The Real Thing

An unexpected summer reverie about a beverage

Secret History

by Jack Neely

No matter how often you decide you're giving it up forever, some days seem to demand it. On a hot afternoon, after a morning that jangled your nerves, you find yourself nodding off at the keyboard, and you think you need one, just one more.

And so you go out and abroad over the sidewalks looking for a Coca-Cola.

Nobody says Coca-Cola anymore, of course. Nor do they call it Co-Cola, as I was raised toâ"even though it seems appropriate enough, given that prefix's implication of codependency on hot, sticky, nerve-wracking days. The last time I ordered a â“Co-Cola,â” at a train station in Baltimore, the lady gave me a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa.

Now it's just plain, dumb, Coke, its euphonies lost forever.

I didn't need much. Just about four swigs would do wonders for my perspective. I was willing to buy a 12-ounce can. They're slightly harder to find than they used to be. Our building's now mostly residential, no longer enough offices to support a Coke machine, and the city forced Gus's to remove its sidewalk Coke machine earlier this year. It was, I suppose, an unsightly convenience. Coke is still available on Market Square, of course, where many East Tennesseans tasted their first Coca-Cola, 120 years ago, at Kern's or one of the other soda-pop saloons thereabouts, but now it's just in the sit-down restaurants.

So I went into one of the rare little convenience shops that traffic in snacks for an hour or two after the lunch counters close, and asked the cashier for a Coke. He directed me to the big built-in refrigerator, as if it's the answer to my problem. And I went over there and saw the big 20-ounce plastic bottles of Coke. And that was all.

For somebody raised in the era when the six-and-a-half-ounce returnable bottle was the standard measure of a Coca-Cola, the 20-ounce bottle seems like a family size, something maybe for an office party. But it's the same at interstate rest stops. The big 20-ounce bottle has become the standard. â“A Cokeâ” is now more than three times as big as â“a Cokeâ” used to be. We're bigger, yes. We're bigger Americans than we were in the '60s, no question, and getting bigger all the time. I have not heard that we're three times bigger. But maybe, with Coke's help, we're getting there.

Four good swigs, maybe five, would be refreshing. Twenty ounces for one standard-sized human seems to me excessive, plausibly carcinogenic, a flirtation with kidney failure.

I did drink that much once, as a teenager, on a high-school trip to Atlanta when we found ourselves in a room with lots of Cokes and no adults telling us not to have our way with them. We had so much Coke we threw many of them out the hotel window to watch them explode. I drank two cans of Coke in a row, just because I could, and was soon wondering why I was born.

I looked at those rows of 20-ounce Cokes in the refrigerator, lined up like fat torpedoes, and could already feel the black fluid stretching my stomach lining with its acidic, rapidly flattening mass.

I was frank about the matter. â“I really don't feel like drinking 20 ounces of Coke,â” I confessed.

â“They have re-sealable caps,â” the man said. He added, with evident pride, â“You'll find if you buy it, you'll drink all of it!â”

I didn't doubt that. I'm a thrifty fellow, and don't like to waste. I'll use stuff up, even if it hurts me. But it turned out that I didn't drink any of it. I walked back out onto the hot streets, still looking for a cold Co-Cola. Small. Which I was beginning to gather might be about as easy to find as a Falstaff.

Then came an unexpected memory of my grandmother. Her house was in Bearden, but was not wholly in 20th-century America. It was a Grecian temple, remodeled to include a grand piano. The windows were open in the summer, and you could always hear the birds outside. You could always hear the clock tick. There were few brand names visible in her kitchen, with the exception of the â“Masonâ” on the jars in her pantry. She kept fresh produce and hard candy. In her refrigerator were a quart of buttermilk and a jug of apple juice and a copper pitcher of cold drinking water.

Her house was like a vacation from the noisy world of RC and Pepsi and Coke and 7-Up and Sprite and Tab and their complex allegiances. My grandmother kept up with the news, but she had politely excused herself from popular culture, which could get along without her.

Years later, under the cosmopolitan influence of a retirement home, some of her habits changed. Under the influence of friends, she began to watch television sitcoms. One day, when I visited, she surprised me with a mention that she had bought some Coca-Cola. She pointed, and it was right there, a big bottle on a table in the corner.

â“Would you like some?â” she asked. And she carefully poured a bit of it into an orange-juice glass that I remembered from her old house. She treated it as if it were a liqueur, or some ceremonial nectar. It was warm, and almost flat, but after all these years, I was drinking Coca-Cola with my grandmother. It seemed so like her and her casual separation from popular culture, that in all the things she had learned in 83 years, the Beethoven sonatas, the recipe for biscuits, the memorized Tennyson, the cultivation of roses, she had never learned how to serve a Coca-Cola. That it was supposed to be served chilled, with ice, in a tall glass, with the fizz intact. But that day I enjoyed it her way, and when it was gone, I didn't want any more.

Anyway. I was thinking about her, and realized that all I was looking for was a little orange-juice glass of Coke, when I found myself going in Mast, looking for some consolation. I can't afford most of what Mast sells, but in the back they have Cokes and Cheerwines and Blenheim's Ginger Ale in a big cooler like the ones you used to see in country stores. The Cokes are slightly bigger than the old ones, eight ounces, but in the same kind of fluted glass bottles. They're a dollar, tax included.

Judged ounce per ounce, it's not as good a deal as those 20-ounce bombs are. I paid more, for less. But on a day like this, it was worth it.

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