Joyland

The South |

Malbec

by Glen Pourciau

I was staying in the spare bedroom of my parents' apartment in a colonial town in north central Mexico, enjoying their company and catching up with them. Over lunch one day they said they'd recently met a couple who'd called and invited them over for drinks, and they asked if I wanted to come along. I foresaw no reason to decline, and that evening the three of us rode to their house in a taxi, Dad telling me on the way over that our host was a fairly successful painter, a specialist in small abstract canvases.

Within seconds after the painter opened his front door I felt an antipathy toward him. He carried a paunch he'd obviously devoted a lot of time to and sported a well-worn shirt that had probably been on his back for several days. He let out a laugh when Dad introduced me. My name is Manfred, but as Dad told him, I go by Man, which shouldn't have seemed that unusual to a painter who'd likely heard of Man Ray, though in Ray's case his given name was Emmanuel. He looked over my crisply pressed clothing as if at something foreign to him. Still, I kept up my form, smiled as if glad to see him, nothing but good will showing, but he responded by looking straight at me with a smirk and giving me an abbreviated handshake. Smiles all around with the others, hugs, greetings, exclamations, and so forth. Dad showed me a couple of examples of the painter's work that we passed on our way in, but I chose not to linger over them. I didn't come to his house to suffer, after all. I despised his paintings on sight, sized them up as small beer, some pathetically pretentious minimalism of the psyche, redolent of the womb, the smallness of the man all too apparent in his work.

We sat down in their living room, the familiar plate of cheese and crackers on the table, our host offering us a choice of red or white wine or beer. All of us chose red wine except the painter, who drank his beer straight from the bottle. The cheese wasn't bad, though not as good as what I was used to when I lived in France, and the French would have poured the wine they were serving down the drain. But I kept my posture erect and didn't complain. My mother said she liked the wine, and I admit I glanced up briefly but quickly lowered my head so as not to draw attention to being shocked at her comment. Then Dad said he thought the wine tasted good too, and at that point my mouth curled. The painter noticed and asked me if the wine was okay. I nodded and said it was fine, but I don't think I convinced him because his smirk burst forth once again. He stuck his beer in the middle of it and took a gulp. I didn't like him smirking at me within view of my dad, but what was I going to say that wouldn't have made the situation worse?

The painter's wife, whose name I can't remember, had begun a conversation with my mother on a book they'd both read about a malicious woman who had run an unsuspecting bookshop owner out of the small town where they lived by strategically undermining her business. While this discussion went on my dad told the painter that I'd lived in Argentina and in France for over twenty years. The painter asked me where in France and I named all the places, most of it in and around Paris, but my favorite area, I said, was the Languedoc region. I drank the best wines all over France, I went on, but some of my favorite wines for the money were those from the Languedoc. The painter mentioned a local restaurant that he and his wife enjoyed frequenting where they often ordered a red wine from Languedoc. When he told me the name of the wine I couldn't stop myself before I reacted. No, that's just table wine, I said, shaking my head. I rarely drank table wine over there, I told him, because there were so many other wines to drink that were so much better. The painter looked at me with only partially concealed mockery, but I maintained my composure despite the apparent rivalry rising between us. My father is older now but he is quite tall and powerful, and I imagined him standing and addressing the painter's implied insolence, dropping his trousers and flogging him with a giant penis, the painter whimpering at each lash and begging him to stop.

The painter continued on the subject of wines, a daunting sense of inferiority, I suspect, driving him self-destructively deeper into the hole he was digging for himself. He said that the bar manager of the local restaurant he'd referred to had told him and his wife that he could import French wines to Mexico more economically than wines from the United States. I didn't know if I believed that, but in order to keep antagonism at bay on my end I said that California wines were sometimes overpriced. He said that when they'd traveled to Giverny the year before they'd met an Australian couple who complained that many of their favorite Australian wines were sold in the United States for half the price they were paying at home. The painter said he remembered the Australian couple recently when he read on a well-known financial news website that Argentinians were angry at paying more than double the price being charged in America for Argentinian malbec. I had to stop him there, and I must admit I'd reached a point where I wanted to teach him a lesson. He wasn't going to tell me about the price of malbec in Argentina. He'd plainly never lived in either Argentina or France and he couldn't resist pretending that he knew something about wine when he probably didn't know enough even to drink it properly, if the way he poured beer down his throat was any indication.

