Possum Grape Wine
By W. E. Turner
Well, for a long time then, Jake Bodre was respectable. He'd wear clean undershirts while he was workin' on the farm and would always come in to dinner when Twila called him. Twila took him to the Church of Christ with her a couple o' times and even though Jake didn't really seem to get much out of it, he didn't disrupt anything, either. He even took to wearin' thick eyeglasses after Twila found out he had to use a magnifyin' glass to read the Western novels he liked (one of the upstairs bedrooms was just full of books) and after that, Jake could recognize people who'd drive by on the road and wave at him. He'd wave back, then, and kinda smile 'cause he knew who it was. He didn't look so mean any more.
Meanwhile, Twila was fixin' up Jake's house. She put up bright, flowery wallpaper and made new curtains. She put down new rugs in all the rooms and washed all the windows. She even picked out a new color for the outside of the house to replace the dull slate-gray paint that had been on it since anybody could remember and had a couple of her older grandkids and her son paint the sidin' of the house one color and the trim another. Made it into a real pretty farmhouse; one people could admire.
Just about everybody got used to Jake and Twila being married after a while. Twila seemed happy and Jake.... Well, Jake was just Jake.
But there were some problems, though. Like one night, not too long after they got married, Jake and Twila went over to Charles and Ruby Gutterman's to play Pinocle and drink a little of Jake's Possum Grape Wine. That's when Jake and Charles got into a kind of argument about an old plow horse Jake used to own.
Charles started it all by reminiscin' about how much things had changed on the farms around Caroline over the years. He talked about how when he was a kid, folks had still been plowin' with horses and he talked about threshin' machines and barn raisin's and lotsa other things like that.
"Ya know," Charles said, kinda fallin' in love with the sound of his own voice after a while. "Most kids today just don't know what it was like back then." Then he started tellin' 'bout the time, several years ago, when Jake had loaned Charles his plow horse so Charles could show his grandkids how folks used to plow with horsepower instead of tractors. This horse, whose name was Hack, had been part of a team of horses (Hack and Loy), that Jake had raised from colts and worked as a pullin' team on the farm and at county fairs. Back at his house, Jake still had some of the ribbons that he'd won at the fairs with those horses.
Twila knew about the horses and Jake because she'd seen 'em perform at those fairs, but she didn't know what had become of those animals and didn't realize the horse Charles was talkin' about was one of that team.
"What ever happened to that team of yours, Jacob," she asked, just as she picked up the cards and started to shuffle and deal another hand. "You know, the team you used to bring to the Fair?"
"I'd ruther not talk about it," Jake said, kind of curt-like.
"But why, Jacob?" she asked him.
"Yeah," Charles said, suddenly actin' a little nervous, like maybe he'd said too much about somethin' and maybe had caused some hurt with what he'd said. "I think it might be a good idea if we didn't talk about it no more."
Twila was puzzled by this but she let it all go by with a shrug and the four of 'em just went on with the game.
Then, a hand or two later, Jake suddenly turned to Charles and said, just out o' nowhere, "You know, you shouldn't oughta fed my horse corn."
"What?" Charles said.
"I said, 'you shouldn't ought to have fed corn to my horse,'" Jake replied, sayin' each word distinctly, but forcefully.
Ruby and Twila and Charles all just sat there, kind of stunned. Finally, Charles asked, "Jake, are you still holdin' a grudge over that damned horse?"
"Yes," Jake replied, slowly. "I am." And with that, he picked up the Mason jar of Possum Grape Wine that he'd brought with him, stood up and walked out the door.
Twila was the first one to recover from bein' pole-axed by this quiet little outburst. She stood up, said, "Ja-cob! Wait a minute," and started after him.
Charles and Ruby, still not movin' or sayin' anything, just sat there. They could hear Jake and Twila arguin' out on the porch but they couldn't hear most of the words. What they could hear, though, there at the last, was the sound of Jake's raised voice sayin', "I'll be damned if I'll stay in the same house with that horse killer."
