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The Bitter Pill

The Bitter Pill

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Published by Brian K. Henry
Taking a prescription for aggravation can have dire consequences.
Taking a prescription for aggravation can have dire consequences.

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Published by: Brian K. Henry on Oct 12, 2009
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10/11/2009

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Brian Henry

THE BITTER PILL

“You’re far too content,” said Dr. Mistle. He scratched the ample beard stubble on his chin. “According to my charts, you haven’t had so much as a mild episode of anxiety in sixteen months.” Butterman fidgeted in his seat. “What, you want me to be like those people in your waiting room?” Butterman had spent forty minutes in Mistle’s cramped waiting room. He’d tried hard not to stare at the heavy set woman who’d repeatedly torn pages from a fashion magazine, rolled them into little multi-colored balls and thrown them alternately at a fern or at the short, balding man in a plaid jacket who was in the midst of a shrill altercation with the receptionist over the time of his next appointment. “Those patients are engaged with their environment,” Mistle replied enthusiastically. He gestured vigorously with his well-tanned hands and his gray-blue eyes gazed at Butterman with evangelical intensity. “They take on particles of the world, handle them, grapple them like individual challenges, piece by piece. Grasp at them hungrily. Feeling the world against their body parts.” Mistle flipped through the notes he’d made in Butterman’s file. “You are drifting through life, Butterman. Your problem is that you don’t grapple with the essential dilemmas around you.” “What essential dilemmas?” Butterman straightened his posture in the wrought iron chair. Mistle’s office always made him feel vaguely uneasy, with its stark, metallic

Henry 2 furnishings, and evenly hung, uniformly framed black and white photos of impoverished African villages, deserted weapons testing facilities and 1930s Appalachian coal miners. “If you can’t even name any dilemmas, you clearly have an enormous lack of insight, of intrapersonal comprehension.” Mistle stood rigidly, as though called to action and prepared to confront Butterman’s stubbornly uneventful placidity. “You’ve been seeing me regularly now, with your unlined face, for two years. I’ve had nothing but positive reports on your marriage, your career and your relentlessly tame leisure activities. This is the kind of baseless tranquility that worries me.” “My tranquility worries you?” “It worries me deeply. I see you in a bubble of contentment, Butterman.” Mistle walked out from behind his desk, as though he were about to walk up to Butterman in his wrought iron chair and shake him vigorously by the shoulders. “We have to break you out of that bubble.” Butterman gave a look that was uncomprehending. “I’m not in a bubble.” “Of course you see it that way. That’s one of the classic symptoms of irrational satisfaction.” “How can you say I’m irrational?” Mistle came to within touching distance of Butterman’s face. Butterman looked at the frayed threads on the psychiatrist’s unapologetic retro tie and the scratches in his large-lensed glasses. He could smell the old-fashioned pomade that Mistle had generously applied to his hair. “Because you are out of touch, Butterman. Do you want to go through life like a monkey in a painted white room that’s sealed off from all outside

Henry 3 influence and scented with pleasant odors while being strictly regulated in regard to light and temperature?” Butterman was silent. He had never entertained the question before. Mistle took Butterman’s silence as an assent. “I thought not. You urgently need some provoking.” Mistle made the return journey to his chair, his mission seemingly accomplished. “I’m going to put you on twenty milligrams of Seetherol. It will lift you out of this bland puddle.” “Seetherol? I don’t see the need for any medication.” Mistle looked at him as if he were the least intelligent boy in a suburban third grade classroom. “Does a snake see the need for legs? Does a mouse see the need for wine? What you see and don’t see is exactly the problem.” Butterman was uncomfortable with Mistle and his barking certitude. “I’ll have to talk it over with my wife.” Exasperated, Mistle shook his head. “I’ll need you to sign a waiver stating that you’ve refused treatment.”

Butterman went home and pushed several buttons. Entertainment began to surround him. Women in green dresses on the tops of scenic mountains. A bowl of round snacks was at his fingertips. He shifted in his chair.

Later that night he sat on his smooth, flower-bedecked patio and sipped at an Antiguan decaf coffee. From inside came the sounds of Sara, cooing over her latest scrapbook.

Henry 4 Several neighbors passed and exchanged brief comments with Butterman relating to the park shrubbery, the weather and dog breeds. He took another bite of his peanut butter cookie. Sarah moved over to the large planter, where she kept her beloved collection of American cacti – one from each of the appropriate states. Still later that night, as anonymous celebrities popped onto his flat screen TV, Butterman put on his beige sweats and crawled beneath the quilt.

