When the last tank of helium arrived, Ben and I were the only people on the loading dock. We were on our lunch break in our uniforms, the supercenter's logo on the back and the front. I was eating a tuna sandwich my mom had made me. She puts lettuce on either side of the tuna so the bread doesn't get soggy. I placed what was left of the sandwich back in the Ziploc it came in and stood up, so as to meet the shipment like a real employee and not some schmuck who was eating a sandwich. Ben, too, had lowered his sandwich from his face, but he didn't stand.
The delivery man wheeled a painted tank out from the back of his truck on a dolly, and now Ben and I were just looking at it like total goobers. He smacked the cylinder’s candy red hull. "Nothing else coming from the distributor. We were told: ‘Just drive them to the supercenters until you run out.’"
The tank was our responsibility anyway because Ben and I worked in Party. We stocked greeting cards, paper plates in every color, those little plastic noisemaker things for kids that really don't work at all. The helium tank was the first we'd had in a month, a global shortage or something. Since then we'd been selling the balloons flat, cellophane Get Well Soons and those big numbers used for women's birthday parties at bars. We instructed people to tape them to the wall so it wouldn't be quite so depressing.
I didn't have to sign anything for the tank, which seemed wrong. The delivery man wished us luck and climbed back into the cab of his truck. He pulled out of the parking lot, a wide curve in an otherwise empty expanse of concrete.
I've worked at the supercenter for a year, and in Party for the last six months. Previously, I was in Baby, and let me tell you, expectations are too high in Baby. I'm a pretty fastidious guy, but shit would go from zero to sixty if we didn't have the exact right pacifier. We couldn't keep pull-up diapers stocked, and that was always its own kind of emergency. I transferred to Party at the first opportunity, when Maggie, the girl who used to work there, quit and went to rehab. Or at least that's what I heard. People didn't leave the supercenter to much fanfare.
Party was different. Shoppers in Party were either resigned to their errand or excited for a celebration, and both accepted my help and the options I had on hand. No one ever needed the absolutely perfect paper napkin, and if they did, I had twenty different colors on offer. I didn't even have to deal with the Christmas madness. I just pointed customers to Seasonal and asked if they had any balloon needs. We didn't fuck with holidays in Party.
The other Party upside: the balloon counter. On the wall behind the counter, examples of the balloons we sold stretched to the ceiling, twenty high and twenty across. They were arranged—rather depressingly—in life stages, new baby to children's birthdays to massive engagement rings to adult birthdays to get well soon, and in the bottom left corner, a single condolences balloon. I'd never had anyone purchase it.
Working the balloon counter meant actual customer interaction and less time in the back warehouse, which everyone could agree was a plus. Warehouse time meant putting boxes where a robot told you to. Warehouse Hold Inventory Management, or WHIM, managed where items were stored in the back before they were ready to be shelved, or for online pickups. Many things sucked about taking direction from a robot, but the biggest one was that it did not care what you felt at all. If I was pissy, my human manager was probably going to be annoyed with me, too, and that was okay, because then we would both be pissy. WHIM would tell you to "Pick up the pace!" in this cheery, boss-lady voice, and there was nothing you could do about it. The Party counter meant I could avoid WHIM entirely, and that was a good day.
Ben joined me in Party about a month after I transferred, fresh from the outside, no WHIM, no stop in any other department. I was pretty jealous of that, but he was chill, and we generally tried to stay on the same schedule because a lot of the others who worked Party were weird extroverts who talked too much. When customers talked, my job was to listen, but I didn’t have the same obligation to hear out my coworkers’ bullshit about their kid’s savant-like fingerpainting. Ben and I were the same age, or so I thought at least—it's not like I asked for the guy's birth date and social. We talked about the people at the supercenter and video games and the Lakers, who both of us liked despite our being nowhere near California.
At the supercenter, it was verboten to ask where you came from. The assumption was just another retail job, and that worked for everyone. No one wanted to explain misdemeanors or college gone sideways or corporate restructuring or a sick parent or the death of American manufacturing. But Ben had told me anyway—he was on something called a gap year, where you’re going to college but you’re not ready to go to college yet. He would go next year, but his mom made him get a job in the meantime. I wasn’t going to college. The supercenter was as good as it got for me. I didn’t have a lot going on.
It was still break, so Ben and I finished our sandwiches. While we were eating, we didn't talk, and we didn't alert anyone to what might be the very last helium tank on earth sitting on the pavement. As Party workers, it was our responsibility. Once we finished our sandwiches, we jumped down from the bay and muscled it onto the dock. From there, I rolled it down to Party through the back warehouse in a bear walk like we used to do in P.E. class. Ben kept look-out. We didn't alert WHIM because we didn’t know how—we weren’t familiar with deliveries, and it’s not like there was a button on the touchscreen that said press here for the end of the world. In Party, we stood it up on its end and hid it under the counter.
"So we're just going to use it up? Like normal?"
What I was really saying was were we going to, indiscriminately, dole out the last helium we would ever see for birthday balloons. Neither of us knew shit about helium or what better uses it could come to. I knew it could power blimps, but I hadn't seen a blimp since childhood, and I couldn't think of one good reason why blimps needed to exist. It seemed untenable that an element might disappear and there would be no repercussions besides the loss of self-sustaining balloons.
I'd bucketed the previous helium slowdown into a large, opaque mental container I labeled Climate Change—alongside how we've all decided we don't use plastic straws anymore, or how all the bees are dying. Things I knew about, but couldn’t comprehend. Shit that touched my life, but didn't really. Before this final tank, I sometimes had to tell customers at the supercenter that we didn't have the helium they expected when we were waiting for the next tank—this after they purchased a massive, terrifying balloon shaped like Spiderman trying to claw his way out into the real world—but that was life at the supercenter. I was constantly disappointing people. The lack of helium was just one more thing, like our lack of public bathroom, or how we always ran out of size medium first in Clothing.
Ben was leaning on the counter, looking at me. He shrugged. “What else would we do?”
"I think we should use it for its intended purpose," I told Ben, "but we can pick and choose. Try to make it last. No more helium for bachelorette parties."
The bachelorettes were the worst, always with massive, last-minute requests like, "Actually, can I get two hundred white balloons in the next half hour? We want the bride to literally feel like she's gone to heaven." They also often showed up with a huge penis balloon they’d purchased online, hoping we would fill it up. I didn't understand why they wanted a floating penis, lazily wafting over their heads. This seemed like the perfect case for no helium, because you'd want the penis near the ground, where it belongs. I'd still fill it up, and then receive some disgruntled customer feedback as a three-foot penis drifted toward the exit.
"Children's parties and Get Well Soons? Maybe really old birthdays?"
"Only eighty plus," I said. At that age, it was often their grandchildren who came in and bought the balloons, annoyed at the extra errand. I always took my time at the helium tank with those, making sure they were perfectly round.