After a minute or two, Twila came back in. "He's walkin' home in the cold," she announced to Charles and Ruby. "He gets that way sometimes, you know. I don't know why he got so damned upset over somethin' that happened such a long time ago."
"Well," Charles told her, "Jake just thinks about some things too much sometimes, and it tends to get 'im upset."
Then Charles told Twila about that team of horses, Hack and Loy, that Jake used to have. He told her about how much Jake prized those horses, doted on 'em, always made sure they was always well-groomed and well-fed. Told how they won ribbons at Fairs and plowed the fields on Jake's farm and how Jake was always so proud of those animals. Then Charles told her how one day, Loy pulled up lame with an infection in his hoof that the Veterinarian couldn't seem to cure and about how that horse just kept on gettin' sicker and more crippled until, finally, Jake had the Vet put it down.
And Charles told Twila and Ruby about how, back when he was just a kid, Jake had two older brothers that he admired more than anything else in the world. To a 10-year old kid, like Jake was then, these two brothers could do just about everything and do it better than anyone else. But in 1918, just as the First World War was windin' down, an epidemic of influenza hit the country. Thousands of people, especially farm people who had little or no resistance to disease, died from the effects of the influenza. Now, Twila was familiar with this. She'd lived through it herself and even had two aunts and an uncle who all died during the same epidemic, but she listened politely to Charles' description of it, even though Charles (bein' about ten years younger than her and twelve younger than Jake) had only heard about this from others. Then she just sat there as Charles concluded, "...and two of the people who died from it were Hack and Loy Bodre. Jake's brothers. After that, Jake's Ma kept him home. Made 'im quit school,.... Ever'thing. Protected 'im. Told 'im not to never leave the farm. Now, Jake was always a good boy and he done what his parents told 'im. I think that's why he's lived there by hisself all these years, 'cause his Ma told him to stay home and not go around other people any more than he had to."
And Charles told Twila about that day he'd used Hack to plow his garden and about how, when he got done plowin' and had given all his grandkids rides on Hack's broad back, Charles had gone over to his corn crib and got out several ears of corn and gave 'em to the horse. It was kind of like a reward 'cause old Hack had done a good job and just impressed the hell out of his grandkids. But when Charles got up next mornin', the day he was supposed to take the horse back over to Jake's, old Hack was dead.
Now, nobody could prove that it was feedin' 'im corn that killed Hack or if the horse just died of old age, but Jake did kind of blame Charles, even though he said he didn't. Charles told Twila about the way Jake, just before he climbed into his pickup that day to follow the renderin' truck that had picked up Hack's carcass, had turned to Charles and said the same words they all heard earlier: "You shouldn't oughta fed my horse corn."
"And," Charles went on, "I know it sounds a little far-fetched and all.... But I think it was him seein' Hack dead like that, and knowin' that Loy was already dead.... I guess... I know it might seem silly. ...but, I guess, it was kinda like him seein' his brothers die all over again. Now, I don't know for sure, but that's what I think. Anyway, he got reminded o' that tonight. Got reminded of how it is to feel bad. How it is to feel sad. He's always been a sad, lonesome old man, you know. Some folks usta think he liked it that way. But I don't really think he did."
Twila just sat there quietly for a long time, then she thanked Charles, picked up her purse and her coat and went on home.
There was a hard frost that night and the next mornin', just like nothin' ever happened the night before, Jake took Twila out with 'im to pick Possum Grapes. He'd promised to do that when the grapes got sweet, and he did. Twila liked to tell about how funny it was to see ol' Jake climbin' around on the rock piles and up in the scrub oak trees, squattin' on a branch just like a monkey, pickin' grapes. She said he seemed just as happy as a little ol' kid and she said it made her feel like a kid, too, to see him enjoyin' himself so much. Over the course o' the next few weeks, Twila helped Jake press and strain and ferment those Possum Grapes and bottle 'em up in Mason jars.
That incident over at Charles' and Ruby's house must have bothered Jake a little bit, though. About a week afterwards, ol' Jake called Charles up on the party line. He said he was sorry it happened and then Jake and Charles was back to bein' just as good o' friends as they always was.
