“Listen, Cora. Can you hear it?” Julian Morgan clasps Cora’s hand and closes his eyes. The warm breeze combs the sage-green canopy of vines, their leaves rustling like applause from a distant stadium. “That’s the sound of change.”
Cora’s voice clenches, as does her hand. “Why does anything have to change?”
The sultry wind tosses a curtain of wavy, ginger hair over her eyes. When Julian pushes it behind her ear, he notices her freckled cheek is wet. “Hey,” he says. “Come on. You and I are fine. You know that.”
“No,” she says, “I don’t know that. I’m worried, Jules. It’s like you’re obsessed with the Paradigm.”
Julian cannot argue. Since Scott’s visit from D.C. last month, he’s thought of little else. Julian had been enraptured by Scott’s stories of the secretive campus alliance he’d joined. The idea of the Paradigm had plucked his adventurousness in a way he hadn’t felt since adolescence. Back in those days he and Scott would map out the entire county, on fantastical journeys fueled by their raw, youthful imaginations. When Scott had ascended to university, Julian had remained behind to work at the vineyard, but they’d never lost touch.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he says, deflated. “I’m stuck here.” He winces at his choice of words, and Cora recoils predictably.
“Stuck here with me, you mean.” She turns away.
“Come on, Cora.” He pulls their bodies together. “I’m always glad to be with you.” He withholds the rest of his thought: But it isn’t enough.
Cora pushes to her feet and paces amongst the bulbous, pinecone-shaped clusters of dark, fat grapes. “You don’t get it,” she says. “Do you know what it’s like to be with someone who has one foot out the door? Every time we say goodbye, I’m sick with worry that it’s for the last time.”
“I just told you I’m not going anywhere.”
“Until you’re not stuck here any more.”
Julian sighs. “I’m never not going to be stuck. My old man needs me.”
Cora’s chin contorts, and she clutches her midsection as if he’s punched her. “He’s not the only one, Jules.” Then she turns away and runs towards the headland, sobbing.
He does not pursue her — and then he wrestles with why that is.
The morning after, Julian and his father, Ryan, are doing pump-overs on their merlot vats. They work in practiced, efficient silence. The rich aroma of the fermentation saturates the room as the mixture sloshes through the pump. No odor of sulfur — this is good.
After a while, his father’s repeated gaze eventually enters his consciousness. Julian switches off a pump and leans over the vat. “Something on your mind?”
Ryan pulls down his sweaty facemask. “What’s this I hear about Scott recruiting you for some activist group — Paradise or something?”
“Who told you about Paradigm?” He already knows though. It had come from Cora, via her mother, via his own mother. Word travels fast in these parts.
“Does it matter?” Ryan asks. “Son, you’re not thinking about running off on some fool crusade, are you?”
Julian rolls his eyes. “As if I have a choice.”
“Everyone has a choice, Jules,” his father opens another vat to punch down the skin cap. “I just don’t want you to make one you’re going to regret. You’ve got a whole future here. You’re a natural at all this. And I’m not going to be around forever.”
Julian closes off. He’s heard it all before. The future his father envisions for him feels so small next to the national — no, the global — scope of the Paradigm.
The wage divide of late-stage capitalism is at its tipping point, and the whole world feels like a tinder box. He’s led a sheltered life of relative privilege, as the heir to a successful Finger Lakes vineyard. But his friends from school — Scott included — have despaired as the last vestiges of their American Dream dribbled up into the hands of billionaires. So much for trickle-down economics. They’ve emerged from college with advanced degrees — and the concomitant debt — yet are unable to find work. The Paradigm is the offspring of that despair: grassroots action to redistribute the means of production out of the hands of the few — by any means necessary.
Or he can continue to ferment grapes, creating alcoholic beverages for rich people.
“You don’t understand, Pop,” Julian says. “There won’t be a vineyard if there’s no one out there who can afford wine. You’ve already started feeling the crunch. I’ve seen the books. You see, the whole point of the Paradigm is to ….”
Ryan waves his hand. “Markets work themselves out, Jules. I’ve seen it a dozen times over the years. This is the kind of thing that comes with age — and wisdom. The best thing you can do is just keep on keeping on. Settle into it. Hone your craft. Be the best at something. The customers will come. Our latest belt-tightening is just a blip. You’ll see. Just as sure as Scott’s little rebellion will fizzle. Remember ‘Occupy Wall Street?’ And then where will he be? Where will you be, if you join him?”
Julian stands speechless, mouth agape. ‘Belt-tightening’ was a bit of an understatement, but he doesn’t have the strength to argue. It wouldn’t do any good anyway.
