Pharmacon Fiction by Lawrence Buentello “What do you have for a cold?” Jeremy pressed his advantage with the counterman, leaning in close to expose his scarlet nose. Phil, the counterman in question, peered at him through calm eyes (with large pupils) and stroked his long, gray beard thoughtfully. Phil was an aging hippie, or a graying flower child, or possessed of some allied persona, and tended toward thoughtful reposes lasting anywhere from a few seconds to infinity. Jeremy had been visiting the Botanical for years, plucking up holistic cures from the shelves and chatting with the clerks. He had an abiding, if not obsessive, fear of traditional medicine. Have you ever heard of institutional euthanasia? he was fond of asking complete strangers, and since he was the sickly sort he thought himself a prime candidate for governmental selection. But he wasn’t harboring profound delusions—in his mind he was only exercising an understandable caution. Phil nodded his shaggy head and gestured toward the rack of bottles behind him. “How about some Osha root?” he said. “Some sumac? We just got in a new shipment of Echinacea, can’t get it any fresher.” “Didn’t you recommend Echinacea for my prostate?” “Well, it works for both, I hear. The Navajo love it. Did you ever hear of an impotent Navajo?” Jeremy removed a tissue from his coat pocket and gently rubbed his nose. “I have a cold, not prostate trouble.” “Then the Echinacea worked?” “I suppose so. After only a year.” “Isn’t nature wonderful?” “Surely, but let’s get back to the issue at hand. What do you have that will alleviate my symptoms? Something that might kick in short of a year?” Phil touched his finger to the side of his nose and nodded. “I have just the thing,” he said slyly, an inflection Jeremy understood as a precursor to some illicit suggestion involving Taiwan and possibly a hookah. But Phil merely brought up a small vial of brown liquid from under the counter. “This stuff cures everything.” Jeremy held the bottle in his fingers and examined it in the light. The bottle contained perhaps a spoonful of liquid. Cough syrup? LSD? An extract of psilocybin? “What is it?” he asked, placing it back on the counter. “It’s the only natural cure-all known to humanity.” “What’s it made of, Phil?” “Well, I’m really not sure,” Phil said, scratching his beard. “But my manager says that’s what the manifest said, so who am I to argue with someone with twenty credit hours of higher education? She’s a true intellectual.” “What’s she majoring in?” “Psychic sciences.” Jeremy rubbed his aching forehead; his congestion was straight out of Sun Tzu, and the ghost of the Spanish Inquisition seemed in charge of his burning throat. “I’m sure the job market for Psychic Sciences is wide open,” he said, swallowing against the pain. “So I hear. Would you like to try it?” Jeremy stared at the bottle again, wondering if the hyperbole could possibly be true. “How much?” “Ten dollars. Unless you have a coupon.” “For the cure to everything?” “If you’d like to pay more I’d be glad to pocket the difference, but my manager said the producer sets the price.” “Why didn’t you offer this to me for my prostate?” “It only came in a couple of days ago in a crate of curios from Italy. Rome, I think. Would you like to try on some sandals, too? Genuine Italian leather.” “No, thanks.” “Very comfortable. I’m wearing some now. “I’ll just take the phenomenal cure-all, thanks.” Jeremy had the uncomfortable notion that he was buying a cure for precisely nothing, but reached for his wallet nevertheless. He’d bailed on college after one semester, so who was he to cast stones at the suggestion of an internationally-shipped panacea? At the moment, if it would relieve the pressure in his sinuses he was willing to believe anything.
Back at his apartment he collapsed in his favorite chair and stared at his cat, Norma. Norma, a somber Persian with a curious facial tic that caused her to twitch her whiskers every few seconds, stared back at him from her perch on the bookcase, twitching. The room was dim, and smelled faintly of bacon grease. Jeremy was addicted to BLTs. Abruptly he shattered the silence with a catastrophic sneeze, then wiped his nose with his sleeve. Jeremy raised the bottle to Norma. “Phil says this will take care of my cold. What kind of odds are you giving me this time?” Norma blinked her dull blue eyes, then twitched. “Alas, those are the same odds for everything in my life,” he said, feeling enormously sorry for himself. “Well, here goes.” He unstopped the bottle and poured its contents over his tongue. He immediately winced and made an endearingly humorous face—seen only by Norma—at the liquid’s sheer bitterness. In fact, he’d never tasted anything so bitter in his life (and he’d consumed some really distasteful substances in his search for natural cures). Tears stung his eyes; for a moment he couldn’t even open them because of the awful taste. When he finally did open his eyes the sight of his apartment met him through hazy tears. He blinked several times. Then he sneezed violently. So much for cures, he thought. When he finally focused on the room again, though, he realized he was no longer alone. A grizzled little man in a robe stood by the bookcase gently petting Norma. “It was an extract of psilocybin,” he said to himself. “I’m seeing things.” The little man dropped his hand from