Monday, October 19, 2015

A taste of wine

August 24, 1969

I got the call last Friday before my duties were done.
The ward sergeant yelled for me to come to the phone. Since I never get calls on base, I thought it must be serious.
I thought it might be my mother or my girlfriend.
I envisioned that time I came home from school to find my uncle Pete on the front porch with news about my grandfather’s dying.
So all more was the surprise when the voice on the other end of the line was Pauly’s.
“Are you coming home this weekend?” he asked.
“Yes, I have a pass,” I said, wondering what this was all about.
My pass was suspended last weekend because some idiot got sick and I wound up on a helicopter flying over some large field in New York State where they had a concert going on. We didn’t land. But I saw the whole mess from the air while clinging to the strap, scared shitless about falling.
I heard a few days ago, Hank had been there and got flown out sick.
Perhaps he’d gotten ill from the trip to the shore two weeks ago Pauly had orchestrated, and from which I was still recovering. This made me wonder what he was up to.
“Perfect,” he said. “Wear your uniform.”
Then, he hung up.
Vince drove us north and left me off at the George Washington Bridge Port Authority building like he normal did when we went awol during the week. I took a train to the other Port Authority in Time Square because I didn’t know the buses out of
Hackensack as well as I did the ones I took back and forth from New York to Paterson with Hank.
When I got home, my uncles told me I had a phone message and that my friend said it was urgent.
Pauly answered on the first ring.
“Are you home?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good, we’ll pick you up in the morning,” he said, and then after a slight delay. “You have your uniform?”
“Yes,” I said. “But why…”
But he was already off the line.
The next morning, someone rang the front bell.
I remembered two weeks ago when I warned Pauly not to come to the front door after he, Bill, and Bob had rousted me out for the trip to the shore.
Through the glass this time, I saw Bob instead of Bill, and down at the curb, Bob’s VW Beetle with Pauly in the passenger seat.
My uncles wanted to know where I was going wearing my uniform. Since I didn’t know myself I couldn’t tell them and hurried down the front stairs and somehow managed to cram myself into the Beetle’s back seat.
“Do you mind telling me why I’m dressed up to go trick or treating?” I asked Pauly when Bob pulled the car into traffic.
“We have a dinner engagement and the girls told me we have to bring wine,” he said.
“I don’t get what that has to do with me?”
Pauly turned and looked at me.
“None of us are old enough to buy booze, and all the people we rely on normally won’t buy us any,” he said.
“That’s because you still owe them money,” Bob pointed out/.
“A small matter,” Pauly said.
“Not to them. Especially because you also owe them money for pot.”
“So where do I fit into this?” I asked. “I’m 18. I’m not old enough to buy booze either.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong,” Pauly said. “What right minded patriotic store keeper would deny you, one of the boys destined to serve country over seas?”
“I’m not going over seas,” I said, although I knew I was still disputing the orders that had me slated for Vietnam.
“Ah, but the store keeper won’t know that.”
“So you want me to lie?”
“Lie? That’s such a harsh word. Fib is better.”
“So it’s still illegal for him to sell me booze, whether I’m a soldier or not.”
“True. But he’ll sell it to you anyway. He wouldn’t deny you with your short hair and your uniform.”
“Damn you, Pauly. Why are you always getting me wrapped up in your schemes?”
“Scheme? This is no scheme. We have several young ladies who are cooking their hearts out for us as we speak and all they ask of us is to bring them a few bottles of wine.”
“Now it’s a few bottles…”
“Hush, boy. Let’s not bicker over this. I’m not asking for you to pay for all the bottles yourself.”
“You want me to pay?”
“But not for all of it.”
“Why should I pay for any of it?”
“If you imbibe of the food, then you should share in the expense of the drink.”
“I don’t recall anyone inviting me to any dinner.”
“Another petty detail. How can anyone refuse you when you’re bringing the drink?” Pauly asked, displaying once more his usual circular logic.
“You might as well just do it,” Bob said. “He won’t let you out of the car until you agree.”
So I agreed.
Pauly had Bob pull up around the corner from the liquor store so that the store keeper wouldn’t see us together.
