The red and white helicopter is waiting patiently while the pilot runs down the checklist. On the helicopter door the words, “Albertson Foods” slashes un-apologetically, from upper left to lower right. The logo is well known. The company’s advertising budget alone is in the billion-dollar range. Inside the corporate craft are two men: two men sitting in the front with the back two seats unoccupied. The soft hum of the starter is followed by the slow whooshing sound made by the spinning blades. The sound grows steadily until it becomes the familiar and very fast “whuft whuft whuft whuft whuft” sound. And then the aluminum monster jumps off the pad and heads west.
The pilot brings her in low, just clearing the power lines that criss-cross the clean, quiet suburban neighborhood. It is still quite early in the morning. Only some of the houses smell like coffee. Only some of the houses have their lights burning. Only some of the houses have... hard-to-identify noises clattering about inside. The careful listening walls having lost, the soft company, of the oft-heard soft burr.... The long one-rhyme poem we all recite with our night breathing.
Within two hours a great majority of the households here will be busy with their old habits. The pilot is holding a folded map in his left hand and the control column in his right. He is flying so low he is reading numbers off of doors and mailboxes. Finally the helicopter settles on a lawn. The lone passenger, wearing his red and white uniform, opens the door and climbs out. He runs quickly across the lawn and jumps up on the porch and actually tries the doorknob before finding it reluctant, unwilling. Then he pounds on the door with a fist. The door opens.
“You were supposed to be ready.”
The man inside the doorway slips on a grey parka and picks up a gym bag. “There,” he says, “I’m ready.” He steps out onto the porch and then turns and closes the door and locks it. Then he starts walking towards the waiting craft.
“I’m supposed to confirm your identity.”
The man in the grey parka stands on the lawn, and starts looking in his pockets for his wallet.
“Not like that...” The passenger from the Albertson bird, reaches into his own back pocket and pulls out a paperback book. The cover shows a trim couple, both smiling; in the picture both are facing the spine of the book. Both looking left with great interest, and wonderful smiling zest, and an almost provocative certainty. The title of the book is: Beginning Right Now! Lose Weight Quick in a Damn Hurry! Almost Overnight. There’s a chapter on exercise, a chapter on eating disorders, and eleven chapters on staying “positive.” On the back of the book is the picture of Ryan Cooper holding his wife, Emily. The man holding up the book looks at Ryan and then looks at the picture.
“Satisfied?” Ryan asks.
“Yes... It’s true... You’re the health guru.”
“No need to put it like that.”
They get in the waiting craft and it surges off the ground and speeds away.
“Anybody tell you your duties?”
“It was discussed.” Ryan says.
“Not right now.”
They fly west for almost an hour. They fly west heading towards the mountain range that frames the long green and yellow valley. Now the helicopter climbs. It follows a long curving path. Climbing steadily, Following a hidden gap between two great piles of rock and dirt. Just a little below the summit of the mountain on their right hand, they sight the wreckage. The fallen red and white bedecked Albertson Foods plane. The wreck isn’t scattered across the countryside. It’s not like your average crash. Everything involved is in the same general locale.
The red wings of the fallen plane are alongside the white body. It takes only a moment to realize one of the wings is situated correctly, but situated correctly isn’t always enough. The wing is completely inverted, so that the engines on that side of the plane are being held up by their pylons. The engines aren’t hanging down. The tail end of the plane is also broken. As they approach, they see a jeep, and a truck, and another helicopter, smaller than the one they are in. And there are men standing around, waiting for them. They land and Ryan Cooper starts walking towards the crash. As he passes small clusters of men he overhears small bits of conversation.
“Why couldn’t they have eaten each other, like those soccer players?” one man complains.
“My wife buys those food things with the drink included, you get everything, and you just heat them up, But I always eat two... which I guess defeats the whole purpose.”
“I’m on overtime right now. If they want to pay me for standing around, fine.”
Ryan is still walking towards the crash, when two men fall in with him.
The shorter of the new companions points to the taller man. “This is Mark Wilson Leonard Buckley Albertson, Junior, heir to the Albertson family enterprises. We’d like to stress a need here, for absolute secrecy. We will have anything you ask, sent for immediately. There is always public opinion to consider. One joke on Leno, or Letterman, and the next day our sales will be down by fifteen million dollars. For every follow-up joke we lose another six million dollars. If our name gets mentioned for one week running, then we start to see a real erosion of brand loyalty. If that happens, we might as well find us a nearby cliff, and throw ourselves off.”
