I wrote "She Says Goodbye Tomorrow" for a collection of climate change-themed stories called Hot Mess over a decade ago. It's one of my favorite things I've written, about a woman whose family vineyard is dying, and in honor of Mimesis coming out today, I post it here in its full glory. Enjoy.
It wasn’t the first time she’d come up here with a hacksaw. Last time she got drunk first. She’d tripped over a goddamn fence post on the way up and gashed her wrist open with the hacksaw. She never got around to cutting the old bastard down, but she’d done a hell of a job bleeding all over him. She was sober now, more or less. She had the bottle of Claret with her in case she lost her nerve again and needed some help. She’d tried being drunk. She hadn’t tried getting drunk. It was plan. Except for forgetting to bring a corkscrew. At least she wasn’t bleeding.
He was over a hundred years old. The Godfather, she called him. His vines were dotted with clusters of fat, purple fruit. It had been a good year. She could have bottled this one. Last year, he’d have gone in with whatever she bought to add a little bit of home. Except that last year was a disaster. One before that, too. First good year in the last five and here she was with a hacksaw before the grapes were ripe. Damn it. How was she going to get that bottle open?
She let the Claret fall to the ground. Starting sober would be best. The punt end sunk into the earth and for a second it stood upright at a slight anglae. Then the bottle toppled and rolled away. It wouldn’t get far. She’d find it when she needed it. With the hacksaw in her left hand, she grabbed a narrow branch and pulled it free of the tangle. No grapes on this one. Nothing to lose by cutting it off. Start small, she told herself. Start small. Teeth of the hacksaw where branch met trunk. Ease in. Pull towards. Keep pressure on the branch. Push away. Start small and work up to the finale. She could always cut the damn bottle open. Sap oozed up around the blade and dripped, dripped, dripped onto the grapes below.
Too many clouds that year. He said it at every meal. It was his answer to all questions. Too many clouds.
“Bethany,” he asked, “you coming?”
She left the textbook and spiral notebook open on the table. Dropped the mechanical pencil into the gutter between the open pages of the textbook and pushed the chair back so hard it almost tipped over. She was halfway through a proof she’d probably have to restart when she got back. Of course she was coming.
Had the path up the hill been here when her grandfather moved in, or was he the one who wore grass down to the bare earth? It wan’t a steep hill, but the climb was high enough that the vines were level with the second story of their house. She stuck close to her father as he made his way up the path, making a game of stepping only on the volcanic stones placed intermittently as footholds. She glanced back and saw Seth’s face disappear from his bedroom window. Her brothers had outgrown following their father on his rounds. At least, Kas had outgrown it, or lost interest, and Seth followed his older brother’s lead. There were still days when Seth walked with Bethany through the rows of vines, but never when father was with them. Or Kas. Obviously.
The path ended at the top of the hill, twenty feet in front of a row of the their oldest vines. Since its founding, since before her family owned the vineyard, its pride had been zinfandel. Her father walked to the nearest vines and carefully lifted leaves and branches away to examine the fruit. Bethany stepped to his left and did the same. Her hands moved aside branches decades old. These vines, the ones nearest the path, bad been planted before her grandfather was even born. It seemed her father told a different version of the story every time he was asked, but the one Beth remembered best was how her grandfather had been taken up to the top of the hill and told the year they’d been planted.
“My father,” he said.
The owner, desperate enough for luxury in retirement to entertain any interest, even the absurd notion of an Iranian immigrant purchasing his small but expensive plot of land, asked what her grandfather meant.
“His was the same year.”
From that moment, that version of the story went, there was never a doubt that her grandfather would win the bidding war that followed. That detail, that her great-grandfather had been born at the same time as these vines had been planted, recurred even in the other, stranger versions of her father’s stories. Like the one where her grandfather sat out the bidding war, certain that the vineyard was his, and stepped in only when the potential buyer declared bankruptcy at the last minute. In that telling, her grandfather learned the date of the vines’ planting only after they moved onto the land.
