The Seventh Bottle Was Empty

3 Mar

Short Story, First Assignment. Draft Copy.

This is a two and half thousand word kind of thing, so it’ll require more of your time than usual. If you read it, I’d appreciate any criticism you may have.

If I can offer you one piece of advice, it’s that you should buy good shoes. Ones with grip. And don’t spend more than eighty bucks, then you’re into prestige pricing schemes and you’re just handing them extra money. That’s the sum total of my wisdom, use it well. I learned a lot of other stuff, but that’s probably the best and most universal way to express my views on how to survive contemporary society. If you’re going to walk away from it all, make sure your feet are comfy.

When you spend three years working graveyard shift at a petrol station you have to learn how to keep your mind active or risk becoming a ‘lifer’, one of the growing legion of dead-eyed 34-year-olds who are really excited about acronyms and charts. It’s not the hours, the repetition or the regular threats to  your personal safety that will get you (although those things are also a concern), it’s the boredom. Read everything you can, memorize the names of all the chemicals in the anti-dandruff shampoo and organise them in your head by quantity. Methoisothiozolinone. Metholisomeathiozoline. Colours  221, 223, and 537.  Look at the numbers under barcodes and after long enough you’ll figure out that the first three digits are universal for Australian products, the next three to five will indicate the corporation and business and the remaining numbers the specific product. After a while, you start to see patterns everywhere.

Most people, for reasons I’m sure advertisers have already figured out and written many succesful papers on, when they buy two things from the confectionary or the chip aisle, will get two things of the same colour. People who buy Sprite usually buy peppermint crisp. Passiona, cheese and onion. Lime solo, chicken. I mentioned this to a customer once, he’d bought diet coke, maltesers and chilli and sour cream chips. He just sort of looked me strangely, like I’d told him the sky was actually purple and had been all along. People don’t like it when you point things out, it makes them feel stupid for having not noticed. I can’t really help it now, I’ve become a voyeur.

I think people do that because they’re on autopilot when they come in, they’re not really thinking about what they’re doing. Once,, I just said gibberish instead of the usual spiel, and the other guy didn’t even notice. So I did it again. I had to stop when I got to an hour, it was kind of depressing.

A petrol station is one of the few places that most people are forced to go into on a regular basis but have absolutely no desire to do so. Coupled with the fact that their entire business model is to force  people to buy things they don’t want while they’re in a place they don’t want to be means that my day-to-day interactions with customers were, at best, terse. It was a lot like a Hospital- nobody wants to be there, the lighting makes your skin fall off and your eyes water, the food is overpriced and horrible and it’ll always cost more than you think. Nobody’s being well paid though, I can vouch for that. I earned about 0.43% of the total earnings for each shift, I once got as high as 0.58% on one shift when we ran out of Diesel. They should just have me shut the shop the minute I turn up, that way I’d be the most productive.

The second hour on Thursday nights was the most dangerous.The bar across the street closed at 1am and company policy said that employees don’t need extra security until 2am, so you got 60 minutes that was like Thunderdome with product placement. I’d tried in the past to keep up some sense of order, but there’s really One night while I was trying to work out the most cost-effective television from the brochures people shook out of the newspaper (if you’re interested Samsung,32inch, LCD),  when I was interrupted by a thud like the biggest pigeon in the world slamming into a truck. A guy had run in and promptly fallen over the Coke display, taking the time to drink from a burst 2 litre bottle as he slowly got to his feet.

It turns out I have a second piece of advice: if you’re drunk, or high and you’re in a chain store (not an independent, those poor bastards get theft taken out of their pay) feel free to steal whatever food and drink you like. Somebody in accounting did the math and figured out that the profit they’ll lose from however many bags of Doritos a week that get stolen  is less than the money they’d have to pay if they encouraged employees to chase shoplifters down the road and one of them got hit by a car. It’s almost… sensible. Don’t do it at 7.11 though, those guys will break your kneecaps. I’ve seen videos.

