Wednesday, October 20, 1999

Mulled Wine

This story originally appeared on the Secret Garden website and is archived here at the request of author Doug Rogers.

1 Gallon Red Wine
1 Gallon Water
2 Cups Sugar
10 Sticks Cinnamon
5 Cloves
1 Orange, thinly sliced
1 Lemon, thinly sliced
1 Lime, thinly sliced
Combine in crock and steep covered three days next to fireplace.
Serve warm, directly from crock.

Annie Clowers was almost asleep as she sat covered in a cozy quilt in her high-backed wooden rocker. She had already banked the fire for the night so that the last of the logs would still be there when she awakened in the morning. That way she would only need to add more wood to rekindle the cheerful blaze. Her farmhouse had central heating and cooling, but the winter nights always seemed warmer with a fire in the stone fireplace. Annie had allowed her eyes to close "for just a minute or two." She might have passed the night there had the knock at the door not awakened her.
She glanced at the pendulum clock on the mantle: 11:45. "Who in the world?" she said out loud, but to herself. The knock sounded again. Annie got up and walked to the front door. She flipped the switch of the front porch light and looked out the cut-glass window to see who it might be. The man there was unknown to her, but one look at him made her open the door.
He was fairly tall, but totally under-dressed for the weather. The snow was still pelting down on this December 28th, and the light wind that blew across the mountains and through the valleys of northwest Arkansas made the night bitter. The man was clad in a sweatsuit and a light jacket. He wore no hat.
"I'm sorry to bother you at this hour," the well-modulated voice began.
"Dear Lord in Heaven! Get yourself in here out of this cold before you freeze!" Annie said, cutting him off. She opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter. It was only when he leaned forward and planted his forearm crutches across the threshold that her eyes flickered to his lower body. The left leg was missing about half way up from the knee. He had tied the leg of the sweat pants in a crude knot where the limb ended, obviously trying to keep warm.

"Sit yourself here by the fire," she said, pushing an upholstered chair closer to the fireplace. "I'll stoke the logs up and we'll get you thawed out!"
"I really appreciate this," the man answered. "My car skidded off in the ditch up the road a mile or so. I've been visiting my brother and his family in Springdale. Bob tried to talk me into staying until morning, but I told him I really needed to get back home. I guess he knew better than me."
Annie smiled and nodded. She took a cup from the mantle and dipped it into a large crock sitting on the hearth. Crossing to her guest, she handed him the warm mixture. "Mulled wine," she said simply. "Warm you right up."
He took the cup and sipped. "Never heard of this stuff, but it's sure good. It does take the chill off."
Annie sat back in her rocker. "That it does," she agreed. She smiled quizzically at him, then added, "I'm Annie Clowers. You got a name?"
"Sorry. My name is Carl Davidson. I'm from Memphis."
"Small world," Annie returned, "so was I. Born and raised there."
Carl looked around the snug, comfortable sitting room. "How did you wind up on a farm in north Arkansas?" he asked.
"Simple. I married my husband."
"Ah. Of course. Is Mr. Clowers already in bed?"
"No," she answered a bit sadly. "Bud died about three years ago. I've got the place by myself now."
"I'm so sorry. It must be a lot of work alone."
She tossed her head to the side slightly. "Not really. You can't tell it in all the storm out there, but this is an orchard. I raise apples and plums. Also got a nice stand of grape vines. I can mix the chemicals and drive the sprayer truck in the spring and summer. The migrants come through toward fall every year. I have them pick it all. And I operate a mean pruning rod! You gotta keep them trees cut back if you want a crop next year. That's about all there is to it."
"That's amazing," he said shaking his head. "I don't know that I could do it." He caught her glance at his black-clad stump resting obviously in the chair. "Even before I lost my leg. It still sounds like a lot of work."
"Keeps a body fit and happy." She nodded. "I thought about selling out when Bud died, but I thought 'what will I do somewhere else?' I just got out there and started reading how to mix stuff up, and before I knew it, I had my first crop on my own."
Carl took a long sip of his wine. "Still seems like a lot to a guy like me. I sell electronic parts wholesale. Spend most of my days on the phone." He looked at the cup in his hand. "This is really excellent. What do you call it?"
"Mulled wine. Made it from wine I put down from my own grapes last year."
