402 W. Mission
9:52 Thursday night. Thick summer fog has settled in along the coast, reaching as far inland as downtown. It’s foggy, but not cold. Soon, the dance floor at Zelo will be filled with scantily clad UCSB coeds getting hammered on Jagermeister and flirting with anyone who says he drives a BMW.
The Mobil station is a fluorecsent oasis. The houses across Mission street have been erased. Across Castillo street, a porch light offers only a faint hint of its existence.
From up Mission street, a dim glow materializes out of the mist, grows stronger and separates into two headlamps as an old chevy crosses Castillo and pulls in under the big canopy. The car sits idling for a few seconds before the driver kills the lights, then the engine and gets out of the car.
The electronic beeps of the pay-at-the-pump terminal are especially loud in the eerie silence. The guy is wearing a brown leather jacket that is unzipped, revealing a grey t-shirt. The zipper on the jacket taps lightly against the car’s bodywork as the guy moves around. As he fills the tank on his blue Malibu, he looks left out into the fog, then right, then over his shoulder, like some lychanthropic nightmare of fangs and fur might be waiting on the other side of the number eight pump.
He survives the three minutes it takes to fill up and clean the windshield. The car rumbles to life, tires chirping on the smooth concrete as it goes into gear, and disappears into the mist. By the time it turns right and right again onto the freeway ramp 100 feet away, the side marker lights are just two tiny dots, an orange one chased by a red one, visible only if you were to look for them.
Jimbo looks back down at the cash he’d begun counting as the Chevy pulled in. In five minutes if anyone asks if a car had been there, he honestly wouldn’t know. He is on auto pilot.
Business is dead now, but had been good earlier. Stacks of bills wrapped in pieces of white scrap paper, secured with worn out rubber bands are laid out on the till. He absently scrawls his initials and the amount on each one and rolls them in the drop safe.
He pulls a stack of fives from the till, holds them for a second and removes four. He counts and faces all the bills in one pass, slowing down when too many are faced wrong and when there are several new bills together, smiling at the realization that he pulled an even hundred without counting.
He separates the new bills and crumples them into paper balls, not noticing that new bills smell like Play Dough. He flattens them one at a time on the front edge of the till. The faded beige paint is worn down to shiny metal from years of this action. Fully satisfied that the money will not stick together, he bundles the new bills back into the stack and turns towards the safe. He does not see Jennifer enter the store behind him.
She is very cute, in a petite, tanned, athletic, red hair and easy smile kind of way. A regular customer, she’s been coming in for about a month, mostly for cookie dough ice cream. Damon, who works with Jimbo, has said on numerous occasions that he is convinced that Jimbo should ask her out before they all grow old and die.
“Where’s yer uniform?” she asks as she walks in and heads for the back of the store.
Jimbo almost jumps at the sound of her voice. He hopes she can’t tell that his heart is pounding from the shock. He looks down at the black t-shirt he is wearing instead of the oxford shirt and tie someone decided would best exemplify the Mobil Image and smiles at her, “Fuck THAT noise, babe. When I took the job, this WAS the uniform. I can’t help it if the owner has to kiss up to some corporate dumbass. I don’t know why. They’re SHAFTing us on our fuel prices.” Having made this speech, he drops the $100 bundle of fives into the safe. “We pass the savings on to you.”
Jennifer laughs, “Do you have a soapbox up there, or shall I grab one off the shelf for you?”
“Got one, thanks.” his attention is focused on Jennifer. He doesn’t hear the soft slap of cash falling together in the heart of the drop safe.
The safe is a flat grey cast iron contraption with a slot at the top and a handle on the front that turns over a rolling chamber that drops the bundles into the bottom chamber. The cashiers have no access to the cash once it’s in the safe.
They almost have no access to the safe at all because it’s set directly under the hot dog machine, next to the small donut case that’s tucked up against the cinder block column that not only holds up the ceiling, but supports part of the L-shaped counter that defines the working space.
There is room for two guys behind the counter, one of whom is usually sitting back by the safe. Unless it’s extremely busy, having two guys helping customers is more of a hindrance than a help. Damon, the other guy, is being very helpful, he’s over at Chubbies getting dinner. He’d been gone about 30 seconds when the Chevy pulled in. Jimbo only thinks it’s been a half hour.
Jennifer comes back to the front of the store. She has a Walkman clipped to the waistband of her black silk shorts. The headphones are hung around her neck, the black wire contrasting against her white t-shirt. Jimbo doesn’t notice that she is listening to the same radio station he is. He does notice that she isn’t wearing socks or a bra.
She has a Coke and a Snickers bar from the big coolers that now dominate the space that used to be the service bay before junk food and light groceries became more profitable. “I think this will make me happy.” she says.
