The Ghost in the Grape

Let us not pull any punches here. Nobody pulled any punches on him! His father-in-law is dead. It is the way life goes, and he and his wife live with it and understand the great arc of their peculiar providence. Together, they made a life with him; certainly, after the mother-in-law died of the cancer and later, when the old contadino resided with his problem of the comprehension, in la casa di riposo (the house of rest).

He learns to live with death; somehow lets its harsh resolve melt into the eager mercy of his heart to discover ways to preserve, to grow, to live again. They called him Il Vagabondo, the brigand, the ruffian. Once, they said, “he was better than an Italian boy,” because he always went to see them.

His way of repair, it seems, is called time lapse narrative. Basically, he goes to the same place, for the same reason, at the same time each year. It is so odd; the rituals this man keeps. He is a book-man. The writer. Every year, during the first weekend of May, there is an event called “president’s day” at the headquarters of the make-your-own-wine company. It is tucked away in the midst of nowhere, next to fabrication plants, collision centres and plastic molding manufactures. The street is littered with cars and pickups, half of them in need of repair. The road is an afterthought, with potholes and asphalt crumble.

Vagabondo could not have found it on his own. He goes solo, or sometimes with his wife, to mourn the mist of love in his heart; to remember the old days in the garage, with the wine press and the fifty-gallon drums; the red stains forming on his hands, and mortadella sandwiches at the break. Later the old man realized that “it was too much work.” Like his friends, they all went around to the industrial section to order their wine in pails. Sometimes their women went with them. Sometimes, Vagabondo went with him, as muscle to his brains. It was a happy place to go to, then. A barbecue out front, and pallet upon pallet of Alicante and Carignane, Cabernet and Sauvignon. At that time, there was no social distance, my god, it was like the feast and men, gaggled and talked, stood aside to smoke, and the smoke blended with picante sausage ready-to-eat after the wine order was placed and the requisition given to each man according to his needs. He took it all in, year after year, and then it was gone. He is alone now.

The week previous, he called the store up. It is part of his ritual. These were CoVid times with nothing to herald in the day. The Spanish man said: Yes, he could pick up a pail of “ready-to-drink” on Friday, right at 9. No, there will be no celebration. No, you do not have to leave your name. Yes, we will have a pail for you. Have you ordered from us before?

He was vaguely irked by the question. He held his patience and said: “Yes, yes, yes: My father-in-law was Italian. We have ordered from you for years. This is my third year. I am, what you call, the regular.” When he hung up, he was sad and thought about not going. “To heck with it!” he told the wife. “I am going. I will get us a pail.”

“Would you swing by and pick up some veal?” the wife, she asked him. He liked the idea and agreed.

That Friday morning, the weather was off. It is what they call “spitting” out. Vagabondo does not care and, in fact, the mist is perfect in its bittersweet way. He calls the hot table and places the veal order in advance. He pre-selected the soundtrack for his drive. Hard bop jazz players fight it out for tenor saxophone supremacy. It is a perfect soundscape to the spit of rain and the grey of sky.

First, he goes to fetch the veal. It is where he always goes. It is where they always went: He and his mother -in-law. Let us pull no punches. Nobody pulled any punches on him. She is dead. It has been 19 years. He is over it and he is not. His wife, she is not over it. Why should they get over it? Love is forever. Sorrow: it comes and it goes. Integrate or die. It is sweeter to live and remember, is what he tells himself. He sips aqua sporca all the way down and laughs.

When he goes in, the “young Italian guy” behind the hot table looks up, nods and places his tray of veal on the silver counter top. His skin is olive and Vagabondo is fond of him. Zumbaretta is there. She is engulfed in steam and pulling out broccoli. A new woman behind the counter nods. She is old and she is Italian, and somehow, she looks like she was made to cook, and he loves her for her great gift of ancient giving. He sees the weight on her shoulder, the wince in her eye, and he is fond of her, too, even though they just met. Polite, shy, gentle and honour-bestowed. She makes a small tin of dolce pepe, fungi e cipolla for him. He goes to get the buns. They are soft. His wife will be glad. He wants to make her happy. He loves the veal but corrects his passion with a laugh. He really means he loves his mother-in-law, who has the wooden spoon out to spank him. It is an old joke.

Il Vagabondo does not wish to stay long. He is the only soul in the store and, like the rain, this is bittersweet. He goes to the young guy, now behind the cash, and he is so friendly. The young guy is wearing a tee shirt with the store logo on it. He says to the young guy: “I want a shirt; do you make them?”

“We will next year,” he replies.