This guy still sprawled in the bottles, ‘out of it’ didn’t even begin to describe where he was. For him to be out of it he would have to know what ‘it’ was and how it was different from him, but he was still having difficulty figuring out up and down. The cameras were out (again) so I made a few notes in case I had to identify him later. He wore jeans covered in what I hoped was paint, a grey t-shirt and a scuffed blue baseball cap balanced precariously over one ear. What I left out of my description was his cartoon-huge pupils and enough toilet paper stuck to his right shoe to have been the guest of honour at the world’s worst ticker-tape parade. He was, in so many words, a drug-fucked lunatic.

People are often wary of addicts, and with good reason- some of them will try and stab you for a bus ticket. Most won’t though, and all you have to remember is that most people who are way too high to function normally become like frightened children, and you have to treat them that way. No big concepts, no sudden movements. Use small words, and remember that they’re easily distracted by flashing lights and novelty. Also like children, they have a preternatural sense of when things are about to go wrong, so on no account tell them something bad is happening.

“Awwwhowwrerthefuckyagoin?” he said, wandering down the aisle. The thin wires in front of the console were close enough to prevent access by an adult of his size, projectiles however are another matter.

“Good thanks, been out this evening” I replied with a smile, making sure not to indicate that anything unusual was happening.

“Yeh”. He walked over to the deli fridge , where he found the boxes of defrosted pies and sausages rolls ready to be cooked over the next day or so. He reached in and pulled out a sausage roll, then stood for a moment, trying to figure out what was missing.

“Ssssfuckincold” and with a frown threw it back into the fridge.

“Those are for cooking later. There should be some hot ones in the oven just to your left”. And with that he shuffled three steps over and saw the full pie warmer ready for the pub rush. He picked up a sausage roll, and looked at me. I said nothing. He took it out of the wrapper, slowly at first, and stared at me as he pulled the roll from the plastic wrapping. I said nothing. He took an enormous bite, then proceeded to eat the whole thing in front of me, making a great show of how much he was enjoying himself. I said nothing. He looked back the pie warmer, and saw three more sausage rolls on the top shelf. He glanced at me once more, squinting as if to test me, then grabbed all three and ran to the back of the shop where he perched on the car battery display to claim his prize. I left him be, who am I to deny a hungry man?

As if on cue, I heard the cacophony of the breaking glass, screeching brakes and hurled abuse that meant the pub was closed. A battered Hyundai pulled up by the front door, and at the same time three men who could’ve been sausage roll guy’s cousins were walking across the lot towards me. Maybe they were his cousins, I never bothered to check. The Hyundai belonged to Charenjeet, one of the guys who worked the day shift. He went to night school, business training for something or other, and he always came in after class for a coke and two loaves of white bread. He paid on credit, as per usual, and while we waited for the machine to kick over he told me about what he’d learned in class that week. He never mentioned the guy on the battery cabinet, he was so used to shit like this that he may not have even noticed. His card was rejected, and while he looked through his wallet to find his other card three men appeared in the line behind him.

They’d just come from the pub, and if I hadn’t seem them across the street there are some telltale signs. At least one of them will be bleeding, or they will seem to be wearing something they found in the carpark to conceal somebody elses blood. They also had that smile, the one I’d heard described as ‘a shit-eating grin’. It wasn’t until that night that I realised that what that really described was somebody who was going to watch you eat shit, and enjoy the whole process.

“Hey! That’s a lot of bread you’ve got there.” This is the skill of all grinning Australians, to be threatening in a way that’s just polite enough that they can act offended if you call them up on it. That way they always win. We did our best to ignore them as we waited for the old machine to rumble through its tasks.

“You gonna make a big old fucking sandwich huh? It’s pretty late for that isn’t it?” said another. Again, I regrettably said nothing. I could see they were impatient.

“Hurry the fuck up you paki cunt” said the third. Charenjeet had had enough.

“First of all I am not Pakistani I am Indian, so you are showing your own god damn ignorance. Second, I’ve been studying for the last six hours and if any of you could read you would know that it’s pretty hard fucking work, and all I want to do is get my fucking credit card to go through so I can get the fuck out of here and go the fuck home ifthatisallrightwityou” The three men looked at each other, waiting to see who would react first. Then I politely asked them to leave. That was a mistake.

