First published by DuLugstSoSchon (Germany) 2013.
He was different. Some people we recall from a face or profile. Or maybe it’s the way they spoke or moved. In some instances, we may remember how they thought or reasoned. But in Evan’s case, the indelible impression he’d leave would have come from a combination of these.
In high school he and I were classmates and pals. Yet if the social order of the day had been followed, we’d have been no more than passing acquaintances. His father was a renowned surgeon in the city, his mother at the pinnacle of society. My folks were dirt poor. But dichotomies such as these never seemed to matter to Evan. He’d dress in jeans and tees and Weejuns like the rest of us and the subject of his family’s prominence never came up. And his likes and dislikes crossed a spectrum I could never fathom. Like I said, he was different.
In class, he’d sit in the last seat in the last row next to the windows where the light was best. And every day he’d have his nose in a paperback. To my knowledge he never raised his hand and never looked up unless a teacher addressed him. And this only happened once. In biology.
The chalk squeaked across the board with bright sketches of the process of cell division. The instructor gazed at her work and turned toward the class, her eyes settling on my friend Evan, who was deeply engrossed in a book.
“Do tell the class, Evan, if you can, the importance of chromosomes in determining the sex of the embryo.
Heads turned to where my pal remained focused on the pages of his current read. A stillness fell over the room. And I noticed the instructor’s reddened cheeks scrunched against her upturned nose as if someone had just released a silent fart. She paused, drew an audible breath, but before she could unleash her pent-up ire on my friend, his eyes rose and he said:
“No doubt you’re referring to the double X chromosome in female embryos and the XY combination in males. But don’t you think when the deoxyribonucleic acid encodes genetic instructions once cell division commences, this is perhaps more significant in determining the child’s development? And the puzzle that appears more striking to me is why animals store the majority of their DNA in the cell nucleus with some residing in the organelles, yet bacteria store DNA exclusively in the cytoplasm. Why do you suppose that’s so, Mrs. Simmons?”
Her face changed. Heads rotated back and forth as if they were watching Connors and Ashe in a decisive tennis match. Evan glanced over my way and winked. Everyone present knew what had just happened, even a clod like me. Looking back on it now, I’d venture a guess that Mrs. Simmons was hyperventilating when she walked out of the room.
Word got around. And to my knowledge no one ever addressed him again in class while he was reading.
Evan’s valedictory speech before our graduating class was brief, to say the least:
“As we progress through the many challenges life may offer, some appearing easy, others overwhelming, please remember that adhesive element that binds us together as loyal Americans: Viaticus sermo!”
The applause began in a trickle and accelerated to a cacophonous roar replete with whistles. Now I’m not sure how many teachers and parents caught the gist of his words, but any student who’d listened to Evan’s quips on our culture knew those Latin words—“money talks.”
My friend followed in his father’s footsteps to a prestigious university up East while I stumbled off to the state university about forty miles away.
We’d exchange postcards on occasion, but other than a few brief encounters when we were home on holiday, our lives drifted apart.
Late in my legal career I’d decided to retire a bit early. Cases no longer held the challenge and charm that’d once attracted me to the profession. Besides, I’d lost my wife of many years in a tragic accident a year before, and nothing offered much excitement anymore.
I was reading a deposition when my secretary walked in and said, “There’s a gentleman by the name of Evan on the phone for you. He wouldn’t give his last name, just Evan.”
“Okay, I’ll take it… Evan, is that you, old pal, after all these years?”
“’Tis me, Bud, in the pink. You have a pad and pen handy? Take down this info: we leave from Kennedy for DeGaulle on the 18th at 10:45 PM and—”
“Whooo, slow down. What’s going on here?”
“You and me, Bud, off to France, my treat.”
“Evan, I’ll need to think about this for a bit. Besides, I’m not sure I can get away at the moment. And, hey, since when can professors treat others to a trip to Europe?”
“Ditched that career twenty-five years ago, Bud. I’m an investment banker with Morgan now.”
“In that case you probably can afford it, but if we go, I’ll pay my own… Wait a minute. What about your spouse?”
“Been through two, unattached at the moment. And you?”
“Well, I’ll have to….,” I paused. I still struggled with the reality that she was gone.
“Um, I’ll have to see if one of my partners can handle my caseload while I’m away, check my passport, and get a few things squared away. What’s a good number where I can reach you, my friend?”
From a distance in the airport, I spotted him strolling in my direction. Same confident gait and little changed other than a sprinkle of the gray around his temples.
