The Vineyard

Wanda Fries


       Mornings Dr. Wyatt stands barefoot in his kitchen, watching the sun rise over his vineyard.  The grape vines stretch, row upon row, into the distance as far as he can see. 
       The vineyard is the folly of Wyatt’s late middle age, and he has spent a fortune on it and the small winery he intends to have up and running within the next three years. As a doctor, he has never had any interest in growing tobacco. An oncologist, he sees death daily, in small, incremental doses. But when an extension agent told him that some of the first vineyards and wineries in the country were in Kentucky, he visited a couple of them in the northern part of the state and was hooked on the idea.
       Now his walkout basement is full of gleaming stainless steel casks and other equipment, including a wine press from Italy and pruning shears from a kibbutz near Jerusalem. What better way to spend his money than on the grapes that unfurl their leaves in spring, sending tendrils to wind around the wires he has stretched in straight rows, anchored with wood crosspieces, for the vines to cling to? 
       He loves everything about the process.  First, he breaks up the rich dirt with his tiller, and then he digs holes for the new plants.  He digs and digs, and then he stands, leaning on the shovel handle, watching the sunset bathe the vineyard in coral light.  Today is the first day of harvest, when, after three years of pruning and shaping the vines, of cutting off the grape clusters to force the plant’s energy into the roots, he has a sizeable crop of grapes to harvest, enough to make his first batch of wine from his own grapes.
       To harvest the grapes, he has invited his friends from town, who feel it is romantic to be a part of the enterprise.  Tonight, they will pick the grapes and then feed the clusters into a machine that separates the berries from the stems.  Then Wyatt will scoop the blue fruit pulp into the stainless steel casks to ferment.
       His friends Vic and Stacy work the rows nearest the road.  Vic, Wyatt’s friend and tax attorney, calls out from a row over from Wyatt, yelling like a startled cat. Wyatt hears the two of them discussing whether Vic was stung by a yellow jacket or a bumblebee.  Wyatt has vials of medicine for stings, and he sends to the house for them, pretending to be sympathetic.  But what he really feels is superiority. He likes the bees that hum languidly among his vines, under the cloak of leaves, to drink the nectar of his grapes, for they are hungry and alive.  He is man enough to enjoy nature beyond the confines of a houseboat or a golf cart or a screened-in porch.  On this patch of ground, just as in the hospital where he faces death every day, he is still a man.
       Tonight he should be ecstatic, but he is distant and distracted, waiting for Anna, the girl who, for the past year, has been working in his office.  She promised to come  pick grapes, drink wine, and celebrate with him—and his wife, of course—their first real harvest.  Although Anna is still a girl, from his perspective, not more than twenty or so, she already has two small children, and is out on her own. His office manager gave Anna a job on the spot because of her intelligence and potential.  Later, when Anna faced eviction from her apartment because she couldn’t pay the rent, Wyatt, as he has done for so many people, came to the rescue.  He fixed up a small rental house he owns and let her move in rent-free with her children until she could get back on her feet.
       Anna has warm brown eyes and a black braid that tumbles down her back nearly to her waist.  This spring, to repay Wyatt for his kindness, she helped him divide the perennials in the large flower garden to the left of the house. Wyatt watched a bee clean its forelegs on her smooth brown arms while she stood still in wonder and watched it, unafraid, waiting patiently for it to fly away.  He longed to be the bee, and he longed to be Anna, in that strange dance of her extended arm and the bee taking salt and sweat from her skin.
       Anna is the lowest of his office assistants, but he started her off from the very first day at the same salary he pays the woman who has been there for six years.  After two or three months, Belinda, the office manager, a middle-aged woman with perfectly arranged blonde hair to match the perfection of her job performance, came into Wyatt’s office to tell him he was causing dissension in the ranks.  She shook a little with the nervousness she felt at confronting him, but he let her finish without saying a word.
       Then, leaning across the desk, he asked, “Why is this so important?  Are any of you unhappy with what I pay you?”
       No, she shakes her head, no.  Everyone who works for Dr. Wyatt knows he is a good and generous man, who pays his office and nursing staff better than any other doctor in town.  He often takes care of their relatives who have cancer.  At the end of the treatment, whether the end is death, defeat, or healing, he nearly always writes on the bill “paid in full,” in gratitude for his employee’s service and pity for the sorrow and misfortune they and their loved ones have endured.
       “We go to church together,” he reminds Belinda.  “Try to remember that Anna is a single mother.  She’s trying to work, raise children, and study to be a nurse, all at the same time.  She works hard here, and she does a good job.  Why should it bother anyone that I choose to try and help her?”
       Perhaps they object to her salary because they suspect the truth, that Wyatt is in love with her.  He tries to love her prudently, like a father.  Only once in thirty years of marriage has he been unfaithful, and the experience was so awful, the guilt so profound, that he was never tempted to repeat it.
