The Expiration of Bessemer Bill by J.D. Lee

Bill Bessemer had once become Bessemer Bill. It’s impressive the impact a lowly punctuation mark, or lack thereof, upon a single sheet of paper on a windy day in September can have on a person’s entire lifespan. Who knows where that comma was that day; a cocktail menu, a funeral’s marquee? Maybe it was errantly possessive on an eighth grader’s essay that day. All I can say is that if not for it’s blatant absenteeism, if Bessemer Bill had been Bill Bessemer, then maybe, just maybe none of the following would have ever occurred to Mr. Bill.

Maybe.

It was late and Mr. Bill had already spent well over an hour shuffling along the crowded aisles of his local grocery store. It was one of those mega stores. Those ones that had been cropping up in every small town across America. The shelves were filled with mega-sized commodities; mega-sized mayonnaise, mega-sized cereal, mega-sized dog food, mega shampoos and mega detergents. They loomed over the patrons, towering twenty to thirty feet over the people as they marched unnaturally in neat, preordained rows. Each row, with the exception of the occasional annoying flicker, was constantly and unbearably illuminated in that dry, florescent, warehouse lighting; that kind that makes your eyes water and your lips chap. Mr. Bill hated these types of stores. He loathed everything about them, everything except for two very important things: the convenience and the price.

So, here he stood in line at the corporate devil’s agricultural baby, his wire framed shopping cart loaded to capacity.

He quietly waited in line, eyeing the candies that he swore off last new year as he bit and chewed and gnawed on his left thumbnail. Already tattered and torn, anyone who noticed would see that Mr. Bill had some issues with nervousness and trying to be patient just made it worse.

“Aft’ all,” Bessemer would always say, “Der’s not even ’nuff time and evr’one is jus’ too slow.”

He glared at the old woman counting pennies in front of him.

Finally he had made his way to the front of the line. His items moved across the conveyor belt, each initiating a shrill beep as they slid across the scarlet beam of light embedded in the counter before the clerk. The bag-girl loaded his pile of groceries into white plastic bags and replaced them in Bessemer’s shopping cart. Bessemer Bill said nothing.

Once he had made his payment, quietly and using the quickest method possible, he quickly made his way out of the god forsaken mega store and into the expansive sea of asphalt where he had left his car.

Not more than fifteen minutes later, Bessemer Bill had arrived at his town-home  He silently pulled his hybrid-Toyota-one-size-too-small, red hatchback into his narrow garage. One by one he took his bags of groceries from his backseat and carried them up the two flights of stairs to his long, narrow, gray, galley-style kitchen; twenty-two trips in all.

By the time he had finished, the clock was already approaching midnight. It being new years and all, Bessemer decided to pour himself a drink. He pulled the Cutty Sark from the cabinet beside the fridge and poured two-fingers into a highball glass he had sitting out. He began putting away his groceries as he sipped his whiskey and watched the clock.

He started with the vegetables, then the fruit. He reached in the bag for the shelf items. Those ones that always filled up his fridge door. Suddenly he stopped. Concern washed over his face and his brow furrowed tightly in disgust. His fridge door stood ajar. Glaring, his eyes dark and wild, Mr. Bill turned his peanut butter jar over in his hand. It was the expiration date that concerned him.

Tomorrow? He screamed to himself, Absolutely unacceptable.

“What kind’o crapshoot is dis’?” he finally mumbled out loud as he tossed the peanut butter back in the bag. He’d be taking it back tomorrow and having a talk with the manager, he knew that much for sure.

He reached in the bag and quickly tossed a bottle of ketchup back down, then a jar of pickles, then a tub of yogurt, then a carton of milk and all the cans of tuna. Each one had the same issue, according to their type-face stamps, less than a few minutes to live.

Bessemer knew that the manufacturers were conservative with those dates, “But come on,” he cried, “what dis’ store doin’ sellin’ nutin’ but dees’ dat goin’ expire so soon?”

Of course, no one answered.

He set down his whiskey and rigorously tore through the bags. Turning each item over in his hand and quickly piling them on his kitchen floor. Each and every one expired tomorrow. Suddenly his anger turned to concern. His furrowed brow and tight lips were replaced with a curious gaze as he whipped around, diving into his refrigerator.

He pulled items off the shelves, turning them over and casting them aside. He threw open his freezer, inspecting microwave dinners and fish sticks and frozen fish. He stepped back, pausing to think. Then, without warning, he tore into his cabinets with a torrential fury. Throwing flour to the ground. Casting down baking powder, salt, turmeric, corn meal, yeast, cans of corn, beans, mixed vegetables, yams and oysters. He bombarded the floor with crackers and cereal and granola and nuts.

Then he stopped. He sipped his whiskey as he inspected his work. The cabinets were empty, their shelves bare, their contents now occupying various corners of his already cramped kitchen.

Every single perishable item, all of them, without exception, expired tomorrow.

He poured himself more whiskey.

With his head turned upward, astonishment in his eyes, whiskey in hand, Bessemer Bill asked the ceiling, “What on dis’ good green Earth dis’ mean?”
Of course, no one answered.

As Mr.Bill lowered his head to sip from his glass, he noticed the clock; 11:59.
He knew it shouldn’t, he knew it absolutely illogical, he knew it asinine, but it bothered him. Deeply and fully, it unsettled him, shaking him to his core, riling him up.

Nervousness set in. Bessemer shook. His Whiskey didn’t calm him. His heart stopped for a whole minute as he stared furiously at the clock…

He never did see it turn to midnight, or maybe he did. It’s hard to say.

The FAA issued this press release in response to the incident:

The incident that occurred on New Year’s Eve is a tragedy. Fortunately, all nineteen passengers and the two pilots were reported to have sustained minimal injuries. However, we regretfully report one casualty, Mr.Bessemer Bill, age 43, a resident of the town-home complex involved. He was the only resident present at the time of the crash and we will be holding a memorial service in his honor this Friday.

The collision that occurred between flights A-113 and SW-432 and resulted in the death of Bessemer Bill and the destruction of the suburban town-home complex in Southern Georgia has been investigated fully and it has been found that the cause can be attributed, unfortunately, to a decades-old typographical error found in the flight control program’s software. Had it not been for this tragically specific arrangement of flights, we may have never known the error existed. The coding is being reviewed for other errors for prevention of any further occurrences of this type; to date, no further errors have been found.

… Maybe that’s where that errant comma ended up.

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