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Don Malkemes lives in Chicago.

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Walgreens at Armitage & Albany 

Don Malkemes

Read by Cary Barnette

The official language of Illinois is English. They tried to change it to “American” in 1923—forced sobriety will do that to a people. Just like Prohibition, the American language never took. But I didn’t live in Illinois, I lived in Chicago where “Cold Beer” was as plentiful as “Cerveza Fria” and “Zimne Piwo.”

Where I moved, Spanish held sway. I was an unfortunate mind with privileged skin, looking for quiet at low cost. The rent was what I could afford, given my problems with employment. I walked like a specter through the blocks, ominous and sin lengua.

The Walgreens was close. It was a neighborhood fixture. I was not. The suspended aisle signs, the muzak, the cashiers were all in Spanish. I had to adapt, else resolve to go unrepaired, unwashed, unsnacked and unlettered.

Four months had passed when I found myself at the Walgreens precariously close to becoming unwiped. I stood at the check-out, clenched, behind a man buying a twelve-pack of Modelo. He did not notice the urgency, his proximity to a violent blow-out, as he pulled a changepurse from his pocket to pay whatever his ten-dollar bill didn’t cover. This man, this glacial tormentor of my sphincter, set his change on the counter, and the cashier tallied until she paused, “Necesito veintiocho centavos.”

He slowly pawed his pockets, and I quickly snatched a quarter and a nickel from mine, which I placed on the counter. Gracias, de nada, yeah yeah yeah—run run run—papel de bano, mi solomente amigo.

It wasn’t until after the flush, when I was wiped over and the panic had subsided, that I thought, “But I don’t speak Spanish.”

She had abandoned her child and husband for three men, which she rotated throughout the month. I was one of them. I think another one was engaged. We had agreed to be in each other’s stables, animus to feed, and we didn’t discuss extraneous details. It was enough, to hold each other like lovers, comforted that there were others who hold us like this. Love was the lie we didn’t need. To lay waste to its laughable constructs and prohibitions, we thought it a brave thing. In our mockery, the cold carnality, we found what felt like courage.

I loitered in the double-wide expanse of February’s promo aisle. We agreed to see each other the night after Valentine’s, with the understanding that Love True Love could only come from the Seasonal aisle of Walgreens. I bought naughty dice, an elephantine cardboard heart filled with cheap chocolate, flavored lube, three boxes of BeMine confections, etc. But my focus didn’t stray from the shining jewel of the collection, a milk chocolate bas-relief of a fish—its foil read, “You’re quite the catch.” I carried our Contempt, our Godhead, with its parts disassembled in a plastic bag to my apartment. Behold the blithe, cynical visage of Arrested Nihilism: fucboi, destroyer, fool.

We continued like that, through phoned threats from husband, mother, et al.; and stumbling cash-rings of condoms and bottled water, until I got chlamydia and she lost custody.

Walking by the Walgreens, I noticed its renovation. Three weeks away, and shifts happen like sublimation. The drab concrete bricks of the building’s northside had been painted red to match the Walgreens lettering, which was still bolted to its creambrick façade. The awnings had changed too. Now a calm hunter green jutted from the windows, where white corrugated metal, dappled with rust, once hung.

On the inside, the signs in each aisle were clean and new. The Walgreens had become bilingual. English words stood bold, stark, and strong as if each word provided shelter to its Spanish analogue underneath. The Spanish had become diminished and italicized. Even if you didn’t know the words, the new order of things was easy to see.

The next day I returned, needing deodorant. On the freshly painted red of the northside, guerrilla décor clashed with yesterday’s intentions. In gold spray, its lines uneven and big, the five-pointed crown of the LKs stood as sentinel. A mural, clear in its minimalism, sneered, “We are still here, no matter what your new signs say.”

“My lady is a lotus-eater /
Oooohh ooohhhh,
My lady is a lotus-eater-er-er /
Sh’se so high, but we get by /
Cuz life can’t get /
Any sweeter.”

I was prone to improvisational song. I had found the love of my life at the same time I switched jobs. The days were filled with fecund possibility and advancement. The world was Romance. She was the ideal, the epiphany, the woolgathering to my working week. I greeted my future baldness, bloat and impotence with a rapturous joy. I was a complete asshole.

Like an asshole, I liked to buy her things for no reason. And she liked to smoke. Whole nights were spent in silence: I meeting another impossible deadline, and she stoned and knitting a winter’s cap for a friend.

I found a magnificent strain, and thought it would make a welcomed gift. After a few texts and a phone call, the dealer and I agreed to meet in the Walgreens parking lot. He was hesitant, “I don’t know man, isn’t that area crazy sketchy?” I assuaged his fears, listing the new headshop and the pub that had recently changed from beer-and-a-shot to mixology. After we set a time, I described myself: shaved head, beard, black hoodie.

I leaned against the ice machine, its location giving me a full view of the parking lot while obscuring the full view of Walgreens management. A black Jeep Cherokee slowed at the southern entrance and inched its way through the lot to a far-corner space. There was a long pause from when he cut his engine to when he opened the door. Maybe it was his haircut, or his shoes, but I knew he was not from the city—he felt like a suburb, Elmhurst probably. He made eye contact with me before moving on. He scanned the lot again. And again. I tried to make eye contact with each pass. On the fourth rotation, I held up my hand.

