That Kind of Day

It started as the kind of day when dogs were feeling suicidal, and Sarah didn't yet know how that kind of day would end. She was winding a familiar two-lane road when she encountered a German Shepherd running toward her car with its flaccid tongue dangling wildly. Rabies? She wondered, but the dog didn’t appear to be foaming at the mouth. Honking, she slowed to elude the dog's erratic gait, but it veered toward her tires, intent on being hit. With inordinate reflexes and timing, she managed to swerve and miss--then she veered back into her lane to avoid a collision with an oncoming pickup.

Still breathing heavily after her close call, she spotted another dog, a tan, floppy-eared hound, sitting, just sitting, between the railroad tracks alongside the road as if tied there awaiting its fate.

Should I play the Mounty Dudley Do-right to this damsel dog? She mused, slowing and cracking her window just as she passed. But she stepped on the gas and drove on. She'd be late if she dawdled, and she had to open the store. A persistent sound, like a chainsaw, filtered into her hearing along with the rushing air as she accelerated.

Where am I? She asked herself. She was only driving her usual route to work, and although these two dogs looked unfamiliar and their actions approached the surreal, everything else was the same: the graveyard left behind when the adjacent church was razed, the abhorrent electric blue trailer she was beginning to favor over the freshly painted beige farm house with hanging ferns around the porch. Sarah had passed these landmarks at least twice a day, six days a week for the last five years. The farm house had changed owners and been repaired in the process and a new trendy home, not quite Tudor, with its own horse barn and training ring erected on the hill, but everything else felt the same, even the cloying atmosphere. Every morning for some time it had seemed ever more unlikely that another day could pass without an air-clearing storm, and yet it did.

Something that sounded like a lawn mower buzzed or sputtered near her; it grew closer until she saw the green and white striped sail-- nothing more elaborate-looking than a parachute attached to an outboard motor--of an ultra-light aircraft passing over her car. When she rounded the next curve the ultra-light continued its flight above a parched alfalfa field that she thought was part of Randall Crane's property. Gradually, the sound died away from her as she and the pilot followed paths in opposite directions.

Twenty minutes later she pulled into the strip mall parking lot. She could see several customers waiting at the door for her to turn the deadbolt with her key. They were always lined up on Monday mornings, as though they had held their complaints, their needs-- for Epsom salts and Johnson's foot powder, condoms, feminine napkins, toothpaste and floss-- in check through Sunday evening, but barely.

The almost deaf Mr. Moore caught sight of her and called, "Running late this morning, Sarah?"

Sarah knew she was right on time, but she didn't challenge him. He was eighty and proud of it; if she gave him a chance he would remind her of this. "You're up and at it this morning," she said loudly.

Mr. Moore beamed back at her cheery tone. "My wife sent me for something for her aching feet."

Another customer, a twenty-something woman in jeans whom Sarah didn't recognize piped up, "I need something for asthma-- my dog's," she said beneath her breath.

"Are you sure it's asthma?" Sarah asked. "The leaf litter might have him going--"

"Her," the woman interjected, flipping back her bleached, loose hair.

"Vicky Vaughan, you know her?"

The young woman shook her head, no.

"Well, you must be new. Vicky's a breeder around here. Says this time of year she takes her dogs into the bathroom with her when she showers. The moist air helps them with their wheezing. If it gets too bad she gives them part of a benedril, but you'd better call your vet for the dosage."

"You must like dogs," the young woman said.

“Cures,” Sarah said. “But I'm no vet. You should take her in if you're worried."

She sent Mr. Moore down aisle two for soaking salts and the woman with the wheezing dog down aisle five. Part of maintaining her reputation demanded that she only sell what was needed, the other part on her knowledge.

After five years of managing the pharmacy Sarah knew more than the pharmacist--all because people shared their home remedies for insomnia and colicky babies, and she remembered: chamomile tea before bedtime and honeyed whiskey rubbed on babies' gums, Corn Huskers lotion for dry hands and Bag Balm for really stubborn cases. It was Mrs. Gilbert, who kept cows and used it first on chapped udders, who had noticed the emollient's effect on her own cracked hands. Now Sarah stocked it in the hand lotion section and passed the word, of course citing Mrs. Gilbert, but somewhere along the way the citation got lost for that and for every other remedy Sarah had collected.

