I could see from afar something wasn’t right.
It was sitting off to the side, slightly askew, looking all out of sorts. Its corners smushed in, a massive tear opening up its side, all it took was once glance to tell that its life up to that point—from its childhood in the factory to its coming-of-age on the road—had been nothing but struggle.
It made me sick to think about. The poor thing had been maimed. A forklift accident, perhaps. Or a careless handler. But rather than care for it, spruce it up, box it in bright new cladding so that it had a fighting shot of finding the kind of home it deserved, they had instead crudely wrapped its wound with clear packing tape and dumped it back into the cold, unforgiving wilds of the supermarket, half-naked, to survive on its own.
As I gazed upon its peers, row upon row of bright red, perfectly aligned cartons stacked one upon the other, their paper-thin outfits taut and glistening, their bearing jaunty and proud, I shook my head in disgust. For what chance did this damaged little runt have against such a glittering squadron of unblemished beauties? It was like dragging Quasimodo to the stage of the Moulin Rouge and demanding that he kick his crippled leg in lockstep with the red-sequined can-can dancers.
Sick, sick stuff.
Move on, Albert, I chided myself, digging the toe of my old loafer into a groove on the supermarket floor. You can’t save the world. But I couldn’t look away. Instead, I just watched; watched while family after family, joyful and laughing, their faces alight at the prospect of yet another immaculate twelve-pack adorning their cart, passed by the tattered little box without a second thought.
Most who did stop were unkind. I watched silently, my fists balled, as a grown man nudged it aside with a heavy work boot. And I shed a tear when a child no older than four turned to his companion and snarled: “defect.”
When the crowds subsided, I approached quietly and knelt down next to it. From this angle, you could see that the poor thing was barely holding on: tomorrow was the sell-by date. We’re all adults here; so I don’t have to tell you what happens after that.
I’ll be honest: I had expected the little fellow to be bitter. To hate the world. After all, it had endured, God knows it had a right. But as I leaned in to examine the scrapes and scratches scarring its waxy surface, I found the opposite. Miraculously, the little rascal still had a sense of humor. The “Z” in the word “Zero,” for instance, had been so smudged and mangled that it appeared to read: “Hero.” It was a wink from my new friend, a sign that its spirit had not been broken, that there was still fight coursing through the Caramel E150d in its veins.
Giving a big belly laugh and wiping a tear from my eye, I heaved him up, cradled him in my arms, and proceeded to the checkout, trying to ignore the looks of confusion and disgust in the eyes of my fellow shoppers. One young man in a well-pressed suit had the audacity to ask if I got a discount.
“Of course not,” I snapped, flashing him a glare. The thing was, I didn’t want the perfect little guy in my arms to feel like he was worth even a nickel less than those other fancy twelve-packs.
Back home, I quickly learned that he was stubborn as a mule. And scrappy too. Took the sharpest knife I owned just to get that packing tape off. But I didn’t mind. It was nice to have someone with a little spunk around the house again, ever since Beatrice passed and Joanna doesn’t come around much anymore.
Over the next week, we had a hell of a time. I poured that Coke Zero into everything I could think of: rum, bourbon, vodka, hell, I even froze him in an ice cube tray—just to make sure he got to experience everything those other Coke Zeros did. And as the end drew near, when I took him to the back patio and raised him to the sky so that the late afternoon sun glistened off every curve of his aluminum surface… Why, I’d never seen him so happy.
Every so often I go back to that same grocery store. And when I do, I always keep an eye out for another little guy like him. A little different from the others. A little off. The sort of soda that, perhaps due to a manufacturing glitch, wasn’t necessarily born with a silver tab in its mouth. And as I scan the endless rows of uniform red perfection, all preening for attention, each box more flawless than the next, I can’t help but shake my head and chuckle. I may never be able to prove it, but in my heart of hearts I know it’s true: on the inside, you were every bit the drink they were.