THE SOMMELIER AFTER THE ACCIDENT
“Are you cops?” asked the nurse as she sponged crust from the corners of his mouth. We shook our heads. “No,” she said, “you don’t look like cops. But what do I know, hmm?” She laughed and ran a hand over the short bristles of his hair. “We don’t always look like what we are. Isn’t that right, Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia?”
For a second I thought that the low, thin sound that Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia made was air escaping from the contraptions which were attached to his nose by a pair of tubes. Emmy jumped a little. “See?” said the nurse with a smile. “He’s in there somewhere. Now, some ground rules. One. It’s a hundred up front and a hundred after. Two. No pictures, no blogging, no tweeting. Three. We’re all out of here by one o’clock. Four. No one touches Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia but me. Five. You get four tries, no more.” She held up four plastic cups that had been sitting on the bedside table. “And six, I get my pick of the leftovers.” She laughed warmly. “So like I said, first things first.”
I had the money rolled up in my shirt pocket. “Wait, what if doesn’t work? Are you going to give me my money back?”
“He’s a doubting Thomas,” said Emmy.
“Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia is a professional,” said the nurse. I took the roll of twenties out of my pocket and peeled away half. She put them in the chest pocket of her scrubs and handed me a plastic cup.
“Do the cab first,” said Emmy, handing me the bottle and the corkscrew from her bag.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll do the fifty dollar cab first.” Emmy stuck her tongue out at me. I opened it and poured a very small amount into the plastic cup.
“No, no, fill it up,” said the nurse. “I’ll finish it.” I filled it up and handed it to her. She tilted the cup to Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia’s lips. A small trickle of wine, like blood, ran down the side of his face. The nurse dabbed at it with the sponge, and then stood back.
“What now?” I asked.
“Give him a moment,” said the nurse.
“Big,” said Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said it’s big,” said Emmy.
“I might go so far as to call it monumental,” said Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia.
“Whoa,” said Emmy.
“Intrepid,” continued Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia, “but not reckless. Notes of cassis, coffee, silt and wet stone, balanced with more delicate flavors of oak and butter. Fresh, ripe red apples falling into a clear and golden stream, carried away toward mountain lakes. A feral undertone. A dog, fallen into the stream, bobbing along with the apples. The stream becomes a river, the man jumps in to save the dog. They are carried away, and the water brings a dark richness to the earth.” He fell silent again.
“That’s impossible,” I said. “This is a scam. You’re both in it together.”
The nurse shrugged and drank from the cup. “Believe what you want to believe,” she said.
“Look at him,” said Emmy. “Does he look like he’s faking it?”
He looked emaciated and gray. The crescent shapes beneath his eyes were blood-dark. He didn’t look as if he were faking it. He also didn’t look at all like he did in the pictures taken before the accident, which we had seen on the internet—large, jovial, with long, blond hair like popped champagne.
“I’m getting the apples,” said the nurse. “I don’t know about wet stone. Or dogs.”
Emmy handed me the Riesling. I poured it into a cup and the nurse held to his lips.
Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia said, “On the Red Slope of the Rhine Valley, a young girl lets a farmer’s son lay with her in the tall meadow grasses just beyond the vineyard. The wine is gentle, expectant, unsure. Honeyed at first, with hints of marmalade and cold red slate, ebbing into sweat, into blood. And then a long finish, and all is wiped away, cleansed by the taste of petrichor.”
“What is that? What is the last thing he said?” asked the nurse.
Emmy looked it up on her phone. “Petrichor,” she said. “The smell of rain on dry earth.”
“Oh yes,” said the nurse, drinking from the cup. “I’m definitely getting that.” Emmy took a swig from the open bottle and nodded.
We tried a Malbec next, which Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia called “dark and crowded as a hive of bees.” He said, “So much lives here: wild cornflower, baker’s yeast, fiddlehead ferns, clementines, artichokes, spiders. The unmistakable bouquet of char and pine ash. All this life, what is it running from? Where is its home now?”
“Oh my gosh,” said Emmy, lifting her hands to her face. “What do you think that means? A fire? Can he tell that from the wine?”
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. Here, give me the Pinot Noir,” I said, pointing to the last bottle in the bag.
“No, I want to try something,” said Emmy. She pulled a plastic bottle out of her purse—Mountain Dew, half-empty. “Can I?” she asked the nurse.
The nurse shrugged and sipped on the Malbec. “You get four,” she said. So Emmy poured half of what remained in the Mountain Dew bottle into a cup and the nurse held it to his lips. “I’m not sure he’ll respond,” she said.
Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia smacked his lips and said, “Blowsy and foolish. Notes of powdered sugar, linoleum, and mercury. Flickers with the desperate inconsistency of fluorescent lighting. Knocked off balance by the intrusion of toothpaste and lipstick. A thousand children, doing wheelies on miniature bicycles in a thousand gas station parking lots. Some of them throw rocks at a stray cat.”
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” I said. “Come on Em, let’s go.”
“No!” she said. “I want to try one more.”
“That was four,” said the nurse, who had retired to a chair in the corner of the room with the Riesling. “Sorry, hon, but that’s the end of the line.”
Emmy dug around in her purse and drew out her wallet. She took out all the money that was inside, didn’t even count it, just held it up to the nurse. “Five more minutes,” she said. “Just us.”
The nurse looked briefly at the wadded cash. Setting her cup down, she took it from Emmy and counted it slowly. From the other side of the room I couldn’t tell what it amounted to, but whatever it was, it must have been enough, because she slipped the bills into her pocket. “That doesn’t include the second hundred,” she said, and Emmy nodded. Then the nurse took her cup of Riesling and walked out the door.
I began to open the Pinot Noir. “Forget that,” said Emmy. “We can do better than that.” She had moved over to the side of Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia’s bed, where the nurse had been standing.
“Why?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you see what an opportunity this is?” she said. “He can tell us so much. Not only about the wine, or the world—about ourselves.”
“I know myself,” I said.
“You don’t know the first thing about yourself,” she said. “And neither do I.” She leaned in and kissed Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia on the mouth, wetly and sloppily, his lips gray and unresponding, his eyes rolled back in his head toward the ceiling.
“God, Emmy,” I said. “Stop!”
“Oh,” she said, lifting her head, cringing a little, putting her hand to her mouth, “he tastes like death. Just like a dead person tastes.”
She stood there and waited for a moment. Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia just lay there, eyes lifted, mouth slightly wet with saliva. He didn’t impart any strange or mystic wisdom. He didn’t say anything at all. Emmy struck him hard in the shoulder with the flat of her palm. “Tell me!” she said. “Taste me!” She spit into his open mouth.
“Stop, stop, stop,” I begged her, pulling her by the arm away from Mr. Bonhomme-Garcia’s side. “You can’t, Emmy, you can’t spit in someone’s mouth, no matter how brain-dead they are.”
She was crying a little when I pulled her away. I tried to draw her in against my chest, but she pushed me away and went to sit in the chair on the other side of the room. She sat there, not saying anything, just the three of us, very quiet, softly breathing, until the nurse came in again.