Sarah stocked almost as many herbs and salves and teas as a health food store. She kept large and small tins of Tiger Balm, a display of aromatic oils and candles, and homeopathic vials for everything from nausea to vaginitis. She sold what she called her cold package regularly, tailoring it to the customer's symptoms: ginger tea and vitamin C, zinc and/or Slippery Elm lozenges, and maybe Throat-coat tea for really bad sore throats, along with Tea Tree and lavender oils for sinus infections or earaches. She swore by personal steam inhalers and diffusers to go with the oils, and if a customer needed charcoal or a plastic drop cloth, clothespins, or car wax she stocked those, too. Aisle seven. At the back of the same aisle sat an upright cold drink cooler filled with Mystic Blends and Tropical Smashes. As a consequence of her good planning, it was hard for anyone to leave Sarah's store without carrying something or other in a plastic bag bearing the One-Stop Pharmacy logo, a mortar and pestle surrounded by a red octagon STOP sign.

A young man came in and waved a poster under her nose. “Mind if I tape this in your window?”

Sarah pulled the poster toward her. “Fine,” she said. “But if the other guys come in, I’ll make space. This is a business that serves everyone.”

“Thanks, I understand,” the young man said, pulling double-sided tape out of his pocket. “We got here first,” he said, to no one in particular.

Maybe so, Sarah thought, but the election’s not until May. Sarah readied the register and rang up the sales. Her first two customers passed the new pharmacist coming in as they walked out the door. Jason was wearing that stupid hat again. He doffed it in her direction.

"Good morning, Sarah," Jason called with characteristic cheer.

What’s he running for? Sarah wondered, shaking her head as Jason breezed toward the prescription department in the back. Twenty-five and baby-faced. This was his first job, and he wore jeans and running shoes below his required green smock. Even though he wore a bright gold band on the appropriate finger there were a few giddy customers who hung around too long, Sarah thought. She didn't have any trouble with him, though. He treated her with respect. Not much differently than old Mr. Packard had before he retired.

After all, Sarah had hired him. It was her store, inherited from her father. Sarah might have been a pharmacist, too, but she had married right out of high school and divorced twelve years later, just at the approach of thirty. When her friends were having their second or third, she was getting divorced and driving back and forth to the hospital. Her father died of cancer within three months of his diagnosis. Her mother had died right after Sarah’s wedding, of a sudden stroke, never learning that her daughter would not be having children.

It turned out that Ralph's sperm count wasn't strong enough. “Weak swimmers,” the doctor said.

Sarah let him have three affairs before she called it quits. Now she was thirty-six and felt no particular losses any longer, only an occasional pang around the holidays, but the last couple of years she had avoided that by volunteering down at the soup kitchen, helping to serve the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals after the One-Stop closed.

Jason called her over the speaker to come to the back, "If you're not busy, I could use you now." His phone was already ringing with call-ins. While he took down three in a row Sarah started the computer and logged in the first name he passed to her. When he got ready for the label, everything he needed would be on screen. The new system spit out a drug information sheet along with each prescription. She had waited until Mr. Packard retired to switch over to computerized records, and of course Jason had it down by the end of his first day.

They worked side by side. At ten, Jeff would be in to work with Jason, but that meant Sarah would run back and forth for another hour. She didn't mind; it saved her twelve hours of wages a week. And most of her customers were trained so well they just brought their purchases to the back register in the mornings.

Randall Crane was not trained; he waited at the front with a three-pack of handkerchiefs in one hand and a box of lotion-coated tissues in the other. His eyes were filled with tears and overflowing down one cheek. "I got the allergy," he said.

"Lot of that these days," Sarah said, smoothing her hair. "Even the dogs." She had always liked Randall Crane; they'd played in the band together in high school.

Randall laughed. "Makes you feel like a dog, that's for sure."

"Goldenrod?" Sarah asked.

"Started a week ago, I guess." He pried open the box of tissues, tearing outside of the perforated line.

"Goldenrod," she said conclusively. "If we'd only get some rain the pollen count would get knocked down. You could try Quercetin-Bromelain; it's not cheap but it works for me. Takes about three weeks for the full effect, though."

"I'll try anything," he said. "Took off work today because I was up half the night."

"Next time you could try one of those Tylenol PM capsules--it's just benedril, you know, so it would dry you up while it put you to sleep." Sarah led him to her cold and allergy section, aisle five again, and selected the large size of Quercetin for him.

"You let me know if it works for you," she said, ringing up the sale. "But be patient." She remembered that Randall had had a habit in band of coming in before his cue. "Hey, Randall," she said as he turned to go, "you ever get out your trombone?"

He just laughed. "Yeah, sure," he said. "About ever so often when you're playing your flute, I guess."

"Did you see that flying man this morning? Seemed like he was headed over your farm."

"I didn't see anything flying, not a man or a pig either.” Randall chuckled and snuffled.

