Johnny America


The Price of Gas


Ryan sat alone and ag­i­tat­ed at the din­ing room ta­ble in their new­ly rent­ed apart­ment. Lay­ers of bills, state­ments, ap­pli­ca­tions and re­ports trapped him in a se­mi-cir­cle of fi­nan­cial un­cer­tain­ty. He was ner­vous. He ran his hand back and forth through his dark cropped hair and winced as he scratched the back of his neck. Their ac­counts would soon merge and he could not help but imag­ine his pris­tine cred­it record spoil­ing like meat in the sun.

“Bare­ly a dent in this stu­dent loan,” he grum­bled “’90 days past due, Aro­mather­a­py As­so­ciates,’ two maxed-out cred­it cards.” He opened an en­ve­lope from Fash­ion Hunters, Ltd., con­tain­ing a $500 can­cel­la­tion fee for an all-in­clu­sive trip to Reyk­javik. “Puf­fin hunt­ing?” His head dropped to the table.

Ryan heard Karen’s Grand Am pull in­to the dri­ve­way. He pushed him­self away from the ta­ble and rose anx­ious­ly, de­ter­mined to learn her debt-re­duc­tion strat­e­gy for the very near fu­ture. Karen en­tered, dropped her purse on the floor and walked up to him. Plac­ing her hands on­to his chest and blow­ing a long strand of cop­per-streaked hair from her face, she land­ed a long, warm kiss on him. Ryan was dis­armed. His anger and frus­tra­tion lost mo­men­tum like a bi­cy­cle on sand.

“I’m so tired,” she said cling­ing and rest­ing her weight on him, “and I have this damn sales meet­ing tonight. You re­mem­bered, right? I have to get ready. How was your day?” she said, un­hook­ing her neck­lace and walk­ing away.

“Ac­tu­al­ly, I for­got about it. I’ve been go­ing over some bills, try­ing to get an idea of what it’s ‘gonna look like in Sep­tem­ber. I’ve got to tell you.”

Karen in­ter­rupt­ed, “I’m hop­ping in the show­er Ry, come talk to me if it’s important.”

Ryan de­clined. “It can wait ’til you’re out.”

He had no idea how to tell Karen that she was ir­re­spon­si­ble, short-sight­ed and a loom­ing li­a­bil­i­ty to any­one who would as­sume her debt. He knew on­ly that he had nev­er been hap­pi­er since she agreed to mar­ry him and al­so that he was not go­ing to risk his sol­ven­cy for any­one. Karen had made a few bad de­ci­sions, he rea­soned, but that would not dis­cour­age him. These rem­nants of her youth would dis­ap­pear now that she was engaged.

The show­er was off and Ryan sat still, wait­ing for his courage to come. It was a nec­es­sary con­fronta­tion but he knew he had to be careful.

“Fuck!” he heard her shout. He fol­lowed a trail of pol­lut­ed vo­cab­u­lary in­to the bed­room. “God­damn it” she said, sit­ting on the bed in­ves­ti­gat­ing her panty hose. “I’ve got a run on the an­kle. This was my last good pair.”

“Looks like a pret­ty mi­nor run to me,” Ryan dared.

With a glance she con­veyed that his opin­ion on this mat­ter was not im­por­tant to her. Karen stepped quick­ly in­to some gym shorts. “I’ve got to go to CVS. I’ll be back.”

“CVS? You’re go­ing to dri­ve all the way over there for a pair of panty hose? No one will no­tice that tiny run near your foot.”

“It’s not tiny when you put your foot in it, Ryan,” Karen said, los­ing patience.

“Hon­est­ly Karen, who is go­ing to see your foot at the meet­ing? Aren’t there chairs and a big desk that will cov­er your feet?”

“I’m not go­ing to ex­plain it to you. I have an hour be­fore the meet­ing, I’ll see you in a few.”

“It’s com­plete­ly ridicu­lous to spend the mon­ey and time on new panty hose when the pair you have is fine and no one is go­ing to no­tice un­less you have your meet­ing on the floor. I mean, a bar­rel of crude is now over 80 dol­lars and you still dri­ve around in that vo­ra­cious Pon­ti­ac. Gee Karen, can you even af­ford new panty hose?”

Karen stared de­lib­er­ate­ly at him and with in­cred­u­lous fa­cial con­tor­tions slow­ly asked, “What is your deal? Can I af­ford panty hose? Ryan,” she said turn­ing from per­plexed to in­dig­nant, “I make plen­ty of mon­ey, who are you to ask if I can af­ford a god­damn pair of hose?”

“Well you make good mon­ey but it re­al­ly does­n’t mat­ter if you squan­der it all on in­ter­est, late fees and im­pulse shop­ping.” Ryan felt his anger over­whelm­ing him and added, “If you think I’m go­ing to mar­ry a woman whose idea of fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ty is spread­ing her botox plan over 12 months in­stead of 18, then you’re crazy.”

“I have a good job and be­lieve it or not, look­ing like a pro­fes­sion­al is part of my job. You ob­vi­ous­ly would­n’t un­der­stand. You wear the same ear­ring from high school and that sor­ry ex­cuse for a goa­tee on your face. Hon­est­ly Ry, it’s like bird­shit on a Fer­rari. You might be hand­some with­out it.”

“You know my skin is sen­si­tive and it hurts to shave.” Ryan said defensively.

“You buy your ra­zors at the Dol­lar Store! What do you ex­pect? You know, Ryan, what I can­not af­ford? I can­not af­ford to dress like I don’t give a damn and I can­not af­ford to stand here talk­ing to you any longer.”

“Well who is go­ing to be able to af­ford you when you can’t get a loan? If you lost your job, you would lose every­thing else in a month. Say good-bye to your pre­cious car and your spa days and your shoe shop­ping. Your on­ly friends will be tele­mar­keters and bill col­lec­tors. And that’s on­ly un­til they cut off the phone. You live in a house of cards, Karen, and un­less you get se­ri­ous about mon­ey and your fu­ture, it won’t be long be­fore it folds.”

“Ah yes, and where would I be with­out you, my fi­nan­cial strate­gist, my guid­ance coun­selor, my life tu­tor? Huh? I won­der if I could even wipe my ass with­out your wise direction!”

“You’re act­ing like a child. You have se­ri­ous debts that you nev­er told me about and if you’re not go­ing to be re­spon­si­ble for them and con­front the is­sue and dis­cuss it like an adult then I have no de­sire to mar­ry you. I’m not go­ing to let you drag me in­to your im­pend­ing pover­ty. I’m leaving.”

Ryan walked through the hall to the front door, grabbed his keys and left. Karen ran to the door and yelled, “Have a nice life you sis­sy bas­tard!! Don’t for­get to come back and sweep all your shit off the street!”

“Los­er,” he said with his back to her.

“Ass­hole!” she responded.

Ryan drove to Star­buck­’s and or­dered a Ven­ti half-caf non­fat hazel­nut lat­te with nine Splen­das. He wait­ed calm­ly for his sole he­do­nis­tic in­dul­gence. Sit­ting in his car across from the Shell sta­tion, he no­ticed a gal­lon of reg­u­lar was $3.88, two cents less than his cof­fee. His hand slid off the wheel on­to his lap. He con­vulsed with sharp, deep breaths, fight­ing the flow of tears.

Filed under Fiction on July 2nd, 2006

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