Tanya saw the coiled mound up high, tucked into the storeroom’s rafters, and knew it would be on her to investigate. Across the room, the unidentified looked wild, critterful, the outdoors brought in.
Three times now, a snake in this exact spot, and no wonder. The storeroom was dark plus nearly always dry: cool in summer, warm in winter. Outside, cornfields offered a buffet of rodents. Inside, nooks along the stacked aluminum shelves or post-and-beam ceiling created an ideal retreat. In earlier incidents, she’d had reinforcements: Gary, her soon-to-be ex-husband; Anne, her coworker. Neither tall, but both strong and brave.
On Sunday mornings, she opened the store on her own. No backup for a little while.
I’m tall and strong, she thought. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Directly underneath the beam, she got a closer look. A snake, no question. Two feet, maybe four or even five if unfurled.
Gross, Tanya thought. She considered locking the door and waiting until Anne arrived for her shift. Maybe it will stay put, she thought. As if in response, the snake lifted its head. Its scales were black-gray flecked with ecru, similar to her own tresses, markers of the Eastern Rat serpents common to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
“OK, I see you,” she said, careful but firm. It was the same tone she once used at earlier jobs to nudge reluctant sots at last call, or to soothe angry customers, back with defective products.
Eastern Rat snakes were harmless in the field, but harmful in a small business, repelling customers and health inspectors alike. It had to go.
She crossed the building, an old granary, to get to the supply closet, passing the shelf-stable foods and household items of the local-vendor mercantile section. The wide-plank floorboards sighed under her slip-resistant shoes. In the deli section, where her freshly made meals awaited hungry patrons, the linoleum was quiet, and she felt stealthy reaching for the long handle of the cherry picker.
Back in the storeroom, under the rafter, she pictured Gary, his smooth and assured movements honed over years of playing minor-league baseball. The picker’s jaws opened and shut with commanding clicks. She squared her shoulders and stuck her chin out.
Compared to this snake, I’m a giant, she thought. I can do this.
“Ready to go, buddy?” she called up.
She gauged where to clasp, then reached up, swift. The picker connected, although she couldn’t see if she had a full grip. A musky smell, funky and fetid, tickled her nostrils: the snake’s distress signal. She lifted, then swept downward, and the snake writhed and stunk, like an exhaust hose. The scent intensified, and she fought both her sneeze and the snake’s shimmy to maintain her hold.
Careful, she moved toward the rear exit that led directly to the parking lot, then stopped. Across the room, the closed door’s stainless-steel knob gleamed, unreachable, a jewel in a quest. Her hands were full with the snake-filled picker. She cursed under her breath.
The snake flicked its tongue, black and red, like a taunt.
The alternate route: through the market and café to the main entrance, where her backside could press the door’s crash bar open.
The snake looped over the picker toward her, then started to gain traction.
“Nope!” she yelled, hoping her dominant tone let the snake know who was in charge. She held the rod as far as her arms would stretch and moved toward the exit, focused on speed and steadiness, maneuvering through the obstacle course of tables and chairs, displays of fruits, vegetables and spices.
She nearly made it. But by the shelves of candles and essential oils, their fragrances clashing against the snake’s own emissions, her suppressed sneeze roared forth and the snake became airborne, launched from the picker like pasta from the pot.
“Damnit!” Tanya yelled.
The snake slithered in fast retreat toward the deli case, its body undulating in S’s and I’s. She pictured it inside, swallowing a log of capicola or honey-baked ham whole.
It wriggled underneath, out of reach. She stamped her feet, hoping to jolt it toward her. No movement.
She looked at her watch. The store opened in twenty minutes.
She needed another person, to guard one side while she tackled the other. Anne wouldn’t arrive for another hour.
“Augggghhhh!” she yelled. No movement.
Her solo Sunday morning shifts were usually her favorite. For the bulk of her working life, nearly thirty years at various offices, restaurants, and shops, she’d been clocked, monitored, observed. On Sundays, those few hours of independence, at her very own store, brought a pleasure that her younger self couldn’t have imagined. The flip side, though, was that freedom also made her fully responsible for the unexpected.
She unpocketed her phone to text Gary. They’d been separated awhile now, but their split was amicable, and really, only the paperwork was left to make it official. He was just a few towns away, in Chalfont. He was still her emergency contact. He would come to help out, if she asked.
But this wasn’t exactly an emergency. This was just her job. Snakes and other vermin were part of the deal. She’d decided to open this place on her own, financing it with a chunk of her 401(k) savings and a small business loan.
Figure it out, she thought, and put her phone away.
She poked the picker in the snake’s general vicinity.
She rattled the grate near the bottom of the deli case with one hand, the picker poised in the other.
“Don’t get too cozy!” she called out.
Her eyes to the floor, she walked around the unit and turned on the lights. She could prep the plates and silverware, or fill the condiments and napkins at the self-serve station, and also be vigilant. That might work.
She started with the napkins, folded end up top, to keep most in place. One stack pressed in the matte black dispenser. A glance at the floor. Another stack, another look.
Fifteen minutes until opening.
Years ago, Gary had taken care of a snake like this one, a persistent visitor in the garage at the old house. One evening, it settled into the automatic door track, shorting the sensor and causing a jam. Gary had captured the snake with a pair of hedge clippers and carried it out to the yard, near the compost bins. It had draped between the blades like a limp towel, accepting of its fate and Gary’s authority. Tanya hadn’t watched, but thanked him when the task was done. For weeks, when she dumped eggshells and potato peels atop the compost pile, she scanned the breaking-down scraps for scales and fangs. She never saw any trace. Later that summer, she’d planted marigolds and tomatoes with the new soil. Gary swore it was her best-tasting crop.
In the café, she pressed a stack of napkins into the final dispenser and checked on her guest. No movement.
