My park bench
vincealongi via Creative Commons

The park across the street from the pharmacy was one of those forced development deals; some EconDev deputy’s idea of a compromise. They worked with city planners in some kind of baseball card version of SimCity: I’ll trade you one tiny strip of grass and anemic tree line for six strip malls and a parking structure in our historic downtown, that kind of thing. Ken sat on his bench in the miserable little park and stared at the building, sneering at the painted facade the color of vomited hot dogs, and counted customers.

The padding of his buttocks had worn thin, like a pair of pants he couldn’t bear to throw out and so had weathered away any once-held utility. The bones of his hips ground against the painted slats—green, of course—and he hated everything. His tricycle was parked nearby underneath a shadeless tree, too newly planted to even stand on its own without the support of wooden crutches and rubber lashes. There were no leaves to keep the chrome handlebars from heating in the glare, there was no security provided by the flimsy chain lock (manufacturer’s provided combination: 1-2-3-4). The vehicle was plodding and uncomfortable to ride but beloved for its single provision: freedom.

Ken settled a curving pipe between his long mustaches and lit it with a match. His customer count reached 75 and he checked his watch while the hot summer wind threatened the light of his pipe. Eight forty-nine and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had been open for under an hour, currently averaging more than one customer per minute.

There came a clarity with old age, a stripping down of mental tartar, revealing the inconsequentiality of sports, politics, news cycles, social engagement, and leisure. It rendered each of them vaporous and easily waved away with a gnarled hand. What remained was the fleeting bliss of family, the inevitability of oblivion, and the sweet allure of perceived injustice. It was this last that brought Ken to the park each day for the past two months, counting customers, tabulating data and biding time.

The Tim of the Pharmacy’s moniker was long since retired to Florida somewhere, having sold the store to a business owner with more local pride than common sense. Ken didn’t understand why a man who lived in Southern California would retire to Florida, but he didn’t understand why a man named Jared Morrissen would continue to own and operate Tim’s Discount Pharmacy. There were a great many mysterious things about Jared Francis Morrissen, and many more that might have weighed on Ken’s thoughts. The one he kept coming back to was why Morrissen hadn’t changed the name of the shop. Jared’s Discount Pharmacy. Morrissen Pharmacy. Even just Discount Pharmacy. Ken didn’t believe for a second Morrissen was the kind of man who believed customers were loyal to a name or a brand. Morrissen was the kind of man who wanted—demanded—recognition, and letting a no-longer-affiliated man by the name of Tim take even partial, associative credit…

The line of customers filing in and out of Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had little in common with each other, unless you counted the statistical commonalities of everyone in Brooklake: a median 25 pounds of excess body fat; a 10.7% higher rate of skin cancer than the national average; 2.36 times as likely as any other Californian to own their home and 0.41 times as likely to own a car rated by the EPA at 20 miles per gallon or more; caucasian or latino—almost certainly of Mexican origin—by a margin of 99:1, the one representing any other race or ethnicity. And then, of course, the unifying similarity of all shopping on this particular day at the exact same pharmacy, owned and mostly operated by the same man.

Each customer entering the unappetizing building did so exactly as every errand-running person  in countless places of business in countless towns across hundreds of countries worldwide: with a stride of confident purpose and distracted hurry. It was early in the morning, pre-work for most, and the lounging presence of off-school teenagers in want of some kind of supervision but not of time to kill had yet to materialize. The evening congregation of panhandlers, youth organization fundraisers, nervous loiterers, and exhausted laborers was as far away as the arc of the sun through the sky.

The parallel to the purposeful inward tide was the contrasting but no less uniform egress line. Each customer moved through the automatic exit doors, on the right from Ken’s perspective, with a glazed and blissful expression. They all carried small paper bags, folded over at the top and stapled shut along with a slim fold of perforated printer paper covered by the small type of instructions, warnings, possible side effects, and legal disclaimers. None of them had more than a single bag. None had made any ancillary purchases, not even a pack of gum that Ken could see. He knew what was inside each of those bags, and the thought made him puff harder on his pipe, flooding the bright and breezy morning air with swirls of sweet choking smoke. His teeth were clamped on the stem as though he believed someone would be along presently to snatch it from him.