“Here’s your bread you fuck” the third said, grabbing a loaf off the shelf and shoving it in his face to try and smother him.  The other two followed, each grabbing a loaf and hitting him around the face and neck. I was no good in a fight and my only hope was to distract them long enough to allow Charenjeet  enough time to get up and get him behind the console for safety. The door would be difficult, but I trusted that he was fast enough.

“Get the fuck out of my store!” I screamed, and the sausage roll guy hurriedly picked up all his wrappers and ran out of the building, slipping in the mix of soggy bread slices and fast-solidifying coke as he went. The grinners were less enthusiastic about leaving , and one hurled a wonderloaf straight for my head.

This is why I told you about the shoes.

At the back of the counter was an automated cigarette machine. It must have weighed a good 30 kilos, and had to be bolted to the wall. It’s advantages were that you just pressed a button on a pad next to the register, and out come the smokes you wanted. That’s about it. It takes up a lot of space, is a bitch to fill, and the reason management gave for it’s existence is that it was intended to ‘reduce theft’, and since customers can’t go behind the counter the assumption was made that they meant us. It opened like a fridge from the 60s, and for some reason I could never get it close right. There was always an extra corner or two poking out where there shouldn’t have been. And it was one of these new magic corners that met the back of my skull as I slipped on the rubber mats with my cheap-as-shit discount business shoes. For a second everything stretched out, like the split second between channels on an old tv set.

As I stood up slowly I could feel something warm going down my spine, as a well a bottle of vodka’s worth of wooziness coupled with the intense desire to lie down. The grinners hadn’t expected the throw to go so well, and one leaned over the counter to see what had happened to me. I pressed the against the back wall to avoid his arms, and it was then he saw the safe. From 10pm to 6am it was company policy to have no more than 150 dollars cash in the till at any one time, so all the excess cash had to be deposited in the automatic slot on the front. No store employee could get open it, and the canisters, which could carry around 100 grand when full, were collected twice a week by three men in an armoured van.

“That’s your safe yeah”. I replied that it was.

“Open it” I explained why that was impossible.

“What about we just take the whole fucking thing” I could feel everything going grey, so I told him the safe was welded into the foundations of the building. It sounded like a convincing enough reason to make him give up. It wasn’t. The grinner looked back at the other two, and they let Charenjeet up where he very quickly and very wisely ran for the storeroom and locked himself inside. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that. I leaned against the counter, trying to keep my breathing steady so I wouldn’t pass out. The grinners had seen the blood stain on the cigarette machine, and they knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

“Hey Ash, look what I found” yelled the tallest of the three, helping himself to the skittles. He held up a pair of car keys with an enthusiastic rattle. Charenjeet’s.

“I’ve got an idea” and with that the three grabbed a few snacks from the shelves, climbed into Charenjeet’s Hyundai and reversed it to the other end of the pumps. Then they turned the lights on full beam, began revving the engine, and laughing at their own good fortune. Emergency services would never get to me in time, and even if they could I barely see the phone, let alone work out where  the numbers were and what you had to do press them. But I understood what the grinners were doing, they were going to ram the shop to get the safe.

In between the two of us was the gogas cage, a selection of portable gas bottles- the kind you use for camping heaters and barbeques. We had that system where you could swap empty ones for new full ones, and not buy one every time. On busy weekends and public holidays in the warm months, we could easily sell out before the truck came with fresh ones. But it was August, and I hadn’t checked the in-tray for receipts.

I remember once at a Christmas party that one of the lifers had told me the reason the gogas cage is placed in that specific position was to protect the safe, criminals were supposed to realise that to get at the money they would have to blow up their car, and themselves in the process.And if they didn’t, the resulting explosion would likely destroy both the cash along with the record of how much was in there, entitling them to the full insurance payout of a full safe.

For once, I hoped the truck was late.


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