara, the highway ribboning out in front of us with the promise of fun and adventure. The sun had dipped below the edge of the horizon and the sky was growing violet. Headlights started to snap on and the surrounding landscape broke out in a burning neon-lit iridescence, bringing to life a traveling city of light.
“Hold the wheel a sec,” Jack said. I grabbed the wheel with my left hand and kept us on course as Jack reached behind the seat and rummaged around in his duffel bag. A moment later he produced a bottle of wine. He handed it to me proudly as he reclaimed control of the wheel.
I held the bottle up and my eyes widened when I saw the label: Chateau Latour—1982. “Where’d you steal this?”
“It was a gift from the lead on the show I’m directing. She gave one each to the entire staff. Is it any good?”
“Is it any good? It’s a fucking ’82 Latour. One of the great vintages of the last fifty years, from one of only six grands crus chateaus in Bordeaux, is it any good? The Wine Advocate rates it a hundred points. And it’s drinking beautifully right now, I understand—of course how would I know, right?”
“Open it up,” Jack said, unimpressed.
I turned to him with an openmouthed expression of shock. “Are you joking? This wine will get angry if you don’t open it in a dark, quiet room, decant it and pour it into proper stemware, and pair it with a slab of very rare prime rib. It might spit in your face at such inadvertent contempt of its greatness. Andrea Immer would burst an aneurysm.”
“Who’s Andrea Immer?”
“Wine guru I’m besotted with. Of course I’ve only met her on TV.”
“You and a million other wine geeks, probably,” Jack jested.
“When my book gets published I’ll be able to afford the rare Burgundies to romance her.”
Jack laughed. “Well, then open up a bottle of that Byron bubbly. I’ve got a mighty thirst that needs slaking.”
“On the freeway?”
“Fuck yes on the freeway.”
I clambered into the back and slipped a bottle out of one of the cases.
“There should be a couple of glasses back there,” Jack said.
I found two flutes, uncorked the Byron, filled them to overflowing and handed one to Jack. “It’s warm.”
“Who cares?” He held his glass back to me and we clinked. “Here’s to a great week.”
“I hope so,” I said.
“It will be,” Jack promised.
I stretched out in the back and sipped the Byron. “What do you think of this?” I asked.
“I like it,” Jack said. “If it’s a hundred percent Pinot, how come it’s not a rosé?”
“Jesus, Jackson, don’t ask questions like that up in the wine country. They’re going to think you’re a fucking philistine.”
“Just tell me, wiseass.”
“The juice is free run. Color comes from the skin. There’s no skin contact in the fermentation, i.e., no color.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Jack said. “Damn, it’s delicious, though.” He drained his glass and reached it around for a refill. I obliged.
“We’ve got to make a quick stop in Montecito,” I announced.
“Montecito? What the fuck for?”
“Your mother’s? I didn’t know you had a mother,” he cracked.
“It’s her birthday today.”
“It’s your mother’s birthday today?”
“Yeah. That’s what I just said. It’s her birthday, and it would be remiss of me to drive right past her house, she being recently widowed and all and probably all alone on this special occasion, and not wish her a happy birthday.”
Jack softened. “Did you get her a present at least?”
“I’ll give her a bottle of the Veuve. She likes champagne.”
“That’s not a birthday present for your mother. Jesus, Miles. Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?”
“I can’t afford a real gift, okay? So don’t rub it in.”
“It’s going to be late when we get to Santa Ynez.”
“I know. I know.”
We continued west on 101, as the sky darkened to night. On our left, the Pacific glittered like crumpled tin foil under a waxing pale yellow moon. Approaching the eastern end of Santa Barbara, I directed Jack to an offramp that took us up into the hills of Montecito, an affluent bedroom community. In the commercial district, Jack searched around for a florist, grousing that it wasn’t right to show up for my mother’s birthday without flowers. He finally found a small corner shop, its entrance overflowing with flowers, parked the car in a loading zone, and marched in without me. Inside the brightly lit shop I watched Jack asking advice of a middle-aged man with a bushy moustache. My thoughts drifted desultorily to mostly unpleasant topics.
