The Pharmacist Malgre Lui

by Gay Baines

It all started with a little argument he had with his mother, coming out of a larger, more important argument with his father.

His father wanted him to be a scientist. “Something practical.” But Jesus liked words: English lit, writing, acting. Especially acting. He would be the next Raul Julia. He imagined himself playing Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear. He would show the Anglos how great a Latino actor could be.

He got good grades in chemistry, and his father was helping him out so he agreed: Yes, he would be a scientist. Specifically, a pharmacist.

The little argument with his mother was about his name. He wanted to pronounce it in the Anglo way, or at least the way the Anglos pronounced it when they swore. “Jesus!” he said to Mama. “That’s the American way to pronounce it. Not Hey Zeus.”

“Stick with Hey Zeus,” his mother said. “Don’t cause trouble.”

“How can I cause trouble?” he said.

“Look,” Mama said, “why do you think Anglos get every other name wrong? For our last name they say Lee on. It’s Lay own. They’re lazy.”

“But they pronounce Jesus right. I don’t get it,” Jesus said.

“Sure. And you know why? Because they’re superstitious. No Anglo likes the idea of some dumb Latino being called Jesus. To them, Jesus was an Anglo. They’re afraid to give his name to a real live person. You ever met an Anglo named Jesus?”

“No. Well, there was that CIA guy. James Jesus Angleton.”

“He was a creep. Stick with Hey Zeus. You’ll get further.”

“It’s not honest, Mama.”

“To hell with honesty. We lie every day. Put on a big act, to try and get along. You too, in your fancy new job.”

Jesus Leon had graduated from pharmacy school, had his degree and a job in the pharmacy at Yurbrite Medical Clinic. He was proud to have finished third in his class, to have his diploma and his state certificate, allowing him to dispense medicines to sick people. But his satisfaction was dimmed by the knowledge that other graduates of the same university were going off to Yale, to Harvard, to New York and London, where they would become actors. Real actors, thundering Shakespeare iambics, rolling their rs (which came so easily to Jesus Leon).

His older sister, Concepción (another name the Anglos didn’t care for), sided more or less with Mama.

“Those actors,” she said. “They’ll get nowhere fast. At least you have a job.” Which was true. “Why don’t you join your neighborhood theater? They put on a play or musical twice a year.”

He joined the East Lawns Community Theater, but was not encouraged. They were rehearsing Bye Bye Birdie, which was to be produced just after school let out. Auditions had already been held, so he volunteered to paint scenery, help with lighting, and play the piano for rehearsals. Sometimes he got carried away, sweeping the music beyond the notes in the score. Several times the director, an English teacher at East Lawns High, cocked his bifocals at him and directed a sharp remark: “This is just the Community Players, not the Bolshoi Opera, my friend.” And Jesus grinned back, made himself look stupid and dreamy for a second before saying, in his American voice, in his very own Anglo-Buffalo accent, “Hey, it’s OK. Just a rehearsal.” The players on stage laughed and relaxed. Everyone liked Jesus. They all called him Hey Zeus.

At work he tried to be sober and anonymous. But he slowly became entranced by the patients he dealt with. Little kids who wanted to go home. Young parents badly dressed, tired. Old people, middle-aged couples. They all looked at him with great intensity. Their names amazed him. Caplicki, Asplundh, Lemongiallo, McKinstry, Wolferman. Anglos, every one of them. His picture ID tag, with his name—JESUS LEON, PHARMACIST—in clear letters, did not seem to alarm them. He could see their eyes move and thought he could see their minds translating Jesus Leon. No. Hey Zeus Leon. Much more important were their expressions. They clung to his words. As he drove home to his tiny apartment, he remembered what his mother had said about putting on an act, and thought, These people are my audience.

With some patients it was easy. He imagined himself a wizard or magician. There was Mrs. Roemer, for example. She was middle-aged, solid, slow-moving. Her puffy face, swollen fingers, and whiskey voice suggested high blood pressure. She sat down at the consultation desk, let out a throaty sigh, and said “How are you?” in a voice as liquid and agitated as surf. Her tone was friendly, and he saw her dark eyes sparkle in the peach-colored light of the office.

“Hi, Mrs. Roemer,” he said. “Doctor Sutri has prescribed a diuretic for you. Have you ever taken this medication before?”

“No,” she said. “I’ve had pills, but the doctor thought these might be better.”

“He’s right, Mrs. Roemer,” Jesus said. “These are little white pills—see?—that you take twice a day.”