That's wrong, I said. I lived in Buenos Aires and malbec is very cheap there, including in restaurants where you can often buy a liter of malbec for a few pesos. The painter asked me how long ago I'd lived in Argentina. I didn't react to his doubting the authority of my lived experience and answered him directly and with no edge in my voice that it had been a year and a half, but I knew people still living there, people who'd lived in Argentina for years and drank malbec almost every day, several of whom I used to fence with on a weekly basis. I still communicated with these people, I asserted, and I would have heard if the price of malbec had changed that dramatically. The painter, clearly skeptical, said he would have to search for the article and read it again to see where he might have gone wrong. He then asked me to concede that due to aggressive inflation, which he claimed was mentioned in the article, the price of malbec could have risen dramatically in the past year and a half. I simply shook my head, refusing to accept his attempt to save face, while at the same time being annoyed at my mother for being engrossed in her conversation and therefore oblivious that I was being cross-examined by an alleged painter insufficiently respectful to restrain himself from questioning me on a subject that I knew well and in front of my father, who in gentlemanly fashion held his peace as the painter and I spoke.

The painter didn't like having his limitations exposed, especially by me, but he'd asked for it. His jaw clenched and his eyes went to my wine glass, which had been almost emptied of his table wine, a hint of embarrassment, I thought, showing through. I regarded him as a fencing opponent on the verge of utter defeat. I denied my urge to express myself more forcefully and held my poise, conscious as ever that posture reveals stature, and I met his eyes when he raised them from my glass. My personal power had diminished him to his true size. He shrank into his own bitter skin, sensing that he couldn't converse on my level, his corporeal language indicative of mounting fear, his shoulders slumped and curved, his stomach protruding between his stumpy legs, something inside him palpably grinding, as if struggling not to be obliterated.

I wouldn't attach any particular significance to the man or the episode, except for one thing. That same night, the painter suffered a massive heart attack, and the moment I heard the news I understood the true cause of his death. The painter, intimidated by my personal power and self-evident superiority, continued to rage within himself during the night, driven by anger at his inferiority. The persistence of his anger, his inability to deny or escape what it was telling him, increased the pounding pressure in his heart until he could no longer bear the weight of its burden. But leaving aside the official cause of death, mine was the face that forced him to see himself as he was, our fatal antagonism inherent in our identities. My looming presence in his mind agitated and fed his sense of inferiority, and so, in a sense, my personal attributes killed him. Yet I can't help thinking that at some depth he wished to unleash his anger and take revenge on me, to leave an indelible mark, and it's safe to say that if he hadn't died I would have thought no more about him. Has his wish in some way been fulfilled then? And taking into account the painter's role in what happened to him, is his death on my hands? No one, not even his wife, has accused me of anything, and as I write and sip my wine, a tasty and transporting red from the Languedoc, I ask myself: why would they?

A few weeks after he died, my mind still turning on occasion, I confess, to our conversation, I looked up the article he'd mentioned on the price of malbec in Argentina. To my surprise it turned out that he had read the article correctly. The journalist, whose name I'd never heard of, did say that the price of Argentinian malbec was twice as much in Argentina as in the United States, though she only compared the prices of one specific bottle, leading me to question whether the trend was as pronounced as the article stated. And how reliable were the credentials of the journalist, and had she ever lived in Argentina? In any case, my memories of the painter will fade over the course of time, though I am annoyed by the thought that the implications of his death allowed him a limited Pyrrhic victory over me, an achievement that seems to me outside the natural order. But I'm mindful that the longer I acknowledge the mark he's left on me with the last stroke of his reductive brush the more enduring his victory will be. I will put what happened behind me by taking refuge in my own nature, rather than sink into some emotional morass where I do not belong. You could say that I overwhelmed the painter, I admit, but life is held together by dominance hierarchies and some people do not rank at the top of them. Is it in any way my fault that it cannot be otherwise?