In the vineyard by Scott David

The ballroom of the university president’s mansion had been partitioned off from a raucous alumni event by a set of accordion doors designed for sound reduction, but they were no match for the class of 1972. A handful of bored older residents bused in from Paradise Village Planned Retirement Community fidgeted fretfully, fiddled with hearing aids, and cast furious looks backward as if the length of the memorial service might cause them to miss out on the finger sandwiches and free fresh coffee on the long table at the back of the room.

Fred and Chase Wright wrestled with the microphone to place it at a height that suited both of them.  At the outset, they tripped over one another, but gradually Chase muscled Fred aside and delivered her remembrance of their father, a former professor of Maritime Studies, a longtime member of The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, and a veteran of the Korean conflict.

Their father had been a man of immense dignity, who had grown up firmly instilling in his children the ethic that a real man paid his own way, and refusing — even after his wife died — the least help in raising Fred and Chase.  Chase believed that their father’s intransigence on this point had robbed her of a richer childhood, and she had frequently imagined that one or more of her father’s eminently willing students over the years could have been her substitute mother and taught her the basics she had had to learn for herself.  At fifty-seven years old, she still lacked confidence in applying her own make-up.

Nevertheless, Chase had revered her father, so it was gratifying to see — aside from the residents of Paradise Village, where their father had spent his declining years — a dedicated following of old students and friends; a collection of rumpled but dignified Masons assembled to send their brother into the Hereafter; and a pair of impossibly young soldiers in dress uniform, salutes snappy as starch, who made Chase wish (a) she were thirty years younger and (b) the soldiers were giving her something stiffer than a folded flag (God forgive her for having this thought on such a solemn occasion).

Because Fred and Chase had already scattered his ashes, their father was represented by an 8.5 x 11 photograph.  It scarcely left enough room on the lectern for Chase’s rather voluminous speaking notes, so Chase set it aside and whispered, “Sorry, Daddy,” which drew a big unintended guffaw that caused Chase to lose her place.

Apparently thinking his sister had choked up and succumbed to tears, Fred jumped in and delivered a considerably curter and cold closing to the remembrance than Chase would have preferred.

Afterward, mingling among those paying their respects, Chase came across the four children of Pierre St. Denis.  St. Denis had been sent to the States during the German occupation of France during World War II, and he and their father had been childhood friends for the duration of the war.

After hostilities ceased, St. Denis had gone back to France and launched a very successful career. At the peak of success, while still a young man, he had purchased a controlling interest in one of the less well-known Bordelaise estates, Le Clos de Beau Pere. During their father’s academic summers, Fred and Chase had played with St. Denis’s children at Le Clos during extended stays in France that they remembered among the best summers of their lives.

The summers had abruptly ceased when Chase was eleven. She remembered the parting meal of that particular summer like it was yesterday. Heaps of food. Sullen heat. Oceans of wine. Their father had become a little tipsy. He had delivered a speech ostensibly full of gratitude for his good friend’s generosity. He noted St. Denis’s current success and contrasted it with the contests of their youth in which he had thoroughly bested St. Denis: cards, baseball, and the occasional game of chess.

Having completed the recitation, their father had turned to the glass in his hand. He’d looked at it as if he could not quite recall its purpose. Then, grandly, he had announced that he simply must take this particular vintage home with him.

“I insist,” he’d said. “I won’t leave without it.”

St. Denis had stood, thanked their father for his kind words, and said graciously, “Of course. The wine is yours for the asking.”

Their father had pulled out his checkbook and a fountain pen and waited dictation.

St. Denis had looked appalled. They had argued at length.

Finally, St. Denis had sighed and said, “If my guest insists, I must do as he wishes.”

He promised to send a bill.

Their father had flourished his checkbook angrily. He’d insisted on paying now. This very instant.

St. Denis had begged their father’s forgiveness but he had simply been unable to permit any commerce at his table. “Business upsets the digestion,” he had declared, and their father had eventually been disarmed of his checkbook. Mumbling and grumbling, he had resumed his seat, only to bounce up again during the cheese course.

“Let’s set a price,” he demanded.

St. Denis had stared at him coldly.

Finally he had said, “For a friend of the family like you, it is $1200.”

“Retail,” their father had roared.

St. Denis had insisted, “For you, this is retail. I treat all men similarly situated the same, and you are a friend among friends, there is no other price.”

Looking as if he had been swindled, their father had dropped back into his seat, but his sour expression was mixed with satisfaction that he had not received the case free.

Back in Amherst, the case of Le Clos de Beau Pere had arrived in the fall. The invoice? $4800.

It had been far more than their father could afford, and Chase remembered her father mulling over it in the kitchen, the case on the table before him along with the invoice, and an old fountain pen uncapped and laid crossways on the paper but not yet used.  Ultimately, having marked the discount on the invoice, he sent it back with a check only for $1200.

Year after year, the same thing happened: St. Denis shipped a case of wine and it was always billed at the high price. Father sent back a check for the low price and no one ever questioned the difference.

They no longer summered at Le Clos de Beau Pere, of course, and Chase and Fred had formed a poor impression of St. Denis for shaming their father year after year. For this reason, the sight of the children of St. Denis was both a surprise and somewhat unwelcome.

