EILEEN R. TABIOS
Introduction: This failed novel’s concept was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. But, candidly, I might not have taken the novel-writing seriously enough since, if I recall correctly, I mostly was interested in finding a way to recycle the voluminous wine-tasting notes I’d collected as a member of a wine-tasting club in New York City (the "Robert Parker" mentioned in the novel refers to the real wine analyst). This excerpt was written during the late 1990s and, as such, also can be considered a "newbie" writer's effort.
At midnight, the moon was an amber coin pasted against the lime-green sky. The sight made Edgar shiver despite January's 80-degree temperature that was making the glass in his hand sweat. His wife, Gladys, had been asleep for nearly two hours, but Edgar couldn't sleep from anticipating their move later that day from the apartment they had shared for nearly 50 years. As he sipped his artificial lemonade, he scowled at the intermittent flashes of lightning throwing red cracks against the sky. Six months ago, lightning had begun to lash the sky every night.
He dropped a glare down Broadway where long-dead street lamps stood, unable to be cleared because of their status as Historical Monuments by the Federal Historical Society. Some families bunched together into sleeping puddles against the side of buildings. Many families shared apartments on a daily time-share basis, a common practice in the country's larger cities. Most families began their twelve-hour allocation of shared dwellings at noon each day, leaving them stranded to sleep on the streets from midnight to dawn.
A new law was scheduled to become effective on New Year's Day, 2035 that prevented the ownership of more than one residence. Forced to choose, Edgar, Gladys, and their granddaughter Sheila decided to leave their Manhattan apartment and permanently reside in Lincoln, New Hampshire where they owned a house that they had used as a vacation home for the past 30 years. Their Manhattan apartment undoubtedly would become the home to four or five families, some on a rotational basis, as their three-bedroom apartment was unusually large.
You may be the lucky one, Billy, not having to live on this earth anymore, he thought.
"What's up, Poppy?"
Edgar turned to see Sheila by the terrace doors. She was yawning as she rubbed one foot on top of another.
"Oh, nothing, sweetheart. I'm just too keyed up from the move to sleep," Edgar said as he smiled fondly at his granddaughter. Sheila walked over and put her arms around him. Together, they both looked down on Broadway.
"I won't miss New York at all. I can't stand all this overcrowding. People live like caged animals in the city," Sheila said.
Edgar sighed as he replied, "Sometimes, I don't know who's better off: people like you who don't know when the world was much different from what your generation is inheriting, or people like me who remember how it used to be."
"How was it different, Poppy?"
Sheila loved to hear Edgar talk about what they called "the good ol' days" before extreme equatorial heat had forced a huge migration north, forcing most Americans into cities to maintain as much agricultural land as possible.
"Look down there," Edgar motioned to the streets ten stories below where they stood. "Can you see even a patch of the sidewalk through that crowd? Before, there would not have been much traffic at this hour. In a January night, you could feel the chill seep through layers and layers of clothes, see snow covering the city . . ."
"Like 'It's A Winter Wonderland'," Sheila interrupted, having heard the story before. Then she started humming the holiday song.
Edgar sipped his lemonade and stared into the windows of the building facing theirs. He couldn't decide which was preferable: to look down on the crowded streets or the reflected garish colors of the sky that always reminded him of a cartoonized Hawaiian sunset. It was a vicious cycle: while the planet's resources strained to cope with the global population that continued to burgeon even after topping 25 billion people during the 2033 census, pollution also continued to rise, further exacerbating the planet's limited capacities. To adjust, nature also changed in inexplicable ways. What I'd give for a blue sky that darkens to simple ebony at night, he thought as he sipped his drink made from reconstituted potatoes. And the stars . . . when was the last time I saw the twinkle of a star?
"Now, go on. It's your bedtime," he said as Sheila's humming trailed off in a yawn. "We've got a hard trip tomorrow." After a kiss, Sheila unprotestingly returned inside the apartment.
Ahhhhh, Billy, what kind of future does your daughter have? I'm not sure we can protect her from the future, Edgar returned to his thoughts of his only son.
Billy had been among the American casualties of the 2020 Spanish-French War. When Spain invaded Bordeaux trying to seize the Bordelais' cache of wine, the United States sent troops to France's aid. The invasion was short-lived, but Billy, then a Marine Sergeant, had fallen only a day after his arrival on French shore. As with other casualties, his body was cremated and ashes spread over the ocean by the U.S. Navy. Cemeteries no longer existed, long replaced with agricultural or housing developments.
