By Bruce Harris
My word against his, then a bird took a dump on his head.
My word against his, but who’s going to believe the word of an out of town pimply-faced college sophomore against that of a well-respected local businessman? Hell, everyone in and around Coddington knows me and the older ones knew my father and his father. Lots of folks in these parts worked for my grandfather’s pickle business when he started the company back in the late twenties. More locals worked for my father and their kin for me when I took over the business. Not glamorous work, producing, distributing and selling pickles, olives, green tomatoes, peppers, etc. The pungent stink becomes part of you. My grandfather always had a saying, “Money smells better than sour pickles.” That’s what we told ourselves and that’s what we told our employees. And, it was true. The Popper Pickle Company employed roughly ten people. There was talk of expansion in the early years, but my grandfather insisted upon control and keeping everything within the family. He knew that the business would eventually go to his son (my father), and that my father would turn the reins over to his son. My dad grew the business and it continues thriving today. Popper pickles and pickle products are now sold all over the east coast. Employees number several hundred. We are very proud of that. There are still several pickle varieties offered at the original five-cent price, although their sizes shrink as the years pass. My son was heir apparent, but things don’t always work out the way we plan. He served his country proudly but unfortunately had an accident. Everyone knows what happened. I’m not yet ready to discuss the details. It’s been tough, but I’ve informed my dear Olive that someday she will run The Popper Pickle Company. As soon as she graduates from college, she’ll join me in the front office and I’ll train her from the ground up. She’s sharp as a tack. She’ll pick things up in no time.
My word against his, Brian Henry’s, that is. The kid’s got more pimples than a six-inch dill pickle. He was the last one seen with my Olive, supposedly escorting her back to the dormitory room. It’s been about two weeks now since Olive has been reported missing. According to Henry’s story, Olive called campus security for an escort. “Don’t walk alone at night,” I’d always admonish her. So when she called campus security, they dispatched their little student patrol officer, Pimples Henry. He told the police he walked her to her dormitory entrance and she let herself in using her plastic student ID card. Pimples claimed he smelled alcohol all over Olive, and that in his unprofessional opinion, she was drunk and she appeared to be depressed. The bastard went on to tell the cops that Olive had confessed some very personal stuff to him. He had asked her if she wanted to talk about it, and she said it was about her father. Henry said Olive told him her old man hadn’t been the same since her brother died. Then, she really lost it and spilled her guts during the walk. According to his statement, Pimply-face probed a little deeper. Olive informed him that, “My brother shot himself less than a year after coming home from Iraq. He had been in the army, served two tours of duty. But, when he came back the second time, he had changed. It was so weird. He wasn’t himself.” Olive blabbed away as the two continued toward her dormitory building. She explained that, “My father couldn’t understand it. He wouldn’t accept a weakling son.” She said, “My father called my brother a pussy and that my brother needed to work through things himself, like a man. After all, it was my brother who was going to take over the famous pickle business. It was that way since the day he was born. My father began drinking heavily after Tommy’s, that’s my brother, death. My father withdrew from the family, but eventually came around and told me that I would be taking over the family business. He didn’t ask me. He told me. That’s about the last thing I want to do with my life. It’s bad enough I have to suffer through life being named after the family business. I have plans. He claimed he named me Olive because my eyes are green and that’s what they reminded him of. I don’t believe a word of it. After four years of college, I plan to go on to graduate school, maybe med school. I sent my father a letter in the mail letting him know of my decision. Snail mail. He never checks email. I was too scared to tell him face-to-face or even over the phone. I’m not sure if he’s seen the letter yet.” The Pimple Man claimed that he wished Olive good luck and a goodnight and turned away back toward campus. I discovered later that someone should have seen Olive enter the dormitory. There’s always a student at the front desk around the clock, or there should be, but hormones were raging on campus that evening. Turns out the night Pimples dropped off Olive, the student on duty, Jennifer Steele, disappeared into the student lounge for a short 5-minute dalliance with her boyfriend. The girl thought it would be okay to leave her post for a brief period of time, like when she goes to the bathroom, because there is a security camera aimed at the door. Campus security, their salaries frozen and their equipment outdated, were already familiar with the ramifications of budget cuts. The Coddington police felt the impact upon discovering the security cameras didn’t work. Olive’s roommate had gone home because of a death in her family, so no one was able to verify that she had returned to her dormitory room following Brian Henry’s escort.
My word against his, that’s what it’s all about. I began selling Popper pickle products at the weekly outdoor farmer’s market a few blocks from Coddington State University. When we first opened, I personally manned the table. Eventually, I hired a couple of college kids to handle the chores. But, I recently decided to let them go and do things myself. I needed a distraction and I enjoy the fresh air and meeting people, especially those trying Popper pickle items for the first time. The company banner was up and the products displayed. It was a clear, crisp fall day. Not a cloud in the sky. I was hoping the weather would turn a little cooler, so that I’d sell more Popper Pickle sweatshirts. I was ready for the day’s business, when I saw him. Brian Henry! Wearing a red Coddington State hoodie that coordinated nicely with his red zits. He stood in front of my table.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face here,” I snarled. Olive was still missing. She was the news. Everyone in town was talking about her disappearance. Intrusive news reporters and obnoxious photographers had hounded me for the last several days. Much to the happiness of the other vendors and the shoppers, the police barred any and all news media types from entering the market.
