by Marie Schnerch
I drove the car a little more forward in the lane than usual this morning in an attempt to squeeze the old 1986 clunker into the slot in our back yard beside the garage. In doing so, I noticed our neighbour Connie had discarded two large rolls of chicken wire into her trash bin. The sight gave my spine a shudder as I hoped my husband, Frank, would not see them before garbage day when the big truck rumbles down our back lane to pick up everyone’s garbage. Frank likes things like chicken wire, claiming they might come in handy one day. He considers our garage his storehouse for such treasured things as used potato sacks, broken pool cues, lengths of rusted wire and petrified paintbrushes.
Connie’s trash brought to mind events of a couple of summers in the early nineteen sixties, not long after our neighbourhood became saturated with newly immigrated Italian families.
The swarthy, dark-haired male counterparts lured my Dad from his afternoon walks with invitations to partake of the grape, which they made in their basements and dark, warm closets. When Dad decided he should try his hand at making wine _ good stuff, not like the cheap potato champagne Auntie Emma had fermenting in a crock behind her kitchen door _ his knowledgeable new buddies advised him as to where he might buy the right grade and type of grape for making the best.
Using an informative book he found on a magazine rack at the drugstore across the street, he set about collecting all the necessary equipment. While he was at it, he figured it would be a good idea to bottle some home- made beer, which was suggested in the same magazine.
It took a couple of weeks, and nobody knows from where, but Dad managed to scrounge up all the necessary things to make his wine and brew his beer. One corner of the basement was piled with bags of sugar, hops, yeast cakes, a jumble of old beer cases filled with long-necked empties, a crock, corks and metal caps and, of course, partially fermented grapes emitting swarms of aggravating little fruit flies which invaded every corner of the house. He crushed the grapes with his hands, contrary to the neighbourhood gossip that he used his stocking feet and followed the Chianti wine recipe to the letter. Now all he had to do was wait till the following Saturday to make his beer, starting with the boiling of his ingredients in a huge canning vat on the stove.
He loved Saturdays, when he had the whole kitchen to himself, where he created mountains of crusted pots and utensils and indelible spills, while making marinated herring, rhubarb and blueberry pies and red, juicy lasagnes. At times, clouds of smoke billowed from the windows, prompting passers- by to feverishly bang on our doors with the intent of executing fire rescues. All this happened while Mom took her usual shopping excursions downtown on the bus to Eaton’s department store for the day. He never apologized to Mom for the state of her kitchen when she returned, because deep in his heart, he knew she enjoyed the products of his labours. He could tell, by the subtle blush in her cheeks, the slight trembling in her tight little smile and her speechlessness at the sights he set before her wide, unbelieving eyes.
After a few months, the fruits of his work were ready for tasting. Siphoning the wine into bottles from the monstrous glass jug by sucking it through rubber tubing reminded me of how he drained the gasoline from his outboard motor in the fall. The gas always surprised him with its presence on his tongue, before he had a chance to remove the tube from his lips. It amazed me that he thought nothing of lighting up one of his filterless Black Cat cigarettes, setting the potential for his adding a human element to my vision of a fireworks display.
It didn’t matter how long the wine sat, it never settled. It just remained murky in the bottles. Dad pretended to savour it that way, pursing his lips, feigning ecstasy and claiming it tasted just as good as it would, had it been clear. He convinced no one. The beer on the other hand was an instant hit. Word of its potency travelled fast, and friends came from far and near to par- take of Dad’s golden, frothy libation.
One day our friend Peter was sculpting the hedge, trying out Mom’s new iridescent-orange electric trimmer. He mentioned the blistering sun on one of his trips to the kitchen for a glass of ice water. Mom offered him a beer. Helping himself to one of Dad’s bottles in the basement, he gulped it down in a thrice and returned from the back yard moments later to apologize for having snipped the trimmer cord in two. Thankfully, he escaped being electrocuted and the holes in the hedge grew back within a couple of months.
The last two dozen bottles exploded in the basement cold room one quiet afternoon while Mom was listening to her soaps. This incident created, in more ways than one, a foul atmosphere for Dad when he returned from work that evening.
Considering himself experienced in the field of alcohol production, the next year Dad decided he should grow his own grapes. The problem with the wine, he figured, was definitely the wrong grapes. He spent hours pouring over seed catalogues from as far away as Prince Edward Island before mailing in his order form and cheque.
Some shrivelled little plants arrived by parcel post a couple of weeks later, securely bound in layers of plastic and brown paper, which was made almost impermeable by miles of wide, clear tape. Dad impatiently ripped open the parcel and set the roots of the pathetic plants into the ground beside the gar-
The grape vines, like everything else, thrived, but eventually flopped forward to lie on the lawn for lack of support. We didn’t own a car, so Dad took three trips by bus to the hardware store on the corner of Stafford Street and Pembina Highway to purchase lengths of lumber, pounds of nails, green paint and two rolls of chicken wire.
For the next few days, the back yard was a buzz with the noise that comes with heavy construction. Dad used his circular saw the most, plugging it into an extension cord, that ran into the house to the stove, which being on a circuit of its own, prevented any power shutdowns. The yard was strewn with Dad’s other equipment – thumb tacks, bent pieces of wire, duct tape, a level and a lopsided sawhorse he built during one of his other “carpenter moments.” A thick layer of saw-dust covered the lawn and the thumbnail on his left hand was purple and black with compounded blood blisters owing to the fact that my brother and I were experienced enough with Dad’s projects to be hiding in our closets when he needed help for the hammering part.
On completion of his venture, Dad excitedly led Mom blindfolded to the back yard where, upon the unveiling, she stood frozen in disbelief before emitting a pitiful scream, aimed at the gargantuan structure before her. Dad had nailed the garden gate shut and attached a towering wall of chicken wire to the top of the fence. His version of a vine trellis turned out to be similar to a baseball field backdrop the size of a Main Street billboard and just about as pretty, cutting off our clear view to the street and impeding the flow of afternoon sunshine. Mom, embarrassed by gawking passersby, insisted the eyesore be dismantled and disposed of immediately.
Crimson-faced and thoroughly disgruntled, in a huge huff, Dad unceremoniously tore down the great wall, ripped the vines from the earth and bundled up the wood and chicken wire, dumping all in the back lane trashcans. To further assault his pride, not five minutes later, the two Wilson boys knocked at the door, inquiring if they could have the supplies from our garbage in order to construct a fortress in their yard. In the face of these two innocents, Dad did his best to pretend he didn’t care, and told them to help themselves. The incident was never mentioned again, at least not in his presence.
Dad was not discouraged, though. It wasn’t long before he was growing mushrooms in our vacant garage, plucking dead ducks in the basement and experimenting in the kitchen on Saturdays. He made things such as his version of marinated chicken livers, Limburger cheese and surprisingly succulent corned beef with a recipe from the butcher at JB’s Grocery Store across the street. He took up beekeeping and photograph developing, and three times he travelled to Italy and drank his fill of the “fruit of the vine.” He returned home with enough stories to bend ears for many a year. He relented to the fact that a vintner he was not, and until the day he died, begrudgingly bought his wine at the local government-run liquor store.
As I sit here in the lane with the car idling, I am relieved to remember that this is the one day the city picks up our trash. I only pray they hurry!
“Sour Grapes” won First Prize for Nonfiction in the 2006 Contest of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers.
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