Monday, March 30, 2015



You could buy almost anything in there; the scents of mint and vanilla and pine tar and bitter concoctions, the whiffs of Coty face powder and the standard small-town perfumes, the aromas of Pall Malls and home-rolled and Mr. Little's see-gars greeted you with the swing of that heavy glass door, and the bell-ting let them know you were coming.

You made your way through a maze of shelves, from school supplies to suspenders, stocks of stuff from way before you were born, the brand-new, the coveted racks of comic books and magazines and craft patterns---we'd sneak around behind when Miss Hazel wasn't looking and spend as much time as we could leafing through Superman and Heckle and Jeckle, til she discovered us and huffily chided our bending the pages and disturbing her corners-aligned arrangement of the bright temptations.

Way down in the middle, the left-hand side brightened with a green-countered soda-fountain, four stools-to-match, and all the shining promise of the chrome handles and cups and mysterious flip-lidded holes sunk into the counter, their long thin ladles the bringers of syrups---the deep dark string of Hershey's chocolate for your frosty-bowl sundae, or the strawberry and pineapple for a banana split.

The straw dispenser, a tall skinny dome of gleaming glass like a bell-jar clock, was eternally fascinating to me, with its pop-up magic. You lifted the little chrome deelybob in the center, and the whole thing rose, with the rainbow of straws spreading out like stiff petals; you took one, careful not to touch the others, and let the platform down, with the straws closing their little umbrella spokes til the next customer. That fragile thing had been in use all my life, and I cannot imagine how it survived all the young hands which grabbed hold of it every day.

The only time I ever heard Leon raise his voice was when some of the older teens were blowing bubbles into their drinks at the table. He came around the corner, saying loudly, "You're using my STRAWS for that ice-water? You need to PAY for something to get a straw, and Y'all need to let some customers use that table."

Said ice water was always served in the same little-bottom, big-top Coke glasses as all the other drinks, so I imagine there was less-than-profit on that item.

I wanted to touch the rounded handles of the soda dispenser, like polished, upside-down spinnin'-tops to be grabbed and pulled for the gush of Coke or Orange syrup or a foam of soda-water. The big glass bubbler with the daily-squeezed lemonade sat to the side like a square aquarium, with gutted lemon halves bobbing like fish.

Doc's was a magical place, owned by the forever-there town doctor, and manned by the same longtime staff who had served our parents and who-knows-who-else for decades. Doc was seldom himself there, but the place ran like clockwork, under the watchful eye of Miss Hazel, a small, quiet woman with a jaw of iron and a will to match. She strode her Mason Oxfords through the store with the ease of a monarch, confident in her longevity and the awe of her customers.

And Leon. Leon the Pharmacist. He held the medical fate of the whole town in his hands, even more than Doc, I think, for whatever he compounded or poured or counted out into those little rattly bottles with the typed-and-licked labels stuck on---we accepted the small crackly white paper sacks and downed each dose with perfect confidence-through-the-grimace, knowing Leon knew all, could tend to all, and would not let us down.

He'd read the square prescription slip and impale it neatly on the "spike file" which was a metal base with what looked like a slimmer version of our ice-pick blade; over the course of the year, the stack would grow higher and higher, somehow magically circling itself into the most beautiful overgrown white chrysanthemum with all that paper of the sharp little corners.

Then he'd reach unerringly for the correct bottle or jar, count out clicky little pills or capsules, or pour some viscous liquid neatly into a bottle, step aside to type the label on an old Royal the size of an anvil, lick the back of the label, and plaster it on.

Leon was a lifelong Baptist, a never-married long quiet man, with the aura of pill-dust and a whisking crackle of white coat; he dispensed, he rousted the too-long-in-the-booth leather-clad ducktails and sent them off down the street after their allotted time's lounge on the green vinyl, making way for shy, waiting little girls and moony-eyed couples to order ice cream and double-straw milkshakes.

He also had the all-time state record for Sunday School Attendance. Leon had never missed----NEVER MISSED a Sunday in those creaky-floored classrooms with the successive sizes of chairs. He was reputed to have been carried to church by his oldest sister on the first Sunday of his life, while his Mama was still recuperating the required two weeks at home.

Rumor had it that something magical in all those potions and pills must have osmosed through Leon’s skin or have been breathed in from the essence-of-pharmacy in the air in that high room of bottle-laden shelves, where he slid up the bubble-glass window and regarded the next customer with genial inquiry or a countenance-molded-to-match for the illness or pain written on the face below.

He MUST HAVE breathed in enough antibiotic and anti-viral and analgesic dust to keep him so healthy. He did not LOOK robust; he was lanky and spare. He roomed at Mrs. Stover's and took a lot of his meals at the same divided-plate caffay as all the proprietors on Main Street who did not go home for noon dinner with their families.

But not even that floury food, the Chicken-Fried Steak and pools of gravy, with potatoes and butterbeans and corn filling the heavy crockery sections---those did not contribute an ounce to the lifelong sparsity of Leon’s frame, and though he was on the point of cadaverous, Leon’s strength was legendary---out at his Daddy’s place where he was raised, he’d still spend his days off helping out with the farm work.

He could lift a hundred-pound sack of fertilizer onto each shoulder and walk them quite a ways to dump into the hopper, and he could wrestle a shoat or a full-grown boarhog to the ground when need arose. I’d heard of those exploits and my only thought was fear for the pristine whiteness of his coat. I imagined that he took it off, hung it neatly on a fencepost, went about the grimy business of farming, then washed up and put his coat back on to drive home.

And when Leon came home after his surgery, there at the end, the whole Men’s Class from the church knocked on his door Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m., bringing Sunday School to him. He didn’t live too much longer, but after they laid him to rest out there beside Mama and Papa, that next Sunday morning was the first ever in all his seventy-some years that he’d ever been absent from Sunday School.

Or maybe he wasn’t.

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