The next day at the office, Butterman sorted his manila folders into piles of those requiring action in the upcoming month, and those requiring action two months from now. He was wondering what to do with the Farrington file when the phone rang. “Butterman? It’s me.” “Who?” “Mistle.” “Hello.” “You didn’t call this morning.” “I didn’t realize I was supposed to call.” Mistle sighed. “I’m concerned about your case. I need to schedule you for tomorrow at 2:00.” “But I just saw you yesterday.” “I’m concerned about your case,” Mistle repeated. “It’s vital that you come in.” “But I feel fine.” “Exactly. That’s what we discussed.”

Henry 5 “But, Dr. Mistle . . .” “Butterman, I don’t want this to reach a crisis condition. I need you to come in.”

At lunch Butterman went to the Sandwich Tunnel and ordered the Bologna Wrap. He took small methodical bites as he looked around at the neon orange tables.

Butterman arrived at Mistle’s office at 2:00 pm. A teenage boy sat in the waiting room firing an air gun at a framed photo of Vietnamese refugees. An overweight woman was eating macaroons and loudly sharing her sister’s romantic problems with the receptionist. The receptionist’s phone buzzed and Butterman heard the voice of Dr. Mistle. “Send in Butterman,” said the disembodied voice.

“You’re still feeling O.K?” Mistle said skeptically. He looked up from his folder, his sun-battered face displaying a concerned expression. “I feel fine. I don’t know why I’m here. I have plenty to do at work and I made a special trip down here for no reason.” “Hmm. You seem to be getting slightly irritated. Maybe there’s hope.” Mistle took a half-eaten plate of Chinese noodles dotted with dark green vegetables from his desk and slid it into a wastebasket. He stood and clasped his hands in a significant way. “Butterman, I’ve talked to your wife about your condition.”

Henry 6 “My wife? Why did you talk to my wife?” Butterman felt that the circumstances called for him to stand too, but he didn’t want Mistle to think he was acting irrational and so he remained seated. “You didn’t leave me any choice. I’ve received no communication from you about your wife’s thoughts on the medication. As it turns out, she’s very concerned.” “Sara’s concerned?” “Butterman, try to create some of your own thoughts instead of repeating all of mine. It’s a good practice.” Mistle took a pad of paper from his desk and began scribbling. “I’m writing you a prescription for twenty milligrams of Seetherol. This will get you through the next three months. Take it in the morning. Many patients experience night panic if they take it at bedtime.” “Night panic?” “What did I just say about original thoughts?”

Butterman had always been diligent about following directions. He’d taken his car to the dealership for check-ups promptly as recommended on the maintenance log. He’d attended every motivational seminar that his company had sponsored within the past ten years. It was inconceivable that he’d ignore the direct order of Mistle, a certified and respected practitioner, to take the Seetherol each morning. Yet at first he balked at swallowing the small, fiery-red pills. After all, Mistle had explained virtually nothing about what the medication was supposed to do or how it worked.

Henry 7 Butterman looked at the bottle in his white, well-scrubbed bathroom and winced. He took the first pill with a small slug of water and brushed his teeth.

At first, Butterman noticed nothing out of the ordinary. He would prepare his toast and read the paper and then drive his car as usual.

By the next week, Butterman found himself waking up at odd hours of the night with memories of unpleasant, multi-layered brown and red nightmares. As he stared at the nocturnal ceiling, small red ants appeared at the edge of his field of vision chewing on segments of string. He shut his eyes and tried submerging himself in sleep again but felt a premonition of the ominous dark red stoves from his dream making themselves felt and sat up on the edge of the bed. He got up and made a cup of tea from a small, specialty manufacturer that displayed orchids and smiling unicorns on its label.

Butterman began to feel urgings of irritation at moments when he was temporarily immobilized, baffled for direction or stalled in a retail line, waiting for a rudimentary transaction. The red ants tugged at the fringes of his thoughts and he felt prickles along his arms and legs as though fiery ant brigades were performing parade maneuvers on his skin. In the grocery checkout line, three women were ahead of him. A middle-aged woman with a vigorous chin in a rumpled brown coat was ponderously conversing with

Henry 8 the cashier. Their conversation seemed to spread over a space in time three times longer than humanly normal. Butterman caught a few words about a recipe involving zucchini. He shifted from foot to foot. The complacent wavy-haired cashier nodded indulgently at the shopper with the unfeminine chin. Butterman glanced at the two other women in line. A hefty matron who was next in line was stacking packages of generic pasta on the conveyor belt and the woman directly in front of him was flipping energetically through her checkbook, bits of torn, colored paper sticking out from it at odd angles. As the zucchini lover droned on, the checker having long since finished totaling her order, Butterman felt the irascible ants close in on the center of his being. The itching in his arms grew intolerable. He ran his hand jerkily across the top of the chewing gum display, with its colors of festive jellyfish and a Martian sunset, desperate for some physical push outward. As time dragged on, the lumpy conversation continuing, he went from fingering the gum to shifting rolls of breath mints from one spot to another. He’d given up on the mints and was straightening the magazines when the zucchini woman finally sloughed herself off to the right, reluctantly exiting the market. The hefty pasta lover now stood before the cashier. She had a dour face spotted with plum-colored patches and made an unapologetic statement as she came to a stop. “I need some detergent I forgot. Can you send a bag boy?” She was loud enough for Butterman to hear every word landing in his ears with round solidity.

