I reached up to touch my face. I had just finished peeing. It occurred to me that I hadn’t washed my hands. Now my pee was in my beard. I checked my reflection. I couldn’t see my pee in the beard of my reflection. I knew the pee was there, though. Trace amounts of pee were on my fingers, on my chin. I felt as if I’d gotten urine all over me.
I’d seen better days than this one.
I started to forget whatever I’d been thinking. I was staring at the mirror. Where the fuck was I? I was in a public bathroom. I was at the grocery store. But I wasn’t there to shop for groceries. I was there for drugs.
Someone walked into the bathroom—it reminded me to not be in there anymore. I hurried out, mumbled sorry to the stranger. He mumbled sorry back. Neither of us knew what we were doing in this life. In the corridor were stacks and stacks of crates of things like bread and English muffins. I was lost. I was behind the scenes in a place where I was not supposed to be. I was probably a criminal. The corridor was dark and kind of cold with all those crates of bread. Eventually, I found the music and the aisles of the real world. I stepped into the white, starchy light. Plastics looked more plastic beneath that white, starchy light. If I thought about plastics for too long, I would start to think about cancer. Most likely, there isn’t a connection between plastics and cancer; but, my brain doesn’t care for the semantics of reality.
In my hand was a small paper square. I held the paper to my face. 17—the number—was printed on the paper. I passed a glass case, packed tight with chunks of ice. Legs were in the case—hard, orange carapaces as long as my arm—that belonged to dead creatures. It was gruesome; it was meant to be gourmet.
I hurried by the seafood counter. I wondered why seafood was kept so close to the pharmacy—it made me think of cancer. I hurried faster toward the pharmacy. Attached to the ceiling, hanging just above the pharmacy, was a digital display—the numbers on it glowed red like artificial cherries. Any cherry-flavored thing is pretty much disgusting, if you ask me. Of the two numbers glowing on the digital display, one was 17. I checked the paper in my hand—it was still the number 17. I was onto something.
“It’s a match,” I told the person behind the counter at the pharmacy. The person was a woman. She wore a white lab coat. She laughed, as if I’d said something funny. Her laughter made me nervous. Now I was confused.
“So it is!” the woman beamed. She was cheerful and attentive. She didn’t know my name. She had no clear concept of who, or what, I might be. I became very emotional, but I didn’t want her to notice. So I laughed along with her. I just wanted everything to be okay.
After we had finished laughing joyously together, the woman engaged the computer. She used her fingers to conduct a serious investigation on the keyboard. She was deep into the screen, subscribed wholly to the monitor. The process went on for a really long time. I grew suspicious—not to mention uncomfortable—so I asked, “What should I be doing?” I was genuinely unsure.
“Last name?” was her answer. Her answer was a question. It was also an incomplete sentence. With just two words, the woman had crafted a complete question that I could readily and easily understand, and she had done so with no regard for the necessary laws of grammar. Humans can basically do everything there is to do. The woman was still so cheerful and attentive. I gave her my last name. I watched her eyes for a reaction. I couldn’t ascertain any judgment from her eyes. I decided I could trust her with my life.
“Trust is so important,” I confided in her, whispering. I was very much emotional. The woman smiled with her mouth but she did not look up at me from the computer. I decided to keep my reservations about trusting her with my life.
Eventually, she finished corresponding with the computer. She twirled around, scoured the many white and papery bags for my prescribed medication. Even the way she turned around to face the bags was awfully cheerful and attentive. She began a conversation with the pharmacist. Behind the counter where people pay to get their drugs is another counter, and behind this second counter is where the real pharmacists exist. Everything is walls, and drugs, and a multitude of plastics. Somewhere in the mix is the mystery of cancer. Or maybe not.
I watched the woman in the lab coat speak in low tones to the pharmacist. They were having a discussion. Information was relayed, questions were asked, speculations were performed. I caught a glance from the pharmacist—holy fuck-me god, the pharmacist just glanced at me—and, suddenly, the woman’s cheerful aura seemed much dimmer than it had before.