“I hope they do some good,” she said, shaking her head. “I can hardly breathe.”

“They’ll help, they really will,” he said. “Think of it this way, Mrs. Roemer. Think of the sea, the way it—”

“The sea? You mean the ocean?” Mrs. Roemer asked.

“Yes, the ocean, if you will, surging and moving inside of you. You are the earth, you are a world unto yourself, part land, part sea, and the sea is taking over. The ocean, you drown in your own ocean.”

“I always loved going to the ocean,” Mrs. Roemer said. She gazed past him, through the miniature tree next to the desk, to the flat landscape, burning away in late-March light.

“Wasn’t it—” He paused, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Wasn’t it dangerous?”

“Hm? Oh. Well, yes, I suppose so. We were warned not to go out too far, you know—”

“You have gone out too far, Mrs. Roemer,” he said. “You have swum beyond the surf, the shore is just a dark line in the middle distance. These little pills are life preservers, or whatever you want to call them. Or water wings. Water wings! Imagine one on each shoulder, holding you up, supporting you, helping you above the green depths, preventing you from dr—from sinking into the water, letting you float, lightly as a leaf, to the sand shore.”

She gazed at him, rapt, following each word. When he had finished, she said, “You put it very prettily. What’s your name?” She squinted at his ID card. “I forgot my glasses.” A lie, he suspected.

“Jesus,” he said, pronouncing it right. “Jesus Leon.”

Hey Zeus,” she repeated. “That’s Jesus.” She began to laugh, a rich, hearty laugh fed by her illness, which made her cough.

“Next time,” she said as she got up to leave, “you’ll tell me how to walk on water. In the meantime, I’ll take these.” And she shook the vial of tiny white pills at him, as if shaking a pair of maracas.

The community theater, having succeeded with Bye Bye Birdie, prepared to put on The Threepenny Opera. Jesus tried out for Mack the Knife and got instead the part of Mr. Peachum. As a kind of consolation, he was made understudy for Mack the Knife, and served again as rehearsal accompanist.

This time he felt truly challenged as he hadn’t been during the Bye Bye Birdie rehearsals. The fact that the company might not be quite the quality required for such an ambitious production did not disturb him. He threw himself into his work, both at the Yurbrite Clinic and at the dimly lit East Lawns High School auditorium, where rehearsals were held.

As fall darkened the skies, the clinic prepared for the annual outbreaks of influenza. Despite the fliers distributed to all patients, which suggested that everyone be vaccinated, many patients came down with the flu. One of these was a young college student who tried to ignore his symptoms. By the time he came to Yurbrite to see a provider, he had a temperature of 104. Bent double by coughing, exhausted, and red-eyed, he sat in the pharmacy lounge, waiting for his prescription. When Jesus called him into the consulting room, he could feel the heat of his fever as the patient came in the door.

“Hi, Mr. Breit,” he said (unlike the rest of the Yurbrite staff, Jesus always addressed adult patients formally). “How are you feeling?” The kid looked very ill, he thought.

“Not so good,” Breit said, and coughed.

“You know what the flu is, Mr. Breit?” Jesus asked. When the patient gazed back at him dumbly, he went on: “It’s pretty much like the TV commercial. A full-size locomotive coming at you, rather than a toy train on the floor of your living room. Have you ever stood next to a locomotive, one that was waiting to leave the station? No, you haven’t; I can tell that you go everywhere in your Honda Accord. Well, I’ve stood next to locomotives and I felt their life, their heat. They’re living beasts. Their hearts are furnaces, their blood oil, their breath steam. They give off heat, they burn the very air. They are foul: Joyce called one ‘a worm with a fiery head’; did you know that? The engine of the train is bearing down on you, you are suffused with its heat, you will perish from it. But I have here a cure for you, prescribed by Dr. Doyle. Take one four times a day, with food or milk. The engine of flu will leave you, will bustle off, clanking its way through charred fields to rest in its native jungle of tarred ropes, steel tracks, splintered ties, the vast yard of coal that sustains it. As it chugs away, straining at the earth, you will be refreshed by the cool breath from the mountain. No longer tinged by the fire, you will gather your strength to return to the green valleys where you came from. Any questions?”

“Yes,” Breit said, his expression glassy. “Can I ski?”

“No,” Jesus said. “Don’t be a fool, man. Get to bed, take your meds, drink lots of Gatorade; you’ll be well enough to ski in a week or so.”

