Noble Gases


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.

The tanks we used to get were five feet tall and held hundreds and hundreds of balloons’ worth of helium. This one was half the size, and so I assumed half the number of balloons, but I didn't know. Maybe three hundred to be safe, but a normal, old-school round balloon. Anything larger or fancier would throw off the calculation.

We agreed to hide the helium when we weren’t on shift, because the other people who worked Party were dingbats. They wouldn't make it last. At the end of our shift we'd roll the tank into the Employees Only storage room behind the counter, which held only cleaning supplies. We weren't actually responsible for cleaning. No one went in there.


§


I became obsessed with the Last Balloon. The philosophical dilemma with the Last Balloon was that I wouldn't recognize it when it appeared; the Last Balloon would be apparent only in hindsight, when I tried to use the tank to blow up the first After Balloon and the tank ran dry. I wanted the Last Balloon to be worth it, a small child watching me pie-eyed as his Ninja Turtle burst to life. I wanted that child to say "Thanks, Mister!" like I was an old-timey carnival barker and this was 1893. He would then skip off back to a parent, Donatello bouncing after him. If I failed, Donatello would drag behind him, the last dregs of the tank not enough to make him float at eye level.

To ease my sense of impending doom, I listed all the times I used the helium tank, and the corresponding customer.

CUSTOMER

BALLOON

Middle-aged man, baggy suit, holding a sheet cake and a frozen pizza

Round "I Love You," red and white, curly script

Grandmother? Great-grandmother?

New baby, asked for not pink or blue but that was what we had, went blue

I tried to make the right decisions. I looked a dad straight in the eye and told him we were out of helium because his kid was pulling gift bags off their hangers and throwing them on the floor. I shook my head solemnly at a group of women hoping for twenty-one pink balloons for their friend’s twenty-first birthday, pointing them to the aisle where bags of limp, empty balloons could be found. I prioritized kids that weren’t dipshits, who would appreciate the last self-sustaining balloon they would ever see.

Kids pretty frequently suck in the supercenter because it zaps adults’ souls and I think they can sense it. But sometimes kids didn’t suck. I was shit at guessing kids’ ages, but the two that approached the counter in mid-afternoon were probably seven or eight or something. Anything over ten and they begin to think they’re way too cool for balloons, until they swing back pro-balloon as adults. These two were clearly still excited, the boy bouncing slightly, one of his sneakers untied.

“Can we have a balloon?” the girl asked. She was captain of the situation. When I asked her which one she wanted, they both stepped back to consider the full wall. There was some discussion until the girl pointed at the end of the birthday section, untethered to particular ages. I clarified her choice, and her companion nodded when I pointed to a massive ice cream cone, topped with sprinkles, a cherry, and an inexplicably blue sauce.

Under the counter, the flat balloons were arranged in cubbies that mirrored their display on the wall. I’d been in Party long enough that I no longer had to double-check, finding at least the right column of cubbies on the first try. The ice cream was easy, the balloons so big they were folded over in their slots.

I couldn’t tell them to pick a smaller one. The boy was still bouncing, and the girl tried to peer over the counter as I pulled out the balloon and attached its open end to the tank. As it inflated, she clapped. This is what the tank was for, I told myself. If this was the Last Balloon, that would be okay. I sealed it, attached the string, and handed it over.

When they paid, cash spilled from their pockets like they were old drunks. The girl collected the dollar bills and smoothed them out on the counter while the boy held the cone, the stack accumulating slowly. When I counted out her change, she split it in two and handed half to the boy. They left, the ice cream bobbing between them, two hands on the string, like something out of a Disney movie, child heroes skipping into the sunset at the end.

I added two children, 7ish, counting out dollar bills and jumbo ice cream cone, really big (2x helium) to the list. I wrote it across two lines of the pad, just in case I forgot to count it twice.