Inside Ken’s shirt pocket, tucked beneath a cheap ballpoint pen and hidden behind the lapel of his day coat, was a single pill. The pill had come from Tim’s Discount Pharmacy but not from Tim. It had come from Jared Morrissen and it was all that remained of a bottle full of identical pills which were, ostensibly, manufactured and prescribed to Ken to regulate his blood pressure. Like nearly all aging Americans, Ken had a regimen bordering on comical of pills he was supposed to take: a pill to keep his heart rate regulated; a pill to lower his cholesterol; a pill to ease the aches in his joints; one to improve his liver function; one to offset a side effect from the liver pill; one to smooth out a side effect of the side effect pill; the list went on. They needed to be taken at different times during the day, some with food, some decidedly without. He had a honking vitamin that required two or three tries to force down and often got caught, painfully dissolving in his esophagus over the course of an hour or so. Ken hated all of them.

The key fact, in Ken’s mind, that separated him from Brooklake’s other occupants and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy’s other patrons, was this loathing of his medication. His doctors had long since stopped worrying about drug interactions or long-term effects or the habit-forming properties of his pills. Visits now seemed to be some kind of unregulated contest to find how quickly the doctor could identify a Pocket Drug Reference entry they could translate into a scrip that would usher a cantankerous and skeptical Ken out the door. If only, Ken often mused, they were as concerned with timeliness while he sat with growing leg aches reading his sixth issue of Time magazine’s back catalog in the waiting room. But Ken was so embittered by the pill-pile-on approach to his health care that he did the unthinkable, the absurd: he read each and every medicine pamphlet. He studied every single bottle, committed to memory every step of the doctor’s and pharmacist’s instructions, including the pill descriptions.

That was how he had known J. F. Morrissen had tried to slip him a mickey. Was, in fact, replacing all the drugs prescribed to all the patrons of his particular establishment. And no one else was noticing.

What he didn’t know, what he had yet to discover, was how Morrissen was accomplishing the stupefied clientele who glassed over the changes to their regular pills. How he facilitated the hollow acceptance of a successful trip to the pharmacy in which no shopping list was ever completed and no question was ever asked. He had tried complaining to the lead pharmacist, a rude gray-haired woman with brownish skin and ridiculously overlarge bifocals, but had gotten only his pill bottle confiscated and a coupon for two dollars worth of dry roasted peanuts when he next spent $20 or more on photo processing. He had confronted Morrissen himself and found the man smug and patronizing and, ultimately, unflappable. And naturally he had contacted the police on more than one occasion. At first the officers had called back with that undertone of recent or forthcoming laughter (this guy’s a crank, but my duty prevents me from laughing directly at him, it conveyed). As Ken’s own investigation had escalated, later calls to the police had been handled with direct interaction between dispatched officers and Morrissen, their back-slapping and glazed-eye laughter chilling enough to avoid even making the obvious donut joke.

Which left Ken in the unenviable position of either trying to escalate his law enforcement request to higher authorities, knowing full well they would probably contact the locals and tumble down the same rabbit hole, or handling it on his own. The principal problem with this, the one Ken had yet to really approach head-on, was that so far he had been unable to determine any nefarious purpose, any harmful effect, or any fault at all with Jared Morrissen’s fraudulent operation. Not every person in Brooklake shopped at Tim’s, none of those who went in hoping to acquire legitimately prescribed medication seemed to be suffering any ill health effects from being duped. Aside from the initial mindlessness they all seemed to succumb to from their point of sale interaction, each returned to a version of lucidity within ten minutes that was complete enough to permit them to accuse Ken of being the crazy one during his early misguided attempts to raise alarm.

The result: sitting on the damnably uncomfortable bench, and watching. Customers went in, temporary zombies came out, the pills were consumed, the cycle repeated. Ken sat and watched.

When the moment of action came, he was pleased to find he didn’t hesitate. He was less pleased to discover “action” in his case was limited to a series of jerking, creaking, grunt-accompanied lurches into a standing position. This was followed by a slow shuffle toward the door in which his arms moved in a limited range at a pace that might have been conducive to a run, had his feet been capable of leaving the ground in unison. He stumped along in a slow motion ataxia, pipe clutched between his fingers, glaring at the door.

