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S. 2, Ep. 6: The Last Taste of Barry Growler by Jonathan Mastro

Chicago, recently: In defiance of his grim diagnosis, a beloved wine shop owner throws an epic party, opening his rarest bottles for his favorite customers. But none of them are fully prepared for the complexity, body, and depth of what is about to pour forth... Read More

26 mins



Chicago, recently: In defiance of his grim diagnosis, a beloved wine shop owner throws an epic party, opening his rarest bottles for his favorite customers. But none of them are fully prepared for the complexity, body, and depth of what is about to pour forth.

Cast (in speaking order):


TIA DeSHAZOR as Heather








with SAM TSOUTSOUVAS, the voice of RPR


The Last Taste of Barry Growler

NARRATOR. Barry never wore hats, which is why, when I saw him with one, I knew he had cancer. I didn’t want to ask him what kind of cancer he had, because, by the looks of him, it didn’t matter one way or the other. His hair had been thinning up top, and now his face was drawn and grayish green, like the death had gathered itself at the crown of his skull before seeping down. He kept fiddling with that soft pack of Merits he left at the counter like he was waiting for you to leave to be able to light up again. You could tell he liked you if he let the ash grow while you looked around. Every smoker’s got a bit of teenage boy in them, I guess, scared to get caught but too hardheaded to stop. I hate the smell of smoke, but I didn’t mind Barry’s Merits. They smelled like European cigarettes. But maybe that was just the ambiance of the shop, all those bottles from all over. I don’t know how all that smoke didn’t kill his palate. It had to be lung cancer. Maybe throat. Barry was a mystery right up till the end.

When his cough changed and he set up that tasting, we cleared our schedules. He was the kind of guy you don’t have two of. Besides, the wines were sure to be something special that night. Heather and I weren’t exactly the type to shell out 75 bucks a pop for a wine tasting, but we met because of Barry, so it was never really a question. Barry himself had a proletarian streak that went beyond the Merits; I know for a fact that two or three couples got in for free. “You should prepare yourself,” I tell her, by way of a warning. Heather already lost her father to brain cancer, and I’m always trepidatious about reminding her of it, even accidentally.

HEATHER. What do you mean?

NARRATOR. He’s getting sick.

HEATHER. How sick?

NARRATOR. “Very sick, it looks like he has cancer, Heather.” That kind of conversation. Her eyes drop down like she’s looking at her legs, but she’s not looking at anything, and she gets quiet in that way that tells me not to push. Finally, I tell her, we don’t have to go, and she snaps out of it and says,

HEATHER. No, I want to go.

NARRATOR. Are you sure?

HEATHER. What did I just say?

NARRATOR. I’ve learned enough about my wife at this point to just nod and shut up. But then I think of the money we put out and tell her how special this tasting is gonna be, and she looks at me like I just asked her if she’d rather be cremated or embalmed. “Listen, Heather, I’m not gonna go if it’s going to be this solemn occasion for you. Barry probably doesn’t want this thing to begin with, so we better just pretend everything’s normal or the whole place is going to feel like a freaking funeral home.”

HEATHER. For seventy-five bucks, that shit better be good.

NARRATOR. And I know she’s back, at least for the moment. “It’s a good thing we live within walking distance, because I’m gonna get hammered,” I tell her, although both of us know I don’t mean it. This wine’s going to be serious, and I want to be able to taste it.

HEATHER. I’m sure he’ll put out some cheese cubes to line the stomachs of the philistines.

NARRATOR. It’s not just cheese. We walk in and the place smells like a restaurant; it’s not too showy, but there are a couple of Sterno trays and rolls of metal-colored plastic silverware and a stack of black plastic plates I always feel weird about throwing out. I load up with some kind of bow-tie pasta with vegetables and a Caesar salad. There’s fish, too, which looks pretty good, but my plate’s already full of pasta and salad. Amateur. When Barry comes over with his black turtleneck and those half-glasses hanging from that little lanyard, bearing a flute of sparkling Rosé by the stem, I shovel a forkful of salad into my face without even realizing what I’m doing. “Very posh, Barry,” I tell him, through the Romaine. He’s wearing his new beret, which looks more natural than you’d think.

