Fragile, French, Must Travel
by Jeanette Topar
The wine store on 72nd Street was no ordinary place. The clerks there always asked what you wanted the wine for. They asked many questions. How long were you going to store it? At what temperature? Did it have to travel? What would be served with it? The only question they didn’t ask—at least not right away—was ‘how much are you looking to spend?' They wanted to understand the reasons for your purchase first.
Ellen knew this. She liked how hard they tried to help you make the right choice. And tonight she felt fortunate to see one of the older staff members coming to the door. He would be even more knowledgeable, more experienced than the others. She opened the door but he was standing in the way.
“Sorry miss. I’m locking up.”
“But it’s only eight—,” she checked her cell and frowned. It was 8:59.
She shouldn’t have waited for the rain to stop before she went out shopping. She shouldn’t have stopped by the fancy Jacques-something-or-other chocolate place for a big box of Belgian truffles first. This was all so last minute. There were so many things she wanted to bring Donna, her best friend of thirty years. Delicious luxuries, indulgent treats. Gifts—Ellen could barely admit this to herself—that didn’t imply a future the way a piece of jewelry or china would.
The wine store clerk stood blinking at her over the tops of his reading glasses. He slowly turned the cardboard “Closed” sign hanging in the window. “Now it’s nine.”
“Please?” she said. “It’s not for me.” As if that would make a difference.
Ellen could tell—when the clerk gave a flicker of a smile—that she had won the argument. He stepped aside so she could enter. The store itself always put Ellen in mind of a library, with dark wooden shelves lining the walls, orderly rows of bottles, a liquid library, each wine with its own story to tell.
“Birthday?” he asked.
The clerk was even older than Ellen had first thought, his face soft and crumpled with years. His speckled hands trembled as he gave his glasses a quick polish with a cloth from his pocket before putting them back on. The cuffs of his thick brown cardigan were frayed, probably no one at home to notice or point such things out to him. Yet his shirt was white and crisp, even at the end of a damp October day, so white it glowed in the neon light from the window.
"No…not a birthday…" she said.
She wanted to answer him, really. But she didn’t want to blurt out something that might make him uncomfortable. Who wants to hear talk about death? Who?
"A special…thing," she answered.
The lights in the rear of the store had already been turned out in preparation for closing. As far as Ellen could see into the shadows, green bottles glistened.
My best friend is dying of a brain tumor. She's having surgery, but she's not expected to live more than six months, even if she makes it through the operation. I'm afraid this is the last time I'll see her alive. I'm driving to Pennsylvania tomorrow morning and then she's going into the hospital. I haven't seen her for a while. We've had some terrible, odd disagreements in the past few years. She lives in the country, has horses. I live in the city, with cats. She thinks New Yorkers are all liberal-left-wing-soft-on-crime-Volvo-driving types. Our disagreements really got bad right before the last election. It wasn't just the politics either. You know what she said when I went into therapy and tried to explain to her that it was because I want to know myself more? Doesn't that sound like a good thing, wanting to know yourself more? You know what she said? She said—can you believe this?—'Well! I want to know myself less!' Know herself less! I didn't know what she meant by that!
Ellen wanted to tell the clerk this and more.
Oh, and before that we had an argument about goats. Yes, goats! She doesn't raise goats, by the way, just Arabian horses, and just for fun. I don’t know if she's ever even seen a goat up close, but I was merely being wistful over dinner one evening, this was not long after September 11th, and I wanted to run away, live somewhere peaceful, and I was thinking out loud about how much I liked cashmere and goat cheese, and what a perfect animal the goat is, and how I might have a perfectly calm life living in the hills of Umbria, maybe, away from terrorists, raising goats and knitting pashmina shawls out of their fur or hair or whatever. You know how she reacted? This friend of mine of thirty years? And she's someone I'd been used to telling everything, but suddenly realized I couldn't. And, who knows—maybe that's what drove me to see a shrink and take those pills in the first place. Because all of a sudden she's so judgmental and angry and says 'What the hell do you know about raising livestock?' Just because I live in New York City I'm not entitled to a dream of raising goats? She doesn't raise livestock herself—she pampers those horses like Persian kittens. Anyway, I do see goats. Probably a lot more than she does. I see them every day, almost, on the cross-town bus at 66th Street. I mean, from the window of the bus, of course, when I'm on my way to work. I see them because they're right there in the corner of the children's zoo at Central Park standing on fake tree stumps, usually, right there at Fifth Avenue. I don't know what happened, I mean, to our friendship. She's been mad at me for years, and now this brain tumor!
Ellen didn't say any of this to the man.
"It's for someone who's French," Ellen said. Donna was half-French, "So, something French, please."
No mention of death.
Ellen hadn't wanted to listen when Donna called to tell her about the diagnosis. Her first impulse was to say that her cell phone was going out of range and that she'd have to call back…sometime. She hadn't tried to draw Donna out, instead chattering optimistically about cures and hope and experimental treatments and how she might come to Pennsylvania when Donna was all better, next summer. Ellen hadn't wanted to give her an opening in the conversation, an invitation to discuss how she felt about the immediacy of dying, if she was afraid, what she wanted to be remembered for, or just what she thought about it all.
The clerk stepped up onto a footstool and studied the labels on the highest shelf, stretching left and right so far Ellen thought he might tumble off to the floor.
"So," he said, gazing up at the rows of ruby, crimson, scarlet.
"So…" Ellen said.
"Go on." He stepped off the stool and kneeled, pondering the labels on the lower shelves.
"It's for a friend," Ellen said.
He got up and walked behind the counter and lifted up a crate that had been stored under there. He pried it open with some difficulty. Maybe Ellen imagined the puff of dust that rose up from the crate as he removed a bottle.
"So you'd recommend that one? Yes?" Ellen asked, pointing to the bottle in his hand.
The clerk didn't answer.
"Okay. I'll take that one," she said. "That's good, right?"
"It's hard to say…tell me more," he said.
"I don't know what more to tell you," she said. "I don't know what matters. I don't know what you're asking. Can’t you just suggest something?”
The clerk put the bottle down. He came out from behind the counter and leaned back, resting against it. She wondered if he'd heard her. He was quiet, staring at her.
Ellen headed to the door. It had begun to rain again, hard this time. She searched the bucket for her umbrella. She must have left it somewhere else.
"Everything matters," he called after her.
Ellen turned back to him.
"Must this wine travel?" he asked.
"A distance?" he asked.
"Yes, a distance.”
"Would your friend want a wine she can lay down for a while?"
"I don't understand."
"Will your friend store this wine away for later?"
"No, not later.”
"So we can consider something fragile, then?"
"Now, if you don't mind, we must discuss the cost," he said.
"Fifty, seventy-five dollars," she said.
"A very good friend," he said.
Rain spattered the front window and door, dissolving the street, the lights, the people dashing by.
"Fragile, French, must travel," Ellen said.
The clerk nodded.
"She’s so beautiful!" Ellen said. "She’s the most beautiful person I've ever known."
© Jeanette Topar, 2018
Jeanette Topar is a New York City-based writer whose short stories have been published in The Southwest Review, The Greensboro Review, Peregrine Journal, Skidrow Penthouse, Liars’ League NYC (three times!), and others. She won Pulp Literature’s 2017 Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction. Her story, “Descent,” was shortlisted for the 2018 Editors’ Prize by Meridian Journal (University of Virginia) and will appear in their next issue.
Fragile, French, Must Travel was read by Kristen Calgaro on 6th June 2018 for Questions & Answers