“Expiration Dates” by James Best

James Best


There was a peeling little grocery on the corner of Rice Lake
where my brother worked between fifteen and seventeen.

A nothing much happens place in a town too big to know anyone.
Robbed once, and solved and nothing even close to scandal.

Sometimes the owner’s son would smoke pot behind the dumpster,
and sometimes they could just open and eat whatever they wanted.

And sometimes on simmering nights when bullfrogs sang one lonely note,
and the wind had lost interest, they’d close early, run out back with bats

to play ball with the spoiled fruit, erupting everything over each other
and then leap into Rice Lake, full clothed, to swim off pulp, sap, and stick.

He said he’d never felt forever more. No moon to click across the sky,
stars as fixed and certain as ever. Nothing but an endless feeling.

The day my brother quit, two weeks before his birthday,
he helped an old man into the store, his rheumatic wife in the Caddy.

The old man bought usuals except milk, the weight of two gallons
stuttering his breath every step my brother helped him back to the car.

The old woman balanced the gallons in her lap, leaning over
to smile and wave a shaking hand at my brother as he closed the door.

But when the needle moved to “D” the old man’s face seized and his limbs
lashed out against the steering, the wipers, blinkers, then pedals.

All eight cylinders reared up, and the Caddy shot across the stalls
into the only thing in its way, the thick brick walls of Dean’s Hardware.

The sound bounced like thunder over the lake. Allen said it was so quick
he was standing there, his hand not finished waving.

Reality caught up to him running. All he could see was milk
where it had exploded and splashed against the windows.

When he was closer, through the oily smoke of the engine
he could see pink spots streaking down the white windshield.

The door opened, the old man tumbled out like a wet bag of groceries.
The old lady broken, dripping white, the whole inside painted in milk.

This he told me, bereft of meaning, while we raked October
into piles, a question pressing the day into dusk.

So I said, to make life seem beautiful, ordered:
maybe that milk we’re given as babies is safe inside us, the real life liquid.

But he said: While everyone was outside, I was in the cooler, with a bat,
smashing every gallon with my birthday on it.

from Rattle #30, Winter 2009

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