There were as many stories of how her grandfather came into his money as there were for how he spent it. Those were the ones Kas liked. Bethany couldn’t have cared less.
She’d made it down her half of the row without any surprises. That was the definition of a good walk. No shocks. No surprises. You saw what you expected and nothing else. She headed back to the center, expecting to see her father coming the other way. Instead he was stopped at a cluster of branches and grapes a few yards from where he’d started. His eyes didn’t move from a cluster of grapes cradled in his hands. Beth approached slowly.
She’d thought they were telling her the name of the hill. Beth still wondered how long she’d called it Zinfen Hill, and to how many people, before her grandfather waved her to his Adirondack chair under the plaid umbrella her father placed for him near the vines.
“Bethany,” he said.
He was smiling. She remembered his smile. It was all she remembered. Not the color of his hair before it grayed, or how much he had left, or if his skin was dark like her father’s or light like the uncle’s who had stayed in Iran. His smile. Just his smile.
“Bethany,” he said, “it is not the hill. The grapes. It is zin-fan-del. It is the grapes. We do not name the hill.”
She tossed the branches onto a pile at her feet. She’d run out of bare branches quickly, but dared not let herself stop. She grabbed the emptiest branch she could find and brought the hacksaw down like it was an axe. The pure mechanics of it took over. Grab, pull, hack, hack, hack, hack, pull, drop. When she found grapes, she cut those off first and set them down on the other side of her feet. They were useless, bitter, unripe things. They still didn’t belong with the waste, the pile of bleeding vines she’d have to burn. There was a proper burial for the grapes. Something fitting. She’d figure it out eventually.
The blade was old and dulling quickly, making it hard to cut. She could feel the thin strip of metal skipping and wobbling with every pull. She hadn’t thought to bring a spare. Beth dropped a branch on the pile and hung the hacksaw off of the remaining stump. That felt like hanging a murder weapon on the corpse, so she grabbed the hacksaw and set it down on the ground instead. Then Beth stepped back and wiped her hands on her shirt. She’d already gotten the stuff in her hair. LIttle clots of the Godfather’s blood would remain hours after showering.
The sun would set soon. It hung at eye level, the entirety of it still above the rise of the roof below. Ten years since she’d torn down the house for the winery. They’d told her they could use its support beams in the new construction, but they’d measured wrong, or they’d been rotted or they’d ripped them to pieces in tearing down the house. It depended who you asked. Seth, when he came to the gala she’d thrown for its opening, stayed silent through her entire tour. She’d had to pull him aside to ask what he thought. He wanted to know why the house hadn’t been good enough anymore.
They were bottling tonight. No one asked where she was going when she left them to their work. They knew enough to know she’d want to be alone. They had jobs to do. Would have them to do. That much she’d seen to. She’d noticed Eloise watching her as she came down the aluminum spiral staircase from her office with the Claret and the hacksaw. Eloise, who had to have guessed where she was going, who bandaged her wrist last time. Eloise, who knew where the corkscrews were.
Beth pulled a rag out of her back pocket and wiped her hands as clean as possible before pulling out her phone. Bring a corkscrew and two glasses, she typed. She stared at the screen for a minute, added also a hacksaw blade and hit send.
They’d strung Christmas lights around the edge of the pavilion, inside and out, and crisscrossed strings of them over the guests’s heads. Beth’s father insisted on doing the work himself. He’d been out all morning, balanced on the top step of the ladder - the one with the sticker demanding to be left alone - stapling wires to wooden beams. Dozens and dozens of staples, and no order at all to the mad webwork of tiny, white lights. Beth’s mom, standing at the bottom of the hill with hair perfect, clothed only in her slip and a pair of sandals, watched her father descend the hill carrying the ladder and staple gun.
“You know what the guests will think about that mess? That we’re too cheap to hire someone.”
“Who will even look up?” he replied.
