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The druggist waited, whistling, looking out the window, nodding to each person who passed along the Main Street of Fife. It was early, the bank not yet open. The warming September wind wafted through the door seams. On the north hill, he could see the sun just hitting the flat metal roof of the Clearwater Mental Hospital and, across the shared parking lot, the high school. Dr. K often joked that the children of Fife could look out their windows and see their future before them.
“How much?” Manny asked again. The boy was tall enough to meet the older man eye to eye, but he kept his gaze on the faded counter as though some miracle might transpire there.
“Same as last time.”
The cola sat between them, dripping condensation. Manny laid out three pennies, pretended to search for more.
“Don’t got it, do you?” The druggist was not an unfriendly man but brusque and burly, built more like a butcher than a purveyor of medicine. Dr. K, the locals called him, his full name, Kalinosky, too much to mess with. His role in the town went beyond the filling of prescriptions and the dispensing of antiseptics: he diagnosed strep throat, checked children for lice, scoured the wounds caused by pitched rocks, chain saw slips, bicycle wrecks.
“No, sir.” Manny freed his hands, let them drop to his sides. He peered at his shoes, the seams stretched and frayed.
Dr. K sighed, shook his head, pointed toward the door. “Broom’s just outside. Make yourself useful for an hour.”
Like others in Fife, Dr. K knew the details of Manny’s life: his parents’ move from California to the isolated Idaho land they believed a more honest place; the strange little canvas hut that inspired the town’s curiosity and contempt. His father’s insistence on learning the dying art of horse-logging from an old man who stank of sweat and juniper berries. Manny’s birth just a few miles up Itsy Creek, and the death of his mother twelve years later when his little sister, born already dead, was followed by the blood they could not stop flowing. The father, once admired for his native ingenuity and his matched team of Percheron geldings, had headed south to find work and never came back. The good women of Fife had proceeded with a kind of communal adoption, passing the responsibility for Manny’s care from one to the other, each week a different mother, father, cast of siblings, and then the cycle repeating. Dr. K remembered the morning he’d opened the drugstore to find Mrs. Keasling wringing her hands, repeating again and again that der boy, der boy was missing. Dr. K had found Manny where he thought he would, asleep in the fair barn, his father’s auctioned draft horses snuffling his hair, placing their great hooves gently beside him.
Manny stepped outside with the broom, scattering the cats that had gathered for their morning meal. Too many toms, Dr. K thought. Too many litters, but he couldn’t turn away a single one of them. He watched as Manny worked the windows clean of cobwebs, pleased with the care he took with the corners. Despite everything, or maybe because of it, he’d grown into a fine young man: tall and strong-shouldered, more handsome than he needed to be. Thick dark hair, dark eyes, skin like an Italian, Dr. K thought. He looked like he might be broody, but wasn’t. When Manny ran the broom a final time along each crack of the sidewalk and knocked the bristles clean before stepping back into the store, Dr. K opened the cash register and pulled out a dollar bill.
“Here. Buy yourself some real food.” Dr. K slipped the pencil behind his ear, wiped a hand the length of his face. “Listen. You need to get out there and do something. Ray Coon’s logging outfit might need a swamper. Or what about the railroad? Didn’t I hear that they were hiring?”
Manny shrugged. “Guess I’m okay.”
“Okay? What’s that mean? There’s just no reason for you to be living like a hobo. It’s one thing when you’re a boy to be spending your days piddling around at the river, but you’re about past that now. Pretty soon, if you’re not doing nothing, you’ll be good for nothing.”
Manny nodded, agreeable as always. “You got more work you’d like me to do?”
Dr. K sat down on the high stool he kept for resting his feet. “Another few months, I might use you for delivery. Bad weather sets in, business picks up. Which reminds me—how many jars of VapoRub you see on the shelf?”
Manny counted three, one large, two small. The druggist grunted, made a note on a piece of paper. “Better order more. Those Carter kids eat that stuff. Mother thinks it does them more good from the inside.”
Dr. K was tallying his laxative inventory when a man stepped in. Dress shirt and shoes, pants still holding a crease. Sharp nose and chin. Hair just past a good cut. Outside, a faded red Volkswagen sat at the curb, a young woman in the passenger seat, holding her hair away from her neck, fanning herself with a map.
Dr. K moved to rest his meaty palms on the counter. “Yes, sir. What can I help you with?”
“I’m looking for Bag Balm.” The man’s voice had a strange cadence.
“Bag Balm we got.” Dr. K pointed around Manny. “Grab that green tin, Manny. Large size?”
The man nodded his head and pulled a money clip from his pocket.
Not many people came in who weren’t known by the pharmacist in some intimate way. He’d sold the boys their first condoms, seen most of the town’s women through menstruation, childbirth, and menopause. He prescribed headache cures and hangover remedies, administered narcotics to the suffering and sedation to those stricken by grief. If this new man had settled himself within the county, Dr. K would soon make him familiar; if he were only passing through, Dr. K would extract some anecdote to amuse or enlighten the next customer who came in.
Dr. K extended a thick hand. “Burt Kalinosky.”
“Thomas Deracotte.” The stranger shook quickly. He seemed less nervous than efficient. Knew his business and wanted to get on with it.
“Just traveling through, then?”
“We’re here from New Haven. Connecticut. My wife and I have purchased the Bateman place.”
