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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

BIGGER THAN LIFE AND TWICE AS MEAN

(This is just a story, so don't get so upset.)   

 "I'd say you have asthma."
    He was right, at least according to the five other doctors I'd visited. I offered up my best hang dog expression, one that I hoped would convey a sense of personal failure.
   He moved the  stethoscope to my back and I inhaled and exhaled on his command.
   "Do you use any type of rescue inhaler?"
   "No."
   "They make one called Advair Diskus. You have prescription insurance?"
   "I have a large deductible."
   Doctor Smidgeon sighed. "The Diskus is pricey. Three to four hundred dollars a month."
   "Hokey smokes."
   "It's a corticosteroid."
   "Wow, you mean like the athletes use?"
   He grinned. "You're thinking of anabolic steroids. Corticosteroids stimulate the adrenal gland, reduce inflammation. In your case, they will relieve your asthmatic symptoms."
   I pretended all this was news to me. "Just no way I can afford something that expensive. Don't they make a pill or something?"
   He tossed the stethoscope aside and pulled up a chair. He wouldn't have been out of place smoking a Pall Mall, except that he was a contemporary physician and this was not a 1950s television show. "The problem with oral medications is that where you need the treatment is in your lungs. When you take a pill for this, it goes to your whole body. Maybe only ten percent gets to your breathing."
   I made with a weak smile. "Still, if they're cheaper. . ."
   "Oh, they are." He looked for his prescription pad. I tried to not look relieved.
   "We could try you out on Decadron."
   I shook my head. "I've heard of that. My sister Kathy took that for a few weeks. She said it irritated her throat." (I had no sister, neither Kathy nor otherwise.) "Is there any other kind of pill?"
   He did not look up from his pad. "I am going to have you take five milligrams of Prednisone six times daily. You take two in the morning, two at lunch, and two early evening. Don't take them too late in the day or they will keep you awake."
   He was talking about the euphoria. I knew it well. Given  the choice between a plate of cocaine and thirty milligrams  of Prednisone, I would take the latter every time. 
   "You come back and see me in a month. Schedule that with Gladys on your way out."
   I tucked the script into my breast pocket and resisted the urge to dance.
   They call it drug shopping. I call it peace of mind. Most people, I will grant you, shop for opioids, narcotics, pain pills. I have a high tolerance for pain. I also have mild asthma that got a bit more than mild a few months ago.  It was only a fast flare up, but the first doctor I saw gave me the same dosage Doctor Smidgeon was giving me now. He was the fifth one of the day. Five doctors. Five pharmacies. Five times the fun.
   I hadn't started out looking for fun. Last December I had been in bad shape. I almost passed out driving to the doctor's office because not enough oxygen was getting to my brain. Within twenty-four hours of the first dose of Prednisone, I felt like a new man. 
   I learned right away to be careful. The first month I gained thirty pounds, most of it in my face. The condition is so common that doctors call it "moon face." I had to change my diet a bit and soon enough the weight gain faded. 
   This guy, Smidgeon, had wanted to do a blood test. I suggested that my condition might not allow for the time that would take. If he had ordered a blood work up, he would have seen that my white cell count was insanely high and there would have been no script for me. One thing about it: Prednisone keeps you on your toes. Always thinking. Always.

   I developed the idea for the mural shortly after our dog Salamander knocked over my bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Sal needed to go out, a 911 emergency, and Cynthia was still in the shower, so I hooked up his leash and the golden shepherd and I bounded out the door and toward the park. We had to jaywalk across Lincoln Drive to get to the Free Poop Zone and while we waited with some impatience for the traffic to clear, I observed something which I had vaguely ignored hundreds of times before: lying across the metal slab at the covered bus stop was a man of about twenty, his clothes thin as notebook paper, his expression wiped clean from the inside out. He used folded hands for a pillow and his legs were pulled up like those of a fetus. Even the dead could not ignore the noise and hostilities buzzing around him as trucks belched their fumes, as small cars taunted with their horns and black men on bicycles looked for whistling repositories for their smack and crack. The man slept on, his racial features beyond meaning from the sun-beating years on the street had delivered. How many times had my eyes skimmed over people such as this man? It was even possible I had made a point of ignoring this specific person many others times. But Salamander liked to urinate near the indigent. I think it made him feel superior. As I tried to pay heed to a break in the gridlock, I could not quite look away from that man. He mesmerized me with the weakness with which his chest expanded and contracted with each raspy breath. The wind rattled his pants legs while flies circled like buzzards over the trash can at his feet. He was in the worst of all worlds and was sleeping right through it. 
   The hateful sound glare of the passing world did not stir him. But something far more primordial--that sensation we get when we realize someone uninvited is staring at us--rousted him like a big cop with a night stick. He sprang to his feet and held out his arms like an instant windmill. The face of each arm carried wide swaths of midnight red. His self-injections had begun to cannibalize their host. A quarter of each arm had rotted out. His eyes percolated like smoldering geysers. 
   The traffic broke and Sal and I ran across the street. When we returned, the bus stop was so empty it was possible to believe the man had never been there at all.
   Cynthia loved the idea of the mural: a young man wearing a fine suit, expensive necktie and Italian shoes sleeping across the slab at the bus stop while all the visual sounds tried in vain to disrupt him--all of it bigger than life and twice as mean.
   I admitted I had my doubts as to anyone commissioning such subversion. Cynthia disagreed. "I'm sure some anti-drug organization will. Or maybe an anti-poverty group."
   I felt a smile coming on. "You don't think Chase Bank would go for it?"

   Grind up your Prednisone and stir in a moderate amount of zinc oxide with just a pinch of baking soda. Cook the batch in the microwave for five minutes or until the compound hardens. When you retrieve the goods, you will have high quality fake cocaine. When the person you sell it to puts a bump on his gums, the numbness will hit just like with the real thing. If he snorts a short line, he'll feel a soothing rush that will fade after he has danced away from you. And if he happens to be a careful sort who wants chemical confirmation, he can drop a bit into some vinegar and the acetic acid will turn a blushing blue, just as it will with the real McCoy.
   After a week of steroid shopping, Cynthia and I baked a kilogram of the stuff and talked some bicycling drug slingers into selling it for us. Less than a week later we took our net of $17,220 to a real estate agent and made a down payment on a broken down quarter-acre half a mile west of where the sleeping junkie had once rested. Part of what we were renting was an ugly concrete wall which we immediately painted with an eggshell latex. Two days later I used charcoal for the outlines while Cynthia handled acrylics for the details. Eight days later our modest statement about the current state of affairs was nearly completed. 
   We couldn't decide what was missing. The sleeping businessman lay on his side just as the junkie had days earlier. Beneath the bench we sketched in the tiny bodies of tiny people holding the bench from falling. If you stood close enough, you could even make out the drops of sweat from the strain of their exertions. 
   We didn't know what was missing until we stood close to the wall in dazzled and immodest admiration of our creation when a nondescript car paused on the street and the passenger leaned out his side to unload a barrage of rifle fire at us. His drug use--or fake drug use--had rendered his aim a pathetic excuse for marksmanship and while we hit the dirt, all he hit was the wall. 
   The scattered chunks his shooting chipped out of our mural gave the piece just the touch it needed. 
  If only my asthma hadn't returned. . .
    

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