Lila, Billy's wife, died less than a year later. Although Lila caught pneumonia, people always surmised that she died of a broken heart. Childhood sweethearts, Lila and Billy had been almost inseparable since they met in tenth grade. After her death, Edgar and Gladys raised Sheila who recently graduated from high school but continued to live with them. Sheila would not be eligible to enter college for another five years. Even if Sheila had managed to find a job to support herself, she still would have had to share a residence with Edgar and Gladys until she married and had at least one child. The government had strict rules regulating how families become eligible for maintaining their own households. Fortunately, Edgar and Gladys adored Sheila who had inherited their son's sweet disposition.
"Honey, rise and shine. We've got a big day ahead of us."
Gladys gently nudged Edgar awake. Groaning, Edgar turned his back and buried his face further into his pillow before remembering what day it was. He sat up and looked blearily at Gladys who offered him a mug of steaming black potato-coffee.
"How could I forget? Time to move on out of here. What time is it?" he said after his first sip.
"About 7. Sheila's in the shower. And as soon as you're set, I've got ready a big filling breakfast of bagels, lox and scallion cream cheese," Gladys said briskly as she started stripping the linens from the bed.
"Don't you mean, potato imitations?" Edgar muttered.
Gladys pretended not to hear, though she thought, No sense railing against futility, my dear. The earth could no longer produce the variety of food that schoolchildren read about in their textbooks. Instead, Alaska had turned into a gigantic laboratory producing replicas from enriched proteins with a potato base.
Edgar decided not to finish the coffee. He observed a few months ago that he had begun to have difficulty recalling the taste of his favorite coffee. The more he drank laboratory-produced coffee, the more vague became his memory of Kenyan beans—its mocha taste with a hint of chocolate bitterness. Chocolate! What I'd give for a piece of dark Godiva, he thought as he walked towards the bathroom. Glancing out the window, he saw the lemon-yellow sky depicting the beginning of another day.
"We will miss you and your family, Mr. Verdot."
Tomas, their apartment building's manager, was out on the sidewalk helping the Verdots to the subway entrance with what little baggage they would be permitted on the electric transport. He looked out morosely from under the brim of his Boston Red Sox baseball cap, his most cherished possession since the baseball leagues went out of business ten years ago. "It's a sad day in Mudville, my fellow Americans. But the baseball fields must make room for our homeless," President George Bush, Jr. had announced on nationwide television, the faces of Congress solemn and mournful behind him.
Edgar took Tomas aside and slipped some bills into his hands.
"We'll miss you, too. This is too small a token for how much you've looked after us," he said.
"Oh, no, no. This is not necessary. No, no. I am sure your family needs it as much," Tomas protested, trying to push the bills back at Edgar.
Edgar pretended to look sternly at Tomas.
"You have three grandchildren, all under ten years of age. I can spare this, believe me," he said.
Tomas shook his head and reluctantly looked down at the money in his hand. He started to express his gratitude but gasped when he realized how many bottle-like shapes were imprinted on each of the bills. Stunned, he looked back at Edgar, "Mr. Verdot, this is so much! How can you afford, where did you get . . .?"
Edgar waved him off and held out his hand.
"There's so much in life that I can't bear to explain," he said. "Let's leave it at that."
Tomas bowed and clasped Edgar's hands. The two men looked at each other silently. Tomas was five years younger than Edgar, sufficiently old to have shared Edgar's disconcertion over the years at the adjustments the planet and its people had been forced to make. They often shared memories, trying to prevent their fading by reaffirming the truth of their past experiences.
"Edgar, we're ready to go."
Gladys' voice interrupted their silent reverie. As they bade farewell, the smiles didn't go beyond their lips to reach their eyes where sorrow refused to abate.
In Edgar's "good ol' days," the journey from Manhattan to Lincoln, New Hampshire would have taken about five-and-a-half hours by car. Through the electric transport system, the trip required only 36 hours.
"The whole world's become an Edward Hopper painting," Edgar grumbled to Gladys as they watched the arid countryside. The journey felt like the process of an escape, except that through the six different transports from Manhattan to Lincoln, there was little respite from the long shadows cast against the sand by the black shapes interrupting the lemon sky. Edgar felt as if the earth was encased in yellow plastic. He stopped looking out of the window; in his mind he could still picture a sky which was azure blue, perhaps lapis lazuli blue, and intermittently dotted with the white cotton balls of pristine white clouds.
The sky had transmuted to lime-green by the time they arrived in Lincoln, a natural habitat zone.
"Here we are," Edgar announced, forcing a cheerful tone into his voice as they rode past a 15-story McDonalds. "Lincoln—where there is still space for a person to stand and stretch out his hands without fearing contact of a neighbor's walls."
Sheila didn't stir. Gladys said, "She's asleep" before taking Edgar's right hand and squeezing it.
He threw her a glance and winked. "Sure could use a celebratory drink, couldn't you?"
"Shussshhh," Gladys whispered again but also smiled.
