Read Wildcat Wine Online

Authors: Claire Matturro

Wildcat Wine (5 page)

Chapter 7

I still had
the damn Winn-Dixie sack full of money with me when I drove into my own driveway. I also had a lighter checking-account balance and another case of Mr. Stallings's very fine wine, both products of my last ten minutes with Philip, my putative new boyfriend. But it was the sack of money that occupied my tired brain at the moment. Philip's first idea—that I count it and lock it in the Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley safe—didn't really appeal to me now, as it was the wee hours and all I wanted to do was shower about four times and crash in my own bed. I decided just to stash the money in the kitchen cupboard as if the sack was full of groceries.

My purse lurched off my arm as I grabbed the paper sack and crawled out of my Honda, and as I bent to pick it up, I heard Bearess, behind my front door, set up a howl. Oh, good, that'll cause a few Covenant Nazi phone calls, I thought as I picked up my purse and took a couple of steps toward the door. The key lime tree, which had proved to be an impressively aggressive grower, cast part of the walkway to the door in total darkness; I stepped into that circle of pitch-black and was struggling for my keys when I heard an odd cracking noise and then felt a jolt of pain in my head.

I stumbled down, and a dark shadow snatched the Winn-Dixie sack, and I yelled, and the black shape ran off.

Shutting my eyes seemed appealing to me at that moment, so I did. When I opened them again, Bearess was howling like a vampire dog at the full moon of Armageddon, and Covenant Nazi had my head in her lap, stroking my forehead and murmuring that “it will be all right.”

“Let me up,” I said, intent upon opening the door and letting Bearess out before she exploded with pent-up doggy anxiety.

“I've called the police and an ambulance,” the now surprisingly gentle voice of Covenant Nazi said. “Just lie still.” Her fingers on my forehead were feathery. Her lap was soft. She smelled like the same Avon stuff my grandmother used to wear. I might have fallen asleep in this soft, sweet-smelling lap except for the increasingly shrill noise that my dog was making as she clawed at the other side of my door.

Okay, I get it. The Rapture happened, I got zapped as a near miss, Nazi Lady was transformed into an angel of mercy, and Bearess was now the eight-horned Beast from Revelations. Or was it ten horns and eight heads? I'd have to ask Delvon, my Pentecostal, dope-growing, mad-hatter brother, how many horns and heads the Beast had. He knew these things.

Then I forgot to wonder how many horns the beast had because my head throbbed like a son of a bitch, but I half sat up and looked around me. I was a little swimmy headed. My purse strap was still twisted about my shoulder and the purse itself lay by my side, but I couldn't see or feel the grocery sack of money.

“Where's my sack?” I asked, lying back down and reaching my hands out as far as I could and feeling in the grass, even as I heard the sound of approaching sirens. Oh, great, if anybody on the entire street of Tulip had managed to sleep through the Hound from Hell, the sirens should wake them up.

“Oh, sweetie, don't worry about your groceries.”

I wasn't worried about groceries, I was worried about the uncounted cash from gosh-knows-what source that a time-warp hippie had thrust into my caretaking to use to get Dave out of jail. But explaining this to my neighbor didn't seem like a good idea.

A flash of bright red lights flew up my driveway, and as I wiggled my fingers and toes and decided I didn't need an ambulance, I wondered if I had to pay for it since I didn't call it and was it too late to send it back?

But then, as the paramedic leaned over me, I closed my eyes again. If an ambulance took me to the hospital and I got admitted, then surely I could postpone that damned appellate argument in the case of the alien-nut lady versus the fake Indian man.

As it turned out, I didn't get admitted to the hospital. I didn't even get an X ray, CAT scan, or MRI. I waited exactly three hours and twenty minutes to have a woman doctor, who, I might add, should maybe ease up on the carbs or at least wear control-top hose, spend about two minutes and proclaim me okay.

Okay? Somebody had hit me on the head. Hard. How could I be okay? Didn't I at least get an MRI?