I tried to get Ben to list his customers, too, but his entries, when he made them, were far less detailed: MOM-TYPE | CHILD'S BIRTHDAY, TEENAGER | OVER THE HILL. This was the bare minimum, as far as I was concerned—it counted the balloons, sure, but I didn't know if they were large or small or what. If I asked Ben, he would shrug and hold out his hands to show me the size of a standard foot-and-a-half balloon, always.

"It doesn't bother you?" I finally broke down and asked, after the entry PREGNANT | NEW BABY. We had nearly thirty new baby balloons, including two giant feet in blue and pink that were the equivalent of at least four normal balloons. "That we're going to run out at some point, and we won’t know when?"

It didn't bother Ben. He didn’t even look up from his phone. "When it goes, it goes," he said, with a shoulder movement that required even less effort than a shrug.

To a certain extent, I could see this logic. I'd done some research, during the down times behind the counter. Helium really wasn't good for much. Blimps, like I said, but also rockets, MRIs, and the Large Hadron Collider, that thing where scientists fling particles at each other to see what happens. According to people on the Internet, we can replace most of it with other gases. These were probably also priorities on the helium list, and it was only us Party people who were done for. Ben seemed to feel prevailing expertise couldn’t be wrong—what difference did a few more balloons make? In the end, what would it matter?

I, on the other hand, was laid low by the responsibility. I needed it to matter, because I had some level of control here. I could decide if the Last Balloon was for the kids with the ice cream cone, or some shitty mom who would ask to speak to my manager if I didn’t have the helium she needed for her kid’s Frozen birthday extravaganza. That choice would stick with me.

At the end of week one, we had blown up 78 balloons. Eleven of those had been oversized, so we were looking at approximately 89 standard balloons. I'm anxious by nature, so I rounded to an even 100 to account for any Ben hadn't written down. I thought the tank probably held another two hundred balloons, which gave us two weeks at the current rate.

"That's fine," Ben said.

But it wasn't fine, and I told him so. "But that means in two weeks, we'll never blow up a balloon again! They’ll get rid of this counter, package all the balloons up in the aisle, and call it a day!"

I knew that this sounded pretty unhinged for a couple of reasons. One: The tank was always going to run out at some point; it didn’t matter how long we stretched it out. Two: Management probably wouldn't know about the End of Helium for a bit, and WHIM wouldn't make us reorganize the section until well after that. They weren't particularly speedy decision makers in management, and that’s one good thing that can be said for robots: they wait for instructions. Three: Blowing up balloons shouldn’t have been all that important to me.

Rather than take the time to explain all the reasons why I sounded hysterical, Ben said, "We'll just do more stuff in the back like everyone else."

But I didn't want to go to the back. Ben had never worked for WHIM, so he didn't know. I wasn't ready to resign myself to putting things where a machine with a stopwatch told me to. It wasn’t out of the question that I would want to push that certain future out a little longer.

"No more new babies. It's not like they're around to notice anyway. Old people and kids. And nothing oversized. Just standard, round birthday balloons. Get Well Soons if you get the sense the person's dying."

"Whatever you want to do," Ben said. He had returned to his phone.


§


I doled out helium to only the most haggard-looking moms, the most eager of children, and anyone who was actively crying. I don't know what Ben did. He gave up on the list entirely, and on shifts he worked without me, he'd leave a post-it note on the tank: one balloon, three balloons, one oversized (sorry). By the end of week four, the tank had filled 251 balloons.

I had thought the tank might hold 300 balloons' worth of helium, but the closer we got, the more unsure I became. The tank didn't feel any lighter, but that was because helium was weightless. I had no gauge.

"What do you want the Last Balloon to be?" I asked Ben. It was near closing on a Sunday, and we didn’t have any customers.

I'm sure Ben was tired of the helium conversations. I'm sure because he told me so, and because he said, "Why does it matter so much to you?"

It was impossible to explain to Ben that this was probably as good as it got for me, and so I just wanted to do it right. Eventually, when it was all warehouse all the time, I would carry the Last Balloon and the kid or grandma that bought it around in my mind. It might make it all easier to stomach. By then, Ben would be at college or whatever, and balloons would be in his rearview.

