Shelf Life ~ fiction by Ralph Benton


A shadow shifts in the green pepper bin. Then another.

“When does the music start?”

“I don’t know, they’ve usually gotten it together by now.”

As if on cue, a solid tock comes from the coconut box. Then another, and another.

“Finally! How are we supposed to have any fun without a beat?”

The sound was steady now, as the coconuts found their rhythm, a solid three-count, with a good backbeat. The green peppers swayed back and forth. The red peppers had started to move, but only a few of them. The haughty yellows and oranges, however, remained still.

“C’mon, this is enough to get started!”

A few green peppers dropped to the floor, and rolled into the middle of the room. Soon they were all bouncing and spinning to that coconut beat. Then a red joined them, and there was a cheer of encouragement. More greens, and another red joined the floor. The green onions started migrating to the cantaloupe bin.

Each bunch of onions hooked up with a partner, and stretched their saucy green stalks as tight as they could against the very apex of their chosen melon. And the melons began to blow. A wild whistling filled the air, contra-pointing the steady deep thock of the sturdy coconuts.

“Yeah,” shouted a turnip, “how ’bout that crazy melody!”

Everyone knew the turnips were hopeless as dancers, or even spinners, but their enthusiasm was infectious. “You dance like a turnip” was a common gibe among peppers of all colors, but secretly they all envied the mighty taproot’s variegated color scheme. So demure and white below, so bold and purple above, who could avoid comparing themselves unfavorably?

By now even those paragons of decorum, the orange peppers, had begun to feel the beat. Most of the thickly curled green stems bobbed to the music, and a few even tipped back and forth. Finally, one dropped over the edge, and swayed into the middle of the circle of wildly cheering reds and greens. It dipped, paused, dipped again, then spun in an incredible quad axel that left everyone gasping.

Still the coconuts beat on, like a massive heart in a massive beast.

By now the spinach and lettuce had combined their unearthly voices in that high-pitched staccato birdsong that always left everyone in awe, feeling as if their souls had been goosed. It made them need to move. And so they did.

The potatoes did their classic line dance, reds in the front, Idahos in the back, golds jumping in whenever the mood struck them. No one could figure out why the golds did what they did, and the golds weren’t talking, but it always seemed to be perfect.

The pears, two-by-two, kicked off their swing competition with a rousing rondo that included each pair entwining their stems in a frenzied crescendo.

The grapes did their wildly popular mass performance, hundreds of reds and greens, seeded and seedless, forming, dissolving, and re-forming into deadly spot-on caricatures of the day’s customers. When they flashed an image of a little girl with bangs, even the earth-solid pomegranates shook with laughter, luscious purple juice trickling from their stalk.

Then, slowly, like syrup from a carelessly dropped bottle in aisle fourteen, a stillness spread among the celebrants, starting with those closest to the avocados. A sound, or almost a sound, or maybe a feeling, throbbed from the dark green, knobbly skinned fruit. As if emanating from their huge pits, the vibration carried across the room.

All was still.

Only the coconuts kept up the beat.

At last, the jalapeños stirred. A ripple of excitement ran through the vast earth-born assembly. The hot peppers were going to dance!

A troupe of jalapeños dropped to the floor, and strutted to the center of the circle of red light. They paused. The crowd held their breath. Then the dance began. Slow, but vibrant. Relaxed, but thrilling. Intense, but fun.

Everyone enjoyed the spectacle. The jalapeños didn’t come out every night, but whenever they did it was worth the wait.

So when the serranos and poblanos leapt from their baskets and began a dizzying series of turns and spins, even the blueberries joined the “huzzah!”.

By now the all of Produce was a frenzy of music and movement. When the coconuts picked up the pace, the green onions and leafed veggies had no problem keeping up. The garlics periodically inserted their own unique vocalizations, which the rest of the room could never decide sounded more like the spin of the deli slicer or the groan of the coffee grinder.

As the night passed, and some of the crowd had begun to think of moving back to their bins, something unexpected happened. Something most of the vitamin-packed assemblage wondered if they would ever see in their short time here.

The Habaneros had moved.

They continued to move, gently swaying their deceptively spindly stems to that coconut beat. The dancers cleared the floor, silent, expectant. A single crisp white onion took a spot near the center, and was soon joined by a Roma tomato on the other side. The largest, darkest avocado many of them had ever seen dropped into the light. Each of them moved almost imperceptibly, just a nod of the stem here or a twitch of the base there. They waited, patient, respectful, yet expectant.

A single Habanero made its plump, red way down to the floor. The other peppers crowded aside, simultaneously awed by their proximity, yet terrified of the legendary effects that even a touch of the Habanero’s skin could induce.

At last, the dancers faced each other. It was time for the legendary dance, the mythical performance, known as the guacamole.

No one who was there would ever forget it, whether they ended their existence that night in a salad, or continued for months in that tenuous half-life known as the compost heap. Those who had them, told their seeds and pits about it, in the hopes that the memory would live on.

Oddly enough, even the most astute of the nightshades could never quite describe what the dance had been like. All anyone could recall was a feeling, a feeling that they had been part of something much bigger than themselves, bigger even than the Produce section itself.

After a while the dancers dispersed, the music trailed off. A single pair of coconuts kept up a lonely beat, a tocsin of the day to come, for those who still had to find their way back to their bins. Then, silence.


Ralph Benton is a corporate drone living and working in Boulder, Colorado. His youngest child recently left for college, and now he faces the next phase of life. He was recently published in the Best Of Schlock! webzine.