Author’s Note: “Red, Like Wine” is a rewrite of a story I wrote years ago—revisiting a favorite theme of taking a chance on people and creating community—even family—out of those we barely know.
Katherine reached all the way to the back of the closet, past summer clothes swinging on hangers in the front and beyond the winter wardrobe that waited its turn for a seasonal rotation. In the depths, where the boards still smelled like cedar, hung the things she never wore but couldn’t give away or discard. Feeling the plush of velvet, she pulled it toward the light to see that blaze of color: red, like wine.
That’s where it had all started.
Somewhere between the leftover Valentine’s Day candy and the new Easter cards, forty-one-year-old Katherine realized she had no life. Other than the treadmill of stocking shelves at the pharmacy, she had little to mark each lap around the calendar.
Five years ago, when her elderly parents became ill, she’d taken a leave of absence from her HR job in Rhode Island and told her boyfriend of six years that she was going to be gone for a little while. Then her leave of absence became a resignation, and her boyfriend moved in with someone else. Her father had died, and her mother as well, two years later. And she had stayed, increasing the population of Anders Mills, New York, at the edge of the Adirondack Mountains, by 0.029% (she’d actually done the math) to 3,429 year-round residents.
At quarter-to-six that evening, Katherine crept home from the pharmacy along sidewalks that were starting to glaze with frozen rivulets from the snow melt. As she ate dinner in the living room with the TV for company, Katherine contemplated the beige walls, wondering how they would look in yellow. Setting her plate aside, she plucked brown leaves from a potted ivy and gathered two weeks’ worth of newspapers and deposited them in a box in the garage for the paper drive.
Getting out a stepladder, she climbed to the top of the kitchen cupboards, beholding a meadow of dust. Inside the deep cupboard over the refrigerator sat a large porcelain soup tureen with a lid. She should show it to Dobey one of these days; it looked like the pricey antiques he carried in his shop.
Behind the tureen rested a bright red fondue pot. As she fondled the little metal skewers with carved wooden handles, Katherine couldn’t fathom her parents owning, let alone using, this set. Beside it, she found four bottles of wine on their sides. She examined one, reading the label: Chateau Elise, 1981, Fine French Claret.
She set the bottles on the counter, suspecting that the wine had probably soured to vinegar. She would dump them out in the morning. But as Katherine snapped off the kitchen light, the glow from the living room reached all the way to the smooth glass bottles and the liquid inside that looked as dark and mysterious as a magic elixir.
Two days later, Katherine drove the 20 miles to the big grocery store in Saranac Lake. Carrying a fondue recipe, she searched the wide aisles for the ingredients: gruyere, fontina, gouda, dry white wine, Dijon mustard…. As soon as she got home, Katherine called Nelly. “I’m having a party—a fondue party. Two weeks from Saturday.”
“I’ll make cheesecake,” Nelly said excitedly. “Everybody likes cheesecake—especially Chet, and that will get him to come. Not that he wouldn’t come, just for you, but he really loves cheesecake.”
As Nelly talked on and on, Katherine looked through the archway into the dining room she never used, at the old dark-wood table with clawed feet that had scared her as a small child. Now, the ten straight-backed chairs petrified her. How could she ever fill them?
She called and left messages, but a lot of phones were still disconnected; snowbirds gone for the season. Peggy who worked part-time as a pharmacy clerk said she and her husband could come and asked if she could bring her sister, Gwen, who’d just had foot surgery and might want to get out of the house.
The next day, Katherine pushed herself into Sharon’s Gifts and Souvenirs. Sharon wouldn’t open for the season until Memorial Day Weekend but had been getting some work done on the place. She and Sharon had never said more than good morning to each other or commented on the weather, so the invitation came as a surprise.
Sharon’s eyes widened. “Why not? We have nothing else to do.”
Enthusiastic or not, Sharon and her husband made eight.
Nelly called that evening to discuss whether she should make blueberry or apricot cheesecake. “You need single men,” she said.
“Why? Besides, I don’t know any.”
“Oscar,” Nelly said.
Everybody knew Oscar, the mail carrier. He had always been kind to her parents and had stopped to see them from time to time. But asking him seemed desperate. “What about Dobey?” Katherine had been thinking about him ever since she came across the soup tureen.