Sarah looked away from his unshaven jaw; he looked rougher today but even more handsome. Because he was a bachelor and a member of her church and also crossed her path occasionally at the grocery store, she didn't want to show special interest in Randall Crane.

Once he had stopped her in the meat department and asked her how to cook a turkey; she had cooked a turkey for every year of her marriage, but she had told Randall she was a vegetarian. At all meetings they exchanged little more than pleasantries. A long time ago, in the eighth grade, they had gone to a sock hop together. Back then he had had pimples and not much of a jaw line. Now he had a mild reputation for being a ladies man and the musculature to match. She had some boxes to unpack in the storeroom, but they'd have to wait until Jeff came in. She handed Randall his bag and started in the direction of the prescription department.

"Have a good day, " she said.

But someone's step was right behind her. "Sarah," Randall said at her back, and then he sniffled.

She turned to see his red eyes and dripping nose.

"Sarah, would you mind it if I came by some evening?"

"No," she said, too forcefully.

"No," Randall repeated as if he were unsure of her meaning. "All right then?" he asked, uncertain. "I'll call you sometime, when I'm over this." He left her standing there.

For a second she felt nothing, but it was a big nothing that felt more like something, a numbness either lifting or settling on her, and then the blood drained from her face and she reached for a shelf to steady herself. The vitamin bottles rattled but didn't fall. Something had happened-- swiftly, without warning-- and there was no denying the fact. Randall Crane had asked her out-- sort of. There it was-- she felt steadier-- something had only sort of happened. Nothing would come of it, she told herself, removed her hand from the shelf and walked to the rear of the store to help Jason out. The whole episode had taken no more than a minute. And nothing had changed, except that she'd felt or uncovered that numbness, as though she had stumbled over the root of herself. It was Randall who had tripped her up.

Jason seemed almost jaunty this morning. It was not an attitude she enjoyed; she responded to it as she did to his purple-feathered hat, which was now hanging over his small metal desk on the hook he had installed to hold it.

"You look good with some color in your face," Jason said to her when she slipped back beside him at the computer.

Sarah did not respond. The gall, she thought. The fact of his having noticed her in this way unnerved her. Sarah never wore make-up and certainly she had not begun wearing rouge this morning. And what if she had? The thought that Jason would feel free to comment on her every little change disturbed her. For a few moments she fumed silently as she entered patients' names and brought up their accounts. It dawned on her only slowly that Jason might have overheard her encounter with Randall.

"You seem deep in thought," Jason said, pausing in his counting of some small pink pills.

"My father never made a mistake in filling a prescription—-not one mistake," Sarah replied.

Jason turned back to his work. He shook the counted pills loose from their nook and spilled them once again across the tray.

Sarah listened to the familiar scraping of knife across plastic as Jason recounted the pills and then tipped the tray to fill the bottle. He passed it then to her, and she printed out and pasted on the label he had prepared. She was trying to think of what to say to Jason, something that might back him off permanently so that he would never again presume to remark on anything about her person. Did he take her for one of the high school girls who acted plain silly around him, trying to get his attention and coughing in his face complaining of their colds?

"Hey," Jeff greeted them, scooting into the narrow galley. "Just give me a minute." He ducked into the employee rest room and shortly reemerged wearing a green smock.

"Keep an eye on the front," Sarah instructed Jeff and made her way to the storeroom to deal with the new stock.

The boxes slit open easily as she carved around their tops with her blade. This was the part of the business for which she had first felt a sense of responsibility when her father had set her to work for him on Saturdays. She would open the boxes and check their contents against the invoices. It was still the most satisfying part of management, mindless and yet satisfying. It soothed her to lose herself in the repetitive task of slitting boxes and checking orders, almost forgetting her annoyance with Jason-- and Randall Crane.

Jason was so inexperienced with people—-why, he had been afraid of J.W. at first. J.W. had come in, like always, and checked out the free coffee table, but he never took a cup of coffee just unscrewed the liquid saccharin dispenser, sniffed the contents and screwed the lid back on—-over and over. About twenty times in a row he circuited the store and then stopped at the table. The look on Jason’s face was priceless—-like his eyes would bug out. Finally she had leaned over and told him about J.W. and Bee-bop.

“He’s a little different,” Sarah had said. “Everyone watches out for him and his brother.”

“There’re two?” Jason had asked.

“Actually three, but one died.”

“What a life,” Jason remarked.

At least he has one, Sarah thought.

Jason still seemed skittish around J.W. And the looks of pity he cast toward Bee-bop were sickening.