After a few moments, Gladys asked, "Dear, remember when we popped the last bottle of the 1970 Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet? One of the greatest California reds ever made?"
Edgar tossed her a grin and said, "I remember it quite well. We popped it on April 5, 1994, the day Andre Tchelistcheff died. The old man really knew his stuff. Nearly 30 years from when the wine was made and I could still taste the Rutherford dust within the velvet folds of red fruits smoothened by age."
Gladys smiled in agreement before gently touching Sheila on the shoulder as the transport pulled into Lincoln Station.
"Sheila, dear, we're home."
"I'll look for a taxi," Edgar said as he stepped out onto the raked gravel. He breathed deeply and felt better.
Gladys also breathed into the air which was much fresher than New York’s. But then she shook her head.
"You know, I can never get used to this green sky. It just seems so, so, unseemly," she said, her voice faltering. "A green night. . .?"
Edgar hugged her. Nuzzling her hair, he whispered, "Now, now. Remember Sheila."
"Sheila!" Gladys stood back from his embrace and called through the entrance to the transport. Sheila came out groggily. As she walked towards her grandparents, her knees buckled and she collapsed.
"Oh my God, Sheila!" Gladys rushed to hold Sheila into her arms. "Edgar, do something!"
"I'll get help!" Edgar yelled as he ran towards the station house.
"Honey, some coffee?" Edgar offered a plastic cup towards Gladys. They had been waiting for an hour in the waiting room of Lincoln General. Sheila was in another room being checked by an emergency medical team.
Before Gladys could reply, the door opened.
"Mr. and Mrs. Verdot?" the white-robed resident asked. He looked like Sheila's age, thought Edgar as he reached for Gladys' hands. So young, they're all so young. Or am I just too damn old to be alive?
"Yes. How is Sheila?" Gladys asked as she stood up slowly from her chair, wanting some news but fearful at the same time.
"I'm Dr. Spatz. She's fine right now. We've stabilized her condition," Dr. Spatz rubbed his forehead as he spoke. Blue shadows lingered under his eyes.
"What's wrong with her? Can we see her?" Edgar asked.
"Well, she's asleep right now. You can look in for just a moment but I'd like to suggest you simply go home and get some sleep. We'll keep her here and do more tests tomorrow," Dr. Spatz said.
When they stopped by Sheila's room, Edgar and Gladys were shocked by the plastic square tent that dropped over Sheila's face.
"Don't worry. It's just to facilitate her breathing. We're pumping purified oxygen around her," Dr. Spatz whispered comfortingly.
"My angel," Gladys said, her eyes blinking wetly as they gazed at their grandaughter. A furrow cleaved Sheila's brow as if she slept amidst much pain.
"Damn lime sky. You're an obscenity, is what you are," Edgar said as he looked out of the window of the hospital waiting room the following morning.
"Nothing, nothing," he turned his back to the window and smiled at Gladys who had been looking at the same page of her book for the past hour. "I'm just wondering what's taking them so long."
"I assume they have a lot of tests to run. Let's be patient. Come, why don't you sit next to me," Gladys said, patting the seat of the couch.
Edgar looked at her silently. He could see what a stranger could not: the effort of presenting serenity. He walked slowly towards her, clasping his faintly trembling hands behind him.
"Do you remember, my dear, when there were still stretches of beaches to visit and we took Billy to Hawaii?" he asked, dredging his mind for happier subjects.
"Oh my, yes," Gladys said. "My goodness, wasn't that our last big vacation anywhere, not counting our forays to New Hampshire from Manhattan?"
Hmmmm, not exactly the thought I wanted to bring up, Edgar thought as he sat beside Gladys.
"We were so lucky to visit Maui and Kauai. The government was trying to preserve the public beaches there. But almost immediately after we returned from our trip, the government announced that they had to develop aquatic farms along the beaches. Remember?" Gladys continued, shaking her head. "My goodness, what happened? It seems so tough to keep living nowadays."
"What happened, indeed! You know, by now we're supposed to have achieved successful space travel. We were going to colonize uninhabited planets, remember?" Edgar felt an old bitterness rise. He felt out of control. He wanted to distract Gladys with a pleasant topic but felt like he couldn't stop talking about past betrayals that made his blood boil.
"Then we find out, after quadzillions of dollars down the drain that NASAIA had been lying all along. They had never perfected, like they claimed in 2010, hyperlight velocity. So much for moving the planet's population to other sites that could support human life! This was the government that took Billy's life with their politics!"
"To think that people thought the Greenhouse Effect was fake! Well, it sure warmed up quickly in 2003, didn't it?" Gladys replied, recalling when a significant rise in earthwide temperatures melted the polar ice caps, sizeably decreasing the planet's land size while also making much land infertile.
