The Scale

FEATURE by Norm Levine

In those days there was a scale. A mortar & pestle, an ointment slab and always a torsion balance scale. A drugstore was unimaginable without it, like a barber without scissors or a shoemaker without nails in his mouth smelling of glue.

I watched my father place weighing papers on each side, adjust the bar until the sides balanced, then tap powder from an apothecary jar; sometimes it was crystalline granules, sometimes more powdery or it could have been black and gooey like ichthammol. I saw him finesse the spatula, remove a smidge, add back a half-smidge.

On the other side he placed weights, grains and scruples. The apothecary system, before metric, was still in use. It was a vestige from ancient times when pharmacists were sorcerers, bark and berry-pickers, shamans and alchemists, when potions bubbled in smoky cauldrons, eye of newt, feather of finch.

When he opened any jar a breath of the old world escaped. Flowers of sulfur bloomed. Ammonia mingled with camphor, aloe with fennel. There were leaves macerating, volatile oils in the air. They would cling to his smock and his pores. I inhaled a lungful and it is lodged in my memory vault safe from this deodorized world.

My father weighed and measured everything and not only when he presided between globes of colored water. He calculated benefits of doing against risk of refusing, as if the scale was there in front of him. I don’t know if that deliberation was an extension of his pharmacy, or if he brought it in with him.

In his quiet passion he ground Nazis into dust with his pestle. He carried immiscible voices inside himself, vehemence and containment, unsayable curses and hummed songs. With an enormous silence he balanced the scale.

There was an incoherent complaint addressed to the world bellowing from my mother which he swallowed. He converted it to a hidden fist against racism and the ruling class. Yet he could neither overthrow the government or my mother. The effort to keep the scale at equipoise was his special grace.

The air he gave off was equal parts resignation and the assertion of a low decibel rage with competing vapors from elixirs and fluidextracts. It was as if fetid rhizomes and pungent roots were vying against odiferous buds and intoxicating herbs, having reached some conciliation.

That indefinable drugstore smell may be the exhalation of natural forces. Dank, serpentine shoots that live unseen in deep soil, cut, dried and triturated with sun-soaked tendrils ever-climbing and their stored breath released.

The full measure of the man was the scale of social justice he carried. When the FBI knocked at our door he stood steadfast and close-mouthed as they asked for names. They knew about our subscription to the Daily Worker and the meetings in our apartment. He refused them and that silence was his spine.