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Blame It on the Milk and Tea

Updated: May 18, 2022

My first novel, Dark to Mortal Eyes, was almost complete. Though I didn't yet have an agent or publisher, I was afraid of the sophomore slump. With my mind hunting for ideas, my eyes and ears were on constant alert.

This was the year 2000, and my wife and I were still running our own espresso business in Junction City, Oregon. We loved our customers, so many salt-of-the-earth people. One elderly man came every day to shake my hand, surrender a pair of dollar bills, and buy his bride a fresh-brewed iced tea. She always waited in the car as he trudged back and forth.

One afternoon, his wife showed up alone and ordered her drink.

"Where's your husband?" I asked.

She gazed up through thick glasses. "He passed last night."

As I heard the details and expressed my sympathy, my gaze swept past the gallon of milk on the counter. Near the top was stamped the expiration date. What if I had discerned the previous day, by the simple shaking of hands, that my elderly customer would die within hours? Was there anything I could've done to stop it? Would I have spent an extra minute to hear about his day?

Just like that, I had the idea for my second novel!

A year later, I found an agent and he spent another year pitching my debut novel. It was presented to the publication committee at Random House, and my agent called later that morning to give me their verdict. Which did I want first, the good news or bad?

"The bad," I said.

"They don't want a book," he told me.

I gulped hard. "Okay."

"They want two! They love your idea for Hands of Time."

When my second novel was published in 2005, it's title had changed to Expiration Date. It is still a special book to me, and I believe I avoided the sophomore slump. Of course, none of us know the date others might die. But what if we did? Could we intervene?

It's something I ponder anytime I order a fresh-brewed iced tea.

Eric Wilson

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