$54.38, or The Drugstore Story

I was waiting in line at a drugstore in this small town somewhere in Upstate New York. I felt terrible. My girlfriend had just left me. Since she had been the only reason I had spent the last six months in this godforsaken town, I had no reason to stay there any longer. Besides, I had lived with her. In her apartment, to be exact. Okay, if you want, she had been paying the bills for the last six months. Our bills. Or hers. Or whatever. Anyway, I admit that this might have been one of the reasons she had finally had enough of me. But, that’s not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story about the drugstore. Or what happened in front of it. Sorry, I’m jumping ahead.

So, I’m waiting in line at a drugstore in this small town in Upstate New York, feeling terrible. I’m so broke I’ll soon have to go back to stay with my mom. I had taken pride in moving out of home when I was 17, and now I was 24, and that was the only place left for me to go. Great. Not that I’m into being melodramatic and stuff, but being heartbroken and having to go back to live with my mom did make me feel like a bit of a loser. That, and a few other things. So, there I was contemplating what to do with my life while waiting to get my morphine. Why I had a prescription for morphine is yet another story. One I don’t wanna tell either. Just let me say this much: it didn’t help me feel much better.

Some fat lady packed a whole bunch of painkillers, cough syrup, sore throat lozenges and candy in her bag at the register. I always find it fascinating how many folks still believe people go to drugstores to get things that will actually make them feel better.

Ironically, the guy right in front of me definitely would have needed something to make him feel better. To be honest, he got a bit on my nerves while I was waiting for the fat lady to locate the Wild Cherry Hulls, and for the Mexican girl at the register to find the right fucking change. He seemed unable to stand still, stepped from one foot to the other, looked over the fat lady’s shoulder every other second, and crumpled his prescription in his fist as if it was an evil curse (well, maybe it was). Besides (and, believe me, I hate to say this), he just didn’t look good. His hair (kinda long, straight, black) was greasy, his jacket and pants dirty, and he looked quite skinny underneath it all. His face I couldn’t see. Finally, it was his turn.

Without saying a word, he hastily handed over his prescription. The Mexican girl disappeared for a second, came back, and said it would be ready in a minute. She rang up the register.

“Okay. Your total comes to $54.38.”

The guy pulled a twenty out of his pocket. “This is all I have.”

“Oh. I’m afraid we can’t give you the medication then,” the girl said.

“But I need it.”

“Well, it’s $54.38. That’s what I have to ask you for.”

“But I don’t have that much. And I need that medication.” He was polite. But his voice was trembling.

The girl wasn’t stupid. “Let me get the manager.” She disappeared.

The guy stepped from foot to foot again. A moment later the girl was back with a guy in his late thirties, on the shorter side, but in decent physical shape (he probably had a Stepmaster at home, or some of those fitness-machines they sell on cable TV), with rimless glasses (not too thick), neatly parted brown hair (only slightly receding at the corners), and the obligatory white coat (loosely hanging over shirt, tie, and pants).

“I’m sorry, sir, but we can only sell you this medication for $54.38. If you don’t have that much, we need to ask you to get the money from somewhere; or, if that’s not possible, apply for some aid at the public health office.”

“But I need that medication.”

“I understand that, sir, but this is no free clinic. This is a business. We have to ask our customers to pay. Why don’t you go to…”

“Because I don’t have time for that! And I won’t get any aid from no office. And I don’t know anyone in this town I could just pump thirty-something bucks from. And I need that medication now. … I’ll repay you. I’ll send a check.”

“Sorry, sir, we can’t do that. We need you to pay now.” The pharmacist smiled. I still couldn’t see the guy’s face, but I doubt that he smiled, too.

