I didn’t marry a girl named Florence and then she won the lottery. That’s not the way I tell it, but it sure is the way she tells it, like they’re related, like there couldn’t be one without the other.
“I’m building a pool the size of your apartment building,” she tells me. “Come on back and I’ll fill it with whatever you want.”
“Fill it with New Coke,” I say. “They haven’t made it since we were learning long division. Get the last drop to the brim and I’ll pack up everything I own.”
She tells me not to bother, that she’ll buy me a new whatever. “Everything in your apartment looks like it was made in the dark,” she says, and the next day a bottle of New Coke shows up in my mailbox, a reason to wonder if the world can only be a better place if we are in it alone but, also, why I might go back: something important is going, gone.
“They’re supposed to be sweeter than the Coke they make now,” Florence tells me when I set a bag with nine bottles and four cans of New Cokes on the floor in front of her, half a week’s worth of deliveries. “There’s really no telling how many are even left in the world.”
A couple minutes later some construction workers show up to start digging the pool. At one point they partition off the circumference and Florence yells for them to extend it by a few inches.
She turns to me and asks, “How many more bottles do you think that is?” though what she really means is Why don’t you want the sort of love I have to give?
I keep waiting for the money or the New Cokes to exhaust themselves but neither of them will. I get a bottle from New Jersey one day and two cans from Nova Scotia the next. She’s paying the equivalent of good repairs on a shitty car to overnight them to me and I can’t make her stop.
“I’d say we’re at least an inch deep right now, drop for drop,” Florence tells me over the phone. “And the pool is coming along nicely. Twelve feet in the deep end.”
“How much in the shallow?” I ask.
She coughs into the receiver and pauses. “Who cares?” she says.
So many New Cokes build up over the next week that I need a laundry basket and both crispers in my fridge to take them all to Florence. I tell her the extra weight is going to kill my shocks.
“Great,” she says, stuffing some bills in my hand. “This should cover the shocks, the gas, and the fact that your car looks like a sixteenth birthday present for a set of twins whose parents barely love them.”
“I’ll get a bus pass,” I say, setting the money on the table. As I’m walking away I look back and see her in the window, bottle of New Coke in one hand and a glass half full of New Coke in the other, her way not of giving up, but of showing the magnitude of what she has to spare.
In the drawing before she hit it big, Florence bought me a lottery ticket, too, either as an excuse to see me or as an attempt to develop an addiction she could blame on me.
When I told her that I ended up winning $20 she showed me the classified ad for her wedding dress and said, possibly changing the subject, “Doesn’t it feel good, gambling with something besides your life?”
I short Florence by a six pack the next time I deliver to her. She barely says anything to me when I’m over there, just takes me to the backyard to show me the wet cement around the pool, a full bottle of New Coke stuck in at each corner like bedposts.
The men working inside the pool make a racket and what I think Florence asks me is if she needs a life coach. “Some things are just too big for one person to handle,” I say.
It isn’t until later that I realize she said lifeguard, worried, always, about the compartments of her helplessness.
When I met Florence, she told tell me everything about her name except where it came from. “There’s a city called Florence in almost half of the states in America,” she said. “And Florence Nightingale pretty much founded the idea of modern nursing.”
“And it was the real first name of the mom on The Brady Bunch,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said, holding one hand in the other. “It’s like having built-in matriarchy.”
Over the years, she told me it’s been a hurricane, a poem, and a saint, but I never asked which one she is.
After a while of four or five New Cokes a night, I get two of the three worst stomachaches I’ve ever had, just sugar on top of sugar until I can’t stand or sleep.
The third stomachache I get the hard way, I’m sure, but it’s been there so long I don’t know how.
The New Cokes start to slow down on my end, and whatever I’m taking off the top slows it even more on Florence’s side. She demands I drive the missing ones over to her house. It’s between early and late with no sun, but I’m awake and shaking anyways, just finishing up the last pile of New Cokes I’ve got around.
When I get to her house she’s not in it. The light in the backyard is on with the flood bulbs pointed at the empty pool. Florence is sitting in a $6000 chair at the bottom of the deep end, empty bottles around her.
I climb down and sit on the arm of the chair. “I’ve been reading up on this stuff,” I tell her, picking up one of the bottles. “There’s a conspiracy theory floating around that Coca-Cola changed the recipe on purpose knowing that people wouldn’t like it, which would spark interest in returning to the original formula and make the company more popular than it was before they switched.”
She sets the bottle down and walks over to the ladder in the deep end, leaping up, barely getting her fingers around the bottom rung, and climbing out. Instead of following her, I sit down where she was in the chair.
A few minutes later I hear a hose near the shallow end. I turn around to look and see the water start to flow in with Florence next to it, sitting down with her legs pointed in and then sliding onto her feet. She’s holding a silk pillowcase full of New Cokes over her shoulder and walking so slowly toward me that when she finally reaches me the water has already began to touch us.
RYAN WERNER has got a body built for sin and an appetite for passion. He practices shameless self-promotion at his blog, ryanwernerwritesstuff.com. He is the author of Shake Away These Constant Days, a collection of short stories published by Jersey Devil Press, and the chapbook, Murmuration, from Passenger Side Books.