BARRY. Oh, every once in a while it’s nice to break out the good stuff.

NARRATOR. There’s some actual color in his cheeks, which makes me happy; he’s already getting a bit of a buzz on. “What’ve you got there?” I ask him, hoping for a little taste myself.

BARRY. An Alsatian Cremant. One hundred percent Pinot Noir grapes, fermented in the bottle. The glasses are in the next room, but, ah, it looks like you’re already taken care of.”

NARRATOR. Like a pro basketball player, or a deer or something, Barry senses Heather coming back with two flutes before I even notice her. “This is why I married you.”

HEATHER. Can you believe this guy?

BARRY. You two enjoy. I’m, ah, glad you could be here with us.

HEATHER. We wouldn’t have missed it.

NARRATOR. Her hands are shaking as she passes me the flute, so I tell her, “There’s fish.”

HEATHER. Would you hold this for me for a moment?

NARRATOR. And I feel the distance coming back. When she comes back from the buffet table with a plate that’s half-empty, I worry about her because I know how hungry she’s gotta be. “You didn’t want to get the fish?”

HEATHER. Maybe later.

NARRATOR. Aren’t you starving?

HEATHER. I don’t know.

NARRATOR. “You should eat something before we start this thing, otherwise you’re gonna get trashed.” She gives me a look like I’m the one to worry about and I realize my glass is empty.

HEATHER. Slow down, okay?

NARRATOR. She takes the glass from me and I’m about to tell her how beautiful she looks when Barry clears his throat in the next room and a hush ripples through the shop like all our little conversations were just waiting to be broken up by him. It’s hard to tell if Barry’s throat-clearing portends a dissertation about the history of some terroir, or if it’s just from the cancer.

BARRY. Welcome, everybody. By the looks of it we’ve got a rowdy group tonight.

MITCH. Love you, Barry.

NARRATOR. This guy whose name I think is Mitch says, but Barry kind of grunts to himself and ignores him. I look back at Mitch to shut him up, but he’s rubbing his stubble and pretending he wasn’t the one to shatter the mood.

BARRY. Usually we like to keep the tastings affordable, as you know, ah, you pay pretty much what it costs us. However, tonight is a little bit special, because you’re all picking the wines tonight. Every so often one of you wants to know is there really a difference between a hundred-dollar bottle of wine and one you can get for 15 bucks, and we will get to the bottom of that question tonight, ah, along with the bottom of a couple of very lovely wines.

NARRATOR. There’s a murmuring in the crowd; the distinguished gay guys next to Heather already knew about it and the one used-to-be redhead has this wistful misty look in his eyes like he’s watching his daughter get married. One thing I’ve noticed, gay guys over 60 have the inside track on everything. The fading ginger flashes a conspiratorial smile at Heather, which gives me a little warm rush: my wife still merits the Older Gay Man Seal of Approval. Barry’s handing each couple a number out of a big top hat and I let Heather pick ours.

BARRY. Lucky seven.

NARRATOR. Barry shouts into the crowd like an auctioneer, clearly in his element. I’m ready for the next glass of wine, because I’m starting to lose the little buzz I had going and everything is starting to seem awkward and slow.

HEATHER. Where do you want to sit?

NARRATOR. You pick.

HEATHER. How about by the window?

NARRATOR. Perfect.

HEATHER. Why are you being like that?

NARRATOR. “Like what?” I said, “It’s perfect. Grab it before he does,” I say, because Mitch is staring at the same table. Here Barry is dying and opening up his cellar to us like we’re family, and I’m worried about sitting next to some dilettantes. Just goes to show you how petty you can be when you have enough choices in life. To my relief, the gay guys, whose names turn out to be Ned and Raymond, want to sit next to us. Raymond’s really tall and has a face like a hunting bird, and Ned is the natty one, who it turns out isn’t as gray as I first thought. Since I started losing clumpfuls of my hair in the shower, I’m always checking in with older guys to see where everything’s headed. I could live with a receding hairline like Raymond, I think, pull off the distinguished thing. But when this younger couple take the last two seats at our table, I feel myself running my hand through my hair again. Then Barry clears his throat and I remember about his cancer and look at that blue felt beret he must have gotten from that ad in The New Yorker and my throat closes up.

BARRY. Now, ah... here’s how this is going to work. Some of these wines are going to need to breathe for as much as an hour, and the whites and the sparkling wines are going to need some time to cool down, so I’ve taken the liberty of picking out the first couple. In the meantime, ah, feel free to consult with your co-conspirators about how deeply you want to bankrupt me in the course of an evening.

NARRATOR. We laugh at our own greed. But 18 people at 75 bucks a pop aren’t going to make that much of a difference, I don’t think. Especially when you think about how much people are going to walk out with afterwards. One taste of the good stuff and they’ll be buying mixed cases like they’re commemorative caps at the World Series. A quick glance at the other couple at our table, who I think said their names were Tara and Matthew, was enough to tell me they didn’t care about wine, but they looked gentle and out of place and seemed to know Barry from some other context outside the shop— they were one of the two couples that I found out later got in free. I don’t remember how they said they knew him. they ran an animal shelter or something. Anyway, they were fine, but their number was picked first and they went straight to the Australian reds. So I asked Raymond what he was looking at, and he’s thinking,

RAYMOND. French or Georgian,

NARRATOR. ...Which surprises me. Gay guys: it’s like they live ten years in the future. I try to raise a worldly eyebrow and ask him, “Georgian?”

RAYMOND. Not the state.

NARRATOR. “I hope not!” I’m way out of my depth and he clocks it immediately.

RAYMOND. They ferment their wines in clay jars. The tradition dates further back than ancient Greece. Meanwhile the French have been obsessed with chemistry.

NARRATOR. “Barry’s always trying to push weird wines on us, but to be honest with you, if we’re going to spend 50 bucks on a bottle, we’re a little gun-shy about experimenting with something that’s not Italian or French,” I admit, hoping he’s not going to give me that kind of withering look I sometimes get for saying too much.

NED. Now’s your chance.

NARRATOR. Ned says.

HEATHER. Let’s one of us get a Georgian and another of us get a French.

RAYMOND. Hedging your bets?

HEATHER. Expanding my horizons.

NED. Young lady, I like your worldview.

BARRY. Number Three!

NED. That’s us.

RAYMOND. Show me the way to Georgia, my good man.

BARRY. Ray-Ray, you never fail to fascinate.

NED. Tara and Matt seem to have found the ports.

HEATHER. Dodged a bullet there.

NARRATOR. Yeah. They were lingering in New Zealand for a little too long. Here comes Ray-Ray.

RAYMOND. Alexandrouli, permit me to introduce you to our new friends.

NARRATOR. I pick up the bottle and my eye goes instinctively to the price tag. 85 bucks. I show it to Heather and her eyebrows hit the ceiling.

BARRY. Lucky seven!

NARRATOR. “We should check out the case.” One or two people have been hovering around the special case, which is unlocked and just standing open, like the golden cabinet in the sacristy that holds the chalice and pyx. Barry sees me eyeing the case and his face brightens, probably because no one has been brash enough to breach it yet.

BARRY. Somebody’s gotta do it.

NARRATOR. Whaddya say?

TARA. Do it!

NARRATOR. Tara says, and everybody laughs. The soft V of her neckline is all prickly and flushed and she spills over with this genuine enthusiasm for life. Heather had it too; sometimes I could hear it when she was on the phone with her brother. I don’t know what happened to mine. When we get to the cabinet, I see it right away. It’s covered in dust and it’s my father’s age. It’s also marked at 1200 dollars, and there’s no way I’m going to do that to Barry. Still, I put my hand on it and wipe off the label just to feel it. It’s cool, and dark, and inviting, almost intimate. Barry’s smiling at me respectfully, knowingly.

HEATHER. We’re not getting a twelve-hundred dollar bottle of wine.

NARRATOR. I’m embarrassed by the way she says it, like all that was on my mind was how much it cost. Heather doesn’t notice I’m mad at her and puts her arm around my neck, which makes me forgive everything. She turns the bottle she’s looking at around, sees it’s three hundred and fifty dollars and shudders with embarrassment.

BARRY. Wonderful choice.