“Bud, what’s shaking, guy?” Not the polished, soft-spoken demeanor I remember.
“I’m well, Evan, and you’re looking great. From your natty attire I take it the investment banking career has been kind to you.”
“Bud, the word ‘kind’ is unheard of on Wall Street. ‘Brutal’ works, but I love the pace and the excitement. And the pay’s obscene.”
“Say…they’re calling our flight. Let’s board and get re-acquainted, pal.”
“Sure, and tell some stale lies about our exploits and adventures over the past thirty years.”
“That, too, Evan.”
He really hadn’t changed that much. He’d inherited the confidence of his dad early in life and the gregarious nature of his mother had evidently melded into the personality of this senior investment manager I’d agreed to accompany to Paris and Beaune.
“Why Beaune, Evan?”
“Grapes?” A puzzled look dawned across my face.
“Okay, wines. I’ve invested a good deal of time and resources in the great vineyards of Bordeaux, but nothing in Beaune. We need to explore the possibilities there.”
The bullet train raced across the verdant spring landscape of France, the gentle hills rolling by like waves on a vast green ocean. The dormant grapevines that had slept the past few months stood in stark columns like Roman legions prepared for a long march.
Evan had kept his head in a book from our departure from the Paris train station until gentle jerks of the train signaled our approach into the Beaune depot. A lone gentleman in cream trousers and a blazer stood on the platform, his hands crossed behind him—our guide for the tour.
“So, Monsieur,” Evan said as our car sped toward the hotel, “when do we visit the vineyards.?”
“Once you have stored your luggage, I’ve arranged a tour and tastings at a very fine winery nearby.”
“A Chambertain, Jean-Claude?”
“Umm, non, monsieur, but equally as good.”
Evan frowned. “Grand Crus?”
“Uhh, no, Premier Crus, very nice wines.” Evan rubbed the back of his neck, something I saw him do just before he destroyed our biology instruction in front of the class. Not a good sign.
Once we arrived at the vineyard, Jean-Claude rolled the car under a large tree near a house they called the “marketing rooms” and announced he’d wait for us there. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the tree as our host came out of the house and greeted us with a big smile.
Once introductions were made he led us into a building a few yards away and down two flights of stairs into a cool, dim room with long rows of wood casks resting with ageing wines, the caves.
A party of a dozen or so French visitors had arrived ahead of us and were patiently awaiting our arrival so the lecture and tastings could commence.
Our host introduced us to a vintner in coveralls, suspenders, and low-top boots who would give the talk. He eyed us with a look of disdain, nodded, turned back toward his attentive fellow countrymen and began to speak to the crowd in French. Evan interrupted him mid-sentence and said, “Pardon, Monsieur, my colleague does not speak French. Could you please translate for him as you go?”
The vintner stared at Evan as if my friend had just stomped on the French flag with muddy boots. He turned toward a table and backhanded a single sheet of paper to Evan, never looking around at us again. A history of the vineyard—in English. Evan’s eyes narrowed.
Then the vintner proceeded to address the rest of the group in his native tongue, making light of this and that to amuse his French visitors. Evan understood every word, but never cracked a smile. Again, I saw him rub his neck.
When the wine tasting began, I swallowed the first gulps, not realizing there was a ritual for tasting. Strategically placed around the room were hollow cylinders into which we were expected to spit after entertaining the nose and tongue with each wine’s flavor.
The first taste had been a bit bitter, in my estimation, and each ensuing sip struck me as better than the last. I learned to swirl and sniff various wines with the best of them. And, I’d pretend to spit as the others, but most of what went into my mouth eventually settled into the comfortable private caves of my tummy.
When the lecture and tastings had ended, everyone except two lone Americans applauded the vintner, who sheepishly allowed himself a gentleman’s bow to his enthusiastic colleagues. I glanced at Evan as we strolled across the yard toward the marketing rooms and realized he was still miffed—regally.
“Don’t take it so hard, Ev’, didn’t bother me in the least.”
“Perhaps it’s time we entertained these frogs at their own game, Bud.”
“I rolled my eyes but had no clue what to expect.
Inside the beautifully paneled, high ceilinged room, a Frenchman with a pencil mustache stood, his hand resting on a large book atop a small table, his eyes those of a cat prepared to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
“Monsieurs, welcome to Chateau Mon Dieu, where we are always pleased to have American visitors. Um…as you may well know, your soldiers saved our country from certain ruin many years ago.” His eyebrows rose against his wrinkling forehead. The white flag was up.
