On a very cold morning in November, on the outskirts of the small northern California coastal town of Mercy, a husky old man named Nathan and his eighteen-year-old accomplice Delilah, arrive in Nathan’s old pickup truck at the eight acres owned by Philip and Lisa and Marcel and Andrea.
Nathan, affable and remarkably agile for seventy-eight, and Delilah, graceful and strong and delightfully intellectual, live two miles down the road from these eight acres and have come to oversee the pruning of the thirty big apple trees in the orchard near the old farmhouse where Philip and Lisa live with their children, Arturo, six, and Vivienne, four. Nathan has pruned or overseen the pruning of these thirty apple trees for most of the last forty years, ever since the trees were newly planted.
All hands are on deck for the pruning, Marcel and Philip and Andrea armed with loppers, and Lisa and the children, including Marcel and Andrea’s five-year-old Henri, gather the lopped branches and carry them to the woodshed to be cut up for kindling.
Nathan and Delilah have brought two ten-foot orchard ladders to go with the resident twelve-foot ladder, and with Nathan directing from the ground and Delilah wielding a telescoping pole lopper, the pruning only takes a few hours, after which Nathan and Delilah join the collective for soup and sandwiches in the farmhouse.
Who are these people?
Philip is fifty-five, the author of the good-selling cookbook Delicious Meals for the Somewhat Ambitious Cook and a three-evenings-a-week waiterat Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican in downtown Mercy. Lisa, forty-eight is a massage therapist who gives one ninety-minute massage or two sixties, four mornings a week in the farmhouse living room when the kids are attending Mercy Montessori: Vivienne in pre-school, Henri in kindergarten, and Arturo in First Grade.
Andrea, forty-nine, grows vegetables and flowers on a half-acre of their land and sells the produce, including thousands of their apples, to local restaurants, grocery stores, and at the Mercy Farmers Market every Thursday, April through October. Marcel, fifty-three, is a four-evenings-a-week waiter at Jessica’s Seafood & Mexican and otherwise assists Andrea in her garden when not slaving away with Philip trying to restore the six-acre vineyard that he and Andrea co-own with Philip and Lisa along with the farmhouse on the north side of the vineyard and a three-bedroom house on the south side.
Before moving to Mercy six years ago, Philip, Andrea, and Marcel were in the restaurant business in the San Francisco Bay Area, a four-hour drive to the south, and Philip and Andrea are both superb cooks. Thus the soup and quiche they serve Nathan and Delilah for lunch are, according to Delilah, “Culinary perfection.”
Nathan has lived in Mercy for fifty years, all but the first few of those fifty with his lovely wife Celia, a former nurse. A poet of some renown in his youth, Nathan has been pruning fruit trees for those same fifty years.
Delilah has lived with Celia and Nathan for five years now, Delilah’s mother a movie star who wished to spare her daughter the cloistered life of a celebrity’s child and brought her to these hinterlands to live less encumbered by her mother’s fame. An accomplished artist and musician, Delilah assists Nathan with his occasional pruning jobs, cooks with Celia, takes dance classes at the rec center, composes, draws, hangs out with her friends, and has seven piano students.
Lastly we will mention Nathan’s dog, Tennyson, a small brown floppy-eared mutt who goes everywhere with Nathan and always enjoys visiting Philip and Lisa’s farmhouse to pal around with the three resident dogs: Goliath, a small poodle Chihuahua mix, Mimi, a Golden Retriever, and Jung, an enormous Black Lab and Malamute.
When the children have devoured their allotted portions of apple pie for dessert, they go with Delilah into the kids’ bedroom where Delilah swiftly sketches pictures on the big chalkboard and she and the kids make up stories to go with the drawings.
The adults remain at the kitchen table having coffee and tea and pie, and during a rare lull in the conversation Nathan says, “So on our way up here this morning Delilah made a strong case for my telling you what I’m about to tell you, though I wasn’t going to tell you because you’ve worked so hard to make your dream come true, but now I regret not telling you this three years ago when we got to be friends.”
