by Liam Callanan
The wine stood on a high shelf, past tense very much called for, because moments after the waitress leapt for it — leapt, did not get a stool, did not ask for help, leapt because she once could — the bottle wobbled and began to fall.
On earth, objects plummet at a pace of 9.8 meters per second squared, which means this bottle will reach the ground approximately two-thirds of a second after it begins its journey. But as any oenophile knows, wine makes a moment last — in this case, long enough to share exactly 15 things about this particular night.
- The bottle is a 2007 “Gloria” Lagrein. Ancient vines from an ancient variety. Supple, savory, inexplicably subtle, and the best bottle currently in this tiny South Tyrolean café.
- It’s not on the menu.
- The restaurant is closed.
- The restaurant owner, chef, and alternate waiter Paolo has been quietly saving the bottle for his wife’s birthday; he thinks it will make his divorce request go down more easily. He is wrong, and not just because the bottle, named for the vinter’s daughter, celebrates continuity, harmony, glory.
- The co-owner, alternate chef, leaping waitress, and Paolo’s wife Toni noted the wine’s arrival in the cellar late last year and has been quietly saving it for his birthday (which is tonight, months before hers); she thinks, rightly, that he will need a drink if their daughter, who was to arrive earlier, ever does.
- There’s a chance that Toni might catch the wine before it crashes to the flagstone floor. Thirty-one years on, Toni still holds the University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s basketball record for assists. Although never the tallest on the team, she was always the strongest. After graduation, she went on to play EuroLeague Women’s basketball for clubs all around Italy, a golden era when Italian teams seemed to routinely win the Champions Cup, beating out the Latvian teams who’d dominated for decades. Then Toni got hurt, the Russians started winning, and she came to South Tyrol to help coach Basket Club Bolzano. Great women, but she didn’t like sideline life, the head coach didn’t like her, the United States’ WNBA had yet to launch, and she didn’t want to go home anyway. This part of Italy felt a little like Wisconsin, so German, and Paolo, so handsome, was a good cook, did (at the time) his own dishes, and, with his Italian name, nearly as much an outsider in Tyrol as she. Or so she thought until she understood that South Tyrol was much a blend as the wines she’d come to enjoy. And deep in their DNA, they share a gene for impetuosity. Twenty-five years married this spring, and she tells people the secret to their longevity is that she saves Paolo from most problems, like this falling bottle, without his knowing. With one-third of a second having passed, both she and the bottle are in the air.
- She has been gone too long, Paolo thinks. It’s been five minutes since she left off sweeping to get ‘something’ in the office. He’s been cleaning alone ever since. If there is one American word he would like to understand, it is something. If there is one American place he would like to understand, it is Wisconsin. Then, and only then, he might better understand Toni, who betrayed him not so long ago. But who can understand their only daughter, Celia, 22 years old, who, two years to the day, gave up this life and all that was in it to join the sisters in the convent up the hill? He has not seen Celia since, though he’s thought about doing so often, sometimes while walking up the path from town to the hilltop convent’s door, a trip he’s made more than once, only to turn away. He counts the number of steps he takes each time; it varies. The things he has to apologize for have not. That he spent more time with the restaurant than her. That he and her mother never had a sibling for her. That he refused to go to the ceremony when Celia took vows, even though he understood that would be the last time — per the convent’s ancient rules — that he’d see her for 25 years.
- The night Celia came to tell him that she was entering the convent, someone had dropped her off, late, at the front of the restaurant. That whole last week, she’d stayed out later and later every night, bidding friends farewell, though he hadn’t known, then, that that’s what she was doing. He didn’t worry; he never had. His daughter always — as Toni was quick to point out — came home. That night, though Celia never drank, Celia asked him for a glass of ‘something’ red.
- That time they drank Marvin’s cherry wine. Marvin, a giant, Toni’s father, who on his one visit to Bolzano to see them said he would kill Paolo for stealing away his daughter, then laughed. Paolo didn’t think the man was joking, even after Marvin poured great tumblers of the homemade red he’d brought from America. Cherries from Door County, Wisconsin, the bottle scavenged from the recycling bin, the wine red like a siren, jammy and just this side of awful. But after two, then three glasses, the sweet became smooth. Then Marvin revealed a second bottle he’d snuck through customs. A third. By the time the night was done, Paolo was insisting Marvin make him a case for the restaurant, to be delivered in person on his next visit. The two men sang — of all things — Carpenters songs late into the night, solved every last one of the world’s problems, watched the Dolomite peaks surrender to the sun the next morning. Marvin died a year later. His will left “everything” — another American word Paolo would like to better understand — to Toni and Paolo, and this had consisted of US$500 and six cases of cherry wine, the latter requiring all of the former to pay customs duty.
