by Paula Younger
2004 SFWP Literary Awards Program
‘How was the rehearsal dinner? Think you’re going to like the new in-laws?’ Frank, the older pharmacist, asked from behind the counter. He was balding and his remaining hair gray, but his eyes were mischievous and made him look younger. Margaret was sure he was more depressed than she was when she decided to retire.
Margaret lowered her voice, ‘I’m afraid they’re a bit stuffy.’
‘They’re not as cool as you? What a shame.’
Frank smiled widely and gathered her prescriptions together. ‘What does Willard think?’
‘Oh he thinks they’re just fine.’ Margaret knew that Frank trusted Willard’s opinion more than hers. Willard only came in once in a while, but when he did, he and Frank discussed baseball, bemoaning or celebrating their beloved Cardinals, depending on the season. Somehow this made him wiser to Frank. Sometimes Margaret caught Willard and Frank exchanging glances when she talked, as if she had to be taken with a grain of salt. She didn’t miss these things like they thought she did.
‘Where’s Celia? I thought she was coming for the wedding.’ Frank leaned against the counter and looked around as if Celia was there and he just couldn’t see her.
‘She’s off running around with her Uncle Tommy doing Lord knows what.’ This morning, Celia and Rose slept in instead of accompanying Margaret to her regular Mass. She wanted to show off her granddaughter and daughter to Father Joseph and the other parishioners. When Mass ended, Margaret went home instead of socializing so she wouldn’t have to explain where Rose and Celia were. When Tommy pulled up to the house an hour later, Margaret remained inside the kitchen. While he and Rose sat on the porch talking in hushed voices, Margaret waited, her hands pressed against the cool Formica counter. But Tommy never came. Instead, Celia ran out the door and into Tommy’s arms. They drove away before Margaret could walk out to say hello. Rose went to plan Joan’s bachelorette party and Willard left to help the neighbors build their porch. As a young woman, Margaret had been sure once you were married and had children you would never be alone.
Frank set the white prescription bags down on his side of the counter and nodded his head, smiling as if thinking of a happy memory. ‘Tommy’s in town too? He was such a great kid. You’ll have to bring him in. I’d love to see him.’
Frank’s eyes started glowing when he heard Tommy’s name. He looked too excited. Margaret stepped away from the counter and watched Frank. He was a bachelor ‘ no wife, no children. Maybe there was something about him she didn’t know. The way he said I’d love to see him gave her chills. Maybe Frank went to those bad theatres and did those bad things. You never knew. You could never tell.
‘Well, Tommy is a very busy boy,’ Margaret said as evenly as possible. ‘He doesn’t have enough time to do errands with his mother. He’s only in town until Monday. He’s not staying as long as the others.’
‘Did he bring anyone with him for the wedding?’ Frank had picked up a pen and was repeatedly pressing the top. The point went out, in, out, in.
Margaret worried about Frank’s soul now. She’d have to come in on his day off. She knew the employees’ schedules. ‘He brought a friend with him. They’re staying at a hotel.’ She never allowed Tommy to stay in the house when he brought Daniel.
Margaret wanted to pick up her prescriptions and leave, but didn’t dare move closer to Frank. He bent down behind the counter and reappeared with a large package wrapped in ivory paper with a gold bow. ‘Will you give this to Joan? Everyone here chipped in. We’ll want details of the wedding.’
Margaret’s mistrust faded. ‘How lovely! Tell everyone thank you! I’ll give it to her myself. That is so sweet. God bless you.’
Frank handed Margaret her prescriptions. There were six white bags; four of the prescriptions were hers. Willard was the one who went to the doctor regularly, Margaret didn’t need to. She had a drawer full of prescription pads from the doctor she used to work for. During WWII, she strained her back while she helped move injured soldiers after a bomb landed near the medical tent. The pain had aggravated her for years. She decided to stop suffering and ask Doctor Lewis for help, but he said, Just write yourself a prescription. A good painkiller. You know the drill.
Margaret researched painkillers, what would help her not to worry so much, not to feel the constant aches. It made more sense for her to write the prescriptions when she needed something instead of bothering him. After all, Doctor Lewis was a busy man.