“Sure, I guess Dobey would come,” Nelly agreed. “Invite them both. Then we’ll be ten.”
Two mornings later, while walking to the pharmacy, Katherine saw Oscar and flagged him down. In his blue-gray uniform, he looked even taller and lankier, and of undetermined age.
Katherine looked down the street just as a school bus rumbled through the next intersection. “I’m having a dinner party—week from Saturday. Can you come?”
Oscar pushed back the bill of his cap. “Guess so. Not much on the calendar.”
“Okay fine. See you then—seven o’clock.” Katherine resumed walking toward the pharmacy.
“Shall I wear my tuxedo?” he called out to her.
“Very funny,” she said, without looking back.
In the next block, Katherine spied a sedan parked in the alley beside Forever Antiques. She needed to get to the pharmacy in six minutes but didn’t want to waste this opportunity or her nerve.
Dobey pushed through the curtains from the back room like he was walking onto a stage. He was neatly dressed in a light-blue denim shirt and khakis, with a turquoise bolo tie. “Katherine Fredericks! To what do I owe this honor?”
“You’re looking at the bolo, right? I’m in my New Mexico uniform today. The sky looked all Georgia O’Keefe.” He winked. “Plus I just don’t give a damn. That’s the advantage of being over fifty.”
Feeling encouraged, Katherine invited him to the dinner party.
“Of course, Katherine dear,” Dobey said. “You know I’ve been meaning to invite you over for drinks. See if I could talk you out of that dining room table.”
Katherine felt a flush from her shoulders to her hairline. “It’s casual. Fondue. Nelly is making cheesecake.”
Dobey made a face. “Oh, give us a reason to get out of the flannels. Let’s all dress up a little.” He checked his watch. “I have to take off—somebody in Lake Placid thinks they found Audubon prints in their attic. Why don’t you come by the shop Friday night, after closing. We can have a drink and discuss your party.”
Katherine stepped through the open door of Forever Antiques on Friday night, but Dobey was nowhere in sight. After yelling “hello” from the entrance, she wandered through antique furniture and paused at a round table set with crystal glassware and china ringed with roses.
“Katherine!” Dobey sang out. He brought with him a large dress box with Bergdorf Goodman written in script on the lid. “This is for later.” He smiled. “Let’s have a glass of wine first. Red okay with you?”
Dobey talked nonstop, one story after the other. Finally, he interrupted himself and lifted the lid of the Bergdorf box, peeling back tissue paper to reveal wine-red crushed velvet.
“Whoever owned it was tall, like you,” Dobey said. “Try it on.”
In the musty storeroom in the back, Katherine stepped into the dress. Emerging from the little room into the store, she headed toward a large mirror. “It’s awfully fan—” Katherine caught her reflection and never finished the word.
Dobey motioned with his hand for her to turn around. As she did, a little fishtail train swirled. “You look radiant,” he said.
There had been a “Mrs. Dobey” once, or so Katherine had heard. All Dobey ever said about it was “we put each out of our misery ages ago.” During the summer months, Katherine saw Dobey having lunch with women who were clearly from out of town and probably the backbone of his business. That’s all she knew about his private life.
“You must have it—my gift.” Dobey held up his hand, silencing all protests. “It’s perfect for your party.”
On Saturday evening, Nelly arrived early in a black dress and a strand of fake pearls. She capped her short, curly gray hair with a cardboard-and-glitter tiara she’d made herself. “Thought it made me look like a duchess. Holy cow—what a dress! Dobey gave you that?”
Katherine pirouetted. “Uh-huh. Told me I looked amazing.”
Behind Nelly, Chet stood in the doorway, wearing dark slacks, a turtleneck, and a sport coat, and holding a box with two cheesecakes. Katherine ushered him in.
In the kitchen, she and Nelly double-checked on the fondue prep and fussed over the trays of canapes. Chet appeared, holding a glass of deep red wine. “This is good. Never had claret before.”
“I was afraid it was halfway to vinegar. I was going to throw it out.” Katherine sniffed then sipped from the glass Chet handed to her. Pursing her lips, she dissected the flavors—blackberry and something nutty. Almond maybe.
