Fiction

Cotton

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All he wanted was to work his land in peace, never knowing that what mattered most to him was about to be taken away

By James Conaway

January 10, 2013


 

He had caught and released brook trout in the steep streams of the Blue Ridge since he was old enough to handle a four-weight fly rod. Cotton Harrell would remember for all time the first dusky gold, indigo-flecked creature that fought valiantly and emerged wet and glistening as if from an alternate reality, looking up at him through the luminous lens of a beautiful and unblinking eye.

He had wanted to be a stream ecologist since he was 10, and at the University of Virginia, he passed through all phases of natural science with ease, planning to move directly into a doctoral program in the land of his dreams. But Stanford didn’t see it that way. Berkeley did find a spot for the promising son of an information specialist working for the United States Department of the Interior who wished he had done something else with his life, and one muggy August dawn the two of them—father and son—struck out from Washington, D.C.’s thriving suburbs on the banks of the Potomac.

They fly-fished their way west, notably the Yellowstone and the Gallatin rivers, the Henry’s Fork, the Snake, the Boise, and in little streams rising on both slopes of the Sierra Nevada. In all that time they ate exactly one trout, a clueless cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarkii) hooked in the eye by mistake outside Jackson Hole. It wouldn’t have survived anyway, and Cotton was unsentimental about how the natural world functioned, but even the loss of a single fish bothered him.

By the end of the trip he had read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, begun outside Lincoln, Nebraska, while his father drove, and started Personal Knowledge, Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy by Michael Polanyi, a chemist. Those two books destroyed everything he thought he knew about science, and he told his father, “I’m switching to philosophy.”

“You never left it.”

Later, his father gripped the back of Cotton’s neck, said, “It’s your life,” and boarded a plane back to Washington, D.C.

Cotton drove down to the university by the Bay, where the dean didn’t think much of his conversion. The elaborate funding apparatus set up for doctoral students would collapse the following Monday, so he randomly drove around while deciding and, in the valley, tasted an amazingly good red wine on the banks of an insignificant little river, behind the town of Caterina.

In the vineyards, the Mexicans, Anglos, men and women worked without the assistance of large machines, except for some with propellers on towers like alien crafts long since assimilated. He decided to take a year off, and meanwhile to work, as it turned out, in the famous Abruzzini Winery, scraping liver-colored tendrils of rubbery mold off the bottoms of massive redwood casks. His knowledge of riverine biology got him promoted to hose-hauler, washing down the insides of fermentation tanks and plastic bins recently brimming with blue-black grapes. His entomological fluency got him promoted from there to collecting insects in the vineyard, on the lookout for glassy-winged sharpshooters and imprisoning them in jars.

His basic knowledge of research led to a series of apprenticeships around the valley and to a knowledge of wine from the bottom up. In his spare time he walked the river, rented a canoe when the water was high enough, talked to the odd fisherman, although there were few of those, trout being practically nonexistent and migrating salmon and steelhead elusive shadows panicking in the skinny autumn riffles. He met Mexicans who slept under the bridges and bathed while grape gondolas and tour busses passed overhead, and everywhere he saw evidence of erosion and a falling water table in exposed tree roots and sloughing gravels.


One year became two, and he weaned himself off the corporate wineries and went with the independents, all obsessed with capturing the essence of the grape, where Cotton’s knowledge of chemistry and his uncanny ability to associate various tastes with their components proved an asset. Then an odd thing began to happen: his interest in water and the critters in it lessened, while his interest in wine and the compounds in it increased.

He took crash courses at Davis, sometimes careening up the winding road toward the university before dawn and back again at night, his trunk full of winemaking and other paraphernalia that spoke to him in the curves. He found himself thrown in with the polyglot assemblage of enthusiasts who had, like Cotton, abandoned more respectable careers for one both tenuous and consuming. They formed a diverse, itinerant priesthood of sorts, pursuing something as infinite, inspiring, and elusive as any god he knew of.

He agreed to make wine according to a computer-generated formula for a Silicon Valley consultant who drove up on weekends and liked to get his fingers purple and to operate the front-end loader as a kind of therapy. This consultant let Cotton use his facilities to make his own wine, too, from cabernet sauvignon grapes Cotton tended himself, picked according to his notion of ripeness, and paid the consultant for. A bottle of this he slipped to a wine critic on one of his passes through subsistence-level winemaking in the valley, and to Cotton’s amazed delight got a mention in the critic’s newsletter (… intense red berry, very long finish …). The wine Cotton was paid to make didn’t get a mention, and he got fired.