the cat and nodded his head. He seemed old, very old, in-desperate-need-of-a-respirator old, but did it really matter how old hallucinations appeared? Strangely, Norma sat placidly licking her fur, twitchless. “Ten dollars is way too much for this uninspired vision,” he said, wiping his nose with a tissue. “I’m going to speak to that manager tomorrow and give her—” “Ten dollars is a positive bargain for the vision you are now enjoying,” the little man said in a deep, basso voice. The sound seemed completely out of character for the type of hallucination he represented. Jeremy sighed, feeling ridiculous for holding a conversation with a hallucination; but the hallucination had initiated the exchange, and he was in no mood to be bested by a vision. “I wasn’t supposed to see anything,” he said. “I was supposed to be cured of my cold.” “You’re not satisfied with over-the-counter products?” the old man ventured. He dusted his robe as he studied his surroundings. “Don’t you know there’s no cure for the common cold?” “I was promised a cure.” “And so you were given a cure.” “You’re a hallucination, not a cure.” “I really wish they’d stop selling that stuff out of the gift shop,” the old man said. “Do you know how many light years I had to travel to get here? Even subverting the space-time continuum?” “I’m sorry, you’re losing me.” “Listen, you seem like a nice, ordinary sort of fellow, a human being following the antiquated but perfectly useful Bean Curve. That is to say, a normal, middle of the road sort of person.” Jeremy sat up in his chair. “Are you calling me simple?” “No, no, young man, just—well, average. So please try to follow my argument, if you will.” Jeremy squinted his eyes suspiciously. “I’m really middle-aged, you know. But, go on.” “Compared to me, you’re barely here at all. Now, if someone gave you an elixir to cure everything, what do you think that elixir might be made of?” “I would have no idea.” “Exactly, because such an elixir doesn’t exist. The ancient apothecaries knew as much, so once upon a time a very long time ago a very enterprising monk found a way around the dilemma. Now, what agent, natural or supernatural, could possibly cure any illness in existence?” “I’m not such a dim bulb,” Jeremy said defensively, “I understand exactly what you mean. If there is no natural cure for every illness, then such a cure must be supernatural.” “Precisely!” The little man clapped his hands delightedly. “And what supernatural agent that you know of could cure any illness?” Jeremy bit his lip in thought. This hallucination certainly was a demanding sort. Perhaps all this cerebration was supposed to take his mind off his cold symptoms. If so, he still wanted a refund. “Quit thinking about money and concentrate,” the old man scolded. “Are you telling me you’re God?” Jeremy said. The old man smiled and folded his hands over his stomach. “At your service.” “So Phil sold me a hallucinogenic drink that would allow me to see God? How’s that supposed to cure my cold?” “No, you idiot,” the old man said, waving his arms in disgust. “The liquid is an agent that allows you to contact God. Me, if you please. Once in contact with God a person is capable of requesting a cure for what ails him. Don’t you see the simple beauty of it? That was one clever monk.” Jeremy laughed at the thought of God standing in his living room. No wonder the Botanical only gave the stuff out in small doses. “I don’t see what’s so funny.” “You’ll pardon me,” Jeremy said, “but I really envisioned God as a much more imposing figure.” “Why? I can become anything I please. I could appear as a goat’s head, or some baklava. A bolt of lightning, or a jar of preserves.” “Why in the world would God appear as a jar of preserves?” “It’s an ontological point I’m making. Forget the preserves. I’ve come to you in the visage of your dear old grandfather.” “You don’t look anything at all like my grandfather.” The old man smiled. “Not the man you think of as your grandfather. Life is a complicated matter. When a woman’s eyes behold an attractive man outside of marriage—” “That’s enough of that line of reasoning. I’ll not think of Nana in that way, even within a hallucination.” “Fair enough. But that doesn’t invalidate my point. I am God, and therefore capable of curing any illness.” Jeremy rose from his chair and began pacing the apartment, careful not to invade the space of his talkative hallucination. He was fascinated by the teleological implications of finding God in his living room. “Why not prayer?” Jeremy asked, still pacing. “Why not achieve a cure through prayer?” The little old man casually left his place by the bookcase and sat in the vacated chair. Norma climbed down from the bookcase and sat in his lap, picking at the folds of his robe with her claws. “Sure, that’s one method,” the old man said, stroking the cat, “but do you know how many people pray? I fulfill one at random every now and then just to keep my hand in it, and the rest I leave for nature and modern medicine. It’s a lot like playing the lottery. That’s why those apothecaries kept working the problem until they came up with a unique solution. You know, there’s only fifteen more bottles of the stuff circulating around, but most people consider cure-alls sheer superstitious nonsense. I mean, botanicals. Please.” Jeremy winced at the subtle insult. Then he turned to face