The explosive charges worked fine. The wall caved in as expected. But the specs were wrong, or a decimal disappeared somewhere. The slight possibility of a wrong address, some dyslexic data entry clerk along the line. Either way: Kam’s point of entry into the trailer was misjudged, and he wound up trampling onto a newly laid white carpet rather than the planned landing on the ruddy beige linoleum lining the kitchen floor.
The Ramsey family was none too impressed.
Mother and Father stood speechless behind their freckled pair of twins, both screaming and pointing at the near-complete Disney filmography, a prized collection spanning decades of “lost” video rentals, reduced to a pile of crushed black plastic and magnetic tape.
Kam stood frozen, frowning, waiting for the duo of tiny wailing redheads to exhaust themselves and quiet down. Behind them, Mother Ramsey’s jaw reached for the ground, her palms clung to her cheeks. Not only were the rack of VHS tapes mangled, a newly R&D’d dye blend in Kam’s juice was, according to Consumer Reports, absolutely indelible. Unfadeable. And, looking down, Kam watched an oblong red splotch spread out through the strands of shag under his feet. The stain expanded, fed by the river of neon beverage trickling down his torso.
Father Ramsey, bald and gritting teeth, showing signs of acute hyperventilation, squeezed his temples. He slowed his breathing, looked up.
“Kids, shut it. Quit sobbing. You,” he stabbed his finger at Kam. “Explain this. Explain to me why this smoking hole in the wall of my trailer exists. Explain this stain on my BRAND NEW FUCKING SHAG. What’s happening? What happened?”
The job had gone officially sideways. Kam switched on his decades of practiced charm, public relations training, and whatever he could recall from that year he majored in Behavioral Psychology at Penn State. Last ditch efforts at humor and compassion seemed somehow unwelcome, although they were all that was left in the list of further options.
“More of an ‘oh no’ type situation, wouldn’t you say?” he laughed, the thick black lines of his lips contorting into a smile. Forty years later and that joke was fresh as ever. Except, judging by the family’s faces of confusion and complete lack of any kind of recognition glimmer, he may have forgotten to deploy his famous catch phrase in the first place.
“OH, YEAH!” Kam stretched his arms, fingers splayed out. “Ring a bell?”
“Oh, one sec.” Kam hopped through the blast hole and back in again, doing some sort of vaudevillian, Puttin’ on the Ritz-type lunge. “OH, YEAH! Ringing a bell yet?”
He reached into his yellow slicker, pulled out a sloppily folded square of paper, and held it up. “Bob and April, right? Do you folks have a pen I can use? Somewhere flat would be nice too, so I can fill this thing out.”
“You can fill whatever that is out when you fill me in on what the fuck is—” Mother Ramsey slapped him, her hand making contact with a sharp clap.
“Hush. Not in front of the twins, Daryl. You know they repeat anything they hear.”
“Sorry honey.” He rubbed his cheek. “You know how hard it is for me to watch my… gosh darn… tongue when I get all riled up.”
“Preaching to the choir, my friend,” chuckled Kam, not bothering to look up from the paragraphs printed on the unfolded pages. “Hate not being able to cuss on the job.”
“Not speaking to you, pal,” Daryl growled. “So you sit tight and wait your turn until I’m finished talking to my wife.”
Turning back to his wife, he removed a tenner from his wallet and handed it over. “Here, baby. Take Angie and Benji out for an ice cream cake or something. An arcade, whatever. Get them out of here while I figure this shhhh… stuff out.”
Daryl tousled the twins’ ginger mops and kissed his wife on the cheek. He watched them leave and walk to the 7-11 across the street.
A small crowd had gathered outside the blast hole, most of them craning their necks to get a better look inside.
“Just trying to relate, brother. Having this corporate gig eliminates a big part of my vocab. The funnest part, too.”
Kam swiveled his head and his thick black eyebrows arched in annoyance. “You’ve never seen the commercials?
“TV’s never been my thing.”
“Right, sure. Here.” Kam grabbed his pitcher from the counter and thrust it toward Daryl, who recoiled out of reflex. “OH, YEAH! OH, YEAH! Is this ringing any bells for you?”
“Nope. Don’t much care about whether or not it does, either. What I want to know, all I want to know, is how you got here. And why you did what you did.”
Kam rolled his eyes and set the stack of paper down on the coffee table.
“Congratulations on successfully avoiding a major touchstone in popular culture. At some point, my bosses, the people that run shit at Kool-Aid, decided to get real about their advertising. Figured that if the commercials became real life, it would be the best ad campaign of all time. Customer engagement through the roof.” Kam pointed up. “Or through the wall, as it were. This is my job. I make the commercials real.”