Twila and Jake lived there in that old house happily, it seemed. Lady friends would come over to visit Twila, sittin' in the kitchen sippin' coffee and tellin' 'bout grandkids and who was marryin' who and who was divorcin' who and who was seein' who on the sly and all the other stuff women like to gossip about. The first couple o' times visitors came over, Jake tried to sit in and listen to the goin's-on of peoples' families and all, but not bein' used to small talk like that, he kinda lost interest after a while and slipped off somewhere. Later, though, when other people'd come over and Jake was in the house, he wouldn't even try to join in. He might sit in the parlor or at the kitchen table (wherever the conversation wasn't takin' place) and read his Western novels or somethin'. But after a while he would usually slip off somewhere else; go to the barn or the upstairs veranda. He still didn't feel comfortable around other folks, it seemed.
And Twila was good to her word, too. A few times, when folks was there visitin', Jake would come in from the fields or the barn or someplace and he'd be all hot and sweaty and dirty, with his clean white undershirt all damp under the arms. And Twila'd kind o' look at him and smile and say, "Jacob, you need a bath."
And old Jake, he'd dip his head up and down a couple o' times, in kind of a jerky motion that didn't quite come together with his words, but he'd smile and he'd say, "OK, Twila." Then he'd go take a bath.
All this went on for better'n a year. That January and the next, folks kinda missed it when Jake didn't come into town to get himself a new undershirt (Twila did all his clothes shoppin' for 'im these days), but Paul Frieberg didn't go broke because he missed Jake's business and the folks in The Beer Joint found somethin' else to talk about. But, still, somethin' seemed missin'. And Jake,... he didn't seem to ever come to town any more. Of course, he'd always been kinda distant from other people. Folks thought havin' Twila around might bring him out of it. But it didn't quite seem to work. And nobody knows exactly when it happened, but after a while Jake didn't smile at people as he waved when they were passin' his farm, and sometime after that, he even stopped wavin' back. Now, that was just about the most unfriendly thing anybody could ever do in them parts. The fact was, Jake was startin' to look mean again.
Early that spring, Twila's twelve-year old grandson, Andy, came over to visit one weekend. After Twila had gone into town to get groceries, the boy found Jake alone out on the porch. Jake was sittin' there in his straight-backed chair and he had a jar of his Possum Grape Wine.
"What's that you're drinkin', Grampa?" Andy asked Jake as the boy flopped down inta Twila's rockin' chair.
Jake just looked over at the boy, like he was tryin' to decide what to say. "I ain't yer Grandpa," he said, after a while. He didn't say it mean-like, or anything, he just stated it like it was a fact, which it was. "Yer Grandpa's dead," he told the boy.
"I know that," Andy said, kind o' snooty. "But you married my Gramma. That makes you my Grampa, whether you like it or not. But what's that yer drinkin'?" Now, Andy was kind of a mouthy little kid, like most twelve-year-olds, and he could be down right obnoxious when he wanted to be, which it seemed like he did most of the time.
"It's wine." Jake said, not lookin' at the boy any more.
"Oh," Andy said. He kept on waitin', like he figured Jake was gonna say somethin' else. When it got to be clear Jake wasn't going to say anything, he asked, "Didn't you never have no kids or nothin'?"
Jake thought about that for a bit. He sat there, blinkin' his eyes, like he was still figurin' out what to say. "'Cause I'm a Bachelor," he said, at last.
"Well, you ain't one no more. You're my Grandpa, now. Can I have some o' your wine?"
"What if I don't wanna be yore Grampa?"
"You mean you don't wanna be?"
Jake looked at the boy for a long while, like he was still tryin' to decide what the answer to that question was. "Well," he said, "that ain't s'posed ta be th' way ya get grandkids. All sudden-like."
"How do you get 'em, then."
Jake just snorted, like he was on to Andy's little game. "You know," he said.