“You don't need an MRI,” she said, and blabbered words until I translated that my health insurer had denied the request.

“Ice the bump. Take some aspirin,” the broad-butted doctor said without sympathy.

Not a productive doctor visit by my standards. And that three-hour wait didn't improve my mood. Nor had the entertainment options done much to appease me while I waited for my two minutes with the doc. During the first part of the wait, a police officer had grilled me on what happened.

“I dropped my purse, a dark shadow stole my groceries, and this woman called the police,” I said, pointing at my new best friend, Covenant Nazi, who had insisted on riding with me in the ambulance to the ER. She had patted my hand the whole way.

When the police officer gave me a look of disgust at my succinct, but from my view, totally accurate summary of events, my new best friend said, “What happened, Mr. Officer, was that a man, probably one of the homeless you people don't seem very effective at controlling, hid behind her key lime tree, which I've been telling her and telling her to trim, and he knocked her down and stole her groceries, though why anyone would go grocery shopping at the Winn-Dixie at that hour of the night is beyond me, but you know these young professional women.”

I sighed.

Then my neighbor launched into a twenty-minute story about a cat, and I couldn't tell whether it was her cat, or someone else's cat, or what, and didn't much care, but the reason, so she claimed, she saw all this, the key lime tree and the homeless man, that is, was she was outside because of this cat.

Yeah, right. She was peeking out the window spying on me.

For purposes of his paperwork, the cop asked me the approximate value of my groceries.

“Thirty dollars,” I lied.

Explaining about the money would be digging the hole deeper, so I didn't. But who could have known about the money and waited for me? Hippie Woman, maybe, but why give me the money and then steal it back? Was it a homeless person thinking he was getting a sack of food?

I was still pondering the who and the how when I was released by Dr. Big Butt, and I ambled out into the bright lights and sour smell of the ER waiting room to find my neighbor sipping a cup of coffee with someone in a white uniform. “Your grandmother is so sweet,” this person said as she left.

“How are we going to get home?” my new grandmother asked.

I sighed. I didn't suppose the ambulance would take us home, and the cop had long since heard enough about the cat and left, so I looked around for a cabdriver type.

Though I was the wounded one, I had to look outside for a cab while Grandmom finished her coffee. Typical Sarasota, all the traffic and crime of a big city with few of the conveniences like all-night cab service. Then I had to use my last quarters to call all the cabs in the yellow pages, only to find out that at 4:25
., no one was going to get out of bed to drive me the six blocks to my house.

“I'm in the ER. I'm hurt and I've got a ninety-year-old woman with me, I can't walk home at night,” I shouted at the phone.

“I'm only seventy-seven,” Grandmom said, “and it isn't night, it's morning.”

I slammed down the phone, and glowered at my neighbor.

“Why don't you call that Mexican who's always coming over? That one who wears that yellow dress over his pants.”

At first I thought she meant Benny, but the yellow dress sounded like Gandhi Singh.

“He's not Mexican,” I said.

He's not even Indian, I thought. Gandhi was a bummed-up surfer, a natural blond, with an Internet degree in counseling and a mediocre hair-dye job. But given a choice between waking up Gandhi or waiting in the ER until the cabdrivers woke up, I opted to bother Gandhi. After I panhandled some more quarters, I punched in Gandhi's number on the pay phone, made a mental note to disinfect myself from the ER phone and the ER as soon as I got home, and spilled a condensed version of the problem to Gandhi. Once I reassured him I was fine, he said he'd be right there.

When he arrived a half hour later, he waved some smoldering dried flowers over me—sage, to burn off the evil spirits of the night, he explained—then handed the sage to a hunched man in a chair, said a blessing over the man, and told my new grandmom that her aura indicated a new person would soon enter her life, perhaps a child.