Both looked up expectantly when the door opened, but it was only a Candy Striper volunteer bringing in a tray.
"Good morning. My name is Helen. Here's some tea and cookies," she said brightly as she set the tray down onto the coffee table.
"Do you know anything about the status of our grandaughter, Sheila Verdot?" Gladys asked.
"No, no. I wouldn't. But I know that Dr. Spatz's team is aware of your presence. I'm sure they'll update you as soon as they can," Helen smiled reassuringly before leaving the room.
Edgar reached over for a plain cookie and sniffed it.
"Potato cookie," he said disgustedly, putting it back on the plate.
"Why don't we all just eat potatoes and be done with it!" Edgar exclaimed as he stood up and walked back towards the window. "They imitate 20th century cuisine with potatoes. They even do a pretty good job of imitating what they look like so that a person can sit down to a five-course meal: appetizers, soup, a main course, salad and dessert. But they all taste like reconstituted potatoes! We should just start swallowing pills."
Gladys didn't bother to reply. She knew Edgar would never trade eating from plates of imitation food for popping pills for sustenance. At least the imitation food allows us to indulge in drinking wine, she thought.
"Dear, remember the 1971 Conterno Monfortino Riserva?"
Understanding that Gladys was trying to cheer him up, Edgar forced a grin on his face and turned towards her.
"The 1971 Monfortino! Absolutely! How can I forget its bouquet of raisins, pepper and earth? And an unbelievably full body. The red and black fruits were positively crunchy—it was like swallowing a tank!" he said, returning to join Gladys on the couch.
"Yes, and I can still see its color: a purple so dark that it was impenetrable, even against the light—I haven't seen anything that dark in such a long time," Gladys said.
"But Edgar, I think you were always wrong to rate the 1971 Monfortino above the 1985 Sassicaia," she chided. "The Sassicaia was a more complicated wine: gravel and buried fruits in the nose with underlying tones of pepper and chocolate. And it was so smooth!"
"With all due respect, love of my life, the 1971 Monfortino is the best Italian wine ever made, notwithstanding the fact that Parker rated it lower than the 1985 Monfortino," Edgar replied.
For one brief moment of respite, the elderly couple lost themselves in the dialogue of an amicable but old dispute.
"Good morning, or is it afternoon? I'm sorry to keep you waiting," Dr. Spatz entered the waiting room. It had been three hours since Helen’s visit. He motioned them both to sit on the couch. Sitting on a chair, he began flipping through the papers on his clipboard.
"Let's see," he said, clearing his throat. "We've ran a whole battery of tests on Sheila. She's asleep again, which is understandable since the tests took some toll."
"How is she?" Edgar and Gladys blurted out at the same time.
"Well, there's no easy way to say this. Sheila is suffering from EMPHAS," Dr. Spatz replied, before clearing his throat again.
"Oh my," Gladys said weakly, then dropped her face onto her hands as Edgar stood up and walked towards the window. He stared at the sky but didn't notice its color this time.
EMPHAS was the latest pollution-related disease and the most virulent yet to appear in the 21st century. Doctors speculated that many people under age thirty never managed to develop sufficiently-strong immune systems. The disease was named after the old-fashioned disease of emphysema. Edgar turned around abruptly and said, “Is it true that there is no cure for EMPHAS?"
"Yes, that's true, although the folks in Berlin keep hinting that their research is proceeding well," Dr. Spatz said.
"Right—probably to ensure the continued funding of their operations," Edgar said bitterly.
"Is Sheila going to die?" Gladys asked as she dabbed a handkerchief at her eyes.
"Well, not necessarily," Dr. Spatz started clearing his throat again.
"Not necessarily? What do you mean?" Edgar demanded, walking back towards the couch. He sat down by Gladys and stared at Dr. Spatz.
"There is another option, but it's pretty expensive," Dr. Spatz started flipping through the pages on his clipboard again as if he was trying to hide his gaze. "It's unfair, really."
"Dr. Spatz, what are you talking about?" Edgar raised his voice, making Dr. Spatz look up at them.
"There is one known cure: a lung transplant," Dr. Spatz said nervously, flicking his eyes back and forth between Edgar and Gladys.
"A lung transplant?" Gladys repeated in surprise.
"A lung transplant," Edgar echoed, then continued, "Well, a lung transplant. So, let's proceed. Let's do a lung transplant!"
"It's not as simple as that!" Dr. Spatz said before standing up to pace. "There's a long waiting list for lung transplants. We only acquire the lungs when a person gets into an accident and dies. Then we mine the body for whatever sections we can salvage. As you can imagine, with no known cure for EMPHAS, lung transplants are in high demand!"
After a brief silence, Edgar asked, "How do people decide who gets a lung transplant? By who's next on the waiting list?"
