I came to a stop light in my compact Nissan right alongside a beat-up F-250. Those cars look like military-grade tanks. As they pulled ahead the passenger leaned out the window and screamed something at me. I saw the bumper sticker on the back said, “If you’re going to ride my ass, at least pull my hair.” I had been driving for eight hours into the Appalachian mountains and people started to give me and my car funny looks the closer I got to my destination. Finally I drove over a small one lane bridge and onto the street where I’d be staying. Driving past a small shack-like house I saw a young guy sitting outside in his shorts. His head followed my car as I drove past, never taking his eyes off of me.
I was staying around the corner – a massive yellow building with four or five cottages along the perimeter. The porch stretched across the entire front with a bunch of old rocking chairs and a giant American flag waving. I looked back at my car and saw that the front hood was open. So that’s why everyone was looking at me funny; I don’t know the difference between the trunk button and the hood button.
The sign on the door said to call one of the three numbers listed below if no one was home. Well, I didn’t have any phone service soooooooooooo why not take a stroll? I walked back along the road I came in on and saw the same guy sitting in his chair. He had a short sleeve shirt and gym shorts on with a military haircut. The shack next to him had a confederate flag in the window. He saw me coming and said hello. Good start.
“Hi, I’m suppossed to be staying at the winery but no one is there.”
“Did you call the numbers?” He was missing two teeth in the front.
“I don’t have any cell phone service.”
“There should be a cordless phone on the porch.” Man o man, that accent was just dripping from his mouth.
“They know you’re coming?”
“Yeah. I have a reservation.”
“Well, I’ll try and find him for you. My first marriage made him my father in law. That failed.”
How juicy. We walked over to the winery and I found out that he was a military vet; he did two tours in Iraq. I let him know about my own brother who was in Iraq and we were automatically friends. Brother Tom, if you’re reading this, your service has helped me in more ways than you can imagine. The winery was big compared to everything around it. It had two floors and a large open hall inside the front door. Around the side were two, two-story cottages overgrown with ivy. In the back was a good acre of grape vines. Matt told me he’d keep trying to get a hold of the owner and walked away. Some children were playing in an inflatable pool and every once in a while a pick-up would come by and it always had two or three people in the bed drinking soda. I spotted a woman leaving one of the cottages. She was also staying at the winery and attending the same music school but as a fiddle player. Kris was in her early sixties, long gray hair down her back, glasses and a kind smile. We sat on the porch until the main man pulled up in his pick-up. This guy, Jack, who owns the winery is, well, a visual force. He stands well over six feet and has some of the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen. He hunches over when he walks and every time he looks at you, right in the eye, his eyebrow goes up a bit as if he’s slightly surprised by what you said.
“I thought you said you wasn’t gonna be here until late tonight,” he bellowed from his truck.
Sorry, sir. Kris and I went into the empty hall on the first floor that also serves as the tasting room. I had brought a bottle of rosé to give to Jack, winery to winery, and when I passed it over the bar he said,
“I just have to let you know right off the bat that I don’t drink, not a drop. Never in my whole life.”
A winery owner who’s never drunk alcohol. The plot thickens. And yet he knew as much as any winemaker I’d ever met. He started out as a gas station builder and named ten different gas stations that I had passed which he built. He also specialized in underground storage tanks and piping. I mentioned that I’d met Matt when I first got here.
“Don’t give him any alcohol,” he said, “If he asks you for alcohol, just say you don’t have it.”
We talked some local politics. Small towns are so much juicier than the big city stuff. Soon enough Matt walked through the front door, now with his 12 year old son. His son was bulky with red hair. If I were casting an elementary school bully in a movie he’s the kid I’d call.
“I wanted to make sure you got in alright,” Matt said to me.
“Yup, all good,” I replied, now a bit more weary of the situation. Kris and I had been tasting some wine already and the nine hour drive had worn me out.
Jack looked at Matt’s son, “How long are you here for?”
“Five days,” he replied.
The kid talked with his shoulders back, looking everyone in the eye. I got the feeling he had kicked some sixth grade ass recently.
Matt walked up to the bar, right next to me. “Let me get two Bud-lights.”
Jack looked at the son, “Why don’t you tell your daddy to quit them cigarettes? You know they’re gonna kill him, right?”
“I tell him that.”
“What do you tell him?”
“I tell him that they’re gonna kill him.”
“And what about drinking?”
“I tell him that I don’t want him to drink, but I tell him that smoking will kill him.” Matt stood there smiling with his gap tooth the whole time.
“How many you want?” Jack asked.
“Two.” Matt handed over a five dollar bill. Jack pulled two beers from the mini-fridge.
“Take three. Three for five.”
Jack watched him walk out with his son and sighed heavily when the door closed.
“He’s got some post-traumatic stuff I guess, I don’t know. He doesn’t do shit, just collects from the government. You know his alcohol bill here used to be $3,000 per month? He only gets $4,000 a month from the government.”
I said that Matt mentioned that he was Jack’s son-in-law.
“Where is your daughter now?” I asked.
“She doesn’t talk to me much. She’s had a hard time lately. She owns a winery too. Husband went into a back room at their winery and killed himself. Left himself for her to find him.”
Kris expressed her sorrow for him. I tried to change the subject. “So what do people do around here, since the mines all closed up?”
“They don’t do shit,” he answered calmly. “They sit around and collect money from the government. You’re probably for Obama, right? That’s fine. But I have to say that he gave it all away down here.”
“How do you mean?”
“Most people don’t work. They collect their SSI checks (supplemental security income) even though they never worked a day in their life. They never put into it which gives them $800 a month. At least $800. Then you know what they do? They get their food stamps, go to the grocery store and wait for the people to get out of their cars. Then they get all their groceries for them and the person gives them a 100 dollar bill when the groceries cost $200. They sell their food stamps. “THEN,” he was really getting going now, “They go to the doctor and say they’re in pain, or feeling depressed and get painkillers and then they sell those.”
There was a lot more where that came from, including stories of audits and government bureaucracies (Jack wasn’t a fan of the local politicians either) but the few sips of wine that I had, coupled with my driving exhaustion, put me in my room, and I passed out cold.