I didn’t hear him the first time he said it. I passed him daily on my way in and out of the office, so his sales pitch was city noise that barely registered when I hopped out at the Gallery Place metro stop, but that day was different. Four words caught my ear, so I stopped to give his sales pitch my full attention. I examined his table— trying to decipher the smorgasbord of self-care supplies that, at an angle, resembled a city skyline.
“What did you say?” I asked with the tissue pressed against my nostrils.
“I can fix that,” he said, pointing at my face. I was unnerved because he made a finger gun-like gesture that was aimed between my eyes.
“What are you talking about?”
“Allergies, bro,” he replied after inhaling through his nose, exhaling while saying, “I used to be just like you.”
Just like me, I thought to myself. That’s not possible.
When I first engaged the man who called himself The Rapper S.O.S. I thought he was a joke—another slick salesman who hocked incense
in DC with dreams of fame and fortune. I know the type because I’m just like him.
I was born after a winter rain. My dad said the weatherman and the traffic reporter warned the viewers about black ice; when he told the story, I’d imagine him white-knuckling the steering wheel as he fishtailed down Georgia Avenue. Point is, I’m a winter baby; I prefer the cold. I don’t mind the summer much, but I hate the spring because it was two months of torment for me. I was the snotty nose boy in school who had incalculable amounts of allergy meds
in his system. Every spring, my momma would tell me that I’m just like a butterfly— I just need to stay in the cocoon during the spring so I can fly in the summer. It worked for the most part. I’d rush home after school because I could feel the pollen sliding into my nostrils, hidden between the scent of honeysuckles and April showers drying on asphalt. I’d get home, sit by the eucalyptus-fueled humidifier, and watch Johnny Bravo on Cartoon Network.
Man, I forgot about that old humidifier
. I’m sure it was pearl white in its day, but I remember it being sandy brown, likely from all the years of service. That machine was more work than it needed to be, and it was loud. I remember the hum it made because the metro escalator made the same sound, and when I heard it, I smelled a hint of Eucalyptus.
The humidifier, Johnny Bravo, and a handful of allergy meds became a huge part of the fabric of my childhood and the twenty subsequent seasons that followed. At the very least, the post-nasal drip would make my throat itch and nose run for days on end; at its worst, my face would be a swollen reservoir of mucus and tears.
Bottom line, I was miserable in the spring, and as a real estate agent, it made for bad business and reflected in my productivity. So, hearing this street vendor tell me that he could “fix” me caught my attention because I didn’t have much to lose.
“Here, man,” he said while handing me a small vial, “I don’t like to see brothers struggle with allergies cause we ain’t even s’pose to be here. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“What is it?”
“Essential oils and a lil’ somethin’ extra to get rid of that shit you got for a day. “
I opened the vial and took a whiff. It was a pungent metallic smell masked by a familiar scent. It took me a moment to realize that I was able to smell it.
“Huh, is that eucalyptus
?” I inquired, waving the vial above my lip like a pendulum.
“And tea tree oil,” he said as he shook hands with a man passing by, “rub that on your chest after taking a sip, then play track four on my mixtape on repeat as you sleep.”
He paused for a second and scrunched his face as if he had a revelation. Then he nodded to a beat that only he could hear. “Woooo! Bars. I gotta write that down,” he pulled his jacket sleeve back to reveal illegible writing on his arm, then recited rhythmically, “‘sip-sip-on-repeat/while-you-sleep. Why you sleep. While…luh. Luh.’”
“Your mixtape?” I asked, interrupting what I assumed was his creative process.
“Scales of Justice, my new joint with three bangers and a secret track produced by God. That’s track four. That’s the one you got to play as you sleep.” He was serious.
I chuckled because, at that point, I heard enough. I placed the vial between the candles and what looked like sticks on the table, then said, “I’m not buying your mixtape, and I’m not taking the oil. Thanks.”
I pivoted to walk away when I heard his voice say in a hushed, sober tone.
“Behind your eyes, right?”
“The pressure— all behind your eyes, makes it hard to focus and think straight. You’re talking to people, strugglin’ to keep the snot in your nose, and they step back wondering if what you got is contagious. You tell them it’s just allergies, but they ain’t buying that because they ain’t never seen allergies like that. Right?”
I can’t find the words to explain how I felt at that moment, but S.O.S. hit a nerve. I was compelled to confess, “Yeah, yeah, man. I had an open house last week. I had to call my partner to cover for me because it was bad.”
“And the season just started. Here, man,” he handed me the vial with a toothy smile, I was once again unnerved because his K9 teeth appeared out of place, “test it out tonight; if it works, give me twenty, if it doesn't— life goes on. But I’m S.O.S. baby— it’s gonna work. Remember to rub it on your chest, take one sip, then track four.”
