Shell – Owen Caliri
November 16, 2022
I’m standing here with my legs way out apart and my head on the counter, trying to think of an inanimate object more passive-aggressive than the fluorescent light tube. Their hospital-room-sterile illumination that gives the rows of chips and candy and sodas a vile bluish tint, that casts dark shadows across faces and effortlessly uncanny-valleyifies even the most good-looking Minnesotan or North Dakotan – although most of the faces you see in here are of stimulant addicts, insomniacs, dejected-looking night-shifters, and drunk college students, and aren’t very attractive to begin with – that beats down on bloodshot eyes like they were regular incandescent bulbs trapped and separated into staggered rows of ceiling panels, now doing their jobs as maliciously and spitefully as they can, still sour about not being in a nice house or an upscale restaurant or something. Not to mention the omnipresent hum, which sometimes stays in my ears until well after returning to my apartment in the mornings; my sympathy for tinnitus-sufferers has greatly increased since I began working here.
I have just returned from the bathroom (which the lights in there feel somehow even more evil than out here) where I took several large hits from my THC pen, this vaporizer and the fifty cartridges (which now about a dozen of them are empty) of high-quality concentrate sitting in my medicine cabinet the fruits of a very rainy fourteen-hour road trip to Montana and back, which the whole way there I was telling myself to turn around and in the dispensary was telling myself not to buy anything and on the way back was telling myself to take the bag duct-taped to the bottom of my seat and chuck it out the window. But I did none of those things, and I’ve spent more of this winter stoned than sober. Being high is no longer fun, but getting through a shift without chemical aid seems infeasible; it’s hard to believe that I’ve done it before.
An electronic ding-dong marks the entrance of a customer, who I don’t even bother lifting my head to look at. Squeaky footsteps approach the register and a raspy, timid voice says “Give me all your money.”
For about three seconds I am unable to parse the meaning of these words, wondering if I’m having a weed-induced auditory hallucination, and I bring my head up to see a stout, beer-gutted man wearing a ski mask and holding a pistol. The gun is not pointed at me, and is instead held to his chest, where the shiny metal slide is disorientingly strobing one of the fluorescent lights into my eye; the man’s hand is shaking violently.
I realize I’m being robbed and feel like I should be afraid but I’m not, and I can’t tell how much of it is due to my inebriation – weed makes me feel like I’m watching myself in a movie or TV show sometimes – and how much is from the fact that this guy is about the least threatening-looking robber I could think of. Fifty-something if I had to guess, judging by the wrinkles on his hands and neck and the parts of the face visible through the two-hole-balaclava, grey eyebrows above eyes that look simultaneously apologetic and terrified – like a dog kicked by its owner – and blue jeans below a brown t-shirt with a picture of a walleye on it that says “Of course I have a retirement plan, I plan to fish” in big white letters.
But okay, I hit the button under the counter that calls the cops, grab a bag, start to fill it with cash from the register – all the while this guy’s teeth are chattering or the handgun is rattling or both – and right as I’ve emptied Shell Convenience Store #13106 of physical currency there’s a deafening bang and a yelp and a simultaneous fwump and clack; while bills from the bag I’ve dropped are still floating to the ground I figure that this guy shot himself, his trembling hands must have accidentally pulled the trigger and sent a round into his shoulder, and I chuckle, not because it’s funny but because it’s so incredibly bewildering, especially in my mildly intoxicated state.
A peek over the counter reveals the man, supine, blood beginning to pool around his left shoulder and also his head (that must have been the clack), and he’s begun screaming, not moaning or shouting or yelping but full on fucking screaming, the blood-curdling scream of someone in extreme pain and/or terror, a scream like a child who has broken a bone, a scream like that girl in Texas Chainsaw Massacre who makes the last portion of the movie so painful to watch; I’m looking at him for about a whole minute, completely petrified, as more and more of the white tile floor turns crimson.
It suddenly occurs to me that just behind him in the aisle with all the terribly overpriced OTC meds there are also first aid kits. I go the long way around the back to avoid having to step over the man and his still-spreading bodily fluid, grab one of the first aid kits, zip it open, and it’s empty. The next one is, too. The store must be selling empty first aid kits, scamming people who didn’t first check inside and like myself assumed that they would be full of gauze and bandages and ointments and such, and I wonder if anyone has bought one of these kits and found themself in a situation like mine, where they or someone else is injured, and they open their kit to find nothing at all inside.
I let my eyes drift over to the man, who has begun punctuating every two or three screams with a few seconds of rapid, strained breathing, and realize I should probably do the thing they do in movies where someone takes their shirt off and wraps it around the injury, except then I won’t have a shirt, but I guess that the man on the floor would probably kill to just have a bare torso instead of a split in his head and a bullet in his deltoid. I reluctantly remove the terribly ugly grey-with-orange-and-red-accents polo this job forces you to wear and walk tentatively toward the man, the soles of my shoes staining, and crouch to wrap it between his armpit and shoulder, squinting to see less of the wound, trying to ignore the cries of pain. I’m tying up the knot to a tightness that seems reasonable – I really have no idea what I’m doing or if this will even help at all – when the man looks at me and gets out, in between gasping breaths, “I’m sorry.”
These two words hit like a train without a cowcatcher. I wonder what’s going through his head, what’s led this normal-seeming man to rob a gas station at gunpoint (or maybe gun-brandish) – Laid off at work? Financing an addiction? Alimony too expensive? Credit card debt? Some combination or something else entirely? – and I stand up, move almost without thinking to the bathroom, and lock myself inside, this time leaving the lights off. I’m still in here, draining the THC cartridge, when the approaching sirens reach the same volume as the man’s screams.