       But at the office, he waits for Belinda to be preoccupied with work so that he can make his furtive offerings.  He does not give Anna anything she will feel compelled to refuse.  He keeps it simple—a book he read and liked, a mug with an inspirational saying, or a small blue bowl for her paper clips.  Not once has he even suggested anything inappropriate, though when he comes into the office after making his rounds, at the counter, filling out the charts between patients, he searches her out.  He lets his eyes rest on the braid that falls between her narrow shoulders, or on her small white teeth as she studies the form printing from the computer and gnaws the end of her pen.
       Wyatt is still handsome, in his silvery affluence, his skin rosy from the sun, and his body lean from the exercise of farming.  In his waking hours, he has no ulterior motives for his kindness to Anna, but often he wakes feverish from sleep, dreaming of Anna in ways that he would not tell anyone and blushes to remember.  He dreams of her mouth open and red as new wine, her long brown arms looped around his waist.  After their kisses, he watches with wonder as she loosens her braid, letting her hair tumble in waves down her narrow back.
Tonight, he listens, distracted, to the banter of the dozen or so friends who are here helping him.  In the cooler that holds bottled water, he has saved a wild rose picked from among the briars that choke the fence-line at the perimeter of his property. 
       Anna comes, finally, at seven, wearing blue jeans and a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  Her long dark braid swings like a bell rope across the V of her back.  The teenage boys stop cutting the clusters of grapes to watch her, and his friend Vic, nursing his stung finger in his mouth, looks over at Wyatt with a foolish grin and his eyebrows raised.  Where have you been hiding her?
       Wyatt hands her a pair of pruning shears.  Oblivious to the stir she has caused, Anna concentrates on cutting the clusters of grapes, tossing them with a plop into the crate beside her.  When she has worked for an hour, Wyatt carries her the rose.  She turns to him, smiling, and Wyatt winds the stem into her hair.  She is a quiet girl, and he doesn’t expect her to speak.  Her smile is enough.  But this time, to his wonder and dismay, she lifts her chin and gives him a kiss, soft as bee wings, upon his cheek.  He bows like a lover and leaves her.  He loves her, and he could be her lover.  Why shouldn’t he?
       Feverish, he picks row upon row of the remaining grapes, each one plump and ripe, ready for harvesting, and all the time seeing her in front of him, imagining his arms locked around him, her body naked and open, curving to his, dreaming of her eyes. When he has finished the fifth row, he goes to find her. But when he catches sight of her, halfway down the last row, he sees that Simon, Vic’s son, in his twenties and home from graduate school, has gotten there first.  Simon has come by the office a couple of times to take Anna to lunch, but until now, Wyatt, busy with patients, has not paid any attention. 
       Wyatt stands at the end of the row, his nerves thrumming, and watches Simon hold a cluster of grapes to Anna’s mouth.  With familiar intimacy, she rests her hand on Simon’s hip.  She bites one, two, three grapes, and then offers them back to Simon from her mouth.  Simon leans forward to take them, touching her tongue with his.  He puts his arm around her and pulls her against him, his hand tracing the line of her chin and moving down, softly and quickly, to her waist.
       Wyatt watches.  In the early September evening, the lovers kiss, as the bees drink the last sweetness from the few grapes left upon the vines.  Wyatt’s groin stirs, but it is not simply Anna’s body he desires.  He wants to be himself, Wyatt, but young again like Simon, ready to save the broken and injured souls who will put themselves into his healing hands.  But he is not young, and he knows the weight of sorrow that comes from learning that everyone he touches, no matter what his skill, sooner or later will die.
       He sighs, and his heart breaks, in the softness of the falling twilight.  The breeze sighs with him, and above the gabled roof of his house, the moon rocks back, resting against the violet sky. 
       From behind, Wyatt hears someone coming, and, in one more act of generosity to this woman whom he loves, he puts his arm around Vic’s shoulders and turns Vic away from what they should not see.  He shares a joke he heard at the hospital.  Vic laughs, and they walk to the patio where the grapes will be de-stemmed, pressed, and casked. Wyatt’s wife walks across the lawn smiling. He kisses her cheek lightly and takes the glass of wine from her hand.
       He glances back, just once, across his shoulder. Simon and Anna emerge from the tangle of vines.  Simon laughs and pulls Anna close. Wyatt’s white rose falls frayed and already wilting from her dark hair.

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Wanda Fries is an alumnus of Lincoln Memorial University. She earned an MFA in fiction from Bennington College. Her stories and poems have been published variously in Appalachian Heritage, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sojourners, New Southerner, Still and The River City Review, among others. She has written a collection of poems, Cassandra Among the Greeks, and a novel, Ash Grove. Her new novel, In the Absence of Angels, set in Ash Grove, a fictional town near the Cumberland Gap area, will be available in the spring of 2013.