“How is this legal? At all?”
“Ever heard the term ‘Read the fine print,’ Daryl?”
“Once or twice.”
“Why don’t you do me a favor and grab one of those mystery flavor Kool-Aid Twist bottles you have in the back of that cupboard over there?” Kam pointed over Daryl’s shoulder. Daryl obliged, took one down.
“And, well…” Kam took a magnifying glass out of another pocket in his yellow slicker and handed it to Daryl.
“Take a look at the block of text under the nutritional facts. Go ahead, I’ll wait.”
Kam watched his Daryl’s eyes grow wider and eventually break focus.
“I can’t believe this shit,” Daryl said, lifting his head up slowly, defeated.
“Everybody says that. But please believe,” Kam nodded. “These wall-crashing stunts are pretty rare nowadays. They’re expensive. And so they’re pretty damn well-planned when they do actually get scheduled. Usually. Mistakes happen though–human nature and that.”
“So uh, human nature at work tonight, right?”
“Most definitely. And I’m sorry about it, really, but it’s not my fault. I’m just the talent. I show up where I’m told and jump through whatever hole opens up.”
“Sure. Okay. But, uh… you said ‘expensive’—that mean you pay for this shit?”
“Partly. Structural damage is covered by the user agreement every customer accepts at the point of purchase, the one you just read with the magnifying glass. Holes will be fixed, studs and beams replaced, wood paneling repaired. New paint, new spackle, no problem. But in the event something goes wrong?”
Kam finished filling in the last needed fields on the tattered sheets of carbon paper and handed it over to Daryl. “Basic clean-up becomes the responsibility of the Kool-Aid-devoted homeowner. Some discounted cleaning services are available during the rare extenuating circumstance. But that’s pretty much it.”
“You don’t cover a hundred percent of the repair costs?”
“Nah. And, you know, each and every homeowner, when faced with that revelation, is invariably incensed and summarily told to read the ultra-fine print below the nutrition facts of the relevant General Foods-branded powdered beverage stocked in their pantry. Much like I did with you.”
“So you’re telling me that—”
“Yes. The Ramsey family will have to replace that shag on their own dime, I regret to inform you.”
“We always recommend total replacement. You don’t want to know how impossible cleaning crumbled drywall gypsum out of carpet is. Plus, you know, the permanent pink stain that’s there now, courtesy clumsy me? You can’t see it ‘cause I’m red, but I’m blushing right now. Really embarassed,” Kam lied. “You’ll want to throw a nice funeral for that shag.”
“And what if I don’t sign this agreement?”
“Then we sue you, bankrupt you with legal fees, and probably lose you as a customer in the process.”
Father Ramsey gritted his teeth and threatened, no, vowed to switch to Flavor-Aid.
Kam politely replied that Flavor-Aid was the preferred brand of famed Jonestown suicide cult, and began to retreat backward through the hole in the wall.
A crowd had gathered outside to look at the wreckage. A boy wearing a purple and green onesie asked for an autograph, holding out a silver Sharpie. Kam stooped down and and took a knee.
“You look a bit young to know who I am, little man. You know who I am?”
The kid nodded, enthusiastically so, and smiled with his mouthful of half-sprouted teeth. Kam smiled back and grabbed the Sharpie, signing the sleeve of the onesie
Stay thirsty, my friend.
– Kool-Aid Man
As he stood, Kam’s pager vibrated from his slicker pocket. He took it out and tilted the screen so to see the code: 0000. Corporate calling. He wasn’t surprised. A convoy of trucks carrying construction workers began to arrive and park nearby. Kam stuck his head back into the Ramseys’ house, spilling another few drops of punch onto the carpet.
“Oh, and Daryl? Not for nothing, but Kool-Aid ready-made products also have less calories from sugar compared to you-know-who. Way more healthy for little Angie and Benji. Anyway,” he waved, “if you have any feedback, feel free to call the 800 number next to all that fine print you didn’t read.”
Kam turned and strolled away toward the strip mall across the street, cutting against the tide of construction workers headed to patch up the misplaced hole blown through the side of the Ramsey residence. He crossed the parking lot, walking toward a matte black cargo van idling in front of a strip-mall barbecue joint. He nodded toward the driver side window and the shadow behind the tint hopped out and ran behind the van to tear open the rear sliding door. The driver pulled out a ramp with a metallic scrape that echoed through the parking lot. The driver leaned into the darkness of the cabin and clapped twice. A light came on.
Inside the cabin was a massive black leather couch, bent concave in such a way that Kam’s fragile curvature nestled in perfectly when he sat down, the friction from the leather gripping him snug.