“What do you need?” his father had asked, over the phone, sounding very far away.

“Three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars,” said Cotton. “Thirty-seven thousand in cash, with a loan guarantee and you co-signing.”

Seven acres, a bit of vineyard, a little frame house separating from its porch, sway-backed barn unsuitable for much, head-pruned Petite Syrah vines, and a concrete fermentation tank for making home wine from excess dropped fruit, dark with age and that grape’s dense pigmentation. Classic story, a fluke really: man dies, wife wants out of a decade-long feud with a calf-and-cow operation next door.

He just happened to hear about it after following a stream up from the river, a hobby now, collecting caddis larvae, and seeing the woman hanging out her dead husband’s clothes that she planned to donate to charity. The place, not yet on the market, was run-down and had a crazy neighbor. The rarely surprised real estate mavens in the valley were near-apoplectic when Cotton bought it for less, a lot less, than what it was worth and moved in, sleeping in the living room and cooking on his Coleman camp stove, listening to wood rats in the walls.

He knew what was required in the vineyard, but had never done the actual work. As if evoked by his need, two Mexicans showed up who had worked harvests for the former owner and offered to do the same for Cotton. They were from Michoacán and knew the place as if it was their own, showing him how to prune in winter, the three of them warming their hands at flames leaping from stacked vine cuttings, the smoke acrid and quite wonderful, roiling the cold February air under conifer-green mountains.

The Michoacános showed him how to pick in the fall, then disappeared, only to reappear like deft, calloused butterflies at ease in the natural world. It seemed that a year passed before he looked again in the hall mirror and saw a skinnier version going gray at the verges, behind him stacked cases of his own wine, some made in that old concrete tank and the rest at a custom crush outfit out on the highway. Wine crates filled every room, the weight of them threatening to bring the house down before he crawled underneath with a hydraulic jack and cinderblocks.

So much wine made dating a problem, the women put off by a house with a single, narrow corridor between cartons leading directly from front door to bedroom. Only one found it amusing, Jill: compact, with physical ease that comes from doing things outdoors—surfing in frigid waters off the Marin headlands—and not blonde. Jill had worked at Abruzzini when Cotton was there, and then they ran into each other at the bakery. Jill had her own little public relations firm on a back street in Caterina, and Cotton was a vintner barely worthy of the title, each touched by the other’s independence.

Jill moved in on what she called a provisional basis. He told her, sitting on the front porch—no chairs—“I won’t ask you to push my wine if you won’t ask me to help your clients. We’ll meet in the middle, between our professions,” and she said, “Deal.”

His parents came out to meet her, and Jill’s—she called them Marin-iacs—drove over from Bolinas. Cotton called her Scout because she took care of everybody; she called him Calamity because he talked too much about ecological consequences of human activity. They were an unlikely couple, everyone agreed, she outgoing and bemused by his taciturnity, he captivated by her resilience, and desperately in love.


Cotton’s wine became known for an intensity attributable to old-fashioned, risky methods, and also depended on the happy accidents of good slope. His was one of the few reputed “white man” vineyards in the valley, mostly put in by him, though with indispensable cohorts. Cotton named it Puddle-jump, after the pond, and gave whimsical names to his lesser blends: Tadpole (cabernet franc), Dragonfly (triaged cab sauvignon, cab franc, and merlot). Puddle-jump, his estate wine, was all dark and delicious cabernet sauvignon, in need of some aging, and he sold it all from the winery and pocketed money that might have gone to middlemen.

The critic for the San Francisco Chronicle liked Puddle-jump, which helped a lot, and he got another mention, this one in a long list of California comers in The New York Times, which pleased his father. But the journals were something else again. A pompous ass called from The Wine Taster and told Cotton that the names of his wines were trivial and his approach too pants’ seat. “You have to get serious,” one Kevin Nomonity intoned, and Cotton said, “I am serious, you jerk,” and hung up.

Only later did he learn of the caller’s influence, and that he, Cotton Harrell, had made a serious mistake, one that dismayed Jill while sending her into fits of hilarity.

The esteemed English critic Clyde Craven-Jones proved to be a problem of a different sort. He showed up one day, sweating in a panama hat and open-collar shirt thin as toilet paper, holding a black notebook secured with a rubber band. Almost too big to fit into the renovated tool shop, Craven-Jones tasted from barrels and tasted from bottles, spraying purple wine indiscriminately, panting and scribbling. “The wines are good,” he said, “but too tannic. Why mask the marvelous fruit California offers?”

“It just needs time to develop.”