All of this was going to sound pretty pathetic if I said it out loud, so I didn’t. Instead, I shrugged, and resolved that Ben and I were done talking about the tank. “I just think it’s important,” I said, and it sounded so lame that Ben’s eyes widened with dismay.


§


There's more helium, I'd learned, in the universe than there is literally anything else, with the exception of hydrogen. The problem is the gas escapes Earth's atmosphere, where it's a finite resource, the result of radioactive decay and natural gas mining. It's captured or it escapes. When it's gone, it's gone. We'll have to go to space to get more, but that’s probably going to be true of everything, sooner rather than later.


§


On the Monday of 252, I became convinced that it was the day of the Last Balloon. I knew the tank had to be empty soon, and I wanted to be emotionally prepared. I decided to treat every balloon with the solemnity of the Last Balloon, just in case. I planned for the first After Balloon—I would apologize and explain that we did not have another helium tank and didn't know when we would be receiving one. This wasn't technically a lie. Let people conclude the world was ending on their own damn time.

Ben wasn't at the counter, or anywhere else in Party. We remained well stocked—kazoos where they should be, greeting cards all orderly. I liked the aisles in the morning, before the customers came through like mischievous elves and moved things around according to an internal logic that I could not follow. For now, the wrapping paper tubes waited patiently in their by-color corrals.

I went into the supply closet to get the tank. The light was on inside, the panel in the ceiling bright and sad.

Ben sat on a step ladder, his back bent away from me. Behind him was the tank. There was a muted whooshing sound. I didn't speak or move further into the room, but he must have heard me enter. He sat up and turned around, his face still.

"I thought it would get me high," Ben said, his voice distorted, squeaky, the last word nearly disappearing into the helium's upper registers, a noise only dogs could hear. I almost asked for clarification, but then I heard it. Oh, high.

"It won't," I said, though that was by now clear to us both. I turned and left the storage room. Ben didn't stop me.

I didn't leave the balloon counter, because I didn’t want to desert my post. Ben remained in the storage room. I thought about the man who had dropped off the tank. Was he still working, just delivering different shit? Or had he been a helium transportation expert, gases only, his parent company belly-up as the remaining helium disappeared toward the Milky Way? Would I feel the same way in the back, sorting featureless boxes into stacks of other featureless boxes?


§


Months later, after the balloon counter was broken down for more shelving and we’d been reassigned to the back warehouse, I heard that Ben hit WHIM. We weren’t really talking much anymore, because the back warehouse didn’t allow for chitchat. He slapped the thing’s hull with an open palm. A sign of frustration more than anything else, and didn’t everyone smack electronics when they didn’t work as they should? WHIM’s touchscreen, where we clocked in and communicated when we were done with a given task, turned a solid red and emitted an alarm like a broken-into car. One of the security dudes, normally reserved for petty shoplifters, came running. Ben was fired, and after that we all had to complete a workplace violence module on WHIM’s screen.

I wouldn’t hit WHIM, and I didn’t hit Ben that day when he finally came out of the storage room, less sheepish than I expected, his voice returned to its normal register. I sometimes wished I was violent. When the end of the world came, I was fairly sure I wouldn’t have the stuff.

Ben had left the tank behind, post-huffing, so I went and got it, cantilevering it in front of me, one end of the cylinder and then the other, until I’d cleared the room. It felt no different, no lighter, no heavier. I thought about asking Ben how much he’d sucked out, how long he’d tried to get high off a gas with absolutely no psychotropic effects whatsoever, but I didn’t. He wouldn’t know.

From under the counter, I selected the balloon I knew I wanted, from the last column, the bottom row, the cubby dustier than all the others. The condolences balloon was a rich navy, “Sorry for Your Loss” embossed in foiled gold. I held its tab open to the mouth of the tank. The balloon began to fill with gas, but slowly, half-heartedly, like the tank was breathing its very last breath, just for me.


 

TAYLOR CLARKE is a recent graduate of the MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Okay Donkey, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @taylormclarke.