Bottles

My Dad calls me early evening and he sounds out of breath, tells me that I need to come over soon and bring Dave to have a final drink, the important one, before he leaves Hawai’i. I look outside from the entrance to our home and my Filipino neighbor is sweeping in the parking lot with her broom made of sticks. I hear the scraping against the gravel, the leaves crunching. There’s a layer of dust covering the screen door and a small moth in the corner by the thin metal bar.

Dave is on his laptop looking for a couch. The fabric on the old one that I’ve always used is tearing, and the holes have gotten bigger to show more of that mustard-colored foam.

“Hey Emily, that your stepdad?”

“Yes, my Dad. We’re going over later.”

“So tonight’s the night, huh. A final toast, adios?”

“Bon voyage. But he means it this time.”

I remember that there’s laundry in the dryer so I go outside to cross the parking lot, step over a pile of leaves, and smile at my neighbor coming with a garbage bag. The moth flies around her face and she whacks it away.

Last time we went over Dad promised something better. Dad held the glass near his chest with a slow twirl, gazing into it as if it were a black hole of blood. He wanted us to take the rest of the bottle home because he said it was delightful, but I knew he was lying. Not enough depth and complexity. He probably thought that for all of them. Even though we were supposed to leave it out in room temperature, it’s still there at the back of the fridge where Dave left it. The laundry isn’t done yet so I go back inside and pour myself a glass of water. I don’t know why but I swirl it and spill some on the floor.

In the drawer near the sink I look for a rag but inside I find a cork, half of it a light purple. In June Dad gave up on his few retired friends who said they knew where to dine and drink around the island because he was disappointed that they were wrong. He bought a lot of the cheap stuff, and after a while it wasn’t about tasting a lot of bad to know what’s better. Refinement. Another lie that gave him license to get drunk. He complained about the weather—gets too hot, gets too cold, rains too randomly, Waikiki condo’s too expensive to rent compared to the home he still had in LA. Then he threw the bottle at the wall. After he apologized and after Dave finished yelling at him, I grabbed the cork because I wanted to buy the same bottle so I could drink the whole thing, just to spite him. I clasped it tight in my hand on the way home and I thought I could crush it into powder if I did it long enough. I give it another squeeze and still can’t do it.

While I’m in the shower Dave comes in to take a shit. I take my time washing my face whenever Norman Bates tries to kill me with that smell instead of a knife. Lavender works the best. Up in the ceiling light there’s a little roach or some bug running in circles.

“Hey, you see that up there?”

“You know Emily, your stepdad ages like wine. He gets more bitter every time we go there. Me? I’m a beer guy.” There’s the occasional crap sound that’s even louder when he pauses.

“Yeah you are. You get stale.”

“I see it.”

Dad was so excited when he called last December, and this was around the time Dave was moving in. On the phone he was saying that he saw it as a vacation, a getaway, or maybe a place to retire. He said he’s been to places to taste and explore but he has never taken the time to kick back, relax, and enjoy, like a Corona commercial. Nowhere else to go but paradise. I didn’t see Dad for a while but he always called on-again-off-again to tell me what he was up to. But maybe he really came because I look so much like Mom. The toilet flushes, the water gets hotter, and Dave plays with the light switch.

 

We get to the parking lot and Dad is already there in the washing area wiping down his rental car. He’s not wearing his usual red-checkered pajama pants but khaki shorts instead. He has a new haircut. We follow him inside the familiar condo and he signs in for our guest-parking stall again and then we go upstairs.

Empty bottles line the hallway, white wines on one side, reds on the other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were ordered by year. They could be lights to a runway that guide Dad to takeoff.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I’m going to recycle them.”

Four glasses are set on the table in the dining area and the metal tray is still in the middle full of corks. Most of them are from Napa Valley, the last place he drank wine with Mom, and most of them Mom had insisted on keeping so they could remember to buy them later. A few are from Tuscany, Sicily, Spain, and France. They really went everywhere together. Those were vacations. Whenever we had dinner and drank wine here, he’d always fish out a cork to negatively compare the night’s selection with that particular one. He must have done that for every single one by now, with us or on his own. He won’t do that tonight.