"What's in it?"
"Just red wine with some sugar and spices and a little fruit floating on top. But the secret is in the mulling. I mixed this batch up on Christmas Eve and it's been steeping there by the fire ever since. I keep mulled cider for friends that drop over around Christmas, but then it's time for the wine when New Years comes."
"Just letting it sit there and steep. All of the flavors get mixed together, sort of like mulling things over in your mind. All of the flavors have to fit together the right way or it's no good. Tonight's been the first time it was fit to drink. The flavors have gotten together and fit." She smiled. "You happened by just at the right time."
"Well, I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't found your house. I sat in my car thinking what to do for nearly thirty minutes. I tried the cell phone, but it didn't work. Probably too far from a tower out here." Annie nodded as he paused. "Anyway, I got out and started trying to walk it, but my artificial leg just wouldn't negotiate the snow drifts. I got back in the car and took it off, then set out on my crutches. I'm sorry if my appearance shocked you."
"No shock," Annie replied. "Old Caleb Stevens... owns the cattle ranch across the county line... he's just got one leg... way up here..." she indicated her hip line then continued: "He uses a crutch that's got a little seat built right on it. Nobody thinks anything about it in these parts." She looked directly at his stump, then asked, "How'd you lose it?"
"It was the end result of a condition I'd had for years," Carl said simply. "The doctor finally took it off last spring."
"Well, don't seem to slow you down any," Annie returned. "You need a warm up on that wine?"
"If you don't mind. It's awfully good."
"Don't mind at all. Probably not goin' to be anybody to drink it but me, anyway."
"You're not expecting company for New Year's?"
"Nope. My son and his wife came Christmas." She smiled in obvious warmth at the memory. "We had a ball watching his two boys open their gifts, he has four year-old twins, ya see. They packed up and left the day after Christmas. Goin' to her folks place down around Texarkana. And a couple of the neighbors dropped over too, so I had a big time." She gestured toward the door. "No, with all that snow out there I don't suspect there's gonna be a soul come by for the wine." She smiled slyly. "But that's all right, I like it plenty well myself!"
Carl took another deep draw at his cup. "I suppose I need to beg a phone call from you and get a wrecker out here for my car. It's getting quite late."
"Aw, you ain't gonna get a soul out here in this weather this time of night," Annie said shaking her head. "I'm afraid you're stuck here until the storm lifts."
"I couldn't possibly impose..." Carl started.
"Well, it's either that, or back out in the storm," Annie said simply.
"Put like that..."
"Exactly. Let me go turn down the covers in my guest room and turn the electric blanket on in there. You'll get along fine. Then tomorrow, we can go pull your car out of the ditch. I've got a real heavy ATV with a winch. And I won't charge you an arm and a... uh... sorry."
Carl smiled. "It's fine. No need to be embarrassed. That'd really be kind of you."
Annie got up and went to ready the guest room. Carl, sipping his toddy, was lost in his own thoughts. This woman was far from what he would have expected out here in "the sticks." She appeared to be around his own age of 50 years, and was quite a looker. There was none of the frumpiness that seemed to affect most farm women in middle age. Her features were quite pleasant and, better yet, she was a fascinating and open woman.
In the guest room, Annie busied herself turning on the electric blanket, then checking that there were clean towels and a bar of soap in the bath just off the bedroom. She went through the motions automatically, but her thoughts were on her visitor. He seemed a nice enough fellow; had a nice face and voice. She shook her head. There was a heady aura about him, much like the one that had attracted her to Bud. The thing that she couldn't get out of her mind was his missing leg. She kept running the memory of his shape sitting there in the chair through her mind. Somehow, it aroused her... had effects that she would never have dreamed of. But enough of this!
Annie returned to the sitting room. "I've got your room ready. Anytime you're tired, you're welcome to go to bed."
Carl handed the cup to her. "I think that'll be now, if that's all right. This mulled wine of yours is stronger than it tastes!"
Annie took the cup and watched the man rise then crutch to her guest room. From the back, she watched the odd rhythm of his buttocks. The right side would rise as he put his weight there, then fall as he took the step, but the left side hardly moved at all. Only the short stump of his left leg showed motion, doing a slight swing back and forth. Perhaps it was the habit he had fallen into using a wooden leg. At any rate, she was sorry when he reached the door and turned to say good night.