“Thank you, Eric.”
“No sweat, Mr. Man. I’m here to take you to corporate.”
“I know, man, I know. Only one place to go when I’m sitting on this couch.”
“Yessir. Can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m good. I’m fine.”
“Okay. Happen to change your mind you just knock on that window up front and I’ll take care of it.” Eric reached to close the door when Kam grabbed his arm.
“Got a creeping feeling this’ll be my last ride in this thing.”
“Well, I mean… what went wrong?”
“What went wrong? How the hell should I know, Gary?”
Kam sat on a conference table, his oddly proportioned legs swinging and making the table creak under his weight. His base was too wide to fit in any of the office chairs strewn about the room.
“And good god man, why am I getting grilled about this? I’m not an engineer. I’m not the construction consultant. I’m the Kool-Aid Man. I represent a brand. I destroy fucking walls. I yell ‘OH YEAH!’ at children. Which, by the way, that always struck me a little weird.”
Gary Chancellor—General Foods Beverage Outreach Director and Kam’s direct supervisor—angled his head to peer over his dull gold bifocal frames at Kam. “That’s the aspect with which you take issue here? The thing you find weird about these assignments? Your catchphrase?”
“Well, I mean… the property damage is legally sanctioned. There’s restitution for it, so that’s all right I guess. Maybe not morally. But it’s all right.”
“What about the diabetes?”
“They dump in the own sugar, they spike their own glycemic index. Fuck ‘em. They’re complacent.”
“That’s my boy.” Gary grinned. “Just keeping you on your toes, Kam. We’re still glad as ever to have you on the team. You’re one of the world’s favorite mascots. But we wanted to discuss—”
“I’m more than a mascot, shit. I’ve had this gig since the mid 70s, Gary. When brand recognition was at an all-time high and I played the wrecking ball so much I started out the 80s with a glazier reinforcing my feet and shoulders.”
“And we appreciated your dedication to the company and the brand, but—“
“Comic books, video games, commercials, fucking action figures.”
“We never made action figures, far as I recall…”
“Didn’t we make some kind of toys? Doesn’t matter. Talking about how I was it. I’m still it.” Kam hopped off the table and started pacing. “And I continue to be. I might have aged, yeah yeah, but this job has stayed preserved in amber. I can play the fucking game.”
“That you can, that you can.”
“Still feel a bit old to be wearing an unbuttoned rain slicker over blue cargo shorts to work, though. You know what I mean?” Kam laughed, shaking a stray few juice droplets onto the floor. “What’s the chances of a costume change any time soon?”
“Funny you should mention, I—“
“That was a joke, Gary. Don’t worry. I can deal with the yellow slicker and the shorts with the giant pockets.”
“If you’d just let me finish?”
“I’d be glad to help you with that.”
Kam stopped pacing. “With what?”
“This costume change you’re talking about,” he folded his hands on the table. “We’re going to make it happen in a month’s time, whether you like it or not. Except, I suppose… we’re changing more than your costume.”
“Gary, straighten up. The hell do you mean?”
“I would tell you to sit down for this but you can’t. So I won’t.” Gary looked at his watch. Big, bad Kam Kam the Kool-Aid Man… you’re a real mother fucker. Tell me something: what do you think of the color blue?”
He rose from his seat and walked over to the conference room door. Gary pushed the brushed metal handicap button near the light switch and hydraulics hissed as the door crawled open. Behind it stood a six-foot cardboard cutout of a smiling pitcher brimming with bright blue liquid.
”Meet Diet You. Our new spokesman, Stevie Adams.”
“Of course, perfect. Of course it’s a cutout. You’re firing me and replacing me with that goon? You actually bring him around and he’ll get lit up, shit. It’s like I’m looking at a funhouse mirror but the fuckin’ colors are switched, little clown, little fucking clown.”
“Calm down, Kam…”
“Blue raspberry? Raspberries aren’t even blue. Raspberries? They’re more seed than berry! They’re for fucking jam! Cherries get juiced. Grapes get juiced. Oranges, lemons, limes. They get juiced!”
“Calm down, Kam…” Gary reached for his pocket, patting his cellphone.
“I’m calm, I’m calm. Sheesh.” Kam raised his arms. “I’m calm. But… but Gary. This smug, young neon piece of shit… how is this fucked up wacko radioactive glowing shade of blue even an option?”
“The color tests well.”
“Tests well? With who?”
“Just with whomever matters one would imagine,” Gary shrugs. “And it stands out on the shelves.”
“Nobody matters. I don’t need a god damn focus group to tell me I’m timeless. I stand out. I’m Red. My color became a flavor. I’m Red. You can’t trash this legacy.”
