The obsession started when he was young. Coke cans. We were never sure why. They had to be Coke Classics, and they had to come from an Atlanta bottling plant. It took seven hundred and ninety-three to completely fill his wall space, an odd number because he left a spot for his light switch. Over time, there were various breakdowns and breakthroughs. We got him to go to school, for instance, which we’d thought would be impossible, a big day. But since he was dressed head to toe in Coke gear—not easy to find Coke sneakers, but they do exist—we knew kids were going to tease him. They did. Naturally, they named him Pepsi. Surprisingly, he didn’t mind.
He missed all of third grade because of a gigantic thunderstorm. A lightning strike hit a pin oak out front, the explosive concussion so forceful that the house shook, and all seven hundred and ninety-three cans rattled to the ground.
Not a mess, in some ways, since each had been opened, drunk, hand-washed, sterilized, and dried before mounting and none were dented (he waded through them by shuffling his feet, so slowly the ripples extended to only a single ring of cans), but he tried that year to get the right order again, the exact same order they’d been in before, and of course that was impossible. Even if he’d been right, he couldn’t be convinced, so most nights we’d be kept awake by the steady click click clank of cans being moved and his exasperated sighs. Sleepless, I lost my job, and it nearly cost us our marriage.
Then a new counselor had a good suggestion: he couldn’t ever get it right again, but he could make sure he never got it wrong. Number the cans. That worked, at first. He was a week away from the start of school when he woke up crying.
What? we asked.
I think I’ve got it wrong, he said.
Vertical, instead of horizontal.
So we rearranged them—he wanted to go back to school, a good sign, and so let us help him—and then the next night he started up again; horizontal was wrong, it had to go back. It did. Three more times. I was exhausted, angry, afraid, my wife too. But the night before school he slept through and we were in the clear. To celebrate, I bought him a Coke cowboy hat. That year at Christmas, we were even able to find Coke mittens.
In ninth grade he brought a friend over. He touched two cans and they argued; the friend left. Delonte missed a week, rewashing the cans, the smells of wet tin and lemon dish soap. In eleventh grade another friend came over, with a tennis ball. He dented six cans, and Delonte missed a month. But he graduated. Every person who signed his yearbook wrote the same thing: Have a Coke and get a life.
College proved surprisingly easy: he went off with a six pack of empties in a plastic ring, numbers 43, 59, 266, 701, 705 and 743. He kept them under his bed. No soccer balls crushed them, a bit of dust didn’t phase him (each week he did re-clean them), the fraternity prank of trying to steal them made him happy (probably because they never succeeded).
He got a job as a salesman. The first trip was a disaster; he couldn’t bring the six-pack on board, and he knew they’d get crushed in baggage; he had to skip the flight. His boss was understanding. She helped him write letters to the FAA and to TSA; eventually, they said he could bring one, but it had to be crushed, and he had to carry the letters with him at all times. He chose number seventy-seven. Black marker, top of can, always visible. He insisted on watching while they crushed it, never letting it out of his sight.
Then once in Toronto he left the letters with us. We were all up for a weekend. I hopped in the cab and said Airport. It was smaller than I remembered, surprisingly empty, except for the staff behind each counter.
An attractive blond at the American counter caught my eye. I admit that I still look. I explained the problem, showed her the letters, etc. She sorted through some forms—it took a while, which I understood, but I was getting nervous, which I tried to show by frequently checking my watch; I didn’t want to provoke her by saying anything, because sometimes people get angry like that and then they just slow you down on purpose—but finally she discovered the correct form in a drawer beneath confiscated redheaded Barbies and stamped it.
I thanked her profusely and asked what gate he was flying from; if I could meet him outside security, etc.
Oh, I don’t know, she said. I’m afraid you’ll have to go to the airport for that.
I’m already here.
No, she said, the airport.
I looked around. This is the airport.
She shook her head and said, When you got in the cab, did you say, Airport, or The airport?
Why would it matter?
It matters. She smiled. This is Airport.
What’s the difference?
We don’t have planes or customers.
I looked down the long empty concourse, my stomach twisting. So what is this for? I asked.
It’s a practice airport.
Practice? I said. Practice for what?
For disasters like these.
How is this a disaster?
She leaned forward, her full breasts pressing her uniform taut. He won’t be able to get on a plane without these forms, will he?
Then for him, it’s a disaster.
But why are you practicing for that, and why on me?
The world’s a big place, she said. These things have a way of spreading out.
She stood back and called for the next person in line.
About the Writer
Paul Griner’s books are the short story collection Follow Me (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick) and the novels Collectors and The German Woman. His work has appeared in Story, Tin House, Playboy, Zoetrope, Narrative, and Ploughshares, and been translated into half a dozen foreign languages. He’s a professor in the Department of English at the University of Louisville.