Tuesday 13 June 2023

Honey and Grapes - Short Story by Clark Zlotchew

 



Honey and Grapes

Short Story  

by Clark Zlotchew  

 


When my waitress comes over to take my order, she leans down very close to my face. I notice the name plate pinned on her apron: it gives her name as Honey. Honey? An odd name. Her long chestnut, peachy smelling hair brushes against my cheek and lingers on my shoulder. Placing her hand on my upper arm, she looks into my eyes, stops chewing her gum, and murmurs “What can I do for you, Mister?”

          Somehow, this question plus her nearness, increases my perspiration. I understand this is a perfectly normal, ordinary question for a waitress to ask a customer, yet her appearance, her tone of voice… But I feel there is something about the way she did it… Anyway, I find myself flustered, tongue-tied. I also experience a sudden pang of inexplicable fear in the pit of my stomach. Why the hell should I feel fear?  I’m not some high school nerd afraid to talk to the cheerleader captain. What the hell?

          She must be wondering why I haven’t answered her question, but just sit here, gazing at her like some slobbering nerd. She straightens up, places her hands on her hips, and looks down at me with a smirk. “I’ll give you a moment to gather your thoughts, Mister,” she says and saunters away with a maddening swaying motion.

          I finally break out of my reverie and try to concentrate on the menu.  When she returns, I order a BLT.  When I finish my sandwich, the server approaches, pauses long enough in her gum chewing to ask, “Will there be anything else you’d like, sir? We have some scrumptious Pesadilla pie, fresh baked.”

          “What’s Pesadilla?”

          “Oh, right. You’re not from around here. Well, it’s a local grape. Really good. They make an awesome local wine with it, as well as jams and jellies and, well…, pie. Try a slice. You’ll love it.”

          I’m not in the habit of having dessert, but this time, I figure what the heck, if she says I’ll love it, maybe it really is good. So, I order a slice. Live it up, right?

          She smiles, showing beautiful white teeth, and says, “Cool! One slice of Pesadilla pie, coming up.”

    Here she is, back with the pie. It turns out it’s as good as she’d claimed. The fruit’s color is something between purple and black, like eggplant skin. The taste is sharply sweet-and-sour, suggestive of rhubarb blended with raisins, but different. And even though it isn’t wine, the effect is somewhat intoxicating.

Okay, so I’m concentrating on enjoying this wonderful pie when I hear my waitress purr, in a very confidential tone, “This is all for you, stranger.”  She breathes the message, with the heat and humidity of her breath warming my outer, middle and inner ear. I turn and look up at her. My eyes travel up and down, searching for what exactly she’s referring to. What is all for me, I wonder.

Again, she gives me that self-satisfied smirk, and points her well-manicured index finger at the tab she has just slipped onto my table. I feel like an idiot.

At the cashier’s station, I freeze for a moment.  A couple of praying mantises are engaged in sexual relations on the windowsill. Ugh! Ugly, disgusting, nightmarish creatures.

“Aren’t those babies cute?” said the cashier.

“Cute?” I say, and can’t restrain a shudder.

The cashier gives me a hard look.  What’s wrong with her? Seeing one of those nightmare creatures is bad enough, but two of them!  In the act of creating more of their species, no less. I shudder once more, but finally pay the bill. I don’t want to stick around to watch the female bite the head off the male and then consume him entirely. Which is exactly what female praying mantises do after mating. And the weird cashier: She thinks the creepy creatures are cute. And she seems indignant that I don’t agree.

 

#     #     #

It’s early September but freakishly hot today. The temperature has already hit eighty-nine degrees and is expected to go several degrees higher.  A light breeze coming off Lake Erie is carrying the scent of grapes from so many vineyards all around the town.  The Fredonia Grape, a hardier local variety of the Concord grape, is blanketing the whole town with a sweet, tangy fragrance. But I am really surprised to spot here and there, in people’s back yards, vines containing very small, blackish-purple fruit. They emit a much stronger aroma than the Fredonia Concords do.  The sweet/tart fragrance of these grapes seems to overpower the Concords, even though I’d estimate there are ten times as many Concord vines as Pesadillas. I notice two or three rather large mantises on the vines in each backyard. They must get their jollies on those grapes. There must be something in them that’s good for mantises.  I again shudder. Too damn many shudders today. 

