SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 27, 2008

Fists of Love

 

I was on my way home from Morgan’s a little after ten on a on Friday morning. During the course of the subway ride, three different couples sat next to me. I probably wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that all three couples were talking about fistfights—either those they’d seen or those they’d been involved in. (“I was getting ready to pull out,” one guy told his girlfriend, “when I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Missy arguing with this guy on the sidewalk. I see her around a lot and she’s one of these types who’s just angry all the time. I kept watching them, and the next thing you know, Missy starts swinging on this guy . . . ”)

            After the third fistfight story, I thought it was an interesting coincidence, but nothing more. A product of the heat. You expect things like that.

            Early the next morning, with a fresh new prescription in hand, I went down to the pharmacy to drop it off. Simple operation—walk in, hand it to the pharmacist, then go home. Ten minutes, tops.

            Well, even though I’d been waiting patiently beneath the “Drop Off Prescriptions Here” sign for a few minutes, some sideburned twenty-three year-old wandered around the corner and caught the pharmacist’s attention first.

            This, too, is expected behavior, so I merely sighed, then moved down the counter toward them to create the semblance of a “line.”

            The pharmacist (of course) needed to set up a whole new account for the kid—phone numbers, address, insurance information. She also needed to explain the concept of “eye drops” and “dosage instructions.” Plus, instead of coming back in an hour or so to pick them up, he wanted his eye drops right then and there. It dragged on.

            Meanwhile, a middle-aged couple in matching t-shirts appeared behind me. Apart from the matching t-shirts, they seemed respectable enough. Graying hair, gold wire-rimmed glasses, the paunch that comes with wealth.

            Then another pair showed up. Two men, one in his early forties, the other about fifty. The younger man was telling the older one (his name was “Pete”) that they had to wait at the end of the line.

            “But I gotta ask a question,” Pete mumbled. With that, he began pacing the length of the pharmacy counter, trying to catch the pharmacist’s eye.

            “Pete, come on back here and wait—it’ll be quicker.”

            “I gotta ask a question—it’s a ‘mergency!”

            The pharmacist ignored Pete quite successfully until she was trying to ring up the kid’s eye drops (the kid now seemed to be having trouble with the concept of “payment,” which also needed careful explaining). Pete—a thin man with dark eyes and a graying mustache, ducked his head over the kid’s shoulder and began firing away with the questions. The pharmacist started getting more flustered. I was still waiting patiently. The couple in the matching t-shirts were sighing and muttering. At last the wife decided to go home and wait, leaving her husband there to take care of the prescription. Pete’s friend had wandered away to look at magazines or something.

            Half an hour after he first arrived and stepped in front of me, the kid left with his eye drops. The pharmacist at last turned to head back toward me, but Pete kept shouting questions while waving a fistful of prescriptions.

            “Hey!” the old man behind me yelled. “Get in line and wait like the rest of us!”

            Pete’s friend was nowhere to be found. As the pharmacist snatched the prescription out of my sweaty fingers, Pete stepped between me and the old man.

            “This is a ‘mergency—I need to ask some questions!”

            “It’s not an emergency,” the pharmacist said, “the prescription is three months old.”

            “Get to the end of the line and wait,” the increasingly frustrated respectable gentleman said, sticking a hand in front of Pete’s face to make his point. Pete whirled on him.

            “Don’t put your hand in my face! Don’t touch me man!”

            Now, at this point, the three of us—me, Pete and the frustrated fellow—are mere inches apart, and things have clearly taken a dangerous turn. Yet for some stupid reason, I stood where I was, thinking that, well, the pharmacist had started typing my prescription into the machine, so I shouldn’t leave until she was finished.

            Pete jumped back into a Travis Bickle karate stance.

            “You wanna mess with me? You wanna mess with me? You wanna touch me?” he screamed at the old man, who looked like he now really regretted opening his mouth.

            The old man took a step backwards, and Pete followed before throwing the first wild swing. The old man turned and ran down the cosmetics aisle, with Pete in hot pursuit, knocking over displays and screaming threats.

            Both men were out of sight, but the yelling and the sound of crashing mascaras and lipsticks echoed through the suddenly quiet store. Then a third voice was added to the mix: “Pete! Stop it Pete! You wanna go back to jail? Do—you—want—to—go—to—jail?” The sound of more struggling and breaking glass followed.

            A moment later, the old man—sweating, but trying to appear calm and in control, came up another aisle and stopped beside me.

            “Call the police,” he told the pharmacist. “Call them right now.”

            Christ, I thought, everybody’s jumping in line in front of me today.

            She picked up the phone and punched three buttons. Then Pete reappeared, along with his friend. Pete was still after the old man.

            “You wanna go to jail? Pete! Pete, calm down! Listen! You wanna go back to jail?” He wrapped his arms around Pete and tried to hold him back.

            “You don’t mess with me!”

            A security alarm began sounding over the store’s p.a. system, interrupting a Bangles song.

            Then the store manager and head of security showed up. All five men (one of them still struggling) were now clustered around me against the counter as I waited for the pharmacist—now nearly in tears—to tell me when I could come pick up my new blood pressure medication.

            “Please,” Pete’s friend tried to explain. “He just got out of the hospital—he was there for three months . . . he’s got a bag full of prescriptions around here someplace.”

            “That guy took it from me!” Pete yelled, still trying to break free from his friend’s bear hug.

            “I didn’t touch your bag,” the old man said.

            “Please—he can’t go back to jail—I’ll take him out . . . I’ll take him out of the store.”

            “Do it now or we’re callin’ the cops.”

            “Please—he’s sick. He’s not well. Please don’t press charges—I’m taking him out right now,” Pete’s friend promised, even though he was having serious trouble just holding Pete’s flailing arms down. “Pete! Be good! Please! They ain’t gonna press charges, Pete, so long as you’re good—”

            “Call the cops—”

            “He can’t put his hands in my face!”

            With five voices raised around me, the pharmacist leaned over and asked, “So when do you think you’ll be picking this up.”

            “Oh I don’t know,” I said. “Couple hours? Maybe two or three this afternoon?”

            She nodded. “I’ll make sure it’s ready.”

            “Thank you.” With that, I stepped around Pete and his friend, the security guard, the store manager, and the old man, and headed home.

 

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