On his way out to the parking lot after work, Jesus was hailed by a woman in a glacé raincoat and fine leather shoes. Her face was familiar.

“Hi,” the woman said. “Remember me?”

“Mrs. Roemer?” he said after a moment. She smiled. “How are you doing?” he asked.

“Wonderful!” she said. “I’ve lost weight—after all these years.”

“You do look different,” he said.

“You were right about the pills,” she said.

“Better living through chemistry,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “It was what you said. Ah, but you’ll have forgotten. Never mind. You worked a miracle. See you around.” And she left him in the corridor, perplexed.

*

Among the victims of the flu was the actor playing Mack the Knife in the East Lawns Community Theater production of The Threepenny Opera. Jesus took over the role on twenty-four hours’ notice. The following day, drinking coffee to keep awake, he thumbed the pharmacy’s copy of the city paper. Polly Peachum had whispered to him the night before that the second-shift drama critic was in the audience. Sure enough, there was a brief review of the performance, which complained that the piano was out of tune but which praised the cast, particularly “Jose Leon, who gave the role of Macheath a certain Mediterranean intensity.” Jesus decided to view this comment in the most positive light. Perhaps in the future they would get his name right. But of course, as his mother had warned him, Anglos always avoided the name Jesus. What was meant by “Mediterranean intensity?” He did not consider himself Mediterranean in any way. He bought two copies of the paper and gave one to his mother. The other one he showed to Concepción.

“What do you think?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he thinks you’re from North Africa or something.”

This remark startled him. That night, he went to the library and asked to see an atlas of the Mediterranean. The maps provided were of varying ages, but he saw that there were layers of meaning in the critic’s remark. Spain, yes; France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Palestine (Palestine?), Jordan, Sicily, Egypt, Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco. Which of these countries did he mean? Or did he mean all of them? Why didn’t he say “Latin American intensity”? Jesus puzzled over it for a time, then went to bed.

During the pit of the year, the weeks in early January, after the holidays were over, he thought about his bizarre life. Polly Peachum, whose real name was Marsha Mallin, had evolved from being a friend and fellow actor to his first girlfriend since he graduated from university. “A nice girl,” his mama said after he had brought her to Sunday dinner. “An Anglo girl, but nice.”

“She’s not exactly Anglo, Mama,” he said mysteriously. He knew little of Marsha’s background. He still thought of her, occasionally, as Polly.

“She’s blond,” Mama said. “Blonds are Anglos.”

“No, no, Ma,” he said. “She bleached her hair for the role. It’s really brown. She told me.”

“She’s a nice girl, even so,” his mother said.

Marsha was studying English at the state university. She knew the professor who directed the productions of the East Lawns Community Theater. It was because of her that Jesus had been given a part in The Threepenny Opera. Jesus wondered what production would be scheduled for the spring. Rehearsals would not begin until March.

In late February Jesus congratulated himself silently on his success with several patients. Mr. Breit, the young man ill with the flu, had recovered with a new sense of zeal, Jesus found out, seeing him hobble into the consulting room on crutches.

“Broke my leg skiing,” Breit told Jesus with a grin. “How do you like that? I decided to quit being a potato, get myself into shape—and now this! Good for me though. Now I’ll be more careful. Soon as I’m on my feet, I’ll be pumping iron.”

Jesus kept his counsel. Mr. Breit’s prescription was for a mild painkiller, and Jesus described its use and effects as briefly as he could without being curt. When Mr. Breit had eased his way out of the consulting room, Jesus looked at the empty patient’s chair with a feeling of dread. His success as Mack the Knife was more than he dared ask. Marsha said, “You’re almost too good at this, you know?” She meant acting, of course, but he worried about the pharmacy. Was he “too good” at that too?

He went to the door and called the name of the next patient.

“Annakate Shaw. Annakate?” He repeated the first name, looking at the prescription bottle. “Is that really your name?”

“Yeah,” she said. “My mother’s sisters. Anne and Katharine.”

He looked at her. Her blue eyes shone. Cold fire, he thought. Anglos, with their eyes like the north wind blowing through their skulls. He saw more though. Spindly arms, bony hands, hollow cheeks. Soft, thick wool turtleneck sweater, fine wool slacks hanging on empty hips. A necklace of coral and pearls. Rich, spoiled, (anorexic). The prescription, as with Mr. Breit, was for a nonaspirin painkiller.