“No use tempting fate,” he explained, and then put some money in my hand.
“What kind of wine do you want?” I asked.
“Use your judgment,” he said.
“I don’t know anything about wine,” I said.
Beer, I knew. We could buy nearly all the watered down low alcohol beer we wanted on base. But wine was a mystery to me.
“You’ll figure it out,” Pauly assured me.
Less than confident, I went into the store. The store keeper was busy with another customer and so I wandered up and down the aisles staring at labels that were meaningless to me.
A moment later, the clerk – an elderly man with gray hair and classes – asked what I needed.
“I need some wine,” I said. “For a dinner.”
The man looked me over and my age easily registered in his eyes. But so did some deeper sadness I didn’t understand. He seemed full of pain, especially when he looked at my uniform.
I thought he was going to throw me out. But instead, he smiled.
“Where you stationed, boy?” he asked.
I told him.
“I just finished basic training,” I said. “I’m waiting to ship out for advanced infantry training.”
“My son trained there,” he said, sounding said. “They sent him out to Fort Sills. He was artillery.”
I thought he was going to ask me if I knew his son. But he went mum about it, and looked even sadder than he had.
“What kind of wine did you need?” he asked.
This was like asking me what lay on the dark side of the moon. I shrugged.
“Whose the dinner with?” he asked.
“Some girls I know,” I said, although in truth, I didn’t know them.
“Ah, a shipping out dinner,” he said. “Then you’re going to need something special.”
He brought me to the counter and then produced a wide green bottle with dust on it.
“I was hoping to buy two bottles if that’s possible,” I said.
“Not a problem,” he said, and found another bottle equally dusty. “My son had this kind of wine for the party when he shipped out. It’s fruitier than most wines, but I’m sure the girls will like it.”
I tried to pay, but he wouldn’t take the money.
“It’s my gift,” he said. “If you come back safe, then you can come tell me how you and the girls like it.”
I tried to thank him. He shook his head.
“Just enjoy,” he said.
I made my way out to the car.
Pauly was ecstatic.
“See!” he told Bob. “I told you it would work.”
Bob drove off grumbling.
I felt bad for the old man, but couldn’t say why. I also felt like I had misled him, though in truth, I did have orders for Vietnam, orders that I would not likely have to follow.
Bob drove to West Paterson and through the winding streets on the western slope of Garret Mountain. He pulled into a driveway that already had several cars parked in it.
“We’re here,” Pauly said. “Let me take one of those bottles.”
I suppose he wanted to get credit for bringing in the booze. So I handed him one.
Alf was there. So was Garrick. I didn’t know the women until Pauly introduced me: Jane, Ann, and Margaret.
Pauly was apparently dating Jane.
Ann was some kind of chiropractor, and Jane was in training to become one.
They had incense burning, and a buffet set up on the table with cheese, crackers and other stuff.
They told us to help ourselves.
“That’s caviar,” Ann told me, pointing to a plate with black stuff on it.
Following the example of others, I put some of a few crackers and some crackers on a plate and sat down in one of the chairs.
I was way out of my league here and I knew it.
I felt embarrassed without having done anything.
Then I bit into the cracker and nearly choked.
The caviar tasted awful, but I couldn’t just spit it out in public. I saw a similar reaction on Pauly’s face, and Garrick’s, and Bob’s. Pauly handed us each a glass of wine, and I gulped my down to wash the horrible taste away.
But the wine lingered on my tongue like an old memory, and for some reason, I kept thinking of the old man, and his son.
Somehow I got through the rest of the dinner without totally making a fool of myself, mostly by keeping quiet, drawing some notice from the three girls who commented that I didn’t talk a lot.
Later, Bob drove me home without Pauly, who went off with Jane.
I finished out my pass the next day in Washington Square Park, just taking in the sights and listening to David Peal sing.
But I could not get the old man out of my mind. I still can’t now that I’m back at the hospital. I keep looking at the wounded veterans who have come here from Vietnam and wonder if any of them was the old man’s son. But I know better. I know that while I’ll be going home soon, his son never will be.
And I keep tasting that wine.

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