From his hospital bed Dad told me, Grapes are sweeter after the first frost. He was fretting for his vines, dreaming of them as nurses preyed on his veins. Late September there was no frost, only a cold snap one night. I stopped at his house to bring in his mail and, on a whim, cut him a cluster— carried the dark purple globes, bleeding, down the hospital hall. His eyes closed at the flavor. Perfect. Spitting the seeds into the top of his fist. Cut me some and I’ll make juice. He was prone in bed with a blood drip in his arm. He could not stay warm or walk without help. I did not cut him any more grapes, nor tell him what I thought would become of his vines this year and next. But I had not accounted for an Indian Summer. Sunday, he came home to eat meatloaf in yellow hospital socks and plastic wristbands. His chewing was slow; we all waited. Go pick me a bucket of grapes, he said. The afternoon was a hot 84, but fall had tinged the leaves of the walnuts and sycamores. Under the grapevines, the cloying fragrance was heavy. Bees hummed, glutted with nectar, their heads so buried in the flesh, they had to be shaken free. Dropping like rotten grapes, they revived before hitting the ground and flew off to a new cluster. Our bucket grew heavy. Our feet crushed the grapes the profligate vines had cast off. We dragged our reaping back to my father. His eyes gleamed. Tomorrow, when I get my strength back— I see now what we were living then: the first frost of his last winter, those golden afternoons, sweet pickings. I still feel his sun-warmed cheek receiving my kiss as he slept, the grapes slowly molding in the fridge. We drank all we could of him until the hard, cold nights came, and even then we had to be shaken free.
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