Petrolandia – The Job Description
I’d been writing freelance for film and television before the crash.
It was a gray market job, the sort of thing that anyone with a lick of sense would have avoided, but I was young and foolish then, not like the old and foolish person I would become. The job was simple enough – a director or producer would want a script written or rewritten and not want to deal with the guild. Someone like me would get called in to do the writing under the table. NDAs would be signed, cash would be paid, and I’d be shown the door.
Can you spot the problem?
There’s no way to take credit for any of the work you do when you work like that. Everything is word of mouth, your output and livelihood depending on the goodwill of the people that pay you and can recommend you to others. If you’re really good at it they don’t want to share. If you haven’t done anything in a few weeks, regardless of the reason, everyone forgets you exist.
Our corrupt government had decided to pass legislation that everyone other than their donors told them was terrible. Like the greedy sycophants that they were, they passed it anyway and put a third of their voting base out of work in a month. Panic ensued. The legislation was repealed, but the actual movers and shakers of the industry had picked up and left already, and it would be years before the industry returned to what it had been.
During that time my old job ceased to exist.
It took about eight months for everything to get settled. While that was happening, the guilds laid some ground rules that made my old job impossible and, worse, they remembered people like me. I tried to wait out the storm, but after all that time my savings were running low and I needed some form of income and I still wanted to write.
“Novels,” I told myself. “I’ll write novels.”
The gas station across the street from where I lived was hiring for the graveyard shift and I was already an insomniac. The plan was to take a year, write a book or two while working at the gas station, and get out. The location was good and I figured I could write during my shift.
“Would that be okay?” I asked my soon-to-be employer.
“Sure,” he said. His name was Jon. A kindly older man, he was interested in curling and ran a loose ship and ended up being the single best manager I ever worked for. He understood the business he was running and the people who would work it. He cared – genuinely cared – about the people working for him. Even so… “Just protect the cigarettes.”
I laughed. He did not.
“If you think you can last the year, that’ll be great,” he said. “The last guy was our longest.”
“How long was he here?”
“Eight months,” Jon sighed. “He just walked out one night. Wouldn’t even come on to the property to collect his last check – we had to walk it to the sidewalk.”
You’d think this would be a warning sign, but remember how I mentioned being young and foolish…?
“Well, I’m pretty sure I can beat that,” I said.
“Great,” Jon said. “We’ll pair you for a couple of nights with Sandor the Assistant Manager and he’ll run you through the ins-and-outs.”
Sandor looked how Obi-Wan Kenobi might look if he had ended up in an industrial hellscape working retail instead of a lonely desert planet. His uniform might have been in the only clothes he owned. He had excellent taste in books and a weary sense of humor, but there was a constant sense of defeat about him.
“How long you expecting to be here?” he asked.
“ A year, maybe?” I answered.
“Jon said you write books,” he said, then paused. “That’s good. Write them and get out. This place will kill you.”
“Eh. I’ve lived in literal war zones,” I said. “This doesn’t seem so bad.”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” he wheezed. “You would really fucking think so.”
We spent a week together, he putting me through my paces.
It was all pretty simple: the shift started at eleven. A till would be ready and waiting. The price of gas changed at midnight and the sign had to be changed a half hour before that if the price was higher and within five minutes if it was lower. At eleven forty-five someone would call and want a spot check – go to the edge of the lot, look at the advertised price of gas at the gas station up the street, return with that information. Clean the store at two. Make coffee at eleven, at two, at five-thirty and then as needed. Close out the til for the day at four-thirty and get ready for the morning rush.
“There’s some nuance to it,” Sandor told me. “Don’t take hundreds or fifties ever – you don’t know who’s watching and if people think you’re taking hundreds or fifties they might think you’ve got them in the till. The addicts will shoot you for them and we’ve posted signs saying we don’t take them.”
“Okay,” I said.
“The electo-magnetic lock button is right here,” he continued. “It works some of the time. There are manual locks on the bottom of the door, but no one knows what happened to the keys or if they even work. There’s cameras, too, and they record three days at a time.”
“Cool. When do they start?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “None of us do. The footage goes somewhere and is either stored or deleted, I don’t know. Oh, also, there’s no bathroom in the station. If you have to go, try to wait til it’s quite and run around back.”
“To the bushes?”
“No. No. Do not go in the bushes, not ever. You never know who or what is in there,” he looked concerned. “The bathroom is around back, and you never know who or what might be in there, either, but most of the time they’ll at least lock the door. Try to be quick. Also, it’s a lost cause if Sledgehammer Guy’s been by.”
“You’ll know him when it happens,” Sandor said, amused. “Remember, kid, you want to be here a year. Finish writing your book and get out.”
“Alright,” I said.
I would be stuck at that gas station for four years.