Okay, so he looked like a fool and talked like a fortune cookie, but Gandhi had gotten out of bed at dawn to drive me and a previously unknown seventy-seven-year-old woman six blocks. I had to appreciate a guy like that.

Chapter 8

When the collective cosmic forces
are so obviously against one taking a chosen path, it is better just to give up that chosen path and go, as they say, with the flow.

Or at least that's one of the theories of life that Farmer Dave had taught me in my formative years, when I was a teenager living with him and my brother in a house in the woods in a place where neither UPS nor the U.S. mail would go, but as it turned out, the state police would.

Go with the flow, I thought.

And the flow of cosmic forces having thus far decreed that I was not to spend the weekend in quiet preparation for my upcoming appellate argument, I rose midmorning on Sunday and said the hell with it.

I was woozy from fatigue and the lump on my head, and I chewed some chocolate-covered roasted coffee beans—I mean, really, why do people need amphetamines when you can chew chocolate-coated pure caffeine?—while I brewed my organic, shade-grown, fair-trade coffee in my nonplastic French press and formulated plan B. After all, I still had Monday to work on my oral argument.

Today, once I was coherent, I was going to drive out to Earl Stallings's winery, meet the man, utterly charm the man, and convince him to drop the charges against Dave. Wasn't that one of Philip's plans? I mean, if Earl got his wine back, why wouldn't he drop the charges? I marshaled my arguments—all that time testifying in depositions and at trial, having Philip making him look like a fool, et cetera.

Surely, if I took care of Earl, Philip could deal with the little matter of the outstanding warrant for trashing out Delvon's neighbors' motocross track. I mean, come on, there's real crime out there: Was Georgia really going to extradite Dave for plowing down fake hills that the boys used to race their motorcycles on?

As I drank my coffee, I rubbed the back of my head and made a note to have Bonita send Gandhi and my new grandmom some fruit or something by way of thanks for their help last night. After Gandhi had driven us home from the ER, I had finally tumbled into my own house, to find a totally hysterical Bearess, and after walking her, calming her, petting her, cleaning up the indiscretions she'd left in her doggy frenzy, and then taking my anti-jail-germ shower, soaking in the tub to ease my sore muscles, and then showering off the tub residue, there was sunlight before I actually got to crash out in my own bed. Naturally I had just hit the dream stage when the phone rang and it was Grandmom, aka Covenant Nazi, wanting to know how I was doing.

“I was sleeping.”

“Well, you shouldn't do that, you might have a concussion, and you are not supposed to sleep when you have a concussion.”

“That's why the ER doctor told me to go home and get some sleep?”

“Well, that young woman was so busy, she wasn't paying you enough attention. Would you like for me to bring you over some breakfast? I have some nice bran muffins. With raisins.”

As tempting as that was, I declined because I doubted she cooked organically and I didn't know what her cleanliness standards were, and also, frankly, I wondered if I didn't like my new grandmom better wearing her World Hall Monitor personality.

Having dodged breakfast with Grandmom, I crashed out once more, was dancing at the edge of some decent REM sleep, and, damn, the phone rang again.

“Hey, babe, guess who I'm in a hot tub with?”

“Wrong number.” I clunked down the phone.

Bearess snuffled around my bed, and I was debating whether I should take her out or make her wait while I napped some more when the phone rang again.

“Lilly, babe. It's Ashton. Babe, don't hang up.”

I gurgled. Ashton Stanley was the third of the three named partners at Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley. He was my law partner, my friend in a loony, not-centered sort of way, but definitely not my mentor.

“So, guess who I'm in a hot tub with.”

“Ashton, it's too early for games.”

“Hey, you want to know what time it is out here?”

