Issue 2:1 | Fiction | Jimmy Dean Smith
By Jimmy Dean Smith
By Jimmy Dean Smith
SCRUFFY THE DRUGGIST
The worst part was counting pills. Paws designed for padding silently through fern-filled parlors or comically taxing doomed micefolk proved nearly useless to a pharmacist like Scruffy. There were times when she thought that she might better have spent her days learning to drive trucks or meditating on the nature of things than chasing her dream to become a druggist, her fondest dream since she had been only a small, orange kitten. As she grasped the spatula between her paws and awkwardly manipulated pills across the counting tray, she often heard the rude squawks of Polly the Soda Jerk, the sarcastic flapping of bright vermillion wings over the squoosh of the milk shake blender and the pelting of chocolate jimmies into dispenser jars. It was usually enough to make Scruffy lose count; she would have to start over, carefully counting the same pills while a customer fumed; and it was not as if she was an excellent mathematician in the first place, a fact that was driven home to her when she had given birth to her first (and only, thank God) litter and always went back one time too many when she changed the kittens' hiding place.
As she hung her little white jacket in the coat locker each night, Scruffy thought back over the day. Even with the pill-counting trouble and her occasional customer-disconcerting urge to eat a bug, her druggist's dream was working out. It was lovely that Mr. Baxter the Manager had given her an assistant. Freddy the High School Guy was an excellent typist and interpreter of handwriting (he dreamed of being a teacher after college): he made the pill bottles' labels so there was that former paw-related catastrophe off her mind at least. She would have to bring Mr. Baxter a dead mouse to show her appreciation. Perhaps she might even leap onto his lap and allow him to stroke her under the chin as a reward.
She slipped into a flea collar she had bought with her employee discount and dashed through the glass door when the cashier held it open. Her fellow employees, one and all, watched, admiring Scruffy's drive, as she sped across the parking lot, dodging cars and a dirty little boy on a bike, slipping at last into a field across the highway where she would spend the evening feeding and gazing inscrutably at the moon and mangling baby bobwhites nesting among the weeds. At last she would sleep, dreaming of the pharmaceutical life she had chosen to lead--or, rather, that had seemed to choose her--wishing only for the greater dexterity that would make her dream that much more sublime.
One morning Scruffy awoke to find that she had been transformed into a blues guitarist. Now she had hands to play over the strings and feet that she crossed idiosyncratically at the ankles when she sat on a bar stool and performed. She wore a brown felt hat on the back of her head, a suit from the Salvation Army, and sunglasses. Even when she performed indoors, in a smoky bar, Scruffy always wore sunglasses. She learned to like the taste of whiskey and bummed cigarettes; to her, they tasted like dirt, like defeat. She had an oddly sinuous sense of rhythm, ”a lethargic purr that suddenly hisses and yowls,” a newspaper weekend section writer put it, and won fame both on the blues circuit and for doing tasteful session work for pop singers.
When she was not on the road, Scruffy returned to the field where she had last gone to sleep as a druggist and a cat. Across the highway the pharmacy still stood, expanded now, with a surprisingly complete food section and two drive-through windows, open till nine every night but Sunday. Polly, who had been on the verge of unemployment when the soda fountain closed, instead had talked her way into assistant management. Freddy came back from college to visit and still worked summers; the new druggist had no problems typing his own labels, so Freddy stocked the shelves and helped old people find unguents.
Back in the clubs, Scruffy and her guitar blazed. She stepped off her stool and leaned back as far as she could when it came her turn to solo. Her face sweated beneath her hat, steaming her sunglasses. Drunken college boys grew silent, awe-struck, as she clawed her way deep into her soul. Of course, Scruffy had regrets. Being a druggist had been her lifelong dream. You don't just give that up because you turn into a famous musician. What was worse, she realized, was that her new hands would have been just as magical counting pills as they were playing solos. There would have been no snickering Polly, no customers rolling their eyes--only the artistic dazzle of hands fit for the job.
It was sad, and Scruffy felt the sadness deep down. She felt it in her shoulders and in her hips and in the hollows behind her eyes. Has there ever been a heartache like mine, she thought. Has anyone ever felt so low? She thought on these things, and thought back on the days when Scruffy the Druggist had lived her fondest dreams, and played the best blues yet.
It was a warm, rainy evening in mid-December. We slept with the windows open. All night snakes crawled through the window. They were no more than a foot long. They may have been baby snakes or may have been the kind of snakes that only grow to a foot in full adulthood. They may have been a combination of babies and footlong adults. We were unable to say. We didn’t know about snakes.
They wriggled across the floor in the dark. We could not see them when they were on the floor. But we heard them moving among the legal papers and utility bills we had dropped before bedtime. We heard them wriggle into our muddy boots and back out again. In the darkness, we heard the rustle of India paper, as if snakes were turning the pages of the Bible beneath our bed.
Some snakes crawled up the wall and crept into the curtains. The streetlamp shone. We watched the shadows of snakes playing across the bedroom walls, across the full-length mirror and the upright cedar chest we inherited from Grandmother. When the rain picked up, the shadows of snakes moved between the shadows of fat raindrops.
By morning the pigs had come. We heard them greeting each other with grunts and lining up outside. They leapt through the open window, one after the other in order of size, till there were ten in our bedroom. They remained methodical as they rooted out snakes and gobbled them down. The snakes were black and dark brown and dried-blood red. When the pigs had found all the snakes sleeping in shoes and coat pockets, they looked in other places. The pigs did not find many snakes in the video player and under the cradled telephone handset, but they gobbled all they found.
The ten pigs lined up to leave in the same order in which they had come through the window. Their recent feast made leaping a chore. The first one took four steps, working up speed, and heaved himself out of the room. The others lined up by size, moved forward, kept the line going.
The first six pigs made it out the window through great exertion. The seventh and eighth, who looked at one another with concern, each took two tries before leaping through. On the first try each had bounced off the windowsill and toppled, grunting. Each finally succeeded through sheer determination.
The ninth eyed the open window and then hung its head. It was nearly as fat as the seventh and eighth pigs combined. We had watched in amazement and with admiration as it gobbled an entire colony of snakes sleeping in an overnight bag. There were as many snakes in that bag as there are Rotarians at a lunch meeting. We wondered would the ninth pig ever get out.
But the tenth pig was a loving and helpful companion. It made its way to the window, knelt before it, and suffered the other pig to use it as a step-stool. The ninth pig was very large, though not as large as the tenth. The tenth pig must have cared for its friend a great deal to abase itself in this way.
The last pig turned away from the window. It was only a pig, and therefore unable to follow all ideas completely through to their conclusions, you might think. But you have not known pigs as we have. We could tell from its face what it knew: that it was too fat to squeeze through; that days would pass before it slimmed down and shed the torpor of its recent feast; that service has its own moral rewards, but that charity is a vexed condition; that Christmas was coming, that there would be mulled wine and figgy pudding and a glorious feast; that warm weather could not last, that the window must be shut.
And, as the pig began making a bed among clothes that had tumbled from our hamper, a cool wind did indeed begin blowing. It was not cold, but promised a cold spell coming. It was not a strong breeze, but foretold whipping winter winds. Among the socks and flannel shirts the pig nested, fat as a Buddha and calm. Who would curse the cold wind in December? What pig with good sense would rail against the weather? The weather is the weather and hence cannot be avoided.