“Look, Mr. Popper, I told the truth to the police. Honest. That’s what your daughter said to me. I’m sorry. I know it must be difficult for you, but believe me, it is the truth.”
I wrapped my hands around a towel and squeezed. “Listen to me, you little cop wannabe. I know Olive never said those things. I don’t believe a word of it. Okay? Now, why don’t you beat it before I make a scene and things get very uncomfortable for you.”
Henry took two steps back but didn’t respond. Instead, he continued looking over my table. “Something’s wrong here. Not right. There’s something different.”
I ignored him and attended to one of my regulars, a white-haired woman, pointing an arthritic finger at the barrel of sweet red peppers. “I’ll take a pound of these, Mr. Popper. Is there any new news about Olive? Oh, I do hope she’s okay. This is so scary.”
I shook my head, no. “’Fraid not, Mrs. Templeton. I’m sure she’ll be okay. Let’s just pray the police find her soon and that she is unharmed. All I want to do now is return to a normal life and give her a big hug.” I plunged a gloved hand into the barrel and fished out the pepper hulls. I wrapped the tub in plastic, applied a twist-tie, and thanked her.
Pimple puss again, “What’s not the same here? I can’t put my finger on it.” He continued looking at my display as he slowly walked toward the entrance.
I noticed a few people stared at me, but when I made eye contact, they either shifted their heads and moved on or forced a sickly smile. Some mouthed, “I’m sorry” or “good luck.” I sold a few more items, but always kept Brian Henry in sight. The Popper Pickle table occupied the first position nearest the entrance, so the kid cop was also within ear-range. He finally turned his attention away from my display and approached a local artist, sitting on a folding chair painting a scene of the market. The bearded artist had been working on the painting for a few weeks.
“That’s a really nice painting. Do you have a business card?” I heard Brian Henry ask. Henry bent forward over the artist’s shoulder to get a closer look.
The artist continued working. “No. I guess I really should, but I don’t. Good idea, though.”
Henry scratched his chin. “How about a website? Do you have a website where I can see more of your stuff?”
The painting was a colorful depiction of the farmer’s market on a typical sunny weekend. Popper Pickle’s table was in the foreground, followed by tables selling things like jellies and jams, flowers, arts, crafts, balloons, several varieties of nuts, fruits and vegetables, etc. The tables were in two parallel rows facing each other with enough space between them for the browsers and shoppers. Nearly a dozen people of various ages were shown either examining goods, walking side-by-side in conversation, holding bags, or paying for merchandise.
After a minute of silence, the artist added, “It’s not quite finished. I’m adding some extra color in order to capture the light and shadows a bit more accurately.”
“It’s really a great piece of artwork,” chimed Henry. “So, this isn’t a scene from today?”
“No. I began this a few weeks ago. Things are pretty much the same as they were when I began, but there are a few differences, like the balloon table. There was a woman selling balloons when I began, but if you look now,” the artist looked up and pointed in the direction diagonally across from Popper Pickles, “you see today it’s a couple selling muffins and breads.”
My word against his, and that’s when the gull took a dump that splattered on top of Brian Henry’s head. It was a green-white liquidly mixture, and from my vantage point, it looked like Pimples was wearing a yarmulke. He wiped it off with his hand and then on his jeans. He was focused on the painting. There’s an old adage that being hit by bird crap brings good luck.
“Wait a second,” said Henry, “let me get a closer look.” His face was inches from the canvass. He studied it and then turned toward my table. He looked again at the painting, and then back at my table. “That’s it! I’ve got it!” He turned to the artist. “You said you started painting this scene a few weeks ago?”
Brian Henry began pointing at the picture and counting out loud. “One, two, three, four, five! You’re sure this is an accurate reflection of the market when you began painting?”
Brian Henry came toward me. “Five barrels. There are five barrels in that picture! There are always five barrels at your stand, Mr. Popper.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I looked away from him, hoping someone would come toward the table and order something.
“That’s what’s different.” He pointed toward the barrels. “There are six barrels today! Why the extra barrel?”
I cleared my throat. “What? What’s the difference?”
“Five barrels. One for sour pickles, one for half-sour, one for dill, a barrel of sweet peppers and one for the hot cherry peppers, and that’s it. That’s the way you always have your table set up. You never alter from that. What’s in the sixth barrel?”
Before I could do anything, Brian Henry, Coddington State University Student Patrol officer, had pried the top of the sixth barrel off, revealing Olive’s vacant green eyes, open, clearly visible through the spiced brine, her hair swaying like finely-cut sauerkraut shreds.
Copyright © 2015 Bruce Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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