“S.O.S., huh? So, you’re saving souls?”
“Like a preacher on the P!”
“Alright, I’ll give it a try,” I said as I clenched the vial against the tissue in my hand. Then I asked while scanning the table, “Where’s the mixtape?”
He smiles and screams, “I’m in the future, bro,” turning his veiny hand to reveal a tattooed QR code, “Scan that, and you’ll get the whole mixtape.”
At home, I placed the vial on the kitchen counter and told my girlfriend, Angela, about my day while setting the table for dinner. She snorted as she laughed between bites of spaghetti twirled around the blades of her fork, then asked, “So you took a random bottle from a street vendor who said it’ll cure your allergies?”
I felt defensive, “Not cure— help,” I retorted without an ounce of shame, “and I have to play track four off his mixtape.”
“That was produced by God, right?” She lifted her glass of wine while shaking her head and stated, “Men are dumb.”
“You say that until you’re slathering an $80 jar of mud
on your face.”
“That’s fair. Except I didn’t buy it off a rapping street vendor,” she began mockingly rapping nonsensical words, doing what sounded like a DMX impression.
“He wasn’t rapping,” I muttered while blowing my nose. It was funny, but my pride was hurt, and I was frustrated. I stood up, barely eating, and dejectedly scraped my spaghetti into a small Tupperware
“Aww, you’re mad,” she remarked as she turned in her seat. I watched her pull out from under the table and saunter over, swaying her hips, making the pouty face she does to weaken my resolve. She’s a professional pianist, and at that moment, I felt like she was playing my emotional scales; she draped her forearms over my collarbones while cradling the back of my neck with her delicate fingers. I pulled her in by the waste, and the light pressure of the hug against my chest caused me to go into a coughing fit. Gasping for air, I pointed to the counter, and she reached for a water bottle. I shook my head dismissively, pointed to a mug, and waited for the fit to subside. I take a sip. Concern receded from her face, opening a tide of sympathy.
“You can rub it on your chest, but don’t drink it, Evan. We don’t know what’s in that shit.”
As she walked away to clear the rest of the table, I held my chest, thinking about the silliness of the entire situation. I didn’t believe it would work. Part of me hoped it would because dinner looked like it smelled and tasted delicious, but that was a minor inconvenience; I had a more pressing concern. I hoped to propose to Angela at her family reunion in July, but an engagement ring would be hard to come by if I could not sell homes.
We’ve been together for five springs, and we’ve, maybe, only had three arguments in that time. We understood each other, but the recurring topic was marriage since the last family reunion. I felt a storm brewing and tried to keep the boat from rocking. That’s why I waited until she slept to drink the oil. I didn’t see any harm in it, and I didn’t feel it was worth discussing.
That night, after she slept, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and placed a drop in my palm, rubbing my hands together until I felt the heat from the friction. I then pressed the oil against my chest in an upward motion the way my mother used to. The eucalyptus immediately entered my nostrils, warming my chest until I sneezed, expelling a one-inch green-tinted gelatinous blob of mucus into the sink.
“Huh,” I whispered, surprised at the rapid response of the oil.
Drinking the oil was peculiar because, despite the strong smell, it didn’t have a taste. The fluid was deceptively thick, too, with a consistency similar to cough syrup— I thought it seemed apropos. I coughed a bit and felt my airways open. I let the fluid flow through me and laid on my bed with my head against the headboard, listening to track four of S.O.S.’s mixtape, drowning out the sound of the bedside humidifier, his voice reverberated:
sinfully siding with serpents
squeezing the life of the worthless
I drifted off to sleep with him oscillating between my ears, the water drums cooing between the rattles of the shakers, and the sound of the earthy flute relaxed my body between the beats. I had the best night of sleep that evening.
When I awoke, the side of my face felt stiff and sticky. I could hear Angela tapping on her phone, commenting on a social media post. I walked into the bathroom, turned on the light, and found dried mucus stuck to the right side of my face.
“Ugh. Hey Ange. Come here, look at this,” I exclaimed, peeling a layer of film off my cheek. It reminded me of the times as a child when I covered my hand in glue; it was satisfying to peel.
“Oh my god, I want to peel some!” she exclaimed while simultaneously pulling a layer behind my jawline with satisfaction.
“Is that snot?” She asked while she flicked the film into the sink.
“I think so,” I responded while pulling a huge chunk that looked like popped bubble gum off the tip of my nose and upper lip.
“That’s so gross and… awesome. Has this ever happened befo— wait,” Angela pulled away from the peel, “is this because of the oil?”