Out here would be California, Los Angeles, to be specific, where Ashton had gone last month to check into one of those swanky drug rehabilitation centers that catered to movie stars and rich people (slogan: Detox Among the Stars). After his girlfriend had tried to kill me last year, and then jumped off the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a flash of bare skin and midnight blue panties, Ashton, never a totem pole of sanity or sobriety to begin with, did quite the nosedive. Finally, Jackson and I had done a two-person intervention and forced Ashton to admit that for a man of his age, his chemical recreational habits weren't cute anymore. Hence, he had taken a leave of absence, creating a manic power struggle as the other partners scrambled for his lucrative files and clients and, not incidentally, taking a lot of the fun out of my life and Smith, O'Leary, and Stanley.

I missed the maniac.

But my head hurt, I was exhausted, and I didn't care who he was in a hot tub with, or what time it was in L.A., so I said, “I don't care, I was asleep.”

“You can't tell anyone, she's famous,” Ashton said, and I heard a girlish squeal in the background. “But I'll give you a hint. You've seen her on television. Not this season, but, I don't know, couple, few years back.”

The shortest way out of this was obviously to play along. “Okay, who are you in the hot tub with?”

I heard a splash, a louder girlish squeal, Ashton's own squeal, not unlike I imagined an elk's rutting song, and there was a bigger splash and the phone went dead.

Oh, well.

Whether I wanted it to or not, my day had begun. I accepted the cosmic message that sleep wasn't in my particular cards, and I got up, waited on my one-hundred-pound dog, swallowed my aspirin and ate my coco-coffee beans and drank my pot of coffee, and decided that on the off-chance I might want a stomach lining in my old age, I should eat some food to soften the blow of the coffee. So I ate some granola. Then I called Benny to see how he was doing. In that teenage I'm-too-cool-to-worry tone he was perfecting, he assured me he was doing just fine. I doubted this, and suggested I go over later that afternoon and we'd talk. While I didn't hear the sound of happy feet dancing in glee, he more or less agreed.

Still worrying about Benny, I showered. By the time I finished showering, washing my hair again, and contemplating what one wore to a winery to convince a man to drop charges for felony theft, it was early afternoon. Dressed in a short jeans skirt and a cropped knit blouse and another pair of kicky sandals, I drove out to the winery. Fortunately, the wine labels gave an address on a road I recognized, and the sun was bright, the sky cloudless, and the air warm and damp as I peeled out of my driveway and headed east.

And practically stopped, hitting the traffic pockets on Clark Road.

By the time I got to the winery, which advertised on its label that it was open seven days a week, my gel-sleeked hair was a wiry, fuzzy halo in the humidity and I seriously craved iced tea.

Pulling into a long, dirt road, I followed the signs to the “Gift and Wine Shoppe” and parked. Why on earth were there other people here? Why weren't they at the beach? It was spring, it was Sunday, it was prime skin-cancer and jellyfish-sting time.

Inside, I saw a thin man, with wire-framed glasses and a high forehead, very high, actually, and a blond ponytail. He was chatting with two women who had big heads of permed hair teased into ridiculous ball fluffs that looked like wet poodles on crystal meth.

The squatter of the two women was asking what a muscadine was as I sashayed up to join them. The man looked at me, tentatively, I thought, so I smiled brightly and he nodded. His brow was permanently furrowed, but his eyes were bright blue, and his chin was strong and clean. A nice-looking man, a man who looked smart, dressed in his khakis and a white polo and brown loafers. William Hurt, twenty pounds underweight, I thought. I smiled so persistently at him, he finally smiled back.

“What's a muscadine?” the squat woman whined through her nose again, as her buddy turned to glare at me.

“It is a particular kind of grape . . .”

Uh-huh, I thought. Now how do I get this man alone and find out if he is Earl Stallings and then convince him to let old Dave and Waylon go their way in peace? I ran a finger slowly along the scooped neckline of my knit shirt, and, for icing on the Look-at-Me, Look-at-Me cake, I made a ponytail of my thick hair with my hand, lifting it high in the air as if cooling off my neck, and then I let it fall in a slow cascade. Works every time. Maybe-Earl watched me, smiled, and paused in his monologue.

“You'se gonna tell us about that grape, now, or what?” Poodle Head asked.

