I was chillin’ in my crib the first time it went down. A burst of light. Bright, dazzling. A bang, and then darkness.
“Help!” The cry was faint. Feminine. I couldn’t ignore it. “Somebody help us, please!”
I picked my way out from under the supine bodies of my neighbors.
“Help!” The voice came from far above me, out of sight. Its effect was hypnotic. I moved toward it, climbing, squeezing through the tight openings. I was grateful, for once, for my wiry frame.
The voice grew stronger. I was almost there when it happened again. The light flashed, followed by a terrific Whomp! And then we plunged back into the dark.
I recovered my bearings and struggled on. I found her at last, on the second shelf, pushed to the rear, the fate of so many of her kind. She was green and glossy and smooth as glass. She called herself Sweet Pickles.
“Harry Covert, at your service,” I said. She was easy on the eyes and I’ve always been a sucker for a damsel in distress. “What can I do?”
“He can’t help!” someone whined acerbically from even further back. “He’s nothing but a String Bean.”
“Don’t listen to that guy,” my Sweet Pickles implored. “He’s just Sour.”
I tried to smooth things over. “It’s a common mistake. What seems to be the problem?”
“Something’s rotten.” Pickles’ tones were dulcet.
“I get that,” I said, innocent as a newborn, “but what’s the problem?”
“No. I mean literally. Something…someone is rotten. Can’t you smell it?”
“Of course he can’t!” Sour’s voice dripped acid. “It’s probably smelled like that since he got here. How many days have you been with us, anyway?”
Ah, the prejudice of the preserved against the unpreserved, the shameful class system of the refrigerated.
“Shut up, Sour!” Sweet Pickles rushed to my defense.
Light! Brilliant, dazzling light! I dove behind Sweet Pickles, but it only lasted for a moment. Then came the Whomp! And the dark.
“What the hell is that?” I demanded.
“They’re pretending they don’t smell it,” Pickles answered sadly. “The owners of this place. The man and the woman. She’s the one whose shoes go tappity-tap.”
“It’s a war,” Sour’s voice was caustic. “A war of wills. Each of them is pretending they don’t smell it. That way, the other one will have to deal with it.”
“My God. How long can this go on?”
“Days,” Sweet Pickles answered. “Weeks, sometimes. Now we’re in Stage One: Denial. They open the door, hold their breath, grab something quickly, then slam the door. If one of them doesn’t give in soon, they’ll move to Stage Two: Anger. They eat out for days on end, each of them seething at the other, but not talking about it. If it goes on long enough, it always ends the same way.” Her tone was ominous. “Stage Three: Capitulation. A general clear out.”
“Nooo!” There were gasps all around me. There is nothing Old Condiments fear more than a general clear out.
“I do not believe I can survive another general clear out,” a Chutney from Mumbai moaned behind Sweet Pickles.
“Purchased for a curry in the 90s,” Sweetie whispered. “Indian cooking turned out to be a phase.”
“But what can I do?”
“Find the problem,” Pickles pleaded, her gilt label winking sexily in the darkness. “And push whoever it is, whatever it is, to the front of the top shelf, right at eye level. The owners will be so relieved not to have to search for it, they’ll grab it and throw it away and the rest of us will be saved.”
“What about him?” I indicated a box of Baking Soda crowded up against the back wall. “Isn’t this his job?”
“Expired,” Pickles said tragically. “Months ago. Oh, Harry, you’re the only one who can save us.”
“I’m no hero,” I protested, but her sexy green brine got the better of me.
“Then get going, lad,” Sour commanded tartly. “You know the old saying. ‘When it smells like hell, start in the Cheese Drawer.’”
I worked my way carefully down the back of the shelves to the drawer marked Deli. Inside, the great Cheeses slumbered silently in their Ziplock bags. I spied my culprit in the corner. Covered in mold, he was horrible to behold.
“Okay, buddy. Up and at-em. Time to go.”
“Alors. What do you say?”
“You’re old. Time to go, before you get some friends of mine thrown out.”
“I am not old. I am Aged.”
“Look at yourself. The mold–”
“Beautiful, n’est pas? Grown only in ze caves naturelle de Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. I am not ze one you seek, mon pauvre garcon trompe. I am a fromage tres expensive. If you poosh me to ze front and one of them toss me in le garbage, zare will be une bataille royale and zis slamming of the door could go on toujours.”
There was a ring of truth to what he said, but I hate to disappoint a beautiful cuke. “Then it isn’t any of you? What about him?” I pointed to an ancient Pepperoni, his butcher paper half unwrapped.
“Whadda youse lookin’ at?” the Pepperoni demanded ferociously, trying to cover himself. “I been here since the Reagan administration and I’m loaded with enough nitrates to outlast alla yuz. Now get outta here before I kick your tiny bean ass.”
I was too smart to get into a beef with a shrunken salami. I high-tailed it back toward my Sweetie. I was half way there when I heard a faint tappity-tap. The door flew open, the light flew on and a Diet Coke flew out, waving a cheery good-bye. Now that I knew the lady of the house was trying not to look, I didn’t even bother to hide. Soon I was reunited with my dear Pickles.
“Not in the Cheese Drawer,” I reported.
“You sure?” Sour was piquant. “With Cheese it can be hard to tell.”
“Excuse me, sir, but was that Pepperoni fellow still there?” Chutney interrupted. “Perhaps he has been sliced and placed upon an hors d’oeuvre plate or, dare I hope, a pizza?”