“Mister Harrell, people don’t have time these days. And harvest more sunshine, let the alcohol hold sway.” And the famous critic was gone.


Cotton heard that the cattle-spawning dust-and-mud province next door had been bought by a wealthy real estate developer from L.A. This man, named Jerome Hutt, had grand plans for a vineyard, house, and winery, no expense spared, and almost anything would be an improvement, Cotton thought. At the property line he noticed a black SUV full of expectant faces, and a man wearing cowboy boots, a new plaid shirt, and a baseball cap—the uniform of new arrivals—getting out. He and Cotton shook hands across the fence. “I’m going to be the best neighbor you ever had,” Hutt said, “and this is going to be the valley’s showcase, with wine to match.”

“If I can help you, let me know.”

Within a week a new post appeared near the lower corner of Cotton’s property, and when he walked down he saw another, and two caballeros putting in a third. He told them to stop, and in their long regard he plainly read—or liked to think he had—all the problems that lay before him.

That night Hutt called Cotton from Ventura. “Instead of pulling the new fence posts,” Hutt said, “why don’t I just buy your place. I’ll give you twice what you paid for it, plus some equity in Hutt Family Estate. I’ll hire you as winemaker. We can all be part of the new Margaux, the new Mouton in the valley,” and Cotton said, “Puddle-jump’s not for sale.”

The posts were moved, though not quite enough. Cotton let it pass, not wanting to inspire Hutt to undergo a lot-line adjustment, the rich guy’s way to harass his neighbors and steal some of their land. Nothing more was said about Cotton making Hutt’s wine, either. Then he heard about Hutt’s winery plans: tunnels, a cave of mythic proportions requiring huge machines used to cut mineshafts in Wales, and the greatest threat of all, the disruption of aquifers, trashed streams, gray water that would find its way to the river.

Cotton gave silent thanks that his property was slightly higher than Hutt’s, and upwind of the chemical storm soon engulfing the new vineyard. He joined other neighbors and a colorful assortment of enviros and slow-growthers to oppose the winery permit, and so began another, demanding transition. His testimony proved crucial in hearings before the county’s planning department and board of supervisors, and his proximity to the project meant his constant vigilance, and less time at home.

Jill never objected but did point out that he was acquiring a reputation he might not want, that of zealot rather than ace winemaker, which could complicate Puddle-jump’s toe-hold in the boutique wine market. “And the outcome of the battle,” she predicted, “will be stalemate. Hutt has the best lawyers, the backing of pro-growth supervisors from the county’s ass-end, testimony from soil and hydrology ‘experts,’ and lots of money for injecting into charities and fund-raisers that help keep people muted and on the fence.”

Then she came home early one afternoon, and said, “Pour me a glass of Tadpole, Cotton, and give me a kiss.”

She dragged him to the couch, an arm around his neck. “Okay, Jerome came into the office today and asked me to build a premier brand for him. He wants me to come up with a strategy and a campaign, the works.”

“I hope you told him no.”

“I didn’t.”

“Scout …”

She held up a finger. “Let me talk, please. In this business you don’t wait, you don’t question. Things happen fast with startups, much at stake. That winemaking slot just went to a star from VinMonde, instead of to you. Now, to counter public outcry over the size and grandeur of his winery, Hutt’s going to need more than money. He needs distinction.”

“And you’re going to provide it for him. You’re edgy and adorable, and you know everybody. I have to give it to Hutt. Not only would he be getting talent in you, he’d be showing himself above the fray, niftily neutralizing ill will from his outsized project by hiring my girlfriend.”

“Cotton, this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. Good product, money no object, a chance to make a real splash. I know Jerome’s an ass, maybe a dangerous one, but I can deal with that. If it gets too bad, I’ll bail. But if he’s willing to make the concessions you and others want, why not give it a try? He’s going to get his winery whatever you do. At least this way you can help make it better.”

Hutt came up with a name for his premier wine. “Copernicus,” Jill said. “You should like that. Copernicus was a scientist.”

“It’s grandiose and idiotic. But otherwise just dandy.”

“I’ve roped in one of the best label designers. He’s charging Jerome a mere $2,000,000 for a rendition of the sun on some kind of reflective paper.”

“I designed my label on a legal pad and ran the initial batch off at Office Depot for 300 bucks.”


The original house on Hutt’s property was eventually demolished and replaced with a beautiful confection, a perfect if greatly outsized replica of a Victorian farmstead, with period siding, a long porch behind rampant rosemary, and guest quarters cleverly disguised as a California water tower. The handsome weathered barn, with its big hay boom and unsullied horse stalls, cleverly designed, massively built, fronted a thoroughly modern winery set into the hill.

