CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WINE KIND
by Victor Alfaro
It was another drizzly dreary Washington Friday, with the traffic slowly winding its way past the Jupiter Liquor store in Georgetown. I had been there for only two weeks as a clerk, trying to turn my book knowledge into one-on-one sales, both with true wine cognoscenti as well as the frat boys trying to impress a date. I was on the late shift starting at five. There was only one customer in the store, an odd-looking fellow wearing a toga and sandals who was surely a denizen of the Washington summer theatre festival happening nearby.
The bell chain on the heavy front door jingled as a well-dressed young woman walked in, looking like a fresh-faced law school grad in her first business suit. Rather attractive in a straight-laced sort of way. She meant business – wine business. I had not seen her before. I angled my way over toward her. She gave me a glance and darted over to the French aisle. Did she know what she wanted? Her body language said yes but her eyes said, “I’m lost.” I made my way over to the import aisle just as her hands went for a lonely bottle on the top shelf.
Out of the corner of my eye there appeared a blur, a red-flannelled and khaki blur with a protruding outstretched hand that grabbed the bottle one nanosecond before the perfect red nails could touch its fine Bordeaux lines.
“It’s mine, I got here first,” she said adamantly.
“No, I got here first,” the young man said with feeling.
“You lunged first.”
“Possession is nine-tenths of whatever.”
“I’ve been in the store ten minutes,” she said, “well, maybe two minutes at the very least.”
“So have I.”
“This is the last bottle of French wine they have, and I really need it.”
“It’s the last bottle of 2002 La Nez, you mean,” he said authoritatively.
“Yes, I know that,” she retorted, seeming a little hurt.
“You can’t drink it.
“And why not?” she asked.
“I just said it’s a 2002 and it’s not ready to be drunk.”
“It is if I say so.”
“It would be wrong,” he intoned.
I jumped between them in order to pacify what I would call an escalating fermented grape juice situation.
“Good evening. Can I help? Is anything wrong?”
She spoke first. “I’ve been here ten minutes and no one has helped me.” The young man jumped in with, “you said two minutes.”
I said, “I’ve been here two weeks and can say the same thing. Now, how can I help you, or you?”
She practically yelped, “I want to buy that bottle of wine, the one he’s holding so, so viciously.”
“Its time isn’t here yet,” he yelped back.
Since he was holding the bottle, I thought I’d take over. “Oh yes it is. If you’ll step this way, sir.”
Any sense of decorum she might have had fell away and she shouted, “Hey, I said I want that bottle; I need that bottle!”
I turned and looked at her. “Madam, he has the bottle. Possession is nine-tenths of…” and before I could finish the young man jumped in, saying “Yeah, that’s right. It’s not drinkable anyway.”
“You mean it wouldn’t taste good,” she intoned. To which he responded, “No, it would taste good, but in two, maybe three years, it will be exquisite.”
“I’m heading to a very important dinner party and I need a French wine,” she countered. “I’m here, it’s here, and I intend to buy it.” Then he said the words that made blood drain into my shoes. After all, it was a very slow night so far.
“Go to another store.” Again I let survivor instinct take over, “No, no, no. Don’t listen to him. Now over here.” She persisted and I retreated, “I’m late as it is. Now, if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. This is the last bottle in this town of this particular wine, and I want to lay it down,” he said with all the sincerity that his voice could muster.
“Lay it down?” she asked.
“There are hundreds of bottles here. What’s so special about this one?” she went on.
“It’s a great chateau and a great vintage.”
“He’s got a point,” I admitted. She gave me a certain look and then turned to him, “That’s it, you’re an oenophile,” she said in an almost sneer.
He gulped guiltily and said, “I just appreciate good French wine and for $150, well, it’s a good value.”
Not willing to lose a sale, I interjected, “$149.95.”
Her voice went up a click, “May I have the wine, please!”
“You can’t have it. I’m working on my Ph.D. and by the time I’m finished, this great wine should be ready to drink.”
“Well, I’ve already got a degree, an M.D., and I say I need this for the health of my heart.”
“Nice try,” he said, and I had to agree.
She pressed her advantage and said, “If you’re a graduate student you couldn’t possibly afford this.”
“I won’t eat,” he sniffed.
“Wine goes better with food,” was all I could think of to say.
She gave me a look and said, “You’ll say anything.”
He blurted, “Buy a zinfandel from California.”
“You know what you are, you’re a wine snob,” she said.
“I am not. I care about the noble grape. You obviously don’t.”
“I told you, I’m expected at a dinner party. All you care about is this wine, of which there will be more of next year, and the year after that, and so on. You’re selfish!”
“Will you two decide? Engaging as this is, I do have other customers.” The apparent thespian in the costume was still somewhere in the store.
“How about dinner?” he asked.
“I’d love to. I get off at ten and I’m famished,” I said.
He gave me the look she had given me earlier. “Not you – you.” He said as he turned to her.
“What?!” she said with incredulity.
I said, “What are you having for dinner?”
“Oh, uh, lamb, I think.”
He pounced, saying, “There you have it. You don’t need this wine. What you need is a nice New Zealand shiraz.”