A moment later, Jack returned carrying a dozen longstemmed yellow roses swaddled in green wax paper. He thrust them at me. “Here,” he said. “Tell her you love her.” He started up the car and slipped it into drive. “After all, she gave birth to you.”
“I’m supposed to thank her for that?” I deadpanned. Jack merged back into traffic. “You’re dyed-in-the-wool, brother. If you met Mr. Happiness he’d fold his tent and pack it in.”
“Mr. Happiness is an illusion created by pharmaceutical companies.”
Jack laughed, nearly losing it on a hairpin turn.
My mother lived a comfortable life in a small twobedroom house on a terraced street that commanded a panoramic view of the ocean. The beautiful vista didn’t much matter to her anymore: after my father died of a stroke she hardly ventured outside at all. She no longer drove and I suspected that some weeks her only human contact was with various delivery boys who brought her food and booze and medications. She was financially comfortable—my father had done well leasing laundry equipment to apartment complexes and saved like a miser—but it didn’t seem like she had a whole lot to live for except for her dog and her martinis.
I was clutching the dozen roses and Jack had a bottle each of the Veuve and the Byron bubblies when my mother answered the door dressed in a nightie. She had once been a beautiful woman, vaguely reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman, but age and drink and loneliness had conspired to make her appearance a little frightening with her Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, pallid complexion, and rheumy eyes that didn’t move in tandem. It was only 7:30 when we showed up at her doorstep, but she was already a little sloppy, tottering in her nightgown and furry mules, and it took her a couple of seconds to recognize her only son.
“Mom. Happy Birthday!” I handed over the roses.
The flowers were almost too cumbersome for her and she pressed them clumsily to her chest. “Oh, they’re so beautiful, Miles,” she sang in a lilting voice. “Thank you.” She looked over and focused on Jack. “And champagne.”
“Veuve Clicquot,” I said. “Your favorite.”
“Oh, this is such a nice surprise. I didn’t think you were going to come.”
“I told you I was, Mom.”
“And I can’t remember you ever giving me flowers before.”
Jack sneaked one of his disapproving looks at me and shook his head in a tight motion. The excitement of new voices—any voices—startled my mother’s Yorkie into a yapping frenzy.
“Snapper, you be quiet,” my mother scolded her rambunctious pet, having long ago fully anthropomorphized the little devil. He was thrilled to have company and was jumping up and down and turning in manic little circles. He probably hadn’t seen other people in weeks and was going crazy enduring my mother’s boozy soliloquies.
“Mom, this is Jack. He’s the one I told you was getting married.”
“How do you do, Mrs. Raymond?” Jack came forward and greeted her. “And Happy Birthday.” He gave her a peck on the cheek.
“Oh, call me Phyllis, please, you make me sound so darn old.” She pushed the door open and stepped aside. “Come on in.” Snapper tilted his head up and barked once. She looked down and shook a finger at him. “Now, you be quiet. Go get your comida.” Snapper scampered away, barking up a storm.
We followed my mother inside. She moved dreamily as if she were a somnambulist, gliding along on her slippered feet. I hadn’t been to visit in a while, but her house had remained unchanged. The living room was sparsely furnished and impeccably neat. Her hardwood floors were so heavily waxed that her dog slid five feet every time he tried to apply the brakes. Along the darkened hallway leading into the kitchen I found the same pictures and mementos, representing a kind of loose chronology of the Raymond family, crowding the pastel-colored walls.
As my mother disappeared around the corner into the kitchen, Jack and I lingered over some of the family photos. Jack was particularly interested in a color-faded one of me, circa age twelve, posing in a blue and green Little League uniform and cradling a Louisville Slugger at an angle, buck teeth protruding forward in an unabashed wide-mouth smile.
