Saturday, November 8, 2014

Saturday Musings, 08 November 2014

Good morning,

In  my ears the radio talks of violence in Mexico and murdered students.  As the reporter's voice floods my head, the ghost of complaints which crowded my soul on waking slip away.  My aches, my pains, my grief, my loss: they feel slight compared with the concept of a mass grave and burning bodies.  I tell myself that life is not a competition, it's an exhibition; but I do not believe that in this moment.  And so I pour my coffee, and let the dog out into the yard, and pour some food into the cat's dish, and sit down at the computer to try and make some sense of what I feel.  Or what I have experienced.

Someone recently told me that I do my best writing when I speak of persons other than myself.  When you write about yourself....he began.  Then he shook his head.  I stood mute and wondered:  When I write about myself the quality of my writing degenerates?  The stories bore you?  The events disturb you?  The joys fill you with envy?  I did not speak the questions nor receive any answers and the moment passed.

I'm thinking this morning not of myself but of a man whom I knew thirty-five years ago, when I worked at a drug store in St. Louis's Central West End.  I can see him when I close my eyes: Over six feet tall; over seventy years old; thin body hung with an old serge suit:  Jacket, vest, pants, tie.  The material had been pressed so many times that its surface shone.  The man's skin defined black and stretched taut across his bones.  He wore a brown Fedora with a tattered feather in its rim.

I worked in the make-up department on one side of the store.  Across from me, beyond the ten or so aisles, the pharmacist handed out prescriptions to the stores' customers including the old man.  Several times a week, the man would push open the front door and turn left, towards Pharmacist Arthur Perry's domain with its platform full of work tables, from which the pharmacy students counted pills and listened to their client's woes.  Art did not own the store.  The other pharmacist, Bernie Kuntz, owned it; but no one in the neighborhood timed their stops to be served by Bernie.  They all wanted Art and the old man was no exception.

He made his slow journey from door to the pharmacy window, his head straight and motionless, his narrow shoulders level and rigid.  From the make-up department I tracked his progress.  He would stand without complaint until everyone else had been served and then reach his hand to receive the bottle of pills.  Because the pharmacy had been elevated, I could see Art bend down to shake the old man's hand in the cheerful way Art had.  I could not hear what the old man said but I could see Art and follow the conversation from experience.  How are you today, sir?  (I'm okay, Mr. Perry.) What can we do for you today, my friend? (Oh, I'm just fine sir, fine; this here bottle is just what I came for.)  All right then, thank you; and please let the ladies know if they can help you.  (I will, Mr. Arthur, yes sir, I surely will.)

Then the old man turned, each time, and inched his way to the front register.  He handed the bottle to the girl at the counter, who held it while he drew a thin worn wallet from his pocket.  He placed the wallet on the counter, unfolded it, and extracted a ten-dollar bill which he handed, with a slightly shaking hand, to the cashier.  When she gave him back his change, he slid the silver into his right front pocket and the paper money back into the wallet, and reach beneath his jacket to return the wallet to his back pocket.  Then he'd extend his hand for the bottle. He did not want a bag.

I would watch him turn to his left and catch my eye.  A lively twinkle rose.  Each time:  I threw my glance far across the store to the place where Arthur Perry still stood, watching.  He would give me a brief, sure nod: each time.  Then Art turned back to his duties, to the measuring, and counting, the pouring, the greeting, the hand-shaking; while the old man made his slow way to me.

He'd ask how I was:  each time.  And I would tell him fine: each time.  Then I, in turn, would inquire after his health, and he would allow as how he'd been getting by well enough, he reckoned:  each time.  Then he would raise his hand just as I lifted my own, and into my hand he would gently place the bottle.  And I would open it for him, taking off the cap.  I'd shake one pill from the bottle and tender it to him to place in his mouth.  I'd hand over a cup of water that I would have already poured for him.  While he drank, I would replace the cap, turning only half-way, so that when he went home, alone; when he rose in the night with an attack of the pain which the pills relieved, he could open the bottle himself.

When the old man had drunk his fill -- enough to swallow without difficulty -- his dry hand reached for the bottle and I gently placed it in his palm.  He'd curl his fingers around the small brown bottle and I would watch, time after time, as he slid it straight up into the right-hand pocket of his worn suit coat.  It would not spill.  Then he'd take one of my small white hands in his two black, arthritic hands and he'd say, each time, each time:  Thank you, my dear.  Thank you.

Then the old man would softly slide his hands off of mine and step back, almost as though he'd gotten one minute too close to me.  Invariably I raised my eyes to look into his but could not help seeing Arthur Perry observing me from across the store.  We nodded as one.  I would pull from my belly a weak acknowledgment and then the old man would gaze at me for a few more minutes, letting his cloudy brown eyes absorb whatever timid emotion crept across my face.  As Arthur watched the back of the old man's head from the pharmacy, the old man would turn, raise one hand in a brief salute, and slowly walk to the door through which he had come; through which he would go; and through which we always believed he would return.

I  left St. Louis in June of 1980.  Sometime between then and the mid-1990s, that drug store succumbed to the unrelenting  march of progress.  The building is gone.  The restaurants in which I ate dinner and scribbled poetry have been closed, and re-opened as other restaurants with more modern themes.  Arthur Perry went to work for Eli Lily doing pharmaceutical research.  I saw him once in the decade during which my mother died, when I had come home for her funeral and my brother Stephen and I went to the Central West End for dinner.  Art sat at a table of elegant people, none of whom I knew.  We briefly spoke and I saw that while his eyes still pierced, he did not recall the poignancy of the days when we worked at the same place, a place where an old man came in order to be treated with dignity, at the end of a life that none of us understood nor even attempted to know.

Symphony music plays in my ears now; a piece on the radio about a composer from the 1930s.  The bars flow and the violins keen and outside of my house, the sun shines with an intensity that I feel sure it cannot maintain.  Winter draws near.  The drums roll and I think, whatever became of that old man?  And I wonder, for the thousandth time this week, what will become of me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.