The other guests arrived, dressed for the occasion: Sharon and her husband, Donald; Peggy from the pharmacy with her husband, Bill, and her sister, Gwen, who wore a long skirt despite a walking cast on one foot and a sneaker on the other. Ten minutes later, Dobey swept in with a bouquet of flowers and a light kiss for Katherine.
Sharon made her way over to him. “Haven’t seen you since the chamber of commerce Christmas lunch. What’s new?”
“Everything!” Dobey announced. “Business is good. Life is good—and I’m in love.”
Katherine gasped, then smiled quickly to cover up the sound.
“Met him on a trip to New York in January. He’s coming in two weeks.”
Katherine stopped listening, and the light in the room seemed to dim. If only she could go upstairs and put on her bathrobe.
A hand touched her arm; it was Nelly. Katherine followed her into the kitchen but couldn’t think of what needed to be done. When the doorbell rang again, she didn’t make a move. “I can’t do this,” Katherine whispered. “I’ve made a terrible fool out of myself. I thought—no, I wanted to think…”
Nelly, who was a good six inches shorter, pulled Katherine close. “Hear that? Everybody’s laughing and talking. Your party is a success. Dobey does like you—just not, you know, in that way. And you do look amazing in this gown.”
Nelly planted a hand against Katherine’s back and gave her an encouraging push. As she carried in the fondue pot and set it on chafing stand in the center of the table, Katherine saw an unfamiliar man in the far corner of the living room talking with Chet and Bill. He was clean-shaven and combed his hair straight back; he wore a tuxedo. Then the man spoke. “Sorry I was late, Katherine. Had to work today.”
“My goodness, Oscar. I didn’t recognize you.”
“Started to trim my whiskers and then—zip—off they came.” Oscar rubbed his chin. “Come Monday, people are gonna think they got a new mailman.” He raised his glass of claret to her. “Change is good.”
Katherine slipped into the last chair at the head of the table, where her father had always sat. When she opened her mouth to thank her guests for coming, the words uncorked and poured out. “I couldn’t bear it—the house, I mean—big and empty. I knew if I didn’t do something, I’d lose my mind. So, I decided to have this party…” It was a terrible thing to say, she scolded herself.
Gwen spoke up. “No, Katherine. Thank you. I know exactly what you mean. Between the cold and this foot cast, I felt like a prisoner. I couldn’t wait for tonight.”
Sharon nodded vigorously. “When you said formal, I went out and bought this dress.”
“This is my brother’s tux,” Oscar piped up. “He plays in a band. They do a lot of weddings. When I asked to borrow it, he said I must be going to a prom.”
Katherine looked down the table: every chair filled, china and silver used again. Imagining the lady who’d first worn the red velvet dress, she stood to give a toast. “Here’s to us. To the life we have and the life we’re making out of what remains.” She raised the claret to her lips and drank it in.
“Mom?” Genevieve, her thirty-year-old daughter, stood in the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me calling you downstairs?”
Katherine registered the slight worry in her voice. “I was just digging in this closet.” She glanced toward the bed where no more than six pieces of clothing had been extracted for a donation pile. They weren’t moving, not yet—but lightening the load, Katherine had to agree, made sense.
“Where’s Dad?” Genevieve asked.
“He was in the basement, supposedly cleaning things out. Then went to the hardware store for a light socket or some such thing.”
Katherine linked her arm through her daughter’s. “I’m so glad to see you.”
Genevieve wrinkled her nose and laughed. “I’m here, what, three times a week?”
Her daughter didn’t fully understand the meaning, Katherine knew, and maybe wouldn’t until she had her own child one day.
The sound of the back door attracted the attention of both women and they descended the stairs together. At the counter, just taking off his coat, was Oscar—tall and clean-shaven, just like the night of the dinner party, thirty-three years ago. Sometimes they joked, she and Oscar, that they had fallen in love with the dressed-up versions of themselves. But over the years, Katherine decided they had seen their true selves that night.
Oscar, the kind-hearted, dependable mailman, had the soul of an artist. Katherine loved marking the change of seasons, not just with displays at the pharmacy, but with holiday-themed dinner parties. Together, they turned an old house into a home- thanks to unexpected love, a child born later in their lives, good friends, and a dress she wore only once but never forgot. Red, like wine.