She was petite, in blue dress pants and a conservative blouse with a small gym bag over her shoulder. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed her when I arrived at the pharmacy counter and stood the customary respectful distance behind her, except her conversation with the pharmacist was taking a long time. A really long time.
I tried not to listen, but her voice was taking on a panicked tone, and the more she talked, the more high-pitched and quavery – and loud – she got.
“I’ll have the money in my account on Friday when I get paid,” she told the pharmacist. “But I ran out of my medication yesterday.” She choked back whatever was welling up in her throat.
The pharmacist apologized in a tone so low I couldn’t hear what she was saying, even though she was facing me. I could tell she was deeply troubled by having to withhold medication from a patient. But I assume there are strict laws against dispensing prescriptions on store credit.
The pharmacist had already rung up a few extra items for the woman, and they were in a bag on the counter. The woman opened the bag and looked at the other things she’d intended to buy with her medication.
“How much would the total be if I didn’t buy this?” she asked as she handed back a bottle of Sprite Zero and a package of cookies. The tiny sparkle of hope in her voice belied what she, the pharmacist and probably everyone else in earshot already knew: a few dollars wouldn’t make a difference.
“That brings it down to $735,” the pharmacist said.
The woman’s shoulders slumped. She handed the pharmacist two more products from the bag as I busied myself examining the display of sharps containers and daily pill organizers on the wall next to me.
The bag was empty. And even though her back was to me, I could see the woman was trying to survive this conversation with every ounce of dignity she could muster.
There was a long, heavy pause. Then something occurred to her.
“Can I just pay for a few day’s worth? Even one day’s worth?” The hope in her voice made me silently root for a good answer from the pharmacist as I discovered you can even buy pill organizers that lock so they won’t open in your purse.
The pharmacist took a breath so deep I could hear it from my position six feet away with my head turned away from her.
“I’m sorry. That’s not how the prescription was written.”
I hadn’t realized the woman had been holding her bagged prescriptions in her hands during the entire conversation. She could have grabbed them and run, which is obviously a terrible decision. But it seemed like a viable option even to me as we all stood there.
She clutched the bag to her chest for a moment – holding whatever drugs she obviously needed as close to her body as they were going to get today – and then slowly set them on the counter and pushed them back to the pharmacist.
“I’ll be back on Friday,” she said in a resigned voice. “My paycheck usually gets deposited in my account first thing in the morning, so I’ll be here before work. You open at 7, right?”
I stepped way back and started examining the boxes of alcohol wipes that the doctor uses on your skin before giving you an injection. My attempt to give her some space worked, at least for me; I didn’t see her walk away.
But when I walked up to the pharmacist, who looked slightly ashen, I saw the woman’s empty drugstore bag on the counter. And her Sprite Zero, her cookies and her two boxes of vitamins still sitting next to the register.