“An intriguing preface,” says Philip, smiling curiously at Nathan.
Marcel frowns. “Should we be worried?”
“No,” says Nathan, having another bite of pie. “This is the best apple pie I’ve ever had, and I say that as a person with a wife who makes what I previously believed to be the best apple pie in the world.”
“So we will assume what you’re going to tell us is not about the apple trees,” says Andrea, who loves winter because there is less to do outside and more time to sit by the fire and read and relax and take her time preparing meals.
“It’s about the vineyard,” says Lisa, her intuition verging on clairvoyance.
“Yes, it is,” says Nathan, sipping his coffee.
“Shall we guess?” says Philip, who hopes this isn’t something too costly, their finances already stretched to the utmost.
“If you want to,” says Nathan, shrugging pleasantly. “Or I can just tell you.”
“Just tell us,” says Andrea, who often consults with Nathan about her vegetable garden, Nathan a master gardener.
“There’s a reason yours is the only vineyard, abandoned or otherwise, around here,” says Nathan, putting down his coffee mug. “And that’s because wine grapes won’t grow here. And if I were you, I would reforest those six acres and put your energy into whatever else you’d rather be doing instead of wasting any more time and money.”
Marcel’s frown deepens. “But we’ve seen pictures of the vineyard when it was spectacular. And the two hundred vines we’ve planted…well, they’re not doing so well yet, but they’re growing, and in another few years we’ll have a harvest.”
“I seriously doubt it, Marcel,” says Nathan, shaking his head. “And if you do manage to get some grapes, they won’t be any good. The only grapes that vineyard ever made were sour as vinegar. It’s just not hot enough here, the summer nights too cold. You can’t imagine how many millions of dollars they spent to make the vineyard look spectacular for those few years, the millions of gallons of water they trucked in every summer, the tons of chemicals they used. And even so the grapes were few and lousy. I was here when they cut down the beautiful forest and terraced the hillside and planted the vines, and I was here when they finally gave up and went away.”
“Were they the same people who built our house with the five idiotic roofs?” asks Andrea, guessing they were.
“Yeah and I told them they’d have leakage problems,” says Nathan, nodding, “but they had endless money and thought they could override the laws of nature if they just spent enough, but they couldn’t. Nature doesn’t care about money.”
“But we bought this place to make wine from our own grapes,” says Marcel, dizzied by the thought of a future without the vineyard gobbling every dollar they make, not to mention endless of hours of labor.
“I just couldn’t in good conscience not tell you,” says Nathan, smiling sadly. “I would have told you three years ago, but you were so in love with the idea of having a vineyard I couldn’t bring myself to. But now… we like you too much to keep watching you throw your money down the drain, money we’re pretty sure you can use for other things.”
“Like a new roof to replace the five stupid ones that leak every winter,” says Andrea, thinking of a dozen projects they might have completed with the money and time they spent trying to revive some rich person’s folly.
“Thank you, Nathan,” says Lisa, nodding to him. “The vineyard brought us here and we’ve never been happier, so… thank you.”
“Hey if you want to make your own wine,” says Nathan, looking at Marcel, “do what lots of people around here do. Buy grapes from the inland vineyards and turn your barn into a winery.”
In the afternoon on this dramatic day in the life of the collective, Marcel and Philip bundle up against the cold and walk through the vineyard recalling all the work they put in over the years, five of the six acres mostly clear of brush now, a few of the original vines and all the new ones protected by sturdy cages they fashioned from heavy-gauge wire to protect the nascent plants from ravenous deer.
“How are you feeling?” asks Philip, speaking French with Marcel, Philip’s mother French, Marcel a native of France. “What are you thinking?”