The benefit of his labored progress was in the time it granted him to formulate a plan. The park bench was maybe 100 yards from the pharmacy door, certainly no more than 125. Had Ken bothered to check for traffic in the street that bisected his path, it might have taken him eleven minutes to reach his destination. He made it in nine and a half. It was, however, 570 wasted seconds in which he was unable to determine a wise course of action or, for that matter, any course of action at all. He felt the air-conditioned chill blast over him as his eyes struggled to adjust from the blinding glare of sunlight to the blinding glare of evenly spaced florescent fixtures. He raised his arms, feeling his shirt untuck and his sagging belly announce itself, accompanied by the conservatively raucous sounds of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” over the loudspeakers. He took a few more stiff steps into the store and bellowed an incomprehensible series of non-words, mostly vowel sounds.

“Rrauuuuuuuuauuuugh muuur graaaaaluuuoooooort!”

Everyone turned to stare, even the distant-eyed line of customers whose transactions were complete and were making their way in zen-like dimness to the exit doors.

“Anita!” Ken hollered, lowering his arms, his resolve failing under the weight of the stares. “Anita!”

He began feeling his way along the candy aisle, pushing toward the back of the store where the pharmacy counter sat overlooking the store like an unblinking owl searching for mice to fall upon, gulp down, regurgitate into a fluffy turd of fur and bones. “Anita!” Ken called again, rounding the corner, finding the lengthy pick-up line stacked with people looking at him, eyes brimming with pity and embarrassment on his behalf. He was too old to care about their discomfort, but he loathed them for their commiseration. “Anita!” He groped a path down the line, touching each patron even as they shrank away from his grasps, spinning those who were trying to keep their backs to him, to pretend he wasn’t there. Over and over he called the same name, “Anita! Anita?”

Ahead in the line, about halfway to the counter, a tall, round-faced woman stepped out of line with her eyebrows folded into a bracket of heavy concern. “Pappy?” she said, retracting a set of white earbuds from beneath her loose waves of black hair.

“Anita!” Ken cried, trying to rush to her, finding he was still physically incapable of any higher gear. “Anita, you have to get out of here!”

She approached him, tucking the headphones into her pocket, reaching out to him as if she were concerned he might fall. Ken distantly acknowledged that a loss of balance was a distinct possibility. “Pappy, what are you doing here?”

“You can’t be here, Ani! There’s something going on!”

Anita caught her father, held him tightly as his center of gravity gave way to the quasi-controlled fall he had been using as a means of locomotion, and propped him up with an arm under his shoulders. “What? What is it?”

“This place! The guy who runs it! It’s…” Ken trailed off, looking around, seeing the mixture of disgust for him and chin-jutting sympathy for his daughter on the faces of every onlooker. And then he saw Jared Morrissen, the thin face made of sharp angles, the deep crevice of a permanent frown between the caterpillar eyebrows, the excessive earlobes. “You!” Ken snarled. Every head, including Anita’s, whipped toward Morrissen and then immediately returned to Ken, glee and hive-minded amusement glittering in every eye.

“What’s wrong? Him? That’s just Mr. Morrissen.”

“That swindler!” Ken spat. “He’s poisoning you! He’s poisoning you all!” He swung a finger around, saw the thickness of the nail, dancing at the tip of a trembling tree root that had once been such a fine finger, an artist’s finger. Dimly he knew his action would have reactions, and his path to Willow Grove where his wife had spent her last tormented weeks was probably being cemented.

“Dad,” Anita said, urging him to move away from Morrissen, “it’s just a pharmacy. Mr. Morrissen owns it. He’s not even the pharmacist.” And then he saw it, the quick glance from Anita up to the crowd, to Jared Francis Morrissen, and in her eyes Ken saw apology. He’s sick, the look said, I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you all. I’ll handle this. I’ll handle him. Ken realized his pipe was missing. He really wanted it back.

His eyes fell on Morrissen, but he was looking for his pipe so he was distracted, focused on what his eyes weren’t seeing as opposed to what they told him. The one part that had never failed Ken were his eyes. Through years and decades of people much younger succumbing to glasses and prescriptions and terrifying laser surgeries, Ken’s remained strong, his vision a steady 20/20. They had taken his driver’s license away but not from lack of ability to see, only lack of ability to properly react. As Ken looked toward but not directly at Jared Morrissen, he saw at last the illusion, understood the manner in which the local business owner was able to manipulate, felt it settle into his mind with a satisfying pat like the ones his mom used to place on his head she was proud of him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, conjuring every ounce of weariness into his old man voice he could. He wasn’t surprised to find two months of bike rides and long days on the park bench had given him an abyss of it to draw upon. “I must have forgotten to take my meds this morning. Maybe Ms. Barnwell here can check my refills?” He gestured at Morrissen. “If Mr. Morrissen doesn’t mind skipping me to the head of the line?” He pointed with his other finger at Elise Barnwell, the pharmacist. The crowd and Anita followed the line of his fingers to the single entity standing among the crowd, hands behind back, milky crusts at the corners of its downturned mouth.

