The Cola War

A Short Story

"Hey, Jimmy!"

I was standing at the bottom of the big, white waterfall, looking up at the wall of shifting water that was coming towards me. My clothes were dry and I was calm and comfortable. All I could hear were the insects and crashing water.

"JIMMY! Wake the hell UP!"

The smaller droplets formed rainbows all around me, making it kind of hard to see the large, volcanic rocks in the back of the falling water. Occasionally a colorful bird flew by and caught a fish.

"JIMMY! You're FIRED!"

Suddenly, everything started shaking violently and I was under attack, possibly by a bear or a puma. There weren't any bears or pumas in the picture, which puzzled me. I opened my eyes to see the red face of Mr. Deegan, my supervisor, moving at once closer and then farther away in a rhythm. Bigger, then smaller, bigger then smaller. He was holding my shoulders and shaking me forward and backward. I suddenly realized that I was daydreaming again, and that I had lost my job. I wasn't too sad because I didn't really want this job anyway. Mr. Deegan always acted like bagging groceries was a vital part of the food service industry, even though the customers usually tried to ignore you so that they wouldn't have to feel guilty about not helping you. He stopped shaking me and I looked down at all the cans of pinto beans and tomato paste and bottles of grapefruit juice that had accumulated at the end of the conveyer belt. He shoved me out of the way and muttered to himself as he started stuffing paper bags inside plastic bags and filling them with cans. My former career. I turned around and walked out.

As I got to the middle of the Jumbo Mart parking lot, Sue, the owner's wife, ran out after me. For a moment, I thought that she was coming to apologize for Mr. Deegan and offer me my job back, but she said, "Don't leave with that apron! It belongs to the store!"

I opened the door of my apartment and found my roommate Peter lying upside down and unconscious in the middle of the floor. The place smelled like stale cigarettes and beer. Judging from the number of empty cans around the place, Peter had once again started off his day with one of my six packs of Old Milwaukee, and his day had ended by 2 PM with him splayed and incoherent on the oval-shaped brown rug. At least he was wearing his pants this time, and he hadn't torn down my favorite picture again. I turned the kitchen chair around so I could stare at it.

I had cut it out of an old National Geographic that I found behind the library one night. It was a picture of the most beautiful, most magical place in the world, a waterfall in Venezuela (I think), surrounded by lush rain forest. I stared at it for hours and imagined myself living in a cabin at the bottom of it.

My parents were from Ireland, but for some reason I've always had this idea that I was meant to live in the rain forest with the wild animals and the constant noise of water and insects. My dad would look at me like I was crazy when I would talk about it. "You ought to be living on the green hills tending sheep, James, not living with the pygmies," he would say. My parents had died in a car accident a few years back and the only family I had in this country was my brother Sean who lived in Atlanta. He made it known that he would never associate with me again because I had borrowed a lot of money from him which I hadn't repaid.

Since it was still fairly early in the day, I decided to stop looking at the magical place and put the uniform on and scout for a good location. I could still pick up some money during rush hour to get some food for dinner. I opened the closet and got out the green trash bag of tattered clothes that I use when I beg. I dumped out the bag onto the floor next to Peter, and several good-sized roaches ran underneath him to hide. "Stop taking pictures of me, you bastards," he mumbled as my lucky blue Maxwell House can rolled across the floor.

As I left the building, I saw Mrs. Delacroix getting out of her car. I scooted around behind her before she could see that I was wearing the uniform again. She was our landlady, and she had been quite pleased when I had gotten the job at Jumbo Mart. "This is your first step to a normal life, James," she had told me. "You can't be a panhandler forever." At one time I had really believed that, but then I started to work a straight job and I found that I didn't have any desire to keep it, let alone waste all of my time stuffing bags for people.

I headed for the Boulevard, making a quick stop at the cardboard dumpster behind Taco Bell. I tore off a piece of cardboard that said "Bean Burritos" on the front. I took an old crayon and scrawled, "Homeless. Please Help. Thank You" on the back. Early on in my career I tried "will work for food" and found too many people eager to take me up on it; sometimes people would hand me stale loaves of bread and dented cans of corn, and food won't pay my rent. Not only that, but people are often hostile towards beggars and will give you spoiled sandwiches as a joke. I never eat fast food someone hands me. Wheelchair Dave will eat anything, so I usually save the burgers and donuts for him. He's gotten sick a couple of times from bad mayonnaise.