“Tastes change,” Gary took a manila folder from the briefcase leaning against his leg and waved it around. “I can show you the data And by the way? In the eyes of the leadership here at General Foods: you’ve tarnished your own legacy time and time again. Listen up, Kam. You’re an awful asshole. You’re late to appointments, you stain rugs when you get excited, and your ego is too big for the the track record you have right now and—”
“Only reason my track record is iffy is your planning team staffed out with a bunch of brain dead schmucks.”
“And the only reason we kept you around all these years is giant anthropomorphized juice pitchers aren’t the most common thing in the world. So don’t go flattering yourself.”
The first three stages of grief warped the thick black lines forming Kam’s features. He leaned against the white board until acceptance washed over his face, then sat back down on the table to collect himself.
“Okay, okay. Ceding the spotlight after a forty-year reign isn’t the worst thing that could happen. You hiring that Stevie Adams faggot is close, though. Can you turncoats at least have some dignity, have some class and just go with grape instead? Rion deserves at shot at the top. He’s a solid guy. Been doing this almost as long as me.”
“I’ll let him know you had a few kind words.”
Kam narrowed the beads of his black eyes. “Why do you keep using past tense when I get brought up?”
“Big, bad Kam Kam the Kool-Aid Man…” Gary grinned and shook his head. “You’re a real mother fucker. A real mother fucker. That’s why I have I’m so excited about telling you this.”
“Telling me what?”
“We’re going sugar-free. Both in our pre-mixed products and our recipe recommendations for the original.”
“Hold the mother fucking telephone, what? Sugar’s the best part. Sugar’s the best part.”
“And then we’re transitioning to blue raspberry for the flagship flavor.”
“What happened to us? How and when?”
“You said it yourself, ace. It’s the people that pour the sugar and the people have spoken in favor of diet everything. Synthetic sugar. Fake sweet. We’re following suit.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine! You can still make Red with artificial sugar. It isn’t right, but that never stops anybody from doing things.”
“No, Kam. Stop trying.” Gary removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Your demographic draw is almost non-existent. The decision’s been made, it’s over. When the new fiscal year rolls around we’re discontinuing Red. You’re done.
Gary inhaled like a hiker taking in the alpine scent of a travel. “Done. I mean, you will be. After your last contractual obligation is taken care of.”
Kam stood atop the vert ramp, opposite Stevie. They’d been glaring at each other nonstop for the last seventeen minutes while a local skate camp group did amateur flatland tricks at the bottom of the ramp.
“Okay man, sorry.” A dusty blond skate rat tightened a kneepad around Kam’s leg. “They don’t make gear for giant pitchers but we’re gonna do what we can, bud. What was your name again?”
“Cool,” the kid tightened another kneepad. “I’m Stuart. Call me Stu. Can I call you Red?”
“Wouldn’t mind it, not a bit.” Kam sighed, wistful. “Might as well get your fill while you can.”
“Why you say that?”
“Because I’m done.”
“Discontinued. The kids don’t like red anymore.”
“Bummer, man. You ever skate before?”
“It’s not a hobby of mine, never was. Though now that I’m thinking about it, I had to learn how to roll around on one for this one commercial. That was in the 80’s though. I was coked out of my mind so I don’t remember much.”
“And I had some crash course training yesterday, but I was shitfaced, so I don’t remember that either. So, technically, yes, I learned to skate at some point? But in reality, I have no idea what to do. At all.”
“Let all that shit go, bro. Skating’s all about the flow state.”
“Flow state. When you get totally inside your head and just watch your unconscious take over and everything you do is perfect.”
“Whatever, whatever,” Kam was becoming tired of Stu’s stoned mysticism. “Flow state of not, nothing changes the fact that I’m made of glass.”
“Don’t sweat it, man, I know some dudes that blow.”
“Blow. Blow glass. I know some fire glass blowers, man. I could hook you up maybe.”
“They’re called glaziers, Stu. Glaziers.”
“I thought those were those bigass chunks of ice that move real slow.”
“Those are glaciers.”
“Yeah, like, you know. ‘Moving at a glacial pace’?”
“Ohhhh. Okay, sure.”
“You learn something new every day, Stu.”
“Try to, at least.”
A voice crackled to life from the PA system to announce the main event.
“Llllllladies and gentleboys, five minutes until showtime.” A subdued cheer erupted from the crowd. “Trust me on this one: you won’t want to miss this.”