I followed with, “Or a lovely pinot noir.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. These are my colleagues, very well-educated and refined, and besides, my boss will be there.”
“Aha!” the young man yelled, “You want to impress your boss.”
She sniffed again, “French wine is so, so French. I want French.”
“If your boss is so educated,” the young man explained, “he’ll know he can’t drink this wine yet.”
“You think people who are educated know about wine,” she said calmly.
“Ha!” I couldn’t help myself.
He started to answer, “Well…”
She countered, “And conversely, people who don’t know about wine are uneducated?”
“I never said that,” he retorted.
“I happen to be very, very well-educated and I feel wine is a simple accompaniment to a meal, nothing more. Is that okay with you?”
“No!” We both said as if rehearsed.
“There you have it.” He went on. “You do not in fact need this particular wine. There are other accompaniments.”
Throwing her head back, she said adamantly, “I want dependable.”
“Break out of that kind of thinking,” he blurted. “Spread your wings. Sail the seas. Try the new world! Pitcairn’s Island!” And with that, he went into what I would call a modified jig, a silly version of the real thing. She looked at him and then at me. I looked at him and then at her.
Another rehearsed moment as she and I said, “Huh?”
“Mutiny on the Bounty.”
“Oh, an English major and a wine snob,” she laughed.
“You can tell?” he asked with a jovial tone.
“I liked the Clark Gable version,” she replied in a jovial tone.
“A cinephile!” he shouted.
“A Francophile!” she countered.
“I liked the Brando version, but Charles Laughton really nailed it,” he said as he inched a little closer to her.
I couldn’t help but jump in as I pride myself on being a movie junkie, “Mel Gibson wasn’t bad.”
She responded, “Yes, yes, yes and yes. Now, tell me again why you want to stash the wine away?”
“My dissertation. I’ll be finishing in about two years. I’ll be ready to celebrate.”
“And your subject is wine?” she asked dryly.
“Nautical tangents of English and French literature in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century,” was his imperial response.
“Impressive,” she said.
“Didn’t I just see that on the Discovery Channel?” I asked.
“New Zealand is a very hot wine region these days, very hip,” he said.
“Back to New Zealand,” she said.
A light bulb flickered on in my brain, “Oh, Pitcairn’s Island! I get it, New Zealand. Shiraz, right over there.”
She hesitated, “I don’t know.”
“Will somebody please just show me some money!” This in my best movie star voice.
He calmly stated, “Shiraz really does well with lamb.”
A deviant look on her face, she asked, “Didn’t Hannibal Lecter drink Chianti?”
“He sure did, and that’s not a bad choice with lamb, now we have some over here,” I answered.
“Great country and a great navy, too,” he said.
“If I’m not mistaken,” she continued, “doesn’t Italy make more wine than any other country in the world?”
“Number one. See, you do know some stuff,” he said with some animation.
“But I don’t care the way you do.”
“Suddenly, neither do I,” I volunteered.
“How much wine do you drink?” she asked.
“Oh, it depends on how badly my sales are going.” I said.
“I was talking to him.”
“A little less than three bottles a week.”
“So that’s about three glasses a day,” she said.
“With supper,” he continued.
“And how can you afford to drink this way?” she asked sincerely.
“My house wine is cheap Chilean.”
My professional training intervened, “We say “value priced.”
She continued with the grilling, “You’re telling me you drink almost a case a month of cheap wine, and now that I want to buy a great bottle of French wine, which I never do, and as luck would have it, on this very day, at 7:38 p.m. you happen to be here in front of me buying a $150 bottle of wine, the very one that I want!” Her point was well taken.
He said simply, “Yes.”
“Kismet,” I thought to myself.
“AAARGHH!” from the suddenly discombobulated young lady.
He tried to calm her down by saying, “Can’t you see what it means to me? I borrowed some money from my mother.”
This caused her to pause, reassess what he just volunteered and with self-righteous flair she said, “You took money from your dear old ma for a few glasses of wine and you don’t think anything’s wrong with that?”
“No,” he answered with a gulp.
She looked at him coolly and said, “So, an oenophile, a Ph.D. candidate and a slacker.”
“I thought we were getting along.”
“Okay, sorry about the slacker part, but aren’t you a little old to be…” she demurred.
“My fiancé dumped me,” he said in a low tone.
“It’s never easy when that happens,” she said. An awkward silence.
“Women, who knows what they want,” I said.
She gave me a sharp look, “I know. Believe me I know.”
He looked at her. “It’s happened to you.”
“I got dumped too,” she admitted.
Reassuringly, I quipped, “Men, who knows what they want.”
He continued, “A year ago my life was mapped out. The wife named Rose, the kids named Rosetta and Stone, dog named Flipper and the house in Georgetown close to the university where I would be teaching comparative literature.” She jumped right in with her story, saying, “That’s wild. A year ago I was engaged to Russ, a doctor, and we were planning two kids, Harold and Maude, a cat named Prozac and a house in Georgetown close to Georgetown University Hospital where I would be practicing.” Without pause, he followed, “She left me with a stack of bills, a stack of laundry and a stack of Chilean wine. Come to think of it, she went off to New York with a guy named Russ.”