The unfamiliar fragrance is heavy, clinging, somewhat intoxicating and, for reasons not clear to me, unsettling. It’s stirring up feelings from my youth. Memories and images of girls I knew and loved in high school and my early twenties are coming back to me. Feelings of nostalgia, of affection, of jealousy, of guilt, of loss, invade my consciousness, threatening to overwhelm me. What is wrong with me? I’m making a supreme effort to shake those feelings off, to move beyond them.  

Honey had mentioned that the pie was made with the Pesadilla grape variety found only in Fredonia and its place of origin: a Basque village in the Pyrenees mountains. It had been brought to Fredonia by her great grandfather, Iñigo Aquelarre. She had recommended I go to the liquor store on Orchard Street if I wanted to sample the wine.                                 

“It’s a Spanish, or more accurately, Basque, grape,” the kindly old codger tells me, and  bends down to retrieve an open bottle under his counter. He pours me a sample in a shot-sized paper cup. It is delicious! It isn’t overly sweet but not too dry either. It has a quality I just cannot describe. but the flavor is uncannily alluring. I buy two bottles and ask him to hold it for me till I come back. He raises an eyebrow and smiles.

Right now, the little bell at the top of the door tinkles, and a beautiful, extremely curvaceous, young woman enters the shop.  She’s wearing a tight-fitting black skirt that reached to her mid-thigh, and a blood red tank top.  Stunned by this sight, It takes a couple of minutes to realize that it’s Honey, my waitress at the Plump Grape. Without uttering a word, she approaches me. Once more, I feel her magnetism. She fascinates me. At the same time, I have that feeling I can describe only as dread. Why dread? I haven’t the vaguest idea. There’s just something about her… But the attraction she exerts manages to push my irrational fears to the background.   I’m enveloped in a cloud of sweet and spicy aromas including that of Pesadilla.  My heart starts to beat faster, and I begin to perspire more copiously as she advances.   There’s just something about her…

She stops a foot away from me. The psychology professor I had back in college would say she’s invaded my space. Her closeness unnerves me. She peers into my face with those big brown eyes, looks me up and down and then pivots to gaze at the empty bottle whose contents I’ve just sampled. She frowns and looks questioningly at the elderly clerk, who shrugs.  Honey shifts her weight to her left foot, a motion that swings her hip against me.  She remains in that position for what seems a good long while.  It’s probably only eight to ten seconds, but feels much longer. I’m transfixed.

            Her eyes still on the bottle, she murmurs, “Enchanting, wouldn’t you say?”  Her question slithers out in an insinuating, suggestive tone, sending an electrical current up and down my spine. I feel my neck and underarms dampen my shirt.

When she says enchanting, is she referring to the wine or to herself?  Either way, she’s right. In spades. I make a supreme effort to get a grip. But again, I stammer, my voice slipping an octave higher as I bleat, “The w-wine or you?“ I immediately chastised myself, thinking, What an idiotic thing to ask!  She presses her hip more forcefully against me, almost making me lose my balance. She turns her head, looks up at me and purrs, “Take your pick, darlin’.” She recommences chewing gum.

I take a deep breath, hold it for two seconds and then release it. “Right on both counts, Honey” I finally recover some of my aplomb. Or at least try to give that impression.

Looking back at the empty bottle, then at the clerk, Honey adds, in a husky voice, “But dangerous, like so many beautiful things.” She pauses and adds in a confidential tone, “You need to know how to handle them. Or they’ll have you for breakfast.” I wonder if she means the Pesadilla or herself.  Maybe both. Again.

She suddenly turns her head toward me once more, and fixes those dark eyes, shaded by lush black lashes, on mine for two seconds. Then she laughs in my face. Right in my face! Her breath is like orange blossoms and Pesadilla grapes, she turns toward the door, and sashays down the aisle with the movement of a pendulum in my grandpa’s grandfather clock. It’s hypnotic.

I’m standing here in a cloud of fragrance redolent of Pesadilla, and feel as though I’ve just run a mile, and can’t take my eyes off her retreating figure.  I’m still staring at the door, when a gruff voice breaks into my reverie, making me jump. Embarrassing.

“You okay, sir?” It’s the storekeeper.

“Umm, yes.  I was just enjoying the afterglow of the wine..”

“Oh. And here I thought you were looking at Honey.”  He chuckles. “Well, they both can affect your judgement. Yeah, that delightful young thing is Honey Lovecraft,” and added, “Yeah, she’s one of our grape treaders.”  The storekeeper heaved a deep sigh and mumbled, “She can tread on my grapes any time.”