Anita looked from Ken’s hands to Barnwell/Morrissen, blinked her eyes a few times and re-traced the point for the third time. The crowd began to shrink away from the figure until he or she or it was left standing in a ring of empty space. Looking at it was difficult, like one of those three dimensional magic eye paintings in a dirty frame, it kept dropping away from cognition, retreating back into the computer-generated static of the disguise. It would be Barnwell for a moment, then Morrissen, then a hazy blob of shifting translucent fractals and back again. Each blink might switch it from one to the other until it was impossible to tell which was real, if any of them were.

Ken saw his pipe lying near a young man’s foot, the shoe one of those that has a clip on the bottom to attach to a bicycle instead of a pedal. He wished he could stride arrogantly to it, but he settled on shuffling toward it and gesturing until the man stooped and handed it to him, eyes darting between Ken’s triumphant expression, the pipe, and the human-ish figure in the ring of shoppers. Ken tapped at the bowl of the pipe, fished a match out of his shirt pocket and felt something else. He struck the match with his ring and pinky fingers tucked against his palm, protecting the small object.

When the pipe was lit, Ken dropped the match and stepped on it, leaving a small ring of black soot on the tile. He puffed a few times and grasped the pipe in his teeth, opening his palm. “This is what you’ve all been taking,” he said, sweeping his arm around a bit. Barnwell/Morrissen stood idly, the human versions looking annoyed and bored more than anything. A few people from the exit line had begun to crowd at the periphery of the circle and now crinkled their bags open and produced identical pills from their bottles. An angry murmur began nagging at the distance between the mob and the Barnwell/Morrissen entity.

“I knew you were going to be trouble,” Barnwell/Morrissen said, the voice an overlap of both female and male, human and not. Ken pulled the pipe from his mouth, took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the mouthpiece, stuffed the rag back and held an arm out to his daughter. Anita took it, an expression on her face he hadn’t seen since she was a little girl.

“Good for you, Tim” Ken said, leading Anita out into the sunshine. “Good for you.”

2 thoughts on “Pharma Chameleon

  1. This story was written kinda sorta for my dad, who provided me with four writing prompts as part of an assignment for some writing class curriculum he is or was working on. The prompt here was, “An elderly man sits alone on a park bench, staring at people entering and leaving the pharmacy across the street.” It went to kind of a weird place from there.

    I don’t actually know how I feel about this one. I tried to go for kind of social satire funny and, as with most of my efforts at humor, I doubt its success. It’s also worth noting that the whole conspiracy angle beneath the thing is an elaborate excuse for me to make the pun in the title, which came before I had written a single sentence. The main lesson here being, I suppose, that labored bad puns are perhaps the only thing worse than bad puns to begin with.

    Other than that, though, it could be worse. I kind of hate the last sentence but I couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t cheesy action movie machismo. I also thought about cutting it entirely which lead to a serious waffle-fest resulting in a cease and desist letter from a number of national chain breakfast restaurants. I decided to do the “go with your first instinct” approach to the problem but even now as I’m talking about it I kind of want to go back and remove it again.

    You could say “it comes and goes.” /sunglasses

  2. Follow-up evaluation:

    I did something with this story that I hadn’t done with any of the others, namely I posted it before I had shown it to my First Reader, Nik. Once I did, after it was up and out there, she noted that it has some issues beyond what I described above. In short: it’s not funny (not even as funny as I thought maybe it might be), it takes to long to get to the point, and once the point arrives, it’s sketchy and uninteresting.

    I think what really happened here was that I was so impressed with myself for finishing not just one but two stories in the same week I declared to myself “My Mojo Is Back!” and, well, that may have been premature.

    The main lessons to takeaway are as follows.

    A) Always show the First Reader, well, first.
    B) When you say, “It could be worse…” then fail to describe a single positive point and in fact continue to note problems, consider rethinking your definition of the word “worse.”
    C) Funny prose is even harder than funny dialogue, which is really super hard. Practice and read more funny prose to improve.
    D) Don’t assume reaching the end equates to intrinsic value.

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