We lit out for Napa like two bandits who’d just knocked over an auto parts store, as if we’d put an unloaded Saturday-night special to the ribs of a pimple-faced kid behind a register and said we’d pull the trigger if he didn’t give up the cash. Ching wore a sun dress and pouty lips, I wore cotton crop pants and a big grin.
We talked about what we’d done flying down I-80 for the Highway 12 split. When we blew across the Yolo Causeway, we switched from talking about our crime to chatting about self-publishing my novel through my friend Elizabeth’s new imprint, Hill House. We stopped giggling then about our dishonesty, about lying to Ching’s boyfriend and got serious about our work as writers, talking some serious lit.
|Robert Mondavi Winery|
So, in a way, we weren’t lying about going to a literary event in Napa, going instead to an intimate, sold-out k.d. lang performance on the lawn at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. The country-pop singer has been a favorite musician of Ching’s for more than 20 years, which has irritated her main squeeze, who is famous in his own right.
But, he is not as famous and successful as k.d. He sees Ching going to one of her concerts as a slight of his considerable talents. I agreed to go along with Ching only because he wouldn’t go, at least not without a clash.
We got to the winery early and it was wicked hot, center seating, eight rows back from the stage. We blistered in the late afternoon sun for a while, checked out the arriving crowd from behind our shades – Napa matrons wearing important jewelry and cowgirl boots, lesbians in man-tailored leisure wear, middle-aged men in Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts and expensive loafers. Lots of wine in plastic ice buckets, coolers draped with table cloths and vases full of summer flowers.
Then we went exploring, tripped a lock and slipped into the winery’s cool barrel room, admired Mondavi’s extensive collection of Bufano sculptures. Considered an outspoken radical in his time, Bufano chopped off his trigger finger and sent it to President Woodrow Wilson at the onset of World War I as a protest against the war.
In addition to his work as a sculptor, Bufano taught at the San Francisco Institute of Art, which my grandfather attended at the time, but Bufano was dismissed in 1923 because he was too radical. He died in 1970. And, it’s in part because of Bufano’s connection to my grandfather that I’ve always admired his work and found the collection hidden away in the barrel room intoxicating.
We played among the wine barrels for a while, temperature control misters came on and slicked the air and our skin. We checked out the wine vault, the winery’s first vintage in 1968 was resting in dusty bottles behind locked mesh with all the other years since then racked library-style right to left. We sucked in the yeasty air of fermentation, posed by Bufano’s towering St. Francis of Assisi, the lips voluptuous in a stern, beatific face, begging to be kissed. Then a security guard with a walkie-talkie caught us, nicely threw us out, but not before he let us get more shots of Bufano’s work.
It was showtime then. k.d. lang appeared in hot white and sang everything, but for me she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a perfection of pitch, a voice so beautiful my heart ached and pressed my chest to escape its ribbed jail and go to her for an embrace. I stood, joined by others all around, and clapped to the heavens.
In 2004, Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote: “Her voice, at once beautiful and unadorned and softened with a veil of smoke, invariably hits the middle of a note and remains there. She discreetly flaunts her technique, drawing out notes and shading them from sustained cries into softer, vibrato-laden murmurs. She balances her commitment to the material with humor, projecting a twinkling merriment behind it all.”
And, then the bright lights went out and the crowd drifted away. We stumbled through the vineyard to my car, stunned by what we’d heard. We put our lying, cheating hearts in the seats, gunned the Mercury’s V8 and peeled out. We got back to Sacramento before her significant other finished his Saturday night gig and Ching went in the house to put in a load of laundry and act as if nothing had happened.