Pulling his eyes from me, our host said, “The muscadine grape is actually a Florida native.”

That was certainly more than these ladies, or 99 percent of the Sarasota population, could claim, I thought, and made myself look fascinated by Maybe-Earl's recitation of the wonders of our native grape.

By the time he had finished his muscadine monologue, the permed hairs were noticeably bored. I raised my hand, and smiled again.

“Yes,” the man who might be Earl said.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I was wondering if you could explain about why your wine is organic?”

I know all about organic myself, but I pegged my nonnative companions as the sorts who would walk off in boredom or disgust as Maybe-Earl launched into a second monologue about farming organically. Damn them, the ladies held their place as our teacher preached the dangers of strip farming and the lost topsoil and the horrors of pesticides—cancer, dead birds, dead good bugs, disruption of the balance of nature, reproductive abnormalities among humans and reptiles, et cetera, et cetera. Rachel Carson would have been proud.

As Maybe-Earl talked, I began to appreciate his voice, a deep, clear voice with the softening trace of a southern accent, with perfect grammar and well-chosen words. Definitely a smart man. The more I looked at him, the more he seemed to me to be one of those New Age nerd hippies who either make money in software or go to jail for starting meth labs.

But Poodle Heads hung in there, not listening, exactly, but holding their ground.

“What about the sulfite-free sign you've got up there,” I asked, figuring a similar lecture on sulfites would surely drive the two women away.

“Sulfites occur naturally, to some degree, in wines, but the problem is that sulfites are added during the wine-making process as both a disinfectant and a preservative. Sulfites are controversial, that is, whether they are innately unhealthy or not, but it's an accepted fact that many people are allergic to them. There's a well-supported theory that the infamous wine headache is actually a reaction to the added sulfites.”

I nodded and smiled.

“To get an organic label, a wine must be made without sulfites. But to make a large amount of wine without sulfites is tricky. Everything has to be perfect. The least miscalculation and you've got a barrel of moldy wine.”

“That's disgusting,” squat Poodle Head said.

“Ah,” our environmentally sound vintner added, “but I don't have that problem because I've perfected the system. There are neither sulfites nor mold in my wine. My system is labor intensive and that drives up the cost. But it also increases the quality, the taste, and the healthfulness of my wine.”

“Let's try some and see,” the lesser-squat woman said.

Oh, great. If they started drinking free wine, I'd never get them to leave me and this smart, Maybe-Earl man alone.

Remembering the flirty-girl tip to always ask a man questions about stuff he wants to talk about, I asked if muscadine grapes gave the wine any distinctive qualities.

Smiling now in earnest, he explained that the native muscadine grapes are distinctive because of their 2-phenylethanol content. One of the ladies harrumphed, but he ignored her, and asked me if I knew what that was.

Yeah, sure, it's a long, boring word. But I leaned toward Maybe-Earl. “No. Please explain.”

Earl, if this was Earl, was warming up to me and he was pleased to explain. “It's the substance that also gives roses their characteristic fragrance.”

I made a little gasp of appreciation.

Outside, there was a sound of engine, a gust of diesel smell, and the slamming of doors, and I stretched my neck until I could see out the window and saw a whole damn busload of old people getting off. Didn't the snowbirds go home in the spring anymore?

They toddled in. Maybe-Earl went to greet them, and it became quickly obvious that this was an arranged tour. He invited me and the two Poodle Heads to join them. A tour I didn't need; privacy with the real Earl I needed, so I thanked him, but declined.

As I declined, I offered my hand. “Lilly,” I said. “I've so enjoyed this. Count on me coming back.”

“Earl Stallings,” he said, “please do.”

“Actually,” I said, not wanting to give up now that I knew this was the famous Earl the Vintner, “but, with your permission”—big smile and little pause—“I think I'll just wander around a bit on my own, until you have a few minutes for me. I'd sure like to talk to you.”

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