“Still there and tough as ever.”
“He is even older than I am.”
“We have to figure this out.” Pickles brought us back to the problem at hand.
“The Milk?” I asked.
“They’ll never crack. Did you see any uncooked meat on your travels?”
“Good Lord, no.”
“Left over from what?” Sour cut in rancidly. “Nobody’s cooked around here in months.”
I could tell Pickles was keeping something back. “What?”
“I don’t like to say it.”
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Sour fermented. “The only other place to look is in the Crisper.”
“The Crisper! That’s my part of this burg. I live there!”
“It’s true,” my Sweetie confirmed. “If it’s not in Deli, it’s the Vegetable Drawer, for sure.”
“Please,” she begged, “just check.”
I took my time descending, my heart heavy. When I got there, I saw it with new eyes. The Crisper was a sad, sad place. No wonder people are so prejudiced against perishables. The problem was I didn’t see anyone who seemed rotten. The dried up half Lemon lacked smell entirely. There were two Eggplants, purchased in what I now understood to be a rare burst of enthusiasm at the same upscale Farmer’s Market and on the same day as myself. When things go wrong with Eggplant, they go unspeakably wrong. But these two still had their taut purple skins intact.
In the corner of the Drawer, white-whiskered, skin like leather, sat my mentor, my friend, Julian Carrots.
“Harry, how’s it hangin’?”
“Workin’ a case, Julian. Trackin’down a smell.”
“A smell? Perishables don’t trouble themselves with smells. With a few exceptions,” he gestured toward his desiccated body, “we’re not here long enough to care. Smells are the concern of the Upper Shelves.” When I didn’t respond, he went on. “It’s a dame, ain’t it? It’s some Up Shelf babe who’s got you tied in knots. She’s got you crawling through the seamy underside of the icebox, where you’ll see things you’ll never recover from. The Upper Shelf doesn’t care about you, Harry Covert. Walk away, now, before someone gets hurt.”
“I can’t, Julian. I gotta see this through.” I turned my back on my old friend and moved away.
“Stop before you get hurt!” he called after me.
I have failed, was all I could think as I trudged back to Sweetie. I took my time, hoping against hope. Crawling over to the shelves on the door, I checked out the Salad Dressings and the Tabasco. They were all well past their sell-by dates, but none of them were rotten.
“I can’t find it,” I confessed to Sweet Pickles.
“Then we are doomed.”
“I want to be with you, my sweet Bread’n’Butter. I want to spend whatever time you have left.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Sour acidulated. “You’re unpreserved! You don’t belong here. Go back to your miserable Drawer.”
“You don’t know squat about me,” I protested. “You don’t know what the future holds. I could be canned, or jarred, or even pickled!”
“Have you seen the people who own this dump?” Sour roared back. “In your wildest dreams, do you expect to be pickled?”
I had to admit, I did not. Prior to meeting my Sweetie, my greatest ambition had been to be stirred briskly in a little hot oil, perhaps with a few slivered almonds. But my devotion to my Sweet Pickles was making me a better Bean.
Then Chutney piped up. “My dear boy, I think it’s you.”
I looked down at my bottom-end, which was certainly the worse for wear. “That’s crazy. Just a little bruising. I’ve been working my tail off on this case.”
“No.” Even Sour didn’t relish telling me. “It’s definitely you. That’s why you can’t smell the smell. Did you even check the other Beans while you were down there?”
“Of course not!” I played at indignation, but my protest sounded feeble, even to me. I looked at my Sweet Pickles.
“Harry,” Chutney urged. “The only way to save her, the only way to save us all, is to sacrifice yourself.”
“No. Please, no. I’m just a Bean, a Bean in love.” But I knew what I had to do.
I crawled back to the Crisper, my heart heavy, my bottom-end unraveling. I didn’t want to do it. I knew I would regret it for the rest of my miserable life. I tore open the paper bag from the Farmer’s Market and looked into the bowels of hell.
Slime coated the bottom of the bag like an ugly goo monster, ever expanding to engulf more of the decomposing bodies of my fellow Beans. Wafting across the slime was the most horrible contagion of all, a thin carpet of furry, white mold. The smell was indescribable. I gagged, then steadied myself. I pictured my Sweet Pickles, glistening with moisture, waiting on the second shelf for me to save her. “C’mon boys,” I said, “time to make tracks.”
A few of my comrades protested feebly as I pulled the bag out of the drawer. I dragged it from shelf to shelf until we reached the top, the life seeping out of me every inch of the way. With my last ounce of strength, I pushed the Milk, the Bread, and the Margarine aside. Then I set out the bag, front and center, where the owners couldn’t miss it.
“Tis a far, far better thing I do,” I said, as I lay down in the bag, “than a Bean has ever done before. Tis a far, far better rest—“
Tappity, tappity, tap, tap. Whoosh! The door opened. The lights blazed.
“Oh, my Gawd!” The lady of the house lifted my bag and aimed it toward the garbage pail. (Where, truth be told, it would sit for three more days while the two them pretended not to know where that smell was coming from, until the man finally took it outside.)
“Eeeeyou! Ick. Ick. Ick”
I caught a glimpse of my Sweet Pickles as I sailed through the air. She’d fought her way to the front. A bead of condensation formed at her lid, slid down across her beautiful gilt label and dropped to the shelf below.
“I’ll always remember you, Harry Covert! I’ll always lo—“