Turning into the Hutt Family Estates, you found yourself gently time-machined from the 21st to the 19th century: manicured gravel drive; big, dappling live oaks obscuring the electronic surveillance cameras; a heavy-gauge steel gate matching the white wooden fence; and vines trellised in the old manner, with red and white roses planted at the row ends. Beyond stood Hutt’s prized walnut trees, another living tribute to the past, the trunks painted a correct historic white, and a prune grove deep in shadow. A dozen rows of wheat stood beyond that, a demonstration plot for wine enthusiasts enamored of the authenticity of diverse agriculture. Schoolchildren brought up regularly from the city could see what the valley had looked like when recent European immigrants lived here and nourished their crops with the natural bounty of roaming livestock.

A signboard built by a cabinetmaker had been erected next to the driveway, stating in tasteful gold leaf: THE HUTT FAMILY SEEKS TO PRESERVE WHAT IS BEST AND MOST LASTING IN THE VALLEY, AND TO KEEP IT FREE OF THE DISCORD OF OUR MODERN WORLD. OUR UNCOMPROMISING GOAL IS TO PRODUCE HARMONY IN A SPECIAL PLACE, AND A WINE—COPERNICUS—OF SUCH EXCEPTIONAL QUALITY THAT IT WILL LIVE AND NOURISH GENERATIONS TO COME.


He began to watch as if from the wrong end of a telescope as Jill’s involvement with his neighbor deepened, her hours at work grew longer, demands slopping over into weekends and holidays. Her ad-hoc style got less so, and more expensive: darker clothes, less of them and closer to the body, long dark hair cut low across her forehead. Lipstick dark, and something around the eyes making them shine. That natural ease in her own physical realm added to her natural appeal. What lover could object?

One night on the porch, Jill said, “Cotton, I’m shutting down the agency and going to work full time for Copernicus. I’m getting a piece of the action, and the money down the line’s incredible.”

He was speechless.

“Jerome’s committed”—it had been Jerome for what now seemed a very long time—“to having the best.”

“Can we handle this?”

“Yes. Remember that, because there’s more.”

He should have seen it clearly then—a change of manner, a hint of resignation—but he didn’t. He felt betrayed but told himself: stay rational. She would of course be the one chosen by Hutt to bring the proposal to him, and it was sophisticated, expensive, compelling: capture wastewater from the winery, purify and release it into an existing stream. Intriguing to any scientist, and conceivably a standard that could be applied to every new winery in California. And if Hutt was willing to pay, who was Cotton Harrell and his merry band to oppose?

Gradually the knot of opposition began to come undone, but not until Cotton agreed to vet the new process and get mired in the details, insisting upon the best, costing Jerome Hutt a lot of money and assuming he would eventually back off. He didn’t. So Cotton founded Friends of the Flow as a kind of penance for facilitating the birth of Copernicus, and launched a clean-up of the river, raising money to rip-rap eroding riverbanks and observe aquatic life in situ. He collected water samples for measuring the future health of the river, learned to scuba dive to gather specimens, applied for grants, proselytized in public about bugs and salmon, even among schoolchildren who looked at him as if he had stepped out of a spaceship. All the while he knew something precious had been lost and that it had more to do with Jill than any endangered species of fish.


Something had begun to happen within the structure of Hutt Family Estates that Cotton only heard of indirectly and Jill wasn’t privy to. She was promised some of the action, not real estate but “brand,” which she had created out of nothing. “Jerome wants me to release him from the early agreement,” she told Cotton. “The one that promised me a percentage if the brand popped.”

“Which it did.”

“Right. But now percentages are somehow unwieldy, according to his lawyers. And inaccurate in view of what the product’s now worth. So I’m supposed to sign a waiver.”

“Don’t.”

But she did. And life went on, more salary, trips, wine still flowed to them. Jill inquired, casually at first, about how much of the action was still hers, and received no response. She wrote Jerome a note in longhand, sitting at the table on the porch, a scene that in retrospect nearly broke Cotton’s heart: lovely script, pale blue ink reflecting, he imagined, the broad Pacific of Jill’s childhood, the clean wind of trust and optimism blowing over her. Do the right thing, she wrote, and later repeated in the shower. Cotton would hear it above the rush of water, and call out, “Hey, Scout, who you talking to in there?”