Dr. Spatz cleared his throat once more before replying, "Well, that's how the process is supposed to work."
"Supposed to work?" Edgar repeated. "But in reality, how does it work, Dr. Spatz?"
Dr. Spatz sat down heavily, seeming to age in front of their eyes. He started rubbing his eyes with his right hand as if to ward away the tears. "Forgive me, it's been a long night and I had but an hour before being pulled back on duty.
"When a lung becomes available, an auction is held among the EMPHAS patients' relatives. Whoever pays the most gets the lung. As simple as that," he said, rifling his hand through his hair.
"Look," he continued. "I don't know anything about your finances. I just offer that option if you happen to be well off. But if you don't have much assets, unfair though it may be, your granddaughter is not likely to receive a lung in time to survive.
"I've always thought it unfair that the rich seem to have more of a right to survival. But, for what it's worth, even if the system didn't work that way, it's unlikely that Sheila would get a lung in time since there are so many others ahead of her on the waiting list," Dr. Spatz said.
After a few moments, Dr. Spatz added, "I'm 29 years old—probably just a matter of time before I get it, too."
He sighed and stood up. He began rubbing his eyes again.
"I'll send Helen to let you know when Sheila wakes so that you can visit."
"Whoahh. Wait a minute. Hold on," Edgar raised his hand. "How much money are we talking about? I know we don't look like much, dressed in these old clothes. But I've been frugal all my life—have a decent amount saved up. How much money are we talking about?"
Surprised, Dr. Spatz said, "Actually, I don't know. Dr. Carlton, the hospital’s General Manager, handles these things. If you say you have a lot of money, I can certainly set up a meeting today."
"Then go ahead and do that, young man. I'm prepared to pay plenty for my Sheila's life," Edgar ordered. By his side, Gladys nodded her head in agreement.
An hour later, Dr. Spatz waved them through Dr. Carlton's office and made introductions.
"I am sorry about your granddaughter," Dr. Carlton said, offering them the two chairs facing his desk.
"You may go back to your duties," he added to the curious intern hovering by the doorway. Dr. Spatz nodded and closed the door behind him.
"Sheila's parents are no longer alive?" Dr. Carlton asked, his eyes carefully looking them over. His gaze made Gladys wonder whether Edgar's shirt had a frayed collar.
"Yes, my son Billy, Sheila's father, died when we helped France repulse Spain's invasion of Bordeaux," Gladys replied.
"Ahhh, the Spanish-French war. A sad state of affairs, but at least your son died a hero. With the help of American troops, France gave us enough of a cache of wines to prop up our dollar," Dr. Carlton said.
"The entire cache was not worth my son's life," Edgar replied, furrowing his brows at Dr. Carlton.
"Indeed, indeed," Dr. Carlton said, stroking the belly of his tie. "Naturally, I can understand how a parent would feel that way."
"We're here to discuss Sheila. I'm interested in acquiring a lung for her transplant," Edgar said. "Dr. Spatz tells me that we'd have to participate in some auction or some such thing. How exactly does this work?"
"Indeed, to business at hand," Dr. Carlton said, reaching for a file on his desk. "Let's see here. All hospitals have waiting lists for lungs. Usually, the lists turn over as people die waiting. What actually happens is that there is an ongoing auction and those with significant financial assets end up buying the lung. I can share with you the current highest Bid for the next lung that becomes available within the bidding territory shared by New Hampshire and Vermont."
"You mean people place bids ahead of knowing when a lung becomes available? What if their relative dies while waiting for a lung?" Edgar asked.
"In that case, the Bid price then reverts to what was the next highest price, assuming that that patient is still alive," Dr. Carlton said.
"Is this okay with the government?" Gladys asked.
"The government has chosen to turn a blind eye to this practice," Dr. Carlton replied, leaning back against his chair and steepling his hands together in front of his chest. "As you can imagine, with wealth comes power. The people most interested in being able to buy their relatives' survival are usually the heads of companies, wealthy financiers, and others who make sizeable campaign donations to politicians who always face the risks of re-election."
"What's the current Bid?" Edgar asked.
Dr. Carlton returned to the file and ran a finger down a page.
"The highest Bid is the Postin Family's but I heard just this morning that their daughter who had EMPHAS died. So the current Bid is, well, it doesn't matter whose bid it is but the bid is for a case of 1999 Ravenswood Pickberry Cabernet Sauvignon," Dr. Carlton said. Edgar and Gladys gasped.
