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The Winemaker Has A Story He’s Going To Tell You Whether You Like It or Not

The tasting room is a dozen steps down from the tourist-packed street and at least ten degrees cooler. Abby lets out a relieved sigh and flaps her arms at the elbow to dry the pit sweat from her dark t-shirt. Crowds have never been her thing, especially in summer. Get out and do something together, their therapist had said. Take a trip. Get away.

 

She reaches for her daughter’s hand as they make their way down the steep stairs, but five-year-old Maddie is busy examining the display running alongside the staircase. It features a disembodied mannequin leg poking out from behind thick folds of red curtain. Maddie’s pudgy finger tickles the mannequin’s ankle, meanders the fishnet curve of its calf, and begins working its way northbound, over the knee.

 

“That’s enough, Madison,” Abby’s husband Erik says as he flicks the top of Maddie’s head. The girl plunges both hands deep in the pockets of her unicorn hoodie. She turns her focus to a fluffy red boa twisted around the banister, follows it down the stairs and blows at it. Her breath sends a spur of synthetic feathers spinning in the dusty air as they enter the tasting room, where they find more fishnets and boas and red curtains.

 

“Are you really kid friendly?” Abby asks the winemaker, which is what it says in italics on his nametag: Winemaker. The brochure had said so: kid friendly. The winemaker is tall but soft, like a poppyseed muffin, a thick batch of neck and chin exploding from above his top shirt button, which really should be left unbuttoned, Abby wants to tell him. The winemaker nods and winks. “Friendliest place in town,” he says. “Hmm,” says Abby, skeptical, but won over by the temptation to sit and have a drink. The winemaker pulls out a red crystal bowl filled with plastic finger puppets and offers it to Maddie with a wide grin.

 

Maddie eyes the assortment of crabs, roosters, and cat heads, then looks away. “No, thanks,” she says, curt but polite with strangers. She cuts across the tasting room to plop on a yellow chaise lounge, her dark curls clinging to the crushed velvet cushion as she slides down it. Lice, Abby thinks, and her own scalp tingles. Maddie takes out the nesting dolls Abby had agreed to buy her at the Russian toy store across the street, a bribe in exchange for the wine tasting stop. The girl quietly takes them apart and lines them up one by one.

 

Red wallpaper covers the room’s windowless walls, and strands of red holiday lights hug the bar’s curves, making Abby feel even warmer despite the conditioned air being forced through vents. Ceiling speakers spill yacht rock. The winemaker sets two menus beside Abby’s phone, which she has placed facedown on the bar.

 

No phones, no distractions, their therapist said. You-time; together-time.

 

“All reds for her,” Erik says, ushering Abby into a tall bar chair then taking the seat beside her, spreading his legs so that his thigh grazes hers, “but I’ll mix it up.” She crosses her legs and uses the laminated tasting menu as a fan, annoyed by his speaking for her, even if he does know her drink of choice. Hers is specific; his runs the gamut. He taps her knee and offers her a thumbs up sign, like, hey, look at us!,while Daryl Hall sings a list of things he can go for, and the one thing he can’t (or won’t). Abby’s husband goes for pretty much anything these days.

 

You’re going to mess up, their therapist warned them. You can’t expect things to change overnight.

 

Her scalp continues to tingle, but she does her best to ignore it as the winemaker pours their first flight: the 2016 Naughty Boy Barbera for her, a Slutty Minx Gewürztraminer for him, one the winemaker insists isn’t too sweet, as if sweetness were a blemish, a problem to be fixed.

“See this here,” he points at the bottle’s label. Its crude sketch depicts a mountain, a lake, and a rowboat. “This is what this region looked like a hundred years ago,” he says, pulling out an old-looking map, a slash of dull blue cutting across it like a gaping wound. It takes up a good part of the bar.

 

Here we go, Abby thinks, swirling what’s left in her glass. The wine is making her hotter still, but she holds the glass out for more, expecting a lecture on climate and viticulture, the free tasting now bearing the cost of his mansplaining. She should have known.

 

But the winemaker’s story starts instead on a construction site in the ’20s, with a group of men working on a dam project.