But it wasn’t a joke. Jill was forgetting things, misplacing stuff. Cotton had to assume this was noticed at work, too. Tina Schupe, a seemingly loyal if ambitious assistant, would cover for Jill, but Jerome Hutt had radar just shy of paranoiac and wasn’t going to be fooled for long. One of Cotton’s great regrets was that he hadn’t insisted then that Jill quit and sue over the ownership issue, claim her fair market share, create a stink, pay the legal fees. But she still believed in redemption.

Follow your decent impulses, Jerome. I know you have some. Do the right thing.


She called Cotton from the doctor’s office and said matter-of-factly, “Glioblastoma. Funny name, glee followed by an explosion.”

He Googled it while waiting for her to get home: … tumor of different types of cancer cells … difficult to treat … deadly … He began calling people then, and the responses were unrelievedly dire: do something, do it now. What followed was a farrago of consultants, the hardest to take being the oncologist in his suite of costly furniture, showing that the sicker you are, the more you pay. The prospect of surgery terrified them, but there wasn’t time to think about it. He longed for something encouraging to say, but came up with, “I love you and I know it’s going to be okay.”

At first it looked like it might. The tumor was removed, chemo launched; Jill lost hair wholesale but in the process acquired a new beauty, wrapped in turbans and shawls, fronted by a depthless smile. They slept entwined, grateful shipwreck survivors. Then two months into remission Jill was fired, not by Jerome or anyone at Hutt Family Estates, but by a lawyer calling from Los Angeles.

Cotton was grateful in a way: At last she was free. But outrage prevailed after Jerome refused her calls, and his, and Cotton went out and climbed the fence and walked to the winery through Copernicus’s vineyard, wishing he had brought along a machete to take down the cabernet slaves along the way.

“May I help you?” asked the pourer behind the bar.

“May I help you?” asked the receptionist.

He got to Hutt’s outer office before a large Mexican man in a plaid shirt with rhinestone snaps came up behind him and without a word pinned his arms. The two of them danced, struggling and grunting, back down the hall, through the tasting room and out under the wisteria where Cotton was released like some exotic strain of Lepidoptera that might injure itself.

A week later Hutt Family Estates canceled Jill’s health insurance, making her a ward of the state. Cotton’s carrier wouldn’t take her. Don’t worry, Scout. Puddle-Jump’s profitable, we’re going to be just fine. In a way this offense of Hutt’s transcended the original diagnosis of cancer in its awfulness, providing another, deeper peek into the void of depravity. He watched Jill drift involuntarily away, aware that her neurological problem went far back, perhaps as far back as her decision to make Hutt’s brand for him, and now she was a kite on an infinite, uncoiling string over blue and unbridgeable water.

Tina Schupe came, not to see Jill, who was asleep, but Cotton. Recently promoted to Jill’s job, she sat in Puddle-jump’s little farm office in an expensive outfit and told him how sorry she was, then placed on his desk an envelope.

“What’s this?”

“An offer, from Jerome. For Puddle-Jump. He’s willing to pay top dollar … Wait, Cotton. He’s willing to settle and pay all medical expenses from this point on.”

“If I sell?”

“Yes.”

Tina took his scrutiny as smoothly as the pleating in her trousers. “It’s a different world from the time you arrived,” she said, “and this is a one-time opportunity.”

He said, “Take your envelope.”

“You aren’t even going to open it? You don’t even want to know how much?”

She grabbed and tossed the envelope into the wastebasket. He retrieved it, and followed her outside and flicked the envelope into her new Lexus before she could get the door closed.

He didn’t tell Jill about the offer. Copernicus, a ragged emotional escarpment jutting into their lives like the broken edge of a tectonic plate, had simply fallen away. Jill said, “No more calamities,” holding his hand in hers, a tight bundle of veins, tendons, and mottled skin, surprisingly strong. “I don’t want you to stop trying to save the world, Cotton. But I don’t want you to expect to save it, either.”

The day she died he went home from the hospital and without a word to anyone loaded his diving gear into the pickup. He drove down to the river, fitted-out, and dropped straight off the cut-bank into a deep spot he knew well. The water still quite cold in May, he sinking through shadows until his feet touched gravel and loamy run-off from the surrounding vineyards. Drowned, gnarled tree roots, a pebbly wall of mud and sunken branches. No collecting bag, no gloves. He tore at the bank with abrading hands while frightened little salmonids fled and the current carried off clouds of mud and debris, his oxygen going, the light failing, Cotton still looking.

James Conaway is the author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden and its sequel, The Far Side of Eden, as well as three novels, including The Big Easy. This story is excerpted from his novel Nose, published in March 2013.


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