the hallucination petting his cat. “All right,” he said, wiping his nose, “I’ll accept your thesis for the moment, but only to prove my point. If you’ve been summoned by the liquid in the bottle to cure my illness, then please do so. This cold is killing me.” The old man shrugged his feeble shoulders. “Are you sure you want me to cure your cold?” he said. “I mean, it is just a cold. I hear your prostate’s somewhat dodgy.” “Leave my prostate out of the argument. It’s a logical point of contention. If you can cure my cold, I mean, completely and unambiguously cure my cold, then you’re who you say you are and I am truly in the presence of God.” The old man nodded. “Indeed. But, really, it’s just a cold. Wouldn’t you rather I cure your cancer?” Jeremy’s eyes widened. “I have cancer?” “No, but if you did have cancer, wouldn’t you rather I cure that instead of a simple cold?” Jeremy frowned deeply. “Listen, I don’t care if you are an illusion, you shouldn’t go telling people they have cancer when they don’t. That’s really rude of you.” “I was making a point. And since you’re so sensitive about it, I see it was a valid point to make. Don’t you agree?” “Even so. Now, if there’s nothing really wrong with me—except for the cold—then why should I need a cure for anything else?” “How about your prostate?” “The Echinacea cured my prostate.” “Echinacea? Please, there’s one born every minute. You should have invested your money in a good urologist.” “I’m afraid I don’t trust doctors. They’re all a part of a corporate conspiracy to bilk people out of billions of dollars every year in a huge bait-and-switch scheme. The insurance companies are in on it, too. And are we, the sickly public, ever cured of anything? No, we just keep sinking our money into new diagnoses and pharmaceuticals until we die. I’ll stick to homeopathic medicine, thank you.” “Are you through?” “Yes, I guess I’ve exposed it all. Being God, I’d think you’d already know such secrets.” The old man sucked in his cheeks and shook his head. After a moment he released his cheeks with a loud, wheezing noise. “Did it ever occur to you,” he said, “that the homeopathic drug industry is just as much a scam?” “It is?” “Listen, my friend, someone is always going to want to sell you something you don’t need, and sometimes it’s only going to be an educated guess on your part as to what is best for you. But that’s for you to decide. Frankly, if I were you I’d forget about the conspiracy theories and quit chewing on weeds. For instance, that last bottle of Echinacea you bought was actually crabgrass.” “All that is beside the point,” Jeremy said, wondering if this was the reason why his last bottle of Echinacea tasted so earthy, “if you are God, then please cure my cold.” “What about your prostate?” “My prostate isn’t bothering me! It’s the cold I have, and it’s the cold that will prove my point.” “What is your point, exactly?” “That you’re simply a hallucination and I was unscrupulously relieved of my ten dollars.” The old man sighed, pushed the cat from his lap and stood. “All right, have it your way,” he said. “All the powers of God at your behest and all you want me to do is cure a simple cold. You know, a few days of rest will achieve as much.” “But not as dramatically.” “Fine.” The old man gestured toward the chair. “Sit.” Jeremy nodded in a self-satisfied sort of way, though he wasn’t sure why, and sat in the chair. “Now close your eyes.” Jeremy closed his eyes. From the depth of the darkness before him, Jeremy heard the old man clap his hands thunderously, quite disarmingly so, and then he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Jeremy woke in the chair the next morning he realized his sinuses were unobstructed for the first time in days. He felt positively wonderful, no teary eyes, no itchy nose, no sore throat, no cold symptoms at all. When he sat up the empty bottle fell from his stomach and tumbled to the floor. He inhaled deeply, reveling in his newly affected cold-free state. Whatever was in that little bottle, he thought, sure did the trick! Slowly, he became aware of his surroundings. Norma sat on top of the bookcase as usual, licking a paw. He watched her for a moment before realizing that she wasn’t twitching, not a bit. He walked to the bookcase and picked her up. She gazed at him nervously. He set her down and picked up the little bottle; a piece of paper lay curled inside the small neck. He pulled the paper from the bottle and held it to the light. I cured the cat gratis, the note read, now go find a decent urologist. It didn’t take Jeremy ten minutes to run back to the Botanical—after all, he was no longer gagging up annoying amounts of mucous—but Phil was all out of the tiny vials of brown liquid; though he did have some bottles of Echinacea on the shelf, which he offered at half price. Jeremy leaned against the counter thoughtfully. “Your manager wouldn’t still have that manifest lying around?” he asked hopefully. “The one from Rome?” “Sorry,” Phil said, “I used it for papers.” Jeremy wondered how much airfare to Italy might be this time of year; still, there was no guarantee he would even be able to find the right gift shop, let alone another small brown bottle sitting on its shelves. Besides, who was he to argue with divine advice? “You wouldn’t know a good urologist, would you?” he asked the counterman. Actually, Phil did.