“Oh,” Ryan says, “by the way, I’m having the Valentines over for supper later. It’ll be good for you to patch things up with Cora. We need to keep the Valentines happy, you know. I guess their little girl was pretty upset yesterday.”
Ryan turns away and snaps his facemask into place. The conversation is over, apparently. As usual, his father’s word is final. And whatever emotions he might have felt for Cora have been tainted as nothing but a business transaction.
Julian is washing up in the kitchen. The scent of herb-roasted turkey permeates their home, making him salivate. It has been a long day. From the adjacent parlor, he overhears his parents.
“I just don’t like him, that’s all,” says his father.
“Edward is a perfectly lovely man,” his mother says. “You haven’t even given him a chance.”
“He wants to take over the vineyard, Mia. This vineyard has been in the family for three generations, and he wants to take our name. Him and that damned conglomerate.”
“Is that such a bad thing? We could retire, Ryan. Do you really want to work until the day you die? Have you even looked at the numbers Ed gave us?”
“Oh, it’s ‘Ed’ now, is it? Awfully familiar of you.”
“How dare you?” His mother sounds exasperated. “I’m trying to look out for us. We could finally retire. Ryan could go to school. This is life-changing money we’re talking about.”
“You don’t get it, Mia. This vineyard is Julian’s birthright. I mean, after Owen ….”
“Don’t you bring up Owen, Ry. Just don’t.” Her voice wavers. “Not right now, when guests are coming.”
His father continues. “My point is, the vineyard should stay in the family. If Exagra comes in, we lose our whole legacy. With Julian, I know we can pull through this.”
Julian moves through the French doors to the parlor. “In case anyone was interested,” he says, “I think Julian might have something to contribute to this discussion — especially, you know, the part about Julian?”
Ryan groans. “Here we go again. About to spout off about your Paradigm nonsense, I assume?”
“So what if I am?” Julian says. “You never listen to me anyway.”
The doorbell chimes. The three stand mute, looking back and forth between each other.
“Someone going to get that?” Julian asks. “No doubt it’s your business partners.”
Mia scoffs. “They’re guests. And Cora is a lovely girl, Julian. Why are you pushing her away like this? You’re so happy together.”
“As happy as you and Pop?”
“Watch it,” says Ryan, raising a finger. “Don’t you dare disrespect my wife in front of me.”
Julian raises his hands. “Relax. I’ll play nice. Wouldn’t want to sour your relationship with your precious bottle makers.”
The doorbell rings again. Mia scuttles off to answer it, flustered.
“You’ve got it all figured out, don’t you?” says Ryan. “You think one little argument with my wife is some sort of proof that we’re not happy. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I speak of wisdom. You’ll come to see — when you grow up — that being able to argue with your spouse is a sign of strength, not weakness. No two people can ever be in sync every minute of every day. True loyalty comes from pushing through the tough spots. Not picking up and running away when things get rough.” His eyes burn into Julian’s. “Like some people.”
Julian shakes his head. “You think I want to leave because things are tough right now? Is that what you’re suggesting? Oh, that’s rich. Listen here, old man. The fact that you’re struggling right now is the only reason I haven’t already packed my bags!”
Mia rounds the corner to the parlor with the Valentines in tow. “Ryan, Julian … the Valentines are here.” Her smile is painted on, rather sloppily. It’s obvious their guests have overheard the whole conversation. Cora is misty-eyed and looks like she’s trying her best not to cry.
Julian squeezes a grape between his fingers, examining the dark pulp and seeds. They’ve harvested at just the right time. He is good at this. He knows it. And his father knows it. He envisions the awards this vintage will bring them in competitions, and his lips bow upward with pleasure.
Which reminds him of the night before. Dinner with the Valentines had been an exercise in plastic emotion. His cheeks still ache from the forced smiles. But he does appreciate the importance of that relationship. The unique bottles Valentine Glassmiths provides them have become something of a trademark for their wines. Such recognition cannot be bought.
After dinner, he and Cora had sat on the porch swing listening to their parents laugh over digestifs in the parlor. Despair had poured off of her smalltalk, and he’d felt like something of a villain for holding her hand.
His mom is right. Cora really is a lovely girl. But she’s not going anywhere, and he’s already as good as gone. The worst part is she knows that, but won’t walk away. Hope can be so irrational.
In the distance, from behind the fermentation building, he spots his mother tucking in her shirt as she heads towards their residence. A moment later, Edward Fox rounds the same corner of the building, dusting off his cashmere cardigan. He spots Julian and stumbles a bit, then paints a huge smile on his face as he approaches.
