No one else seemed to notice the old man who stared at me from the street for what had seemed like minutes, his matted beard and filthy clothing hanging off his emaciated body like so much Spanish moss, his vacuous eyes unblinking.
I was having lunch at one of the new restaurants in Napa with outdoor seating and had hoped to catch up on some emails and maybe even read the paper.
“Can I help you?” I finally asked.
“Maybe,” he said. His voice crackled and had the same effect on me as if he had been chewing tinfoil.
Maybe, I thought. Who was this guy?
“Do you understand the prophecy?” he asked and sat down in the empty seat across from me.
The man glared, his mouth agape, showing his few remaining teeth, yellow-orange, rotten and teetering at precarious angles, each seemingly ready to join its fallen brethren at any moment. A string of saliva hung from his lips and disappeared into his beard. My lunch was now officially ruined, and I hoped my waiter might come around and escort this vagrant away, but no one seemed to notice my predicament.
“What prophecy?” I asked.
“When the tree of money purchases the Roman poet then the end is near,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
I looked down at the table and sighed, thinking this guy was a total nutcase.
“Look,” I said, reaching for my wallet. “If I give you 20 bucks will you—”
Before I could finish the old man’s eyes flashed angrily and he thrust out his hand and grabbed my arm. His grip was surprisingly strong, and my attempt to extricate myself failed.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, trying to breathe slowly as my heart pounded in my neck and chest.
“The end is nigh,” he said without loosening his grip.
“What end, what are you talking about?” I asked, but I was thinking, who says “nigh” anymore?
“The end of the way it has been,” he said.
Still no sign of the waiter, and the people around us seemed to be going about their business without noticing a crazy old tramp harassing me.
“I’ve been reading the signs,” he said, his voice desperate. “They are everywhere if you just know how to see them.” His grip loosened and he released my arm.
I’d play along until I found a way out of this situation. I sat back and pointed to my water glass. He eyed me warily but then, in one rapid movement, took the glass and drank from it greedily.
“Can you tell me where I might see these signs?” I asked.
“Look at any of the artwork that Mondavi commissioned,” he said, and then he placed the glass back down on the table. On the rim there were tiny flecks of what looked like egg salad. I hoped the restaurant washed their glasses thoroughly before reusing them.
“The signs can be read in Mondavi’s artwork around the valley?” I repeated.
He nodded, his eyes softening and a small smile pulling at the corners of his lips.
“Not just the valley, but anywhere in the world,” he said.
Was this guy telling me that there was something akin to the Da Vinci Code hidden in art pieces around the Napa Valley, a sort of Mondavi Code, if you will?
“And what do these signs tell you?” I asked him and then sat back in my chair.
“That when the great dragon is consumed by the beast who wants to control all the highest beauty then the end is soon,” he said, his eyes now fixed on something in the sky.
I turned away. Still no waiter. What kind of place allows something like this to happen? Rare that a restaurant in the Napa Valley has such poor service. I had no plans to return.
When I looked back up the old man was staring at me again, his eyes now almost pleading.
“A tree of money,” I said in a moment of clarity. “Do you mean Silver Oak winery?”
The old man closed his eyes as if in relief and his head began to nod rhythmically.
“And the Roman poet, Ovid?”
He nodded, his shoulders now relaxed as he slumped in his chair.
“The dragon eaten by the beast, do you mean Schrader selling to Constellation and that Constellation now has near total control of all the To Kalon vineyards?”
The old man kept nodding, and he seemed even more ancient now as he slumped forward.
“The signs are everywhere, if you look,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“But why tell me these things?” I asked.
“Because my time is over,” he said.
He was growing smaller.
“I have done what I can do here,” his voice now distant. “It is now up to you and the others to tell the story.”
“It was easier to tell back then,” I said. “But now—”
“It was never easy,” he interrupted.
He’d grown even smaller and I leaned in. “Just tell me this,” I asked. “Do you know how it ends? Can that be found in the messages?”
I couldn’t tell if he nodded or was just shaking with laughter, but I heard no more. He had gone.
It took a few moments before I noticed the waiter standing next to the table. He’d come over to give me the check.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.
“No,” I said but then quickly added. “Do you know where I might view any local art commissioned by the Mondavis?” I asked.
“No idea,” he said. “Why?”
“Oh, it’s probably nothing, but there are a couple of things I want to look into,” I said.
After the waiter left I sat at the table for a long time. If there was some sort of code out there I was now on the hunt to break it. It would be dangerous and thankless work, but it was needed and necessary, if for nothing else than to satisfy my own curiosity.
Originally published in the Napa Register, July 2017