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Excellence at a Reasonable Price

By Wilhemina Austin

Wilhemina Austin

“Excellence at a Reasonable Price” was published the Summer 2012 issue of The Antioch Review. It’s characters, members of an aging country club, consider the authenticity of a Maxfield Parrish painting that hangs above the fireplace in the library room where they meet to discuss wine.

We need an answer to what it is,” Franklin said. “The real thing, or not.

What an honor to be asked about a past story! I never want to re-read a past story. In this case, when I did, I writhed in my chair like a first-grader in school with his teacher’s eye upon him for need-of-bathroom-status. I still like the story’s setting – a country club, once a home, built in the early 1900s with a library, solid and gloomy with paneling. The club’s financial status: rickety. I still like the idea of a few people meeting in the library regularly to open and share a bottle of wine, with comments.

Meeting these folks again in the story, I find them surprisingly acidic, like my wine choices that have never met, will never meet, my goal of excellence at a reasonable price. In life I tried to accomplish this goal for two family events a few years apart: my son’s rehearsal dinner and my daughter’s wedding, with the advice of an acquaintance, a gentleman skilled in judging wine. This experience kicked the story into life for me, as did the idea of a dying country club, a place of supposed repose approaching the real thing. What would happen to the painting over the library fireplace – also the real thing, with its sky a Parrish-blue over a landscape rolling in Parrish trademarks? No one had ever paid much attention to it. A club member of book-keeping practicality might take another look.

To this end, the wine advisor in life became the unsentimental asset-gauger in the story with the painting being at stake. Was it an authentic Maxfield Parrish? The club was in northern Delaware set high in hills that are always said to roll, not unlike those in a mural Parrish had done for another family. There were his background mountains—their look between out-of-this-world and out-west. The blue-on-fire sky. The paper lanterns, lit, their unseen candles somehow not sending the lanterns and everything else up in flames. The curtains of roses. Domestic creatures that shouldn’t have been anywhere near the forest opening that hosted them.

There was more to be had from the hope that the painting was real, says the story, than finding out that it wasn’t – unlike, in life, the wines I chose and tried out by myself, a widow at my kitchen table, one glass doing the trick, two swallows often definitive, with the rest a hope against hope. The remainder of each bottle I let glug down the sink drain. You’re kidding, the wine advisor said, shocked. But what would come of polishing a bottle off? Was he kidding? I didn’t ask. My imaginary Parrish blue burned a little hotter in my mind through the few glasses that seemed to strike the right land-of-make-believe note all the way through.


Wilhemina Austin is from Delaware but has lived in southeastern Pennsylvania on a farm for years with her family and her goats. She has been published in Cimarron Review, Thema, and The Antioch Review.

© 2015 The Antioch Review