Whether they would have or not was irrelevant. Beth greeted every guest at the bridal party’s table with a hug, and subtle nod up to the lights. Her mother noticed and, oh, was her glare a delight. Like the one from the day she’d thrown her mother’s favorite decanter (the empty decanter, never a full one, not even at ten) at Kas and smashed it on the wall behind him. If she’d hit Kas and not the wall, it wouldn’t have smashed and things would have gone better for her. There was a glare her mother reserved especially for crimes against decor.
They had the ceremony on the other side of the vineyard, next to the manmade lake where her father had installed a fountain. The Salehi Memorial Fountain, as Seth called it. Their grandfather’s name was inscribed on its base, but her father hadn’t measured properly. You could only see it during a drought, when the lake water dropped six inches too low. While the guests moved to the pavilion in a slow succession of carriage rides, Beth and Nick were taken ten miles down the road to the cliffs for their photographs. They’d brought a ten year old bottle of Zinfandel with them. Their last good vintage. They returned, giggling, with an empty bottle and a dress shirt stain just hidden by Nick’s jacket.
The reception peaked, as they do, with the bridal dance, then frayed into little pockets of parties and reunions and hushed analyses of the wedding itself. Nick left his jacket hanging on the chair and owned up to the stain. Beth caught her father’s smile when he was told what wine had left it. Beth let Nick fend for himself when the wave of her family crashed over them and slipped out of the pavilion. The band - her cousins, of course, but also professional jazz musicians - were in the midst of a fast set. No one would be looking for her on the floor. Her dress was modern, sleek and ending at the ankle, and there was no danger of it dragging through the low grass between the pavilion and her destination.
She walked along the ridge of the hill. Below, the split-rail fence, the one her father put up when he finished the pavilion, was silhouetted against the house. She ended up on the path leading up from the house, and made her way to the now grass covered rows where vines once grew. Gone, all of them, save for the one.
“Mom saw you leave.”
Beth turned. Saw Seth. He looked so uncomfortably handsome in his tuxedo and slicked down hair. So unlike himself. “She sent you to bring me back?”
“She tried to send Kas.”
“Thanks for volunteering.”
Seth came up beside her and put his hand around hers. He hadn’t held her hand in years. Not since Gail, and the things she’d said to him before she left. Seth was a year her senior, but Beth had always been the older sister. Gail was the kind of disaster you could only have your freshman year of college, when freedom and adulthood still seemed like the same thing. Seth drove home on Easter break, found Bethany in her room, and dragged her out to the vineyards to talk. God, had he dragged her here? He had, hadn’t he?
“Did you hear dad coughing?”
Beth squeezed her brother’s hand. How could she not have? “He doesn’t want us to worry about him today.”
He squeezed her hand back, but said nothing.
“We should head back. I left Nick alone with Aunt Nazy,” she said and have her brother’s arm a soft tug. Seth let her pull him along, like he had when she used to drag him back to the house for dinner. Beth took one last look over her shoulder at The Godfather, alone on the hill, the last of his brothers, and plunged back into the maw of her reception.
Bottle between her knees, Beth went to work with the corkscrew. Eloise hadn’t been able to find the wine key, so she was stuck with one of those awful rabbit things that someone bought for her birthday. It was too dark to read, but along the navy blue arms, the name of the vineyard was painted in gold letters. She’d thanked the giver profusely and thrown it into the drawer, never to be seen again. Well, it seemed like never at the time.
“What the hell have you been up to?” Eloise asked. She was somewhere in the darkness, behind Bethany. Standing, mostly likely, right in front of the mess she’d made of the Godfather.
Squeezing bottle with knees and rabbit-arms with hands did the trick. She heard best sound in the world, the slight pop of cork leaving bottle, and tossed both corkscrew and cork off into the grass. If she was lucky, the thing would go undiscovered for years. She stood and walked toward Eloise. She’d taken two swigs from the bottle before she reached her.
“I tried to start small. It’s messy,” Beth said.
Eloise saw Beth take a third pull from the Claret. “And why did I bother bringing glasses?”