Goodwin Avenue is the best red light on the whole boulevard because it has a full one-minute wait. Every bum and flower salesperson in town calls it "Goldmine Ave" and you have to compete with lots of people at every red light. Sometimes there would be two flower people, some kids in uniforms pretending to be from a softball team and a pretzel guy, and you can forget about people feeling charitable when they want some of those pretzels.

I usually tried to find an intersection a block or two before the best one; then I could have first dibs on the spare dollar or two the people have sitting in their ashtray. I walked a few blocks south of Goldmine and checked out the light at Maple Avenue. This wasn't as lucrative as a one-minuter, but at 40 seconds it was respectable enough to attract a bit of attention.

Today, three Hispanic nurses were working this corner. Wheelchair Dave calls them "The Mexican Hookers," but I talked to them one day and found out that they were really from Nicaragua. I asked them all kinds of questions about the waterfall in Venezuela, but none of them had ever even been to Venezuela. They left Nicaragua because really bad things happened to the village they lived in, and they were canning here to send money to bring their brothers and sisters to America. The cans they carried told motorists that the money was for missions in Central America, so I guess they weren't entirely lying. The "mission" was to bribe a few border guards and get into Mexico and then to hide in a cattle car for a few hours.

I moved further south, down to St. James Avenue. Not the best place in the world to work, but it would have to do. The light was short and people usually arrived and departed quickly, so that even if someone did want to give you a buck, the jerk behind them starts honking if they hesitate for an instant. I looked around for cops and then as the cars started slowing down for the light, I held up my sign, slouched a little and tried to look hungry. Show time.

People seemed a bit puzzled by me at first, and one or two of them laughed. I guess people aren't used to seeing someone beg on this corner, but I held up the sign anyway, hoping for some compassion from a passing suburban family. A woman in a maid uniform driving a beat-up Dodge shouted the usual, "get a job, you moron." A few cars honked, and then, strangely, a cab driver yelled, "There's a man who knows what he wants!" I looked down thinking I had forgotten to change out of my nice denim jeans and saw that the sign I was holding said, "Bean Burritos."

I quickly turned the sign over and did my best to look pathetic again. It's hard for someone who is relatively healthy like me to appear destitute. Wheelchair Dave lost both of his legs from the knee down when he passed out drunk on a train track in North Carolina twenty-some-odd years ago, so people feel really sorry for him. He plays it up by wearing Army surplus clothing and carrying a sign that says, "Vietnam veteran. Family to feed. Need help." Dave can make $40 in an hour on the right corner. Sometimes if it's a slow day, he'll pretend to fall out of his wheelchair and some good Samaritan will help him up, and lay $10 on him because he's so pitiful.

I'll never forget the most pathetic roadside beggar I ever saw. Peter drove me out to this mall in the suburbs. Right next to the mall was "KinderLand,"a big theme park for children that people from all over the state visit. As we were leaving we saw this guy standing on the median by the exit, holding your typical "will work for food" sign, but this guy is shaking like crazy. I've been in this game long enough to know a faker when I see one, but I couldn't tell with this guy. He trembled like a patient with full-blown Parkinson's disease. So there's all these rich suburban parents with a carload of kids, and they've just spent $150 on balloons shaped like cartoon characters, and they see this guy who looks like he can't even take a piss without getting it all over his pants, and they're falling over themselves trying to give him five dollar bills so their kids will think they're kind-hearted people. Man, that guy had it made.

The cash is rolling in slowly, mainly because it's a Thursday and most people won't get paid until Friday. Every time the light turns green, I daydream a little about the waterfall, which helps business because it makes me look more deranged. A cop pulls up and I try to keep the sign and can hidden. They usually only give you a hard time if they think you're selling drugs, but the uniform lets them know that I'm a bum. "Move along," barks the amplified voice from the grill of the police car, so I shuffle across the street and head for Burger King to spend my $6.17.

