Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Cask of Merlot

           “Think if Poe had written “The Cask of Merlot,” cracked this girl with a puckish smile.

          Already I was in love. I watched her tiny fingers tilt the wine glass until a sips-worth spilled past her lips and trickled down her throat. Those nearly green eyes of hers played with mine as she let the wine glass down. Before I took a longer sip of my own, I said, “I am a fan of Poe. He sometimes had a wicked sense of humor.”

          Annie was my date. Our first time out together. “I was named for Annabelle Lee,” she replied. “I think that’s why I am drawn to him. That and the fact my father recited The Raven over and over when I was growing up.”

          The pinot noir kept us company until Joseph the waiter arrived with our food balanced on platters. Hers a meal with roast chicken. Mine, charbroiled steak. I was happy she was a healthy eater.

          “I spend my free time buying books,” I told her, pouring the last of the wine. “I’m pretty much a nerd that way.”

          “I love that you’re a book person,” Annie replied, arranging her food. “I’m one too. I adore Capote. Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

          “You do?” Against my will, I sounded miffed.

          Annie putting on her armor. “Of course. Don’t you like it?” 

          “Well, to be honest,” I said, “I expected so much more out of that book. I actually felt like I had been robbed before I came to the end.”

          And, she took up the gage. “I’m no intellectual. I read for the love of a good story. I love Holly Golightly.”

          I paused my utensils, regretting the challenge I read in her face.

          “Anybody who claims they’ve read Ulysses is a liar,” she said. 

          She laid her weapons to the side and lowered her head over the platter, taking up her knife and fork to cut into the chicken. I chose not to pursue the conversation and concentrated on the steak that was getting cold. I sliced off a portion and pushed it into my mouth. Chewing, looking at my date, who refused to look up at me just now. “Do you like Daphne du Maurier?” 

          She seemed a bit less petulant. “A little. I did when I was a kid.”

          “I’m enjoying you, Annie. I don’t think we ought to spar over our reading habits.”

          Her demeanor softened. She attempted a smile. “Of course not,” she said. 

          We continued our meal, mostly in silence. I could not help feeling I had wounded our budding friendship, and it was like a hidden hole in a rusting cargo vessel. There seemed no way to seal the hole. I watched Annie pick up the glass to drink the remaining wine from it and I drained a final swallow from mine. Joseph appeared to ask if we would like a dessert. He offered a dessert menu.

          I took it from his hand and glanced over the glossy photos and lavish descriptions, but quickly handed the menu to Annie, hoping she might be interested. She studied all of the cakes and ice creams for a few minutes, then returned the menu. “You choose us something,” she said.

          So I chose the biggest, the gooiest, the chocolatiest concoction of them all. She looked somewhat dismayed when Joseph deftly slipped what the restaurant billed as Chocolate Mountain Ecstasy down before her. Slightly alcoholic, perfectly sweetened. She ate three or four bites before pushing the rest of it to the table’s center. “Wow,” she said. “It’s great. I just can’t eat more.

          I nodded, halfway through my own Chocolate Mountain of Ecstasy, swallowing the chocolate, unable to reply. I nodded and managed the tiniest smile.

          Fifteen minutes later, as I held the light jacket for her to slip her arms into, she turned her head to look upon my face the way one looks when evaluating and making judgments. I returned the stare, curious to know her conclusions. Walking to the parking lot, I was searching for something to say. Annie spoke first. “My grandmother tried to teach me to let the man be smarter if I wanted him to like me. I never believed her. There had to be men who value the accomplished woman and revel with her in her triumphs. I’ve met more than a few such men.”

          We had reached the car and we paused before her passenger’s side door. “She was from another culture wasn’t she?” I said. “Didn’t she grow up in eastern Europe somewhere?” 

          “She was Czech,” Annie said. “Tonight I was testing you. Instead of going to the theater, why not just drive and talk?”

          “Of course,” I replied, as I opened the door and she gathered her skirt to slip inside. She was buckling her seatbelt and I came to my side and got in. “You continue where you left off and I will jump in when I see the proper opening,” I said. 

          My seatbelt snapped and I started the engine. I slowly backed into the traffic lane. Choosing a road I knew to be lightly traveled I let us cruise slowly toward the coast. 

          “You thought a little less of me when I said I like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I don’t know if that makes you a snob or discerning critic. I know you have a good education and you are smart. I called you a liar if you say you read Ulysses.”

          She looked at drops of rain wetting the side window. 

          “Go on,” I said as I adjusted the wipers to match the intensity of the unexpected little April shower. 

          “I’ve read Ulysses. Have you ever attempted it?” she challenged.

          “Yes, I’ve read it from cover to cover. I confess to not understanding all of it, but the beauty in the writing haunts me. It’s among my favorite books,” I said.

          “I’m an authority, if such exists, on Finnegan’s Wake,” she said proudly. “I have written articles that were published, helping to make it accessible to more people.”

          “I’m impressed. Deeply impressed. I’ve dabbled, but haven’t gotten far with that one.”

          We both were relaxed and intent on carrying on in this fashion until time to go home. We discovered that we adore Faulkner. And she revealed her tenure at the university. I mentioned my nearly signed book contract. Then she asked and I told her how I wrote my first novel on spiral notebooks while at work. The years of submitting manuscripts, to be ignored. Lightning strikes and I am suddenly making my living off the books. All too soon we were parked where Annie would be getting out and I would walk her to the door. The rain had dissipated. A fretful breeze played with our hair. Her tiny fingers sought mine and we joined hands until we had gotten within a few steps of the entrance. “I certainly enjoyed everything,” Annie said. “I would like very much to see you again.”

          “Me too,” I replied. “Perhaps we could go to the theater on Saturday?”

          “I think so. Call me tomorrow in the evening,” she said, slipping her hand away from mine.

          Annie planted a quick kiss on my cheek and dashed for the door. Pushing the key in the lock she looked back at me and said, smiling, “But I actually do adore Holly Golightly.”

          I grinned all the way back to the car.  

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