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You can't step into the same river twice.

Heracleitos, ca 500 B.C.E.


Whitey's cool was classic and instantly memorable in a scene which valued sangfroid. Not only did he not have to do anything, he was almost compelled not to do anything, except to model self-possession and savoir-faire, and for that staying elegantly wasted was an excellent start. Even in the shorter days of autumn, the altitude helped the sun to bleach the raiment and burn the skin, till he looked as though the contrast was turned way too high and, as the pounds melted off under the strain of the lo-cal high-purge Afghan diet, the picture was squashed like a wide-screen movie squeezed into a narrow TV. Some fried-brain British kid had to be hauled off screaming when he tried to adjust his set.

"His hat's under his feet," the poor fellow insisted. "I have to fix the vertical hold."

Yusufi intervened unobtrusively and got a pharmacist to show up with downers and Vitamin C, which relieved the symptoms for patient and audience both, but it took Blackie to point out that there was, in fact, a straw hat on the ground and from one angle it looked like it was under Whitey's left sneaker.

"It's all a matter of point of view," he insisted as usual. "Never doubt the underlying truth of Captain Trips."

Whitey, actually, was more than half convinced that the picture tube really was on the blink, but he was far too blitzed to complain about it.

Blackie, whose own contrast was blurring into some generic dark russet as the cheap black dyes of his shirts began to fade and his expensive-looking tan became burnished to blend with his extravagant whiskers, was rarely less loaded but always more eloquent. His rep was rapping and he earned it good. Not that he dominated every conversation – half his knack was that he was developing into a world-class listener, while the other half was that he would talk to anyone. What held him this side of obnoxious was that, unlike the ancient Mariner, after he stoppèd one of three, he held them with his glittering eye only as long as they wished, letting his guests leave with the warm feeling that someone wanted to hear their story as well as tell his own. It was great entertainment for all and, in time, developed into a first-rate sales pitch.

The pharmacist's house-call was something of a turning point. Blackie had been developing, over daily glasses of tea, a casual acquaintance with the manager that had progressed, after a week, to the occasional sharing of a hookah in the back room. This was an honor afforded only to long-standing customers, the kind who were metamorphosing into paying guests, with some as yet unspecified, perhaps unthought and surely unspoken, possibility of partnership or at least alliance. Certainly it made Blackie the natural intermediary between tourists and management at time of crisis. He established that the freak-out was under control, approved the prescription, relayed the news to the assembled company, and then proceeded to satisfy his own curiosity.

"So that cat's a doctor, man?" he asked as things settled back to languor.

"No, no." Yusufi was surprised. Doctors were scarce and therefore only considered necessary for important questions of diagnosis. Obvious chemical psychosis didn't count, unless it refused to respond to treatment. "He is a man, how do you say, a man who sells medicines."

"A chemist?"

"Yes, indeed." The manager was proud of his English (quite justifiably; beat the hell out of the Anglophone's Farsi) and liked to improve his vocabulary. "He is a chemist. Is that not the name of a shop?"

"Right, right, both. The shop and the guy who runs it. The Yanks call it a drug store, which is pretty cool, huh? I mean, a chemist sells drugs, yeah?"

"But in England the shop is a chemist and the person is a chemist also?" Having kicked the shit out of British troops at regular intervals for a century, and periodically even accepted the occupation of Kabul by infidels, the Afghans understood the primacy of the Queen's English. America was a vaguer concept, associated with money more than valor and therefore less important.

"Got it." Like most Brits, Blackie was fiercely proud of the absurdities of his linguistic birthright and as determined as a Frenchman (though he would never have put it like that) to defend it from the logic of outlanders. "So the cat's a chemist. He get training for that?"

"Most certainly." The manager was horrified and almost showed it. "He is an educated man. He has been to Paris."


"For his education. First to Teheran and then for one year to Paris for the diploma."

"No shit, Sherlock." Blackie was impressed. Where he came from, pharmaceutical chemists were unimpressive little creatures, the kind of berk who went to university but never seemed to have any fun. Even stripping away Blackie's contemptuous bias, we are left with the truth that becoming a chemist was in Britain, and the West generally, a safe and predictable and essentially ordinary career option, requiring a sense of responsibility and considerable accuracy (repeat business being important, you have to watch those poisons) but not much in the way of imagination or exotic foreign travel.

But then, literacy in Britain was well over 95%, while Afghanistan had it about the other way round.

Where so few people in a nation could read that no one even knew how many people there were, let alone how many of them could write their own name, accomplishment was measured on a different scale. The innkeeper who could write a bill and converse in a foreign tongue was a person of achievement and, at least in his own mind, of well-deserved status. The camel magnate or carpet dealer who carried a million transactions in his head remained a man of substance but the small educated class was developing its own self-confidence and finding its niches in which to operate. Traditional herbalists retained the trust of the bulk of the population, but the wonder drugs of the mysterious occident were beginning to take over the market and it was hard to keep the tablets straight without reading labels. Pharmacy was useful, profitable, and exclusive, so naturally it was taken up by sons of the new upper classes.

Besides, it gave you an excuse to go to Paris.

"He didn't get a prescription, did he?" Blackie's sense of the rules was that chemists did what they were told, essentially by doctors, except when babying children of all ages.