I return home to find Peter still lying upside-down on the rug, which seems to be the only way he's comfortable. Up until a few years ago, Peter had a good job at an electronics factory assembling circuit boards. One day he slipped and fell at the plant, and he hurt his back really bad. Since then he's been getting workman's compensation and taking some serious pain medication. He used to be able to polish off a case of beer in one night and work the next day, but now the medication shuts him down like a robot after five or six. When he's not drinking or unconscious, he sits at the old computer, chain smoking and writing angry letters to newspapers and politicians about Coca-Cola, letting them know that he doesn't like the way Coke spies on people with miniature cameras hidden in their cans. Usually I just try to stay out of his way because whenever he sees me lately, he starts ranting about it.

I open the refrigerator hoping to find something good for dessert, but the only things in there are a few cold beers, some red horseradish, an empty cookie package and half a jar of olives. Peter refused to shop for food since I was working at the grocery store because he said I was there all day, so why should he make a special trip when I could just bring stuff home since I'm going that way anyway, and besides it was bad for his back to carry stuff all the time and not only that but they'd be watching him anyway. I don't like to argue with people, especially paranoid ones, so I tried to get food when I could. Usually I just wanted to get the hell out of Jumbo Mart and not walk up and down the aisles because people would identify me as an employee and ask me where things are and I'd never get home. All of the store employees dreaded helping customers and they tried their best to hide or act really busy whenever customers came near. The shelf-stockers bore the brunt of everyone's slacking and they couldn't get any work done because they were the only ones around to show people where the raisins were.

I grabbed a beer, closed the refrigerator and headed for the bed. Standing for a few hours in one spot makes your legs feel like rubber when you get home. I sat in the bed and popped the can and looked at the picture of the magical place on the other side of the room. Hopefully Peter wouldn't snore tonight. He's the only person in the world who can snore while sleeping on his stomach, and I have to put up with it because in a one-room apartment, you can't get away from your roommate. If I dream about the waterfall, the sound drowns out everything.

I woke up suddenly from a strange dream to find all the lights on and Peter pounding on the keyboard. I was still wearing my begging clothes.

"What time is it, Peter?"

"Now you've gone too far. Too far, both of you!" he said as he snuffed out a Marlboro Light in the ashtray.

"Who?"

"You and Coca-Cola! Do you think I'm stupid? You're using insects to try to kill me. Insects with poison on their feet. On their feet! I woke up to find them walking all over my head, trying to get into my ear so they could deliver the poison to my brain. My brain, James!"

"Me and Coca-Cola?"

He turned from the computer. "Just how did those bugs get in here, James?"

"What?"

"I distinctly remember waking up to find you standing over me and dumping them on me from bag. A plastic bag," he said as he lit another cigarette.

"Oh, no, they were in with the begging clothes I had in the closet. They ran out of the bag."

"Sure, sure. I believe you. Sure. I can't take any more of this duplicity, my friend."

"Duplicity?"

"You'd better move out, James. I can't take your corporate spy tricks any more. You're making Pepsi very angry. Very angry," he said as he jumped up and flung open the door.

"Just go back to sleep, Peter, and we'll talk about it in the morning."

Suddenly, he ran to the kitchenette and pulled out the pizza cutter and started coming at me with it. "No, you're getting out, now! Right now! And don't call the police because I'll tell them about your little secret."

"Jesus Christ, Peter! Stop it! You're crazy!" I said, but he charged at me with the cutter. I jumped out of his way as the cutter hit the wall.

"Just get the HELL OUT!" he screamed as he turned around and pushed me out of the doorway, and then slammed and locked the door behind me.

I had no place to go, so I tried to find Wheelchair Dave. His apartment house was much nicer than mine, and I had to ring a buzzer to call his room. He didn't answer. I kept trying, but it was hopeless. He probably had one of his "special ladies" up there with him. They felt so sorry for him that he had company almost every night. I headed over to the train station to try to get some sleep.

The train station late at night is a scary place. Some of these people can't get into the shelter because they're too unstable. They come here because the security guards are afraid of them, and they can sleep for a few hours on the hard, blue plastic chairs. I put on my sunglasses to block out the bright fluorescent lights and managed to find a seat away from the craziest looking ones to get some rest.

"Got a quarter?"

I jumped, thinking it was Peter.

"Do you have a quarter?" he asked again. All I saw was a hand holding a paper bag with a bottle of Old English 800 in it.

"Sorry, no."

I guess he didn't realize that I was asleep thanks to the glasses. It was then that I noticed that I was sleeping right next to a big, bright Coca-Cola machine. I suddenly felt much safer. I dozed off for another few hours, and when I woke up I stretched my legs and went into the men's room to wash my face. I needed to find a place to stay quickly. Being homeless was a good begging ploy, but a hard life.