"No, I don't"
"Well," Jake said. "First, ye're supposed to get married. Then ya have kids. Then, when yore kids get growed up and get married, they have kids. Then ye're a Grampa."
"But how do you get kids?" Andy asked.
"That," Jake said, "is somethin' yer folks oughta be tellin' ya about. Not yer Grampa."
"Aha!" ol' Andy said, like he was trumpin' somebody's Ace in a Pinocle game. "So you admit you are my Grampa!"
Then Andy just sits there in the rockin' chair, all triumphant-like, rockin' away, actin' just like he put one over on old Jake.
Well, old Jake got real quiet, like he was thinkin' over what just happened. "Go get a glass," he told the boy, finally. "I'll give you some wine."
By the time Twila got back home, Jake and Andy had killed off pretty near that whole jar of Possum Grape Wine and Andy was just drunker'n hell.
Twila lit into Jake immediately with that sharp old tongue of hers. "Jacob, you dam' fool. What the hell have you done?" she said. "What in the world could you have been thinkin' about? Seems like anybody with even half a brain'd know better than to give liquor to a twelve-year-old child." She went on like that for a long time, just flayin' him up one side and down the other. She put the boy into her car and slammed the car door, then followed Jake into the house, yelled at him some more, tellin' him how worthless he was, an' how stupid he was an' how he didn't have no business livin' 'round civilized folks. And then she stormed out of the house, slammin' that door, too, and took Andy on back over to his folks in Sarcoxie.
When Twila got back to the farmhouse, Jake was sittin' at the kitchen table with another jar of Possum Grape Wine in front of him. Twila'd calmed down quite a bit on the drive back and she started to apologize for all the nasty things she'd said. "Jake," she said, "I'm sorry...." But Jake cut her off.
"Take that," Jake said, noddin' toward a piece of paper on the table. "It's yours."
Twila picked up the paper. It was a check for $10,000, made out in her name. "What's this for?" she asked him.
"Jus' take it an' leave," Jake told her. He said it mean-like and hard, with his back straight and stiff. His eyes were hard, too, behind his thick glasses.
Twila just stood there, sayin' nothin'; lookin' down at the check and tryin' to figure out what Jake meant and why.
After a few seconds, Jake relaxed a bit and a looked came into his eyes that was maybe a little softer, a little sadder. "I just cain't do it, Twila," he said. "I cain't be respectable. I just don't know how. I want you to take that money an' leave."
"But Jake," Twila said. "I don't want to leave you."
"I want you to. I tried it. I've tried and I've tried to be respectable, Twila, but it just ain't in me ta be." He nodded at the check again. "Now, I appreciate everthin' that you done with the house an' everthang. But I want you to take this money an' leave. I wanna pay you for yore time"
"I don't want your money, Jacob," Twila said. "I want you. I want us to be able to live out our lives here, together. In our house. In our home."
Jake stiffened again. "It's my house. My home," he told her firmly. "An' I don't want you here."
"But why, Jacob?"
"I done told ya. I cain't be respectable like other folks. It ain't in me. All's I'm doin' is draggin' you down. You are respectable, Twila. I ain't. I cain't be. Hell, I ain't even sure I wanna be."
For a long time, the two old people stared at each other, sayin' nothin' else. Finally, Twila turned away. She picked up her purse, leavin' the check on the table, and walked out.
Jacob just sat at the table, starin' at a red and silver rose in the wallpaper pattern as he heard Twila's car start up and drive away, its tires crunchin' the rocky gravel in the road that lead back to the blacktop, back to Caroline and on to Pierce City.
In the months that followed, Jake saw a lawyer over in Mt. Vernon and filed divorce papers. Twila didn't contest it, even though lots of her friends and her family said she should take half of everything Jake had (and that was close to a million dollars and more than 1200 acres of land in different places around Caroline), but she wouldn't do it. Jake did set up an account for Twila at the bank in Sarcoxie and deposited the $10,000 in it. Later that year, though, they found out Twila had cancer and after only a short time, it seemed, all that money was gone.