“I gotta hand it to you, Jules — can I call you Jules? — you really have a knack for this. This crop is outstanding. I can’t wait to see what you guys do with it.”
Julian gives a wan smile and nods. Edward’s nervous energy threatens to foul the bouquet of the grapes, so he’d prefer not to engage.
“Well, I … uh … better be heading out,” says Edward, glancing at his wrist. “Always late for another meeting.” He hops into his Mercedes SUV and crunches down the gravel drive.
Julian stands for several long minutes, watching the dust settle.
His heart aches for his father, out directing the farm hands, oblivious to the betrayal he’d just witnessed. He marches to the residence and bursts into the kitchen, where his mother is unloading the dishwasher.
Mia clasps her hand over her heart, “My goodness, Jules, you gave me a fright!”
“Are you sleeping with Edward Fox?”
He watches the wheels clicking behind her eyes, as she calculates a response. “What on Earth would give you that idea?” So it’s going to be the innocence angle, apparently.
“It was written all over Edward’s face just now, after I saw you both come out from behind the fermenting house, adjusting your clothes.”
“Well, I — that is, we — uh ….” Her face flushes.
“Mom, how long has this been going on? Does Pop know?”
“Of course not! You don’t understand, Jules, I … things haven’t been the same since your brother died. I was an emotional zombie for more than a year. Your father is a decent, hardworking man, but that’s all he is. He lives and breathes this vineyard, Jules — you know that. And to whatever extent I’m a part of that, he appreciates me. But that’s where it ends between us. Every day that passed I prayed he would notice how dead I was inside, and he never did. He doesn’t ever see me, Julian. Not like Ed does.”
She slumps into a kitchenette chair. Julian sits opposite her. There is a fly on the stale toast between them.
“When Ed came to discuss his proposal for buying us out, he could sense right away that I was hurting. It was so lovely to have someone who could bring my pain over Owen out of me. You have no idea. He’d lost a cousin in Afghanistan years ago, so he got inside my heart like your father never would — or even could. I guess the more we talked, the more we realized we were compatible in so many other ways. And, well, one thing led to another ….”
“So that’s why you’re on Dad about selling — because you want out, too.”
“Your father could never manage this place by himself. The last thing I want to do is ruin him financially. Especially now with your talk of leaving. I love your father — really, I do.” She lowers her eyes. “But it isn’t enough.”
Julian’s heart skips a beat hearing his own recent thoughts coming from her mouth. “But,” he says, “Edward Fox, of all people? Mom, what if he’s just using you to get you to sell?”
“You don’t know him like I do. It’s not like that. I’m sure of it.”
They hear the rattle of his father’s pickup coming down the road. A single tear descends Mia’s cheek and drips onto her cornflower blouse. Julian is surprised when a tear of his own falls.
“So that’s it then,” says Ryan. “You’re leaving.”
Julian stuffs the last of his socks and underwear into a duffel bag. “Yeah, Pop. Scott’s picking me up in the morning.”
“And there’s nothing I can do to change your mind? You’re so young, Jules. How can I make you see that this Paradigm thing is just a passing phase? Can’t we talk about this? Look at all you have here. You’re throwing it all away. And what about Cora? You could have such a happy life with her here — a life like me and your mother.”
Julian bites his tongue and zips the duffel bag. “I have to do this. It’s the right thing for me. For the country. And for the world. You’re only looking at this from your point of view. You only ever look as far as the ends of this property. People are suffering, Pop. Things are crumbling all around us. There’s so much more to this world than grape vines.”
Ryan sits on the edge of Julian’s bed and leans on his elbows. “Son, I know what it’s like. I was in the same place once. I never told you this, but before I took over the vineyard, I wanted to be a musician.”
Julian sits next to his father. “Really?”
Ryan nods. “I was good, too. Still have the guitar somewhere. Attic, probably. Couldn’t wait to get away from this place — just like you. But then your Pop-Pop died, and it was all on me to keep things running. Yeah, maybe I would have made something of myself out there, but more likely not. And I’ve had a happy life here. You could be happy here, too. I want you to stay.”
Julian looks at the creased, weatherbeaten face before him. An older version of himself. A vision of what he might become. A man stranded on an island of his own making. A man ignorant of the toll his isolation has exacted upon his marriage. He doesn’t know whether his father believes his own words, or if they’re some final gasp for legacy. Either way, he knows that the Paradigm is his only way out.
“I’m sorry, Pop,” he says. “I have to go.”