“Sure, I know the place. Knew Olie, too.” Dr. K dealt out the man’s change and followed him to the door. “Bateman place, huh? Last I heard, it’d gotten pretty lean.”
The man took a moment to examine his shoes, looked out the window to Main Street before turning his attention back to the pharmacist. “You might let people know that we’ll be looking for a few laborers. We’ll be able to offer room and board, once our buildings are complete.”
“Well, then,” Dr. K said, “you should meet this young man. He could use some work.”
“How old is he?”
“Manny? Hell, I’m not sure exactly. How old are you, Manny?”
Manny cleared his throat. “Near eighteen.”
“He’s got a good head on him. Only fault that I can see is that he’d rather fish than break a sweat. That and read books.”
Deracotte’s face relaxed. His eyes were stone gray, the color of river rock. “What are you reading these days?”
The boy flushed with the sudden attention. “Great Gatsby, sir.”
Deracotte gave a slight nod of approval. “Are you a fan of Fitzgerald?”
“Guess I’m not sure yet.”
The man smiled. “How about Monday morning to start? Do you have transportation?”
“And you know the place?”
“Good. I’ll see you then.”
Dr. K watched through the window as Deracotte ducked into the little car and said something to the woman, who nodded and laughed.
“You better be grateful. I might decide I want that job myself.” He walked to the cash register, began counting change into the till.
“Bet he’s that doctor we heard might be coming,” Manny said.
Dr. K stopped counting his money long enough to gaze toward the door, process the possibility. “You think?”
The druggist stacked the quarters, then the dimes, scratched numbers on the back of a receipt. “Wonder what that would mean.” He touched the nickels, looked up at Manny blankly. “I can’t remember how many goddamn five-cent pieces there are in a dollar.”
“Twenty,” Manny said.
“Yeah,” Dr. K said. “Twenty.” He let them drop back into the till one at a time. “Guess a doctor might mean more business. More prescriptions to fill.”
“Injured wouldn’t have to travel so far.”
“You’ve always been good to come to.”
Dr. K let his fingers rest in the drawer. “I think I saved your life once.”
“You did. When I swallowed all the baby aspirin.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” The druggist’s eyes focused, took on more light. “You’d crawled up on the counter, got into Lily Wendle’s medicine cabinet. Whole bottle. Ate them like candy.”
“I remember you holding my head over the sink.”
“Made you drink raw eggs and vinegar.” The pharmacist snorted. “Nothing stayed down. Taught you a lesson, too.” He rolled the bank bag snug. “Think you can work for that man?”
“Guess I might see.” Manny pulled his pants higher. “Think I’ll be going.”
Dr. K nodded and turned to his shelves of pills and syrups. “Thought that rickety-ass salesman was supposed to drag in here today. I’m about out of thyroid.”
He waited for the door to open and close before sitting back down on his stool and pulling out the pack of cigarettes he carried in his breast pocket. The smoke would help take his mind off of the truth laid out before him: a month’s worth of bills and not enough money to pay.
He tapped the ash of his cigarette and considered the man who’d come in for Bag Balm. Myrta, the city clerk, had chippered away at anyone who would listen about the call she’d gotten from some man wanting to know about farm property for sale. “Sight unseen,” she said. “Didn’t even care to look at the place.” Buying without first walking the lay, weighing the dirt in your hand, seeing with your own eyes the well and tasting the water—beyond comprehension to anyone who made his living off the land. Dr. K couldn’t imagine what a physician might want with the Bateman place, but sometimes these people coming in from outside had funny ideas, had to find out things for themselves. With enough money and a little luck, you could make about anything work.
He lifted the bank bag and weighed it in his hand. If the new doctor took away more than he gave, the store would be in trouble. It might have been enough for his father, who had tended the sick with even less and still made something of himself, but lately Dr. K had been thinking less about his father’s life and death and more about his widowed mother, who had moved to Kansas for reasons she couldn’t explain, except that in all the years she’d lived in the river canyon she hadn’t witnessed her share of sky. She was a ninety-year-old woman living two thousand miles away when she’d called him to say that her head hurt. The neighbor found her the next morning, dead of a massive stroke. Maybe he could have saved her, given her a few more years of life, had she stayed near. An aspirin, or a shot of whiskey at bedtime—sometimes it takes so little. What was left in Fife to keep him was little more than his name on the glass and the need he felt to mend and minister to the townsfolk he’d known all his life.
He began to whistle to fill the silence. A few more hours and he could make his way up the stairs to his apartment and turn on the stereo. Maybe he’d choose Verdi, or maybe Puccini. Madame Butterfly. How many times had he listened to the death song of Cio-Cio-San and cried as though it were a new sadness just visited upon him? He’d have some whiskey, and then some dinner. Maybe some of the venison Lyle McNutt had traded for his wife’s medicine. The druggist figured he’d eaten his own weight in deer roasts and sausage over the course of the year it had taken Tally McNutt to die. But it was good and tender and an easy trade for the drugs that erased some part of the woman’s pain.
He’d have offered to feed Manny but the boy had always been shy of charity. Dr. K halfway envied such a life, unencumbered by anything more than the simplest of needs. Maybe working for Deracotte would change all that. A little money always begged for more. He hoped Manny would stop in, let him know how the job was going. Bring him a little news. Want another soda and stay long enough to drink it down.
“You’re a lonely sack of shit,” he said aloud and nodded because there was no arguing with someone as stubborn as he was.
From the Hardcover edition.