But Jake paid Twila's doctor bills. At least, everybody assumed it was Jake that paid 'em. Twila's son started inquirin' around after he saw a few of the bills for her operations and for her treatments at the Sanitorium over in Mt. Vernon were showin' up as bein' paid in full. He knew his mother didn't have that much insurance, but he never could find out for sure who paid those bills. The bills totalled out to more than $50,000, and everybody knew Jake Bodre was about the only person in that part of the country that could afford to pay that much.
And as for Jake,.... Well, he went back to livin' the way he'd always done before. He took one of the new undershirts Twila'd bought him and he wore it all that next summer and he let it get just as dirty and stained as all those other undershirts had been. He picked Possum Grapes in the fall after the frost came and he made himself another batch of wine. The next January, even though he still had plenty of the undershirts Twila had bought him, he cleaned himself up and went into town to buy a shirt when they went on sale at Paul Frieberg's store, just like he'd always done before. Some folks say he did it just so the folks in The Beer Joint and on the party line would have somethin' to talk about.
Twila was in Paul's store when Jake got there. Jake didn't know if this was just a coincidence or if Twila had planned it that way, but she was at the counter when he came up to pay Paul for the shirt and for a fill-up of gas for his pickup. As Jake put his wallet away after paying, Paul discretely made his way to the back of the store to check on something.
Twila, her eyes shining like they usually did when they looked at Jake, just said softly, "Jacob, you need a bath."
Jake looked back at her, rock steady for a long time, but kinda puzzled, like he couldn't figure out what she was talkin' about. After all, he'd just taken a bath. He looked at her a while longer and she just smiled at 'im.
Then his head dipped once, twice and some sentimental folks might even say his voice cracked just a little as he said, "OK, Twila."
Later that spring, in the evening of a picture-perfect day of warm sunshine and green and growin' things, Charles Gutterman went over to see Jake. He found the old man on his porch, sittin' in his straight-backed chair. He was drinkin' some Possum Grape Wine. Charles sat down next to him in the rockin' chair that used to be Twila's.
"You want some wine, Charles?" Jake asked him after he'd sat there a while.
"Don't mind if I do, Jake. Thanks," Charles said, starting to get up. "I'll go get a glass."
Jake stopped him. "Got another jelly glass right here," Jake said. "I 'spected you'd drop over tonight." He poured a liberal amount of the wine into the glass.
"You did?" Charles asked. As he took the glass, he noticed Jake's white hair was damp and that the old man was freshly shaven. Charles thought he could even smell the sweet talc and the aftershave Twila had given him their last Christmas together.
"Yeah," Jake said as he put the Mason jar back on the floor of the porch.
Charles sipped at his wine and rocked in the rockin' chair a little, listenin' to it creak and hearin' the coo of a mournin' dove out on the mined land. He breathed deeply of the cool, spring-scented air, wonderin' how he could bring up the subject he knew he had to bring up pretty soon. "It's nice out here," he said. "You can smell the new grass an' the wild roses and the dogwood and redbud...."
"Ya cain't smell no redbud," Jake said. "Nor Dogwood, neither. Ain't got no scent to 'em, ta speak of."
Charles sat there, embarrassed and silent, wonderin' what he was gonna say now. "How'd you know I 'uz comin' over tonight, Jake?" he managed to croak out at last.
"Twila died this mornin'," Jake said. "I figured you'd be by to make sure I knew."
Charles looked away and nodded. "Are you OK, Jake?" he asked his friend.
"Yeah," Jake said, quietly. After a while, he held his glass of wine up toward the risin' moon, just comin' up over the hill back east of Caroline. He looked through the glass to see the warm glow of the moon through the deep color of the wine. "This is some of the wine her an' me put up that fall," he said. "Ain't the best I ever made. It's kinda sharp. Sorta like Twila." He took another sip of his wine. "But don't you worry 'bout me none," he said. "I'm all right."
The two old men sat quietly there on the porch, drinkin' wine, saying nothin' that didn't need to be said, until late into the night.