I hadn’t realized it until she brought up the oil, but I was clear. There wasn’t a remnant of my allergies to be found; I tried to summon a sneeze or cough by inhaling a deep breath, but it was fresh air and the scent of her deodorant. I ran to our bedroom toward the daylight, drew our curtains back, and opened the window. I opened my mouth wide and took in as much air as possible, not even a scratchy throat. I couldn’t believe it, nor could Angela because she was watching me mouth agape.
My heart was thumping with excitement. I felt unburdened. My heightened senses left me engorged with passion. I grabbed Angela by the waist, pulling her in and grabbing her rear. I kissed her passionately, shoving her on the bed, with my last recollection being my head between her legs.
Later that morning, I lay in bed twirling the empty vial between my fingers.
“I wonder how it works?” I wondered aloud.
“Like a charm if you ask me.” She said, splayed out on the bed like a beached starfish. I ignored her quip.
“I took it, and it cleared me up,” I held up the empty bottle in utter amazement, “I feel amazing.”
“Yeah, you do,” she said in a sexy moan, rolling over on her stomach.
“I need to eat,”
“You didn’t eat enough?”
I entered the kitchen and cleared the cupboards: potato chips, crackers, fruit cups, pastries, and dried spaghetti. I was insatiable. It was less hunger and more desire, and the impulse was gravitational. I lost time again and came to see Angela watching in horror as I opened a can of tuna and ate it without prep. Despite my behavior, I assured her that it was an unfortunate side effect but not a deal breaker and that we’d likely find a scientist who would be able to counter these effects. After my reassurances, Angela and I discussed the potential for a product like this miracle oil over breakfast. I remember her apprehension and felt it was warranted, but I had an appetite akin to ambition that I couldn’t quell.
I arrived at the Gallery Place Metro station, rushing up the escalator to seek S.O.S. He stood at his table wearing the same outfit from the day before: an unzipped oversized coat not befitting the current climate, black pants, and a matching shirt with “SOS” crudely embroidered green across his chest. I didn’t notice the tattoos on his neck when we first met, but my allergies didn’t allow me to see much of anything.
“Ah! Look at that swag,” he shouted as I approached his table, “where’s my money, bro?”
“Fuck that, let’s get rich, S.O.S. Man, that stuff is a game changer. With my business acumen and your product, we can make a fortune,” my pitch was informal and nonchalant because I didn’t think it was a hard sell. The fact he was still in the previous day’s outfit and was vending knick-knacks on a street corner told me that he was hard up on cash. His response left me dumbfounded. Moreover, missing was the salesman's flair he showed, and a sober and earnest response replaced it.
“Nah, I just want my twenty,” he replied dismissively with a straight face.
I was lost for words and didn’t understand how he could have a commodity like the cure for allergies and not profit from it. I tried to gather my thoughts as he walked away to organize the gems on the table. I surmised he was negotiating.
“Hold on S.O.S. You have a miracle drug in your hand that could make you a billionaire, and you’re haggling me for twenty,” I mocked, trying to elicit an emotional reaction. When a client is emotional, I can close a deal. S.O.S. was prideful and ambitious. I recognized those qualities when we first met as they mirrored my own. Yet, he remained in control of his avarice impulses.
“It ain’t about the bread, bro. I did you a solid out of kindness ‘cause I felt your pain.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, seeing a gap, “but think about all the other people we could help— you’re telling me you don’t have kindness to spare for them?”
“I do, and that’s what the mixtape is about. Did you hear track two?”
“No,” I was starting to get annoyed. It felt like someone was pranking me; I would have thought that was the case if I hadn’t been thinking so clearly.
“So, you just listened to four, huh? I told you God sent that beat. What’d you think?” he asked with the enthusiasm of a confident artist expecting acclaim. I wasn’t in the mood to thoroughly critique his otherwise unimpressive music.
“It was lit,” I lied with as much confidence as I could muster.
“Uh-huh,” he replied skeptically, turning back to his stones.
“Did you say the allergy stuff only lasted for twenty-four hours?” I said, returning to the subject.
“Give or take,” he stated with a shrug.
“And you’re only charging twenty?”
“No, I’m charging twenty for the mixtape. The oil was free. Don’t confuse that.”
“What’s in the oil? I know you said eucalyptus and tea tree, but what’s the other thing,”
“That’s proprietary, bro,”
“Well, listen, let's figure something out because you’re sitting on a fortune here,”
He looked up and placed his hand over my chest, staring directly into my eyes.
“Chill, bro. I told you, it’s not for sale. Now, give me my dub.”