“I will remember you. Extra-large,” he says to the boy, and pats his stomach. The boy laughs and Il Vagabondo gives him the gears for it. Somehow, he needs something from this ancient ritual, some piece of reality to bring with him to the new place. The passion and the desperation of the moment scares him. He knows what will come to pass.

In five minutes, Vagabondo is at the wine place. The streets remind him of linguine and wind all over the place al dente, but he remembers the way. With contempt, he decides against parking on the street. There is a van in the small apron past the sidewalk and a car behind that.

“To heck with it,” he says, parroting his father-in-law. The wrought iron gate is open and he drives straight in and parks at an angle. It is like making a pick-up across the threshold of the pearly gates. He could care less. He sees the CoVid sign on the door. One person in the store at a time. Like the hot table, there is no one in the store. It is a, how do they call it?, a ghost town. There are no old Italian men, nobody is Molisano, there are no women, there is no bustle, there is no barbeque, there is no hubbub. He sees a man who is Filipino moving silently on a forklift at the back. There is frankly, nothing else to see. He goes in with gloves and an outlaw kerchief with daisies on a blue background. The Spanish guy comes out from the side. Yes, we have your wine, he says.

Vagabondo pays ninety dollars for it. It is in a gold pail. It is too beautiful. Sheepishly, he asks the Spanish guy if he has a tee shirt or a hat to commemorate the day? The Spanish guy is so friendly and says: “Yes, I have a hat for you!” He leaves and returns with two. They are the good kind. Vagabondo will give the second one to his daughter, and he needs the first for his tomato garden. He feels like weeping. This is time lapse narrative, remember? He felt like weeping last year and the year before. It is the way he has been taught. It is the way he will do the thing forever. He knows how to make the sauce from scratch and has the old contadino’s macchina.

He is tired now. A young Portuguese guy brings the pail to his car. He opens the trunk and grabs a green garbage bag. The young guy is impressed. It is the only way to keep the trunk clean, he tells the boy. You are right, he says.

There is nothing left to do. Vagabondo backs out. The sky is still grey but the spit is gone. He picks his way to the main street and heads north. He peels off his gloves and his kerchief and does not feel like any music. He wants to be quiet.

In a moment he is home. He removes the pail and sets it on his workbench. The smell is everything. There is a perforation on the lid and he runs his finger in the juice and tastes it. He closes the garage door, the way the old contadino did, to keep the temperature stable. His wife, she has cobbled together all the stray bottles, one- or two-gallon jugs, from the old cantina and all the bottles are sexy. So many different shapes. It is like the outdoor feast where each enchanted family brings their wine in beautiful strange bicchieri.

Il Vagabondo carefully pries the lid off the pail. He knows the way. It is the way he has been taught. It is the experience, not the education. To know how to do the thing, you have to do it. Then, you know. The j-tube goes in and he takes a good, long siphoned gulp of the ready-to-drink juice: this foolish Merlot Reserve. It is nothing really. An imposter. Not primitive like garage wine. They put the pills in it. It tastes round on the top end. He will give some to their son and to their neighbours, cook with some, put MiO in it for the tourists and drink the rest by December. Selah (this is Hebrew for truth). His wife, she comes into the garage from the house. She knows. She puts the caps on the bottles and spirits them, two by two, into the crawlspace where they will stay cool. It is harmony. It is life, and so a part of her feminine, contadina DNA. She is her father’s daughter and her mother’s friend. Vagabondo is a rich man. Despite everything, he knows.

In the end, when it is evening, they have their veal and sit with their daughter. She is so beautiful. She was Nonna and Nonno’s “little big girl.” She knows why her father returns to the same place, at the same time, for the same reason. It is her gift of sight.

So, they toast the old contadino. They toast the Mother. When it is very dark, Vagabondo goes to the garage. He is not satisfied with the wine, but it will pass. He is drinking some rye now like his dead Irish father before him. He pulls no punches. It is done. He will not go back next year. After December, he will go to the liquor store and get the normal wine from the Abruzzi. He sits alone to brood and smokes a cigarette. I send blue demons to him, to swirl, all a whirlwind in his thoughts, bring tears and a certain lamentation. He will be better in the morning when the sun rises, but only then will I leave him.

Author’s Note: “The Ghost in the Grape” is the third story in what I call Time Lapse Narrative. This is the notion of returning to the same location, for the same purpose, at the same time of year and observing the moment acutely. In this case, my stories document the time after the garage wineries, when souls go around to buy their pails of wine, somewhere in the community. “All a Whirlwind” (December 2018) was the first in the series, followed by “A Certain Lamentation” (October 2020). “The Ghost in the Grape” marks a final reckoning of time, location and observations.

Glenn Carley is a regular contributor to Accenti. His latest book is Il Vagabondo: An Urban Opera (Guernica 2021).

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