Thursday, May 18, 2017

In Vino Veritas

My wife was hosting the weekly bridge club and I was trying to be helpful. Really, I was. The phone rings and I answer.

Janis asks me who it is thinking it might be someone cancelling. Cancellations are apparently a big problem with bridge parties. "It's Dave. Kowalskis."


"OK, Dave. Be right there."

Dave and Kathy have lived on the street forever and gave us a warm welcome when we moved in. The rest of the neighbors, not so much. Kathy says that she is the nice one--Dave just couldn't see past the car.

In '69 my dad put in an order for a new car, sight unseen, partly to get the color he wanted: British Racing Green. He had the first 240Z in town. It was his weekend pleasure drive and I was proud to inherit it. Dave could relate. His dad's best friend ran a car dealership who got his dad into a brand new '68 GT6+ in Laurel Green, Tan interior and overdrive. Since getting his dad's car Dave has restored it to showroom condition and he's helped me with the Z, particularly the interior. He couldn't sort the carbs with a bubble sync and I can do it by ear so we get together when the weather is nice to tinker, talk cars and inevitably, fathers. Kathy may be the nicer one in the relationship, but Dave has the better car.

Kathy is a minivan aficianado and she's driving the bus to Detroit with her sister riding shotgun to see their Aunt on the occasion of her 95th birthday. They will bring back a new supply of Kowalskis and this evening the last dogs of 2016 go to the rainbow bridge. Dave loves his Kowalskis--almost an unhealthy obsession. And wrapped in ritual. He'll get the dogs, unlink them and simmer in a huge pot of beer. "Blanching" he calls it. After cooling they are portioned, four to six together into a ziplock then covered with the now-cooled beer and into the freezer. He usually ends up with 40-50 bags of dogs. Pretty much an annual supply.

Cooking is no less of a ritual. A grill is involved but the dogs are on indirect heat. Dave hates it when they split. Onion wedges go directly over the coals and he does the chips-in-foil smoking trick. He calls it his smoke bomb. Coming off the grill the dogs go back into the beer along with the nearly burnt onions after they are sliced into ribbons. Dave keeps this on a low simmer until final assembly.

And assembly is no less complicated. Dave refuses to use buns, only French baguette will do. Cut to length, sliced thru and slits cut into the exposed white bread inside. "Makes it hold more goodness." Then the stack. Bottom bread. Onions. Roasted tomato--he roasts his own just for the dogs. Then the dogs, sliced, inside up. Then on the top bread goes blue cheese. Dave likes Maytag but will use Stilton in a pinch. "I'm from the midwest but I'm OK with the Brits." Somebody has to be.

This goes under a broiler until the cheese melts and the dogs get a bit of char. Takes it out, puts it together, slices it in half cross wise. "Presentation is important. After all you eat first with your eyes." Right Dave.

The weather is mild and Dave will have all the doors open to the patio. I walk around back and park myself beside the fire pit.

"Hi Sam, no Janis?"

"Bridge party."

"You're welcome."

"Thanks." He thinks he has saved me from a horrible evening. He's probably right.

Dave has the grilling done and is in the kitchen slicing the cooked onions. It's a hot mess. He finishes, washes his hands and calls out "wine?"


"Kathy pour?"

"Regular." His wife abhors waste and none more than the waste of space between the wine and rim of the glass. Somehow this aversion to waste has translated into an amazing ability to never spill a drop. That glass going from table to lips is poetry in motion. Dave comes out with a glass for me and puts the bottle on the table. The oven dings and he rushes back to play with his tomatoes. "Need help?"

"I got it. Only a few minutes."

I settle in by the fire. Dave is a man of his word. It isn't long before I hear "Dogs walking" and Dave arrives with a platter of Michigan's finest and a very full glass. He takes a seat and grabs the first dog, "to see if it is poison." Dave encountered a brief moment of silence as a child and it so terrified him that has never abided it since.

He starts. Neither dog nor wine can stop him. "So I was at Publix this morning to get the baguette."

"Best bakery in town." I'm not convinced this is true but I know Dave is and I said it just to slow him down.

"Right. So I get out of the car and this guy gets all up in my face. He's canvassing for Ossoff."

"The kid who's running for Price's seat?"

"Yeah, that guy. He starts with his script and I stop him."

"Of course." Dave is passionately apolitical. Never votes. Has never even registered to vote. He says that way no one can blame him for all the dysfunction. He might be on to something.

"I say 'look kid, there is only one thing you can tell me about Ossoff that will influence my vote. You tell me which candidate, including none-of-the-above, that Ossoff is going to vote for and that is who gets my vote.' The kid just looked at me with that vacant stare that starry eyed political staffers get when conversations go off script. I looked him dead in the eye, said 'exactly' and walked on by."

"Why do you do things like that? Why didn't you just tell him you're not even registered to vote?"

"Then he would want to drag me off to register."

"You could have told him you're a convicted felon. That's actually pretty believable."

Dave's had his last dog. "Dogs are like oysters. Can always tell which is the last one." He filled his glass emptying the bottle. "Wanna share?"

"No." He knows I brought my own, he just doesn't know if it is one bottle or two. I pull a bottle of Zin out of my purse. "Screw please." He slides the corkscrew across the table.

He gets up to clear. "Carrying?"

"Always. Unload?"

"Please." He heads inside. I'm doing the wine first. Dave is one of those gun nuts that hates guns and had a no-guns-allowed policy that died with Kathy's uncle. He had quite the gun collection and she inherited it. Hunting rifles. Upland shotguns. A couple of beautiful Italian clays. But the bulk of the collection was over two dozen S&W Victory models repatriated from the lend-lease program. These are stamped with details of the repatriating location and processing supply officer. It's like a postmark and they are collected like stamps. So now Dave has about forty guns in his house, not a single round of ammo and a new no-LOADED-guns-allowed policy. While the wine is breathing its last breaths I drop the magazine and rack the slide snatching the cartridge out of the air.

"Catch it?" Dave is still putzing around inside but I'm pretty sure he was watching. He usually does. He comes out, parking himself by the fire and then I hear the music. Big Brother and the Holding Company. I now know the price of a hot dog--the Woodstock story.

"Did I ever tell you about going to Woodstock?"

"Only about a thousand times."

"Good. You can tell me if I leave anything out."

And it starts. It is a story he finds halfway thru his third Kathy pour and always when Kathy isn't around. It starts with a young, rebellious man who on the spur of the moment tanks up his old Chevy pickup and heads off to some concert in the country. He meets the most beautiful girl he'll ever see. Long blond hair. Piercing steel blue eyes. The quick wit and even quicker smile. The deep philosophical conversations lasting thru the night, never forgotten but not fully remembered. She is a perfect jewel in the finest of settings-an older man's memory.

It's going to be a long night. Dave drones on. But the air is cool, the fire is warm, I've got a fine Zin and that bluesy voice is telling me "a woman can be tough." It's a small price considering we did just finish the last of the Kowalskis and that beautiful girl is bringing a new supply all the way from Detroit.