Winter 2012, #18


Over-the-Counter Cold Remedies

     by Richard Holinger

She could always drive to the store. He couldn’t stop her. Frown, pout, purse his lips, sure, but no physical force.

She walked anyway. Not that she was intimidated by her husband’s body language. She’d gotten over that hurdle eons ago.

No, she liked the rain. It cleansed as it matted her hair. It cooled her skin as it soaked her wool sweater. No one at Walgreens, clerks or customers would mind. Would even notice. Who was she to them? One more nonentity. One more candy bar sitting neglected on a shelf.
The pharmacists all looked harried. If they hadn’t, she would have asked them which over-the-counter antihistamine she should buy for her symptoms which she memorized on the walk over.
Runny eyes, runny nose, itchy throat, deep cough, incessant sinus headache.

So she read labels. But every time she picked off a neatly glued together box from the shelf, some hidden inner spring mechanism pushed the remaining boxes forward. She tried to put the first one back where it came from, but who knew if a camera was trained on her catching her every move? Men in a back room behind a two-way mirror somewhere engaged in moving their eyes around multiple screens might laugh in derision at the woman trying to replace a box of Claritin when any idiot knows once you take a box from the shelf, it’s yours.

So she threw it in her cart, an offhand, devil-may-care gesture that women of a certain class and position do without thinking. After twenty minutes, she counted how many she had. Seven. None of them told her with certainty they would resolve her cold symptoms.
She knew they hid the strong stuff behind the counter. Kids bought it, she heard, to make methamphetamine. If she wanted to purchase what she came for, it would take talking to a pharmacist.

Glancing toward the counter, she saw no one waiting. No one sitting in the three gray chairs along the long white wall, no one checking out.

She could go over and ask a pharmacist or intern for help deciding which of the seven would work best at the least cost without making her drowsy. She hated feeling punk.

Sure, she read “Non-drowsy” on some of the boxes, but they might say anything to get her to buy theirs over their competitors. It took a local man or woman with training and wearing a white lab coat to see through the malarkey. She could tell an expert her symptoms. He, or she, would help diagnose her problem. He, or she, could take a Sudafed or Coricidin or whatnot off the shelf and she would feel fine in no time.

There was someone back there now, not looking harried or even busy, fiddling with white-bagged pickup orders in green plastic trays alphabetized on shelves. She could push her cart over there and point down to her proposed purchases, smile as though in on a joke with the girl and say, “I wonder if you could tell me…,” then describe her symptoms the way she had practiced. The girl would say, “Oh, I know how you must feel. I know just the thing,” and reach for a box behind her, ring it up and that would be that.

The girl, petite and blond, couldn’t be over nineteen or twenty. While handling the purchase, she would sympathize with the choices America gave people today, not only in pharmaceutical aisles, but on cable TV and in grocery stores.

“Overwhelming!” she would say with an exhausted sigh and knowing smile. “Don’t I know your dilemma. How is someone supposed to keep up with all of this?”

Then the girl would gaze into the cart, sigh briefly at the miasma modern life has concocted, and wink as though in collusion against the megalithic corporations who try to sell you something based on shape, color and font when you have no clue as to its true worth or whether it will help you.

As the cart rolled forward, the squeaky, sticky wheel that before didn’t bother her now sent out an air raid siren shriek. The blond girl glanced up from the W tray as though paged, saw and heard what was coming, and froze. That was the word to describe the reaction, one hand holding a white bag, the other grabbing the lowest shelf, her head turned outward, her eyes locked on the approaching customer.

For her part, the woman nodded brusquely and swerved right, down the vitamin aisle, her hand out before she knew what it was doing to grab, a Vitamin D 1000 I.U. 200 Softgels. At the first opportunity, the cart made a left, then another left, and stopped alongside light bulbs and extension cords.

She could do without external medical aids. A cold was a virus, right? You can’t cure a virus, so why try? Why waste money on superfluous items that mess up your natural immune system?

Outside, she saw it had really begun to rain. She could call her husband to come pick her up, and he would do it. Gladly. She dug in her purse for her cell phone and began dialing home. Her finger hovered a very long time above the last digit.

She closed the phone. He would come pick her up if she asked him to, sure, but the walk home would do her good. Clear her head. Naturally. The cold, moist air, a tonic to her nostrils, was just what she needed.