“Are you sure? Cause you know, someday, when I’m dictator… I mean, president.”
“I’ll marry you.” She opens a tiny, slightly worn out, Gucci wallet, “This is fine for now.” She is still smiling.
“Dollar sixty please miss.” He takes the two dollars she offers and hands her the change without looking at or consciously counting it. He is looking at her grey eyes.
“Such the professional, ALWAYS.”
He loves the way she smiles when she’s sarcastic. He smiles back, “I finally figured out that if I wanted to reach my career goals by the time I turned 23, the fastest way was to drastically lower my standards.”
He watches her cross the lot and disappear into the mist. Out loud, to no one he says, “I LOVE when she calls me love. Damon, where’s my dinner, dammit?”
Damon isn’t really expected for ten more minutes at the soonest, twenty if the place is packed, but the thought of a big greasy double cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, and pickles is an obsession. Jimbo almost forgets to write the drops on the tally sheet under the counter. He picks up the pad, writes down $25-1, $25-1, $100-5, $100-10, and holds the pad up to the video camera that looks down at the register.
The pressing business of the evening complete, he sits on the wooden three legged stool that sits behind the counter. He leans back against the hot dog machine, now off and cleaned, his feet up on the counter where the cash register faces out through the plate glass window at the small parking lot and the pump islands. The landscape looks more airbrushed than real, as if someone had gotten crazy with the luminous paint. The hum of the motors under the front display coolers is the dominant sound. There are two front coolers, one for Snapple iced teas, Kern’s Nectars, bottled water and sandwiches to the immediate right as you walk in the door.
The other cooler, which contains milk, orange juice, eggs and butter, is to the left of the “Wall-o-Candy” that consumers must face as they enter the front door. Crowded on hooks and shelves are Snickers (in three sizes), Twix (three flavors), Nestle Crunch, Three Musketeers, Mounds, Almond Joy, Certs (assorted flavors), Bubble Yum (assorted flavors), Bubbalicious (assorted flavors), Reese’s Penut Butter Cups, M&M’s, Corn Nuts, Sweet Tarts, Skittles, Now & Laters (assorted flavors), Twizzlers, Reese’s Pieces and Brach’s assortment packages.
The milk cooler faces the long side of the L-shaped counter, where the beef jerky containers are piled against the cinderblock column that holds up the cieling.
A deep freeze full of Haggen Daaz, Ben and Jerry’s, Sno Cones and ice cream sandwiches sits across from the candy acting as a window sill and a place to stack the 5-cent “changemakers” like single strand Twizzlers or Bazooka Joe bubble gum. It just exactly doesn’t block the front door of the business.
Back by the beer coolers, the island of grocery shelves is loaded with everything from Orowheat Five Grain bread to Dorito’s to Campbell’s Chunky soup to Heinz Catsup to Fruit Loops, to Windex and Tide. More shelves along the walls are lined with motor oil (synthetic or natural refined), transmission fluid (Dextron/Mercon or type F), brake fluid (DOT3), power steering fluid, Fix-A-Flat, and gas cans (one or two gallon sizes). There is a mind numbing array of life’s nescessities for sale at Mission Mini Mart, all contained in a space that was originally two lube bays.
Classic punk plays softly on a Sony portable stereo that used to be black, but is now grey from all the sun it gets sitting in front of the window, behind the manual credit card imprinter, next to the cash register, towards the safe.
Where the front window ends there’s a cinder block column that is identical to the one that holds up the counter where all the beef jerky containers are piled up, except that it’s part of the outside wall and has the phone mounted on it. There is a heavy beam sitting across them to form an arch that is obviously the backbone of the building, since the ceiling is higher on either side of the columns.
Jimbo remembers having counted two hundred and three holes, but can’t remember when or where he left off on the acoustic tile ceiling on the front side of the beam directly over his head. He is distracted by the phone. It is a shrill scream of a ring that always seems about to induce stroke or respiratory failure. He looks at the gloss black plastic handset and lets the phone ring one more time, just to be sure.
“Martian Mini Mobil?”, he asks, grinning into the mouthpiece.
“I think you have the wrong number dude.”
“No way, I got her number from her last night, she wrote it down, tell her it’s Tony, she’ll pick up.”
“Dude, you called a gas station.”
“Don’t fuck around, she told me she lived with a guy, you must be Eric.”
“DUDE, WRONG NUMBER. You sound desperate.”
“You LIVE with her, why shouldn’t I sound desperate? She’s FINE.”
“She wants you to meet her at the Gold Coast.”
“The biker bar?”
“Uh, no,…it’s under new management, the guy behind the bar will know exactly where she is,… uh,… he’ll tell ya. Okay?”
“I knew I had the right number, dickhead.”
