My brother just called – he’s on his way to Texas and saw a tumbleweed blowing across the road. “It reminded me of that tumbleweed I sent you when I was a Coke spy. Remember it?”
Of course I remembered it. I had just flunked out of college after two years of courting Jack Daniels rather than going to class. To pay my half of the rent I worked as a waitress – a little smug because who needed college anyway since I made more in tips than a lot of college graduates earn. I was living the life, having a lot of fun, but sometimes nagged by that vague sense of despair from not having any direction in life.
This is what a tumbleweed looks like.
Then a box arrived – a big box, from my brother. He’d gotten a job with the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta as part of an elite team of high-achieving college graduates hired to enforce trademark rules in restaurants across the country. The company gave these college VIP’s a new car, good salary, an expense account, and lots of other perks and sent them out to American cities large and small. Their job? Go into eating establishments and say, “Can I have a burger and fries and a Coca-Cola?” When the waitress brought their beverage, they sneaked a sample of it with a syringe, labeled it and later typed up a report, such as, “I ordered a burger and fries and a Coca-Cola from a slim 5’4” waitress with blond hair in a beehive hairdo wearing a name tag that said, ‘Mabel.’ She brought a beverage to me at 12:42 pm” and so on, describing the interaction, restaurant, and all other facts about the encounter. The Coke spy labeled the beverage and mailed it to Atlanta, where it was analyzed. If the waitress served a Pepsi or RC or some other brand, Atlanta sent them a letter saying they could not substitute cola beverages. They had to say, “We don’t have Coca-Cola, is Pepsi okay?” Later, another Coke spy would return to the same place, and eventually, if the restaurant didn’t comply, they’d get sued and my brother flew to Atlanta to testify. The company was trying to keep people from using the word “Coke” as a generic word for cola. In other words, they wanted “Coke” to be a Coke, not a Pepsi, not a Shasta. I think it’s called trademark infringement.
My brother worked as a Coke spy for about three years, until he decided to get married, settle down and sell real estate. He’d sent me other things from his travels (I still have a small aspirin bottle that once contained muddy Mississippi River water. The water’s evaporated out but there’s still a little silt left in the bottle) so I wasn’t surprised to get a box, but I was intrigued because it felt empty. I tore into it like a kid into an Easter basket and pulled out – a what? An oval ball of sticks? What? The note inside said, “I found this tumbleweed blowing across the freeway and pulled over. I knew you’d never seen one before, so now you know what a tumbleweed looks like.”
Up until then I’d never been so surprised, so amazed, so flattered, so blown away by anything else in my life. Somebody loved me enough to pull over from going 90 miles an hour (unless The Law was nearby), on a Montana or Wyoming or Colorado freeway, chased down a tumbleweed, kept it intact long enough (they’re brittle) while he scoured dumpsters to find a box big enough to mail it in, paid the postage, wrote a note, and all the other little steps involved in the process, so that I’d get to see something I’d never dreamed I’d care anything about seeing.
I treasured that tumbleweed for years, but over time it disintegrated into a pile of sticks in my moves and travels and got lost or tossed.
“Yes,” I told him, “I remember it. That was one of the best surprises of my life.”
After we got cut off because he was driving in wide-open country with scanty cell service, I sat remembering my tumbleweed and the wealth of love and good feelings it brought into my life at a time when I was being blown by the wind, adrift without direction. I wish I could say that his intentions were a metaphor, and that I got it and changed my life, but that wasn’t the case at all. It was just an impulse on his part, he wanted his little sister to share in his awe of something he’d never seen before.
No underlying meaning. No moral. No life lesson. No strings attached. A gift of the heart – the best kind of all.
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