“Something to trip over later.”
Beth handed Eloise the bottle and sat down with the hacksaw and the extra blade, hoping the fact that she hadn’t a clue how to change one wouldn’t be an issue. It made what she was doing feel unreal and distant; the idiocy of fumbling with a hacksaw in the dark, of opening a bottle with the absurd gifted corkscrew, of drinking out of the bottle with two glasses a few feet away. She felt like it was a joke, or a story she was telling ten years later. That funny one where Beth cut down a grape vine with a rusty hacksaw in the dark. She grabbed the bottle back from Eloise and took another drink before she started to cry.
“I kept the grapes separate,” said Bethany.
Eloise sat down beside Bethany, picked the hacksaw up from her lap and unlatched the blade. When had she learned to do this? Eloise was silver haired and thin, dressed, as always, like she was bound for afternoon tea once she’d finished checking the °Brix in Vat 3. Beth met Eloise when she was 12, though she’d worked in the winery longer than that. She’d been her father’s right hand man, until the point when he realized that he was actually hers.
“They make chainsaws for this. I told you that last time.”
“Too impersonal,” Beth replied. Then another drink. She handed the bottle to Eloise out of self defense. She still had cutting to do.
“Have you cut yourself, yet?”
Eloise smiled. She flicked the clasps shut on the new blade and handed Beth the hacksaw. She took a long drink from the bottle, looked at the label and shrugged. “Overpriced and unremarkable.”
She only talked that way about wines she made.
“Nick would have used a chainsaw. Or a bulldozer. Or fire.”
Eloise eyed her over the rim of her glasses. She couldn’t see a thing without her glasses. It was just sending a message, the old teacher/student shorthand Eloise never let go. “Nick. I see.”
Beth pushed up on the heels of her hands, slid her feet out from under her legs and rose to a crouch. The hacksaw, now a study in contrast between the chipped, maroon-painted handle and the gleaming new blade, slipped off her lap and onto the ground. She snatched it up before rising the rest of the way and returning to the Godfather. He was a stumpy thing, now, with spikes of hard, old vines dripping sap onto the ground. No more leaves. No more easy cutting. She stepped past the pile of grapes. Some of them were crushed. When had that happened? She hacked into one where it met the trunk.
“Bethany,” Eloise said, “can you stop for a minute and talk to me?”
She said it when Beth was just centimeters from finishing with the cut. No, she did not want to talk, and she made that clear by dropping the hacksaw onto the ground and yanking on the vine stump to rip it free. She’d misjudged, though, and her hands dragged along the rough, sappy vine and her grip slipped off entirely.
“Fine,” she said.
Eloise handed her the bottle. That was tactical, Beth knew, because while she took a drink, Eloise could say something without being cut off.
“Why are you doing this? Why are you cutting him down? Are you going to tell me, this time? If anyone saw you right now, they’d think you lost your mind. They’d think they were all about to lose their jobs.”
Bethany lowered the bottle, now at least half empty, and shook her head. “Their jobs are fine. I told them that. I promised.”
“Then what’s this about?”
“They bought the winery, El.”
“I know,” Eloise said.
“They only bought the winery.”
Eloise took the bottle back. Took a drink. Still looked confused. “What does that mean, Bethany?”
Beth noticed something on the bottle of Claret and looked down at her hands. Trying to rip the vine off like that might have been a mistake.
“Ok. I’m bleeding.”
After the walk, they ended up back at the head of the path, looking down at the house. Her father, who followed the ritual of his afternoon walk without fail, never stopped or rested until returning to the kitchen. Today he stopped and sat on the big chunk of igneous boulder that had always served as base in Beth and her brothers’ games. Or it had, when they used to play them. Beth sat beside him and resisted the urge to lay her head on his shoulder. She wasn’t his daughter on the walks. She was part of the vineyard.
“Most of the grapes are fine,” Bethany said.
Her father’s eyes were on the ground. They stayed there. “It’s not that. We’ll have a harvest, this year. They will be good enough.”