Yusufi was baffled and stone-faced a complete lack of response.

"I mean, you didn't get a doctor to figure out what drug to use."

What on earth for? the other did not say, politely. Blackie found himself stumbling around the silence.

"You mean, the chemist just decides what drug to hand out?"

"That is his job."

It began to fall into place. If the chemist was taught – in Paris, no less – what drug was for what purpose, then why should he require some doctor to instruct him on their application? Given that the entire country had about fourteen fully-fledged doctors, the system made a lot of sense, even if you bought the standard physicians' point of view.

"So there's no laws about it?"

This time the polite stare was almost anticipated. The little light-bulb in Blackie's head was beginning to turn on.

"He gave him Mandies, didn't he?" Pause; shrug. The 64 million Af question: "Would he let us have some?"

Of course he would, you ninny, anything he'd got – Mandrax (or other Methaqualone-like downers), tincture of opium (laudanum to you, grandpa), methedrine, morphine, sometimes even pharmaceutical cocaine. Selling drugs was his job. They were flown in from Geneva and other points of pristine cleanliness, absolutely legally, and distributed strictly to licensed pharmacists, who were expected to use their judgment as to which customers needed the product. Commercial considerations were known to affect that judgment on occasion. That made ethical sense, too: the voluntary separation of a small amount of hard currency from some wide-eyed freak wanting to adjust his consciousness financed any number of medical emergencies. At least, it could. We can but hope.

If you knew what you wanted, and you knew what they had, and especially if you could speak French, you could saunter into any druggist's, assuming you could identify it from the street, and pretty much order what you liked. That did, however, take nerve. Like as not, the guy behind the counter would restrict his comments to a sniff of recognition and a grunt of price. Not for him the cheery, "Mornin' luv, what can we do you for today then?" Nor the time-wasting discussion of the relative efficacy of alternative products when applied or ingested to treat a given malady. He was more likely to combine the graciousness of Manhattan at rush hour with the cheery disposition of back-street Moscow after a hard night with the vodka. Pay up and get out. Anything more would be servile; anything less would put him out of business. Pride carves a fine line.

The chemist who had made the house call became known as Jacques, which wasn't his name but bore some relation to it and had been what his Parisian acquaintances had called him, back in the halcyon days of his education. He was, inevitably, some kind of cousin of Yusufi, Blackie never quite figured out how far removed, and was not unwilling to practice his French. Under the circumstances, Blackie was willing to try his own, being as he was the proud possessor of an 'O' level in the subject. Their accents, while both virtually incomprehensible to any genuine Gaul, were surprisingly compatible, and business transpired.

"See if he's got any speed," suggested Whitey, who was completely cut out of the dialogue but always available to monitor the action.

"Est-ce que on peut, ah, acheter du, hmm, amphetamine?" essayed Blackie.

"Comme du Benzedrine?"

"Oui, oui, exactement comme ça. Des, errm, pills?" Reliable stand-by number one (talking real loud) being clearly inappropriate and perhaps even dangerous, Blackie fell back on number two, using an English word with an exaggerated foreign accent. He made it sound something like 'peels,' in falsetto.

"Des pilules," grasped the other quickly, "Pas des poudres."

"Yeah, I mean, oui."

"Bien sûr. Cinq milligrammes par pilule. Toujours. Absolument."

"Five-mil bennies," translated Blackie for the benefit of his partner.

From there it was down to natural negotiating talent, and the four-way discussion gave everyone the space to formulate opinions and edge gently towards agreement. More tea, more consideration, a round of cigarettes, a little toot from the hookah, tea again and a tasty bite of rock candy to be washed down with it. A pleasant and productive afternoon interlude for one and all.

The first deal was for a classic set of sideways shifters – pairs of ups and downs – fifty of each, COD in 24 hours, 25% discount for cash dollars, no deposit required since the order could be filled out of stock. The product was import quality in appearance (an occasional function of pharmacy was pressing pills from the bulk powders, a fine traditional craft now almost lost to the world) and, it soon emerged, in potency. Speed-rapping the next day, Blackie was a whirling advert for the one, after a glorious night that testified to the other. Even Whitey smiled and the two of them unloaded half the stash that morning.

Sound familiar?

It wasn't the money. Really, there wasn't much in it, they still had plenty and expenses were downright trivial. It wasn't any kind of urge to proselytize; they didn't care if anyone didn't want the pills, Barb for instance, self-possession and preferably humor being far more important. It wasn't any kind of experiment or accommodation with the country around them; it had almost nothing to do with where they were, except for certain trivial details of availability.

It was what they did.

Familiar patterns pulling hard in the middle of the weird. Entropy and compensation, gravity and inertia, philias and phobias, ingrained memories and hidden dreams.

Seek the strange and find yourself grasping for the certain.

Don't we all?

Chained to our habits, we stumble where we ought to dance, and when we trip we sometimes fall, and as we fall we may laugh or we may cry, and who's to tell ahead of time. The line between human tragedy and human comedy is too subtle, too obvious, too vague and too certain to see.

Change and illusion, the illusion of change, the changing illusion of what we know we say we think we want.

Relax, man, it's cool.