Fruit of the Vine
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by Cynthia Kolko
Description: Set in the panoramic wine country of New York's Finger Lakes region, Fruit of the Vine is a story of environmental conservation, and life, in rural New York State. Jemison "Jem" Loud is a young, string-bean of a vineyard worker who drinks beer with his buddies and bemoans his lot in the small rural town of Sawhorn, New York in the early 1990s. A fire at the old opera house on Main Street brings to Sawhorn Joe Silla, a brash self-serving entrepreneur hell-bent on forcing the traditional town to progress his way. When Jem's father dies, Jem inherits a historic farm which Joe Silla has in his sights for development. As Jem struggles with what to do with the property and uncovers his own family's secrets, he confronts the tangled shoots of nature and nurture: what is inbred, what our culture feeds to us, and what we cultivate from it all, the Fruit of the Vine. A rich cast of characters all sow the seeds of personal growth in Jem until he becomes a man ready to tackle the future, and real love, head on. With the cynicism and wit that living off the land begets, Fruit of the Vine paints a vivid portrait of contemporary life in rural New York, illuminating the contrast between the bucolic setting and the hard-edged folks who inhabit it.
eBook Publisher: Charles River Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [337 KB]
Reading time: 198-277 min.
Cynthia is a great story-teller and has woven the true fabric of our wine-making region into a wonderful read. Entertaining, thirst-provoking, and a keen inside look at the lifeline of Finger Lakes wine. -Holly Howell, Wine Columnist and Certified Sommelier A fun and entertaining read. Cynthia really did her homework. Being part of the wine and grape industry makes it especially enjoyable for me. -Scott Osborn, Owner, Fox Run Vineyards Fruit of the Vine is fun, fresh and fascinating -just like the Finger Lakes. -Valerie Knoblauch, Finger Lakes Visitors Connection
Bar-going knew no season in the town of Sawhorn. During the longer months, the warmer ones, tourists spilled into Louds Tavern with certain predictability after a day of vineyard tours, eager for a refuge from the confines of whichever bed and breakfast held their luggage. Not that a good drink wasnt enough of an incentive.
But even in the marrow of winter, when white-outs bleached the roads of visibility and a fierce chill sifted into the pores of thick jackets like water through a sieve, the tavern was well-populated, standing much as it had through over two hundred years of wear and tearto both the edifice and the patronsenduring all that upstate New York could dish out, duly fulfilling its role as watering hole of choice for locals. Indeed, it was the only bar in town.
This Sunday evening, the last one of the year, was usual at first. The sun had gone down merely an hour previously. The days football score was final, and the bottle-beaten bar was rimmed with man butts standing, leaning, and perching on stools. Adams apples bobbed with gulps of beer.
Jem Loud entered the joint, jacket on, cap sun-faded, arching his too-tall frame under the doorway, tripping over the heap of jackets shed by the overcrowded hooks near the door. His buddy Zack beckoned to him. Neither man had yet celebrated his twenty-second birthday.
Jem ordered, received, took a sip, sat down, and stood up as if pricked by a tack. He bent his torso over the splintered bar.
Yo Bender! When are you going to fix this stool? My ass just got pinched in it again! Through my pants!
Earl Bender chuckled. The bars proprietor and Jems second cousin, he was an unlikely hunk. Bender favored rumbling, flesh-jarring motorcycles and wore tight rock concert t-shirts, sleeveless ones that revealed biceps and triceps oddly bare of tattoos. A sour stench sometimes emanated from the tangled region between his arm and chest. A black moustache dominated his face and topped a rectangular smile of tall teeth. Somehow, he got women.
Find yourself some heavier-duty pants, said Bender. Yours are like paper towels. And get some boxers. Word around here is you like to freeball.
Bender cupped his crotch for effect and then with the same hand, fished a lime wedge out of a bowl, forcing the juicy slice into the neck of a beer bottle. He clonked it in front of a man whose facial color seemed derived from the red in his buffalo plaid shirt. Bender pointed to a lone stool at the end of the bar.
Grab that one before one of these other fuckers gets it.
Jem dragged the good stool next to Zack like a wheeled suitcase through an airport.
Dude needs to take a marketing class, Zack said. Bad for business, insulting your customers.
Jem ignored Zacks complaint, as weak as it was. No one had exactly stormed out.
Bar has my name on it, think theyd have a decent place for me to sit, Jem said.
