THE NIGHT I FOUND THE NAUGHTY LIST
I was working late one snowy New England night in Gilead's Olde' Apothecary Shoppe. The frosty doors had been locked tightly some time ago. Christmas Eve this year was brutal, and I had piles of unfiled prescriptions to sort and stash in their designated drawers. I sent the staff home with the last customer at 6:00PM. No need to intrude any further into their evening celebrations, I could manage the clean-up myself. The hand-carved cuckoo clock hanging on the dim wall just announced 7:00PM and I was almost done for the night.
I had worked Gilead's before. The staffing service knew I didn't mind the drive, even though they were located deep into the heart of the scenic Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, well beyond my normal territory. The independent pharmacy had been in operation just over 125 years and something about its historic charm and nostalgic character made the busy days more bearable. The cuckoo clock, strange as it may sound, was one of those bits of magic that perfumed the atmosphere of this singular little store. It bore a striking resemblance to the exterior shape of Gilead’s pharmacy: the same slanted roof line and cobblestone trim around the foundation, the same curious balcony, merely decorative to the view of entering customers, but serving as the foundation upon which the little cuckoo bird emerged from the face of the clock. One might think the clock was carved to match the shop. But that was impossible. Anyone acquainted with the Black Forest origins of this particular timepiece, would know that this clock clearly pre-dated the existence of this New England apothecary shop by at least 100 years. It was a mid-18th century antique, handmade and carefully restored and maintained, handed down from the previous owner to the present. The customers called him Gilead, the bird that is, whenever he happened to appear while they patiently waited for a prescription to be filled. It was as if the spirit of the original owner himself rested in the heart of that cuckoo clock, keeping an eye on his former enterprise and all who entered.
As I said, I was almost done for the night. One last prescription to file, and of course we had run out of folders in which to insert this last lonely order. It was the prescription for the little red-coat girl who came in with her mother just before close. Morphine syrup. Poor thing. And given the fact that it was from the Pittsfield Pediatric Oncology Clinic her prognosis couldn’t be very good. You would, however, never have known that from her face. There was a timeless look in her eyes, the kind of expression someone gives when they know more than they can tell you at the moment even though they want to. And there was, well, the only word that seems to come close is ‘joy.’ Not just happy, which I have learned over the years is a very different thing anyway. But real joy; something which sickness does not have power to steal, and neither fame nor fortune can afford. There was this warmth about her, and it wasn’t just her crimson coat with the big black buttons and fuzzy collar. I’m sure her mother was quite proud of her daughter’s courage.
I needed a folder. One of those California file folders as they are called. Proof, I suppose, that something good has come out of the Golden State. One hundred prescriptions fit in a folder, one hundred folders in a box. Neat and organized. I suppose that was one of the things that drew me into the pharmacy profession. I liked order. Science, medical science in particular, demanded a rigorous orderliness from its disciples. From the classification of diseases to the classification of drugs to…well…the way we filed our cancelled prescription forms; order ruled. And this organized approach to life had worked its way into my very bones and marrow. I couldn’t just leave this prescription sitting, unfiled, for the next pharmacist to deal with on the day after Christmas. It must be stamped, signed and settled into its proper place.
The folder box was empty. That meant, of course, a trip to the basement where all of the extra pharmacy supplies were stored. Gilead’s basement was even more intriguing than the store itself. You accessed the basement through a sliding pocket door on the back wall between the first two prescription bays. On the door were mounted sample prescriptions from every decade the pharmacy had been in operation, the earliest of which was dated 1885. I looked at it again. Tincture of Morphine. It was hand written in that almost cryptic style that has sadly been lost today. That old style had to be sacrificed upon the altar of efficiency, and the electronic prescription now ruled the pharmacy world. With bottles of azithromycin on my left and benazepril on my right, I slid open the door.
Down the stairway I went after pulling the chain to light my way. Each stair responded with a screech to my slow steps, joining with the gentle hum of the furnace and occasional wisp of winter wind; my Christmas choir. The folders would be located across the basement on the steel shelves just above the extra boxes of prescription labels and right next to the plastic prescription vials. As I crossed the floor I noticed an assortment of Christmas decorations tucked neatly into the corner. There was a 5 feet tall, silver tinsel tree that had clearly gone past its expiration date, though at one time was probably a pharmacy favorite. There was an antique wooden sled that was missing one of its metal treads. There were 3 faded ceramic figures, maybe they were wise men from a retired nativity scene, but I couldn’t be sure. And there was…well…what was it? It had the look of a parchment scroll of sorts. It seemed far too old to be a poster. Tied with a bit of black ribbon, I reached down and slid it out from under the tinsel tree.
The scroll, indeed it was a scroll, was covered with a thin coating of fine powder. It was then I noticed the old glass stock bottle broken in pieces on the ground nearby. The powder clearly came from this antique bottle and left a spray of particles all around the floor. I blew away the unidentified medicinal dust as I untied the black ribbon to unroll this ancient looking document. The dimly lit basement seemed to be filling with the strange powder as I began reading. The words at the top were in black ink, with a bold and formal hand-written appearance…like an old prescription, only larger. I read the top line: The Naughty List. A smile began to spread across my face as I imagined how this prop may have been used many years ago. Maybe a store Santa kept it nearby to warn the unruly children that he was always watching. Maybe old Gilead himself would pull it out to encourage reluctant kids to take their medicine. “You don’t want to end up on the Naughty List, do you?” I could almost hear him say.