“I’m not going to hurt you!” she called out. “I just want to get you home!”
She loosened the pumps on the ketchup dispensers and was mid-refill when the snake darted out. Even in anticipation, she jumped in surprise and dropped the ketchup, lid off. It burst across the floor, a red, liquid firework; a few bounces added airborne trails, too. The snake slithered through the splatter, then extended its sticky impressions through the store.
The picker was just out of reach, but still she chased the snake toward the main entry. It ducked behind the pickle barrels, the half-sour ones delivered weekly from Queens, two hours away.
With effort, she pulled one of the vats off the wall, sending a small wave of brine to the floor. Odors and fragrances mingled, combining garlic-vinegar-snake-secretions-lavender-essential-oil. She sneezed again, twice. As she recovered, the snake sped behind the adjacent antique case of tinctures and herbal remedies, a veritable fortress, way too big to move alone.
Five of nine. She saw a pickup truck pull into the parking lot and groaned. Not an early-bird customer now. On closer look, it was Jeremy, the farmer who brought a truckload of radishes and kale last week. They’d sold out of the haul in a day. He approached empty-handed, here to shop, his jeans creased and clean, his thinning gray ponytail taut at his neck. At the door, his eyes widened in alarm. She looked down and saw ketchup smearing her torso like an untreated wound.
“I’m fine, I’m fine—but come in at your own risk!” She gestured to the askew displays behind her and told him about the intruder.
Inside, Jeremy scanned the room and paused at the apothecary cabinet. “It’s behind there?”
Tanya nodded, followed the track of his gaze.
“We’ve got this,” he said.
They propped open the main entrance and moved the barrels and crates to create a corridor that led straight outside.
“On the count of three,” Jeremy said. “One, two—”
Lift, push, slide. They angled the cabinet so the snake was exposed. Tanya grabbed it with the cherry picker and followed the new path out, then kept going to the cornfield adjacent to the parking lot. She pictured aiming the picker like a baseball bat, letting go of the clasp at its highest arc. The airborne snake soaring away. Instead, she tucked it into the first few rows, end-of-summer tall, and watched it disappear among the stalks.
“Don’t come back!” she yelled.
The thickly settled field devoured her call, morphing it from warning to suggestion.
“I mean it,” Tanya said.
Back inside, Jeremy had already replaced the vats and cabinet to their usual spots. She gauged the clock and the mess. Once he left, she could pivot, open a little late for a quick change and clean up. She could do that. Or, she could do everything at once—a quick change first, then clean, serve, explain—and hope for the best.
While she assessed, Jeremy put a peach pie, dozen eggs, and a bouquet of wildflowers on the counter. First things first.
“Thanks again for your help,” Tanya said as she rang him up. “They just keep coming in. You’d think there be more than enough food in the fields.”
“They must like your cooking better,” Jeremy said, with a sly grin. She gave him the total and he balked. “That’s a bit more than I expected.”
The tally was exorbitant—she’d keyed in the eggs at fifty dollars, not five. “My mistake – hang on!”
Jeremy looked bemused as she canceled and retabulated. He gathered his purchases without a bag and didn’t wait for a receipt. “Jerry Garcia once said ‘there are no mistakes, just grand recoveries,’” he called over his shoulder as he left. “I’ll be by first thing tomorrow with the latest haul, OK? Squash and apples!”
After he left, Tanya locked the door, then found a clean shirt in the supply closet, one of Gary’s old flannels, and buttoned it over her blotched tee. She unlocked the door for a few other customers, made small talk while mopping away the tracks and briny puddle, and set up the caution/wet-floor sign. The tiny bottles in the remedies display easily returned to upright positions, ready to sell. More cars pulled into the lot, and she sprayed a few mists of a citrusy fragrance, just in case the snake’s distress scent lingered.
As expected, the Sunday customer crush came in steady waves. Anne arrived and then Marcus, their junior clerk. Tanya’s mind silenced in response to the work. Orders were filled, stock replenished, and change was made over the next few hours. She kept finding traces of red in unexpected places—the deli case handle, her earlobe, the gourd display. At the end of the day, her joints knelled with fatigue, but there was more to do.
She got to the hardware store just before it closed and bought enough chicken wire and caulk to address the café’s vents, drains, and cracks. Back at the shop, she unfurled the wire roll, its grid like metallic graph paper. Her staple- and glue guns marked points on the axes, closing off any potential entries. She walked the space twice to make sure she didn’t miss a spot.
Tanya fixed a plate from the deli – potato salad, sauteed greens, and pulled pork, just enough for one – and went out to the back patio. Against the emerald fields, the sky streaked pink and gold, the air early-evening soft. It was her favorite spot on the property, the patio and lot, with just enough open space before the contrast of dense fields. On the first walk-through, back when she and Gary thought they would make it work together, she had envisioned live music nights, bustling barbecues, cornhole and horseshoes with two proprietors overseeing it all. As they got going, she loved the work and the place, and Gary didn’t. He wanted out. She didn’t. He’d kept the house. She got the store.
The grassy area at the east side of the parking lot was full of potential. It could be another dining section. A clearing with fire pits for chilly nights. Or a contained vegetable garden, if she got a new composter.
She walked to the open spot and sat down, cross-legged. On her phone she found the email from her attorney. Coiled in the grass, she squiggled her signature across the screen.
She ate her dinner slowly, each bite delicious. Low movements rustled the corn stalks and adjacent lawn, but she remained undisturbed, her company hidden from view.
Sarah Pascarella is a writer and editor based in Boston. Her short stories have recently been published in The Under Review, Every Day Fiction, and The Fourth River. Her story, “Time and Tide” (MudRoom Magazine) was a 2021 Best of the Net nominee. She has a master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College.