At the checkout, Margaret talked with the clerk about the humid weather. Susan always complained about her aching back and feet. Margaret recommended wearing nurse shoes, as she always did, but Susan stubbornly wore cheap canvas ones. Margaret longed to tell Susan she should dye her hair; it had been gray for years. She kept it pulled back with a large silver clip, accentuating the already obvious wrinkles and bags beneath her eyes.
If only Susan wore a little makeup and fixed her hair, she wouldn’t look so defeated.
Margaret showed the pictures of her children and grandchildren to Susan and the young bagger. The bagger stared at Celia’s picture a little too long. He looked familiar, but was much taller and lankier than the boy Margaret remembered. He had too much acne and his hair was black and greasy; he wiped his sweaty hands on his work apron. Margaret didn’t recall ever seeing him at church and then realized he lived only three blocks from her and his family was Protestant. Last summer they invited Margaret and her family over for a barbecue and this boy hovered around Celia the entire time. He asked Margaret when Celia would be in town again. Margaret pretended she didn’t hear him.
Susan complimented Margaret on her beautiful family. Margaret thanked her and didn’t tell her how hard it was to keep such a beautiful family together. The bagger placed four extra paper bags in the grocery cart. When he followed her outside to load her car, his name popped into her head, Kenny, Kenny Robbins. ‘Thank you,’ she said, giving him a dollar. When he was back inside, she pulled a prescription bottle out of the bag and sat in the driver’s seat. She looked around. There was no one near her in the parking lot.
She opened her purse and grabbed her stainless steel flask. Her shaking hands untwisted one of the prescription bottles then unscrewed the top of the flask. Margaret placed a morphine pill in her mouth and swallowed, taking two long drinks. She felt clear, good. She took two more long drinks then drove to the liquor store on the other side of town where the coloreds live.
The bell rang when she opened the door, as it always did. The first few times it had startled her and she jumped like a guilty child. The colored men working behind the counter nodded and she nodded back, averting her eyes to the ground. She felt small behind the massive shelves and took short breaths; the air was stale and dusty. When she reached aisle 3, all she could see were the boring labels of McCormick, Gordon, Burnett, and Gilbey. Finally she looked up to the top shelf and saw the familiar label’the comforting red, white, and gold, the name Stolichnaya in flashy gold letters with that mysterious bulky building lurking behind.
‘Stolichnaya,’ Margaret murmured. She liked to say the name out loud, letting each syllable fall slowly off her tongue. It felt alien and sweet, like something borrowed from another, more glamorous life. She never called it Stoli for short; that would be too cute and demeaning. She pictured herself in a white fur coat surrounded by deep snow walking toward onion-domed churches. Despite the Cold War, Margaret couldn’t help but buy her brand; those Commies knew how to make the best vodka. Besides, she understood how quickly allies could become enemies. There was no need for the vodka to get involved.
Margaret stood on her tiptoes and reached for the top shelf, but was still too short and almost lost her balance. She didn’t want to ask the men behind the counter for help so she walked around the store searching for someone, but all she saw were dark brown eyes looking through her. She found a step stool in the corner by the backroom and carried it to the aisle. With the stool she was able to reach. She grabbed two bottles and made her way back down, clutching them to her chest. She set them on the bottom shelf and climbed up again for two more. After she was done, she set the bottles into the red plastic carrying basket and inspected her filthy hands. She opened her purse and ripped open two packets of moist towelettes, one for each hand. There wasn’t a trashcan so she pressed the towelettes into a ball and placed them in the corner of the shelf.
She lugged the basket to the front of the store; her shoulders tight, her arms ached. She should’ve asked for help. The men behind the counter smiled as she wobbled up to the register. The bottles clinked when she managed to set the basket onto the counter. One of the men rang her up, but didn’t say the total. Margaret had to read the numbers on the register display; she knew how much it would be anyway. She paid with the cash she set aside for her weekly trip. No one offered to help her to her car and she wouldn’t have accepted it if they did.
The streets were full of strangers. Margaret unlocked the trunk of her car. She opened the four spare paper bags and reorganized the groceries, placing each bottle in a different bag, making sure it was covered by food. She patted down the loaf of bread and boxes of cereal, then lifted the cover to the spare tire compartment, grabbed her empty bottles, and threw them in the dumpster.