Nick had been in his first job out of pharmacy school, working in a grocery store in Frost, a little town in Southern Oregon forty minutes from Lupine, where he had grown up. Customers liked him. He was tall and thin, he looked serious, and he spoke in a soft authoritative patient manner. Now and then somebody told him he looked like a young Abraham Lincoln. He remembered names.
His mother had wanted him to be a doctor. “With all you know about drugs,” she told him, “you’d be a hell of a psychiatrist.” His father, who owned the hardware store in Lupine, had wanted to help him to buy his own drugstore. Nick had excellent grades and had passed his state license exams without a blink, but he didn’t want to own a business, and he didn’t want to go to any more school. He was grateful to his parents, but he was ready to be on his own. He had a PharmD degree from Oregon State University–three years of undergrad prerequisites and four years of training–and no debt. He had an apartment over a leather-goods store right in town, a sound system, a little TV, a 1993 Plymouth Colt, and two weeks’ supply of long-sleeved light blue shirts. He had had a steady girlfriend, Jennifer, through his last two years of school, but she got a job in Seattle that was too good to refuse–she was a physical education teacher–and they parted with no drama. They had spoken cheerfully on the phone a few times, then let their relationship–whatever it had been–fade like an old letter. She was a great girl, but not the girl.
At night Nick smoked a couple of joints and stayed in; he liked to listen to Brubeck, The Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, old blues. His girlfriend used to tease him, saying he was an old fogey. He liked music he already knew, a steady rhythm. He went to sleep around midnight and woke up in time for coffee, toast, and two strips of bacon at the cafe on the Wentford highway. Sometimes he read science fiction or a thriller, but he almost always thumbed through the middle to get to the end.
Then he met Britt Sunderson. She looked like a Norse goddess. She was almost as tall as he was, with pale hair. She had lived her whole life in one house. Her Swedish immigrant parents, Johanna and Henry, had a berry farm in Frost Valley, above the town, that they ran with Henry’s brother Karl, who owned adjacent property. Britt and her sister Elina had grown up like Swedish farm girls, with ponies and long blond pigtails, modest clothes, good manners, endless hours in the outdoors. Elina had graduated from high school and moved to Malmo to visit her mother’s sister, Margrit, for a year while she explored the country and improved her Swedish. She stayed. She married a policeman and was living in Uppsala, working in a preschool. She had acquired Swedish citizenship, and had never returned to the United States. She wrote her sister and told her Sweden was beautiful and Britt could stay with her as long as she wanted if she came, but Britt didn’t know why anyone would want to live so far from her parents. She was very close to her mother, Johanna, and at twenty still lived at home and worked as a cashier in the store where Nick was a pharmacist. Recently, for no good reason that she could name, she had been suffering from insomnia. Nights were interminable. Lights stung her eyes; darkness frightened her. She staggered to work and pulled herself together, shift to shift.
One night the store was closing. Lights had been dimmed, there was the shuffle and clank of boxes and registers, calls of “G’night!” Nick had work to do before he could go home. He liked this time, when the store was dark except for the strip of light above his counter. He was filling the last of the call-in refills. He put the prescriptions into plastic baggies that had attached tabs with holes, so he could hang them on horizontal poles in rows, alphabetically. He was thinking that it was a tried and true but old-fashioned way to organize orders, when he looked up and saw Britt standing in front of him; the gate was shut and she looked like someone looking in or out of a jail cell. She said, “I need something, Nick.”
He couldn’t remember her name, or whether he ever knew it. He snapped his fingers.
“Britt,” she said. She pointed toward the front of the store and he remembered who she was. He opened the gate on his window.
“How can I help you, Britt?”
“I can’t sleep.” She raised her cupped hands. From the pharmacy nonprescription shelves she had collected bottles and tins of syrups and tinctures and pastilles and lozenges and tablets: herbs and painkillers and antihistamines. “I’m strong,” she said. “Healthy. But I wonder if I’m going crazy. I can’t sleep.”
“None of that will help,” he said. “It takes either real drugs–your doctor has to prescribe them, and they mess you up; or you get so tired you fall over–or–” He grinned, because Britt looked so astonished and forlorn; she looked like a little woeful child, except that she was nearly six feet tall. She blinked, and said, “Or what?” almost demanding, and he loved her right then, and of course, ever after. He said, “If you will go out with me, and then go home with me, I will explain sleep hygiene to you, and then I will share my secret and you will sleep.”
She called her mother, who would otherwise be worried and call all around, maybe even the sheriff; she babbled a lie about an old friend whose house was in Wentford. Then she and Nick went to the Alehouse nearby and had bottles of beer and long salty fried sweet potatoes, and began, slowly, to catch up on the little they needed to know about one another, before they went to Nick’s apartment and smoked and slept. They didn’t bother to make love, because they knew there would be time for that. There had been no talk of sleep hygiene, but he did teach her how to roll a joint and how to inhale and not cough. He taught her to sip water and hold it on her tongue before she swallowed. He taught her to bat away the feeling that was giddy, so that she would fall into sleep like a feather through humid air. He didn’t let her smoke very much, because it was new for her, but he saw right away that she understood what was happening. He didn’t have to ask if she would come back.
She had never liked anyone, never dated in school, hardly noticed men. She was very private. She had a girlfriend from high school who still lived in the area, but she was married and had children, and she only saw her when she came in the store. Her cousin Erik, two years younger, still lived at home nearby, and the two of them sometimes went to movies, but all they had in common was their parents and the affection of cousins of different sexes. She helped her mother with household chores, and read romances and cozy mysteries, but recently something had happened that turned time around, so that there were hours and hours in the night to wonder if this was her life.
Nick had thought he loved the woman he lived with in school, but when he would wake from a long doze and see her so sturdy and bouncing and earnest, he would know they were only waiting for an easy stopping place, which came when she got her job and he got his. He hadn’t thought of her in a long time. He had no notions about love, he could not have said what he wanted, but when he and Britt stretched out on his bed, smoking in the dark, he was content. Some things are outside of thought. The smoke glides snake-like toward the open window, the hot place in your throat relaxes, your chest blooms.