The Last of the Old Wine

by Shane Inman
The Last of the Old Wine by Shane Inman

We were the tonight people. Tomorrow didn’t exist. 

None of us could say for certain how we all came to live in the old mansion, but we agreed on the most important points: It had been gifted to us by our ancestors and was so sturdy it would never collapse. There may have been other occupants, once, but we preferred not to think of them or the deathly odor which sometimes wafted from the walls. We were here now and beneath us was an endless cellar of wine to drink. 

If others had indeed been at the cellar before us, they had only picked at it, sampled a merlot here, a riesling there, and they appeared to have replaced what they took. How quaint that was, because even with flashlights we couldn’t see one end of the cellar from the other. Shelves upon shelves offered their wealth. All for us, too much to ever run dry. 

In those early nights, we carried up the bottles one by one and drank from crystal glasses. We selected the oldest wines first, those enshrined in dust and cobwebs. We toasted to the present, to the wine, to life lived at the pinnacle. When the bottles were empty, we said hell, let’s open some more. We were safe. We were drunk. It was summer and it always would be. 

Before long, trudging to the cellar only to return with a single bottle felt pointless, so we carried them by twos and threes and fours, white-knuckle-gripping each neck. We needed them to keep the mood upstairs from darkening. When drinks ran low, we snapped at each other, shattered glasses against veneer plaster walls and left jagged fragments strewn about the floor. We seized the shards and cut each other and ourselves. We slashed treasured paintings, tore pages from books, hurled blame for the dry spells and vowed to punish those responsible. But when the wine flowed again, our troubles vanished. We became friends once more, our too-loud laughter bouncing off empty bottles crowding every surface. We stood on chairs and proclaimed how blessed we were to live in a never-ending now which was so very, very good. 

The wine did make us sick, of course. Each morning we groaned in our beds, cursed the cracks in the shades, pulled buckets close and vomited thin, biley strands. But we abided no discussion about drinking less. Instead, after some searching, we uncovered a medicine cabinet stocked with bottles of Advil. Some of us recalled, in a vague and unwilling way, that pills and alcohol didn’t mix. Ulcers or some such. But when we swallowed the tablets we felt better, not worse, so we laughed off the warnings as an exaggeration or a hoax and adjusted our routine. Pills in the morning, wine at night. 

The mixture flipped a switch in our heads and we dreamed for the first time in years. We dreamed of our mothers smothering us against their bodies and reassuring us of our perfection, our divinity. We dreamed that our fathers pushed globes into our hands and when we looked closely at the rough surfaces we saw that each was not a simple globe but the planet Earth itself. Their stern voices instructed us that all of it was ours—every mountain, every ocean, every glacier, every plain. The life beneath our fingertips was shocking, impossible. We woke with hollowness inside us and raced to fill it. 

When four bottles at a time were no longer enough and the trek to the cellar became too inefficient, we built a machine. It was an astonishing machine, a product of the entrepreneurial spirit on which we all prided ourselves. It trolled the cellar shelves and sent as much wine as we could drink directly upstairs by a system of pulleys and carriages. The clanking, rolling, rope-sliding noises were interrupted more than occasionally by the crash of a fumbled bottle, but what did we care? We could lose a hundred bottles or a thousand and be none the poorer for it.  

These were the good times. The best times. We drank day and night, sang old pop songs with primal abandon, fucked on Persian rugs and blacked out in king-size beds so plush we couldn’t imagine a greater pleasure than sinking. We didn’t notice the autumn draft seeping through the brickmold, or if we did, we called it a blip not worth a second thought. 

We scarcely shrugged when the food ran out. Dinner had long ago become secondary to the wine. Besides, we hadn’t eaten much for some time because our bellies ached with a pain we’d forgotten the cause of. We tried to keep the bacchanal churning, but our smiles grew tight at the corners and our dancing took on the desperate flailing of a man on fire. We threw the remaining glasses into the empty fireplace and guzzled straight from the bottles in an attempt to hold onto a single moment in time. Rivulets spilling down our chins, we gulped for longer than we could hold our breath, then choked and spat frothing sprays of wine and saliva and gasped for air and brought the bottles to our lips again. 

