When I heard about the winegrower in New South Wales working on a red for forgetting, I sold the Corolla, which was the only thing left over from the divorce, called up two close friends to tell them where I was going and where I had deposited my will and other documents, and bought a one-way ticket from JFK to Sydney.
I had always found it strange that in a world as advanced as ours, in an age when we shot men to the moon and mapped the planets around alien suns, we still lacked a true anodyne. Alcohol’s soft fog burns off by morning, at best, and at worst holds a magnifying glass to what we try to forget: her name, her voice, her face, her smell. Nor do we have surgeries precise enough to slice off specific memories. Whatever form it took, chemical, neurological, or psychological, the inventor of the anodyne would be rich in a blink, and the journalist who broke the story would never want for assignments again.
I had called ahead. A few days later I arrived upon the winemaker’s doorstep, dizzy with the speed of the journey; I had sprinted from plane to plane to bus to rental car, whipping through green and gold hills whose smooth lines were now and then interrupted by sheep. There was something strange in the light, a richness I had only seen in crackled museum paintings, produced by aged egg glazes and what I’d assumed was sentimental imagination. I was leaning on the wheel, staring at the pastoral spread of spotted cows and hay rolls, all of it warm and sweet-smelling and sun-struck, while trying to stay in the left lane. Perhaps the light in New York had also been like this, long ago, before smokestacks and furnaces had disgorged their industrious darkness into the air.
Though the vineyard in question had a reputation for excellent wines, winning the occasional prize and landing features in oenophiles’ magazines and even GQ, the place itself was modest in appearance, marked only by a hand-lettered sign, low fences to keep out the sheep, and an unpaved road winding through the vineyards to the house. The man who answered the door had gray in his hair and eyes that were calm and brown and birdlike, without judgment. He extended a thin, strong hand to me and introduced himself as Ted.
“Back this way,” he said. We took a muddy path through frames and pruned trunks that looked alike in their winter nakedness, though every few rows he would name a different variety of grape with a hagiographer’s reverence. This one required soil acidity of such and such a degree, that one a particular angle to the sun; this one had been his first cultivar, that one was his most popular table wine.
We stopped at what to me appeared an unremarkable line of vines, and he ran a knotted hand along the angles of one trunk. “Shiraz, of course,” he said. “First brought to the Rhône in a crusader’s saddlebags. He wanted to forget the brutalities he’d seen, start a vineyard, a winery. Drink away all memories of war. That grape seemed an appropriate place to start.”
“What did you do?”
“I grafted a few of them under the skin of my forearms. Here, see.” He rolled back one sleeve to show me the puckered scars beneath. “Grew them there for a year. They took most of primary school out of my head, but I didn’t realize it until I ran into an old teacher. She remembered me. I didn’t remember her. That’s when I figured it was working.”
“I trained the vines on the taste of memories. When I transplanted them I used compost from our house mixed with my kids’ baby teeth. Daughter, son. Grown and working now,” he said to the question on my face. “So that went, too, and the couple of weeks that were in the eggshells and banana peels. Mulched them with photo albums. Then it was just a matter of waiting.”
“Pretty much everything gone up until my twenties,” he said. The sunlight had paled, and in the distance I saw streaks of silver against a silver sky. “But let me show you.”
The weatherboard house was lined with tall shelves of novels in varying states of decay. I saw Proust and Keneally with crippled spines and a paperback Lolita sputtering leaves out of its belly. I had stopped taking notes, and my pencil dangled wordlessly on its string.
‘My memories are in here somewhere,’ he said. ‘I took precautions. I wrote down everything.’
“My memories are in here somewhere,” he said, waving at the books. “I took precautions. I wrote down everything I could remember about my life, then made Mary and my parents and our kids write down what they could remember, and all the people I knew as far back as I could go, and it’s all in a book somewhere. So I can go back to it if I have to. So I can figure out what happened to me.” He turned a page of a yellow-edged Don Quixote and dropped it back onto the shelf, smiling apologetically. “I’m not sure which book. I don’t remember where I put it.”
“Mary’s your wife?” I was looking for her among the faces flattened and framed upon the wall.
“She died last year. My kids say she’s that one. No, the one on the left. And they tell me this is my sister, and that’s a college friend of Mary’s who was a bridesmaid at our wedding. They say I used to flirt shamelessly with her. I don’t remember any of it.”
“Your kids. How do they feel about it?”
The corners of his eyes creased upward. “Not too happy. They say, normal fathers sometimes forget their kids’ birthdays. Normal fathers don’t forget they have kids. When they don’t think I’m listening they say: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia. Every other year my son throws a lawyer at me, trying to have me declared incompetent.” He waved toward the shelf and its rows of blind and indifferent volumes. “I don’t remember what I did to make him hate me like that. I wish I still knew.”
He fell into a fragile quiet, looking into the fire.
I shoved my notebook into a back pocket. There was no earthshaking discovery here, no story that would pay for my plane ticket home, much less rocket me into fame. There wasn’t so much as a cup of lightning moonshine that would spatter my years with blankness. That would have been better than nothing. There was nothing I particularly cared to remember of the last ten years. Eight of them had been the damp, choking firework of a failed marriage, the other two a dim streak of progressively inferior whiskey and dark and lonely pavements.
Ted was arranging wood and rotten books in the iron stove, his back to me. The door was open. It would be easy to slip out and start the rental car and drive back to Sydney through the rain, but what would I do then? The world visible through the door was glistening, bewildering. There was no place in it for me.
“Now,” he said, as if he had not stopped speaking, flames springing up around the logs and torn pages. “You’ll want to know what it does to other people. I bottled the first few years of it, and it’s pretty good wine, but does it work? How could I tell? It was all whiteness by then. What’s another memory here or there? Which anniversary did I forget next? How would I know?”
He produced two glasses and a black bottle out of a cupboard. There was no label. He was only a lonely old man with a fading mind. You could not grow grapes out of memories. You could not graft vines into your arms. Still, a cold shiver began at the base of my spine.
“I asked my kids to try it but they wouldn’t. ‘It took away our dad,’ they said. ‘In the pursuit of knowledge,’ I said. They still said no.”
He spun the screw, plucked out the cork as lightly as a daisy’s head, and tipped out a red parabola into one glass, then the other.
“I advertised. I evangelized. A few came here before you,” he said. “None of them were willing to taste it. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m crazy? It’s still good wine. I was born knowing what good wine is and if I die without remembering my name I’d still know what good wine is. There’s no harm in drinking good wine, if it’s only that. But what if I’m right?”
Between the wet, shifting light of the windows and the glow of the stove, the liquid in the glasses seemed a living scarlet, the color of a rosella’s breast, a wound, a woman’s rouged lips. He leaned forward and tossed another book onto the fire. It rippled into flame, the title blackening before I could read it.
“That’s why they said no. Because they couldn’t call me a lunatic, drink down a perfectly harmless glass, and leave. Because it was possible that I was right.”
The scars up and down his arms were thin and twisting, like the tracks of raindrops along a window or the embrace of roots. He gestured to the table.
I lifted my glass, which was heavier than I expected.
“Leaded crystal,” he said. “The real thing. Who are we toasting?”
Her face, which I’d walled out of my thoughts with great effort, returned to me. With excruciating exactitude I recalled the arc of her cheekbone and the angles of her nose and eyelashes, the idiosyncratic twitches of her mouth. So long, darling, I thought. One way or another, goodbye. When I spoke her name, for the first time in months, it was with a throat full of rust and water. He nodded, and we raised our glasses to each other.