Beth’s father looked up at her, and said nothing while he studied her face. “It would be better if you didn’t come with me on the walks, Bethany.”
“You can’t make me stop coming with you!” Beth heard a ten year old’s voice come out and hated herself. She was mature, now. Older. A proper teenager. Not a shouting child.
But her father just smiled. “Bethany, no. That’s not what I meant. I just meant it would be easier. For me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your brothers don’t care about this. Kas is going to college and won’t be back. Seth will do whatever Kas does. If Salehi burned tomorrow, they wouldn’t shed a tear.”
“Seth would, if Kas wasn’t around.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, again, and it sounded even more childish to her than when she’d shouted.
Her father sighed. One of his long, dramatic sighs that he liked to use when he was buying time. “Why do you come out with me every day?”
Such a big question. So many ways to answer that Beth’s head filled up with them too quickly to make sense. So what came out was actually the truth. “I don’t want to leave and not come back.”
Her father nodded. He already knew the answer. He gestured behind them, toward the old vines, and said, “Too many clouds, Bethany. They have to go. This year. All of them. This’ll be the last year.”
They’ll have to go. Her father understated everything like that. She’d seen vines go before. Ripped out and burnt. Torn from the earth and killed. They’ll have to go.
“But, why?” Bethany asked, wanting the tears to stay where they belonged, just this once.
“It’s time to move on,” Beth said, “that’s all.”
“What were we talking about, again? The house? Or was that about us?” Nick asked. He didn’t smile, but you could see the amusement on his face.
Beth rolled her eyes and took a sip of the viognier from a clear plastic cup with a screw-on stem, the kind meant for picnics. There sitting on that same rock, the one on which her father sat and told her things she wasn’t ready to understand. Below, the footprint of a house remained, but nothing else. Beside were piles of timber and concrete. Men would come tomorrow to haul the broken bones of her house off to be reclaimed and reused somehow. They’d be followed by different men who’d bulldoze the footprint of her house away and lay down a new, larger one/
Nick said, “You’re not answering my question.”
“No,” she replied, “because I don’t want to. You don’t need to worry about it anymore.”
She looked at him. When they met, he’d always been clean shaven and kept his hair cut so close to his head that he never needed to comb it. That changed after he left. By the time they’d signed the final paperwork, his hair was long enough to cover his ears and he’d perfected the art of a perfect five o’clock shadow. She didn’t mind either version. That was the viognier talking, she told herself.
“You know where things were headed. We can’t keep going like we were.”
“People aren’t buying?”
“They’d love to buy. We don’t have enough to sell. We don’t even have enough to bottle. We go three years for one good year. That’s not survival.”
Nick finished his glass and poured himself another. The bottle was half gone. It was their second. “So you ripped down the house.”
“You know that over that ridge they’re doing just fine? Microclimates. Here it’s humidity, no sun, too much rain. Ten miles away, the exact opposite. When we bought this place, they didn’t get enough rain to grow grass. Now they want to sell us grapes. We can get by if we bottle more, even if it’s not our grapes.”
“Can I ask where you got the money to build a new winery?”
“You just did.” Beth drained her glass. Set it on an bit of flat space on the rock. Said, “I sold the northern fields. Someone thinks it’ll be good for strawberries.”
The northern fields were the merlot. They’d outlasted the zinfandel, but not the riesling. The riesling was holding its own, but Beth doubted that would last. They’d almost lost it all in a flash flood last year. The Memorial Fountain was surrounded by a swamp for weeks after. She’d called Nick that day, too, to come here and drink. He came. He always came. God knew why he did.
“You don’t have to keep doing this. Your family would understand.”
“He wouldn’t have.”
When he wasn’t here, it was easy to blame it all on Nick. The split, not the vineyard. He knew who he was marrying. He knew she’d come back from college to the vineyard. He knew she’d never let it go. She’d told him that. When he was here it wasn’t so easy. Her father had slipped away so quickly after the wedding, and this place was sliding after him. Had been sliding there for some time. Nick hadn’t asked to marry a failing business. That’s all she’d been for him.