I was really scared of Peter. He had never gone this far off the edge about the whole cola thing. It had started suddenly about two months after his injury. He was sitting around the apartment recuperating, drinking a Coke (because the doctors told him not to drink alcohol while on the medication) when he suddenly felt like something was terribly wrong, or so he told me when I came home from work that night. He had a sudden revelation that he was being watched. When he threw away the can, the feeling suddenly left him. It was then that he started drinking beer again, and it was then that he started getting stranger and stranger. At the time I thought it was cabin fever, as he had not left the couch for two months, but he wouldn't leave the apartment any more because he was afraid they'd be watching him again. Fortunately he had direct deposit and a beer store that would deliver cigarettes and take checks. "Coca-Cola is everywhere. In every country of the world, and they have more money than most European nations," he would say. "They already run the U.S. government, you know. The government! Why wouldn't they want to watch us?"

After stopping at Taco Bell for a new sign, I headed over to Goldmine Avenue to see if I could claim the rush-hour corner since it was so early. A guy was selling the Daily News was there, competing with Annie Shuffle and the one-armed guy. Annie Shuffle was so-called because she used a pair of crutches that she found at the Salvation Army store. In order to walk with the crutches and hold her can and sign, she had to shuffle along and at the same time try to look pathetic. The one-armed guy had really lost his arm in Vietnam, and he held a styrofoam cup in a claw at the end of an artificial arm. He was a tough act to compete with, so I moved up to Maple. Nobody had staked out Maple yet, so I started working the rush-hour side. Friday morning was usually worse than Thursday night, so I was only hoping to make a few bucks.

"Lookie here, everybody, it's James Brown! Owww!" came from behind me. I turned around, and there was Wheelchair Dave. "The Godfather of Soul do look a lot darker in his pictures, though." It was true, my name is James Brown. My parents didn't know anything about the funk singer in the 60's, but all through my life I've had to put up with people making strange "Ow" sounds when they hear my name. I've tried to have people call me Jimmy or Jim from time to time, but they never use it once they find out my last name is Brown. Many a day I wished my parents hadn't decided to "Americanize" our original last name of Browin. Most of the people at the grocery store never bothered to find out my last name.

"What you doin' back here on the boulevard, workin' man? Why aint you at the supermarket or whatever it was?" Dave asked.

"Quit my job. Told the boss where to stick it. Hey, Dave, were you getting lucky last night?"

"That was you, mothafuhka? You know, sometimes it takes me a long time to get to that buzzer, especially when I'm messed up on wine and it's three AM. You people never wait long enough, getting my handicapped ass out of bed for no reason. What the hell did you want?"

"Peter freaked out and came at me with a. . . a knife."

"Oh, Mr. Colaspiracy done found you out, huh? What, you working for R.C. or something?"

"No, he thinks I was trying to kill him with poisoned roaches. I'm really scared of him, man. He's gone totally off his nut."

"Roaches? Shit, that's a new one. Well, I think you're safe anywhere but in that apartment since he never goes nowhere."

"But I left my picture there!"

"Don't go there, man. Just forget it. You don't want to get too close to that nutjob. Just find another picture somewhere."

Wheelchair Dave had his cardboard sign and his can in his lap. He was going to work this intersection with me. Well, there goes my monopoly. One of the flowers-and-stuffed-animal Koreans was already working the opposite side, so I was going to have to stick it out right here.

The light changed and the traffic slowed, and Dave said, "Time to make the donuts, man." He suddenly changed into a sullen, alienated veteran for the sake of the audience of 30. People actually get out of their cars to give him money. It's beautiful. Meanwhile, I was trying to work the right side of the street and I was greeted with, "you could work, ya bum! Get a job fer cryin' out loud!" It was going to be a long day. I couldn't stop thinking about how I needed to get that picture back.

By 3 PM I had managed to make about $30 despite having Wheelchair Dave on the same street. You could feel the tension building as rush hour approached and the workers of the city were heading home with a pocket full of crisp, clean bank notes. The best thing about new money is that it sticks together and sometimes you make an extra five dollars if they don't catch it in time.