Henry 9 Butterman felt frustrated words poking out of his mouth. He tried to stop them but dense red bubbles toward the back of his tongue were pushing them forward. “Can’t you . . . don’t you . . . thinking.” Butterman clapped a hand over his mouth. He was shocked at himself. The pasta woman glared at him full in the face. She was a woman who looked as though she spent a great deal of time in grocery stores. She obviously felt unbounded personal confidence in a grocery space where her authority had long been respected, where a man like Butterman was an irrelevant, uncomfortable intruder.

Butterman restrained himself until he could make his purchase. He walked out of the store with his arms still making jittery motions and his mouth tightly clamped shut. He’d almost made a scene. He had a desperate urge to slide into a wholesome, gray car and quickly glide away from the flat parking lot.

Butterman sat in front of his salad with a dour expression, his face hovering heavily over the sliced cucumbers, celery, walnuts and organic greens. Marjorie, his sister-in-law, sat across the table, requesting another basket of breadsticks. “You should take Sarah out more often,” Marjorie droned on after the ill-kempt waiter had left. “She loves the theater. That’s what I’ve never understood about you, Butterman. Can’t you get out of the house? What’s so hard about going to the theater?” Butterman held his fork in a loose fist. For the past several days he’d tamped down intermittent upsurges of irritation. Spouts and hillocks of red ant shapes would appear without foreshadowing at the sides of his field of vision. The organic bacon bits

Henry 10 in his salad looked ready to wriggle into formation and march out of the bowl onto the dark wood table. Marjorie chewed noisily on a hunk of eggplant. “Take her to see ‘12 Angry Men’ at the Hooten. I hear it’s amazing. It’s an all-female production.” Marjorie had always been an irritant, but now for the first time Butterman felt like acting on the state of annoyance she produced. It would an easy matter to destroy their lunch, to ruin Marjorie’s dress with a misplaced elbow nudge at her towering Roasted Southwestern Vegetarian Salad. To create a disruption by denouncing her as an overly loud, energy-sucking vampire in front of the sedate lunch crowd. He could imagine Mistle cheering him on, enunciating about engagement. “This past year I’ve seen only all-female productions. It’s been a revelation. I’ll never think of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ the same way again.” “Constant . . . grating . . .” Butterman’s mouth was getting away from him again, his large lips exerting a force beyond the power of his muscles to control. “Play blather.” “Butterman, what on earth are you babbling about? The problem with a man like yourself is that you have no imagination or appreciation for the arts. I was telling Sarah just the other day, Sarah, you used to be so good at dioramas and your dressmaking. How could you marry a man like Butterman, with no artistic leanings whatsoever?” Butterman jabbed his fork into his napkin and twisted it. “I’m the one who encouraged her to pursue the ice sculpture business. She had a vision. She could be making a thousand dollars per sculpture by now. But you didn’t want to invest in the freezers, did you?” Marjorie was gesturing at him, a dire roasted mushroom jutting from the end of her fork. “You’re afraid to try anything new. What

Henry 11 about that line of women’s chili I told you about? Did you ever invest a penny? I can tell you right now, you did nothing. Am I right?” Butterman could feel the itching permeate his calves, his forearms. It was pressing and skimming across his flesh, insisting on a bitter outburst. A provocation. His fingers nervously shifted a small plastic tub of Russian dressing back and forth across the tabletop. “I don’t know why I put myself through these lunches,” Marjorie went on. “You never have anything constructive to say.” “Mangle . . . shaking.” The words dripped through Butterman’s mouth even though he tried to clamp his lips together. The forcefulness built up under his tongue and behind his cheeks, creating a restless pool of saliva that dribbled out in bits from the corners of his mouth. Marjorie’s face blurred into an image of a compressed giraffe head, her elaborate, prominent nose taking on a yellowish-brown tone. Butterman’s arm jiggled uncontrollably. Angry adjectives spilled out of his mouth. Marjorie stopped talking, her face agog at Butterman’s unaccountable display.

He found himself in the grocery store again, analyzing the shoppers with a new, slicing consciousness. He looked at the food with unexpected skepticism, wondering why no one made marshmallows in the shades of blood-red or burnt orange.