I continued, curiously, unrolling the weathered register. The dust from the broken bottle was growing thicker and thicker in the air and the room itself began to fade in and out. The only things growing clearer were the words on the paper before me. There were names. Lots of names. Hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe more. But as my eyes scanned down the list only one name stood out clearer and bolder than all the rest…my own. I closed my eyes and refocused. There it was. First, middle, last name. And it seemed to be growing larger the longer I looked. My eyes darted back up to the top of the page: The Naughty List. Dreadful and unwelcomed thoughts began intruding into my mind. Memories of past sins. Recollections of every missed opportunity for doing good. My world came unglued in that moment. All my cherished order disintegrated. My name on that list had undone me. These words on the page also came into focus: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
I put down the paper and, forgetting about the file folder, climbed the stairs and headed toward the front of the pharmacy. I set the alarm and locked the door behind me as I heard the cuckoo clock begin to chime the hour as I left. I couldn’t drive. I needed some fresh air. I plunged my hands deep into the pockets of my long black wool coat and started walking along the sidewalk toward the shops and lights of the center of town. I felt crushed, like a tablet in an apothecaries mortar. I recalled my old professor in college walking among us students as we practiced the art of grinding particles with pestles. “Secundum artem, secundum artem!” he would repeat with every heavy footfall as his piercing eyes carefully scanned our practice. According to the art, according to the art! My feet fell heavy too, but not with the weight of authority, but the weight of a thousand worlds upon my shoulders.
It was cold, but not bitter, and a gentle snow was beginning to introduce itself to the streets and scattered cars parked along the curb. Several flakes landed softly on my cheeks and mingled with the flow of tears that had just begun to fall. The Christmas lights which glittered the sidewalk trees and shop windows began to blur. The inviting smells of fresh baked bread and pastries escaped past me from the open door MacDougal’s Confections, though I had no appetite for the temptation to take hold of. I could hear music coming from around the corner just ahead. I allowed my feet to keep moving in that direction, not entirely sure where I was headed, or why. My thoughts kept returning to my name and that list. That dreaded list. That dreaded name. It was right. If I knew anything at all, if there was any truth, if anything at all was real in all the world, I knew my name belonged there.
The music grew louder as I approached the corner. Only now I could tell that it wasn’t really music at all. It was voices. These voices were singing. I rounded the corner and saw the choir. There were 10, maybe 12 of them all together. Several older folks, several younger, and a few children were huddled together holding sheets of music while a few amused pedestrians stopped to listen. It was a chilly, snowy Christmas Eve and they were singing Christmas carols on the sidewalk of this lonely town. Then one little caroler caught my eye: it was the little girl in the red coat. She held no song sheet, but there she was standing with the group and singing “Oh little town of Bethlehem.” The girl turned her head and she smiled when she saw me. I stood, not moving, not entirely understanding. She began walking toward me, though no one in the choir seemed to notice her leaving their company and none of the bystanders watched her go.
Now she stood just before me, looking up into my eyes with concern and understanding. The choir had gone on to a new song: “Angels we have heard on high.” I forced a smile onto my face as I thought of the courageous and selfless little girl singing to others while her own little life had such dismal prospects. “Christmas” she said to me “is all about the Naughty List you know.” I stood speechless. “Could she…but how?” My thoughts, however, were interrupted by her words. “That’s what my pastor said last Sunday. God sent His Son, His only Son, Jesus, just for the people on the Naughty List. He died for them. No one needs to stay on that list if they don’t want to. That’s what he said.” With that she turned and walked slowly back to her small group and joined the carol chorus “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”
I turned around and began to walk back toward Gilead’s. When I reached MacDougal’s I stopped, thought for a moment, and turned in and asked for a dozen muffins which they kindly packed into a white pastry box and fastened it closed with a bow. I paid the shop owner and thanked him kindly for his service. Returning toward the carolers my mind returned to the little girl’s words. “No one needs to stay on that list if they don’t want to.” I didn’t want to. And I knew right then and there my life had changed. I turned the corner and moved toward the singer in the front who seemed to be the leader. They were just finishing and I handed him the box and thanked him. There was a bucked on the ground in front of them, it said “Jeremiah’s Inn,” a local homeless shelter for men, and I emptied my pockets into their cause. Preparing now to return to the parking lot and begin my journey home, I looked again at this precious angelic group of singers. She wasn’t there. The little girl in the red coat was already gone. Maybe she had to leave early. But I thanked God for her as I pulled my coat more tightly around me and began my journey home. The snow was falling more quickly now, and the steps that marked my previous journey were already erased beneath a fresh blanket of white. I peeked through Gilead’s window, checking on the pharmacy through the dim shadows cast by the security lights mounted near the back of the store. The cuckoo clock announced the hour and the little bird emerged, and all was well.
Jason Poquette 2011 ©