When Mr. Albertson finally speaks it’s with a very deep voice. Ryan feels almost certain that the voice is an affectation, an acquired quality. He remembers reading somewhere, that Cary Grant also taught himself to sound suave. “I don’t think the situation all so drastic as that.” Albertson says. “In fact I never expect anything unusual, or interesting, to escape for long, the scrutiny of the wondering world. A version of this actual disaster is even now being relayed to a representative of a supermarket tabloid. Better to have a terrible accusation stated publicly by the town drunk than for one word whispered against us by a good and trusted soul.”
“I understand.” Ryan says. Not really understanding at all.
“We live in strange times,” Albertson continues. “ The move is underway, even now, is some places, to tax junk food, to limit fat content. Health fanatics are demanding organic tofu and non-fat lard. And they’re beginning to wonder what’s in hot dogs. That can’t be allowed. So this situation with the plane crash has the potential to make things worse. This predicament can make us a laughing stock. This must be rectified.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Ryan promised.
They stopped. Ryan kept moving. The broken plane was in front of him now. It was littered with trash and blankets and opened suitcases and torn cardboard boxes. There were three people aboard when the plane crashed. All were employees of Albertson foods. All survived the crash. All were inside the craft waiting for something. They’d been missing for a very long time. Ryan looked at one of the big torn-open boxes.
Ryan entered the broken airplane. At first he couldn’t see a thing. It was very dark inside. He felt wet squishy things underfoot. The dankness of the smell confused him at first, and then the salty meat smell went as high as his nose and he realized he was stepping on a carpet of stale pork rinds. The smell was both nauseating and appealing. He stepped forward slowly.
In the confined space around him, he heard a sudden whooshing sound. Not far ahead of him came that sound. And for the first time in his life... he felt his mind trying to describe it in words all milked over with a white and creamy opaque deception. Oh, he knew the sound instantly: there was no other sound like it. But how to describe it in his mind without just coming out and saying it’s a whip cream aerosol can being used? How to keep that hidden even from himself so he could be even more shocked at it, during the final steps forward as he proceeded in his investigation? He didn’t know how to hide his knowledge. His only clever thought was, “Let’s not dwell on the issue here, and with some luck maybe it won’t become a distraction.”
His eyes were slowly adjusting to the bad light. Here was the first row of seats. Actually the only row. Sometimes the Albertson food air delivery network also carried passengers. He walked deeper into the craft. And now the smell was worse, not at all appetizing, a mixture of sweat and bad hygiene like a cage at a zoo. He heard movement and he stood still. Slowly his pupils opened a bit more. Then he saw them.
Two men and a woman.
They were as round as beach balls. Bigger than beach balls. Little sausage arms poking out of great sphere shapes. Little sausage legs hanging down. The three were seated. As his eyes adjusted, he added the heads to the people before him. And now he realized they looked like inverted lightbulbs. Shaped just like lightbulbs turned neck side up.
They were in a row. One after the other. Enormous people sitting on cardboard thrones. They’d stacked the food boxes to make three seats; one after the other. He looked back at the doorway behind him and realized it would have to be widened for the people from the plane to be removed. The sound of a familiar whoosh turned him back to the trio.
The first one in line, the one nearest him — a man sitting with his pants generously opened and his stained shirt parted like the red sea, only dirty white socks on his fat feet — that man nearest him, slowly raised his heavy arm. It was holding a red and white can. And the can was being held nozzle side down, and aimed at a fat pink tongue. And by simply bending the nozzle to the side, the seated situation filled his open mouth with white creamy goodness. And right after him, the one seated one seat back did the same. And the one seated two seats back, did likewise. So the sound came at Ryan like this:
Ryan stepped forward. He took the red and white can from the man’s gluttonous grip. The man looked puzzled and hurt. “I’m here to help.” Ryan said. Ryan had something with him to replace the aerosol can. Ryan pulled a big piece of celery out of his pocket. Ryan gently touched the man’s palm with the celery. Five fat fingers wrapped around the sturdy green sprig, and closing, almost completely hid it from view. Only a single inch of nutrition poked its green head up out of the white breadstick fingers. Almost without a thought, like one of the great swamp dinosaurs of old, without brains or planning, or initiative or guile, the big bounteous hand went upwards toward the man’s mouth. It went forward without a pressurized sound, without making the familiar whooshing sound, without the sweet flavor of pecans, without the soft mashing of fried pork packaging. It was with a clean crisp crunch of cuddled celery that the crashed crew’s carefully crafted (and cunningly concealed) culinary recovery commenced.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith