On January 15, 2015, I submitted the following Short-short Story to Writer’s Digest. The only parameter of the contest was that the story be 1500 words or less. The final submission was 1,492 words. Today, I received an email that thanked me for my entry and let me know I hadn’t won. While I’m a tiny bit (really! A tiny bit) disappointed, I’m not surprised. This is my first work of fiction, there were 25 prizes and 6300 entries. I’d love to hear what you think of “A Bottle of Champagne”.
They’d been browsing through antique stores all afternoon. Kathy’s eyes were strained from poking around in the dimly lit and crowded roadside shops. This had to be the last one. Suddenly, Chris was beside her, vibrating with excitement. “Look! It’s a bottle of 1937 Piper-Heidseick!” She was tired and could feel the beginning of a headache, but she still wondered why it hadn’t been opened.
It was a warm June evening. Patty opened the apartment door to the sound of the ringing phone urgently demanding her attention. Picking up the receiver as she sat on the kitchen chair, she kicked off her oxfords and pulled her hair off her neck, sticky with sweat. Her attention was completely on the operator, though, when she asked to put through a call from Mr. Sarth. Patty shook as the call was connected. Ronnie’s parents didn’t call often, usually only when they had news they wanted to share. Only problem was, news could be good or bad. Still shaking, she hung up the phone. Ronnie was coming home.
After three years of never knowing if she’d see him again he was being discharged. He was sailing home on the USS Warrington. The ship would be in the New York yard for repairs briefly, but he wouldn’t have shore leave then. His last tour of duty would take him to Virginia, Trinidad, and back to New York; finally into her arms and their future together. Before he left, Ronnie asked her if she’d wait for him and she told him yes. He was coming back to her. They’d be married; they’d start a family.
There wouldn’t be enough money for the wedding of her pre-war dreams, but that didn’t matter anymore. Her work for the Coast Guard as a secretary paid better than the factory jobs many of her friends were taking in Brooklyn; enough to put aside a bit each week. Her job was at the harbor boat patrol station on City Island. Except in the winter, when the wind was raw and the straights were rough, the little ferry that went back and forth to the station was a nice way to get to work. Other than modest rent on her small, shared flat and basic groceries, there weren’t many expenses. She and her roommates did each other’s hair, giggling over the effort they made, even with the boys away.
Patty pestered her CO for word of the USS Warrington as much as she dared to. At least once a week, she asked if there were any wires about its progress back to the U.S. by way of the Panama Canal. July passed. In August, she heard that the ship was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs. Taking a street car across the Brooklyn Bridge one sunny hot Saturday, she hoped for just a glimpse of him through the gates. Even seeing the ship he’d spent so many months on would be enough. She would know that he was safe and coming home to her soon. Straining to look through the fencing, she thought she saw his familiar, lanky frame striding across the yard toward one of the large buildings. She ran to the gatehouse and frantically pleaded with one of the guards to wave him over.
And then, he was standing right in front of her, the familiar shock of unruly dark hair falling over his clear blue eyes, as it always had. Their hands wrapped around the chain link fence, their fingers touching, wary of each other at first. For a few moments, they just stared. Then they walked together, on opposite sides of the fence, neither quite believing the other was there. After so long apart, they were nearly strangers again, but the love in his eyes matched hers. The little time they had with each other passed quickly. Ronnie reassured her that he’d only be gone a few weeks this time, just a quick trip to Trinidad and then home. Through the fence, he touched her strawberry blonde waves, just starting to frizz and fly away in the humid air. She mentally thanked Helen for the effort of doing her hair the day before. He asked her to go to Sherry Wines & Spirits on 61st and Madison and buy champagne to celebrate. All the guys said that was the place to get wedding champagne. He promised her that when he came home next, he was never going to leave, not ever.
Patty left the Yards floating on air, but desolate that there hadn’t been more time together. Later that month she went back, but the ship was gone and Ronnie with it. She walked the long walk over the bridge back home, her joy at their upcoming reunion tempered with sadness that she hadn’t been able to say goodbye to him before he shipped out again.
The next weekend, she took the subway uptown to Sherry Wine and Spirits, like Ronnie had asked. Her roommates ooh-ed and ahh-ed when she told them that Ronnie had asked her to buy French champagne there. It was the place to buy fancy wine. And, Helen whispered, the French champagnes were supposed to – you know, help the wedding night along. After all it was French and fizzy. The thought made her smile.
When she walked into the store the walls were covered in dark wood-paneling, and there was bric-a-brac scattered on the table tops with the wine bottles, making it appear that guests would be arriving for a party at any moment. It felt rich. It even smelled good, perfumed with a subtle, slightly smoky scent. The light was soft and muted, enough to see all the shapes and colors of the bottles, with none of the harshness of a store like the R.H. Macy store on 34th Street that had the bright glare of newness. This store felt and looked like the place to go for the best and the hard-to-find, and it seemed to embrace her. She left with a bottle of their finest; a Piper-Heidsieck Brut 1937 vintage. It was expensive, but they would sip it slowly and together, celebrating his safe return and their marriage. When she got home, she carefully put the wrapped bottle into the cupboard. Every day, she promised herself, she would make a mark on the label; another day that passed until Ronnie came home.
The rest of August passed slowly. She hoped since the ship was on a coastal mission, that she’d get at least one or two letters from him before he came home for good. In early September, she heard from Ronnie. They were about to leave Norfolk and head to Trinidad. The ship was in tip-top shape after its stop at the Navy Yard and he was so sorry he hadn’t been able to even get an afternoon’s shore leave. Ronnie wrote that it was nice not being in the war zone any more, not having to wonder if you were going to be bombed, or worse, have a fighter plane dive you. That stuff made a guy real nervous, especially if you needed some sack time. But that would be done for good now. He had heard some of the other guys talk about how some new houses were being built out on Long Island, with room for a yard where you could have a little garden for flowers, and maybe a dog. He’d like a dog. Did she like dogs? He couldn’t remember if they’d ever talked about that. That evening, instead of a mark, she drew a little picture of a letter on the champagne bottle.
In mid-September, Patty was stranded for a week at the Coast Guard station, owing to a major hurricane that came up the East Coast from south of the Bahamas, wreaking havoc on the New Jersey shore, making landfall on Long Island. Luckily, the station had plenty of provisions, blankets and folding cots, so they were able to stay snug in the harbor patrol office. She was glad Ronnie was safe in the Caribbean now. Every day that passed was a day closer to when she’d see him again. At the end of that week, she marked off the seven days that had passed on the label of the champagne bottle and tucked it back into its corner of the cupboard.
It was a brisk October evening. Patty opened the apartment door to the sound of the ringing phone urgently demanding her attention. Picking up the receiver as she sat on the kitchen chair, she kicked off her oxfords and rubbed her hands together, chilled from the unseasonable cold. Her attention was completely on the operator, though, when she asked to put through a call from Mr. Sarth. Patty shook as the call was connected. Ronnie’s parents didn’t call often, usually only when they had news they wanted to share. Only problem was, news could be good or bad. Still shaking, she hung up the phone.