His reluctance didn’t give me pause. I needed to get this product out there, even if it meant stealing it from him. In my mind, he was missing out on a platinum opportunity. My head spun, and I briefly lost balance.
“Alright, man. Do you use Cash App
, Zelle, or something?”
“Dealers choice. You know the name,” his panache and smile returned.
He answered in a sing-song manner, “That’s right.”
As I leaned to pull my phone out of my pants pocket, the sleeve of my shirt rose past my wrist. S.O.S. saw a rash and said, “I got a topical for that there. CBD. Clear it up in a week.”
I looked at my wrist and said, “I don’t doubt it. Let me have that and another allergy vial for tomorrow.”
He looked me up and down, then replied distrustfully, “What do you need another vial for?”
“Cause I finished the one from last night,”
S.O.S. rounded the table and aggressively grabbed my arm. His speed and urgency triggered a response that left me frozen as I watched him roll up my sleeve.
“Dude! I said a drop!”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My arm was covered in the same mucus from earlier, except beneath the thin peeling layer of my brown skin, I could see moss-green scales.
“What the f—!“ I couldn’t free the word from my mouth.
“Chill out, bro, and answer my questions honestly. Do you understand? Honestly.”
I timorously nodded as S.O.S. pulled me away from any wandering eyes.
“What did you do today? No lies.”
I stammered, struggling to say, “I woke up and ate breakfast with my girlfriend.”
“Did you eat a lot?”
I watched as he cycled between my eyes and arm, ping-ponging between the two— searching for something.
“What?” I responded, perplexed.
“How much did you eat!” he said in a contained shout, looking around.
“I was hungry.” He looked into my eyes and then back to my arm.
“That’s one,” he whispered pensively. He turned to my eyes and asked, “You and your girl? Y’all fuck today?”
“Y…Yeah, what’s going on, man?”
“That’s two,” he mumbled, something unintelligible.
“Just now. You wanted the vial. What were you going to do with it? Be honest, bro!”
“Nothing,” as the words escaped from my mouth, fragments of the mucus hardened and fell to the ground, and I screamed. The mucus layer made the scales look moss green, but once peeled away, their hue was a scaly olive-colored– snake skin.
“Be honest, bro!”
“I was going to sell it. I was going to try to shop it around. I was—”
A police officer sauntered over; his presence was authoritative in combination with his menacing grimace. I would have felt concerned for S.O.S. if not for my arm and the vortex of questions that consumed my mind.
“Is everything okay here?”
S.O.S. released his grip, and I gathered myself, adjusting my suit and tie, compartmentalizing the anxiety, and focusing on S.O.S. and my safety.
“I’m just a little under the weather and stumbled. This gentleman was helping me. I appreciate your concern, officer.” I tried to keep my composure in front of the cop, hoping he would move on.
“Not you, he leaned to his right and looked past me, S.O.S., are you okay? Is this man bothering you?”
Dumbfounded, I turned and looked at S.O.S. as he shoved me toward the police officer. It was assault.
“Nah, Teddy, this bamma drank all the oil,'' he said, shoving me again. I stumbled backward into the cop's arm.
“Fuck,” Officer Teddy’s nostrils flared, and his posture changed.
“What do you need me to do, S.O.S.?”
“Lock him up somewhere ‘til I can figure something out.”
With a nod, Officer Teddy casually approached me and said, “Alright, sir, you’re going to have to come with me.”
I didn’t know what possessed me as the officer grabbed my arm; under normal circumstances, I’d have been compliant, but paranoia overcame me as I watched the camaraderie between the pair. As he reached for his handcuffs, I took a wild swing and punched Officer Teddy into S.O.S.’s table, knocking over the nicknacks, incense, and oils.
“Bro, what are you doing?!” S.O.S. exclaimed with his arms stretched toward the police officer.
I could feel my senses heightened and tasted iron in the air, which I attributed to my fight-or-flight instincts. A visibly stunned Officer Teddy stood with blood seeping out of his nose. He clumsily lunged toward me as he tried to get his bearings. I stumbled back into an elderly woman; I turned and apologized, only to see a horrified look on her face as she fell to the ground, shrieking in fear. Her cold cries slid along my skin as a crowd gathered. S.O.S. rushed toward me, grabbed my suit's lapel, and whispered, “Run. Run. I’ll find you later, I’ll find you, go!” I didn’t have reason to trust him, but I knew he was right— so I ran.
I took off running down the metro escalator, hopped over the fare gate, and sat nervously on the train, waiting for my stop. I needed to seek refuge— physically and emotionally. I needed to be in the cocoon-like my mother used to say. I want the feeling of comfort and safety I had watching Johnny Bravo next to that humidifier. I needed to be near Angela— her voice and presence would calm me down.
