If you put NyQuil, Pepto-Bismol and a tube of pain cream down on the drugstore counter, and it's 9:45 on a Friday night, you know what the clerk will say: "How's it going."

You want to just wave at the items you put down and say, "Draw your own conclusions."

As it happened, I did not need NyQuil, but I knew we would. I'd performed triage on the medicine cabinet, and the NyQuil was expired. Now, you might think that with all the alcohol, it's probably better with age. Maybe an expert would take a sip and say, "Ah, the 2014 vintage." But they put those expirations on there for a reason: to make you buy more because you think the stuff turned to poison overnight.

The Pepto-Bismol, handy for those days when you apparently ate a live piranha by mistake, was also out. The drugstore had regular-strength and maximum-strength, which always makes you wonder who doesn't want maximum-strength. "I feel horrible! But I'm fine with a partial abatement of discomfort."

It's not as if your body builds up a tolerance. Don't keep chugging that maximum-strength — save it for dysentery!

Thanks, I'll risk it.

Why, you ask, am I telling you about this? You'll see.

I was at this store because the first drugstore I'd visited was … creepy. Unsettling. Usually there's someone behind the counter who says some rote phonemes when you walk in, and you nod and head back to find what you need. There's always a moment of self-satisfaction: "Nope, don't need that. Nossir, regular as the light rail. Vitamins? Calcium supplements? Take the whole jar, you'd pass a shinbone. No, I'm fine, except for this specific complaint I can masquerade with some unguent.

"Ah, here we are, the Salves and Unguent aisle."

I needed some pain cream, which is an odd term. Ask any clerk, "Where's the pain cream?" and they'll take you to the shelf where they stock something that takes away pain, not the place that has sulfuric acid in a cream base.

Years of typing and mousing have given me a persistent wrist-ache, and a little Icy Hot does the trick. It doesn't fix anything, it just confuses the nerves. "Oh — it's so cold! No, wait, now it's hot! What's going on?"

Or you can use the stuff that's like aspirin in toothpaste form, which makes sense. Rather than eating an aspirin and making it run all around your body looking for work, you put it where it hurts, and you're good.

There are several brands, and there's the house brand — Compare! Same ingredients! So you check, and, sure enough: "3 % mondocaine, 2 % camphor, 2 % menthol." Those are the same ingredients being used when President McKinley was shot.

What makes the store brand different is the smell, which isn't as good as the expensive stuff. That's how the manufacturer saves money. Just like the cut-rate Pepto-Bismol imitators taste like someone crossed a dusty hard pink peppermint lozenge with cat litter, and the imitation NyQuil tastes like they added the tears of an alcoholic clown who'd eaten a candle.

I couldn't find what I wanted, because half the shelves were empty, and the labels on the front of the shelves were no help.

SVR PN CRM, read one. That was probably Severe Pain Cream. They were all like that, as if the person who wrote the tags was taking directions from someone wearing a gag. "OK, what's this one going to say?" MXMM STRNTH SPRN. "Got it, Maximum Strength Aspirin." Is this necessary? I came to make my wrist feel better, and now I have to play "Wheel of Fortune" and buy vowels?

Empty-handed, I headed to the door. That's when I realized I was alone in the store. Completely alone. It was very quiet, aside from some '80s pop trickling from the speakers above. There was no one at the register. No one in the pharmacy. Suddenly I was convinced that the staff was in the backroom in great peril, because I had interrupted a robbery.

Then I saw him. A head topped with curly brown hair in the cosmetics department. Unmoving. It was a vowel vampire, floating through the aisles, sucking up the legibility!

I lammed out and sat in my car for a while, and eventually saw who it was. A young clerk, wearing the vacant expression of someone who had to spend Friday night turning all the labels of nail polish bottles forward.

Whew. No robbery. Found the other store, bought the pain cream, stocked up on the other stuff I needed, and I got home. Wife: "Did you get the cough drops?"

Me: "The what?"

Wife: "The cough drops. Like I asked?

Me: "No, but I think I can get a column about how there wasn't a robbery."

She didn't buy it. Do me a favor and say you did.