“ARE you disturbed?”
Standing there in his full-length lab coat, those rosy pockmarked cheeks, the droopy hound dog jowls, the crooked yellow bottom teeth, and that flawless white crew cut, Gregory Day seems to want a response. But I know better.
I don’t appreciate the way he talks to me. If he talks to me. Direct questions receive monosyllabic responses. To Gregory, everything I do, say, or ask is unhelpful, asinine, and rhetorical. I clench my teeth and count out thirty pills in therapeutic fashion, sliding the lot into a burnt orange plastic bottle.
“Yeah Gregory, I’m disturbed,” I burst out, my voice shaking.
“I’m an idiot because I told Mrs. Olivia to take her pills on an empty stomach. I’m an idiot even though she asked me, and I told her exactly what it says on the tiny green label. The label I put there.”
Gregory pulls out his inhaler, awkwardly stuffs it in his mouth, and gives it three quick toots. This is how he exercises. The seventyfour-year-old quit smoking ten years ago, but it was too late. Emphysema had already set in. There’s no erasing a half century’s worth of nicotine plus some exposure to nasty chemicals in the war.
“No, you’re an idiot because I’ve repeatedly told you not to dispense medical advice to our customers, Andrew,” he says catching his breath.
For nine months now, Gregory has refused to call me “Andy.”
After a long pause, he adds, “And for the record, you didn’t just tell her to ‘take the pills on an empty stomach.’ You went into some long, complicated, totally off-base explanation about how food interferes with the drug’s absorption into the bloodstream. For the umpteenth time: you are not a pharmacist.”
“You’re a pharmacy technician.”
“That’s all I need—to break the law and get my license yanked because you have a hankering need to feel validated,” he says.
In terms of all-out destruction, this argument rates low—a magnitude 3.0, tops—mere aftershocks from the 5.0 we had two hours ago over the effectiveness of zinc lozenges. I say they preempt the onset of the common cold. Gregory’s professional opinion is they’re “baloney.”
As the crow flies, this tiny pharmacy is about twenty miles northeast of San Francisco and sits on solid bedrock, but the tiny township of Crockett is bordered on every side by precarious fault lines, the most threatening—the Hayward Fault Zone to our west. Of the ten thousand earthquakes that California experiences every year—in the last hundred years—only two have been catastrophic. In fact, most folks can’t even sense anything lower than a 3.0. But not me. I feel them all the time. Right here. For Gregory and me, this pharmacy is our epicenter, and anything above a 5.0
generates intense feelings of nausea and vertigo.
Belinda is behind the front cash register too engrossed in People magazine and too consumed with the taste of her fingernails to give a damn about a measly 3.0. Gregory and I bicker all the time, and a mag 3.0 doesn’t even break her concentration anymore. Some ripples in her no-foam soy latte. It’s going to take at least a 6.0 before anything interrupts “Britney Time.”
“Is this a 3 or 5?” Gregory asks with my back to him.
I spin around and realize that he’s not referring to our argument at all.
“How do these doctors expect us to read their chicken scratch?” he complains, holding a streaky fax up to the overhead fluorescent lights that turn us all a sickly green hue. “Well, this medication doesn’t come in 3 milligram doses,” he informs the sheet of paper, “so he’s getting 5.”
He tosses the prescription in the sink. This is his way of telling me to enter the information into our computer system. By law, we are required to keep original prescriptions for five years, but there are boxes in our storeroom with scraps of paper that go back to the Cold War.
He limps toward me. “We’re getting a delivery in about an hour, Andrew. I need you to restock the shelves.”
So now I’m a stock boy. I thought I was a pharmacy technician.
“I’ve got quite a few more scripts to fill. Belinda can handle it,” I suggest.
Without taking her eyes off her magazine, Belinda crosses her wrists above her head and wiggles her fingers, hands tied.
“I can take care of these orders just fine. You just handle the delivery. I can’t have boxes cluttering my aisles,” Gregory continues.
If I don’t handle the delivery, Gregory will—jamming makeup, toiletries, sunglasses, and worthless knickknacks on arbitrary shelves, wherever they’ll fit. When customers ask where we keep the suntan lotion, I have to tell them over there, over there, and probably over there.
Between the lighting, overflowing shelves, littered aisles, and vintage dust, this place is closing in on me.
Day’s Pharmacy is a Crockett institution. Located at the same Pomona Street address for nearly ninety years, it is the secondoldest independent pharmacy in the East Bay and the seventh oldest in all of northern California. Everyone knows this because Gregory won’t let us forget. The only other local business that’s been around longer is the California & Hawaiian Sugar Refining Company. C & H is how Crockett became “Sugar Town.”
Over the last one hundred years, the sugar business has been bittersweet for Crockett. Behind the walls of that massive Willie Wonka–like factory, you’ll find far more machines than men and women. A century ago, it took a thousand employees to churn out seventy thousand tons of Hawaiian sugar each year. Now the plant manufactures about ten times that, but with one-fifth the staff. Among the layoffs: my father, prompting his early retirementwith Mom to Vegas. Only half the factory is still in operation. In the late 1990s, the company sold a good chunk of its real estate to Charles Warner, a wealthy local investor. Warner Construction was supposed to convert the old C & H warehouses into lofts, but development has been stalled for years.
There are still a few perks to having C & H headquartered here. First off, every business in town gets a free complimentary supply of sugar. Then there are the Red Rockets. C & H makes a limited supply of the highly coveted candy rings once a year, to coincide with the Crockett Memorial Day Parade. One of my earliest memories is coming to Day’s Pharmacy with my mother—right after the annual Pancake Breakfast and right before the parade—and Gregory handing me my first of those mouthwatering cherry-flavored delights.
Red Rockets have changed slightly over the years. The ones I used to get had a red plastic ring that you slipped on your finger with a missile-shaped sucking candy on top. But then kids started poking each other with them like weapons, we entered the Age of Lawsuits, and as a precaution, C & H lopped off the tops. Now they look like nothing. Technically the shape is called a “frustum,” not that Gregory would know. I think he likes those truncated cones because they look like inverted medicine cups. That, and the power this candy represents: the only way to get a Red Rocket is to snatch one up at the Memorial Day Parade or come here.
It’s awe-inspiring to think that soon, Gregory will pass the candy baton to me. I haven’t done a hell of a lot with my life, but “Gatekeeper of the Red Rockets” is right up there.