Five minutes, twenty-nine seconds for milk, bread and a few other items? Ridiculous. The clerk transfers the time from my corporate God Assurance card to the store’s account. “Here you are, Mr. Spencer.” He gives me a rattler.
I pass the diamondback between my hands a few times then raise it to eye level to complete the required time. As I give the snake back to the clerk, I hear a woman in the next booth gasp.
“That can’t be,” she says. The clerk assures her that her paycard is depleted. He offers store credit. She hesitates. No wonder. Store credits are notorious for having low-quality God Assurance.
I hang around to see what happens. The woman decides to risk it. The guy puts on thick gloves, reaches into a glass cage and gives her a copperhead.
Whimpering, she handles the snake for a couple of minutes then boas it around her neck and lifts the head to her eye level. I see from her grocery bag she shouldn’t owe much more. As the copperhead flicks out its tongue and hisses, the woman takes short stabs of breath. I catch myself doing the same.
“OK, time’s up,” the clerk says. Whew. “Payment complete. Have a nice day.”
When the woman drops it back into the cage, the snake strikes the glass and leaves a smear of venom.
Walking to my car, I wonder if the woman had any antidote on her. Likely not, considering how scared she seemed. Would I have given her mine if she’d been bitten? I hate to admit it, but I probably wouldn’t have. Not because it costs two month’s wages, but because of what happened to my wife.
On the way home, I stop for just enough fuel to get by until payday. Even for such a minimal purchase, I have to go eye-to-eye with a water moccasin for 58 seconds. When I finish, my God Assurance card beeps a “nearing depletion” warning. That does it. I need a raise.
I hate going into Mr. Jenkins’ office. He keeps it too warm for one thing. The black and white walls make me dizzy. Looming display cases, stacked to the ceiling and crammed with holy books and artifacts of every religion imaginable, give me claustrophobia. Gaudy, framed posters boast the company’s line of snake farming products.
As always, Jenkins sports a black three-piece suit and a white tie with the company motto, Closest to God. “What can I do for you, Spencer?” He positions himself in front of a large sculpture of a goddess with multiple arms such that the limbs appear to spiral from his own body.
Just spit it out, I tell myself, or he’ll hijack the conversation. Say I deserve a raise. “Since I started working here five years ago, I’ve been the top sales —”
“Five years? Congratulations.” He squints at my lapel. “Didn’t I give you a service pin?”
“I … forgot to wear it today. Anyway, I’m here because …” I hem and haw, my non-words in sync with my shifting weight. Pretty good choreography, but not getting me anywhere. I can do this. Be firm but respectful. “You have to give me a raise, Mr. Jerk … Jenkins.” OK, that might not have sounded respectful.
Jenkins sits behind his desk and motions for me to take a seat. “Spencer, I want you to think quality, not quantity.” He points to the words on his tie.
Here it comes.
“Our God Assurance wage rate may not be the highest, but its purity far exceeds the industry standard. We estimate 97 percent.”
I’ve heard this spiel ever since my new employee orientation but try to act impressed. “I knew it was good, but didn’t realize it was that high.”
“When one of our people handles a serpent to make a payment, there’s only a 3 percent chance of them being bitten.” He opens a desk drawer and dangles a coral snake by the tail.
Bite him. Bite his nose. I’m sure he has plenty of antidote, but at least he’d be embarrassed.
He drapes the snake over his shoulder. “Faith, Spencer. Currencies always have been about faith. Faith in gold, the full faith and credit of your country, faith in the vagaries of cryptocash.” The coral snake slithers under his suit coat and sticks its head out from under his vest. He holds up the snake in one hand and his corporate God Assurance card in the other. “Now we have perfection: a currency of serpents backed by the ultimate faith.”
He sticks the head of the snake in his mouth. Bite his tongue! After a moment, he puts the serpent back in the drawer.
“That’s top quality God Assurance, Spencer.” He looks down and shakes his head. “What happened to your wife was tragic. If she’d stayed with us, I’m confident she wouldn’t have been bitten.”
At least Caroline went to a job she liked, even if the pay wasn’t great. And if she hadn’t given her antidote to save a stranger, she wouldn’t have died writhing in pain while trying to buy a sweater for my birthday.
“Did I send flowers to Carol’s funeral?”
I jump over the desk, grab his vial of antidote and smash it against the wall. Then I shove the coral snake down his pants, my laughter harmonizing with his screams.
“Yes, you sent a bouquet.”
Jenkins tells me he has another meeting. I glare at him. He stares back. I leave.
I can’t really murder my boss, but I can go to my desk and email him my resignation. I can get a job at the library where Caroline loved working. I can move into a smaller place with less expenses and upkeep, where I don’t see my wife’s ghost everywhere I look.
I can have faith in myself when I stare into the dark, vertical pupils of a deadly snake. I can refuse to blink.