“Is that you, Homes?” He liked to call me Homes. I could never quite pinpoint its origin, since I was white as a Swede, but no doubt it had sprung up one night when we’d had a few too many.
“Don’t laugh. I hit .450 that season and led the league with eleven home runs and made the All Stars.”
“You were still a scrawny punk. Thank God your parents had the presence of mind to fix those pearlies. Jesus, man, you look like a walrus.”
Eager for a drink, we caught up with my mother in the kitchen. She had rooted out three dusty Marie Antoinette glasses and said gaily, “Oh, let’s go out on the patio. It’s such a nice night.” The tone of her voice gave the impression that going out on the patio was an adventure for her.
I found a mop bucket, filled it with ice and water, and brought it outside where Jack and my mother were already seated around a glass-topped table, talking animatedly. I eased into a plastic chair that was hard on my ass, and I took in the scenery. My mother’s backyard featured a small, kidney-shaped swimming pool that glowed turquoise and emitted a miasma of steam, hot water that never really required heating since nobody ever swam in the forlorn thing. Bougainvillea crawled riotously helterskelter up a high fence, hermetically sealing my mother off from the outside world. Cloistered in this little garden paradise, without my father around, she was quietly going insane, and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness every time I visited her.
We let the champagne chill in the ice bath and made small talk. My mother wanted to know all about Jack’s upcoming wedding and he gave her an earful of maudlin rot.
When the bottles were decently cold I pulled out the Byron and removed the wire capsule. “The secret to opening champagne,” I said as I anchored the bottle in my lap, “is, once the cork’s released, to keep the pressure against it as it starts to rise.” I pushed down on the cork as I continued to slowly twist it. “Then, when it begins to come out, bend it ninety degrees to one side.” I demonstrated. “The goal is to hear the slightest little sound, like a very prim and proper lady disguising a fart.” Exactly on cue, a quiet Thfft emitted, as the cork came free.
“Oh, Miles,” my mother said. “Don’t be so crude.”
“Yeah,” Jack chimed in, laughing.
“Some French champagne expert once calculated the number of bubbles in a bottle and determined that the way most people open champagne they lose half of them in the uncorking alone.”
“Pour us a glass, Dom Pérignon, before you lose the bubbles,” Jack said, picking up a glass and extending it.
I filled the ghastly Marie Antoinette glasses right to the rim and we raised them in a toast, clinking them all around, wishing my mother more Happy Birthdays.
“What’s for dinner, Phyllis?” Jack asked.
“I’ve got a beeeuuutiful roast chicken,” my mother crooned, the champagne already starting to go to her head.
“Fantastic,” Jack said. “Are you expecting other company?”
“No,” my mother replied. “Just Snapper.”
Snapper heard his name and barked acknowledgment. A short back-and-forth ensued between him and my mother until he finally sat on his haunches and quieted.
“Well, I’m glad we could make it,” Jack said. “You shouldn’t be alone on your birthday.”
“So, you’re really getting married?” she said to Jack, slurping her champagne none too daintily to ward off the emotion I could sense behind her eyes.
“Yep,” Jack replied. He leaned toward me and hooked an arm around my neck to yank me nearer to him. “And your Miles is going to be my best man.”
My mother raised her glass, losing about half her champagne in the process. Jack planted a wet kiss on my cheek. I recoiled and he released me. We sipped the Byron and refreshed our glasses as needed. Crickets chirred in the bougainvillea while shadows of palm fronds towering overhead swayed slowly across the brightly lighted pool. The sky had been sapped of its final spectrum of blue and had silently surrendered to a faint scintillation of stars that appeared like the eyes of nocturnal wildlife watching us from the dark.
My mother, susceptible to even the tiniest amounts of alcohol, began to grow animated. “I was down in San José del Cabo with my girlfriends,” she was saying. She stopped, put a finger to her lips, looked all around, then whispered conspiratorially, “Now, don’t tell your father this, Miles.”
“Dad’s dead, Mom,” I said solemnly, hoping to hoist her back to reality.