The guy hangs up with an unsteady jumble of clicks, probably dropping the phone.
“WHAT a moron.” Jimbo ducks back to the back stockroom where he ignores the cases of Budweiser, Bud Light, Heinekin, Amstel Light, Bud Draft, Sam Adams, Dos Equis, Keystone, Keystone Light, Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Caffeene Free Coke, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, 7-Up, Cherry 7-Up, Orange Crush, A & W Rootbeer and several other variations on that theme are stacked floor to cieling. Without even looking, he grabs a couple of canned cokes and places them on the sloped rack in the walk-in cooler, he remembers Jen’s bottled coke and stocks that too. Somewhere a chocolate shake is calling his name, Damon better hurry the fuck up.
Back at the front counter, he takes all of the paper clips out of the box to the right of the till, connects them all into one long chain and puts them back. He blindly walks a few laps around the store as if checking stock levels. He pours himself a fountain soda and goes outside for a cigarette. It occurs to him that he should stock those.
He goes back in behind the counter, absently pulls single packs of Camel straights, Camel Filter Box, Camel Filter Softpack, Marlboro Box, Marlboro Lights Softpack, Marlboro Menthol, Winston, Winston Lights, Benson & Hedges Delux Ultra Light Menthol, and Kool Filter Kings from the cartons on the lower shelves opposite the front window and stocks them in the overhead rack above the register. The bottom of the rack hangs just below the top sill of the window. At 5’11”, Jimbo can get single packs into the top of the stacks by standing on his toes. Some of the brands haven’t been stocked for awhile. These he fills five packs at a time, as many as he can fit between thumb and forefinger.
He turns back and bends down to grab one more Camel Filter Box when he hears Damon enter the store. It occurs to him that he has no idea how much time has passed, if he should be amazed at the speed or pissed at the delay. He decides to skip it, “Dude, you won’t believe the phone call I just got…” The words trail off. He is face to face with what seems to be the Lincoln Tunnel. He takes a breath.
The gun is a .32 or .38, chrome plated. It is six inches from the bridge of Jimbo’s nose and might as well be a howitzer. He notices that there are scratches on the barrel, as if it has been in a pocket with some keys or some change.
He can see the distorted image of himself and the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling and the cinder block walls painted white and the crowded shelves reflected in the tarnished surface of the barrel.
The voice is flat. “Open the drawer.”
Jimbo cannot see the face of the man with the gun to his head. Even if the gun doesn’t have his undivided attention, the man has a stocking over his head. The situation is so ridiculous that he almost qoutes a line from a movie he liked, son you got a panty on your head.
He does not say anything, he does not smile, he is unaware of a proper course of action. He smells Polo, but does not wear it. He is vaguely aware of the color green. The man with the gun may be wearing a satin jacket, but Jimbo isn’t sure. All he can see is the gun.
He is sure the gun is chrome plated, not nickel. There are six scratches on the side of the barrel that Jimbo can see, one long, five short. One of them catches the light over his head and sparkles.
“Don’t fuck around, open the drawer.”
Jimbo tries to think of what button opens the cash drawer. There are a lot of buttons. It took a week to learn them all, that was three years ago, 154 weekends. He’d worked almost all of them, 4 to close. Damon usually worked ’till 11, but was leaving early to go down to Zelo, getting dinner was a bribe. It’s dead anyway.
The tarnish on the gun makes faint rainbows in the reflections on the surface. Jimbo can see that the finish is flaking off by the safety, a tiny patch of flat grey steel in all that chrome. The gun looks cheap. It could go off for no reason at all.
Jimbo realizes that the drawer is open, though he still can’t think of the right button. He wonders if the guy ever took a range saftey course, how powerful the small calibers really are. He is scared because everything he knows about guns he learned by watching “COPS” and “Law and Order” on TV.
Suddenly he realizes that the gun is gone. He has no idea how much time has passed, doesn’t know that the time lapse video has captured five very low resolution black and white frames of the event. He does know that the video runs one frame every two seconds, although that is the last thing on his mind.
The till is empty of less than two hundred dollars. The two guys, Jimbo hadn’t even noticed the second guy, are running for the alley that is to the right of the station if you’re standing at the register getting robbed.
Jimbo looks out the front plate glass window at the blinding white canopy lights, the brilliant blue trim lights, the red, white and blue Mobil sign with the flowers planted around it airbrushed on the swirling mist at the corner of Mission and Castillo. It’s foggy, but not cold. Downtown, the dancefloor at Zelo will be filled with scantily clad UCSB coeds getting hammered on Jagermeister and flirting with anyone who says he drives a BMW.
He looks around the store, outside, nothing has changed in the swirling surrealist landscape. He thinks about how he really wants to ask out Jennifer before they grow old and die, and he starts to sweat.