She thought about that sight as she changed into her night clothes. Naked for the moment, she surveyed her body in the mirror. She was remarkably well preserved. Even after the birth of her son she had remained slim. The breasts that Bud had always said "could feed an army" were still full and firm. Yes, there was a little more sag than when she was 25, but time extracts some price from everything. The cool air made her shiver. Donning her nightdress, Annie crawled into her bed, and pulled the covers high. She thought of the sight of Carl receding toward the guest room until she drifted off into a somehow fitful sleep.
It must have been the smell of the ham and eggs frying that woke Carl Davidson from his slumber. He looked around, remembering his incredible luck at finding these lodgings the previous night. Not many people would take a stranger in late at night in a storm these days. Too many mass murders and serial killers had hardened American society. Yes, this Annie was quite a woman.
Her knock at the door interrupted his meditations. "Yes?" he answered.
"If you've a mind to get up, I've got breakfast for the two of us," Annie said through the door.
"Be right there," Carl answered. He had slept in his underwear, so dressing was a matter of pulling a sweatshirt over his head and slipping on the sweat pants.
Carl was amazed. As homey and rustic as the sitting and bedrooms had been, the kitchen was as modern and spotless as any he had seen. He crutched to a chair at the maple dinnette suite and took a seat. Annie, clad in sweats herself, the front covered by an apron that said "Kiss the Cook," placed an oversized plate at his place. Three eggs, fried with the yokes broken, lay beside a slab of ham at least 5/8 inch thick. A dozen freshly made biscuits were within easy reach, as was what appeared to be real butter and a large jar of home-canned grape jelly.
"You country folks sure know how to eat!" he exclaimed.
"When you work hard, you need it," Annie said. "You and I are about to work hard this morning."
"We are?"
"Yep. You said that car of yours was in the ditch up the road a ways. I thought we'd wait til the snow slacks up some more and go down there and drag it out."
Carl looked out the window. "It's still coming down pretty hard."
"Radio says about 9:00 it ought to let up some. But another front's on the way. They're sayin' another 6 inches by tomorrow."
"This is wonderful," Carl said, his mouth still half full. Annie only smiled and handed him the basket of biscuits.
There really wasn't much to getting Carl's car out of the ditch. In good weather, he would have been able to drive out on his own. All it took was a little tug from the winch mounted on the front of Annie's ATV, and it slid right back on the road.
Of course, what took the rest of the afternoon was the two more times the car, unequipped for snow country as it was, slid into other ditches on the way to Annie's farmhouse. When they finally arrived exhausted, both collapsed into chairs before the fireplace.
"I've never driven 1/4 of a mile an hour before," Carl sighed.
"Slick as ice itself out there," Annie agreed. She dipped two cups into the wine crock on the hearth and handed one to her companion. "It's a lead pipe cinch you ain't goin' nowhere until this mess melts out some."
"I'm afraid I've strained your hospitality way to far already," Carl stated.
"Not much else for you to do," the lady returned. "The storm ought to end by morning. The road crews will get out here tomorrow, late... next day for sure. Why don't you call your people in Memphis and tell them you've been caught in all this?"
"No one to call," he said flatly.
"You not have a wife?"
"No, afraid not. Never found one that would have me!" he laughed as he spoke.
"Well, that's it then. Let me go out to your car and get whatever you need."
"Oh, I can manage," he started.
"I know you can," she said. "I'm just tryin' to treat company right! Now give me your keys and tell me what you need."
He handed her the keys. "Umm... my suitcase in the backseat... shaving kit next to it... and if you can manage, my prosthesis... my artificial leg... is in the right front floorboard. Could you bring it too?"
He was still marveling at his good fortune when Annie came back in. She paused at his chair long enough to hand him his leg, and then she carried the suitcase and shaving kit into the guestroom. Returning, she sat back in her rocker and took a sip of her wine. Carl had stood the limb up next to his chair, on the side nearest the fireplace.
"It's too cold to put on now," he told her.
She simply nodded. Had he been able to read her thoughts, he might have been surprised at the mental "Good."