She gazed heavenward. “Oh, he hears what we’re saying.” She crooked a finger at his hovering spirit. “I know. Doesn’t he, Snapper?”
Jack and I exchanged raised eyebrows, then Jack silently mouthed: let it go. When I looked down I noticed that Snapper, who had come out to rejoin the party, was also looking up at the sky, rapt in my mother’s dottiness.
“Tell us the story, Mom,” I prodded, “before ghosts start materializing out of the bougainvillea.”
“Oh, you be quiet. It’s my birthday. I’m having fun.” She pointed her champagne glass at me and glared over it. Snapper barked, echoing her reproach.
Jack and I shared a laugh at my mother’s expense, but she didn’t seem to mind. “Tell us the story, Phyllis,” Jack said.
I filled our glasses. My mother fortified herself with another sip, then revved up her risqué little anecdote again. “We were staying at the Palmilla. Beeeuuutiful old hotel. Oh my gosh! We met this gorgeous Mexican man. I think he was some kind of movie star.”
“Excuse me a minute.” I was growing queasy at the prospect of hearing my mother’s Dionysian revelation of an amorous tryst in Mexico too many margaritas ago. I drained my champagne and rose from my chair. “I’ve heard this one, Mom. Tell Jack. He’s fascinated by all things R-rated.”
I left Jack with my mother and escaped into the house. Jack’s voice, urging my mother to continue, grew fainter and finally faded out as I made my way down the dimly lit hallway toward the study and the true, pathetic purpose of my visit.
In the study I switched on a green-shaded desk lamp. I knelt down on all fours and crawled under the desk. With both hands I felt around for the edges of a detachable flap of carpeting about the size of a book. I peeled it back, revealing a floor safe with a combination lock. Drawing from memory, I rotated the dial to the first number, turned it left to the second, then the gears in my head seized up. The third number wouldn’t come. Shit! Shitshitshit! Why did I drink so much at the damn tasting, this is a number I should know by heart, for God’s sake, it was my own mother’s date of birth. Maybe Jack was right, I didn’t think about her enough.
I replaced the carpet patch and padded back down the hallway and into the kitchen. At the sliding glass door that led out to the patio I paused. My mother was throwing an arm around in arabesques to highlight her story and Jack was politely laughing. I waved both hands over my head to attract Jack’s attention. He finally noticed me, telescoped his head in my direction, and shot me a perplexed look. I motioned him over with a now furious windmilling of my arms and a clown-faced expression of urgency. Jack placed a hand on my mother’s shoulder and said something to excuse himself, then straightened in his chair and rushed over. My mother gave a backward glance toward me and I ducked behind the curtain.
“What’s up?” Jack asked through the crack in the sliding glass door.
“Ask my mother when she was born.”
He jutted his large head forward. “Huh?”
“I need to know. And I can’t ask her for reasons I don’t want to go into,” I said quickly and urgently.
“I thought her birthday was today.”
“I need to know the year.”
“What the fuck for? What are you doing in there? I’m getting hungry. Let’s get on the road already.”
“There isn’t going to be any getting on the road if you don’t get me the year. I’ve got to get some money to pay the rent and pull my weight on this trip. She’s got a safe teeming with cash and the combination is her birthday, but I forgot the fucking year. Okay?”
“Jesus, Miles,” Jack said.
“It’s a short-term loan against my inheritance—which, as you can probably guess, is in the offing.”
Jack glanced at my poor mother, lost in the mesmeric light of the pool and talking to a yelping Snapper. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”
“Just do it for Christ’s sake.”
Jack’s head went slack in disgust. He turned, walked back onto the patio, and sat down next to my mother, who was refilling her Marie Antoinette with the rest of the Byron.
While Jack worked his magic, I drifted into the hallway and stopped in front of a posed wedding photo of Victoria and me. I looked young and handsome in a black tuxedo, and she was stunningly beautiful in a veil and classic white gown. We both wore radiant smiles on our faces, flush with the promise that married life supposedly had to offer. It struck me just then how photos mock the present by staring back at us with their immutable luster of our youthful past. I studied Victoria’s face more closely; if only I had known what she was thinking at that moment, what was going on behind those large, sparkling eyes, maybe I would have tried harder to avert the eventual dissolution.
