Petrolandia – The First Robbery
It was about one-thirty at night when there was a sudden rush; three cars in rapid succession.
Back in the day, whenever someone removed a nozzle from one of the dispensers outside it caused one in a line of numbers to start beeping. I would have to press that number to activate the pump, whether or not the customer planned to pay at the pump or prepaid or planned on paying afterward.
“The idea is that someone working inside the gas station needs to look up and see what’s going on outside,” Sandor said when he was explaining things to me. I smiled, nodded, and fell out of the habit pretty quickly. The things happening outside were not (a) the cigarettes behind my counter or, (b) a heroin addict trying to steal them, so I was happy to let people pump their gas and pay for it.
I maybe glanced up for the second customer that night, waved at the driver, and then got back to writing.
When the fourth pump started beeping I didn’t glance up – I had a write on and didn’t spare it any thought so much as activated the pump to stop the beeping. Some stray bit of sense did get me to look up a few seconds later, though, so I got to see the guy covering himself in gasoline.
There’s another button that lets you stop all the pumps from working. It’s very clearly labeled as such, and I pushed that button as fast and hard as I could, my eyes drawn back to the man whose petrol shower I had stopped.
He was walking towards the store.
I hit the button that was supposed to lock the doors but they did not work. He entered the store, reeking and dripping, and shot me a smug look of superiority before opening his mouth.
“Give me all the money in the register!” he demanded.
He had no weapon; no gun, no knife. He was dripping gasoline which was stinky, but not a threat to me, per se, so long as he was on the other side of the counter.
“Why?” I asked, stowing my laptop and leaning forward.
“What do you mean, why?” he asked. “I’m covered in gasoline!”
“Okay, yes, that is a thing you did,” I said, then paused. “I’m curious. What’s your plan, here?”
“I’ll set myself on fire if you don’t give me all the money in the register!”
I took a moment.
“Could you open the door a bit?” I asked. “Your fumes are getting to me. I’m feeling a little light-headed.”
“Are you deaf?” he asked. “I said I’m going to set myself on fire unless you give me all the money in the register!”
“With what?” I asked.
“Do you have a lighter?” I kept his eyes on me. He checked his pockets and came up empty. I reached behind me and grabbed a dollar Bic. “Do you want to buy one?”
His eyes went wide as he stared at the lighter. I flicked it, knowing the child safety would keep it from igniting.
“What,” he asked, “What are you doing?”
“Selling you a lighter maybe?” I giggled. It might have been from shock or from the fumes. Maybe both. I flicked the lighter again and swore. “Stupid child safety.”
“Are you,” he started, licking his lips and clearly regretting it, “are you seriously trying to light that right now?”
“Sure,” I said. “If I’m going to sell you a lighter you need to know it works.”
We stared at one another. His eyes were red and watering. He slowly started moving towards the door.
“Wait, you still owe me four seventy-three for the gas,” I said, giggling again. The lighter was still in my hand. “Five seventy-three with the lighter.”
“I, uh, don’t have it on me,” he said.
“Okay, cool,” I said, continuing to play with the lighter. “I’ll let the day shift know that you’ll be in to pay them. I think we’ve got you on, like, every camera.”
The lighter sparked in my hand.
The guy bolted from the store.
Sandor had gone over the protocols of what to do when there’s a gas spill with me, so I went and got the stuff to put on the puddle in the store and the stains on the lot. I threw open the doors to let the fumes out from inside and sat on the edge of the store, giggling to myself and waiting for my stomach to settle. Once it had, I fetched and set pylons in front of the pump that had been doused in gasoline and the one on the other side, protecting both before reactivating every pump except those two.
When the day shift came on I told them what had happened. They didn’t seem surprised.
I never did find out if the would-be thief ever came in to pay his tab.