 I ask, “They still use that old method of actually stomping on the grapes to start the wine process?”

“Only for the Pesadilla wine.  Yeah, a couple of the local people do that seasonal work. The local growers bring it to that brick warehouse on East Main, where they set up a big wooden tub. Juniper wood, you know. They dump the grapes into the tub and bring in the stompers. Honey is one of them. But, don’t worry, they don’t leave their shoes on.”  He chortles at his own joke. “Nope, it’s barefoot work. They say it adds to the flavour.”  His eyebrows shoot up for a moment.

#     #     #

As I stroll around town in this hellish heat and humidity, opposing feelings of nostalgia, a vague sense of something being wrong, followed by the opposite feeling that all was right with the world all jockey for position in my consciousness. At the same time, I’m infused with a vague feeling of guilt, of sin.  Despite these feelings, almost immediately, I begin to feel mellow. I can’t suppress a big smile.  Weird. Another result of the Vino Pesadilla I’ve just quaffed and the aroma wafting through the air? In combination with my suggestibility?

Out on the street again, and I hear the click of high heels behind me. A cloud of spices, peaches and Pesadilla envelops me. I turn and see Honey two feet away. She keeps moving, passing me without a glance, as if I weren’t here, but surreptitiously slips a piece of paper into my suddenly clammy hand. I stand here like a doofus, gazing at her as she sails down the steaming street like a sloop in choppy seas. She disappears into a doorway half a block away. I look at the scrap of paper in my hand, then unfold it. It’s a note, redolent of her cologne or shampoo and, of course, Pesadilla. The note, in flowing purple handwriting, reads: 13 Forest Place, around the corner from Main, apt. 2-F. 7:00 tonight. Be there. If you like. Whatever.

            Thes excites me. I wonder if she’s going to give me useful information on the Pesadilla wine, or whether it will be something more personal. Both would certainly warm the cockles of my heart. I suddenly lose all interest in wine. My interest in Honey crowds out the grapes.

#     #     #

            Damn! I can’t wait for seven o’clock to arrive. I’m sitting on a bench in Barker Commons in a Pesadilla haze, in this heat and humidity, checking my watch continually.  I become aware of a tickling sensation on my arm, and out of the corner of my eye I notice something green on my arm. I snap my head to my left. Two mantises are on my forearm. The head of one of them is inside the mouth of the other, which is slowly munching on the victim.  I jump to my feet and in a reflex action swat them backhandedly off my arm. I shudder and leave the park. This town with its revolting insect life is grossing me out.

I arrived at her building at 6:40. I’m a little early. What’s ten minutes, especially if it’s ten minutes early, rather than late? I sprint up the rickety staircase –which groans and squeals-- to the second floor. The air carries the aroma of marinara sauce (love it) blended with the odor of mold (not a fan). I find 2-F and, once more, a sort of panic grips me. But my lust is stronger and suppresses that ridiculous, inexplicable anxiety. I politely rap on the door. Nothing. No footsteps. I guess she doesn’t hear me, so I pound on it with the palm of my hand. I must have banged harder than I intended because the door opens with a screech.

I’m enveloped by an invisible but intoxicating cloud of spice, peach and Pesadilla fragrance. I see a modest little living room, worn puke-green carpet, peeling yellow wallpaper and beyond that what appears to be a bedroom. The door is open, and there stands the ravishing beauty of Fredonia, my beloved, my own, my true love: Honey Lovecraft, dressed in a see-through pale green negligée. The sight fills me with burning passion. She turns her head and gazes at me, smiling.

The heat, the Pesadilla, her beauty, maybe my suggestibility, must have all combined to make me hallucinate, I feel. With horror I see –I think I see—a praying mantis the size of a human being where Honey had just been, advancing toward me. I blink a couple of times, and no, it’s Honey slinking toward me, her tongue flicking across her lips.

 




Clark Zlotchew - is the author of 19 published books, among them two thriller novels, a poetry collection, and three collections of short stories, one of which was an award winner. His fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in Crossways Literary Magazine, The Satirist, Mediterranean Poetry,  Baily’s Beads, Scrutiny Journal, and many other literary journals in the U.S. as well as abroad from 2016 through 2023.  Earlier fiction of his has appeared in his Spanish versions in three Latin American countries and the state of Colorado.

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