Jimmy Toms walked into the gas station office carrying a ball peen hammer behind his back. He was six two and baby faced, with bad skin and glaring eyes.
Arnold pushed his belly away from the ledger on his cluttered desk and stood. His stubby hand held a little stubby pencil. He was happy for the break from his bookkeeping until he saw the young man’s eyes.
“Is this self-service?” Jimmy complained.
“No sir.” Arnold smiled. Getting no smile back he went out to fill the vehicle. The kid hadn’t said how much so Arnold went ahead and filled it right up to the gas cap, as was his way. ‘Upselling’ he heard someone call it. He looked back to the office window and open door, to see the kid going through his desk. ‘Good luck’ Arnold said to himself. The kid would only find jerky, pipe tobacco, and paper clips.
Arnold looked over the vehicle. He didn’t see how the kid could own such a shiny little black sports car. Someone had taken care of this beauty with a lot polishing. Maybe it was the young man’s daddy. He finished filing it up and went back to the office.
“Is this place condemned?” Jimmy asked before Arnold could quote the gas total.
“No, I just don’t do a lot of business anymore.”
“How come it’s all boarded up?”
“Oh, that’s next door. I use to have a diner, too. Wife ran it. But the fast-food stop down the highway took the customers.”
“She dumped you?”
“Your old lady? Did she dump you?”
“The total is thirty-six. I filled it up.”
“Can you change a hundred?”
Arnold shook his head. “It’s too early in the day, and I never have more than forty in the till.”
“You don’t have money? You don’t have a safe? Out here in the desert?”
Arnold raised his hands slowly. Jimmy hadn’t even shown Arnold the hammer yet. Arnold said, “Okay, hold on. Hold on. See beside the filing cabinet? That’s the safe. See the drop slot? People pay. Every time I’m past forty it goes in the slot.”
Jimmy scowled. “What do you have your hands up for? Why are you doing that? Who do you think I am? Put your hands down.”
“Look, I don’t mean anything. What do you want?”
“What do you mean? What do I want? You got an attitude, big man.”
Arnold went silent, nodded, and kept his head down. Jimmy held up the hammer he had been hiding by his side. Jimmy motioned a few times as if to hit Arnold. Arnold staggered back and covered his face while trying to waving away any attack.
“Give me the money!”
Arnold held a protective hand in front of his face and pointed to a cash register on a ledge by the door. Jimmy kept the hammer up and pointed for Arnold to open it.
It was a very old manual register with push keys and a hand crank. No sale popped up like a vintage cartoon and the register opened. Arnold started to take out the few bills and was trying to scoop up the change as well. Jimmy yanked the bills from his hand and slapped away the coins.
“Open the safe.”
“It’s on a timer. It doesn’t open until Monday. I don’t make much and I can’t afford to spend it. It’s on a timer. Just once a week.”
Jimmy grabbed Arnold by the collar and held the hammer right up near his face. The hammer was too close to swing at Arnold but it was just as threatening. “You better find a way to open that.”
The two were frozen this way for several minutes. Arnold could not even bring himself to say he could not open the safe even if he wanted to. Finally, Jimmy gave up and let Arnold go. Jimmy stepped back from him in disgust. Then in frustration Jimmy hit Arnold in the arm with the ball peen hammer. Then again just below the shoulder. Arnold fell over and cried out before stifling himself.
Arnold lay there curled up with his hands over his head. Jimmy left. Arnold could here his car going from the gravel onto the paved highway and away. All was quiet, but Arnold still could not move. After a while he slowly raised himself up and sat himself on his wooden swivel office chair. He inspected the bruises on his arm and tried to calculate the days it would take for them to go away. They would get worse before they got better.
He stared at the open register. He felt sorry for his fate and future. His stomach starting hurting, too. He sat for a long time pitying his condition.
Arnold started from a knock on his open office door. “Does your pump work? Do you got gas?”
Arnold forced himself up and went out. The woman wanted him to fill the tank. He was embarrassed he couldn’t offer change. They tried her credit cards but they weren’t going through. That happened sometimes. The woman overpaid in cash and claimed she was happy to do so.
Ten minutes later another car appeared. Arnold warned them up front about no credit cards, cash only, and no change. He felt like a roadside swindler, but they were happy to accommodate to get the gas.
More cars. Then for the first time in years a line of cars that was longer than three.
“There’s some big show somewhere?” Arnold asked a man. The man’s wife and kids in the back complained about not having anything to eat and asked Arnold where to get some food. He pointed to the fast-food place down the road.
“That’s where we came from.” The man argued. “Some idiot in a stolen car drove it into a gas pump there, trying to get away from the police. They got everything taped off there. He only hit one of them, but they got all six pumps taped off, and you can’t even go inside to the restaurant because they’ve got to check the integrity of the whole place so it doesn’t blow up. They’re saying it'll be days. Anyway, the cops have been directing people down here who need gas to come here. Someone around here must like you. You’re going to make a lot of money in the next few days.”
“What about the driver?”
The man leaned out his window and whispered. “He’s a goner. The car looks like a crushed tin can. They put him on a stretcher and in an ambulance, but they weren’t rushing to take him anywhere. He’s gone. Anyway, got to get the kids fed. Thanks.”
They drove off and Arnold went back to his office, despite the waiting line of cars.
He sat at his desk and rubbed his arm. It didn’t hurt so much. The kid hadn’t taken so much from Arnold. And now Arnold would make some money from the kid. It put a bad taste in his mouth.
Car horns were sounding and people were beginning to get out of their cars to see what the hold up in the gas line was. Arnold searched around his desk drawers and shelves. Finally, as people were approaching his office, he found the sign he was looking for. He excused himself past the customers and went out to the pump. He slid the dusty sign across the glass face of the pump.
Out Of Gas.