art by Shot Hot Design
by Patrick Johanneson
Stella Laine, deputy head of Human Resources, tented her fingers, looked me in the eye, and said, "Your time on Earth is nearly up, Benjamin."
For a couple seconds I couldn't stop blinking. Finally I got my eyelids back under conscious control, and, with what I thought was a heroic lack of quaver to my voice, I said, "Do you really have that kind of power?"
Now came her turn to blink. "I'm sorry?"
"Are you-- are you seriously telling me that you're going to kill me?"
"No!" She stared at me a moment. "No, Benjamin. For cake's sake, what makes you say that?"
"I--nothing. I think I must've misunderstood." I mentally rewound our conversation to her opening gambit. What else could she mean? "Look, if this is some sort of religious thing…." I didn't want to tell her that I was pretty sure proselytizing in the workplace was against one law or another, separation of church and state and all, but if pressed I would play that card.
"Religious? In what way?"
"I--uh, never mind. What do you mean, then, that my 'time on Earth is coming to an end'?"
"I said nearly up. Did I abuse an idiom? Is that the issue here?"
This kept getting weirder. "I can't really say, unless you tell me what you mean."
She nodded. Then she opened a desk drawer and pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims. "Do you mind if I...?"
I glanced at the window separating her office from the HR foyer. The blinds were down. Smoking in a workplace was technically against the law, but if she didn't care, I didn't care. "Go nuts," I said.
"I'm sorry, does that mean yes or no?"
"Go ahead," I said. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em."
"You really have made progress on local idiom," she said. I'd never heard anyone use the word idiom in casual conversation before--short of NPR--and here it was, twice in two minutes. She fished out a cigarette, lit it, and took a long, long drag. I could actually watch the orange glow changing white paper to pale ash. She tapped the ash into a small desktop planter that held the forlorn, wilted remains of some species of ornamental tree. I wondered if she'd ever watered it.
"I think I'm going to miss the pleasures of this flesh the most," she said.