In the aftermath of the 2003 environmental catastrophe, the world's economies collapsed. In order to preserve resources and make the best use of what arable land was left, the North American Regional Command ordered the continent's population into designated habitats. All resources were strictly rationed. The only agricultural product remaining after 32 years of drought and the only product left on earth reminiscent of the pre-drought days was wine produced prior to 2003. By 2035, most economies were based on wine much like gold used to be the basis of nineteenth century economies. Countries hoarded their wine and strictly regulated its sale. Some wines were so rare and valuable that it was illegal for individuals to own them.
"I can see you know something about wine. Parker rated the 1999 Ravenswood Pickberry Cabernet Sauvignon 99 points on his 100-point scale," Dr. Carlton said as he flipped through a copy of the Robert Parker's Wine Guide sitting on his desk. "Generally, a perfect score is worth about $1.5 million per bottle and the value drops $100,000 for each point decrease until a rating of 90 points, and then $50,000 for each point decrease until a rating of 80 points. Of course, it's widely acknowledged that towards the end of the 20th century, Parker had a bias against giving California wines 100 points. Thus, for valuation purposes, this wine is assumed to be rated 100 points, which would make it worth about $1.5 million per bottle. Add another half a million dollars for the premium that Pickberry gets in today's market and it's rated about $2 million a bottle. This makes the current Bid worth about $24 million."
"$24 million! Oh my," Gladys said faintly, reaching for Edgar's hand.
"Wait, wait. Let me think," Edgar said, standing and walking towards the window. Dr. Carlton discreetly averted his eyes from Gladys who kept an anxious gaze on Edgar's back as he gazed at the yellow sky.
"Edgar, you have the list memorized, don't you?" Gladys asked nervously, but Edgar didn't respond. After a few minutes, Edgar turned and returned to his chair.
"I haven't kept up to date with the value of wines. Could you help me with Parker's guide?" Edgar asked, pointing to the book on Dr. Carlton's desk.
"Of course," Dr. Carlton said. "What rankings do you wish to know?"
Edgar reached for Gladys' hand and recited, "1990 Philip Togni Cabernet, 1983 Margaux, 1990 Rayas, 1990 Lafite, and 1982 Margaux."
Dr. Carlton's jaw dropped.
"How can you possibly have these wines?"
"Surely, Dr. Carlton, that is none of your business," Gladys replied with a brittle smile.
"Oh, indeed. None of my business, of course," Dr. Carlton said, his face reddening.
Edgar furrowed his brow as he motioned towards a notepad and pen, "May I?"
"Yes, please, be my guest," Dr. Carlton moved the pen and notepad towards Edgar. Returning to the Robert Parker Wine Guide, he started flipping through the pages.
"Let's see. The 1990 Togni is rated 98; the 1983 Margaux, 96; the 1990 Rayas, 99; the 1990 Lafite, 100; and the 1982 Margaux, 100," Dr. Carlton said, checking through the book as Edgar made notes on a pad.
Edgar made additional calculations before looking up with a smile. "I believe I have enough bottles to beat $24 million, Dr. Carlton. Based on the number of bottles I have, my bid would be worth just under $25 million."
"Splendid!" Dr. Carlton announced, rising to offer a congratulatory handshake. Both men beamed at each other. However, Gladys seemed agitated, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.
"Dear," she said softly to Edgar.
"Yes?" Edgar turned to look at her.
"I just remembered something that I forgot to tell you," she whispered. "The last time we visited Lincoln, I opened the 1982 Margaux and the bottle had turned. So I looked at the rest of them and all had suffered from leakage. We're out of the 1982 Margaux."
"What?" Edgar's face whitened.
"I know, dear," Gladys looked absolutely miserable. “I forgot as soon as we focused on Sheila’s illness.”
"If I might ask, how many bottles of each of the other wines do you have?" Dr. Carlton asked as he sat back down and reached for his calculator.
Shaken, Edgar haltingly replied, "Nine bottles of the 1990 Togni, three bottles of the 1983 Margaux, one bottle of the 1990 Rayas, and four bottles of the 1990 Lafite."
"Oh dear, oh dear," Dr. Carlton said after finishing his calculations. "At best, that would total an estimated value of about $22.4 million, versus the current High Bid of $24 million. You really needed the 1982 Margaux. Do you have other fine wines? Perhaps the 1990 Penfolds Grange? Or either of the 1970 or 1975 Vega Sicilia Unico?”
Edgar didn’t respond.
"Even the 1993 Mouton Rothschild? Particularly if it has the label of the naked little girl by Balthus that was censored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1995—that label has a nice premium in today's market," Dr. Carlton suggested, still trying to be helpful.
"I don't choose wine for their labels!" Edgar snapped before burying his head in his hands as Gladys sadly watched. After a moment, he continued, "I have other bottles, some as good as those on this list. But Robert Parker, damn him, didn't always get his ratings right. In fact, he totally missed the mark on many wines. For example, I've got odd bottles of the 1978 William Hill Cabernet. They're fabulous but Parker rated them less than 90. I also have others as great as vintage-year, first growths from Bordeaux, but they were never covered by Parker."