The tavern was old as the town, with a white clapboard facade that glowed at night in the soft wash of the streetlights like a foggy billboard. It was named for Jems forbearers, English settlers whod taken up where the French left off in eradicating the Seneca from the area. The town itself could have carried the name Loudthe clan was among the areas first English pioneers but instead was named for Elias Sawhorn, a childless, wifeless farmer who died of diphtheria. That was just like the Louds. Omnipresent but never remarkable.
Jem had well-proportioned features, a body lithe as a rubber band, and matte skin that bronzed in the sun like a terracotta pot. Since the age of eleven or so, hed worn his hair in a grown-out crew cut. He only altered the style once, briefly that past year, when hed razored his favorite NASCAR drivers car number into the side of it.
Zack, the color of toast, was six inches shorter than Jem and bulkier, with muscles that responded to physical labor by becoming pronounced. The two worked together at Hassler Vineyard, out in the field or in the barn, working on the press deck, the harvester, pumping barrels, even bottling wine. All the toting and lifting expanded Zacks biceps to what he called guns. He weighed a lot on account of those muscles.
Before long, Jem felt the need to slink away to the back corner of the tavern. He opened the door stenciled with a silhouette of a man in a porkpie hat, adding his fingerprints to the smudged brass rectangle as he pushed.
It was hard to imagine a circumstance that could empty the tavern before closing time, and yet, while Jem stood whistling, drilling the urinal cake with his stream, all but two of the bars lubricated patrons funneled out the door like hourglass sand. Jem swung open the mens room door to find Zack slumped at the bar like a lonely trucker.
You sure picked a bad time to go to the can, said Zack. The Brasserie is on fire.
Jem pulled a few dollars from a money clip engraved with his great-grandfathers initials and put the wrinkled bills on the bar, where they remained unclaimed. Bender had fled the joint along with the rest. Just outside the tavern, Jem peered like a prairie dog over the heads of the small crowd watching the blaze a block away on the same side of Main Street. A larger halo of people hovered around the Brasseries periphery.
Sawhorn dwelled in the foothills of western New York, in a region of agriculture and lakes, country closer to Canada than the hubbub that swirled around New York City, though out-of-staters, particularly those from out West, seemed to think that this rural area and Manhattan were one and the same. Even folks from New York City itself sometimes myopically took upstate to mean those counties ringing the city.
Sawhorns grape-growing operations, intertwined with forsaken farms, were sprinkled over thousands of painterly acres that radiated from downtown, a mere half-mile collection of buildings edging Main Street and its tributaries. Ornate Victorian homes, subdivided into efficiency apartments, hinted at latter-day prosperity that at some point turned forlorn and struggling. Old structures housed restaurants that were written up by the health department, shops that went out of business and a salon that almost guaranteed a bad dye job. A building originally erected as a jail now held a lawyer's office. With upstate New York claiming the highest tax rate in the nation, the only person in Sawhorn busier than a grape grower was a tax attorney.
The Brasserie, which occupied the bottom floor of a converted opera houseand whose name almost everyone mispronounced at one time or another, jokingly or not, as the brassierewas the closest thing to chic Sawhorn had, with toile tablecloths, waiters in bowties, and menus containing foreign-sounding names for sauces. A foreign-sounding martial-arts school resided on the upper floor above the restaurant.
Jesus. Its the Tae Kwon Do studio, said Zack.
The hell is that? said Jem.
Flames like orange Halloween streamers fluttered from the studios windows. A pair of fire trucks from a neighboring town honked a series of jarring blasts as if announcing their arrival.
Like karate, Zack said when they could hear themselves again. They teach it up there. He pointed to the flaming second-story windows.
Jem had never noticed the signnow reduced to ashes on the windowsillthat announced the studio to Main Street. He tended to walk slightly hunched the way tall young men do (especially the shy ones who subconsciously try to shorten themselves), eyeing the moist toes of his work boots.
It had taken some time before the fire upstairs registered with diners downstairs. While smoke leaked through the vents under the restaurants crown molding, waiters ignored the thickening fog. They navigated around tables, holding trays high on flat hands as if nothing unusual were happening. Eventually one or two patrons stood up, looked around. They asked questions of the waiters or just of the air. Some motioned for the check.