Soon, however, the chill pressed in and the fever of the good times receded at last. 

The pills ran out. The aches worsened. We grew angry and sullen. Drinking only hardened our edges rather than softening them. We couldn’t understand what was happening to us or why the wine wasn’t working as it should. For the first time, we noticed the reek our machine had created with its clumsiness—the sickly-sweet rankness accompanying countless sticky stains the color of gold and blood. 

Winter found our thin, wasted shapes bent around a dining table so stained none of us could remember its original color. After some discussion, we agreed it had always been this apocalyptic pattern of ever-darkening red. Nothing had changed. We still lived in the same endless moment as before. But in front of mirrors we touched our new alien gauntness, baffled that what we saw was not ourselves. Cheekbones poking through taut, pale flesh, fingernails long and cracked and calcified, scleras clouded with a diseased yellow. We destroyed every mirror in the house, piled every reflective pot and pan and kettle into a closet which we shut and locked with a key we threw away. The toasts continued, but we turned them to those of us who went to bed and never woke. 

A pile of logs rested beside the fireplace, no doubt left for us by our forebears, so we threw them in and set them alight, then threw in more until we could barely stand the heat. Around that fire we learned to hate each others’ stench. Sweat and sour wine. But we clustered together nonetheless, passing bottles back and forth. We watched the woodpile shrink without interest, certain that behind it we would find another, and another behind that. Our huddle pushed some of us so close to the flames that our faces and palms blistered, while those of us forced to the back saw our fingers and noses turn black with frostbite. Skin peeled, pus oozed, pieces fell off, but what could we do? There wasn’t a better way. 

When there was no more wood to burn and no new pile appeared, we looked to the furnishings. The paintings went in first, as did the books lining the study shelves. What use did we have for them? What value did they create except as momentary bursts of heat? We turned next to the dining table, the chairs, the writing desk. We stamped and tore and smashed to pieces everything that would burn. Some of us couldn’t bear to see all that finery go away so we walked outside and let the cold do its work. Others kept the fire feasting without end, though we’d begun to choke on the ash that belched from the overstuffed fireplace. 

A few of us suffocated while forcing a rug or an end table into the inferno. We dragged the bodies into cold parts of the house where they wouldn’t smell. They were stiff, heavy, and their eyes wouldn’t stay shut no matter how many times we pushed down the lids. They lay like discarded dolls in the rooms where we left them. 

Once our dead outnumbered our living and the wine tasted no different from the ash in our mouths, there were no more toasts. But we drank anyway, drank more than ever before. We rarely spoke. Just sat before the fire with bottles in our laps and eyes dull inside stone-colored sockets. We coughed blood into our hands and flicked it into the fire like a sacrifice. Outside, it started to snow. 

When the machine stopped bringing us bottles, we thought there must have been a blockage somewhere in the system. Some jammed pulley or trapped wheel. We ventured downstairs to fix the problem and realized how long it had been since we’d last made the journey. In our absence, the cellar had melted into another world. Barren shelves. Echoes and dust. The machine lay in pieces, having fulfilled its purpose at last. None of us knew what to say other than to wail at the impossibility of it all. How could it be gone? How could it be gone? Some of us stayed down there, died down there, sat and slumped and didn’t move ever again. The rest of us went back upstairs, where the fire was dying and there was nothing left to burn. We stared at the embers and wondered if perhaps we’d been wrong at the outset. Perhaps there had been a tomorrow, once. 

A blizzard lashed the windows and we searched in despair for something to ignite—skeletons picking through a stripped carcass, joints seizing with the cold, breath barely fogging the air. We came up empty-handed but the summer heat we’d known still burned hot and perfect in our minds. 

The world could feel that way again. We were sure of this. 

We gathered the shimmering coals in our cold-numb hands, oblivious to how they burned us. We laid them in a sticky puddle of sugar and alcohol and blew with the last air in our lungs until they caught. The flames swept across the floor and we knelt to meet them. We let the warmth envelop us, certain that this time it would last forever. 

Shane Inman’s work appears in The Forge, Bourbon Penn, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in the southwest and lives in Philadelphia.