The light on the intercom on Dr. Carlton's desk came on and his secretary's voice floated through, "Excuse me, Dr. Carlton. It's Dr. Spatz on Line 2. I think you should take it."
"Pardon me," Dr. Carlton whispered before picking up the phone.
Gladys ignored him as she put her hands around Edgar's shoulders. It's so unfair. A parent should not survive a child. A grandparent should not survive a grandchild, Gladys railed at the garish sky beyond the window. She felt Edgar shudder within her arms.
"Well, this is quite a day," Dr. Carlton said as he hung up the phone. "I don't know how to share this news except to state it baldly. There was a transport accident an hour ago in downtown Lincoln. One of the passengers, a sixteen-year-old girl, just passed away in our emergency room. Her lung is now available."
Edgar slowly raised his head, his cheeks wet and eyes red. Firmly, he wiped his face with his sleeves and took a deep breath.
"Two bottles of the 1990 Cheval Blanc," he said.
"Wha . . .at?" Dr. Carlton and Gladys asked at the same time. Stunned, they both looked at Edgar.
"That's right, that's right. The 1990 Cheval Blanc—rated 100 by Parker and one of his 'Wines of the Twentieth Century'! " Edgar said, waving his hands. "That should be worth double the current High Bid. A hundred-point Wine of the Twentieth Century by Parker. It's priceless, is what it is! The only wines that could challenge it are the 1990 Latour or 1990 Petrus, but those bottles no longer exist in private hands."
Speechless, Gladys simply looked at him.
"My sweet, my wonderful beloved," Edgar said, reaching to cup Gladys' face in his hands. "I was saving them as a surprise for you. How I would have loved to toast our fiftieth wedding anniversary next year with a 1990 Cheval Blanc."
A month later, Edgar proclaimed a toast to Sheila whose recuperation had progressed quite well. For the first time since she arrived home two weeks ago, she managed to join them for dinner that evening at the dining table.
"In vino veritas!" he proclaimed.
"Hear, hear!" Gladys and Sheila responded as they clinked their glasses.
"Poppy, I still can't believe we're drinking wine," Sheila giggled. "Isn't this absolutely decadent? I mean, wine is the basis of the world's economies! And, here we are, drinking it up like there's no tomorrow!"
"No tomorrow . . ." Edgar repeated slowly as he met Gladys' eyes across the table. Both rose in unison.
"Come, my dear. Dinner can wait. Your grandpa and I have something we've waited a long time to show you," Gladys said.
"Bring your glass," Edgar added as he led the way to the hallway where he opened the door that led to the basement. Sheila and Gladys followed Edgar down the stairs and through the basement.
"What's going on? This is so mysterious!" Sheila laughed wonderingly.
"You'll see, you'll see," Gladys said, wagging a finger at her.
Edgar led the way to the farthest corner of the basement. He handed his glass to Gladys. Then he pushed aside some old lawn furniture, drew away an old plastic tarp that had been laid on the floor and leaned down to pull up a trapdoor.
"I never knew the basement had another level," Sheila said as she and Gladys followed Edgar down the stairs.
The subbasement was a small room, barely large enough to contain a complete room within a room. Edgar reached for his keys and found a tiny one that fit into its door. He opened the door, reached in to turn on the lights and motioned inward.
"Ladies, first," he said, bowing.
Giggling, Sheila stepped inside, followed by a beaming Gladys and Edgar.
"Awesome!" Sheila exclaimed as she slowly took in the view of thousands of wine bottles racked along the walls of the storage unit. She moved closer to one rack and started reading some of the white plastic tags, "1989 Montrose, 1990 Leoville Barton, 1990 Cos D'Estournel, 1971 Monfortino Conterno, 1978 Monfortino Conterno . . ."
Pausing, she looked at Gladys and Edgar.
"But I don't understand. What are so many wines doing here?"
"There isn't much to understand, my dear. Your grandma and I collected wine long before we knew they'd become so valuable," Edgar said. "This is your inheritance from us, about 3,000 bottles from our planet's former major wine-producing countries, with a hefty representation of 1990 Bordeaux which was the last great year for that region."
"We come from a time before the world has had to adjust to humanity's excesses," Gladys added. "The world paid no attention to pollution until its after-effects made the oceans rear in protest to take back land that humanity could not spare. Farms, ranches, vineyards—they're all gone as land must be devoted to housing people. Now, food can only be made artificially in laboratories."