Before long, all the Brasseries patrons had left, some holding doggie bags they were careful to get packed before they fled. People assembled in the bank parking lot across the street. Chefs and wait staff formed a tight circle, like a group of hacky sack players. The lot was almost as crowded as Jem had ever seen it, rivaling even Sawhorns annual fall grape festival, when this very pavement was rimmed with tents, vendors serving buffalo burgers, samples of pie, wine in Dixie cups, and grapes from small wooden crates. Sometimes, there was music too. Girls wore shorts. At this time of year, those same girls were cloaked in Michelin Man down coats or shapeless fleece sacks with sleeves.
Laura Fillmore waved to Jem and Zack, smiling as if it were a parade.
It happened so fast, she said, gesturing to the flames, which seemed to intensify despite the blitz of water from the fire trucks hoses.
The streetlamp washed over her freckled skin and bounced light off the enamel grapes pinned to her lavender hat. Her chestnut hair hung in a braid down her back like a branch. Back at Sawhorn Regional High School, Jem had shared a few classes with Laura, her cinnamon-glazed skin turning orange when the teacher called on her. Laura had the damndest laugh, ringing out in staccato notes, bouncing off the metal lockers like mallets hitting a glockenspiel. With his eyes seared shut, Jem would know who was laughing just by the sound. He had barely spoken to Laura in those days. He preferred instead to appear aloof, intriguing girls with his mysterious demeanor, an attraction tactic that worked just about as well as gravel in a birdfeeder.
Were you in there? asked Jem.
Lauras voice was low, almost masculine, like a young boy imitating his fathers speech.
Yeah. The owners gave me a certificate. Christmas gift. Said they appreciate me always bringing their pies on time. Guess its good I got anything. Someone said the electrical system was probably overloaded. But who knows? Didnt look to me like there was a whole lot of electricity being used. All the dim lights.
The hoses onslaught gained an advantage and the fire slowed to an orange glow. A trio of firefighters entered the building. Plumes of smoke rose from the roof and disappeared into the tar-colored sky.
A dark-haired man stood, gaze tethered to the charred building, the sky salted with snowflakes that dissolved in the air by the frozen thousands before hitting the flames. Jem recognized the mans stance, designed, subconsciously or not, to let everyone know he was hot shit, at least in his own mind: balls pitched forward, shoulders back, pecs pushing his man-breasts taut against the inside of his shirt, arms hanging wide. It was Lauras brother-in-law, Joe Silla, the first name seldom mentioned without the last, the two forming an irresistible, easy-to-utter combination of vowels and consonants that sounded like the name of a B-movie monster. Jem pointed a hitchhiker thumb toward the man.
Back in town?
House is done. They just moved into it, said Laura.
Her older sister Sandras home sat in a freshly carved out subdivision whose brick-fronted houses featured two-story foyers hung with oversized glittering chandeliers like gilded octopi. Doorbells played classical music snippets.
Wheres Sandra? asked Zack, whipping his head around.
Laura pointed to a frowning blonde in a knee-length fur. A fireman waving both hands like a crazy orchestra conductor bellowed at the assembled crowd.
Everyone go home! Move out of here! Keep this place clear! the fireman yelled.
See you on the farm, Laura said.
Jem watched Laura retreat, her parka sitting high enough on her waist to reveal the back pocket slits of her wool pants, the dressiest thing Jem had ever seen her wear, prom night included. With each step, alternately, one of Lauras butt cheeks pushed against the fabric of her pants so that the rounded outline could be glimpsed. Left, right, left, right.
Give it up, said Zack.
I could get her if I wanted to, said Jem.
Too bad Joe Silla beat you to Sandra, Zack said.
Not my type either, said Jem.
Bullshit. Youd do a tree if it wasnt for the splinters.
Jem stood with gloveless hands in his pockets, looking at the blackened, smoldering opera house, still spitting sparks.
Wonder whatll happen to the place now?
Who cares? answered Zack. It wont affect me. Wont affect any of us.
The cops re-opened Main Street. Sawhorn seemed to return to normal almost as quickly as the fire had erupted. The tavern refilled. People started vehicles, scraped ice from windshields.
Not a few Sawhorn residents hoped the oncoming year might offer something of a different existence, a break from the staid, an improvement that still allowed the comfort of the usual. It was a noble dream, yet change wasnt something one could order up just the way you wanted it, like a beer. Sometimes change came at you with the force of water from a fire hose. And damn if you werent prepared for a soaking.