Marcel looks to the west at the shining sea. “I was remembering the day I tore my Achilles in a soccer match in Marseilles. I knew something bad had happened, but I was only twenty and assumed whatever I had done would heal quickly. I was about to be transferred from our club to Barcelona, my dream to play in the big leagues coming true. And then the doctor said it would take at least two years for me to recover and I might never be able to compete at a high level again. And for a year, I worked so hard rehabbing my tendon until I knew I would be okay, but I also knew I would never play professional soccer again.” He looks at Philip. “Then I became a waiter, something I never really loved though I’m good at it. And when we came here and the children were born and we went to work on the vineyard, I felt I was at the beginning again of a chosen career. Something I really loved. And now that dream is over and I feel the same kind of loss. You know? Who are we without a passion to inspire us?”
“I know what you mean,” says Philip, nodding. “Though I was beginning to sense the futility of what we were doing.”
“It’s a blessing he told us now,” says Marcel, laughing to keep from crying, “and not after our wives divorced us.”
“I think we should pull up the vines,” says Philip, standing beside a struggling vine in a sturdy cage. “Rather than wait for them to die.”
Marcel nods. “Yes. Let’s remove the traces of our folly. Maybe that will help us forget and move on to better things.”
“Like finishing my second cookbook,” says Philip, putting his arm around Marcel’s shoulders. “And spending more time with the children.”
Marcel bows his head and weeps, and Philip, not expecting to, weeps with him.
Five months later on a warm day in April, the last vine gone from the hillside, the hundreds of cages flattened and handed over to a fellow who recycles metal, the drip irrigation system carefully dug up to be used for an expansion of the vegetable garden, Nathan and Delilah and Celia and Tennyson arrive in Nathan’s old pickup, the truck’s bed full of seedling redwoods, firs, pines, and spruce—the day spent planting these first citizens of the new forest, a feast in the farmhouse to follow.
During the feast commemorating the new beginning, as Delilah is playing one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words on Philip’s old spinet with Vivienne on her lap and Henri and Arturo perched on the bench on either side of her, Lisa gets a phone call and goes to the other end of the house to speak to the caller.
When she returns to the living room and the revelers grow quiet to hear her news, she says, “As you know, my grandmother, Gammy as the kids call her, died four months ago. Vivienne and Arturo and Philip and I went to Los Angeles to visit her a few weeks before she died.”
“How old was she?” asks Nathan, the eldest at the party.
“Ninety-seven,” says Lisa, smiling through her tears.
“Who was on the phone?” asks Arturo, who is unused to seeing his mother crying.
“My father,” says Lisa, smiling at her son. “Herschel. Gammy’s son.”
“What did he want?” asks Henri, who knows from Vivienne and Arturo that Gammy was wonderful and Herschel is not.
“He told me they’ve settled Gammy’s estate,” says Lisa, holding Philip’s hand. “As I expected, everything was left to Herschel and his sister Naomi, except for some money Gammy set aside for me. For all of us. For a new roof to replace the five idiotic ones. For wine barrels to make our wine. For the studio we’ll build where I can give massages and guests can stay. For another bedroom on this house and a kitchen remodel or two. And a new piano.”
“How much did she give you?” asks Arturo, who recently made a whole dollar for two very long hours of weeding in the vegetable garden.
“Lots,” says Lisa, thinking of her beloved grandmother smiling her secret I-Love-You smile.
Heading home from the feast, Delilah driving the old pickup, Nathan on the passenger side with Tennyson on his lap, Celia in the middle, Nathan says, “That’s how the universe works, you know. Gives us what we need when we do what she wants us to do.”
“I shudder to think what they would have done with that money,” says Delilah, who is smitten with the three little kids, “had they gotten it before they gave up on the vineyard.”
“But the money wouldn’t come until they gave up,” says Celia, remembering the night they met Delilah for the first time—Delilah the light of their lives—literally moments after Nathan finally convinced Celia to retire from nursing, after she had anguished for years and years about how they would survive without her income. “The universe waited to give them the money until they made the change they needed to make.”