 

“The hardworking boys were lonely, in need of attention,” he says, less to Abby than to her husband, whom she hasn’t made love to in months. Erik smiles amicably at the winemaker and nods at appropriate intervals, ever-so-slightly flaring his nostrils as he sips his wine.

 

“Problem is, the boys were over here,” the winemaker says, pointing to a settlement on the northeast corner of the map, marked by tent icons. His soft finger slides across the lake to tap a heart sticker on its opposite side. “And the ladies were way over here,” he says, wrapping the ladies in air quotes, as if they weren’t actually ladies at all. Abby stares at the winemaker’s fingers, the pale peach colored half-moons above his cuticles. Lunulae, she thinks, the word appearing from nowhere, like an early season snow. She’s forgotten the feel of her husband’s hands. The winemaker unbuttons the ends of his flannel sleeves, rolls them up over the pale  flesh of his lower arms, all while still talking, reaching for two more bottles. His build is much larger than her husband’s, a lithe runner, and his wedding ring pinches his fat finger. She wonders what his wife is like, what their life is like, and if he ever stops talking.

 

She wants to tune him out, all of them. But the more she nods, the more he pours. She chews her bottom lip and watches as her daughter drops the smallest wooden nesting doll into a wine glass, a souvenir glass etched with the silhouette of a naked woman with upright, perky tits. Maddie pours water from her Wonder Woman thermos into the glass, and Abby watches to see if the doll will float or sink, as if this were a seventeenth-century witch trial. If she sinks and drowns, she’s innocent. Not that Maddie knows such things, though she often surprises Abby.

 

Maddie loves the game they invented called “What if?” Mom and daughter go back and forth offering real-life scenarios to test what the other might do: What if I get lost from you at the park? What if you see a kid being bullied on the playground? What if we had breakfast for dinner and dinner for breakfast? What if you woke up one morning and I wasn’t there?  What would you do, honey? Where would you go?

 

This is no place for a child, Abby thinks. None of this is a good idea.

 

“What does all this have to do with wine?” she finally says, cutting off the winemaker and motioning at her daughter with her wine glass before taking a swig of the Scarlot Harlot Zinfandel; spicy and fruit-forward.

 

“Let him finish his story,” says her husband, once a draft beer kind of guy, as he sips his  Charlatan Chardonnay. He once chased her across the kitchen with a broken pint glass in his hand. She once promised to try another round of IVF if he’d go to anger management classes. He once did, and met someone new to sleep with. She once did, and got lucky on the first egg retrieval, the first implantation. With all those odds against them, here they are, humming along to Toto while the winemaker drones on, trying to make it work.

 

The men exchange raised eyebrows, silently discussing her, then the winemaker picks up exactly where he’d left off, the needle stuck on his broken record. “It’s all about supply and demand,” he says. “There was plenty of demand,” he gestures toward his rumpled denim crotch, “but the supply was across the lake.” Air quotes.

 

Recognize your triggers. Manage your reaction.

 

Abby scowls and looks away, toward Maddie, who appears tired after a day of sightseeing and souvenir shopping and forced family fun. Her eyes droop as she lines up her new dolls by size, then knocks them over in a sideways karate chop. Two of them spill to the floor. She’s practiced martial arts since she was two. What if I asked you to karate chop the hell out of the winemaker? Abby thinks. She and the sensei remind her daughter regularly: It’s only to be used for self-defense.

 

“For five cents,” he says, “there was a man who owned a small boat and would row the lonely men”—here, the winemaker clinks the top of her husband’s glass—“to where the ladies were waiting.” He taps Abby’s glass. Clink-clink. She imagines it shattering.

 

“He’d created the world’s first ‘Luber,’” he says, setting down the bottle to create yet another air quote. Then he smiles and delivers his over-played punchline: “A lake-Uber!”

 

Her husband laughs politely at the crude pun, while Abby stares first at the winemaker then at the man she married despite the red flags, watching as he brings his glass to his dried lips, bits of white curled skin in the corners, the way his mouth opens too largely for sipping wine. The noise his mouth makes, the tiny dark hairs on his fingers, the idea of his tongue. All of it. The way he looks at her. Then quickly looks away.