They were clutching plates of untouched finger sandwiches cheeses and cups from urns that themselves held coffee brewed so dark and bitter the grounds might have been human remains. A pair of them were examining pledge cards handed to them by the university’s ever-optimistic development officer. Chase was pleased to see that they were gratifyingly older, a bit gray, a bit fat.

Chase and the children exchanged air kisses and polite greetings. On learning that St. Denis had passed, she expressed lukewarm condolences. She thanked them for coming. She said what a great tribute it was to their kindness that they had come halfway across the world to remember her father.

St. Denis’s children said they wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Their father had always been a favorite of St. Denis. Mon père, il aurait insisté pour que nous venons, one of his daughters said. “Insisted we come!”

Her fluidity between languages made Chase jealous; the French phrases reeked of lavender and olive trees and grape must and fresh-baked bread, which made Chase self-conscious about shopping at Nordstrom Rack.

“Our fathers were great men,” Chase said bravely. “They came from little and went so far. It makes one feel like one has accomplished nothing. They did it without help.”

The St. Denis children smiled wanly. Plainly, they had no idea what Chase was talking about.

Recklessly, Chase brought up the topic of the wine St. Denis sent year after year.

His children’s expressions instantly brightened.

One of them said, “Oui, it was always a joke in our family how much your father liked his wine.”

Chase flushed, but the words were light.  Not vindictive.

“Such a gentle man, I remember,” St. Denis’s child said, “but raging in his cups and quite the ladies’ man.”

Another child piped in: “It was just ordinary table wine, of course. We produced thousands of cases and it was easily available in the States, but my father wanted yours to get the full enjoyment of each bottle, so he showed him that invoice, dreadfully marked up, but in fact, you know, the wine was worth only a third of the price your father paid.  My father didn’t want to spoil the enjoyment of the wine by telling him it was cheap.”

St. Denis’s child tittered, and the others also grinned at the memory.

One said, “My father called your father his best customer, the Ambassador of his brand in America.”

“You cheated my father?” Chase asked.

Instantly, their faces fell. Lips pursed in disappointment, but looked as if they might be preparing for a soft kiss. One of them touched Chase lightly on the forearm.

“Oh, no,” she said, “not cheated. You mustn’t think that.”

She raised her pencil-thin eyebrows at her siblings, who nodded solemnly and emphatically.

“No,” she said, “your father got what he bargained for. He never complained about the quality?”

Indeed, he never had. Not in Chase’s hearing in any event. He had poured it generously over the years, telling all his guests about his friendship with St. Denis and the summers in at Le Clos de Beau Pere, and the gorgeous French accents his children had developed. He had said many times that drinking it brought him back to the place and the time of his first taste. That was what wine was supposed to do.

Nevertheless, Chase’s mind raced with various schemes for payback. Perhaps she could make up some story of his having poured it down the drain, because he hadn’t wanted to insult his friend St. Denis?

One of St. Denis’s children said grandly, “What is price, but arbitrary?  It’s the drinking that matters. The company.  N’est-ce pas?”

“You’re quite the philosopher,” Chase said bitterly. “It’s easy to philosophize when you’re rich.”

Fred ambled up during the awkward silence. The same greetings were exchanged, with maybe just a touch more strain, and the same stories of what-are-you-doing-now, and the same mutual condolences.

“Speaking of wine,” Chase muttered. “I could use a swallow or two right now.”

“Oh, if we had known there would be none, we would have brought some Clos de Beau Pere,” exclaimed one of St. Denis’s children. Then he seemed to realize how ungracious it sounded.

“That was a joke,” he said, “I didn’t mean to suggest the paucity of your table.”

The odd word paucity (paucité?) seemed ugly and condescending

“It’s not my table,” Chase snapped. “It’s the university’s. Blame the development staff.”

She felt suddenly as if their father had been robbed of his dignity a second time. Would the university have done more for someone else? Had they sufficiently honored his legacy? Were the limp finger sandwiches a secret insult? The coffee yesterday’s reheated?

The St. Denis children announced they would leave Fred and Chase to the other guests. It wasn’t right to monopolize them, and how wonderful to see them again, and perhaps someday they would come again to Le Clos de Beau Pere in the summer.

Fred assured them he might just do that, and Chase kicked him in the shin. When they were out of earshot, Chase explained about the case of wine and the cheating.

“Bastards,” he said.

“They’re French.”

“I don’t care if they’re from Timbuctoo.”

He looked as if he might dash after them and behave badly and hold them to account.

Though her brother’s outrage was tremendously gratifying, Chase counseled, “Wait. You can’t show them you’re the least bit upset. That was always Daddy’s problem. He let them see they had gotten under his skin.”

Chase retrieved the 8.5 x 11 photograph from the lectern and placed it in her brother’s hands. They marched proudly out the door without looking back. The two soldiers came to attention. The Class of 72 seemed to celebrate their passage. In the parking lot, the St. Denis children were clustered around a rental car as if they were unsure how to operate it. Passing right before their front bumper, Fred held the photo cautiously aloft, as if it were a vessel filled to the brim and prone to spill, and the precious contents within wasted on the hard ground before them.


[Photo credit:]