She opened more boxes, contenting herself with her task, but then the back door blew open in a sudden gust, forcing her to close it and note the metal door. The night chain had been sawed through or clipped and the lock jimmied. Deep gouges marked the doorjamb and pocked the door itself, and before she realized the implications she touched the deep scrapes. She pulled her hand back from the sting of a sharp tag of metal that had pricked her fingertip and reached for the black wall phone, daubing the blood with a tissue.

When the sheriff arrived she made a point of telling him, "I touched the door."

His deputy wrote that down along with dozens of other things as they investigated the break-in. They asked a lot of questions but made only a few comments along the way. The atmosphere was far less suspenseful than the crime shows Sarah liked to watch. She spent most of the remainder of the morning meticulously checking and double-checking the stock against her orders and inventory records, especially the drug stock, and found nothing missing. By afternoon the investigation had turned up no explanation and no stolen goods. The sheriff's best guess was no better than Sarah's-- that someone had intentionally breached the door but had been interrupted, turned tail and run. Maybe a stray dog had come around barking.

The sheriff recommended that she have an alarm system installed, so Sarah called a locksmith and a security company though the necessity did not please her. How long had her father owned this drugstore? Thirty years? And never needed a security system. Yet the sheriff had been incredulous that she did not already have such protection in place. "Drugs attract the criminal element," he told her, as though he were informing her of a fact straight out of The World Book.

Sarah knew she had extended her father's trust a little too far past its prime. She felt lucky that she had only been warned, as it turned out, and not robbed this time. And of course the sheriff said as much, “Lucky break.”

When the new locks were in place on the back door and the security system wired in it was near closing time, six o'clock. The store closed at six sharp, and Sarah was not going to change her hours just because Wal-mart stayed open all night.

Finally she was driving home, back past the brown fields and the beige farmhouse, past the graveyard and the blue trailer, past the railroad tracks where the apocalyptic tan hound had affected his deathwatch. The incident with Randall Crane irritated her consciousness like a half-remembered dream that got even vaguer when she tried to recount any details. Randall's question or suggestion--what exactly had he said?--felt hazy now, like the thick September air. They had been having a strange muggy season, twenty-two days without rain that had culminated in soupy air that clung low around the mountains, obscuring and weighing them down.

No one seemed to be stirring this evening, which was fairly typical of Sarah's drives home from work since her hours were longer than most of her neighbors'. She turned on the air conditioning and retraced her regular route, having traveled it so often that she didn't have to think about when to slow and when to speed up. Yet somewhere into her consciousness a discomforting sensation entered, brought on by no more than a slight slurring of gravel beneath her tires as she rounded a curve. She cut her eyes to her rearview mirror and a quick glint, a wink of light caught her eye. It flashed from the soft shoulder of the road. She hated this stretch of road because one side was bordered by a wall of shale and the other by a flimsy railing, just beyond which was a steep drop-off only buffered by thick trunks of oak and poplar and locust.

At the next crossroads she turned around. In less than a minute she was back at the bend in the road; she pulled over as best she could and parked, turning on her flashers.

She walked to the approximate spot. At first she saw nothing, then the hunk of glinting glass, then a scrap of metal and what looked like a link from a bicycle chain, then the skid marks that had loosened that little bit of alerting gravel she'd felt beneath her tires.

She saw in close-up, everything delineated. Sarah’s eyes followed the dark marks of rubber off the road, and she stepped across the low guardrail, teetering and catching herself on the other side in the narrow space before the drop-off. Looking down the slope, into the trees, she saw a small fat tire lodged against a rock. Cautiously, she started toward it, picking her way down the bank.

High in a tree above her head hung a swathe of torn fabric like a sail caught in the doldrums--her own chest was the only thing that fluttered. She was breathing hard, and not from exertion, as she followed these scattered signs. Returning her attention to the ground, she saw a man's empty shoe, a work boot half untied, before she spotted the man, wedged in the crotch of the next tree.

He was still wearing his helmet but his head dangled below his waist somehow in an eerie mockery of a busted piñata. The full weight of his arms strained from their sockets and had pulled his jacket and shirttails free, and yet his legs were lodged firmly, tangled in the double trunk and spiking branches. She stalled just before she stood directly beneath his tree. She could see no blood, but she did not need to move closer or touch him to know that he was dead. Nothing alive was that twisted, nothing alive so unnaturally still, so isolated and out of context. Nothing could be done for him.

Face trained on this stranger who had flown over her car hours before, Sarah felt the full force of the numbness in her limbs and in her heart drain out of her as she fell hard to the ground. She may have passed out, she wasn’t sure. In a few minutes she collected herself, climbed the steep bank to her car, and drove straight over the jarring cattle guard to Randall Crane’s, as his was the nearest house. She pounded on his door, and for the second time that day, she called for help.

Cathryn Hankla