Suddenly, a fire truck rolled up with lights flashing. I was hoping that one of the buildings at the intersection was burning and lots of rubberneckers would be good for business, but a bunch of fire fighters got out carrying boots in their hands and "Please help the F.D." signs. Oh well, it had been a decent day so far, but now we weren't going to see a nickel from the working class. These firemen were real pros, and that fire truck with flashing lights was a great gimmick. Everyone at the red light gives them money.

I said goodbye to Dave and went to the Burger King again for dinner, and then I bought a couple of instant lottery tickets from the tobacco store. I didn't win anything, as usual. I was trying to figure out if Peter would be asleep now, or if he would be waiting for me to come back for the picture. I decided that there was a good chance that he had passed out already from the beer.

On the way into the building, Mrs. Delacroix stopped me. "I should expect that you don't have the rent check yet again."

"No Ma'am. Checks were delayed due to a bank error."

"I'm sure. And what the devil was going on in there this morning? I heard all kinds of banging and sawing. You two aren't destroying any of that furniture are you? It all belongs to us, you know."

"No, Mrs. Delacroix. Peter was making a bookshelf. Nothing to worry about."

"Why are you wearing such tattered clothes, James? Are you panhandling again?"

"No, Ma'am. I'm just dressed like this to help paint the shelf Peter made."

I crept up to the doorway and listened. Nothing. Slowly I put my key in the door. The lock creaked a bit, and gradually turned. I paused. Still no sound from inside. I gingerly pushed the door open and looked inside.

Everything was gone.

At first I thought I had accidentally gone into the empty apartment next door, but I checked the number again to make sure. The room was completely empty, even the rugs and furniture had vanished. Looking around for Peter, I slowly stepped inside. He had gotten rid of everything, even my picture. I noticed that the closet door was closed. I approached it with caution and listened.

Nothing.

Slowly I opened the closet door. Inside was a horrific sight. Peter had taken all of our furniture apart and had nailed or glued all the pieces into the closet, filling it like some sort of bizarre symmetrical jigsaw puzzle. Even the hammer, saw and glue tube were attached to the jagged sculpture. The inside of the closet door was covered with strips aluminum, cut from Pepsi cans. A note was taped to the center which read, "The time has come to take a stand against you and Coca-Cola."

I stared in disbelief at remains of the furniture, and far in the back, behind the bed frame and in the very center of everything, was my picture. I tried to pull some of the pieces of lumber and metal from the closet in order to reach it, but nothing would budge. I snaked my arm through the pieces, and sharp springs from the broken couch poked into my side. Working my way slowly into the mess, I managed to touch the edge of it. The picture was glued to the wall. I couldn't even get the corner of it to move.

I laughed at the thought of what Mrs. Delacroix would say when she saw this. Then I realized that I would never get my security deposit back. And all of my clothes were somewhere in that mess in the closet. All I had was $12.83 to my name, the rent was two weeks late, I had nowhere to go, and a lunatic was out there somewhere plotting to get me.

Things were looking grim.

I needed more money for food and to find a place to stay. I had to do some serious begging. Since I would still be able to catch the tail end of rush hour, I headed down to the Boulevard, but instead of working the Boulevard itself, I decided to work a few streets over on Goodwin, in case Peter came looking for me. I set up on Bridge Street and started working the red light.

After an hour or so, as I was daydreaming during a green light, I heard some sort of commotion behind me and something came whizzing past my head and exploded on the ground, soaking me. It was a can of Pepsi. I knew who it was. I turned around to see Peter, in his car, driving slowly towards me. He shook and lobbed another warm Pepsi at me. "COCA-COLA JUDAS!" he shouted as I twisted to avoid the flying can.

He was coasting through the intersection and into the opposite lane, holding the wheel with his knees and shaking a Pepsi in each hand, his car full of loose cans and six-packs. "HERE I COME, ROACH BOY!" He screamed as the Burger King semi hit his car head-on and pushed it into a utility pole.

It took the firemen three hours to remove his remains from the wreckage. Just on a whim, I asked the driver what was in the truck.


This is a work of fiction, so please don't base your opinions about the homeless, panhandlers, The Coca-Cola company, Nicaraguans, the handicapped, or the mentally ill on something that I made up.

© 1997, Ken B. Miller & Contributors as Listed. | Reproduced from Shouting at the Postman #26, November, 1997 | 3514

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