She asked, “What did you say?”
“Rose, my love, left me for a guy named Russ.”
Her eyes widened just a bit. “New York, did you say New York, like New York City, like Manhattan?”
“My Russ moved to Manhattan a year ago, with a woman named Rose.”
“What a coincidence,” he said.
I said, “That is a coincidence.”
We all looked at each other and screamed, “Oh my God!
The young man yelled, “This only happens in movies!”
“Or liquor stores,” I thought to myself.
He asked suddenly, “What did you say your name is?”
“I didn’t but it’s Olivia,” she said, catching her breath.
“I’m Larry, nice to meet you.”
“My name is Rudy,” I added and I’ll be your waiter this evening. Now which one of you will be paying for this lovely bottle of wine.”
“After she left I polished off the Chilean wine in four days,” Larry said.
She looked in his eyes and said quite sincerely, “You look fine now.”
And so he did I had to admit.
“A hangover will straighten you out like a starched shirt.” He looked into Olivia’s eyes. “You look fine yourself. What were they thinking?”
“Not about us.”
“So you stayed in the area?”
“I’m losing mine,” I said.
“I stayed because of my studies,” Larry said.
“It’s incredible that we’ve met like this. Is it fate?” she wondered.
“La Nez, actually,” I commented, feeling a little nervy.
Outside an unusually loud peal of thunder was heard, the front windows shuddered and the customer I saw earlier, the one wearing sandals and what I now saw seemed to be a Bacchus god of wine costume, suddenly appeared from the Italian wine aisle. In toga and purple cloak, with a garland of grape leaves in his hair, he carried a bunch of grapes. He flitted around happily, looks over some of the wine selections on the shelves nearest us, nodding approval at several wines and disapproval at other wines. No one but me seemed to notice. I’d either been struck by a phantom bolt of lightning and this hallucination was the result or my first guess was right, he was an actor in the summer theatre festival. I’m sure if Larry and Olivia had been looking at me they would have been able to see the fillings in my molars as my mouth dropped to what seemed my waist. Bacchus sized up the situation and smiled at me. The pear-shaped fellow just stood there, hands on hips, smiling. Without knowing why, I blurted, “You know something, you two would make a lovely couple.”
“I don’t think so,” Olivia said.
Bacchus stared at her and at that moment a strange look came over her as she said,“Oh, I just realized I don’t really need this particular wine. Go ahead Larry, you take it.”
I said to Larry, “I’ll ring you up.”
Bacchus glared at Larry and Larry scratching his head insisted, “No, no, I’m being selfish and maybe a little snobby. After all, I did say there are plenty of other wines out there. You take it, Olivia.”
I looked at her and said, “I’ll ring YOU up, Olivia.”
Olivia looked at Larry in what I would call extreme puppy-dog eyes and said, “Larry?”
Larry, equally puppy-dog, said, “Yes, Olivia.”
“If you buy this bottle, do you think you would drink it alone?” she asked.
“Are you kidding, I’d fix filet mignon, mashed potatoes with garlic butter, fresh asparagus, marinated mushrooms and goat cheese.”
Olivia asked, “I mean would you drink the wine by yourself?”
Larry said sheepishly, “I suppose the answer would be yes, right now.”
“Right now. Oh, my gosh, right now I’ve got to be going!” Olivia shouted, “The dinner!”
I must say Larry distinguished himself magnificently by calmly taking her hand and saying, “The dinner party, yes, well. Look, Olivia, please take the wine and my phone number, call me and tell me in excruciating detail how it tasted.”
Olivia was equal to the gracious task saying, “No, Larry, you take the wine and my number and when you finish your dissertation, you call me and tell me how it went with that fabulous sounding meal.”
“That’s two years.”
“I’ll be here,” she said.
“So will I,” I said. “And I’ll probably still be waiting to get paid.”
Larry thought a moment and said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s split the wine.”
Olivia came back with, “That doesn’t solve a thing.”
My inner diplomat took over: “I’ll get two straws.”
Larry said, “Well, it does if you blow off the dinner party.”
Olivia smiled, “I’m listening.”
“I know a great little French restaurant not far from here that lets you bring your own wine,” Larry said.
“Are you asking me out, Larry?”
“It’s the right wine and the right company. Yes, I am.”
Olivia smiled again, “But you said it’s too soon, the wine isn’t ready.”
Larry smiled, “But I’m ready.”
Olivia revved up her voice and said, “I’m so, so ready.”
As we marched to the cash register I noticed the rain had stopped. I rang up what had to be the longest, most eventful sale in liquor store history. As Olivia and Larry walked out hand in hand with a great bottle of French joy juice, I glanced to the back of the store to see Bacchus grinning. The idea of selling wine suddenly took on new meaning for me, that it had its place in making the world better, and I knew this was going to be a good night.
Victor Alfaro is the author of two children’s stories titled “The Little Green Astronaut” and “The Ollie Dog Quartet,” both available in the Kindle Store on Amazon.
Link To Amazon Author Page