"Most of your peers will never know the real taste of strawberries, caviar, honey, chocolate, pineapples, steak, pistachios—certainly not wine," Edgar said, swirling his glass. "And now that you're tasting this 1992 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir, perhaps you can understand why currencies have become based on wine. Wine is the only food and icon that has survived from the last century, before the world turned upside-down on its head. And it's the only delicacy that can last through the rest of this century, if man manages to survive that long."
Though Sheila nodded to show her comprehension, she asked, "But why aren't we living in a castle with hordes of servants? Why are you still wearing your old clothes? Why aren't we taking more trips to the Fantasy Lands designed by the government? With all this wine, I don't understand what we're doing in Lincoln, New Hampshire, in a tiny two-bedroom house."
Edgar and Gladys glanced at each other fondly before smiling back at Sheila.
"If that's what you want someday, you can have all of those things later in your life. There's enough wine here with decent ratings by Robert Parker to support you quite comfortably for the rest of your life," Gladys said.
"That's right, plenty here for all that, even after all the bottles your grandma and I plan to drink before we die," Edgar added. "But, you see, my dear, what everyone has been missing all along is that wine is not meant to be hoarded. It is meant to be drunk.
"As you continue to drink with us during the few years that we have left, maybe you'll come to feel as we do about wine," Edgar said, turning to the racks. "Now, let me see here, I believe a 1992 Opus One should go quite well with our Alaskan scientists' attempts at filet mignon. And, afterwards, the 1986 d'Yquem for dessert? What do you think, Gladys?"
"Possible, possible," Gladys replied, her face turning serious as she also started to peruse the wine racks. "Let's just check our options. It's Sheila's initiation to wine. Too bad we drunk our last 1950 Petrus. It still has the best bouquet I have ever experienced: mocha, roasted nuts, red and black fruits, jam, smoked meats.”
"How about the 1978 Gaja Sori Tilden for the main course and, rather than the '86, how about the 1967 d'Yquem with dessert?" she suggested, knowing full well that the 1967 d'Yquem was on the government's "Forbidden List" of wines that were illegal to be privately owned or drunk.
"Or should we have a port instead of a Sauternes?" Edgar said, bent over a dim recess of the storage bin. "Gladys, you won't believe what I just found: a half-bottle of the 1992 Taylor Fladgate! I didn't know we still had some left! Sheila, this is the best port ever made after 1948!"
In a subbasement in Lincoln, New Hampshire, the sky was lime-green with night and red with the random breaches of lightning. Earlier that day, another real estate developer encroached further into the White Mountain National Forest, breaking ground on a forty-story luxury condominium featuring one-family, 250-square-foot apartments. On the other side of the continent, the television media was busily reporting on a breaking story: unending drought had caused coastal bluffs to collapse, sending condominium complexes sliding down into the Pacific Ocean. The moon inexplicably became lavender.
But the remains of the Verdot Family was oblivious to the outside world that particular night as they drank wine with dinner. At one point, Edgar and Gladys hotly debated whether the 1981 Margaux was better than the 1983 Margaux.
"I'm telling you! Parker did us a favor when he underrated the 1981 Margaux. It's better than any other year!" Edgar insisted.
"But not the 1983," Gladys replied. "Don't you remember its wonderful combination of ripe cassis, tobacco and smoked meats?"
"The 1981 Margaux had all that plus roasted nuts, cherries, plums and dark chocolate," Edgar countered. "It also had a lingering finish of super-concentrated fruits that simply wouldn't end!"
Sheila watched her grandparents affectionately as she tried to master how to swirl, sniff, and sip from her glass.
"Sip that wine like you're slurping hot soup, dear," Gladys said, interrupting her debate with Edgar. They both watched Sheila closely as Edgar encouraged, "Don't worry about your dignity. Feel free to make as much noise as you want when slurping."
As her grandparents chuckled over her choking attempts, Sheila insisted, "Wait, wait. I can do this. Let me start over. First, I swirl and smell. . ."
Though Sheila liked her first exposure to wine, she initially did not know how to describe her experience. But she would learn from Edgar and Gladys that the great 1992 Williams Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir presented a fabulous bouquet of raspberry, cherry and strawberries that was mirrored in the taste. She would learn that the viscous slide of the liquid against the glass featured "outstanding legs." She would learn to appreciate the creamy texture of the liquid and the hints of oak that resonated throughout the wine's long, lingering finish. "Like drinking pot roast with gravy," Edgar pronounced and someday Sheila would understand what he meant.
Sheila also would learn that the crystal from which she would come to drink through her cellar was manufactured by a once-great glass company called Reidel.
Finally, Sheila would learn always to maintain the cellar at a certain temperature: 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, as a result of being published here in MAKING THE NOVEL, "Fahrenheit 55" is now a recommended reading for Professor Martin Smith's English/Creative Writing course at Somerset Community College. (July 2020)