The sliding glass door opened, jarring me out of my reverie. I broke away from the photo gallery and hurried into the kitchen where I found Jack shaking himself all over like a wet seal, as if to say: This is too crazy for me. He grudgingly relayed my mother’s birth year—’33—chided me for not remembering such an easy number, then urged me to hurry up, that my mother was starting to ask about me.
“Open the Veuve. It’s on me,” I said.
Jack smirked, turned and walked back outside.
I retraced my steps back to the study. The tumblers on the lock slid effortlessly into their grooves and the lid of the safe popped open, revealing the unreported Raymond family lucre inside: gold Krugerrands (my father was a lay eschatologist who was convinced that gold would be the currency standard in the coming apocalypse and stockpiled plenty), packets of bills, various trust and will documents, and a bit of jewelry that my mother felt uncomfortable having in the open. I went right for the stack of bills, removing the rubber band on one packet and counting out twenty one-hundred-dollar notes. Suddenly, I heard a low growl. I glanced over my shoulder and found Snapper at eye level, teeth bared, ears erect, tensed for a fight.
“Snapper, shut up,” I said sharply. Not only didn’t he shut up, but he inched aggressively forward and nipped at one of my pant legs, growling ferociously. I shook him off with a vicious kick. He leapt back, but retaliated by barking even louder, certain to draw my mother’s concern. I pointed my finger at him. “Snapper, go get your comida.”
My words worked like open sesame to him, and he turned and raced out of the room.
I quickly finished counting out the two grand, rewrapped the rubber band around the packet, then dropped it back into the safe and sealed it up.
Snapper rejoined me in the kitchen and trailed me out to the patio, barking and nipping at my heels.
“Miles, where have you been?” my mother asked.
“Had to make a phone call, Mom. Long distance. Important.”
Jack glared at me and shook his head slowly.
My mother sloshed back another glass of champagne, rose wobblingly to a standing position, and announced, “Well, shall we eat?”
Jack leapt to his feet and steadied her. “Are you okay, Phyllis?”
“Woo, that champagne went to my head. I’m flying with the angels.” Jack and I both laughed hard. The transfusion of money had instantly lightened my mood and made me almost giddy. The immediate future looked rosy and laughter came tumbling out of me now.
We trooped inside, Jack chivalrously escorting my zigzagging mother by the arm. I trailed with the champagne and the Marie Antoinettes.
In the kitchen my mother hummed while she plated the meal. Jack dispatched me out to the car to get a red—“Fucking champagne’s going to give me the runs”—and I slipped outside and dipped into my Ace Case: a wooden box containing six bottles that I was saving for special occasions. Heisting the two grand was reason enough, I rationalized, to liberate one. I selected a ’95 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane and took it inside along with two Riedel Burgundy glasses that I had brought along for the week.
Inside, my mother carried out a roast chicken garlanded with carrots and green beans and baby new potatoes on a silver platter. It smelled delicious; my mother always was a good cook. I uncorked the Williams Selyem, poured two glasses, and handed one to a smiling Jack. I held up the bottle to my mother. “Would you like to try some Pinot Noir, Mom?”
She scrunched up her face. “I’ll stick with my champagne.”
Jack imitated me swirling the wine around in my glass, then poured some into his mouth. We both tasted. His eyes squinted and he smacked his lips approvingly.
“It’s a ’95 Williams Selyem. Two guys working out of a shed up in Sonoma, sourcing grapes from the best vineyards, vinifying with ancient basket presses and traditional Burgundian methods. They sold out recently for more than nine million.”
“Where did you learn so much about wine, Miles?” my mother asked as she served us each a plate. “I thought you were too broke to buy expensive wine.”