NARRATOR. Barry says, and he seems genuinely happy and she’s got this sheepish half grin and stares at the floor like she just admitted she borrowed some pens from work. Maybe I’m remembering it wrong, but I think there was a smattering of applause as Barry held up the wine she picked. Let me tell you, the gays were pleased about it, too.

NED. Heather, you naughty girl!

NARRATOR. Ned says just loud enough for our table to hear, and for some reason I get jealous of all the attention she’s getting. “I was gonna grab the dusty one at the top,” I say. Ned shares this significant look with Raymond and looks at me as if he’s trying to figure out if I’m dangerous or just dumb.

NED. That’s a very special bottle, you know.

NARRATOR. It better be. It’s almost as much as our rent. RAYMOND. It’s worth much more than that.

NARRATOR. Raymond says, giving me the withering look I was scared of before.

NED. That bottle isn’t really for sale.

NARRATOR. Ned says, but doesn’t add anything more, like he’s still trying to feel us out. Heather sees that I’m hurt or confused or something and shows me a little mercy.

HEATHER. Why not?

RAYMOND. You don’t know about the 1945?

NARRATOR. But Barry’s looming over our table now, pouring an Austrian white. Barry, figuring correctly that nobody was going to waste their choice on Austria, has headed snobbery off at the pass as usual. When Heather and I got married, we asked Barry to do the wine. I wanted something fancy for our table, a super-Tuscan or a Haut-Medoc or something typical, but Barry talked me down to this perfect small-batch producer from Lebanon nobody had ever heard of that cost 10 bucks less a bottle and even made the catering taste good. You can’t get a bottle of that today for less than a hundred bucks. There aren’t many people who can tell you what something’s worth without having to look at what it costs.

NED. To new friends.

NARRATOR. We should also toast to Barry.

BARRY. I’m not dead yet.

NARRATOR. That’s not what I meant!

HEATHER. To new friends.

NARRATOR. Barry watches Heather tasting the wine with that inscrutable inward stare of hers, the little pause as she lets it stop glowing in her mouth before she renders her judgment, her eyes brightening all of a sudden like windows thrown open on a recovery ward.

HEATHER. Wonderful!

NARRATOR. She says, the way she does, and Barry beams. I lean back behind Heather to call across to Tara and Matt. “We met here, you know.” But they don’t notice me and I’m too ashamed to repeat myself. Heather and Ned are now deep into some conversation, and Ray pretends to be listening so he doesn’t have to talk to me, and it occurs to me I’m a loser. I pick at some salmon and take a slow deep sip of white wine, and it’s absolutely perfect. What normally would have sent me spinning out into some black hole of humiliation for the rest of the night is somehow obliterated by the pairing of an Austrian white wine with some sterno-tray salmon. I decide to stay there for awhile, and descend into a reverie, chewing and smelling and swallowing and imagining I’m someplace I’ve never been but where I’d feel right at home, the fire roaring in some mountain chalet, autumn on the Rhone, or the Rhine, or wherever. I don’t know that much about the geography of Central Europe. The conversation starts to warm up in my absence, and I’m surprised to realize I’m relieved to not have to talk for once. Tara and Matt are as sweet as kittens. After every sip, Tara lets out this “Mmmm!” and Matt blushes because it’s so utterly sincere and unadorned, and he’s even more self-conscious than me about how much more everybody else knows about wine. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s just the element we’ve been missing at the table. None of us are really interested in all the mirthless, quiz bowl crap that has nothing to do with actually tasting something. Barry’s a sensualist, and therefore a democrat, in the original sense of the word. Everybody’s welcome at his table. A couple of more wines are opened and passed around, an Oregon Pinot and something from Sardinia, I think. Nothing special, but solid stuff. Then Barry’s wife Myra emerges from some back room with trays of cheese and grapes and a thousand-yard stare, and there’s a moment when everything feels like it’s going to go into the ditch forever, but a sandy burst of laughter lights the room up again as Barry grabs a cluster of grapes and poses like he’s in a Caravaggio painting. He’s going to be fine. Let’s drink. Somewhere around the fourth wine, which is subtle, despite being from California, I get up the nerve to ask about the bottle I saw in the reserve case.

NED. It’s a 1945 Haut-Brion.