 

You both have to be willing to change.

 

“Look, mama, it’s a wine glass!” Maddie calls out. She has moved on to the Chinese finger trap toy she’d found in a quarter toy bin, a cheap thing of woven bamboo designed to trap a victim’s fingers. The more they pull outward, the tighter the trap becomes. But instead of using it to trap fingers, Maddie transforms the cylinder into different shapes: a horn, a lamp, a snake. The girl herself is a complicated twist of geometry; an algebraic equation Abby struggles daily to understand. The best and worst—but mostly best—of both of her flawed parents, engineered by cautious lab technicians in clean white coats.

 

“Here, Mama,” she says, her voice a floating flower; light, but weighted. She is always offering. This time, she has widened the end of the woven cylinder, having stretched the weave as far as it will go before breaking, then rounded it with her fingertips to create a curved bowl, which funnels inward in the middle for the stem, then fans out again where she’s stretched the other end into a flattened base. A wine glass made of cheap bamboo.

 

Abby wonders if her daughter knows, and if so, how much.

 

How had it taken Abby so long to catch on? She slowly swirls what’s left of her wine, imagining all the dirt involved with its making. Terroir, the winemaker never said.  The winemaker knows nothing about wine. And, like her husband, his nails are as clean and white as teeth.

 

Not all of your decisions will be good, their therapist says, every time they fuck up; regress. It takes a long time to repair pain this deep. You’re just getting started.

 

Abby looks at her wine glass. A film of rust-colored sediment has settled at its bottom. Joni Mitchell sings about the hissing of summer lawns as the winemaker takes the next bottle by its neck. Maddie smiles at her from across the room, communicating in the secret silent language they share, watching as Abby raises her glass higher, holds its stem loosely between thumb and pointer. Maddie sees it all, the way girls do, carries her parents’ arguments and prolonged silences inside her like a strand of DNA, a weight in her bloodline. Abby flashes to all the nights she’s spent lying at Maddie’s side, whispering in the ear of her sleeping child, seeking answers—which is safer? Do we stay or go?—but finding only more questions.

 

“What are you looking for, honey?” Erik asks, but the ‘honey’ isn’t sweet but, rather, troubled. Abby likes the edge of panic in her husband’s voice; the sudden helplessness.

 

“What are you doing, Mommy?” Maddie says, echoing her dad’s concern, but with excitement. The little girl gathers her toys and moves toward them.

 

“What do you think would happen if mommy dropped it?” Abby says.

 

What if?

 

“It would break into a million pieces,” the little girl says. Her dark eyes dance with the fire of the tea lights flickering on the bar.

 

“Why would you do that?” Erik says. She knows by his voice that he wants to yell at her but can’t, and she likes this, too.

 

The winemaker stares blankly at the wine glass. He seems to accept that this won’t be the first one broken on his bar, nor probably the last. His role here is insignificant, except that he will be left to clean up their mess.

 

“I have another story,” he offers, grabbing for his laminated map.

 

“No, thanks,” says Erik, wanting now to leave.

 

“No way!” says Abby, their voices overlapping.

 

“Jinx,” says their daughter, as she tucks her dark curls under folded arms, protecting her body while waiting anxiously for the glass to drop. Because surely, she knows it’s going to drop. Already, the little girl, so much like her mom, is probably picturing the shattered pieces, like a sparkly sheen of luminescent glitter, covering the entire bar. The men stare at the glass, then at Abby, as if wondering which will break first.

 

Joke’s on them, Abby thinks, and finally lets go.

Cover Art by Sarah Barnett

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Kelle Clarke
Kelle Clarke

Kelle Schillaci Clarke is a Seattle-based fiction and creative nonfiction writer, adjunct English instructor, and former arts journalist with deep Los Angeles roots. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Superstition Review, Barren Magazine, The Citron Review, Pidgeonholes, and Ghost Parachute, which nominated her flash fiction for a Pushcart prize in 2019. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but left the desert in favor of the rainy Pacific Northwest, where she can now be found tweeting @kelle224.

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