Henry 12 He saw the authoritative woman with purple splotches on her face, holding a vigorous discussion with a large butcher, her arms gesturing and their loose flesh shaking.

Butterman went to the dealership before work for the scheduled routine maintenance. He entered the gleaming service department, its interior a seamless horizon of burnished aluminum punctuated by sleek and festive brochures. The burly service attendant had his back turned and was gazing at a parts catalog. Butterman hesitantly cleared his throat and at the same time an ambiguous clang came from the repair center. The bulky attendant turned around, displaying a face that was reminiscent simultaneously of an obese baby and a pallid lumberjack. He wore the dealership’s required neon lime green pullover shirt, his name displayed in black cursive stitching over the pocket. The attendant looked at Butterman with pale brown eyes and formless, carelessly arranged lips. There was a long pause as his slack, inactive face waited for Butterman to make a request. Butterman was disinclined to open the conversation. He felt the service representative owed him an overture, a salutation or a generic welcome. Their standoff continued, the attendants lips growing slacker, Butterman’s mind becoming more bristly. When Butterman began to yell, two dealers ran in from the showroom.

Henry 13 Butterman growled internally for the entire workday. He gravitated to the cabinets with the most overstuffed files and filled them with even more files, the edges of the paper bent and crumpled, the longer sheets tearing and bunching against the metal file drawers. At lunch he ordered a longer sandwich than usual, so that he would have more opportunities to tear it apart, watching the toasted herbs and cheese segments splitting off from their companions across the bread crust. After work he drove quickly to the convenience store, anxious to buy large bags of harsh, crunchy snacks that he could begin to gnaw in the car. He pulled into the driveway with the ants frantically running around the sides of his field of vision. When he walked into the house he saw Mistle hunched over Sarah, his shoulders working up and down and his mouth making unfamiliar kissing sounds. Butterman’s head was immediately filled with the mental equivalent of several hundred fiery ants. He eyes welled up with a quick, angry liquid and he stumbled on the brown carpet as though it were covered with protuberant desert rocks. He swayed unsteadily and found himself leaning near a window sill, a planter displaying Sarah’s cactus collection. Butterman grabbed a squat, dark specimen with vigorous-looking needles and staggered toward Mistle and his wife. The couple hadn’t noticed his entrance. Mistle had aggressively positioned his knees between those of the seated Sarah and Butterman’s wife had her eyes closed, her head resting back on the sofa, face pointing upward. Mistle was making eager, smacking sounds with his mouth. Butterman lunged against him with a suddenness he himself was not expecting.

Henry 14 Butterman’s bulk and uncoordinated lurch propelled Mistle from his perch over the sofa and sent him sprawling to the carpet. He was still dressed in his office attire of dress shirt and thin, fraying tie. His hair was mussed and his face flushed a lively crimson. He sprawled onto the carpet, caught off guard, and stared up at Butterman. It took him only a second to break into a sloopy grin. “Butterman! I’m pleased. You’re beginning to engage with your dilemmas.” Sarah let out small squeals as Butterman followed Mistle heavily to the floor, wielding a potted cactus like a medieval club. “You a doctor! You!” Butterman spoke in incoherent anger. He swung the cactus in huge arcs, scraping Mistle’s right cheek, then his shirt front. Ragged stripes of scarlet blood appeared on Mistle’s face. He cackled roughly, squirming and making backward swimming motions in a fervid combination of pain and delight. “Yes, Butterman! You’re tearing into it! You’re grasping!” Butterman turned the cacti upside down and jabbed at Mistle’s knees with the conglomeration of spikes gathered on its crest. Dirt crumbled out of the pot onto the carpet. “Cheating mental!” blathered Butterman. “Creep in the office. After hours.” Mistle gave out gleeful screeches. “I applaud you, Butterman! Signs of progress!” Butterman wanted a closer feeling of satisfaction. He dropped to his knees and wielded the cactus over Mistle’s midsection, making scraping swipes. Mistle jiggled frantically on the carpet, his arms held above his head, his face leaning up. “You’ve been taking the medication! You’ve been reliable!”

Henry 15 Butterman’s face formed into an involuntary snarl, much like the look a wellmaintained farm pig would display if it had suddenly developed homicidal tendencies toward an irritating wood bird. Mistle and Butterman were caught in the flood of the strip lighting, Butterman above, his large arm holding aloft the useful cactus and then diving down, jabbing it into some part of the psychiatrist, and Mistle, gesticulating and shouting from the floor, as though in a frenzy of pained illumination. Marjorie watched the tussle from the lawn, through a large picture window. She spoke into her cell phone. “Yes, an assault, I’m telling you. Pease send someone right away. 1495 Springmartin Lane.” She watched, eyes wide, as Butterman flailed on, the cactus a round, stubby extension of his arm.

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