Jack broke out laughing and I even chuckled. “I have friends in high places, Mom.”
“I’ll say,” Jack wisecracked.
We tucked into my mother’s succulent roast chicken, which paired nicely with the velvety Pinot. Life was spoiling us once again.
In the middle of the meal, my mother suddenly turned to me and asked: “Miles, when are you going to get remarried?”
“I just got divorced. Once I figure out where I went wrong I might be able to give the idea some renewed consideration.”
“If he can find someone,” Jack needled.
“Why do you ask, Mom?”
“Well,” she said, setting her champagne glass down, “I was reading this article and it said that people who live alone and don’t believe in God have higher risk factors for all kinds of diseases and don’t live as long.”
I held up my glass of Williams Selyem. “I believe in God.”
Jack laughed, but my mother didn’t. “But you don’t go to church anymore, do you?” she persisted.
“Every Friday, from five to seven. The Church of Epicurus. We worship Bacchus and sing hymns in the nude.”
“Oh, stop joshing me,” my mother said. “I’m worried about you, that’s all. You should go to church and pray.”
“Pray? For what?”
“That you can get a good job and find a nice woman.”
I pretended to weigh her words thoughtfully for a moment. “A regular-paying job and a nice woman,” I intoned. “What a novel concept!” I smiled warmly at my mother and toasted her across the table. Jack seemed to concur with my mother’s words of wisdom, punctuating his agreement with a short raise of his Burgundy glass. He glanced from my mother to me and back to my mother.
I took another quaff of the Williams Selyem and closed my eyes to concentrate on what I was tasting. There were other Pinots, transcendent red Burgundies I couldn’t afford, but this was silky and layered and eloquent in expression and it spoke to me with the voice of a siren in a dream.
I surfaced from my reverie and excused myself to go to the bathroom.
As I stood over the toilet with one hand planted against the wall to steady myself, I could overhear them talking about me.
“Do they see each other anymore?” My mother was asking Jack about me and Victoria.
“I think they’re trying to get back together, Phyllis,” Jack lied.
“Do you think she’d take him?” my mother asked. “He’s got so many problems.”
“Miles’s got some good qualities. He’s damn funny when he’s not down.”
“But he’s always down, isn’t he?” I heard my mother say.
“Last year’s been kind of rough on him. He’s a creative artist. They get bummed out a lot.”
“I don’t understand why he just doesn’t go and get a normal job. That damn writing of his is what caused his marriage to fail.”
Hmm, maybe, I thought. The toilet flushing mercifully masked the rest of their critique.
I let a few minutes pass, then returned to the kitchen, sank into my seat, and reached for my wine. I was prepared to launch into a defense of my impugned character, but decided as I gazed into my mother’s rosy face—the countenance of a birthday girl sloshed on her favorite champagne—that she was entitled to her opinion of me, especially given that she had unsuspectingly paid $2,000 for the privilege.
After dinner we went back outside and sat in the dark. At one point I noticed my mother staring up at the night sky as if it had just been unveiled for the first time since its creation. It made me sad to hear her tipsily reminisce about my father almost as though he were still alive. Her sorrowful recounting of old times spent with him, times that she so dearly missed—the bottle of wine at five, the Sunday mimosa brunches, the steak-and-martini socials with other couples who had moved on—caused me to long for a life less alone.
“Do you need any money, Miles?” my mother charitably asked as the evening wound to a close. “Because I could loan you some if you do.”
“No, I’m fine, Mom.”
I shot a look at Jack. He had his fist supporting his chin and was staring off into the darkness with a puzzled look.
Snapper trotted over and looked up at me expectantly. Then he rolled over on his back and dog-paddled his forepaws in the air and smiled at me with his fangs, panting moronically. I mistakenly believed we had overcome our earlier lack of rapport, so I reached down to pet him. The little fiend seized the opportunity and nipped at my hand, drawing a trickle of blood. I went for more wine.
SIDEWAYS. Copyright © 2004 by Rex Pickett. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.