He shook my hand. He had palmed the eighth, which was invisible to me until I felt a baggie’s squish instead of flesh. I was surprised at his discretion, as it wasn’t needed at this Walgreens. To be fair, I had a problem remembering that weed was still illegal. I pocketed the drugs, and followed etiquette, palming the money I owed.

“Hey, thanks for making the trip.”

“No problem, I was heading into the city anyway. Hey, sorry that I didn’t spot you when I got out of the car. I seriously thought you were a black dude on the phone.”

On my egress from the Walgreens parking lot, I texted her —What time you coming over? To which, she replied —Ugh, I have this party. Maybe I can come over when it’s over? —You know where the key is. —Please get a cab. NO BLUE LINE! (The police had yet to catch a rapist in the area.)

I slid my phone in the same pocket that held the weed, and replayed, “I seriously thought you were a black dude.” Ten minutes in the past, but its echo sounded the same as when it was said. The disparity of thought and the clarity of its remembrance created a discomfort. It was something wrong being replayed correctly. I thought of how other people—more important people—might regard me. How wrong they might be, and how right I’ll remember it. And the other way around.

“I want to be a slut, for at least a year,” she said as I grabbed Gatorade from the wall-fridge. We met online. The mutual mantra was “Just Sex” but with a mutual omission of the many peripatetic discussions we had between just sex. In this way we balanced the realism and romanticism of the situation. “I’ve always had the pattern: two years with a guy, four months being single, then two years repeat. I can’t keep doing that shit.”

We had reached the condoms, which reified our plans for the long, lost weekend. When our schedules aligned, which usually happened per quarter, we met and became recluses—only seeing the faces of Delivery, only walking the aisles of Walgreens, until Monday morning forced us apart.

“Do you think you’ll ever want a girlfriend?” We strolled up the home improvement aisle. The signs were all English now.

“I tried that a few times, didn’t really work out.”

“But what would you do if this went away? What if the woman you’re seeing now wants to get serious?”

“I’d probably end it.”

“You wouldn’t try?”

“I’m not interested in that, maybe I can’t really be bothered with it. But it wouldn’t be fair to her, if I just faked it.”

“I’m a fraud,” she said holding a pack of batteries. She kept her eyes fixed on that pack.

“Maybe you like having a boyfriend. But you also like cheating on him.”

“God I’m horrible.”

“If time is any consolation, we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been his girlfriend.”

“He wants to hire an escort when we go to New Orleans. He sent me her website. She’s pretty, but she looks a little too much like me.”

“So what do you think?”

“I’ve already agreed. Have you ever, with an escort?”


“How many times?”

“I don’t know, maybe six or seven.”

“Is it better?”

“Not really, it’s like going to restaurants. Are all restaurants better than home-cooked meals? Well, you’ll find out soon enough.”

“I don’t know if I can dyke-out. I wonder if that’s going to piss him off. It’s like: he sets it all up, puts the money down, and then I just can’t really get into everything. I don’t know. Yes, hi, I should have a prescription waiting...for Silva, Nadine.”

As she waited for her prescription, I walked back to get ice cream and bread. The freezer filled my lungs with a soft sting. The pinch of cold sparked a blunt, iron taste, an urge to strike at something anything. On the other side of the aisle two young students, swollen with ignorance, blocked my path. They were wrapped tight and busting out, emptied eyes, cellphones in hand, and as white as a suburban dealer. I ogled the profane blankness of the canvas, parts over/under-developed, filled with an inert vigor to be siphoned. They were the start of a pornography. I would pay. It took a long while until they noticed me, and inched toward the muffins without a word. As I bent to grab my bread, I thought—three bills for the brunette, two bills for her friend.

We sat on the back exit on two south-facing lawn chairs. Besides a pillow, her laptop and a stuffed backpack, there was nothing left in her apartment. She didn’t know if she wanted to crash on my couch or call her friend, but there was no rush she said, and cracked another beer. The sun was setting behind us, just off our shoulders, joining us for a few last beers. It’s hard to make friends with your neighbors in a city. But here we were. We both worked from home. She practiced burlesque. I sang in the shower. We didn’t mind hearing each other. That’s all you really need. I was going to miss her.

We talked, but didn’t make eye contact. Instead, we stared at the Walgreens. Its parking lot bustled with newer cars, halogen lamps, and families in expensive clothing. The red wall deepened to a maroon, and the lights of its sign popped on, reversing the shift in hue.

“Remember when everything was in Spanish in there?” She didn’t. We clinked bottles. Only I remembered, at least in this complex. And when I moved out, whoever moved in would start with this Walgreens: English, green awnings, alt-rock through the speakers, clean, but uncrowned.

We knew it was over for us when they installed the HVAC. It was the end of free heat. There’s no rent control in Chicago, just like there’s no Prohibition. But there was definitely, unofficially an American language.

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