NARRATOR. Ned says, now in a much more mellow and receptive mood. “Wow,” I say, thinking about the last time I watched the History Channel. “There can’t be many more of those left.” Ned smiles at me, and it looks genuine. His teeth have been whitened, but they’re a little stained by now, which endears him to me even more.

MATT. I don’t know if you can tell, but we don’t know shit about wine.

NARRATOR. Matt says, finally drunk and loose.

RAYMOND. You’re starting at the top.

TARA. We wouldn’t have even come here if Barry hadn’t invited us. He’s the most generous man I know.

NARRATOR. Matt notices the catch in her throat and comes in for the save.

MATT. Is Haut-Brion a Bordeaux?

NED. Oh yes. It’s from the Pessac region, which used to be called Graves.

RAYMOND. After the gravel in the soil.

TARA. That’s so interesting!

NED. Barry’s saving that wine for last.

NARRATOR. I can’t handle the implication. “Last as in—”

RAYMOND. As in last. If he ever goes into the hospital again, he’s taking the ’45 with him.

NARRATOR. Tara lets out this weird stifled bark, and at first I think she’s got the giggles.

MATT. Why don’t we go outside and get some air?

NARRATOR. Instead of checking in on Heather, I say to Ned, “I had no idea.”

We finish the rest of the wines in masks of merriment and go home. On the way out I ask Heather if she wants to buy a bottle of anything and she just shakes her head. I push a little, wanting to take a memory of the evening home with us, but she just says no in this cold detached way that makes me wonder why she ever wanted to marry me. This was all many months ago, before Heather and I took our little break from each other. I don’t know if it started that night; she’s always telling me I try to attribute causes to everything. I don’t know, maybe she’s right. But how else am I supposed to make sense of the world? A few days after she calls me to tell me the news about Barry, I find myself wandering back down Lincoln in the dirty slush, looking for some time to kill before the movie starts across the street, finding myself pushing that old wood door open. Myra had made a couple of changes in the layout, probably to make the place feel either more hers or less Barry’s. A shelf or two at different angles; cosmetic mourning changes. She didn’t look up from the yellow pad she was writing on with Barry’s chewed-up pencil. His handwriting was still on the underside of those curled-over pages.

I made my way back to the reserve case. It was a comfort to see the empty place in the rack where the 1945 had been. I pictured Barry propped up in a hospital bed, holding a goblet up to the institutional fluorescent light, inhaling, coughing, hacking into a tissue, inhaling again, and tasting. Grape Juice? Vinegar? Or had his bottle threaded the needle of history? Resisted the Nazis, or collaborated and survived, its vines irrigated with blood of patriots and fascists alike? What a load of garbage. It’s just wine.

MYRA. Let me know if you’d like the case opened.

NARRATOR. His widow asks, and the low close warmth of her voice tugs open a need I’d forgotten I’d had. She’s beautiful in her way, her hair pulled back into a black and white bun, her cheekbones rouged to hide the grief. “I was here for the last tasting.”

MYRA. Yes, of course. I thought I recognized your face.

NARRATOR. It’s a great loss, I tell her, and she nods solemnly. I let a respectful silence pass before I ask about the 1945. “Was he able to enjoy it at least?” A tolerant polite smile touches on her lips as she shakes her head with measured ruefulness.

MYRA. We dusted off the bottle and brought it to his bed, but he was too far gone by then to taste much, so we decided to leave well enough alone. Do you want it?

NARRATOR. She’s not offering this wine to me for free, I think. It bothers me that I didn’t see it there, where it was, because I’d been looking for it where I saw it last. I don’t deserve it for that reason alone. But she reads my mind and tells me it’d be a favor for her— he wouldn’t have wanted it sold, it was meant to be drunk, I was a loyal customer… “We can open it right now and drink it here,” I suggest, feeling magnanimous with all the privilege she’s bestowed. It’s a big mistake. She starts to cry and hold me around the neck and I put the wine on top of the cabinet so I can steady her shaking shoulders. When she comes to, she forgets about the wine and I’m too ashamed to remind her of it. I leave the shop for what I promise myself is the last time. Let her give the bottle to someone else. Someone who knows the value of things by tasting them.

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