Spring had come to Acme, North Carolina. This meant that Robert Thigpen was spending
his coffee break inside, looking out at the bird feeder, soaking up some second-hand sunlight
through the picture window in his office .
Otherwise he would have the mother of all sinus headaches.
In the parking lot, all the cars were the same colour. Mind you, their owners – the
employees of Thigpen Printing, Inc – had bought them in a variety of commercially-
successful hues, champagne, silver, black, even the ever-popular fire engine red. But when
spring came to Acme, these aesthetic choices made no difference. Exuberant (the Raleigh
News & Observer called them 'love-starved') trees spewed their overproduction of
fertile dust in all directions. All cars were yellow for about a month, or until the plague was over
and you made it to the car wash.
The pollen falls on the just and the unjust, Robert mused.
The North Carolina Piedmont country's towns and cities ranked in the top five pollen-
producing regions of the continental United States. Robert supposed somebody was proud of
this. Probably the manufacturers of the allergy medication which filled whole sections of every
pharmacy in town. There were fools who would be proud of anything, he guessed, including
those government officials in Wakeup County who had decided to plant only male trees
in order to avoid the clean-up associated with female plants. Such as fruit.
The human race, Robert mused again. Always using its collective smarts to
good advantage. Then he stopped musing, used the last of his coffee to wash down a
DayQuiescent(TM) gelcap, and left the birds to their own devices while he went to deal with
the day's lot of grocery flyers. He supposed he shouldn't be taking junk mail orders, but he had a
payroll to meet, the Post Office needed the money, and Harris Tweeder's business was as good as
The rest of the morning was taken up with ephemera. This was good. Ephemera were the
province of printers and newsmen, whose work was here today, fish-wrap tomorrow. Robert was
not widely travelled, but he was well-read, and he knew that 'ephemerida' was the Greek word
for newspaper. So there.
After mollifying an unhappy customer with the solemn promise to redo the entire run of
newspaper inserts for the Big Carpet Sale – no, he understood, the carpets were made
of '100% pure virgin wool', not '100% pure virgin fool' – Robert escaped
the quotidian for a bit to attend the less ephemeral (he hoped) Rotarootah luncheon. Robert was
a long-time member of the Rotarootah Association, a group of concerned businessmen who
met weekly to plan big doings and improve the community over moo goo gai pan and
green iced tea at the Golden Dragon, just past the Forlorn Hope Plaza. Robert arrived just in time
– they were passing around the spring rolls. He slid into place beside John Hwan, who
owned the dry cleaning chain, and listened to the conversation.
Frank Bohannon was holding forth, as usual. Frank ran the car wash, and had a lot of time on
his hands until the pollen cleared up. He had apparently been reading the online newspaper, since
Robert knew he was too cheap to spring for print 'Did y'all hear about the court case in Durham
the other day?' he demanded. 'They gave that man
who was selling fake gluten-free bread a long prison term. Eleven years, for
heaven's sake. What's next? Puttin' MacDuff's people in jail for sellin' greasy French fries?' There
was a laugh at this.
John Hwan shrugged. 'He was pretending to be a baker. Selling 'home-made' bread he
wholesaled from New Jersey and Ohio. That's fraud. I don't tell people I'll chem-clean their suits
and then just dust 'em off.'
Frank snorted. 'Of course not. But if you have a dissatisfied customer, you fix it. Or you
end up in small claims court. They gave this guy serious jail time. For selling phony new-age
bread.' There were murmurs of agreement from concerned merchants as the wait staff
took away appetiser plates and substituted heaping dishes of rice, chicken, and fixings. The
argument was tabled in favour of what was on the table.
After a while, Robert studied his forkful of Eight Delicious Chicken. 'I wonder what-all is in
this,' he said.
Paul Chao, opposite, looked at him anxiously – he was a consulting engineer, but his
wife's cousin owned the Golden Dragon. 'Something wrong with it?'
Robert shook his head. 'Not at all. I love Eight Delicious Chicken. Especially these
little corncob things. Tasty, every bit of it. But I was wonderin' whether I could take some
back to the office. Tasha, my account manager, has celiac disease, you see. But she sure likes
Paul blinked. 'What's celiac disease?'
Robert gestured toward Frank. 'It's what those people have who bought all that 'gluten-
free' bread. They can't have white bread, or anything with wheat or gluten in it. If they eat even
a little tiny bit – like maybe the thickener in this sauce – they get real sick for
days. If they do it too much, they might even get cancer.' This remark silenced the table –
everybody was afraid of that word. Robert added, 'They reckon about 1 in 133 Americans has it,'
which sent several Rotarootah members reaching for their calculators. They whistled when they
saw how many people that added up to.
Paul nodded. 'I see. So calling flour bread 'gluten-free' isn't like making an almond cookie
with artificial extract and calling it genuine?'
Robert smiled. 'Exactly. It's more like selling maple-syrup fudge at a diabetic convention and
calling it 'sugar-free'.' Paul's eyes widened, and the table agreed that this was a bad thing.
Frank seemed to feel responsible for the topic, since he'd brought it up. 'But eleven years in
jail?' he protested. 'That's pretty serious for a simple scam. What if they held everybody to that
John Hwan had a thought. 'I reckon it should depend on the amount of damage the scam can
do. Think about it: suppose somebody sells you a fake Rolodex(TM) watch.'
Frank scowled. 'I'd like to see 'em try. I hate that. Those guys make big bucks with those
knock-offs, and it's bad for the manufacturer. It ruins their branding.' Heads were cocked in
attention, as fortune cookies, mints, and cheques were being delivered.
Robert chuckled. 'Yeah, Frank. A big company like Rolodex Watches(TM) will prosecute
those knock-offs to the fullest extent of the law. Lots of money involved. Even though, if you
think about it, the watches they're selling are just as good as the 'real' ones. I mean, they work.
They tell time. Ain't nothin' to 'em but a li'l-bitty computer chip and a battery. But heaven
forfend they should mess up somebody's brandin' like that.'
Paul was thoughtful. 'But the celiac people don't have a brand,' he mused. 'They just have a
disease. I see what you're getting at.' In spite of Frank's protests that 'the country's going to the
dogs or the Democrats, not a dime's worth of difference between 'em', the conversation moved
on to sports as bills were settled and fortune cookies opened.
Robert's said 'A smile awaits you at your doorstep', which reminded him to bring home
a doggie bag for Obadiah the Cairn terrier. Although Obadiah was more known to wag than
Robert decided he wouldn't bring any for Tasha, though. He didn't think Paul's wife's cousin
would like it if he asked to inspect the kitchen for gluten, and he had his suspicions about soy
sauce. He paid the cheque and sneezed his way into his (yellow) car for the ride back to the
office and more of the ephemera that were good for business.