Two thoughts ran through my head: One was that this was none of my business and that I was annoyed by having to deal with this before I’d finally get out of the place (drugstores ain’t really my kind of thing). The other was that I wanted to help the guy out. He obviously needed whatever it was he had on that prescription, and I thought the pharmacist’s friendly professional cruelty just sucked. Not that I had much money, but I could still bill those 54 (or whatever) bucks on my card, what the hell. The fact that I felt terrible also worked in the guy’s favor. For one, I feel more sympathy for people in shitty situations when I’m in a shitty situation myself. For two, I start to think that nothing really fucking matters, and money is one of the things that matter the least. Yet, the first thought was strong, and I hesitated to step forward and pay for those drugs. After all, it didn’t really seem like it was up to me to be a good Samaritan here and spend money I didn’t even really have, especially when giving the guy a break of thirty bucks would mean nothing to the fucking drugstore. Besides, it wasn’t my fault that this dude had no money. I didn’t even know what he needed the drugs for, what his deal was, who he was, not even if he lied about not having any money. So, why on earth should I get involved? But, somehow, this wasn’t convincing. Actually, it all seemed real simple: Fuck all those rationales, it was just money, in the worst case, I would give away some for nothing (big fucking deal), but in the best, I might really help someone out.

And then the guy was gone.

There had been an awkward moment of silence after the pharmacist had given his no-free-clinic lecture and before the guy suddenly grabbed the prescription the Mexican girl had put back on the counter, and walked out without saying a word. I watched him walk away from the store. I hadn’t bought him his drugs. Things had just happened too fast. Or that’s what I told myself.

“Can I help you, sir?”

“Ah … sure!” I put my prescription on the desk.

The Mexican girl disappeared, brought back the morphine, rang it up, put the drugs in a small paper bag, I paid, and that was that.

There was a coffee shop next to the drugstore. I had a hot chocolate. I had nowhere to go anymore in this town really. I still had to go back one more time to my girlfriend’s (or ex-girlfriend’s) to get my stuff, but then all I really had left to do was head back to my mom’s in the city. I knew people in town who would maybe put me up for a couple of nights, but they were all rather friends of my girlfriend’s (or ex-girlfriend’s), so I didn’t really wanna do that (besides, maybe they wouldn’t wanna put me up anymore, anyway – what did I know what kind of stories she told about me?). So, I was wondering if I should just head back to the city that same night. I hadn’t even called my mom yet. The hot chocolate wasn’t very good. Life was a mess.

Boom! … Boom!

The conversations around me stopped. Everyone looked out onto the parking lot. Had those been shots? Some people started to move over towards the window. The most fearless opened the door and peeked outside. “Oh, my god!” I heard someone say. Then there were the sirens of a police car in the distance. People started to trickle out of the café one by one. Apparently, the situation was under control. Finally, I got up and walked outside. By now, about fifty people had gathered around the cars at this corner of the mall. I could see the pharmacist and the other drugstore employees, including the Mexican girl from the register, in front of their shop entrance. Just fifty yards over, in the middle of the driveway, lay the guy who hadn’t had the $54.38. He lay there on his back and didn’t move. A puddle of blood slowly got bigger underneath him. One hand was outstretched with some tubes next to it. In the other he held a gun. Twenty yards from him stood a cop, his weapon still pointing at the guy.

A cop car arrived, then another one. Then the paramedics got there. The cops closed off the scene with that notorious yellow plastic tape. The paramedics leaned over the body for a few minutes doing this and that. Then they brought out a duffel bag.

I looked at the pharmacist and the Mexican girl. He had put an arm around her shoulder. Then a policeman went to talk to them. I went back into the coffee shop.

From what I learned later, the guy had gone back into the drugstore twenty minutes after he had tried to get his medication. He pointed a pistol at the girl and demanded his pills. She handed them over. As he ran out the door, a motorcycle cop was just (believe it or not) on the way to the donut shop. He saw the guy running with the pistol in his hand, pulled his gun, and yelled: “Freeze!” The guy turned around without letting go of his pistol. The cop fired twice. The guy was hit in the lung and the stomach, and fell to the ground. When the paramedics got there, he was already dead. His pistol had been a starter pistol.

Nothing ever happened to the cop. How could he have known it wasn’t a real gun?

I ended up going to the city that night. I stayed at my mom’s for two months, then I found myself another girlfriend and moved in with her. I found a job as well and paid my share of the bills this time.

I never went back to that stupid town upstate.

(2002)