“You should take these only if needed,” he said, “and take them with food.” Food? He saw a flicker in her eyes, a flash of white as her pupils slid to one side and back again. “Or milk,” he added. He thought of milk, and whiteness, and saw on his mind’s screen white slopes, white sky, cold green hemlocks drooping with the weight of new snow. Cobalt-blue hills in the distance. Annakate, in a shimmery powder-suit the color of freshwater pearls.

“Think of your pain as a high slope,” he said. “These tablets are your skis. On them you will slide down the mountain, over the ice and snow, to a valley where the pain is out of reach, a high cloud. You ratchet back up to the top of the mountain. Pain greets you there like an old friend, but you are wary of him and ski down into the flat country where the trees do not force themselves upon you, but shield you from the north wind.”

He paused. She gazed at him, watching his face as he said the words, reacting to his gestures. It was, he thought, as good as the East Lawns Community Theater. He thought: They should create a new department at Yurbrite Medical Clinic—the Department of Pharmacy and Drama.

The Department of Pharmacy and Idiots, he thought later, when, the day finished, he stood in the parking lot. His Chevy Lumina, covered with the thin light snow of a lake-effect storm, sat ready to take him to Marsha’s apartment.

Marsha’s fingers flew over the keyboard of her laptop. Above the gentle clicking, she said, “I’m writing a paper on Beckett. Help yourself. There’s wine in the fridge.”

“Beckett,” Jesus said. “I wish I were writing a paper on Beckett.”

She stopped typing. “You want to write this for me?”

“I can’t,” he said. “All I know is chemistry. And a little Shakespeare. I don’t know Beckett.”

“You will,” she said. “East Lawns is doing Waiting for Godot in June. I think I’ve persuaded Chuck to give you Estragon.” “Chuck” was her nickname for Professor St. Charles, the director of the community theater.

“Huh,” Jesus said.

“I hate it when you say that,” she said. “Aren’t you glad? You’re a good actor. You should be pleased.”

“You said I was too good at it,” he said.

“I meant, too good for East Lawns,” she said. “You should move up. The Shaw Festival, or Stratford. Buffalo at the very least.”

“Oh, wow,” Jesus said. “Buffalo. Gee, thanks.”

He never saw Annakate again, and wondered what had become of her. After a few weeks, he wondered why he thought about her at all. He saw hundreds, no, thousands of patients in a week, some of them more than three times in one month. Mrs. Roemer and Mr. Breit he remembered because, he thought, he had through his persuasiveness saved them from severe illness or even death. This idea was self-aggrandizement of the worst sort, but he could not stop being convinced of it. But what had he been trying to save Annakate from? Mrs. Roemer had high blood pressure; Mr. Breit, a viral respiratory infection. Annakate’s sufferings were self-inflicted. Could he, Jesus Leon, possibly have saved her? And what would he have been saving her from? It wasn’t his job to save her in any case, but her doctor’s job.

He began to take long walks. One day, after visiting his sister in her new apartment on Amherst Street in Buffalo, he headed for the zoo. It was late in the afternoon, early March, cold and clear. He walked through Delaware Park, crossed the Japanese bridge, passed the statue of David, saw the blank eyes of the caryatids supporting the east porch of the art gallery. He stopped and stared at the sky. Time seemed to stop as he reflected on his own being: tiny, fragile, caught in the earth’s huge, implacable turnings.

If I do not care what happens to Annakate or to any other person, I am not human, he thought. A bird, a fleck of ink against the opal sky of late-winter sunset, woke him from his reverie with a sharp, almost human cry. He knew what he must do: go to Annakate’s primary physician and find out what had happened to her. Unlike Mrs. Roemer and Mr. Breit, she had not reappeared in the clinic. If she had thrived as a result of his advice, he must stay on forever at the Yurbrite Medical Clinic. If she had not thrived, had worsened, or even (he dared not think too long about it) died, he must resign from the clinic, abandon his profession. Perhaps be an actor, as he had originally wished. Starve. His parents would be disgusted. But it would be only fair, he thought as he drove out to the Yurbrite Medical Clinic.

 

Gay Baines won the National Writers Union Poetry Prize in 1991 and the 2008 Mary Roelofs Stott Award for poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, The Baltimore Review, The Great American Poetry Show, Meridian Anthology Of Contemporary Poetry, Nimrod International Journal, and The Tampa Review.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “The Pharmacist Malgre Lui

  1. very engrossing, detailed,

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