Five years ago I was twenty-one and the doctor wanted to put me on anti-depressants. I didn't take them. Instead, I cried nearly every day—a friend of mine had just died, the war in Iraq and the young soldiers who were going to die worried me, and, having just finished my bachelor's degree, I was suffering from what I would have called then an existential crisis of 'now what?'; what I would now call a misguided sense of my singular importance in the world. Being young, ambitious, and most of all naïve, I was waiting for the world to recognize my brilliance and tell me what I had to do to make life okay.
That didn't happen. What a surprise. Eventually I figured out that life isn't something you improve upon to overcome, even if Oprah wishes this were true. That's not to say I understand much more now than I did then, but I am, perhaps, a little less of a know-it-all.
I work as a cashier in a pharmacy, a job that doesn't have much to do with my art degree, but in the end, it's a job. I like helping people and the details of the day fascinate me. Each day I call out and write down names marvelous and evocative, names from an era already lost, names of people who are going to die:
and, my favorite:
One year after everyone lost everything I returned to New Orleans. My time and money ran out so now I live with two people who, although they are only a little bit older now than when I last saw them, don't really seem like my parents anymore. I wasn't with them that terrible August 2005. I was in Italy until my visa expired. Now I don't want to leave.
During the week I take the customers' money and try to calculate what $40,000 in student loan payments plus interest equals in hours spent underneath the pharmacy's fluorescent lights. On the weekend I send my resume to universities and jpegs of my work to galleries. Sometimes I get a reply, usually this:
Monday I go back to work.
Last night I was at Pal ́s Lounge in Bayou St. John. I had to ring the buzzer to pass through the black wooden doors because they don’t want to let in anybody who is sick in the head. I sat down at the bar next to guy who looked about my age. He was wearing thick black plastic glasses that said PRADA on the sides and a wrinkled plaid shirt two sizes too small. Next to his drink was a Dover Thrift Edition of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. It was obvious he wasn't from New Orleans. Maybe Berkeley or Boston. Since the hurricane there are lots of people like him around here, young people from famous universities who have come to save us. You can recognize them by the look of self-satisfaction they wear on their faces.
I drank a quick sip of my vodka tonic and stared at his can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I hate PBR. I hate people who drink shitty beer to be ironic. I turned to him and said,
"What's Signor Aurelius there for, to impress chicks and show them that you're a hipster with a head of ivy?"
"You're not from around here, are you?"
"How do you know?"
"You're from Berkeley, right?"
"How'd you know?!" He said he came to New Orleans to help us. He was setting up a non-profit bail bonds program in Mid-City. Fantastic. Where was I from, he wanted to know, and when I said New Orleans he asked me if I had gone to college. I told him I had studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome.
"Wow, that's so cool you studied in Italy. So are you like a painter or something?" He smiled.
"I don't paint," I said, "I'm a cashier at a pharmacy."
His face fell.
"And I live with my parents, my sister, and three cats in the suburbs."
Tom Bunk is one of the few family-run pharmacies left in New Orleans, given that nowadays people prefer to go to Walgreens or CVS where, besides getting their prescriptions filled, they can buy hard liquor, dishwasher detergent, and cigarettes. Tom Bunk doesn't have anything like that, just pills, adult diapers, walls the color of turned milk and shelves of vitamin supplements coated in dust.
The owner of the pharmacy, Tom Bunk, Jr., is a fat man with watery eyes who struts around the pharmacy slapping his hands together as if preparing for some pre-game scrimmage; he's one of those guys who was star quarterback in high school and thirty years later still hasn't gotten over it. His slogan is "The no-bunk pharmacy!" But yeah, there's plenty.
The wife of Mr. No-Bunk steals Schedule-II drugs from the pharmacy with help from the manager of the store and sells them on-line. At least this is the rumor going around behind the pharmacy counter. To look at their swollen, dead faces it seems true.
Many people show up at the pharmacy with large prescriptions of strong drugs from shady pain management and trauma centers.
It usually goes like this:
and, their favorite:
My sister and I are the same age and height but she is twice my weight. She works in the deli of the Sav-A-Center near our house. For three years she's had pain and problems with her back and the doctors don't know why, so they put her on hydrocodone, 500 mg a day. One month ago the doctor told her she needed to take anti-depressants. She takes them. Since then her face looks like a memory of what it means to be alive, her eyes are two hollows underneath a mess of stringy black hair. She and I aren't close but I love her dearly, though I'm not sure she'd believe me if I ever told her. When she asked me to go with her to her depression support group, I went.
The air was weirdly dry the Tuesday evening we arrived at the hospital. Once inside I noticed it smelled just like the pharmacy. Empty, medicinal. They separated the Depressed from the Supporters—boyfriends and girlfriends, moms and dads, and me. They took us, the Supporters, to a second floor conference room. On the back wall was a chalkboard with a half-erased Spanish lesson: ¿Dónde le duele? ¿De uno a diez, en qué grado le duele?
The moderator invited us to sit down in a 'circle of trust' to introduce ourselves. We were four: me, my sister's girlfriend, a lawyer, and a nurse. The lawyer was a know-it-all who talked a lot but didn't say much. His son was bipolar and he wanted the boy to take medication, but the boy wouldn't take it. The nurse was married to a man with schizophrenia. She told us that the week before she had her husband arrested because Orleans Parish Prison is the only place in the city with psych beds for the uninsured. My sister's girlfriend explained that the doctor had recently diagnosed my sister with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and that she was taking her pills, not speaking much, and eating even less. The moderator commented, apropos of nothing, that artists don't like to take medication because they prefer to use their crazy to paint or do whatever it is that they do; he mentioned something about Vincent Van Gogh. He then told us not to forget to take some brochures on our way out, that we should tell people suffering from mental illnesses to take them.
I looked at the moderator, who was smiling and looking very pleased with himself. I looked at the father with his thin metal glasses and his air of certainty. I looked at the nurse with her nervous hands. I looked at my hands which lay there sleeping.
Since I've returned to New Orleans I don't paint.
My mouth calls out the names of people who are going to die.
My sister's mouth kisses my cheek before I go to sleep.
The mouths of the customers ask for pills.
My mouth takes their orders and repeats them.
I give out pills to ease the people's pain.
They take them.
© Kathleen Heil 2009
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Kathleen Heil is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She recently studied creative writing at the Escuela Contemporánea de Humanidades in Madrid. She is currently working on a book-length collection of short stories entitled Profane Love. This is her first work of published fiction.
Update 2012: Read more at http://kathleenheil.net/
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