At my stop, I ran up the escalator into the light. The dim lighting of the train was easier to absorb; on the surface, the sun’s shine assaulted my eyes; my vision was blurry and myopic. My neighborhood bombarded my sense of taste and smell. A crude bouquet of street meat, sewage, bus fumes, perfumes and colognes, and cherry blossoms was concentrated beneath my palate. In addition to that, I felt my legs giving out from under me as people dodged my stumbling down the street.
I believed I was dying. My muscles atrophied as I entered my building. Limping down my hallway, I could smell Angela, who had yet to leave for the day. I unlocked and lurched through the door, collapsing on our area rug. I grunted in pain as the mucus flakes peppered the ground. She entered the room; a muffled scream vibrated the floor where I lay. I turned to her with tears in my eyes and watched as she clasped her hand over her mouth. She approached cautiously.
“Evan?” I hear her say. My sense of hearing drowned out her voice, so I began seeking context by reading her lips. I extended my hand, and without hesitation, she collapsed into my arms. We held each other as her dampened queries assailed me. I tried to answer, but my constricted voice only released a short burst of white noise that seeped in gasps. I closed my eyes in regret and frustration, angry with S.O.S. but mostly myself for not heeding Angela’s warning. I should not have drunk the vial. I wept, holding her tight. I could feel her crying as her body tensed up between her breaths. Until I felt a crack, and she fell limp against me. I loosened my grip, recoiling across the rug to find her lifeless eyes open and her neck broken. I circled her body, calling her name, nudging her to wake. She was lifeless. I went to reach for my phone beneath my clothes and the pile of dried mucus I left behind, only to realize I didn’t have arms. I looked down at my feet, and my legs were missing. I was free of my mucus cocoon and emerged as a snake.
While I attempted to process this realization, I felt the vibrations of footsteps approaching the apartment and slithered in fear under the couch. It was hard to describe, but the voices were clearer than Angela's. Two men entered and began to speak.
“Is she dead?” the man asked as the other callously kicked Angela’s corpse. I winced at the sight.
“Yeah, close that,” the door shut cautiously in an apparent attempt not to draw attention, “I’ll call animal control as soon as we find him.”
“Do you see him?”
A hand reached down to check Angela’s pulse. I receded further under the couch.
“She’s still warm, so he’s here somewhere.”
I drew back as I saw a knee hit the floor, followed by a hand; someone was preparing to look underneath the couch. I tried to escape the other end when someone suddenly grabbed me by the tail.
“Where is you going, bro?”
I was being held upside down at arm's length by S.O.S. as Officer Teddy stood by Angela’s body, calling into radio dispatch.
Animal control arrived shortly after; they used their talons to lift me into a burlap bag. I was then dropped into a cage inside a truck. S.O.S. entered and sat by my side, staring into my eyes. His words were smooth as he spoke as if all syllables were removed from his vocabulary. He stroked his chin as he said, “Clark Stanley thought like you did. He was the first of our order to try to commercialize what we do. That was in the 1800s. After a few disappearances and even more dead bodies, society discredited our order. From then on, people associate us with false advertising, deceptive products, and trickery— the Snake Oil Salesman. The truth is that snake oils can cure anything, but there are rules. But that’s beside the point. The issue is that occasionally, we’ll have someone just as overzealous as you—those who consume too much without reading the fine print or, in your case— listening. I told you track four was produced by God. Let me play it for you.”
As he played the music, I could hear the same non-syllabic speech hidden in the beat beneath his words. What I assumed were rattles were hissing. The song detailed the history of the snake oil and a warning to resist temptation or fall victim to the allure of the serpent.
“You’re going to a reserve in Florida. We get a grip sending you out there, and our people in the press write it up as an exotic animal lover gets killed by their pet. This shit rarely happens, but when it does…” He sucks his teeth to punctuate his point.
As the truck stopped, he opened the rear door. I could feel the vibration from the Gallery Place metro escalator and the subsequent taste of eucalyptus in the air; he was being dropped off at his table. I moved violently in the cage, hoping to free myself from its confine. I was being abducted against my will. I hissed and gnawed at the bars.
“Woah, no need to get mad at me, bro. At the end of the day, I told you who I am,” he said as he shut the door behind him.
Today, I lie in the reserve, watching countless visitors file in, gawking and pointing at me with a mixture of awe and revulsion. I think of Angela and grieve while slithering my story into the sand and dirt as the other serpents traverse the treetops hidden amongst the vines. I scribe my missive daily, hoping my tale will warn anyone who may encounter a Snake Oil Salesman and the allure of his cure.