Kam’s employment contract included a clause that stipulated his requirement to “fulfill any last-minute requests to ensure proper execution of branding changes.” The last-minute request in this case was a changing of the guard of sorts, a symbolic baton hand-off from spokesman to his replacement in honor of Kool-Aid’s new focus on healthy choices. Market research suggested skateboarding was making a comeback among the crucial 15-25 year old male demographic.
The plan went like this: Kam was to take a dive on his board, “injuring” himself and waiting for Stevie to come to the rescue, reviving Kam’s health by pouring new, improved, sugar-free blue raspberry flavor Kool-Aid into his gaping mouth. An enhanced severance package was prepared by General Foods Human Resources at the behest of one Gary Chancellor, who typically doesn’t attend special events thrown by his employer, but made an exception that day in the interest of seeing Kam’s last moments with the company, even preparing a short celebratory speech for the occasion. Kam sat in a roped off VIP section of folding chairs, attempting to rub shoulders with the company directors he hoped to one day succeed.
“We’re making history today, don’t you think?” he leaned over and muttered to whatever suit would listen. “This feels big.”
“It’s a blind step off a ledge, that’s for gotdamn sure,” answered a voice a few seats away. “All we can do is hope and pray that it’s not a cliff.”
“We’ll be fine. The research is there. I mean, what is business but taking chances based on educated guesses?” Gary wondered aloud.
“Educated?” answered a different voice. More than a few of the men laughed. “Guess that depends on your definition of education, boy. Mostly we’re all just thrusting our swords into the dark and hoping we stab the bogeyman, market trends be damned.”
The PA came alive again:
“Ooooookay party people, it’s about time. We’ve got a special guest for you. The parents in the crowd will recognize him. The kids might too.”
A flock of black birds, could have been ravens or crows, they were too far away to tell, flew in circles above. Cirrus clouds were scattered up there, long streaks of gray and off-white criss-crossing in patterns that seemed as though a dozen wheels made from clouds had skidded across the sky.
“Give it up for Kam, aka Big Red, aka THE KOOL-AID MAN!”
A polite applause lifted from the crowd.
“Is that it?” the PA said. “I said GIVE. IT. UP. For Kam the Kool-Aid Man!”
Kam looked back at Stu and squeezed his eyes shut.
“It’s all you, bro,” Stu threw a thumbs up. “Go for it. You got this shit.”
“I guess,” Kam shrugged. He inched up to the edge and rested the tail of his skate deck on the coping. He leaned over and looked down. Twenty feet of curved, stained wood and not much else. He closed his eyes and tried to remember something, anything from yesterday’s lesson, but came up with nothing. He looked down at Gary, who in return threw the “OK” fingers and held them near his face. Gary looked happier than Kam had remembered ever seeing him. And Kam knew that if he came away from this bullshit with an injury, fatal or not, that General Foods was likely not liable to pick up his hospital tab and/or funereal expenses.
He breathed, slowly, and dropped onto the ramp.
Kam’s juice stayed mostly in place, owing to the wonders of centrifugal force. He quickly discovered his somewhat of a natural aptitude for skateboard, staying sturdy as he rode back and forth, up and down on the ramp’s U shape. He wasn’t kick flipping or rotating and grinding but he was upright. This went on for a few minutes, Kam rolling to the top of the ramp then letting gravity pull him back down, ad nauseam. He had forgotten the terms of the agreement and the crowd grew quiet out of boredom.
Stevie leaned on his skateboard like a cane and tapped his foot. Down below, Gary desperately tried to catch Kam’s eye, drawing fingers across his throat, the universal signal for “stop, stop, please cut that shit out.” For a brief few minutes, Kam was meditating. Outside stimulus fell away and all he could hear was the air dragging across his ears.
Gary stood from his seat and broke into a panicked run toward the announcer’s booth. He snatched the microphone away and screamed,
“DO YOUR JOB, KAM!”
and the PA system squealed with feedback, scaring off the group of blackbirds above.
Kam opened his eyes.
Breach of contract is serious, he thought.
I’ll lose my severance package, he thought.
Might as well take the loss, he thought.
At the apex point of his next circuit, Kam let his legs go limp and hit the beginning of the ramp’s curve, sliding down to the trough of the ramp, coming to a halt. He’d acted before but had so far never found an opportunity to play dead or fake like he was injured.
He slumped over and closed his eyes.
There was a scream and the sound of shattering glass.
Kam opened his eyes and saw his old friend Rion, the grape flavored Kool-Aid Man, standing near the stairs along the side of the ramp, next to where Stevie had been
And a wave of liquid lapped at one side of his supine figure. The wave smelled like blue raspberry lemonade.
Kam smiled and closed his eyes again, and he could have sworn he heard Gary somewhere amongst the gasps and murmurs from the crowd,