Short fiction: "The Abdication of King Michael of Rumania, Right There in the Grocery Store"

in #fiction5 months ago (edited)

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"Right this way," said the old man with a name badge and a bad hip as he came out from behind the checkout counter and lead me to the frozen juice section.

He pulled a can off the shelf and handed it to me. "I believe this is what you're looking for."

I rotated it until I could see the main text on the label, The First Half of the Twentieth Century. The smaller text below indicated that it was "From Concentrate".

"You think this will do?", I asked.

He took it back and found the ingredients listing. He tilted his head back, looking through the bottom of the bifocals at the end of his nose. "This has everything," he said. "Both of the great wars, prohibition, the first transatlantic flight, the Nuremberg trials, the-"

"What about the Hindenburg?", I said, interrupting.

The old man paused for a moment, flustered. He continued.

"It also has the Russian revolution, the assassination of Prince Ito, The Dance by Matisse-"

"What about South Africa going off the gold standard?"

"No, but it has Germany capturing Sebastopol."

I sighed and shrugged. "I don't know about this. You said it has everything."

"Listen, kid. This can is only so big. It can only hold so much."

"Then why did you tell me it has everything?"

"Everything you'd want, not literally everything there was," he snapped. "Look here." The old man extended the can towards me so I could see the rest of the ingredients for myself. "Don't tell me you don't see Omar Bradley succeeding Eisenhower as Chief of the U.S. Army. It would be pure naked greed to want anything more."

He had me there. Nevertheless, there's more to a frozen juice than its ingredients. "But what about the taste?"

"Well," he began, perhaps knowing it would come down to this sooner or later, "it has some flavor notes of gunpowder and blood, which admittedly isn't everyone's cup of tea-"

"Certainly not at breakfast."

"-and it is an acquired taste, but I'm told it has a cult following."

"Yeah, among folk singers and unpublished poets."

"Take it or leave it, kid. I'm paid the same either way."

After a moment of awkward silence, I asked him what he had in orange juice. He put The First Half of the Twentieth Century back in its place, scanned the selection, and then stooped to pick a can from the bottom shelf that simply said Orange Juice, and was a generic in-house brand. I took it from him and read the ingredients.

I looked at him, bemused. "Water and orange juice from concentrate? Is that all there is?"

The old man looked one way and then the other, as if afraid of eavesdroppers, and then leaned towards me, speaking in a hushed tone. "Don't tell anyone you heard this from me, but there's a secret ingredient."

"Oh? What secret ingredient?"

"The abdication of King Michael of Rumania."

"What?"

"Let that sink in, kid."

I put my hand on the old man's shoulder to steady myself as I processed this new information. For a moment I swear I could feel the entire store expand and contract at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch.

He handed me a second can. "There's a 2-for-1 deal this week on these babies."

"Let's do this," I said, and walked back to the checkout counter with the old man (and his name badge, and his bad hip), with a confident stride I hadn't known for such a long, long time.

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