A Glass of red wine at three

By Douglas Parker

These days, if weather permits, I often find myself sitting on our small front porch at three o’clock, drinking a glass of red wine – mostly old vines as it’s called – and munching on a handful of Miss Vickie’s. Three o’clock; you can pretty much set your watch by it. Miss Vickie’s, they’re addictive, I know. Bad for you to boot. Hence, just one handful. Some days I wish I had bigger hands. I feel a bit guilty about sitting on the porch, especially if I’ve had a day where I haven’t done much: a crossword, maybe reading, some television. Neighbours wander by from time to time. We acknowledge each other with a simple “hi,” but it doesn’t go much farther than that. Presumably they have things to do and so do I, although it looks as if I’m not doing anything but drinking wine and eating some chips. I justify what others might see as laziness, because I believe that drinking red wine and eating Miss Vickie’s is, in fact, an activity, broadly defined.

However, I do get little stabbing pains of guilt when I realize how busy my wife always seems to be: gardening and cooking in the summer; in the winter, well, that never used to be a problem because we always travelled, mostly to Europe. But until recently, we were captives in our own house and she found other things to do. In addition to cooking and cleaning the place and playing bridge and zooming with her book club, she made a quilt from several of my old silk neckties. And then she made another with the ties that were left over. I was astonished. Some days she disappears and ascends to the third floor where she cleans out cupboards tucked under the eaves. If she calls on me to help her lift stuff up or down because she can’t manage the weight, I’m there to help. She’s Crusoe, I’m Friday – some days.

When she’s going through stuff, she sometimes finds old photographs that she shows me. If they’re of people, I usually recognize them. If they’re of places or things, I often don’t. My wife has a remarkable memory. She’ll look at a photo and tell me a story about it – where it was taken, why it was taken, when we were there if it was a place. Usually, I don’t recall with any degree of specificity what she recalls with astonishing clarity. Often her question is, “Don’t you remember that?” Sometimes I feel like a failed Jeopardy contestant in my own house. One day I saw her with a street map of Venice sitting beside her while she was reading a Donna Leon novel. She was following Brunetti’s meanderings through Venice on the map, pointing out places where we’ve been and noting places we might explore down the road. “Don’t you remember that place?” Nope. Rhymes with dope.

Sometimes it’s annoying not to remember what she remembers. On the other hand, it’s great to have a partner with a photographic memory when you’re travelling. She studies places to go and how to get there before we leave the place we’re staying. And once we get there, she takes the map and off we go, easy as pie. If we go back to a place we’ve been to a couple of days before, she can get there without the map, as if she’s native to the place. And I’m talking big, confusing places: London, Paris, Rome. It’s perfect for me; she’s my never-failing tourist guide. I never worry about us getting lost, it never happens as long as she’s with me.  She leads, I follow. She finds places I could never find and that allows me to write about them. What a great memory. What a great gift – most of the time. Trained in Classics, I’m her Aeneas, she’s my Sybil.

So there I am, sitting on the porch, seemingly doing nothing but drinking red wine and rationing my handful of Miss Vickie’s while my wife’s doing everything. But actually I am doing something I regard as valuable. I’m thinking. That’s something, I reckon. Today I’m thinking about a good friend I’ve known for years. Neither of us lives in the same city we once did. He taught English; I taught Classics. Cognate subjects, so to say; cognate friends as well. Our families used to spend a lot of time in each other’s company. Then we both retired, and he moved somewhere else, as did we. No longer able to talk face-to-face, we spent a lot of time on the phone, maintaining our relationship, exchanging, essentially, trivia. Trivia is crucial to telephone conversations between friends. Nothing said is that important, but, taken together, all of it is very important for what it signifies. Both people on either end of the telephone are certain enough of their friendship to allow the other the freedom to engage in trivia and free associate. Ingenuous, two-way chat. Nothing rehearsed, everything extemporaneous, one thing leading to another, chewing the fat. Both of us were good fat chewers. Comfortable fat chewers, mostly of trivia.

But now my friend is in the process of moving to another country. Almost like he’s been extradited. Nothing he wants to happen. Nothing his family wants to happen. Nothing I want to happen. I still phone him almost as much as I used to. Once a week. But now my side of the conversation must be scripted and rehearsed. Before I ring his number, I practice what I’m going to say: talk about the weather, maybe start there; talk about the Blue Jays whom I know he likes; talk about what might be happening where we both used to work. Then I phone. I ask him how he’s doing. On good days, he stays with me.  Other days no. On those no days, he’ll say, “I’m still alive,” almost always. I then mention the Jays; I pray that he’s watched yesterday’s game and that he remembers it. I just assume that he has and burble on about it. Invariably, he’s say to me, “How are you folks?” I tell him. A few minutes later, he says, “How are you folks?” I tell him again. He knows the lines that give him comfort. And I know mine. Each of us knows his lines as if both of us are characters in a Beckett play. Eventually, we end the conversation and hang up. He always thanks me for calling. I really believe he means it. That’s gratifying. In another week, I’ll call him again and we’ll replay the same conversation, more or less.

Keep it going, I want to keep it going. I know I will be heartbroken when we no longer can keep it going, when one day my friend on the phone says to me not “How are you folks?” but “Who are you folks?” Then I’ll know that his move to that other country has happened.

Douglas Parker is a 30-year Glebe resident with an interest in English Reformation literature, history and theology.

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