They set up the scrabble table after a snack, and watched through the window as the snow began to fall again. He was surprised that she was as good a player as she was. Certainly nothing lacking in this woman's vocabulary. She knew what "sargasso" was, and recognized "inductance" as an electrical term. She blew him away when she turned "bottle" into "bottleneck" and scored the extra points! When he challenged "glabrous", she proved him wrong with the dictionary from her desk.
Annie was finishing up the fried chicken for their dinner when Carl walked into the kitchen. Her slightly surprised expression caused him to smile back at her.
"Wanted you to see that I can walk," he said.
"Always figured you could," she said simply. She looked out the window. "It's getting dark. I better run out and get a couple of arm loads of wood before sundown. We're gonna need that fire tonight."
"I can get it," Carl said. "You stay and finish what you're doing. Where's your wood pile?"
"'Round the side of the house," she answered, gesturing to the left side of the back door. "Go this way. It's shorter."
The snow was deeper than it had been earlier, and Carl swore under his breath that he had forgotten the problems it gave him managing his prosthesis. It turned out to be a matter of pulling the leg behind him, as normal gait was impossible in the snow.
Annie had looked out the window, watching him as he moved. She put her dishtowel down on the cabinet top, totally absorbed with watching him.
Carl kicked his leg against the handrail post before he came through the kitchen. At that, he tracked a major trail of snow across the seamless flooring. Annie smiled, and grabbed her mop from the corner. It was cleaned up by the time he returned.
"How many logs does that make in there?" she asked.
"About fifteen," he answered.
"That'll do for the night," she answered. "Sit yourself down and let's have us some chicken and potatoes."
Carl needed no prodding. The food was as good as the morning meal had been. He had to stop twice to add food to his plate, including copious amounts of the cream chicken gravy that filled a good-sized bowl between them. When the dinner was done, he helped to clear the table, and dried the dishes as she washed them in the sink. When all was done, they retired to the sitting room.
"I'm sorry there's no TV here," Annie said. "I never seemed to get around to getting my old set fixed after I moved here, and now it's been so long I don't really care anything about it."
"I seldom watch anything other than movies," Carl agreed. "I do have a good sized collection of good films. I especially like to read a book, then watch the films to see what they leave out!"
"I read a lot, too," Annie answered. "I've got a bunch of Book of the Month club things on that shelf over there. Pick something if you want to."
Carl picked up her copy of The Hunt for Red October. "Is this as good as Clancy's others?" he asked.
"Don't know. Haven't read it yet. You read it and let me know."
Carl brightened up. "What if I read it to you?" he asked.
Annie smiled. "I'd like that."
Carl opened the book and began to read. Annie was following the story, but she was also studying his voice and the way he seemed to naturally drop into the various character parts. His Russian accent was almost funny. "I haven't had this much fun since Bud died," she thought.
By the time the mantle clock struck midnight, the hypnotic sound of Carl's voice and the warmth of the wine had combined to make Annie sleepless. She tossed and turned for almost an hour, unable to sleep. Finally, she did something that she had not done in years: she gave herself an orgasm. And still, as sleep overtook her, the vision before her face was that of his.
She awoke on New Year's Eve to the sound of water running. She looked at the clock; it was nearly 7:00. She had overslept. "I'm getting old," she thought. The water running was in the bathtub in the guest bath. Carl was awake and getting cleaned up. She headed to the kitchen to fix some breakfast. There was a handwritten note on the table: "I woke up early. Hope you like pancakes. Look in the oven. C."
Annie smiled. There was, indeed, a large stack of golden-brown flapjacks on a large plate in the warm oven. She walked to the refrigerator and got out a package of sausage to go with it. The patties were fried and the syrup was warm and ready when Carl came crutching in.
"I see you found my surprise," he beamed.
"I sure did! And look what I made to go with 'em!"
"There's just no way to give you a break, is there Annie?"
"Don't need one. I like fixin' for folks." She nodded at his crutches. "You havin' troubles this mornin'?"
"Naw," he returned. "Just too lazy. If I don't need to look natural or carry much around, I can get around on crutches better than with my leg. I'll put it on if it bothers you."
"Stay where you are and eat," she answered.
Breakfast was over and they had retired to the sitting room to read more from the Tom Clancy novel when a sound aroused Annie's attention. She looked out the window. "It's the graders," she announced. "I said they ought to be here today. Looks like there's some thawin' goin' on, too."
