The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Signs of Passing

Photophobia   —an excerpt

Conrad squinted again, shaking his head.

“Sunrise?” he asked.

“Sunrise,” she responded flatly. “I can ask Iris to take me if you want to sleep in. You know. Get your rest.”

It was the casual authority with which she had made the remark, as much as the remark itself, that snagged Conrad’s phlegmy laugh and pulled it out of his throat like an ugly fish.

“You are a pistol, Jackie-O. You really are. I like that. But I’ll be up and done with my first cup of coffee before you get outta bed and put those damn glasses on your face.” He hunched, bowing his back to lower himself so that his nose was level with hers, his breath a hot cloud of decay, staring through the black lenses so that he could see the whites of her eyes inside their shadowed cave, pacing nervously. “You don’t sleep in those things, do you?”

Jac turned and continued walking. Conrad followed, his phlegmy fish laugh flopping a couple more times in the dirt behind her.

A side road through an opening in the scrub led down another quarter-mile to the Lower-Sixteen, the rectangular patch of vines Jac had seen from above. Jac separated from Conrad, marching ahead of him down an aisle that bisected the field. On either side, decorous rows of vines were tied to stakes like injured soldiers propped up on crutches for a general’s review.

She made a busy, overly-occupied production of the photography. This way, that way. Uphill, downhill. Bending, squatting. Swapping lenses. Making notes. All of this said that she was too busy, too immersed, to talk. Conrad kept his distance, letting her work. 

It was only when she was setting up the tripod and screwing in the macro for a close-up of a cluster of berries that he drew near again. His right hand found her left buttock and gave it a firm caress as she tried to focus. Jac forced herself to not react.

Focus, she told herself. Focus. 

“So,” she said, giving him nothing in her tone, “Cabernet Sauvignon?”

“Right,” said Conrad, removing his hand and taking a step downhill as though her ass had been but a tree stump he had used for balance against the slope. Jac centered a cluster of berries and squeezed off several shots.

“They look kind of …”

“What,” he said, spitting again.

“I don’t know. Sparse. Not so healthy, I guess.”

“It’s early yet. Plus, I like to keep ‘em stressed. Healthy vines spoil the wine.”

Jac turned and looked at him, screwing up her face. “Huh?”

“Feel all the moisture in this air?”


“A healthy vine leads to full berry clusters. Lots of fruit. Drier air can’t circulate around the berries within each cluster. Then you’ve got a bunch-rot problem and you end up leaving most of your crop on the ground. Pinot does better with the full clusters, but not the Cab. These here have got to be small and loosely packed. When it comes to the Cab, I like stressed, struggling plants. They need to work for their existence.”

“Sounds backwards to me.”

“That’s why you take pretty pictures and I grow grapes. Know what happens when these babies are starved for water?”

Jac shrugged.

“They decide that it’s not gonna be an easy life. Long about late May they conclude that if it’s dry now it’s gonna be wicked dry come July. They start fighting to live. They send their roots down, looking for their own water, rather than laying up here near the surface to be baked in the summer sun. They stop putting all of their energy into the nonsense of growing up long and leafy and useless and they decide they need to put everything they’ve got into ripening those berries. More leaves mean more evaporation, which means less water to live on, so fuck the leaves. In fact, fuck the vines. It’s all about the berries. I’m after good wine, not happy vines. They’re here to make me happy, not the other way around. Keep ‘em unhappy and they’ll perform. Gotta be ruthless in this business Jackie-O. There’s no room for sentimentality. Heavy on the stress. And if your vine is bearing fruit that’ll just end up spoiling the wine, get out your knife, cut it off and leave it lay.”

Jac pulled a water bottle out of her pack and doused the cluster of small, hard, dark grapes. The water caught the light so that they sparkled. She took another burst of photos.

“Isn’t that cheating?” he asked.

“Nothing honest about photography, Conrad.” She said, unscrewing the macro and digging around for the medium zoom. “It’s all about framing the world you want, not capturing the world that is.”

Conrad laughed. “Well, la-dee-da,” he said under his breath.

She took a number of underwhelming shots of the valley, now much less photogenic, and then swiveled on the tripod to catch the Lower-Sixteen against the backdrop of the ridge. It was starting to rain again. She pulled a beige rectangle of nylon out of the pocket of her pack and draped it over the camera and the zoom.

“Stand right there,” she said to him. “This is a good shot.”

Conrad struck a pose, hands on his hips looking off into the far distance. A man and his vineyard. A man who knew what he wanted in the world. She zoomed in until his eyes, a little milky and bloodshot and withered in the corners, filled the frame. A man who knew what he didn’t want. She pushed the plunger.