Yes, twice even, but in all my travels abroad I’d never heard a Frenchman admit it. Never. Clever line, I mused.
Evan glanced down at the book on the marble-topped table, flipped through the pages, and gazed at the French salesman, his finger close to his lips. “These are the vintages you currently offer?”
“Oui, Monsieur, many fine wines as you can see.”
“And we can order them here by the case to be delivered in America?”
“Oui, Monsieur, we stand ready to please your palate with our wines in the comfort of your own home.” He nodded several times, his smile widened.
“Are we limited to the number of cases we can order?” Evan’s voice was just above a whisper as if he were sharing a state secret with French Intelligence.”
“Non, Monsieur,” came a soft reply from the oversized feline who allowed his eyes to slide left and right, assuring the American mouse this constituted a French conspiracy between two allies.
“Perhaps…um, five cases?”
“How about fifty cases?” Evan looked like a ten year old wheedling for a second ice cream cone.
The stout purveyor of Chateau Mon Dieu wines took a quick breath and shouted, “Mais, oui, Monsieur! Whatever quantity that may please you.” The Felis catus forgot that he was still engaged in his stalking approach. His voice echoed off the paneled walls. Surely this American mouse is about to become a tasty morsel for my dinner, his eyes declared.”
“Let us review the pages of the Grand Crus of Chateau Mon Dieu, Monsieur. We will wish to purchase at least fifty cases, maybe more.”
The face of the French wine merchant drained, his lips pursed, and beads of perspiration began to sprout across his forehead.
“Monsieur, we have the finest of Premier Crus in all of France. Our vintages have been the talk of Frenchmen for generations. “His spiel was delivered in a confident, mellow tone. This wily Tom was licking his whiskers and preparing for the kill. I expected to hear his rendition of “La Marseillaise” next.
“Well, of course,” said my colleague, “we’d become aware of your sterling reputation this past week in Paris when we dined at Epicure and La Maurice.” Evan delivered this retort through his nose as any proud Parisian might. I’d heard of these two restaurants, but both remained well above the limits of my credit card.
The predator’s eyes widened. He beamed. Perhaps these mice are too good to barbeque. Grilled rare would prove more pleasing. Then he cooed, “Aaahhh, oui, Monsieur, but of course!” Dinner was cooking.
Again with his finger to his lips, Evan said, “Monsieur, please show us the Chateau Mon Dieu vintages that would be…umm, equivalent to the best of Puligny-Mastrachet Grand Crus.” The fat cat’s slick pate jerked back. Evan smiled…big. I heard heavy breathing behind the table.
“Monsieur,” the Frenchman cocked his head to one side, no doubt reassessing the prey, “we have many, many fine wines, but not the Puligny-Mastrachet.” His eyes were moving. This one is no mouse, he is a five-hundred pound Norwegian wharf rat. The only puzzle left was the species in front of us: an ordinary French housecat or a Bengal tiger in a red vest with brass buttons. The salesman attempted to ape Evan’s grin as sweat poured from his cheeks and neck.
“Well, nothing special then, mind you, say just a close replication of a Domaine Leflaive Montrachet. We’ll want say, fifty, sixty,…no, seventy-five cases.”
“Non!” The countenance of our enemy appeared to reflect the hue of his vest, his eyes alive with fire. Claws were sharpened, fangs were at the ready.
Evan’s demeanor remained relaxed. The French cat had just realized the size of this rat made him a candidate for the new Guinness Book of World Records.
“No matter, Monsieur, we’re here to buy the best that Chateau Mon Dieu has to offer. Let us consider another avenue of thought.” Evan rubbed his neck again. Uh-oh. He continued, “My colleague and I, being dedicated French oenophiles, have heard great accolades of your vintages from the chefs from New York to San Francisco. Maybe something along the lines of a Dolmaine Dugat-Py Chambertain, say…a hundred cases?”
The chateau’s charming merchant took a step back, his glassy eyes squinting, his hands balled into fists.
“Evan, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll step outside for a cigarette.” Evan nodded, but never took his eyes off what had become his prey. I don’t smoke, never have, but it was becoming a bit warm in here for me. The standoff had reached a climax by the time I opened the door.
“Thunderbird! Night Train!” screamed the vintner. I was halfway to the car before Evan caught up with me.
“Vite, vite, Jean-Claude, get us out of here,” Evan said as he laughed and slapped me on the back.
Nothing is more exhilarating than a fresh breeze on your face as you speed across the beautiful French landscape of Beaune in the spring. Nothing.