Carl put the book down. "Well, I guess that I had better get my stuff together and get ready to shove off," he announced. "I've really imposed on you far too long already."
"No imposition," she answered, a hint of concern in her voice. "I did what any Christian soul would do." He got up. "I wish you'd stay another day," Annie added quickly.
Carl looked at the kind woman. Was there a hint of desperation in her voice? He'd have thought she'd be happy to get this stranger out of her home and on his way! He looked at her a moment longer, the question mark showing on his face.
"I'd sure like it, if you have the time," Annie said. "This is New Year's Eve. The traffic ought to be a bear through Little Rock. Stay here another night. Besides, you'll give me someone to ring the new year in with. I'd appreciate that."
"Fine," Carl answered slowly, "if you're sure."
"Besides," Annie added, "where else you gonna get any mulled wine for the new year?"
"OK. You sold me!"
She sat down, seemingly relieved. Carl looked out the window. "You know, I think I better go out and shovel off the path out to the road, today. When that stuff re-freezes tonight, it's going to be a fall looking for a place to happen."
"Aw, you don't want to do that. It's cold out there," she said.
"Hey. I owe you something for all your kindness. I saw that big snow shovel out front. I think I'll go use it."
He crutched into the guest room and emerged a few minutes later wearing his leg and with an additional layer of clothing. The shoveling job turned out to be a little more than he had imagined it to be. It wasn't that he couldn't do the work. In fact, it made it easier for him to walk the path as the snow was cleared away. It was the sheer weight of the snow. The wetness of it made it far different from the fluffy stuff that hit Memphis from time to time.
Finally finished, he called to Annie from the road. "Want me to bring your mail in?" he asked.
"If you would," she answered from the porch.
He grabbed the half-dozen envelopes from the old fashioned metal mailbox and brought them to her. She stood there on the porch waiting for him to put the shovel away, idly staring at a couple of the missives, wondering who they were from. Suddenly, something whizzed past her head, missing it by about six inches. The snowball impacted on the house behind her. She turned to look in the direction from where the missile had come. Carl was standing there, grinning. "Snowball fight!" he yelled, and peppered another near miss at her.
Like a girl of fourteen, Annie dropped the letters on the porch floor and ran out into the yard. She grabbed a handful of snow, and formed it into a ball, hurling it at her assailant. Carl ducked and easily dodged it. His next ball grazed her arm, causing her to miss him on the return, but her next ball, a hard-packed fist-sized one caught him right between the eyes. Carl fell to the ground, as if pole-axed.
"Carl? You all right?" she yelled as she ran to his side. Carl opened one eye, grinned, then knocked her feet from under her. She fell down on top of him. They lay there in the snow laughing for a few moments. Suddenly, Carl saw the outline of her hair back-lighted by the brilliant winter sun. She was the most beautiful woman he had seen in years. On impulse, he pulled her down to him and kissed her full on the lips.
She kissed back for a moment, then broke the embrace. Carl looked into her eyes, asking if she was angry.
"We better stop this," she breathed. "I got a real short fuse." She paused. "And it's been a real long time."
She got up, dusted herself off, and offered a hand to the prone man. Once on his feet, she dusted the snow from his backside and added, "Come on in. It's time for some of that celebratin' I asked you to stay for."
They spent the rest of the day puttering around the house. Neither of them spoke of the kiss in the snow, but it was clear it was on both of their minds. Carl tinkered for a couple of hours with an old radio he found there, finally deciding that one or more of the old fashioned tubes in it were burned out. When Annie called him for supper, he was surprised to find turkey and dressing sitting on the table.
"You've cooked turkey again?" he asked.
"Not quite," she smiled. "Leftovers from when my son was here. I froze it and kept it for the New Year's Eve." She cut her eyes to stare into his for a moment. "I'm sure glad you're here to share it with me."
After supper they returned to the sitting room. They were almost through Hunt when Annie called a halt and went to the kitchen. She returned with fruit cake. "You'll like this," Annie said. "I made it before Thanksgiving. The older it gets, the better it tastes. And there's enough rum in it that it can't mold!"
"Damn," Carl exclaimed, enjoying the treat. "You country people DO know how to eat!"
"Life's pretty good out here, Carl," she said simply.
They stayed up to watch the mantle clock chime midnight, toasting each other at the final stroke.