Panicking, I put all my standing efforts into creating an air of complete and total innocence. I was tense as hell. I tried to focus on the paper my fingers still held. The paper still insisted on the number 17. I watched my fingers tremble as I pretended to examine the paper. I was pretty much destroying it, crushing it to wrinkles. The skin beneath my nails had gone whiter than the milk aisle.
I wondered if the woman had smelled urine in my beard. Maybe she had smelled it, and now they were organizing how best to call the cops without me noticing. I tried to think of a good reason why an innocent man might have pee in his beard. I was very much emotional—it had gotten full-blown. I was on the verge of sobbing. I could feel the swollen ache of a really bad sob climbing higher up my throat.
“Sir?” the cheerful and attentive woman asked. She had returned to the first counter. She had come back to me. She was my ally, my bro. But I had to play it cool. “Unfortunately, we have only seven of your pills left,” she said. Even with regret at the fringes of her tone, the woman managed to sound cheerful and attentive. The woman was a genius. The woman was a god.
“But, my number,” I held up the paper square, which was trash, and always had been. “It matches the display.” I pointed at the red glowing numbers on the digital display. The woman laughed, again, as if I’d made another joke. I laughed as if I understood, at all, what was happening.
I noticed that the pharmacist had been watching our conversation. I tried to make my face smile, tried to kind of point that smile in the pharmacist’s direction. The pharmacist became suddenly and visibly too busy for a smile.
“We can give you the seven pills that we have in stock,” explained the woman in the lab coat. “And you can pick the rest up, later.”
“Do you know how long is later, exactly?”
“We’ll call you as soon as the next shipment arrives.”
“But, I don’t have a phone.”
“What?” she nearly spat. “You don’t have a phone?”
“No, I don’t have a phone.”
The woman laughed again. This time I did not. Patiently, I stood there. I waited for her to comprehend the truth of what I’d just told her.
Whenever I tell people that I don’t have a phone, there is often a long wait before they understand—it is something of a daily routine in my life.
“Wait—you mean, really? You really don’t have a phone?”
“You don’t have a cellphone?”
“Not even a landline?”
“But, why? No, I mean, how? How do people get in touch with you?”
“I suppose they have to get close enough to touch me.”
I thought that what I’d said was pretty fucking clever, but neither of us laughed. The woman took a few more moments to process my existence. “Well,” she said, completely at a loss. “I guess you’ll have to check back on Tuesday.”
“On Tuesday,” she nodded. “Sometime after three—that’s when our shipment usually comes in.”
I told her thank you and I also said goodbye. She responded with similar variations of the same basic words. Her amazement was completely gone. She had returned to her cheerful and attentive self. I walked away from the counter at the pharmacy. Seven pills were in a tube, and the tube was in my pocket. I passed the glass case, still packed with ice and dead legs. I passed a wall of pinkish meats. Plastics kept the pinkish meats fresh. All this fucking carnage. “All this fucking carnage,” I accidentally said out loud. I passed a wall of cheese and yogurts. I walked through an aisle of things designed to keep our mouths clean—a predominantly blue aisle. Toothpaste comes in plastic tubes that come in cardboard boxes, which are stacked and stored on metal shelves. I stepped through a pair of hissing doors that opened on their own. Seven pills clacked and rattled in my pocket. Seven little pills in an orange plastic tube were stored against my thigh.
Outside, snow dripped from the sky. I braced against the cold. I wondered whether toothpaste was the real cause of cancer. I walked home in the cold. I waited for the Tuesday that I needed to appear.
Michael J. Coene lives with a blind dog above a duck-pin bowling alley in Baltimore. His short stories have appeared in Bridge Eight, Barrelhouse Magazine, The Canary Press, and more. He eats a lot of almonds, and he doesn’t sleep much.