am at present a box man. And for a while I intend to write about me. These are Kobe Abe’s sentences, but he is dead. They’re on my mind entering my local pharmacy. First, I ensure it’s empty of customers. I carry a bag of groceries and four small empty boxes, my trading chits. Having empty boxes stands to mean they were once full.
It grows harder to deceive. Italian law is stricter. Still, I try.
Today, I need earplugs, so I have the empty box. It is my best “normal citizen” box. The plugs are called “Calmor,” Swiss-made pink wax made to suffocate the common howl. This first box is my introductory ploy. I will say, “Excuse me, do you happen to have these? I can’t sleep…”
The pharmacist will produce “Calmor” from a crowded shelf.
My next three boxes, empty but pristine, are arranged in order of difficulty. Mine is a four-act play. Act one, the earplugs, passes without incident.
Pink wax in hand, I produce the second box, which contained antibiotics. I have run out, I explain. I do not say that I have no malady. (My hypochondria is well-known — a least to me. I plan for the plague year, stocking caplets for food.)
Amoxicillin, under many brand names, is common. Technically, a doctor must issue it. But the box man adopts subterfuge. My amoxicillin box is blue with Christmas-like trimmings.
Please — and I’ll cough at this stage — it’s for an infection of the sinuses, of the ear (I vary my infirmities). My supply was low. I didn’t know I’d run out. Can he, or she, please refill it? I push the box onto the counter.
Here is advice: Do not seek the she. The she often favors the rule of law. The he is a creature of habit, of lazy conspiracy, of complicit willingness in benign deceit, not always but probably. Always seek the he.
There are two more empty boxes, and now it turns more difficult, even unpleasant. Usually, foreseeing trouble, I shuffle sideways or browse the beauty products counter for lozenges or balms. I stay away from condoms. I appear casual.
Tenormin is a beta-blocker. It controls adrenalin. Heartbeat drops. You take it in the morning to lower blood pressure. I take it at night and tell no one.
These, I exclaim silly-me style, shaking the empty Tenormin box, industrial red with fat white stripes, I forgot to ask for these.
Tenormin, like amoxicillin, can only be issued by a doctor. I lean into the counter. I stir the grocery bag. The weather is still cold, I observe obviously. Obviousness has its own purpose.
Why? Because there comes a moment when the pharmacist hesitates aggressively. It’s inevitable. My advice: Play the carom.
Milk! I curse aloud. I forgot the milk!
I trawl again through the grocery bag, no milk. But from the same bag, after a few seconds, I produce the “toxic” boxes.
Oh! (Some surprise is vital.)
One is Valium, the second a more powerful narcotic sleeping agent, kin to Phenobarbital. I have revealed both at the same time to bargain for one.
This is risky territory for box man and pharmacist. Do not become greedy. To obtain the Valium, forgo the sleeping pills, or vice versa.
I say, and it varies, “Oh, and now that I’m here, these…” and pull out the Valium box like a magic trick. I wave it gently, apologetically, and toss it in the pharmacy’s trash bin.
This is psychological warfare, the act of discarding. Terrorists do it by yielding a hostage. It restores power to the other side. The other side believes it has effectively seized the initiative. Not always.
This is when I flash the final box, the one with the noxious white sleeping pills. These, I smile, pocketing the box, are not necessary. No. I am fully stocked. “Look, I have stronger drugs” is the message.
It’s a bluff, of course, but I need it to complete the transaction and walk away with my full bag of pills. Often, the pharmacist will offer to refill the forbidden sleeping pills. He’s been tricked into empathy, thinking he should complete the four-box puzzle.
Please smile agreeably before leaving.
If I seriously command the techniques of wooing, Kobe Abe’s box man tells his readers, then there is hope of coming into possession of a little peace and happiness.
That, and more.