Carl had been in bed for nearly half an hour when he heard the knock at his door.
"Yes?" he asked.
"Can I come in, Carl?" Annie asked.
She opened the door. Carl could see her dull shape against the faint light from the moon as it streamed in through the window behind her. Silently, she crossed the span of the room and stood next to his bed.
"What is it?" he asked with concern.
She didn't answer for a moment. Finally, she pulled the covers down on the right side of the bed and crawled in next to him. Finally, she broke the silence. "I meant what I said this afternoon, Carl," she began.
"About it being a long time?"
"Yes. And about me having a short fuse. And I'm afraid you've lit it. I mean, if you want to."
Carl put an arm around her. "A man would be crazy not to want to love you, Annie."
"Well, you might not if you knew how crazy I really am."
"How crazy are you really?" he whispered to her. "Crazy enough to love a man with just one leg?"
She placed a hand on his stump. "Whether you believe it or not, that's one of the things about you that I love!"
"My not having a leg?" he asked.
"Yep. I... I've always had a yen for one-legged men. At least if they're younger than old Caleb! I remember this soldier home from Viet Nam back in the 60's. He'd come into the drug store where I worked after school and buy cigarettes. He was missing his right leg just below the knee. I always looked forward to seeing him swing in on those crutches."
"Did he know you had an eye for him?"
"Not really. I was just a teenager and he must have been in his late twenties. Then one day he came in on two legs. He walked up to the counter with just a little limp and asked 'How do you like the new me?' I didn't have the heart to tell him that I liked the 'old' him a lot better! He stopped coming in shortly after that. I think he must have moved away."
She looked into his eyes in the pale light. "Can you forgive me for thinkin' like I do? I know it must be terrible to have a disability like that. I guess you think I'm kinda sick to like seein' you with it."
Carl laughed.
"What's so funny," she asked.
"That you'd think I'd think you were sick."
"Why's that funny? I've been trying to think of a way to tell you for two days!"
"Well as long as we are making confessions here, let me tell you one that puts yours in the shade." He rolled up on one elbow, and looked down at her. "You say you have liked looking at one-legged guys all these years? I can go you one better. I've wanted to BE a one-legged guy since I was a teenager!"
Annie said nothing.
"I used to dream about losing a leg. And sometimes I would use an ace bandage to tie my leg up and walk around on crutches when no one was around."
"I don't feel nearly as strange now." Annie giggled.
"Can I go on with this?" Carl said, feigning indignation. "About six years ago, my obsession with wanting this leg gone got so bad that I went to a psychiatrist about it, hoping he could cure me. Well, time wore on and he became convinced that the only way to cure me was to get a surgeon to take the leg off!"
"Did you think he was crazy when he said that?"
"No. It made perfect sense to me. And he did it. He found a surgeon who agreed to do the surgery if I signed a waiver of suit. So last February I checked into a hospital on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, I had this stump. Went home Saturday and have never looked back."
"You're not sorry at all?"
"Not a bit. It's the life I've wanted."
Annie was silent a moment longer. She pushed the covers back and stood up.
"I guess you think I'm a lot crazier than you are, huh?" Carl said sadly.
"No. Maybe neither one of us is crazy, or maybe we both are. But all I know is the past three days have been the best I've had since my husband passed. You've been more fun to have around than anyone else I've ever met."
"I've felt the same way, Annie. I just was afraid that after your being so kind, you'd think..."
"Well, I didn't think that." She paused. "Don't you see, Carl? We're like the wine. We've mulled ourselves together. We're the spice for each other. We fit... in every way. I sure don't want to loose that."
She dropped her dressing gown to the floor. The moonlight shone off of the curves of her body as she slipped back between the covers. Carl turned toward her as she cuddled against him, cupping a breast with his free hand and rubbing to top of her leg with his stump.
"God that feels good," she sighed.
"Which?" he asked tenderly.
"Everything," she breathed back.
"So what do we do?" Carl asked. "How would you feel about moving back to Memphis?"
"Wouldn't you rather stay here and help me run my farm?" Annie asked.
"Will you make me some mulled wine if I stay?"
She kissed his hand. "All the time, if you like," she said. She hugged him close, returning his more and more urgent caresses. "Let me show you just how sweet I can make it!"

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