“Beth,” Nick said, “your father wanted you to leave. He wanted you to sell and take the money.”
“No, he didn’t. He wanted me to keep it alive.”
Nick didn’t respond. They’d been through this before, running it like lines from a play. Nick’s response went something like this. Don’t blame this on him. He only wanted you to be happy.
She’d say, This is what makes me happy, and sometimes it felt like the truth.
She could only hold off Eloise for so long. Eventually, she’d stop letting Beth deflect and back her into a corner until she talked. Or, in this case, back her against the bleeding trunk of the Godfather. With nothing to do but finish the Claret and talk, Beth gave in.
They’d come to her out of the blue, like a response to her cry for help. There came a point when disaster was inevitable, when even a great year would do nothing more than delay. The moment came that spring. Thirty people, all family in her eyes, worked in the winery, and another five stalked the vineyards. One more bad year would mean the end for all of them. There were two options she could see: Bankruptcy, or, if she was lucky, a sale to some wealthy startup success story looking for a unique spot for a mansion. Either way, it was the end of Salehi. The men from Wisconsin had another option.
They weren’t stupid. They noticed the same thing she saw every day in the account statements and balance sheets. A profitable winery being drained to support a failing vineyard. A swift amputation could save the patient. A very valuable patient, as they put it.
The amputation. It really wasn’t that bad. All that was left was the riesling. The riesling and the Godfather.
She signed the final paperwork tomorrow.
“No more vines. No more grapes” Beth said. The admission she’d refused to make to her friend, her mentor. She wanted to hold it back until it was signed, afraid that saying it out loud would scare her off, that she’d let it all fall apart rather than end it by her own hands.
Eloise let Beth cry without another word. She put an arm around the small of Beth’s back and a hand on her head and let her sob into the high collar of her dress. They finished the Claret, after. There wasn’t much left.
“I’ll get another,” Eloise said, and walked down the path to the winery.
Beth needed to finish the job alone. Eloise knew Beth couldn’t do it while she watched. Beth found the hacksaw in the pile of branches and shook the leaves off of it. There were still branches sticking off the trunk, but Bethany had delayed too long already. End it quickly, before she lost her nerve.
A century was a long time to live. The Godfather had been here for too long, left alone on the hill like a sentry forced to watch his country die around him. The hacksaw bit into the hard wood of the trunk, and Beth imagined those teeth passing through the impressions of those days now gone, like the memory of a drought in the ring of a tree. The house falling under the weight of construction cranes, and Nick packing a truck with clothes and the dining room table and his desk, where he worked when he could afford to be away from the office in the city. The year the storm came and knocked down the pavilion where they’d been married and taken the split-rail fence with it. The fence whose posts rotted now in the grass of the hill. The Godfather’s brothers ripped from the ground, but him left to bear witness to what followed. Her mother’s death, and her father’s before that, and her grandfather, who died ten yards from the vines planted the year his father was born. A century was too long. The Godfather deserved better than to see the last of it torn to shreds. He deserved to go by Bethany’s own hands.
The trunk came free of the stump. She supported it in her right hand. Too heavy to hold long, she felt the weight twist her wrist to the right, then to the left before she let him fall to the earth. The stump she’d leave to use as the base of the pyre for the old man’s branches. The winery would still be hers, and Eloise would stay along with all the others. They’d expand, and bottle more and better wine. Unencumbered, as the men from Wisconsin said, with the weight of a dying dream. Or was that just how she’d heard it?
It’s not your burden, she thought. You don’t have to say goodbye anymore. She’d take the Godfather’s place. She’d say goodbye tomorrow, and every day after, until no one remembered that men once planted vines here the year her great-grandfather was born.
If you liked "She Says Goodbye Tomorrow", head over to this link and pick up a copy of my newest novel, Mimesis.