- If Paolo had served Celia the “Gloria” that last night, would she have stayed? He asks this question of Toni sometimes, a joke, like her father’s, that really wasn’t.
- Toni’s betrayal makes him angry and it was this: she gave her blessing to Celia’s mad decision. Toni spoke to him in English, as she always did when the matter was serious. Celia was an adult, Celia could make her own choices, Celia had loved the nuns in the castle-convent on the hill since she was a child, when the sisters made regular visits to her classes to read, tell stories, and most of all, listen to the children’s stories in turn. Madness, Paolo still thought and thinks, but Toni said it was useless to fight, their daughter had too much of her father in her — his eyes, his will, his stubbornness.
- Toni and Paolo first kissed in the office where she and the bottle still, as of this sentence, fall. That long ago night, Toni had come to the restaurant alone on her way out of town, stayed until after the last guest left and finally said, “we have to see how far this is going to go.”
- His English was better than her German, but when she asked for a ruler, he thought he’d misheard. But no, she wanted to try a grade school science experiment, an old coach’s trick: drop a ruler through someone’s open grip, measure how long it takes them to catch it. She went first — so quick — then it was his turn. He’d been studying her upper lip — wanting to touch it, with a finger, maybe, possibly, a tongue? Such a strange feeling, this; they’d only just met. Then, lost in thought, she lightly tapped her upper lip with her own tongue, which so startled him that he flinched, closed his grip just as she let go of the ruler. He won. Toni stayed.
- While wine and glass are arguably both made of magic, the latter draws fewer poets. A shame. Scientists and not a few vintners know that anything that appears commonplace about glass is a deception; it’s a remarkably unusual substance. In most solids, molecules arrange themselves in orderly rows. By contrast, glass molecules clot, crowd and cluster. However inert any pane or vessel appears, know (Paolo doesn’t) that it shimmers with trapped energy, waiting for something to release it.
- Across this wide planet, there are exceptions to every rule but gravity. There are portions of Italy where most speak German; there are wines made of fruit other than grapes; there are great wines, worthy of a rare evening, that come not from Bordeaux or Napa or Tuscany, but rather the sunny alpine hills of South Tyrol; there is the husband who plans to ask for a divorce who actually wants to do no such thing; and there is the young nun who, upon nervously asking permission to visit her father on his birthday, is answered by a gruff prioress in a black wimple who pauses her writing, removes her glasses, and snorts “of course.”
The bottle caroms from Toni’s hands to Paolo’s to Toni’s foot, a regular battering, enough to slow the bottle’s descent so that it lands upright, imperceptibly bounces, wobbles, and settles, the wine a storm inside.
For more than a year, Toni has been trying to find a way to tell Paolo that she’s been visiting Celia monthly, that Celia’s well, that Celia — his daughter, his one and only child — would love for him to visit, too, but doesn’t want Toni to ask him to; Celia wants him to visit of his own volition. Who is this child? Some days Toni is just as mystified as Paolo. But Toni had urged Celia to ask permission to visit her parents in town, and Celia said she would, and Toni really believed she’d show tonight, at 5 pm, as arranged.
In five minutes, it will be midnight, no longer his birthday.
“I’ll pour,” says Paolo, picking up the bottle. She agrees, glad he can’t see her shadowed face. They move wordlessly from the office into the dark of the shuttered restaurant. She pulls down glasses from the bar, he looks for a corkscrew. The bells over the door tinkle.
There are things Toni will never understand: why she was born ten years too early for the WNBA, how she tore her Achilles tendon in Schio, why her only daughter professes to love God enough to choose a celibate life in an 800-year-old monastery 1165 meters above sea level, how a flower can consume sun and water and soil for 180 days, and then, after months, maybe years, return that sun and water and soil to the palate, transmogrified into something wholly different, something essentially the same.
Or why Paolo beat her record in the ruler drop.
But this much she knows, that they will continue to find fine flecks of glass in crevices and corners for years to come.