He brings the one, the Richebourg ’74, holding one side with a towel. He pours starting with mine, then Dave’s, then his, and then the fourth glass and raises it to the light. The maroon looks transparent rather than that deep color it has without the shine.

“What makes you so sure about leaving this time?” Dave says.

“I’m about sick of this damn island. I don’t know how you folks can stand it. The heat can drive a body nuts. There’s nothing to do around here on this exotic hellhole.”

Dave looks at me and raises his eyebrows. In the windowpanes I see our hazy reflections.

“Well, for one thing I thought I could get used to it. But I can’t. And there’s nothing good to eat around here. All the same ol’ shit. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a deli, a good roast beef sandwich? And don’t even get me started on the…”

“Whine. That’s all you do, Dad,” I say. “Can we please just enjoy tonight? Especially tonight?”

No one says a thing. The carpet by the wall is still stained, but I can tell a lot has been scrubbed out since the last time.

“So I heard from my buddy,” Dave says twirling his glass, “that the more tears a wine has the better the quality it is.” He looks at me, points at the glass, and traces his finger on one of the streams trickling down after the wine settles to the bottom.

I squeeze my knee waiting for his response. “Bullshit.” Dad twirls his glass. “More tears means more alcohol content. Doesn’t have anything to do with quality.”

Dave nudges me with his toe under the table. I look for the tears, but I can’t tell if they are a lot or a little.

“I hope you’ll be happy when you move back,” Dave says.

“Yes Dad, I worry about you.”

“It’s not about being happy.” Dad glances at the fourth glass. “It’s about choosing what to value among variety.”

I’m not sure what Dad was like before. For some reason I always imagine him as a bum sleeping on a freight train before he met Mom. I guess it’s that beard he can get sometimes. Then Mom sees him and hops on the train to LA, bringing glasses and a bottle to keep them warm at nights. But then she’s gone, the glasses are broken, and Dad has to drink straight from the bottle. I’m not sure if I’m on the same train or maybe another one, or if Dave is keeping me warm.

“Anyway, I’ve been saving this bottle for a long time.” Dad stands up and his oily forehead shines in the light. “And the thing about something like this, it has to be shared. So with that said, let’s have a toast. To value.”

I stop the dull ringing of the glass with my lips. I close my eyes with the first sip and I think of Dad and how I may never see him again. I feel the heat moving down my chest. He taps his glass on the fourth one before taking his sip and holds it in his mouth a while before swallowing, his lips as if he were savoring a kiss. Dad goes to the kitchen and brings back an orange funnel, puts it in the bottle and pours the fourth glass of wine back.

 

Before Dad gets into the rental car to go to the airport, he hands me a box. I open it and it’s full of corks.

“I can’t take these,” I tell him.

“Honey, of course you can. You have to.” He called Mom “honey” all the time. I only really started calling Uncle Anthony “Dad” after Mom passed away. Then I watch him go without all the corks but with just the one inside the rest of that bottle.

 

He calls me when he gets to LA, tells me how great it is and tells me how he misses me and Dave and Hawai’i, and then how he had forgotten how bad traffic was over there. He says he’s going to visit Mom’s grave, and I know he’s going to pour her the remainder of the bottle. I don’t know where he’ll go from there, but I expect another call. I don’t know why, but I think of Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather III, which Dave made me watch, and how he remembers past dances and falls off a chair and dies.

I hang up and stare out the screen door at the entrance. I get a wet paper towel and wipe off the dust and keep looking outside. There’s a roach crawling across the concrete and I wonder if it came down from the bathroom ceiling light.

“Are the movers here yet, Emily? What are you looking at?”

They pull in the parking lot and two big men come out and carry the couch that Dave ordered. I hold the screen door open, but as they try to get the couch inside it doesn’t fit through the doorway.

This is a reprint of work originally published in Hawai’i Review.

Joseph Han is finishing his English degree at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where he won the Ernest Hemingway Undergraduate Award for Fiction. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Hawai’i ReviewMetazen, and The Rusty Nail.

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