Early December in Birch, Iowa won’t give a whole lot of inspiration to an artist who prefers to take advantage of all the colors on the palette.
With the fields harvested and the temperature turned cold, Birch takes on the pulses with the same warmth of a charcoal drawing. It is a time of contemplation concerning the crop they just harvested and consideration for next year’s.
There are two major institutions outside of the agriculture industry which dictate the lives of Birch’s residents. It’s a mean coincidence that the two soda giants set up shop in this sleepy little town tucked in the corner of the state. So strange of a happenstance that it surely couldn’t have been an accident.
Pepsi and Coke. While the town descends into a dark gray for almost half the year, the bright shiny logos of red and blue illuminate the barren fields.
The local pastor thanks God every Friday evening, silently to himself of course, that Birch has but one football team to rally around. The two soda giants create enough of a divide that he doubts even God could heal it.
Birch doesn’t have a whole lot in terms of entertainment outside of extra-curricular school activities. The kids who aren’t on a team are generally working and the kids who do neither are generally frowned upon. Unless someone is without an outfit to a funeral or wedding, doing the three hour drive to the city is viewed as frivolous.
Why the two soda giants both set up shop in Birch has never really been answered. The economic health of the town sure wasn’t complaining. And by all means the townspeople shouldn’t either. But humans by nature take sides.
It became a civil, cold, carbonated war.
Joanie worked as a bagger at the town grocery store. Now, for most of us readers there are a handful of grocery stores at our choosing. But as a testament to Birch’s size, there’s only one real grocery store. If one found themselves in dire need of some milk after store hours they could rely on Fred’s Convenience and Gas to provide. But no self-respecting person would feed their family from a corner store that makes the majority of its money off cigarette sales.
Joanie, being a fifteen year old and all, had a fairly limited, albeit an important, role at the town grocery: bagging. It was an ideal job for a teen still in high school. Over a weekend they could become an expert, had the opportunity to chat with lots of folks, and it was easy money.
Teens love snacking at almost any given moment, too. And the grocery store, what with boxes breaking open or the luxury of a discount, stood as a monolith of endless food. Not to mention samples. Typically a box of something new and fancy would be shipped to the grocery Store. Old Mig, the talkative widow who lived a few blocks over and could convince even the quiet Rolf Hemsvold to try a cracker topped with imitation caviar, would then dole out the latest samples.
But on this fateful day the little table set to hand out samples wasn’t manned by Mig but a suave looking gentleman no one had seen before. Granted, it wasn’t as if strangers had never handed out samples. Plenty of companies felt that their shiny, new product deserved to be presented by a professional rather than a woman who occasionally forgot she had curlers in her hair.
It was a new soda no one had heard of: Surge.
Its labeling was a violent explosion of green and red. The bold and messy design caught the attention of Joanie and before she could think to inquire which soda giant this sparkling new soda came from, she asked if she could have a sample.
“Certainly,” the kind marketing man said, offering her a plastic thimble of the neon green bubbling tincture.
He was innocent in the Birch Soda War. That is, he was like a soldier who unknowingly shot his rifle at an enemy soldier’s daughter. To amplify the damage, poor, unsuspecting Joanie not only loved the tiny sample of Surge, she couldn’t help to, with a hint of embarrassment, ask if she could please have one more.
The marketing man laughed, “Of course,” he obliged.
All would have been well and good in nearly any other town. Joanie would have quietly learned that Surge is a product of her family’s enemy soda company. She would have experienced conflicting emotions of guilt and pleasure. And, she would quietly learn her lesson and keep her mistake secret.
Joanie was a well meaning girl. But her mistake was watched by her nosy manager, Mr. Bart, and the kindling of small town gossip was lit.
It is a testament to the strength of communication that word of Joanie’s indiscretion reached her father’s ears before he even completed his shift at the Pepsi Plant. In a matter of hours, what Joanie had done had inflated, mutated, twisted, and become so convoluted that nothing could be believed except the pillar holding up the rumor itself, one constructed of indisputable truth: she had drank from the enemy’s well.
“The hell is Surge?” Mr. Brigum asked the messenger.
“Some kinda new pop Coke’s come out with. It’s like Mountain Dew kinda.”
“They already got Mello Yello?”
“I heard this one’s made for punk rock n rollers.”
“Old Mig should know better than to let Joanie drink that trash.”
“Wasn’t Old Mig. Some smooth talker from outta town.”
“I’m gonna kill that man.”
Fortunately for the fella slinging the soda, he’d cleared out of Fred’s Grocery before Mr. Brigum picked up his daughter.
There was a murderous rage in his heart as he pulled into the parking lot. Fueled partly by his daughter reportedly being taken advantage of by a man, and partly from the shame that came with knowing by now everyone in Birch had heard about Joanie’s indiscretion.
Though Mr. Brigum was a man with little to say, oftentimes relying on a simple grunt to express his thoughts, emotions, and dissatisfaction, the car carried an unsettling, heavy air as Joanie buckled herself into the passenger seat.
“I heard what you did today.”
“Drinking that trash pop being hawked by that snake oil salesman.”
“Don’t you mention that name in front of me again!”
“Can’t believe you’d even give a word to that soulless company.”
“Surge is Coke? Honest, I didn’t know. Don’t they have Mello Yellow anyhow?”
“That trash pop is targeting rock n rolling punks!” Mr. Brigum hit the steering wheel with an aggression Joanie had never witnessed. Though she was fifteen and capable of some mighty sass, she decided best to let this flare burn itself out.
“Dad? It was a mistake. I’m sorry. Honest.”
Joanie’s apology threw cold water on the fire burning inside her father. The rage that had blinded him began to clear. A lungful of air came from his mouth and he wondered if he’d breathed at all the last few hours.
“I understand how you feel. Dealing with temptation and all. Sometimes when I’m working I feel like I could kill for a Diet Squirt.
And once in a blue moon I give in.
But you know what I do?
I drive three towns over.
I buy one at that little Mexican corner store.
So no one will ever know.
And you know why Squirt?
Because it’s owned by Dr. Pepper and not that snake of a company Coca Cola.”
JP Sortland most recently has been published in Up North Lit, Poached Hare, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. He lives and writes in Brooklyn. Website: jpsortland.com Instagram: instagram.com/jpsortland Twitter: twitter.com/jpsortland